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The Glicksberg Chronicles

Book III:Bees Made Honey in the Rich Man's Skull

(excerpt)

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That first winter in Sagrada was a strange time, a transition between what was and what would be. Tourists came to Sagrada even before the first Europeans landed in America, at least that was what my father said. Tourists still came to Sagrada that winter; some to ski, some to buy turquoise jewelry and paintings of adobe buildings and hollyhocks. Still the changes came, irrevocably and without warning, some large, some small.  

My sister, Rivka, was one example. Her attitude toward me softened undeniably. She stopped brushing me aside. We weren’t in Sagrada long before I began accompanying her to work in the morning. The deli occupied me in the hours between waking and school and because the deli was directly across the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, which was next door to Manzanares de Oro Elementary School, it was virtually impossible for me to be tardy. That was very important to both my sister and I. We did not like to be late for anything, even if it was a thing we did not want to do. It was a way in which we differed from our father. Our father would start talking and before you knew what was happening he would make himself late, even for places he wanted to go and things he wanted to do. No, Rivka and I were more like our mother in this regard. Neither of us could stand the idea of failing to meet expectations. Luckily, expectations were low. There was plenty of room in the morning for me to stand around with Rivka in the cramped bakery and discuss anything that interested us.

NEW YORK THING MISS MOST HAVE MANY MANY  MOVIE THEATRES, my sister signed.

MOVIE THEATRE SAGRADA GOT, I answered her .

NOT SAME SAME Rivka signed SOMETIMES BROOKLYN YEARS TIMES RAY NOT WORKING WE WATCH MOVIES ALL DAY LONG. ONE AFTER OTHER.

POSSIBLE GO MOVIES ALL DAY HERE I signed not understanding why both my father and my older sister seemed to get so nostalgic for that place. Sagrada was the best place I ever lived.

The only thing I missed about Topia was grass. Sagrada had no lawns except the golf course, a place I secretly plotted to break into when summer came so I could roll on the lawn. I hoped Azhure caught up to us by then so she could join me.

NO, Rivka signed OUR PARENTS YOU CHILDREN TAKE MOVIES INSUFFICIENT. IF BACK HOME BROOKLYN WE GO MOVIES ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, FOREVER, NEVER SAME MOVIE TWICE AND STILL NOT SEE ALL MOVIES AVAILABLE. NOT EVEN SEE HALF.

I wasn’t sure how to answer that. BUT SAGRADA THEATRE HAS . GO MOVIES HERE, I signed. There had not been a theatre in Topia. Sagrada wasn’t any bigger than Topia but it seemed to have more of everything. Everything I loved about Topia we brought with us. I was uncomfortable with my sister criticizing Sagrada.

VARIETY MOVIES WE SAW NEW YORK NOT EVEN HAVE HERE my sister signed glancing at the rising bagels, the first bread to be cooked each day.

WHAT KIND MOVIES? I asked because it was the obvious question.

INDIA MOVIES FAVORITES MINE, COLORS BEAUTIFUL, STORIES GOOD,  BONUS ALWAYS SUBTITLES, she signed,  BAGELS ALMOST READY BOIL, NEED TURN ON FIRE UNDER BOILING PAN. BRING LID MAKE BOIL FASTER.

My sister had a deep metal tray, like a shallow box, that sat over two burners on the deli’s stove, where she boiled a dozen bagels at a time. Personally I was not a fan of my sister’s bagels, the boiling made them chewy, at least according to my sister it was the boiling that did it. But plenty of grown ups loved them. No, I prefered the french toast Rivka made me on Monday morning from Friday’s stale challah before I went to school. Barring that I prefered the grocery store bagels we used to have in Topia, not that I got any of those in Sagrada.

I leaned against the stainless steel work table so my sister could pass and followed her to the milk stove, metal lid in hand.

I watched her turn the knobs on the stove and stand, looking perplexed when the burners failed to flare.

PILOT OUT, HAS TO, Rivka signed.

I watched as she took a piece of glassine paper, the kind they used to take the bagels out of the display case for customers, twisted it tight and lit the end on fire with the lighter from her pocket. It was my older sister’s habit to keep her pockets full of useful things; pocket knife, lighter, strong magnets, an assortment of tiny screw drivers that fit inside eachother.

Rivka pushed the fiery paper under the boiling pan and I stepped back, prepared for the flash of fire, but nothing happened.

MAYBE MEAT STOVE, she signed and turned on the burner. Nothing.

Rivka blew out the flame before the paper burned her fingers and walked over to the oven. It was one of two but the only one that worked. Pressing her palm to the dirt and smoke encrusted window her brow furrowed. Turning on the oven was the first thing my sister and I did each morning. Normally she wouldn’t be able to hold her hand there for more than an instant, but she stood there for so long I placed my hand beside hers. The oven was cold.

Rivka bent down and opened the small door at the bottom of Greenblatt’s one functional oven. She sniffed deeply.

NO GAS COMING TO STOVES, she signed MAYBE BREAK IN GAS LINE.

I followed her to the alley behind the deli. Both of us sniffed the air. I smelled the garbage in the dumpster and the buckets of burnt oil from frying latkes that Mr. Chavez collected to turn into diesel. I did not smell gas. The moon was high and round. it was too early to get someone to help, there was no one but Rivka and I awake downtown . I wondered what my sister was going to do. What she did was go to the deli’s telephone. The telephones still worked in Sagrada then, but I never paid much attention to them, either in Topia or Sagrada.

It baffled me, what was Rivka going to do with a telephone?

I watched only growing more confused as she tapped in the numbers and a few seconds later began tapping her fingernail against the part of the phone where hearing people put their mouths. The ear piece she pressed to her cheek.

WHAT YOU DOING? WHAT YOU DOING? TELL ME! I signed insistently.

Rivka looked at me like I was annoying, but I was not, I just needed to know.

CALLED M.O.R.S.E. CODE,  WAY FOR US SEND MESSAGE OVER TELEPHONE, IF PERSON ON OTHER SIDE KNOWS CODE. she signed.

DAD COMING? I asked  TEACH ME  CODE?

AFTER SUPPER, IF HAVE CHANCE  she signed RAY ON  TELEPHONE, BUT  BRINGING OUR FATHER WITH HIM. THEY COME LITTLE BIT. SOON. SOON.  UNTIL GET THIS PLACE, HAVE IDEA MAKE CERTAIN SOME BREAD READY FOR CUSTMOERS.

I HELP PLEASE?  I pleaded.

NOT PLAN GIVE CHOICE YOU, REQUIRE HELP YOURS , my sister signed and I’d never felt so grown up.

I felt proud and grown up being told to collect branches from the neighborhood surrounding the deli. Even though I had decided I was going to be a rabbi when I grew up I appreciated the feeling of accomplishment that came with hard labor. Maybe I could be a rabbi and sell firewood on the corner, both.  While my pile of branches grew my sister busily started a fire in the dome shaped oven in front of the deli. The little mud outdoor ovens were in front of at least half the buildings, both houses and businesses, in town but it never occurred to me they were good for anything other than decoration. The first time I saw them I thought they were dog houses made out of adobe. I didn’t know what they were until Miss Janelle, the third grade teacher, wrote the word on the blackboard h.o.r.n.o.

The fire was blazing hot by the time Ray and my father came riding up on Uncle Ira’s horse, The Queen of Sheba. I’d never seen my father on a horse before.

WHAT EXACT PROBLEM? Ray signed still on the horse as my sister came forward to kiss him. It was a weird habit they shared with my parents, kissing hello and goodbye.

NO GAS, Rivka signed.

YOU SURE? Ray asked YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE GETTING UP WHEN ZERO DEGREES AND STILL DARK OUTSIDE. GETTING GARY ON SHEBA, BONUS POINTS.

A smear of flour and ash that could only have come from my sister crossed Ray’s coat.

NO LEAK, INSIDE OR OUT.  Rivka signed ALSO NOT 0 DEGREES, THERMOMETER ON PORCH READ 4 DEGREES. CHECK YOURSELF.

HOW YOU KNOW NO LEAK?  My father asked, jumping awkwardly off the horse, giving Sheba a funny backwards glance.

NOT SMELL LEAK,  Rivka signed AND  DELI NOT BLOW UP WHEN I TRY LIGHT PILOT, REPEATEDLY, OR WHEN BUILT FIRE IN HORNO.

Our father stood there beside the adobe oven, staring into the sky.

WHAT YOU PLANNING DO?  Ray signed, his mouth moving, the way it did.

YOU HELP RIVKA HOWEVER SHE SAYS my father signed distractedly MAKE SOME PHONE CALLS ME.  Suddenly he looked down at me, WHY YOU NOT IN SCHOOL? YOU TRUANT?

NO, I signed NOT EVEN TARDY UNTIL AFTER 9 AND THE DELI CLOCK SAYS 5:36.

HELP SISTER YOURS, THEN, my father signed.

I loved it when my father gave orders. I fought the urge to salute the way Rivka showed me. I tried it once with my father and the outcome had not been good. I was not doing that again.

~~

So I called Joe Greenblatt at 5 a.m. It seemed like the first obvious thing to do. It took nine rings for him to answer.

“Yo, Joe, sorry to call so early. Hope I didn’t wake you,” I said cheerfully, trying not to worry him.

The noise that came through the earpiece was more or less what you would expect from the mummy rising from his tomb “This is Joe.”  

“Hi, Joe, My Dude, how you doin’? D’you sleep pretty well?” I asked. No one likes to be hit with bad news right off the bat.

“I don’t know yet,” Joe said his voice rusty “What are you calling for? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s happen, not exactly. I mean the building hasn’t burned down,” I said.

“Is it the walk-in? Last time the walk-in broke I shoulda just given Mondragon my first born and been done with it,” Joe said.

“No,” I said slowly, shaking my head at Joe over the phone.

“The plumbing back up again? I hate the town plumbing. I swear if the sewers in this town aren’t a hundred and fifty years old, they were laid out by the three stooges,” Joe grumbled.

“Have you paid the gas bill?” I asked, it was a valid question under the circumstances. I knew he forgot the rent at least three times a year.

“Yeah, sure, of course,” Joe said sleepily.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Sure, I’m sure. Why are you callin’ at 5 a.m. to see if I paid my bills? What are you, my mother?” Joe said getting irritated.

“The gas is off at the deli,” I said, there was no way to soften the news.

I heard Joe’s footsteps over the phone followed by the click of the stove.

“No gas here either. Maybe you better call the gas company and see what’s going on,” Joe said “I’m going back to bed.”  

By the time Julius was due at school Rivka had about 35 loaves of bread cooling on the deli counter, only a few of them noticeably burnt, and I learned two things; gas was out all over town and the gas company wasn’t answering their phone.

~~