Thereupon R. Joshua, son of Karhah, sent word to him, “Vinegar, son of wine!* How long will you deliver up the people of our God for slaughter!” Back came the reply: “I weed out thorns from the vineyard.” Whereupon R. Joshua retorted: “Let the owner of the vineyard himself [God] come and weed out the thorns.”
* Degenerate son of a righteous father.
— Bava Metzia 83b, Seder Nezikin
The most handsomest horses live by the cemetery by the old airfield. Whattaya mean why. I don’t make the rules. I can show you better than I can tell you.
My wife knows. She’s been beside me all this time. She says, Maury this location is cursed. Still you come here out of an animal’s habit. She says, Maury, listen: the ice cream’s gonna melt the ice cream’s gonna melt. Kapeesh? So let it melt, I say. It makes me thirsty.
My wife is an angel from God but she’s got the itch inside her head just like my son. She thanks the umbrellas for sheltering us from the rain. And the bulbs for making light. What can I do. At least at home I can take care of her. At least—I’ve never seen the line so bad in the middle of the day and we’ve been coming here every week for thirty years at least. She’s right. This location is cursed. I say that to say this.
At Hendrix St. you never have to stand around on your feet all day and if you ask a question someone might answer you in English. God forbid. You know this neighborhood used to be everyone talked. Old, young, everybody. My pals and I we would gather around grandpa’s radio, listening to the game take shape inning by inning, play after play. We didn’t have beepity beep alert devices. We just got our tongues up out of bed and communicated the box score, good or bad: Hey so-and-so. How you doing? How’s the family? Oh yeah? How many outs? Great, great. Listen. Let me get you-know-what. The usual. Soopensalad, soopensanwich. A baked potato, ok?
I mean, no disrespect. The guy used to drive the Italian ice truck was black Irish from Rhawnhurst. He went to Mass with my brother. Now this new guy I don’t know a word he’s saying or where the hell he went to high school. Some shish-kabob republic. I mean my mother was from there. Spoke it till the day she went belly up at the facility. But she made that beet soup I couldn’t stand. Purple soup with sour cream in it that drove my brother and I crazy. She used to call us the Americans because we gulped our dinner down as fast as we could to go pigeon racing at the armory. A big castle-like building in red brick. In those days you could ride your bike everywhere. It was safe.
Same time—I’m talking Fifties—I knew this quiet seaman from Finland, shipped out of the Port of Philadelphia and wrote science fiction stories about an average Normandy vet back from Europe on the surface, a GI, except he’s got this photogenic memory going all the time and he ends up recalling every goddamn thing. He was our neighbor when we lived down the street from the Jellynecks above the old bar on whatchmacallit where I met a guy who signed the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki. You think the Russians didn’t? We were all kids back then. Potato salad and seltzer picnics in the pines. Cold canoe water on my face. Malts and melts and peanut butter sundaes. (I know, I know—it’s not an excuse.)
When Pops got tired of our shenanigans he’d take us across the river to the old race track in Jersey to watch the fillies run in the Garden State Stakes, the Gardenia, where we saw Prince John and Citation and Bowl of Flowers. Guys like Bob Strange and B. Frank Christmas. And the men with huge hands who spat and threw their forms on the floor when they lost and adjusted their big hats in their hands with foreign accents. A murmur would go through the stands as Bold Ruler approached the starting line. Ushers in immaculate emerald green jackets and vests. A warm tobacco beer breeze on my face as the sun died over Cherry Hill.
One grandfather was a Jew and the other was a snus-carrying Swede so we celebrated St. Paddy’s Day like everybody else. I grew up with the kugel and poppy seed rolls and my aunt’s dusty juniper bottles and caraway cake. Grandpa put sumac in his soup that made him look like Charles Atlas. Fermented licorice from a chipped enamel mug kept his blood pressure tuned to precise army standards.
I recall his face, cigarillo, and a red Plymouth he had that I was pretty sure was stolen. Randy got drunk and plowed into a piece of infrastructure. This was near the old farm for aged equines. Around the same time as the racetrack burned down.
No horses died in the Cherry Hill fire, only humans. But horses are assholes, pardon my garlic. You can’t ever turn your back on a horse. I’ve been spooked, bitten, tripped, stomped, pummeled, ambushed, mocked. It’s not like a dog or anything. A horse remembers every whipping, every reward, threat, caress, every race, everything. You really got to maintain a hands-on discipline because a horse is just a penned-up grudge, a huge muscle on four legs pacing in a box all day just waiting as soon as you turn your back and think, God what a dumbass animal.
A vet once told me that in Pennsylvania the owners of a sick or injured horse will have it treated quietly to prevent any assumptions. Meanwhile, in Jersey, they’re pretty open about the whole thing. I’ve met some Pennsylvania horse people and I’m inclined to believe it. I guess it’s a good thing there’s so much I can’t remember anymore. Getting old’s no serenade. You see these socks? A gift. From my niece. The one with the new husband. Ask me about our anniversary. And the combination to my old gym locker at the YMCA. Ask me the names of all the storms and blizzards that paralyzed the city. Go ahead. The pennant races—those are safe in here. But the smell of the blanket in grandpa’s cabin? The effemera? To all that, goodbye.
Getting old’s spooky. We live downstairs in a one-room kitchenette that’s never been remodeled. My wife is small and the place is small. We dance in the kitchen. But the centipedes that run up and down the walls scare her. She calls them millionbugs. She screams holy murder. And me, I’m not a young man anymore. When I finally hit the things they break into a million pieces and the legs and guts go all over the floor, still twitching. That makes her scream more while I’m standing there breathing like I haven’t breathed since I retired after forty years in the Postal Service.
The only circuit I have now is the one in Pennypack Park. Sometimes, especially in the lovely green, I fear the worst. The wind picks up in a sinister way and the leaves stir and fall faster and faster. I look around and recognize not one face, not one priest. The clergy—they’re from all over the place. I can’t keep track. My barber John—I’m the last regular client he’s got. He says they’re going over to the mall, ditching the tonsorial. With my neighbors I can’t seem to communicate or ex-communicate. Take the Igors.
Hurricane Igor made landfall in the Eighties. A few drops at first, no more than a trickle. Then one grocery turned into another grocery turned into a calendars-and-music store. I remember them strolling around Somerton pointing at things they couldn’t pronounce, feeling sorry for them and their synagogues. They didn’t know how to use a payphone or park a car. Scared of traffic. Wouldn’t take any of the busy streets. (They were all busy.) And my son Christopher was exactly the right age—a tall, goofy, friendly kid. Helpful. He taught them how to roller skate after school at the Roller Skating Palace and soon we had Igors in our house because these kids were being raised by their grandparents. Fine. We got used to it. But grandma’s boys grow up and develop bad habits. They don’t feel like riding bikes or searching for berries. They’d rather compete on who can steal more shit from the convenience store. What else? I don’t know. Everything we could, we did.
It’s my fault. I go to the flower shop and get the wrong color thistle. Drive to the superstore, pick up the wrong milk. I bring home too little butter, too few eggs. My brother calls up on the phone and my wife says to him she says We made so much chicken salad it’s disgusting. It’s terrible. The weather’s terrible. And: How much does that avocado cost? A single avocado? How in the world should I know?
Just look at the fingers on my right hand. I’ve got arrhythmia and Swedish heels. Pebbles in my kidneys, eggzema on both big toes, and I’m not allowed rhubarb, almonds, chicory, or tea leaves. I can’t have peanuts at the Phillies game. But my calves still look good for my age. Athletic. I’m vain about my calves.
I mean, it just didn’t materialize, my wife and my son and me. I wanted a boy and a girl but my wife got Hungarian cysts and we had to move and take care of Christopher with no help from my parents (living) or hers (deceased). And Christopher didn’t do well in school but it’s not like he’s troubled. It’s just that sometimes he gets sad and wants to do things that are illegal. Tough love: that’s what the doctor says.
Every week for the last decade or so we stop here to pick up the mail on our way back from Christopher’s facility and the whole time my wife’s yelling into my earpiece: The ice cream’s going to melt, the ice cream’s going to melt. You’ll be eating soup soon you dummy.
Memento Maury? I gotta get a new piece.
Rule #1: Never buy coffee across the street from your arraignment.
The coffee is always terrible and there’s something like a one hundred percent chance you’ll run into your lawyer or the prosecutor in your case. It makes for an awkward beginning to an awkward morning. Of course you feel like giving up. But—it’s not permitted.
Another rule is don’t buy salad at the coffee place. You’ll get a plate of wet lettuce. That’s not a rule, really, more of a rule of thumb. Something gained from trial and error.
The word trial jumps out at you, doesn’t it? The night before mine I kept looking at the empty person formed by my shirt and tie on the bedside chair and the shadow my vacant shoes made on the floor—a lifeless thing for me to inhabit. I don’t feel ashamed that I couldn’t sleep. (There are plenty of things I’m ashamed about.)
Something I learned only after the accident is they don’t have Mischief Night in Russia. They don’t have Halloween. So what?
The other defense lawyers were very excited about this fact and there was a lot of whispering in court at that time but I still don’t know what that has to do with me throwing that rock. They interrogated me with all these questions. If I liked Halloween. How long had I been celebrating Halloween. Did I dress up. Who did I go out with. They made it seem like I was a Halloween addict and the ringleader of a poor band of Russian kids and that the whole wilding was my sick American idea of fun. Like I knew there was a kid in the backseat when I threw it. Like I wanted to spend the rest of my life in here.
Of course it was counsel’s idea to bargain. He said I’d be better off in a place where someone could look after my feelings. My family calls it a facility. I’m not sure. I never would’ve thought any of this up myself.
Whole days go by when nothing happens. Naked maples shiver in the yard outside my window. They dance in the rain. Above their heads the sky is cold. You’re supposed to say what temperature the sky is.
Two times a week a beardy Jew named Moish comes to talk Talmud. We position our chairs in a circle in one of the visiting rooms: Moish, me, two other Jews—Marc C. and Kevin—and a guy who swears he’s the real King of Prussia. From an enormous book of Damages we read together these little cases that lawyers and judges call torts, with commentary by a gazillion rabbis. We argue, we struggle, we argue, we laugh. The law is so easy to break, says Moish. The weakest can do it.
Dad looks at me through laced fingers.
You need new glasses, I say.
Okay, so I need new glasses.
The sun crawls up the okra-colored walls. His sweatshirt says Babcock College. You’re supposed to say what color everything is. The olive-colored curtains. The spearmint linoleum floor. What else do you need to know? Today was a salmon day. That means Tuesday.
Mom fills the mini-fridge without a sound. The mini-fridge is a privilege for those who maintain good behavior status. She kisses me and walks back to the car.
Dad and I sit on the squeaky iron bed, scratching off Lucky Numbers with a tattered nickel. Lucky Numbers is his favorite game. What are we waiting for again?
For you to get better.
Better at what?
To become a mensch—Moish says—a human person with clean hands and a clean heart. A heart lighter than feathers.
Christopher is a good boy, my father would say. But plagued with fantasies.
He’s right. The doctors are wrong. I don’t have a kinetic disorder whatever-the-fuck. I also can’t stay here forever and I can’t go home. It’s not that I’m lazy. I would occupy myself to death if I knew what my occupation was, my life’s business. Isn’t that how people describe it?
You ask my advice and you don’t want to listen, my father says. You want advice?
I know this man loves me and yet I’ve never liked ponies or fillies and he never made any attempt to like my hyphenated friends. He wanted me to play sports or something. Chase a ball. But he was never specific about which one.
As we now know, I need things to be specific. I need precise instructions, obvious directions, sharp, pointy edges to the parameters of things. And the doctors have made it abundantly clear that I’ll need to be more than vague if I’m ever going to convince them that I can survive without supervision. To prove to them I’m finished with fantasies forever.
My supervising psych is less than thrilled with my progress. He blows on a plastic spoon and glares at his soup like an angry glyptodont.
Christopher, he says. Christopher, I don’t understand. What do you mean—he glances at his notes—What if you were a computer and someone turned you off?
I mean, what would you think, Doc, if something like that were to happen to you.
He looks at me as at a master of decadence, a prince of idleness. His nostrils say: you’ve never ever in your life finished anything important. I know what you want. You want things to be easy.
I’m feeling vicious and clean. For once, I decide to share.
I hand him some legal paper on which I’ve penciled out the contents of my own prayer:
Someone holds up the sun in the sky—Who Is It?
Someone holds up the birds in the air—Who Is It?
Someone makes sure the air remains air-like—Who Is It?
Someone Who knows what is actually wrong with us—
I capitalize His name like Moish taught me. It feels good. The way every scratch off, every steeplechase, every sunrise is God’s way of saying, It’s not My fault. I am what I am. Hey! I gave you paradise.
That’s real nice, the doctor says. Wow. You should be a choir captain or something. At least he’s polite about it.
I mean what is it you plan on doing with yourself, Christopher?
I tell him maybe I could be a kind of Moish myself, you know, traveling around to facilities like this and talking to guys like me directly, no middleman.
Talking about what?
About anything and everything, I say. About the law and justice and forgiveness and mercy, prosecutors and defendants and wolves and sheep. The faces you see in your dreams and the faces you have to deal with when you wake up again. The masks, old and new, that from sunrise to sunrise pursue you.
There is only one Judge, I would tell them. And He doesn’t speak English. Don’t worry about me. (I mime getting up again like I had done it a thousand times.)
Of course everybody wants to give up, I tell him, but it’s not permitted. In the beginning was the Word. And the word is Blessed. That’s why, after our first group meeting, Moish had given me the name Yehuda, son of the patriarch Yakov.
Moish points at my chest. He closes my eyes with his hands and draws the letters that will set me free. He quotes Bava Metzia. And star-trekking my forehead, he is heard to say:
Arise, Winegar, son of wine!
read next in Turning Points and Revolution: Tomas Tranströmer “Schubertiana”
Daniel Elkind is the author of Theory and Failure: Some Latter-Day Curse Tablets and Reflections on the Nature of the League (Gauss PDF). He lives in San Francisco.