Second Hand Smokeby Thane Rosenbaum
In the seamy atmosphere of Miami Beach's Collins Avenue, Mila Katz, a streaky card shark and confidante of mobsters, lives by the wits with which she has survived the Holocaust. Second Hand Smoke is the story of Mila's sons, Issac and Duncan, the one secretly abandoned in Poland, and the other, American-born, raised as an avenging Nazi hunter, poisoned with/i>… See more details below
In the seamy atmosphere of Miami Beach's Collins Avenue, Mila Katz, a streaky card shark and confidante of mobsters, lives by the wits with which she has survived the Holocaust. Second Hand Smoke is the story of Mila's sons, Issac and Duncan, the one secretly abandoned in Poland, and the other, American-born, raised as an avenging Nazi hunter, poisoned with rage.
Told in bursts of fractured realism and dark comedy, Second Hand Smoke is a postmodern mystery of great lyrical power, deep insight, and emotional resonance.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)
Read an Excerpt
It wasn't so much that as a family they were strange, or that from the very beginning they had been estrangedalthough each in its own way was true. It was that they were damaged. Irreversibly ruined. The Katz family of Miami Beach came assembled that way, without manuals or operating instructions or reassuring warranties. Everything was already broken. Nothing worked right; nothing ever would. The damage is what defined them best.
It was the way they functioned or, as psychologists now call it, dysfunctioned. A state of mind in civil war with itself. And there were no defenses or cures for this condition. Whatever predator was out there would have little difficulty tracking them down. That was the world as they saw it. They were experts in survival, and yet at the same time they were rank amateurs in recognizing the languid, solitary, untroubled moment.
For them, the scarring ran deep and, in fact, had traded places with the surrounding skin. But the Katzes weren't visibly disfigured. There wasn't anything particularly hideous about them. A family portrait hung in the living room of their apartment, taken in 1964 by that German photographer used by everyone on Miami Beach's Arthur Godfrey Road. Framed and suspended on a stark white wall. Each day the sun plunged through the window of their high-rise apartment and faded the photograph, reducing the assorted hues to a blunt, burnt yellow. The Katzes aged better than the images around them. The three of them posing: mother and son sitting beside one another, tight-lipped, stone-faced; the father standing behind, as though a referee in waiting. No smiles, but no apparent signs of deformity, either. The camouflage was both convincing and inviolable.
The name Duncan, however, revealed the first sign of disguise. That was the name in 1953 that Mila and Yankee Katz had given their first and only child on the day of his bris.
"What kind of a name is that for a Jewish boy?" an old man remarked, bits of whitefish precarious at the end of a long fork. The old man speared the air, making his point, beating back any rebuttal.
"Maybe they can't spell," a younger women, armed with a more upstream appetizera carp or sablewhispered. "They are refugees, after all. Their English can't be so good. Maybe they wanted David but got it wrong when they looked it up in the baby-naming book. It's an understandable mistake, no?"
"What's the matter with you?" another old man joined in. He was wearing a pair of all-occasion green polyester slacks and a white shirt with a golf emblem. An outfit equally suitable for both afternoon tee-offs and the severing of Jewish foreskin. He was late for a foursome at Normandy Isle Golf Course, and had hoped that Duncan's rite of passage would have begun by now. Instead, the newborn was still waiting to have the work done on his genitals, while the golfer was forcibly delayed from the tsuris with his own clubs. Agitated, he said, "Yankee graduated from Heidelberg. You mean to tell me a man of such learning couldn't tell the difference between a David and a Duncan? Listen to me," he urged as the nibblers of nosh inched forward, "one thing is for sure: the boy's name isn't a mistake. These people are trying to tell us something."
"They were both kings," a young college coed interjected. She was slender with sleepy brown eyes. The daughter of a neighbor. Until now she had been sitting demurely on a soft, velvet, floral club chair in the Katz apartment, all the while wishing to be elsewhere, her mind not so much wandering as in a dull state of perpetual park.
"Who?" the golfer wondered. "Yankee and Mila? Of what kingdom? Auschwitz?"
"No, I mean Duncan and David," she spoke up proudly, offering an insight thatfor the moment, at leastjustified her tuition at Miami-Dade Community College. "Maybe Mila and Yankee want to give their son a royal name. Maybe they have great things planned for him."
"Where? In Glasgow?" The man with the whitefish rejoined the conversation, having just returned with more provisionspotato salad, some tongue, a smear of mustard on two slices of naked rye.
This ancient ritual of Jewish tribal commitment had suddenly taken on less importance than the mystery behind the infant's name. The girl was right: Duncan was the name of a Scottish king, the recipient of a tragic Shakespearean end. With such a name, and finale, what were the parents hoping for?
Despite their best efforts, Mila and Yankee hadn't really fooled anyone. They were trying to have it both ways, and their guests knew it. In giving birth to a son, they were holding up their end of the sacred covenant with Godlaughably, the same god who was now even harder to trust than before. Nonetheless, they showed their obedience and good faith, the bris forever branding their child as a Jew. But in naming him Duncan, they were also not taking any chances, either. He had to have goy papers as well, something that would allow him to blend in on the other side, to survive unharmed and completely adaptable in the larger ghettos of the outside world.
This strategic obsession with names was a fact of life for the Katzes. Everything was in the service of deception. Like secret agents, they preferred to have aliases, but they rotated them in case anyone caught on. Names were easily disposableinterchangeable with numbers, in fact. Such were the lessons of the Nazis. Upon liberation, however, the refugees all learned that, unlike everything else about their former lives, their names could be reclaimedif they could be remembered, if they wanted to remember them.
For some, the recovery of a name was not enough. Why have that when all else was lost? For others, the memory of zebra costumes and branded arms had forever soiled their attachment to anything that was once personal, precious, and intimate. Like the costumes and the arms, their pasts could never be washed cleaned. Perhaps it was better to walk away from the camps, and the nauseating mess, with nothing at all.
So some renounced their original names, changing them, clipping off a syllable, or escaping entirely into a new language. In Israel the Jews of the new Exodus became Hebrews all over again; in America they adopted the king's English, seasoned with shtetl spices that refused to be shaken loose in the New World. The Gentiles of America had long known that Jews could be named Brown or Smith or Wilk or Harris. Ploys to protect the innocent. Or maybe to conceal the guilty?
Yankee had changed his name, too. No real mystery there. The guests at Duncan's bris all imagined that his father had once been known as something else. He couldn't possibly have been born a Yankeenot in Germany and not as a Jew. Sure, there were Jews named Yankel, but they weren't German Jews. Too lowbrow for them; too peasant-sounding. But Yankee? Still didn't sound right. Something must have gotten lost in translation.
Arriving as a refugee in New York, Herschel Katz took on the name of a baseball team. He had never played the game in his life, and Mickey Mantle was more likely to conjure up an image of a mouse than a slugger. But he was looking to lose himself in something foreignnot just in a country, but also the indelibility of its ways. The Yankees were good at world wars, and even better with the World Series. As a former German intellectual, Herschel Katz strived for quality in all things, whenever possible. But what was perhaps most important of all was that, as a Yankee, Herschel Katz would be virtually untraceable and unknowableeven to himself.
A few years before his arrival in New York, the Americans had liberated him and his wretchedness from Bergen-Belsen; now he needed to be free from Herschel as well. His entire family had been slaughtered in the camps. Vanished faces and shrieking souls. A family tree chopped down, the handiwork of ax-wielding, maniacal Nazis. The world had mistaken a forest fire for a spectator sport while a holocaust consumed the best of European Jewry.
Unlike her husband, however, the Mila of Warsaw was still Mila in Miami. A name change alone would not have been enough, at least not in her case. Not sufficiently clever. More artful maneuvers would become necessary.
And so it wasn't simply a matter of assumed or contrived or wholly improvised names. The Katzes had constructed an entire vocabulary around the mixed message, the obscure reference. Suspicions lurked everywhere: concealed within the darkness of Miami's moonlit nights, floating like a bottle along its emerald bays, cast in the shadows of its towering sun. Few anticipated such terror in the tropics. But the Katzes, of all people, were not blinded by the sun. They were not mere tourists in Miami, fleeing from hurricanes or coating themselves to prevent sunburns. Their obsessions were real; their fears, although somewhat twisted, were certainly not imagined. The family radar bleeped at frequencies that were out of range for most people. High-pitched warnings, like tocsins, that came often and hummed throughout the day; the sirens announcing the end of the world, heard only by those blessed with madness.
Among strangers they spoke in an almost flawless code. And since most people were regarded as strangers, the code was commonly slipped in between sentences like a necessary pause or a deliberate stutter. Mila and Yankee's English may have been mangled, but the code spewed from their lips with the honeyed fluency of the family tongue.
Often they alternated and recycled the code.
"Keep them guessing," Mila always said.
"About what?" Duncan often wondered. "What secrets do we have that anyone would want to know? The sale items at Publix are already listed in the Herald."
Duncan carried around a crib sheet in order to keep the code straight in his head. The flavor of the week in the Katz home had nothing to do with ice cream.
For years, the parents would discreetly say the word keller whenever a member of the family had, in his speech, strayed too far and revealed too much.
"My mother can't pick us up at the park until after she goes to the store and then gets my father at the bank," Duncan would tell a friend over the phone.
"Keller," Mila, from the kitchen, would steer her son.
"Oh, yeah ... no, I forgot, my father isn't at the bank. He's waiting at the corner by the drugstore."
When Duncan hung up the phone, he cringed and then turned around slowly to hear Mila's decree.
"Now we have to change the bank from Federal to Jefferson. You see, we can't depend on you for anything."
Banking was a desperately private affair. But then again, what wasn't? Dealings at the post office acquired an air of secrecy that rivaled the Paris peace talks. A stock certificate was never put into street name, but rather in a safe-deposit boxor safer yet, in a shoe box under the bed. Safe was always a relative term. The receipt of a reparations check was a bittersweet moment. The grocery bill was naturally confidential. The meter reader from Florida Power and Light was not allowed inside the apartment to do his job. Similarly, the Katzes refused home delivery of the Miami Herald. Everything was paid for in cash. And only God knew what Yankee did for a living. His own son certainly didn't. One minute Mila would tell neighbors that her husband was a manufacturer, at other times an importer, sometimes a lawyer, once a builder.
And who, or what, was keller, anyway? Yes, it was a mantra, invoked all throughout Duncan's childhood that became an exotic conversation killer. But what else? Although curious, Duncan never bothered to ask, or maybe he was just afraid. In this classified, rarefied, survivalist home, Duncan understood that even the derivations of certain words were household secrets. He may have been born into the family, but he was never accepted into its inner circle. Maybe it was for his own protection, his own good. Or, as Mila so often claimed, maybe they just didn't trust him. Perhaps it was simply that Mila and Yankee kept some passwords just for themselves.
Now back to the bris. And what a bris it was. While embracing God's covenant with Abraham, Mila and Yankee were at the same time also breaking promises, smashing tablets, stepping outside the faith, scavenging around, and bringing back pagan souvenirs. The bris was unkosher in ways that violated not just the menu.
There was a rabbi in the apartment, a modern, athletic-looking clergyman who wore a fabulous tan but forgot to bring his yarmulke. And there was also a mohelan expert in putting razor to penisthe one Jewish cosmetic surgeon who nobody brags about as being the ideal son or son-in-law. But circumcision was merely a sideline for this mohel, who, when not slicing foreskin, was shaving points. Around town he was known as Morty the Mohel, and this was no joke, because Morty was a well-known Miami bookie with his own tableand phone, no lessat the Jewish Nostra, a deli on Alton Road that catered to fringe mobsters and small-time Jewish hoods.
The Jewish Nostra brought a curious moose-lodge decor to Miami Beach. It had maple-paneled walls and lopsided steel tables. A stuffed marlin hung near the front entrance, its spear covering the door like a pistol. There was a gallery of black-and-white photos taken of drunken mobsters gone fishing. What caught the eye most in these pictures was not the catch-of-the-day, but that the party boat had as many machine guns as fishing rods on board. The lights at the Nostra were always dimmed, and the room combined the unusual smell of cigarettes and chicken-fat vapors scaling the walls in search of a diet.
Although the nature of the business conducted at the Nostraother than serving the obvious corned beef and a knishwas not in keeping with any of God's commandments, these were, indeed, all men of the tribe. Perhaps still lost, as well as being faithless and corrupted, they were Jews nonetheless, convinced that the Diaspora had taken many different paths in exile, and this one was no less honorable simply because of a few sordid connections with families who confused kreplach with ravioli. A Jew in Washington, after all, had been behind Senator Joseph McCarthy's persecution of other Jews, and years later there would be a Jewish Secretary of State serving a disgraced president. How bad did the Nostra men actually look in comparison?
Sometimes, when the lunch crowd was heavy at the Jewish Nostra, Morty the Mohel would be asked to help out behind the counter.
"I only cut small pieces," he would remind the patrons, jokingly, "not enough for a sandwich, but at least when the brisket turns thirteen, he'll be able to have a bar mitzvah."
Happily, the mohel would waddle behind the counter and strap an apron onto his waist. The phone at his reserved table invariably rang throughout his shift. "He's cutting again," someone nearby would pick up and reply. "No, not pipiks, just regular meat. Call back. You got over an hour until post time."
This was all happening in the days before Fidel Castro had expelled the capitalistsand the mobfrom Cuba, during the time when Miami was still the port of call for racketeers with business in Hallandale and Havana. But on the day of Duncan's bris, the Nostra was largely empty. Most of the food and the clientele had temporarily relocated a few blocks north. Minyans of mobsters gathered at the Katz apartment, savoring the smoked fish and succulent meats and celebrating the birth of perhaps the only Jew in the room whose record was still clean. Sitting around the Katz living room, they pored over racetrack betting forms, waiting restlessly for the eight-day-old Duncan to make an appearance.
The moment finally arrived.
"Hey everybody, here they come," the coed announced.
"It's about time," the golfer added, edgily. Immediately he received a jarring elbow to his ribs from a Nostra regular who didn't much care for golf, or whiny Jews.
With Yankee holding Duncan in his arms, Mila and Yankee walked from their bedroom through the hallway and then stood before their guests. Yankee, his face soft, unlined, radiated a father's pride, and yet he appeared guarded and restrained. His eyes were a bloodshot blue, like a wounded sunset. He had brown hair that was thinning at the top, and a round, bulging forehead. Fatherhood had visited him late in life. Already fifty, he was showing the wear and tear not so much of age, but of circumstance and bad luck. Smiling and gesturing, even these faint motions seemed to be wearing him out.
Mila was another matter, however. Her strength was apparent in all her movements, in everything she said and did. Although she was short, her back was always straight, which made her seem taller than she actually was. She walked with quick and determined paces, the movement in her arms abrupt and often dangerous. Her face was rugged with a doubled-up chin and sagging jowls; her hands, large and coarse. Unlike Yankee, she was a young parent, but she came to the job with a much-abused body. Overweight, she smoked too much, and her nervous system functioned like randomly ignited firecrackers. But her deficiencies somehow came across as assets, which pleased her and which she exploited to no end.
Normally, the baby would have been brought into the room by a godmother, then handed off to a godfather, finally ending up in the lap of the sandek, the most coveted position at a bristhe person entrusted with assisting the mohel. Such divisions of Jewish labor are usually parceled out according to some combination of age and kinship and trustin a word, to family.
But Auschwitz had shattered such time-honored traditions. Since the oldest people in the ghettos and the camps were also the most vulnerableand generally the ones who died the soonestthere was a severe shortage of grandparents after the war. Actually, there weren't that many available uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, or cousins, either. Black-sheep relatives, who in Europe would never have been considered for an honorarable position at a family affair, after the war, and by default, miraculously rose to the ranks of royalty.
The Shoah had created an improvised adoption network. All sorts of people were recruited to function as family, to "stand in" at simchas, to assume lifelong, ceremonial obligations for people who, in another time, would have been no better than strangers.
And this was true of the Katzes as well. In fact, for them the situation was even more dire, because none of their relatives had survived.
Which explains why Larry Breitbart, of all people, was at the Katz bris. The future Godfather was now about to be a godfather, and a godmother, and a sandekall at the same time.
Breitbart had once been a seltzer deliveryman. Every week he had dropped off crates of wooden boxes filled with green quart bottles. On one of his delivery rounds back in 1951, he had met Mila. She was an immigrant; he wasn't. He looked like a movie star; she didn't. She had survived the grandest experiment in simulated hell; he had been providing Miami Beach with the main ingredient for an egg cream. Other than that, they had much in common.
"Lady, I never met anybody like you," he once said.
"I'll show you more," she replied. "I have many tricks to teach."
Eventually she would convince Breitbart that his true calling was not in carbonated water, but in organized crime. He was charming, with an insincere smile and a face angled like a diamond. One of his eyes was hazel, the other green; his nose was cut sharp and fine. But what intrigued Mila about Larry Breitbart was an untapped shrewdness that found no outlet in his current line of work.
"Look at you" she said. "What can you expect from a person who works all day with bubbles? How can you think?"
It wasn't his fault, really. Not everyone had spent their formative years as a poster child for Charles Darwin. That was Mila's world. Breitbart had grown up on the streets of Brooklyn. He still loved the corner drugstores with their shiny chrome soda fountains, peppermint facades, and Frisbee bar stools. But he also recognized a burgeoning market with all those Jews retiring to Miami Beach and others spending the winters there. What were they all going to drink? To quench the tropical thirst of a New York Jew, you need seltzer. It was that simple. Vitamin C in those days was still an untested theory. So Breitbart decided to move down to Florida, bringing the native drink of New York with him.
A few months after he met Mila, blood became the only fluid that mattered.
She directed him to a man she had met at a poker game two years earlier: Meyer Lansky, the head of the syndicate in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Lansky was colonizing South Florida as the new home for organized crime. Like the retirees and the refugees, the Mafia was moving to Miami as well. Lucky and Bugsy were dead. Dutch they took care of years earlier. Arnold Rothstein, may he rest in peace, would have been proud of Meyer. A Jew was still in charge.
For someone in such a violent business, Lansky was a small man with delicate features. The public associated the mob with machine guns and brass knuckles. But that kind of work he delegated to the gorillas. Lansky was better with numbers than he was with murder. Even when it came to the syndicate, the Jewish brain supplied all the necessary muscle.
Lansky always respected a hustle, as long as it was an honest one. Mila Katz was always honest, and she nearly always collected. And Lansky had an eye for talent. He summoned her to play in other games, unleashing her to turn the tables on players who had been a little too lucky at one of his casinos.
"You'll owe me for this," Mila reminded the Jewish don, fearlessly.
"People don't usually threaten a man like me," Lansky replied.
With Mila's help and advice, Breitbart, the former seltzerman, proved himself to be one of Lansky's chief Miami operatives. Soon he was put in charge of one hotel in Havana, another in Hallandale, and given a piece of the parimutuel action in Florida.
His task today was quite different, however. Now he was sitting next to Morty the Mohel. There was a pillow on his lap, and Duncan rested comfortably on top. Breitbart was participating in his first brisother than his ownand it was on the occasion of the birth of his first and only godson.
Another regular from the Nostra, an Italian from New York who worked with Larry Breitbart, was loitering around the room in a crouched position, holding an eight-millimeter movie camera against his face. Larry thought it would be nice if Mila and Yankee could have a film made of Duncan's brisfor posterity, for the family's archives. So he arranged for his friend, Carlo Costello, to bring his equipment and make a short about a family that had already had its fill of epics.
Mila and Yankee, however, were a little uncomfortable with Larry's idea. For one thing, they preferred the anonymity of an unrecorded life. But they were also cynical about the idea of preserving anything for the future.
"Tell your man to go home, Larry," Mila insisted, as Costello, his legs indistinguishable from tripods, boom sticks, and dolly tracks, stumbled into the apartment.
"Why? You'll be sorry one day when Duncan wants to see what happened at his bris," Breitbart warned.
"And what if there is a fire?" she asked.
"Where, here? Today? Now?" Larry wondered.
"No, some other time."
"I don't get what you mean."
Blood rushed to Mila's face as though she was about to put out a different kind of fire. "If the film one day goes up in smoke, Duncan will lose something he wanted to keep forever. Better that he not have it at all."
Mila and Yankee had no mementos of their former lives. No baby pictures or family albums. Forget home movies; they didn't even have their prewar passports. When it came to the sentimental attachment to things past, memory had to do all the work. But memories are so often faulty, or selective, or savagely mischievous. The mind tends to forget exactly what would have been so nice to recall: the innocent days of pre-atrocity, when anti-Semitism was more ideological than lethal. Instead, the wrong set of memories kept coming back, a glorification of the tragic and dreadful restthe nightmares that would become permanent installations in the museum of the mind. Which master does memory serve?
From the very beginning, Mila rejected the possibility that Duncan's life would be any different. Things that he wanted to keep he would lose; the people around him would leave. He would be betrayed. Why should he have had it any better than them?
But as to the home movie, eventually Mila and Yankee relented. Larry Breitbart had argued too passionately on behalf of a Carlo Costello Production.
"This is a great moment for the family," he said.
Mila wondered which family he was talking about.
Yankee started to warm up to the idea of a film that captured the Katz experience in Americain Miami Beach, with a baby boy, and a possible new beginning.
"Maybe not so bad," he concluded, "although maybe we should wear masks?"
Mila continued to see the film as an abomination, a sure ticket to disaster down the road. But Yankee wanted the baby, and the bris. Mila would throw in the film as well.
Given the green light, the Mafia cinematographer eagerly went to work. Carlo Costello was a professional killer who was bored with his life in the rackets and dreamed of one day shooting a feature film. Until that moment arrived, he was grateful for any opportunity to make movies. On this day, his artistic vision inspired him to superimpose an art-house setting onto the Katz bris.
"Okay everyone, I need to see more energy from my actors!" he said, rolling his eyes as he checked the lighting. "Try to find your motivations ..."
He faded in and out among the guests, dollied, and panned the roomfreeze frames locking in on the crowded bookshelves and the Rosenthal china. He created a dramatic tension between the rabbi and the mohel that otherwise would not have been there. As he continued to make a nuisance of himself, Costello shot one scene while lying on the floor and filming upward through a glass coffee table. Finally, to everyone's relief, it came time for the rabbi to take over the proceedings.
"Now gather around everyone," the rabbi said. A crescent of creamy onion, separated from its friend, the herring, smiled coyly from the center of a soiled napkin, which the rabbi had placed on top of his head in lieu of a skullcap. "I think we can begin now. But before we do any cutting," he said, while a number of guests who, already knowing this rabbi, imagined that he was doing everything all out of order and slapped their heads in unison, "I'd like to start by asking Mila and Yankee to tell us something about the boy's name. Where does it come from?"
"Yeah, what about the name?" an older woman joined in.
"It's been driving us crazy." The man with the whitefishonce more restockeddemanded an answer.
"What does it mean?" the slender coed pleaded.
"Come on, I'd like to tee off before tomorrow," the golfer said sheepishly, mindful of the gangster behind him.
But the parents remained silent. At one point they looked at each other for support, then returned their gaze to their guests.
Moments later, Yankee blinked. "It's from the Bible," he said.
"It is?" the coed asked. "How interesting ..."
"No kidding," Larry Breitbart said, nervously taking his eyes off the sleeping lump on his lap.
"Which book?" the dubious golfer asked. "New or Old Testament?"
"Yeah," the man with the whitefish joined in. "I don't remember any characters named Duncan."
"Rabbi, what do you think?" a flirting woman asked.
"Well, it's hard to know ... ," he replied, hesitatingly, but nobody in the room expected him to come up with the right answer anyway.
Mila then blurted out, "He is named for my Uncle Keller in Poland. They killed him in the camps."
The family cue. Yankee knew not to go any further; Mila would handle things from here.
"Wait a minute," the golfer began, skeptically. "You mean to tell me there were Jews named Duncan Keller in Poland?"
"Yes, many," Mila replied curtly.
Sufficiently stumped, all those in the room quieted down and prepared for the main event: the sacrificial guillotine that celebrates Jewish life and continuity.
The rabbi mumbled briskly through some prayers that may have actually been his grocery list for the day, took a long swig of wine without saying the blessing, and then turned over the remaining portion of the festivities to Morty the Mohel.
"Okay, what I do first is give the baby some wine like so," Morty announced as though he was Julia Child. He dipped his ringless pinkie into a glass of wine, and just as he was about to insert it into Duncan's mouth, Mila shouted, "No!"
Larry Breitbart, who was collecting perspiration all around his face, clutched the pillow and the baby, while Morty withdrew his hand. "Mila, just a few drops of schnappsas an anesthetic, to numb the pain," Morty reassured her. "I do it all the time. It's very common. The baby won't get drunk."
"He won't need it," she announced. "And I want him to feel it."
Yankee looked on helplessly. "Please, Mila," he said, "don't be foolish. Let Morty do his job."
"No, without wine or no bris."
Larry Breitbart glanced upward for direction. The rabbi had already wandered away from the fracas, having spotted a blond moll who had been batting her eyes at him from the moment he arrived. Morty stroked his chin and pondered now doing this procedure in the absence of a painkiller. He searched Yankee's face for advice, and received none. He glanced down at Breitbart, whose eyes were now especially large and whose hands were drenched from all the suspense in the room. Mila, by contrast, was calm and resolute; the trace of a smile seemed to cross her usual poker face. Meanwhile, Costello the Sicilian captured all the tension and drama in these Jewish faces with the cinematic eye of a Fellini.
"Ah, what the heck," Morty concluded. "Let's just do it ..."
The rabbi gave the order; the camera swerved into position. In the finality of a split second, the mohel cut; the child never cried. The father flinched; the mother didn't. The gangster, Breitbart, fainted at the first sight of blood. Mila reached out and rescued Duncan from Breitbart's arms before the ill-chosen sandek collapsed to the floor, almost taking the baby with him.
Mila held Duncan up in the air, at an angle, away from her body. Beads of blood dripped from his circumcised penis as if he were a stone cherub in a Florentine fountain. Morty hadn't had a chance to dress Duncan yet. And because Mila wasn't holding Duncan close, the wound was open, the mark of Duncan's manhood and the flesh bond with his God there for all to see.
Suddenly, Mila turned her face away, too, recoiling as though something about Duncanwhether it be the blood, or his newborn smell, or perhaps because the rest of the room smelled like loxwas giving off a terrible, odious stench. But it wasn't Duncan's circumcision that repelled her, but rather the birthmark of another child, from another time, that now made it necessary for her to look away from her own son.
"Out, damned spot! out, I say! ... what's done cannot be Undone...."
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