Ask for a Convertible

Ask for a Convertible

by Danit Brown


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In these connected stories, Danit Brown introduces Osnat Greenberg: a slightly fatalistic, darkly funny, and utterly winning heroine who is struggling to find her place in the world.In the 1980s, Osnat moves with her American father and Israeli mother from Tel Aviv to Michigan. As the perspective shifts among the characters - spanning fifteen years, returning to Israel and then going back again to the Midwest - Osnat tries (and often fails) to belong. Danit Brown gives us an irreverent portrait of a young woman for whom finding a foothold in the world is an obsession, a challenge, and a great adventure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307277589
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/14/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Danit Brown holds an MFA in fiction from Indiana University. Her stories have appeared in many literary journals, including Story, Glimmer Train, StoryQuarterly, and One Story. She lives in Michigan.

Read an Excerpt

When Osnat's grandmother came to visit, she brought Osnat underwear and socks, bananas and eggs fresh from the lool. "Eat a banana," she said. "Come on. Eat a banana. Eat it. Eat a banana. Eat it. Eat a banana. Eat a banana. Eat it. Eat a banana." She was crazy. Osnat's parents knew she was crazy, but they yelled at her anyway: "Quit it with the bananas. She doesn't want a banana." Osnat's grandmother smiled. Her eyes were blue, but her skin was brown and shriveled. She grabbed Osnat's head and kissed the top of it over and over: "Muah muah muah muah muah. Come on. Eat a banana. Eat it. Eat a banana. Eat a banana."The evening before their flight, there was a big family dinner with lots of yellow food: potatoes, bourekas, shkedei marak."Are you wearing your yellow socks?" Osnat's grandmother asked Osnat. Osnat's grandmother believed yellow was a good color for traveling, and had knitted the socks herself. They were thick and made Osnat's shoes feel too tight, but when she started to take them off, her mother said, "Don't. Don't get her started." For emphasis, she shook the can of baby corn she was draining. Osnat hated baby corn, but her mother said it kept the salad from being too green.In the next room, Osnat's aunt was setting the table with plastic yellow plates. When she came in for the silverware, Osnat's mother told her, "I can feel it. I'm going to have to teach Hebrew at some damn school for the rest of my life.""It's America," Osnat's aunt said. "You'll be rich and won't have to work at all.""But I like working.""Not me," Osnat said. "I wish it could always be vacation."The two women turned and looked at her. "Where's your grandmother?" her aunt asked.Out in the living room, Osnat's grandmother was watching the news in Arabic. She didn't know Arabic, but she liked the announcer's mustache. She wrapped her arms around Osnat and whispered, "When you come back, find yourself a boyfriend with a mustache like that." The tops of her hands were crisscrossed with blue veins. The palms were warm and papery."We're not coming back," Osnat told her.Her grandmother sighed. "No," she said. "I guess you aren't. This is why you should never marry Americans." Later, when she saw the cheesecake meant for dessert, she said, "This is beige, not yellow." Osnat's mother inhaled sharply. Osnat's grandmother smiled. "Just kidding." She cut herself a big slice. "This isn't a big deal," she said. "I left my mother and my sisters when I was nineteen, you know. And look at me now. You worry that I'll forget to turn off the gas, but I always remember.""Or else someone finds you lying on the floor," Osnat's aunt said."Enough," Osnat's mother said. "She has a pilot light now.""Come on," Osnat's grandmother said, pushing the cheesecake toward Osnat. "Have a piece of cake. It's delicious. Have some. Have a piece. Have a piece of cake."At the airport, the air smelled like toilet bowl cleaner and sweat, and the fluorescent lights made people's skin look gray. At the foot of the escalators that led to the departure gates, Osnat's aunt hugged Osnat's mother so tightly her fingertips turned white.On the plane, Osnat watched Tel Aviv's lights flickering below them. From the air, the ground looked nothing like the maps of Israel they'd learned to draw in school: the coastal plain with a bump for Haifa; the desert in the south; to the east, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, connected by a straight line, each border carefully labeled: Lebanon. Syria. Jordan. Egypt. The word for leaving Israel and not coming back is yerida, descent. It's such a small country. Every body counts.Later, Osnat's mother cried while Osnat pretended to sleep, her head in her mother's lap. She could tell her mother was crying by the way she took a long breath, held it, and then let it out slowly. One of her tears landed on Osnat's right earlobe. It was wet and warm and felt like something that belonged inside her.When her father told Osnat they were moving to Michigan, he said it would be into a house with wall-to-wall carpeting and a private backyard. He didn't tell her the carpeting would be yellow and stained and ugly or that the backyard would be soggy with rain. He didn't tell her there would be heating vents in the floor, full of cobwebs. He didn't tell her the house would be made out of wood and that the floors would creak and the walls would shake if you shut a door too hard. He didn't say there would be a lightning rod on the roof."What's that?" Osnat asked, pointing at the white thing on the ceiling with the red blinking eye."A smoke detector," her father said.In the kitchen sink, there was a garbage disposal. Osnat's mother shoved slice after slice of bread in there, and she and Osnat watched the drain suck them down. You weren't supposed to go after things that fell in the garbage disposal. It was dangerous.The second night in the house, Osnat's father brought home a TV. It had color and twenty stations. On one of them, a man was climbing a fence while other men were trying to shoot him down. In the driveway, outside their house, there was a pale yellow station wagon with wood paneling on the sides. You weren't supposed to drive with the back window open because of carbon monoxide. People died that way. That was something Osnat wasn't supposed to know, just as she wasn't supposed to know that one of the trustees from the local university had jumped off the university's bell tower. But she knew, just like she knew—even though she'd only seen him for a second—that the man on TV wouldn't make it over the fence.Osnat. Osnat. Osnat. Osnat.The kids in Osnat's new school were pasty white, with thick arms and legs and big shiny teeth which they bared when they passed one another in the hallway. Next to them Osnat felt small and brown and fragile. When the bell rang for first period, she headed for the desk behind the only boy in the entire class whose skin was darker than hers. The boy, Mrs. Sherwood announced when she was taking attendance, was named Sanjay, and he was from India. "We have quite the international group this year!" she said. "India and Israel! No wonder this is Social Studies!"Sanjay raised his hand. "I've been here since eighty-one.""Three whole years!" Mrs. Sherwood said. "How lovely!"Later, at lunch, Osnat sat next to Sanjay and across from a girl named Sharon who ate ketchup straight out of the packet. "So," Sharon said, "you're Jewish. I'm Jewish too." She squeezed the ketchup packet carefully from bottom to top, like a tube of toothpaste. "There's five of us in the whole school, you know. You, me, Brent Silverstein, Avery Roth, and Joel Cohen.""At least there are other Jews," Sanjay said. "There's only one of me.""There's Mohammed," Sharon said."He's Pakistani," Sanjay said. "It's not the same.""Oh, Mark Green is also Jewish," Sharon said. "But he's older—in eighth grade—and has acne real bad.""What's acne?" Osnat asked."You know," Sharon said. "Pimples. Whiteheads. Zits. Acne." She tore into another packet. "So," she said, "why are you named after mucus?""Mucus?" Osnat asked."You know." Sharon licked some ketchup off her right index finger. "The stuff up your nose. Snot.""Jesus," Sanjay said. "Are you always so disgusting?""Jesus," Sharon said right back. "Are you always so rude?" Still, she stood up and started clearing her tray. Compared to Sanjay's precise vowels and tight ts, her English seemed loose and flappy, as if she had a hot potato rolling around in her mouth.In America, at the university, Osnat's father had a corner office with a computer. On the door there was a plaque with his name on it: Dr. Marvin Greenberg. When people saw him in the hallway, they nodded and said, "Doctor," and he nodded and said, "Doctor" back. There was a picture of him in the university paper, with his name printed underneath. In it, his eyes were black and shiny, and he was smiling an openmouthed smile. This was the new Marvin Greenberg, the happy one who showed off all his teeth and took Osnat out in the backyard to toss around a football made of sponge.Inside, Osnat's mother fried up chicken schnitzel, but nothing tasted right. "It's this meat," she said. "It isn't kosher.""You could salt it," Osnat's father said."No," Osnat's mother said. "You can salt it."Even the cucumbers were different. They were large, with waxy skin, and they tasted like water."You didn't tell me the food would be bad," Osnat's mother said, putting her fork down. "You could have told me.""Come on, Efi," Osnat's father said, "I did tell you." But Osnat's mother was already halfway up the stairs. Osnat's father pushed back his chair, shrugged, and winked. "Wish me luck."While she waited, Osnat cleared the table and scraped the cucumbers into the garbage disposal. Everything upstairs was quiet. That was the thing about America. It was too quiet. You couldn't even hear the traffic going by outside. At least in Israel, when her father locked himself up in the bathroom, there were twenty-three other apartments Osnat could visit. Or she could ride up and down in the elevator until her parents were done yelling. In America, the house creaked and creaked, and you couldn't even get an aerogramme out of the desk drawer without the floorboards signaling your location.After she washed the dishes, Osnat wrote a letter to her grandmother—no, her aunt—no, her grandmother. She left the first line blank until she could figure out who the letter was for. "It didn't work," she wrote. "They're still fighting. I think they're going to get a divorce." Upstairs she heard her parents' bedroom door open and close and open and close, and feet padding along the hallway. Then she heard the water go on in the shower. She put down her pen and went to assess the damage. The bedroom was empty. In the bathroom, she could hear her father singing "Li VeLach" and her mother saying, "Shh . . . the neighbors.""This is America!" her father hollered. "We have no neighbors!"Back in the dining room, Osnat crossed out everything she had written and ripped the aerogramme into small pieces. Then her father was standing over her in his shorts, his hair wet."What are you doing?" he said. "Don't you know aerogrammes cost money?"Calling was expensive, so Osnat's grandmother wrote them every Friday instead. "Hugs and kisses," she wrote. "I have new dentures. Wait until you see them. They're blinding."On Saturdays, Osnat's mother wrote back: "It's raining again. Osnat is doing well. Marvin is very happy." She took long breaks between sentences, tapping her pen against her chin."Maybe I'll make things up," she told Osnat's father. "You would think that in a country where money grows on trees, it wouldn't be so hard to find a job.""Ha ha," said Osnat's father. He had a job, after all. He always had a job."No, really," Osnat's mother said.On Sundays, Osnat's father woke up early and bought the Detroit Free Press and the Ann Arbor News. While he waited for the water to boil, he went through the classifieds and circled the jobs he thought made sense. Then Osnat's mother made coffee, sat down with a cup in her left hand and a pen in her right, and crossed out every one of the circles. "Day care assistant? I'm done changing diapers. Kmart greeter? You've got to be kidding. Florist? Aren't there any jobs where you get to think?"Osnat could tell her father was trying. He blew his nose and cleaned his glasses and traced invisible patterns on the table with his right index finger. Still, sooner or later, he always ended up saying it: "You need good English to get those. You know that."This was Osnat's signal go upstairs and get ready for Hebrew school. She didn't really like Hebrew school, but she was glad to get out of the house. She already knew the fight script by heart, including the long pauses for the eye-rolling and dramatic sighs. She waited in her room until one of her parents knocked on her door and drove her to the synagogue. On the way over, whoever it was asked her where she wanted to eat when Hebrew school was over. "How about McDonald's? Does Burger King sound nice?" This was part of the script too. Once there, whoever it was would order her a large fries and watch her eat as if she were a small child who might begin choking at any moment. "So," whoever it was would ask her, "does that girl, Sharon, still like to eat her ketchup straight?"Sharon also went to Hebrew school, greasy and bleary-eyed. During breaks, she asked Osnat to teach her curse words in Hebrew."Zayin," said Osnat. "Zona."In return, Sharon taught her asshole, dick, cunt, whore, screw. Osnat took careful notes on a sheet of paper. Her favorite word was fuck. There was something satisfying about her teeth against her lips, her throat closing on the hard k sound. "You fucker," Osnat told Sanjay at school on Monday. "Don't fuck with me.""Fuck you too," Sanjay said. "What did I do?"There were parts in Osnat's grandmother's letters that were just for Osnat, and parts that were just for her mother. She wrote in black ink on sheets of paper that seemed impossibly thin. Then she folded the two parts of the letter separately and taped them shut. You had to use a knife to open them, or else the paper ripped. In Osnat's part, her grandmother wrote things like: "You'll grow thick arms and thick legs of your own. And once winter starts, you too will grow pale." In the margins, she drew pictures of chickens and palm trees. To Osnat's mother, she wrote: "Don't think I don't know you're not telling me the truth. That's okay. I've discovered where your sister keeps the letters you send her." Osnat's mother kept her parts of the letters in her underwear drawer, but Osnat found them anyway, along with the letters from her aunt: "If I never see another banana again, it'll be too soon. She refuses to throw them away even when they're completely black. The house smells like rotting fruit. There are flies everywhere."

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