“Catsup,” Hershel yells. “Is that really too much to ask?”
The plate smacks the wallpaper, the meatloaf sticking, the plate crashing to the floor.
“Meshuggina,” Judith says. ‘Two year olds, I know two year olds more flexible.” Her chair shrieks like a leaf rake on a blackboard as she shoves backward and thumps out of the kitchen.
“What? After all I do and do and do for you, catsup I don’t get,” he calls after the wife. “Had too much onion anyway. You call that meatloaf? Heartburn loaf.”
He stares at the slab of meatloaf slithering down the foil paper. Foil paper, Judith put up foil paper. “What, you think this is Florida?’ She walked out on him when he asked; she’s getting expert at it, this walking out.
Silver foil. Shlock. Got no taste, Judith. Silver foil, tchotchkes all over the place. Frogs, what’s with the frogs? Frog sponge holder, frog towels, frog potholders, frog coffee mugs. Oy, probably even wearing frog gotkes. Froggie went a-courtin’ panties from Bloomies.
Like one of the ten plagues. Thought we got out of that in Exodus. “They will come into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs.”
Baked peepers, sliced pollywogs.
In the living room, Judith cranks up the stereo, Barbra Streisand, Don’t Rain on my Parade.” Not a good sign. Judith is shouting along off key, “I gotta try once, Only can die once, right sir – “
“Enough with the music,” Hershel yells. But his heart isn’t in it. He stares at the meatloaf schmeer on the silver foil, with the eye-smarting green circles, pulsating like op art. He hated op art, Yaacov Agam be damned. Art should be art. Paintings should hold still.
Mishegoss. World gone crazy. When did he become such a loser? A meatloaf sucking. catsup-less schmageggy. Can’t even get Judith to turn down the Streisand. Shlub. Shlmiel. Hershel punishes himself, tortures himself. What the hey, he has it coming.
But didn’t he do right? Didn’t he get them out of Queens? They lived in Jersey, a nice upscale subdivision in Jersey. Leah going to a school with the goyim.
“What do you want from me,” he yells to Judith. But she can’t hear him over the Barbra Color Me Barbra Streisand. What else would they color her? Color me Frank?
Mishegoss. He lived in Chelm, New Jersey. A village of idiots. He heard last week that Mrs. Schecter shlepped her shmaltzik cat in from the rain and tried to dry it off in the microwave. Cat exploded. Cooked katz. Not kosher.
Hershel considers cleaning up but thinks better of it. Meatloaf. She feeds him meatloaf. No catsup. Let the wife clean it up. All she does all day is sit around and kvetch anyway. Give her something to complain about.
The meatloaf has almost slid all the way to the baseboard. Too much trouble to bend over anyway. Gotten fat as Schecters’ cat. He looks like a weeble. Judith calls him that, the weeble. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. Like she doesn’t have a mirror. She’d eat ice cream served on a cloven hoof.
Reminds him of the old joke about the Jewish mothers in the restaurant. Waiter asks, “Is anything all right?”
Hershel yells, “Is anything all right?” But he can’t compete with Barbra.
He glances at the meatloaf on the table. For this he worked thirty years? He wants something, something to eat. When the stomach is empty, so is the brain.
But the meatloaf? He starts rummaging through the cabinets. Some stale matzoh, been there since Passover. “What, you too busy to shop?”
This, Judith hears. “You don’t know how hard I work,” she yells over Barbra.
“Work? I should have such work.” Bupkes.
“There’s chopped liver in the meat drawer.”
Chicken liver? Feh. I am laughing with pain. Hershel rattles through the fridge. A mishmash of this and that. Horseradish. Leftover Chinese. Does nobody eat in this house? Oy, mishocheh.
Hershel is some kind of mentsch and he can’t even eat in his own house?
Mishegoss. Like Dangerfield, I don’t get no respect. Oy vay. Total shlimazel. Whole world’s gone crazy.
Like that yenta next door. She and the husband go to Atlantic City. What, they got money to lose. I should have such money. Got gelt. Shmucks. After they lose money, they charter Atlantic Princess and rescue some dog they find overboard.
Oy vay, how they make over that dog, call her Aliza for joy, telling everybody how they got their precious for free until they shut Aliza up with their toy poodle, Lambchop after that Shari Lewis puppet, in the garage. They get back from the Tamarack Lodge and find Lambchop in the garage and Shari, a pile of gnawed bones on the concrete floor. Don’t hear that nosy-body bragging any more.
Finally Barbra and Judith wind down. Hershel shrugs, heads for the living room. If someone casts stones at you, throw back bread. Mitzvah. Mitzvah. He settles onto the couch, the plastic crackling as his kreplach body settles. Feels like the hamburglar. Needs to hit the gym.
“Bubbeleh,” he says. Shvitz. He’s sweating all over the plastic.
Judith stares at him like he’s some melting ice sculpture at the country club.
She fans herself with a magazine. “You clean up that drek.”
“Nudnik,” he mutters.
‘Shnuk,” Judith says. “Shnuk.”
“Shlump,” he says. The nadir, the pits. It’s come to this. “This is talking?” Like the Two Stooges. Shpilkis.
Judith riffles the magazine. Hershel hunkers, trying to see the cover. Architectural Digest.
Coveting. What else can’t they afford?
Hershel sticks, slides, and sticks on the plastic slipcover. “So where is Leah?”
Judith fans herself listlessly. “Leah? Where do you think she is?”
“What kind of answer is that. What, first you can’t give me a decent dinner, now you can’t give me a decent answer.”
“Figure it out, Einstein.” Judith tilts her head back, splays the magazine over her face.
Civilization and its malcontents. Hershel wonders when he became so discontent, but he knows. He has traced it back before. It was then, that day, people cloaked in plaster dust like marble statues running down the streets. Billows of flame, billows of smoke. Sirens. A tree full of discarded shoes. Everything changed. The world held its breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
People stockpiling canned goods, hoarding gas, duct tape, plastic sheeting. Breathing fear. Waiting. Should have invested in plastic sheeting and duct tape.
Then the other shoe dropped. Reid. But him they caught. Now nobody can wear shoes through the security checks.
And Leah and her boyfriend don’t even know that the world has changed. They were just kids, still in grade school.
“She at the mall?” Hershel asks.
“Who knows where she is. She’s with him?”
“Who do you think him?” Judith says, the magazine fluttering slightly as she speaks.
“I don’t like that no-good-nik. Jagged. Who calls himself Jagged? Has the chance to come up with a nickname and comes up with Jagged.”
“Enough already,” Judith says. The magazine mutes the irritation in her voice.
Maybe Hershel should get her a muzzle. Jagged, that gonif. Stealing his daughter from him. Hooligan. So many piercings looks like a porcupine. Nose, eyebrow, cheek, ears. More he doesn’t want to know about.
Into everything, mashkeh, and he wasn’t talking Mogen David. Shikker. Probably into drugs. Who knew what the kids were taking. Probably shtupping too. Judith knows, he suspects, probably took Leah to the Ob/gyn for birth control like some nafkeh. But she won’t tell him, oh no.
They go out past the football fields in the woods. Cops go around at night rapping their flashlights on the steamed up windows.
He didn’t like to think of her out there in the dark on the deserted logging road. Years ago some kids who were out there necking in a car got hooked to death by an escapee from the mental institution. You never knew. It’s a dangerous world. And there was some slasher lurking under the cars, slashing off women’s shoes. Talk about sick. You don’t know from sick.
And Leah went out there with that macher, Jagged. Making out. How did they make out, him with that schnoz on him, all full of hardware like a sawfish.
Must be his parents’ pride and joy, naches.
And there he is macking on Leah, his Leah. Hershel thinks of the Old Testament Leah, the deceiver becoming Jacob’s wife. But she had tender eyes. Leah had tender eyes.
She goes to school got up like some shikse goddess, plaid kilts and knee socks, then shows up with this human pincushion.
And, oy, the tattoos. Skulls and snakes. Demons and Chinese symbols meaning What? Hi there, I am a klutz, a boor, a loser oaf, and I am so dumb I don’t even know this Chinese translation. Shlub.
Next time he sees that loser, he should kick him hard right in the tush. But he won’t, he knows. Nebbish, nebbish, nebbish, he curses himself.
“I don’t want Leah going out with that ape,” he says. He startles at his own voice, sounds like a bull horn.
“We know, Hershel, we know. You only tell us a hundred times a day, over and over over and over like a hypnotized golem.”
He wants that the boy should hang in a tree, a tree like the tin man’s trees in that Oz movie, dangling suicidal munchkin. Throw some apples at him. Schnorer would probably turn around and sell them on the street. Yenems. What, he can’t find a little job somewhere. A little office job, who knows what? The grob.
Invite him to the office maybe. Let him take in the view from the balcony? View? Carwash. A sub shop. What a putz, he was a putz. Sold insurance. It was a living but not a life. Give Jagged a little shove right over the railing. Still Herschel the putz. Only two floors up.
Judith is back behind her magazine, People Magazine now, fanning herself like a flirt at someone’s bat mitzvah party.
Herschel’s thighs squeak on the plastic as he says, “At the office , the boss, the K’nacker brings his pitsel little mutt, smells like bad fish. One of the claims adjusters says he going to go outside and whistle, watch the little monster sail over the rail and go kerplat.”
Judith peers over Cher. “What are you talking about? What is the matter with you?” She pats her hair, returns to the magazine.
That was news today; Cher got another tattoo. Lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Genug iz genug.
He pictures Jagged catapulting over the railing, piercing the zoysia grass with his quilled nose, wriggling to free himself from the corporate lawn. Herschel giggles.
Judith peers at him, arching her tweezer-arched brows, but just for a second.
He feels invisible. In his own home. Meatloaf, no catsup. He could be his own dybbuk, wandering through his own life, his other self, his real self, on the other side of the Twin Towers, wavering on the other side of the vaporous skyscrapers of light. Alter bok, sitting on his mummy wrapped couch. One of the plaster coated people scrambling from the billowing disaster. Shmendrick the magician – now you see me, now you don’t.
Door slams and Herschel pops up like he’s joining his other self, his dybbuk half. After midnight, and they have the chutzpah to just come banging in. Judith lowers her magazine, her face expectant. Not a look she saves for Herschel.
“What happened in here?” Leah’s voice. “Looks like a murder scene without the yellow tape.”
“No ketchup,” Herschel mutters. But he is apparently inaudible too, invisible and inaudible. He hears the smooch of the refrigerator door as it opens, the smack as it closes.
Leah’s voice. “I’m starving.”
But then she is standing in the archway, staring at him. Wearing a skirt that fits her like a bruise. Spiked boots to here, skirt barely to there, red hank of hair, lipstick red, ketchup red. What, he is running a heizel?
And that little shmuck by her side. This I need like luch in kup, like a hole in the head.
“So,” she says, “what happened?”
“He tripped,” Judith says. “You know how he is, the klutz.”
“You know how he is,” Herschel says. “You know how he is. Nobody knows how he is. How he sits here while his daughter walks the streets with this loser, this shaigitz, like she can’t afford clothes. She can afford boots maybe, but God forbid she wear a skirt. God forbid she wear a watch so that her parents aren’t at home gnawing their livers.”
“I’m not gnawing my liver, dear,” Judith says.
Herschel glares at her. A heart is a lock for which you need the right key. Wrong key. Wrong lock. “I got no liver left. See what you do to your father.”
Leah grins; her orthodontic marvels gleam. She tucks her red coil of hair behind her ear and sways against Jagged whose arm is around her waist. He pats her abdomen.
Herschel fixates on the tale the k’nacker told in the office about the kid who masturbated with a vacuum cleaner hose, ended up with a shlang twenty inches long. What a hefker. One big mess. He feels sick. Krank. Krank. Judith tucks her legs beneath her on the chair cushion. The plastic cracks and crinkles. Calmly, Herschel plans Jagged’s murder.
A person plans and God laughs.
“We have great news,” Leah says. “We’re having a baby.”
Shoes are dropping. Shoes are dropping everywhere. Dropping on the plastic couch, dropping on Jagged’s head. Shoes are dropping like frogs, like hailstones. Dropping like people holding hands. Dropping like darkness. Herschel cannot hear. He is deaf to everything except the dropping shoes.
What, he should dance the mezinka maybe? But too many shoes are dropping. Ayden. Kalleh. Farklempt, he realizes he is yelling, but he cannot hear himself like Munch’s radiating scream. Shvanger.
Ek velt. Ek velt. Zuninkeh, someone yells. Zuninkeh. The dybbuk.
Judith pats her hair. Jagged pats Leah’s stomach. The shoes drop.
The plaster people are running. Running. Dodging shoes. There is nowhere to go.
Oy. Oy. Oy.
* * *
Joan Connor is a professor at Ohio University and a former professor in Fairfield University’s and Stonecoast /University of Southern Maine’s low residency MFA programs. She is a recipient of a Barbara Deming Award, the John Gilgun award, a Pushcart Prize, the Ohio Writer award in fiction and nonfiction, the AWP award for her short story collection, History Lessons, and the River Teeth Award for her collection of essays, The World Before Mirrors. Her most recent collection, How to Stop Loving Someone won the Leapfrog Press Award for Adult Fiction and was published in 2011. Her first two collections are: We Who Live Apart and Here On Old Route 7. Her work has appeared in: Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Chelsea, Manoa, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, The Journal of Arts & Letters, and Black Warrior, among others. She lives in Athens, Ohio and Belmont, Vermont.