By Mark Leib
There were several mysteries on the day that Doug Feldman fought Hobie Eisenman in front of Beth Ami Synagogue while a gaggle of astonished boys and girls looked on. There were the usual enigmas: why the sun so reliably warmed the noisy crowd of children along Palm Avenue, why the breeze so democratically swept along the broad stretch of pavement whereon the kids waited for their parents to drive them home from Hebrew school, why the ground was so solid not only in Tampa, but in cities everywhere around a sphere with a core of fire. But beyond these daily curiosities, the battle of Doug and Hobie offered several new puzzles, some of which give up their secrets grudgingly. What moved Doug to defend his sister Cherise when Hobie harassed her? What departed from Doug’s consciousness during the thirty seconds of the fight? And why, years later, when Doug thought back to his Hebrew school days from the air-conditioned perch of a public defender’s office above busy Kennedy Boulevard, was it this combat that he remembered and almost nothing else? Imagine him now, looking out his window as the cars hurry over the Hillsborough River Bridge and past the silver minarets of the University of Tampa. Doug’s thinking – again – of that bright Florida day when he was nine years old and Cherise, eleven, was trying to fend off insolent Hobie….
They were out in the open air, waiting for their father to drive up in his Ford station wagon. Behind and above them was the synagogue: built of yellow and brown brick, with a long, wide staircase leading up to its massive front doors, and atop it all, a huge bronze dome, the only dome in all of Tampa, as far as Doug knew. A short walk away from it was the school building, long and narrow, but made of the same earth-colored brick of the house of worship beside it. It was a few minutes after noon, and there were about forty children along with Doug and Cherise, chatting, milling about, glad to be done with learning Proverbs and Psalms and a new melody to “Rock of Ages.” Doug, standing near the street, had his hands in his pockets as he searched for his father’s car. A few feet away, under the one palm tree on the property, Cherise waited also.
And Hobie Eisenman was giving her a hard time.
This didn’t surprise Doug. After all, Hobie Eisenman was evil, another exemplar of the malevolence that God had placed in the world for reasons only available to His infinite intellect. There was the snake in the garden, Cain and Goliath, Haman and Hobie. Taller and slimmer than Doug, with a mop of brown hair that barely touched his broad forehead, and laughing, sarcastic eyes, Hobie currently shared the Earth with Bernie Oster and his cherry bombs, Elaine Kinney and her malicious barbs, and the mean little Cairn Terrier that chased Doug for a whole block sometimes from the bus stop to his home. Evil was anyone who wanted to deliver pain, wanted you to suffer, couldn’t care less that you conducted yourself with what should have been disarming modesty in your transactions with the world. And right now, evil was smirking, malicious Hobie, who was backing Cherise up against the palm tree and chortling when she said “Leave me alone, cut it out!” Hobie Eisenman, who was so depraved, he even picked on girls, which none of the others did.
Doug had to act. But he was unprepared.
He didn’t know how to fight. No-one had ever taught him. His father had left all extracurricular education up to his mother, and his mother assumed that all little boys knew combat at birth, and had to be trained in the arts not of war but of peace. Of course, he’d occasionally found himself in a few pushing matches, and he’d seen enough television and film to glean the idea that in a real fight one made fists and threw them at one’s antagonist. But no-one had ever told him where to aim, when to use the right, how to protect his face and stomach. Further, Doug had been raised with Cherise, who may have hit him occasionally, but whom he’d been trained not to strike in return (one is supposed to love one’s sister, even when she turns the chessboard upside down and throws all the pieces at you). Sure, he could stand up for Cherise – insert himself bravely between Hobie and her. But Hobie, in that case, would certainly turn his attack on Doug. Then he’d have to fight back, and he didn’t have the moves. He’d get slaughtered.
“Cut it out!” repeated Cherise. Hobie was pushing her against the palm tree, laughing and dancing. “You’re crazy,” Cherise said. Doug took one last look and decided to intervene. He walked right up to Hobie.
“Stop bothering her,” he said.
And this is Mystery Number One. A not unintelligent creature, knowing himself outmanned, chooses nonetheless to give battle to an unbeatable opponent. If you think this is intelligible – it was his sister, after all – I have to disagree. He could just as easily have cowered in place, losing his honor but saving his skin. He could have told himself that their father’s Ford would appear at any moment and Cherise and he would escape before Hobie could hurt her. He could have told himself any number of things – many men and boys have, and have lived to repress the memory. But Doug didn’t, and I call it Mystery. And when I try to understand it, I think of three explanations:
1. There was no real decision, just genetic determinism. Somewhere far back
in the Feldman line were Neanderthals, primitive carnivores, a few of whom never failed to stand up for their own. As such an altruistic disposition tended to favor the survival of the clan’s DNA, nature selected this tendency over all timid, competing types, and by the time Edmund Feldman and Frances Feldman née Sloboda conceived Doug in the small but cozy blue-and-white bedroom in their South Tampa ranch house, there was a very good chance that the resulting chromosomal product would react to a threat to his family with fierce protectiveness – however hopeless. As for Doug’s deliberation on the matter – and he did feel himself deliberating – it was simply a trick played on him by evolution. That famous double helix was wrapped so tightly around his ability to decide, the two had become indistinguishable.
2. Massive cultural programming. According to this interpretation, Doug had long been imbibing, in everything from comic books to TV westerns to Friday night Sabbath services, an ethic of justice which now spoke through him to intrigued, amused Hobie. Who can really say where the teaching was most effective? If Superman, Batman, and Spiderman were in agreement, if James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. taught the primacy of righteousness, if Moses himself slew an Egyptian when the Egyptian was oppressing a Hebrew, who was Doug to hang back when his own sister was in danger? Every authority, from God to the police, agreed: we are our sister’s keeper. Seeing Cherise in danger wasn’t little Doug Feldman, but the prophet Elijah, the Green Hornet, Ilya Kuryakin and the whole Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. “Doug,” as we call him, the instrument of these multitudes, did precisely what they told him.
3. My preferred belief (though I know reasonable people who conscientiously disagree): there is, after all, something called “free will.” It’s inexplicable, unpredictable, knowable only intuitively. All the conditioning in the world, all those overwhelming hereditary and environmental forces, still can’t touch this sacred space, this region of divinely given liberty. So when Doug saw hostile Hobie, when he heard Cherise call out in distress, neither the chemistry of his genome nor the tropes of his education decided the issue one way or another. Doug assessed the situation – there was no percentage in challenging Hobie – and then he reached into his strongbox of free choice and made his decision. Contrary to sense. Beyond attribution. Beyond the deadening analysis that sees him as tool and not agent.
But to get back to that fine spring day: Doug took a few steps toward the palm tree which Cherise had backed into in her effort to fend off Hobie and, with all the courage he could muster, said “Stop bothering her.” Abruptly, Hobie turned from Cherise and sized up his new opponent. A sneer appeared on his face: so this non-entity dares to challenge me! Using both hands, he pushed Doug back a few paces and said, “What are you going to do about it?”
Doug rushed him, hands flailing, and they both fell to the ground.
And then consciousness vanished.
Not from the world; not from the forty young onlookers who saw this startling event, quiet, shy Doug Feldman attacking surly Hobie Eisenman, hitting and slapping at him while Hobie laughed and shouted out, “He fights like a girl!” No, all of them clearly saw Doug on top of supine Hobie and whaling away at him in an amateur frenzy.
For Doug alone, consciousness vanished. From the moment he rushed Hobie to the half-minute later when Cherise called out, “There’s Daddy,” everything went blank. He seemed to have left his body. There was neither time nor space nor heaven nor earth. Mind and its objects disappeared.
What happened in those thirty seconds? If Doug wasn’t present, on the hard concrete at the foot of the synagogue steps, swiping confusedly at Hobie Eisenman, where did he go? I imagine three answers.
1. The most terrible possibility – at least, it worries me the most – is that at the moment of engagement, in order to accomplish the unthinkable but necessary attack on Hobie, Doug regressed three million years or more, became a beast again, without thought, without reason, just a brutal, feral jackal, moved by instinct not thought, a reptile with no cerebral cortex, a scorpion or dung beetle battling for its life with no other idea anywhere in its puny brain. Moments later he would “come to himself,” the bright day would spring back into focus, he would see Hobie, Cherise, his other schoolmates. But for thirty seconds, Doug lost whatever it is that makes us a little better than a locust. What a termite knows was all that he knew.
2. Perhaps great leaps of knowledge – sudden and enormous advances in our comprehension of the universe – can be so traumatic, they can actually eclipse consciousness. What Doug learned when he threw himself at Hobie Eisenman that early afternoon was something he’d managed to avoid for most of his nine years, but could no longer deny: there is a time when one must fight. Respect for others, love of peace, even a lack of preparation – none of them is sufficient in a world where evil exists and is aggressive. Had Doug had brothers, he might have absorbed this rather simple lesson in infancy. Instead, growing up with Cherise, he’d learned that a well-balanced human being can always deflect a conflict. Now a different understanding burst upon him, and the flash was so bright, it blinded poor Doug for the whole half-minute of his combat.
3. Here’s my favorite explanation: there are children on this earth who are born with the knowledge that humankind really is created in the image of God. Such children are naturally in awe of so many likenesses of the Almighty, are filled with respect and not a little fear at the nearness of so much majesty. The idea of doing any harm – breaking a nose, blacking an eye - to such an image is unthinkable: who would dare assault the Divine Likeness? So when Doug threw himself wildly at H. Eisenman, he did so with misgivings so great, they occluded thought. And it was only when Cherise shouted out the arrival of their father’s station wagon that his mind returned to him. And even then he could hardly accept what he’d done: he’d tried to damage a human being.
Anyway: Cherise called out, “Doug, Daddy’s here,” and Doug pulled himself off laughing Hobie just in time to see Bobby Reznikoff gaping out the window of his speeding father’s Chevy, gawking at this spectacular sight, Doug Feldman apparently defeating Hobie Eisenman in battle. (If this were Bobby’s story, we would see a different sort of shock upend a different sort of ignorance.) Then Doug, crying mostly because he’d left his body and that was frightening, walked the half-block with his sister – who said, “You won, why are you crying?” – reached the corner where Edmund Feldman was waiting, and climbed into his white car. He didn’t want his father to see his tears, so he hurried to the space directly behind the driver’s seat and dried his eyes with his shirt cuff. Then Cherise, beside him, pulled the backseat door closed and they drove off.
After a few moments, Edmund Feldman asked, as he always did, “How was Hebrew school today?” Cherise looked at Doug, saw instantly his wish that the combat remain unknown, and said, “Fine. Same as always.” Then all three shared a silence for the twenty minutes till they were home. By the time Doug and Cherise climbed out of the car and saw their mother stepping out of the open garage to meet them, it was clear that the fight was simply not to be mentioned.
But some things changed after that day.
Never again did Hobie harass Cherise Feldman.
And fifteen years later, when Doug graduated law school at Florida State, he chose – or thought he did – to devote his hours to the poor and helpless.
And some afternoons, as the traffic flowed over the Kennedy Avenue bridge, he stood at the window in his small office, and thought back to that mysterious half-minute. It was somehow pivotal. It had pointed him toward the sort of man he wanted to be, the values he wanted to believe in. There were only a few such moments, set years apart most of them, but all pointing in one direction, toward the adult, here in his law office.
Then he’d catch himself daydreaming – and turn back to the latest case. There were riddles in every corner of it, in every docket, every deposition. He sat down and stared at a pile of documents. He focused his entire self and soon was navigating through the uncertainties.
Copyright © Mark Leib 2011
Mark E. Leib’s plays and theatrical adaptations have been produced in New York, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Singapore. His drama criticism for the Tampa Bay area alternative newspaper Creative Loafing has won six awards for excellence from the Society of Professional Journalists, including two first-place Sunshine State awards. He is a visiting instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he teaches fiction, playwriting, and screenwriting. He also teaches writing and related courses at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Leib lives in Temple Terrace, Florida with his wife Elizabeth and son Jeremy.