The morning was indistinguishable from so many others. Lorenz was taking his morning walk around the pond or lake, it was of that intermediate size that could be either or neither, when in a break with his habit, he sat down on one of the four benches, and stared out over the water. He hadn’t seen the usual egrets or herons or ibis, which did strike him as a bit odd since they were as regular in attendance as he was. As he pondered their absence he was startled by what felt like a tickling on his arm. He looked down to find a Painted Lady butterfly perched on his forearm sitting placidly. He stared at what seemed to be the eyes on its wing staring at him. Neither moved, he for fear of dislodging his visitor, the butterfly for its own, undisclosed, unfathomable reasons. This mutual staring continued until time lost its shape, its defintion, and puddled at his feet, no longer mattering at all. But evenutally a breeze came up and it lifted from his arm, flitted about as if in some farewell and was off. He had no idea that moments later the tsunami warning sirens began up and down Fukushima Prefecture in Japan.
He liked nothing more than slipping out the back of the Ritz Carlton and heading down Nonhyeon-ro, more alley than street, past the small bulgogi restaurant, and winding his way to Gangnam-daero 106, finally arriving on the great avenue, Gangnam-daero. It was buzzing with life at all hours, but in the early evening the Virgin Megastore was quieter. He’d slip in, ignoring the rock blaring on the first floor, the insane K-Pop on two and finally, passing through classical, arriving at the international section tucked away in a third floor corner. He’d rummage for Celtic CDs, certain he’d find things he never could get at home, for while Korea was so greatly influenced by America, Virgin, a good U.K. company, brought its CDs from England and sold them at surprisingly low prices. A bit of the ould sod in Korea, and hey, kimchi was once green right?
He found the cup by the curb one morning walking to the bus. He rarely notice things on his walk, thinking always about the day ahead. But this day he saw it, picked it up and put it in his messenger bag intending to clean it later, when he got home after work. He had no idea why he wanted it. It wasn’t particularly pretty, a drab red with a mark where a decal had long ago peeled away. He forgot it, until he found it in his bag several days later, he washed it and placed it on a special shelf in his kitchen cabinet. The shelf was reserved for things he found with which he intended to do something, but that something had not yet happened. He knew something was missing from the shelf, so he took a selfie, printed it and placed it on the shelf.
First Published in The Birdseed, Vol. 1, Issue 3, 2022
WARNING: A SHORT STORY, SO A LONGER READ THAN USUAL. BUT WORTH IT HOPEFULLY
He wondered why he allowed himself to be in this position. He
knew that he didn’t actually allow it, he courted it. But you could
claim allowance when you chose the lesser, by far, of two evils.
As a child, his mother always told him he was fragile, that he
should avoid overly strenuous activities and drafts. With the
Vietnam “conflict” waging, that was one time he thought his
mother right, one draft to definitely avoid. So he enlisted in the
Air Force. “Choose the devil you want to dance with, if you have
to dance with the devil,” a friend said. He didn’t think it would be
all that bad. Sure, he’d heard stories, but who didn’t tell stories,
other than him. He would learn. Lesson one was the large sign on
the gate, “Welcome to Lackland Air Force Base, Gateway to the
Air Force.” Gateway to limbo was more like it, though it seemed
a bit like hell.
They had been in line for what seemed like hours. In San Antonio
in April, when the humidity is up, minutes seem like hours. They
looked reasonably absurd, hair of all lengths and colors, a motley
of pants, and all in the sickly yellow t-shirt with U.S. AIR
FORCE across the chest. They entered the building in single file,
emerged moments later as motley as ever but each and every one
skin headed, courtesy of Lackland’s finest barbers (though he
doubted they had taken a single class in cosmetology). And they
looked none the better for effort.
The one thing you could trust was that if you felt the least bit
insulted by the Air Force, the injury that had to accompany it was
just around the next corner. At least they knew he was coming,
had the correct names on his uniforms. And the sort of fit. Save
the combat boots. “We’ll fix those tomorrow,” Sgt. Leal bellowed,
“just put the damn things on!” Then it was time for the ID Photo,
and a string of “stop smiling, moron, just look at the camera.”
And magically, moments later, he had grown four inches. When
he told Sgt. Leal he needed a new ID, Leal scowled, “No, dipshit,
you need to grow four inches. Get on with it!”
He’d always been a night person. Uncle Sam cured him of that in
about two days. 9 to 5 was once a working day he assumed. The
Air Force taught him that it was a sleeping night. And the alarm
wasn’t a trumpet call like in the Boy Scouts. It was the bellowing
of Sergeant Leal. Fifteen minutes later, they were showered,
dressed in the uniform of the day, always the OD’s, and in
formation outside the dorm. Yes, dorm, although the same
building across town at Fort Sam Houston was an old WWII era
barracks. A short march later and they were at the chow hall, it
was only amess in the Army and Marines, and with his daily dose
of SOS (shit on a shingle) and a silent prayer for the pig so cruelly
disposed of, then it was finally time to play soldier.
He remembered what it was like parading around in the Texas
sun. You didn’t use sunscreen, the asinine pith helmet was
supposed to protect you. It simply made you look stupid, you
thought, but one in a sea of stupid so you never felt out of place.
The uniforms were that olive that seemed to cry out “witness the
fool unable to avoid this drab outfit.” They gathered sweat as
would a sponge, but dried quickly enough since you would wear
them again in two days, and they wouldn’t be washed for a week.
You looked forward to night, when a hint of coolness arrived,
hopefully with sleep before the Drill Sergeant bellowed to greet
another day in the Air Force’s version of hell.
Far and away the worst duty in boot camp was kitchen work in
the Visiting Officers Dining Rooms. KP was never fun, but
usually it was dish out the slop that too often passed for meals,
scrape plates and load the industrial dishwasher, avoid the mess
sergeant or keep him happy and hide when you could. But the
VODR was a whole different world. You had officers from
countless countries who expected to be treated as invited guests
who wanted what they wanted when the wanted it how they
wanted it. And they dripped arrogance on a good day. It was
never a good day in the Visiting Officers Dining Room.
He was still four inches short of his goal when he made the short
hop from Lackland to Kelly, for his police training. He had be
told that since he would be trained for the Security Forces, they
would have to reissue his ID card. And this time there was an
even chance they would get it right. He held out hope. His hope
was misplaced, and when he was injured in a bar in downtown
San Antonio while still in training, we accepted a transfer into the
Air Force Reserves, with the stipulation that they wouldn’t expect
him to grow the missing four inches.
Be thankful you didn’t join the army, was his sergeant’s most
common refrain. Sarge was a lifer, or at least trying to hang on
until he could quit and never really work again. Wouldn’t know
how to do a real job, he said, and wouldn’t want to have to learn.
Nobody with half a mind joined the Army if they could get out of
it. He saw that at his physical with all the probable draftees
feigning this or that to duck service. Thing is, only real money
bought your way out, and he wouldn’t know that until years later,
once the war was no more than a faint memory to most.
Things went as badly in Security training as he expected. On his
first call, riding shotgun with two Security Forces officers, they
responded to a bar fight downtown where a half dozen Air Force
trainees decided to take on two Army Rangers. It wasn’t pretty,
less so when the last Airman standing decided to miss the Ranger
with the padded chair he was swinging and struck him. He knew
instantly his Security days were over. The Air Force agreed five
weeks later, transferring him to the Reserves. “And with a bum
wrist, we’ve got to change your assignment. You are now a Clerk-
That was the brilliance of the Air Force Personnel specialists. If
you have a bad wrist, they make you a typist. As one why and
he’s likely to say, “But your index fingers still work, right?” They
did, but the base doctor still said he wasn’t fit to type, so it would
be another day shuttling between the NCO club and the BX, with
a stop for lunch down the road at the Pig and Whistle. Even there,
the hot dogs had pork, but there was no shingle, so it was a major
improvement over his nightmares of Lackland.
Once in the Reserves, the rest of his service became a game: he
versus the Air Force. The Base doctor made it clear that he was
not fit for typing, the wrist continuing to be a problem. So his job
was to sit around and stay out of the way. But for most jobs in the
Air Force you could train by reading and passing basic test of
knowledge, not demonstrating any real skill. In short order this
clerk typist who couldn’t type (ironically though he could but for
the injury) became a qualified Medical Clerk, Legal Clerk,
Chaplains Assistant (a particularly useful AFSC on a base with no
Chaplain, and a Loadmaster Apprentice. Any job you could learn
from the books he did. He wouldn’t dare do any of them. That was
how the military always got into the messes it seemed to relish.
But it kept his NCO and commanding officer happy, and if they
were happy, well, you get the picture. But the wrist was no better,
and eventually the base doctor, a pediatrician by training, decided
it was time to get him help or get him out.
Then the fun really began. The wrist was still acting up so he
went to the V.A. Hospital. And that began the next chapter in the
Government That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (although it could shoot
itself in its foot with surprising accuracy). He filled out the
paperwork. He waited. It was like he was back in the Air Force,
the waiting, but no uniforms this time. Finally the letter. The
Army has no record of your service. A phone call, a patient clerk,
a “well that would explain it. I’ll put it right through. I can get you
an appointment Thursday in the Orthopedic Clinic. Don’t tell
anyone we fit you in.” No one would believe it anyway. And two
weeks after the clinic appointment, on his scheduled weekend
duty, the base doctor called him in to his office. The Captain of
his unit was there as well. He knew and smiled as he saw them.
“The VA says you need surgery and they have a doc who can do
it. Problem is they can operate on those still in the Air Force, so
you are being discharged. Honorably, of course. We’ll have the
paperwork ready by Sunday, so hit the Base Exchange (such as it
is) one last time, you will be a Veteran by Monday.”
First published in Green Silk Journal, Spring 2020
ENTRY: March 23, 1992
Damn David, what was he thinking? I should be over at Shirley’s playing mah jongh, but no. Ma, you need some adventure in your life. Like I need hemorrhoids, I need this. Schvitzing like a fountain, I’m the queen of Mardi Gras. Who is he kidding? I’m a Jewish dishrag in a swamp, Fat Tuesday. For this I raised him, fed him, and bought him a fine education at the best goyishe schools money could buy. And he sends me to a swamp. Was I such a bad mother, I deserve this? Tea at Sibley’s, that’s where I should be, but No, “Ma, you’ll have fun.” If this is fun, God, bring on some suffering. Where did I go wrong to deserve such tsuris. Okay, so maybe there were days I didn’t change the diaper soon enough. He resents me so much he sends me here? Not a Jew in sight, and these fakokteh masks, I’m schvitzing my mascara off. And what kind of hotel has fans and no air. Local experience my tuchus. At least in the mountains the air moves. Here, bupkis. So maybe it was her idea, that princess he married. This is her way of getting even, for what, I don’t know. She sits around the “Club” all day while he breaks his back making a life. He would have been better off with that shiksah he dated in college, God should cut out my tongue. Shirley save me from this madness. Ethel, where the hell are you when I need you. And Saul, may it be really warm in the place you are going, you putz, for giving me a son like this.
ENTRY: August 18, 2005
So he calls this morning, out of nowhere, my David. He who’s allergic to the phone, how often he calls. David, whose diapers I changed, it seems like forever, the sheets till he was ten. His pediatrician had some long name for it, but I knew he was just too lazy to go to the bathroom during the night. It’s not like he had to wash the pishy sheets after all. And Lizzie hated handling the smelly things, but that’s what maids do I, had to keep telling her. So he calls this morning, this son of mine, this child who, God willing, will say to me before I’m deaf as a stone like that composer, before they plant me in some discount plot with no view, Ma, thanks for all you did for me. Like he even remembers! From him I get mishegas in heaps, and tsuris in unhealthy doses. And he calls in the morning? Who died, I say. And he goes silent. The last time he was silent he was under general anesthesia, with a tube down his throat. But now, he calls me for the first time in forever and then goes silent when I open my mouth. I want to say thanks for the bupkis, but I bite my tongue, mothers shouldn’t be sarcastic. Who died, I repeat. “Dad is dead,” he whispers. I say, “like I don’t know my father is dead, he died years ago, when you were still pishing your crib.” “Not grandpa,” he says, “dad. You know, MY FATHER.” Oh, I said, thanks for telling this to me. “The memorial service is Thursday in the Interfaith Chapel over at the U.” This I truly needed to know, I’m not at all sure why. To me, I buried Saul, the schmuck, years ago, nice and deep in my memory, didn’t want his head popping up. I buried the putz and now he’s got to go and die again, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. So now I’m supposed to stand there in black, which makes me look twenty pounds heavier than I am, and pretend to cry, like I’d risk getting tears on good Italian silk. Better they shouldn’t give me the shovel, I’ll dig him deeper still. And with the black lace for the head, like a bit of drek landed on my hair. So maybe that’s why he died, so I should stand around in black and everyone should stand around and whisper, just so I can hear, “look at Yetta, she looks so old, and has she put on the pounds.” God, why do you punish me so? Okay, so I made a mistake, I married the putz. You blessed me with a child, so what if he can’t remember my birthday and thinks Mother’s Day is sometime in October, when he recalls it at all. So now God, you think I haven’t suffered enough. Like my tsuris meter is reading empty and I need a refill? With a sense of humor like that God, it’s no wonder we had to invent the Borscht Belt. Okay, so we had a couple of decent years, and the Caddy was a nice touch, but why would he think I’d want red? You go figure. And a memorial service at the Interfaith Chapel, what’s with that, unless it’s cheaper than the Chapel at the Schul. So he thinks maybe he’ll pick up a shiksah in the next life, fat chance. He didn’t want his non-Jewish friends to be uncomfortable, David said. Like either of those goys could be uncomfortable in a room where there’s wine. Discomfort? They should have shared a bed with Saul, they want to know discomfort. You want sorrow? Feel some for the Levy’s, next plot over, Saul, now they have to put up with your snoring for all eternity. And me, all I got is this silent house with the toilet in the guest room that never flushes right.
First appeared here April 5, 2016
ENTRY: March 27, 1971
So, finally he’s here. Nine months, what God, another joke? Okay, she ate the damned apple, so stick it to the snake. But what would you know, another man. For six hours I’m lying there, dying from pain before the shmendrick walks in like some king, smiles at all the cutesy nurses, finally sees me and says “Yetta, you look good.” I look good and he should get a giant boil on his tuchus. God, me again, a couple more things: One, it would kill you if David, yes a good biblical name, to hell I was going before I’d agree to Morty like my Saul wanted, so it would kill you if you gave him some hair so he doesn’t look like an overripe peach with eyes? Two, so how about a new rule, labor before childbirth lasts only as long as the act of conception. I could live with a two minute labor, and that’s from when Saul starts thinking about it. And David’s lying on my belly (God, you can have the extra weight back now, I’m done with it) and he’s smiling at me and Saul says “can I hold him, you’ve been carrying him for nine months.” It’s a good thing I’m so tired or Saul would get a second bris, this time with a butter knife and no wine. So listen, God, I need some rest, but a tip for the next world you create. Skip the cockroaches, and if women have to suffer, hemorrhoids will suffice – we don’t need husbands too.
ENTRY: October 2, 1987
It’s Erev Yom Kippur, and this year Saul got the good seats. Just in front of that new, cut young Cantor, what a Kol Nidre this will be. And he’s single, not that I am. Memo to self, find out what Saul’s hiding with the good seats. I know he’s not schtupping his secretary, for that he’d have me made President of the Woman’s Club and maybe a seat on the Board. And God, what to wear. I could wear that new black silk, but it doesn’t go at all with my mink. God, could you maybe give me a hint what kind of shmatah Natalie Stein, you know her, big nose and too much eye makeup, is wearing tonight? Would that be too much to ask?
ENTRY: June 14, 1990
That putz, where does he get off saying he doesn’t love me, hasn’t for years. What? I didn’t cook his meals, sew buttons back on his shirts always popping off, always a size too small. This is how he repays me. He should breakfast with worms. It would be easier if there were another woman, maybe a bit younger, maybe a shiksa, that I could understand. But no, god forbid, just “I don’t love you anymore.” What a schmuck, and me – didn’t see it coming. So God, this is payback for what, exactly? That Yom Kippur I snuck a half a bagel before sunset. Have a heart, there was no cream cheese, much less lox. The kids are grown, I should be thankful for that I suppose, some nachos I’ll carry forward, that and the house the Lexus and the summer place, let him live in some apartment, may he someday rot in hell. What to do? First a good lawyer, heaven knows he’ll find some shyster. Second, two buttons left on each of his damned shirts. Let him poke himself with the needle, the prick. I’ll survive, it’s not like my life with him wasn’t tsuris heaped on mishegas. I’m better rid of him. I’ll show him, clean him out good, he’ll think prunes are second rate when I’m done with him. Oh God, am I such a bad person, you should make me suffer like this, you haven’t given me enough grief already? This is how You repay a mother and wife? God, you have some twisted sense of humor, but I’ll survive, just to prove You wrong too. Oy, if only God were a woman, what a world this could be.
First appeared here on April 4, 2016
ENTRY: July 30, 1970
So, is this fakokteh box doing anything? Hello, HELLO? Buttons, now I’m a button pusher. Some kind of secretary now. Hello? Oh, hell, if it’s on it’s on and if not that’s Saul’s problem. So yesterday I tell my Saul, “You wouldn’t believe, we’re pregnant!” And Saul says, “you mean you’re pregnant Yetta, now isn’t a good time – can we talk about this later?” “Later, schmater,” I say, “we’re going to have a baby, so what do you feel?” And Saul pauses like emotions are alien to him somehow. “You know I’m excited,” he says. Like a dead person shows excitement as they lower him into the ground. “But I thought we were going to wait until the business grows.” And I’m thinking so Saul, did you tell your sperm they should be patient, maybe they should forget how to swim. But when he gets home he got this plastic box with the cartridge thingee that only goes in backwards, a true goyish design. “It’s a cassette recorder,” like I’m stupid, he says, “so you can keep a journal of your pregnancy so our child will know more about where he came from.” So my hand is broken Saul, nu? A pen and paper won’t do? For five thousand years it worked just fine, but no more? And so he’ll know where he came from? He came from you getting all hot and bothered after watching Sophia Whatshername, the Italian one with the big you know whats. Like your memory is so short you forgot what she looked like in the time it would take me to put in my diaphragm? And four minutes later, I’m pregnant? Charlton Heston, such a cutie even if he is a goy, couldn’t part the seas so fast as Saul is finished. So I say “how does this thing work?” and my energetical Saul says “Yetta, I’m tired, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” Which means my beloved husband, Thumbs Goldstein, hasn’t got a clue, what else is new. So box, you getting this? My child should know his father wants we should call her Sophia if it’s a girl. I tell Saul she’ll be Sophia right after a blind moyel I hire recircumcizes you. But by then, of course, he’s already snoring to wake the neighbors. We’ll I’m gonna push the button says STOP/EJECT and hope it works. If only our bed had an eject button. God, now that my figure’s going to hell for nine months or so, thank You very much, you think on the next model of man you could put a nice on/off switch? Well my kinder, welcome to the world, and if you’ve got complaints, go talk to your father.
First appeared here on April 3, 2016
It’s difficult enough, Mom, that I
never got to meet you, to see your face
save in a college yearbook, to have
only a few relatives acknowledge
my existence despite the DNA test
that clearly links us, one to the other.
What makes it more difficult is
trying to figure out my heritage,
my geographic roots before our family
arrived in West Virginia, back
in the old country which for most
was Lithuania, but for some Poland
and still others Russia, as though
their village was loaded onto a horsecart
and dragged around Eastern Europe
always heading to the next pogrom.
Couldn’t our place have settled
on a country, rather than riding the tides
of the insanity the leaders then?
Charing Cross Road
cramped sagging shelves
an out of print
slim, collected works
a damp chill
enfolds old leather
as the door opens
and shuts on
a late February.
Morning, my purchases
sink in the plastic bag
dancing as I walk
to the tube
at Leicester Square
with my new gems
destined to cause
in my bookcase.
He has been gone
over a year
and they need to erect
the headstone before
the first hard freeze,
but it has rained
for several days
and the ground
is too soft.
Although I can
still hear his cackling laugh
he lingers less and
his smell is slowly fading
from the old bomber jacket.