Jumping the Green

Jumping the Green

by Leslie Schwartz

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Overview

Jumping the Green by Leslie Schwartz

A new talent makes an auspicious debut with this haunting, erotic tale of a young woman whose grief over her sister's unsolved murder leads to a dangerous affair.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841951621
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: 07/28/2001
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.08(h) x 0.79(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One My discovery of masturbation is accompanied by the sudden epiphany that lovers slap each other around. Passion and love are fraught with this delight between the legs, this slap in the face, this wedding of pain and pleasure.

It happens one summer day, my discovery, three weeks shy of my ninth birthday. I am lying on an air mattress, floating in the Kowolskis' swimming pool. This is not unusual since the Kowolskis are our neighbors -- our parents' best friends -- and as such, share everything with us as we do them.

The air is hot, still and dry. Furry seed pods drift gently on the afternoon winds. I bob in the water, drunk on too much sun and the prospects of yet another orgasm that night. I have discovered my down-there has a toy button that when manipulated in just the right way creates an astonishing response. I have become addicted to this new discovery the way I once was to chocolate milk, though I have yet to fully understand its power.

Floating, buoyed by the clear water and my heady imagination, I conjure up the ways I will touch myself, what tools and gadgets I might find around the cluttered house to put inside me, when I hear Mr. Kowolski begin to shout.

Elaine Kowolski, his daughter who is three years older than me, is inside the pool house with my brother Martin. I can hear Elaine whining. "Quit it, you dork." Words like dork only bolster Martin's desire to annoy people. I can picture him pulling at Elaine's bathing suit, trying to get a peak at her booblets. That is what he calls undeveloped breasts.

The window to Mr. and Mrs. Kowolski's bedroom is wide open. The sights and sounds of one of their notorious fights penetrate my thoughts. I am aware of a slight moistness between my legs and the smell of my sweat. Mr. Kowolski is telling Mrs. Kowolski that she is a stupid, goddamned idiot and if she doesn't write down the fucking check numbers in the goddamned checkbook then he'll fucking teach her a goddamned lesson. Martin and Elaine Kowolski are silenced by this fight for a moment, but when Mr. Kowolski lapses into a stream of Polish obscenities, they break out into peals of laughter.

As I watch this fight unfold from my spectator raft, Mr. Kowolski sets his drink down on the table by their bed and smacks Mrs. Kowolski across the face. It is methodical, iron-cold. It is the work of a machine. The violence of a drone. She stumbles back and cups her cheek with her beautiful white hands. Her eyes fill with a kind of sorrow and pain that is mixed with a kind of arrogance. Mr. Kowolski is instantly contrite. He puts his hands around her, unzips her dress and buries his face in her breasts. She takes her beautiful hands and puts them around his head and holds him as if he is a baby. I see that her breasts are enormous, strikingly white with large reddish nipples. Her eyes close for a long time and her face smooths out, though a lingering attitude of disgust and hatred stays parked around the lines of her mouth. I watch them for a minute more until Mrs. Kowolski opens her eyes, sees me staring at her and smiles slightly, leaning over to shut the blinds.

I swim lazily in the pool, adrift in strange forbidden thoughts of the private parts of animals and the naked images of natives I have seen in the Time Life series of books our parents keep on the living room shelves. When Martin tells me he has had enough of Elaine and her retarded whining, I drag myself from the pool and follow him home across the street.

That night, Maggie and Harold engage in a drunken, nasty fight over dinner. That is when they usually reserve the time to argue. My brothers and sisters leave the table one by one. I am the last to go. I generally stay for as long as I can to try and glean some meaning from the volley of insults our parents hurl at each other. Maggie is calling Harold an imbecile and wonders how he can call himself a father to his children. Harold tells Maggie that if she spent as much time on him and the kids as she did on her fucking hair then maybe they'd have something resembling a family.

I leave the kitchen and shut myself in my room, succumbing finally to the dangerous vision of Mrs. Kowolski's bursting red nipples. When I come, the shrieks of my parents' argument drift through the walls and into my room, where they float around in the sweaty, shameful aftermath of a hundred butterflies alighting from my exhausted, naked body.


We are the progeny of an interfaith marriage. Catholic mother, Jewish father. Five children, meeting both the Orthodox and Catholic requirements for a large litter of heirs to our parents' gene pools. The older three are generally raised New Testament, with a little High Holidays thrown in for solemnity. By the time I roll out, an afterthought of nostalgic love, Maggie's passion for Jesus and the Virgin Mary has waned almost entirely and I learn to worship test tubes, the Big Bang theory and a god of mythic proportions -- half Jewish in His wrath and fury, half Catholic in His conditional forgiveness; a God who surfaces only when I am in need of an explanation for the unexplainable.

I spend most of my childhood roaming the neighborhood, a neatly arranged network of wide streets and ranch-style homes, bordered by old leafy trees good for climbing. Outside in summer, it smells like metal and lilac, peaches and skunk. The ground is a gold mine of buttons, pennies and other shiny, castaway pocket fodder. I collect. I gather. I accumulate. I have boxes of street gems -- odd bits of suburban flotsam -- which I glue together, erect and reinvent into enormous, forbidding shapes. Faces made of pennies. Moons made of broken glass. Hearts made of rocks and cement.

My sister Esther calls our house Monsoon Goldblum. A one-story ranch with a haphazard add-on -- my sad, dilapidated room that leaks in winter, roasts in summer -- in the back. Books and furniture are everywhere, almost alive, disordered and breathing. You do not ever find things in our house, you stumble across them in your journey. Entire closets are jammed with board games, bathrobes, priceless silver, basketballs. Drawers in dressers are a treasure chest of watches, panties, foreign coins and scented sachets. Pets include Harry the Dog, a cat Martin named Bilbo Fucking Baggins after he read The Hobbitt and several fish in a glass bowl. Remnants of our parents' fights lie in pieces throughout the house, broken vases and dishes waiting to be glued, never thrown out, evidence of their brawls. You never know when you might step on broken glass. You never know when you might sleep with a hairbrush.

But the world outside is clean and open. There is logic to stepping on a burr or a rusty nail. There is sense to wilting flowers, new spring leaves, deflated tennis balls. The junior high school borders our backyard, a long field of low-slung buildings, drooping and insolent, made of concrete and wood. In the winter, left untended, the field grows wild with weeds that are hacked off in spring and left to dry out under the sun. We use the dried weeds to make igloos and sometimes you might see six or seven weed igloos scattered across the field, like Monet's haystacks in the burnished light.

Every summer I take on several jobs. The first is to capture lizards and garden snakes on Mr. Milton's land, several acres of apricot and cherry trees down the street from our house. The second is to flee from the salt pellets Mr. Milton fires at me from his drafty old upstairs window. I steal fruit, which I eat nonstop. As a consequence, I have diarrhea all summer.

Meanwhile, my brothers spend their energy erecting a tree fort. They conduct secret meetings that involve blood rituals and double dares. I am not allowed to participate because I am a girl, an accusation against which I heatedly argue. When they're not around, I sneak up the tree and invade their secret fort. My heart is a cannon. I face certain torture if I am caught. The walls are wood painted blue. There are girlie magazines and packs of cigarettes stolen from the half-full packs of Winstons Maggie and Harold leave absentmindedly around the house. I take a cigarette and pretend to smoke it. I look at the naked women. I am repulsed by pubic hair and pray that I don't grow any on my own down-there.

My brothers, Eddie and Martin, and their friends develop a secret alphabet so they can write cryptic notes to one another. One day I walk by the tree fort and there is a mystifying sign posted on the trunk: CYYTRILWS OLP TTHOOFLEPM. OYLT MNLLT!!! I have no idea what these words mean, but my brothers and their friends are notorious for their creative torture techniques and I am certain the words forebode a secret agony for all trespassers. I don't dare climb the rungs they have nailed into the burly trunk of the tree.

Instead, I float for hours in the pool, until my skin is pruney and my eyes turn red from the chlorine. Sometimes my sister Mary, who is one year older than me, swims with me, but watching her get in is torture. One step, one squeal. "Quit being such a girl," I say. If circumstances are right, I throw her in. My other sister, Esther, who I forgive for being in love with the neighborhood thug, refuses to get her hair wet. She spends most of her time with Danny Franconi, stealing cigarettes at the variety store and making out inside churches and movie theaters.

I play with the boys on the street. They smell of dirt and sweat, of the things that grow wild: oleander, rosemary, ice plant. Eddie and Martin allow me to play with them and their friends, all of whom are five or six years older then me, on the condition that I don't go act like a girl and cry. I make a profession out of kick the can, hide 'n go seek, tackle football and dodge ball. We play dodge ball in the street hoping there will be blood or broken bones. I rarely bleed. I rarely fall. I am allowed the privilege of fist fights. I swear freely. "Fuck you, you turd brain," I say. Eddie and Martin laugh till they cry. "Fuck you, you monkey shit," I say.

Then the dark days arrive. Laser-sharp arrows of pain come unbidden out of some poisonous swamp inside my head. The most I can bear then is the blue light of TV, no sound. The curtains are drawn in my bedroom -- the half-assed add-on in the back -- and I believe in an abstract, disjointed way that I too am nothing more than an add-on. The headaches get worse.

"You are just a child," Maggie screams. "You are not entitled to migraines." She brings in the fan. She puts cold rags that smell vaguely of dish soap across my forehead.

"She is just a child," I hear my mother say to no one as she leaves my room, trailing perfume, cigarettes, vodka. The medicine, extracted from her ubiquitous pill bottles, makes the world lopsided, makes my heart labor, my eyes turn to glue, my body limp and disobedient but also strangely civilized, at rest.

Maggie goes around the house saying no one is to disturb me. She alone has visiting rights. Time vanishes, to be replaced by the instances of her boozy, magnificent presence. She emerges from the gloom and the murk, a shard of glass glinting in sunlight, with 7-UP and toast. Her body miraculously lies down beside me. I am a comma in the recesses of her womb. I am a hand in the glove. The seawater world flows around me. I am the shore, she is the tide. I think, Don't disappear. The blue night sweeps down and my mind dances to the tune of my pulse, which has made its home inside my head. Thud, thud, thud.

Usually by the next morning, I am better. And Maggie treats me with resignation, a slight annoyance, as if she liked me more when I was sick. "Go on, dear, and leave me alone," she says, her voice filled with drama and irritation, smoke surging from her mouth.

Harold, a man older than his years who travels through the house in a cloud of thoughts, is not involved in the illnesses of his children. He is a man haunted by science, terrorized by reality. If I come up behind him suddenly or we bump into each other rounding the corners of the house, he jumps as if startled and gazes at me for a moment as if trying to remember who I am. He is a man who prefers to worship the myth of theory over the certainty of facts.

He builds elaborate dollhouses from scratch in his garage. They are beautiful, orderly homes, devoid of humanity. I gaze at them from time to time, wishing I were small enough to live inside such cool, tidy elegance. Sometimes when I can't sleep, I imagine that I am the sole resident of whatever dollhouse he happens to be working on. I live alone. I sit in the kitchen and read the newspaper, sipping from a beautiful coffee cup. There are no parents, no brothers, no sisters. There is no booze and no pills. There are no pool parties. I spend my days wandering from room to room, the silence at my back. Nothing breaks. No one screams. Sometimes Maggie or Harold knock on the door, but I don't answer it. I hide behind the curtains and wait for them to go away.

Usually, when Harold is finished with one of his houses he turns his back on it, donating it to a charity or letting it rot in the yard. For some reason, the finished product always disappoints him. It is as if he is searching for something that, to his dismay, can never be found by the gluing down of miniatures.


Our parents are poolside with the Kowolskis, getting soused on watermelon nui-nui and sangria. I hide out in the living room and peer at them from behind the drapes. If I don't keep vigil, something is bound to happen, something is bound to break. Someone is bound to get hurt.

Maggie is sitting in her chaise lounge, her long, beautiful legs crossed at the knee. In her right hand she holds a cigarette, extended cartoon-fashion by a cigarette holder. With her left hand she nervously taps a cocktail glass filled with vodka. Mr. Kowolski is telling everyone that Mrs. Kowolski has a fascination for the milkman.

"She is always doing this and that with her hair on Mondays and Wednesdays. Irene, tell them," he says.

"He's darling, Maggie. A little Mexican boy from over there." Mrs. Kowolski, who is all gold lamé and bouffant hair wags her hands in a vaguely southerly direction. She appears to be having a difficult time focusing on Maggie. But Maggie has that effect on people. Her presence insults. It mocks. It mystifies.

"Stupid spics," Mr. Kowolski says in his Polish accent.

"Don't be so damn German," Harold shouts from the other side of the pool.

"He's not German, mon cher," Maggie says, laughing. Her laugh is like water rushing over smooth rocks, water that goes on forever, like an echo of itself, water in a deep pool that broadcasts back the sound of a stone skimming upon its surface.

"Okay," says Harold. "Stop being such a damn Nazi."

"Now, now," Mr. Kowolski says. "One had to live there. Fit in or be killed."

I peer around the drapes in order to see my father. His tuft of hair, a white unruly patch that dominates his forehead, dangles forward and he pushes it gently aside. I can tell he is braving about a three-drink melancholy. Though I don't understand their conversation -- I have a theory that our parents and their friends were dropped to Earth by a race of aliens happy to be rid of their outcasts -- I know something has frightened Harold. He is easily spooked, easily jarred. He is a man who cries.

I watch the way Maggie dangles her legs, wiggling her toes. I stare at the glamorous splotches of blood-red nail polish on her toenails. Mr. Kowolski is telling her that most women her age have dimples on their ass, but that she, Maggie Goldblum, does not.

"Ferme la bouche, David, darling," Maggie says, pronouncing David like Daveed. She has a habit of speaking dramatically, like an American stage actress attempting British or French accents. And nothing ever seems to embarrass her. She is not the least bit ruffled that Mr. Kowolski is referring to her ass in front of Mrs. Kowolski and Harold. She just looks at him with her bored movie star expression and says, "Don't you think that's a little crass in mixed company?"

"Mixed company. What mixed company? A Jew and a Nazi, you mean?"

"Up yours," Harold says and everyone laughs.

Later, the Grants and the Baxters come by, each with a bottle of something. The Franconis also show up clasping a bottle of cheap tequila, though in a year, Mr. Franconi will be hauled off to jail for some undisclosed, though rumor has it, egregious act. When Harry the Dog -- a large, floppy-eared stew of different breeds -- and an armchair end up in the pool, the party moves indoors where the guests scatter into dark corners like shrapnel. I see their shadows, their drunken movements. I hear the ripple and cascade of their frosted laughter.

Impossible partnerships are forged, partnerships that I know then are only real for as long as the night lasts. I notice especially Maggie and Mr. Kowolski, orbiting each other with their boozy intimacy, held together, I am sure, by a gravity of their own invention. I hear the dog crying and wade into the pool to rescue him. I nearly drown in the process, fighting against his terror and apparent relief. The dog seems grateful. He puts his huge paws around my neck and desperately licks my face.

Nightfall yields a different set of rules and as if to prove it, my two brothers, Martin and Eddie, sneak off to set the lockers on fire at the junior high school that adjoins our backyard. I can see through the window of Esther's bedroom an occasional flame ignite like the butt end of a bottle rocket and disappear into blackness.

My sisters prepare suicides, a mixture of watermelon nui-nui, scotch and sangria that Esther has effortlessly pilfered from our parents' party. Esther, the oldest, dead now, tells me and Mary that the important trick to making a suicide is mixing the alcohol in equal parts.

"As old Harold would say, it's an exact science," she says. "A precise and methodical exercise leading to a delightful plane of molecular chaos." She frowns when she laughs because our father both annoys and intrigues her.

I watch her mix the potion in her careful, measured way. She has a certain expertise doing things that are not sanctioned by our parents or, for that matter, society at large. I feel privileged when she includes me in her brazen acts against authority. She has a distinct talent for making disobedience seem acceptable, even desirable. She is part soldier, part nurse. She's a warrior who carries wine and Band-Aids.

She loves the idea of jail. She fantasizes out loud about it all the time, about being arrested for protesting against the white capitalist pigs that run Corporate America. She believes going to jail is the ultimate expression of civil disobedience, which is why she idolizes Martin Luther King Jr., even though he's been dead for four years.

She hopes one day that she will go to jail for peacefully demonstrating against whatever white, corporate, racist, fascist segment of society happens to be the reigning oppressor when she is in college. She loves using the words racist and oppressor.

I imagine jail. It is gray, empty. There is no privacy. Esther and I are in there together. When I have to pee, she uses her body to shield me from the other inmates, and at night, she plots our escape.

I watch her, taking mental notes the entire time, as she makes the suicides. Her elegant, slender fingers, inherited from Maggie, are wrapped around a mason jar and she shakes the potion up with her usual dramatic flair. Her long, black hair is tied behind her head in a braid but when she prepares to take the first sip of the suicide, she untethers it and shakes her head so that her hair fans out around her.

I touch my own red hair and lament the curls, the color. Somehow I know I will never be like her. Because of this, I work hard learning the tricks of her debauchery. I am old enough to know that while genetics cannot, certain behavior can be mastered over time.

Mary leans into the bean bag chair. She is not sure she should partake of the alcohol, but it is impossible to say no to Esther, who makes all manner of illicit activities seem reasonable. Mary takes a sip, a small one, I notice, compared to Esther's long, courageous drought, and makes a face.

"Yuck," she says.

Mary is sweet, not a Goldblum trait, and good, not a Goldblum trait. She seems to have few complications. She rarely complains. She rarely gets into trouble. Unlike the rest of us, she is an average student, dreamy and ethereal. To our collective horror, she mentions God from time to time. She loves anything having to do with Jesus, Catholic churches and the New Testament. This, of course, bothers Harold, a lapsed Jew but a Jew nonetheless, but it pleases Maggie, a lapsed Catholic but a Catholic nonetheless.

To Mary's credit, she does not gush about sin and hell and all the other ghoulish accouterments of Catholicism, though late at night, when I have a headache or insomnia, she will know somehow and tiptoe into my room to croon songs into my ear about heaven.

Esther laughs at the face of disgust Mary makes. It is a thick, burly laugh. It is a man's laugh. Hearing it, I laugh too. She takes another long sip and smiles happily after a loud, exaggerated swallow.

"Mmmmm," she says. She leans back against the wall then stands up and goes over to the record player. She is wearing a halter top and bell bottom corduroys. Her tiny boobs poke out beneath the flimsy cotton of her top and her pants are so tight I can see the flowered fractures of her butt and vagina. She has a beautiful, slender body and, unlike the rest of us, very dark skin.

She rifles through a stack of the parents' records, climbing over a box of clothes for the Goodwill and an old dollhouse Harold constructed and abandoned years ago. She makes faces as she does this and laments the fact that our parents have such bad taste in music. Finally, she pulls out a Petula Clark album, shrugging her shoulders, adapting and molding her expectations to fit whatever is available. She puts the record on and starts singing "Downtown," her body swaying with the rhythm of the music. She closes her eyes when she dances and watching her makes me feel a mix of complicated, embarrassing emotions that I don't yet have a name for.

She takes another sip. Then, winking at Mary, she hands me the suicide. Mary protests, but Mary's protests are rarely heeded. She is one of us, so we don't deride her. Instead, we ignore her. It is our way of loving the anomaly.

"Go on, Baby Goldblum. Have yourself some fun."

I take a long sip like Esther did, and after I swallow, I feel it rise up again almost instantly. I am able, out of a combination of horror and pride, to stave off vomiting. Esther laughs loudly but Mary's eyebrows furrow with concern.

"Go on," Esther says. She ruffles my hair and under her encouragement, I take another sip. Maybe it is the lack of food, maybe because I am so skinny, but almost immediately, I feel dizzy and loose, like my bones have become unhinged and my eyeballs unleashed into the aqueous fluid supporting them.

Esther takes me in her arms and twirls me around. I see Mary out of the corner of my eye and she has that look on her face. It is more than worry. It is an anxiety without borders. She does not like what she sees but it seems to hinge on something deeper than the present course of events, as if something more meaningful is taking place other than getting me drunk.

When Esther lets me go I tell Mary I love Esther more than anyone in the whole wide world. Esther takes me aside and says, "I wouldn't do that, Baby Goldblum, because someday I might disappoint you."

I brush her off and turn up the stereo so I can dance more. I have a vast desire to remove my clothes but when I begin to unbutton my pants, Mary tells me I had better keep them on.

Esther, meanwhile, is changing into a dress. She is powdering her armpits and brushing her hair. She puts red lipstick on and tells us she is meeting Danny at the aqueduct. She then tells us that she and Danny Franconi just went to third base. I do not, of course, know what this means because I am only eight years old. She continues using baseball metaphors as a way of telling us how intimate she and Danny are.

Mary, who is nine, holds her hands over my ears during one part of the story and all I hear, before throwing up, is the folded corners of Esther's voice rushing past me as if strapped to the sides of a speeding locomotive.

I do not drink again after that for twenty-one years, and that lapse in fortitude is only because Esther has indeed disappointed me by getting herself dead.


Three years later. It is Christmas Eve day. My oldest brother Eddie is hacking away at a large Christmas candle with the image of Jesus Christ superimposed over it. The ax he uses is impressively big, a burled mass of blackened iron and wood. Outside, smoke rises from the chimneys and a cold, driving rain pounds against the pavement, washing away my chalked hopscotch squares. I am in the cluttered garage wedged between several bicycles and a contraption Harold uses to glue the tiny pieces of his dollhouses together. I open and close the small windows on the nearly microscopic hinges of Harold's latest project, a reproduction of a southern mansion, replete with pillars and verandas. His hobby of building these dollhouses fascinates me the way most of the behavior of our parents fascinates me. It is just one more piece of evidence that they have been deposited on earth by aliens.

Harry the Dog is standing watch, his big tongue hanging out the side of his mouth while Eddie slashes the candle. Harry the Dog cocks his head from side to side and whines. "Shut up, you fucking asshole mongrel dog," I say.

I love Eddie fiercely. He is the best looking of us Goldblums, with soft, expressive features and a kind smile. He has a tough outer shell evidenced in the way he remains unfazed by Maggie's violent mood swings and Harold's melancholy. But this shell surrounds a complicated network of sensitivities and affections of which I am usually the recipient.

One day he will blow the whistle on some high-powered Wall Street executives who are ripping off a hundred or more senior citizens in south Florida and, for his efforts, will end up in a ditch bloodied from head to toe but still breathing.

On Christmas Day 1975 he is eradicating. That's what he tells me when I ask him what he's doing.

"I am eradicating," he says.

I know better than to ask him to elaborate. I suck on a hard peppermint candy. I watch. The ax goes up, comes down, a chunk of wax -- the hand of Jesus -- flies in the air. Over and over again, different parts of the body of Jesus catapult skyward until Eddie misses and his finger flies through the air and lands on the ground with a splat.

I realize he has just eradicated more than he has planned on. He faints almost the moment it happens and I pick up the finger, unfazed by the blood and the warm, wrinkled feeling of his finger in the palm of my hand. I feel in some way that I have possessed my brother completely as I run through the house and find Maggie. I understand that I am the lone hero in an incident of which the retelling will no doubt be twice as dramatic as the event itself.

When I find my mother, I hold my brother's finger out to her and she screams hysterically, "Get that thing away from me!"

The finger is eventually sewn back on. Eddie loses the use of it forever but he is grateful to me for having helped him retain the aesthetics of a hand. For weeks afterward he is treated to an endless supply of ice cream and awed kindness, though Maggie has been rendered nearly incoherent and has come to rely extravagantly on the mysterious little pills she keeps in the pocket of her apron.

One day, I happen upon her in her bathroom. Her hair is disheveled. Her face pinched. She does not know I am there. She opens the medicine cabinet, her hands trembling. Inside are dozens of prescription pills lined up in neat little rows. I feel my heart skip a beat. There is something wrong here. I wonder if she is dying.

"Maggie?" I say. "Mom?"

She turns around, startled. Then she smiles. It is a smile of kindness and superiority. It is a smile which is impossible to translate.

"Does Dr. Hearn give you all those pills?" I ask. I am afraid to ask her what I really want to know -- if she has cancer or leukemia or something equally mysterious and terrifying.

"Oh, ma petite," she says. "There are two secrets one must never

reveal. The first is one's age and the second is the name of one's drug dealer. Reputations being what they are."

She leans over, puckers my cheeks and kisses me on the lips. I smell her tonic scent and the Chanel No. 5 she dabs on her wrists every morning. I have no idea what she's talking about. I retreat from the dominion of her bedroom knowing I have stumbled onto a grave secret that she has carefully smoldered by a rare and electric little kiss on the lips.

One day later two gregarious relatives on Harold's side, both from the East Coast, stop by for the afternoon on their day's layover to Hawaii. They bring Eddie a New York Yankees baseball cap and a Star of David necklace, which he puts around his neck and never removes again. It is then that I understand the power that symbols have over my brother.


One by one, in order of age, we are:

Harold Goldblum, Margaret Magdalena Goldblum -- parents.

Eddie Goldblum, Martin Goldblum, Esther Goldblum, Mary Goldblum -- siblings.

Then there's me, Louise Goldblum.

Our parents are born in 1925 and 1932 respectively.

Harold Goldblum is the unwilling offspring of German immigrant parents and is raised a strict Jew in the Orthodox tradition. When the youngest of his two sisters dies during a rampant typhoid epidemic that sweeps through the Brooklyn ghetto where they live, his father, my grandfather, turns away from God forever. His mother does not, so like his own children, Harold Goldblum matures in an environment of religious ambivalence, characterized by episodes of extreme religious passion always tempered by a certain hatred for God.

In 1941, at the age of sixteen, he is accepted at Harvard with plans to earn his medical degree. He is young enough to be impressed by the upper-class snobbery of the Bostonian elite, but when he is rebuffed by the sister of a classmate not just because he is a Jew but because he is too Jewish looking, he is finally demoralized enough to leave Harvard in his third year and finish his education at the State University of New York at Albany.

It is there that he meets his wife, our mother, a Catholic from Pittsburgh who is the first in her family of eight girls to have a greater ambition other than to marry and reproduce. She is studying to be the next best thing for a woman at that time -- a nurse -- when she meets Harold in the doorway of the organic chemistry lecture hall.

After three dates he promises her the West Coast, where a job is already waiting for him at the laboratory of human virus research at Stanford University. Tired of the Pittsburgh winters, her father's alcoholic violence and the cloying scents of perfumes, hair sprays and lipsticks that have dominated her life (not to mention the threat of spinsterhood in a family of seven married sisters), she gives up her education to marry and reproduce.

Perhaps the bitterness that characterizes the marriage of our parents begins when Margaret Magdalena's mother, who has a phobia of hell, insists that her daughter be married beneath the eyes of Jesus, and Harold's mother refuses to attend the Catholic ceremony.

Since my accidental deposit on this planet, I can only say that their marriage has consisted of plate-throwing, door-slamming fights, periods of remorse followed by the anguish of missed opportunities -- Harold, who bemoans the medical degree he never got and Maggie, who won't admit that she sold her soul and threw away her education in order to escape what, in truth, she could never truly escape.

Among the offspring, it is true that we all, except perhaps Mary, share one trait, and that is our ability to eat as much as we want, whenever we want without ever gaining weight. But that is as far as our similarities go. The boys look equally like our parents, Martin more so than Eddie, whose genes miraculously tricked the rest of his body into playing down the worst of their features and accenting the best. Martin is by far the ugliest of the Goldblums, having inherited Harold's potato nose and Maggie's thin, flyaway hair. He is also the most ambitious. When he is six, he builds an erector set house complete with indoor plumbing and electric lighting. Later, in a spurt of hormonal anger and indifference, he embarks on a two-year serial murder spree, shooting birds and small rodent-type animals with a BB gun and a slingshot. He spends afternoons stuffing them with the precision of a professional taxidermist. We can always tell where he is by the smell of animal flesh and blood that accompanies him from room to room, and to this day I cannot smell rubbing alcohol without thinking of small animal pelts pinned to wooden boards.

At the age of forty-two, Martin will develop a synthetic drug that mimics the benefits of certain medications found in the gallbladders of bears. This will be his effort to both atone for his past and to stop the senseless slaughter of grizzly bears, having long since abandoned the notion that there is anything noble in destroying life.

Esther, dead now, is tall and dark. She is keenly intelligent and exquisitely emotional. She feels everything intensely and angers easily, particularly when she believes she is misunderstood. For this reason, she has a tendency toward high passion and relentless overexplanation, which has the effect of wearing her opponents down. Of all us Goldblums she is the most sexual and loves to talk about it in a nasty, exciting way. Sometime after the death of Danny Franconi she vows never to marry and never to have children, and devotes her life to journalism and sex. She is beautiful in a tough way, filled with hard, inquisitive expressions and enough angles to taunt certain theories of geometry. One day she will write a story for a San Francisco publication about college kids squatting in an abandoned tenement. She will return home, like them, addicted to heroin, with a tattoo of an angel on her left arm. But within a few weeks she will be clean again and capable of writing a story that will eventually win an award for journalistic excellence.

When she is thirty-two, The New York Times, her employer, finally assigns her to South Africa, something she has coveted for nearly two years. The day after she is supposed to have left, she is found in a roadside motel, on the outskirts of an old ghost town in the Sierra foothills, her body in a state of repose, a single bullet wound to the head. Her clothes are found neatly folded on a chair. There are no signs that she struggled. There are no witnesses and no arrests. The case remains open, a vast, immutable desert of questions.

After we bury her, Harold insists that Maggie cover all the mirrors in the house and sit shiva with him which, in a rare gesture of partnership and respect, she does. It is no mystery that Esther is Harold's favorite.

Mary, the youngest before me and the only one beside me who escaped the strong pull of conflicting religions, is the only female I have known that, when describing her, I would use the words love and respect in the same sentence. This is not because I have never loved or respected other women but rather because I have never experienced both feelings at one time for any woman other than her.

She does not have the Goldblum height nor the exceptional leanness. She did not inherit any of the negative traits associated with our clan -- rage, moodiness, overbearing curiosity and a savage, Darwinian sort of intelligence that enables the rest of us to bulldoze our way through adversity. But she is prone, in ways the rest of us are not, to outbursts of unadulterated empathy and long periods -- a lifetime actually -- of sustained kindness.

Mary is best described in this way. In October 1993, she will wrap her arms around me and whisper gently, "Oh you poor, sweet angel," not the least bit fazed by the fact that I have just been released from jail, with a bloody lip and a black eye, on my own recognizance.

Copyright © 1999 by Leslie Schwartz

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