From Student Loans to Holiday Cards

Elizabeth Luxenberg

Irwin stands in the center of his living room wearing wrinkled light blue slacks and a white button down. Sunlight shines through the window onto a pile of papers strewn a top the wooden desk. Irwin stares at a block of glass encasing Irwin and Joan’s wedding invitation from 1956. The invitation’s text is script and a hand-painted rose substitutes the word ‘and’ where it should say Joan Florence ‘and’ Irwin Eugene. Irwin wonders whom all the papers are for. He bobs his head, his short, curly, white hair shining from the sun.

“Joan,” he calls to his wife. “What are we doing?”
Joan walks over to him wearing a white t-shirt and black Adidas track pants with white stripes on the outside of each leg. She thinks they make her look skinny.
“It’s Sunday, Irwin,” she says. “We’re doing nothing.”

“How can we be doing nothing?” he asks. Joan brings him to the kitchen, gesturing at the refrigerator. She points to their sons, Arthur and Michael, smiling in their tuxedos at Arthur’s wedding. She points to Arthur’s children in a bouncy house wearing overalls, their hair in pigtail braids. Then she points to Michael’s children, on a canoe wearing life vests, squinting from the sun beaming on their young faces. Joan remembers Irwin taking these photos. “Say sex, everyone!” he’d shout. Their grandchildren are older now.

Who are all these people?” Irwin asks.
“They’re your grandchildren, Irwin.”
“Right, of course,” he says, his hand on a photo. “They all look very nice.”
He looks away then asks Joan, “How did they get to be on the refrigerator?”
“They’re not actually on our refrigerator;” she says, “these are just pictures of them.”
“I understand,” Irwin says. But he wonders how the people are so small. He whispers, “They’re so small.”
“What’s that, Irwin?” Joan asks.
“Nothing.”
Joan walks to the living room and as Irwin follows her, he notices the messy desk.
“Joan,” he says. “Why are there so many papers on that desk?”

Joan glances at the desk and thinks it’s about time to get rid of it. Many years ago, it was the most important piece of furniture in the house, right next to the entrance. Irwin had a routine; upon coming home from work and before changing his clothes, he’d sit at the desk with his favorite Cross pen and pencil set that he never lost, and organize papers: charity requests, party invitations, synagogue newsletters, student loans. With the pen, he would respond to mail, make lists, help the kids with schoolwork, and pay student loans and bills. He used the pencil for other work-related things that required an eraser. Irwin was an accountant; mistakes needed to be erased. This was before computers could prevent mistakes from happening. Now, the desk hasn’t been touched in years. It carries junk mail and old pictures; the chair holds five coats.

Joan breathes in heavily and runs her fingers through her short black hair; it’s dyed.
“Joan,” Irwin shouts. “I asked you a question! Treat me like a person!”
Joan composes herself and looks up. Her cheeks are red and her eyes are puffy, as if she had been swimming underwater without goggles.
“It’s junk mail,” Joan responds patiently, “papers that we have to throw away.”
“Junk? That’s not a word; it’s a disgrace!” he shouts. “We’re not throwing anything away until I go through it. I pay the bills around here.”

The doorbell rings and Joan thanks God for this. Irwin tells Joan that the doorbell has
just rung, in case she didn’t hear. Really, it’s to inform Joan that he’s aware of his surroundings. Joan thinks he means she should get the door so she lifts herself off the couch, but before she can stand, Irwin rises triumphantly and tells her that it’s the man’s job to get the door

At the door, Irwin smiles at his son’s face. ‘I should know this person,’ he thinks.
“Hi, Daddy,” Arthur says, inviting himself inside and giving Irwin a hug.
Upon recognizing Arthur’s voice, Joan gets up from the couch, exudes a loud sigh, and walks to the door. She stares at her son’s clothes—jeans and a purple cashmere sweater. She tells Irwin that his son, Arthur Luxenberg—it helps to pronounce the full name—has come over.
“Hi Arthur,” Irwin says. “It is very nice to see you today.”
Arthur smiles at Irwin and then looks to Joan and asks if he could take Irwin on a walk, but Irwin snaps, “I’m standing right here! Why don’t you ask me?”
“I’m sorry, daddy. Would you like to go on a walk?”
“Sure!” Irwin yells, excitedly.

As they leave the house, Arthur notices their similar features: long skinny legs and thin arms, curly hair, although Arthur’s is black and Irwin’s is white. Even the shapes of their fingernails are the same.

Joan stands next to the desk and stares out the window and watches Arthur hold Irwin’s hand. As the two men walk off, her mind wanders into the past. She remembers her first date with Irwin, how afterward he brought her back to her home—a true gentleman—and was invited in by her mother. He and Joan talked on the couch until five in the morning as Joan’s mother sat across the room pretending to read a newspaper. She remembers the letters he wrote her asking her not to forget him when he was in the U.S army as an officer of the Infantry Division during the Korean War. She remembers giving birth to Arthur, how Irwin sang “Just The Way You Look Tonight” in the delivery room.

The men become blurry and Joan looks at the desk. She picks up a red and white holiday card from a spa she’d visited once. “20% off all massages for the next three weeks,” it reads. ‘Baloney’, she thinks. She puts the card down and remembers how Irwin worked at the desk, like it was the source of all life. She remembers the days he went to work, the 7:19 AM train she would drive him to. The Woodmere train station was right down the block, but driving Irwin to the train was a ritual. She thinks about the student loans they’d finally paid off, and all the mail that meant something. She is amazed the Cross pen and pencil set still exists. ‘What kind of a person goes through life with one pen-and-pencil set?’ she thinks. She takes the pen and scribbles on the holiday card, but it’s out of ink. She buries her face in her hands and cries.
***

When they arrive at the park, Irwin says it looks familiar. Staring at the brick-colored track surrounding a baseball field, he adds, “But I don’t know where I know it from.”
“Daddy, Michael, you, and I used to come here on Sundays to play baseball.”
“Sure, a great time,” he says down to his beige sneakers. ‘Who’s Michael?’ he thinks.
“Those were the greatest days. It was always this time of year, the fall—”
“The fall?” Irwin asks. What time of year is the fall? Fall means fall down!”
“You’re right, dad. I mean November.”

They take a lap around the park and see a young couple having a picnic on a large Toy
Story blanket. On the blanket, Woody and Buzz are smiling with their arms crossed. The couple eats sandwiches and drinks Yoohoo chocolate milk. Irwin wonders who they are.

Then, Irwin asks Arthur who he is. He didn’t want to, but he had to, because Arthur is a stranger to him. Arthur feels as though a baseball bat had been swung at his stomach.
“I’m Arthur Luxenberg,” he says. “Your son, daddy.”
“I know that!” Irwin says. “Do I look crazy to you?”
Walking home, Irwin mentions that the colors of the leaves are the most beautiful colors he has ever seen. They were red and orange and yellow, the colors of fall.
***

Arthur and Irwin arrive home to find Joan on the floor sobbing. Her face is wet, mascara running, and strands of hair are pointing in different directions. One of her pant legs is bunched up to her calf.
“Joan!” Irwin shouts. “Why are you on the floor?” Arthur jogs towards her.
“I tripped on something,” Joan cries, trying to move her head. “I couldn’t get up to get the phone. I couldn’t get up to get anything. I can’t get up!” She rolls to her right and shrieks like a seven-year-old seeing blood. “I can’t move!”
Arthur kneels down next to her and tells Irwin to sit, but Irwin stands there motionless.
“My wife is hurt! Don’t treat me like a child,” he says, flailing his arms. His face is red.
“Ma,” Arthur says calmly, “can I help you get up?”
“No,” she moans. “I don’t really know if I’ll ever get up!” She rolls again, thinking maybe there will be a miracle, but the pain only worsens. “Ow!” she screams. Arthur holds her hand and thinks about calling an ambulance.
“What’s all that noise?” Irwin asks. “Why is Joan on the floor?”
“Mommy fell down, daddy,” Arthur says. “Why don’t you let me help her get up?”
“Joan! Let me do something!” Irwin kneels down slowly and tugs at Joan’s hand.
“Stop!” she shouts, scrunching her face at Arthur. Her face asks him to do something.
“Don’t yell at me!” Irwin shouts at her. “I’m trying to get you off the floor!” He gets up and turns around, calls her a wild animal in Yiddish. He babbles to himself.
Tears roll down Joan’s face. Arthur gets up to call an ambulance.
“Daddy,” Arthur calls to Irwin. “Tell mommy what a nice day we had in the park.”
“Okay!” he says happily. “But why is she on the floor?”
“She dropped something,” Arthur decides to say. “But she’s getting up soon.”
Irwin bends down next to her. “We had a very nice time in the park, Joan. It was a wonderful experience. The colors of the leaves were magnificent.”

Arthur and Joan exchange a glance like they hadn’t seen each other in thirty years.
The ambulance pulls up to the house. Red and white lights are flashing and it’s making lots of noise, but Irwin is too distracted by Joan’s being on the floor, shrieking and moaning, to ask why it’s loud. Instead, he stares at Joan and asks her why she is on the floor. Her face is finally drying up because she’s able to roll a little, but she has a harrowing feeling that she’ll never walk again.

“I fell down,” she tells him.
“Well, why can’t we get back up?” he asks emphatically. She notices how he says
“we,” as if they had both fallen.
Before she can answer, he says, “Let me help you get up!” and Joan is petrified that he will pull her arm out of its socket this time, but just as he takes her hand, the paramedics knock on the door. Arthur gets up to answer it, but Irwin hurries in front of him and says,
“I get the door in my house.”

Before Irwin could say hello, one of the paramedics says “Hi.” Irwin stares at him. His hair is brown and he looks tired but strong. He continues, “We’re here to take someone
to the hospital. Someone fell?”
“What? No one here needs to go to the hospital,” Irwin says. The paramedics look at each other confusedly.
Arthur walks over to the door. “Hi, I’m sorry,” he says. “My mother’s fallen and she can’t get up. She says the fall was painful and moving is difficult, but lying in one position is fine. She’s been here for a few hours; I was on a walk with my father.”
The paramedics nod and walk toward Joan. Irwin looks to Arthur. “Who are you?”
“Daddy, I’m your son, Arthur Luxenberg.”
“I know that!” Irwin says. “But why is Joan on the floor?” he asks. “Why are these
people taking her to the hospital?”
“She had an accident, but she is going to be okay. These nice doctors will help her.”
Irwin looks down to Joan on the floor. “Joan!” he shouts. “I’m very sorry you’re hurt! It’s going to be all right. I love you.”

The paramedics kneel over next to Joan and begin sliding her onto the board. Her eyes are shut tight, as if not seeing herself be moved will lessen the pain.
Irwin looks to the paramedics enthusiastically with his big blue eyes. “Thank you for
helping my wife get up! You are very kind men and I am grateful to have you in my life.”
They tell Irwin it’s no problem as they carry Joan out of the house. Arthur and Irwin are right behind them. Joan manages to tilt her head and glance at the desk just before reaching the door. She realizes the desk itself has become a sentiment all these years.
Upon seeing the wedding invitation, she thinks, ‘How could I throw that away?’
Irwin stands on Joan’s side as they walk out the door. He begins to sing her Sinatra’s
“Just The Way You Look Tonight.” He knows every word.

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