Photo: Jean-Luc Fievet
Out of Breath Out of Mind
By Peter Wortsman
I was a strange boy. Small and sly, I was sometimes consumed by peculiar thoughts and imaginings. You’d never have suspected it from my fine features and angelic blue eyes.
Other boys got their kicks scuffling with each other, playing war, and with a magnifying glass or the lens of their glasses focusing the sun’s rays on ants until they went up in a puff of smoke. But that wasn’t suspenseful enough for me.
My game was thoroughly thought out. I picked out a washed and rinsed glass kosher pickle jar from a garbage can in the kitchen, a box of wooden matches, and a Viceroy filter-tipped cigarette filched from the pack my father, a recently reformed smoker, kept hidden behind the radiator for emergencies and sudden cravings,beside a pack of playing cards with naked women on the back. I plucked off the filter and saved it for a special purpose.
From the drawer of my father’s workbench in the basement I next fetched a hammer and a thick nail with which I banged a hole in the top of the metal cover of the pickle jar. So far so good. Then I got me some ice cubes from the freezer. “I’m thirsty,” I muttered aloud.
Busy, meanwhile, preparing the Sabbath meal, with no inkling of my intentions, my mother merrily recounted how in her youth in Vienna before World War I, huge blocks of ice were delivered. They were carried by a man holding a giant pair of pincers gripping the ice block on his stooped back, his face adorned with a bountiful, likewise pincers-shaped, mustache, who eyed her with an impish squint that made her tremble with terror, as if he were the devil, and who threatened, if she’d done something naughty, to shove her along with the ice block into the ice box. “Things are much easier in America today, Gott sei dank!” my mother said.
To which I nodded, oblivious, completely engrossed in my game.
I went on an ant hunt in the backyard. Ants are deaf and dumb and as tiny as grains of pepper, which is why they were so perfectly suited to my game. I poked a twig rubbed with sugar in an ant hole and picked out the fastest.
It was a hot summer day. I had to proceed quickly if I didn’t want the ice that I had dropped into the pickle jar to melt completely. Tapping the twig gently against the inside of the jar, I managed to dislodge the little living grains of pepper. Some dropped on the ice. Some fell directly in the water and drowned. Most of them ran around like crazy on the ice. A few sought futile refuge on the inside of the glass jar.
Then I screwed the cover shut, and with a trembling hand struck a match, muttering in the echo chamber of my head my mother’s favorite premonitory maxim: “Messer, Gabel, Scher’ und Licht/ sind für kleine Kinder nicht!“ (Better not let children touch/ knife, fork, scissors and match). I lit a cigarette, drew on it till it glowed like a red eye. I felt sick in my stomach and had to cough and gasp for air. The smell made me want to puke.
“What are you doing out there?” my mother called from the open kitchen window.
Then I stuck the glowing cigarette in the hole in the lid, sucked on it several times until the jar filled up with smoke, lay with my belly on the grass and watched as some of the little spots suddenly stopped moving and others ran ever faster around the inside of the jar till, one after the other, they too fell into the water. A last one circled for a while till it, too, finally suddenly stopped and dropped. I breathed deeply in and out.
Evenings, long after the Sabbath candles had gone out, the last drop of the chicken soup had been lapped up, and all that was left of the roast chicken was a heap of bones, the family gathered in the living room for my show. Sometimes I sang, sometimes I danced.
That evening I came tramping down the stairs dressed in rubber boots and a jacket turned inside out with a belt tightly fastened around my middle, and the filter of a cigarette dyed in black ink stuck as a mustache to my upper lip. Then I extended my right arm in a salute and was about to scream out the most awful things. Everyone watched with rapt attention, hesitating between horror and amusement.
That’s when my voice and breathing gave out.
They called Dr. Goldberg, who came and gave me a painful injection in the thigh, the punishment, I thought, for my ghastly game. I lay there with my left leg twitching until finally I lay still and breathed deeply in and out.
The second time it happened was in the synagogue at my brother’s bar mitzvah. Eleven years old, as an honor, I was seated on the bima with the heavy scroll on my lap, pressing it hard against my chest, while the rabbi, with the aid of the cantor, removed the velvet robe and the silver bangles from the Torah. Already impatient, the shammes held above my head the silver Torah pointer, with which the one called up to read – in this case my brother – could point at, and recite aloud, the holy letters.
Suddenly I thought of the ice deliveryman with the giant pincers. I was supposed to mumble a prayer or at least an Amen. And then my voice and breathing gave out again. I wouldn’t let go of the Torah. It was as if the congregation wanted to undress me and with a pair of silver pincers wrench the ghastly secrets out of my throat. I puked my breakfast all over the bare skin of the sacred scroll.
Maybe the lox had gone bad, or maybe I was a little jealous of my brother. Like I said, I was a strange boy.