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Friday, July 7, 2017

Short Story: My Friend Crae

 I met Crae in a poetry reading that took place at a famous book store on Columbus Street in San Francisco. I was not terribly interested in the event, but Larry, my then-boyfriend, said he didn’t want to go alone. The moment we entered, Larry ran into a young woman whom he introduced to me as "a brilliant poet” from some place or another, who was also a guest lecturer at the English Department, and moments later disappeared with her into blissful oblivion. I got stuck behind a blond guy in faded jeans and cowboy boots, feeling completely out of place.

I wanted to go home and wonder why on earth Larry had wanted me to come with him, but I was new to the city and didn’t want to get lost in the dark. Especially with my accent. I decided to ask the blond guy in front of me for directions. He was absorbed in a small poetry book and did not have the vibes of a serial killer. I tapped on his shoulder. He turned around, his soft blue eyes looking a bit lost behind thin gold-rimmed glasses, and before I had a chance to open my mouth, asked, "What do you think about fornication?"

"Fornication?" I stumbled.

"That's what Adam and Eve did in Paradise," he explained. He spoke with a distinct accent, which I later learned was called Texas twang.

I offered a noncommittal "ah-ha," hoping it wouldn’t give away my nationality and went to look for Larry and his poet guest lecturer. The guy followed me and asked if I’d ever read William Burroughs.

That was how my friendship with Crae began.

A few months later, Crae confessed to me that he became instantly bewitched when he heard me saying the word “fornication” at the bookstore. He said that after he heard that word coming out of my mouth he wanted to woo me to a nearby alley and fornicate with me.

I did not tell him that I should have looked up the word after I first heard it that day, because shortly after I met him, I gave my students a grammar quiz and with a deadly serious expression on my face told them, "Don't even think about fornicating. I don't need to look up to see you do it."

I noticed the awkward silence and stifled laughs and wondered if my threat had sounded too hollow. My students probably knew I could not see them cheating behind my back, like the heavenly couple who tried to cheat God in Paradise after they ate the forbidden fruit. Besides, I never believed my grammar school teacher when she said that she could see us cheat behind her back. Later on, I looked up the word. The next day I told my students that they could teach me a few things, too, and they agreed to forget that I had said that word in class.

Crae was the only person I told about my life in Israel and my military experience without being asked. I mentioned it to him the first and only time I came to see him in his apartment in downtown San Francisco. I wanted him to read a short story I had translated from Hebrew. I didn’t dare show it to Larry, the professor, but I thought that Crae would be a good candidate because of his love for poetry
 
           Crae was not surprised to hear my voice over the phone.

“I was praying for you to call,” he said.

The night he asked me about fornication he shoved into my hand a wrinkled business card that promised "protection of damsels, aid of widows and orphans, and the succoring of the needy," and whispered, "Don't hesitate to call."

When I told him that I needed help with something, he invited me to his "temporary office," which was a nicotine-infested windowless cell that smelled like a big wet ashtray. It was located at the end of a stuffy corridor on the top floor of a flea-bag residential hotel. There were no chairs in the “office,” and the floor was covered with heaps of dirty clothes, books by Henry Miller, old newspapers, empty Chinese food containers, and a variety of plates full of cigarette butts. After I refused to make myself comfortable on the stained bed sheets, Crae explained that he rents that room when he needs to hide from his furious girlfriend, a.k.a. the magnificent Asian nymphomaniac. Then, he asked if someone I knew was dying.

Crae was interested in death as much as he was interested in sex. I learned that the night we first met at the bookstore. After he brought up William Burroughs and told me he was trying to memorize his poems, he recounted the legend of the William Tell stunt Burroughs pulled on his wife, accidentally shooting her to death after she put a wine glass on her head. He also told me that he worked at a mortuary.

I promised him that no one was dying, and asked if he could read a story I translated from Hebrew into English and give me some feedback. When he realized I could "write," he asked me to listen to something he had composed for his girlfriend. He lit a cigarette and read me a seven-page poem on masturbation and flying cows, while puffing perfect smoke rings into the air.

When he finished reading, he showed me his rifle. I nearly passed out. I never knew anyone who owned a rifle. Not even in war-zone Israel, where you have to give a pretty good excuse to get a permit. I didn't even know it was legal to own one in America. When I saw the rifle, I was not afraid that he would shoot me, but I started to get worried when he stood up in the middle of the room, brandished the rifle in the air, and, with his eyes closed, started singing:

Pretty woman, walkin' down the street
Pretty woman the kind I like to meet

I asked him not to point the rifle at my face and he stopped and said that he still needed to buy bullets. That was when I decided to tell him that I was once a soldier in the Israeli army. I was hoping to shake him out of his trance and make him realize that I was not impressed by his weapon.

To my relief it worked.

He became very excited. Actually, aroused would be a more accurate description. He wanted to know which guns I could shoot and dismantle, and if I could do it blindfolded and under heavy bombardment in the middle of the night. I answered "yes" to everything, only because I wanted him to lock the rifle back in the closet, not because I wanted to impress him. My days of dismantling M16s and Uzis were long over, and no one in their right mind would have ever asked me to do it blindfolded. This macho stuff belonged only in Crae’s imagination, not in boot camp. 

As our friendship evolved into occasional encounters in small neighborhood cafes to read each other’s writing samples, I learned that I was spared the honor of fornication because I could dismantle guns while blindfolded under bombardment at night. Crae added “in a coal mine” to my list of qualifications when he wanted to impress his Texan ex-pat friends, who sometimes ran into us when we sat in coffee places on Haight Street. Never mind that there are no coal mines in Israel. But that is beside the point.

For several months, we were reading a draft of a play he was working on called "Texans and their Guns." It was about John Hinckley, the guy who shot President Reagan, and his two imaginary friends, Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman, the Texas tower sniper. I provided feedback about the dialogue between the assassins when it became long rumblings that made little sense to me, and he, in return, corrected the grammar and punctuation errors I committed in my first attempts in creative writing. I didn't think much would come out of his play or my writing attempts, but his encouragement made me feel brave enough to continue.

One evening I noticed that a short story I started writing had a potential to become a book length novel, and not just a vignette. I called to tell him that I was going to write a book and asked, "Where to put the comma when you write a book dialogue? Inside or outside the quotation marks?"

"Just write the damn thing and worry about it later," he responded in his special Texas accent. It was the best encouragement I've ever received from anyone until that point. It gave me all the courage I needed to proceed.

After I showed him the first chapter of my book in progress, he confessed to me, with some regret in his voice, that in the early stages of our acquaintance, before I told him that I had been a soldier in the Israeli Army, he was hoping to fornicate with me. I didn’t believe him. It was just his Texan bravado, I felt. I was sure that he knew, from day one, that all he could have gotten out of me was a very platonic relationship and a sympathetic ear. That was why he was not embarrassed to brag about the bar fights that he supposedly won, and complain about his girlfriend’s sexual appetite.

Since he was a mortician by trade, however, I was more interested in his experience with death than his sexual escapades. I told him that what I felt toward death was similar to what I used to feel toward sex when I was a teenager. I thought it was enchanting, but at the same time I absolutely dreaded it. As expected, Crae got caught up in the imagery and said that there was nothing to be afraid of, and that he planned to be shot dead at the age of forty by a jealous husband of a future lover. Then he agreed to listen to my encounters with death.

It happened when I was still living in Israel. One night I saw two men carrying a stretcher to an ambulance. A man was lying on the stretcher in pajamas, and a blue sheet covered him up to his chest. The man's left arm fell over the side of the stretcher and his fingers caressed the wet grass beneath.

The next day I overheard my neighbors talking. "Did you hear about Guttmann’s father? He died last night from a heart attack," one said.

"I heard he died at the hospital," was the reply.

After hearing it, I wondered how seeing death for the first time would affect me. But for a long time I remained the same person. Finally, I decided that I hadn’t changed as a result of seeing death because the man I saw was not completely dead when his arm dropped from the stretcher and his fingers touched the grass.

Crae was not impressed.

So I told him about the funerals I attended during my military service. "The guys were responsible for the gun salute, and we put the wreaths on the graves."

Again he was not impressed.

I didn’t give up and asked him to take me to the mortuary. “I want to learn about death from an expert,” I flattered him, “from someone who is not afraid to die.” He looked at me for a few seconds, and agreed to give me a tour, but forgot to set a date, which was very frustrating. He could not understand how much I wanted to see what death looked like because he had never seen my dark side.

Several months after Larry and I broke up, following a secret affair he had with one of his admirers, Crae showed up at my place in the middle of the night. He came to tell me that his girlfriend had a huge fight with him when they were walking out of a movie theater, and that the police came to rescue him from her blasting rage. He ended up breaking a knuckle, so he said, when he hit the windshield of her car with his fist. It was the fourth time she had tried to kill him, he groaned, and then subjected me to every detail of the story, including a description of the blowjob she had given him in the men's restroom during the movie. It was not even a porno flick. I think he said it was a sleeper by Robert Redford.

"She breaks my heart," he mumbled as he wrapped his hand with an ice pack I handed him.

I didn’t know what kind of wound she was carving in his heart, but his pain was visible. He was slurring his words and I was unable to comprehend his line of thought. I also learned that he was drunk because when he entered he said that he was "inebriated."

I had to look it up. For a moment I was afraid he caught a deadly disease during his latest bout of self-destruction. “She took off her underwear and waved them in front of the cops and it took me forever to convince them that she was crazy and that the whole thing was just a big turn on for her,” he said, trying to focus his blood-shot eyes on his bruised hand.

When daylight broke he fell asleep on the carpet. His precious Zippo lighter with the embossed figures of Vishnu and Shiva slipped from his pocket and landed under the couch. I picked it up and put it on the coffee table. Then I covered him with a sleeping bag.

"Go away, stop, you hurt me," he begged her in his sleep.

I watched the torment slowly leave his face. When he slept he looked so innocent: his straight blond hair covering his forehead, his good hand tucked between his knees, the green tattoo on his forearm announcing his faith in God. I put a clean sheet on the couch, just in case he woke up later and wanted a softer spot to sleep on. I wanted him to be comfortable and safe. He was my closest ally and my best English teacher, and I was committed to taking care of him, even at the cost of developing a voyeuristic ear. I was flattered that he chose me as his confidant. At least with me he did not feel compelled to perform, since he knew I was not good material for fornication. All I ever needed was a little encouragement and attention.

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