Flipside: Avoiding the cracks

'Step on a crack, break your mother's back," Morton - now Mordechai - dreams in sing-song. Suddenly he is awake, and shaken.

flipside imag88 (photo credit:)
flipside imag88
(photo credit: )
'Step on a crack, break your mother's back," Morton - now Mordechai - dreams in sing-song. Suddenly he is awake, and shaken. The residual sensation of his nightmare lingers like an aftertaste. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. That's how it all started, he thinks. He's not absolutely certain. Still, it's his earliest memory of what he has come to consider the beginning of the end. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. He can even hear its tune - though inflection would be a more accurate description of the chant Sarah Eisen taught him that day. The day the two third-graders braved the block between Broadway and Amsterdam, the New York "No Man's Land" his mother and stepfather had forbidden him to enter. The day they went by themselves to the penny-candy store just beyond the junkies and other lurking menaces. The day the allure of that longed-for place, with its bins of string licorice and wax lips and lifesaver necklaces, had so overpowered Mort that he had dared disobey orders. Coupled with Sarah's self-assurance, the thought of all those sugar treasures, and a whole dime in his pocket, had made his fear of the consequences of lying to his mother on the one hand, and of facing potential muggers on the other, wane just enough to enable him to embrace mischief. And then Sarah had taken his hand and led him away from the entrance to their apartment building - where they and others always played handball and hopscotch after school - whispering in his ear that she held the secret to their mutual protection. One that never failed. "If you make sure only to walk on the smooth part of the sidewalk," she had said when they were out of the gang's earshot, "you'll be safe." To help keep him in line, so to speak, she had insisted he repeat the phrase, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" while proceeding. That way, she warned, he wouldn't violate the code crucial to keeping all concerned out of harm's way. MORDECHAI LIFTS his head above the blanket and peeks out of the window. Then he taps on the frosty pane four times, as though marking the corners of a square. This is a ritual in which he engages religiously every morning prior to laying tefillin. It is his way of guaranteeing that the floor remain intact, and not cave in at any moment, causing him to fall to the flat below. As he has done for the last month, today Mordechai again will focus his prayer on George Bush. More precisely, on the American president's motorcade. It is imperative that by the sound of the fifth siren signaling their approach, all vehicles of the entourage will have passed the intersection he can see from his perch. Otherwise there is certain to be an earthquake that registers high on the Richter scale, claiming hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," he says, swinging both legs over the side of the bed and touching his slippers with his toes twice before putting them on, to prevent himself from getting hit by a car when he goes to check in at the employment office after breakfast. If they haven't closed it today because of Bush, that is. Sighing, he adds: "Please let this state visit be over soon." Indeed, Mordechai is even more exhausted than usual this week. It is so hard having the weight of the world on his shoulders. One false move, and it all comes tumbling down. Just like it did when his mother severed her spinal cord in that awful accident when he was in high school. The one he could have prevented. If only he'd paid better heed to Sarah. If only he hadn't stepped on any cracks. Which is why he hasn't taken any unnecessary chances since then. Not even after making aliya 10 years ago. His psychiatrist had said that his relocation at the relatively ripe age of 40 (following his mother's death) was an act of true emotional courage. The assertion of mental health over obsessive compulsion. But Mordechai - then Mort - hadn't seen it that way. From his point of view, coming to Israel had been a last resort. A desperate attempt to rescue his soul from his psyche. Espousing his religion - while making contact with his estranged father, who had gone off to study in a yeshiva in Jerusalem when Mort was a boy - had seemed to be the only escape from torture. The internal kind. The kind that even the latest in psychopharmacological cocktails had been unable to alleviate. And, for a time, he'd actually felt some improvement in his condition, if not in his behavior. He was even functioning on a semi-sustainable level. Until the announcement of the Bush's own little pilgrimage to the region, that is. Why - he moaned at the TV - can't everybody leave him alone to live in peace? Peace - Mordechai had practically spat at the screen as he uttered the word. As though achieving it depended on controlling the universe through useless rituals. He could tell Bush & Co a thing or two about that particular form of psychosis. Not that doing so would make any difference. As he himself would be the first to acknowledge. "PLEASE LET this state visit be over soon," Mordechai reiterates, clinking his toothbrush against the sink seven times before allowing it to enter his mouth - a practice aimed thwarting Kassams and Katyushas. It occurs to him that perhaps he should have been clinking it eight times instead. "Step on a crack, break your mother's back," he mutters, tiptoeing carefully across the tiles to his closet. And then he hears the sirens. One, he counts along with the crescendo, two, three, four... Heart pounding, he races to the window and holds his breath. With the fifth siren, a fleet of black crosses the intersection. Exhaling ever-so-slowly, Mordechai allows a flicker of relief to wash over him. Life, as he knows it, can now blessedly return to abnormal. To celebrate, he decides, he will search for Sarah on Facebook, wondering whether she remembers who he is. ruthie@jpost.com