Everybody considers dying important but as yet death is no festival.
I hadn’t thought of my father in at least two years. Being a bad Jew I don’t light yortzheit candles. The truth is harsher than that: I am so frightened by the intensity and mediocrity of my hate for him that I have blocked him out. It’s truly sad.
When I was small he would beat my mother mercilessly and methodically with a sewing-machine strap. Her face was like a club fighter’s: broken nose, cauliflower ear, scar tissue around her eyes. Poor nebechal Mama. There is a black-and-white photo at the bottom of the trunk I use as a coffee table in the living room. In it she is young and beautiful, blue eyes glimmering so bright a shade of pearl gray that my father might have taken the tip of a knife and scratched away the pupils. She sits on the hood of a British Army Land Rover in an Austrian refugee camp, her bare legs dangling, her knees soft and round. The reason I recall the photo so well is that she looks happy in it. I never saw her look happy for a moment, except maybe when she recalled stanzas of morbid German poetry. I have always wondered what it must have been like for her to lock herself in the bathroom, look in the mirror, and see beauty beaten black and blue. She loved him; I have no idea why. She never received a kiss or a smile or a word of love from him. There was nothing but hatred in his eyes.
They are both dead now. I can’t think of one without the other; therefore, they are both equally condemned. There are disparate moments, like slivers of light under a door in a darkened room, when I recall her satiny good-night kiss; but ultimately, he is always there, somewhere on the periphery, slapping the machine strap against his palm, eyes shiny as obsidian, black as his Sonderkommando heart.
That day began so beautifully. The rain spit against the window as Carla and I made slow, sweaty love; and then, when we were finished, the sun came out, as brilliant as a newly hammered nail. I smoked a cigarette as she slept — an obstinate, almost hostile sleep, her arms flung up in abandon around her head, her legs bent, her face pushed into the pillow. I kissed her ear goodbye. “I love you,” she said, her voice muffled.
I walked to work through Lincoln Park, ecstatic with the sight of the mottled sheen of wet leaves and the rich smell of rain-soaked asphalt, beaten into a pleasant concussion by the sight of thousands of office girls on their way to work, promenading up and down the avenue wearing their summer pastels and stiletto heels. Chicago is wonderful in September. You want summer never to end because here there is no autumn — winter comes down your neck like Madame Guillotine.
I own a hot-dog joint on 11th and Wabash. My clientele are the students at Columbia College, policemen from the 11th Street Station, and the applicants and workers from the unemployment office next door. Not a great business but it pays the rent. You’d be surprised by the number of hot dogs I sell in the morning, especially to cops. People love drek for breakfast.
At 2:15, after the lunch crowd had gone, I was sitting reading Winning Through Intimidation when a big, hulking fellow walked in the door. A Polish or Ukrainian cat with high, flat cheekbones and deep-set blue eyes, he said, “I want a triple cheeseburger with grilled onions and a order of fries.”
Up close, he had red veins in his eyes. The look of a man who stole from his mother, a man with a gift for petty burglary. The gift of being able to rummage efficiently through closets, search the correct drawer, find the cash and jewelry underneath the sweaters and socks. He frightened me.
He looked at the book I was reading, lit a cigarette, and sat down. The cigarette, a filter-less Camel, made him cough.
“How can you read that shit?” he said.
“Read what shit?” I knew what he meant, though. I always buy these books — Winning Through Intimidation, The Greatest Salesman in the World, Looking Out for Number One, Restoring the American Dream — and I don’t know why. Ambition does not flow strongly in my veins. My failure as a businessman is on some days an embarrassment, while on others, the source of a clear, nihilistic pride. There is within me a nagging gap between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, like a speck of sugar permanently trapped within a rotted tooth.
“That shit,” he said, “rots yer brain like the fucking TV. They got you so jealous with greed for stealing what the next guy’s got that you forget why you went into business in the first place.”
Appearances deceive, I know that. “You in business?” I asked.
The guy had that proto-Polish look of brush-cut blond hair turned white by the summer sun, fat factory hands like a bunch of bananas, and as I said, a scary face. “You ever been in business?”
He ate like an animal, noisy and fast, as if he knew for certain, right there and then, that this was his last meal. On the wall over the griddle, I’ve got a Seka picture calendar. Seka is a beautiful porno actress who comes in sometimes for a Polish and fries. I think she takes serious acting lessons over at the 11th Street Theater. It’s kind of amazing; she makes a good living, I’m sure, but there she is doing all that Stanislavsky shit. Maybe she wants to be legit, but I doubt it; her face is hard, sharp all over. I think she does it as a hobby, like I read these books. The guy stared at the calendar as he ate. When he finished, he wiped his fingers with a napkin like he was masturbating.
“I fucked a chick who looked a lot like her,” he said.
“It was,” he said, lighting up again, coughing terribly, “the crowning moment of my whole existence.”
“She comes in here,” I said. There was a look in his eyes as sad and distant as ten miles of telephone poles on a New Mexico highway. I looked away and up to Seka. She was kneeling on an overstuffed red couch gripping a white windowsill. Her nails, shining and red, were the exact same hue as the couch; you can always tell good nail polish by the way it shines, my wife Carla says. I pointed at the squiggly writing just above her mons veneris. “That’s her autograph, personally addressed to me: ‘To Marty from Seka — keep up the grease.’ ”
“It’s not the clothes that makes the woman,” he said. “And it isn’t the difference between beautiful and pretty, pretty and attractive, attractive and plain, plain and homely, homely and ugly. . . .” He had smoked the cigarette down to its end and made grand gestures with both hands like a desperate soap-opera actress.
“It’s the way they save themselves up. They wait.”
He lost me there and I was glad when a customer came in. A fat black man, his skin a caramel shade, ordered a pizza puff and a hot tamale: a drek aficionado. He was wearing a cheap Walkman imitation and I could hear the warped treble of the bass like the moaning of some wounded creature.
“I love all women,” I said to the first man. “I love my wife.”
He was not impressed. “It’s the ones who get looked at. The ones whose skin is as white as the belly of a fish who are the most desirable. The girl who looked like her,” and he pointed up, “had skin like that and left me to go to Florida. I hope she’s happy on the beach.”
I felt sorry for Seka. No amount of money is solace enough for the kind of verbal abuse she must be subjected to. In those acting workshops they go for the jugular — I remember from my years in film school.
“Did you get laid off?” It’s not a question I normally ask; you look for trouble with such inquiries when your business is situated right next door to the unemployment office, but his unhappiness was distracting.
“I got laid off nine months ago, brother,” he said. “And now the motherfuckers are gonna cut me off. I only got through the F’s on my job search sheet.” He was taking an agitated draw on his cigarette when he crossed his arms over his chest and began massaging his biceps, soft then hard, crushing the still-lit cigarette between his knuckles. “This . . . ,” he said. “This . . .” He stretched his arms out, made fists, and began desperately pulling in and out, as if he were rowing a boat. The look in his eyes was queer and desperate, a miasma of fear. The last man in the regatta, I remember thinking. “This is it, man,” he said calmly, “the big-bang theory.” With that he emitted a low moan and fell backward off his stool with a resounding crash. The crown of his head smacked against the floor, making a noise like a fresh scoop of ice cream hitting pavement. Then he rolled over onto his side and lay still.
I vaulted over the counter and began screaming for help as I turned him over onto his back. “Call an ambulance! Call an ambulance!” For the first time in my life I gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, all those classes at the YMCA finally proving useful. Of course, what the instructor never warns you about is the taste of your own dreky food. “Suck the windpipe clear,” you are told, but all you get when you suck in on a dummy’s throat is the vague taste of rubber.
There I was, sucking away, spitting improperly masticated food onto the floor, ranting hysterically; from behind me I could hear the steady, throbbing treble from the imitation Walkman. I began taking turns sucking and blowing into him, thumping his chest with the meat of my fists. Harder and harder I hit him, alternately gasping for air and then slithering forward, breathing into him and counting to six. Suddenly his head began rolling and he puked into my mouth and over my chest as I arched back in horror. As I spit puke onto the floor, I heard the big black man from behind me, like the voice of God.
“What the fuck are you doing, man?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” I screamed without turning. I’m afraid to face black people if I’m going to say anything nasty to them. “What the fuck do you think I’m doing? I’m trying to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” I began thumping at his chest again.
“YMCA, am I right?” said the voice behind me.
“Right. Would you please call an ambulance?”
“You hit like a sissy, man.”
“Will you call a goddamned ambulance? Please.”
“There’s no phone here, you fool,” he said. “If I run next door will you take the quarter off the price of my tamale?”
“There’s a phone in the back. You can have the tamale for free,” I screamed.
“It’ll take ’em a half hour to get here, man. Let me do it. You’re doing it wrong.”
“Are you trained? How do I know I —” I felt a big, meaty paw pull at my collar and lift me. I went with it. I did not struggle. I was wearing a brand-new shot-silk Givenchy shirt under my apron; it was bad enough that I’d gotten puke all over it.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing,” he said. His mouth was filled with chipped and broken teeth. He thrust me aside and got down on his knees. “Just go call a ambulance,” he snapped. “I gots to be crazy. I gots to be fuckin’ crazy.”
I vaulted over the counter and ran into the back room.
“If I get AIDS,” he shouted, “I’m gonna come back here and shoot your ass.”
I called emergency. The woman who answered had a bubbly telephone personality, like something from a tacky car commercial. I was hypnotized by the sight of the back of the big black man’s head bobbing up and down, his bald spot shiny as a freshly buffed brogan. My gullet was still as a pebble as I tried to give her the address. I had to light a cigarette and breathe deeply before I could talk at all. Then I closed the door and called Carla. “What should I do?” I asked after I’d explained everything. “I want to come home for a hug. I don’t like today.”
“You can’t come home yet, silly,” she laughed. “You’ve got the night crowd yet.” Love like a razor.
“Carla,” I said. “I hate death, I can’t stand suffering. It makes me ill.”
“Marty,” she said, “you’re thinking about your mother and father, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Actually I wasn’t, but it’s easier not to argue.
“The Holocaust is boring, honey. I lost it with that last Louis Malle film. It’s as old as platform shoes. They trivialize it.” Carla isn’t Jewish. “You oppress yourself, honey.” I nodded. I opened the door a crack and saw two sets of feet — one vertical, one horizontal — both pairs severely in need of heeling. “Tonight,” she said, “I’ll give you a bath and we’ll eat Chinese.”
When I put the phone down I felt worse than I had before. Whenever I felt bad Carla always brought up the Holocaust: the psychology of comparison/contrast, I think — I’m not sure. Looking up at the grease-spattered walls, I realized in one jolting moment, the way it always is in cheap novels, that without her my life was as cold and empty as Greenland. I walked around the counter and found my two customers. I knelt next to them. My Slavic customer was breathing desperately, his eyes red, but I was overjoyed to find him alive and conscious.
“You shouldn’t have saved me, brother,” he sighed. “Really, I ain’t got a fucking penny to my name. They’ll just put me in Cook County with the dregs. I’m gonna die any fucking way.”
He then began a sad recitation:
Oh God cut short my agony. Hasten the muffled drum. You know I have no talent for The art of martyrdom.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Hiney,” he said. “You’re a Jew, an’ you never heard of Hiney?”
“God, but you’re stupid,” he sighed. “I don’t want to live in this world.”
“Sssh!” I said. “Don’t talk like that. It’s a sin to talk like that. In my religion, what I just did for you is called a mitzvah. It does me good, too.”
They both sneered at me. He and the black man. “You fuckin’ Jews, man. You make me laugh.”
“I’ve hired you,” I said. “You are now part of the staff at Marty’s Mouthful. You have Blue Cross. They will at least put you in Swedish Covenant where the nurses are hot and they don’t make you beg for drugs.”
There was a strong smell. The hot tamale was burning. Before I could get to it, the man had me by the wrist. He may have been sick and dying but he had a grip like a vise. “My father,” he said, “was in a concentration camp.”
“He fell off the guard tower.”
They started to laugh, he and the schvartze, like devils. And there was that awful burning smell.
My father was a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. Sonderkommando means something like “special soldier” — which sounds good, but the Nazis were really clever at making jobs sound good; in the end, my dad was a prisoner who, because of his size and strength, was chosen to man the doors of the gas chambers and crematoriums, and so allowed to live — what we yids called a shlep. Still, he was lucky to have a job in a death camp, even a shlepper’s job; but in his case, the value of the work ethic upon the soul was quite overrated.
Every day of my youth, Monday through Friday, my mother worked at a sewing machine, killing herself to keep up with the newly arrived and illegal Chinese and Mexican girls. And every day, from the time I could talk until I began first grade, my father explained his one and only job very clearly and methodically. It was the only time we were ever in the vicinity of being close.
We would sit in the kitchen of our brand-new bungalow in Lincolnwood, watching either each other or the garden. It was my mother’s dream kitchen, yellows and oranges, porcelain, steel and formica, like living inside a bowl of fruit. That garden, I remember, was Kelly green, smooth and square with irrigation holes sloping down from the corners and center so that it resembled an enormous pool table. He would sit and stare through the slats of the Venetian blinds, elbows pushed into the table, his shoulders sloped, knotted muscle showing through his shirt as he held himself up, cocked like the hammer on a hair trigger. His body never moved, his head switching economically up and down or side to side. If there was rain, or the sun dazzled at too sharp an angle, he would swear in Polish (the secret language he could deny me and my mother), flip down the clip-on sunglasses that were fixed to his spectacles, and recommence his reverie. He never shut the blinds.
Next to his elbow would be a bottle of Wyborowa and a shot glass. The silver label with the royal blue pin stripes and red piping reminded me of the uniforms of Napoleon’s chasseures — pride of my tin soldier collection. He was always at his best at around 1 o’clock when the bottle was half-gone: two shots past Polish melancholy and two hours short of the rage he would build up to coincide with my mother’s homecoming.
“Martin,” he would say, “you are beautiful like ein girl.” An attempt at a kiss would follow, a flat dryness and then the burning of my cheek with his whiskers. “You should shtup lots of shiksas, especially,” he would laugh and point at me, “German and Polish girls, in the tuchis. So that they’ll remember you for a long time after you leave their beds.” Sometimes he would laugh until he burst into tears; the only thing that held his misery in abeyance was the misery of others.
“Don’t you worry about what you do for a living, Martin,” he would add with the next drink. “Let the ass-lickers call you a shlep. You do what you like.” As far as I know, in all the time he lived in America he never had a job. He worked with diligence, however, at drinking himself to death. Then there’d be the 2 o’clock scenario.
“In Oswiecim, you work or you die.” He spoke of those war years in a curt present tense, often running his fingers slowly through the slats of the Venetian blinds, making particles of dust float around him. “There are artists, pianists, violinists, forgers, pickpockets, writers, actors, mathematicians, doctors — oh, lots of doctors, and they all die, die, die. All shit themselves when they die, too. All burn well.” The idea that he had outlived the artisans gave him a sense of joy. And suddenly he would jab at the air with his fists, slap the table, rock the bottle and save it like a goalkeeper, then massage my Adam’s apple, close as an eyelash to turning his acrimony and guilt upon me.
Then our game would begin. “How long to gas ’em, Martin?”
“Fifteen minutes before you open the doors.” By the time I was four he had trained me to parrot questions and answers to fit his whim.
“We’d pull ’em out with ropes and grappling hooks. Then what?”
“Pull their teeth?” I’d never get the answer quite right.
“Pull their gold teeth,” he’d correct. “Pull their gold teeth with these.” He’d reach behind to his back pocket and come up with a pair of steel pliers. “Pull their teeth faster than you can say Hans Frank.”
“Hans Frank!” I’d say as he grabbed me in a soft headlock. “Hans Frank! Hans Frank! Hans Frank!” And each time I yelled the name I would make my voice shriller and shriller, knowing my fear was an aphrodisiac to him. He would grab my jaw in his left hand and reach with the pliers in his right. He would take a grip on one of my tiny incisors, cackle, and make crunching noises — as if he would really go through with it. I would scream and bang the backs of my ankles on the crosspiece of the chair until the bones throbbed. Finally, he would kiss me, replace the pliers in his back pocket, and as an afterthought, give me a popsicle or something sweet from the refrigerator. Now and again, if he’d imbibed too much too early, he’d begin to cry.
“I love you more than I love your mother,” he would say, as if the knowledge that filial love meant more than passion might tilt my love in his direction.
To this day I cannot stand the smell of vodka. Visiting the dentist guarantees a month’s lost sleep, before and after the fact.
That night Carla and I made love again. Afterward, when she lay there smiling, loose as a dead cat, I told her that I’d hired the Pole. She was livid. I deliberately didn’t shower and didn’t brush my teeth before we went out to eat. I sat in the Hunan restaurant sniffing my fingers, running the tip of my tongue against my mustache, looking at my distorted self in the gold waiter’s bell.
“You’re so nice, Mr. Nice Guy,” she said, looking at her fingernails, looking for the waitress, then grabbing the bell to break my concentration. “Nice like a sucker.” She rang the bell like a leper.
The walls of the booth were padded like a lunatic’s cell: harsh, shiny, vinyl walls that made words bounce back at you.
“I’ll pay him minimum wage,” I said.
Carla just sneered, her thick, black Sicilian eyebrows twitching in time with her agitated fingers. A pitcher of daiquiris arrived along with spring rolls, and Carla calmed down. She forgave as quickly as she angered. “You’ve got to stop being so nice,” she said between mouthfuls of egg-drop soup. “We’ll have nothing when we’re old.”
“The meek shall inherit the earth,” I said, for want of something more erudite.
“The meek shall inherit a hole in the ground.”
“It’s a mitzvah.”
“Don’t give me that mitzvah shit,” she laughed. “You just can’t say no. You let the world walk all over you.”
These rebukes were a magnificent ritual to me. They set my heart off inside my T-shirt like a pillowcase full of puppies. “I want to do it to you again.”
“I’ve not finished telling you off, Marty,” she laughed.
The moo shu pork was wonderful. We stared at each other across the table and played footsie. “Can we? Can we?” I whined.
“Your dick’ll be the death of us both,” she said.
Too true, actually. When we met in film school, I fell for her instantly; the thick black hair on her arms, I think. I told her she looked like Claudia Cardinale. Carla didn’t have a clue who she was. Visconti’s The Leopard, I said, ogling her, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers. She shook her head and told me that all Italian men were assholes; it seems her ex-husband Pino was the missing link between Cro-Magnan and Neanderthal man. Somehow we lost Luchino Visconti, left screenwriting early, and went back to my apartment. We would ball six, seven, eight times a day, running off in the middle of lighting exercises and editing periods to rut on the fire stairs. One day I didn’t tighten the nut properly on a gobo head. The gobo was holding up a five-hundred-watt, twenty-five-pound baby Fresnel key light over the sound stage, eighty feet high. It fell and missed the teacher’s head by three inches while I was on another floor, fressing Carla as she sat on the six-plate Steenbeck. The administration demanded remuneration and threatened to throw us out. I was as broke as any working-class film student ever is (that’s why there are none) and Carla can’t handle threats — so we quit.
Thus, my penis can be a weapon of fate. Twelve years later, my brain is filled with shards of information about filmmaking, all useless because of this monster between my legs. I am an unrepentant prisoner of my own lust, trapped like one of my David Berg hot dogs in a bun too long on each side.
“I’ll keep him,” I said, “for two weeks after he gets out of the hospital. So’s he can get back on his feet.”
“You’re a saint.”
“I told you. I’ll pay him minimum wage.”
“You’re a Jewish saint.”
“I’m a horny saint.”
“You don’t even know his name,” she snapped.
“It’s something Polish.” I had the urge to pull it out and slap it on the table.
“Polish people hate Mediterranean people.”
“You believe in clichés,” I said, not meaning a word. “Poles are all bigots. Jews whine about the Holocaust, and Italian men are all macho.”
I noticed that I was bouncing back and forth off the padding in the booth. “My father,” I said, “told me to shtup Polish girls in the ass.”
“You’d get shit on it, Marty. And they’d call you names afterward when they found out you were Jewish.” Carla laughed and lit a cigarette. When she was amused the small bit of fat on her arms moved with her.
“I’m burning,” I said.
“It’s not your fault that you were born with him as a father.” She blew smoke at me, her mouth perfect, and slightly fleshy — the kind that WASP girls have to paint on.
“I’m burning,” I said again. “When we talk about sex it becomes unbearable.” The hairs on my arms were stuck to the vinyl booth; it was painful for me to pull away.
The fortune cookies were stale. Plan on having many children, mine said. You will be reunited with a rich relative, said hers. I tore mine into tiny pieces and put it in the ashtray with all the dead butts.
We paid the bill and Carla left a 10-percent tip. I insisted on throwing down another two dollars without a word; cheapness is an embarrassment to me. Carla turned around at the cashier’s desk and went back to get the cigarettes she said she’d forgotten.
I let Carla drive. I was exhausted and groggy from the daiquiris. I put on my seat belt, as usual, and Carla didn’t, as usual.
The car hit us as we were going north through the intersection of Lawrence and Clark: an English tourist driving a Hertz rental down the wrong side of the street. There was a flash of yellow and black and the sound of breaking glass, like a little boy biting down on boiled candy.
I opened my eyes to a crowd gathered around the car; I saw them as a series of fuzzy circles, like hair-covered softballs with red zig-zag stitching moving in and out across their diameters. It’s going to be a curveball, I remember thinking, raising my arms, feeling for the bat, and realizing I was in restraints. I managed to undo my seat belt but couldn’t move.
“Keep still,” someone said. “You’ve been in an accident.”
So I began a slow inventory of my body with the tip of my finger, slowly touching my face and neck and lap and arms. And feeling nothing warm or wet.
“Are you okay, man?” some Puerto Rican kid asked, his head moving in and out, up and down, like some junk-baller’s change-up.
And then it struck me. “Where’s Carla?” I began to scream. “Where’s Carla?”
Carla was dead. Her head had gone through the windshield.
“I’m sorry, mate,” a voice shouted. “I thought you were on the wrong side of the street.” A tired voice, like one of those second-rate English actors who works over here on sitcoms as a butler or an effete snob of a neighbor. “I’m really sorry.”
By the time they came to pry us out, the inside of the car smelled like a butcher’s shop. A fireman delicately unfurled Carla’s fingers from the steering wheel and the two dollar bills, folded into a tiny square, were embedded in her palm. The last thing she said to me, just ten feet before the intersection, was, “But I don’t have any rich relatives.” I didn’t wash for a week after I buried her.
The Englishman was reprimanded and fined. In Chicago you can pay anything off. He was decent enough to pay for the funeral, though. I’m sure he wasn’t really a bad person: when I was crying after the funeral he came up, put his arm around me, and offered to pay for a free vacation anywhere; a holiday is what he called it. “If you holiday in England,” he said, “I’ll take you to a football match. You’ve never seen anything like it.” He slipped something into my suit pocket and walked away. It was a roll of bills, five thousand dollars in crisp new notes, wrapped in a rubber band. I didn’t notice it until a week later when I was taking the suit to the cleaners.
It turned out that the Englishman’s name was Glickstein. “I didn’t even know there were Jews in England,” my sister-in-law Carmella said. “Goddamned amazing. You people look after each other.”
Carmella was Carla’s younger sister. She had an older sister named Carol. Not a very imaginative family. Carla saw them only at Christmas and Thanksgiving; they were an embarrassment to her. I never dealt with any of them after the funeral.
My mother told me once that I was such a handsome baby that when she pushed my carriage around Sauganash Park people would stop to admire me and give her a dollar to buy me a new rattle. That was her story. My father told another. He said that my mother was so pretty men gave money simply as an excuse to make conversation with her. I chose to believe my mother.
My father gave me that nugget of information on my twelfth birthday, celebrated while he was lying in a private room at Michael Reese, waiting to die of cirrhosis. His every waking moment was spent in a Götterdämmerung of complete, relentless, indefatigable obnoxiousness to everybody but myself. He spit at doctors as if they had maliciously engineered his exit. He would grab Filipino nurses, mauling their breasts and buttocks, terrorizing them. “Did you shtup General MacArthur?” he’d ask. “Or,” and he’d pull the corners of his eyes into sloe shapes, “did you shtup Yamamoto and Tojo?”
He grew thinner and bug-eyed. He would grip me by the wrist and beg me to bring him a bottle of Wyborowa. My mother, iron-willed, would refuse. “You Vienna whore,” he’d scream. “You fakaktah courvah.” She showed nothing on her battered face as she sat next to him, her icy blue eyes blank. “Kaltenbrunner’s courvah,” he screamed. The only betrayal was a whitening of the knuckles on her entwined fingers.
“Sssh!” She’d say. “The only one I loved was you. You!”
It took him three months to die. During the last month I began smuggling in pint bottles of cheap Hannah & Hogg vodka. I was only a kid but it was easy to bribe the man at the liquor store around the corner. I prayed every night for my father to die but he held on to life like a mollusk to a rock.
On the day he finally died, my mother sat next to him, using a tiny round mirror to apply her makeup. He grabbed the mirror; he wanted to see himself. By then his eyes had receded so deeply into his skull that he resembled a starved rodent.
“Once again,” he whispered as he stared at himself, “once again I am der Sonderkommando. How long to gas ’em, Martin?”
“Fifteen minutes before you open the doors,” I murmured — Pavlov’s dog become an elephant.
My mother grew wide-eyed and gave an involuntary squeal that avoided her closed mouth, and went up and out her nose before she could stop it.
She bit her lower lip and turned to face the bare white walls of the room. “It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “It’s just a game we played when I was a kid.”
“Then what?” he broke in, merciless.
“Pull them out,” I mumbled. She screamed.
“Pull them out with what, Martin?” he went on.
She jumped onto the bed and began pummeling him about the face. “Pull them out with grappling hooks,” I shouted, trying to drown out my mother’s weeping. He was laughing uproariously when he died, his hands spread on his lap as he exposed his face to her blows. There wasn’t even a gasp, just a last “ha,” and he was gone.
There was no one to say a farewell prayer for him. Only Eddie Rabinowitz, the owner of the raincoat factory my mother worked at, showed up. Rabinowitz went out and hired a minyan: a bunch of shabby old men with hair exploding from their ears who daverned with a splendidly convincing grief.
I thanked Eddie Rabinowitz, and did the mensch-of -the-house number I felt was my duty, stiff as an SS officer on a parade ground in the shirt, shoes, suit, and tie that Rabinowitz had purchased for me.
“You must visit us more often,” I said, as the starched collar cut into my throat.
“Oh, I will, Martin,” he said, too good-humoredly to suit me. He gave my mother a quick wink. There was something depraved about Eddie Rabinowitz: his hair dyed jet black, thin waves forming stripes across his pate; that, and the clear varnish on his fingernails and the whorishly grand ruby that shone from the gold ring on his pinkie finger.
“I don’t like him, Mummy,” I said after Rabinowitz left.
“I don’t like him a lot myself,” she shrugged, “but he’s been good to us all.” She put her arms around me and let me mash my face against her breast.
“Daddy said that you do it with him,” I mumbled against the soft threads of her cotton dress, feeling the contour of her nipple against my lower lip.
It took a long second for her to digest what I’d said, thrust me away, and then rear back and slap me backhanded across the face. Her flat, weary blue eyes betrayed nothing, neither anger nor sorrow, just an aquamarine indifference that hurt all the more.
“You do do it with him, don’t you?”
She raised her hand again but let it slump dramatically and glance off her hipbone. “Who do you think paid for this house? Who do you think paid for your bike and your books and your tennis racket?”
“You let him stick it in you.” It’s too easy to say such things when one is twelve years old. There was something too easy to mock in that beautiful, battered visage.
“Your father was never a husband to me,” she said. “Never. You know nothing.” She reached out and I backed away as far as I could. The drawers of the fitted kitchen furniture, cold and steely, dug into my spine as I watched her come slowly undone. “The only skill I have is sewing, Martin. I learned to sew in the camp. I was brought up in a house with servants.”
“So you do it with Rabinowitz?”
My mother sat down and began playing with the string of pearls around her neck as if they were worry beads. “Being poor is a terrible thing,” she said in her haughty German. She began to weep. “I didn’t come from a Polish village like your shiker father, I grew up on Franz-Josefstrasse in Wien.”
I walked away and left her to weep alone with her beads. Upstairs, I turned on the television and watched blue-eyed, fresh-faced American boys burn down a Vietnamese village on the news.
The next day in the schoolyard, I beat up Milton Rabinowitz. He was three years older than I but round and soft like his father. I broke his nose, broke his glasses, beat him with my fists until my knuckles ached; then I picked up a metal garbage-can lid and hit him repeatedly until my arms were too tired to lift. “A Jewish boy,” moaned Mr. Glass, the principal, as I sat in his office staring down at the bald spot in the rug. “A Jewish boy? How could you hit someone who wears glasses?”
A month later, my mother and I were suddenly evicted from a home I had always assumed we owned, and forced to move into a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment at Devon and California. It wasn’t the apartment my mother hated so much as the army of Russian-Jewish immigrants all around us; their loud conversation, the hissed z’s and s’s like fast-running water over pebbles, oppressing us through the thin walls. She hated them: women in babushkas who wanted to barter for everything in the stores, or else stole, stuffing the pockets sewn into the lining of their heavy, ankle-length winter coats with canned seafood, while their men, dressed in cheap, ill-fitting polyesters, stood around with their cigarettes pinched between their thumbs and pinkies, all malodorous, unwilling to wash themselves or their clothing. Mother would get so angry, her cheeks red, the scar tissue around her eyes purple-pink. “They bring the stench of Kiev and Odessa with them, Martin,” she’d say. “That’s why the Germans murdered us.” She was as rancid with hatred as my father.
She died at her sewing machine doing piecework at home. It was one of those one-hundred-degree Chicago days when the heat rises from the concrete and is reflected back by the skyscrapers and the wind off the lake. I got beet red that day, sitting by myself in the bleachers at Wrigley Field as Ernie Banks and Billy Williams both hit line-drive home runs, despite the wind blowing in.
I found her slumped back in her chair, eyes wide open, the Singer humming a sad, metallic mantra in front of her. The machine rasped and for a couple of long, hard beats after I switched it off. I sat down, smoked one of her cigarettes, kissed her face all over, and then called an ambulance.
Two weeks after Carla’s death I got up early. I had to be at my store to meet a series of reps. There is a relentless war of attrition going on between David Berg, Kosher Zion, Kosher Vienna, Romanian Kosher, Best Kosher, and Palestine Kosher. I had to say no to all but one. There was that and the knowledge of my promise to Carla to terminate Slobodan, the Pole, that day.
In Lincoln Park I saw children everywhere: bicycling, throwing frisbees, and skateboarding, while the very young ones entertained themselves in the playground, carefully supervised by mothers and nannies who sat with sloped shoulders, smoking cigarettes, chattering at each other and the children, displaying a shared torpor of the mind that made me turn away and watch their charges. Four children caught my eye as they wailed and wobbled back and forth on their swings, their bright-colored dresses and shirts flashing and disappearing, flashing and disappearing, a constant rhythm in the sunlight.
I pulled a zip-loc bag filled with Carla’s pubic hair from my pocket, opened it, and sniffed myself a quick fix. I kept a bag at work and a couple at home in my sock drawer. It was a habit I had begun years ago when Carla had gone to Pensacola to visit her sister. It calmed me. The mortician had stared at me when I made my odd request for a cutting but I hadn’t cared; having experienced all the degrees of rage and despair, I achieved a bird’s-eye view of the ludicrous and could sneer at those more innocent than myself. I walked the rest of the way to work, happy with the memory of Carla still in my nostrils, whistling and singing Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinkin’ ’Bout My Baby.”
Outside Marty’s Mouthful, pulled up into a fetal ball in the corner doorway, his pockets bulging with the excessive weight of a bottle and a book, smelling of sour whiskey, was Slobodan. I was about to say something insulting, something like “You drunken scum-of-the-earth,” when the Berg rep pulled up in his bright yellow Subaru, the kind that looks, from a distance, like a BMW. He climbed out of his car, alligator attaché case in hand, and went straight into his shtik as he shook my hand. He was a slick Indian with liquid brown eyes that exuded a kind of relentless mirth. “Chatterjee’s the name, Kosher meat’s the game,” he began. “I sell to anybody, to me it’s all the same.”
I realized I had a rapping Hindu on my hands. “Do you mind if I open the door first?” I said sarcastically. “Can I get myself a cup of coffee?”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes, certainly,” he said, “but hadn’t you better remove this tramp fellow from your door first?”
“This ‘tramp fellow,’ ” I began, putting the key into the first of three deadbolts, “happens to be my one and only employee.” I gave Slobodan a couple of soft kicks in the ribs. He moaned and cursed me as I opened the door and switched off the alarm. “This ‘tramp fellow’ is an absolute expert on your product. I trust his taste buds totally.”
As Slobodan kissed the porcelain in the back, I ordered three dozen Polish and a gross of red-hots. I wanted simply to be rid of the Indian. I signed on the dotted line but was forced to endure another rap on behalf of cocktail wieners.
“I don’t sell cocktail wieners, Mr. Chatterjee,” I said. “I don’t have the clientele, and I don’t do weddings or bar mitzvahs.”
The Indian ignored me; closing his eyes he began to hum, slapping out a beat on his thigh before going into another rap.
Brisket and pastrami are the meats for me That’s why my name is Chatterjee. I sell good cold cuts everywhere From Cabrini Green up to O’Hare.
“You’re pushing your luck, my man,” I said. “There’s nothing more silly or confusing than a Hindu who tries to sound black.”
“Be gone or I shall cancel my order forthwith,” I bellowed, pointing toward the door.
When Mr. Chatterjee left, Slobodan was already preparing a hot dog and fries, bent precariously over the side of the griddle with all his weight thrust onto his elbows.
“I like the Romanian Kosher best, Marty,” he said.
“I know, but I just wanted to get rid of him.”
“Can’t say no to nobody, Marty.” He took the bottle out of his pocket and took a healthy gulp of whiskey. “Can you?”
I came around and shook the deep-fry basket a tad. “Did you spend the night here?”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “I don’t know how I got here. I must be like a Polish lemming or somethin’.”
“I have to let you go,” I said.
“I can’t afford to keep you. Even you can see I don’t make enough money to —”
“You goddamned liar. You lie like breathing,” he hissed. It was a good excuse to take another slug of Jim Beam. “I’m sorry.” His voice came down a notch, suddenly coy to the point of simpering. “I really am sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. I really can’t afford to keep you.” I served up his fries and put mustard and onions on his hot dog. “I can’t stand to watch you destroy yourself either. I’ve seen enough —”
“You really do care about me, Marty, don’t you?” he sighed. He began to eat his hot dog, interspersing bites with a wash of Jim Beam. The effort of changing balance from arm to arm began to tell on him; his face ended up an inch or so above the griddle.
“You’re like Hiney,” he said. “Poor little Jew-boy.”
“Don’t start with the slurs, Slobodan,” I said.
He struggled to take the book from his pocket with his hands already full. The effort made him topple to the floor. I reached for him, fearing one more heart attack, one more death.
“ ’M okay,” he sneered, brushing away my helping hand. His left cheek was red from the griddle. He opened the book and found a page folded over at the corner. Despite the fall, he had managed to keep the bottle upright with all the loose dexterity of a bomb-disposal expert holding on to a detonator. “You don’t know Hiney?”
“Nope,” I said. “I don’t think so. Did they film any of his books?”
“Jesus, Marty,” he said. “You should be ashamed.” He took another sip, flipped the pages toward the end, and began:
In the grave we’re warmed by fame Foolish words! A silly claim! There’s a better warmth to seek From a milkmaid, though she reek Of manure from toes to tips, If she kiss with loving lips.
I interrupted him with a laugh. “Heine,” I said. “Not Hiney. Heinrich Heine. He doesn’t translate very well. I mean, human beings don’t have tips. You know what I mean?”
“You know, Marty, I thought you was a goddamned philistine for a while there; you had me worried.” He took a long hard belt of booze and winced.
“My mother was from Vienna. She was very cultured.”
“I’m cultured,” said Slobodan. “I really am, but my dad and her,” he pointed to the Seka calendar, “knocked it out of me.” He offered me the bottle but I refused. “Take some!” He was either ordering or begging. I took a very small sip.
I clambered onto the counter, carefully pulled the tape from the corners of the calendar, and dropped it to Slobodan. “It’s all yours,” I said, climbing down. I helped him to his feet. He kissed me on the cheek and began to cry. I felt a cool, ticklish vacuum inside me, as if my organs and bones might evaporate.
“I hate her,” he said, kissing the calendar.
“You can’t like Heine and hate women, Slobodan. It’s not possible. The milkmaid is warm. . . .”
“Even if she smells of manure.” He ate what was left of his hot dog and fries. “Jesus, Marty, the guy died of goddamned syph. Poisoned by love.”
“My mother put me to bed every night with a never-ending series of morbid German poems,” I said. “Goethe, Heine, Kleist. Death. Death. Death. I remember them the way others remember nursery rhymes.” And I quickly considered the moment they must have set eyes on each other — desire behind the barbed wire. I took the zip-loc baggie from my pocket, opened it, and inhaled. “There are worse ways to be poisoned than by sex,” I said.
He looked at me strangely and wiped the corners of his mouth with his sleeve. “Time to go,” he said.
“Don’t go,” I said. “You can stay.” Slobodan turned his head from side to side. “What is it? Do you think I’m a sicko or something?”
“No, it’s time to move on.” He tossed me the volume of Heine as if it were a frisbee. “It ain’t that it’s sick, Marty. It’s the fact that you flaunt your love that way. It embarrasses people like me ’cause, you know, we wouldn’t know.” He stepped toward the door. “You sure you don’t want the calendar?”
“No. I’m sure she’ll come in again sometime.”
He pulled the calendar from his back pocket and unfurled it. “I can’t believe that she lets them take photos of her with a pecker in her mouth.”
“An exhibitionist, I guess,” I shrugged. I gave him a hundred-dollar bill, a crisp new one. He kissed Ben Franklin, folded the note down the middle, then made a thing of rubbing the bill between Seka’s legs and licking his lips.
“You won’t say anything bad about anybody, will you, Marty?” I shook my head. “What about her parents? Don’t you think it makes them feel just awful?”
“Like you said, Slobodan. It embarrasses people when, you know, they wouldn’t know.”
“Goddamned Jews, always gotta have the last word.” He carelessly stuffed Seka and the money into his pocket. Without another word he lifted his hand, waved, pulled his pants up past his hips, and opened the door. I never saw him again.
I got rid of the Heine anthology on my way home. I put it in a Salvation Army box. Share the misery, that’s what we should all do.