In the following chapter from his novel Nomansland, AZ, Boris Sandler looks at the US through the lens of fantasy and rollicking satire as down-on-his-luck traveling salesman Eddie Hoffman hawks his wares in a forgotten desert town at the end of the millennium.
There’s no such thing, so the saying goes, as a party you can’t crash. The heady feeling that I’d stumbled into a party—a loud, unruly party—washed over me as I dragged and scraped my way through the thick wall of wild thornbushes that sprawled over the last thirty feet of my trip. Looking back, those bushes saved me from thirst and hunger. The branches were heavy with juicy red berries and seeing those riches, I couldn’t have cared less whether those beautiful things were edible or if they would bring my long journey to an end right there.
My hands lunged for the berries as though the fruits were about to scatter off in all directions like tiny red beetles. They, my hands I mean, moved so quickly from the bushes to my mouth that for a minute it felt like I had four arms, maybe even more, hanging at my sides instead of two. I couldn’t see my mouth, obviously, but I swear I felt it grow bigger and wider, spreading over my entire face. Ask all you want, but I still can’t describe the taste of those wonderful little berries. Can anyone really say what the manna from heaven tasted like? They melted in my mouth instantly, not leaving a drop of juice in my mouth, not on my gums, not on my tongue. What I can tell you is that the bushes with the berries grew right next to some stinging nettles—as my grandpa used to say, “Boiling water might burn your tongue, but it’ll always warm your belly.” I made it out of the bramble full and refreshed, except that my face and hands burned like hell.
The first thing I saw when I got out of there was a group of boys off in the distance. They were screeching and shouting, playing baseball in the middle of the street just like me and my friends used to do when I was a kid in Brooklyn. Hearing those loud, childish voices, I could feel the old love of the game rushing back to me. I waved my hand as I got closer so they’d notice me. I yelled out like I was their buddy. “Hey, guys!” They stopped playing immediately and like a herd of deer in headlights froze right on the spot. A few moments later they let out an earsplitting cry, piercing the hot, heavy air with a childlike alarm: “KAAAR!” And with that, the group ran off into the nearby houses.
I followed after them, gesturing that they shouldn’t be scared of me, that they didn’t have to run away. Of course I didn’t know it then that talking with my hands would be, for the next long while anyway, my only real means of communication with the citizens of Nomansland.
Right then from out of those same houses came three full-grown men. I was close enough to see that they were holding thick wooden sticks that looked not unlike baseball bats. These were solid-looking men of average height. No clothes on them besides a kind of loincloth that looked to me like a short apron. On their feet—shoes with upturned little noses at the tips. The clenched muscles of their tanned bodies and the angry blaze in their eyes did not seem very welcoming. And they sure as hell didn’t want to play baseball.
Without a clue as to what was going on, I planted my feet firm on the ground and slowly put down my briefcase. Doing my best John Wayne, I put my hands on my hips as though I had a pistol on either side. If that weren’t enough, I stuck out my lower lip as if to say you don’t know who you’re dealing with, pal. At the same time, I felt like all the bones in my body were about to shatter—who knew what these three characters, looking just like Indians straight out of an old western, were about to do to me out in this godforsaken corner of nowhere and nothing?
They stood there across from me. Shooting daggers at me with their eyes, they began to squawk, talking loud and quick one over the other like a bunch of arguing old women. It was only then that I noticed that they were all wearing wigs on their heads, pulled down to the neck and held in place by a thin strip of ribbon. All three of them had long thin black beards twisted into tight little braids. Each braid was coiled around a piece of red string and from each of the strings dangled a shiny little bell. As they talked and prodded my sides with their sticks, they shook their heads from side to side, swinging their beards and bells and letting out barely audible little ringing sounds. But that wasn’t even the half of it. These three weird-looking fellas were speaking a language that once again brought me back to my childhood in Brooklyn, to Borough Park, where my father’s parents once lived. I’d been raised by my grandparents until my bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen, and so my first words were—if you can believe it—in the very same language I now heard coming out of the mouths of these three very peculiar gentlemen. To be fair, they were speaking Yiddish, as my grandpa might have said, like a bunch of Baptists. Maybe that’s why I could hardly understand a word of their squabbling. Or maybe it was that they were all talking at the same time. Or maybe it was that I was scared so shitless that the little bit of Yiddish I still remembered from when I was kid just hightailed it out of my mind. It was pretty incredible—it’d been more than thirty years since I’d left the warmth of my grandparents’ home. A language from your childhood is quickly forgotten if you never speak it, but once in a while you hear a familiar word and the membranes of memory start tingling.
I’ve already forgotten what exactly I was thinking at the time. Me, standing there all by myself across from those three strapping men, who could have easily pounded me into a hamburger patty with their sticks and eaten me alive. But as soon as they opened their mouths and awakened in me the long-lost sounds of the language I used to hear all the time as a kid, I calmed down. It was suddenly all clear to me—whoever spoke the same language as my grandparents couldn’t possibly do me any harm. And in fact, it was then that they started to quiet down. Pointing their sticks in my direction, they came closer, step by tiny step. It looked as if, after a round of short but fiery deliberations, they’d reached a ruling regarding my person that wasn’t too bad. Not bad at all, actually—they had decided that they wanted to make contact. Looking straight into their eyes, I saw in them no less fear than they would have seen in me. I took it as an encouraging sign. Rummaging around in my worn-out memory, I scooped out a few words that I’d last heard coming from my grandpa’s mouth:
What can I tell you? My profession is based in large part on my ability to chat folks up, but until that moment I had no idea just how powerful words could be. It was as though someone cast a real live magic spell right before my eyes. The menacing sticks fell all at once to the asphalt with a thud. The three brave men went from looking like heroes to acting like fools, their jaws suddenly agape and eyes bulging wide. Coming to their senses, each put his right hand on his forehead and then quickly stretched out the same arm in my direction. With that they shot out in one loud voice a booming “VIL KOMEN!” and filled the air with the chiming of their small bells: ding-ding-ding-ding.
What happened next was something right out of a Turkish fairy tale, in which I was unexpectedly playing the role of the sultan himself. Two of the good-looking, able-bodied men lifted me up from either side and carried me toward the town. The third ran ahead, or better yet, galloped out front, like the most prized stallion from the sultan’s personal stable. I stared at the way his muscles moved back and forth from his broad shoulders down to his ankles and thought to myself that Fate is a fickle master. Just a few moments before, I had been ready to meet up with my dad and grandpa in Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. Instead, I now found myself enjoying the view of this young man’s naked brown posterior. How was it that I was taking all this in so nonchalantly? Enough adulation will blind you to anything. Besides, it’s pretty easy to get used to being around a crowd of naked buttocks, as long as your bum isn’t the one getting slapped.
I was brought into Nomansland propped up onto my companions’ intertwined arms as though seated upon a throne. As soon as the first houses in the town on either side of the street came into sight, the fellow at the head of our formation suddenly burst out like a rooster at daybreak: “ROTA LITVAK! ROTA LITVAK!” Rota like, in Yiddish, royter—red? And Litvak—like an egghead Jew from Lithuania? It didn’t occur to me that he could possibly have been talking about little old me. I should tell you that I am quite literally a royter. That is, back then I had a full head of bright red hair. What’s more, after being smacked by all those nettles, my face and hands were the color of a red pepper. But a Litvak? As far I know, there are, thank God, no Litvakes stinking up my family tree, not of my father’s side, not on my mother’s side.
Meanwhile, curious faces started to poke out of every window. Passersby on the street gathered to stare, congealing into one great moving blob that trudged along in pursuit of our procession. The further we went down the long street, the thicker the crowd grew, the whole time chanting in unison: RO-TA LIT-VAK! RO-TA LIT-VAK!
Here I was, floating over hundreds of heads, riding a wave of euphoric cries mixed with the ringing of tiny bells. I was afraid to make any sudden movements, lest my porters get tired and, God forbid, lose me in that river of people just to get me trampled by those half-naked, half-wild savages like a hare under a team of horses. I clutched tight to the handle of my briefcase and waited to see where the current would spit me out.
Deafened and dazed, I was carried over to something looking like a stage built from logs and wooden slats, and dropped down in front of a set of stairs leading up to the platform. And what do you think popped into my head right at that moment? Right here, on that very spot, I thought to myself, the story that began with their very generous VIL KOMEN would now come to its sorry and unhappy conclusion.
From the other side of the stage, across from where I stood deserted like the lone survivor of a shipwreck, came three ancient-looking men. No tuxedos for them either. In addition to the wig, loincloth, and pointy shoes, they wore a kind of open, buttonless vest and long white underwear. Yes, they had beards too, but not those elongated goatees. Rather, each of them grew out his beard in his own personal style. The buzz from the crowd was quickly hushed. One of the three men—the oldest one, apparently—raised a fist high into the air and, sticking his thumb out between his clenched index and middle fingers, showed off to all assembled what looked to me like an obscene gesture I knew from my childhood: the fig. Still making the gesture, he brought his fist down to my face and stuck the tip of his thumb—the “fig” itself—right under my nose. It felt as though I’d been chained to the ground, unable to move from the spot where I’d been planted. Not knowing whether this was all a good sign or a bad omen, I just flashed a vacant smile and blinked vigorously.
Like a bolt of lightning, from the recesses of my jostled, terrified brain, a memory flashed before my eyes: my grandma stands by the door of our apartment letting out our neighbor, a woman who all of Borough Park knew to be an angry old shrew. As the door slams shut, my grandma gives her the fig and spits three times on the floor—tfu tfu tfu!
“Why’d you do that, Grandma?”
“That woman’s bad luck. She’ll bring the Evil Eye!”
Leave it to my dear grandma to send me a sign all the way from her eternal resting place out in Washington Cemetery. Staring back into the old man’s eyes, I spit three times onto the ground—tfu tfu tfu! I saw his pupils dilate and a couple of big, gleaming tears form in the corners of his eyes. He turned to the other two elders and then to the crowd, who were waiting for his judgment with baited breath. He proclaimed it loudly: “Rota Litvak! Das iz de tru Rota Litvak!”
Good Lord, you should have seen what happened next. A roaring clap of thunder and everyone’s wigs went flying through the air. The sun had set and it was getting darker outside. The same old man once again held his fist high in a fig, and spoke with in a resounding bass.
“Nomen und vomen of Nomansland! Zeven yir hav vi mayd redi to dis day, und he iz komen, a senks de Holi Faselit! Vi vil today mayk an end to de big mishun. Fer solidariti vit de broders und zisters in Afrika, send vi dis lif saver medisin, vat vil kip dem from de terorbl siknes . . . ”
The old man was speaking, but I heard my grandpa’s voice, a voice always hoarse from the bitter cigars he rolled himself every evening with his small mound of tobacco and four-cornered cigarette papers. From time to time, he entrusted me with his scissors and showed me how it was done. “It’s not such a bad way to do arts and crafts,” he smiled warmly with his tobacco-singed, yellow-stained mustache. “Just don’t botch it up!” His habit of making his own cigars, instead of buying them ready-made in the store, was something he brought over from Europe, from his shtetl Chelm, a small town in Poland. That’s when, during all that tedious labor, he would tell me stories from the Old Country, and I would ask him, “Grandpa tell me another story from the Old Country.” From Grandpa, I heard a great many happy tales about the residents of Chelm, where even the littlest kids began to spout the wisest and deepest thoughts as soon as they started talking. With those stories, he got me to understand that although Brooklyn was a much bigger city than Chelm, there was no comparison when it came to wisdom.
I wasn’t able to understand much of anything that the elder had said at this great and spontaneous assembly. Not so much because of the language he was speaking, which was slowly opening a window somewhere in my memory. But the content itself—what mishun was he talking about? What sort of medisin was that? And what the hell does Holi Faselit mean?
Night fell quickly on the town and brought with it a cool breeze. Right at that moment, the old man made a motion with his hand, and a gigantic balloon started to float down slowly from the sky. Taking a closer look, I realized that it wasn’t one big balloon, but rather thousands of tiny balloons tied together in bunches lengthwise. It reminded me of something, but in my shocked state I couldn’t quite figure out what. This thing would have made a great float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The whole inflated monstrosity was being held in place with a rope by a couple of muscular young men, similar to those I’d encountered a few hours prior. They brought the balloons on stage and stood by the old man, who continued his speech:
“Nomen und vomen of Nomansland! Guda Norfolk! Fil de frish vind bloz. Et bloz on Afrika! Das mins vat de rayt taym iz komen!”
As he finished speaking, all the Nomen of Nomansland lit bright, flickering torches that they held up high, flooding the darkness with a fiery glow.
“De Holi Faselit,” the old man’s voice rang out in the burning night sky, “send uz to dis komen togeter a profet, de Rota Litvak! Vi, de grosa vizmen of Nomansland, hav desayd vat dis big gest vil kot de string!”
The old man pulled out a pair of tailor’s scissors from his apron pocket and handed it to me. As though in a trance, I took the scissors and went over to the two young fellows who were struggling to keep the rotund rubbery giant from tearing off into the thick blackness of the night. I grabbed onto the rope with one hand and sliced it with a loud snik with the other, feeling in the same instant how the stage was slipping away from under my feet. Someone grabbed on to one of my shoes and it stayed down below with him, like he was taking a little something to remember me by, the Rota Litvak . . .
Much to my displeasure, I soon found I was flying away and latched on to the rope with both hands. How on earth could this have happened to me? Instead of making the snik above my hand, I had made the cut from below. The two young men were left with the end of the rope that had been snipped off, and I was left with the balloons. In a word—I’d botched it up. My grandpa was right. In Chelm, it wouldn’t have occurred to even the littlest kid to have done something so stupid.
From Nomansland, AZ. © 2012 Boris Sandler. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Sebastian Schulman. All rights reserved.