When I was a little kid, I would watch my father playing with his toast crumbs on the breakfast table. He’d push the crumbs into interesting designs. My father was always artistic. He painted, he made sculptures from found objects, he fingered toast crumbs. I loved watching him do it: focused, creative, driven, even at breakfast.
A few years ago, I mentioned the toast crumb memory to him. I wanted to tell him how much his daily ritual had meant to me. He was quiet for a moment. It didn’t elicit the, “Oh, yeah! I forgot all about that! I used to love doing that!” I had expected. Instead, he finally said something like, “I was probably feeling trapped and trying to distract myself.” I was floored. I hadn’t gotten that at all from watching him. To me it was just another example of the wonderfulness of my dad, the most eccentric and educated father in our blue collar neighborhood, an example of his boundless creativity: toast crumb art. Suddenly it was something else entirely.
I found myself both flattered by his honesty and taken aback by the abandonment of his fatherly protective relationship. It was similar to that day he started referring to my mother as “Helen” and not “Mom.” We are all adults here, it said. She is Helen now.
“Helen and I went to Vermont this weekend.”
“Helen fell and broke her wrist.”
Of course, had he told me as a child that he felt trapped, I would not have understood.
Of course, as an adult, I do. The nature of my relationship with my father has changed. Now here we are, both older, both parents, both still struggling to understand ourselves at this late date. Helen has died. Myron moved to California to be near Charles. His weekend painting became full-time painting. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have it, he says.
In the last few years he has painted hundreds of paintings, written several stories, participated in handful of gallery shows, and had two solo exhibitions.
And I do my own version of toast crumb drawings now. Because I now know the secret of adulthood.
Here’s a story Myron wrote and illustrated.
Part 1: Hyracotherium
“If homosexuals are allowed to marry, the next thing liberals will want is to marry horses.”
“That is one of the most ridiculous things I have heard,” I lied to my Aunt Lotte. She looked at me with a smirk, knowing, as I did, that she had me on the run. Maybe she was right.
But how would I know what “liberals” would want next. I think of myself as a liberal and some think of me as a horse’s ass, but do liberals, in general, have some secret connection to horses? I think, maybe some do. I’m afraid that this liberal may have an “unnatural” feeling towards horses—female horses, thank God.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I mumbled “good bye” and shuffled out of her apartment, across from the park.
The conversation bothered me. Was I a secret horse lover? Even worse, was I a liberal horse lover, in that way?
I was attracted to, afraid of, and in awe of horses. Their contradictory nature intrigued me, their size frightened me. They have great strength and yet are timid. They are fantastically fast and tranquil at the same time. I really love their tangy smell. Anyway, why should anyone care if people want to marry horses. Live and let live.
There does seem to be an attraction between the two species. A mounted policeman in Manhattan always attracts a crowd of admirers, for the horse. People and horses have been melded together in mythology and art forever. Leonardo made sketches of creatures that could be the offspring of horses and people. The Greeks had the centaur. If there was ever such a meld where would the genitals be? Would they be between the rear legs or the front? Would they be somewhere else, like the mouth? I walked and talked to myself.
“Well, everyone knows,” I could imagine Lotte saying, “that the only valid reason for marrying is to procreate.” I suppose that is true in a lot of cases but there are no marriage barriers to people who will not or cannot have children. There is no premarital test for physical, psychological, financial, racial or religious barriers to procreation. And anyway babies can be conceived without having sex. Babies can be conceived without getting married. Procreation is not limited to a male and female of the same species. Homosexuals can have babies. Conception is not even dependent on having a male and female. Consider the mule and the clam. Consider Mary.
Who would want to stand in the way of love? Who would stand in the way of an old couple who wants to be together for the pleasure of each others, company and perhaps some tax benefits? What if a horse and a person wanted to marry? Who would stand in their way? Everyone. Why? If they elected to rent an apartment, and I lived below then I would object to the clopping and to sharing an elevator.
Lotte lives near the park. Walking to a subway at Columbus Circle, I was thinking that all this talking to myself helped to pass the time. Was I moving my mouth? Did people passing think I was talking on my cell phone? I hoped so.
On 59th Street I passed a row of parked horses and carriages waiting to be rented by romantic tourists. One horse, a small, black beauty named Bertha, attracted my attention. I like to believe that the attraction was mutual. She had big brown eyes, long eyelashes, and a light brown mane and tail. It may not seem possible but I saw a shy smile on her lips. She tried to make believe that she didn’t notice me.
I was charmed and I think she was too. It was a strange feeling, as if we were kindred spirits. It was weird. It was not logical. I don’t think I ever felt that way before.
I stopped to chat with the owner, Aldo. He was nice and he seemed to like her too. But he obviously thought of his horse as a horse and his business partner, so to speak. He had a wife and four human children. I tentatively rubbed Bertha’s head and scratched her ear as if she were a dog. She accepted my touch but didn’t seem delighted. Her feel was soft and warm and I felt a tingle, between my legs that frightened me so I said goodbye and walked quickly away. I replayed this encounter all the way home to Brooklyn where I had a double martini. This helped put me to sleep by eight thirty but I was up, for good, by four AM. I tossed and turned but I couldn’t get Bertha out of my mind. I couldn’t wait for the day to really begin as I already had decided to take the day off as, logically, a sick day, and go to visit Bertha again.
I arrived at the park by eleven AM with donuts and a geranium. Her spot was vacant. Her neighbors told me she was out on a job. I waited and ate a donut. When she and Aldo finally arrived I passed the donuts around and she liked them a lot. Aldo helped me place the geranium at a jaunty angle on her head. She asked me if I had a mirror so she could see how it looked. I know this sounds bizarre and I know that Aldo didn’t hear her and I didn’t quite hear her either. I kind of just understood that she wanted to see herself. Aldo had a mirror that his lady customers sometimes asked for to straighten their hair after a windy ride. Bertha looked at herself and smiled. I saw the smile!
I rented the carriage for a spin around the park. She kept her head erect and tossed her light brown mane. I was aroused. The sexual tension between us was palpable. I was ashamed. I needed to possess her.
After the ride I got down and put my arms around her neck and kissed her. She smelled like newly mown hay and donuts. I could see that Aldo was getting upset with my behavior so I left for Brooklyn but not before Bertha and I agreed to a midnight meeting at her stable. I had another martini when I got home.
Bertha and I talked for hours, at the stable, about our feelings and fears. She loved me but could it work? She expressed her doubts. She felt that our being together would not satisfy either of us sexually, and would not result in motherhood for her. Having a baby was something she longed for and her clock was ticking. Adoption or artificial insemination was certainly possible, but how would a foal feel towards me as a father? Where would we live and who would we associate with? It didn’t seem natural to her. “Love conquers all,” I said and we would have to overcome some objections, perhaps, but such a love as ours only comes once in a lifetime. I would take care of her and protect her and I would be the father of our children and if necessary, have plastic surgery to make myself a more suitable lover for her. I left shortly before Aldo came to pick her up. She had bags under her eyes. We were exhausted but happy and resolved, that night, to get married, as soon as possible.
The next day my fever had not subsided so I called in sick and went back to see Bertha. I took Aldo out of earshot and offered to buy Bertha. At first Aldo didn’t understand. He thought I was going to go into the horse and carriage business. After all, this was his business. What would he do to make a living? He was very fond of Bertha. He had a wife and four children to feed. “No, no,” I told him, “you don’t understand. Bertha and I are in love and we are going to be married.” He turned the color of the faded carnation still on Bertha’s head. What I had in mind was against God’s way. It was horrible, it was unnatural. He wouldn’t be a party to it.
We argued and bargained and finally, after assuring him that I truly loved her and that she loved me, that I would protect her, cherish her and keep her from harm’s way, we agreed to a price of $12,500 and he could keep the carriage. This was very steep but Aldo sensed my desperation and took advantage of the situation. Bertha and I were very happy.
I didn’t know anything about Bertha’s family, health or age but I knew we were simpatico. I did know that she was a vegetarian and I was Jewish and that we were both born in Brooklyn. That was enough for me.
I had $9,000 in my saving’s and borrowed the rest of the money from my Aunt Lotte. I wouldn’t tell her what the money was for so she made me sign a promissory note and assure her that I wasn’t doing anything stupid, illegal or immoral with the money. I didn’t tell her about Bertha, at that time. I didn’t believe that I was doing anything immoral, nor do I believe that now.
That night, at the stable, I formally proposed to Bertha and she accepted, immediately.
Until we were married she and I agreed she would stay at the stable and I would go in search of a suitable home for both of us. When I visited her, her girl friends giggled and made nasty noises that upset both of us. I assured her that it was jealousy that motivated them. That seemed to help. She agreed to raise our children in the Jewish faith but she was adamant about not having our kids circumcised. I reluctantly agreed.
Some may believe that such discussions could never have taken place but the language of love is venerable, strong and unfathomable to those who have not truly loved.
I found a small house on an acre and a half, forty miles from New York City, in New Jersey. It was a long trip to my job but it was remote enough that Bertha and I would be left alone, we hoped. Fortunately most of my work can be done from home so that I didn’t have to make that long trip to the office, every day.
In three months time we had arranged our future. We had a house and the wedding was all set. We were wed by a reformed rabbi in a small barn on our property. Bertha insisted on breaking the glass just to, I believe, assert her independence of mind.
It was a small wedding and reception. My Aunt Lotte, Aldo and his wife, my brother and his wife, who came in a disguise, the rabbi, his wife and son, and three of Bertha’s ex-stable mates were our guests. Bertha wore a traditional white gown and veil and looked lovely. I wore a dark suit, a white shirt, a blue tie and a pair of black shoes that I borrowed from my brother.
At the reception, dinner started with a carrot salad topped with alfalfa sprouts, followed by bird’s nest soup and an entree of faux-halibut steak made with squash and spinach. A dessert of fresh apple pie was served with a choice of herbal tea or apple juice.
Every time my Aunt Lotte passed me she mouthed the word “schmuck.” I really think she loves me. Traditional music was provided by a Jewish rock group humorously called “Horsin’ Around.” The event was concluded by rousing, sing-a-long rendition of Hatikva and everyone went home.
Bertha and I rushed to our house and had our clothes off before we got to our bedroom. Our bedroom had a conventional double bed, for me, and an orange and brown quilted stall for her. We had a lot of laughs on our marriage ‘bed’ with Bertha asking, wittily but respectfully, “are you in yet.”
Bertha and I decided she would retire and we would focus on becoming pregnant. We started working evenings on getting pregnant and decorating the nursery. We painted the walls and ceilings to give it a feeling of a warm day in the country. It was an exciting and fun time with the, by now, standard joke “are you in yet” being repeated countless times. I never did get plastic surgery.
I worked long hours to bring in more money, now that Bertha was not working. She was exceedingly patient. She cleaned and fussed around the house rearranging things and spent a lot of time looking out the window. Our neighbors were few and what there were of them left us to ourselves. We were grateful. It was ideal.
Once in a while we went to her old stable to visit her chums. They always snickered when I came near. We walked around our property and sometimes I guiltily rode her but she assured me that she enjoyed it.
We lived this idyllic life for four years but Bertha didn’t become pregnant.
Even though Blue Cross refused to cover my wife on my medical insurance, we decided to go, on our own “nickel,” to see my internist, Dr. Groper about how we should proceed with our desire to have children. Not only wouldn’t he see us, he wouldn’t allow Bertha in his waiting room. Bertha was humiliated and I was too. This wasn’t the first time we were insulted. My Aunt Lotte, when she visited, wouldn’t talk to Bertha, and , often, when she passed me, she would mouth that word. I was still convinced that she loved me but after a couple of these visits I had to ask her not to come to our house anymore, for Bertha’s sake. Criticism came from both sides. Bertha’s colleagues at her old stable felt that she could do better and that she was wasting her her life on a loser. Of course this hurt me for I do feel that I got the better deal.
In a giggly girlish moment, Bertha told her friends about our secret lover’s joke, and whenever they got a chance her friends would whisper it to me. We had to reduce the frequency of our visits to the old stable, because this was too painful for me.
Bertha didn’t want to press the issue with Dr. Groper so we arranged to go see a veterinarian at the Agricultural and Animal University and Hospital of New Jersey, the AAUHNJ, Dr. Friendly. He treated us with great courtesy and became, after a while, more than our doctor, more like a friend. After extensive psychological and physical examinations of both of us he recommended artificial insemination. We swallowed my pride and took his expert advice.
It seemed that in no time Bertha was with child and we were both ecstatic.
I worked my tail off, metaphorically speaking, during this period, and we saved every dime. Babies are expensive. Fortunately the AAUHNJ decided to provide prenatal care and the delivery at no cost to us because of the unusual circumstances, but we had to agree that Dr. Friendly could publish a technical paper, describing our case, in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine. We agreed because we had great confidence in him and we saved a lot of money. After Bertha started to feel life Dr. Friendly did an ultrasound examination. It was a single fetus. The sex could not yet be determined but there were four legs and, to everyone’s surprise, the feet had multiple toes.
Our social life was limited to local walks, occasional visits with friends and relatives but mostly we spent quiet evenings watching TV. We sometimes ordered eat-in suppers but this was expensive.
We lived and dreamt of our baby’s arrival.
We talked and worried about how we were going to handle the extraordinary issues that the arrival of the baby would bring. Playmates, the reaction of other young parents, schooling, doctors, family acceptance, money and all of the social mores we would face—more importantly, that our baby would face. I comforted Bertha and assured her that it would all work out fine. How self-indulgent I had been. These thoughts depressed us but, at the same time, they drew us even closer together, in self-defense.
Life would not and could not be denied. Our baby was growing inside Bertha and was going to seek its way out, when the time came, and it would squarely face every challenge and we would help. That was its and our destiny. We were scared but Bertha was brave. I put on a brave front.
Bertha didn’t answer the phone when I wasn’t home. She let the recorder do the work. People pretended not to understand her on the phone. I don’t know why. She had excellent diction and she spoke slowly. I suspect that people who pretended not to understand her were expressing their hostility to our relationship.
Bernie Briscut had been calling on the phone, incessantly, for a week, ‘til he finally got me in. I can’t be sure where he got our number but I suspect it was from someone at AAUHNJ. Bernie is a TV and movie producer and he wanted to make a movie of our recent life and have exclusive rights to the story, pictures and interviews. He already knew quite a bit of our marriage and Bertha’s pregnancy. He made it sound as if denying him would be like denying science and beside that, he was talking about a lot of money. I answered his questions gingerly but didn’t offer any details he didn’t already know. Being polite, by nature, I tried to tell him, in a nice way, to leave us alone. But being Bernie he showed up at out home on Sunday and stood, with his foot on the threshold There was no getting rid of him so I let him in. He started talking before he touched down on the sofa.
He talked of our responsibility to the ASPCA, our need to consider the advancement of science, the “right” of people to know of our novel and courageous way of life and, last but not least, the chance to be celebrities and to make a lot of money. He wanted exclusive rights to our story and thought it would be a good idea if he became the “child’s” guardian, in the unlikely event that something happened to us. He was like an unrelenting stream moving huge amounts of soil and rock that obstructed its path. Bertha and I, exhausted by the torrent, signed up. I signed my name and Bertha, still very much uncertain but finally swayed by my prompting, her hoof dipped in ink, stamped her “X.”
Without warning they arrived at eight AM the next morning. Men and women with tripods, cameras, microphones, valises and trunks filled with all kinds of equipment; lights, wires, lunch boxes and thermos bottles. Their leader was Bernie. They invaded our house and told us to just go about our normal routine as if they weren’t there. They “shot” us in our bedclothes, at breakfast, brushing our teeth and reading the newspapers. They followed Bertha and me taking our walk and napping.
They finally packed up and left at six PM , promising to return the next day to do some interviews. We were exhausted but happy to see them go. They were true to their word and they kept coming back and accompanying us to our doctor visits and talking to our neighbors and anyone that we came in contact with. They were wasting all the time we needed to be together to talk quietly, plan, and enjoy each other.
They accompanied us to AAUHNJ where we were becoming celebrities. We were getting daily calls from newspapers which Bernie insisted on answering. There were articles, mostly conjecture, on the state of Bertha’s progress, items about little Dobbin, as they called our baby, and unflattering pieces about me. There were helicopters overhead and a perpetual din. Bertha was fat and well and at a time when we would normally be in heaven, we were feeling persecuted.
During Bernie’s interviews of Bertha, I interpreted. It was a mystery to me that no one else but me seemed to understand her since she spoke as clearly as Rex Harrison.
Government officials, doctors, pundits, windbags of all sorts, religious leaders and even the Pope was expressing unflattering opinions about our union and our baby’s impending birth. Right-to-life organizations were advocating an abortion for Bertha. It was frightening.
People were slowing down as they passed our house to catch a glimpse of us. Some people stopped and parked in front and picnicked. Some parked overnight. There was a police presence on our property “to protect us,” they said.
The newspapers and talk shows, thanks to Bernie, had stories and photos of us everyday. One might suppose that all these important people and organizations would have something more important to focus on— but that wasn’t the case.
The people outside our house started to express their opinions about us with signs like: ‘ABOMINATION,’ ‘SHAME,’ ‘YOU WILL BURN IN HELL,’ and my personal favorite: ‘A HORSE IS A HORSE, OF COURSE.’
AAUHNJ and specifically, Dr. Friendly, were catching some of this criticism too. We felt bad for them but we were pretty much thinking of ourselves. Bernie walked around humming all day long. Bernie arranged to have an ambulance, right outside our door, twenty-four hours a day.
We expected one more week to pass before our baby’s birth but the tumult and anxiety, I think, advanced the schedule and Bertha’s water burst a week early. With Bernie’s help we got Bertha into the waiting ambulance, and with a police escort, had her at AAUHNJ in forty-five minutes.
The hospital was crowded with news reporters and magazine representatives including one from “Polo Today.” Child advocate groups, representatives from the ASPCA, NJ State social workers, lawyers, genealogists from Rutgers, evolution experts from Ole’ Miss, local police, National Guard Troops, US Marshals, Evangelical end-of-world picketers, organized prayer groups, the Arch Bishop of NJ and the defrocked Rabbi who had married us—to name a few—were in attendance.
The delivery was over within the hour after Bertha’s arrival. The male baby was small, only 8 pounds and the size of a full grown, small chihuahua. His body was similar to a conventional horse except he had four toes on his front feet and three on his rear feet. His body was hairless and pink. His head looked a little like mine but sprouted a sparse chin beard.
I got all this from the news reports, as I never saw him. In person.
He stood up almost immediately and said “AMAM YM TNAW I.” This sounded dyslexic to some and others said it was gibberish. The genealogist thought the baby was a throwback to the hyracotherium, but could not be certain because of the head and the location of the genitals. The evolutionist from Ole’ Miss said the “monster” demonstrated the displeasure of the Intelligent Designer with the tampering by man, in HIS jurisdiction.
Immediately after the delivery and before I could see Bertha or Dobbin (Bertha and I decided we liked the name). The police handcuffed me and led me away. The charge was sodomy and bestiality and I was taken to jail to await trial.
Bertha was placed under police guard and slated to be housed at the ASPCA until a judge could decide what to do with her, and Dobbin was turned over to Bernie, since we had agreed to his guardianship over our son. Dobbin was not circumcised. His genitals, by the way, were between his front legs.
I was found guilty of all charges and given an eight month prison sentence, a two thousand dollar fine, and two hundred hours of community service. I was not to ever see or contact my son or wife and I was required to complete forty hours of psychological counseling.
Aldo, following this international hu-ha in the news, contacted the ASPCA and offered to provide a wholesome environment for Bertha and a one thousand dollar donation to the ASPCA. His offer was accepted and Bertha went back to Manhattan and to work.
I got out of jail in four months for good behavior, and sold our house in New Jersey. It had been somewhat vandalized, but I still made some money and was able to use it to pay off my fine and debt to Aunt Lotte. I visited my Aunt who barely looked at me. She took the money and turned her back. I still think she loves me.
Leaving Lotte, I walked down 59th Street, being careful to stay on the opposite side of the street from where the horse and carriages were parked. I caught a glimpse of Bertha, who looked older. The sheen was gone from her coat and the twinkle was gone from her big brown eyes. I felt very low.
Seeing her this way and from talks with my counselor I realized I had done a terrible thing to a creature who was kind and trusting and whom I love and I did what I did thinking only of the moment and myself.
By word and deed, I had promised Bertha a life that I could not provide. A life of peace and satisfaction. A life we could share with our children, content and blissful. Even as I promised these things to her I knew, in my heart, that I couldn’t deliver them. I fooled her and took away her hope.
Bernie still has Dobbin and I believe he has something in mind for him. I hope that my son can have a satisfying life, but I think he is going to have a hard time.
People say that it’s best to stick to your own kind, but Dobbin, I’m afraid, will have little luck in finding his own kind.
I would also like to restart my own life but regular women don’t seem interested in me and frankly, I don’t like the way they smell.
Read Part II of Horse Scents here.