In March, Tortoise Books will release Joyce Becker Lee’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled Casualties. Miles Harvey, bestselling author of The Island of Lost Maps and The King of Confidence, said of the book, ““Some of characters in Casualties are young people peering anxiously into uncertain futures; others are older adults looking back at pivotal moments of adolescence—traumas they’ve endured, secrets they haven’t shared with anyone, impulsive decisions that changed their lives forever. Whether you’re a young reader searching for a way forward or an older reader reckoning with a past self who won’t leave you alone, you’re likely to find unexpected insights in Joyce Becker Lee’s emotionally complex and superbly crafted collection.” Please enjoy the excerpt below.
Excerpt from Casualties
South Shore, Chicago
What had once been home, the air warm and clear as autumn sun, had once been clean, now rolls like a mangy dog in the dust of neglect. Worn houses, once straight and neat, now crouch like aging, broken beasts, bent with age’s curse of sagging spines and shedding coats of paint. Everywhere seeps the scent of anger, a smell as hot as blood, an odor that slinks the streets like an exfoliant surreptitiously dusted, commingling with the filth of russet dust, of unswept leaves pulverized by time and tread.
So is the neighborhood I loved laid low since my cousins and I could safely walk about at night, chasing the chimes of the ice cream truck, or kicking a ball in the street. I know it’s foolish for me to be here, know that I should reclaim the safety of my car, but need and memory drive me on to my destination, just ahead: The synagogue, still square and stone, still there, still stoic through time’s devastation.
It’s changed little, yet changed completely, its door, once decorated with a wooden Star of David now boasting a plain, shining cross. The windows, once a pastel rainbow of whorled panes, are now pained by change, some replaced with splintered wooden boards that press like bandages across a wounded cheek.
I remember the swelling in my heart when, as a child, I sat in my family’s balcony, next to my mother, her eyes straight, her piety soft and loved. From our lofty perch we could look below at the white-shrouded men praying around the little square bima. I wonder if the chandeliers remain, great ivory glass lights that hung down beneath a circle of bright bulbs, like a Hasid’s fur-trimmed hat, inverted. I sat lulled by the drone of words familiar yet unknown, staring at those great, hanging lights. I’d imagine myself launching from the brass safety rail, swinging by the light’s metal chains, landing safely on the curved ledge of the windows on the opposite wall, round blue bays with white-glass stars echoing the blue stars on the chandeliers.
As I grew older, I left my dreams of swinging on the lights to contentment in simply being in such a hallowed place, surrounded by love and family. How I loved God as I sat in that peaceful room! I could picture him watching us from the high, curved white ceiling. When we read (the English translation) how He would decide who would live and who would die, who from stoning and who from drowning, I could feel His presence, and I wanted so desperately for Him to love me and inscribe me in His Book of Life. Each time I visited the little shul, I vowed to be a better person, a better Jew, to give tzeddukah and grow in His glory. Each time I left I left renewed, my outlook refreshed, my soul replenished.
Like wind and rain on a rock, time wears away piety. I left that cherished enclave for a wider world. My family left, the neighborhood “changed.” My mother died, and with her died my intense devotion to God as a stern Father. I raised my sons to believe in tradition, but more to believe in themselves and their responsibility to the world—not just to religion. I lost a little of myself, and now I return to find that piece, that peace.
As I approach, two teens, lounging on the steps, turn to look at me, their dark eyes wide with questions.
“You lost?” one asks. Her friend gives her a nudge and they both laugh.
“No, I’m okay, thanks,” I smile. They’re just kids. “Just visiting.”
They shrug and stand to go in, leaving behind the shadow of a covert glance. I remember those glances, given in this neighborhood long ago—only now I am the recipient, and the sudden chill shakes and embarrasses me.
Soft music begins inside—a choir practice, I guess. It swells, building like a wave in rhythmic prayers, blending with autumn wind, a song to grace a graceless world. The music morphs in my mind, becoming something old, remembered remnants, shards of sounds that shine, to the bending nasal tones and plaintive chants recollected by both me and the building. It’s there within our mortar, buried deep, ingrained as though by osmosis over time. The dance of language lingers, drawing deep of autumn nights and prayers that vivified, even if only half-understood. Here, then, my own roots, tangled, complex, grew, where concrete and ethereal combined.
For many years I walked the bidden path, bound with the strong rope of generations; bound by sound and soul, by threads of heart and hand. Now, though much is gone—the house, my mother, youth—this canon, even sleeping, ever stays alive.
The music from inside soars to burst free in the autumn air. It is joyful, hopeful, loving, even as our chants were filled with joy, with hope, with love. Time may change the face of salvation, yet salvation remains, even as the words and tones and rhythms alter. The songs I hear today still carry all the same dreams I once held inside, still offer solace, hope, familial warmth. The melodies of this place, today and past, combine and shift, first one and then the other, the same and not the same, the melody sweet and strong in bend and beat. The purpose is new and yet not new, for faith is faith, and true in any form. The hearts inside still pray, still sing, still survive, because within those walls belief is safe. The name means nothing, the symbols merely that. The heart is all.
My time is up and I must leave behind the cement and the brick while keeping always the memories and the love. I can leave now, knowing that this place will always be with me, always the same, and that the road that brought me here will take me home at the last.
© 2022 Joyce Becker Lee
Prior to earning her MFA from Northwestern University, JOYCE BECKER LEE worked as a newspaper reporter, editor, theater columnist, textbook developer, and high school and college instructor of English, Writing, and Theater. Her stories, features, and poetry have been published extensively in print and online, and she also writes novels, plays and screenplays. A dedicated theater professional, she has spent a lifetime in educational, community, and professional theater as a director and performer, and is writer/composer of seven children’s musicals. She enjoys volunteer work for civic and animal-related causes and is a busy hands-on grandmother.
Photo by Joseph Lee