(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Steve Stern
Once upon a bone-dry July afternoon, a solitary pack peddler by the name of Pinchas Pinsker came down the road. Pushing a wooden handcart, which he leaned against at an angle almost parallel to the ground, he turned into an avenue of oaks that led toward a colonnaded plantation house. His cart was a low, two-wheeled affair that had recently belonged to a greengrocer in Crab Orchard, Kentucky, and for it Pinchas had swapped a quantity of sateen ticking that the man’s wife had admired. He pushed the contraption by a pair of spindled handstaffs that he hoped one day to hitch to a horse’s flanks. The cart contained the tarp-covered contents of a small racket store: razors, carpet slippers, snuffboxes, and tobacco; there were spectacles, kitchen utensils, candles, oilcloth, dress patterns, and yard goods; dolls for the children, kickshaws for the ladies. Though he wasn’t born to this profession, when he removed the tarp from his merchandise, Pinchas—a short, bespectacled man with a nap of sandy hair under his bowler hat--felt like a conjuror revealing treasures.
As he neared the broad-portico’d house, he anticipated the servants and children coming out to greet him. That’s what he was accustomed to. The occupants of sharecroppers’ shacks and planters’ mansions alike would trickle forth from their habitations to welcome the Jew peddler and sample his wares. It was why he’d been drawn to the South in the first place, having heard that the population viewed the Hebrew with reverence as a person of the Book. Never mind that in the years since his bar mitzvah, rather than holy writ, the book Pinchas had most cherished was a Yiddish translation of the first volume of Das Kapital, a copy of which was secreted in his cart.
It was his political sympathies that had compelled him to leave his family and the Russian Pale of Settlement one step ahead of the Czar’s police. But despite arriving in the New World with his ideals intact, Pinchas had since conceived a healthy tolerance for free enterprise. His pulse was quickened by the babel of the hagglers and shmeikelers along the jostling thoroughfares of the Lower East Side of New York. No stranger to labor himself, having served apprenticeships as a draper and grain broker back in Blod, Pinchas began peddling flour sifters and mousetraps from a stall on Ludlow Street. Restless with how his ignorance of the native language confined him to the ghetto, however, he took to straying into outlying quarters. He wandered among the arrant residents of the Five Points and the complacent burghers of Kleindeutschland above Fourteenth Street, picking up snatches of the American tongue along the way. Here was a mobility he’d been denied in the Old Country, and while he remained disapproving of their acquisitive values, Pinchas was nonetheless infected by the yeasty energies of these Yankee citizens. Addicted now to the habit of movement, he secured a small loan from Yarmolovsky’s Bank on Canal Street; he purchased forty dollars worth of goods from a nearby supply house and set off to broaden his orbit, taking a train as far as Cincinnati whence he proceeded on foot along the sun-baked highways into Kentucky and further south.
As he neared the big house, he wondered why no one had yet to appear. The hedges were neatly trimmed in elaborate topiary shapes, the kitchen garden weeded and pruned, but the house and grounds seemed otherwise abandoned. A gaunt hound with a panting pink tongue approached him, nuzzling his leg and whimpering pitifully; a lowing cow dragged her swollen udders through the tea roses. The air around the mansion, already oppressive in the afternoon heat, had a forbidding odor, miasmic like rotting silage. Pinchas marveled that he should have goosebumps despite his streaming perspiration. The whole day had in fact had a portentous quality about it, all the traffic along the rutted highway headed away from the city of Memphis toward which he was bound. The passengers in their traps and wagons piled with trunks and household furnishings looked distressed, some with sponges tied clownishly over their noses.
Curiosity overcoming his trepidation, he climbed the front steps and pressed his nose against the pane of a tall, rippled-glass window. The gallery overhead shaded the porch and shielded the glass from glare so that Pinchas was able to spy the sumptuous parlor inside. Empty of occupants, the parlor was appointed with a marble hearth, brass firedogs, and a portrait of a saber-wielding officer in Confederate butternut above the mantelpiece. The porch planks creaked under his hobnails as Pinchas slunk around the corner of the house and peered through the window of another room. It took his eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dim interior of what turned out to be a high-ceilinged bedroom containing a nightmare tableau; for beneath the canopy of a disordered bed lay a man and woman, their silk-robed bodies snarled in an unnatural configuration--their eyes stark-staring, faces frozen in the rigor of their final agony, as if their souls had wrenched themselves free of their gawking mouths. On the floor below the bed was another pair of lifeless bodies, similarly entangled: two ringletted little girls in their alice-blue nighties. The twin daughters along with their parents were wreathed in flies and blanketed in what appeared to be a lava of black caviar, some of which was also sprayed across the wainscoting’d walls.
Pinchas’s first thought was irrational: the serfs had murdered their masters and children and fled the estate. Then he remembered that the serfs--the slaves? had there really been slaves?--were freed more than a decade before. “Vey iz mir,” he gasped aloud, lurching headlong back toward his cart. He took up the handles and steered it blindly through a cloud of mosquitoes so thick it left a peddler-shaped hole where he’d passed through, and without looking back turned again into the open road.
Now he was alert to the signs that told him he had stumbled into the Valley of the Shadow. Shacks along the way featured men with shotguns sitting sentinel in their yards, flinty wives standing fiercely behind them in their Sunday bonnets. The current of traffic moving always in the opposite direction grew denser, occasional passengers calling out to him from their carriages what might have been warnings. But if Pinchas didn’t exactly ignore them, neither did he take their words to heart—one of which (“Yellowjack”) was repeated with some frequency. He imagined Yellow Jack as a Goliath terrorizing the city whose outskirts he had entered, a giant with whom he was destined to contend. At the same time he understood that this was nonsense. What Jew heads deliberately upstream during an exodus? But Pinchas had been so often discouraged from crossing borders and thresholds due to this interdiction or that imperial ukase that he proceeded on the strength of sheer dogged forward momentum.
He was halted at a bridge over a powder-dry stream by a pair of militiamen in partial uniform.
“What bidness you got in Mefiss?” asked the apple-cheeked younger, his weapon at the ready.
Pinchas was forthright. “Iss to make a livink, mayn beezniz.”
Said the slovenly older soldier with a sneer: “Seem like livin’ ain’t what folks’re about round here.” He spat. “Cross this bridge, Mister, and you might never come back.”
But since they were posted there to stop the infected from leaving the city, a function they‘d shown themselves wholly inadequate to perform, they made no effort to block Pinchas’s progress. He soon wished they had.
The road was flanked by dismal shanties that gave way before long to two-storey clapboard façades, decaying plank pavements, and a depraved citizenry. Individuals staggering in the lime-dusted roadway and assemblages spilling out the doors of saloons appeared to be simultaneously involved in acts of celebration and mourning; nor could you determine where one left off and the other began. A drunk with a shock of corn-tassel hair tottered up to Pinchas with a clay jug dangling from his pinky finger, saying, “Used to, the milkman’d shout, `Wide awake, all alive!’ Now it’s `Bring out your dead!’” He laughed like a loon as he offered the peddler a draft, which Pinchas kindly declined. He forged ahead past some bystanders watching idly as a man with a canary complexion looked to be running in circles while lying in the dirt. They watched until one of the bystanders, removing a tiny pistol from a breast pocket, shot the man like a rabid dog, after which they all moved away. On a stoop a buxom lady lay collapsed in a nest of calico; a preacher with graying temples like the wings on Mercury’s helmet mounted a barrel to declare that the plague was God’s vengeance for the pagan festival of Mardi Gras. In an upstairs window a woman was singing in a plaintive contralto: “Dream, dream, grah mo chree/here on your mama’s knee…,” while the air, riven with a general keening, provided a jarring disharmony.
The groceries and snack houses were largely boarded up—some with yellow cards and black crepe nailed to their doors—but the grog shops were thriving. Their clientele, as they exited, paused to inspect the fresh caskets that a company of kerchiefed Negroes were unloading from a furniture van. The empty caskets were then exchanged for the tenanted ones left on the doorsteps of stricken families. Some of the groggery patrons scrutinized the pine boxes as if shopping for their next berth, while others, pallid and less steady on their pins, looked as if they’d just crawled out of them. One box lay open on the curb as if for viewing: its occupant, marinating in a stew of tar and carbolic acid, was dressed in his full lodge regalia, his black tongue lolling like a slug.
There were drums of boiling creosote stationed along the curbs and burning bedclothes saturated in regurgitation. Asafetida bags tied around the necks of frightened citizens vied with the pungency of decomposing flesh. It was the stench that had preceded the city limits by several furlongs, and was suffocating in its intensity here. Making a mighty effort to place one foot in front of the other, Pinchas steered his cart around a bare-boned mule struggling to climb out of a sinkhole. The hole was the result of an overflowing basement privy, and rats as large as terriers rode the mule.
It was coming on dusk and Pinchas was near to falling down from exhaustion. Having slept these past weeks in haybarns and pastures, he’d looked forward to a night’s lodging under a proper roof, where he could wash off the shmutz from the road and refresh himself. He’d been told that Memphis was a city of cheap rooming houses run by maternal widows, but here the peddler had straggled into a charnel house instead. Then he’d passed out of the ramshackle quarter into a soberer district of federal-style buildings, fashionable shops, and electric trolley lines. But the street, for all its elegant window displays, was as desolate at this end as it was anarchic at the other. There was no traffic save the clattering coffin wagons and the carts from which ragged men, like devils pitching brimstone, shoveled heaps of disinfectant powder. The only pedestrians were the scurrying gent in a cutaway holding a rosewater pomander to his nose and a pair of nuns dragging the hems of their habits in the greenish dust. Cannons boomed, church bells rang, and Pinchas came to a full stop in order to scratch the angry mosquito bites that stippled his neck and arms.
It was then he was approached from both sides of the avenue by children or midgets: he couldn’t tell which as all were in nightshirts and uniformly short of stature, their faces hidden by red bandannas. About the bandannas Pinchas wasn’t so concerned, since half the population wore masks like gonifs; only these turned out to be gonifs indeed. For in a matter of seconds, before the spent peddler could even react, they had whipped the tarp from his merchandise and gathered up the entirety of his stock-in-trade from the cart. Spiriting away armloads piled as high as their heads with tinware, piece goods, garters, and pewter buttons, the thieves vanished as swiftly as they’d appeared; though one returned to snatch up the canvas tarpaulin and, as an afterthought, the volume of Marx.
Wanting despite his inertia to give chase, Pinchas was stymied by his inability to choose which of their several directions to pursue them in. “A plague befall you!” he called after them reflexively, chilled by his apprehension that the curse may already have been fulfilled. He patted himself to make sure that the roll of bills, his savings, was still pinned to the inside of his dank flannel drawers. Then, as he pondered his empty cart with a sigh like a stab, he was distracted by the sight of a young man choking sobs, lugging a body in a winding sheet down a flight of stone steps. Mechanically Pinchas wheeled his cart toward the curb, and without exchanging a word with the weeping man, took up one end of the body by the feet that protruded from the shroud. They were a woman’s bare, spatulate feet with callused toes. Together Pinchas and the man lifted the corpse onto the cart, and tipping the sweaty rim of his bowler hat, the heartsick peddler continued on his way.
He wandered gaslit sidestreets past tall Italianate houses with turrets and ornate iron gates. Most were completely dark, though in one or two lights flickered like foxfire behind the hooded windows. Some of the more modest abodes had signs at the gate advertising rooms, but their haunted aspect told the peddler that strangers need not apply. Once or twice he sought to inquire of a rare pedestrian, who only quickened his pace at the peddler’s approach. Even though evening had descended, there was no relief from the sticky heat, and Pinchas’s legs, despite their habitual forward motion, were close to giving out. He was staggering before a boxy two-story house that, unlike its neighbors, was brightly lit from within. Watermelon vines spiraled the porch columns and a magnolia stood in the yard, its fragrance cutting somewhat the pervasive stench. On the porch sat a porcine woman in a rocker fanning herself with what looked like a raptor’s wing. She was wearing a flounced silk wrapper and smoking a long-stemmed pipe, her platinum hair piled in a towering pompadour.
“You got maybe a room?” asked the peddler, before his knees buckled under him and he knelt on the broken board paving. He heard the woman bellow, “Dinah! Eulalie! A customer.”
Ladies in rustling skirts, their cologne so acrid it brought tears to his eyes, grabbed Pinchas under the arms. As they dragged him up the front steps and through the front door, he couldn’t tell whether he was being rescued or abducted. He was aware of passing through a furbelowed parlor, complete with pier glass, fainting couch, and the portrait of a naked female attended by putti. He was hauled up a steep, carpeted staircase and taken into a room off a narrow hallway. Unfolded across a brass bed, Pinchas felt cool hands caressing him even as they shoved a mercury thermometer between his lips and took his pulse. They unbuttoned his garments and toiveled his sunken chest with damp cloths. At length one of the ladies—Pinchas could tell she was only a girl despite the heavy rouge—pronounced authoritatively:
“He ain’t fevered, just tuckered out.”
One of the girls had fetched a bowl of beef bouillon and begun to spoonfeed him, while another offered him a tot of brandy from a cupping glass. A third, arms folded across her blotchy décolletage, made a considered judgment: “I believe this here is a Jew feller.” At that the two others resumed their clinical attitudes. “How can you tell?” asked the girl with the broth, inclining her sausage-curled head for a closer inspection. “Well,” replied the one across the bed from her, setting aside the brandy, “he has got what you call the map a Jerusalem writ on his face.” But the standing girl with the dappled bosom asserted somewhat listlessly that that wasn’t sufficient proof. “Ain’t but one way to be sure,” she said, which sent the others into a fit of titters, upon which two pairs of hands made for the flies of Pinchas’s underwear.
His energies in some measure restored by their ministrations, the peddler’s first impulse was to protect his modesty and extricate himself from the room. The rabbis of his youth would have been scandalized. On the other hand, Pinchas had as good as abandoned his heritage, Isaiah and Jeremiah having been replaced in his hierarchy of prophets by Proudhon and Kropotkin. In his travels, once he’d neglected to keep the Sabbath, he never bothered to keep it again, nor did he make any effort to observe the dietary laws. Where women were concerned he had resisted temptation only because temptation had been scarce in his experience. And while these daughters of Lilith would be reckoned unclean by every category of the halakhic code, Pinchas realized with a wan smile that he wasn’t picky. He was after all a Narodnik, a freethinker, despite his late commercial proclivities, and the despotic faith of his forefathers could not reach him here.
For all that, he was ashamed of his thoughts, which he might attribute to his weakened condition, though how to explain the rebellious stirring in his loins? Meanwhile the ladies had opened his drawers and uncovered his upstanding organ, which they leered at, having never before beheld the sign of the Covenant. “Thang’s nekkider than nekkid,” observed the girl on the peddler’s left side, damask-cheeked and saucer-eyed. The one at his right, risen to her knees on the mattress, clapped her hands, which jiggled her curls like pendants on a chandelier. “I want a go,” she resolved. “I ain’t never rid one a these.” She was lifting her crinoline when the other girl shoved her roughly out of the way, then positioned herself astride Pinchas’s outstretched legs. An hilarious tussling ensued, during which the spectator girl, her maculate bodice glazed in sweat, began to slide down the wall in a swoon. The two on the bed ceased their frolic to stare at their fallen companion. The one straddling Pinchas looked in perplexity from her fellow on the floor to the peddler’s peeled member. “It ain’t all that peculiar,” she reckoned. Then the fallen girl began to convulse, projecting a stream of bile like molten coffee grounds across the valance below the bedstead.
Pinchas watched in horror as the two girls, with amazingly unruffled efficiency, left the bed to attend to their companion slumped against the wall. They pressed a lace hankie to her mouth and watched as a crimson stain slowly spread. Galvanized by the scene and the fetor that made the air in the room unbreathable, Pinchas tucked his wilted manhood back into his longjohns and slid from the mattress. Trailing the sheet he’d wrapped carelessly about his person, he shuffled back into the hallway, where he encountered two more painted ladies who parted to let him pass.
Turning about, the addled peddler asked them, “Where am I?”
“Annie Cook’s,” they said in unison over their shoulders, then commenced to contradict each other, one cheerfully alleging that the establishment was a “bawdy,” the other a “pest” house. Unenlightened, Pinchas proceeded down the corridor, passing closed doors behind which could be heard a medley of moans and shrieks; but whether from amorous exertions or the laments of the infirm, who could say? A door at the end of the hall, however, stood open, and through it Pinchas spied the ladies nursing a chap whose fallow flesh appeared to have been parboiled from the inside out. This house, he concluded, was a kind of sanctuary where the nafkehs doubled as sisters of mercy--and sometimes martyrs. Good on them, he thought, but an upright man such as he (in health if not virtue) had no business here. Woozy though he was, Pinchas had seen enough. He made his way down the backstairs and was in the street again before he realized that, still toga’d in the bedsheet, he’d forgotten his clothes.
What’s more, the money he’d pinned to the inside of his union suit was no longer there. “Mutzlekh!” Pinchas congratulated himself. “You got now nothing left to lose.” He trudged on, thinking he might find an officer to accompany him back to the brothel and demand that his funds be returned. But after he’d turned a corner or two without spotting a cop, Pinchas doubted he would even be able to retrace his steps. Besides, he still retained his Old Country distrust of police; and given the state of the infected city, infernal in the light of the fever fires, he figured the police would have better things to do than to retrieve an indigent immigrant’s purloined purse.
He’d found his way back to Main Street, which was desolate as an outpost. One step ahead of the fatigue that was threatening to overtake him again, he plodded on, crossing a street between palisades of rotting cotton and entering a park that overlooked the river’s traveling expanse. A leaden sky marbled with moonlight illumined a cluster of paddle-wheels (perhaps in quarantine) riding at anchor below the levee, their smokestacks contributing to the fouled atmosphere.
Pinchas coveted the few benches that crowned the bluff, but they were already occupied by silhouettes in various stages of tribulation. One hugged himself as he sat rocking furiously back and forth; another recited verses in Latin, and the peddler knew enough of gentile customs to assume the poor soul was administering some type of sacrament to himself. The petrified attitude of another invited an enterprising young thief, employing a hook and line to avoid contamination, to fish in his pockets for spoils. It occurred to Pinchas that, if he were willing to risk the contagion, he might secure a suit of clothes from a stiff, but his main objective at the moment was simply to lie down. His weariness had acquired a nauseous component; his head ached and his stomach had begun to cramp. This was possibly due to the onset of heatstroke, he reasoned, though that affliction did not commonly occur after dark. Still, he felt that his very skin was on fire, even as he’d begun to be wracked with chills.
He steered his unsteady steps toward a mulberry hedge, behind which he hoped to find some privacy. Rounding the hedge he came upon a young woman lying supine on the ground, her features marmoreal, her gorged blue breast bared to the living infant that fiercely sucked at it. “Gott in himmel,” gasped Pinchas, who believed in neither God nor heaven. In fact he was by then more prepared to expect the kind of intervention that directly took place: when a yipping half-naked bedlamite, death riding the flapping tails of his gown, appeared out of nowhere to shove Pinchas to the ground; then scarcely breaking stride, he stooped to pluck the tyke from the dead mother’s breast and carry it away.
His cheek pressed against the prickly grass, Pinchas understood that what he’d witnessed had no place in a sensible world—or was it the peddler himself who no longer belonged? He was almost grateful when he felt his griping gut uncoil, giving up along with his insides a vital spark at the quick of his being in a muddy emulsion of pitch-black blood. His last conscious thought was how convenient it was that his remains should already be swaddled in their graveclothes.