Re-Read: Skin for Skin and The Engines of Sodom

Shannon’s pick: Jon Papernick


Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a response piece to the furor arising from her diatribe against violent and mature themes in YA literature, “Darkness Too Visible.” Gurdon’s response primarily backs up her original article, while taking it one step further. She argues that these dark books are, in a way, condoning this dark and violent behavior for young people. Gurdon concludes her defense with the words of Sharon Slanley, an Idaho high school teacher who notes that, “”You are naive if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school life.”

Well, that’s a slippery slope pockmarked with rotting banana peels. I didn’t know that as a high school teacher I’m silently condoning witchcraft by having Harry Potter on my classroom bookshelves! Dang! Did I just support defying your parents, secret marriage, underage sex, murder and suicide by teaching “Romeo and Juliet”? OMG! I just approved sleeping around, copious drug use, and orgies by teaching “Brave New World”! Whoopsies!

Authors are artists. They write to make an impact…the good ones write well enough to inspire feelings of shock followed by healthy discussion.  It’s with this idea in mind (and a rather snarky desire to stir the pot a bit) that I kick off YARN’s re-release summer with the stories of boundary-pusher Jon Papernick.

I wonder what Ms. Gurdon would make of these… 🙂

By Jonathan Papernick

Skin for Skin

Photo Courtesy of ShutterBugChef (

Her parents were four hours up the Interstate celebrating her baby cousin’s bris in Albany, and the new boy from English class, who quoted Nietzsche to the impertinent Miss Meade, sat shirtless on the orange rec room couch. Breath laced with cooking sherry and Marlboros, he was irresistible. His pale, concave chest scored with angry red pimples spoke of punk rock and wild abandon; his lithe body, a knife ready to spring. They made out in the darkness, side one of Astral Weeks spinning on the turntable. He pressed closer and touched her cheek tenderly, the throbbing vein in her neck, the gently curved clavicle she broke in a fall from her first bicycle. He wasn’t a spastic mauler like the rest of the mediocrities at her high school, not a clueless virgin impersonating the porn stars the other boys watched on their parents’ VCRs.

She whispered his name, halting his progression.

His voice was entirely changed. “You want to do it?” He took his time flipping the hair from his eyes in a gesture meant to seem casual, and removed his wallet from his jeans’ pocket, lightly fingering the raised circular impression to assure her that he had come prepared.

She felt the cool bite of his necklace against her skin, the pendant swinging around back as her fingers blindly explored his body, and she imagined a tiny motorcycle or pistol, something fearless strung at the end of the chain. And now, as he reset the pendant to its proper position dangling at his solar plexus, she realized that the constriction in her throat was entirely in-voluntary, and that the delirious moments before its appearance marked the end of a lifelong dream. Even in the basement’s gloom she could see it clearly, iridescent, glowing dangerously between them, like something aflame.

“Take it off,” she said, reaching for the gold crucifix at his neck. It was heavy; the miniature corpse reproduced in minute detail weighed something like two thousand years in her trembling hands.

“Why? Are you Jewish?”

“My parents are.”

“That’s cool.” He laughed and dipped in for an-other kiss, but she wasn’t having it.

She told him to take it off or forget the whole thing. He hesitated, not sure she was serious, then fumbled with the crucifix before lifting it over his head with great difficulty, as if he were bearing the True Cross on his narrow shoulders, then tossed it across the floor.

“Now what are you going to take off?”

“I’m done,” she said.

He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “What’s your problem?”

He told her he had come all this way by bus and she owed him something. She knew what happened to girls who went back on the unspoken contract that was made when they invited boys over with their parents out of town. She had always thought a cocktease was worse than a whore, and now she faced the sickening prospect that everyone in her school would know what she was.

She had been with non-Jewish boys before, one or two had even worn simple crosses, but nobody so bold as to parade a gory crucifix before her eyes.

She had naturally turned away from being part of an unlucky, persecuted tribe. The way she saw it, there was no gain in membership, only grief. “I’m not Jewish,” she had told her parents hundreds of times. “I’m a secular humanist and I believe in self-determination.” She thought ritual circumcision was barbaric. But now, as he slid his hand around her waist, she wished that she were with her parents and aunts and uncles celebrating her eight-day-old cousin’s covenant with God and the Jewish people. That was where she belonged, not here in a darkened basement with a nasty, crude boy determined to have his way.

He stood naked before her, wearing only a pair of white gym socks that smelled like they hadn’t been washed in a very long time. “Your turn,” he said.

Now in the dim light she saw it clearly against his livid thigh and it shocked her more than the appearance of the crucifix, like the emergence of a sea monster from a bathtub.

“No. I can’t.” She had never seen anything like it before, but had heard somewhere that uncircumcised men were likely to give their partners greater pleasure. She could not believe that.

He didn’t seem fazed by her reaction at all, as if no were simply a prelude.

“Come on. It’s getting late.” And then, “I can ruin you.”

She thought of all the combinations of what might happen if he shot his mouth off around school, and she determined that she would be better off doing it with him to avoid a public shaming.

There was just one small thing.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, climbing off the couch and heading for the stairs.

She returned a few minutes later with a sharp Japanese paring knife that her mother used for salads in the summer, a bag of cotton balls and a bottle of witch hazel. “Okay, I’ll do it,” she said. “But first you have to let me fix something.”

The Engines of Sodom

Photo courtesy of Fabian Reichert (

Hershlag’s mother hit him over the head with a loaf of rye bread when he told her he was going to catch a show at Ildiko’s instead of joining her at synagogue to mark his grandfather’s yahrzeit. “What’s the matter with you? Poppa’s been gone a year today and you’re running downtown to fill your ears with that trash.”

Hershlag raised a delicate middle finger, jumped on his skateboard and wobbled down the driveway.

Connor and McManus were crouched on their boards in front of the club sharing a sodden pizza sub when Hershlag rolled up. They had large black X’s drawn in marker on the backs of their hands and Hersh-lag was glad that he had had the foresight to mark himself before his mother went crazy.

In Hebrew school, he had been called Hershlag the Fag by the spoiled Forest Hill JAPs because he had acne and wore Lee, instead of Levi’s; the next year, he was a skinhead boozing with Eamon Sturtze and Little John at the Bulldog. Now he didn’t drink or smoke and hadn’t been to the Bulldog since it had been shuttered following a bloody after-hours brawl.

He wore his high-top sneakers, an oversized Walk Together, Rock Together T-shirt and sanctimonious black X’s scrawled onto his skin. “Gonna be a great show tonight, guys. I read in Maximumrocknroll that this band shreds.”

“You haven’t heard them?” McManus sneered.

“Sure I have. Their old stuff.”

McManus rolled his eyes at Connor. “What’s up with your arms, Hershlag?”

He hadn’t had time to throw on long sleeves before his mother chased him out, and now his slim, scarred arms were visible for his new friends to see. It looked like a melon baller had scooped out the tender flesh of his forearms, leaving the wounds to heal into cruel putty-like scars.

“Got rid of some old tattoos,” Hershlag said. “Drag-ons and skulls. Kids’ stuff. I’m thinking of getting some new ones, though. You know, a little bit straight and a little bit edgy.” He laughed, but his companions did not.

“Hey kids, don’t forget your fake IDs,” he quipped, trailing after them.

When old man Ildiko introduced the opening band the club was already smoke-filled and packed. Hershlag popped in his earplugs and yelled something to McManus, who was talking up a dreadlocked Asian girl who lived in Kensington Market.

McManus spun around and poked Hershlag in the chest with a stiff finger. “Go away, Hershlag.”

Connor scolded McManus and told him not to be so hard on the kid, then disappeared into the rolling wave of bodies.

Amid the clash of distorted buzzsaw guitars, Hershlag thought of his grandfather. Not long before he died, Poppa had approached Hershlag’s bedroom. The music was blasting.

Oy!” Poppa Hershlag had shouted. “Like the very engines of Sodom. Turn that racket off, Adam. It will put me in the ground.”

Hershlag had laughed at how weak his grandfather’s plaintive “Oy” sounded compared to the militant, testosterone-fuelled Oi, oi, oi’s chanted on his record.

Then Poppa Hershlag had seen the tattoos and shaken his numbered arm at his only grandson. “Do you think this is a joke? Does this mean nothing to you? You are a lucky boy, Adam, to be born in the time you were born. Don’t ever forget that.”

Hershlag’s scars itched and he scratched absently at them as the band cleared the stage.

Despite the swelling crowd pressing around him, Hershlag felt a deep loneliness and shame. He missed his grandfather and had done nothing to honor his memory. Poppa Hershlag deserved more than a candle and a muttered prayer.

Connor stumbled up from the mosh pit, sweating through his T-shirt. “I’m going backstage to hang with the band. Wanna come?”

Hershlag nodded and followed Connor through the crowd, but he was stopped by a voice calling, “Look who’s back from the dead.”

“And with the straight edge crew,” a second voice added.

Eamon and Little John stood before Hershlag and Connor in identical oxblood Doc Marten boots, blue jeans and red suspenders snapped tight over their Fred Perry polo shirts. They were a couple years older than Hershlag and towered over him like fully grown men.

Eamon flicked Hershlag in the nose with a battered finger. Eamon’s head was newly shaved and a droplet of red blood had dried on the side of his scalp. “I didn’t think I’d see your sorry ass again. What happened to your tats? I thought we were brothers.” Then he gestured to the swastika tattoo on his forearm, the Death’s Head, the SS lightning bolts.

The next band was doing its sound check and Connor had to shout. “You’re a Nazi?”

“No, I’m not.”

“He’s a Jew. How can you miss a nose like that?” Eamon taunted.

Connor shook his blond head and burst through the crowd, shouting in disgust, “A Nazi.”

“Oops,” Eamon laughed and grabbed Hershlag’s skateboard. “I guess you’re out of friends, mate.”

Hershlag stood a moment, trying to find the right words, but he was afraid that he would cry in front of Eamon and Little John, and nothing – nothing in the world, he was sure – could be worse than that. In an instant, he was running down Bloor Street, in search of the tattoo parlor, giant snot bubbles bursting from his nose. He had his grandfather’s blurred blue numbers committed to memory and he was determined to become a living monument to Poppa Hershlag so that Hershlag himself would never forget.

Photo courtesy of Gary Alpert.

Jonathan Papernick is the author of “Who by Fire, Who by Blood” and “The Ascent of Eli Israel” and his just-published collection of short stories, “There is No Other.” Author Dara Horn wrote about “There is No Other,” “Every single story here delivers a knock-out punch that will leave you reeling long after you’ve put it down — and revising your thinking on what life and love really mean.” He has been selling his books via pushcart at farmers markets in New England as Papernick the Book Peddler. Papernick teaches fiction writing at Emerson College and the BIMA program at Brandeis University. To learn more, please visit or become a fan of Jonathan Papernick on Facebook, or visit his onlineshop.

Both stories published here also appear in Papernick’s latest collection of short stories, “There is No Other,” and “The Engines of Sodom” will also appear in a forthcoming anthology of very short literary fiction for teens, published by Persea Books and edited by writers Tom Hazuka and Mark Budman.

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