Friday, August 29, 2014

Montauk Night

"Mom, do you want to come down to 
the beach and look for shooting stars?"

Margery startled awake at her teenage daughter's entry and entreaty. "Um sure. Give me five minutes." She flipped off the motel TV and rummaged for a sweatshirt. Zoe was already outside on the second floor deck of Daunt's Albatross West, staring at the clear August night sky, oblivious to the beer-and-red-solo-cup revery down below.

"Okay, I'm ready," Margery said, fumbling with the room key with the large plastic oval bearing the mostly rubbed-out room number. Room 27. They all noted the coincidence on arrival. Their house number was 27, as was the house numbers of three of their good friends. 
And Margery knew -- but didn't say out loud -- the eerie significance 27 had in the music world. All those famous rockers who died young -- Jimi, Janis, Kurt, Jim -- they were all 27. Margery shivered a little, aware that her oldest son, who was not there on this particular trip, was also 27.

Since Zoe's sister Kasey and Kasey's boyfriend (also named Casey) were already asleep downstairs, Margery and and she set out together. The beach was a block away, with a sandy easement that ushered the ocean novice in with awesome simplicity. Zoe was the baby of the family, the youngest of five and had, in her younger years, been very close to her mother. "Joined at the hip," Margery often said, indicating Zoe's old familiar perch on her right hip.

These days they were often at odds, fighting over anything, it seemed. That Zoe wanted her mother to join her on the beach was miracle enough to get the exhausted Margery up and out. 

The sky was awash with stars! A net of white Christmas lights hurled across the sky, wrapped in a milky band that traveled west to east. Margery rummaged through her youthful memories, looking for the file marked "Astronomy Class 1972." This elusive file contained the names and locations of the five major constellations, which, on a clear night, could be seen without a telescope. At one time she could look up and find them all. Now she was not so sure.

"There's Ursa Major and Ursa Minor." She pointed up. "And there's the North Star, attached to Ursa Minor. 

"Where's Orion's Belt?" Zoe asked.

They walked along the cooling sand, flip flops in hand, until they came to a soft flat spot. Pulling up their hoodies, they lay down, shoulder's touching and goose-bumped knees extended. "I'm not sure," Margery said, searching the sky for those elusive three stars, lined up like marching soldiers.

Just then, a star, a faded one, shot away from its assigned spot and arched away into oblivion. "Wow!" Zoe was excited. "I've never seen an actual shooting star before!" Margery smiled at her daughter's exuberance. Her smile remained fixed as the two stayed in their spots for the next hour, talking about stars and siblings.

She was glad the single tear that ran down into her left ear was invisible to Zoe who was lying on her right. This last of her five constellations would soon be shooting off into her own wider space. Margery felt a twinge in her right hip.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


           Nothing notable about him.

He owned exactly two suits, one a blue pinstripe, and the other a milk chocolate brown. He had two pairs of shoes to go with his suits, black and brown wingtips that made his feet appear  large and hobbit-like when holding up his diminutive frame. He had black hair, parted on the left -- a little too greasy -- and matching black framed glasses.

Joseph Perry was twenty-seven, but looked older. The most interesting thing about him was his salt-and-pepper beard. Sometimes a whole thing, connected ear to ear and detouring over his lip, and sometimes, a lopsided goatee, with the ear connectors removed. It was clear he lived alone (unless one counted the elderly couple living downstairs) by the inept way he attempted to groom himself for his fidgety flock of fifth graders at Saint Edward the Confessor School. But always a collar tab stuck out at an unruly angle, a tie knot slightly off to the right, one sideburn a little longer that the other. A teacher rendition of Maynard G. Krebs.

Miss Byczek, the tall, willowy science teacher with Cher-straight long, black hair, light pink nail polish and an unbelievably even tan, walked by him without a glance. The even shorter and nerdier French teacher Henri Mageean, a mouse of a man with a ridiculous pencil mustache, was not put off. "Bonjour, Mademoiselle," he sonorized in his made-up mash of British and French accents.

Both Henri and Joseph lay awake at night in their respective one-room flats, imagining themselves with the floaty, enigmatic Miss Byczek. During the school day, only Henri, either by pluck or idiocy, spoke to her, his large nose only reaching her sternum. However much Joseph saw the silliness in Henri, he had to admire his bravery. How many times since the beginning of the school year had he rehearsed a casual greeting, a subtle arm brush in the hall? Every time the moment opened up, he froze, blinking harder and faster behind his black plastic frames, his lower lip quivering invisibly beneath the jet black beard.
The clock radio woke him. 

Cousin Brucie’s caffeinated voice jarred him into a sitting position. He smacked the off button on top of the plastic radio (a free gift when he opened his first grown-up bank account) wiped the sleep spittle from his beard and rolled sideways off the futon which doubled as his daytime couch. “Davenport,” he thought, smiling a bit, remembering the funny word his midwest grandma used for such furniture.

Joseph shuffled into the kitchenette, plugged in the hotpot and reached into the metal cabinet for his can of Maxwell House. While waiting for the water to heat, he opened a can of A&P cat food, scooped out its contents onto a melamine saucer and placed it on the windowsill. Leaning out the open window, he pursed his lips, making a soft psss-ing sound. Within five seconds, a skinny tuxedo cat appeared with a dead mouse in her teeth. She dropped the gift on the sill and looked expectantly at him. “Your welcome,” she said, and began eating from the saucer.

After showering and beard trimming, Joseph put on his remaining clean white dress shirt. “Blue or brown?” he wondered, grimacing inwardly at his own poverty. He remembered it was Wednesday and therefore the day of the weekly teachers' meeting. He opted for the blue suit. "More sophisticated," he thought. That meant black socks, black belt and black wingtips. His tie of choice (he owned three) was navy blue with pink paisley amoeba swimming throughout.

Joseph grabbed his worn book bag and headed out the door. The elderly woman who lived with her toothless husband in the downstairs apartment, was watering geraniums on the stoop. "Morning," Joseph mumbled, rushing past her, not wanting to seem rude, but not wanting to encourage a conversation that would reveal his ignorance of her name (was it Edna? Elba? Irma?). He needn't have worried, since she did not even bother to look up.

His car was parked two blocks away. It was a Datsun 240 Z, a cool car, which, had it been new, would be wildly beyond Joseph's means. His was navy blue, like his suit, and was no longer shiny. Its sides were sprinkled with dings and rust spots and the driver side door creaked as he opened it. Nevertheless, Joseph loved his car so much that he had given it a name and believed it had a soul. Pepe, he christened it, after his late father. In reality, Pepe Pereira was far from dead, but had disappeared when Joseph was a child. Rumor had it that he had returned to Guatemala, and had fathered twenty more children since his dalliance with Joseph's mother. But Joseph preferred to think of his father as a hard-working-but-unfortunate immigrant who lost his life in some sort of mysterious, heroic way.
Pepe (the car) whined and complained as Joseph woke him into action. After four tries, Pepe finally gave in. Joseph pulled away from the curb and rumbled off to St. Edward's School.

He arrived late. Pepe had cause problems on the way, stalling and coughing. When Joseph finally walked into the conference room, the meeting was already in progress. He found a metal folding chair and sat down behind a group of nuns. He didn’t know their names -- they taught the younger grades -- and even if he did, they were not the women’s real names. Sister Mary Alphonsus, Sister Mary Norbert, Sister Mary Francis. Looking at the back of their veiled heads, he wondered what their actual given names might be. Betty? Sally? Judy?

Joseph was amusing himself so thoroughly, he did not hear his name called at first. “Mr. Perry? Are you with us today?” Sister Mary Sebastian the school’s perpetually red-faced principal was at the head of the table. Joseph stood up. Henri Mageean was also standing (had he been the whole time? And why does he look like he’d been crying?) “This affects you too, I’m afraid,” she continued. “The bishop has decided that all the elementary schools in the diocese should should be taught only by women, either the lay women teachers, or by the Sisters of Mercy.”

More like the Sisters of NO Mercy, he thought, smiling at his own joke in spite of the seriousness of the moment. He shrugged and looked over at Miss Byczek. She was not affected by this sweeping edict, so why, then did she also look like she was going to cry? She was looking back at him with what appeared to be real concern. It seemed odd to be so much taller than she at this moment, since she was sitting, one tanned willowy leg crossed over the other, and he was still standing.
The meeting ended and the teachers gathered their things to head off to their classrooms. Joseph straightened his paisley tie (was that a stain?) and reached for his briefcase. “I’m so sorry Joseph.” Miss Byczek was standing next to him, touching his coat sleeve. He froze for a moment. “It’s okay,” he stammered, frozen with instant fear, and at the same time, ecstatic that she knew his first name. It has been very nice working with you, Lucille.” “It’s Lorraine,” she said, flipping her hair and walking off. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Brooklyn Afternoon

“Savlanut, my bubela, savlanut!”
Patience. Hard for a seven-year-old dervish with payos flying.
Patience. Babbi was not old, but wearied faster these days than when her own boys were seven. On this Friday afternoon, Bnayahu plunked down on the kitchen chair with an exaggerated sigh, eyeing the box from Wall’s Bakery with feigned innocence. He was thin as a whippet, all tanned knees and elbows, his bare feet held clear evidence of where his Teva straps had been.

Babbi pulled the pie from the oven and set it to cool on the counter. She washed her hands and took off her apron. “Now bubela, I’m ready,” she smiled, tucking a stray hair into her scarf. “Get your shoes on -- no, not your sandals, real shoes that cover your feet. And a jacket you should have. Meet me at the front door in two minutes!”

Bnayahu ran up the stairs and was down again in thirty seconds, his dark jacket inside out and his shoes undone. “Hurry Babbi,” he yelled. It will be dark soon!”

“Savlanut, my boy.”

He sat on the bottom step, carefully lacing and tying his shoes in the bunny-ears way his grandmother had taught him, double knots and all.

Finally Babbi appeared, dressed all in black, pulling on her special gloves, worn only for this occasion. “Oy,” she moaned. The autumn chill seeped into her bones these days even before telling her skin of its arrival. “Pull your payos back and straighten your kipa,” she told him as she carefully strapped the child’s helmet around his chin. She snapped her own helmet over her headscarf and pulled closed the silver zippers that criss-crossed her leather biker jacket.

Bnayahu clambered onto the back seat of the Harley and clung tightly to his grandmother as she expertly snapped the kickstand with the heel of her black Frye Harness boot, checking the mirrors and pushing off, revving the engine of the rudely-awakened beast.

“Hold on, bubela!” she yelled into the wind. The pair roared off onto the streets of Borough Park where all the people dressed in black. But not this kind of black.