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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

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BOOK: Just One Catch
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What struck him most, out by the buoy, was the roaring quiet, the way it swamped Coney's clamor. Everything that loomed so large on the beach—the roller coasters, carousels, and Ferris wheels—became, at this distance, thimbles, needles, pins. In these moments, bobbing on the waves, tugged by the tide, Joey began to think he had a “haunted imagination,” a contemplative streak with an undertow of sadness and resignation.

On another “haunted” occasion, he observed a batch of kites break loose from its anchor on the beach. He ran up alleys and streets, keeping the kites in view; eventually, the string binding them snagged on a radio aerial on a rooftop next to his apartment. He scurried up the stairs to the top of his building, crawled onto the brick parapet, and reached for the nearest kite, which flopped just out of reach. He swayed, straightened, then leaned forward a little over a row of trash cans far below, until it occurred to him that any moment now he might plunge from the sky.

He discovered a different kind of spiritual mystery—the aesthetic—in the early evenings, in the apartments of the families with whom the Hellers shared the building. The Provenzanos had a player piano, whose mechanical proficiency fascinated Joey. Tony Provenzano owned a collection of finely painted lead soldiers, less engaging for the fantasies of war they provoked than for their beauty when lined up symmetrically. The Kaisers, on the second floor, across the hall from the Provenzanos, owned a phonograph. They played Enrico Caruso over and over, as well as a comedy record called
Cohen on the Telephone,
delivered by a man with a thick Yiddish accent, and detailing, with painful hilarity, an immigrant's inability to properly place a call. The Kaisers also owned a complete set of
The Book of Knowledge,
and Joey sat for hours in the apartment with his friend Irving, reading through entries on insects, ancient lands, and do-it-yourself projects.

Also in the evenings, groups of boys, filthy with beach sand, went to the movies, walking to the RKO Tilyou or the Loew's Coney Island. The Marx Brothers were Joey's favorites. Harpo had first teamed up with Groucho and Gummo in 1907, at Henderson's Music Hall in Coney Island. In their physical antics and verbal swiftness, the brothers seemed to embody the chaos of the place, and Coney Island served as a backdrop in several early film comedies, including those of Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. One evening, a new movie theater opened up, the Surf, just a block away from the Hellers' apartment, and Joey took his mother. The film was
One Night of Love,
which featured a Puccini aria and melodies that echoed his music. Joey fell for the lead actress, an opera singer named Grace Moore, who would die in a plane crash some years later.

The movie was a pleasant shared moment with his mother. He didn't have many like it. He fought with her as he got a little older, more independent, less inclined to stay home—though usually these were struggles of silence or tense avoidance. “You've got a twisted brain,” she told him one day when he frightened her by climbing a telephone pole just outside the kitchen window and asking nonchalantly as he peered at her, “Ma, can I have a glass of milk?”

Another time, angry at her demands on him, he called her a bastard, believing she wouldn't know the meaning of the word. “At once I saw with terror that I was mistaken,” he wrote in
Now and Then.
“She gasped with incredulity, and staggered back a step. And I knew in an instant … that I never wanted to see her again with such an expression of deep hurt. I prayed she would never tell anyone.”

More than his mother, he turned to Lee for guidance and support, which is not to say he obeyed his brother unconditionally. One night when Joey was down on the street, Lee called to him, saying it was late. Time for him to come up, take a bath, go to bed. Joey refused. Lee came after him. Joey ran. Suddenly, a car turned a corner, blinded Joey with its headlights, and screeched to a stop just as it nudged the boy and sent him sprawling against its bumper. Shaken, he let Lee lead him upstairs.

On another night, Lee caught him smoking a cigarette in a storefront on Surf Avenue, about a block away from home. “How long have you been doing that?” he asked. Joey didn't answer. He crushed the butt with his foot. “As long as you're doing it, you might as well do it at home,” Lee told him. “You should try not to do anything outside the house that you wouldn't want us to know about.” He pulled a pack of smokes from his pocket. “Here, have one of mine,” he said.

After their father's death, Lee had abandoned his dreams of going to college. He knew his family depended on him, and he took seriously his role as Joey's mentor. He wouldn't talk about Isaac. The closest he'd come was to recall the wonder of discovering oranges in the galley of the ship when he was four years old, sailing from Russia.

When Lee was twenty-nine, he married a sweet woman named Perle, and prepared to move to Crown Heights, where he hoped work would be more plentiful. On the day of the wedding, Joey was fifteen. He sat in the synagogue, hot in his suit, his attention drifting until his mother walked up the aisle as part of the procession. The rabbi praised her for the love and generosity she had shown the groom as she raised him, though he was not her biological son. Joey sat up straight. The rabbi went on, honoring Lee's and Sylvia's “stepmom.” All around the room, guests smiled and wept with happiness. Joey could not speak.

 

3.
Fear of Filing

EACH TIME
, the dream followed the same course, but its predictability was not consoling. To the contrary, its fixed sequence intensified Joey's terror. First, a man with a shadowed face approached the apartment and walked through the front door. In his bed (in the dream), Joey came awake. He knew the man was there. Next, he visualized the blackened figure stride from room to room, on his way to find Joey. The steps grew louder; the boy sat up in bed, the sheets as resistant as wet sand. Time stretched like a roll of taffy. Now he pictured the man just outside his door, the face still a dark wedge, his hands reaching toward the room, toward Joey … and then the boy
really
woke, with a half moan in his throat. He was as parched as the day he'd lost his tonsils.

The confusion did not dissipate during his waking hours. In the mornings, he studied his mother's face as carefully as he watched his reflection in the mirror. Certainly, he resembled her: the same high forehead, big cheekbones, curling mouth, brown eyes. Lee and Sylvia had bright blue eyes. Now he could see it: They looked like each other, but not much like him. Or perhaps his perceptions had been distorted by his second glance at the family. Joey stoked the fury he'd felt ever since the rabbi had referred to Lena as Lee's stepmother at the wedding. “I felt victimized, disgraced,” he wrote years later. “I [fell] silent.” He trained himself “to stifle painful emotion,” becoming the “walking proof of … Freud's theories of repression.”

The humiliation caused by his family's foggy past deepened when his friend Beansy Winkler reacted to the news with a shrug. Beansy said his mother had told him about the Heller family ages ago. She had cautioned him not to hurt Joey's feelings by bringing the matter up. Lena, Lee, and Sylvia insisted they had never attempted to hide anything. They all assumed he knew the truth (How
could
I have known? he screamed in his head), and so there was no reason to talk about it. No secret, no scandal. “Our stepmother raised us as though all three of us were her own children,” Sylvia told Barbara Gelb. “It never occurred to any of us to discuss it with Joe.”

Sullenly, Joey prodded Sylvia with questions: Who
was
her real mother? What had happened to her? What was their dad like, really? Sylvia answered that her mother was ill and had died. Soon afterward, their father grew ill and died. That's all he needed to know. The family moved on and looked after itself. (The
Lapland
's manifest, which records Elias Heller as a four-year-old passenger on the ship that arrived in New York in 1913, shows him traveling with someone named Pauline, identified as a “housewife” who could read and write. Years later, in a letter to his brother, Lee wrote that, of the family, it was “just mom and me” on the boat, and that's all he would ever say.)

A curtain of silence drew around the Heller apartment. Joey brooded, lashing out at Sylvia when she bleached her hair one day, or came home smelling of cigarettes, though he didn't really care about these things. In his head, he mocked his mother's insistence that all she did was work for her family; she never did anyone harm, she said, and what thanks did she get in return? Petulance, prickliness.

No harm? Just listen to her curse! Torrents of miserable Yiddish! In the background, on the radio, the hateful chants of Father Coughlin. He would drone, angrily, throatily, until someone in the household realized the terrible things he was saying—against Negroes, Jews—and turn him off.

In calmer moments, in the evenings, after homework and ice cream, Joey would set aside his bruised feelings and reflect briefly on the others' hardships: Lee and Sylvia, orphaned, taken in by this woman; Lena, in a strange country, raising two children not her own.

She urged Joey to go to synagogue and say Kaddish for his dead father. He suspected she was less concerned about his desire for family connections than about cultivating appearances for the neighbors.

And appearances were the problem. They couldn't be counted on. One Father's Day, Joey noticed neighborhood boys giving their daddies presents. He bought a carton of Camels for Lee. Brother, father figure, now husband—Lee's guises were hard to penetrate. He owned a tennis racket—probably obtained one summer when he worked as a camp counselor—but he never took it out of the closet. It sat there in its strange wooden frame, collecting dust, yet he wouldn't get rid of it. On Joey's behalf, he'd send away for college catalogs (never too early to start thinking about it, he'd say)—Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oberlin—and then remind Joey the family would never be able to afford to send him to school. And if Lee was hard to locate beneath these shadowy layers, what about Joey himself? Of his Father's Day gift to his brother, he wrote in his memoir, “I still am unable to decide … whether the deed was one of sincere gratitude and affection or merely a stunt contrived to excite comment and win me some complimentary attention.”

By 1938, Lee was living with his wife in Crown Heights and working in a brokerage firm on Wall Street. In his absence, some of the air seemed to leak out of the apartment. Joey, Sylvia, and Lena pantomimed nitwit routines of courtesy, hoping to banish the tension in the home by pretending it didn't exist. Each evening, on the radio, the WNYC announcer would chirp that he was “coming to [his listeners] from the city of New York, where seven million people live in peace and harmony and enjoy the benefits of democracy.” Nitwits, everywhere.

Then came night, and a dark face rising from sleep.

Discomfort followed him out the door in the mornings, into the streets, coloring everything he saw. In its off-season dreariness, Coney seemed to him more desiccated than ever. Gray light, like gauze, hovered over the West End Villa nearby, a row of single-family bungalows where Lee had met Perle (her family used to rent a place there every summer); deserted now, the buildings seemed squat and ugly. Joey watched elderly men and women struggle with steep, uneven stairs along the sides of multistory apartment houses, watched for signs of movement in the dark, gazing at the empty windows of the Half Moon Hotel a couple blocks away. Braving the boardwalk in wind and spitting rain, he'd see condoms washing ashore in the waves (he and his friends called them “Coney Island whitefish”), newspapers, blown from trash cans, covered with fruit peels, smears of mussels, or sticky bits of crab shell scattered across the headlines like colorful appliqué. The beach, mined with half-buried detritus, smelled like a soggy carpet. Here and there, a merry-go-round or a concession stand remained open. More often than not, their proprietors' breath gave off whiskey. Mechanical laughter from some “Spectacular Show!” down the boardwalk followed him everywhere; whether it was hysterical or bored, he couldn't tell.

Schoolwork, never challenging to him, became less so (though he liked having something to do).
Getting
to school was an ordeal now. He had started high school at Abraham Lincoln on Ocean Parkway, three miles from his neighborhood. To get there, he took the Surf Avenue trolley, through the amusement area and up Neptune. Or he'd ride a bus—rollicking, usually, with big, muscled boys from Sea Gate, a once-exclusive enclave (no Jews or Italians), now fallen on tough times, on the western edge of Brooklyn, where the Coney Island boardwalk ended. Many of the boys on the bus were linemen on the high school football team.

Lincoln, built in 1929, was overcrowded with kids from all over Brooklyn. The entering classes had to occupy an annex on the top floor of a nearby elementary school. The main campus and the annex were located in a predominately Italian neighborhood (though the teachers were mostly second-generation Jewish college graduates). As he always had, Joey negotiated most social situations, including awkward meetings with new kids, by being a fast talker, a wisecracker. Once, an eighth-grade teacher of his, a Miss Lamm, appointed him class monitor while she stepped out. She knew this was the best way to neutralize the most disruptive kid in class. Joey stood, swaggering, and said to the group, “Okay, youse guys, quiet down,” and they did. In high school, the students made fun of their teachers; they secretly referred to T. D. Bartells, their algebra instructor, as “Titty Bottles.” Frequently, he threw chalk bullets at Joey for misbehaving in class.

For all his bravado, Joey worried about being accepted, doing well, looking good. Some of his classmates called him “Horse Head” because of his large skull. His thick hair drew lots of stares from girls, but he wasn't sure he wanted it to curl so much. Sometimes at night, he'd steal one of his sister's hairnets and sleep in it. The fear of her catching him wearing one of those things was as great as his worry over the prospect of another bad dream.

BOOK: Just One Catch
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