Wednesday, March 31, 2010
A Novel by Art Rosch
All characters in this book are either fictional or in the public domain
Home Is Where The Heart Is Not
1956: University City, Missouri
Shortly after Aaron Kantro's ninth birthday he had a revelation: he was smarter than everyone he knew. It was true his grades were not good. They were C plus type grades, arrived at with no effort and no interest with the exception of things that involved words. Spelling, for instance. He could spell words he had never heard, and often knew what they meant. There was something in their construction that guided him. He wasn't fool-proof. Some words snared him and then he got impatient, and even a little angry. He would find out what that word meant!
One such word that trapped him like a fly on sticky paper was the word Hermaphrodite. He couldn't decipher it without the dictionary. He would never have encountered it had he not been exploring his father's forbidden bedside drawer, the one where the naughty magazines were kept.
Hermaphrodite: a person or creature having characteristics of both male and female gender. Wow! The word was an entire universe, a maze down which he strode bravely with imaginary sword in hand. In order to crack the word's code he needed the good dictionary, the one at school. But the school's dictionary was inadequate, it led him to a dead end. Yes, something that was both male and female. Many kinds of snails and fish partook of both genders but that didn't explain where the word came from! It was Greek, that's all the book told him. He took a bus downtown and referred to the dictionary at the St. Louis Public Library, the big one that could kill somebody if it fell on their head.
And there, THERE, he learned not only the words Hermaphrodite and Androgynous but he learned about the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite, who had a child named Hermaphroditos. By some magic process about which he was not clear, the divine child merged with a nymph (which was always female) named Salmacis and became a single person who was both sexes, both male and female.
In spite of his mother's continual hammering at his self-esteem, Aaron knew he was smart. He wasn't Straight A-do-your-homework and pay attention to every word a teacher said SMART. That was a KIND of smart, maybe, sort of a machine kind of smart but there were different kinds of smart, he realized, and he had a special kind of smart.
No matter that his mother called him stupid and lazy fifty times a day. No matter. He didn't believe her, not any more.
Aaron was a little boy; small, thin and pale. When lined up for scouts or gym he stood pigeon-toed, looking angry and scared. His shoulders bunched high against his ears and his hands fisted tightly at his sides.
At school he could not physically compete with boys his own age, so he had been put back a year in gym class. This was a bottomless well of humiliation. He lacked strength and coordination. He wasn’t even obnoxious or funny. Without these ingredients for childhood charisma, his place in the playground pecking order was at the bottom. Last.
Sure, he was smart. He learned very quickly that being smart was not an asset and showing that he was smart was downright dangerous. Still, being smart was all he had; it was his only defense against a world seemingly arrayed against smart little children with lousy grades.
He was every kid’s favorite victim. They enjoyed goading him into a rage because of the comical results. He had a ferocious temper that would spring him into frenzies in which he wanted to maim his tormentors. When he released his rage the result was a pathetic windmilling of his arms. He was so small and light that he was easily deflected. He couldn't hurt anyone. Therefore, he couldn't scare anyone. The idea of using a stick or a bat just wasn't in him. Somehow it offended his dignity. Using a weapon was sneaky, and Aaron wasn't sneaky by nature. He was only sneaky with regard to his mother and her irrational Blockade, her refusal to allow him to be himself. He called it a Blockade because it felt like his mother was suffocating him, depriving him of all he needed to get any fun from his life. He was like Great Britain in 1940 when the U-boats cut off all the supplies of food and steel.
There were dark shadows under Aaron’s eyes, shadows signalling that The Blockade was having an effect, that he was in trouble, that he was scared. No boy of nine should look the way Aaron looked.
His reclusive and thoughtful demeanor earned him a nickname. He was called “The Professor”. It was not a happy nickname. It wasn’t like “Slugger”, “Speedy” or “A.J”. One of Aaron’s teachers started using it as a term of affection. The kids adopted it as their expression of contempt. When they drawled “Here comes the Professor” they used a throaty mocking tone that had become the currency of sarcasm and insult.
Aaron escaped into fantasies. At school, he spent most of his time looking out the window with unfocused eyes. Through the day he dreamed heroic myths. He had an obsession with Vikings and Norse mythology. He day-dreamed himself as the captain of a crew of sea raiders. The rails of his ships were lined with circular shields. As the sleek dragon-headed craft etched their tracks in the sands of the beach, the men took their shields and charged castle walls, wearing helmets adorned with ox horns. Inside the castle was a pretty blonde princess who waited to be rescued by Aaron The Strong.
He always delayed going home. His mother was at home. He was completely terrified of his mother.
Aaron’s school was two blocks from the modest house on Parkway Court. Aaron explored alternate routes. He walked around Greenwood Park, up to the railroad tracks, then across the bridge. He slid down the embankment and took the foot bridge that led through backyards onto Ruth Street. Another backyard path led to the bottom of his street, which was called a "court", where the houses formed a closed semi-circle. Number 8024 was halfway up the eastern side of Parkway Court, which was one of a twenty four street subdivision. None of the houses were more than five years old. A sapling was planted in front of each house. It would be twenty years before they would provide shade.
Hunger usually ended Aaron’s meandering. If he was lucky, his brother and sisters would be home. He could grab a snack and then slide like a ghost through his siblings' fights with each other and get into the room he shared with his little brother. Avoiding his mother’s attention was the highest priority. Little currents of fear raced along his nerves when he thought of Esther Kantro.
Aaron had a friend named Jeffrey Rubin, who lived five houses up the street. When he went to Jeffrey's house the atmosphere was so different that he could barely understand it. Jeffrey’s mom cracked bad jokes, made cookies and hugged her wriggling son as he pretended to try to escape. Things weren't tight and quiet at Jeffrey's house, things moved along in a way that was...well...things were fun.
Jeffrey's mom was very physical, a hugger, a smoocher, sweeping kids into the air with her husky arms. When Mrs. Rubin hugged and kissed Aaron, he didn’t try to escape. He shrank from her a little bit. Mrs. Rubin’s affection gave him an odd feeling, as though he was touching dry ice. He liked it but didn’t know how to hold it. When he had to leave, to go home, he felt a wrenching sadness. Sometimes, as he left the Rubin's house, he started to cry and had to press his chin into his bony chest, press it hard, hiding his eyes from the world until the urge to cry stopped and he could walk to his own house. Leaving the Rubins' got so hard that he became reluctant to go there at all. The attraction wasn't really Jeffrey, who was kind of stupid. The attraction was a home that wasn't one continuous scream of terror.
Aaron’s mother frequently said, as if to excuse her rages, "I love you the only way I can." He didn’t understand what that meant. He was sure his mother did not love him. When she said she loved him “the only way-I can”, that must mean there was something wrong with him.
Aaron was certain of his father’s love. He wanted to see his dad, wanted dad to be at home all the time, wanted his dad to talk to him, ask him questions about what he was thinking. He wanted his dad to understand that he wasn’t stupid, he was just…just too mad to think, maybe. He wanted his dad to tell him things were okay. He wasn’t afraid of his dad. Maybe love was just not being afraid. When his father was home, Esther was a different person. She didn't shake him or scream at him, she didn't squeeze his arms until fingernail marks showed.
More than anything, Aaron wanted his father to be at home.
It was a secret, this fighting that took place when his father was away.
Esther made threats. “I’ll kill you if your father hears of this”, she said one day. She was twisting a wet dish towel in her rough red hands. Aaron saw his neck between those hands. He was seeing the thought in Esther’s mind.
While Aaron tried to banish this image, his mother entered her continuing tirade. It was a conversation she had with her anger disguised as a conversation she was having with her son. In some abstract way Aaron knew that his mother wasn't really speaking to HIM, she was speaking to invisible monsters in the air. “How did the toaster get knocked to the floor? It’s broken! How did that happen? How? HOW? Your dad better not find out about this! I’m so mad I could kill you! Dad has enough on his mind. He works all day and half the night, and he doesn’t need stories about your behavior. Running around the house flying like an airplane, knocking things down right and left. You’ll give your father a heart attack!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “He’ll drop dead and it’ll be your fault! Is that what you want? Is it?”
The word "kill" was as common as pennies in the currency of the Kantro's domestic language. Killing, murder, suicide, death death death....the siblings screamed at each other, "I'll kill you," and "no you won't, I'll kill you first!"
. Sometimes Aaron slapped his hands to his ears. No no no no! His father couldn’t die! He wouldn’t tell, wouldn’t utter a word about this strange …strange…situation. That was a good word. It was a situation. It was a new word for Aaron. He liked to discover new words. It was one of those pleasures that came from inside his mind. This was a way of thinking that he enjoyed. It was the USE of his mind that he enjoyed.
Aaron would protect his father at all costs. It wasn’t dad’s fault he had to be at work so much. Mother always said it: money’s more important than anything, even love!
It wasn’t dad’s fault that he went to work so early and came back so late. It wasn’t dad’s fault that Aaron got so mad he broke dishes and never did his homework and threw a baseball through the living room window.
The problem was that without dad at home, mother could do anything she wanted. It depended on the way she felt. She whipped him with a belt on his behind. She made him stay all day in the dark closet with the door closed. He curled up into a ball and listened to her talk. Her voice got louder and then softer as she moved about the house. She was telling him what he was and she did not spare the curse words. He was stupid, lazy, ugly, a disappointment, a worthless no good son of a bitch and it would have been better if he hadn't been born.
Sometimes Aaron’s mom felt bad and sometimes she felt good but it was spooky good, there was something wrong with how she felt good. She would dance by herself around the living room, singing corny old songs, and then she would put on her mink coat and drive her car to the stores in Clayton and Lake Forest. When she came home she was moving so fast she looked like two people at once while she hid the stuff she had bought. She moved the heavy coats aside and got into the deep shelves at the back of the closet. She pushed at bags and boxes until she made room for the new shoes and earrings and bracelets.
She bought a lot of stuff and Aaron wondered if she was the reason why dad had to work all the time. Dad was scared of her, Aaron realized. He let her do whatever she wanted rather than start one of those terrible fights where screams got so loud the neighbors called the police and mom hit dad so hard his eyes went black.
Aaron didn’t blame his father. It was just bad luck. He had a vague knowledge that his mother hadn't always been this way. She was different when she and dad were first married. She looked different in the pictures. She looked happy and..and...nice!
What had happened to change her from a nice person to such a mean person?
Fighting For The Right
By late September school had already become boring. Aaron didn't have the attention span to hold on to subjects that weren't related to his interests. Numbers, chemicals, categories, all these things whooshed past him without leaving an impression.
Then, on the last day of the month, a notice appeared on the main board just outside the principal's office. It had symbols that Aaron recognized as musical notes and a floaty cartoon of several men in top hats and tuxedoes, tootling on various instruments.
MUSIC APPRECIATION. An elective course available to third and fourth graders would begin in two weeks. Those who were interested should sign their names on the numbered sheet attached. A pencil dangled from a string. This WAS interesting and promised to break the daily monotony of teachers' droning voices. Aaron picked up the bright orange nub and signed his name.
He waited eagerly. Finally, after the passage of two weeks, his home room teacher handed out a number of sealed notices. One of them was for Aaron and he found notification that today, yes, TODAY! At two o'clock, just after the end of recess period, the kids who had signed up for the class were to go to the cafeteria.
Two o'clock came and Aaron was in the biology lab with Mr. Warren, the science teacher. He presented his note. The teacher scanned it and nodded Aaron towards the door.
Aaron found himself traversing the near-empty halls towards the cafeteria. A few kids were converging on the double glass doors leading into the expanse of the lunch facility. They pushed the doors open and found an area where the long rectangular tables had been cleared away to make room for a chalk board, an upright piano and three rows of chairs.
The students found their seats with the usual clamor. After getting a glance at the teacher, kids were bumping one another to sit in the back row. They had done their lightning appraisal of the instructor and they didn't like what they saw: the music teacher looked mean.
It seemed pretty stupid to Aaron to try and get away from this strange looking woman. He took a seat in the front row at the right corner, next to the window. He counted the attendees: eleven students. Eleven out of a total of one hundred ninety seven third and fourth graders at Daniel Boone School. Of those eleven, Aaron guessed with accurate realism, there might be four who were actually interested in Music Appreciation.
The two minute bell rang before third period. Wooden floorboards in the halls amplified chatter and the sounds of hurrying feet. The staccato booming quickly died as classroom doors closed behind tardy students.
The teacher stood next to the blackboard with one hand on her hip, the other holding a long piece of chalk that she was passing through her fingers with intricate dexterity. It twirled from thumb and index finger down to the middle finger, where it stopped and whizzed around that long digit and somehow balanced on its point in the teacher's palm. The chalk then continued and found its way to the pinky and returned the way it had come. The teacher's fingers looked like five perfectly trained snakes.
Aaron was transfixed by this skilful movement. Under his desk he attempted to work the pattern with his pencil, which he instantly dropped and just as instantly picked up.
The kids were wary. A couple of girls whispered the word “ugly”. Aaron looked at the new teacher and tried the word ugly, but it didn’t fit. He rummaged his mind for a word to describe the woman. Not ugly. Not scary. Not mean. Not repulsive.
Then the word came to him. It was a word he didn’t know he knew, but somehow he knew what it meant. Maybe he had read it in David Copperfield.
The word was Homely.
The teacher was homely. Her hair was in a net. Its red brown coils were tucked in an orderly bun. She had large ears. She wore a green blouse and a pink sweater that covered a long bony torso. The sweater was too short at the waist and buttoned to the top over her large adam’s apple. The long brown skirt looked as if it was made a hundred years ago. There was a pair of checked men’s pajama pants visible beneath the hem of the skirt. The grey and green flannel pants swished over white tennis shoes as she walked.
“Take your seats, take your seats,” the woman said in a sonorous voice. When the students had sorted themselves out, the teacher began to write her name on the blackboard with brisk muscular strokes.
“I am,” she said as she tapped the chalk rapidly on the board. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. There was a pause as she finished printing her name. “I am….Mrs. Leek.”
There was an immediate titter throughout the class. Aaron agreed it was a funny name but felt that it would be rude to laugh at another person's name.
Mrs. Leek turned and put her hands on her hips. The laughter diminished but didn’t quite die out. Mrs. Leek looked at the students as if she could stab them with her eyes. Only one boy continued laughing. He was a big dumb kid named Bennie Shapiro. His eyes were closed and his head was pointed towards the ceiling as he brayed like a donkey.
“YOU!” The woman pointed to Benny Shapiro. She was holding the white chalk as if it could beam death-rays. “Do you think there’s something funny about my name?”
Benny’s face came down and turned almost crimson. His long legs were splayed out beneath the chair in front of him, his shoes almost pointing in opposite directions. “Ummm,” Benny murmured, “I was just, uh…”
“And your name is?” The teacher demanded. She had taken a small pad of paper from her skirt pocket and held a pen over it.
Benny was stunned into silence.
“Can someone tell me this young man’s name?”
“Bennie Shapiro” emerged timidly from several children.
Mrs. Leek wrote quickly on her pad, tore the leaf free and walked to Bennie Shapiro. She folded the paper once and handed it to the boy. “You are dismissed from this class, Mister Shapiro. Permanently. I don’t tolerate rudeness. Take this note to your teacher. I’m informing her of why you are no longer in this class. I’ll want her signature, and a signature from one of your parents.”
Bennie was confused and scared. He pulled his legs back under him and got up. He looked around, appealing to his classmates. None met his eyes.
Discipline problems were thus ended in Music Appreciation Class.
Aaron had never encountered a person so strange as Mrs. Leek. She sang rather than spoke. When kids were outside her danger radius, she was a ripe target for mockery. Everywhere in the school some piping voice was imitating her trademark delivery.
“Students!”, they sang, “Who can tell me the name of this music? Students! What instrument do you hear in this solo?” After two weeks the kids shaved the imitation to a lilting utterance of the single word in two notes: Students! They became like bird calls, emitting from the playground, answered from the second floor, again from the gym. “Students!”, they sang, and followed with fits of giggling.
Mrs. Leek didn’t care. She was terrifying. This capacity to instill fear was a combination of her stunning dour face and the expressions of contempt she could use to bore straight through a student’s soul. Her lips were extremely full and were marked with cracked vertical lines. They contrasted with the gaunt angles of her cheekbones and the horse-like shape of her skull. Her skin had the texture of pitted leather. Sometimes her face looked like a tree knot, a place where a branch had failed to sprout.
Her teaching methods were strict and direct. She didn’t mind getting wrong answers. At least they were answers. One day she pointed a yardstick at a boy named Mark Rabinowitz.
“Can you tell me, Mister Rabinowitz, what German composer struggled with deafness throughout his life?”
The boy yawned, blinked, appeared to think for a moment. “Umm, uh, Fats Domino?"
Mrs. Leek popped the yardstick across a desktop, making it snap so loud everyone jumped.
“All I want to know is whether or not you are alive!” the woman said. “I’m not asking so much. Make a guess, take a chance. You can’t look more stupid than you do now. ‘Duh, um, Fats Domino?,’”she mocked. “Beethoven’s Balls, most of you kids are zombies.”
Mrs. Leek’s curse had brought all the students to a state of fascinated alertness.
“I suppose I’ll get fired now,” she said calmly. “I’ll only miss two or three of you.”
Her eyes met Aaron’s and she gave him the slightest wink. Aaron’s insides relaxed with unfamiliar gratitude as he realized that he would be one of those few students.
The incident passed and the eccentric teacher did not get fired. She continued the arduous task of instilling music into the lives of her students.
She brought record albums from her collection. One day she brought 45’s by Fabian and Elvis. She played them side by side with old records by Mississippi blues men with funny names. Blind Willy this. Pegleg Joe that.
“You see how the rhythms and chords are really the same?” she asked. Two or three sets of eyes were alert. Aaron Kantro nodded but was too paralyzed with shyness to speak.
When the teacher played Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington, Aaron felt like he was on a rocket ship. He thought a fuse had been lit under his chair. The music gave him goose bumps. He felt a strange warmth at the back of his neck.