"Like Kafka in a good mood."Judith Katz
- Graywolf Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 7.01(w) x 8.91(h) x 0.56(d)
Read an Excerpt
"Fish JumpBonneville Fish Ladder"
When I was a little boywho knows how little?I was conscious that grown men had once been like me. But they had transformed into fathers of families they took to parks and sights and fed hot dogs and ice cream. It seemed often the case that the kids and the mother enjoyed the fish jumps while Dad kept his eyes up ahead on the bend of the road. Just as I was in tow to my parents, he was in tow to that bend, that future that curved back to being a son. When I was a little boy, I often wanted to hide behind bushes and peek at the world going by. That was better, for me, than seeing the sights. But parents want to know where you are. So what I wanted was to grow up and be free to get lost. Families would always try to find you, and as a dad, you had to let yourself be found. The fathers I saw in parks had been found for good. You could tell by the way they sat on benches waiting for kids to come back with their cones. I didn't know, as a kid watching fathers, that someday I'd jump as high as the fish, that being found once you were lost wasn't so easy.
"Pissed Off at Three Years and Four Months"
One theory of life development is that we are designed never to understand ourselves. Those who think they come to any final understanding are merely sedated, however crystalline their reasons or bloody their faiths. Under this theory I would have no idea why at a very early age, as far back as I can remember there being a me, I was uneasy, easily angered, cognizant of the rankness ofadult human odors. I never liked it when adults had a story for me that wasn't from a book. It meant they wanted me to believe something they believed. I couldn't have said it this way then but I knew that my mind was the field of play between us. I was jumbled inside between theirs and mine and only quiet could make it stop. I didn't want to talk back. I was too angry already for that. I wouldn't come out to meet company in the living room if they offered fruit or sugar cookies. I would if they offered chocolate. I would if it was my birthday or Hanukkah and they had presents. I would if my parents came looking for me and insisted. Craven as I was, my parents would kindly give in after I'd made my brief hellos and how are yous and let me hide in the basement where I learned to make sparks pounding nails into the concrete floor hard.
I was born to a strong and tender and frightened woman. My mother lost her parents and her sisters in the Holocaust. She was gang-raped by Russian partisans in the Polish woods after escaping from the Nazi ghetto established in her hometown of Stolpce. In marrying my fathera Jewish partisan leader who gave her shelter in an underground bunkershe was staking her soul on creating a new family. Her first baby, a boy, died shortly after his premature birth in the fall of 1945. Dread brought on that early delivery. My mother had learned of a pogrom carried out by Poles against those surviving Jews trying to return to their homes in the nearby town of Katowice. "Even after the Germans surrendered, the Poles continued to kill us," my mother told me. She told me everything from the time I was old enough to follow the basic sense, at six or so. I was the third child, after my unnamed dead brother and after my sister, who entered life in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947. As to bearing children, my mother knew an old Yiddish saying: "Three is two and two is one." My sister and I were both treated as if we were each the only one, the precious one, the one who could be lost at any time. I came out of my mother's womb on time and healthy in October 1951, the first member of the family born in America. But I was not born into an American home. There was herring, butter, and pumpernickel bread on our breakfast table, along with strong sweet tea. We spoke Yiddish a lot. As a young boy, I would ask Mother what we were having for dinner and she would tell me, "drek mit leber," "shit with liver," meaning don't ask what there will be to eat, be thankful there will be something. When I was born, she remembered, I know, the emaciated lost one laid on the windowsill to die by a small-town Polish physician who had no way to treat him. Mother never wanted to give him a name. I never asked why but I knew that naming him would have made it worse. I was named after her father Lazar, in Hebrew Eliezer, in English Larry. I was one, living for two, and my mother was living for me, but fiercely, tending me like a bruise.
"Man and Boy"
Fathers more easily love their daughters. Sons are the continuation of us in an obvious sense, so obvious that it is unbearable. In the case of my father and myself, I had the fullness of his face and his desire to write, which had been abandoned when he came to America with a family to raise. What he wanted to see in me were the practical choices he had made confirmed. At times in my youth he justly found me clumsy, cowardly, callous, and he let it be known. His anger had, then, the finality of a curse. The great task in the life of a son is to realize that his father is right and then to proceed to be wrong. It's your only chance to become someone you haven't already met. My father also let his love be known. Once he cried because he feared I did not love him back. Lay down on his bed fully dressed in the middle of the day and cried. My mother found me and pulled me by my scruff to the doorway of their bedroom to see. She was hating me so I lay down beside him and hugged him. That was hard. He was a middle-aged man who was sobbing and sweaty and his body was heavy and so soft I imagined his ribs giving way like a snowman's on the first warm winter day. I could hear his heart and it sounded as if it was working harder than it could take. I hugged him until he stopped crying. I whispered in his ear that I loved him.
"Frère et Soeur"
Even my mother says that my sister and I have nothing in common. People say that I look like my father and my sister looks like my mother. I think I look like my mother. People say that personality-wise, my sister is like my father and I'm like my mother. To me, my sister is kind and anxious. To her, I am funny and impatient. We share no interests, don't like the same anything. I am a suspicious intellectual and she's so blandly sentimental. Socially, we get along nicely at what you call family occasions but we don't spend much time alone together. But we're bound together by being their children, the survivors of the survivors. We heard the stories as kids and they got into our dreams, storm troopers breaking down the doors of all our hiding places. We are amongst the very few who realize constantly what can happen and how much our children would need us. There is a code connected to that that only we know and can enforce upon each other. I rebel against the code, which embarrasses me as trauma. But in secret I keep it. On my sister it fits like a space suit she knows she'd be crazy ever to get out of. My parents won't fully die until my sister's time comes.
"Tina and Lani"
After ten years in America, my father saved enough to buy a house in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, west across the Mississippi from St. Paul. But they had left behind their old and only friends. It wasn't so easy to make new friends, given the long hours they worked, given their accents, given the pain that leaked through the small talk my parents came to understand wasn't small but rather all there was. Their old friends were survivors, too, and they understood. They were a frayed and suspicious couple who were fiercely gracious with children, just like my parents were. We often drove back to St. Paul on Sundays to visit with them. They had two daughters, one my sister's age and one born within weeks of me. Tina and Lani. I remember their faces and the grace they possessed without beauty, but nothing they said. We played hide-and-go-seek once and I left the house to hide in the rotting toolshed leaning against the garage. No one found me. I was handling amazing implements of torturea long-poled weed scythe crescent-shaped to slit a throat, a bow saw with thrusting rusty teeth like a ravenous guard dog with bloody gums, poison sprayers that killed if you didn't wash the tomatoes you picked in the garden, pliers that could rip out your fillings. The toolshed window was brokenyou could slice yourself open if you tried to escape that way. I then became afraid that the toolshed door had locked itself behind me. I pushed and it swung open easy as pie. So I closed it again and now I wanted to lock myself in. I could make a world of it in here. I'd noticed the small bags of carrot and pea and cabbage seeds, chewable in measured handfuls. There was a coiled garden hose that was dripping, a sign that in its length there was water to sip. I tried to calculate how many days I'd survive, which was the real trick to hide-and-seek as I saw it.
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