Category Archives: FICTION

Shprintza Genendel, Chani and The Crouton Tree

The unmistakable aroma wafted from the kitchen into Shprintza Genendel’s living room, where she and her best friend Chani were playing a board game. It was called that because it is played on a board.  And also because the two girls would quickly grow bored with it.  That Friday, the delicious smell didn’t help.

“Chicken soup!” observed Chani, turning toward away from the game to the kitchen and licking her lips with anticipation.  Shprintza Genendel agreed with that pronouncement and explained that “Ima always makes chicken, and chicken soup, on erev Shabbos morning.”

“Think she might let us have some now?” Chani asked.

“Sure!” said Shprintza Genendel, knowing her mother well.  “But I have to tell you, we’re all out of croutons.”

“No croutons?” Chani said, her voice laden with disappointment.  “Chicken soup just isn’t the same without croutons!”  Shprintza Genendel solemnly agreed.  With seriousness, too.

“Let me ask Ima if she’ll give us some money to go down to Fresser’s Delight to buy some,” suggested Shprintza Genendel.  Chani gave her friend a smile and a thumbs-up.

Shprintza Genendel disappeared into the kitchen for a minute and came back holding a five-dollar bill.  “Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” cried Chani.  That was Chani’s way of expressing enthusiasm.

Shprintza Genendel and Chani practically danced out the front door, leaving the board and its pieces all over the floor – which elicited a deep sigh from Ima when she came out a few minutes later for a short break from cooking.  By then, though, the girls were already marching up and down the aisles at Fresser’s Delight, looking for croutons.  When they saw that the shelf where such things belong was bare, their faces fell.

Picking them up, they walked over to the checkout counter to ask the grumpy man standing there if the store had any croutons.  “Maybe there are some in the back, somewhere?” asked, and hoped, Shprintza Genendel.

“Nope, sorry,” the checkout man responded dryly.  “We sold the last container earlier this morning.”

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Chani.  “What will we do?” Shprintza Genendel chimed in.

Mr. Grump-face just looked at the girls, smiled a crooked smile, and said “Why don’t you just go looking for a crouton tree?”

“A crouton tree?” both girls asked incredulously and in unison (and with wonder and at the same time, too).  “There’s no such thing as a crouton tree!” Chani added, raising one of her eyebrows (a talent she possessed).

“Why, sure there is, girls.  Where do you think WE get the croutons from?”

The girls looked at each other and then at the Mr. Grump-face, then back at each other.

“See that woods behind the store?” he said.  “There are crouton trees in it.”

The girls were skeptical (also, they didn’t think he was right).  But Shabbos was hours away, and they had nothing better to do, so they set off on a path into the woods.

The birds were singing as they walked.  One, a reddish bird with a black tail, landed right in front of them.  “Hi bird!” Shprintza Genendel chirped at it.

And do you know what the bird said?

Nothing, of course. Birds can’t talk.

And so the girls continued down the path, with the sun winking through the trees at them, as if to signal to them that they would indeed find a crouton tree on their walk.

But they didn’t.  What they did find, though, was a squirrel, standing on a tree branch alongside the path, panting and eyeing them strangely.

“Mr. Squirrel,” Shprintza Genendel said quietly, making Chani smile and roll her eyes.  “Would you know where we might find a crouton tree?

The squirrel shook its furry tail, and do you know what it said?

Nothing.  Squirrels can’t talk either.

A half-hour later, after passing many different kinds of trees and shrubs but finding nothing that had anything like croutons hanging from it, the girls reached the end of the path, the end of the woods.  They were in a neighborhood they didn’t recognize.

“Maybe we should head back the way we came,” said Chani, sensibly.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” said Shprintza Genendel, non-sensibly.

Chani was about to start arguing with her friend but, as she looked around, she saw that down the street, not 500 feet away from them, stood a food store.

The sign over it read: “Basch’s Noshes.”  Shprintza Genendel saw what Chani was looking at and, taking her by the hand, headed straight to the store.

There was a friendly-looking woman behind the counter, and she greeted the girls.

“Hi, ladies, I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

“That might be,” Shprintza Genendel offered helpfully, “because we have never been here before!”

Chani chuckled, and told the lady that they were on a quest to find croutons.

“Croutons!?” the lady almost shouted and then broke into a long, loud laugh.

“Yes, croutons!” said Shprintza Genendel.

“Well, my little pretties,” said the lady with a cackle that momentarily alarmed the girls.  “You are in luck!  You’ve come to the right place.”

She then pranced out from behind the counter and explained.  “I ordered one case of croutons last week and the company sent me five cases by accident!  I was wondering what I might possibly be able to do with so many containers of croutons!  I need my shelf space for other things, like gefilteh fish and breakfast cereal, shoe polish and muffin mix!”

Shprintza Genendel and Chani slowly turned to look at one another, and the same smile seemed to crawl across their faces simultaneously (and at the same time, too).

They turned back to face the lady, who, then disappeared into a back room and returned a moment later with ten containers of croutons!

“All we have is five dollars,” protested Chani.

“No problem.  Take them all.  I need to unload these croutons.  You’ll be doing me a favor by taking them!”

The girls couldn’t believe their good fortune.  “Baruch Hashem,” said Chani, and Shprintza Genendel agreed.  And before they could properly thank the lady, she had put the containers of croutons into a bag for them.  Then they thanked her properly.

Taking turns holding the large bag, which somehow seemed to grow heavier as they walked, the girls headed back along the path they had taken before.

At one point, a dragonfly hovered in front of them, its slender, glistening body shiny blue and its wings beating furiously.  “Hi, Mr. Dragonfly!” said Shprintza Genendel.  “How are you today?”

And do you know what the dragonfly said?

He said, “Fine, Baruch Hashem. I just ate a tasty mosquito!”

It was a talking dragonfly.

The girls were momentarily taken aback, but it was getting late, so they didn’t carry on the conversation.  They wished the dragonfly good luck finding other mosquitos, and hurried on their way.

When they reached the end of the path, they saw that Fresser’s Delight was closing for Shabbos.  Mr. Grumpy-face was locking the doors.  When he saw the girls, he asked them what they had in their bag.  They showed him.

“Where did you get all those croutons?” he asked them.

“Oh,” answered Chani, carefully avoiding saying a lie. “Weren’t you the one who told us about the crouton trees in the woods?”

“Yes!” added Shprintza Genendel, following Chani’s example.  “Thank you so much!”

And then the girls turned and headed home, but not before stealing a glance over their shoulders to see Mr. Grumpy-face, headed quickly down the path into the woods.

They giggled all the way home.

P.S :  The soup was superb!

(c) 2017 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Meir’s Monster

Meir’s Monster

A short, almost-true story

for smart, almost-big children

 

Meir’s scream, the first time he saw the monster, was extremely loud (for the most part a high-c, though its pitch varied as he wailed), and his parents came rushing in a panic to his room.

It was 2:14 in the morning, and the creature had woken Meir up with growling and grunting noises.  He wasn’t furry or fanged, but was terrifying all the same.  He had a huge face – in fact, he was mostly face, with no visible body at all, just arms and legs jutting out from where his ears and chin should have been  And the face, well, it was a frightful one, with angry eyes – four of them, in fact – and a bulbous, gnarled nose. At the end of the monster’s long, bony hands were clattering claws, which seemed to be reaching for Meir.  And the monster’s mouth, which dripped with a mayonnaise-like substance, was slowly opening.

And so, Meir’s scream.

When his parents arrived, the monster promptly disappeared.  When they asked Meir, still shaking with fear, what had happened, he couldn’t say a word.  His tongue seemed frozen.  Truth be told, he had only been speaking intelligibly for a half-year or so, and what speech he managed even in calmer circumstances was rather simple.  But even “I saw a monster” eluded him for a full minute, until he managed to squeeze out the words.

“Now, now,” cooed Mother soothingly.  “There aren’t any monsters.”  Meir wasn’t calmed, though; and now, what was worse, he knew that his mother didn’t know everything after all.

All the same, though, Mother’s embrace and gentle rocking, along with Father’s singing quietly lulled Meir back to sleep in what seemed to be seconds, even though as Mother and Father could tell you, it was really close to an hour.

As fate would have it, the frightful monster showed up with frightful regularity, every night for many nights thereafter, and always at, or around, the same frightful hour. And each night Meir would scream, his parents (at first, both; eventually one or the other) would come, and the monster would, at that very moment, disappear.

Meir was not happy.  How do I get rid of this monster, he thought to himself, once and for all?  His father, sensing Meir’s anxiety (and remembering his own interrupted sleep) had suggested several methods.  One was shooting rubber bands at the monster, a technique that Father taught Meir, but which wasn’t successful.  Meir’s fingers just didn’t work right when the monster appeared and he could only fumble with the rubber band as the monster came alarmingly close.  And so Meir had no choice but to resort to Plan B, the scream.

Then Father asked Meir to draw a picture of the monster, which Meir was happy to do with red and black crayons (although the depiction didn’t really look quite like the monster).  Father then told Meir to take the portrait to bed with him and, when the monster appeared, crumple and crush it.  The monster, Father said, would then disappear.  No need to scream.

Alas, although Meir managed to crumple the paper when the monster next showed up, it had no effect at all.  Meir figured, in fact, that it had probably made the monster all the more angry.  And so he screamed.

Every night, for many weeks, was a monster night, and both Meir and his parents grew accustomed to the routine.

One night, though, Meir hadn’t even fallen asleep yet when he found the monster right at the side of his bed.  But as Meir took a deep breath to scream, the monster held a bony finger to his mouth, as if to say “Please don’t.”  And so Meir didn’t.

And then the monster, for the first time ever, spoke.  His voice was gruff, as Meir had imagined it would be, but his words were quiet ones.

“I have a confession to make,” the monster said.  Meir’s eyes answered, “What?”

“I’m only a figment.”

It took him a minute, but Meir managed to respond, although the monster certainly didn’t look like it was having a baby.  “You’re prigmant?”

“No,” said the monster, with a hint of impatience but also, Meir thought, of a smile. “I’m a figment.

“A figment is something you create in your thoughts.  That is to say that I am only what I am because you formed me in your head.  I am real only because you believe in me.”

Meir didn’t fully understand, even as the monster continued to speak.

“The moment you stop thinking that I’m really here,” he said, slowly, “I won’t be.”

Meir thought he saw something like a tear emerge from one of the monster’s four eyes.

“What?” was all that Meir could manage to say.

“Think about it,” the monster said.  And then, at the sound of Mother walking past the door, he just disappeared, leaving Meir to his thoughts.

And think he did, hard, about the monster’s words, and, as he drifted off to sleep, he thought that maybe he did understand them.  He slept through the entire night that night, much to his parents’ delight.

The next day, though, Meir was unusually quiet.  Mother and Father asked him if something was wrong.  “No,” was all he said.

That night, though, he woke with a start at 2:25 AM.  And there sat the monster, across the room, on a beanbag chair, eyeing him with all fours.

He stood up slowly and walked toward Meir’s bed.  Meir was totally silent.

And when the monster reached Meir’s bed, he opened his mouth and spoke.

“Thank you,” he said.

© 2014 Avi Shafran

Sack of Salvation

“Salvation.”  Thadeusz thought the word so hard he found himself saying it aloud.  His mind pressed on, impelled by his intense discomfort at what he had done, and he imagined himself basking in the warm forgiveness of his lord, a lord he knew had once been mere flesh, just like Thadeusz himself.

And who, again like Thadeusz, had suffered.  The sins of others, one’s own sins, what difference did it really make?  Pain was pain, and Thadeusz was feeling a good deal more of it than he cared to ever endure, though it was being increasingly lightened by the sweet balm of salvation-thoughts.  Forgiveness would yet be his, he knew.  He had an idea, the perfect idea.

The priest, Thadeusz recalled through the alcohol-haze, had often spoken about sin.  There was little else, indeed, of which he ever spoke.  And Thadeusz knew from the priest’s spirited words just where the roots of the sin really lay.  Its branches may hover everywhere, even in the hearts of good Christians like Thadeusz, but its roots, its deepest roots, were buried firm and deep in the stinking swamp of the prince of darkness.  And in the black souls of his cohorts here in the world of the living.

And so, Thadeusz’s own sin, he reminded himself once again, was not really his at all, but the devil’s.  He had, of course, allowed the horned one to take control – and for that lapse surely needed his lord’s forgiveness – but the deed had not been born, could not have been born, in his own Christian heart.

The orphan-boy, in any event, had practically sealed his own fate, walking and acting and speaking as he had, tormenting Thadeusz as he had.  For weeks Thadeusz had felt strange deep within him, irresistible urges to make the boy pay for the evil he had evoked, day after day, week after week.

And so, when the opportunity finally arrived, Thadeusz had eagerly seized the chance.  It had been less a choice than an imperative.

The boy, round and soft and sneering, had boldly entered Thadeusz’s workshop that morning, as he had done so very many times before.  That morning, though, no one else was there.  Thadeusz had shouted at the little hoodlum to leave, but the brat just stood there smiling his smug, infuriating devil-smile.  Children, Thadeusz thought, have no business in a blacksmith’s shop unless they are apprenticing, and that fat demon had neither the physique nor the discipline for the work.  When Thadeusz had started to walk to where the boy stood, the child darted out the door faster than Thadeusz would have thought the overfed urchin could run.  When he reached the door himself, it had been just in time to see the boy’s plump legs, a hundred paces in the distance, disappear behind a well.  Thadeusz had turned, frustrated, taken a long swig of his liquid apprentice, closed his eyes for a moment and then returned to work.

No sooner, though, had he cleared his head and lifted his mallet when he had caught a glimpse of some movement in the far corner of the shop – and realized that the little piglet had somehow sneaked back in without his even noticing.

Propelled by a flood of rage and other more nebulous but equally powerful feelings, Thadeusz had lurched at the scamp, caught him firmly by his overgrown, dirty yellow hair and pulled him toward the door leading to the room at the back of the shop.  At first the demon laughed as he struggled, but when Thadeusz, without the slightest hint of a smile, had clenched his large hands around the boy’s fleshy, tender neck and began squeezing, the laughter abruptly stopped.  Everything, indeed, stopped; the boy made a weak high-pitched noise or two, rolled his eyes and went limp.

Curiously, Thadeusz had felt even more emboldened with the boy’s wilted body in his hands, impelled to go further, overwhelmed.  He dragged the boy through the door and felt and odd inexplicable excitement well up inside him, something like what he imagined a cat felt when it managed to snatch a mouse.  Something seemed to beckon him through the dense fog in his head.  He loosened his grip long enough for the boy to become conscious again and then amused himself for a short while with the boy’s humiliation, pain and fear – let the worthless scamp pay for what he had done – but when he finally applied his hands again, he did so firmly and decisively.

Finished with the boy, Thadeusz stood gazing down at his lumpy, lifeless body.  The strange pleasure he had been feeling slowly but decisively metamorphosed into shame.  He knew he was regarding the work of the devil, but still he felt fear, for he knew he had himself been the devil’s instrument.   Over the hours that had passed since that moment, the thought of his involvement had pained him deeply and constantly.

And then he was inspired with his plan, which had emerged before his eyes like the friendly faces of his friends at the tavern after a long drunken nap.  It was a simple plan, but profound all the same.  Indeed, it was a beautiful plan.  He would turn the devil’s handiwork against the devil himself, fight hellfire with hellfire.  And thereby win the forgiveness and love of his lord.

The boy had bled but a bit, no more than a few whiskey glasses’ worth, from the mouth.  Now, though, Thadeusz was thinking blood and nothing else; it was, he knew, the key to his salvation.

And so, late that night, under the cover of clouds he knew his lord had sent to shroud the bright full moon, Thadeusz did what he had to do with a knife, stake and mallet, stuffed the boy into a burlap sack, hoisted it onto his shoulder and walked deep into the forest that abutted his shop.   There among the trees and small animals, his nerves fortified by a few more swallows of his brew, Thadeusz did what he knew he had to.

Back in his shop, he relieved himself of his baggage and bounded up the stairs to where his bed lay.  Despite the gruesome contents of the lumpy cloth bag that now sat in the corner of the shop’s back room directly beneath him, he slept soundly, like a tightly swaddled, well-fed baby; his dreams were lucid, filled with bliss, blood and salvation.

The insistent tolling of bells pulled Thadeusz from his sleep much earlier than he would have wished.  Well, he thought, what did he expect on Good Friday morning? The town church wasn’t there to let him sleep as late as he wanted, now, was it? No, it was there to call him to serve his lord.  And serve him well he would, Thadeusz thought with a smile, that day unlike any other.

After dragging himself out of bed, Thadeusz washed his face with stale water from the basin on the floor nearby and dressed himself in his Sunday finest, clothing that differed from his workday dress only in its relative lack of burn-marks and caked-on filth.

Before leaving the shop for the outhouse, he opened the door to the back room a crack and stole a glance at the sack in the corner.  It was just as he had left it, not that he’d expected to find it otherwise.  Only the two or three widening patches of crimson now staining the coarse cloth marked the sack’s contents as anything other than mundane.

From the outhouse, Thadeusz proceeded to the church, where he quickly fell asleep during the service, awakening with a start sometime during the sermon, when the image of his lord’s torment and death began to encroach on the considerably less holy thoughts he had been entertaining.  The priest was describing the events at Calvary, quoting familiar passages from Matthew.  Thadeusz stretched and smiled broadly.  The words, he knew, were addressed to him.

Hours later, back in his room above the shop, Thadeusz watched evening fall and picked his teeth.  His usual spartan dinner, boiled potatoes and weak beet soup, seemed particularly delectable that night, enhanced by his anticipation of where he would be and what he would be doing somewhat later.

Thadeusz dozed off again at the table and when he awoke he rushed out to look at the moon.  It was just past midnight.  Only a few more hours, he thought happily.  He descended the stairs and entered the back room to gaze again at the sack in the corner.  The telltale spots had widened somewhat since the morning but their cherry redness had now faded to a pale, earthy brown.  Thadeusz imagined his own iniquity fading too, slowly disappearing and then dissolving altogether in the blessed solvent of salvation.  Only a few more short hours.

The hours however, turned out to be anything but short.  Thadeusz didn’t dare drink as he waited, for fear of falling asleep again and missing his appointment with destiny.  Time seemed to plod along heavily; he imagined the devil straining against the moon, pushing it back toward the horizon.  It wouldn’t work, though.  He and his lord would persevere.

He thought back to the sermon at church that morning.  He couldn’t remember much of its theme but certain phrases, those he has heard many times before, slipped quite easily back into his consciousness.  There was “blood of the lamb”.  And “his blood be on us and on our children.” He had, Thadeusz realized with a smile, become a scholar, even before his salvation.

Thadeusz stole outside occasionally to check the sky and the sounds, and finally, when he was convinced by the position of the early spring moon and the perfect stillness of the cool, clean air that the assigned time has finally arrived, he set himself resolutely to the mission ahead.

With a happy grunt, he heaved the sack with its unwieldy, unsavory contents onto his shoulder, and took a deep, excited breath.  The time had come to turn the devil’s work to his lord’s purposes.  He muttered a hurried prayer, took a long swallow from the bottle he had so righteously shunned all night, and marched like a soldier through the door, out into the still, pregnant, holy night.

Through breaks in the cloud cover occasionally allowed the moon to cast its cold, harsh light on the trudging, burdened figure, no one in the town surveyed the scene.  Thadeusz reached the vicinity of his destination and, although the streets were utterly empty, he tried to assume an even lower profile, stealing through the alleyways like a cat, imagining himself pushed ahead by the wings of loving angels.

As he closed in on the house he sought, he thanked his patron saint that no Jew of the town had stretched his Passover feast that far into the early hours.  The ghetto was as motionless and black as the rest of the town.  The devil’s own darkness, he snickered, would become Thadeusz’s ally.

Passover, Thadeusz’s mind touched the word like it was a snake.  The gall of those Jews, celebrating the death of his lord, even as they insisted on denying his resurrection.  They, the ones who killed him in the first place!  Truly the devil’s seed, as the priest had said.

But the lord had risen, Thadeusz knew.  That was Easter, after all, whether the Jews knew it or not.

And he too, Thadeusz, had risen, he thought as a grateful tear ran down his grimy cheek.  Above the very devil himself.

The house!  He had no memory at all having crept so close, but there it was, within his touch.  It seemed to have suddenly materialized before him; all in all, a good sign, he thought, as he shifted his sack from one shoulder to the other.  Feeling its contents awkwardly shift, he couldn’t help but picture what lay inside it.  The fat mouth hopelessly agape, the bulging eyes recalling the boy’s last moments of terror, the once-succulent body now drained of blood and, rigor mortis having faded hours earlier, utterly, decisively limp.  When the carcass would be found, Thadeusz mused, the slit throat and dearth of life-fluid would be immediately noticed, along with the oozing, ugly wounds where Thadeusz had carefully hammered his metal stake, at the center of the palm of each flabby hand and through the ankles of the swollen, dirty feet.

Thadeusz walked, slowly nervously, along the side of the building, feeling for the cellar window he knew would be there.  It was, and he practically yelped with glee when his hand finally found it.  The full moon poked through the clouds at that very moment but then disappeared once again.  Thadeusz knew without doubt that the lord was with him.

It would be a tight fit, he realized, but he was a strong man.  He smiled as he reassured himself that the boy would surely not object to being pushed a bit, under the circumstances.

The baker’s name, Thadeusz was pretty sure, was Yapov or something of the sort.  He had come to the ghetto often enough to buy the baker’s cheap bread, but had never engaged the man in conversation.  What difference did the Jew’s name make, anyway? It would be mud soon enough and, if Thadeusz was lucky, the cursed devil would be taking some of his fellows along with him to the grave – after a long spell on the wheel.

The boy, Thadeusz reflected with a cynical smirk and no small touch of resentment, might even be made a saint.  Killed for his pure, innocent – here Thadeusz stifled an audible laugh – blood.  Killed to provide the magical ingredient for the Jews’ Passover blood-bread.  Killed by the devil’s own, martyred for his lord.

He himself, though, Thadeusz reassured himself, would also be hailed, if not as a saint then at least as a hero – and there was considerably more to be gained, in any event, as a live hero than as a dead saint.  He, after all, as the townsfolk searched for the urchin, would make the discovery.  He would know just where to look.

Buoyed by his happy thoughts, Thadeusz placed his burden firmly against the cellar window and pushed.  The sound of the breaking glass was muffled by the bulk of the sack and its contents.  He pushed harder and harder, putting pressure now here and now there, until the bundle somehow squeezed through the narrow opening.  It landed on the dirt floor inside with a dull, satisfying thud.  Thadeusz laughed aloud again, then caught himself and looked nervously around.  All was still.

Before heading home again, the penitent paused and looked heavenward.  He thanked his lord for his love and forgiveness and, beyond all else, for inspiring him with the means of his absolution.

How wondrous, Thadeusz thought with deep humility, that his lord’s grace had extended him that holy insight.  And how wondrous and beautiful that Salvation was now his.

© 2014 Avi Shafran

Ignorance of Things Past

“Nurse!  Harebrained harridan.  Nurse!  I know you can hear me!  Nurse!”

She’s unbelievable.  For all that girl knows I’m lying here breathing my last and she’s so engrossed in her MTV she can’t even hear me.  Or probably just doesn’t care.  Witch.         

“Witch, get up here!  Right this min – oh, well it’s about time.  Were you waiting perhaps, for a convenient cardiac arrest to shut me up?  I need to take my pills now.  It’s afternoon, isn’t it?  What?  Are you sure?  I’ve had dinner too?  All right, well, I need some ice cubes anyway.  Yes.  And you can turn that television down.  It’s polluting my air.  A few more.  There.

So patronizing, that woman, so patronizing.  I’m so bored.  I can’t think of anyone I know that I’d like to talk to who’s not dead.  If only I weren’t stuck in this stupid bed I know I’d find something or other to do.

“Nurse!”

Why does she act like she can’t hear me?  That woman, why I have half a mind to-   

“Why, yes a matter of fact I did call you.  I’m quite aware of the fact that you’re going off duty now.  And if my heart muscle decided to go off duty with you you’d probably just point to the clock and shrug.  Is the night nurse here yet?  Yes, you can go anyway.”

Witch.     

“Just please do me one small service before you leave, dear.  Please bring me another of those boxes of papers from the other room.  Yes I know they are and I’d gladly help you if I could.  Will you just bring me one already, curse you!  I’ll put in a good word for you when I get upstairs.”

Jezebel.

“Thank you from the bottom of what’s left of my heart.  Good BYE!”

And good riddance.  Well, let’s see what scraps from the junkyard of the past lie rotting in this mess.  Goodness, this is ancient stuff!  From school days, some of it!  Report cards.  Hard to believe, these.  I must have put the better ones in another box.  Term papers.  Compositions.  So I was a young fellow once upon a time, after all, heh.  I don’t seem to remember much of this and some of it even – why how unusual!  This is odd.  An unopened letter.  Addressed to me.  And in my own handwriting?

Now what the devil does this mean – “Not to be opened until 1999”?  Well it’s a bit overdue then, I would say.  I really don’t remember writing such a letter.  It doesn’t make sense.  I’ll just tear it open and – there.  My, it definitely was sealed well… goodness, the whole letter’s in my own handwriting and… it’s signed by me! 

 

A WORD TO MYSELF ON THE OCCASION

    OF HAVING REACHED OLD AGE

I am writing this letter as one writes to a friend, feeling a bond of kinship yet respecting the dissimilitude that characterizes different personalities.  Although I am writing to you, my self, the sameness isn’t real. For the differences imposed by time are likely as pronounced as they would be in the case of two totally different beings.  Yet we are quite close: I am the teen age you; you, I hope, the elderly me.

I feel compelled to write this letter as a result of having experienced the close company of a group of older folks in the nursing home, some of whom I can recall from my childhood days as they once were.  I have been struck by certain things and wanted to put them to paper so that I will be aided in recalling them when I become you.

As least some of the changes that ageing brings are negative.  The elderly person’s decline in memory can be sorely complimented by an ill-tempered haughtiness, and the combination of the two can result in a person who is irritable, irascible, mistaken in a good many of his notions yet as certain as he can be that he is quite correct.

The finest, nicest victims of such senility are content to feel to themselves that those around them are basically naïve, and they are satisfied to keep their opinions to themselves.  The rash ones, by far the majority, are not happy until they torment those around them with their mistaken convictions and can act obnoxiously without the slightest realization of the fact.  To them, the years have brought only physical deterioration, not mental.  And only an un-deteriorated mind can judge deterioration of mind.  An affected mind views itself through itself and will not detect any failure of mental ability any more than a shrinking man in a shrinking universe would detect any change of scale.

Hence my writing to you, me. Through this communication you have the advantage of being cautioned by someone outside yourself (yet yourself) and warned to beware of the insidious menace of age, which can destroy personality and is by nature undetectable to those whom it infects.

Please look at yourself.  Have you (I) changed for the worse over the years?  Do you – we – intimidate or irritate people and make unreasonable demands of them?  Are we hateful, spiteful, petty, begrudging?  If so, the recognition of it may just be the beginning of its reversal.  Senility might be affected by the senile’s recognition of the fact.  We may be the one with the opportunity of demonstrating so, thanks to the foresight of your own young self.

Please, old me, know yourself and judge yourself.  Realize where and what you may be, and let your awareness prevent or reverse your dissolution of mind.  Save us.

Well this can certainly go in the garbage pile.  I definitely had some weird ideas back when I was a kid.  Not just weird.  Stupid.  Idiotic  Kids are all just idiots anyway… where IS that nurse?… Doesn’t the witch know it’s time for my pills…? 

© 2014 Avi Shafran

Where He Was

Fake, fakery, everything’s phony; I sound like a Bible, I do.  Yeah, still young, but I’ve lived long enough to smell the smoke and spot the mirrors.  Yeah, me, a phony too.  Even after all I’ve given, all I’ve been given, all I seem to be, all they think I am, all the hands stretching out, all the love.  Smile, wave, turn, smile.  Things aren’t what they seem.  They’re the opposite, at least sometimes, at least me…  Hero, leader, specimen of manhood and health and confidence.  Ha.  Wave, smile, turn, wave.  If they only knew, if they could only see me at three in the morning writhing in pain, crying like a baby for his mother and a breast but me, for the doc and a shot.  Mother…  mother.  And what about my own kids’ mother…  What she knows, my quiet, beautiful wife, she knows.  What she doesn’t, she doesn’t have to.  Geez, she’s lovely… just like the flowers she’s holding…  Even after ten years of marriage… Of course she knows. She just accepts things… the life is just worth it to her, even with me… but she deserves better.  She’s suffered enough, with father, with Rose.  And the baby, years ago.  And the baby now.  She doesn’t need more pain dumped on her pile.  Let her take some pride in her life, her children.  In me, even, even if it’s misplaced… A sham, I am.  Even my words aren’t mine.  They’re mostly Chaiken’s – ha, Teddy hates it when I call him that.  He’s great, though, a brainy tongue.  My brainy tongue. It’s him talking, though.  I’m just the mannequin moving my mouth, smiling.  But a mannequin who screams his own screams at night, who has a “condition.”  Ha.  Funny word.  Turn, wave, smile.  Condition’s what you do to the air when it’s hot in a room.  Yeah.  Smile, wave.  Man, it’s hot here today.  Doesn’t fall ever come to Texas?  Sweat doesn’t look good, even on a good looking mannequin.  Hope the smile draws their eyes to my teeth, not my forehead.  Wave, turn, smile, turn, wave.  Dangerous and uncertain world, yeah, but friendly crowd.  Guess the sign’s right. Dallas loves me. Ha.  It just doesn’t kno—

© 2014 Avi Shafran

Variations

 The tape had always irritated him, in a vague but frustrating way, like an aborted sneeze.  The very sight of the reel would summon an unpleasant tingle from the nape of his neck to the back of his knees.  For years, it seemed to mock him, its loose, trailing end stuck out like a tongue.  And why shouldn’t it bother him?  It was, after all, Bach.  And Bach, Martin felt, deserved respect.

Not only was it Bach, but The Aria with Thirty Variations – the so-called “Goldberg Variations”, Martin’s favorite Bach. And, considering how Martin felt about everything Bach wrote, his marvel bordering on worship, that said much indeed.  The Master’s brilliant use of chromatics and quasi-trills, the scales that chased one another and the pounding chords, all thrilled Martin like the rush of some powerful drug.  Never before or after, he knew, had the harpsichord been put to such creative, astounding use as in those ten sets of three pieces each.  Listening to the small universe of expression the Master had created, to those thirty small wonders that went from delicately wistful to explosively joyous, Martin would hear his heart pound and flutter, imagine it weeping the torrents of blood he felt course through the arteries in his temples.

Others might prefer the sweeping, intense emotion of The St. Matthew Passion or the almost scientific approach of The Art of Fugue, Martin had often mused – some might ever prefer Mozart or Beethoven.  But no composer made Martin feel quite like Bach did, and nothing Bach wrote quite like the Goldberg Variations.  Martin found it hard to believe the legend that had Bach composing the thirty pieces as a favor for a friend named Goldberg as a cure for his employer’s insomnia.  The Variations, Martin mentally intoned, were anything but a soporific.

Back then, when he had made the tape recording, Martin could only dream of a time when a simple man like him might have access to the fancy machines professional studios used.  And the world of compact discs and digital recordings still lay decades in the future.  So Martin’s dreams back then were limited to a decent cassette deck with a patch-cord capability; his realities, to an old reel-to-reel deck and a monaural phonograph.

Which comprised the technology he had used to make his recording of the Variations.  He had borrowed the used but blessedly unscratched vinyl record from the local library and placed it delicately, reverently, on the phonograph, a machine that must once have been state-of-the-art but which had long since been humiliated by newer models.  The thing worked, though, and at the time Martin thought only of the music as he carefully set the recorder near the record-player’s speaker

He had to get it just right, he knew.  Too close to the speaker and the sound would be muffled, or an uninvited, annoying buzz would materialize on the tape.  Too far, and precious nuances of the music would be lost entirely.  And Bach, Martin mused, was meant to be heard in as perfect a state as possible, to be heard as the Master had himself had heard it in his own astounding head and heart.

Once the recorder was properly positioned, Martin’s hand turned it on and watched the two reels lurch into action.  They were like an eerie pair of mismatched eyes, with the power not to see but to magically, silently hear, and make heard.  And as the generous reel began to slowly feed the hungry one, Martin, careful to avoid making the slightest sound, reached over to the already rotating turntable, raised the machine’s single arm and placed its sharp, solitary fang gingerly on the edge of the vinyl plate.  He listened as, after a long, expectant moment, the lush music filled the room like an ethereal perfume.  Then he silently moved to the easy chair.

He sat there and in heaven simultaneously until the first side of the record was finished, then he rose to stop the tape and turn the disk over.  As soon as he had sat down a second time, though, he immediately jumped up again.  The sound of the phone ringing in the kitchen had not likely been loud enough to register on the tape, he thought thankfully, but Martin didn’t feel like having even a faint sound intrude on his reverie.  Better to just answer it, he told himself as he silently opened and slipped out the door.

It was his wife, calling from her mother’s house in Florida.  Martin had taken his vacation days that week so that he, Eleanor and their four-year-old, Martin Jr., could make the trip together, but the boy had come down with chicken-pox and so Martin had stayed behind with him.  No sense, though, in Eleanor passing up the chance, he had told her, and so his wife had journeyed alone.

They chatted for a while, and when he returned to the den Martin found the phonograph needle near the center of the record, oscillating drunkenly between the label and the last groove of the disc, as the reel-to-reel dutifully recorded the room’s silence.  Martin smiled at his watch.  He and Eleanor had spoken longer then he thought

Then, in his periphery, he saw Martin, Jr., pockmarked and pitiful, fidgeting in place just outside the door to the den.  He held his hand out to his son and the boy scampered over.

Weeks went by before Martin found the right time and mood to play his recording of the Goldberg Variations.  It was then that the irritation began.

The music began pleasantly enough.  The harpsichord tones had come through quite nicely, Martin thought, and, as the second variation – a brilliant arabesque – began, he closed his eyes.  The magic of Bach carried him away.  But then, several minutes later, toward the end of a titillating fughetta, the intolerable occurred. Martin’s eyes sprang open and he shuddered as the tinny but unmistakable sound of his son’s little voice, first calling for his father and then making some silly speech about his mother and his cat, emerged from the speaker, shamelessly smearing the music’s perfection.  Martin was appalled.

It took him a moment to recall how he had left the room while the recording was being made, and only a moment more to realize that the boy had indeed been in the vicinity at the time.  So Martin couldn’t justify being shocked at what happened, but he was most definitely upset, intensely so, by the esthetic carnage he had witnessed, the violation of the sacred music.

Returning to the library several days later, Martin found that the record he had recorded had in the interim been borrowed by someone else – and decisively scratched.  And so the violated tape began to bother him even more.

For years, when he would open the desk drawer where he kept his reels, he would see the cursed thing and cringe.  It somehow scraped at something inside him, like fingernails against chalkboard.  Martin knew, of course, that he could always go out and buy a new copy of the Variations, but for some reason he never got around to it, and in the meanwhile the tape in his desk drawer just sat there, a mute witness to his attempted homage to the Master – and to his failure.  The fatally flawed reel seemed to sneer at him.  One day Martin simply threw it into a box of torn and tangled tapes he kept high on a shelf in the bedroom.

By the time Martin retired, forty-odd years later, times had changed in many ways. He had amassed a vast collection of tapes and CD’s, including two different sets of Bach’s complete works, and a sound system that was the envy of his friends.  He had, though, also saved the primitive recordings of younger days, and one afternoon he sat down and listened to them all, amazed at how he could ever have possibly considered their scratchy, dull sounds to be music.  He even retrieved the ancient box of damaged tapes.

He had, by then, all but forgotten about the hopelessly blemished Goldberg tape, but it too was there, right where he had thrown it so many eventful years before.  And though, inexplicably enough, the very sight of the reel and its identifying sticker evoked a strange and immediate ugly feeling, the tape didn’t seem unplayable at all, so he put it on the tape deck, threaded the loose end onto the empty reel, sat down across the room in his perfectly positioned listening chair, and poked at the remote control.

When the tape had played itself out, Martin remained motionless, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular, the barest hint of a strange smile bizarrely contradicting the message of his teary eyes.  He sat that way for almost two hours, until Eleanor finally walked in.

Every life, Martin had often remarked to Eleanor, was a roller coaster ride.  Nearly two decades had passed since theirs had left the track and taken the decisive, headlong plunge that had left them wet and shivering and utterly alone. They spent most of their retirement years envying their younger selves with dark, distant passion, wishing for a rewind button they knew didn’t exist.

Their friends often told them they needed to put the past behind them.  They told themselves the same thing, and tried hard to follow the advice.  Some things, though, simply would not be forgotten.

Surprisingly, there were moments, even days, of relative success, times when the present mercifully obscured all else. But every such success was short-lived, a mere prelude to a larger and more conclusive failure.

Yet, even though the times of failure were bitter and black, on occasion an utterly incongruous sweetness sneaked in.  And those wondrous moments – like the many times in their dotage that they would come to listen in the dark to Martin’s old, scratchy Goldberg tape – were unquestionably the brightest, most blissful times they experienced in those waning days of their lives.

© 2014 Avi Shafran