Tablet Original Fiction: Sent on a gruesome errand, a young man comes undone
The farther out in Brooklyn, the more Italian, or Italianate, the butchers became, bulking swarths with bigger swaths of knife to better get across their gestures—men who took so much offense at my request that I was in danger of turning into an animal myself—a predator stalking out past the tinkle only to chime back in again not with a knife but with the biggest gun Sruly would be able to procure, to rob them of what they’d anyway trash out.
I smuggled the duffel across the border to Halalistan, where I sought refuge with this militantly formal but compassionate eunuchary baldy whose dignity kept me waiting while he finished his taslim. The door, plastered with calendars of Mecca, faced Mecca. He stood and rolled the rug, held it inadvertently crude between his legs to fix his hairnet. He was just expanding into lunches—stuffing me with menus, corporate accounts accepted, catering no minimum.
When I told him what I was after, he bowed behind the carwash flaps, returned with a napkin wrapping a lone indigestible cube like a supersized gambling die carved out of transparent marble.
“From a goat that is attending a wedding in Connecticut,” he said, “introductory offer is free.”
I couldn’t resist taking a water from the cooler, he broke my bank to $38, gave me change with firm salaams.
I stowed the fat lonely and lost at the tip of all that duffel drooped from the seatlip like a discarded prophylactic.
The sky sweltered under a messy pelt of smog. The streets narrowed, pinched, were blocked. They didn’t connect, or crossed themselves. The addy of the lamb wholesaler I’d found online and scribbled across my wrist turned out to be the addy of a craniofacial aesthetician I’d already visited, who hadn’t been around, whose nurse had worn a pin that encouraged, “ask me about vitiligo.”
I was still clicking for a turn I hadn’t taken since Flatbush, but it was only when a cab flashed its brights that I noticed the darkness. That and my phone had been ringing. Shabbos had ended. But I ignored Sruly’s call. When I rested wasn’t up to him or God.
I needed to shower, to shower my insides in bottledwater. I wondered what the Koreans would charge for a massage that would snap my bones, finish with a handjob.
A funk wafted up from the back. But if I’d crack the windows I’d leak too. The traffic slowed. An accident ahead. The sewers howled. Blood sloshed past the ribs of the gutters. Traffic stopped.
Sruly’s voicemail mentioned having spoken to a Yahaly who rented cranes, a Krank who served as gabbai, or a cranky guy named Gavi—whichever, any word from him was writ: Messer was in and out, touch and go, his cardio was weak.
As if it’d slipped his mind, Sruly said, “our interment’s at Montefiore, Queens, 128th Street, 6PM”—which was a rear gate just after the cemetery closed.
There wasn’t any accident, but a blackout—towers bricked in silence—and the workers had to close the road if this block that hadn’t wanted electricity just earlier would want anything later on that wasn’t stars. There must’ve been stars. The workers wore skulls on their heads, blue and white but lacking features. Their equipment—greedy pincers, iridescent urns leaching innards, lipidinous cabling and cords, municipal viscera—was expeditionary, invasive. Their flags waved claim to intersections, detoured me to Bedford.
A grating was raised. I wouldn’t have picked it out but for the candle.
A braid smoldered amid the display, its shine reflected by the plastic of a placard from the Department of Health, an “A” grade hung upsidedown.
I couldn’t find parking, the cars were dug in, drowsed. On the sixth day God found a space, stayed put through the seventh.
I doubleparked against a hydrant, hazards on, opened the glovebox, and all of Sruly’s yarmulkes, black holes, voids salted through with dandruff—plus a defroster/scraper, maps to Quebec, two phone batteries, and a syringe whose needle had been dulled wadded in bubblegum—spilled. I trepanned myself with a blackie, stumbled through the door.
The place was abandoned but for a bustle in the back.
I stayed by the candle, the toppled “A,” and mocked an accent, “can I have, please, just a moment of your time?”
A croak came back, “we’re shut.”
I broke the candle off the top of the register. Its flame roasted, broiled, blazed the way. Cholent drip across the registerbuttons, ragged gristlestrips across the slicers, flecks of flanken on the walls, kishka rinds on, or were, the linoleum.
Toward the rear, slopped suitcases, steeped in dampness, stacked alongside an even vaster case, a vatlike unhandled accessory capacious enough for an inconvenient lifetime of fleeing alimony, creditors and corpses, its lid propped by an overflow, an overload—a wobblingly gelatinous, but kosherly so, clear slurry.
“You have, please, a moment—it’s a mitzvah in an emergency?”
A dim clunk of frozen metal. A sigh. A krechts. A grindy cutlet spread out behind the counter.
The butcher, even sawed by the counter, was utter midsection. He was all middle and nothing but the middle, his eyes and mouth sunk into a navel, the beard around it continuous with brows. He could’ve fit a wife, crammed a pregnant wife, inside him. His hairy sausage hands held another suitcase, drained it in the sink.
It wasn’t fat. It was ice.
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