“Mouths they have, but don’t speak/
eyes, …, but don’t see/
ears …/but don’t hear/
Nose …but don’t smell/…
No sound in their throats/….
The dead cannot praise Yah’/
Nor those descending in silence/…”
לא המתים להללו יה
ולא כל יורדי דומה
Ya’ir, (your name means “God will enlighten,” you agnostic), you would have liked the Hebrew of this Psalmist’s god-name, “Yah!” an irreverent moniker for Yehova. Like “Gah!” rather than God.
The dead cannot praise Yah, but I can praise yah, buddy.
Disingenuous Antony proclaimed,
“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him./
The good is oft interred with their bones…”
Clever dog, that Tony.
Praise I have come to give, Ya’ir. What good has been interred with your bones? Your shining light has been extinguished, like the Havdalah candle, woven wicks lit, blessed, then drowned, hissing and guttering, protesting in the red wine of Sabbath. Unlike Sabbath, you shall not return.
We were a triumvirate in high school. Like those once ruling Rome, we ruled our intellectual universe. Thought we did. In our imaginations, we ruled.
First, you, in your painful honesty, said you resembled Alfred E. Newman with freckles crowning your flattened bridge, trickling and fading over your cheeks; reddish curls untamed on your pate. You would only slightly press both auricles forward and “Voila! (you would exclaim, ‘Viola!’”) you were spittin’ image of that Mad Magazine front cover. You were the intellectual,(“intellektshu-val” my father would say in Yinglish.)
Light you had: glinting eyes, sparkling freckles.
Second, Freddy, (who felt cursed by his physiognomy and family), broad-beamed shoulders, like those San Francisco Bay sailboats, broad of beam to stay afloat in the Bay’s crosswinds, white-capped waves. Freddy struggled to keep his keel in the water; winds abeam. He’d unwittingly torque his shoulders a bit to fit through doorways. He stoop-walked as if some upcoming door sill would thonk his head. Shrunk thus, a touch downward, he brought himself closer to us. Much muscled, even his jaw thrust forward, the underneath jutting, as if the masseters too were overdeveloped. Once — crossing the overpass at Monroe Avenue, across from the Public Library (a Carnegie gift, that steel baron converting greenbacks to limestone refuges of knowledge) across from the southern side of the library that sloped ever too steeply, transforming from smooth limestone blocks (like the Wailing Wall) to slicker concrete, like the Hoover Dam, terminating in the turbulent river rapids of traffic on I-580 — once, I repeat, in enthusiasm, Freddy hoisted me like some barbell. Clean and jerked me above his head, then extending thirty degrees forward, held me poised over the expressway. I, in terror, stayed barbell rigid, fearing a false move would send me plunging, swan diving into the torrent below. It was Freddy’s enthusiasm, I knew. No malice of forethought. In fact, no forethought. Freddy was thought of as the muscle in the trio, but his IQ came back at 180 or above; Freddy was a numbers guy, MENSA member, a scientist-to-be. But he knew his poetry too.
Mr. Harper was our anti-Semitic High School English teacher: leather-patched Scottish Harris Tweeds he bore; sock gauntlets suspending Argyle socks and classic Weejuns, the original penny loafers from G. H. Bass & Co. bearing shiny coppers. Harper demanded we read aloud some fine poem. Freddy arose. Strode to the front. Positioned himself behind the teacher’s desk as Harper sat in the front row. Freddy stood, legs athwart, military postured. From his back pocket, Freddy withdrew and opened — Playboy. This got our attention, Mr. Harper’s shock. Then, Freddy recited by heart, the “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Not recited, no, Freddy thundered, thrusted chin, thrusting forward still further:
“All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
Seeing Playboy got a rise out of Mr. Harper; hearing Lord Tennyson’s words, Harper sank with a sigh to his seat.
Third, there was me. Shawzy, you monikered me, as if to add some British burnishing to my unpolished Polak origins. I was, as I thought of it, Tagalong Cassidy, or Tonto, a sidekick to brains and brawn (well, brains and more brains). You, Ya’ir, dawdled behind me in trigonometry class, poking your finger into a balloon and whispering to me the mysteries of topography.
“Shawzy, when you put your finger in your nose, topographically, you invert your nose”
To which I barely withheld the chuckle: our eight-fingered math teacher, Mr. Edgar Rose, heard, riveted and fixed me with a frozen stare. Eight-fingered, he would tell us, because when he was in the Army in WWII, he tried to fix a Jeep’s fan belt, severing a forefinger. When his officer barked at him, “How’d ya do dat?”, Mr. Rose, being an obedient soldier, showed him, lopping off a second finger. He demonstrated, Mr. Rose, that there was a time when any softcover book was automatically considered pornography. And he demonstrated how he could back then grab such a book hidden in the niches of some boy’s lap, and “With only eight fingers,” rip it into half! Such things we were learning in math. While I struggled with trigonometry and we both shared C’s and perhaps D’s, you went on to score a perfect 800 on your math PSAT. As did Freddy. As I did not.
Mr Ulrich, our physics teacher who was a Quaker, called us each, Brother such or Sister such, with sincere regard. He had worked on the Manhattan Project and somehow, in some way that we took as a Fall, he ended up here, teaching ninth graders physics. You, Ya’ir, told me what the Manhattan Project was: a place for Oppenheimers and crazed Hungarian physicists — the Szilards and Tellers. Where the Goddess of destruction was wrought by man. And here, Mr. Ulrich was showing us the Van de Graf generator, each of us in a circle, holding the others’ hands while the two at the end touched the generator and the girls’ hair went wafting upwards, electrically. Or Mr. Ulrich seating one of us on a revolving stool, spinning a gimbal and telling us to tip it this way, then that as it slowly rotated us this and the other way.
Now, this you don’t know, Ya’ir, nor Freddy. Mr. Harper kept after Freddy, teasing, taunting, calling him “Fro-dreck” in some pseudo-British accent. That he had it in for Jews and Jew-boys he revealed with a squeal, when he said, “That Barbara Streisand, amazing that she can sing with such a honker nose!” Or, his ridiculous riddles, “Why do Jews have big noses? Because air is free!” He had a titillating laugh, a bit fey.
His tormenting Freddy, pained me enough that I told my mother, my immigrant, unschooled, illiterate, Jewish (but from Poland, she regretted) mother. She, all five feet of her, some 150 pounds, marched the mile to high school, unbeknownst to me and met with the assistant principal, Mr. Schroeder, the principal then dying of pancreatic cancer. (The principal later asked me to take his sweet daughter to the prom and I, great anti-establishmentarian, refused on the grounds that I opposed proms. Poor, sweet Wendy and silly self-righteous me.) My mother told the assistant principal what I had reported. He called in Mr. Harper and the “Fro-dreck’s” and other taunting stopped. She told me afterwards. My reaction was mixed: embarrassed by my mother’s deep accent, her illiteracy; relieved and proud that she stood up for Freddy.
Nu, Freddy told me something only after you died. He said that his mother and yours often lamented to him and you, “Can’t you be more like Shawzy?” What a burden to you!
Well, I am here to praise not bury. You’re buried, covered, encased in a shroud and plain pine, nearer your parents and two brothers.
Ya’ir, you enlightened me. I, an immigrant waif, with shreds of family, with mother in chronic mourning of… well, of the litany of her mother, brothers, sisters and on. And a father who graduated from “Kemp” that educational institution of the Nazis. I adopted you and even your family, as I did Freddy.
Ya’ir, “God will enlighten,” I thought. From you, I snuck a record of the Fugs, put on the Telefunken, and huddled by the speakers, sang along to “Do you like Boobs-alot,” or “Bulbes,” Tuli Kupferberg’s lyrics. Not just Pete Seeger, but the original Weavers you had me listen to. Later, the bass singer of the Weavers, developing effects of his diabetes, began to have pieces of his limb removed — a toe, a foot and marching upwards. He sat on a wheelchair in some hall, likely Carnegie, and sang to the tune, “Inch by Inch, Row by Row, Gonna watch my garden grow,” to that tune, I say, he sang, “Inch by inch, toe, by toe, gonna watch my body go.” And he laughed that belly bass.
You insisted I should read not only the propaganda rages from SDS, but move upwards (or downwards) to Progressive Labor Party. Become really radical. In your kitchen, parents away, you baked marijuana brownies. You tried to get me to join you, but I sat across the round, marbled blue formica table with its fluted metal sids and enjoyed your becoming simply silly, giggly. You moved to the basement of your home so you could listen to more contraband and smoke dope, opening the jalousied window just above ground level to whisk out the fumes. You read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, or declaimed,
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.”
You would have me be poetical, would make me American (even with Welsh or Wildepoets).
And even when I struggled with rushing through Hebrew prayers, not getting a whit of their meaning, you translated a Bialik poem, the first ever English translation.
You bemoaned your put-upon, wife-wrangled father. A fine, too gentle fellow who graduated from City College only to become a realtor when your mother was large with you. Mother was practical: a legal secretary, she functioned more like a lawyer, particularly at home. Or like a master sergeant. I knew nothing of making my bed, or washing clothes. You and your two brothers were assigned tasks tacked to walls: dishwashing, laundry, floor swabbing. Bed corners were tucked; she checked that quarters would bounce off the linen. The tack heads on the chore-board were multicolored: red was urgent: “Do this now, or you too could be tacked up here!” As to your father. He, you proudly boasted, he could do the Sunday Times Crossword. He used a chess timer, played against himself on each word, whacking the one knob or the other when he moved to another word.
You pronounced to me, “Never will I be pussy-whipped like my dad!” You, mooning after M. B., flautist who went to U of Chicago, you chose to go there also. But offered a full scholarship (and wanting to protect your father from greater financial demands), you went away to that ag-school, Deep Springs, founded by one of the twins, Lucien Lucius Nunn or his brother Lucius Lucien Nunn who’d made their bucks in hydroelectric, damming up the West. Bachelors they were. (Perhaps their flows too were dammed up.) One of them got into his head to start a two-year college for brainy types who had to work as cowpokes too. Twenty students — only guys — five professors, forty head of cattle, one ranch manager whose wife was rumored to have serviced several of the students. Deep Springs, below the High Desert, near the Nevada border, about twenty minutes to the Cottontail Ranch, whorehouse, whose Madam became a member of the Nevada Legislature. (Who serviced many of the Legislature’s “members.” ) At Deep Springs, each teacher taught several courses. The Polish aristocrat, a former member of their cavalry (so he said), went on long strolls each dawn, wearing his riding jodhpurs and carrying his braided, leather riding crop, it lashing his right thigh as he martialled the desert path. He wouldn’t mount a horse, he claimed because of the trauma of his cavalry service, his steed surrounded by German Panzers.
Each morning, chores; afternoon, studies. Evenings in the main room, fireplace blazing, playing harmonica, guitar, or, in your case, ocarina, talking Aristotle and Plato, Emerson and Thoreau (who wouldn’t have lasted a week here — no apple pies to steal). We visited in Freddy’s refurbished silver Jaguar, you and he sat up front. I, legs encased in the back jumpseat, hung over the sloping truck, grasped the luggage rack. You demanded a trip into the nearest town, Big Pine, where you saw your first female (short of the rancher’s wife) in months at the bakery. With a cowboy-like gesture, you brushed us both back with two arms, then, stepped up to the counter to order donuts, you blurted out “do-do-do-nuts” a stutter of excitement on seeing the feminine. Back at the ranch, we helped you lay a culvert the next morning. In the evening, you took us out horse back riding. On returning, we didn’t know — Freddy and I — that as the sun was setting behind the mountains, as the mountains’ shadows grew, looming, eastward, overtaking us, that the stallions were spooked by the growing shadows, excited to race back to the ranch. Freddy and I got butt-sore, thigh-chaffed, from the bouncing, you laughing ahead.
Next day, you navigated us back to the High Desert, north of Death Valley, wending our way up 168, carving the mountain. To drive the highway, past the saguaro cacti, their arms raised in praise, or surrender. Cowboys, you told us, used them for gun practice, even though they were supposed to be protected. Needing a pit stop, you told us to pull over late at night. Walked into the Desert. Pissed in a circle. And in this hovering silence, under a gem-encrusted night sky, we thought our whizzing could be heard miles around; some sheriff would arrest us for soiling the Desert. Back on the road, Freddy decided to open up the Jaguar. On a curve, behind a line of cars, Freddy pulled out. Terrified, we saw a line of oncoming traffic and the Jag couldn’t pick up enough to pull back in. Freddy jerked to the left to leave the highway, enter the desert. But with left wheels on the desert and right wheels on the pavement, we spun out and spun and like some Viennese waltzers, just kept spinning until we stopped, as did the oncoming traffic. But, that was it. Our last visit.
The first summer back home, you insisted we had to drive to the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, in Canada. Your parents wouldn’t trust you with either of their cars, so I asked my father to borrow his only machine, the beautifully polished ’63 Chevy Bel Air. An Impala, he couldn’t afford, but he polished the the chrome tails on this Bel Air. We chorused after Dinah Shore, “See the U-S-A in your Chev-rolet.” We drove, a bit too carelessly (at one acute-angled intersection, not seeing the Stop sign hidden in the aspen, I braked too late and fishtailed through the intersection.).
Crossing the Canadian border, we sought Stratford. Too impoverished for a motel, you brought two sleeping bags, those used to camp in Deep Springs when you were herding cattle or such. You would teach me about camping. That night, you leaped up, screaming, and hopped with your sleeping bag, dove through the back window of the car: a beaver had planted itself on your chest. You insisted it stared you down. I, too tired, shrugged and turned over. You introduced me to Othello, with Christopher Plumber playing a prancing Iago. The fanfare to call us into the theater I recall well. The costumed men and valveless trumpets; the swans silently magisterial on their Avon stream.
Ultimately, you fell for Tory, whose father was a “real professor” at the University of Rochester. She dipped your stick, oiled your rod, from late high school through your cowboy years. You got an MA, eventually a PhD. when she was “doctored” already. Your chosen profession: to use Ouiji boards to help autistic kids to “speak”. Even after the research showed conclusively that such Ouiji-ers were unwittingly jostling their finger tips to “speak” for the autistics, you remained committed to being “their” voices. Unfunded, underemployed, you followed Tory to wherever her job led: a posting in North Dakota, (marvelous to live on the Red River, you insisted) and finally a return closer to home, where you situated yourself with the last remaining Ouji boarder for autistics and lived off the pittance of pennies cast by the few remaining true-believing parents.
You were pussy-whipped even further when Tory told you that she wanted an open marriage. Well, open for her; she cared not a crack open for you. By then, your jaw was being eaten away by osteosarcoma or some such bone-hungry cancer. The unflitered Marlboros you had long before abandoned, perhaps did not abandon your jaw. In cowboy-hood, you packed a pinch of tobacco in your cheek pouch. Spat in discreet corners or an empty tobacco tin you carried about. Now, half jawed, the cheekbone too excised, you spoke with whistles, one out-puckering cheek. But the edge, the intellectual edge was still there. You shrugged, when I visited with my daughters and you with your two in the Museum in Rochester, you shrugged when you told me of Tory’s finding new “intimacies.” You would manage, you suggested. In the meantime I heard my youngest daughter whisper conspiratorially to your youngest, who had complained that you were tight-fisted about gifts. My daughter said, “Watch this. I can get my dad to buy both of us presents.” And I, pretending naiveté, said “Sure!”
And Tory abandoned you in Skaneateles, (where in the 1930’s, Playskool wooden trains and tracks were invented) moved on to another job, another lover. And your daughters moved. And you were left with your ouija boarding and whistling speech, guiding the hands of the dwindling, aging autistic cohort.
Here is my regret, dearest Ya’ir. I heard of this, I heard of your abandonment; I could not bear to see you. When you perhaps needed me, I was like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (which you insisted I read in high school), unable to emerge from my cave to do the right thing.
The cancer kept consuming you. Your one brother, younger, died first, at the same age as your father, fifty-five and like him, keeled over silently sitting in his green-velour, paisley patterned club chair. Then, you. Then the youngest, your “Wee-Presh” was gone.
“No sound in their throats/….
The dead cannot praise Yah’/“
Hear the sound in my throat. The praise. I cannot forget you, Ya’ir.
Copyright 2020 N. Szajnberg