Protected Territory – Published in Washington Writers’ Publishing House Writes Issue 9 – September 2021
The sun had already set on this brisk November day in a town named for its location, squeezed between three cemeteries. In Middle Village, New York, streets were invisibly divided between working-class Russian Jews, Italians and Irish immigrants. The daylight hours, in the alleyways between rows of connected, two-story, clapboard houses, were reserved for children’s play, but as the sun would begin to set, mother’s voices in multiple languages could be heard calling their little one’s home.
Local shop owners had locked up for the night, and only crisp fallen leaves danced on the deserted streets. The traffic light at the main crossroads cast its changing glow, and there was no one to notice the teenage boys camouflaged in black who had slipped into one of those alleys, waiting for the sound of dismissal from the nearby synagogue.
At 6:00 pm the doors to the Hebrew Institute burst open. Children’s voices reverberated through the neighborhood as boys exchanged kippahs for baseball caps, happy to be released from religious study. David, the leanest and smallest, took the lead like a wild stallion at the head of his herd. The boys followed his antics, bantering and roughhousing while making their way down the avenue.
As they turned the corner and approached the alley, the scent of cigarette smoke triggered their internal alarms, and the boys, wearing scars of prior territorial warfare, scattered. But not David. His mother had been forced to flee from her childhood home, he would not be forced from his. He flexed his fists and continued on until the awaiting gang emerged, surrounding him, refusing to let him pass.
“We own this street now, Kike,” the one known as Wolf said stepping forward, his muscles straining the seams of his sweatshirt. “Jew-boy, you gonna have to find a new route home or pay to pass.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and flicked the butt at David’s face.
David ducked and the boys laughed, tightening their circle around him. Wolf’s three pals followed his lead, tossing their cigarettes at David. One caught in his collar, but David swiped it away. The scent of anxious sweat seeped through his jacket.
Wolf reached out, knocking David’s treasured Yankees cap from his head, triggering David’s first blow to the bully’s nose. And while Wolf paused to wipe the blood dripping onto his upper lip, David landed a few more punches before his head was locked in Wolf’s arms. Left with only his thrashing legs to defend himself, David kicked one boy in the groin, sending him moaning to the pavement, while the other two continued pummeling David with alternating blows to his face and gut. It wasn’t until David vomited onto Wolf’s shoes that he was dropped to the pavement where he lay still. Wolf rubbed his shoes on the underside of David’s jacket and the boys sauntered off.
When the only sound was of his heavy breathing, David wiped the blood from the end of his nose and spit from his lips before he pulled himself up and eased his way home. He slipped past the kitchen unnoticed, but ran into his father who was exiting the bathroom.
“Again?” he said and gently ran his finger across the oozing cut over David’s brow. “Mama’s not going to be happy about this. You better wash up. There are some bandages under the sink.”
By the time David entered the kitchen, his mother was ladling her watery vegetable soup with the smallest piece of flanken into bowls from a pot on the stove.
“Hi, Mama,” David said, air kissing her cheek and turning away before she noticed his face.
“Ah, mein kindalah, nice of you to arrive,” she teased, speaking in Yiddish, while addin`g an extra piece of the beef to his portion. But as she turned to pass him the bowl, she caught sight of the deepening purple glow on his cheek and bandaged brow.
“Oy, mein God, another fight?” Tears welled in her eyes as she set the soup bowl on the counter and cupped his face in her hands.
David stepped back and waved her off before she could pull him into an embrace.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, oy, what they did to that handsome face,” she said with her hands now cradling her own head.
“Don’t worry, Ma, I’m fine. You should see the other guy.”
Shaking her head, she scowled in silence for a moment, and then pointing at no one in particular, she said, “So… where’s that brother of yours? He promised to walk you home.”
“Yeah, he’s coming.” Now it was David’s turn to scowl. He wished he were the big brother, two years older and several inches taller. No doubt Zev had looked for him after school. He always did, but today David ran out too fast, leading his friends away from the steps where his brother was to meet him.
“I can take care of myself, Ma. I don’t need Zev babysitting me.” Besides, he knew his brother had other interests, a girl… a girl he preferred to walk home from Hebrew school, and with whom he could find other things to do in the village alleys.
The scent of cologne stole Mama’s attention from David as Zev entered the kitchen.
“Hello, Mamala,” he sang out.
Her lips pursed and her blue eyes iced over. Without saying another word, she stepped up to her eldest son, and slapped his face. And as she pulled back her hand to slap him again, David stretched himself tall and stepped between them.
“It’s not his fault, Ma. Really. I left before his class was dismissed.”
Mama dropped her hand and while nodding her head and mumbling, “Kindalah, kindalah, kindalah,” she returned to the stove where she finished ladling out their bowls of soup.