REMBRANDT GOES HOME
Alan Steinberg was known as a wise old man. He never made any bones about his age. Born in 1920, he was a fit old man, who ran in marathons in his native city of Bristol, Pennsylvania. In his white tank top, he maintained an even pace in the “over-ninety” category.
“Jeff,” he called to his young friend Jeff Patrick, who with hundreds of others – yes, hundreds! – were cheering everyone onward as if this were the Tour de France bike race.
Alan reached into his khaki shorts and pulled out a handkerchief he had sewn himself on his old Singer machine and mopped his brow. Although cool breezes sailed along the path by the dirty brown Delaware River, he had no illusions of keeping cool.
He watched for the many friends he had, as well as his former students when he taught at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – Lily, Sammy, Raymundo, Joanna – and doffed his red Phillies’ cap when he saw them.
Would his pseudo-grandchildren be there? Ten-year-old Grace and 8-year-old Ted? They were the great loves of his life, but their mother was as possessive at the Wicked Queen in Sleeping Beauty and he rarely got to see them.
Running, he imagined the black ringlets of Grace which tickled her neck and her penetrating blue eyes. Her little brother, Ted, not surprisingly, was a mischief maker, who spoke with a slight lisp.
Ages ago, Alan’s father disabused him of the notion of God. Ingersoll, that was the man’s name. Father and son went to see this Ingersoll in a huge circus tent attended by men and women who wanted to see The Lord put in his place.
What a fiasco!
Alan lived by himself in a small apartment in Grundy Gardens on Pond Street. As he ran, he imagined himself at home in front of the television, his feet propped up, and being visited by his next-door neighbor, Alicia. He was hoping to get her in bed, but she was what she called herself “a proper lady” and only marriage would do.
Forget that. He’d been married and divorced several times and still had a healthy appetite for sex.
After Alan came in first in a field of twelve, he stood up on a platform while huge white clouds caressed him from above.
“You’ve done it again,” said Mayor Ron Abrams, wearing a pair of red and white air cushioned shoes. “We’re happy to present you with this trophy, once again, but if you should move, well, we won’t be too disappointed.”
Everyone laughed except for Alan Steinberg.
The hell with everyone in Bristol, he thought. Same old, same old. Where was an old man to spend the last days of his life? Hawaii? Beautiful but too far, on an island popularized by the TV show, Hawaii Five-O. Southern California? Always sunny with its artichokes, lemons and grapefruits. Run to California, the paradise of the twentieth century, with its dazzling movie studios. Oh, yes, how he remembered when he and wife number two, Mae, watched Gone with the Wind on their flickering TV.
Holy cow, he thought, as he viewed the rolling hills of Vermont on his computer. That anti-semite Solzhenitsyn had once lived there after the USSR exiled him for telling the truth about his country.
Alan, who had been a curator and sought-after teacher at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, packed his bags and left on the train for Vermont. Certainly he knew there were pick-pockets waiting to roll an old man like he was. Before he left, he bought black hair dye at the Cut-Rate Drug Store in Bristol. And permitted himself an ice cream cone by the Jack and Jill Ice Cream Truck.
“I hope I never forget the sound of that jingle,” he laughed.
“White River Junction” announced the porter on the train.
“Hold on! Hold on!” said Alan. “This is where I get off.”
As he tottered up to the door, the porter wished him a very good visit. Alan tipped him a five.
The train station was dark inside. A wall of vending machines lit up the room. Such awful stuff. Everything with artificial sugar inside. Was that why he had lived so long? Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Vernor Ginger Ale (pure), Dr Pepper with added saccharine. There was a separate coffee machine on a table. Nothing worse than the stale smell of coffee, though the cups with their little stripes looked inviting.
“Artemis Estates said they’d meet me here,” he said to the man at the ticket counter.
“No sign of them.”
“Do you suppose I could walk there?” asked Alan.
“Sure, if you don’t mind dropping dead on the way over. Ninety degrees outside.”
“Call me a cab, then.”
This was Alan’s first disappointment. Had he miscalculated after calling the place and being assured there were dozens of men and women his age and more importantly, daily exercises to help his aged body and activities to help his mind.
Arriving at twilight, he walked up the ramp of Artemis House. Artemis? The huntress, the goddess of the moon, and beloved by Apollo.
A few weeks earlier, Alan had taken a class in astronomy. In the early evening, students of all ages stood on The Bristol Wharf, and stretched their heads high above.
An enormous telescope was available for viewing, though most of the students were content just hearing about the constellations and why they were called, say, Orion the Hunter.
“Yes,” they said. “It does look like a hunter.”
Alan had bent down. Very hard to do at his age and let his left eye look through the telescope. To his amazement, he saw Jupiter – terribly bright – and four of her twelve moons – all discovered by that rebel Galileo. He discovered them in 1610 – four hundred nine years ago - and of course he was forced to recant the appearance of the beauties, Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto. They were named by Simon Marius, whoever that was, but were soon forgotten until modern times.
Alan was grateful for the ramp. He fluffed up his swatch of gorgeous black hair, as two women in nurse’s uniforms greeted him.
“Mr. Steinberg,” said one of the women, who looked as if she were wearing a nun’s habit. “You will no doubt want to refresh yourself, yes?”
He managed a begrudging smile, as they led him into his room.
It was no bigger than a monk’s cell.
He insisted on carrying his two heavy suitcases.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, slamming his door, which did not lock.
He lay down on his bed, which was really a cot. And there he slept until morning.
“Are you awake now, Mr. Steinberg?” asked one of the nurses, awakening him with a start.
Privacy, thought Alan. They were like spies, watching his every move.
Holding his elbow, the woman escorted him into a large dining hall. He had read in the brochure that Artemis Estates used to be a Jesuit monastery. Large windows allowed the morning light to glimmer across the room.
A buzz of noise, sounding like the warming up of an orchestra, greeted him. He went over to a window and looked outside. His eyes looked up in the sky to see if Venus, the morning star, had arisen.
A small mercy, he thought.
At least his legs were steady. A man in a long white robe like the Pope sat at his table. A nun sat next to him and fed “the Pope” what looked to be gruel, oatmeal.
Who could he talk to? There must be someone here with a brain.
A vase with fresh flowers sat in the middle of the table.
Fluffing up his hair, he asked in a loud voice, “Anyone know what’s for breakfast?”
Three women looked up at him. They stared at him. And then looked down at their bowls.
“C’mon, dammit,” he said. “you’re certainly not eating dog food.”
One of them managed a smile.
Then he realized the women and men, too, were afraid, as if they were hostages.
This was not even elder abuse. They were being used for nefarious purposes. God only knew what for.
A young woman in white, whose uniform read, “Artemis Estates,” pulled up a chair and sat next to him.
“We haven’t officially met,” she said. “I’m Sister Claire. And I’ll be what we call your ‘concierge.’ Now what would you like for breakfast?”
She looked to him like a Vermeer milk maid.
“Well, seeing as how we’re in Vermont, how about some good ole Vermont cheese, a rasher of hot bacon, and some scrambled eggs.”
“Of course,” said Sister Claire. She excused herself and with her stately walk, disappeared into the kitchen.
His stomach rumbled as he awaited his breakfast.
A young boy about fifteen came around with a tray of either tea or coffee.
Alan upended his coffee cup and heard the splash of hot coffee into his white mug. Holding the coffee in both hands he sipped gratefully.
Sister Claire brought his food, which made him feel human again.
“You have made me very happy,” he said to her, as he dug in.
There was nothing as good as scrambled eggs. So simple. So satisfying. He remembered his days at the Eagle Diner in Bristol. Such pretty waitresses they had with their white ruffles above their bosoms. And the bottomless pots of coffee.
And outside the windows, all manner of cars, and a lake – Silver Lake – with proud geese swimming with their goslings not far behind.
“Might you have a library here?” Alan asked Sister Claire.
“Of course we do,” she said.
They met there when the clock chimed two in the afternoon.
Should Alan tell her he thought he was in a madhouse? The Madwoman of Chaillot?
He stood and stared at the library shelves, moving around for a better view.
He was impressed.
“From the Jesuits?” he inquired.
“Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas; “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton (how he’d enjoyed that, eclectic reader that he was, God or no God); and “Confessions of Saint Augustine” – terribly wordy but he did enjoy reading about why God gives us “free will.”
He and Sister Claire sat at a finely hewn table.
She offered him a slice of chocolate.
“We make chocolate ourselves. If you like, perhaps you can work there.”
Tentatively, he tasted it, as if it were poison.
“Mr. Steinberg, you do not trust us.”
“I am trying, mademoiselle, just give me time.”
What he was doing was figuring out how to get the hell out of here. First, though, he must unravel the mystery of what was going on.
Every time he passed someone in the hall, he would bow his head, and say, “Hello, I am Alan Steinberg, late of Bristol, Pennsylvania. And who may you be?”
He had categorized the residents as characters from paintings.
A woman with bright eyes was Gainsborough’s “Mrs. Ford.”
She promised him she would find out who she was, the name was not coming to her.
And the spritely gentleman who was certainly Eduard Manet’s “The Fifer.” An old acquaintance of Alan had this colorful poster in her apartment, the first thing you saw when you walked in.
The fellow broadly bowed before Alan, but seemed not to remember how to speak.
Nefarious? Not at all. They simply had various varieties of dementia. Lewy body (the kind Robin Williams died of), vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Parkinson’s. While certainly not contagious, it was dreadful to live among these poor souls who had lost their seat of reason. Or, their very souls, if you believed in that nonsense, which he certainly did not.
And who was he? Alan Steinberg? Easy. Rembrandt’s self portrait at sixty-three years of age. Not handsome with his face turned toward us, but it revealed the traces of everything he had painted, including his lifestyle, terrible poverty, which stung his entire life, until he was revered as possibly the greatest portraitist of all time.
He would leave when the moon was high in the sky. He would tell no one. Who, after all, was there to tell?
Two days elapsed. Instead of carrying his two suitcases he found a Sierra Club back pack in the Common Room. Anyone could have it.
He had been doing leg strengthening exercises in his monk’s cell. Bending down seven times, then rising up unassisted. Standing on tiptoes, then rocking backward to stand on his ankles. Doing backbends where he curled into a worm-like creature. The black dye was washing out of his hair. Such vanity, he thought. “You silly man,” he thought.
Letting himself out an unlocked kitchen door, he breathed the smell of the night. Acres of wheat fields, a whiff of chocolate, a pond somewhere with bullfrogs croaking, and fireflies.
“How had Solzhenitsyn liked fireflies, the bastard,” he thought.
He hefted the backpack until it settled like a young child he never had.
Walking on the side of the road, he stepped into the bushes whenever a vehicle passed.
Finally he saw the sign for the train station White River Junction. It glowed in the distance like a bar of gold.
The door was locked, but he jiggled it, and it snapped open.
Sure enough, the train master, was asleep behind the counter. Why, it was van Gogh himself, in his famous blue postman’s uniform.
Alan sat down on a worn bench, opened up his backpack and helped himself to some almonds, a half bottle of Dasani water – fresh from the tap – and a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov.
Wouldn’t it be nice if he met a woman as sweet as the woman with the lapdog?