Every Thursday for a decade Howard Friedman sat in a purple carpet desk chair and told his granddaughters spooky stories. The chair had wheels and sometimes he would roll a few inches out of the night light’s shadow. He added sound effects by tapping his eyeglass case against the plastic legs and base of the seat. Every story started with a dark, spidery walk—through a forest, or a cave, or an abandoned museum. It only started spooky. Every story ended with a surprise party. It never ended in fear—he and his wife, Dolores, were always being tricked—usually for their anniversary.
Howard had glasses that would tint blue in the sun. Sometimes he wore them inside, in bright halls where art hung, or in glassy rooms where he sliced cake. He met his wife when they were teenagers in New York City. He was taking art classes and she was working as a secretary. He would stop in three or four times a week “looking for his pencil.” Eventually, he asked her on a date. Then, as the story goes, they kissed and fell in love. No, first, Dolores sang, “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China,” and “I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart.”
Howard proposed to Dolores right before he was drafted for the Korean War.
“It was on the beach,” Dolores sighed, “on Staten Island, and he had flowers, and it was sunset.”
“It was over dinner,” Howard replied, shaking his head, amused and exasperated.
In any event, soon after, on November 1, 1952, the pair were married. They built a home together in an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan. Howard and Dolores had couches and pillows that always smelled like mothballs and autumn. They began to collect trinkets: a tiny marble beluga whale, a crystal plate, a big conch shell, a glass bell that could only muster up a faint tinny noise when shaken.
They were both artists. Howard was a photorealist illustrator, and Dolores was an oil painter. Once, to prove a point, they each took fifteen minutes to draw a sunflower. Howard sketched a sunflower with perfectly straight lines, and a cluster of seeds at the center. His shading, the flower’s stem—it looked like a black and white photograph. Dolores only smiled before she displayed her flower: it took up the entire page, sweeping petals, a stem that curled like ribbon.
The movie collection in the home grew over the years they spent together, which would eventually total sixty-two—years, not films. There were grainy two-tone tapes of I Love Lucy and Get Smart, but the couple also collected more contemporary classics—Clueless was a favorite. They would pile a bowl with rainbow cookies from the local Kosher deli and smack their lips and laugh as they watched together.
Howard was heartbroken when Dolores died. The only thing he found joy in after was food. When, four years later, Howard was transferred into hospice care, his sweet tooth remained. He asked for black cherry sodas and jelly omelets. He said he felt “all tangled,” that he was afraid, that everything was hurting. He fell in and out of sleep in the weeks before he slipped away. Every time he blinked his eyes open, it was like another morning. His family liked to believe in this semi-conscious state, he had entered an artist’s dream world. Dolores was surely there, greeting the yellow yawn of day, feeling her way toward him, as his eyelids unfastened. Here, it is nice to imagine them drowsy and gentle, stomachs grumbling, and especially sentimental, because they have only recently woken up.
Howard kept his wedding ring on until his limbs were purple and swollen and the doctors had no choice but to take it off. His hands would shake when he put food in his mouth, and it was probably just because of old age, but some imagined it was because the weight of his fingers were unbalanced without that loop of metal.
When Howard talked on a cellphone, it always looked small in his hand. Howard pronounced every single vowel in the word “beautiful.” Howard recited Hebrew at every holiday. While Dolores flipped latkes, he read in a serious and throaty voice. At Passover, once, when everyone was only supposed to take the first sip of wine, Howard chugged the whole glass. Everyone sat close around the table and burst out laughing when he remarked, already a bit sloshy and sleepy, “I was thirsty!”
Howard liked to sit in the kitchen in the dark, with only the counter lights on. He listened to a little black radio, with voices that barely rose above the static crash of neglected channels. Every Thursday, Howard and Dolores kissed because their granddaughters refused to eat their pasta until they did.
Howard passed on Yom Kippur, amidst atonement, forgiveness, and quelled fear.
He untangled on the Holiest day of the year.