Nebby Joins the Army
We could invent love until the sea closed in. That's all us guys were sure of in 1936 in
Greenwich Village. Those were dark years, wild years for me! My father already knew what
Stalin and Hitler were up to, even if a lot of others didn't. We kids felt a vague threat
hanging over us. I dreamed of being a revolutionary poet, when I wasn't dreaming of
Mollymy pretty, plump and sexy girlfriend. She had a skinny brother, called
"Nebby" who was nervous and decidedly unattractive to females. No one remembered
that "Nebby" didn't get his nomer from nebbish, but from the first part of his
name, Nebekovski. Girls never paid attention to Nebby. To become a big hero so girls would
like him, he decided to run away and join the Spanish Loyalist Armybut he was afraid
of guns and didn't know a thing about shooting one. Molly made me promise to teach him
I was ashamed of any nebbishy guys of my Jewish background who were scared of guns,
woods and wild animals, scared of worms when you took them fishing. Being good at such
sporting stuff made me very suspect among my friends in the city, but I fared better in
the country than my friends who studied at Stuyvesant High School of Science. My father, a
Turkish Jew, had made a point of teaching me to hunt and fish. He believed that every man
ought to know how to defend himself with a gun. He expected that any minute a workers'
revolution or Hitlers' troops might arrive in New York City.
"Wars are fought to save rich peoples' money! Jews like us can get killed by their
own governments!" my father would bellow. After Stalin's purges were known and Hitler
started World War II, he said the samewith greater conviction and louder oratory.
"So, why should only the government soldiers have guns? When the Secret Police come
for your family, you've got to be ready! When the whole world is one country, one race,
religion, and class, you can be a pacifist!"
He taught me to aim and fire the rifles he bought me on my birthdays. He gave me two
hunting riflesjust like his. "You always need a sparejust in case
and you hide them in different placesone easy to find, the other impossible! You're
not going to like the other Socialist nebbishes in this city always expecting a
workers' revolution and scared even to kill a chicken! They scream like girls at a
poisonous snake if they only see one! They can't put a worm on a fishing hook without
throwing up! What kind of a man is that?"
I always thought of poor Nebby when my father talked like that. I befriended
himbecause of his sister, Molly, but I called him Nebby, too. He was in no great
position to protest. I was proud of being the tallest guy at Stuyvesant High
Schoolthe best public school for science and math in New York City. The German guys
who hung around the park drinking beer called my Jewish friends "sissies," but
they didn't dare do that to me. They knew I could bust heads with the best of them. The
Jewish guys, to get back at the Germans, called them "Krauts," and "Beer
bellies." Then they would retaliate with "Kikes" and "Jewbagels!"
Everyone was calling the Italians "guineas," or "greaseballs," the
Englishmen, "fruits" or "limeys," and the blacks,
"schvartzes" or "niggers." Me? I was called the "Crazy Turk"
because I liked guns and hunting. But no one messed with me.
"I'm gonna' be a hero when I get back from this war!" Nebby told me.
"You'll see! Then all the girls in The Party will flock around me when I tell them I
was a member of The Lincoln Brigade that won the Spanish American war for our side!"
I was crazy about Nebby's pretty blond sister, Molly. She had the looks of her gorgeous
Greek mother, a nurse, and the brains of her Jewish fathera busy doctor who tended
poor people's kids for nothing and taught courses in medicine at New York University. Just
like my father did. Molly's family and mine were part of the same socialist group. The
kids in that society weren't sexually repressed like other kids at school. Molly's parents
had supplied her with birth control devices. We used to read Emma Goldman's and Margaret
Sanger's essays and discuss "Free Love" as a high and mighty ideallike
Alexandra Kollantai of Russia! I was in the throes of the hottest love affair I'd known
since discovering the difference between men and women. We were the only Jews with a house
on Washington Square. My father was a physician who had written declamatory articles, for
Emma Goldman's magazine, Mother Earth. He supplied me with all I needed, so I wasn't
scared of making girls pregnant or catching diseases like other kids at school. Ours was
the only house in the square owned by radicals and we had a tendency to shock the
neighborhood. I felt like a man of the worldtaking Nebby's sister into the attic of
my parents' house as often as I could. Molly and I were living a life of nubile
blissbut Nebby felt very left out of all the fun in our crowd and Molly started
distracting me from our love making with worry about him.
"Please help Nebby learn to shoot a gun," she pleaded with me. "I'm
afraid he can't defend himself. He swears he's really going to run away and join the
Spanish Loyalists. He's threatened to tell my parents all about us cutting school to come
up here if I tell on him. I'm worried, because he's never even seen a gun in person for
Molly was absolutely beautiful to mewith her blond curls and the roundest softest
silkiest breasts and thighs and orgasmic sighs in my universe. So, I did as I promised her
and showed Nebby how to shoot my gun. It wasn't easy to teach him. He tried hard, but he
was too nervous and scared. The rifle made too big a bang and hurt his skinny shoulder
when it kicked back. When we finished practicing with my rifle at the range upstate, he
claimed he had a terrible headache and had to stop. Still, I did my best to teach
himpoor, scrawny guy, dying for the girls to see him as a big hero with a medal on
To mine and everyone's surprise, he really disappeared one day, and Molly got a letter
from him a few days later saying he'd joined The Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Loyalist
Army. "I'm about to be the biggest hero on our block!" he wrote. One night, a
few weeks later, when Molly was supposed to meet me for a trip to the attic, she called
instead, crying hysterically.
"I can't see you tonight or ever. I don't want to see any boys ever again. We got
a telegram today. My brother Nebby's dead! I'm going to stay home every night after school
to be with my parents, because they are crying all the time. They said I should have told
them what Nebby was planning to do. I don't feel like making love anymorebecause
Nebby never will get to!"
I guess I'm telling this story to make a little memorial to Nebby, I mean, Nevin
Nebekovski, because now I'm sixty-six, and I still remember Molly. I remember wanting her
for so many years that I became a poet who writes about how deep the fascination with the
exotic other goesno sentiment about itthis passion with the blood of the other
which stains our hands and tonguesthis desire to poke at the fruit until its juices
run, to tear the rose from its stem, scatter petals to the wind, to pluck the butterfly's
wings for the microscope's lens, to plunge a fist into a teetering tower of bricks, watch
the debris sail, explode fireworks until all crumbles to dust and is undone, open to the
curious eye. Does this or that creature die as I die, cry as I cry, writhe as I would if
my guts were ripped from the walls of my flesh, my ripe heart eaten alive?
Always the probing questions of sacred explorationas if science can be progress
without empathy. Does a penis feel as a clitoris feels? Do slanted eyes see as I see? Is a
white or black skin or sin the same as a red one? Is it like me? Does it burn, does it
peel, does it boil in oil or reel in pain? The obsession to possess the other so
completely that her blood fills the mouth and you eat of her flesh from its bone, and then
know if she, if he, feels as you feel, if your world is real.
Maybe, because Molly was exotic to meshe a blond Greek, me a dark, Turkish
Jewlong after my hair turned gray, she remained an obsession that no womannot
even my beloved wife of thirty yearscould erase. I still have dreams about her.
Molly's mother decided to go to her Greek Orthodox Christian Church again after Nebby,
her only son, was killed, and her father, a Socialist, didn't approve. It broke his heart
when Molly entered a convent and decided to become a nun. Thank goodness she changed her
mind and left the convent for college! Her father, by then, had given up his medical
practice here, and moved to Israel. A few years later, her mother left the West Side to
look for him. I heard they got back together again over there, and Molly, when she
finished college, joined them in Tel Aviv. That's where she taught school for forty years.
Yes, I'm sixty-six, and I can't forget Molly, and I know now that erotic ideas are like
flashy lights turning on in heads that echo from mouths and shine up secret places, and
people can be greedy in their groins and ugliness can come even from the beauty of nubile
bliss. Sex can be ripped from the blood as if the body were not a house of green moss, a
vase of kindness, a space for greed set alight from the dark by the glow of hand on hand.
And there are still the word wounds, like roots of mushroom clouds that could rise now
from the pock marked earth: "guinea, dago, spick, nigger, polack, wasp, mick, chink,
jap, frog, russkie, red bastard, kike, fag, bitch, macho pig, gimp, dike!" The stench
of murdered flesh could again follow the sprayed dust of children's eyes melted from
wondering sockets, animal skin, thighs, men's hands, women's sighs roasted in a final
feast of fire beasts caught like lemmings in a leap to Armageddonfalse resurrection!
Word wounds could rise from visions of charred lips, burnt books, paper ashes, crumbled
libraries, stones under which plastic pens and computers are fried amidst the last cried
words, smoke to pay lip service as all dust into dust returns....
I'm old enough to know, now, that the head is fickle like history. An orchard, the body
is free and soul invents itself in smile and song. I had a letter from Molly. I tried
writing to her about a year agoa love poem of our youth, and she finally answered
A letter came in the mail this morning from Tel Aviv. "I've been a widow now for
three years, like you," she wrote. Life has sped by us. I'm coming to New York to
visit my grandson next month. I'll call you. Maybe, we can have dinner and a talk. Send me
your phone number." She's thought of me often, too, through these many years since so
long ago when we were young!
Nebby never got to be a herojust a casualty of machismolike me. "I'm
worried," Molly wrote. "About my grandchildren here in Israel and in America.
They live under the threat of nuclear winter. It will be worse than Hitler or Stalin,
worse than anything Right or Left! Maybe, the world was easier for us even, than it will
be for them!"
Yes, we'll invent love until the sea dries up or tides flood over or the bombs explode
human blossoms to dust, and poets are only madmen talking crazy and making sense.