Abraham Baumgartner, a staunch New York Jew, would never say how much he loved Florida. He’d spent his whole life on the frenzied streets of Brooklyn. His youth, his adolescence, his marriage and children, all had been lived under the gritty concrete reflection of the lights on Flatbush Avenue.
Now he enjoyed a land of neverending sunshine. No more piles of dirty snow blocking the subway entrances. No more howling winds that made him turn up the collar of his coat. No more choking exhaust huffing out of idling taxis, making the cold air heavy and brown.
For fifty years he'd made bagels. Fifty years of kneading flour and yeast and barley malt into rings and then watching them rise on an ancient stove. Fifty years of watching generations of people, no longer just Jews, cover his creations in cream cheese and butter and shmear. He was a master, an artisan of bagels. But in the end, America’s desire for gastronomic conformity had won out over Jewish tradition and he’d decided to call it a career at sixty-nine.
He liked to sit on the beach, watching the waves thunder and crash over the young, hard bodies he remembered from his youth. He would sit under an umbrella, holding (but not reading) a book, and let the sounds of the ocean wash his thoughts away.
He came to the beach alone. His wife had died two years earlier, and his children were still in New York. He didn’t have a lot of friends and those he did were up north too. He liked the anonymity of being an old Jew in Florida. He knew all the jokes and he told them to his children when they called. He didn't much speak to anyone else.
He’d been sitting on the beach for a few hours when his body began to reject the heat and sun. He knew he wasn’t young anymore, that he needed to treat his body like the food he’d served for so many years. Once the dough is boiled it has to be let to cool.
The sun was starting to droop lower and lower in the sky, and so he packed up his umbrella and chair and blanket and bag of supplies and carried them slowly, a little hunched over, to his car. He was a little ashamed by the car, a year old Porsche that his son had bought him as a retirement present. It was too flashy for his tastes, but it also made him feel successful and a bit impressed with himself.
His son was a banker, one of the faceless many who used Wall Street as their own private checking account. It made him proud that his children had done so well, his other son a successful businessman who owned, without irony, a chain of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises. He gave most of the credit to his late wife, but there was still a part of him that knew the mornings he’d spent making the bagels at 4am had not been in vain.
He drove slowly back to his condo, one of the innumerable South Florida communities designed for “active adults.” He didn’t feel particularly active but he was as healthy as he’d been at forty-nine and he still had a good grip on his marbles. At condo association meetings they called him the young guy. He liked that.
The condo was part of a golf complex. Abraham didn’t play golf, never had, but he liked to sit on his deck and watch the men and women drive their carts past, swinging wildly at the little white ball that could be anywhere. Sometimes he would take his dog out for a walk on the course at night. He would listen to the insects and smell the grass and – if he was lucky – he would hear the telltale splashing of an alligator.
He decided that tonight he would not eat dinner alone. His seventieth birthday was three days away, and his family and a few friends would be coming down from New York, and he would be surrounded by people all weekend. It had been a long time since he’d been social, and he figured that he better get in some practice.
There was a community center at the entrance to the complex. It was a typical gaudy Florida design, all white plaster and orange brick roofs. He hated going there because it made him feel old. All the other people there, they accepted that they had reached a new stage in life, had accepted that they were old. Of course, they were also all older than he.
The blast of the air conditioner chilled his long and ever-expanding forehead. Another thing he liked about Florida – everything was air-conditioned. In Brooklyn, next to his stoves, it was always hot and sticky.
There were two potted baby palm trees guarding the foyer. To his right was a reception desk where visitors registered and announced their arrival to loved ones, that looked like the lobby of any community center or church, and it was not uncommon to see residents, the lonelier ones, sitting around the waiting area just to watch the families that came for their neighbors.
Abraham walked straight to the dining room. It was cafeteria-style and he grabbed a light blue tray and walked over to the line. In front of him were a couple he saw every now and again, both golfers that drove their personal cart all over the property. Abraham found them annoying. He would've back home too. They were from Staten Island.
Like he did with anyone, Abraham looked instinctively down at their shoes. The man wore faded brown loafers with obvious cracks along the heels. His wife wore obnoxiously white sneakers and Abraham noticed in disgust that they were tied in a double knot. He disliked them even more now that he had seen their feet.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Abraham's father had been the best cobbler in their neighborhood. He had emigrated from Germany soon after the First World War and had immediately opened up shop on Flatbush Avenue. From infancy, Abraham had been schooled as a cobbler and taught the importance of footwear. Though he had eventually chosen a different path, to the kitchen and his bagels, he had remained oddly insistent on the method of choosing proper shoes.
Shoes didn't have to be particularly attractive nor did they need to be expensive. They simply had to be correct and Abraham felt that only he was in a position to make that judgment. He still remembered the finest pair of shoes he'd ever seen. In his father's workshop, a rich man had dropped off a pair of real alligator-skin brogues. He hadn't even touched them they were so beautiful. Now when he listened to the alligators at night, he would think of those shoes. Of the man who wore them, and of the alligator that had given its life.
He paid for his dinner, unidentifiable meat in gravy, next to mashed potatoes so white and broccoli so green that he thought they might be plastic. He took a long gaze around the dining room, spying on faces that might be friendly, and then finally decided that he would sit by himself and hope that someone else would make the effort for him. He had barely tucked his napkin into his lap before someone did.
“Come here often?” Abraham looked up to see two women standing over him. One was short, with an upturned bowl of white hair crowning her head. The other was much, much larger, twice the size of her friend. Both were at least seventy-five and they both beamed broad smiles. Abraham liked them immediately.
“I do not,” he replied, “but only because I didn’t know you ladies do.”
Both women laughed harder than they should have, and Abraham's heart soared a bit. It had been months since he’d last talked with a stranger just to be social. It was surprisingly nice, and he almost felt young again, despite his surroundings.
“And who are you sitting with, bub?” the larger woman poked a finger at him.
“Only my accountant calls me bub,” Abraham said. “My friends call me Abe, but none of them are here.”
“Then why don’t we join you, Abe?”
“I would be delighted.” Abraham said.
They sat and smiled at one another again. It was nice to be with people, he thought, but he found himself feeling shy. He let them talk as he started to eat, not wanting to appear foolish or ungentlemanly. It was so strange, he thought, to be here at the beginning of the end of his life feeling the same emotions he had felt as a teenager.
The last few years had been a vacuum on his emotions. Losing his wife, the only person with whom he had ever been comfortable, the only person he would let see him without a shirt on, had broken his spirit. When she died, suddenly, of breast cancer, Abraham had felt as if his heart had died too. He had felt a trudging inability to find anything pleasurable, and that was why he had packed up the bagels and moved to Florida.
And now here he was. Ostensibly “practicing” being social for his upcoming birthday, and he was enjoying himself more than he had in years. It wasn't that the women were particularly attractive, intelligent, or even interesting. It was that he had allowed himself to poke his head from his turtle shell and he found that the world of other humans was not quite as frightening or dangerous as he recalled.
“So as I was saying, Abe.” The larger woman said. “I've been down here in Florida for almost ten years now. For a long time I thought I couldn't be more miserable, I missed New York awfully. But then the strangest thing happened. I went outside in January and my knees didn't quiver!”
The women guffawed and Abraham smiled politely. He didn't let on that he had had his own epiphany just moments ago. All of a sudden he couldn't wait to see his sons and their families.
“I know the feeling,” he said. “New York’s a cold place, even before the weather turns bad.”
Both women nodded knowingly him at him and he smiled in return. It appeared that talking to people wasn’t as horrible as he’d been expecting. It appeared that maybe he could let himself have a life here.
After dinner was over, Abraham parted ways with his new friends, all of them promising to see each other again. He felt a bit like a rock star in his modest way, it being very apparent how taken both women were with him. He walked slowly back to his condo along a manicured sidewalk lined with neatly trimmed hedges. Everything was so green here. Florida was turning out better than he could have imagined.
When he got back to the condo, he was still too keyed up to sit. Instead he changed into a grey sweatshirt and jeans and leashed up his dog, Baxter. He'd gotten the dog shortly after his wife died and it had been his only real companion. The two shared a grudging respect for one another.
Abraham led Baxter out the back door, pushing the sliding glass door behind them as they left. They walked onto the golf course as the sun began to set. It was Abraham's favorite time of day, the time of day that seemed to signify his own life, when he got metaphysical about it. He didn’t consider himself one of those elderly defeatists who simply gave up on living when they were exiled to Florida, but neither was he someone that refused to let go of their youth. You could see them all over. Running, playing tennis, and generally acting as they had in their forties.
Abraham preferred a quieter lifestyle, and so he took his pleasure in the setting sun and the calm breezes of the golf course at night time. Baxter stopped to sniff some grass that apparently smelled better than the rest of fairway. Abraham kept a tight hold on his leash, wanting to avoid an enthusiastic charge into a sand trap or a hungry alligator.
Alligators. Abraham loved them. For the first time in his life he was surrounded by the majestic reptiles of his youthful fantasies. Ever since he had first lain eyes on those alligator brogues, Abraham had been fascinated. Add to that the persistent rumors of the 1950s, that alligators roamed free in New York's subways, and Abraham had been hooked. His father would take him to see the alligators and crocodiles at the Bronx Zoo and, at home, he had stared at those beautiful shoes.
He stopped Baxter next to a pond as the sky darkened further. Now was the best time to catch them splashing in the water, starting to hunt. He listened for a few minutes. The air was still and the symphony of insects had begun to play. Through the growing darkness he could hear the croaking of frogs and the occasional call of a bird.
What a wonderful night this had turned out to be. What a wonderful discovery that he was still alive and such a small thing to make it happen. Just a dinner with strangers and Abraham Baumgartner felt like his old self for the first time since his wife had died. All of a sudden he was excited to see his children, to clap old friends on the back, to show the people he loved that they still mattered to him.
He stared up at the emerging constellations in the blackening sky and felt the sense of awe that he always felt here. It was so hard to find in New York, that huge city of lonely souls who muted the grandeur of night with a fog of neon lights. He finally felt at peace.
He craned his neck and stared deeper into the sky. A star seemed to brighten as he fixed on it. It grew from a speck to a planet to a satellite to an airplane. In just a second Abraham watched the light explode in size, a veritable supernova of orange and red decorating the sky. He felt his chest tighten and a pain shoot down his left arm as the light receded. His breath became shorter and shorter as he realized what he had seen. He was still so happy as he fell to his knees and then rolled onto his back.
He could feel the fairway grass tickling his neck but couldn't reach out his hand to brush it away. Baxter sat by his side, watching curiously, as Abraham lifted his head back toward the sky. This was how things should work out. This was how things should end. He had prolonged it for so long by simply refusing to feel, and perhaps reopening his heart had let all those years flood it at once.
Abraham closed his eyes and breathed sharply. He heard splashing from the pond before him, and he smiled. Things would go on. Things were as good as they could be.
The alligator shimmied its heavy belly up the hill towards the fairway. Baxter stared at it for a long moment, afraid to bark but too stubborn to abandon Abraham's side. The alligator didn't give him a second look, but shuffled its way towards Abraham with a curious look in its otherwise dead eyes. It nudged Abraham's shoe with its scaly snout and lifted its jaws. Baxter watched as the alligator took hold of Abraham's foot and began dragging him slowly, unresistingly, back to the water.