His name was Horowitz. Romeo Juliet Horowitz. Cuz his parents, Moe and Trudy, he swore, were into Shakespeare. And labored for a girl. But lost. Choosing his middle name. Tragically-romantic.
And he bOasted he came from rOyalty. Like cOunts and cOuntesses. In the old country. Before Lenin’s Revolution, and Frida Kahlo jumped Leon Trotsky. But that didn’t stop me from tagging him simply “Witz.” When we were kids. Cuz he was a wily-wiz kid. Totally. With a magical sense for the absurdly incongruous like the late Robin Williams. And Woodie Allen. And a strawberry shortcake dessert Good Humor bar. Yummily. And, trust me, I imagined Witz was de$tined to finish BIG time. $omehow, $omeway, $ome day. By hook or crook. $traightaway or $ideways. But he never said so. At least to me.
Back then, like Witz, everybody earned a nickname. Especially if we didn’t like them. Or really did. Like Bernie Lipschitz. Whose nickname sounded like the grub we were forced to eat at summer camp in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Where there’s a sign, “Home of Annie Hall.” And another, “Go Home, Alvy Singer.” Or Freddy Fischer. Who never saw a Kosher hot dog or plate of noodle koogle he wouldn’t wash down with a gallon of Mogen David. So we called him “Big Tuna.” Which he protested. Cuz he said he was allergic to any fish that could maintain its body temperature above surrounding water’s. For reasons he, and only he, understood. Divinely. Except, perhaps, my Metaphysics professor. A Wittgenstein scholar. Who wore the same poop-colored suit in class. Daily. As if the mayor of Hershey, Pennsylvania. And repeatedly quoted proposition 6.522 in Mr. W.’s Tractatus: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” Auf Deutsch. Ad nauseam.
On balance, Witz was an o-p-e-n book. If you knew him. As I did. But, perhaps, my story, as Mr. W. wrote in his book’s Preface, “Will be understood only by someone who has himself had the thoughts that are expressed in it – or at least similar thoughts. Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.”
Hey, I’m not saying that Mr. H., I called Mr. and Mrs. Horowitz “Mr. and Mrs. H.,” looked exactly like the old beggar, who posed for Marc Chagall’s painting The Praying Jew. But he did own a black & white, striped prayer shawl. Which he paraded Zebra-like. The way I order prime sirloin at fancy restaurants like Carmine’s on Chicago’s Rush Street. Rare/ly. Cuz the Horowitzs lived in our predominately Italian neighborhood. But, luckily, Mr. H. worked for Luciano Landscaping. Which made a killing in Highland Park. Where mowing your own lawn and keeping your drapes closed were opposites. Like never and always, respectively.
Ninety-nine percent of our neighborhood celebrated Xmas. And Mrs. H. said it was important to fit in. You know. Keep up with Mr. and Mrs. Berra and Greco and Allegretti. And all the other paisans whose last names ended with a vowel. And named their kids biblically. Like Mary and Joseph. And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
So, when December snowed our streets, Mr. H. would buy a scrawny spruce from our goomba, Umberto, on 12th Street. Near Manny’s deli. And his whole family would trim it. Ritually. Like my family always blessed themselves entering Santa Lucia church. And kissed on both cheeks. And slopped giardiniera on our beef and sausage combos. And even on pasta. For special. Every Sunday. After HIGH mass.
I remember one Xmas, when we were kids. In particular. Like the first time someone called me “Mr.” And the day JFK was shot. And the morning I TV’d some crazies splatter airplanes into the World Trade Center. Like the alcoholic, Jackson Pollock, splashed house paint on pure-white canvass.
Mrs. H. invited me to exchange presents at their home over bagels, lox, onion and cream cheese. And I knew Witz placed his present-order with Santa weeks in advance. Leaving notes for him nightly at the foot of their fire place: “Dear Mr. Claus, I really, really want a Gene Autry gun and holster set. Like the one featured in the toy department at Marshall Fields on State Street. Will you please deliver it early in the morning? I get up around 7. Thank you. R. J. Horowitz, Esq.”
When Witz tore-opened his Fields-wrapped box, his jaw dropped straight South. And tears poured from his eyes. So fast and so hard that Torah’s Noah wouldn’t have survived the flood.
The ope-ned box featured a Howard “HoPalOng” Cassidy gun and holster set. Not the Gene Autry model Witz requested. Why he ran to his bedroom. And dove under the mattress. And boo who-cried and cried and cried. Until the mooing-cows came home. I’ll never understand. Like why the world exists. Especially cuz I offered to swap it for my BB rifle. Which he refused. With a vengeance. And a “Kiss off, wop” to boot.
Etymology: < French expression, < Latin expressiōn-em , noun of action < exprimĕre
- b. The action or process of manifesting (qualities or feelings) by action, appearance or other evidences or tokens.
1646 R. CRASHAW Sospetto d’Herode xxv, in Steps to Temple 59 “The forehead’s shade in Griefes expression there, Is what in signe of joy..a smile is here.”
1659 J. PEARSON Expos. Creed (1839) 282 “It behoved us to take notice of the Roman governor in the expression of our Saviour’s passion.”
That’s how this story’s title-word is categorized, pronounced, origined, defined and historically used. According to the HIGHbrow-low sodium Oxford English Dictionary. But what the OED doesn’t weave is its more textured meanings. Like “full,” the way an Australian woman felt seconds before birthing her 40-pound baby. Or “empty,” like BUD bottles college boys fling on amber grass in front of their fraternities. Or “half-full” or “half-empty,” like a glass of water. Tropes supposedly representing one’s optimism or pessimism. Mouthed by pricey Park Avenue psychoanalysts to unravel clients’ predispositions, put them at ease. And pay their own kids’ tuition at Harvard. Or, if their dummies didn’t hit the ACTs out of the park – God forbid! – Tufts.
One expression, in particular, POPS to mind. Which Witz laid bare. Solely. And I understood. Souly. Without walking his walk, talking his talk, feeling his pain. Bravely.
“I was standing at the top of the stairs near the kitchen,” he said. “And I heard loud crying. But didn’t know where it came from, and especially why. I thought my daughter was play-dating with kids in the basement. Until I saw her leaping UP the stairs as if escaping from Werewolves. Sobbing and shaking and pulling her hair and hugging my legs. The expression on her face pierced me. Gravely. Like I’d been lasered in my heart, bull’s eye, with a 100 miles per hour fast ball. From the right hand of Washinton Senators’ pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson. One of the baddest players in baseball history.”
“And the expression on her face,” Witz cringed, “would have raised Big Train from the dead as if Jesus to Lazarus. And would have challenged and dared and goaded Big Train’s ghost to hurl its fastest fastball. And would have pure carbon-smashed his fastest fast ball like the Cullinan diamond to Dante’s Inferno. Where it would have stirred and bellowed and incited the flames that seared and scorched and singed the souls of the damned departed. While they howled and wretched and exploded like strings of fireworks in a white-hot pizza oven.” “And you don’t wanna hear the rest,” he said. With an expression on his face that chilled my bones. As if cryonically. In liquid nitrogen. Like the cryopreserved patient, baseball’s original bad boy, Ted Williams. At The Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Expressions, his and hers, that could have final-stitched the OED’s extant meanings to its heart. And to its soul.
I read a draft of this story to a writer-friend. A REAL-DEAL. Not a writer wannabe or ventriloquist. Like me. Struggling to craft similes like an octogenarian with prostatitis strains to take a leak. And REAL-DEAL said, “More pace and jumps, and drop the mannerisms.” Which I questioned. Specifically “mannerisms.” So he replied, “Gimmicks, shmuck, like “op-en” for “open” and “diam<>nd” for “diamond.” Which I’m trying hard to do. Reeallly!
And REAL-DEAL suggested I read Leonard Michaels, considered a master of the short story and probably best known for The Men’s Club. His 1981 novel about seven men who gathered at their psychiatrist’s home to tell stories about their lives and loves. A novel made into a movie. Starring Harvey Keitel and Stockard Channing. Among other La-la luminaries.
One of Michaels’ stories, titled “downers” with a small “b,” really intrigued me. So without blatantly stealing its title like T.S Eliot, who famously bragged about his rampant copying, I titled this story “Bummers.” With the same number of syllables and letters and last “s.” But beginning with a capital “B.” To save face. And avoid skunky letters from Len’s BIG-apple publisher.
S-l-o-w-l-y over time like glaciers moved in the Ice Age or catchup pours painfully from a bottle when you’re trimming a burgher in your kitchen and the Blackhawks are playing the final game for the Stanley Cup on TV in your den, Witz told me some major bummers in his life, in his words:
“Counting down to December 25. Knocking over the Christmas tree. Running to my room. Diving under the covers. Crossing my heart and hoping to die. Begging Santa to forgive me.”
“Lying to my Mother that all my friends were sick. So they couldn’t come to my birthday party. Which she planned for weeks. When the truth was, I mixed it up with the most popular girl in my class. Who spelled all her sister-witches to shun my party. And all their warlocks followed.”
“Returning from a poker tourney in Vegas. Eyeing my future ex’s wedding ring on the toilette seat in the bathroom of our apartment. With a note, ‘Hope you had lots of affairs. I had loads of fun.’”
“Staring at my daughter’s face. Interviewing for admission to a chichi private school on Astor Street. So trying to cut the mustard. Even sporting new Laura-ca$hy-Ashley duds. Totally unlike her. Deep-down in her heart knowing, she couldn’t cut it. Like an inoperable malignant tumor.”
“Bending over backwards for my favorite prof. in COMP 101 to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Which rivaled Shakespeare. I thought. But he didn’t grade. Never even returned.”
I already shared a story about Witz’s bummers. Unlike Michaels’ “downers.” Cuz, I didn’t want his BIG-apple publisher to sue my ass for copyright infringement. Not that I have much to surrender for damages. Except, perhaps, the front page of The Chicago Daily Tribune, September, 23, 1959. Headlined “WHITE SOX WIN PENNANT!” over “GLIMCO DARES 3: PROVE I’M DISHONEST” and “NIKITA URGES REGULAR TALKS, VISITS IOWANS.” Just $49.99. Last time I checked E-bay.
For the sake of literary ebb and flow, tidal gravity, equilibrium, I’ll share some major uppers in Witz’s life. At least the ones he shared with me. Cuz he was kinda stingy about stuff he considered sacred, off limits, pro oculis tantum. The last, “for his eyes only,” if you can’t translate Latin as he could. Cuz Dr. Shumann, his Freshman Classics’ teacher, would have mocked the living shit outta him, if he couldn’t. Major uppers Witz shared, I can still hear his voice:
“Sitting on my Grandma’s lap. Listening to her read-a-long, again and again and again, as many times as I begged, to Capitol Records’ Hopalong Cassidy and the Singing Bandits. 78 RPMs. Unbreakable in normal use. Featuring Bill Boyd as Hoppy with Andy Clyde as California, Rand Brooks as Lucky and Topper the horse as himself.”
“Going back to the old neighborhood. Looking up my classmate, Mary Magnolini, and teacher, Sister Virginia. Both certified-adorable. Standing in Mary’s Mother’s living room. Jaw-drop-gaping at her photo in a stiffly-starched nun’s habit. Visiting Sister Virginia. Who immediately remembered me like the Red Sea never p-a-r-t-e-d. Treating her to lunch at two 4-s*t*a*r- remembered haunts. Feasting on beef and sausage combos at Big Al’s. Slurping lemonades at Mario and Donna’s. Tracing history. And, at least for me, fantasizing, ‘What if…?’”
“Receiving my M.A. degree in Philosophy. After my jerk-advisor trashed it ‘an embarrassing burst of spleen.’ Saving his critique. Finding another advisor. Jamming jerk’s critique into my diploma’s leather-bound frame. Grinning, ‘Up yours, asswipe.’”
“Consulting a white-on-white guy, a car dealer, to get my Grandmother into a ‘Don’t-send-me-nobody-sent’ retirement village for Jewish senior-seniors. A guy who called me ‘Romie Baby.’ And said, ‘There’s a Ford in your future, Romie baby.’ Hearing my Gram scream, ‘I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill myself. If you send me there.’ Listening to her apologize, ‘The reason I wasn’t keen about going to the village was because, you know, I couldn’t speak good Yiddish.’”
“Feeling my future wife warmly whisper in my ear that she’ll get mad at me. Undoubtedly. And I’ll deserve it. Double-undoubtedly. But she’ll love me. Always.”
A few days ago, driving on Chicago’s Bard Street, looking for kewl murals to photo, I saw one of three kids dashing toward a red fire hydrant-finish. And the kid finishing first looked kinda like Witz. Amazingly. Which reminded me of a photo I saw last month in Forbes magazine. The photo’s text described a NYC wiz kid, Wiley Horowitz, who started a dot-com company, which he sold for $100,000,000+. Mystically, Wiley looked exactly like his Dad, my dear-dear friend, who died tragically too-too young, Witz.
Cutting to the chase, I emailed Wiley, said I was one of his Dad’s old pals and offered to meet him in NYC. Wiley immediately replied that his Mom told him stories about his Dad’s cRaZy pals. Especially me. And would love to see me.
Over locks, bagels, onion and cream cheese on Xmas day at the 2nd Avenue Deli, I told Wiley Hanukkah Gelt stories about his Dad, gave him a copy of Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine and was not surprised that IMAGINE was tattooed a-c-r-o-s-s his back. BIG time-romantically!
Destiny-true, as I imagined, Witz $omehow, $omeway, $ome day, by hook or crook, $traightaway or $ideways finished BIG time. Though he never said so. At least to me. Like Wittgenstein wrote, “Some things can’t be put in words.” They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
J. Ray Paradiso
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack which must be must be used as a source of inspiration for their torrid tales as they fulfil their task to increase the town’s fledgling tourism revenue.
Over the next few months, Mallum Colt will guide writers through Shallow Creek as he attempts to compile a tome of nerve jangling stories to encourage foreign folk back to Shallow Creek.
For more information and full terms and conditions click here…
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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