Thirteen-year-old Rudy and his friends routinely ride their bikes through their rundown neighborhood, shouting insults at their neighbor, Jacob, an elderly Jewish man out tending his garden. Then Rudy discovers that his mother has arranged for him to help Jacob tear down his fence that summer. When a sullen Rudy shows up at Jacob's door, it's hard to know which of them is most wary of the other. Yet when Rudy sees the beautiful gardens Jacob and his neighbors, Frederick and Yoshito, have created in their backyards, he can't help but be impressed.
During the hot summer days that follow, fatherless Rudy, who wants to "belong to something," toils in the sun with a shovel and an attitude, reluctant to accept even a glass of Frederick's iced tea. Gradually he learns that the older men-Jacob, from Germany; Frederick, an African American from the pre-civil rights movement South; and Yoshito, a Japanese American who spent three years in an internment camp during World War II-have become like brothers, bonded through tragedy and the drive to transform barren dirt into something beautiful.
Frederick and Yoshito have made peace with their pasts and removed the fence between their yards, but Jacob is still haunted by what happened to his family at Auschwitz, memories retriggered by Rudy and his friends. As they work alongside each other, Jacob and Rudy do more than tear down a fence in this story of healing and hope that changes Rudy's life in ways he never imagined.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.29(d)|
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By Deborah Radwan
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Deborah Radwan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA grizzled-looking old man, Jacob leaned back on his knees, rubbed the soil from his hands onto stained pants, and hoisted himself from the ground with considerable effort. He steadied his upward progression with the aid of a hoe that looked as worn as he did. His forward-bent shadow leaned to one side like a tree that grows toward the sun. Clinging white-knuckled to his staff, he allowed it to bear the brunt of his weight until he could properly straighten his spine—a task that was harder with each passing day. Jacob reached into his back pocket and pulled out a rag to wipe the sweat and dirt that had settled into the wrinkles and creased brow of his weathered face. Ironically, the thin, white castoff, discolored and soiled, displayed a monogrammed "L" in the corner, betraying better, more distinguished days.
Hearing a ruckus coming from down the street, Jacob turned toward it. The usual routine, he thought, shaking his head in disapproval. School had just let out for the summer. Jacob watched as a swarm of boys on bicycles rode by, some using language that no decent boys of that age should know, much less be using in casual conversation. The anger and the power in the boys' voices scared him, but he looked at them with a steady eye, hiding his fear.
"What are you staring at, Jew man?" one boy yelled at him as they rode by. A second one spit in his direction, saying, "Filthy kike." Another boy thrust out his arm and lifted his middle finger. The rest of the boys laughed—except for one. That boy stared back at Jacob with an equally unflinching eye.
Jacob straightened and stood tall next to his hoe, his head slightly lifted, his chin defiant—but said nothing. A shiver ran down his spine. His eyes were locked on the boy holding up the rear of the group, the boy with the fixed eyes and still expression scrutinizing him intently as he rode by. The boy then turned his attention back to the group and peddled faster to catch up to the others who were several bike lengths ahead.
It wasn't until the boys were out of sight that Jacob relaxed again, his body resisting the impulse to tremble.
Lumbering down the drive, he complained to himself that he was an old man in an old neighborhood. Why hadn't he left? he asked himself again for the hundredth time now, as he looked up and down the street, disappointed at what he saw. The pleasant neighborhood he bought into in the early fifties was now run-down and dilapidated, and a bad element had infiltrated the old comfortable homes. Mrs. Jefferson was a widow who couldn't afford her electric bill much less home improvements on her husband's pension; Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez were too busy taking care of their grandchildren and great grandchildren to worry about the blistering paint that marred their house; and Jacob didn't even want to think about what was going on in the house next to them. That house was once pristine with a manicured lawn and flowers along the sidewalk and a sign on the porch that read "The Myers." Jacob remembered them as a lovely family that took great pride in their little "Shangri-La," as they dubbed it. They believed they had a piece of the American dream. Now, there was a car parked on the lawn, a ripped sofa on the porch, and a flag being used as a curtain. Rough and raw-looking people came and went at odd hours, day and night—in, then out ten minutes later. Tattooed with closely shaved heads, they would often screech away. "Hooligans," Jacob muttered to himself.
But even as Jacob asked himself why he stayed, he knew it was because of his longtime neighbors, Frederick and Yoshito, and the garden the three of them created from the thirsty and barren soil once overrun with dead and brittle weeds.
For decades, the expansive and hidden yards behind their individual homes that sat side by side had been left untended; they were too big to handle and therefore ignored, abandoned, and left to die.
One March morning, a dozen years back now, maybe more, Frederick heard his dead Negro ancestors singing for the first time. He said their deep soulful voices rose out of the yard singing "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." Although he couldn't see them, he sensed they were working in the garden the way they had worked the fields in the Deep South, where his people came from. Their voices were filled with joy and praise. From that day forward, Frederick worked in his yard from early in the morning, when just a hint of brightness lit up the eastern sky, until long after the sun's luster had dimmed. In those early days, Jacob and Yoshito wondered if he ever stopped to sleep.
Frederick didn't always hear the singing now, but he made up for it with his own raised voice. In the beginning, when there was much to be done, Frederick heard them all the time, blending their voices with his, pushing him forward to dig out pathways, plant flowers and trees of every variety, and grow herbs and vegetables. Now, the singing came when he least expected it, when he was just about to give up hope of ever hearing them again. In those moments, Frederick's voice was louder and richer as he sang in harmony with a choir only he could hear. But since that first day, he claimed to feel part of them, linked to his past as he worked by their unseen sides. Over time, Frederick's large, dead, and parched rectangular yard began to mold into paths and patches and change in color, texture, and richness. The hard became soft; the brown turned green; the dull became bright; and the dry was rich and nourished. He claimed a similar metamorphosis had taken hold of his soul. In the intervening years, Frederick seemed happier, younger, and stronger—for an old man.
That same magical summer that Frederick heard the singing, Yoshito claimed to hear his dying trees and withering bushes whispering to him in a parched voice that they were thirsty, and dutifully, he gave them drink. Feeling honored that his plants should talk to him and that he had been given the gift to hear them, he followed Frederick's lead. Before long, Yoshito began transforming his yard. Soon after, they tore down the fence between their homes and began working together on one beautiful Eden.
They're getting old and they're going crazy, hearing voices, Jacob often thought. "Old men's ramblings," he would grumble to himself, shaking his head in disbelief at their nonsense.
As for himself, transforming his garden had just given him something to do, something to pass the time. Perhaps he had needed something beautiful in his life, and the garden seemed to fill a void. So he joined Frederick and Yoshito in creating his little piece of paradise. Jacob heard no sweet ancestors singing and no whispered voices from the garden. He only heard the daily chorus of the birds in his trees and he was satisfied with that.
Jacob did, however, hear voices in his dreams. They were unwelcome visitors on whom the door would not close. Even after all these decades, he sometimes heard cruel, rough German voices from the past shouting orders, calling him names, ordering him and his father to go to the right, his mother and sister to the left. He'd looked back into a sea of crying women and children as he and his father were pushed with other men and older boys out of sight—and that was the last he saw of his mother and sister. His dreams varied slightly, but it was always cold, rainy, and gray, and he was always in that same place. He always felt the same terror and nearly always awakened crying feeling like a boy again. Even in his dreams, those long dead voices sounded real, frightening him still, inviting the memories that he pushed down during the day to seep back to his consciousness as he slept vulnerable to their power.
During the day, Jacob found respite in his garden and in the companionship of his dear neighbors. Not many had seen the Eden that lay hidden behind their homes, but those who had could not dispute the results whatever the motivation, even if it was senility. And, despite whatever madness invaded Frederick's and Yoshito's senses, they were his friends. Through some great miracle the three of them had been placed next door to each other on this earth, only to find after years of gaining trust that they shared similar histories; dark histories they did not share with many. They understood each other. And so their relationships evolved over the years from neighbors to friends and then to family, as if they were brothers sharing one history instead of three similar histories. Jacob knew how lucky he was to have them in his life. They were good men—even if they were going mad. "The geriatric musketeers," Jacob would say whenever the three of them had worked together on some project, like when they first built their raised beds for their vegetable garden behind Frederick's house.
In their garden, the seasons passed easily, each changing the complexion and colors of the garden. The work never seemed to end. The more they planted and weeded and hoed, the more they found to plant, weed, and hoe. But their labors filled their days, and they were rewarded with the opening of a rose, the bloom of a daffodil, the drape of purple wisteria, the smell of fresh cilantro and lavender, and the sweetness and juiciness of a homegrown tomato. Simply, they had come to love their garden, their Eden, as they called it. They recalled that God had created the Garden of Eden from nothing, much as they had done with the dead earth that once was their backyards. At the end of a fine day, like today, after the watering and cleaning up was done, the singing faded, the plants satiated, and the birds retired, they would sit in their garden and enjoy its coolness and beauty and wonder, until the darkness enfolded them reminding them of their pillows and the feathery dreams that awaited them.
While the others welcomed sleep, Jacob resisted it, knowing his nightmares would come if not tonight then tomorrow. However reconciled to them he had become, he could only hope that they would strike as close to dawn as possible so as not to ruin an entire night of sleep.
Jacob's garden was as beautiful as the other's, but he had not yet torn down the fence between his garden and the rest of Eden. He needed help; he couldn't do it alone. An old man like himself, or even two old men, could not wrestle that wire fence down; it seemed to have the strength of Hercules. Frederick said he would get help from someone at his church. Jacob had to remember to ask him about it—but then again, he was in no hurry.
Squinting, and then cupping his hand over his eyes, Jacob looked up at the bright sky rather than at his watch and decided from the angle of the sun that it was close to three o'clock in the afternoon. He confirmed his suspicion by measuring the size of the all too familiar and still-bent shadow that sprouted from his feet and stretched across the blistering hot driveway, noting that his image slightly wavered like a mirage in the sweltering heat. The air screamed its stillness and summer oppression, and it was only the end of June. In that still air, he noted the absence of the whistling and chattering birds that normally filled his ears when the day was young and realized they had been silent several hours—further evidence that the day was well situated somewhere around the mid-afternoon hour.
Even after all these years, Jacob still wondered where his feathery friends went when the sun was too high and the afternoons too long. They would not reappear until the sun fell lower in the sky, the brightness became muted, and the air cooled. Then they would keep him company again for a few hours more until sunset bid them home. He sometimes wondered if they retired to a place over the rainbow like the song said. His good-humored friends joked with him about this theory, but since none of them had seen a bird sleep, he knew a place like that must exist.
As the sun scorched his back through his sweat-soaked cotton undershirt, Jacob thought, It's too hot for them; they're off sleeping. I should take a lesson from them. But instead of feeling branded and burned from the sun, the heat seemed more to him like the luxury of a hot bath surrounding him and settling in around his bones and joints, easing the exertions of the day. Each morning, his movements were slow and heavy, his muscles stiff. Then, as the sun gathered strength and intensity, warming the dirt in which he crawled from sunup to sundown, he found his body loosening and ridding itself of the chill that accompanied his dreams as he slept. His old body relished the comfort that heat brought to his movements, the years it took away, and the cold memories it suppressed. It was not the raised mercury that made him feel branded, but the black number tattooed on the inside of his forearm that neither soap nor time could take away and that a summer tan could not hide. I should have had that removed a long time ago, he thought again as he had so many times over the decades, but he never did.
Jacob drew his attention back to the patch of planters along the driveway where he had been working all day to critique his own handiwork. Ah, he corrected himself, God's handiwork. He had merely arranged God's colorful and leafy creations, rejuvenated the soil with some mulch, and seized the evil weeds from their strangling tendencies. He gave a nod of approval to no one but himself.
Next door, Frederick had gone indoors to prepare iced tea for all of them. "The nectar of the gods," Frederick called it. Jacob would routinely shake his head and say, "It's only a tea bag and some water, my dramatic friend."
Yoshito had gone to the nursery hours earlier for more bags of peat moss and manure for the project he was going to start the next day. Must have gotten caught up talking to the hydrangeas at the nursery, Jacob mused to himself. He took some small delight in teasing his old friends, and they let him enjoy himself at their expense.
Jacob looked at the next planter over and thought that he must amend that soil and pull any weeds tomorrow. From behind him, he heard Frederick's voice at the fence, and it startled him.
"Here's your tea, Jacob," Frederick said, as he reached over the chain link fence that separated his part of Eden from the whole. Jacob took a cool, long draught from the glass. Satisfied, he and Frederick sought shade nearby, each on their own side of the fence.
"You did a fine job on that planter. Just a little water and those new flowers will take off in no time. What is that yellow one, yarrow?" Frederick asked.
Jacob just nodded, still inspecting his work.
Frederick continued. "Oh, I've got a teenage boy coming to help take down this fence. His mother is anxious to fill his summer with something other than the crowd he's started to hang with, so I offered him a little cash for some honest hard work. His mother is grateful."
"You may be asking for trouble, my friend. Teenager? Bad crowd? I don't like the sound of it."
Jacob found himself thinking back to the boys on the bikes; how the taunting and the hostile eyes of those neighborhood boys that gawked at him had reminded him of the young men in Germany so long ago, after it was no longer safe to be Jewish. It didn't matter that he was ten thousand miles and fifty-five years removed from it. Jew, "Jude," the way they spit out the word, was the same. Jacob wondered how such young boys then and now could have so much anger and hatred inside them. Too young, too young, Jacob thought shaking his head.
Jacob knew that this was not Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. It was not that he was old, or a Jew. He could have been anything—Mexican, Puerto Rican, Asian, Black, white, short, tall, fat, skinny, blond, what did they call it .. gay?—it didn't matter. It was that he was not whatever they thought they were. But this wasn't much consolation. He'd seen too much, knew what could happen, to shrug it off easily. But what could he do? Jacob wondered, feeling as helpless now as he had then. Now he was going to have some troubled teenager working in his Eden? He didn't like the idea.
"It'll be fine, Jacob. His mother is a good woman. The boy's father left them when he was just three. He just hasn't had much direction, that's all. Needs to see what some hard work can get you—a little spending money, the feeling of accomplishment, being part of something. You know."
Jacob waved him off. "I think we'll never get this fence down. But what do I know? Let us try Mr. Teenage Big Shot. When does he start?"
"This Saturday, bright and early. I'll be here to help; Yoshito, too, if we need him."
"All right, Frederick. I don't like the idea, but we'll see if we can give Mr. Know-It-All Teenager something to do, see if he sticks with it." Jacob handed back his now empty glass to his friend and headed for the hose to wash away the dirt that clung to his hands and spewed out onto the drive from the planter.
Excerpted from The Compass by Deborah Radwan Copyright © 2012 by Deborah Radwan. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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