Picture this one: a hairy, Israeli man is behind the wheel of a metallic green Ford Aerostar minivan. Seated beside him is his eleven-year-old son, dressed in a navy-blue, wool three-piece suit.
They are on a business trip. Together.
The van, rented from a local Ford dealership that the hairy, Israeli father regularly leases cars from, is rocketing down I-95 toward Virginia. The speed-hungry hairy, Israeli father, who learned how to drive tanks and camels in the Sinai desert, guns the engine, squeezing every last drop of combustion out of the Aerostar’s probably very confused 145 horses. Every now and then, the hairy, Israeli father lets loose a stream of Hebrew curses out of the window at some hapless, terrified motorist, and some of his false teeth (Israelis don’t believe in dentists, or asthma, or homosexuality).
“YECHHHATE-CHHHAT-CHHAAARA, SHIKHHAMOKAH! BENZONAT, MISHIMSILHA!”
The young son, in the navy-blue, wool three-piece suit stares at the Aerostar’s glovebox. The rotary knob with the vertical keyhole slit that opens it stares back at him, like a plastic cyclops. What could the owner of a 1991 Ford Aerostar have that’s so important s/he would need to lock in the glovebox?
But there are no questions, and no answers. Only speed, because an Israeli was given the keys to a 3,374 pound tank, a 174.9 inch-long camel. The road to Egypt is long and hot and the other motorists have scarves over their mouths and they are pelting the camel-tank with rocks and Molotov cocktails, and they are screaming and he is screaming.
“Dad, what does ‘sechto ahse’ mean?”
The hairy Israeli’s eyes flicker down at the steering wheel, then back up at the road ahead.
— — — — — —
The hairy Israeli father is my father, and yours. At least, you wanted him to be your father. Every child I went to school with wanted him to be their father. He threw crazy birthdays and played Ga-Ga in the backyard while other fathers only knew baseball and football — not even soccer. Kids left my birthday parties with hermit crabs and frogs, fire-bellied newts and Siamese fighting fish as party favors. By the time my mother finally put a stop to this insane tradition, it went out with a whimper — everyone got a small cactus; a faint holla-back to his desert days. The 6-Day War, the Yom Kippur War. The wars with his father, who used to chase him around the house and beat him with his dress shoe. The wars in his schizophrenic little sister’s mind. The wars at home.
Maybe all Israeli children got live animals as birthday party favors. Maybe everyone there is out of their goddamn mind — what did I know? I was from Pennsylvania, and the Girdle Man was my father.
He came here in 1972 and, by 1987, he had opened his own factory, making women’s lingerie. He would usually have the office calls forwarded to our house so that he could continue to conduct business in our home. It wasn’t infrequently that we would be eating dinner, while he would be standing in the kitchen, yelling at some poor housewife in Alabama (in his dubious English) on our white, rotary wall phone about how she didn’t know what size bra she wore. “No women do! Now, put the END of the tape measure in your LEFT hand on your LEFT NIPPLE, OKAY?”
I was always half-expecting the police to show up at our house, but they never did. By the time I was old enough to be embarrassed by his profession, he was beginning to transition into making professional athletic-wear — compression shorts, moisture-wicking t-shirts, sports bras, and back support garments. He was selling to professional baseball, hockey, and football teams, and the clout that this could have gotten me with my friends never panned out because, as a theatre kid, I didn’t even care. The fact that my father attended Philadelphia Eagles’s Quarterback Randall Cunningham’s wedding didn’t interest me at all, only that he was seated at the same table as the actor, Jaleel White.
It was during this career transition that I found myself in a rented Ford Aerostar, which was bigger than my bedroom at the time, hurtling down to Virginia to attend the Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association trade-show with my father. The van’s 141 cubic feet of cargo capacity was filled with eight or nine huge cardboard boxes filled with sports bras of all sizes, compression shorts, tights, t-shirts, and other close-fitting, moisture-wicking garments that we were supposed to hawk and otherwise shill at this event that would be attended, so I was instructed, by “thousands of female athletes, Gabriel — thousands — coaches, athletic trainers, sports medicine… assholes, okay? This is a big, big show.”
I knew that. I mean; that’s why I was wearing the navy-blue, wool three-piece suit. My soft, brown bowl-cut was freshly washed and blow-dried. I looked like a midget Moe Howard funeral director.
We pulled into the convention center where the event was being held and the hairy, Israeli father started throwing boxes out of the van onto the pavement because he was an animal and that’s how animals do things. He wasn’t like other people — I always understood that — and it was like his brain and his biceps and were always on fire; in those days. These days, he falls asleep on the sofa at 8:15, but, in the heady early 1990s, he still prowled around like he was a Staff Sergeant. He still beat the sandy, shitting piss out of a rented minivan like it was his camel.
“Gabriel,” he barked at his Private, “bring the box marked ‘B-Cups’ into the building and find our booth.”
I picked up the massive box and promptly dropped it, because I was eleven. Strike that, because I was eleven and only half-Israeli. If I had been eleven and full-on Israeli, I’d probably have had a mustache and three concurrent girlfriends.
“Jesus Christ,” I heard him moan from inside the Aerostar. I was a gaunt disappointment, and I knew it. I wasn’t terribly upset by it, though, because the only person whose opinion of me really mattered was my mother.
Once we set up the booth (I was responsible for hanging up the corporate sign using safety pins, affixing it to the gaudy, bright blue cloth that draped behind our booth — I stood on a chair and made sure it was straight because that was something I could control) it was time to start engaging people. This, besides killing Arabs and screaming at half-naked housewives in Alabama over the telephone, was my father’s natural habitat. To him, speaking to strangers and engaging them in an affable, humorous, skillful way, was as effortless as drinking coffee, which I’m sure he started doing at age two. He rattled off scientific-sounding information about moisture-management and the chemical structure of his competitor’s garments with the same ease that I would, decades later, toss off W. S. Gilbert’s incomprehensible patter songs in an untrained, though pleasant-enough baritone. It was easy to forget, strapped to a velour passenger seat as he thrashed his way through rush-hour traffic yelling obscenities in his mother tongue, that he was actually an educated textile engineer who knew his shit. I had listened to these schpiels so many times that I knew them by heart and, when a crowd would gather around him, and someone else would sidle up to the table, I would timidly introduce myself and ask if they had any questions about the product line.
A couple college-aged athletes would smile and glance at each other, and they would throw me a softball or two, which I would answer with ease — relative ease, for a burgeoning fifth grader. I boldly asked one of the ladies if she would like a sample.
“Well, sure,” she answered, “what do you have?”
“We have sports bras,” I announced, smiling. “Do you know your size?”
She and her friend blushed. I should have, but I didn’t know better.
“Um… I, uh, I don’t, actually.”
“That’s okay — he says that no women do,” I said, smiling, nodding over my left shoulder at the hairy Israeli doing his salesman patter to an attentive group of coaches and trainers.
I looked squarely — or, roundly? — at the chest of the young woman standing in front of me, studying. Her eyes widened.
“I think you’re a 34-C.”
She gasped and a breathless laugh escaped her. Her friend put her hand on her own mouth in shock. I turned around and rummaged through the box, triumphantly emerging with a plastic bag containing one sports bra, size 34-C.
“Here you go,” I said, handing it to her. She took it, looking at me as if she were in a dream.
“Do me!” her friend chirped up like a robin.
“Oh,” I said, “okay.” I looked — smaller than her friend, significantly.
“32-B. Is that right?”
“Uh…” she stammered giddily, “I think so.”
“Great!” I said, turning around to fish around inside the cardboard cavern. “I hope you like it,” I said, handing it to her.
“Thank you SO. MUCH.” she said, and then she turned and grabbed another young woman wearing a polo shirt that matched hers and her friend’s.
“OhmyGOD, Sarah — this boy is guessing cup sizes! You GUYS,” she said to a passing group, “you’ve got to come over here to this booth!”
And so it went. A pre-pubescent carnival barker for breasts, standing beside the textile engineer from the land of milk and honey held court all day, doling out samples like a zookeeper tosses out fish to the penguins at lunchtime. At the end of the day, wiped and with far fewer boxes, the teammates climbed back into the Aerostar. The Israeli put the key into the ignition and turned it. He looked at his son.
“Well,” he exhaled, “was that fun?”
“That was great,” I said. He put the gearshift lever down three notches into Drive and we started moving.
“Do you think you want to work with me some day?” he asked, stealing a glance at me. I smiled at him.