Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Grunstein's Sabbath (a short story)

Grunstein slept lightly, but had two well-defined dreams.  They were deeply etched, like inscriptions on some monumental slab.  The first was a dream of the future: he dreamed he woke up, pain-free and limber, pulled some matches from the kitchen drawer, and climbed down the basement steps with the can of gas.  The pile of rags lay near a lattice of dry wood -- supports for the first floor beams.  Grunstein sprinkled the gas liberally on the rags, as if watering petunias on a particularly dry summer day.  Then he lit a match and tossed it into the midden.   He sat on the chipped concrete floor and watched the flame’s speedy ascent.  Let the gonifs die, he thought, deep with rage: with their screaming, their music, their turmoil, their joy.  Thirty or so less college students in the world wouldn’t stop the earth from spinning on its axis.  And it would give that putz Peter Fishbein an awful legal headache.  His Spanish lawyers wouldn’t get a wink of sleep for a year.  And he was saving the college kids from the grand disappointments to come.  He was freezing their youth in charmed stasis, just like his poor boy Jake, who never lived long enough to provide anything but warm memories; he never disappointed a soul; he never broke a single blessed heart.  Better to die young and loved and missed than old and lonely and forgotten trailing failure and sorrow like a wake.
The next dream was different.  His first wife Ruth, Jake’s mother, was holding up a bloodied child’s shirt.  The blood was from Jake and the dream was of the past.  Jake had committed some Sabbath infraction he had been warned about in the past, and Grunstein had grown enraged.  He had never hit the boy, but had done so this time, and it had landed hard and in the right spot.  Blood had poured all over Jake’s good Sabbath shirt.   Jake had run into his room and his mother followed.  There had been much crying, but finally it stopped, and when Ruthie emerged from the room, she had the bloodied shirt in her hand.  She held it wordlessly up to Grunstein, shaking it ever so slightly, a banner to Grunstein’s shame.  That day, for the first time in his life, Grunstein violated the Sabbath:  he fled to a bar on Beacon Street and drank elbow to elbow with the Irish.  He was so drunk on his return that he couldn’t find his keys.  He passed out against the door, and when he awoke at first light, found his keys had been in his pocket all along.  He never struck his boy or anyone else again.  A year later, Jake died of a lung infection.  There was no connection between the blow and his death, but Grunstein conjoined them in his sorrow.  He had hit his son until blood had been drawn.  Then his son died.  Ruth’s admonition lived on like a strong echo, which only grew in intensity after her death:  Arty, if you don’t watch your temper, It’s gonna kill you, or someone else…
The dream rolled by Grunstein like an old newsreel.  It was faded and torn, but the shame was fresh, forty years later, like a patch of newly turned dirt.  Then Arthur Grunstein awoke to a great explosion.

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