Saul Pinsky & the Queen of Light
Richard J. O'Brien
The day was one of the hottest on record. If anyone ventured too far from their shaded porches, for the red brick row homes in my neighborhood were far too hot inside while the sun was out, they soon discovered that the asphalt streets had turned soft. It was the kind of heat that made normal people do crazy things; a heat that made the whole neighborhood look illusory, as though the whole town and its inhabitants were part of one big shimmering mirage.
That afternoon my mother had turned on the sprinkler in the front yard. By four o'clock, between my younger sister Sonny and me, along with the Pinsky kid, Joel or Jeb or some Old Testament name like that, one side of the front yard had turned into a muddy marshland. I knew my father would be pissed off. My mother knew it too. My father was always going on about how Sonny and I were spoiled and that we did not understand the value of a dollar. Aside from his lawn, my father kept a constant vigil over water and electricity usage in our house. We had no backyard to speak of; if we had, like some of the other houses in Fairview, my father would have denied us a swimming pool because such water usage, in his estimation, was a colossal waste of money.
His thriftiness was even worse inside our home. We did not own a single air conditioner. The box fans in our bedroom windows could only be run at night when, at least according to my father, electricity was cheaper. Other appliances remained under constant surveillance as well. Whenever Sonny stood in front of the refrigerator too long with the door wide open, deciding on which cold drink might suit her thirst, my father would tell her, "Know what you want before you open the door." He treated me no better. If I flushed the toilet twice after one sitting you'd think I had just drained the goddamned Delaware River the way my father berated me afterward. Utility abuse notwithstanding, what really rankled him was the Pinsky kid.
Joshua or Jerry—or whatever the hell his name was—tended to hang around the kids I palled around with; even though the Pinsky kid was two years younger than me. He told me one day that he was a Sephardic Jew; his olive complexion and his abundant curly dark locks made him look more like an Italian than anything else. Still, the Pinsky kid was proud of his heritage. He had a lazy eye, but that didn't stop him from fighting any boy who had something bad to say about him being a Jew. The Pinsky kid had an older sister named Meira whom all the boys in the neighborhood were in love with because she was fourteen years old and she had these pale hazel eyes that looked right through you. My friends and I tolerated Pinsky and his lazy eye just for the chance of being within proximity of Meira, but she rarely came out of the house most summer days except to lay out in her backyard wearing a white bikini and sunning herself. We were left to entertain the Pinsky kid until it was time to cajole him into leaving us alone which was pretty much never that summer on account of how beautiful his sister Meira was; no one was willing to take the risk of alienating him for fear of no longer being allowed to gaze upon Meira Pinsky.
My father, on the other hand, did not share the same compassion as my buddies and I did. Truth be told, I wasn't even sure if my old man knew that the Pinsky kid had a beautiful sister. No, what rattled the old man was the fact that he had to go work every day while Pinsky's dad sat at home where he holed up in a bedroom converted into an office for several hours a day and write science fiction novels. On summer nights when everyone left their windows open you could hear Mr. Pinsky banging away at his typewriter; sometimes laughing out loud at something funny he'd just written.
"It's not right," my father had remarked one winter night. "It's not natural."
We were, the four of us, seated at the dining room table eating my mother's beef stew. It was my favorite meal. When summer came around she never made beef stew. It was a winter meal, according to my mother, meant to stick to your ribs. I hated the summer because it reminded me of the absence of beef stew, but more than that it reminded me that another school year was on the way. My sister Sonny was different. She looked forward to school. Sonny was crazy and smart. And she was a girl so I never knew what the hell was going on inside that head of hers.
"What's not natural, Pop?" I asked.
"Eli Pinsky," he said. "He sits around writing those goddamn books while the rest of us get up every morning and go to work."
I doubted that my father knew of Eli Pinsky's nom de plume: X. Hollis Slade. The pen name sounded like a spy's name. The Pinsky kid told me that his father said it sounded more Anglo and using the nom de plume he had a better chance of selling more books.
"Most non-Jews won't read books written by Jews," the Pinsky kid had explained to me one day after school. "Even your New Testament was probably written by goyim."
I didn't know about all that when I was eleven years old. What I did know was that Eli Pinsky had about fifty books in the Fairview library on Collings Road. Most of them were paperbacks. I had read a few of them that year. The Door into Jakkar was my favorite. It was a total rip-off of books like Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, but it sure beat reading The Hardy Boys.
"It's a gift," my mother said. "I hear he's very talented. Isn't that right, Casey?"
Crap, I thought. Don't drag me into it.
"You've read his books?" my father asked.
"A few," I told him. "I guess he's alright. He's written like a hundred of them."
"Casey, don't exaggerate," my mother said. To my father, she said, "It's more like ten or fifteen."
"More than that," I said.
My father threw his right arm over the back of his chair. "I am sure it's all communist propaganda," he said. "All of those writers are sly like that."
"Well, whatever the case," my mother said, "Mr. Pinsky is earning a living doing what he loves. You have to give him credit for that."
"I want to be a writer," Sonny blurted out.
"You," my father pointed at her. "Don't you start."
"But I do."
"And that son of his," my father went on, ignoring Sonny's plea. "He's not right."
"You mean Jeremy?" Sonny asked.
"His name is Jonathan," my mother offered.
"Joel, I think," was my contribution.
"Whatever his name is," my father said, "I don't want that kid around my house when I am not here. He smells funny. The whole goddamned family smells funny."
"But if you're not here to smell Jeremy—" Sonny began.
My father waved a dismissive hand. "It doesn't matter," he said. "And I don't like that lazy eye of his. It gets so you can't tell where he's looking."
* * *
It was Sonny who suggested that we ride our bikes over to Union Field where the community pool was located. The Pinsky kid had gone home, his feet as muddy as ours after romping through our yard as the sprinkler sprayed warm water this way and that. Sonny was afraid that our father would flip out when he returned home from work. And she was right. Sometimes even my mother couldn't save us. Sonny's plan was better than waiting around for the inevitable, even with the heat wave. Some of my friends were always finding ways to shun their younger siblings; especially, younger sisters. Not me though. I was crazy about Sonny. She had a charm about her, an innocence that made me protective of her. So when she mentioned riding our bikes, heat wave or not, rather than facing the wrath of our father over something as stupid as a muddy lawn, I was all for it.
That summer Sonny was going through a thing. She was a sage angel who carried with her a beat-up paperback copy of Rabindranath Tagore's Sadhana: The Realisation of Life. It was a recent find at the library book sale. Some people traveled all over the world to places like Tibet and Israel, spending tons of money in search of illumination; my kid sister found it at our local library for a dime.
"Tagore says that the soul loses its significance when it becomes imprisoned in the narrow limits of the self," said Sonny as we removed our bikes from the garage. "Do you think that's true, Casey?"
"Sonny, where's all this coming from?" I asked.
"Tagore was a great philosopher and poet," she said. "But you’re my brother. So your opinion is important."
"Dad says all the answers we need are at church," I told her.
We walked our bikes into the street. Sonny gave me a look like you're kidding, right?
All I knew that it was hot, too hot to think.
"I find the Catholic doctrine operose," Sonny said.
That was another thing about my sister. She read more books than me, always had her nose in a dictionary. Half the time I didn't know what the hell she was going on about. If Sonny had found a copy of Frankenstein at the library book sale, it would have been better. I liked monsters. I liked ghosts. I liked werewolves, mummies, and space aliens. Whenever Sonny talked too much and used words no one else knew my father suspected she was on drugs. Then again, he thought that anyone who didn't think the same way he did was on drugs; as in "What do you mean Nixon's not a good president? Are you on drugs?" My mother was no better. She worried that Sonny was ripe for running off and joining a cult. Sonny's obsession with Tagore didn't help matters much in the way of alleviating our parents' fears.
"What if the pool's closed?" I asked.
We had only ridden our bikes down the block when I posed the question. The heat coming off the street made the ride almost unbearable. Sonny skidded to a halt.
"Why would the pool be closed?" she asked.
"Maybe it's too hot? Maybe the water is boiling—"
"Water boils at two hundred twelve degrees Fahrenheit, Casey," Sonny reminded me.
She was always doing that, for as long as I could remember, reminding me of everything I did not know.
"There could be an infinite number of reasons," I said.
"Name three," she said.
I stared at her. My mind was blank.
"Don't hurt yourself," said Sonny.
She pedaled ahead of me. The air was hot and humid; every breath I took felt like I was breathing in bath water. I prayed for a thunderstorm, but none came.
We rode along Alabama Road toward Collings Road. Sonny pumped her pedals hard. At the intersection where Alabama Road crossed Collings, my sister let go of her handlebars, leaned her head back to look at the sky, and coasted through the intersection with no care about traffic.
A pick-up truck skidded to a stop. A young guy behind the wheel leaned out the window to yell something at Sonny that I could not hear before he sped off.
Sonny took hold of the handlebars long enough to turn right onto Collings Road. As soon as she straightened out she let go of the handlebars again, pedaling fast as she wiped the hair from her face. It was a trick she had recently learned, riding her bike with no hands, sometimes with her eyes closed, and I couldn't help but to wonder if such antics were nothing more than a ruse meant to facilitate her becoming one with the Godhead she was always going on about ever since she had picked up the Tagore book.
* * *
When Sonny and I reached Union Field the community pool was open. Where other towns had large in-ground pools, the one in Fairview was above-ground. Twice as long as it was wide, the pool was three times as large as most pools in those few backyards of families who could afford them.
"Something's wrong," Sonny said as she locked her bike to a rack in front of Malandra Hall.
No one was in the water, no one, that is, except for the Pinsky kid who was busy hoisting a listless Kelly Litzer out of the water and onto the pool deck. A dozen kids stood on the deck, young teens mostly, along with some of the moms who held their toddlers tightly in the arms, and they all looked terrified, including Gary Ford who was the seventeen year old lifeguard on duty that afternoon. Four of the bystanders huddled around a kid named Eddie Fontane.
"Don't let him leave," said Gary Ford.
During the school year Ford wrestled at Saint Joseph's High School. He also played football and baseball for the same school. Summers were reserved for lifeguarding at the pool which was to say that Gary Ford mostly just flirted with girls his age and some of the younger moms too.
The crowd on the deck closed around Kelly Litzer and the Pinsky kid. I couldn't see what was going on from where I stood. When I moved toward the deck Ford waved me off.
"Back up, Colson," he said to me. "No more people on the deck."
So I followed Sonny around to the back of the deck where we could get a better view.
"Did she drown, Casey?" Sonny asked.
"I don't know," I told her.
"Is she dead?"
"Sonny, be quiet."
Through the legs of the kids and some of their parents on the deck I glimpsed the Pinsky kid press his lips to Kelly Litzer's. He blew into her mouth, tilted his head so he could listen to see if she was breathing, and pressed his lips to hers again.
Kelly was sixteen years old. She was tall, auburn-haired, and she always smiled whenever she passed me in the square. My father said that Kelly had a kind aura. Most of the boys in Fairview compared her to the queen of light in that Led Zeppelin song "The Battle of Evermore." Kelly was so beautiful; everyone thought that one day she would turn to gold just like the queen in that song. Now, she lay on the community pool deck not breathing, despite the Pinsky kid's best efforts, and she was turning pale blue.
The Pinsky kid listened once more, lowering his head sideways as his dark curly locks dripped water onto Kelly's forehead, to see if she was breathing yet. He leaned back on his knees, wiped his brow, and placed his stubby hands down on her chest. Next, he pressed down a few times on Kelly's chest.
When the Pinsky kid leaned over again, ready to breathe into her mouth once more, Kelly coughed once. Water trickled from the corner of her mouth. The Pinsky kid compressed her chest a few more times. Then he pressed his lips firmly on hers and breathed into her mouth again. After that he got his arm under her and made her sit up as she coughed and spat out more water.
Gently, the Pinsky kid lowered Kelly to the deck now that she was breathing on her own. Her breasts rose and fell ever so slightly as she kept her eyes closed. The Pinsky kid lowered his face toward hers one last time and pressed his lips to hers. This time he did not breathe. Instead, he kept his eyes closed as his lips touched hers; as though he hoped that, long after the ordeal was over, Kelly would forever remember the pressure of his mouth on hers.
And that's when Gary Ford moved into action. Just as Kelly stirred Ford nudged the Pinsky kid out of the way.
"I'll take it from here," said Ford.
He took Kelly in his arms and held her against his muscled chest.
An ambulance sped through the field gates, siren blaring, as red lights flashed. A few of the older teens began to usher everyone off the deck. The four who were guarding Eddie Fontane kept him in place. Behind the ambulance, a Camden Police squad car followed. When Fontane saw the cop car he started freaking out.
"I didn't do nothing," Fontane cried, attempting to wrestle free from his captors.
It turned out that Fontane had kicked Kelly Litzer in the head after he ran off the deck and cannon-balled into the pool. The blow knocked Kelly unconscious. She sank beneath the water's surface. Roy Darrow, a kid in from my school, told me that if it hadn't been for the Pinsky kid Kelly might have died.
What bothered me about the whole situation was that Gary Ford held onto Kelly, smoothing her hair back and whispering into her ear. Even after a police officer took Fontane away and the paramedics attempted to examine Kelly, Ford held onto her.
Another police officer informed the crowd that the pool was closed for the rest of the day. The paramedics shook hands with Ford, congratulating him for saving such a pretty young thing. That's what the two paramedics called Kelly: a pretty young thing; as if she was little more than a broken-winged bird that had fallen from a tree. They must have said it five times; all the while taking turns pumping Ford's right hand as he cradled Kelly in his left arm. Maybe the heat had gotten to everyone, or maybe it was something else; but it was as if no one remembered, or wanted to remember, that it was the Pinsky kid who had saved Kelly Litzer.
"He's gone," Sonny said as she surveyed the remaining crowd.
"Who?" I asked.
"The Pinsky kid," she said.
"Saul," I told her as I suddenly remembered his name. "That's his name. Saul Pinsky."
My sister and I rode our bikes through the thick humid air all the way home. Along the way I stole glances at her. Sonny mouthed Saul Pinsky's name over and over again. Where others already accepted the false impression that was Gary Ford and his phony heroics, Sonny refused to do so. Someone had to tell the truth about the Pinsky kid and what he had done that day. One day soon my little sister would demolish that illusion. For now, Sonny simply let go of her handlebars and tilted her head back, closing her eyes as she did so.