Hy the Chesterfield Guy, and Son
“Red Rover, Red Rover, we call Weis-guy over.”
It was one of them calling for me. Weisberg, Weis-guy, it wasn’t inspired. Still—they were the three biggest boys in my grade seven class at Talmud Torah, and they were on the other team.
You had to play. You couldn’t just go to the library; Gveret Rosenberg tracked you down.
I could hear the shouts and laughter of the younger kids playing on the slides. Behind that, the hum of cars on Oak Street, adults who’d probably forgotten how hard it was to be the right kind of boy.
I already knew what my dad would say: Take ‘em. They’re schmucks.
Yesterday they’d told the girls I had warts Down There.
When I went to school there was no Red Rover. Just switchblades. See this scar?
I started in towards my friend Simon Mendel, who did have warts but only on his hands; then at the last second I veered, crashing into the bigger boys’ arms. It felt like I’d hit a moose. I fell hard, and one of the boys kicked me in the ribs.
Everyone was laughing as Simon helped me up.
“I don’t want to play anymore.” Pain radiated from my side.
“Now, Aaron, that’s poor sportsmanship,” said Gveret Rosenberg, who had a special gift for watching everything but seeing nothing.
After school I showed my ribs to my mother. All the crying I’d held back burst out of me in the kitchen.
“I’ve had it with those boys, I swear.” My mother hugged me. For sure she’d call the school, or their parents.
Instead, at dinner, she did the unthinkable. “Show your father the bruise.”
“No, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.”
“Tell your father what happened. Tell him what they said to you.” She turned to him. “They say he plays like a girl. Show him the bruises.”
Now they were bruises, plural. I lifted my shirt and braced myself. You got A’s in school. You looked ‘em in the eye when they shook your hand. And you didn’t let anyone push you around, no matter how big they were. Those were the rules for a first-born son.
“You want your own column in Crybaby Magazine?” said Dad. “I told you already, go punch their lights out.”
“Hy!” My mother’s fork clattered to the table.
But Dad held up one square, hairy hand. “Please. Where I grew up—” and he pointed to the scar that ran down one side of his jaw.
“Right, and your parents were so poor you had to wear Zeyda’s ugly brown pants with the striped suspenders,” said my older sister, Rachel.
Dad never seemed to hear Rachel when she was being rude because she got straight A’s and played piano. He didn’t know about the other stuff, how Rachel pretended to be the right kind of girl but wasn’t. She was fifteen and had a best friend named Hanna, who stole.
“Respect your father, young lady,” Mom said. To my dad, “There’ll be no fistfights. I’ll speak to Gveret Rosenberg myself.”
“Like a baby you treat him, Nettie, I swear to God. It’s not long before he’s Bar-Mitzvahed.” He turned to me. “How about I show you some of my old boxing moves?” Dad said. “Then you can set those schmucks straight.”
After dinner we went downstairs and moved Rachel’s furry beanbag chairs out of the way. Dad rolled up his sleeves and started bouncing around as if the floor was hot.
“This is called sparring.” He was already breathing hard. “Hands up, keep your chin tucked, ‘cause if you take one on the jaw it’ll knock you out.”
But I kept mixing up the punches and tripping on my feet, and then Dad punched me in the cheek by accident and I ran upstairs crying.
“It’s turning red,” Mom said. “What will I tell them at school? They’ll think his father beats him.”
“They already know his mother babies him half to death.”
From the kitchen stool I watched Dad trudge into the family room and plunk himself on the easy chair. He lit a cigar.
“I’ll be working late tomorrow,” he said. “Inventory.”
“Again?” Mom held a bag of ice against my cheek.
“Yes, Nettie. Again.”
She pressed harder on the ice, her lips a tight line.
On Saturday morning, Dad and I climbed into the Lincoln Continental—1979 Mark Five, the Collector’s Series—and drove to Hy’s Wholesale Furniture Emporium. I had to wear my High Holy Day pants and dress shoes to work at the store. Dad had slicked his hair back with lime-scented goo and unbuttoned his shirt at the top so people could see his Magen David necklace.
“Rabbi Zuckerman said the store should be closed on Saturdays,” I said.
Dad banged the steering wheel with one hand. “Rabbi Zuckerman’s never had to make a buck by the seat of his pants.”
The Saturday job had been Mom’s idea. My father needed to be talked into it. I knew because I’d listened in.
“It’s time you taught him the business,” she’d said.
“He’s twelve. What’s he gonna do but get under my feet? Kid can’t even lift a loveseat.”
“So? Teach him to do something else.”
“Maybe it’ll toughen him up.” My father’s voice went soft, the way it did when he was getting a good idea.
“He’s not a piece of meat.”
Later he’d called me into the family room. “It’s time I taught you the business.”
I had been working there for a month. I loved pulling into the empty lot and parking in the reserved space near the entrance. I loved the jangle of my father’s ring of keys as he unlocked the front doors, the ding-ding of the door’s automatic bell, the smells of new furniture and waxy polish. Dad would go into his office, and soon the other employees would drift in: Lori who took the cash, Felix whose specialty was waterbeds, and Drew the bullyuck who could lift just about anything.
I didn’t care about furniture. I wanted to work the register. That was the important job, to be the one who handled the money. I’d been memorizing all the prices, waiting for the day when my father would say it was my turn, and then Lori could stand at the door to welcome customers.
“Go stand at the door, Aaron,” Dad said. “We’re opening.”
I waited there, shifting from side to side until the automatic bell sounded and an older couple walked in. Look ‘em in the eye, offer them your hand and say, “Good morning and welcome to Hy’s Wholesale Furniture Emporium. How can we help you today?” Even though we didn’t include me. It was Dad or Felix who answered questions about loveseats or hexagonal tables.
The woman ruffled my curly hair. “Aren’t you cute?”
Everyone treated me like a baby because I was small.
The man said, “You must be Hy’s son.”
Then it started. The woman pinched my cheeks, and Dad walked up and said, “So you’ve met the big boss man?”
They went to the living room ensembles, leaving me to handle the next embarrassing greeting. Eventually I got bored and wandered around the store with a clipboard and pen to write down prices.
Colonial dining suite (four chairs): $349.00
Sofa bed: $699.99
Tiffany lamp fixture: $49.88
I spied an argument brewing between a couple looking at waterbeds and sauntered over, pretending to make notes.
“What difference does it make which bed we buy?” the man said in a hoarse whisper. “We never have sex anymore.”
My face went hot. After a month of Saturdays I’d come to an important conclusion: the furniture store was a place where secrets were revealed. People talked. Maybe because the furniture belonged to no one, so the place felt neutral. The living rooms looked real enough, but they weren’t weighed down by real lives. They were more like movie sets.
That evening I watched Mom chop vegetables in the kitchen. The vegetables were part of her Weight Watchers’ diet, which had been pinned to the fridge for months. But instead of losing weight, she’d been gaining. “Built like a bowling ball,” was how she joked about herself. That was because she kept chocolates hidden in her dresser drawers.
“What’s embezzling?” I asked.
“What kind of language do you use? Who’s talking about embezzling?”
“I was standing behind the maple head-boards, the ones on sale. They were just walking by. Two guys wearing baseball caps.”
I remembered the cat expression Mom had used. Letting other people’s cats out of the bag was easy; you just loosened the drawstrings and out they slunk.
“It’s not polite to listen in,” Mom said. “Is this what you do at your father’s store? He lets you run loose like a vilda chaya?”
A wild animal? I didn’t run loose. But I knew how to sit without making a sound. I knew how to listen.
The following Saturday I was hiding behind a chestnut wardrobe listening to my father explain the virtues of the newest three-position recliner with headrest (on sale for $139.98) to an old man who smelled like pee. The front doorbell rang, and a woman strode in wearing a jumpsuit with padded shoulders, her high heels clipping across the floor. Her big poof of red hair didn’t budge when she walked.
Dad called Felix over, telling the old man, “Felix is the expert on recliners,” and then sauntered over with his chest out to the woman in the jumpsuit.
I thought Felix was the waterbed expert. I cut through the bedroom displays. I didn’t want to miss anything.
They were a funny pair. The woman was much taller than Dad, especially in those heels. Dad barrelled through the store like a linebacker—out of the way, everyone, Big Macher coming through. They didn’t seem to be headed anywhere; they just strolled from kitchen tables to bedroom suites and back again.
I crept closer and smelled lemon perfume.
“My cat Hugo is just darling,” she was saying.
“I love cats.” What? No, he didn’t. “You ever been to the horse races, Sharon?” How did he know her name? “I’m on a lucky streak these days.” Lucky streak, schmucky streak was what Mom would say, she hated it when he came home smelling like beer. She wouldn’t let him take me—but he’d never asked. I wasn’t the right kind of boy.
Lori was watching from the cash register so I picked up my clipboard and wrote $49.50 and tried to think what it was the price of.
“One of our best customers,” Dad said to me. “She was looking for a coffee table.” He’d never explained a customer before. “Give me a hand. I want to rearrange a living room display.”
I bit my bottom lip and followed him.
“We need to move the chesterfield.”
“Why don’t you ask Drew?”
“What am I training you for? Drew’s busy. Get on the other side and when I say lift, lift.”
I stood where I’d been told, and eyed the chesterfield like it was a snake. These things were heavy—all those hidden metal coils. And this one was a hide-a-bed.
“One hand on either side. You ready? Lift!”
Dad’s side of the chesterfield went up. I held my breath and threw every muscle into the task.
“I said lift!”
“I am lifting.”
“Forget it. I’ll wait till Drew’s done.” He walked away shaking his head, and I sank onto the chesterfield and stared at the prices on my clipboard, hating every chesterfield in the store.
My father dropped me off at a silent and dark house. He had a business meeting. The dim fluorescent counter light hummed in the kitchen. A note from Mom said she’d gone to visit Baba Zenia and dinner was in the fridge and Rachel would watch me, but Rachel wasn’t there.
I ate my dinner cold. When footsteps came up from the basement, I tensed. Was this my moment? Hero of the house, twelve-year-old boy saves his family from burglary and other things. Maybe they had Rachel tied up somewhere, maybe I wouldn’t untie her yet. Then the basement door burst open and there was Rachel’s friend Hanna, skinny and red-eyed with a strange smell about her, like skunk.
“It’s Aaron, the Sofa Baron.” She laughed so hard she bent over double.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Your parents got any wine?”
I hesitated. But then I thought about Rachel getting into trouble for once and said, “My dad’s got whiskey.”
“Hell, yeah. Go get it.”
“Is Rachel home?”
“She’s sleeping. Get the whiskey and I’ll give you some.”
I went into the family room and found the bottle that said Glenfiddich. Also a couple of Dad’s cigars.
“Ace,” said Hanna. “We’ll smoke those on the porch. When’s your mom coming back?”
“The note says nine but she’s never home when she says. My dad’s at a business meeting.”
“On a Saturday night? I bet there’ll be some big credenza talk.”
It hadn’t seemed odd until Hanna put it like that.
Hanna said to drink the whiskey fast so I wouldn’t taste it, but it burned my throat and made my knees go watery. She was teaching me how to blow smoke rings when Rachel crashed open the screen door and said, “What the fuck are you doing?”
“The Force is strong with that one,” I said, and Hanna and I both laughed.
“Watch this.” I tried to make a smoke ring but Rachel grabbed the cigar and stomped it out.
She glared at Hanna. “Are you nuts? He’s twelve.”
“You were passed out, Mrs. Fucking Babysitter. I didn’t want him to tell on us.”
“Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” I said.
Rachel took the whiskey bottle away and made me go to bed. “You won’t tell,” she hissed from the doorway, “or you’ll be in as much shit as us.”
A few Saturdays later, I was hiding behind a bedroom set listening to a mother fight with her daughter about bunk beds, when Lori announced on the loudspeaker that the store would be closing in fifteen minutes. The argument drifted away with the other store sounds: footsteps and conversations growing distant, the repeated ding of the front doorbell dwindling to nothing.
This was when I played a game I called ‘Remember Me?’ If my father called my name it was an automatic win for him because it meant he’d remembered I was here. So far, that hadn’t happened. The game involved choosing an option during the half-hour of clearing-up time when Dad sorted receipts and cash. I could make noises till he noticed me, jump out and scare him, or hide until he started setting the alarm. Then came my big line: “Hey Dad, remember me?”
He’d already almost finished clearing up, so I decided to hide. The store lights dimmed. I crept closer and slipped behind a chesterfield. I was waiting for the sound of the alarm code, when the bell on the front door rang, the door whooshed open and someone said, “Hy? Are you still here?” Blah blah, bridge traffic, trouble with Hugo—it was that woman, what was her name again? Sharon. Why was she here?
They sat in one of the living room displays.
“Hy, we need to talk.”
“Sweetheart, do we really have to—”
“Yeah. Bridge traffic, you said.”
“No. I mean late.”
Silence. “Are you sure?”
No answer. She must have been sure.
“Is it…I mean…you’re sure it’s mine?”
I startled at the slap. “Whose do you think it is?”
Long exhale. “What am I supposed to tell my wife?”
I stopped breathing.
“I can’t have a baby, Hy.”
“And you think I can?”
A baby. Sweetheart.
The conversation became more of an undertone until finally the chesterfield creaked as they stood up, and then footsteps headed away.
I took in the measure of the store. I could sneak to the other end and then casually walk up as if I hadn’t heard a thing. But then came the six beeps of the burglar alarm. All the lights went off, the bell on the front door sounded, and the door closed. Click went the lock.
I sat perfectly still, contemplating my options.
Option 1: Move. This would set off the motion sensors, and then the police would come.
Option 2: Wait without moving. Dad would go home, and someone would eventually realize I wasn’t there. Wouldn’t they? What if he wasn’t going home?
My empty stomach decided for me. I stood and walked until the alarm rang. It was much louder than I’d expected. What if the police thought I’d broken in? I sank onto one of the chesterfields and covered my ears with my hands.
The police were tall and wore shiny black boots and their radios crackled with code numbers. I told them I’d fallen asleep and my dad was Hy the Chesterfield Guy, and he’d forgotten I was here. I gave them my home number. When they called, I heard Mom yelling through the receiver. The policemen called the alarm company and the ringing stopped.
It was my mother who stormed through the front doors, grabbing hold of me as if she thought the police might change their minds. Her clogs made a heavy thunk-thunk sound on the floor, like she meant business.
“Thank you for traumatizing my son,” she said to the policemen. She turned towards the door, her whole body saying ‘Prepare for the Dramatic Exit!’ But her plan was spoiled because she couldn’t remember the alarm code and didn’t have a key to lock up.
“Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I fell asleep.”
The front door flew open and Dad burst in with the cool night air. Leather jacket, beer breath, hint of lemon. I glanced to the space behind him. No Sharon.
“What the hell’s going on?” He looked from me to the policemen to Mom. Then he looked at me again. If it had been a cartoon his eyes would have turned into question marks.
“Mr. Weisberg?” said one of the policemen.
“I fell asleep,” I said.
“No more!” Mom shouted. “This is his last Saturday at the store.”
“Relax,” said Dad. “We’ll talk about this at home.”
“What’s to talk? It’s over.”
Mom yelled at me the whole way home, but when my father arrived, no one said a word.
A baby. Theoretically I knew how that happened, but Dad…and that woman…naked? His rounded stomach bumping against her. Sharon, in her underwear. She wouldn’t wear the same big overwashed-grey underwear that Mom wore. Hers would be small, and flowered. I shook my head like it might scramble the image, but no, now the picture was in there.
“They call him names, Hy,” Mom said over dinner a few nights later. “Tell your father what they did today. They put his knapsack in the toilet.”
“So? Kick ‘em in the nuts. They’ll stop.”
I watched him. How do you eat when you’re hiding a baby? Meatloaf, then mashed potatoes, then creamed corn; gold link bracelet clinking against the plate for each mouthful. As though there was no baby. But I could see baby in the sly curve of his hand. There was baby in the tight jaw, baby in the hooded eyes. The right kind of baby, one who liked boxing and could hit a baseball.
“We could try that Jap stuff,” Dad muttered with his mouth full. “Kung Fu, or G.I. Joe.”
“You can’t call it Jap stuff,” said Rachel. “That’s racist.”
“G.I. Joe’s a doll,” I said.
“When’s the sign-up for baseball season?” he asked.
God, not that again.
“What’s the matter with your eyes?” Mom was staring at Rachel. “Have you been crying?”
“Allergies,” she said, cutting her meatloaf into small and smaller pieces.
My parents exchanged the raised-eyebrow look, and I remembered the night of whiskey and cigars. What would Rachel tell, if pressed?
“Rachel has a boyfriend,” I sang-shouted, making it up on the spot.
“I do not!”
“I saw you kissing.”
“Kissing?” said Dad. “Who’s the guy? What’s his father do for a living?”
Mom banged the table with both hands. “You’re too young.”
Rachel shot up from the table and glared at me, a hint of thanks in her eyes. “I hate you!”
She stormed to her bedroom, Mom yelling, “How do you talk to your brother?”
Then came the awkward Supper Symphony: clink, chew, swallow, silence.
“Know what I heard last Saturday?” I blurted. Oh, not that. Last Saturday had been the store alarm.
“Not another furniture story,” said Mom.
The skin around Dad’s eyes tightened. I stared at my mashed potatoes. When I glanced up again, he looked away.
“So what did you hear?” she asked.
“A man told his girlfriend he had crabs and she got really mad. What’s so bad about having crabs? I mean, if you keep them in a tank. Can we get crabs?”
My parents exchanged another look—this one meant I had misunderstood something important, but I knew neither of them would explain it.
“That’s what I’ve been telling you,” Mom said. “He listens in.”
“I wasn’t trying to. I just heard it.”
“He’s too young to work at that store. He hears things all the time.”
“What kind of things?” Dad’s voice got louder.
I pushed back in my chair. “Nothing. I didn’t hear anything.”
“I don’t want him going there anymore,” Mom said.
“I don’t want to go back there anyway.” I got up and left the table.
The next day I was in the family room watching Happy Days when my father came home early. “How ‘bout we go to the races on Sunday? Just you and me.”
The races! Say no. A whole afternoon at the horse races, just the two of us. Tell him it’s because of the baby.
When Dad went to the races, he brought things home—not just money or the smell of beer. Something harder to pin down. It was in his special horse-racing sweater or his lucky ring. “You should’a seen the stakes race today,” he’d say. “That Dance the Wind was something, shocked the hell out of everybody.” Except him. His pockets were always full of cash.
“Mom won’t like it.”
“Then we won’t tell her.”
“Naa. It’ll be our secret.”
I didn’t really say yes, but that Sunday he announced we were going on a father and son outing. “Just the boys,” he boomed over breakfast.
“You’re not going to the racetrack, I hope,” said Mom. I fixed my gaze on my bowl of cereal.
“What do you think, I’m meshugana?” Dad said. Not a crack showed, not in his voice or his face.
As soon as we drove away, he laughed. “We’re off to the races. Means we’re going to do something exciting. The racetrack’s an exciting place. You’ll love it.”
I won’t. But we were going to the races! And it was secret. Mom and Rachel had to stay in the quiet house with the dishwasher on and watch I Dream of Jeannie.
Inside the building, men were hunched over newspapers, scribbling notes and smoking. Dad led me out to the track where people were huddled and talking about bets. He waved at them and said, “Got my boy with me today,” and they waved back and said I’d bring Dad luck. Some of the men wore suits, and some of the women wore high heels and floppy hats. Dad said they were probably owners, like Dr. Hirschberg the family dentist who owned a horse named Mazel Tov. Dr. Hirschberg always wore a suit to the races.
Dad waited until the last minute before placing a bet. He liked to go to the paddocks and watch the trainers lead the horses in. It was even better than analyzing the Racing Form. “Look at ‘em carefully,” he said. “Which one’s full of piss and vinegar? And even more important, which one takes a dump just before they get out on the track?”
Was he kidding?
“You’ll never hear that advice from the handicappers but it’s foolproof. You can’t trust the numbers. But you can always trust a steaming pile of horseshit. It’s nature. You feel good after you take a big dump, right? You feel like you could run around the block.”
I laughed. The horses were majestic and muscular and bug-eyed, a few of them snorting and foaming at the mouth. The jockeys came into the paddock in their white pants and coloured jackets. They were so small they looked like kids.
“Look!” I tugged on my dad’s sleeve. “Number three. He’s taking a crap.” Part of me felt funny, like I was playing along.
He looked it up in the program. “High Hopes, that’s his name.” His eyes scanned the numbers. “High hopes is right. He’s an underdog, a Moishe Pipik. What are the odds on the board?”
“It says thirty-seven.”
“Thirty-seven to one. It’s risky but if you win, it’ll pay off big.”
The jockeys were lifted up onto the horses and then the trumpet sounded and the horses began their parade onto the track.
Dad went to the wickets and handed me eight two-dollar bills, one for each race. My eyes went wide. “It’s all you’re gonna get, so don’t blow it in one shot. Who do you like for the first race?”
“High Hopes.” I passed him one of the bills. “To win.”
The race began. The horse’s hooves thumped past us so hard I could feel it through my feet. My heart pounded. High Hopes was gaining ground. As they came around the final turn, everyone started yelling. High Hopes pulled ahead. When he crossed the finish line first, Dad lifted me in the air.
“I knew you’d have the touch! Come on, let’s get your loot.”
We ate hot dogs and sno-cones, and Dad ordered a beer and let me have a sip. I took it, because it was beer, and because it was a high price for him to pay for silence.
At the end of the day I came away with $104, more money than I’d ever had in my life.
“Go buy yourself something nice.”
“What about Mom?”
“I’ll handle her.”
When we got home, there was a roast chicken in the oven and the carpet was vacuumed and Grizzly Adams was on television. I could still feel the pounding of the horse’s hooves, the track’s energy, the thrill of winning.
“How was the day?” Mom asked.
Dad put up one hand. “Our day was our day. That’s it. That’s all.”
She looked at me. I forced a smile, and my stomach did a little dance. As I went upstairs and tucked the money into my sock drawer, I wondered if a person ever got good at this. If it ever stopped feeling like somewhere inside you, you were a fake.
That night when Mom tucked me in, she said, “So what did you really do with your father today?” Softly, while stroking the hair away from my face.
“Man stuff,” I said. “It’s secret.” Something inside me crumbled.
My mother stopped rubbing my head.
The Death Star Play Area was on sale at Sears for $22. There were also Star Wars figurines, and a Darth Vader utility belt.
“What am I, made of shekels?” Mom asked.
“I’m paying for these,” I said.
“And where did you get money? Not from my wallet, I suppose?”
“My Saturdays at the store,” I stumbled. “Dad paid me.” He was supposed to have handled this.
“Don’t pish on my foot and tell me it’s raining. Your father never said he’d pay you.”
“Well, he did, and I’m buying what I want.” My skin went prickly.
Later that night Dad came up to my room. “Let’s see your treasure.”
Before, I wouldn’t have dreamed of showing him the Star Wars stuff, but now we’d spent a whole Sunday together, things were different. “This one’s Darth Vader, he’s the bad guy, and this is Han Solo, and these are…”
“You spent all your winnings on baby toys?”
“Hey, Darth Weisberg!” one of the bigger boys called in the playground. “Is the Force with you today?” All three of them laughed.
Lots of boys in my class liked Star Wars. But that afternoon something in me shifted. I thought of Sharon, and of the baby who would be stronger and smarter and better than me.
“Shut your face,” I said.
The boy laughed harder. “Make me.”
I took a step back, wound up, and punched him in the nose. The boy yelped, then fell. I saw blood. The other two came for me, but all I could think of was my father. I swung wildly at them. “I hate you!” I yelled. “I hate you.”
Gveret Rosenberg stood on the sidelines shrieking, “Stop all this fighting!”
By the time it was over, my lip was split and one of my eyes ached. All four of us were sent to the office and the principal telephoned our parents. When my mother arrived, she took one look at me and cried, “Wild animals at this school.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in the car. But I wasn’t.
“Just wait till your father gets home.”
I did, with an ice pack on my eye. He made a fuss in front of my mother, but when her back was turned he chucked me on the shoulder and called me a man.
Michelle Barker lives in Penticton, BC. Her short fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction have been published in several literary reviews. Her first novel, a YA fantasy called The Beggar King, came out in 2013 with Thistledown Press. A chapbook, Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii, was published by Leaf Press (2012), and a picture book is forthcoming with Pajama Press. Michelle is finishing her MFA in creative writing at UBC. www.michellebarker.ca