Seeing Red: Toldot

Call me Red. I was a wild man in that life. A wild ass of a man, to be precise. I’d overheard my Uncle Smallie use those very words to describe me to my mother Becky. The hell of it is that I always idolized Smallie, ever since he started showing up again at family functions. When he came back to bury Pops was when I saw my chance to finally have a real role model. After all, my own father, Smallie’s brother Izzie, kept sending me out on these dangerous ‘errands’, like it was nothing. Imagine your own flesh and blood telling you you had to “eat what you kill.” Ugly, and more than a little scary. I knew there was some bad blood between Smallie and Izzie, but it seemed like they buried the hatchet along with Pops, my grandfather. Smallie was my kind of guy. He had his own operation off by himself, and had launched his own big family, twelve branches! He didn’t mix much with our little clan. Everybody says Izzie is this major dude, especially now that he runs Pops’ outfit. All I see is a bunch of low level foot soldiers, that ancient consigliori Weezer and my homebody brother Jakie. Little Jakie. Everybody thinks he’s a harmless nerd, so they don’t send him out to do the heavy lifting. I know better. He totally swindled me, and all I ended up with was beans. Actually seeds.

I came back empty handed from one of Izzie’s ‘errands’, not a good thing in this family. I found Jakie at the kitchen table, his usual spot to hang out to be close to Becky, the conniving little runt. This time Becky wasn’t there. So I walk in just as it looks like Jakie’s hurrying to cover up this wooden bowl on the table, like he was hiding a stash of something pretty hot, maybe some blow or some horse. You never know with that sly little bugger. Anyway, I’m thinking if I can get my hands on whatever he’s got it’ll satisfy Izzie that I didn’t come home empty handed. That little creep had me by the short hairs and he knew it. I was desperate. Only years later, when for completely different reasons I paid real cash to see a shrink, did I realize that I was actually starving. Starving for affection, from Izzie. Forget Becky. I knew there was never any love lost there. That pain is so deep I can barely recognize it’s coming from me. My one chance was with Izzie and I didn’t want to blow it.

So the little punk looks up at me, all red-eyed and innocent, and says to me, “OK, bro, I’ll let you have this whole stash on one condition.” I could feel my fists curling into tight balls, but I knew I didn’t dare touch him. The dirty secret in this family is it’s the chicks that really have the power. I definitely couldn’t afford to cross Becky or I was toast. She was supposed to be a psychic double of Grams, her mother-in-law and my grandmother. Everybody somehow knew it was Grams who orchestrated whatever bad shit it was went down with Smallie and his mother. Not to speak ill of the dead, you understand, but I’m no fool. So I kept my mouth shut and nodded to Jakie to tell me his proposition. “I want you to sign over your cut of the family operation to me,” he says, absolute deadpan. I was stunned. I looked at his face to see if he was pulling my leg, but no. That must be one el primo stash for him to try to pull a stunt like that. Stupid, really. Wouldn’t be worth the scrap of paper it was scribbled on. Izzie would laugh in Jakie’s face. Or so I thought. “OK,” I says to Jakie, “I’m in.” He nods to a pad of paper and a pen on the kitchen counter, all the while hunched over his little hoard, like he was afraid I’d try to make a grab for it. I scratched out our little ‘contract’ and signed it and smacked it down on the table right in front of him. With both hands, the little drama queen pushed the bowl across the table in my direction.

You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. “What the fuck is this shit!” I must’ve yelled loud enough to wake the dead. Jakie was busy stuffing the piece of paper into his pants pocket. He didn’t even look at me as he mumbled, “Acapulco Gold. Primo seeds, specially bred for superior yield and potency.” I couldn’t believe it. Fuckin’ farmer in the fuckin’ dell. How was I going to explain this to Izzie? I’d been had by the coolest little con man working the turf north of Houston Street. Totally floored me. But that wasn’t the end of it. I actually did have to start paying my residuals to Jakie, the frickin’ snake. Every time I counted it out I could feel the blood rise behind my eyes. But the whole family backed him up and I didn’t have a leg to stand on. Some time after the Acapulco Gold fiasco—which by the way ended with Izzie giving the seeds back to Jakie and telling him to see if he could “do something with this shit your brother gave me, maybe plant it in the greenhouse and see what grows”—Izzie gave me a second chance.

I still remember it like yesterday. Izzie called me into his study late on a Monday afternoon. He was rocking in his favorite La-Z-Boy covered in a mountain of afghans Becky made for him. I suddenly noticed how old he looked, like some geezer on the deck of a cruise ship, something he would never allow himself to do. I wasn’t even sure he could see me, his eyes had gotten so bad. Kind of ironic, because to tell the truth I never really felt like Izzie could see me. But I never stopped trying. “Boy,” he says to me, “come close.” As I knelt by the chair he gave me an affectionate whack on the back of the head. “Boy, you know that Cuban Chinese place way over on the Upper West Side?” I didn’t, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “Yes, sir.” Suddenly Izzie had a terrible coughing fit. I thought he was going to kick right then and there. But he motioned me to stay put. “I really got a yen for their spare ribs and Spanish rice. I want you to swing over there and bring me back some before I conk out for the night. Then we have some business to discuss.” I was on my feet and practically out the door before he added, “And Red.” I paused, “Sir?” He coughed without even looking in my direction, “Don’t fuck it up.” My ears must’ve turned bright red and I was outa there like a bat out of hell. Almost knocked over Becky on my way through the door. Funny look on her face, definitely not affection, but I couldn’t figure it. Later it all made sense.

When I got back with the ribs and rice I was really stoked. I had asked Weezer if he knew the place the old man was talking about and bingo I was on it. Couldn’t have taken me more than an hour and a half, two max, including waiting for the food to come out of the kitchen. I couldn’t help noticing what a grubby dive the place was. Wondered how Izzy’s finicky gut could even digest this stuff. I practically leaped through Izzie’s door and couldn’t resist letting out a big “Tada!” as I held out the grease stained paper bag. Izzie practically fell out of his chair, he started coughing so hard. His face looked like he’d seen a ghost. “Shit!” he finally managed to spit out, “What the hell is going on here?” I was puzzled, to say the least, but I was getting this nasty feeling that something wasn’t right. “What’s the problem, sir?” I was truly in the dark. “It must’ve been your brother.” Turns out Becky was listening in and figured out what the ‘business’ was that Izzie wanted to talk about. The one last thing that Izzie could give me to offset the loss of income due to handing over my cut of the family business to the little jerk. The signet ring. Passed on from father to son, it opened doors you couldn’t even imagine. But Becky sure could imagine. She imagined her sweet little Jakie waltzing through all those damn doors.

So it was a set up. While I was driving like mad crosstown, Becky was on the phone to Grubhub and offered a sizeable tip if the driver could get there in under an hour. The real coup de grâce was she actually got some of my cologne, my unique fragrance for God’s sake, and splashed it all over that little shit Jakie. I even overheard them laughing about something Izzie said about being confused by “the stench of Red and the voice of Jakie.” As I stood by Izzie’s La-Z-Boy I got a sinking feeling in my gut that I knew that somehow Jakie had gotten the jump on me again. I begged Izzie, so humiliating, to think of something he could give me, anything. Izzie hesitated, and I knew there was something else. Finally he spilled, “OK, Red, there’s a place up the Hudson Valley where the family has kept a storehouse of weapons in case of ‘emergencies’. You’re probably gonna need them, with your personality. Let’s just say persuasion isn’t your strong suit. But you can’t touch any of it until I’m six feet under. Then you’ll get access to all the firepower you could ever dream of. Capiche?” I nodded and, God forgive me, I wished Izzie dead then and there. Then I’d take care of that rat, Jakie. When I walked out into the hallway I let out a howl that shook every window in the house. Next thing I knew they packed Jakie off to the old country, before I could even give him a goodbye hug, if you know what I mean. I found myself lurking around the house at odd hours, trying to figure out what these two people who were supposed to be my parents wanted from me. Then it came to me. Becky presented Jakie’s journey to Izzy as a fait accomplis, “After all, we don’t want him running with those Harlem types like his brother. Let him find a good girl, from the family.” So that was it. Next day I hightailed it to Uncle Smallie’s place to ask him if I could date his daughter. The cute one. Meanwhile my every third thought was of Izzy’s death.

About the Author
Michael Diamond is a writer based in the Washington, DC area. He practices psychiatry there and is a doctor of medical qigong. He has published occasional verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, two cats, a cockatiel named Peaches and a tank of hyperactive fish. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, as in camera obscura, from Latin, meaning "dark room", also referred to as a pinhole camera, exploiting the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene outside of a chamber projects itself through a small hole and can be seen on the inner surface of the chamber. A glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.