Finding an old Jew in the deep freeze did not at first alter Bernie Karp’s routine in any measurable way. Overweight and unadventurous, he had no special friends to tell the story to even if he’d wanted, which he didn’t: It was nobody’s business. But even Bernie had to admit to himself that something had changed. It was still late summer and he continued, as was his custom, to spend most of each day in front of the TV, munching malted milk balls and digging at himself. Images passed before his eyes without leaving distinct impressions: In a comic sketch a failed suicide bomber was comforted by his veiled mother to gales of canned laughter; in another a little girl kept God in her closet; a heart-warming Hallmark drama portrayed a Navy SEAL romancing a mermaid; and a reality-based program dispatched a disabled couple on a blind date to Disney World. There were elections, massacres, celebrity breakups, corporate meltdowns—all of which tended to evaporate like snow on a hothouse window upon entering Bernie’s brain. Still, he remained a passive captive of the flickering screen in the faux-paneled basement, which was largely his private domain. The only new wrinkle in the fabric of his days was that, while surfing the myriad channels, Bernie would also fan the pages of the ledger book in which the grandfather he’d never known had chronicled the history of the frozen rabbi in an alien tongue. He riffled the pages the way you might finger worry beads, and periodically he would rise and shuffle over to the freezer, where he rolled aside the game hens and packaged ground round to make certain that the old man was still there.
Then came the weekend his parents went to Las Vegas, all expenses paid, for a home appliance convention. They naturally had no problem with leaving the adolescent Bernie alone, since the boy had never demonstrated the least propensity for mischief, and at 19 the headstrong Madeline, on vacation from college, would do as she pleased. It was Friday night around eight in the evening when the storm hit, one of those semitropical electrical storms with typhoon-force winds that often swept through Bernie’s southern city in August. The television reported that funnel clouds had been spotted about the perimeter of the city, their tails corkscrewing the muddy ground like augers, sundering mobile homes. Lightning crackled and thunder rumbled like kettledrums, rain hammered the roof of the two-story colonial house, while Bernie sat more or less oblivious in the recessed cushions of the rumpus-room sofa. It wasn’t that he was devoid of fear; it was rather that primary events had little more impact on him than events—save the odd Playtex commercial or his father’s prime-time pitches for discounted appliances—on TV.
There was a violent sound like a fracturing of the firmament, after which the lights went out and the image on the TV shrank to a blip, then disappeared. Bernie continued sitting alone in the windowless dark, clutching the ledger, as what else was he supposed to do? His sister was out with one of her boyfriends, not that her company would have been much consolation; so there was nothing for it but to sit there listening patiently to the propeller-like drone of the wind and waiting for the floodwaters to rise above the eaves. When after some time had passed the storm began to abate, the boy was almost disappointed. The power, however, had still not come back on, and in the wake of the squall he could hear the sound of a hollow knocking nearby. Bernie listened awhile as if the faint but persistent rapping were an attempt to communicate by code; then he lifted himself from the depths of the sofa and groped his way to the shelves that housed the overflow of his father’s framed civic citations and loving cups. Perspiring freely due to the shutdown of the central air, he stooped to open a cabinet beneath the shelves, foraging blindly among dusty wine bottles and photograph albums until he’d located the ribbed handle of a plastic flashlight. He switched it on and aimed its beam toward the source of the thumping….
Standing over the freezer cabinet, Bernie slowly lifted the chromium handle that released the lid. Instantly the lid flew open, soggy steaks and tenderloins sliding onto the floor, as up sat a sodden old man like an antiquated jack-in-the-box, his fur hat stinking like roadkill. There was a moment when the old man and the boy with his hanging jaw were transfixed by one an-other; then the old man’s scarlet eye grew narrow and gimlet sharp, and shaking himself, he asked in a rusty voice, “Iz dos mayn aroyn?”
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