the David Letterman show
When Mrs. Abrams answered the door, she was obviously shocked by the ringworm covering my right cheek, and of course she asked if I were okay. I assured her I was, and told her what happened, and that I was tired and out of money and had no where to go.
I said that out loud for the first time, even though I knew it wasn’t true. I could have gone to Wendy’s or Granny’s or Auntie Lo’s, but had told them goodbye already and was full of pride and resentment. Mrs. Abrams knew that, but said nothing about it. She had already shared the story of the Prodigal son returning home no matter what had happened, and I never heard her repeat herself. I just didn’t want to see my biologic family again.
“We could use some help here,” she said, glancing around her living room and resting her eyes on Mr. Abrams empty chair.
I had been one of his pallbearers only a few weeks before; the boys had had a rough senior year of high school, and Mrs. Abrams was fatigued, too. I knew that she was offering for me to help because she could use it, and also because she knew I’d never ask, because of too much pride or shame or any one of the many plagues of adolescence.
She was Big Head Ben’s mother, and Big Head had introduced me to wrestling and Coach three years earlier, when we were kids. She was a 5th grade teacher, but I never sat in one of her classes. I met her when she picked up her two sons after practice, Big Head and Mace. And when I stayed after school for cross-country track, I saw her picking them up for or baseball or boy scouts or band practice, depending on the season. She was always there for them.
Last year, she had noticed that I jogged home past her house every day, and though she heard me say I was doing it to loose weight, she had if she could drive me half way home. That way, if I wanted, I could help her younger son, Erik the Viking, with his middle-school math homework. And, if my weight would allow, I could stay for dinner. If I wanted.
I ate a lot of meals at the Abrams that year. They had always been an idealic family, even back in middle school when Big Head and I met. Despite his nickname, he was one of the most popular kids in school, handsome and charming and talented in everything he did. He never bullied me, like the other kids, even though he could have. He was already the state champion martial artist. He practiced Ku Kempo in summer, and wrestled in winter, and played baseball in spring, and in the marching band in the fall.
I never knew why we were friends, other than he was a nice guy who wanted to learn magic and sleight of hand to augment his knife-throwing act – he was even popular in Baton Rouge as a performer at festivals and street fairs using his stage name, Jack Dagger. He even let me perform at a few of them: I’d get someone to sign a playing card, palm it secretly, and toss the cards into the air. Big Head Jack Dagger, “The King of Fling,” would fling his knife at the wall of cards falling in front of his target, and impale one. The audience would watch me walk to the target and pull the knife out, and yank the card off its tip, and show them the signed card. They never thought to watch if I switched it, nor did they see me tear a hole in it while Big Head – I mean Jack Dagger – flung his knife into the falling cards.
Their entire family was like Big Head: handsome and talented and charming. And they were all good at school, partly because Mrs. Abrams was a teacher who loved books and literature and sharing with her sons, and partly because Mr. Abrams was a musician and HAM radio enthusiast who loved teaching his sons about radios and the physics behind his hobbies.
Their home had a dedicated music room with more instruments than Belaire’s music classroom, and Mr. Abrams had converted their garage into a HAM radio center and electronics prototyping workshop. Their radio antenea poked above the garage and was like a beacon to other kids in the neighborhood, because we all felt that the Abrams were everything that we wanted our families to be.
Mr. Abrams had gotten cancer a year before, the same time Uncle Bob had. At first, the symptoms were the same. Both lost a lot of weight, and both had to be cared for at home. No one heard much from Big Head or the other Abrams that year, and I had missed seeing Mrs. Abrams at wrestling matches. And I missed her driving me half way home – that was a long jog to do every day. And I missed hanging out with Big Head and Mace and playing like we were vikings with their little brother, Erik.
But, by that time, I had been a part in so many families that I just assumed any new one was transient, so I didn’t blame them for forgetting about me. I figured that no matter how much they said they liked me, I wouldn’t be invited to Thanksgiving dinners or senior trips or anything else that real family members attend. I bowed out of their lives gracefully. But, after Big Head and Mace dropped off the wrestling team, when I asked Mrs. Abrams if everything was okay, not as Magik, but as the wrestling team captain concerned about Big Head and Mace, I learned the whole truth.
I didn’t seek out asking her personal questions, but she stopped her car one night when I was jogging to work, just after I had wrecked the car Granny bought for me, and asked if I wanted a ride. Of course I said no, that I was loosing weight, and then I asked if the boys would be back on the team. She broke down and began crying. I was unsure what to do. Mrs. Abrams never cried, even when talking about her husband dying of cancer, and though I associated crying with being drunk, I knew she didn’t drink, so I didn’t know what would make someone so sad. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing and just waited.
She asked if she could talk with me privately, somewhere where we could sit, and I said of course, that I’d forego training and loosing weight to help the Abrams family. So I got in her car and she dried her eyes and we went to where I worked, a small neighborhood bar and grill named Tony’s.
The owners, Lynn and Lynn, a husband and wife musician group who had taken over Lynn’s dad’s donut shop, Tony’s, were there and greated us with the familiarity of a local restaurant in a town where parents and grandparents probably had known each other. They knew Mrs. Abrams well; they seemed to know everyone in town. I had quit working there after wrecking my car, but they were friends, and were happy to see us, and gave us a free fried shrimp po’boy to share while we talked.
Mr. Abrams had AIDES, Mrs. Abrams told me concisely. I didn’t know what that was, because it was 1989, and the Reagan administration had only used that word a few weeks earlier. Few people knew what AIDES was, and those who did associated it with perverts and gays and homos. Many people, especially in the ostensibly religious south, said it was God’s way of dealing with sinners. No wonder she was crying.
But, I didn’t know any of the facts back then. It hadn’t been my problem until I saw Mrs. Abrams crying. But that day, munching on half of a fried shrimp po’boy, I listened to Mrs. Abrams explain AIDES and HIV. I noticed that she seemed relieved, as if she had been holding secrets from friends and coworkers, and was finally able to unload her thoughts to a human who wouldn’t judge her or her family. I could relate.
Mrs. Abrams was the only adult who knew my situation. To this day, I don’t know if she asked for my help to help me, or if she asked because she really was at the end of her energy and needed someone she trusted at home to help. Either way, I said yes, and she said I’d have to go through training first.
The next week, I began meeting nurses at the Abrams’ home and learning about safe handling of blood and spit and mucus; the only thing scientists were sure about was that HIV spread through body fluids, but not through touch or doorhandles or toilet seats, like most popular news reported and fueled discrimination against people dying from the disease that had been around for four years by then, despite President Reagan not using the word.
I began staying with the Abrams on and off after that, from the beginning of wrestling season in 1989 until Mr. Abrams died a few weeks before city finals in 1990. I slept on their couch or in the music room, and helped Erik the Viking with his middle school math homework and talked with him about the pros and cons of going to Scotlandville Magnet High for the Engineering Professions vs. Belaire, where his brothers went, because I was the only person we knew who had been to both. And I practiced martial arts and knife throwing with Big Head, who planned on becoming a Hollywood actor or stuntman, and got tutored in high school math by Mace, who wanted to become a math teacher. By accepting Mr. Abrams, I had found a family, complete with brothers that argued and a kind and generous, yet aloof, father.
And I grew. Both over the wrestling season, and instantly, in the time it took to share a po’boy. I saw that their ideal family had secrets they wouldn’t share with everyone, and suddenly I felt that I wasn’t alone. And, a lot of things the boys said now made sense. They, too, hid their fears of becoming like their father. Instead of wrestling, they poured their fears into school and books and music and knife throwing and martial arts.
Social stigmas are strong, and back then being called a “gay,” “homo,” or “faggot” was as strong of an insult as being called a nigger or retard, but with an added layer of shame, because people said being a faggot was a choice. You were born a nigger or retarded, but you chose to be gay. Even the big churches, like the Baton Rouge Jimmy Swaggart academy, told their followers that. Now I understood why even though Mrs. Abrams wore a cross necklace and was a Christian, she never went to church.
Mr. Abrams had died a few weeks before Big Daddy. Mrs. Abrams was the only person I could talk about secrets with, not to feel relief, but to put into context our conversations about nature vs nurture, whether life was predetermined, and if we had the freedom to choose our futures.
I had been a pallbearer at Mr. Abrams funeral, along with Steve and Slim Tim and Mad Dog – all of us Big Head’s friends. Mad Dog had been one of my friends at Scotlandville High, and he and Big Head had welcomed me to Belaire and encouraged me to join the wrestling team. In a way, they and the Abrams were more my family than my family, and after Mr. Abrams’ funeral I alternated staying at their homes while the Abrams mourned and had their entire house stripped and cleaned; the boys tested negative for HIV, and scientists disproved the theories about door handles and toilet seats, but Mrs. Abrams wanted to be sure. And she probably wanted to be busy rather than think.
I understood that, too. I think Mrs. Abrams and I bonded because we never asked how the other was doing, but we always listened without judgement when one or the other had something to say. So when Mrs. Abrams asked to about the ringworm on my face, it was a rare question posed to me, but an understandable one given our medical history, so I told as much of the truth as I could, and it felt good.
I told her how I had been staying at the downtown wrestling gym, and that I had spent all of my money on prom. It was worth it, I said, and even in hindsight I agree; Steve and I had double-dated and rented tuxedos and a limoseune and had the best liquor two underage boys could imagine. (I learned that liquor stores wouldn’t honor my emancipation paperwork; they wanted me to be 18, the legal drinking age in Louisiana). But now I had missed junior olympics and had nothing to look forward to and no money, and I was a tired, hungry, and poor. I was worse off than the wrestling dummy I laid my head down to rest with every evening.
Fortunately, Mrs. Abrams said she could use some help at home, and asked if I’d like to stay for the two months until I left for the army. I said yes, and never even went back to the gym to get my helmet and backpack full of smelly shirts.
A few days later, Steve was diagnosed with mono – the kissing disease – and was expected to be bedridden for a few months. I knew that he and Big Head had planned to spend the summer before college on a road trip, and Mrs. Abrams told me that Miss Peggy, Steve’s mom, had told her they’d have to cancel.
Big Head would be devestated, she said! And she wanted Ben to have a fun summer, free from worries, to shake off his senior year before going to college.
I could relate; I had wanted the same out of junior olympics before going to the army. But, now Big Head couldn’t go, unless I could find a way to go with him.
Mrs. Abrams paused, genuinely thinking rather than giving me time to process. I knew I couldn’t afford to go. She offered to pay my way by paying all of Ben’s gas and asking him to share meals; if I wanted to do anything else, I could do street magic or something on the road. I processed that, and it sounded like the best summer vacation I could imagine, even better than getting beaten up at junior olympics. (I never was good on the national level, and usually lost my first two matches. But I was extraordinary at street magic. I had been skipping school and performing on the streets of N’Awlins for a jazz beat or three, and I was an extraordinary street performer, and had made almost $26,000 then year of 1989-1990, performing on the streets and in the Superdome and Convention Center. I was somewhat famous. I had been kinda a Big Deal in Louisiana during Big Daddy’s funeral, but as a pseudonym or three, depending on the venue; the New Orleans Convention Center is one of the world’s largest gathering places for human beings under one ginourmas big air conditioned roof. It, and the taxis and Ubers and Lifts and unlicensed POS’s with handwritten signs taking you to the Superdome for the world’s largest sporting event, are part of what makes New Orleans N’Awlins. Every taxi driver was a performer. Every street performer was a sage. It was the VooDoo capital of America, the BirthPlace of Jazz, the Home to Creol, The Big Easy, The Crescent City, The City of Sin, Sweet Home N’Awlins and the Chicago train line that Arlo Duthrie sang about in “City if New Orleans,” the train name that ferried jazz men to Chicago to be blues men, and brought them home again. I know what it means, to Miss New Orleans, immutably sang Louis Armstong; he concluded his handwritten letters with, “Red Beans & Ricely Yours, A. Armstrong.”
Louis Armstrong was New Orleans , and had learned Magic from Her streets, and I had to balance my desire to shout my love with my honor of The Magicians Code: “Never divulge s secret.”
I didn’t know what to do. I paused. I smiled. I waited. Like the great close-up magician of Old Europe, Nate Leipzig, said of misdirection, “Veit. Just Viet.” And when asked by an impatient student of what they was waiting for, Leipzig had said, “For de Right Time. For de Right Time, son.” And Leipzig smiled for Kings and Queens, like King Louis and Queen Anna, and vaited, and vaited some more, and when one was looking or worried about the future, he walked an elephant on stage, and no one noticed. He performed magic for Kings and Queens in order to earn his livelihood before marketing as we know it existed. He was the first close up magician I studied, and ironically the first to produce an elephant for the King and Queen of France who were honored by using the Spanish word for “and,” “y,” and creating Louisiana. King Louius, y Queen Anna. Louisiana.
Big Head and Mace returned to our home in Red Stick Louis y Anna, and they learned the news.
Ben was jealous, and that pissed him off about himself.
That made me feel good, like I was a real brother who could cause jealously in siblings. We told him we’d meet Mace in Canada for the drum-corp competition in five weeks, then we hit the road like Jack Keroac, with a suitcase full of clean clothes, a stack of books, and a backpack full of magic; like the Blues Brothers on a Mission from God in Chicago, with a briefcase full of blues, a half a pack of cigarettes, a microphone, and a full tank of gas.
We had no time to discuss details, so we flew like Gonzo out of Hell, speeding through bat country with a briefcase full of recreational naarcotics and clean underwear, and we asked no questions as we began was the road trip of a lifetime. He practiced his knife-throwing act; I practiced my magic. We were both legal adults (he was 18; I had a piece of notarized paper that said I was legal), we had no where to be for s summer, we carried condoms, and money was no object. If it hadn’t been for a broken CD player, forever repeating Queenschye’s latest CD, it would have been a flawless trip.
Three weeks after we begn that teip, and just before sunrise, Big Head slapped my leg to wake me up and pointed through the car windshield, past windsheild wipers markin’ time to Janice Joplin’s voice, at New York City’s Twin Towers.
We were two Louisiana teenagers exploring the world for the first time, and nothing had prepared us for seeing the New York City skyline slowly illuminate on our first cross-country road trip.
Big Head was trying to find the address where we’d be staying. He had written the directions down, but nothing prepares you for a city of 20 million people anxious to get to work in the morning. Everyone was honking horns and cursing and shoving their middle finger out their car windows. Granny would have approved.
We stared, peacefully, then began cursing and trying to navigate morning rush hour traffic in downtown Manhattan. It’s true. There were 20 Million people trying to get into Manhattan, and all of them were angry at Big Head and me for being too happy in their city. More than one saw Ben’s license plate, and have us the one fingered Canadian grandmother salute, and told is to go the fuck back to bumfuck Louisiana, us assholes.” Some spat with remarkable precision. I smiled and waved and apologized profusely.
We finally found the address for two young ladies that he and Steve had met in Florida. And though they were disappointed that Steve had mono and couldn’t make it – I made a point of telling them that I was fit and health – they were happy to meet me, and looked forward to showing us New York on the weekend, when they weren’t working or in school. Until then, we had full use of their apartment and could walk and explore the Big Apple without bothering to check in with them.
This was a decade before cell phones, and no one wanted to use pay phones because you could get AIDES from them. We didn’t contradict them, and we accepted their key with anticipation of whatever motivates 17 and 18 year old boys on the Best Road Trip Ever.
We’d split up and meet back to meet each others needs. Big Head wanted to see the NY baseball stadium, and I wanted to see Tannen’s Magic Shop. But, we both agreed to one thing: we must get on the David Letterman show, and we had a better likelihood of doing that if we tried to do it together, because free tickets could be in pairs.
Late Night with David Letterman was filmed at 11am, at NBC studio’s skyscraper, and any vacant seats in the audience were given to people who waited in line. We had heard that he line forms early, and because Big Head was impossible to wake up early, we decided to stay out all night and be first in line. And, just in case this would be my 15 minutes of New York fame, I filled my pockets with cards and coins and planned to perform in line, hoping for a chance to perform on the most watched television show in America.
We got tickets, called our friends and family from payphone booths using pocketfulls of change, and we asked them them to record that night’s show on their VCR’s. We wanted to guarantee at least one copy that we could see for ourselves.
We walked into NBC studios wide eyed and enthusiastic despite not having slept all night. Our seats were apart – last minute cancelations from group researvations – but we could see each other, and would grin ear-to-ear every time David Letterman made a joke to warm up the crowd before filming.
We had seen David’s show enough to know that he interacted with his audience, and sometimes they made it to the aired version, so I was prepared with four half dollars palmed in my right hand, ready to produce one at a time if called upon. I wasn’t, and the show began, but I kept the coins in my palm rather than risk spilling them down the isle and onto Dave’s desk.
The first guest was a professional mountain biker. He entered from behind us on his bike, and bounced down the steps and onto the stage. I don’t remember what they talked about.
The next guest was Cindi Crawford, the famous model and softdrink spokesperson; both Big Head and I had posters of her on our walls at some point in our lives, and we glanced at each other with wide eyes and toothy grins, and gave a “thumbs up” for how cool this was. She sat next to Dave and they chatted for a while, but I don’t remember what they said.
The next guest was Robert Downey Junior, but I didn’t know who he was then. (He’s Iron Man.) But I remembered what he and Dave talked about: drugs. Apparently, Robert did a lot of drugs – hard drugs like cocaine – and had been in trouble with law many times, but had decided to get “cleaned up” and pay for rehab. The audience applauded and cheered and were so happy for him.
For some reason, that bothered me. I thought we were in a war on drugs, and my dad had gone to prison for soft drugs. By then, I knew that marijuana was ridiculously benign, and much less harmful than alcohol, and that it took four vehicles and almost 20 armed men to arrest us, yet I looked around and saw people applauding Robert Downey Junior because he admitted to doing hard drugs on national television, and nothing would happen to him because he could pay for rehab. I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and missed several of Dave’s jokes that would have made the situation seem funny.
After the show, Big Head and I were so excited that we decided to not go home, and we walked around Manhattan and did street magic and his knife routine. (This was in 1990, eleven years before 9/11, and two kids carrying and throwing knives publicly wouldn’t have shocked people as much back then.)
I had become really good at three card monte and the Immaculate Connection, and had learned to set up an audience to open the folded cards on their own, which made the restoration more miraculous, and I taught the basics of three card monte so they wouldn’t be fooled for real money.
At the time, monte hustlers were common on Manhattan street corners, and people felt like they were being given a gift of knowledge that would help them, and, ironically, tipped me more than I would have won hustling three-card monte. And, in New York, people made much more money than in Baton Rouge or New Orleans, so I was pleasantly surprised that tips were $10 to $40 each. I couldn’t afford rehab, but at least now I could afford to start having even more fun in New York, and I saw a plan for each major city we planned to visit, from Boston to Toronto, Detroit to Chicago, and, of course, to Nashville, where I wanted to go to Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood.
Maybe I was just tired, but I felt like I was the luckiest person on Earth. Big Head felt the same. We had long since stopped talking about our senior year, and saw each day as an exciting adventure. We had even gotten on the Late Show with David Letterman and saw Cindi Crawford in person!
We talked about how jealous Steve and the guys would be when they saw us on television, and we left the streets to head back to the girls’ apartment in time to watch ourselves.
The girls celebrated with us, and laughed when the camera panned by Big Head’s big head looking around for me, and they laughed even harder at my awkward hand position from holding too many coins – one or two would have been enough – and at my hat.
I had forgotten about that hat; I bought it from a street bendor because it made me laugh, but I forgot I was wearing it in the excitement of getting on David Letterman. It was a horribly crude looking cartoon magician with an magic wand, and it said, “It’s not the size of the wand, it’s the magic in it.” No wonder Dave never called on me.
About 2/3 through Dave’s show, just before the audience applauded Robert Downey’s drug use, a live news bulletin interrupted. We knew it must be important to interrupt Late Night with David Letterman, but we groaned and asked why it had to happen on our 15 minutes of fame. But then I leaned forward, and asked everyone to be quiet so I could listen.
Iraq had invaded Kuwait that day, and President Bush was sending the 82nd Airborne to the Kuwait border to prevent Iraq from continuing into Saudi Arabia and threatening the world’s oil supply. They were on airplanes as we watched the news, and would be on the ground within 18 hours. We were going to war.
Even though Big Head knew I was leaving for the 82nd in a month, he was human, and knowing facts doesn’t lead to an emotional connection, so he was more upset that our VCR recording would show news rather than an uninterrupted Late Night with David Letterman.
He and the girls made a few jokes, and I joked with them; but, like with the audience on David Letterman earlier that day, I felt disconnected from them.
This wasn’t funny. People were going to war. I was going to war. People would die, like Uncle Bob and Granny and Mr. Abrams and Auntie Lo had, snd, soon, Mrs. Abrams. And now maybe me.
I was not laughing with them, but I was becoming detached from what they felt was funny or irritating.
I didn’t mention it again.
A few weeks later, after what continued to be the best trip ever, Big Head was driving from Nashville back to Baton Rouge in an all-night marathon, fueled by super-sized Pepsi’s that had been endorsed by Cindi Crawford. He was recapping our trip, punctuating each story with exclamations like, “Oh my god! Do you remember…” then telling me what we both remembered; or, “Oh my god! Wasn’t that amazing…” then summarizing a week in a city with a condensed burst of memories. For New York, he shortened a week into the first time we saw the amazing skyline and asking if I remembered being on David Letterman.
David Letterman brought back memories. I had read the news since then, and knew that we were sending more and more troops. Almost 500,000 soldiers were in Saudi Arabia. They were a collaboration among many countries, but spearheaded by the United States, and led by the 82nd’s commanding general, Stromin’ Norman Scwartzoff; he was a magician, and we were in the same magic club and attended the same conferences, coincidentally.
500,000 soldiers sounds like an overwhelming force, but Iraq jad almost equal number of Iraqi soldiers, amd even more tanks and anti-aircraft guns than we did.
They lined the border of Iraq and Kuwait. and were digging into defensive bunkers. History knew that defensive positions were the safest place to be in war – other than being in Switzerland during WWII – and that all offensive armies suffered heavy losses.
The news compared our impending border crossing into Iraq with storming the beaches of Normandy in WWII. I knew that history, and knew that paratroopers suffered 50-70% casualties. I also knew that I could still back out of my contract with the U.S. Army.
I was still just a kid. Only 17 years old. I felt more mature and older, but traveling had made me realize just how little I knew. And I liked it. I had been having so much fun that I saw things like the army and wrestling for what they were; fun to plan because they were a distraction, but I no longer needed a distraction. I was very, bery satisfied with where I was and where I was going, and I could wait patiently for few more months, and pass time by perfecting magic and listening to all the songs Janice knew.
I stared out the window as I listened to Big Head and his superlatives recount the trip we had shared, because I was used to his Pepsi-fueled enthusiasm when he drove, and after I got us lost a few times I happily allowed him to take the wheel whenever he wanted. I even paid for some of the Pepsis. But, this time, I interupted him with a thought that I didn’t fully understand at the time.
“Ben,” I began. “Ben… Ben…” I repeated until he stopped talking about somethingt amazing.
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s the Coke!” He explained as he held up his almost empty super-sized drink. I laughed at an inside joke; in the south, where Coca Cola was invented, every softdrink was a Coke. If you ordered a Coke, a waitress would ask, “What kind? We have Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, etc.” And, of course, cocaine, which was an original ingredient in Coke, helps Teamsters stay awake and drive all night, and sobers up my dad enough to drive home.
“What’s up?” He asked, then put the straw in his mouth and sipped and waited.
I hadn’t been talking much for a few weeks, probably because we had talked about everything except what mattered, and I didn’t feel the need to talk about what we had seen. I wanted to talk about what mattered, but was too young to know what to say. I began talking in the middle of my thought, and did what I rarely did. I asked a question.
“What do you think about what happened to your dad and Mrs. Abrams?” Even speaking to Big Head, I called his mom Mrs. Abrams; that was her identity in my mind, just as my mom was Wendy.
Big Head didn’t flinch. He had been thinking about that, too. His rambling stories about amazing adventures were the same as my wrestling Hillary Clinton.
“I’ve been thinking about that, and I don’t know what I think.” We both sat quietly for a while, until he made the unmistakable sound of slurping the last sip from a supersized Coke, then he continued without using superlatives. This was a hard conversation for us to have, and even though he was Coked-up, he chose his words carefully.
But those words were too ingrained with our shared experiences and pop culture references to make sense today. What he told me was that he was struggling with his feelings, and that he was conflicted. He professed to be Christian, and knew that Jesus Christ said that all one had to do was follow a few rules, help people, and practice forgiveness, yet he couldn’t forgive his dad. He couldn’t even process that Mrs. Abrams would inevitably die soon, and would probably suffer just like his dad; back then, AIDES victims lost weight and were covered in sores because of their weakened immune system.
AIDES stands for Active Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and body sores were a common symptom. That’s why Mrs. Abrams had been concerned about my ringworm two months before, and why she violated our unspoken agreement to not ask questions. Her son and I were asking questions to help us understand our situations, and he continued without speculating about the future.
At first, he had wondered why Mrs. Abrams had invited me into their home. I was his friend, but their home lives were private. He had been ashamed of his father, and angry, but he still loved him and at first felt that he couldn’t be himself with someone not in the family living with them. But then he saw how much Mrs. Abrams seemed to benefit.
“She and I talked a lot,” I interjected.
“She felt comfortable around you,” he replied.
“But it was more than that…” I searched for the words to explain it, but I couldn’t, so I told him about a book she lent me that I thought explained it better than I could.
Mrs. Abrams had always lent me books after listening to me try to explain something, and every time it seemed that I learned lessons from the books and developed a vocabulary to better express complex thoughts. I had even grown to ask her for recommendations of things to read when I wanted to achieve something. When I wanted to impress a girl and ask her to prom, I asked for the most romantic poem she knew, and she gave me two. I memorized both, “Friendship” by Hugh Prather, and “She Walks in Beauty,” by Lord Byron.
They worked: it was the best prom ever, and since then, I’ve encouraged anyone in love or considering a career in computer programming, please learn about She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron, and Lady Lovelace.
That day, I had asked Mrs. Abrams m how to become a better person and she lent me a copy of the The New Testament It was difficultv to understand what she meant.
She said her favorite verses were in Matthew and Luke and Marc – they were probably a series of teachers and students iteratively improving an original story from a few decades after Jesus died – and she even said I could write in her book to take notes and highlight what I felt was useful to my situation. This wasn’t school. This was real life.
I felt overwhelmed, so she found a different copy that had the words of Jesus clearly written in red, and italicized, and all other words written in black Times New Roman.
I was surprised at how few words he had used, and how similar the stories were; though at the time, I didn’t know that Matthew and Luke had probably studied under Mark, and that he had repeated stories from other people, so the repetition makes more sense now. Like Ben, I circled the parts in Mark, Matthew, and Luke where Jesus summarized the entire bible into a few words, and those words were simply love and charity and forgiveness. But, like Ben repeating the words about the 82nd but not feeling the emotions on a deep and life-changing way, we could only repeat the words, and knew, ironically, that Jesus said repeating words without feeling the sentiment made you a hypocrite, the worse thing imaginable, and that repeating the words led to the blind leading the blind.
So, I knew that Big Head Ben was confused because he did not feel the words he could repeat. Neither did I. I told him about the only book Mrs. Abrams had lent me that I hadn’t requested, “The Chosen,” by Chaim Polluck, a writer from New York city; that got Big Head’s attention.
“The Chosen is set in New York City after WWII, when Jewish kids came to America and tried to blend in by playing baseball” – Ben perked up at that – “and they struggled with their old traditions compared to their beliefs.”
I sounded like a literature student, taking my turn summarizing a book I read in front of a classroom. In a way, that’s exactly what I was doing, except our classroom was going 65 miles an hour towards Baton Rouge.
“So one of the kid’s dad is a rabaii, and he’s super-traditional, but the kid’s not, and he and his dad don’t talk much. But his dad talks to his friend all the time, and his friend is the book’s narrator. At the end of the book, the rabaii looks off into the distance and tells the narrator a Jewish story about love, and that sometimes you can love someone so much that you can’t think clearly around them, all you want to do is protect them and help them avoid your mistakes, so you choose to talk to their friends, and tell them things in hopes they tell your son.”
I reached over and grabbed Big Head’s Coke, and poured some of the tiny ice cubes into my mouth, more to stall for time than to quench thirst. He took the cup back and did the same. We drove for a while with only the sound of road noise and crunching ice.
When all the ice was gone and the cup was empty, Ben stared at the road and simply said, “I see. That makes more sense.”
He asked what she told me, and I talked about forgiveness. She had told me that she never expected her husband to be unfaithful, much less with other men, and she was as hurt and as angry as anyone could imagine, but she had two things: Faith in what Jesus said about happiness through forgiveness, and love for her children. She was doing her best.
We had talked and talked and talked over a few weeks, and I circled red words in the New Testament and asked more, more for my sake than empathy and compassion for her; though one probably led to the other. I never asked her about heaven or hell, because I was unconcerned about a future possibility, and I wanted to know about the here. The now. What do we do now.
Selfishly, I wanted to know how not to be like my family. I didn’t feel I had anything to forgive – I had learned that forgive is only necessary when you expected someone to behave differently, and my family had been remarkably consistent therefore there was nothing to forgive. I had circled the parts in Matthew and Luke where the rules were given in the form of commandments; though Mrs. Abrams said she felt they were suggestions. Idealized goals for our benefit, not for judgement, because Jesus said do them to be perfect today, not to avoid hell or only to go to heaven one day.
I realized that Mr. Abrams and Big Daddy had violated the same rules. The rules were simple, and clearly defined. All were not to do something: steal, kill, lie, adulter, etc; but one mystified me. I didn’t know how to honor my mother and father. I had cross-refferenced the entire New Testament and even two versions of the Old Testament, and nothing elaborated on the single command that required me to do something rather than not do something.
But as much Mrs. Abrams had faith in that book, she knew we were human. She struggled to forgive, and I struggled to understand. She even laughed when I asked, “Has God met my mother and father? Maybe the rules could be relaxed in my case.”
The more we talked, the more I began to realize that maybe Mrs. Abrams and I shared a struggle, that I actually did need to foregive my mother and father even though they had never asked, and I never expected anything from them. Forgiveness leads to love, not the other way around, she had said, talking to both of us.
Big Head listened to my version, and picked up what he thought about the situation. In short, he agreed with Mrs. Abrams, but didn’t know how to practice forgiveness. It wasn’t like baseball or wrestling, with drills to practice. I didn’t know how, either.
“Maybe it’s not something we can change, like lust. You sin just by thinking it’; maybe we’re going to hell because of Cindi Crawford.”
Jesus had said that if you lusted after a woman, you had committed adultery, and that was a sin; the definition of adultery was unclear, though, and Ben and I had defined it as secret sex outside of wedlock, which was also a lie, and in his dad’s case was also murder. But we had been laughing about what Jesus said, because we were teen agers and had lusted after almost every woman we saw on that trip, especially Cindi Crawford.
Thinking of her changed our subject, and we went back to talking about how amazing things were, and asking if we remembered this or that. We talked quickly and randomly, like teenagers do, and stopped for bathroom breaks so many times that it took an extra few hours to reach Baton Rouge.
Two weeks later, all of the Abrams drove me to the army enrollment center in New Orleans, and waited by the bus that would take me to army basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. If things went well, or at least without surprises, I’d be going to war two months later. I felt that the future was whatever I wanted it to be, and it felt good to have a choice in what that would look like.