Small Talk

By Ed Staskus

Rita Staskus thought Gadi Galilli was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues. 

   She met Gadi when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were both looking up at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.

   He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Rita always thought there was something out of joint with him. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, too, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way. He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

   Rita was working at Born to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the far east side of Cleveland and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, “Maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job.” Gadi and she would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Rita to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they said to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans, making their plans.

   They were sisters and both were fat. They were always at the head of the buffet line. Sandy was usually ahead of her sister. Sima worked hard, but Sandy didn’t, since she had Sima. Sandy fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to chow. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting anytime soon.

   Although Rita wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. “I’m pretty good with languages,” she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking ghetto and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Sima told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Gadi lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, although when she got there every last person was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Rita could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher. Sit up straight and pay attention.”

   Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet in them to the class. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to. She was all business.

   “Let’s go,” she said clapping at the start of every class.  Everybody had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to the business of Hebrew.

   Rita’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. “I would have to speak in front of everyone,” she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down in the foxhole.

   Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant. 

   Everybody in the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Rita,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Rita.” 

   Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Rita didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Rita couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. “I’m not coming back,” she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, “I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Gadi I am quitting after one night.”

   She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew. 

   Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she copied in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right. 

   She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

  The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so the Hebrew proposal became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Rita’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, watching them go in their door. They didn’t like it, at all.

   “Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.  

   “Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered wrinkling his lips.

   Rita thought everybody believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. “I don’t look Jewish,” she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.” 

   Gino, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office at the desk opposite her, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when a man walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her say it.. Sandy and Sima put down their cigarettes. The secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.  

   Gino and she were outsiders because everybody else in the office and almost everybody else in the building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sandy and Sima would sometimes say, “I don’t know why the Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big blue-ribbon plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight holiday. Everybody in Rita’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”

   Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights up the hill from Little Italy. Rita thought, “Oh, Christ, there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox.” She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.” 

   It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.   

   Everybody was good with that, even though Rita didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She didn’t have a wig and never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Gadi. He dropped her off at school and picked her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everybody thought she was Jewish she knew she had to start being crafty about it. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the plaza beside Born to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old lady with a scratchy voice, the mother of a woman she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

   “What did you do today?” she asked.

   “I just finished all my shopping,” Rita said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve. They were dyed in the wool Christians.

   “But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.  

   “In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Rita explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.

   “Oh, I see, that’s good,” the old lady said.

   Rita was never certain whether she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew, or not. After every class she thought, “I’m never going back.” One night she finally didn’t go back. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed. 

   “Why weren’t you in class?” she asked. 

   Rita wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast in the kitchen.

   If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace of the stuff.  Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everybody believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.

   “It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Gadi. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing breathing exercises.

   After Alaya hung up, Rita had to meet her on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made Rita glad.

   Gadi’s brother Oz from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Rita in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of the language. It sounded like something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Gadi ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Gadi turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Rita sitting alone in the half-dark.

   At the end of the class Rita got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.

  She started chaperoning Born to Travel tours to Israel soon afterwards. Sandy and Sima saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their long Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy. They bought giant hot pretzels to tide them over.

   Rita stayed with Gadi’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Oz still lived at home, the family home, and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Rita wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other side. After the ceremony she sat at a table with the women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of the chatter too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall. The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, not once. Rita danced with some of the other women. She had a wonderful time.

   The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.

   “What’s that?” she asked.

   “Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

   Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.

   She pointed over her shoulder.

   “It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

From Here to Someday

By Ed Staskus

   Sylvester drifted into the kitchen where I was making pancakes, stood up on his hind legs, and slapped his tongue against the side of my face. I didn’t mind. His mouth was probably cleaner than that of most of my friends. His kiss was less risky than kissing another human being, like my girlfriend. Whatever germs were in his cavernous mouth were mostly incompatible to human beings. I never caught the flu from him since he never coughed or sneezed. Sometimes it seemed he had more of a soft spot for me than any living person.

   My brother left his Great Dane behind when he moved out. The dog cost me an arm and a leg to feed. I had to walk him twice a day. I had to shove him out of my bed whenever he tried to sleep next to me. His germs might have been harmless, but his bad breath was like sewer gas. He was good-natured, though, and we got along. I called him Sly, and he called me the boss. He didn’t know how to talk, but I knew what he meant when he barked.

   Sly was in his formative years and fascinated by cars. He chased them recklessly. I put a stop to it by sitting him down on the tree lawn and driving slowly past with a squirt gun in my lap. The gun was loaded with vinegar. Whenever he lunged at the car, I squirted him in the face through the open window. It only took ten minutes to teach him cars were dangerous and guns even more dangerous. After that I rarely put him on a lead when we walked to the pocket park on the lake for runaround time. He walked beside me and the only time I grabbed for his collar was when I spied another dog coming our way.

   I was living upstairs in a Polish double on the west end of North Collinwood, on a forgotten street, a couple of blocks from Lake Erie. Ray Sabaliauskas lived downstairs with his prize German Shepherd and the wife he brought back from the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland State University and paying for it by taking a quarter off every now and then to work for an electro-static painting outfit. They did most of their work on-site out of town. Ray fed and walked my dog whenever I was on the road.

   The day the dog became my dog was the week after my brother’s fiancée Brenda, a girl from Vermont who my brother met while in the U. S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, was killed on Route 20 coming home from her part-time job at a restaurant in Mentor. She had been enrolled full-time at Cuyahoga Community College the rest of the time.

   The night Brenda didn’t come home was the night I woke up at two in the morning from a bad dream with a bad feeling. I got up and sat looking out window. It had rained earlier, and the backyard grass glistened. The lettuce in the garden was fat and bright. A cat sat under the eaves of the garage, keeping an eye out for a late-night snack.

   When I noticed Brenda’s Subaru station wagon wasn’t in the driveway, I somehow felt certain something terrible had happened to her. I couldn’t shake the feeling. I stayed up, sitting by the window, until I finally went back to bed, thinking it was the dream that had upset me. Even so, I couldn’t fall back asleep, and when I did, I slept fitfully.

   The next morning a Cleveland Police squad car pulled up outside the house and broke the news to my brother. At first, I thought he hadn’t heard what the policeman said. He stood stock still. But then he asked where Brenda was and reached for his car keys. I didn’t see him the rest of the day or the next day. Brenda’s parents arrived later in the week and took her back to Vermont for burial in the family’s hometown cemetery. When my brother got back from the funeral he moved out.

   Brenda fell asleep at the wheel coming home the night she died, but that wasn’t what killed her. She wasn’t even hurt when the car drifted off the highway and halfway down the embankment. She was able to stomp on the brakes and stop the car from overturning. She even coaxed it back up to the shoulder, where she discovered she had a flat tire. She flicked on the flashers and was getting the jack and spare tire out of the back of the car when a drunkard going her way slipped out of his lane and rear-ended her. She was propelled into and over the Subaru. She died on the spot, blind-sided, never knowing what hit her.

   When I finished my pancakes, I took Sly for a short walk. Brenda and my brother were gone, and the dog was my roommate now. He didn’t say much, which suited me, but he needed tending. I was running late for school. Back home I left him on the front porch to sleep the day away and made my way to Lakeshore Blvd, where I caught the 39B bus downtown for a class. It was cheaper than taking my bucket of bolts and paying for parking. It was Friday and I was looking forward to babysitting a friend’s motorcycle for the weekend.

   Saturday morning, I scarfed down a cream cheese bagel and a glass of Joe Wieder’s. The motorcycle was in the driveway behind the house where nobody could see it. The streets were sketchy, brothers from the hood and hoodlums from the neighborhood prowling for loot. It was a big Honda, slung low like a club racer. My friend had dropped it that spring when the front wheel locked up. A handlebar was bent and made tight right turns tricky. But it handled well, overall, had great acceleration, and was painted a dark ochre.

   I tied my backpack down across the handlebars, turned the key, and pressed the start button. The four-stroke engine made a humming happy sound. I dropped it into gear. At the sidewalk I tipped my helmet to a blonde walking by. She turned her nose up.

   I rode west on Lakeshore Blvd, halfway through Bratenahl, and turned south on East 105th St. I meant to connect with Euclid Ave. I wanted to get an eyeful of the urban decay in Glenville I had been hearing about. It was still there. I took in the ruins. The mess was a place, no place to live, I thought.

   I met my friend Matti Lavikka at our friend Mary Jane’s gray-colored Gothic-style clapboard house on East 33rd St. off Payne Ave. Matti was in the back with MJ, taking it easy in her deep-set narrow backyard. It was a tangle of overgrown hedges, monstrous bean plants, super-sized sunflowers, roses run riot, dwarf trees, and carnations trying to make sense of it all.

   Twin blue-eyed albino cats ran past from next door, across the lawn and over a low fence. One of them was cross-eyed. The hippie artist next door let them do their own thing. They were rolling stones who only ate and slept at home. Matti’s motorcycle was in the drive, a stripped-down 1965 Triumph with short pipes and a glossy black paint job. We decided to ride west along the lake, nowhere special, just drifting in the direction the sun was going

   We gassed up across the Cuyahoga River and stopped at a diner for coffee. Matti was a fireman in Bay Village, where fires were far and few between. He knew his laydown jobs better than most. He graduated from Cleveland State University that spring. He was in a philosophical frame of mind all summer, trying to remember something that had never happened in the way of exercising his mind. 

   We rode on Lake Rd. through Lakewood, Rocky River and Bay Village. We were riding into a strong headwind, but it was no match for our bikes. The sun reached its zenith and kept going. We kept going, too, until we reached Vermilion. There were crowds milling in the streets. We slowed down to almost nothing. Children gamboled here and there. We inched our way to the harbor. A rail thin lady with a perky face told us it was the annual Fish Festival. 

   We caught a break coming into town that day. There were vintage cars on parade, men wearing fezzes and sashes, marching high school bands in starched uniforms, a covey of Boy Scouts, floats carrying gals looking like stars, garish looking clowns, and oafish looking town officials.

   Brenda had been an outdoorsman kind of girl. She would have jumped at the chance to cruise the Fish Festival. She had just turned legal that year. Now she was gone with no future. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

   We had heaping plates of buttered perch with potatoes and sage. Matti wanted to talk about the future, but I didn’t. I scorned the past as nothing but debris, and the present as grist for the mill. I left the future to chance. Now that Matti had a college degree, he told me I was being irresponsible. 

   “Mind your own business,” I said.

   “That kind of attitude is even more irresponsible,” he said.

   “You’ll be an old man soon enough. Wait until then to talk that way.”

   “I’ll have to look you up when that happens,” he said.

   A shapely gal wearing a bikini with ruffles came our way. She was topped off with a peaked hat two feet high, four feet wide, made of wire mesh and adorned with red, white, and blue rosettes. We admired her glide. When we left Vermilion, we followed a road along the shore winding past small frame houses and cottage resorts. There were big trees everywhere and the air smelled sweet.

   After we reached Marblehead, we took the ferry to Kelly’s Island. We saw sailboats bobbing up and down, leaning to one side of the wind. The ferry rode rough on the choppy water. Matti’s Triumph didn’t have a center stand and he had to lean on it to keep it from falling over. A tow-headed boy getting soaked at the bow laughed like Soupy Sales every time a wave crashed onto the deck. When he saw Perry’s Monument he jumped and pointed that way.

   “Don’t Give Up the Ship” was on Commander Oliver Perry’s battle flag during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It commemorated the dying words of a fellow commander who fell in an earlier naval engagement against the British. Oliver Perry didn’t give up and the British squadron was sent packing.

   We rode around the island aimlessly with our helmets off and the sunny breeze in our hair. The blacktop dipped and curved. There were boats stashed in harbors tied to docks all over the place. We took a break at a public beach, ogling babes sizzling in baby oil from behind our sunglasses. Back on our bikes we rode across a field to an abandoned baseball field. The chain link of the backstop was rusted, and the painted stands weathered cracking peeling. The pitcher’s mound was overgrown with weeds.

   We shared some weed sitting on the outfield grass. Matti started waxing about the problem of good and evil. I suspected I was in for it and took a deep drag on the reefer. “The Nazi’s thought their actions towards the Jews were both righteous and warranted, while at the same time many other people didn’t,” he said.

   “Especially the Jews,” I said.

   “Who was right?”  

   I said we both knew Adolf Hitler and his supporters were monsters.

   “Sure, but that’s not the point,” he said. 

   “What is the point?”

   “Just trying to touch on something metaphysical here.”

   “All right, but metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy. Arguments about good and evil are useless. Hardly anything except engineering is not relative. Most of it is all made up.”

   “What about your brother’s girlfriend who got killed? Did the drunk driver have the right to determine her life and death?”

   “I hope they hang that guy like they hung the Nazi’s.”

   We took a quarry road back to the ferry dock. We were early for our return ride and walked to a nearby tavern. It had a Louisiana ceiling and wide plank floor. Fishing paraphernalia filled the walls. Teenagers were playing pinball and yukking it up They looked too young to drink but had bottles of Blatz at hand. Over the cash register somebody had scrawled in magic marker that an Irishman was not drunk so long as he could hold on to a blade of grass and not fall off the edge of the planet.

   Matti and I each had a pint of lager while we waited for our boat. Back on the mainland, we took secondary roads as far as Avon, where Matti waved goodbye and roared off for home. I laced up my skates and got on the highway. I crossed the Flats going 75 MPH. Passing the dark Municipal Stadium I fell in with three other motorcycles who were hauling ass.

   I hit 105 MPH keeping up, leaning low over my handlebars. Every part of me was focused on the road flowing backwards in front of me. I had never gone that fast on a car or motorcycle or anything else other than a jet plane. Nothing mattered except keeping my tail on the seat and not wiping out. It took less than three minutes to pass the Cleveland Aquarium and veer away from the pack down the ramp of my exit onto Waterloo Rd. I caught my breath at the stop sign before an impatient blaring horn behind me made me jump and I tapped the gear shift.

   Back home I tucked the motorcycle away out of sight in the backyard. I watered and fed Sly before throwing myself down on the sofa. My legs felt like abused rubber bands. My left palm was puffy from handling the clutch all day. I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t used to anybody my age dying, either, but Brenda had died and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it. 

   A good idea is to die young as late as possible. The real pay dirt is to not be there when it happens, although that never happens. It hadn’t worked out for her. Her life was still in the memory of the living, though. Nobody had forgotten her, yet. When it happens, it happens for a long time, the long lights out of becoming zero. It was a shame, I thought, before I stopped thinking about time and fate and fell into a simple as ABC dreamless sleep.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”