I. Pusan Harbor, August 23, 1950. The platoon is shifting crates in blinding heat, tormented by insects and humidity, when with a giant reverberating twang a cable snaps and PFC Marshall, a skinny kid from Bakersfield with different-sized ears, is crushed beneath an artillery piece. Hesh is part of the detail ordered to haul away the debris. Marshall, Jesus: beneath the metal, there’s bloody mulch, and grinning from the jellied face a set of shockingly intact teeth.
Sergeant Anderson has a cigar going to keep off the mosquitos. I think we’ll knock off early, he says.
The platoon is quartered in a warehouse near the fish market. The smell is dizzying—rank bundled planks of dried fish, unwashed GIs, plus the honey wagons, those oxcarts pulling barrels of human shit. Shaken, subdued after Marshall, they slap at the bugs. Nobody knows what’s coming but guys pretend they do. Metzger, the Midwesterner with a Clark Gable mustache, he thinks Truman will drop the bomb. This guy Baker, who acts like hot shit because his family owns two filling stations in Mobile, he says we won’t need the bomb. He says, The commies’ll fold, you’ll see. We’ll be home by Christmas.
Or Hanukah in Marx’s case, says Nick.
What’s Hanukah? asks Metzger.
It’s like Jewish Christmas, Hesh says, feeling like a sideshow exhibit: two bits to see the Jew. He says, There’s no fucking way we’re home for Christmas.
Baker says, What the fuck do you know?
Nick says, More than you, cornpone.
Silence. Nick’s reputation as a hothead has followed him from the troopship and nobody wants to fuck with him. Anyway, they know Hesh is right. They’ve seen the fear in the eyes of the dockside officers, regiments trucked to the front with barely time to piss. Blind luck the only reason they themselves aren’t at the line. If you could call working fourteen hours a day luck, or what happened to Marshall.
Next morning Sergeant Anderson guides the men to a siding where a line of rail cars waits behind a steam engine, its boiler like a giant dented beer can.
We going to the front, Sarge? Hesh asks, trying to sound casual.
Marx, they don’t tell me dick.
It’s baking hot on the train, the seats splintery. But morale is pretty good. Hesh liberated these stainless-steel spoons stamped USN from the troopship. Baker bought two for a buck. He’s singing Mule Train, clippety clop, cloppety clip, clacking spoons against his thigh, Metzger cracking a pretend whip. Nick’s face in a paperback, Lust Orgy of the Wild Nymphos. Hesh however imagining the telegram to Marshall’s family: we regret to inform you your son was squished.
The train moves through Pusan, extra slow is if to ensure an eyeful. Hesh grew up poor but this is widows-and-orphans shit, Biblical: frightened refugees, a gaunt beggar with one disfigured undersized foot. Huts built from corrugated tin and the flimsy crates C-rations came in. Heartbreaking children picking through refuse. In some busy district the signs are in Chinese and blocky Korean and a confused old lady tries to cross against traffic. The Korean traffic cop slaps her to the gutter, where she kneels clutching her bloodied head as the local businessmen step around her in their neat Western suits. Jesus, Hesh cries out, but nobody hears him over the singing.
II. When Hesh was six years old, the social worker moved him from public school to St. Mary’s on Vernon Boulevard where she could better keep an eye on him. She had a good heart, Mrs. Cabrini—she was a distant relation to Mother Cabrini, the American saint—but it never occurred to her that Catholic school might be problematic for a Jewish kid. Sure enough the shkotzim pushed him around because the Jews killed Jesus, allegedly. When Hesh pushed back, the kids ran crying to the sisters and Hesh got the ruler. So every day he got it one way or another.
One afternoon Mrs. Cabrini took him out of school early. She was a big woman with an air of overwork and pockets full of butterscotch sweets. She bought him an egg cream and a tuna sandwich and brought him to an important-looking building with long, wide steps and columns and people all around looking busy.
Is this a church? Hesh asked.
No, Herschel. This is the courthouse.
Inside, in the cool marble shadows, Hesh’s mother appeared. She had on her bell-shaped hat and her best suit and bright lipstick. She looked so beautiful that for a moment he forgot to breathe. Straightening his collar, she said, Herschel, if they ask where you want to live, you say, I’d like to live with my mother please, and I’ll get you that Flash Gordon ray gun.
Mrs. Marx. That is illegal.
Mrs. Cabrini, I am no longer Mrs. Marx, and do you think my son is better off with that drunk and his woman?
Mrs. Cabrini looked like she was sucking a lemon but said nothing.
In the courtroom, they put Hesh in a box on a chair with a phone book on it so he could see over the sides. The man in black robes said, All right young man. Your mother says one thing and your father says another. Where would you feel more comfortable?
I don’t understand, Hesh said.
I’m asking if you’d rather live with your mother or your father. Remember there’s no wrong answer.
Well there was no right answer either, mother and father on either side with matching expressions of dreadful suspense. Hesh stuttering as the tears pushed out, until he remembered the ray gun. Sparks leapt from the barrel when you pulled the trigger, just like the one in the serial.
I’d like to live with my mother, please.
His father blanched and looked down at his hands. Hesh saw this and squirmed with shame.
III. Lt. Perth says pridefully the company is a fire brigade, meaning thrown in wherever it’s hot. But by the time they get there, anywhere, the fire’s out, only Graves Registration bagging the dead. Because the roads are unbelievably shitty. All morning you’re in the pissing rain pushing a 6×6 through the mud. In the afternoon you ride until an axle cracks or the radiator boils over. At dusk you dig holes, face streaked with red earth like a failed attempt at war paint. Meanwhile lines of refugees trudging south, women with bundles on their heads, old men bent under A-frames, children stupefied by exhaustion.
Join the Army, Nick says. See the world.
They’re in the Changnyong Sector, which doesn’t mean much as the maps are blurred, copies of copies. They drive through cindered villages, Wondong and Kyongsan and Miryang, until Hesh stops bothering with their names. He does have one of the porters, a kid they call Boom, teach him please and thank you and how to count in Korean. It’s a way of keeping sane and maybe providing an edge, like knowing a few words of Italian or Spanish back home in Queens.
But there is no edge or angle with Lt. Perth, who shouts orders from his jeep, protected by rank and poncho. Hesh fucking hates him. Perth is a skinny-armed college boy with aviator sunglasses and a puffed-out chest who clearly imagines himself as Young MacArthur. His sidearm is a .45 revolver his grandfather took to World War I. Whatever his lineage, the SOB’s last command was a Negro company, which they only give to fuckups or drunks. There’s talk by the way about desegregating the Army which Metzger says is only fair and Nick says is stupid, everybody knows colored guys can’t fight. Hesh says you don’t know the colored guys from my neighborhood and for your information the people who hate Negroes usually hate Jews too.
You got a point there, says Nick.
Anyway, thank God for Sarge. Six-three, Army-issue glasses, thirty if he’s a day, Sarge can divert Perth from his truly moronic ideas, like a morale-building game of touch football against the porters. But Sarge can’t talk him out of assigning the shittiest jobs to Marx and Martinelli, and to Vega, a Mexican from Santa Fe. The misfits, Perth calls them, even though they’re all decent soldiers. Perth gives them third watch, or makes them dig slit-trench latrines, or, alongside the Korean porters, hump heavy equipment.
They march between pea-green rice paddies in the insane humidity, the insect clouds, the distant pounding artillery. Nick with the PRC-10 radio on his back, Vega cradling a .30 cal. Hesh has an ammo box, the handle bruising his palms. This in addition to their own weapons, ammunition, water, grenades, their sweat-sodden uniforms.
Vega says, Maybe you guys haven’t noticed but I think the El-Tee is a bigot.
He’s no bigot, Hesh says. He just hates kikes, wops and spics.
Nick says nothing. He’s got that sour look. Hesh saw it on the boat when that big guy tried to take his top berth, the look that says, I will destroy whoever fucks with me.
The convoy passes beneath a drooping banner—Korea Welcomes US Forces—into an abandoned village with a vague smell of night soil. Breaking for chow the men collapse into the shade of apple trees. Cabbage patches all over the place but nobody tending to them, spent ordnance on the wind, P-51s buzzing and the occasional thrilling chopper. The porters, disturbingly underweight and freakishly strong, sit to one side eating everything you give them.
I got corned beef hash, Hesh says.
Don’t leave nothing over, Nick says. There are children starving in Asia.
Hesh’s watch that night is punctuated by the pop-pop of small arms, flares descending into the hills like alien spaceships. Then the darkness is so complete he is unable to see his own hands before him. You can only listen—to whining insects and scraping foliage, every sound a potential North Korean. His good luck charm is the pocket Hebrew Bible he got before boarding the troopship. He massages it with a thumb while obsessing over all that frightens him: of getting maimed or killed, of fucking up—meaning that he’s equally afraid of dying like Marshall as he is of being the guy who accidentally killed Marshall, which he knows is kind of screwy.
Before first light, the roosters crow which gets the dogs barking and Hesh awakens, stiff, itchy, wet with dew. He listens to the country noises with the sun rimming the outlines of the ridges while Nick grumbles about shooting every fucking animal in Korea. He still doesn’t see communism in Korea as his own problem, and whenever he thinks of that old lady bleeding in the street he feels sick. But right now he senses something good here, terrains and ways of living worth experiencing.
Meanwhile the company is thinning. A man slips from the flatbed of a 6×6 suffering a gruesome compound fracture. A man drops gurgling from heatstroke. Two men return from Pusan with the clap. A man is blinded by local hooch. Three fuckups refill their canteens from a rice paddy and get dysentery.
Sergeant Anderson squints through his glasses at his own little bottle of halazone tablets.
He says, These motherfuckers from the last war.
Hesh says, How can you tell?
Because I was in it.
Metzger says, Sarge, we gonna get replacements for the sick fellas?
An ambulance truck bounces down the road, the red cross on its driver-side door smeared with camouflaging mud. The enemy has found it makes an excellent target. When the truck hits a bump somebody screams.
Sarge tosses his tablets into a ditch.
Metzger, we are the replacements, he says.
IV. Eight years old, Hesh liked to wander. This was in the late thirties, when you could locate yourself in Long Island City by smell. In Queens Plaza it was car exhaust, diesel fumes, the spheric ozone of the trolleys. By the block-long factories, the air was sharp with chemicals. On the waterfront as the gantries ratcheted freight cars from the barges, the coal fumes made your eyes sting. Outside Gastl’s Bier Hall on Northern Boulevard, it smelled of sausages and sour beer, odors that Hesh would forever associate with a kind of displacing fear: Saturday nights, watching the men with swastika armbands filing past the doorman, he felt disconnected, like he was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. He felt better after he snuck into the parking lot and punctured some tires with his Tom Mix pocketknife.
The rail yards were a man-made valley between Long Island City and the rest of Queens. Hesh screwed around in them like the other kids until a couple of incidents. First Mikey Pullo climbed atop a freight car with his air rifle to pigeon-hunt. Mikey’s arm brushed against a power line and he dropped like a human brick. He recovered but the fingers of his right hand stayed all bumpy and twisted. Then Carlo Matteucci was dragged to a hobo encampment and interfered with. His family moved away in the dead of night because of the shame. Hesh’s mother said no, they snuck off because they couldn’t pay the rent. She herself had a good job as a bookkeeper to a furrier; sometimes she’d come home with fancy leftovers for him, veal scaloppini or prime rib. She said, Stay out of the goddamn rail yards, and for once Hesh listened.
The rail yards inspired his first business venture though. Pearson Street ended in a brick wall, but if you climbed up the discarded crates you could pluck coals right from the hopper. Hesh sold a sack for two bits. The coal man charged a dollar, so he had plenty of business. Schlepping his sacks, he saw men rushing the doors of the employment agency. He saw striking Negroes attacking scabs with baseball bats on the platform of the IRT. He saw a bum stumble into an oncoming trolley, the shoes remaining at the point of impact, the body twenty feet away, a heap of angles in a puddle of blood and piss.
Hesh’s coal business kept him busy through the brutal winter of ’38. Until the steam dick caught him and smacked him so hard he bled from the ear. He didn’t tell his mother or father knowing they’d say he had it coming, Rachel for stealing, Sam for getting caught. The lesson was that both work and play came with risks. You took your lumps and you didn’t bellyache, even when the lumps were inexplicable.
When Hesh was ten, Rachel dropped him off at his father’s house with his suitcase. The suddenness of it made him sure he’d done something wrong, maybe she’d heard about the coal thing. But nobody ever explained it so whatever the reason, he never got to say he was sorry.
V. The platoon is dug into the crest of the hill, ten holes, two riflemen each. The big .50 cal faces the enemy, .30 cals on each flank, the mortarmen behind the command post on the defilade side of the hill. The perimeter is surrounded by concertina wire and empty C-rations cans as their early warning system. Hesh and Nick are on the right flank, sweating and fearful, peering across the shining gray Naktong River at the hills above the emerald rice paddies where the North Koreans are dug in.
An hour before dusk, Corporal Jordan goes around divvying up ammo. You need a shit, now’s the time, he says.
Hesh ducks past the BAR emplacement on the way to the slit trenches.
Marx is gonna pull his pud, says Wade, the gunner.
It ain’t gonna pull itself, says Hesh.
Hohner and Grossman, the assistant gunner and ammo bearer, find this hilarious. The fact is Hesh kind of wishes he could jerk it. It would be a nice distraction. Squatting, emptying his bowel, he feels disembodied from fear, as if he was controlling his own actions like a puppeteer. He cleans himself up with one inadequate square of C-ration shitpaper while mosquitos whine in his ears. Heading back to the hole, he hears Lieutenant Perth and Sergeant Anderson.
Sir, they going to flank us. If we run out of ammo they going to kill us.
Sergeant, I’m curious how you acquired such a detailed knowledge of North Korean tactics.
Christ Lieutenant, because that’s what happens every fucking night on this river.
I don’t like your tone, Sergeant.
Beg your pardon sir. But you need to understand. The porters took off.
They took off. I sent them for more ammo and they never came back.
I suppose we should have expected it. Asiatics are cowards, after all.
Or maybe they know something we don’t. Sir.
Back in the hole, Hesh tells Nick what he overheard. Nick spits and lights a smoke. Squints across the river at the North Koreans.
Tell you what, he says. Let’s clean our weapons, make sure we’re squared away. There won’t be nothing nobody can do to us.
An hour before sunset, mist settles on the river and they could hear dogs barking. It’s fucking creepy and creepier still when, as the light fades, North Koreans appear from cover and descend their hills in some kind of torchlight procession, maybe 1500 of them lighting up the riverbank.
Nick says, What the fuck is this?
Hesh says, Beats me.
But Hesh does get the gist, and he’s got a dropping feeling in his stomach and balls, like just before riding the Cyclone except a hundred times worse. Whatever specifically they’re up to, who knows. But the meaning is clear: We’re coming to kill you.
VI. When Hesh turned twelve, Sam started him on bar mitzvah lessons with an ancient rabbi in Williamsburg. When the Hasidic kids saw Hesh getting off the bus in his normal-person clothes, they yelled, Fuck off goy. Your mother’s a whore, Hesh yelled back in Yiddish. The rabbi was graybearded with clumps of gray hair in his nostrils and ears. While Hesh did his lessons the rabbi’s grandson, maybe three years old, stared at them, breathing heavily while twirling a sidecurl around one finger.
Here was the interesting thing: Hesh was good at the Hebrew. He liked learning the letter sounds, and what the words meant more or less, and he liked chanting as the rabbi helped him along with the Torah pointer. Its tip was a beautifully modeled little silver hand with an extended index finger. At the end of the lesson the rabbi gave him a piece of apple cake and said, Herschel, you’ve got a yiddishe kop: meaning, You’re a smart kid. The whole business woke up something within him, if not necessarily a religious impulse, the feeling that there was more to being Jewish than getting the shit kicked out of you.
His mother came to the bar mitzvah service. She sat in the back row, ignoring the whispers. Doing what dramatic people did, drawing attention to yourself by pretending you didn’t want attention, and he hated her for it. Her presence made him feel furiously embarrassed and delighted. Then he got lost in chanting, the pointer leaping from letter to letter, knowing as he sang that he was firing on all cylinders.
When the ceremony was over, his mother pulled him into her scented embrace and kissed his forehead. She said, My little yeshiva bucher. She stuffed a war bond in the breast pocket of his blazer, saying, Don’t tell your father.
There was a party at a nice restaurant in Ridgewood with an accordion player and good food and a photographer and everything except his mother. But his cousins were there and an aunt whom he adored had come up from Washington, DC. People kept handing him envelopes that his stepmother put into her handbag, saying, I’ll hold onto these for you.
Money. They were giving him money.
They took a taxi home, a rare treat. In the back seat with his little brother asleep next to him, Hesh felt tired in the best way possible. He had worked towards something and done well, and people had taken note of it. His father was up front with a flask.
Hesh said, What a party. Thanks, Dad.
No problem, kid.
How much money did I get?
Schmuck, he said. How do you think we paid for it?
VII. At 2100 hours a popgun sound followed by a freight train roar and WHAM, Hesh and Nick spattered by debris. Two more shells and the commies have the range, the blasts like some crazy person hammering at sheets of steel. Overheard the whistles of shell fragments, the air pressure punching your eardrums. Twenty minutes of demented noise, thirty, Hesh’s mouth full of dirt and prayer, dear God, you gotta be fucking kidding me—then a sudden blessed silence.
Hesh stays low, shaking, until the shrill North Korean bugles set his short hairs on end, enemy flares hissing upwards to bathe the hillside in green. And here they are, screaming mansai in the kryptonite light with their puffy caps and buttoned-up uniforms, hurling their bodies at the wire, shredding their own skin to form a human ramp for the men behind. Hesh thinking, stupidly, What the fuck is mansai, while someone is yelling, Shoot the motherfuckers, shoot them.
Then something even more fucked up happens: Baker leaps raving from his hole to take on the first three through the wire. From ten yards Baker shoots one and another and the third is closing the gap until Baker shoots him too. Hesh is frozen in admiration until Baker throws down his weapon and runs screaming in lone retreat over the crest of the hill, never to be seen again.
Nick says: You dumb Jew will you fucking shoot!
Hesh raises his weapon, but the .30s on either side open up and the North Koreans fall like puppets with their strings cut, their torsos reduced to mist.
Eyes open, Sarge calls. They ain’t done.
Sure enough the bugles announce another attack. Bullets buzzing, cracking, dirt splashing the hole. A grenade lands between them—cursing, Hesh grabs the evil fizzing thing by its handle and hurls it. It bangs in mid-arc, harming no one. Red tracers from the machine guns converge in the darkness, a crazed chuddering racket. A flare, American this time, reveals a third fucking wave clawing uphill, and Hesh is firing, and as the enemy keeps coming, he understands their sole tactic, their great advantage: that there are more of them, many more, and that this is their home, and that, unlike him, they’re ready to die for it.
VIII. Three days later the order from General Walker comes up: Stand or die.
Hesh says, What the fuck does he think we been doing?
They have fifteen men left from forty-two but Sarge and Metzger are okay and Hesh is glad he didn’t bother to get to know anybody else. Nobody’s seen the LT since yesterday. With the porters gone they have no food or water or smokes and they’re frighteningly low on ammunition. They can’t ask for help because the radio batteries have split in the heat and shortly after the general’s message, the wire got cut.
Hesh’s trigger finger is sprained and he has a crushing dehydration headache. Vega said to put a pebble in your mouth to help with the thirst. Hesh tried it and felt like a thirsty schmuck with a pebble in his mouth.
Nick says, You hear something?
They look up at the lawnmower buzz of an L-19 Bird Dog circling the hilltop. It’s got something dangling from its belly. A supply crate. Heart flaring, he watches as the crate is released and its parachute deploys and it floats gently over their heads and over the river to nestle an easy walk downhill from the enemy position.
Hesh is torn between a monstrous feeling of helplessness and the surety that there’s no other way the supply drop could have gone for them.
Anderson bellycrawls over blasted earth to the hole facing the river by the right flank where Hesh and Nick are now dug in.
Marx. I need you to search for anything we can use. Food, weapons, anything.
You gotta be kidding.
Shut up and do it. Metzger’s down there, don’t shoot him.
Hesh looks at Nick for moral support, who merely shrugs: better you than me. So he slides ten yards down the hill skirting the corpse of—Fries? DeVries?—Hesh barely spoke to the guy before he died, his neck spurting blood, gasping like a fish while they pulled off his boots. Hesh crawls through the hidden gap in the wire with a rag around mouth and nose but it’s useless against the stink. Gagging, he finds one intact but empty North Korean canteen. A few yards away Metzger is having better luck, a clutch of grenades and a burp gun. After four days of beard growth, the line of his mustache is barely visible.
Hesh, is it okay if I ask you something?
Do Jews believe in heaven?
You have a screw loose, Metzger.
Geez, I’m just curious is all.
With the dignity of the offended, Metzger returns to the corpses. The amazing thing, absolutely astounding, is that he seems bothered only, or mostly, by the insult. Despite his awkwardness, his massive naïveté, this weird little fella has balls of steel. Yuck, he says, as if he were cleaning up after his cat, and not using his entrenching tool to clear viscera.
The tip of Metzger’s spade reveals a dark green sphere.
Hesh says, Grenade.
Metzger says, What?
Hesh is rolling as the explosion smacks him forward and he is showered with dirt and human debris. The world is white and silent until he finds himself sentient and frantically patting at his own body. Nothing broken, nothing leaking. But Metzger is all over him.
When he next becomes aware again, he’s somehow back in the hole with Nick. Sarge is calling down: What the fuck happened?
Metzger bought it, Nick says. Must’ve been a booby trap.
After a pause, Sarge says, He find anything?
We got a few things, Nick says, scraping Metzger off his buddy with the side of his bayonet blade. Then Nick carves out a small ledge upon which he places the salvaged grenades. He writes For Metzger on the wooden handles with his pencil stub.
That night, Vega is magnificent. In the green false daylight, three, four times a grenade lands in his hole. Each time he throws it back until the fifth takes his hand off and the hilltop is almost overrun until Anderson opens up the BAR. Still, North Koreans keep finding their way through. Weeping, hyperventilating, Hesh shoots one in the belly at three paces and then turns to shoot another scrambling toward Nick.
By daybreak Hesh has an unceasing high-pitched tone in one ear like the hearing test they gave him in middle school. He’s in a place beyond exhaustion, stunned by deprivation and violence. Nick’s face is skull-like, lips encrusted and furrowed. Jordan is crawling up the denuded hillside trailing parts of himself and calling for his mother. There is no morphine or sulfa to help him. A few yards away, Wade is on his back, apparently having died trying to hold his intestines in.
The shrill piercing bugle of an enemy officer is like the Angel of Death announcing his imminence: a daytime attack. Because they’re winning.
Sarge, Hesh says. Sarge, what do we do?
Bug out. I’ll cover you.
Nick, we can’t leave him.
He just fucking told us to.
They’re knocked flat by the propwash of a Corsair with Marine markings, a silver bomb tumbling end over end to bloom into flame, consuming the North Koreans amassing in the craters at the base of the hill. Even at this distance Hesh flinches from the heat. Within the black cauliflowering smoke there are screams. A man zombie-walks from the napalm cloud fully aflame, his skin peeling back like potato chips.
A Marine appears behind them, godlike in his clean uniform.
He says, Looks like you doggies got your asses handed to you.
IX. Six months later Hesh exits the subway into the March chill, shouldering his duffel. The normalcy is disorienting, the boot-shaped sign above the shoe repair place, a newspaper stand, trucks spilling from the bridge. The elevated train shrieks overhead and he flinches. He thought he’d left the fear in Korea, but here it is, the certainty that any slip and some fucker will kill you, even during rush hour in Queens.
Sweating, Hesh stands before his house, unable to enter because he lost his key, unable to knock because he doesn’t want to. He can’t face them, his stepmother and half-brother. It’s too much, surviving a war only to return because these assholes need a meal ticket. He can’t face the IRT again either. And why should he? He’s flush with combat pay and the side hustle he ran while waiting for his discharge papers in Fort Dix. He’d met a Yiddish-speaking chicken farmer with some hemp bushes behind the coops, Hesh quadrupling his money selling nickel bags to the local hepcats. Risking a court-martial, but nobody said boo to him, knowing what he’d been through on the Naktong and at Chipyong-ni.
Hesh hails a cab, provides an address in Brooklyn. It’s a mere ten-minute ride to the blue wood-frame house with a statue of the Virgin next to the stoop. Not far at all from where the rabbi taught him the aleph-beis. The white-haired woman who answers the doorbell sees Hesh’s uniform, says, Oh God, you have news about Nicky.
No, he’s okay, Mrs. Martinelli. He said I should visit you.
The woman takes a deep gasping breath. He’s okay?
Hand to God, Mrs. Martinelli.
A younger woman appears with Nick’s vulpine features: his sister, Giulia. Nick had said, She’s married, don’t get no ideas. As if you could get ideas about a broad the spitting image of your best friend.
Ma, let him in, it’s freezing.
Oh my gosh, excuse me, come in.
Around the table, it’s Nick’s father, his little brother Frankie, and a thick dull-looking guy that must be Giulia’s husband, the schoolteacher. Red wine, pasta, breadbaskets, the room redolent of food and familial ease. Giulia relieving him of hat, coat and duffel, Nick’s mother snuffling as she presses him into a seat, Hesh feeling like an asshole for scaring the lady.
I’m sorry, Mrs. Martinelli. I should have called first.
Never mind. You must be hungry.
Giulia whispers in Hesh’s ear: You only eat what I give you.
Nick’s father says, Excuse me, who the fuck are you?
I’m Nick’s buddy, Mr. Martinelli. Herschel Marx. My friends call me Hesh.
He has a buddy? That’s news to me. He sent one letter: Dear Papa, They ain’t got me yet. That’s all he fucking writes.
That’s the important thing, sir.
Nick’s lean father nodding: True, true.
The mother slops watery pasta on his plate with a chunk of blackened meat. With a swift practiced movement Giulia replaces it with a steaming chicken breast and broccoli. The family secret, Hesh remembers, is that Mrs. Martinelli is a godawful cook but nobody wants to hurt her feelings.
Mr. Martinelli says, Give him a drink, we got a veteran here.
The little brother says, You kill any Japs, Mr. Hesh?
Giulia passes Hesh a brimming tumbler of wine, saying, There’s no Japs in Korea, genius.
I hear the conditions are quite rough, says the schoolteacher.
Rough my ass, says Mr. Martinelli. In the trenches I seen a rat eating a fella’s eye.
That’s a great story for the dinner table, Pop, Giulia says.
He shrugs. That’s what fucking happened.
The little brother says, You seen anything like that Mr. Hesh?
Hesh smiles weakly. He’s seen all kinds of things but for some reason he now remembers Marshall’s jellied face on the pier. I don’t know, he says.
Frankie quit it with the questions, says Giulia. It must be nice to be home, Hesh. I guess you got enough points for your rotation?
I got a hardship discharge. My father died of a heart attack, I got to look after my kid brother and my stepmother.
He acknowledges their condolences, and in the ensuing silence he senses what they really want to hear, which is about Nick. He tells them how Nick on the troopship stood up to some big mook who wanted the top berth. How they tricked some captain out of two bottles of Seagram’s. Leaving out of course the pep pills and the whores and how well Nick took to the psychotic task of killing. Trying to convey instead his depth of feeling for his buddy and his confidence that Nick Martinelli could survive anything.
Later they release him into the night fit to bust. Mrs. Martinelli crying, hugging him: God bless you, Herschel. The door is always open.
Hesh thinking, So this is what it’s like to have a family.
It’s cold in Brooklyn but nothing like North Korea: he’s not ready to concede the evening. What Nick would do, he’d say, Let’s get a piece of ass. Hesh has another idea. Cigar going, he finds a bar, asks for the phone book, a jump blues tune on the juke box, Rocket 88. Nice saxophone riff. Hesh tapping his foot looking for the listing. No pen so he tears out the page. Gets another cab, eyes scanning the bridge onramp for enemy emplacements, thinking, I’ll get used to it, I’ll be back to normal in a couple of weeks.
It’s one of those nice buildings up in Washington Heights where the German Jews live. Heart pounding, he buzzes, thinking, I survived Korea, I can survive this.
Who is it?
The door opens and here is Rachel, fifty now, graying and slim. Last time he saw her was his bar mitzvah.
Cool as a cucumber, she says, Herschel. For Pete’s sake, come in.
Hesh squeezes through the door with his stupid duffel. Three women at a bridge table strewn with tiles and coffee cups gape at the sight of him. As if their mah-jongg has been interrupted by a dybbuk. One lady’s cigarette falls from mouth to lap and she resorts to frenzied patting to put out the cinders.
Rachel says, Let’s finish the game another day.
The lady who dropped the cigarette says, You think?
As she draws the latch, Rachel has already started her patter: Put your things down, Herschel, I’ll get you coffee. I moved back to Manhattan when I got a job at City College. By this time next year I’ll have my degree. Can you imagine, your own mother a college graduate?
He suspects it will continue like this for an hour, two hours, until she wears him down with chatter and he leaves. But what’s the difference? In a way it makes things easier: expecting nothing reduces her power to hurt him.
Or does it? Because he can’t ignore one thing.
He says, The look on your friends’ faces. You never told them you had a son?
Herschel. Of course I told them. But I got tired of the questions, you see. Everyone asking, How come he never visits? It was embarrassing. So I told them you were killed in action. She pats the sofa. Now, sit down and tell me all about Korea.