Read an Excerpt
The One-Star Jew
By David Evanier
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 David Evanier
All rights reserved.
THE CREATOR OF ONE-FINGERED LILY
I read recently of the arrest of a forty-year-old man—a bachelor—for having a Librium pill in his pocket without a prescription bottle. The police handcuffed him, took him down to the station, stripped him, booked him, brought him before the judge. The judge fined him and slapped him in prison for three months.
Now the man is suing the police and the courts for humiliating and embarrassing him. It turned out he was on his way to see his mother, whom he visited once a week. It was his—or her—birthday, I don't remember which.
When I read of this, I had not seen my mother in twenty years.
I sympathized with that man. If I were visiting my mother, I thought, I certainly would take a Librium along—and probably without the bottle, just as he did.
A question: why did the police notice this fellow on the street, decide to frisk him? What was so extraordinary about him? Did he look so menacing? So pathetic? Was it an impulse of malice or sadism on their part? Was he wiggling his ass, thumbing his nose at them—this forty-year-old bachelor? It hardly seems likely. It must have been his utter dejection, misery, and loneliness. And sure enough—there, ensconced in his pocket, the little green and white pill to lighten his load, to help see him through. Aha! they got him in the nick of time.
1956. I am sixteen years old.
I am lying in bed with my mother, thinking about my girl friend, Judith. "Rub noses, like pussycats," my mother says. Catching my thoughts, she asks: "Why do you run around with that slut!"
The bed is perfumed—it is the bed my mother and father shared for a time. I feel chills as my mother rubs noses with me. "You're limited," I tell her. "God, I hate it when you're snotty," she replies.
Across the roof, there is Judith, but it is as if there were barbed wire between us.
Why does my mother make me think of concentration camps? Nothing written, nothing said, makes them as real for me as my mother does. If she can exist, so could the camps.
One day I said to young Doctor Greenblatt, the bachelor attached to his own mother: "My mother hits me—"
"How dare you?" he shouted, "you ungrateful little creep, you serpent, your mother struggles night and day for you!"
I trembled, but I was not really surprised. I felt sorry for the young doctor. My unexpressed sympathy, my silence, galled him—his face got redder and redder. He would burst. The sight of my tense, sad face was unbearable to him. "Get out of here!" he shouted. Now I no longer visit the doctor, but I still visit the unusual patches of garden and greenery in the courtyard of his apartment house, and think of him when I am there.
The others—the neighbors, the social worker my father brought me to—their faces glaze over if I try to tell them about my mother. They let me know it is a terrible thing I am saying, and forgive me by not listening to me. "Someday," they say as one, "you will regret—"
When people ask me about my mother, I say, "My mother? She is not living." One of my finest stories is called "My Mother Is Not Living."
My mother called me at work one day a year ago. We had not seen each other, or spoken, for twenty years. She did not have my address most of that time, for I forbade my father to give it to her.
During the phone call, my mother wished me a happy birthday, asked me how I liked my job, and said she would like to see me. I felt my pounding heart. She spoke in a slow, lulled way, and I could tell she had sedated herself for the phone call. I thanked her for calling, and said I would think about seeing her.
I have used my father as a guinea pig for my stories and poems most of my adult life. He is an excellent subject, always willing to cooperate with me (although the smirking profile I wrote of him when I was on my honeymoon in San Francisco in 1970 was done from memory). I have written portraits of him that showed him demonic, arrogant, sad, crazy, silly, mean, ridiculous. I wrote of one particular facial expression of his I know very well: Ever since I was a child, whenever I have done something that shocked my father, he sits bolt upright, pops his eyes, looks aghast, and sticks his fingers in his mouth. He carries a copy of this description of him in his wallet and whips it out to show to strangers.
Each time I finish a story about him, I say that I have gotten my father out of my system.
While I have also revenged myself on my mother in my work all these years, it has all been done from afar. I have had the satisfaction, however, of knowing that she read some of my stories about her. I was too afraid of her to confront her up close.
1956. Today when my mother stood by the window, I wanted to push her out. I can't. She is a victim too. And it would mess up my life.
Her flashing eyes when she hurts me: THAT is difficult to understand. "God, you're ugly"—comments like that. And to my father: "I hope you drop dead, you son of a bitch." So many enemies—the grocer, neighbors, Negroes, rock and roll ("dirty music"), even the antique dealers she coos with—Carlo and Enrique—smiling her head off and flashing her teeth—as soon as they close the door, she snaps, "Wop assholes." I don't think they are even Italian. Categories of Jews (her people): the good—the rich; the creeps—those who are honest or poor, the German refugees from Hitler who "have no class," or the immigrants with traces of Yiddish and the old country. She does like a few cute little old ladies. She stares at the exiting blonde in the elevator who is wearing a fur coat and says to me: "She's just a Flushing broad who will never make it to Park Avenue."
In the closet my mother keeps her school books—Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Jacob Wassermann, "Europa," Dorothy Thompson, Ibsen, her college yearbook, the school newspaper where she did her writing. I read what the other students wrote to her in the yearbook.
She is waiting for me to be drafted into the army. Why? "It will make a man of you," she says. "You think it's you against the world, kiddo. Everybody's wrong and you're right. They'll knock some sense into you." She pauses and adds, "Hair like an idiot." I ask her: "Do you want me to get killed?" She doesn't reply. She has a certain honesty, no doubt about it.
I decided to return my mother's call of eight months ago. I dialed her number. She instantly recognized my voice. I asked her how she was, and she told me she'd had an operation during the summer. I did not ask her what had been wrong: it seemed like the question of a hypocrite.
I said I would like to see her and suggested we meet in Chinatown.
"I didn't know you liked Chinese food," she said. "We have something in common."
After a moment she said, "How will you recognize your old mother?"
"Will you wear a feather?" I said.
She roared. We set the date and the time.
From the moment I picked up the phone, the hatred of my mother seemed to disappear. When I had contemplated meeting her in the past, I was afraid I might strike her, that she might strike me. Those thoughts have left me.
On the day of our meeting, I deliberately chose a tie to wear that was not too spectacular. My reasoning was that if I looked too good, my mother would devise ways to try to destroy me, or take my money (I have none) away from me.
I placed a Librium in my pocket and set out for Chinatown, where she would be waiting on the corner of Mott and Canal Streets in front of the Carvel store. I did not take the Librium.
1954. My mother is in her happiest, most animated mood. She has snagged her hairdresser Ricardo into the house, into the bathroom, especially to do her hair for her at home. The price—a steal. He adores her hair. She says she can't help but be complimented.
She bustles about, racing through the halls. Ricardo is waiting in the bathroom. She brings me in and introduces me. "What a handsome young man!" he says. "Why don't I cut his hair too, Rosie? Won't charge you a sou."
My mother is ecstatic. "Cut it so he don't look like a Commie." She laughs to show she's kidding.
She closes the door while Ricardo does her hair. Streams of giggles and laughter.
When she comes out, she asks me, "How do I look?"
"Beautiful," I say. She is not satisfied. "What else?" She looks at me tensely, her smile gone. I don't know what to say, and look for a clue from her. She turns away.
"Ricardo's ready for you, Bruce," she says in a moment.
Ricardo is standing in the brightly lit bathroom, beaming at me. He is cutting the air with his scissors.
He talks all the while I settle down. He places a towel over my shoulders and begins. In a minute I feel a tickle on my penis. I start. It stops. I feel another tickle. I look up in astonishment and shock. "Cut that out!"
"Hmmm hmmm—you have beautiful hair, young man—"
I feel the tickle again. I jump up and run out. "Bruce!" he calls.
I hear a shout. My mother follows me and storms into my room. "What the hell is going on! Are you going to embarrass me?"
"He touched me-on the-on the-penis."
"Get back in there," she hisses.
"He touched me—"
"You're imagining it, Bruce, that's all. I'm telling you nicely: GET IN THERE. Don't you ruin my day."
She goes into the bathroom. She returns after a moment.
"All right. I talked to Ricardo. He's amazed. He doesn't know what you're talking about, and he promises he won't do it again."
"What do you mean what? Bruce I'm warning you. Get in there."
I go back inside. Ricardo is beaming, laughing, and chatting at once. He is also whistling.
I sit down tensely. "There we are!" He again places the towel over me.
Within a minute he puts his hand on my penis.
I jump up, run out of the room. As I leave the house, I shout, "God damn it," and slam the front door with all my might.
I run for a long time, crying aloud.
On the corner of Mott Street, I saw my mother first. She looked much older. She is sixty-two years old. She had always prized her beauty.
She did not recognize me. "Rosie," I said. I kissed her. When she smiled, she looked as I remembered her. A very pretty woman. She wore a clasp in her hair, a gray dress, a brown cloak. She carried oriental shopping bags. She still walked her quick little steps on her short legs and high heels.
We sat down in the corner of the Yun Luck Rice Shoppe. "So what have you been doing?" she said.
1954. Surely there is somewhere to go, to get away from all this. I look around corners, in new neighborhoods where gardens will lead me to new friends. There is a house with a well in the garden, and I wonder if I should knock at the door.
Lighted windows. Behind them are girls who will kiss me, families to welcome me. There are people who read books, who do not shout and curse, who do not hate everyone.
When it rains, the streets are filled to overflowing with water. Some of the kids make rafts, and I want to sail on the rafts, away from this. I dream that when I am not there, the kids are actually sailing on the rafts. But in the daytime I never see them doing so.
I like those dark, rainy days; with the streets turned into rivers, I feel as if I can see far away. The world has been stopped, and cleansed. At night in bed, I sail away.
She spoke in the small, childlike voice with the Bronx twang I remembered.
She touched my wedding band: "My married son!" She asked me the first name of my wife.
She asked what I liked to do in New York. I mentioned the theater and films.
"What about opera?"
"No, not opera."
"Somehow I thought you would like opera. What about ballet?"
"Uh huh," she said.
On my mother's face are years of hard work and struggle. The last time I saw her, she was still a secretary, supporting herself since throwing my father out of the house.
She has been teaching Junior High for eighteen years: Bronx, Far Rockaway, Manhattan, Crown Heights, getting up at six in the morning. I was startled to hear her mention receiving "a little welfare" when she had been in the hospital and out of work for seven months when teachers were being "excessed" out of the system.
She brought me up to date on the neighbors: "Kaganovich, the fat man across the hall, just lost half a leg. Gunzenhouser died of cancer. Farber, the Frankfurter King, lives in Palm Beach. Lance Stone, he was your age, is fabulously successful in television or movies. Or maybe finance. People ask me about you—"
"You like teaching?" I said.
"No. But I like decorating the classrooms. That's fun. And I get many compliments for that. I was doing that this past week, and the principal said, 'What about the bulletin board?' So for the typing class, I have the kids draw these signs: 'More Tap, Less Yap' and 'Don't Be A One-Fingered Lily.' I have a kid do a drawing of Lily at the typewriter with just one finger. They like that, they get a kick out of it."
"You made them up yourself?" I asked.
She said, "I miss my old job."
"As Rothbaum's secretary?"
"Sure. Look, the Schrafft's wagon came twice a day: in the morning and the afternoon. And there was color TV."
"What were you in the hospital for?"
My mother looked away. "I had an operation."
"Woman's troubles. They began with your birth, Bruce. It goes back a long way."
"I never knew that."
"Bruce, you remember Eva Stern, my best friend? We gabbed on the phone day and night."
"She died. I was her only friend at the end."
"What was wrong with her?"
"Mental. Valium and alcohol. Her daughter Shirley had an auction of her furniture. But first she said to me, 'What do you want? You can use some of these things. I've heard about your apartment. And they mean nothing to me.' So I took the chandelier and the mirror. Eva had fallen against the mirror and broken it during one of her states. I spent $1,000 to fix it. She always asked me about you."
After a moment my mother said, "Effie died too. She was in and out of asylums. She always asked me about you.
"Some people can't keep their heads together," she added.
Eva and Effie were my mother's two best friends from childhood.
"Maybe you'll come over to the house for dinner with your wife—what's her name again?"
"Susan. Sure we will."
"What do you like to eat?"
"Whatever you enjoy making," I said.
"I'm a good cook. You're so skinny, Bruce. Herbie eats like a horse."
"Herbie. He's a boy your age—a little younger, thirty-one I think. Still a bachelor—I'm looking for a girl for him. He was teaching at the same school in the Bronx. When I need to go places by car, sometimes he drives me. So I cook him dinner."
"Doesn't he have a mother and father?" I asked.
"Sure. But he says his mother can't cook roast chicken like me." She giggled. "He knows I'm seeing you today."
"I won't mention that story, 'My Mother Is Not Living,'" my mother said. I saw a peculiar expression on her face, and realized she was trying not to cry. "Or why we haven't gotten together for so long. We won't go into that, I promised myself. Bygones are bygones."
My mother mentioned that another teacher had pointed out my name and address in a writers' yearbook five years ago, and asked her if it was me. In such ways, I realized, she had gleaned tiny bits of information about me over the years. They added up to very little, almost nothing at all. I had sworn my father to secrecy about my movements and whereabouts, and he had followed my instructions with unusual care. Perhaps it was because I had said, "I don't trust myself. If I see her, I don't know what I would do."
She must have come upon the story, "My Mother Is Not Living," in just such an accidental way, stumbled upon it or had it pointed out to her by an unsuspecting friend.
"Have you traveled?" she said.
"Just London. Have you?"
Her face lit. "England, Italy, Spain, Singapore, Hong Kong. This shopping bag is from Hong Kong. I've turned your bedroom into an oriental room. Wait until you see it. Do you want to walk around Chinatown?"
Excerpted from The One-Star Jew by David Evanier. Copyright © 1983 David Evanier. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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