October 9, 2020: “Fire Year” by Jason K. Friedman

Friday Friday, Story366!

Just got back from the football game where my older boy played in the marching band. We drove over to listen to the pre-game show (but missed it, for various reasons), then I went back to hear the halftime performance. We would have gone to the game, but tickets were limited and had to be purchased ahead of time and we didn’t do that. So, hanging on the fence behind the end zone was how we got to watch.

I sat in my car and read during the actual football, and because my eyes are shit now, I couldn’t make out the score of the game. As soon as the band marched onto the field, I got out and positioned myself as close as I could, pretending to know which clarinetist was my son. The band sounded good. Today was Homecoming, and at halftime, they announced the court, and eventually, the winner. The band’s job was to play semi-quietly in the background, their chosen song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. It’s an odd choice for this event, considering it’s about sexual frustration, but hey, it’s already been used for a tender moment in a Shrek movie, so why not a Homecoming shindig?

As soon as they were done, I drove over to the band room and waited for my boy and soon we were home. I still don’t know what the score of the game was, who was winning, or anything else about the football game. I’m a band parent and was there for the band. I don’t even know what the team’s record is.

I went to exactly one college game in my years at Illinois, versus Iowa my freshman year. Me and my roommate got tickets from a guy we knew, a guy in the band, because his parents weren’t coming down for parents’ weekend. I generally rooted for the team, but had never thought to actually go to a game (I never missed a basketball game, by contrast). My roommate and I walked over and we watched Illinois get pummeled. We also noticed something weird: Nobody we were sitting with was into the game. Everyone chatted, wandered off for snacks and bathroom breaks, and didn’t seem like they even cared about the game. Compared to them, I was one of those Chicago superfans from SNL.

Everything changed, however, during halftime. Suddenly, every seat was filled, everyone at rapt attention. We were in the band section! All these folks cared bout was their kids playing the halftime show. That happened, and as soon as the show was over, 90 percent of these parents stood up and left. My roommate and I couldn’t believe it, laughed because there were people there just to see the band play, and they didn’t care about an actual Big Ten football game that was unfolding in front of them.

The moral of this story is, I’m one of those parents now. We even call it “the football game,” as in “Hey, is there a football game this week?” We don’t call it “the field band show” or “the performance,” but the football game. Considering how much of my life I’ve invested into sports, it’s odd I didn’t bother to check the score or ask my son who was winning. I’m not even motivated enough right now to look it up.

I’m a band parent now. I’m proud. Go band!

Today I read from Jason K. Friedman‘s 2012 collection, Fire Year, out from Sarabande as a winner of their Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. I’ve not read any of Friedman’s work before—that’s been the case as of late—so I was more than happy to dive in and see what this author had to offer.

Friedman is Jewish, and his stories reflect that, mostly surrounding Jewish themes, culture, and characters. The first story, “Blue,” takes place at a Bar Mitzvah after-party, the man of the hour at his grandparents for a mix of old relatives and his friends from school. He’s invited the entire class, but aside from a couple exceptions, it’s mostly him and his buds; note, he even refers to his crew as the “losers,” meaning the unpopular sect. When no girls show up to the party—not a single one—the boys improvise and bring in one of their little sisters, an eleven year old who sadly ends up having a better time than anyone else, including our brand-new-adult protagonist.

“The Golem” is about Blaustein and Artie—the POV switches throughout—and their tumultuous relationship. Blaustein owns an auto parts and salvage yard, and does quite well. One day he goes for a massage, and lo and behold, his guy is an old classmate, Artie, who’s not as fortunate as he has been. Artie has a lisp and a limp, and is relegated to the massages for the people no other masseuse wants to handle, the old, the fat, and the extremely hairy (which speaks to Blaustein’s description). Blaustein feels sorry for his old mate, calling him “the golem,” which in this case means he’s the dirty-work-doing servant of the spa. He takes Artie on at the garage, but before long, treats him even worse than the masseuse did, transforming him into a golem of his own.

The title story, “Fire Year,” isn’t as contemporary, or local, as Friedman’s other stories. This one tracks the history of a small village, somewhere in the old country, between Germany and Russia perhaps (i.e., Poland), that has seen its share of tragedies. The Jewish population of this town has seen itself grow from the welcomed minority to the vast majority, mainly due to several tragic fires that have torched the goys out of town.

Emerging from these events is the story of Zev, a boy born to Reb Aryeh. By this point in history, the townspeople have noticed that fires come and engulf their village every seven years. More superstitious than baseball players, this town denounces everything to do with the number seven. Reb Aryeh, perhaps tempting fate, names his second son Zev, Hebrew for wolf (but it sound like seven).

The story is separated by Roman-numeraled sections and jumps forward a lot, covering different key points in Zev’s life and maturation. The village does indeed burn down again when Zev is seven, but the Reb is confident this won’t happen the next time, mainly because they’ve started building things out of stone instead of sticks and hay.

For Zev’s part, his story mainly surrounds his older brother, Isaac. As a teen, Isaac makes the proclamation that he doesn’t believe in God, that none of the traditions and fears his family has are his. Zev runs to his father to tell him the news, but his father, a wise and patient man, tells Zev not to worry.

Zev worries. He makes it his mission to save his brother’s soul, despite the fact his brother resents him, has started drinking, and call Zev “Rabbi” because of his holier-than-thou devotion.

Eventually, Zev needs to come to terms with his faith, the nature of the world, his village’s curse, and his brother’s obstinance. It’s a long story, steeped in Jewish history and culture, and I enjoyed this window into this world.

Jason K. Friedman wrote some good stories for his debut collection, Fire Year, stories that are both funny and faith-based, revealing the frustrations of their characters—often outsiders—and how they embark on finding redemption.