Marvin is dressed in his all-time favorite outfit: scruffy plaid tuxedo, ruffled shirt and oversized bowtie; everything in shades of brown and burnt orange. The fact that he is only 12 and still wears braces on his very prominent front teeth does nothing to dim his fantasy, neither do the vestiges of Clearasil on his cheeks and forehead.
“Marvin,” his mother, Sylvia, hisses grabbing the boy’s chin and wagging it from side to side, “How many times do I have to tell you? When you get up in the morning you wash your face, first thing. It’s not a maybe I will, Maybe I won’t.” But Marvin’s thoughts are elsewhere; he’s thinking about a joke he’d heard on the radio. The J train they’re riding on wobbles and rattles as it meanders from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The car smells skunky with a sweaty whiff of Jade East cologne.
But as far as Marvin is concerned, he’s on the plush circular stage at Kutcher’s Resort in the Catskills and before him sits a crowd of moist, laughing vacationers up from the city, drinking martinis. The room is draped in blue velvet and a mural of shining stars and planets covers the back wall. Wiping a bit of sweat backhand from his upper lip, Marvin climbs onto the subway seat and clears his throat. Here there is no blue velvet, and the closest thing to a painting of the solar system is an ad above the subway door for PEZ candy depicting one of their popup dispensers shaped like a rocket ship.
“Ladies and Germs,” he begins in a thin, reedy voice, “I am so thrilled to be here tonight on the Ed Sullivan Show I can’t even tell you. If you want to know the truth, it’s the dream of a lifetime. That, and getting Raquel Welch’s phone number. But enough about me. Have you heard the one about the man who walks into a urologist’s office? So the man says, ‘Doc, I can’t pee.’ And the Doctor asks the man, ‘How old are you?’ And the man says, ‘Doctor I’m 93 years old.’ The doc looks at him and says, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ve peed enough.’”
Not daring to look at his mother, who reminds Marvin, at this moment, of a jelly donut covered in powdered sugar, he scans the car. A man with a newspaper over his face is snoring audibly. A woman at the other end of the car is bottle feeding her baby. The rest of the passengers stare blankly in his direction for a few seconds then dive back into their secret thoughts and dreams. But Marvin isn’t done with them yet.
“Hickory Dickory Doc,’ he says, “three mice ran up the clock. The clock struck one…and the rest escaped with minor injuries.”
“Don’t worry folks,” he said. “I’ve got a million of ‘em: “What’s the difference between a Jewish mother and a rottweiler? Give up? Eventually the rottweiler will let go.” Sweat is beginning to pool in his armpits and has already soaked through the shirt and tuxedo jacket which he bought second hand from a dwarf magician who had given up the business and moved to Florida.
“Take my wife, please,” he squeaks in barely a whisper.
The train slows as it nears the Cypress Hills station. Marvin, perspiration dripping now from the end of his nose, searches in vain for one last killer joke. Should it be Buddy Hackett, Shecky Green, Don Rickles?
“You’re telling Jewish mother jokes?” his own mother scolds, gathering up her bundles in preparation for the doors sliding open and searching frantically for her Virginia Slims. “On the J train? This is too much Marvin, too, too much. Come on, the show’s over, this is where we get off.” She pinches her son’s ear and propels him out the train door, down the stairs and into the street below. The humid August heat has caused her bouquet of cala lilies wrapped in newspaper to wilt and turn slightly brown along the edges.
“Marvin, bubele, you need better material. That borscht belt schtick just doesn’t cut it anymore, even I know that and I’m–you should pardon the expression–older than dirt.”
“Oh Ma, leave me alone.”
“Never mind with the leave me alone. Listen, you will be on the Sullivan Show someday, hand to God.” I can see it, I can hear it, I can feel it in my bones.”
“That’s just your arthritis acting up, I’ll rub on a little Ben Gay when we get home.”
She grabs her son by the shoulders dropping her bundles to the sidewalk and kisses him on the top of his head; “That hunchback Irishman Sullivan would be lucky to have you.”
“Ma,” Marvin gasps. Barely managing to squirm out of those all-encompassing arms, he successfully avoids another kiss. The heat and humidity have intensified the scent of Shalimar, his mother’s go-to, perfect-for-any occasion perfume.
“OK, OK, I get it,” she relents. “No more dawdling, we have to get there before they close the gates, then we’ll have dinner at Aunt Hilda’s. Won’t that be nice, Marvin? She’s making a brisket, your favorite.”
“The last time I had Hilda’s brisket I was on the toilet non-stop for a day and half.”
“Your Aunt Hilda is a terrifying cook; I’ll give you that. Her beef stew with dumplings has landed people in the hospital more than once, but we put up with it and why? Because she’s family and we love her.”
“So, it’s not because she’s old and rich and you’re afraid she’ll change her will?” Marvin asks.
His mother pulls the boy close and plants another kiss on the top of his head. “Oh, my darling boy,” she whispers in his ear. “I always knew you were the smartest of all my children. And of course, that’s the reason. Why would anyone take even one mouthful of food prepared by that hideous old woman if she didn’t have more money than God and a circulatory system that has, to put it mildly, seen better days?”
“I’m an only child, Ma.”
“Don’t cloud the issue Marvin,” she said pulling a bottle of pink Pepto-Bismol from one of her many bags, “Put this in your pocket, take two swallows when Hilda isn’t looking and pray like your life depended on it because well…maybe it does.”
The gates at Cypress Hills are still open and mother and son scurry in, “These lilies remind me of your father just before he died, pale and a little bit shriveled, no juice left like it was all squeezed out of him. I can’t believe it’s a year already since he’s gone.” Sylvia unwraps the bouquet and places her offering on Sam’s grave. Overhead a plane drones lazily on its descent into LaGuardia.
“Daddy would have loved it here,” Marvin said looking around at the row upon row of eager headstones stretching into the distance. “It’s the perfect audience, he’d say. “They can’t heckle you; they’re guaranteed not to be drunk and they can’t walk out. Book me for another six weeks!”
Sylvia smiles as she lights up a cigarette and takes a long deep drag, letting the smoke dribble slowly from her nostrils. She runs her hand across the polished granite headstone and whispers something in Yiddish that Marvin can’t hear. “Come Tatelah, grab that bag and let’s get out of here.”
Rob Leone’s work has appeared in the Hawaii Pacific Review, Evening Street Press, Prometheus Dreaming, Spank the Carp, Tuliptree, Rosebud, The Evergreen Chronicles, and other publications. He co-wrote “Rights of Passage” a full-length play produced by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco and published by Samuel French, Inc.