"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Jeff Friedman

KLUTZ AND OTHER STORIES


Klutz


At dinner, I knocked the bottle of wine off the table, which smashed into a thousand pieces on the wood floor. The tablecloth was stained red. Dad looked down at his clean white shirt, now spotted. “You klutz, you schlemiel—You’re a menace to the family.”

He bellowed like a wounded bull, a drunken moose, a senator who just lost his mistress to CNN. He billowed like a rotten fireplace, like his brother Izzy foaming over the brisket, like a schoolhouse on fire.

Mom tried to interrupt, but he waved her off. Sitting next to me, Alsace let out a sarcastic laugh. “How do you expect me to go to school when everybody knows he’s my brother?” She tossed that question out for my parents to ponder, but my dad hadn’t finished yet.

“You’re worse than a tornado, worse than a plague of frogs, worse than the flood of ’72—”

“According to the Post, I cut in, “that flood wasn’t even in the top 10.”

But that comment only made him angrier. “You’re worse than the seven-year locusts, worse than crabs, worse than a tribe of hemorrhoids, worse than even Manny Wallerstein’s kid, who belches and farts in the same breath.”

“But I’m your son, the seed of your loins, the pearl in your pod, the star that dove from your waters.”

“I wanted a George Junior, not you. You’re the gall in my stones, the spider in my veins, the burning in my pee.”

Mom walked over to him. “George, you’ll make yourself sick.”

“I’m already sick, nauseated in fact. Can we send him to some kind of camp? Or an animal shelter? or how about to live with your sister in California?” Mom put her hand on his shoulder as if to stop his blood pressure from rising. “Maybe the circus would take him.”

Mom was tall and thin with red hair, and dad was short and stout with thick black hair, but over the years they had begun to resemble each other.

“I object. I’m the flag bearer of your name, the carrier of your DNA, the host of your stinking genes, the bearer of your bad news, the lucky survivor of your misguided bombing. Lose me and you lose you.”

Then dad looked at the glittering slivers on the wood, “Clean up your mess for a change.”

An obedient son, I leaped to my feet, knocking my sister out of her chair with my elbow. The chandelier above the table shook and shook. She lay unconscious in a puddle of red wine. Mom kneeled down, putting a cushion under Alsace’s head. She was only out a few minutes so I didn’t know why mom seemed so concerned. Alsace opened her eyes slowly, blinking a few times before her vision cleared. Then she started screaming in Yiddish, German, Polish, Russian and English. I only knew English, but she was born pentalingual.

Dad raised his wineglass to the heavens and prayed that the curse would be lifted from his household. As he stepped back, he tripped over the chair. The chandelier swayed more violently, snapping from the ceiling and banging down on the table. Then I started laughing and couldn’t stop even as the walls cracked and crumbled around us.


A Night with Bonita


After Taylor Corliss slept with Bonita Hernandez, his pleasure was so great he fell into a coma. I knew thousands of men and women who wanted to sleep with Bonita, myself included. What did Taylor have? I wondered. What magic? He lay in a hospital bed at St. Mary’s for months until Bonita raised him with a simple kiss. The doctors said it was a miracle. His wife Alexis agreed, but added, “It’s too bad he didn’t stay in a coma. Now what do I do with him?”

After Nana Befresco slept with Bonita, she suddenly developed a skill at carving wooden dolls. She rented the storefront next to Joe’s Tires and set up a studio. In one summer she created a thousand representations of Bonita, Bonita as a model, Bonita naked in the sun, Bonita eating an ice cream cone, Bonita playing with her touch phone, Bonita ducking out of the rain, Bonita as a little girl drawing stick figures, Bonita as a stick figure, Bonita sucking her thumb, Bonita in the throes of orgasm, Bonita shaving her legs, Bonita pretending to be a duck. Soon her reputation as a dollmaker spread, and everyone was commissioning Bonita dolls. I bought a few myself.

After Ferdinand the Great slept with Bonita, he became a recluse in his mini palace. No one saw him for months and then he left for California. “He’s been taking female hormones ever since,” my friend Jerry Stolen stated. “He wants an operation,” but first he’s got to save the money, and he’s still paying child support.” Once I heard Bonita had opened her beautiful thighs for Ferdinand, I thought for sure I had a chance.

I went to the diner every night, but Bonita was always too busy taking orders and carrying away dirty dishes. Finally I got up the nerve to ask her out while she stood at the cash register. She wiped her hands on a towel, then scanned a bill and slid a credit card through the slot. “I’m busy this month,” she replied.

Pretty soon everyone was claiming to have slept with Bonita. Since her night with Bonita, Gail Holtzman couldn’t get any sleep, even though she took sleeping pills and pills for depression. Juwan Ojuwon was seeing a chiropractor for a back problem. Since sleeping with Bonita, Ari Oneida lost his paper route and went on unemployment. Arnie Simmons gave up his job as a mortgage loan officer at the bank and started writing songs and playing guitar, panhandling on Main Street. Tulip Mayer fell hard on the ice and broke an ankle. The guy from the sporting goods shop sent her a van full of gifts, including warm up suits, tights, running shoes, chafing sticks, roller blades, hockey sticks, basketballs, Smartwool sox and head warmers.

After my friend Jerry slept with her, he came down with a flu and was in bed for days, and then the flu spread to all of his friends, lingering among us for months. “Was it worth giving us all flu?” I asked. He didn’t answer but handed me a tissue as I began another fit of coughing.


Looking for Liz


Today, Liz vanished. Just after breakfast, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking the dog out for a change. She shouted at me for peeing on the toilet seat all the time, so I put my hand up. “Fine, I’ll take the dog.” Then she disappeared into thin air, though I could still smell her in the apartment.

I searched all four rooms of our apartment, finding strands of long red hair, an opened bottle of perfume, a book of curses, some new bottles of Kiehl’s cosmetic products, and a new pair of boots from her favorite shoe boutique.

Then I thought she might be hiding, so I got Meggy involved and checked the closets and under the bed. Meggy had a great time, barking and pawing the covers. Every time she barked or pawed something I gave her a sweet potato treat and then she would lead me to some other part of the apartment where Liz had been—barking and barking. After a while, I decided that I should stop this game because I hadn’t found Liz, and I didn’t want Meggy to start putting on weight from all the treats.

I could hear Liz’s voice telling me to pick up my things from the floor and to clean the stuff off the sofa, even though I couldn’t see her.

Then I visited Estrella, Liz’s best friend, at The VideoStop. “Have a donut,” she said, so I helped myself to a chocolate donut, which I gobbled down in two bites. Estrella was a petite brunette with a slender runner’s body. “Why don’t you go home and clean up?” she asked. “Maybe Liz’ll find you.”

Instead I headed to the Pale Horse Tavern and drank a few beers and some shots of Jack. I plugged about five dollars into the Juke and played a selection of Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Patty Smith songs. While sitting at the table, I started writing poems on napkins, and within a few hours, I had emptied the napkin dispenser. I wrote one hundred poems on one hundred napkins. The waitress saw what I had done and filled the container back up, but told me not to waste any more paper. I left her a few dollars and headed home with my collection of poems on napkins.

When I got back to the apartment, it was after eight. I thought I could hear Liz moving around again. “Liz, I’m sorry. “I’ve got a gift for you.” I held up my book of napkin poems. Meggy pushed her snout against my feet. She barked and barked as if she had just found something missing.


Wrestling the Angel


My father’s head rests on a stony pillow. In his dream, he shows his samples, his sales pitch streaming through light. He’s smooth as a magician who pulls a tablecloth from under the china without breaking a single glass or dish, the cloth bursting into white doves that fly off in shadow. He laughs so the buyers laugh with him, holding drinks, their laughter sticking to the air.

My father’s head rests on a stony pillow, spall glittering in his black hair. Out of shadow and cloud comes a figure with a lit torch, which he plants in white sand. “I’m the angel,” he says, “come to wrestle you—all or nothing,” and grabs my father. Lightning quick, my father turns the angel’s force against the angel and puts him in a crushing hold, “A million bucks,” he demands, squeezing his windpipe.

The angel touches the hollow of my father’s thigh and dislocates the joint. “I’m God,” he says, “Let’s call it a night.” But my father won’t quit, and they wrestle until dawn. He rips apart the angel again and again, gripping clumps of sand, twigs, myrtle, rock, shredded silk, loose hair, shoulders of salt—strangling wind and shadow, while the clouds rain cold hard cash.