by Ben Shiriak
Todd and I are minor celebrities. Very minor. You’ve heard of the A-List. And you’ve heard of the B-List. Well, we are sort of C-List, with a possibility of moving up to C+. Years ago, we published the first study of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Lakewood, New Jersey where boys and girls ride separate buses to school, where the lakefront beaches are segregated by sex, where men and women are expected to walk on separate sides of the street, where a man is not permitted to hear a woman other than his wife sing. The book brought controversy, media attention, an interview on MSNBC, and a sale of movie rights to Netflix, which has not done anything with them.
So, here we are at a department cocktail party in the San Remo, our backs to the view of Central Park and there’s Rabbi Jonathan Burnick approaching, his tzitzits drenched in tzadziki sauce, and then receding, as if borne backwards by the tides. The Rabbi is noted for his digs around Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. He teaches a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Rabbi helped us with our book. Now, he’s uncertain whether to talk to us since he absorbed a lot of flak from the Lakewood ultra-Orthodox.
The noise level is moderate, which is good since Todd hates noise, and the Greek catering is excellent. Todd begins with dessert, baklava this time, and usually stops there. A sweet tooth as long as your arm. He really should run a chocolate shop or a bakery. Or both. One of the highlights of his life was a week we spent in Bariloche, the chocolate capital of South America. Odd thing: all those chocolate-covered maraschino cherries put no weight on his lanky frame. Lanky? No. Surprisingly muscular for an intellectual. He claims that D1 schools recruited him for football, but he turned down places like Alabama and Ohio State. I’ve never asked Brad and Kathy, his parents. Don’t know why. Then again, his parents, particularly Brad, don’t have a helluva lot to say about him.
On his face Todd wears his lost luggage look, as if he’s in a forgotten Greyhound station in some God-forsaken part of Alabama; oh, wait, all of Alabama is God-forsaken. He’s watching Professor Jessica Dunleavy canoodling with her husband–a man with lips and chin so thin they can’t support a grin–and laughing to himself. Years ago, before we married, he had a no-one-else-to-do affair with her. When we married, he invited her to our wedding, which I didn’t mind, having had my share of adventure. And she showed up with—not her husband—but another guy she was screwing. There she is with hands all over.
A quarrel erupts. Todd’s ears perk up. We are close enough to hear every word.
Professor Henry Sykes Bascombe says, “The Bering Land Bridge Theory is still one hundred per cent correct. Fifteen thousand years ago, the first Americans moved across the bridge into what is now Alaska and migrated slowly, a mile a year, effectively, southward, found happy hunting in the American West, and spread all over.” Bascombe’s voice grows louder as he speaks. He is an inconsequential sort, the kind of man foam-memory mattresses forget, for whom supermarket seeing-eye doors do not open, who disappears while you’re kissing his cheek, whose butterfly bush never attracts butterflies. His wife, Marilyn, a specialist in prehistoric languages, teaches somewhere in Virginia. Her mascara gives off an electric glow. Her false eyelashes throw shadows on her cheeks. She probably cheats at solitaire. Rumor has it that her housekeeping is so poor you wipe your feet when you leave her house.
Professor Jennifer Bibb-Bannerman responds, “They would have frozen their balls and nipples off trying to migrate through thoroughly-frozen far-north northern America.” How she gets that mouthful off, I have no idea. She has the face that sent a thousand ships in the wrong direction, and is notorious for, well, let’s just say she is notorious. “The obvious answer is that the first Americans came via boat hugging the coastline from Siberia and then the Land Bridge and then the Alaska coast line. Obvious to all those who don’t have a vested interest in the perpetuation of an outdated theory.”
Marilyn Bascombe says, “We do not have a vested interest in the Bering Land Bridge theory.” Her voice always reminds me of sheets of ice peeling from a glacier and falling into the sea.
Henry Bascombe says, “The proof of the theory is the snow forest penis. It was found frozen in perfect shape on a frozen island north of Alaska, and has been carbon-dated to 15,500 years ago.”
“Unfortunately,” Marilyn says, “it was stolen. But there are many photographs. It was a heavily used appendage, calloused, and remarkable when you see it.”
“I suppose it served a term of penile servitude,” Todd interjects. Deadpan.
“Todd Kelly, famous for his lousy puns,” Bascombe says.
“Infamous,” I say. “How long was this remarkable penis?”
“Was it erect or flaccid?” Bibb-Bannerman asks.
Todd gives them no time to answer. “Have you ever thought that the Americas might have been settled from the south? Bottoms up, as it were.”
“Preposterous,” the two Bascombes and Bibb-Bannerman say as one. Aha, the quarrel has changed direction.
“Now that is truly where you’d freeze to death. Antarctica would mummify you,” Bibb-Bannerman says.
Todd shakes his head, raises one eyebrow. “You should spend more time south of the Equator. Your focus would change.”
I tug Todd away.
Three baklavas and one grilled zucchini fritter later, Todd says, “Maybe that’s what we should write about next: how the Americas were settled.”
I say, “We don’t know shit from Shinola about the subject.”
He asks, “What’s Shinola?”
Ben Shiriak is a retired New Jersey lawyer.
Editor’s note: Shinola is a now defunct brand of shoe polish in the US and ‘you don’t know shit from Shinola’ was once a popular expression for ignorance.