I never knew the Torah, that long scroll of stories, history, prayers, and laws, was so heavy until the fall day I picked one up and carried it around the synagogue in a long line of men and boys. Wrap a twenty or thirty-pound bag of cement in heavy brocade, hoist it to your shoulder, and begin to walk in a circle, with fifty other boys and men, and you’ll find out just how much it weighs on you. On this holiday of circles, when the reading of the daily portion of the last of the first five books of Moses we Jews called the Bible came to an end, and the reading of the first words of the first book began, the time came to celebrate the ending and the beginning with songs and prayers, some dancing side to side and bouncing up and down, and also to air out the Ark where most of the Torahs lay dormant, though always at the ready for a reading.
My parents pushed me into attending (I was still that young that they could push me around, though given the circumstances, of which more in a moment, they really should not have been forcing me to do things I found unappealing), but I could not have been happier, a rare feeling for me in those days, when I discovered that the old men assisting the rabbi and the cantor in this celebration passed to every boy who came forward for a Torah a glass filled nearly to the rim with Scotch.
Which drove me on Simchat Torah to drink the first glass of Scotch. That odd bitter liquid warmed me up; a second glass helped me hoist my burden on my shoulder and parade and dance through the aisles of the old synagogue uptown with as much pleasure and ease as the older boys and men around me. By the third I stumbled a bit in the parade of boys and men, but in my head and heart I felt a certain easing of my woes.
Artie, my friend Artie Sunstein, came up behind me and bumped me into reality with his heavy shoulder, driven by the weight of the large Torah he was carrying.
“Taste that Scotch?” he said.
“How did you—?”
“I came here last year.”
“You didn’t tell me,” I said. “Some friend.”
Songs in Hebrew erupted all around us, and the only thing I knew was that these men and boys sang out the praises of the Torah and Deity, while Artie and I were discussing, in what we took to be the manner of connoisseurs of a fine drink, the pleasures of Scotch.
“It’s kind of bitter,” I said.
“But smooth,” Artie said.
“I’d like it better if it wasn’t so bitter.”
“But the smooth part?”
“It’s OK,” I said.
Two old men, with stubbled cheeks and hunched over from the weight of their Torahs, jammed up against us.
“Boys,” one of them said with a growl, “boys, move along. Dance!”
“We’re dancing,” I said, remembering an old Olson and Johnson routine I had seen a million times at the movies. “It’s stationery.”
Artie said, “You left out part of the joke.”
“You hold up an envelope and then say it’s stationery.”
“I do? I don’t have an envelope.”
“Where’s your sense of humor?” Artie said. (I think that was the first time, but not the last, that someone had asked me that).
“I’m drinking it,” I said.
“Very funny. See, you can be funny.”
A young guy, old enough to go to college, hugging his Torah, bumped up against me and scowled.
“Sing! Why don’t you sing?”
“ ‘First the tide, rushes in…’” I sang him a line from an Eddie Fisher song.
“Wise ass,” the guy said, and spun around us, hugging the satin-covered scroll, dancing from side to side.
“Maybe he takes lessons,” Artie said.
I wish I had said that.
“Yeah, what a douche-bag!”
We laughed, our voices lost among the singing, and finished our turn around the synagogue floor. The rabbi’s assistant, one at a time, took our Torahs from us, and we were free.
Our shoulders felt lighter, our step quicker. No sooner had we burst out of the doors and danced down the marble steps of the synagogue out onto the pavement than I knew what I wanted to do.
“My grandparents are working in their store,” I said to Artie.
He nodded, knowing the cigarette, cigar, newspapers, and candy place they owned, a narrow shop on the main street tucked between a small pharmacy on one side and a saloon on the other. Now and then we boys stopped off there, a tasty detour on the way home from school because the folks gave us free candy and comic books sometimes.
“You want to go?” Artie said.
“Yeah,” I said, “but not to the store.”
* * * *
It had been a bad time for me, the beginning of this autumn season, the first part of the school year in our New Jersey waterside town. My mother kept leaving the upstairs apartment where we lived about half a block from the river; in one week, out the other, sometimes bringing me and my brother along, but lately just leaving us behind to get ourselves ready for school, to make our own lunches. With our father hoping only a little, he had slipped into a funk because of her erratic sense of whether or not she wanted to stay married to him. Crying and shouting, she would depart for our grandmother’s house, stay an hour or a day, or even two days, and then return to the apartment, chastened, I believe, by her own mother about what her duties as a wife entailed.
Nothing our father did seemed so terrible that she would want to scream, let alone leave us to ourselves. He worked hard on the assembly line at an automobile plant about ten miles north of town—as an engineer, not an ordinary line worker—but still he worked hard, off early in the morning and returning late in the afternoon. He didn’t drink. He smoked only a small-bowled ivory-handled pipe, stoking it with only the best tobacco he could buy. But he and my mother never seemed to talk much, and early in the evening he often fell asleep on the sofa with the radio playing. He was not a lot of fun but he made what fun he could, especially with that radio, around which we would hover on a Saturday morning, listening to shows we loved like Land of the Lost, about a hidden land beneath the sea to which all treasures drifted as did all things, great and small, expensive or cheap. And The Lone Ranger. (He had been born in a foreign country, but my father loved westerns and Indian movies.) And as we got a little older some mid-week evening detective shows.
I don’t know what he did to deserve my mother’s spite, or what he didn’t, but nonetheless he had a problem.
As did she. Because our grandmother, while she took her in for temporary stays, would not hear of her daughter getting a divorce and always, always sent her back home to try and work things out.
Because of all this I tried to stay away from the miserable place we called home as often as I could. I took an after school job that kept me working until around six each night, mostly in the basement of a women’s sportswear shop on the main street. It was all I had, besides Artie, to keep the noise of my parents’ quarrels out of my ears. Our expeditions along the river beach, our rides on the Staten Island Rapid Transit to Manhattan, our mutual last-minute efforts to get our homework done, along with the usual cursing and complaints, all good things to stop up my ears.
Until I met Sandy Shalom, whose name meant both hello and goodbye, and who lived across the street from the river, I was pretty lonely. Or even worse, as I described it to Artie, “ugly lonely.” It didn’t help that on the few occasions when we spent time together, at a movie or on a walk, prim and proper Sandy hesitated even to take my hand let alone lean into me and lay her head on my shoulder as other girls did to other guys I knew at school. If there was ever a Jewish girl I knew who behaved as though she was practicing to become a nun, it was Sandy.
“You have to make a bigger move with her,” Artie said to me. “Make her see how much you love her, and she’ll cave in.”
“How do you know she will?” I said.
“I just know,” he said.
“Did you lock the door?”
“I locked the door.”
“You’re sure you locked the door?”
“You’re sure you’re sure?”
“I’m sure I’m sure.”
The back and forth between my mother’s mother and her husband—my grandparents—before they left the house early in the morning to go and open the store uptown. What I knew, having observed this conversation from time to time over the early years of my life—half the time they left the door unlocked. So when Artie and I arrived we found it was one of those unlocked days—I don’t know what we would have done if it had been unlocked, because back then neither of us was of the break-in kind—and in we went.
As always upon entering, the odors of dust, musk, my grandmother’s flowery perfume, and the mouth-watering hints of recent meals nearly bowled me over. I don’t know what Artie was thinking but before I put my plan in order—a simple plan, as I’ll explain—I rushed into the kitchen to see what goodies my grandmother left on the table. Sure enough, I found half of a pound cake and a plate of doughnuts, my grandmother’s favorite sugared variety. The synagogue Scotch had helped to work me up into a healthy state of near-starvation and the two of us—after I urged Artie to indulge himself—cleared the plates. If porcelain had been tasty we would have eaten the plates themselves.
We said nothing as we gorged ourselves on cake and doughnuts, and after a spectacular burp I blinked, amazed at myself and my noise-making powers, and led Artie back through the house to the living room. There in the cabinet, easily in view, lay the bottles of whiskey and Scotch that had been my objective all along.
I went back into the kitchen and in the pantry found a shopping bag from Rasmussen’s Fish Market and returning to the liquor cabinet proceeded, after Artie and I each took a slug from the bottle of Red Label, to stuff three bottles into the bag. They clanked together as we left the apartment, pulling the door closed but not before I switched the lock to the on position. I felt in a good mood, and I didn’t want my grandparents to quarrel about who left the door unlocked.
That’s how I felt as Artie and I, with our bag of clanking bottles, headed south from my grandparents’ house, though without a destination in mind. It had been late afternoon when we had left the synagogue and now the sun had gone almost completely, fading toward the factory smoke stacks on the west side of town, not far from where we wandered. Though the air remained warm as it does in what we used to call Indian summer, there we were, walking in jackets, shirts open at the neck, as though it might have been late spring instead of early autumn.
Is there any time better than this? That’s what I would have said to Artie if I knew how to say anything serious.
I don’t think so, he might have said back to me.
Instead I shook the bag so that the bottles clanged together like dull bells, and we kept on walking in silence, south toward the river.
We got as far as the next block, where the gray shadow of School Number 7 loomed over the street—our old elementary school. Like horses who knew the way, having trod the path so many times before, we walked up onto the tarry school yard behind the building and sat down on one of the stone benches.
I opened one of the bottles and we each took a swig, the effect of which set me to shaking and nearly cleared me off the bench.
“You like this stuff?” Artie wanted to know.
I didn’t know what to say. I said, “I think it likes me.”
Which set us both to laughing, until the sound of approaching footsteps shut us down.
“What’s that?” Artie said in a loud voice.
“Quiet,” I whispered. There was something I didn’t like about the sound of those steps.
Or the yapping laughter that came with them.
Three or four boys, one of them older, with a deeper voice than the others, stepped onto the playground, standing at an angle from where Artie and I sat on the bench deep in the growing shadows of the school building. Each of them arced his head toward the darkening sky, looking up rather than all around (which saved me and Artie the price of getting caught). I started when Artie put his hand on my shoulder and began to push me down. In a moment, just as those boys were starting their business, both of us slid silently under the bench.
Hyena-like laughter erupted from the shadows where they stood.
“Here! Jew school!”
Someone made a loud grunt, as if having hurled something in the growing dark.
I looked up, I looked down, and the twilight had suddenly turned to a dark shawl covering all of it, the school, the hyena boys, the laughter, Artie and me.
“Let’s go,” Artie said. “All that glass…”
“What?” I whispered. “What can they do?”
Another crash. A light on the school’s rooftop flashed on, then off.
“OK,” I said.
“OK we run?”
And so we went, pasted at first to the school wall and only when we turned the corner on the east end of the building did we peel ourselves off and begin to run, bottles clanking in our booty bag, and our boy’s lungs sucking in air, and out, and in and out as we got to the next street—Brighton Avenue—and headed south in a fast-paced walk.
Lights on in my great-grandmothers’ house, but we kept walking.
Lights on at the corner of my street, but we kept on. Home was home, but in my present state I dared not walk in the door.
My present state? Puffed up in the mind from the Scotch, woozy as I walked, my voice getting louder and louder the farther away we got from the schoolyard. And wondering why the hell Artie remained so quiet.
“Hey,” I said, “let’s go to the boardwalk and sit down.”
“Yeah,” he said, with something in his voice.
I couldn’t tell what it was until we crossed the last street that divided us from the boardwalk along the river beach and sat down on a bench. The lights of South Amboy on the other side twinkled on the otherwise dark river. And it may have been Indian summer but you could feel a trickle of cold air trailing through the decidedly warm breeze.
“Give me that bottle,” I said.
He reached into the bag and pulled it out, and I could see in the faint lamplight from one of the boardwalk fixtures that his hand appeared streaked with dark.
“What’d you do?” I said.
“I think I’m bleeding,” he said.
I touched a finger to his hand and put it up to my nose.
“Blood, I guess, yeah. You cut it—”
“On the bottle.”
“Jeez,” I said, “why’d you do that?”
“We were running, remember?” Artie said.
“Give me the other bottle,” I said.
He held the bag between his knees and reached in with his good hand.
“Here,” he said, offering me another of my grandparents’ bottles.
I worked at the cap—it was sticky with Artie’s blood—but I finally twisted it off and took a drink. Ar-rough!
That’s how the liquor treated me, shoving me over into a fit of coughing.
Ar-rough! Ar-rough! It shook my chest.
And on my tongue, so bitter, I almost wondered how I could drink it. But by then I was swallowing another gush of it from the bottle.
“You want some?” I said to my friend.
“Nah,” he said. “I hate the taste of it. My hand’s bleeding. I’m going home.”
“What? Are you afraid?”
“Naw,” he said, “I’m not afraid. I’m just bleeding.”
“So go home and bleed,” I said, holding the sack close to my chest.
That was that for Artie.
“Fuck you,” he said. “And the horse you rode in on.”
He got up and walked away into the dark, leaving me with the bottles, his blood staining the tops, and the evening suddenly cooling off, and a moon rising over the river. It had been a long day, and if I thought of it I could still feel the burden of the Torah on my shoulder, yes, if I thought hard enough about it. So my friend left me, so what?
I took another swallow, getting past the bitterness to the shock of the sting and the slurriness that followed. And would have taken another if just then the headlamps from what turned out to be a passing police car hadn’t flashed across the railings of the boardwalk, so that I pressed myself back and slipped down behind the bench.
When the lights disappeared I sat up, set the sack down under the bench and got to my feet.
A buoy echoed across the river, something I hadn’t noticed before, its regular high-low moan, caught up in the drinking as I was. I started along the boardwalk in an easterly direction, stumbling and then getting along in a long, slow, somewhat steady pace. The buoy called again. Suddenly I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t far.
At the corner of Catalpa and Sadowski, where the river ran past the town and out into the bay, stood the Shalom house, a dour two-story concrete brick building, no different from half the houses I saw every day that made up the ugliness of home. However, this house I had never entered, though I wanted to. Still, I knew at this hour, past mealtime, when my parents had finished their supper and my father (as usual) lay on the sofa listening to the radio news, the Shaloms must also be at home. By now Sandy and her older sister had probably already gone upstairs to their rooms to do homework or whatever else girls did—I didn’t know—when they were alone at home. Never having been inside the house, how did I know this? I knew some things, that if you lived in a two-story house the bedrooms must be upstairs. I knew the world.
In another time and place I might have crossed the street and gone up to their front door, as late as it was, and knocked and asked to see Sandy. But what would have followed from that I could not imagine. Instead, coward that I was, I stopped just opposite the house, leaned against the metal railing that separated the boardwalk from the large rocks below, pausing only for a moment before I climbed over and touched my feet to the large boulder at the top of the pile. A deep briny perfume rose up from the water-swept rocks. It was near high tide, and I could hear the water sloshing below me. It made me thirsty to think about where I was, lying down—I had while having these thoughts lowered myself to the flat surface of the uppermost rock—my mind only loosely tethered together and the swirling power of the liquor, as powerful to me just then as the tide, unloosening it by the moment.
Peering up over the walkway I could see across the street to the lit upper rooms of Sandy’s house, one of which must have been hers. No movement. But I could imagine.
As if I were trying out for a small part in a play, my head bent to the script, I sucked in a huge gulp of river-bay-ocean tinged air and let out a cry for Sandy.
Again, I cried out. And again.
“Help me! Help me, Sandy!”
I’d fallen on the rocks, was my fantasy, and the tide was rising all around me, near to drowning.
“Help, Sandy, help!”
I heard something scramble in the rocks below, something besides the rising water, and a chill ran through my body.
“Help,” I cried. “Help, Sandy!”
Over and over, for minute after minute, I called, and no one—nothing—came. Until finally some of the lights in the house across the way went dark, and I hauled myself back up onto the boardwalk, reached for the sack, reached for a bottle, and lay there, as I would many a night long after this inaugural occasion, knowing something was wrong with me but incapable of figuring it out—and wondering, wondering, what I was doing to myself with all these celebrations and all the bitter liquor that followed.