The Aimless Days of Watching Birds on a Wire (and Waiting for Bernie Zuckerman) – Claire Abramovitz

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The bricks of this house are a prison! “The bricks of this house keep us warm, my own mother would plotz if she had a house made of bricks”, that’s my mother, always chiding, chiding, chiding. Our house is as slim as a pack of cigarettes. Our house is as narrow as my own forefinger. When God split the sea, he had to put it back, didn’t he? When I walk through my house I feel like the Egyptians – here comes the crash!!

Oh, the bricks of this house keep us warm alright Mama. I wake up sticky as a fruitcake and go to bed stinky as a cheese. August cooks you like a kreplach. August air thick like soup, softens you, boils you, cooks you from the outside in. Abba comes home from his office boiled. Mama boils looking after boiled children. Mama doesn’t have to look after me; it’s been over a year since I became a bat mitzvah. Just because I sit on my porch doesn’t mean I’m being looked after. If I wanted, I could go anywhere in the world right now. I squint up at the birds who’ve arranged themselves like notes on the telephone wires. They’ve chosen to spend the day here too. Shy white clouds poke their heads over the brownstones across the street slowly, as if not to get too close to the sun. August sun is the kind of sun that fries your skin like gribenes and onions. Still, I could be squeezed by the walls inside, or I could be out where I can stretch my arms in the moving air. There is air to breathe, and breathing in hot air is still better than suffocating.

The world is aimless in August. I walk around aimlessly in a city that is as wide as the sky is tall. I meet friends aimlessly and lie with them under aimless trees in aimless parks, and listen to them talk about aimless things. I read aimlessly, amassing aimless books, from the library two blocks away and the librarian who has finally learned my name. I aimlessly sit on my porch stretching out my legs. Leaving them in the sun until they turn pink as rhubarb pie. Bernie’s family lives next door. Our houses share a wall. Our porches share a fence. Our mothers share recipes, our fathers share news stories, and the two of us share a lot of books, a lot of jokes, and one very important wall. Sometimes when I’m getting ready in my room I hear Bernie’s mother begging him to go outdoors. He likes the indoors. We don’t share that. She pleads, Bernie (first sweet like dew), Bernie, (sharp like vinegar), BERNIE (hot oil leaping from the pan). I’m sure my mother gets an earful of complaints from Mrs. Zuckerman every time they talk.

I find it strange that only one wall separates me and Bernie when we’re both alone in our rooms. Either one of us could hammer a hole right through to the other side. When it’s quiet and dark and only the breeze and the moonlight are making their way through my window, occasionally I’ll press my palm up against the wall we share for no other reason than to imagine he’s doing the exact same thing. What if we have been sleeping side by side all this time? If I were to roll over in bed, open my eyes, and see the wall had vanished, would another pair of eyes stare back?

“You want Jewish? Marry a Marx Brother”, my friends tease me all summer long in between sips of soda. They all boil over about Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart and their slick hair, their slick tuxedos. Everything perfectly slick and black. Well, so is a penguin, girls. That’s what I tell them: so is a penguin. They can marry one for all I care. Give me the Marx Brother. Give me his coarse black curls, as much of an inheritance as the six hundred and thirteen commandments. Give me those curls that are never slicked down. The cloud that billows like a pillar of smoke in the desert. I’d be happy to get my hands caught. Give me his lanky figure that looms and swings like the tin man. Let me take his hands and we can figure out how to dance together so by the time we are older we will never be out of step. Give me his eyes, a deep green too often mistaken for brown. Give me those eyes that sit shadowed above a nose that is neither slender nor small. Large round glasses perch like a hawk near the tip. Give me his smile. His smile that can be quick as a flash of lighting. His smile that can be a slow revelation, the curtains drawing back on a few crooked teeth and a suggestion of trouble. Bernie’s smile is a shotgun; it goes off and my mind starts running, tripping over itself to win a 400 meter dash of frightening questions that, even more frightening, might one day be answered. What trouble could the boy who stays indoors reading half the time possibly suggest? What trouble do I want his smile to suggest? Would my fingers actually get stuck in his hair? Should I ask him if I can touch his hair? What does coarse hair feels like on soft hands, and what might two pairs of lips do if they ever met?

One of the birds flies off the telephone wire and up towards a blinding blue sky. Sighing, I begin my latest library loan. A bead of sweat blossoms at my hairline. Am I allowed to sweat onto a library book, especially a brand new one? The bead drops anyway. So far it’s not too interesting, just a farmer named Mr. Jones, a whole company of animals, and a very important pig named Old Major who calls everyone “comrade”. This is the aimless reading of summer. I turn pages without really looking, the words appearing more like strange little bugs than whole sentences. The slow silence of my half-reading ends with the croak of a familiar door. The shotgun goes off before my mind has tied its laces. The birds on the wires spell out a tune and my heart starts beating double time. Bernie Zuckerman in all his stature shlumps down onto the steps of his porch and pokes his head through the wrought iron fence. I know he can hear my heart crashing against my ribcage, so I don’t look up. I pretend I’m still reading. I am still reading, but it’s the same sentence over and over “Now comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours…”, “what is the nature of this life of ours…”, “this life of ours…”. As quickly as I catch him smiling at me, the smile disappears. Another bead of sweat stains my book. I’m certain the librarian will have me hanged.

I don’t wait for him to speak first, “Kicked out of the house again?”.

I sense him rolling his eyes, “What of it?”

He tries to sound tough but his voice falters.

“What are you reading?”

“Oh this?” I scoff and show him the cover page, “It’s new. It’s called Animal Farm. It’s by George Orwell.” My friends tell me I sound very smart when I say an author’s name out loud. Especially if I say the title of the book and the author’s name right next to each other. I close the book and turn to look at my neighbor. A bead of sweat forms on the back of my neck. Still, something makes me shiver in the dead heat of August.

“The librarian said it was an allegory for the Russian Revolution. What do you think about that Zuckerman?”

“Russian stuff. Huh. Can I see it?”

“I’m still reading it.”

“Is it good?”

“I haven’t read that much of it.”

I close the book, marking my place with my thumb. I watch as Bernie glides a hand through his hair, I watch his hair spring back to its original shape. I understand that God makes miracles of all sizes. His glasses slump down his nose mirroring his posture, like clockwork he pushes them back, and like clockwork they slide back down his nose. I slide my thumb out from the book.

“Take it.”

“It’s not good?”

“It’s not my style.”

I slide the book, crisp and red, in between the bars of the fence. He takes it and nearly brushes my fingers as he does. I think about my bed pushed up against our wall. I wish I had a hammer to hand him too.

“What is your style?”

I want to say something that would make me sound like a college professor. Something that would confuse my girlfriends. Something that Abba would discuss over Shabbos lunch and just a bit too much scotch, neat. Something that would make Mama say, “Now are you sure that’s right for a young woman?” I want to take back the book for a moment if only to try and touch his hand again. Maybe that’s how a moonbeam feels when it makes it all the way to Earth, through your window, and on to your face, without ever truly touching a thing. I want to say “I don’t know. But I love you”.

Instead I say “I don’t know, but not this.”

He chuckles, light bouncing off his glasses and fluttering across his eyes. What is the true danger of a smile anyway?

“Are you sure?”

“It’s really the kind of thing you’d like, trust me.” I have no idea if it’s the kind of thing he’ll like, but I’m happy to share it.

“Alright Lipsky,” he nods, bends the cover back and turns the first page.

I watch him read the first words, “MR. JONES”. There’s still a drying splat mark from my sweat on the page. There are no more birds on the telephone wire. They’ve all gone to play in a new neighborhood I suppose. A parallel neighborhood where someone’s mother is yelling at him to leave the house. A parallel neighborhood where someone is chasing a ball that has no intention of being caught down a street that is as long as the horizon is far. Where frying pans still sizzle and water still boils and heat is no object for the lady in charge of feeding hungry children and hungry men. Where the sky is so blue it starts to burn your eyes but you keep looking up anyway. Where two other kids who aren’t quite kids, are melting into comfortable silence on a barely shaded stoop. Maybe by the time the sky turns as purple as an onion, and that faraway horizon turns the color of a gash not quite ready to heal, the birds will come back. By the time all of our mothers call us in for hot suppers, we will all just have started to cool down. But that is still hours away. The din of the world at large – cars and shouts, dogs and giggling shrieks – slip to a whisper under two steady sounds: my heartbeat and the rustle of pages being turned. A page turns and suddenly a hand is on mine. It’s cold for an August hand. It’s an early fall or a very late winter. It’s soft and it covers mine completely. I braid my fingers into his and it’s the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes your neshama just knows afterall. Bernie glances up at me, “Thank you”.

His thank you rang in my ears like wedding bells.

 

 

Claire Abramovitz is an emerging writer currently living in Chicago, Illinois. She is a recent graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in English with a Concentration in Theatre and a Jewish Studies minor. Though she primarily writes for the stage, she is an avid writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction. When she is not writing nine times out of ten she is making some sort of soup.

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