Patty Seyburn has published five collections of poems: Threshold Delivery (Finishing Line Press, 2019); Perfecta (What Books Press, Glass Table Collective, 2014); Hilarity, (New Issues Press, 2009), Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998). She is a professor at California State University, Long Beach.
Of this beautiful cross-genre piece, Patty says:
“Honi, the Circle-Maker,” explores one person’s struggle with the miraculous. If we are capable of performing a miracle — and that is a big if — is it our responsibility to do so? This work also examines the idea of what a miracle is, not in spiritual terms but on any given day. Honi is a 20th century man living in Detroit. His ancestor was considered a righteous man in the 2nd century, who managed to make rain for the Jewish people during drought by making a circle, stepping inside of it, and refusing to come out until rain was provided. Both Honis want to do the right thing. Both Honis want to be of use. Ancient Honi has more clarity in his tasks, while modern Honi, as is appropriate, is a skeptic. In the intersection between the two Honis, the miraculous is bandied about and tested, leaving the reader to examine their own questions about how we use our gifts.
Honi, the Circle-Maker
Be not simply good – be good for something.
Henry David Thoreau
Do not begin a trip on a Wednesday; consider a Tuesday.
Do not open an umbrella or walk barefoot in the house; it will bring bad luck.
If you whistle in the house, you are probably not Jewish.
If someone breaks a dish or a glass, call out, “Mazel tov!”
Not to mock them – better a broken dish than something worse.
If you drop a knife, you will soon receive male company; a fork will beckon the female,
though you cannot dictate which by electing to drop one or the other.
A klutz is a klutz.
Place a coin in the pocket of a new suit or purse for good luck, and leave it there when
you take off the suit or change purses, as you will still need the luck next time.
When you put on new clothes, say a blessing: Trug es gesindterhait, zereiss es
gesindherhait (wear it in health, tear it in health), of course, referring to the tearing one
does to honor the dead.
If someone gives you a knife, you should give them a coin, so the friendship is not
Worries are easier to bear with soup than without it.
A bird flying into your home is an omen of good luck.
Stepping on an ant or spider will cause it to rain.
Ladybugs are luck.
A Jew should move often; it invites good luck.
If someone dies in your home, move.
If you live in an apartment building, move up, never down – your fortunes will rise.
The night before moving, put a chicken in the house.
The bird will absorb any abandoned ill fortune.
No answer is also an answer.
If you want your dreams to come true, don’t sleep.
Honi was the youngest of 10 children. His father, Morris Louis – Moishe Leyb – died when he was two, so Honi has no memory of him, save the vague knowledge of presence, then absence. Morris was the caretaker at the synagogue: important work. Most of Honi’s siblings lived to see adulthood, which was rare, then. Most of them had two names: their Yiddish name, which they wore at home like a housecoat, and their Anglicized names, which they donned when out in the world. Gradually, the latter took over. Duddy became David, Faygele because Frances. This does not explain why Ethel became Toots. One of her brothers says that Honi could not say Ethel, but the transformation to Toots remains a mystery, and the only speculations are unflattering. Toots was a looker, in her pencil skirts and fashionable millinery. Honi was the only one who maintained one identity. He was born in 1917, in Toronto, not in the previous century, in Romania, like Faygele. It was time for Yiddish names to fade, though his family spoke only Yiddish at home. The undertaker told him that Jews were given two names to trick the Angel of Death. Of course, it backfires in regards to Honi’s mishpachah – everyone dies but Honi, but safe to say this has nothing to do with his lone name. It’s the ticker – their hearts give out. The heart as clock, the clock as heart: time always (forgiveness, please) at the heart of the matter, what matters, mattering.
Honi was born the same year as John F. Kennedy, and Mata Hari was arrested, and the United States halted its search for Pancho Villa, and Tsar Nicolas II of Russia abdicated the throne, and the first of the Cottingley fairies photographs were taken. Then also began the Bolshevik Revolution, and the U.S. declared war on Germany. T.E. Lawrence led Arabian troops in the Battle of Aqaba. Robert Lowell, Man O’ War, Ella Fitzgerald, Theolonious Monk, Lena Horne, and Dizzy Gillespie entered the world. Much later, Honi saw the first horse race to be filmed in its entirety, when Man O’ War raced in Windsor, at the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup. Man O’ War was descended from English Triple Crown winners, and the male line traced back to Godolphin Arabian. It would be nice to posit that Honi was born beneath the seventh star of a gibbous moon in a house with no eaves, but this would romanticize his origins. He was born in Grace Hospital, the first of his siblings not born at home. Will wrote in Twelfth Night: “… Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” The lines part and parcel of the play’s mockery of Malvolio, but they seem to have a parcel of truth. What category houses Honi, thrust into the center of the circle? Honi has little in common with celebrity, be they beneficent or tyrant. Generally, what’s bad for the Tsar is good for the Jews, but it does not always turn out way.
Honi’s Yiddish is not so good. He can mumble, swear, make comments out of the side of his mouth, question judgment and offer cryptic advice, such as a mentsh on glik is a toyter mensh – an unlucky person is a dead person, and a chazer bleibt a chazer – a pig remains a pig. For this, he jokes, he has been kept out of the promised land, or, more specifically, is often in the dark when his siblings are talking. What do they want to keep secret from him? Almost everything. As the youngest, his privilege is to not worry, and theirs is to decide what he should know. Honi’s familiarity with Yiddish, however, gave him the same with German, and when his writing teacher found out, he gave him poets in German to read: Goethe, Rilke. He did not want to read anything in German. He found a translation of Goethe’s poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and stared at the German next to the English. The sorcerer conveniently leaves his workshop, giving the apprentice chores, such as fetching water by pail. The apprentice tries his luck at magic and gives the broom powers. The broom, a being with no soul or brain, runs amuck, and the apprentice cannot stop him. When he splits the broom with an ax, there are two brooms and double the trouble, etcetera. Eventually, the master returns, notes the problem and the damage, breaks the spell and saves the day. Seids geween, den als Geister – Be thou as thou were before! No harm, no foul. Lesson learned: don’t meddle with what you don’t understand.
When Honi was a child, he won a writing contest at Durfee Intermediate School, and his prize was 10 tickets to the United Artists Theater, one of Detroit’s great movie palaces. The auditorium was like a cathedral in the Spanish Gothic style, and said to be acoustically perfect. It seated more than 2000, and at its opening, 1928, Gloria Swanson addressed the audience by telephone, pulling the switch by remote. It housed a three-manual, fifteen-rank Wurlitzer organ, and the outer lobby featured multistory maidens to greet the moviegoers. Honi couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was in a Young Writers’ Club at school. Apparently, the club expected him to take its members. When he took his family, the club ousted him. Honi didn’t mind. Seeing his mother and sisters and brothers in the 8th row, in the darkness that provided respite from the summer heat, made his club’s rejection stingless. It wasn’t until Honi was an adult, explaining the movie to a child, that he realized what Frank L. Baum was doing. Dorothy was the blank slate, and in her journey, she gathered intelligence (the scarecrow), compassion (the tin man), and courage (the cowardly lion). In the process they all gained self-confidence, and surrendered their insecurities, which helped them see through the wizard’s façade and conquer his fear of failure. Honi thought: that is what I need. I need all of those qualities in order to act. How to get them? We have plenty of roads, but none of yellow brick.
The Chippewa Party story is at the corner of Livernois and Chippewa. Detroit’s streets are named for French and English settlers, the Native Americans who proceeded them, scions of business, and numbers. The Chippewa were the same as the Ojibway tribe – they are called the former in the United States, and the latter in Canada; both words come from an Algonquin word meaning “puckered,” which probably refers to their style of moccasin. In their own language, they refer to themselves as Anishinabe, which means “original people.” Sometimes Honi’s friends refer to Jews as “Members of the Tribe,” referring to the 12 tribes of Israel. Honi thinks that Jews and Native Americans should have formed some sort of alliance, but he has met very few members of any tribe not his own in Detroit. In Yiddish, he refers to non-Jews as goyim, which technically means “nations,” of which Jews are not a part, always on the fringe. Jews like fringe. Honi wore tallit at his Bar Mitzvah and kissed the fringe after he touched it to the Torah scroll. On each of the garment’s four corners, four woolen spun fringes are drawn through holes in the holy prayer shawl. The fringes dangle from both sides, becoming eight fringes. They are coiled and knotted in a specific manner. Livernois comes from the name of a French settler, Francois Benoit dit Livernois, though the way Honi pronounces the word, like any Detroiter, does not sound French, in the slightest. Instead, it rhymes with “annoy.” Not “annoys.”
Honi appreciated his geometry teacher, who had the same name as his mother. He loved the way geometry worked: proving, in two columns, that something was true. He liked the difference between postulates and theorems: one you think; the other, you know. He liked the idea of being part of that journey, of making an idea true, and showing the world through steps, of logic zigzagging down the page. He liked the language: angles, acute, right and obtuse. Congruency. Parallel lines that never met. Ever. He was unsure about that. Wouldn’t they tire of their solitary goal, eventually turning toward or away from each other? He believed in the agency of lines, but did not tell his teacher. She believed in the teaching of the Workmen’s Circle, a popular Jewish organization that promoted social and economic justice. They were pro-labor advocates of Yiddish language and culture. Were they Socialists? They had leanings. Honi would have wanted to meet Euclid and Pythagoras. The latter believed the numbers had colors and sounds attached. He was killed by angry mob. He said, “Do not go to bed until you have gone over the day three times in your mind.” Was he sane? He heard and saw what wasn’t there. It is easy to romanticize his gifts, but, of course, we do not have to live with him and his disciples. His best thoughts distilled into a theorem, and the rest entertain us. The “Harmony of the Spheres” – the Sun, Moon and Planets each hum, and life on Earth responds to music we can’t hear.
At the temple that Honi attends, a large neo-classical dome contains the sanctuary, or vice versa. (“In turned position.” Why did this 17th century Latin become so prevalent?) When Honi starts to drift off, his mother pinches his leg. He plays piano on his lap: usually Bach Invention No. 8, in which the left hand repeats the pattern established by the right, one measure later. He counts the concentric circles of light that create the dome, diminishing in number as the circles grow smaller. He must torque his head to count those behind him, and sometimes catches the eye of someone in the row behind. He thumbs through the prayer-book to the sections that contain the readings that sound more like conversation. As a child, he often sits in the choir-loft, and watches the organist manipulate the rows of keys and pipes. His least favorite song is “Etz Chaim” – the Tree of Life, though he was fond of trees. It seems a dirge. His favorite is “Lo Ira”: “I fear not the multitudes that have set themselves against me round about.” Being surrounded. Sometimes the choir, led by Mrs. Greenberg, divides it in two parts and performs it in a round. The tune, upbeat. He likes the cadences of the V’ahavta: with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy might. He likes saying “thy.” He never says “thy” outside of this place, which is dark even with all the lights, and the lights impose their will on the marble structure, the deep velvet chairs. Even the air seems to resist. Honi does not mind. The mind resists, too, but serves.
Honi discovered his gift on the playground at Durfee. At the curve of Collingwood at Lasalle, on the west side where working-class Jews from Eastern Europe had moved. They were playing Duck, Duck, Goose. He was quick at rising, once tapped, good at running the circle and sliding into place. The other game was Monkey in the Middle. Someone would find a small ball and the only people who enjoyed the middle were tall or intimidating enough to approach the thrower, who flubbed the throw. Honi was not tall, but made good throws, high and over or around the edges. Still, one day, he found himself in the middle, and could not find his way out. He leaped at his friends, to no avail. They lofted the ball over and he laughed, because that was expected. If you got mad, the other kids would become annoyed with you. Take your turn. Endure. The game started when recess began, and threatened to last the entire 20 minutes, if other events did not occur. They did. The sky, a clear, robin’s egg blue, began to take on a gray film, as though the eye doctor decided to drop a different colored lens in front of his patient, to see if the letters could still be identified. Pale grey darkened and a drizzle covered the playground, at first barely visible, then becoming steady sheets of rain. Honi squinted into the sky, and saw pale blue in the distance. He ran from the circle toward to where the kids were crowding beneath the building’s eaves. Out of nowhere, someone said.
Honi did not know what to want. Is it spiritually vulgar to want a miracle? To think that you can dictate divine policy? What if he made the wrong request? What if his request was short-sighted, and it backfired? God created consequence on the first day, and perfidy soon after. Honi thought of stories of genies, and how the protagonists always had to waste their third wish asking for their initial wishes to be undone. They were for money or fame, though, Honi thought. I don’t want money or fame. Wouldn’t God be wise enough to prevail upon me to ask for something worthwhile? Wouldn’t God prevent me from making a foolish request? Honi not only walked in circles, he talked in circles. Sometimes he talked while walking in circles. He craved linearity, but in high school at Central High, he learned to run circles – really, ovals. He begged to run distance but was denied: you don’t have the lungs, coach said. You’re a jack-rabbit. Instead, he assigned Honi the 200 and, grudgingly, the 800. Half of one circle, and two circles. The 200 was over too soon; the 800 couldn’t end soon enough. His track coach yelled at the boys. Jesse Owens ran the 100 in 9.4 seconds, chased by Nazis! The boys tried, but felt lucky to be in Detroit, without the Nazis at their heels. Almost all had family back in Germany, Austria, Poland, Russia. When coach made those remarks, it made Honi want to kiss the dirt of the track.
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois opened for lunch. It was dark inside and if not cool, not sunny. Honi sat down in a booth with red banquettes. He looked over at the bar, its many types of glasses. Various tumblers — Collins, highball, old-fashioned, shot, whiskey and table – steins and pints, champagne flutes and coups, whiskey and fountain glasses, stemware for Bordeaux or claret, burgundy, white wine, for sherbet and ice cream, fountain glasses, sherry glasses, and snifters. Any would suffice, so long as it contained something cold. Honi ordered a beer. The waitress looked at him and said, “I’ll give you a ginger ale.” Piled on her head, her dark hair curled in sweat around her ears. “What can you do?” she said to no one. The year he turned 16, Honi got in trouble at school. The Kerman kid from the apartment building on the 3rd floor was running behind him when they ran laps at track. He tripped Honi, and Honi tripped the kid to his left, who got up and punched him hard in the neck so he couldn’t talk, which earned him extra laps after practice. His shirt drenched in sweat. His coach said that was a good thing, self-ventilating. Honi ran and glanced into the sky. A little rain wouldn’t hurt, he said, a little rain wouldn’t hurt. To keep him going, he chanted it over and over – how many times? And then – how about that? A little rain. Not too much, but enough to cool his forehead, sweep down his neck, enough to make him think: did I just ask for rain, and did it actually rain? He ran home.
Ink dries quickly; tears don’t.
Don’t ask questions about fairy tales.
The prayer ascends and the blessing descends.
No choice is also a choice.
Nine rabbis cannot make a minyan but ten shoemakers can.
For compassion and for cowardice there is no remedy.
An example is not proof.
On moving in, bring salt, bread, honey, wine or whiskey, and, of course,
Carry a prayer-book, preferably issued by the Jewish Welfare Board, over your heart.
Three sneezes should be followed by a pull on the left ear.
If one sneezes when the name of the deceased is mentioned, pull on the right ear.
Do not sneeze on the truth.
To expel a foreign body from the eye, pull down on the eyelid and spit.
Or pull on the eyelid and hop on the left leg.
If you slip while hopping, apply a cold knife blade, held flat, against the point of
For a nosebleed, apply the flat blade above the bridge of the nose.
If your head hurts, apply a raw slice potato to the forehead and tie it in place with a
When your daughter starts to menstruate, gently pinch or cheek; then kiss her.
When pregnant, eat squab.
Borrow causes sorrow.
Attend concerts, art museums and the ballet.
During a lightning storm, place a glass of water on the windowsill to ward off the
A child should never be fully dressed in black.
A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up.
Do not take a shortcut through the synagogue.
The dream is a fool and sleep is the master.
Honi drew car doors and windows for a living – what he used to call “the most important parts” for Ford’s Motor Company, before it went public and dropped the apostrophe. The drawings are very precise, different for front doors and rear doors, the interior and the exterior of the door, and numerous mechanisms: locks and latches, brakes and stays. The drawings for each car, unique, and for each year, with major to minor changes. Conventional doors hinge at the front-facing edge, so the door can swing outward from the body of the car. Suicide doors – also called “kidnapper doors” – hinge on the trailing edge. Scissor doors rotate vertically upward, and are hinged at or near the end of the windshield. You usually find them on Lamborghinis. Butterfly doors are like scissor doors, but the butterfly doors also move outwards. They can be found on some Alfa Romeos, McLarens, Benzes, and other hide-end vehicles. Gull-wing doors hinge on the uppermost edge, at the roof rather than the side. Honi met John DeLorean when they were both working at Pontiac in the ‘60s. He was a nice guy. He’d stop and play a few games of poker with the draftsmen sometimes at lunch, looking more stylish than most men in their short-sleeve white collar shirts, but throwing in some cash, nonetheless. Honi only ever drew conventional doors, but would not have minded seeing how a scissor door might have worked on a sedan. He had a friend with an Alfa Romeo. It was a good-looking piece of junk.
Honi, on the anniversary of deaths, walks around Machpelah Cemetery at 8 Mile Road and Woodward, named for where Sarah was buried. Every significant Jewish community in the United States has a Machpelah. Honi always parks in the long, round drive, finds the middle path and walks straight back, to almost the back fence, where his brother and wife are buried, where his parents, where his aunts and uncles, where others with the same names as his aunts and uncles, are buried. He picks up small stones on the way, knowing they will be waiting for him. The undertaker explained: ancient altars, where we sacrificed to God, were piles of stones. The most sacred place for modern Jews, the Wailing Wall, is a piles of stones. Superstitions suggest that placing stones helps keep the souls in their place, creating a barrier between the dead and the living. Stones last longer than flowers, and you can find a stone in winter. In ancient times, a shepherd would remember the number in his flock by keeping pebbles in his sling. Perhaps the stone we leave asks God to remember the dead, to keep them in his count. And, in practical terms, in ancient times, a grave looked like an altar or cairn, marked with a pile of stones. But sometimes a storm or vandal would move the stones, making the grave hard to find. Putting stones on the site kept the grave from disappearing. Kept memory from disappearing. Honi puts stones on the graves of those next to his family, as well, just in case.
Honi wants to visit the grave of his brother, Alter, who died of scarlet fever at seven years old. Alter was so named because another brother had died soon after childbirth, and the name, which means “Old Man,” tells God that this child should live to old age. An amuletic name that did not work. Honi remembers his mother, her body thrown over the casket, and how his grandmother had to pry her from it. After that, her smiles were sparing, and though another child could please her, there was no complete happiness. Honi wanted to visit Alter’s grave, but he was not buried with the rest of his family. They were poorer then, and this cemetery was farther away, on 14 Mile and Gratiot. Still, it was a proper burial, and when Honi found a little money, he fulfilled his mother’s wishes: put perpetual care on the grave, so it was never overgrown, and there were always, during spring and summer, flowers. Cheap flowers – geraniums, he thought – but pretty enough. The stone was old-style: a circular pillar, with his brother’s Hebrew name and dates engraved upon it. Honi thought about how difficult that must have been for the stone-cutter and engraver. He could not imagine worse jobs. Honi tried to remember the cemetery name his mother wrote in her wobbly handwriting on the inside cover of a notebook that housed all of her important information: where her parents were buried, the names and dates of small insurance policies, her social security number.
Honi has a license to drive people home from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Metro is located in Romulus, a city name Honi liked, borrowed from/lent by/given to Rome – Romulus one of the twins borne to Rhea Silvia and either Mars or Hercules. (Paternity often suspect.) The twins placed in a river basket on the River Tiber, not unlike baby Moses. Honi likes to drive, and has a 2008 Mercury Towncar that is big enough for small families. He usually ends up passing, on I-94 going East, the giant Uniroyal Tire. Though people are often on their phones, and rarely looking out the window on a freeway, he explains it. The Giant Tire began as an exhibit at the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair at the U.S. Rubber Pavilion – the precursor to Uniroyal. It is eight stories high, 80 feet high and weighs 12 tons. The tread is half a foot deep. Designed by the architects of the Empire State Building, it was used as a Ferris wheel, with 24 barrel-shaped gondolas, each of which could carry four people. They rotated around the tire, powered by a 100-horsepower motor. Each ride cost 25 cents and lasted about 10 minutes. At the end of the fair, the tire was shipped by rail in 188 sections to Detroit, where it took four months to reassemble. It was anchored in concrete and steel outside the company’s Allen Park sales office. In 1994, the company added neon lighting and a new hubcap, and to demonstrate its new technology, the self-sealing passenger tire, the company added a giant nail protruding from the tread.
Honi feels the need to point out the many firsts achieved by Michiganders, particularly in relation to transportation. Honi feels that part of Detroit’s problem is its obsession with journey, and destination, which renders process moot or impotent, and creates, in short: want, want, want. If you always want to get there, why linger here? Why bother with en route? En route is simply a vehicle, and however attractive the vehicle may be, as in the case of metaphor, in which the subject is the tenor to which attributes are ascribed, and the vehicle is the object whose attributes are borrowed. The world is compared to a stage, which Honi’s mother loved to recite, and she would laugh until tears when she reached the part about the infant “mewling and puking” in its mother’s arms. Metaphor comes from Old French, which makes it a word that belongs in Detroit, and before that from the Latin (Honi’s brother used to chant, “Latin is a language/as dead as dead can be/it killed the ancient Romans/and now it’s killing me”), and before that, the Greek – to transfer, carry over. What did Michiganders initiate, concerning the roads? The first mile of concrete pavement, on Woodward Avenue. The nation’s first centerline separating streams of opposing traffic. The crow’s nest: a forerunner to the modern-day traffic circle. The first synchronized traffic circle, replacing the crow’s nest. The first snowplow. Passing zone signs. The first border-to-border interstate highway. The first modern, depressed urban freeway.
Honi thinks of Andrew Marvell and “time’s winged chariot” in that poem where he tries to convince his girlfriend to have sex with him. He remembers his high school English class and how his teacher tried to convince her students that poetry is written by real people about real concerns. Honi wasn’t sure that was true. “And you should, if you please, refuse/till the conversion of the Jews.” He wasn’t too sure about Marvell. Honi thinks of Apollo. Apollo harnessed four horses to his chariot and daily drove the sun across the sky. Honi thinks of Ezekiel. His chariot was complicated, mystical. Merkabah came from the root word to ride, but referred to this remarkable chariot and all the wisdom surrounding it. The base structure of the chariot was composed of living creatures, the bodies like those of human beings, but each with four faces: that of a man, a lion, an ox (later, a cherub) and an eagle, corresponding to the four directions the chariot can go. Each angel has four wings, two of which reach across the chariot to connect with one another, creating a box of wings. The remaining wings cover the angels’ bodies. Then there are wheel angels, which are not directly underneath, but are around the vehicle’s perimeter. Finally, there are angels that appear as flashes of fire, powering the chariot. In the hierarchy, they are the most powerful. The movement of all is controlled by the “Likeness of a Man” that sits on a throne, mid-chariot, made of sapphire.
Honi wants, has always wanted, a Wednesday car. Johnny Cash wrote a song that made the Wednesday car famous, or, at least, added a dose of pop culture to Detroit urban legend and lore. Honi knows they exist, or he thinks he knows they exist, and most people can survive on suspicion and hope. Wednesday was the best day for a car to come off the assembly line. Mid-week, everyone (almost everyone) was sufficiently sober, and not yet in a state of longing for the weekend. Monday and Tuesday: recovery from the weekend. His uncle worked on the assembly line at Ford Highland Park, where Model Ts were built after the Piquette plant was no longer big enough. They turned out one Model T every 24 seconds. Honi’s uncle Solly confirmed the existence of the Wednesday car, and Solly was usually right. Honi’s boss at the Rouge plant, where he made safety glass for windshields, had a friend who swore by Wednesday cars. Sometimes at breaks they smoked and he would talk about the final stage of the assembly. You needed to know where to look for the markings. They don’t look any different, he said. But when you buy one, you know. The road likes them more. When you shift, it’s as though the engine is listening to you. The wheel never fights you. The tires don’t wear out. The nursery rhyme that says “Wednesday’s child is full of woe” dates back to the 16th century. Apparently, a midweek delivery is better for machine than infant. Wednesday: the fifth day of creation, if we do the math.
Honi can solve a math problem correctly with shortcuts. Honi can transform a pound of ground beef into hamburgers, using a large cleaver and a larger wooden bowl, adding an egg, some matzah meal, salt and pepper, and a little onion powder, then turning the meat over a few times, not overkneading before he makes the burgers into patties. Honi can play ping-pong, slicing the ball over the net by a narrow margin, launching ace after ace until the swerve switches, five points later. Honi can fix the latch on the kitchen door so its clicks shut decisively. Honi can try to grow carrots in the reticent dirt next to the garage, though perhaps due to the fumes, the yield is always anemic: slim orange sticks. Honi can negotiate with raccoons in the garage, and climb a ladder to sit on the peaked roof of the house while he and his friends paint the maroon and white stripes. Honi can fry chickpeas in a pan and make them taste like candy. Honi can mow and hedge the lawn until a sharp edge exists between grass and sidewalk. He can make fried noodles for dinner, egg noodles mixed with egg and made into a pancake limned with butter; Honi can cook liver and onions. Honi can smoke unfiltered cigarettes on the porch and the smoke curls make serifs that look like ancient letters before they dissipate into the dusk. Honi can tie all the knots necessary to be a scoutmaster. Honi can manipulate a compass and protractor with ease. Can Honi make rain? Honi can wonder what he might have done, or done wrong.
A movie called “The Rainmaker” starred Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn. Burt was a con-man, a grifter. Honi did not feel it a good role for Kate – too vulnerable. For some reason, Lancaster needs Hepburn to believe in him, though his scam does not require her endorsement to succeed. He ends up being in the vicinity when actual rain occurs, but it has nothing to do with his antics. It was a better play. Honi did not feel the script depicted his own talents well, particularly because the central character was a fraud who ends up winning over the (albeit aging, lonely) ingénue. This bears no resemblance to Honi’s life, and there are no circles involved. The crux of the movie is the relief of emotional dry-spells, of being open to love, and learning to be vulnerable. These are valuable lessons, but have little to do with Honi. Sometimes Honi gets Burt Lancaster’s character, Bill Starbuck, mixed up with Professor Harold Hill (played by Robert Preston) of “The Music Man.” Starbuck conned some draught-ridden Kansas town, and Hill pretends to be s a boys’ band-leader in rural Iowa. Both manage to extract money and hearts – in Hill’s case, that of Marian the Librarian, played by Shirley Jones, who sings like an angel. Lancaster is sexier and more sinister, but ultimately sincere. Preston is a flim-flam man, while extremely handsome, charming, persuasive – and ultimately, sincere. Both make promises they can’t keep, and both end up staying. Honi does not promise anything.
Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow, Grow.
The sun sets without your assistance.
You can’t empty the ocean with a spoon.
If everyone pulled in one direction, the world would tip over.
A guest is like rain.
Run away from rain and you get hail.
As my fathers planted for me, so do I plant for my children.
A man can die quickly if he has nothing to do.
Fire was not created during the six days, but at the conclusion of the Sabbath, God gave
Adam the good sense to rub two stones together.
How many miracles does God perform for man of which man does not know?
If a miracle has served him once, he must not depend upon a similar rescue
a second time.
All wept, and the rain came down.
Tears break through the gates and doors of heaven.
The rain descends from above, but is born below.
Three voices gladden the heart: the voice of the Torah, the voice of rain,
and the voice of coins.
It’s a good idea to send a lazy man for the Angel of Death.
If you live long enough, you will live to see everything.
A man should stay alive if only out of curiosity.
When the heart is full, it runs out of the eyes.
The fingers must be education; the thumb is born knowing.
Mysteries are not necessarily miracles.
The optimist invents the aeroplane; the pessimist, the parachute.
The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them
without doing anything.
It may not be automatic monotony that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes
every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them.
When telling a story, if you accept your Romantic legacy, use a framing device. Coleridge’s wedding guest is doomed to repeat the tale to whoever will listen.
Robert Walton, the explorer Mary Shelley invents as the vessel for “Frankenstein,” begins and ends the story. He distinguishes himself from the Mariner, however, in his second letter to his sister, Mrs. Saville: “I am going to unexplored regions, to ‘the land of mist and snow,’ but I shall kill no albatross; therefore do not be alarmed for my safety or if I should come back to you as worn and woeful as the Ancient Mariner.” Honi is his own frame. He is the boundary around his own story. He inherits and propagates his story. He walks to create the line in the sand he drew for God when delivering his first ultimatum. He is doomed to keep redrawing the line and keep stepping inside of it, addressing the firmament: I will not leave until You provide. Does God want Honi to leave? Of course not. This is God’s way of keeping Honi where he needs him: devoted. In his way, devout. It is good to have the agent of a miracle on hand, in case of an emergency. If you could make a miracle, would you not feel it your responsibility to do so? At whose behest? Would you choose the time and place, or wait for a sign? What if you miss the sign? Detroit is a city of signage, disasters and miracles. It is easy to read signs, though you must choose to accept them as having meaning. It is easy to witness and participate in disasters. Neither of these requires the belief that miracles demand.
Rain: acoustic camouflage. The maximum speed of rain is 18 to 22 miles per hour. Rain is measured in units of length per time, in millimeters per hour. In Botswana, the Setswana word for rain, pula, is the same word as the national currency. Diamonds rain on Jupiter and Saturn. On Venus, rain is made of sulfuric acid or methane. Farther away, made of iron. The sound of rain hitting the earth (pitter-patter) is produced by air bubbles under the water. An inch of rain on an acre of land weighs 226,000 pounds. After a rainfall, you smell petrichor. Raindrops range in size from 0.1 to 9 millimeters, though the largest recorded were over Brazil and the Marshall Islands in 2004, some as large as .39 inches. Small drops are spherical. Larger drops become flattened at the polls and larger at the bottom; the very large parachute down from the heavens. They do not, do not, resemble tears. Honi spoke directly to God: Why, since rain falls in dotted lines, would you have me make circles? It would make more sense if I walked back and forth in a line, or if rain fell, at the very least, in arcs? God: Gravity draws rain to the earth and lines are the fastest path. Honi: did you not create gravity? God: yes. What about it? Honi: so why do I draw circles? God: rainfall is equivalent to the revival of the dead. The fish are also blessed. From earth to heaven is a journey of five hundred years, and yet when the rains fall, not one drop is intermingled with another. Rain falls on account of your merit. (Midrash Rabbah)
Honi stared into his ginger ale, unwilling to meet the waitress’s eye. In 50 days, 300 people had died, and the weathermen couldn’t predict an ending. Honi fished change from his pocket, and walked outside. The streets, a grid, unless you went down to Grand Circus Park. That was half a circle, divided by Woodward Avenue, but it was damn big. Wasn’t there a circular fountain inside? Weren’t there two? Would that do? If he could get to them fountain, if they weren’t jammed with people. Honi jumped on the streetcar doing down Woodward, which seemed to move as slowly as possible, about to surrender to its own mechanical heatstroke, and walked East, toward the fountain closest to the river. He walked around the edge of the plaza, his footprints making partial imprints from the water dripping from bodies exiting the fountain. He walked slowly, conserving his energy, trying to figure out what he was doing. About half-way around he tried to gaze up. There had been a gesture of cloud for days, but now the sky seemed empty of promise. He looked up, shading his eyes with his hand. This will not do, God. He completed his circle. God, I will not move from this circle until You send rain. And he did his best to gaze at the sun, knowing that God was not in the sun. But where was he? Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice.
Whether you believe everything happens for a reason, versus everything happens for no reason, or nothing happens for many or all reasons, does not change past, present or future. Honi circles the city. Sweat punctuates his upper lip, the nape of his neck, his “popliteal fossa” – the back of his knees. He does not worry about where one circle begins or ends. To make the rain took a great deal of arguing, or prayer, depending on how you define them. A drizzle would be nice, and anyway, Honi is confident is no longer has a flood within him. He is not young, again. Honi the Circle-Maker takes a long, slow walk around his hub-and-spoke city. Perhaps it is a miracle that no one bothers him. Indeed, no one seems to see him. He makes his way around the five acres of Grand Circus Park, bounded by Clifford, John. R. and Adams Streets. He gestures toward Mackinaw Island (which is only nine miles, and a lovely bikeride). He nods to the Bob-Lo boats, now out of commission, and to Belle Isle, which remains paradise. He keeps a few cheese crackers in his pockets for the ducks in Palmer Park. Before he sleeps each night, he makes his requests in a dream, as did Rabbi Leyb. His answers are not alphabetic, but are geometric. When it rains, he knows that whatever chits he has used up, God treats him like a favorite child, and he still has something left. Will Honi try to make rain again? No, because this is no longer a time of miracles. Yes, for the same reason.
How many times, in his lifetime, should Honi be allowed to make a circle as part of a petition? Is it misguided for him to ask for a miracle, even once? Let us refer to Dante, an expert in circles. If Honi could linger in limbo, with the virtuous non-Christians and unbaptized pagans, that would be best. He would still live in a castle, albeit an inferior castle, and get to know other compelling fellows: Homer, Socrates, Aristotle, Hippocrates. Ovid and Orpheus. Of all people, Euclid, for defining the very shape of the landscape. There are several great Islamic philosophers, and notable Jews: Noah, Moses, David and Abraham. And during the “harrowing of hell,” when Christ comes and rescues – raids? – the party, and brings those deemed redeemable back to heaven – the Jews go with him. If Honi continues his trips, however, he may drop another level and end up with the beauties and lovers: Dido, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Tristan (without Isolde), Lancelot, Guinevere, and Lancelot’s friend, Gallehaut. He would learn a great deal about human nature, mostly outside of his ken. After that, from the third circle (they are concentric) on down, criminals and reprobates populate the premises, and Honi would be egregiously out of place, though the ruins of Detroit – the old United Artists Theater, designed to represent the beauty of thought – looks like hell to Honi. “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate – Abandon all hope, ye who enter,” inscribed at the gates of hell. That is something Honi cannot do.
1947 was the year of the Michigan Flood, considered a once-in-50-year event. As usual, disparate events compliant: vestiges of the previous month’s snow, abundant rain, frozen ground. Sepia photo of the cow abandoned on the porch, and testimonials of refrigerators and washing machines flowing over the Flint River Bridge. The appliances came from the inventory of the Winegarden Furniture Company. Grand Blanc residents could not get to church on Easter Sunday, and spoke of needing an ark. There were rowboat rescues, and Fords ferrying residents away from the surging torrents. The water did not seem angry, but in a rush, in a hurry to get somewhere, as it jerry-rigged paths around buildings, through alleys, democratizing boulevards, avenue and street. Prior to the great torrent, no one thought that inclement weather would have much affect on their structures, their possessions, their day-to-day-life. Their exchanges with nature were pleasant. Honi, at the moments at dusk when the quality of light makes it impossible to lie, accepts partial blame for many things, but not that flood. Partial because he knows that God is the senior partner, as in a firm with a glass-walled corner office. He does not accept blame for tornadoes (rare), earthquakes (never), tsunami (never) and volcanic explosions (never). He feels a little guilt about fires, though it takes a great deal of rain to address them. And every torrent or droplet cannot be his fault. They come unbidden.
The car’s mirrors offer function: safety. The central, rearview mirror provides the greatest range of vision. Mounted in the cabin, affixed to the top of the windshield on a double-swivel mount, it can be adjusted to accommodate the height and viewing angle of the driver. Side-view mirrors (wing mirrors, fender mirrors) differ. The left-hand is planar: accurate. The passenger-side mirror is convex, or spherical: the trickster. Everything is actually closer than it appears – and you are told that on each mirror. How much closer? None of the mirrors have solved the problem of the blind spot. We all have blind spots. They are dangerous, whether a car driving close behind to your right or left, so that you cannot see them, or a person or issue that you cannot assess honestly, and therefore, refuse to realize is harmful. There are also vanity mirrors, one or two in each car, in which you can put on your face, check your smile or hair, practice an expression. On July in 1968, Honi drives away from Darby’s, “Detroit’s Finest Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge,” which is on fire, the firefighters’ furious hoses, powerless. Honi sees less fire and more smoke, in the rearview mirror, as well as those at left hand, and at his right. Operated by a Boesky. It will not be rebuilt. There are numerous possibilities as to why Darby’s burned. The most probable: a grease fire. Another option: arson. An inside job? Payback? Who knows. The case closed before it opened.
If you must leave Detroit, you may as well go to Canada, and the way to do so is via the Ambassador Bridge or the Windsor tunnel. Honi prefers the bridge. Each time you enter the tunnel, you entertain the possibility of infinitude. You cannot see out the other end for several minutes, and during those minutes, you must accept the possibility that, this time, there is no end, that the tunnel took a wrong turn and continues to wend beneath the Detroit River, and will pour you out when it is good and ready. Each time you choose the bridge, you welcome the vision of city on three sides, though you must look ahead. Honi would rather see the sky, given an option. He does not like to be enclosed. Takes the stairs. He didn’t like the bars, always so dim. Even the shadows had shadows, his friends would say. Honi prefers the elements, knows the names of trees, flowers, birds. Robins, widgeons, chickadees, finches. In summer, orioles, sparrows, grackles, great blue herons. Barn owls, Barred Owls, Great Horned Owls. Blue Jays. His favorite: the Common Loon, which he only saw once, on a trip to the Upper Peninsula. Honi admires its ability to dive 200 feet underwater to win its prey. He likes the name – just an average crazy. And he likes its call, an eerie tremolo that starts on one note, rises maybe a fifth than resolves at its origin. It sounds foreboding. It sounds melancholy. He cuts a cane of blue lilacs from the backyard shrub. These are called Firmament. Planted by the previous owner.
Gold’s atomic number is 79. It is a malleable, ductile metal, and can be dissolved by nitro-hydrochloric acid, by alkaline solutions of cyanide, in mercury. It is insoluble in nitric acid, which dissolves silver and base metals. Testing to find gold in alloys brought about the term, acid test. The gold standard is no longer monetary policy, as the United States moved to fiat currency in the early 1930s. Fiat is from the Latin, “let it be done” or “it shall be.” Switzerland was the last country to tie its currency to gold. You can still acquire gold in the form of bullion coins or bars. Gold leaf, flake or dust is used on some gourmet foods, often as a decorative ingredient. It has no taste or nutritional value. Once, a rabbi offered Honi gold to make it rain. It was May, and not particularly hot. Why do you think I can do this? Honi asked him. Because you are Honi, the rabbi said. I want to see if it is true. Honi questioned the morality of the request. He could understand the curiosity. What would the rabbi do if Honi could get the heavens to cooperate? I am not that Honi, he said. The rabbi held the gold coin in his hand. I should not have asked, he said. He gave Honi the coin. For the poor, he said. Where did you get it? Honi wanted to ask, but he did not want to challenge the rabbi. Honi did not give the coin to the poor he did not know. He gave it to his mother, who put it in a small packet she wore around her neck, beneath her dress, as women had no pockets, then. To bury me, she said.
The Hebrew word for miracle is nes, which refers to something raised up or elevated.
A flagpole with a flag is also a nes.
A miracle elevates body and soul.
A partial list of 78 miracles reported in the Hebrew bible includes: creation.
Confusion of languages.
Sinful cities destroyed.
Supernatural death (Lot’s wife turned to salt.)
Supernatural conception (Isaac) and elderly nursing mother.
Plagues: water to blood, frogs, lice, flies, dying cows, boils and blains, hail with fire and
thunder, locusts, localized deep darkness, death of the first-born.
Aaron’s rod becomes a snake.
Sea of Reeds divided.
Bitter waters sweetened.
Manna and quail from heavens.
Nadab and Abihu consumed for “strange fire.”
Complainers consumed by fire.
Earth opens and swallows Korah.
Aaron’s rod brought forth buds and blossoms.
Water from the rock.
Brazen serpent heals wounds inflicted by fiery serpent(s).
Balaam’s donkey speaks.
Thunderstorm causes Philistines to panic.
Drought in response to Elijah.
Supernatural fire in response to Elijah.
Rain is response to Elijah.
Ravens deliver food to Elijah.
Elijah carried up to heaven in a chariot.
Death by bears of 42 young men mocking Elisha.
Poison reversed at Gilgal.
Multiplied loves and ears of corn at Gilgal.
Naaman healed of leprosy, Gehazi instantly afflicted.
Elisha’s bones revive the dead.
Daniel survives lion’s den.
Mysterious writing on wall.
Gideon’s fleece: wet when it shouldn’t be, dry when it shouldn’t be.
There was a drought in the month of Adar. The people sent for Honi the Circle-Maker. He prayed, to no avail. He drew a circle in the dust, and stood in the middle. God, I will not move from this circle until You send rain! A few drops hit the hot stones and hissed. This doesn’t qualify as rain, the people complained. We cannot release you from your vow. Honi gazed at the heavens: Not for this drizzle did I ask, but for enough rain to fill wells, cisterns, and ditches! That seemed specific enough, so God granted to Honi abundant rain: in buckets, in ladles, until cisterns and ditches overflowed. The people fled to the Temple mount. Honi! They cried, We did not ask for another Great Flood! Honi replied: I was glad to ask God to end your misery, but how can I ask for an end to your blessing? They continued to lament until he prayed for the rain to stop. He instructed to bring an offering of thanksgiving, and they did. Honi told God: this people You brought of Egypt can take neither too much evil nor too much good. Please give them what they ask so that they may be happy. God sent a strong wind to push the rains away, and the people gathered mushrooms and truffles on the Temple Mount. The head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem chided Honi: I should excommunicate you for your audacity, but how can I, since you’re Honi! God coddles you as a father does his young child. The child says: ‘Hold me, Daddy, and bathe me, and give me poppyseeds and peaches and pomegranates, hazelnuts and almonds,’ and his father gives him whatever he wants.’ So it was with Honi the Circle-Maker.
Details, details. Ancient Honi was concerned about the portable clay Passover ovens, which could become damaged by rain. Everyone knew that preparing these ovens, special for roasting the Passover ovens, took months. So when the people told Honi to petition God for rain, he told them: bring in the ovens. The rest of the story we know: he asks. God answers, one might say stingily (drops). Honi asks again. God answers, one might say, with a blunt instrument (deluge). Honi says, nicely but firmly, let me make this clear: “rain of benevolence, bounty and blessing.” Then, a normal rain, which eventually drove the people from Jerusalem to the Temple, to seek shelter. They tell him: make it stop. He says: “Go see if the stone of claimers (where losers and finders would call out regarding lost objects, as it was very tall) has been covered.” The implication: if it has not, I am not asking for cessation. At this point, Shimon ben Shatach chides Honi for his abundant intervention and incessant requests, but then Mishnah moves on to weigh in on whether, on a fast day, how the rain affects the fast. If it began to rain before noon, no. After noon, yes. Honi, at this point, is in the clear. By the way, the Shofar is sounded for any community calamity, with some exceptions, including: the overabundance of rain that may cause inconvenience but not damage. If it causes damage, sound the Shofars. Honi, by tending to the ovens, prevented that. The Shofars needed to be, and were, very loud.
Ancient Honi forced God’s hand. He pressed God to cancel the drought, which Israel must have deserved on account of their sins (ignoring reality, short-sightedness). He repeatedly changed his request, implying that God did not understand what he wanted (insulting). He took God’s name in vain by vowing not to step out of the circle, which would have been a vain oath, either way, whether rain had fallen or not – if rain had not come, Honi’s oath would have been in vain, and God would have been dishonored (disingenuous). The rabbis also asked Honi’s grandson to petition for rain, poor guy. They found at work in the fields, and greeted him, but he did not respond. They followed him around all day, and followed him home. He told his wife: I know these two have come to ask me to pray for rain. Let’s go up to the roof before they say thing, and petition for mercy. Perhaps the Blessed Holy One will be appeased and bring rain, but we can avoid taking credit for it. They ascended to the roof and stood on opposite corners. Rainclouds began to form first on the side where she stood. When they descended, the grandson told the rabbis: Blessed is God who caused you not to need my prayer! They were not fooled. They asked: why did the rain form on your wife’s side? He told them: because she stays at home, and when the poor come around, she gives them bread, which helps them immediately. When they come to me at work, I give them money, so they have to make a purchase, and the help is delayed.
Another story of ancient story, from a different source: this by Josephus the historian. Josephus was skeptical of miracle-workers, calling them deceivers and enchanters. Josephus, a rationalist, a man ahead of his time. Onias, however, he called “righteous” and “beloved of God” (theophilis). Around 65 BCE, Aretas made an assault upon the Temple, besieged Aristobulus, within. The people joined Hyrcanus and assisted the siege. No one but priests supported Aristobulus. Aretas united the forces of Arabs and Jews, with vigor. All this at the time of Passover. Onias, who had once successfully prayed for rain and its retraction, had hidden. He did not wish to be pressed into service. Aretas and his supporters wanted Onias to call curses down on Aristobulus and his men. Onias did not mind making rain, but did not favor curses. Onias refused, and his refusal was refused. His prayer was purposely confused: “O God, king of the whole world! Since those that stand now with me are your people, and those that are besieged are also your priests, I beseech you, that you will neither hear the prayers of those others against these men, nor to bring about what is asked by these men against those others.” It was a complicated petition, a savvy petition, which won him enemies. Whereby he was stoned to death. God did not intervene, but did punish the barbarity and sent a vehement storm of wind that destroyed all the crops, every last one, of the country.
Ancient Honi decides to take a walk in the forest. Genesis says that every tree is pleasing, and Honi tends to agree. He comes upon an elderly man, planting a carob tree. He likes the carob. A little sweet, not too sweet. The pod, a legume that takes a full year to ripen. Lush leaves. The tree can be used as hedge, protector, privacy and, of course, shade. The man says he plants because his grandfather planted for him. People are sentimental, thinks Honi, who grows tired from walking and thinking. He reclines in a piece of shade. Honi is, apparently, very tired, as he sleeps for 70 years, and awakens to find a young man gathering fruit near a bounteous tree and some strange rocks. The young man tells him, my grandfather planted this tree. Honi tells him who he is, but the young man does not believe him. At the house of study, no one believes him. Honi does not adapt well, realizing that he is a man out of his time. He prays for mercy, synonymous, here, with death. He dies. The other possibility: this was all a dream, like in “The Wizard of Oz.” Apparently, Honi had been worried about Psalm 126:1, which says when the people of Israel returned from 70 years of exile in Babylonia, they realized they were like dreamers, not truly living. He wondered if a dream could continue for 70 years. Now he knew: either the dream lasted that long, or the time that passed during the dream was a purported 70 years, with the same results occurring within the dream. He was not sure it mattered. He was still tired.
Finally, the story of Hanan the Hider, another of Honi’s grandsons, so called because when the Rabbis came to ask him to pray for rain, he would hide in the lavatory. When the world needed rain, Rabbis would send schoolchildren to him. They would hold the hem of garment say: Abba, Abba, Give us rain! Soft-hearted, he pled with the Blessed Holy One: Master of the Universe, do it for the sake of these little ones who do not know the difference between the Abba Who can give rain and the Abba who cannot. Why did he hide? So he would not be given personal credit for the miracle. Honi liked this story, this ancient grandson. He did not want credit. Honi felt a kinship with Hanan. For Honi, it was easy to hide. Who knew, in these modern times, why anything happened? Honi read about chaos theory, and Edward Lorenz, a scientist born the same year as Honi, discovered “the butterfly effect”: the nonlinear equations that govern the weather have such an incredible sensitivity to initial conditions, that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. And he concluded that long-range weather forecasting was doomed. Honi agreed with this, entirely, on an anecdotal and personal basis, but was happy to have distinguished scientific back-up. Perhaps Honi was doing nothing more than flapping his wings, or was sensitive to its occurrence. However it happened, he could not predict whether his own talents would prevail, had prevailed, had been divinely ignored or thwarted.
Honi knew the story of ancient Honi: after he awoke from his lengthy nap, he would go to his progeny, who would not recognize him, and his loved ones would be long-gone. His name would be used honorably at the House of Study, but they would not believe that Honi was Honi, either. Honi could not comprehend why neither parties could believe in a 70-year-nap, though they could believe that a man, with divine assistance, had a hand in making rain. Why do people believe in one miracle and not another? Honi could see that belief in the miraculous was ebbing. While sleeping at night-time seemed safe, each time it occurred to him to take a short nap during the day, he worried it would be 70 years before he awoke, and so, though often tired, he pushed through the afternoons, even those when snow fell, dictating that he go inside and rest in the recliner next to the piano. Even then, he did not let his eyes close for more than a few seconds, or so he thought. A few times, he startled himself awake, and wondered if more than a few minutes had passed, but kept his concerns to himself. Seventy years between the destruction of the First Temple and the building of the Second Temple. He did not want to suffer the consequences of sleeping for 70 years. He did not want to miss inventions, cures, World Series games – events that define a culture, signify progress. He felt, simply, one should not be asked to lose so much in – what did his teacher say? “In one fell swoop.” Words that Shakespeare gave Macbeth.
Honi went for a walk one day in Palmer Park, where he would feed the ducks in the pond. The park was built on land donated by U.S. Senator Thomas Witherell Palmer in 1893. The surrounding neighborhood, Palmer Woods, was built for the exceedingly wealthy, containing what Honi’s mother called “the Pope’s house,” though it really belonged to Bishop Gallagher (given him by the original owners, the Fisher Brothers), and later to ensuing archbishops. Honi was not certain archbishops could own anything. At 40,000 square feet, the house was the largest in all of Detroit, and an exterior statue of archangel Michael defeating Satan cannot be ignored. There’s a lovely Frank Lloyd Wright house, a rare example of Usonian design. (Wright invented the word “Usonian” to talk about his idea of how American residential architecture could/should be free of previous architectural conventions. Native materials, cantilevered overhangs, radiant heating, evident ligature between interior and exterior space, clerestory windows – and a carport. Wright coined the term “carport.”) Every house had some unique feature, and every lot in Palmer Woods had a unique shape, and there were sloping curbs and no sidewalks, which discouraged pedestrians, but the streets were wide and unhurried, so Honi had no reservations about walking there. He passed Colonial and Tudor Revivals on winding lots with long and circular drives, some with small glades between them. Before he reached Woodward Avenue, he met a man planting what looked like a Japanese cherry tree.
“No,” said the man, though Honi did not realize that he had spoken. “This is a carob tree.”
“Carob trees don’t grow here,” said Honi. “They grow in the Middle East. Maybe in Africa. In Spain, and Italy. Greece. Maybe in California, or Texas. It’s too damp in Michigan. I’ve never heard of a carob tree, here.”
“I’m planting these here,” the man said.
“I can see that,” said Honi.
The man looked up. “Do you want to help?”
“I suppose,” said Honi. “Sure.”
The man handed Honi a small trowel.
“Shouldn’t you do this in a pot?” Honi said.
The man looked up at Honi, without acrimony, with a small smile. “These are fresh seeds. I started them in a flat. They’re ready – see the leaves?”
“Oh,” said Honi, realizing he knew little about cultivating anything green, and this man clearly had an understanding of his project, his hands steadily displacing dirt from a small depression.
“In how many years will this tree bear fruit?” asked Honi. He held the trowel, but there didn’t seem anything to do but keep inquiring.
The carob pods fully covered, the man gestured toward a rusty watering can. “70,” he said.
“Really?” said Honi. “No sooner that that?”
The man shook his head, and in doing so shook his shoulders and part of his torso. “Other trees,” he said. “Not this tree.”
“Are you sure?” said Honi, trying not to sound incredulous. “This neighborhood could be bull-dozed by then.”
“I doubt that,” said the man. “But I’m not really concerned about the homes. Or even the fruit. I want the tree to provide shelter.”
Honi imagined a lush, green canopy. “How big will it grow?”
“Nearly 50 feet.”
He was hesitant to point out the obvious, but felt some sort of obligation. “You won’t, well, you may not be around to enjoy it.”
The man shrugged. “I won’t get to climb Mount Everest, either,” he said. “And I won’t be eating dinner with Henry Ford. Or Judy Garland. Someone planted for me, so I plant for someone else.” The old man walked around the tree several times, sprinkling selectively. “You look tired,” he said to Honi.
“I am,” Honi said. He sat down near the tree, and ate the lunch he’d packed: a brisket sandwich, a Golden Delicious and a few tart cherries. “You know, it would have been easier to plant an apple tree. A cherry tree. Michigan is known for its cherries. You can get a helluva cherry pie.”
“There will be flowers,” said the old man. “Orange, yellow, red.”
“Fire colors,” said Honi.
“Yes.” The man waited. “I could use your help.”
Honi looked over at the small mound of dirt, the decorative rock path leading down to the park. On either side, lilac bushes in bloom. The sun was kind. The carob tree appreciated full sun, but there would be rain and snow and hail and frost, insufficient shelter from wind, and years when lack of pruning could weaken the tree. “I don’t think you need what I have to offer.”
A light laugh came from the man’s shadow.
“Perhaps not,” said the man. “But I hear you have an in.”
Honi lay back, and crossed his hands behind his head, and waited. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Honi.
He wanted to sleep, and called upon the four angels who protect the sleeping: Raphael, Michael, Gabriel and Uriel. He put in a word to Ragshiel, the angel of dreams, who has been known to answer dream questions, if phrased in a way that pleases him. Honi, this time, did not ask for rain.
During his 70-year-sleep, what does Honi dream of?
Does he dream of small pleasures, a Vernor’s float from Sanders?
Brisket at Darby’s?
Does he dream of the woman to whom he gave an engraved watch as a promise, only to
find out she was engaged to Detroit’s Carpet King?
Does he dream of the jalousies in his house on Ilene Street, of the chemistry lab at Cass
Tech, of driving down Woodward Avenue in a Thunderbird?
Does he dream of a desert, a mirage, a well, a broken sprinkler that won’t turn off?
Does he dream of the carob’s fruit, of children and grandchildren tugging at his elbow,
his beard, trying to awaken him?
Does he dream of the circles made slowly around the bride and the groom beneath their
chuppah, or a piece of graph paper with a line down the middle, dividing equations from
postulates and theorems?
Dividing successes from failures, hopes from disappointments?
Does he dream of people pleading with him in his 20th century existence, in his
In truth, we know what Honi dreams of because we are privy to the landscape of his
psyche, a film loop that rewinds even as it unwinds because, as midrash says, everything
is coterminous: “There is no before and no after in the Torah.”
There was Honi, is Honi, will be Honi.
He sits in a light rain, close to mist, writing questions on scraps of paper and tossing
them into the air.
When they land, the answer has been scrawled over the question and Honi lets the rain
read the fine print to ruin.
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