Fiction Section: Focused Fiction
One of the most powerful draws of stories is their ability to transport readers to all sorts of far off places, leading them on explorations–of strange lands, of new and exciting ways of life, or even through the vast landscapes of the human psyche. Stories let us live thousands of lives as thousands of different people and, by doing so, we can begin to fathom the great sea that is humanity. In our March 2011 issue of Write from Wrong, we are pleased to present you with two wonderful pieces of fiction each dealing with a specific, indisputable fact of humanity: our mortality.
In “Tom’s Last Moment,” Luke Ritta presents us with a despairing protagonist who sees death as a great escape from all of his earthly woes. Ritta’s great attention to setting pulls us into Tom’s loneliness and shows us how his percieved anonymity seems to shrink him into something small and forgettable: a drop of blood lost in the indifferent cold of a snowstorm.
Robert Sachs’s “Blue Room with Woman” is solidly written by someone who clearly has a strong grasp on language and the details of human interaction. When the protagonist begins to unravel the mysterious contradictions of the late Abraham Feldstein’s life, we see that the tales a man tells often outlive him. Perhaps even mortality has a loophole.
We sincerely hope that you will get as much out of reading these stories as we did. Enjoy.
Blue Room with Woman (1954)
Weintraub asks me if I know Abraham Feldstein, the dead man brought in yesterday. The Weintraub Funeral Home, sandwiched between the Wildcat Roller Skating Rink and Mee Mah’s Chinese takeout on Kedzie Avenue, is the next-to-last stop for virtually every Jew in Chicago’s Albany Park. No one claimed the body and Weintraub is calling around to get a minyan for the funeral.
I shake my head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.
“Looks to be around forty. I checked the synagogues. No one seems to know him.”
“No friends? Relatives?” I ask.
I began attending all the funerals held at Weintraub’s—whether I know the deceased or not—about ten years ago, after he called me to make a minyan at a funeral. The deceased was a peddler who for forty years drove a horse-drawn wagon through the alleys of Albany Park, Budlong Woods and up through Chicago’s Golden Ghetto. I had never heard of him. Standing next to the casket, I was wrapped in a finespun sadness that left me feeling both peaceful and virtuous; I became a regular. I’d listen as the rabbi recited the Twenty-third Psalm, followed by some gracious comments on the exemplary life of the deceased: A family man, honest, hard working. I’d pay my respects to the family, drive to the cemetery and watch the burial. Sometimes I’d attend the meal of consolation.
But this funeral is different. Here I don’t feel uplifted. That the man was my age is unusual, but not shocking. Cancer, heart attack, automobile accident. God forbid, suicide. No, what shocks me is that a man of forty has no relatives or friends at his funeral. So there are no comments about the man’s exemplary life, or how he was a loving husband and father. The required prayers are chanted and Weintraub and the rabbi leave with the casket for the cemetery. Before following, I stand with the other seven men and chat for a few moments, confirming that the deceased, the mysterious Abraham Feldstein, is unknown to anyone in the community.
I begin thinking about who would attend my funeral. My mother, of course, if she was still living. What about my customers, the people who buy debit life insurance policies from me? Surely one or two of them would take the time to pay their respects. My fellow congregants at the synagogue? Some, to be sure. Stern, the druggist, without doubt. But the list isn’t long and this nags at me. I guess everyone wants to believe there will be an overflow crowd at their funeral.
“You’ll be dead,” Stern chides me, after I mention my angst. “You won’t know whether there were a thousand people or ten. You don’t have enough to worry about, my friend? Think about the hydrogen bomb, world hunger, something important, not whether some Chaim Yankel is going to show up for your funeral.”
“You’re right,” I say, not convinced.
A few days later, with the lonely funeral still on my mind, I get Feldstein’s address from Weintraub and walk over. Maybe I can find out something about this mystery man. It’s a yellow brick three-flat. Feldstein’s name is still on the card under the doorbell for 2B. I ring and almost instantly the door is buzzing. I walk up the stairs. On the second floor landing I’m met by a small, thin woman.
“Oh,” she says. “I thought you were the movers.”
“Yes. My fiancé died recently and I’m moving some of his things.”
“I was at the funeral, and…”
“Oh, I wanted so much to have been there,” she says. “But I couldn’t go against his dying wish. I’ll bet it was really something.”
“Well, his position in the community. You know. It wouldn’t look good for the president of his synagogue to have a non-Jewish fiancé.”
Feldstein, as far as I know, was not the president of anything. And as for his position in the community, well, he didn’t have one.
“Please come in,” the woman says. “The movers are due shortly. But I need to hear about the funeral. I’m sure it was mobbed. Did they have to turn people away? Doris Shanker.”
“Herman Cogan,” I say, shaking her hand.
She leads me into a small living room painted powder blue. The smell of fresh paint hangs in the air. “Abe loved powder blue” she says, acknowledging the smell. “After the doctor told us there was nothing more he could do, after Abe was confined to his bed, I painted the walls and moved his bed in here.”
There is a brown tufted sofa with claw feet and two dark green upholstered armchairs; one by the window and one near a doorway leading to the kitchen. “Sit.”
I choose the chair by the window, and I sit, knees together, hands folded in my lap. The woman is attractive, shapely. My mother would call her petite. She has moist hazel eyes and a sad, warm smile—a smile that says to me, I’ve seen things.
She sits on the couch and leans in. “So tell me.”
I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I see truth as an integral part of my faith in God. On the other, to tell Doris, this grieving woman, that the man she was engaged to marry is not the man she thought he was, seems cruel. And I don’t see myself as a cruel man.
“It was a lovely service,” I say at last.
“Yes?” Her tone indicates she expects more.
“The rabbi’s comments were very moving.”
“Tell me what he said. The high points, I mean.”
“You understand, Jewish funeral services are plain vanilla affairs. There are the prayers, and that’s about it. Pretty much the same for everyone. Without relatives…”
She stands up, moving past me to the window and whispers, “Auschwitz took care of relatives.” A familiar story. Entirely plausible. But if he’d lie to her about being a big macher in the synagogue, he could have lied to her about his family. Such a man can capture the heart of this woman? It seems wrong to me, unfair. I am alone, while this, this deceiver convinces a woman like Doris to marry him. It’s enough to make you sick. I feel the need to leave. You can tell, by the way, that I am attracted to her. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her fragile beauty. Maybe it’s sitting alone with her in an empty apartment. Who knows?
“I should go,” I say, standing. “I’m glad there’s someone to look after his things.”
She turns to face me. “His prayer shawl. He told me all about it. I would understand if the synagogue wanted to keep it, perhaps put it on display. But I would love to see it, wrap myself in it. If only just once. Is this possible?”
Possible! Is it possible to produce a tallis that doesn’t exist? Is it possible to make a sham into a shaman? “You’ve seen it?”
“No, of course not. Such a relic—handmade by his great, great grandmother in Poland and worn by the chief rabbi of Warsaw—I understand it needs to remain safely stored at the synagogue. But Abraham described it to me. The finest wool, the heavy gold and silver threads around the collar, the fringes. To wrap myself in it…”
“Jewish law,” I say starting to explain the peculiar strictures of our faith, when she takes both of my hands in hers and pleads with those large hazel eyes. Her hands are warm, or perhaps mine are cold. What can I do?
“I’ll check,” I say.
The glass of water and the Alka-Seltzer tablets are waiting for me at Stern’s drug store.
“Plop plop, fizz fizz,” Stern says for the millionth time, pushing the concoction in front of me. “You look worried, Cogan, more than usual.”
“It’s Feldstein. The corpse. He told his fiancé, who is not Jewish, that he was president of the shul, a regular mover and shaker. And she believed him. I’ve talked with her. Petite with large hazel eyes. These are eyes that can grab your soul. And her one wish is to wrap herself in Feldstein’s tallis.”
“Sounds like her eyes have grabbed more than your soul, my friend. But if all she wants is to wrap herself in a tallis, the shul is full of them. Take one to her.”
“That’s the problem,” I moan, taking a swig of the Alka-Seltzer. “It’s a special tallis. Supposedly hand made by Feldstein’s great, great grandmother and worn by the chief rabbi of Warsaw. He described it to her. In detail.”
“This guy Feldstein was a real nut case,” Stern says.
“He had an active imagination. So do I break her heart or become an accessory to a lie?”
“You have to ask?”
I don’t have to ask. I know exactly what Stern will say: Don’t make her problem your problem. But I also realize I never see things as clearly as Stern.
“You say she described the tallis in detail?”
I lean back in the green leather armchair in front of the rabbi’s desk and nod. On the wall behind the rabbi are framed certificates—Columbia University, The Jewish Theological Seminary, an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University. There are photos of the rabbi with Mayor Kennelly, with Harry Truman, with Chaim Weizmann!
“What now?” I ask.
“Well,” the rabbi says. “The woman is in a fragile state. She just lost the man she was to marry. To tell her the truth now may be more than she can handle. But to string her along is only postponing the inevitable.”
“Yes. So?” I try not to sound like I’m pleading.
“You must tell her the truth, Cogan. Don’t compound Feldstein’s lie with your own. It might be painful, but in the end it will be better for her to know the truth and it will be better for you.”
So I am left with no choice. But as I walk from the synagogue to my apartment, I realize there is another choice: I can simply not see Doris again. Beyond that my hands are tied.
The following day, I’m outside the three-flat. I ring the bell, but there is no buzzer to let me in. I wait ten minutes. Twenty. There is no sign of Doris. I’m about to leave when I spot the janitor.
“Feldstein?” I blurt out.
“Dead,” says the janitor.
“Yes, I know. But his fiancé, Doris. I was talking with her yesterday. Here in his apartment.”
“Yes. The blue room. She had no right painting the living room. Strictly against the rules. I warned her. But she’s the kind of person who never listens.”
“The woman. She was here yesterday. We were talking.”
“I see her in the bakery,” he says. “I think she works there.”
I thank the janitor and walk the three blocks to the bakery on Lawrence Avenue. No sign of Doris. The woman behind the counter seems suspicious of me when I ask.
“We were talking. After the funeral. She asked me to find out something for her.”
“Come back tomorrow afternoon,” the woman says.
The next day, Doris is there, behind the counter. She smiles. “It’s hard to talk here. Can you meet me at six-thirty? Abe’s apartment?”
“Are you sure we should be here?” The place looks different in the evening light. The couch and both of the chairs are gone. The emptiness emphasizes the blueness of the walls. She snaps open two folding chairs.
“The rent’s paid to the end of the month. I have the key. Sit.” We sit facing each other.
“Tell me about my Abe. Was he a good president?”
“One of the best. The best,” I hear myself saying. “A prince among men.”
“And his voice,” she says. “He would chant the Torah portions for me. Here, in this apartment. A voice like an angel. Did he really chant the entire service?”
“Well,” I say, “I think he loved doing it. And we certainly loved listening to him. On the High Holy days, his chanting would make grown men cry. Legendary, is how I’d put it. A real Jan Pierce.” I’m sitting there listening to myself lose control. Why am I saying these fantastic things, feeding her need to believe the lie that was Abraham Feldstein? What would the rabbi say?
Doris, for her part, is swooning. She’s looking at me with those wide, wide hazel eyes. The prospect of telling her the truth makes my stomach lurch and my neck itch. “The tallis,” I say, “is kept in the synagogue vault. It’s been years since the last time it was shown.”
Doris nods. She’s like a little girl, trusting, gullible. I have the feeling she’ll believe anything I tell her.
“It will take time,” I say. Again she nods.
Stern laughs when I tell him. I knew he would. “So what’s the plan, big shot? Where do you go from here?”
I shake my head. “I know, I know. But she’s suffered enough. I should make it worse?”
“And you’re sure you’re not making it worse, Mr. Psychiatrist?”
This is the characteristic I like least about Stern. He dispenses advice like he dispenses prescriptions—from behind the counter. Sometimes I want to yell at him to see things from my side, where things are never so black and white. “Sure?” I ask. “In my life ‘sure’ is in short supply.”
We meet most evenings in the blue room, each on our own folding chair. I tell Doris about the time Feldstein delivered a fiery oratory about the need to support Israel. The congregation stood as one and cheered him for five minutes. “A five minute standing ovation; think of it. And then more money than ever before was donated toward the purchase of an ambulance for Israel. And that ambulance, scurrying around the Western Galilee saving lives, has Abraham Feldstein’s name emblazoned on it.” Where these stories come from, I don’t know. They seem simply to flow out of me, unmediated by reason or veracity.
This is wrong, I tell myself. But then I look at Doris and fabricate new stories.
Doris holds her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my,” she says. Sometimes she giggles with delight. One night, after I tell her about the time Feldstein foiled a robbery at the synagogue, she leans forward and touches my hand.
One evening, as we’re opening our folding chairs, I tell her I have bad news. “The insurance company won’t allow the tallis out of the vault. I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.”
Doris tears up, bites her lower lip. “I understand,” she says.
“To them it’s just a business.”
“No, no. I understand, Herman. You’ve done all you can.” She leans over and kisses my cheek. A matronly kiss, I think, with no hint of romance—no more than a thank you. But at that moment, I become a different person. My self-control dissolves. I grab her shoulders, pull her close to me and kiss her full and heavy on her moist lips.
I assure you I am more surprised by this than she is. Gasping, she pulls away and shouts, “Cogan, what are you doing?”
“Forgive me,” I say. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m an idiot. I mean you no harm. I just had this rush of affection toward you and I couldn’t help myself. A total idiot.” As I am saying this, I stand and move behind my folding chair, hoping to make it clear that I am not about to attack her.
“You had a rush of affection?” she asks, her tone noticeably softer, her eyes even wider than usual.
I don’t have to tell you the rest. The month goes by quickly, the lease is up and we can no longer meet in Feldstein’s empty apartment. I ask her to the movies and she accepts. We go out for dinner, once, then twice a week. Things progress, but instead of being happy, I grow more and more despondent. I have matched Feldstein in lies, perhaps surpassed him. The drug that is Doris has punctured my skin and surged through my veins. I have lionized Feldstein beyond all imagination; I have knowingly disregarded the advice of my rabbi. My sins are greater than repentance will ever allow. It seems written that my soul will rot in Hell. Once the depth of my carnality becomes known, will anyone bother to show up at my funeral? To this I shrug with a doleful smile, and realize I can’t get enough of her.
Robert Sachs is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University (2009). His short story, “Kessler’s Shoes,” appeared in the Spring, 2010 issue of Mobius, the Journal of Social Change. His short story, “Rothstein Before the Fall,” appeared in the July, 2010 issue of The Front Porch Review. His story, “A Mistake in the Parking Lot of the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport,” won 12th place in the 10th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition and can be found in The 10th Annual WD Short Short Story Collection. His story, “Apple, Watch, Penny,” appears in Issue 32 (2011) of Red Fez. “Blue Room With Woman” was an honorable mention finalist in the Glimmer Train November 2009 Short Story Award for New Writers.
Tom’s Last Moment
The only light in Tom Webster’s office was from a small green lamp on his desk. Tom sat in his black leather chair and looked at his desk, behind him the tops of other office blocks in New York where covered in heavy snow, the moonlight made them sparkle in the dead of the night.
Tom looked down at his wooden desk and studied the objects from right to left. First there was the lamp that highlighted the rest of the objects, second was an empty glass tumbler and a crystal decanter half full with the finest brandy money could buy. Next to them lay a 44 silver-plated revolver, next to that stood a single bullet.
Tom Webster popped of the top of the decanter and poured the tumbler to the top with the brandy. He picked up the drink and looked into the bronze liquid and thought about his life.
He had never wanted to have an office but things turned out that way when he married Jane. Then she had his son and bang! His life was finished; he was forced into taking this job from Jane’s dad who had connections in the office world. Tom hated every day of his life since he had been working in this office where he sat at this drastic moment in time. He didn’t even love his wife anymore and his son, who was now six years old, was getting on his nerves more then he ever thought possible. He didn’t get along with his son and–to be quite frank, he hated him and his mum.
Tom wanted to travel the world when he left college but he didn’t get any further than Boston. He had always thought his life was pointless and now with this glass of brandy in his hands he was thinking he was quit right about that. Life was slipping by him and he sure wasn’t going to end up like his mum and dad or Jane’s.
He hated looking into the future and picturing himself and Jane walking along Coney Island sea front with walking sticks and frightened of every shadow. That wasn’t going to happen in his life, no way!
He swallowed the spirits and felt the liquid slide down his throat and into his belly and felt it burn. His eyes filled up with water as he placed the glass down on the wooden desk.
Tom Webster picked up the gun and swung the bullet chamber out, he then picked up the single bullet and placed it in to the top bullet chamber. The bullet looked cozy in its chamber; like it was fast asleep in bed. Tom flicked the chamber back into the gun and pulled the hammer back slowly, the bullet was now fully awake and slid into the firing position. He held the 44 in his hands and it felt like he was holding a sledge hammer; it was so heavy in his weak and trembling hands.
He got up from his leather chair and walked to the window of his office and looked down at the snowy streets of the big apple. Tom’s office was so high up that all he could see were tiny yellow dots driving around the roads. He looked up into the black sky and watched the snow glide down to the streets like a dusting of icing sugar.
He put the gun to his head and then placed his finger on the trigger. Then the gold plated phone on his desk began to ring, Tom looked at it and very slowly took the gun away from his temple and walked over to his desk and picked up the phone. He answered it.
‘Where the hell are you? Dinner has been on the table for well over an hour.’
‘Jane! My loving wife I hear that you’re in a good mood,’ Tom said.
‘Don’t be sarcastic with me or a divorce will be fired at you as quick a bullet,’ Jane shouted. Tom looked at his trembling hand that held the gun.
‘I’m at the office, and I might stay here a bit longer.’
‘Just fucking get home, alright?’
‘Yeah! Just one thing, Jane I’ve never really loved you or our son. Goodbye.’
Tom Webster dropped the phone and backed away from his desk until his back was pressed against the window. In his last moment on earth he looked at the walls of his office, highlighted by the moonlight. On the walls little black dots slowly fell, it was the snow flakes silhouetted on the wall. That was the last thing Tom saw. He put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The bullet left the hot barrel of the gun and passed though Toms brain and blew a huge hole in the back of his head, the bullet then left the office as it smashed out of the window. Tom’s corpse fell on to the floor, above him the bloody hole in the widow was now starting to collect snow.
Outside the office window a red line of Tom Webster’s blood traveled from the hole in the window, along the snow covered ledge of the building and very slowly reached the edge. One red droplet of blood fell from the edge of the building.
The red drop fell towards the road below with many thousands of white snow flakes, the blood drop stood out in the field of white as it plummeted to the pavement. When the blood hit the pavement it made no sound, then a few moments latter it was covered with by the rest of the snow. It was vanished from the face of the earth, it was like it had never been there just like Tom Webster.
Luke Ritta is 25 years of age and lives in London, England.