Kenneth Levine

On Saturday morning, 12/21/63, a date with no prime number unless you count the 2 in 12, the 2 in 21, or the 3 in 63, Richie, my thirteen year old brother, and I, at age eleven, acting on our instinctual understanding of the privilege of seniority as our parents corralled us into the back of their Ford Falcon, claimed the thrones of the window seats by forcing Alan, our protesting and crying seven year old brother, between us. With my mother telling my father when to go faster, slow down, and shift lanes, they drove us into Manhattan from our home in Queens for allergy shots.

Plumes of smoke wafted through the air as my mother chain smoked Marlboros in our hermetically sealed vehicle. My brothers put on a big show: they coughed, gagged, gasped, and raising their voices above the Singing Nun’s Dominique, pleaded, “We can’t breathe! We’re suffocating!” My mother forbade the lowering of any window. Since it was the cusp of winter, she said, “It’s cold,” but we knew from experience that if it had been summer she would have proffered, “The wind makes too much noise,” and during the other seasons used either or both excuses, or just said “no,” and if the protests continued, hollered, “Shut your mouths.”

I sat silently because I was “different,” and I don’t mean “different” just because I was weirdly smart. Several weeks after I turned ten, I overheard my mother on the telephone use that word to describe me and concluded that was what the doctors, who gave me puzzles and anatomically correct dolls to play with and asked me all kinds of questions about how I liked my family and others, must have told her. Instead I did what I always did when we took trips in the car: I studied the different license plates, searching for one with only prime numbers after ranking each letter based upon its alphabetical order. I had found one two years earlier when we traveled to a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Montreal. It was on a car with a New York license plate that read: WCE2357. My mother had been putting on her face in her pocket mirror, smacking her big red lips together when I spotted the vehicle. She said she saw me smile, but I don’t think I did.

As usual I lost my ability to focus on license plates when I saw Manhattan looming in the distance. Separated on all sides by water, it seemed a foreign land that was not meant to be accessed. My mother said, “The bridge,” we took the Van Dam Street exit, and I waited and worried. It didn’t matter which way my mother told my father to enter the city; the 59th Street Bridge, like the London Bridge, might fall or the Midtown Tunnel could be washed away and I would drown in the murky depths of the river. When we crossed the threshold of the two-level bridge, I closed my eyes and went inside myself, beyond skin and skeleton, to the blood vessels, where I rode the current of a vein to my heart, then coursed along an artery to an extremity and switched back to a vein, while amplifying the comforting, steady thrums of my heart until they drowned out the metallic buzz of the car as it shimmied over the bridge’s steel grates.

My mother guided my father west and south and selected a parking spot, and we exited the car next to an office building that held its own in a towering row. I hated that I was the second shortest boy in my fifth grade class, and as I walked to the allergist’s office beside buildings that morphed into classmates with glassy eyes that shined down at me, I felt more like a dwarf than I did on a school day. I kept my composure and looked at their faces, quickly turned away, and when I raised my head they were buildings again, and I feared that their cold, grey steel had pierced the heavens and it was only a matter of time before the sky ruptured, collapsed, and smothered me.

When we entered the doctor’s office, I sat next to Richie and my mother plopped down beside me. My father talked to the receptionist and settled on the chair next to my mother. While my brothers and I waited for our turn with the allergist, my parents and Richie read magazines they removed from a table that separated us from a man and woman about the age of my grandparents and Alan took a little car from a box of toys beside the table and drove it on the carpeting while humming like a car engine.

My mother started to cry, and my father, with moist eyes, squeezed her hand. Richie looked at them and wiped a tear from his cheek. Alan, steering his car in imaginary traffic, was oblivious. With curiosity I looked at the covers of their magazines. My father’s was the Saturday Evening Post. The issue was titled “John F Kennedy In Memoriam A Senseless Tragedy.” It had a picture of him in a jacket and tie above the dates 1917 to 1963, neither a prime number because the sum of the digits in 1917 is 18 and 18 is divisible by 3, and 1963 is divisible by its two prime factors, 13 and 151, although 1917 includes the prime numbers, 7, 17, 19, and 191, and 1963 the 3 and 19. My mother’s said, “Kennedy and His Family in Pictures by the Editors of LOOK Magazine.” It had a photograph of JFK sitting beside his standing son, the son’s left hand resting on his right shoulder. Richie’s was the “JOHN F. KENNEDY MEMORIAL EDITION” of Life Magazine.

I glared at each of the covers, despising the Kennedys. I had been in class when the principal announced over the P.A.: “President Kennedy has been shot and killed. Let us bow our heads and observe a moment of silence.” But there had been no quietude; instead my teacher and classmates burst into sobs as if they had been an enormous balloon of sorrow that some evil monger punctured with a pin. I had looked around, as an outsider, on the edge of discovering what being different meant, at the commonality of their expressions, feeling nothing for them or for the dead president.

On the evening of the death of the President, my parents had cried while watching the news and commiserating on the phone with family and friends. “Poor Jackie. What will she do now?” “Little John. Such a cute boy. His father taken from him.” “You know how little girls love their daddies.” “Did you see it? Cronkite removed his glasses.” “She’s a strong woman. She’ll be okay.” Richie, and even Alan, had shed tears. I had sat apart and stared at them, wondering how I could share their genes, their blood, yet not be of them, and instead be so different I might have been an alien from another planet. So what, I thought. Why did it matter that he was dead? Or that she was a widow? Or that their kids had no father? What did that have to do with me? Or my father, mother, and brothers? Or our extended family and friends? Or my teacher and classmates? The moon would sink, the sun would rise, there would be a new day, a new president, the country would continue to be and so would we. No matter how long I pondered these questions, I didn’t know why these things mattered to so many people. That night in bed I had my first inkling of how I was different: their feelings extended beyond their own skin to others and mine didn’t.

After a while, as I sat beside my family at the allergist, their silent sorrow screamed at me, “You’re different. A freak!” and my hatred of the Kennedys extended to my parents and brothers. To calm myself, I pictured the prime numbers in ascending order, first the 2, then the 3, 5, 7, and 11, and it wasn’t until I reached 211 that I was okay again and knew what I had to do.

I removed the issue of Life Magazine, which had a cover photo captioned, “Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John Jr. wait to join procession to Capitol,” from the table, opened it to a random page, waited a few seconds, sniffled, wiped my eye, and commented with all the sincerity I could muster, “This is so sad.” My parents, in unison, raised their heads and looked at me. My mother opened her mouth to speak, but her lips merely trembled. My father squeezed her hand again, and as my mother shook her head, he said, “Yes, Jeff, it’s a terrible thing when a person dies and leaves a family behind; it’s a bigger tragedy when it’s the President because his family is the entire nation. We’re grieving because we’ve lost someone important to us. Remember how sad you were when you lost your protractor until we bought you another? When a person dies, shared sorrow is the only meaningful currency; no amount of money can bring a person back to life.” Then he continued to read his magazine. My mother stared at me awhile longer, but I pretended not to notice while I feigned reading.

The receptionist said, “Mrs. Fece, the doctor will see you now,” or that was what we heard, and the woman opposite rose, nodded her head to the man beside her, and followed the receptionist into an adjacent room. In my family we didn’t poop, shit, take a dump or crap or do number two, a deuce or doodoo. We defecated, and what came out wasn’t poo or ca-ca or a turd. It was stool or feces, and so when we heard the receptionist say, “Mrs. Fece,” I looked at Richie, who struggled to contain his laughter, and Richie looked at me, and in a whisper that must have been heard by my mother because she stared at me again, but this time with narrowed eyelids, I said to him, while pointing my head in the direction of the elderly man, “He must be a fece too.” Alan, still on his knees beside the little car, lifted his head and alternately sniffed the air and held his nose while he scrunched his face and dispersed the air in front of him with waves of his free hand. The three of us burst out laughing.

After Richie, Alan, and I received our shots, we and our parents exited the building. When I stood beside the Falcon beneath the gigantic office buildings that pierced the heavens, I wasn’t afraid the sky might fall. Instead I remembered my brother’s and my laughter, which the car’s metallic roar repeated minutes later as it shimmied over the bridge’s steel grates on our return trip to Queens. That evening I heard it again in my parents’ chuckles as they watched Hootenanny on television.

When I went to bed, I thought about what my father had said at the allergist’s office. If shared sorrow was the only meaningful currency when a person died, in a different circumstance, like when a person answered to the name, Mrs. Fece, another currency might be meaningful. Perhaps shared sorrow was one side of a coin and shared mirth the other, and sometimes I was the same as other people. I fell asleep imagining I twice flipped a coin in the air. The first time it landed on heads, the second on tails.

In the morning, at breakfast, beside my plate there were two shiny quarters, one dated 1949, the other 1951, both prime numbers, each of which I saved. I looked at my father, then my mother. “You know?” I asked.

My father smiled. He said, “Of course. Now go on, eat your eggs.”

My father died on 6/12/12, a date without any prime number. It was a very bad day.

Kenneth Levine’s short stories have been published in New Plains ReviewAnak SastraThuglitCrooked Teeth Literary MagazineImaginaireSkewed LitAngry Old Man MagazineJerry Jazz Musician, an anthology titled Fresh, and an anthology titled Twisted. He is the winner of a Jerry Jazz Musician short story contest and the featured writer in an Anak Sastra issue.