He was cannonballed out of oblivion six weeks early, slick and bloody, head ripe as a cherry, neck raw where his life cord had nearly choked him in the womb. His mother said he had “ancient eyes” and named him after a great-uncle who’d been gassed in Auschwitz. Snipped, clipped and blessed like the generations, the rabbi dabbed wine on his tongue and he coughed and spat up on the rabbi’s prayer shawl. His mother’s meds turned her breast milk sour and he drank formulas from the corporate teat.
In school he peed in Judy Goldhar’s apple juice and was sent home with his neighbor’s Jamaican nanny. On a bet, he swallowed a penny he found in the schoolyard and won a shining dime. On a bet, he licked a urinal puck. On a bet he chewed pink chalk. On a bet he ate two salty boogers. He threw bologna on the ceiling of the cafeteria and it stuck and hung all year like a browning autumn moon.
When he was thirteen, he went down on a girl for the first time, but didn’t like the brackish taste. Try toothpaste, she said, spreading Colgate like mayonnaise on her sex. That summer he ate twelve hot dogs at a hot dog eating contest and finished third. Later he drove his father’s car while drunk and one night counted almost ten thousand stars in the sky.
Alone in the blue darkness he watched cheesy music videos and Ethiopians starving on television, their massive heads shining like oversized space helmets. He drank coffee all night and felt bees breakdancing in his veins. He told his girlfriend he loved her and she asked him to taste his own cum. She said she loved him and he washed his mouth out with industrial strength soap.
He lived in a rent-controlled railroad apartment in the ghetto with his friend Max and a thief they called The Onion, because of his insistent cowlick and pale transparent skin. The blue veins running just beneath suggested terrible violence. He locked his door and slept with a knife under his pillow, listening to boombox-blasting homeboys throwing dice on the stoop below his barred window. His mother phoned three times a week and asked if he was eating well. Grits and chits give me the shits, he said, laughing. She sent him matzoh ball soup mix, honey cake, and canned vegetables. On howling drunken nights, full on White Castle sliders and french fries, he and Max would toss his mother’s offerings off the roof at the tiny passersby below. She once sent him frozen brisket couriered that afternoon from Riverdale with a note calling him by his childhood nickname. The tiny pearl potatoes, frosted with sweet paprika reminded him of better days. The Onion called him a faggot and he broke The Onion’s nose with a can of yams. He felt tough like Jack Ruby until he went to the hospital with phantom appendicitis, where from his tilting bed, through a square of greasy sunshine he saw the towering monument to soldiers starved to death on British prison ships in the War of Independence.
He dropped out of college with a 2.0, read the first seventy-eight pages of Moby Dick, and sold a forged Mickey Mantle autographed baseball for a hundred dollars. The Krishnas fed him vegan mush for free at their temple, but he wasn’t buying what they were selling. He felt the little death with a French girl named Madelyne who fed him strawberries from the bowl of her pelvis and, during sex, whispered dirty Jew in his ear.
After a breakup he traveled to the holy land, where he ate fly-bedazzled meat in open-air markets, and threw up in a language he did not understand. The sky had never felt so large or so close rendering him inconsequential and distant like a disappearing image on the horizon. On a nameless impulse, he converted to Islam while riding a bus to Qumran and choked on the words, Allahu Akhbar! He dove into the Dead Sea to cleanse himself and cried the kaddish for his lost youth and phoned his mother with one foot in the Jordan River. This is what he said: Ma it’s me! Come home, she said. Your father’s dying. And when he died she said, a good man, not a great man, but a good man. He called a caterer, ordered kosher-style deli trays and a rabbi, picked out a coffin from a showroom, knocking on its sides, the way his father once kicked the tires of a new Chevrolet, before laughing in the salesman’s face saying, you’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning.
He tried the wisdom of the Torah and grew a madman’s beard. Everything was backwards and strange. On fast days, he gorged himself with whatever treif he could get his hands on–bacon, sausage, calamari–challenging his maker to slaughter him in a strictly kosher manner: one glorious slash severing his jugular vein, carotid artery, esophagus and trachea in one sweeping flick of the wrist. The rabbi suggested he seek professional help. He called the rabbi a barely domesticated idiot and cut his own beard off with a pair of kitchen shears.
On a date, his stomach turned like quicksand and he thought he was in love. She had looks and brains and a job. They went out a second and third time and kissed in the taxi heading uptown. The bedroom, lights dim and a rude interruption–shitting blood like wine behind the thin bathroom door. Maybe it’s something you’ve been eating, she said later, running her fingers through the soft tufts of hair on his stomach. Good looks, brains and health. He slid to the floor and asked sweet Sarah to marry him. See a doctor, she said. I’m not kidding, he said. Neither am I, she said.
The doctor said, no milk. I can live with that, I’ll drink water instead. That means, no ice cream, no yogurt, no cheese. What else? he asked, turning pale as the doctor’s coat. Read the ingredients, the coat said. The doctor told him he had intolerances. Truer words had never been spoken. He could not tolerate the French or the Germans, or dreamcatchers, or trickle-down economics or the word “pro-active.” He hated panhandlers and weddings and those Yuppie motherfuckers on the 5 train. But the doctor meant he had an intolerance to wheat, and yeast. That feeling in his sides, like a lead pipe thumping below his ribs; that was it, he was fermenting, swelling like a doughnut from the inside. Bakeries were verboten now, rising minefields of dough, causing his middle finger to fly in anger. He carried peanuts in his pockets like a hoarding squirrel, but his stomach felt hollow and shrunken, as he tossed the shells at pigeons in the street. They eat pigeons somewhere, he thought, and kicked one like a football.
He went to church for the first time with his new girlfriend and, tasting a new kind of hunger, ate his neighbor’s host as well as his own, then realized he had eaten the body of Christ twice. He felt a satanic desire to spit in the holy water, but instead told her it was true he had used Christian babies’ blood to make matzoh last Easter.
But still, the blood, the aching limbs, the weeping sores on his tongue. AIDS, he thought, even after three negative results he could not believe. He looked just like the fairies down on Christopher Street, their shrink-wrapped skulls, their huge drowning eyes. They waited for the IRT, waited for uptown cabs, waited for a final screw, and he wondered, if I suck your dick and swallow, will I die too?
His new girlfriend, Liz the undergrad, whom he’d coaxed a threesome out of on their second date, was a vegetarian who wouldn’t eat a bunless hamburger he’d cooked for her. She said it’s cruel. You’re cruel, he said, and called her bitch and broke up with her. Two weeks later he heard of mad cows in England that turned your brain to jelly.
His chest grew thin as cardboard, his brain clouded in constant fog. He tried rotating foods, fasting, juicing, organics, hemp, raw foods, scorched foods, the caveman diet, enzyme therapy, probiotics–he tried masticating his food like a cow, Fletcherizing, thirty two chews before swallowing, he closed his eyes and tried useless prayers of his own concoction. He called his mother for the first time in years, his throat choked with panic, and learned for the first time about the genetic time bomb she had set within him. Your grandmother had it too, poisoned by her own food entering the blood stream. Why didn’t you tell me, he said. Why didn’t you tell me, she said. The doctor ran a tube down his throat and up his ass and found the scarred remnants of a Lincoln penny. Coming down from the anesthesia, pale silver-winged angels floated before his eyes, their beatific faces averted.
The doctor said his gut was not absorbing nutrients and that if he lost any more weight, he would have to be hospitalized. And who is going to pay for that, he said.
At Gage and Tollner his grandfather asked him to split the bill. You’ve got to grow up sometime his grandfather said. But, I only had salad he said. You look malnourished, order yourself a steak. I can’t, he said. Ah, bullshit, it’s all in your head, toughen up. They drove to Coney Island in the dark of winter and his grandfather said, radiant, as the wind howled through the bones of Deno’s Wonder Wheel: I’m in love with a wonderful woman.
What about Grandma? he asked.
The wonders of modern pharmaceuticals. I feel like I’m alive again.
I’ll tell, he said. Put me back in your will.
She’s got cancer, his grandfather said. Let her go happy.
At his grandfather’s funeral, he wore jeans and a t-shirt and read these lines from the writer I.L. Peretz: “After a while hell filled up again. New quarters were added, but the crowding was great.”
He lived with a cat lady in a converted cold storage unit on the fifth floor of a warehouse somewhere in the upper 50s, three dozen some odd cats sharing a futon with him and a dogeared woman with a fuzzy chin ten years his senior. There were no mirrors, and for that he was thankful. His bones were coming through his skin, and it hurt to sit or lie down. He read the labels on the cat food tins and wondered if he could extract the ash from the allergens, eat it like the oatmeal of his childhood.
His mother was the only one left, and she was in the ICU with a perforated colon she had gotten ignoring a painful bout of diverticulitis. Standing by her bed, hypnotized by the slow drip of the IV, he saw both his past and his future at once, and he climbed into the narrow bed, his mother’s curved body so frail, so small, and he closed his eyes and curled his thin body into her warmth, like a question mark finding its answer.
JONATHAN PAPERNICK is the author the story collections There Is No Other and The Ascent of Eli Israel, and the novel Who by Fire, Who by Blood. His work has appeared in Night Train, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, Nerve, Folio, Failbetter, The Drum, Confrontation, The Reading Room and Post Road as well as numerous anthologies. He is currently at work on his third collection of stories Gallery of the Disappeared Men and is revising a novel about a con man who sells the Brooklyn Bridge. He is Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston.