By: Israel Heller
The upstairs and downstairs neighbors would have heard faint shouts, distant screams. These screams would wend their way down the block, passing via oral transmission from house to house, porch to porch, until every last mother and father on the street knew what had broken down a day earlier.
Windows, plain, about seven feet across and vertically bisected, are open, and I notice that as I scream, as I shout. It’s nice out, light, but when it begins there is a pall, and suddenly it feels overcast. I know that it’s nice out, clear, but then I know that it isn’t. I am in the master bedroom, and then I am in the long hallway, then the living room, the wall, and back again. I am yelling and screaming, cursing and crying, throwing emotions this way, that way, anywhere really. But especially out those wide open windows.
It lasts for several hours, a half-day, or maybe thirty-five minutes. I honestly cannot recall, and no amount of prodding will bring the chronological dimensions back. There is my throat, and the red carpets, the green carpets, the long hallway like a tunnel, the golden haze of the living room chandelier, and my parents beds, between two windows and two closets. My noise carries through all these, and more. It makes its way up the stairs and through the back porches to our neighbors the Satmar Chasidim, and downstairs to the son of our landlord, with his young wife and silver SUV parked right under our porch. We live in a three-story apartment house, one that feels a lot smaller tonight, even smaller tomorrow.
I spent my nights, sometimes days but mostly nights, exploring my neighborhood on my bicycle. My compatriots were Yanky and Leiby, both older than me, one by a year, the other by two, skinnier, taller, and stronger, we of equal resolve and pluck. We began at around age five taking our bikes out, and seeing what’s up. We saw our share of Brooklyn grid short cuts, interstate rail lines. We saw the foreign areas to our east and south, where pale Yiddish ended and the oddly intoned and mystifyingly written Korean and Chinese languages began. Our main area of question was a desolate factory district, starting right behind our house, and continuing for a quarter of a mile, from where weird smells and strange noises wafted through our rooms in the late hours of our youth, rocking us to sleep in its cacophonous South Brooklyn embrace.
We got around with two wheels usually, bipedal locomotion sometimes. We got our hands wet, dirty, sandy, and cut up. We yelled at open spaces, tried to catch the waves surfing away towards the civilization in the distance. There were toys, but those we quickly abandoned for more primal pastimes as five became six, and seven loomed over us, a mountain of promise, a temporal passport beckoning. By ten, we had the whole area figured out, every element encountered and logged. We turned to speed, danger, the promise of crazy, wild, fun, no rules. We stayed out till ten, ten thirty, riding our bikes near the edges, playing tag on the tops of cars, breaking every rule.
Our families were bound by rules, different sets, similar levels of focus. Theirs was the fur of Old Europe and the Pale, ours was the New American devotion, derived from Lithuania, written in new blood and black felt. We didn’t pray together, didn’t dress alike, but our parents seemed to think we’d make fitting neighbors, and we were here thus. My parents were slightly more permissive, allowing themselves a TV, and some sense of contemporary fashion, the latter shared with the mother upstairs. Downstairs was a mystery to me, a young couple with no discernable sense of anything beside their quiet disdain, borne of what passes for privilege where we grew up. Together, we three families broke none of the same rules, and a few of our own choosing.
One day I destroyed the equilibrium of our three family apartment house. Three families, close quarters, in a neighborhood where ideology was not just a boundary, but the universe itself, and the family in middle. My family, possessed of a matriarch whose mental state began at her whimper and ended at a fistful of prescriptions. Every other actor present worked hard to contain it, and her, and for some time it worked, for some time it was contained, and quiet. I took my hammer to it on the day I learned that I had the choice, and thus the ability, to react to my mother’s whims, and my father’s dark, sometimes bloody embrace. He was one for names, punches, kicks, water, soda, saliva to the face, the body. For some time I contained all this myself as well, knowing that it happened with the partial regularity that made the idea of normalcy easier to cling to than the acceptance of terror. Then one day, do not remember when, I decided to do something else, make a different selection. That day I opened my mouth and broke our lives, broke my life, made a mess, such a mess.
Avraham Shalom loved his two children very much, and he told that to them, often. They were cute; they took cute photos, photos that stuck out in his wallet aside from the cash and plastic. He spent every penny his bills, food, and wife left over on his kids, on Sruly, growing out of his blonde hair, from whose mind such entertaining, yet outlandish things came, and on Mendy, who waddled by, scoring on cuteness and political daring, always getting himself a reasonable cut. He loved his two children, and he loved his wife, and yet together they all conspired to make his life a living hell. This is how he put it, and he put it out there often, as much as would come out of him. He felt sandwiched, dependent on his parents, beholden to a wife that would rattle him, bones and all, and children, increasingly loud, ever more attentive to the attractions of the toys Toy’R’Us so helpfully advertised in those weekend circulars, circulars he thought he told his kids they couldn’t bring in on the Sabbath, a clear violation.
He won’t forget the first time his firstborn told him to die, told him to go fuck himself, told him that it would be better if a bus fell on him, and his skeleton was crushed, and his life no more. He remembers the boy running away from him, trying to get him to shut up, how the fuck yous and die you assholes penetrate his chest like hot rounds, like silver tipped reality checks. One moment Sruly is standing at the door to his room, one foot on red hallway carpet, the other in the children’s room green, calling him monster, bastard, nazi. Oh Jesus, the window is open, and everyone can hear. The window is open, and everyone hears. DO YOU SEE THAT YOU FUCKING STUPID KID? YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT? EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU, YOU FUCKING CANCERSTICK, YOU GODFORSAKEN FAILURE. THE WINDOWS ARE OPEN, AND EVERYBODY CAN HEAR.
The upstairs neighbors, quiet people, family people, devout people, always liked the young boy from downstairs who played with their children. He played with them all, he played with them nicely, and though he clearly was from a more lax background, he never brought in anything they were uncomfortable with, though a few words here or there never hurt. He was a good boy, he was always welcome. Thus they were shocked, utterly and completely floored by what their walls and windows told them one day, the revelations given through glass, plaster, and brick façade. He was no boy, not any longer, not with those words, Those words? Where did they come from? Who taught them to him, where did he hear these things, these disgusting things? Were they really letting him watch those horrible films downstairs, letting poison into the house, and in front of small children? This is horrible, and they tell him so the next day, when he comes up to see the boys, to play. They tell him what they heard, and they ask where? Why?
He tells them the truth as best he can, though he looks down the whole time, crying. He doesn’t know where, but he won’t say why. Not to them, the upstairs neighbors, and not to anyone else, not for a very long time. The why is his family’s most prized possession, one that won’t be given up till he truly realizes its value. Until then there is only the what, the what, a four-letter stand in, a better one than home.
I never played with my neighbors again, wouldn’t go up to their house till some time later, when my father was in the hospital, never subsequently. Yanky, Leibe, and myself ceased our mapping of the Boro Park wilds, exchanged now only cursory glances in the thin hallway on the ground floor, holding the door for each other, avoiding eye contact. No more partners, no more running around late, for a few years at least, in wildly different contexts. For now, more nights at home, more nights in the thick haze of the living room, in the black spaces the hallway down, in the base of the el shape connecting the master bedroom with the children’s. More fodder for the cannons, more breaking for the broken. The neighbors down the block hear about us, and our loud, alien, violent noises, our intrusions into their life, and the way of it. We are now more evenly matched with the dirty orange and grey factories outside our back porch, our only close neighbors now, emanating smoke, clanging in cold South Brooklyn nights. They howl, they howl and shriek, they always have, and now we sing together. I learn another four-letter word, one sadder than the rest, one word for my new life after the screams. Now every day and every night I sit in my room, I hear my parents shout, the buildings moan, and night after night I choose one partner, and we duet.