EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
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My father's calculations were a day off. We slept three nights on the road and arrived at our new home at about noon Saturday. It felt like I was going back to an earlier period in my life; my bed was an army cot in the kitchen again. Mink had a little room for herself and my father and Jean had a nice-sized bedroom. I didn't mind too much, except on the first night I was eaten up by bedbugs and had to spend half a day getting rid of them, with boiling water where it was feasible, and Black Flag in the rest of the crevices.
I realized something was different about my father. He'd looked powerful when I met him at the cemetery, and now I noticed his chest had slipped somewhat. I guess he decided to forgo the torture of constricting himself in a corset. It changed his appearance, but he didn't look fat so much as big.
I guess I aggravated him because of my taciturnity, and one day when we were alone in the house, something must have really gotten to him. I don't know what we were talking about, but he suddenly turned to me, bit his lips, and then said smilingly, "What's the matter? You wanna fight me? Come on."
I leaped at the chance; I leaped at him, also, and never came near him. He kept his hands open and didn't touch me, except to ward me off. I dived, I jumped, and I was stonewalled. Then he got tired of playing and grabbed my arms in a vise-like grip. He had giant hands and they held me helpless. "That's enough," he said. His voice was shaky and his eyes were moist. "Yes, that's enough."
I was disappointed. I'd just wanted one crack at him for my mother–maybe for myself–maybe because I felt guilty because I didn't feel guilty enough. Somehow I'd failed and I wasn't sorry enough for the failure. I felt like I imagine a girl might feel who wanted and yet didn't want to be held. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. I couldn't take it; I turned and left the room.
* * * * *
Mink and I accepted the dishwashing chores after dinner. I'd wash and she'd dry. We'd actually look forward to the chore because we'd sing every song we knew at the top of our lungs, and it was fun. Jean was a bit of a bug about health; no reheated coffee, potatoes in their skins, vegetables in their juices, no fried foods, but my father'd go off on a hot dog binge on the sly and she'd find out and scold him. He had a favorite Roumanian dish that they called Kehnartzlech. They were just broiled fat cigar-shaped hamburgers, and they were very tasty.
Sometimes my father would talk about his homeland. He'd tell Mink and me "When I was five years old I used to teach eight, nine, ten-year-olds Hebrew lessons." He'd tell us "I'd make a meal out of piece of herring, a slice of onion, and a piece of black bread." He told us that the name Yanowitz had originated as Yoineh-Yoineh and an immigration clerk in the U.S. had changed it.
My father's business sense was poor. I never did understand how Jean let him rent a gift shop far from the center of the town. I guess they figured the low rent made up for the location. It didn't. It was very boring for me to sit around all day among the bric-a-brac imported from Czechoslovakia and France and England and, of course, Japan, and wait on two or three customers a day.
One day when my father was in the store, a dentist who had his office nearby suggested that perhaps, instead of money exchanging hands between them, goods could be exchanged for services. I guess my father figured he'd get something, at least, and arranged for me to get my teeth examined. The dentist found few cavities, but he warned my father (who had a set of false teeth) that I would lose mine unless my gums were seen to immediately. So he decorated his office and I sat and had what he told me were diseased parts of my gums cut away. It didn't hurt much since he used novocaine, but I felt the slice of the scalpel, and it felt very odd to spit severed parts of myself down the dental drain.
I made a few friends while clerking. There was a girl who came in to admire some of our wares, and I got to talking with her. She noticed I was writing in a notebook and became curious about what I was doing. I was trying to write a poem. I'd become interested in writing in my never-finished senior year in Seward Park High School. I had a good English teacher there, who had invited me to come to his home. He'd been impressed by the way I handled a class assignment in which he'd asked us to use the title of a poem we read–"These Things I Love"–and write about the things we loved in free verse. I got caught up in the theme and described sights and sounds and smells in nature, the bindings and musty odors of old books, and other special loves. Maybe he saw promise in me or maybe it was a prelude to a Catcher in the Rye incident. This was during the terrible part of my life, so I had quit school before taking advantage of his invitation.
The girl became very enthusiastic and said she wrote poetry also. Before I realized it, I had accepted an invitation to come to her house that evening.
She introduced me to her parents and we had tea together. Then she brought out her composition books and read some of her poetry. There was a sort of weepy character to her themes; and when we talked, I discovered she had some kind of illness that was going to shorten her life. I felt sad for her and spoke gently, but she acted bravely about it, and the conversation turned, as conversations do, to religion and her Christian faith, and I told her I was Jewish. She was very tolerant about it. She noticed the clock, said it was late, and bade me good night. She never dropped around at the gift shop again.
A young fellow about my age started hanging around the shop. He noticed I was reading Dickens, and he started a literary conversation at first, and then started talking about his interest, architecture. His name was John, and he told me Memphis was a gold mine for varieties of architecture, and suggested we take a walk through town that evening and he would point out some of the different styles. It was okay with me. On the walk I noticed the buildings he showed me were different, but I couldn't keep track of the period names. It was like a walk through a museum where the artists are unfamiliar and their names are forgotten almost immediately. It was entertaining, and I thanked him for his instruction and went home.
Two days later he showed up and asked me if I wanted to learn some more. I had nothing else to do so I said okay. After we walked for a while, we sat down on some steps. John started talking about Hollywood. He'd been out there and had met some of the stars and been invited to some of the parties, which he confided were really orgies, a word that had all kinds of exotic connotations to me, but with which I was unfamiliar. I've always been interested in the occult, science fiction, arcane knowledge in general, and, of course, sex. So I pumped him.
He told me that there were many homosexuals there. This was another mysterious word. I'd had experiences with people who touched my sacred organ surreptitiously in movie houses. I'd once had a well-dressed man lure me into the hallway of a building and offer me a dollar to do an errand for him, but he also attempted a private touch, which I evaded and hurriedly exited the hallway. I'd met Oskie and Izzy Rosenblatt, but couldn't understand what their lewdness was about. I liked girls. I felt a little guilty about the way I liked girls, but I didn't want to be treated like one, or treat a boy like one.
John told me about his experience with Tyrone Power. It was a shock to find a masculine hero of mine indulging in what seemed to me revolting. John said that he'd enjoyed it. I retched a bit and we continued walking. It was a summery evening. A car stopped with four young fellows in it. There was some word byplay that passed over my head. The driver's companion had his head in the driver's lap. John quickly drew me away from them.
We stopped for coffee in a cafe that had a number of young fellows in it. A couple joined us and started talking the talk. They called themselves "promoters." It gradually dawned on me that they were on the lookout for men with money who would pay them for their sexual favors. They bragged about their sales techniques, how they tracked lucrative clients, and I began to wonder who was normal in Memphis, they or I. I was smart enough to only ask leading questions that I hoped weren't too naive, but they took me as one of theirs who was new to the city and told me where the pickings were best. One fellow told a story of how he'd allowed himself to be picked up in a hotel lobby and had been paid fifty bucks by his seducer. I finally got away and expressed my amazement to John, and he nodded understandingly.
He stopped in again the next day and we talked books for a while. Then he became playful and laughingly pinched my nipple. I didn't take it as a joke.
"You do that again, and I'm gonna bust yuh in the mouth."
"What's a matter? Felt good, didn't it?"
"Why don't you get the hell out of here?"
"All right, forget about it. I won't touch your titty again." He smiled. "Unless you ask me."
I spat out, "Ask you! I'll be damned if I ever ask you. Just get the hell out of here and never come back!"
He shook his head. "You never can tell, but I understand," he said commiseratingly. "I felt the same way once, but now! You'll be sorry."
"Get out of here, or you'll be sorry right now." I took a step towards him.
"You're never gonna be sure. I'll stop by; give you another chance."
I watched him walk out of the store with some mixed emotions. I wanted friends, but not at a price like that! I wondered if it was possible that I could become like him. I knew that I had feelings that had come on me that were not what I expected and that I couldn't necessarily fight off. I prayed that this wasn't in my future.
* * * * *
We shared the house with a woman of about forty and her sixteen-year-old daughter. I've forgotten their names; I'll call them Mrs. (pronounced long before women's lib as Miz) Baylor, and Maybelle. Miz Baylor was a believer in the power of prognostication. She'd sit in front of her cards (We shared a large parlor) and tell fortunes that she hoped would come true. After watching her a few times, I asked her to let me try. I made up things out of whole cloth, and the poor woman was so eager for good things to happen that she believed everything I predicted.
"Oh, you are so very good at this," she said.
"You know I can't promise."
"That is quite all right. I know exactly how it is. Sometimes they just don't fall right." She called to her daughter, "Maybelle, you just come down hyah and let Edward tell your fortune. He's real good."
Maybelle was, beyond a doubt, the prettiest girl I had ever seen, let alone, met. I don't know what stopped me from falling madly in love with her. I think if she'd crooked a finger, I would have been over the precipice head-over-heels. It was a rare pleasure to look at her, and to talk to her, and to listen to her–she was a thing of beauty!
I told her fortune. She cut the cards; I divided them into six piles, took off the top card and the bottom card of alternate piles, shuffled them, laid them out in three piles of four cards each face down and proceeded to draw cards at random from each pile one at a time.
I'd flip the card over on its face, place my right hand over it, then my left hand, then pick it up in both hands and hold it to my forehead and relay its meaning in slow, ponderous terms.
"The Four of Spades is a lucky card and will counter the effect of any unlucky card among the ones you have chosen."
"The Jack of Hearts is a dream-lover who awaits you in the wings of time. It is especially fortunate that he comes after the Four of Spades since that determines a long and happy life for the two of you with at least two children."
Each card would bring good fortune unless I wanted to make things suspenseful, and I could scare Maybelle and her mother, but I'd save them eventually by making some card the Messenger. This mystic figure always fixed things up. The prognostications were never questioned, I guess, because the girl and woman were afraid to upset the qualities they believed resided in the cards.
I don't think Maybelle was as innocent as she made me believe. She was like a fairy princess, and when I sat next to her on the double swing on the porch, I would put my arm on the cushion behind her; but I'd never "accidentally" let it slide over her shoulders. I was backward, I guess, and I had a hell of a moral sense–after all, she was two years younger than I–that was always a pain-in-the-neck justification for non-action. I have a sneaking suspicion that she was disappointed in me, but I put that down to braggadocio. She started having dates and waited for them on the porch. I would join her on the swing and we'd chat till they came. She'd introduce me and wave goodbye. It was lucky I wasn't in love with her because I'm sure that would have made me miserable. It makes me miserable to think about it today.
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