THE POWER OF THE WORD
word conveyed listless disdain. The teenager who had said it leaned
back on the stoop, his elbows resting on the step behind him. He seemed
as inert as a fat house cat on a windowsill.
his brother Steven by the hand and moved on down the street. Steven was
very quiet. Danny could tell that he was frightened.
take that off.” Danny snatched the yarmulke from his brother's head and
stuffed it into the breast pocket of his Sabbath suit.
“What about yours?” Steven whined.
his own head, Danny discovered that he too was still wearing a skull
cap. All the way from the synagogue it had been riding the springy
cushion of his hair.
He and his brother were within ten yards of the subway entrance at the
busy intersection of Cloverdale Avenue. A few more steps and they could
have put the teenager behind them, losing themselves among Saturday
shoppers. Danny felt his heart throbbing. He promised himself that he
would not return to the stoop for a confrontation, that he would not
respond at all. But he couldn't help himself. He turned around. He went
back, his brother timidly trailing him. As Danny approached the
teenager's house, he discerned a faint smile, a hint of satisfaction,
on his tormentor's face. Danny knew this boy, but not by name. He was a
flabby thick-limbed gentile kid with agate eyes, whose father—rumored
to be a heavy drinker—was notorious for his sour disposition. Whenever
Danny encountered this boy, he felt superior. His own father may have
been an agnostic at heart, but he was a responsible sober mensch.
stopped at the foot of the stoop, while Steven hovered halfway between
his brother and the subway entrance. For an instant Danny regretted
what was about to occur. He paused to inhale the moist autumn air,
refreshing after the stagnant atmosphere of the synagogue. The white
fluffy clouds of morning had dulled, turning gray, but probably not
gray enough to rain. The wind pushed gorgeous red-tinged leaves along
the sidewalk, producing a raspy insect noise.
The teenager said nothing more. It was Danny’s move.
unexpected agility the teenager sprung at him. The two boys collided,
and the smooth soles of Danny's dress shoes slid out from under him.
His body hit the sidewalk with a sickening thud. Steven shrieked.
it back,” the teenager commanded. He was mounted astride Danny's chest,
his strong hands grinding the smaller boy's shoulders into the
pavement. Danny squirmed, but his struggle was useless. The weight of
his assailant felt like an avalanche.
“You!” Danny shouted when he caught his breath.
“I'll slap your Jew face, kid. Now take it back.”
of the threatened slap, the teenager applied his fingers to Danny's
cheek and pinched hard. Danny howled. Despite the pain, he was dimly
aware of his brother sobbing nearby. The back of Danny's head ached; he
hoped it wasn't bleeding. Even his molars ached. A bad taste, similar
to the flavor of asparagus, filled his mouth. He longed to be anywhere
but where he was, even the synagogue, with its cracked yellow ceiling
and fluorescent lights. Less than half an hour before, he had watched
the old men reciting the Kaddish—the tedious prayer for the
dead—rocking on their heels, their noses nearly touching the open pages
of their prayer books.
“Give, Jew bastard,” said the teenager.
shook his head violently, trying to free his face, but the boy's
fingers were like mandibles of a powerful insect. The pain was
excruciating. Somehow Danny held back his tears.
Danny could endure no more. “Give! Give! I take it back!”
teenager released him. Reverting to complacence, he eased himself down
on the stoop. “Don't call me no schmuck,” he muttered. “I know those
Jew words, all the curses.”
Danny refused to look at him. He got to his feet and walked away.
had drifted to the bustling intersection where his brother found him
bawling in front of the display window of a variety store decorated for
Halloween: wart-faced witches, translucent ghosts, demons from a pagan
nightmare. Danny worried that his brother might wet his pants, which
happened sometimes when he was under stress. Pedestrians glanced at the
boys with dim curiosity.
“Quit crying, Stevie, people are watching,” Danny said. “Check the back of my suit. Is it dirty?”
“A little,” Steven whimpered.
“Brush me off.”
indignation propelled him homeward so rapidly that Steven had to trot
to keep up. Oblivious to his surroundings—the rows of attached brick
homes, the frantic chattering squirrels, the maples that had outgrown
their squares of soil cut out of the sidewalk—Danny was blindfolded by
his anger. It was as if he had been spun around at a birthday party and
told to pin the tail on the donkey. He pinned his resentment not on the
teenager, but on his father, who insisted that his boys attend Saturday
services as representatives of the family. Except for the high holy
days, his father never set foot in the temple. Danny yearned for that
kind of freedom. Two years from now, after his bar mitzvah, he believed
he would acquire it: the liberty of nominal manhood. He had a fantastic
premonition of himself at the age of thirteen skipping meals he didn't
like, riding the subway unaccompanied by an adult, and sleeping late on
Saturday mornings, then joining his friends at the playground swings
behind the elementary school around noon. The good life.
now, every Saturday at the synagogue, he and Steven retreated to the
back row where only Mr. Horowitz, their tacit guardian, joined them. To
Danny, Mr. Horowitz was like Moses, stern and tall despite rounded
shoulders. With his untrimmed salt-and-pepper beard and wide-eyed gaze
behind thick spectacles, he seemed omniscient.
your father?” Mr. Horowitz had asked him that morning. Danny had a
feeling that Mr. Horowitz really meant 'Where is your father?' but was
too polite to say so.
With ten men and two boys the service
had begun. They stood and prayed; they sat and prayed. In his
threadbare suit and frayed blue yarmulke, Mr. Horowitz prayed
obsessively, his faded tallith a dead weight on his shoulders, his
vision ruined by decades of devotion. For the sake of appearances,
Danny held his prayer book open. His mind wandered. He anticipated
playing touch football at the playground later in the afternoon. As
Rabbi Blumenthal droned a sermon in which he drew a confusing analogy
between an incident in the life of Jacob and the recent Six Day War,
Danny daydreamed about playing wide receiver for the Fighting Irish of
By the time Danny and his brother got home, the
only vestige of the conflict was the strawberry bruise the teenager's
fingers had imprinted on the left side of Danny's face. But he had a
plan to explain this. After swearing Steven to secrecy, he evaded his
mother and father and hurried upstairs to the boys' bedroom. He
struggled out of his suit as if extricating himself from a
straitjacket, put on blue jeans and a sweat shirt, and raced
downstairs. As he tugged at the front door, his father casually asked
how the service had gone, and his mother offered him a bologna sandwich
which he refused. He averted the injured side of his face and launched
himself out into the street.
During the game at the
playground that day, Danny ran pass patterns lethargically beneath a
sky full of ponderous clouds. Football was not foremost in his mind. He
dropped three passes, including an easy toss in the makeshift end zone.
His astonished teammates muttered to themselves after each muff. The
twelve-year-old quarterback, Sal Firenzi, who owned the imposing body
of a fifteen year old, gave him dirty looks.
When the game
ended in defeat, some of his friends went through the motions of
consoling him. Jimmy Stillwell ignored Danny's failure and invited him
to dinner. Danny declined.
“What's the matter?” Jimmy asked.
was a puzzle of freckles, a good-natured redhead as skinny as Danny,
but three inches taller, and the second-dumbest boy in sixth grade.
What a goy! Danny said to himself. It was the first time he had ever
thought of one of his gentile friends this way.
“What happened to your face?” Jimmy said.
grown accustomed to the dwindling pain in his cheek, it took a moment
for Danny to realize that Jimmy was referring to the bruise. “None
of your business.”
Red-faced and petulant, Danny left the
playground, foregoing the post-game sodas the boys gulped down by the
benches outside the elementary school. In the waning afternoon, flimsy
autumnal light receded from the garish pizza parlors and bleary Irish
pubs on Cloverdale Avenue. The amber sun ducked behind the houses when
he turned up Cherry Street. By this time, his mother would be preparing
an early supper, humming to herself contentedly in her kitchen. But she
hadn't dropped three passes.
When he arrived home, he didn't try to hide the bruise, and his mother noticed it immediately.
“Danny, have you been fighting?”
first-born son was growing up fast, and she no longer had to stoop to
examine his face. She didn't seem especially alarmed, but studied him
intently as if perusing a recipe in a new cookbook. She had a way of
focusing attention on him that Danny found unsettling.
“No, Mom, I wasn't in a fight.”
“Marvin, come in here!”
His father sauntered into the kitchen, the editorial page of the newspaper dangling from his hand.
“Look at this.”
was hit by the ball,” Danny said, addressing his father. Uttering these
words made him feel warm inside—the heat of a mediocre lie.
“The ball struck you in the face?”
nodded. He was relieved that his brother wasn't in the room. Despite
his vow of secrecy, Steven couldn't be trusted to restrain himself.
“A football in the face?” his father repeated.
Danny answered testily, believing that his father had initiated the
chain of events that had put him in this spot. “I didn't see it coming.”
His father grinned. “A pint-size Johnny Unitas injured my son with a pigskin.”
understood that his father was showing off. The extent of the man’s
knowledge of football was that someone named Johnny Unitas, who played
for a team in another city, was a famous quarterback. The deception had
That night, as the boys watched television
in their room, Steven dozed off on the sagging bed handed down from his
brother. Danny's mind strayed from the artificial laughter and amusing
images on the screen. He was in no mood to be entertained. Like
handfuls of pebbles, intermittent raindrops struck the bedroom windows.
Finally showers had arrived, seven hours too late, as far as Danny was
concerned. Over and over he envisioned a football glancing off his
fingertips. He tried to imagine himself catching the ball, tucking it
securely against his chest, crossing the goal line and raising a fist
in triumph. But TV laughter broke the spell. In the back of his mind
someone else was laughing, too: a flabby teenage homunculus with eyes
like blue marbles.
On the following Saturday, Danny took the
usual route to the synagogue with his subdued and sleepy brother by his
side. He had decided against safer streets that would avoid the
teenager’s house. Any change in their normal routine would have forced
him to lie to Steven, make up an excuse to hide his own cowardice.
Danny couldn't have lived with that. An encounter with the teenager was
unlikely this early in the morning. Still, when they reached his
street, Danny's neck tingled and perspired, chafed by the collar of his
clean white shirt. His grip tightened around the stone in his pocket he
had brought for protection or vengeance—he wasn’t sure which.
By this time Steven was wide awake and restless, and he appealed to his brother to invent some diversion.
“Count the cracks,” Danny said, as they approached the teenager's stoop.
Marching stiffly like a robot with head lowered, Steven counted fissures in the pavement. “One…two…”
“Not out loud.”
Mechanically Steven continued, his lips moving in a silent tally.
slowed down to examine the house. A rolled-up newspaper reclined
against a red brick step. There was a tarnished silvery box for milk
bottles beside the front door and, on a first-story windowsill, terra
cotta planters filled with soil, with nothing in bloom. The facade was
neat and not the least bit menacing. A home of sleepers. Over sleepers.
he and Steven had passed far beyond the teenager’s street and were
approaching the synagogue, he pondered the events of the previous
Saturday. Ire welled up in him, tightening his jaw. He entertained a
daydream of role reversal in which his adversary was pinned to the
sidewalk, shock and futility in his moist blue eyes. Pigskin, Danny
said to himself. A pig with a pig’s pink skin. Then a movie clip played
in his mind, in which a hard forward pass—a perfect spiral—struck his
dazed father square in the face, while Steven wept on the sidelines and
his mother tried to placate him with a sandwich. Danny knew who the
quarterback was: an eleven year old with a stone in his pocket.
was something different about the synagogue today. Something wrong.
Even from half a block away he could see it. The front door had been
defaced by large white letters, slanted and sloppy as if painted in
haste: JEWS. Danny bristled. He could hear the churlish drawl; he could
see the insipid eyes. He imagined the teenager guiding the nozzle of
the spray can while glancing over his shoulder for patrol cars. But
Danny wasn't persuaded by his own fantasy. The teenager seemed too lazy
and dull to have committed this furtive crime. It had to be someone
else. Boys with whom he played football might be capable of this—Jimmy
Stillwell, Sal Firenzi—or others he knew from school: the sarcastic
Irish kid who entertained everyone in home room or the clown in math
class who blew spit balls as plump as green peas at the blackboard.
the tattered canopy in front of the synagogue, Mr. Horowitz was
standing at the desecrated door with the air of a sentry. Perhaps he
was waiting for the police.
“Daniel, Steven,” he said, a
glimmer of humor in his magnified eyes. “This building has been a
temple for thirty-five years. Finally some smart young goy figured out
who comes here.”
As Mr. Horowitz turned to go inside, Danny
noticed that his shoulders were trembling. The old man was laughing to
himself. When the heavy door sprung shut, Steven began to sob.
“Stop it, Stevie. Shut up!”
Danny pulled the stone from his pocket. At point-blank range and with all his might, he hurled it at the synagogue door.