The Root and The Seed and The Thief In Between
Book One of The Glicksberg Chronicles
Gary Glicksberg: 1
My name is Gary Glicksberg. I was 20 years old when my parents were killed. Laundry truck versus taxi. Head-on collision. Mom died instantly. After six months and a fair amount of uncertainty, the doctors decided Dad was not going to wake up but I was just a kid. Whatever emotional distance or moral bravery or whatever it took to terminate life support I didn’t have it. Up to that point the most difficult decision in my life was which shoes to wear. My dad lasted 18 months before he let go on his own. Eighteen months that ate up all the insurance a cautious professional couple could afford, in addition to everything he and my mom had intended to leave me, everything except the nice two-bedroom apartment the two of them bought before I was born. It may not have been the inheritance my mom and dad pictured, but it meant if I was conscientious I could blow my pay on clothes and books and the occasional date.
I know when you tell a story the traditional advice is to begin at the beginning. My trouble is I can never quite work out where the story begins. I mean, does it start when the hero is born, or when he’s conceived? Or would it be better to begin when his grandfather, hardly more than a kid himself, fell in love with a girl he met in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp when he was brought in as a translator for the Russians? In the end, the best I could do was to start with the first notable event in my own life; the death of my parents. If I did not start at the beginning, because – like I said – who the hell knew where the beginning really was, I did the next best thing. I started at the first point that mattered to me.
All my life my dad and my Uncle Ira, my mom’s twin brother, made each other crazy. I couldn’t say if it was real live out-and-out hate or not, but they sure drove each other up the freaking wall. Neither of them could pass up a chance to get under the other’s skin.
When I was in high school, Uncle Ira gave me a copy of Abby Hoffman’s Steal This Book with one sentence underlined in Bic pen. The pearl of sage advice good old Ira felt the need to emphasize was this, more or less: that every person has a choice to make in their life. They can go for the bucks – for money, security, the prestige of their friends and neighbors; or they can go for broke and follow wherever gut instinct takes them, whether that winds up being E=MC2 or levitating the Pentagon.
I never knew what my old man thought about his running war of nerves with his brother-in-law. My father wasn’t the kind of guy to waste energy talking about his feelings, but I think the advice sums up my Uncle Ira’s beef with my old man, at least from Ira’s point of view.
As far as I could figure, based on his actions, my father believed in science, progress, capitalism, and Wheatstraw LTD. He and Mom were both company men to the core. My dad didn’t even belong to a political party.
My Uncle Ira, on the other hand, was what you might call a connoisseur of belief.
Ira believed in the brotherhood of man. He also believed that it was suicide to trust the boss any further than you could throw him. He believed that a person’s trustworthiness was inversely proportional to their power. Ira believed in family, too, but not in blood, and he wasn’t shy about it. And if you wanted to know what Ira thought about anything, all you had to do was ask. Most of the time you didn’t even have to do that much.
It wasn’t like Ira was all talk, though. He was a smart working-class kid, a straight-A student who fell between deferment and the deep blue sea. Ira was always small for his age. A little worse than runty; even my mom was taller. So when the government took him, they decided to give him a job he was suited for. They made him a tunnel rat. The mortality rate in his unit was 84.6 percent. But Ira made it. Like Grandma before him, he was a survivor.
The way the family told it, when Ira came back from Vietnam he could have done anything, been anything. Not even my dad denied that Ira was smart. Instead, Ira moved in with Grandma and revived Grandpa’s old TV repair shop downstairs. As soon as bureaucracy would allow, he brought over the freckle-faced Vietnamese girl he’d married in Viet Nam. He called her “Frenchie.” I saw her every day of my life and never thought to ask what her “real” name was. He and Frenchie never had any kids. Agent Orange, they said.
With everything he’d been through, Ira didn’t believe in the God of his forefathers, but he did believe in their religion, if it was possible to make that distinction. He used to say, “We haven’t survived this long to stop being Jewish just because I don’t believe in God.”
Ira was a card-carrying member of Vietnam Vets Against War Anti-Imperialists, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the same temple as his father and grandfather.
If the choices were to go for the bucks or go for broke, Ira had definitely gone for broke. Because he was – broke, that is. He still managed to give me an afterschool job, though by then we weren’t fixing TVs. Jakobs TV Repair was all about repairing and refurbishing computers by then.
My parents were comfortable financially, if not emotionally, not that they spent enough time off work to enjoy it. Even in grade school I spent an average of 20 minutes a day with my parents. Uncle Ira, on the other hand, set his own hours. He could hang out with me whenever he wanted to, and he wanted to be with me from the minute I got off school until my parents eventually made it home. Most of the time I had supper with Ira and Frenchie. That was fine with me; Frenchie was a great cook.
By the time I was set to graduate from college, the epic struggle between Dad and Uncle Ira had reached a fever pitch. Mom and Dad managed to wrangle me an interview with the Wheatstraw I.T. department despite the fact that my degree in world history. All Ira had to offer was a partnership in a worthless used computer shop, but I went for it. The paint was still wet on the Jakobs and Nephew Computer Repair sign when the accident happened.
Taking the pity offer of the I.T. job I’d already turned down once seemed like the only way I had to pay Dad’s mounting hospital bills.
Then I met Marjorie Morning Star.
Marjorie Morning Star: 1
I was in college the first time I learned that I had the same name as a reasonably well known fictional character. I don’t think my parents had any idea. I was named after my maternal grandmother, Marjorie TwoTurtles, but I don’t remember her. She died two weeks before my third birthday while we were stationed overseas.
Both my parents were in the Army, so my two brothers and I grew up, for all practical purposes, in the Army, too. I attended school in ten states and two foreign countries. Unlike my cousins on the Rez, I didn’t have what you would call an enmeshed family. I didn’t have literally hundreds of relatives watching and commenting on my every move, and I counted myself lucky. Judging from the once-a-year visits my brothers and I would spend with our father’s mother on the Navajo reservation where she was enrolled, Rez life was stifling.
My parents loved us – parents love their children, right? – but they had busy careers, and the responsibilities that came with their jobs. They tried to give us what they considered an “Indian” upbringing, but it mostly amounted to stories that bored us to tears and completely unplanned visits from whatever relative or old Indian School friends were passing through our area. The older we got, the more my brothers and I realized we had different interests and different, separate lives. My youngest brother, Gordon, went into the Marine Corps, and Victor, the one in the middle, went into theatre. I took summer school classes every year of high school in order to graduate at age 16.
I identified more with the teenagers in the latest summer movies than I did with my cousins on the Rez.
I knew people saw me and assumed I got a full ride with some sort of “Indian scholarship” but there wasn't nearly as much money available, even to students as driven as I was, as non-Indians generally imagined. Furthermore, as one of the natural results of having both parents, and all four grandparents, meet their respective mates at Indian Boarding School, I was Tulalip, Navajo, Apache, Paiute, Cheyenne, Ft. Sill Apache, Kiowa, and Otoe Missouri. I hear I have some white blood, too, but I can’t prove it.
I probably should note, for the benefit of the uninformed, that Native Americans all belong to different tribes as different as the nations of Europe, with wildly different languages, religions, and cultures – and even different forms of government. For membership in most tribes there’s a blood quantum limit, usually no less than one-quarter, meaning anyone who is less than that cannot be an officially recognized member of that particular tribe. It’s a practice that originated with the Victorians, by the way; they did it to us around the same time they started classifying dogs the same way – half-breed, pureblood, etc. And most tribes are like most countries in that you have to pick one, no double dipping allowed. But I was too many different tribes, in too small amounts, to be enrolled in any one of them, so I didn’t qualify for any of the very few "free rides," anyway.
So I counted myself incredibly lucky when I landed a scholarship for military dependents. Books, tuition, board, everything was covered. All I had to do was work for defense contractor Richmond-Grumbacher Inc. for the next 40 years. The job security seemed like a bonus. I thought I hit a glitch when I discovered I was too young to sign the contract, but my mother was happy to consent. I think both of us were relieved to get away from the other.
Two years into a combined five-year bachelor/master's program in genetics, I began working summers for Richmond-Grumbacher. By the time I started work on my terminal degree, I was working for Richmond full-time in a R-G sponsored university lab in Nashville.
The ink was barely dry on my doctorate when I left Nashville for a facility in Maryland. I worked there six months, and I was in the market for something I had only dreamed of as a child; a house of my own, where I could put a nail in the wall or paint if I felt like it. A good many of the people I’d gone to school with, my former labmates, were worrying about finding work and/or funding but not me. I congratulated myself on my foresight. If my pay didn’t quite measure up to the number on my contract, it hardly mattered, I was planning to bring that up at my quarterly review.
I turned into the parking lot, waving to the security guards as I passed. I slid my keycard into the front door lock with one hand, holding tight to my coffee with the other.
Something was wrong. It was obvious as soon as I stepped inside. There were employees everywhere, most of them out of place. I couldn’t help but think of my father, in the backyard of one or another faceless rental property, pouring gasoline down an anthill. Now we were the ants.
Down the hall a huge cluster of people was crowding their way around the bulletin board. I made my way in their direction, but it wasn’t much use. I was too small to see what was happening without climbing up someone’s back.
“Marshall?” I shouted “Marsh?” He was both a labmate of mine and easily the tallest person at Richmond.
“Huh? Marj? Oh, hi, Marj,” he said, peering over several people’s heads at the bulletin board full of notices. Usually the bulletin board was limited to offers of kittens, puppies, and the occasional rabbit or rideshare.
“What does it say? I can’t get close. I’m too short,” I yelled over the crowd.
“Uhh ... uh... uh... it says...”
Summaries were not Marshall’s strong point. He was more of a detail-oriented guy.
“Just read it,” I shouted.
“Verbatim?” he asked.
“Verbatim is great,” I shouted back.
“Welcome to the Wheatstraw family of companies,” Marshall said, squinting. “Attention former Richmond-Grumbacher employees. In keeping with a corporate culture of efficiency we, at Wheatstraw, are constantly striving for self-improvement. We carry that ethos to the newest members of our family. In the spirit of efficiency the Fulton, Maryland facility will be closing on Friday, April 11…”
“That’s in four days!” I shouted, without thinking.
“Uhh, yeah, want me to go on?” Marshall asked.
“Please,” I called.
“Reassignments are posted. Be informed any and all liens and loans belonging to Richmond-Grumbacher are now sole domain of Wheatstraw LTD. In the event a former employee should fail to report at their newly assigned facility any and all liens formerly held by Richmond-Grumbacher shall be considered past due as of date of truancy and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Marsh said.
“So show up or pay up,” I said.
“I am so screwed,” Marsh said, shaking his head.
“Marsh, does it list the assignments?” I asked, starting to feel frantic even though I knew sooner or later the crowd would disperse and I could see for myself.
I wasn’t alone. Marshall was getting more and more anxious by the second. “My wife won’t even pay my phone bill. No way is Linette gonna pay off my college loans to get my ass out of prison,” he said. “I’m too black to go to jail. What’m I gonna do? I’ve got a wife and kids, and my student loan is more than my mortgage. I stop paying either one, and it’s prison for life.”
“Listen to me, Marshall, you’re going to take a deep breath, you’re going to find the assignment listing for lab 12S, then you’re going to buy an airline ticket and you’re going to report to that lab 9 a.m. sharp Monday morning,” I asked, not quite at the top of my lungs, consciously promising myself I was not ever going to be part of one of those couples with separate finances. “I promise, it might be tough, but everything is going to be okay.”
Marshall sighed. “I guess there’ll be plenty of time to panic later.” With that he reached out and pulled a sheaf of papers off the bulletin board. They were stapled in the upper-left corner. He flipped through back to front, and stopped somewhere near the middle.
“Lanai. I have a week to move to Hawaii,” he said.
My heart was pounding, and I could smell the sweat of my co-workers transformed into a rapidly panicking crowd.
“That’s great, it’s going to be great, Marshall. Hawaii is beautiful. We’ll go to Lanai and report to work, and Linette will follow with the kids as soon as she can sell the house,” I said, grateful I hadn’t found a house I liked yet.
Marshall turned, reorienting his entire body for the first time. “You’re not going to Lanai, Marj. You’ve been assigned to a Wheatstraw lab in New York. You’re going to Brooklyn.”
And that was how I came to New York.
When the offer to freeze my eggs was made through Wheatstraw LTD benefits program I jumped at the chance. I always wanted children but getting pregnant then would have devastated my career when it was barely off the ground. Besides, my experiences during the Richmond-Grumbacher takeover left me worried and feeling unstable. I was almost 24.
Ira Jakobs: 1
I couldn’t blame Gary for taking the job with Wheatstraw and leaving yours truly high and dry, I really couldn’t. There’s no way he could have done anything else. That didn’t stop it from being lonely as hell around the shop, though. I know he wasn’t our kid, not really, but me and Frenchie, we couldn’t help feeling like our nest was empty all of a sudden, even though Gary made a point of dropping by at least once a week. For five lonely years there it seemed like the dust was going to get the better of us, pile up, dry us up, and then one day we’d just blow away.
Then, in the middle of winter, a scruffy kid with a growing-out crew cut came into the shop.
Ray Einar: 1
It’s funny how life works. Things never go how you think they’re gonna go, but sometimes they turn out better for it. I know Ira would call me a schmuck, or worse, for saying so, but I think it’s kinda true; sometimes things do turn out okay.
I grew up on a farm in Kansas. Cows, wheat, and debt as far as the eye could see. Like, there were three books in the house; the Bible, a book on NFL trivia, and Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child, which is more or a less an instruction manual on how to beat your kids for Jesus. If you don’t count the trivia, there were only two. My parents were Quiverfull, which if you don’t know what it means, well, they say it means letting God do your family planning, but all the families in our church did everything they could to have as many kids as possible, like it was some kinda competition. Most people don’t mean to get pregnant three months after having twins, but you never know with Quiverfulls. I was the baby of the family, the youngest of seven. I’m sure there would have been more,but I came early and there was some kind of problem. The doctors saved my mom’s life but ended her career popping out soldiers for Jesus. I knew my mom blamed me for what happened when I was born, for the way the folks at church looked down on her for having an emergency hysterectomy. It was a Quiverfull tenet that infertility was the direct result of sin; the worse the infertility, the worse the sin. So God had pointed out my mom and dad as asshole losers, I was the one who brought the news.
From as far back as I can remember, I knew I was the odd man out. My dad just thought I was weird. I had trouble talking – a stutter – but for some reason my dad figured the way to help me out of it was to make fun of me. You know, so I would try harder. So I tried harder. That didn’t work so great. Mom thought the way to fix it was to get me prayed for at every opportunity. I’d been exorcised to cast out the “demon of stuttering” three times by the time I was ten. Didn’t exactly do wonders for my self-esteem. Didn’t do jack shit for the stutter, either.
But not even counting the stutter I was different. They felt it, and I felt it. The older I got the more I felt disconnected from everyone around me. And I tell you, if I didn’t look just like the rest of the family, I’d have sworn I got switched at the hospital. I know I wasn’t the only one who thought that. It wasn’t just that I was different; it was that I wasn’t ashamed of being different. And my parents acted like it was something I did just to piss ‘em off. Mom and Dad both said I “lacked the spirit of cheerful obedience.” They alternately tried to pray and beat it into me. Neither one worked.
The land Mom and Dad farmed had been in Dad’s family for generations, but the truth was, there were so many loans taken out against the farm they weren’t much more than sharecroppers. The seed company told ‘em what to plant and when to plant it. The feedlot told them what to feed their cattle and when to give ‘em what shot, and then they sold ‘em the sperm to inseminate the cows. Then the bank loaned them the money to pay for it, with interest, of course. Every year Mom and Dad were a little bit farther behind.
We were all homeschooled, which was a big fucking joke, because even if she’d had more of an education herself, which she didn’t, havin’ been home-schooled herself, my mom had a lot to do with all those kids. It was one of the Quiverfull rules, same in our house as in every other Quiverfull house, that boys weren’t supposed to help with “women’s work.” Trouble was, Elizabeth and Sarah were only nine months older than me, so my mom had to do everything herself for a long time. Even if she hadn’t been swamped already, the approved homeschool workbooks from Abeka and ATI were just plain useless. Worse than useless, actually, because they were wrong. Factually wrong and wrongheaded, both. Not that I knew it at the time.
When I was in sixth grade, or I was supposed to be in sixth grade, the money couldn’t stretch any farther and Mama got a job, which was sort of, but not really, okay according to the Quiverfull rules. She was working for a lady from church, helping out with her at-home mail-order dried herb business. At first we homeschooled all together while our moms crammed dried plants into bags and shoved labels on ‘em. Then one day the lady said Mom could still work for her but the kids were a distraction, which I think meant her boys were distracted by girls who weren’t their sisters, or maybe it was my big brothers giving her girls the eye, but who knows. I was too little to have anything to do with that business. Mom needed to keep her job because the drought was so bad that Dad couldn’t make a bank payment otherwise. My parents could no way afford seven Christian school uniforms, let alone tuition. There wasn’t much choice except to enroll us in public school.
The day I started sixth grade at Chaparral Elementary in Manhattan, Kansas, was the greatest day of my little life up to that point. In less than a week I figured out that – instead of me being a shitty person who was incapable of fitting in with the plans of God and/or my dad – they’d been lyin’ to me all along. My parents, my church, everyone I’d ever known up to that point had lied to me in a million ways about a million different things, from history to physics to anatomy. And it wasn’t just a matter of opinion. The textbooks had a thing called evidence. Girls – I mean, ladies – had just as many ribs as men. You could count ‘em and check. Man, that one really pissed my dad off.
Sure, the kids all hated me, but so what? They didn’t like me at church either. Public school was the first thing I was good at in my life. I was weird, ugly, in funny hand-me-down clothes, with a stutter, and I kicked all their assses on the standardized tests. Needless to say that made the other kids hate me even more.
One day when I was fourteen there had been too much drought, too many hospital bills incurred by yours truly, too much bad luck in general, and the snowball that had started in the 80’s – when my grandpa took out a loan against the land to buy a better tractor – bowled us over and Mom and Dad lost the farm. Dad got a job running the cash register at the Hop-N-Sak. It was weird to see him pale under fluorescent light in a green-and-orange polyester smock.
Mom got a better job as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, and she seemed to like hanging around with the state troopers and the EMTs better than she liked hanging around with us. She was making more money than Dad, and we all knew that wasn’t right. The only ones still at home were John, the twins, and me. Without our mom standing over us we all went a little nuts. John got caught up in the meth, or maybe he already was before and we just figured it out once everything started to fall apart. Elizabeth got pregnant, and Sarah got some kinda STD; Mom wouldn’t say which, but I put it together. We still went to church but where before we’d never been one of the “popular” families, now – by the time I was in high school – when the preacher gave sermons on fuck-ups he all but pointed us out by name from the pulpit as examples of what not to do.
If I was barely tolerated by my family, I was out-and-out hated at school. Every year it got worse. Sometimes I was humiliated; sometimes I was beat up. One time something a lot worse.
With no grown-ups around the house anymore and no more farm chores to do, I mostly sinned by bypassing the filters my dad paid good money for, so I could look at porn on the internet and play computer games.
Then, one day I will never forget, Dad said everything to Mom that everybody at church had been whispering for years. I have no clear memory of how she responded. What I do remember, though, clear as fucking day, was his bony fist connecting with the side of her pale face. What I remember even more vividly was her defending him to me 30 seconds later in the room I shared with my brother John, when he bothered to come home. Sick and scared, I wasn’t about to hang around and watch things get worse, so I grabbed up all John’s meth money from his hiding place and I bought a one-way Greyhound bus ticket, on sale, to New York City. I was 15 years old, and New York was about as far from Kansas as I could think to run.
No one tried to stop me. I told ‘em where I was going and everything. My parents never even reported me missing. I know; I checked.
I hadn’t thought much beyond getting away, but two weeks on the street left me cold, scared, and hungry, washing in public restrooms and sleeping in snatches in alleys and doorways and sure as I was sure of anything, that I had to find a job and a place to stay.
Since I was 12 years old, I had been the go-to computer guy at church and at school. It seemed like a thing I naturally understood. My mom called it a “gift from God." I figured it was really a matter of understanding how the guys who wrote the programs thought. Of thinking that same way. So when I saw the small, unimpressive Jakobs and Nephew sign, and their dirty windows, I took a chance.
Inside the shop was a gnome, a short little guy with coke bottle glasses who squinted at me like I had come in to rob the place. Like I’m one to talk, I mean, I’m blind as a bat without my glasses, but he didn’t seem real. Maybe if he wasn’t so short the whole thing wouldn’t have been so dreamlike.
I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember him looking up from the counter, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows.
“How old are you, son?”
“Twenty-one, sir,” I said, just like I planned. I said it pretty good, I thought, since I had walked around practicing all day the day before.
“Sure, kid,” the gnome said, scratching his nose. “Got any I.D.?”
Talking generally isn’t my strong suit, on account of the stutter. I think clear enough, I just have trouble with the execution. I stuck out my chin and my skinny little chest and drew myself up to my full 6 feet 2 inches, about a foot more than the gnome had, and shook my head. “Tha…tha…that a crime?”
“Not yet,” he said with a sigh “But it’s gonna be hard to put you on the books without a Social Security number. You gotta join the union, too.”
I was so shocked he said "yes" I practically fell on the floor. “Oh,I got w...w...one of those,” I said, fumbling with my backpack.
“Raymond Einar,” he said cradling my Social Security card in his hand. “What’s that? German?”
“Swedish,” I said. “Or N…N…Norwegian, w...w...one of those.” Both my parents were a kind of Scandinavian-Surprise; Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish. Name a country where the people have no melanin, and they had ancestors there.
“Where you from?” he asked. It was a fair question; the answer clearly wasn’t Long Island.
“Farm boy?” he asked. He handed back my card.
I nodded. “U…u…used to be.”
“Used to be?” he repeated.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Until the bank f…f…foreclosed. I hated it anyway.”
He nodded. “First ones up against the wall when the revolution comes, those banks. So whadda ya got against farming?”
I sighed and wondered where to start. When you’ve spent your whole life despising a thing it’s hard to express to someone else. “Ever tr…tr…tried it?” I asked.
“Can’t say as I have,” he squinted at me.
“G..g..give it a sh..shot s...s...sometime,” I said, “and then you can t..t.. tell me I’m wrong.”
Suddenly he lifted his head and his nostrils dilated like a hippopotamus on PBS. “Smell that, kid?”
I did. It smelled like the best bread ever. “Wh…wh…what’s that?”
“Frenchie,” he answered. “That, Ray-my-boy, is Frenchie.”
That night Ira’s nephew Gary came over for supper, and I had my first baguette courtesy of Frenchie, or Mrs. J, as I liked to call her. Her family had the finest boulangerie – that’s French for bakery – in Saigon. At least that’s what Ira said, and I believed him. After nothin’ but a bag of chips and a candy bar a day for the last two weeks, a bellyful of Frenchie’s cooking just about had me convinced I’d died and gone to heaven. I’d never had anything like it. In Kansas we’d lived on a combination of tater tots, cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta, hamburger, and canned vegetables – pretty much either corn or green beans.
One thing I noticed right away about Ira: he never expected me to believe anything without offering me evidence, even if it was somethin’ as obvious as Frenchie’s cooking. He told me what he thought and why and if I still wasn’t sure, he didn’t give a shit; what I believed was my own business. It was about as far from my dad as it was possible to be.
Ira also had more books than anybody I ever met in my life. He said I could read any one I wanted as long as I didn’t bend the corners.
Gary Glicksberg: 2
It was like pulling teeth to get the kid on the court. Which was weird; tall and wiry as he was I would have guessed him for a neighborhood player, at the very least. “C’mon, you played back in…Omaha, right?” I asked.
“K…K…Kansas.” Ray pushed his glasses up his nose, then shook his head ‘til they slipped down again. “A...a...and they wouldn’t even let me be the w…w…water boy.”
I don’t care who else that coach in Kansas had, he was a dumbass. I could tell just by looking, the kid's reach was even better than his height.
“C’mon, Raymond,” I said, “this is one of those things in life that’s less fun when you do it by yourself. Play with me, Ray,” I threw the ball to him without warning.
He caught the ball without trying, and scowled “S…s…sports are for asshole j…j…jocks who beat up guys like me for a f…f...fucking hobby.”
“Nahh, sports are for fun. Have fun with me, Ray,” I said. “What did you and your dad used to do for fun?”
“I don’t think my d…d...dad believes in f…f…fun.” He tossed the ball back.
I dribbled toward the hoop. “That’s a shame because fun – ” I leapt and my speed, momentum, arm, the arc of the shot, the ball all transformed into a single sublime moment that snaked through the hoop with a hiss – “is one of the most important things in life.”
“Wh…wh…what are the others?” Ray grabbed the ball and tossed it back to me.
I tossed it right back to him. “You take a shot.”
Ray tried to dribbble. It wasn’t so great. “If y…y…you answer the question.” Ray said while dribbling unevenly
“What’s important? Let’s see. Fun, friendship, doing what you say, saying what you mean, good food, good plumbing, getting really adept at something – anything really, and believing in something bigger and more important than yourself,” I said. “So shoot.”
Ray jumped, shot, missed.
I caught the ball.
“Y…You got all that?” Ray asked me with the barest edge of a stammer. He’d asked the most important question you can ask when evaluating another man’s advice.
“I’m workin’ on it,” I said. “Give it another try.” I passed him the ball again.
It took him two more tries, but eventually he made it.
I could be a pompous jerk and say I spent time with Ray as a charity case or a special project, but truth was I liked him. He was razor sharp if you were smart enough to pay attention.
I was pretty sure he wasn’t 21 like he’d told Ira, but I never guessed he was 15.
Ray Einar: 2
When Ira figured out I didn’t have a place to stay, he told me I could sleep in the back storeroom. I moved in right away, if you can call stowing my orange school backpack with blue straps with one pair of jeans and three shirts in the bottom of a red Craftsman toolbox, the big model with six drawers and casters on the bottom.
There was a layer of dust on everything, and by everything I mean TVs and computers from before the dawn of time. There was an old cabinet TV with a screen the size and shape of a fishbowl, computers and computer guts spread over and under an old wooden work table, a stack of keyboards waist-high behind the door, a few toasters, and radios. The floor was covered with cords of all lengths and diameters, what Gary called “Ira’s wide Sargasso Sea.” In the far corner was a tiny island of order – a good work table, a work light, a soldering iron, and a small complement of old but well-maintained tools. There was so much stuff that, at first, I didn’t even notice the couch, with one arm hanging loose, shoved against the wall.
With some help from Frenchie I cleaned up the storeroom that first day. There wasn’t much choice on my part, on account of my allergies; it was either me or the dust. Even though I slept in there we still used it for, you know, whatever, storage and repairs and stuff. Green as I was, even I knew people paid the big bucks for a lot less. Ira saved my ass, probably literally.
I remember coming out of the shower one night a few days later and hearing Ira and Frenchie talking. I pictured them side by side in bed, Ira in blue pajamas and Frenchie in a green nightgown, one with flowers, with the textbook from her latest community college class balanced on her lap.
“I don’t think he’s even 18. Do you think he’s even 18?” Frenchie sounded worried.
“I don’t know. The kid says he’s 21. And I looked him up online and he’s not on any database of missing kids I can find,” Ira said. “Maybe he just looks young for his age.”
“You know he’s not 21,” Frenchie said. “He’s a baby, Ira. What kind of parents wouldn’t even look for him?” It embarrassed me to hear her say out loud the question I had asked myself. Was I really so unlovable that my real parents were glad to be rid of me?
“I wish I knew. Ray’s a good kid,” Ira said.
“And so studious, too,” Frenchie said.
“Maybe that’s the trouble,” Ira said. “You don’t know how these Midwestern types can be. Lot of ‘em think reading is the pathway to communism and atheism. Too many trips to the library and the next thing you know your kid is a faygelah.”
I didn’t know what a faygelah was, but I could guess from the context. It wasn’t true about me, even if my real dad thought it was.
“I don’t think Ray is gay, Ira, but even if he is, so what? It’s not 1952,” Frenchie said, and I could have kissed her, if it was okay to kiss your mom. Or mom-substitute. Whatever.
“You know that and I know that, but,” Ira said. “You try tellin’ ‘em that in Kansas.”
The two of them gave me a lot to think about that night. The funny part was neither of ‘em mentioned my trouble talking, like they didn’t think anything of it. Like it was nothing.
Most of the time, it seems to me, good luck is a matter of getting an even break from somebody who doesn’t have a reason in the world to give it to you. Ira handed out good luck like a fucking Jewish leprechaun. I swear he checked the tenants' fridges on the four apartments over the shop before he decided whether or not to collect the rent. I knew for a fact he never collected from Mr. Lipschitz. Ira said the man's retirement as a cantor was next to nothing. Mr. Lipschitz didn’t sound very retired to me. I could hear him singing all damn morning and half the night. Other than that, once Mr Lipschitz figured out I wasn’t going to mug him or anything, he was a nice old guy. He used to come over for Sabbath dinner on a pretty regular basis.
Ira and Frenchie were, hands down, the most decent people I ever met. That’s not to say they didn’t ride my ass, like I was a kid or something, probably because I was a kid. Frenchie would throw me a towel and tell me to shower and brush my teeth. Unlike my dad, Ira never wrestled me to the ground and shaved my head. He didn’t even tell me to get a haircut. So I didn’t. When I had a little money and went out to a show or a movie Ira would tell me to be home by midnight. And he’d be down in my room, sitting on my couch, reading a book when I got back, just to make sure. He added some time to my curfew over the years, but even when I was 25 he was still on my couch after the bar closed, making sure I made it home safe and sound.
Sure, the pay was confusing. Ira took me down and made me join the International Workers of the World, which was somethin’ I never even heard of in Kansas, and my hourly wage would have impressed my dad. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that I was cleaning out Ira and Frenchie, so I gave about half of it back to Frenchie as soon as Ira gave me my check. That didn’t bother me, it was only fair. I didn’t have any bills, the rent was zero, and I was eating fancy French and Vietnamese food three meals a day. What money was left went towards tools and parts, going out to see a band every once in a while, and a new pair of jeans when the old ones finally wore out. That first winter I bought myself a leather jacket at the flea market. It was a little big, but I grew into it. It would probably be kind of an overstatement to say I filled out, but by the time I hit my 20s, I didn’t so much look like an old medical poster for rickets.
Gary took me to the park to play basketball when Frenchie and Ira went to Temple. I had no idea ten years later we’d still be playing three or four times a week, and I’d still be sleeping on that brokedown couch.