Category Archives: The Book of Creation

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

If being a writer means writing, I was a writer.

If being a writer means getting paid for what you write?

I was lucky that Bubbe had left some money for me.

In trust.

About which he never lost a chance to remind me.

Now it was mine.

I lost some of it in law school.

VI

For four years I had thrashed my way through the lush intellectual jungle of Morningside Heights, crossing wide fast crocodile infested rivers, evading charging hippopotami, swinging on vines across gaping chasms, startling up in the middle of the night soaked with fever under the stars, luxuriating in fresh mangoes and berries and bananas, cooling beneath cascading white water falls, hacking through thorn-thrusting brush-choked byways, befriending villagers, emerging in glory at the convergence of turquoise sea and cobalt sky and blazing white sand.

I crossed Amsterdam Avenue and arrived in the middle of the desert.

Mid-September.

Torts.

Sitting among one hundred of my new best friends.

He was strutting back and forth behind the podium, tie whipping behind him as he’d turn, flapping his arms like a wild goose.

Lucky me.

I’d seen the drill before.

“Let us address Judge Andrew’s dissent.”

“Sure.”

“Did the explosion in fact cause the scale to fall upon Mrs. Palsgraf?”

“Yes.”

“And it injured her?”
“Yes.”

“And the guard was negligent in knocking down the package that caused the explosion?”

“Well, that’s what the case says but I think . . . .”

That is what it says?”

“Yes. Both Cardozo and Andrews agree about negligence. But I think . . . .”

“If both of these great jurists agree as to the facts, why does it matter what you think?”

“Because I think the guy was just doing his job and it doesn’t seem negligent to me and if you hold him liable he’s never going to try to help anybody ever again.”

“Your personal evaluation of the presence or absence of negligence here is irrelevant.  And I have asked you about proximate cause, not negligence.”

“Yes, but if there is no negligence then proximate cause doesn’t matter and I know what the judges said but it seems to me wrong to call this negligence.”

“Seems to you?”

.  .  .  .

“Seems to you?”

.  .  .  .

Seems to you?”

.  .  .  .

“Neither I nor any member of the New York State judicial system nor any member of this class cares one whit as to what seems to you.  Let us turn to the issue of proximate cause.”

Not one of my hundred new best friends was raising a hand or opening a mouth to defend me.

How much is a “whit?”

“Fine.  I’ll turn to the issue of proximate cause.”

“That is very gracious of you.”

Now they laughed.

He preened.

Like a pigeon.

“But I still think .  .  .  .”

Please stay with the issue.”

.  .  .  .

“Now. What if Mrs. Palsgraf had had a heart attack instead of being injured by the platform scale?”

“Well, I suppose it would depend on what caused the heart attack.”

“What could a heart attack have to do with fireworks?”

“Ummmm . . . You asked the question.  Maybe they scared her?”

“And how would you know if they scared her?”

“Because she’d say so.”

“She’d say so?  And a jury should believe her just because she said so?”

“Why not? They have to believe something.”

“What if she were dead?  How would you know if she were dead?”

“Ummmm.  She’d stop breathing?”

More laughter.

How would you know? If she were dead?”

“But she wasn’t dead.”

“Answer the question that I ask you.”

“OK.  So if she were dead, maybe she said something before she died.”

What would she have said before she died?”

“Ummmm. .  .  . I’m scared?”

Even more laughter.

Nervous laughter.

“And you would believe that?”

“Well, she was dying. What did she have to lose?”

“How did she know she was dying?”

“How would Iknow?  I’ve never died.”

“You have now.”

Again they laughed.

“I suspect given your performance that you will be lucky to find employment working for a title insurance company. . . . In Schenectady.  Miss Burns?”

“Well, sir, that is precisely the reason for Judge Andrews’ discussion of the concept of proximate cause which is meant to establish causation as a legal principle in cases where causality cannot be proven directly but without which the accident in question would never have happened and the principal difference between Andrews and Cardozo. . . .”

I understand that we need lawyers.

Nobody needed me to be a lawyer.

*  *  *

He drove down to the city for lunch with me the day after the Sunday call during which I casually mentioned that I was dropping out of law school.  I was sort of glad to see him because he might actually have been able to give me some advice, which he sometimes was good at giving.

He didn’t comment on my order.

I could tell this wasn’t going to be good.

Before I got my Diet Coke, even before my tuna fish had arrived, he pronounced himself disgusted that I was “quitting” and “throwing money down the drain.” I pointed out that he wasn’t paying for it so it really wasn’t his business.  He replied that he didn’t “give a good God damn” who was paying for it, “I did not raise you to be a quitter.”  And that “your grandmother would have been appalled that you were wasting the hard-earned money that she left you” which I did not at all believe to be true because I was pretty sure that Bubbe just wanted me to be happy. I pointed out that I would be wasting a lot more money and much more of my life if I stayed in law school just to prove how well I had been raised.  He asked me how I was “going to make a living and support a family” and I replied that I didn’t have a family to support and that I was going to write leaving out the thought that thanks to Bubbe I didn’t yet have to make a living, at least not yet.  He snorted. I pointed out that I had won a couple of writing prizes in college.  He told me “a literary magazine isn’t a living and that nobody pays for poetry” even though I was pretty sure that he had never met a poet in his life so how would he know? I pointed out that he had explicitly raised me to place money below happiness. He insisted that “you have to eat in order to be happy.”  I told him I didn’t care much about eating.  He snorted and took a large bite of burger. I told him ok, I’d go to medical school.  He almost choked.  Before he pretty much correctly pointed out that “you vomited dissecting a frog in high school biology class and I had to interrupt my day to come take you home because your mother was in some damn literature class and, besides, you haven’t taken a science course since your freshman year so what makes you think you’ll get into medical school?”  I said I didn’t really want to go to medical school but it was a good living if that is all he cared about and anyway why was he pushing me so hard to stay in law school when I so obviously hated it?  He told me that “you don’t have to love every minute of what you do but you do have to be responsible.”  I asked what was wrong with being a responsible writer?  He rolled his eyes.  He asked me what was “so wrong with law school, your grandfather would have been thrilled with the chance to go to law school?”

To which I might have replied that I would have been thrilled with the chance to go to Auschwitz.

At which point the conversation was over.

He stormed out.

After he paid the check.

With cash, which he preferred.

Which meant we had to wait for the change.

Perhaps longer than either of us would have liked.

I know he meant well.

I know I’d gone too far.

My apologies were profuse.

Still.

The thing about words.

Once you say them.

You can’t take them back.

I write.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

You couldn’t possibly think it was easy for me to be ripped from the only life I knew even if maybe it wasn’t perfect only to be deposited in the wilderness where you actually had to drive to the candy store if there was a candy store to which you could drive which there really wasn’t at least not the kind of candy store you could find on any street corner in Brooklyn where you could get Dr. Brown’s and maybe a pre-made tuna fish sandwich wrapped in wax paper which was fine except you had to take off the lettuce which was kind of soggy and gross and candy of course and still have some of your lunch money left for marbles and this meant you were stuck in school at lunchtime which meant eating in a cafeteria full of other kids who mostly knew each other from like kindergarten and definitely were not interested in absorbing someone new or at least not you and if you were early enough and got a seat at an empty table somehow everyone managed to find seats at every other table but yours until all of the tables were full except for yours and a few kids from the vocational program who you knew from shop class and who called you faggot behind your back and sometimes to your face were stuck having to sit with you and maybe that was better than when you got to lunch on the later side because Dr. Schroder simply would not stop talking even though the bell had gone off and you could hear all the lockers slamming and footsteps in the hallway as the mass migration to the cafeteria wore on so you were freaking out and jiggling up and down in your chair and maybe squeaking just a little because there was nothing worse than getting to the cafeteria late where there were no empty tables and you kept glancing back as unobtrusively as you could which wasn’t really all that unobtrusively as you walked the cafeteria line trying to figure out the safest place to sit and the lunch lady scolded you for not paying attention and mashed potatoes on your knuckles even though you didn’t ask for mashed potatoes but you knew better than to argue with the lunch lady and when you finally managed secretly to flick the potatoes from your knuckle to the floor and arrived at the end of the lunch line you still hadn’t determined your best seating option so you had to stand there just beyond the cashier holding your tray trying not to spill the soup even though they always filled the bowl too much and it was hard to balance because the tray was too small to put the bowl in the center and fit your sandwich plate and milk on it not to mention the little dish of unwanted mashed potatoes which immediately after you paid the cashier you stashed on the edge of the place you returned the trays as unobtrusively as you could which wasn’t really all that unobtrusively but at least it didn’t fall and crash on the floor like the last time you were dished out surplus food when it shattered and splattered potatoes in a sunburst pattern reaching toward the lunch line and just a little might have gotten on Patty Green’s new boot toe and she immediately kicked it off back at you like a soccer ball while giving a look that rendered you deceased and the lump she kicked landed right on your jeans in precisely the worst place ever possible and everybody laughed and started clapping for Patty and the sandwich and milk even together were lighter than the soup so the tray was unbalanced but you did your best to keep it flat and it was even harder because there wasn’t much room between the cashier and the wall and once in a while another kid would wind up banging into you slopping soup onto the tray which now was not just unbalanced but also slippery and you were sure he did it on purpose and you were totally certain that every other single kid in the place and all of the teachers who were resentfully on duty and even the lunch ladies were staring at you as you scanned the tables for enough open seats that you could put some distance between yourself and the kids who were already sitting there and sometimes you could and just comfortably be ignored and sometimes you couldn’t and you actually had to squeeze in among people who kept their heads down as you tried to climb over the bench in a space that was too tight because even though they saw you and they knew you knew they saw you they kept their heads down anyway in the hope that if they didn’t actually acknowledge seeing you maybe you weren’t really there and if they did look up at you it wasn’t the kind of look you or anyone else could possibly have wanted and you did your best not to look back and they continued whatever they were doing as if you weren’t there but you knew they knew you were there and weren’t the least bit happy about it and so you felt like you just stuck out like a throbbing red lesion and you put down your tray before almost tripping over the bench and you kept your head down even as you sat and ate your tuna fish as fast as you could without getting it all over your face which you obsessively wiped with the completely inadequate napkin until it was so mayonnaise saturated that you maybe had left a dry surface area the size of a dime once you had balled the shredding napkin all up to contain the grease within but which still managed to leak out and which you could feel on your cheek and even worse choking which you were careful to avoid doing because of the one time you gobbled down your sandwich so fast just to get out of there that a piece of bread got stuck in your throat and you started to choke and cough and you desperately tried to stay quiet and inconspicuous by keeping your mouth closed while you were coughing and choking but the pressure was too much and the bursts of compressed air forced your mouth open enough to shoot some spittle that brought with it a gob of mucus to the floor where it splat down and bubbled and slicked the tile and you could see the cute freckled girl with red hair from math class who you kind of liked even though maybe you really were a faggot turned around watching you from the table behind you and visibly gagging when she saw your gob on the floor and the kids sitting near you for once stopped talking even though you prayed they would just keep talking and continue to ignore you and they sat there and stared but of course didn’t do anything and the art teacher who was on duty that day rushed over to you and almost slipped on your snot but grabbed the bench just in time except she missed the bench and both of her hands plopped down on  your thigh and all of the kids laughed as they saw her almost fall and once she managed to right herself she banged your back a few times which made things even worse because you weren’t actually choking to death but just trying to get some crumbs out of your throat and each time she hit you they seemed to stick deeper until finally the crumbs had snot-dampened enough to stop the scratching and you almost stopped coughing but not really but at least your coughing had diminished enough that you actually could close your mouth and try to hold it in but each time you coughed inside the outside of your body shuddered so it wasn’t really over until finally it was over and you felt a bit wrung out and a lot relieved and you tried simply to breath normally and sit there and focus on the rest of your sandwich which you ate more carefully now and very quietly until you realized.

You had hiccups.

Which led you to the boy’s room.

In a closed stall.

With your feet on the seat.

And you didn’t breath so you could try to get rid of the hiccups but also because you desperately hoped that nobody would come in and find you there.

And the bell rang.

And you still had hiccups.

But you had to go to class.

And your seat was in the front row.

And your back burned more than usual.

So, what did you want to know about school?

*  *  *

While we’re on the subject, can we talk about tuna fish?  What do you mean, what is there to talk about?  Doesn’t it bother you that they call it tuna fish?  I mean, everybody knows tuna is fish.  So it’s redundant and frankly (I haven’t used the word “frankly” in a while) it just sounds kind of stupid. No.  It is not at all the same.  Flying can be something other than a fish.  So can a trigger.  And seriously, so is a cod.  I mean, have you ever tried to put a fish over your crotch?  But a tuna?  A tuna  is nothing but a fish.  Redundant.  So stop arguing and just stay with me for a few minutes.

I mean, if you’re so ok with tuna fish, why don’t you try walking around town saying salmon fish or flounder fish or whatever? I mean, just do it.  Watch the way people look at you when you’re in the middle of a conversation and you say “I had the most lovely grilled halibut fish last night” or you’re sitting in a restaurant and ask the waiter for the salmon fish. I guarantee that he will look at you as if you’re some kind of an idiot, which seems entirely appropriate to me.  Which is why I think you sound like some kind of an idiot when you say tuna fish, which is something I never do and always just leave it at a simple and respectable tuna. Except when I slip and then make some sort of a joke about it by knowingly rolling my eyes at the person to whom I’ve entirely by accident said the word tuna fish.  Who usually doesn’t get it anyway because that is how socially and linguistically entrenched the practice of saying tuna fish is, that even perfectly intelligent people like you don’t see anything even a little bit odd about it.

And you can’t blame the whole thing on etymology, which I know you were about to do even before you looked it up because that’s what people do in arguments like this, they assert facts that they don’t actually know are facts but which are actually verifiable facts if you take a minute or two to check and especially since I’m pretty sure you have a smartphone in your hand or your bag or your pocket or whatever so there simply is no excuse for you being a douchebag by making up facts and treating me as if I’m the stupid one.  Anyway, if you had bothered to do a simple Google search, you would have learned that the word tuna comes from the Spanish word atun which itself comes from the 16th century Arabic word tun (you will of course remember that the Arabs spent a fair amount of time ruling Spain) which another so-called authority says the Arabs took from the Latin tunny (and you will again remember that the Arabs in the ninth century themselves took Spain from Christians who davened in Latin) so all of this makes sense but I am here to inform you that none of these words mean anything even remotely like fish so please explain to me why we don’t just say plain old tuna and call it a day.

Don’t get me started on grapefruit.

That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

When I emerged from the narrow dark damp crowded green-shuttered shop-lined sun-speckled stone-floored alley onto the huge teeming plaza I could barely see for the brilliance of the sun that reflected off floor and white and yellow marble walls and golden hills beyond.  As I slowly picked my battered and battering way through the crowd I peered toward the gate over heads turned diagonally to the left which is where I had been told that the common people were allowed to enter on the days we were allowed to enter at all. The lowing and bleating and braying coming from the open courtyard of the building far above me and from the cacophony of men rhythmically shouting with which it was blended were deafening.  And I couldn’t breath for all the thick clouds of white smoke that blew from time to time down from the narrow opening in the roof far above that mixed with hot late season desert winds sweeping the tops of hills until catching the opposite wall of the plaza and ricocheting back and forth and coming to rest in the human interstices.  I tried to close my nose against the acrid smoke that blended with the tinny sickly taste of fresh blood flowing in a constant stream that sometimes gushed down a channel that ran from the top of the façade at least forty cubits above to a trench at the base that ran alongside the building until it disappeared down a hole the width of a large man in the far left corner.  I was embarrassed as my flapping keffiyah whipped faces in the crowd whose headgear was tighter and more fashionable than my own.  Equally by the flowing robes given me by a kindly Philistine now steady with sweat around my legs as I observed the tailored dress of the people around me.         Their mass entrancement kept them facing left rather than noticing my ignorance.

I was stuck like a stone between boulders in a stream at the convergence point of those pushing to the left and those wandering from the right. I could only move forward.  I wasn’t going back.

I was hungry.

The deathbellow of an ox resounded around my ear.  A column of white smoke.  Pushed ajar from the right.  No strength to resist. Slowly flowed with the crowd toward the left.

The crowd compressed as we approached the huge retaining wall that supported the structure.

There was a gate.

A small plaza.

A huge dark open door.

He was perhaps the largest man I had ever seen, bearded, in a dark suit with a dark shirt and a dark tie and a transparent plastic speaker in his right ear. As each supplicant approached, he or she would look up to the man who would check his clipboard, look the person over, and then nod in or out.

There was no way to predict.

It was especially tough for the women who, rumor had it, were required to prove that they weren’t menstruating before they’d be allowed in, even if they were on the list.

A few Edomite girls with ridiculously short robes who really weren’t supposed to be there in the first place were standing just in front of me.  They even managed to get sort of a smile out of the guy.

Eh, we’re all family.

Anyway, if you managed to make it through, you had an open lane straight to the gate.  I didn’t know what lay beyond.

It was my first time.

It was my turn.

I did not get a smile.

He looked at the clipboard.

Without even looking up at me, he started to nod back in the direction of the plaza.

You didn’t get a second chance.

I took a deep breath.

Smoke.

Sand.

I forced back the choke with what little strength I had remaining.

And let my air explode above the din.

“My father was a wandering Aramean!”

.  .  .  .

He looked up.

Dropped his clipboard to his side.

Bent toward me, lowered his glasses, and looked closely at my face.

I steadied myself to avoid flinching from the rotting smell of his breath.

Resisting the forward push of the crowd.

.  .  .  .

.  .  .  .

“Go.”

Nasal voice for such a big guy.

I ran.

The light was dim.

My first thought was to look for the Edomite girls.  But who had a chance?  I promptly found myself between two lines of guys dressed in white robes and white hats blowing rams’ horns and forming a corridor straight through the hall.

It occurred to me that the Edomite girls were lucky that we didn’t do virgin sacrifice.

I doubted they would qualify anyway.

The crowds weren’t quite as congealed in here and the smell was less pungent than on the plaza so I stole a few deep breaths as I was swept down the human hallway to a wash of light in the distance.  Traffic had backed up some by the time I reached the stairs that led to the courtyard I had glimpsed from below.  Constricted again, I let myself be pulled up, tottering a bit on the top step because it was hard to get balance, and almost stumbling into the courtyard.  I had to look down into the sea of legs because of the painful gleam of the marble and as I did I saw feathers and hair and an occasional pancake of manure flattened dry and sometimes not and patterned by the tread of hundreds of sandals.

The crowd didn’t seem to be moving in any particular direction so much as rotating around the space, pushed by the masses rolling up the stairs and released by those cascading downwards.

The rotation finally brought me around the courtyard to a large columned portico beneath which were somewhat more measured columns of people, men on the left and women on the right, standing and bowing and weaving and chanting.  In front of them was a dense curtain that must have spanned at least twenty by forty cubits from the ceiling to the floor and was woven with threads of blue and red and purple and gold.  In the center was a triangular opening, large enough for one person to pass through, closed now by a brilliant gold flap.

A huge gold menorah on the left.

A strange sort of cabinet on the right.

And a table.

I stepped out of the crowd into the shade.

The noise faded from my ears.

The chanting was a droning buzz, a soft hum.

The blast of a lone shofar penetrated and rose as it faded toward the ceiling.

One step.

Another.

A gasp.

Slowly down the middle of the aisle.

The glow of the gold flap lured me closer.

A woman rose from behind and shouted “stop.”

I was ten cubits from the curtain.

Two men leaped up.

They started for the aisle.

Several others joined them, pushing along the rows to reach me.

They crowded me.

Formed a scrum around me.

Tried to hold me back.

I pulled them along.

The din in my ears.

Dragging behind me.

Two cubits.

“Death!” one shouted, the last to fall off me, a final heroic effort to restrain me.

Silence reverberating with anxiety.

I peeled back the flap.

Walked in.

The room was not huge.

Twenty cubits by twenty cubits.

A large rectangular gold case.

Two cherubs rising from the top.

Not Christified sissy cherubs, little babies with chubby cheeks and gently folded wings staring up at the ceiling like they were watching Michaelangelo or something.

Old-time Israelite cherubs, terrifying tall, looming lion bodies, eagle wings aloft, scowling human-faced.

A bronze altar stood in the center.

Framed by swooping horns to hold the sacrifice.

A column of thick white smoke blasting through sunlight to the ceiling hole above.

A smallish man, no bigger than a boy, standing in front of the altar, his back to me.

Dressed in brilliant white.

Looking down intently as he used a large stick to manipulate something before him.

Perhaps he had heard me.

He turned.

.  .  .  .

Lewis.

.  .  .  .

Flipping burgers.

.  .  .  .

On Yom Kippur.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

Camp Windswept’s saving grace was no team sports.  Well, that’s not really true.  They did have soccer and basketball and softball.  The point is you didn’t have to play them to keep yourself busy.   You could spend almost all of your time sailing if you wanted, which I did want, even though that involved other guys but only a few and you could chose your crew and maybe most important is that it was actually fun and I wasn’t bad at it and sometimes even felt proud of myself especially the day they took us outside the breakwater into actual Block Island Sound when it was really windy and swells were at least five or six feet which, trust me if you’ve never been there, is pretty spooky in a sixteen foot sloop with three other kids under the age of twelve at least one of whom had to sit on the leeward side because there was no more room to hike out and no matter how hard you tried to point into the waves the wind and swells were so strong that they pushed the gunwale low enough to slosh significant burbling green water beyond the combing and into the hull and splash the leeward kid who was leaning forward and white-knuckled grabbing the slippery fiberglass centerboard trunk and it terrified both the kid and you because you had done plenty of man overboard maneuvers but never in these conditions not that you had ever sailed in these conditions anyway and you just smiled at him and shouted that this was awesome as your skin tightened from salt and the sun dried you sore and at the bottom of the trough all you could see was canyon walls of water and a sliver of sky above you and at the top of the swell you felt like you were suspended in air and could see the world below and when I finally painfully slowly managed us downwind and the tiller was so relieved that it practically whipped across the stern and almost hit the leeward kid and I grabbed it back hard even though I almost tumbled across the boat and banged my knee which started to throb and the swells were behind us and we thrilled to the sailors’ version of a Nantucket sleigh ride astride the crest of a swell holding it for as long as we could until it just dropped us into the trough and an upward roll of momentum abruptly brought us to the top of another wave and it almost felt like we would fall backward except momentum and the wind was so loud you couldn’t hear each other and it didn’t matter that your rawmeat hands could barely hold the mainsheet any more because the tiller no longer felt stuck in gum because the boat responded fast and because your confidence was back and so was that of the other kids in you or at least in the certitude of their continuing lives because even though you couldn’t hear them you could see from the way they were laughing and shouting which they definitely were not doing faces frozen when you were pointing upwind and the swells kept trying to broadside you and almost did and you barely had the strength in your legs to coerce the tiller just a little higher even though you had both slippery bare feet on it and you appreciated the fact that boat maintenance at camp was not great because the shellac was worn down and spotty and a little rough which at least gave your wet feet some kind of traction and you had terrible balance on the slippery fiberglass gunwale which made you certain you would fall down the middle of the boat which heeled at least 45 degrees and it felt like the tiller was going to snap beneath your feet so the near-hysterical relief of the downwind course which headed you back toward the breakwater and safety made you laugh out loud which you never ever did and you had a second to look toward the rescue boat where Tom the sailing master was actually nodding and saluting you while holding onto the wheel with one hand and the white sail and the cobalt sky and the green-tipped waves .  .  .  .

You didn’t have to play team sports.

It was intuitive.  But you had to think.  Even on those windless hot flat white sun afternoons when they gave you salt pills at lunch and watched to make sure that you actually took them and maybe there had been a breeze of sorts when you started because it managed to get you down on the pond to where the breakwater and high fishing docks stole whatever light breeze there may have been from the Sound and the sun abused your skin and even more because you were barely moving you had water fights with the bailer out of boredom and after the refreshing wet the salt just stung and pulled your skin like you were being flayed and they yelled at you when you tried to scull with the tiller just to get a little bit of motion and Tom would shout that a real sailor sails not rows and you tried to maneuver to find even the lightest breath and then completely gave up but there was certainly no way they were going to tow you back to camp until you hadn’t moved for like an hour and the sun had dipped low enough that your sorry skin began to chill and you could hear the bell of the mess hall a couple of miles up pond for the thirty minute warning and they knew they had to get us back in time and we cheered as Randy with his Art Garfunkel hair and David Crosby mustache threw the line to the boat nearest him whose skipper greedily grabbed it up and we all sculled our way over toward him and tied up and waddled home like five baby ducks behind an oil-foul smelling ugly duckling and they threw us off as we approached the mooring and we had to scramble to tie up because how to control the momentum of the boat which now sliced the water without wind and keep from crashing into something and somehow Tom had got us back with time enough to run and shower before dinner and the cold water shocked and soothed your skin until it started to get hot  and then it stung so bad that you rinsed quickly and wrapped your towel before one of the other kids could rattail you and you ran back to your tent which was shady but still a little close and you tried to pull your shirt down gently but you were in a hurry and it stung again.

There was glory in the pain.

Which glory abruptly ended a little more than a week past visiting day when a gale force wind blew through the deep gray sky and I was thrilled because you needed to sail the course solo in wind like this to get your Captain’s Stripes which was the highest level you could reach and then they’d let you sail out to the Sound whenever you felt like it as long as you brought friends which was a problem I wasn’t dealing with until I had to and I ran to the boathouse after breakfast and there were only three other guys there including Todd and one after another they all finished and I went last and it was only three legs for three miles and it was upwind and downwind and crosswind into the mooring and upwind went fine and downwind was fast and fun and I was hiked out almost in the stern without  a shirt even though it was cold and rainy and I was sure I looked totally cool to the kids on the cliff who always came out on Captain’s Day of which there were only one or two a year because winds that strong were rare on the pond and I reached the end of the downwind leg sailing wing and wing with my mainsheet to port and I had to turn to port and because the wind was so strong I didn’t want to risk jibing because everyone knew that if you lost even a little control of the mainsheet the boom would whip across the boat and if it didn’t behead you the sheer force of it risked a capsize in  a small boat like this so I used my head and intelligently figured that instead of jibing I could simply head upwind and tack and then head downwind again with my mainsail to starboard and just race back across the pond to the mooring but when Randy in the rescue boat saw that I was trying to point he grabbed Tom by the shoulder and turned him to look and Tom shouted “jibe” and I shouted “this is better” and Tom shouted “jibe goddamn it” and I did and He did because as the mainsail started to whip across the boat the sheet caught on the port corner of the transom so that the sail could not complete its journey but instead got stuck over to starboard far enough and full enough of wind that pressured the starboard gunwale slowly toward the water as I desperately tried to loosen the sheet to release the wind and the pressure but the line was so tight and my hands so raw that I couldn’t get it loose and it continued to press down until I could see the gunwale through one and two and three inches of green water and then dove ahead of the boat into the pond and swam clear of the mast and then back once it was down but before it dipped too low to right by myself which is the least I could do and looked up and saw them trying not to laugh but kids including the kids who had already completed the test including Todd were still up on the cliff watching and drowning seemed like a good idea right about then but first I had to right the boat and Randy had already thrown me a line.

There was no other Captain’s Day that summer.

Still, it was fun.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

Lewis was lying in a hospital bed. There were tubes.  And wires.  And machines.  And a shiny stainless steel bedpan on a tray extended from a pole on wheels beside the bed about the position of his chest, beside a white Styrofoam cup with grape juice on the lip.

And there was a frog.

Sitting on the foot of the bed.

On the rail.  Not the sheets.

Which remained white.

Neither of them moved.

The light in the room was dim.

There were rhythmic beeps.

With the next beep, the frog gently jumped, almost floated, up.  As he landed, softly like a feather, a fuzzy white cloud emerged from Lewis’ mouth, suspending for a moment in air before carefully fashioning itself into the letter Z.

The “Z” disappeared into the ceiling.

“X” with the next jump.

“W.”

By the time this strange procession reached “Q,” the jumps had grown slower with longer intervals between them.

The letters were rising even more gently.

The sheet over Lewis began to subside.

Retaining the form of Lewis.

Tiny rises by toes.

Gentle hillock rising to chest.

Obscuring now his head.

Another beep.

Another breath.

“L.”

Barely a mound between toes and chest.

Barely toes.

Barely chest.

Arrayed beneath the abrupt rise of chin.

“D.”

Rises looked like wrinkles.

He was all head.

“B.”

The frog seemed to float very slowly up like a wisp and down like a single snowflake.

The frog rose again.

Glanced around.

Gazing more intensely at the flat white sheet.

At Lewis’s mouth.

It lingered.

And looked.

Shrugged its shoulders.

And resumed its rise until it was gone.

Synchronous with its disappearance was the final cloud.

It rose and stretched and floated, seeming to trail behind the frog.  Tapering up to a point.  A tender shoot descending at an angle. The last wisp puffed out in a horizontal line and rose to join them.

“A.”

Twenty-five letters.

The beeping stopped.

The bed was made.

The pillow uncreased.

I shuddered.

*  *  *

“Die” is a verb.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

It was a painful spring day, the early kind, the kind where midday sun filters through air just damp suffusing the surround with glow. The kind of day where air slightly cool floats the sadly sweet scent of memory, the scent of hope. The kind of day where all this gently melds and slams your gut with a harsh fleeting explosion of anxiety. It was those days I liked best. And the last days of fall. Skeleton trees with bits of decaying leaves dripping from their limbs, the detritus that had been life piled up beneath their feet. The kind of day where air slightly warm floats the sickly sweet scent of memory, the scent of longing. Days of sky just gray enough to hide the light but not so gray as yet to gloom you into dark that comes too soon yet thrills you with the wonder warm of streets and lights that yellow windows all seeming so much brighter now. The kind of day where all this gently melds and slams your gut with a harsh fleeting explosion of anxiety. It was those days I liked best too. You knew you lived. It was one of those days. Spring, not fall. Lewis and I had leapt our way over fluvial gutters detritus deposited in sewer grate moraines eroded brown lunch bags flat blue and gray Greek coffee cups rehydrated dog shit cigarette cellophane wrinkled dully glistened and once or twice a mourning mitten all infused with street grit and congealed exhaust. We had been searching for frogs at the southeastern lake edge in Prospect Park with no luck for hours. Light sweetly fading. I was sitting on a rock, hoping beyond hope that my saturated corduroys would dry before she saw them. Lewis was on his knees at the shore, hatless. How did he do it? I would never have gotten past the kitchen without a hat. He had refastened the brown leather-clad buttons of his red and blue checked wool coat that he had opened as we ran to the park that now rode up his back drawing along his sweater exposing a crescent of pale white flesh oddly scored by a deep red dent that traced along his belt line. I pulled my eyes beyond the shore because, after all, what nine year old boy wants another nine year old boy staring at his butt? Leaf-spotted mud gave way to mud-spotted leaves as the shore trailed up to lawn and then to a gray grove of trees beyond. As I drew my eyes from lake to Lewis to lawn, I noticed a small notebook, the kind with stiff marbled black and white covers and the fixed binding that caused you unintentionally to wrinkle and then randomly rip any page you might have happened to try to tear out in a manner that made it entirely dysfunctional for any purpose other than writing in, which is a lesson I learned the hard way. It was resting gently atop a low pancake of leaves. Without a frog in sight I had become just a bit restless and, anyway, who could avoid an attraction like an abandoned notebook? So I bumped down the rock and ran over to pick it up. It was surprisingly dry. I wiped a few mud crumbs off the back, returned to my perch, took off my mittens which I tossed onto the rock next to me, and pulled it open. Toward the middle. Because my mitten-sweaty hands clumped a few early pages to the cover. Pencil marks formed blocks that receded to poems. Whether they were three short ones or three stanzas in a longer poem I couldn’t tell. And I didn’t have the chance to read them, because abruptly I startled up. “Hey!” Lewis had seen me, turned, and ran toward me. I involuntarily held the notebook tight as I turned to see him almost leaping up the back of the rock. It tugged my hand as he swiped it away and I let go, watching his abrupt recoil. He plopped down breathless next to me. “What are you doing with that?!?” Flushing. “What?” “I found it on the ground.” “What?” . . . . “On the ground?” My eyes were filling tighter against my restraint. Lewis reached his free hand behind his back, rubbing. “Oh.” . . . . “Sorry.” “It must have fallen out. It never does that.” My body always betrayed me. “It’s ok, David. “ “No big deal, really.” “It’s just that . . . . “ “You didn’t read anything?” “Did you?” . . . . “No.” Trembling lips. Sigh. His. “It’s ok.” “Really.” Touching my arm. “I’m not mad at you.” “ It’s just that . . . .” Very deep inhale. Mine. “I don’t want anybody to know.” “The other boys would. . . .” Exhaled slowly. “Know what?” . . . . “Poems.” . . . . “Poems?” “Poems.” . . . . “I write them.” . . . . “You write poems?” “Don’t tell anybody!” “I won’t.” “I promise.” “You write poems?” “David, you can’t tell anybody.” “I won’t. Don’t worry.” “I think it’s really neat.” “You do?” “Yeah. Sure. I mean, what kind of poems?” . . . . “Just stuff.” “Thoughts I don’t want to tell anybody.” “That somehow I have to get out.” “Like going to the bathroom.” I smiled. “I’d kill myself if anybody saw them. “ . . . . “But it’s like I don’t control it.” “They just come out.” . . . . “I think I get it.” “I feel like that a lot.” “You do?” “Yeah.” “But I just go to the bathroom.” Laugh. “I never met anybody who writes poems.” “You can’t tell anybody.” “Lewis.” “Relax.” “I promise.” “Nobody.” “Ever.” . . . . . . . . “Can I see them?” . . . . “No.” . . . . “Not yet.” “Maybe some day.” . . . . “Like maybe when I’m twenty-five.” . . . . “When I get good.” . . . . He slid down the rock. Stuffed the notebook down the back of his pants. Returned to frogs. I watched him. Not quite the same. He was back on his knees in the muck, his hands probing sucking mud beneath the unswept autumn leaves, his pant legs seeping dark. I was staring at the linear rise where it was pushing up his shirt. He yelped. “Got one.” I slid off the rock right into the lake. Cuffs would dry. Frogs don’t wait. Lewis uncapped his hands ever so just so I could see. Small. Wet. Green as dark as the street. “We better get this home and take care of it.” “Will your mother really let you keep it?” “Maybe.” . . . . “Maybe I can sneak it in before she sees.” “You’re lucky if you can. He sees everything.” Moment. “How’s your mom?” “Don’t know. I hardly ever see her. She barely looks at me.” “My dad says she’ll be ok.” Lewis’s dad was a teacher. A high school teacher. “Well, let’s get home.” “Yup.” The most painful light of all. Glow before the black. We cut through the zoo. The main building looked like a mosque, it’s dome and minarets presiding over the seal pool. The pool had been drained for winter. Dead leafy puddles spotted the bottom. Lewis stopped. “She won’t let me.” “So now what?” “Back in the lake?” “Too late. We’ll never get home by dark if we go back.” “It’s ok, David. It’s my frog. And I’ll be ok if I get home late. I’ll put it back.” “No!” I wasn’t leaving Lewis there in the dark even if he slammed me when I got home. “Thanks David.” Relieved smile. It was silent at the seal pool. The woosh of distant traffic like a breeze among the trees. Nobody was there except a couple passing by the mosque. Lewis giggled. And dropped the frog into the seal pond. I shrieked. The couple turned to stare. We ran. And didn’t stop until the first light at Flatbush and Midwood. I was doubled over laughingly gulping air. Lewis was winded, too, and rested his hand on my bent back. Words hang in air.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

XVI

“Six million of us they got and him they missed?”

I think he was talking to himself.  There was nobody else there but me, and me he didn’t talk to.  We were standing in the hall.  She was drugged and asleep in the room.  The rabbi had just left.

Not Bubbe’s rabbi.

A real rabbi.

With a beard.

And a yarmulke.

The walls were pale green.  The floor was some kind of off-white that might have once been white but now was dulled by years of dirt.  It was only a couple of years before they tore Brooklyn Jewish down, after all, and I’m guessing it didn’t look all that good when it was new, either.

I’m pretty sure he hadn’t asked for the rabbi.  That’s just not something he would ever do. I mean, once he turned on something, there was no going back.  More, he always hated what he turned on. Forever. Like Walter O’Malley and the Dodgers.

There was no middle ground.

Love or hate.

And once loved turned hate, well, trust me.

I saw the rabbi pick up her chart before he went into the room.  And he was out in just a minute.

“Did you talk to her?”

His eagerness was almost sweet.

“What talk?!”

The rabbi spoke so fiercely that his spittle spattered his own beard.

“It’s against the law. Forbidden. Asoor! A sin. That’s it.! Talk?  Feh!  What for? What do you want I should talk about? Disgusting.”

He waddled quickly down the hall leaving a trail of dandruff and garlic behind him.

That’s when he said it.

A passing nurse heard him and looked sharply.

And then.

He collapsed.

On the dark maroon linoleum upholstered chair in the hall outside her room with the tear in the middle that tufts of some synthetic beige puffed out of.

Literally collapsed.

He dropped his head in his hands.

And started sobbing.

Big, heaving, roiling sobs rolling up from somewhere under the chair, throbbing through his shuddering body, exiting his throat in choking silence.

I couldn’t move.

I wouldn’t dare.

It didn’t last long.

Like an earthquake the tremors stopped.

I waited.

Slowly he pulled his head from his hands.

His terrified eyes looked at me.

I wanted to help.

I gazed at him.

“What do you want!?”

He slapped me so hard I hit the floor.

And stayed there.

Until he stood, reached down, grabbed my collar making sure to pinch some neck with it, and dragged me up.

*  *  *

This much I will give him.

When he hit, he hit.

No warnings, no threats – at least most of the time.  I knew I was grateful for this from the couple of times he did warn.  That was just terrifying.  Because then you had time to think about it, think about what he might do and how it might hurt and whether he was going to hit you with words as well as hands.  I couldn’t stand the waiting.

Just do it.

I once heard of a boy whose family used to live in the neighborhood.  One morning the neighbors heard the father shout.

“I’m going to beat you with a belt when I get home like you’ve never been beaten in your life.”

The kid ran away as soon as the father left for work and the mother had gone to the laundry.

That was a kid who was never heard from again.

Hit me.

Just don’t talk.

XVII

So I guess the move to Long Island was off.  But why did she have to be so dramatic about it?

Why not just tell him how she felt about it?

It’s a good thing for her that one of the movers smelled the gas and walked into the kitchen before closing up.

And what about me?

Nobody seems to remember that I had been in the apartment, too.

*  *  *

We got home late.  A pot of cholent was in the oven and a pot of soup on the stove, and when he opened the refrigerator it infused the air with lox and herring.  And on the table there was cake.

Always cake.

We still had some frozen from when Bubbe died.

A couple of neighbors had left notes of support on the counter.

He picked up each one, slowly crushed it with his fist into a ball, and tossed it into the garbage.

Aunt Rose was sitting at the chipped green linoleum kitchen table with aluminum combing around the edges, smoking cigarettes and holding a cup of coffee with both hands.  Her face was streaked and her lipstick smeared. Aunt Rose’s lipstick was always smeared.  I guess I should have appreciated that she liked to kiss me but I just kind of found it disgusting.  She was Bubbe’s sister.  And worshipped her.  Uncle Jack and Uncle Irving had to hold her back at Bubbe’s funeral from collapsing into the grave, which she almost did because she was maybe just a bit demonstrative and Uncle Irving was pretty drunk and wasn’t all that much help to Uncle Jack.  If he hadn’t stepped in at the last minute to help Uncle Jack she would have been sprayed with rocks and dirt and might even have gotten hurt from the fall although she was also pretty padded so she might have been ok but in the end it didn’t matter and I’m just telling you so you kind of understand something about Aunt Rose who was fine by the time we all stopped for lunch in Queens and an egg roll was set in front of her.  Who was, at the end of the day (an expression I’ve always found kind of pretentious and meaningless but people use it so why not give it a try?) kind and very sweet and I was grateful that after Bubbe died she tried to fill in for her as best she could which she probably liked doing too because it was clear as day that it was going to be a very long time until Uncle Phil was going to have kids.

Do I really have to spell it out?

We didn’t need to talk about it back then.

We just loved him.

How did a five year old kid know such a thing?  You’re kidding, right? How do you not know?  You love somebody, you know him.  In any event, whether I knew or didn’t know, it was obvious the women in the family and their friends had stopped trying to set him up on dates.

I miss Uncle Phil.

I was a complete mess when he got sick and died in just a month during the early Reagan administration.

Anyway, so, there was Aunt Rose.

He gave Aunt Rose a peck on the cheek.  She stood up and threw her arms around him and pulled him down hard.  He put his head on her chest and I saw his back rise and fall and rise and fall.

She held him.

Nobody saw me.

“It’s not your fault tatele.  It’s not easy for her. She’s trying so hard.”

“I know.”

“She doesn’t know what to do with the boy.”

“I know.”

But maybe you could take her out once in a while?  Like on a date?”

“O.K”

“And maybe you could learn to be a little more patient?

Maybe a bit less muffled.

“I’ll try.”

“And take the boy out once in a while.”

Louder.

“O.K. Aunt Rose.”

“But it’s not your fault.”

“Trust me.”

Muffled sobs.

“I know.”

“Maybe you could learn to listen better?  You know how much she looks up to you. “

I only dared to breathe when Uncle Jack swept sounds of The Jack Paar Show in with him from the living room.

Aunt Rose released him.

He left the apartment.

Slammed the door.

Without even looking at me.

.  .  .  .

Aunt Rose sat down again.

“How’s the little pisher?”  He pulled me up into his arms, kissed my cheek, and then pulled back to look at me.

“Quite a day, yes?  A lot of excitement.  You must be hungry.”

He went to the cupboard and pulled down a plate and a bowl. Nobody around here ever waited for an answer.

Hungry?

I was nauseous.

He put hot soup in the bowl with a couple of kreplach, which I loved and maybe could get down.  And then some cholent on a plate with a piece of rye bread.  He set down the salt and margarine.

“Here’s a special treat for being such a tough young guy today.”

A bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic.

It was already open.  Fragrant.

I was going to puke.

I looked up weakly at him.

“Bed?”

He didn’t mind that I was wasting food.

He took my hand.  Pajamas.  Tucked me in.  Opened the window.

“Good night.”

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

 

XIII

It was a bus.

Nostrand Avenue.

The B44 if you must know.

Everybody said she had the light.

Everybody said she looked both ways.

She always did.

My beautiful Bubbe got crushed.

Along with the halvah she bought for me.

Chocolate halvah.

*  *  *

February 18.

14 Adar I.

That’s what it said on the board near the front of the room.

Above the candle burning in a tall jar.

The day she died.

We are an efficient people.

Get ‘em in the ground.

As fast as we can.

You are disgusting.

It has nothing to do with the smell.

At least not these days.

Life is for the living.

She was dead.

We weren’t.

A time to mourn.

A time to dance.

Today we were mourning.

And tomorrow?

*  *  *

I had never been to Riverside Chapel.

Let’s face it.  I hadn’t been in the City that often.

We didn’t know anybody who lived there.

And I hadn’t been to a funeral home that often.

Or ever.

Not too many five year olds hang around funeral homes.

Smoke and makeup.

And formaldehyde.

It was crowded.  I choked. They were crying.

It didn’t stop them from shmearing me with lipstick.

Including Mrs. Goldberg and Mrs. Schwartz.

Uncle Irving was telling jokes.

Mrs. Schwartz covered my ears with her hands.

I had a book.

A Child’s Garden of Verses.

I wriggled away and went to sit in the back.

To read.

Until it started.

She made me sit in the front with her.

I knew better than to resist.

The rabbi walked in quickly from the side.

Bubbe didn’t have a rabbi.

He wiped some sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

Without unfolding it.

Placed the handkerchief back in his jacket pocket.

And started talking.

“Family and friends.”

None of us had ever seen him before, at least as far as I knew.

Before yesterday.

Which I don’t think made him family.

Or friends.

*  *  *

“We do it for the living,” I heard him intone orotund from my bedroom the night before.

The living evidently wanted none of it.

“She didn’t have much money.”

“If it were up to me I’d burn her.  That’s what she would have wanted.”

“I know how hard it is for the bereaved to make such decisions.  A mere five hundred dollars more and you’ll have given her all of the dignity that befits a distinguished Jewess in accordance with the laws of our great tradition.”

“She had plenty of dignity without five hundred more.”

“And do not refer to my mother as a ‘Jewess.’”

“Ever.”

Sometimes she made me smile.

“Let’s just do it,” he said.

“It’s worth it to get him out of here.”

.  .  .  .

“Fine.”

Somehow the rabbi was still talking as I fell asleep.

*  *  *

He droned.

“I never had the pleasure of knowing Sonia Stern but I have learned from her family what a loving and wonderful wife and mother she was and how devoted a grandmother she was to little David.  I have learned that she liked cards and mah jong and was known among her family and friends as the Queen of the Beach Club, that her cabana was her palace. I have learned that she was a generous and devoted friend and an excellent cook.  I have learned that she sustained her family single-handedly after arriving in the City from Poland in 1928.”

I perked up.

The City?

Bubbe lived in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn was Brooklyn.

The City was the City.

Now I started paying attention.

This guy didn’t know anything.

He wasn’t even wearing a yarmulke.

How were you supposed to know he was a real rabbi?

“And I have learned from her friends and her loving family that she will be sorely missed.”

What this rabbi hadn’t learned was when to shut his mouth.

Maybe it was the smell.

I started to gag.

He leaned across her and gave me the look.

I sat straight.

Gagging stopped.

The putative rabbi’s voice grew louder.

He lifted his hands toward the heavens.

His eyes followed.

He slipped his cuff and checked his watch.

The hands came down.

He talked faster.

I opened my book.

Straight to Happy Thought.

She read me that one all the time when I was little.

It was bullshit.

She was in a box.

Don’t be creepy.

Of course it was closed.

Who wants to see a dead bubbe?

Stretched beneath the rabbi.

Bubbe would have been furious.

Or she might have just laughed.

The rabbi was babbling about how he wasn’t going to fear neevil.

Holding his hands aloft again he walked around the side of the podium and stood before the box.

Uncle Irving, Uncle Sol, Uncle Jack, Uncle Phil, and a couple of other guys I didn’t know picked up the box.

Irving’s side started to drop.

“Shit!”

Everybody laughed.

Even Irving.

Too loudly.

It took an embarrassingly long time to stop.

Nobody cared.

The rabbi led them out.

Still babbling.

Hands still aloft.

And lit a cigarette as soon as he got outside.

In front of Bubbe’s box.

I was quite sure that by now she would have smacked him.

*  *  *

I sat next to her in the back of a long black car.  A torn black ribbon pinned to her dress.

He got in the seat in front of us.

“Damn rabbi wanted to ride with us. I told him to get into Goldberg’s car.”

He started to direct the driver who I’m pretty sure knew where he was going.           What did I care?

It made him feel better.

What control did he have anyway?

Not even over himself.

It was a long drive.  Queens already was too expensive and, besides, out on the Island was where the Sterns had been buried ever since we came to this country.

It was like a family reunion.

In the house of forever.

I ran around putting pebbles on grave stones.

I had watched her do it.

I stashed a few in my pocket.

Just in case.

On the ride back.

We sat quietly.

I asked her.

“Why did this have to happen to Bubbe?”

“Who else should it have happened to?”

“Why does it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did Bubbe do something bad to be punished?”

“I don’t know.  I mean, no.”

“So why?”

She slapped me.

“Don’t ask.”

It was ok.

It had been a long day for all of us.

*  *  *

I crawled out of my room and slithered along the hallway past theirs.

Their bed was piled high with coats.

I stood against the wall.

There had never been so many people in our apartment.

Onions

I could feel cold blasts from the windows.

Through the steamy human heat.

Uncle Phil winked at me as he passed by my hideout.

I smiled back.

Turned and dashed to my room.

Sitting on the bed.

Stevenson on my lap.

Uncle Jack filled the frame.

Gently knocked on it.

Handed me a plate.

Bagel, lox, potato salad, rugelach.

A piece of chocolate halvah.

I nodded my head in silent thanks.

Devoured the food.

Went to the bathroom.

The noise in the apartment drowned out the flushing of chocolate halvah.

The Book of Creation: A Novel (continued)

IV

The world was created out of void and waste.

Tell me something I don’t know.

In those days, void and waste was what you did and what you saw.

It was scary.

How would you feel when a fetid pile is pulled from your tush and dropped in a pail?

What is it?

You learn not to ask.

And that was at home.

The playground. This was a different pile of waste entirely.

She put me on the ground with the other miserable kids and went by a bench to talk with her friends.

In Prospect Park.

You think this is neglect?

Who are you kidding?

Who then knew from neglect?

Rolling around in the grass with other kids was a blessing.

It was where I learned the world up close.

Void and waste?

You bet.

Nobody that had a dog had a thought of picking it up.  And the cigarette butts littering the ground with lipstick so red you thought a murder had happened.

And bottles.

Mostly empty.

And then one day.

Shards of glass.

This was interesting.  I had seen glasses.  And I had seen bottles.  But never before had I seen anything quite like this. They lay across the ground, glittering in the sun, sometimes catching its brilliant light, and sometimes just lying clear intensifying the green of the grass.

What were they?

How did they get here?

I put my hand out to grab the light .

And howled.

Howls I heard back, and running feet, and everybody got snatched up except for me.

Who got hit.

And then snatched.

Seriously?   I’m the one who hurt myself.

I’m the one who’s bleeding, and you think it’s a good idea to hurt me more so I know I shouldn’t hurt myself?

I cried.

So would you.

And as she finally picked me up, tears dropped from my eyes into the light and the glass.

Who can remember more?

Don’t ask.

**********

VII

The first one arrived alone.

A lump of clay is all, maybe more like a golem than a man.

Or a woman.

In either case it didn’t do much.

Just lay there.

Like void and waste.

Voided waste.

The angels, whose propensity for gossip and slander already was well-known in the neighborhood, naturally talked about him.

And it wasn’t nice.

Gossip never is.

What was it doing anyway, just lying there?  With all of the trees and the grass, the blue skies and foamy water, the clouds and the creeping things and crawling things and especially the swimming things which were ultra-cool because they looked so graceful and moved so fast, why would anybody with any sense, and especially Him, make such a depressing pile of random mud that looked like a washed over sand castle except it was browner and muckier?  It was nasty, they said.  Get rid of it, they said. And how freakin’ lazy could a creation be?  We’ve been working day and night for what, six days without any rest, and he gets to lie around watching Oprah or something?

Obviously the angels didn’t have enough to do with themselves that they had to sit and complain about somebody who was probably having a tough enough time of it in the first place.  I mean, think of how you would feel.  You so obviously didn’t fit in, and there was nothing you could do about it anyway because you were you and that’s the way you were made and there are some things you can’t change even if you want to, so maybe you were instead a big shot and so much prettier and had wings and stuff that you should appreciate that you were maybe lucky to have and didn’t really deserve at least any more than anybody else who didn’t have them and so maybe you could just be a little bit gracious to someone less fortunate than you for a change?

But who cares about the angels?  It wasn’t nice what they said about the lump, but you should hear what they said about each other.

Behind their backs of course.

Anyway, so this poor shmuck is lying on the ground with nothing to do while things are happening all over the place.  Birds, bees, trees.  Sweet fruit, beautiful flowers, fresh air.  Clear skies, a cool breeze.

It was kind of like paradise.

Except for the lump of shit.

Or whatever.

It wasn’t having any of it.

I felt sorry for it.

What do you mean, how did I feel sorry for it?  What do you mean, I wasn’t there because how could I be there if it hadn’t even got up from the dirt yet? Of course I was there.  If you think about it, you were there too.  All of us were there. Even Bob Dylan was there.  Who was known in those days as Bobby Zimmerman. He changed his name.  

Like that made a difference.

All right, maybe I wasn’t there in the way you’re thinking.  Your stunted imagination is not after all my problem.  But you’re right, I wasn’t there like a lump of shit, or even a miserable three year old lying puking in my bed because the milk was bad because who could remember to buy milk for a week when you had to remember to buy more Scotch and listening to them bitch about the fact that now they couldn’t go to the city because Bubbe was in the mountains with Aunt Rose and Uncle Jack and who could find somebody else to babysit at the last minute when all the teenage girls these days had pocket money from their rich parents and dates on Saturday nights and nobody wanted to take care of a puking kid anyway?

Forget who actually gave me the rotten milk in the first place.

Anyway, I was there.  Not me like me, but like me in light, a shard of light, the same light you were in.  He just hadn’t made the light bulbs yet so we could each maybe have our own space.  And maybe he wasn’t going to make them if he listened to the angels bitching, may all they have to drink be rotten milk.

The angels were nothing if not persistent.  All day long He had to listen to them, one after the other and sometimes in groups. Cliques really. They’d go up and talk to him like so many mean girls complaining to the principal that the sight of the dirt was spoiling their view and the stench – well – how could a person enjoy the smell of the flowers and the fresh air with such a smell like that all the time and couldn’t it go maybe to another school or at least be put in another class?

He’s very patient, you know.  Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, all that.

Or so he says.

Anyway, even He could only take so much.

Sunset was approaching.  Orange yellow red purple.  And you could really enjoy it because you knew it wasn’t caused by pollution.  It was that quiet peaceful time, the time you are contemplating a pre-prandial cocktail, relaxing music, maybe conversation with a friend.

Peaceful except for the shrillness of angels.

Shut up! he thundered. 

            I cannot stand all your bitching and all the noise.
I cannot think.

            And if I cannot think NONE OF YOU EXIST.

Well, as you can imagine, even with your limited imagination, this scared the bejeezus out of the angels.  They got quiet pretty fast.  Actually total silence. But you know what they say about calms before storms. No sooner than it had quieted down than He grabbed off the top of a mountain with one of his hands.  A mountain in his hand?  You bet. His hands were like the size of New Jersey, or at least one of the Kabbalists in the building said so.  You could probably pick up at least a mountain if your hands were the size of New Jersey. And, like I told you, I was there to watch it. So were you, and you would have seen it too.

If you’d been paying attention and had a little imagination.

Anyway, he took the mountain and just smashed it down, just hurled it down near where all the angels were sitting and trembling and waiting for what would come next and thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all to say bad things about another person and complain about him all the time.  The little pussies were so scared that they didn’t even notice that where they were sitting happened to be just by him.

By the lump.

The thing about angels is that they may be pussies but they have moves.

He didn’t.

A lump of clay doesn’t bounce and weave like Mohammed Ali.

So the angels blasted out of the way except that creepy Todd whom I always hated because he acted like you weren’t there and he was kind of prissy and had a voice like a nose so I thought it was funny when he couldn’t skip away fast enough and got clipped by like a 20 ton boulder which took off one his wings which don’t by the way grow back.

The problem is he saw me laugh.

I didn’t think it was such a big sin.

I always seem to get in trouble that way.

Even if I’m not actually talking

People can tell.

That’s for later.

But the lump.

That poor lump.

Spattered to the four winds.

Really, by the time the maelstrom was over there wasn’t a drop of his mud anywhere to be seen.

None of this was a total shock.

We had all seen Him get pissed off before and it wasn’t ever pretty.

But what happened next?

He cried.

He did.

I mean, He really sobbed.

That I had never seen.

Rolling gathering rumbles of sound rose through the valleys and up the mountains.  The birds had figured out they’d better make themselves scarce. The trees trembled.  The ultra-cool swimming things dove deep. It got dark and I mean total black because even the moon and the stars were afraid to come out. So that was one day of creation down the drain.  Rain crashed down on everything.

The angels were of course nowhere to be seen.

It seemed like hours, but who knew from time back then?

In any event, it happened when the crying stopped.

He spoke.

He doesn’t speak much so when he actually says something you listen.

What are you asking me for?  I don’t know what he said.  What am I that he should speak to me?  Me, I’m just a shard of light by now He doesn’t even notice and even if he did I’m not the kind of person He’d be likely to talk to.

But I had eyes.

I saw what He made.

And boy, what He made.

It changed my entire life.

Yours, too.

 

The Book of Creation: A Novel

So, I have decided to post excerpts of my novel, The Book of Creation, while I am awaiting responses from agents.  I will try to post consecutively if not completely.

There’s a lot going on here.  If you get impatient with a post or two, please hang in there.  I think it will reward your efforts.

Here goes:  The Book of Creation:  A Novel by Ezra Wasserman Mitchell

In the beginning I was in the cradle.

Where else should an infant be?

It was a warm night.  I was born in the summer.  The plaster walls were light blue and the cradle was up against a wall opposite the window, which was open.  The cradle was brown. This I may not be remembering from then because that cradle stayed in our family from generation to generation down to this day and I’ve seen at least a dozen babies in it after me so who knows?

But the walls, the window?

It’s been decades since we left that place.

We don’t talk about it.

Trust me.

So it was warm.  The window was open, like I said, but Brooklyn in September sometimes doesn’t know from a breeze.  This was one of those times. The air smelled.  Actually it stank.  Tobacco smoke. It burned my eyes, too, but that’s what you got in those days.  And anyway, what should I have done about it, an infant not two months in the cradle?

I couldn’t sleep.

Not then, not now.

That’s why I write.

What else should I be doing when West End Avenue goes dark, or at least what passes for dark in Manhattan?  The pills help and yes they are from a prescription, but every time I take them I hear his voice in my head telling me that I should only take pills when I’m sick and what kind of a person is so weak that they have to take pills for anxiety and maybe if I got more exercise or ate healthier food or drank less I would sleep better all of which coming from him was an absurd joke.

I take the pills.

And some others to help assuage the guilt.

I couldn’t sleep even as a baby.

That night was no different from any other night.

But I was tired.

I had talked all day.

Talked, you say?  An infant of a month in the cradle doesn’t talk.  What do you know?  So maybe I didn’t talk, if what you mean by that is using words a person could understand.  So if that’s what you mean, of course I didn’t talk.  Whoever saw an infant reciting Shakespeare?  But I had talked.  All day.  Sounds coming out of my mouth, simple and complex, a noise here, a series of noises there.  It’s not my problem if they didn’t understand me. I knew what I was saying.  And as for what you call talking, I know I talked before I even sat on the toilet.

She’s been complaining about it since the day I was born.

So there I was.

On my back.

In a cradle.

Pajamas you ask?  How should I know?  It’s enough to remember the important things.  Probably it was just a diaper in the damp hot Brooklyn night.

Unless Bubbe was there.

She was always cold so she wrapped me in a blanket.

Every time she did she held me.

For a long, long time.

Bubbe knew how to hold me.

So I lay there on my back in the steamy Brooklyn night with tobacco smoke making spider webs in the air.

Turning slowly above my head, but not so slowly that you didn’t get dizzy, was a mobile. They put it there to make me sleep, but who could sleep with the kind of noisy gears they made in the second Eisenhower administration? Who knew from fancy electronics anyway?  The best we had was a new transistor radio from Taiwan over which he went berserk because it let you listen to the Dodgers wherever you might be although he was almost always splayed out in his chair with the Wall Street Journal spread out slipping down across his lap along his extended legs toward the floor and his radio in one hand and his Scotch in the other so why did it matter anyway but he always played the radio loud and the Taiwan transistor had come with a white rubber wire with an earpiece that he could plug into a small hole in the radio and put the earpiece in his ear so that only he could hear it and she made him use it at least at night no matter how much he complained that it was uncomfortable and was going to make him deaf but what was really going to make him deaf as she pointed out was that even with the earpiece on he still kept the radio so loud that you could hear the sound almost perfectly and whenever she left the room he took it out until she came back and made him put it in again until the day he claimed to have lost it which he almost certainly did if you mean by lost that it got thrown down the incinerator.

Followed by the Taiwan transistor when the Dodgers left Brooklyn at the end of the season.

Every ten minutes or so the mobile would stop and one of them would eventually come into the room in a cloud of smoke to rewind the thing so I shouldn’t wake up.

Could you sleep with such a racket?

Who had a choice?

So I lay there on my back and stared at the mobile.

First came a red train, and then a cowboy on a horse, then a red train, and a cowboy on a horse, and a red train and a cowboy on horse and a red cowboy horse on train and train on cowboy red horse and again and again and again and again until it wound down and by the time it did my eyes had closed and I was breathing deeply.

And then the door opened and smoke-woven light shot through to my crib and I blinked hard and maybe I cried as she came in to rewind the mobile.  Already by then I had abandoned all hope that she might pick me up and hold me or even heaven forefend kiss me but she had demonstrated on at least several occasions that she did know how to slap me so as soon as I became aware of the fact that I was pointlessly and maybe even dangerously crying I forced myself to turn it off.

And asked her not to rewind the stupid mobile.

It wasn’t my problem if she didn’t understand.

She told me to shut up.

And rewound.

And walked out quietly pulling almost closed the door.

Slowly they spun.

I stared.

They spun.

I stared.

A train.  A horse.  A train.  A cowboy.

A corse.

I forgot the heat.

I forgot the smoke.

I stared.

.  .  .  .

Because there was nothing.

Not trains.  Not cowboys.  Not horses.  Not blue walls nor brown cradles nor spiderwebs of smoke.

Just white.

Pure white.

It transpired just as the trains and the cowboys and the horses began to blur again.   As the blur receded it spread behind it a sheet of gray.  The gray slowly brightened, the way a cloud cover opens to diffuse the light after rain, backlit by the sun as it dissipates, growing ever brighter until I was staring at a brilliant white canopy stretched across the heavens.

Or a Brooklyn ceiling.

It stayed that way for a very long time.

Who could sleep with all that light?

My eyelids descended.

Closed.

And quickly opened.

And closed.

And opened.

Two incandescent cloudy lines began to descend.  As they did, the ends slowly drew together at an acute angle.  Another line behind them formed a triangle.  Two more attached as legs. Gently falling.  All emerging from the white sheet above, floating on wet Brooklyn air.

Lazily tumbling end over end.

My eyes transfixed.

I did what babies do.

I reached to grab it.

My chubby hand swatted pure air.

Like a feather, it completed its descent.

Posing firm upon my belly.

I recognized the shape as something I had noticed once before, the time she pulled the newspaper from my mouth.

“A.”

It must have been special because I still feel the sting of the slap she gave me as she babbled loud noises at me.

Why not put it in my mouth?

It tasted like honey.

And now here it was, staring at me.

Dominating me.

Frightening me.

Defeating me.

I reached for it again, tried to grab it, to feel it, to taste it.

Nothing.

Air.

No feel, no taste, no sound.

I had to have it.

.  .  .  .

Another shape initiated its descent.

A loop.

And then another.

They joined in midair like a flying trapeze.

One side began to straighten.

It gently settled to the right of the A.

“B.”

Shapes floating down conjoining, as wet snowflakes do when they gently drift toward earth and meld, creating new shapes from the old.

It went on for a long time.

The white canopy began to drape outside the window.

Twenty five of these shapes had aligned across my belly.

The white outside the window began to streak with yellow.

So sleepy.

I startled up.

Three more lines descending, floating, joining, turning, tumbling ever so softly.

Landing on my chest.

Last to land it took its place before the others.

Vanguard of what had been.

And what was to be.

The “Y” stared deeply into my eyes.

Yellow flared outside my window.

II

Take a close look at the letter “C.”

What do you see?

Right.

Closed on the bottom, on the top, and at the back.

It almost encircles you.

It keeps you safe.

There is only one direction you can go.

One direction you’re exposed.

But one direction you can control.

One way out.

Forward.

.  .  .  .

The word “creation” begins with C.

And “create.”

.  .  .  .

Now take a look at the Hebrew letter “ב.” Yes, I know you don’t know it.  Work with me.

What do you see?

Right.

Closed on the bottom, on the top, and at the back.

It almost encircles you.

It keeps you safe.

There is only one direction you can go.

One direction you’re exposed.

But one direction you can control.

One way out.

Forward.

Don’t argue.  Hebrew is written from right to left.  By Hebrew it’s just as forward as C is in English.

The word “creation” in Hebrew  – ״בר׳אה״ — begins with ב.

And “create” –בורה.

Obviously.

Put a C opposite a ב.

Put them together.  Cב.

Right.

A circle.

The world.

You can only go around.

No escape.

.  .  .  .

There is one difference between the letters.  The Hebrew ב has a dot in the middle.

We call it a point.

We put it there to make it sound like B and not like V, which of course it would without the point.

And there you are.