James Mendelsohn

            Most of what he remembered as 1979 began with his inclinations:  He loved the feel of the goods in his hands, somehow different because illegal.  He understood, too, that he was still a child, with childhood's incumbent advantages.  He could make use of innocence.  He could list its benefits:  a cassette tape, the finest chromium dioxide long-play; a miniature backgammon set; twin leather coin purses; stereo earphones; platinum batteries; a steel pocket comb; and his prize theft, a full-sized checkerboard as large as his chest.  At twelve, Jerry Klein thought he was good for another year before adolescence set in and his shape betrayed him.  In the meantime, apart from anything his mother needed him to be, he could take things.

            His mother was deceived and desperately proud of him.  "Jerry's a first-rate lawnmower," she told her Sunday morning bridge club. 

            He was.  He cut his neighbor's lawns with a precision he had learned from his barber, a man who would never forget to shave the wisps at the base of his neck.  His mother believed Jerry used his lawn money for those new things in his room, but Jerry saved it.  He had responsibilities to assume.  He had to stand on his own.

            Still, he liked his mother boasting about him to her bridge club.  On those Sunday mornings, she spoke in a louder voice than he usually heard.  It seemed to ricochet off the white-plastered walls of the living room and bruise the ears of those three neighbors, seated at the portable card table.

            When the bridge club wasn’t there, his mother was less noisy.  Of course, if it were after school and after her work, when she was alone with Jerry and his two-year old sister, she could still surprise him.  Once she had grabbed Wendy and begun dancing in the living room without any music playing.

            When his father returned in the evening from his job editing medical textbooks, his mother grew quiet.  She greeted him as if he were a guest.   After a dutiful kiss on the cheek, his mother would retreat to the kitchen, where she continued to prepare the supper meal.  His father would hang his nylon raincoat in the closet, loosen his tie, and climb the stairs of their small home to the bedroom, where he would stay until Jerry, at his mother's instruction, called him to dinner.

            "Of course," his father would answer his call.  Invariably Jerry would find him lying on his bed, eyes open.  His tie would be unknotted but still strung through the collar of his shirt, his pants, to Jerry's constant discomfort, always unbuttoned at the top and the belt loosened, the cloth carelessly folded back, revealing a patch of white boxer underwear beneath and a small bulge of thickened flesh and coarse hair above it.  His father was not heavy.  He was tall and thin.  His pants never appeared tight.  His father would raise his head slightly and look at Jerry standing in the doorway of the bedroom--that bedroom, Jerry thought, which this man shared with his mother. 

            He would ask his father if his day had been pleasant.

            "Pleasant enough for dinner now," his father would say, weakly smiling.  He would roll himself out of bed and hook his pants.  There was something lazy and bored in his father's answers.  As his father reached the second floor landing, Jerry often felt the urge to push him down the stairs and out of their lives.

            Six years would go by before Jerry’s mother would divorce him.  Then he would retire from marriage to a nearby apartment, where he took up ham radio, his apartment strewn with radio novels--QTX Means Danger, Death Valley QTH, Signals in the Night; but in the days of double-digit inflation, when Carter was in the White House, when Americans were hostage in Iran and Skylab was preparing to fall, fear united his mother with his father.

            His mother worked as a librarian in their local Brentwood branch, a job that made her able to express herself with great silence and frightening efficiency.  At the head of the table, administering dinner's requisite materials, his mother used small gestures of her hands and head and occasional looks to direct.

            Even when he had things to say, Jerry required a terrific amount of effort to speak at supper.  He could never remember much of what had been said, only the form of those meals.  The kitchen table was their small planet, but its physics was reversed, gravity forever a push away from the center.  His father and mother sat at the short ends of its rectangle, his mother nearest the stove and Wendy's chair pulled closer to her.  His sister would immediately grease her face with food and demand his mother's attention.  His father seized upon the spectacle of his sister as a distraction from any talk.  "I'm getting an A in Science," Jerry once announced.  He was not much of a student.

            "You're getting what?" his father asked.  Jerry repeated himself.  "In what subject?" his father asked a few minutes later.  By the next meal, his father would forget altogether. 

            His mother, for whom the story was intended, stopped wiping cooked carrots off his sister's hands long enough to smile.  She exhaled deeply, relieved by his success, which made him feel proud and strange.  His mother brightened the kitchen table with an occasional flower.  She made muffins for their breakfast.  She brought home travel books filled with pictures.  He remembered China's long wall, the muzzles of water buffaloes, the blinding colors inside Beijing's Temple of Heaven.  Each gesture was earnestly and uncomfortably for them, and with each act, Jerry felt an increasing sense of his mother's desperation.

            Sometimes he wished he were an orphan.  Sometimes he wished he could take his mother by the hand, his sister trailing, and lead them from their troubles.  His mother was tall and slender, a tree barely clinging to its earth. Her dark eyes invited everyone and hurt no one.  She deserved more than she received.

            "Mother," he had recently told her, "if you ever need anything--anything," he said, "I'm here."  Jerry had opened his arms to her as if he were a television evangelist come to heal.

            He lifted things only on those weekend nights when no one was at home.  His parents out, his sister stowed at friends, his own plans failed if ever formed, Jerry took to the stores. 

            Walking there, he would practice his powers of observation, shutting his eyes for small stretches and recalling the territory he had immediately walked through.  His neighborhood was made up of modest houses, blue collar and white collar.  It bordered several blocks of three-storied apartment buildings, in which many of the homeowners had previously lived.  The houses were for people who had experienced a moderate rise in wealth to the only homes they dared to own.  Built between the wars, they were solid, made of deep-red brick to which wide fascia boards, painted white and occasionally scrolled along the lower edge, were attached beneath the eaves for decoration.  Jerry's home was identical in size to most of them, each having a generous kitchen, a small living room and even smaller bedrooms, at their widest not much bigger than one and one half of his length, Jerry figured, his arms stretched above his head.  They had little or no back yards and were perched on top of small slopes, which made the tiny front lawns of rye and fescue treacherous and difficult to cut without razing the grass and exposing as a scar the clayey earth beneath.  Everyone parked on the street.

            He used a toy store to warm up.  A warm-up, he observed, was an essential element of any successful activity.  As he began the first theft of an outing, his heart exploded into furious rhythm and his throat squeezed shut until he could not breath; but once the object was safely stowed away and he was out the door, he felt an altogether different sensation--of something hot spreading back from the corners of his mouth and across his cheeks and chin, as if he were being kissed.   He often began with small objects, such as alloyed sportscars, individually packaged so that they fit easily inside his grasp.  The toy store nearly urged him to shoplift.  Store employees wore lime-colored vests, which made them easily distinguishable, and the back of each shelf was solid, so that Jerry couldn't be spotted from the adjoining aisles.  In time, he grew so confident that even if he were among other customers, he wouldn't be stopped.  He would turn away to screen himself and then shove his prize under his windbreaker.  Once he had stolen in plain view of a five-year old who’d wandered from her parent.

            At the drugstore, where he had to safeguard his actions from the convex mirrors perched above the narrow aisles, he started with candy for the walk home and then moved onto first-aid.  He stole extra aspirin for camping trips, stomach relievers for overzealous eating, and ointments for topical infections and bug bites.   He explored the unfamiliar shelves.  He stocked up for adolescence on lotions to sooth dryness and acne creams.  On one outing he secured for no good reason condoms and contraceptive creams.  At home, he hid his drugs in an old backpack he kept in his closet until a sudden desire for purification overtook him and he would throw them out.  Then he would start over again.

            At the end of July, his father announced they were going on vacation.  "Utah," he said, and placed his finger on an atlas opened to the state.  "Salt Lake City."  This vacation would be typically vague in its goal.  It included the Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Temple and of course the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  "The Mormons don't drink caffeine," his father told Jerry, which Jerry thought wholly reasonable, his parents' coffee habits bizarre.

"We should at least go car camping a few days in the Rockies," his mother answered.

            “At least”:  It was the best she could do at resisting his father's schemes.  Jerry would have spoken out if it weren’t for her.

            It didn't take long for all of them to grow tired of driving to Utah.  The last of the apples and egg salad sandwiches they brought from home was like the end of all food.  They bought groceries to make Wonder Bread, bologna, and mustard sandwiches, but even after two sandwiches, Jerry remained hungry.  The front seat of the station wagon seemed too close to the back seat, and the way back too full to lie down in.  Wendy didn't know what was troubling her, only that she felt like moving around in the car, and her mother's constant attempts to keep her down were the source of immense injustice.

            "Mommy," she wailed, her voice rising to plead.

            "Sit, please" her mother said and tried to stare out the window to avoid drawing out the issue.  Wendy would have none of that.

            "I want to sit up with you," Wendy said, and she struggled until Jerry’s mother reached into the back seat and strapped the seat belt to Wendy still more tightly.

            "You are not to take that off," his mother said to Wendy; and then Wendy cried.

            They made it to Salt Lake City in the late afternoon four days after they left.  They descended through a pass and saw the city below and the Great Salt Lake.  Jerry wanted to bolt from the car and run until his family was out of sight and the memory of their voices was lost in the noise of some other place.  They had a room in a motel on the outskirts of the downtown, next to a sandwich shop, a chain restaurant, and a small row of stores, but from the street outside they could see the capitol and the elongated dome of the tabernacle--in which they had an organ with more than 11,000 pipes, his father told them.  Jerry didn't care.  It was Thursday night, his father announced.  They could feed Wendy a snack, go out to dinner, and then stroll by the dome.

            "I don't feel well," Jerry declared.  “I’m not hungry.” 

            “You’ll feel better now that the drive is over,” his mother said.

            He repeated himself later, after Wendy had her snack.  His mother pressed her hand to his forward.  “You’re not hot,” she said.

            “It’s not a fever.  Just let me rest.”  He gave her his most desperate look.

            When the door closed behind them, Jerry felt as though he breathed deeply for the first time in four days.  He was alone, and he refused to confine himself.  He would go out.  Putting on his windbreaker, he left the motel room, crossed the parking lot in front of it, and moved down the street, giddy with freedom.  Past the sandwich shop, he found Clarks, the all-purpose store.  From auto parts to candy to beauty supplies, the range of goods was impressive, but with the exception of maps for Provo, Orem, Ogden and Bountiful, none of it struck him as particular.  Jerry didn't see any mirrors or employees in the aisles, so he lifted mint lozenges from the candy section and eased a pair of cuticle scissors from beauty supplies into his coat.  He felt a hand on his shoulder.

            The candy and scissors were returned to the cashier, a teenaged girl with a pasty complexion who continued paring her fingernails as Jerry was escorted out.  "Bye, bye," she sang out as he left.  Before Jerry thought to wonder where they were going, the store detective had hustled him into a car.

            "You’re lucky it’s the end of my shift," the detective said, “'I’m not turning you into the police."

            Jerry wasn’t relieved.  He could see where this was going, the two of them waiting at the hotel room for his mother's return.  He couldn't let that happen.  The detective was a short man, his face puffy and almost babylike.  He was middle-aged, compact and fleshy, as if his weight had spread out evenly over his body like carefully distributed cushion.  He was strong and fat and symmetrical.  He started up the car without asking Jerry where he lived.

            "Do you have to tell on me?" Jerry said.

            The store detective laughed.  "What's your name?"

            "Jerry Klein," he said.

            The man laughed again.  "You do this often?" he said.

            "No," Jerry said but felt immediately uneasy.  "I've done it before," he added.  "I'm from St. Louis."

            The store detective sighed.  "Oh, Jerry, Jerry," he said, "What are we going to do with my brown-haired boy?"

            The city of Salt Lake lies just west of the Wasatch Mountains, which rise 3 to 4,000 feet above it.  Streams, long since diverted by culverts, come down from the mountains and through the city.  In 1979, the city itself barely expanded onto the foothills although a grid of access roads traversed them, should it do so.  From a hillside where the store detective drove Jerry, the whole town lit up in patterns of orange and white glow that fused into a more general light, like the gleam off the inside of a thermos bottle.

            “Just a short drive, then we’ll fix this,” the man said.

            Jerry thought none of this made sense, but then he’d never been caught before and he was hoping that if he let the man take care of whatever errand he needed to make, it would make the man lenient.  He didn’t like the store detective driving him so far away from the motel, but when he thought of complaining, his voice stuck in his throat.

            "You have a brother or sister?" the man said.

            "One sister," Jerry said.

            "I thought so," the detective said, "How old are you?"

            "I'm the oldest in my family," Jerry answered.

            "Twelve?  Thirteen?"

            "Thirteen," he lied.

            The store detective turned off the black macadam and onto a gravel road that traversed the side of the hill.  After a few hundred yards it ended in a small clearing, where he turned the car so it faced down the hill toward the city.

            "What are we doing?" Jerry said.

            "We’re going to have a talk," the store detective answered as he turned toward Jerry.  “I want you to think of me as a real friend.”

            "What?" Jerry said.

            The store detective said.  "Just how long have you been stealing things?  How long have you been a thief?"

            "What is this?" Jerry said.

            "It’s about your future, son," the man said.  He swung his arm in gesture, displaying the city below as if it were the potential winnings of a game show contestant.  At the end of the swing, he rested his arm lightly on Jerry's near shoulder.

            Jerry suddenly noticed the dark forms of animals running past the car--dogs, six or seven of them following each other.  Heaps of garbage stood along the far side of the clearing, to which the dogs ran, tucking their noses into the piles.  The dogs were dipping between hummocks of garbage and raising their heads at moments to look toward the car.

            "They live in the woods around here," the man said, "probably since they were puppies.  Somebody must take them in during the winter, don’t you think?"  A bony terrier moved toward the car, stood his ground and sniffed, lifting a paw.  Then it backed toward the rest of the foraging pack.  The man's hand was fully around Jerry's shoulder, his fingers splayed across Jerry's back.

            Did they remain a long time in that position?  Jerry remembered noticing that all talk had suddenly stopped, and the next thing he could remember were his pants being loosened.

            The man sighed.  Jerry felt the elastic band of his underwear ease and could not look.  Someone was doing this to him.  He felt air in contact with his groin and wondered if it wasn't too cold for him, and he thought he should feel pain where his underpants were now taut against the back of his legs.  He gasped at the feel of the man's breath upon him.  In his thoughts, in a place he could barely observe, was the image of him, a boy, alone in a car beside a strange man.   Something in him snapped open like a purse.  He bawled, loud and strong.  It felt tremendous.  He gasped for breath and hiccupped.  He found he was staring at the ceiling of the car.  It was faintly blue in appearance, and where the ceiling light was, the bulb shade had been lost.  He knew he must look at the man.  Look at him, he told himself.  He turned toward the man and cried again, this time in full-throated appeal.

            The man was staring at him, his mouth wide open like a fish.  Jerry wondered what the man would do about all this noise.  It certainly couldn't alert anyone.  Jerry cried again.

            At this, the man turned his face from Jerry.  Jerry saw how the right sideburn of the man formed an uneven line toward his ear.  He drew in breath.  He could feel himself settling, his cries turning into whimpers.

            The man turned toward him.  "Hey, I’m not a homo," he said suddenly.  "Don't worry.  Homos can't snap their fingers or whistle.  Watch."  He proved he could.  Jerry was not comforted, and the man saw it.  "Don't worry," he said again, but this time the man's words quivered as if spoken through water.

            Jerry couldn't be sure he had heard this.  He forced one more spasm of crying to see if the man would speak again.  "All right," the man said.  "All right already."  The man retreated to the far side of the seat.

            "You shouldn't have done that," he said to the man.  Jerry tried to be stern.  "You shouldn't ever do that," he said.  The man did not answer, and Jerry, unable to think of anything else to say, was afraid.  He wanted only to be back at the motel and for this man to go away.  "Take me home," he said, uncertain that the man would do it.   "Take me home," he said, his voice cracking once more.  The man started the car.

            The ride down to Salt Lake must have been fast because Jerry felt the seat pressing against his back almost the entire time.  The store detective did not look over at Jerry even once. The boy hoped the man would simply drive without interruption until they reached the stores.  When the car stopped along the road between Clarks and his motel, he lunged quickly for the door handle.  He reached the room half an hour before his family returned.

            From the distance of 32 years, a certain moment at the motel in Utah was as familiar as any of the memories of that night.  It was not his mother, his sister nor his father who had reentered the hotel room.   It wasn't even him waiting for them.  They were four figures in a time and place that now seemed organic to him, like the flesh between his ribs.

            His father had entered the room grinning.  Wendy shot out from behind him, no longer the hostage of her father's desires.  She careened across the room, bumping against the bed and sweeping her arms as if to strike anything in her path.  She wanted no one to touch her, no one to come near her, no one to divert attention from her.  His mother trailed the two, weary but enlivened at the sight of Jerry, her first-rate son.

            Jerry glanced into the mirror above the dresser.  All four of them were reflected, and he saw them framed as if immigrants to a brand new world—alien and hopeful.  At that moment precisely, he knew his responsibility as he had never known it before.

            "Hello," he said simply.

            "How's my sick boy?" his mother asked. 

            He ignored her question. "Welcome back," he said.  His mother bent over, eye level with Jerry.  Though he had never done so before, Jerry instinctively reached for her head and cradled it between his hands.  Then he leaned toward her and kissed her on the forehead.

            His mother pulled back from him and stood up.  "Jerry?" she said.

            But Jerry heard only murmurs.  He was receding into the now-darker world of his secrets.

James Mendelsohn
James Mendelsohn

James Mendelsohn lives in New York City, where he is at work on a novel, The Year of Forgetting.  This is his first published story.