The Jew of
And Other Stories
(Johns Hopkins)Max Apple had good luck with his editor, the one there at Johns Hopkins University Press. Apple came up with thirteen stories for this volume. But of those thirteen, only four are what this particular critic would define as outstanding. Must have been the editor's thoughts, too.
"Yao's Chick," "Indian Giver," and "Proton Delay," three we liked, appear as the first stories in the book. "Yao's Chick" is a witty take on Li En, living, like most of Apple's unfortunates, in Texas (her family fled southeast Asia in 1973). She tops out over six feet, and at twenty-six years of age, she is "without prospects," much to her family's regret.
Her crush on basketball player Yao Ming is the main story, but at its heart is a clash of culture, traditional father ("he specialized at keeping his body still in the midst of movement"), traditional mother (seeking help from the fortune-teller, Mr. Feng), and not so traditional Li En.
She is irate at Mr. Feng, tells him that he must "stop telling my mother that I was conceived in an inauspicious hour."
He lowered his eyes. "I'm very sorry," he said. "I know this must be a problem."
"Not for me," Li En said, "but you make my mother sad." He nodded. "Why do you tell her such things? Why do you seal my fate?"
Ah, fate, and love, and culture, and tradition. Apple is a star when it comes to weaving these together, Chinese, Black ... and Jewish.
The best of the bunch, "The Jew of Home Depot," comes as the penultimate tale. Chaim and his whole family get shipped off to Marshall, Texas. Reb Avram Hirsch has been chosen by the Chabad organization to minister to the aging Jerome Baumgarten. He had called New York to report "I'm surrounded by Gentiles. If you can send me a bunch of real Jews, I'll pay their way and make it worth their while." Rabbi Hirsch, appears, along with wife, six daughters and one son (who ends up at Home Depot). They now have to try to make do in the strange world of west Texas.
Baumgarten gives them his luxurious house (on fraternity row at the University) and lives on in the Hotel Marshall, and Reb Avram performs the necessary mezuzah before they enter the home, while mother Malka says, "I can't believe it's all for us ... In Brooklyn five families could live in a house like this." Chaim, aged eighteen years, gets the entire third floor, which overlooks the Phi Kappa Delta.
And that is his downfall: each evening, lovely Laura (who also works at Home Depot) comes to meet with Jack, her main squeeze, in his room at the Phi Kappa Delta. With the lights on. Chaim has a floor-show from his window.
He thinks he shouldn't. Or worse, he thinks he shouldn't enjoy viewing her shoulders, her arms, and the rest. Every time Jack and Laura perform, he, poor innocent, is beside himself, first chastising himself and covering the window, then, finally, ripping the fabric so he can peer through the hole. In shame.
He had abandoned the tree of life, the 613 commandments, and even the seven laws of decency from the time of Noah.
"All this so that he might look at Laura, her arms and legs visible in the moonlight, his pleasure as nothing compared to his shame."
I'd give you the double-whammy punch line on page 170, but it is just too rare and good, so I will resist the temptation ... because Chaim did not. And you shouldn't, either.
Just let me say that "The Jew of Home Depot" is a nigh about perfect example of a modern short story: just enough detail, the right pacing, interesting (brief) limnings of the four main characters (Baumgarten, the Rabbi, Chaim and his sweet sad oldest sister Mindel) and a fine tangled plot-line.--- D. L. Gross