• AN Block

Send Him Home

The sun had already begun sagging in earnest by the time Alan Bornstein blooped their last tennis ball, the newish one still shedding a bit of soft gray fuzz, over the chain link fence.

“Bye-bye,” he sang out, waving at the ball’s downward arc before it skidded off the hood of a parked station wagon, then vanished beneath the McDonald Avenue elevated train tracks. Whipping a crumpled white cotton handkerchief from his back pocket, he flourished it overhead in capitulation, and shrugged his shoulders at Lynn Blass, who stood poised at the net in her baggy blue and gray Lincoln High School gym uniform. “Me sorry. Me no good.”

“No good?” She clapped her racket twice. “You’re a natural! You did terrific.”

“Shucks.” Alan hung his head. “Couldn’t have did nothing, Ma’am, without your Daddy’s super-duper Pancho Gonzales cat gut racket.”

Lynn jogged towards the sideline bench at mid court. “That last shot though, what the heck?”

“That? Trying to lob it over your head.” “Very tricky,” she said, pointing. “This isn’t really your first time ever, is it? Swear.”

“Honest.” Alan’s palm pounded his thinning oatmeal colored cardigan sweater. “Took just ninety minutes to dispatch all three balls to oblivion.”

Resting her foot on the bench, Lynn leaned forward and balanced the heavily taped racket she’d lent him on her thigh. Then she adjusted a rectangular wood press over its head, tightening the four metal screws.

“Must’ve been a real yawn, for you. Hardly even worked up a sweat.” His eyes flew from her sneaker laces, how perfectly she’d tied them, to the immaculate pale pink bow rising like rabbit ears from her rust-colored hair. He held out a stick of Juicy Fruit gum.

“A yawn? Right!” Lynn brushed his hand aside, then zipped a cloth dust cover over the racket. “You’ve got the backswing down, Mister, you’ve got some touch on your ground strokes. Really put me through my paces with all those long rallies.”

“Yeah? Next you’ll try and get me on a bicycle.”

“Say when. It’s fun to try new things.”

“Never happen,” he said. “This boy don’t like to fall down and get boo-boos. Tricycle maybe.”

She stuffed both rackets head first in a macramé bag with the rest of their gear, hoisted it over her shoulder and motioned for him to follow. They passed six or seven teenage boys huddled around a radio blaring Time Is On My Side in the adjacent park, two of whom sat arm wrestling at a concrete chess table, squinting and straining through wisps of cigarette smoke. He asked her if this section of Brooklyn always looked so deserted, he wondered out loud where they had hidden all the darn cars, he asked how often she ventured down here, and with whom she usually played. Slow down, she said, every chance I get, the whole family, my parents and brothers, color us complete fanatics, or with Susie Millman sometimes, she’s good, or Nedda, that artsy-fartsy a few houses down who attends Pratt Institute when she isn’t traipsing off to some beatnik happening in the Village. Or, once in a blue moon, her cousin Phyllis, the snob from Seagate, who’s graduating in January and heading right to Pharmacy College in Boston, but she has this totally annoying tendency to cheat on the line calls, anything close, so they just hit together, they never play sets. How’s about Stevie Lind, Alan asked her, Huh, snapping his gum, he carries himself like some big time tennis pro, and she made a face. She said, Gross, Steven is hardly intelligent enough to know which end of the racket to hold, and Alan said, Oh, so you expect me to believe you’re the one cute girl at Lincoln not gaga over his ice blue eyes, that the two of you didn’t go see Goldfinger together last month on Kings Highway, to which she said, Please! Give me a little more credit than that, whatever you heard, it was practically a dozen of us, en masse. Then she cocked her head, batted her eyes, and spoke in a honeyed little girl falsetto: Besides, he’s a pretty boy, and us cute girls like the wild rugged type. Alan roared and beat his chest Tarzan-style, whereupon he saw their bus, hollered, It’s coming, it’s coming! and they dashed off herky-jerky towards the corner.

“Make sure you ask the driver to give you a transfer this time,” Lynn reminded him, as they ascended the steps.

“Okay if we ride up front?” he asked. “I like seeing the full panorama.”

“Sure. Be my guest.”

“And you remember where we get off?”

“Relax, little boy.” She slid in next to him and patted his head. “Leave the driving to us.”

They coursed through an unfamiliar neighborhood of open air fruit stands and street vendors, laundromats, churches, people hanging their heads from windows, sitting on stoops, children bicycling against traffic. She rested her head on his shoulder, that was a first, neither spoke but Lynn did hum some melodic lines under her breath that Alan couldn’t place, classical he guessed, from like a 40s suspense thriller, the bus kept lurching to a stop, loading more passengers and by the time she took his hand to disembark people stood crowding the aisles.

The B-68 took forever though. Darkness had fallen now, a small silent crowd grew behind them under the amber streetlight, and the moment Alan let her hand go and stepped out of line to search down Coney Island Avenue, Lynn called out, “No need to do that, silly. It won’t make the bus come one second faster.”

“I’m kind of thirsty, are you?” he said, eyeing an older man on line in a crew cut with no visible neck and a basketball sized paunch whose blubbery lips kept trembling. The man was marching in place, hop-stepping, swinging a metal lunch pail and mumbling something inaudible. “Starving too. Good old Brighton, can’t wait to get back. Home sweet home.”

“It’s all in your head,” she said. “Mind over matter.”

He resumed his vigil, stepping back to the gutter, thinking what does it mean, her taking my hand, maybe she does like me, or did I take hers and she let me, same difference, but what do we talk about now, what’s the right move, then he spied two boys loping across the avenue, elbowing each other. Both wore pompadours, sleeveless ribbed white undershirts, they were swinging their bare shoulders, bopping their heads forward, pushing and laughing loud enough to attract attention. Alan looked left into traffic. “Hey!” the short stocky red faced one shouted, stopping to punch his gangly friend’s arm. “Tennis anyone?” He puckered his lips like a whitefish, threw his head back and made a drawn out kissing noise. When Lynn folded her arms, he said, “Whatta you’se all looking at, whatsa problem?” Whereupon, the no-necked man bared his teeth, raised both fists to his chin, and bellowed, “Shudda HELL up! All a yuz! Little bastids, yuh!” People edged away, a woman wearing a mesh kerchief twisted her lips shuddering in disgust, while the man himself resumed mumbling, hup two three four, as though the outburst had never happened, stamping his feet somewhat faster now, and the taller boy dragged the one who had shouted by the arm, staggering away down the Avenue where, to Alan’s relief, they continued throwing elbows, hooting, and laughing boisterously.

“Dopes,” Lynn said. Bristling, she adjusted her bag with the racket handles protruding higher on her shoulder. “Troublemakers.”

“Where’s the darn bus already?” Alan asked. Slinging his arm around her, he lifted the bag off and onto his own shoulder. “Hey, thanks for that lesson, Loon. So, you think I’ve got potential?”

“Lots.” She beamed up at him, winked, then bit her lip. “Can’t believe it took me this long to get a racket in your hand. Wait, you and me, when did we first meet? How long ago?”

“Ow,” Alan said, knifing his heart with an imaginary dagger, “I am so wounded. In Journalism class. Knock, knock.” His fist tapped the side of her head twice. “Anybody home?”

“No, obviously,” she said, as their bus swung towards them, brakes squealing, “but we didn’t meet meet there. Class doesn’t count.”

“You must mean at Ellen Tarlow’s birthday party then, that night at the Baths. You came with what’s his face, he started shooting hoops, showing off, Ellen practically threw herself at him and you eventually drifted over to where I was skulking in the shadows, devouring pretzels, and said, ‘Hey, you sit behind me in Mrs. J’s class, don’t you?’”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, as they moved up, about to board. “It was that composition you wrote on Steeplechase Park that grabbed my attention. Must be a year ago, right?”

“October the fourth. The night I put a spell on you. Thirteen months and three days.”

It took a while but eventually they’d started passing notes back and forth, she’d stopped seeing “what’s his face” because, she said, all he wanted was to boss her around, they’d invented pet names (Shubert Allie, shortened to Shoob, and Loony Lynn-Sky, or sometimes Toon), and they’d both begun apprenticing for the school newspaper. Not writing, not yet. Gathering story ideas for the seniors, proofreading galleys, taking notes at school events, typing them up and submitting them for consideration.

“So, you want to go for pizza?” he asked, rising to offer his seat to a gray haired woman whose curved wrinkly hands clutched a bag of groceries to her hip. “My treat, as payment for launching me headlong on this career as the new Rod Laver.”

“Pizza? That won’t make this a date, will it?” Her eyes widened, she sunk her teeth into the back of her hand in mock horror. The lady, who had just sat down, adjusted her glasses trying to focus on Lynn. “I don’t want to besmirch your reputation.”

“Your reputation,” the lady said to Lynn, indignant. “What kind of mishegoss is that? This is a nice refined boy, girlie. A mensch. Don’t let him get away.”

At Vinnie’s on Brighton Beach Avenue, sitting side by side, they shared a laugh over it, Alan asked if maybe they could hit again sometimes, Lynn said positively, that the next time she would teach the nice refined mensch to hit a vicious topspin serve, then they discovered that they had the same absolute favorite teacher, a nearsighted young poet named Jerome Freedman who tended to sit cross legged atop his desk, and pose thought-provoking questions to the ceiling, without expecting obvious or simplistic answers.

“Coolest teacher ever,” Alan said. “I had The Freed fall semester sophomore year. Really makes you use your head. Could be the one person in all Lincoln who even semi gets me.”

Lynn thrust out her lower lip.

“Present company excepted. You call him Jerry though? You know him outside school?”

“Believe it or not, Jerry Boy went all through from kindergarten with my oldest brother Andrew. When he saw my name on the attendance sheet he asked if the Big Jock and I might perchance be related.”

“He did not!”

“They weren’t exactly buddy buddy. I gather Andrew used to pick on him or something because of how chubby and unathletic he was. How he’d daydream in class. Andy can be kind of a brat that way. Merciless. He fit right in at Princeton.”

Alan swayed sideways to sneak a whiff of her hair, flowery, lemon-scented, like laundry detergent, he thought. He snarled and shook his fist. “Well, I don’t care how big this Princeton Tiger jock brother of yours is, he better not pick on you. Or else. Ready for another slice?”

“Just one for me, thanks,” she said, patting a paper napkin at the corner of her mouth.

“Think I can’t afford it?” he asked her. “Or what?”

“So, is this a date?”

“No, Loony,” Alan said, tickling her ribs. “It’s a raisin.”

“Okay,” she said, gasping, “stop! So, I guess between us Platonic pals then I can confide: I’ve begun a diet.”


“With ma mere. It’s called The One Slice Diet. We made a pact. Self-control. Everything in moderation.”

“Except moderation itself, right?”

“Exactly,” Lynn said. “On that we go way overboard.”

“Now, what in the world are you on a diet for?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” She puffed her cheeks. “Andrew gets married next summer and we have to all look semi-presentable for the pictures.”

“I may work slow, but I’ve had my eye on you for a while.” His fingertips grazed her hair. “And for you to look any better than this, it’s not humanly possible.”

“Why, thank you, sir,” she said, eyes gleaming. “But, if that indeed is the case, pauvre Lynn is in dire straits.”

“So, everyone’s a fitness nut, the whole Blass family? Your parents, they’re so trim, first thing in the morning I see them playing paddle ball, doing calisthenics. Like kids. I don’t get it.”

“Well, it’s Daddy’s job. You know he’s a police officer. He has to keep in good enough shape to catch the bad guys, right?”

“You trying to strike fear in my heart?” Alan gulped. “He really is? Un gendarme?”

“Oui. And a night school professeur,” she said. “With a book coming out. What does your Dad do?”

“Unemployed,” he said. “Hasn’t been feeling too well lately.” He patted his stomach. “After going bankrupt last summer.”

A few weeks later, they returned to McDonald Avenue for a second lesson, Lynn tried teaching Alan the serve, but he had difficulty getting the toss right. This time though she rewarded him with a long hug, for not losing any balls, she murmured, and then, just before Thanksgiving, they both received handwritten invitations on English Department stationery, to join the Great Books Club where, along with eight other eleventh graders, they would gather in a circle in the dimly lit living room of Mr. Jerome Freedman’s basement apartment near Prospect Park, and struggle to make sense of Beckett and Dostoevsky and Aristotle and Ionesco and Yeats and Camus every other Tuesday night. It was on the subway returning from one of these august conclaves, as Alan called them, towards the end of January, that he and Lynn held hands a second time. Neither had spoken until the doors opened at Avenue H, Alan looked out the window, and then reached over and abruptly clapped his on top of hers.

“Hmmm,” she said, circling his palm with her thumb. “I was beginning to think Shooby-Dooby was mad at wittle me.”

What? What made you think that?”

She looked up shyly. “Well, I called twice, I spoke to your mother who, by the way, was super-gabby, we had a nice upbeat girl chat both times, she didn’t sound at all depressed, I told her it was kind of important, but you never called me.”

“Wow,” he said. “Some things never change. She can be a little forgetful. When she misplaces her pills. Sorry, I didn’t get any message. What was it about?”

“So, you’re not mad then?”

“Just a little pensive, or morose,” he said. “Good SAT words, right? Not sure about this Great Books Club. Thinking of quitting. If it wasn’t for you.”

What? It’s a real taste of college. Such an enriching experience.” “I guess.

“You didn’t say a single word tonight.”

“I don’t get poetry. Or literature. Or philosophy, okay? I’m just kind of an average Joe, not one of the brains, like you and the rest of this group. Honor students, intellectuals. We don’t have a single, you know, book in our apartment. I mean, like literature. My Dad says Ain’t. Slurps his soup, get the picture? I don’t even know why I’m in in this club. Except to hang out with you, baby face.”

“You’re average?” Lynn said. “Are you batty? You are so smart. Oh, my God!”

“Well, not Honor Society smart.”

“Because you wouldn’t apply. Right?”


“Which I still fail to comprehend, the rationale, how being in Honor Society, which is so impressive on a college application, could possibly hurt anyone else.”

“I don’t know, Lynn-Sky, ask my mother. High school may be my last stop anyway. I’m just___”

“Stop it!”

“Deep down, I guess, it just feels like, Hey, look at me! Egotistical. And, if by some miracle, I do get accepted to a college, I wouldn’t want it to be because of Honor Society.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So, I was calling to inform you that Mrs. J’s asked us to be co-editors of the paper next year. You,” she said, poking his chest, “and me!”

He nodded, the train rocketed past Neck Road towards Sheepshead Bay, then slowed, approaching the station.

“Well?” she asked, as the doors flew open. “Mr. average Joe?”

“It’s sinking in.” He looked from the empty platform, up to the Miss Subways poster where a wholesome Broadway show type in a pixie haircut named Beverly flirted down from the wall, her eyes vacant and glittery, two of her front teeth colored in by some delinquent, and then Alan leaned over to press his lips against Lynn’s cheek. “Wow. Guess you’re stuck with uncultured me all next year,” he said. “That’s what you get, trying to enrich the disadvantaged. Help them expand their horizons.”

“Whether you realize it or not,” Mr. Freedman announced, to begin the next session of Great Books, pacing, waving his arms overhead, “you’re all in search of something. Who you are? Maybe. But if you aren’t on some quest of discovery, guaranteed, you’re not here.”

He tamped cherry tobacco into his pipe, then lit it and continued circling the room.

“Instead of discussing books with me, you realize you could be spending your spare time watching Patty Duke and her identical cousin, don’t you? Or in some other worthwhile pursuit. Bowling, for example. Stealing hubcaps. I’m not knocking it. But maybe, if we open our minds together here, these explorations of quote unquote literary masterworks will help you unlock what you’re searching for. In that strange non-book realm we refer to as ‘real life.’” He puffed again, scanned their eyes and when his gaze met Alan’s, the boy looked down to the hands he’d just folded in his lap.

“Tonight we’ll put literature aside for a moment. Instead of flashing our usual analytical brilliance, let’s do some listening. Remember the blazing imagery of those Blake stanzas last session? They might put you in the right head space to reflect on what you’re about to hear. And, it’ll be a nice lead in to Sartre. Everybody ready?”

The teacher lit sage-scented candles, about a dozen of them scattered throughout the room, he switched off the standing lamps, lifted his meowing cat Bella, cradled her in his arms, and shushing everyone (a boy named Kenny Galinsky had begun humming the Twilight Zone theme rather stridently), he put an album on the turntable. Settled deep into the couch, Alan felt emboldened enough through the flickering candle light and pipe smoke haze to grope for Lynn’s fingers, which she reflexively withdrew and then, realizing no one was positioned to see, slid back to her side. “All right, check this out, people,” Mr. Freedman said. “Or, should I say, listen closely.”

The scratchy sound of a needle that’s been plunked down multiple times between the same two tracks, guitar chords strummed in somber four/four time. “Of war and peace,” the singer began and Alan bent forward straining to follow a rhythmic onslaught that emerged as if each word was charged with enough magnetic power to draw him further into a world distant from the one he thought he knew, primal, mysterious. His heel tapped the carpet, he and Lynn intertwined fingers, he closed his eyes, and tightened their grip, as the hypnotic voice transported him to an imaginary landscape full of wind and mist. Was this the past, the future, or, he wondered, could it somehow be both at the same time?

Between verses he saw mostly everyone squirming. His eyelids fluttered, he grew light-headed, lost track for a moment and had to ask himself, Where am I? And, Wait, what are we doing here?

And then Mr. Freedman lifted the needle. “So?” he said, smiling, arms crossed.

Alan exhaled, a long audible breath. “That is crazy. What,” he asked, “is that?”

“Ah, the silent wonder speaks at last,” the teacher said, blowing a thin stream of smoke upwards. “That, young fellow, is something known as a Bob Dylan.”

“A Bob what?”

“You know, the answer is blowing in the wind? So, did you all catch the Blake connection?” Silence. The room appeared to be holding its collective breath. “Who needs another listen?”

Mr. Freedman’s question unleashed a chorus of groans, of No, please, I beg of you! Come on! A pale reed-like girl named Marilyn beseeched the teacher, pressing her palms together in supplication. “You have any Johnny Mathis?”

Alan raised a finger. “I’ve got to hear that once more. At least, Mr. Freedman.”

“Ah, but it appears you’re outvoted.”

“Yeah? Since when does democracy rule? Put it on. Please?”

The second playing occasioned a contagion of knowing eye rolls, palms pressed into ears and, at its conclusion, fresh squeals of protest, which Mr. Freedman quelled, saying, “Okay! Why did I play you this Gates of Eden?”

“Because you like to torture us?" a bespectacled boy with the highest average in the junior class, named Wolf Levin said, furrowing his dense hairy eyebrows.

“Not exactly,” the teacher said. “You, maybe.”

“But, I’m on the right track?”

“Come on, people, what’s the singer saying? What’s this composition addressing?”

“It’s saying that basically everything’s meaningless,” a girl with a hint of an accent named Serena Greenblatt offered. “Isn’t it? That life amounts to one big zilch. It’s nihilistic.”

“Oh? Is it?” the teacher asked.

“Well, that’s how it comes across,” she said. “Plus, that voice makes you shiver.”

Wolf snorted. “The words are early T.S. Eliot, like a sanitized knockoff of Preludes, re-packaged for the juvenile teen market. Personally, I think the song’s just a put on.”

“Painful,” a birdlike screechy voiced soprano named Rachel said. “I mean, what he’s saying might theoretically have some substance, but it’s so, I don’t know. Discordant. You think he’s purposely trying to sound bad to make some point, Mr. Freedman? Or, is something wrong with him?” She tapped her temple.

“Aw, man,” Kenny chimed in, holding a ballpoint pen to his lips, “like this cat thinks he’s so hip and cool, man. You dig? Like, wuz happenin’?” He breathed out slowly, as though exhaling smoke, then searched for even one other person to appreciate his wit.

“Yeah? Okay. And you, Alan, you think it’s all a big laugh too, or did it resonate as powerfully the second time around?”

“More so. Unnerving,” he said. He saw Lynn’s eyes riveted, melting. “It sounds like a stern warning from some faraway place.”

“The world beyond the cocoon of Brooklyn! After high school. It exists, people! Trust me. All of you will meet the great unknown head on before you turn around. And what, pray tell, is the sage warning us we must do to survive in this strange new world?”

"Open our eyes?" Alan said, clasping one of his kneecaps. It seems to be saying nothing's how society tells us, all nice and orderly, like the pictures in Life Magazine, or on TV. Or even in school. That's like a bunch of myths. Sorry, except for your class, Mr. Freedman. It strikes me he's saying we can play by the rules, do our homework, and behave, but things won't turn out like on Leave It To Beaver. We're not in control of our fate, and the truth is all hidden. Inside, in dreams and stuff."

“Oh, come off it,” Wolf said. “You’re just projecting.”

"It's not literal,"Alan answered, it's more the atmosphere he creates."

“Oh, the atmosphere.” Wolf laughed “Sure. Why doesn't he just say what he means?”

“Nothing is how it looks on the surface,” the teacher repeated, opening his palm, “quoth young Alan Bornstein. The truth is hidden. That is a nice little, maybe not so little, insight to initiate our dissection of No Exit.”

Alan looked to the ceiling, uneasy about everyone eyeing him, expecting more. He had nothing more, and then they heard a baby crying in another room.

“Aw,” Serena said to Mr. Freedman, “that awful racket woke up your daughter.”

“What I want to know,” Wolf said, “is what great truths are supposedly all hidden away somewhere?”

“Fair question,” Mr. Freedman said. “What’s hidden? And what’s not? In this Sartre drama.”

There’s a baby crying, Alan thought, straining to follow the argument, his mind fogging over, each thought all mingled and twisted, like it’s over my head. The words barely registered, just like in school, and all he knew was a desperate burning to hear the song again. And again.

“These characters seem lacking a center,” Wolf said. “A cohesive identity. They’re very superficial the way they relate to one another, in terms of pure self-interest. We learn about them, the external details of their lives, how they try to use each other, but they don’t seem real. More like cardboard puppets. Something essential is missing.”

Like me? Alan wondered. Made out of cardboard? He stared at Wolf and, instead of expressing self-doubts, surprised himself by blurting, "Yeah? So what?"