By KURT JOSE AYAU
I’m not Jewish, but I’m good friends with Sammy Greenbaum, whose father is a rabbi, so when I have a religious question, I go to Sammy, since he’s the only friend I have whose father is a man of the cloth. We play basketball together twice a week, Monday-Wednesday, 6:30-8:00 at the Y, so I have to save up my moral, ethical or religious questions. Sometimes I have nothing for him. This night in May I have several questions.
“If homosexuality is such a big deal,” I say, posting Sammy up, “why isn’t it one of the commandments?”
“Good question,” he says. “I’ll ask Pops.”
I get the ball, do a drop step on him, head fake him into an absurd arm-swinging jump and bank in an easy two.
“And what’s happening to the sky?” I ask.
“What do you mean, the sky?”
“You seen it lately?”
“What’s there to see? It’s the sky.”
“It doesn’t look right.”
“Doesn’t look right?”
“I’ll show you after the game.”
After we shower, we meet out front. There’s not much of the sky you can see from out front of the Y, even on a good night. Tonight it is cloudy, and there is no moon.
“I don’t see anything,” Sammy says.
“It’s the weather,” I say. “But I’ve been watching it, and it doesn’t look … right.”
“Well,” Sammy says, “I certainly can’t ask the Rebbe about something so random like this.”
“You’re right, I guess,” I say.
We have buses to catch in opposite directions, so we usually don’t stand around and chitchat.
“You just keep an eye out,” I tell him, turning left as he turns right. “And remember the homosexual thing.”
That night I get an email from Sammy. Terse as usual, the subject heading reads: “Rebbe sez:” and the body reads, “Your answer is in your question.”
I read the email with very mild interest, because by now the sky has cleared and I have gone up on the roof and seen stuff that just isn’t right.
“Like what?” Sammy says when his girlfriend hands him the phone.
“Like seams?” I say.
“Seems like what?”
“Like sewing seams?”
“Yes. In the sky.”
Sammy laughs, but when I don’t laugh with him he says, “You’re serious.”
“Go look for yourself.”
While Sammy looks, I talk to Derishe, his girlfriend, who is way too hot for Sammy, the nerd. I guess she likes the intellectual type.
“I noticed, too,” she says, whispering.
“Stuff,” she says. “Stuff going on.”
“Like the grass outside my building.”
Sammy comes back and takes the phone, but he doesn’t say anything for a second, at least not to me. He whispers something to Derishe. Then he says, and he sounds kind of shook up, “Let’s go pay Pops a visit.”
“Now?” I said.
“The sky has seams and you’re asking ‘Now?'” Sammy says.
“Man,” I say, “when you want to, you can really put the Jew on.”
I can practically hear him shrugging. “It’s a gift.”
We arrive at the Rebbe’s house, the three of us—Derishe says she’s too weirded out to stay at Sammy’s alone—and all the lights are on.
“My father, he thinks I own Con Edison,” Sammy says.
And I give him a high hat and cymbal.
The Rebbe meets us at the door before we can ring.
“Your muffler is shot,” he says to me. “Heard you a block away.”
“Good evening, Rabbi Greenbaum,” I say.
He gives me a hug. “It’s such a long way that you can’t visit once in a while?”
“He’s busy building an empire,” Sammy says by way of excuse.
“And when shall this beauty be my daughter-in-law and give me nice Jewish grandbabies?” he says, kissing Derishe on the cheek.
“She’s Presbyterian, Pops, remember?” Sammy says.
“Hope, hope,” the rabbi says.
He leads us into the living room, offers us seats, but remains standing. “I did some research,” he said. “Didn’t take long.”
“And?” Sammy says.
“And the news is not good.”
I immediately feel guilty. It was I, after all, who noticed what was going on. Maybe if I hadn’t been paying attention to things …
“The question is, what to do,” the rabbi says.
“But what is happening?” Sammy asks.
“What’s happening?” his father says, mockingly. “What’s happening? I’ll show you what’s happening!”
None of us had noticed an upside down glass on the coffee tabletop. He points and we see trapped inside a housefly.
“Observe,” Rabbi Greenbaum says. He removes the glass and the fly attempts to escape, but manages a flight of only a few inches before it topples over onto its side, its wings vibrating.
“What the hell, Pops?” Sammy says.
And we do. The fly looks shiny and, and … “Plastic?” I say.
The Rebbe bows.
“The powers of perception,” he says. “Plastic.”
“I don’t get it,” Derishe says. “It can sorta fly, but it’s plastic?”
“Exactly,” the Rebbe says.
“What’s this mean?” Sammy says.
“I have a theory,” the rabbi says. “But like any good theory, I’d like to test it out before I pronounce it. Let’s have some nice chicken soup, then we’ll go do some tests.”
The sky has seams, the grass outside Derishe’s apartment is strange, and now a plastic fly. And the man wants to eat soup?
“But, Rebbe,” I start to say.
“Unh, unh, unh,” he says, shuffling toward the kitchen. “If the universe is falling apart, some nice chicken soup can’t hurt anything.”
Derishe is Cuban, Ethiopian, Swedish, Thai and Greek. Her skin is the color of honey. She has one blue eye and one green eye. I have personally witnessed three accidents on the streets of Manhattan caused by her mere appearance. I have been mindlessly in love with her for as long as I have known her, which is exactly 18 minutes longer than Sammy has. I’m better looking than Sammy—ask anyone—and I make more money than he does, live in a better apartment and have a car, even though the muffler is, as the Rebbe says, “shot.” So why am I on the outside looking in at this nectar-complexioned wonder of genetic lagniappe?
“Eh?” the Rebbe says to me.
I am nudged out of my reverie by Rabbi Greenbaum’s penetrating gaze.
“The soup. How is the soup?”
“Great,” I say.
He turns to Sammy. “See? He says it’s great.”
“He’s not tasting it,” Sammy says. “He’s worshipping my girlfriend again.”
“Oh, well, I understand,” the Rebbe says. “Beauty before soup any day.”
Derishe, who has been staring out the window, distracted, through this whole exchange, says, in an otherworldly voice, “Are we the only ones who are seeing this?”
“We can’t be.”
I’m too busy blushing and trying to hide in my soup to answer her.
“Who saw the world like Van Gogh?” Sammy says.
“Chagall?” I say.
“Excellent points, all of them,” the Rebbe says. He slurps the last soup out of his bowl and starts to rise, but Derishe stirs herself, stands and grabs his bowl.
“What next?” she says.
“The study,” the Rebbe says. “I have to feed Moishe and the boys.”
Moishe is Rabbi Greenbaum’s prized angelfish. Or, I should say, was.
“Gott in Himmel!” the old man says when we approach the huge fish tank that he had his nephew the carpenter build into one wall of his study. A single angelfish is floating on the surface of the tank, and from its size and distinctive markings, we know it is Moishe.
The Rebbe stands at the fish tank, his face a study in anguish writ small, looking in on the 50-gallon container, its aquatic plants, its fish. It’s Moishe, dead. Sammy scoops him out with a net, lets the water drain, then gently sets the net, deceased fish and all, on the counter. Derishe puts her hand on the Rebbe’s shoulder, and he covers it with a liver-spotted clutch of fingers.
“Such a good fish,” he says sadly.
Sammy pokes Moishe’s body with a finger. I notice even from several feet away that the fish’s body does not respond the way it should. There is no give.
“What the heck, Pops?” Sammy says. He pokes again, then picks up the fish by its well-articulated tail. The fish is rigid.
“Rigor mortis in a fish?” the old man says.
Sammy taps Moishe against the bookcase. Tick tick tick. He sniffs it. “Plastic!” he says.
“Oy!” the Rebbe says. “The world is coming to an end! The Messiah is at hand.”
Like I said, I’m not very religious, but these words make the hair on my neck stiffen.
“More light,” Sammy says.
We have moved over to Rabbi Greenbaum’s desk, where Sammy has pulled the magnifying glass from the boxed set of his father’s OED to examine Moishe. I bend the halogen bulb lamp toward his head.
“Hmmph,” Sammy says, leaning over the fish.
“What?” his father asks.
“It says ‘Made in Bangladesh’,” he says.
“All this time I was telling my life story to a plastic fish from India?” the Rebbe says.
“Bangladesh,” Sammy corrects.
“India, Bangladesh,” his father says. “When you’re my age, certain distinctions don’t apply.”
“The fly!” Derishe says, and rushes from the room.
I will follow Derishe anywhere, so I do. Sammy and his father are seconds behind me.
“The magnifying glass,” Derishe demands, kneeling by the coffee table. Sammy hands it to her obediently and she studies the fly. “Nepal.”
“Nepal?” I say. “They make plastic flies in Nepal? I didn’t think they made anything in Nepal.”
“The world is changing,” Rabbi Greenbaum says, suddenly sounding ancient, his voice a sepulchral croak. Rabbi Greenbaum sits on his sofa sipping some cherry Mogen David wine, deep in thought.
“The sky, the grass, the flies, the fish,” I say, surprising myself.
“What?” Sammy asks.
I repeat what I’ve just said.
“My grass, outside my apartment,” Derishe says.
“You didn’t tell me.”
“I thought I was seeing things, but then when Thomas called earlier this evening, I realized it wasn’t just me.”
“Maybe it’s just us,” Sammy says. “Maybe, maybe we’re having some kind of, of, I don’t know, Salem experience or something.”
“We’re all witches?” I say.
“We’re all having hallucinations,” Sammy corrects. He stands behind his father, biting his thumb and looking off into the middle distance. “I have an idea,” he finally says, and reaches for the phone.
“Another, please,” the Rebbe says to no one in particular, holding out his glass. Derishe and I both reach at the same time and our hands touch.
After half a dozen calls, Sammy sets the phone down crisply in the cradle. “What is it with everyone tonight?” he says. “I can’t get anyone.”
“Are you trying home numbers or cells?” Derishe says.
“Both. It’s like the whole world has gone to the movies or temple.”
“It’s spring,” I say. “People are enjoying the city.”
“The plastic city,” Sammy says.
“No,” the Rebbe says. “Not the city. The city is man’s doing.”
“What are you saying, Pops?”
“Let’s go out into the yard,” the old man says.
“It’s pitch black out there,” Sammy says.
“And so why did God invent the flashlight?” his father asks.
The half moon has a peculiar sheen to it. We stand on the small deck overlooking what Sammy and I have always referred to by making quotation marks with our fingers: “The Yard,” a 30-by-30-foot square of lush Bermuda grass fanatically tended for three decades by Mr. Martinez and his sons, the best Dominican gardeners in Manhattan—a brass sundial, a trellis trailing clematis and a small fountain. The epic whiffle ball battles waged in “The Yard” would have awed Ruth and DiMaggio. It’s where Sammy and I smoked our first joint when his parents were in the Poconos and he and his brother Aaron stayed home by themselves for the weekend. The Rothstein twins provided us with our first protosexual experiences in that yard, offering their not inconsiderable breasts to our trembling hands. I could go on, but I think you get the gist of what that backyard means to us.
We stand there in the night air, the white noise of the city like a force field around us, and are silent for several seconds.
Finally the Rebbe sighs and takes the flashlight from Sammy’s hands. He flicks it on and a cone of light leaps into the trees. How natural do budding trees look by flashlight? Gray bark, pale green buds, a shifting shadow of branches against the eight-foot-high back fence. In turn, Rabbi Greenbaum illuminates each of the landmarks that are emblazoned on our memories. He ends by shining light on the grass.
“Go, look,” he says, handing Sammy the flashlight.
Sammy descends the steps, lighting his path. “The grass is looking kind of long, Pops.”
“The Martinez boys are in the Dominican,” the Rebbe says. “They’ll be back next week.”
I’m right behind him on the stairs, Derishe behind me. She places her hand on my shoulder—to brace herself going down the stairs, no doubt—and my knees threaten to give out under me.
“What the heck?” Sammy says, stopping abruptly two steps onto the lawn.
I stop and Derishe stops, too, but not before she bumps into me and her breasts nestle against the tops of my shoulders. She squeezes my neck and I shiver.
“What?” the Rebbe says.
Sammy kneels down, shines the light on the grass, runs his hands over the emerald green blades. Murmurs.
“Here,” the Rebbe says to Derishe, handing her something. She pushes me gently with her left hand and I step down into the yard, too. Immediately I know that something is not right. The grass under my feet feels unlike any grass I know. It feels, in fact, like those plastic doormats with fake grass and the little daisy in the corner. Derishe steps down next to me, catches her breath.
“Oh my,” she says. A second later she hands the OED magnifying glass to Sammy.
“I knew it,” I say to the night air.
And Derishe turns to me, and in the wan moonlight I see her perfectly mismatched eyes appraising me in a way she never has before. Sammy is the history professor at City College, the intellectual, the scholar. I am the businessman, the dollar chaser. But I’ve also got an eye for the small things, an appreciation, a sense of wonder, the knack for acute observations. And she understands now. She saw it too, she told me early tonight, and now she sees something else. She and I …
“Indonesia,” Sammy says. “The grass was made in Indonesia.”
Maybe it’s the scholar in him, the library grinder who can’t see the big picture for all the details, but it looks like Sammy is going to go blade to blade to verify what he’s found.
“What does it mean?” Derishe says to Rabbi Greenbaum without looking away from me.
“It’s the end of the world,” Sammy says.
“Yes,” his father says. “Yes. Or it could be the beginning.”
“Outsourcing,” I say.
Everyone looks at me.
“What?” Sammy says.
“Outsourcing.” I don’t know where the words are coming from, but they bubble out naturally. “The Rebbe was right. Man makes the cities, the machines, the factories, the airplanes. All the things God chooses not to do. And now God’s saying to us, ‘I’ll just stand back and let you do all of it. See how it goes.'”
“The Lord removes His Hand,” the Rebbe says, stroking his beard, nodding.
“Like a father says to his child, ‘Fine, go ahead and see for yourself. If you wind up in jail, don’t call me until after breakfast, if it’s not too much to ask.'”
“Pops,” Sammy says, “do you have to bring that up again?”
“The sky, the fish, the fly, the grass,” Derishe says.
“Look!” I say. “The moon!”
It is directly above us now, full, fiercely bright. I search its surface for the reassuring features we’ve all known since childhood, that slightly off kilter Mr. Bill face that you have to be a certain age to see, but instead I see taking shape two perfect circles for eyes and a watermelon-rind slice of a smile. And as we watch, and no doubt countless other millions across the world do, that ancient face that has comforted the human species for millennia slowly turns a sickening and familiar shade of yellow.
Kurt Jose Ayau is an associate professor of English at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. His award-winning stories have appeared in numerous literary journals; his novel, What the Shadow Told Me, co-written with David Rachels, (Eastern Washington University Press, 2005), won the 2003 Pirate’s Alley/Faulkner Society Award.
Editor’s Note: This story was a finalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.