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Battles and LullabiesPoems
By Richard Michelson
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2005 Richard Michelson
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Chapter OneGift-Wrapping the Garbage
My father's gift-wrapping the garbage. "Bee-you-tee-full," he says. Four bundles, and his accent (Brooklyn) wraps like a bow around each.
Eight days into the strike and the world smells like soup. "Kreplach soup," he says. "Your Aunt Ida's. Know what I mean?" My son can't picture it- the neighborhood, its poverty- and I've lost the point, trying to explain myself. "Poor," I'm yelling. "Poor." And suddenly my eyes are popping like Dangerfield's on Letterman, until my son takes pity. "OK," he asks, "how poor?"
"Laugh," my father says, "if you want to, but don't they all love Christmas?" His accent is on the they, but weren't times different then?
It was a Jewish neighborhood and then it was a Negro neighborhood until the Puerto Ricans drove out the Blacks. Shvartzers, I used to say and Schwartzes, would echo back. "Stop talking garbage," my mother says, but aren't I my father's son?
"Every problem," he taught me "has a solution," and I've got to tell you, they stole that garbagelickety-split.
We danced together, clapping like two comics in a Catskill routine. Me, squealing with my kvitchadicker voice (high and squeaky), as I held onto him, held onto him, tight.
"How tight," my son asks, but just now I'm not in the mood for his sarcasm. I'd rather weep. I'd rather watch this old newsreel- my father working himself to death, I mean literally, and dying out on the street, lying there, maybe an hour, one more dead Jew. "Take out the damn garbage," I tell my son. Sure, I'd rather hug him, but right now isn't my heart on the roller coaster at Coney Island, and I'm barely holding on?
Like Nobody's Business
Business, my father says, was never so good. He means it's never been good-it's never been good enough- it's never been better. He's copying master keys, installing iron gates. Even the cops spraying paint to cover the graffiti, Edie says, on each other's asses. Shakespeare, my father shouts, should hear such language.
I'm ten then, half my own son's age, and still in love with the piercing scream of my own soprano. Caruso, my father calls, let's sell some garbage cans. And suddenly I'm in the cellar-flashlight jammed in my innocent mouth- climbing past cement bags stacked like combat casualties, my single beam blinding rats with each turn of my head.
This, I know, is like nobody's business: I'm hammering 36 gallons of heavy-gauge galvanized steel against the wall, pounding until its open mouth twists in pain and confusion, its back bent over: my own apocryphal Jewish immigrant grandfather guarding his brand new Naugahyde American wallet. Picasso, my father calls me, with a ball-peen.
It's a war on poverty, I tell my son. We're driving through the old neighborhood, and I'm boring even myself, pointing out the burned-out empty lots, like they're holes in my own heart. Maybe it's nothing but misplaced nostalgia, this detour on his last day home. Maybe all I'm wanting is to remember my own father's face, dumbfounded by a whole dorm of Darwins, a metropolis of Einsteins. Work, he finally said, like nobody's business, and never, ever look back. He'd never have believed that the farther ahead we stare, the further we travel back into time. The astronomers are right, I tell my son, your future's in this rearview mirror, sneaking up from behind. We're turning past the tenements, idling on Pitkin where I pre-smashed each shiny new trash can before it could be stolen.
Why throw myself down on this corner now?
Here, I want to say, they'd still kill a man for a quarter, but I'm silent instead, counting down the quarter-century since I've been back. I can still hear Edie wailing over the phone: Your father, gunshot, heart attack. Antigone, he might have groaned, if he wasn't still busy bleeding, not in his mind's battlefield, but in this real, random, ravaged, empty gutter, hundreds of miles between us. All alone.
It's getting dark, my son says, removing his headphones. Just this second he's decided to double major in business and philosophy. He wants to think, he tells me, about making a lot of money. I know I'm supposed to laugh, or at least let the rich baritone of his voice lead us all the way back home. But even so I turn aside, because just now, how I'm feeling, I know, is nobody's business but my own.
How about that electricity! my wife's grandfather says. He's bounding his eighty years down the stairs, one-handing his umbrella, to help me uncurl my prematurely shtetl'd back out of this once luxurious cotton pullover of a VW that somehow downsized itself, compacting throughout our aching eight-hour drive through the storm.
Ain't it something, he says, the way, whoosh, it comes back on, lighting up the whole county, all eighty houses burning like candles on a vanilla village-sized birthday cake. I'm already disarmed; the unaffected wisdom, the unprejudiced enthusiasm. He's never met, my wife says, a real Jew before, and I, resisting the urge to ask about imposters, watch him walk seven times around this Wedding Chuppah of a wagon, kicking each tire, questioning my engine's horsepower, and counting out, I could tell, real horses.
I'm thinking as he moves about the wonder of the small engine that drives his body, and I'm judging my own grandfathers-stirring their years together, but even this new imaginary grandfather refuses to live long enough for me to be born. It's not only a history of heart failure, and colon cancer, but history itself, the imperturbable iron horse, the houses burning down like candles.
Amazing! my wife's grandfather says. He's bent over the fan belt, testing its elasticity, dismantling the automatic choke, while I, charmed and disoriented, twirl imaginary side-locks before setting off like a dachshund at his heels. All that was twenty years ago, and ever since my lower lumbar's been arguing this entire two-day drive- eight hours up and back the next, still no airport nearby- each year his possible last, while our new Teutonic tank-sized SUV conjured up one child, and then the next.
What if just once we don't go, I beg my wife, but she's already loading the valises, looking now like one of those Biblical old-world water carriers, and now a smooth-skinned milk maiden grown up on the fresh air of her grandfather's farm.
Maybe it is only centuries of suffering and Jewish guilt that keep the world alive, I say, sounding as if my living depended on selling life insurance to centenarians. I'm comfortable now, stretched out in the back, heels up on our luggage, making guttural noises, imagining myself as a grandfather, while up front my youngest swerves in the driver's seat, the roads clogged with hundredth-birthday revelers, thirty-six great grandchildren converging like electrons on the nucleus of a one-horse town.
My hope for my own children is not that they live forever, but try explaining that to a teenager at the wheel of a car. How much life insurance do you have? my son asked me once. He was eight at the time, already counting out an inheritance, calculating his share of the world. Watch the road! I yell, angry for no reason after all these years, except that I'm growing tired and suddenly scared. It's almost sundown and I still don't understand how the electricity travels from one lamppost to the next, lighting up the future as if it's daybreak on the horizon and we have all the time in the world.
The way my grandmother put back the green bananas, unwilling to make an investment in her future, is how I'm feeling this evening, watching my grown children watching CNN, sitting side by side on the sofa-no shoving, no teasing, no tattling-just image upon image of Armageddon: starvation, explosion, long lines at the gas pump, and even the Rabbi abandoning town.
Biological, I hear my son say. And my daughter answers: no, chemical or, perhaps, nuclear. I'm too embarrassed just now to admit how happy I am to have them home again, even for this single moment, even though they insist they're only visitors, on vacation, no longer at home.
I built my house too close to the water, my grandmother used to say whenever I left in a hurry, or stayed away too long. She meant she was easily moved to tears, but it took my own mother years to teach me the impossibility of protecting the weak from the strong.
Enough crying, she'd say, clicking her tongue like she was laying down dominoes, contesting the intricate but historical patterns of sudden death. She meant, I now know, to comfort me, to protect me from her brother's tank turned unexpectedly upside down in Germany, the long lines at the gas pump,
the clergy, every denomination, blissfully but, pardon me, stupidly, following their prayers back home. O but then she'd kiss whatever ailed me, while my sister railed against all injustice, her theme song exploding over the single cushion separating what she did right from all I'm still doing wrong.
Excerpted from Battles and Lullabies by Richard Michelson Copyright © 2005 by Richard Michelson. Excerpted by permission.
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