Congratulations to Naomi Weiss for winning third place for creative nonfiction in the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read the winning entry, “Earplugs,” below.
I was working as a librarian in the Donnell Film Library on 53rd Street when I happened to pass Caswell-Massey on Lexington and 48th. Among sleep items impeccably displayed on a countertop, I was drawn to a small attractive box, two inches square, barely half an inch high. “Boules de Neiges. Earplugs,” it read. “Snowballs” in French. The box’s contents, “Cire naturelle – Pure wax. Long-lasting comfort. Eight Pair,” were described in a sky-blue sans serif font, tastefully highlighted in lime green. I lifted the top, surprised to find fluffy white absorbent cotton puffs packed tightly together, each no bigger than the tip of my pinky. That night, I gently shed the cotton and worked two perfectly round balls of light pink wax between my thumb and index finger, one in each hand, until they were sufficiently supple to mold into my ears. They kept their promise to block unwanted noise.
Over time the original design became plastic, the name changed to Quies, but the colors, wording, font, and promise have stayed the same, something of a miracle since not much else does.
I left the library’s predictable environment to move up in the world, and my younger brother got married again. Not by a shaman at sunrise on a deserted Hawaiian beach this time but to a woman his age under a chupah, among guests, catered food, and music — reggae — he insisted, though few would know the steps. Most waltzed.
My brother makes his own rules. You can’t tell him anything unless he asks which is rare. And when he does ask, he chooses people who offer the worst advice.
Like all Jewish princes, my brother grew up praised, fawned upon, and fussed over by our mother for things like finishing his food and tying his shoes. When I was eight and he was four, and he fixed the toaster so the bread popped back up, she bragged to every neighbor in our seven-story Bronx apartment building.
Because she was enthralled by the virtuosity of Jascha Heifetz, I signed up for violin lessons. I practiced intently, played for years. As an obedient, helpful, kind, generous child, and excellent student, I hoped she might notice.
My brother meanwhile taught himself to play guitar, violin, ukulele, mandolin, even the flute. Things came easily to him.
As soon as he could walk, he shadowed me around our four-room apartment. When I went to the playground around the corner, I happily took him with me. When he started school and we walked across two streets, past the handball courts, the playground with the big swings, around the flagpole and into P.S. 106, I held his hand. An important big sister.
When I heard the metal door of the kitchen broom closet slam, I hid him under the bed knowing we were about to be attacked with the wooden part of the feather duster for something our mother thought we did, like not coming to the table when called or “carrying on” of which we were regularly accused.
I taught him the complex lyrics to “John Wellington Wells” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer, and, God help me, “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from the H.M.S Pinafore, albums housed in our parents’ record collection. When I commanded, he sang them with me.
At eleven years old, edging into puberty, my brother would enter my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night to sleep between them. This lasted for some months and seemed to embarrass my mother who joked to my father about her son’s “sleepwalking.” My father didn’t think it was funny.
At thirteen, he built a ham radio, received his license, and practiced Morse Code with me so I too could have my own call letters. When I heard a male voice answer his CQ over the air, I pressured, “Tell him you have a sister.” His solicitations brought me Al from Allerton Avenue, a science nerd with red hair; Ivan from Washington Heights, a gym teacher with huge biceps; and Sam from Bronx Park East, a sexy, mustachioed aspiring writer. In those days, my brother still did what I asked.
He and I made music together, me on violin, him on guitar. One night on a plain wooden floor under a spotlight, we played and harmonized to an old English air at Gert’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. The keeper would a-hunting go. Under his arm he carried a bow. People applauded.
We shared a bedroom until I married at 21. He had his bed, I had mine, a thick curtain between us allowed whispered information — the little I knew about sex, his ideas for things not yet invented — electric cars and radios you could play in the shower. Every night he repeated after me: Good night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. See you in the morning. My obsession to keep us safe from worldly harm.
When he was accepted onto his high school swim team, my mother exclaimed, “Swim?! You’ll get wet!” A Jewish prince riding home on the subway with wet hair could catch a cold. To comply with weekly practice, he offered her a variety of made-up excuses. He didn’t consider this lying. His charm and wit made up for any suspicions she, or anyone else, might have about him.
His high school friend, Stevie Wiederman, who knew what we didn’t, pestered my brother until he handed over a bookable amount of pot. One Saturday afternoon our doorbell rang, and Stevie, in training as a cop, arrested him. I sat beside my mother in court. The lawyer was Feldheimer or Feldman, his name whispered by our parents. Misdemeanor. Shame. Silence. Sometimes I thought I dreamed it.
My brother was accepted to the same upstate SUNY College I attended as a freshman but was expelled after a year for something we never knew. No one talked about why, leaving him alone to bear whatever it was. I suspected selling cannabis. That’s when he left home with his girlfriend for Hawaii.
His first LP at 21, performing his own lyrics and music, was Silver Currents, Sire records, same producer as Madonna’s. Reviews likened his music to Peter, Paul and Mary; his style to Donovan; his being influenced by Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. He loved that I memorized every word to his songs: amusing and lyrical, “Jesus Came to Jersey,” “Jingle Down a Hill,” to soulful, topical and romantic, “The Song That’s Sung For No One,” “The Rising of Scorpio,” “If You Love Me, Come Beside Me.” We heard him over the radio.
He apprenticed to a master guitar maker, eventually producing his own label of guitars. Top performers purchased his exquisite handmade instruments, inlaid with mother of pearl, fitted with his own invention, his own patent — Teflon-coated strings for studio performances because they don’t squeak. I hoped the troubled part of his life was over.
Throughout our lives he gave me three birthday presents: a large beautifully colored silk scarf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a hand-embroidered Hungarian peasant blouse, and one of his poems with the line: “What can I give her? Who has shown me love and has given me a continuum of life, laughed and built and sang with me as a child, guided and trusted in me as a man.” One year he told me that after December 26th, my birthday, the skies got brighter several minutes each day, as if I alone were responsible for restoring light to the world.
He once surprised me with a violin made by a young man apprenticing to an instrument maker. Though the sound was too woody, I began to play again after years of not doing so until the bow fell apart. Both lie in my closet in its original case.
When I got married at our parents’ house in upstate New York and he was living in California, he called to say he had misplaced the credit card my mother had loaned him to pay for the flight. His Guitar Repair Shop in Newport Beach, California, serviced a sizeable clientele. But by then I accepted what I had known for years: he was too high, too keyed up, waiting for his next fix, to conceive of flying across the country, not even for his sister’s wedding.
In his late thirties, he returned to New York, kicked his habit. “Your brother has the flu,” my mother told me while he suffered and recuperated and continued to live in our parents’ home. Friends introduced him to his dream date. She was an architect, the right age, lived in Manhattan, liked to scuba dive. He was a licensed diver.
There was his wedding, a woodsy piece of land in Putnam County, New York, purchased with his wife’s inheritance. She prepared the drawings; he oversaw the construction. They created a wonderful welcoming home for their two sons, her studio at one end, his guitar shop at the other in a double garage, every tool precisely placed. He worked extra hours doing contracting work, building and repairing docks in local deepwater lakes. Their eldest son, a skateboarder, built his own ramps and practiced heavy metal with his six-piece band in the basement. His younger brother followed him everywhere, like his father used to follow me.
When my brother was diagnosed with Hep C, a local doctor prescribed interferon. “What does he know?” my brother said and started acupuncture treatments with an Asian practitioner who kept him going for years. We worried, but never asked if he was using again. “My liver’s doing great,” he would declare. “The MD’s can’t believe it.” But by then he had become increasingly suspicious, protective of what he deemed private. I understood. I always understood. I still believed I could reach him.
When he called to say he was in a local hospital, it was his way of asking that I visit. “I’m not that sick,” he said. “I don’t belong here.” He was parroting a doctor friend from California, who had been diagnosing him over the phone, trusting her advice. He told me his stomach had blown up; his genitals weighed him down. A buildup of fluid. I told him a hospital sounded like a good idea. They transferred him to Mount Sinai, New York City.
“How do I look?” he asked offering one of his charming smiles as I sat at his bedside and reached for his hand. “Not too bad? Right”
“No. You look pretty good.” He was still handsome, wavy sandy brown hair, blue eyes sparkling. “What are they doing for you?”
“I can’t sleep at night. It’s too noisy. Get me some earplugs.” My bossing him had long ago become him bossing me.
“I’ll give you mine.” I returned with them that afternoon. “You have to soften them like this—”
“I know. I know. Just give them to me.”
Even if his life depended on what someone might tell him, he still did exactly what he wanted.
“They didn’t work,” he said the next morning. “I still couldn’t sleep. They fell out of my ears.”
“I told you to soften them.”
“They’re no good.”
No sense arguing. Now especially, I needed him to know his big sister’s love had not diminished from the moment I saw him, a bald, pink, fleshy thing, asleep in a crib that had suddenly appeared in the bedroom.
“Maybe tomorrow you can bring me a notebook and a pen.”
“Sure,” I said as a team of doctors walked in. He wrote as often as he played the guitar. I knew he wanted to journal what was going on with him.
“They’re going to drain the fluid now.” He meant from his body because his liver was shutting down. One of the doctors placed a pail on the floor beside his bed. Others hovered over him until he disappeared.
He died two days later, a very young sixty-year old, felled like other musicians by alcohol and heroin. “I’ll be out soon,” he had said. I believed him, certain we’d be together, sharing what he wrote in the notebook I bought him. It never turned up.
Sometimes I take out his record album and hug against my heart the front cover that features a four-color close-up of his face. “Like an angel,” people said. Wisps of silver clouds delicately swirl around his head; his sandy curls loose and full; those blue eyes soft, innocent; his expression promising; his lips waiting to kiss the girls he loved.
His voice arrives on his original vinyl from Discogs or auctions on eBay. I listen on a CD, having transformed his LP at one of those video/editing places.
Behind the soothing, resonant sounds of a young man plying his hopes with humor and joy, I hear reluctant sorrows and fears expressed in poignant words and minor chords, feelings rarely spoken, buried in silences, pushing away those who loved him, especially me.
The first thing an MRI technician does to block the loud bangs, smacks, and rat-a-tat-tats before you’re positioned inside that elongated tube is to offer a pair of ear plugs. They’re bright pink, shaped like a penis, rubbery, barely pliable. When you insert them, they immediately fall out. These are offered when I go for scans because I had surgery to remove a benign brain tumor years ago. My brother never called to ask if I was still alive. But each night as I return to my Quies, soften them between my thumb and index finger to block unwanted noise, I am at his bedside.
My beautiful brother, David.
Naomi Weiss, a non-fiction writer and essayist, is co-author of the 1990s Business Week bestseller What The IRS Doesn’t Want You to Know, (Villard) seven editions. Her piece on domestic violence, Hedda’s Story, was a People Magazine cover story for which she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and A&E’s American Justice. Her published works range from technology and feminism to alternative medicine and psychology. She attended the Iowa Writer’s Summer Workshop and has won first place from the National Council of Family Relations for writing Overcoming Inferiority, and received an Honorable Mention for writing Teenage Pregnancy and Prevention produced by Human Relations Media. Her recent work appears in Splice Today, Montgomery Magazine and Furious Gravity, Volume IX of the Grace & Gravity series, an anthology of DC Women Writers published by American University. She is a member of the Book and Author Committee, and the Journalism Institute at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
She is currently working on a novel that explores the sexuality and talent passed from Hungarian immigrant parents to three generations of women against a background of Jewish humor and Old World superstition.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.