To all my fans out there (he said drolly): Have had my first ever story published here: http://litbreak.com/ Its my version of ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,” one of my favorite books.
Once inside, standing in the immaculate kitchen on the waxed linoleum floor, I immediately saw that it was not only nicer it was cleaner than any place I had ever seen before, and I had been in quite a few homes in my young life. But this was different, this was our home, too, and I hungrily took it all in, determined not to miss a thing- the spotless sink, the modern stove and refrigerator, its muffled hum clicking on and off, the ample kitchen table set in a nook surrounded by booths instead of chairs. I smelled its smells: dishwashing detergent, spic and span, floor wax, bananas, and the remnants of something grilled.
We moved on to the dining room, with its long table and six chairs, a large breakfront containing silver and china, and a liquor cabinet. Just past it was a small den with a comfy looking love seat and portable television that led out to a foyer, where Mr. Barnes’ desk was.
Last but not least, was the spacious living room, with its plush carpets and ample furniture, most of which was covered with sheets (the furniture was just for when we had guests, Mrs. Barnes explained, noticing the puzzled look on my face, we never sit on the covered furniture), which accounted for the impression I had that it looked for all the world like it had never been lived in. Its piece de resistance, as far as Rory and I were concerned, was a huge, squat, state of the art Silvertone console television that sat smack dab in the center of the room in front of a bay window, across from which was a goldenrod colored couch and a green leather recliner.
Then it was up the gray carpeted stairs to the second floor, where, along a broad carpeted hallway, there was a bathroom and three bedrooms, the first of which, immediately across from the bathroom, we were told was ours. The bedroom down the hall, diagonally across from ours, was the master bedroom, the room next to ours a lavishly decorated room. When we asked what that was for Mrs. Barnes announced suddenly, Oh, we haven’t told you! In all the excitement we must have forgotten. You have a sister, her name is Penny, she’s a couple of years younger than you, and that’s her room. She’s visiting her grandparents in Cleveland right now but will be back tomorrow. I think you’ll get along just fine.
Perhaps, but finding out like that was a bit disconcerting if not a bad omen, as was the explanation concerning the circular marks above her door about halfway up I noticed and thought were strange-looking.
Gee, Wesley, Mr. Barnes said (for the first of many times), you don’t miss a thing do you? I had a blind aunt, now deceased, who lived here and the circles were made by latches that had been placed on them so she wouldn’t go in the wrong room.
I have to admit this was a little spooky and briefly imagined the ghost of the blind aunt wandering around trying to find her room, hoping she wouldn’t come in ours, especially before I had even seen it.
Which wouldn’t happen because that’s where we went next. I hesitated before I went over the threshold, Rory following so close behind he almost bumped into me, taking in what seemed like the incredible vista of our room. I immediately noticed the bunk bed against the wall, the green bedspread with its yellow, red, white and blue diagonal and horizontal stripes, exactly like the one on Timmy’s bed in Lassie I’d come to find out!
As we walked across the faded green linoleum floor the empty room echoed slightly. We looked up and down the lemon colored walls and ceiling, and opened the French doors that led out onto a summer porch that had been built over the backyard patio. It was stuffy and close, and smelled slightly musty in there, with a dead insects on the floor, and signs of slight water damage on the linoleum, some of which had spread into our room, and the ceiling. Not that I was complaining, mind you, as Mr. Barnes said, I noticed things.
Let’s open some windows and keep these doors open, air this place out, Mr. Barnes said, it’s the first time they’ve been opened since we closed them last fall. On really hot summer nights you can set up a cot and sleep out here if you’d like. It’s going to be nice to have someone in here again.
That sounded like fun and I couldn’t wait until we could do it.
Just as I was coming back into our room, Mrs. Barnes appeared out of nowhere and said, Wesley, Rory, open up your dresser drawers, we have a surprise for you. When I opened my top drawer, I saw it was filled to the top with new underwear and handkerchiefs. In the middle drawer were summer tee shirts, white crew socks, and a cord belt. The bottom drawer, the deepest, contained several pairs of shorts and a new pair of blue dungarees. Rory’s was the same, his clothes merely a different color, which I knew immediately he wasn’t going to like, hating for us to be dressed alike. I hoped he’d keep it to himself, but, again, Rory being Rory he might not.
I was overwhelmed by this unexpected bounty, we’d never had anything like it before. We got you all new clothes for your new home, Mrs. Barnes said, I hope you like them.
Of course we do, I effused, looking over at Rory, knowing he was also thinking what’s wrong with my old ones?
Thank you, I said, We’ve never had so many things, while at the same time I couldn’t help wondering where our suitcases were. I thought Mr. Barnes had gone to get them, but when he came back in the room he had instead identical gift-wrapped boxes, which he presented to us, encouraging us to open them. I tried to imagine what could possibly be inside, not having gotten a present since I could remember, thinking (hoping) it was some kind of magical toy.
Rory, unusually enthusiastic, had already torn into his and when I opened mine I couldn’t help but be disappointed to see it was a brown leather pouch. After an awkward pause during which I attempted to decipher what I was holding in my hands, Mr. Barnes told me to unzip it and look inside. Inside, lying on the velvet interior, I saw a comb, brush, and tube of hair cream. When I looked over at Rory I could see he’d gotten the exact same thing except his was black, and was equally if not more puzzled than I.
Those are called dop kits, Mr. Barnes said, and as you can see they hold your very own personal articles, to keep them in when we go on trips.
When I had finished putting all my new things away, Mrs. Barnes was right there once more, saying, Now let’s get you both a bath so you can change into your new things. Rory blanched and hung back, so Mrs. Barnes led me straightway into the bathroom and while she ran my bath told me to get undressed. Very uncomfortable doing so in front of this stranger I covered myself with my hands although Mrs. Barnes didn’t seem to notice. Just pile your clothes on the floor, she said, and I’ll throw them down the laundry chute to wash them. I never saw them again.
She soon came back with a couple of bath towels from the nearby linen closet then tested the water temperature in the tub with her finger and told me to hop in and soak awhile until she came back to wash me. I got in the tub and immediately sank into the warm water which had been sprinkled with bath salts, lying on my back and letting the steam settle around me. I didn’t recall ever taking a bath before, only showers, and not too many of those if you want to know the truth, but figured I could get used to it pretty easily it felt so soothing. Mrs. Barnes could take her sweet time coming back as far as I was concerned, I was in no hurry for her to wash me. I was perfectly capable of washing myself, but it seemed I was going to have little choice in the matter. I splashed around with the coral-colored Lifebuoy bar for a while, squirting it out of my hands and over the waves I was making by scissoring my legs back and forth in the water, pretending it was a little boat making its way over the broad ocean.
Mrs. Barnes returned and got straight down to business. Kneeling beside the tub she set to washing me, beginning with my face, ears, and hands, none too gently either, she scrubbed me but good, getting soap in my eyes, nose, and mouth in the process, with little sympathy. Oh you’ll be all right, she said, a little soap never hurt anybody. Working downwards over the length of my body, she had me turn over and back again, doing my feet last, which tickled, of course, but she held fast to them until they were squeaky clean. Next she lathered my head and rinsed me under the faucet, then told me to stand up, handing me a thirsty towel from the towel rack. It was embarrassing enough for me to have someone bathe me, I couldn’t imagine how Rory would take it. I was all red behind while in front I was white, except for the red blotches where she had scrubbed hardest, and as clean as I would ever be- and, even taking into account the lingering taste of soap and my red burning eyes, I had to admit I felt pretty good. From the thick ring I left in the tub I guess she was right, I certainly had needed it. I was tingling all over and hurried to my room, as I had been told, to get dressed, telling Rory it was his turn. I could see he wasn’t going to budge but he finally relented after I reassured him it would be all right. In no time at all I was slipping into my new clothes. I chose a lime plaid summer shirt, and khaki shorts, everything fit and I felt like a million dollars with them on, the first time I remember having new clothes to wear.
I heard a commotion and possibly a splashing sound coming from the bathroom and Mrs. Barnes’s insistent yet measured voice. Soon after Rory came back looking quite bedraggled but otherwise not the worse for wear, if not exactly cheerful. When Mrs. Barnes came back into the bedroom shortly after she gushed so much about how nice I looked in my new clothes that I was both embarrassed and not a little defensive, thinking, I thought I looked fine before.
Just then Mr. Barnes came upstairs and suggested we all go for a ride after lunch to see the sights in Wilsonville. When he asked what we wanted for lunch I said peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because that’s what we were used to, and Mr. Barnes replied, I think I can handle that, with a nice cold glass of milk.
When lunch was over we got in the car and set off for a ride through the quaint, sleepy village, along tree-lined streets, past cozy looking houses, one catholic and several protestant churches, an elementary, secondary, and high school, a working cider mill with a water wheel dating back to the previous century, small shops, two restaurants, a donut shop, a couple of men’s clothing stores on Main Street, a post office, telephone building, amusement park, town hall, library, and fire station. As I took it all in I immediately fell in love with it, couldn’t get enough of it, or quite believe such a place existed and that I now lived there.
Mr. Barnes wondered if we should run by his brother’s house so we could meet my cousins, but Mrs. Barnes was vigorously shaking her head from side to side and exaggeratedly mouthing the word NO. Mr. Barnes acted as though he hadn’t seen and headed down Elliott Street, where they lived, mollifying Mrs. Barnes by saying, We won’t stop in unannounced, as part of the grand tour I just want the boys to see where they live. As we passed by the house I saw a winding driveway, its entrance flanked by concrete hitching posts, which led up to a stately stone house with mortar chinking, surrounded by an expansive lawn bordered by elm trees.
On the way back when Mr. Barnes asked us out of the blue what our favorite food was we didn’t know how to answer. Well, I hope you like hamburgers, he said, because that’s what we have most Saturdays in the summer, cooked out on the grill, with beefsteak tomatoes fresh from the garden. Of course you do, he replied rhetorically, everybody loves burgers.
We watched eagerly as Mr. Barnes heaped the coals on the grill, doused them with lighter fluid, then flicked in a wooden match which started the coals blazing. I could tell he relished this job as much as I did watching him do it, and when the burgers began sizzling smelling all the delicious smells, while he quaffed an ale from a frosted ice tea glass embossed with black Canada geese. Flipping the burgers with a long-handled spatula, he asked, Who wants cheeseburgers? Again when we didn’t respond, he said, I’ll do half of them with cheese, half without, and you can decide later.
We ate outside on the flagstone patio at the picnic table in the shade under the portico and everything was delicious. We were famished, eating everything that was offered, as much as we wanted of the thick hamburgers topped off with a greater variety of condiments than I ever knew existed: mustard, ketchup, relish, Indian relish, pickles (dill and sweet), and thick slices of red onion; potato chips, milk, all of this topped off by large bowls of ice cream with chocolate syrup and peanuts.
The Barnes’s were impressed and pleased at how much we put away and we were glad to accommodate them, completely sated for the first time we could remember, with a beneficent breeze wafting over us all the while. It was the finest meal we had ever eaten and when I said as much Mr. Barnes replied, tousling my hair, Well I’m glad you think so, Wesley, but I’m just a short-order cook, wait until you taste Mrs. Barnes’ cooking you guys are in for a real treat.
As we lay in bed that first night, me on the top bunk, Rory on the bottom (we agreed we’d switch places on a regular basis) we talked quietly about the events of that first day. I told Rory how different I felt already, so different, in fact, it was difficult to believe that only a few short hours before I had been a foster child, a ward of the state, so much had transpired since.
Don’t you feel the same way Rory?
I got no response so I leaned over the edge of the bed so I could see him. He shrugged his shoulders and said softly, We’ll see. You have to give it a chance, Rory, I said, and you will see it’ll be all right. You have to admit the food’s pretty good don’t you? I said. Rory nodded, unwilling to commit to more than that.
Mr. Barnes had said goodnight and shook our hand before we went upstairs, and we could smell his pipe as he settled into his easy chair with his reading glasses on, reading the paper or James Bond paperback he favored, Wingsy at his feet.
When Mrs. Barnes came upstairs to tuck us in she first asked us to kneel down and pray.
But we don’t know any prayers, I said.
Then I’ll teach you one that you can memorize and say every night before you go to sleep, okay?
We nodded, closed our eyes and folded our hands as she recited:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; Glad and well may I awake, and this I ask for Jesus’ sake.
It may take you awhile to memorize it, but it shouldn’t be too difficult, and we’ll go over it in the coming days until you do, she said. Now say it three times and it’s yours.
She was right, by the third time we had most of it memorized, which surprised and impressed her. My, you two are a quick study, she said, I had no idea. Mrs. Barnes said goodnight but before she left the room I thought about asking if she would leave the bedroom door open, which was what we were used to, but decided against it, believing what Mrs. Barnes had said before about new clothes applied here also. New rituals for a new beginning.
As I lay there listening to all the unfamiliar sounds a new place makes, I realized I wasn’t afraid of each unfamiliar sound I heard, like I used to be at each new foster home.
You okay Rory? I asked. He didn’t say anything right away but then said, I’d like the door open. I tried to talk him out of it but Rory wasn’t going along with this ‘new’ stuff line of thinking. When I couldn’t talk him out of it I reluctantly got out of bed (hoping this would be all right) and opened the door (hoping that would be all right).
As I lay there waiting for sleep to arrive, I looked up at the ceiling and out of habit began my nightly ritual of making sure every part of me was tucked under the covers, with only my face exposed, so I felt comfortable and safe. Just then I made out a shadow on the ceiling shaped just like a rabbit and told Rory but he couldn’t see it. It’s been a pretty good beginning, I thought, smiling, I can’t wait for tomorrow, and fell fast asleep.
Two days after arriving we came down with miserable colds and had to stay in bed for several days, continuing the pattern established in our foster homes, wherein we got sick in each shortly after arriving. This was especially disheartening after what I thought was such a promising beginning. I couldn’t help but think that as this was just how it was at all the other places, and since they hadn’t turned out so well, why would this one be any different?
Lying there in our dark room feeling as wretched as we did, I still managed to convince myself it was different- we’re adopted now, that’s what made the difference. It was mostly an act of faith on my part, but if it was meant to be a test, Mrs. Barnes surely passed it with flying colors, as she seemed to be there whenever one of us woke up needing something, bringing us ginger ale to drink, something to eat if we wanted, which we mostly didn’t, but if we did only saltines. She kept trying to open the bedroom curtains, but we asked her not to, wanting it to be kept dark because that was the way we were used to having it when we were sick previously. Again to her credit, Mrs. Barnes humored us, which was another new experience. Feverish at times, she wiped our faces with a cooling damp cloth, spread Vaporub on our chests, covering that with a diaper which she fastened around our necks with safety pins, also daubing our nostrils with it. Finally, she would fluff our pillows, straighten out our blankets, get us settled back in bed, and before leaving, reassure us that she would be back soon. It had all turned out so much better than I’d anticipated and that no doubt hastened our recovery.
Once we began to feel better we even let Mrs. Barnes open the curtains, and she would sit with us and we would talk, small talk, what she and Mr. Barnes had planned for us we were better, goings on in the neighborhood, how Wingsy had noticed we weren’t around and would often lay at the foot of the stairs waiting for us to finally come down, that we would be meeting Penny (her return had been postponed by our illness) as soon as we were better. We didn’t say much, but enough that Mrs. Barnes discovered we had speech problems, pronouncing ‘work’ wuk, ‘dirt’ dut, ‘animal’ aminal, and I’m sure there were others I couldn’t remember.
When we were finally well enough to get up, Mrs. Barnes was puzzled when bringing us our old bathrobes (we had asked that she keep them and they were pretty new so she let us) she found dried-up slices of bread in the pockets. I explained that at the last foster home we’d had the mumps but the foster mother kept giving us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which were too painful to eat, so we hid them in the pockets of our bathrobes so she wouldn’t know. Why didn’t you just tell her that, and ask for something else to eat? Mrs. Barnes said. I just looked at her, smiled slightly, and shrugged my shoulders, knowing I couldn’t have done that in a million years.
Disclaimer: With great trepidation I am trying something new here, putting up sections of my fiction/memoir hybrid (a la Knausgaard’s My Struggle). If there is any interest in it (not sure how I’ll gauge that, probably by number of views or comments) I’ll continue to put increments up. Thanks for your indulgence.
That’s what I’d like to think anyway. To be honest I didn’t even know what the phrase meant, it just popped into my head and when I looked it up it was exactly what I meant so I went with it, although being given up for adoption as a one-year-old and living in foster homes until we were finally adopted at the age of five doesn’t exactly make it easy to sustain that line of thinking. I say we because I am a twin (which is another reason it is difficult to maintain that viewpoint), and although this is mainly about me, it is necessary that my brother Rory appear frequently, as we were practically joined at the hip in those early years, or so everybody said. I won’t attempt to speak for him, though, for as I gradually learned we each experience things in our own way despite being twins, which is what this is primarily about.
My name is Wesley, which I take inordinate pride in saying as it took me some time to realize I even had a name, at least I don’t remember being called anything during the period we were in foster homes. I suppose the foster parents couldn’t tell us apart, or didn’t care to, lumping us both together as was again often the case in our formative years. As if that wasn’t enough being moved from one foster home to another every six months didn’t help any with my identity crisis. Try it sometime for yourself if you don’t believe me and you’ll see.
That is how my life as I know it finally began, a blur of faces, rooms, and houses, the one constant being Rory, for which I will be forever grateful, especially after I learned much later that around that time many twin studies were being done they were often split apart in our circumstances.
There are a number of experiences peculiar to being a foster child, aside from the initial shock of arriving at a new place, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, when it wore off you then had to go through the whole process of acclimating yourself to an entirely new group of people, try to blend in, be accepted, which we never in any way accomplished; then there was the difference between the way we and the foster family’s natural children were treated, if not by the parents, then certainly by the children themselves, who asked unanswerable questions. Where did you come from? Where are your parents? Why do you have to stay here, eat our food, sleep in our bedroom? We weren’t lying, though they thought we were, we simply didn’t know. All of which engendered the equally unfathomable follow up questions- How can you not know who your parents are? If they didn’t want you why would we? And the inevitable- when are you leaving? Each question was a constant reminder we were freaks if not cretins, unwelcome convenient scapegoats to be punished for things the parents wouldn’t believe their “real” children had done.
It didn’t help that we didn’t speak up for ourselves, which Rory was incapable of, and I often didn’t have the wherewithal to do, especially when one or more of them ganged up on me. It was my word against theirs and who would they believe? Instead I accepted my punishment stoically, tried to keep Rory out of it as much as possible, and waited in dread for the next time something happened which it inevitably would.
One such punishment involved standing with my back to a wall and keeping my arms stretched out for interminable (and indeterminate) periods of time, interspersed with a spate of toe touches to relieve the monotony. Luckily no one was always watching and I could relax my arms or skip some of the toe touches until someone came back to check, oftentimes misjudging this and having to hold out my already trembling arms to be whipped with a belt when discovered.
That punishment seemed to have been at only one place, thankfully. The most pervasive one was the withholding of food, being sent to bed without supper, often in the early evening of a summer day, made worse because I couldn’t fall asleep while it was still daytime. I didn’t mind so much in the winter, when it was dark, except for the hunger pangs and the knowledge I hadn’t done anything to deserve this, or, if I had, no one told me what I had done wrong.
There was one place where inexplicably we both were made to gorge ourselves on the Halloween candy we had collected until we threw it all up. To this day I won’t eat homemade maple fudge.
The worst thing, though, was coming back to an empty room, our things having been packed up with no warning, which meant we were going to another place.
The homes seemed to blend together after a while, all of a piece in the sense that there was nothing remarkable about them and nothing too terrible happened. There were two homes, however, I remember in particular, one because I liked it so much and hoped to stay, and the other because it was the last one we were at before finally being adopted. Even then, I sometimes wonder if I just dreamed it.
In the first home, which seemed to be in a city, though not a major metropolis, the name of which I never knew, the father and mother were kind, even the daughters were nice and didn’t lord it over us that we were foster children, a first for us. It almost felt like we were part of a family and we thought maybe this time we would stay. We were all about the same age and I remember us walking the daughters up a tree-lined street to the bus stop each morning, proud to be allowed so much responsibility, yet at the same time wondering why we couldn’t go to school too.
There was a policeman at the bus stop, an older man, who befriended us, often giving us pennies to buy candy at the corner grocery store, whose smells I remember to this day: the creaking waxed wood floor, all the canned goods on the shelves (yes I could smell the corned beef hash, the spam, the sardines, tuna fish though maybe it was just in my imagination as I was constantly hungry), and especially the candy, gum, milk, fruits and vegetables, Nestle’s chocolate powder, cereal, cold cuts – everything mixed together to comprise the smell I forever associated with that kind of store, which have since almost disappeared.
I don’t recall that we spoke that often to the policeman, as we were reticent by nature and had been told never to speak to strangers, though I didn’t consider him one, while Rory only ever pretty much just tagged along. But the policeman more than made up for it and there were no uncomfortable pauses- far from it. He kidded a lot about not being able to tell us apart, and often told jokes that began with ‘Didja hear the one about.’ One in particular I remember went, ‘Didja hear the one about the magician who was walking down the street and turned into a restaurant?’ With a vague look on my face I waited for the punchline, and managed to play along with a smile contrapuntal to his guffaw, only getting the joke later as I walked home and feeling stupid to have missed it. I’ve always been pretty obtuse concerning punchlines, not exactly sure why, except thinking they were too artificial, that life was inherently funny, making jokes redundant.
One dark stormy night we were sitting at the kitchen table, the two of us, the foster mother and her daughters, waiting for the father, who was out looking for their lost cat, a clock ticking loudly on the wall. The spacious kitchen was brightly lit as we sat in tense silence until suddenly the father burst through the door out of the dismal night, startling us, and stood in the middle of the kitchen floor dripping wet. We looked at him expectantly but he shook his head and said quickly, ‘She’s dead.’ One of the girls, the younger one, screamed and ran sobbing upstairs. We stared after her, then, one by one, went to bed, there being nothing left to say. Lying in bed that night I thought how sad it all was, even felt a part of the family’s grief at losing their pet, yet all the while I could not help wondering what was going to happen to us now, knowing from past experience that when anything out of the ordinary occurred at a foster home we usually left shortly after. I also thought about the policeman, wanting to tell him what had happened. I didn’t see him the next day when we went to the bus stop and, sure enough, even though it was probably just a coincidence, when we got back our bedroom had been stripped bare and our things packed.
I’m not sure why I remembered the second place, aside from the fact that it was our last foster home, although I had no way of knowing that then. Outwardly it was unremarkable, except for several strange things that occurred there, as you’ll soon see.
Runty, our health generally poor, we contracted the measles, mumps, and chicken pox in rapid succession shortly after arriving there, so spent most of our time in bed (or so it seemed) but were finally able to be out and about, the doctor giving us a clean bill of health. Fresh air and exercise were just the thing for our rickets, he said sanguinely.
It was on a hot August morning I was first able to get out of bed and immediately went to the bedroom window to look outside. What I saw was an arid, flat, void landscape.
Our foster family was your prototypical nuclear family, comprising a father, mother, son, and a daughter. We had been introduced when we first arrived but hadn’t seen much of anybody except the mother since then because we were sick.
When we went outside, the humid air and brilliant sun were a shock to my system. While I glanced back at the wan unpainted house to get my bearings the boy and girl immediately left us to go in the back and sit in the shade at a picnic table under the lone tree in the yard. It was so still I could hear the hum of the telephone wires, and bees buzzing as they fumbled over the dead weeds in a brown field across the road. Hollow stalks of milkweed were cross-hatched randomly in ditches alongside the deserted highway, which seemed to stretch on forever, and which, I surmised, led nowhere.
When uninvited we joined the brother and sister in the backyard at the picnic table, the girl was listening to a yellow transistor radio playing ‘Tammy,’ the Debbie Reynolds hit when a news bulletin broke in…In Los Angeles, Caryl Chessman, the red-light bandit, condemned to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin in October, has won a stay of execution from the Governor of California, Edmund G. Brown…
There was an awkward silence afterward which I attempted to break by switching on the girl’s transistor radio and she chased me around the picnic table until I raked the underside of my wrist on a rusty nail sticking out there.
Though tired, I was afraid to go to sleep that night because my wrist, wrapped in gauze soaked with hydrogen peroxide, was raw, swollen and throbbing. The nail on the picnic table had lifted a flap of skin the size of the nail head, and I was terrified of getting lockjaw, as the brother and sister kidded me about at dinner. I’d stay awake all night if need be to make sure my mouth didn’t clamp shut forever. But as I looked over at Rory, who was already asleep, I finally began to drift off, thinking, everything is fine, it’ll be okay here despite today, until just before I fell asleep I when I thought that maybe it wouldn’t.
The next day we were back at it, sitting at the picnic table, the brother and sister ignoring us, but other than that there didn’t seem to be any repercussions from the nail incident, which was a relief, especially for me. The lockjaw vigil was over.
While we were sitting there suddenly out of nowhere a blue bird, black at first against the sun, veered crazily toward us then thudded onto the picnic table. The body convulsed slightly and its BB eyes stared. We were stunned by this, but the brother took a stick and matter-of-factly poked at it. Seemingly lifeless, the boy tried to pick it up daintily between his thumb and forefinger when the bird started thrashing so violently he flung it to the ground. He then walked over to it and finished it off with the stick then stooped down and picked it up once more, his sister, Rory, and I following as he carried the dead bird over to a sandy brick fireplace behind the garage. He reached for a trowel that was hanging on a hook on the side of the fireplace, knelt down and began digging a shallow hole in the flinty ground. When he was finished, he placed the bird in the hole, then pulled up some grass and covered it with it before he put the dirt back in place.
It’s where we bury all our dead animals, he said. Don’t tell anyone about this, he continued, looking at Rory and me. I was shaken by what had just happened, and wondered who he possibly thought I would tell, but couldn’t help but notice he had taken us into his confidence, which made me feel a little better about things.
I knew that Amos Oz was an Israeli writer, but that was about it, and I’d never read anything by him. On a recommendation (my therapist’s actually) I thought I’d give it a try, as I’d always had an interest in Judas, and am so glad I did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.
It is a novel of ideas (I think you’ll agree that’s rare enough these days) concerning the founding of the Jewish state, the relationship between Jesus and the Jews (and ultimately Judaism vs. Christianity), Judas and the Jews, Judas and Jesus, Arabs and Jews, discussed in unconventional ways, presenting very different (and extremely interesting) perspectives that deviate greatly from the conventional narrative propounded by politicians and religious leaders alike.
Set in 1959 Israel, the story concerns a young Israeli graduate student at a crossroad in his life: his girlfriend has just left him and married a former boyfriend; he’s dropped out of graduate school mainly because reversals in his family fortunes didn’t allow him to continue, but even then he was stalled on his thesis on Jewish views of Jesus and Christian views of Judas.
Shmuel Ash, the main protagonist, answers an ad seeking a companion for an elderly invalid male. His first name, Shmuel, couldn’t help but bring to mind the prominent place of the schlemiel in Jewish literature, whether Oz intended this or not. He thinks it will just be he and the old man at first but then discovers a much younger woman lives there, whose idea it was to place the ad. She (Atalia) is very mysterious and very beautiful, smelling of violets, and immediately captures Shmuel’s heart.
We gradually find out she is the daughter of one of Ben-Gurion’s arch rivals, the lone dissenting voice in the movement for a state of Israel, believing there could be a two-state solution with the Arabs. For this he was expelled from the Zionist executive committee and branded a “traitor.”
Naturally this interests Shmuel, who has been writing a thesis on the greatest traitor in history, and he spends long hours in the National Library delving into the history of that era. Unfortunately he can find no trace of his papers, no record of his speeches, and has to abandon this research also.
The old man he is taking care of is Atalia’s father-in-law, whose beloved son (Atalia’s husband) was killed in the 1948 war. Although he disagreed strongly with Atalia’s father’s views he invited him to live with him after his fall from grace. The old man comes to love Shmuel as a son during his three-month stay there, and gains Atalia’s grudging admiration also.
It seems Shmuel is the fourth of a succession of young male caretakers, all seduced by Altalia, who had a bit of Estella Havisham about her, then sent away. Things seem to be going differently for Shmuel even though all along he sees her as unattainable.
This is all I will say about the plot, aside from mentioning it has a perfectly ambiguous ending, hopefully it is enough to spark an interest in the book. As a minor spoiler alert I’ll just say there is an incredibly harrowing and graphic chapter devoted to Jesus’ crucifixion narrated by Judas, a real tour de force, which makes the book worth reading for this alone, although there is so much more.
There is not a lot of action, but the story moves apace and Oz tells it carefully and lovingly. As it turns out, some of the subject matter is taken from the author’s life, as delineated in his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The book wrestles with the big topics of Jesus’ humanity, the basis of anti-Semitism and other prejudice, the hope for eventual peace in the Middle East, and love.
Originally published in 2014, this edition, translated from the Hebrew, was published in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Book International Prize in 2017. Oz is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book puts him over the top.
I’m not sure how I stumbled onto this book but when I did so in the early 80’s it instantly became one of my very favorite books. The title for one thing- I even love the German title Wunschloses Unglück for some reason, probably because I love the book so much in general. It being out of print and difficult just to get the book from a library back in those days, I hate to admit that (being a librarian and all, and very cognizant of copyright infringement), after reading and falling in love with it and not knowing if I’d ever be able to get it back again, and wanting to have it with me at all times, instead of stealing it (I draw the line at that) I photocopied the 65 page hardcover copy I had in my hot little hands, justifying it to myself by promising that it ever did come back in print I’d be the first to know and the first one in line to get it, and that in the meantime I’d be telling as many people about it as I could.
I was in the throes of deciding whether I really wanted to be a writer at that time (not realizing you either were or you weren’t), and was reading all kinds of literary theory, including that of the Nouveau Roman movement when I came across this book, which has some of the aspects of that theory in it, particularly in its rigorous demonstration of the failure of language to express the horror of existence, and in its questioning of whether fiction with its artifice can even approximate the nature of existence. He believed less is much more, that you had to do the best you could to tell the truth, and layers upon layers of fiction’s apparatus didn’t solve the problem, rather further obfuscated things.
The book’s story line is a difficult one, that of coming to terms with his mother’s suicide in the most objective possible way. He realizes the task he has set himself and all the way through questions whether he is succeeding in any way in conveying what he is trying to convey. He uses capitals throughout the book for emotive terms he applies to his mother’s life, signalling his futility in trying to capture her reality, and italics for the cliches he purposefully sprinkles throughout, cliches often used (albeit in a well-meaning way) to come to terms with such a tragedy.
Just the facts, ma’am are how he begins, her life having been profoundly impacted by her coming of age in Hitler’s Germany, her son the product of a wartime romance with a much older man, making her an unwed mother in one of the most horrific times in modern history, after which she marries a gruff alcoholic German Army sergeant who never could understand her, meanwhile still carrying the torch for her son’s real father which she would for the rest of her life. Eventually she begins discovering the world and living her life through her son, educating herself by reading the books her son shares with her from the university he is attending, books by Hamsun, Gorky, Kafka, Dostoevsky, then Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. She then becomes depressed by her experience with this great literature, which she often takes literally, and her son feels responsible. Gradually Handke becomes a success as a writer and, busy living his life, lessens his contact with his mother. No longer having this connection with her son, she loses interest in life and kills herself.
Handke doesn’t feel the relief he thought he’d feel writing the book, nor does he realize much of anything concerning his mother’s suicide. With one of the great rationalizations in literary history he ends the book with this:
Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail.
Both he and the reader know he won’t.
And yes, the book finally came back into print, in a mini compendium published in 1988, entitled 3 x Handke, and yes, I literally ran out to buy it as soon as I heard.
Originally published in 1972 in German, the Ralph Manheim translation was published in 1974. Handke has gone on to become a major figure in world literature though he probably has had his greatest commercial success collaborating with Wim Wenders on several of his films.
Mr. Salter, whom I should have included in my original list of writer’s writers, died on June 19 of this year. I can think of only one other contemporary writer, Gina Berriault (“Women in Their Beds”), who has written as fine a collection of short stories as Salter’s “Last Night,” published in 2005. His final novel, “All That Is,” considered his most accessible, grounded work, published in 2013, made him moderately successful. Up to then his memoir “Burning the Days” (one of the all-time great book titles) was probably his most well-known book. He also wrote several screenplays, one of which, “Downhill Racer,” made into a movie with Robert Redford, is one you might recognize, but you can be forgiven if you don’t as it wasn’t all that memorable. In all he wrote six novels, a book of poetry, three screenplays (one of which he also directed), two story collections, and his “Collected Stories” also appeared in 2013. As the title of the Esquire appreciation of him, published two days after his death, has it: “James Salter: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Read,” and Richard Ford said of him,“Sentence for sentence, Salter is the master.” But don’t take their (or my) word for it, see for yourself, you’ll likely find it an unforgettable experience.