Season of Faith
Author: Lawrence Kelter
This is the story of Josh and Rocky, two young teens from entirely different worlds, who collide in the heat of a New York summer. A naïve boy from California, Josh comes to New York to visit his Uncle Jake, a sentimental elder whose eccentricities are only exceeded by his warmth and passion for life. Rocky is the beautiful daughter of a rabbi from Brooklyn, whose one dying wish is to understand what it means to be a complete woman before she runs out of time. With seemingly little in common, the two young friends quickly find that they are incomplete without each other and that the span of a brief summer is all time they may ever have. It is with this realization in mind that they are able to embrace hope in the face of a tragedy few relationships could endure
Length: Novella - about 30,000 words
Available in .mobi for Kindle, .epub for NOOK and most other e-readers, and .pdf.
SEASON OF FAITH
I will never forget the summer of 1969. I vacationed with my Uncle Jake in Brooklyn that year, and a dying girl taught me what it meant to be a man.
We lived in Beverly Hills. My father never said we were rich, but I knew we were. He used to say we were well off, but I came to understand that well off and wealthy were one and the same.
If you lived in Beverly Hills, the “in” thing that year was to take a European vacation without the kids, and my parents were ever so determined to keep up with the Joneses. My mom and dad had been planning it for months. They talked about it day and night, where to go, what to eat, how to pack, and so on and so on and so on.
I could tell that they felt guilty about sending me off to Uncle Jake’s for the summer, even though he had been out to visit us a few times and I liked him a lot. They would ask me if it was okay about five times every day. The truth is, I was glad to go. My dad had told me a million great stories about Brooklyn. He had grown up there and was always talking fondly about the good old days. From the way he spoke, Brooklyn sounded like some kind of magical place where incredible things happened. I wanted to see Brooklyn for myself—this special place where the good old days had taken place. I wanted to experience some magic for myself.
I had become pretty tired of hearing my dad mangle the French language. He had no command of it, which was surprising for such a successful businessman, a big shot Hollywood producer for crying out loud. “Croy-sense, croy-sense, croy-sense” . . . the word was croissant, pronounced kwa-san, but he just couldn’t hear the difference. He would ask for one every time we went out for breakfast. I can’t tell you how many times I wished he would just give up and order a buttered roll. And my mother, God, she was becoming so horribly European, always talking on the phone with her friends about Chanel this and Dior that. It was getting to be too much.
All of the tour books mentioned that travelers were wise to bring along a roll of toilet paper, as European hotels did not always have adequate supplies on hand. For some reason, the fact that she had to pack her own TP for the trip didn’t seem to bother her. For Pete’s sake, I was sure even Uncle Jake had toilet paper. No toilet paper, really?
On the seventh of July 1969, I awoke in Uncle Jake’s bedroom, having arrived from Los Angeles the night before. It had been a long trip, and I slept until almost 11:00 a.m. Mom always said that I was a good sleeper.
The window air conditioner that had been humming when I went to bed was now conspicuously quiet. The room was filled with hot, stagnant air. The first thing I noticed was that the room smelled a little bit like Uncle Jake. Heat and humidity had combined to drive his aroma from the closet, the chest of drawers, and the bedding. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the bouquet of California orange blossoms I was used to. My suitcase was open on the floor alongside the bed. I reached into it, grabbed my Brut cologne pump, and began deodorizing. It wasn’t exactly the scent of orange blossoms, but it wasn’t as stinky as a seventy-year-old’s decrepit underpants either.
I really wasn’t one of those spoiled, rich brats. I would have slept in the spare bedroom, but Uncle Jake insisted that it was too small and that I’d be more comfortable in his bedroom. I had been too tired to argue with him after the long flight. I was not quite thirteen, and well, Uncle Jake was seventy, so I didn’t think I stood a chance in a debate with him. Sometimes you just have to smile and say yes. I later learned that Uncle Jake could sleep standing up, so I guess he wasn’t too put out.
Uncle Jake’s head popped out of the kitchen at the first creak of the bedroom door.
“You’re quite a sleeper,” he said. “The day’s half gone.”
I was still sleepy-faced, standing in the middle of his third-floor apartment, scratching my butt. I yawned.
“Go take a pish,” he ordered in his Yiddish accent. “Your breakfast is getting cold.”
I smiled and quickly shuffled into the bathroom. Uncle Jake’s bathroom was a little messier than the one I was used to. Water swirled continuously in the toilet and the bowl was perpetually covered with condensation. The sink was spattered with toothpaste spit, and the floor . . . well, let’s just say that I washed my feet a lot that summer.
I quickly covered the seat with toilet paper, a luxury my traveling parents could not take for granted, and sat down to transact my morning business.
The floor tiles were those little, white, eight-sided jobs set into black grout. They were cool and felt great beneath my feet as I tried to squeeze each of my toes into a separate tile. I normally sit down to pee when I’m too sleepy to see straight. Mom doesn’t like it when I miss. You remember my mom, don’t you? She’s the woman whose life work was visiting a continent that didn’t have any toilet paper. Okay, that’s probably getting old. No more toilet paper remarks, I promise.
I yanked down my pajamas and let go. Peeing can be such a joy. At my age, penile stimulation only ranks from good to great. There’s no such thing as a negative experience (unless, I suppose, you drop a bowling ball on it. Thank God I’m not that clumsy). I’ve devised three classifications of penis pleasure: whizzing, whacking, and the other thing—you know, that elusive and unattainable thing that all boys my age dream about twenty-four hours a day. I had not yet experienced it, but in terms of mental preparation, I was more than ready.
But I was not ready for breakfast . . . well, not this breakfast anyway, not an Uncle Jake breakfast. By the way, Uncle Jake was the tallest old man I had ever seen. I mean I was five-nine already, not exactly a peanut for my age. He seemed like a giant as I stared up at him from my chair at the kitchen table. He was six three or so he said; I think he was taller. He looked as tall as Dave DeBusschere, the Knick’s power forward who I saw face-to-face when the two of us got off the flight from Los Angeles together. I’m a big fan of his and wear the same sneakers too: Adidas Super Star, which may not seem like much to you, but there weren’t too many kids wearing thirty-dollar leather sneakers in 1969, certainly not in Brooklyn. Anyway, I got DeBusschere’s autograph on a cocktail napkin—a cocktail napkin, which I had inadvertently left on the kitchen table last night and was now smeared with butter. By the way, DeBusschere was six foot six.
“I shut your air conditioner when I got up this morning,” he said. “Your room was freezing cold. I didn’t want you to get sick and have your father complain I’m not taking good care of you.”
Somehow the idea of Uncle Jake tiptoeing into the bedroom while I was sleeping gave me the creeps. Granted, it was his bedroom; still and all, a man of my sensitive years needs his privacy. “I like it cold. We have central air-conditioning at home.”
“Well, I’m not a big-shot Hollywood producer like your father. The electricity costs a fortune. Besides, you’ll get sick.”
“Isn’t that an old wives’ tale?”
“Never mind an old wives’ tale; you’ll catch pneumonia.”
“Is it okay if I open the window?”
“If you’re strong enough. They were painted shut and stick a little. I need a paint job, but the landlord’s a miser.”
“Why don’t you call a lawyer?”
“This isn’t Beverly Hills. It’s Brooklyn,” Uncle Jake grumbled. “What kind of shlemiel calls a lawyer to get a paint job? He’ll get the message if I’m late paying the rent,” he explained.
The white-gloss kitchen walls had yellowed, cracked, and peeled. Spider webs, thick enough to support a circus high-wire act, covered the ceiling.
Uncle Jake hovered over me with an old, dented pot. I noticed that his forearms were as thick as tree limbs as he scooped out a huge ladle full of oatmeal and plopped it into my dish. He had probably cooked it at 6:00 a.m., or whenever it was that people his age woke up. The consistency was somewhere between vulcanized rubber and partially set concrete.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You wrinkled your nose,” he complained. “What’s wrong, you don’t like oatmeal?”
“It’s kind of a hot day for oatmeal.”
“It’s good for you. I fed it to your father for years.”
“My father hates oatmeal.”
Uncle Jake seemed surprised by the news. He didn’t know that my dad used to flush it down the toilet the moment Uncle Jake left for work. “How could that be?” he asked. I just kept quiet and let him figure it out on his own. “Oh,” he said after a moment. “He never complained.”
At this point, I suppose I should fill in the blanks. Uncle Jake raised my dad after Grandpa Ted, my dad’s dad, died in the Battle of the Bulge. By the way, my name is Josh Stern. My dad’s Robert Stern, my mom’s Wendy Stern, and Uncle Jake . . . yes, you guessed it: he’s the sternest of us all. My dad, the big-shot Hollywood producer, thinks that’s funny.
“I would have gone out for fresh bagels, but I didn’t want to leave you asleep in a strange place,” he said. “I know you can’t get good bagels in California.”
“Sure we can,” I said defensively.
“Feh. They’ve got garbage out there. You need Brooklyn water. California steals everything from Brooklyn, but it’s not as good. The Dodgers, the Giants, they took them all, the gonifs, and now they all stink . . . just like the bagels.” Uncle Jake walked to the stove, turned off the flame, and set the pot of rubber on the cooling burner. “I’ll get fresh tomorrow on the way home from shul.” Uncle Jake ran the water in the kitchen sink and hocked up a huge chunk of phlegm.
“Shul?” I asked.
“Of course, shul,” he said. “You packed a suit, I hope.”
“Oy,” he sighed. “A clean pair of trousers and a shirt?”
“That’ll do. The temple’s not air-conditioned anyway.”
I tasted the oatmeal. Its texture was not unlike wet sand. “You go every week?”
“God willing,” Uncle Jake said, standing over me. “How’s the oatmeal?”
He smiled. “You’ll get used to it, right?” I nodded. I mean what could I say? He examined my hair. “You’re a good looking boy, but you could use a trim, no?”
“I don’t know,” I said, hoping he could read between the lines. I liked my hair long; long hair was kind of “in” back home. How did teenagers wear their hair in Brooklyn, with ducktails and Brylcream like in those beach-party movies?
“You’ll come with me to Al the barber. I go every Friday.”
I made a mental note to be less subtle. Apparently the direct approach was the best route to take with my uncle. I was wondering why Uncle Jake got a haircut every week. Three strands of white hair covered his heavily tanned skull. The tufts growing out of his ears were thicker than the hair over his temples. “You don’t need a haircut.” I thought he might take the hint.
“I go for a shave.” Uncle Jake plopped down in the chair next to me. “There’s nothing like it,” he said. “The feeling of the hot towel on your face and the crisp edge of steel.” He ran his fingers over his beard, closed his eyes, and smiled. “It’s wonderful.” He reached forward and examined my chin. “You’re not ready yet.” He turned my head from side to side. “Soon,” he opined. “I’ll ask Al to give you a hot towel anyway, after he cuts your hair.” The hot towel sounded pretty good. I made a snap judgment and decided that Uncle Jake was way past his penis pleasure days.
Maybe I was still being too subtle. “I’m not sure I want my hair cut, Uncle Jake.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said as he stood. “You can’t go to shul looking like that Ringo putz.” Really, did he just criticize one of the Beatles? “Just a trim,” he said as he picked up the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. “You don’t need the toilet right now, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Good.” He clutched his gut. “The oatmeal works fast.” He took a few steps, stopped, and then turned back to me. “Don’t go barefoot in the bathroom. I put down roach powder to kill the water bugs.” He turned away and didn’t see me cringe as I scraped the souls of my feet on the kitchen linoleum.
What I would soon find out is that every window in his apartment was painted shut and that they’re much tougher to open when you’re gasping for air.
“Hello, Jake.” Al the barber greeted Uncle Jake enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear. Al was a tiny black man with nappy gray hair. He was buzzing a huge guy with red hair, whom I would learn was an Irishman named Kelley.
“You’re in a good mood,” Uncle Jake said. “What’s happening, the pomade’s moving this week?”
“Ha, ha,” Al cackled as he pushed Kelley’s head forward to buzz the back of his thick, red neck.
Kelley looked up at us from the corner of his eye while his head was facing the floor. “Hello, Stern,” he said.
“Kelley,” Uncle Jake replied. “I thought I spotted your truck outside.” Kelley’s soda truck was visible through the barbershop window. Later on, Uncle Jake told me that he took the truck home with him at night. I could tell straight off that he wasn’t one of Uncle Jake’s favorites.
“I’ve got a special on seltzer this week, Stern,” Kelley said.
“I’ve still got plenty,” Uncle Jake replied.
“Don’t keep it too long, it goes flat,” Kelley told him.
Uncle Jake covered his mouth with his fist and pretended to cough. “Like your head,” he mumbled.
Uncle Jake put his hand on my shoulder and ushered me forward. “This is my nephew Josh, Bob’s son. He’s staying with me for the summer,” he boasted.
Kelley waved to me without saying a word.
“Bob’s son?” Al was astonished. “Oh dear Lord, where has the time gone?” Al turned off the trimmer and walked over to shake my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Josh. I used to cut your dad’s hair before he moved to California and became a big Hollywood success. He still got that thick head of black hair?”
“He’s a little gray now.”
“Little Bobby Stern’s got gray hair? My, my.” Al shook his head in disbelief. “I bet he gets a good haircut being in the movie business and all.”
“He says no one cuts his hair the way you did,” I said.
“He does?” Al seemed oh-so-pleased with the compliment.
“Yup,” I replied, “He says that the studio hairdressers don’t know what to do with his thick hair.”
“My, my.” You could see that I had made him really happy. “Have a seat, gentlemen. It’ll just be a minute.”
Uncle Jake and I took our seats, and Al went back to buzzing Kelley’s neck.
Al’s shop had mint-green walls and smelled like hair stuff. His counter was lined with bottles of Wild Root and Clubman. Al sang while he finished up with Kelley. It was a song I had heard, but didn’t know who sang it—“Under the Boardwalk” or something.
Uncle Jake nudged me as Kelley got up from the chair. “He’s a lush,” he whispered. “Look at his red nose.”
Kelley was a huge man, with a potbelly that hung over the belt of his green uniform pants. He saluted Uncle Jake as he walked out. “Stern,” he said.
“Kelley,” Uncle Jake replied. “Did you see his beer belly?” he asked me after Kelley had left.
“His wife left him,” Uncle Jake said. “He got so drunk, he hit her in the mouth and knocked out her teeth. Dr. Botstein had to make her a partial. He’s such a zhlub.” He looked out at the street to make sure Kelley was gone and then turned to Al, “Why you don’t slip and cut his throat the next time you give him a shave?”
“Ah, Jake,” Al said, “You shouldn’t be talking trouble. It’ll only come back to haunt you.”
“Feh,” Uncle Jake said, waving his hand dismissively. “Believe me, he wouldn’t be missed.”
Al shook Kelley’s hair off the barber’s apron. “Okay, who’s first?” he asked.
“Josh will go first,” Uncle Jake said. “Give him a hot towel when you’re finished.”
“Sure thing,” Al said.
I got up and reluctantly walked to the chair. Al winked at me as I sat down. “Good to see a young man that wants to look neat. Getting so the young folks don’t want to cut their hair hardly at all. Either that or they go to those sissy women’s salons.” Al played with my hair, examining the texture. “You got nicer hair than your pop, young man. What’ll it be?”
“Just a little off the top, please.”
“Little off the top, coming up.” Al smiled as he draped the apron over me. “This’ll be the best haircut you ever got.”
God, I hope so.
“How do you like Brooklyn so far?”
“There’s a lot more concrete than I expected.”
“I suppose you got lots of green grass out by you?”
“Lots,” I agreed, nodding.
“How do you like it otherwise?”
“I only got here last night. Uncle Jake took me home from the airport and I went to sleep.” Al examined the scissors on the counter. I cringed as he reached for a big one, but then he reconsidered and picked up the smallest one. Yes.
“All the way from California, you must be good and tired.”
“He slept twelve hours,” Uncle Jake volunteered. “I was ready to call the funeral parlor.”
Al cackled. “Your uncle’s a real kidder. Ha, ha . . . California, my, my, I ain’t never been out west. I’d like to get out there one day though.”
“Who in their right mind would want to? I went out there to visit. Such a bunch of gonifs.” Uncle Jake blurted. “The Mets are going to murder the Dodgers this year . . . the Giants too.”
“The Dodgers ain’t the same since Koufax retired,” Al said.
“Feh, another traitor who left Brooklyn. I got no use for him . . . Too bad though, a nice Jewishboy like that. He refused to pitch on Yom Kippur you know.”
“They say his shoulder went bad . . . or was it his elbow?”
“His elbow,” Uncle Jake replied. “What do you expect? The smog will do that to you. I don’t see how the people in Los Angeles can live. You can’t breathe. The body breaks down and gets weak.”
“What about it, young man?” Al asked. “You have any trouble breathing?” He laughed as he pointed at Uncle Jake. “Your uncle don’t like California too much, ever since the Dodgers moved out of Ebbets Field . . . He’s sure got some strong opinions, don’t he?”
I nodded. “I don’t have any problem breathing.”
“See that, Jake, your nephew don’t have no problems with the air . . . unless, of course, his uncle breaks wind. Ha, ha.” Uncle Jake’s flatulence was the stuff of legends.
“Funny. Are you a comedian or a barber?” Uncle Jake asked. “Right now I can’t tell which. Make sure you clean him up good; he’s going to shul with me tomorrow. Give him his money’s worth.”
“The boy just wants a trim, Jake,” Al said. “I ain’t gonna scalp him.” Oh, I liked Al. I liked him a lot. “Say, that Seaver’s a heck of a pitcher, ain’t he, Jake?”
“He’s murder. His curveball looks like it’s rolling off the end of a table.”
“He’s Jewish too, ain’t he, Jake?”
“Nah. Everyone thinks he’s Jewish because his name is Seaver, but he’s a gentile, like all the other athletes today.”
I watched Al’s progress in the mirror. Happily, the snippets of hair he was cutting were small. Before I knew it, he was combing my hair into place.
“How’s that?” Al asked.
“Take off some more,” Uncle Jake barked.
“Won’t do it, Jake. If I take off too much, the boy won’t want to come back.”
I turned my head from side to side as I looked in the mirror. Aside from the dorky way that Al had combed it, it wasn’t too bad, and I knew I could easily fix it once I got home. I nodded happily.
“Satisfied?” he asked. I nodded again. “Scoot on over to the next chair so that I can start on your uncle, and I’ll wrap you up in a nice hot towel.”
Al took a hot towel out of the boiler, sprinkled it with Old Spice, and wrapped it around my face. At first I thought it would sear my skin right off, but I got used to it after a minute and started to enjoy the experience. It was warm, private, and smelled great. It felt so good, I felt like falling asleep. Perhaps I did nod off for a while, but I could still hear Uncle Jake and Al jabbering away in the background.
“How you feeling, Jake? You’re getting darker and darker every time I see you.”
“What’s a matter, afraid I’m giving you a run for your money?”
“You’re dark, Jake, but you ain’t that dark. Ha, ha. You know you ain’t supposed to stay out in the sun that much; some folks say it ain’t healthy for you.”
“Nothing’s good for you . . . the most delicious foods are the worst things for you. In the entire world, there’s nothing better than a good pastrami sandwich, but too much of it . . . and chickenschmaltz?” he stopped, clasped his hands to his cheeks and shook his head from side to side. “Instant heart attack. Besides, I love the sun.”
“Don’t seem natural, a white man as dark as you.”
“My father was dark.”
“You must be one of them black Jews.”
“A Sephardic?” Uncle Jake grumbled. “I’m not a goddamn Sephardic. My father was born in Russia.”
“Take it easy, Jake. Don’t make sense to get worked up while a black man has a razor pressed against your throat.”
Uncle Jake chuckled. “Some black man, I’m almost blacker than you are. Ah, what a shame I ruined my vision in the war. Can you imagine the kind of ballplayer I would have been? I would have been Hank Greenberg before Hank Greenberg was Hank Greenberg. I would have been the Jewish Jackie Robinson.”
“Yeah, Hank Greenberg was a good ballplayer all right. He wasn’t no Willie Mays though.”
“What are you talking about? Hank Greenberg was the best power hitter that ever lived. It sounded like a mortar blast when he hit the ball. He would have broken Ruth’s record in 1938 if all of baseball wasn’t against him.”
“What’s that about, Jake?”
“Come on, you don’t know? They wouldn’t pitch to him, the bastards. They didn’t want a Jew breaking Babe Ruth’s homerun record.”
“That a fact?”
“Willie Mays was still better.”
“Go on, you’re dreaming.”
I guess it was their highly emotional conversation that brought me around. In any case, the towel was now cool, which felt good too. It wasn’t up there with penis pleasure, but a hot towel now and again was definitely something I could get used to.
I had never heard of Hank Greenberg. For that matter, I had never heard of any Jewish ballplayer other than Sandy Koufax. My folks were not very religious. All the same, it made me proud to know that a Jewish athlete had been so good. Before I knew it, Al was pulling the towel off my face.
“How’d you like your first hot towel?” Al asked.
“I liked it.”
“Wait until you raise a beard, that’s when you’ll first appreciate how good it is,” Uncle Jake said. “That’s when you’ll really feel like a man.”
We were out of Al’s barbershop and halfway down the block before we spoke again.
“Uncle Jake, was Hank Greenberg really a better baseball player than Willie Mays?” I waited eagerly for his confirmation. I had never been so excited about being Jewish.
“You don’t know much about baseball, do you?”
“I like watching it.”
“But you don’t play?”
“I’m not much of a hitter.”
“So your father can’t work with you on this? It’s in our blood after all.”
“You were good, weren’t you, Uncle Jake? My dad said you used to hit the ball a mile.”
“Me?” I could see that he was recalling a memory. After a moment, he put his arm around me. “I love the game.”
“Why didn’t you become a professional?”
“Professional? Are you crazy? You know how many Jews there were in baseball when I was a young man?” I shook my head. “Zero, none, goonisht. The blacks tell you about Jackie Robinson all the time, but it was even worse for the Jews. Besides, I came back from the war with a detached retina. After that, I played like a schlemiel.”
“But what about Hank Greenberg?”
Uncle Jake squinted at me. “You mean, was he better than Willie Mays?”
“I heard you tell Al that he was.”
“What are you kidding me? Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player that ever lived: eleven Golden Glove Awards, two MVPs, and six hundred-sixty home runs.”
“But you said—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what I said.” He patted me on the back. “I’m a Jew, it comes with the territory.”