This place is always happening. I live where people go on vacation. Even the rainy days are beautiful. What’s not to enjoy?
I’m enjoying a nice, lackadaisical stroll east toward the ocean on a gorgeous Sunday morning when a silver Buick Skylark pulls to the curb. This sometimes happens, people asking for directions or for drugs. The tzitzit and kippa I wear don’t deter, especially when I’m also wearing short sleeves and they see my colors. Plus, some are aware that I actually do know the directions to point them in. I pull out my ear buds and lean into the passenger side window.
The old man points a revolver at me from the driver’s seat. He’s obviously a Jew, has the perfect, overshot nose, the full lower lip, and a few inches up from the hand pointing the gun, the numbers. He could be the grandfather of any number of my friends I grew up with who had lived closer to 41st Street when we were in school. For a moment I wonder if I’m having a flashback. I don’t even know if those are real, but you hear stories, and your past tends to ghost around when you don’t move away from home and your body is a billboard of a time never out of mind. But a purposeful blink, a shake of the head – I’m feeling comical – prove it’s a myth. This is no flashback. That .38 in this old man’s incredibly steady hand is loaded with six bullets.
He has a gun on me, but I feel sorry for him. And all my krav maga training down the drain. I’m too curious. My father always said I was like a curious cat, wink, wink. And how many times he was right more folks than just all the neighbors and emergency room doctors know.
I say to him, “I’m so sorry for your troubles, reb – ?”
“Don’t call me reb, yid. Just get in the car.”
I stroke my beard. “So gimme your name and I won’t call you reb Yid.”
“Not like that. Get in the car.”
I’m thinking proximity control. But I also want this guy’s story. I look down the sidewalk. Two blocks east and two blocks south is the police station. And another couple of blocks east spreads like a crystal clear dream the gleaming beach, the green and blue sparkle of the ocean, the music of the shore.
“Why should I get in the car? You won’t shoot me.” I smile, trying to disarm him with a joke, feeling clever, “If you really want to put on tefillin, you don’t need to threaten me with a gun. I live close by. We can get mine there.”
“Don’t test me, you putz. Get in the car.”
I’m having second thoughts about the seriousness of this situation.
“You’re very angry. You don’t even know me, old man.”
He gazes out the windshield.
At that moment – easy shmeezy to lean in and take the gun.
All that training. I promise that if Gd sees me through, I’ll give my master back the instructor’s certificate. It’s not that I’m afraid of this old man. I look at him. His eyes narrow, his forehead smooth. He’s small, compact and fit. And he’s tan. But a closer look at his eyes – red and wet from crying, almost a cobalt blue, deep, deep with despair.
“You live near here?” I ask him.
“Listen. I have this gun pointed at you. And I have nothing left in my life. You have no choice.” Spittle wets his bottom lip and chin at the last word. “Get in the car.”
He says, “Don’t patronize me. Look at you. You’re a disgrace.”
I have an idea. I should get him out of the car.
“There’s a bus bench right here, old man,” I point behind me, “right in the shade. I’m going to sit there. Your leather seats look hot and sticky. Come sit with me like a mensch.”
“Ach!” He menaces with the barrel. “No, no, no. Get in the car!”
I hold up my hand backing away. “No, no. We’ll just sit like two dudes who need to talk. I’m not getting in the car.”
I slowly back off, sit on the bench. His mouth drops open. I watch him through the windshield. I’m scared, but more for him. Such a sad case. He looks right back at me. He puts the car in park, turns off the ignition, and grabs his jacket. There’s no telling how far I could have run. I stay put.
Sitting next to me now, the gun pointed at me across his torso from the pocket of his Members Only jacket. He looks me up and down. Warns me that he’ll shoot if I don’t come with him. We can sit and talk, he says, for a few moments. He’s tired anyway and it’s a nice day. But I must come with him. He’s killed before, he threatens. Germans, he says. Nazis, he says, after liberation. And he practices at a range. He knows what he’s doing. But I’m a Jew, too, I tell him. He shakes his head.
Truthfully, I’m getting a little nervous now. I’ve given up the advantage I’d had. Reaching across his body is a risk. I’m realizing very clearly now how badly I’ve messed up my chances at successfully defending myself. Even though I’m younger, faster, and stronger, he keeps the gun in a place that makes things difficult for me. Plus, I feel sorry for him. I’m utterly powerless.
Meanwhile, he stares at the red door of the apartment building across the street. He tells me his granddaughter is dying. That she was like me, crazy with tattoos and newly found faith. All she wants is to start again, have a family of her own. But no one would marry her, so she slipped back to her old ways and now it’s like she’s dead.
He tells me, seemingly quoting now, “’I see a red door and I want it painted black.’”
I look across the street at the door, back at him, nod. It’s a coincidence, right? He’s not really quoting the Stones, right? He looks up at the bluest sky in the universe, watches a girl glide by on a long board, her braids blue and pink.
“’No colors anymore, I want them to turn black. I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes. I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.’”
I stand up. He is so surprised a shot goes off and hits the rear tire of his car. The noise is incredible. He looks up at me and I look down at him. The world is silent. Just then, a brightly mirrored Lexus drives by, heavy dub step beats vibrating my toes, palm trees reflected on the car’s body.
Nobody around seems to have noticed the gunshot.
I point at the old man and tell him, “That’s a song you’re quoting! The Stones. My Gd, don’t ruin that song for me!”
He’s crying now, “’I look inside myself and see my heart is black.’”
“’I see the red door and I must have it painted black. Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts. It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black.’”
He moves the gun out his pocket. I scream, “I’ll paint the door!”
He rests it on the bench beside his leg, his finger still in the trigger guard. One kick will take him out. He’s crazy, this old man. But he’s also crying. The sadness is such a weight on him. What kind of life? To see his own grandchild die?
“She’s not dead,” he says. “Not yet. But she’s sick. She’ll be gone one day. And it’s your fault. People like you. All sympathetic, pathetic lies.” His red rimmed eyes belie the accusation.
I feel inspired, a fire in my belly like a shot of good whiskey. It’s been a long time since I had whiskey.
I take a deep, cleansing breath of the salty sweet air. He wants to quote songs? Okay, I got this. “Listen,” I say.
“’I know your fear of loss and your struggles with faith and how it takes everything that you have to face the day. The virtues you possess now bring you eternal pain. All you have is contempt for a life you can’t obtain.’”
“There’s no need to yell and scream,” he says. “You don’t know anything.”
“’All your heroes have failed you, yet you try and prevail. Face your torment and dismantle your doubt.’”
“Sha! What do you know? You’re making such a scene.” He looks both ways. No one is coming or going.
I point to my tattoos up and down my arms, to the scars up my wrists. I point at his arm.
I tell him he was put in the camps. I tell him I will never know his horrors, but that I built my own and did it to myself.
And I say, “’Refuse this legacy of shame and deceit, cause the only real truth in your life that you know is hostility. Your world is coming apart.’”
“Why so loud? What do you know? Ach. The world has come apart one too many times.”
The noise is a clap of thunder, just as incredible as the first time. I jump high enough to almost touch the tallest branch and land hard on the balls of my feet. The Skylark leans heavy into the curb, both right side tires shot out. He’d slammed his hand down with the gun. So now he’s shot the gun two times. The next bullet could have my name on it. I want to say Shema, I want to run, but I’m unstoppable now. I’m stomping in front of him. I’m a one man hardcore mosh pit. I am in fear for my life like never before and I have never before felt more alive.
I stop and bend down to look at him eye to eye and whisper, “’Remain steadfast. Perseverance.’”
“You’re a barking moron. A real know-it-all putz. Perfect for each other,” he whispers.
“I have your gun,” I tell him.
I call a cab and we take a ride to his house, which is in my old stomping grounds. A fine old house, a vine covered cottage off of Prairie near the golf course over there. I must have ridden my bike by this old man’s house a thousand times or more as a kid and as a teen. I may have even once or twice woken up in a stupor on this front yard, which smells strong of citrus and gardenias. He leads me around back. A smaller cottage, plain faced, with shaded windows. The door handle crusted with salt. He knocks on the door, “Chava?”
From behind the door, imitating a sing-song ghost, extending the vowels, “Sheee’s deeaad.”
He says, “There’s a young man here with a gun to my back.”
“Oh my Gd,” I say, loudly, “I do not. This is your gun. It’s his gun!” I reach into my pocket, scrambling for the now unloaded gun. “Take it. I’m going to leave. You’re even crazier than I thought. What if she calls the police?”
“What? She won’t even believe me.”
In a flash, colors, colors everywhere.
And just like that, there’s a shotgun barrel on my forehead.
“Drop it,” she says.
I’m looking into the dark umber eyes of the saddest, most beautiful creature that has ever put a gun to my forehead. What krav maga? I can’t end this now.
I raise my hands head level. “I have nothing to drop.” I look closer. Long, aquamarine skirt, tie-dyed sleeves to her forearms. Tatts to her knuckles. Her face familiar.
“No. Wait. Really? Aren’t you Sunshine Greenburg?”
Squint of confirmation. She looks me up and down.
“Zayde,” she says, “not again.”
“But this time he’s a religious. It’s beshert.”
I stammer, “What the –“
She looks back at me.
“Are you shomer Shabbos?”
I nod. “This is all a ploy? He was crying. For reals crying. And the Stones. He was speaking in Stones. And I just can’t get over that you’re Sunshine. I was two classes above you.”
“My name is Chava, okay? Those were not good days. And I taught him about the Stones. He loves that era of music.”
“I love her,” Zayde says. “She’s getting older. I want her to be married and happy. Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Not everyone has to be married to be happy,” I say.
She says, “Oh, please. How many kids do you want?”
She pushes the barrel a tad. “Answer.”
“Can we have something to eat first? Maybe some falafel? At least a green smoothie?”
Zayde laughs, pats me hard on the back, which surprises Chava.
The noise in unbelievable. I’m still deaf in my right ear, but the doctor says I might recover some hearing. Later, we can discuss other options.
In the mean time, Chava is massive with our first. The rifle is put away safely and the handgun we sold. I never told my master a thing, so I still teach self-defense classes at the JCC. Zayde also sold the Buick and sits all day at the yeshiva on Alton arguing with the bochurim about how they don’t appreciate what they have. He buys them breakfast and they love him. He promised the rabbis no more Stones songs. Without their knowing, though, he’s managed to give over some lyrics from my own record collection. Zayde is seriously hardcore.
Author’s note on the lyrical mash-up: Zayde’s Stones song is obviously “Paint it Black.” Our narrator quotes lyrics from Hatebreed’s “Perseverance.”
Featured image by Julián Rodriguez Orihuela.