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Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2

Fiction

 

William Sternman

Casualties of War


Bill Sternman is a graduate from the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism in Philadelphia and works as an advertising copywriter for
Audience, a film journal. In 1993 he was awarded a fellowship grant in literature by the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts.

 

Why do they call these antiseptic structures "synagogues"? With their bright, shadowless lighting, scrub-room immaculateness, and glitzy stained-glass—or should I say, "stained-plastic"?—windows, reform synagogues look more like Bloomingdale's than houses of worship.

The conservative synagogue—or maybe I should say shul—that I went to as a boy, during World War II, was different: dark, gloomy, hot, smelly and dirty as a narrow Eastern European ghetto street. But it also had a certain shtetl flavor, like the old men, in their shiny black suits and grubby black-and-white striped tallises, who were there every Friday night, noisily hacking up into little crumpled brown paper bags.

These reform synagogues, though, are just shopping-mall houses of worship, as spiritually sterile as McDonald's. How could you possibly hope to find God in a Big Mac? Or your own soul in a large fries? I ask you.

Yet there I sat, thirty years after my last manifestation in a Jewish religious edifice of any kind, in the kaleidoscopic splendor of a reform synagogue, waiting for my brother, Lenny's, memorial service to begin.

A memorial service, in case you're wondering, is held when the deceased is unable to make an appearance, owing in this case to his prior incineration. Although the guest of honor was not in attendance, its purpose, as my sister-in-law, Rita Rabinowitz Silovitz, put it, was to pay respect. Respect, it seems to me, should be paid to those who can appreciate it. Respect for the dead is like throwing your Bloomingdale's credit card into the Schuylkill River. An impressive gesture, no doubt about it, but who profits from it? Even the fish wouldn't be caught dead in Bloomingdale's.

Besides, it's a day trip, a one-night stand. What do you do for an encore—throw your Strawbridge's card in too? Then suppose you run out of clean Jockey shorts and can't get to the laundromat?

So there I sat, waiting to pay respect in a coin as specious as the harlequin-stained whatever behind the altar (or should I say, "lectern"?) to a man to whom I had never paid respect while he was alive, because there was never anyone there to pay respect to.

The rabbi, if you can call him that, wore a navy-blue business suit and no yarmulke. To someone like me, who was used to the operatic wailing of a conservative cantor, Philip Alan Stone's Dial-A-Prayer serenity seemed as pallidly Episcopalian as nova lox. He spoke in glowing terms of a man he could not possibly have known, since Lenny was even more of a stranger to synagogues than I. (His only son, Charles Ronald Silovitz, had been married in a Catholic church, in a ceremony as truncated as Ophelia's funeral.) He was delivering sermon 345, straight out of his computer's liturgical software, personalized by means of global search-and-replace insertion of the dear departed's name. Every time he paused before intoning, "Leonard Martin Silovitz," I knew that his tongue had been about to say, "Maury Albert Cohen" or maybe even "Fanny Goldstein Katz." I waited to see whether, like an actor who has played the same part so many times that his mind wanders during a performance, he might absentmindedly inject the name of a previous late, great.

Me, I'm Peter Patrick Solomon. How did a nice Jewish boy—of fifty-six—get a name like Peter Patrick? Don't ask. My mother, Rebecca Rubin Solomon, was such a non-Jewish Jew that she referred to Passover, to my extreme mortification as a boy, as "our Easter." During our Easter we ate matzos smeared with butter and drank Pepsis that had not been sanctified (or spit into, as we kids used to say) by an authorized rabbi. So why not Peter Patrick? It was the same thing as Hyman Stuart, because my mother said it was, and if it wasn't, what difference did it make?

If, in my boyhood, my mother sewed a button on a shirt I was wearing, I had to bite down on a piece of thread, to keep my lips from being sewn together. If I wanted goldfish, she muttered that goldfish were bad luck. (I suspected, even as a child, that whatever my mother didn't want me to have or do—from goldfish to whistling indoors—was, God forbid!, bad luck.) If she made plans even a day in advance, she always appended an incantatory "if we live": Friday, if we live … July 19, if we live … next year, if we live.

She inhabited a world in which words were sentient beings and not to be invoked frivolously. You never said "cancer," the dread Jewish disease, for fear, God forbid!, the word would hear your call and, like an overly friendly St. Bernard, plant a big, wet, tumorous kiss on your face, just for the asking. You never named a baby after a living person, for fear, God forbid!, the namesake would drop dead on the spot. (What a weapon, I used to think as a little boy. If only someone would let me name their baby, I could annihilate all my enemies—Herbie, Ronnie, Izzy and Heschie—in an instant.) You did not give away the shoes of your recently deceased father, Herman No Middle Name Solomon, with the rest of his clothing, because, as my Aunt Minnie Rubin Schultz solemnly intoned, "Do you want some stranger, God forbid!, walking on your poor dead father's soul?"

Lenny was my half-brother, the progeny of my mother and one Joseph David Silovitz, who, immediately after fulfilling his conceptual contract, made tracks from Philadelphia until the Pacific Ocean lapped at the clocks on his white- on-white silk hose. If he could have continued running on the water, like another Jewish boy whose name, God forbid!, never crossed your lips, he would have reached Tokyo in time for the earthquake. The Rubins would have cheered. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Serves him right, to do such a thing to such a lovely, sweet girl like our Beckeleh was. Never mind that no one ever had a good word to say for our Beckeleh otherwise. Family stuck together. That's what family was for.

So, if family stuck together, what happened to the glue that grey, dripping February morning that the only mourners for Lenny were the grieving widow, Rita Rabinowitz Silovitz; her son, Charles Ronald Silovitz; and a white-haired man, his left hand limply draped over the empty seat beside him, who, although I could see only a new-moon sliver of his profile, seemed hauntingly familiar, like someone you haven't seen since elementary school. And, unknown to all of them, because I had arrived late and was seated several rows behind, your humble servant, Peter Patrick Solomon. So why, if family stuck together like the nucleus of an atom, were there just we four to pay reverence to my brother, Lenny? I ask you.

I ask you, but I already know, because I knew the man. Maybe.

The day before this so-called memorial service I had held a memorial service of my own. By chance, maybe, I had come across a 9x10" black-and-white glossy photograph, cracked along its double vertical folds, of the aircraft-instrument class of the Mortimer Clements Institute, Brockhurst, Massachusetts, taken during World War II. In the lower right-hand corner I could just make out, in a neat schoolboy's hand, a faded blue inscription: "We'll do it, Len—Erik." I wondered where you were then, Erik, and if you also had an identical photograph, with identical fold cracks, in whose lower right-hand corner was written a complementary "We'll do it, Erik—Lenny." (Both initials would be assertively printed, while the rest of the signature would be an incongruously crabbed script.) Had you, Erik, whoever and wherever you were, by some miracle of war and distance, gotten to know my long-lost-and-never-found brother? Did you ever think of him? If I called you up, could you give me even one single clue to this man who never let himself be known to anyone, this stranger even to himself?

(Once, in my forties, long after Herman No Middle Name Solomon, who had seemed as unapproachably awesome to me as a monolithic pagan idol, had died, I ran into a childhood chum, Barry Norman Goldstein, with whom I had discovered the wonders of mutual masturbation. As we reminisced about growing up in West Philadelphia (without, of course, mentioning that particular commonality), he said, to my astonishment, "I remember your father giving you money to go to the movies." I was astonished, not only that Barry recalled my father at all, but that he recalled him doing some ordinary thing, like any other father. All at once that remote, thundering, Old Testament Jehovah, who had seemed capable only of apocalyptic wrath and vengeance, shrank into the everyday humanity of a 5'6", 145-pound little old man.)

In this photograph of what I assumed to be the graduating class of the Mortimer Clements Institute, the first row is seated and the other two rows are standing. Running down the left side of the brick wall behind them are several slender pipes; on the right, hanging from a rack, are two clipboards, their now-inconsequential documents a jumble. Some of the men are in uniform (light ties tucked into dark shirts), some in overalls, and one (seated in the middle of the front row and the only blond) wears a white lab coat, like a doctor, but was more likely the instructor. Was he Erik? I wondered. But, then, any of them could have been.

Even the slight, vaguely Hispanic-looking man in the last row, with the black hair and mustache, beaming straight ahead and the only one wearing a trench coat over his uniform, might have been Erik. Or the man on his right, who was resting his wrist casually on the Hispanic's shoulder. Gazing abstractedly off to the right, as though he were looking into the future, he revealed the Iowa-born-and-bred profile of a popular, now long-forgotten, boyish movie heartthrob of the day, Lon McCallister. In those days, before color snapshots, you could almost tell from the shades of grey what the original colors were. Intensely black lips, for example, always meant bright-red lipstick. The lightness of this all-American boy's crew-cut hair led me to believe that it must have been as glisteningly coppery as new electrical wiring.

Then I realized that the Hispanic-looking man could not possibly be Erik, because he was my brother, Lenny.

I was alive then and knew you then, Lenny, and yet I never remember you ever being young, without dark Type A circles under your eyes. And smiling. Who in the world ever taught you how to smile like that, Lenny? Was it Erik? It couldn't have been Rebecca Rubin Silovitz Solomon. Nor Joseph David Silovitz. Nor Herman No Middle Name Solomon (who refused to take another man's son into his home). And it certainly wasn't Peter Patrick Solomon.

That smile, Lenny. Not a polite look-at-the-birdie smile, not a so-glad-to-meet-you-I've-heard-so-much-about-you social smile, not a skin-deep laughing-on-the-outside-crying-on-the-inside smile. But the free-and-easy smile of a man who, by the most extraordinary stroke of luck, has found himself in the one place on all the earth he has always wanted to be. Even if he hadn't known it until that very instant.

Later you would go to Hawaii and send back pictures of hula dancers, naked from the waist up, simultaneously embarrassing and titillating your nine-year-old half-brother. And then to Kwajalein, a mere speck in the South Pacific, where you would put the training you had gotten at the Mortimer Clements Institute to good use by servicing the Enola Gay before it took off for Hiroshima.

And then, like Amelia Earhart, you would vanish, never to be heard from again. For the Lenny Silovitz that came back from the war was not the man who had smiled so exuberantly into the camera at the Mortimer Clements Institute. It wasn't just the smile that was gone. The man was gone. Only not completely, not quite yet. For you would give your half-brother a wind-up scenic railway that Herman No Middle Name Solomon took back for a refund because he had already given me a more expensive set of electric Lionels. I cried my eyes out, Lenny, because I wanted the cheap ones you had given me, and my father, who didn't understand how desperately an only child needs an older brother, withdrew even from the Lionel trains he had given me and would have nothing more to do with them, even when they jumped the track and crashed to the floor beneath their unpainted plywood platform. He refused to have them repaired, and so I, who had once had two train sets, now had none.

You would take me, the reader of books and the dreamer of dreams, to my first baseball game, a night game between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Detroit Tigers, and patiently initiate me into the arcana of keeping a box score. And although I would never see, and never want to see, another game, that night stands out in my memory as the most magical time of my entire life. And I, as much a stranger to myself as you, Lenny, didn't realize it till just this moment. Where is that box score now? I wonder. How could I, who have since then saved every ticket stub and match-book cover, have been so careless with something as precious as that long-gone box score?

You would also make me a part of your courtship of a series of young women (I particularly remember a Ginger who taught me a ritual antiphony—"bread and butter," "cut it in half"—when a fire plug or telephone pole came between us) until you met, married and transformed Rita Charlotte Rabinowitz into Rita Rabinowitz Silovitz. Years later, when I read The Member of the Wedding, I would realize that I had felt then what Frankie Adams also feels about her own soldier brother, that you and Ginger (where is she now?) were the "we of me." I too had wanted to be a member of a wedding, which never took place.

After the wedding that did take place, even the pale ghost of Lenny Silovitz that had come back from Brockhurst, Hawaii and Kwajalein disappeared altogether. I became an only child once more. And I missed that translucent specter so much that I forgot he ever existed. Until now.

Rabbi Stone had paused again and I found myself waiting expectantly to see whether this time he might slip in the name of some other dearly beloved. But, as the Dowager Empress of all the Russias says at the end of Anastasia, the play was over and it was time to go home.

My sister-in-law, twisting in her seat to make a post-mortem body count, spotted me and gave me a relieved smile. My feelings about the phoniness of memorial services had long been known to her and there must have been some doubt in her mind whether I would show up for this particular exercise in conscience salving.

Although her hair had been raven-black when I first met her, in 1947, it had for decades been strawberry blonde. Her oval face, as unwrinkled as it had been then, if plumper now and more obviously color-coordinated with her hair, was still conventionally pretty. As a result of her most distinctive feature, an overbite that reminded me of my favorite movie star of the World War II period, Gene Tierney, the tips of her upper teeth were always tinged pink with lipstick.

"I hope it was sincere enough for you," she said, with a little nervous laugh that underscored the edge in her voice.

"Well," I answered, "you can't get blood from a Stone, can you?"

She pursed her lips, which emphasized her malocclusion.

"Why do you always have to be so sarcastic all the time? Why can't you be nice, for a change?"

"Nice" was my sister-in-law's favorite word. If my mother had lived in a world in which words were sentient beings, Rita Rabinowitz Silovitz inhabited one in which they had the power to change behavior and transform reality. If, for example, my nephew and niece, who didn't even bother to show up for her father's memorial service, even though she had been his favorite, treated each other like the creature from the Black Lagoon, then making them call each other "brother" and "sister" would magically transform them into living and loving embodiments of Dick and Jane. Similarly, when, having become an adult, my nephew still traded scarifying insults with his father, only now with apparently good-natured laughs and punches, Rita Rabinowitz Silovitz beamed with pleasure at how "nice" they now got on.

We had all gotten up and moved into the aisle, except for the white-haired man, who continued to stare straight ahead.

"Hi, Unc," Charles Ronald Silovitz chirped. Although he was now forty-three, married and the father of two sons, Chaz still looked and acted like the gangling teenager he had been at his bar mitzvah, thirty years before. Even taller than me, but without my middle-aged pudginess, he reminded me of a giant praying mantis from one of those nuclear-phobic science-fiction movies of the Fifties. Broken in spirit by an overly critical father who saw his own son as the usurper of his wife's maternal affection, Chaz would remain a little boy all his life, flitting like a hummingbird from one intense enthusiasm to another even more intense, eager as a puppy to please and be petted. Like a postman, neither rain nor snow nor gloom of death could stay this courtier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.

For uncle and nephew, we couldn't have looked less alike, Chaz retaining his father's vaguely Hispanic swarthiness, while I was unmistakably Russian-Jewish, even down to the stereotyped Slavic-Yiddish Elders of Zion nose.

Hunkering down and bobbing, Chaz made a playful feint at my paunch, as I had seen him do a thousand times with Lenny. Was I, I wondered, expected to take my half-brother's place? Instinctively, I leaped backward, and not just to protect my vulnerable soft underbelly: Chaz's over-effusiveness had always made me cringe, like a sea anemone whose blindly waving tentacles have just touched some alien life form.

"How's it gone, Petey ol' pal, ol' pal?" he boomed, flashing a grin so wide you'd have thought he was canvassing my vote for the presidency of the student body.

I winced. Petey is a childhood nickname I hate. Only a puppy wouldn't have realized that by now. While I never expected him to address me formally as Uncle, he could have called me Pete or Peter, Pat or Patrick, or even Paddy. Or Pood, as Sara had. (Naming a Jew Peter Patrick, she once said, was like making rice pudding with macaroni. With Sara gone, there was no one to call me Pood anymore.) Anything but the despised Petey. Or Unc.

"Chaz," I said wearily, for the thousandth time, "please don't call me Petey."

He threw a playful jab at my chest that made me gasp and stagger backwards.

"What d'ya want me to call you, Unc—Unc? Then you'd be a monkey's unc-unc."

The white-haired man, who had been hanging back deferentially, now joined us. His wrinkled face, stippled with freckles, as though he had stepped out of a Seurat painting, teased my memory. He held out a spotted hand, the joints bulbous with arthritis.

"Leo often spoke of you, Pood."

"Leo?"

His eyes, the large intensely deep blue eyes of a redhead, darted away, then darted back.

"Leonard. He hated Lenny. He said it made him think of lemmings swarming to the sea."

"You're Erik, aren't you?" I asked, embarrassed by how strained, even hostile, my voice sounded. But he didn't have to tell me who he was. And, as it happened, I really didn't want to know.

"Yes."

"How did you know to call me Pood?"

"Leo always called you Pood."

"No, he didn't," I almost shouted, as though I were nipping in the bud some horrible slander about my brother before it got a chance to spread throughout the world. "He called me Petey, just like everyone else in this damned family."

"He called you Pood when he talked to me," Erik said quietly.

"That's impossible," I said angrily. "Sara gave me that nickname and I didn't meet Sara till years after Lenny came back from the Air Force." "He called you Pood whenever he spoke to me," he insisted.

I looked at him. In his face, crisscrossed with lines like a road map, there were no longer any traces of the movie-star boyishness of the young airman in the Mortimer Clements Institute picture who had leaned his wrist casually on Lenny's shoulder while he stared so intently into the future.

"I wanted a big brother so badly when he came back from the war. You can't possibly imagine what it would have meant to me. But it was already too late, wasn't it, and I never knew why."

His bright blue eyes narrowed again, as they had in the picture, only now he was gazing back into the past.

"We had both made this fantastic discovery at exactly the same time and we were both so hopeful. We were going home and settle our affairs—I had an engagement to break—and then we were going to get together again in three months. But we were kids then. Just kids. We didn't know that once we got back to our old lives those lives would take over again."

He rubbed his wedding band with his thumb.

"We'd talk on the phone and we kept telling each other that in another three months—and then in another three months—we'd be able to break free."

His voice, which had been getting softer and softer, as he retreated further and further into the past, until I had to strain to hear it, cracked like an adolescent's. His eyes wandered aimlessly around the room until he regained his composure. But he was still back there, somewhere.

"Then we stopped talking about it. And then we were too embarrassed to talk about our feelings at all, so we talked about other things, like any other war buddies would, just as though that wonderful discovery we had shared had never happened at all."

His blue eyes refocused on my face.

"He didn't die here in Philadelphia, Pood. He died a long time ago, in Frisco, right after we got off the troop ship from the South Pacific. We both did. We just didn't make the body count, that's all."

 

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