Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Boy's Day at School

Fiction Sunday
 

Here is another story that I started writing in 1994. I have since abandoned this novel for another time, but I would like to share an excerpt with you. Like all early works, it has elements that contain biography and truths, at least as far as the narrator is concerned.

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A healing tongue is a tree of life;
But a devious one makes for a broken spirit
Proverbs 15:4


A torn jacket is soon mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Chapter 1: Words Matter

“You fuckin’ Jew, you killed Jesus,” were the first swear words six-year-old Jack ever heard in his life. He was standing outside the rusted metal gates of Stonecroft School on Saint Urbain Street, not far from Mont Royal Ave and the lush urban mountain that anchored Montreal. It was late September 1964, Jack's first year in public school, and Jack's first encounter with hatred of a personal kind. Jack had been absent Monday and Tuesday from school attending synagogue for Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year celebrations.

The incident happened rather quickly, like a cobra strike. Jack was walking home after school with his Chinese friend James Wong, explaining about the holiday when three older kids, two from the Greek-Orthodox school down the street and one from his school, suddenly surrounded him with accusing voices, defiant looks, and clenched fist. They looked both determined and dangerous in their mission of fear.

“I don’t know who Jesus is,” Jack pleaded in ignorance. He began to feel some imminent threat, yet unsure what it was or why he was becoming the target of something he was unfamiliar with. He had, in his tender youth, held thoughts of universal brotherhood and play, which weaved thoughts and feelings like an intricate basket, in hopes of forming a community of people of diverse backgrounds and origins. Jack's operating thesis was that everyone could get along as long as niceness and kindness were at play.

This encounter was not only a test of his resolve to remain calm and courageous in the face of danger, but also a test of his inchoate ideas of personal dignity and human justice. 

“All you Jews are the same,” yelled little Dimitri, obviously the leader of the gang of eight-year olds. “My priest told us at church this Sunday that you Jews killed Jesus, our god, by putting nails in his hands and feet until he died.”

“I don't know you are talking about. I would never do such a horrible thing as killing. I wasn’t there, and I don't know who Jesus is,” Jack screamed, more out of fear than anger. "Why are you picking on me? I have nothing against you. Why don’t you like me"

“You lie, lie, lie, and come here to steal our money and land,” Costa, another of the boys said, moving his face so close to Jack that he could smell the garlic he had eaten for lunch.

“Why are you saying this?” Jack said. “I am not lying. I am not stealing. Our Hebrew Bible says that you should not do either.” He was confused, and locked for his friend James to help him sort things out. But James stood off to the side watching all this indifferently, eyes wide open, shocked. Perhaps he was afraid. Perhaps he didn’t understand. Jack never asked why he didn’t help. There was no reason to. They were friends. Best friends. Best students.

Then the three boys, with fists and kicks, began to pummel Jack on the face and back. They taunted him with an army of insults and profane language that he had never before heard. Foreign words that he knew didn’t bode well for his welfare. “Dirty Jew.” “Kike” “Christ killer.” Jack fought back the best he could, but he was a small boy, much smaller than any of the plump Greek boys well-fed on pork, beef, lamb kebabs and on 2,000 years of Christian teachings on the Jews, who represented the Other, or at least the opposition to the dominating Christian world view. Jack made a few attempts to land some blows. But he was not successful, inept at fighting. After a few minutes, the beating stopped. He had received his first lesson on being different.

“That’s what you fuckin’ Jews get for killing our god,” Dimitri said as he and his two cohorts left the scene. “You deserve much more, but I have to go home. Mama’s waiting. Let’s go Costa, let’s go Nicodemus.”

Jack did not understand the reason for their words, for their hatred and for beating him up. He had no hatred for this Jesus whomever he was, and he surely did not kill him, a horribly abhorrent idea. After a few minutes of stunned silence, Jack quietly picked up his scruffy brown school bag of books, pencils and a red lunch box. James helped Jack pick up the books. They resumed walking the three blocks home. Not a word was exchanged between them.

They walked past the German candy store on Mont Royal, adjacent to the school, where Jack often bought candy with the few pennies his mother had given him. They walked pass the huge park, Fletcher's Field, where kids were playing baseball and riding their bikes. And where the leaves on the large maple trees were already resplendent with the reds and golds of autumn.  James turned right on Jeanne Mance and Jack said "see you tomorrow." James nodded his head in agreement, and said "same time. same place," and quietly waved his hand.

Jack then walked pass the Greek restaurant where he and his two brothers would often stop for a cup of coffee and toast and jam on Saturday mornings, with money his mother would secretly give him. They walked pass the wooden news kiosk, where Jack and his two brothers would afterward buy Superman comics for ten cents, and where Jack would buy the Montreal Star newspaper every school day, bringing it home to his family.

Jack turned right on Park Avenue, cutting through the Fina gas station, stopping as he always did in front of the puddles of kaleidoscope-colored gasoline that gas attendants often spilled on the ground. And as he always did, Jack stepped in the puddles and continued walking on Park Avenue, past the Platon Language School, the rows of row houses, restaurants, stores and finally came to his house at 4597, directly across the Dairy Queen, an ice cream parlour owned by Mr and Mrs Lapointe, French-Canadians. Just that summer, Jack and his two brothers and some friends had the fortune of seeing Jolly Jellybean, a local TV performer and clown, serving up ice cream, including delectable banana splits with loads of whipped cream on top.

When Jack entered the house, he knew that his mama would be home. He was not a latch-key kid, a rarity in those days, whose parents both worked, so the small child wore a key attached to a string round his neck. The front door slammed shut, and his mother as usual ran toward him. When she saw him and his bruises, including a black and swollen right eye, she said: “Jackaleh, what happened to you? Did you fall down or something? Let me go run and get a cold washcloth and some plasters. OyVey!”

She led Jack frantically down the long linoleum-covered hallway to the back of the house to the kitchen, a sparse functional room with a red formica-top table and five metal chairs with white padded cushions, all having some rips and fabric pushing out. The house was messy, untidy, reflecting the occupants, who were as open and oblivious to the rules and dictates of fashion and good taste common to people who didn’t have the time or the means to consider such things.

Mama came with her parents from a small town in Romania before the First World War, escaping the pogroms and hatred of its people. Although she grew up in Montreal, and was friendly to everyone who crossed her threshold, she identified with her people.

She had lived with her large family in the area of Montreal known as the Main, full of cold-water flats, small home-based businesses and hopes of a better life for the children. In it, she thrived and was formed. Her house was as untidy as her heart. Some people lock their emotions in a vault. Not so mama. They were like her house, exposed to the world, especially to her family whom she loved with a fierceness and a devotion. Like a lion to her cubs.

Then she peered into his little eyes, full of innocence and pain, not yet forming the judgements about people that adults easily make. That will come later, naturally enough, birthed through pain, misunderstanding and an accumulation of disappointments that are common to the lot of men and women.

The mother’s look when it is motivated by love is a powerful balm to the sick and hurting child, an antidote to the pain that the world often brings. It is the unsaid look that means more than words, a look that can only be found between mother and child, she who carried the baby for nine months in the womb, and then through travail and pain, gave birth to her child. As she placed the plaster bandages and ointment gently on the cuts and scrapes, she repeated a mixture of English and Yiddish phrases that were both a plea to God and a cry for the end of suffering, the cry of all good-hearted Jews for centuries. Gott in himmel, help us and Oy gevalt, such tsuris for us. When will it end?

As he felt his mom’s cooling touch, Jack was reluctant to burden her with such horrible information. To tell her that the Jews were responsible for the killing the god of the goyim, and he took a vicarious beating for it. But he was curious if his mom knew who this Jesus person was. “Mama, who is Jesus?”

“Shah,” we don’t mention that name in this house, as she spat three times on the ground.

“Did the Jews kill him?”

“No, the Romans killed him. We had nothing to do with that poor man.”

“So, why are the goyim so angry with us?

“Nu, Jackaleh, that is the sixty-four million dollar question. I don’t really know myself. It seems to me that they are always mad at us. As long as I can remember, the goyim have been angry at us and have done horrible things to our people, just for being Jews. Azoy. We are different in some ways, that’s for sure, but that’s not a reason to be upset or hateful.

But I always considered that there are good people everywhere. You know, there are good goyim too, Not all of them are bad or horrible. Like our neighbours Mr and Mrs Robertson. And the Washinskys. How about Nina and Gigi Matzatovous next door who gave you their son, Louie's old red wagon.... All good people," she sighed, and wiped her hands on her apron, torn in spots, and marked with all kinds of food stains in others.

"Of course, your father has a different thought. But he went through the war, and had many horrible, horrible experiences, where the Nazis killed his whole family—shot them right in front of his eyes, And then your father ran to the forest, and was captured and went to Siberia with the Russians. Oy. what can I tell you, Jackaleh," as she stroked his head. " It's always best that we do nothing to upset them, like not to upset a mad dog. I wish things were different. Perhaps some day they will be, when Moshiach comes. Di farshsteyst?”

“Yes, mama, I understand.”

By then, mama’s eyes were full of tears, which she quickly tried to hide and rub away with her apron that she always wore at home.

Do I have to go to shul for Yom Kippur next week?

“Of course we all go to the service on such a day as this. Even your father goes. It’s the most important day for us, the Day of Atonement. It’s when God opens the two books, and writes our names in the Book of Life. God willing.

"Di farshsteyst?"

"Yes momma."

“That’s a nice boy. Di vilst esn? she asked, getting pots and pans and all kinds utensils from various drawers and overhead cupboards, creating a comforting noise and vision for Jack.

“Yeah, mama, I’m a little hungry. Do you have any potato knishes?”

“I will make some right now with onions, just the way you like them.”

“That will be nice mama.” Jack hugged her with all the might that a six-year-old could muster, never wishing to let her go, and enjoying this magical moment of closeness and nearness that he hoped would always remain. He took in her smell, the combination of sweat, onions, garlic and flour. He already knew that she was genuine and vulnerable and that he would have to protect her. “Thank you mama for being you. I love you mama.”

“Me too, Jackaleh. You are such a good boy. Mama is very proud of you."

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To continue, go to A Boy's Day At Home.

Copyright ©2011. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved.

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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