The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Hearts Made of Stone"

"Hearts Made of Stone" was originally published in the anthology "Song Stories: Volume I" in March 2013.


I was single then and worked late a lot at the Monroeville Mercury, the local newspaper.  It was early February and it was freezing inside my office.
Art by Shirley Lam
I had pulled the Philco radio right up against my right elbow so I could absorb some heat from the vacuum tubes.  The Perry Como Chesterfield Show had come on the CBS radio network at 7 p.m.  The crooner was bragging on his backup singers, who just topped the Hit Parade with their cover of a country tune.  “I’m so happy Bea, Geri and Marge have hit the big time,” he said “Can you sing your big hit for us?”
Then the door of my office slammed open and Bubba “Big Boy” Brown staggered in.“Big Boy” worked for the city public works department, and had probably been drinking for a good three or four hours already--city workers seldom worked all day, they usually knocked off by 3 p.m.
He was smiling, which was a good thing, I suppose.  On the radio, the Fontane Sisters began to wail.
“Hearts… made… of…”
I reached over and quickly turned the volume knob on the radio all the way down.
“So what’s up, Bubba?”
He lurched across the office towards me and plopped his drunken redneck ass in the old wooden chair in front of my desk.
“Hey, Mister Joe, I can pay you back,” he slurred as he grinned in a crooked self-satisfied way.
The alcohol fumes wafted across the desk to me.  “I wish I had gone home already,” I thought.
Six months earlier some northerners, intent on starting a voter registration drive, had come to Monroeville, and were been beaten, tied up and then tossed onto the next bus to Houston.
I knew that Big Boy had towed away the interlopers’ car with a city public works truck, and shoved it into the bayou.  I saw him tow it away.
“So what’s on your mind?” I asked.
“You know we’re working on fixin’ up the old Jew church, right?”
“Sure,” I said, cringing a bit at his calling the old synagogue a church.
“I found something under the floor.”
I sat up.  “What kind of thing?”
“You come see yourself,” he said.  “You ain’t Jewish, are you?”
 “No, but I know something about synagogues.”  I stood up and put on my hat.  “You want to show it to me?”
He rose rather unsteadily. “Yeah, let’s go there now.”
In its pre-Civil War heyday, there was a small but active Jewish community in Monroeville, but the last of the Jewish residents had moved away or died off by the 1920s, and the synagogue had been boarded up for 30 years.
We walked from the newspaper office to the former synagogue that the city had decided to renovate and turn into a community theater.
We walked up to the rear.  Bubba put his key in the lock.  “So far, I’ve been the only one inside,” he said.  “I’m supposed to clean it up and get it ready for the carpenters.”
We walked inside.  He mashed an old-fashioned push-button light switch.  The lights flickered and came on
“They had electricity in here,” said Bubba.  “I turned it back on at the fuse box.”
He pointed to a small in a door in the rear.  “It’s in there.”  He opened it and peered inside.  I could see there was a single dusty old clear glass light bulb glowing dimly from the ceiling
 “I wonder what they used this room for?” he asked as he walked in.  I followed him and looked inside.
As an Italian kid growing up in the Bronx, I had a few Jewish friends.
I looked around. I could tell from the shelves and cabinets it had probably been the “genizah”, the place you keep worn-out texts and religious materials until they can be properly disposed of by burning.
“It’s an old storeroom,” I said, “and it looks pretty empty to me.”
He was at the far end of the room.  “Come over here,” he said.
I walked over to where he stood.  He crouched down a bit unsteadily and began to pry up a floorboard.
“They hid something under the floor,” he said, as he grappled with the floor. “When I walked across it, it started to give.”
He kept working it.  “It’s some kind of hiding place.”
I realized he was having a problem because of being tipsy, so I crouched down and gave him a hand.  With the two of us prying, we got a wooden panel loose, and set it down to the side.
The weak light didn’t penetrate into the hiding space.  “I don’t see anything,” I said.
“Hold on,” said Bubba as he pulled a large flashlight out of a pocket of his overalls.  “I couldn’t see nuthin’ at first too.”
He clicked on the flashlight and shone it into the darkness.  The beam fell on the gray face of a corpse.  The sight startled me and I fell backwards from my crouch onto my butt, throwing up a small cloud of dust.
“Shit, Bubba, why didn’t you tell me there’s a body down there!”
He reached down and touched the face of the “corpse” with the flashlight.  “It ain’t a body,” he said.  “That’s what I thought, too.  Look.”
He reached down and touched the face with his flashlight.  The rim of the lens made a little “dinging” sound as he poked it into the face.
“It’s a statue,” he said.
I took the flashlight from his hand and shone it up and down the figure.  “It’s life size.  I can see why they left it behind, it would be hard to pack up and ship anywhere.  Wait a minute.”
I looked over the “statue” again. I realized that under the dust, the thing had on a simple plain cotton dress.
“This is a statue of a woman!  That’s even stranger.”
I shone the flashlight on the face again.  “She” had Bettie Page-style bangs.  I used the flashlight to push them aside.
There were two Hebrew letters on her forehead.
I fell backwards and dropped the flashlight; thankfully it didn’t break.
“Holy shit!”  I shouted.  “Mother of God!”
Bubba winced at my noise.  “Ouch, ow-w, take it easy.”  He shook his head.  “You know what it is?”
I shoved back on my heels until I was pressed up against the opposite wall.  “It’s a golem, a real damn golem!”
“What’s a goal-em?” he asked rather thickly.
My hands shook, but I picked up the flashlight again.
“It’s a kind of robot, I guess you could say.  Made of stone.”
I stood up rather unsteadily, and shone the flashlight into the hiding space.  “Tell you what, Bubba,” I said as I began to gather my wits.  “Let’s keep this our own little secret.”
I winked at him.  “I will haul it off myself.  Until I move it, don’t tell anyone it’s here.”
I stuck out my hand.  He stared at it for a second.  “You owe me,” I said, “we’ll be even!”
He grabbed my hand and crunched it. “Deal!”
“Great, let’s get this panel back in place,” I said, shaking my throbbing hand. “And let’s get out of here.”
I remembered there was an old Compton’s Encyclopedia from the Herbert Hoover Era back in the newspaper office, and after we parted ways, I went straight back there.
When I looked up the entry, I saw a line cut from an old 19th century story about the Golem of Prague that showed Rabbi Loew with his creation.
It showed the three Hebrew letters on its forehead that he used to animate it, spelling out “emet”--truth.  I remembered that to wipe out the first letter then spelled “met”--death--and deactivated the creature.
The golem hidden in the floor of the synagogue, of course, only had last two letters on her forehead.  I copied down very carefully that first letter, the “aleph”, with a No. 2 pencil on a sheet of paper I tore out of a Big Chief tablet.
I toyed with the idea of going back to the synagogue immediately, but I had too many questions in my mind.
Why would have someone made a golem in East Texas?
And why a woman?
The next morning I put on a Perry Como-style cardigan and went off to see George Berghold.
He was one of the few old-timers who remembered when Monroeville had a Jewish community.  He later helped maintain the cemetery as along as his strength allowed.
I explained that, with the pending renovation of the old synagogue, I wanted to interview him for a “looking back”-type story for the newspaper.
He was a gracious old gentleman, in his mid-90s, and his colored housekeeper poured us some hot lemon tea after we sat down in his parlor.
“My parents came to Texas from Germany,” he said.  “I know that since the last war, and after what the Nazis did, people think all Germans hated Jews, but my parents had many Jewish friends in the old country, and they made many Jewish friends when they moved to Monroeville.”
“By the 1920s, there were few Jews left here,” he continued.  “With young people moving away to seek a better life, the Jewish children left just like everyone else. Rabbi Freudenthal was the last Jew left in the city, and he never left because he was just too old and had no family.  He wanted to be buried next to his wife.”
“Do you remember what they were like?”
“I know his wife died in the flu epidemic during the winter of 1918,” he said. “I think the rabbi died ten years after that.  I think he was the only Jew left in the city during the Roaring ‘20s.  I know he was gone by the time of the Stock Market Crash. I took my retirement then.”
“So Rabbi Freudenthal lived completely alone during his last years?”
Berghold grimaced.  “Ah, not really.  A few months after his wife died a girl showed up, a Jewish girl that became his housekeeper.  He told people she was from Poland and couldn’t speak English.  She took care of chores and shopped for him with notes from the Rabbi,” he continued.
Berghold seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Is there something else?” I asked.
“Well, people thought he was keeping her as a... girlfriend.  It just didn’t look right.”
“So what happened to the girl?”
“She disappeared after he died, she must have gone back home to Poland.”
A phone rang on a nearby table. The housekeeper answered it.  She listened for a minute.
Berghold had his hand out, but she said, “It’s for Mister DeNardo.”
Berghold looked at me. “Must be some problem at the office.”
The housekeeper carried the phone over to me.  I heard a familiar voice.  “Joe, there’s some people at the office who want to see you.
It was Adele, the receptionist at the paper. “They say they’re old friends from college.”
“I’ll get there right away,” I said, as I hung up.
I wasn’t thrilled when I saw my old frat brothers waiting for me in the office. I introduced them to Adele.
“This is Mickey Cardinale, Steve Rabinowitz and Bill Tietjien,” I said.  “We all knew each other in New York.”
I could tell from her look she was going to report some “Yankee troublemakers” to the sheriff--if she hadn’t already.
“Nice of y’all to drop by,” I said, “let go to my office to talk.
 I closed the door behind us.  “What the heck are you doing here, and what are you up to?”
“We want to stay a while and see about starting a voter registration drive for the Negroes here in Tigert County.  We knew you lived here, so I figured you’d put us up, at least temporarily.”
“Shit, Mick, didn’t you hear about those three guys who got beat up last fall. I’ve lived here eight years, and they barely trust me now,” I said. “You want to disappear or something?”
Mickey’s face was turning red.  “Listen, we can’t let these people just flout the law,” he said.
“Yes, you can, and did you tell anyone what you are in town?”
“Yes, we told your receptionist,” said Steve.
“Dammit, the sheriff already knows, then, and also the Klan,” I said.  “I can’t protect you.”
“Listen, we’ve already a symbolic gesture,” said Steve.  “Just by being here.  Let’s stay overnight to visit with Joe, as friends, then catch the bus tomorrow and move on to Houston.”
“That sounds harmless,” said Bill. “You could tell your friends here you talked us out of it.”
“We could always come back later,” said Mickey.
“Okay, listen, I’ll tell them you are my personal guests for the night, but you will catch the noon bus tomorrow for Houston,” I said. “No civil rights crap, not right now. Things are too inflamed.”
 On the way out, I told Adele that I would take the rest of the day off to entertain my friends from out of town. “It will be nice to have a few Yankee pals overnight.”  I said with a forced smile.  “They’re moving on to Houston tomorrow.  They wanted to stay, but I told them what they planned was a bad idea.”
I had a typical bachelor’s refrigerator--cold fried chicken and a case of Falstaff beer.
I told them some true stories about the locals that had them in stitches, and after a while we were all beery and cheerful.  Steve pointed to the television in the corner.
“Hey, does that thing work?”
I laughed.  “Had to put a 20-foot antenna on the roof, we just got a station in Shreveport four months ago.”
I walked over and clicked it on.  “Just bought it a month ago.”
I gestured for them to pull up their chairs.  “You need absorb some local culture,” I said.  “Red Foley is on the air with the Ozark Jubilee.”
Red was singing his signature tune in front of a barnyard set with a half dozen young ladies providing the chorus, and one fellow sitting on a bale of hay playing the electric guitar.
Red swung his arms and snapped his fingers.  “Hearts made of stone…”
Steve knitted his brow, and then spoke up.  “Hey, that’s the same song the Fontane Sisters do!”
“Sure is,” I said, “but Red Foley had it first.   Turn up the beat and the volume, add some pop sensibility and a saxophone, and you almost don’t recognize it, do you?”
Right then, there was a knock at the door.  I lurched over, opened the door, and asked “Yes-s-s?” in my best Franklin Pangborn imitation without even looking first.
It was totally dark outside, and then everything went dark for me.
When I came to, the goose egg on the top of my head had already crusted over.  I rolled over and looked at the clock.  It was 8:30. I had been out for over two hours.  Somebody had hit me good.
The furniture had been shoved around, and the kitchen table knocked over.   “Mickey, Steve, Bill!” I shouted.
I grabbed the heavy black Bakelite phone on the table and dialed the sheriff.  “Sam, someone busted in here, knocked me out cold, and dragged my friends off,” I said.
“I don’t know anything about it, Joe, somebody may have gotten over-zealous,” he said. “I’m glad they didn’t haul you off, too!  We’ve gotten used to you.”
“Over-zealous!  They were going to leave on their own!”
“Oh, some old boys are probably taking them for a ride out to the Big Cypress, to put a good scare in them,” said the Sheriff.  “They’d probably drop them off on your porch in the morning.”
“I hope that’s all they do,” I said, and I hung up
I had less faith in the old boys than the sheriff.  I looked at the clock again.  “I can get to the Big Cypress Bayou in 15 minutes,” I thought, “but what can I do alone?  I’m not Gary Cooper.”
I looked down and saw a “chai” on the floor.  Steve had been wearing it around his neck--it must have been torn off while he grappled with the Klansmen.
Then it hit me.  “There are reasons things happen,” I said to myself, as I patted my pocket where I had stuck the folded paper from the Big Chief tablet.  I ran outside, hopped in my old Hudson, and drove to the synagogue.
When I parked in the back, I went into the trunk and got a tire iron.
I knew where Big Boy had hidden the key under an old stepping-stone, and I unlocked the back door.
I turned on the lights, and went into the genizah.  Inside, I found Big Boy’s flashlight sitting on a shelf.  I took the tire iron and pried open the floor panel.
I shone the flashlight inside.  She was still there.
I took out the paper, and peered at the letter in the dim light.  I took the flashlight in one hand, the tire iron in the other.  I used the flashlight to push aside her bangs, then pointed the sharp blade at her forehead.
My hand was shaking.
“OK, this is serious,” I thought.  “Calm down.”
I took a deep breath, and began to scratch the “aleph”.
The stone/clay was so hard, I was able to press down pretty firmly, and that steadied my hand.  After a few minutes, I had engraved what I hoped was a good version of the letter.
I shone the flashlight on her face.  “That’s as good as it’s going to get,” I said, and I dropped the tire iron on the floor.
I looked down.  Nothing was happening.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered.  “I need some help here.”
I waggled the beam of the flashlight in the golem’s face.  “There’s a poor Jewish kid out there who needs our help, golem gal.”
Her eyes snapped open.
I fell back, and the flashlight rolled away on the floor.  I looked over to where it stopped, and scrambled to grab it.   From the corner, I shone the beam back towards the hiding space.
She was sitting up, her head and shoulders above the floor.  I was startled to see her eyes were bright blue; they were made of lapis inlaid into ivory.
I stood up, as steadily as I could.  “The rebbe is dead,” I said, using the Hebrew word, “but I have summoned you because there is a Jew here in great danger.”
She placed her hands on the sides of the hiding space, pulled herself upright, and then stepped onto the floor, which creaked loudly.
I stared for a moment.  She was six feet tall.
Old Mister Berghold was six feet tall himself, I guess that’s why he didn’t mention how tall Rabbi Freudenthal’s “housekeeper” had been.
“Follow me,” I said, and walked towards the door.
I heard the “creak, creak, creak” as the golem followed me.  I kept looking behind me.
Outside, I opened the door on the passenger side of the car.  “I hope the leaf springs don’t pop,” I said as I got in myself.
I killed my headlights as I came down the dirt road and neared the bend of the Big Cypress Bayou where the water was the deepest.  I had guessed right, there were a dozen cars there, headlights shining on three young men kneeling in the mud.
None of Klansmen wore masks or hoods, they were all in street clothes.
“Not a good sign,” I thought, “If they’re not trying to cover up.”
We got out of the car, and I snuck up behind an ancient cottonwood tree to where I could hear what was going on.  The golem stood behind me; her old dress was so dusty, and her coloration so gray, she was practically invisible in the dim light.
A man with dark hair and a port wine stain birthmark running up the side of his face was talking to the others.
“So it’s agreed, then?”
He was the local Grand Dragon, and owned the radio shop in Monroeville.  I had bought my television from him.
A red-faced sheriff’s deputy spoke up.  “Yes, we won’t let ‘em go this time,” he said.
Big Boy was in the cluster.  “Yeah, feed them to the gators!” he shouted.
The Grand Dragon shook his fist at Mickey, Steve and Bill.  “Your friends up north need to learn what we do with troublemakers, once and for all,”
The three of them were wide-eyed and shaking.  Some Klansmen walked forward, holding lengths of heavy chains.
“Please, we didn’t mean any harm,” Mickey cried out.
“Untie me and I’ll whip all you rednecks!” yelled Bill.
The Klansmen got to work.  One of them began draping chains on Steve.
I could see his lips moving, but I didn’t understand what he was saying--at first.
It sounded like, “Yist gaddal…”
Clink.“Yist kaddish…”
Rattle.“Oh, shit, the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead!” I thought.  I turned around. “You’d better…”She was long gone, and already moving into the circle of headlights.The golem moved rather quickly for a creature made of stone, and in a moment stood in front of Steve.  The redneck draping the chains on him looked up at her in shock.  She took a wide swipe at him with a heavy arm that hit him like a swinging log.  He flew back a good 20 feet, crumbling up against the grill of a pickup as the headlamp popped.
Steve looked up at her like she was an angel as she took a length of chain off him.
The red-faced deputy came up and grabbed her shoulder.  “What the hell are you doing?”  He tried but couldn’t turn her around.
When she realized he was tugging at her, she spun around with the chain in her hand.  It wrapped around the deputy’s chest.  She looked at him and then yanked the chain--hard.  His ribs cracked with a loud crunch as she snapped the chain and threw him in the same direction the other Klansman had gone.
She was half turned around now and the Grand Dragon came up, a .44 in hand.  “What kind of demon of hell are you?’ he shouted, as he began firing at her.
He unloaded on her as she slowly turned fully around.  Meanwhile Steve was taking off the rest of his chains.
The rounds pinged off her harmlessly, leaving little pockmarks and tears in her dress.  The Grand Dragon was pop-eyed as he pulled a second gun from the small of his back and took a few more steps forward.
That was a mistake.  The next shot ricocheted off the golem and struck him in the face.   His head snapped back as blood gushed from his eye.  He fell to his knees and flopped over dead.
The rest of the Klansmen were all backing away, except Big Boy, who ran up behind the golem with a crowbar and struck her on the back of her head--with no effect.
She spun around and took a broad swipe with an arm that smashed his head completely off.  Brains, blood and bone sprayed across the clearing in a broad arc.  The Klansmen yelped and ran off in all directions into the dark.  No one tried to get back into his vehicle.
Steve was clear of his chains and helping Mickey out of his.  Bill had helped himself.  They looked at the golem and then at me.
Finally Mickey got his jaw to work.  “Where the hell did you find a golem?”
“I ordered her from the Montgomery Ward catalogue,” I said.  “Don’t ask too many damn questions.”
I pointed to the edge of the cottonwoods.  “Behind there is my car.  The keys are in the ignition.  Take it and get your asses back to New York, NOW!  I will catch up with you later.”
They ran off without another word.  In a minute I heard the engine and saw the headlights going back down the dirt road.
It was now all very quiet.  All the headlights were still on, and I was alone with the golem and four bodies in various states of destruction.  The air was full of the coppery smell of blood.
The golem stood there, impassive.  Her hands and arms were red and damp. She began to plod towards me.  Her right arm rose up and her hand shot out.
She grabbed me by the throat and began to crush my windpipe, meanwhile lifting me off the ground.
Imminent death made me very quick-witted.  “Mar-ran-no,” I croaked.
Her hand stopped closing, and she stopped lifting me.  I was on my tiptoes.
“Marrano,” I gasped, louder.
I raised my voice as loud as I could, which wasn’t very loud.  “My people are Marranos.”
Her hand unclenched and I fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes.  I wheezed violently.  I had probably been a second or two from dying.
She looked down at me--fists clenched.
“The DeNardos are an old Marrano family,” I gasped hoarsely.  “They were forcibly converted during the Inquisition.”
I looked around the clearing.  “We need to get out of here, before anyone arrives,” I said.

I had noticed one of the vehicles shining its headlights into the circle was a large fire engine red Chevy Carryall Suburban.  I walked over and saw the keys were in the ignition.

I went in the back and opened the doors.  I gestured to the golem.
“Come here and climb inside.”
She did as commanded, and I took a tarp I found inside--apparently the vehicle’s owner was a painter--and covered her with it.
“Do not stir until I next command you,” I said as I pulled the tarp over her face.
As much adrenaline was flowing, I drove non-stop, except to get gas, and crossed the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River 24 hours later.
I pulled up at my parents’ home in Yonkers at 10 p.m. and crashed in my old bedroom.
I slept the entire next day.  The day after that, I took a pile of Monroeville papers my mother had saved and went to the office of the Westchester Star, and got myself hired as the police beat reporter.
I hooked up with Steve, Mickey and Bill a few days later.  I swore them all to secrecy.
“Nobody would believe the story anyway,” opined Bill.
I worked at the Westchester Star for 15 years, then became managing editor of the Darien Daily Defender.  I retired from the paper when I turned 65, in 1989, and we retired to Florida.
I know, I said “we”.  Esther and me.
That’s what I named her.  Seemed appropriate.
With make-up and some nice clothes, she was a looker.
You know, back in 1955, young people living together seemed much more of scandal. But as the years went by nobody ever cared or noticed there was no marriage certificate on the wall.
I know a creature made of stone has no soul, but as time went by I knew that--even if she didn’t have a soul of her own--we shared mine, that some spark of my soul was with her.
Just a few days ago, the lab tests from my most recent checkup showed my heart is finally beginning to fail.  I sat down and explained to her what “congestive heart failure” meant.
I had to explain that, unlike her, my heart is not made of stone, and it would soon stop pumping, and then I would die.
I clasped her and cried.  She held me, gently.
Forgive the wandering thoughts of an old man.  I think back to when Big Boy barged into my office in Monroeville.  I never did finish hearing the Fontane Sisters sing “Hearts Made of Stone” on that old Philco radio.
Then the next day, there was that knock on the door when my friends were kidnapped, and I never saw Red Foley finish his version of “Hearts Made of Stone” on the Ozark Jubilee.  Fact is, I never went back home that night. I left the TV and the lights on.
There’s this web site on the Internet called YouTube, and just a few minutes ago I looked up and watched videos from both shows.  After 45 years, I heard the two versions of the song again.
Red Foley died in 1968.  The Fontane Sisters are dead, too.  I’m not feeling very good myself.  I think I need to wrap this up while I still can.
If you are reading this, I’ve already passed on, and my golem gal has shown up on your doorstep.  I wrote this all out, and instructed her to deliver it to the Israeli consulate in Miami after I died.
I felt that, once I’m gone, she should make aliyah to Israel, where she can be with her people, as it were.
Please be good to her.  Bring Esther to Israel, I’m sure she will be a great morale builder.  Imagine, when people learn the legend of the golem is true!
In fact, give her a gun and a uniform and enlist her in the IDF.  That’ll put the quietus on the terrorists.  If they still want a fight, she can do that, too.  In fact, I’m sure with a little bit of training, she can be the best damn soldier in the Israeli Army. I’ve seen her in action.

-The End-

Art by Shirley Lam:

No comments:

Post a Comment