Excerpt from the novel Sitting Shiva, originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 104 in 2001.
Illustrations by Elliot Feldman
The Abnormal Child
The child psychologist's office was in the converted garage of a stylish ranch home in a residential area of Royal Oak. Dr. Dalrymple was a dreary old woman with permanently pursed lips, horn-rimmed glasses, and crepe-soled sensible shoes.
Although Charlie's inventive interpretations of the Rorschach ink blots- particularly the "elephant kissing a ballerina"-gave the psychologist pause, she assured Celia and Morris Fish that their son was a "normal yet creative boy, but his creativity is causing disruptive behavior in the classroom."
The doctor recommended that both parents actively encourage their son's creativity "outside the classroom." That Celia should enroll him in private art lessons at the Detroit Institute of Art downtown, that Morris should take him to "sporting events," and that they should invite "more gregarious" neighborhood boys over for lunches.
The psychologist's parting words were a warning that if Charlie's disruptive behavior continued, vice-principal Artunian wouldn't hesitate to put him in "a special class for the emotionally disturbed."
These words alarmed Charlie. He knew that hoods "pounded" the "special ed" kids on a daily basis.
Charlie's classroom personality changed because he had no choice. To bait him, Mrs. Lipkis would toss out comedy straight-lines, and he would say nothing. Charlie would say nothing to anyone. In class, his sense of humor was not only stifled, it was gone.
For years, his jokes and his one and only friend, Joe Murphy, kept the hoods from stomping him every day. At 6'4," Joe was the largest and toughest hood in the neighborhood. Charlie and Joe became friends because of a shared interest in collecting movie monster magazines and drawing comics. Every day they'd either meet at the comic book rack at Hammerstein's Drugstore, or behind the old one-room schoolhouse to ogle a Playboy Magazine that Charlie filched from his father's underwear drawer.. Unfortunately, when Charlie was transferred to Dewey Elementary, Joe wasn't there to save his ass. Like nearly half of the kids in Oak Park, Joe Murphy's parents had decided to send him to Our Lady of Mercy Catholic school instead of public school.At Dewey, Charlie's worst fears were realized. Even though he wasn't one of the special ed kids, he still became a "target."
Walking home from the new school, Charlie took his usual route, crossing Nine Mile Road and heading toward the Eagle Dairy, home of his favorite chocolate malt and hangout of the more vicious local young thugs.
Charlie's stomach churned upon seeing Chris Korkis and David Rothman, his archenemies, leaning against the Eagle's front window. Unfiltered Kools dangled from their lips.
David Rothman was a mean-eyed runt with Elvis Presley hair, and Chris Korkis was his 200-pound, six-foot tall enforcer. They were cutting school.
"Hey, Brillo!" sneered Korkis's flat gravely voice.
They called Charlie "Brillo" because of his wild shock of black kinky hair, a physical attribute that he shared with his father. Charlie lowered his head, aimed his eyes at the sidewalk, and walked quickly past them, pretending not to hear.
Korkis and Rothman hated him for years- since the day that he single-handedly lost the Little League city baseball championship for the Busy Bee Hardware Stingers team. Charlie had dropped an easy right field pop fly, allowing the winning run to score.
His participation in Little League was only due to his mother's relentless campaign to make him into a "normal boy." "Whatsamatter, Brillo? 'you deaf as well as dumb?" chuckled Rothman's high-pitched nasal voice. Charlie stuffed down his rage and kept walking. Korkis walked after him and connected with a swift kick in his ass. Charlie lurched forward, but didn't fall.
"Puck puck! Chicken Brillo!" shouted Chris Korkis. Charlie kept walking, and turned down Westridge Avenue. He could hear Rothman's laughter, a jackass's bray, in the distance.
Instead of taking his son Charlie to "sporting events, as Dr. Dalrymple recommended, Morris Fish had an unorthodox solution. He bought a regulation-sized pool table for the knotty pine-finished basement of the Oak Park home.
To his own surprise, Charlie enjoyed his father's gift. Stroking the table's smooth dark wood and the soft lush green felt was a pleasurable experience for him. He liked the challenge of shooting the brightly colored balls into the side pockets. For the first time in Charlie's life, his father spent time with him everyday. For a month, Morris Fish taught him the finer points of the game: how to use the bridge, how to bank the cueball, how to do a behind-the-back shot. His father even stayed home from his daily card game to play pool with him. They talked. They swapped sick jokes and groaned.
"What's the difference between a bowling ball and a dead baby?"
"You can't load a bowling ball onto the back of a truck with a pitchfork." For the first time, Morris and Charlie were a real father and son team, and Charlie was getting good at the game of pool.
The closeness with his father came to an abrupt end, when Celia started to feel that the time Charlie spent with his father was "unhealthy." She believed that Charlie needed to be around boys his own age. She spread the word around the neighborhood about the new pool table.
David Rothman and Chris Korkis were among the first boys to show up. His mother Celia considered these two to be "normal red blooded kids." To her, any boy that played baseball was a "normal red blooded kid," even if they carried zip-guns and flick-knives.
Soon Charlie's basement was teeming with newfound "friends." Even when Charlie wasn't home, the basement would be full of kids. Celia was thrilled to bake trays of cookies for these boys.
Charlie's parents were convinced that he was on his way toward normalcy. Charlie was beginning to believe that he had regained his lost popularity. In the privacy of his parents' basement, he could crack as many jokes as he wanted. He could even say "shit," "fuck," and "fart" as many times as he wanted, and at the top of his lungs.
Joe Murphy acted as "sergeant-of-arms," tossing out any boy that didn't treat Charlie or Charlie's basement with the proper respect. Above all, Joe made sure that there was no gambling.
The good times ended when one of Joe Murphy's more tasteless jokes fizzled in Celia Fish's face. In full view of the Fish family at dinner-time, Joe ate a tuna biscuit from Charlie's dog Susie's dish.
Celia banned him from the Fish house. Charlie was no longer allowed to hang out with him. She even paid Korkis and Rothman a dollar a day to be her "spies," making sure that Charlie stayed far away from Joe Murphy.
Charlie and Joe still had their secret meeting place behind the old one-room schoolhouse. They met there every day to swap monster magazines, comic books, and lewd stories.
With Joe Murphy no longer present as "pool table enforcer," Charlie's basement became Korkis and Rothman's basement. His pool table became their pool table. They began taking bets on games. They used Charlie's father's poker chips as a cover. Celia and even Morris thought that they were playing for fun. Neighborhood kids would buy chips with their newspaper route, grocery store bag-boy, and restaurant busboy wages. Rothman and Korkis were "the house."
Every day the basement was filled with young gamblers. Rothman and Korkis began taking lOUs.
Howie Schultz, a tiny orthodox Jewish kid with curly sidelocks and a gambling problem, owed them $100. One day they dragged the much smaller boy into Charlie's basement laundry room, stuffed him inside Celia Fish's clothes dryer, and turned it on.
Charlie grabbed a pool cue, raised it in a threatening gesture, and threatened to tell his father, who was sleeping upstairs. "Get outta my house!" he shouted.
Chris Korkis laughed. He was much larger than Charlie. David Rothman sneered, "Screw you. Fish. Do you think we're here because we like you? You're a goddamn joke. A goddamn nothing with a pool table. Nobody really likes you. Fish. Your old man ain't worth a shit either. My parents say so. He's just a low-life gambler, a Mafia bagman."
Charlie howled in rage and swung the pool cue at David Rothman's head. Chris Korkis seized Charlie's arm and twisted it until he dropped the cuestick. As Korkis slammed him against a knotty pine paneled wall, little Howie Schultz scrambled out of the clothes dryer and ran for his life. Charlie tried to kick and squirm out of Korkis's grasp. The bigger boy pinned him harder against the wall.
"Never interfere with our private business, Fish!" David Rothman growled as he slammed his fist into Charlie's gut. Charlie gasped and sagged to the cold cement of the basement laundry room floor. Korkis and Rothman laughed and walked back into the crowded smoke-filled poolroom. They resumed their game. Players stacked their chips on the table.
Charlie was a stranger in his own house.
Anger filled him. His head and gut hurt. He scrambled to his feet. He staggered into the pool table room.
"Fuck you! Fuck all of you!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "Look at the cry-baby," chuckled David Rothman. Chris Korkis laughed and raked in five-dollar chips. The other boys ignored Charlie, and the game of rotation pool continued.
Charlie ran out of his house, leaving full reign of the basement to his worst enemies. He ran across the street and through the Pyzbylskis' backyard, hopped their fence, and landed flat on his ass on the Arthur Vandenburg Junior High playground.
"Hey, Gefilte Fish! 'you have a nice trip?" chuckled a jolly sandpaper voice that should've belonged to an old man instead of 14-year old Joe Murphy. He was sitting on top of a playground slide smoking a Pall Mall, his thick lips twisted in a goofball grin.
Charlie's anger dissipated upon seeing his good buddy. "What's happening, Frankenstein?"
Joe and Charlie were an unlikely pair. Charlie was short, round, and sardonic. Joe was a hulking redhead with a raucous sense of humor and a dopey good-natured grin. Joe's vulgar artwork, particularly his trademark bare-boobed blondes, could be found on storefronts and men's rooms all over Oak Park. This didn't put him in good stead with local merchants and the Oak Park police.
"Look what I got, Charlie." Joe proudly displayed a full-unopened jumbo box of Crayolas. "All the colors of the rainbow. I boosted it from the Ben Franklin."
Charlie laughed and applauded. "The infamous sticky fingers of Frankenstein strike again!"
They walked to a far comer of the playground, to the old one-room schoolhouse. The 100-year old tiny clapboard building was no longer in use. It dwarfed next to the recently constructed Vandenburg Junior High. The Oak Park city fathers decided to keep the old schoolhouse as a historical site. Although Charlie and Joe Murphy both attended kindergarten in the schoolhouse, neither one felt any sentimentality toward it.
Joe opened the box of Crayolas, and the two boys went to work on the whitewashed walls. They drew werewolves clutching severed heads, vampires with bloody fangs, hollow-eyed mummies, and buck-naked Hollywood scream-queens.
The whoop of a police car siren interrupted their fun. Borlack, a burly town cop with his trademark handlebar mustache, grabbed the boys by their shirt collars and hauled them off to the Oak Park police station, his siren blaring.
Celia and Morris Fish came to the police station to bail Charlie out. "I-I'm sorry," he stammered to his parents. His father folded his arms across his chest and turned his back on him. Celia burst into tears and hurled one word at her son:
The next day, Morris bought a canvas tarp and covered the pool table. All the neighborhood kids, including Rothman and Korkis, were turned away at the front door.
Rothman, Korkis, and the other hoods turned the screws on Charlie harder than before. The word "Crybaby!" was painted across his school locker door, his textbooks were glued together, and his cafeteria lunches were snatched. The hoods, above all, would verbally humiliate him in front of girls, particularly Judy Weinstein ... beautiful Judy Weinstein with her shiny black hair, alabaster skin, and bright blue eyes.
Judy Weinstein laughed at Charlie's jokes and admired his drawings. She was the only girl that appreciated him. It killed Charlie to be tortured in front of Judy Weinstein. School became a bleeding hell for him. At home, his mother would look at him and burst into violent wracking sobs. Morris Fish wouldn't speak to him.
Charlie never again touched the pool table. The tarp gave the table an eerie ghostlike appearance.
Real and imagined physical symptoms began to plague Charlie daily: throbbing migraines, wheezing allergies, and red oozing acne and boils covering all parts of his body. It was hard for him to believe that he was once called Celia Fish's "miracle baby."