arrived at 2 a.m., and the pilot promptly commenced fire. Rubber bullets ricocheted
off the trunk and fell to the ground. The trunk--otherwise known as The Coffin--shook
as if it were the can on a paint mixer. My teeth ground in tight, circular
motions as I endured the punishment, palms pressing against splintered oak
walls to steady The Coffin. The pilot emptied his caché, then The Coffin
went still. My jaw slackened. I'd survived another night.
Yet something was different--I hadn't
heard music. The pilot, a Teutonic übermench named Hans, always played
Ride of the Valkyries over a loudspeaker. Often he flew above The Coffin
and dropped a bushel of gold-edged advertising pamphlets, German exhortations
to buy condoms. Hans would say, "You are a rat--I am the master!" But that
night Hans simply hovered before me, silent. Then I discovered why.
"Hey, you don't know me, but I'm the new
pilot," blared an amplified voice over the thwop-thwop-thwop of the
blades. "Hans got promoted to marketing director or something like that. So
I'm the new guy who'll be shooting at ya'. My name's José, even though
I'm not German. I mean Mexican. My parents just liked the name. Don't know
why. It's like my son, Stevie. That's his name, Stevie, not Steven.
We just named him Stevie because me and my wife liked it. Maybe we heard a
Stevie Wonder song when she was in labor. We're pretty open-minded folks that
way. Turns out that there's women named Stevie. They're funny things,
what you call your kids."
I looked out a porthole. The spotlight
blinded me; shielding my eyes, I could see the ground below José. A
funnel of helicopter wind bent the verdant-lidded boughs of the cedars that
fronted the billboard. The branches looked as if they might snap. Thousands
of white rubber bullets littered the ground.
"I don't want to sound preachy, but you
shouldn't be doing this," José said. "I really don't want to have to
hurt you, son, I really don't. I mean, a job's a job, and you have to follow
orders. But heck, I shouldn't even be here. I used to work for Accu-Traffic
until that crash you probably heard about. I know what you're thinking, but
I was not drunk when it happened. Something went haywire with the rotor!
That means you're dead! But hey, I learned to fly in 'Nam--they were lucky
I was at the controls or everybody would have been killed. But they
needed a scapegoat, and out I went. That's something you'll learn when you
get older, bein' a scapegoat. I gotta pay the bills, you know, so I took this.
Oh, Stevie's in college. He's your age, about."
I wondered where Stevie attended school.
It seemed important to know. I had deferred my admission to the University
of Michigan and worked for an Ann Arbor company that managed the billboard.
The Coffin was bolted to the billboard, and I turned on the lights whenever
a car approached.
"He even kinda looks like you--long nose,
brown hair, good lookin' kid," José bellowed. "If anything were ever
to happen to Stevie, I'd be sick. Just plain sick. You'll know what I mean
when you have kids. He washes dishes in the dorm cafeteria, but that can be
dangerous, you know? He cut his pinky on a knife and got five stitches. Anyway,
I don't think your folks are too happy about this. Do they know that you're
doing this job?"
Ensconced in Kalamazoo, my parents knew
nothing. They would never approve. I had never been comfortable with their
grand plans for me as doctor, lawyer, or professor. They knew I wasn't in
school, but thought I worked in the university's Economics Department.
"I'd never let Stevie do that. Never.
Well, maybe if he had an AK-47 to defend himself. Damn good rifle, the AK-47.
Almost took me down in the 'Nam! Anyway, you know why I'm telling you all
this? Lemme put it this way: there's a song that goes something like, 'I wish
you could stand inside my shoes, and I could be you. You'd know what a drag
it is to see you.' And that's how I feel. If you were me, you'd know what
a drag it is to try to kill you."
José flew away. A blonde splinter
had lodged in my left palm. I hadn't noticed, not that I'd paid attention.
I was suspended inside a musty wooden box attached to a billboard, and fired
upon. I had endured this every night the past two months. Splinters didn't
bother me. Dying bothered me.
I emerged from The Coffin and sat on the
wide platform, framing Ursa Major with hands held like a movie director. Soon,
I fell asleep, awaking the next morning to the roar of 18-wheelers and black
and silver sedans carrying weary commuters. I rubbed my eyes and looked outward.
Smooth savanna grasses carpeted the land rolling perpendicular to U.S. 23.
When the road was empty, it felt as if I lived upon a farm, the sun rising
over amber fields.
My boss and three Japanese men were standing
upon the landing when I arrived for work that afternoon. The Japanese men
wore navy-blue suits and nodded politely, speaking to each other in Japanese.
Name tags stuck to each man's lapel: "HELLO My Name Is" they read. And their
names were "Mr. Ahiro," "Mr. Tanaka," "Mr. 'Ken' Honda," and "Helix." No one--not
even Helix, my boss--had visited me on the billboard. It required climbing
115 rungs up a rusting metal pole.
Helix slapped me across the shoulder blades
with a meaty hand. "Well, howdy! If it isn't my favorite employee!" Helix
said the visitors owned the auto parts factory his uncle managed. They ogled
the naked, honey-haired model plastered on the billboard, a woman I called
Gretchen Von Bosom. She held an unrolled red prophylactic, grinning slyly
above the caption "Good Protection As You Lay--That's Herr Kondom, With a
The dusky afternoon light was crawling
away, and Helix looked anxiously at his watch. "We would like to know how
your business works," Ken Honda said.
"Of course! The worker lies in the protective
encasement, and turns on the lights--" Helix pointed at the incandescent lamps
jutting out above Gretchen, "only when a car approaches. It saves energy that
way. Plus, if the billboard comes on right as a car comes up, it's like blammo!
Hell, they'll never forget that! If they don't crash! It's a simple concept
really--on and off, on and off."
Since overcoming inertia consumes more
energy than letting a current flow unimpeded, Helix's scheme actually wasted
money. The Japanese businessmen must have known the same thing; they scanned
me with puzzled looks, as if asking why I worked at such a dangerous, pointless
job. It was a good question, and I had trouble answering it myself. The positives
were that Helix paid $12 an hour, I slept on the job, and lived in Ann Arbor,
even if I didn't have friends there. But those weren't the reasons I worked
in The Coffin. I'd been a good student in high school. Never drank or smoked
pot. A conscientious young man. Perhaps I wanted to be bad. The job appealed
to my stunted sense of rebellion, not to mention my nineteen-year-old libido,
Gretchen's lascivious stare gazing upon me.
"This is an interesting thing," Mr. Ahiro
said via Ken Honda. "Have you ever thought about adding attractions, like
"taking people... on paid tours?"
Two nights later, a Volvo station wagon
parked in the emergency lane near the billboard, and a group exited the car.
Looking down the chalky green column, I saw the silhouettes of people climbing
up. I feared they might be agents of José's company, the one trying
to kill me. I sequestered myself inside The Coffin like a cockroach.
Soon, I heard music and young voices singing
and laughing. A boombox blasted out the wheeze of an accordion. The unmistakable
beat of reggae. Violins, mandolins, horns. Klezmer music. I turned on the
lights and got out of The Coffin. Eight college students were dancing a hora.
They wore tie-dye T-shirts and hole-infested jeans and paisley skirts that
hung to gold-bracleted ankles, longneck bottles of beer at their feet.
A short, gap-toothed boy who looked my
age stood next to the boombox, and I walked up to him. He had tangled brown
hair and wore a diamond stud in his left ear. "Hey, does that spastic guy
charge everybody three bucks to come up here?" he asked. I didn't know--Helix
hadn't told me there'd be visitors.
"This is pretty cool, though," he said
after I didn't respond. "These tunes rule, don't they? It's so cool--klezmer
music and reggae. Have you ever heard of these guys, the Yarmulke Jockeys?
It's their second album--Rasta Talmud. Does it rule or what?"
I didn't know what to say. My ignorance
of the Yarmulke Jockeys represented an intellectual deficit that I did not
want to reveal. I looked blankly at the boy's pimply forehead and shrugged.
Humiliated, I headed back to The Coffin.
A girl intercepted me.
"Hey, stick around," she said, grabbing
my elbow. The girl's eyes shone large and lucid; her raven hair tossed in
the wind. She flashed a brilliant smile and my heart melted.
She dragged me toward the others. "This
is Eve, Isaac, David, Sarah, Rachel, Avi, Jacob, Yael, and I'm Cassie," she
said. "It's short for Cassandra. We live at a co-op at Michigan. What year
are you in school?"
The Yarmulke Jockeys were clanging their
instruments. I pulled Cassie back onto the dance floor.
Cassie and I danced for about an hour.
We did an awkward waltz, my feet tangling with hers. Cassie giggled at my
missteps as I mooned over her. "It was nice to meet you," she said when we
were done. Cassie smiled and kissed me on the cheek before she left.
José didn't talk to me that night
after he'd finished shooting. It unnerved me. I shielded my eyes and waved
out the porthole. The helicopter lights dimmed, and I could see the chopper
in detail. Helix had told me that it was a run-of-the-mill Sikorsky that had
been retrofitted with "non-lethal" weapons. The chopper had been painted white,
with long, bleached-out machine guns mounted on each side. José hovered
in a goldfish bowl of glass, the helicopter tail swimming behind him. The
chopper reminded me of an impatient racehorse in the gate--I thought it might
break though The Coffin and crash into Gretchen's tumescent
José was hidden in shadows, but
I could see him give a "thumbs up." He turned the chopper around and zoomed
off, a white speck ejected into the infinite soup of night.
* * *
I thought about Cassie during most of
my waking hours. I imagined us going to drive-in movies and making out in
the back seat, fondling Cassie's heavy breasts, stroking her smooth, olive
skin. We'd kiss passionately and make love all night. I'd never had a girlfriend.
I wondered if she'd have sex with someone who wasn't in college.
I had fallen asleep with my head upon
a paperback of Faust when a knock on The Coffin door awoke me. "Come
on out, cutie," Cassie said, and I complied. We sat on the edge of the billboard,
She pointed to the waxing moon. "This
is an amazing view," she said. I explained how the company advertising on
the billboard--Herr Kondom-competed with another condom manufacturer, Frankfurt
Prophylactics &Lubrication, the company that José worked for. José's
job was to scare me, the hope being I would bolt The Coffin and stumble over
the ledge. Or quit. Herr Kondom did the same thing to Frankfurt P&L billboards.
Helix said the companies didn't use live ammunition because they didn't want
"Talk about exploitation!" Cassie said.
"Can I interview you on my thesis on Peruvian farm workers?" I nodded and
took her hand in mine. She looked back at Gretchen.
"If you weren't so exploited, I wouldn't
forgive you for working for such a misogynist company!" Cassie said, volume
increasing. "This is how far we've come? This is it? You shouldn't be working
for a company like this! You shouldn't!"
Cassie's indignation stirred her, and
we started kissing. Then, pointing to a growing white blip in the distance,
she said, "What's that?"
I pulled her away, and we squeezed into
The Coffin. It had been designed to accommodate one body and we had to lie
upon each other. "This is nice," Cassie said. We resumed kissing. The chopper
grew loud. Cassie and I managed to take off our shirts.
Rubber bullets began to pummel The Coffin.
Cassie put my hands on her jiggling breasts. She pulled down my pants, unrolled
a condom, lifted up her skirt, and guided me inside her. I came as the shooting
"Oh, it may be fun making whoopee in there,
but it's not for me!" José's voice echoed in The Coffin. "You think
you can have all the fun, don't you? Well, lemme tell you, this is not
something I want to do! Not that I've got a choice! Work is tough to find
these days! I don't know who you are, young lady, but I've got a son, Stevie,
and his girlfriend wouldn't being doing that with him if his life was
in danger! Especially if they weren't hitched!"
"Damn you!" Cassie yelled. She sprang
up and thrust her torso outside. "You asshole!" she screamed. "You're trying
to kill us! And you're trying to legislate our morality! You can't
tell us what to do, you fascist!"
I don't know if Cassie's screaming scared
José or the sight of her ripe breasts embarrassed him, but the Sikorsky
flew away. Cassie returned to The Coffin iron-jawed, her face shiny hot, tar-colored
hairs poking out from her armpits. The sight of Cassie shaking with fury made
me passionate anew. We kissed with our tongues. I fell in love.
* * *
Cassie visited a few times a week. I would
turn off the lights and we would make love beneath the stars. Sometimes we'd
lie in The Coffin as José shot at us; invariably, I'd finish as the
firing ceased. Mostly we spent our time talking. Cassie had lived on a kibbutz
two years, picking oranges. She wanted to get a Ph.D. in sociology, studying
the employment conditions of the poor and feminist kabbalah. Cassie spoke
at great length--I learned about dialectical materialism, her great-aunt Nettie
who had fought as an Israeli freedom fighter during the 1940s, and the subconscious
nature of exploitation. Cassie brought me the works of Marx, Freud, Kafka,
Betty Freidan, and Cynthia Ozick; she read me early 20th-Century Zionist tracts
and the speeches of Emma Goldman. I devoured her books and asked for more:
the works of Homer, Dante, Locke, the sisters Bronté, and T.S. Eliot,
writers whom I had managed not to read in high school. Cassie would shrug
and say in a laconic voice she'd try to find their books somewhere.
She wanted me to quit Herr Kondom and
enroll at Michigan. "You are so intelligent," Cassie said once, which made
But I knew Cassie was right about quitting.
I couldn't work on the billboard forever. Still, I felt wildly unsure of myself--I
had no plans for a PhD. in sociology or for any other career. I had grown
accustomed to the job's torments and had saved a few thousand dollars. If
I didn't go to school, though, I would regret it. I would also lose Cassie.
Lose my job or lose my girl. That, as my father would say, was the nut burger.
A week later José said, "O.K.,
I kinda get it, maybe you want to sow your oats. Did I ever tell you I was
a hippie? Well, that's not quite right, since I really didn't do drugs and
stuff, but I had long hair until I got drafted. If you didn't have long hair,
you couldn't get any chicks! That's how I met Sandi, my wife. But she wasn't
a hippie, she was a nurse.
"I'm letting you know all this since I'm
leaving in a couple of weeks for a new job! I'm going to do Weather Patrol
2000, chasing storms for this TV station. Now, Hans is coming back, and he'll
play all that music and stuff. He'll drop those pamphlets on you, like I'm
supposed to do. Lemme tell ya', I have trouble getting rid of those darn things.
One day, I dumped them on a parking lot at a K-mart. Everybody ran back inside!
"Anyway, I just want you to get a new
job, that's all. I'd be sick if a kid like you dies so young! Not to mention
if I was the one who killed ya! Now this is just the rumor, I hear, but you're
from St. Joseph, right? They make washing machines there. See, I know things.
I gotta admit that I thought about telling your parents, because I know they
don't know a thing about it. But you're an adult, I guess. They can't make
you do anything."
The next night, Cassie wouldn't let me
kiss her. She looked at her feet. "I missed my period," she whispered. "I
didn't want to say anything until I knew for sure. I'm pregnant."
Cassie turned to me, tearful. Her fear
confused me. I expected her to be strong, to take direction and make a decision.
But she was crying, and I went mute. I should have said everything would turn
out all right. I should have told her that I was not prepared to raise a child.
Not at 19. Not at $12 an hour. I should have said I would support her if she
did not have the baby; I should have said I would help care for the child
if she gave birth. I should have said one of those things but did not.
I didn't say what I was thinking, either--that
I loved Cassie, but it terrified me to think she would be the only woman I'd
ever sleep with.
"What are we going to do?" Cassie groaned.
I gazed up at Gretchen, longing.
* * *
We didn't talk about the pregnancy. Cassie
mentioned abortion once, in curt, strident tones. This made my future perfectly
clear. I would have to stay in The Coffin, earn money, and help bring up the
baby. It was a relief to know what would happen next, even if I didn't want
it to happen.
One night we were pointing out constellations
in the October sky when José arrived early. We were caught unawares,
and didn't have time to get in The Coffin. We stood against Gretchen's legs,
bracing ourselves against the gusts. I cowered, holding my hands on my head,
but Cassie stood defiantly: "Leave us alone, you bastard!" she yelled, shaking
a fist. José flew closer to the platform. "I love you!" Cassie screamed
The helicopter hovered a few feet over
the landing. Two figures jumped out and walked briskly to us. I did not recognize
them until we stood face to face.
"What on earth are you doing here?" my
mother said, as José flew away. She kissed my cheek and held me in
a bear hug.
"I've been telling people you were working
for Milton Friedman at the U of M," my father said. He wore a gray pinstriped
suit, a striped crimson tie, and a black fedora.
"Hi, I'm Cassie," Cassie said, stroking
"Hello, Cassie," my mother said. "I'm
Laura and this is my husband, Aaron. We were going to bring Ester but we couldn't
find her." Ester, four years my junior, had run away from home twice in the
"Mr. José called us up this morning
and told us what was going on. Your father and I didn't believe him, so he
picked us up at home a couple of hours ago."
"So this is the girl with the boobs,"
my father said.
"I'm just repeating what Mr. José
told us." My father's voice vibrated with the same monotonic intensity as
it would when he was discussing shock absorbers. Dad had a long face, heavy
cheeks, and a compressed nose--my friends back home called him The Dog. I
didn't like the nickname, but my friends kept calling him The Dog and it stuck.
The Dog was a mathematics professor at Western Michigan University and could
square four-digit numbers in his head; he loved Stravinsky and Leon Uris novels.
My mother had met The Dog 20 years ago when she took an undergraduate math
class that he taught.
"The body is a beautiful thing," Cassie
said. "I'm not ashamed of it."
"You have nothing to be ashamed of," said
"I'm not disagreeing, I'm just repeating
what Mr. José told us," The Dog said.
My parents eyed us, assessing Cassie,
exchanging judgments in glances, grimaces, and winks. They looked concerned.
Cassie was wearing a nose ring. She wasn't my parents' idea of a nice Jewish
girl, even if she were Jewish. I stared out into the spaces where the cedar
and sweet gum leaves hummed in the breeze.
"Your mother and I don't like you working
here," my father said. "We understand that you don't want to go to college
yet. But this is unsafe. And worse than that, it's a German company."
"My therapist said you aren't in school
because you're working out latent aggression with your father and me," my
mother said. "That's fine, but don't work here."
Cassie held up a hand to interrupt. "You're
right--he should be going to Michigan and living in the co-op with me."
"You can come back and live at home,"
my mother said. "And you can work at the movie theater at the mall until you
start school." Live at home and work at the mall--it seemed like a good offer.
It would be the safe thing to do. My parents looked haggard. They were tired
of Ester's antics. They were pinning their hopes on me.
Cassie's grip tightened on my shoulder.
"This probably isn't the best time to tell you this," she said. "I'm pregnant
and we're getting married."
"Omigod," my mother said.
"Are you Jewish?" asked The Dog.
"Oh, very," Cassie said. "I've lived in
"I don't believe this is happening," my
mother said. She tried to look happy, forcing a smile, but started to weep.
My parents expected this from Ester, who at 15 was a drug rehab veteran. Not
from me, National Merit Society Vice President. Co-captain of the debate team.
Eighth in my graduating class from Kalamazoo Central.
"I don't want you to feel bad!" Cassie
said. "We're in love."
"This is not a job for a father-to-be,"
said The Dog.
He put his jacketed arms around my mother.
We huddled quietly a few minutes. The lights shining on Gretchen flickered
like broken neon in a bar window. A smattering of cars honked as they passed.
Some stopped and the passengers clapped.
Suddenly, Cassie pushed herself away,
her palm covering her forehead. "What am I thinking? I can't get married.
I must be crazy, thinking I want to get married!"
"What? What else can you do?" my mother
"I don't know. But it isn't right."
"What's not right?" asked The Dog.
"This," Cassie said, motioning
"But what are you going to do?" my mother
asked. "You're not going to have an abortion, are you? We can take care of
the child while you're in school. We love babies."
Cassie closed her eyes a minute, then
looked at us, chin up, hands on hips. "I'm going to have my baby. In Israel.
Yes. Yes! I'm going to have my child in Israel, and raise her by myself
if I have to. I'll go back to the kibbutz and live there with my daughter."
My mother gasped. The Dog cleared his
throat. I felt shock and relief. My face must have shown it. "Oh, but I love
you, I really do," Cassie said, taking my hands. "But it all just became clear
to me. I have to move to Israel and have my baby. I just have to."
"Maybe this is all for the best," said
The Dog. "It'll be a good reason to go to Israel. And Miss Cassie can come
to Kalamazoo with our grandchild."
The meeting in Kalamazoo never happened.
My father suffered a massive stroke during my sophomore year at Michigan.
His death hurt far worse than I could have imagined, and I had to drop out
of school one term. My mother moved to Chicago, used her insurance money to
open an art gallery, and married a man she met through a matchmaker. Ester
got sober and sang in rock and roll bands. Herr Kondom went bankrupt and the
Marlboro Man replaced Gretchen. Helix went to work for his uncle. José
started a helicopter ambulance service with Stevie.
I didn't see Cassie for 12 years. She
came from Jerusalem to introduce me to my son--Avraham, the alpha, the first
of the line. I had married and was slaving away as a futures trader at a Chicago
commodities firm. Sharon and I lived quietly in a three-bedroom house. Cassie
and Avraham came to our suburban home on a gray Sunday afternoon. We awkwardly
introduced ourselves, Avraham hiding behind the potted plants in the foyer.
Holding Avraham's hand, Cassie beamed, as radiant and beautiful as I remembered
her. Avraham had inherited his mother's gravy-brown eyes, her horizontal face,
and the smile that had lit my heart.
Cassie nudged him forward. Avraham extended
his arms and we hugged, his elbows pressing tight against my ribs. "Hello,
father," he said, in Semitic-accented English.
The next day I quit my job. Sharon and
I immigrated to Israel.