My Father, the Swimmer by Bernard Horn

Summer, 1952

     I don’t remember clearly the coming or the going, the short walk at your side from the rented room or bungalow to the beach and back, my hand lost in yours, my legs scurrying to keep up.  What does stay in my mind is sitting on the top pipe railing on the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach, the silver-painted zinc of the pipe always damp in the salty ocean air and slightly rough.  I’m eight or nine, and it’s easy to conjure the two of us up in the eight o’clock light of a hot August evening.  You’ve just arrived after a ten-hour day in your narrow housewares and toy store on Avenue D; whenever I entered the store as a kid, I always felt I was entering the bottom of a chasm and the shelves in the walls were nooks and crannies containing anything anyone could imagine, somewhere between the floor and the high, high ceiling.  I remember how you used to leap upwards, precariously balanced at the edges of the shelves as you rose to retrieve some object, a Monopoly game or a boxed toaster, from the uppermost shelf-you’d maneuver the box free with your fingertips or a ruler and then you’d leap, and as you landed, lightly, the box would come to rest rightside-up in your arms.

     It’s the early fifties, before the low income projects, named for social reformers and muckrakers of the turn of the century-Jacob Riis, Lilian Wald-that fill the one block from the H & D Housewares Company to the East River, have become less inhabitable than the decayed tenements above and alongside the store, years before the junkies and young thugs became so cocky and unpredictable that you, always on good terms with an earlier generation of thieves and hustlers (though you never handled their stolen goods), even you began to close early, no longer able to rely on your good name and the heavy stick-was it an ax handle?-that you kept below the cash register, embarking, though you had no way of knowing it at the time, on the grinding march towards your unwilling sale of the store in 1963, fifteen years after you’d scraped together enough money and experience to open your own business with Mr. Davidson, who had less experience and more money, in a partnership sealed by a handshake after only two conversations.

     That handshake was a world and seven years away from your first job in Brooklyn after you emigrated from Winnipeg to New York City in 1941.  Mother told me the story, and I can imagine you clearly from the pictures from those days, lean and handsome, with curly brown hair, in a white apron, working for Uncle Yossel’s sister, Surka, in her grocery.  I can see you watching, pale blue eyes alert, as you hauled milk crates from the basement, pretending not to notice as she routinely cheated her customers by, for instance, writing a one before a forty-nine cent sale on the weekly tab she was kind enough to keep for her poorest customers in that last summer of the great depression.

     I remember your words, “That Davidson.  Never sick a day in his life.  And when his stomach starts acting up, he makes jokes: ‘Your ulcer is lonely,’ he liked to say, ‘so my belly decided to keep it company.’  He used to take a shot of whiskey, first once, then two, even three times a day.”  He always told you how good he felt afterwards, how he was “burning” the sickness away.

     “Poor Davidson!  ‘Sam,’ he’d say, ‘Sam, you know why you’re sick all the time?  It’s on account of you’re always rushing off to doctors.  It’s been a good ten years since I seen one, and that was the time I cut my arm on that pane of glass.  Fourteen stitches, and I was back to work the next day.”  You always smiled and shook your head at the number, fourteen, as you are doing right now.  And when Davidson finally gave in to you and mother and his wife, Sylvia, and went to the doctor, his insides were so riddled with cancer that he was gone in six weeks.  I’ve always associated Davidson’s death with Uncle Yossel’s comment, after he, another supremely healthy man, also got nailed by cancer.  “S’hot mir g’catched,” it caught me, he said.

     It took more than twenty years, but finally it caught you too, though in your case it was a stroke, not cancer.  I don’t know much about death or cancer, and I guess your heart attacks should have made it less of a shock, but here we sit, you, in your wheel chair, the soul of your language shattered to atoms by the stroke,  I, gazing at you, talking and thinking to you about the past, and I have no certainty at all that my words are getting through any better than my thoughts, not knowing whether that smile and nod a few moments ago merely mirrored my gesture or the tone of my voice or were an acknowledgment of the word, “fourteen.”  And as I sink in to this naugehyde hospital chair back here in Manhattan, it’s easy for me to feel the dampness and roughness of those painted railings at the beach squeeze through my shorts and chill my darkly tanned thighs as I adjust my legs around the rail and I look down and I’m wearing yellow shorts, polished brown shoes, and white socks sliding down into them, and I couldn’t have been any more than eight years old.

     I look up and out towards the breakers, and you’re getting smaller, briskly walking in a gray boxer bathing suit, a yellow towel around your shoulders, your very white skin glowing in the moonlight.  Now you’re bending, unbuckling your sandals, folding the towel neatly on top of them, and carefully topping the heap with your glasses.  The sand has lost its brown tincture, the Atlantic Ocean is black, and the foam from the breaking waves glints more brightly than your skin.  Now the sound reaches me across the years and I watch you enter the water, walk out till the bottom of your bathing suit gets wet, and you take a double handful of water in your cupped hands and slosh it against your face.  I don’t know whether I saw you clearly that time from the boardwalk or that I’ve seen you enter the water so many times that way that my mind is feeling in the details.  But I can see the slight white splash as you dive in and I can make out your hands and forearms as they cut through the water, though as you swim out, far out, way over your head, I gradually lose sight of you, and I start playing my nightly game of guessing which sudden splash of white in the distance is you, and it always scares me a little as I try to trace your path, deeper and further, and my imagination always betrays me because I’m always surprised by your location later when I catch clear sight of you emerging from the water.  Sometimes it’s so dark by then that I’m still looking out at the Atlantic when I hear you walking through the sand, suddenly just a few strides from the wooden staircase that rises from the beach to the boardwalk.  You’re always full of joy and drops of water.  “There’s nothing like it.  Nothing in the whole world,” you say, only partly to me.


June 1977

     I remember, it was during the first week after you were stricken that you began to play with the finger of your right hand.  I was still jet-lagged from my twelve hour flight from Kennedy to Ben Gurion and twenty-four hours of wakefulness. You lifted first the small finger, then the ring finger, then the middle finger, one by one, the hand hanging palm downward, hooklike in its sling, and you watched with what seemed like detached curiosity, as each finger in its turn, then your hand, sprang back downward to its lifeless dangling, and you continued this action for about fifteen minutes, sometimes plucking one finger three or four times, sometimes holding the hand or finger still for a few seconds before letting it drop.  Then you looked up at me and you sagged, and an enormous sadness came over you.

     It was that afternoon that you cooperated for the first time with the physical therapist, and those brief bursts of bitterly sarcastic laughter which you had fired at mother and me vanished for good, along with your attempts to tear the covers from your bed, the IV tube from your arm, the feeding tube from your mouth, and the condom catheter from your penis and your terrible cries of “ber BELL ber BELL ber BELL,” which I heard as “I’m well, I’m well, I’m well, why am I tied up like this?”  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that you have become sanguine about your condition.  You still, on occasion, shake your fist at me or clench my forearm in your good left hand in anger or despair and far too often weep small tears with a look of bitter and sad puzzlement in your eyes.



Summer 1947

     Among my earliest memories are Sundays at the beach, you all wrapped up in towels, a plaid cotton bathrobe, and a white canvas hat, a few patches of your skin showing, on a green shaded beach chair with white fringes.  My legs and arms were chubby (imagine!) and chocolate brown from all those long summer days in the sun.  At the center of all those Sundays was you taking me “out for a swim.”  Mother used to sit on her beach chair all day, read, feed all of us, talk to her friends, knit, and periodically “take a dip” with “the girls.”  These dips consisted of going into the water, hunkering down a little, knees bent, back to the waves, and letting the splash and spray of the ocean slide or splatter up her back to her shoulders.  She adored the ocean breezes, the salt air, the salt water, but I don’t recall ever seeing her face in the water.  She never swam, as she never danced.

     As for you, I’ve never seen anyone swim as you did.  Your head and the top of your shoulders always above the water as you swam, your white arms would come out, then quickly slice side-armed into the water, leaving barely a ripple as they cut through.  It looked so neat and effortless I wouldn’t have known the power of your stroke if I hadn’t ridden on your back, my hands holding your collar bones, sometimes holding on to your neck for dear life as you pulled us toward the deep water.  Sometimes it would be the pause and slide, pause and slide of the breast stroke which I knew you could do forever, or you would cradle me in front of you as you side-stroked along, or your arms would envelop me in what seemed to be my own private little pool in the middle of the Atlantic.  I loved how you swam.  I loved swimming with you, and, for years, before anyone taught me the ins and outs of the crawl, I tried in my bungling way to teach myself your stroke.  But out there, alone with you in the Atlantic Ocean, I felt no more than a trace, a tremor, of the fear I later felt when swimming on the top of very deep water, no, time and time again, I would be so caught up, so mastered by your power and the tides, that I wouldn’t notice until we were far out, way past the end of the rotting wooden jetties, that we were alone out there, that the umbrellas on the shore were tiny splotches of color, and that the nearest swimmers shone in the distance like tarnished dimes between us and the beach.



July 1977

     I also remember our hope during those first weeks, and the weight of small gestures.  The good left hand touching the right a week after the stroke, the good arm lifting the right arm and massaging it three days later.  The stand syllable of “understand” spoken clearly.  I remember your attention and focus.  These were the days of small angers, small gestures, your sorrow gentle, resigned, peaceful.  I remember thinking of a spread in the old Life Magazine on the latest procedures in medicine: Page after red glistening page-the blood, the paper-pages I stared at in fascination.  One series of images remain engraved in my mind.  I had turned the page to a clawlike, shiny right hand with one long cut and four crosscuts on the knuckles; from the wound oozed white calcified muck.  In the next photograph a scalpel scraped the stuff away.  The last in the series was a newly stitched hand, an image of the hand of Frankenstein’s creature, and I imagined your stroke as that white poison and I imagined scraping the speech sections of your cerebrum clear of the muck, and then you would speak.

     But three and a half weeks after the stroke, you were sitting in your wheel chair with a crumpled napkin in your left hand.  Three times, straining to keep my voice flat, I said, “Throw it to me.”  You nodded, yes, definitely, each time and you did not toss the napkin.  Your eyes caught mine and then narrowed as you searched  my face,  and tears appeared in the corners of your eyes.



Summer 1968

     There was your visit to my cottage in Connecticut, at the lake while I was in grad school.  I had rented a barely winterized three room shack at $100 a month; during the summers these shacks are bungalows that go for $300 a week, but my absentee landlord who lived way up in Maine, was happy with my sure $1200 a year.  He figured that it was worth $400 not to have the headache of finding one or two monthly summer tenants and a new tenant each fall.  You’d just arrived, and immediately threw on a bathing suit and headed down to the lake.  I was five minutes behind you.

     I ran down the hill towards the beach, kicked off my sandals, put down my towel and glasses near yours, and ran onto the dirty sand.  It was late on a summer afternoon.  There was no one else to be seen, and you weren’t a head and arms in motion way out from the shore.  No, you were standing erect in the water up to your thighs, the bottom of your bathing suit wet, hands at your sides, still.  I drew nearer and stopped to your left a couple of yards away.  Tears were pouring from your eyes the way a child cries, and you made no effort to conceal them or wipe them away.  I said, “What is it, Dad?”  You didn’t speak, and I realized that both of us had forgotten about your heart attacks, the massive one two winters before and the second one the following fall.   It was the third time I saw you cry.



August 1977

     About a month after the stroke, you wrote a note to mother on which I’m sure I could decipher “angry” and “sorry,” though your handwriting deteriorated after the first couple of letters.  The next day you wrote, I think, “Why” and “What”-only the “wh” was clear.  The next day your writing was indecipherable, but when I wrote “Why,” you said it clearly.  The next day was a day of rage and resistance, particularly directed at mother, but in the midst of it all, when you were in the toilet and wanted out, you yelled her name distinctly, and later when you spotted me at the other end of the building where I’d parked myself, unobserved I thought, to take in your interaction with the physical therapist, you called my name, and as I approached you I fell into a recollection of my first few trips to school on two city buses in Brooklyn from Williamsburg to Crown Heights when I was seven and beginning third grade.  How you would follow me at a distance, get on the bus the last moment, and travel with me all the way to school, making believe you were unobserved!  How I never acknowledged your presence and I loved you for doing exactly what you did!  That night at the hospital, after I walked over to you, I remember pressing you silently, hand to hand, to exercise your right hand with your left, and you shouted, “Shut up!” and both of us cracked up.



Winter 1956

     The second time I saw you cry was sixteen years earlier when I was twelve.  The darkness at 4:30 or so in the afternoon in my memory makes me certain it was December.  I was walking home from school down St. Nicholas Avenue with four other kids-you knew them all-Harvey Strauss, Larry Oppenheimer, and the two biggest boys in the seventh grade, Donny Goldman and Kenny Weinberg.  We were the last to leave school-I don’t know whether we were just fooling around or whether one or two of us had been kept after school for some transgression.  Come to think of it, I bet Donny had been nailed for talking back or out of turn.  He was my best friend and had taken me under his wing when I arrived as the new boy in the class a few weeks after school had started that fall.  He let me share his cubby hole.

     The wide street was pretty empty.  Scraps of paper spun in the wind against the gray sky.  It amazes me how clearly I can see it all.  As we walked by the big paint store, all of us carrying the big leather school bags which always made me feel a little silly, we were playing saloojee, which my daughters, now, many years later in Massachusetts, call “Keep away,” with Harvey’s brown leather hat with attached ear muffs.  “C’mon Straussie, Straussie, Straussie,” Donnie is bugging him.  The next thing I knew three red-faced Irish kids about our age, bigger than me, smaller than Donny and Kenny, have collided  into our game.  On purpose.

     To this day, I can’t put my finger on what tipped me off.  Maybe it was the rising pitch in the biggest one’s voice when he said, “You look like you’re having a good time.”  Maybe they somehow seemed too calm as all eight of us came to a stop in the middle of the empty sidewalk.  There was nobody else around.  The only sound was Harvey mumbling as he scrambled to get his hat back on.  He jammed it on so fast it was a little lopsided but no one was laughing, and my friends were looking all over the place in silence-try as I did, I couldn’t catch anyone’s eye.

     Maybe it was that my friends had grown up there in Washington Heights but I had moved to that middle-class Manhattan neighborhood just months before, having spent the first twelve years of my life getting into and out of scraps in our working class neighborhood in Brooklyn.  I still remember that my mind flashed to Raymond Duffy picking a fight with me after Hebrew School a few years earlier. “Take your Jewcap off,” he’d said.  “I don’t wanna insult your religion,” before he walloped me in the mouth.

     I was sure we were in for a fight.

     The biggest kid grinned.  “We wanna play too.  But you know the rules.  We’re pros.  You have to pay us to play with you.”

     I let my schoolbag go.  It thudded against the ground.

     “Look,” he said, “it’ll only cost you ten cents apiece.”  Oooph!  I had charged and my head smashed into the middle of his chest before he had finished.  I couldn’t figure out what made the three of them take on the five of us, and I knew none of them had ever felt Donny’s ferocious headlock in their lives.  My arms were punching and I heard a loud grunt.  Then somebody punched me hard in the back, and somebody else kicked the side of my right calf.  I fell forward, hit the sidewalk and slid a little, scraping my forehead against the cement.  I twisted my head and saw the one I’d smashed into sitting in front of me gasping, his two friends leaning over above me, and my four friends running like hell down the street, their schoolbags swinging and banging against their legs, Harvey shoving his hat back on his head akimbo every two or three strides.

     I tried to yell.  “Donny!  Kenny!”  came out as gasps.  I’d seen Donny pick two eighth graders up and squeeze them around their waists until they gave up.  I saw a drop of blood splat against the sidewalk.  I touched my forehead.  It felt like it was on fire, and there was blood on my hand.  Screaming and yelling, I tried to get up.  But they were on me, twisting my left arm behind my back, punching, kicking.  Someone got his fist in my hair and pulled my head back.  The leader slapped me as hard as he could across the face.  His friends held my face against the sidewalk while he went through my pockets, grunting, “You lousy little kike, you lousy little kike,” as I twisted and screamed.

     Then they were gone.  I got to my feet and stood there, gasping roughly.  My books, pencils, pens, hat, and schoolbag were scattered for half a block.  There were people in the street again, stepping over and around the debris of the battle. Where had they all come from all of a sudden, I wondered.    They steered clear, none of them breaking stride, no one so much as brushing against me, as I began to gather in my damaged goods.  I don’t know whether I told you this then or not, but I remember noticing that most of the English books were scarred in one way or another, the bindings or pages torn or crumpled, but they’d left the Hebrew books, the chumash, the history book, even the grammar book, alone, as if they feared some wicked Jew magic in the ancient letters.

     By the time I got home, I had cooked up a detailed story for mother.  I’m pretty sure it was something about crashing into Donny (I am absolutely sure I stuck him in my lie) during a punchball game right after school.  I knew  she suspected something was fishy, and I spent the next couple of hours, listening in dread from my room every time she made a move in the kitchen, every time the phone rang in the living room, every time she even passed anywhere near the phone, sure she would call Mrs. Goldman or Mrs.  Weinberg or one of them would call and the truth would come out.

     When she got ready to leave for her Mah Jongg game at 7:30, I was so relieved I barely distinguished her words as she, once again, gave me the weekly instructions that made dinner with you something of a chore.  Turn on a small flame under the soup and under the pot roast at 8:00.  Make sure you sit with your father and keep him company.  You know how he likes to eat the boiling hot soup too fast.

     By the time I heard your key in the lock, I had dialed Donny’s number four times, twice hanging up after a couple of rings, once hanging up when I heard Mrs. Goldman’s voice-Do you remember her? Did you ever meet her?  She was the tallest, the youngest, the most beautiful of all of the mothers, she was Israeli, with long black hair in a braid, and a slight accent so different from the European accents of your friends.  She died of cancer a year later.  The fourth time I called I hung up on Donny himself.

     Though I would often shout a hello from my room and not come out until I heard you in the kitchen, this time I didn’t know what to do or where to begin, and I was in the hall as you hung up your coat and your sweater, and I was at the open bathroom door as you washed up, scrubbing a day’s grime from your forearms and hands as the hot water blasted into the sink, soaping up your face, and finally cupping your hands together under the tap and sloshing the water into your face to wash all the soap away.

     “Aaah!” You had taken an audible breath after swallowing the first spoonful of the steaming soup and I remember that you had just torn off a piece from a slice of rye bread at the moment that the story came tumbling out, all akimbo, and, as I cried and looked into your face, there was something new, a discomfiting fixity in your eyes; it was the first time I actually was conscious of anyone, of any adult, of you, giving me your full attention, and I had only one question on my mind.

     “Why, Daddy?”  I remember asking you more than once, but each time I would burst into another sobbing spasm of the story before you could say anything more than, “Don’t worry.  There’s nothing to worry about now,” as you shook your head again and again.  “Why, Daddy?”

     “Why?” you said, eyes already shining, gazing at me.  “He wants to know why.”  You gesture outward with your right arm, hand relaxed, palm upward, the piece of bread still held between your fingers, your glance looking out above my shoulder and upwards.  It is a replica of the gesture you are making right now.  Then you stumblingly began, “Oh, mein kind, my child, we’re Jewish and . . .”

     “No, no, no!  That’s not what I meant.”  You had missed the whole point.  “I know why they wanted to beat us up.  What I want to know is why everybody ran away . . . why Donny ran away . . . why they left me there like that.”  I was sobbing so hard by then that I couldn’t get any more words out.

     You sat, the bread still in your hand, the soup still steaming. You folded your arms and gazed downward for a while, and then you looked up, a strange tight smile flickered on your face for an instant, and you shook your head slowly from side to side.  “That question also I could answer the same way, my child.  You see, we’re Jewish, and what Jewish people do is    . . . they run.”  Suddenly the words are coming very fast and you too are crying.  “But you, didn’t run, did you, mein kind, you fought them like a wild animal,  they ran away, your friends, Donny and the rest, and left you, but you didn’t run, my little American, my little Israeli.”  I remember being mystified by those words.  Israel was nothing more than a map and trees to me in those days.   It’s true that, thanks to you, I probably knew the map of Israel as well as I knew the map of America, but none of us had ever even been to Israel.  “No, you didn’t run,” you said, still crying.  “And I’ll tell you one thing, those anti-Semite punks will remember that they had a fight today, won’t they.”  Your tears and your words frightened and bewildered me.  “Come here, my boy.”  I walked around the table, you pushed your chair back, and I sat down on your lap for the first time since I was really little.  Do you remember how tightly you hugged me?  I remember that you said, “Yes, yes, there are new things under the sun,” which made no sense to me at all at the time, but what was unmistakable was how proud you were of me.



August 1952

     He was smiling the whole time, except when you kicked him down the stairs, but his eyes were funny, sometimes twinkling good-naturedly, sometimes dead, sometimes with a terrible irony that only mystified me at the time.  He spoke mostly in Yiddish. To my delight, the occasional English he used was articulately British.

     He was there one morning when I woke up early.  He looked older than you, and you told me he was from your hometown.  He was a solid, stocky man, who looked fit, a little shorter than you and twenty or thirty pounds heavier.  He didn’t towel himself off when we came out of the ocean or, later, when he took an outdoor shower.  He loved to let the water dry at its own rate.  “It’s refreshing, you know,” he confided to me, trying to win me over. But I played hard to get, I don’t know why, and with mother he was quite formal and polite, even a little diffident. It was you he was here to see.

     And how you talked!  Up and down the long hot day.  On the large porch of the enormous Victorian rooming house we were staying in, taking a long walk along the beach, and, in the end, upstairs in our tiny kitchen. I knew something was up when you set out on that walk in the sand in the middle of the day because you were wearing only your bathing suit and your floppy hat.  Nothing was protecting your pale skin from the sun, and what made it even more unusual was that there was no “Sam, watch yourself, you’ll get a burn,” or even a glance and a sign from mother as you walked off, your robe draped messily on your beach chair.

     Later I was sitting outside the door to our room, at the bottom of the flight of stairs heading up to the third floor, not making out what the two of you were saying, though, even as a kid, I could discern the quiet intensity in your tone, and then you’re shouting questions, then commands, and his voice has become so faint I could barely hear it. Then the door flies open and crashes against the wall, and he lunges out first, then you, and you’re saying, Ich farshteyt gantz gut, I understand very well. Ich kennit dus farleiden, I can’t bear it. And you had tears in your eyes. It was the first time I saw you cry. I had no idea what you were feeling, but the tears terrified me. You seemed half in fury and half in anguish, and I hung back as you shoved him down the stairs. When I finally gathered the nerve to drag myself down the stairs to the porch, you were pushing him, past old Mr. Charnick, who was sitting at the big poker table, down the stoop at the far end of the porch, I heard the guy making this weird keening sound that took my breath away, and I called out, but you didn’t turn. I ran back up the stairs to the second floor, sat down on the top step and starting sobbing, I don’t know why.

     It was at least fifteen minutes later when I slowly walked down the stairs again. Old Mr. Charnick was still there, sitting in one of those big wicker armchairs, tapping his loose-fisted right hand on the table in front of him, mumbling, “Again, it’s me, only me they keep waiting,” closing his fist and snapping the ring on his pinkie knuckle sharply against the Formica surface. “And card players they call themselves,” he was saying, when the one everyone called Bluestone, the only one of the men you seemed to have anything to do with away from the card table, came in and sat down. I crouched down between the banister and the wicker sofa, one of my favorite hiding places.

     Charnick is saying, “Such a commotion! And you just missed the whole thing. First, from the staircase inside, someone’s crashing down, not falling, but jumping four, five steps at a time, is what it sounded like. And hollering! And a body smacking hard against something! And in Yiddish, they’re saying:

     “‘You have to stop this. Please.’”

     “‘What did you come here for? For what?’”

     “‘No! No! Please. You got to understand.’”

     “‘What? Are you crazy? It’s not for me to do such a thing . . .’”

     “‘Please, God.’”

     “‘To me you’re the Angel of Death, the malakh hamovess.’”

     “‘No. No!’”

     “And two of them come flying through the main doors right onto the porch. It was Sam and that stocky tan and hairy guy who was nosing around before, English, he sounded, asking about Sam and his family. The guy with the crazy eyes, they wouldn’t keep still. The rest of him looked like it was made of rock, I’m telling you. But those eyes were something else. And Sam is shoving him and I think Sam’s crying all along the length of the porch. The guy keeps turning and Sam just keeps shoving him. And then in the middle the kid comes out, and he’s kinda yelling but softly, “Daddy,” and Sam either doesn’t hear him or ignores him, and then gives the guy a big push to the stairs to the street, and a last shove and all the time the guy is making this high sound that sounds like a sick cat and he stumbles down the rest of the stairs backwards and he falls but winds up on his hands and knees on the sidewalk–I got up and leaned over to get a good look–and he got up on one knee looking up at Sam and then he started backing away and turned around and then he’s gone and it’s over.”

     “So?” says Bluestone. I peer over the sofa and see the two of them facing each other, and I know that what I’m going to hear is the most important thing in the world.

     “So, you’re asking, and I’m telling. So Sam sits down right where you’re sitting and you can see where he’s been crying on his face. And you know, we’re not that close, and I ain’t sure I want to hear what he’s gonna tell me, but his eyes are so wild, not like the other guy, but, for him, I’m saying. I keep my trap shut, and I get the whole story. The guy, and Sam never says his name–every time the name is coming out, you know, in a normal sort of way, Sam changes it to ‘he’ or ‘him’ like the name is burning his tongue: it turns out the guy was a good friend of Sam’s big brother, Mottek was his name, back in Poland, in a city called Sambor. All of them, the brother, Sam, the guy, were machers in the Zionist club in the town. It was the first I heard of it. About things like that, he ain’t a big talker.”


     “So, again? Just listen. It was in ‘41 I think and the Russians had pulled out and the Germans were coming. This Mottek had a wife and two boys. And this guy, this same guy, comes to Mottek and says, ‘Let’s go! We gotta get out of here.’

     “And Mottek says, ‘Right you are! I’ll get the wife and the boys and I’ll meet you and Chana and Sheyndl–Sam did say those names–and we’ll get out.’ He asked the guy to give him an hour, I think.”

     “And the guy says to Mottek, ‘No, you don’t get it. It’s you and me, and it’s right now, or we’re all dead.’”

     “And Mottek said no,” said Bluestone.

     “And Mottek said no.”

     “And Sam tells you all this.”

     “And Sam tells me all this. And the guy got away and has been living in Israel and has a new wife and a boy and a girl and the rest were lost. And a sister, and cousins. All of them. ‘Some nerve,’ Sam says to me. ‘And he tells me he was in the battle for Jerusalem in ’48. What the hell am I supposed to do with that tasty tidbit, the oysvorf.’”

     “Ah, brilliant,” Bluestone said, more to himself than to Charnick, “He had to know that Sam would have given anything to have been there.”

     This seemed to go right by Mr. Charnick who talked right over him. “Sam came over in the thirties, right?”

     “Yeah, in ’36,” Bluestone says. “And he had another sister who some goyim hid in Vienna the whole time. But let me get this right. You’re telling me that he came all the way from Israel just to tell to Sam the story?”

     “That’s what I’m telling you, exactly.”

     “And he also let it drop that he fought in the war in ’48?”

     “I guess so.”

     “The poor bastard,” says Bluestone.

     “You’re right. It’s too bad for Sam. Never in my life have I seen a man so wild looking, an animal, he was jumping and skipping and stopping, not like a regular person, running like that, the first time in my life I saw something like that.”

     “That’s true,” says Bluestone, “I believe you. But it’s the other one I was thinking about just now. The both of them. The poor bastards.”

     I remember quietly sneaking out from my hideout and tiptoeing up the stairs, then turning around and racing down the stairs and past the two of them who called out to me as I jumped off the porch. I caught sight of you, coming back, not from the beach but from the other direction where there were blocks of overgrown lots, grass up to my shoulders, where all the kids used to play ringo-levio and catch grasshoppers and cicadas and praying mantises late into the hot summer nights.

     I sneaked a look at your face, then looked down and said, “Daddy, take me for a swim.”

     “Not now.” Your voice sounded a lot calmer. So this was not only the first time I saw you cry, it was the only time you ever turned me down, about a swim, that is.



September 1977

     It wasn’t until we returned to the States six weeks after the stroke, that the reality of it sank in, or, rather, that I sank into the reality of it.  Language has been shattered for good. The little tidbits of language or comprehension, in writing and speaking, that had given us so much hope in the beginning had ended entirely like the streams formed from mountain snow trickling to dryness by summer’s end. The doctors were unanimous in their certainty that there is no hope at all for communication outward and virtually none for comprehension and that this condition would in all likelihood persist for years. On occasion your rage blazes up for a moment, as does the sadness and the weeping.  And the incredible remorse after the outbursts and fist shaking.  The strangest thing was the way you filled the days just before leaving Israel with affection for me, in your eyes, your gestures, your grabbing hold of my arm.  I felt particularly close to you then.

     It’s hard to believe that is was just four months earlier-I had finally received my degree, do you remember?-that I drove you and mother out to the Catskills, first to a run-down bungalow colony, packed with wealthy observant wives from Borough Park and Crown Heights and their tribes of children, spending their summers as their immigrant mothers had.  Not a place for the likes of you.  Then another colony, with a few bungalows scattered on a huge thick manicured lawn.

     And a small pool.

     You immediately go down to the water and get in.  I walk over and I’m watching you.  I haven’t changed yet.  I remember those Wednesday night suppers, mother playing Mah Jong with the girls, me doing my job, eating with you or just sitting with you to slow you down, to watch you. You push off the side of the pool and slowly start to breast stroke across the pool towards me. I feel my heart beating.  An old coagulated part of me wants to say something, to remind you about your heart condition. I don’t, though.  You reach my side of the pool in maybe five strokes.  You turn and start back.  I watch your arms move through the water, your head higher above that in the sea-you’re not fond of chlorine.  You’re moving easily. You pause and start back across.  One.  Glide.  Two.  Glide.  I walk around and watch you reach the other side again, swimming right at me.  You turn as if to start back again.  You change your mind, rest there for a moment and come up out of the water, breathing just a little quickly.

     You smile at me.  You know your limits.  You always have.  I smile as you grab the towel, rub your chest, put on your glasses.  We start walking through the grass.  I see it now in my memory as if I were a camera, tracking along behind us as we walk. I see your crumpled gray bathing suit, your thin legs, pale skin, your powerful forearms and back and your sloped shoulders.  I’m thin, a little taller.

     A start!  Your foot hits something.  A pebble.  You recover your balance in a step or two like a dancer.  You wrap your left arm around my shoulders, hop up on one foot, and brush the pebble away.  We resume walking.  You leave your arm where it is as we walk in silence back to the bungalow.



Bernard Horn’s Our Daily Words, finalist for the 2011 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, won the Old Seventy Creek Press Poetry Prize. His translations have appeared in The New Yorker. He wrote Facing the Fires: Conversations with A. B. Yehoshua, the only book in English about Israel’s pre-eminent novelist.