- “‘Somova Bitch’ vas mein ferst Aenglish vords”
On the phone, a ring, a voice in Yiddish, and I know just to listen to my father.
“‘Somova Bitch!’ vas mein ferst Aenglish vords,” my father insisted. “Vee vus on Ellis Island, from docking de big ship from Deutschland. Vee vus tree veeks on de Ocean. Everyone vus sick: your mama, you two kinderlach, all de Jews vus trowing up and under de deck. But, I vasn’t sick. Big vaves camed und svept on de boat, almost svept me into de Ocean. But, I vent on top from de boat.”
“Oif Ellis Island, I bent over de boat to hear some Aenglish. Enough Yiddish, Enough Deutsch, Poilish! Enough! I vanted Aenglish. Hob ich gehert — I heard — de men verking on de docks, unloading de boat, talking Aenglish: “Somova Bitch!” dey hollered. Ven I come to de man by Ellis Island from de immigration, hob ich gefregt, I asked him oif Yiddish, “Vus meinst dos ‘Somova Bitch!’”
So he said to me oif Yiddish, ‘You’ll learn dis soon enough in Amerikeh!’”
“Amerikeh. I really vanted, I vaited for Australia. After Camp, I wanted only to be avay from de people, from menschen. Kengaroos I vanted, Kovala bears for me. No peoples. Enough peoples I had in Camp. From high school in Zduynskavola I learnt from all de capitals in all de countries. Ask me, Ask! I knew from all of dem. Australia, Sydney, Indonesia, Jakarta, China, Peking, Japan, vonce vas Kyoto, now Tokyo. Ask! Ask!.
Nu, Australia had enough from Jews. Australia made up from khooligans from Britain vat stole de lend from aborigines, British khooligans day vus. Now, de khooligans now too goot dey tink from demselves from having Jews. So, no kengaroos for me.
Den, the Israelis sent to us kibbutzniks to Camp in Deutschland to teach from Socialism. I vashed de floors und de kibbutzniks lectured from Comrades unt eqvual. Enough from floor-vashing and never owning notting I had in Camp. I vant mein own. So, I took Amerikeh. From Roosevelt, he didn’t vant us. Den de Joint unt HIAS gave de money. Vee come to 104th unt Broadvey. Tvelve veeks ve vas on Broadvey; a goot run. HIAS paid for everyting. You got de chicken pox after Ellis. Vas gut, so ve not sent back. HIAS put you in Mt. Sinai a crib mir dein sister, so she get chicken pox also. Der not let us stay wit you in hospital, so each day I go mit A Train from Broadvey to 42nd Street. Den de Lexington and valk oif Fift Avenue to visit you and dein schwester in Mt. Sinai. A big place. De HIAS call me for a Pram, not a stroller. You remember de Pram. A Rolls Royce mit steel leaf suspension, white wall tires, a bonnet, a handle from ivory. You and your schwester fit, unt de groceries from de public market. I take from HIAS into de subway to 104th unt Broadvey.
Den ve go to Syrakoos.
Dey tell me, de HIAS, from a job in Syrahkoos, vorking for a Jew, a scrap dealer. For a Jew I could finally vork! I go, I go! Scrap metal I sorted, from a few monts, de Jew, Keplan tells me to drive de trucks. Gives me a few goyim to manage. Me. A Jew from Camp, I’m managing goyim! I already knew ven de goyim say “Somova Bitch!” vat dis means. I learnt fast in Amerikeh. Mine first paycheck I bring to HIAS to pay beck. HIAS von’t take. “You’ll gif beck ven you have de money. Not now.” Each year since, I gif.
Nu, dets all. Goodnight.
And that was the end of that phone call. Every other day he expected me to call, perhaps I could delay to three days. After that, he got “broiges,” angry at me. So, I would call. And he would leak purulence that had collected in his soul over three days (and too many years) on the porch of my ear.
2. “How var you/I’m OK. Not fine, just OK. Vat took you so long to call?
I knew already not to interrupt between “How are you” and “I’m OK.” These were not two phrases, but a single elision, like French, one sliding into the other.
“Just OK, Dad? What happened?”
The doctor, er vershteit a krenk!” You understand a bissell Yiddish still?
“‘The doctor understands an illness,’ but you mean ‘He understands nothing,’”
“Yuh, a krenk, gurnish, nothing. He tells me I have the ‘sugar,’ like mommy had. Diabetes. Nu, he says I should check every day the sugar, twice a day. I tell him, “You know, I’ll check once a week, and you check yourself the other times of the week.” Why should I stick myself? Because he tells me?! I’ve had enough pain in my life. I don’t go to him for sugar, I go because something tit veh, something hurts. He asks me “What’s wrong?” I tell, I say, “‘You’re de doctor. It’s for you to find out and me to know.’ Hah! I tell him det. I showed him, such a smart guy he is supposed to be. Harvard, Shmarvard he learns from.
For mommy he was pretty good. But for me? I t’ink since I get old, since I’m more than 85, he don’t care no more.
But, I teach him a lesson, I did before mommy died. She’s on de life support and geschichtes — tubes from de nose, in de stomach, in de arms, from below, leg already dey cut off. He tells me outside her room, ‘You know, Harry — not Henoch he calls me, but like a goy, Harry — you know Harry, sometimes it comes time for a person to die. Maybe we should let her go.’
I tell him. Dis big guy more than two meters high, mit de big shoulders and vite coat. My finger I put into his chest and I say,
“Die! Die! Everyone will die, Mr. Bigshot Doctor. You too. Maybe you’ll die first!” I tell him. I poke him where he should have a heart, but only stone is there. I tell him, “A doctor from de Nazis you should be. A Mengele. To die!” Nu, det shut him up good mit de dying. You t’ink so my son?”
“Yes, dad, I think you shut him up good.”
Each call I time to about 25 to 40 minutes. Rarely to an hour. I know not to shorten these, or he is hurt, wonders if the battery died, or I hung up. I explain that I call late at night here, after work, after dinner, after the kids are in bed. I tell him I write at night and then call. But close to midnight, I am tired. For this he has solutions.
“You should call your Tatte like dis. Put the feet up on the table, mit a tea, take your time and den call. Leave time to enjoy de call. People like to talk to me in de shul. Dey say to me, “Henoch, you are a wise man. De young woman, mit de blond hair — she looks like a shikse — who comes to morning minyan, who brings de bagels and not such good lox, too t’ick, she asks from advice. I tell her. ‘Your husband, de surgeon, drop him. Twenty years is enough mit dis yold, idiot. You have two children mit de disabilities and what does de surgeon do to help? Nottting. notting, gurnish. He just make money and gives you. You need a different man. Drop him!’ Does she listen? No! Like you, she doesn’t listen. But, I like her. She comes after minyan and when all of us are eating her bagels mit de not such good lox, and we take a schnapps, she is taking from a clear ziplock full from pills — vitamens, she says. To keep her young. I tell, her ‘So, give me a few of de vitamens.’ She laughs. But I mean it. She should give me some so I can be young. I would make her a gut husband.
I try to teach her: ‘Lox should be so t’in, you can read the Forwards through it.’ You understand?”
I learn, I learn that the calls are like lancing an abscess that has built up. Over two days, the pus accumulates and must be lanced. Three days and the abscess is pointing, hurts. Beyond three days and the pus begins to leak, poison his soul. Lance it and wait, wait for the pus to ooze out. Place a tube so that it will ooze more rapidly, but it will not be rushed.
I should put my feet up on the table and wait.
3. Re’member Eddie Polak?
“It’s me dad, your son.”
“Yeh. Who else will call me? I had de calls from people selling tings. I tell them ‘Go to god-damn hell you somovabitches!’ So dey stop calling. So howareyou?”
“Tell me dad, how are you?”
You ‘member Eddie Polak, de Polak?”
“Yes I remember him.”
“You don’t ‘member him. Eddie Polak. what he worked mit me in de machine shop.’
“Yes, I remember Eddie.”
“You ‘member him? He vud go every Sunday to mow de grass over his wife’s plot in de cemetery, it should look good ven she die.”
“I didn’t know his wife was sick.”
“Sick? Not sick. He vas waiting for her to die, but de plot should look good.
“I vus thinking from him. You don’t ‘member? He worked in Sargent’s oif de metal lathes ven I vas de foreman.”
“Sargent and Greenleaf, Yes.”
“Sargent, det capitalist, cheap bastard owner. Ven he sold de plant to move South for cheap labor, he vanted I should move too. On my dime. I told him Go to Hell, not South. Vat does a Yid in de South? Tenessee, Shmenessee.
He had a sale of his house stuff.
He tells me ‘De mirrors on de valls vas lined mit silver. Worth a lodda money.’ A Bruch. All mirrors are lined mit silver. A ganif, a thief.’
He reminds me, ‘Harry’ — that’s what he called me — ‘Harry, you work for me and some day your son will work for me.’
Capitalist bastard. No son of mine will every work for you, I think to myself.”
“Dad, what about Eddie Polak?”
“He’s dead. Next to his wife now. Who will mow his grave?”
“Yes, dad, I remember you hired him to help you rebuild our kitchen. He would saw the lumber on a sawhorse with a crosscut saw against the grain. I watched as his jaw would open and close with each pass of the saw. He wore full dentures, so these danced around his cheeks as he sawed and chewed. Foamy, white spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth.
A good man. A drinker, but a good man. A worker, not like the other goyim.”
“You miss him?”
“Miss, miss? I should miss a Polak? But I go to his grave by the goyim and say hello to him. I make an extra trip to de goyims’ cemetery, you know by de Charlotte Beach. Tell him about how Sargent’s moved South and Diebold came, then another gescheft. He shouldn’t feel he’s missing anything by being dead.
OK. Det’s all. Tenk you for calling. Bye.”