by New York Times Bestselling Author
Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
One: If Market Street Flooded
“If Market Street ever flooded,” said Stanislaus Ouspensky, “South Philly would be an island.”
He contemplated this possibility over a bowl of chicken soup in a postage-stamp-sized deli on South Tenth Street between Cross and Tasker.
Across the counter, the deli’s owner, Izzy Davidov, looked up from the newspaper spread across the worn linoleum of his countertop and raised a graying eyebrow. “How so?”
Ouspensky straightened from his soup and flung his arms wide, dripping chicken broth across the counter. “Just look. Water on three sides; history on the fourth. All it would take is a little push”—he demonstrated on the lone matzo ball still bobbing in the bowl—”and we’re cut off from the present. Because Time gets confused in South Philly.”
At the end of the counter closest to the door, Ganady Puzdrovsky and his best friend, Yevgeny Toschev, locked eyes over their root beer. The boys had heard Mr. Ouspensky hold forth on this subject before and knew that Mr. Ouspensky believed Time flowed into Philly and eddied there, unable to find a way out again. At least, that’s what he claimed to believe.
Stanislaus Ouspensky, who had lived in a walk-up on 20th Street across from Connie Mack Stadium since the Creation, had watched many baseball games from his rooftop before the notorious ‘spite fence’ went up in ‘35. To Ganady and Yevgeny he had privately intimated that because of these so-called time-eddies, he could still watch them. At the ambiguous age of sixteen—stranded midway between childhood and adulthood—neither boy could completely discount the claim. Neither was sure he wanted to.
“Confused?” repeated Izzy, eyeing the golden beads of liquid on his previously spotless countertop. “How does Time get confused?”
“Abigail Adams’s Bed and Breakfast is how,” said Mr. Ouspensky. “The Betsy Ross Museum is how. Time slides down the Broad Street Line and finds these places, and it eddies around them and gets stuck. Do you know what you get when Time gets stuck?”
“No,” said Izzy, rattling his paper. “But I suspect you will tell me.”
“Windows into the past. Windows into history. That’s what you get.” He glanced at the two boys out of the corner of his eye and winked, making them parties to his theory.
As indeed, they were. Thanks in large part to Mr. Ouspensky and his philosophical ramblings, their Philadelphia was not circumscribed by the neat grid of streets or a modern façade. Their Philly wasn’t merely trapped in Time, it was sinking back into it.
This meant there were times when Izzy’s deli was a tavern at which thieves and pirates gathered in the wee hours. And Saint Stanislaus’ Church was a grand and massive cathedral gone to weed, in which sad monks carried out their daily rites, and at night worked for an unspecified Underground.
“Windows?” repeated Izzy, his eyebrows just visible above the edge of the newspaper. “I’ll tell you what I know about windows, Ouspensky. I know that mine haven’t been washed for above a week thanks to that hulyen, Nikolai Puzdrovsky.”
Ganady snorkeled into his straw, root beer exploding up the sides of the bottle. Hearing his elder brother referred to as a “hellraiser,” even in Yiddish, was not without humor. Lazy, Nikolai might be called, careless, maybe—but a hulyen?
The hulyen himself appeared just then as if magically summoned, stepping through Izzy’s door with the sharp April wind nipping after him. He closed the door in its face and said, “Hey, Mr. O. Hey, Izzy. Can I get a grape soda?”
Izzy’s eyebrows rose again at the sound of his pet name coming from Nikolai’s lips. Neither of the other boys would have dared address him in such fashion, but Nikolai was seventeen and as of this past winter, considered himself to be sufficiently grown up to experiment with such adult privilege.
“How do you do, Mister Puzdrovsky?” asked Izzy mildly. “I’ll be happy to see to your soda as soon as I’ve finished my business with Ganady.”
Ganady’s ears perked up at this, for he had no idea that business was being done with him.
Izzy said, “So, Ganady, since my windows have gone unwashed this week past, I am wondering if you and your young friend might be interested in a bit of work. One could do the windows, one the floors…”
Nikolai reverted swiftly to his youth. “Gee, Mr. Davidov, I was going to do them Friday, but…well, I had to make up some homework, and then it was getting dark, and you know how Mama is about us being out after dark.”
“My windows don’t know from homework,” said Izzy. “They’re just dirty. Perhaps Ganady doesn’t have homework that must be made up?”
Ganady glanced at Nikolai, whose entire thought process was writ publicly on his lean face. Certainly he wanted the money, but having to do windows on Friday afternoons instead of all the other things that could be done…
Nikolai took a deep breath. “I’ll do them Wednesday. I promise. Right after school. Will that be okay, Mr. D.?”
Izzy grunted what Ganady assumed was an affirmative and poked his long nose back into his paper. “You know where the soda is. Help yourself.”
Nikolai did just that, swinging around the end of the counter to the beaten-up little icebox where Izzy kept his cold stuff. He was back out again in a moment, swigging a grape Nehi. “Seen any good ballgames lately, Mr. Ouspensky?” he asked.
“A few,” said the old man coyly, dunking the hapless matzo ball with his spoon. He did not elaborate.
In days past, he would have waxed poetic about the games, but Nikolai was no longer of the inner circle. To Ganady’s chagrin, his elder brother had begun to change with the onset of this, his junior year, until by now, in early April, he seemed as blasé and unimaginative as his peers.
For his part, Nikolai merely grinned, sucked his soda and said, “Mama sent me to bring you home, Ganny. And Eugene’s wanted up at the restaurant.”
Yevgeny’s eyes shot sparks of perfect delft blue onto his freckled cheeks. “Don’t call me that,” he said.
Nikolai shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself. All I know is, your Mama wants you to help out in the kitchen.”
Unlike Yevgeny, who resisted Americanization with every fiber of his being, Nikolai had become relentlessly American, his interests running more and more to cars and leather bomber jackets and chinos and high-school dances. Mama and Baba were the only ones at home who could call him “Nikolai” or “Nikki” these days; everyone else must call him “Nick.” He had unilaterally decided that Yevgeny would be “Eugene” instead of “Zhenya” or some other standard diminutive. He had also coined the shortened version of Ganady’s name on the grounds that the Polish version—”Genna”—”sounded girly.” Everyone had taken to using it—even their Mama on occasion. Ganady couldn’t find it in himself to care with anything like the passion Yevgeny did.
Nick said South Philadelphia was an antique or a museum, or worse, a human rummage sale. Further, Ganady and Yevgeny with their heads full of time eddies and magical windows were yentas who might just as well be doing needlework and sharing neighborhood gossip with Baba Irina’s glayzele tey society.
He rarely joined the other boys on their rambles these days, and when he did, Ganady knew he was only along for the ride. He never brought his imagination with him. To hear Nick tell it, the only reason he spent any time with the younger boys at all was to keep them from dropping permanently through one of Ouspensky’s magic windows, leaving him to explain their disappearance to the elder Puzdrovskys.
Root beer bottles drained, the two younger boys followed Nikolai from the deli.
“Saturday?” asked Mr. Ouspensky from behind them.
“Saturday,” said Ganady and Yevgeny in unison.
And Izzy Davidov muttered, “Mr. D!” and rattled his newspaper.
“Saturday, what?” asked Nikolai as the boys made their way up the street.
Ganady shrugged, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, trying to lose the root-beer-bottle chill. “Oh, nothing. We’re um…”
Yevgeny said, “We’re going to help Mr. Ouspensky put up a new clothesline.”
Nikolai smirked. “You mean you’re going over to watch ghost baseball with him. You been going over there for a month of Sundays. You ever seen any old ghost-ball game?”
“The season hasn’t started yet,” said Yevgeny. Mr. Ouspensky says it’s a matter of timing. He says what we want is a Saturday afternoon just after Opening Day.”
Nick shook his head. “You two are such shlubs. And Mr. O knows it. He’s just fooling with you.”
“No he isn’t,” said Yevgeny defensively. “He says there’s a spot—The Spot. He knows how to find it. And if we get there at just the right time—”
“You might see a twenty-year-old ballgame?” Nick finished for him. “That’s dumb.”
“Baba says there are magic spots like that all over Poland,” said Ganady. “Why wouldn’t there be magic spots here, too?”
Now Nikolai’s eyes rolled. Baba Irina, he’d be thinking, still thinks she’s in Keterzyn, and that Poland is still an imperial force—or ought to be. All he said was: “This is America. The New World. There’s no magic. There’s movies.”
“But Baba remembers—” Yevgeny began, and Nick’s eyes made another circuit.
“Eugene, you’ve known Baba all your life and you still don’t get that when she says, ‘I remember…’ she’s about to tell a boobeh myseh? I bet you still believe in fairytales, too, huh?”
Yevgeny winced at this abuse of his name, but Ganady had barely heard his brother at all, for something had called to him from the corner of 21st and LeHigh.
“You know what Mr. Ouspensky says is magic?” he asked, looking away over rooftops and telephone poles. “A five-four-three triple play.”
The other boys considered this. Then Yevgeny nodded agreement.
“You,” Nick disparaged, “are obsessed with baseball. You and Mr. O, all three.”
“You sleep with your mitt under your pillow, Nikki,” said Yevgeny. “Same as us.”
Nikolai blushed crimson to the roots of his dark hair. “Don’t call me that,” he said, but he didn’t deny where his fine, red leather catcher’s mitt spent the hours between dusk and dawn.
“Connie Mack wasn’t always a mean man,” said Mr. Ouspensky. “But money made him mean. That’s what I think.”
Ganady and Yevgeny regarded the bluff wooden face of the so-called ‘spite fence’ from the flat roof of Mr. Ouspensky’s apartment building. The fence had gotten its name from Connie Mack’s motivation for raising it to keep the people in Mr. O’s apartment buildings from watching games free of charge.
“It’s ugly,” said Yevgeny, wrinkling the freckles that powdered his nose.
“So is greed,” said Mr. Ouspensky. He handed Ganady one end of his new clothesline and pointed at the rusty pulley mounted on a stalwart upright.
Ganady obediently took his end of the rope to the pulley, looped it over the roller, and gave it a yank. The pulley resisted, then turned with a squeal of protest. Ganady brought the loose end back to center where Yevgeny stood waiting with the nether end.
“Could one of you tie it, please?” asked Mr. Ouspensky. “These hands aren’t good for nothing anymore.”
As Yevgeny tied a neat square knot in the clothesline, Ganady glanced over at Mr. Ouspensky’s hands. They were gnarled, the knuckles outsized. Ganady wondered how he managed to do anything with such hands.
He felt sorry for Mr. Ouspensky. Where the Puzdrovsky house was full of family, Mr. O’s house was full of quiet. He had not even a cat or a canary. Some of Baba Irina’s old gleyzele tey friends had canaries. Mr. Ouspensky had nothing. And if people were conspicuously absent from his small apartment, so too were any memorials to them. There were no little shrines such as decorated seemingly every flat surface in the Puzdrovsky home. No heirloom lace graced the tabletops, no fragile teacups cluttered the shelves, no family photographs hung on the walls or filled keepsake books. Mr. Ouspensky’s bookshelves were stacked with issues of Dime Sports Magazine, his photo albums were full of baseball cards and baseball clippings. It was these he brought out to show his visitors.
Faces looked up at Ganady from the black construction paper pages of the books. On this page, Phillies faces: Cy Williams, Lefty O’Doul, Freddy Leach, Chuck Klein. Players from the Thirties.
“He was the great one.” Mr. Ouspensky tapped the Chuck Klein card with an arthritic finger. “Phillies sold him twice during the bad years, but he kept coming back. Ended his career with them.”
Ganady wondered if perhaps Mr. Ouspensky knew everything about baseball in the same way that Baba Irina knew everything about the Old Country, about the Golden Age of a forgotten empire, about mushrooms.
“He batted .386 in 1930.” Mr. Ouspensky wagged his head. “.386. Imagine. But the team finished last.”
“Pitching,” murmured Yevgeny, echoing the movement.
“You can’t win without pitching.”
Mr. Ouspensky shrugged. “Eh, I was more of an Athletics fan then. After all, there they were, and I could see them for free until that thing.” He nodded toward the window that looked out on Connie Mack Stadium.
Ganady raised his eyes to the window. He could just see the hated fence.
“The Phillies were at the Baker Bowl then,” said Mr. Ouspensky.
“So,” Ganady said, frowning a little, “if we could find a spot…an eddy…”
“…you’d be seeing the Athletics.” Mr. Ouspensky flipped to a new page. Athletics players stared up from it.
Ganady was disappointed. He hadn’t really followed the Athletics. Hadn’t cared much when they’d moved to Kansas City. He was a Phillies fan. Still, a ballgame was a ballgame. “Have you seen Eddie Waitkus play, Mr. Ouspensky?”
“Most certainly, I’ve seen him play.” Mr. O flipped pages, time-traveling the book into the present day. “I saw him play the day he was shot. ‘49, that was. Terrible, terrible thing. That poor girl must’ve been crazy to do such a thing.”
“Da read about it in the paper,” said Ganady. “The papers said she was deranged. That’s the same as crazy, I guess. Ma didn’t like us to talk about it. She wouldn’t let Da take us to games for while after.”
“Almost the whole season,” said Yevgeny mournfully.
“So, what do we need to find a spot?” asked Ganady, tearing his eyes from the fragment of Connie Mack he could see from Mr. O’s kitchen window.
“First, we must have faith. Then, we must have a ritual.”
“There’s a ritual?”
“Last season, I set up a kitchen chair on the roof and brought up some beer and peanuts. In a red-and-white-striped bag. Pretended I was at a game. That worked twice.” He shrugged. “Eh, it’s a bit different every time.”
Ganady refrained from asking how a ritual could be different every time, and watched Mr. Ouspensky turn back the pages of his scrapbook to 1932. He laid the album open on the kitchen table. Newspaper clippings dominated the page. KLEIN VOTED NL MVP, said one. FOXX ENDS SEASON WITH 58 HOMERS, proclaimed another. The other clippings were divided equally between the Phillies and the Athletics. Stanislaus Ouspensky was clearly a fan in conflict.
“We have a year,” he said. “Now we need a talisman.”
“A what?” asked Yevgeny.
Mr. O smiled and held up a finger. Then he moved through his parlor to a dark mahogany hutch. Ganady assumed it held dishes, for it looked much like the cupboard that cradled his mother’s heirloom china, imported with much care from Poland.
It held baseball paraphernalia.
The boys moved as if entranced, coming to flank their host at the cupboard-cum-treasure chest, there to behold its contents. Two whole bats, a third in two pieces, lay upon the bottom shelf. There was also a glove of sorts—an odd-looking thing with unstitched fingers fat as sausages—an unrecognizable jersey, a pair of cleats with leather uppers so dry and aged, the toes had curled up. Lastly, there was an assortment of baseballs, some clean and white, some covered in autographs, some old, muddy, and scuffed. One had the stitching popped open to reveal the tightly wound core.
It was this pathetic specimen that Mr. Ouspensky lifted from the shelf. He held it reverently—the way Father Zembruski held the Host during Eucharist.
“Jimmie Foxx home-run ball,” he said.
The object transformed from trash to treasure, the boys pressed closer.
Yevgeny thrust his nose into the cabinet, sniffing like an inquisitive hound. “Where’d you get all this stuff?”
“Oh, here and there. One place and another.”
His eyes on the faded jersey, Ganady had a sudden flash of insight. “Did you play, Mr. Ouspensky?”
The old man grinned, becoming, in an instant, a 70-year-old boy. Holes showed where back molars had been. “Eh well, I did play some. That’s my jersey, you see? Number 25. Lexington Mills team, 1915. Outfield.” The grin deepened. “They called me ‘The Wandering Jew’ because I had such good range. My rabbi did not think such a pet name was proper. In fact, my rabbi did not think baseball was a proper pastime for a good Orthodox boy. So…”
“You quit?” asked Yevgeny, eyes wide.
“I got a new rabbi.”
“You’ve been here a long time, huh?” said Ganady. “In America, I mean. In Philly.”
The boy was an old man again, turning a dilapidated baseball in arthritic fingers. He nodded. “A long time, yes.”
“You must’ve come over when you were a kid.”
“Not so much a kid, no. But come. Let us see if the stream of time will allow us to swim in it today.”
They went back up to the roof then, Mr. O clutching his talisman. Once there, he made a circuit of the rooftop, describing a square with halting footsteps, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in a quavering tenor.
No, not a square, Ganady realized, following him bemusedly. A diamond—with the back of home plate aimed at the spite fence.
At each corner Mr. Ouspensky paused to assume an infielder’s posture—half-crouched, facing home plate. When he had completed his tour of the imaginary diamond, the old man led his acolytes to the invisible pitcher’s mound where they faced Connie Mack.
“Take first,” he told Ganady, then to Yevgeny: “Take third.”
The boys moved to their invisible bases. Mr. O struck a pose—a pitcher getting ready to go into the windup.
They waited. The inevitable pigeons waited with them, perched on the new clothesline, on the edge of the roof, on the clutter of little smokestacks, on an empty pigeon cote. Their cooing threw a soft blanket over the other Saturday afternoon sounds. In the street below, cars and trucks purred and rumbled, muted cheers floated from the stadium across the street, farther away on the river, boats hooted at each other over the water.
Ganady’s nose itched. He withstood the itch as long as he could before reaching up surreptitiously to scratch it. At once, he felt Mr. Ouspensky’s eyes on him and turned the scratch into the Sign of the Cross, hoping Mr. Ouspensky would think he was merely adding to the ritual.
He chanced a glance at the old man. Mr. O’s eyes were trained on the stadium wall, large and bright and hopeful. The torn baseball revolved in his hands, over and over, round and round.
Ganady held his breath, straining to hear the stadium sounds—crowd noise, the hawkers shouting, the crack of the bat. Suddenly, that was all he could hear; pigeons, river, and street traffic all dissolved into the game. Sparks floated before Ganady’s eyes, and across the street, Connie Mack’s great wooden ramparts seemed to shimmer and blur in the afternoon Sun. Was that a bit of emerald green he glimpsed through the heavy boards? Were those bright flecks of color the spring vestments of the people in the stands?
Across from him, Yevgeny let out a long, sighing breath as if he, too, saw…something.
The ball in Mr. O’s hands turned and turned and turned, and the old man murmured a jumbled litany of names and stats. The spite fence wavered, melted, faded. Verdant green seeped through its filmy fabric. A pattern began to emerge.
“Hey, what are you guys looking at?”
At the sound of Nick’s voice, the pigeons rose up in a great flutter of wings. In an instant, Ganady’s view of the ballpark was lost in a flight of tiny angels. In the wake of their leave-taking, Connie Mack’s spite fence was as solid as the day it was put up.
“Your brother,” said Mr. O, “is a klutz.”
“You don’t really believe you were about to see through that fence, do you?” Nick asked as they made their way home.
“No,” said Ganady, “because the fence wasn’t there then.”
“In 1932. The year Mr. Ouspensky got a Jimmie Foxx home-run ball.”
Nick smote his forehead with the heel of one hand. “Oh, yeah! How could I forget? You were going to travel back in time to catch the game. C’mon, Ganny. You can’t travel in time by hugging a baseball and staring into thin air. You need a machine. Anybody knows that. Didn’t you read Jules Verne?”
“H.G. Wells,” said Yevgeny and Ganady added, “Maybe baseball is the time machine. That’s what Mr. O thinks.”
“Mr. O is a lonely old meshuggener who likes to play jokes on dummies like you two.”
“He wasn’t joking, Nikolai,” said Ganady. “He meant it. He had a whole ritual and everything. It was like…like…”
“Like mass,” said Yevgeny. “Like sabes.”
Nick shook his head and whistled. “I wouldn’t let Father Z hear you say that. You could end up doing a thousand ‘Hail Marys’ standing on your head.”
Two: Only at Yonkiper
Fridays were stressful for Ganady Puzdrovsky. This was because Baba Irina must go to synagogue and someone from the family must accompany her.
Friday supper, Baba held court at table, performing a ritual that was at least as old as Ganady himself. She would turn to Da first. This was because Da was the One Who Had Caused It. ‘It’ being his mother’s defection from Judaism. Da had been raised a Catholic and wouldn’t enter a synagogue, nor would he allow his wife to do so, had he any say in the matter. He hadn’t, for Rebecca Puzdrovsky had no qualms about entering a synagogue. To her, the shul was as much a house of God as Saint Stanislaus.
Sometimes she and Da would argue the point. Mother would say, “Look, Vitaly, the Mayflower got here with sails and your family’s boat got here with steam. They’re both boats—where’s the problem?”
This did not mean that Rebecca Puzdrovsky (née Ravke Kutshinska) would actually go to shul, for she would not. And this had only to do with the fact that most of the members were landslayt; she’d known them her entire life from Keterzyn; some of them had even come to the States on the same boat. They would look at her with their heavy eyes and she would feel crushed. Ganady had heard her say so to Da.
“Like being stoned,” she’d said, “but with grapes.”
Having laid her guilt blessing upon Mama and Da, Baba would look to Nick, who always had too much homework, or a need to go to library to study (though it was Friday) or suddenly recalled that he must do Izzy’s windows. More often, it was a dance at the Catholic Youth Center.
Ganady knew that Nick found Sunday mass intolerable enough. To have to go to synagogue as well was more than he could bear; he preferred guilt. And on those Fridays that the distraction was a dance at the Center, the guilt would get especially deep, because then Baba’s eyes would reveal her agony that the grandchildren had lost their yiddishkeit, to her, something even more fundamental than a change of religion.
At this point, the most sumptuous of meals would taste like sawdust. And at this point, Ganady would volunteer to take Baba to shul and would be her golden boychik and his parents would allow it just so they could eat. Mama believed that it was both sinful and dangerous to allow a meal to end in discord.
Ganady wasn’t sure why this ritual must play out every week, but it must. He had tried circumvention once, offering his services as escort the moment Baba Irina sat down at table and said, “Well, it’s sabes,” as if everyone didn’t know.
“I’ll take you, Baba,” he’d said.
It was as if she hadn’t heard him. She’d paused for only a beat, patted his hand, then turned to her son-in-law and said, “Is it too much to ask, you and Ravke should come with, Vitaly? If not you, at least my own daughter…”
Everyone had then assumed his or her customary role, and the guilt had fallen about in its usual pattern. Ganady had never attempted to break the Ritual again.
How Ganady and his Baba got to synagogue depended entirely on upon the amount of guilt that had accumulated at table and upon whom it had fallen most heavily. Ganady found it bemusing that, though the words were almost always the same, the dynamics of guilt were subtly different from week to week, so that some sabes they walked, some they were given bus fare, and some Da would call a cab.
Whatever manner of conveyance they took, Yevgeny Toschev would most likely be waiting for them at the bottom of the front stoop (if he had not been at supper) and would go with. And so, most sabes, Irina Kutshinska entered shul Megidey Tihilim with a good Polish Catholic boy on each arm.
Ganady knew that Baba imagined they were interested in Judaism—Ganady because of his heritage and Yevgeny because of his heart—but the truth was that they were both interested only in Baba.
Ganady loved his grandmother. But mixed with that love was a peculiar sadness that felt like guilt, though there was nothing to do with Baba for which Ganady Puzdrovsky should feel guilty. He was aware, however, that in Poland, faith and family had been synonymous. Here, they were ambiguously adjacent, sometimes uneasily sharing the same household. To Baba, it must seem as if the life she had so carefully packed up and carried to America had begun to dissolve, its glue lost to the melting pot.
Ganady did not know how to reassure her—how to tell her that the family was fine, really, and would endure, even if, God forbid, some of them were to become Protestants. So, in lieu of reassurances, he came to shul.
Yevgeny also loved Baba, and it was a love of wonder. Baba was a piece of a homeland Yevgeny had never seen—a place of roots and heritage and history that his parents were loath to speak of; a place whose very mention drew snickers in school.
Baba was conjurer and wise woman. She was a favorite book. The boys had learned once, by Kismet, that after synagogue that book might open and its pages give up stories filled with the sounds and sights and aromas of Poland and of times that likely never were and never would be, except in Baba’s memory. Ganady didn’t care and suspected Yevgeny didn’t either. Baba was always a good read.
Ganady had asked Yevgeny once if he remembered anything at all of the actual sabes service. He was surprised to find that Yevgeny could not only chant the prayers, but understood them—at least, in the literal sense. If you asked him, though, what this or that meant, he would speak of candlelight and spirit and the rise and fall of the cantor’s voice and the supreme sense of sorrow that filled the heart with a slow, throbbing fever and hung deliciously in the sanctuary mingled with the incense.
The sorrow was so deep and wide, it was almost joy, Yevgeny said, and Ganady, who could almost feel it, but not quite, thought that must be the meaning of ‘bittersweet.’ On the heels of that epiphany came the realization that forever after, his favorite flavor of ice cream would remind him of Baba Irina’s shul and the sadness of old and displaced Jews. Bitter-sweet.
Yevgeny spoke Yiddish. He spoke it as flagrantly and stubbornly as he used his given name—not ‘Gene,’ not ‘Eugene,’ but ‘Yevgeny.’ This endeared him greatly to Baba and perpetuated her personal myth that he would someday convert to Judaism.
Ganady, who was privileged to know such things about Yevgeny, thought it far more likely that he would become a monk or a priest so he could imagine himself to be Copernicus, who was both wizard and saint in Yevgeny’s cosmos. Yevgeny believed fiercely in Christ and the Church; perhaps even more fiercely than he believed Baba’s tales of places and people and culture lost. Ganady thought perhaps he was a monk already, or perhaps a curator.
There were sabes when Yevgeny could not, for one reason or another, come to shul. On those Friday evenings, Ganady was surprised at how alien the service seemed and how indecipherable the experience. It was as if Yevgeny were a filter or a translation device—like a Captain’s Courageous Code-O-Graph. Yevgeny, though, rarely missed synagogue—something for which Ganady was very grateful, for his own sake as well as Baba’s.
Ganady was glad of Yevgeny’s fixation with the homeland. It allowed him to hear of it, smell it, see it, know it, without having to betray the depth of his own interest. At home, he was expected to be American. It was as if his family’s history had begun with their first footfalls upon the Philadelphia pier. What had come before was not discussed, nor were questions asked. And if, by chance, a word or two of a prior life slipped from his mother’s memory into her conversation, a look from her husband would cause her to pack it away again. Everything Ganady knew of Poland, he knew from his grandmother, who did not have to be so much asked as prompted.
One Friday night, as Ganady and Yevgeny sat upon the Puzdrovskys’ front stoop waiting for Baba Irina to come down for shul, Yevgeny asked, “Does Baba know the story of Jesus?”
“I suppose so,” Ganady answered, but wasn’t at all sure. “Mother must’ve told her,” he guessed.
“I don’t understand how she doesn’t believe. It’s like she doesn’t even think of it.”
Ganady didn’t suppose she did think of it. He shrugged. “She has her ways. She’s had them all her life. Her parents were Jewish and their parents. It’s who she is.”
Yevgeny pondered this, his freckles puckered indecisively. “Saint Peter said that God wasn’t partial. That anybody who feared Him and did what was right would be acceptable to Him.”
Ganady vaguely remembered having heard this, so he nodded.
“Father Zembruski,” said Yevgeny as if the name was shoved from his open lips, “said that doing what’s right means believing in Christ, not just doing what’s right.”
Ganady nodded again, supposing that Father Z, who had studied these things, should know.
“Has your mother really tried to explain to Baba about Jesus?”
“I don’t know,” Ganady said. “Are you afraid Baba’s going to hell?”
Yevgeny’s fair skin flushed and his delft eyes looked suddenly bright and watery. “She couldn’t. I mean, she fears God, right?”
“And that’s half of it.”
“And if Father Zembruski is wrong and what Peter meant by doing right is just doing right, then that’s the other half.”
Baba came out then, arresting any discussion of what it might mean to think that Father Z had been wrong about something.
“Ah, here are my good boychiklech,” she said, and Yevgeny didn’t mention Jesus to her, as much as Ganady knew he wanted to.
They walked to shul this evening. The weather was mild, the streets and sidewalks still glistening with spring rain. Ganady wondered if the ballgame would be rained out tomorrow. Da had said they might go.
He thought of Mr. O. “Baba, how long have you known Mr. Ouspensky?”
“Well, when we came to Megidey Tihilim for our first sabes here, there was Stanislaus Ouspensky. I’ve known him since that day.”
“Do you think he’s a…a meshuggener?”
“Ganady! What sort of thing is that to say?”
“I didn’t say it. Nikolai did. He said Mr. Ouspensky likes to play jokes on dummies like me and Yevgeny and that’s why he says…” He broke off, unable to think of a way to explain Mr. O’s theories of time to his grandmother.
“I know what he says,” Baba said, her mouth prim. “Perhaps that makes him a meshuggener. Certainly, it’s not my place to say.”
“Doesn’t he have any family?” Ganady asked.
“Shouldn’t you ask him these things?”
Ganady shrugged, looking around Baba Irina at Yevgeny, who peered back owlishly. “He just said he’d been here a long time. That he came here when he was almost a kid. But not quite.”
“And he said he played baseball for some mill,” added Yevgeny.
“He came over as a young man, I think,” Baba told them. “Perhaps he left his family in Poland. Or perhaps there was no one to come with him. So, what do you boys think? Do you think he’s a meshuggener?”
Ganady thought about that for a moment. What was he supposed to think of someone who discussed time-eddies and windows with the same conversational tone as he discussed batting averages and ERAs?
“No,” he said at last. “I don’t.”
From Baba’s opposite side, Yevgeny shook his head and said nothing.
Synagogue was, above all, a place where Ganady Puzdrovsky exercised his imagination. Unlike Yevgeny, whose eyes and ears never ceased external surveillance, Ganady withdrew into his own spiritual sanctuary.
Inside Ganady Puzdrovsky’s head was a baseball diamond. It was 334 feet from home plate to left field, 468 feet to center, 331 feet to right, 86 feet to the backstop. It had no spite fence and was the scene of many more home-team triumphs than the park at 21st and LeHigh.
Ganady’s ballpark was always filled to its 35,000 capacity with fans wildly cheering or perched at seat’s edge in the hushed, tense, expectant silence that is only experienced by those who frequent ball games. While the cantor canted and Rabbi Andrukh prayed, play commenced, with Puzdrovsky at first instead of Waitkus.
After shul, Izzy’s deli might be open for conversation and refreshment. Ganady had never asked his grandmother how she was able to reconcile herself to frequenting the business of a non-observant Jew on sabes, nor would he. But he did wonder. Baba invariably had hot tea and the boys hot chocolate or cold sodas, depending. And there, Baba would open her Book of the Old World and begin to spin tales.
They did not start out as tales, to be sure; they started as reminiscences that someone—most often Izzy himself—would call up by saying something like, “So, what do you say, Irina Kutshinska? What do you think of such-and-such?” or “Do you remember so-and-so?”
One sabes, Esther and Isak Isaacson were at the counter arguing when they came into Izzy’s, Irina and her two good Catholic boys, and Isak said, “So, Irina, you tell me—is it Rabbi Andrukh’s fault or no?”
Baba sat herself down at the scarred old table by the window and arranged her shawl across the wounded back of the vinyl chair before even letting on that she’d heard. The boys were trying to decide whether it was to be hot chocolate or cold soda on this ambivalent evening in early April, when Baba said, “And what is it that you’re asking is the Rabbi’s fault?”
“We’re losing our yiddishkeit, is what,” said Esther. “We are Jews who are ceasing to be Jewish.”
“Esther says it’s the Rabbi,” noted Isak.
Esther—all five-foot-four, 275 pounds of Esther—came rolling over to Baba’s table and sat herself down there, making the chair pop like a mad fire. “Only on yonkiper does Joshua Leved (and that wife of his) come home to shul.”
“Maybe they go to shul in Cherry Hill,” said Baba.
“Then why come back here at all, eh?”
Baba made a broad gesture that took both hands, both eyebrows and every muscle in her wiry shoulders. “To come home,” she said. “To come here. This was his home. It’s so strange he should come home once in a while?”
“Only at yonkiper?”
“It’s when they can expect to find the most folks in one place,” said Izzy from behind his counter.
“Ah!” said Esther, half-turning and holding up a chubby index finger like it was Miss Liberty’s torch. “Ah!”
“Ah, what?” asked Baba. “Why do you figure the Leveds come home at yonkiper?”
“Zey hobm meyn,” said Esther in Yiddish, and Ganady, caught by the gleam in her eye, felt his scalp crawl. “They’re afraid, is what. They think, ‘what if the Day of Atonement steals up while we’re heedless?’”
Ganady glanced sideways at Yevgeny and saw that the other boy’s face had gone so pale his freckles seemed to be floating above it. He prayed to God that Yevgeny would keep his mouth shut about the Day of Atonement.
“What?” said Baba. “They got no synagogues in Cherry Hill the Leveds can face Atonement in?”
“Who knows what kind of synagogues they got in Cherry Hill? All those gansteh machers with their gelt and their big cars and houses. How does one stay Jewish with all that, I’d like to know? Folks leave here, they gehot fley in de nuz—above themselves, you know? They think yiddishkeit is something you can come rub up against once a year and carry the smell home.”
“Now, now, Esther,” said her husband, clucking like an old hen. “How d’you know this, em?”
“Isaacson is right,” said Baba. “How do you know Leved doesn’t come home just because he wants to be with folk he knows? You said yourself, Esther—people get their noses up. Maybe Leved likes to be among menschen.”
“So I said. Hoping some of it will rub off, no doubt.”
It was no secret, of course, that Esther had once been sweet on Joshua Leved, who had married, in her stead, a charmer from New Jersey and who had gone into practice with his new wife’s father—a well-off doctor of internal medicine.
True love, Ganady realized, did not always run smoothly, and occasionally derailed. Everyone, Baba had told him once, believed Joshua and Esther were fated, but time and Manya Garudin proved otherwise. And if Esther Isaacson was love’s wreckage, then so was her poor husband, who had to listen to her tirades against prodigal Jewry.
Ganady studied Isak Isaacson over the top of his soda bottle and failed to see anything in the man’s benign smile but a sort of resigned fondness. There was no indication he knew that when Esther complained of Jews who only came home for the holy days, she was really complaining that Joshua Leved had fallen in love with someone else.
“And what, in all this, is Rabbi Andrukh’s fault?” asked Baba, beckoning the frozen Yevgeny to bring her tea to table.
“If he was any kind of Rabbi, he’d fill the shul every sabes, not just on yonkiper or, God forbid, when someone dies. And I’ll tell you one thing more, Irina Kutshinska, that you know better than anyone, and that’s how many young people we lose to that Youth Center.” Her eyes flitted to the two youths. “Take your boys here. If Rabbi Andrukh was more of a rabbi, your daughter never would have allowed her goy husband to raise her children Catholic. They’d be going to Talmud Torah instead of Saint Casimir’s. If anyone should worry over the Day of Atonement, Irina, it’s you and yours.”
Ganady held his breath.
Baba Irina sat back in her chair and slipped her bright red and gold silk scarf from her head to settle over her shoulders, where it clashed wantonly with her purple-flowered sabes dress. She gave Esther Isaacson a long, thorough look through the steam rising from her tea.
At just that moment, with those piercing dark eyes framed in curling mist, Ganady’s grandmother looked just about as he had pictured Baba Yaga might, peering at an intended victim through the vapors off her witches’ brew.
Irina took a sip of her tea, opened her mouth and said, “There was this man our family knew once, many years ago now. He was a rich one—you should have what every day he threw out. Anyway, this man, he had two sons—Lemuel and Samuel, I think they were. Well, when Samuel—the youngest—got to be a man, he says to his father, ‘Father, I’m never going to have the family business or the house. That’s for Lem. So, give me my inheritance and let me go make my way in the world.’”
Ganady had drifted, by this time, a bit closer to the table, and pulled out a chair so as to sit next to Yevgeny, who was still standing there, dumb as a post. Both boys stayed clear of Esther.
“So, Sam took his money and goods and said goodbye to his Mama and Papa and big brother and went out into the world. Well, let me tell you, he didn’t make his way anywhere but into trouble and sin and poverty. Things got so bad for poor Samuel that he was forced to sell everything he had and live off the synagogue from the pishke—the poor box—and scraps of clothing the rabbi’s wife gave him after she’d clothed the Rabbi and their children. Things got so bad for poor Samuel that he was living, I tell you, in a barn.”
Baba’s veined fist glanced across the top of the table. “With pigs,” she announced for emphasis, and Esther snorted. Baba ignored her. “If there was ever a soul living in fear of That Day, it was Samuel. Well, one night, when he was cold as cold could get—cold as a witch’s heart—Sam thought of his family and how good life had been in his father’s house. So!” She slapped her knee. “What do you think he did, Yevgeny?” she asked, courting complicity.
Yevgeny’s huge, pale eyes blinked slowly (as if, Ganady thought, he were an enchanted frog) and he said, “Why…he went home.”
“Exactly. And what did his wealthy father do?”
“Threw him out, is what,” said Esther. “The boy’s a putz.”
Baba feigned surprise at this answer, her lips forming a soundless O, her eyes going wide. “What do you boys say?”
Ganady and Yevgeny eyed each other, then Ganady said, “Took him back?” It didn’t, after all, take a genius to see where Baba was going with this one.
“Took him back,” Baba announced firmly. “And threw him such a party.”
“Putz,” muttered Esther.
“Now, that oldest son of his, eh…”
“Lemuel,” said Ganady.
“Lemuel. Well, I tell you he was mad—mad. ‘Papa,’ he says, ‘why are you giving this boy a party? A hit in the head, he should have.’ And what do you think his Papa told him?”
Yevgeny, still entranced, said, “He said, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’”
Baba blinked her dark eyes at him. “Such nice language.”
Yevgeny smiled fleetingly, then yanked at Ganady’s sleeve. “C’mon.” He headed out to the sidewalk.
Ganady followed. The two of them sat side-by-side on the curbing, sipping their sodas and shivering.
“How’d you know that story Baba was telling so well?” Ganady asked at length.
“It’s in the Bible,” said Yevgeny.
“In the New Testament.”
The import of this was almost lost on Ganady, who was introspectively swishing bubbles about in his mouth. Almost lost, but not quite. He stopped swishing, swallowed, burped and said, “You mean the Gospels?”
Somehow he had managed to burp ‘Gospels,’ too, and was sure Yevgeny would give him the wrath of God and the angelic host for it, but the other boy seemed not to notice.
“It’s the story of the Prodigal Son, and it’s in the Gospel according to Luke.”
“You sure?” Ganady asked, and felt immediately stupid. Of course, he was sure. Yevgeny was the darling of every priest and nun at Saint Casimir’s for his knowledge of all things Biblical.
“Of course I’m sure.” He was silent for a moment in a way that suggested many wheels turning, then asked, or rather, demanded, “Why would Baba read the Gospels?”
Ganady felt sheepish and did not know why. “I think she likes the stories.”
“But how can she read the Gospels and…” Yevgeny’s head dropped almost to his knees.
Ganady knew what he was asking, but he took a swig of soda and said, “I don’t know.” The two boys sat in silence for a moment, then he added, “You could ask her, I suppose.”
Yevgeny nodded, but Ganady knew he never would ask, and that ten years from now it would still be eating him.
“I love Baba,” Yevgeny told his kneecaps.
Ganady nodded. “Me too.”
Baba did not steal material only from the Bible. Sometimes she stole from folk and fairytales. Ganady’s personal favorites were stories in which fable and reality blended into an amorphous whole in which one was almost entirely lost in the other. Of course, so much of the history of the Slavic lands read like fairy tale anyway, it was difficult to differentiate between fact and fable.
Often, Ganady listened with only half an ear, which was the way he listened to everything but baseball games. He respected Baba and her stories, because he understood on some level of his pubescent soul that this was Baba’s way of extracting magical moments from life. Perhaps it was because of this that Ganady Puzdrovsky was willing to indulge his grandmother in her more peculiar moments, which included the yearly pilgrimage to Armin the Opshprekher.
The visit occurred invariably the morning after Passover. The pilgrims were always Baba, Ganady, and his Great-Aunt Beyle, Baba Irina’s sister. That is, until Great-Aunt Beyle’s death the year before this, Ganady’s sixteenth year.
Ganady wasn’t completely certain why he was chosen for the pilgrimage. Nikolai said he was a proxy for the rest of the family and that he had been chosen quite simply because no one else would subject him or herself to such nonsense. Nikolai wasn’t about to be a proxy for anything; no one else believed in the opshprekher—it simply wasn’t logical to consult an oracle or wise man or whatever Baba believed the fellow to be, or to pay for his blessing on the family. This wasn’t the old country, after all.
Ganady didn’t much care about any of that. It was no real trouble to visit the opshprekher and Baba always bought him a nice breakfast before and an ice cream after, if the weather was pleasant.
There was a family ritual that went with this, too, though a briefer one than the one enacted every sabes dinner. Odd, since sabes came every week and the pilgrimage only once per year. Baba would announce her intention to go—as if anyone would, after so many years, need to be reminded—and then, in quick succession, Nikolai would roll his eyes, Da would bury his nose further in the newspaper and give it two good shakes and Mama would say, “Oh, Baba, why do you do this? How do you believe in this business?”
Baba would say archly, “How do I not believe, I’d like to know? I’ve seen.”
She would never say what she’d seen, but she would raise a finger to the heavens as if whatever it was, it had appeared in the sky.
Ganny’s little sister Marija would, at this point, beg wide-eyed to go with, and Mama would shush her even as Baba said, “It’s not your place to go, Marija, but Ganady’s.”
Nikolai would give his younger brother a look that suggested he was a chump, and that would be that.
This pilgrimage to Armin the Opshprekher was much the same as in years past except for two things: One—Great-Aunt Beyle was not here and, two—Ganady paid more attention than he had on previous visits.
It wasn’t so much that he meant to pay more attention, but what usually stretched into at least an hour of small talk and “catching up” moved with uncommon speed from condolences for Great-Aunt Beyle’s passing to commiseration with Baba for having been the only one to sit shiveh for her the entire time (“though Ravke did say yiskor in the synagogue”).
At this point, a year’s worth of distress broke to the surface and boiled out of Baba’s soul. Beyle, she said, had been the only other Jew left in a family that had always been Jewish. Now that she was gone, there was no one but this Ganady, a Catholic, to say the prayers for their long dead. The whole family went to mass now, instead of shul, and the children attended the Catholic school and learned God-knew-what from priests and nuns, rather than the rabbis at Talmud Torah. Only Ganny, God bless him, had even set foot in Talmud Torah, and then only when Baba or one of his Jewish friends (who were sadly few) went for some weekend activity.
The entire family, thanks to her love-struck daughter and that Vitaly Puzdrovsky, had lost its Jewishness, had forgotten, even, what it was to be Jewish. The house was full of Catholic icons and alien shrines; they dined on non-kosher food. Oh, and Armin could have no idea what it meant to try to be observant of the kashris in such a house. If it weren’t for the fact that shrimp and pork disagreed with little Marija’s delicate digestion, God knew what Baba might be forced to eat (or starve), especially on sabes when the Catholics eschewed meat.
Armin the Opshprekher, whose last name remained a mystery to Ganady even after all these years, hummed and thrummed and nodded in agreement, his eyes sad and empathetic. By the end of Baba’s recitation, he was holding her hands and sighing in precise harmony.
“I want to understand, you know, Armin?” she said after one particularly harmonious sigh. “They’re my family and, of course, I love them. And because I love them, I want to understand how they, eh, how they think, you know? How they believe. So, I read.”
She let that hang and gave Armin a glance from beneath her lashes that was almost coy. Ganady had never seen his grandmother be coy; he found it unsettling.
“You read?” prompted the opshprekher. “And what is it that you read?”
“This Bible of theirs. These Gospels.” She said it as if it were nothing at all, and Armin’s lips parted and said, “Ah.”
“So what I wonder is, do I need protection from this?”
Armin the Opshprekher’s lips pursed. “Do you think you need protection?”
“If I knew, would I be asking?”
Armin the Opshprekher’s entire face pursed. “What do you think, when you read these Gospels? You don’t think this Jesus was the Messiah!”
Baba glanced at Ganady, who meant to glance away, but could not. “I don’t know about the Messiah. Maybe this is something only God knows for certain. But I’ll tell you what I think. I think Jesus was a mensch—a real man. That’s what I think.”
Armin was thoughtful for a moment, then he patted Baba’s hands and got up to get his opshprekher things. As he put on his talis and gathered his phylacteries and candles and censers, he asked, “Have you spoken to Rabbi Andrukh about this?”
“And what would he tell me about the Gospels except not to read them?”
Armin adjusted his talis about his shoulders and lit a censer. “Perhaps you should not read them, Irina, if they make you weak.”
Now it was Baba’s eyebrows that raised. “Weak? Ikh zen Yiddish, Armin. I’m a Jew—the last Jew in all my family. But I wonder, you see. Who is this fellow, Jesus, that he’s so important to my family? I wonder, you know? Eh—if we are righteous, we Jews, then maybe one old Jew can save her Catholic family. And if they’re the righteous, then surely all those Christians can save one old Jew between them.”
Armin gave Baba a long, solemn look then began her yearly treatment. There was incense and prayer and recitation in an ancient tongue.
As Armin the Opshprekher’s voice droned on and the incense grew thicker, Ganady wondered what magic tumbled from the old man’s lips along with the alien words and what spells oozed from his censer. And as he contemplated what it meant to be a proxy in the parlor of a Jewish cabalist, his hair stood on end.
Was the opshprekher trying to exorcise Ganady and his family of Christianity, so they would convert back to Judaism? Could he do that? And if he could, what magic had Ganady, a rank amateur, to counter the workings of a professional occultist?
He thought first of the Twenty-third Psalm, but realized that it was an Old Testament verse and might not work, and besides, he could only recall a few lines of it, most notably the ones about the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
He considered the Lord’s Prayer, but as Armin had his hand upon a Torah, and the Torah was the Book of Moses and the Prophets, he feared it might insult both Moses and Christ were he to call on it to protect him from a Jewish enchantment (if there were such a thing). Besides, he wasn’t sure he remembered all of that, either.
He wished he had been more attentive in catechism, but he didn’t recall any lessons that dealt with precisely this situation. He wished that he had his rosary, but he only carried that to mass.
What he had was a baseball, deep in the pocket of his jacket. Usually, at this point in the yearly exorcism, he would be sitting in the window casement, turning the ball meditatively in his hand.
The baseball had Eddie Waitkus’s autograph on it. It had been fouled off the bat of the Giants’ Bobby Thompson and fielded by Waitkus for the out. Waitkus himself had flipped it into the stands where it had found Ganady Puzdrovsky’s glove. Mr. Ouspensky had proclaimed it a miracle.
Ganady reached into his pocket and grasped the miracle ball so hard the seams creased his fingers. For good measure, he reached into his memory, as well, for the Lord’s Prayer. He was able to remember only, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” He turned the baseball in his pocket and silently chanted his scrap of prayer, deciding that his Father Who wert in Heaven could be counted on to know who needed to be delivered from what.
This seemed to work, for when he had left Armin the Opshprekher’s and was sitting, eating bittersweet chocolate ice cream with his grandmother and wondering what Yevgeny would have made of all this, it occurred to Ganady that he felt no less Catholic than he had that morning.
Perhaps that was because Armin’s Yiddish magic didn’t work here, or perhaps it was the Lord’s Prayer, or perhaps the baseball. Ganady did not expect he would ever know.
“It was the prayer,” said Yevgeny. “I’m sure of it.”
And Nick snorted. “Yeah. What makes you think it was that stupid old baseball?”
Ganady declined to remind his brother that that stupid old baseball had come to him, indirectly, off the bat of B. Thompson—3B, New York Giants—or that Nikolai, who had been sitting next to him in the stands and who had leapt as zealously as he had to glove it, had then proclaimed that any true Phillies fan would have thrown it back, it having come off an enemy stick.
“Maybe it was both,” murmured Ganady.
The three were slouching east on Wharton toward Saint Casimir’s, dragging their feet at the prospect of school on such a spring day. The Baseball was in Ganady’s book satchel. It had, in fact, not left his person since the episode at the opshprekher’s.
“Things are new here,” said Nikolai. “They’re different than they were in the old country. But Baba and her old friends try to hang on. That’s why they’re Jewish and we’re Christian.”
“Da was a Christian in the old country,” argued Ganady. “Only Mama’s family was Jewish.”
“She converted when she married your dad?” Yevgeny asked.
“Yeah. I guess his family wasn’t too keen on him marrying a Jewish girl,” Ganady said. “Of course, Mama’s family wasn’t too keen on her marrying a goy either. Especially since she got to be goy, herself.”
“Shiksa,” Nick corrected. “I’m glad we’re Catholic. All those food laws—no pork; no shrimp; no lobster—what’s that? Fish on Friday I can deal with.”
“But she believed, didn’t she? In our Lord Jesus, I mean.”
Ganady shrugged. “She wanted to marry my Da. They were in love. I’m pretty sure she believes now. I mean, she got baptized and all. She goes to mass and takes communion. I don’t know about then. They only knew each other two weeks when he proposed.”
“You should hear how Baba nudzhes because our house isn’t kosher.” Nick raised the pitch of his voice in warbling mimicry. “‘It’s so I never can tell what I’m eating. I could every day be breaking the kashris and I wouldn’t know.’”
“I thought your mom and dad grew up in the same town.”
“They did. But she lived in the Jewish part and he lived in the Catholic part, so they never met until they got on the boat to America. Mama says it was the magic of moonlight and waves. Baba says it was because everybody but Mama was below, seasick, and nobody was there to keep an eye on her.”
Ganady wobbled a little inside at the thought of his parents staring into each other’s eyes and crooning Polish love songs to each other.
Nick laughed aloud. “And that music she listens to! Accordions and clarinets and stuff.” He gave his little brother, who had played clarinet since the age of nine, a mocking grin.
“Wow,” breathed Yevgeny. “Just like Romeo and Juliet.”
Ganady ignored mention of the clarinet, but thought of Romeo and Juliet gave him pause. “Yeah. I guess so. It’s no big deal. Not like they were at war with each other or anything. Not like Montagues and Capulets.”
“War?” asked Nick. “What war? What’s a Capu—Capu…?”
“Yeah, but their love brought them together. Just like in the movies or something. That’s keen.”
“It’s soppy, is what it is,” said Nick, forgetting about wars, Capulets, and Baba’s fondness for klezmer music.
“Did she really say that about the magic of moonlit waves?” asked Yevgeny. “Your mom, I mean.”
Ganny nodded. “You should have seen her face—all dreamy.”
Nick chortled. “Can you picture our Ma and Da going all ga-ga over each other? Staring into each other’s eyes? ‘Oh, Re-bec-ca, my princess! Oh, Vi-tal-y, my little galobkie!’”
“I bet they’re still in love, huh?”
“Yeah,” Ganady said, and felt an inexplicable bubble of contentment rise up under his heart to pop.
The stern face of Saint Casimir’s stopped them in their tracks and put an end to conversation. The Three took a deep breath in unison and entered through the artfully wrought gates.
Ganady was much bothered by his lack of understanding. It seemed to him that in the case of the opshprekher’s blessing, some force was at work. It was a peculiar force, inconsistent or indecisive or perhaps simply impartial, like God. It didn’t make Ganady, or anyone else in the family, any less Catholic, but it did keep Baba happy for another year and content to live in a non-kosher household.
Ganady thought that perhaps his attendance at synagogue was a result of the opshprekher’s charms and chants. Even Yevgeny’s speaking Yiddish and being allowed to set foot in a Jewish house of worship might be attributable to it.
The baseball, he reasoned, by being on his person, might have protected him from any further effects of the opshprekher’s ministrations. Of course, that didn’t account for all of the years he had not had the baseball with him.
Perhaps he had been protected those years by virtue of not listening. Perhaps the working of such spells or incantations as an opshprekher used required the target to pay attention. He had read a little bit about Voodoo in a comic book, though, and was fairly certain it didn’t work that way.
He racked his brain trying to recall those other visits. Might he have had something else with him that protected him from the full effects of Armin: his rosary, a prayer card, a crumb from the Eucharist?
“Is an opshprekher really a kind of wizard?” he asked Baba. “Do his blessings really work?”
“Of course, they work. How should they not work? You see how we’re all healthy. We’re all together. It was an opshprekher’s blessings that helped bring us to this country, Ganny. They helped your father set up his machine shop. They keep us all together.”
“But wouldn’t God just do that anyway?”
“Sometimes it helps to have someone speak to God for you, someone who knows His special ways.”
“So Armin’s blessings are just to keep us safe?” Would she admit to having the opshprekher try to exorcise her family of Catholicism?
“Yes, and other things,” she said.
“Do those blessings work, too?”
Baba smiled. “I believe so.”
“But, how can you tell?” he wanted to know.
“Some blessings are invisible, Ganny,” Baba said. “You must have faith.”
Ganady didn’t tell her Mr. O had said the same thing about his time windows. He wondered why it was that blessings were more invisible these days than they used to be back in Biblical times, and therefore required more faith. He put the question to Baba.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, there used to be angels and burning bushes and plagues of frogs and manna from heaven and pillars of fire. Why don’t those things happen today? And why aren’t there prophets like Isaiah or Moses or saints like Peter and Paul?”
She looked Baba Yaga at him and said,”Have you ever been lost in South Philly?”
He shook his head.
“Have you ever been starving on the zibete?”
Again, he shook his head, wondering how anyone could starve on Seventh Street since it was only three blocks from Izzy’s deli. Even if one had no money, the food would be freely given, without even a promise of repayment.
“Then for what do you need a pillar of fire or manna from heaven, Ganady Puzdrovsky?”
He opened his mouth, staring at her like a startled cod.
“Ah!” his Baba said, nodding at him. “But if you were to ever need those things…”
Later, lying in bed, he gazed at his old baseball by moonlight, turning it in his hands. It was, itself, a tiny scarred moon with a squiggle of black where Eddie Waitkus had autographed it. It wasn’t a pillar of fire or a burning bush or even a crumb of heavenly bread, but it seemed to Ganady that, by its very kismet, there was something miraculous about it. He wondered if there was someone who could tell, someone like Father Zembruski.
by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-9828440-9-0