Great Men of Modern Jewish American History
By Joel Streicker
I’ve got this photo of Joey, in costume, from when he was in the class play in fourth grade. I didn’t take it. I found it, slipped under my front door, in a plain white envelope, one morning a couple of weeks after it was taken, certainly by one of the hysterical women in the neighborhood who was afraid I’d steal away her husband. It’s not a flattering photo.
This was nearly fifty years ago, and people didn’t get divorced like they did later. And especially Jews supposedly didn’t get divorced, just like Jews didn’t drink. Baloney! Some of them did both—like Marvin, for instance. Poor, beautiful Marvin. I should have known, and maybe a part of me did. But we were so young and in such a hurry.
My parents had made it clear that they had enough money for two years of tuition and room and board at the University of Illinois, but if I didn’t find some nice young Jewish boy to marry by the end of sophomore year, I’d be finishing up back in the city, at Roosevelt College.
I met Marvin at a sorority party in the late winter of my sophomore year. I was smitten with him: his slim, dark figure, hooded eyes, long eyelashes, his air of mystery as if he were a spy or royalty in disguise. He was an “old” senior—he’d spent two years in the Navy during the Korean War before continuing his studies—so he was four years older than me, but it didn’t take a psychology major like myself to see that beneath his self-confident pronouncements bubbled a stew of uncertainty.
We got married that summer and moved into a cramped little apartment on Melrose on the North Side. I dropped out of school. Both our families were still living in West Garfield Park back then, to give you an idea of how long ago this was. Marvin took a job downtown at an advertising firm. I cooked and cleaned, visited my parents and cousins, and marveled at the grown-upness of it all: Married Life! By the time its grandeur began to fade, Marvin had climbed another rung on the corporate ladder and I was pregnant.
When Larry was born, we decided to move to a bigger place. Every other ex-GI and his wife in Chicago were looking for more room, too, so we spent months in search of a two-bedroom apartment in the city. Housing in the suburbs was booming but you couldn’t live just anywhere. Jovial real estate agents boasted of neighborhoods and entire towns being judenrein. Restrictive covenants were still common, even if they were no longer exactly legal.
Joey was born a few months after we moved into a small split-level in a new subdivision in Highland Park. The town had been a haven for Jews ever since German Jews built summer houses there on the then-farthest northern reaches of the Chicago area in the early part of the century.
I busied myself with the house, the kids, PTA, and temple, and accepted that Marvin would work long hours and arrive home on the last train exhausted, often with alcohol on his breath. “Too tired to perform” is how he would put it, when I stayed up for him in the expectation of a little whoopee. Not that our sex life was any great shakes before that. “Haven’t you ever heard of foreplay?” I could never quite get up the nerve to ask him. He did his duty; it wasn’t particularly satisfying but at least he wasn’t demanding. My mother came up on the train and stayed overnight once a week, which was a big help, and sometimes my cousin Tillie and her husband Ben, who didn’t have children of their own, would drive up on Sunday and take the kids and me to the park or a movie while Marvin went into the city “to work.”
Maybe Marvin did do some work on those Sundays, but when he announced in 1970 that he was moving back to the city and wanted a divorce, I felt so deceived. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Later, a friend of Tillie’s who knew someone who frequented a certain bar in Old Town told her that he’d seen Marvin there with a group of what back then we called “fairies”. I was shocked, but I never brought up the subject with him. He was already off living his own life; I don’t know what I would have said anyway.
It made sense of certain things, like his lack of interest in sex (with me, anyway), the extreme care he took with his appearance, and his delight in dressing up as Queen Esther for the annual Purim ball at the temple, making sure each feminine detail was just right.
He might have been born that way, or maybe it was something he picked up in the service. On our drive to Miami with the kids in 1968 he insisted we make a two-hundred-mile detour so he could visit a navy buddy who lived on a farm near Quincy. Hugh was a big, beefy man with tattooed arms, a black pompadour, and a can of Blue Ribbon glued to his hand. His little mouse of a wife seemed too overwhelmed by the largeness of Hugh’s persona and their six children to do much more than smile wearily at my attempts at conversation, while Hugh drove off with Marvin in his pickup, and her pack of children whisked Larry and Joey off to adventures unknown.
“It’s not your fault,” Marvin said when he informed me, out of the blue, of his decision to leave me. “I just need my freedom now.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. First I panicked, then I was furious. “You talk to me about freedom? What are you, a hippie? And what about my freedom? Everyone’s talking about freedom, but no one wants to hear about responsibility!”
He looked down and closed his eyes. Those long, dark lashes, so lush across his still smooth cheeks. “I’ll pay all the alimony you’re entitled to,” he said quietly.
“But the boys,” I said, tearing up.
“I’ll still see them.” He looked at me hopefully.
I shook my head. “That’s not what I meant!” Men can be such self-centered jerks.
My mind was in a whirl. What future could the kids expect, coming from a broken home? How could I hold my head up with my family, my friends, my neighbors? And what about me? Fifteen years of marriage—my youth, my looks—all for what? How could I possibly start over? I was already thirty-five, for Chrissakes. Things might not have been exactly as I wanted with Marvin, but I wasn’t brought up to think the world would accommodate itself to my desires, and Marvin was companionship and a long, shared history. I still loved him.
After Marvin left, the kids moped, my parents were consoling (though they couldn’t entirely hide their conviction that it had all been my fault), friends stopped calling, and neighbors avoided me. I felt like a character in a sitcom who has a secret, but mine wasn’t benign or funny, like living with a Martian, a witch, or a talking horse. Besides, it wasn’t a secret at all. But it did make me feel like an outsider, and there was no one I could talk to about it.
I soldiered on at home, cleaning the place savagely and lavishing on the boys what I suspect, in hindsight, was mostly unwanted attention. This was still in the days when a woman’s worth was measured by her prowess as a homemaker. But the world was changing: Women were working and marching, and if Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore show could find happiness in a career, I thought, maybe I can, too. Of course, she was single and living in a city, not divorced and marooned in the suburbs with two children.
I’d had two years of accounting in college, so it was relatively easy to find a part-time job as a bookkeeper for a small heating and air conditioning company in a little industrial strip on the frontage road parallel to the highway. It wasn’t as challenging or stimulating as I thought it might be, but it was still refreshing to spend a good chunk of my day in the company of adults pursuing ends other than a beautifully waxed floor or a lighter-than-air soufflé. I hired a Black woman to come in from the city a few days a week to help out.
I had needs, and so did men. Marvin’s presence and my wedding ring had been the only barriers to tactics more aggressive than hungry looks and the occasional appreciative whistle, as some man disappeared in the opposite direction down a crowded city sidewalk. Modesty aside, I warranted the attention. I’d take the kids to the town swimming pool every summer, and watch them splash around while I played cards and gossiped with the other mothers. Once, when we were in the car on the way home, my Joey asked me what a brick outhouse looked like. I glanced over at him, puzzled.
“Why in God’s name would you want to know that?” I said.
“Because I heard a man say you were built like one.” Joey was a good boy; he knew better than to say “shithouse” to his mother.
The suburbs are designed for families, so single men were as scarce as atheists in foxholes. That, in fact, was an expression that Jim Wexler—the Wex, as he was known—was fond of using. I knew him from the temple. The Wex was a macher: He was president of the temple, treasurer of the local chapter of B’nai Brith, active in the Rotary, a member of the school board. He was tall, balding, going soft in the belly, and seemed equal parts swagger and sanctimoniousness—in short, a big fish in a small suburban pond. Marvin and I had never been close to the Wex and his wife, Rosalie; we simply didn’t travel in the same circles, and wouldn’t have cared to, even if we had been at the same economic level.
Rosalie passed away from cancer a year after Marvin left me. The Wexler children, Allen and Nancy, were in high school then and, in keeping with the times, rebellious. Allen had long hair and a scraggly beard, and Nancy wore a colorful headband around her black, braided hair like (as we said back then) an Indian, and they both had well-deserved reputations for defying authority.
A year after Rosalie died, the Wex called to ask if he could take me out to dinner. I was surprised and flattered, especially because his voice, so confident when addressing the congregation on Friday night, trembled as if he were approaching some angry deity. I didn’t think he was my type, but the only type I’d ever had was Marvin; so I decided to suspend judgment while I began figuring out what my post-Marvin type was.
The Wex picked me up in a black Cadillac. I sank into the soft leather seat beside him; it was the size of my sofa but more comfortable, and as enveloping as his cologne. The Wex wore a dark blue suit with a pale blue striped tie and a nervous smile.
“I hope you like Italian,” he said, as he backed his car out of the driveway, maneuvering the wheel with one hand, the other stretched across the seat behind my back.
I nodded and leaned forward a bit to avoid contact with his arm. He’d told me on the phone that he wanted to take me to a little place he loved, but the exact destination was to be a surprise.
“Who doesn’t love Italian?” I countered. Then, worried that I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, I added, “I love Italian!”
The Wex beamed. He eased the car down leafy streets out to the highway and headed south toward the city. I was surprised we weren’t going to Highwood, which is a tiny town next to Highland Park, filled with Italians; if you spit in Highwood you’ll hit an Italian restaurant.
“You look gorgeous,” he said, and I could feel him taking quick glances up and down the blue velour dress I’d chosen for the occasion.
“Thank you,” I said, noncommittal. A long, awkward silence followed. We slid past the darkening landscape of squat buildings lining the highway’s frontage roads: auto mechanics, sheet metal repair, carpet stores, warehouses. It was early fall and the leaves gave hints of the glow of reds and yellows to come. “How do your kids like being back in school?” I asked.
That was evil of me, I knew. Usually such a question leads to a safe conversation: The opportunity to utter a few platitudes, brag a little, kvetch but not really mean it (“they’re always studying so hard, I wish they’d get out more”). But the Wex’s kids were clearly trouble. He clenched his jaw and gripped the steering wheel tighter. Then the air seemed to go out of him. “Neither of them likes school. They’d rather be hanging out with their no-goodnik friends, playing their guitars, and, for all I know…” His voice trailed off.
“Doing drugs,” I completed the sentence for him.
He nodded vigorously. “Society has gotten too permissive,” he said, “Schools don’t discipline kids anymore. Not like the old days, when the teacher would give you a potch with the ruler.”
I smiled despite myself. The Yiddish word for smack or slap had always sounded comical to me, and certainly at odds with the notion of discipline—more an impulsive act than a calculated one.
“I see,” I said. But I didn’t really see; physical punishment seemed like a step backward, as if we weren’t living in a civilized country. “Does it work?”
“What do you mean? Of course it works. Look at our generation. We struggled, we overcame, we made it. This generation is soft.”
“No, I mean, does it work when you do it at home?” He glanced at me. “You know, the ruler, the potch.”
He shook his head impatiently. “It’s a wider problem than just the family. It’s why there’s so much drugs and crime. Nixon’s right: We’re in a war, and we need to win. I mean, it’s the same reason why we’re not winning in Vietnam: we’re not letting the generals take the gloves off.”
“I see.” I looked out the passenger side window. It was dark now.
“But let’s not talk about politics,” he said, his voice softer now, trying to look into my averted face. “We’re not going to let the world’s problems spoil a nice evening out, right?”
I hadn’t, to that point, met a Jew who had a good word to say about Nixon, especially then, with Watergate breaking. I felt like I held my breath the rest of the way there.
“There” was a restaurant in Elmwood Park, northwest of the city. The interior was dark wood, the tables were lit by candles in red glass globes, the walls were adorned with signed photos of entertainers and sports figures: Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Rocky Marciano and Rocky Graziano (I didn’t recognize the latter two; the Wex had to name them for me)—and the waiters were older, courtly Italians with slicked back hair and thin mustaches.
“This place is the real McCoy,” the Wex said after the waiter had taken our orders and brought us a bottle of Chianti.
“Or the real Molinari.”
The Wex chuckled. “I like a gal with a sense of humor,” he said, taking a sip of his wine. He leaned over and whispered, “A lot of Outfit boys are regulars here. You never know who you might see on any given night.” He sat back, a satisfied smile on his face.
I looked around. I don’t know what I expected, maybe Al Capone or Don Corleone at the next table, a napkin tucked under his chin, digging into a plate of linguine. I realized I wouldn’t know whether the gentlemen sitting in the corner talking in low voices were businessmen or mobsters, whether the middle-aged man across the room with the heavy jowls laughing at something his very young lady companion told him was a wise guy or just a salesman treating his mistress to a nice dinner.
The Wex leaned back in, the shadows thrown by the candles playing across his face as he whispered to me a long list of famous local mobsters he’d seen there. (I wouldn’t divulge their names even if I could remember them; you never know who’s still alive or might have vengeful descendants.) They meant little to me, but there was something poetic in the lilting sound of the names—all the -ini’s and -elli’s and -ano’s—and the Wex recited them with reverence, as if they were a powerful incantation. It was the high point of an evening that soon devolved into small talk, a chicken cacciatore only slightly better than what I made at home, and a timid peck on the cheek when the Wex left me off at the curb in front of my house.
“I’d like to see you again,” he said, as I got out of the car.
I hesitated. This hadn’t exactly been my dream date, but I didn’t have anything else on the horizon. As a girl, I had learned that you never make yourself easy to a man, and the advice seemed equally pertinent given my present status. “Give me a call sometime,” I smiled, and shut the Caddy’s heavy door.
We did see each other again. I was lonely and he was respectable company—a widower, not a divorced man or a philanderer—and that tipped the balance. He also had some good qualities, although now I struggle a bit to disentangle them from projections based on my own need to believe that I was dating someone worthwhile. He was well-respected, obviously a good provider, and even-tempered, except when it came to his children or politics. But when he fumed about his kids’ latest outrages against authority or morality, or about the decadence of their generation and the politicians who let it all happen, I recalled what my mother said to me once about my own father’s mercurial temper: “Honey, Daddy gets mad at you because he worries about you, and he worries about you because he loves you.” That struck me as true about Daddy, and true about the Wex with regard to his children and the country.
Still, it was months before we dared to show ourselves together in public. In our clandestine phase, he’d pick me up after dark and we’d dine or take in a movie in another town. Larry was almost fourteen, and Joey almost eleven, plenty old enough to be home by themselves in the evening. The Wex and I never spent the entire night together. We frequented a couple of motels near the Wisconsin state line for our brief liaisons. They were sad, dingy little affairs catering to tired motorists on their way to somewhere else. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that what we were engaged in was a sad, dingy little affair, except it wasn’t really an affair because there were no longer any other parties to aggrieve, and that made it even sadder that we were obliged to rendezvous in these obscure dumps out in the sticks.
The Wex was an adequate if not overly imaginative lover. He liked certain things, in a certain order, as if he were following the instructions to put together some piece of machinery and the machine would not work if variances were tolerated. But it was nice to be with a real man, or at least that’s how I thought of the Wex, and not a fraud like Marvin.
The boys, of course, knew about the Wex from the start. I couldn’t exactly hide the fact that I was suddenly taking more care with my appearance and going out a couple of evenings a week, when before, after Marvin abandoned me, I’d scarcely left the house except to go to work or temple. I was sensitive to what they might think of the Wex. Larry and Joey remained loyal to Marvin, and even found it adventurous to spend every other weekend with him in his apartment in the city. And they were cool to the Wex. I once passed by Larry’s room and overheard him say to Joey, “I hope Mom isn’t going to pull a Brady Bunch on us with the Hex and his kids.”
The Wex tried to win the boys over, with what little opening I gave him. I brought him over to the house one afternoon that spring after we’d met. I knew Larry wouldn’t be home, but Joey would be. Joey was such a sweet boy, but kind of a klutz; Marvin had never spent much time playing ball with either of the boys, and I didn’t insist. Larry seemed to do just fine on a ball field, but Joey was too dreamy to pay attention for long. He was always the kid in the outfield picking flowers while his teammates chased the ball around the diamond. He was going to start junior high in a little more than a year, and those sorts of things—standing out, and not in a good way—become more important at that age. And maybe I was starting to get some Brady Bunch ideas.
The Wex and Joey disappeared out the door with baseball paraphernalia and headed to the park. An hour later they were back, both of them red-faced and silent. Joey went straight to his room. The Wex went directly to the kitchen and drank a glass of water. When I asked him what happened, he avoided my eyes and said the same thing Joey did in response to the same question later that afternoon: “Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
The Wex’s father, Lucius “Train” Wexler, was a well-known bookie who parlayed his earnings into an electric wire business so his sons would have a legitimate way to make a living. Wexler & Sons proved very successful. The Wex hadn’t gone to college; he’d been too busy helping his father and brothers get the business going. He seemed a bit self-conscious about his lack of education, which he compensated for by attending public lectures. “A man has to be constantly improving himself,” he liked to say.
A lot of his self-improvement efforts were aimed at making himself a better Jew. He ran for president of the temple because the rabbi asked him to and he felt obligated: Being an important businessman, he had the wealth and connections to help keep the temple afloat financially and to spearhead the campaign to raise money for the new building. He wasn’t particularly religious, but he had that tribal loyalty so characteristic of men who grew up in those old immigrant neighborhoods. He was genuinely interested in learning about anything that had to do with Jews.
We’d been seeing each other since the fall, and by late spring I wasn’t sure where the Wex and I were heading, if anywhere. I thought that by then he’d have broached the subject of marriage. Not that I was necessarily sold on marrying him, but I wasn’t getting any younger, the kids would be out of the house before I knew it, and I’d be all alone, my looks gone, without an unmarried man within a twenty-mile radius. And the fact that he didn’t even raise the matter hurt, as if I were just some little chippie.
Then the Wex invited me to a lecture at the temple. The subject was “Great Men of Modern Jewish American History,” and the speaker was a college professor whose name I forget. I’ll call him Prof. Hyman Tsoyman. I wasn’t interested, and jokingly tried to put the Wex off: “A man has to improve himself, but a woman is perfect just the way she is.”
The Wex laughed. “You’re perfect the way you are. But I think you’d still get something out of it.”
He persisted, and in the end I gave in. But I was determined to use my acquiescence to my advantage. “If I go, then you’re going to have to come with me to Joey’s spring play.”
He hesitated. The Wex hadn’t spoken to Joey since the baseball incident the month before. “Don’t worry,” I said, “you won’t have to talk to him. You and I are going in separate cars anyway.”
“Okay,” he said, although he didn’t look like it was okay. “It’s a deal.”
I’d expected a dreary rehash of the usual brainy geniuses—Einstein, Brandeis, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jonas Salk, and Saul Bellow—by a tweedy professor in the temple meeting room. Prof. Tsoyman turned out to be a large, energetic man in a black turtleneck sweater and black slacks, with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He paced as he spoke, gesturing at the slides he’d brought to illustrate his talk.
The nearly all-male audience was transfixed as Prof. Tsoyman recounted the exploits of Jewish boxers, baseball players, soldiers, sailors, gangsters, and politicians. “In America, we have a proud history of Jewish strength and power,” the professor declared, pointing to a slide of boxer Barney Ross, who grinned for the camera with his gloves held high, his hair slicked back, and his face, with its broken nose, ruggedly handsome. “A product of our very own Maxwell Street ghetto.”
“My old man knew Barney,” the Wex said to me.
“We needn’t be ashamed of these tough Jews,” Prof. Tsoyman went on, looking around the room as if daring anyone to disagree. The Wex sat up straighter in the seat next to me. “Indeed, where would we be without them? Would Israel exist today? Or would we have suffered a second Holocaust, this time in the Land of Israel?” He advanced the slide carousel and an image appeared of a trio of young Israeli soldiers, all smiles and dirty faces, their tangled chest hair peeking out of the top of their uniforms, and their arms around each other, in front of the Wailing Wall.
“And don’t forget that American Jews played a role in Israel’s War of Independence,” Prof. Tsoyman continued. The next slide, of Kirk Douglas, elicited knowing laughs. “Yes, of course, we all know that Issur Danielovich is a Jew.”
“With a name like Danielovich, he has to be a Jew!” a wag across the room cut in, occasioning more laughter.
Prof. Tsoyman smiled. “Well put, well put. But most Gentiles don’t know his real name. They thought that only a Gentile could portray a courageous Jew like Mickey Marcus in the film depicting Marcus’s heroism. A West Point graduate, a federal prosecutor, a paratrooper, and a military genius instrumental in the new state’s defeat of the Arab armies. Only a tragic error prevented him from enjoying the victory.” The professor shook his head. “You all know how he met his untimely end. Unable to sleep, wandering past the camp perimeter wrapped in a white sheet, he was returning to his bed when an Israeli sentry mistook him for an Arab.”
“Marcus didn’t speak Hebrew, and the sentry didn’t speak English,” the Wex whispered.
“I saw Cast a Giant Shadow,” I whispered back. “Even though I’m not much of a Kirk Douglas fan.”
That wasn’t true; I loved Kirk Douglas. But there was something in the Wex’s attitude—reverence? awe?—that rubbed me the wrong way, so I couldn’t resist the dig. In fact, I was intrigued by the photos of all those strong Jewish men. I’d never known there were so many—though they were in areas (like boxing) and in time periods (like the 1920s) I didn’t know much about—and the few I did know about I’d never thought of grouping together based on their might, power, or courage.
I could feel the Wex tense.
“And so, I ask you to think,” Prof. Tsoyman was steaming to the conclusion of his talk, “about how the next generations will be raised, and whether they will have the strength, the shtarkeit, no?” (heads nodded at the Yiddish word), “the koach” (others nodded at the Hebrew word) “to ensure that Jews all over the world are safe.” The assembled burst into applause.
The party guests were discussing the imminent Nazi invasion of Austria. Baroness Elsa Schrader (eleven-year-old Marcie Tannenbaum in a white sleeveless dress, black gloves, and what was surely her grandmother’s fox stole with the fox-head attached) and impresario Max Detweiler (gangly Bobby Schramm in a too-small black suit with matching bow tie) were convinced it would be good for the Austrians, but Captain Georg van Trapp (Ron Eisen, in a sky blue naval uniform, his blond curls smothered in gel) was having none of it. Neither was I.
Like any mother, I kvelled over my children’s accomplishments, and the naches they gave me when they got all A’s on a report card; when Joey won first prize in his school’s annual art contest; and when Larry came home and showed me the progress he’d made on the guitar (my little prodigy!). Well, it had me over the moon.
But I never liked attending their school performances: school holiday pageants, recitals, plays, and such. The tension I felt because of the potential for humiliation—not just for my kids, but for any kid on any given night—was so high that I couldn’t enjoy the occasion. And on this occasion I had a visibly uncomfortable Wex on my right, who must have thought that I myself had chosen this year’s play just to pressure him, my Captain von Trapp, into marrying me, his very own Maria.
I was rather enjoying Wex’s wriggling in his seat, like a worm that’s been speared with the barbed tip of a fishhook. It distracted me a bit from the anxiety of wondering who would disgrace themselves by flubbing a line or missing a cue. I was also a little puzzled because Joey hadn’t appeared yet. He’d told me that he had an important role—he usually did in class plays, being a smart boy with a good memory for his lines and a flair for the dramatic—but he refused to tell me what it was. I calculated that we were already more than halfway through Act II, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember any important characters making their first appearance this late in the show.
I knew how the story ended, but, still, the noose tightening around the von Trapp family felt like it was squeezing my stomach. With Nazi officers in conspicuous attendance, the von Trapps made their stirring appearance at the Saltzburg Festival, after which the captain was to be marched off against his will to serve in the German Navy. They sang a long version of “Do-Re-Mi,” and then Ron Eisen (accompanied on piano, as on all the songs, by Miss Kaiser, the redoubtable third-grade teacher) regaled us with “Edelweiss” in his high, sweet boy’s voice, the song made all the more poignant for me by the knowledge that in a year or two that voice—like Joey’s, like all boys’ voices—would break and lower, assuming forever after its manly timbre. Even the Wex seemed moved.
The von Trapp family exited the festival stage while reprising “So Long, Farewell.” Faithful friend Max stalled the announcement of the festival’s winning act, giving the von Trapps time to escape. When the von Trapps didn’t appear as Max called them onstage to collect their prize, the Nazi bigwigs in the festival audience jumped to their feet and called for their underlings to search for the family. And lo and behold, among the four Nazi minions who marched onstage from the wings was my Joey, in light brown shirt and pants, shiny black belt and shoes, and a red armband bearing a black swastika inside a white circle.
I was taken aback. Highland Park had a huge Jewish population; half of Joey’s classmates were Jewish. How could the teachers have assigned a Jewish student to play a Nazi? All the other Nazis in the play, I noticed, were Gentile boys. As these thoughts ran through my head, I watched Joey. The transformation was stunning. His normally loose-limbed awkwardness had disappeared. He pounded his way across the stage in a series of tightly controlled, purposeful movements, the sound of his steps heavy on the floorboards. He thrust his chest out and contemplated the civilian characters with contempt. Just as shocking was that Joey seemed to be enjoying himself.
When the head Nazi ordered his subordinates to continue the search outside the festival venue, they clicked their heels and headed for the wings. Except Joey. He turned to the audience, lifted his right arm, shouted, “Heil, Hitler!” and then goose-stepped off stage. It was precisely that moment that someone captured on film and sent to me later, anonymously, in that plain white envelope.
The Wex and I didn’t talk much after the play. When the house lights came up, the Wex’s jaw was clenched, his hands gripped the seat rests, and he looked pale. I couldn’t meet his eyes, not that I felt he was seeking mine. We’d come in separate cars, and we left in separate cars, the Wex diving off before Joey changed back into his regular clothes and came out from backstage. That night was the last time I went out with that man.
I felt a little wobbly standing in the school lobby waiting for Joey. I looked distractedly at the trophy case and then wandered the halls, examining the large paper banners taped on to the walls, describing class projects and displaying artwork, from kindergarteners’ awkward scrawls to fifth graders’ more accomplished but still decidedly childish efforts at representing a house, a tree, a face. How quickly the progression occurs, I thought. I remembered how, when they were younger, I sometimes looked in on the boys while they slept. Each deep, even breath seemed to bring them an oar-stroke closer to adulthood, each breath a countdown to inevitable loss.
I saw Joey walk down the hall, smiling at me uncertainly. When he drew near, he looked down, his long eyelashes against his smooth cheeks reminding me so much of Marvin’s. The distance between his youthful vulnerability and the arrogance and menace of the character he’d portrayed—a distance both vast and potentially tiny—made me want to cry.
I drew him toward me and kissed the top of his head. He tensed, then slumped against me, sobbing silently.
How can we protect the ones we love? I wondered.
I had no answer then, and I have no answer now. Joey died of AIDS in 1986, and Marvin, of the same thing, the following year. May their memories be a blessing.