Relatively Speaking

A Moe Minsky Tale

Written By Al Geto

    One thing everyone in the Dorfman family agreed on was the adage, ‘guests and fish stink after three days’.

    It applied particularly to Uncle Sean whose first name was as phony as his last. Whereas the paterfamilias, hefty Emil Dorfman, had cut down the tongue-twister ‘Dorfmanivitsky’ to Dorfman, his younger, slender sibling had switched from Shmul to Sean and from Dorfmanivitsky to Danforth. As Sean Danforth he acquired the airs of a southern gentleman, in effect, having been brought up by an aunt in Newport News, Virginia, a naval station town. At seventeen he joined the service. At eighteen he was kicked out on the grounds of ‘convenience of the government’, although nobody ever discovered why his presence caused the government so much inconvenience as to decide it would be better to lower the boom quietly on him than to retain him in the armed forces. The rumor that some items were missing, like cannonballs, never rose to the surface. Nor did the cannonballs.

    His year in the navy toughened him. He joined the boxing squad, responsible for his slightly bent nose, the twist oddly adding to his snappy appearance. His expected arrival at his brother Emil’s house aroused a morbid excitement, everyone recalling the stimulation he brought while repressing the less pleasant events of former visits. His southern accent convulsed them while his stories, sometimes true and always incredible, amazed them.

    The telephone rang in the Dorfman residence on an evening when the much sung about April showers had drowned the music in an epic downpour. Hedda Dorfman, a matronly, whispering woman, shy and motherly, was in her kitchen roasting a couple of chickens, a bandana around her head.

    "Emil? Can you answer that?"

    Dorfman, his belt loose to accommodate his expanding waistline, rose from reading the evening paper in the breakfast room and came into the kitchen. He lifted the receiver off the hook of the black, upright instrument and spoke into the mouthpiece. "Hello," he said.

    "Emil?" a convulsed voice shouted in distress.

    "Shmul? Where are you?" Emil asked, surprised.

    "Ahm at yo’ goddam el station, Emil, and it’s leakin’ lahk hell!"

    "We’re waiting for you for dinner," Emil said.

    "It’s pourin’, for chrassake! Ah cain’t walk six blocks in this goddam rain heah! Ah’ll ruin mah suit!"

    "I’d come for you but the car happens to have a flat," Emil said.
"I could bring you an umbrella."

    "Change the flat, for chrassakes!" his brother cried. "Ah’ll be right heah waitin’ for you-all!" And he hung up.

    Dorfman had to move the car partly out of the narrow garage to get at the tire. His eleven year old son Jeremy held an umbrella over his father’s head as he changed the wheel. Dorfman’s brother popped out of the station as soon as he drew up, threw his suitcase into the back of the Buick and jumped into the passenger seat, slamming the door.

    "Holy Moses! Ah been shiverin’ there for half an hour," he complained. "What a place! The sewers are overflowin’. It stinks. How you-all?"

    "I’m all right," Dorfman said. "How’s Dahlia?" Dahlia was his brother’s mistress with whom he’d been living on and off for years. "How come she didn’t come with you this trip?"

    "She had a black ah. Speed it up. Ahm hungry as a horse."

    "How’d she get a black eye?"

    "Fell down the stairs."

    "She got a black eye from falling down the stairs?"

    "Well, ah hit her first. Then she fell down."

    At the dinner table Dorfman’s teenage daughters and son listened with awe to their uncle’s accounts of his exploits.

    "Well, next day ah went down to the dealer’s to have a look at the new 1928’s and saw a beauty and took her out for a test drahv.
I had never drove before and had one helluva tahm getting’ it to go in the direction ah wanted and anyway couldn’t fahn mah way out of second gear, wherever that is. Then while ahm maneuverin’ ‘round some fool sahdswipes me and we both stop and he’s screamin’ that ah run into him. He gets out of his cah to see the damage and ah gets out of mahn and shuck off mah jacket and roll up mah sleeves, and when he sees me jiggin’ up and down with mah hands ready to smash him up, boy, does he hop back into his tin lizzie and take off lahk a lightnin’ flash." Uncle Sean grinned at his success.

    "What happened?" Jeremy asked, agape.

    "Well, ah brought the cah back to the dealers who begun screamin’ at me and is suin’ me but he ain’t gon collect a cent since he’s got enough insurance on that cah to buy two of ‘em." During the breathless pause that took place, Mrs. Dorfman and Marian, her fifteen year old, began removing the dishes. Hedda, always nervous in the presence of her brother-in-law, accepted his compliments with a mine of salt.

    "That was a real juicy old chicken, ma’am!" he cried, wiping his lips with his napkin. He asked if she had any ice cream to go with the strudel she served for dessert, but she had to confess that she didn’t. She timidly suggested that ice cream and strudel were not a combination.

    "Ma'am, ah eat ice cream with everthing!" he laughed. "Ah had a great meal last night at the chinks. And yo’ soup came real close to it, let me tell you!"

    "Oh?" she said, squeezing out a smile.

    "Ah hope you intend to put out the box of chocolate pecans ah brought for the family. Ah very much wanted to give you-all a real southern treat," he said as he focused his narrow, sparkling eyes on Esther, the older daughter, whose bust delighted him.

    He turned to stare at Jeremy whose large glasses gave him an owly look. "You thinkin’ of servin yo’ country one day, son?"

    "I dunno," Jeremy shrugged.

    "You ever been in a fight, boy?" Uncle Sean asked.

    Jeremy looked around nervously at his family. But before he could reply, Uncle Sean nailed him. "Ah can see by yo’ look you never been in a fight. You ain’t really a man before you get into a fight, you know, and ah mean a fight where you draw blood. What are you, son, a coward? Ah can teach you how to box and you can go right out and punch somebody in the nose, hear?" He looked around the table at the three girls and Hedda, adding, "Ain’t his fault altogether, is it? Surrounded by women a boy can grow up to be a sissy before he knows it. And the more beautiful and charmin’, as you ladies are, the mo’ trouble it is for him, bless you-all."

    "Oh, I don’t want him fighting," Hedda said.

    "You are a sweet little old lady, Hedda, but lemme tell you he’s gonna have to fight out there just lahk I did when ah was in the navy. Every red-blooded American boy has got to learn to stand up and defend himself. Don’t you agree, Emil?"

    Dorfman, whose concerns about his son were only deepened by his brother’s remarks, said, "Yeah, sure, absolutely. But he’s got time. I don’t want him loafing around in the streets."

    "He’ll pay for it in the end, you know, if you don’t watch out," Uncle Sean said, giving the coward a warning look.

    Mrs. Dorfman with the help of two of her daughters cleared away the dishes and began to serve the coffee. Judith, the youngest girl, whose devilish glances caught her Uncle’s eye as she silently appealed to him for attention said, "Did you fight on a battleship, Uncle Sean?"

    Uncle Sean, whose action in the navy was confined to saluting,
briskly replied, "You can bet yo’ bottom dollar on that, Judy."

    "Why did you quit?" she asked, innocently.

    "Ah quit because for a new sailor lots of the duty was niggers’ work, lahk cleanin’ the heads. Ah just wasn’t brought up to do that kind of thing. You see, what you folks up here don’t understand is they can’t have niggers in the navy because that would mean sleepin’ right next to them, right in the next hammock. I mean closer than you and me are across this here table. Now, just lemme take a minute here and tell yo’ mother that this is one delicious cup of coffee, ma’am. Now, if you had cream instead of milk, it would be the world’s best. Is this here strudel home-made?"

    On the following day, Sunday, the all night rain had continued, drenching the city. When Mrs. Dorfman went down into the cellar for a jar of jelly she found it flooded with water up to the first step. Emil and his brother had been discussing the stock market in which Sean had made what he described as a small fortune and was encouraging Emil to participate. Emil had been eager to have this conversation and obtain Sean’s opinion and expertise and was annoyed when his wife called him away. Uncle Sean accompanied them on to the steps leading to the cellar.

    "You have to call the plumber immediately, Emil," Hedda said.
"Everything will get ruined down there in the damp."

    "It’s Sunday- " Emil said.

    "For you he’ll come. Try him. Call him."

    "Ah don’t see no sense in throwin’ away yo’ money on a plumber," Uncle Sean advised. "Let me handle it." Brushing past Hedda he descended to the lowest step, took off his shoes and sox, rolled up his trousers and waded into the basement.

    "You-all got a wrench?" he asked.

    "In that box on the workbench over there," Emil replied. Uncle Sean sloshed to the workbench and found the wrench and proceeded to examine the cellar. "Watch out. You don’t know this cellar. You’ll fall over something," his brother warned him.

    "When ah want yo’ advice I’ll ask for it, Emil," he said as he tripped on a fault in the cement floor and fell to his knees into the water, his trousers soaked.

    "Come up, Shmul! I’ll call the plumber."

    "Ah’ll locate the trouble and don’t you-all call no plumber! And don’t ever call me Shmul, for chrassakes." He stripped to his underwear and spent the next hour wading from one end of the cellar to the other with the monkey wrench. When he finally
returned to the house in a sweat he informed his brother that nothing would stop the water coming in and that it would have to be pumped out. "It’s a shoddy job, yo’ cellar is. You might have to re-do the entah foundation," he said.

    Emil telephoned the plumber whose wife said he was out on a job but she’d send him over as soon as he came back even though he had other jobs ahead of Emil’s. Drying out in Emil’s bathrobe on the enclosed front porch while Hedda was pressing his pants, Uncle Sean sat with his feet up in the gently swinging hammock reading the Sunday comics and roaring with laughter. Occasionally he glanced out the array of windows on which the rain beat incessantly. Raising his eyes from the Katzenjammer Kids he saw a burly man in an old raincoat and a beat up hat, drenched, hurrying across the street toward the house. Uncle Sean leaped up, his eyes fixed on the figure as the man opened the small gate, dropped a tool box he carried and bent over to retrieve it. Uncle Sean, pale, sprang into the hallway of the house.

    "Emil!" he shouted. "Where the hell are you?"

    Emil appeared at the top of the stairs "What is it?"

    "There’s a nigger at the dooor, for chrassakes!" his brother yelled up to him.

    Emil hurried down as the bell rang. Everyone in the house had come running into the hallway in response to the shouting as Dorfman opened the door. The man in the soaked raincoat and floppy hat quickly slipped in, wiped his feet on the mat and put down his toolbnox,

    "I was jest about to go on another job when my wife told me you called," he said to Dorfman, sweeping off his dripping hat.

    Dorfman said, "Sorry to bring you out in such weather, but it’s an emergency."

    "Don’t you worry about that. God made this weather especially for plumbers. Now lemme git my raincoat off before I soak your place up," the plumber said, divesting himself of his things. "Hi, folks," he called, waving at the family.

    "Hello, Mr.Lee!" the children replied in chorus.

    "Where’s your dog, Mr. Lee?" Jeremy asked.

    "Oh, he’s smarter than me. Wouldn’t come out in this here rain even when I offered him an umbrella."

    "This is my brother, Shmul," Dorfman said. "This is Mr. Lee, our plumber."

    "How do?" Mr. Lee said, smiling, picking up his toolbox.

    "His name is Robert E. Lee," Jeremy informed his uncle, chuckling.

    "That’s a slap my family thought they was playing on the confederacy," Mr. Lee explained to Uncle Sean who stood there stiff as a mast. "But it did good for me. Folks hear it and laugh and get friendly right off. Well, you have to excuse me, sir, I got to git to work." He started off toward the back of the house in the direction of the cellar door, followed by the family except for Jeremy. Jeremy felt his uncle’s hand gripping his shoulder.

    "Come with me, son!" Uncle Sean ordered, and led him upstairs to the bedroom he occupied. The pants Hedda had ironed for him hung neatly over a chair. He sat down on the bed and pulled Jeremy before him. "Now you-all tell me the truth, boy, hear? Did you-all ever hear your mama and your papa talking about that there plumber?" he asked, his voice brittle.

    Jeremy shrugged. "Yeah- sometimes," he said.

    "Did you ever hear them sayin’ something was missin’ from the house but couldn’t figure out who took it?" Uncle Sean demanded.

    "Well, there was my father’s sterling silver pen knife- "

    "Ah gave your father that knife! He got that, did he?"

    "Who did?"

    "The nigger, that’s who!"

    "No, it was me. I took it. I wanted it to play mumblety peg so I stole it for a whole day. But I brought it back and nobody ever knew." He paused and looked slyly at his uncle who was biting his lips. "Yeah, " he continued, " I remember that day because that was the night Mr. Lee slept here."

    Uncle Sean grabbed him by the front of his shirt. "He slept here? In this house?"

    "It was late. He was working on the roof. He was afraid something would happen during the night."

    Uncle Sean’s forehead showed signs of sweat and his face grew purple. "Where did he sleep? In the cellar?"

    "No. Right there. In your bed."

    For a moment Jeremy thought his uncle’s grip would tear his shirt off, as he was he dragged to the door and thrust out, the door slamming after him. Jeremy listened outside for a moment then ran down the stairs and made for the cellar where he found his father and Mr.Lee, the water almost gone as they swept the remains of it toward a drain. Mr.Lee had unstuffed it, found the fault in the wall that faced the back garden and temporarily patched it. The rain had let up.

    Upstairs in the breakfast room Mrs. Dorfman prepared hot chocolates and cookies. Mr. Lee, followed by Dorfman, washed their hands in the kitchen sink and came in and sat down and Jeremy was directed to call his Uncle Sean to join them. Jeremy returned with unbelievable news. Uncle Sean was not in his room. It had been cleaned out, including his valise. Everybody rushed upstairs to confirm it.

    "What happened?" cried the astonished Dorfman of everyone. "Didn’t any of you see him leave?" He glared at his son. "You were the last one to see him. What happened?"

    Jeremy hesitated. "I think he didn’t like the idea that Mr. Lee slept in his bed."

    "What are you talking about? Where did he get such a crazy idea? Why would Mr.Lee sleep in his bed?"

    "I always told you your brother was a little bit crazy, Emil, and maybe now you’ll believe me," said Mrs. Dorfman. "Come. The hot chocolates will get cold."

-Al Geto

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Here We Come, Ready or Not! | Aaron

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Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life | The Nervous Young Man

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Copyright August 3, 2000-

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