A Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto
One thing everyone in the Dorfman family agreed on was the adage, ‘guests
and fish stink after three days’.
It applied particularly to Uncle Sean whose first
name was as phony as his last. Whereas the paterfamilias, hefty Emil
Dorfman, had cut down the tongue-twister ‘Dorfmanivitsky’
to Dorfman, his younger, slender sibling had switched from Shmul to
Sean and from Dorfmanivitsky to Danforth. As Sean Danforth he acquired
the airs of a southern gentleman, in effect, having been brought up
by an aunt in Newport News, Virginia, a naval station town. At seventeen
he joined the service. At eighteen he was kicked out on the grounds
of ‘convenience of the government’, although nobody ever
discovered why his presence caused the government so much inconvenience
as to decide it would be better to lower the boom quietly on him than
to retain him in the armed forces. The rumor that some items were missing,
like cannonballs, never rose to the surface. Nor did the cannonballs.
His year in the navy toughened him. He joined the
boxing squad, responsible for his slightly bent nose, the twist oddly
adding to his snappy appearance. His expected arrival at his brother
Emil’s house aroused a morbid excitement, everyone recalling the
stimulation he brought while repressing the less pleasant events of
former visits. His southern accent convulsed them while his stories,
sometimes true and always incredible, amazed them.
The telephone rang in the Dorfman residence on an
evening when the much sung about April showers had drowned the music
in an epic downpour. Hedda Dorfman, a matronly, whispering woman, shy
and motherly, was in her kitchen roasting a couple of chickens, a bandana
around her head.
"Emil? Can you answer that?"
Dorfman, his belt loose to accommodate his expanding
waistline, rose from reading the evening paper in the breakfast room
and came into the kitchen. He lifted the receiver off the hook of the
black, upright instrument and spoke into the mouthpiece. "Hello,"
"Emil?" a convulsed voice shouted in distress.
"Shmul? Where are you?" Emil asked, surprised.
"Ahm at yo’ goddam el station, Emil, and
it’s leakin’ lahk hell!"
"We’re waiting for you for dinner,"
"It’s pourin’, for chrassake! Ah
cain’t walk six blocks in this goddam rain heah! Ah’ll ruin
"I’d come for you but the car happens
to have a flat," Emil said.
"I could bring you an umbrella."
"Change the flat, for chrassakes!" his
brother cried. "Ah’ll be right heah waitin’ for you-all!"
And he hung up.
Dorfman had to move the car partly out of the narrow
garage to get at the tire. His eleven year old son Jeremy held an umbrella
over his father’s head as he changed the wheel. Dorfman’s
brother popped out of the station as soon as he drew up, threw his suitcase
into the back of the Buick and jumped into the passenger seat, slamming
"Holy Moses! Ah been shiverin’ there for
half an hour," he complained. "What a place! The sewers are
overflowin’. It stinks. How you-all?"
"I’m all right," Dorfman said. "How’s
Dahlia?" Dahlia was his brother’s mistress with whom he’d
been living on and off for years. "How come she didn’t come
with you this trip?"
"She had a black ah. Speed it up. Ahm hungry
as a horse."
"How’d she get a black eye?"
"Fell down the stairs."
"She got a black eye from falling down the stairs?"
"Well, ah hit her first. Then she fell down."
At the dinner table Dorfman’s teenage daughters
and son listened with awe to their uncle’s accounts of his exploits.
"Well, next day ah went down to the dealer’s
to have a look at the new 1928’s and saw a beauty and took her
out for a test drahv.
I had never drove before and had one helluva tahm getting’ it
to go in the direction ah wanted and anyway couldn’t fahn mah
way out of second gear, wherever that is. Then while ahm maneuverin’
‘round some fool sahdswipes me and we both stop and he’s
screamin’ that ah run into him. He gets out of his cah to see
the damage and ah gets out of mahn and shuck off mah jacket and roll
up mah sleeves, and when he sees me jiggin’ up and down with mah
hands ready to smash him up, boy, does he hop back into his tin lizzie
and take off lahk a lightnin’ flash." Uncle Sean grinned
at his success.
"What happened?" Jeremy asked, agape.
"Well, ah brought the cah back to the dealers
who begun screamin’ at me and is suin’ me but he ain’t
gon collect a cent since he’s got enough insurance on that cah
to buy two of ‘em." During the breathless pause that took
place, Mrs. Dorfman and Marian, her fifteen year old, began removing
the dishes. Hedda, always nervous in the presence of her brother-in-law,
accepted his compliments with a mine of salt.
"That was a real juicy old chicken, ma’am!"
he cried, wiping his lips with his napkin. He asked if she had any ice
cream to go with the strudel she served for dessert, but she had to
confess that she didn’t. She timidly suggested that ice cream
and strudel were not a combination.
"Ma'am, ah eat ice cream with everthing!"
he laughed. "Ah had a great meal last night at the chinks. And
yo’ soup came real close to it, let me tell you!"
"Oh?" she said, squeezing out a smile.
"Ah hope you intend to put out the box of chocolate
pecans ah brought for the family. Ah very much wanted to give you-all
a real southern treat," he said as he focused his narrow, sparkling
eyes on Esther, the older daughter, whose bust delighted him.
He turned to stare at Jeremy whose large glasses
gave him an owly look. "You thinkin’ of servin yo’
country one day, son?"
"I dunno," Jeremy shrugged.
"You ever been in a fight, boy?" Uncle
Jeremy looked around nervously at his family. But
before he could reply, Uncle Sean nailed him. "Ah can see by yo’
look you never been in a fight. You ain’t really a man before
you get into a fight, you know, and ah mean a fight where you draw blood.
What are you, son, a coward? Ah can teach you how to box and you can
go right out and punch somebody in the nose, hear?" He looked around
the table at the three girls and Hedda, adding, "Ain’t his
fault altogether, is it? Surrounded by women a boy can grow up to be
a sissy before he knows it. And the more beautiful and charmin’,
as you ladies are, the mo’ trouble it is for him, bless you-all."
"Oh, I don’t want him fighting,"
"You are a sweet little old lady, Hedda, but
lemme tell you he’s gonna have to fight out there just lahk I
did when ah was in the navy. Every red-blooded American boy has got
to learn to stand up and defend himself. Don’t you agree, Emil?"
Dorfman, whose concerns about his son were only deepened
by his brother’s remarks, said, "Yeah, sure, absolutely.
But he’s got time. I don’t want him loafing around in the
"He’ll pay for it in the end, you know,
if you don’t watch out," Uncle Sean said, giving the coward
a warning look.
Mrs. Dorfman with the help of two of her daughters
cleared away the dishes and began to serve the coffee. Judith, the youngest
girl, whose devilish glances caught her Uncle’s eye as she silently
appealed to him for attention said, "Did you fight on a battleship,
Uncle Sean, whose action in the navy was confined
briskly replied, "You can bet yo’ bottom dollar on that,
"Why did you quit?" she asked, innocently.
"Ah quit because for a new sailor lots of the
duty was niggers’ work, lahk cleanin’ the heads. Ah just
wasn’t brought up to do that kind of thing. You see, what you
folks up here don’t understand is they can’t have niggers
in the navy because that would mean sleepin’ right next to them,
right in the next hammock. I mean closer than you and me are across
this here table. Now, just lemme take a minute here and tell yo’
mother that this is one delicious cup of coffee, ma’am. Now, if
you had cream instead of milk, it would be the world’s best. Is
this here strudel home-made?"
On the following day, Sunday, the all night rain
had continued, drenching the city. When Mrs. Dorfman went down into
the cellar for a jar of jelly she found it flooded with water up to
the first step. Emil and his brother had been discussing the stock market
in which Sean had made what he described as a small fortune and was
encouraging Emil to participate. Emil had been eager to have this conversation
and obtain Sean’s opinion and expertise and was annoyed when his
wife called him away. Uncle Sean accompanied them on to the steps leading
to the cellar.
"You have to call the plumber immediately, Emil,"
"Everything will get ruined down there in the damp."
"It’s Sunday- " Emil said.
"For you he’ll come. Try him. Call him."
"Ah don’t see no sense in throwin’
away yo’ money on a plumber," Uncle Sean advised. "Let
me handle it." Brushing past Hedda he descended to the lowest step,
took off his shoes and sox, rolled up his trousers and waded into the
"You-all got a wrench?" he asked.
"In that box on the workbench over there,"
Emil replied. Uncle Sean sloshed to the workbench and found the wrench
and proceeded to examine the cellar. "Watch out. You don’t
know this cellar. You’ll fall over something," his brother
"When ah want yo’ advice I’ll ask
for it, Emil," he said as he tripped on a fault in the cement floor
and fell to his knees into the water, his trousers soaked.
"Come up, Shmul! I’ll call the plumber."
"Ah’ll locate the trouble and don’t
you-all call no plumber! And don’t ever call me Shmul, for chrassakes."
He stripped to his underwear and spent the next hour wading from one
end of the cellar to the other with the monkey wrench. When he finally
returned to the house in a sweat he informed his brother that nothing
would stop the water coming in and that it would have to be pumped out.
"It’s a shoddy job, yo’ cellar is. You might have to
re-do the entah foundation," he said.
Emil telephoned the plumber whose wife said he was
out on a job but she’d send him over as soon as he came back even
though he had other jobs ahead of Emil’s. Drying out in Emil’s
bathrobe on the enclosed front porch while Hedda was pressing his pants,
Uncle Sean sat with his feet up in the gently swinging hammock reading
the Sunday comics and roaring with laughter. Occasionally he glanced
out the array of windows on which the rain beat incessantly. Raising
his eyes from the Katzenjammer Kids he saw a burly man in an old raincoat
and a beat up hat, drenched, hurrying across the street toward the house.
Uncle Sean leaped up, his eyes fixed on the figure as the man opened
the small gate, dropped a tool box he carried and bent over to retrieve
it. Uncle Sean, pale, sprang into the hallway of the house.
"Emil!" he shouted. "Where the hell
Emil appeared at the top of the stairs "What
"There’s a nigger at the dooor, for chrassakes!"
his brother yelled up to him.
Emil hurried down as the bell rang. Everyone in the
house had come running into the hallway in response to the shouting
as Dorfman opened the door. The man in the soaked raincoat and floppy
hat quickly slipped in, wiped his feet on the mat and put down his toolbnox,
"I was jest about to go on another job when
my wife told me you called," he said to Dorfman, sweeping off his
Dorfman said, "Sorry to bring you out in such
weather, but it’s an emergency."
"Don’t you worry about that. God made
this weather especially for plumbers. Now lemme git my raincoat off
before I soak your place up," the plumber said, divesting himself
of his things. "Hi, folks," he called, waving at the family.
"Hello, Mr.Lee!" the children replied in
"Where’s your dog, Mr. Lee?" Jeremy
"Oh, he’s smarter than me. Wouldn’t
come out in this here rain even when I offered him an umbrella."
"This is my brother, Shmul," Dorfman said.
"This is Mr. Lee, our plumber."
"How do?" Mr. Lee said, smiling, picking
up his toolbox.
"His name is Robert E. Lee," Jeremy informed
his uncle, chuckling.
"That’s a slap my family thought they
was playing on the confederacy," Mr. Lee explained to Uncle Sean
who stood there stiff as a mast. "But it did good for me. Folks
hear it and laugh and get friendly right off. Well, you have to excuse
me, sir, I got to git to work." He started off toward the back
of the house in the direction of the cellar door, followed by the family
except for Jeremy. Jeremy felt his uncle’s hand gripping his shoulder.
"Come with me, son!" Uncle Sean ordered,
and led him upstairs to the bedroom he occupied. The pants Hedda had
ironed for him hung neatly over a chair. He sat down on the bed and
pulled Jeremy before him. "Now you-all tell me the truth, boy,
hear? Did you-all ever hear your mama and your papa talking about that
there plumber?" he asked, his voice brittle.
Jeremy shrugged. "Yeah- sometimes," he
"Did you ever hear them sayin’ something
was missin’ from the house but couldn’t figure out who took
it?" Uncle Sean demanded.
"Well, there was my father’s sterling
silver pen knife- "
"Ah gave your father that knife! He got that,
"The nigger, that’s who!"
"No, it was me. I took it. I wanted it to play
mumblety peg so I stole it for a whole day. But I brought it back and
nobody ever knew." He paused and looked slyly at his uncle who
was biting his lips. "Yeah, " he continued, " I remember
that day because that was the night Mr. Lee slept here."
Uncle Sean grabbed him by the front of his shirt.
"He slept here? In this house?"
"It was late. He was working on the roof. He
was afraid something would happen during the night."
Uncle Sean’s forehead showed signs of sweat
and his face grew purple. "Where did he sleep? In the cellar?"
"No. Right there. In your bed."
For a moment Jeremy thought his uncle’s grip
would tear his shirt off, as he was he dragged to the door and thrust
out, the door slamming after him. Jeremy listened outside for a moment
then ran down the stairs and made for the cellar where he found his
father and Mr.Lee, the water almost gone as they swept the remains of
it toward a drain. Mr.Lee had unstuffed it, found the fault in the wall
that faced the back garden and temporarily patched it. The rain had
Upstairs in the breakfast room Mrs. Dorfman prepared
hot chocolates and cookies. Mr. Lee, followed by Dorfman, washed their
hands in the kitchen sink and came in and sat down and Jeremy was directed
to call his Uncle Sean to join them. Jeremy returned with unbelievable
news. Uncle Sean was not in his room. It had been cleaned out, including
his valise. Everybody rushed upstairs to confirm it.
"What happened?" cried the astonished Dorfman
of everyone. "Didn’t any of you see him leave?" He glared
at his son. "You were the last one to see him. What happened?"
Jeremy hesitated. "I think he didn’t like
the idea that Mr. Lee slept in his bed."
"What are you talking about? Where did he get
such a crazy idea? Why would Mr.Lee sleep in his bed?"
"I always told you your brother was a little
bit crazy, Emil, and maybe now you’ll believe me," said Mrs.
Dorfman. "Come. The hot chocolates will get cold."
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