[Sorry about paragraph-spacing issues. Did the best I could; don't assume anything is meant by paragraph breaks.]
(Unpublished work © 1998 Douglas P. Tarnopol)
To the Reader:
Let the Reader be forewarned that what follows is a mere Satire, and, as such, the Reader has to expect a certain amount of Stereotyping and Caricature.
In the hypersensitive Atmosphere of contemporary America—in which the Perception of the slightest spoken or written Affront to any Race, Ethnic Group, Nationality, Creed, Belief System, Life Style, Gender, Sex, Intersex, Age Group, Differently-Abled Non-Victim, Sexual Orientation, Class, or any other similarly arbitrary division of Humanity, is, regardless of Context, greeted with universal Excoriation by those whom, however tightly they may cling privately to the most despicable Hatreds, pine publicly for Civility in order to prevent the very Downtrodden (whom they so diligently defend from Insult while doing nothing to improve their actual Conditions of Existence) from rising up and depriving them of their fancy Homes & Four-By-Fours—in such an Atmosphere it behooves an Author to disabuse his Reader of any potentially distasteful or unpleasant Notions about the Work he-she-one-s/he-they (let us not forget Conjoined Twins) has in front of him-her-one-s/hem(?)-them, lest the Reader swoon from the horrendous Trauma of reading printed Matter whose main Object is not to be Nice, but to seek imperfectly after a kind of literary Truth, which, not being Quantifiable, as in the Sciences; or Certain, as in the countless Religions and Pseudoreligions of our great, enlightened Nation; but nevertheless unabashedly Judgmental, and thus unacceptable to the Postmodernist Movement in the Humanities, has been epistemologically downgraded by each Subculture to: Bullshit, Moral Relativism, and Moral Absolutism, respectively.
To wit, it has been claimed that the present Story is Anti-Semitic, a Serious Charge that demands a Serious Answer.
The Author acknowledges that he has limited his Satire to upper-middle-class Jews living in the northeastern
Therefore, let the Reader stave off whatever
Thus, the Reader, now properly prepared, can settle back into his-her-its-one’s-s/his (?)-their Chair, Bed, or other Place of Repose—or he-she-it-one-s/he-they can stand if that accords with his-her-its-one’s-s/his-their accepted Cultural Practice—and read on, safe in the Knowledge that the Author is free from all Prejudice, and that this Story is not meant to offend Anyone—certainly not You, Dear Reader, to whom this satirical Critique could not possibly apply.
Every seder, Phyllis offers the same menu. No deviation has been recorded in thirty years.
Perhaps she prepared a massive amount of seder-food in the late 1960s, hid it in the basement, and has been depleting it ever since. None of the meats, at least, would have spoiled. According to sacred tradition, Phyllis broils to the point of fossilization. Any enterprising bacillus alighting on, say, Phyllis’ brisket would find no organic purchase.
The food is arranged buffet style on the kitchen counter, aligned to within one degree-second of the usual configuration. The same dishes hold the same foods in the same order. First, the meats. Brisket fit only for making a saddle glistens in a pool of melted fat next to a silver tray of roasted chicken drier than a lunar sea. Next to the chicken, of course, is a matching tureen filled with liquefied chicken fat. (See Comment One)
After the meats come the sweet courses—which is to say, everything else, save the steamed broccoli which is tucked away at the back of the counter, a nod towards newfangled ideas, such as “fiber,” “roughage,” “health,” and “living past thirty five with an intact and functional heart.”
Sweet is perhaps an understatement. One needs at least six pancreases to survive a normal portion of Phyllis’ sweet potatoes. Her kugel is a miracle of chemistry, a sticky orgy of fat and sugar molecules twisting around each other in a heretofore unforeseen variety of compromising positions. Even her salad dressing is shockingly cloying, like the liquid version of a vinegar-based candy popular only in
Phyllis has a bit of a sweet tooth. She clamps her jaws down tightly against all the pleasures of life. But desire swells and cannot be forever denied, so pleasure rushes in through that one breach. Consequently, Phyllis has a bit of a weight problem, but only to the extent that you age more slowly in her vicinity.
Matzo-ball soup burps thickly in a cauldron on the stove. A scum of fat is congealing on the surface. This process is periodically interrupted by a bubble from the depths, which, fighting the increasing surface tension, expands and bursts in slow motion, the ripples jostling the waxy carrots and matzo balls trapped like sea birds in an oil slick.
This is what
Phyllis is bouncing around the kitchen like a pinball, fretting, marking her maternal territory with her conspicuous anxiety.
She waddles toward
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Phyllis whines, getting several syllables out of the two-letter word, each inflection heavy with the burden of her love and motherly responsibility.
She leans forward and kisses her daughter, emitting little moans and hums, clutching Rachel to her bosom as if she had just pulled her out of a burning building.
“I’m so glad you came.”
She turns to
“Hiiiiiiii.” Not so many syllables for
“How are you, Phyllis?”
She grimaces and backs away from
The poodles have been bouncing between
The poodles get their daily treat after dinner. Phyllis goes to the pantry, dogs in tow, and pulls out two “chewies.” Phyllis waits for them to bark,
Phyllis has a metal can filled with screws and nails. To discipline the dogs, she’ll hide the can behind her back, come close to the offending poodle, and like lightening her hand will flash out shaking the can mightily. To the terrified dog, it must sound as if a canine version of Pandora’s box has burst open. For years, Phyllis has been talking about writing a book on how aspiring mothers can learn to raise children by first raising poodles. This is her dream.
One of the poodles jams his snout into Rachel’s crotch. Phyllis is mortified.
“Oh, Mikey, stop it! Bad, bad! Be good like Teddy.”
Teddy is carrying a stuffed toy hedgehog in his mouth, looking for a playmate.
Phyllis is bright red, completely flustered, hands flapping like hummingbird wings.
“I’m so sorry. He doesn’t mean it lasciviously. Oh!”
Phyllis’ face is contorted as if from extreme pain; she can’t look her daughter in the eye.
“He doesn’t mean it,” she says, begging
“That’s not lascivious?”
He glances at Rachel; she laughs.
Phyllis looks up at
“Nooooooooooooo,” she whines, “he’s a good doggy.” And she resumes her zigzag trajectory around the kitchen.
She smiles and kisses him on the cheek. Public display of affection between nonconsanguinous members of the opposite sex is taboo in the Steen household.
“I remember,” Rachel had told
Phyllis has always viewed men as another commodity to be acquired. A smart woman made her choice based on a calculation combining earning potential with a quasi-eugenic assessment of the prospective mate’s capacity to beget upright, intelligent, well-behaved, God-fearing, Mosaic-law-abiding members of a close-knit Jewish community located in an upscale, white suburb somewhere on the Main Line (although Appleton, Wisconsin, Phyllis’ home town, would do) comprised of large, antiseptic houses (with Judaica-filled living rooms no one ever enters unless company is over) and a Conservative synagogue—no doubt a drab, functionalist building coated with hideously ostentatious perversions of Chagall, inside of which, in honor of the great Jewish tradition of anonymous giving, every possible fixture sports a donor’s name, e.g.:
· “This light switch made possible through the generosity of Leon and Mitzy Schlumpkowitz;”
· “This air conditioning vent was donated by the loving children of Abe and Sadie Cohen on the occasion of their fortieth wedding anniversary;”
· “This toilet seat commemorates the bar mitzvah of Aaron Blitzstein, given by his loving parents, Ruth and Morrie Blitzstein;”
—a synagogue in which Phyllis’ pious offspring could observe the Sabbath and keep it holy by dressing expensively, forming business contacts, and gossiping incessantly, a synagogue in which they could pray earnestly to God to keep the shvartze out of the Main Line, to watch over the stock market, and, above all, to protect Israel from being overrun by the swarthy, unshaven, turbaned, scimitar-brandishing, mounted Arabian horde with nothing but the ravishing of pure Jewish matriarchs on their filthy little desert minds.
Phyllis had made two such calculations in her life. The first resultant was Stanley, another Jewish Wisconsinite, who had struggled against the vortex of his family’s expectations until the irresistible tide had ripped him from painting and art history, sucking him into that singularity of twentieth-century American Jewish aspiration where it seemed possible that knowledge and effort would dissolve ethnicity, where the clawing covetousness of the immigrant outsider could be cloaked in the priestly white befitting a people oppressed by moral terror—
That modern-day Levite caste!
That secular Rabbinate!
That heavenly portal through which the Chosen People may partake of the Fruit of the American Vine!
O, Allopathic Medicine, most Divine of Callings, lead us to the Promised Land
Where the Milk of Martyrdom is sweetened with the Honey of Money!
The way Phyllis tells it, one day, after three daughters and a dozen or so connubial years,
Saul, resultant number two, himself divorced, was selected because he was a pediatrician, which Phyllis felt would ensure both fi
The children were all within six years of each other. The birth order—supremely important not just in poodle but also in human litters in determining the precise contours of personality, from whether a child will be rebellious or obedient; to whether it will show more mathematical than poetic ability; to whether it, in its thirty-second year on a cool, moderately humid spring evening in a temperate climate four hundred feet above sea level under a gibbous moon with Jupiter in the second house, will order a kosher entrée or will choose scampi, thereby defiling itself and disgracing its parents and their parents’ parents and their parents’ parents’ parents back to Abraham and Sarah including of course all the many martyrs and victims of 6,000 years of sustained persecution by all parties especially The Six Million who were not incinerated just for being Jews so you could eat shrimp and renounce your faith you ungrateful spiteful evil monstrous nazi CRIMINAL!—was as follows:
Saul’s kids: Ike, David
If these birth orders are superimposed—which of course they must be, since the children were so young (between six and twelve) when brought together by Saul and Phyllis’ marriage—one gets:
Leah, Ike, Rachel, David, Sarah.
When one considers all the crisscrossing forces of early- and late-borns, honorary early- and honorary late-borns, middle-borns, step-borns, step-early borns, honorary step-borns, honorary early-borns, step-late-borns, early-late-borns, late-early-borns, early-middle-step-late-early-middle-borns, etc., and the various combinations of rebelliousness and obedience associated with each category, one eventually reaches the inevitable conclusion that binary, reductionist thinking is a genetically determined trait of a certain subspecies of simple-minded intellectual which invariably engenders a Cambrian-scale adaptive radiation of special pleading when applied to any given real-world situation.
The problem with Saul was that, his medical specialty and reported sweetness during the much-abbreviated woo-pitching phase of his relationship with Phyllis notwithstanding, he was a tortured, miserable, self-loathing, perpetually-enraged powder keg of a man on a fuse most profitably measured in angstroms. Even though he sensed the forces seething within him and did his best to bottle them up by adhering to a Spartan routine of work, sleep, and prayer, he nonetheless terrorized his new family. At best, he treated Phyllis like an endearingly slow house pet; at worst, he would publicly humiliate her. He had been violent towards both sets of children, once lifting one of his sons off the ground by his hair, once smacking Sarah in the face while she was drinking milk because she had used the wrong glass. Saul seemed to enjoy himself only during Jewish holidays.
Stewing ever since
Saul constantly radiates ill-humor, mistrust, disdain, and quite often outright hatred. He reserves the worst of himself for Stanley, whom Saul believes badly mistreated Phyllis. Not that Saul had ever voiced his disapproval to Stanley himself; like the rest of the family, he lacks the courage to communicate directly. For example, the “sex talk” Rachel and her sisters had to endure as pre-teens, at Saul’s insistence. He had convinced Phyllis of the need, no doubt couching his argument in progressive pediatrics. He forced Phyllis to do the talking.
She told her girls that they should not be ashamed of sex, that it was a natural, beautiful, wonderful, holy thing, a gift from God they could proudly enjoy—providing said sex was limited to the one white, upper-middle-class Jewish man they married, and bearing in mind that when I say “sex,” I mean conventional missionary position on the bed under the covers with the lights off—coitus only, of course, but: no doggie style, no female superior, no standing up, no other weird, unholy, exotic positions that I wouldn’t know about; no cunnilingus—I don’t care how good it feels, it’s filthy down there—no fellatio…oh, well, if he simply won’t leave you alone and you really want something from him, maybe, but certainly not to the point of swallowing for God’s sake…as soon as he gets close, pull his thing out and either catch it in your hand, leap into the bathroom, and scrub every last filthy wriggling microbe off your hallowed skin, or bend his thing up towards his stomach—that way he’ll make a mess on himself (serves him right), and, if you’re lucky, he’ll get himself right in the eye—no spraying of semen in wild abandon on back, butt, or upturned, open-mouthed face followed by deep tongue kissing either, you little hussy: I know how you think!; and no contact back there of any kind: no fingers inserted during sex, no oral contact—God forbid!—the germs…Oh, who would want to do such a thing?; no spanking, no oils; no mutual masturbation; no outfits; no role playing; and, above all, please, please grant your poor, helpless, selfless, suffering, saintly, martyred mother one request: don’t experiment when you get to college—you know what I mean—I have nothing against those people (they’re so athletic) and you know I believe that they should be free to do whatever they want as long as I never see any evidence of it, but if one of my daughters ever told me she was a…a… Lesbian, it would be the worst tragedy ever to befall your dear, poor mother whose entire life has been sacrificed for you, my darling, precious angel!
Now, where was I?
Oh, yes: no phone sex when you’re separated, no talking dirty when you’re together—I don’t ever want a daughter of mine to yell out to a man to fuck her harder, to pull her hair, so that he grabs her hips and pounds away really hard so the head jabs at her cervix, fingering her clit at the same time, timing it so she starts convulsing just as he shoots his scalding load deep in her hot cunt—no talking of any kind in fact, just hurry up and stick it in there if you must, Saul, and make it quick so I can go to sleep; I have a lot of ironing to do tomorrow morning.
Then Phyllis told her daughters about orgasms. Under Saul’s watchful eye, she said that she had never had an orgasm with
Saul’s kettle has been screaming for thirty seconds to no avail. Saul is waiting for a complaint, a look, any excuse to get the demons’ claws out of his flesh, if only for a moment.
Saul tries to pass off his rage as an admirably strict morality. Examples of this were like the dust of the earth. In high school, if Rachel lingered in bed after her alarm went off, he would burst into her room and rip the covers off of her. This was to teach her promptness. He had business cards printed up which read, “Your smoking is offensive to me,” which he always kept on his person and distributed with silent contempt in public places. He practiced medicine in a tough neighborhood in
Saul covered a bulletin board in the kitchen with the business cards of the two dozen or so liberal groups to which he made donations. All could look upon it and know that, verily, Saul was a good boy. He was staunchly Democratic, but of the more free-market-, law-and-order-worshipping, violently-anti-affirmative-action wing. In other words, he hadn’t quite talked himself into following the rest of his people into the Republican party. Whether this was due to principle, or to the fact that his stubborn loyalty to the traditional political home of American Jewry in general (and of his supposedly impoverished Chicagoan family in particular) was in itself merely a measure of his unthinking piety was anybody’s guess. Until very recently, his loyalty to the
Saul finally takes his kettle off the burner and pours himself some water. He drops his tea bag into his mug, and, without making eye contact with anyone, slouches out of the room.
Phyllis is obviously distressed. She had begged Saul to behave before
Interestingly, despite the damage Saul had inflicted on her daughters, Phyllis, the self-advertised epitome of matronage, had never thrown Saul out—though she did throw him down a flight of stairs on one occasion. Phyllis had already been divorced once—what would people think if she was shown to have made a second mistake? And, after all, Saul made money.
Nothing was more important than money because money bought status, or, as the American-Jewish version of that clinically sociological term goes, “Standing in One’s Community”—the very thing Phyllis feared she would lose if she got a second divorce. Money and the ability to earn it were direct reflections of one’s moral worth. Being raised by immigrant parents in
But the Eastern European heritage dominated. Hoarding, saving, scraping, scratching, scrabbling, scrambling, scrimmaging, scrounging, denying oneself the pleasures of life: these and all the other unnatural behaviors forced upon the poor by dire need, without which they literally could not survive, because of which poverty is considered a social evil, and from which they wished to save their children, were, due to guilt, recapitulated at least in ritual form by those very children. This was to be expected. The immigrant parents, trapped in a harsh economic system, had made a virtue of necessity; their children, lacking necessity, felt they also lacked virtue.
Phyllis’ father had been a tyrannical workaholic who had shown little love to his family aside from the procurement and the often niggardly, always selective distribution of material goods. He arrived penniless, according to Phyllis, and with no help whatsoever had gone on to make a small fortune selling apples in
Zadeh’s reach extended beyond the grave, to which he had recently departed. Phyllis was convinced that he watched over her, an almost corporeal omnipresence in her life. Mind you, Phyllis’ father was no Deist clockmaker. Among his many direct interventions in the world of the living had been the manipulation of airline scheduling so as to ensure that all of Phyllis’ daughters could attend his wife’s funeral, which had occurred a couple of years after his own. More tangible was the fi
You see, money was not quite Mr. Smith’s lofty, rational, enlightened medium for the exchange of mere goods and services. Oh, it was an invisible hand all right, but it was suspended, clenched and Damocles-like, over all members of the family ensuring that intergenerational obligations would be honored. And not only did monetary transactions always carry an emotional rider, but the emotional interactions themselves also had an economic character. A stark, ghetto rationale permeated the emotional nexus: one did not give more than one received.
“What’s his problem tonight?”
Phyllis looks at the doorway from which Saul exited and shrugs warily.
“Oh, who knows,” she says unconvincingly.
“All my friends are lusting after your hunky boyfriend,” she chortled to Rachel on the phone before the wedding. “That’s just what you wanted to hear, I’m sure.”
Brightening, Phyllis turns to
Phyllis had justified her marriage in economic terms, so it was no surprise that she was constantly angling to profit from it. Despite nearly twenty years of marriage, Phyllis and Saul kept their fi
It wasn’t simple avarice; it was complex avarice. Phyllis had married Saul because he seemed to promise fi
Perhaps Phyllis wanted love after all, and what better proof of Saul’s love was there than the amount of money he spent on her? If Saul outspent Zadeh, maybe that would heal Phyllis’ wounds. Saul was certainly at least as stern and domineering as her Zadeh had been. Part of Phyllis reveled in Saul’s rages, thrilled at the way he abased her—the more scorn the better. Maybe this was why she had multiple orgasms with him.
Ike and David enter the kitchen from the den. They are laughing. Ike keeps talking to David for a while before he says hello, keeping Rachel and
He steps past
Ike can’t seem to let go of the completely nonthreatening little girl he used to know. He’s pawing at Rachel, planting kisses all over her face. She is making a half-hearted attempt to push him away, not wanting to compound the awkwardness by “making a scene.” Phyllis’ training runs deep in her daughters. It’s all supposed to be a big joke and everyone laughs, even
Ike: [Backing away from Rachel and holding his hands up theatrically.] Gee,
[Rachel’s sisters titter and exchange knowing looks.]
There’s constant tension in the Steen household. They’re like a pride of lions, poised to strike, just waiting for a member to show the slightest vulnerability, which is understood to be weakness. Ike, perpetually the butt of his own jokes about his sexual failure, forces himself on Rachel as a challenge to
Ike turns to
David, towering over everyone at six foot five, lumbers over to
Saul makes a glum reentrance, and, oblivious to everyone but his sons, resumes midstream a debate he and Ike have apparently been having on and off all afternoon. Saul and Ike make no attempt to include the others; it’s as if Phyllis and her daughters weren’t in the room, to say nothing of
The sisters strike up a conversation of their own, each group ignoring the other in a house divided unto itself.
Ike often vies with Saul in ritualized verbal combat. David, however, rarely argues at the dinner table—which is to say, he has extricated himself from the American Jewish gladiatorial arena in which henpecked, insecure males try to recoup some of their masculinity by making pig-headed, ridiculously sweeping pronouncements on (usually political) subjects about which they know little and have thought less, which they subsequently defend for hours by exchanging cheap, legalistic debating points of utterly no consequence while the women clean up. Some common topics for pontification:
1. The Holocaust,
3. The President,
4. Any Jewish Person Who Did Anything Noteworthy Anywhere in the Known Universe, Divided Into:
a. Mitzvahs, or, “Good Deeds,”
b. Nachas, or, “Accomplishments,” i.e., “Things Which Could Be Posted on the Refrigerator,”
c. Shondas, or “Horrible Deeds which Bring Shame Upon the Perpetrator, the Perpetrator’s Family, Community, and Synagogue, and upon American Jewry, World Jewry, and the History of World Jewry, Including, Of Course, All the Many Martyrs of 6,000 Years of Unrelenting Persecution—Especially the Six Million who did not die only to have their memory desecrated by a feculent vermin like YOURSELF!”
5. The Holocaust and
7. American Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,
8. Why Blacks Shouldn’t Receive Affirmative Action,
9. Why Intermarriage Should Be Punishable By Death,
10. Aluminum Siding and the Holocaust.
Phyllis interrupts in her sing-song official hostess register, struggling to integrate the conversation so as to put on a good face before the imminent arrival of company.
“Did you all watch the Olympics?”
Phyllis loves the Olympics, especially since they have now removed almost any trace of sports in favor of the type of “human interest stories” out of which she has made a career:
First Announcer: [In the studio.] OK, let’s go to the women’s downhill event, taped earlier today and brought to you live.
[Cut to a multicolored blur zooming past the finish line at 80 miles an hour.]
First Announcer: You know, the winner of today’s women’s downhill ski race was a plucky young American named White Bread who overcame AIDS, SIDS, Ebola, a cold sore, Mad Cow disease, prostate cancer, bad air, acephaly, demonic possession, dysthymia, dyslexia, anorexia, bulimia, fear of heights, fear of open spaces, fear of inclines, fear of snow, fear of cold, fear of fear, and fear to compete successfully at the highest level. Let’s go to Laser-Cleaned Smile at the finish line, where the celebration continues.
Laser-Cleaned Smile: That’s right, Talking Haircut. It’s truly a remarkable story. What a role model for all those youngsters watching! She really stepped up, responded to the challenge, took her game to a whole new level, and just did it. And I just want to add that Ms. Bread dedicated her winning run to her 96-year-old grandmother who was present at the race. She’s been in a coma for 43 years, and White says this one’s for her!
[Cut to a blonde, smiling, waving, Lycra-clad, ad-covered skier with her arm around a blank-faced old woman in a wheelchair wearing an Olympic hat, Olympic sweater, Olympic jacket, and Olympic warm-up pants. Even her mobile IV unit has a five-circle insignia on the saline bag. Her head is resting on her right shoulder, an icicle of drool hanging out of the corner of her mouth. She’s giving a thumbs-up with the aid of a Nagano ’98 pencil, to which her thumb has been taped. With Olympic tape.]
Talking Haircut: Just marvelous! [Talking Haircut pauses and puts his hand up to his ear.] Hold on, Laser-Cleaned Smile—this just in…. White’s golden retriever back on the Bread family farm in
White Bread: [Gasping in joy, turns to her grandmother.] Did you hear that, Granny? Puppies!
[Cut to a sepia-toned shot of the puppies suckling at their mother’s teats in a splash of sunshine just inside a red barn. Above the doorway is a huge American flag. Just outside the doorway stand Mr. and Mrs. White Bread—he in overalls with a pitchfork, his face weathered, tears trickling down the creases, dripping on his flannel shirt; she in a flower-print house dress and a white apron, clasping her hands together, the Kansas wind lightly ruffling her blonde bangs.]
Mom: [Sobbing.] We love you, White! We’re so proud!
White Bread: [Sobbing.] Mommy, Daddy, I love you both so much!
Dad: [Sobbing.] You’re Daddy’s little angel, princess! Bring on back the gold, my sweet, precious baby! [He manages to compose himself.] Hey, we’re going to have a big parade down
White Bread: That’s just super-duper! I owe it all to the family values I learned in my hometown, where no one needs to lock his door.
Mom: [Bursting with pride.] Oh, tell her about you, Cletus!
Cletus: [Embarrassed, looking down at his boots.] Aw, shucks, Melva, I can’t.
White Bread: What, Mommy?
Melva: [Beaming.] Precious, your Daddy’s going to be leading the parade. He’ll be in uniform!
White Bread: [Enraptured, hand on her chest.] Oh, Daddy!
Melva: [Her arms sliding across Cletus’ shoulders.] Cletus, you’ll look so handsome with your private stripes for everyone to see! [She kisses Cletus on the cheek and giggles.]
Cletus: [Also beaming.] Heck, sugar, I’m even gonna dig up that Viet Cong skull to put on my bayonet!
Melva: [Flushed with excitement, in a near-swoon.] Oh, Cletus!
White Bread: See you real soon! I love you bunches and bunches!
Cletus: See you soon, honey-sugar-precious-darling-baby-princess-angel!
[They wave as the puppies romp and suckle.]
Laser-Cleaned Smile: [Wiping away tears.] So, White, what do you want to say to
White Bread: [Once again, sobbing hysterically.] I just want to say…I’m dedicating this gold medal to my Mommy and Daddy, my hometown, my fourteen puppies…and…most of all to my Granny, who has been the greatest influence in my life. She taught me never to quit. I love you, Granny! [The crowd behind her bursts into tears as White Bread hugs her Grandmother, who is still blankly motioning thumbs-up.] And I just want to thank my coach, my pastor, and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who showed me the light and gave me the strength to compete—and who took time out of his busy schedule to reduce my wind resistance just enough so that I could complete the course one ten-thousandth of a second sooner than the next closest skier, whose name I have already forgotten. And I just want to say: God Bless the
Laser-Cleaned Smile: That’s just great! Congratulations again, White Bread. [Turning to the camera, face full of gravity.] An emotionally moving moment from Japan, where a plucky young American has just dropped another bomb, but this time a bomb of gutsy determination, the lingering aftereffects of which just might contaminate a generation of young Americans. This is Laser-Cleaned Smile reporting from the slopes of
“No, I haven’t seen any of that,”
“You don’t like the Olympics?” Phyllis asks incredulously. Her tone suggests a moral failing equal to pedophilia.
“I like sports; I don’t like watching a hundred hours of soggy, jingoistic filler for advertisements.”
Phyllis glowers for a split-second, then turns away in confusion.
“I love the Olympics,” says Sarah, entering the room, claws at the ready. She is attracted to the possibility of arguing with
Until very recently, Sarah had been in full contrarian revolt against Phyllis, as only an arrested adolescent can be, unaware that doing the opposite of one’s parents belies a lack of independence equal to total obedience. Sarah had waged a two-decade war of harsh, infuriated reaction, delivered with all the tact and aplomb of a coarse-grained industrial disc-sander.
A one-woman proof of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that opposite ends of the political spectrum attract, Sarah had given up shocking the bourgeoisie with her belly-button rings and leftish pronouncements for shocking the avant-garde with her Stars of David and rightish pronouncements. Only her position had changed; the rage remained the same. She still orbited Phyllis, attracted by desire for affection and respect, repulsed by their absence.
As Rachel had pulled away from Phyllis, Sarah—ever the outsider, never the favorite—had sold out her sister and rushed in, directing her rage outwards, orbiting closer, desperate for approbation.
Thanks to Stanley and Saul, Sarah had a small problem with men. She joked about castration with a frequency that would be disregarded as heavy-handed Freudianism had it occurred in a work of fiction. The epitome of her veterinarian studies was to be finding a way to artificially inseminate cows so as to protect them from vicious, rutting bulls. (Phyllis had begged her to get a Ph.D. as well, in order, no doubt, to shore up the status of such a lowly professional degree.) She was terribly lonely. Her boyfriends were invariably boyish-looking, meek, and intellectually inferior. In the long run, however, they always left her.
Before starting vet school, Rachel and
“You’re going to imprison and torture yourself for two weeks?”
“Well, I’ll get a thousand dollars. It won’t be so bad. I’ll bring something to read. There’s a TV, too, with a VCR.”
Rachel doubted whether Sarah had ever really planned on going through with it; she saw it as a bid for attention and respect, paid self-torture being seen as the highest level of achievement in the Steen household. Sarah begged Rachel and
“Do you really need a thousand dollars so badly?”
Sarah had a trust fund worth at least $80,000, a chunk of the Partnership worth around $100,000, years of unspent income invested, no doubt, elsewhere—all of which was increasing double-digitally thanks to the March of Progress.
With the utmost disdain for such a prodigal thought, Sarah sneered, “A thousand dollars is nothing to sniff at,
“I’m glad you’ve found someone, Sarah,” Phyllis had said when Sarah had finally broken the news. It was clear that she found this unlikely enough in and of itself. “He will convert, of course.”
“No. Why should he?”
Phyllis burst into tears.
“I’ve failed as a mother!” she maintained, perhaps more appalled by his indelibly lowly social status than by the unfortunate fact of his non-Jewishness, a feature she felt sure she could bully her daughter into insisting he correct. Or perhaps she was jealous that her daughter had bagged exactly the kind of man her father had forbidden her to fraternize with.
Instantly nervous, Sarah replied, “Oh, we haven’t set a date yet.”
“Yeah, but roughly when?”
“Oh, maybe in five years.”
“Oh, well, you’re not really engaged then.”
Sarah burst into tears and ran out of the room, leaving
From the moment she had returned with her ring, Sarah had begun attacking Rachel, and especially
On one occasion, after some unobtrusive public snuggling in
Christine was saying, “Oh, you’ll do the same when Mike comes here.”
“I’d never act that way in public.”
“Well, I guess some people are ashamed of affection.”
Sarah turned on him.
“Yeah, well maybe you’re just trying to cover up for something that isn’t there!”
“Sarah, you’re such a sweet girl,” he said sarcastically.
He turned to
Needless to say, when Mike showed up, he and Sarah were physically inseparable. No one commented on this.
Sarah’s present mission was to tear down what little respect and affection her family, despite themselves, might have for
“He’s really very smart,” she insisted to anyone who would listen, in this case
“I would imagine so. It must be nice to be with someone who loves animals.”
“Yeah, that’s nice,” she replied mechanically, annoyed with
“I know,” said
Selfishness and cut-throat competition—for all her purported radicalism, Sarah was a perfect embodiment of the Zeitgeist. And of the Familiengeist: none of the Steen brood more closely resembled Saul and Phyllis.
“How you doin’?”
Sarah slants her body away from
“Good!” she says too loudly. “How about you?”
“I’m good, too.”
Sarah has just cut her hair short, after years of camouflaging her face with curls.
“It’s a big move for her,” Rachel had said to
That was the last time Sarah had worn her hair short. Like most preadolescents, Sarah had had an awkward stage before her body had pulled all its parts into equal adulthood.
“Good haircut, Sarah. You’ve got a pretty neck.”
Sarah looks away and doesn’t answer. Phyllis swoops in.
“Sarah, you’ve just been complimented.”
“You know, Rachel has a nice neck, too, which you could see if you let her cut her hair.”
This is said with utmost disdain. Like Phyllis, Sarah feels
All appears yellow to the jaundiced eye,
He sees deep sadness in Sarah’s future. He is pretty sure that she will never marry Mike, who seems to truly love her. He had left
Rachel handed the receiver to
“So, how is Mike adjusting to Philly?”
“He won’t stop talking about
“No, that’s not true. You bring it up all the time!”
“Maybe he misses it, Sarah.”
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to whine about it all day long.”
Sarah saw Mike’s abandonment of his entire life as her due, the minimum she would expect from anyone. In response to the obvious question, she had announced a couple of times, in front of her family and fiancée, that she wouldn’t transfer to another vet school—not even the one at Madison, where she would get a comparable break in tuition by passing herself off as a resident—nor would she even consider moving to the suburbs of Philadelphia to accommodate him if he got a job in Delaware, rural Pennsylvania, or New Jersey. Phyllis had drilled a pathological sense of entitlement into her daughters, thus ensuring that they would eventually disgust any potential mate and remain in a tight orbit around her in the vacuum of her stone house. Only mommy could provide the love they needed.
“Her stubbornness may save the relationship,” Rachel had told her husband. “She can’t admit she’s wrong, so maybe she’ll marry him out of fear of having to admit that she may have made a mistake.”
“Law of unintended consequences. I hope you’re right.”
The park service eventually laid Mike off, telling him what he already knew, that he needed a background in history to make a career in
“Don’t be surprised if I come back married,” she had said.
“No, we’re not getting married,” she told
“Well, he’s staying out here, so that’s it. It’s OK, because I’ll be too busy in vet school for the next three years anyway.”
“Too busy to be in love? You know, life just gets busier.”
“That’s not true—”
“Sarah, do what you want, but be careful. People click with each other this way very rarely in life.”
arah was briefly quiet, then dismissive. The conversation ended with a discussion of the weather in
Phyllis is shooing everyone out of kitchen, refusing all help.
“No, no,” she says, flapping her hands. “You kids go into the family room. The Steinkopfs will be here soon, I have to hurry. Go, go.”
“Where’s Leah?” Rachel asks.
Withering disdain is swallowed as soon as it wells up and seizes Phyllis’ face. She waves her hands in frustration.
“Still getting ready,” she bleats, pushing Rachel out of the room.
Ike and David walk into the family room.
A low bookcase spans one wall in the family room. It’s a necropolis, holding the corpses of the kids’ English classes: A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, the usual suspects, all diligently read, underlined and held apart from their souls. A twenty-year-old World Book Encyclopedia takes up a third of one shelf, bought no doubt to “round out” the kids’ education. Being “well-rounded” is what a humanistic education has been reduced to in homes like the Steens’, the final step in the manufacture of flawlessly spherical people who glide frictionlessly on cue along paths predetermined towards a dark hole in the green ground.
In any event, Saul loves to run to the encyclopedia whenever a fact, regardless of importance, is disputed in conversation. The Steens treat knowledge as an opportunity to impress or to humiliate, never as the raw material of wisdom, never as life-changing. Knowledge was to be kept at arm’s length. It was welcome in Phyllis’ home only if housebroken. Nothing, not even knowledge, that supposedly primary Jewish virtue, would be allowed to interfere with the great surge up the social ladder.
Everyone takes a seat and the gossip begins to fly.
“Did you hear that Rivka Hershowitz came out?” Sarah says, testing the waters.
Ike, David, and Rachel all look at each other. Ike, the boldest, considers this gambit and replies, parsing his words as carefully as an unindicted co-conspirator.
Sarah whirls on him.
“So? What do you think about it?”
Ike flies into the fray, meeting misanthropy with misogyny.
“I’m not at all surprised.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that she always seemed to be heading in that direction.”
[The rest was not perfected. Well, to be perfectly honest, it was abandoned. Whereas the Steen family is somewhat tragic and funny,
The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are entirely fictitious, and, in any event, were nowhere near this bad. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, institutions, places, buildings, and/or products is intended or should be inferred, and no validity can be assigned to the story’s arguments or descriptions since the author is clearly a misanthropic, scatological malcontent.
(Unpublished work © 1998 Douglas P. Tarnopol)