Table of Contents
MORE PRAISE FOR BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN'S SHORT FICTION
Friedman's fantasies are a welcome relief from the flat sobriety of so much fiction.
âLos Angeles Times
Friedman writes with a wild-eyed wit, a hard-but-gentle touch, and a disturbing grasp of the fundamentals of society.
âSan Francisco Chronicle
Irresistible . . . comic gems . . . . Mr. Friedman has been likened to everyone from J. D. Salinger to Woody Allen. This collection should finally establish him for what he is: Bruce Jay Friedman, sui generis and no mean thing. No further comparisons are necessary.
âThe New York Times Book Review
From poignant bildungsroman to sly satire, from wicked comedy to surrealistic farce, . . . virtuosic . . . an expertly modulated voice that lies somewhere equidistant from those of Wilde, Salinger, and Woody Allen.
One of America's most inventive short story writers . . .
âSavannah Morning News
Irresistibly charming and funny . . . terrific . . .
âThe New York Observer
[Friedman's stories] begin in the realm of the mundane, take a quick surreal detour, and travel erratically through an idiosyncratic and highly risible countryside.
Also by Bruce Jay Friedman
A Mother's Kisses
About Harry Towns
The Current Climate
A Father's Kisses
Far From the City of Class
Let's Hear it for a Beautiful Guy
The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman
Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately?
The Lonely Guy
The Slightly Older Guy
Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos
For Pat and Molly
The Secret Man
HERBERT PLOTKIN did not so much appear in Jacob's new neighborhood as he seemed to loom up out of nowhere. He didn't look a bit like his name. He was tall and blonde and had Nordic features. His body was as tightly carved as if he had been in prison. Though he disappeared into a good building at night, no one had ever seen his parents. There was some talk that he was adopted â a disgrace at the time â but you did not dare say it.
He took up a position in front of the neighborhood drugstore each day and used it as a guard post. Sweeping his hands back through his luxuriant hair, he peered out at the streets and monitored the traffic in all directions. There didn't seem to be any way to go anywhere or do anything without passing before him.
Jacob was afraid of Plotkin and spent seven years of his life trying not to show it.
It had begun as a happy time. Jacob's father, who worked in New York City's garment center, had gotten a raise. The extra money enabled Jacob and his parents to move into a new building with a white brick exterior and an elevator. The apartment was smaller than their old one, but it was fresh and cheery and had a stepdown living room. His parents had bought an imitation fireplace with a radio built into the side of it. With a bowl of fruit in his lap, Jacob would lean in close to the speaker each night and listen to his favorite radio shows, such as “I Love a Mystery” and “The Green Hornet.” He made new friends, most of them other ten-year-olds on a fast track to medical school. There were a few slower boys who would become indifferent salesmen. Jacob played games in an empty lot next to the drugstore. Each day, two enormous cops,
both named Tony, cruised by and stopped to give him pats on the head. As a result, Jacob considered the FBI as a future career. His mother took him to Broadway shows, his father to national monuments. Standing in the Botanical Gardens with that short dapper man, Jacob felt protected against the world. Then, in what might have been an omen, he was asked at school to do a painting of a jolly Mexican in a village square. With little talent, he did a creditable job, using bright colors, getting the sombrero just right. Then he introduced brown. Instantly he saw it was a mistake and tried to erase it, smearing the canvas. Then Plotkin showed up and smeared his life.
Each day, after school, Jacob took a glum walk to the drugstore. If Plotkin wasn't there, Jacob would casually ask if anyone had seen him. Inevitably he would be told that Plotkin had “beaten the shit” out of a boy in the playground or in a distant neighborhood. It was almost a relief when Plotkin showed up. At least Jacob wouldn't have to hear of his exploits. Screwing up his courage, he would walk past Plotkin and say, “Hi, Herbie.” Plotkin would respond with a nod, then look off in the distance as if he had important matters on his mind. And Jacob would feel released from some brutal obligation â until the following day and the next miserable walk to the drugstore.
There had always been other options. Jacob could have walked to the Concourse and played with a rich boy who had a house full of games. He could have gotten involved in a science project and stayed late at school. Or taken a crosstown bus to discuss sex with a cousin. But he chose to make a daily appearance at the drugstore and to be sick with fear.
And he had never seen Plotkin fight. He had watched him do acrobatic stunts on a bar, twirling his chiseled body high above the playground concrete, and then prepare to fight a bewildered boy who had wandered by. Plotkin had rolled up his sleeves, then delicately removed his wristwatch and placed it on a bench. Jacob could not recall what had happened next. Possibly nothing. But he
remembered Plotkin's knuckles, the golden hair on his wrists, the awful ceremony.
One day a boy cried out in the drugstore: “Herbie's fighting a man.” Jacob joined a circle that had formed around Plotkin and a wounded veteran of Anzio. The two rolled around in the gutter. But here again, all Jacob saw were muffled blows in the dust and the flash of a metallic leg brace glinting in the sun. When the two were pulled apart, Jacob heard the veteran say: “I would have killed him, but he was a kid.” But was he? Jacob and his friends were skinny boys who hadn't grown into their bodies. Jacob himself was given thyroid shots and forced to stand in the malted milk line at summer camp. Plotkin had a powerfully developed body with golden hair in his armpits. Was he a secret man?
As further evidence of his maturity, Plotkin began to show up with a small girl who lived in a cellar. Each day, Jacob watched them cross the vacant lot, Plotkin's arm gallantly draped across her shoulders. Then they ducked down and disappeared into the cellar. Jacob wondered what they did down there. Was Plotkin rough or gentle?
Never once did Plotkin lay a hand on Jacob, which somehow added to his misery. There were times when Jacob wanted to get it over with, to be smashed in the face â so that he could get on with his life. An older boy stopped Jacob one day and said: “I notice Herbie never picks on you.” Jacob nodded as if to say “He knows better” â but inwardly he trembled . . .
Jacob had a friend named Nathan, a poor boy whose father sent him out at fourteen to sell endowment policies. He had pitch black hair and broad shoulders. Shy girls who passed him on the street said “Hi, Nate.” He was self-assured, but modest in nature and he was a hero to Jacob. One day Jacob and his friend walked past the drugstore. Plotkin was at his post. When he saw Nathan, he looked away.
“You know Herbie?” asked Jacob.
“Yes,” said Nathan, “and he knows he's in trouble with me.”
Jacob was startled. It was the most amazing thing he had ever heard. Plotkin in trouble with another person? You were supposed to be in trouble with Plotkin. Suddenly he saw the world from a different angle.
Emboldened by the incident, Jacob walked up to Plotkin the following day and slapped him with an open hand, then drew back.
“Let's go, Herbie,” he said and put up his hands as if to fight.
A sleepy group looked on, including one adult. This gave Jacob courage. If matters got out of hand, surely they'd intervene. Plotkin slapped Jacob back with equal force, then withdrew, mumbling to himself as if to contemplate the awful consequences if he went further. Jacob virtually flew through the streets in triumph. He'd challenged Plotkin and come away unharmed. But the feeling didn't last. He'd accomplished nothing. Plotkin was still there. He would always be there, until Jacob grew up and moved away. Worse, what if they'd met in an empty lot or in the railroad yard, with no one to intervene. What if Plotkin had ceremoniously taken off his wristwatch and beaten Jacob like a ragdoll. Jacob could feel the golden blows. He pictured his mother tracking down Plotkin's parents and showing them her broken boy.
“Look what you've done to my son,” she would say.
The torture continued for Jacob. He couldn't enjoy himself at school, at summer camp, or even watching musical comedies â Plotkin would always be waiting at the drugstore. Waiting for
, or so it seemed. There was only one peaceful interlude. A refugee boy ran through the streets one day saying, “Plotkin's got a hernia.” Jacob didn't know what a hernia was, only that it had something to do with the groin. He knew that Plotkin would be unable to swing on bars. And that he couldn't fight until it healed. Maybe this would be a good time to get him, to punch him in the hernia, though it wouldn't be fair.
Jacob couldn't wait to see Plotkin and his hernia. The refugee boy said Plotkin's parents had given him a little white dog as a gift, to make up for the operation. On a sunny afternoon, Plotkin made
an appearance, walking slowly down the street with the cellar girl, trailed by the little white dog. His gait was awkward, as if he had just ridden an unruly horse. He and the girl entered the cellar, followed by the dog. Jacob imagined that Plotkin had a snow white bandage between his legs, with fringes of golden hair showing. Jacob frankly wanted to look inside the bandage and see what was going on. Maybe the girl would do that in the cellar, remove the bandage and minister to Plotkin's hernia.
The refugee boy told Jacob it took a month for a hernia to heal. For thirty days, Jacob felt carefree and had no need to return to the drugstore. He took advantage of the peaceful interlude by exploring the outer reaches of the Bronx, with particular attention to bridges, construction sites and railroad yards. He interviewed a radio personality for his school newspaper and was amazed at how relaxed and humble the man was, despite his fame. On the cold bathroom tile, Jacob twisted himself into a pretzel and discovered his body. Then Plotkin recovered. As if in celebration, he confronted Jacob on the street and tore a jacket from his body, then danced away. It was blue suede, a birthday gift from Jacob's mother. At a safe distance, Plotkin modeled the jacket, twisting this way and that, posing before an invisible mirror. Jacob knew he could never catch the fleet Plotkin. But he walked toward him, prepared to die. Possibly Plotkin sensed this. Jacob would never know. Tired of the game, Plotkin handed back the jacket. Jacob slipped into it and returned to what he thought of as an unfair life.