My mother and father wanted to name me Cohen but my Zaidie said that they had to choose a different name. It will be his middle name, my father said. No, Zaidie said. It won’t. They chose from a list of backup names. I was told about this growing up. Zaidie was in World War II, my father said. What does that have to do with my name? I asked. I think it was in my teenage years when I understood.
In middle school my mother would pack my lunches in Dunkin Donuts bags that she’d save from using the drive-thru for coffee and breakfast on her way to work in the morning. Ben and Miles, the whole lot of them, Anthony, each of them, they’d sling digs at me during lunch about my Jewishness, claiming that it was Jewish to reuse Dunkin Donuts bags. That’s how cheap you are. How fucking Jewish is this? Look at this fucking Jew! Things like that. I don’t remember ever saying much back. I guess at that age I was a coward. I was young but I knew never to poke fun at someone’s skin. I never said anything like that to Anthony. Besides, my bedroom walls were covered in Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson posters. What was there for me to say?
The kids I went to school with all changed their tune about me once they learned I could play basketball. I was puzzled why Ken Simmons all of a sudden became my good pal once the 8th grade season started but reverted to ignoring me when all the games were done. But I was happy and ready for the attention, and even though my father’s stature standing at 5 foot 6 inches tall didn’t do much in the way of providing the ideal parent to raise a basketball player, I was told that I’d inherited recessive genes. Bubby told me that her brother was tall. He was 6 feet, she said. He died in the war. I still remember her sitting at her dining room table remembering him, her head slouched and eyes fixed on a point in the middle distance. I didn’t understand what she was doing but I do now. She was trying to picture him.
You’re half-Jewish, my parents told me. Mom loved Jesus, but I couldn’t summon it within myself to explain that to the guys at lunch. My mom isn’t even Jewish, I wanted to say about the Dunkin Donuts bags. She packs my lunches. I kept quiet about it, though.
In those days as a young man I was told to white knuckle my problems. I was haunted by intense nightmares. I once sleepwalked so wildly while at a friend’s sleepover that I punched out the basement window, shattering the glass, and ran bleeding and screaming across the lawn to be found by a neighbor on their front doorstep yelling nonsensical gibberish interposed with declarations that there was someone in my friend’s house firing off guns. Nobody had a gun, and I had no real memory of any of it. This was shortly after Columbine, so my parents chalked it up to a “night terror,” but I’d be told by a therapist later on that it was most likely the result of inherited trauma. Did you have a relative in World War II? the therapist asked.
Before my Zaidie died I got to interview him for a school project about The Great Depression. I remember clearly the way he described his livelihood, the food market he owned, and how it wasn’t all that affected by the depression, really. I learned from this. People still had to eat, he said, so the market stayed in business and did fine. He fed people. That’s what he did. He went to war and came back to Rhode Island and fed people and raised a family. My Bubby was a teacher. She taught me how to read.
My mother spoke often about the way that Christ suffered. I think it was her way of explaining to me why Jesus was so important. Does Dad believe in Jesus? I remember asking. Dad believes that Jesus was a great man, a healer, she said. She told me about the crucifixion and it disturbed me to no end. One time I came up with this idea that if Jesus was God then he could’ve done something while he was on the cross so that he didn’t feel anything. Maybe he was able to escape the pain, I told Mom, but she affirmed that he suffered. I guess it’s the suffering that commands a room. I guess that’s how she was taught to believe, and she tried to instill the same understanding in me about what it means to suffer.
My father thought deeply about the world and introduced me at an early age to the Fibonacci Sequence. He spoke of how it predicted all of these important and fundamental truths about the world. The Egyptians used this to build the pyramids, Dad told me. These structures, he said, they’re perfect, and they set perfectly, and the way the Egyptians were able to do this was because of their understanding of the golden ratio. I was fascinated, and I only became more so when I heard whispers from my uncles that it’s theorized that the pyramids were too perfect and they must’ve been built by aliens. Aliens!
My Bubby and Zaidie had Seder at their house and Zaidie used this to explain the resilience of the Jewish people in the face of slavery and genocide. He spoke and read of the exodus out of Egypt, and what that meant for me and our family in America. There was one time I was in the car with my father and Zaidie, and Zaidie was speaking of war. It’s the only time I remember him actually addressing what it was like over there. He said a word, a slur against the Japanese, and when Zaidie got out of the car my father told me, never say that word. Why not? Why did Zaidie say it? He was in World War II, my father said.
After college, I got a job at an office in midtown Manhattan as a glorified secretary for accountants. One of them called me Moses. Hey, Moses, do this. Hey, Moses, how the fuck are you? My first name isn’t Cohen, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that I’ve got Jewish blood running through me. You see it in my name. These accountants that I worked for, they were taught how to work in an office in the 1970s. They were the products of that era. Do you think I was surprised when one of them called me a kike while screaming about some banal mistake I’d made? I was at a party not too long after that and I got into an argument with a guy saying that Quentin Tarantino was a racist because of a word he included in one of his movies. It’s a piece of art, I said. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a racist. You’re white, he said. What the fuck do you know about anything? You’re a white fucking man, so you can shut the fuck up about race and slurs and what it means to be attacked in that way.
I’ve been called a kike, I said.
Jews became white in America a long time ago, he said.
And he had the right to react to Tarantino’s movie. I had and still have no idea how it feels to watch a film and hear that word and feel all that it summons. I don’t understand it the way he does. But I still think he was making a bad point. I still don’t think that an artist can be categorized as racist just because he creates a racist character.
I had my friend Louise over my apartment last night for supper. She lives in Brooklyn, too. We’ve been friends since high school. After a few too many glasses of wine she said, I was raped by a guy I was attracted to. A guy who I liked.
What do you mean? I asked.
In grad school. He was a hot guy. We were hooking up and I told him to stop and he didn’t. He thought he was being forceful in a way that I liked but I really did not. I told him no and to stop but he didn’t.
Do you hate him?
Sometimes. I still know him.
I found the round, white table we were eating at on the street. It was clean. Someone must’ve just put it out.
Have you talked to him about this? I asked.
Yes, she said. Recently.
What’d he say?
He didn’t deny it. He said he was sorry and that he regretted it. Told me that he read the signs wrong.
Do you believe him?
I don’t know.
I’m sorry that happened to you.
You don’t have to be sorry, she told me.
I heard her. It made me think of times in college when guys talked about being forceful with girls.
I was so insecure in college, I said.
Really? she asked.
Yeah. I was so paranoid that girls didn’t like me, I said. I came up with all these ways of asking for permission to make absolutely sure that they wanted me.
Like what? she asked.
I’d ask if she wanted me to get a condom. Do you want me to get a condom? That was my way of making 100% sure.
Yes, I get it, she said. You never struck me as the rapist type.
During the summer before I went to college, I went to see this playwright speak in Providence at this little venue called AB950 that would have amazing jazz on Thursday nights and other art exhibits. This playwright had put on productions in New York and was gearing up for a show in Providence, but the catch was that she wasn’t going to sell any tickets to it. There was some local press there, at AB950 when she spoke, and after she read from a piece of prose she took questions.
What do you mean, you’re not going to sell any tickets to the performance? asked someone.
I’m not going to sell any tickets, she said.
Then who is going to see the play?
She didn’t answer this. She probably said, next question.
I was at the event because I went to AB950 a lot. My mother played violin. She took me to see the jazz there. I can’t remember if I’d even heard of her, this playwright, before going, but I do remember realizing that it seemed like she wanted to make a statement with this new play, the one she wasn’t going to sell tickets to. They were going to rehearse the show, mount the production, do everything that she’d done for all her other plays, but the catch was that on opening night there’d be a performance but she wasn’t going to allow anyone into the theater to watch. It struck me as a statement about art.
People were asking questions like, how do we know you’re going to even do a play? Is this a hoax? Stuff like that. Her answers were short and dismissive.
I raised my hand. There were 20 people in the audience at most. Some nights for the jazz on Thursdays they’d bring in the best musicians alive from Berklee and there’d be 3 people in the audience. I both loved and hated this. I loved it because I felt like I was hearing the best music in the world in secret, but I hated the thought that only a few were listening when it should’ve been thousands. Millions. Everyone.
The playwright pointed at me.
You. What? she asked.
Do you believe there will be an audience there? I asked.
I thought she was going to laugh at me, but she didn’t.
Yes, she said. There will be an audience.
But you just said that you’re not selling tickets, someone else interjected.
She stood up. Then she said, you fucking pricks measure art by how many people see it and say they like it. You’re missing the whole fucking point. My art is not meant to win a popularity contest. My goal is to create truly great stuff. The Gods will be in the audience, she said. They will decide if it’s truly great work, and that is how it will be seared into the fabric of space and time. Its worth will not be determined by how many stupid fucking people say that they like it. She sat down, then she said, do you think that a bag of Skittles will echo through the hallways of space and time for the next millennia because every fucking asshole alive right now likes sugar? No. Skittles are worthless. They’re nothing. They have no meaning, no matter how many people like them. I don’t need a fucking audience to prove that my art operates on the highest level. After that, she got up and walked out.
A month later her play opened at a little theater in Providence. I wanted to see it, but just like she said, there weren’t any tickets sold. Nobody saw it. It sort of became an indie art house statement but it didn’t really make all that much of an impact. I doubt too many people even remember it happening at all.
Two weeks ago she was in Brooklyn doing a reading. I’ve kept up with her stuff. During the Q&A, after she’d read from one of her plays, I asked her whether or not she believes that art is subjective.
Not really, she said, standing at a podium in Greenlight Bookstore.
I raised my hand again.
You, she said. What?
What do you mean? I asked.
Just what I said. Art really isn’t that subjective.
Do you mind expanding on that? I asked.
Fine, she said. What the fuck is subjective about a virtuoso violinist.
The room was quiet. A few people chuckled.
Nothing, she said. If some moron comes along and says that he doesn’t like the music being played by an 8-year-old virtuoso violinist, the best violinist in the world, then he’s a fucking moron and he’s fucking wrong. Wrong with a capital W and truth with a capital T. Art is not that subjective, she said. Art operating on the highest level appeals to something bigger than me, than you, than everything. The gods decide what’s good, and that’s who you’re creating for. The greatest novel ever written that’s sitting in someone’s basement because no one has ever read it is still the greatest fucking novel ever written. It was made, it has seared itself into the fabric of space and time, and it exists whether you like it or not.
Are you going to sell tickets to your new play? I asked.
She smirked at me. Right at me. Directly into my face.
Yes, she said.
My parents are gone now, and of course so are my Bubby and Zaidie. When my father passed away, I, to the dismay of just about everybody, refused to speak at his funeral. The whole thing just seemed ridiculous. My uncle was a complete mess, and afterwards, weeks later, he called me up when he was hammered and started chewing me out. You’re his only kid, you fuck, he said. How could you not...? I said words when my mother passed and it’s part of the reason why I didn’t when I buried Dad. Get up there like a good little Jew boy and say a few words about your father. The whole thing was barbaric. That’s no way to heal. No way to mourn. I wonder who convinces everyone that we all have to keep this up? Is it the ones selling the coffins? The ones renting the halls?
Once I got into high school, I got a bit tougher. My rival on the basketball team would tempt me in a class we had together. He asked me how my Bubby died. Lung cancer, I said. Did she smoke? he asked. Yes, but not for long, I said. Then it was her fault, wasn’t it? I tell myself to this day that I didn’t hit him because we were sitting at desks. The guy who lived across the street from me, though, he really knew how to piss me off. He was a year older and would act like we were friends and then take verbal shots at me at parties to impress girls and the crowd he was with. One night a bunch of people were drinking at a house party and he kept at it with me. We were hanging out on the back lawn. There were decorative bricks lining the garden. He made a joke about ovens. I crouched to tie my shoe and rose and laughed like I thought his joke was funny, like we were pals, and the brick hit the side of his face. The sound was like denting your car. I broke my thumb and index finger. The sound of his blood came in strides and gurgles. He screamed brutally, holding his face to try to stop the blood from pouring out. He still has partial vision in his left eye. I know that from Facebook. He did end up going to the hospital, but he never ratted me out. He never did anything physically to retaliate, either, but he did threaten to kill me countless times, mostly when he was very drunk. My brother has a gun, he’d say. I have a gun, he said. He’d talk about buying guns in front of me, and, yes, I was afraid sometimes.
Revenge is always dirty, but so is regret. Of course I regret it. I regret that I wasn’t birthed siding resolutely with King and Thoreau.
But before that happened, back when I was still in middle school, shortly after my uncles told me that aliens built the pyramids, I asked my Bubby about it.
Did they? I asked her.
We were playing the card game, War. She loved playing that game with me. I remember her sitting in the living room holding cards, gazing at me through glasses resting halfway down her nose. She was a small woman but had an incredible presence. She was the whole world, really, when we were together. I remember telling her how much I loved her, and her saying that she loved me so much.
You like the idea of aliens? she asked me.
Yes, I said. Is that true? Did aliens with flying saucers make the pyramids? I’d been trying to get my hands on as many alien books from the library that I could.
No, she said. They were not built by aliens.
What do you mean? I asked. Who built them then?
She lifted her gaze slightly, stared into the middle distance with tired eyes, flipped over a card and said, slaves did.
Jake Shore’s short stories have been published by Hobart, Litro, and others. In 2016, the Flea Theater presented his play Holy Moly and its tandem novel, A Country for Fibbing. Broadwayworld states, ‘it marks the first time a play with a correlating novel have been simultaneously released in the United States.’ Shore is the Director of the Academic Advisement Center at St. Joseph’s College, where he also teaches. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College.