Monday, September 14, 2015

New Year: A short story for Rosh Hashanah

            “She doesn’t have to know, right?”
            Claudio held the receiver hard against his left ear as he caressed the granite by the kitchen sink with his right hand.  His fingers were still moist with perspiration from his workout.  Claudio rubbed the smooth cool granite that was interrupted periodically and randomly with miniature canyons that dipped down far enough to avoid the polisher’s tool.  His eyes traveled over its dappled black and tan surface following an imaginary line from his fingertips to the bone white lip of the porcelain Kohler sink.  Claudio remembered choosing the granite with his wife several years ago after the Northridge quake.  They were forced to live in “corporate” housing for three long hot summer months courtesy of their Aetna policy.  Their contractor had visited them at their temporary home schlepping six different granite samples.  He laid the small chunks of stone on the orange carpeting like they were diminutive Monets.  His name was Lionela former soap opera actor, or so he saidwho decided on a complete change of lifestyle seven years earlier immediately after he and his second wife split up.  An attorney in Claudio’s office swore by him.  Lionel’s black curly hair and sharp tanned features looked too planned and he dressed better than any of the other contractors they had interviewed.  He proved to have a great eye for design but, as Claudio and Lois eventually learned, he stumbled a bit in the execution.  Lionel stood by the granite samples, one hand on his hip, the other at his chin, and he hummed a nervous little tune.
            “Well,” Lionel had said after the silence got to him, “which will it be?”  Luckily, Claudio and Lois have similar esthetic sensibilities so they chose the same sample almost simultaneously both pointing with their right index fingers.  Lionel exclaimed in an overly dramatic voice, “Lovely!  I would have chosen the same piece.”
            Claudio quickly switched the receiver and pushed it against his right ear even harder.  “I mean, look, she shouldn’t have to know.  Right?  I mean, where does it get any of us?  It isn’t really necessary, is it?”
            As the woman’s voice started again, he looked out the kitchen window.  The cawing grew louder and harsher.  Claudio never saw the bird but he knew it was a crow because his father identified its call when they first moved out to the west end of the San Fernando Valley ten years ago.  The whole family had come over for a housewarming.
            “Mijo,” his father had said.  “Sounds like you got a big ol’ crow living in one of those trees in back.  They’re such noisy and mean birds.”  His father took a sip from his can of Coors and added:  “I hate crows.”
            “Me, too, Pop,” Claudio had answered though he never really thought about it before.  Now, ten years after his father’s pronouncement and his unthinking agreement, he did indeed hate crows.  Especially the one that wouldn’t shut up just then.
            The woman’s voice stopped.  Claudio said, “Okay, then.  We’re in agreement.”  After a pause, a few more words and then a curt good-bye, he hung up letting out a long breath of air.  “Goddamn her,” he said softly, almost gently.  He headed to the refrigerator and scanned the bottom shelf.  He stood there mesmerized by the bottles and cans of Snapple, Diet Coke and various fruit juices in small rectangular boxes that his son loved.  Claudio suddenly felt dizzy from dehydration.  He grabbed a Snapple Peach Tea.
            Earlier that morning, Claudio woke at six o’clock with the obnoxious shrill buzz of his combination telephone, AM/FM radio and alarm clock, the Chronomatic-300 sold under the Radio Shack label.  His wife, Lois, bought it for Claudio’s thirty-eighth birthday last year.  It was a thoughtful and useful gift but he grew to hate that damn buzzer.  Lois was already showered and stood in front of her sink with a white towel wrapped around her head like the strolling Turk on the Hills Brothers coffee can.  She wore her delicate floral cotton robe and brushed her teeth with a Braun electric toothbrush.  He sat up at the edge of their bed and rubbed his face while listening to the soft hum of the Braun.
            “Morning,” he said.
            Lois didn’t turn around but answered with a muffled noise and a nod of her head.  She turned off the toothbrush and spat into the sink.
            “Morning, sweetheart,” she answered.  Lois then turned and looked in the general direction of her husband but because she didn’t have her contacts in yet, all she saw was a blur.
            It was Friday and that meant that Claudio could work at home.  A couple of years ago, they purchased a computer, laser printer and fax machine so that Claudio could telecommute at least once a week because his normal commute to downtown was pretty God-awful.  So was Lois’ but her office didn’t believe in telecommuting.  But, because Claudio worked for the government, his employer had an institutional bias in favor of parent-friendly flexible work hours and anti-smog programs.  So, if he didn’t have to be in court on Friday, he could work on his briefs in peace and quiet at home and check his voicemail every so often when he needed a break from the computer.
            Claudio went to his son’s room but he wasn’t there.  He then heard muffled voices from the downstairs TV so he walked to the staircase.  As he went down, the sounds of Scooby Doo became clearer.  Before going to the den, he headed out to the driveway to get the Los Angeles Times.  It was chilly and a bit foggy.  The week and a half between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur had been particularly difficult this year.  Claudio reached down and grabbed the paper.  As he stood up, he saw his neighbor across the street reach down and get her paper.  She was wearing a short nightshirt that exposed plump and very white legs.  What was her name?  She gave birth to a baby girl a month ago and she complained that she would never get her figure back though she really never had one in the first place.  Claudio waved and she looked up, clearly embarrassed by her outfit.  She waved without a smile and scurried back into her house slapping her fleshy bare feet on the dew-covered cement.
            Claudio went back in and headed to the den to check on his son.  Jonathan still wore his Goosebumps glow-in-the-dark pajamas and was, as usual, doing several things at once: as he looked up to the TV every so often to keep track of Scooby Doo’s exploits hunting ghosts, he was using his kid’s scissors to cut an old T-shirt to make a cape for his new Spider-Man that his Grandma bought him and, every few minutes, he reached over to his box of apple juice perched on several books on the floor and took a drink from a tiny straw.
            “Morning, mijo,” Claudio said.
            Jonathan just stared at the TV.
            “I said, good morning, Jon.”  Claudio grew annoyed.  Still, Jonathan didn’t answer.  Finally Claudio put himself between the TV and Jonathan and said again:  “Good morning, I said.”
            This broke Jonathan’s trance and he looked up to his father.  “Good morning, Papa.”
            Claudio reached down and kissed his son’s hair.  It smelled like blueberries from Aussie Land Blue Mountain Shampoo.  Jonathan’s hair was soft, straight and dark blond like Lois’ but his skin resembled Claudio’s and had an olive glow about it.  He had long dark eyelashes like his father.
            “Jon, I’m making Pop Tarts for you.  What kind do you want?”
            After a moment of contemplation, Jonathan said, “One strawberry, and one cinnamon.  And cut them up in funny pieces.”
            Jonathan looked puzzled.  “That’s all.  And milk, too.”
            Claudio looked at his son and said again:  “And?”
            Finally, Jonathan got it.  “And, thank you Papa.”
            Getting the answer he wanted, Claudio walked to the kitchen and got his son’s breakfast ready and got the coffee going, too.  Lois came down and pulled a bowl out of the cabinet and poured some Quaker Oats granola.  She opened the refrigerator and said, “Honey, you gotta’ get some milk tonight.  We’re almost out.”
            Their routine that morning was well set.  They ate breakfast, each glued to their respective portions of the newspaper: Lois read the movie reviews in the Calendar section, Jonathan earnestly worked through the funnies, and Claudio scanned the front page.  After putting her bowl and coffee mug into the sink, Lois went upstairs and threw down their son’s clothes and then went to finish doing her hair.  Claudio made Jonathan’s lunch and then went up to put on some sweats, a ragged Stanford T-shirt, and his cross-trainers while their son got dressed, made his bed and then brushed his teeth with a miniature version of his mother’s Braun electric toothbrush.  Lois kissed them good-bye and left first.  Within ten minutesat exactly seven forty-fiveClaudio loaded his son and his son’s Star Wars backpack into their Honda Accord and headed towards school.  They chatted about silly things and listened to “The Wave”the local soft jazz stationduring the seven-minute drive.
            As they entered the school’s driveway, the teachers signaled the cars to keep on moving after dropping off the children.  Jonathan pointed to one of the teachers and said, “She’s Mrs. Horowitz.  I hate her.  She has really bad breath and she breathes on all the children.”
            “Maybe she’s a nice person with bad breath,” said Claudio trying not to laugh.  He made it his quest to teach his son that you have to look deeper into people to really know them.  “Maybe she doesn’t know that she needs to brush more.  Or, maybe she needs to floss.”
            “Oh, she knows she has bad breath.  She’s mean so she doesn’t care.”
            When Claudio could stop safely, he unlocked the doors with the master switch and said, “I love you.”  Jonathan said, “I love you, too,” and opened the door and dragged his backpack behind him.  Claudio locked the doors and headed to the exit as he changed the radio station to hear the news on NPR.  There was something about the ethnic Albanians.  Claudio didn’t understand what was going on over there even though he knew that he should care more.  But he decided that he simply couldn’t listen to that story right then so he pushed the button preset for KUSC.  Ah, Bach.  The Goldberg Variations.
            Claudio drove north on Shoup and then turned right on Sherman Way.  He aimed his car to the Spectrum Club for his usual half-hour on the recumbent stationary bicycle and half-hour with the weight machines.  As he turned into the parking lot, he tried to decide whether to bring the paperback edition of Bless Me, Ultima or the latest Ploughshares to read while pedaling.  Claudio always kept books and literary journals stashed in the armrest and glove compartments so that he never lacked for reading material.  He decided on Anaya’s book.  When he majored in English back in the late ‘70s, Chicano writers weren’t studied the way they were now.  So, last year, Claudio made a list of classic Chicano authors to read like Anaya, Morales and Rechy and then he added the “newer” ones like Cisneros, Soto and Villaseñor.
            He slid his car into a spot, turned off the motor, pulled the paperback out of the armrest compartment and stuffed it into his gym bag.  Claudio got out and locked his car and walked slowly to the entrance of the club.  He felt stiff.  At the front desk, he handed his membership card to a young woman who wore a gleaming white uniform Polo shirt with a large nametag that said DONNA.  She smiled and exposed large and very straight white teeth that matched her shirt.  Donna stared at Claudio with translucent blue eyes
            “Got your braces off,” said Claudio realizing that she wanted him to notice.  A tall skinny young man, another gym employee, leaned against the wall near Donna and glowered.
            Donna smiled even wider.  “Yes,” and she looked down at his membership card, “Claudio.”  Donna swiped the membership card through a narrow plastic trough and the computer let out a little beep.  She then leaned forward on the counter and brought her face closer to Claudio’s.  She smelled like almonds and honey.  “I was totally sick of them but now, you know, it was totally worth it.”
            Claudio smiled.  “Yes.  You look nice.”
            Donna bounced a little on her toes and tossed her blond hair away from her face.  “Have a good work out, Claudio,” and she handed the card back to him letting it linger in Claudio’s palm before releasing it.
            “Thank you.”  Claudio headed to the locker room to dump his bag and glasses in a locker before going to the weight room.  By this hour, there wasn’t much of a crowd.  Claudio shuffled by an obese older man who stood naked, hands on his hips and legs spread in a pyramid like Balzac, while an electric wall dryer blew his sparse stringy white hair into a frenzy.  The man’s belly hung so low that his private parts were not visible.  Claudio quickly averted his eyes, found a locker at the far end of the room and put his bag and glasses away.  He snapped shut the lock, looped the key on his right shoelace and trotted to the weight room taking a different route to avoid the fat naked man.  Once out of the locker room, Claudio slowed and walked the long hallway of racquetball courts, his head hanging down.  He came to several older men and women who were laughing.
            “Beat the shit out of those two little punks,” snorted a man who looked like the little guy on the Monopoly cards but without the top hat and tails.  “Didn’t know who he was messin’ with,” and he shook his fists from side-to-side like a bear showing his strength.  The younger vanquished couple slunk away towards the showers.
            “Yes, sweetheart,” said a short stout woman whose plump legs were covered with a maze of spider veins.  “We showed him and his girlfriend.”
            “What do you mean ‘we,’ white woman?” her husband answered and their two other friends burst out laughing.
            Claudio tried to pass them but they blocked the way.  “Excuse me,” he said still holding his head down.
            “Sorry,” said the Monopoly man.  “Didn’t see you with your head down so low.  Cheer up.  Can’t be that bad, can it?”
            Claudio looked up and smiled a small smile in appeasement just so he could pass without getting into a conversation.  He learned that the retired people who used the gym loved to talk it up with anyone because they didn’t have to get to work.  Claudio smelled stale perspiration and some kind of medicated ointment.
            “Now, that’s better,” said the Monopoly man’s wife and they let Claudio pass.  In a few moments, he got to the safety of the weight room, grabbed a little towel from a plastic shelf and wandered over to the stationary bicycles.  Since the remodeling after the Spectrum Club bought out Racquetball World, everything was newer but in a different place.  Claudio liked the greater variety of weight machines but hated learning a new floor design.  He looked at the six stationary bikes.  The one to the far left by the StairMasters was occupied by a stroke victim and his trainer.  The stroke victim looked as though his body was once a magnificent specimen of strength and agility.  Now, his left side dragged and he used a cane.  The trainer said, “Good, Howie, good!  You’re moving way better this morning!  Pedal, pedal, pedal!”  The trainer was probably a sophomore or junior in college.  His flattop made him look like a Marine and he had a serpent tattoo on his right forearm.  Howie pedaled slowly staring up at one of the five large TV screens that hung suspended from the ceiling.  He didn’t acknowledge his trainer’s presence and wore what appeared to be a sneer on his face though the expression could have been the result of the stroke.  When the trainer wasn’t around, Howie liked to flirt with the young women.
            Claudio approached the bicycles.  A very thin woman pedaled on the one to the far right.  Large splashes of perspiration covered three of the four unoccupied bicycles.  Claudio chose the dry one near the thin woman.  He adjusted the seat, chose the program, set it for thirty minutes, opened his paperback and started pedaling.
            After a few minutes, Claudio felt the thin woman staring at him but he kept his eyes on his book.  Finally, the woman said, “Excuse me.”
            Claudio turned, “Yes?”
            “Could you do something about that noise?”  Claudio noticed that the young woman was so thin and white that he could see what appeared to be most of her circulatory system throughout her face, neck and shoulders like algae-filled canals.  She reminded him of those pictures of Auschwitz and he wondered if she had cancer or an eating disorder.  Perspiration rained from her face and arms.  Claudio worried that there’d soon be nothing left but her tiny tank top, shorts, and Nikes sitting in a pool of liquid.
            “What noise?” said Claudio.
            She shifted in her seat and looked annoyed.  “Your shoe.  The plastic tip on your shoelace keeps hitting your bike as you pedal and it makes a noise.”
            Claudio hadn’t noticed the sound before the woman mentioned it.  “And?” he asked betraying a less than charitable tone.
            “Can you please stop it?”
            Claudio took a deep breath and tried not to get angry.  “Okay.”  He stopped pedaling, double knotted the offending shoelace and started pedaling again.  No more noise.
            “Thanks,” she said with a smile.
            “Don’t mention it,” Claudio answered and he tried to find his place in the book.

            After working out, Claudio came home and walked slowly into the den from the garage when he heard the phone ringing.  He hurried and got to it before the answering machine picked up.
            “Hello,” he said still out of breath from his workout.
            “Oh, hi.  It’s Doctor Kayess.”  She had a heavy and deep voice punctuated with an Israeli accent that didn’t match her petite body and elegant face.  She couldn’t have been more than twenty-eight years old.
            “Hello, Doctor.  A belated Happy New Year.”  Claudio tore a sheet from the roll of Scott Towels that stood on the counter and wiped his forehead.  Though he had converted from Catholicism ten years ago, he still felt ill at ease with the Jewish calendar and didn’t want to sound foolish.
            “L’Shona Tova,” she answered half-heartedly.
            The crow started to caw and Claudio looked out the window vainly trying to spot it.  “Do you have any news?” he asked as he pushed to on side several of the plastic vertical blinds.
            “Yes,” she started.  “Yes, the tests came back.  Should I call your wife at work?”
            Claudio sighed.  “No, she said that you could tell me if you called here.”
            On Rosh Hashanah, Lois miscarried for the fifth time.  Each time, she carried for only eight or nine weeks.  Getting pregnant wasn’t an issue.  Keeping it became the battle.  Dr. Kayess and her older partner, Dr. Mizrahi, also an Israeli, had run every imaginable test on Lois and Claudio but they produced no answers.  The team had come very highly recommended from two moms at their son’s school who had tried to have babies for years but couldn’t get pregnant until they went to these doctors.  Dr. Mizrahi was about fifty, trim and dapper, with a medical degree from UCLA and a very kind demeanor.  Dr. Kayess studied at Harvard but, because of her youth, she still had not mastered the nuances of the doctor-patient relationship.  Lois’ miscarriages stymied both doctors.  But this time, they had some fetal tissue from the D&C and ran some tests.  Was there an anomaly in the DNA?  Maybe they would have some answers.
            “Well, the tissue came back normal.”
            “Oh,” Claudio said as he threw away the sopped paper towel in the trash can under the sink.  “Anything else?”
            “Yes.  Though she was only eight weeks along, we know that it was a girl.”
            Claudio suddenly stiffened his back and looked up to the ceiling.  It was as though an unseen attacker had shoved a long knife between his shoulder blades and held it there just for emphasis.
            Claudio took a deep breath trying not to raise his voice.  “She doesn’t have to know, right?”
            There was silence on the other end.  Doctor Kayess stumbled on her words.  “I’m”
            “I mean, look, she shouldn’t have to know.  Right?  I mean, where does it get any of us?  It isn’t really necessary, is it?”  He looked down to the piles of medical bills and insurance statements that covered a full third of the kitchen counter.
            “You mean the gender, right?” she said.
            “It would be devastating.  We’ve been hoping for a girl.  We even know that we’d name her Rachel.  There’s no reason for her to know that we lost a girl.  Unless that’s part of what you need to tell her for a complete consultation.”
            There was silence.  Finally, she said, “She doesn’t have to know.  I’m very sorry.  Have her call me so that we can set up an appointment and we can talk about your options.”
            Claudio said, “Okay, then.  We’re in agreement.”
            “Yes.”  Her voice sounded very small as though she felt stupid and inexperienced.
            “Thank you, Doctor,” Claudio said and hung up.  “Goddamn her.”  But he didn’t mean it.
            The crow’s sharp squawking grew louder and he looked out the window again searching for it.  The morning fog already burned off and the bright sun blinded him momentarily.  The fig and lemon trees displayed deep green leaves though one of the six cypresses that lined the back wall was dying from some kind of orange fungus.  They had to get a tree doctor out there, sometime.  Claudio finally gave up resigned to the fact that he would never see the creature that tormented him.  He moved his hand from the vertical blinds and they waved back and forth making a hollow clacking sound.  Claudio slowly walked over to the refrigerator to get something to drink.

[“New Year” is featured in Assumption and Other Stories (Bilingual Press, 2003).]

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