David demarcated his territory on the waiting room chairs with assorted belongings: here a pencil, here a pair of sunglasses, here a pillow in a blue terrycloth sleeve. He removed his shoes, tucking the laces inside, and began to eat red and blue icing from the white birthday cake, which had twenty candles, each candle representing ten years.
20 x 10 = 200.
He judged the glum view once again through the 7th story window facing west, not east and not toward the harbor, where the fireworks were scheduled for that night. David reached into his knapsack where the tightly rolled chessboard and box of chess pieces had been carefully organized several days before. David’s mother had helped him prepare this overnight bag just in case, she said, because you never know, you might have to camp out at the hospital if she went suddenly into labor. He also brought six different comic books along with the chess set, his secret notebooks, some pencils, and a few juice boxes. He carried the family camera, too. David was excited to take the first photos of his little brother. It would be just David at the hospital because mom’s boyfriend was working in California, but had a plane ticket all ready and a bag packed, too.
The anticipated cab ride had come at 11:04 a.m., with David awkwardly carrying his knapsack and mom’s suitcase into the bright entrance of the emergency room. A nurse led him upstairs, to where the sign read OB-GYN—a funny word, he wrote in his steno notebook, and then set himself up for a game of chess. It was so hot that the momentary breeze generated by the fluttering of his plastic chess mat satisfied him enough to shake it several times. It was so hot, and the walls and floors were so white that everyone’s perspiring foreheads and underarms looked, by comparison, grey and yellow.
The bounding voice that finally broke the soft din of humming lights and ceiling fans came from a man dressed up as the Branson, Missouri version of Uncle Sam. His costume had a dazzling coat with tails, red and white stripes alternating all the way down, and sequined white stars on wide blue lapels. Holding a matching stovepipe hat, he entered the room and pulled out red, white, and blue lengths of licorice, like a magician or Santa Clause. There was a stethoscope slung around his neck camouflaged among the faux long beard and shimmering suit. Whistling a medley of Yankee Doodle and You’re a Grand Old Flag, he sat down across the chessboard in front of David.
“Happy July Fourth,” David said, receiving two blue licorice strips.
“And happy Fourth of July to you, young man.” He whistled like a teakettle. “Looks to me like you’re playing all alone. Who’s winning?” A wink and a grin and Uncle Sam said, “Can I play the next few moves?”
“I don’t mind,” replied David. In fact, he relished in such chessboard encounters. He found empathy in the puddle of internal decisions and the telepathic frisson when you predicted another’s next move, because chess was supernatural. The man removed the white beard and set it aside. David sat with his legs crossed, bare feet hidden under his knees. He was biting off segments of the licorice clutched in his fist with such force that his head jolted backward with each mouthful. He was hunched over the checkered mat and pieces with the gravity of a boy Emperor pondering a tabletop theatre of war from which he ordered divisions into battle. David had read many books about chess, its strategies and tricks. He knew that famous chess players think several moves ahead and lead with commanding openings. He had read that there were infinitely many possibilities to any game, but the greatest players divine the likelihood of the best one from the many others.
“From the many, one,” David said, because he liked to say whatever popped into his mind. “E pluribus unum. It’s Latin.”
“That’s right, it is. It’s printed on dollar bills,” Uncle Sam said.
David withdrew a steno notebook from this bookbag, and flipped over many ink-filled pages dramatically. “I know. I keep a list of Latin phrases and proverbs. That one was easy. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. Seize the day, believe the least in tomorrow. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country. I have lots of them.”
“How old are you?” asked Uncle Sam.
“I’m ten. And a half.”
“That’s an important age; you’re almost a young man.” he said. Uncle Sam now contemplated the board and the pieces with sober significance, too; his jovial Père Nöel demeanor came to mirror the boy’s. David, in turn, focused on the man’s hands. They were chalky and militantly clean, having the odor of industrial soap. Uncle Sam moved a knight toward David. “You’re a very smart boy. What are doing you here in the hospital on the fourth of July?”
“My mom is in labor, she’s giving birth today.”
“Well congratulations, to you and your mother,” Uncle Sam said. “I am sure you’ll be a big help to mommy and daddy with your new bother or sister. Because they’re sure going to need it.” Another wink.
David, an honest child who felt relaxed before strangers, explained to Uncle Sam his thoughts about chess and his new brother. He fiddled with the length of watchstrap protruding from his wrist, more restless than anxious. Earlier that morning, David had been given the tasked of choosing a name for his new brother. He had narrowed his name choices down to two categories: U.S. Presidents, because he had memorized all their names, and famous paleontologists, because he really liked dinosaurs. His short list included: Woodrow Quincy, Theodore Rutherford, Franklin Delano, Walter Alvarez, Richard Owen, Richard Leakey.
While his mother had been laying on a gurney, sweat beading from her temples in spite of the fan aimed toward her, she outlined for him the choice behind his own name. David was neither her first choice nor his father’s, but was selected from among Arthur, Michael, Geoffrey, Julian, and Pavel-like-your-great-grandfather. David repeated to Uncle Sam that the night before his naming ceremony his parents held a big party where several of his father’s friends had been assigned a name to research and present to the assembled group, all squeezed into a modest Jerusalem flat. Everyone could hardly pronounce “Julian” and the rest, so David won by default. It was a big joke, his mother let on, so many high, smashed Israelis enunciating the anglicized phonetics as if in language classroom. Because of his father, Avishai, David was Israeli, too, which meant that Day-vid was actually Dah-veed. David was consistently amused by Hebrew language, its rear of the throat origin and its lilting cadence sounds as if the speaker isn’t taking the time to inhale or swallow. He knew that Avishai had been Alec at birth, in London, although he did not know his father or remember their last meeting, five years before. He did know that Avishai had been killed two years ago, on the last day of the Yom Kippur War very far away from Boston.
Out of many, one.
Uncle Sam did not stay for long, and David had finished two more games of solitary chess and was reading a comic book when dusk settled and a floor nurse stood upon a chair and reached to switch on a television suspended from the ceiling. She said, to no one in particular, that the fireworks should be starting soon and that they are going to be so big this year. Big everywhere, but the biggest of all in Boston. David eagerly envisioned the spectacle, but thinking about every previous 4th of July, he could only remember last year, 1975, when mom and her boyfriend, also named David but known as Dave, drove up from Boston to a little Maine town to watch the fireworks there. The three of them sat on a blanket on the lawn in front of a small town library for the whole afternoon. Mom’s boyfriend played the guitar, and they sang. It was the best day David could remember of his life. On the ride back to Boston, he’d tried writing down in his steno notebook every song Dave had played, but he was so tired that he eventually fell asleep.
On the TV, instead of idle coverage of the final bicentennial preparations down at the harbor, news clips repeatedly played footage of an Air France plane and a black Mercedes peppered with bullet holes. The anchor mentioned a hundred-plus Israeli hostages who were safe at home in Israel, and showed a Hercules medical plane looming over the weary, bandaged captives amidst a throng of wives weeping, of relatives grateful and resolute. David listened with concern to the story of the hostages at Entebbe, but his fretful reflex dropped a rolled up comic to the floor when he saw the photograph of the only casualty among the Israeli rescuers. The young man in olive fatigues, who squinted at the camera, with sunglasses pushed up onto his greasy head of Grecian curls, resembled his father. While David stared at the image, the news anchorman briefly interviewed a Harvard professor, who knew Yoni Netanyahu several years ago: Yoni saw the allure of Boston, of America and only dreamed more of his homeland. He stayed here to attend classes, but you could sense his heart was elsewhere. He was one of the best students I’ve ever taught. Once again, the images of this black Mercedes, the airfield paved upon the Ugandan jungle, and Yoni the bold rescuer, the fearless patriot. David fooled with the Hebrew sounds saying them quickly and then slowly, but so only he could hear: Yoninetanyahu…yo…ni…ne…tan…ya…hu.
At that moment David was completely alone in the waiting room and began to recall and confuse several images: the dead soldier on the screen above, his dead father, and his new brother’s father who had fought in Viet Nam. Didn’t they all look alike at some level, in uniforms and berets, in photos framed on the mantle or hidden among comic books or displayed on the television? David was too young to know that Viet Nam was anything but a country bordering China, Laos, and Cambodia, whose capital used to be Saigon but was now Ho Chi Minh City, where there had been a war. The words “Viet Nam” made David immediately picture those helicopters lifting away from the Embassy in Saigon, with bodies clinging to the landing bars like pollen stuck to the legs of a bumblebee. This image he had somehow attached to the word ‘desertion,’ which a teacher in school had once used to describe his mother’s boyfriend, named David but known as Dave. The teacher said that Dave was a Viet Nam deserter, so David assumed that he had been on of those helicopters. Most people thought that his mother’s boyfriend was his father, and so David was always telling them no, that my father was an Israeli who used lived in Tel Aviv, an anagram for TV Alive. A deserter, rested era or deserter, red steed. Between David and his mother, there was a secret language of anagrams that only they knew about. David always discovered new anagrams like that, and he would write them down in his notebook when he thought of one. My father, David always insisted was a reservist, not a deserter. A reservist eats rivers.
The channel had been switched to another with images of the festivities underway and David recalled that he had once written in the notebook:
weird thought #36A: I have two fathers
#36B: I have no fathers
#37: I have never called anyone Daddy (see no. 36).
With a little light blue bracelet around his ankle and an oxidized brown stain of Provodone Iodine on his heel, the baby was a breathing bag, shriveled, semi-human. He held his new brother’s State Massachusetts Certificate of Birth in his hands like a prize ticket. It was still blank, but there was a scrap of paper clipped on scribbled with crucial information:
Mother: Susan Kurtz
Father: David Morganthal
Child: (Baby) Morganthal
Attending: Greg Phelps, M.D.
He had been riddled all day, while playing chess, while drawing in his notebook, and while reading, but then, seeing where someone would fill in the name he was supposed to conceive he said carefully “Yoni” then “Yoni Morganthal” then rather precisely “Yonatan Morganthal. That’s it, mom. Mom,” he had to repeat emphatically to distract her beaming attention from her second son. Over the machine noise and the chatting nurses, the first of many many screech boom BOOM sounds entered into the hospital hallway. It was Independence Day, the Bicentennial!