Submitted into Contest #5 in response to: Write a story about someone who decides to confront their fears head-on.... view prompt




By Andrew Paul Grell

“You must take the ‘A’ Train.” Sophia, as usual, made the practical suggestion. The group was occupying their customary real estate near the west end of Stiffy’s polished oak bar, enjoying the freedom of 1970s Upper West Side New York. Jacob prepared for other people trying to help him by punching in the code for a DUI—a Drinking Under the Influence; a very dry martini, eight parts gin and one part vermouth. Stiffy’s cousin poured the ingredients, gave it a ride on the paint-combiner, added three Cerignola olives on a toothpick, and sent the drink down on the little model railroad track. 

“I don’t think the A isn’t going to do anything for him, Soph.” Barry was one of those people who always, when drinking, had a better idea. Sometimes they really were better.

“Why not, Hat Trick? It’s right here. One block east, right by the museum”

“But he’s going to have to take the C first and then transfer to the A.”

Jacob felt he had to chime in when it came to people discussing his life. “Hold on. This is my problem. Maybe I don’t want to solve it. Maybe I’m just happy to live my life above ground, like the majority of the residents of the planet.”

“But look at the chance you were given! Only six of you were picked.” Sophia was all-in for any adventure.

“If I had known the tombs were underground, I wouldn’t have applied.”

Barry was still sober enough to try for a better idea and pulled the surgeon card on the bunch. Everyone listened to surgeons.  “We’ll all go. We’ll take the B to Rock Center, change for the F and go to Queens. Then repeat the process on the way back. The full baptism for him, that’s the token. I still can’t believe a guy could live in New York his whole life and never took a subway ride.”

“That’s not precisely true, Hat Trick. I’ve taken the A from Broad Channel to Rockaway when the Marine Park bridge was closed to bike traffic.”

“But that wasn’t exactly a SUBway ride, was it? More of an elevated ride, wouldn’t you say?”

“You are correct. I have never been beneath the surface of the Earth. And I can get almost anywhere I want to be on a bike.”

“Even Moldova? Let’s stop talking about this and start doing it. We can’t let our bud lose this chance. Besides, I’m hungry, and pickled eggs are not going to do it for me. When we get off the F, let’s go to a Greek diner. Hungry, Jake?”

“Actually, Soph, I am a bit peckish.” Jacob scraped together the few grams of rationality he had on the topic of his great fear. “If it weren’t too late to switch travel plans with another applicant, I would give up my slot in a hot minute. Well. As long as I’m allowed to look back when I return to the surface…”

It was Sophia’s turn to pop the balloon; she picked a yellow one. After the catastrophic deformation and change in topology of the insensate victim, a folded little slip of paper dropped onto the bar. “Twenty-two percent! Ha!” Their forty-dollar tab would be settled at $31.20. Sophia left the amount of the discount as a tip. “Saddle up, you bunch of numbskulls. We’re going to Astoria.”

The party traveled widdershins around the double block of the Museum of Natural History, across the street from the Universalist Unitarian Church, came out onto the park and steeled themselves for what was to come. Jacob looked longingly at the row of welcoming rental bikes across the street near an entrance to Central Park.

“I’ll bet you the next three tabs that I can get to Astoria on one of those bikes than you can get there by train. How’z about it?”

“Nice try,” Barry told him as he spun the patient—everyone was a patient to Barry—to face the darkish stairway, in institutional green, smelling mildly of je ne sais qua and best not to mention. Holding onto the handrail on one side and Sophia’s arm on the other, with Barry, a soft cushion, in the lead, they made it down to the upper platform, the downtown track. Barry and Sophia shared a glance; just go downtown or keep descending to the uptown track. 

“We can take the C down to Columbus Circle and then take the A express uptown. Covers what we want covered, no additional shocks. Then, if everyone is up to it, we go inter-boro for some lamb chops and retsina. Everyone cool?” Sophia was still in practical mode. The two men nodded ascent, Jacob’s nod with a touch of tremor and some heavy breathing. Barry reached back to his psych intern rotation in medical school and decided to give Jacob a little reward.

“Follow me, all ye who are hungry.” Barry bought a round of dogs from Yankee Frankie, just to tide everyone over, the finest subway cuisine in New York. Jacob looked marginally less frightened. Sophia steered the party to the north end of the uptown express platform. She had a grin of knowingness.

“This is so cool.” Jacob had succumbed to the temptation of all boys taking their first rides in a front subway car. The leading window had been lowered about half-way. Jacob was entranced at the rushing view of the dimly lit tunnel ahead, the shadows of beams, supports and other infrastructure the very equal of the Disneyland Space Mountain ride. And of course, Jacob had his Dodgers – Brooklyn Dodgers -- cap blown off. He went up to the improperly opened window and had his cap blown off again. And again. The 70-year-old man might as well have been a 7-year-old child.

“Too much fun for you, young man. The difference between the rats and the people is that the rats eventually learn to avoid the shocks and get the cheese.” The train pulled in at 125th Street; they disembarked with no problems for Jacob, even though he was underground and not on a train.

“This isn’t so bad. The platform is a flat surface. There are stores and people and trains. It’s just like being inside a building. If you knocked me out and brought me down here, when I woke up, I wouldn’t know I was underground.”

Jacob gave his friends a little tour of the Harlem architecture, especially pointing out Art Deco features, flying buttresses, mosaics, and gargoyles on Striver’s Row from what his cousins called “the musical side” of the family; then he pointed out his parents Synagogue on 135th, still holding services for an extremely diverse group of Jews. 

“One day my father was riding uptown to home and he saw a black man reading the Jewish Daily Forward. In those days, it was printed in Yiddish. Dad asked the man if he could really read that paper, and the guy said ‘Shah! I have enough tsuris being colored!’” Sophia and Barry looked at Jacob and then at each other; they unanimously decided to laugh.

The party took the D train to Rockefeller Center and went downstairs to catch the F train to Queens. They were in a middle car on a newer train where the front and back windows didn’t open; Jacob had a few shakes and shimmies but was able to white-knuckle it. Soon, just after Jacob looked back into the subway entrance without being sucked back in or turned into a pillar of salt, they were out in the sun walking the few blocks to the Neptune Diner, the last place in New York you could get your Danish toasted and buttered in the kitchen.

“Well, Jake? Do you think you can handle being below grade for a little bit at a time? Are you ready for Moldova?”

“Hat Trick, I better be. But it’s thanks to you guys I could even think about it. Thanks. Lunch is on me.” They were all having lamb chops and fries with retsina freely flowing. Bigger Nick, the owner, came by personally to greet Sophia and Barry and was introduced to Jacob. He accepted an invitation to join the table and hear Jacob’s story.

“My grandfather, Aryeh Yoshiah, was born in Moldova, the ass end of Romania. His son, my father, moved to America and married an American girl. You’ve catered enough weddings here, you must have heard someone singing ‘Romania, Romania’?”

“Of course. For one big party I had to learn how to make carnatzelah and mamaliggah and had to find ‘Reimish’ wine. Still trying to figure out what a zetz is.

“Well, my grandfather was a pillar of the Wooden Synagogue of Moldova. He had visited America just before he died; I’m lucky I had a chance to meet him. I was seven. He told the most outrageous stories, all the punch lines were Bulgarians, Gypsies, or Albanians. He was a character. I cried for a week when he went back to Europe. I cried for another week when my parents told me he died. It turns out that he was one of the last people to be buried in a crypt under the synagogue. The Soviets had seized it in 1939, one year after he died. But just last year, Nicolae Ceaușescu decided to flip the bird to Brezhnev, and invited descendants of the buried congregants to visit the synagogue and the crypt. I was on the list. But I didn’t know it wasn’t a regular cemetery, it was in a cave underground. And I’m mortified of being underground. These clowns are helping me get over my fear. Starting with a subway ride to Queens.”

Bigger Nick was in tears and had the waiter rip up their check. He told tales of Greece and the rituals of the dead going back to Homer and stories of the doings in the underworld. He looked at the party and had one thing to say: “The two of you will have to go with him.”

They made the return trip with Jacob’s tremors and sweats down to about a two or three. But he had a question for Sophia.

“When we got off the D, we went downstairs to the F. Now we got off the F and went downstairs to the D. If we keep doing this trip, will we wind up in the center of the Earth?”

“Jacob, you’ve never been underground before. You may have been right to be afraid, strange things can happen beneath the skin of the world.” She laughed and elbowed Jacob in the ribs. Barry clapped Jacob about the shoulders and told him he was going to call his travel agent.

# # #

It turned out not to be necessary to use Barry’s travel agent. The Romanian Minister of Cultural Affairs arranged a charter direct from Kennedy to Chisnau; it was a turboprop that would require a refueling stop in Athens. There was one last hurdle for Jacob before the point of no return. He performed his subterranean solo handily: ‘A’ train to Penn Station, PATH train to Newark, where he met Sophia and Barry; the trio caught a cab the rest of the way to the airport.  Jacob knuckled Barry after he was told that in addition to being underground, he had been under the Hudson River on the way to the Garden State.

“Still okay, Jacob? We’re at 14,000 feet, don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights, too!”

“Nothing like that, Soph. I actually took flight lessons when I was a teenager. It’s just that this is becoming more and more real for me the closer we get to Moldova.” Sophia held his hand until he stopped hyperventilating. Eventually he felt well enough to kibbitz with the other post-dated mourners.

When they stopped at Athens for more gas, there was some kind of revolution or coup or whatever going on. Troops in urban camo with Uzis and sniper rifles were patrolling with dogs. They had the best souvlaki any of them had ever tasted and sent Parthenon and seascape postcards to Bigger Nick back in Queens and the company at Stiffy’s. In separate private moments before the plane’s tanks were once again filled, Barry and Sophia each reminded Jacob that he had a chance to bail. They were in an airport, of course.

 The Minister sent a motorcade to what passed for a terminal at Chisnau to greet the relatives of the entombed, and hosted a welcome lunch as well. The evening was taken up by a party at their hotel, which just begged to have Bram Stoker jokes told about it, hosted by the local Yiddish Community Organization. It was much safer behind the Iron Curtain to identify as an ethnolinguistic group rather than a religion. It was evening and it was morning, their day in Moldova. Jacob was totally steeled for the descent. Barry looked proud of the part he had played in prepping his friend for the adventure; he considered leaving tummy surgery for head shrinking. Much less blood, not too many patients dying. Considered for a moment only.

“Walk this way, please. Mind your heads, there’s a low ceiling on the way down,” the caretaker cautioned. Jacob displayed no ill effects, but one of the other visitors seemed to get the heebie jeebies on the way down. Jacob put his arm around his shoulders. Finally, the spelunking party assembled in the crypt and began searching for the names of their ancestors. Except for Stan from Chicago, who felt a need to compare the crypt to the Cave of Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in modern-day Hebron, formerly the Field of Ephron; according to Stan, the oldest recorded property deed in history. Stan had no problem finding his great uncle Asher, there was only one marker with ‘Ha Cohen’ appended. Jacob, Sophia, and Barry scrambled around until they found Aryeh Yoshiah. Whereupon Jacob fainted dead away on the cave floor.

The caretaker, clearly used to cave fainting syndrome, and Penny Weiss, a doctor on the trip to honor her cousin Baylah Weiss, and see if her grandfather was down here in the crypt, revived Jacob. He sprang up from the floor.

“I know now. The stories my grandfather told. They weren’t jokes. Or they were jokes, but also relaying information. Royalists, including my grandfather, hid down here in 1919 from the Bolsheviks precipitating the Bender Uprising. His stories had a lot of dying in this cave; seven-year-old me must have repressed the horror part and kept the funny stuff. Look for a marker with the name Degel. Barry, with the eyes of a surgeon, found the spot and yanked the plaque. There was a rolled-up banner rather than a dead body. “NON DOCENT AVIA SUGERE OVA.” Penny and Barry got it right away, all doctors can read Latin. “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

“It was the rallying cry of the defenders of the Kingdom. Now we have to find what’s above the Blessed Deer.”

“Blessed Deer? That’s my grandfather! Boruch Tzvi. Blessed and stag.” They found the marker. Above the tomb a rock was loose. Behind the rock was a door handle; the door opened onto a storage space holding the treasure of the Wooden Synagogue from before Soviet occupation. Three Torah scrolls along with their Crowns, Shields, and Hands. Prayer books in Hebrew and Ladino. The common gold store, for use when someone had to be bribed to release a congregant. An 11-string lyre, just begging to be carbon-dated. The Yiddish Community leader nodded to Jacob, and Jacob gave him the hi-sign. The group assembled in a line in front of the wall of tombs. None of them needed a prayer book for this.

Yisgadal v’yiskaddash Shmay rabbah...” 

Magnified and sanctified is the great name...” The overwhelming quantity ethnic and political strife in this little rump state forced Jacob to alter the last line of the prayer.

“May he who grants peace in his high place grant in his mercy peace upon us and upon the whole world.”

And everyone responded “Amen.”

# # #

Safely back in Manhattan, to Moldova Three forewent Stiffy’s and dined, underground, in Grand Central Terminal’s lower-level Oyster Bar. It was hopeless trying to get the mixologist to come up with a proper DUI, so they settled for Jameson and soda.

“So, Sophia, there’s one unanswered question in this episode. Would someone, in fact, reach the center of the Earth by continuously changing from the D to the F?

“Oh, Sweetie, still innocent at 70. To save space, the Rock Center subway station has downtown on top and uptown tracks beneath. When we came down from Harlem we were going downtown. The F goes uptown to Queens. When you reverse the process, you come downtown from Queens and then uptown to Harlem.”

“Hmm… another good reason I ride a bicycle.”

September 06, 2019 02:39

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