The Sace Between Us

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Other stories in the set:
Termites | Smack Attack | Jody's Journal | Dwarfo's Tale | Zonker's Death | Banana Jackpot

Beyond the Buck

This story begins the moment my father died. When his breathing ceased, I had an inexplicable urge to say aloud what I had known since I failed to run the little Brooklyn property he had purchased for me.

So, in a sense, this story is born as much from the urge to tell my story as from my father's death. What I'd realized, heard myself say to myself, was that I wanted the entire world to be like my room: safe and cozy. I live in my parent's home comfortably as does one who is sure that one day it will belong to them.

What I'm trying to say is, after getting permission from the doctors to spend some time alone with my father's corpse, I felt myself expanding. I looked into his stiffened eyeballs and said aloud, "Irving Gloom, your boy is a runt."

Prior to my father's death I could not have sat in the living room with him and heard myself say to myself that I was a bottom of the pile man, because my father was bigger than life. You had to give him room. He gobbled up physical and mental space. It was impossible to get a word in when he was inspired by his parental concern for my well being. He spoke quickly and pushed along without any doubt that by the end of the tale I would develop a knack for making tomato sauce without tomatoes.

It must have been painful to my father to have an unambitious son. I never wanted to climb any ladders or have a lot of people at my funeral.

Dad's was packed. The rabbi was talking on his cell phone, people were exchanging business cards, and somebody stuck a Summons of Complaint on fathers' coffin. He'd have appreciated that. Father wasn't an easy man to serve.

Since Dad's death my mother has been buying all the nonsense he forbid her to spend his hard earned money on, and vacationing at all the spots he wouldn't have been caught dead. She hasn't cooked once.

My Father had tormented her, because she refused to serve meat. He went ballistic when she served him vegetarian concoctions. He said, "I spend all day chasing money, and my wife rewards me with tofu burgers." Then he’d pause to pull back his lips and show me his fangs. They looked as though he’d stolen them from a large dog.

"Your mother denies evolution." He’d say. "She thinks this form, the human form, is the end. I keep telling her it isn't so. We're no more ends than the stinking dinosaurs. We're not special; we're just another creature.

"Your mother shouldn't take her survival so personally. Human beings can't extinguish life; life isn't going to stop if the human species becomes extinct. You think the elephants, the ants, the kangaroos, or those snail darters everyone is trying to save are going to miss us? No way!"

Dad was coming across loud and clear although he was two flights up getting his emergency supplies from his cache beneath the floorboards. Hiding food was only one benign side effect of his internment during the Second World War. It was a foible like always carrying his passport and at least a thousand in cash.

When Dad returned with his emergency rations: a box of Malomars and a liter bottle of Coke, he did not lower the volume of his speech. He simply consumed more space. He spoke to me. He needed to tell me things. "Every day, I'm paying twice to eat. The shoe polish pail is full of tofu burgers. Houdini would marvel at me. I've got more ways to get rid of brown rice, then a veterinarian has for getting fleas off a dog."

"I keep telling your mother. I say dear, The Industrial Revolution is backfiring in our faces; we're waist deep in machine shit: noxious fumes are dissolving our lungs, poison water is rotting our bellies, and electromagnetic waves are jostling our molecules. Being in this city is like being in a microwave oven, Philip and I are preparing for the future. That's why we eat Big Macs. It's not because we like them. We're inoculating ourselves against diseases which don't even have names. When a man works with poisonous snakes, he injects himself with small doses of venom. It makes him immune. You look at a Big Mac. The beef has been shot full of steroids and antibiotics. The sauces are all made from stuff which comes out of a test tube. Condoms made of animal membranes don't stop AIDS. Plastic does. It makes sense. It's the disease of the age of plastic.

"But do you think your mother listens? Nope. She insists on starving us. You want a Malomar?" He said while stuffing a whole one into his mouth and passing one across to me. I accepted. I put it on my plate alongside the Hijiki salad. Sharing food was a big deal to Dad, and I accepted as graciously as I could under the circumstances. And then he’d start back in.

"And do you know why your mother is feeding us medicine? So we can live forever. It all amounts to fear of death. The whole stinking health food save the planet racket is one enormous prayer to ward off death.

"Your mother thinks if she eats food that tastes like medicine then she's going to live until she's ninety-eight. I keep telling her, Dear, you may be preserving your body, but you're starving your soul."

Dinner was one of the worst events of my life. I'm somewhat passive by nature and loved both my parents. So I acquired a taste for seaweed salads and Pepsi as well as the knowledge that my father would taunt my mother, but he would never go head to head with her.

Mom comes from a long line of Jewish merchants that would have ended in Auschwitz if she had not bamboozled her way into the commandancy of the Puff (the camp's whore house). Mom was not to be messed with, and Dad knew it. He claimed she'd killed more Nazis then the Americans.

I feared for the life of anyone who attempted to burglarize our home. If Mom didn't shoot them with her palm sized Luger, they'd fall into one of Dad's traps. He had the fire escape greased, and the metal window frame rigged to an open four hundred amp circuit. I often considered hanging a sign from the fire escape that said, If you value your life, rob somebody else.

My father, since the fiasco with the small apartment building, feared I would not be able to fend for myself in a crisis situation, and I for my part since the same fiasco understood that my father's concerns were founded in a reasonable assessment of my character, but what I never had a chance to explain, what he could have never heard, was that I knew I was a bottom of the pile man, and it didn't bother me.

According to Dad, each time the door of the gas chamber was opened the center of the room contained a pyramid of dead persons at the top of which was the strongest male.

I can assure you that had I ever got myself involved in the real struggle for the imaginary oxygen at the top of the heap, I would not have arrived anywhere near the top although my father would not only have found himself on the top. He would have been breathing, or trying to, with somebody else's lungs.

My father always said to me, "Son, you are at a tremendous advantage. The holocaust took us by surprise; we were surprised by God's indifference. Eight million Auschwitz people get gassed and their stinking God doesn't lift a finger. Fuck him! Who needs a God like that? We learned the hard way. The Hebrew God has no love of his people."

My father had gone into Auschwitz as a rabbinical student, and came out a mongrel who evolved into the Cockroach of Brooklyn.

He spoke to me often of his first job in America. Dad said he learned everything he knew about business from Max Burger; he swore that Max had taught him what no Harvard-Big-Head had the sense to know. (My father was convinced school made people stupid. He would have enrolled me in the most dangerous Public School in Brooklyn had Mom not stood between us.)

Max had taught Dad how to make tomato sauce without tomatoes. He used other people's bad luck, a perspicacious eye for opportunity, an intuitive grasp of the value of money, and the balls of a pirate.

Max's story had affected my Dad so profoundly that he spent the next thirty years telling people how max Burger had taught him everything he knew. Dad repeated himself so many times that to date I can recite his stories in his voice.

"It was Max Burger who gave me the idea for the earthquake business.

"Mr. Burger owned an Army Navy store next to an Irish Pub, and often told his young clerks the story of how he started selling loose underwear. According to Max, the old drunks were always pissing on themselves. So they'd come over to his store and ask for underwear. Max would hand them one of those plastic pouches with three pairs of underwear, and they'd walk out.

"It took Max years, but he finally figured it out. Those old geezers didn't know what to do with the other two pairs of underwear. Some little voice in their head wouldn't let them just throw them out, and they couldn't bring them home because that would be a confession that they'd gotten so drunk they'd pissed on themselves.

"So one day in walks this guy who must have come in to Max's place twenty times in five months. He looks at Max. Max looks at him and says, 'A forty waist?' The drunk nods. He doesn't know a forty inch waist from a twenty inch waist. Max pulls a pair of BVDS out of the plastic pouch and sells it to the gentleman for twice the price of the entire package. The drunk has no idea what underwear costs. His wife buys it. But he's the happiest man on earth. He's going home with clean underwear. You got to know what the customer wants, and you've got to deliver it.

Eighteen months later on the wages he'd saved and the profits Dad had made selling Max's merchandise out the back door, he bought a used Cadillac, drove to LA, and started the earthquake business.

My father preyed on people's unconscious desire to have everything come out with a storybook ending. He sold hope, a way out--The Four Week Survival Kit--to rich families living on or near faults.

My father started each morning with a reverse prayer. He'd say, "Hey God, you lousy son of a bitch strike me dead", then he'd lift his shirt, expand his big-hard belly and wait a few minutes after which he'd be assured of God's indifference.

According to Dad, once you accept the fundamental indifference of others then you can begin to operate sensibly like a tree or a big cat.

Although survivors are often admired. The word itself, survivor, has some kind of magic, I think it is more for their wish to live, then for what they actually did to survive or what they taught their offspring.

The people who survived are not to be admired. They are beyond ruthless. They hear only one voice which screams 'live, live, live,' and they obey without question. When my father learned from one of the old inmates that the only part of the human being you could eat raw was the brains, he feed regularly on brains while others rotted away on bug-soup.

In our home, even at Dad's funeral, Hitler's concentration camps were not something that happened forty years ago. In fact, the rabbi took a moment during Dad's eulogy to remind everyone present that the German's didn't apologize because of what they had done, but because they lost.

My Father and most of his intimate associates venerated not the institution Auschwitz or the men who ran it, but the lessons they'd learned and how they applied them in post war America, a place without debtor’s prisons.

Dad, for instance, had a sign hung in the window of his car, printed on the Mayor's stationary (a single sheet of which cost him a hundred bucks), stamped with the seal of New York (the one time use of which cost him an additional fifty), and signed by the director of the Health and Hospitals Corp (my mother for no additional charge). It read: DO NOT TICKET, TOW, OR TOUCH THIS VEHICLE. IT IS USED TO TRANSPORT HIV POSITIVE BLOOD SAMPLES.

He kept a rack of vials filled with water and red food coloring on the dashboard precariously perched behind the windshield wipers.

My father despised small cars. He spoke often of the virtues of big cars, his car, the best car, the crush-proof blue Buick. Whatever my father had was the best.

"You're out there riding around in one of them little Japanese numbers, and some maniac who lost it all in a stock deal comes barreling down the road in a fucking Jeep. He's going out. He's bankrupt. They're going to throw the kids out of Yale, repossess the co-op, take the furniture, and send the carpets back to Turkey. He and the wife are going to be standing around with tin cups. That's what he thinks. His chain has been yanked. He's going down the shitter. His wife will never stop bitching. He's going to take someone out. Me! He chooses me. He pushes the gas pedal to the floor. The speedometer is climbing. He's going to ram Irving Gloom on the FDR, and some greedy little philosophy professor without any imagination is going to read about it in the Post and use it as an example in his existentialism course. No way! Gloom isn't riding around in a Budweiser can. This Buick is crush proof. I reinforced it. They never made a car like this. You couldn't squash it with a god damn compactor. We're going head to head . . . bumper to bumper. He's going to bounce into the god damn East River. That stinking professor is going to have to cook up his own example. He ain't going to use Irving Gloom."

Everyone has a muse that is oddly consistent or helpful in getting them more or less what they wish for or the experience that proves what they already believe. The first door I knocked on in my new sixteen family building opened onto the apartment in which lived Jesus the odds and ends guy at the Greek Diner where I often have my breakfast.

While he stood at the door wondering what I'd come to see him about, I presented him with a copy of the deed and asked for the rent only to discover his few words of English were of little use; they all had to do with restaurants. "Renta. Renta." I repeated as my father had instructed me to do. I knew the man was current, but would require a nudge before parting with the money, but I couldn’t get up the steam, for I was too busy wondering what the Greek paid him and whether I should tell him about the overcharge (Dad rented to illegal Mexicans at above the legal regulated rent, because they couldn’t rat him out). In short, I was not even waving the deed around and making insistent demands.

My father wouldn't have cared if the Greek, who owned the diner, paid Jesus seven cents an hour. Facts like that had no impact on Dad. He had zero sympathy for men who couldn't use a little imagination to span the difference between what they were paid and what they needed to live.

Demands are in their root aggressive acts requiring conviction. I am here to collect the rent. I have always resented (been uncomfortable) about making a demand (even if I'm entitled to something). I can't explain it.

Life seems to fluctuate between moments where you are left alone and the other times during which someone wants to stand on the sidewalk beneath your feet. I hate that.

It always happens the same way. Its never any eye to eye event, but it has an animal-born immediacy. One must bristle or capitulate in an instant.

So perhaps what I'm saying is that my compunction to be moral is that I am not fond of struggling to protect what is mine.

I should have looked Jesus in the eye, locked him in silent confrontation instead I retreated to my room: the only demand free zone on the planet. I have a distaste for any forum in which I must assert my will, stand my ground or overcome someone else’s resistance. Although my father had warned me repeatedly about the consequences of being Beyond the Buck. They were worse than dying from the Black Plague. I’d end up like the artist in Red Hook.

"I met this artist." He would say. "We got to talking. He told me all about his work. It takes him five years to make a single painting. He does them in layers. They don't even have an image. They're just layers and layers of paint. Now while he's telling me this I'm thinking, another head case, I attract them. It can't be helped. I had a coupla hours to kill. So I say to him, 'I'd like to see your work.' Fine, he's going to show me his work. He doesn't show everyone his work, but he thinks I'm special.

"We get into my car. As soon as he sits down, he starts admiring the interior. Tells me that he hasn't been inside a private car in a few years. He travels on subways. Then he mumbles something about how he's never sold a painting except once to this really famous dealer. I didn't say a word. I mean you know I'm looking for Picasso Junior. I'm going to find him before one of those assholes on Madison Avenue get to him.

"Anyway, I don't make much of this artist. I mean all of these cheeseballs have spent so many hours dreaming an important dealer or collector bought one of their pieces that they get to the point where they believe, Yes I have sold a piece to so and so, the big fat famous dealer. Right! Every one of these desperate fools has the phone number of a friend of a friend who knows so and so in SoHo, or a celebrity rancher in Bumfuck Idaho, or a prince in Paris. That's what makes these artists the most pathetic people you've ever met. These noodleheads will sit around starving, dreaming, waiting for some idiot who doesn't even remember them to call.

"This fucking country is going to be buried beneath art. It's revenge. Kids from good families, the sons and daughters of shrinks, doctors, and lawyers are sucking up the family funds. They hate their parents, resent them for building missiles, for taking money from the poor, for polluting the air, for inventing AIDS. I'm telling you it's endless. They're sucking their parents dry, emptying their bank accounts, accusing their parents of making the planet uninhabitable. It's a joke."

At this point my father would give me a fierce pinch on the thigh while saying, "You ever pull that routine, I'll take every fucking appliance out of the house. I'll start with the TV, so long refrigerator, off goes the juice, no more plane rides. You'll be walking around in the dark, scratching your ass and wondering what to do.

"I'm not going to give my child all kinds of dough so he can make films, paint pictures, or write books about how fucked up I am.

"Well, you can't take anything at face value. You can never have expectations. Don't ever make assumptions. So I say to this artist, When did this dealer buy your work and what's his name.

"He scratches his head. His hands have more callouses than a whore's ass. He mumbles, six years ago.

"The minute he says that. Two lights start flashing: the green one and the red one. I'm thinking on one hand perhaps I'm sitting next to Picasso Junior. But the red is saying stop. This guy has problems. If the dealer only bought one piece either his friends didn't like it or I'm sitting next to a man who's Beyond the Buck.

"It doesn't matter. I'm going to his studio. Judging by his worn-out Levis and his beat up sneakers, I figure he's making a few hundred dollars a week when he works. But he doesn't always work because half the time he's doing his art.

"So I'm wondering how much could this dealer have paid? Well I met one. He's a horrible human being. I had to go see him, because your mother was threatening to buy something unique for the house. Oh boy, I could hear her asking for the cash, and I could see all of them unique dealers rubbing their hands together and stomping their feet, holding the door open for my wife, sucking me dry.

"I'm not going to let that happen. So I go to see this guy who sells estates. I'm going to get the love of my life something special. I go into his office. He smokes one cigarette after another. I like cigarettes, but he was lighting them off of each other. I mean a classic chain smoker. So I say to him, how come you smoke so much? Now you've really got to imagine this. The old geezer leans over, puts his lips close to my ear and says, 'Have you ever smelt decaying flesh?'

'Yeah, I did.'

Then he sits up and says, 'You ever heard of Dachau?'

'Yeah, I'm a Jew, a Landsman.'

"I say that, but I don’t think for one stinking second it means he’s not going to try and do me. Well he says, I spent four years there and ever since I can't get that smell out of my nostrils. It doesn't smell so bad when you're smoking.

"Now, I figure a man who goes around with a nose full of rotting flesh, a man who's got a store in Manhattan, a man with a reputation, is going to get a good price.

"So I figure this artist's dealer is cut from the same cloth. He offered the kid a couple of hundred bucks. The kid jumped on it. He told his art buddies and they all said, you got robbed. So now the kid hates the dealer, never returned any of his calls. I'm not going to make that mistake. I'm ready to offer this knucklehead a thousand bucks in cash.

"Now we finally get to this guy's studio which is somewhere in Red Hook on a street that doesn't even have a tree. We go into some warehouse building. His loft is filthy. He's sleeping on the floor. He's cooking on a butane stove. But the work is incredible. You know, I like figurative stuff. I hate all that abstract nonsense. Decorations. Fads. Just more creeps with their heads in the sand, but these paintings were unbelievable. The canvases were alive. I was ready to buy. My wife could live with his stuff.

"I sit. He sits. We drink some instant coffee. I say how much? Well, this maniac looks me right in the eye and says, Fifteen thousand dollars.

"He goes over to the painting. He points to this detail and that detail. Tells me about the figure of the bird, the man's face, and half a dozen images hidden in the surface. I said, 'Listen jack, I'll give you a thousand dollars cash, right now.'

"You know what this little creep did? He took my plastic cup with that stinking Nescafe in it and poured it on the floor right next to his bed. It's probably still there. Then he pushed me out the door.

"The man was nuts. A thousand dollars was reasonable. What does he expect for a canvas? It only cost him a few bucks to make. He's got no overhead. He steals electricity from an outlet in the hallway."

Although I loved my father; I will not miss him. That's what I thought when I removed my lips from his cold forehead.