In Lily Meyer’s “Peer Melvin,” we find ourselves with a narrator in Sophia with an exacting honesty about her own shortcomings, her failings, she says, as “mother, wife and general person.” Sophia sees herself in her grandfather Melvin, a conman who dresses “like a minor gangster.” Meyer’s “Peer Melvin” follows Sophia in her senior year, the year her brother learns his lesson about gambling and the year, she says, she learned her lesson about human decency.
All fall, I’d been watching Peter and Vinny race. I went even to meets across the state. I had a policy of supporting Peter however I could, and cheering for his athletic achievements was an easy one. It was a nice side effect that I could watch Vinny improve. His determination to train with Peter was paying off. At every race, he drew closer to my brother. By November, they were finishing a reliable 1-2. I heard the coach, in his pre-meet pump-up speeches, referring to them as Mel ‘n’ Pete, like some Borscht Belt comedy duo. Mel ‘n’ Pete were the pace-setters, the leaders of the pack. Everyone else should do their best to keep up.
My grandfather was named Melvin. He came from that Jewish generation: Melvins, Hermans, Alvins, Myrons, all the –ns. His brother was Sheldon, called Shelly. I loved Shelly, at first because he showed up at Passover every year and gave whoever found the afikomen a $20, and then because I realized he was an angel, and my grandfather was a piece of shit. Mel dressed like a minor gangster, with tie pins and very thin shoes. He wasn’t one—he was a nephrologist—but he would have thrived as a loan shark. He liked taking from people. Once I asked my mother if he’d ever committed insurance fraud, which struck me as an activity he would have enjoyed. To her knowledge, he hadn’t. She thought it would have been too faceless for him. Too much paperwork. What Grandpa Mel liked, if you had a drink with a straw, was to lean over and drain the glass in your hand. He’d even do it with a cocktail stirrer. It was uncomfortable to watch.
Grandpa Mel took Shelly’s wife. He took three-quarters of their inheritance. He took their mother’s diamond ring from her hand when she died, and nobody ever saw it again. When my brother Peter and I were nine and eleven, he took Peter’s pet corn snake and released it into the yard. In an effort to be comforting, I told Peter he was nearly ten now, too old to cry over such a small, scaly pet, but, sensibly, he ignored me. A week later, we found its crushed body in the driveway. Poor little snake.
Why my mother brought her dad around, we don’t know. She doesn’t know. Importance of male presence or some shit. He liked coming over because Peter and I were sitting ducks. Very easy to con children out of their allowances while claiming to teaching them to gamble. In fairness to him, Peter and I are, as adults, excellent at poker, blackjack, darts, and pool. Also Uno, but high-stakes Uno turns out not to be a common game.
Peter likes to compete, but, even with me, he gambles only for pennies. If I lobby him to bet higher, he reminds me he learned his lesson in tenth grade. I learned my own lesson that year, involving not gambling but human decency. Specifically, I discovered that, like my grandfather, I have none. Unlike him, I wish I did. I have spent my adult life striving for it. Mel, in contrast, was born rotten and died worse. I hated him. He died the summer I was twenty, and I cried, but didn’t grieve. Shelly and Peter, my two models of goodness, told me I was under no obligation, and I took them at their combined word.
Jewish tradition dictates that babies should be named only for the dead, which means my male peers, born during their grandfathers’ lives, rarely have the -n names. Hard to know if this means a new wave of Jewish Melvins is en route. Needless to say, neither of my sons is named for their great-grandfather. I would have named one for Uncle Shelly, but the boys are four and two, and he only died last year.
My husband often says he wishes he’d met Grandpa Mel, for context. I tell him he’s better off this way, but, privately, I wish the same. My failings as a mother, wife, and general person would shrink to nothing if Reid had Mel to compare me to. I might be fundamentally abrasive and antisocial; I might prefer hustling strangers at bar pool to watching Netflix with my husband; but I have never, not ever, sucked down Reid’s entire drink through a cocktail straw. I treat my husband kindly. I am endlessly patient—he’d testify to this—with our kids. I am extremely close, still, to Peter. I do my best to be pleasant to my colleagues, our neighbors, the other adults at Mommy & Me Gymboree. In fact, I have worked hard to be decent, generous, and open-hearted to every person who’s crossed my path since twelfth grade. That was when Melvin Pasternak came to our school.