Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Center of it All VI

301 W Adams. I sat in my car and looked at the building. It looked to be about ten stories of pure slum, surrounded by a few blocks of more slums. Urban decay had hit Phoenix, although not as hard as some of the cities I was used to visiting back east.

I had debated for about ten minutes whether or not to go back home. In the end, curiosity got the better of me. I decided to take the next step, and go to Yoni’s home. His address was on his license, in his wallet, and his keys were among the items in the manila envelope the hospital had given us.

I decided to go in the evening, when the heat gave way a little, and hopefully, the apartment would not be very hot. I spent the rest of the afternoon working on some files that were nearing their deadline. I finished the work, emailed PDFs to my client, and spent the early part of the evening lounging around the pool.

After the sun disappeared behind the vast Arizona desert, I got in my car, and drove to his home. This was not the first time I was going to enter an abandoned house. My mind flashed back to the summer we were 17. We were both hanging out in the mountains, working as waiters at camp.

On our first off day, we rented a car, and drove around, looking for something to do. As we were driving, aimlessly, we passed an old house that was barely visible from the road, and looked like it had been abandoned for the last hundred years. We drove past it once, and then came back to it. Yoni parked the car, and we walked the hundred feet through thick brush to the house. There were boards covering the windows, and the door looked like it had been nailed shut.

There was an uncovered window in the back of the house, and we looked inside. I had never seen anything like it before. The floor was covered with garbage, and the furniture looked like it had been slashed with a knife.

“You wanna go in,” Yoni asked.

“Not really,” I said. I had hoped we would do more than just kill the day. My day off plans were more like going ATVing, getting pizza, and maybe meeting some girls.

“Why not,” Yoni asked, “Chicken?”

It was more of a challenge than a question, and I knew we were going in. My only hope was that there would be nothing interesting inside, and Yoni would get bored and want to leave.

I tried to set the terms. “If we don’t have to break anything, I’ll go in. I just don’t want to get arrested for destroying property,” I said, needing to save face.

Yoni and I both looked over at the back door. The door had been broken long ago, and barely hung on to the hinges.

“You got your wish, bro,” Yoni said. “Ladies first.”

I walked up the steps leading to the door, and pushed it open the rest of the way. The house smelled old, but was definitely abandoned.

“Half an hour,” I said, as I walked in.

“Whatever,” Yoni answered, walking in behind me.

We looked around the room we had just entered. We were in a very old kitchen. There was an ice box and a pot-bellied stove.

“Anything we find in here we split,” Yoni said, breaking to momentary silence. It wasn’t a question. More a statement of fact.

I walked across the room, to a pile of newspapers that were on the floor. It was an old copy of the Greene County Chronicle. It smelled like mildew, but the date was still readable. “June 4, 1924,” I read to Yoni.

“Anything happen that day,” he asked.

“Yankees lost both games of a doubleheader against Washington the day before.”

“Anything else?”

“Not much. Something about a town meeting.”

Before picking up that newspaper, I was ready to walk out the door. But I had always been fascinated by newspapers, and there was nothing better than reading about what the world was like long before we were born. There was a large pile of papers, and I sat on the floor to flip through them.

“What do you think happened to the people who lived here,” Yoni asked.

“Maybe they moved, or just died.”

“You think there is a body here?”

“Why don’t you walk around and find out.” I wanted to read through the papers now.

Yoni walked out, while I went through the pile of papers. I tore a few, but most of them I handled gingerly, and did not damage them. The papers were only a few pages each, and after a few minutes, I had gone through the pile that was on the floor.

I had a vague feeling that Yoni had been calling me, but I had ignored him. Now I walked around, calling him. The last paper I found was from 1928, which meant that as far as we could tell, no one had lived in the house in over 60 years.

I called Yoni’s name again, but no one answered.

Where was he, I thought, and turned the corner, walking from the dining room into what must have been a large living room.

“Hey Winters,” I yelled again. No answer.

The floor creaked with every step I took, and I was starting to get a little freaked out.

“Yoni,” I yelled one more time, “Are you there.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and nearly jumped out of my skin.”

I turned around, and there was Yoni, laughing.

“You scared the crap out of me, Winters,” I yelled.

“You should have seen yourself jump,” was all he could manage between the laughs.

“You are so dead,” I replied. “So dead.”

We hung out in the house for another hour. We found boxes of letters, bills, what looked like some family keepsakes. The people who lived there were named Smithson, and they seemed to have left in a hurry, judging by the clothes hanging in the closet. We found a wallet with a few dollars in it that predated World War I, and a bucket of change. A quick rummage through the bucket turned up coins from the 1800s.

“This stuff could be worth a fortune,” he said.

“Maybe we can find some old baseball cards around here,” I answered.

It was already past noon, and we had some loose plans to meet some of the guys from camp for pizza.

We agreed to keep this house as our secret. In the meantime, we decided to leave everything in the house. The truth was, if we brought it to camp, we had no place to keep it. And we decided to come back on all our off days.

We went back to the Smithson house four more times that summer, each time discovering more and more treasures. Some of it we kept as souvenirs, others we sold and split the money. In all, we found over $65,000 worth of coins, cards and antiques.

The Smithson house was always our secret. We never told anyone about it, or about the treasures we had uncovered. When asked about the money, I always gave vague answers about savings from a job, and I imagine Yoni did the same thing.

I looked back at the apartment building. The street was completely deserted. Night had fallen on Phoenix, and for the first time all day, I didn’t feel like I was a walking sweat machine.

There was another abandoned house to go through, I thought, as I crossed the street and went inside.

The preceding story was fiction. you can find the first five parts earlier on the blog.

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  • Monday, August 22, 2005

    Center of it All V

    I rented a DVD player at the front desk, and went upstairs to watch the movie. I felt a little queasy as I popped the DVD in the player. I had never purchased porn before, and it had been years since I rented a porno. Gay porn was a totally new experience for me, a line I wasn’t sure I wanted to cross, even as I unraveled the mystery of Yoni Winters.

    I went to the windows and opened the blinds. I wanted to make sure the situation was as unsexy as possible. I remember George on Seinfeld saying “It moved” after a man gave him a message, and did not want to find myself thinking the same thing.

    I took out the envelope I received from the hospital, figuring it would serve as a distraction from the movie. Anything to keep myself from watching the movie too closely.

    But I needn’t have worried.

    From the moment I hit play, I was treated to 45 minutes of Yoni Winter’s greatest hits. As I heard his voice, I was taken back to the dorm rooms where he first practiced scenes for this movie.

    There are some people destined to be doctors, or lawyers, or attorneys. Yoni was born to make this movie.

    There were four or five of us sitting around the dormitory that day. Dinner sucked, and one of our classmates had been kicked out of Yeshiva the week before. Finals were coming up, and there was about an hour before we had to go to night seder. The mood was ripe for an all out yeshiva bitch session, and that’s exactly what started.

    We had been going for five or ten minutes, complaining about the food and the rules and the food again when yoni walked in. He listened for a second, heard what was going on, and went off. There was a desk in the room, and he stood next to it, shuckling, and imitating Rabbi Rosenblum having sex. OR as he put it, Shtupping his wife. We were rolling on the floor. He kept working in all of Rabbi Rosenblum’s pet Yiddish phrases, and finished with a loud “Gevaldik.”

    We were laughing so hard, we couldn’t breathe, but Yoni wasn’t finished yet. The year before we had learned Kiddushin, and all year long Yoni had imitated Rabbi Green saying Beeah, ya kin be mikadesh her with beeah.

    For the first time, Yoni brought the voices of Rabbi Green and Rabbi Rosenblum together, for a frolicking gevaldigah beeah session that ended when Rabbi Rosenblum yelled Gevaldigah, and Rabbi Green said that’s enough Beeah, its time for first seder.

    The movie on my TV may have shown animated bunnies and hunters running around and having sex, but the voices were straight from my Yeshiva days. Yoni had cut out a lot of the Yiddish, but everything else was still there, and the voices were dead-on. In one scene, he even had the rabbi end with a boisterous Gevaldigah.
    I laughed my ass off for 45 minutes, and was sorry to see the movie end. When I wasn’t flashing back to my Yeshiva days, I was picturing Yoni having the time of his life as he preserved those voices for eternity in the movie.

    The movie ended, and I looked at the contents from the envelope that I had put on the bed. It was strange to hold a dead guy’s possessions. I had never been the next of kin, and never received a packet like that.

    As I looked at the wallet, keys and other assorted odds and ends, I felt like a trespasser. For the first time since arriving in Phoenix, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Yoni had cut me and everyone else out of his life for a reason; was there any reason to invade the wall he had built around himself.

    I thought about taking everything on the bed and throwing it out. I pretty much knew what I needed to know. He was poor. He was probably gay. And he did not have fond memories of his yeshiva days. What more could I find out? I didn’t want to find all the lurid details of his life.

    The preceding was a work of fiction. You can find the beginning of this story earlier on this blog.

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  • Wednesday, August 17, 2005

    Remote Control Terror

    Today was the day. His day of infamy. The day Shareef Achwad would live his destiny. He had watched with fascination four years earlier when nineteen hijackers brought down four planes, two buildings, and killed thousands of people. This wheels in his mind began to turn as he watched weeks of coverage.

    Life in America had changed forever that day, and today, he would push America to its limits. Best of all, Shareef thought, he would live to watch his plan take shape.

    Shareef bought five widescreen TVs for this day. He wanted to see the results of his hard work in high def, on every channel America had to offer. The TVs were all turned on to the news channels. CNN was doing a story on Alzheimer’s disease, while FOX was covering another girl who had disappeared from her college campus without a trace. MSNBC was doing a documentary on the Poker phenomenon that I helped create, by showing poker every night on CNBC, The other two TVs were tuned into local shows. He wanted to watch as nervous broadcasters broke into Jerry Springer and Soap Operas, to tell Americans that once again they were under attack.

    It was August 18th, 2005. Today was his day.

    Shareef looked around at the electronic equipment that filled his basement. He remembered reading the Godfather. A man can steal more with a briefcase than one hundred man can steal with guns, Corleone told Tom as he sent him to law school. And a man can do more with the right electronic equipment than 19 can with box cutters and a death fascination, Shareef thought.

    Shareef had named his one man terror organization Al Fuqya, and he had trained long and hard for today’s mission.

    Between 1:00 and 1:14, four planes would depart from Detroit’s metro airport. One plane was going to Miami, a second was heading toward Portland. The third plane was flying to Boston, and the fourth was flying to Orlando.

    The weather was perfect, Shareef noted with glee. There would not be any delays on today’s flights. Weather would not be a factor. Allah Akbar, he though, God is with me on my mission today.

    Shareef looked at the time. 12:45. In half an hour, all the planes would be in the air, and he could begin his plan.

    Shareef munched on a sandwich and a bag of chips. He thought about fasting, but today he would need his strength. There was no need for fasting. Allah was with him today, just as he was that day four years earlier when Shareef thought of the plan.

    He felt calm, yet electric. He had told no one of his plan. There was no way he would be caught, especially since the FBI would think the hijackers were all dead.

    Shareef went over the timeline once again. Timing was critical. He had spent the past months testing out his equipment, and it worked flawlessly.

    He watched the online monitors. It was 1:04, and the first plane was already up in the air, Northwest flight 989 to Miami was en route. The minutes flew by, and soon all four flights were airborne. Shareef had his monitor on, and listened to all four planes as they talked to the control tower.

    With the touch of a button, he could jam the plane’s communication system. He had tapped into Northwest’s satellite system, and had studied it from all angles. By jamming the plane’s communication system, there was no way for anyone on the plane to communicate with the ground. The only voice coming from the plane would be his, though he would not be anywhere near the planes.

    “Allah Akbar,” he said out loud, and pushed the button. The four flights that he had programmed into his computer system had no means to communicate with the world below them.

    He picked up the microphone, and began to speak.

    “Allah Akbar,” he sad again, this time into the microphone. “by the good will of Allah I have taken control of this plane. We will be landing at Jacobs Field, where 24,000 fans are watching the Indians play the Rangers.”

    There was a moment of silence.

    “Flight 989, this is ground control,” the voice on the other end said. “Your last transmission did not come in. Please repeat last transmission.”

    Shareef ignored the man on the other end, and switched the dial so it looked like he was calling from the other planes. He repeated his message three more times. Each time, he picked a different target. The Mall of America for the Oregon-bound plane. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the Orlando-bound plane. A Pittsburgh power plant for the Boston-bound plane.

    All four targets were less than 20 minutes away.

    Three thousand miles to the south, President Bush was on the golf course when he was rushed to the situation room deep below his Texas ranch. At the Selfridge Air National Guard base, just outside Detroit’s Northeast suburb of Mount Clemens, eight F-16 fighter jets prepared for takeoff, and lifted up into the afternoon sky.

    Three minutes had gone by since his initial call to Air Traffic Control. He watched as a breaking news graphic flashed on one of the TVs in front of him.

    The voice from Air Traffic Control tried to reach him on all four stations.

    He picked up the microphone one more time. “You have angered Allah, and today, he will strike you. We will strike you. Vengeance is his.”

    Deep in the heart of Texas, President Bush was being briefed. “How much time until impact?” the president asked for the third time.

    “About eight minutes before they reach the baseball stadium. About fifteen minutes before they are at the other three targets,” came the answer.

    Bush looked at Air Force chief of staff, GENERAL JOHN P. JUMPER, on the monitor in front of him. “Give the order. Take those planes down.”

    General Jumper called Selfridge Air National Guard base, and gave the order.

    President Bush stood waiting. Six minutes later, General John Jumper came back with the news. All four planes are down. The threat is over.

    Shareef watched on TV as all five of them were now covering the story. Four planes had been taken hostage, according to FOX. CNN reported that as many as six were hijacked, and then, the moment Shareef was waiting for.

    FOX broke the story first; a minute later CNN was reporting the same thing. An unknown number of terrorists had taken over four planes and were threatening to attack populated targets on the ground. All four planes had been brought down by the alert and brave F-16 pilots.

    Shareef watched as the talking heads started to speculate who Al Faqya was, and whether they were a splinter group from Al Qaida.

    He took out a bottle of wine, and watched the terror that he had wrought played out in front of him on five wide screen TVs.
    The preceding story was fiction.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2005

    The Center of it All - Part IV

    I had an eleven AM meeting scheduled with the hospital administrator where Yoni died, and so after going on the treadmill, I showered, grabbed some breakfast, and drove to the hospital.

    The hospital was located in the poorer section of town, and I recognized the urban decay that was creeping through Phoenix from the hundreds of times I had driven through poor neighborhoods in Detroit. Burnt out homes, decaying porches and unkempt lawns dotted the roads as I drove through the neighborhood to get to Phoenix Memorial.

    The only thing that was missing was groups of teens and aimless young adults congregating at street corners. Due more to the oppressive heat than to law enforcement, I assumed.

    And it was hot. The radio said it was over 100 degrees for the eighth day in a row, and I believed them. Sweat poured down my face as I drove, the car’s air conditioning losing the climate battle with nature. I found an 80s station, and wondered when this would be an oldies station.

    Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes was playing, and it took me back. Yoni and I had gone to see Say Anything that week I was in Chicago, together with Rachel and Fran. I didn’t want to speculate about Yoni’s sexuality anymore, not until I knew more. I switched the station, and caught Eminem on Phoenix 98, the station for Phoenix’s top hits.

    I was early for my meeting, so I grabbed a paper, and went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee while I waited for Susan Donnelly, the hospital administrator who called me three days earlier. There was nothing really interesting in the paper. The war on terror was still being fought in the jungles and mountains somewhere, the Diamondbacks had lost their sixth straight, and the columnists wondered whether the Suns off-season moves would pay off.

    It was nearly 11, so I went up the three flights of stairs, and waited for Ms. Donnelly. She didn’t keep me waiting long, and a few minutes later I was seated across from her, in her cramped office. There were papers piled everywhere, a filing cabinet, and one look showed she was another overworked and understaffed administrator.

    Still, she was very friendly, and wanted to be helpful. We made some small talk about the heat, and I found out that she was originally from the Midwest, and moved to Phoenix to follow an old boy friend who ended up moving back east. But she loved Phoenix, had a job, and never wanted to leave.

    After a few minutes, we got to talking about Yoni, or Jon Winters.

    “Jon was here a few times,” she told me. “The first time he came in here, he signed a waiver asking us to contact you or a Dr. Marc Stein in Brooklyn if anything should happen to him. And in that waiver he allowed us to give either one of you whatever medical and personal information we had about him.”
    Marc Stein, I thought. So it was either me or Menachem that he was turning to at the end. Yoni knew neither one of us could have turned down anything he asked of us, no matter how much time had passed.

    I didn’t say anything, and Susan continued.

    “As I mentioned on the phone, he died of AIDS-related pneumonia. He tested positive for HIV in 2001, and it turned into AIDS a year or so ago. His body seemed to really start losing about six months ago, when he started coming here.”

    She looked up at me, and noticed the beads of sweat pouring down my face. Sitting in offices with administrators always made me uncomfortable, and the heat was just killing me. I thought I had lost about ten pounds since she started talking.

    “As you may have guessed,” she continued, “Mr. Winters had no insurance, and no known relatives. If you know of any kind of estate, Mr. Winters' medical bills were quite expensive.”

    She looked at me expectantly.

    “I’m sorry, Ms. Donnelly,” I started, “I don’t know anything about his finances or his life. I haven’t seen him or heard from him in almost 20 years.”

    “Then why did you come down here from Detroit?”

    It was a fair question, but only because she had never been best friends with Yoni Winters.

    “Loyalty,” I said. “Gratitude,” I continued. “Jonathon was as good a friend as I have ever had. There is nothing that I wouldn’t do for him.”

    “I guess there isn’t much you can do to help with his medical bills, then,” she said, sort of half shrugging and looking a little less perky.

    She picked up a manila envelope that was sitting on her desk. “These are the things he had with him when he walked in. You can take them.”

    “Can I ask you one thing,” I said. I hated to ask the question, hated the words for coming out of my mouth. “Was Jonathon gay?”

    “I don’t know,” she answered. “There are plenty of ways to contract AIDS without being gay.”

    I stood up, the manila envelope in my hands, and felt my sweat-soaked back peel away from the vinyl chair. I shook hands with her.

    “Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Berger,” she said, reaching her hand out to shake mine.

    I shook her hand. “You’re welcome.” I responded.

    She kept a hold of my hand. “If you find out anything about an estate, can you let us know? We would appreciate any kind of remuneration.”

    I took her card and assured her that I would be in touch with her if I found out anything, and left the hospital.

    It was too hot to do anything other than go back to the hotel, and I found myself looking over the manila envelope. Curiosity was killing me, but I wanted to get back to my room before going through his things.

    I had driven three or four blocks, when I realized I was in Phoenix’s red light district. There were a few sex shops, and a marquee advertising a 2 PM showing of the Wedding Flashers. I parked the car, took off my kippa, and walked into the Red Lounge.

    They had a video section, and I walked over. I was trying to find out whatever I could about my old friend. And if that meant watching Butt Bunny, that’s what I would do.

    I found the DVD, paid in cash, and went back to the hotel. I had some research to do.

    The preceding work is fiction. The beginning of the story can be found in the prior posts on this blog.

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  • Friday, August 12, 2005

    The Center of it All - Part III

    I woke up early the next morning, and went down to the exercise room. I briefly looked at my T’fillin, which I had taken out of my carry on bag, but decided against davening. Since my divorce, prayer no long came easily to me. For years I had mindlessly put on my t’fillin, and davened each morning. Ever since Karen and I split up, though, I couldn’t do it.

    I still kept kosher, and Shabbos, but davening was no longer part of my daily regiment. I couldn’t face God, and talk to him in that one on one forum that prayer provided. I don’t know if it was anger or apathy toward God, but for now, my T’fillin bag gathered dust and waited for me to sort through the clutter that halted the conversation.

    One of the treadmills was available, and I climbed on. In my yeshiva days, Yoni and I would run for half an hour down yeshiva lane, a private half-mile road that connected the Yeshiva to the real world. Or in the minds of the people who designed the yeshiva, separated the Yeshiva from the real world.

    I began running, and tried to sort through the facts that I knew. Yoni died of an AIDS-related disease. Yoni animated a pornographic gay cartoon. Yoni was one of my best friends growing up, and liked girls. Really liked girls. Was he really gay. Or not? And did it even matter anymore?

    There was a party in the summer after tenth grade. I was visiting him in Chicago, and one of his old friends had a friend whose parents were out of town, and they were having a huge blow-out party. There was a pool and music and food and beer, and we had a great time. As I ran past the half mile mark, I could picture the party as clearly as if I was there.

    We got to the party at around nine, and could hear the music from outside the front door. When we walked in, it was madness. It seemed like every orthodox Jewish teen in Chicago was there.

    We saw two girls sitting off to the side, and daring each other, we walked across the room to talk to them. Their names were Rachel and Fran. Fran had long black hair, wore glasses, and had this really sweet look about her. She was wearing a straight denim skirt and form-fitting yellow top, and I couldn’t stop staring at the Kotel necklace that dangled from her neck just above her breasts.

    Rachel wasn’t nearly as attractive as Fran. She had short, curly hair and wore a button-down shirt over a white blouse. She was wearing a flower-print dress, and had dark nail-polish. She didn’t have the body that Fran had, but she looked friendly and interesting, and I knew that Yoni was going after Fran.

    We all talked for a few minutes, and then Rachel wanted to dance, and I wanted anything Rachel wanted. We filled our plastic cups with beer from the keg, and walked into the dining room, where music was blasting and young couples were pairing off and dancing to Laura Branigan’s Gloria. I looked back and saw things were looking good for Yoni as well. Fran had reached out and held his hand, and it looked like they were going for a walk outside.
    Eternal Flame started playing, and Rachel and I put down our drinks and started slow dancing. I had never danced before, not by myself and not with any other person, and holding hands to dance terrified me. I had no idea what I was doing, and just prayed that God would overlook my hand holding and talking to girls for long enough to guide me through the dance.

    We talked while we danced, and I found out we both had birthdays in November, and were both going into eleventh grade. We would both be kicked out of school if we were seen at a party like this, but neither of us felt threatened. No one who was at the party was ever going to snitch, and no one was going to find out they were there.

    Another slow song played, and while we danced, Rachel leaned her head on my shoulder. It felt so wrong, but so good, and I knew then that I would always choose what felt good over what felt right. When fast music started playing again, she kept her head on my shoulder, and I listened to her soft breaths and felt her warm body on my chest.

    I remembered thinking that I could dance forever, but the beer I had drank earlier had finished running through my body, and needed to come out. It was screaming to be freed. We walked out of the dining room, and found the bathroom. I don’t know if I ever would have stopped dancing if I didn’t have to pee so badly.

    Rachel waited outside the bathroom for me, and when I came out, we held hands and walked outside. It was already after 11, and I wanted to check in with Yoni. The party seemed to be thinning out, and I knew we would have to be leaving soon.

    Rachel and I walked around the house, but we found no sign of Yoni or Fran. We walked through the backyard, and when we didn’t see them we sat at the swing set and kept on talking. At first, she sat on the swing and I pushed her. After a few minutes, she was facing me, and we started to kiss.

    I had never kissed a girl before. We started out with closed mouth kisses on the lips, and very quickly, were both trying to push our tongues in each other’s mouths. It was sloppy and wet and something I have never forgotten. If I was grading it on technique and sophistication, I am sure it would score a one or two, but for pure glee and excitement, our makeout session scored a perfect 11.

    Our lips were locked when I heard the smoke-thickened voice of Rabbi Rosenblum. “Eh Bochurim, what do we have here.” I seemed to stand up and freeze at the same time, looking around for Rabbi Rosenblum, my mind racing as I wondered how he could have ever found me here.

    And there was Yoni, arms around Fran and laughing hysterically.

    “Screw you, Winters,” I laughed.

    We made plans with Rachel and Fran for the next night, said goodnight, and drove back to Yoni’s house.

    When we were in the car, Yoni went right back into his Rosenblum voice. “You looked like you were having a good time,” he said.

    “Yeah,” I said, “Rachel was pretty cool.”

    “How did you do with Fran,” I asked.

    “A gentleman never tells,” he said.

    “But you’re no gentleman,” I challenged.

    “Taka, your right,” he said, stroking an imaginary beard. “Two words, Tuli, two words. Second base.”

    I could feel the smile in the dark car, but I wasn’t going to let him off without more details.

    “Over her shirt or under,” I demanded.

    “Under her shirt, over her bra, and then, under her bra.”

    “Only hands?”

    “Yeah, we didn’t have any private swing set like you had, Romeo.”

    “What’s second base feel like,” I asked, instantly feeling like a loser for asking. I made a mental note to get to second base with Rachel so I would never have to ask that question again.

    “Remember when we were playing baseball, and you drove in the run to beat Ohr Shalom,” he asked.

    “Yeah,” I said, annoyed that he was changing the subject.

    “That’s what second base feels like.”

    I looked at the timer on the treadmill, and saw I had been on for forty minutes. I slowed my pace, felt my heart rate drop, and stepped off the machine.

    I had two hours to get ready and go to the hospital.

    The preceding work is fiction. The first two parts of this story can be found on the previous posts.

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  • Wednesday, August 10, 2005

    The Center of it All - Part II

    I sat back on the plane and tried to relax. I had spent the previous evening going through old photo albums. As I looked at the youthful faces, I wondered what the boys in the pictures would say to me now. What would a 17-year-old me say to the 37-year old version. Would he be surprised at how things turned out? Would he push me around and ask how I could have lost touch with so many friends.

    That boy looking back at me from the pictures couldn’t possibly understand the hand that life deals when you leave the incubator known as high school. When real life pressures replace those manufactured by teachers in the forms of tests and papers.

    Over the past two years I had watched my wife pack up her things and leave our home. My business had fallen apart, in no small part due to my inattention and inability to focus after she left. My kids came over occasionally, and we played ball or video games, but then they were gone. I had spent more than one evening wondering what would happen if I ended it all.

    I needed to discover what had happened to Yoni. But more than anything, as I went through Yoni’s life, I hoped to find out what happened to my own life. I needed to know how two boys at the top of their class could hit the bottom twenty years later. What were the invisible demons that haunted Yoni? Where they the same that seemed to haunt me?

    I didn’t have a return ticket; there was little requiring me to be home. I brought a lap top on which I could work for the few clients I had left, a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries, and picture that we took our year in Israel. It was taken at the beginning of the year, and showed me, Yoni, Menachem and Yossi sitting and eating pizza. I didn’t know what we were talking about, but I couldn’t imagine it was anything more significant than news from home, or maybe some girl Yossi had met.

    I wondered what had happened to Yossi and Menachem. A few years had passed since I last heard from them. From what I could remember, Yossi had moved to Miami and was a successful orthodontist. Menachem was a doctor in Brooklyn, divorced twice, and living alone. Maybe he should be here with me as well, I thought.

    The Southwest flight was smooth, and stopped in Las Vegas on the way to Tucson. I was going to fly into Tucson, rent a car, and drive the two hours to Phoenix. I figured I would be at my hotel by nine, and do some Yoni googling. Maybe I could find a few clues about what he had been up to over the past two decades. Tomorrow, I would head to the hospital in the morning.

    My flight was on schedule, and soon I was on US 10 in a 2005 Chrysler LeBaron convertible. The car was fast, and I watched as the landscape turned from city to dessert, and back to city again as I approached Phoenix. I was staying at a Holiday Inn Express, and eyed the pool as I checked in. They also had a workout room, and all rooms had internet access. A perfect base.

    I went for a quick swim, the water felt good after a long flight, and sat in the hot tub for a few minutes before going back up to my room. I had work to do, and went up to my room on the third floor.

    The room was immaculate. There was a queen-sized bed, a TV, some generic art on the wall, and a desk. I unpacked my clothes, and put them into the dresser, before opening up my lap top. I turned on GAC, and listened to country music as I began to search the web. I started with Yoni Winters, and wasn’t very surprised when I didn’t see anything. Then I typed in Jonathon Winters.

    There were thousands of links. I hadn’t realized how common a name it was. It didn’t help that Jonathon Winters was also the name of a comedian/artist. I skimmed through a few websites, and didn’t find anything relevant. I added in Phoenix into the search, and it narrowed it down significantly, but there were still hundreds of sites that came up in my search.

    I was tired, and ready to give up my search for the evening, but decided to try one more search. I added Voices to the search, and hit the enter key. The search was significantly narrowed. There were only about fifty items that came up, and I started to go through them.

    And then I saw it. Thirteenth on the list, I knew I found what I was looking for. Butt Bunny, at the IMDB site. I clicked on the link, and saw the art on the cover of the video. Butt Bunny looked more sophisticated, more realistic, more professionally drawn than the bunny Yoni had shown me in shuir one day.

    We were in eleventh grade, and sitting in the Bais Medrash. Rabbi Cohen had walked out of the Bais Medrash, probably to smoke a cigarette. Yoni had been drawing all morning during shuir. When Rabbi Cohen called on him, he of course knew everything that was going on, and asked if the Gemara was saying a person would rather have one thing that they made rather than nine things that they bought was an exact number, or if they were just throwing out a large number, but they weren’t giving an exact 1 to 9 ratio.

    Rabbi Cohen always loved these questions, and spent the next minutes furiously flipping through the Meforshim in the back trying to find an answer. Yoni, meanwhile, went back to his drawing.

    Now, with Rabbi Cohen out of the room, Yoni showed me the finished drawing. It was a comic strip with Elmer Fudd seducing Bugs Bunny. In the first panel, Bugs asked Elmer if that was a carrot in his pocket. In the second panel, Elmer’s pants were around his ankle, and Bugs was giving him a blow job. In the final panel, Bugs was bent over a rabbit hole saying “What’s up doc?” while Elmer took him from behind.

    In a whisper, Yoni did the voices, and had me falling on the floor when Elmer was saying “you wascilly wabbit.”

    Across the top, in bubble letters, he had titled it “Butt Bunny and the Magical Carrot.”

    I focused my attention back on the screen. I read the plot outline. When Butt Bunny delivers a pizza to Elwood Fudge, you won’t believe what happens.

    I scrolled down through the cast. Jon Winters had done the voice for more than half the characters in this gay porno-animation. He had written, directed and drawn most of the film as well.

    Well, Jon Winters, I thought, as I turned off the computer before without the reviews, you got your wish. Voices and Choreo-Animation. I took a shower, and went to sleep.

    The preceding is a work of fiction

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  • Monday, August 08, 2005

    The Center of it All

    “You guys want another beer,” Yoni asked, as he reached into the cooler for a cold one. We broke out laughing hysterically, the way we always did whenever Yoni imitated voices. Sometimes it was the Rosh Yeshiva, other times, the Mashgiach or a teacher. His imitation was dead on, and we had been outside drinking and laughing for the better part of the afternoon.

    We were hidden behind the dorm, our towels laid out on the grass, and were spending the second day of Shavuos relaxing and catching some sun. We had some novels and a backgammon set, but most of the time we just laid on the ground, soaked in the sun, and smoked cigarettes we lit off our yahrzeit candle.

    It was turning into the best Shavuos ever.

    “One day for Hashem,” Yoni said, imitating the Mashgiach one more time, “One day for us.”

    None of us saw the Mashgiach appear from behind the dormitory. All we heard was his voice saying, “Boys, what’s going on out here.”

    “Yoni,” Menachem said, without looking around or opening his eyes, “that’s fucking amazing.”

    Rabbi Rosenblum walked over to Menachem, and blocked the sun.

    “What the fuck,” Menachem asked, still not opening his eyes.

    “In my office in fifteen minutes, all three of you,” Rabbi Rosenblum said as he walked away. “And put some yomtovdike clothes on. You look like shkutzim.”

    All three of us picked up our heads and watched him walk toward the Yeshiva building.

    After he was out of site, we cleaned up our area, and went into the dorm to get dressed.

    “Menachem, you might have fucked yourself, but you saved us,” I said hopefully. “Rosenblum didn’t mention the beer, cigarettes or novels that were partially hidden outside. He just got mad because you kept dropping F bombs.”

    Menachem looked worried. This was his third Yeshiva in two years. He knew what was going to happen next. He was on probation from the start. Just swearing in front of Rosenbutt was going to get him kicked out, he was sure.

    Fifteen minutes later, with freshly brushed teeth, we knocked on Rabbi Rosenblum’s office door. He opened it, and inside we saw both Rosenbutt and Goldbutt, the Menahel. “I asked Rabbi Goldberg to join us, boys. We have a serious problem.”

    Rabbi Goldberg jumped in. “We can’t have boys outside on Yomtov tanning. Is that the kind of Yidden you want to be? I thought you were holding at a more Halige Madrige.”

    “Oisverfs, Mamush,” Rosenblum added. “And you, he said pointing at Menachem, “with the nivel peh. A shonda.”

    Menachem tried to explain, but there was nothing he could say. It was Yoni who stepped in. “Excuse me, Rabbi Rosenblum,” he said with his angelic voice, “but didn’t Rabbi Feuer say at the beginning of the year that there were no rules in this Yeshiva? Didn’t he say that all we follow is the Sholchon Aruch?”

    I could not believe Yoni was going on the offensive. My strategy was to sit quiet and hope.

    Rabbi Rosenblum and Rabbi Goldberg both nodded.

    “Then I don’t see what the problem is here.”

    Yoni continued.

    “There is nothing in the Sholchon Aruch which prohibits sitting outside on a Yom Tov day. In fact, don’t we learn in Gemara in Shabbos that Rebbi would frequently sit outside near the river on Shabbos and enjoy the Shabbos afternoon.”

    The Rabbis seemed dumbstruck, so Yoni continued.

    “And the nivel peh incident, that was an accident. But sometimes when people are surprised, they react in ways that they wouldn’t normally act.”

    “There is a Rambam, I think I saw it in camp in the summer, which says that someone can’t be held responsible for things he says when he is attacked or surprised. I think Menachem is sorry for what he said, and has Charata. He is three quarters of the way to Teshuva Gemurah. I think you should let it slide.”

    Two minutes later we were out of the office, and back on our way to the dorm. Not even a slap on the wrist for any of us.

    Yoni was amazing. He had no fear, no limitations, no boundaries. He could walk into a room and sell them on anything, even though almost everything he said was a lie. He had a charisma that Rabbeim feared, teachers admired and friends loved.

    Twenty years later.

    I hung up the phone, feeling completely numb. Five minutes ago I had been playing catch in the yard with my son. I answered the phone, and it was a charity hospital in Phoenix. They told me my best friend, Jonathon Winters, had died of pneumonia after a prolonged battle with AIDS.

    It had been at least fifteen years since I had seen or talked to Yoni. We didn’t have any falling out, more like a drifting away. I got married, and moved back home to Detroit. Yoni wasn’t sure what he was going to be doing, but he was moving to California. He hoped to get a job doing animated voices, and one day, being a choreo-animator. He was getting on a bus the morning after my wedding, and we hugged and he promised to keep in touch. I gave him a pack of Marlboro Reds for the road, and he gave me a pack of Marlboro Lights. He knew I had quit smoking before I got married, but he knew I would relapse.

    “Think of me when you’re burning through these,” he said, as we slapped hands and he got on the Greyhound at Port Authority.

    And that was it.

    How did he go from a bus to California to a charity ward in Phoenix, I wanted to know. How did the one person in our class we all knew was going to grab the world by the throat and bend it to his will die at 37 of AIDS-related pneumonia?

    And why didn’t he ever call, write or email?

    I suddenly needed to know what Yoni had been doing for the past fifteen years.

    What happened to the boy I once knew?

    The next morning I was on a flight to Phoenix. I needed to understand.

    The preceding story is a work of fiction.

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  • Center of it All Glossary


    Bais Medrash - Study hall

    Beeah - Sex

    Bochurim - Boys/male students

    Charata – Regret for one’s sins

    Davening - prayer

    Gemara – A collection of the oral torah.

    Gemurrah – Complete

    Gevalidigah - Awesome/Excellent

    Halige Madrige – Holy level

    Hashem – God

    Kotel - The remaining western wall from the temple in Jerusalem

    Mamush – Literally

    Mashgiach – The person in a jewish school who is responsible for developing one-on-one relationships with students tohelp them become more complete jews. Frequently this means someone who can’t teach a classroom setting.

    Menahel – Principal

    Mikadesh - Marry

    Nivel peh – foul language

    Oisverfs – screw ups

    Rambam – A Jewish scholar from about 1100s Egypt

    Rosh Yeshiva – Dean of the Yeshiva

    Shavuos – Jewish holiday that takes place seven weeks after Passover

    Shkutzim – Non jews

    Shonda – A bad thing

    Sholchon Aruch – Jewish book of laws

    Shtuppin - Pushing, or in this case screwing

    Taka - A word that has no real meaning, other than sometimes meaning you're right and more often indicating that the person saying it needs to think about what he is going to say.

    Teshuva – Repentance

    T'fillin - Black boxes that male jews over the age of 13 wear while praying. You could call them phalactyries, but no one would know what the hell you were talking about.
    Yahrzeit – Anniversary of a death

    Yeshiva – Religious Jewish school, frequently all male

    Yidden – Jews

    Yomtov or Yom Tov – Jewish holiday

    Yomtovdik – Appropriate for a holiday

    Tuesday, August 02, 2005

    Jack was still in Nevernever Land when he felt something burning on his chest. He looked down, and saw steaming black coffee all over his shirt. An upside coffee cup in Sharon’s arm seemed to be the problem.

    “You are an ass, Sharon said to him. “A perfect male ass.”

    “Did you just pour coffee on me,” he asked, barely feeling it through the layers of fat that protected his nerve endings.

    “That poor girl came in here to manipulate the case,” Sharon continued, ignoring his protest. “You couldn’t stop staring at her ears. And I have news for you, Mr. Jack Kay famous lawyer. Those ears aren’t natural. They’re fakes.”

    Jack wasn’t sure if he was angrier about the coffee or the allegation about her perfect ear lobes. He tried to ignore the coffee, which was flowing down the large rolls of fat underneath his shirt. He hoped it would cool off before it made it too far down his body.

    “MaryAnn Maxwell does not have fake ear lobes. And she did not come here to manipulate this case. She came to talk about a settlement.”

    “Then why did she invite you to her place at ten PM tonight,” Sharon asked. “What kind of settlement is she looking for?”

    “She invited me over,” Jack stammered. “Did she leave an address?”

    Sharon rolled her eyes, and gave him the address.

    “Julie,” Jack yelled, “Call my wife and tell her I have a late client meeting and won’t be home until very late tonight.”

    He looked at Sharon. “I should fire you,” he said.

    “Who will serve you coffee if you do?” Sharon answered sweetly.

    Jack knew when he was beat. “Get out of here. And bring me a new cup of coffee.”


    At precisely 10 PM, Jack Kay was standing in front of MaryAnn Maxwell’s building. He had arrived twenty minutes earlier, as he knew how long it would take him to shimmy his way out of the car, and catch his breath.

    Now, he stared at the door, fantasizing about what stood on the other side. The most perfect earlobes the world had ever seen. And he, a short, fat bald man, was minutes away from pleasuring those beauties.

    He knocked on the door, and instantly, it was opened.

    She was wearing a sheer red satin robe, with black trim, that seemed to illuminate her body. But Jack didn’t even notice. His eyes were glued on the side of her head. At the strange earmuffs she was wearing.

    “Do we have a deal, Mr. Kay,” MaryAnn asked. “A night with me for the case?”

    Jack wished he could say no. He wished he could tell her to go to hell, but this was MaryAnn Maxwell, and he was powerless against her bidding.

    “Of course,” he mumbled.

    He stepped toward her and tried to reach up to her head, but she caught his hand and led him inside, to the living room couch. Drinks were already prepared. Scotch on the rocks for her, black coffee for him.

    “I talked to Sharon in your office. She said you would only drink coffee while you were working.”

    Jack was glad. He rarely drank anything other than coffee, and was glad to have his comfort food, to witness his glorious moment with MaryAnn Maxwell.

    “From now on, whenever I drink coffee, I will think of you, MaryAnn Maxwell,” he said.

    And from now on, she thought, I will try not to throw up when I drink scotch and think of you, you fat disgusted bald man.

    They drank their drinks and made small talk, before she led him up the spiral staircase, to the bedroom. While they were sitting on the couch, he tried to move over and touch her ears, to remove the earmuffs that she wore.

    They reached her room. Her robe dropped on the floor. She wore nothing but the earmuffs.

    “Aren’t you forgetting something,” he asked, looking at the earmuffs as he undressed.

    “My ear lobes are my life. You cannot touch them.”

    “But I need to. All day I have been dreaming about putting them between my lips and teasing them with my teeth.”

    “Do you think I want you to eat my ear lobes? You are a very fat man. You might eat them.”

    “I would take most gentle care of them, MaryAnn. I have spent a lifetime dreaming about ear lobes like yours.”
    “That is not part of the deal,” she told him. “You may take me, but you must not touch my ears.” She looked at him, and was sickened. Rolls of fat. And bad body odor. But it was for a good cause she thought. Money.

    “No ears,” Jack said, “No deal.”

    They negotiated for a few minutes before they came to an arrangement. Jack would have full access to her entire body, except her ears. If he proved himself gentle and worthy, he could suck on each ear for one minute.

    Jack tried to be as gentle as possible, and six minutes later, he had his ears access pass granted as well.

    He took her earmuffs off, and saw the most beautiful earlobes he had ever seen. And for so seconds, they would be all his. He took one on his mouth, and wished he could hold the other one in his hand, but he knew the deal. Tongue and lips only. No fingers.

    The earlobe looked perfect, but it felt stiff and unwieldy in his mouth.

    “Are these real,” he asked.

    “Get out,” she screamed. She pushed him, and he fell backward, rolled over like a bowling ball, and crashed into the wall.

    She was screaming at him, but all he could feel was a sharp pain in his chest. He thought about MaryAnn Maxwell’s earlobes, and smiled. A minute later, he was dead.


    It is always complicated to bury the very fat. They need square plots and square caskets. It is even more complicated when the deceased is found naked in a supermodel’s home, while his wife is home alone with their child.

    It took three firemen to remove Jack Kay from MaryAnn Maxwell’s home. They brought him to the morgue, where there wasn’t a refrigerator large enough to hold him.

    That night he started to decompose. Cremate him and toss out the ashes, his widow told an answering machine at the morgue. And so, the next morning, they did.

    The Preceding Story was Fiction. It is the conclusion of this story.