Skinny, blond teenage boy was standing on the front porch of the Bensonhurst house when I got there. I didn’t recognize him. Thought at first he was related to the current family of Poles on the ground floor. Something in his eyes looked familiar, though. Right. My brother, Eddie. It wasn’t hard to imagine that so much time had gone by, but it was hard to imagine that the people I’d left behind had changed. I was supposed to change, but they were supposed to stay exactly the same.
Eddie had been 10 years old when I left home. Now he was 15. He’d always been a watchful boy, an outsider within the family, and on the playground, that kid with the runny nose and untied shoes, studying all the other children while they worked their laces into perfect bunny ears and double knots.
Eddie was obviously bored with whatever mission he’d been assigned. He cracked his knuckles. He whistled without making a sound. Mission must have to do with that packet of envelopes that lay on the stoop beside him, I thought.
“Sammy says June Mansfield is you,” said Eddie.
“Easier to pronounce than Iulia Smerth,” I said, lunging.
Eddie laughed and snatched the packet up. “She didn’t tell me to give them to you. She just told me: Get rid of them.”
“If you give them to me, you will be getting rid of them,” I said.
“That’s not what she meant.”
“Oh, you think so, Karnak? How’d you know I was coming?”
“I’m not stupid, June Mansfield. Is this Henry Miller guy for real? We read some of the letters. Me and Sammy. My love, you are Jupiter, a planet whose gravitational pull is enormous. How is it, then, that your moons and satellites don't so much as ripple your tides—“
“Give those to me,” I said.
“Does that kind of line really work?”
“Now, Eddie. I want them now.”
“Hey! I’m trying to improve my mind. Weren’t you always telling me to improve my mind?”
“He’s a writer,” I said.
“He wants to know all about the day you first read Dostoyevsky,” Eddie said. “Where you were sitting. What you were eating. What color drawers you were wearing.”
“He’s a writer, Eddie. That’s what writers do. They collect details.”
“Zane Grey doesn’t care what color drawers you’re wearing.”
“What do you want to do with your life, Eddie?” I asked. “Be a draper like Papa?”
“Hell, no,” my brother said. “I want to do whatever I have to do to get the hell out of this place. Beyond that, I don’t much care.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Some place where there’s a lot of space.”
I sighed. “I’ll help you any way I can. I mean that. But right now, give me those letters.”
Henry Miller’s letters were enclosed in those translucent envelopes designed for sending mail to Europe or to Asia or to other places that were very, very far away. I wondered if he thought Bensonhurst was very, very far away. There was also a package wrapped in brown paper and string. A book.
“First time, he knocked on the door,” Eddie said. “Mama came out and screamed at him. So then he began standing across the street. Just standing and staring. That made Mama even crazier.”
“I’ll tell him to stop,” I said. “I’ll tell him not to come here anymore. Look. Here’s some money. Give it to her. Don’t tell her it’s from me.”
“There you go again,” Eddie said. He spoke Jiddisch. He was cross. “I told you: I’m not stupid.
“You think I’m stupid. You think she’s stupid. Everyone’s stupid but you and Henry Miller, I suppose. But see, here’s the thing, Iulia: We’re not stupid. She knows where the money comes from. And you know what she uses it for? Every Shabbat, she takes a match to it. She burns your money to light the Shabbat candles.”
“Then you keep the money,” I whispered in English.
And I fled.
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