"YOU REALLY a Jew?" he was asking. "Shucks. Never knew no Jew before."
He was standing there in the dirt and the sun, sweating like griddled bacon, the grease collecting in his bushy mutton chops. It was July, and we were a team on the construction site, the Hick and the Jew. He dug and I watched, and we yelled back and forth over the revving drone of a backhoe to pass the time, good-natured nonsense: his chopped, channeled, red metaflake Camaro. The Orioles. Loose women, a tight squeeze, bowling on Saturday nights.
But then he stopped suddenly and rested his arm on the shovel, looking not so much at me as through me, his head tilting first one way and then the other like a puzzled old dog. He stared away and then back, then asked. I answered.
"But you don't look like no Jew."
Innocent ignorance, not the kind to get bent about, more his problem than mine. After all, here he was, the poor galoot, building luxury homes in the middle of Pikesville, northwestern Baltimore County, a Golden Ghetto, where synagogues along Park Heights Avenue were only slightly less plentiful than nose jobs along the front row in my high school English class. He had driven down in his pickup each day for at least two years, from somewhere north of Hereford, just across the Pennsylvania line, where he lived with the foreman's daughter in some trailer park outback, the name of which I never could remember. And even though his father-in-law had caught on, delegating me, after a time, to deal with the "Jew ladies" and their complaints, my friend had never quite gotten it, until the day he asked where I learned the language of all our ladies on the golden chains.
Still he was skeptical.
"Of course I don't look like a Jew. I shave my horns."
"Oh," he said, apparently quenched, and resumed digging.
It must be said that I am not what is known as a "good Jew." I haven't been to temple in years, I don't buy Israel Bonds. Living in a city like Washington, homogenized as it is in all its differences, I hardly think about being Jewish at all. Maybe it's an issue of it, and who cares anyway? It counts when you're running for office, not in real life. The story of the Hick and his shovel is not an anecdotal outpouring of some ingrained Holocaust mentality. It is, instead, homage paid to the chicken soup in my bloodstream. Once, eight years ago, it took a little ignorance to make me remember that there is more to religion than a sing-song chant and a great bearded spirit. Recently, it took Mr. Harry Marks from Fredericksburg.
It was blustery cold the day Harry appeared in the lobby of the Post, asking to see me. I had never heard of him, but he was from Fredericksburg.
My father grew up in Fredericksburg, the little southern town where he learned his gentle manner, his habit of storing his cigarettes in his sock, his pronunciation of theater with the accent on the "a": the-A-ter . My grandmother is still there, several years after my grandfather died, keeping Anne Dress Shop, and herself, alive, though most of the other stores, even the old Penney's, have left Caroline Street and the old business district for the placid plastic mall on the outskirts of town.
Often when I was young, I rode the Greyhound bus to Fredericksburg, my excitement and the fragrance of chicken wing sandwiches heavy in the conditioned air. At Christmas there was always a life-sized Santa tacked to my aunt's front door and a tree glittering inside, a model train snorting baby powder as it circled beneath. The Easter parade passed by on Caroline Street every year, and the five and dime was stocked full of baby rabbits and chicks, died pink, blue and yellow, sniffing and peeping in their glass cages. On Sunday mornings there were church bells, the first I had ever heard.
In Fredericksburg, I learned that the majority as I knew it growing up in Baltimore was really a minority everywhere else. But somehow, in less there was more. It was in Baltimore that I first heard the word "kike," hissed from one abundant Jewish mother to another as they jostled for a pound of corned beef at the deli. My parents had to buy tickets to worship at temple on the high holidays; the good seats, my mother explained -- like the ones on the Colt's 50 yard line during theri heyday -- were a status prize, obtainable only when someone died and passed them along in their will.
But between the Sagers, the Levys, the Levinsons and the two or three other Jewish couples that made homes in Fredericksburg in those days, there was always a soft smile of camaraderie; a knowing glance passed preciously over mah jong tiles or through the golden glow of Sabbath candles that lit holiday dinners. In Fredericksburg, the house of the Lord was a friend's. Box seats weren't necessary.
Neither were invitations.Harry Marks was sent upstairs from the lobby.
He walked in, offering the warm, two-handed handshake of old friends, though we had never met, smiling and cuffing me gently behind the neck. In his 60s, Harry Marks was a little stooped, his eyes dark in their sockets. He wore a colorless overcoat, some sort of gray leisure suit underneath, carried a briefcase. He told me my grandmother had sent him and that I looked a little skinny. Had I been eating enough?, he asked.
He said he was in town peddling the latest in the Haymark Publications line (Box 243, Fredericksburg), the "Encyclopedia Yiddishanica." He thought, he hoped that maybe, if I would, I could write him a "little book review."
I'm not really sure what he said after that, something about the rich culture of Judaism, how no home can be complete without one of his books, retail $24.95. Sitting next to me at my desk, holding the blue and gold volume tenderly in his lap, Harry the salesman faded into a silent distance, lips moving, teeth flashing, hands gesturing. I thought of the tree and the train, the charred smell of my grandmother's overcooked holiday pot roast, the gritty drag of shovel against earth.
And then Harry was gone. His book was left behind, placed carefully on the corner of my desk. It's now on a shelf in the living room with my others. Home wouldn't be home without it.