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Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted

The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

1
VILNIUS (VILNA)
July 1941

Motl. Jewish cowpoke. Brisket Boy. My grandfather.

As usual, he was bent over the kitchen table, his mottled and hairy nose deep in the pale valley of a book, half-finished plate of herring beside his elbow, half-eaten egg bread slumped beside a Shabbos candlestick. His old mother was out shopping for food while she still could.

So, this Motl, was he a reader?

If the world was ending, he would keep reading.

The world was ending. He was still reading.

So, what was this book he had to read despite everything?

One of the great westerns of the American frontier, of course. Even though he knew that Hitler adored them.

“The master race should be brave as Indianers,” Der Führer had said, and sent boxes of Karl May’s Winnetou noble savage novels to the eastern front to inspire his troops—those same manifest destiny soldiers crossing the country with orders to kill Motl, his mother and all the other Jews.

Did Motl intend to do something about this?

Yes. He would sit at the table, his shlumpy jacket turned up at the collar, his hat like a shroud of mice askew on his sallow head, and read.

Was Motl a man of action?

“If parking his tuches all day and all night on a chair doing nothing but reading is action,” his mother would say, “he’s a man of action. Action, sure. Every day he gets older and more in my way.”

Why was he still reading this western?

Because Motl, this Litvak, this Lithuanian Jew, this inconceivable zaidy, my grandfather, this citizen of the Wild East—that brave old world of ever-present sorrow, a sorrow that had just gotten worse—had chosen the life of the cowboy.

He would be that hombre who sits on his chair and imagines being calm and steady and manly, speaking only the fewest of well-chosen words, doing only what he wanted and what he must under that vast, unpatented western sky.

“And why not?” he would say. “Should my life be nothing but the minced despair and boiled hope of an aging Jew, too thin to be anything but borscht made by Nazis? I choose to think myself a Paleface chuck line rider of the doleful countenance, a Quixotic Ashkenazi of the bronco, riding the Ostland trail. Like my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a doctor, ‘Mazel tov, Motl. Nothing is impossible when it’s an illusion.’”

He would say, “What’s the difference between a Jewish cowpoke and beef jerky? It’s the hat. And feeling empty as a broken barrel. Jerky don’t never feel such hollowness, least not by the time it’s jerky. But the cowboy, the cowboy keeps riding. He don’t look back. Eventually, if he’s lucky, he too becomes leathern and feels only what jerky feels.”

Motl. Citizen of Vilna. Saddlebag of pain. Feedbag of regret.

At forty-five, he had a history. As a Lithuanian Jew, he was pickled in it.

But though neither he nor his mother knew it at the time, something had changed. Somewhere, deep down in the overworked mine shaft of his imagination, it had been determined that he would set out on a perilous adventure, this time of his own choosing. He would get up on his horse and ride.

And he would have a child.

At his age.

And avoid being killed. Sometimes you have to save your own bacon, when you’re a Jew.

The next day, he went to the barber’s. Even a grown man will cave in to his mother’s demands that he groom if she won’t make food for him. Eyes closed, a Texas reverie floating through his mind like the scent of campfire, Motl lay back in the red chair and awaited his shave.

But then:

“Under a hot towel, a cowpoke can think big thoughts, but to act he must stand up,” he said.

He stood up.

For a moment, the towel hung from his jowls, the Santabeard of a Hebrew god. Then it fell away.

“Barber,” Motl said. “I must seize these last days while the possibility of life remains.”

The barber said nothing, wet blade held between trembling fingers.

“The kabbalists speak of repairing the world, healing what is broken. It’s my time,” Motl said, looking round that hair-strewn palace of strop and whisker, that little shop of Hebrews. “Barber, I thank you, for I have learned much under your towel.”

Shave and a haircut.

—Did the barber, Shmuel, expect payment?—

Two bits.

Did Motl toss him these two coins before his impromptu departure?

Having had neither shave nor haircut, he only waved, then hightailed it into the bright sun of Shnipishok, that region of Vilna whose name sounds like scissor blades. He ran through its streets, feeling open to possibility and getaway.

Did Shmuel chase him with his blade?

Let’s say it was a close shave.

This day, as the towel fell from his bristly chins, Motl saw beyond his scraggy self and straight into his crimpled yet resilient heart. He understood that it could become pink and new as the callow fundament of a child. How? He recalled that there remained a means by which he could become procreator and thus begetter. In this time of murder and loss, to make new life would be to make life new. It would be a salve for the broken world. He could say, both to his child and to himself, “It is worth being born into this world. It is worth being born.”

And this fathering, would it involve the usual squirming ministrations known since our ancestors first began to beget?

It would not.

But first, he had to retrieve his old saddle of a kvetching mother and get them both the galloping Gehenna out of the Einsatzgruppening hell that Vilna would soon be.

The cavalry were coming, or—raised as they were on Karl May—they’d more likely imagine themselves Aryan elves of the plains, Rhineland braves with bellies like six-packs of strudel.

Noble cabbages.

Coming to lead their band of Lithuanian Lakota against the godless yellowstars, locals happy to have the excuse for an anti-Semitic whoop-up.

Besides, if a boychik cowpoke was going to ride off in quest of new life, who else to bring but his mama?

But first, before he even retrieved this mama, we must go back nearly twenty years and speak of the family jewels because, in the end, that’s where all roads begin.

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This Little Light
Excerpt

T H I S  L I T T L E  L I G H T

BLOGLOG: Rory Anne Miller 11/27/2024—9:51 pm

We’re trending. Rory Miller. Feliza Lopez. In this moment, on this night, we’re the most famous girls in America.

Those pics you’ve seen in your feeds and on TV over the past few hours? Two fresh-faced teens in bridal couture on the arms of their daddies at tonight’s American Virtue Ball? That’s me and Fee, my best friend. The grainy footage from the school surveillance cameras of two figures in white gowns climbing up into the smoky hills after the bomb exploded at Sacred Heart High? Also us. It’s true that guilty people run. Scared people run too. They’re calling us the Villains in Versace.

What they’re saying about us? First—who wears Versace to a purity ball? I wore Mishka. Fee wore Prada. The details matter. The truth—which is not somewhere in the middle as guilty people like to say—is vital. Like oxygen. The truth is that Fee and I did not try to blow up the chastity ball at Sacred Heart High tonight. We had nothing to do with that thing they found in my car, either. And we have no involvement whatsoever with the Red Market. We’re not the spawn of Satan you’re loading your Walmart rifles to hunt.

If I’m being honest? Totally honest? I’ve spent a stupid amount of time daydreaming about being famous, and how amazing it’d be to have millions of followers. That’s normal, right? A shallow distraction from reality? I live in California, after all, where fame pollutes the atmosphere then penetrates your skin with the UV rays. But this isn’t fame. It’s infamy. And I feel like I do in my recurring naked-at-school nightmare—gross and exposed.

Careful what you wish for? Fee and I don’t have followers so much as we have trolls and trackers. We’re being flayed in the media. Convicted by social. And now we’re freaking fugitives, hiding out in this scrap metal shed behind a little cabin in the mountains overlooking Malibu.

I’m so thankful for this old pink laptop—courtesy of Javier, who’s letting us hide in his shed, which I’ll explain later. I’ve caught up on the fake news and read all the hate tweets. Bombers? Religious terrorists? Red Market runners, trafficking stolen babies? It feels like a joke, but it’s not. And to make it even more real, the rock evangelist Reverend Jagger Jonze just put up a million-dollar reward for our capture. There’s a freaking bounty on our heads. So here we sit in this shed. No way to defend ourselves. Nowhere to run.

My throat hurts from swallowing screams. And the worst thing—I mean, worst is relative under these circumstances—but Fee is really sick. She’s curled up beside me under a tattered blanket, not really awake but groaning. Whatever’s wrong with her, it started at the ball, and once we got here, she basically collapsed. Her forehead’s hot. She’s pale. Something she ate? She barely ate today. Flu? I don’t know.

In order to remain calm-ish, I’m going to write our side of the story. I’m afraid we’ll be tracked to the shed if I post entries in real time, so I won’t submit until I know we’re safe. This old laptop has had a long-life battery upgrade, thank God. I could write all night. Maybe I will. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last. Writing? It’s the only way I’ve ever been able to make sense of my life.

Just this afternoon, Fee and I were with our other best friends—Brooklyn Leon, Zara Rohanian and Delaney Sharpe, all of us students at Sacred Heart High School—getting ready for the ball at Jinny Hutsall’s house. Hutsalls are beyond rich, so they hired a StyleMeNow crew to come over and do our hair, paint our nails, curl our lashes and plump our lips, which I did not hate. We sipped the champagne Jinny’d cadged from the fridge—a very unJinny move, now I think about it—and snapped a hundred pics of our virgin-bride splendor, while our tuxedoed daddies tossed back Manhattans on Warren Hutsall’s lanai. The others got giggly, but slipping into my gorgeous Mishka, I felt nothing but dread.

It wasn’t about the virginity pledge we were about to take. My friends and I weren’t serious about that. Not really, or not all of us. The Virtue Ball was a swag grab, a couture gown, a brush with celebrity, a photo op. Or at least that’s what we said. For me? As an atheist who definitely won’t be saving it until marriage, it was also an opportunity to do some reporting for my blog. That’s what I told myself, over and above the dread, which I’ll explain later.

Driving there tonight, I still hadn’t decided if I’d dig into the hellaciousness of vowing chastity to our fathers or if I’d go with a softer piece acknowledging the father/daughter bonding but include some solid stats to show that teaching abstinence doesn’t work. I hadn’t decided which angle would get me more likes. That’s the truth. I hadn’t quite got to the point where I actually was considering exposing the whole corrupt deal. Too scared, maybe?

Well, I know which way I’ll go now. Though I couldn’t have imagined I’d be writing about how Fee and I became outlaws hiding in a seven-by-eight-foot shed, crowded by a greasy lawn mower, a couple of leaf blowers, a tangle of fishing rods, three old suitcases and some fat white trash bags leaking lawn clippings.

When I look up, I can see the full moon and stars blinking through gaps in the aluminum roof, and the distant lights from passing planes. There are no doubt already bounty hunters out there looking for us in their MiniCops and GarBirds—those homemade flying jobbies people get shipped from China to build in their garages even though they’re totally illegal. They’re crowdsourcing our capture. It’s all over the news.

There’s a window at the front of the shed that looks out over the rocky cliffs, and from there I can see the neighbor’s trailer a hundred or so yards away—an ancient silver Airstream, the front tow-hitch propped off-kilter on three big cinder blocks, a big blue tarp that was strung up to make an awning over the porch billowing in the breeze. Light from a television was flickering in the front window when I looked out before. No vehicle in the driveway, though.

I’ve seen a couple of drones whir by. Definitely looking for us. The new cam-drones are so quiet and acrobatic you don’t see them until they’re on you taking surveillance. I noticed an UberCopter pass a few minutes ago. Saw the police helicopters flying back in the direction of Sacred Heart High, where the bomb exploded. With the bounty, and the media firestorm, there will be a lot more of them tomorrow in the daylight. Unless the Santa Anas start blowing. The news is saying we should expect strong winds later tonight, and off and on tomorrow. Crossing freaking fingers. The winds will keep the air traffic down.

The cable stations are covering us round the clock like we’re a weather event—a hurricane or severe snowstorm or a California wildfire so big and bad they gotta give it a name. Fox News is calling our story “The Hunt”—so ugly rhyming memes. My head’s spinning. It’s been torture to go online. But worse not to know. People say you shouldn’t read the comments section. People are right. I seriously want to respond to each one. Like, I want to tell Twitter user @H8UevlGASHES—who suggested the insertion of a broken bottle into our life-giving lady parts—that he does not understand irony. And I want to tell that congresswoman from Texas who just tweeted that Fee and I should have our “eyes sewn open and be forced to watch a late-term abortion” that she should definitely kill the person who does her hair. The guy who started #rape’em1st? He just makes me wanna cry. And? The president tweeted out a White House dinner invitation to Jinny Hutsall and Reverend Jagger Jonze. It would be funny if it weren’t too true.

Our “friend” Jinny is trending too. They’re saying that what happened at the Virtue Ball tonight has ignited an “American Holy War.” Jinny fucking Hutsall. Until that blond-hair, yoga-arm, apple-ass thigh-gap-in-a-tartan-skirt moved in next door a few months ago and joined our class at Sacred Heart High, we were just us. The Hive. Friends since we were toddlers. Now, two of us are the New Targets of Holy War. And the host of tonight’s ball, Reverend Jagger Jonze—the one that put up the million-dollar bounty after everything went down in the parking lot at the AVB? He’s rocketed to superstardom. Just like that. Jagger Jonze is the devil. But more on that later.

First—the bomb. We didn’t set the bomb. And if someone wanted to bomb the ball, why did they blow up the bathroom clear on the other side of the school’s fifteen-acre campus? Nothing makes sense. It’s all just crazy. We’ve been accused of being “runners” doing dastardly deeds for the Red Market. My mother’s always said there’s no such thing as the Red Market. She says it’s a construct—evil alt-right propaganda. I don’t know what to believe. I mean, people have been talking about the Pink Market since long before abortion was banned again. Everyone knows there’s a Pink Market out there helping minors access birth control, and morning-after pills, and getting them to underground clinics and all.

But the Red Market? Supposedly it’s a baby-stealing mafia that supplies product to illegal stem cell research labs. Even the media say “alleged” or “rumored” when they talk about it. Law enforcement officers and politicians are rumored to be involved in the Red Market too. Even if my mother’s wrong, and people are actually that depraved, Fee and I are not, and never have been, and never would be, involved in such foul shit.

I’m scared. No, terrified.

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