|By Eliezra Schaffzin | 1 March 2011|
There were jokes that began like this—a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim were wandering in the desert—so it was only natural that the three boys in the dusty schoolyard, with its unmanageable crop of tumbleweed and eye-jabbing dirt clouds, found themselves in a similar tableau, drawn together to a scorched corner of school grounds that served no other purpose than to designate a ball as “foul” when one happened to fall into it. In this case the Christian was a Catholic called Chucho, though this did not disqualify him from the gag, since his was a nickname for the most Christian name of all, Jesus (pronounced, in this instance, Hey-Zeus). The Jew spoke with a Southern drawl not one bit like the Yiddish shrug that no doubt characterized his counterpart in the joke. The Muslim was not Muslim at all but was actually Sikh and wore a turban on his head and, having come from mountains, had never seen an Arabian desert, only this dry, flat land enclosed in the shape of a barbed heart. And these boys might have heard the old joke’s preamble, but they didn’t know what happened next—maybe the three wanderers stepped in camel dung, or maybe a genie appeared, maybe God Himself. The boys were far more aware of what would happen next to themselves, here in their schoolyard diaspora. This was middle school, and they were sixth graders, the bottom of the bottom of a terrible, throbbing, anxious heap. Every day at recess, the threesome tasted the bitter knowledge that had crawled upwards all morning from their stomachs, compelling them to gather in this corner where they could count on the absolute worst to unfold: a football might roll to their feet, where Singh would lift it up awkwardly and fling it back into the staring crowd, missing his mark entirely and instead hitting a black girl right between the back pockets of her Faded Glorys. A beating from the eighth-grade girls would surely follow. Josh would lose his retainer in the melee and it would show up in math class, mysteriously stuck to Chucho’s black Velcro head. But never mind the details; the boys knew the drill. They understood their part in the indelicate ecosystem that was middle school, and they assembled at the corner of the schoolyard every day with the sour calm that came from each child’s quiet, personal sense of the rewards of martyrdom that he shared with no one, not even the others.
Joshua was the obvious leader, a practiced pariah, with his Yankee Jew of a father and a mother who perpetually wept at the waters of Babylon—or so his father had dubbed their backyard hot tub—over the marriage that had banished her from the promised land, Uptown New Orleans. The wire device Josh was sometimes forced to wear around his head, locked obscenely into his retainer, required a kind of noble leap of imagination on the part of his companions, who were able to look sternly into his face and hear his ever-righteous lispings without so much as a smirk. These honorable boys did no less for Singh, the tailor-made candidate for their dusty exile, with his colorless turban and the plastic sandals that reminded Chucho of his bisabuelita, his mother’s grandmother, who lived with him and his mother and bought her footwear from a street vendor who also sold candles of the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as his birthday piñatas. Chucho’s father had been a gringo soldier from Georgia who died not overseas but right here, in Texas, where he’d been struck in the temple by a rubber bullet during an urban-combat exercise before Chucho was born. Chucho’s mother kept his hair in a cadet’s fresh crew-cut and insisted he looked just like his father, but his face was as round and brown as any of the cholo faces that populated his public school, so that was not why he’d been expelled to the corner with the other boys. Chucho was an outcast because he was strange. His regimented sense of order and tremulous fascination with all things military had won over Josh and Singh, perhaps because in this Babylon, they needed a code of conduct they could count on, or perhaps because their deepest hopes and convictions involved angels decidedly of the martial kind.
These boys gathered in the corner of the schoolyard at recess time, and they huddled together in the lunchroom before that, and sometimes after school all three went for ice cream at Singh’s parents’ shop. The shop was called “Verma’s Dairy Freeze” and it featured a shivering cow on the sign under its name, and next to that hung another, less professionally painted sign that read “American Owned and Operated.” Since Singh’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Singh, had already been sworn in as American citizens when they bought the shop, they’d seen no reason to remove the sign. They had recently cleared a cooler in the back of the store and stocked it tentatively with some of Mrs. Singh’s specialties, plastic tubs filled with soupy concoctions in yellow and brown and flat breads that resembled, but were clearly not, tortillas, nothing the boys considered an attractive after-school snack. All three preferred soft-serve in wafer cones and were glad Mr. Singh dispensed it as generously as he did, since he was otherwise a serious man who would beckon to his son at random moments, sometimes even before the boy had finished his cone, and the two turbans, large and small, would disappear behind a curtain at the back of the store. Singh would wave a quick apology and leave the other boys to their own devices.
“Sher must sit with his pita now,” Mrs. Singh would explain, and the boys would slip off their stools and step outside. Singh’s full name was Singh Sher Singh, but when his parents had explained to their son’s first teacher at the elementary school that they preferred the boy to be called by his middle name, as he was at home, the teacher had advised against it. For reasons Josh did not understand but did not find important enough to inquire about, his father referred to Mr. and Mrs. Singh’s place of business as “Up the River” whenever Josh mentioned it. There was no river anywhere near the Singhs’ shop, unless you counted the little flash-flood ravines out back that were out back everywhere in the place they lived. Josh and Chucho would look for rattlers along one such ravine when they walked onward, after school and after soft-serve, to Chucho’s immaculate house, where Josh would politely wipe his hands on his corduroys before he lifted the phone to call his mother and ask to be picked up. Josh’s mother agreed to this arrangement on the days when she had to drive him to the city for his orthodontist appointments, since Chucho’s house was near the highway. His mother usually stayed outside in her SUV and honked to let him know she was there, though once she had come in to say hello, and afterwards in the car, she said that those women who looked after Chucho had probably put some kind of spell on the house to keep it so utterly free of Texas dust. She hated Texas dust, especially when it kicked up in great clouds and blew across the flat highway to town. Josh’s mother often drove the road to town, but Josh only joined her when he had to have his retainer tightened and once a year at Yom Kippur, a trip they took at his mother’s insistence. Josh’s father said that for the Jews of New Orleans, Yom Kippur was like Mardi Gras (to which Josh’s mother had said, “That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” and his father said, “That’s right”). At his father’s insistence, Josh would not, when he turned thirteen in the spring of his sixth-grade year, become a Bar Mitzvah at the temple in town; his father, a Zionist, wanted him to visit Israel instead, but his mother objected (“Too many terrorists live there,” she’d said, to which his father replied, “Everybody needs to live somewhere”). When his mother prevailed, Josh’s father settled for teaching him to sing HaTikva, “The Hope,” the Israeli national anthem. To his father’s surprise, Josh had no trouble remembering the Hebrew words, but the melody constantly eluded him. He did not tell his father that when he tried to sing the song to himself, it always came out to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
• • •
Joshua’s Yankee daddy was in the paper business. When they’d first driven to Texas from Alabama (where they’d lived when Josh was younger) and Josh pointed out the giant bales of hay rolled in neat rows on the side of the road, his father had called them “reams.” Josh’s father often went away on paper business, and he loved to bring home little souvenirs—rebel flag cigarette lighters and jumbo pecan logs and T-shirts reading “I Love GRITS (Girls Raised in the South)”—at which his mother always scoffed in precisely the same way she did when Josh’s father made his little amused comments on the way things were in “the South.” New Orleans is not Alabama is not Texas, Josh’s mother would insist, and his father would say, What about a carpetbagger? I can be a carpetbagger just about anywhere down here, can’t I? Josh’s father also collected names of towns “down here,” particularly in Texas, where he’d found a place called Cut and Shoot, as well as a White Settlement, and even a Rosenberg, which just happened to be his own family name. So it was Josh who first heard of Palestine, Texas when his father went there on business and came back with a jar of pepper jelly from their annual Hot Pepper Festival. It got him thinking, the name of that place, especially as he munched on a peanut-butter-and-hot-pepper-jelly sandwich in the cafeteria while Chucho and Singh debated the likelihood that anyone would achieve teleportation in their own lifetimes (maybe not for the average commuter, they’d agreed—but surely the military, Chucho argued, or a private multi-billionaire investor, said Singh). The fact that they had soldiered through the first five years of the 21st century without the advent of mind-blowing technological developments had seriously disappointed them, but they had faith in the work being done secretly, by people in the know. Josh chewed and thought all the while, and he decided, as he crossed the schoolyard with the others, dislodging the last bit of peanut from his orthodonture, that he had hit upon something worth running by his schoolmates. He turned to them when they’d reached their corner, which, in the late autumn afternoon, was hit at an awkward angle by the sun—not hot, but relentlessly bright.
“I’ve got an idea,” he began, and the others were immediately silenced, turning to face him expectantly: perhaps they would get somewhere with teleportation after all. Josh was not wearing his metal headgear, but it was clear he’d worn it to sleep the night before—the tracks had not fully disappeared from his left cheek. Chucho and Singh blinked quietly and focused on his eyes, which flashed brilliant blue in the sunlight. Josh’s were the only blue eyes in the bunch.
“I’ve been thinking about Israel,” Josh said.
The other two had nothing to say to that. Josh’s Bar Mitzvah was still a good six months away, but teleporting wouldn’t help with Josh’s Bar-Mitzvah problem; he’d get there faster, but a terrorist could blow himself up anywhere, even in a teleportation depot. No way would they have home launch pads any time soon, especially not in Israel, which was in the Middle East and therefore even more behind the technological times.
Josh glanced in the direction of the massive flagpole that occupied a more desirable corner of the schoolyard. Drooping together at the top, completely still in the Texas air, were the Stars and Stripes and the Lone Star Flag. Josh squinted upward, briefly, and delivered his carefully considered proposal.
“I was thinking,” Josh shared, “that it might be a really good idea if Israel was moved to Texas.”
It was obvious, Josh explained, that Israel had been placed unstrategically in hostile territory, surrounded as it was by Arab nations, and the people of Israel had given that idea a shot for more than half a century already; one only had to look so far as the evening news to see that things over there were not working out. Texas, on the other hand, was expansive, a frontier still partly unsettled (at this he waved his hand out over the school’s back fence, which was bordered by another of those familiar ravines, and beyond that, a field of dust, and far beyond that, a two-lane county road, though this was imperceptible unless a vehicle happened to be crossing it, stirring the dust crop). Texas also had its share of oil, Josh continued, something on which the Jewish people had gotten a bum deal, since it seemed there was very little in their particular corner of the Middle East. Texas could welcome the people of Israel with room to spare, and in exchange for American oil-mining expertise the Israelis could share their knowledge of desert irrigation, which, he’d heard, was extensive.
“The two places could, you know, morph into one,” Josh concluded. “I was thinking it could be called ‘Texrael.’”
Josh’s small audience mulled this over a moment. Both his companions liked the hybrid name—it was a much better idea than, say, a Republic of something—but though the fact remained unspoken, this plan seemed to require that the fifty United States have their well-rounded number reduced by one. The boys had all, however, recited the Lone Star Pledge of Allegiance: one and indivisible didn’t mean Texas couldn’t back out and join up with something else, did it? They were well aware of their state’s secessionist tendencies. All three simultaneously shot a glance toward Mikey Nesbit, whose daddy owned a whole lot more guns than anyone else’s daddy, and whose big brother had once been held for questioning by what Mikey called “the F, the B, and the I.” At that moment Mikey was climbing the ladder to the polyethylene treeless treehouse beside the jungle gym. He disappeared inside, and they heard a group of girls screech. The echoey plastic noise stirred Singh to speak.
“It could be decided by referendum,” he suggested. “We could add a place on the ballot for the name: ‘Texrael’ or ‘Israeas.’”
“That other one sounds like ass,” Josh noted. “But I think you’re right to leave the choice to democracy.”
Singh nodded at this insight, but Chucho was not convinced. “Didn’t the Lord tell the Jews to live specifically in Israel? Isn’t that where they’re supposed to retreat when things get jacked?”
“There is that one thing,” Josh conceded. “But God probably wouldn’t want all the fighting that’s going on there now. He’d probably settle for a good place to live—and remember, we could fit a whole lot more Jewish people into Texas, like the ones persecuted in Siberia and Chile. Israel is smaller than the state of New Jersey.” His father had told him this last bit; as it happened, his father was a native of that very same Yankee state.
Singh wasn’t certain of the exact dimensions of New Jersey, but he sided with Josh on this matter as well. “It is not as if the land of Texas has been previously granted to anyone by God at this time,” he pointed out. “Was it God who gave Texas to The White Man? And yet here The White Man rules.”
At home, Singh’s parents had not once, in all their references to the American people and their many foibles, used the term ‘The White Man,’ but he had heard it spoken in the first Western he’d seen on American television and had loved it ever since, loved the way the Indians said “Man” instead of “men” even when they spoke of a dozen cowboys, shrinking them with their talk. He was always looking for an opportunity to use the phrase himself in casual speech. Chucho had noticed Singh’s habit, and it made him cringe every time he heard his friend say those words. They made him think of his father, The White Man who came to him in his dreams each night, his face larger and whiter than it appeared in any photograph, now drained of life and hovering in the air above his son’s bed. In each of his dreams, Chucho was struck with the terrifying certainty his father was drawing near in order to show him his head wound, and he would burrow head-first in his sleep, deep into the covers of his tightly-made bed, but his father’s forlorn face would try to follow him in there, until he was trapped in the black, airless space at the foot of the bed, and he’d wake up to the close, fabric-choked sound of his own screaming. He loved the relief of his mother’s gentle hands guiding him out to the cool air, her soft kiss on his damp cheek, so he never protested when she’d sigh, just before she left, and tuck the covers in snugly around him, though he knew that meant he’d soon drift off to sleep and find himself penned in again, helpless.
“Besides,” Singh was saying to Josh in that matter-of-fact accent with which he said everything, “it was The White Man who caused the tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust, not the Arab, so it should be The White Man who provides the Jews with the land for a permanent home.”
“It’s not only gringos who run Texas, you know,” Chucho pointed out, but his voice lacked conviction.
Singh’s brow furrowed, a gesture that caused his turban to dip over his eyes, then rise again. “Our president, George W. Bush,” he replied, “has a great deal of influence in the state of Texas.” Singh contemplated the influence of Mr. Bush, the Great White Man, quite often. “He could help arrange a treaty, maybe even provide his ranch for the summit.”
“Yeah, I thought of that too,” Josh said. “It would be like the president actually gets to fix something in the Middle East before he has to leave office. Jimmy Carter didn’t even help that much, and he got a Nobel Prize. And that’s why I figure President Bush would help out, since he’d probably win one himself.”
Chucho brightened. He hadn’t heard about President Carter. “We could help the President win a Nobel Prize?”
“Yeah. Maybe we’d win one too.”
At that the boys fell silent, moved to dreaming. Then Chucho thought of something.
“We could start a—a fusion army between their armed forces and the Texas National Guard. Our boys could train the Jewish soldiers to fight and to use the FGM-148 Javelin guided anti-tank missiles and the Global Information Grid. We’d design new uniforms and insignia.”
“The Israelis won’t need training,” Josh corrected. “Their Defense Forces are among the finest in the world. They’ve never lost a war.”
“The U.S. Army hasn’t ever lost a war, either,” Chucho said. He looked to Singh, who shrugged.
“It could be a super-army collaboration,” Singh offered. “Texrael would be small, but it would be mighty.”
“And if anyone wanted to bomb us, they’d face total annihilation,” Chucho smiled.
“And we wouldn’t even need to change our official language,” Josh added, just as the yard monitor’s air-horn trumpeted the end of recess. “Hebrew’s an ancient tongue, so everyone in Israel has to be fluent in English.”
The boys passed notes through math, diagramming their ideas for the new nation, and during art, when they had to push their desks together in order to share supplies, they swore each other to solemn secrecy (Chucho scraped with a frayed brush at the watercolor tray, marking each note with a red stripe that denoted its classified nature) until the time would come to share the information with the proper authorities. The proper authorities, they agreed as the school day finally wrapped itself up, would be Mr. Arbrust, their civics teacher, and they decided the time would come to present him with their plan at the next day’s recess period—not a moment too soon if they wanted to save lives and take advantage of the Texan president’s remaining term. Josh was scheduled for a new phase of dental work that afternoon, and he was glad that though his mother had offered to collect him directly from school, he’d insisted on the pick-up at Chucho’s. Josh had insisted because he’d wanted one last taste of soft-serve—the orthodontist had warned that with the new hardware, he’d have to stay off cold foods for a while—but now he had another reason to make the walk to the Singhs’ store, since there was a certain division of labor to establish before the three parted for the day: it was determined that Chucho would spend the evening considering Texrael’s military needs in greater detail while Singh would research international business ventures that could serve as a model for the two cultures’ union on Texas turf. Josh, they agreed, would have to consider the two states’ political landscapes; after all, once the two separate governments were combined, only one man could sit at the top. They took a final oath of silence outside the Dairy Freeze, this time to keep the matter from their parents specifically until they got the ball rolling with Mr. Arbrust. As Singh retreated with his father to the store’s back room, he confirmed his commitment with an index finger to his lips, and Chucho responded with a thumbs-up, all-systems-go. Josh gave Chucho the same signal before he climbed into the SUV and slammed the door, his mother giving him a little pat before she turned up his father’s Jack Teagarden CD—music was the one thing his parents seemed to agree upon—and as he watched the empty, arid land fly past on their way to town, the dairy-sweetness of ice cream lingering in his mouth, Josh felt a quiet, glowing calm of the sort he had not felt since he’d begun to round the bend to his thirteenth birthday. The future had now spoken to him, and it told him he just might change the terms of world peace before the advent of his Bar Mitzvah.
• • •
Mr. Arbrust, the civics teacher, had a deformed right hand, its fingers permanently curled into his palm, as if he kept something concealed there at all times. He was right-handed, and so when he wrote on the board Mr. Arbrust would pass the chalk to his right hand with his left and then scroll his fist sideways across the blackboard’s surface, making precise circles with his arm. Civics was a new subject for the boys, something they hadn’t even heard of in elementary school, and they’d all agreed early on in their middle-school tenure that they liked civics, liked the way Mr. Arbrust would lay things out so methodically, and the dignified way he used his words, even though he wasn’t that old. After a debriefing at lunch, during which Singh shared his discovery that Senator Padmé Amidala was actually Israeli, they gathered at their corner for one last pow-wow before they would approach Mr. Arbrust, who was at that moment sitting at one of the student desks in his own classroom (a fact they had already confirmed by peeking through a dingy window that looked out onto the schoolyard) and not in the lounge where most of the teachers spent recess. Chucho announced that though he had in no way breached their security pact, he had indicated to his mother that they would have reason to celebrate after school, and she had promised to set them out a sundae party before she left for her afternoon shift, no questions asked. All they had to do was pick up some of the regular, scoopable kind of ice cream from the Dairy Freeze on their way home.
Joshua winced. By the time he’d taken two Extra-Strength Tylenol and gone to bed late the previous night, his taste for ice cream had been fully knocked out of him. The orthodontist in town had glued tiny metal rivets to each of his upper teeth and then threaded them with a piece of wire, giving Josh little wads of wax to attach to the wire’s ends to prevent them from boring holes in the sides of his cheeks. He’d already endured many metallic tortures in his young life, but this was the first time something had been cemented to his mouth. He swallowed hard and led his team to the civics classroom, where all three boys poked their heads—metal-mouthed, turbaned, and Velcro-buzzed—through the slightly opened door. They found Mr. Arbrust working at his laptop, to which he’d attached a giant red ball contraption that they recognized as some kind of mouse. When they piled inside, Mr. Arbrust used the knuckles of his contorted fist to spin the ball and then slam the computer shut. Then he seized his bad arm by the sleeve and swept it into his lap.
“Mr. Tucker.” (This was Chucho.) “Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Singh.”
“Hi, Mr. A,” Chucho grinned.
Josh shot him a sideways look. His mouth was a painfully taut line, and behind it, something was making his teeth feel as if each one was tied to a John Deere, and someone at the wheel was flooring it. He licked his lips.
“Hello Mr. Arbrust.” Josh tried hard not to lisp. “We were wondering if we could talk to you about an idea we had.”
“We have composed a proposal for the achievement of peace in the Middle East through the combination of the states of Israel and Texas here on Texas territory.”
At Josh’s nod, Singh stepped forward and delivered a stapled collection of notes, maps, and flow-charts to Mr. Arbrust’s outstretched left hand. The document had been a joint effort composed via e-mail the previous night and printed on Josh’s father’s best laser-printer without the permission of Josh’s father, who was again away on paper business. The cover page featured the sentence Josh had just recited, along with the words “The Hybrid Nation TEXRAEL (name pending popular approval)” in a hefty font, aligned center.
“I see,” Mr. Arbrust said, and, anchoring the packet in his lap, flipped through its pages while Josh repeated the argument he’d shared a day before at recess, now bolstered by the addition of factual support gathered by Chucho and Singh. Josh could hardly wait while their teacher turned laboriously through each page; he continued to present their case.
“In this report, we’ve listed the many advantages to moving the Jewish homeland to our region. We were thinking you could help us push this through the proper channels, you know, get the attention of those in power.” He put heavy emphasis on the phrase, just as he’d heard Mr. Arbrust do each time he referred to those officials entrusted with the glorious checks and balances on which their government was so gracefully poised. Mr. Arbrust always spoke the term affectionately; those in power were his friends. It was on this fact exactly that the boys were counting now.
Indeed, Josh’s invocation of the term seemed to awaken something in Mr. Arbrust. His head jerked up from the pages in his lap, his lips curled in a congenial smile. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “you don’t approach the men engaged in managing the business of our nation without truly thinking things through.”
The boys exchanged nervous glances. They had thought things through, not only at recess but on class time, and they’d clocked a substantial number of hours on the Internet to boot.
“Well,” Josh ventured, “we were hoping you could advise us on how we might persuade the right people to think this over. If the proposal isn’t written well enough, maybe you could help us revise it? Or, maybe add pie charts?”
At this, Chucho emitted a tiny groan. No one had paid him any mind the night before when he’d Instant Messaged his idea about pie charts.
“We might first consider content before we move on to form,” Mr. Arbrust noted. Chucho gazed past him to the copy of the United States Constitution thumb-tacked to the bulletin board. It was printed on a sort of fake parchment that had been rolled at the edges, like a treasure map. Mr. Arbrust poked a rigid finger at the document in his lap. “It is your vision to invite the entire population—that is, everyone living there who is not Arab—to settle permanently in our state.”
“Our regions have similar climates, so the transition should not be difficult,” Singh explained.
“And what of Jerusalem?” Mr. Arbrust’s voice rose in a funny way. Maybe it was his pronunciation of “Jerusalem,” an antique word in a mouth that usually formed more familiar sounds, like “Austin” and “Washington, DC.”
“What is your stratagem, boys,” Mr. Arbrust continued, “for the landmarks holy to Christian and Jew alike?”
“We were thinking the National Park Service—Texrael’s Park Service—could reconstruct all the holy places right here.” Josh wanted to say that he himself had visited a Civil War fort in Alabama reconstructed in precisely that spirit, since the battle he’d seen re-enacted there had really taken place in Virginia, but something told him to keep it short. “This would also generate tourism revenue, since everyone in America could visit holy places by tour bus.”
“Except if they come from Hawaii, then they’d have to fly,” Chucho said.
Mr. Arbrust sighed. His smile had not left his face, though it had now pulled itself into an eerily sad sort of grin. “Boys, you’ve used your imaginations impressively here, so I’ll ask you to accomplish one more feat: consider, please, what would happen if you were a bit older, say of my age, and you flew with your proposal to Congress and attempted to approach that great forum as you have approached me now.”
The boys looked again at one another. Chucho shrugged a little. Josh tried to do as he was told, which was not too difficult, since he’d already pictured himself before that very assembly, though in his imaginings, he was nowhere near his teacher’s age; in his imaginings, he hadn’t yet had his braces removed. Then he saw what he believed Mr. A. wanted him to see. He giggled a little with relief.
“Oh, but we know!” he replied. “We want to start small, like with local government, like the flow-chart you showed us in class. We know we have to follow the right channels.”
“We have a stratagem for that on page twelve,” Singh added. He stepped forward once again, this time attempting to turn to the page in question, but Mr. Arbrust had already begun to flip the packet back to its cover sheet, and in the confusion of hands the whole thing slipped off his lap and landed at the boys’ feet. All three of them stepped back, as if the papers on the floor threatened to singe their toes.
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Arbrust said. He was acting as if they hadn’t been listening, as if they’d talked in class or were just being stupid, like when Mikey Nesbit called Mr. Arbrust a conspiracy theorist and Mr. Arbrust said if he wanted to insult the teacher he should consider the obvious since the absurd undermined his case, or when Kimberly Caldwell raised her hand during the Immigration Unit and said a visa was a credit card. Mr. Arbrust spoke gently and looked dog-tired.
“I am not a religious man—as you are well aware, I have a preference for an ethic by the people, for the people—but I know each of you holds certain spiritual beliefs as sacred as I hold the Constitution—and needless to say, I have operated on the impression that all my pupils hold that document just as sacred as I do, regardless of their orientation.” Mr. Arbrust remained seated at the low desk where they’d found him, but he now bore a look so full of heartrending benevolence into the boys’ eyes that they found themselves shrinking nonetheless. “You have chosen to come to me, and that is why, boys, I will not shirk my duty to shield you from misunderstanding. You may not see it now, but with time you will: to the individuals who truly matter to the world—and even to some other, more dangerous individuals who should not—this immodest proposal, were it considered with any seriousness, would greatly offend. I am not sure to whom it commits a more significant offense: the Union, or the Lord. But most of all, young men such as yourselves, who are well aware of how things work, would not want their everyday flights of fancy to be taken for anything like—well, anything for which you would later find yourselves ashamed.”
Joshua sensed it first, a kind of stinging in his eyes and throat. He didn’t know if the others had felt it, but in that moment, he hardly thought of them; instead he wondered which of Mr. Arbrust’s dizzying words was worrying microscopic tears from beneath his eyelids. Had he dared to look, he would have seen the red flush that had risen to Chucho’s brown cheeks, and the thin trail of sweat that had formed along the neckline of Singh’s starched shirt. Each of these boys knew something of what it meant to offend God and country—they understood Mr. Arbrust was implying they’d committed the sins they had not once dreamed they’d commit, the twin sins of blasphemy and treason. But worse, he’d stopped short of a darker word, some other crime—a crime for which, if they remained as careless as they’d apparently been today, they would eventually pay dearly. The warning throbbed in each boy’s mind as Mr. Arbrust pushed his chair back from the desk and leaned toward them confidentially.
“You are good boys”—there was that smile again, so full of something like pity, but not just pity, what was it then?— “and so it will be as a favor to you that I will not let our discussion leave this room. Or rather I will banish it from this room, and send it away, into the ether.”
Singh had heard before of ether; the word conjured for him the hissing of something poisonous, and it was with alarm that he finally looked toward Josh, who turned, and, without collecting their workmanship from the floor, led the retreat to the schoolyard, where five merciless minutes of recess remained.
• • •
Josh’s jaw was pounding, a war drum in his ears. He looked upwards, to the bright, vast Texas heavens, and then around him, unable to find what he was searching for. He turned to Chucho, his pupils pulsing. “Why the hell did you have to mention Hawaii?” he yelled. “Who the hell in Hawaii cares about the Holy Land?”
Chucho kicked at the dirt. Singh tried hard to catch his eye, but Chucho hadn’t lifted his gaze from his sneakers since they’d taken their leave of the civics room. Singh turned to Josh instead.
“Maybe we should have reminded Mr. Arbrust of the tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust?”
“Stop saying the Jewish Holocaust!” Josh’s voice broke as he screamed. “What other Holocaust is there, dickwad?”
Something sharp dislodged itself from the back of Singh’s brain, rocketing forward in his head, and now he was spinning. He didn’t know “Dickwad.” He wished he knew something besides “White Man.” He looked again to Chucho, who still wasn’t speaking, was barely moving, and Josh looked at him too, glowering. Chucho stood alone, in his own private universe, where for the first time his father’s white face had appeared before him in his waking life, a face full of disgust for his living son. Chucho could not comprehend why it had happened, this ghostly crossover from his dreams, but here there was no darkness into which he could burrow, only harsh sunlight and dirty air that made his nose run. He lifted a hand to his face, but before he could properly drag the backs of his fingers across his upper lip, he heard Josh yell, “Don’t friggin cry!” and he saw Josh’s hand shoot out, and then he felt his own fist slam into his own nose. Chucho stumbled a moment, his neck tilted back, his eyes upturned to the cluster of sixth-grade girls gaping at him from the treehouse window, and before he’d caught his balance he threw himself forward and parried, sending the same snotty hand into Josh’s face. Josh felt metal claws scrape the insides of his mouth, the exhilaration of blood’s release. He heard some kids shouting something, and he swung again, first at Chucho’s tear-streaked face, and then at Singh’s arms, which had reached in to stop him. Singh persisted, shoving his whole self between the combatants, and both felt the impact of an entire body, not just a fist, with wild delight. Then all three were tearing at each other, stumbling to the ground, tasting dirt, miserable and free until two recess monitors, four stronger arms, lifted them from the dust and delivered them to the principal, from whom they accepted their half-day suspension with a prideful gravity and gathered their backpacks and walked separately to the front gates where a procession soon arrived to escort them home: one turbaned father, one great-grandmother, one SUV. Josh’s mother said, Go to your room, wait until your father gets home, and Chucho’s bisabuelita wept while she wiped the unopened jars of caramel nuts and maraschino cherries clean and placed them in the cupboard, and Singh’s pita only stared at him quietly before departing alone for their study in the store’s back room. The boys returned to school the next morning, to social studies and science and English and math and even civics, all the things that held the world in place, and they chewed lunch together silently and then walked back to their scorched corner, as they’d do for a long time to come. They stood there in silence, looking out at the desert, quiet not because they hated each other, but because their heads felt emptied of ideas, their mouths caked with the schoolyard’s paralyzing dust. And as the joke says—or the book, or the song, or whatever keeps track of how things are and always will be—these boys, like all boys, would one day grow up in the world and be men.
Eliezra Schaffzin was once a mild-mannered teacher of writing at Harvard University, but she’s put all that behind her, and, having let down her schoolmarm’s bun, she is hard at work as a full-time Emerging Writer. Her writing has emerged or is in the process of emerging at PANK, AGNI Online, Barrelhouse, Word Riot, Sein und Werden, SmokeLong and other fine publications. She has indexed her work at her emerging website, eliezraschaffzin.com.