The Last Jew In Boyle Heights By Carolyn Siegal

My walker catches on the splintered plank floors of the front porch. I push hard and plop into the wicker chair, flattening the cushion Ruthie sewed thirty years ago, sun-faded and fraying. White paint is now grey, and the porch overhang is peeling in strips, brown wood showing through. I am an old man in an old house. A big birthday party at my daughter Sharon’s in the valley this afternoon. She circled the date on the kitchen calendar. What’s there to celebrate? A more sensible person would be dead already. 

Bird chirps are drowned out by the constant whoosh of the freeway, grinding gears of a large delivery truck two blocks away. A bus barrels past, a black plume in its wake. Since Ruthie died, life has shrunk. The porch is as far as I get most days. The ten steps to the sidewalk might as well be Mount Everest. 

The rising sun reveals scattered cloud drifts like powdered sugar. I took over the family bakery after the army, coming home with flour wedged deep in my fingernails. The sunrise greeted me six days a week for over forty years. Now it’s a habit. Best show in town, and it’s free. 

Across the street, a sagging, gold velvet couch sits in the middle of the weed-and-dirt yard. It showed up one day about ten years ago. I used to know all my neighbors, but now I don’t even know the men who sit in the yard across the street, drinking and arguing in Spanish late into the night. Mornings are peaceful. Used to be on this block there were lots of languages, not just English and Spanish but also German, Yiddish, and Japanese. 

A middle-aged woman with curly brown hair walks down the block pushing a metal shopping cart rattling with empty bottles and cans. She stops in front of my house and peers inside the blue garbage bin, extracting an empty beer can that’s not even mine. She’s just trying to get by. I close my eyes.

A thumping sound startles me awake. Right on time, Miguel jumps up and over the sagging wood steps like he’s playing hopscotch. For a couple of bucks a day, Miguel checks on me every morning and makes me a cup of coffee and a piece of buttered toast. 

“Good morning, Mr. G.” Thirteen years old, he reminds me of my friend Ralph from high school, with his combed-back dark brown hair, clean white T-shirt, and rolled-up jean cuffs. He rides to school on a beat-up Sting-Ray bike two sizes too small. With five older sisters, it’s a miracle the soft-spoken kid can get a word in. Twenty years ago the Gutierrez family moved in next door, right around the time Brooklyn Avenue became Cesar Chavez Avenue. Not long after I sold the bakery to a Salvadorian couple. 

Miguel places today’s newspaper in my lap. He touches the carved-wood Mezuzah to the right of the front door as he enters the house. My parents gave it to us the day we moved in. I nailed it in place, and the house became our home. The first time Miguel visited, he asked what it was. “Good luck, a prayer to God to protect us,” I said.

The screen door slaps closed with a creak. I hear the faucet running and the whir of the microwave. A few minutes later, Miguel hands me a mug of instant coffee. He places a chipped blue-and-white dinner plate with a piece of rye toast, slathered with melting butter on the small wrought iron table. I can hardly hold the cup without shaking; my knuckles are swollen as big as grapes. 

“Special day, right?”

“Getting old isn’t special. It just happens.” I concentrate on getting the coffee cup to my mouth.

“Come on. Enjoy it. You’ll get presents. See your friends.” Miguel watches me take a sip, his hands outstretched as if ready to catch the cup.

I place the cup down and take a bite of rye toast. Sharon stocks the kitchen once a week with groceries and containers of cooked meals like stuffed peppers and chicken paprikash, like her mother made. 

Ruthie died five years ago. Maybe she knew there was a lump but didn’t tell me. Mann tracht, un Gott lacht. Man plans, and God laughs. I planned on dying first. I’m still here. Sharon’s been nudging me to move ever since. A place opened up at Valley Jewish Home last week. I’m doing it for Sharon. The thing that scares me most is living where I can’t sense Ruthie. 

Miguel is in the house; I hear his footsteps and guess he is picking up the newspaper, washing the dirty dishes, and making my bed. He’s a good kid. Some days he’s the only person I talk to. Most of my friends left the neighborhood a long time ago. Like dominoes tumbling in a row.


Before he leaves, Miguel helps me to the bathroom and back to the wicker chair, tightening my robe before I sit down. “See you tomorrow.” He hops down the steps: bim, bam, boom. The kid makes music with his feet.


The sky is nothing but blue when I wake up. Ben, Sharon’s youngest and today’s designated chauffeur, leans over me, shaking my shoulder. I wipe drool off my chin with the sleeve of my robe. 

“Hey, Grandpa.” Ben frowns. “What are you doing out here? How come you’re not dressed?” 

He pulls me up gently, guides me inside, and eases me down on the edge of the bed. Ben pulls out a collared shirt wrapped in cellophane from the top dresser drawer. After peeling off my robe and undershirt, he slides my arms into the crisp cotton sleeves. White wisps of hair fall to the floor as he buzzes an electric razor along my jawline with a light touch. Touch is what I miss most. 

Ben’s beard covers most of his face, and there are tattoos up and down his arms: a snake, an airplane, and a clock.

“You should shave. How do you expect to meet a nice girl?” 

“Grandpa, the girls like my beard.” Ben shuffles through gorgeous girlfriends like a deck of cards, a new one every few years. 

“Maybe it’s time to settle down. By the time I was your age, your mom was in fourth grade, we owned this house, and I was working ten-hour days at the bakery.” 

Ben laughs; his head flung back. “You’re not selling it.” He takes my Dodgers cap off the dresser and places it over my head. “Now you’re styling.”

Ben is spoiled. He didn’t have to lift a finger, got everything on a platter: summer camp, guitar lessons, acting lessons. I worked pretty much every day of my life. I used to daydream about going fishing or learning to oil paint. Never did those things. Now, I have more time than I need, yet every day is the same. 

I lean into the crook of Ben’s arm, watching my feet on the steps as if they belong to someone else, barely an extension of my body. After buckling me in, Ben drives up the street. At the stop sign, salsa music pours out from the barbershop. Ben closes the windows with a push of his forefinger. Silence as we pass the Pentecostal church on the next corner. A Jewish star peeks out from behind the signboard announcing Sunday worship. There used to be dozens of synagogues in this neighborhood. You had your pick. If I’m not here to remember, who will?

About an hour later, we arrive at a curving, tree-lined street. Ben pulls into the elm-shaded driveway. Sharon runs down the side path, past yellow balloons tied to the gate, dressed, like a teenager, in flip-flops, a tank top, and Bermuda shorts. Right behind her is my son-in-law, Howard, a few pounds heavier than when I last saw him, rolling a wheelchair down the brick path. I stare at the thing as if staring will stop what is coming.

“Come on, Dad. We’ve got a treat for you. You can relax in style today.” Sharon opens the car door and kisses me, then runs her hand down my cheek. “Ben, we could use your help. Howard hurt his back last week.”

Ben heaves me up like the fifty-pound sacks of flour I used to carry on my shoulder and places me on the wheelchair seat, whistling as he pushes me up the bumpy path, into the backyard. 

“Where do you want him?” Ben says. 

Sharon points to the redwood pergola next to the house. Ben parks me at the patio table, locking the break with his foot. “Grandpa, I’m going to get something to drink. You want something?” 

I wave him off. 

Sharon pats me on the back. “The drinks are by the pool. Howard, can you get some ice for the cooler? I have to check on the food. Sit tight, Dad.”

“Stuck in this contraption, what choice do I have? Is this any way to treat your guest of honor?”

“I thought you’d like it. I’ll be back soon.” She wipes her hands on her shorts and walks away.

A few minutes later, a young girl, ten or twelve, with round brown eyes and straight black hair, hands me a plastic glass of lemonade with ice cubes. I reach for it, the ice cubes rattling so much I might as well be playing the maracas. “Who are you?”

“I’m Rachel, Arnie’s granddaughter.” 

“I don’t know Arnie. Why aren’t you in the pool with the other kids?” There is a flash of legs on the other side of the yard, water spraying across the patio. 

“I don’t like swimming.” She twirls the ends of her hair.

“That’s nice.” 

Rachel looks up, startled. I said the wrong thing. I wasn’t really listening. She turns and walks away. 

“Hey, Dad, how’re you doing?” Howard pulls up a chair next to me and places a paper plate with a sandwich and coleslaw on my lap. I peel back the bread. Turkey. What’s the point of ordering deli and not getting pastrami? I take a bite and put it back on the plate. 

I look around the crowded yard. “Which one is Arnie?”

“Over there.” 

I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know him.”

“What? Yes, you do. He’s Meena’s son.” 

“Is Meena here?” Meena was my baby sister. I’m the oldest. Six kids.

“Meena’s dead. You were at the funeral.” 

“I forgot. Am I the last of us?” 

“Yes, yes you are.”

Daniel, my oldest grandson, bends over me, his little girl balanced on his hip. He kisses my cheek, a bissel pek. “Happy birthday, Grandpa. Ninety. Pretty cool. Becca, kiss Great Grandpa Max.” 

Becca shakes her head, an emphatic no. Droplets of water spray my shirt. I imagine what she sees: cracked lips, yellow teeth.

“No. No kiss, Poppy. Poppy poopy head.” She twists away, wriggles out of Daniel’s grip, and slides to the floor. 

I close my eyes. When I open them, the chair next to me is empty. I overhear bits of conversation. “He’s a good man . . . ninety. Jesus that’s old . . . He must miss Ruthie . . . He looks weak.” Maybe I’m dead and this is my funeral.

A soft hand caresses the top of my head. For a second, my eyes still closed, I think it is Ruthie. Sharon takes the paper plate off my lap and frowns at my one bite. “Time for cake.” 

She claps her hands and walks around the yard, herding everyone to the pergola. I am surrounded in my seat, at shirt-button and belt height. I stretch my neck back and look up through the slats of the pergola at the stripes of sky. Sharon places a large sheet cake with white icing on the long table in front of me. Tiny flames from dozens of candles flicker. She pushes me a few inches closer to the cake and starts an off-tune “Happy Birthday.”

“Make a wish,” Howard says.

I blow a puff of air through pursed lips. There is a slight waver of the flames. 

Sharon gathers up the youngest children. “I’m going to count to three, then blow. One, two, three.”

“What did you wish for, Grandpa?” Benjamin says. “A hot girlfriend, a sports car?”     

“What do I need with any of that? I have everything.” But I did make a wish. 

Sharon cuts a large piece with a pink rosette and hands it to me. The thin paper plate bends in my hands. Costco yellow cake with whipped cream filling. I could have baked better, a seven-layer cake with chocolate buttercream icing between the layers, that melts on your tongue.

“Mine,” Becca says, poking me in the leg. 

“You want this?”

Becca nods, reaching up, short arms stretched out and fat, stubby fingers extended. With a small flick of my wrist, the cake coats her sunburnt cheeks and the tip of her nose with whipped cream. Daniel picks Becca up mid-howl and wipes her face off with a napkin.

“What was that, Dad?” Sharon says.

“My hand slipped.” I hold my shaking fingers up. Why does no one else think it’s funny? When Moe would hit Larry with a whipped cream pie, I used to roar with laughter. 

“Do you need me to feed you? Are you having trouble eating?” 

I look into her eyes, liquid with concern. Sarcasm runs in the family, but this is something else. A wave of dizziness hits me, or perhaps it is regret. “I need to go to the bathroom.”

Howard wheels me to the guest bathroom in the den and closes the door behind me. I lean against the porcelain sink and fumble with my belt. My fingers refuse to do what I want. Hot tears trickle down my neck. Happy birthday to me, you old fool.

The party is breaking up, when Howard wheels me back to the patio. “You must be tired, Dad,” he says.


Everything happens in reverse, like rewinding a family movie. Ben pushes the wheelchair on the bumpy brick path and lifts me into the front car seat. Sharon stacks plastic containers of food on the back seat floor and then strokes my cheek. “See you Wednesday,” she says and slams the car door shut.


The next morning, I move a bit slower than the day before and settle in my seat with the view of the street. Miguel bounds up the stairs and touches the mezuzah. The screen door slaps behind him. The creak of the refrigerator door. “There’s cream cheese? You want cream cheese?”

“Sure. Why not? Live it up.” 

“How was the big party?” Miguel holds on to my hand and guides the rim of the cup to my mouth. 

“Okay. Leftover cake in the fridge, if you want some.” 

“Maybe after school. I’ll get the dishes then. Hey, only a few more days. Right? You going to miss it?” 

“I’ll miss some things. The sunrise.” 

“Sunrises are everywhere. It’s going to be great. Somebody to cook and clean for you all the time. People your age to talk to.” 

“If they can still talk.” 


On Wednesday night, Sharon removes family pictures from the living room wall, holding each one up for my opinion. “What about this one? Your wedding photo. We’ll hang that near the bed.” 

There is a leather photo album on the coffee table. The edges shed when Sharon picks it up and turns the page. “Look at this.”

In bold and white, I stand in front of a plate glass window, “Gold and Sons” written in black cursive above my head. I’m wearing a white apron, a linen towel over my shoulder, the sleeves of my shirt rolled up, and biceps bulging where my crossed arms press against my chest. 

“You look happy.”

“Business was good back then. I loved talking with the customers. Like family.”

“There will be lots of people to talk to at the new place.” 

“A bunch of alte kakers dribbling their soup.” 

Sharon shakes her head. “Are you kidding me? You can hardly get a fork to your mouth. At least I’ll know you’re eating.” 

“I’ll survive.” 

“That should be your motto. There’s more to life than just surviving.”

“Too late now.”

Sharon opens a drawer on the side table. A shiny rectangle of metal on a silver bead chain dangles from her middle finger.

“My army tags.” 

“You kept them. They must mean something.” She hangs the chain around my neck.

“You can identify me when I’m dead. Could come in handy at the old age home.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“Sure. I’m ridiculous. The Hummel. On the top shelf. Give it to Daniel. It looks like Becca. Your mother would want him to have it. He can sell it if he doesn’t want it.”

It was Ruthie’s first Mother’s Day gift. She unwrapped the tissue paper and cried. Now it’s probably going to end up in the trash. 

Sharon opens the glass door, picks up a cotton rag, cradles the figurine, and wipes the face. A simple gesture, but it hits me. More than a birthday cake and people I don’t remember. I want to hold it. I try to get out of the overstuffed armchair. “I’m ready for . . .” I collapse back down on the cushion. 

“What, Dad? What are you ready for?” 

“Bed.” I want to say something else. Rhymes with “bed.”

Sharon puts the little Hummel girl down and slides her arm under my arm, coaxing my weak legs to stand. When she was a baby and took her first steps, I held her in the same way.

The sheets are cool as Sharon tucks me in, pulls the wool blanket up to my chest, and kisses me on the forehead. “Sleep tight.” 


I wake up with my head pressed against the floor. The green nylon carpet scratches my cheek. Bright light seeps past the curtain edges. I missed the sunrise. On one shaking elbow, I push up and fall back down. “Help.” My voice is all scratch and air. I try again. “Help.” 

I hear footsteps and sigh, curled up on my side.

Sharon kneels next to me. “What are you doing down there? Are you hurt?” 

“I’m sleeping.”

“On the floor?”

“Maybe I’m dead.” 

Sharon presses two fingers on the inside of my forearm. “Not yet. Can you sit up?” 

I didn’t get my wish. I don’t want to be pushed in a wheelchair like a package on its way for delivery, shaking hands and bad knees. My pajama pants are wet. I smell urine.

“Don’t cry. I’ll take care of it.”

I didn’t realize I was crying. It’s like I’m leaking. I clench my fists. My shoulder burns as Sharon lifts me to a sitting position. She strips off my pajama pants and wraps me in a towel. I surrender as she pushes and pulls me like a lump of dough until I am seated in the shower chair. The warm water rains down on my head and back. She soaps my back then hands me the bar. “Wash down there.” She nods towards my penis, good for nothing except a slow stream at the wrong time. 

“You were lucky not to break a hip, or worse. It’s a good thing you’re moving today.” 

I close my eyes and pretend I am on the porch watching the sunrise. She dries me off and slides me into my robe, one sleeve at a time. 

A familiar three-count knock on the front door. “Hey, Mr. G,” Miguel yells from the hallway.

“We’re in the bathroom,” Sharon says. Miguel helps her carry me to the chair with the torn red vinyl seat cover at the kitchen table.

On it is a plastic-wrapped plate. Churros. Hot out of the fryer, judging from the condensation on the plastic wrap. 

“A goodbye present. From mi madre and me. So you don’t forget us.” He pushes the plate towards me. The cinnamon smell takes me back to the bakery. I make a feeble effort to lift the plate. Miguel swoops in, extracts a churro, and hands it to me. “I bet they don’t have anything this good at your new place.” I lick my fingers and take a big bite.

From the chair on the other side of the table, Sharon leans across me and takes a churro. “Hmm, delicious. Thank your mom.”

Miguel stands up. “I’m going to miss you, Mr. G.” He leans in and hugs me. 

“Wait a minute,” I say. I unclasp my dog tags. My hands are steady. “So you don’t forget me.” 

Miguel turns the tags in the palm of his hand. “August 30th, 1931.” 

Sharon flashes me a look of doubt. “Are you . . .”

“I’m sure. I don’t need them. I know who I am. I know where I’ve been.”

“Cool.” Miguel slides the tags into his front jeans pocket. “What about the good luck box on the door? I can take it down for you. You should have it at the new place. Make it a home.”

“I don’t need it anymore. It did its job. Leave it for the next owner.”

Carolyn Siegal lives in Altadena, California, and is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles. After retiring from a career in the healthcare industry, she writes contemporary fiction focused on the nuances of aging and loneliness. Her Instagram is carolynsiegalwrites.