Sunday Stories: “Bad Jews”



Bad Jews
by Michael Orbach

I am surprised when my sister calls. The call comes on an empty Saturday night about eleven or eleven thirty. There’s an idiotic grandfather clock on the speaker system that John inherited from his dead father that never tells the time. I was working all day, on a crew rebuilding a Reform synagogue, knocking it down and building it up again. This time with stained glass windows and wood from Israel. I’m watching television, but I can’t tell what’s on. Something funny. John’s next to me and he can’t tell either. There’s an empty gold-rimmed six-pack of Corona’s nursing between our laps. And there’s something flat on John’s lap that he’ll use to snort off whatever he can find.

I hadn’t spoken to my sister in four years. I heard she had another kid, another boy, she was popping them out by then. You turned around and you had another nephew or niece. I had gone to the circumcision of the first one. She got married when she was eighteen and moved to Brooklyn and never came back. She didn’t call much.

She still had the same whiny voice she had when she was nine.

“Sara’s out tonight,” she says as way of hello as John passes me the phone.

“So?” I said. I wasn’t too friendly. Being away does that to you. Sara’s my sister’s oldest daughter, I figure she’s about fifteen or sixteen by now.

“We don’t know who she’s with, Ari said she’d be back but I don’t know. I’m worried.” Ari was her husband. He was learning somewhere. I never liked him.

“So, what do you want me to do about it?” I’m tired; there’s a stiffness in my upper arms. I smell like sand and concrete.  I retched this morning and something like blood came out.

“Can you go find her?”

“And what should I do if I find her?” I probably wouldn’t even recognize her.

“Bring her back.”

“She’s probably just hanging out with her little thug friends. Let her do her thing and she’ll come back on her own.”

When Debbie calls every month, I hear stories about Sara’s kids. She’s a little bit happier every time she’d see Sara’s kids, her grandkids, doing drugs or getting arrested for shoplifting. I guess it made her feel that it wasn’t her fault, that it was innate, a curse, a part of being the Mahnsfried clan. Not that my mom was in any great shape though. She told me she had diabetes and her newer husband is cheating on her.

My sister pauses for a minute and then I hear the definite tone that got her married to her husband, that got her into City University, that got me out of the juvenile center, the one that a minute ago, hadn’t known where her daughter was.

“Bring her back.”


I shower in the rundown bathroom in the rundown apartment that John and I share. There’s an angry red ring around the drain and a brown spider that watches me while I shower. He sees me a thousand times, naked, soaped, the bleach in my hair running out. John says it’s the pet and a good luck charm and he won’t let me squash it. John and I grew up together in Far Rockaway. We had moved on, we had grown up, moved out to Astoria in Queens, where there weren’t any Jews.

I stretch after the shower and I hear my back crack. It’s not a good sign. I roll my neck and pull my arms. In the living room, John is smoking a reefer. He leans his head back and exhales a cloud of grey smoke. I tell him where I’m going.

“Gonna give some bitch her due?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“Want me to come in case you get into some trouble?”

“No. You can’t leave the damn apartment.” John was sleeping around with some married woman while her husband was in the hospital, word got out and he’s been laying low since the husband got back. I think he was in for chemotherapy or something. “Leave the window open, if the old lady downstairs smells smoke she’ll call the fire department.”

He offers me a puff and I take it and open one of the windows. We’re in the middle of downtown queens so there’s nothing to see, a Chinese place where a Russian girl I slept with works, a CVS, a bank in an old grey stone building. It’s summer and the streets are noisy. Some parade is marching down the main street, streamers and floats, something to do with Mexico but I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ll have to figure out a way to get my truck around it.

I take the Van Vyck down back to the Five Towns. It’s a quick ride, but there’s construction going on, I know the boys doing it. They’re doing the night shift, for a rush job, it pays better but there’s always more accidents. Someone put up a scaffold on the underpass and the work goes on until the monorail by Atlantic Avenue.

I figure there’s only a few places Sara could be if she’s in the Five Towns. It’s still early enough that everyone still out, showing off who they are. They’d be by Jerry’s Kosher Pizza off Central Avenue, hanging out in the Plaza with the fake trees and the glass ceiling. Or they’d be by Woodmere Bowling Lanes or the Hewlett Docks.

I pick Jerry’s and I’m right. A couple of old people are hanging out outside the pizza place and next to them groups of highschool kids. I see Sara. She’s sitting on a mailbox, leaning over a guy, her back to me. The sharp outline of her spine showing through her tank top and she doesn’t look like she’s been eating. She’s a good looking girl though, I can tell. An old Ozzy Ozbourne song plays from the open door of a Lexus next to them.

I park my truck and get out. There aren’t many old trucks in the Five Towns so eyes are on me. I look like white trash but I’m fine with that. Sara sees me.

“Heeeeeeey it’s Uncle Duvi,” she says, just like that, she’s probably drunk or stupid and I can’t tell which. “What are you doing here? This is our town,” she says, not unfriendly.

“It’s all my town, girl. What are you doing around here?”

“Running away,” she says.

“Funny,” I say.

She leans her head down and kisses the boy’s head. He moves his head up and they kiss again, this time on the lips, and she whispers something to him. Something old in me wants to punch him right then.

She introduces them to me and they look at me and nod and then look away. I don’t catch their names, they’re vaguely Jewish, vaguely assimilated, dressed in Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Abercrombie jackets. Sara turns back to me.

“So what are you really doing here?

“Your mom called.”



”What does the bitch want?”

“She wants you home.”

Her boy isn’t paying attention. His fingers are on Sara’s legs, tracing the inside.

“Who the hell are you again,” she says.

I tell her I’m her uncle and I’m taking her home. We aren’t close. It’s easy for her to get angry.

“I’ll call the police and they’ll lock you up again,” she says. The boy turns his head to his friends and they all look at me. Jail’s a magic word here.

“You do that. Your mom wants you home.”

She gives me the finger and kicks her legs. Her and her boyfriend start walking to the back of the plaza, his hand on her waist some fingers in the linings of her jean skirt. His friends see him move and they go along with him.

I follow them down the plaza. I see through the windows in the Pizza shop and see a family eating together on a Saturday night. I can tell they’re religious: still dressed in their Shabbos clothing, the man in a stained white shirt and the wife with her hair covered in something and a little daughter banging on the glass as we walk by. They don’t see me or Sara or the boys she’s with, locked in by the glass windows that only reflect back at them.

Sara and her friends stop at the edge of a plaza. Someone’s turned off the radio from the Lexus. They’ve all turned around, I figure there must be five of them, plus Sara, plus another girl.

“Hey man, what’s up,” Sara’s boyfriend says. He’s a kind of prick.

“Who the fuck are you?” I say. I’m not angry. There’s no hint of anger in my tone of voice. I keep on moving forward. He stands towards me.

I am surprised by how much it hurts to get punched in the face. I’m older than him at least by ten years, but it’s a good punch. The fist is soft, the muscles are from working out at Club Central. I can feel blood from my nose but I figure his hand got cut, I put one hand to my face and feel my nose.

It’s still there. He stands there for a minute, not knowing what to do.

I hit him hard in the chest with my one free hand. Right in the chest, he’s gasping for breath. I put my hands together and lock my fingers and bring my hands down on his head. There’s a good smacking sound and he hits the ground. Both of his hands try to push him up but the back of my foot pushes him down.

Sara’s there still, one hand moving to cover her mouth, which is an open wound. She wanted this to happen. His friends come running and I take a blonde one by the shirt and rip it down the middle then slam him into the window of another store, this one a photography store, the window peppered with weddings and bar-mitzvahs. Three more come and I’m almost ready for them. It’s a gang fight all over again, I’m surrounded and Sara’s saying something in the background, I wonder who she’s cheering on, but I know, and it’s like a bad laugh track on a bad sitcom. I feel something heavy hit the back of my head and then a push and then I’m on the ground. A lead pipe drops to the ground. Stupid me, I should’ve been expecting it. The kicking begins. In earnest, you could say.

When I come to a bearded man is cleaning me up. He knows me from the community and I try to say his name but my lips are too big and my tongue is too busy poking around for loose teeth.

“You took quite a fall,” he says. Behind him I can see the yellow and red sign on a Hatzola bus in the parking lot. There is a crowd around me someone must have called Hatzola.

“You could say that,” I can talk again.

“You’ve got a concussion and some bruises, but otherwise you’re okay. Someone hit you with something?”

“That’s good.” I turn my neck and feel a sharp pain.

“Who did this to you? The shfartsas? The Mexicans?”

I laugh. “No, some Jewish thugs.”

“That’s bad.”

“Bad Jews.”

“There are no bad Jews.”

“I started it.”

“No excuse, no bad Jews,” he says. I realize that he was my next-door neighbor from years ago, a small unsmiling boy the last time I saw him, Frankel. “Your sister’s still okay,” he says. He liked her also.

“Just fine,” I say.

There’s no cops around and he asks if I want to go to the hospital. I tell him I’ll be fine and he pats me on the back as I sit up, I feel something under my leg and I pull at it. The lead pipe is warm from being under my leg. Frankel looks at me and I look back at him.

He doesn’t say anything. I walk towards my pickup truck, it’s still there, one window’s shattered the glass in a pile on the sidewalk curb. Some of the front window is cracked but I can see through it.

I call my sister.

“You’re going to have to pay for my truck,” I tell her.

She asks what happened and I tell her that also. The boys her daughter is hanging out with. The lead pipe, the smoke, the wild teenage years. With each detail I hear another, not sigh, but something more than that, a little bit of her being coming out of her giving up.

“Do you know where she is now?”

My sister tells me not to go after them, she’ll just wait it out, Sara will come home eventually. It was wrong to get me involved, now I’m a mess. It doesn’t matter, I tell her.

They’ll be at the docks I know it. I’m sure of it, the way they walk, the way they are, the rich irreligious five town boys with their Jewish Brooklyn girls, they’ll  be at the docks smoking up now. Their cars parked around the circle with the underbrush the only thing separating them from the water.

I can see through the cracks in my windshield, the road twists in my head, I’ll need a day off from this. I should’ve expected it, but I didn’t, but it’s okay. I park my car before the grass that leads to the dock. The grass is thick, long with small trees coming out blocking off the view from the docks. If you didn’t know where it was you wouldn’t be able to find it. I walk along and find the Lexus.

It’s a beautiful thing, a car like this. I’ll never own something like it. The first hit brings the alarm, loud and clear, like a symphony. The window shatters in a rain of glass on the leather interiors, on the dashboard, on the screen of the navigating system. The system starts and a picture appears on the screen. It’s a map of New York.

The metal dents easily. It’s nothing like the steel we use and after a few minutes the front of the car is a pile of scrap. The hood is ripped open and I can see the car’s naked insides. I hit the engine and watch the metal dent; I rip out the spark plugs with my hands and stab the pipe straight into the engine’s sticky oil. I kick the bumper off and then throw it as far as I can, throwing my arm back, until I hear a clang of the metal on the wooden dock and then a splash. I can hear motion through the grass, a soft swishing and then louder sounds. Shouting they’re coming, but they’re too late. I knock the passenger door in and then I climb onto the roof.

There’s a sunroof, I almost laugh, looking straight up at the empty night sky. I kick it in and go to work on the ceiling. I use the edge of the lead pipe and I rip a hole straight through the top. I punch the metal when I get bored of the lead pipe. My knuckles bleed and the skin rips but it’s a sign that this wasn’t an act of nature, something unknown, some force that appeared. It was me. I was here.

I can see their young healthy bodies running through the grass, like apparitions, like ghosts, unscarred by what life does to all of us. But it’s much too late, too late for them, and too late for the Lexus. I pull out a long pocketknife and stab the tires and hear the air squeal out, free. I’m already in my truck long before they get there and there’s a moment of silence as they stare at the car. Then the screaming and shouting begins. It’s the boyfriend’s parent’s car, they figure out quickly who’s done it and he looks at Sara. They share a moment staring at the car. I wonder if he will hit her. I watch this from my truck, my head hanging out the side window so I can see, like the dog on the family vacation we never had. And then in a moment I’m gone. On the highway to Brooklyn. To see my sister’s small two-bedroom apartment with her four ugly kids and her unemployed husband, eating kosher chicken on plastic plates, drinking the orange juice they water down so it lasts longer, where later I will tell them, regretfully and sadly, when they ask: Sara?

She’s gone for good.

Michael Orbach is a writer in New York. His journalism has appeared in Tablet magazine, The Jewish Week and the Forward. His fiction has appeared in Jewish Fiction .net. He is finishing up a novel.

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