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Authors: Jay Neugeboren

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Listen Ruben Fontanez

BOOK: Listen Ruben Fontanez
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Listen Ruben Fontanez

Jay Neugeboren

Dzanc Books
5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
www.dzancbooks.org

Copyright © 1968 by Jay Neugeboren

All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

Published 2014 by Dzanc Books
A Dzanc Books r
E
print Series Selection

eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-941088-43-2
eBook Cover Designed by Awarding Book Covers

Published in the United States of America

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author
.

 

for my mother and father

 

LISTEN RUBEN FONTANEZ

ONE

I
T IS
too late, of course. They are expecting me by seven o'clock and it is nearly six now. So I will go. Each time I vow that I will not return, that I will telephone, that I will write a long letter explaining why these dinners cannot go on. But what excuse is adequate, after all. I am, they insist, the most important man in their lives. Well. It is probably true.

Downstairs, the men are returning from the synagogue and I wait in the hallway, watching them go by. It is Friday night and the snow which was white this morning is already filthy. I watched them this morning also, before I left for school. There were not as many then. Huddled inside their coats, they marched against the snow to the morning services, their prayer bags wedged under their arms. Every morning the same ones go by. Now and then a new man appears to pray for somebody who has just died. Every person who dies, you see, is entitled to be prayed for every day for one year. It is something, I suppose. So each morning for a year the newcomers mumble their guilt in the lower regions of the synagogue, guilty not so much for the ones dead, I would suspect, but guilty before the others, the regular worshipers. I can see the expressions on their faces, the ways they find to intimidate the newcomers: only now you come to God?

My older brothers, all six of them, they looked at me that way also. It is nothing. I did my one year's worth and that is enough, I can assure you. They loved God's laws, but it is Harry Meyers who has shoveled earth onto their six pine boxes. Not one brother lived past sixty-nine, not one died before sixty. As for me, they always said I was different and I will tell you something: in this instance I will try not to disappoint them.

A black odor, of beans and garlic, comes at me through the warm air. Overhead the chattering in Spanish rises and I hear furniture scraping, screams, objects hitting walls. Nydia and Carlos, my young lovers. Last year, when she was in junior high school, she would sneak by me on the staircase, her schoolbooks under her arm, unable to get enough of her young man. Now she is not allowed to be a regular student in the New York City schools. Not because she has a child, but because she married its father. There are rules and regulations in this world, you see. A door opens and I hear Nydia's voice move through the building. “Help me somebody! He kill my baby. Somebody—somebody! Police! Somebody got to
do
something—!” There is more crashing above me, a door slams, I hear running in the corridor behind me. Quickly I lift my keys from my pocket and fumble at my mailbox. She grabs my arm. “My husband, he gone to kill the baby,” she says. “He
loco
, Mister Meyers. He flip. He pick up the baby by the legs and say he gone to throw him against the wall.”

I try to smile. “What can I do?” I ask.

“You got to do
some
thing!” she says, and presses her nails into my coatsleeve. Her young Spanish face is beautiful in the shadows.

“I am an old man,” I say, and shrug. I jingle my keys and the mailbox opens. There is a note inside and I recognize the writing at once. Nydia's eyes are wide. She hears the steps in the hallway behind us and runs into the street, no longer crying for help, but fleeing now, looking behind to see if her husband is close.

As Carlos opens the door I take the note from the mailbox. “You leave your hands off my wife, man,” he says, and jabs a finger at me. “You call the police, I cut you up good.”

“I am an old man,” I say again, but he is gone before I finish, into the night, racing between cars. He wears no shirt.

I look at the note. The handwriting is the same, as is the message: my gizzard will be slit, I have had intercourse with my mother, a brother's fate will be avenged. Soon.

The note comes on an appropriate evening, I think. I close the mailbox and put the piece of paper into my pocket with the keys. Perhaps I will show it to Danny.

Outside it is quiet. The last of the worshipers goes by, an old man, limping, hunched over, supported by another. They move slowly, arm in arm, like husband and wife. One of them will be coming by alone before long. Every morning while I wait here, pressed against the brass mailboxes, they pass me, and I have never in these twelve years seen them talk to one another. Five doors east is the West Side Institutional Synagogue, where, every morning except Saturday, the men bind themselves with long black leather straps. The straps flow from inch-square black boxes, the words of God inside, on parchment. One box is on the forehead, one on the left arm, facing the heart. Seven times the straps wind around the forearm. It reminds a man that he should pray with both his heart and his mind. Brains and hearts, you see. Well. Soon the straps and boxes will be directed to new brains and new hearts, but I will not stay until that time. One day past sixty-nine is all I ask for. When they can replace all the parts, I will be in the ground. No plastic heart, no frozen brain for Harry Meyers. In me nothing is replaceable, I can assure you.

I button my overcoat and step outside. It is colder than I thought and I raise my collar so that it touches my throat. Across the street, next to the abandoned brownstones, the back of a small truck bulges with furniture. A Puerto Rican man unties ropes with his frozen fingers while his children huddle on the sidewalk, clutching their toys. I do not count them. I hear Spanish music coming from a radio and I see one of his daughters swing her hips gently from side to side. Her legs are bare. Two friends of the family struggle up the front steps, balancing a large green couch.

I pass the Park West Hospital. At the corner, the stained glass windows of the Riverside Funeral Chapel are as dark as the stone red bricks. There are no funerals on Saturday, so there will be no crowds to push through during the next twenty-four hours. I glance back at my new neighbors. The mother is rocking a baby in her arms, but its crying does not stop. Even in New York City there are not many blocks which have their own hospital, place of worship, and funeral chapel. West 76th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues is not an inconvenient street to live on.

I turn left on Amsterdam Avenue and head toward 72nd Street. Negro women, their dark legs barricaded by shopping bags, wait in the entrance to Harvey's Pawnshop for the number 7 bus to return them to Harlem. The old Irish bars along the avenue are half-filled now. Across Broadway, beyond the steep rear wall of the Beacon Theater, I can see the white turrets of the Ansonia Hotel. It rises in the winter air like a concrete sand castle. White iron rails guard its aged baroque windows. Neon lights advertise the Ansonia Hot Baths, the Pels Art School.

At 73rd Street the benches which surround Verdi Square are deserted. It is too cold even for the homosexuals. In the middle of the street huge orange and yellow signs circle a manhole. Workers in silver helmets lean over the opening, cables slipping through their hands. Steam rises from under the city and I do not envy the workmen. I cross 72nd Street. Around the subway kiosk the deaf old news deliverers, bundles of papers on their shoulders, signal frantically to one another with gloved fingers. I buy tokens and descend. My glasses steam from the warmth and I undo the top buttons of my overcoat. The platform is crowded. I edge toward the front, between young men and women holding hands, and I wait. The chipped green pillars are etched with invitations, telephone numbers, political messages.

I am tired. The heavy air of the subway comforts me and all the way into Brooklyn I sleep. I wake at Franklin Avenue. A few stations more, at Church Avenue, I get out. I make my stop at the Fanny Farmer Candy Shop on the corner and then walk the block and a half to the old wood-frame house on Martense Street. The huge oak trees leave giant shadows across the snow. Everything is still.

Inside, Mrs. Santini accepts the box of candy. Her daughter walks by, a radio pressed to her ear.

“Hi, Mister Meyers,” she says, chewing gum. Her hair is in plastic curlers.

“Hello, Mary,” I say. “How are you?”

She cracks her chewing gum, and I watch a smear of pink disappear at the corner of her mouth.

“Let me take your coat,” Mrs. Santini says. “You must be cold. Hey Danny!” she screams, away from me. “Mister Meyers is here—come on, huh? I gotta get back into the kitchen.” She shakes her head. “That guy thinks I can do a million things at once, you know?” she says to me. “It's not enough I been fixing dinner and I cleaned today cause you were coming. He expects me—”

Danny comes toward me, down the stairs, tucking in his undershirt. He is happy to see me and he shakes my hand with both of his. “How've you been? Boy, you're looking really good, Mister Meyers. Ain't he looking good, Jeannie?” he asks his wife. “I mean, every time we see you, ya seem to get younger lookin'—” He pokes me in the side with his elbow. “Getting something on the side, I bet, huh?”

“Jesus, Danny, cut it out—” his wife says. “Mister Meyers is an educated man—”

He waves at her and puts an arm around my shoulder, guiding me into the living room. “The truth, Mister Meyers—you got a little something workin' for ya on the side? When I was in the Army, we had this old Jewish guy in my outfit—reminds me of you a little bit—he was a supply sergeant. Anyway, he was always telling me about getting nooky. Nooky—he loved that word. ‘You been getting any nooky lately, Sam?' I always used to say to him.” He wobbles his huge head from side to side. “What a guy he was!” He pats me on the back. “How ‘bout a drink, huh, Mister Meyers? A little something to warm you up. Cold as a witch's tit outside, ain't it?”

Mary gets up from the floor, where she has been reading a magazine about movie stars. She sneers at her father.

“You heard worse, you heard worse!” Danny says as she goes by. “You and your friends—you think I'm stupid, I don't know what goes on? And where you goin' with your hair up in that crap?”

“I got a date with Joey—”

“And who says you can go? We got a guest tonight, you know. It ain't every day we get to have Mister Meyers here. You gotta remember what he done for us—”

“Joey got his car fixed up new and I promised. I'm staying for supper, what more do you want?”

“Yeah?” He considers. “Okay, then.”

Mary turns the volume of her radio up and sways from the room. “And don't twitch your behind at me—” her father yells. “Remember we got company—”

“Yeah, yeah,” she says, snapping her fingers to the beat.

“She's something, huh?” Danny says when his daughter is gone. “They sure grow up quick. I mean, remember when you used to come over here and she would be asleep before you even got here?” He shakes his head. “I wish she'd work more in school, though. I was thinking maybe if you get a chance you could have a talk with her sometime. She never does schoolwork unless I stand right over her.” He wrinkles his brow. “You see, it's this way, Mister Meyers: I don't like the idea of seein' my daughter wind up clerking in Woolworth's or somethin' like that, you know what I mean? I figure if somebody like you talks to her, maybe she'll straighten out and get to college. You being a teacher and all. Otherwise one of these bums from around here'll be knocking her up and she'll never get nothing from life.”

BOOK: Listen Ruben Fontanez
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