Avigdor of the Apes
By Steve Stern
“What ails you now, that you have gone up entirely to the roofs?”—the Zohar
Avigdor Bronfman, an indifferent scholar, made his way across Orchard Street at twilight, on his way home from his Talmud Torah class. He sidled between the vendors of nickel spectacles, celluloid collars, and cotton waists, and avoided a shrill woman in the process of slapping a peddler with his own stinking carp. He skirted a starving draft horse with ribs like hood louvers dropping a steaming pile into the gutter, and stepped onto the opposite curb. Mounting the stoop, he entered a cabbage-rank tenement beneath a sign in Hebrew characters advertising the second floor occupant’s profession of circumciser. That was his father. The boy climbed a flight of stairs, opened the door to a stuffy apartment wherein his bearded papa stood swaying in his prayer shawl, his mama pumping her sewing machine, and tossed in his books. Then he closed the door and continued his ascent up the five remaining flights to the top of the building, where he pushed open a tin-plated door onto the tarpapered roof. Crossing the roof he shed his reefer jacket and hopped onto the low parapet, stood a moment admiring the salmon-pink sunset, and plunged into the crisp autumn air.
His flights had begun soon after Avigdor and his friend Shaky Gruber went to a Shabbos matinee of “Tarzan of the Apes” at the Grand Street flickers. The film starred Mr Elmo Lincoln in the role of the ape man, an actor so gross and lumbering that even when battling an authentic lion—a mange-ridden beast whose drugged movements were even clumsier than those of its human prey—he failed to convince. Nevertheless, while his pal Shaky snickered irreverently, Avigdor was transfixed. Sunk in the plush seats of the dark picture palace, a sanctuary from the clamor and menace of the neighborhood streets, he experienced a kind of savage freedom. He was a scrawny kid, Avigdor, tethered to a claustrophobic household in the sump of the East Side ghetto, and the progress of an orphan raised to manhood by anthropoid apes struck a chord in his pigeon breast. It was not so much Tarzan’s brute power and ferocity that thrilled him--though such attributes were nothing to sniff at—as his ability to maintain a largely aerial existence, navigating the lush canopy of the Congo high above the earth without ever having to come down.
Excited as he was by the film, though, Avigdor was not immediately moved to emulate its hero. Raised in an atmosphere where sedulous study was valued above action, he first visited the Seward Park Library, where he obtained a copy of the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs from which the photoplay had been adapted. He read it in secret, since his pious papa regarded all secular literature as obscenity. Then he found himself doubly spellbound, the exploits of the boy adopted by a tribe of great apes further validated by their translation into print. The son of a mohel, a ritual clipper of infant foreskins, Avigdor had been the object of countless jokes at his own and his father’s expense, as well as a frequent victim of bullies. He knew he was the unlikeliest of candidates for a transformation from yeshivah bocher to jungle denizen, but on the strength of his enchantment with the ape man he determined to reinvent himself.
“Grow up already,” sneered his friend Shaky Gruber—himself no model of maturity--when Avigdor confided his resolution; and ambivalent until then, Avigdor was briefly inclined to agree. Then he surprised himself by dissolving his friendship with Shaky on the spot.
Soon after, on an early March evening, he climbed to the windy roof of his six-floor tenement. He’d been there before, on sweltering nights when his family joined others escaping their oven-like apartments to bed down beneath lusterless stars on the so-called tar beach. But at those times Avigdor had felt uncomfortably vulnerable, lying awake amid alien bodies emitting rude noises, some crying out from troubled dreams. Now, as he surveyed the scene, he had to admit that the rooftops of the Lower East Side had little in common with the dense arboreal expanse of equatorial Africa. Except for a few scraggly plane trees over in Seward Park, there were no boughs to perch on, no luxuriant creepers or lianas to swing from. The realization came almost as a relief, since now he could dispense with the passing compulsion and resume his ordinary life. But look again with less civilized eyes and there were no end of purchases and footholds, of aeries and swallows’ nests and lofty towers affording panoramic views. There were ledges, catwalks, drainpipes, and lampposts, an urban skyscape with any number of features that a sprightly young primate might employ in eluding jungle predators.
But how to proceed? You could beat your shallow chest with your fists gorilla-style—which Avigdor commenced to do; and the gesture did lend him a certain Dutch courage, not to mention giving a vibrato quality to his yawp. But after that it seemed incumbent on him to perform some feat of simian athleticism. Avigdor had never before demonstrated the least hint of athletic ability, nor had it ever occurred to him to try; until now his body had been a rickety construction wherein he was forced to dwell for lack of a sturdier container. Then he invoked a passage from the novel, which he recited under his breath like a portion of scripture: “He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top…,” after which Avigdor made a dash for the surrounding parapet. Bounding onto it he launched himself with cycling legs over the airshaft onto the neighboring roof. The distance was not very far; other boys routinely cleared the shafts flat-footed, the taller ones able almost to step across. But something happened as soon as Avigdor felt himself airborne: his apprehension dissolved, his brain ceased its caviling, and he became a pure expression of the physical. Instinct supplanted self-consciousness and his limbs assumed an integrity of their own.
So it seemed that Avigdor had a gift, which he straightaway began to nurture, developing it along with the strength he needed to enhance his prowess. Over time his gaunt body acquired a tough and sinewy armature of muscle, a tempered vitality he augmented with various devices either scavenged or manufactured by his own hand. From modest monkey-like efforts at swinging, leaping, and vaulting, he graduated to circus-grade acrobatic feats. For these he was not above consulting library books on gymnastics and even the physics of leverage and balance. But while the information might be useful to some, the boy found the technical language a distraction, calling his attention back to the pedestrian plane, and in the end he left the books behind in the world where they belonged.
On any given afternoon, abandoning his studies, Avigdor might step to the edge of the roof and throw himself off, perhaps catching hold of a clothesline fastened by pulleys to an adjacent tenement wall. Then he would “brachiate” arm over arm along the sagging line above a flagstone courtyard, where far below a mother patsched a whining child’s tushy and a vendor of sheet music intoned a music hall air. He might drop neatly onto the fire escape of an opposite building and clamber up a ladder to the roof, where he fetched from under a pile of rubble beside a spinning air vent a rope tied to an iron hook. Then he would twirl the rope lasso-fashion above his head in ever widening circles and release the grappling hook, watching it arc over Ludlow or Essex Street to clank onto a scaffold or wrap itself serpent-like around a balcony rail. He might swing out over the jostling thoroughfare and let go before smashing into a wall, free-falling ass over elbows to land plump in the tent of a consumptive erected on the pebbly roof of a candy store. (So what if the tent collapsed, traumatizing the invalid inside? The law of the jungle made allowances for such damage.) He might land in an awning or a canvas tarp stretched over a seedframe and bounce back into the air like a shot from a sling.
In lieu of vines Avigdor scaled walls of jutting masonry--“He could gain the utmost pinnacle of the loftiest tropical giant with the ease and swiftness of a squirrel…” Reaching the top, he might locate a limber flagstaff hidden in a cache of scrap lumber, and making a run across the tarpaper, plant the pole and vault over an alley; or hurl himself feet-first against a bulkhead and, shooting his legs like a jack-in-the-box, catapult himself onto the pitched roof of a rowhouse several stories below. Clattering down the shingled slope he might leap onto the top of an omnibus, dropping into a seat beside a frightened passenger. The bus would turn a corner into Orchard Street, forging like a pachyderm lumbering upstream through hordes of hawkers and market wives, passing under a hanging ladder that the apeboy would then grab hold of, hoisting himself onto another fire escape where he opened a window and tumbled inside.
As he rolled onto the creaking floorboards, his pear-shaped mama, placing a dish of stuffed derma beside his place at the table, would ask him, “Where’s your jacket?”; while his papa, already seated with a napkin tucked under his chin, called him apostate and invited him to say the prayer over breaking bread.
You might ask what became of his fear, for he’d always been a timid kid. But once he’d overcome his trepidation through blind faith and flung himself into the vapory air, Avigdor discovered that the ghetto’s higher plateaus had been his element all along. Swarming over the rooftops he remained in a state of pure rapture. The rest of the time--forced to sit in dusty classrooms and run the gauntlet of his discordant neighborhood--he regarded as misspent. It was true that his new physicality had toughened his frame, making him a less objectionable companion, but Avigdor shunned the society of his peers, whom he’d yet to forgive for ridiculing him as his father’s son. Now he lived only for the moment when he could climb above the choking grid of the Lower East Side. Down below, amid the mercantile crush, he endured the monotonous passage of days, while above he dwelled in a timeless space where he would never grow old. He liked spying on the ethereal activities of his neighbors: the women kneeling to spread their freshly washed hair over a skylight to dry, the pigeon-fanciers wielding their hooples shaped like snowshoes to shoo the birds back into their coops. Blind children performed calisthenics on the caged roof of their academy on Pitt Street; artists erected their easels atop the Educational Alliance on East Broadway.
Ultimately, however, he felt the pull to range farther afield. There were towers that beckoned with their Babel-like altitudes, roof gardens where orchestras played for tea dances and gentlemen waltzed slinky ladies about the upper reaches of the metropolitan night. You had rooftops where grass grew and barnyard animals grazed, rooftops with whole parlors under awnings, penthouse terraces designed to resemble the decks of ships. There were kite fliers and laundry thieves whom Avigdor furtively observed, lovers entangled in trysts among flapping sheets. In Herald Square there was a giant billboard in the shape of a windmill on whose turning arms you could ride. All this he viewed through the eyes of a curious young savage looking onto a strange civilization, its inhabitants aspiring to the heights while remaining anchored to the terrestrial world.
Sometimes the boy felt sorry for them. So freighted were they with their worries and piecework, so bound by the shackles of their phylacteries, that they could never know his high-flying freedom. While they required so much to sustain the little they had, Avigdor needed next to nothing--only an occasional taste of his mother’s soup afloat with medallions of fat to keep him nourished, and his dexterous limbs to give him access to a city that had become his own personal jungle gym. Still, it was a solitary life, and there were times when he might feel sorry for himself as well, a sentiment that actually sweetened his life aloft.
Summers swelled the population of the ghetto’s elevated real estate, and Avigdor occasionally confronted gangs of other boys in his wanderings. As the Jews were likelier to remain earthbound, these were typically Irish lads in their floppy caps or Italians east of the Bowery, youth auxiliaries of the older gangs that were the strong arm of Tammany Hall. When they spotted a sheeny trespassing in their territory—Avigdor’s beak was a dead giveaway--they were quick to give chase across the sticky tarpaper. The boy exulted in these encounters even to the extent of seeking them out, nor was he above baiting his enemies in a Yiddish as exotic to them as the language of apes:
“Putzim mit oyren,” he might shout, “pricks with ears,” hopping up and down on a chimney pot.
Then he would turn a backwards somersault over a gap between buildings and lead them on an obstacle course across the housetops. At first they followed in a threatening mob though their ranks would soon thin, some hanging back in the face of their quarry’s more perilous leaps. The more stalwart persisted, only to be brought up short in the end, arriving on a roof in time to see Avigdor atop a facing tenement reeling in the ladder he’d just danced across; they halted at the sight of him running up a plank that was slanted against a trestle, weighted at its foot by a keg of nails. The yammering plank, which served as a springboard, would toss the nimble yid whooping onto some farflung height, where he turned to raise his fist and voice a victory cry,
“Kish mikh vi di yidn hobm gereet, kiss me where the Jews reposed!”
And while he still wore his shopworn sweater, knee pants, and tramping shoes, he imagined himself prancing in a loincloth—“his brown, sweat-streaked body glistening in the moonlight, supple and graceful among the awkward, hairy brutes about him.”
Occasionally it occurred to Avigdor that he might stand and fight, that with his “mighty thews” he might tear out their hearts as Tarzan did to Sabor the lion and Horta the boar, but it was frankly more fun to lead them on a merry chase. Eventually, though, they wearied of the sport, after which he would have to egg them on, pelting them with insults and standing on ledges to pish on their games of alley craps. When the weather began to turn and the roofs became less tenanted, he sorely missed their cat and mouse games.
By then he’d become something of a legend in the neighborhood, the feats ascribed to him including aspects of the miraculous. (The more credulous spoke of flying carpets and wings.) Though he never made any effort to disguise himself in his flights, no one on the ground ever confused the apeboy with the son of the mohel who remained the butt of jokes: “Whaddaya call Reb Bronfman’s toolbox? A bris kit.” But the fact of his double identity only added spice to his aerial exploits.
With the return of cold weather, however, Avigdor sometimes found it a stretch to sustain his fantasy, so incompatible were the frosty altitudes with his vision of the jungle’s verdant humidity. His fingers and toes stiffened, his frigid scalp chilled his brain, and occasionally as he scrambled up a stone façade or swung from a rope above an arcade, the lemony light from a window might beckon him back indoors. Sometimes, however much he might judge himself to be of another species, Avigdor missed the life of the tribe. But always his exhilaration renewed itself, and winter had its virtues: the clotheslines, for instance, bereft now of garments and coated in ice, gave the passenger--dangling from a walking stick hooked over them--a streamlined ride at breakneck speed. Though once, while he was zinging above the courtyards via this mode of travel, the brittle line snapped from his weight, and unable to arrest his forward momentum Avigdor was thrust headlong through the flimsy frame of a tenement window.
He crashed into the railroad flat in a cataclysm of splinters and glass and went sprawling onto the floor of a kitchen, where a woman stood dusted to the elbows in flour from a kneading trough and a girl sat naked in her bath. The woman—face like a pomegranate in a lopsided wig--came at the boy with her upraised rolling pin as he attempted to get to his feet. The girl in the inclined porcelain tub covered her breasts with her arms and shrieked hysterically; but Avigdor, lacerated head to toe, was deaf to the sound, insensitive to everything but her radiance, which shone through the lather that festooned her pink flesh like surf. “A mermaid,” thought the boy, frozen in his fascination until the rolling pin descended on his skull. Lightning struck a baobab tree in his head as he crumpled onto the floorboards again.
He came to in a paddy wagon from which he was unceremoniously hauled through dank corridors and tossed into a holding cell in the Tombs. With blood crusted like war paint over one whole side of his face, he climbed the bars and rattled his cage, uttering guttural cries—until he noticed that he wasn’t alone in the long cell. A number of desperate-looking parties in equally gore-stained attire sat slumped against the walls frowning at his antics. Their censure had an inhibiting effect on Avigdor’s outbursts, and realizing that he ached exquisitely in every fiber and joint, he satisfied himself with gingerly thumping his chest. At length he was allowed to send a message to his family, whereupon his father, who for all his piety understood how the system worked, paid a visit to the Honorable Max Hochstim in the backroom of an Essex Market saloon. Mr Hochstim, local ward heeler and trafficker in Jewish girls, had a son at whose bris Reb Bronfman had presided, and at the request of the distraught mohel he appealed to the Tammany boss Big Tim Sullivan, who saw to it that Avigdor was released from captivity.
“Now you going to be a good boy?” Reb Bronfman inquired of his son, whose head was swathed in gauze bandages; and the chastened Avigdor assured him that that was the case. But no sooner did his wounds begin to heal than the boy, heeding once more the call of the wild, took again to the roofs.
But instead of traveling by leaps and bounds to remote destinations about the city, Avigdor kept close to his own native quarter; close, to be precise, to a railroad tenement on Attorney Street, whose unmended window was covered with a dingy gray blanket whipped by the wind. Perched on a ledge supported by stone gargoyles, whose squat pose the apeboy duplicated, Avigdor maintained his vigil, waiting for a glimpse of the girl in the tub. Not that he expected to see her naked again. In fact, he was a little ashamed of having first viewed her in her natural state; for despite the tension that troubled his heart and loins, Avigdor still respected her modesty. In anticipating a second sighting, he clothed her in his mind, though not in the drab shirtwaists and buttoned boots of her peers. Rather was she wreathed in spindrift, hobble-skirted in rainbow scales, a creature of the sea as he was a creature of the air. That was the vision that had surfaced in his brain to displace the vertiginous throbbing left there by the rolling pin. It was a vision that vied with the dominion of the riotous jungle canopy that had lured him so far from the commonplace, an image he’d seen not just with his eyes but with organs of perception Avigdor could not even name--and he knew that every nerve in his body would sing out when he saw her again. So he watched from a neighboring ledge and sometimes dropped onto her fire escape to peer through windows, all to no avail. He spied the pomegranate-faced woman at her breadboard and a bald man reading a Yiddish newspaper at a table, rocking a cradle with his foot, and a daughter occasionally moving among them to perform chores; but how could she, who resembled so many others, be the same girl whose rosy essence permeated his waking dream?
From time to time Avigdor’s restlessness would get the better of him. Now that the season was milder, his body revived its involuntary agenda, and he was compelled to turn circles about a horizontal flagpole or shove off on a housepainter’s ladder, riding it like a giant second hand across an alley. He might skip over an avenue on the tops of the cabs of trucks as if across the armored backs of a herd of rhinoceros. But always he returned to his perch to watch for her, aware that “in his savage, untutored breast new emotions were stirring.” He wanted to rescue her from jungle cats and mamba snakes, from the shark-like youths in yellow spats who preyed on pretty Jewish daughters. “He knew that she was created to be protected, and that he was created to protect her.” Scrutinizing the girls on the sidewalks or at school, he wondered if he were missing her among them, so much did he distrust his own senses at street level. On earth he was only the son of a poor father who wore a suspensory and muttered benedictions into a beard so strewn with scraps you could boil it for soup; whereas aloft…but aloft was not where she lived.
Then came an afternoon in late April when the wind started up, the drizzling rain gathered into a cloudburst, and a girl appeared on the tenement roof to take her turn among the women bringing in laundry from the lines. From his roost Avigdor watched her struggling to stuff the billowing garments into her basket in the downpour: how her ginger hair was plastered to her forehead and cheeks, her white frock drenched until it clung to the contours of the sylph-like form beneath. So dizzy with desire was the boy that he nearly pitched head foremost from his perch; for this one he recognized as his rusalka, his sea-borne maidel and destined mate. The other ladies had abandoned the roof, leaving the girl still wrestling chemises and sheets, while Avigdor mounted the terrace behind him. Impervious to the driving rain, he stepped onto a cedar plank arched over the fulcrum of a railroad tie, which was wedged under a water barrel at one end, lashed with ropes at the other. He took up a fireman’s axe he’d left propped there for the purpose and--bracing for the release of tension that would fling him over the chasm between buildings--severed the ropes at a stroke. But nothing happened; the wet plank retained its warp—his devices were growing outworn from neglect. So he forsook the mechanism and hurtled the abyss on his own steam, clapping hold of a ceramic drainpipe on the opposite wall; he shinnied up its slippery length and sprang onto the roof in time to place himself between the girl and the door to the stairs.
“Then Tarzan of the Apes did just what his first ancestor would have done. He took his woman in his arms and carried her into the jungle,” and Avigdor, believing he’d detected a hint of compliance in her attitude, made to follow suit. He grabbed her arm with a force that caused her to drop her basket and pulled her to him, intoxicated by his own strength, trying his best to ignore her panic as he looked about for the readiest route of absconding with the girl. He saw walls whose irregular bricks he might ascend spider-like with his burden, chimneys he could bound across like stepping stones, a distant bell tower that might provide a temporary nest. There he would deposit her after she’d come “to trust this strange wild creature as she would have trusted but few of the men of her acquaintance.” He would make her a bed of ferns and grasses and leave her to sleep in the leafy bower while he lay across the entrance to keep watch. In the morning he would bring her coconuts, and when he lifted her up and offered to return her to civilization, she would throw her arms about his neck and unashamedly declare her love.
But that was not how things fell out. Furiously beating her fists against his chest, she cried, “Lemme go!” in a voice whose stridency froze his bones. When he relaxed his embrace, she tore herself from his grasp spitting curses: “Boolvan! Idiot!”, while he remained at a loss for words, having ruled out the language of the great apes as inadequate. Recovered enough to take up her basket and make for the stairwell, she hissed, “A cholera in your guts!” as she swept through the bulkhead door.
Standing there with the rain buffeting his upturned face, he declared, “I’m Avigdor, Lord of the Rooftops,” then asked of the closed tin door, “What’s your name?”
It was Fanny, Fanny Podhoretz, but he wouldn’t learn it for a time. For a time he continued to lurk in the vicinity of her building, squatting on elevations that afforded him an unobstructed view of her roof. But if she appeared at all (and it was seldom), it was in the company of other girls, as she was clearly not of a mind to risk solitary exposure again. Though she wore the same calicos as her companions and seemed to share in their conspiracies, Avigdor could now discern that, wet or dry, she was a rare creature composed of pure light. By summer, when he spotted her beating a rug or featherbed with her companions, or braiding another girl’s hair, he wondered if she even remembered their encounter. Forgetting it would be in his favor, though the thought also filled him with regret. There were occasions when he saw her eyes stray from their occupation to scan the rooftops, and although at those times he read a certain uneasiness in her expression, he also believed he saw something else—which gave him cause to hope. Nurturing that hope, he would station himself on a cornice or atop a water tower so that, when she looked up, she might observe him hunkering there. But if ever she caught sight of him, she quickly averted her glance. Of course Avigdor continued his aerial sorties, but he no longer plummeted and soared for the sheer animal sport of it; always now he liked to imagine she was watching, that he was showing off his agility for her sake. Such self-consciousness had already in some degree compromised his freedom, or so Avigdor supposed, even as he despaired of ever seeing her alone again. Then early one evening in June, as dusk stained the sky a plum-purple over the river, there she was by herself on the roof taking clothes from a line.
And before she could release the other corner of a hanging pillowslip, he was standing right in front of her.
The clothespin fell from between her clenched teeth as her jaw dropped open. “Meshugah ahf toit!” she cried, taking a step backward with a hand to her breast; but that was the extent of her retreat. Perhaps she’d had a change of heart, or was she merely too frightened to flee? In either case Avigdor felt encouraged, but while he knew better than to try and abduct her, he was still unable to find his tongue. How after all did humans pay court? Then it seemed to him a great mercy that she was the first to speak, demanding in her unladylike voice,
“What are you, a man or a monkey?”
The question demanded an earnest answer and the boy hung his head to consider. “Both?” he replied at length.
“You can’t be both,” she insisted almost angrily.
He did not contradict her.
Then she cautiously submitted, “You look more like a monkey.”
Again he let the statement stand.
She shrugged as if having determined his harmlessness and began hurriedly to fold a sheet that was dragging the tarpaper, then dropped it into her wicker basket. “In monkeys I ain’t innerested,” she snapped, but unless he was mistaken, there was a trace of coyness in her tone. Emboldened, Avigdor rallied all the courage he had at his command, which wasn’t much—it was only the untried courage of a callow youth, which had little in common with the fearlessness of apes.
“In what then you innerested?” he asked.
She gave another tug at the clothesline on its pulley, causing a tendril of russet hair to come loose from its bun. It spiraled, thought Avigdor, like an auger that could drill to the core of your soul. “I tell you what I ain’t innerested; I ain’t innerested in talking no more to you. You’re bughouse.”
But she made no effort to depart, dropping another item of clothing into her basket, an intimate article at which Avigdor saw her blush. He felt again the urge to snatch her up and swing aloft with her, to feel her supple body in his arms. He wanted to battle the rogue anthropoid Terkoz over her, vanquishing him just in time to pull her out of the quicksand in which she was sinking. An apeboy had many options unavailable to the son of a mohel. Then she blessedly took the initiative again, uttering somewhere between an insult and advice,
“Go walk up a wall, why dontcha. What are you always spying on me?”
“Because,” in his mind he let go of a vine with no notion of what he might next catch hold of, “I love you.”
“Feh!” She made a disgusted face, pulling another scanty item from the line, stuffing it into the basket without folding it as she turned on her heel. “Bughouse!” But the next evening she was on the roof alone again.
He offered her the celestial altitudes and she assured him that the roof of No.76 Attorney Street was lofty enough for her, thank you very much. He told her that with him she could fly and she said there was nowhere she was going that she couldn’t get to on the 3rd Avenue El. Thus disparaged, he had the presence of mind, once he got around to introducing himself as Avigdor, to insert a “formerly” before “of the Apes.” She sniffed and said she was Fanny of the Lower East Side Podhoretzes, her father the proprietor of Podhoretz’s Foundation Garments, one of a dozen such hole-in-the-wall establishments on Orchard Street. Then she told him in no uncertain terms that rooftop rendezvous were not her style; they were the kind of thing that could give a girl a reputation, and personally she preferred being closer to the ground. If he wanted to see her again—which wasn’t to say that she wanted to see him--he could come calling at her family’s apartment like a regular person. As she spoke, Avigdor became a student of her emerald eyes set slightly aslant in the cameo pink oval of her face, and realized he was hopelessly torn. To be with her would mean coming down from up above, a bodeful prospect for a youth who had no other prospects in the world of men; and to present himself as a candidate for Fanny’s hand he must have prospects.
So, with a heavy heart, he temporarily abandoned the roofs in order to indenture himself to his mother, whose finished piecework he delivered to the rag trade jobbers after school--school having become a place where his attendance seemed daily less imperative, while the cheder was already history. Neither of his parents were especially troubled that his tasks abetted his truancy, both already resigned to the fact that scholarship would not save their son from the life of a wage slave. At first Avigdor thought he might make short work of his deliveries by taking aerial routes to the uptown emporiums, but given the bundles he had to carry, that method of transport proved impractical. And so he became a shlepper, identifying more with the native bearers the Lord of the Jungle viewed from the treetops than the Lord of the Jungle himself. Still he was making a salary, if only a pittance, and with his inaugural pennies he purchased a bouquet of chrysanthemums, brilliantined his hair, and turned up with palpitations at the threshold of the Podhoretz flat. He was relieved when, opening the door, Fanny’s mother failed to recognize the interloper who’d crash-landed on her kitchen floor, though he still had to submit to what amounted to an inquisition from her father. Once it was established, however, that the merchant Podhoretz and the ritual circumciser Bronfman both hailed from the Ukrainian town of Drogobych—once determined that, unJewish musculature notwithstanding, Avigdor was an ordinary kid from the neighborhood—Fanny was allowed to step out with the reformed apeboy.
They went to a candy store with a fountain on Delancey Street, where Fanny had a charlotte russe, Avigdor a phosphate, and overcoming his disappointment at finding her less siren than sensible Jewish daughter, Avigdor asked her to marry him.
“Behave yourself,” simpered Fanny, licking her spoon with a tentacular tongue, but the boy had developed no talent for small talk. In fact, he had no facility for conversing with a young lady in any conventional fashion, when by all rights they ought to be frolicking among branches reached only by the most intrepid of tropical birds. But as he sat there at the marble counter looking out onto the sidewalk aswarm with toilers and lunch-bucket drones, the jungle, beyond inaccessible, seemed merely a childish dream.
Fanny pointed through the plate-glass window toward a sad-faced capuchin monkey tethered hat-in-hand to an equally dour Italianer’s barrel organ. “Maybe you could get his job,” she teased.
Among Avigdor’s airborne attributes that failed to translate to sea-level was his aptitude for playfulness. “I got already a position,” he replied, and was instantly ashamed of having adopted a contrary tone with his beloved. But while the shlepping might foot the bill for an occasional excursion to the nickelodeon or the candy store, he knew perfectly well it could never support a wife and family. So what was the alternative? Should he apprentice himself to his father and look forward to a future paved in infant foreskins? His distaste for the profession aside, he was aware that inflicting the bloody sign of the covenant on newborn pishers earned the mohel little more than a dubious local prestige. He supposed he might join the legions of cutters, basters, and pressers that swelled the district’s sweatshops, but even these occupations required a modicum of skill, let alone the fetters they imposed on the worker. Or—and here Avigdor had a vision of trapezes and mid-air arabesques above cheering crowds,
“Maybe I could join a circus?” he proposed.
“Maybe,” responded the girl with a coquettish wink, “my papa will give you a job.”
The two families met in the rabbi’s stuffy chambers in back of the Beit Emunah sanctuary on Stanton Street, where a heavy-lidded Rabbi Iskowitz officiated over the signing of the ketubah, the marriage contract. The Bronfmans and Podhoretzes were courteous to one another, though both families were clearly skeptical about the alliance. After all, their children, barely out of diapers, had bypassed traditional channels in their haste to pledge themselves to one another; and while Fanny was a good girl with a practical nature, Avigdor had only recently shown signs of overcoming a lifelong fecklessness. As they toasted the occasion with thimblefuls of Kiddush wine, Reb Bronfman repined with a shake of the head, “Amerikaner kinder,” upon which Mr. Podhoretz placed a hand in sympathy on the dandruff-dusted shoulder of the mohel’s gabardine: “At least we robbed from the marriage broker his fee, eh Bronfman?” Their wives—respectively moon-faced and fruit---assured each other that this was how things were done in the New World, where tradition was trumped by something called love.
For all his giddy emotion, Avigdor was uncomfortable with the businesslike atmosphere surrounding the contractual arrangement; while on the other hand he was pleased to be regarded as a person of substance, a grownup if you will. He felt a measure of gratitude toward his prospective father-in-law—he couldn’t find it in him to call him Leon, nor did Mr. Podhoretz invite the familiarity—for offering to take him on as an employee in his shop. True, his salary would not amount to much more than his shlepper’s wages, but Podhoretz also owned some rental property on Rivington Street and had promised to provide the newlyweds an apartment, rent-free, as a wedding gift. It was a tiny apartment in a dilapidated Old Law building, but even for that Avigdor was thankful, since its condition somewhat salved his feelings of being in the merchant’s debt. Still, he was a little breathless from the speed with which events had proceeded: Was he in fact about to swap his secret life for a domestic one he was wholly unprepared for? But the important thing, the thing to remember, was that he’d found his bashert, his fated one; that, astonishingly, Fanny had made up her mind to accept him, albeit with some reservations.
“You got potential, Avi,” she assured him, poking a forefinger pointblank in his solar plexis, “but you got yet to be a man.” Which estate seemed to preclude his simian hijinks.
On strolls past the East Broadway shmooseries or along the 2nd Avenue rialto in the weeks preceding the wedding, she allowed him certain liberties, but always at a price. The held hand required the promise of some newfangled appliance or, say, a Brussels carpet; the pecked cheek a baby boy. As he listened to her recite the plans for the wedding—echoing her father’s anxiety over the rent for the hall, the cost of the catering, the bridesmaids’ bouquets—Avigdor felt again his sense of having entered into a business transaction he’d experienced in the rabbi’s chambers. He longed for spontaneous displays of affection, the heated embrace that she would return with a fervent will, her “surrender”—though he wasn’t entirely sure what that would entail. But mostly he contented himself in the knowledge that it was her appreciation of his animal grace that had won her; she understood that he was not your garden variety Orchard Street son. So Avigdor kept his passions in check, though it seemed to him dishonest that he should have to suppress them. Also he resented how, the more time you spent on earth, the more the earth’s ills flocked about you. The papers harped on the events of the day: the war in Europe, the threat of Spanish Influenza, the lynching of Leo Frank. Such incidents from the so-called civilized world had not much concerned him in his days aloft, but now they infected him as if contaminating his blood with lead.
He and Fanny went one night to the picture palace on Grand Street, where they saw Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Baghdad” leaping from onion dome to minaret, and Avigdor felt the charge along his sinews that announced his impulse to soar. He missed the days, already growing remote, when he’d longed for the girl with such keen devotion from an airy distance. (“His thoughts were of the beautiful white girl; they were always of her now. The apeboy knew no god, but he was as near to worshipping his divinity as mortal man ever comes to worship.”) He needed to see his Fanny that way again, from a vantage clear of the poison creepers of commitment that had begun to hamper his limbs. So he climbed walls and vaulted over airshafts and alleys onto her roof, where he lay across the skylight above her landing waiting for a glimpse of his betrothed. She emerged that very evening from her family’s flat with a pair of her girlfriends, while her fiancé, feral instincts in play, regarded her through a pane whose dustiness lent a halo to her ginger head. And again he wanted to snatch her up and carry her off without ceremony: the ways of these white men, these Jews, were not his. Watching as she and her friends disappeared down the stairs, he was impervious to the groaning of the window frame (which might have been the rutting of pigeons) as its slats sagged under his weight, then collapsed, so that he plummeted willy-nilly onto the landing below, shattering his leg.
At the wedding he leaned on a crutch like some crippled beggar invited out of charity to partake of the feast, as the veiled bride encircled him seven times. Over her finger he placed a silver ring, purchased on credit, that would often see the inside pawnshops in the coming years; then he nearly lost his balance while trying to lift a leg to stomp the goblet before he settled upon smashing it with his crutch. During the catered meal that followed the ceremony the wedding bard cut capers that seemed a deliberate mockery of the acrobatics Avigdor had once performed so effortlessly overhead. The spidery badhkn in his boxy skullcap and tailcoat made crude references to the groom’s wooden third leg and lampooned his father’s profession in the style of the boys at school: “Reb Bronfman was careless on the job and got the sac.” A three-piece orchestra serenaded the company and the bard did a kazatski, the mother-in-laws a mekhutonim à deux, but the groom was unable to dance. Fanny had insisted on the goyish tradition of a honeymoon, so they took a train to the Catskills Mountains where they could not afford the price of a hotel. They stayed in a rundown bungalow colony whose noisy neighbors made of the place a lumpen annex to the ghetto itself. There Fanny tried her hand with mixed success at cooking, while Avigdor, graduated from crutch to mahogany cane (the same he’d once hooked over telephone wires), hobbled about the yard gazing at the dense forest that blanketed the mountains. Then he bounded up a slope, grabbed hold of a low-lying limb and, hoisting himself into the upper branches, swung from tree to tree until he was beyond the observation of anyone in the known world. Having thus imagined his flight, the bridegroom concluded that undomesticated nature, which he looked upon for the first time in his life, was rather forbidding; whereas Fanny’s freckled pink and alabaster body under her modest blue gown—a place she now welcomed him to without conditions--was home.
He ate her rubbery farfel, listened to her dreams of pier-glasses and carpet sweepers, and entered her bed with a trembling gratitude--and by winter the stem of her waist had begun to swell with the ripening fruit of their union. By then Avigdor had become more or less accustomed to working in his father-in-law’s shop. It had not been an easy adjustment; retail sales demanded of the clerk a healthy measure of convivial talk, which Avigdor did not come by naturally. The ladies, mostly zaftig wives grown heavy with the cares of their middle years, had to be coaxed into feeling comfortable when purchasing intimate garments--garments whose very nature had at first given Avigdor acute distress in handling. He would have liked not to handle them at all, to perhaps offer them to the customers on the end of the snatch-pole used for retrieving out-of-reach merchandise. But Mr Podhoretz, textbook in his methods, told him in no uncertain terms that he must learn to “seduce” the ladies into purchases. The word made Avigdor’s skin crawl. But in the end the son-in-law overcame his discomfort and learned to present the corsets and corset covers with deft fingers that tickled the ladies as if they were wearing the garment he teased in his hands. He cultivated the appropriate patter (“…your patent bust improver modeled on the one by the famous Venus de Milo…”) and displayed the more compromising items, such as abdominal supporters and uterine trusses, in a manner requiring the utmost discretion. In the end his clientele warmed to the young man with his stringy muscles grown slack from want of exercise and his pronounced limp; for his leg, improperly set, had never truly mended. By the time the child was born—a difficult birth that injured the mother, precluding any further offspring—Avigdor had made himself a virtually indispensable assistant to his father-in-law, whose largess he had more than repaid.
Taking partial credit for her husband’s satisfactory progress, Fanny proudly declared one evening as he slouched into the apartment, weary from the day’s labor: “You’re housebroke, Avi,” and Avigdor had to pause to remember a time when he was not.
The boy, Benjamin, named after Fanny’s zayde (who’d died of dysentery during the passage from Hamburg), was himself an anaemic and often sickly child, doted on by his mother to the exclusion of almost everything else. Before Benjy’s conception, Avigdor and his wife had gamboled like young animals in their conjugal bed, whose galloping incited the neighbors below them to bang on the ceiling with brooms. In their transports they’d attained heights from which they were granted an angel’s-eye view of their canoodling, their hilarity approaching a dangerous pitch. Sober-minded by day, at night Fanny could be adventurous in ways that shocked and delighted her husband; but once she’d become pregnant, adventures ceased, as she concentrated her energies on the child that filled her womb--which no longer had room for anyone else. Avigdor of course honored her humor; it was after all only temporary; he worshipped at the shrine of her melon tumescence. But after Benjy’s delivery, during which the girl had suffered complications that would make intimacy painful in any case, Fanny had no interest in reviving their passion. “If it don’t lead to babies, Avi,” she stated with a finality that caused her husband’s soul to shrink, “it’s a sin.”
Her body, as if to consolidate her disposition, lost its girlish shape, never again shedding the heft of her pregnancy, while the freckles that stippled her cheeks and chest seemed smeared into blotches and stains. In the meantime Benjy grew at his unsteady pace, still frail and subject to a cavalcade of childhood diseases. These he endured in his convertible bed in the corner of the crowded parlor, reading Bible stories and later the novels of Baroness Orczy and Rafael Sabbatini, leading the cosseted life his mother facilitated. She was protective of him to a degree that seemed sometimes to protect him even from his father, who adored him as well--though he nourished an anticipation that the boy’s reading would lead eventually to notable deeds. To Avigdor’s private dismay, his son was also an acrophobe, who shunned the fire escape for his studies and threw tantrums when his parents tried to take him onto the roof to sleep. As a consequence, the family was confined on summer nights to the furnace-like atmosphere of an apartment cluttered to nearly impassable with its Windsor range, davenport bed, and Brunswick Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine; for Fanny would have her distaff accessories. Then she would have a larger apartment (“I got a hashek for a real home, Avi”) and had begun to extol Brooklyn as the Promised Land. To please her Avigdor took his wife and child on an excursion out to Brownsville by subway to inspect the mushrooming subdivisions in their uniform lots. Such a move was not out of the question; Podhoretz’s Foundation, thanks in part to Avigdor’s good offices, was prospering. Mr Podhoretz had bought the failed haberdashery next door and knocked down the wall between them, expanding his premises as well as his inventory—which now included a new line of queen-size vests and bloomers, and fancy French underwear. Then just as Avigdor was about to close the deal on a two-bedroom duplex in Brownsville, a series of calamities befell his family.
They started when a pair of two-bit extortionists in their fedoras and pencil-stripes began dunning Mr Podhoretz for protection gelt. Edged out of competition with the local bootleg syndicate, the thugs had fallen back on strong-arming East Side shopkeepers, and were naturally attracted to the thriving garment mart with its increased stock in trade. But Leon Podhoretz , a stiff-necked man of commerce, a landlord and wise investor whose son-in-law’s yeoman service permitted him to contemplate an early retirement, remained obstinate in the face of threats. Avigdor, however, was worried, worry having become a recent avocation. The Stock Market had crashed, and the old ghetto, in its proximity to the epicenter of the collapse, was especially rocked by the seismic shudder. Pleased with their Yankee-style speculations, Mr Podhoretz along with his brethren of the Kaminsker Landsmanshaft had lost their shirts, but despite Avigdor’s counsel to the contrary his father-in-law still pooh-poohed the underworld menace. The fire that consumed the Podhoretz gesheft spread to the businesses that flanked it on either side, so that a great gray cavity like a meteor crater smoldered in the middle of Orchard Street. The property was of course heavily insured, but the insurance company protested the owner’s claim, alleging arson which was epidemic on the Lower East Side. Thus began a lengthy period of litigation which exhausted what remained of Mr P’s savings, while his unemployed son-in-law was forced to apply for jobs that he was eminently unsuited for.
With his lame leg bedeviled by various -itises that flared from activity as from an infestation of fire ants, Avigdor was officially handicapped. Nevertheless he made the rounds of the local shops, limping on his walking stick, canvassing situations that had dried up in any case in a rash of layoffs. He turned out faithfully for the pre-dawn shape-ups (which now attracted multitudes) in Seward Park and at the fish market in South Street, where his disability precluded his selection for work. A little relief came from an unlikely quarter, since Reb Bronfman’s profession turned out to be Depression-proof, and his destitute son, beyond humiliation, had no choice but to accept his papa’s handouts. He used the pennies to purchase from a Delancey Street wholesaler tin cups, potato mashers, and shoelaces, which he peddled, in the absence of a pushcart, door to door. But the competition was stiff and few had the wherewithal to buy; never mind that the drag-of-foot-peddler, appearing with his sack like a troll out of a grandmother’s tale, did not present an appealing countenance. While he might scrape together enough to keep the family in bad herring and stale farfeloons, he continually failed to make the rent they owed under the building’s new ownership, since Mr Podhoretz had had to sell off his holdings. For that Fanny had to take in sewing, restoring spent gathers and orchid folds in worn knickers, stitching needle-run lace to the hems of old petticoats, demonstrating a talent which who knew she had for rejuvenating second-hand apparel. Still they lived week to week in jeopardy of being dispossessed. Then Reb Bronfman, despite a flushed face that some took as a sign of health, dropped dead of a stroke, and Avigdor’s fretting over the fate of his bereaved mother supplanted the grief he might have spared for the mohel.
With his wife he discussed his intention of moving the Widow Bronfman into Rivington Street, where her piecework operation combined with Fanny’s furbelow trade would comprise a regular cottage industry. But Fanny pointed out that this was a physical impossibility.
“Tahke, so she can have the closet we ain’t got?”
But even as he understood there was no room, Avigdor resented what he perceived as his wife’s selfishness. Selfish? She was taking in work by the bushel without complaint, bartering for cracked eggs in the market, sometimes returning home with a chicken under her dress that her increasingly dumpling anatomy helped to conceal. All this she managed while shielding her delicate Benjy—whose diet consisted mainly of milk of magnesia--against the depredations of hard times. If he harbored any lingering spite on account of her frigidity, Avigdor was not aware of it, since his chronic fatigue (and her dowdy figure) had neutralized all carnal thoughts; and besides, a second child in these circumstances would be catastrophic. Still he accused her: “Fanny, a heart you ain’t got!” But when the tears started in freshets from her eyes, Avigdor wept along with her, and his mother--who had no wish to come between husband and wife—accommodated the children by passing away herself, death in those days being an option of easy availability.
In his distraction Avigdor remembered Shaky Gruber, the friend of his youth, with whom he hadn’t communicated in over a decade. Gruber had become a floorwalker at Wanamaker’s Department Store, a sharp dresser with the haughtiness of one gainfully employed while the rest of the country waited for F.D.R.’s alphabet agencies to save them. At first Gruber mistook his diminished old chum for a panhandler, until Avigdor, who’d staggered up to him outside the store at the corner of Broadway and 8th, identified himself. “Guess you don’t do much running through the jungle these days,” quipped Shaky, though Avigdor didn’t seem to know what he was talking about. Once he heard his old friend’s appeal, however, Shaky Gruber tugged his lapels and made noises like he might have an inside track; and while he promised more than he could deliver, he was ultimately able to secure Avigdor part-time work as a stockboy, for which the petitioner embarrassed the floorwalker by kissing his hand. Most of the labor went on behind the scenes, on the loading dock and in the stockrooms where the merchandise was sorted and stored—sometimes on shelves that involved climbing ladders upon which Avigdor experienced bouts of vertigo, to say nothing of the constant aggravation in his leg; but often he was called on to move garment racks through the various departments of the mammoth emporium. Then the freight elevator gate would open like a mouth debouching him into gilded halls lined with jewelry in glass cases, aisles of mechanical toys and luxury items in galleries overlooking a cathedral-size atrium. It was during one of these forays, while rattling through Ladies’ Furnishings, that Avigdor happened to spy a sales girl at a loss for words before a customer who insisted on returning an “underbelt corselette.”
“The thing makes me look in my chemise like I’m wearing a canary cage,” she complained.
“I’m s-s-sorry, madam,” stammered the sales girl, evoking a clearly much rehearsed phrase, “but store policy prohibits the return of discount items...”
Looming over the diminutive girl, the woman was demanding to see her supervisor when Avigdor, without thinking, abandoned the garment rack and trundled forward to volunteer his expertise. Later on it would seem to him that he’d stepped from a towering height into a void.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but you have every right to complain. However, the new Corslo-silhouette, which it’s just in from Paris that I have samples of on my rack, offers a combination of bust bodice, hip belt, jupon, and pantalon—the fabric so flimsy if you eat a grape it will show. We have them in satin and apricot crêpe-de-Chine...”
The salesgirl stood open-mouthed as the stylish lady listened attentively to Avigdor’s shpiel, then she recovered herself enough to protest the stockboy’s temerity only to be shushed by the customer. Actually stomping her foot in indignation, the girl was further chastised by her supervisor, who’d come from behind a counter upon witnessing the scene. A matronly woman squinting through a tiny lorgnette, the supervisor had sized up the situation, and having determined that the crippled stockboy, albeit a male but otherwise innocuous, was the better spokesperson for their unmentionable merchandise, promoted him on the spot, and dispatched the inept salesgirl to the bargain basement. And that was how Avigdor found a safe harbor in intimate apparel, just as the Japanese bombers demonstrated to the nation that no harbors were safe.
But even then he felt uncommonly snug in his new situation, where he remained unruffled in the presence of the ladies who sometimes teased him as they might have a eunuch with whom they felt perfectly at ease. He was a balebos, a householder and provider again, and it wasn’t until his bookish son Benjy received his conscription notice that Avigdor’s worries, briefly dormant, were recalled to life. This was soon after the Bronfmans, having waited their turn on a long list of intensely vetted applicants, had moved into an apartment in a recently completed housing development near the East River. The apartment had two bedrooms, steam heat, a tiled bath, and a balcony with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge; and though the news from Europe was dire, it seemed to the Family Bronfman that they had arrived on a friendly shore after a storm. Their son, still prone to infirmity, had just earned his high school diploma and was being courted by colleges looking to fill their Jewish quotas with whiz kids. Vain of his academic accomplishments, Benjy was coy in fielding their invitations, having yet to decide on a particular area of study; for he’d excelled in every subject in the curriculum other than phys ed. The apartment was full of his awards and citations, and his parents’ pride in his achievements was a place where they still found common ground, though they sometimes differed in their ambitions for the boy: Avigdor imagining he might build rocket ships and cure pestilence while Fanny preferred he take an easeful seat on the Supreme Court. She was concerned however that the stress of high office might tax his feeble constitution. Given his continued poor health, it had always been assumed that, even in wartime, the boy would be deferred from the draft. He was a special case and it was unthinkable that his fate should be cast among the rank and file. Then it seemed even more inconceivable that after his induction, rather than assigned to some administrative (if not counter-intelligence) desk, he was sent instead to the front, where he was shot by a sniper in the snow-deep forest of the Ardennes.
Now, thought Avigdor, there was nothing left to worry about; the worst had happened. Now there was only his trying to imagine the magnitude of the fear his son must have known in the chaos of battle, and as it turned out he was very good at imagining; it was an exercise that caused the chronic pain in his stiffened leg to resonate in his heart. Then the fear, assuming volume and weight, would come to occupy the spaces where the boy had been, supplanting the ache of missing him and the regret over having neglected him when he lived. Nothing on earth was untainted by it; naked fear emanated not just from the Bomb or the Reds or the execution of the Rosenbergs, not only from the evidence of a continent toiveled of Jews, but from the diaphanous fabrics he handled in the emporium and the doll-like women who bought them. It emanated from the coffee-skinned strangers who’d begun to invade the old neighborhood. By the time the fear had subsided enough for Avigdor to notice her, his wife had languished too long in the bed from which he’d banished himself. From the first he’d resented the way she hoarded all the sorrow, leaving him to absorb the dread, but in time the situation started to seem like a fair enough bargain. It was only when her body (which in wasting away had reverted to its original spindliness) began to fail her that Avigdor wondered why, though he no longer loved her, he should be so afraid of her passing. Nor did his apprehension die with her, when after a regimen of pills that left her sleepwalking when she wasn’t prostrate, Fanny finally gave up the ghost—or was it that the ghost she’d become surrendered the heartsick Fanny? In any event the world now seemed almost too frightful a place to visit anymore, notwithstanding Avigdor’s fear of being alone.
His old friend Shaky Gruber tried to remind the shopclerk that the world was wider than the blighted Lower East Side. Shaky himself had made a killing through shrewd investments in the post-War real estate boom and had moved his family into a house on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. He came into the neighborhood on Sundays to buy delicatessen, when he would deign to treat the sadsack Bronfman, not much stouter these days than his own walking stick, to cheese blintzes at the Garden Cafeteria. Grown venerable in his prosperity, Shaky would assure Avigdor that the Earth was still full of a number of things.
“Such as,” Avigdor humbly conceded, “the murder of a young President and a brand new war—or is it just the continuation of an old?” For the shopclerk caught only vague references to such things between episodes of Mr. Ed and I’ve Got a Secret, and reruns of The Honeymooners on the snowy screen of his rabbit-eared TV.
Shaky dismissed his friend’s rotten attitude with a harrumph. “You must’ve accumulated what, maybe a decade’s worth of vacation time? Why don’t you make a holiday?”
“Where would I go?” wondered Avigdor, whose whole life, come to think of it, was circumscribed by the vanishing ghetto. The journey by bus from Grand Street up to Broadway and 8th was far enough for him, thanks all the same. (He’d since curtailed his junkets to a home for the aged in Greenwich Village, where Fanny’s little sister, grown up and married to a doctor, had installed her parents--for the Podhoretzes had made it clear they regarded their son-in-law as somehow complicit in their daughter’s demise, a judgment with which the son-in-law guiltily concurred.)
“I dunno, Bronfman.” Shaky stopped chewing, one varicose cheek stuffed with blintz. “Visit the Fiji Isles, go to the moon. Maybe you should get in with the Chasids that got a shuttle service between East Broadway and paradise…” He was alluding to a community of fanatical Munkatsh refugees who had taken up residence down the street, their little shtibl sandwiched between a bodega and a Puerto Rican social club. “If you don’t want a woman, you can get religion instead.”
Shaky himself was a big shot at a showcase temple out on the Parkway, and he recommended that Avigdor get involved with a local congregation if only for the sake of fellowship. Avigdor respectfully rejected his advice out of hand, prompting Shaky to ask, “Why do I bother?” Then he stopped bothering and more years passed bringing more universal enormities, some of which bled uncensored into the shopclerk’s companion TV. Meanwhile Wanamaker’s had changed hands, though Avigdor, as much a fixture as the model home on the furniture floor, managed to hang onto his job; but his increasingly clunky demeanor no longer inspired confidence in his clientele. Moreover, he’d grown uneasy with recent trends in the undergarment industry, squeamish in the face of their vulgarity. So when it was not so subtly suggested that he’d outworn his usefulness, he took the hint and retired on a modest pension; he rented a small apartment in a lower income development and became for all intents and purposes a shut-in.
His television, however, remained a poor filter for the incursions of history, and even Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies were haunted by images of torched villages and cities in flame. Then the retiree, harried from his isolation, would find himself toiling along once familiar streets: such as East Broadway, where, in lieu of the talkers’ cafes and Yiddish journals, there was tropical music even in winter, and where the Chinese had commandeered a beachhead in the old Forward Building. On this particular early evening, in a sudden blue flurry that rivaled the staticky reception on his TV, Avigdor heard issuing from an eroded fieldstone townhouse the sounds of inharmonious prayer. He hadn’t been in a synagogue since his dead papa had circumcised his son with a palsied hand in the vestibule of the Stanton Street shul, its doors since boarded up. But shivering in his threadbare overcoat, he told himself he was only seeking warmth rather than heeding some primordial call. He trudged up the steps and pushed open the door of the Munkatsher shtibl, surprised that no one prevented his entry; because it seemed to Avigdor that he should have been forbidden what he then witnessed: A minyan or more of Chasidim, like a crowd of black mantises, their forelegs resting on each others’ shoulders, shuffled in a circle about an old man who stood on a stepladder (in place of a bima), hugging the sacred scrolls. With his thin beard curling like smoke from a lamp, his narrow face lifted in ecstasy, the old man maintained a precarious balance on the ladder’s middle rung. “Kadosh, kadosh…,” warbled his disciples, raising their raucous singsong a decibel or two as their rebbe ascended another step. Their voices swayed the chandelier and caused plaster to waft down from the ceiling, as the rebbe, in his gymnastic rapture, mounted the ladder’s summit then stepped further onto an invisible rung. Was Avigdor dreaming or did the holy man, his white-stockinged ankles a visual echo of the Torah finials, hover in midair an instant before plunging into the arms of his disciples? It was in any event the moment when the retired shopclerk, having seen more than enough, fled the roomful of lunatics.
Safely returned to his apartment, he switched on the television set, which as luck would have it was on the blink. This was no great loss, since the thing had recently become nothing more than a cabinet of proliferating horrors, but left to his own devices, Avigdor, still trying to catch his ragged breath, realized that he had no devices left. There was little to distract him amid the sparse furnishings of his compact abode, scoured as it was of any mementoes of his marriage—which made the small shrine of his lost son’s books, on their shelf atop a wheezing radiator, so conspicuous. Avigdor could not remember the last time he’d read a book, nor had he ever been tempted by these, which were mostly dry academic texts. But among them were also a handful of dogeared novels that Benjy had abandoned in early adolescence: adventure sagas by Delos Lovelace and Jules Verne, a volume by Edgar Rice Burroughs entitled Tarzan of the Apes. Taking the latter tentatively in hand, Avigdor could feel his follicles tingling, though he couldn’t at first have said why; but when he opened the book and perused a random passage (“None more craftily stealthy than he, none more ferocious, nor none who leaped so high into the air in the Dance of Death”), his heart beat like a clapper tolling sobs from his shallow breast.
Collapsing into an armchair, he concluded, “Whatever time I got left, it’s wasted on me,” and thereupon resolved to end his miserable life. Months passed, however, before he was able to stir himself to the task. The bones of his crooked leg seemed as if replaced by a fiery brand, which did little to assuage the chill that pervaded the rest of his meager frame; so it wasn’t until a soft morning in April that he felt mobile enough to put his plan into practice. He nibbled some toast dipped in tea, bundled himself in his overcoat despite the warm weather, and began his halting progress toward Orchard Street, obeying a sentimental impulse to locate his childhood tenement and fling himself from the roof.
The building was still standing, its dim stairwell still dense with a palimpsest of odors that included, beneath a veil of peppery spices, an ancient cabbage stench. The water-stained walls were riotous with spray-painted graffiti like prehistoric glyphs on the walls of a cave. Having slogged to the head of the stairs, his lungs and joints howling, Avigdor nudged open the unlocked door, inhaled a deep draught of noxious ozone, and fell into a coughing fit. The brick bulkheads were also emblazoned with gang insignia, the defunct water tanks with Day-Glo portraits of murdered boys. As the cripple made his way between the rotting frames of untended gardens, he was aware of trespassing, of perhaps being watched by the tribes that oversaw these heights. Exhausted past his capacity for being afraid, however, he approached the parapet and, with the aid of his cane (which he relinquished thereafter), hoisted himself onto the knee-high wall, its width broadened by an ornamental molding. He stood totteringly erect and thought he could see, beyond the skirmishing antennae and huddled towers, continents swarming with ignorant armies butchering their own. Their distant cries mingled with those of the immigrant merchants shmeikeling cheap leather goods in the street below.
Then a memory insinuated itself into his weary brain: of being taken as a child to the East River wharves by his parents on the Jewish new year, where he was instructed to toss his fledgling sins in the form of breadcrumbs into the murky water. Could a person release the burden of his years in the same fashion? he wondered; but Rosh Hashonah was months away and Avigdor could not at any rate imagine how to discard his sins exclusive of himself. So, as a breeze fluttered his coattails and bussed his cheek, he stepped from the ledge and dropped like a stone. But no sooner did he find himself plummeting toward the pavement—which was rushing up to slap him into oblivion--than he realized that the wounds of past decades were nothing compared to what he’d suffered at the hands of the mountain apes Bolgani and Kerchak. Instinctively he snagged an electrical cable with the same strong arm that had slain the brute Terkoz, and felt his body whipped into a sudden jackknife from which—once he’d adjusted himself to the empty air--he unfolded into an impeccably executed swan dive. He caught hold of a wrought iron signpole that jutted above a shop and swung around it, hesitating at the apex in a momentary handstand, enjoying his view of the world turned upside down. Then he spun in a giant revolution once, twice, three times before letting go, confident that in flight he would find something else to grab hold of…
Excerpted from Promised Lands: New Jewish American Fiction on Longing and Belonging, edited by Derek Rubin, © 2010 Brandeis University. This book will appear in October 2010 and can be purchased through Amazon.com or UPNE.
Steve Stern was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He has published a number of novels, novellas, and story collections, including The Wedding Jester, which won the National Jewish Book Award. He's been the recipient of grants from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations and teaches creative writing at Skidmore College in upstate New York. His latest novel is The Frozen Rabbi.