Spring, Vol 17.2
"May You Be Comforted" by Jacob Frommer
Viesha took great pleasure in waking Hersh Wolf. Three times each week she took the elevator up to his apartment, opened the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. Once the door was flush with the wall and the hinge-springs were begging for release, she let go, watching with clasped hands as it cracked into its warped metal frame. Oops, she would shout, managing to make the simple word sound foreign as she hung her coat and removed her plain black shoes. But today she came in quietly, replacing the door with care. She moved delicately along the parquet floor, impressive for a woman of her girth. She knocked gingerly on Hersh’s bedroom door as she opened it, whispering for the forty-five-year-old man inside to wake up. Hersh lay still, his white bedspread wrapped around him like a loose diaper, the late morning sun bleaching his face, and for the briefest moment Viesha felt pity for him. She knocked harder and spoke as sweet as she could muster- he was now, technically, her employer- but still, he did not move. Not one for third chances she closed the door until there was a slice of light and slid back to the front closet. She procured the vacuum, its age that of the apartment, and wheeled the giant into his room. She plugged it in by the bedside table and flipped the switch. The blast of its engine shook the room. Hersh jerked slightly and squeezed his eyes, feigning sleep for a minute longer, then opened them, first one then the other.
Must you? he shouted, covering his ears and curling away from her.
Viesha ignored him and was now mowing repeatedly over a fortune cookie Hersh had crushed into the carpet, a few crumbs of which were still between his toes. It had been thirty days since Hersh’s father died and today was the unveiling of his tombstone. In an earnest, if furtive, attempt at love, Hersh’s dying father asked the shtiebel men if, from time to time, they would check in on his only child. The gathered promised they would, out of respect for the dying and with the small but tangible feeling that they too would cling to similarly comforting lies in the not distant future. In reality, they were content to let Hersh remain separate from them and their shtiebel, willing to let him roam their pocket of downtown while slowly fading in with the buildings.
Finding nothing else to vacuum, Viesha turned off the machine and began tidying the top of the long dresser, half-filled with Hersh’s things and some yellowed undershirts his father had left behind. Hersh remained in bed, his eyes shut against the day’s demands. The bed was beds, really, his parents, two twins pushed together and apart based on his mother’s cycle. He slept on his mother’s side because he was still in love with her. She had not slept in that bed for over three decades, since the night after Hersh’s bar mitzvah, the night she left.
Without warning, Viesha grabbed at the sheets and pulled, sending Hersh into a tumble as she mightily unraveled him from his nest, her Polish forearms making easy work of him.
I’m not going he said, attempting authority, his striped boxer shorts twisted around his thin waist, his avian arms out to his sides as he held tight to the mattress.
Hershele, my sweet. Wear the black suit. She looked at her watch, so small on her meaty wrist. You have one hour.
I did the shiva. That damned Rabbi Slavitovsky. And what maid says what’s so?
This one. Dress she barked as she packed the laundry into its basket and left the room.
Hersh sought solace outside the room’s single large window. It was humid despite the wheezing air conditioner. A few low, grey clouds puttered down the river beneath an achingly bright sky. He wished in that moment for a serious job or a child with an incurable ailment, some unavoidable distraction. Paying further respects to the man who made his mother leave was low on his plodding list, which included collecting rent and a visit to the massage parlor on Christopher Street. He still missed his mother’s warm hands, her French perfumes, her red lips. He had never learned why she left and in all the silent moments since it had never occurred to him that the small room with the waning light and the boxes and the tilted picture frames was meant for more children. At least that was his father’s plan.
The thought of saying a graveside kaddish among a quorum of old Jews sent Hersh back to the shtiebel, with its yellow light and low wooden ceilings sagging beneath the tenement above. As a child he sat immune to the tunes and chants, his mind elsewhere, back in the apartment playing with the curves and falls of her cigarette smoke as she sat with ankles crossed, her head out the window, searching the sky for a better life. He would often get stomach aches and she would give him an enema. His mother treated the procedure with medical distance but for Hersh it became a private love. He found himself missing them, thinking of them when he thought of her and the other way around. When she left, he cried and cried and couldn’t go to the bathroom for weeks. Hersh’s father sat in the leather chair that was faded even then, looking like a grey crow in the sharp winter light, his stack of holy books on the small square table next to him.
A few years before Hersh’s father died, he received word from her husband that she had died of a brain tumor. He was a French heart surgeon with a best selling novel in which a surgeon fixes broken hearts. He thought it right to let her first love know, the doctor indulged, his cursive elegant and swooping. In his letter he told Hersh’s father of her benevolent life, of their charmed home despite its lack of children. He listed the local and national charities on whose boards she served and told of her tireless efforts in aiding the homeless and disenfranchised youth of France. Goy putz Hersh’s father spat before throwing the letter away. If Viesha hadn’t plucked it out of the garbage, Hersh would have never known that his mother died or that she chose other children over him. He wondered if she gave them enemas, if she spread their cheeks and sang her favorite Yiddish song, Zis Tsebrakhn Engl. She had written him many times over the years, once days after she left saying how sorry she was and every year around the holidays, but his father always intercepted her correspondence and sent them unopened down the trash chute, before Viesha could intervene.
Hersh’s refusal to attend the unveiling was his latest attempt at skipping the mourning process altogether. Initially he had no intention of sitting shiva but inevitable, communal forces intervened. When he first arrived on the Lower East Side, Hersh’s father opened a small candy store and then another, eventually buying a squat six-unit building and installing his family on its top floor. After he bought the building, he met with the rabbi and a lawyer and put in his will that upon his death the small but profitable building would be sold and the proceeds would help fund the shtiebel. Hersh’s father then gave the rabbi a master key. It was with this key that the rabbi and nine others entered the top floor apartment and forced Hersh from his silly abstentions. They set the low mourner’s chair next to his father’s sunken seat and recited psalms for the deceased until Hersh arrived. While they transformed his apartment into a mourner’s lair, covering the mirrors with sheets, placing the small ark with its Torah in the dim living room, Hersh had been filling his mind on the pier. With what, exactly, Hersh could never clearly identify beyond soothing memories of his mother. The river traded the summer wind between each island of the city, doing little to cool him but enough to distract him. When he returned and found the men he was not surprised. He felt they might do such a thing, perhaps he wanted them to. He removed his shoes, rolled up his white sleeves, and took his low seat. One of the men came over with a razor blade and cut across then down the placket of his shirt. It hung limp, more despondent than its owner.
Eat, eat Viesha said as she shoveled yellow eggs and glistening bologna onto Hersh’s plate. Hersh was wearing his father’s old, formless black suit, his own black Borsalino on the table next to him. She tipped the rest of the eggs onto her plate then sat down opposite him and crossed herself. Hersh’s father’s seat at the head of the table had been empty for five years, ever since he had preemptively checked himself into a retirement home. Billed as a yeshiva for the elderly, it held multiple daily lectures, featured a study hall replete with every text in the canon and hosted regular visiting scholars. It was a paradise Hersh’s father could no longer resist. One night at the shtiebel, hearing of his plans to move out, Rabbi Slavatovsky pressed Mr. Wolf to stay at his home, to allow Hersh and him to enjoy his twilight years together. He was not sick nor in need of constant care. Hersh could easily attend to him while growing closer before the end. They could learn daily, he could bring his son back into the shtiebel, the future of their community begun with his very own Hersh. When he refused, the rabbi switched angles, asking him to change the deed of the building from the shtiebel to his son. Hersh’s father was horrified and cited the future needs of the community, to which the rabbi in his calm, laconic way countered that community began at home, that Hersh, though wayward, was a good boy.
A few days later Hersh’s father gathered his son to the chair next to him and told quickly of the new arrangement. In response, Hersh asked why his mother left. Hersh’s father looked down at the floor and sighed thirty years of guarded thoughts. After a long pause, he looked at Hersh’s face. You have her eyes, he said and cupped his cheek. He left his son a savings account and a small building in the corner of the city that was worth more than Hersh could spend in a lifetime. Not because it was so much, but because Hersh was plain in his pursuits and approaching middle age. Then, he left.
What will you do now, boychick Viesha asked, clearing egg from behind her teeth with her finger.
Fine eggs said Hersh, swallowing thickly and holding his glass as he poured himself a second serving of tomato juice.
You are an orphan now. A rich orphan.
You can’t put a price on this he said, jabbing at the eggs. And I have you.
Yes, my sweet, but not for long. The children, my real children, I must go to them before I too end up in the ground. She and Hersh had discussed this many times.
Hersh put his fork down and absently stared at the table, not sad or angry, but as though constructing a response. The air conditioner was blowing on him from across the room and he kept his eyes open until they stung electric red. He looked at the dull puddle of fat congealing at the edge of his plate. Then he looked at her, blinked his eyes clear and smiled. Fine eggs, my dear. I will buy your ticket home. And give you ten, no, twenty thousand dollars. And take mameh’s clock. A keepsake.
Viesha tightened her lips. You are not a child, boychick. No need to act like one. Go, leave. I will clean.
A family of rats had long ago mummified behind the bookcase that held Hersh’s dusty texts and his mother’s chiming gold clock, which Viesha kept wound. During the shiva the men said nothing about the thin, stagnant odor, opening a window instead. Had anyone else come to visit, they might have said something.
Viesha busied herself in the kitchen, a pale pink galley lit by a long fluorescent light. Its laminate countertops were filled with a heavy dusting of instant soup mix and toppled skylines of takeout boxes. Hersh was in his father’s closet looking for the dead man’s tallis, an old spare he had not worn in many years. After his father left, Hersh took it from the bookshelf and tucked it on the floor beneath a trellis of his father’s shoes, waiting for a proper excuse to be rid of it. When he went to the funeral he had seen a box for discarded Judaica at the cemetery and would deposit it there. Tallis in hand, Hersh walked out of his parents’ old bedroom and through the dining room to the front door. He thought he might skip the unveiling and go elsewhere but could think of nowhere else to go. He cupped the brass knob and swung the door open, its old bell clinking in its housing. The damp, nutty smell of the building met that of his apartment. As he closed the door he stopped and stood above the marble threshold. After a moment he slipped back into the apartment. He put the tallis on the corner of the dining room table and walked into the kitchen. Viesha’s hands were obscured in bubbles and she wore a pale red apron. Hersh approached and gave her a stiff hug from her side, his arms unable to make it around her bosom. Then he leaned his head into her shoulder and she placed hers below his chin. They stood like this for no more than a few seconds, Viesha’s hands still grasping a plate, then in silence he stepped back out of the narrow kitchen, scooped the tallis from its place and left. Viesha wiped a tear with her wrist and cursed the stupid boy.
Etz Chaim cemetery sat on twenty acres of abandoned potato fields along a busy highway that fed off of two other highways. Hersh was immediately disoriented among the cascading headstones despite being there a month before. At first he pulled his father’s black Crown Victoria into Etz Chaim but, using a service road that linked the Jewish and Christian cemeteries- though of opposing faiths, the owners long ago conceded the benefits of shared labor- he ended up quickly in the Episcopal section of Holy Souls cemetery, and, repulsed like a magnet, peeled around as soon as he saw the first cross-topped grave. Back in Etz Chaim, he cruised the outermost road to the back corner of the hot, bent vista then turned left. His father’s grave would be in front of him, on the corner of King David and Ben Ezra. As he pulled up, there were fewer cars than he had expected, only two, and for a moment he found himself overcome with a bare sadness. He distracted himself with his jacket and Borsalino.
Hersh and the others parked their cars up on the grass curb, inappropriately close to the graves. There were four men standing in the freshly turned dirt including Rabbi Slavotovsky and two of his father’s friends he knew from the shtiebel. The other was a young man, a boy, really, no older than fifteen. This section of the cemetery was called The Children Of Galicia Final Resting Mount. The hundred or so plots contained the remains of those who came from the hilltown of Galicia, which was largely abandoned before its remaining inhabitants were disappeared in the war. Shiny bald spots of green awaiting children and spouses threw the stony graves into bright contrast. The few trees that dotted Etz Chaim’s terrain were crooked and low, offering shade for the few inhabitants willing to pay for eternal comfort. As he walked beneath the small metal arch that read GALICIA, its peeling black paint and gold Star of David struggling to glint in the white sun, Hersh grew nauseous at the thought of being buried in such a hot, agonized place, though he knew he would do nothing to change this. Behind the cemetery, no more than a few hundred yards away, stood a three-story red garbage incinerator and its double-height smokestack. Being a Sunday, it was respectfully quiet.
Hersh shook hands with Rabbi Slavatovsky and the two old men rubbed his back, compressing his shirt into his already moistening skin.
Good of you to come said the rabbi in a caring tone.
It’s hot Hersh said, squinting into the distance, then, seeing the rabbi’s face, stood silent, hands in his pockets. They did well he eventually offered as they all looked down at the grave. A new tombstone was strange to behold, thought Hersh, so clean compared to the older ones around it. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread/Until you return to the ground; for from it were you taken/For you are dust, and to dust shall you return. And below that was inscribed, A man of family, a man of faith. Hersh’s father’s Hebrew name followed along with the dates of his birth and death. Hersh made no comment about the quotes.
It’s simple, as he requested. He was a pious man, said Mr. Katz, a short man with high pants and large ears. This is my grandson, Shimon. Fourth of six, thank God. The boy gave a frowning smile and said the blessing of the mourner with a small, serious face. May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion. May your father’s soul be elevated in Heaven. Hersh shook the boy’s hand and felt that both of their palms were sweaty. Hersh gave a tight smile to Mr. Podolsky, tall and sharp with dry hair, whom his father had learned with, in their apartment for many years.
Hersh bent and collected several pebbles and rested them on top of the stone. The men backed away and allowed Hersh a moment, the rabbi whispering words of strength among them. A bead of sweat rolled down Hersh’s neck and caught on his collar. He stared hard at the grave, reading the words again and again, sentences from the Torah he knew from his youth. As if the men behind him could see what he was thinking, he tried to summon a joyous memory of his father but could not. He thought of his mother instead.
After a few minutes Mr. Podolsky joined graveside. Your father was a good man. Quiet, serious, a devoted Jew. He deserves more than this, he said, fanning his arms out at the meager assembly. He put his hand on Hersh’s shoulder and shook it then coughed loudly, using Hersh for support as he heaved in the muggy air. There was no quorum of ten men so Hersh would not be able to say the mourner’s kaddish. Mr. Podolsky drew a handkerchief from his pocket and hocked into it.
Should we get on with it? asked the rabbi, gathering everyone toward the grave. We can say psalms. Shimon, please lead us. As the men swayed in the heat, repeating young Shimon’s words, Hersh answered vaguely, out of reflex. As they jumped between psalms he realized most everything in his life was a call and response, his father dragging him to the shtiebel, his mother sparing him a smile, Hersh issuing a weak reply.
She once let Hersh take a few drags of her cigarette, knowing the tobacco would loosen his bowels. But the boy began to cough irrepressibly and she had no choice but to continue their private ritual. She would watch from the doorway as he found relief, a faint hint of disgust in her eyes.
Rabbi Slavatovsky pulled Hersh aside and told him he was welcome at the shtiebel for kaddish and that they should have a discussion about his future. Cornered and softened, Hersh said he would think about it. The mourners said their goodbyes and pulled away, leaving Hersh standing over his father’s grave. Soon Hersh began to wander among the graves, occasionally pulling a weed and placing a pebble. He found uncles and aunts and his cousin Shlomo who was hit by a bus when he was ten years old. He saw his mother’s name- Edith, Daughter of Malka- and for a moment believed it was her then remembered where she was. Perhaps he would fly to Paris, meet her husband, and they would go together to her grave. He would leave this place and find a new father, one who might take him to a symphony or teach him how to eat snails. He walked back to his father’s grave and stood over it, squinting against the sparkling granite. His back was completely wet. He said nothing more than goodbye and went to the car. He took off his hat, turned up the air conditioning and pulled away knowing he would not be back for a long time, leaving another layer of dust upon the children of Galicia.
On his way out of the cemetery, he pulled up next to the box for discarded Judaica. He grabbed the tallis bag from the passenger seat and tossed it at the box. It bounced off and landed on the pavement below but he sped away before it hit the ground.
The apartment was stuffy when Hersh walked through the door. Viesha had turned off the air conditioner before leaving. He threw his keys on the table, his jacket over a chair and walked back downstairs, intending to stay on the river until the heat broke. Clouds were gathering and a cool wind teased the city. As he left the building, a need he had not felt in a long time whispered and he began to walk west, away from the river.
Blum’s drug store thrived on a corner five blocks from Hersh’s apartment, its hand-painted signs and metallic exterior once again in fashion. Hersh walked as if led by a scent and as he opened the door the cluster of small bells startled him. The store had the reassuring, analeptic smell of medicines and salves and Hersh began prowling the aisles. He was an orphan with time and money. He picked items at random, reading their promises and warnings, narrowing without fully knowing what he was looking for. When he reached the section that hosted products for incontinence and its opposite he paused. He looked around as if about to swing the saloon doors of the restricted section. They sat stacked on the bottom shelf in a small shadow. The packaging was plain and offered nothing more than a simple guarantee, relief for those in need. He grabbed two and as he walked to the register he looked in his hand and felt a boyish excitement that dropped his stomach. Without realizing, he padded his intentions with red herrings, throwing two packs of gum and a candy bar on the counter as the man rang his order. The register was an old model, large and well made, and it clicked and rolled as he struck its keys.
May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion.
Hersh had been eagerly looking past the man to the street. Now he looked at him and saw that it was Mr. Blum, another man from the shtiebel.
I am sorry I couldn’t come today, Hershel. My son had things, taking care, and, ach, you know how
it goes. Mr. Blum quickly bagged Hersh’s enema kits and candy without looking away from Hersh, whose face had broken pink. He felt cold and blank as he handed Mr. Blum a twenty-dollar bill.
Thank you, Hersh managed, taking the bag and turning to leave.
Your change, said Mr. Blum, holding out his hand. I suppose I will see you this evening.
Hersh looked at him, confused and exposed.
Kaddish. Services are at six until the new year. Seven in the morning.
Ah, yes. Perhaps, perhaps mumbled Hersh, feeling as though he were expanding like a balloon. He turned and walked to the door.
A good man, your father Mr. Blum called after him. Hersh pushed the door with his shoulder and held up the bag in place of more words before stepping into a wet wall of late afternoon heat.
The clouds had been slow in their gathering but they had finally blotted out the sun and were heavy with rain. Hersh walked quickly back to his building, clutching the bag in his hand with his head down, hoping not to run into any others. As he put the key in the door, a slight breeze cooled his back and he felt the first drop of rain.
Hersh had not been in his childhood bathroom since his father moved out. He looked in the mirror and was immediately shocked at how old he had become. He inspected his hair, thin and beaded with sweat. His eyes were deep in his face and his skin was splotchy. As he opened the plastic bag to retrieve the kit, the crinkling of the plastic bounced off of the lime green tiles. A corner of the white cardboard box caught on one of the handles and he thought he heard someone knocking on the door so he paused, the blood in his ears pulsing, his Adam’s apple thumping. The lightbulb above the sink hummed. After hearing nothing he continued and soon the box was open and in his hands was a small plastic bag attached to a thin plastic tube. He put it in the sink and threw everything else onto the tiled floor. The kit looked like a small, translucent squid awaiting compulsion. Hersh’s hands were shaking. He turned the sink on and opened the bag, filling it slowly at first then turning the pressure higher and soon the bag was bulbous and overflowing. He shut off the water and tested it, holding the tube so it faced the drain. Frigid water squirted out. Hersh held his hand beneath the stream and the cold water felt good against his skin. There was no window in the bathroom but he could hear the thick summer rain pummeling the roof. He filled it again so the bag was plump then put the device down and undid his pants, sliding them and his boxer briefs around his ankles, his black socks taut around his twitching calves. He grasped the kit and bent himself over the toilet. He leaned forward and after a pause began to probe. He let out a slight moan and found himself. He pushed and squeezed and the icy water gushed into him. He jolted then felt instantly calm and excited and became erect. A thousand warm memories flooded his body. His face was a tension of pleasure and sorrow. The bag was quickly emptying and with a whining shriek he finished on the wall opposite, clenching his cheeks and slumping heavily onto the toilet, the remains of the kit falling to the water below. After a silent pause he began to cry, at first in low moans but quickly he built up to the wail of an orphan, the throes of his sorrow shaking his sad, pale body. He could feel his lungs expand against his ribs and contract into his spine as he caught his breath.
Hersh sat on the toilet until his legs were numb and he was out of tears. He could barely stand and eventually he cleaned the wall with a wet towel and fished the spent kit out of the bowl, throwing it onto the pile on the floor. Exhausted and sweaty, he flung himself onto his childhood bed and stared at the ceiling, still breathing heavily. The door to his room was open. In the living room, the small gold clock sat on the bookshelf. It would soon chime six times and Hersh would rise to his elbows. He would stare at the wall with blank eyes then maneuver off of the bed and shuffle to the dining room, taking his suit jacket from the back of the chair and placing his black Borsalino on his head.