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FroM ThE DESK OF :         Jake Epstine.
 

Some Kind of Record

 

 

    Once I fell down the hallway stairs of our apartment building in Boyle Heights, I never stopped. It was my Pops who gave me the boot when I took the tumble, but things were always falling on First Street. We lived on the second flood and I slept on a sagging cot in the kitchen, my feet cooled by the flowered linoleum during long summer days. Moms tried to be quiet getting the breakfast of coffee and toast ready for Pops, whispering to herself, “Live like animals, him and the whore,” about our upstairs neighbors. I was always up before the smell of Mrs. Padilla’s beans, onions, cilantro and cayenne floated in through the airshaft between our apartments. Her son Diego, our Shabbos goy, slept on a thick mattress on their black and red painted floor. As if on cue at 5 AM, the hophead couple on the third floor hurled their empty gin bottles down the trash shoot, which clung to the brick wall of the airshaft. The banging of glass against metal and then shattering in the basement’s dumpster was really a secret code to wake Diego and me up. The adults, long accustomed to life’s insults, slept through the onslaught, while Diego and I listened to each other breathing through the open windows and tried to catch more shut eye, before we went out onto First Street to see what bottles would come flying our way that day.

    “Is it hard to sleep in here?” I once asked Diego, when I looked at his red kitchen walls. “It’s so bight.”

    “The red makes it darker in the night” he said, from where he sat on a wooden turquoise chair. “…it’s scary.”

    For as long as I remember the abandoned bottles, barreling to their demise so close to my sleeping head, I was drawn to the assured way Diego’s fingers sketched the ceramic pieces our fathers churned out at Miramar of California into his notebook.

    “Your skin is brown,” I said from my spot on the orange pillow. “And your palms are as pink as the walls”

    “Little man,” Mrs. Padilla said, “Drink this.”

    Diego and I were sitting on her shining wooden floors, the living room walls reflecting spectral light onto the couches and chairs, laminated in hard plastic. The biting smell of the cinnamon in the coffee she handed me on a chipped black plate with a tiny white cup tickled my nose and commanded me to sit up. Brown coffee so sweet I gulped it right down, and in hot minute, a bitterness wove through my guts. I jumped off the pillow and ran to the bathroom, whose walls Diego’s beatnik brother had papered with aluminum foil.

    “You are the Mexican jumping bean, no?” Mrs. Padilla asked, when I returned and lay my head on the soft pillow, next to her faded blue sneakers. The couch’s plastic sighed as she leaned back and slowly looked through her son’s notebook, at the pictures he had sketched of her in bright green and soft orange. My gut settled and I let myself be hypnotized by the blue ceiling moldings and the reassuring sounds of the wobbling streetcars eating up the tracks outside the lace covered windows.

    “You love me, mijo,” Mrs. Padilla said to the only son who still obeyed her.

    I smoothed a square piece of aluminum foil into one of the five sectors of a Miramar deep green vegetable serving set, saying proudly, “It’s Diego’s bathroom.”

    “His brother is a shonda,” Pops bellowed. Moms squinted her eyes at me and gently touched her plaited hair, tied in a small black bow at the top of her head. Still the obedient farm girl from Poland, wearing a worn house dress and a starched white apron, her meaty hands cut into the soft chicken she had spent the afternoon broiling.

“Stop playing with the dishes,” Pops said.

    Moms looked Pops straight in the eye and said, “You the one brings them home.”

    “I’m making villages…for us to live in.”

    “Well don’t,” Pops said, sipping from a glass of ice water. I found the optimal placement for a bright red leaf shaped ashtray, kitty corner to the serving set. I saw it as the home in Boyle Heights I would return to after we migrated, like all the others in Shul, to the Fairfax district. Moms gently ran her blue striped kitchen towel over the ashtray and giggled. A fog smelling of onions frying with bell peppers rolled through the window over my ceramic village, pushing the sulfurous stench of Moms’s steamed broccoli away from my new home on the cot. Uncle Janek rarely spoke, and the desperate gurgling sound of him pulling in air over his vocal cords made me look up at him.

    “Always the artists getting it first,” he whispered. Uncle J slept on the green velveteen Castro Convertible in the living room, which he manipulated with great effort back into couch shape every morning after Pops left with Mr. Padilla for the ceramic factory in El Monte. After slowly munching a hard boiled egg and downing a glass of celery juice, he lit out for the 

First Street Bridge, making it to the Angels Flight Railway by noon, meeting friends from his real home, who ate lunch every weekday in a cheap cafeteria, where they talked so boisterously about their theater days in Vienna before the Anschluss that I could see in their withered bodies the passionate young men they once were. Uncle J always returned home by the time my classes at the Breed Street Shul let out.

    Besides Diego, my only friend was my neighbor Julie Ann Rosen, who passed her afternoons with me in our building’s empty parking lot, behind her father’s used furniture store. We studied the abandoned “Life,” “Look” and movie magazines he saved to wrap the cheap mismatched drinking glasses he sold, ten for a buck. Julie Ann perused the hairdos of the cast of “Peyton Place,” and I looked at the snaps of Richard Evans, who played Paul Hanley. When I was fourteen, she giddily showed me a “Screen Stories,” with Batman in his black mask and blue cape on the cover. Why did they let him pose with pit stains? I thought.

    “You want to be Robin,” Julie Ann said in a threatening voice, “And live in the Batcave.”

    Truth was I wanted to kick Judy Carne out of “Love on a Rooftop,” and live with Pete Duel.

    “Don’t you? Don’t you? Don’t you?” Julie Ann demanded.

    Uncle J rounded the corner and called out, “Killing young men again,” as he held up a picture of two soldiers with filthy bandages around their heads on the cover “Life,” next to the caption The War Goes On. Julie Ann laughed and made a sad face as Uncle J walked toward us. Pale blue

eyes as wide open as I’d ever seen them, he shook his finger an inch from Julie Ann’s nose and opened his mouth to speak. A strangled wheeze came out. I turned away and looked into the shining glass of the building’s back door, at the reflection of Julie Ann’s face as it puckered up like a cast off peach, left out for the birds to devour.

    “Your uncle looks like he was hit in the head with a baseball bat,” Julie Ann shrieked, after Uncle J walked inside.

    “He doesn't have hair on his arms like you do,” I said.

    “Well…well…” she stammered.

    I spent so much time with Julie Ann that our parents were convinced we were going to get married. The skinny was that I wanted to be like her when I grew up. When I sat on her living room couch, I was mesmerized by the way she aggressively combed out her long black hair, then absentmindedly fastened a bright green headband to hold its thickness in check. Since she was the only neighborhood girl the boys from Shul talked about at lunchtime, over soggy tuna fish sandwiches and limp stalks of celery, I walked the way she did. Julie Ann promenaded slowly down First Street after her school let out, her blue secondhand three ring binder held teasingly to her chest. Hungry eyes, moving sideways, the silent boys from the Shul trailed behind her. Julie Ann’s thin pink lips saying “Hello” to the boys, who relentlessly looked down at the cracked sidewalk or over to the abandoned streetcar tracks. Julie Ann’s pace quickened whenever a lone boy looked at her and spit out a tortured “Hello.” Smooth young hands with shining fingernails betrayed the breathtaking pull to touch at the moment the scrupulous eyes of Julie Ann’s father, standing behind his cash register, looked out to the sidewalk and readjusted the

blue and white yarmulke on his bald head.

    “Well…well,” Julie Ann regurgitated.

    I looked into the waxy brown box from the Candy Store which held that afternoon’s cache of magazines. Patty Duke smiled up at me.

    “You’re a fageleh…everybody says so.”

    I held the copy of “Screen Stories” close to my chest, the way Julie Ann held her binder. That was wrong, everything about me must be wrong.

    “That’s why no one talks to you…except that Mexican Diego.” Diego was the only boy who talked to me. Fact was I never thought about it. Watching him sketch and paint, as he told me his plans for huge street murals on the sides of Boyle Heights’ brick buildings, was enough for me.

    “And his father doesn’t want you around his son. My mother said so.”

    I couldn’t see myself in the back door’s shining glass. All I could feel was the cool metal railing that led down to the building’s basement. Like the gin bottles tumbling down the trash shoot every morning, Julie Ann woke me up to a world that had no place for boys like me. The stares, the laughing behind my back, the clucking sounds my classmates made when I answered a question, the words whispered by the Mexican boys and the kisses they blew my way, before their eyes darkened with anger. I got it, why only Diego and his parents came to my bar mitzvah at the Shul the year before, after which Pops and Diego’s father sat next to each other on the Castro, dead eyes watching a game on television. Diego and I making tacos from scratch, while our mothers cooked at the stove in the red kitchen.

    “The way you move and talk…” Julie Ann continued, “boys don’t do that.”

    My sweat dripped onto the railing. My gut churned, worse than when Mrs. Padilla served me her sweet coffee. I looked into the darkness of the basement.

    “Everybody knows,” she said.

    My feet would not hold me up and the basement dragged me into its coolness. I sat on a three legged chair held in place by a brick and crossed my legs at the knee. That was wrong. I knew now why the boys at Shul didn’t talk to me. Why the rabbi smirked when I asked him a question. I thought a heard a streetcar squeak to a halt, but there were no more streetcars. And if there were, I was too weighted down to get on it and escape over the river to Angels Flight.

    When my legs granted me permission to stand, I walked up the stairs to our apartment, making sure no one could see this me, this thing who wasn't a boy. I sat next to Uncle J on the Castro.

    “Julie is the cold one,” he said.

    I stared at the television. It would be best to stop using the voice that I had never paid attention to before.

   “Russian family…that mother is related with the Czar.”

    “I don’t want to marry her.”

    Uncle J laughed and handed me his glass of popping seltzer water to drink. We looked at the television screen, where a woman in a fur coat and hat slowly walked onto the Santa Monica Pier. Sad eyes and corrupted hopes, her secret was out. Everybody knew. She gripped the pier railing with her gloved hands, readying herself to jump in. A cynicalop narrowed his eyes and banged on

the railing with a black baton. The woman pulled back. She wants to be where it’s cool and dark, like in the basement, I thought. Tears rolled down my eyes, hitting the seltzer, making it pop more.

    “Tomorrow, we pass the day,” Uncle J said as he put his arm around me.

                                                                #

    “The child needs time,” Uncle J said the next morning to Moms and Pops.

    “Time to miss school?” Pops asked.

   “The yeshiva don’t teach the boy about life,” Moms answered.

    “He’s your brother,” Pops said, working the paper’s crossword puzzle and gulping black coffee.

    “I pay the yeshiva,” Uncle J shouted.

    Moms handed me her empty leather satchel, kissed my forehead and said, “For your adventure.”

    No long walk to Angels Flight, under a June gloom Los Angeles sky for Uncle J and me. A wheezing yellow cab took us further into the city than I’d ever been. Our feet on cool concrete, Uncle J and I stood in front of the Central Library on Flower Street.

    “You and me,” Uncle J said. We looked up at two naked men astride horses on the frieze above the entrance, one handing the other a torch. I would have to bring Diego here, so he could draw it. But would his dad let him come with me to this place, to see these men?

    “Teatr is for you,” Uncle J said.

    Moms's satchel so weighed down with the plays of Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, Chekov and Ibsen that I puffed like our cab as Uncle J and I hoofed it to his favorite down-at-the-heels cafeteria, whose neon sign had long ago shorted out, leaving it unable to proclaim “Eats & Drinks” to South Olive Street.

    I sat among several men in their mid-fifties at a rectangular table, draped in white linen, a stain here and there revealing its provenance. Like Uncle J, they all spoke with heavy accents and, like him, all had eyes which surveyed their surroundings with skepticism, even the crack in the glass pepper shaker. Willie, Uncle J’s acting bud from Vienna, stared at me and pantomimed my placing the leather satchel on the cracked vinyl yellow chair at the head of the table. He must know. Everything about me is wrong. “Ja, Ja,” the men murmured as Uncle J talked about the cover of “Life” magazine. The men’s eyes glanced at me as if I was the pepper shaker, intuitively knowing how deep the crack on my surface went. When they occasionally broke into Polish or German, I knew they were talking about me. It was best for me to remain silent. These men were once boys my age, never a fageleh like me.

    “Not talkative like his uncle,” Saul said.

    “Is he in love with the neighbor girl?” Hermann asked.

    Creased foreheads all around leaned in with expectation. I had to say something to keep them off the scent.

    “You talk a lot?” I asked my haunted Uncle J.

    The men laughed, their foreheads smoothing out as they threw their heads back, their eyes no longer digging into me.

    “That girl goes to public school,” I said.

    “From a Russian family,” Uncle J added mischievously.

    “Better to study at the Shul,” Hermann said.

    Their voices were so deep, like a man’s should be.

    “The boy looks hungry,” Willie said.

    “He eats with his Mexican friend,” Uncle J said. “…doesn’t gain a pound.”

    “He looks like you Janek,” Saul said.

    “I’m watching brother grow up again,” Moms would say when I carried the grocery bags up the stairs for her, after school on Mondays. “But here is a safe place to be…even with the whore and her fella.” Moms had emigrated to Canada when she was ten, in the years before the Anschluss. Uncle J had moved to Vienna by then, to study.

    The men at their lunch table were oblivious to the streaked tiles of the cafeteria we ate in, the opaque mirrors on the walls or the grimy metal napkin dispensers. Yet, they would stop and listen to a bird sing on South Olive street, smiling and patting each other on the shoulder as they said good-bye, looking up into the cloudy sky for a last glimpse at the bird.

    “Boychik, you have the look of a vagabond, searching for purpose,” Willie said. The other men hungrily ate potato salad, beets and cheese sandwiches, slathered with mayo as if they hadn’t eaten for days. “You will be in the play I do.” 

Jake.jpg

In 'Some Kind of Record' Five disparate Gay and Queer men, riding out the whims of the desert in a crumbling Palm Springs apartment complex, examine their lives on Election Day 2016, when one of them is pulled under by a tidal wave of defeats.

Jake is a Queer writer and monologist.  His work has been published in “34th Parallel Magazine” and “The Seattle Examiner.”  An excerpt from his novel, “The Broken Glass In My Pocket” was published in “Adelaide Literary Magazine.”  His story, “A Dog Without A Bone” was read on the “Homegrown Radio” Station KWMR.  Jake’s monologue, “I Was Saved By The Ladies Of The Night,” was featured in “Coping: An Evening of LGBTQ+ Shorts” at Georgia State University.  An exiled Hollywood denizen, Jake lives in the desert, a barren place in every sense of the word.  Plus, it's hot…he sits in front of the fan and writes.

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