Living Memory (2004)

May 15, 1944 the front page of the New York Times carried a brief dispatch from the war in Europe. It told the story of an American B-17, on a bombing run over Laon, France, that was struck by a bomb accidentally released by another American plane flying in formation above it. The bomb wedged in the tail of the Flying Fortress, killing the tail gunner, but didn’t explode. “Although the plane was almost unmanageable,” the dispatch read, “the crew stayed with the ship.” Terrified the bomb would detonate during what promised to be a bumpy landing, the four surviving crewmen tried in vain to dislodge it while the pilot, Lieutenant Burdette “Buddy” Williams, guided the wounded plane back to its base in England. The bomb was still in the tail when he touched down.
For their actions, the entire crew was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for Valor. Sixty years later, I’m sitting here, typing these words, staring at Buddy Williams’s medal. It wound up with me after my mother, Leona Goldblatt, who once was Leona Williams, died last December.
It was Buddy--not my father--who was the great love of my mom’s life.
She mentioned Buddy to me for the first time twenty years ago, five years after my father’s death. Details came in drips and drabs at first. The fact that she even had a first husband. The fact that he was a  hard-drinking, motorcycle riding daredevil pilot. The fact that she divorced him after the war because of his boozing. The fact that she remarried him several years later when he sobered up. The fact that she divorced him again when he fell off the wagon.
Then, over the last few years, she began to open up. She talked about the time Buddy buckled her into the front seat of an open cockpit crop duster, handed her a pair of oversized aviator goggles, and took her on a series of barrel rolls--as she screamed herself hoarse with only the seatbelt holding her in the plane. She talked about the time, during the war, when she and another pilot’s wife drove from Ohio to Florida to follow their husbands . . . managing the entire distance, despite fuel rationing, by flirting with gas station attendants. “Just flirting,” she added.
So I knew some of the stories. But I had no tangible evidence of her life with Buddy until I flew down to Florida at the end of November, after Mom entered a hospice. She was 80, dying from acute emphysema and from a ventral hernia which had swollen her abdomen out like a cantaloupe and necessitated, in the last year of her life, her wearing maternity pants. By the time I got to her bedside, she was doped up and sleeping sixteen hours at a stretch. Whenever she came to, she’d ask my sister Gail or one of my nieces for a sip of water, or a taste of cherry Jello--which she’d acknowledge afterwards with an exaggerated “Ahhhh.” The skin of her arms, from her elbows to her fingertips, had turned purplish black, and she’d sometimes stare at her hands, as if trying to decide if they were really hers; other times, she had just enough strength to clasp our hands if we slid them underneath her palms.
Gail and I alternated vigils, so she never woke up alone. That turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The Wednesday night after I arrived, as Gail was dozing off in a folding chair, Mom suddenly sprang up from her bed, pulled off her oxygen mask, unhooked her catheter, and began putting on her street clothes. She tapped Gail on the shoulder to tell her she was leaving. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she explained. Gail squinted up at her and thought she was dreaming; Mom hadn’t had enough strength to sit upright for a week, but now she was pacing back and forth across the hospice room, searching for her purse. When the reality of what she was watching sank in, Gail jumped up and hugged her for several minutes, until the fit passed, then laid her back down on the bed. Then she curled up beside her until Mom fell back asleep--after which Gail wept until morning.
My worst moment came Friday afternoon, a couple of days later. The head nurse, a tall thin black woman with the weariest, wisest eyes I’d ever seen, mentioned that dying patients were often listening even when they seemed fast asleep; she suggested talking to Mom about heaven, about re-uniting with her loved ones. It sounded like a good idea, or at least a nothing-to-lose idea; at minimum, it would break the monotony of watching her sleep. So I told her a story she loved to tell me, her earliest memory; I tried to tell it to her the way she did, with the details she used to dwell on: Do you remember that drive through the Ozarks, back in the summer of ’28? How your daddy pulled over by the roadside watermelon stand, how you and Sophie and Tillie and Bertha and Herman and Pete waited in the back of the Willis Knight while he bought that great big watermelon? Do you remember the jump seat you were sitting on, how you loved to feel the bumps in the road? Then came the moment your momma said it was all right to get out, and the six of you poured out of that back door and onto the grassy bank next to the stream. Do you remember that? How cool the grass was after the heat of the ride? How your momma handed out the turkey sandwiches she’d made back home in Shreveport? Do you remember the watermelon, the way your daddy tied a rope around it and sank it into the stream to chill, the way he carved it up after lunch with that long knife of his? You always said that was the best you ever ate . . .
As I finished the story, my mom began to smile. Her eyes were sliding back and forth beneath her eyelids. She was back there, beside that stream, eating that watermelon. So I counted the experiment a success and began to regale her with more stories from her childhood, back when she was Little Lonie Meyer, the tiny terror of Louisiana Avenue. Falling out of a tree house in her backyard, slinging stones at bumblebees and then dashing for cover, setting fire, accidentally, to the family garage. (She swore that she wasn't smoking!) Every story I could recall, every detail of every story, I told her. How, when she was six years old, playing Cowboys and Indians, waving a wooden arrow, patting her open mouth and yelling woo, woo, woo, she tripped and fell--and wound up with the arrow broken off in her throat. How, when she was eight, playing Cops and Robbers, she tried to arrest an older male cousin; how, when he wouldn't go quietly to their make-believe jail, she ran back into the house, grabbed her b.b. gun, marched back outside, and shot him in the leg.
Towards the end, however, the expression on her face changed. I didn’t notice it at first; I was too involved in the storytelling. But then she let out a low moan that ran through me like an electric current. She was rolling her head side to side on pillow, clutching at the bed sheet with her blackened fingers. Then, suddenly, she cried out, “Momma!”
“What the matter, Mom?”
“Oh no oh no oh no . . .”
I jumped up from the chair. “Is something wrong? Are you in pain?”
“Help me!” she cried. “Please, Momma, help me!” She was thrashing back and forth now. I held her by the shoulders. I could feel her weakened muscles working against my grip.
“You’re in Florida, Mom,” I said, with as much force as I could manage without raising my voice. “It’s Mark. I’m right here. You’re okay.”
“Please, Momma!” she screamed, with tears rolling down her face. “Please help me, Momma!”
I ran out of the room and sprinted towards the nurses’ station at the end of the corridor. Three nurses, including the head nurse, were chatting behind the desk as I drew near. I yelled at them, “She’s in pain!”
“Your mother?” the head nurse asked.
“Help me,” I gasped. “She’s suffering.”
The head nurse rushed out from behind the desk and followed me back to the room. By the time we got there, Mom was curled up in a fetal position, sobbing. The nurse checked her vital signs, then held the back of her hand to her brow.
“It’s all right,” she said. “She’s just hallucinating.”
“She was crying out for her mother.”
“That happens sometimes. It’s the Demerol.”
“You told me to talk to her about her family.”
“It’s not as bad as you think,” she said. “It’s worse on you than on her.”
With that, she left the room. I sat down again beside the bed and, for the next hour, listened to my mother cry out for her mother. It was the longest hour I’ve ever lived. The terror in her voice, the reservoir of mortal dread I’d accidentally opened within her, the guilt of that hour I’ll carry with me to my grave.
My guts were still churning at sunset when Gail showed up for the night shift with unsettling news; she couldn’t find a record of the funeral arrangements for which Mom had prepaid two decades earlier. It was a point of pride with my mom; she’d shelled out thousands of dollars in the rush and confusion after my father died. “You and Gail won’t have to pay a penny when I go,” she would say, apropos of nothing, at least once per visit.
“What about the funeral home?” I asked Gail. “They must have records.”
But she had called them. They had no records. Neither did the cemetery itself--even though my mom and I had stepped over her pre-engraved headstone whenever we visited my dad’s grave. Hers was right next to his, which read Morris Goldblatt 1911-1979. Hers read Leona Goldblatt 1923- The last date, I now knew, would be 2003. But I needed to turn up that funeral contract among her papers--or else we’d be back at square one when she died.
The job was nightmarish. My mother was a pack rat; I found grocery coupons from the 1980s, a warranty for black and white television purchased at Masters Department Store in Flushing, Queens in 1971, and every report card my sister and I ever brought home . . . and that was just in the top left drawer of her dresser. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Slips of note paper with phone numbers but no name were mixed with un-cancelled postage stamps that she’d cut from the envelopes on which they’d been glued and embossed invitations to weddings in which both the bride and groom were long deceased. I found a half dozen loose buttons, three yellow thimbles and a bent belt buckle.
I was at it for three hours when I came across a scrap book I’d never seen before. It was from her life with Buddy. Anxious for a distraction, I began to page through it. Among the matchbooks, crushed flowers and old photos, I found the yellowed Times front page and the war medal. Proof of a life more adventurous, dramatic, more (no use denying it) romantic than my own.
I sat on the floor of her condominium with that scrap book on my lap for half the night. I’d had enough of my mother dying. I wanted to think about her living, about her young and pretty and in love with a drunken flyboy. If that meant I had to pay again for her pre-paid funeral, so be it. I was done looking for that contract. I phoned Gail at the hospice and told her.
The next morning, however, as I was about to leave for the day shift, my niece Melissa drove up in her red pickup truck and pulled into the guest parking space in front of the condominium. She had her younger sister Jessica with her. Gail had dispatched them to take up the search for the missing contract. Looking at the two of them, twenty-one and seventeen years old, as they hopped out of that red truck, flush with life, flush with expectations, certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that between the two of them they’d find that damn contract, I realized I was looking at my mom’s spirit, her undying legacy, her donation to the planet.
When I showed up for my turn at the hospice, Gail was waiting for me outside the door to my mom’s room. She was smiling at me in an indecipherable way. I smiled back at her and said, “What is it?”
She didn’t answer but slid open the door. Mom was sitting up in bed, talking to the head nurse as she switched bags on the IV drip connected to her arm. She glanced up as I walked into the room and said, in a lucid but slurred southern drawl, “You’re looking thin, boy.”
I laughed. “So are you.”
“Ain’t that the truth!”
As awful as Friday had been, Saturday afternoon turned out to be one of the great graces of my life. My mom’s favorite sport was football. She lived for it, devoted her weekends to it each fall and winter, and thought she knew more about it than anyone else. That Saturday, Mom and I watched one last college game together. I don’t recall which teams were playing--she kept insisting that one of them was her beloved LSU Tigers, though it wasn’t. She even made an attempt, after one team scored, to lift both her arms and signal a touchdown. During halftime, Melissa and Jessica showed up at the hospice. Melissa was waving a manila envelope at me as she walked into the room--the funeral contract. They gave their grandmother long hugs, and then the three of us sat around her bed and watched the rest of the game.
After it ended, my mom clapped her hands with great satisfaction and said, “So I guess LSU’s got a team this year.”
“I guess so, Mom.”
For the record: LSU won the national championship that year.
There’s an expression in football which goes: You don’t want to leave anything on the field. What it means is that, whether you win or lose, you don’t want to come off the playing field after the game ends wondering if there was something else you could’ve done. You don’t want to be sitting in the locker room afterwards thinking, I should’ve tried this or If only I’d have thought of that . . .
Well, my mom didn’t leave anything on the field.
It’s what I said in her eulogy the following week.

Talking Grammar . . . in the Wall Street Journal

Ever wonder why grammar matters? You may find my column for the Wall Street Journal worth a glance:

Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students

My Interview with The Write Stuff

Here's a link to my talk with Rosi Hollinbeck at The Write Stuff blog:

Interview with Rosi Hollinbeck

The opening of TWERP . . . on audio.

Here are the openings of Twerp and Finding the Worm, as recorded by Everette Plen for Random House audio.

New York's Walking Dead

Click below for my latest column for the Daily Caller . . . on New York City's Stop-and-Frisk policy:

New York's Walking Dead

The opening of the still-untitled sequel to TWERP

Grown-ups get antsy when you ask them about heaven. You know, like whether they actually believe in it. Their eyes get narrow, and their voices get high, and they talk around the question. They say stuff like, “Why in the world would you ask such a thing?” Then, when the answer does come, it’s never much of a comfort. “Well of course I believe in heaven.” Except by then you know there’s nothing of course about it. They might believe in heaven, or they might not believe in heaven, but they’ve got their doubts for sure.

It’s that way with my mom and dad. They say they believe in heaven. But there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, and nervous glances back and forth, on the way to that of course. Even my sister Amelia, who’s starting college in the fall, and who levels with me about most things, wouldn’t come right come right out and say she didn’t believe in heaven—even though I’m about 99 percent sure she doesn’t.

Lonnie, on the other hand, got right to the point: “How the hell should I know if there’s a heaven? Use your brain, Julian! The only way I’d know would be if I was dead, which I’m not.” He balled up his fist and punched me in the arm. Not hard, just enough to get my attention. “You see? If I were dead, you wouldn’t have felt that. But you did. So I don’t know the answer.”


The creepy-ass cracker got me. I still can’t believe it. I was all over his bitch ass, grounding and pounding. I mean, I was throwing bricks. You know what I’m saying? I was bouncing his head off the sidewalk like it’s a basketball and I’m D-Wade. And meanwhile he’s squealing like that Arnold the pig on TV Land. I been in lots of fights before, MMA style, but also just, you know, fights, but yet I ain’t never give a beat down like this one. I was even going to take the dude’s wallet—not because I was planning to, but just, you know, for the hell of it. I was reaching for the thing when I heard this loud noise . . .

So, yeah, he got me. Then, of course, he got away with it—because that’s the United States of Amerikkka. You know what I’m saying? Ain’t no justice for a nigga. What I mean is, I wasn’t doing nothing wrong. I was just cutting through backyards on my way home. No law against that. I had my whole evening planned out. I got my Skittles, and I got my Fruit Punch, and I got a hook up for some codeine. That’s all you need for some fire ass Lean. But even if my codeine connect don’t come through, there’s always my stepmom’s Robitussin, which is lower DXM, but it’s almost as good. Then, afterwards, just chill. You know how it is.

Did you catch my girl Dee Dee at the trial? Ain’t she a trip? The way she called that fancy-suit lawyer a retard. She don’t take nothing from nobody. She’s not my girlfriend or nothing, even though she thinks she is. I don’t have one girlfriend. I get with who I get with. Fuck a bitch. Any bitch. You know what I'm saying? So much loose ass pussy, so little time! Want to know my secret? Jewelry. Females love that shit. Earrings. Bracelets. Necklaces. Real stuff too, not fake. Got over a dozen pieces in my backpack. The security guard at school found it, and I got suspended, but nobody couldn’t prove nothing. So instead they roped me for tagging. I ain’t lying! Roped me for writing “WTF.” It’s like with Capone, how they roped him for taxes. Roped me for tagging a damn school locker. I mean, WTF?

But yet that’s Amerikkka for you. I thought Barack was going to change things, bring a little flava to the so-called White House, but you know what? It don’t make no difference. It’s just more trip. You know what I’m saying? I mean, I got nothing against the nigga. But let’s be real. What he ever do for me? He ever connect me with some codeine? He could legalize that shit tomorrow, without a prescription, but it’s like the last thing on his mind. No, he’s all about damn Obamacare and who’s killing who in the Middle East. It’s like he forgot where he came from. He forgot what it was like to be just, you know, a nigga. I mean, how much trouble could it be to hook me up with some codeine?

So I’m on the horn with Dee Dee, and I’m telling her I got this creepy-ass cracker eyeballing me, and she’s like why don’t you just run because, you know, he might be a rapist, and that’s what did it for me. I mean, I would’ve let the situation be, would’ve got my ass out of there, but I ain’t gonna let no faggot chase me home. I mean, whether he was a faggot faggot, or just a creepy-ass cracker, why he didn’t mind his own business? That’s my question to you!

So, yeah, I turned back. I got up in his face, and I asked him what his problem was, and he’s got this scared punk look, and then he said he don’t got no problem, and then I said “You got a problem now,” and then I’m like BOOM. You know what I’m saying? I could hear the dude’s nose crack! He goes stumbling backwards, covering up his face, but I’m all over his bitch ass. He goes down a couple of steps later, and that’s when I go to work. He’s screaming for help and squirming underneath me, and I’m covering his mouth and telling him to shut the fuck up. Yeah, I told him he was going to die tonight. But here’s the thing. I didn’t mean it. That ain’t me. But yet I ain’t going to lie to you. I was going to mess him up so he think twice before he bother another nigga.

You want to know the strange thing? I didn’t even know what happened. I just heard the noise and felt a thud in my chest, and I felt myself going backwards and then falling sideways. I tried to crawl, but after a couple of seconds I couldn’t make my arms and legs work, so I kind of rolled onto my stomach. But yet I was still thinking I was okay because nothing hurt. I just wanted to rest. You know? I never realized, until right then, how soft the grass was. It felt like my bed—you know, back in my stepmom’s house. I could hear the rain beating into my ear, and I could feel it drumming against the side of my face, and I was kind of warm and cold at the same time. You know what I’m saying? I was lying on the grass, and then, even though I couldn’t move, I was lying in the grass. It’s hard to explain. It was like suddenly the grass was looking out for me, like how my mom and dad used to look out for me, making sure no one could hurt me no more. I know that don’t make no sense. But yet that’s how I felt.

I ain’t sure what happened after that, or how I got here. I’m still getting used to this place. It ain’t like how I pictured it. I guess I’m still pissed off about that night. But also, you know, not. What I mean is, I keep thinking about that how soft that grass felt against my face, and how soft that rain sounded in my ear, and what a good thing it was to be alive, even for just seventeen years.

 I wish to God I had seventeen more.

The Twerp-man Cometh

Click here for my interview with the Random House blog, on the subject of TWERP.

Note: the official publication date for TWERP is May 28--this coming Tuesday--but the novel has already been reviewed over 75 times on Goodreads. (Not that I've been following it closely.)

Manhood, Part One

Faking it, with my sister Gail, at my Bar Mitzvah, May 1970

During the second week of May in 1970, two weeks before my bar mitzvah, I wet my pants. It happened during seventh grade social studies class. I had been rocking back and forth at my desk, dreading a quiz on India and Pakistan that I hadn’t studied for, when I suddenly realized I was soggy.
The first thing I did was…nothing. I sat motionless as the warm soak issued out from my groin. I could feel it running in rivulets in my underwear. After the initial sensation wore off, sheer disbelief set in. I hadn’t wet myself since—well, I’d never wet myself. Or at least I hadn’t wet myself since I was in diapers and thus dressed for the occasion.
How could it have happened? I was a seventh grader, for Christ’s sake! a bar mitzvah boy within the month! and I’d just wet myself? None of my peers had peed their pants since the dawn of grammar school, or at least not to my knowledge, and until that moment I’d figured that that particular form of classroom theater had been laid to rest. The last classmate I could recall shooting the rapids was Georgia, a third grader on whom I had a minor crush, who burst into tears and bolted from the classroom—the backside of her bright pink dress telling the sordid tale as she fled.
Even then, I remember thinking: How does that happen?
I mean, it wasn’t as if the procedure for requesting a bathroom break was difficult to master. You raised your hand. The teacher called on you. You said, “May I go to the bathroom?” You did not say, “Can I go to the bathroom?” The distinction was crucial, according to my mom. The question “Can I go to the bathroom?” meant Does my thingamajig work? Whereas the question “May I go to the bathroom?” meant Am I permitted to leave the room and do what I need to do?
The difference between may and can, my mom said, might not seem like a big deal right now, but it was the difference between good manner and no manners. She told me to mark her words.
So I marked her words.
In any event, getting to the bathroom in time to do your business wasn’t exactly like working a slide rule. You raised your hand. The teacher called on you. Even if you slipped and said “can” instead of “may,” the teacher still nodded and let you go. Unless the need arose instantaneously—which seemed, in my experience, highly unlikely—how could you screw it up?
Yet here I was, two weeks from stepping up to the podium at Temple Gates of Prayer, two weeks from leading the congregation through a reading of the haftorah, here I was, in seventh grade social studies, suddenly awash in my Fruit of the Looms.
Still, I didn’t panic.
Taking stock of the predicament, I quickly realized that I’d caught a couple of breaks. The first was the fifteen minute quiz that the teacher, Mr. Roth, was handing out at that very moment—the quiz I had no chance to pass. Things dry out in fifteen minutes, I told myself. If I sat still, with my legs slightly parted, and let nature go to work, I might be able to stand up at the end and walk my quiz sheet to the front of the room without urine trickling down the legs of my pants.
The second break I caught was the pants themselves. The material was light cotton, which was bad, but the color was olive green—which would conceal, to a certain extent, the ground zero stain that was no doubt gathering into a Rorschach pattern below my belt buckle. (I didn’t dare slide back my seat to look.) If I could just get to the front desk, turn in my quiz, then get back to my seat without incident, I’d have another hour to recess until I had to rise from my desk again.
I might pull this off, I thought.
Mr. Roth dropped the mimeographed quiz on the desk in front of me and did not break stride. The smell of flop sweat was strong on him; it was a very grown up smell, tinged with cigarette smoke. I did not touch the quiz, however, until he was back in front of the room. He sat on the edge of his metal desk, looked down his horn-rimmed glasses at the class, and said, “You may begin.”
The sound of papers flipping over filled the air, and I exhaled. My situation, for the time being, was the last thing anyone would notice. I made a cursory show of skimming down the quiz. There was no chance I was going to pass; I hadn’t read the assigned textbook chapter because the weather had warmed up the week before, and I’d played softball and roundup tag to exhaustion each night since. One quiz question caught my eye, however: “How is the population estimated in the rural towns and villages in India?”
I picked up my pencil and wrote in the provided space: “One little, two little, three little Indians.”
As the minutes rolled past, I was feeling more and more hopeful about my prospects. I was still damp but by no means drenched. I took a casual glance around the room. None of the other students was paying the slightest attention to what I was doing. They were intent on the quiz. Now, I thought, would be a good time to slide back my chair, ever so slightly, and survey the damage.
I’d moved less than an inch when I heard Mr. Roth’s voice. “Mr. Goldblatt?”
“Yes?” I muttered.
Suddenly, I could feel every eye in the classroom trained on me.
“Are you cheating, Mr. Goldblatt?”
I shook my head vehemently. “No.”
“Then why are you looking down?”
He hopped off his desk and hustled up the aisle in my direction. The flop sweat and cigarette smell engulfed me; I looked up at him in desperation and confusion. “Stand up, Mr. Goldblatt.”
“I wasn’t cheating, Mr. Roth.”
“Stand up!”
“But I wasn’t—”
“I’m asking you for the last time.”
Braced for a wave of laughter, and the end of life as I knew it, I shut my eyes, slid back my chair and stood up.
There was no reaction. Not a sound.
I heard Mr. Roth say, “I saw you cheating, Mr. Goldblatt.”
I opened my eyes. “I swear I wasn’t cheating, Mr. Roth.”
“Empty your pockets.”
“You heard me, Mr. Goldblatt.”
I reached into the right front pocket of my pants, anticipating its contents would be thoroughly marinated, or at least noticeably moist, but miraculously came out with a bone dry handkerchief and three nickels. I set the handkerchief and nickels down on the desk, then looked back up at Mr. Roth.
“Now the other pockets…”
“There’s nothing in the other pockets, Mr. Roth.”
“Humor me.”
I pulled my left front pocket inside out, then both back pockets. There was not a trace of the earlier flood. I smiled up at him. “I told you.”
He grabbed me by the waist and spun me around, then patted me down, front and back. He opened up the top of the desk and rifled through the storage compartment. Then he got down on his knees and checked the floor.
He found nothing.
“All right, Mr. Goldblatt. Sit down…but know that I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Yes, Mr. Roth.”
“I’m watching you like a hawk.”
“Yes, Mr. Roth.”
“The rest of you,” he called, “get back to your quizzes!”
With that, the class went back to work, and I exhaled.
How could it have happened? I knew I’d wet my pants. There was no doubt in my mind. It hadn’t been a hallucination. I’d felt it, not thought that I’d felt it. But how could it have dried so fast? The universe worked according to certain laws; I’d learned that in general science class. My pants were wet, then were not wet. Maybe there was a God, I thought. Maybe He’d looked down on me and cut me slack because of the whole bar mitzvah thing.
I filled in several more answers on the quiz…took wild guesses at names and dates and places; if God had solved one problem for me, maybe he’d solve the rest. Maybe I had a get-out-of-jail-free card good through my bar mitzvah. As the fifteen minute time limit came to a close, I folded the quiz sheet in half and walked it up to the front desk. Mr. Roth narrowed his eyes at me as he took it from my hand, but he said nothing more.
When recess arrived an hour later, I made a bee line for the boy’s bathroom, locked myself in a stall and surveyed the accident scene. There was no urine; there was a slight dampness at the front of my underwear, centered at the flap, but the warm rivulets I’d felt against my skin were gone. Could the cotton be that absorbent? I pulled up my pants and left the stall without a rational explanation. For the rest of the afternoon, I put the incident from my mind.
As I rode the bus home from school later that afternoon, however, it began to nag at me again. What had happened? I skipped the Fig Newtons and Kool-Aid my mom had laid out on the kitchen table and motored straight to the bathroom. There, under the strong overhead light, I discovered a curious phenomenon I’d missed in the stall at school. There were dried flecks of what appeared to be Elmer’s Glue on the inside flap of my underwear; on closer examination, there were flecks on my skin as well. How could glue have gotten in my underwear? I did have a plastic tube in the storage compartment of my desk, but I hadn’t used it for weeks.
The entire incident, from start to finish, seemed inexplicable. I told no one, of course; I wasn’t about to announce that I’d wet my pants. I couldn’t dwell on it in any event. I had Hebrew passages to memorize.
My poor performance on the India and Pakistan quiz—I scored a sixty-one—had the paradoxical effect of convincing Mr. Roth that I hadn’t cheated…and that he’d shamed me in front of the class without cause. It turned out he had also asked a couple of notorious squealers whether they’d noticed me with a crib sheet, and one of them had speculated that I might have been studying for my bar mitzvah rather than cheating on the quiz. Whatever the case, Mr. Roth pulled me aside the following morning and apologized; he told me that he’d laughed at the “one little, two little, three little Indians” joke, and wished me good luck at Temple.
As I was about to turn and walk away, he clasped my shoulder and added, “It’s your big moment. Don’t screw it up.”
Until he spoke those words, the thought that I could screw up my haftorah reading had never crossed my mind. Sure, I’d be nervous; sure, I might get the intonations wrong. But screw it up outright? Freeze at the podium? It wasn’t an outcome I’d ever considered. The more I thought about it, though, the more real the possibility became. I had been working with the original Hebrew texts, but between the lines I’d scribbled full English transliterations—so that even if I blanked on the right-to-left characters, I could fall back on the left-to-right nonsense syllables in my own handwriting. That was my safety net. But by the time I got home, Mr. Roth’s words were ringing inside my head. The four pages of my haftorah suddenly looked like a blur of scratches and doodles, like something you’d find on an abandoned Etch A Sketch. How could a human being stand up in front of his relatives and friends and make sense of that?
Starting at that moment, and for the next two weeks, I was a nervous wreck. I tried to memorize the entire four pages, to rehearse the sounds in my head again and again so that I no longer had to look at the Hebrew or the transliteration—but the more I tried to memorize, the less I seemed to remember. I woke up three days before the event and could not begin.
Literally, I could not recall the first word.
What I could recall, in more and more vivid detail, were bar mitzvah calamities I’d witnessed. Bad things happened at that podium. The year before, for instance, Donald, a kid who lived three blocks away, had walked up to podium, stared down at the crowded pews, opened his mouth—and nothing came out. Dead silence. For a full minute, an eon of a minute, there was dead silence…punctuated, after fifteen seconds, by nervous coughs and whispers from the congregation, until at long last the rabbi stepped forward, put his arm around Donald’s shoulders, and led him through his entire haftorah, three halting Hebrew words at a time.
Then there was Asher, a brainiac I’d known since second grade, who ascended the stage with noticeable confidence and began, at once, to sweat. Beads of sweat formed across his forehead and glistened in the hot lights of the temple stage. They trickled into his eyes one by one, blinding him to the text, until the rabbi stepped forward with a handful of Kleenex. Asher finished his haftorah with his curly brown hair matted to his scalp, his starched pink collar soaked through, mopping his brow like Louis Armstrong after a long trumpet solo.
Then, of course, there were the urban legends, twice told tales of friends of friends who took to the podium and fainted. Or wept. Or vomited.
Or wet their pants.
So it came to pass that on the twenty-second day of the ninth month of the year 5730—that’s May 28, 1970, if you’re playing along at home—a mere forty-eight hours before I was set to become a man, with random sacred words swirling around in my brain, and with images of imminent humiliation roiling my bowels, I awakened just after sunrise…having wet my bed.
I lurched upright to a sitting position and muttered, “Oh no!”
But I could feel the truth gathering inside my pajamas, pooling in my lap, running down my right thigh, and puddling underneath me. I’d wet my bed, through my pajamas, and I had no doubt, none whatsoever, that I was going to wet myself again at the podium as I recited my haftorah.
I was doomed.
When I pulled back the covers and pulled down my pajama pants, however, I found not urine but a milky white liquid coagulating on and around me. Terrifyingly, it was still dribbling from the aperture of my penis.
Now, at once, the bar mitzvah was the least of my worries: I wasn’t doomed…I was dying.
Two courses of action suggested themselves. 1) Wake up my parents and tell them what had happened; 2) Wait a couple of hours and tell my best friend Lonnie. After several moments of deliberation, I chose Lonnie because I wanted him to say nice things about me at my funeral, and I knew he’d feel slighted if I turned first to my parents—who had to say nice things about me regardless.
Lonnie was always the last kid to line up for the school bus, rolling out of his house a half minute before the bus itself rolled up Parsons Boulevard. That was part of his mystique. He was a year older than I was and the coolest kid I knew, the coolest kid anyone I knew knew, and every night, when I hit my knees and laid me down to sleep, I thanked God that Lonnie and I had become friends long before either of us had a clear grasp of the concept of cool. Had we met afterwards, he wouldn’t have given me the time of day.
Lonnie was still yawning as I dragged him by the sleeve to the back of the bus, to the very last pair of seats, and pinky-swore him to secrecy. Then I told him that I was dying, and he looked at me with extreme skepticism, so I told him the entire sordid history, starting with me wetting my pants in social studies class and ending with me wetting my bed that morning.
As I came to the end, he began to laugh.
“It’s not funny!” I whispered.
“You don’t even know how funny it is.”
“It’s funny that I’m dying?”
“You’re not dying. You’re not even sick.”
“How do you know?”
“You jerked off. That’s all that happened.”
“I did not!”
“You did too. You jerked off.”
“No way!”
“Then you tell me. What else could it be?”
“Not that,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically for a split second. Then a sudden recognition came to face. “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Yes, I do—”
“You don’t know what jerking off means.”
“I know what it means!”
“All right, what does it mean?”
I tried to hold a look of indignation. But it was no use. He had me dead to rights. I’d heard the phrase hundreds of times; I’d heard it used as a verb and as a noun. Hell, I’d even used it myself. But until that moment, I thought it had to do with wasting time. As in: That guy’s just sitting at home, jerking off…what a jerk off!
Clearly, there was another definition.
I lowered my eyes. “Okay, I don’t know what it means.”
“I knew it!”
I shushed him. “C’mon, just tell me.”
His voice dropped. “Look, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed—”
“I don’t get why you didn’t just ask me in the first place.”
“What difference does it make?” I said. “I’m asking now.”
He leaned back. “Well, it means…you know, jerking off.
“It means getting a boner and jerking off.”
“Do you know what a boner is?”
I nodded—which was the truth.
“When you get a boner, you jerk off. Not all the time, but sometimes. It’s normal.”
“So you think that’s what happened?”
“No, I’m sure that’s what happened.”
“How do I keep it from happening again?”
“Why would you want to do that?” he said. “Didn’t it feel good?”
“Don’t you want to do it?”
“Sure, I do,” I said, ashamed to admit he’d lost me again.
“Then, there you go.”
“What does one thing have to do with the other?”
Lonnie sighed. “You still don’t know what we’re talking about.”
“I do so!”
He shook his head. “Look, are we friends or not?”
“Sure we are.”
“Then why are you lying to me?”
That got to me. “I don’t…it’s just that—”
“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t know what we’re talking about.”
The school bus slowed to a stop at a traffic light. Between that traffic light and the next one, a space of perhaps three minutes, Lonnie explained the facts of life. There were no metaphors. No talk of love or connectedness or commitment. Neither a bird nor a bee made a cameo appearance in his disquisition. He used blunt language and occasional hand gestures.
He told me what went where.
By the end of his talk, I had forgotten that I was dying. I had forgotten that I had a haftorah to learn and recite, that my relatives and friends were going to gather in the Temple on Saturday, the day after tomorrow, to witness my bar mitzvah. The totality of what I felt, the totality of thoughts and emotions, the totality of my consciousness at that moment, was revulsion.
I stared down between my legs. “I’m not doing that. Not ever.”
“Sure, you will,” Lonnie said, “Everybody does it. It’s natural.”
“No way…no way.”
“Your parents did it. Your mom and dad.”
“Oh, come on!”
“How do you think you got here?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“Your parents did it. Their parents did it. Their parents’ parents did it. Their parents’ parents’ parents’ did it, going all the way back to Adam and Eve. That’s how the world works.”
I lifted my eyes up to meet his. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.”
“Who told you?”
“My dad told me some. The rest I figured out for myself.”
“You’re okay with it?”
“Not at first,” he said. “I was like you. I thought about my mom and dad doing it, and I thought no way. That’s what everybody thinks at first. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Just think about how things fit together. It’s like when you’re doing a puzzle. You know when it’s right because the pieces just fit…” Each sentence he spoke felt like a punch to the gut. The sounds of the words themselves were nauseous. I wanted him to stop, but I didn’t know how to ask. My head sank lower and lower until at last he interrupted himself and said, “You look like you’re going to puke.”
I glanced up. “I’ve just got a bad taste in my mouth.”
“You’re not going to puke, are you?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I said.
“It’s tough the first time you hear it. But then it’s not so bad. Trust me.”
I wanted to trust him. I did trust him. That’s what was making it worse.
Lonnie and I parted company as soon as the bus pulled up in front of the school. He was a grade ahead of me and had a different set of friends at school. He trotted off to meet them at the entrance of the schoolyard, and I went straight to my homeroom. I sat down at my desk and began scanning the room from side to side, wondering which of my classmates, shuffling through their papers, getting their assignments in order, knew the ugly truth. It couldn’t be that many, I decided. Maybe Arnie and Sherm…they were tall. Maybe Hector too because he spoke Spanish. Asher was another possibility, even though he’d sweated through his bar mitzvah suit, because he was a brainiac. But none of the girls knew. I was certain of that.
I mean: If the girls knew, how could they bear to sit next to the boys?
I tried to tough it out once class began but lasted only until lunch. That was when I told Mr. Roth that I felt sick to my stomach—which was true. I knew, of course, that he’d write it off to pre-Bar Mitzvah jitters. He clasped me by the shoulder and winked at me. He smelled, as always, of flop sweat and cigarette smoke. Right then, all I could think about was Mr. Roth doing it.
My mom drove to school and picked me up at the nurse’s office. Riding home, I thought about her doing it with my dad. Then, for one horrible moment, I thought about her doing it with Mr. Roth.
“Are you worried about Saturday morning, honey?”
I stared out the passenger side window. “I guess.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. You’ll do fine.”
“I guess.”
“Whatever happens, you know that I’m very proud of you. Your father is too.”
I thought: They probably talk about how proud they are while they’re doing it.
I holed up in my room once I got home, alternating between taking short naps and watching the Three Stooges and Gilligan’s Island on a portable black and white Zenith television. My mom knocked on the door after sunset and handed me a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of grape juice. That was the only human contact I had. I don’t remember whether I dreamed that night, but I woke up Friday morning and decided to skip school. I called the decision out to my mom through the closed door.
I gave her no reason; she didn’t ask for one.
That entire Friday I spent in front of the Zenith, with the sound turned down to an inaudible level, not so much watching it as wallowing in its rays. At one point, I brought over my haftorah from the desk, set in on my lap and tried to concentrate on it, but my mind kept wandering back to Ricochet Rabbit and his partner Droop-a-long. Doing it. If I screwed up my bar mitzvah, I thought, so what?
The last thought I had before falling asleep on Friday night, the last words I spoke, in lieu of my prayers, were: “So what?”
Of course, I didn’t screw up my Bar Mitzvah the following morning. I stepped up to the stage at the Temple in my blue suit and tie, looked out at the congregation from behind the podium, and didn’t miss a single word, a single syllable, a single accent. I didn’t glance once at my haftorah, neither the original text nor the transliteration. I had the thing memorized. The Hebrew sounds flowed out of me as though I knew what they meant, as though I were thinking holy thoughts and giving them voice rather than staring down at my parents in the front row, noticing them holding hands and imagining them doing it.

Afterwards, the rabbi stepped forward and shook my hand. He spoke to me in front of the congregation for several minutes; the only words I can recall were, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” 
Bar Mitzvah season in the 'hood, circa 1970. That's me, lower right.