Off to the land of club soda unbridled
—David Berman, “Tennessee”
My little brother Rusty was on the back porch, lighting up.
“Hey,” he said.
“Rusty,” I said. “The smoking.”
“This is what Mom and Dad made you come home for? To try some weird bonding shit against my smoking?”
“They didn’t make me come home. It was a choice. I wanted to come.”
“Ran out of money, you mean.”
“What’s with the smoking?”
“Do you know how many Jews there are at my high school?” Rusty said.
What happened is the family moved because my father lost a job and my mother got one. They left Miami, where we had always lived, and came to this suburb of Nashville. I think they picked it because it had the good school system for my brother, who hates his full name, Russell, and so goes by Russ in all circles except the family, where he has always been and will always be Rusty. Everyone agrees the move was hardest on him—especially him. Me, I say what’s one suburb to another? We didn’t actually live in Miami. Not like South Beach, Calle Ocho, and everything. We lived in a middle-class suburb called North Miami Beach, in the shadow of a wealthier suburb called Aventura, with the real city somewhere maybe half an hour south. These places were all part of the “greater Miami area,” which was understood to be among the biggest Jewish communities in the country. Fourth biggest, people always said, though I don’t know where they came by that number or who was in the top three. I was ten years old before I made a non-Jewish friend. (Her name was Marie Hahna and I fell right in love.)
“How many Jews are there at your high school?” I asked my brother.
“Eleven,” he said. “And three of them are done after this year.”
“You know what I heard one kid say to another?”
“Three down, eight to go.” Rusty smiled, a pleasureless near-grimace. He drew smoke and then blew it out slowly. It hung close about him like a morning mist.
“Oh come on, they didn’t.”
“And this is a reason to smoke?”
Rusty’s more right than he knows, about why I’m home. Or maybe he knows exactly how right he is and I’m the one who doesn’t know.
When I called to ask for a little helping hand my father wouldn’t even get on the phone, though I could hear him in the background. Boy, could I ever. Shouting and shouting. My mother, though no less disapproving, fostered a sort of muted respect for the time I had spent—in her words—finding myself.
She sent the money. Here I am.
In Miami, where everyone was a Jew, you didn’t think about it. It didn’t matter. It was assumed. You put in your time: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. Drone along with the congregation, slur the memorized phonetic Hebrew. Hello, Mrs. Nussbaum—mazel tov about your daughter. Forget black hats, wigs, holes in the sheet. We were Hannukah-and-lox Jews, not the Kashrut-and-Shabbos kind. But now we lived in a city with a mere four thousand Jews and a paltry three synagogues (my mother’s figures). So my parents were finding themselves, making cultural overtures, like enrolling my brother in Youth Group and buying the Schindler’s List deluxe box with the director’s cut and survivor interviews.
Through some program at their new synagogue they had donated a small but not miserly sum to aid Jewish “settlers” in Israel, a designation I took strong issue with. Soon enough my father and I were standing on opposite sides of the kitchen table, on the edge of a blowout over Palestine.
“That bastard,” my father said. “The one you read. That Chomsky, that—Jew-hating bastard!”
“Chomsky’s Jewish,” I said.
“A self-hating Jew, maybe,” he said. “Like you.”
“Hey,” I said. “I don’t hate myself, or the Jews. Now, what the Israeli government does on the other hand . . . I don’t see how hating that or them has anything to do with Elijah, the fifth commandment, or us.”
“Have you read the Dershowitz editorial I forwarded you? It explains everything. Everything.”
The kitchen window looked out on the deck and there was Rusty, his back to the house, smoking. His friend Dara was there, too, facing us, maybe even watching us through the window? I wondered if she could she hear the fight. Dara was the prized only child of someone important at the synagogue. Her roots went back to its founding in 1843. My parents viewed the friendship as a profitable one. I wondered if she thought I was winning the argument.
“Dershowitz,” I said. “Now there’s a right-wing SOB I want to listen to. He’s pro-torture, for the love of—”
“He’s Jewish, at least,” said my father. “You should hear the voice of your own people sometime. Might wake you up.”
“CHOMSKY IS JEWISH!” I said. “Remember ‘self-hating’?”
“Stop this,” my mother said. We paused. “You two are here all day while your brother is at school and I’m working, and my parents are coming in at one o’clock on Wednesday.”
We greeted this information with silence, my father especially.
“Therefore,” she continued, “one of you will have to pick them up. Or you can both go. To be honest, I don’t care. Just get them here.”
My father was increasingly home-bound, so much so it made us uncomfortable, which is not to say that he didn’t keep busy. He wrote letters to the editors—all of them—about Israel and Palestine. He cleaned the house.
Actually, the cleaning had become sort of worrisome, too. It was so thorough, almost as if he were trying to say that if he could no longer work in an office then by God he would keep such a spotless and ordered home that the family would come to see how his lost job had been a good fortune in disguise.
If you ask me, the worst part for Dad about my brother smoking was not the ruination of his young body or the ongoing disrespect of his doing it, but the white flecks of ash that clung to Rusty’s clothes. That, and having to constantly change the air fresheners. There was a plug-in plugged in to every spare outlet in our house. He had even unplugged some lamps.
Like Jews raising swine on elevated platforms in the Holy Land, Rusty obeyed the letter of his father’s law. He never smoked in the house. But Dad was convinced that the smell clung to his clothes, that he left bits of odor and ash everywhere he sat, soiling the couch fabric, the cushions on the kitchen chairs, everything. He may even have been right, in fact he probably was, but that wasn’t the issue anymore. The house stank, not with cigarette smoke but with synthetic bouquets of every variety. It was potpourri without end, amen, and we all lived in its invisible, cloying crush.
My father decided he would cook a genuine Jewish brisket for the in-laws’ first Tennessee meal. They were coming up from West Palm Beach and he thought the brisket would make for the perfect pastiche of Jewish and Southern tradition, to the extent that either could be embodied in a slab of beef.
Between that and cleaning the house, his day was full. So there I was, cruising down I-65 at the wheel of the family Volvo.
I was like a kid again, all nerves, afraid even to change the radio station until I was off the highway and stopped at a light. I hit a preset and the country music was swapped out for some guy who must have written his senior college thesis on Green Day, croon-yelling about a girl who had done everything wrong, and how broken up and drunk he was because of it. It’s no wonder Rusty’s miserable. This mopey stuff just crushes your soul and—
I realized that my opinion of the latest rock music was sounding suspiciously like my father’s old attacks on what I’d listened to at Rusty’s age. This creeped me out. But I was getting off track. The goal was to bond with my brother, not critique his taste. If I could remember how the chorus went I could bring the song up later in a conversation. Maybe that would be a cool thing we could talk about. I started to sing along, willing the words to stick.
As the song faded out I registered a chorus of car horns. The light had changed and I had missed it. I hit the gas too hard and almost plowed into the guy in front of me. But didn’t. I was getting the hang of things all over again.
At the next light I chanced a look into the glove box and sure enough there was a stray cigarette buried under the registration. Do I know my brother or what? I punched in the car lighter, one eye on the traffic light, killed the AC, and lowered the windows. The smells of cut grass and motor oil poured in, along with a lot more sunlight than I had counted on. You sit behind tinted windows for a while and you forget what the day is. I scanned the horizon. It was luscious country, all rises and slopes and green, with a few half-finished planned communities and strip malls, but still. It was mild, as blight goes—enough to make you worry for the future, but somehow not enough to wreck such a sweet summer day. I gawked at every horse in every pasture. The lighter popped back out and I touched it to the cigarette, thinking maybe this was the way into Rusty’s head. I took a drag, started coughing. My eyes watered. The light changed. The horns started in again.
“Oh my, that smell,” my grandmother said, pulling away from my hug. “What have you been doing—smoking?” How do you explain this kind of thing to a grandma?
“You know, during the war,” my grandfather said, “I was quite the smoker. Of course we didn’t know then what we know now. Modern medicine and so forth.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said, “tell Rusty. He’s the one who needs to know.”
“It’s so green out here,” my grandmother said. We were cruising. “And the hills are just—”
“I know,” I said. “Don’t you love it?”
“Prime real estate,” my grandfather said knowingly. Before retirement he had headed some firm. Their golden years were shaping up just right.
“So how is everything?” my grandmother asked. “It’s been so long.”
“It’s been okay,” I said. “But you’re pretty up to date. I mean, you talk to Mom twice a week, and I’m assuming you read my letters.”
“I read them,” my grandfather said. “She won’t go near a omputer. ‘That machine,’ she calls it. Like it’s dirty! But I read her your letters.”
“Sometimes he reads me your letters,” my grandmother said. “But I won’t go near that machine.”
Sooner or later they would offer to buy me a suit. For job interviews. They would not ask me about my time away. They were good people, good grandparents, but had their prerogative for sure.
Maybe you think my father didn’t want to pick up his in-laws because he didn’t like them. Oh they had their differences, sure. Jewish mothers, in-laws, all the clichés you can imagine just roiling together, lolling to the surface like matzo balls in soup. But I think it’s that having my mother’s parents around drives home how he doesn’t talk to his own father anymore. I don’t know what they fell out about, but they don’t speak. My other grandpa is eighty-something. When I think of it, I call him. He sounds far away and confused, down in Florida near Dad’s sister and the place we left. Grandpa and Dad didn’t even say good-bye.
Rusty was upstairs, in his room. I let myself in. “They’re here,” I said.
“Don’t ever come in here without knocking,” he said.
“Did you ever even ask any of your friends if you could stay with them?” I said. “You didn’t, did you? The Weissbergs have got the room. They’d have taken you. We’ve known them how long?”
“What would have been the point of asking?” he said. “Dad kept going on about breaking up the family. ‘What with your brother off and gone already,’ he kept saying. If I had asked the Weissbergs it would have been worse. Because they would have said okay and Dad would have wanted to say okay, but he wouldn’t have been able to, or he’d have said okay and then had to take it back. Either way it’d have killed him.”
“How can you know that?” I said.
“How can you not know that?” he said.
And he was right, was the thing. My little brother, Rusty, with his restricted driver’s license and his smoker’s cough, had it pegged. It would have gone just like that—him screaming “I’ll never” with all the teen angst he could muster, which was plenty. And he would have lost. Our father could be the most stubborn and solipsistic of God’s creatures, even if it left him lonely as a goat. The isolation was a kind of fuel, I think. And though the two of them were in that regard nearly identical, in the end it wouldn’t have been a battle of wills. It had been a question not of wanting but of suffering, and the still-deeper truth of the matter was that it had not been a question at all. And so now, maybe, Rusty was going to smoke himself to death just to spite them.
Dara dropped by. My mother introduced her parents. My grandmother invited her to stay for dinner. My father groaned. My mother turned and gave him a look.
“What?” she said. “There’s plenty.”
It wasn’t that he had anything against Dara. To the contrary, he thought she was a very good influence—I’d heard him say so in just those words (not like Rusty’s layabout bum of a big brother, seemed to be the implication). It was the presumption he objected to, his in-laws inviting somebody to dinner in his house!
Dara, smart girl, went off to find Rusty, who was out on the back deck again.
“It’s good that Rusty has such a nice little friend,” my grandmother said to me.
“His little friend is not so little,” my grandfather said. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was true. Dara was seventeen, a looker even though she dressed down. Or maybe that was just when she came over to our house. I tried to imagine what she’d look like primed for a night on the town. The kids, I had been told, made a popular hangout of the Sonic Burger down Hillsborough Road, where they’d all meet up after the school football games.
Okay, so maybe some things were different from Miami.
“Does Rusty date that girl?” my grandmother asked.
“No,” my mother said. “Or—well I don’t know exactly, but don’t bring it up with him, okay?”
“If Rusty doesn’t date that nice girl,” my grandmother said, turning to me, “then you should ask her on a date.”
“Grandma, she’s like a kid.”
“I was engaged to be married at her age,” my grandmother said. “And by the time I was your age I had already given birth to your uncle Steve.” My father shook his head. His brother-in-law’s wife is a crazy goy bitch and we don’t talk to either of them anymore.
“It was a different world,” my mother said to her mother.
“A nice Jewish girl comes to a house with two eligible young men and can’t get herself so much as asked on a date.”
“Daniel doesn’t need to date his brother’s friends,” my mother said, “and Rusty’s life is complicated enough as it is.”
“Why is his life so complicated, I want to know?” my father interjected. “He goes to school, he has his friend, he smokes those damn cigarettes just to make me crazy. He doesn’t even get all A’s. His life is cake and pie.”
“He got one B,” my mother said, “and it was in phys ed.”
“Those damn cigarettes—” my father said. Mom just shook her head.
My father was in high school when his parents moved him from some Long Island suburb of no particular distinction to a sunnier, if equally indistinct, suburb of Miami. He should have been glad to escape the fate of that life, but you know how it is—his friends, the places he knew, a girl probably, all his baseball cards. He lost everything, and swore to himself to hate the new state, city, school, life. But couldn’t. He loved South Florida, almost right off the bat. He met my mother there, started his family, and was even heard to say that it was where he expected to die. But none of that love and happiness enabled him to forgive his own parents for the trauma that made it all possible. Whatever he finally fell out with my grandfather over, I know it was really over this.
One thing my father always swore: he would never do to his children what his parents did to him. But then God, who they say works in His own ways and who can be so cruel, made it so the trauma had to be passed down like a rite of passage. Whether or not Rusty ever forgives him, our father will never forgive himself. Nobody ever tried harder than that man, but some things are just beyond control, like if Abraham had had to go through with the sacrifice of Isaac, but somehow Isaac lived, and then when it was time God made Isaac put the knife to Jacob.
Even my mother’s parents know to withhold comment on the thick air-freshener atmosphere, that fake-clean floral stench, that reek of grasping for control. They kvetch about everything, but never that.
Smells are the easiest to get used to anyway. After a few minutes you hardly even notice. If you’re out of the house for a while, okay, it hits pretty hard when you come back in. But you just wait.
“What a place Germany was,” my grandfather said, gesturing with his fork—not so much stabbing as nudging the space in front of him.
“You’re flicking brisket juice,” my grandmother scolded. He put the fork down.
Grandpa favored baby blue golf shirts and ran his left hand over his bald, liver-spotted head when he was feeling wistful. “Such culture,” he said. “And even with the war on there was plenty of time. I used to know quite a bit of the native tongue. Very much like Yiddish, German. I couldn’t read Goethe, maybe, but who wants to read Goethe? I could order dinner, I could ask directions. What else could I have wanted?”
“To read Nietzsche?” I said. “Or listen to Mozart in the original?” My grandfather loves opera so I figured I could force an ally out of him.
“Jew-hating bastards—the both of them,” my grandmother said. Her thing was heavy necklaces and doing her hair up with spray. It was retirement condo chic and they had taken to it as well as other kinds of Jews took to yarmulkes, black coats.
“How would you know?” I asked.
“I know what I know,” she said.
“He’s like this,” my father said. “Always siding with the Jew-haters.”
“Dara,” my mother cut in, “are you looking forward to the new school year?”
“I’m going to spend a quarter in Israel,” Dara said. All the grown-ups at the table went ooh.
“It’s very lovely there,” my grandmother said. “We’ve been a number of times.”
“You’re going to learn so much,” my father said.
“Very modern,” my grandfather said. “All the amenities. Not like some of the places we’ve been to.” He glared, halfkidding half-serious, at his wife. She liked to travel to exotic places on senior discount tours. When they would get back, Grandpa would start his recollection of the trip by saying, Now, when I was a soldier fighting Hitler in the Second World War, I thought the living was rough, but let me tell you . . .
“Israel,” I said. It was too easy, it was totally pointless, and I was going to do it anyway. “Try not to get blown up by an insurgent.”
“THEY’RE NOT INSURGENTS THEY’RE FANATICS!” my father said.
“They can be both,” I said.
“MURDERERS,” my father said.
“They can even be all three,” I said.
“Please,” my mother said.
“Okay,” Rusty said. “We’re leaving the table now.”
“You may be excused,” my mother said.
“It wasn’t a question,” Rusty said.
“Thanks for dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Kessler,” Dara said.
“What a shame,” my grandfather said. “A boy who can’t respect his own heritage.”
“I’m twenty-three,” I said.
“And after everything you fought for,” my father said. “In the war.”
“The things I saw,” my grandfather said. “Things I couldn’t even tell you.”
I happen to know that my grandfather never saw any combat, or liberated any camps. He was part of a company that mostly ran supplies from one base to another. The only time he even fired his ser vice rifle was when he happened upon a poor, warburdened peasant family in some rural area and took down a deer with one perfect shot. And the peasant family was so thankful and had plenty to eat and hugged him and wished him good luck and he never had to fire the gun again.
Come to think of it, that might have been my other grandfather’s story. They were both enlisted men. But how hard is that to picture? These crabby old Jews with their hiked-up pants and endless kvetching. And one of them I haven’t laid eyes on in how many years? These guys, I’m supposed to believe, won a war.
I’m not a bad son. Only prodigal. I know they fought and served, I just can’t picture it. You know? My dad, now him I can picture—I’ve seen the pictures. Vietnam? Student deferment. Like a good Jewish boy? Yeah, with the hair down to his ass and the leather vest. Like you wouldn’t believe. Imagine what his mother, the Polish immigrant, must have said.
It got late. The parents and grandparents went to bed. So, I decided, what better time to bond with the brother? I knocked on his bedroom door. Turned out Dara was still hanging around. Well, what the heck? Bond with her, too.
I filched a bottle of scotch from my parents’ liquor cabinet and brought it upstairs, but they turned up their noses, so I brought them down to help choose. Vodka they were happy with. Don’t ask me why. “Maybe it’s the Russian blood,” I said, as we walked with our fixed drinks out of the kitchen, through the living room, out to the deck.
“Huh?” Rusty said.
“The Russian in us. On Dad’s side. Grandpa was born in Odessa, I think. Or his parents were. Somebody came over.” We raised our glasses and drank. Rusty lit a cigarette.
It got really late. The deck chairs were dusted with that grayish outdoorsy shmutz they get, so we were sitting on the deck itself, our backs against the quiet house. We stared into that country darkness. Rusty kept stubbing his smokes out on the deck; really grinding them in. One after another after another. I kept waiting for the drinks to loosen him enough that he’d spill his guts, his secret hopes, something I could bond with, but he only looked off into the night or down at the pile of butts, which he’d arranged in a tiny pyramid.
“That’s, uh, pretty cool,” I said.
“That’s gross,” Dara said.
“You know what?” Rusty said. “I’m going to bed.”
“I love you—bro,” I said.
“Yeah, well.” My brother went inside. Christ, he could be a pill sometimes. I thought it was damn decent of Dara to wait a few courtesy minutes before taking her leave. We shared a little silence, during which I turned the words “good Southern breeding” over and over in my mind, as if they were a little gem I was inspecting. But then I noticed that she still didn’t seem to be going anywhere. And had she slid closer?
“So it’s, uh, pretty cool that you’re still here, uh, hanging out with me,” I said.
“I don’t want to die a virgin,” Dara said, eyes on her drink.
Ahh shit, I thought. Loosened the wrong one.
“Like if I did get blown up on a bus or something. I’d have never even known what it was like.”
“You’re a virgin?”
“Does that surprise you?”
I didn’t have an answer to that question.
“What about my brother?” I asked.
“Oh come on, he’s like my best friend,” she said. That had actually been my point. If you can’t sublimate your fear of mortality into sex with your best friend, what’s it there for?
“And there’s no other guy at your school?” I said.
“Lose it to a goy?” she said, almost too bewildered by the suggestion to be dismayed by the prospect. Another silence ensued.
“You’re not going to get killed in a terrorist bombing,” I said, finally.
“You don’t have to bullshit me,” she said. “I know what you think of Israel.”
“That a fact?”
“Russ told me how you hate their government.”
“Well, to be fair,” I said. “I hate every government, I guess, but why hate, say, the French government? I don’t even know any French. I hate the government of the United States because it’s mine, and so I can. And I hate the government of Israel because I’m a Jew, so I can do that too. Hating the government is every citizen’s duty.”
“You don’t hate them because they deserve it?” she asked.
“Oh, they deserve it,” I said. “But that’s sort of not even the point.”
The syrupy cloy was fresh all over again when we stepped inside, and lightly sickened my drunk. I took a deep breath and held it; the air filled my lungs and burned there. A strong hit of good Jewish guilt. I was conscious of the muted noise we made, shuffling across the carpet, the creak of the stairs, but these little sounds—it was becoming clear—weren’t going to wake anybody up. It’s hard to be at ease in a new place. Home is not the place you own, or even where you go back to. Home is the place whose exigencies you most fully comprehend and can account for. I was sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark. This was Dara’s house more than it was mine. She knew it better, and no reason why she shouldn’t. After all, she’d spent more time here than I had, or would.
I thought back on our family’s old house in Miami, how Dad used to set the burglar alarm before he went to bed. I’d come home late and it would make a long low beep when I opened the door, then I’d have twenty-five seconds to get to the keypad and punch in the code or the siren went off. My brother maybe couldn’t admit it yet, but he had to see that some things were better here.
I heard the low flush of a toilet, followed by the still-softer sound of water in the basin of the sink. There was brightness at the end of the hall, then darkness once more. Dara was one moving shadow in a sea of them, barely distinct against the deep blue of my bedroom door, which she had shut softly behind herself. She stood still a moment, in the gloom, then slid into focus as she crossed the room. By the time she reached me she was a girl again.
From the collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. © Justin Taylor.
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