Over His Head
By Keith Bloomfield
It was the only news that anyone spoke about. Every weatherman on every radio station talked about how hot and humid the summer was going to be. Dan was not looking forward to the heat or the dampness. Then, his grandma called.
“Your father and I would love to invite Dan to spend the summer with us in the country,” said his grandma, while his mother stood by the window fanning herself with a folded newspaper. “There are dozens of boys his age here and there's the pool for swimming, the lake for fishing. You know what it's like. How many summers did you spend here? Most importantly, the nights are certainly cooler than they will be in the city.”
Dan overheard the conversation and slipped off to pack his suitcase. He had visited the bungalow colony where they had spent their summers almost every year for as long as he could remember, but never for an entire summer. He heard his mother hang up the phone and he appeared in the hall with his suitcase in hand.
“Daniel, come here. I just spoke to your grandma. . .” As his mother spun around, she spotted him behind her all set to leave. “I guess you're ready right now?” He nodded his head. “We won't be going, to the country, until Sunday. Can you hold out until then?”
Dan thought for a moment, “If today is Thursday, I'll have to hold out for three days.” He slowly nodded his head and walked slowly back to his room. “These are going to be three very long days,” he whispered to himself.
As far as Dan was concerned, the week could not go quicker. Each day he watched the TV for the weather forecast and each day the thermometer would rise higher than the day before. By Sunday, he was more anxious to leave the city than he had ever been before.
The old Dodge, was as slow as ever. His was not the only family looking for comfort outside of the city. It was a long drive to the “Borscht Belt.” That is what everybody called it. He did not know why. Borscht was that thick red beet soup that his parents, their friends, and everyone his grandparents knew seemed to love to drink.
Soon they were off the parkway and struggling to move along Route 17 with a hundred other cars filled with suitcases and children all anxious to reach their own bungalow colony. His grandma called it a Kuch Alein, he had no idea what it meant and he was too embarrassed to ask. When he saw the hotel signs start to appear in the distance, he knew that he was close. Soon, his father turned off Route 17 and he could see the big sign announcing his arrival at The Shady Pond Bungalow Colony. In all of his visits, he never saw a shady pond. The lake near the ball field was always sunny and the only shade he could remember was after the sun set and that's not shade at all.
They parked on a field overgrown with tiny trees and people sized flowers. They slowly walked toward the bungalows set in straight lines and all painted the same color. He could see his grandfather sitting and talking with his friends and his grandma at a table playing Maj-jongg. When she saw him, she jumped to her feet and the little white tiles with strange Oriental designs flew everywhere as the table toppled to the ground. No one seemed to care! Dan's grandma bathed him in kisses while his grandpa pumped his father's hand and kissed his mother's check.
After a barbecue of overdone hot dogs and underdone burgers, Dan's parents kissed him goodbye and returned to their car – walking arm in arm. Dan could not understand what it meant, but now his vacation was ready to begin! As the soon as the sun set and the sky turned cantaloupe orange his grandma told him that he had better put on a pair of long pants.
“I'm not cold grandma.”
“I said to put on a pair of long pants if you know what's good for you.”
“But. . .”
“Don't contradict your bubbie if you expect anything for Chanukah!”
Dan understood the threat and ran into the bungalow only to reappear in a pair of bluejeans.
“Let's take a walk,” said his grandpa.
In the fleeting light of day, they silently walked down a flagstone path to the lake. A lone bench sat on its shore and the two of them sat down and listened to crickets chirping in the distance.
“Better than being in the city?” asked his grandpa. Dan nodded. “Now the reason I brought you down to the lake is easy. It's the darkest place in the whole Kuch Alein and I wanted to be sure you had a good seat when the show began.”
Dan had no idea what his grandfather meant. As the the fleeting moments of sunset were replaced with a darkening sky, his grandfather jumped to his feet and like the magicians on television he waved his pocket handkerchief in front of him and covered his hand with it. K'dibra, he said. Dan thought it must he something like “abracadabra.” Then his grandfather pulled the handkerchief off his hand to reveal one finger pointing straight up to the sky. Dan followed the finger with his head and saw more stars above them then he had ever thought there could be.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Those are stars? I never knew there were so many.”
“Of course they're stars! They're certainly not kneydlekh, said his grandfather sitting down on the bench beside him. His grandfather pointed to a heavy swatch of stars that ran straight across the center of the sky. “Do you know what they call that?”
“That's the Milky Way and those bright stars all around it are the pictures in the zodiac.”
“The zoo-diac? Like the one in the Bronx? You've been there. It's full of animals in cages. Well this zoo-diac has plenty of animals and people too, but you won't see any cages.”
His grandfather held up a single finger in front of Dan's face. “Remember what your Bubbie said about Chanukah? That goes for me too!” Dan knew that the best thing he could do was to listen to his grandfather's story.
“Do you see those stars?” asked his grandfather, while his finger pointed towards the sky.
Dan followed his hand upwards. “Of course. That's Orion; the Hunter.”
“Hunter? You call that a hunter?”
“That's what they call him. Those two constellations,” pointed Dan. “Those are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – the Big Bear and the Little Bear.”
“Oy,” said his grandfather. “A Hunter and Big Bear and Little Bear? Who taught you that?”
“I read about it in a book.”
His grandfather smiled. “A book? Now let me tell you the real story.”
Dan crossed his arms in front of his chest, knowing it would be a long evening.
“Now that's the Katsovim, the Butcher. Those are the Parot. That's the cow and her calf. And he used the knife on his belt to slaughter the cow, but then the calf. . .,” his grandfather paused. “Do you want to hear the story about the Butcher and the cows?”
A story? Dan's grandfather always told the most wonderful stories. This was no exception. Dan and his grandfather laughed until it hurt as he talked about how the Butcher chased the cattle through the town and how they climbed onto the roof of a building and kicked over a water barrel that soaked the Butcher. And how the drenched Butcher went home without slaughtering the cattle and had to eat milkhik instead of fleyshik for dinner.
“I never heard it that way. Tell me another?” asked Dan.
His grandfather looked at his watch. “I think it's too late for another story. But if you can wait until tomorrow night, I'll tell you the story about the vog
Dan didn't know what vog is and he tossed and turned in his bed wondering what it could be. As he fell asleep only the sounds of the night filled his ears. When he woke the next morning, his grandfather had already left for the day. After his breakfast, his grandma ushered him to the arts and crafts class run by the owner's daughter, and he spent the entire morning thinking about the evening and the story that his grandfather would tell him. While Dan learned how to weave a basket, his grandfather sat with some of the other men playing gin rummy. He too could hardly wait until sunset and the stars bloomed in the sky so he could tell his grandson the story of the vog.
Dan returned to the Kuch Alein for dinner and his grandfather and grandmother were there waiting for him. “I'm sorry I'm late,” he said.
“It's alright,” said his grandma, “I saw you doing arts and crafts. Did you make something?”
“I did,” he said slowly, having nothing to really show her. “But it won't be dry until tomorrow.”
“What are you doing this evening?” she asked.
Dan looked at his grandfather and his grandfather looked back at him over a cup of hot coffee. He slowly shook his head.”
“I don't know what I'm doing. I'll probably just hang out with the other kids.”
“That's what your grandfather said you did last night.” Dan looked back at his grandfather. “I guess it's supposed to be a secret,” he thought.
“If you want to, there's a movie tonight in the canasta room,” announced his grandmother.
“No thanks, I'll just hang out with the kids again.”
Dan and his grandfather rose from the table and headed for the door. “Where are you going?” his grandmother called to her husband.
“I'm going to play gin,” he replied and started walking in one direction.
“And where are you going?” she asked Dan.
“I guess I'll walk over to the gazebo,” he said and headed in the opposite direction while his grandmother shrugged her shoulders and cleared the dinner table.
Dan met his grandfather at their bench by the lake. “Do you think we fooled her?” asked Dan.
“Very little gets past her, but for now, she's confused.”
“What's a vog.?” I've been trying to figure it out all night,” began Dan.
“A wog is a scale, like the kind you would find in a deli, where they put what you're buying on one side and weights on the other.”
“Which constellation is the vog ?” asked Dan, pointing at the sky.
“Now don't tell me you have another name for it. It's the vog,” insisted his grandfather, pointing to a constellation that Dan called Aquarius, the Water Bearer.
“Do you want to hear the story about the vog ?“ How could Dan say anything except, “Yes!”
So Dan's grandfather began the story about Mr. Plotnik who owned an appetizing store where they sold lox and smoked whitefish and all kinds of salads. It seems that Mr. Plotnik had a bad habit of putting his hand on the scale when people came in to make a purchase, so what you bought really weighed less than the scale said it did. His grandfather's story was about the lady who came in, figured out what Plotnik was doing and turned the tables on Mr. Plotnik for all of his customers. This one was even funnier than the story about the Butcher and soon both of them were laughing while tears streamed down their faces.
“Please grandpa tell me another.” His grandfather explained that it was getting late and that next time he would tell the story of the tsviling .”
Dan soon learned that “next time” didn't mean the next day. It would be three whole days before his grandfather would tell him about the tsviling .” In the meantime, he spent his days around the swimming pool or playing stick ball with his new friends until the ice cream truck arrived late in the afternoon or he had to get ready to see the magician's show in the canasta room.
The wait was difficult for his grandfather as well. Long games of canasta or gin were not enough to keep him busy. He kept thinking about his grandson and hoped the stories were as important to Dan as they were to him.
When the evening finally came, Dan and his grandfather slipped off to the lake as they had done before. Did his grandmother know where they were bound?
“So what is a tsviling ?” he asked his grandfather, as the clouds danced across the sky and the stars began to appear earlier than the last time.
His grandfather chuckled. "Tsviling are twins.” He pointed towards the sky. “Do you see them? One was named Chaim and the other was Pinchas . One was very smart and one was very strong. The story is about how they did what each of them did best to save the other from tsuris.” So Dan listened carefully to his grandfather's tale and looked forward to another story almost before this one was over.
In the weeks that followed, the stories came less and less frequently. Days grew shorter as the summer began to wind down. Dan realized that though the stories were different from the stories of legend, their meanings were perhaps more important. Instead of taking the summer off from school, he was learning more through his grandpa's stories than he had realized at first.
One Sunday when the summer was nearly over and Daniel's parents arrived to take him back to the city, he sat with his grandfather on the bench by the lake one last time.
“I know what you've been doing.”
“Doing? I don't know what you mean,” said his grandfather, trying hard to stifle a grin.
“The stories you've been telling me all summer had a purpose.”
“Most things in life have a purpose,” said his grandfather, mussing Daniel's hair. “The trick is to understand what the purpose is and to make use of it. I'm glad that you understood my . . .charade and that maybe you'll remember it as you grow up. Remember that the answer is right there before your eyes. Just look deeply and think. Now your parents are waiting for you.” Daniel's grandfather leaned forward and gave his grandson a hug. Daniel hugged back, tighter than ever before.
As his grandfather and grandmother watched Dan and his parents drive away, his grandmother turned to her husband. “Do you really think he understood?”
“Did he suspect anything?”
“No, I don't think so. Maybe it was a bit over his head for now. That's the way I learned the stories from my grandfather and he learned them from his. It was my turn to pass them on to Dan. In time, he'll understand. Then maybe he'll see the world around him in a different light.” He turned and kissed his wife. “You played your part very well!”
The trip home felt like an eternity. Instead of looking out the window, Dan sat in the backseat of the family car and thought about each of his grandfather's tales Some had made him laugh and others made him think, but he remembered each and every one of them and the way his grandfather had told them.
Summer ended much too quickly and Dan was back in school before he knew it. His science teacher, Mr. Price, was starting a new subject – astronomy.
“Perfect,” thought Dan. “Now I know all about the constellations.”
When Mr. Price unfurled a chart with each constellation bearing the wrong name, Dan had to say something. As Mr. Price named each constellation, Dan corrected him with the name and story he had learned from his grandfather. At first, Mr. Price and the other students in the class were amused. As he continued, no one was laughing.
“We can continue our discussion after school,” said Mr. Price. “Why don't you come back to see me then?”
The classroom was silent and all Dan could do was say, “Yes sir.”
When the last bell of the day had rung, Dan ran back to Mr. Price's classroom and took a seat in front of his teacher's desk. When asked by his teacher, Dan told him the names of all of the constellations and the stories behind them. Mr. Price leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. After a moment, he slowly leaned forward with this hands on his knees and smiled at Dan.
“When I was about your age my father bought me a telescope. Not a large or expensive one, but one that let me see the moon, the planets, and the stars as I never had before. I knew the names of every constellation and the stories behind them. None of them have anything to do with the names you gave me in class. Who gave you that information?”
“My Grandpa. I spent the summer with him in the country. At first, I didn't believe him either, but after he told me their names and their stories, it all made sense.”
Mr. Price tried hard to stifle a smile. “I'll tell you what Dan. As we study astronomy, remember what I say in class and what you read in the books, but never, ever, forget what your grandfather told you. You may not understand them now, but you'll understand as you grow up.” Mr. Price sat up straight in the chair. “Tell me the one about Aquarius again. What did you call him; the vasser-treger?”
Daniel stood in front of Mr. Price's desk and acted out the story of the vaser-treger just as it had been shown to him. And he knew that his grandfather would be laughing along with them.
from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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