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The Gantseh Megillah

The Outspeaker

It’s been a while, and much has happened in the world of politics, most of it bad. Our war on terror/Islamic fundamentalism/fascism is going as bad as an idiotically conceived and executed project can possibly go, and the midterm elections are almost upon us.

Who will win control of the House and/or Senate is anybody’s guess, though I suspect the Republicans will retain control by a narrow margin. They seem to win almost everything by a narrow margin. I pay fairly close attention to what the Jackass in Chief says on most days, and he is in my opinion as big an ass as he was the last two times he stood for election. Now, however, he is not only a jackass, but a dangerous jackass, due to his lame-duck status.

Recently, both houses of Congress passed a bill authorizing federal funds for stem-cell research; a bill that our ayatollah vetoed. His reason? He did not care to take one life to save another. He actually said that. I questioned for a second just what the hell he thought sending soldiers off to die in a senseless war was, exactly, but considered the source of the statement and simply accepted the illogical comment as typical of a fundamentalist maniac, and let it pass. Still, I found it troubling.

I submit the following story, factual in the extreme, for your consideration. I would submit it for George’s consideration as well, but doubt seriously that he reads the Megillah. Or much of anything else…

Stevie was six years old when I met him, as was I. He lived two houses down the block towards Avenue V, in Gravesend, Brooklyn where I was raised. He had light curly hair and hazel eyes. He dressed (as did all of us) in our standard summer uniform, high-top sneakers, baggy belted dungarees rolled at the cuffs, and what we called a polo shirt, actually more like a t-shirt. None of us to my knowledge wore or knew what a sweat sock was, we wore the same thin socks that we did with our shoes.

Now Stevie was not actually six, chronologically he was twenty-seven. It seems, although Roman Catholic, his parents were at the time members of some whacko sect that did not believe in professional medical care for illness or injury. When Stevie was six or so he had, like all of us, some normal childhood disease, measles or mumps or something, and spiked a high fever. Unlike us however his parents did not call a doctor or so much as treat Stevie with aspirin. As a consequence of their faith, Stevie's childhood became as a mammoth preserved in ice. He suffered irreversible brain damage and was decreed by God, through the surrogate decision of his parents, to remain a kid forever. As a side benefit of their right-thinking loving kindness, he was bequeathed a severe speech impediment as well. His tongue was all but immobile, and he generally held it folded under itself and clamped gently between his front teeth. This gave Stevie's speech a unique lilt. Try it.

Strangely, I can remember the very first time I spoke with Stevie. He was sitting on his stoop smiling at nothing in particular and holding a Spaldeen in his hand. I could, of course, see that something was different about him, but I was young enough that the fact didn't immediately color my perception of him. I was more interested in the Spaldeen than in the fact he gave his age as "wenny sebbeh." I just let it slide. I later asked one of the older kids how old Stevie was, and he told me he was twenty-seven. My first lesson in "Stevi-ese." In a few years I, like the other kids, could understand the language.

I don't recall anyone ever teasing Stevie, at least not about his speech. We broke his chops no more or less than we did each other's, but he was much more excitable than the rest of us. When he lost his temper, he'd shout at you and clamp his tongue even tighter between his teeth. He'd sometimes chase after you in a semi crouch like an offended rooster, arms pumping weirdly up and down from the shoulders, elbows sticking out like bony wings. His flare-ups would invariably end in laughter as soon as he caught up to you; Stevie either had a poor memory or the temperament of a saint.

Stevie, being six at the same time he was twenty seven, had been hard at the task of playing all the variations of street ball games three times as long as anyone else. Unfortunately for him, as we got older, our skills seemed to surpass his. I don't know why this was true, but it was. The net effect was that he seemed to get worse (as far as being a ball player) as we got older. Maybe his disability was a limiting factor, I don't know. I mean Stevie was fucking intense about ball games. He had the rules of the many and varied games down cold, and played them constantly.

A particular favorite of Stevie's was a game he called "benny" (pennies). This involved two players sitting on facing benches in front of a stoop with a number of pennies lined up horizontally in the center crack of the pavement between them. They took turns aiming at the pennies as they bounced the ball back and forth. The object was to push all the pennies over the crack closest to your opponent. Not all stoops were set up as ideally as Stevie's was to allow this game to be played in a sitting position. The game in its pure form was usually played on the sidewalk, standing up. The fact that we could play this game at our ease, added to the singular relaxing and hypnotic effect it engendered. Stevie, Butchie, sometimes Stevie's cousin Benny, and I would sometimes play this game for an entire afternoon. The kids who weren't playing would sit on the stoop facing at right angles to the court, watching the action, waiting for someone to lose so he could take a turn. I can see our group now, heads bent in silence to the game, the precise measured rhythm of the bouncing ball hitting first pavement or penny, then slapping into the opponent's hand adding to our moving meditation. "Ping-pop, p-TING-pop, ping-pop."

No matter the game or weather, Stevie was always ready to rock and roll. You would expect that after twenty-one or so full seasons of say, stickball, he would be the DiMaggio of East Fourth Street. Instead he remained in triple A. The net result for Stevie was that he always wound up playing with ever changing generations of younger kids. He found himself in the position of watching his teammates move up to the majors, while he stayed in the minors. He didn't seem to resent this; I guess as far as Stevie was concerned, the game was everything.

When I entered my mid-teens, I had pretty much stopped playing ball in the streets. I limited my athletic activity to high school football, pool, and bowling. Stevie, however, was still a fixture on the block playing with the younger kids on a daily basis. He was, however, getting older. At some point the scales must have fallen from his parent's eyes and I noticed Stevie no longer seemed to be treading the macadam and asphalt in sneakers. He seemed to have disappeared. Next year I began to see a new version of Stevie. He would appear at around five thirty, walking home from the bus stop at Avenue U, dressed in shirt, tie and slacks. He wore a mid-calf length tweed topcoat, and a porkpie hat. Tucked under his arm was a newspaper. He had a determined stride, and a no-nonsense look on his face.

Stevie seemingly had a job.

They, his parents I assume, had decided that they were not finished with the job they had done on his person. They had now terminated his perpetual summer vacation and, probably after some vocational training, sent him into the world of business to compete and suffer an overly acidic stomach like the rest of the world. Why? What the hell were they thinking? He didn't seem to be unhappy, understand, just not as happy. I'd greet him and he'd smile and give me a restrained brisk nod of greeting.

Stevie had learned to act like a grown up.

The sight of Stevie now depressed me to some extent. I had always regarded him as a symbol of unending youth and fun. No matter how bad things got, Stevie was somewhere in the world, collecting kids for a game of punch or catch-a-fly-is-up. Insensitive? Selfish of me? I don't know. I do know that this was not yet the end of his parent's influence.

About five years later I heard that Stevie had died. He couldn't have been more than forty. Although he was now what passed for a working and therefore productive member of society, he still lived at home, and was subject yet to his parent's guardianship and ideologies. My father informed me that Stevie had developed cancer. It was some slow growing form, and curable if treated early, according to my dad. His parents proved nothing if not steadfast in their beliefs. In an even more simpleminded reprise of their earlier lunacy, they let Stevie die without treatment or, I presume, measures to ease his discomfort and pain, as that would have involved injections and the services of a real doctor, not a faith healer.

I was outraged, and had to suppress an urge to go over to Stevie's house and dance a frenetic Tarantella on each of his parent's brainless heads, or maybe suffocate them by stuffing flaming copies of their religious tracts down their throats. My father merely looked at me with a tight humorless smile and bobbed his head up and down a bit. For the thousandth time in our lives together he seemed to read my thoughts. I suspect that had I actually gotten up to do what I felt like doing, I'd hear his footsteps right behind me, and the metallic "ping" of his Zippo as he flicked it open…

Thanks to all my Megillah friends, as always I welcome all comments.

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