SHINGLES

My mother hung up the phone and turned to my father. “Bernie Levin has shingles again.”
He looked up thoughtfully from his newspaper and shook his head. “Why can’t they cure him?”
“I’m not sure it’s curable,” said my mother. “They can only manage it.”
Being about eight years-old, I was having a hard time following this conversation. I knew that shingles were something on a roof, but my father acted as though they were an illness.
“Cynthia says he’s really in pain,” added my mother.
This sounded worse and worse. Mr. Levin was in pain from an incurable condition found on a roof. I thought it best not to interrupt, but I felt badly for Mr. Levin. He was my father’s oldest and, in my opinion, nicest friend. On reflection, he was probably only around sixty at this time, like my father, but if you had told me he was ninety, I would have believed you.
Bernie Levin was a wholesale clothing salesman of the sort rarely seen since the 1960’s. He represented the Haggar Pants Company and my father, who owned a menswear shop, had been his customer since the 1930’s. Their conversations were based largely upon reminiscing about companies and salesmen they had known over the decades. Many of the men were dead or had moved away; likewise, many of the companies were no longer in business. Perhaps, having survived made my father and Mr. Levin feel good.
Mr. Levin seemed so old because he was overweight and had several chins. It was as though the Michelin Tire man resided below his mouth. He also wore corrective shoes that would have resembled a clown’s if they were any color other than black. To top it off, his voice was a high-pitched warble.
It was his decency, however, that shined through. Mr. Levin would discuss baseball and football with me. He always seemed delighted to talk to a little kid, which was unusual among my parents’ friends. Mr. Levin and his wife had only one child, a girl, named Sondra. Unfortunately, Sondra inherited her father’s chin and, while there may have been no connection whatsoever, she never married. She became a well-known architect when she grew up, but I think Mr. Levin would have been really happy with a son.
“Should we go visit?” asked my father.
“We could,” said my mother.
This interested me, because every time we visited, Mrs. Levin had available a fresh chocolate cake covered with confectionary sugar. It resided on a cake plate in the middle of their kitchen table. And, like her husband, Mrs. Levin was always nice to me, though I had overheard my mother refer to her as a “dingbat” on more than one occasion.
Thinking back over several decades, I do not know how Mrs. Levin managed the cake thing. Did she bake a cake every day? Did she bake anything else? Could she bake anything else? None of these considerations were important at the time, since the basic chocolate cake that she made was fan-tas-tic.
I was happy that my parents chose to go and that they decided to take me. No doubt, there would be that cake. Plus, I would see how the roofing problem was affecting Mr. Levin. I sat in the backseat of the Buick in cheerful anticipation. When we arrived at their apartment, however, Mrs. Levin greeted us at the door and appeared upset.
“Bernie’s in the bedroom,” she said. “He can’t get up.”
My parents looked concerned and entered the small bedroom off the living room. I could barely make out a round figure under the covers. The adults spoke in hushed voices and Mr. Levin’s voice sounded distressed.
I looked around at the kitchen table. No cake. I was disappointed. For the first time in memory, Mrs. Levin had failed to come through. I realized that what I thought was a roof problem was, somehow, a serious illness. Mr. Levin recovered from that bout of shingles and I enjoyed Mrs. Levin’s chocolate cake well into adulthood. But since that day, I have never failed to respect the illness known as shingles.

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