In Other Words: Merida
Waiting for Answers
FICTION BY ELAN BARNEHAMA
“Free music, girls, pot. A brilliant combination,” he said. “Just promise me you won’t spend the whole time talking about the war.”
“It’s a ANTI-WAR protest,” I protested.
“But you get so depressing when you do that. Just don’t do that around girls.”
I couldn’t really expect many people to know me the way Jonah knew me. I mean, we got our first teeth together, were on the same little league team, and had our bar mitzvah’s on the same day. We shared the pain of rooting for the Mets and the joy of sex. The joy of sex part, that was not together, but we did lose our virginity on the same night. Junior High graduation. A lot of us skipped the ninth grade prom and went to a party at Freddy’s house. Everyone got high and then Jonah disappeared with Julie, leaving me by myself on the couch. Mara sat down next to me and told me not to talk. She smelled great and I told her she did. She told me to stop talking and I said that I would. Her family was moving to California that summer, she told me, and she didn’t want to be a virgin when she got to Santa Monica. Everyone was cool in California she said. I nodded like that made sense to me. Then she told me she thought I was cute. I started to thank her when she reminded me about the not talking and that she was only doing this for the sex, and she made me promise that that I wouldn’t fall in love with her and call her or write her or follow her to California. I nodded okay.
As I was getting ready for Jonah to come over by staring into the mirror, searching for facial hair I was listening to the radio and I heard Paul Jacobs announce that he was doing his last show. I had wired a brown plastic radio in the bathroom so that whenever I turned on the light I had music. I couldn’t change the station from the toilet, but I could from the sink, which is where I was. Paul Jacobs was going to finish the show and move on. No warning, no buildup, no farewell tour. He didn’t say why or where he was going. I was not okay with his decision. Paul, I called him Paul, knew the right questions and even had some of the answers. I needed him around. I left my face alone and turned up the radio and though I was only inches away I strained to hear each word. Desperately, I tried to slow down sound. I tried to make my brain listen in slow motion and record every moment. I wanted to remember everything. I tried to break words into syllables, syllables into letters. Paul was talking in his calm voice, pulling me into the armchair beside him. He could make the city feel like a small town, like we were all neighbors.
During summer, Paul walked to work through Central Park and then described the evening’s scene at the beginning of his show. He spoke about summer in New York like he was sitting in a diner talking to a waitress pouring him coffee. Some days, Paul chose to describe a softball game that he had passed in Central Park on his way to the station, and he did it in such detail and with such enthusiasm that he could have been talking about, and I could have been listening to, the World Series. Paul loved baseball as much as music and would talk endlessly about how they were similar, about how clocks stood still at a game or during a song. Some nights he would put together baseball teams made of rockers. Dylan had to pitch. He was crafty. You’d never guess what he was going to throw. Paul Simon on second. Hendrix on short. He had great range. Jerry Garcia on first. Probably batting clean-up. Some nights Jonah and I would draft teams against each other. The possibilities were endless. The combinations intriguing. Why did it make sense that Frank Zappa would make a great pitcher but that Steve Winwood was more of a center fielder? Paul loved that the game offered complete moments—the moment a fly ball reached its peak, the moment an infielder started toward a ground ball, the moment right before the bat made contact with the ball. Everything made sense then. Chaos was in check during those moments. Good moments. Like in a Hendrix solo or a Dylan lyric.
Paul said he was going to play a song for his farewell. Footsteps echoed inside the radio. A chair scratched across the floor and then the sound of piano keys struck. Paul began to sing. “Won’t you spread your wings and learn to fly . You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” He said thank you and was off. I had one less adult to rely on. I disconnected the radio so that it wouldn’t turn on with the light.
Downstairs, my father and Jonah were playing chess. Jonah liked to come early and talk with my dad and try to give him a good game of chess. My father taught Jonah how to play, just like he taught me. A lot of times, Jonah and I played him at the same time—two games.
When I got dressed I picked out only black clothing. Black t-shirt, black shorts, black socks and my black canvas high-tops.
“Tell your Dad to let me win,” Jonah said as I came down the stairs. “You’re not a baby any more,” my father responded to Jonah.
“I am,” Jonah said.
“Someday you will win. And when you do, you will know it many moves before the game ends.”
“You really think I’ll get good enough to beat you?” Jonah said.
“Me?” my father said. “No. But other people.”
“Sure. Why not? He stopped playing.”
“I didn’t stop. I just haven’t had time.”
I sat down and tried to help Jonah win. Chess was something I could do with my father and not for him. It was a polio free zone. I used to try to get my father to go down to the park and play, but he was never interested. I would have taken him too. I wanted to see him be a man who played chess, and not my father who couldn’t stand on his own. Besides, he was good. But he would never go.
It was the polio that brought him to the US. Made him leave Israel a decade after fleeing Vienna and Hitler’s Europe. When he left the Manhattan hospital nine months later, knowing he would never be able to walk again, he started over in his third country with his third language, just shy of his third decade. They gave him a desk job in the Israeli government’s New York office where it didn’t matter if he could stand up or not. What mattered was that he was smart and fearless. So I played chess with him because I liked the game and because when we played it didn’t matter if he could stand or not. But almost every other moment, all I had ever wanted, was for him to walk.
When I was young, I blew out birthday candles and wished that his polio would be cured and so he could walk again. When I couldn’t wait another year to wish again, I tried pulling on wishbones and tossing pennies into fountains. Nothing happened, so I decided to negotiate. And I lowered expectations. I dropped the part about wanting to have a catch or ride a bike or take the subway together. What was too much, I wondered? Letting my father walk for a year? A month? A week? Just let us walk down the block, side by side, his arm draped around me. What if I only had enough power to get a day, or an hour? How many steps would be worth it before my father wished he had never remembered what it was like to walk again? How could I be sure that he would have wanted the opportunity to walk for a day, if he knew that each step brought him closer to returning to the confinement of his wheelchair?
I gave up wishing. I finally realized that if there was a god with the ability to make my father walk again, then why would that God let him get polio in the first place. I was tired of wasting perfectly good birthday wishes on something that should ever have happened. In the end, I gave up birthdays. What did I do to deserve presents just for having lived another year? What if it was a bad year, an unproductive year, a year without having accomplished something? Still presents?
The closest I came to seeing my father walk was on Saturday mornings when I helped him slide into his braces and then, with crutches tucked underneath his arms, I pulled him upright. Together, we moved the four steps to the bedroom wall where he turned around and leaned back. He wasn’t going anywhere, just hanging out, vertical against the earth. I sat across from him on the bed and tried to act casual. But I was ready to spring into action and catch him if he started to lean too far. He never did. He just leaned back and relaxed and talked to me as if nothing unusual was going on. As if this was something fathers and sons did.
While I sat, I answered questions about school and friends and when my father didn’t have a question for me, he did the talking. It was during those Saturday mornings that I learned how just months after the United Nations granted nationhood to Israel my father came down with polio which should have killed him but instead exiled him to the US for treatment. And that’s pretty much how I ended up in a Queens with parents who migrated north from Brooklyn after leaving Manhattan having passed through Ellis Island. Parents who brought with them thick accents and the gloom of war and the promise of peace, and a passion for survival that included their need to propagate. So they had me.
I didn’t hear their accents, but I heard their stories about the ones who didn’t make it. They never had to tell that me I owed something to those who were taken. So I spent considerable time planning escape routes and looking for hiding places for the time when my America began rounding up its Jews. The problem was that I didn’t know how I would be able to help my father.
I wasn’t able to help Jonah beat my father at chess that night, though it did take him longer to lose with my help. It was fun. On the way out the door I told my father that we should play again soon. He told me that I had remembered much.
Outside, Johan and I headed for the subway. The one-family houses gradually gave way to duplexes that gave way to small stores and apartment buildings. At the same time, the streets increased in width and traffic. We passed David’s Deli with his Kosher Hot Dog sign in the window and hands down the best full sour pickles I have ever eaten—better than that guy on Delancey. At Joe’s Candy Store I wanted to go inside slide up to the counter and order a vanilla egg cream. But there wasn’t enough time. Then came the shoe store, the bakery, a new liquor store and the ‘Further‘ record shop that was also a head shop. Of course all they ever played was the Grateful Dead.
Finally, Queens Boulevard where we bought our tokens. The Double G came to a stop, opened its doors and I followed Jonah in. He didn’t seem to be walking, it was more like gliding and I tried to imitate but I caught my sneaker on the sticky subway floor and almost fell. There was a time when the subway held fear instead of freedom. But those days had long passed.
“They’re expecting over 100,000 people,” Jonah informed me after we transferred to the F Train.
“Cool.” I said.
“Were they expecting us?” I asked. “Did they know we were coming?”
“You’re either very funny,” Jonah said to me, “or a moron.”
“I like to think I can be both.”
The train stopped and we climbed the stairs to Fifth Avenue. We emerged from the subway and slid into the crowd that was flowing toward the park. We found ourselves being pulled by the current of people heading for the Bandshell. There were so many things to look at, so many people to take notice of, so many different images to aspire to. I too was trying to be different, just like everyone else. I knew I could be John Lennon if I wasn’t scared. Instead I was hoping to be Ringo.
“Follow me.” Jonah said as we neared the Bandshell. He was heading toward this shirtless guy wearing aviator sunglasses and smoking a joint with his friend. The guy was a brick wall.
“Hey man, “ Jonah said. “You know where we could cop a joint?”
The guy looked at us for a few seconds. He let out some smoke and a little laugh. “Here, have a hit.” He passed Jonah the joint.
Jonah took the joint between his thumb and index fingers, put it in his mouth and sucked. The tip of the joint lit up brightly and smoke made a straight line for the sky.
“Go ahead. Share it with your friend.”
Jonah passed me the joint.
“Thanks, man,” Jonah said clearing his lungs. “What kind is it?” I didn’t want to cough it out so I took a small toke.
I offered it back to the shirtless guy.
“Keep it.” He said to me.
This was awesome. I was smoking a joint right in the middle of the park in broad daylight. We own this place I thought. I took a deep breath, held it in and passed Jonah the roach. The guy without the shirt had a chain around his neck. The chain held two little tags, a rectangular silver one and a round bronze one and I was trying to read them. I guess I was staring.
“Dog tags,” he said.
“Marines?” I asked. I had read it on the dog tag along with their gas mask size and blood type.
He shook his head yes.
“Were you in Vietnam?” I asked.
“Nine fucking months in country.” He pulled out another joint from his cigarette pack and lit it. “Semper Fi. ” He and his friend slapped each other’s palms.
“What’s your numbers,” the other guy asked?
“Next year,” I said.
“Good luck,” he said. “Don’t win anything.”
“Don’t go,” the other one said.
“Find a way. Just don’t go. We enlisted and we were wrong.”
We left the Marines and found a small well-worn patch of grass. To our right, a group of shirtless guys were painting ‘HELL NO WE WON’T GO’ on a large white sheet. To our left some girls were painting each other. I was really feeling the pot.
“I’m going to get a pretzel,” I said, standing up.
“What a surprise.”
“You want anything?”
“You hungry or just looking?” Jonah said.
“Someday . . .”
“I know. Someday, the perfect pretzel will present itself. But I’m hungry this day. So get me one, even if it’s not perfect.”
“A man can dream.”
“But a man must eat.”
“Someday I will find it. Just sitting there on the coals waiting for me. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. When I break it open the steam will escape and . . .”
“David, stop,” Jonah said. “Get me two.”
I turned to leave and then turned back to Jonah. “Hey,” I said, “what did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor.
“Get me a pretzel.”
“Make me one with everything,” I said and left.
There was something in the air and I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of it even if I didn’t know what it was. Behind the benches I saw some tables and I headed over. Someone started reading a poem about life after the revolution.
Clearly he felt that he was going to be in charge after the revolution cause he was laying out the new rules. The crowd responded to his call. Far out! Tell it brother! I wanted to shout, Right On! only I couldn’t make those words work for me. Not just there on that day, but I couldn’t pull off Right On! in any situation and have it come out right, come out genuine. I knew it took balls for this guy to preach about life after the revolution, but I couldn’t help thinking he was an asshole too. I was sure that the revolution was not going to be one of ideas, but one of bloodshed. Even more, it would end up being one of power. Did that made me a traitor to the revolution. My parents had been through wars but I did not have to have their experiences to know it wasn’t good. The war in Vietnam was not good. The year before, during the Six Day War, when so many people I knew were marveling at the skill of the Israeli Army, I sat at dinner with my parents and listened as they went over the day’s body count of Israel’s reluctant soldiers. They knew directly or knew someone who knew almost every dead Israeli. Kids barely older than me. Adults my parents’ age. Some I had met. Paratroopers crying at Western Wall saying kaddish 19 years after the UN declared Jerusalem an international city which was then immediately seized by Jordan who did not allow Israelis to enter. Even that moment came with muted celebration. The price was high and the cost would surely continue to increase as time went on. Both sides had Gods on their side.
So this revolution that I kept hearing about, was it going to be like Mao? Like Castro and Che? And, Che, despite all those great t-shirts with his face, scared me.
I almost believed that the country needed a revolution but who would lead it? Did we have the likes of a Jefferson or Adams or Franklin or Hamilton among us? Which of the new revolutionaries would voluntarily surrender his sword at Annapolis? And even if we found our Washington, and even if the new boss was not like the old boss, I didn’t like the idea of shooting in the streets. Especially if they were shooting at me. The whole thing scared me. A lot. How would my family get food? Would we be able to leave our house? Would they allow baseball after the revolution? And, of course, when the shooting started, how long would it take both sides to blame the Jews?
I stopped at a table and bought a newspaper with the headline FREE HUEY. Around me people were handing out leaflets and holding petitions. These were people with a purpose, people with beliefs, people who knew what they wanted and willing to shout it. But how could they be so sure of themselves? How did they arrive at their foolproof conclusions? I wanted to be sure too. With my FREE HUEY paper tucked underneath my arm I went over to sign a petition calling for an end to the bombing of Vietnam and a withdrawal of all U.S. troops. I stood inside the crowd and looked around and took it all in. For all their faults these people were trying to end the war. Not just thinking about it, not just talking about it. The country was dividing itself into two groups: those who were for the war, those who were against the war, and those didn’t care.
Jonah was going to be mad so I folded the newspaper and stuffed it in the rear pocket of my jeans, got a couple of pretzels and ran back to our spot. “That took a while,” Jonah said when I finally arrived with our pretzels. “Long line.”
I sat down and Jonah introduced me to our neighbors. One girl was telling a story: “My roommate thought she got syphilis from a toilet. Seems thather boyfriend told her that’s how she probably got it. So I said, the only way you got syphilis from a toilet is if you sat down before he got up. So, she says to me,
The crowd laughed. Jonah took his pretzels and walked over to talk to a girl who was dancing by herself. I went over to listen to a couple of guys playing guitar.
I turned toward the voice. She was talking to me and she was beautiful.
Don’t stare without talking I told myself. Talk to her. Answer her. NOW.
”Really good. Yes.” Was that my best?
“Do you play?” she asked.
I laughed. “Saxophone in junior high.”
“Why’d you stop?” she said.
“I was really bad. How about you? You look like a musician.”
“Really?” she said tilting her head. “What does a musician look like?
“I have no idea.”
“But I look like one.”
“I’m sticking to that.” I took a bite of my pretzel.
“I play the cello,” she said.
“So, I was right?”
“You’re funny,” she said.
Funny is good, I thought. “Want some pretzel?”
She broke off a piece. “I’m Michelle.” She took a bite.
“David,” I said. “Are you any good?”
“I’m very good,” she said.
“I’d love to hear you play.”
“What are you good at?” Michelle asked me.
“I do think about that. I mean, I’m good at math. But here’s the thing. I don’t really know yet. But I want to know. I feel like I haven’t been tested yet, haven’t been in the position in which what I did, a decision I made, made any difference or meant much to anyone. Does that make sense?”
“Sure,” Michelle said, as a woman in cutoff shorts, a halter top, and black high top canvas sneakers walked up to the mike. Her huge Afro bounced while she talked. She used words like ‘movement’ and ‘struggle’ effortlessly as she introduced Pete Seeger. I had lost track of Jonah and frankly I didn’t care.
Michelle and I sat down on the grass. Pete Seeger sang many songs that afternoon, songs about unions, about Vietnam, about government, about movements in other countries. He mentioned names of places and people I had never heard of. Did the army really have to destroy towns in order to save them? Were we really burning children with napalm? How would I make sense of it all? How would I know who was right if everyone was wrong. I needed answers and I needed them right away. Time was clearly not on my side.
Michelle leaned against me and we talked about the songs and the war and all kinds of stuff that I usually only thought about alone. I leaned in close to her because I couldn’t hear her and she kissed me. It surprised me but her lips were so delicious and she smelled so good that I ignored the surprise. But then I stopped.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“Nothing. I just wanted to tell you that you that you are also very good at kissing.”
“You talk a lot.”
“I’ve been told,” I said. “Can we do that again?”
Seeger strapped the banjo on and then pushed it around to his back. Without introduction, without music, he began to sing, “We ain’t gonna study war no more…” Chills went up and down my back. Had I been studying war? What did it mean to study peace?
I kissed Michelle again and we fell back towards the grass. It was a kind of free fall that seemed to go on longer than it should have. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t trying to make sense of everything. I wasn’t wondering how I would I know who was right if everyone was wrong. I didn’t care whether or not time was on my side. I just fell back, slowly, onto the grass with Michelle. And even though nothing made sense, chaos was in check because that moment had arrived.
WAITING FOR ANSWERS is an excerpt from Elan Barnehama’s current novel-in-progress. His first novel, FINDING BLUEFIELD will be published in the fall by Bold Strokes Victory Editions. Elan was raised in New York City, not far from Shea Stadium, and now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he remains a Mets fan. He’s been a high school baseball coach, a radio news announcer, a cook, the writer for a university president, and a college teacher. Elan earned an MFA in Fiction from UMass, Amherst and his commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, the web, and in newspapers. Elan has also written two screenplays. He can be reached at elanbarnehama.com.