Thursday, October 25, 2012

The White Hand

This story was inspired by a photograph by Sid Kaplan: "Doorway, P. S. 190, New York City, 1955"

It was Stinky Markowitz’s idea. Later, some people said it was Benny Bumstock but it wasn’t. Benny was the sidekick. Stinky was the brains.
If Mrs. Markowitz hadn’t been baking that day, and if the living room phone hadn’t rung, and if it wasn’t that sister of hers, Gloria, the pretty one — you know, the one with three husbands — and if they hadn’t talked so long, then none of this would have happened. But why even think like that? Like my Bubbe says: If a cow had wheels it would be a wagon.
So Stinky comes home for a glass of milk, maybe a cookie, too, and he sees the kitchen is a mess, flour everywhere, mother nowhere. And zip-zap, out of the blue, an idea hits him.
He sticks his head out the window where Benny, Lefty Katz, and Morris Blatt are going through the garbage cans, looking for cigarette butts. “Fellas,” he calls, “come on up.” So they do. They climb up the fire escape, through the Markowitz’s kitchen window, and quick like a mosquito they’re in like Flynn.
“Boys,” Stinky says, sweeping his arm in an arc big enough to take in the flour canister, the rolling pin, the pie pans — in short, the whole kitchen table — ”Whaddya think?”
Now Benny, Lefty, and even Morris, they’re not the quickest wits on the street. I told you already, Stinky was the brains in this outfit. So they don’t say nothing, ‘cause they don’t think nothing.
But Stinky, his mind never shuts off, not even when he’s sleeping. He sees the flour and to him it spells opportunity.
“Just do like I do,” he tells them, and he puts his hands — splat, splat — down on the table. The other guys, they do the same. When Stinky lifts his hands, his palms are coated in flour. Benny, Lefty, Morris: ditto.
Stinky’s grinning so big you can see the wad of pink Bazooka in his right cheek. Slowly, Benny sees the light. “Yeah,” he says, a grin coming to him as well, “this is good.” But the light Benny sees, it’s not the same light Stinky’s got. Benny just sees mischief. Stinky sees victory. 
“Follow me, men.” And Stinky’s out the window and down the fire escape, with Benny and Lefty right behind him, and Morris bringing up the rear. 

Morris, he doesn’t have a clue, and Lefty’s not feeling too good, his foot, from where the dog bit him that time, it’s throbbing again, what with all the up and down on the fire escape. But still, the four of them meet up on the corner, they turn the corner, they walk to the next corner, and there it is: Fish and Toots Morelli’s house. 
The evil Morelli Brothers, one worse than the next. Fish is older and stronger but Toots is meaner. Stinky and his gang have been known to walk three blocks out of their way to avoid the Morellis, but this day — bold as bombardiers — they walk right up to the Morelli's front door. 
Stinky slaps both his hands against the wood. He steps back and examines the effect. Good clean prints. Benny, he slaps his right hand, his left hand — not a single complaint. Next, Lefty — perfect. Morris Blatt, well, his left print is okay but his right one’s smudgy. “Stinky,” he whines, “you never told me not to scratch myself.”
Except for that, it’s a good job: seven perfect white hand prints and one smudgy one. On the Morelli Brother’s front door. In broad daylight. And they didn’t get killed. 
The boys take off, heading for the playground, where they squirt water out of the drinking fountain until the parkie chases them off. Then they go to the swings and make kiss-kiss noises at the girls. All in all, a truly excellent day.
In the morning, the whole neighborhood knows the Morelli family has taken off. Old Mrs. Carsey saw the brothers and their parents heading toward the subway a little after ten at night, each one carrying three, four shopping bags full of stuff. “That Toots,” she says, “he was crying. I swear.” That part was hard to believe, but the rest of her story was undeniable: the Morelli house stood empty of human life. All that was left were the flies and the roaches. 
I’ll tell you what happened. Mr. Morelli, he comes home from the shoe store where he works and he sees those white hand prints on his front door. Now Mr. Morelli, he isn’t what you’d call a deep thinker. He knows about the Black Hand, the Cosa Nostra, but he’s never heard of the White Hand before. He figures what he doesn’t know could really hurt him. He must’ve done something pretty bad to get the White Hand mad at him like this: 7 1/2 prints. Oh boy. Whatever he did, he wishes he hadn’t done it.
So he gets his wife and his sons to pack up, fast-fast-fast, and just like that, the Morellis are gone, off to a new neighborhood where the brothers can torture some other poor schnooks.  
Now Mr. and Mrs. Morelli, they were good people, no one wished them any harm. But there’s something you’ve got to understand about Fish and Toots: they were just plain rotten. When they left  there was dancing in the streets. And not just kids, but grown-up people, too. Dancing with tears of joy in their eyes.
Mrs. Leiberman, the grocer’s wife, she heard Benny was behind it all, she wanted to give him a reward: five dollars! Everybody was going, “Yay, Benny. Atta boy Benny,” like he was really something. Forget about Benny-the-Bum. They were calling him Brave Benny now.
But Benny, you got to hand it to him, he didn’t let the praise go to his head. He told everyone that Stinky Markowitz was the real hero, and Morris and Lefty, they helped too. So they each got one dollar, and the other dollar, Mrs. Leiberman kept it. That’s only fair.
After that, nobody threw water on those boys when they played stickball in the street. The women, they didn’t clutch their pocketbooks close to their bosoms. It was like a real peaceful feeling came to the neighborhood. It was very nice. 

It lasted a little over a week.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Palm Dream

In my dream, one woman shows another woman her palm. That’s it. That’s all I remember. I wake up with the image of an open hand and not much else.

If I were psychologically inclined I’d say: I am one of the women; I am the other woman; I am the palm.
But symbolic thinking only confuses me. Also, I’m one of the People of the Book. In our tradition, when there’s a question, you refer to The Text. I interpret that to mean any text. 
So I turn to my dream dictionary.
I look up palm. It isn’t there. I see painting, parachute and paradise, but there isn’t palm. I turn to body, to the sub-section for hand. It says: The hand represents self expression. Then there’s a bit on fingers: manipulation; penis; dexterity. There’s also handshake: contacting an aspect of self.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to that word penis for a minute. I wasn’t surprised that it turned up in the definition. I had a tongue dream once and on my way to the tongue section of the dictionary, via teeth, there was penis. I had a dream about crocus soup and came across penis among the vegetables. And now here it is again. 

This time I’m not going to shy away from it. I am finally going to look it up and see what the fuss is about, once and for all.
On the way to penis I see parasites, parrots, and penguin. Then, finally, penis. See body. A sense of deja vu washes over me.

I turn to body for the second time, and there it is:  For a man, it says, the penis represents more than simply his sexual appetites. How nice. I wonder if the dictionary is similarly generous with vagina, so I look it up. It’s basically the same, except the word appetites has been changed to feelings.

Back to penis. In a woman’s dream, it says, a penis represents one’s relationship with, or desire for, a mate; relationship with one’s own male self. It defines male self as: ambition, work capability, aggression and intellect.
I don’t like this. Nor is it particularly illuminating. After all, I didn’t dream about a penis. My dream didn’t go: “One woman shows another woman her penis.” I admit, that would have been an interesting dream, but it just wasn't the one I had. 
I dreamed about two women and one palm. A palm, the inside of a hand. An open hand. An upturned, unclenched, friendly, receptive, welcoming hand. A clean hand. This is a palm dream, which is not the same as a penis dream. A penis dream is okay, but this isn’t a penis dream. This is a dream about two women and a palm. 
I sit and look at my palm. I wait for a tiny movie screen to appear just beneath the surface of my skin and show me the story of my life. But all I see are three long lines and a few shorter ones. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot, and if there are any subtitles, I don’t see them.
I suspect I’m not finished with this dream yet.

+++ +++ +++ +++

The Palm Dream, Revisited

I go out and buy a new dream dictionary. The back cover promises: “Your Innermost Thoughts Revealed.” I’ve always liked the word “innermost.” It’s so much more internal than simply “inner.” 
The very first word my eyes land on, smack dab in the middle of page one, is Abbess: If you see an abbess in your dream, the future will be bright, particularly so if she smiles at you. I like that. I've never dreamed about a smiling abbess but I think it’s entirely possible that I will one day, and it’s good to know that when I do I can expect my future to be bright.
I decide to go right to the heart of what I’m searching for. I look up palm. It’s not there. Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a bit disappointed that there is no palm. There is, however, palmist: Having your palm read in a dream presages a period during which you will do considerable worrying about your home life and finances. That is not comforting. I don’t like to see the word “worrying” in print. Frankly, it makes me worry. And what exactly is “presage?” 

I turn to my non-dream dictionary for assistance: A presentiment; foreboding. Yeah, that’s basically what I thought. Now I wish I hadn’t bothered to look it up. I didn’t need to see the word “foreboding.” I hate the word “foreboding.” And “presentiment” isn’t so good, either.
I turn back to the dream dictionary and look up penis, figuring I might as well get it over with as soon as possible.
There is no penis. Honestly. My new dream dictionary does not have a listing for the word penis. What’s more, it doesn’t even refer you to another entry. When I look up penis all I see is pencil, and penny. 

I can’t resist; I read the entry for pencil: Trying to write in a dream with a very blunt, badly sharpened pencil portends being criticized for slovenly dress. Then I read about penny: To give a child a penny in a dream foretells pleasant experiences in the woods and fields. 

Oh, right. Neither of these bodes well for depth and insight to come, but, on the bright side, there is no penis.
A disturbing thought creeps in. If there is no penis, can there be a vagina? I have to know. I turn to the V section. Vacation, vaccination, vacuum cleaner, vagabond, valentine, valet, vampire. There is no vagina. I am hugely disappointed. 

To comfort myself, I read up on valentine: If you receive a valentine decorated with lace and perfumed, you will kiss someone of the opposite sex. According to this I think it’s safe to assume that if you receive a valentine decorated with lace but not perfumed, you will kiss someone of the same sex.
I know by now that this book does not hold the key to my palm dream. I’m about to give up entirely when I realize that I haven't looked for women; I haven’t look for two. So I look up two. I look up women, then woman. Nothing, nothing, and nothing.
I’m thinking maybe it’s time to leave my palm dream behind, to get on with my life, to pick myself up by my little purple ankle socks and move on.
I can’t. I just can’t stop cold like that. I must try one more search, just one. But what should I look for? I’ve gone to all the obvious and not-so-obvious words, in two dream dictionaries. I decide it is now time to go the route of the Dadaists. I have nothing to lose.
So I take three deep, slow, cleansing breaths. I calm my heart and relax my mind. I tell myself that I am within seconds of having the Secret of the Universe revealed to me. 
Then, holding the dream dictionary in my left hand, I let the pages fall open, willy-nilly, take my right pointer finger, approach the exposed page, and point.


Okay, it could have been worse. I could have gotten nausea, or flyspeck, but I got sneaker instead.

Which means nothing to me. I never dream about footwear. Never. In all my life, I have not had one dream involving sneakers, shoes, sandals, socks, flip-flops, moccasins, boots, slippers, clodhoppers, loafers, clogs, mules, pumps, sling-backs, ghillies, mary janes, ballet shoes, espadrilles or galoshes.

Sneaker is not the Secret of the Universe.

I could give up already. I should give up already. But I don't give up already. I pick up the hefty non-dream dictionary, that old blue volume that's been with me for decades and doesn't include a single word of the modern technological age. I put it on the table and open it up. I put my right pointer finger down on the page. I move my nearsighted eyes closer, to read the small print.

Laureate. Worthy of the greatest honor or distinction.

Okay. I'm happy now. I really am. Laureate is better than the best fortune cookie message.

One honored or awarded a prize for great achievements.

This is good. I can relax. True, I am no closer to the meaning of my palm dream. But I don't care about the palm dream anymore. I landed on laureate

Hallelujah. Anything is possible.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Finkelsteins, Apartment 3-G

What you are about to read is a family fiction. The characters Mom and Dad should not be confused with my own parents. And no offense is intended toward the brilliant and amazing Roz Chast. I just made up "her" cartoon. (But I do adore her.)

For the past 35 years my mother has given me a gift subscription to The New Yorker magazine every April for my birthday. Mom has always been the one responsible for the cultural life of our family. 

Dad is the cook. Which is a good thing because Dad likes to eat. Mom doesn't. She used to say if she could take a pill once a day, to provide all her nutritional needs, she'd be happy. No cooking, no eating, no dishes to wash. This is her idea of the Good Life. 

Dad is all about Western omelets, lumpy (but surprisingly delicious) egg salad, juicy burgers, slabs of steak, corned beef hash and matzo brei. Also, the man was born with an outstanding ability to order Chinese take-out. 

But he is anti-culture. If it has the word educational in it, he's against it. He would never give me a subscription to The New Yorker because he's very snobby about how snobby he thinks the magazine is.

He does like the cartoons, though.

From time to time I'll send him an envelope chock-full of drawings by George Booth, Victoria Roberts, and all the rest. Dad especially likes the cartoons that show two guys on a desert island, and any pictures of a king make him howl. 

My mother would like to enjoy these cartoons. She really would. But she just doesn't get them. She calls me on the phone from their apartment in San Diego and asks me to interpret. Of course, by the time she calls, I don't remember what I sent and she has to clue me in.

"There's a woman sitting on a couch and she looks worried, though what she would be worried about I have no idea. And also there is a man sitting on a chair next to the couch, he could be her brother or maybe her son, he looks just like her so I don't think he's her husband. Though, come to think of it, sometimes a couple does end up looking a lot alike. Do you remember Millie and Sol Goldbloom from when we lived on Vyse Avenue? When they first got married they looked like themselves, but after a while they started to look like each other. Do you remember? They even wore each other's clothes . . . . "

"Mom," I interrupt her, "let's get back to the cartoon."

"Sure, of course," (she is very agreeable), "but I'm curious, do you remember Millie and Sol, because they were always very good to you, Millie especially, and she used to say if she had a daughter . . . ."

I assure my mother that I remember Millie and Sol who were always so good to me, (I don't remember them at all), and she continues to describe the cartoon.

"Okay, darling, the woman's on the couch and the man's in the chair, and then there's a dog, and the dog looks as worried as the woman so I figure this must be a very talented artist because she or he knows how to make a dog look worried and  . . . ."

"It's a she," I say. 


"The cartoonist is a she," I say, "her name is Roz Chast."

"How do you know that?"

"I know her style. She draws worried people sitting in their apartments. And the woman and man are probably married, not brother and sister, because all Roz's people look alike, but anyway, the point is, what does it say?"

"What does who say?"

"The caption. What does the caption say?"

"Oh, wait a minute, let me change my glasses."

There's a considerable pause while my mother switches from her looking-at-a-cartoon-illustration glasses to her reading-a-cartoon-caption glasses.

"I'm back," she declares. 

"I'm still here," I assure her.

"Okay now, let me see," (I can hear her squinting), "it says 'The Finkelsteins, Apartment 3G, wonder what ever happened to the Minkowitzes in 3F.'"

"Is that all?" I ask.

"That's it. It doesn't make sense, does it? It's not even funny."

"I have a feeling the humor is in the illustration, Mom, there must be something . . . ."

"But why?" she cuts in. "Why do they care about the Minkowitzes? I never cared a hoot about the neighbors."

This stops me cold. I can't think of a single thing to say because she most certainly did (and does) care about the neighbors.

For 85 years my mother has lived in one apartment or another and she has always known who lived on either side of her, who lived down the hall, who lived up above and right below. She knew their names, their children's names, their grandchildren's names and their dog's and/or cat's names. She knew their birthdays, their food allergies, their literary taste or lack thereof.

And now she's telling me she never gave a hoot about the neighbors?

The silence grows. I have no idea how to respond to such a big fat lie.

"Sweetheart, are you still there?" she prods.

"I'm here," I say.

"Okay, who cares about the cartoon. Roz Schmoz. Tell me what you're up to. Are the leaves changing yet in Ithaca?"

"They're beautiful, Mom."

"Good. Enjoy. But don't send us any."

This is a reference to a bag of autumn leaves I mailed to my parents twelve Octobers ago. The gift didn't go over as well as I thought it would and every year since, one or the other of them has made a point of reminding me not to send any more leaves.

"But keep those cartoons coming," she says. "They make no sense to me but your father likes them. He says the only thing about New York that he misses more than the bagels is the humor."

"They don't laugh in San Diego?" I ask.

"No. Not really. It's a different kind of humor here." 

"What kind is it?" I ask.

"The unfunny kind," she says.

I guffaw. My mother may rate less-than-zero on the comic scale, but this is something like a joke she's just made. However, since it wasn't intentional, she would not appreciate my appreciation.

Luckily, she misinterprets my guffaw.

"Gesundheit," she says. "I hope you're not coming down with a cold."