We’d been away to the Holy Land. It was our father’s sabbatical year and he’d decided to spend it in Israel. The first day of school some punk named Boaz practiced his English on me and told me to go fock myself, the word mispronounced but the message clear. I let it go. He didn’t call me a dirty Jew or a kike or a hebe. He didn’t accuse me of being cheap or Jewing him down. I told Boaz to fock himself too and we ended up becoming the best offocking friends, but not as good as me and my brother.
Solly and I shot up in Israel. My mother joked it was something in the chicken schnitzels she cooked three times a week. She didn’t like the look of the supermarket meat so chicken was our staple when we weren’t having falafel or hummus sandwiches or eating out at Yuskie’s Chicken Restaurant on Friday nights. At Yuskie’s everyone was Jewish and with our blond hair and light eyes my brother and I looked out of place.
We returned to Massachusetts sixteen and seventeen, bigger boys, big boys, our young muscles new to us but still muscle. Muscle at that age, admired in every mirror, every piece of glass window we walked by, was important. Adolescent narcissism. Me looking at me and smart enough to know that awkward was over forever. Our legs were hard from playing soccer, kador regel, on streets with rock backdrops that served as goals, rock from the Negev desert. Our arms were strong from working out. We’d stopped a soldier on a Jerusalem street, impressed by his cut biceps filling the rolled sleeves of his uniform, his skin dark from the sun. We asked him what he did to get such big arms and he told us his work out. Push-ups. Pull-ups. Weights. My parents bought us a set of barbells to curb our complaints about after-school Hebrew lessons. I was benching almost two fifty by the time we left Israel and Solly was right behind me. He was a year younger and twenty pounds lighter, but his back was already wider than mine. We returned to Massachusetts big boys.
“Short,” I said.
“This much?” Hastings said. He’d been our barber all our years in Sunderland, since age five for me, four for Solly.
“More,” I said.
“I don’t need scissors for more.”
“Use the buzzer. Make me look like a soldier.”
“Your folks will kill me.”
“It’s my hair, so it’s my choice.”
I looked at myself in the mirror and at the reflection of Hastings putting the scissors down. Solly was behind me, sitting in a chair, reading Sports Illustrated. He was next. The chosen people must choose and I chose a number-two buzz-cut that would bring out the new thickness of my neck in all its glory. The Nash boys and Tim Grady and Stanton Sewicki would notice my neck.
“So you had a good time over there?” Hastings said as he cleaned the clippers.
“I hear it’s pretty rough over there.”
“You hear about stuff on the news, but after a while it’s just like living anywhere.”
“I suppose so,” Hastings said. “I suppose everybody hates everybody everywhere. So you speak Israeli now?”
“We went to an Israeli school, so we picked up some Hebrew. My parents taught us what we needed to know for here so we wouldn’t have to stay back a year. You know, English and math and history.”
“That’s what’s nice about having teachers for parents.”
“It was way too much schooling for me.”
“You’re good at school.”
Hastings was nice enough, but he was a townie and when he was done for the day he hung out with all the other townies whose kids filled our school. A chunk of hair fell. I felt my strength grow. The reverse-Samson effect.
“Are we good at school?” I said to Solly.
“Historically, yes,” Solly said.
Saul and I were connected like that. A look eye-to-eye or a slight shift in tone and Solly knew exactly what I was thinking.
“It was a good year,” I said. “We saw a lot of new things. A lot of archaeology and ruins and the Negev desert was pretty cool.”
“Did you want to stay there?” Hastings said.
“No. We’re Americans.”
Hastings stopped for a moment, then continued buzzing my hair.
“Did the Arabs bother you?”
“Most of the Arabs in Israel like living in Israel. If they didn’t, they’d move out.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Hastings said. “There. That’s as much as I’m taking off. I don’t want your folks suing me.”
Hastings dusted me off, put some talcum powder on my neck, lowered the chair. I stood up and flexed my shoulders. I was bigger than he was.
Solly handed me the Sports Illustrated and took his turn.
We lived near the high school. My parents made breakfast every morning and we sat together until it was time to walk to school. My Mom was flipping pancakes, a big breakfast for the first day. My Dad leaned against the counter and sang The Party’s Over just to annoy us. Solly and I sipped our orange juice and listened sullenly.
“Thanks,” Solly said when my Dad was done.
“Free at last,” my Dad said and he put his arm around my Mom’s waist.
We ate breakfast, brushed our teeth, had our photograph taken in front of the house, a first-day-of-school ritual so we could gauge in later years our progression through the ranks. We kissed our parents good-bye and started walking.
As kids, we had a new lunch box every grade. While we walked, Solly and I tried to name every lunchbox we’d ever owned. Solly couldn’t think of any before The Simpsons box with Bart getting punched in the nose. The first school bus drove by. We could see the faces looking down at us.
“Get out of the street, you tourists,” someone yelled.
I looked at Solly.
“The party’s over,” I said.
Another bus passed us and another. In front of the school we could see the groups already forming, some new faces but old types. The jocks. The girls who dated the jocks. The drama crowd, most of them kids of university faculty. The stoners, eyes blurred even when they weren’t smoking. The townies in the parking lot, sitting on the hoods of their souped-up cars.
“How do they look?” Solly said.
The Nash boys were smoking cigarettes and Tim Grady had Stanton Sewicki in a headlock. The Nash boys looked bigger, a full year bigger.
“How do we look?” I said.
Reflected off the large art room window, two blond guys with number-two buzz-cuts walked side by side.
“Chazak,” Solly said.
Chazak was Hebrew for hard.
“Focking right,” I said.
In homeroom I sat behind Elizabeth Cogan and in front of Will Cointreau. I had always like Elizabeth and when the intercom announcements were over, and the principal had officially welcomed everyone back, Elizabeth turned around and asked about my year away. Every few seconds she looked over my arms and I knew she was interested. She was blonde. I was blond. Will Colby behind me was blond. In Israel I had been exotic and I’d made out with darker girls who spent a lot of time running their fingers through my hair and wondering whether the rest of my hair was blond, some of them bold enough to see for themselves. Elizabeth said she was jealous, that she’d love to get away from Sunderland, and I told her that at the end of the year, after graduation, she could do what she wanted.
“College isn’t the same as getting away,” she said. “I feel like I’ve seen the same people my whole life.”
“Go to a city school,” I said.
“A big city. The kind where if you walk away from campus you’ll see different people. Jerusalem was like that.”
“Do you want to go back?”
“Not yet,” I said.
The bell rang and we hit the halls. Our corridor had blue lockers. Solly’s corridor had the brown lockers I’d never had, my junior year away. My first class was Phys Ed. I didn’t feel like sweating up before the day began, but I did have a free period during eighth and math and history were in the morning so my afternoons looked easy. I walked straight and let the younger students move around me. Solly was talking to a couple of guys he could bench press. He saw me and smiled.
“What do you have?”
“Trigonometry,” Solly said. “With Mr. Garvin.”
Mr. Garvin was famous for playing with himself during class. He always had a hand in his pocket, even when he was writing on the board.
“I’ve got gym. See you at lunch.”
I walked on. Past the auditorium. Past the wood-working shop. In front of the auto shop, the Nash boys were hanging out, leaning against the wall.
“Shalom,” Chuck Nash said. “Are you a rabbi now?”
Chuck was the older Nash brother. He’d been left back a year, but he’d been big since seventh grade. He was one of the first kids to grow a moustache and one of the first kids to get suspended when we were growing up. In fifth grade he put a toad in the pencil sharpener and followed that up by hanging two stray cats from the flagpole. He hated niggers and spies and wetbacks. In seventh grade he put me in a headlock and explained to me that he hated kikes worst of all, that the cheap Jew bastards were stealing all this country’s money. My muscles were bigger now, but I could still feel Chuck Nash’s forearm pressing against my windpipe.
“Speak up,” Chuck Nash said. “What’s wrong? Jew got your tongue?”
Chuck’s brother Franny started laughing. Franny was shorter than Chuck and stupider. He had a drooping eye from a snowmobile accident. The Israeli Jews were not like the Jews I’d met in B’nai B’rith summer camp or at family Bar Mitzvahs in New York. I had become an anti-Semite of sorts. Those Jews, focused so much on the mind and so little on the body, were not the kind of people I admired. But they were my people and the Nashes of the world didn’t distinguish between Jews.
“I’m not a rabbi yet,” I said. “What about you? Did you get elected president of the Hitler Youth movement while I was gone?”
“I’m still earning my swastika,” Chuck Nash said. “So now that you’re back from Hebe land, can you tell me why you did it?”
“Why you killed Jesus Christ?”
“This is old material,” I said and kept walking.
“Your muscles don’t scare me, Jew boy,” Chuck Nash yelled after me.
“Yeah,” Franny Nash yelled.
I had a minute to get to the gym. I was glad the Nashes had seen me first and not Solly. I hoped the weight room would be open. I wanted to break two-fifty on the bench press. First period at Sunderland Regional High seemed like a good time to beat my personal best.
One Nut Nelson gave the usual lecture about hygiene in the locker room. Rumor had it that Mr. Nelson had lost a ball in the Vietnam War. I tuned out when he started retelling the story about the kid that refused to wear white gym socks during Phys. Ed. The kid had a blister on his foot and after running around the track, the dye from his black socks seeped into the open blister and poisoned him to death.
In Israel our family had done something special every weekend. Some weekends we went north to the Sea of Galilee, drove around the rolling hills, ate St. Peter’s fish freshly caught and fried in olive oil. Some weekends we drove through the Negev, exploring the painted desert, climbing the cliffs of Ein Gedi, hiking around the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea scrolls had been found. Skittish lizards and large spiders hid in the shadows. Some weekends we wandered Jerusalem’s old city, a maze of streets full of ancient scents and sounds. Religious Jews prayed at the Western Wall and Solly and I were amazed at the thousands of notes pressed between the rocks, wishes asked for. Arabs smoked water pipes outside their shops and rolled backgammon dice to pass the time. The dome of the Dome of the Rock, a rock shared by Abraham and Mohammed, was exotically round, the gold taking the sun.
One weekend we went to Yad Vashem. It was the memorial to the Jews killed in the Holocaust. My parents didn’t speak and Solly and I kept quiet as we walked behind them through the exhibits that showed the horrors. We saw photographs of bulldozed bodies and of walking skeletons in striped uniforms with Stars of David sewn into the shirts. We saw photographs of a crazed-looking Hitler and of Nazi soldiers goose-stepping with their arms outstretched. I tried to imagine the fear when the door was closed, when my naked body was pressed against the bodies of other Jews, when the gas started coming out of the shower heads and not water, when the choking sensation became too much and fingernails ripped against walls, no way out. No way out. The worst kind of claustrophobia, worse than Chuck Nash’s arm pressing into my neck, worse than the words and insults that pressed against me walking the school corridors.
We left Yad Vashem and were driving back to Jerusalem when Solly asked the question I had been thinking. How did they let it happen? How could they have walked into those gas chambers? Or the trains before that? Or the ghettos before that? Or listened to the decrees before that?
“One thing leads to another,” my Dad said.
“They should have stopped it,” Solly said.
“They couldn’t believe what was happening,” my Dad said.
“It had never happened before. No one believed a civilized country like Germany would decide to commit genocide?”
“They shouldn’t have let it get to that point.”
“What do you do when they insult you?”
“I ignore them. Just like you tell us to.”
I was watching my Dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He caught me looking at him.
“Good,” he said. “They’re just insults. But if it was ten against one, and the ten had guns and dogs, you’d probably ignore them no matter what I told you. That’s how it was in Germany. And you have the advantage of history. One thing led to another, but no one knew how far they’d go.”
I stayed on the rearview mirror, but my father kept his eyes on the road.
“So how come Jews don’t stress the physical now?” I said. “Why is it always Where are you going to college? or Do you want to be a doctor or a lawyer? We should be at the shooting gallery instead of the library.”
“We survived without shooting galleries,” my Mom said.
“Barely,” I said. “We could have had so many more Jews. We could have taken over the world and proved right all those idiots who think we control things. At least the Israelis have balls. The American Jews are weak.”
“The American Jews are supporting Israel,” my Mom said. “Without the American Jews there would be no Israel.”
“An American Jew helped invent the bomb,” my Dad said.
“We should be more physical,” I said. “They really were like sheep. Why doesn’t Israel drop a bomb on Germany?”
“Then you’d be as bad as a Nazi,” my Mom said.
The conversation went on, all the way back to our apartment on Habanai Street where my Mom started breading chicken schnitzels and Solly and I did our pre-dinner push-ups. Our arms were getting big. My Dad came into our room. He told us that after dinner our English essays were due and he expected them to be good.
“Tov,” Solly said.
“Tov mayod,” my Dad said. “Very good.”
I made a muscle.
My first day as a senior went by. I caught up with some old friends. I saw Solly in the lunchroom and we reminisced about falafel sandwiches in Israel while we ate boiled hot dogs and sauerkraut off yellow trays. Grease stains from thrown butter pats dotted the cafeteria ceiling. At 3:12 the final bell rang and everyone filled the corridors. Elizabeth Cogan had two guys hanging around her locker, but she looked past them to smile at me.
“One down, nine months to go,” she said.
“As long as you’re not counting,” I said.
“German is going to kill me. Mr. Reisbock already gave us two pages of translation. You’re taking French, right?”
“Ms. Minot passes everyone through.”
One of the guys took Elizabeth’s books.
“See you tomorrow,” she said.
I picked out what books I needed to take home, put them under my arm and walked to the junior corridor to see if Solly was around. Sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn’t. I saw his wide back and his neck, pronounced from the number-two buzz-cut. I could hear his easy laugh while he talked to a couple of guys. I decided to leave him alone.
I walked outside and heard Chuck Nash’s loud voice behind me. His group was always the first out of the building, but even when they skipped last period they stayed in the parking lot, attached to their cars and in some ways attached to their school. In public, they said they hated Sunderland High. But senior year would be Chuck Nash’s last year of school forever and like his predecessors, kids who had taunted me and grown into sullen men working blue-collar jobs around town, he knew that his days of hanging out in the parking lot were winding down. Nine months and counting was probably a scarier thought for him. Their Shaloms echoed off the high school’s brick walls. It was four of them and one of me and fighting was grounds for expulsion. And I felt the fear in my gut. I remembered Yad Vashem, but I still kept walking.
I was watching TV in the den when Solly came home. I heard a glass being taken out of the cupboard and placed on the counter. I heard the refrigerator door open and the chug of poured milk. The Hebrew word for bottle was bakbook, which sounded like a swig taken. A rerun of Love Connection was on. The woman was describing why the date she’d chosen hadn’t worked out. The guy’s face was in the top left corner of the screen. He was listening intently and blinking his eyes too much.
“Check this guy out,” I said.
Solly came into the room.
“She hates him,” I said. “He brought her a dozen roses that he’d kept in the freezer overnight. She said they were still frozen when he handed them to her.”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
“Not for her. He’s not getting a second date.”
“Did One Nut Nelson tell you the sock story?” Solly said.
“From beginning to end. I’m going to buy some plaid socks just to piss him off. I’ll ask him if red dye is as fatal as black. He already hates me.”
“He asked me to try out for the football team.”
“I thought he hated you too.”
“I guess he was putting team spirit ahead of personal preferences. He asked how I’d bulked up during my year away.”
“What did you tell him? That you got in shape beating on Palestinians?”
“I just told him I started lifting weights.”
Solly finished off the glass of milk. Bakbook, Bakbook, Bakbook and it was gone.
“He didn’t ask me,” I said.
“He probably knew you’d say no. Besides, you’re a senior. You’re not worth the investment.”
Solly walked to the kitchen to put the glass in the sink. He looked like an athlete.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I told him I’d think about it,” Solly said from the kitchen. “Sports take up so much time and I should be concentrating on school. I don’t know. It would be fun to score a couple of touchdowns and have the cheerleaders yelling for me.”
The Love Connection guy started telling his side of the dating story. He was too gracious a loser. He said the woman had been nice and she was certainly attractive and he hoped that she’d find a love connection with someone, knowing full well it wouldn’t be with him. He apologized for the frozen roses and said he didn’t realize the candy he’d bought on sale was moldy.
“What a loser,” I said.
“What?” Solly said from the kitchen.
“This guy is pitiful. Look at him. He’s a Jew. I guarantee he’s a Jew. Be strong, you asshole. So what if your flowers froze.”
“You sound like Chuck Nash,” Solly said.
“Did you see him today?”
“Just from a distance.”
Solly came back in and sat on the couch.
“Did you see him?” he said.
“Mostly from a distance.”
“What did he say?”
Solly looked at me. He knew I would tell him in time if I wanted to tell him, but he wouldn’t ask again. He was good that way. I didn’t see the point in rehashing our conversation in front of the auto shop or reechoing the shouted Shaloms. The year away had been an interruption of the steady flow of shit, just an interruption.
“It’s like we never left,” I said. “I mean all of it. The school. The people. I didn’t want to go to Israel in the first place.”
“You never want to go anywhere,” Solly said. “You’d rather stick around-home.”
“That’s why it’s home.”
“I’m glad we went. And I think we changed.”
“Maybe we did, but they didn’t. Everyone seems the same.”
“They didn’t leave.”
The guy’s face disappeared from the TV screen. The woman said she’d look for a date on her own.
“We can’t forget we were there,” I said.
The Love Connection music came on and then the commercial.
“You want to kick a football around?” Solly said.
“It’s a soccer ball here,” I said. “Sure.”
We were eating dinner, talking about our first day of school. My Dad had grilled steaks for the occasion and my Mom had made potato salad and fresh coleslaw. We hadn’t had a chicken meal since we’d returned to Massachusetts. Solly was retelling a joke his American History teacher had told about the Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock. I heard the tires screech, the engine rev.
“Go back to Israel you fucking Jews!”
It was Chuck Nash’s voice.
It was his genius brother Franny.
“Fuck you, Jew bastards!”
Tim Grady and Stanton Sewicki in chorus.
I was out of my chair and out the front door. I knew my brother was behind me. The four of them were in Chuck Nash’s souped-up Chevy Nova, red with a black racing stripe.
“Get out of here,” I said.
“It’s a free country kike boy,” Chuck said.
“I’ll call the cops.”
“You chicken-shit Jew. No wonder you all got gassed.”
I felt the pressing. Against my neck. His forearm. Worse than his forearm. The gas choking me off. There were no walls to claw and he was in front of me.
“I’m ready” I said.
I forced the fear from my voice.
“I’m ready for you now,” I said. “Right now. Me and you. Me and you.”
Chuck opened the car door and we stood face to face. I had been lifting weights for a while. Chuck had been beating me up for a longer while. The other three got out of the car and Solly was next to me.
“I’m going to exterminate you, Jew boy,” Chuck said.
“What did you say?”
It was my Dad. I hadn’t heard him behind me. He always told us to stay out of trouble, to talk our way out of a fight. He had lost all of his aunts and uncles in the Holocaust. They’d been gassed at Treblinka.
“This is between me and your son,” Chuck Nash said.
“Did you say exterminate?”
“You heard me,” Chuck said.
“Yeah,” Franny said.
Chuck Nash was looking at my Dad, wondering why my Dad was getting involved with a high school fight. The four of them were looking at my Dad. I turned to look at my Dad and his blue eyes that were usually gentle were narrowed to slits. His glasses were off, in his hand.
“I wish all the Jews had been exterminated,” Chuck said.
My Dad lunged forward and grabbed Chuck Nash by the throat. I followed my Dad’s lead. So did Solly. I took Franny down and started punching his head and when he covered up I started kicking him. Solly was on top of Tim Grady. Stanton Sewicki had run behind the car. My Dad still had Chuck Nash in a chokehold and Chuck couldn’t get away. My Dad kept asking Chuck Nash if he thought people like the Nashes could actually exterminate the Jews. Chuck couldn’t answer. He was moving his mouth but nothing was coming out. The pressing was just too hard. I stopped kicking Franny Nash and Solly got off Tim Grady and we watched our father.
“You’ll never exterminate us,” my Dad said.
Chuck’s face was purple.
“You’ll never exterminate us.”
My Dad’s hand was steady, his blond hair was brushed back and I recognized his eyes. They were my eyes when I caught them in the mirror sometimes, walking past the large art room window at the end of a bad school day, in a rush to get home, practically goose-stepping. We could just as well have come out of some 1940s photograph. My grandfather had escaped because of his blond hair. My father had been born safely in the United States because of my grandfather’s blond hair. Blond hair, Aryan hair, passed down and down again. I recognized the hate in my father’s eyes, his raised hand around Chuck Nash’s throat,.and I blurred my own hateful eyes and could hear the shouts of thousands of men screaming Heil, Heil, their arms raised, marching forward.
It was Solly who removed my father’s hand from Chuck Nash’s throat. Chuck and Franny and Tim scrambled back to their car and Stanton Sewicki didn’t waste time revving the engine when he drove away.
“Come into the house,” my Mom said.
“Never,” my Dad said.
I looked at Solly. I was angry at him for taking Dad’s hand from Chuck Nash’s throat.
My Dad picked up his glasses from the driveway and my mother and father went into the house.
“Home sweet home,” my brother said.
I stayed on the front lawn. I didn’t need a mirror to know how I looked. My muscles were pumped. My neck was thick. My hair was blond.
Adam Berlin is the author of Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) and Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press). He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is co-editor of J Journal: New Writing on Justice.
Pingback: Current Issue: Volume 42, Number 2 — Fiction Issue, Spring 2012 « Coe Review
Really strong story, Adam. Great voice and details. It’s serious yet funny. Proud of you.
Beautiful, moving, powerful, original, gripping…my comments may be cliche’d but Berlin’s writing is not.