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Matt Died Today

1. Sunday
Matt died today
He was all alone
I heard about it over the telephone
from Iowa
I was expecting to hear from him any day now
I hadn’t heard from him in awhile
He was the kind of person where
no news was generally bad
Bad news generally made him quiet
But my birthday was coming up and
I knew I’d hear from him soon
You see, when we were kids
we made a deal
On my birthday I gave him a dollar
and on his birthday he gave me a dollar
That way neither of us would feel bad
about not getting presents
I figured him to call when I sent him the dollar
Usually when he called with bad news
it was because he needed money
I’m not great about giving money away
so he really needed money when he called and I  gave
He’d had a bunch of bad patches--
heart attack at age 35, followed by a layoff
at a high paying, high pressure telephone sales job at Time-Life
and a compulsive gambling problem, which
after he lost his job became worse
and the break-up of a 10+ year relationship
with the woman he lived with
One day he showed up at my door in his car
without money, with broken glasses, without a place to live--
even the car had to go that very day--he couldn’t make the payments
no job
I put him up and got him on his feet
Or rather, he got himself up
got treatment for his gambling
got a job, not a good job though
When he worked he worked hard
but he never worked hard at getting work
and we fought about that
He’d always take the first thing that came along and
stop looking because he knew
that something better would be coming
and sometimes something better came
He was my favorite brother
2. Monday
Matt died today
He was all alone
I heard about it over the telephone
from Iowa
When growing up he never learned to care for his appearance
and he had a nasty case of acne, even worse than mine
But it never made him shy
Matt was always outgoing, friendly, and even then
a very funny guy
He never seemed to care about his appearance--
odd, for someone who wanted to be an actor
The few actors I’ve known
seemed to care about nothing else
His friends thought he was brilliant
One said, after hearing of his death,
“I can’t believe that mind is gone...”
Others said similar things
His movie career consisted of one movie,
“Slap Shot” starring Paul Newman
Matt’s the fan in the seats who throws his keys
at the hockey thugs shouting, “You can’t skate, You can’t skate!”
And they pummel him climbing high up into the stands to do it
It was a very short acting career
My two other brothers and I
never thought he was brilliant, smart
perhaps very smart
He was always funny always making you laugh
and always into odd stuff
like Elgar and Monty Python (before either became popular)
but academically he was not usually brilliant
and didn’t care to compete that way with us
3. Tuesday
Matt died today
He was all alone
I heard about it over the telephone
from Iowa
“You’re a wonderful person...”
He would say after meeting me at work
when I gave him a check
I wasn’t so wonderful, at times I
resented having to give at all
and I suspected that if I made it easy
he would always ask
Finally, after some awful jobs that just came his way,
a friend of his
found him a telephone sales job in Jamaica
(the country, not Queens, NY)
This presented a problem--
how to get satellite TV
because he loved watching TV, especially sports, and
couldn’t be expected to live without it
He learned he couldn’t purchase satellite TV there but had
to arrange for it here, taking the “dish” with him
Because he was paying the bills (this was one of his good paying jobs)
the dish continued to work (even in Jamaica, the country, not Queens)
until one day, Matt’s ex-roommate in NY got a call from the company asking
“Where’s the dish?”
He replies “I don’t know, I think its in Jamaica”
“Jamaica, Queens?”
“No, Jamaica, Jamaica”
“Oh”
Then he’d get a call the next day
“Where’s the dish?”
“I don’t know, I think its in Jamaica”
“Jamaica Queens?”
“No, Jamaica, Jamaica”
“Oh”
I’m told, this conversation repeated for months
Matt was in Jamaica for about a year and half
Then he left that job for one in Florida
with even a little money saved
But the job in Florida didn’t work out
and the little saved money was almost gone
and as it turned out, I was in Florida with my wife and
kids, because we always go there at the end of August
on Captiva Island for two weeks, which is far away from Miami
which was where Matt was at the time
he decided to take a bus across Florida
to visit us
The bus of course didn’t go the whole way
and my wife, driving an hour each way
picked him up
He stayed with us about four days
leaving his clothes and towels on the bathroom floor
and drinking a lot of ginger ale (not diet)
He and I took a long walk together on the beach
I don’t remember all that we talked about, living in Jamaica mainly, but I do
remember how hard it was for him to walk
He was overweight, easily out of breath, with hurting feet
He was only  43
One Jamaica story he told me was this--
The company had given him a van and his first pay  (which was on him and in cash)
and a place to live (he had the dish)
and he was driving home when the van broke down and he was lost
Two men in dread locks stopped to help (so he hoped),
it was dark, he was lost, it was a strange country
One of them said to him
“You have nothing to worry about...I am a very very good man”
and then a moment later
“But you might have to worry, because I am also a very very bad man”
Goodness, however, prevailed, because they did help him get the van working
and did tell him how to find his house
and he did give them some money
which his Jamaica friends told him was too much money
and all was well
After seeing us in Florida
he decided that he would start over again in Iowa City, Iowa
where our older brother, Howard, lives and generously offered to put him up
When he got to Iowa, again by bus,
Howard would ask him,
Matt, would you like to have some breakfast in the kitchen or
watch some television,
or go to a movie, or go to lunch or some other such question and
for the first few months his answer was always the same
“Do we have to take the bus there?  Because, if we have to take the bus
the answer is no”
“No, Matt--
we don’t have to take the bus”
4.  Wednesday
Matt died today
He was all alone
I heard about it over the telephone
from Iowa
Well, after being in Iowa for a few days
Matt landed a job making luxury soaps
He even sent me some and to be truthful
they weren’t much better than normal soap but did cost more
That job didn’t last (I guess others thought the same as me about the soap)
and Matt went to work at a fancy grocery store named the “Coop”
where he made enough money to move to his own place
a little two room basement in a private house in walking distance from work
(no bus)
with free cable TV (no dish)
One room in the back was large and he didn’t use it
because you had to squeeze through a small opening to get to it
and because it didn’t have heat
He lived in the front room with a large bed and a small kitchen
and there he died of a heart attack
It isn’t clear when he knew he was in trouble or
if he tried to get to the phone
or the pills near his bed
or if he knew what was happening at all
When we went to his apartment to clear things out
we found a library book of folk tales
and the first tale was as follows:
My servant came running to me in terror
He had just been to the market when he saw Death lurking behind him
He begged me to loan him a horse so that he could ride away from here
as soon and as far away as possible, even to the next town
I agreed
Later that day I went to the market myself
and I too happened to see Death
I went up to him and said
“Why did you frighten my servant?”
“Actually, I did not mean to frighten him
I did not even expect to see him
My appointment with him is not until much later this evening,
in the next town over”
5. Thursday
Matt died today
He was all alone
I heard about it over the telephone
from Iowa
In high school Matt was one grade before me
We only once had a class together, an elective,
“Comparative Religion” with Dr. H.
Dr. H was in his sixties when he taught that class
had been at the school forever and taught
Aldous Huxley’s “perennial philosophy”
whose idea was that all the great religions were at base
the same, with the same hidden wisdom and essence
Matt loved it and when he loved something
he always did well
He really took well to Dr. H (even getting as good a grade as me or maybe better)
whose style of teaching was open and warm, enquiring and tolerant
For instance, Dr. H more than tolerated the atheist in me
He would, after a class in which we gave our opinions (and he always wanted to hear
what any of us had to say) encourage the class,  as we were leaving,
to do careful reading and, also,
to “go home and pray for Peter’s soul, even though he thinks
he doesn’t have one”
Not so Mr. L
Mr. L was tall, white haired, formal in his grey banker’s
suit and taught mathematics by intimidation
Both me and Matt had him for algebra
though not in the same year
Mr. L’s style was to make you stand up and
give the answer to last night’s assignment
and if you couldn’t answer right, and even if you could,
he’d insult you
In his favor, for some of us, this often worked
He used to call me Winey because my name was Weinberg
He’d accuse the guys of not listening and insist that instead of math
we were all admiring M’s legs
M had (has still?) great legs but I don’t think she appreciated that
I’m sorry to say that
this method of teaching worked on me
and I got out of that rather unpleasant class with an A
I do not, to this day, remember any algebra,
though perhaps under torture it might come back
I still remember much from Dr. H
Mr. L’s sadistic methods didn’t work on Matt
If Matt didn’t like something
he wouldn’t do it and you couldn’t make him do it,
and while it took him a long time to get mad
once he got mad he stayed that way
One day in class after being called Winey, ugly and stupid by Mr. L for months,
Matt stood up and firmly said
“Mr. L, go to hell”, which was unheard of speech in those days
Matt’s friends tell me that Matt could do five or six things at once,
that his memory for details was astonishing
They thought of him as one of the smartest people around
My two other brothers and I never knew this
6. Friday
Matt died today
He was all alone
I heard about it over the telephone
from Iowa
Matt the class clown
He told me that at sales meetings at Time-Life (at Time-Life they were big on plaques, 
salesman of the day, salesman of the week, best salesman of this or that, Matt had a wall 
full of plaques,
and they were big on meetings to hand out the plaques)
he used to imitate our grandma, Dora
and I’m told that at the Coop where he last worked
Dora was famous for her sayings,
though nobody there or at Time-Life had ever met Dora
No doubt about it
Grandma Dora was an original
She was a soprano and a pianist and fine musician
she was short and wrinkled, with big bosoms
and a prima donna, selfish as they come, with a good sense of humor and
not much common sense
When I was a small child I’m told I famously asked her
“Grandma, why is your bottom on your top?” and that she laughed at the question
When we were older she and my Mom would have loud, bitter fights over bridge
bringing up years of bitterness between them
But we could also
visit her at her apartment where she would sight read Brahms
But when she came to visit us
she’d enough money to get there but not enough to go home
and my mother would have to give her the money to go
Matt was the only one of us who could deal with her
in long stretches
Once, with some time on his hands,
He somehow let himself get bamboozled into taking her to Florida
Now grandma would not fly and so they went by train (not bus), Grandma paying the way
Grandma did not believe in tipping people and so Matt
would sneak back after each encounter to do it himself
Grandma found it somehow unacceptable that items would be priced
96¢ or 87¢ instead of 90¢ or 80¢ and would ask
“What’s the 6¢ for?” “What’s the 7¢ for?”
The “trip from hell” ended when Dora was dancing and hurt her leg
mercifully causing them to cut the trip short
Years later Dora was complaining to Matt about her hard life
and crying, how she missed my Mom (who had died of breast cancer years before)
and started a phrase with “Not a day goes by, that I do not feel the pain...”
A few moments later she asked “Matt, do you remember when we went together to Florida?”
and Matt, far from being a saint, said
“Not a day goes by, that I do not feel the pain...”
He would get up in front of large groups
and imitate this strange old woman
(who referred to herself as his decrepit, old grandma)
who none of them had ever met
He would tell of her reaction upon hearing that her dentist of 30 years
had died, how she broke down into tears
and how he had tried to comfort her upon the loss of this close friend
but heard through the tears instead
“Now  who will take care of my teeth?”
He would quote her sayings
“What’s the 6¢ for?”
Or the time she announced that she would now eat only “antibiotic food” (moldy carrots 
and bread, I suppose), or the time she said
she would not go to the planetarium because she doesn’t like fish
I was not at the Time-Life sales meetings
and can’t tell you how the spectacle of Matt
in front of these drunken salespeople
dressed in an old house dress
speaking in a high pitched voice
imitating this old eccentric woman, played
Did they laugh as Matt insisted they did?
At the Coop I’m told Matt had a lot of fun with the intercom
He would announce to people that the express check-out was for eight items only
and that if you had more than eight items you could not use it and that
no exceptions would be made, none
He would then wait the requisite three to six beats and announce
“Well, if you have nine items, it might be okay, but definitely no more than nine items
at the express check-out lane”
And I’m told he also pretended to be  Dora
After Matt’s funeral I went to the Coop
and there were Dora sayings on the wall
there to remember Matt
So I hope it was as he said,
“They loved it!”
7. Saturday
Matt died today
Was he afraid?
I don’t know
He was alone

-November 24, 2000