BEFRIEND ONLY TO BETRAY from In the Dark Woods
Hours passed with no word about who was going to serve. We weren’t allowed to leave the stuffy room, so some of us began to complain about the jury selection process. Then, as we chewed jelly donuts and drank bad coffee, one woman mentioned that a bear had wrestled her bird feeder to the ground the night before. Then a man said he had read that a bear ate a woman hiking in The Smokies the week before. Then I asked if anyone recalled anything about a black bear poaching investigation that I vaguely remembered. Soon the room was full of people sharing fragmented memories of the event that had happened back at the end of the last century. In those moments, I became fascinated.f you and I don’t know each other, someone I know knows you. That’s how it is in Berkshire County on the far western edge of Massachusetts, and that’s how it was in the dingy basement room of the County Courthouse one summer morning. I was there with other local residents to find out who was going to be called for jury duty. Jury duty is always an interruption. But this time, because I had been traveling far from home giving readings from my new poetry book, being with familiar folks was welcome. I had been missing my friends and neighbors.
With the increase of the black bear population, bears were on everyone’s mind. Intrigued, I was full of questions. One fellow suggested I call the environmental law officer from the next town, who had supervised the investigation.
I wanted to know more before making that call. After no luck googling, I went to the library to search for newspaper articles on the microfiche machine. The first story from The Berkshire Eagle startled me:
A five-state 2½ year sting operation intended to hobble a bustling black market trade in wildlife meat, skins and organs climaxed yesterday with the arrest of 23 suspected poachers and accomplices.
The covert investigation, in which two officers worked undercover and side by side with several alleged outlaws, revealed the existence of a major underground industry in which black bears are killed for their gallbladders, which are dried, reduced to powder, and sold in the Orient as an aphrodisiac…
Operation Berkshire was the largest animal poaching sting in the Northeast, and it had happened in my backyard.
Stories of men and bears are timeless. They have captivated humans with their power from the beginning of recorded history. From the bears on the walls of Lascaux Caves painted 70,000 years ago to stories in yesterday’s newspapers, bears hold sway. In a crowd of people today, just say the word bear, and everyone vies to tell their own bear story.
The more I learned about Operation Berkshire, the more I wanted to learn. As a woman writer entering a man’s domain, I suspected I would be challenged. I was following my curiosity, with no idea where it would lead. A series of poems? A full-fledged writing project? A dead end?
Eventually I interviewed all the main players, those on the right side of the law and those on the wrong. The more men I spoke with, the more elusive and various truth became. Rashomon was alive and well in Operation Berkshire, truth as faceted as a fine diamond. I ended up compelled to tell the story of the investigation and the men involved.
During that summer, I visited Lieutenant Tom Kasprzak, the supervising environmental officer of the operation, numerous times, recording our conversations. When I first drove to meet him, weeks of humidity had been gathering. The sky was overcast, the air heavy. Lush trees hovered over the road. Ascending a hill, I arrived at his house in the woods. An oversized state police car was parked in the driveway.
A tall, dark-haired man with smart, sparkling eyes greeted me. We sat in his wood-paneled dining room, with windows looking out to the forest, and lots of blooming mountain laurel. He had prepared for our meeting by heaping the table with scrapbooks, search warrants, the police report, a dried-out bear gall bladder, videotapes, and magazine articles. The sheer amount of stuff intimidated me. For over three hours, with great aplomb, Tom relayed his victories, disappointments, and musings.
Ultimately, Operation Berkshire had resulted in the arrests of 28 individuals, charged with 1,100 counts of illegal possession and commerce of wildlife. Three men received 60-day jail sentences. The penalties were substantially less than they would have been, had there not been bitter conflicts between the State and the Federal agents. As a result of the operation, the Northeast Conservation Law Enforcement Compact, which provides for interstate cooperation in enforcing environmental laws and offers mutual aid and assistance, was established.
With summer in full swing in the culture-filled Berkshires, I spent day after day transcribing the tapes of my talks with Tom. As a steady stream of tourists arrived to watch dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow or listen to music at Tanglewood, I was listening to Tom give a overview of how Operation Berkshire came about and unfolded. He described what it had been like for him and for the undercover agents, Jack and Steve, who were always nervous the poachers would discover them. There were close calls.
One night Jack and Steve were on a bear hunt in a pickup truck in New Hampshire, driving up a desolate mountain road. Another truck full of the poachers drove up next to them and the men passed beers back and forth from one truck to the other.
Steve turned on his body wire, which set off a radar detector. The poachers started to look around for cops.
One said, “There’s no cops on this road. What’s goin’ on?”
Steve was able to turn off the body wire so the radar detector went silent. After that, they stopped using the body wire.
“How dangerous do you think it really was, Tom?” I asked.
Almost whispering, Tom said, “They were way out in the dark woods with those guys.”
The slow process of transcription drew me deeper into the story.
As a little girl, I had loved fairy tales—the scarier, the better. Wild beasts roamed the primeval mountains and forests of my Grimm’s and Andersen volumes. The foreboding settings were peopled with villains and heroes who took long dark walks through dark forests. There was violence. I was afraid of the dark and wouldn’t go to sleep unless my mother read me fairy tales. To hear about unmediated good and evil, with no shades of gray, satisfied me and perhaps helped me make some sense of the huge world.
Operation Berkshire contained some of the same elements as fairy tales. Violence was visited upon beasts deep in the forest. Their body parts served as a magic potion, the heart of the struggle between heroes and villains. It was only after meeting the men involved in the operation that shades of gray were cast over the forces of good and evil, the true story far more complex than any fairy tale.
That summer, whatever I was doing made me think about the investigation. It was alchemy—much of what I did or saw was stimuli for the work. This chemistry had happened to me during other writing projects. When it occurs, nearly everything becomes useful.
The way Tom told the story sounded as if he had faced down the rogue hunters the day before. What were the other players like? I decided to call one of the poachers who lived nearby.
As I dressed to go meet Al the next week, my pink toenail polish looked off-putting, so I wiped it off. Look neutral, I thought, look sort-of pretty but not very, look regular and comfortable. So, on went my white and beige striped cotton pants and a sloganless white tee shirt.
I pulled up to Al’s house and slaughterhouse where he made his legal living. There was a spiffy fishing boat, hooked to the back of a blue-grey pickup, and assorted other vehicles.
Al, a bit portly and wearing a tilted red mesh baseball cap, walked towards my car, looking hesitant. “Hi, I’m Karen.” I extended my hand. He wore jeans, sneakers, a faded dark green polo shirt, glasses, several chins and a slow manner.
“Hi. I have a lot of questions for you,” he said.
“I’m sure you do—I don’t blame you.”
“Why do you want to talk to me?” Al asked, “I told people you were coming over and every last one said that I’m crazy to talk to you. Last night a friend of mine, a cop, was here. He said ‘You’re crazy!’ You might twist something I say and I’d end up getting in trouble again.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “I was wondering why you’d talk to me too. One of my first questions was going to be—how can you trust anyone after what happened? So why are you talking to me?”
Al motioned me towards a freestanding screened-in porch on the lawn, with unmatching aluminum lawn chairs inside. We sat down. He began, “Well, I may be gullible, well I am gullible, but I like to help people. If someone comes in here and they want something, I like to help them.” And then Al talked and talked, giving voice to his haunting experience.
He described the first time he took the undercover agents to New Hampshire to go bear hunting with his pal Carl. Carl shot a bear, cut it open, and removed the gall bladder. Leaving the bear remains scattered in the woods, he brought the bear gall back to his house and placed it on his kitchen table.
Al explained, “Steve and Jack said they were going to buy it. That’s how the galls got goin’.”
When he came to the story of the Takedown and described his arrest, Al’s face turned deep red and his body shook.
“It was 6 o’clock in the morning. Snow. I was up and I saw lights flashing like someone was driving in the yard. I didn’t know what was going on. I had a bunch of pigs, thought maybe they got out of the pens. Then I opened the door and the federal wardens with search warrants come in and made me sit down. I didn’t know what was goin’ on.
“What went wrong? What did I do wrong? There were sixteen wardens in my house here!
“Then the whole place was surrounded here. Television cameras out in the yard.”
Al continued to describe how the story mushroomed in the media. “It went from two bear to three bear to three hundred bear. How this created so fast—unbelievable—the radio, the paper. All these phone calls were comin’ in. My whole family should be burnt to the ground and the house! I should be hung up and skun alive!
“We don’t hear from Steve and Jack. Where are these guys now? We figured, if they were involved in it, they’d be arrested and be calling us. Now we’re startin’ to put two and two together. I betcha Steve and Jack were undercovers, we were sayin’.”
During the Takedown, twenty-three men were arrested in five different states at the same moment early one winter morning.
In this sweltering afternoon, Al’s torrent of words eventually slowed down. Welcoming a break from the intense conversation, we chatted for a few minutes about local news. Al seemed to be wondering about me, then blurted out, “What do you get out of doing this?”
I answered, “I don’t know. It’s just a deeply interesting story to me. And all the issues of morality and betrayal and trust, they’re as old as…I mean, as long as people have existed, those are things people have dealt with. It’s a story that brings all that up. I really want to talk to the undercover guys and ask them, what did it feel like to be lying all the time?”
“That is what bothers me,” Al said. “Just about everything else I can let go. I still have nightmares all the time about it.”
As far as Al was concerned, he was a good man at heart, always ready to help whomever came along. He recognized that this characteristic sometimes got him into trouble. He felt he had been victimized by what he called “the system,” which had been unfair to him.
Soon afterwards, still reeling from our talk, I was visiting New York City. In Chinatown, I popped in and out of a few Asian apothe-caries, inquiring about bear galls. “Medicine for stomach?” I had to gather my courage. Doing this did not come naturally to me. “Herb for love-making?” No one seemed to understand what I was saying. I looked over the dry seahorses, soaps, snakeskins, bones, herbs lined up in rows of clear glass jars. I persisted with my questions, but no luck.
I was out of place in these shops, just as I was out of place working on the Operation Berkshire project. A poet? A woman? But I liked how unexpected it was to find myself sitting next to Al in front of his slaughterhouse exchanging questions. And I liked finding myself in a Chinese apothecary, inquiring about bear gall bladders. One pleasure of being a writer is that you can explore anything, write about anything.
Ready for an infusion of fresh information, I called Jack Dickman, one of the undercover agents, a few months later. Jack had had a brain aneurysm after Operation Berkshire.
“Perfect,” he said. “Meeting at noontime would be perfect.” A few days later, I was preparing for our interview, getting dressed. First I tried on my white linen sheath with buttons down the front and a v neckline, then thought, No, wearing white is symbolically all wrong. So I switched to a beige version of the sheath.
My mind was blank as I drove to Westboro, Massachusetts, to see him. I pulled up to a rambling, Victorian house—odd for an official building. Crowds of uniformed men stood around chatting, leaning against trees, leaning against pickups. A retirement party for one of the beloved cops was in full swing.
I found my way up a flight of creaky wooden stairs to the offices of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, passing through clouds of more officially dressed men, guns on most hips. I felt like a spy, a probing observer in an unfamiliar land. I found the receptionist.
“Is Jack Dickman here?” I asked. She looked out the large old window.
“Oh! There he is outside. I’ll go get him.”
I glanced out the window. He was thin and short with a cane, 50ish. He was one of the only men not in uniform, with a green sweatshirt and green baseball cap, chatting with several cops.
He suggested that we find a space upstairs to talk. So we sat in a tiny decorless office, facing each other across a vast drab metal desk. Two large dirty windows stayed shut in the stifling autumn heat.
As I took the tape recorder from my purse, Jack, grinning, said, “That looks familiar.” When he was undercover, he said, he wore heavy canvas army camouflage with big pockets. That’s where he hid his tape recorder.
“It was incredibly brave what you did, putting yourself in the position you put yourself in, going undercover and all,” I began. I’d ask a question and Jack would mumble a word, rarely elaborating. But a few times, he would say something, pause, look straight into my eyes, twinkle, and say what he was going to say with lots of animation, as if doors were opening.
“The story was that me and Steve were friends from the Service. Vietnam. I could talk that game. Steve was never there but in ’70, I was.”
Jack told me about going to undercover school in Georgia. How the words Befriend only to betray were at the heart of their assignments. They had to learn how to act, in order to gain entry into the poachers’ circle. No matter how deeply they infiltrated the poachers’ lives, they had to stay focused on their mission so they could make arrests for these crimes.
“What was that like for you, Jack?” I asked.
He grunted, laughed a little, then slowly, in a low voice, said, “Kinda nasty thing to do, ain’t it…Absolutely, you gotta stay positive as an undercover. Keep it focused. You gotta stay in touch with yourself, that what you’re doin’ is what you’re supposed to be doin’ and what they’re doin’ is absolutely wrong. You gotta put an end to their doin’ of it.”
After Operation Berkshire had been going on for over a year, a brisk business was well underway between the hunters and the Asians, with Jack and Steve as the go-betweens. The sale of hundreds of bear galls, bear paws, deer antlers in velvet, saddles of venison, cougar skins, and arctic foxes financially supported Operation Berkshire.
For Jack, the worst day was a bear hunt, which he videotaped. Seeing Carl shoot some bear cubs was the most upsetting thing he ever saw the poachers do. He muttered something about how awful the sound of the wounded cub was, seemingly hesitant to put words to the hellish sound. Tom had shown me the videotape and it was horrifying.
“I was filming it. Right there. Feeling angry. Wished we could have done something at the time but it was just the two of us and everybody had guns. We were way out up by the Canadian/Maine border, definitely way out in the woods.”
Jack said, “I was getting pretty tense near the end. They were sorta catching on that something was up. Some guy from Maine told Carl he thought we were Federal agents. Made me think we’d better wind it up.”
Jack’s stories made the danger palpable. The stress was extreme. Steve, Tom and the second supervisor, Larry Johnson, worried about the toll the tension was taking on Jack. In retrospect, they wondered whether Jack’s subsequent brain aneurysm had been related to the anxiety.
When I questioned Jack further about the danger, his complex feelings about fear and bravery showed on his face. His taut face became more taut. “We didn’t really feel our lives were in danger. Well, maybe we did. Because near the end we carried guns for personal protection. Made us feel a little safer, more secure. I wasn’t scared. We were definitely way out in the woods.”
I wanted to further understand Jack. I also suspected that I couldn’t fully understand any of these men unless I inhabited their world more. Hesitantly, I decided to learn to shoot, and spent months going to Smith and Wesson taking shooting lessons. I was surprised how much I liked it: the gun’s kick, the gun’s bang, the intoxicating odor as the bullets go off. And I was good at it. But, like never before, I was disturbed by the sheer power of guns. Although I believe learning to shoot deepened my grasp of these men, I also wonder whether I was trying to gain a sense of mastery over what was progressively becoming a darker journey.
One of the men I had not yet interviewed was Carl, the poacher from New Hampshire. By then, I had gathered that he was a man with a frightening sadistic side. But by this time, I was committed to thoroughly exploring the many-sided story of Operation Berkshire. I had to deal with my fears.
The call to Carl was the hardest to make. I introduced myself, and said I was a poet. Who would be threatened by a poet? “Good!” he replied. There was nothing menacing in his energetic voice. He was coming to the Berkshires the next week to hunt with Al, and would call me when he got close by.
There was an icy Nor’easter the day we were to meet. I was shoveling layers of wet snow off my deck when the phone rang.
“I’ll be looking for you in the McDonald’s parking lot in 45 minutes,” he said. “I’ll be in a burnt orange Chevy pickup.”
I got in my car and headed to nearby Great Barrington. Meeting at McDonald’s was perfect—no danger there. I saw his truck. A creepy, sinewy man stood by the door, smoking.
“Hello,” he said and I saw that it wasn’t Carl. I had failed to notice Jim embroidered in white script on his work shirt. Then a smiling fellow walked out from the restaurant, grayish blond medium-length hair, wire-rimmed glasses, a plaid flannel shirt tucked into his corduroys. We shook hands and Carl motioned me inside and over to a booth.
Once we were seated, Carl leaned forward, his posture turned aggressive as he fixed his eyes on mine. He’d make a point, glare at me, then loudly repeat, “Do you understand what I am saying? Do you understand what I am saying?”
“What do you perceive me as doin’ here today? You tell me! What am I doin’ with you here today? I just saved you a 250-mile trip. Did I or did I not? This is what I was doin’ with these people here, when I brought galls down here and sold them to them…I saved you a trip. I saved them people a trip.”
When Carl and I had arranged our meeting, he said we would talk for twenty minutes, but we spoke for over an hour. Carl expounded on the sensations of the hunt. “Ya know what happens, you get an adrenalin pump. Some bears—they didn’t intimidate me—but I give them some space. Their hair was up and you could see it in their eyes. Just like a guy in a barroom. Loudmouths. Just like the old gunfighter.”
Finally, we walked out to the parking lot on this snowy day. We had arranged a second meeting for the spring in New Hampshire. Carl said, “You must be 45, 50.” I said “No. I’m almost 60.” He said, “You are doin” good!” What a charmer. What woman wouldn’t like this. On the other hand, I felt like a hunter walking deep into the forest of knowledge to find god knows what.
Before I made the New Hampshire trip, I called Tom to tell him I was going to interview Carl again. Did he have any questions he wanted me to ask?
“Yes. Why, in all the videotapes of the bear hunts—why is he always closest to the bloodiest, worst stuff? The stabbing, the sadistic killing? And his voice is always the primary voice-over?” I joked with him and said he should send up a posse for me if I didn’t return home in a couple of days.
Halfway to Carl’s house, I got off the highway and found a diner in some little town. A wooden sign—Where Friendly People Meet—hung over the cash register. Plastic Swedish Ivy plants decorated each table. Specials on the board: Roast Pork with Real Mash Potato and Veggie, Chicken Parm on H.R. with Chips. The sound of frying was grating and loud.
During the five-hour drive, showers alternated with sunshine. Magnolias and crab apples were in bloom and new green, reddish budded leaves were about to burst. Finally I arrived at The Wolfeboro Inn, overlooking a large lake. My room had two rose brocade wing chairs and fine polished furniture. I hoped its luxury would calm my agitated mind. I walked to a restaurant for dinner where I made a list of questions for Carl. Back in my room, I turned on the TV and got lost in some dumb program.
Carl and I had planned to meet at 8:30 at his garage/office, the hub of his logging business. I packed up and went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Eggs Benedict hit the spot. Then I called Carl to say I was on my way.
Carl’s greeting was welcoming. We sat down on black leatherlike chairs. Family photos and paintings hung on the rough wood paneled walls. There was young Carl with a .22. There was a painting of Carl on the Iditarod Trail in front of a shack with two grizzlies. An arrow shaped metal sign said “Carl’s Way Or No Way.”
Carl wore rimless sunglasses, a navy chamois shirt and dungarees. I was glad to see him and it seemed mutual. Then he picked a baseball cap off a mounted deer head whose antlers served as a hat rack. He told me how valuable it was, then presented the cap to me. He began to talk.
When I asked him if he ever hunted for bears with the express purpose of cutting out their gall bladders, Carl acted insulted. “No, no. We never hunted for galls. Ever. We never, ever went gall hunting. Never. See, I got a clear, clear conscience about it, you know what I mean? I got a very clear conscience about it. Don’t bother me a bit…I would not kill them animals unless there was a reason. Just go out and wanting to kill ’em—I don’t do that.”
Carl appeared to believe what he was saying. But I knew too much to take him at his word.
After awhile, he wanted to show me his camp up the mountain on a small lake, so we got in his pickup, stopped at his newly-built house where I met his wife, and proceeded up the winding dirt road.
With gusto, Carl launched into a discussion about how a few new laws had been passed in New Hampshire because of his actions.
“You sound kind of proud,” I said.
“Well yeah! Know what I mean? Not too many guys have laws made over them. You understand?”
Carl, like each of the other men I had interviewed, had many stories he was intent on telling, but there were limits. “I did crazy stuff, I’ll tell you, Dear, stuff that I don’t need repeated. I mean I really don’t want to divulge some of it,” he said. The stories he did tell, however, were the most confounding and contradictory. For sure, he was a lively, enthusiastic charmer, but his dark side was untouchable, as if it had an impermeable shell covering it.
As I was getting ready to leave, Carl blurted out, “You coming up here 200 miles to see me, and then venturing up to my camp and my house with me. You didn’t know whether my wife was around. Especially with what the cops have told you about me, what a no-good sonofabitch I am. You already got your mind poisoned before you ever talked to me.”
I said, “Yes and no. Poisoned in one way, but not poisoned at all in another way.”
Carl interrupted, “We talked together half the day, and you must’ve trusted me a little bit to come up.”
I told him that on my drive north, it had occurred to me that I didn’t know where we were going to meet. I had wondered what I would do if he suggested going to his camp and decided I could trust my judgment at the time, wanting to be brave but not stupid. After talking with him all morning, it was not an issue.
About to leave, I mentioned that I had written a series of poems about bears. Carl wanted to read them, so I stuck my hand in my purse and handed him the poems. We shook hands. I left, got in my car to drive the five hours home. It was late in the day, but the sun still illuminated the new green on the trees. The light was amazing. Every once in awhile the sky turned black and it poured.
“Sweetiepie?” my husband calls as he walks in the door of our house. He’s looking for me. I’m sitting in the living room, drinking a glass of wine and glancing at the newspaper. I’ve been out in my office all day, writing. He comes into the living room, holding a plastic bag. “I visited Ray this afternoon and guess what. He gave me some bear meat. A friend of his shot it and he fixed it pot roast style for dinner last night. He said it was good.”
As I finally have accumulated all the material to begin this story, as I finally have a hold on it, this wonderful coincidence comes about. I have never seen bear meat, but there is a bag of it in my refrigerator. Some primitive cultures eat their enemies for strength and some eat their loved ones out of respect. Tonight we will eat bear.
upstreet number eleven copyright 2015
OEDIPUS IN THE BACKSEAT
READ AS A PDF. OPENS IN A NEW WINDOW
Gargoyle 62 copyright 2015
LEARNING TO SHOOT
The day of Ray’s party, the great rains came. Blue and gray plastic tarps were strewn from tree to pole all across his large yard, and barbecues were stationed all around. From the kitchen speakers, Pink Floyd sang through the late afternoon, and it felt as though the party-goers had boarded one big wet boat harbored in Raymond’s backyard. Christmas lights were strung from tarp to tarp, and they blinked as it began to get dark.
I sat on a bench talking to my friend Clay, an experienced shooter from a Southern family. Was he packing right then, I asked. To show me, he brushed aside his oversized shirt. There was his pistol, tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Although he often spoke about handguns, I was taken aback. In a moment, what had been just words before became real. Then, I wondered who else at the party was carrying a gun.
I told Clay about a scare I’d had in the fall. My husband Paul and I had hiked up a Vermont mountain, not passing another soul on the way up. On top, relaxing in the sun, as we ate our apples and chocolate, a lone man strode up the trail. Tall, thin, and in camouflage gear, he wore a pistol in a holster. He did not look particularly weird, but when we said hi, he said nothing. Instead, he sat on a log fifteen feet away, directly faced us, silently and slowly unlacing his high black boots. If he had wanted to shoot us, there was not a thing in the world we could have done. Had I been armed, would it have been unwise or even crazy to have produced a gun? Probably so. Finally we got up and left.Read more...
I then told Clay about another hike, this one in Alaska, which had caused another scare. A few miles into the deep woods, Paul and I saw grizzly bear footprints and fresh scat on a muddy trail. What if we had surprised the bear and what if he had a taste for humans? We would have been at his mercy. As Clay and I talked about self-defense, he offered to take me to the Smith & Wesson shooting range to learn how to shoot. With undue speed, I said no, I didn’t have time, I had to work. Learning to shoot seemed out of the question. I am a poet who grew up in the well-heeled, sophisticated Westchester County suburbs of New York City, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Shooting is far from these worlds. But I do live in the Berkshire Mountains, and I do have friends and neighbors who farm, hunt, and fish. I have fished the English Channel over torpedoed wrecks. I have even fished at the foot of a live volcano in Alaska and, seasick, hauled in the biggest halibut on the boat.
I did not sleep much that night, as I mulled over Clay’s offer. Because I was in the midst of a writing project that touched on men and guns, and because of my few recent hiking scares, I was intrigued. What would it be like to shoot a weapon? I dared myself to say yes to Clay. By the morning, I was swayed. I called him.
Clay Max Hall had starred on Broadway as a child and served in army intelligence during the Vietnam War. When he returned from Asia, after a difficult period of readjustment, he enrolled at Harvard, and became the head of the Harvard Pistol Club. A man with a long pony tail and an abundantly roving mind, he is one great, complex character.
Before going to the shooting range, Clay wanted to show me how these machines work. He came over, and unpacked his nylon bag of guns onto my kitchen table. He told me his grandfather had lots of guns, unlike his intellectual father. Clay showed me the pistol he carries, a semi-automatic Smith & Wesson .45. He bragged that he can unzip his fly completely without losing the gun. He emptied the shells from the magazine, and let me hold the pistol.
Clay, a natural teacher, wanted to impress upon me the striking differences in the way various guns looked, felt, and mechanically operated. His care and thoroughness made me feel safe. He took out a revolver, then a target practice pistol, then a tiny Paolo Beretta pistol. What a sexy gun, I thought, small, light and beautifully designed, a pleasure to hold. What a jarring thought. At close range, I could kill someone. There, on the cherry table, was an array of dangerous weapons. There, on the counter, was an array of root vegetables for a soup I was going to put up. The clash thrilled me, as I broke into a sweat.
I held each handgun. Clay showed me how you don’t put your finger on the trigger, except to shoot; how you hold both arms up and straight out; how you line up the sights. I was thankful Clay had brought the guns to my calm kitchen, a cozy place to begin to handle these tools that humans have used for centuries, tools I might learn to use. Clay packed the weapons into his bag.
I told him about Operation Berkshire, a sting operation of a few decades ago, which was the subject of my writing project. In this part of New England, a group of hunters had been poaching black bears and selling their gall bladders to middlemen, who in turn sold them in Asia for use as aphrodisiacs and intestinal medicine. For two years, two environmental cops posed as rogue hunters and became part of the gang. Then one winter day, twenty-five hunters were simultaneously arrested in four states at six o’clock in the morning.
During my research for this project, I talked to these men on the wrong side of the law, and had come to feel uncomfortably far from understanding what drove them. Learning to shoot at a shooting range was a way I could come closer to their world in a secure way. Learning about guns might help me better grasp the whole story of Operation Berkshire.
Why was I drawn to this story in the first place? As a little girl, I loved fairy tales—the scarier, the better. Wild beasts roamed the mountains and forests on the pages of my Grimms’ and Andersen volumes. The settings were peopled with villains and heros. Operation Berkshire contained many of these elements.
Clay and I made a plan to go over to the shooting range. Smith & Wesson offered a “Massachusetts Carry Permit Course” covering the safety and legalities of firearms’ use, and a few basics of shooting. Upon completion, I would get a certificate, enabling me to march down to my local police station and apply for a Class A unrestricted gun license. Although Clay liked being my guide, a class might be good so I wouldn’t take too much of his time.
The next day at Barnes and Noble, I browsed through the periodicals. I picked up Concealed Carry Handguns, then put it down as if it were a hot coal. I wanted to buy it, but was mortified. I skulked around and then picked up the magazine again. Two teenaged boys with doo rags, metal, and tattoos were laughing and looking at magazines nearby. An overweight, gray pony-tailed gal was spread out on a bench reading a local women’s newspaper. I put the magazine down and left the store.
The next day I set out to make the purchase. But I hadn’t checked my purse to see if I had enough cash and I did not want to use my credit card, because there would be a record of the sale with my name on it. For someone relatively free of paranoia, this was new. I walked into the store, headed straight to the magazines, plasteredConcealed Carry Handguns against my jacket and approached the cashier. When she asked if I had a Barnes and Noble discount card, I was so jittery, I lied and said yes, but didn’t have it with me. “No problem,” she said, and looked up my name on the computer. Of course she discovered I didn’t have a card, and now I really felt like a suspicious character. Is this what folks on the wrong side of the law go through? I didn’t have the ten dollars for the magazine, so I put it on my credit card, thinking that if I hesitated, I would seem even more suspicious. Back in my car, I concealed the magazine under the day’s mail, and drove off. The words concealed handguns seemed nearly as powerful as the actual thing.
The following day, Clay and I set out for Smith & Wesson. We stopped at a diner where a man wore a tee shirt that said:
F R E D S
An American Tradition
The Only Sport
By The Founding Fathers
When we arrived at the shooting range, I felt awkward and sober. We suited up for shooting, in what seemed to be slow motion. First Clay handed me a little black container with two oversized bright yellow earplugs that were moldable like erasers. I mushed them around in my fingers, then made one end pointy so it could squish right into my ear. He put his in, I put mine in. Then I took my eyeglasses and put clear plastic shields on the frame piece that goes over the ears. Finally, we put on baseball caps, and big, blue padded headphones.
We walked down the hall to the shooting range. I held the pistol. I loaded it. I shot the gun. Clay advised me not to think about the target. Just get comfortable holding the gun. Always point it down-range. Never have your finger on the trigger until you are going to shoot. The intense effort to focus on nothing but shooting was singularly pleasurable. I signed up for the class on our way out.
Cooking, gardening, making love—I love these elemental activities which know neither class nor culture. When I shoot, a similar pleasure comes. Shooting is physically and sensually satisfying: the gun’s kick, the gun’s bang, the intoxicating odor as the bullets go off, the exotic scene of the shooting range. The urge to shoot is primitive, arising out of nearly universal fierce and fear-filled feelings, conscious or not. How curious, then, that shooting is scorned in many cultural circles. I wonder and will weigh what would be wrong to master shooting, to be extraordinarily cautious and responsible with a gun.
Two weeks passed and it was the day to drive over to my eight hour class. To quell my rising anxiety, I chose an old Edith Piaf CD for the trip over. Je ne regrette rien. Maybe that raspy voice I listened to in my youth gave me courage. I could hear her sound then, the camouflage of foreign tongues blurring the fact of what I was embarked on. As I drove on the Mass Pike east to Springfield, the morning air was a thick gray pail of mist.
I go in, register, then make my way down the hall to the long, low-ceilinged classroom. Its pinky beige walls are overly lit with fluorescent light. Sixteen students file in and sit at fake wood tables, two to a table. I sit in the front row next to an overweight, well-groomed black woman in her mid-thirties, with a tote bag advertising a bank. She has lots of braids with yellow beads and a great wide smile. Our crew-cutted and moustachioed teacher, Jim, carries a load of keys on his belt. He wears a beige tee shirt with a Smith & Wesson logo, khakis, and suede sneakers. Although he is a policeman in a rough, industrial city, today his job is to teach us about guns, administer a test, then send us on our way with a certificate so we can apply for a gun permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Above the blackboard in front of the room hangs a poster, giving the four cardinal safety rules for firearms:
1. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded.
2. Never permit your muzzle to cover anything which you are unwilling to shoot.
3. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard and on the receiver until beginning the shot.
4. Be sure of your target and its background.
Jim says that the class will be interactive, that he will invent scenarios and we will figure out how to respond. He walks over to my table, points to me and says “Here’s this petite young lady with no protection,” and pointing to the woman next to me, “and here’s this woman with a black belt in karate, but you [meaning you, the students] are standing there and don’t know any of this. You don’t know that one is protectionless and the other can take care of herself in this situation.” Jim then pulls a knife out of his pocket, flips it open, walks down the center of the classroom, acting the part of an attacker, gleaming knife in hand. His voice rises. “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to f—ing rip you apart from f—ing limb to limb!” The man is a gifted actor. He paces up and down the center aisle so that each of us experiences him as a threat. He looks each student in the eye, then fires questions that come, sorry to say, quick as shots.
“What are you gonna do? What’s the word? No! Wrong word! Don’t say Kill. Say Stop him. If you have an avenue of escape, you must use it. I’m thirty feet from you, threatening you with this knife, but you are next to the back door there. You can leave. But what if I’m moving toward you [which he does, wielding the knife] and there is no door? What about chairs, what about these tables? Use a table as shield. The knife can’t go through the table. And verbalize. Even if you don’t see anyone, someone might be watching. This is the Third Eye Concept. Always verbalize. Drop the f—ing knife! That’s what you have to say!”
Some of us rise to the challenge of Jim’s teaching mode, jumping in fast with answers. Others retreat. His wild style makes me shy, and I find it difficult to think quickly and clearly in the midst of his dramas. I do not have the luxury of time to absorb what is happening. What a quandary for cops who must make split-second decisions during real dramas.
Jim uses all of us as characters in every story he enacts. This is good entertainment, but of course, entertainment is the least of it. After a few hours, I don’t know how I can continue being so focused. It’s hard to be part of his dramas for eight hours straight. At one point Jim points to me, and says “She’s been raped and murdered . . . ” I don’t know what he says after that, because I am wondering why on earth I am even there in this moment. The moment passes.
To illustrate a new point, he looks at me and says, “You’re out with your girlfriends at the bar. I’m sitting at the bar and I walk over to you. I come on to you. You blow me off. I sit down, have another glass of courage and come on to you again. You tell your girlfriends you want to leave. They’re having a good time, laughing, relaxing. They persuade you to stay. You’re uncomfortable but you stay. I leave the bar, go to the parking lot. The bar closes. They’re cleaning up in there. You walk to your car alone. I’m waiting for you. You’re alone, because you came here in your own car. No one’s around. I am in my pickup and drive over to you standing there. I get out, come on to you again. What are you gonna do?”
I gulp, and say, “Draw my gun.”
“Why?” he says.
“Well, there’s no one around and I am feeling really threatened.”
“What are you scared of?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “but the situation is threatening.”
He is creating a scene which has me completely shaky. “Say the word! Everyone’s afraid to say the word! What are you afraid of?”
“Right. That’s the word. That’s right. You are right to produce a gun in this situation, because of J.A.M. Jeopardy. Ability to cause serious bodily harm/death. Means—the means to do it. Thus, you can use deadly force to stop that from happening.” Then Jim says to a guy who looks sleepy, “Hey come on. Wake up!” “Just finished a twelve hour shift,” he answers.
“Why are you all here,” he asks. “Self-defense? Self-protection?”
Just about everyone raises his or her hand. I do too, but I do not say it’s protection from grizzlies, or anything about Operation Berkshire. It is sobering to lay eyes on this room full of people, most of whom want to become armed citizens, to protect themselves, their families and their homes.
I have had a long-time fascination with querencia. Querencia is the invisible place in a bull-ring where the bull goes during a bullfight, his place of safety where he gathers strength and becomes fearless. I have always had an overdeveloped need for querencia, for sanctuary. The need to protect one’s territory is common in humans and other animals.
One man does not raise his hand, the guy who just finished his twelve-hour shift. His chalky face is asymmetrical. “So why are you here?” Jim asks.
“I’m here to renew. Criminal record.”
“Okay. Come see me at lunch break.”
What is his story? Maybe he was imprisoned wrongly for years. Maybe his face is slanted because he was slapped around by other inmates.
Now Jim begins to tell us what it is really like if you shoot someone. “We live our lives based on TV. It gets people paranoid. It paints an untrue picture. Let’s say you are an NRA member in good standing. You legally shoot someone while protecting yourself and others. You are not going to feel celebratory. You will be in a post-shooting trauma. People will say accusatory things to you like `Well, maybe you coulda’ done something different and not killed the guy.’ Or, `Good going! Yeah! Right on! You got that sonofabitch!’ No. You are going to be vomiting. They don’t show you this on TV. You will not be joyful. Get yourself to a hospital and tell them to treat you for stress. You can’t know what it’s like to have a shooting confrontation. The psychological effects are overwhelming. You are going to keep seeing that guy’s face, his lungs filling with blood. You won’t be able to get his face out of your mind.”
Jim turns solemn. “Use your right to remain silent. Get a good criminal attorney. Don’t make statements if you’re emotionally upset and you will be emotionally upset. It’s an irreversible action.” He continues, “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth.” This man is no fool. He pauses. He lets this sink in. Then he announces it is time for our lunch break. “Be back in half an hour.”
A bearded Englishman walks over to me and says, “You look very familiar.” He owns an antique store in a nearby town. “Why are you taking the class,” I ask.
“I guess I’m paranoid. I bought a house in West Virginia and, oddly enough, the previous owner left a cache of guns, which gave me the notion to learn to use them.”
This British fellow and I drive to McDonald’s where we are joined by one of our classmates. He says that he is a Wal-Mart store manager. “It is store policy for each manager to have a gun permit,” he explains. Because he seems so awkward and odd, I later call Wal-Mart Headquarters to check this out, and learn that it is not true. Why has he made this up? Who are the other student shooters?
When we return to the classroom, I notice how all of the people move, what they are wearing, and, most of all, I wonder why they are here. One man in his early forties with a nice goofy smile wants to get a permit for target shooting. Another man, a real estate lawyer, deals with abandoned properties in local neighborhoods and wants to be armed as he prowls around these areas. When he mentions that he has a daughter in college, Jim moves to his next subject. “So . . . your daughter is shopping at the mall, big sales at Old Navy. She walks out to the parking lot in the dark. Make sure she has one of these. Okay?”
He holds up a small canister. “Chemical aerosol for self-defense is great stuff. The best. Mace, pepper spray, tear gas. Make sure your daughter has it, make sure your girlfriend has it and your wife. It doesn’t work on ten to twelve percent of the population. You have to be careful that the person you are spraying doesn’t grab it and use it on you. There are three types: cone mist, which is affected by how the wind is blowing, which is not good; foam; and stream aerosol.”
Jim’s favorite is stream aerosol because you can spray it from a distance. He suggests testing a chemical weapon on yourself, because it may end up used back on you. Jim talks about the rise in sexual crimes at the University of Massachusetts and the fact that the University does not allow chemical weapons. He says that if he had a daughter, he would give her some anyway. “It is crazy not to allow people to defend themselves in light of what’s happening there.” He stresses that each person has to weigh each situation and in that one, he would break the law.
After the chemical weapons lesson, we all troop down the hall to the teaching range, where paper targets hang on wooden stilts; the shape suggests a person pointing a gun at you, the student shooter. Jim tells us each to choose a partner. I team up with a young black man with snazzy white sneaker-type shoes. Jim gives strict instructions on how to handle the gun, load it, and shoot it. “Low ready,” he says. That’s the position you take with the muzzle of the gun pointing downrange and low to the table. “Load. One Shot. Two Shots. Five Shots. Ten shots. Step back.” My partner and I take turns shooting the target. As the sensation of power rises to consciousness, I feel surprisingly comfortable and good. Each of us tries to outdo the other as we shoot, and we joke about whose bullet hits the bull’s-eye more often. With potential for becoming a good shot, I want to shoot more.
Later, we return to the classroom and Jim talks about home invasions. “What if someone threatens you with deadly force in your house? Your house is your castle. You do not have to flee your house. But you should have a safe spot in your house and everyone living there should know where it is. You need a phone, a flashlight, a lock on the door, and a gun—maybe a twenty-gauge pump shotgun. If you hear someone break in, what do you do? Verbalize. Yell, `Please leave my home. I’ve called the police. I’ve got a gun.’ Your gun should be two walking steps from your bed, not in the nightstand next to your bed.” Jim reads us newspaper accounts of mix-ups when people were half-asleep. One man reached for his asthma inhaler and shot himself in the mouth.
Jim continues. “Or, you pull into your driveway. You see a guy leaving from a side door, carrying who knows what. He’s leaving. He is no threat to you or your family. You cannot pull a gun on him, no matter what he has taken.”
It is now test time. I am exhausted. Jim passes out the test. By now he has told us all the questions and answers. Some of us have taken notes which we can keep out during the test. Under these conditions, anyone can pass it. Jim leaves the room. When he returns, he corrects the papers. Everyone has passed. In a few minutes, we will all have our certificates. The day is over, we say goodbye, and I drive home to the Berkshires.
After that long Smith & Wesson day, the shooting students knew a lot about the legalities and safety of handgun use: locked containers, trigger locks, guns well-hidden, firearms and alcohol do not mix. But except for a few basics, none of us learned how to shoot. Years ago I had spent many afternoons preparing for my driving test, and this was much easier. Before I got my certificate to apply for a permit, I was appalled at how easy it was to get a gun legally, and I still am.
The following week, I set out for the police station to apply for a gun permit. There was a chill in the air, snow predicted for the next day. I walked up through the basketball courts, past the red plastic jungle gym, and noticed a toy sign Ambulanceaffixed to it. How odd to have a sign implying calamity in a children’s playground. I rehearsed what I would say to the Chief of Police when he interviewed me. Jim had said that when we applied for a Class A Unrestricted Permit, we would have to make a strong case for why we needed a handgun for self-protection more than the average citizen. Because I took the course to qualify, I wanted to apply.
“Why do you need this type of permit?” he would ask.
“I’m an avid hiker,” I would reply. Then I would tell him my scary bear story. No I would not sayavid. I have never used the word avid. I would say, “I like to hike and this past summer in Alaska I became really afraid of bears. I need a handgun for self-defense in the woods.” I would act as if I’m a major hiker, which I am not. I would not talk about Operation Berkshire, my writing project.
In a bit of a fog, I wandered into Town Hall, then realized it was the wrong place. So down the hill I went, to the Police Station. Gun permit forms were piled up in a big bin in the lobby. I picked one up and a kindly woman led me through the process of filling out the application. Then she helped me look up addresses for my two references. Jim had said the police just stash your references in your file. They dig them out only if you get yourself into trouble.
The application asked for hair color, eye color, height, weight and build. Build? I left it blank. Then I was fingerprinted for the first time since I was born. The police would check to see if I had a criminal record, if I had ever been admitted to a mental hospital, and if there were any disqualifiers on my record. For example, if I had ever been treated for alcohol or drug abuse, I could not get a gun permit. Note—if I ever had been treated.
I was becoming apprehensive, waiting for my interview. When I handed in the application, the woman took a photograph of me, to be laminated onto the permit. She said, ”You’ll be hearing in about two weeks.”
“Don’t I have to be interviewed by Chief Moss?”
“Oh no, there are way too many people applying for permits now. We don’t have time for interviews.”
No interview? Getting a permit was even easier than I had believed. I could get a gun license—Class A Unrestricted—allowing me to carry concealed weapons, with ease. To obtain a certificate for this permit, I had spent less than an hour with my classmates in the shooting range. I had taken a written test that everyone passed. And now there would be no interview. What extremely bad news for the United States of America.
I thanked the woman and trudged home. When evening came, I put on a B. B. King CD and fixed dinner. As my husband Paul and I sat down to our fish chowder, he half-joked, “What could be nicer. You’re protecting our home.” Less than two weeks passed when my gun permit arrived in the mail.
Clay and I made a plan to go shooting every week. Looking for a closer shooting range, we went to check out a local Sportsmen’s Club. When we stopped at the State Police Barracks to get directions, a cop asked why we were going there. “We are pistol shooters and have been driving the hour over to Smith & Wesson and want to check out a local range,” answered Clay.
The cop, drawing a map for us, said, “Good. Good. We need people like you, especially, you know, with all the New Yorkers coming around. I saw this great bumper sticker down at the Cape. If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”
We left and drove past the hardware store, the supermarket, the auto mechanic shop, and up a long curving hill. At the end of a dirt road was the Sportsmen’s Club, with a bunch of pickups in the parking lot. Inside was a long low-ceilinged room with archery targets at one end and a bar at the other, where a few men sat, some clean-cut, some not. A friendly fellow led us down to the basement. The shooting range was dirty, low lit, and makeshift. There were a few fans for ventilation and a padlock on the door. A hole was cut into the wall to slip your $2.00 shooting fee. No one oversees the raunchy range. In other words, you come here, go downstairs, unlock the padlock, turn on the lights, turn on the fans, slide your money into the hole, press the button that sends your target to the distance you want it, and start shooting. As we walked back upstairs, the fellow remarked, “All the housewives come down and take the course for their permit and then you never see them again.” As we left, Clay and I planned never to go back.
Yesterday, driving over to Smith & Wesson with Clay, I called him my shooting buddy, then changed it to shooting teacher. “I’m your shooting sensei,” he said with his Southern drawl. He sees shooting as a martial art with all the discipline, focus, and meditative activity such undertakings require. Later I looked up sensei.
Sensei: sen means “before,” sei means “life, birth, living or lived.” Thus a sensei is someone who has experienced something before you. He has walked the path you are planning to follow, he can tell you what to do.
Clay loved the role of guide. He felt a responsibility to pass his knowledge along to someone else. He was my Virgil in this inferno-tainted endeavor.
We arrive at the range, register, show our gun permits, and buy ammunition. We heap all our stuff—his gun box, my backpack, his attaché case, our big down jackets—on a plastic chair outside the Shop which sells Smith & Wesson logoed mugs, key rings, clothes, and of course, guns. We suit up for shooting and go down to the nearly empty range. Clay is saying, “You’ve gotta relax. It’s not very hard to do well at this. Focus on each little step of getting the gun ready, gripping it, standing, and then when you’ve done it all, just stand there and shoot. Don’t try too hard.” The gun I’m shooting is Clay’s Ruger .22 caliber target pistol, with a bull barrel and grips like a .45. Clay calls it a paper punch, because it’s a target shooting gun with which you make holes in paper. But it is a deadly weapon.
Clay asks me to repeat the steps over and over. Push the lower button in to release the magazine. When the magazine slides out, hold it in your left hand and insert the ammo. One at a time, pop five shells into the magazine with your right hand. Each shell is called a round. Clay loads only five rounds at a time, although the magazine holds ten, to keep track of what he has already shot. Each time you raise your gun, you shoot a string of five rounds.
The ammo comes in a small orange plastic box with five shells per row. You slide the box’s cover back, pop the row of shells onto the ledge of your cubby, load them into the magazine. Find a good stance. Then, holding the gun with your right hand, insert the magazine into the grip. Slide the upper button down to release the slide, and put your right hand around the grip, never putting your index finger on the trigger, that’s basic. Put your left hand around your right hand, covering it. Both thumbs should hang there together, parallel, not doing anything. You have this good firm grip, gripping harder with your left hand. Loosen up your body, wiggle it, shake out the tension. It is important for all these steps to feel natural. Meanwhile, you’re excited and nervous. You’re about to shoot.
Let’s see. I have found my nice stance, slightly wide, facing the range, with a slight tilt towards the right. My right foot goes slightly back. With a little bend in my elbows, I raise the gun with both hands, and line up the sights, front and rear. Clay reminds me not to worry about hitting the target. “It’s irrelevant.” But I want to hit the target. I aim the gun and slowly shoot five rounds, my string. This is slow fire shooting, not bangbangbangbangbang—that’s rapid fire—but bang, pause, bang, pause, bang, pause, bang, pause, bang.
While I am shooting, empty shells fly all over the place, hitting the shield over my glasses, bouncing off the tip of my cap, hitting me on the head. The nitroglycerin smell released into the air goes to my head. The shooting is not exactly hypnotic, but it is very satisfying.
Clay says I should have my own target pistol, in order to get to know the particular gun’s grip, trigger, sights. I need to know my gun as I know my camera, an intimate possession that feels like an extension of my arm. As long as I borrow or rent a gun, that kind of relationship won’t evolve. Paul has been asking whether I am going to get a gun. “Don’t worry, I’m so far away from that,” I say. But at this moment, tearful to have traveled so far, I realize I have come closer to crossing into this fresh territory.
Now that I have my gun license, now that I have spent my long day at Smith & Wesson, now that I have been able to talk about my shooting to men on the right and wrong sides of the law, now that I’ve told friends and family about all this and heard their various reactions, now that I have had the sensation of shooting a pistol, now that I have joked about using my government issued gun permit at the airport—what now? Am I really going to learn how to shoot? Would I pack a pistol and go hiking in the woods? Am I going to own a gun?
THE RESURRECTIONS OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
For breakfast, as was his habit, he drank a boiled egg from his cup, but even that made him nauseated. Thinking of all the plates of pea soup he ever drank, all the bread he ever ate, made Singer sick to his stomach. That day, he was determined anyway to follow his routine, so he left his apartment and paced forty blocks around the building courtyard, waiting for his wife to come outside. Then they walked down Broadway. He didn’t joke as usual about stealing whatever caught his eye – a trashcan, a jar of creamed herring in a store window, a building. His leg began to hurt – shooting pains in the calf and a slow ache in the thigh- and his breath began to stink. They turned back and for the first time didn’t make it downtown to his booth at the dairy restaurant.
It was a cool, early April day and the window was wide open. He sat in his wing chair where he always wrote stories, but none came. His neck was getting stiff. He put down his pen, got up, took off his trousers and placed them, folded, on a chair near his bed. Without even taking off the spread, he lay down, broke into a sweat – a schvitz he’d say – shut his eyes, and never got up.Read more...
“Every time I think of the corn, the schvitzing comes! It’s bad for my nerves to think of corn. Better I should think of veggie burgers. When I schvitz, I put away my fountain pen and play a game of solitaire. The cards help with my nerves. Now I will tell you-I was about fifteen. I got in trouble everyplace – with my folks, even the police. Believe me, those shameful stories are not for your ears. I was sitting on the stairway and heard my parents fighting in the kitchen. My father, may he rest in peace, threw the yahrzeit candle across the floor and yelled, I don’t know why, ‘You shiksa!’ Something my mother had done not exactly right. And my mother, may she rest also, shrieked, ‘You with your whiskey! You with your women! Go away, leave this house and take your no-good son with you!’
“They never prayed, my parents, never went to schul. Maybe if they knew Torah or Talmud, they wouldn’t have fought like that. The schul down the street I liked and when I heard my mother yell, ‘Leave!,’ I snuck outside to the schul. Ladies were preparing a bar mitzvah, putting out chickpeas and chopped herring. I took some, took – who knows, herring maybe was the Almighty Himself – stuffed pumpernickel in my pockets and hitchhiked out of New Jersey for good.
“A talkative man, Italian, picked me up and began to tell tales about a whorehouse in Pennsylvania. Kitty’s Bordello was his destination, and when he told about it, it was mine too. He dropped me off on a ramshackle street and pointed. He was visiting his cousin first. When I walked in, oh, were there women in that place! Before that, I’d go to a girl’s house. She’d open the door, you’d give her a few dollars and quick – that was that, you understand. But here, exotic girls dressed in costumes from The Arabian Nights. Like colorful fruits, they were. Any of them, or even two, could be mine. The big room on the ground floor had wallpaper all over with leaves, green, that looked like wind was blowing them. I believe now wind was blowing. Chickpeas and herring by then had left my mind. My mouth tasted dates and cashews and mangos.
“Why I chose this girl named Joan, I don’t know. She was a little plain. I like plain. When we got upstairs, I told her I was going to die that very night of a rare disease I had. All my money from fixing hot dogs at the deli was in my pockets and I gave her it all. Did I need it? No. ‘Love me to death,’ I said.
“She unbuttoned my shirt, pulled down my trousers. But slowly. I was lying naked there and she kissed me on the lips first, then put her tongue in my ear and began to whisper. I thought I’d go crazy. Maybe God was there, then, in Allentown, in my ear. I could hear nothing.
“‘Corn,’ was all she said. Just the vibrations of her words in the morning made my ears excited again. Then she said, ‘You will live until you are an old man. You will never rest and be besieged with telling stories. One day you will have enough of pumpernickel and enough of the women’s breasts. Your leg will begin to have pain. Then finally you will have peace. Take these kernels of corn. Go!’
“I went to New York City. For more than seventy years, I lived in an apartment on Broadway and followed my habits. I never asked anyone for favors. I walked, I answered letters, I always had a good lunch. How stories came, I don’t know, but my ears, they were always excited – whatever came in my ears, came out a story. I wrote always in Yiddish and how that came I don’t know either. My parents probably heard about the Jew from Warsaw, the storyteller, but how could they imagine it was their own son. The corn? I forgot about it.
“Last spring one day when I was walking, my leg started to hurt. I went home, lay down, closed my eyes. The room was quiet. I concentrated on my breath as it slowed down. I think I felt someone draw a sheet over my head. That night, Juanita, a woman who came sometimes to me in dreams, we made love in the air above my bed in which my wife Alma was mourning me. Ahhhh – I kissed Juanita’s broad cheekbones, ran my skinny hands through her gray hair and felt her big belly. My schvitzing completely stopped. When I put my tongue in her ear, I drove her insane. Now. I will tell you one thing. I was Juanita. I was making love to myself.”
A few months later, The New York Times printed this story:
One morning last spring, driving down Broadway, the policeman spotted a heavyset, gray-haired, Spanish speaking woman carefully cultivating the soil, picking up trash and pulling weeds at 153rd Street.
“I stopped to talk to her,” he said. “And she told me – she spoke only broken English – ‘I plant; I take care.’ She said she lived nearby. That’s all she said.
“At first being a New Yorker, I didn’t know it was corn, but then, it was the most amazing thing. Yesterday I saw it – 131 stalks, some nearly six feet tall, sprouting on upper Broadway! I drove up and down looking for her. I could see her handiwork, but I never saw her again.”
No. That’s not what happened. I’m sure of it. I should know. He was in Miami Beach when he died, not New York. He was a boy in Warsaw, I’m sure that’s true. Come to think of it, though, when I used to ask him to send me pictures of himself as a boy, he said he had none. He explained that he wasn’t allowed to be photographed. “Thou shalt not make any images,” the Ten Commandments said. The whole thing with the corn, the corn seeds, the corn growing, is beyond me; I don’t get it. That he turned into Juanita when he died, that’s another story.
If you read his obituary, you may recall that it only mentioned a son, Zamir from Israel. I am younger than Zamir. My father and I always corresponded, but we never met. Last week on a cold March day, I went to Miami Beach, God knows why, to see the spot where he died.
Leaving the Miami Airport, I saw palm trees blowing and felt warm air on my skin. Magenta bougainvillea bushes were blooming. I took a cab to my old friend Ricky’s house and started to call around to find out exactly where my father had died. Newspaper stories just said “a Miami Beach nursing home.” First I called the University because he had taught there. I tracked down a man who had translated some of his stories. “Call his wife if you want to find out,” he said, annoyed. I had never spoken to Alma and wasn’t about to now. I called schuls, I called libraries, The Miami Jewish Tribune, The Miami Herald. I tried a Judaica bookstore. The man there didn’t know. When I asked if another bookstore might, “Oy, bookstores,” he sighed.
I walked to a coffee shop in South Beach, wondering why no one knew where my father had died. A scrap of paper blew over near my feet. “Love, Herbie,” it said. Herbie? Who was Herbie? Was this supposed to mean something? A man with long, wavy black hair in a royal blue shirt paced in front of my table yelling into a cellular phone, acting as if he was alone in his house. “vulgar-smulgar,” Pop once wrote me in a letter about Miami. “If there are vulgar Jews there, or if they’re crazy or funny, I want to know about it.” The man on the phone circled other tables, almost spitting into the phone. I looked up and down this strip of beach at the old art deco hotels, the parade of long-legged models with foreign accents, and the chatting gay couples. When the waitress brought me my check, she set down a small bowl of corn pudding. “On the house,” she said, “our specialty.” As she walked away from the table, she mumbled, “Eat. Eat.”
I went back to Ricky’s, took out the Yellow Pages to try again. Someone must know where Isaac Bashevis Singer had died. This time I talked to a librarian who happened to know where his funeral had been. I dialed Parkside Memorial Chapel. “Call back in an hour. We can’t just whip this information out. We’re very busy, we’ve just had a lot of death calls.”
I needed a nap. I went outside, lay down on a chaise lounge in the shade, and began to dream. Angels in housedresses are standing around a table where my father is sucking marrow from soup bones. Some angels are off to the side rolling dough. Others keep clearing the table. He’s laughing, his blue eyes are gems. Now I’m fixing him a platter of raw vegetables. I make designs with strips of red pepper and wet radishes. I place slices of pale green cucumbers next to brilliant green scallions, then cut carrot sticks and rounds of red onions. He crunches loud, makes appetizing sounds. Black bread, sweet butter I give him.
It is Friday night now, Shabbos in the dream. I am lighting candles, saying prayers. My husband unplugs the phone, chants. We’re smoking marijuana, eating rye bread and honey. It is winter. He opens all the windows. Wind blows the potted palm trees in our house. “The spirits like our party. Let them join us,” he says. We are in bed. “The Torah decrees this,” he whispers. The ceiling above our bed cracks apart. Purple bougainvillea petals fall onto our bed. A clarinet plays minor notes outside. A lizard runs across my leg and wakes me up.
I went back into the house and called the funeral home again. “You took care of the arrangements for a Mister Singer, Isaac Singer, who died last July; do you know where he died?” “The name rings a bell. Hold on, it might still be on the computer.” Muzak came on the line: “What a day for a daydream& .”
“Yes. Here it is. We picked the body up from a large facility, the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged. Here’s the number if you want it.”
I got a Mr. Randell there who agreed to meet me the next morning. I said I was writing a story about Isaac Bashevis Singer, just a little story, and wanted to see the spot where he died. “Do you want to take any pictures?” he asked. “No, I want to see the bed he was in. Why would I want to take pictures? I just want to spend five minutes at the most, probably less.”
When I got there the next day, I waited for Mr. Randell in a hallway. There was a big sign on the wall next to the nurses’ station that said, “Today is Friday. It is March 4, 1992. The weather is sunny.” A big red poster said FLORIDA. Everything to look at was big, simple. Mr. Randell came from his office and extended his hand. “Bad news. Let me tell you, this went right to the top. You know, I have a mortgage and two kids. I can’t lose my job.”
Then Fiddler on the Roof began to play. Randell seemed nervous. I was speechless and must have looked puzzled. “Every mealtime, the whole soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof plays over our PA system,” he offered, fidgeting. I was still silent. Finally he said,”One thing I can tell you. He wasn’t on this floor.”
The instant I.B. Singer died, stillborn air fell on South beach like a drape. A funny odor – was it Juicy Fruit gum? – hung in the air. A girl dressed in green went to buy her usual ice cream, but the food vendor was selling hot corn. “Weird,” she thought.
The wind stirred up. Old men, regulars who sang Yiddish songs at the bandstand, walked up the beach playing horns. A man who looked blind, he must have been ninety-five, played a trumpet, a mute at the end of his horn. A skinny fellow conducted with a chopstick. A fan, a lady with lots of protective cream on her lips, clapped.
The girl in green walked down to the water. Suddenly, she looked at the wind – to the right, to the left. She felt her neck becoming stiff. Feverish, she took off her clothes. The wind had turned green, as if a thunderstorm were coming. The girl stood still as the wind clothed her body, wrapped her shoulders in green. The man with the chopstick continued to conduct. In unison, five elderly ladies began to weep – for what?
The girl’s arms disappeared. She imagined dancing. Her legs disappeared. “I’m leaving home,” she whispered. Her throat tightened. She could make no sound now, nor move. But the wind did.
The instant I.B. Singer died, on a small side street in Warsaw, up and down Broadway in New York City, in a schul in New Jersey, even at a bordello in Allentown, Pennsylvania, something happened. Thousands of people in one private moment were short of breath. No one mentioned it to anyone else, except a few hypochondriacs who shot off to see their doctors. In the insulation of their own minds, some thought, “My whole body needs to breathe.” It was nighttime in Warsaw. People threw off their sheets and said, in Polish, “Open the window a crack.”
The Gettysburg Review, copyright 1993, Citation in Best American Short Stories 1993
White cows made sounds on the hot lawn the night we came. They chewed in the dark, wandered from their field far down the beach. Awakened by heat, we tuned to their grazing sound.
My husband woke, called me to come out. Men talking by the water lit torches, rowed under the black sky, threw their nets for bait. They had come from Parrottee. Then they steered their painted boats to sea, going for kingfish.
We heard music from a shut-up bar, walked down the beach in the dark. A boy inside was drinking white rum, Peter Tosh sang on the juke box. We saw an alligator way out in the water. It swam on a path across the bay from river to swamp in that dark.Read more...
Black River nights were full of sound, out of proportion like dreams. We burned cow dung to keep mosquitos out. Days were different. We’d wake at five, watch light snake through the palm branches, come through the slats, play on the stucco wall. Then we’d make love. Lizards clung to the ceiling.
Men’s voices out front. They’d paddle their yellow carved boat out, cast their nets for shrimp, return to shore. Four men to a rope tugged the net in, hauled hard. Boys helped pick through the nets for shrimp. Women dressed in flowery skirts, gathered, each carrying a pot. I stood by, watching. Then I’d go in the house, bring out my bucket to buy shrimp, always two pounds.
I liked the man with big hands. He lived six miles down the beach where I had walked once. I had seen huge pigs in front of a hut, sprawled, sleeping in the sand. The skin of the man with big hands shone like our mahogany bed, his neck straight. His footprints made one straight line. His faded maroon pants had a broken fly. It wasn’t surprising to see his privates.
After a few days, the fishermen and I agreed on a fixed price for two pounds of shrimp, so each day’s purchase did not start with haggling. Two pounds though, did not mean a standard amount, it meant abundance. The man with big hands always gave me a generous two pounds. I wondered whether it was generosity on his part, or simply how much his hands held when he reached into his blue pail.
One time, I was in the kitchen washing shrimp I had purchased from a surly stocky fellow. Hilma, one of the skirted women, screeched into the house. “How much you buy today? Two pounds! Let me see. Not enough there! I take the shrimp, show that swindler!”
By now the men were throwing their nets way down the beach. Appearing out of nowhere, eight women were suddenly gliding towards the fishermen, their skirts fanned out. Hilma lead them, holding my washed shrimp in her grip. I ran to catch up.
As we reached the men, she bombarded the one who had sold me the shrimp. “Flimflam man – thief,” she erupted into a stream of fast words I couldn’t follow. He answered her with equal speed. She finished with, “I send my son to bring my scale to measure these shrimp.” In minutes, a boy with an old scale materialized. When Hilma loaded my shrimp onto it, the needle barely budged. “You cheat!”
Some fishermen clicked their tongues on their teeth. One said, “It isn’t a scale! Broken old scale! Take the shrimp to the hotel in town, to the modern scale that works.” Hilma and the shrimp seller went off with the bucket. People were murmuring. Some made restrained eyes at each other. When they got back, they handed over my bucket, both stoney. I walked home, couldn’t tell if I had more or less shrimp than before.
Soon we were to leave Black River. One morning, men were hauling in their nets as usual, and as usual I was watching. As they picked for shrimp, the man with big hands pulled out his machete, began to chop at something long and alive. Everyone stood still. “I kill the sea snake, the sixth this month. In the water, if you step on the hole they live in, they rise up, shock you. Small chance to live then. We care for the harbor.”
I looked back at our thick stucco house, looked down at his feet. The tide was rising near the palm. Waves were washing the snake remains out. Cows grazed on the lawn in broad daylight.
The Ohio Review Thirtieth Anniversary 1971-2001 New and Selected, copyright 2001
The Ohio Review Number 56, copyright 1997
PINICUS THE FISHERMAN
This is the story of two men, one thin and one heavyset, each called Pinicus The Fisherman and a woman they knew called Radish Pie. Both men were Jewish and had grown up poor, and both were very interested in sex, although they showed it in different ways. The thin one never did anything outright, he just flirted and rolled his eyes in a way that anyone could tell he was interested in sex. The heavyset one was full of lively song and lively play. It didn’t matter much how they showed their bent, because each of them, in their way, demonstrated good sexual sense. I tell you these personal details in order to help you better understand the story.Read more...
One day Radish Pie was walking. She became thirsty, hungry and tired. She knocked at the door of a stucco house set on a hill above a river. Pinicus The Fisherman, the thin one, answered. On the spot, she was taken by his blue eyes and provocative manner. She sensed his complicated view of life and liked it. He, as well, was taken by her. As time passed, he showed it in funny ways. He would paint pictures in which a man would help a girl reel in fish when she had one on the line. He painted pictures of a man baiting a hook with a woman standing next to him, too squeamish to do it herself. They would stand on the riverbanks, across from his house and cast out. In these pictures, each of them was skillful and lucky in hooking fish. Though it was not his intent, he once was surprised to find himself painting delicate and complicated pictures of lures. Radish Pie and Pinicus The Fisherman cared very much for each other and taught each other a great deal.
One day Radish Pie was standing alone by the river practicing casting when the heavyset Pinicus approached her. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Pinicus The Fisherman.” “I am Radish Pie,” she said. He had noticed her skimpy red skirt which had gotten wet when she walked in the river to get a hook from the weeds. He was interested. Surprised by his name, she looked up and saw his blue eyes. Because of her affection for The Thin One and because of her quick curiosity for The Heavyset One, she could tell matters had gotten out of hand. Lucky for her, she enjoyed fishing a great deal and was getting better at it. And thus, she proceeded to fish for a long while, wholeheartedly.
As I have told you, the thin Pinicus and the heavyset Pinicus shared a name, as well as a friendship with Radish Pie. Let me tell you how each of them got his name. She got hers from doing the obvious, that is eating radishes particularly often.
The Thin One loved fish. He thought about fish, he read about them and talked at length to other people about fish. But, he never fished. He never even touched one. Although this was something to note, it, in no way, would have justified his being called Pinicus The Fisherman.
He was a painter. And what he painted was fish. Picture after picture of fish. And when he would vary his subject matter, which he rarely did, he would paint water. As he painted, he hummed sea waltzes. His work was beautiful. The paintings looked so real, it was hard to remember they weren’t. If you looked at the ones of fish when you were hungry, you knew that those were fish for eating. If you looked at the ones of water, you knew there were plenty of fish to be caught in that water. For this talent, he was called Pinicus The Fisherman.
From the time Radish Pie was a small girl, she especially loved paintings and especially loved fish. So when she met The Thin One, she especially loved him. Sometimes she could not believe that the paintings were just paintings.
When she met The Heavyset One on the bank of the river, she was struck by certain things. Here was a man who not only loved fish, but he loved to fish. He caught fish, he cleaned fish, cooked them and ate them. One could say, he dealt with fish.
He took Radish Pie fishing everywhere – lakes, rivers, and the sea. They traveled. By actually fishing with her, he taught her to catch fish. It was hard for him to teach her patience while waiting for fish to bite. Because sometimes, appearing patient, her mind would wander and she would dwell on the beauty of The Thin One’s paintings and she would forget to concentrate on the line. Sometimes he joked with her about how she wished for paintings of fish rather than the real thing, because then she wouldn’t have to clean them.
Together, they bought a big net and made sure their reels and rods were in good shape. One time, after they returned from a long trip, she took apart their fishing box and scrubbed it and washed all the lures and bobbers and put everything back in neat.
Here’s how the two men talked to Radish Pie about fish. The Thin One would sometimes mention to her how it was when he was young. He would hint. He would say puzzling words like 1946 or he would say Brighton Beach or the word breeze. Once he said, “When I was little, I rode the bus to the beach all the while imagining big bluefish.” She never exactly knew what he was getting at, except that it usually hinted at fish. One time he mumbled glimmering trout, and for ages, she tried to understand what he was talking about.
The Heavyset One, on the other hand, talked to Radish Pie like this. “When I was about eight, my father would take me to this bar in Ramapo. There was a guy there named Wagenti, an Italian, and a Polish guy, I forget his name. And they’d sit at the bar and talk about pussy and shoot bears and not one of them was a drunk. I’d never seen a drunk before. Not in my house, that’s for sure. When my father and the two other guys got good and plastered, they’d take me to some godforsaken place, the drive must’ve taken hours, and we’d go fishing for pike.” When Radish Pie would ask questions like, “You mean your father would really get drunk and talk about that stuff in front of you?” he would answer her and say things like, “He was cool, but I could tell he got his share.” So Radish Pie thought she knew why he liked fishing so much.
Years passed. Pinicus The Fisherman (The Thin One) painted less. He began to compose waltzes on the piano. He and Radish Pie rarely saw each other. She slept in bed every night with Pinicus The Fisherman (The Heavyset One) and they continued to fish together. Their life became wider. Often, Radish Pie would quietly say to herself, “Paintings of fish are paintings, but fish are fish.” Though at times she was seen walking on the road mumbling it backwards.
Crab Creek Review, copyright 1987