Illustration by Nicholas Little
Before Halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, January 1986, my Uncle Poxl came over.
He was just months from reaching the height of his fame, and unaware the game was being played. He wasn’t technically my uncle, either. He was an old friend of the family. For years he had taught at a prep school in Cambridge, where my grandfather had served as a dean. After a massive heart attack a year after I was born left my grandfather as much a memory to me as thin morning fog, Uncle Poxl came to fill the void. That Sunday he sat down in the living room and, speaking over the game’s play-by-play, started a story he could barely clap his gloves free of snow fast enough to tell.
A miracle had occurred that afternoon. His neighbor had died a few months back, and though my Uncle Poxl was consumed with the details of the upcoming publication of his first book, he’d advised the neighbor’s sons on the handling of the estate. The neighbor was an obscure literary novelist who’d enjoyed acclaim early and then none. Their father had left nothing more than his immense library—and thousands of dollars of debt from a mortgage on a house too far in arrears to sell. Uncle Poxl had become immoderately involved in figuring a way to help them, though it wasn’t clear what expertise they felt he could lend—decades ago he’d quit a job at British Airways to take a Ph.D. in English literature, then later dropped his dissertation on Elizabethan drama to finish what would in time become the successful memoir of his time flying Lancaster bombers for the RAF. Maybe they assumed that because he had owned a number of houses and apartments, he had a certain familiarity with ownership. Maybe people just assumed from listening to his confident tone that my uncle Poxl knew what he was talking about.
He was falling behind in grading for his classes, and in the early spring he would hit the road for his book tour, but something hadn’t let him give up this neighbor’s case.
“Then today,” Uncle Poxl said as Steve Grogan missed a receiver with a pass, “the deus ex machina!”
I had no idea what he meant at the time—I was barely 15, and what mattered back then were the Patriots and the Red Sox, a girl named Rachel Rothstein I was after in my Hebrew class who couldn’t have cared less for some wizened British war hero. But that Sunday I was too drawn in by his unerring voice, its dry gravity and utter self-belief, not to find out what happened to his neighbor’s sons. Somehow his voice had found the only register that could drown out the game’s clamorous announcers.
“Willie, the younger son, asked me if I’d help pack,” Uncle Poxl said. “He figured he’d give the books away.”
Poxl had noted my eyes on him now, not just my parents’. The volume of his wry voice rose perceptibly.
“We were a dozen books in when I dropped Saul Bellow’s Herzog. I picked it up, and a crisp hundred fluttered to the ground. Willie and I looked at it like it was—well, like it was a rabbi on a football field.”
He looked at me. The Bears scored. I missed the play and the replay.
“Julian had used hundred-dollar bills as bookmarks in every one of his books. He’d get paid two hundred dollars a review, and put half back into the books. They hadn’t counted it all yet, but there must have been near to a hundred thousand dollars in those books—he didn’t write a review every week, but he wrote for that paper regularly, and others. Maybe he thought his sons would find it all. Willie doubted it, and I did, too—we were a pile of cardboard boxes away from handing his estate to the Harvard Coop!”
Uncle Poxl kept talking, hauled along by the wonder of the thing. I’d rarely seen him so animated. This was the first time we’d spent alone with him since he’d finalized copyedits on his memoir, and his appearance at our house was a surprise, given the frigid air and snow outside. We’d assumed we wouldn’t see him again until his first reading, here in Boston, scheduled for the week after the book’s publication date. I’d been longing to see him, my eccentric European uncle who’d lived so much life. But now the Patriots were in the Super Bowl for the first time, and my tongue buzzed like it did after I woke from a nap. My mother changed the subject, and by then I’d stopped caring about the game. Would the contents of a book ever carry the same meaning again?
This image of $100 bills spilling out of the pages of books would plague me for years. I tried to watch the end of the football game, but Grogan was awful, and a three-hundred-pound Bears lineman known as “the Refrigerator” scored a touchdown, and I couldn’t set my mind to anything but my uncle Poxl and when I’d finally get to read his stories between bound pages.
As I say, my Uncle Poxl would reach the apex of his own literary success in the months ahead, after his book finally made its way into the world. Every season for as long as I could remember, Poxl had taken me to the opera, the symphony, to the Wang Center to see plays and musicals. If there was a performance of Shakespeare anywhere in our city, Poxl would find a way to take me. This wasn’t the kind of thing that should have interested me—a trip to Fenway was my idea of a cultural outing—but my Uncle Poxl was built like a power forward and moved fluidly as a Bruin, and he was everything the other Jewish authority figures in my life weren’t. On Monday and Wednesday afternoons I suffered two hours of Hebrew school, where our aging teachers would ply us with tales of woe, melancholy stories of the survivors of death camps and ghettoization. I remember when I was only ten for the first time seeing the black numbers tattooed on a classmates’ grandmother’s wrist. I can see even now my young brain being tattooed with anxiety and pensive fear. My grandfather had himself survived that period and reached the States—only to die before I’d gotten to know him. It compounded my sense then that history was some untrammeled force acting upon us, leveling any hope of heroism like some insuperable glacier flattening mountains to plains.
Even the new young rabbi at our synagogue, Rabbi Ben Schine, who had come straight from Berkeley with a nappy beard and hair past his shoulders, calling us dude and trying to get us to talk Jewish mysticism, sat nodding solemnly as these stories were recited, fingertips tracing his copy of Night. I recognize now, of course, why we were being inundated with these truths. But I was fifteen, and what I needed was a hero—and hope. We might be able to see God’s body in the Kabbalah’s ten Sefirot, but it was 1986, barely forty years since our grandparents’ generation sat desperate and fated in their East European neighborhoods. Never again, our teachers incanted to us Monday after Monday, Wednesday after Wednesday. But when I picture myself in those rooms in the basement of our shul, even now I can only hear the incantation’s reciprocal: It Will Happen Again. Beware. Be always aware. But I was growing to see myself as an exception then, too, for I was learning on those outings with Poxl West that I had in my family an antidote: There was more thunder in my Uncle Poxl’s senescent face than in one strand of Rabbi Ben’s unkempt mane. Trailing him like the sweet whiff of cherry tobacco from a pipe smoker’s coat was the fact that he’d been a pilot for the Royal Air Force, a Jewish war hero, the only I’d ever heard of.
I would’ve followed his broad shoulders into the ballet without embarrassment.
Though his teaching job held a certain prestige, Uncle Poxl was an aspiring writer when we started on our trips. It was all he’d wanted in his later years, to get down stories based on recollections of his youth, and all he did with his free time. But in more than a decade, three novels had been rejected by New York editors. No matter how proud he was, his shoulders slumped a bit further forward with each turning away. Regardless, my parents felt it an inherent good that Uncle Poxl serve as my monthly Virgil through the vague cultural life of downtown Boston—no accrual of rejections in New York could undo cultural currency in our small city, and any time spent with Poxl would do me good.
Daniel Torday is the director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. He also serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. His novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. Visit www.danieltorday.com.