“Three Strikes” by Julie Zuckerman appears in her novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, and is reprinted below with the author’s permission.
In his whole nine years, Lenny can’t remember feeling this mixed-up, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s sitting next to his father in the synagogue, listening as the congregation recites the special Rosh Hashanah prayer: Avinu Malkenu, our Father, our King, we have sinned before You. The adults around him chant the haunting, powerful melody, first in a murmur, then in a louder, unified plea for God to be gracious. If God is so great, Lenny wants to know, why—this year of all years, when his favorite team is playing—does the Jewish New Year fall on the same days as the World Series? The last time the Yanks were in the Series Lenny had been too young to appreciate it. Later, after the festive lunch and the relatives have gone home, Lenny plans to slip out of the house and walk over to the Barnum Avenue drugstore, where the neighborhood men will be listening to today’s game. He’s not usually a sneaky boy, and he hopes God will forgive him this once.
Inside the synagogue, the service drags on, and Lenny is jealous of his younger brother Jeremiah who, at six, is allowed to play outside. Lenny isn’t thinking about the prayers. His mind is on hits, runs, and strikeouts. The sweet crack of the bat connecting with the ball. The thunder of the crowd pulsing through the static of the radio. He tugs on his father’s suit jacket and asks if he can go outside for a bit, but, no, he’s benched: the elder Gerstler shushes him and tells him he must stay in for longer.
He shifts in his seat, daydreaming about the moment later today when the Yankees will sweep the Series. He’s sure of it. Despite the prohibition of turning the radio on during Rosh Hashanah, he’s learned from a non-Jewish neighbor that the Yanks beat the Cubs in yesterday’s game, bringing the series to 3-0. He felt the agony of missing the game but was triumphant at the news. Today, even though he knows he should be praying for forgiveness and redemption, he’s beseeching God for a Yankees win.
“Give heed to the clarion call of the shofar,” the Rabbi bellows for the third time today. Some of the adults are bored; he can hear murmuring in the rows behind. Finally, towards the end of the service, his father relents and allows Lenny to go out and play.
Lenny makes his way to the empty lot next door, where other boys with fathers who are not as strict are playing: stickball for the older boys and marbles for the younger. His brother is kneeling in the dust, counting his pile of coveted bluish-green corkscrew marbles, his white holiday shirt and navy knickers smeared with dirt. Lenny smiles, thinking of his plan. After lunch, he’s going to volunteer to look after Jeremiah so his parents can rest, but then they’ll sneak to the drugstore to catch the game. He’s even saved a Bit-O-Honey and a peanut chew, one to get Jeremiah out of the house and the other in exchange for a promise not to tell. The kid might not know much about baseball, at least not yet, but he’ll do anything for candy. It’s surefire.
Lenny leans against the wall and turns his attention to the stickball players, wishing they’d let him play and dreaming of being a better hitter. The boys are focused on their own game—arguing over who’s batting next, yelling at the boy who just struck out—but Lenny wants to talk about the Series. “A better lineup, the Yanks couldn’t have,” he says, rattling off the batting order. “Lou Gehrig, batting fourth for the grand slam.” He mimics an announcer’s voice and assumes Gehrig’s slugging stance. When no one picks up the conversation, he starts reciting batting averages for the Yankees lineup.
“Aren’t you a real abercrombie?” says an older kid as he gets up to bat.
Lenny shrugs; it’s not the first time he’s been called a know-it-all. One of his father’s friends calls him “Bridgeport’s number-one baseball whiz,” a title he wears proudly. He and Jonny Allen, the rookie pitcher, share a birthday. But the other boys don’t seem interested in statistics, so after a bit Lenny wanders back over to the marble game, just in time to see Jeremiah flick a reddish-blue marble into the circle for a win. Secretly, he’s looking forward to their afternoon together. He would like to tell Jeremiah about the plan, but he’s afraid he’ll tell Mother and Papa by accident. He knows it will work: with Johnny Allen as the starting pitcher, the Yanks can’t lose.
The green clock on the kitchen wall reads 3:08 p.m. by the time lunch is over and the last relative says goodbye. Lenny watches his mother wash the dishes and his father dry and stack them in the cabinet. He is trying not to appear too anxious, but the game was scheduled to begin at 2:30 New York time. He’d known he would miss the first inning or two, but now he is getting nervous. His parents are slow in washing and drying. Instead, they gossip about their relatives: Cousin Mendy, out of a job for three months, is having a hard time feeding his family. Sussie has been forced to take in needle and button work for nine cents an hour, instead of having a better-paying factory job that might pay double.
Papa says, “We’re lucky that selling eggs and butter will never go out of business.” He hopes to have his own store one day.
When the dishes are done, Lenny jumps out of the chair, eager to volunteer to watch Jeremiah. But his mother beats him to it. “Play quietly in the den,” she instructs, “so we can rest. If Jeremiah gets too jumpy, take him over to the park on Noble Avenue. But no further than that.” She is always cautioning him not to wander down East Main Street, where the tramps like to gather.
Lenny nods, trying to hide his smile. The park on Noble Avenue is three long blocks away from the pharmacy on Barnum Avenue, though he knows that to go further and get caught would mean a heavy punishment, like no baseball ever.
“What a responsible boy you’re becoming,” his father says. “A better son, I couldn’t ask.”
His mother leans over and kisses his forehead and calls to Jeremiah to mind his big brother. Lenny waits until his parents have climbed the stairs to their bedroom and shut the door. If they walk fast enough, they might make it by the fourth inning.
Lenny finds Jeremiah on the front porch playing with his marbles. With the Bit-O-Honey, he lures his brother down the steps, and onto the sidewalk, heading for Barnum Avenue. “Come!” he tells him. “We’re going on an adventure.” He doesn’t say where they are going, or how they’re about to be part of Yankee history. To tell him the truth would only raise questions, like why they can’t just turn on their own Philco, Model #20.
As they cross over East Main, still two blocks from the pharmacy, Lenny takes Jeremiah’s hand. They pass hobos sitting under the awnings of closed shops. One tramp is curled in an entryway and looks dead, but then Lenny notices that the man’s brown hat covering his face is rising and falling as he snores.
“Look over there.” Lenny points across the street to divert Jeremiah’s attention, but his vision is drawn to a row of beggars slumped against the ledge of the church yard. The line extends all the way around to the back of the building. The men wear hats of all shapes and sizes, and some hold walking sticks. Their jackets are too tight, the sleeves torn, with filthy white shirts sticking out.
Despite Lenny’s efforts to shield him, Jeremiah notices, and asks, “Why are their clothes so dirty? What are they doing?”
“They’re waiting to get food, I think. Don’t worry about them. We don’t go there anyway, so mind your own business.” Lenny tightens his grip on Jeremiah’s hand.
“Ow! Let go of me,” Jeremiah whines.
“Hurry up then.”
They pick up the pace, passing Pearl’s Bakery and Meyerson the fishmonger. Lenny worries he’s missed the whole game. Surely he would’ve heard cheers if it was over?
“Where are we going?”
“You remember what I told you about the Yankees, right?”
Jeremiah looks up at him with wide eyes, a dribble of candy juice sliding down his chin. “Uh-huh.”
“Today we’re going to sweep the Series. Won’t that be grand?”
“Sure.” Jeremiah pulls his gray marble bag out of his pocket. “Can we play marbles when we get there?”
“Later!” The drugstore in view, he sees a thick cluster of men and boys congregating at the entrance. He starts to run, begging Jeremiah to keep up. “Come on, will you!”
Motioning for Jeremiah to sit on the bench just outside the store, Lenny pushes his head into the crowd, listening for some tidbit, some stat, some crack of the bat, to let him know his team is winning. Instead he hears a snigger, tongues clucking. Babe Ruth has just struck out. Before he can ask the score, he hears the official, tinny voice of the announcer coming over the radio: Ground ball by Gehrig. . .and the Cubs retire the Yanks with an easy out at first. Another disappointing inning for the Bronx Bombers. And after a pause: If you’re just tuning in, the Chicago Cubs are up, 4-3 at the bottom of the fourth.
Lenny can hardly believe his ears. “What!” His voice rattles. “How’s that possible?”
“Where you been, kid?” The fellow standing next to him frowns. “That damn rookie Allen gave up four runs in the first inning!”
A wave of disappointment washes over Lenny, but he tries to stay hopeful. They can still turn it around, he tells himself, and in the top of the sixth inning the Yankees pull ahead, only to have the Cubs catch up almost immediately. Every time a Chicago player is up at bat Lenny feels like he’s holding his breath; judging by the strained looks on the faces of the other boys and men, they are too. Once in a while, Lenny pulls his head from the crowd to look for his brother, and each time he sees him waiting on the designated bench. Good. Jeremiah catches his eye and points at the soda fountain through the window, to which Lenny shakes his head, a firm no. Lenny didn’t bring any money—their parents would never allow them to spend money on Rosh Hashanah, certainly not to buy such a luxury. He ignores his brother and goes back to listening to the game.
At long last, the Yankees take a strong lead in the seventh inning, scoring four runs off of back-to-back singles by Combs, Sewell, and Ruth. The crowd erupts with cheers, but Lenny doesn’t have much time to celebrate, because Jeremiah is tugging on his sleeve and asking, “Is it over yet?” For reasons Lenny cannot understand, Jeremiah has not caught on to the enthusiasm or the team spirit surging through the store.
“No, ding-bat! It’s only the seventh inning! How many innings are there in a baseball game?”
“Nine.” Jeremiah looks down at his feet. “I want to go home.”
Lenny fishes out the other piece of peanut chew, but it doesn’t placate him this time. “Don’t you want to listen? It’s the World Series, game four, only the most important game of the year!”
Jeremiah frowns. “You said we were gonna play marbles.” He holds up his bag.
“Later, I said. Not in the middle of the game, for Pete’s sake!” Lenny’s attention wavers as the glorious sound of the ball hitting the bat, followed by the crowd cheering, pulls him back to the game. “Just go back and sit on the bench. We’ll go when it’s over!”
Lenny half watches his brother sulk off, but he doesn’t care. The Cubs have the bases loaded now, bottom of the eighth. Lenny bows his head and scrunches his eyes shut, hoping for easy outs, and again his prayers are rewarded. By the time the ninth inning draws to a close, Lenny’s heroes have scored four more runs. The radio announcer’s glorious voice makes the triumph complete. Once again, ladies and gents, the New York Yankees are the world champions! Final score: 13-6. Joe McCarthy can be proud of his team today—what a comeback for the Yankees!
A shout of joy erupts from the drugstore crowd. Lenny savors this moment of pure happiness and watches the men and boys around him hugging each other, whether they’re strangers or not. “Babe! Lou! Champions!” he screams for all he’s worth.
Someone starts singing the words, “Take me out to the ballgame.” Lenny and the others join in.
“For its one, two, three strikes you’re out, at the old—ball—game. . .”
For a moment, Lenny thinks back to the unified voices in the synagogue this morning, but he finds this song more beautiful, more uplifting. Even some of the poor hobos from East Main, with holes in their shoes and sooty faces, have joined the crowd and gather to sing along.
As the crowd starts to break up and head in different directions, Lenny pushes his way to the bench where Jeremiah is waiting—only his brother isn’t there. He scans the immediate area, but doesn’t see him; the flow of bodies moving and expanding around him makes it difficult to find a small boy.
“It was Lazzeri’s two home runs that sealed the game,” someone shouts in Lenny’s face. He feels a surge of excitement, but the fear of losing his brother weighs him down, keeps him from enjoying the victory.
“Jeremiah!” he starts shouting. There are too many men walking on the sidewalk. He shouts louder now. “Jeremiah Gerstler!”
When his brother doesn’t appear, panic takes over, his heart frantic in his chest. Lenny searches the faces going past him, and he tries to stop each one, asking if they’ve seen a six-year-old boy.
A few kind men stop to hear Lenny out. “Haven’t seen him. Good luck.”
“What’s he look like?” asks another.
“Brown curly hair, white shirt, navy knickers. Holding a bag of marbles.”
“Sorry kiddo,” he says. “Gotta be careful with kids these days. Some sick people out there. My wife cried for a week over the poor Lindbergh baby.”
At this, Lenny’s eyes bulge with fright and his body goes cold with dread. He runs back and forth in front of the pharmacy, standing on the bench to see over the crowd. He begins to contemplate the unthinkable: how can he go home and face his parents?
The panic creeps down from his throat to his belly and settles like a heavy stone. If God doesn’t strike him down for this, Mother and Papa will. Atta boy, Lenny. Such a good son, we couldn’t ask. He’ll never hear his parents utter those sweet words again, and only now does it dawn on him how much he likes to hear them.
Lenny circles the drugstore, canvassing the area in all directions, his eyes scanning the stoops of the shops and the dark corners under the awnings. He prays, this time not to the god of baseball but to the Almighty Himself, promising that if Jeremiah is found, he will never again break the rules of the holiday. Never go behind his parents’ backs. He even promises to sit in shul for the whole service, every Shabbos.
At five-thirty, the drugstore owner shoos out the last men and starts to close up for the night, pulling down the shades and locking the cash register. Lenny sits on the bench where he last saw Jeremiah, shivering in the early October chill. The crowd has dispersed, and Lenny is hoping to see Jeremiah come around a corner. He prays his parents haven’t left the bedroom and discovered them missing. Maybe they wouldn’t worry at first, thinking the boys are at the park. But as evening comes, his mother would expect them home. She’d pace the kitchen, worried. Lenny’s imagination turns to the Hardy Boys books he’s so fond of, with their tales of little boys being tricked and kidnapped. He never thought such a thing could be possible in Bridgeport.
Lenny starts to sob, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his good Rosh Hashanah shirt. His arms prickle with a cold sweat, his chest feels heavy. Despite the sense of doom coursing through his veins, he starts down the street towards home.
“You there,” comes a voice from the manicured lawn of the church they’d passed on their way. The line of hobos has disappeared. “Come with me.” The man is slight, his beard the color of the grimy yellow chicken fat Lenny’s mother skims from the top of the soup. The tramp takes Lenny by the arm, startling him.
“Let go of me, mister!” He tries to pull away, but the man’s grip is too strong.
“I seen you up the road, and when I came back here, I got to thinking. . .” His abductor leads him through the side entrance of the church.
This is his punishment, Lenny thinks. In a flash he sees the bones of tricked, kidnapped boys. He’s just about to call for help when he sees a sign over the door:
Judge not, and you shall not be judged.
Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
“Oh, I’m not. . .I’m not a Christian,” Lenny stammers. “My mother is expecting me.”
The man grunts and yanks him inside, where he comes face to face with a big cross hanging on a wall. Next to it is a painting of a woman with her arms spread, her head encircled by a glowing light. He’s never been inside a church before and he begins sniveling again, his mind repeating one phrase over and over: Mother! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! He’s dimly aware of men’s voices coming from another room. His body feels rigid but the man jerks him forward, through another doorway.
The bright lights stun Lenny into silence. As his eyes adjust, he sees that he is in an assembly hall, with five long tables stretching the length of the room. Tramps sit at the tables, the remnants of leftover potatoes and stew on their plates and gravy stains on the tablecloths. A half-dozen church volunteers serve the men small pieces of chocolate cake and bruised yellow apples.
The man eases his grasp and points to a curly-haired boy sitting at the fourth table, his white shirt covered in greasy drippings.
“Len!” Jeremiah calls and waves. “Over here!”
It takes a few seconds for Lenny to understand. He is breathless by the time he reaches Jeremiah. “Oh, God. Oh, thank God. You’re okay.” His eyes water with relief, and he stops to wipe his nose. “How did you get here?”
Jeremiah shrugs, unaffected by Lenny’s urgency. “I was hungry and I couldn’t find you, so I walked back here. You said they were giving out food, remember?”
“And boy, can he eat,” one of the men at the table says, chuckling.
Lenny sees a few bites of stew on Jeremiah’s plate, and his eyes widen in shock; despite everything he’s done today, he is appalled that his brother has eaten treif. Doesn’t he know anything?
“He’s an ace at marbles,” another one of the tramps chimes in.
A volunteer approaches with several pieces of cake. Jeremiah is first to take one, but Lenny stops him. “We have to go now.”
The man who grabbed him off the street says, “Sit down; what’s the rush?” He reaches out with a grubby hand and Lenny takes two steps backward.
Lenny eyes Jeremiah, imploring him to get out of his seat and say goodbye. “We really have to go.” When he makes no move to leave, Lenny takes Jeremiah by the hand and pulls him out of his chair. “We have to go,” he hisses again.
“Come back and visit us any time, pal,” a man missing two front teeth says to Jeremiah.
“So long, fellas.” Jeremiah waves goodbye. They muss his hair as he passes, holding out their hands for him to give high-fives.
Jeremiah flashes a smile, and Lenny leads him toward the side door. They emerge into the dusky evening. The intermittent twittering of crickets follows them as they walk towards home. He’s amazed at his brother for being so at ease with these men.
Lenny throws his arm around Jeremiah’s shoulder. He has no words to express his deep relief. “I guess you weren’t scared?” he asks, realizing he had come very close to striking out today, but was granted a last-minute save by the most unlikely group of relief pitchers.
Jeremiah doesn’t answer, his nonchalance suggesting that he’s not upset with Lenny. “They were nice. You said we were going to have an adventure.”
An adventure was not quite how Lenny would’ve put it, but if that’s what the kid wanted to think, it was swell by him. His mind spins. So many things have changed in the space of a few hours: dark possibilities he didn’t even know existed, and even a newfound goodwill towards the beggars of East Main. “Stay away from those good-for-nothings,” he remembers his father once saying. But maybe Abe was wrong about some things. Lenny walks a bit taller, feeling more mature, like a rookie who’s gotten a taste of experience from the big leagues.
They are nearly home, the houses lit up with kerosene lamps, their soft glow illuminating the lilac bushes decorating the neighborhood yards. Lenny would have some explaining to do. He wasn’t a good liar, and besides, Jeremiah could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut. As it is, on the short walk home, his brother has already mentioned—twice—that the fellas invited him back to play marbles, and that he’d sure like to.
Inside, Mother and Papa sit at the kitchen table playing cards, waiting for them. They seem relieved, but not overly worried. “Were you playing in the park? Did you lose track of the time?”
Lenny can’t help himself; he starts to cry. He wishes he could be braver.
“What is it, Len?” His mother wraps him in an embrace. Faint aromas of chicken soup, carrot tsimmes, and apple cake—foods for a sweet new year—linger in her dress.
He buries his head in his mother’s bosom.
When Lenny stops his tears, he’ll tell them everything. He’ll tell them how he prayed for the wrong things, and that the tramps aren’t such bad people. He’ll explain and explain until they can find a way to forgive him. He also has his promises to keep, and many games of marbles with Jeremiah to make up. He’ll even try to save his money and buy his brother a present, maybe the set of Akro sparkler marbles he’s been asking for. Maybe then God would forgive him, too. And maybe if they aren’t too mad, he’ll see if Papa can spare some butter and eggs, and if Mother can bake a cake to take to the hobos. It’s a new year, after all.
Julie Zuckerman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, The Coil, and others. The Book of Jeremiah, her debut novel-in-stories, was the runner-up in the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and is coming out May 3. A native of Connecticut, she resides in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children. Learn more at her website.