Jew Boy


Alan Kaufman

Excerpt from the novel Jew Boy, originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 104 in 2001.
Photo by Astrid Myers

The bridge: a great silver harp laid over the dark Hudson River against a warm but remote night sky.

We crossed on foot, pausing to glance down over the side into the swirling suicidal currents, green-blue, icy-froth, and depthless, and the river so wide, the Palisades jutting its forearms in challenge for an arm wrestle with the New York shore. One cliff followed another and extended all the way up to the Tappan Zee Bridge, which looked thin, distant, barely visible, a ghost structure veiled in mists.

I remembered sitting upriver as a boy, with George and Louie and Mike and Earl and others, roasting hot dogs in a big trestle fire, and I now mentally waved to my own childhood - a yearning boy figure squatting on the shore, peering into the future in which I now stood, yet unable to see me. If we met now, would I like what I saw of myself? Was I the man I'd hoped at thirteen to become? I was trying to live out the boy's dream as best as I knew how. I just needed a little time to make it come true, I told myself.

On the Jersey side, in Fort Lee, I faced the immense vehicular river pouring out of the eastern city of my birth into the western night.The road wasn't beautiful. There weren't old Hudsons jammed with bop kids in T-shirts, or rickety old Dust Bowl jalopies piled with Beverly Hillbillies, or haggard Grapes of Wrath Joads in rumpled caps, or any of the highway fantasies I'd had. It was an eight-lane monotonous hemorrhage of steel and exhaust pipelined into ultimate darkness - though in fact we were going back in time, not forward, losing time as we moved west. We watched the Mars-red sun sink below the horizon. A chill wind gusted up our jackets, which we zipped up to the nose to protect our throats, and we shrugged and hopped in a desperate roadside dance to stay warm.

Right off, the wind chill had us up on toes, pirouetting thumbs out, auditioning for the drivers, hoping, praying, but no one stopped, and after an hour of this it didn't look like we were ever going to leave Jersey. Then, suddenly, in that skittish, fateful way that a road will remind us that we are on it only by its whim and that alone - and whether or not we get further will depend purely on luck seasoned heavily with determination, chance, and superstition - a rig so huge, so powerful, so bent on being a rig made for transcontinental travel (and so why ever would it bother to stop from its barreling flight down an overcrowded road merely to pick up two shlubs like us?) pulled over majestically onto the shoulder of the road and rolled to a stop. Then it just stood there with its signal lights blinking. George and I gaped back with uncertain hope, and then George's face contorted in that funny awestruck look he'd get, and shouted, "Holy shit! A ride! Let's go!" and we were pounding gravel to that rig like an end sweep in the season's climax game. From the rig came a sharp bugling steam-whistle blast of acknowledgment - its horn, I guess, only it sounded more like the prehistoric mating honk of a Tyrannosaurus rex - and when we got up to the cabin, George grabbed the big door handle that took both hands to jerk wide, tugged, jumped in, and I followed. We were high up there like in an airplane pilot's cabin, behind a huge dashboard, and the driver was this skinny, wiry, rooster-looking grizzled guy in his forties, with a baseball cap emblazoned with the words NAVY SEAL in grease-smudged tall gold letters

He shouted from an orthodontically challenged mouth of snaggled, slime-coated teeth linked by yawning strands of repugnant spittle: "Well, that took you damn long enough! What the hell were you thinking about?!" which we each needed time to think over and reply to, which seemed to only make him madder. He was angry as hell, shaking his head in virulent wonder, shouting, "What the fuck!!" and pushed down on his gears, throwing the rig into drive. He stomped and released his gas and hydraulic brakes as he walked the immense machine back onto the road, howling: "You look like a couple of first-timers. Well, if you gonna stick your thumb out and some road dog's dumb'nuff to pull over, the least you gotta do is - you boys listening to this? - "

"Yes, sir!" we yelled back.

"Good! You put your thumb out, you take your ride - so take your ride, boys, take your ride, goddammit. I could tell you was new. You boys new at this?"

"First time!" I shouted.

"Well, OK then, you coulda said so. Truck stops, no driver's gonna wait forever while you figure out what made him do it, even though it was your own thumb that flagged him down in the first place. You reading me on that?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Good. Because most truckers will not stop to pick you up off the road like I did. You know how goddamned lucky you are to be sittin' up here with me? You gotta go get your lifts around the truck stops. You got that boys?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Good! How far are you going?"

"Far as you'll take us," shouted George.

That upset him.

"I asked you how far you going?"

"Colorado," I shouted.

"Trucker asks you straight, you tell him straight, or else. Colorado?"


"Well, I'll take you as far as Bellefonte, Pennsylvania."

"Awright!" I hollered. "Yeah!"

He looked over, all red - eyed, sleepless, a little drunk maybe, and grinned at my exhilaration. "Well, yeah," he enthused back, flatly. "That's more like it. Take a look at these. Wanna see somethin' nice?" He tapped his finger at two playing cards suspended by a chain from his rearview mirror. They each bore the picture on back of a naked woman posed lasciviously against a velvet curtain.

"I know and have intimately fucked each one of them women. What do you think?"

George and I looked at each other, grinning. He caught that from the corner of his eye, he was sharp and quick, saw everything.

"You making fun of me?

"No, sir!"

"Cuz you funnin' me I'll let you right off here and thank you very much for nuthin, if you prefer so?"

"No, sir, we're not making fun of you," George explained. "We're just happy."

"Huh! Well, then, all right! Happy is where it's at. You boys like women, don't you?"

"You bet!"

"Well here's a pair. Here's two pair. Check out them tits. Them tits have kept me awake for ten thousand miles of road. Have you ever seen, have you ever had, have you ever made love to tits like that? Even in your wildest wanks?"

Truthfully, I never had.

"Not me," I shouted with polite regret in my voice.

George didn't respond. I thought of Alexi's figure, couldn't understand his curious silence.

"Him neither,'' I shouted, nodding at George, and the rigger laughed though George looked unamused.

"Are them not the most beau - tee - fool tits this side of Missoula?"

"They're beautiful! Where are the girls now?"

"Well, Cheri, the redhead, she's in El Paso, and Billy, the brunette, she's up in Reno. Billy's a dancer. Topless!".

"Wow," I enthused. Then he balled the jack and we took off down that highway like some supersonic killer whale, weaving and surging and churning effortlessly, dusting whole schools of insignificant and minnow-sized Chevies, Volkswagens, Falcons, and Toyotas, and shot past lots of little no-count suburbs and towns, and the driver howled "Lets get us some poon!" George looked at me with raised eyebrows as if to say "Huh?" and next thing we know we'd fallen in behind an attractive blonde in a red GTO, tailgating dangerously close, and if she slows even for an instant we'd roll clear over her, crushing her flat, and you could see her irritated then scared glances in the rearview as she tried without success to shake him, left, right, accclerating, all without success, and it felt terrible to be part of this, a kind of road rape or highway gang-bang on wheels, but unfazed the driver kept it up until, literally, she had dropped to the right over four lanes and got off at the first exit she could and he howled: "Hoooooooowweeeeee! That was fuuunnn with a capital fuckin' capital a-right! Want some more pussy?"

And we both shouted back "No, sir!!" and he nodded grimly and shouted: "Open up that glove compartment!" which I did. The door fell open, and inside it was dark, stuffed with things, including a gun, and he said, "Pull that whiskey bottle out there!" which I did - a pint of Wild Turkey.

"Take a pull and pass that down!"

Which I did and passed it down the line, and all the way to Harrisburg he kept it passing back and forth, and when it ran out he had me crawl in back to where he slept and he had a shotgun back in there. I brought out a fifth of Johnny Walker that he kept going among us and he howled, "You boys smoke pot?"

"Take a pull and pass that down!"

Which I did and passed it down the line, and all the way to Harrisburg he kept it passing back and forth, and when it ran out he had me crawl in back to where he slept and he had a shotgun back in there. I brought out a fifth of Johnny Walker that he kept going among us and he howled, "You boys smoke pot?"

"Yes, sir! "

"Well, I don't. I'm a whiskey man!" and this avowed as we hurtled on a bridge over the Susquehanna River.

"Pot's good for you," shouted Gcorge. "But wiskey'll kill you!"

"Truth's the 'xact opposite!" he screeched. "Whiskey's good for ya! Weed'll turn you into a vegetable. My son Josh smokes dope. He's a do-nuthin, brainless, non-workin', incapable of fucking, unproducing vegetable!"

Night boiled the car shapes into pure red taillights swimming and weaving on the big windshield, and overhead, with thrilling frequency, big green-and-white billboards announced turnoffs for Nanticoke and Hazleton, Bloomsburg, Milton, the highway crazy, a big throat, endless and on either side nothing to be seen but one after another truck stops, diners, gas pumps, like interplanetary stations where the transports pulled in to fuel up, then charge out into the alien space road, and I couldn't imagine how the driver managed to stay awake gaping at this big electric-lit hallucination days on end, or had the energy to shout: "And so I told Josh, I said I tell you what, I tell you what!! I'll make you a bet, I'll bet you I can smoke all the pot you throw at me but your little puny skiny-assed punk shit of a body can't hold all the whiskey I'll give you to drink. And I'm buying the whole fucking thing, booze and weed! And he took me up on it...."

"Did you get high?" George shouted, laughing.

The driver's indignant head rose in the shrill, neck-tensing pose of a fighting cock: "Hell, high no! That grass weed shit didn't touch me at all! Not at all! I smoked that bag of stuff and said gimme another and smoked that bag too and in the meantime that boy of mine was vomiting sick and green on his knees like the little pussy that he is and I said, 'Your body is a worm, shithead, scrawny motherfucking little no-account snail from all that weed you suck 'stead of picking up some weights and women like your daddy do and drinkin' whiskey and be a real man, goddammit! A real man! I - am - real!'" and fell over laughing on the wheel, the huge truck sliding left to the shoulder and him all psychotically shook with mirth but George and I too scared to say a word, and then he shot straight up grim-faced, urged the wheel to the right and, correcting his coarse again, balled the jack, sent us flying through interstellar nighttime America and left us off at Bellefonte, just as he'd sworn to; pulled into a truck stop, alongside another rig, and shouted at the trucker in the cab; "Hey, champ, you westbound?" and the driver nodded and our guy said, "Take these boys down a piece, will ya?" and he waved us to "C'mon," and we thanked our driver, gushing gratitude, and jumped in with our new host, who was a quiet man, did not say three words the whole way through the rest of Pennsylvania: we passed DuBois and Brookville, got almost to Grove City itself, bypassed the turnoff to Pittsburgh, but there were still big mournful steel mills in the night visible from the roadside, huge chimneys pouring smoke that reminded me of something I shuddered at and erased from memory - determined to not so much as even think thoughts about that out here, and he dropped us off at Sharon, just short of the Ohio border, and roared away down the road.

We slid on an embankment, found a patch of grass where we lay under the stars for a few minutes, to catch our breath and savor the thrill of being this far from home. George leaned up on his elbow, looked west. "Ohio's right over there," he said.

But I just lay there brimming up at the stars, overflowing with it all, my freedom, a floating sense of high yet everything so sharp and clear, each grass blade, the buzzing gnats, and yellow light needles poked from the flowerhead of a giant overhead Freon lamp. I was all of these and no one, nothing - didn't need to be. It was fine to just lie here, smell the fresh night breeze. First time in my entire life I felt that way, too, my nerves all unbunched, no agenda. No one to save, nothing to be, no persecutions to detect or escape. I could feel myself spinning, hidden from the road, wanted some great hand to lift me up, hurl me up at the sky, send me farther and farther to some nameless place where history did not exist, even my memory of it erased, even my memory of me.

"This is pretty great, isn't it," said George.

"God! Yeah. How long you figure to Denver?"

"Triple-A said thirty-two hours if you drive nonstop."

"Let's do it!" l said. "I can't wait to get there. Let's just hitch straight through."