39. “You should see him.”
2. The phone call came while I was stuck in traffic on the Central Park transverse, the Met’s Temple of Dendur off to my right. A nurse from my father’s hospital equivocated her way through the call. My dad had been in failing health. “Where are you now?” she finally asked.
33. When I got married, at twenty-four, he offered to do our tax returns. After the second year of this, he said, apropos of nothing, “My goal is to continue to make more than the two of you put together.” My wife and I found our own accountant.
26. He would never play in the snow with us kids, and never wanted to ice skate or try skiing. “Why would I want to be out in the cold,” he’d say. “That’s stupid.”
21. Every night, when he came home from work, he smelled like cigarettes, newsprint, and Scotch. He would go wash up for dinner then sit down and say, “Ahhh, this is the best part of the day.” I thought that all men should smell like cigarettes, newsprint, and Scotch.
34. He retired at 65 and opted for his lump-sum payout. The company gave him a gold watch. He thought he was rich. He took my mother on a trip to Aruba once. I asked him how it was, the beaches, the casinos. “Your mother liked it,” he said. “But you know me. I don’t like the sun, and I don’t gamble.”
20. He showed me how to strip and clean the guns he “liberated” in World War II. He had a German luger, a .25 automatic, and a Walther .22 single-shot sport rifle with a checkered stock. He told me to never point a gun, even a toy, at anyone, and said that if someone in his unit even accidently pointed a gun at one of them, they would beat the hell out of that guy. He told me that one time a guy was fooling around with his rifle and it discharged, sending a round through another soldier’s helmet. While it was on his head.
28. Once, at a big upstate softball game between two rival bungalow colonies, my migraine-ridden, bad-back father crushed a windmill pitch and slugged a mammoth grand slam. It towered over the guys in the outfield and finally landed on the roof of a far-away cabin with a thunderous “thunk.” We little kids danced with sweaty glee and I screamed, “My daddy won the game.”
7. When the war started and his friends got drafted, he didn’t want to get left behind, so he went to his local board and asked if they could move him up on the list. They promptly obliged and he was soon sent to Mississippi for basic training, where the southern boys would rub his forehead, in search of Jew horns. The town sheriff wore twin, pearl-handled 45s. “We lived in tarpaper shacks; it was the asshole of the world,” he told the five-year-old me.
19. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, his very last words to me.
8. The light turned green, and the yellow cab Camry behind me honked. I gave the cabbie the finger, and nudged my car forward. “Are you saying my father is dying?” I asked the nurse on the phone. “You should see him,” she repeated.
36. In the morning, before work, he went to the liquor cabinet and slugged from a bottle of Scotch before heading to the IRT 4 train and off to work in midtown Manhattan. When I’d call to check on him, he’d quickly say, “Hold on. Let me get your mother.”
12. During the winter of 1944-45, his unit was pinned down in the Ardennes. They got bombed and strafed every night. This was the Battle of the Bulge. He got frostbite and nearly had to have his right big toe amputated. Trees exploded from the cold. When the sap froze and expanded, it sounded like gunshots. He wrote a postcard to his parents back in the Bronx: “It is hell hell hell every night,” he said. He had just turned nineteen.
27. I edged east onto 84th Street. Dendur, dedicated to Osiris, god of the afterlife, receded in my rearview mirror. My failing father was eighty-nine. I remembered details of my most recent visit. His hair was long, his fingernails uncut, his once tall and robust body slack. He looked at me, that day, with deadened eyes. Slowly, he began to speak.
1. He was born in 1923 in the kitchen of his apartment on Garden Street, not far from the Bronx Zoo. His parents were born in Ukraine, came over in steerage, and spoke little English. His father, Louis, was a mink-cutter in Manhattan’s fur district and learned English by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal every day. His mother, Rae, was renowned for her chicken soup and pastry baking. She had a heart condition and in her later years was usually in bed, where the little kid that was me kissed her hello and goodbye under her plastic oxygen tent.
9. He got clobbered by an MP’s baton in a roadhouse brawl started when he played “Jumpin’ at the Jubilee” by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five on the jukebox. It was there that he saw “strange fruit”—a lynched black man hanging from a tree. Dad said the lynching sparked a race riot on his base that was put down and the still-segregated Army sent in half-track military vehicles to quell the violence. In later years, he denied that this event really happened.
3. He was by far the youngest of three children, a family “surprise,” and he ran rampant in the streets.
4. When his sneakers wore out, he stuffed the soles with cardboard.
13. In Germany, he saw a Russian soldier interrogate a prisoner. To expedite the flow of information, the Russian pulled out his sidearm and shot the Nazi in the face in a way that unhinged the prisoner’s jaw so that it flopped below his neck. “Those Russians were tough,” he told me over dinner one winter, when I was home with the mumps. That night, the menu was Campbell’s tomato soup and a sandwich of grilled American cheese.
29. After years of complaining about work, he somehow got offered a lot more money for a job at a rival company. Our family was ecstatic; the dour, dangerous man of the house might actually become happy! He went back and forth on it for a week, but finally declined the offer. At home, all the air went out of the balloon. He never discussed his reasoning, but my sense was that he chickened out. I remember being very disappointed.
5. His childhood friends would fling clods of dried horse poop from the street into the open door of the Chinese laundry, make obscene gestures, and run away.
11. One time, he flushed a group of Nazis out of a henhouse in rural France. He said his hands were shaking as he pointed his carbine at the Germans.
24. He suffered from cruel migraines and popped APC tablets like Skittles, until they burned a hole in his stomach and he got an ulcer. He also had a slipped disc and suffered debilitating back pain that seemed to always flare on family vacations.
17. He never spoke much about the war, at least to his relatives and buddies. Only to me. When some of his contemporaries would start talking about the rations, or basic training, or what they saw or did, he would leave the room. “Empty barrels make the most noise,” he would explain.
6. He played a mean first base, being a tall lefty, and was on the Monroe High team.
10. His unit went to England, then France, Belgium, and Germany. His job was to fix “small arms”; that is, weapons under .50-caliber.
14. After the Germans surrendered, he was shipped home. While on leave, he went to Coney Island with his buddy Nicky and they met a couple of girls on the boardwalk. One of the girls would become my mother.
25. He would jump at loud noises and chase me and my sister if we accidentally dropped something. “Goddammit; no sudden outbursts,” he would scream, with a fist-bang on the wall, or table, or whatever was handy, for emphasis. We never got punched, but he backhanded us if he could catch us before we dove under the bed for cover.
30. For years after his discharge, he ate and drank and smoked to excess. One Thanksgiving, he had a heart attack. He was in his forties. Twenty-two years later, he had another and underwent a quadruple bypass.
15. After V-E Day, he was sent to Texas to be retrained for the Pacific. Then Truman dropped the big one.
22. He sat wordlessly in his recliner once the dinner dishes were done, and he stayed there until bedtime.
16. He came back to the Bronx after the war and picked up where he left off with the girl from Coney Island. They got married. She was eighteen. He was just a couple of years older.
31. His company moved to New Jersey and so he moved there as well. My parents had been in the same dump of a rent-controlled apartment for twenty-four years, well after arson and murder had swept their careworn quadrant of the Bronx.
32. They took the same furniture they had owned since they were newlyweds to their new home in the suburbs.
18. He went to night school on the G.I. Bill, studied accounting, and worked his way up the ladder at a big finance company. He hated accounting, he hated his job, and he hated his boss. When I was a kid, he reiterated this to me every single day.
35. “You never talk,” my mother would scream at him. “Why can’t we ever talk?”
23. He would be asleep in his chair, in front of the Stromberg-Carlson tube TV, by nine o’clock.
37. Once he flushed Nazis out of a henhouse with a carbine. Once he clobbered a towering grand slam that won the game.
38. “I don’t know what to say.”
Mini-interview with Martin Kleinman
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
MK: Two moments come to mind. Both are from childhood.
There’s the first time I saw the original Twilight Zone on TV. I wanted to be Rod Serling, in a snappy suit, a lit cigarette between my fingers, offering up morality plays with a twist. By the time I saw Billy Mumy as the kid who held the adults in his life by the ying-yang in “It’s a Good Life” (season 3), I was hooked on storytelling. Hooked real good.
Then, there was an article in some kid-oriented magazine. Maybe it was Boy’s Life. It explained what it took to be a detective. How you had to have an eye for detail, and an ability to recall these clues. I practiced every day, at eight years of age, looking—fast—at people on the street, at school, on the bus. Then I’d look away and try to recall facts about them. Physical characteristics. Their clothing. Their facial expressions; did they seem happy? Angry? Were they rich? Poor? What were they up to? As a kid, I learned to pick powerful descriptors, and concoct backstories. I’m still doing it.
HFR: What are you reading?
MK: I am on a roll with my story writing and have eleven pieces for my next collection. I can’t read other people’s fiction while I’m writing, because (a) other writers’ styles leach into my brain and (b) the talent of other writers unnerves me and causes me to procrastinate.
I’m reading bios of Erik Satie, and Debussy—two disrupters of the first order—and books on the art of songwriting. I’m in the middle of Tunesmith: The Songs of Jimmy Webb. He’s a genius. When I hear “Galveston” I cry. It is one of the most powerful anti-war songs I know; the young guy is in-country and finally admits to his girl, “… I am so afraid of dyin’ …”
Then there’s Webb’s song, “Didn’t We”—listen to the Streisand cover. OK, don’t laugh. Webb’s score and her phrasing? Goosebumps. I know, you’re thinking “What? He listens to Barbra Streisand?” Well, not regularly, no. But do give this one a shot.
By the way, during lockdown I audited a Zoom course at CUNY, “Music and the Mind,” taught by the researcher who worked with Oliver Sacks. Dr. Connie Tomaino. She knows everyone, from opera greats to the Dead’s percussionist, Mickey Hart. From her course, I learned that music lights up more areas of the brain than any other art form. She showed videos from her clinic of silent, sad, seniors who sit immobile all day. They don’t talk. They can’t walk. But they will get up, dance, and remember lyrics when certain songs from their youth are played. I am striving to utilize song writing techniques in order to pack more emotion into my stories.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Thirty-Nine Bye-Byes”?
MK: I recently reconnected with two first cousins and we shared stories of our parents, an older brother, a middle sister, and my dad, the baby of the family. My older cousins helped me contextualize many things about my dad I never understood as a little kid.
My dad died nine years ago, and talking to my cousins broke a memory dam. So many images flooded my mind, but not in a linear way. I tried to capture that jumble of memory torrent in “Thirty-Nine Bye-Byes.”
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
MK: I’m working on a story that ties back to my early affection for all things Twilight Zone. On the fifth floor of Juilliard, in one of their many practice rooms, is an old Hamburg-built Steinway D grand piano. It once graced the world’s great concert stages. Now, in its dotage, it must endure a sad parade of students. “Chaos ensues.”
I’m also working on two piano pieces by Satie, his “Gymnopedie #1,” and his “Tango” (from Sports et Divertissements). I’m an adult learner. Left-hand, right-hand independence requires a complete brain rewiring. I need to go to Microcenter to get more RAM for my mind.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
MK: Here’s what I want to share: Never surrender. Keep pushing. Keep learning. Everyone will give you advice. On relationships, on careers, on your art, everything.
Trust your gut. Take the advice but always consider the source. Some people, on a certain level, want to see you flop. Others can’t help but project their fears, which can capsize your dreams. Stay strong. Be polite, but stick to your guns.
Remember this famous quote from screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Martin Kleinman is a New York-based storyteller. He has captivated audiences in venues from KGB to Brooklyn’s Union Hall, where he brings his tales to life in true ‘round-the-campfire tradition. Martin has written two short story collections, A Shoebox Full of Money and Home Front. Both explore the lives of a cross-section of New Yorkers and presents The City as a key character in each piece. In addition to his essays in The Huffington Post, thisisthebronx.info, and his own blog, Martin’s work has appeared in fiction anthologies, as well as in publications such as Black Heart, BlazeVOX, Glimmer Train, Jerry, The Otter, Stand, Typishly, The Writing Disorder, and, now, Heavy Feather Review. Born and raised in New York City, Martin currently resides in The Bronx, atop one of the highest points in the city. He has also lived in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. He has no plans to ever live in Staten Island.
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