David Galef



Mississippi Breakdown



Three miles from the outskirts of Ita Bena, Mississippi, the B'nai Brith Mitzvah-Mobile began to sputter like an indignant old uncle. Behind the wheel, Manny Manheim tried to ignore the sound, but it crept up the decibel scale until it began to shake the chassis of the van, and even deaf Mrs. Fishman sensed the problem.

"Maybe you should check under the hood!" she bellowed, unaware of her own decibel count.

Manny ignored both her and the engine. If he could just make Memphis, he figured, he might find a mechanic who knew what he was doing, rather than the crackers out here who kept rusted car bodies on blocks in their yards. Driving around the country among the unchosen people was risky, and doubly dangerous in a region known for not welcoming Jews. But then, sighed Manny, whose parents had been Russian immigrants, what else was new?

The trip had been Rabbi Lowenthal's idea, a cross-country pilgrimage for the Elderhostel set and maybe a few able bodies from the Maccabee Assisted Living Home. Along for the ride were Mrs. Fishman, who hadn't heard a word since her loudmouth husband Lou died five years earlier in 1972 (she was also purblind); Ms. Weiner, a lifelong bachelorette who wore suspenders and a fedora; Mrs. Wolfstein, whose giant purse was stuffed with chocolate bars and butterscotch, and who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds; and spry Mrs. Bauman, who must have been over seventy but who seemed from certain angles, particularly the rear, to have the bounce and elasticity of youth. The one man who'd signed up, an octogenarian whose children urged him to get more fresh air, had suffered a debilitating stroke shortly before departure. The seat next to Mrs. Wolfstein's, half crowded out by Mrs. Wolfstein herself, was dedicated to him.

The engine, which must also have seen better years, began to chug more evenly, calming the driver's ragged breathing, as well. The other women, who'd been on the verge of a protest, simmered down.

Manny himself was no poulet de printemps, as his maiden aunt Adelaide used to say. Hired to act as chauffeur and general caretaker for the voyagers, he was on three different medications for heart and lungs, a fact he took pains to conceal from his employers. In his late sixties, over the past decade he'd had jobs as a deli waiter, a newspaper deliverer, and a taxi driver. That last job, though only part-time, had led to his current gig.

"Take good care of them," Rabbi Lowenthal had intoned, laying a heavy hand on Manny's shoulder. "And make sure you take plenty of rest stops for Mrs. Bauman. She's diabetic, you know."

Manny recalled those words over fifty drink-and-tinkle breaks later. Still, everyone had been surprisingly decent about it. And the places they stopped in, from Lynchburg to Atlanta, where the Mitzvah-Mobile had its fan belt seen to, were usually hospitable. In Tuscaloosa, they were served fried chicken and fixings by a black woman who reminded Mrs. Wolfstein of her old cleaning lady. In Biloxi, they'd been given a guided tour of the military base, where Mrs. Weiner attracted the attention of a lieutenant-major.

And now this, thought Manny, slapping the steering wheel in frustration as the sputter came back worse than before. Five minutes later, with a sound like giant molars grinding, the Mitzvah-Mobile juddered to a steaming halt. Just before it stopped, Manny managed to maneuver the van to the weed-choked shoulder.

Several seconds elapsed before anyone spoke. It was August, and as soon as the van stopped, the fan system also conked out. Mrs. Fishman, tuning in to the sudden absence of vibration, surmised that the van was no longer moving. She peered out the window like a troglodyte at the cave mouth. "Where are we?"

"In the middle of nowhere." Ms. Weiner snapped her suspenders with a twang.

Mrs. Bauman shook her head sagely. "Nowhere is always someone else's somewhere."

Manny pointedly said nothing. We're in deep shit, he was thinking, that's where we are. Beyond the weeds to the side of the cracked asphalt was a thick border of pine, and across the winding road a similar border. There'd been nothing else on either side for miles. The humid Mississippi air began to percolate inside, causing Mrs. Wolfstein's thighs to feel even swampier than usual.

Finally Manny got up, putting on a bonhomie that looked like a hat on a horse. "Well, folks, it looks like we've made an unscheduled stop."

"How long?" Ms. Weiner tilted the brim of her fedora.

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On how soon I can get this baby fixed." Manny crossed his arms over his chest, more defensively than aggressively. Repairman had never been one of his jobs. The AAA membership for the synagogue might cover the Mitzvah-Mobile, but roadside assistance meant first reaching a phone. None of the pine trees seemed to be hooked up. No telephone poles, either. Manny peered uncertainly up ahead. Round the bend was what looked like a pointy-roofed shack, half-hidden by the tree line.

Hope chased fear across Manny's badly shaven face. On the one hand, the building might be inhabited, and that meant the possibility of aid. On the other hand, who the hell knew what crazy bigots lived around here, and that meant persecution. On the third hand—Manny scratched his head. The women were all looking at him. They had seen the building, too.

"We'll wait for you, dear." Mrs. Wolfstein patted her thighs as if preparing a lap for his return.

"Don't be long." Ms. Weiner dabbed at her brow with a blue bandana she whipped from a side-pocket.

Mrs. Bauman's lipsticked mouth formed the syllable go, or maybe it was just Manny's imagination. Mrs. Fishman was gazing at the ceiling of the van.

Manny went. As his Cordovan loafers touched the ground, he felt the sucking embrace of mud. One patch almost swallowed a shoe before he retreated to the blacktop. One foot in front of the other—damn, it was humid—as he made his slow way toward possible salvation. Past the curve, he could see a few beat-up cars and a pickup, parked in a semi-circle around the building. Without looking too closely at the sagging structure, he tromped up the three crooked steps and rapped on the door.

A man was speaking inside, but the words were hard to make out. Manny waited ten beats, then knocked louder.

The man's voice plowed on, but the sound of footsteps from the inside approached the door, which was pushed slowly open, almost knocking him off the steps. A stout black woman wearing the biggest hat Manny had ever seen blocked the doorway. She eyed him up and down. "Whatcha want?"

Manny could make out, through the half-darkness behind her, a few rows of people on plank benches. The black-robed pastor at the back had obviously been delivering a sermon, but he'd stopped, hands in the air, to stare at the intruder. Slowly the other heads turned.

Manny coughed, cleared his throat, and coughed again. "We've had a breakdown." He gestured in the direction of the van down the road.

"A what?" The woman hadn't budged an inch. Her hat, which seemed a cross between a manhole cover and a flower bed, was tilted straight at him.

"The van engine—kaput." Manny gave a Bronx cheer to help along the words. "We're down the road about a hundred yards. If I could just get to a phone, or if anyone here knows something about cars...."

"Hmm. Brother Leroy?" The pastor spoke in a tone rich as an organ, finer than the cantor at the synagogue. The congregation receded from a spot on the third bench, leaving a gap around a gnarled old man in shirt sleeves and a red-checkered tie. The pastor spread his arms as if parting the waters. "See what you can do for the gentleman."

Slowly, as if pulled by cables, Brother Leroy got up and limped toward the entrance. The hat-lady returned to her seat on the last bench to let him by—everything was a close fit inside. Manny looked at the old man doubtfully. "Know much about cars?" he asked.

Brother Leroy pursed his lips. "Some, I reckon. Whuss the problem?"

"It's the engine, I told you. It's just not—cooperating."

Brother Leroy made as if to spit but didn't. "All right, then." He scratched his right arm with his left pinkie. "Less take a look."

As soon as the two were outside the church, the pastor started up again, something about Jesus going an extra mile. A dig at their situation? Manny started walking to the van, but Leroy veered in the direction of the pickup, where he heaved out a massive toolbox. cradling it because the handle was broken off. Leroy headed down the road in a jiggered but rapid gait. "Where you at?" he called back as Manny struggled to catch up.

"Past the bend." Manny pointed. Just beyond the curve, they ran into Mrs. Weiner out on her own.

"Wondered what happened to you. Began to worry." She nodded gruffly toward Leroy. "Looks like you got help."

Leroy made a hat-doffing motion without a hat or the use of his hands. When they reached ths site of the breakdown, Manny saw Mrs. Fishman and Mrs. Bauman milling in front of the van, Mrs. Fishman glaring at the hood.

Manny performed the introductions. "Ladies, this is Brother Leroy. Brother Leroy, this is Mrs. Fishman"—a vague look from her—"and Mrs. Bauman"—she struck a pose and batted her eyelashes. "Ms. Weiner, you already met"—a tilt of the fedora. "Where's Mrs. Wolfstein?"

"Still in the van." Ms. Weiner shrugged. "Hot in there."

Leroy set the toolbox on a scraggly patch of grass. Then he waited by the roadside in silence for a minute until Manny thought to give him the key.

"Much obliged," said Leroy without a trace of irony and climbed into the van. He settled into the driver's seat, but not before he caught sight of Mrs. Wolfstein stretched across two seats, her rear like twin beach balls. He smacked his lips. "Now that," he said to no one in particular, "is a real woman." He turned the key in the ignition, which made a hopeful chirr-chirr sound. Then the engine caught with a terrible crunching noise as if it were eating itself. "Not the battery." He leaned out the window towards Manny. "Kinda noise it make before she blew?"

"Sort of a grinding sound." But Manny wanted to sound knowledgeable. "It might've been the distributor cap."

"Not likely." Leroy pulled the hood release and went back outside. When he raised the hood, a dull cloud of steam arose, followed by a scorched odor. "You overheated. Then you drove on it."

"Yeah, yeah." Manny nodded as if he'd known all along. "And so?"

"My guess, the pistons seized up. Might need an engine overhaul."

"No."

"Maybe." Leroy reached into the toolbox and fetched out what looked like an oven mitt. He used it to feel under the hood from an angle Manny couldn't see. "Might could need to rebuild the whole engine if it's bad enough."

"No!"

"Who the mechanic, you or me?" Leroy grinned for the first time, but it wasn't pretty. He stole a glance at Mrs. Wolfstein through the windshield, a frontal view that displayed her heavy bosom. "Tell you what. I'll stay here, try a few things."

"Like what?" This from Ms. Weiner, pacing in a tight line.

"We'll see." But Leroy wasn't really attending to her. He gave a lazy wave in the direction of the lady in the van. Mrs. Wolfstein made an uncertain wave back, her upper arm jiggling. Leroy smacked his lips. Aware that she was somehow cut out of the action, Mrs. Bauman pouted.

Ms. Weiner placed a surprisingly strong hand on Manny's shoulder. "Don't worry. Nothing's gonna happen. But why don't you go back there, see about reinforcements? Or something."

Which was how Manny came to be returning to the church with Mrs. Fishman, who'd decided to tag along. "Our van, it's turned into the Mitzvah-Immobile!" she cried. Manny barely cracked a smile as they podged through the mud.

This time, as they neared the building, its function was obvious. In fact, a small rectangular sign by the far side proclaimed, "Turnipseed Baptist Church," and a tinseled spiky cross on the roof drove the point home. Annoyed that he had missed so much, Manny checked his watch: almost noon on a Sunday. In place of the sermon came a loud choral refrain, something about the River Jordan. Mrs. Fishman cocked an ear.

Unwilling to burst in again, Manny waited like a penitent by the door, Mrs. Fishman by his side and peering at the painted planks. The song ended, followed by a short speech and the scraping of benches on a creaking wooden floor. The door opened, once again forcing him off the steps. He and Mrs. Fishman flanked the entrance like greeters as the line of parishioners emerged to stare at them.

A man in a wing-collar and bow tie nodded at them. Twin teenaged girls in starched lavender dresses gazed at him politely but said nothing. An old man with a cane scrutinized him, frowning. The stout woman in the hat was somewhere in the middle. "Ain'tcha van been fixed yet?"

Manny shrugged. "Working on it."

Mrs. Fishman raised her eyes heavenward with a heartfelt "Gevalt!"

A far bigger woman than the hat lady came out and approached them, carrying a purse the size of a suitcase. She looked them up and down several times. By now they were surrounded. Finally she spoke. "Y'all're Jews, m'I right?"

Manny usually had a few stock answers to this, starting with "What's it to you?" and ending with "Christ was a Jew!" His father would have called out, "Schwartze!" But this didn't seem the time or place for such exchanges.

"Jews, eh?" remarked a six-foot bruiser tucked into a shiny black suit. "Where'd they come from?"

"The Red Sea," Manny deadpanned.

"Sure not from round here." Was that the man with the cane?

It was, and he had it raised like a bat. The six-footer flanked him, and on his other side three large women stood like the defensive line-up of the New York Jets. Manny looked around for a way out, as his grandfather might have done during a pogrom.

"Was a Jew killed Christ," muttered one of the women, her purse swinging like a truncheon.

"No, it wasn't either, Ethel," the woman alongside her corrected her. "But it might as well have been."

"Whatcha doin' here, anyway?" The man with the cane swung it as if aiming at a low ball, and spat. "Northerners."

Manny had his back covered only by Mrs. Fishman, who would be a weak reed in this kind of storm. He was about to plead something about live and let live when the pastor's voice rang out from behind the door: "Jews!"

Oh, shit, thought Manny, here it comes.

"Jews!" the pastor repeated, emerging onto the steps with upraised arms, as if to bless the multitudes. Instead, he touched them both on the heads as if they were singularly promising specimens. "Children of the Book!"

Thank God for the Old Testament, thought Manny, falling back against Mrs. Fishman, who held up by leaning into him.

"Brethren," intoned the pastor, "helping these Jews in need would be a Christian thing to do. I have already dispatched Brother Leroy to assist in repairing their vehicle. Let us now walk to that spot and pray."

"Um, okay." Manny stroked his chin, trying to look scholarly. The congregation stood back to reappraise him, stroking their own chins and nodding.

As the pastor strode off toward the van, the congregation trooped after him like soldiers of the Lord. The day suddenly seemed more vibrant, the sky bluer. The heat was growing almost comfortable.  Manny brought up the rear, holding on to Mrs. Fishman's gnarled hand like a sweetheart.

One of the teenagers looked back at them, scratching her nappy hair. "What're y'all doing in these parts?"

"Doing what comes naturally." This from Mrs. Fishman, whose auditory ability seemed miraculously recuperated, if not her sense of humor.

"Just passing through." That from Manny, still nervous. Were they really going to pray over a set of spark plugs?

When they reached the van, Ms. Weiner was peering balefully under the hood, Mrs. Bauman holding a wrench and a screwdriver like a tool caddy. Brother Leroy was nowhere to be seen—no, there he was in the front seat with Mrs. Wolfstein. When he caught sight of the assemblage through the windshield, he scrambled to get up. "Pastor Jim!" he cried out, half out the door.

The pastor raised a hand as if to confer forgiveness. He moved toward Brother Leroy and began to consult with him in low tones. Manny craned his neck to hear, but all that jumped out was "won't go" and "tried that." At one point, Ms. Weiner barged into the discussion, but added only a shrug. Finally one of the teenage girls was dispatched to the church with some instruction that pulled her shoulders upright. A few minutes passed, during which Ms. Bauman began to talk with the six-foot bruiser, his head bowed to take her in. The stout woman with the manhole hat asked Ms. Weiner where she'd gotten her fedora. Pastor Jim was in the van with Mrs. Wolfstein but soon exited, satisfied that no impropriety had occurred. He bore an odd resemblance to Rabbi Lowenthal, at least around the edges.

When the teenage girl returned, she bore two pitchers on a tray, as in a painting Manny had once seen. He peered into the pitchers and saw water in both of them. Pastor Jim drew the congregation in a half-circle around the front of the van and gazed heavenward. "The Lord is my shepherd," he began. "I shall not want." The congregation chanted along with him like trained sheep. Manny folded his arms in resignation. But when they got to the part about anointing with oil, Pastor Jim rapped one of the jugs with his fingertips and spoke something that could have been Greek—or Aramaic, for all Manny knew. It certainly wasn't Yiddish.

At once, the light around the two pitchers brightened, as if the artist painting the world had erased all shadow. The pastor directed the first pitcher to be poured into the radiator and the second to be poured into the oil tank, with Brother Leroy directing the flow and the flock chanting, "My cup runneth over." The first pitcher poured water, but the second unquestionably yielded oil, thick and dark as honey.

A rousing "Amen" followed. Pastor Jim reached out a hand, into which Brother Leroy placed the key to the van. Raising it to the sky, the pastor blessed it and passed it back to Brother Leroy, who ascended the step with a wave and a grin. A moment later came the miraculous sound of an engine grumbling to life.

Years later, long after Manny had retired from his last job and was living at the Maccabee Assisted Living Home, he still recalled the triumphal roadside procession, the congregation whooping it up, the pastor with his arms upheld, Ms. Weiner throwing her fedora into the air, and Mrs. Wolfstein giving Brother Leroy a big fat kiss. Mrs. Fishman, her hearing restored and undiminished by time, now lived down the hall from him, the two sole remaining travelers on that trip, unless you considered all life a journey. The other day, she had opened a Bible and pointed to a verse in Mark, "For he shall make the deaf hear," which for a moment made him suspect her sanity, or maybe even question something greater, but then she laughed, and he realized it was just one of her jokes.

* * *

David Galef has published over seventy stories in magazines ranging from the old British Punch to the Czech Prague Revue, the Canadian Prism International, the American Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, and many other places. His two novels are Flesh and Turning Japanese, and his latest book is the short-story collection Laugh Track. He is a professor of English and the administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi.