by Steve Fayer
Part I: Rhoda's Nakedness
Jonathan Pearl Blatt, more than fifty years old, is the son of my first love, the only child of my first cousin, Rhoda. I spent every growing-up summer with Rhoda, swimming naked in the country dark, and scandalizing the Catskill village of Slaters Ridge with an announced pregnancy, probably false, until a real child that could not have been mine claimed a place in her womb.Rhoda and I went to bed one last time in the year 1954 in the dark and shuttered home of the colored man, Ditch Pollard. Jonathan could not know it of course but he, three months in the womb, had been a witness to that last tryst.
The thing is that Jonathan looked like me. The boy, from the age of self-awareness onward, had remarked more than once on resemblances. That he wore his mother's red hair was a flag of her parentage. But he lacked the dark brooding visage of his father, the protruding thrust of lower lip, the regressive chin, the small, unremarkable nose. Instead, he had my aquiline schnozz, and the long torso and relatively short legs of a certain breed of Russian-Jewish peasant. A torso which I and my Russian-born grandfather Sam Pearl had also in common.
I could not have been Jonathan's father. Unless the introduction of my own seed, three months into his gestation, was so powerful as to take over his development, a genetic storm in that sterile sea.
The last time we made love, Rhoda and I were both eighteen. The colored man Ditch Pollard gave us his bed not because he approved but because he had helped set in motion the events that had led us three years earlier to surrender our innocence. And he felt badly about it.
"I thought if I warned you and the girl about the goings on in this village," Ditch said— "you maybe could get clear of them. But it was a wrong thing to do, a perverse thing. Showing you those damn photographs. No child should know a parent's nakedness. And I was too late. You all were growing up too fast for me. Three years ago Rhoda got that Pearl madness in her blood. And there was no adult I could turn to. Certainly not to Laurie Pearl. And your grandfather, Sam Pearl, despised me as I despised him. I had no use and no pity for that failing old man. None at all. So I got you involved. And messed up a lot of lives."
At age fifty, Jonathan had taken up the quest now fashionable of exploring his origins, searching for clues in the Pale of Settlement in old Russia, in the push-cart culture of New York's Lower East Side, in the back-to-the-land movement of Jewish socialists who had lent my grandfather the down payment for his twenty-five acre farm in the Catskill foothills, an acreage too small to make a living, but big enough to fend off starvation.
It was on this land that my grandfather had married and made two daughters, my mother, Alexandra, and Rhoda's mother, the notorious Laurie Pearl who in her own girlhood had posed among other things for village pornography.
Sam Pearl had been widowed early, losing the young wife who might have made a difference in him and his unruly household.
Jonathan wanted to know what his mother had been like as a girl. Rhoda making love atop a stone wall, or swimming naked in the moonlight in our grandfather's pond, or grabbing her cousin, me, by the penis and initiating the first sexual encounter, or scandalizing the village of Slaters Ridge with an announced pregnancy, probably false—all this I could not tell her son.
"She was a beautiful child," I said. "In the summer sun, most redheads freckled and burned. Rhoda tanned to an unusual copper color. A fearless little girl. When we were really tiny," I said— introducing only obliquely the issue of physicality—"our mothers bathed us together. We slept in the same room, more like brother and sister than cousins. And on cold nights, we bundled in together. Until, of course, we reached an age when it no longer felt proper."
"The garden of Eden," Jonathan said.
"Well, in a sense it was."
"When my mother died, you didn't come to the funeral."
"I was ill," I said. "I had just undergone the first of several hospital stays."
"Are you my real father?"
I took a deep breath. "Absolutely not."
After Rhoda's announced pregnancy with our child, and then later her announced miscarriage, I did not know whether she carried the flesh of my flesh or simply was swollen with the idea of my fatherhood. With the child vanished, or the myth of the child, my grandfather exiled me from the farm, forbade me to ever reappear, and told the family he was going to New York's Lower East Side to consult with a marriage broker, and to thereby rein in, or at least make legitimate, Rhoda's passion. The second candidate who took the train to the Catskills was Barnet Blatt, a rabbinical student from Brooklyn. To borrow biblical language, Barney Blatt and my cousin Rhoda had, during one of their courtship walks, lain together in my grandfather's upper meadows. And had started Jonathan on his way. That was what Rhoda told me.
I never cared much for Barney Blatt. As a rabbinical student, he proved a failure, and ended up as an accountant in the garment district in midtown Manhattan. But for all of his mild-mannered confusion, he was by most measurements a better man than I. It seemed he needed only one time in the grass with Rhoda to create a child—while Rhoda and I had made love at least a hundred times, and I never knew whether our one phantom baby had ever existed.
At the wedding ceremony, I watched Barney attempt to break the glass three times under his rented black shoes, until Rhoda gave him her shoulder to brace himself—and on the fourth try, the glass shattered. So the destruction of the Temple was commemorated. The men applauded, the assembled women gasped at the final, successful thrust. If the shattered glass represented for them not God's house but the fiction of Rhoda's virginity, then Barney was years too late. I had taken that in the moonlit dark one August night on Sam Pearl's farm. At least, I believed I was first. But I have nagging doubts about even that. After all, if one takes his cousin's virginity in the water of his grandfather's pond—where then is the evidence?
I do not know how much Rhoda told her husband about our relationship. The fact is they stayed together, and the relationship with Barney seemed at first to gentle her, and to give the lie to any disparagement of his masculinity. In the early years of their marriage, Rhoda had that look, that clearness of eye and skin, of a satisfied woman. Which, of course, made me terribly jealous. And drove me away.
"You almost never visited us," Jonathan said.
"I have had a busy life," I said. "And 'almost never' is somewhat of an exaggeration. At your bar mitzvah, I was there."
"You were hardly there," Jonathan said. "Not up front with the family but sitting far back under the women's balcony. It was very disconcerting. The first day of my manhood and far in the back of the room was someone who looked like my older mirror twin, the middle-aged man I would become. It was then that I knew you were my father, that the man I called father had been suckered into the marriage with my mother but that he had nothing to do with me. I am not the gentle soul Barney Blatt is. I am a Pearl."
"A Pearl, true enough," I said. "But I had not even seen your mother for a year before she was pregnant."
"I don't believe that," he said. "I am convinced I am your bastard. And that I have Barnet to thank at least for making me legitimate."
I had just months before Jonathan's visit been operated on for prostate cancer, going through that alone, and was now too much contemplating the next physical insult. My blood pressure was barely under control. Would I go down with a stroke like my grandfather? Or would I go like Rhoda—pills crushed into powder at her bedside?
"Your mother took her own life," I said quietly.
"Of course," Jonathan said.
He sat there, his face reddening, the anger working in him the way I had seen it working in me, and, before me, in my grandfather, Sam Pearl.
"Feel guilty?" I said.
"Guilty, hell," Jonathan said. "Last thing she ever said to me was that I had made her life worthwhile. That having a son justified every foolish thing she had ever done. Those are pretty much her exact words.
Jonathan was nearly in tears. "Look," he said. "I don't want to hurt your feelings but when I asked about you, she said you were not worth a damn. That the courage old Sam Pearl had brought from Russia a hundred years ago had not been passed down. That my real father, Barney, despite my disrespect of him, was twice the man you were. And that it was an insult to think that she would have made a baby with you."
"It is all very confusing," he said. "I look like you. I act like you. I believe I am your son. But, according to her, the most you are to me is my mother's cousin."
"Your cousin, too," I reminded him.
"If Barney Blatt is such a paragon," Jon asked. "Then why was she so unhappy? "
Jonathan's generation considered happiness a birthright when, in fact, it was a rare accident. I had known Rhoda all of my life. Unhappiness was her natural state. All of us Pearls were unhappy far back into the European generations. Why would Rhoda's son expect anything different? Life in 20th century America had made him soft-headed.
When Jonathan left, I did not think I would see him again. My rejection of patrimony, honest as it was, and as protective as it was of Rhoda's sexual adventuring, did not satisfy him. It had in fact angered him. I tried to look at it from his point of view. It is indeed logical that sons look like their fathers. How could there be no resemblance at all?
Three nights later, dreaming of the old days on the farm in Slaters Ridge, I swam with Rhoda in my grandfather's pond, the two of us naked in the moonlight. And as Rhoda and I toweled ourselves dry, I looked up and saw old Sam Pearl shaking his fist at us. And later, as the naked Rhoda climbed the back stairs to the porch, I saw Sam Pearl watching her from the shadows as I had once seen in real life. And then I concluded that Jonathan's suspicions might not be unfounded. He might indeed be one of us, perhaps even more than he imagined.
The next day I drove from Manhattan one hundred miles up the Route 17 Quickway into the foothills of the Catskills and exited at Rock Hill to a road that led to the country cemetery in Glen Wild. I was now convinced that Ditch's encouragement of my romance with Rhoda was not just payback for my grandfather's many acts of bigotry, but an effort to keep Rhoda safe from the old man. That there was a need to forgive Ditch for some things, but not for every thing. That he could not be responsible for the lawlessness of the Pearl clan.
I walked to the tree-shaded section where my grandfather, Sam Pearl, lay at the edge of the Catskill forest. It is the custom to pick a small stone from the earth and set it atop the larger headstone. It is, I think, a sign that the person in the earth is still remembered, still treasured by those he left behind. And a means, some say, to weigh down a restless spirit, to keep it in its place and at peace. The top of Sam Pearl's headstone was filled with rocks and pebbles, most of which I had put there over the years. I swept the headstone clean of all signs of remembrance. I wanted him to be shamed by the absence of mourners.
Of course, I was playing the fool. I had disowned my grandfather solely on the evidence of a dream.
Part II: Rhoda's Confession
It had only happened once.
So for a long time, I did believe that the father of my child was Barney Blatt, the rabbinical student I had seduced in Sam Pearl's meadows when I was eighteen and drunk on the perfume of new strawberries. Flirting with poor Barney, who had given himself to the study of God's law but was attempting to conceal an erection that by the afternoon was causing him considerable pain. Rabbis are not priests, after all.
Did I want Barney Blatt?
I have read all this nonsense about how we choose our lovers, the healthy flush of blood under the skin, the brightness of eye, the rough, masculine texture of their hands, wide shoulders, narrow waists, musculature defined, the positive sound of a masculine piss against the porcelain of a toilet, all the opposite of poor, unmuscled, tinkle-peeing us, all signs that he, they, will beget healthy boys and girls, and will protect us. What nonsense! Although who can really know all the reasons for her own wet pants?
Did I love Barney Blatt? Well, I almost did. In the later years. His gratitude for my presence in his bed. His consistent forgiveness. His willingness not to see the obvious. His love for the son we raised to manhood. Who could not almost fall in love with such a fool?
I am not so brave so as to be resigned to my dying if that indeed is what is happening. But I wish I were not in so much pain. If you believe in God, I suppose you believe that pain is punishment for your sins. Or, if you have not sinned, that it is a test, and that the score really matters.
Pass or fail? If that cousin of mine had not been such a priss, such a stickler for parental chain of command—he would now, at this moment, be at my bedside. Instead of that sad-eyed bassett, Barney Blatt, who somehow feels responsible for my predicament, as though the years of invading my insides had somehow caused my body to rebel against itself, to begin this cannibal game, eating me alive.
Ditch Pollard used to call himself a country nigger. And I had behind his back called him nigger, too, despite the fact that my fool of a cousin protested that Ditch was our friend. Oh, yes. Ditch was indeed our friend, and mentor. Without Ditch I would never have known that my mother, Laurie Pearl, was a whore, or at least played one in a photo-taking session that took place in 1926 or 1927, a real Kodak moment, you might call it, in which Laurie Pearl was caught in what was one-thirtieth of a second, with a man's penis in her mouth. Well, a dildo actually. A wooden replica. My mother, the would-be cocksucker. I would never have known that without ol' Ditch.
We should have saved the pictures instead of burning them, my accident-prone cousin and I, torching God knows how many hundreds of acres in the process. And in the process killing Sam Pearl. Not burning him to death, you understand. Not physically putting the shotgun in his hand to go hunting the black men whom he mistakenly thought were the mad arsonists intent on taking the town by fire. Not loosening the clot in a clogged artery that stopped his heart. But killing him nevertheless. If I am going to confess a sin or two, then the death of my grandfather is on my head, or in my hands. But no one can say that I did not help preserve for the coming centuries the genes of the Pearl clan.
Ah, my fool of a cousin, I took him to bed with another man's child three months in my belly, to demonstrate that it was all right, that I was still the same girl he had lusted for, and had penetrated in every way she could be entered. He was my first and only love, but he refused my offer of marriage, left me in the bed we had soiled, and took the train out of my life and never came back. And I blame Ditch Pollard for all of this.
And if I confronted Ditch today, he would nod his head and say— "sure, lay off your sins on some country nigger. But don't be surprised if in the long run it don't wash." Ditch is a man full of verdicts, a deacon of the AME. And a self-proclaimed student of flawed human nature.
And what could you tell me about my nature, old African? That unlike my mother Laurie Pearl I did not just play the whore but I was the whore? By Ditch's lights I had in the end committed the sin unpardonable. No, not lying in the new grass of my grandfather's meadow with Barney Blatt who screamed in pain when he came to climax because his sperm was by that time semi-solid after wanting me for most of the day. But the other. That other thing that I did. Not out of lust. But out of curiosity. And pure contrariness.
Was I ever curious about Ditch? Well, I do wonder if he would prove to be pink like the undersides of his chestnut-colored hands.
I think the addled old man thought I was just part of a dream, an old man's wet dream with some ghost of his youth, some willing serf girl he had known in his own Russian boyhood. He had called me a name I had not recognized.
He was not in complete possession of his senses even then, some three months before he died. He was damaged goods. And I was curious. That is all it was. No big deal as the kids say. But Ditch Pollard straddles my life pointing his finger. If it had been another time, I do believe he would have arranged to have me stoned. The Arabs still do that to their women, you know. And I think that deep down, beneath the African Methodist Episcopal veneer, Ditch's tribe had worn fezzes and lion's teeth and terrible, judgmental faces.
In some tribes, they circumcise the women. And stuff dirt up there. Can you imagine? All because they mistrust our curiosity. They have complicated the simple act of putting a penis into a vagina. So I tell them, if you want to get into issues of ownership and love, then attach all that to some other parts of the two anatomies. How about ears? Even with ears, though, some idiot would invent a complicated array of listening sins. But I did love that fool of a cousin of mine. I grabbed him naked one night in our grandfather Sam Pearl's frog pond and inserted him into me, and would have held him there for the rest of my life if it were possible to eat and drink, pee and defecate, sleep and awaken, so joined. Three years later, I offered myself with someone else's baby in my womb, true, but with an honestly meant pledge of lifetime fidelity, and the fool turned me down. He could not forgive my having done it with Barney Blatt. If he had known the full story, he might have killed me dead. A scandal in the village of Slaters Ridge. Pregnant Catskill country girl slain by first-cousin. Love-nest suspected. If they only knew. But I think that over time he came to know.
He has no wife now—she fled his disinterest—which is to me a sign of just how big a fool he is. The damned fool loved only me. And I know he never got over me. But he moved from my embrace to the New York train, and never came back. All because he believed I had opened my legs to some overweight, very frustrated rabbinical student in our grandfather's meadows. Cousin, it was just a young girl's curiosity, nothing more. I think this in a tiny voice—hoping such thoughts will reach him, while at the same time disguising my real culpability. And besides, I was little more than a child then, wondering whether the little rabbi's balls were really blue.
At Jonathan's bar mitzvah, thirteen and a half years after the fool abandoned me, I saw my Pearl relative in the back of the shul, hiding in the shadow of the balcony, not wanting to be called forward to bless the Torah, and endorse his young cousin's coming into manhood. And as silently as he had arrived, so, too, did he depart. Was Jonathan the boy actually the man's uncle? What does it matter?
Jonathan keeps asking me why he does not look like his father, or any of the Blatts. And I tell him that is how genes work, just a roll of the dice. He does indeed favor the Pearls. And he has gotten it into his head that my fool of a cousin might be his real father. And I attempt as best as I can, with all the energy I am allowed, to disabuse him of this notion. It is, after all, not true. And I can with all sincerity argue against it. But I may not get out of here alive, and that trivializes everything else.
Whatever force controls the universe would not be concerned with such minor trespasses. There is not only this world but a multitude of worlds to run.
Ditch Pollard is a bent old man of almost ninety. Our grandfather, Sam Pearl, may he rest in peace, is long gone. I am soon to be gone. I hope none of us is to be condemned. I hope that my fool of a cousin, so alone with his bitterness, will one day stand on the burnt-out remains of Sam Pearl's farm, and think of all the glorious fires we started—from the moment we first shared a bathtub as infants, to that moment we stood silver in the moonlight in the frog pool, to that conflagration in which we burned the obscenities of the village's past, the photographs that Ditch Pollard had buried and then disinterred.
It does not matter to me who Jonathan Blatt's father was. But it matters a lot who bore him, and birthed him. That person was me. And when I stand naked in front of the universe, I will not deny who I am and was. I will not deny that I was a girl curious about so-called acts of love.
Part III: Rhoda's Cheek
After Rhoda's death, Barney Blatt wanted to believe that he had been the only male figure in Rhoda's life, aside from the tattoo artist and her gynecologist, to have seen the pearl she had had inscribed on the inside of her right thigh, almost adjacent to the vulva.
As a one-time rabbinical student, he was aware of the prohibition in Leviticus 19:28— "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you." He feared she would be denied a burial in Jewish ground, in the gravesite already bought and paid for. He covered the glistening pearl with a Band-Aid. And he forbade embalming, also a practice not in accord with Jewish law. The less the undertakers, those ghouls, fooled with her body the better. The fact of her self-murder was perhaps even more monstrous than the tattoo. But who had to know?
The death certificate listed cause as ovarian cancer. That was good enough for the attending physician. And good enough for Barney. And should have been good enough for his son, Jonathan.
As far as Barney Blatt was concerned, his wife Rhoda had been mentally ill at the time she took her own life. And that according to Jewish law allowed her to be buried in Jewish ground, excused for incompetence.
But she would not be interred, despite her stated wishes, in her family's choice of cemetery in Glen Wild, New York. That was where the no-good grandfather, Sam Pearl, and the rest of the Pearls lay. No, she would be buried in Montefiore on Springfield Boulevard in Queens alongside the Blatts in half of the double plot he had purchased years earlier when Rhoda was first diagnosed. Purchased without her knowledge.
Montefiore? He thought of Rhoda the first time they lay together in her grandfather's high meadows, Rhoda in the grass, crushing the spring flowers and the webs of wild strawberries. And perhaps conceiving the boy he called his son, the red-haired Jonathan.
In the half-light of their marital bed, the pearl had looked to him like a stray drop of sexual moisture, either his or hers, he could not make up his mind, and she had asked more than once to be kissed in that spot, something he did not find objectionable.
In the days after her death, he wondered what God would make of that pearl. It was He who after all had forbade such desecration of the divine patent. Barney hoped that God in whatever form He existed had an appreciation of sensual women.
Barney had an accountant's mistrust of numbers arrived at too hastily. The choosing of the coffin, as he had anticipated, was a tug of war. Klatzky's had led him first to a $6500 coffin. Barney was relieved that the wooden box in its ostentation was again a violation of religious law. Rich or poor, Jews were not supposed to show off in death.
Barney wrapped himself in the credentials of his early days in preparation for the rabbinate, the days before his forced marriage to Rhoda and his move to the world of commerce, and walked directly through the basement of Klatzky's to the plain wooden boxes reserved for the Orthodox, boxes with holes in them to promote ashes to ashes decay. Rhoda would have snorted at such false piety. But it saved him almost six thousand dollars. He would need every cent for the days after mourning when he stepped out into the world—a widower with a solid accounting practice who could support a new wife, a woman that this time—with most of the scheming Pearls buried in the earth— he would choose of his own free will. He was bald, a trifle overweight, but someone who knew his own mind. This time there would be no hesitation. No false tries. No, this time he would shatter all the illusions.
He had suspected from the start that Jonathan was not, could not, have been his son. There was nothing of the Blatts about the boy. Barney had decided that Rhoda's cousin was the likely impregnator, but Rhoda had wept, swore, cursed him for this insinuation of an incestuous liaison. And he had told Rhoda finally that he believed her. He half-convinced himself that she was wild enough, bold enough, to have admitted such a relationship if it had been true.
When Jonathan accompanied his mother, Rhoda, to the tattoo shop he was already a grown man cohabiting with a red-haired Irish girl who had grown up in Holy Cross Parish in Brooklyn. Another carrot-top. Some in the Blatt family smirked at what appeared to them to be an Oedipal crush. In any event, Jonathan was no stranger to redheaded nakedness. But his mother had embarrassed him mightily. To give the tattoo needle access to her inner thigh, she had worn what looked to Jonathan like a stripper's g-string. Just that small patch of cover, with her legs spread wide, her skirt pulled up over her face.
She had held his hand tight, digging her nails into him. Rhoda made a small squeaking sound with the pain of every needle prick. The tattoo artist, a young hippie with his hair gathered in a ponytail under a blue patterned bandanna, seemed oblivious to the sexual territory his needle traveled. He was an empathetic young man, issuing a low moan to accompany each Rhoda squeak. And he was a true artist. When he had finished, the small pearl glowed obscene on the inside of Rhoda's thigh, grown there from some small grain of irritation become large in her troubled life.
They had celebrated the adventure in a small Irish bar, Hugh Casey's, run by a former Dodger relief pitcher on Flatbush Avenue.
"You were embarrassed," Rhoda had said.
"Hell, yes," Jonathan answered. "It is not everyday that a boy gets to stare at someone poking a needle into his mother's crotch, halfway between her whatsis and her arse."
"But it is a great joke," she said. "Rhoda Pearl."
Amost a half-century earlier, Barney Blatt, the young rabbinical student, had taken the ferry from Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey, and had there boarded a train on the Erie Line that would take him to Middletown, New York, and then—after switching to the Ontario and Western line, had continued on to Slaters Ridge.
The train cars were ancient. Conductors locked the bathrooms coming into each station. Underway, as young Barney Blatt stood over the commode in the men's W.C., he found himself urinating directly onto the railroad tracks and wooden ties that spun dizzyingly past beneath him. Thinking of the girl he was about to meet, he quickly buttoned himself up, tried to put his mind elsewhere, perhaps on making a good impression. The marriage broker had told his parents of this seventeen-year-old whose grandfather and mother sought for her a husband, a beautiful girl, a virtuous girl whose family owned valuable farm land in the Catskills, land that could provide income for a young rabbi just starting out.
The mistake was leaving the youngsters to wander the property unchaperoned. Or, in retrospect, perhaps it had not been a mistake at all. Perhaps the apparent impregnation of Rhoda, her white skirt stained with the fruit of her grandfather's meadows, had all been part of the Pearl plan. Maybe she had already been pregnant. Maybe he had been ushered into that meadow as he would have been into some whore's room in a Brooklyn brothel.
Whatever the plan, he had fallen for it.
He had not known girls like her. She had bragged on sexual adventure as a man would, had pointed out a rock wall, a patch of shaded fern, a leafy cave formed by old growth forest, where she had tumbled with some boy.
By day's end, the ache in his scrotum had driven him near mad. He had tried to get away from her, to not violate what he believed to be the trusting hospitality of the Pearl clan, but she had tackled him in the last clear space of meadow on the way back to the farm below, and he, in a desperate move for release, had thrown her onto the grass on her back, crushing the small strawberries in the lacework of vines beneath them, and had exploded inside of her with ejaculate that felt almost solid, he, Barney Blatt, almost fainting from the pain.
"Feel better?" the girl Rhoda said.
Her white skirt was stained with patches of strawberry red, and with the greens and yellows of the new grass.
She examined the skirt as he lay exhausted in the grass.
Rhoda frowned. "I will have to tell them you took my virginity," she said.
Barney Blatt moaned. He had seen the grandfather's shotgun propped against a closet door in the Pearl's kitchen. He imagined the old Russian gunning for him in every shade and shadow of the farmhouse.
"You really were the first," Rhoda said.
Barney grunted in disbelief.
"You took my innocence," Rhoda told him, giggling. "I made all that other stuff up."
As they walked down the path from the meadows to the front of the farm property, Rhoda stepped out of her skirt.
'You are running out of me, down my leg," she said to Barney, banging into him with her hip to reinforce the intimate communication. "I am going to go to the frog pond," she said. "And get cleaned up. Tell them I've gone for a swim."
And that day, she had insisted over the decades of their marriage, was when Jonathan was conceived, the redheaded child that never looked like his father.
Rhoda was the only woman Barney had known sexually. She had taught him to satisfy her in the darkness of their bedroom. But he could not satisfy her in the important everyday living of their lives. Were all women as unhappy? It had almost been a relief when she killed herself. He had been freed of his responsibility for her sadness.
Although he and Jonathan never talked of it, they shared the belief that Barney Blatt was not the boy's real father, that Rhoda's cousin, another of the several lonely, tortured Pearls had scored that home run. Both father and son were fixated on that tattoo, on the small and secret scandal of Rhoda's flesh. The family was filled with secrets. Jonathan had never revealed to his father that he had accompanied Rhoda to the tattoo parlor.
"Who made me?" Jonathan asked Rhoda's mother, his grandmother, Laurie Pearl, who in her nineties still lived above a dry goods store in the village of Slaters Ridge. She, herself, was once a woman of some reputation. But now all those who remembered her adventures were in the cemetery in Glen Wild, or moved to Florida, or no longer cared.
"God made you," Laurie Pearl said. "Your father was almost a rabbi. Surely even an almost-rabbi would have told you that."
"Barney Blatt is not my father," Jonathan said.
"You're almost fifty years old. I've got to tell you how babies get made?"
Laurie leaned out of her salvaged wire-backed ice cream parlor chair, its iron still charred from the fire that had destroyed the farm fifty years earlier. The old woman's lower jaw trembled. "I am going to tell you things you may not be prepared to hear. Your mother broke a lot of rules in this village. The biggest violation was seducing that rabbinical student from Brooklyn. Barney Blatt was a fat, naïve little momma's boy. But he came to Slaters Ridge with a hard-on. Yes, I know the word, a hard-on as long as route 17."
"You are correct," Jonathan said to her. "I don't want to hear this."
"Well, you're going to. It was spring. You know what spring was like on the farm? The dew like diamonds. The place was one big aphrodisiac. And your mother teased that poor little bastard for most of the day. She told me all about it. She was proud of it. And when he did not make a move, she made it for him. She spread her legs for a boy she had known for less than a day. And nine months later, lad, you popped out of that body which Barney Blatt had violated."
She sat back against the chair, exhausted from the effort.
"She told you this," Jonathan said.
"Yes, she told me this."
Laurie Pearl was pleased with the lie. Her left shoulder hurt so badly she could not raise her arm. And when she attempted to put weight on her right foot, the heel felt like it was on fire. But there was nothing wrong with her mind, she told herself. And she was still capable of dozing into and out of delicious sleep, something she did for the remainder of the afternoon.
It had been a perfect lie because none of it was untrue. Rhoda had played the whore with that poor boy. It had indeed been spring when Jonathan was conceived. But not in the afternoon. No, not in the daylight. It had been a dark night, the moon at a quarter if that. And if she had not been coming back late from one of her own adventures in the village, she would never have known.
She had raised a shameless child. A few years before Rhoda's death, the girl already sick with cancer had come up to Slaters Ridge and at the end of the afternoon, after Barney Blatt had gone up to the remains of the farm for a walk, probably to revive memories of his entrapment, Rhoda had raised her patterned summer dress over her head, pulled down her drawers, and shown to her mother the full frontal view of her private parts, and there Laurie saw poised between her daughter's labia and her arse a small pearl, shining for all the world like the unwiped glow of ejaculate.
"Damn," Laurie had said to her. "You don't know when to leave well enough alone."
"It's for him," Rhoda said.
"I know who it's for. You think you're dealing with a moron, young lady?"
Laurie Pearl had come up the long hill from the village to the farm in the dark and had turned in toward the farmhouse careful not to squeak the gate or otherwise disturb the peace of that quiet night. Her father, Sam Pearl, was an addled old man, just a few months from death, living with a confusion of memories and voices from the Catskill village, and from the village in the Russian Pale from whence he had come, growing more angry every day at his own mental incapacity.
She was sure all were asleep but as she climbed the outside staircase to the second floor, she heard his murmuring in Russian. And when she turned into the landing, there he was with his trousers down around his ankles and there was his teenage granddaughter, Rhoda, her bare buttocks resting on the rail, her naked legs wrapped around the old man's middle.
A half-century later, Laurie Pearl concluded that if Barney Blatt had had the sense and strength of character to keep his pecker in his pants—he would never have had to live with such uncertainty, and with the string of sadnesses that plagued all the Pearls. She would never tell Jonathan, who was a pest and at times a crybaby, that she was not only his grandmother but probably his sister as well.
And she had not confronted Rhoda then, or later, with what the girl had done.
Having borne Rhoda, and raised her, and taught her by bad example she was not now at this stage going to condemn her, or reveal her daughter's secrets. It was obvious that old Sam Pearl had had no memory of what had transpired on that landing. And that Rhoda had been trying to comfort him. And perhaps to comfort herself. At least that is what Laurie Pearl had chosen to believe.
Steve Fayer has published fiction in Bellevue Literary Review, The Falcon, Jewish Currents, Natural Bridge, New York Stories, North American Review, Potomac Review, Potpourri, and Saranac Review. His work as a documentary writer for PBS has been recognized with a national Emmy for Eyes On The Prize and a Writers' Guild of America Award for George Wallace: Settin' The Woods On Fire. He is also co-author of Voices of Freedom, a history of the civil rights movement [Bantam,1990]. Jonathan's Quest is the second installment in a Catskill triptych: The Settlement appeared in issue IV of Night Train and is available on the website. The final installment, Calliope, will appear in Issue 8.