The Country of the Crazy Horse
As the train began the long crawl under the tunnel to Brooklyn I thought again of the crazy horse. It was Saturday morning, and all the mothers sat before the stoop on bridge chairs, opening tangerines and helping themselves from a big bag of polly seeds, budging not one inch as the super shot his dirty looks about and warned of summonses for each and every one who blocked his path to the cellar. The movie-house was not yet open; my crew and I waited, waited for the moment to draw near, killing the time with marvelous death-falls—the slow, coin-flipping sag of George Raft; the sharp flinch and spin of the settler as the arrow strikes; the stool pigeon’s slow crumple as they cut him down in the phone booth, behind the billboard, atop the church steps.
When all of a sudden the horse came clopping down the street. Heavy and handsome he was, the kind Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson sat, looking smart enough to pull you out of quicksand or loosen your bonds with his teeth, and white as a centaur. He bucked and wove through the traffic, taking little hip-hops up and down the sidewalk, kicking at the hedges that lined the one- and two-family houses. The cluster of mothers broke and scattered, then joined together again to form a circle around us like a wagon train. One, wilder even than the rest, made a run for her boy’s two-wheeler, crying, for no good reason, “What did he need it for? What, tell me, what?” From an open window someone sloshed a pail of water. We began throwing pebbles and bottle caps and flipping little cardboard squares with our rubber band guns, but they fell short. The laundryman turned the corner in his truck and let go on the horn. Seymour, my best friend, who could imitate anything, brought up from deep within his chest the spang of bullets on rocks and trumpeting of wild bull elephants spotting the white hunter. Somehow stung by this, the horse whinnied back. He lowered his head, took delicate little steps to the sidewalk and stopped before the house of Ringleman, the dentist. He reared up, he flared his nostrils and showed his terrible teeth. Then, in a movement that seemed as precise and formal as a dance step, he made a long, low leap. And impaled himself upon the iron fence.
They removed the carcass later, on an open truck, and washed down Ringleman’s lawn with a hose. My mother dragged me up stairs, bore me into the bedroom and caught fiercely at the neckband of my shirt. Her face trembled, and she opened and closed her mouth as if there lay in her mind some fearful pronouncement no tongue could utter. I saw the horse heave and rear between us again, his eyes glittering like the future. I stand, awaiting my mother’s explanation for all that has passed. But there is only her hand, heavy as brass upon my face, and the cry, “Look at him. Feel him. How perspired he is, how it drips from him!”
Two stops now from my station and I am drenched with sweat again. I move to another seat, fleeing the fan’s powerful draft, conscious of how vulnerable I am, of my tendency to colds and swollen glands, of the way I load my stomach with rich and spicy foods. From across the aisle a woman jumps up and, marvelously balancing against the pitching and bucketing, looms over me. She is plump and moon-faced and there is a tenderness in her eyes, as though she would like to stroke me as I sit there. A swift half-turn, a languid shrug, and she allows herself to fall heavily upon the seat next to mine, with a smile that stretches from one end of the world to the other. Her hands begin to flutter nervously, and I move closer to the window, pretending to lose myself in the boring vista of playgrounds and cemeteries and television antennae that spear the last light like crucifixes. She is stooped over, working very hard and furtively at something; once, she lifts her head to smile again, as though there was a secret between us. I watch her like a grim eavesdropper, awaiting the fulfillment of events. She strains, she wriggles, she falls back, spent. Then, gathering all her forces for one compulsive effort, she reaches deep into the straw cushion and draws out a maimed magazine.
“I used to love to read,” she says at last, blinking her mad, moist brown eyes.
I nod profoundly and slowly spread my arms, the gesture of one who sees no escape from his miserable existence.
“But now, who has the mind for it? And every day to the hospital, that can knock anybody out. Not that the traveling bothers me. It’s the going up and down to change trains. But it’s the very least I can do for him. My brother-in-law. Oh, I knew already, even before the operation, when he complained that he can’t eat any more, that he lost his appetite. Because that was an eater! Yeah, yeah! I knew already when they finished, I looked at the doctor’s face. I didn’t have to ask. They opened him up, they took a look, and they sewed him up again. And you know what he got it from? From one thing only. Aggravation.”
“Oh yes, oh yes,” I chant liturgically. “I can imagine, I can believe it. Aggravation. . . .” Till the age of fourteen I had been certain it was a Yiddish word.
“Since he’s sick I don’t give a damn for anything. I walk out of the house without even—you should pardon the expression—a girdle on. Though before I complain I should first bite my tongue off. A person has his health, he has everything.”
“That’s it. To be healthy is the main thing,” I echo. Then, thank God, I recognize my station, like the beginning of an old movie, and I hustle for the door.
“Goodbye, good luck,” she howls after me. “In whatever you undertake. You’re a very, very nice person.”
I feel a tickle of nervous excitement as I enter the streets. There’s a brand-new community center where my old lot was and a hive of garden apartments whose brick is colored the sickly pink of a rabbit’s eye. I stare inside the picture windows, into each living room with its Van Gogh sunflowers, its kidney-shaped coffee tables, its gigantic mohair chairs with their cold unrumpled covers. For a moment the acres of cement under my feet seem to turn into wall-to-wall carpeting, and I have a sudden impulse to shout something wild and crazy—“God is Love!” or “Sauve qui peut!” But I content myself with the idea as Flatbush sprawls vast and arctic and baffling before me, holding only the etherized silence of a museum. Not a gurgle anywhere, not a cheep, not even the yap of a backyard dog. I fondle the reassuring bulk of the candy box under my arm, dreaming of myself as a good son, an accountant, a chiropodist, a professional certainly, one who phones his mother each day from the office, even before his wife. At that moment I hear a cry that sounds as though it rose from a throat clogged by blood and rage. I stand, dumbfounded, till I catch the one terrible word, the speaking of the unspeakable: “Ma!” A yowl, a lunatic roar and then, with rising fervor, “Ma, open the window, Ma!”
I move along, tense and poised as a tightrope walker. Every corner, every garage, every alleyway and clothesline is an announcement of old sins. Here I broke, here I tore, here I mocked, here I raged, here I stole. . . . I near the candy store where I’d once applied my criminal mind to loose cigarettes and comic books, fighting it out with old man Teller over the water-bag I’d hurled into his fountain. “Oh, you killed him,” his wife announced when the stroke came to finish him, “you ate him up alive, you and yours.” Yet business was business, and she went on selling me my cockemamies, my skate keys and pencil boxes, and when she had to, sent me out to pick up a few pennies calling people down to the phone.
A powerful longing for an egg-cream assails me; I assure myself that it will wash down the nauseous sense of homelessness. With the chilly, menacing air of a movie gunfighter I walk past the little group of shmoozers clumped around the magazine racks and plant my elbows on the fountain. I give my order to the runty owner, making foolish conversation as he works the syrup dispenser. “It’s a very strange thing,” I say, “but I notice that you just cannot get a decent egg-cream in Manhattan. Why is that? After all, chocolate is chocolate, milk is milk, and seltzer is seltzer.”
He puts the drink before me and whispers dramatically, “It’s all the syrup. What I use, I have to pay forty cents more on the gallon.”
I let out a cunning, portentous “Ah!” Then I drain the glass in two long swigs and finish up with a big fig newton. The mixture turns bitter in my mouth. I wonder if, somehow, I have not been taking in the body and blood of old man Teller.
He wipes his hands on a soiled apron. “A malted,” he moans. “They don’t know how to make it and they don’t want to know. You got to freeze the milk. Otherwise, tastes like pishachs.”
“Yes, oh yes, now I see.” I nod my head as though I’d just heard the seven proofs for the existence of God. “No wonder! You freeze the milk. Yes!”
I put down a quarter and he flicks the change at me. Swiveling around fiercely, he lets out a bellow at a young wise-guy who blocks the doorway and makes too free with the comic books. “Moron,” he yells, in rage and despair, “the whole store should burn with you in it!” He coughs and coughs, choking on a cold lump of grief.
“Kids,” I soothe, as I stalk to the door. “Kids.”
“Sure,” he says, wiping and wiping at the marble counter. “But he’s old enough to die.”
I quicken my steps for the last two dark blocks, palms perspiring, whistling tonelessly through clenched teeth, like a man getting ready for his bride. Even from the corner I can make out my mother’s face; it seems to have the eerie luminosity of one of Chagall’s angels. I keep to the shadow, but she spots me anyway, hanging out the window to make the neighborhood ring with her “Sonny!” The nitwit yell shakes me up, as it did in the old days, when it would sour my life on the streets, following me wherever I went to catch me in flagrante delicto—with a stolen deposit bottle in my hand or a snotty word on my lips. Methodically, I check myself for failings: Am I wearing a hat against the changing weather? Do I strain my eyes on too many movies? Paying fancy prices at the all-night delicatessens? Ignoring overdue notices from the library? And roughage? Does my system get enough roughage? All clear, and I enter the lobby, where the super has long since given up his mop-work against the track of dogs and baby buggies.
“Welcome, stranger,” my mother says. “I’m glad you still remember how to get here.”
She moves in for the kiss, lowering her head and placing both hands on my shoulders. I block her deftly with the candy box. She averts her eyes, as though it was a telegram announcing disaster.
“No?” I threaten, making a mock grab. “Then here and now it goes out and down, down, into the incinerator.”
“Take it home,” she pleads. “Do me a favor and take it home.” Her enlarged and plaintive eyes fix on the walls behind me, where my honor cards and graduation pictures hang. “He has a few cents and he must spend them. That’s him. Even when he was a child.”
“Don’t you worry.” I laugh a big booming Edward Arnold laugh, indicating I can afford this and much more.
“Sidney!” she summons. “Come! He’s here!”
And my father drifts in, bearing the magazine section from last Sunday’s Times. All his life he’s never been able to catch up with the papers. His face is overcast with bafflement and a vague horror; at any moment he seems to expect the raising of my hand against him. Ten weeks ago he got himself a coronary, and he keeps rubbing his left side and nodding at me, as if to say, “Now you’re a wise-guy, but wait, only wait a while.” He leans over, plucking at my sleeve. “That suit,” he snorts in derision. “Where did you pick up the bargain?”
My mother winks and bites her lip. “What’s the matter?” she asks, a little shrilly. “It’s a nice suit. Honest to God, I think it’s very, very nice on him.”
“Fine,” my father grunts. “You bought it. You like it. Wear it in good health.”
“In the best of health,” my mother murmurs, looking passionately into my eyes. “Now come. You’ll go inside, you’ll have a bite. I have pot cheese. I have sour cream. I can slice in some vegetables.”
So it’s been, as long as I remember. You can die before you’ll get a piece of meat in my mother’s house. Still, for all her Gandhi ways my mother keeps alive a marvelous image of herself as a hotsy-totsy cooker, a wonder-woman with stuffed derma and sweetbreads and Old Country soups.
I mumble something to the effect that I have eaten, that I put away a big meal uptown, a costly meal.
Bitterly, tenderly, she says, “You come visit your mother and you eat on the outside.”
“Ah, come on, Ma. Ma, come on.” I hang my head and scrape my feet like a movie adolescent.
“I shopped. I prepared. I made a special trip.”
“Don’t force it.” My father turns both palms up in his man-of-peace gesture. “You did your duty. You did the right thing.”
“You’ll take some home with you.”
“I’ll wrap a nice little bundle and you’ll enjoy it later.”
We move out of the foyer, my mother pulling ahead and steering a desperate course for the kitchen. “Wait, Ma, wait,” I tell her. “Why don’t we go and sit in the living room? Come, we’ll sit in the living room.”
“Hah!” my mother cries in terror and disbelief. She back-tracks fast to cut off the living room door. “It’s an icebox in there. I had to shut off the steam, it was turning all the drapes yellow. So help me God.”
“Oh no, you don’t!” I link arms, imprisoning her frail and fearful flesh and lead her tenderly into the living room’s cluttered bleakness. We have not sat together here since the druggist came to claim I’d laid hands on his crazy daughter.
I didn’t remember so many flowers. Lilies mostly, though here and there a few fat roses. Wherever I look there is the image of a flower. On the draperies, on the seat covers, on the lamp shades. Imbedded in plaster wreaths on the wall. Spilling all over my mother’s apron and housedress. I begin to get a headache and breathing comes harder, as though they’re draining oxygen from the air.
Then we get down to business. My father opens with a “What’s new?”
To which I make reply, “What should be new?”
This stumps them. They expect more from me, their prophet and augur, their Hamlet and Tamburlaine. From the end table my Bar Mitzvah picture smirks at me. Hey, hey, he calls, this back-talker, this crafty fatso, where’s that family chronicle you began at twelve? The ball of tin foil you were saving? And the instruction book in Judo? Gone now, with the old NRA Blue Eagle, with Dickie Moore, with hard-faced Frankie Darro and Garfield in his blackened T-shirt.
My father unfolds his magazine section; he has decided to readmit the present. My mother, in desperation, talks of aunts and uncles and cousins long forgotten. She permits nothing to rest in peace, she treads upon every grave in the family plot. This one owes her money, that one brought no gift to my father as he lay in his hospital bed. They have used her, they have sucked her and drained her, they have turned her heart into a huge festering sore. It’s almost beautiful to watch the way she boils and blazes, a regular Old Testament queen, fire-eyed and calling down curses. She plays the clown too, getting her satire across with deviling malice, fingers pulling and probing as though they were molding effigies. And I begin to see how much I’ve taken from her. I catch a gesture I used at a party, a gibe I delivered the week before, a whine that enters my voice in cafeteria debates. I feel like an anthology of old sorrows.
Spent, consumed, a clawed hand punishing her breast, my mother says, “Strangers. Sometimes they treat you better than your own.”
My father warms to the theme. “She’s telling me something new. Strangers. When I was in the hospital they couldn’t do enough for me. I’m not exaggerating. The nurse once saw that I couldn’t digest the milk they were giving out. She made a special trip to get me a little tea when the kitchen was closed. And they would all talk to me. Do you know that when I left, the social worker came over and shook my hand and gave me a kiss? She told me, ‘We’re all crazy about you, we love you, but we don’t want to see you again, you hear. That’s an order.’” He laughs, aroused and deeply pleased. “Which reminds me. Tomorrow, without fail I want to give Mostag a ring. He was the one in the next bed who let me use his electric shaver. That’s a prince, a real prince. To look at him, would you believe he’s worth close to a quarter of a million?”
“‘To look at him’? What do you mean ‘to look at him’?” my mother mimics. “When you would sleep I used to sit and talk to him for an hour at a time and he’d have a big, big steamer basket by the bed with fruits and nuts and candy and he wouldn’t once say, ‘Here, take a piece.’ Did you ever notice, the more they have—”
“Come on, get away!” Violently, my father shakes his paper. “I assure you, if you had helped yourself he would not have begrudged it to you. Men don’t think of those things, it’s not in their make-up.”
“You don’t let a person sit like a dummy. I didn’t need his piece of candy. Thank God, I can afford to go out and buy a box. But be a sport, at least make the gesture.”
“You know a lot! As far as I’m concerned and from the way he acted to me, why he’s as decent as they come. Money or no money, you’ll find goddamn few people who’ll run around when you can’t wait for the nurse and empty your you-know-what for you; goddamn few!”
My father’s eyes are shining, burning with all his energies, and a queer look comes over his face. It’s the look of a small boy shaking hands with a cop or a cowboy star, the look he’d get when he spoke of Debs and Norman Thomas, then F.D.R. and the manager of his local. In an instant he can shed his self, ecstatic with mediocrity. He becomes the one who sits in the back, always in the back of group photographs, the one who holds the umbrella over the principal speaker at a street rally or springs from the heart of a crowd to joggle the assassin’s gun. . . . Years ago he broke down and wept scalding tears at the dinner table. And when we begged and pleaded for the reason he ground his teeth and quivered and answered, “You didn’t see. You didn’t read. Westbrook Pegler. What he had the gall to say about the Roosevelt boys!”
My mother rises. She’s spotted the imprint of a finger on a window pane and she chases after it, relentless as Old Dutch cleanser. Then, swaying gently from her heels to her toes, she utters a great wrenching groan. “Tell me,” she says, “do you remember Mr. Wasserman?”
I indicate my uncertainty with a limp disparaging hand.
“Ah, you should certainly recall,” my mother says, a shallow sweetness invading her tones. “He lived near the Parkway, he used to be here day and night. The one who made your suit for the graduation. Everybody talked about it, they couldn’t get over his workmanship.”
“A mechanic,” my father announces. “A pair of golden hands.”
“Last week he called me. I couldn’t get off the phone. I had to pretend the bell rang, and excuse myself.”
Any moment now I know the shaft will come.
“So—” She draws and holds a long breath and her face pales and swells. “Two days ago. A hemorrhage. Go imagine.”
“Never, never,” my father cries, taking over. “In a million years, never. He wasn’t a man, he was a giant. In the old days, when everybody was stretched out from the heat he’d be working the presser. And then first, late, late at night, he’d run around to pick up, to deliver. Yes, yes, oh yes, he was going to be president of the Society, he had big plans, he was going to build and renovate.”
My father hunches forward. His words become thick and hazy, his fingers spread and whiten by their grip on his paper. He works and works to bring his awful feelings forth, but it’s no go. Then names come scuttling through his mind. One by one he reels them off, a whole Book of the Dead. Kornfeld and Baumgarten . . . Ellinger and Glick . . . Horwitz and Kaplan . . . Old Man Fine, who chased a daughter out of the house for wearing a sleeveless dress . . . Rosen, scarred long ago by gangster acid . . . they’ve gone out now, the men my father loved, each and every one of them, who had never been before and would never be again, like brilliant stars at the end of night. And what people they were, what snap, what class and quality they had! Who’s to keep the Society’s books now, send out post cards for unveilings, throw the first clods of earth, and trim the cluttering weeds from grave beds? Nah! Their children were no children, keeping nothing up, paying no dues, coming to meetings only to eat and make stupid jokes.
“You know,” my father says thoughtfully, “they’ll send a check for five hundred dollars when I die. Thank God, it won’t cost you a penny.”
“Poo-poo!” My mother spits with a dry mouth against evil eyes and menaces.
“You think he’ll bother to say Yizkor once in a while?”
“He’ll say, he’ll say,” my mother assures.
A cold wave of penance moves through the room. I feel suddenly like promising all kinds of things: long visits, phone calls to relations, a greater interest in the fortunes of the family, a donation to the Synagogue. My father leans back against the chair. How bad he looks, I realize, how narrow and gray his face, how thin his hair and flabby his jaws, how cruelly shaven his cheeks.
“It’s time, it’s time,” I announce, like a nervous innkeeper.
They rise with me, my father laying aside his paper finally, my mother commenting on the shortness of my stay, promising fantastic dishes, a veritable love-feast for my return. At the door my father describes a new way of returning to the city, and forces me to wait while he writes down the trains and stations, pointing out that I can save myself an extra fare.
“It’s the ‘D’ train,” he bellows, as I flee into the hall. “Make sure!”
“I’ll make sure,” I promise, waving and clutching the directions like a passport.
I’ve barely made the corner when I seem to hear my name called and the rush of heavy feet. What, I wonder, is it my old crazy horse again, clopping out of the past? Again, the calling of my name, and my mother catches up, proffering a soiled shopping bag.
“The pot cheese and cream. And a few cans of sardines. I made a nice package.”
“Ma, Ma,” I say. “For God’s sake, Ma.”
“What does it hurt? You’ll enjoy.”
“I’ll enjoy.” I give her a furry kiss and walk away, faster and faster, the shopping bag bulging against my side like an obscene growth.