August 5, 1951
Glancing skyward, even after all these years, still waiting for the bolt of lightning on this Sunday morning over breakfast of fried matzo and pork sausage.
Walter and Myra had both come from moderately religious homes insofar as their families moderately observed the kosher dietary laws of not mixing milchedig (dairy products) with flayshedig (meat product) and, of course, all pork and bottom-feeding seafood, including shrimp and Myra and Walter’s favorite dish, lobster, was strictly forbidden.
Within the first few weeks of their marriage, Walter had asked his new wife, if she had no really strong objections, might an exception be made because away from the home of his parents he had developed a taste for—God forbid—ham and bacon.
This request did, more or less, offend Myra. But being a new bride and wanting to please her new husband, she’d announced, a bit facetiously, “So long as we’re going to break some of the rules, we may as well break all the rules.” And the new husband, taking his new wife at her word, readily agreed; from that day forward, much to the envy of Walter and Myra’s brothers, the Walter Lipensky household was henceforth declared a free zone regarding all kosher dietary laws.
“Mitchie, your father and I have something we’ve got to do today, so we’re going to drop Mortie off at Ma’s and, if I give you money, you will take Larry to a movie, won’t you?”
This posed by his mother in much the same manner as Sergeant Martinez asking him if he’d like to volunteer for his mortar squad.
Nineteen days from his seventeenth birthday, he felt it beneath him to have to schlep his, just barely seven-year-old brother to the movies, so, “Aw, Mom, do I gotta?”
“Yes, you gotta!”
But the objection was feigned because he’d planned on going to a double feature matinee at the Lindy anyway, and with Norman moved to the north side he had no one to go with, and this way, at least his parents would pay. And besides, for the past two weeks his parents had been in a running battle that had occasionally been punctuated with machinegun-like bursts of angry words from his mother that always ended in something like, “That goddamned boat!” Boat? And today had been the first time since the start of their battle that his father had been referred to as “your father” rather than an angry, “your father.” So, he thought, if they want to be alone together—although why, Mitchell still didn’t know because sex between his mother and father was still an inconceivable picture, even if they had, somehow, conceived three children—and if it’ll help end the argument they’re having, and make ’em talk to each other again, “Yeah, okay,” he said, “I’ll take Larry to the movies.”
In the theatre, between sharing a large brown bag of homemade popcorn and eating boxes of Ju-Ju Beads and Jujy Fruits, Mitchell absently played with Junior Johnson’s bullet.
For some unknown reason considering it a good luck charm, from the time Junior had given it to him the bullet had jingled in his pocket against keys and change. Tossed in the air, it was caught hundreds of times, occasionally, though, it was missed and fell to the concrete sidewalk. Within a few weeks the slug began to loosen and, after popcorn, Ju-Ju Beads and Jujy Fruits, as he sat in the Lindy Theatre, playing with it, Mitchell was able to turn the slug in the cartridge.
Their parents still away when they got home, as Larry laid on the living room floor watching television, for a reason known only to himself, almost seven-year-old Larry’s older, smarter brother decided that he’s just got to separate the slug from the cartridge, so…
Getting brilliant idea #1, using a pair of pliers, he proceeded to twist the slug, until… It’s off! Holding the lead slug in one hand and the brass cartridge in the other, Hmmm, he thought, looking at the coarse, black powdery stuff inside the casing, what’s this? Maybe, since the bullet’s been fired and this black, powdery stuff looks kind’a burnt, maybe this is what gunpowder looks like after it’s been shot. So…
Getting brilliant idea #2, which, by the way, was the only brilliant idea Mitchell Lipensky had on this day, he was about to pour the “burnt,” black powdery stuff down the drain… But, alas, never equating beauty to brains, changing his mind, he then got really brilliant idea #3, and…
Hmmm, maybe, he thought, it’ll still burn a little… Should I try it? Nah, better not! Well… No! Well, what the hell. Looking for something to put the black, powdery stuff in, spotting a thick, glass ashtray on the kitchen table, putting it on the far end of the white, steel sink, pouring the burnt, black powdery stuff into the ashtray, turning to the stove, taking a wooden match, striking and lighting it, he was about to touch the flame to the black, powdery stuff… when the Guardian Angel of moronic teenage boys whispered in his ear, giving Mitchell moderately brilliant idea #4.
“If you insist…” the angel said, “on doing this abysmally stupid thing, then at least make a wick.”
Yeah, good idea! And, if nothing more, being inventive, going to the bathroom, tearing off four squares of toilet paper, twisting them into a thick wick, he laid one end onto the powdery, black stuff and the other end on the lip of the ashtray, and was about to strike another match… but before doing it, for some reason thinking he needed a witness to his brilliance, “Hey, Larry!” he called, “You wanna see somethin’ really neat? Maybe.”
“Wha’z’it?” he asked.
“L“Aw, Mitchie, I’m watchin’ TV.” But, his curiosity piqued, getting off the floor, going to the kitchen, ook, Larry, but you can’t tell mom or dad!”
Having no idea what he was talking about, it was easy to say, “Okay.”
“You promise now! You won’t say nothin’!”
“Yeah, okay, I promise I won’t say nothin’! ’Bout what?”
“You know that old bullet the kid across the alley gave me?”
“The shvartzer kid?”
Since meeting Junior and Louise, whom he was still making hand-held love to, he no longer categorized Negroes that way. “Yes, Junior.”
“It’s been fired, see?” Showing him the cartridge, pointing to the percussion cap. “This is where the firing pin hit the bullet and it shows that it’s been fired, but when this fell off,” not wanting to tell his brother that he’d pulled it off, showing him the lead slug, “this powder…” pointing to the ashtray, “was in it, and it’s got to be burnt, and I’m sure nothing’ll happen, but I’m going to light it to find out.”
Looking at his older, “smarter” brother, “Why?”
“Why?” Yes indeed, “Why?”
Why? Mitchell wasn’t sure why. “Just because; to see what’ll happen.”
“If it’s been burnt, then nothing’ll happen, and if it ain’t, then maybe somethin’ might happen, an’ maybe it’ll be bad.”
Dumb, just barely seven-year-old logic.
“No, I’m sure nothin’ll happen, but I’m gonna do it anyway.”
People, sometimes, do inexplicable things.
Pointing to the open back door, “Stand there,” Mitchell said.
“If nothin’s gonna happen,” Larry asked, “then why do I gotta stand by the door?”
“Because I said so! Okay?”
“Yeah, okay! You don’t gotta get mad.”
At the sink, Mitchell struck the match…
And there was the immediate odor of sulfur.
Holding the flame to the toilet-paper wick…
There was also the odor of burning paper.
Going to the door, Mitchell stood next to his brother, as…
As the toilet paper burned, the rising smoke was made all the more visible because of the canary-yellow walls and ceiling, and…
The thimble-full of gunpowder ignited in a sliver flash and…
Erupting from the ashtray, a dense cloud of gray-black smoke roiled up the canary-yellow wall, across the canary-yellow ceiling and out the door as…
“Holy shit!” Larry said, and…
“Uh-oh!” Mitchell said.
The white, steel sink was scorched black from where the force of the erupting gunpowder had split the ashtray.
Looking at him, actually feeling sorry for him, “Mitchie, I don’t think it’s gonna matter whether I say somethin’ to mom’n’dad ’bout what’ch’ya done.”
The canary-yellow wall and ceiling above the sink and across the room was charred a dark, streaky gray, and…
Coming into the smoky kitchen, “What the hell!” Walter said.
Clutching Morton’s hand, “The building’s on fire!” Myra screamed.
Looking at his wild-eyed father and his near-hysterical mother, “He did it!” Larry cried, pointing at his older brother. “Mitchie did it all by hiself! I told him not to! But he did it!”
Standing in their kitchen—standing in what had been their kitchen—Walter and Myra Lipensky gaped at the now charred sink and the bubbled, blackened paint of the wall and ceiling.
“What the hell did you do?” Taking five rapid steps, Walter stood nose to nose with his eldest son, whose back was now pressed firmly against the doorjamb. “What in the hell did you do?”
“Uh, well…” His eyes focused on the fine hairs that grew on his father’s nose, “Uh…”
“Answer me, goddamn-it!”
His eyes rolling to the right, looking for help from someone, from anyone, “Uh…”
“You said that already!”
“Dad, you know the bullet that I, uh…” Like the time he’d been responsible for Ina Dorfmann knocking herself out, what else could he do but tell the truth? “…uh, that I’ve been carrying around?”
“Bullet? No, what bullet have you been carrying around?”
“Uh, Junior Johnson, a kid from across the alley gave…”
“A shvartzer that lives across the alley gave it to him.”
Walter looked at Larry, then back at Mitchell. “A shvartzer that lives across the alley gave you a bullet?”
“Yeah.” Holding his suddenly sweaty palm upward, he showed his father the two halves.
“Okay, so a shvartzer that lives across the alley gave you a bullet. I don’t know why…” He looked questioningly at his wife. “Why would a shvartzer give him a bullet?” When she shrugged her shoulders, Walter looked back at Mitchell. “And even if did, what in the hell’s that got to do with whatever happened…” sweeping his hand over his shoulder, “here?”
“Uh, the shv… he said it was fired; here, look!” Turning the casing over, “See?” showing the indention to his father. “It’s been fired, and I thought the stuff inside was just old, burnt powder and nothing would happen if I, uh, lit it.”
“If you, ‘uh, lit it,’ huh?” Walter stared at his son for five very long seconds, then, “Did you ever,” using his index finger, poking him in the forehead for emphasis, “hear of a misfire?” Poke. “And why,” poke, “would you think that a fired bullet would still have the slug attached?” Poke. “And powder!” Poke. “Why would you think that there would be anything in the cartridge?” Poke. “And why,” poke, “in God’s name, would you ever set fire to gunpowder?” Poke. “Dammit, Mitchell, you’re going to be seventeen in… what? Two, three weeks! When in the hell are you going to start using whatever brains God gave you?” About to poke him again…
“Walt,” looking at the burnt wall, “come here, will you.”
His finger in mid-poke, “Yeah?” Going to Myra, “What?”
“Whew!” Breathing a sigh of relief, Mitchell rubbed his forehead.
Morton toddled over, and considering the possibility of using his baby brother as a potential deterrent to his father’s poking finger, about to pick him up, hearing a strange sound he looked at his parents. Their backs heaving, sounding almost as if they were crying, “Mom, Dad,” going to them, “I promise I’ll clean and paint it and….”
“The kitchen,” Myra said, breaking into renewed laughter, “looks fine!”
“Huh?” Mitchell looked at his father, “Huh?” and he was laughing, too.
“Mitchie,” catching her breath, “we didn’t want to tell you kids till we found one, but we got an eviction notice last week…”
“Eviction notice! We’re getting kicked out of here?”
“Yes. They’ve sold the building and the new landlord wants all the old tenants out by the end of the month.”
Turning to his father, “They can do that?”
“I’m afraid so. And if I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have gotten so mad when we came in.” Thinking a moment, “Yeah, I’d’a still been mad! Dammit, Mitchell, start using your head once in a while, you really could have been hurt!”
“I told him he shouldn’t had’a ought’a do it!”
“Okay, already!” Mitchell snarled at his brother.
“That’s where we’ve been today.” Myra waited for either Mitchell or Lawrence to ask…
Walter Lipensky had made two major purchases in mid July, both without discussing them with, or informing his wife: He purchased a family membership at the Columbia Yacht Club in Belmont Harbor, and paid $750.00 for a used “Snipe”: a sixteen-foot, center-board sloop that sold along with a 1951 Belmont Harbor mooring permit and a boat trailer, which the previous owner had agreed to, temporarily, keep in his backyard until Walter was able to find someplace to put it.
Problem was, how to tell Myra? It took him almost two weeks to work up the nerve to tell her and then, when he did tell her, it wasn’t that she was angry at her husband for making these costly decisions without consulting her—although she most definitely would have told him no. Oh, no, she wasn’t too angry, she just refused to talk to him, and after thirteen days of icy silence, speaking to him only when absolutely necessary, and then in only machinegun-like bursts of angry words, Myra’s first words to Walter, said in a strangely calm tone of voice, were…
“Walter, we’ve been evicted.”
“What?” About as surprised at hearing her voice and the tone of her voice as he was with the shocking announcement, he’d looked up from the evening paper. “We’ve been what?”
“You heard me,” she said in a harsher tone. “We got an eviction notice today,” glaring at him, daring him to object, she had said—demanded—“I want to buy a house in Skokie!”
Myra had no way of knowing that Walter had been getting calls from the previous owner of the boat to get the trailer out of his yard, nor that Walter had been wondering where he was going to store the boat in winter, when the harbor was shut and the buoys pulled, so…
Hmmm. The thought of his own home with an easily accessible backyard whizzed through his mind and, Yeah, he thought, that’ll solve the problem. Why not! If it’s not too expensive we can afford it and the interest’ll give me a tax deduction, and this neighborhood’s getting shittier everyday and, he looked at his wife, it’ll get her off my back. So, “You know…” Myra looked at him with lowering anger and heightening anticipation. “…that’s not such a bad idea. No, not a bad idea at all, us buying a house.”
“You mean it, Walt?” Overjoyed at this. “You really mean it?”
Thinking of that easily accessible backyard, “Why, sure, honey.” Walter said. “If you want to buy a house in Skokie, we’ll buy a house in Skokie.”
“That’s where we’ve been today.” Waiting for Mitchell or Lawrence to ask…
“Where have you’n’dad been today?” Mitchell asked.
Looking at Walter, smiling, “We, your father and I…” The connotation lost on her children, but picked up by Walter. “…bought a house in Skokie, and we’ll be moving before the end of the month.”
Amazed, at not only getting away with blowing up the kitchen, but also that they’re moving out of this place, the only home he’d ever, in his memory, known, “No shit!” Mitchell said. “Oops, sorry, Mom. Where’s Skokie?”
A "Becoming" Excerpt