Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)

The wisdom of a wife can save a household – Proverbs 14:1 in a Talmudic gloss

            Arthur Grunstein had stripped his life to bare essentials.  He woke with a dull pain in the morning, and during the course of his day, it grew misshapen, until by bedtime it was a sharp, stabbing ache.  In between these bookends of physical discomfort he grumbled about the price of eggs, the long lines at the post office, the constant reek of gas because the crews were always ripping up the street with jack hammers, and the garbage left strewn along the street by Boston Sanitation, as if people didn’t walk along the sidewalk with two holes in their heads for smelling.  But most of the time he railed against his traditional nemesis, the Fishbein Properties Corporation, who owned and maintained his building on Egremont Road.  Their plumbers couldn’t repair a toilet, their electricians couldn’t rewire a lamp, their paint crews never heard of a drop cloth, and their solution to refurbishing the old and rusty chain link fence which circled the front of the building was to spray paint it metallic silver.  After the first hail storm in January, half the paint chipped away from the metal, revealing the denuded under surface, which was mottled gray and dung brown in color -- the true essence of foundational decay. 

All he had was his stray cats.  They never asked for anything.  They never changed.  And if they died, well, there were plenty to replace them.  They were blessed by a sweet, replenishing monotony.   The booming world of human disappointment had been all but replaced for Arthur Grunstein by a few dented aluminum bowls near a patch of woods at the rear of his building, a bag of cheap cat food from the Star Market, and a multicolored assortment of felines already several generations under his tutelage.

Nearly every building and apartment along this street had once housed Jews: Shapiros, Finkelsteins, Swartzs of all spellings, Frankels, Levis, Levins, Zimmermans… all gone now.  Some doors still had mezuzoth on their frames, cenotaphs to a life no longer lived -- buried and never eulogized.  And who lived in those apartments now?  Who was in those cozy rooms where Sabbath candles once flickered and shinny challah bread graced the centers of dining room tables?  Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Salvadorians --  the full earth-colored spectrum of brown skins, machismo stances, loud music, rude and round women, bawling children, and smoky stenches.  And with them: the crazy college boys and girls who screamed at 3 AM for inscrutable reasons, either from fear or joy or both it was never clear, and who threw bottles out their windows, kissed or groped or worse in the street on warm nights as well as in snow, sleet, rain or hail, and smoked cigarettes or pot out the windows at all hours, only quieting down at dawn, as if old people in rent-controlled apartments were not sleeping above or below, or to the left or right of their cacophony. 

            They thumped, laughed, screamed, cried.  Life’s pandemonium was out in the street and in the hallway.  The insulting vigor of youth pulsed around Grunstein.  While his friends and contemporaries languished placidly in nursing homes, their care level graded by their infirmities, Grunstein, the victim of bad investments, was forced to live in three rooms, plus a kitchen and bath -- his ancestral rent-controlled apartment, from which he had buried two wives and a young son.  He was surrounded by a landscape which mocked and scorned his age with the raw insolence of youth.  Grunstein could never tell if a scream in the night was a cry for help or an expression of ecstasy.  He didn’t even try.  He locked both his dead bolts at night, and slid the heavy metal “police lock” until it clanked ominously into place.  Except for trips to the post office, the supermarket, the synagogue, his doctor and the cats, Grunstein seldom ventured out.  Beyond his little rooms the world could flare up, burn, and crisp to black for all he cared.
For Grunstein lived with a mute disappointment of the world of men:  the promise of masculinity had sprouted for a brief season of his life, only to shrivel in a long, desperate autumn which showed no promise of ever ending.  Without a woman for so long, Grunstein drifted in a shadow world of male disappointments, paranoia, and fears, each enhancing the others and all unmitigated by the benevolent forces of a woman.  He needed a wife to say, “Arty, cut the crap!”  But he never acted upon his base impulses.  He held them in check with his belief in retribution -- if not in this world, then in the World to Come.  And this remained the case until they started screwing with his cats.

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