Dr Clarke Zlotchew is Distinguished Teaching Professor at State University of New York. He is the author of seventeen books, including anthologies of short fiction, translations from the Spanish of short stories and poetry by Nobel Laureates and literary criticism of Spanish and Latin American authors. His short stories have appeared in both his Spanish and English versions in the U.S. and Latin America, as well as in Jewish Affairs
Joey Clarke had it all. In high school he was an athlete; he was on the fencing team with me, and was a football star as well. In addition, he was an excellent student, good conversationalist, good person. And still, look what happened to him! I feel, after so many decades that feel like eons, that I am somehow responsible for his calamity. I don’t think so on an intellectual level, a factual level. Absolutely not. And yet, I’m haunted by the memory. And by a sense of guilt. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.
When I was a kid, my parents and I lived just around the corner from a “coloured” neighbourhood. Coloured was a perfectly polite term for black people in those days. African-Americans preferred to use it themselves. I can’t see why the term is now considered offensive, whereas the elegant, rather pretentious new term, people of colour, is the politically-correct term today. I really don’t understand.
My playmates were all black, and we enjoyed each other’s company, though Joey was my best friend. We had more interests in common, more to talk about. Of course, whenever we played Cowboys and Indians, they all played the Indians, and I was always the cowboy, better-known as “the white kid.” In such games, unlike in the western movies of those days, I didn’t knock three Indians off with one bullet and come out triumphant. The Indians always won. So, there we were in this vacant lot right on the corner of Summit and Jewett Avenues, five black Native American warriors and one heroic Jewish cowboy fighting over a vacant lot in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Then we saw it. One of the guys almost stepped into it. It was a dead grey cat with off-white maggots in its abdominal cavity in a frenzy of rapid motion, feverishly weaving over and under each other, as though forming the woof and warp of some unspeakably hideous garment. They squirmed back and forth in a vertiginous dance, consuming the guts of the lifeless feline. It looked as though the cat were about to give birth to multiple Medusas. It first struck me as one single creature with its flesh in perpetual motion. The most revolting sight I had ever seen. Or as Joey commented, “Truly pukeable.”
Staring down at that revolting mass of pulsating life, I felt the world whirl around me like a leisurely tornado, and had to avert my eyes. One kid actually threw up. In a rare display of courtesy, he turned his head to avoid vomiting on the carcass and its guests. While disgust might have been the first sensation we received, Sonny Sims, a tall, gangly kid, seemed transfixed by the sight, unable to take his eyes off it. Finally, he looked back at Joey and quietly announced, “Not good.”
“Sure as hell not good for the cat,” said Joey, and laughed.
Sonny stared at Joey. “Not good for anyone.” His eyes were narrowed and his brow wrinkled in a serious, even worried look on his face.
We all stared at him. I said, “What do you mean?”
“My grandad, who was from New Orleans and knew all about that kind of stuff, once told me that if you come too close to a dead cat, especially one being chewed on by maggots, it’s what he called an omen. That means it’s hard luck, and something bad, something evil, is going to happen to you.”
“If you come too close?” said Joey.
Sonny nodded his head a few times, then observed, “You were the closest to it, Joey. Almost shoved your foot right into its guts, and all those maggots.”
The other kids just shifted glances from Joey to Sonny, Sonny to Joey. So did I. You would have thought we were watching a tennis match.
Joey said, “Aah, that’s a bunch of superstitious voodoo crap!” He laughed dismissively and turned away from Sonny and the dead cat, but I thought his laugh sounded forced, and I detected a look of worry, maybe even fear, on his face.
He tossed back over his retreating shoulder, “Time to go home and eat. Let’s get out of here.”
# # #
We were probably about ten years old at that time. When I was twelve, my parents, kid sister and I moved to an apartment on Old Bergen Road in the Greenville section of town where I attended the local grade school. Joey and I lost track of each other until a year later when I ran into him walking down a hallway at Henry Snyder High School. His folks had relocated too, so we both attended the same secondary school.
I felt great when I spotted him, and saw his face light up when he caught sight of me. We shook hands and slapped each other on the back, punching each other on the shoulder as we caught up on each other’s news.
At one point he added, “By the way, I’m too old for anyone but my mom and dad to call me Joey now. You know how it is. So, do me a favor and just call me Joe, okay?” Then he told me he was going to try out for the football team and asked if I would.
“Heck, no,” I told him, “I’m still too lightweight: five feet ten and weigh only a hundred fourteen pounds. But I plan on joining the fencing team. Interested?”
He thought about it a minute, then, “Sure. Why not. You never know when it’ll come in handy.” He gave me a broad smile, and added, “Might run into Zorro some day.”
Joe Clarke became a great football player, and we both turned out to be valuable fencers for the team. He was an unusual athlete, both fencing and playing football. Our swordsmen won most of our bouts with other schools every year. Life was good.
One evening we and the other team members were in the back seat of Coach Raspini’s station wagon, traveling to Teaneck for a fencing meet, chattering away in high spirits. For no reason I can think of, that incident with the dead cat and maggots popped into my mind.
I chuckled at the thought, leaned over to my old friend, and said, “Hey, Joe, remember that maggot-filled dead cat in the vacant lot?”
Joe had been leaning back against the seat, arms folded, relaxed. Suddenly, he sat up straight, eyes narrowed, forehead wrinkled, and looked down at the floor. He didn’t say anything for a few moments. Finally, he turned to me and muttered, “Damn it, Goldberg, what the hell did you have to bring that up for!” He sounded angry.
“No reason; it just popped into my head. What’s the problem?”
He looked back down at the floor and shrugged. “No problem. It’s just a disgusting thing to remember.” He thought for a moment, and mumbled, “And it’s bad luck.”
“Bad luck? Things have been okay with you, haven’t they? Besides, I thought you weren’t superstitious.”
He sighed, then shrugged again. He didn’t usually shrug. “Well, it’s a strange world, so who the hell really knows.” Then he looked at me and smiled. “Forget about it; I just overreacted. Must be this fencing match we’re going to. Teaneck has a pretty good team.”
# # #
Because the Teaneck fencers were so skilled, as were we, it would be an extra-special victory for whichever team won. Joe had won every one of his bouts that evening but one. The score had been tied, and now it was my last bout of the evening. And mine would be the last one of this meet. It would be the deciding “vote,” so to speak. If I won this one, the Snyder Tigers would win the whole match. If I lost it, well, I hated to think of how that would affect my teammates. That was a hell of a lot of pressure on me.
My opponent and I progressed one point for me, then one maddening point for him, all the way to the very end of our bout. My opponent and I were four to four just before the end. Our teams were at a tie, and now this individual bout was tied. Whoever won the next point would decide the entire match. I felt the strain, and saw clearly visible tension on my opponent’s features behind his face mask. The very next point would decide the entire meet. Long story short: I got my fifth point. My opponent ripped off his mask and flung it to the floor in frustration. His teammates gathered around him solemnly to comfort him, and each other. The small group of Snyder fans leapt to their feet, cheering vociferously. My fellow fencers and some of the spectators crowded around me, hugged me, patted my back and jumped up and down in celebration. We were all flushed with victory. It was a glorious evening.
# # #
They say, “All’s well that ends well.” They also say, “It’s not over till it’s over.” Must be something invented by Captain Obvious. But, other than witnessing the proverbial portly woman perform her vocalizing at the opera, do you ever know when it is actually over? Okay, I realize this cheap philosophizing is nothing more than the manifestation of my discomfort, my reluctance to reveal the end, as far as I can know it, of this story. And my guilt in its culmination.
# # #
About a week after that last fencing meet, Coach Raspini invited the team to his house for tea, cake and ice cream. At one point the coach banged a spoon against a glass a few times for attention. When everyone gave him their full attention, he made a speech praising our performance in the highly successful fencing season we had racked up. Then he veered on to another subject. The Principal wished to publicize the victorious fencing team and wanted us to put on an exhibition for the entire school body on the auditorium stage.
The coach announced, “As you all know, the foil is the most common weapon used in fencing matches. It’s what we’ve always used, as have all the schools we compete with. But there are two other sword types used in some special competitions: the epée and the saber. Most of you who volunteer — and it is purely voluntary — to take part in the demonstrations will use the foil. However, we would like two of you boys to give the epée demonstrations. And two others to do the same with the saber. After I explain to the audience the parts of the body allowed as targets for the three different weapons, with you demonstrating what I describe, you will take part in actual fencing bouts using those weapons…”
Dan Smith interrupted to say, “But, Coach, none of us know how to use those other two kinds of weapons.”
The coach smiled and said, “You don’t know at this point in time. I want a pair of boys to volunteer to learn – to master - each of those two fencing modes. I’m going to have two experts who will instruct you in the techniques.” He paused, looked around and said, “Okay, you’re all skilled with the foil. So, nothing extra to learn. Volunteers?”
Long story, short: Coach got more volunteers than he needed for the foil demonstration. Not all the guys were anxious to spend more time and effort learning a new set of skills, but two volunteered. I was anxious to learn saber; it would feel more like actually dueling, like being Zorro or one of the Three Musketeers. My adolescent sense of romance stimulated me to volunteer.
The coach scanned the room and, when his eyes alighted on Joe, who hadn’t volunteered for anything, said, “Hey, Joe, I really need you to volunteer for saber. I know the strengths and weaknesses of every member of this team, and you would be a natural for saber. How about it?”
Joe looked surprised. He said, “Can’t do it, coach. Sorry.”
“I know Goldberg will do an excellent job, but he’s not going to fence himself, now is he. I really would like you to be in this too. How about it?”
“Sorry, Coach, just can’t do it.”
Coach flushed. His jowls suddenly turned pink. Not a good sign. Raspini did not like to be crossed. He pulled the cigar out of his mouth — I remember the saliva glistening on the darkened tobacco — and flung it to the floor. His own floor! Not good.
# # #
The next day, as I left the school after class, Coach Raspini came up to me, grabbed my arm and said, “Hey, Goldberg. What’s the matter with your buddy, Clarke? Too busy to pitch in and help us out?”
I don’t know why Joe hadn’t bothered to explain his reasons. They were good ones. Coach had said it would take about a month, month-and-a-half, of evening practice sessions of from one to two hours each evening. I did not want Joe to be on bad terms with the coach. It could have a negative effect on his future. I needed to soften Coach’s attitude. So, I determined to save my friend’s future.
“Coach,” I said, “Joe needs to help out at home. Financially. He got a job for right after school lets out, five days a week.” I studied Coach’s face, but couldn’t read it. “He really can’t spare the time. You can be sure he’d much rather learn saber, Coach, than work, but he and his family could really use the money.”
# # #
A few days later I started down the staircase toward the lunchroom. Joe came up behind me and clomped down the stairs after me. When I saw him, I smiled and said, “Hey, Joe, how you doin’?”
He looked irritated. Walking alongside me, he asked, “Listen. Did you tell Coach I took a job and that my folks need the money?” Somehow, he made his parents’ need for money sound shameful.
“Yeah, Joe, I did.”
“Why the hell did you do it?” His voice was getting louder.
I was puzzled. I said, “Hey, Joe, Coach was pissed off. He grabbed my arm as I was leaving the building, and asked if my buddy — that’s you, Joe — was too busy to pitch in and help out…”
“So, you said we’re so poor, I have to work to help out at home. Right?”
I didn’t like the slant he was putting on it. “Joe, I didn’t say it like that…”
“So now he and probably a bunch of other people are feeling sorry for us.”
“Joe, for cryin’ out loud, I thought I was helping…”
He stopped in the middle of the staircase and turned to face me. His face was contorted with anger. He yelled, “Damn it, Goldberg, why the hell can’t you learn to keep that long nose of yours out of my business?!”
To this day I don’t know for sure if his rant was merely a personal attack or if it had wider ramifications. Let me explain: Since I was a kid, I’d had the long-nose epithet thrown at me with antisemitic intent. It doesn’t make sense, but the ones who use it don’t care about accuracy. Very often the expression was “long-nosed Jew.” As a child, I had gotten into a few fights over this. You have to understand that I was born in 1932, the era Hitler’s Brown Shirts were carrying out their violence against dissenters and Jews. We owned a shortwave radio, and my father used to listen to Hitler’s speeches and, believe it or not, translated them to me as he listened. As I was growing from age six to age twelve, I followed the news and the progress of the war more than the average child. In time, I was painfully aware of the death camps and felt great anxiety, fear of death, actually, because of the European situation.
Here it was the end of the 1949-1950 school year. That was only a few years down the road from Hell. The wounds were still open, and I was overly sensitized to the attempt — an extremely successful attempt — at annihilating me, my parents, my cousins, and all my loved ones for the “crime” of being Jewish. I couldn’t tolerate the slightest hint of antisemitism. I was overly sensitized to it.
When Joe referred angrily to my long nose, in my mind his words instantaneously translated to “Damn it, Goldberg, why the hell can’t you learn to keep that Jew nose of yours out of my business?!” Coming from an old friend, it struck like lightening. It blasted me, shook me. Is this the way it would be forever with regard to the condition of Jews on earth? This from people you thought were good friends.
I felt betrayed, under attack. I needed to strike back swiftly, cruelly, with the same weapon he had just used: words. What words? His long-nose comment was safely ambiguous — it could refer to Jews, but it might be merely personal — although I was convinced, on a visceral level, it was antisemitic. Ideally, my counter attack had to have the power to wound my attacker, yet be ambiguous as well. This paragraph would take about ten times longer to read aloud than it took for my invective to gush from heart and brain, unite into one single stream and shoot like a thunderbolt directly against my opponent’s brain.
Among adolescents in that era, there was a common insult delivered at the least provocation, sometimes with true offensive intent, other times with a sense of humor. You would say the object of your verbal attack was a brown-nose, later reduced to brownie. This was an accusation of flattering teachers or other authority figures to gain advantage. Today, I believe, the more current term is suck-up.
Joe’s long-nose insult was not merely personal, not simply physical, but was intended to be offensive on a deeply ethno-religious level. At least, that’s how it struck me at that moment. I wanted my counter attack to be just as hurtful on a similar level, in this case, racial. But it had to be just as ambiguous as his attack on my people.
I instantly retorted, “Yeah, but at least it isn’t brown!”
In most cases, saying this had nothing to do with race; it just insinuated that the other person was a sycophant.
My response had been unhesitating and immediate. I was proud of myself for so quickly thinking of the perfect comeback. Proud, for five seconds. Then a deluge of shame and guilt descended on me. Was Joe wondering which interpretation to put on the brown nose, whether the usual bootlicking concept or the literal and therefore racial one? No, I’m sure he understood exactly what I had done.
This was my old friend, my childhood friend. And he thought my interference had harmed him. So, I just added insult to injury. Wonderful, very noble. And this was an era in which racism still stalked the nation, and strict segregation remained in force in the South. Martin Luther King had not yet accomplished his task, not yet begun it. What had I just done?
There we stood, at the middle of the deserted school staircase, glaring at each other, murder in our eyes, bodies tensed for combat. I fully expected him to take a swing at me. We stood that way for probably about three seconds, but they seemed like three whole minutes. His rigid facial muscles collapsed into a look of disgust. He wearily released the breath he had been holding, turned his face away from me, and stomped down the stairs without a word. I felt a sudden sorrow, an expanding emptiness, as I watched his retreating figure.
# # #
Fencing season was over, and I hadn’t run into Joe after that incident, when I heard the news. Another member of the team came up to me in the corridor and said, “Listen, I’ve got bad news.”
I felt a powerful foreboding, as though an inexorable tidal wave were coming straight at me. I hesitated before asking, “What?!”
“It’s Joe Clarke.”
“What about him?”
“Polio. He’s caught polio.”
It was 1950. Immunization against that dreaded disease had not yet been developed. Every summer it struck our youth with frightening ferocity, crippling those it did not kill. Now Joe, a talented athlete, had it. Who would have imagined it?
I wrestled with myself about going to visit him. I wanted to see him, to reaffirm I was his friend after all. To offer solidarity. But, after what I had said to him, would he even want to see me again? Would he want to have me in his house, defiling his refuge? I didn’t know. I really didn’t, but I reached the conclusion that I must go, no matter what.
The next day, after school, I took a bus and got off at his street in the Lafayette section, an African-American neighborhood. I exited the bus, clutching a box of Loft’s chocolates, and trudged down the long street, wondering how he would react to my surprise visit. Would he tell me to get the hell out of his house? Had he told his mom and pop what I had said to him?
I rang the doorbell and waited, perspiring, until a thin woman appearing to be in her late thirties or early forties opened the door. She looked at me — whom she had never met — with sorrow etched into her features, and quietly asked, “Yes?”
I felt the quiver in my voice as I told her, “I’m a friend of Joey’s. Can I talk to him?” A friend? Do I deserve to use that word? The thought smacked me in the face as soon as I pronounced it.
“Yes,” she murmured. “Come in.” She turned, walked straight ahead toward a dark room in the back, and pointed to a room off to the side. I entered the unlit living room where I saw Joey in a wheelchair, a heavy plaid blanket over his lap, watching television. The shifting bluish light emanating from the screen played over his upper body. He tore his eyes, reluctantly, from the screen and looked up at me with a frown.
I saw with shock, even though they were covered by the blanket, what looked like two lead pipes under the cover. His thighs were that thin. No muscles left in this athlete’s legs. I found it hard to believe what I was seeing. My mind found it too hard to accept this horrible transformation in my old friend. It was just not acceptable. And yet, there it was, visible fact demanding to make its presence known.
I asked him something about what had happened, a fatuous question, I knew, but what else could I say to open conversation? I couldn’t ask him how he was; I could see how he was.
Joey reluctantly, hurriedly, tossed off something about waking up with fever one day, pains in his legs. I really don’t remember anything else he said about it. Maybe that was all he said. Although in my garbled memory, I think, not at all positive, he slurred something unintelligible about dead cats and maggots. Don’t know why he’d say that. Must’ve been my imagination. I do remember he sounded angry. Naturally.
I was never an optimist, but I felt that somehow this condition in my friend could not be a lasting one. Surely, medical science would take care of the problem and restore him to his former self in maybe a few months. A silence loomed in the space between us. I filled it with a hopeful, “So, Joe, what’s next?”
His frown deepened, “What do you mean, ‘What’s next’?”
I stammered, “I mean what are they going to do for you. How are they going to fix this, cure you?”
He looked at me for a moment, his face twisted in rage, hit his shriveled legs with the back of his hand, and growled, “Fix this? Cure me? Damn it, Goldberg, there’s no fixing, no curing.” He raised his voice a notch, “This is it! Understand? This is it!”
I don’t think I’ve ever heard any words as crushing as those words This is it!
Joey, jaw set, turned back to the television screen.
I hesitated for a moment, but saw he had no desire to speak to me any further. I mumbled my goodbyes, turned and plodded my way to the door.