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Authors: Jay Neugeboren

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Before My Life Began

BOOK: Before My Life Began
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Before My Life Began

Jay Neugeboren

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

Copyright © 1985 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: 978-1-941088-40-1
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
M
ARY
W
EINBERGER

AND TO THE MEMORY OF
A
RNOLD
W
EINBERGER
(1907–1983)

BOOK ONE

1

A
LL THE MEN
were trying to kiss my mother, so I kept pulling at her dress for us to get away. Pink and blue streamers caught in the dark curls of her hair, and tiny dots of silver, on her bare shoulders, sparkled under the light from the lampposts. In the middle of the street Louie Newman was standing on the roof of Dr. Kaplan's new Buick, trying to dance with a skinny woman who wore a shimmering black dress, and it seemed to me that the sequins on the woman's dress glittered like the scales on an enormous fish. I didn't feel well. I wanted to go home, to be in my own room. I pulled harder and I thought I heard my mother's dress tear—I stopped pulling at once, scared—but she didn't seem to notice. Her dress was made of a pale lavender silk-chiffon, dark-purple irises swirling around one another toward the ground. I saw a man's lips pressed against her lips, but she was laughing too hard for him to keep them there. I'd never seen so many happy people before in my life. Everybody was dancing and singing and shouting and hugging each other and throwing paper in the air. Above the noise and the lights and the stores and the apartment buildings the sky was black. Where was my father? Could I tell him, later, what my mother was doing with the men? Would he see that her lipstick was smeared at the corners of her mouth?

The war was over. I was ten years old. I was living my first life. We were ankle-deep in paper—confetti and streamers and newspaper—and I began kicking, trying to make tiny sprays of color explode into the air between our feet. I heard the fire engine's bell and siren now, above the music and the shouting and the noisemakers, coming toward us from Linden Boulevard. I looked up. A long wavy piece of orange crepe paper floated down and caught across my mother's forehead and cheek. She brushed it away with her palm. Mr. Lipsky, our butcher, shoved a bottle toward her and she grabbed it by the neck, tilted her head back, and drank. I wanted to smash the bottle on the sidewalk, but I couldn't see the sidewalk through all the paper.

I was ten years old. I was living my first life, and though there would be times in the years to come—more than I'd ever care to count—when I'd yearn to go back, when I would have traded all the happiness of my second life merely to have stood for a few seconds in the place where my mother and I stood on that warm summer night so long ago, what I wanted more than anything in the world in the moment itself was for my life to fade, to disappear, to be blacked out. And yet it seemed to me, then, impossible that the moment itself would ever end.

“Come
on!”
I said. “We gotta get home.”

She took another drink from the bottle Mr. Lipsky handed her and I watched him kiss her with his tongue and put his hand on her shoulder, near her breast. I thought of him cutting fat from lamb chops on his chopping block. I pulled harder and she shoved him away, told him to behave himself. I saw Tony Cremona carrying a brown paper bag, and when he saw me looking at him, his face lit up.

“Hey Davey—c'mere,” he called. “C'mere and see what I got.”

I let go of my mother's dress and pushed through to Tony. He opened his bag and showed me the firecrackers inside. I glanced back, saw the skin of my mother's thigh, like raw flesh, where I'd torn her dress along the seam. Now the fire engine was closer, and all the firemen were waving their hats and cheering.
“The war is over…! The war is over…! The war is over…!
” In the back part of the fire engine, up high next to the man who steered, a fireman in a black raincoat and red hat was waving an American flag. Sammy the Dalmatian stood totally still, frozen against the wooden ladders and silver hose couplings. Tony took my hand, to pull me with him. The paper was so high and thick that I felt as if I were trying to march through snow.

“You go on with Tony,” my mother said. “Okay? Be a good boy, Davey. Let Momma have some fun, yeah?”

“Will uncle Abe come home now?”

“Abe!”
my mother cried out, as if someone had stabbed her. I wanted to put my arms around her but I was afraid she might push me away. “Oh my baby Abe!” she cried out again, and I wished there was something I could do to take her pain away. “Oh my precious Abe!” Tears streamed down her face and I wanted to ask her why she was crying if uncle Abe was coming home. Mr. Lipsky put an arm around her shoulder. Furious, she shrugged him off, and I thought of a wild horse, its eyes crazed with fright. She looked up at the sky and mouthed Abe's name but I heard no sound. Her brown eyes seemed larger and more beautiful than ever, as if she and not my father was the one who was half-blind. I touched her skirt. She blinked. She took a quarter from her pocketbook and pressed it into my hand. “Here, sweetheart.” She kissed me next to my mouth. I could smell her perfume, like fresh lilacs.

What would you be ready to die for?

“You and Tony go get yourselves some candy at Mr. Fellerman's. For a celebration, yeah? Your uncle Abe is coming home, darling. He's coming home now. Everything will be all right.”

The dark brown of her eyes seemed to fade to hazel, the black center to a glistening violet. I wished I were in bed, her tucking me in under cool sheets and kissing my closed eyes.

I followed Tony across the street and into the alleyways between my apartment house and the next one. When we were on the other side of all the empty ash cans Beau Jack had lined up, Tony lit a match and threw a firecracker down but even though I could smell the burnt sulphur, I didn't hear it go off, the noise from the street was still so loud.
What would you be ready to die for?
That was the question Abe had asked in one of his letters, the question he said he asked himself every morning when he woke up and every night before he went to sleep, the question he told me I should begin thinking about.

“Wanna light one?”

I lit a match and touched it to the stem of a firecracker but I held it in my hand so long, staring at it, that Tony had to slap it away. Tony lit some more. I wondered: were I grown up and a soldier, would I be brave enough to throw myself on a Nazi hand grenade in order to save the rest of my buddies? But because I couldn't imagine feeling anything afterwards—not even when I saw them all standing in a circle looking down at me—I couldn't find an answer to the question. I bent my head sideways so I could hear the firecrackers going off. I wet my fingertips on my tongue and wiped them on the ashes after the explosions and sniffed in the fragrance.

We walked to the end of my building and out into the big courtyard behind. I didn't see Beau Jack there in his chair. I imagined he'd been too shy to go out and celebrate with everybody else and that he was sitting in his room in the cellar, listening to the news on the radio. I thought of how happy he would be that the war was over, that Japan had surrendered the way Italy and Germany had already done.

No people sat on the back fire escapes, but most of the windows up and down the street were lit up. Tony and I climbed the wooden fence that separated the buildings on my side of the block from the ones on Linden Boulevard. We watched out for the barbed wire at the top and jumped down to the other side, where the ground was lower. It was dark, but we knew the alleyways and backyards of our neighborhood by heart.

“Wanna come home with me?” Tony asked. “I got some cherry bombs and bottle rockets and M-8os saved up.”

“I gotta get to my own house soon,” I said. “I think my father's there waiting for me.”

We ran down the ramp into the cellar of building 181, the German police dog barking at us from inside the super's apartment. Tony knocked over a garbage can and I did too, and we kicked grapefruit rinds and orange peels and coffee grounds and other junk around on the cement floor and then we dashed out fast. I was laughing out loud with Tony, but inside I was thinking of my mother on the corner of our block, without me. We went through a small courtyard, down again into the front part of the building, past the furnace and the boiler and the coal bin and the other bins where people stored things, and out again into another alleyway, the one where the older guys played Chinese handball after school. We were running and we couldn't stop quickly enough when we saw the three men standing there, as if they'd been waiting for us.

Tony touched my hand. “Let's beat it,” he said.

I started to run back the other way but one of the men grabbed me from behind and squeezed so hard with just his fingers and thumb that I thought he was going to crunch the bones on the back of my neck. Tony was wailing. I took a deep breath, then kicked backwards with all my might and I got the man who was holding me in the shin. I'm
coming, Tony
, I called out, inside my head.
Just hold on a few seconds more and I'll get to you, buddy…
.

“Hey, stupid—it's the Voloshin kid,” one of the men said. “Lay off.”

The man let go of me at once. He flicked on a cigarette lighter in front of my face. It lit up his face too and I saw that it was Spanish Louie, a Sephardic Jew who worked for my uncle. He popped the silver top down, but I drew a picture of him inside my head first—the downward drooping folds of his eyelids, the way his fat lower lip jutted out and covered the crevice in his chin—and I held it there, inside me.

Tony was bent over, his forehead to the ground, his ass up in the air, but I didn't move toward him. I hoped he knew why I didn't—that they wouldn't try anything else now that they knew who I was—but I was afraid he might think I was scared, or that I didn't care. In my head it was as if the three men were huddled around a campfire, warming their hands, only there was no fire on the ground—just a girl propped up against the wall, staring ahead with a dopey look on her face, the skirt up around her waist.

“Hey Davey my boy,” one of them said, buckling his belt, moving toward me. “We were just havin' some fun, right? To celebrate the end of the war.”

I looked straight into his eyes—it was Little Benny Shapiro, another one of my uncle's men—and he gave me a big grin, as if we were old friends. Little Benny wasn't much taller than me or Tony, even in the high-heeled elevator shoes he wore—maybe five-foot-one or two—so he didn't have to bend over to put his arm around my shoulder. I saw Tony look toward us. I went rigid. I didn't want Tony to think I was a friend of Benny's. I didn't want him to do something stupid that might make Benny hurt him more. I kept my arms pressed to my sides, concentrating my eyes on Tony's, hoping he'd stay quiet.

“Hey—no hard feelings, huh?”

Little Benny reached into the inside of his jacket, where I could see his holster strapped across his chest in its harness, the square black handle of his gun toward his heart. He drew out an enormous monkey roll, snapped the rubber bands off, counted out five dollars, stuck them in my shirt pocket.

“You and your friend go have a good time, yeah? You get a steak and put it on his cheek and he'll be okay. What he does is say to everybody, ‘But you should have seen the other guy—' Right, Davey?”

BOOK: Before My Life Began
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