The Rebbe Mendel Gross had fallen asleep at his desk again. He dozed slumped over some tenth grade exams. In his dream he was young once more, standing on a familiar street of his childhood. All he felt was goodness, a soft drowsy blanket wrapped around him, the world warm and embracing, familiar faces floating by. There were smiles from the teachers that had loved him, his mother and aunts reaching out, tousling his red hair. He saw his own Rebbe with tender eyes. In the dream he was reaching for something, not knowing what it was; a leaf falling silently in a deep forest.
Somehow his own life pressed in on the dream and he heard his wife's voice like the ringing of a phone in a distant room, all mixed together. Then again his dream switched, at first happily; he was standing alongside his best friend Shmuel on the other side of a deserted street looking across, watching the schvartzah girls congregated outside a movie theater on Sunday afternoon. It was years ago - the silver metallic platform high heels and shorts, tight haltertops that cover so little, hit him in dream reality as a nasty tease, their breath, their embrace. Disgusting, he knew, but just the thought of their bare arms caused him a longing for something so outside his marriage and life that he could hardly recognize it. Then he was tumbling, dream movement, his body somersaulting and spinning, with grace and agility. He jerked himself awake and felt a stirring in his crotch. He reflexively pulled his hand down his beard as he did after eating. His beard was mostly grey now with only the slightest hint of red.
When he opened his eyes the Rosenblum kid was standing in front of him. A lanky boy, with incredibly long slender fingers and dirty nails that seemed more sinister than grimy. Yet he was also elegant, and evasive, with a near perfect profile. In the class, among his peers, he moved like a black swan through water, pulling behind him adolescent grace and the vague arrogance of wealth. Mendel noted he had command over the other boys, a natural leader. Not his worst student and not his best. In truth he had no best, he taught the slower learners, the behavior problems. The boys that sat hunched in his class in various postures of disappointment and resentment. A few had afflicted expressions, pained grimaces that foretold no doubt how they would fall waste to alcohol or worse. There was always worse.
Mendel tried to open his eyes wider to show he had not been sleeping. Through the open door out in the hallway he could see two senior boys had pinned the frail Kupperman kid against the wall. Most of the boys and even a few teachers called Kupperman "the scout master " because he was "always pitching a tent" in his pants.
"That tent about us Kupperman?" He could hear the taller boy say in an edgy voice, as he raised his forearm to Kupperman's throat.
"Tonight man, right?" He asked and answered. "Me and Kupperman go back." He said glancing at his shorter sidekick. "We went to the same camp in the mountains." He said pushing his forearm under the pinned kid's chin.
"You'll see," He said. " Right, Kupperman?" With that the menacing boy let his arm drop, spun on his heels, slid into a robo walk with one stride, and began shadow boxing down the hall as the short boy lagged behind the threatening euphoric dance.
"Rabbi Cohen said I should give you these," the black swan boy said holding coyly a fan of blue and red circus tickets. Even at his young age this kid understood how in a short time, even he would exert power over the unfortunate Rebbe.
"Tell him thank you." Mendel said, tucking the tickets into his billfold, post cards from another country he would savor later. He wondered how long the boy had been standing there; long enough to add something to the rumor mill. Mendel knew he did not have a very good reputation, not as a Torah scholar and not as a teacher. In place of a pay raise this year the school was providing tickets for all the teachers and their families to go to the circus during the Passover break. He knew his wife and the children would be happy-ecstatic. In fact he knew it would be all he would hear about for the next few weeks. The idea of taking all eight of his children out any place made him queasy and annoyed. His wife would use the promise of the circus to get the children to behave, until the very moment he handed the tickets in at the turnstile, and then it would be guerrilla warfare again.
When he was younger he might have imagined a circus as joyous and possibly totally forbidden, assur, a diversion of the Gentiles, that took Jews away from Torah study, which in his case would have made it even more adventurous. Now all he could see were his children, fighting in the back of the van. In his mind's eye the elephants walking in a chain, linked trunk to tail, and white horses with flowing manes were obscured by the spiteful shouts of his brood.
He watched the clock; at 4:00 he could leave; he started to stack his books and papers in anticipation. His reality was a vast, complicated contraption; the teaching, now 30 years along, had no idealism to it. He presented the material.
His own children seemed callous and distant from him. People he did not know and did not understand even though they shared the same genes, the same house, the same food. They bonded with his wife, Malky, and went running to her screeching at the top of their lungs, yet even that bond often seemed to conspire against him. Ma ma ma, Tatty broke my plane, Tatty stepped on my school project, Tatty threw out the Play-Doh I was saving. She would come rushed and exasperated into the room wearing her faded yellow apron, holding a gray dishtowel and just glare at him. That look. He could not even measure the distance between himself and them, except to say it was a vast expanse. Sometimes he absently picked up from the table a magazine Malka had been reading. He would try to flip through the glossy pages and read a few lines as he thought it might shed light on her. It never did; everything she seemed to read was filled with hints for saving money or removing stains. There were the obligatory articles on a Torah home, cooking or housekeeping, color schemes, but no windows into the soul. Sometimes at night, when they slept and he went into the childrens' rooms and leaned into their beds, he felt like he was kissing angels on the forehead.
His wife at 47 then presented him with yet another baby. They thought she was going through the change and when she came back and told him what the doctor said, he literally went into the bathroom and threw up at the thought of it. For her part she was surprised but happy, she was truly happy at the mere thought of yet another that they had no room for and no money for. Now that baby was an obese five-year-old who sat petulantly on the living room couch picking his nose, sometimes shouting out, "I got a diamond." At night he snuck food when the rest of the house slept. They had to affix a large combination lock on the refrigerator. His wife worried about this child with the same exact enthusiasm she worried the other eight except now her concern had merit. They had no money, every pair of shoes cut into Mendel like a knife. The tuitions alone were mind-boggling. He sat yearly in front of five different tuition committees explaining why this year again his children needed another scholarship. Soon he would be looking to marry off his daughters. Overnight they appeared to him plain and demanding girls. No doubt the other side would ask for the very marrow of his bones, the fluid in his spine, in exchange for their son in marriage. He could not even evade the reality by putting up a front of a good neighborhood. The house, a three bedroom on the sad-sack end of Rose Street in Far Rockaway, was just a redressed bungalow, with sagging door frames and floors that moaned with every step. It was cramped too, five girls in one room and four boys in another. Children stacked on top of children. Mendel felt that somehow the adults had retreated from him and he only felt at home late at night, sitting in the kitchen under a naked bulb wearing only his pants and undershirt and his graying tzitsis and yarmulke. Then he would attempt to juggle the bills, trying to figure out how to make that long journey from this month into the next. There was always the unexpected. The girl's school had lice. In fact all of Brooklyn, Far Rockaway, Lakewood and even Monsey had lice. School nurses were working around the clock. Women set up washing stations in their homes and were charging forty dollars for a delousing. All in all lice had cost him over two hundred dollars.
How did it come to this? He wondered. While he was not so much interested in self-reflection in the secular American sense, and knew little beyond the classic works of Mussar, the philosophical system that addressed character refinement that he never seemed to enact, Mendel sometimes pictured himself like the brightly painted Russian nesting doll on his youngest daughter's dresser, the outer Mendel more detailed and glossy, but the inner Mendel smaller, more innocent - the final one just a blank plug of wood. That was the Mendel nobody could get at, the one from a long time ago. On some level he realized that he was too old to be considered unformed and whatever his inheritance would be in this world may have already come to him, whatever talents would have reveled themselves by now. Perhaps mazel, simple luck was still available to him, but that could go either way also. Now for all intents and purposes he had reached the crest of the hill and was doing a slow slide down the other side. Still, his imagination was punctuated by easy images. That he could hold his hands together and then simply unfold them and there in his palms would be a better life. That all the prayers he sent up three times a day and so many extra would somehow be answered.
In the car on his way home while stopped at a red light he glanced over to the car alongside him, an expensive new dark European sedan, and thought he saw Shmuel again. Then the light changed to green and the car sped off. Quite unexpectedly a few months ago he ran into Shmuel on 18th Ave in Boro Park. He had been shopping for a new suit, the first in four years, on a Thursday afternoon and he stopped for a slice of pizza, some air conditioning and a soggy potato knish, and when he stepped out of the pizza shop onto the heat and confusion of the street, there was Shmuel standing in front of the silver shop with a large bag with fancy script - Steinmann's Silver. His first thought: that Shmuel must be doing better than he was. Why shouldn't he do better, after all he remembers that he had married a Rosh Yeshiva's daughter and was now head of the Yeshiva himself. They exchanged the usual perfunctory greeting, which means they exchanged nothing at all. "Shalom Alechem," Mendel said stretching out his hand in a casual and familiar gesture, and wanting to take Shmuel a bit off guard.
"Alechem Shalom." Shmeul nodded.
Although he may have wanted one, Mendel realized that it was not the right time to have a conversation; what could they catch up on anyway? Both their lives followed a prescribed course and from all externals neither man had veered off. Both still had their beards, sidelocks, black hats. Where could they speak? Not in the middle of 13th Ave in the heat and the crowds pushing in two directions at once. Also, he considered, whatever changes may have happened were perhaps not good, an illness, or death. Mostly he did want to ask if Shmuel ever thought about their childhood. He too sometimes found himself revisiting those same streets, fixed in a half illumination of memory, where every sleep took him. He wanted to ask someone like himself or who had been like himself if they ever felt or thought, maybe for a second, that one of life's angels had passed overhead and not taken notice.
When he arrived home he almost fell and broke his neck getting out of the car and stepping into the spokes of a bike that had been abandoned in the driveway. His wife was poised near the door, ready to grab the car keys from his hand and leave. He placed his black hat on the top shelf of the closet. The living room floor was covered with Legos, fixed into tall towers and walls. "Look Ta, a city. " His youngest, Zvi, called from behind a Lego tower. "Care Ta - don't knock it over. "
"Was that your bike I almost tripped on outside? " Mendel asked. "Go put it away right now." He took out his billfold and retrieved the circus tickets and flashed them like a signal. He then deliberately concealed them under a silver Kiddush cup in the breakfront. Sometimes he just tried to avoid the children, afraid that he would grab one and just start shaking and be unable to stop.
That day that Mendel bumped into Shmuel he wanted to ask him if he remembered their childhood all those years ago. In Mendel's own personal and historical narrative his life divided neatly between the times before that Sukkot and the time after. The day his own father had not beaten him completely. The day he unexpectedly felt power and freedom course through his body. The day his own body was magic, elevated past all his imaginings and nightly dreams. He had spent much of his life backing away from things, afraid of what he might do, except once. He remembers his father coming after him with a piece of wood. Catching him as he tried to run up the back stair, holding him by the back of his vest, bringing down two sharp blows to his shoulder and back and then just losing his grip. What was it? He had forgotten he was supposed to help his father erect the family Sukkah and went off with Shmuel. When he returned home his father was in a rage, his grey beard swaying side to side as he chased him up the back porch stairs where his mother opened the kitchen door to let him flee through the back of the house and then out the front door while she held back his father by blocking with her body the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, until his father just pushed her aside and came flaying out the front door. By then Mendel was already three blocks away.
It was Shmuel that saw the girl first. She was walking alone, head down almost in complete concentration, her feet picking their way over and around the crumbling cracked sidewalk. Most of the boys he knew always looked at these types of girls with a kind of detached contempt and interest. Every street in the neighborhood had at least one like that; girls that would not grow up to be the mothers and sisters they knew. They moved with gestures that made Mendel feel hurt and angry, weighted, like the wood in his father's hand, the rage waiting akimbo in the doorway. They swung their hips and hair, their arms swayed as they walked. He could not even imagine the women those kinds of girls would be.
Mendel at first just wanted to make her trip on the cracks she was trying to avoid. That was what he was thinking when he walked across the street. He was suddenly flushed with the possibility of cruelty. The possibility could and did unleash something in him that he had no word for at the time but years later thought it may mean freedom - a hopeless freedom, unhindered by expectation.
For a second or two he teased her, pretending he wanted to know where to buy fish because the Spanish worker at the market told him once that girls smelt like fish but it was good. So he asked her about fish. It was the first thing that came into his head. He shocked himself that he was able to push her right across the street to the back of the school. She must have wanted to go because she did not fight, that's what he thought.
Even in those moments that he was doing it, with his pants around his ankles, and her splayed like a broken toy on the ground at his feet the second before, the second after he did not recognize himself, did not know that it was him doing it. For him it was the most perfect moment in his life. He could see the expression in her eyes and feel himself swelling in her strained wild expression, and at the same moment feel his father and mother and his whole life around him receding like low tide. He would never again know that feeling, that moment in her eyes - himself reflected back in her black pupils.
With his wife he felt as looking out onto slow black water. He tried at times to pretend it was a mistake when he rubbed himself that way against her stomach, all loose and sagging from pregnancy. Her eyes clenched tightly, she always knew. "Mendel don't. "
In the morning, traffic crept at a clogged and madding stop-go pace, cars and trucks halted mid-turn, stopped askew in the road. Nobody moved. Horns blew notes of frustration like an amateur orchestra. When he rounded the corner Rebbe Mendel arrived in front of the Yeshiva. Groups had congregated on the pavement in front of the large doors and were talking in conspiratorial huddles. He noticed that on this morning he had to park even further away than usual. People stood in small groups; they were talking in hushed reverence. Ah, it was all over the street, shopkeepers brought their metal gates down. The Rabbi had died in the night. Well into his nineties, he had hovered for years between this world and the next. This Rabbi had come from Europe, a Phoenix rising out of the ashes, from the greasy soot piles of the formerly celebrated dynasties, human bones and villages he brought his people with him. They set up a parallel world from the one they left burning. He built schools and businesses - here in America.
The students began making their way into the building and were directed by teachers toward the large lecture hall in the center. The auditorium was already full, a typical Yeshiva study lecture hall arranged with tightly fitted long tables and chairs. In the front of the room on the raised dais, eight of the most prominent Rabbis were seated, like large penguins. Mendel knew each would give a eulogy. After the third eulogy Mendel could barely keep his head up. Each time another Rabbi got up to speak everyone stood in deference. This up and down was the only thing keeping Mendel awake. Mostly they spoke in Yiddish, not because they did not know English, they knew English all well and good, but such a man should be addressed in a finer language than English. Except for Rav Gutner; he spoke in English, he was forward thinking, arrogant and the head of a large Yeshiva a few blocks north known for producing original thinkers, mavericks and big donors.
"Last night was a great loss, an unimaginable loss," he said.
"Look around you. Look what he built. Look how he built it. Not from stones, or wood, but from Yidden. Our sages teach us that the world has known low points, dark epochs. Our sages teach us, and we know that Hashem, blessed be he, knows from among all men, who can bring our future into being. Hashem knew Noah, knew that only Noah could save the world.
"So Hashem commanded him - to build not a city, not a Yeshivah but a vessel that would preserve the world." Rav Gutner stood up taller, and brought his hand down on the podium for emphasis.
"The Midrash says that Noah was overwhelmed with trying to feed all the animals. So Noah missed a day feeding the lion. Who has not missed a meal in this life? Need I remind some of you, how many we all missed in those dark and terrible days in Europe-you remember, you were there, you tell your children. And so when Noah arrived the next day to feed the lion, the massive cruel dumb beast was hungry and angry. As Noah put the food forward, the beast leapt up and brought its awful paw, claws like knives extended down on Noah. After that Noah coughed blood from the wound the animal had inflicted.
"So we ask. What right did the beast have to injure Noah? The one man Hashem chose to save the world-What right? Did the dumb beast have any right? "
He stopped and was quiet for a second, looking out into the crowd that was spilling out through the open doors into the halls.
"I say yes. The beast had every right. Why?
"Because it was the last lion on earth. Today we say goodbye to our own last lion." Then the Rav Gutner was silent as he turned to face the box.
"So, my teacher, like a father to me." His back to the seated crowd, he began in a choked voice. "If I ever slighted your honor, or harmed you, I ask for your forgiveness." Then as if completely alone in a room and deep in thought he continued addressing the plain pine box on the stage.
The circus was held on Floyd Bennet Field. A private performance contracted by the community Rabbis and the community leaders. It promised it would be within the guidelines of Torah, with only men acrobats and trapeze artists swinging gracefully and catching one another. No women were to perform or even appear in front of the audience. The children's excitement had been palpable for days. They had been to the library, each checking a book on circus out. They had drawn crayon pictures of tents and rings and elephants and clowns.
They took the family van, white and dented on the two rear corners. Getting all the kids into the back, buckled in, and then fortified with juices boxes, was like hitching together a wagon train. And Mendel pressed through the traffic on Beach Chanel Drive, the sea pressing against the shore on his left. As the van rose to meet the bridge he could feel the waves in his ears and see the mist rising. His heart surged in a way it hadn't for years. He was almost oblivious to his family in the van all around him, if that was possible. Parking was so easy that it was a gift. Yes he was on the right way - the path cleared of impediments. The way his life should have been but wasn't. His conventional truth never embraced his conventional deception
The entrance outside the arena was packed. Right away it was obvious that the circus was small and amateurish and played mostly to small distant provincial towns upstate. It was not the famous performance seen in Manhattan. For a long while he was in a crowd of his neighbors, his friends, his family; his people that had once all stood in awe at the foot of Sinai, now stood here awaiting a different joy. The ticket takers were like greeters in a big box store out on the Island, smiling, genial, directing people to the left if they wanted to see the animals, to the right if they wanted to find their seats right away. His family went to the left but Mendel went to the right. He watched his family periscope away from him, until they were small toys at the far end of a tunnel his wife just backlit, only her silhouette recognizable and familiar. The distance like a memory of what had never been but something he imagined so often that it felt as a memory. He walked as if he was late to a very important meeting, as if a parent had complained and was now waiting in the Rosh Yeshiva's inner office, that inner vault.
He felt an unexpected quiet. From far off he heard a teenager working as ticket taker call to a co-worker -"Hey don't be bringing the Tally-ban up in here," they laughed and jostled each other like half grown wolf cubs. At the concession stand he bought a four-dollar coke in a cup shaped like a performing bear with a red ball balanced on its nose. He poured a little of the vodka he kept in a flask in his pocket into the stupid cup. Except for the two elephants, that were being held in what looked like a parking garage, the animals were all in large cages, holding pens where they could stand up, walk a few steps and turn around. The horses and ponies stood with stiff black caps between their ears and colored streamers in their manes, oblivious. There was a pen of miniature French poodles dyed pink and orange and the little tricycles they performed with. In the corral adjacent, three small black bears slept tightly together on beds of soggy straw. They looked nothing like the cup he was holding. He took long sips from the cup now wanting to just throw it away. He had to walk the entire perimeter of the arena to get to the lion. One sole lion, a male he knew from the mane, from the stature, was lying awake in the back of the cage. The beast was the color of honey in the light.
He stood for a long moment just watching with his hands in his pockets. He felt as he had been delivered from the intention of the holy one, blessed is he and into the hand of what had been gripping him for years; about to arrive at what had for so long eluded him. He was not even surprised to find the lock on the heavy cage open. When he pulled the metal door toward him he heard something, the beating of wings, like a flock of pigeons at once aloft all above him. He felt their wings all around him and remembered what it must feel like to look forward to something. He grabbed one of the cage bars and the steel door open wide. He stepped inside and he could feel the body heat.
"Hello old teacher, old friend, father. Forgive me I am late. I'm going to feed you now." And so Rebbe Mendel in his heart of hearts offered food to the last lion on earth.