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The bargain.

Gutterman, the writer of sorts, did not really make a pact with the devil. He made a bargain with his wife. First of all, he didn't believe in the devil. This meant that he was a lucky fellow because had he lived in the Middle Ages in Europe where his immediate Jewish ancestors came from, he might have been burned at the stake by the ruling church for publicly professing non-belief in the devil.

And Gutterman was that sort of man--one who would ever keep quiet about his most private beliefs but had to announce them from the rooftops to anyone who would listen, as if he were the prophet Isaiah himself. Isaiah actually didn't make use of rooftops, I'm told. Unlike all the other prophets who were poor and frequently uneducated, Isaiah was of most royal blood, a relative, in fact, of the king, and consequently, he had enough money and power, I would guess, to speak his speeches in fancy formal gatherings to a captive audience, not from rooftops or rostrums set up in Hyde Park or in the old Union Square Park where they allow anarchists and syndicalists and crazy temperance people to talk until they're blue in the face. But even in ancient Israel, where Gutterman's more ancient ancestors came from, kings and their nasty wives killed off a ton of good prophets whose speeches they didn't like. In modern America, Gutterman was safe, and his bargains with God and woman were sacred.

Gutterman. Yes, Gutterman. He didn't believe in the devil. He didn't believe in anything until his wife made a deal with him that he couldn't resist. She promised not to die before he did, and he promised to go to shul every Saturday morning and occasionally volunteer to lead the prayer service himself, which is called in Yiddish/ English/Hebrew davening farn umid.

Does any of this make sense? Why would a man, a writer, no less, at least a so-called writer, a so-called intellectual, agree to go to the synagogue, the house of prayer, and waste his time and everybody else's when he didn't believe in anything at all? It's a good question and deserves an answer.

First of all, not believing does not necessarily mean not davening, that is, not saying prayers in Hebrew. Praying in Hebrew for a Jew is a way of life, a commitment to history, to language, to literature, to music. It is a kind of aesthetic intoxication. If I begin talking about Hebrew prayer, I can't help sounding like a Jewish George Santayana and waxing poetic, even though Gutterman was the writer, the so-called writer, not me. It forces you to be that way.

Secondly, Gutterman actually liked to sing and to recite in public. He had a godawful voice, a burring kind of sound that prompted you to shiver with annoyance and to hope that the person would try to clear his throat, which he never did. Sometimes the rasp in his voice was so pronounced, especially when he held a high note and trilled on it, that it almost sounded like there were two voices together, except that they weren't harmonizing with each other. How do I know so much about Gutterman's voice if I myself never went to shul, certainly not to his shul where none of the writers went and there was nobody worth talking to? I know because Gutterman also fancied himself a little bit of a cantor, what in the Yiddish language would be called a shtikl khazn, and he never lost an opportunity to practice in front of all his secular friends including me, including those who were ideologically against shuls and against rabbis and even against cantors if they sang like Gutterman.

"V'koreiv pizurainu," he would sing, "mibein haV goyim; u-n'futsoseinu kaneis miyarkisei oretz." And he would repeat the verse ad nauseam with all the tricks of the cantorial wade trills, falsetto singing, even a cry, a krekhtz, a sigh, a tearful break in the voice at the caesura and at the end of the prayerful sentence, as if he were Rodolfo in Puccini's opera bellowing bathos over his dying Mimi. And what was he cantoring about? "Bring back, O Lord, the scattered remnant of our people from among the nation; and gather our dispersed exiles from the ends of the earth." Was this something to cry about? Maybe so, if you were a religion Zionist or a secular nationalist or a sentimentalist or a fundamentalist, but if you were just a Jewish leydigeyer in America, an out-of-work nogoodnik with a nagging wife who didn't work either, and you fancied yourself a writer who over two dozen years had published at the most four poems and three short stories in two magazines printed by your own friends that even your own mother didn't read, then there should have been other things to cry about besides the dispersion and the assimilation of your hapless people.

But I distort the truth. I give the impression that Gutterman and Gussie lived from handouts and on the brink of starvation. First of all, Gutterman and Gussie. That's what we called them because I swear we never knew his first name and never knew her family maiden name since they were never married with benefit of clergy. He was only and always Gutterman to us. Even the letters in his mailbox read plain Gutterman. I saw many of them. I know. She was always Gussie. Gussie the nag, Gussie the yente, Gussie the sexpot. She was a piece of goods. I know this too. I used to go out with her before Gutterman knew she was alive. Even then I never got to meet her parents or any of her relatives, and I never found out her last name. There are a lot of other things I never found out about her, but that's another story.

This story requires me to emphasize that this strange pair were not destitute. On the contrary, they were filthy rich, an adjective plus an adjective, maybe an adverb and an adjective, that I normally avoid because it sounds like I'm a leftist who always orates about the plutocrats and the exploiters and the bloodsuckers, which I don't because I believe that everybody is an exploiter of everybody else whether rich or poor. I have a very negative conception of human character. I'm a pessimist and a cynic without believing in original sin. The sin is not original, and it is not inherited from Adam and Eve. It is newly minted in every generation and newly fashioned by the virtuosic mind of humankind whose creative powers when it comes to hanky-panky are beyond imagining.

Where was I? Gutterman and Gussie. They were not poor. Although Gutterman didn't work a day in his life, he had money to burn. Lucky for him, he spent three years in the army fighting Hider and his Nazis in Europe, and he came home a wounded hero. He collected an army pension, saved it up, spent ten minutes a day figuring out the stock market, and turned his pension over and over until it became a bundle of money you wouldn't believe. He had golden fingers. If he only touched the name of a stock by mistake on the financial pages of The New York Times, he touched a goldmine. I once asked him to tell me what he had bought that day so that I could follow him, and he did. He told me, I invested, and the stock went bankrupt in two months' time. I think it was the only stock of his that ever lost a penny. Therefore, he never told me anything again, and I never asked. Whatever God there is over this world meant for him and Gussie to be rich, not for me without Gussie.

As for Gutterman, he really couldn't do without Gussie. Into middle age she retained her girlish figure and her enticing walk. She moved like a belly dancer always doing her act. She twisted, she turned, she leaned back, she leaned forward. Every which way, her bosom (I can't say the vulgar word), round and full, bounced to the choreography of her walk and sent a message of hopelessness and dreams. She had the slimmest legs and the longest you ever saw. I always thought that her legs began at her pipik and ended in my kishkis. And even though she wasn't a spring chicken anymore, she didn't have one blue vein on any part of her legs up to her thighs, and she could wear a miniskirt better than the high-school teenagers in Feigenbaum's class.

All body, no mind? God forbid, Gutterman should be so unlucky. She could debate with the best of us on any subject we discussed--surplus capital, onomatopoeia, vaginal orgasms, deconstructionism, neoconservatism, postmodernism, and other disasters; even string theory, and certainly the female writer of the Book of J in Genesis. It didn't matter. She had an opinion about everything. And it wasn't just an opinion based on vapors and hot air. She read The New York Times and The London Times and The Bombay Times and maybe even Commentary and Midstream and Playboy and The Yiddish Forward and The English Jerusalem Post, and her mind was a flypaper trap that remembered every miserable word and every insignificant statistic and every infamous quote with which to back up all her wrong opinions.

How could two people like that Gutterman and Gussie live together in peace? He talked or sang day and night and she sang and talked night and day. He yelled, she yelled. He cursed in Russian, she cursed in French. He gave a two-hour lecture on the fate of the world, she gave a four-hour diatribe on husbands who speak for two hours and are only k'nokers/bet de/berbet, virtuosos of big talk above the bedcovers. Both of them insulted in Yiddish. (Never in Hebrew--that was reserved for prayers and singing.) There wasn't a moment of silence in their lives. Time to be silent, Gutterman once said to me, is when you're dead.

I should get to the crux of this story. I'm afraid that I may have set the wrong tone. I make it all sound so flighty, so comical, as if what Gutterman was and what Gussie was and what was between them was not so important or so serious. If so, it's a wrong impression, and I'm at fault. And that's because I'm not a writer. Yes, I belong to the group of writers that congregate twice a week at the Care Minsker Gubemyeh on Avenue A in the East Village that used to be called the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And that's because I grew up with most of the writers in the city of Minsk itself where almost all of us were born. From Minsk, we were lucky to escape with our parents just before Hider attacked the Soviet Union and the Nazi hordes invaded and killed off almost all the Jews including rabbis and women and children and our best writers. This was almost ten years before Stalin killed off the rest of the good Yiddish writers. Our families had immigrated to the Lower East Side where we kids went to school for the first time in a free country. How free? We even attended city colleges for free, along with the miniskirts and Trotskyists and even defenders of the dead Stalin. But most of our bunch were involved with deconstruction and the 60's civil rights movement and liberation of women and war protests and drugs and rock 'n' roll. To summarize, we became a little society of failed Jewish writers and editors in this golden land of turmoil and change. It was a miracle.

I met Gussie a little after high school when I was attending The City College at night and working as a salesman for Klein's department store by day, but I met Gutterman for the first time at the Minsker Care when he joined the group, having moved to the Lower East Side from Washington Heights after his second army stint in Vietnam. That should have been a move down for him since Washington Heights was a fancy place with elevators and doormen, but for him it was truly a move up because he met Gussie in the Cafe and began investing in the market.

Don't get me wrong. He met Gussie after I ditched her. Why did I ditch her? Because I couldn't stand all her interminable talk? Not exactly. In those days, I didn't mind it. I learned a lot of things from her blab, not only from the writers at Minsker. The truth is I couldn't stand her good looks, from her long legs up to her flaming green eyes. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it!

I ditched her because I was young and stupid. I was afraid to get serious with such a goodlooking broad that all the men would run after and fornicate with behind my back and under my nose. I didn't want trouble and humiliation. I was too cautious. I wanted a conventional life. In sum, I was not a writer-type or a rock star looking for thrills on a precipice. I was a reader-type who lived the daring life in books only and admired the writers and kissed up to them. I didn't even live in the neighborhood. After Gussie and I broke up, I moved and lived in eternal undisturbed undiluted boredom in an apartment in Lynbrook, Long Island. You make your bed and all that. But I did come back into the city regularly to shmooze with the writers on the flat ground of Avenue A.

Once I said to Gutterman, "Gutterman, are you afraid of death? Are you afraid of not living a long enough life?"

He looked at me as if I was crazy. "We're both the same age," he said. "By this time, we're both leaning more to oylem hahbe, the world to come, than to this world. Am I right?"

"I suppose so," I mumbled. I was being amenable. He was actually much older than I was.

"Well, my young friend," he said expansively, "if both of us die within a year or two of each other, me first, I would already be outliving you by maybe a quarter of a century."

Now I thought he was the crazy one.

He continued unashamedly: "Where do you live?" he asked even though he knew. "You live out somewhere on the Island, in Lynbrook I think, in goolis, in exile from human beings and culture and writers and smart, talkative women. Where do you work? You work in Manhattan as a so-called editor at a so-called magazine which isn't a magazine worth wiping your tushie with since it don't publish any poetry or fiction, only stupid asinine articles on politics that nobody reads except maybe a dozen people who are in agreement anyway. You travel in by car one hour a day, five days a week, and one hour back. Every day you go out to lunch for an hour with a political writer who bores you to tears and who will not be remembered for one minute after he dies because he never wrote anything worth preserving. That's three hours wasted with narishkayt, stuff and nonsense, and that's a good hendiadys, my dear friend, which means an expression connected by 'and.'

"You get home after a horrible hour in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, and you fall asleep ten minutes after dinner and you don't get up until five in the morning, which is nine hours later. But I, Gutterman, sleep for three hours a night like Thomas Edison and Moses Maimonides, arias the Rambam, the greatest Jewish mind from Moses to Moses to Gutterman and Gussie. I save six of your hours that you waste in dreamland. Add to that the three other hours I mentioned before, and I make good intellectual use of nine whole hours per diem that you fritter away without even having sex in them. Dreams don't count. Nine times five days a week is forty-five hours a week. You probably waste three more hours on Saturday and Sunday. That makes forty-eight wasted hours, two full days a week of hours counting sleep on those two days. That comes to a hundred days wasted a year since I won't count two weeks vacation in July. So it's only two times fifty, not two times fifty-two. One hundred days a year! Imagine! it's unbelievable!

"Every four years you waste four hundred days, precious days in our mortal lives. That's more than a year wasted every four years which you started doing at age twenty. By the time you're sixty, you will have wasted a full decade in the intervening forty years. If you live to eighty, you'll waste fifteen years or more. If you live to the hundred and twenty of Moyshe Rabbeinoo, our Moses in the Jewish Bible, you will have wasted another ten to make it a full quarter of a century. So what do you say to that? Do I worry about death? I worry about life, about saving each hour, each minute. Let death worry about me."

I never thought of it that way. I should have remembered to bring up the fact that he wasted half a Saturday in shul, but one always misses saying the good line at the proper time. As I said, I'm not a writer, alas, or a speaker, just a reader of books, a so-called editor, really an assistant editor, and an admirer of those who can talk and write like this obnoxious guy, Gutterman. But how did he know I was an editor and not a clerk? Gutterman knew everything.

So this story is serious. I must change the tone. I must do justice to the theme. I cannot escape the intensity of the subject. For the first time in my life, I must face dire possibilities with a modicum of courage.

Gussie came down with breast cancer, and that's when Gutterman made the bargain with her that I mentioned at the beginning, not a pact with the devil in whom he did not and would not believe. I was in the Minsker Care with the two of them and with nobody else around when it happened. Now that I think of it, Feigenbaum, the high-school teacher and part-time unpublished author, was also there, and he, I'm sure, would be willing to attest to my story.

Gussie sipped her tea with milk the way the English do, and Gutterman sipped his tea unadorned with just a lump of sugar he himself had brought along and placed between his teeth the way they did in old Minsk. It was four days before her impending operation. Even then she talked a great deal.

"Gutterman," she said. She always called him Gutterman. "Gutterman, my friend, I'll make a deal with you. I'll die on the table so that you won't have to pay for private nurses and hospital bills that could come to a thousand dollars a day and more for many weeks and months since you don't have insurance and it could send you to the cleaners. Like this, you'll be able to hire a maid and a mother's helper to wipe your tush and a kurvih to sleep with who won't demand too much from you, and you'll have money left to bum. I won't eat you out of house and refrigerator by remaining alive too long in a hospital."

"You threaten me with dying?" Gutterman said. "It's an idle threat, Gussie. You're as strong as an ox. They can't kill you on the operating table. You'll kill them first. You'll get up from the table and take a scalpel to the surgeon. You'll cut out his heart and his liver and his useless appendix before he cuts you in the wrong place. You'll live, Gussie. Believe me, you'll live, thanks be to God."

"When did you get religious?" she asked rhetorically. "Listen to him. He thanks God. Did you ever hear him thank God before? Never! Not in my experience. My father thanked God every day in his life. He was a religious man, and he meant it. His father also thanked God night and day. They came from religious people from way back in the time of Moses and Rashi and the Baal Shem Tov and Martin Buber, lehavdil. I don't mean to equate Martin Buber who was a free-thinking religious man with them. My mother was very religious. She spent every free moment in a corner of the room reading the Seifer Tehillim, the Book of Psalms in Hebrew or the portion of the week in Yiddish. She took a half hour to bentsh, to say the grace after every meal. She prayed more than she ate. That's why she died at such an old age. She didn't have time to eat all the junk food that exists in the twentieth century in the supermarkets of this golden land. In Minsk she would have died young because even if they escaped the German fascists, they all starved there under the communists, and they couldn't even say grace after the poor meal since it would have been a broochih l'vatoolih, a blessing in vain to be thankful for a small piece of bread and a gleysl tea without even sugar. Tell me," and she turned to me and to Feigenbaum at the other end of the round table at Minsker's, "did you ever hear my Gutterman thank God before?"

But she didn't let us answer. Neither did he. They both started talking at once.

"I'm going to die," she said.

"Gussie, don't make fun," he said.

"Gutterman, I'm not going to die on the table. I'll be operated on and will have no breasts to speak of and I shall die of humiliation and resentment before the evil can spread to other glands and other organs and do me in."

"Gussie, you can't leave me. What am I going to do without you? I don't even know how to boil a pot of water. I don't know how to tie my own shoelaces when I can't bend down. I don't know how to keep warm in bed during the winter with the windows open for fresh air if your body is not at my side. I won't hire a maid or a helper. I did not marry you to hire a maid and a helper."

"Listen to the male chauvinist who is an advanced thinker, he thinks. All he needs me for is a pot of hot water and to tie his shoelaces and to keep him warm in bed. That's what you married me for?"

"I didn't marry you. We never got married. I became your lover out of love."

"Love for what? For a person? For me? Since when? You loved my breasts, and one of them now got to go."

"I loved your wildness, your life. Promise me, Gussie, that you'll let me die before you do. Don't let me outlive you. I can't bear the thought."

For the first time in my memory, Gussie didn't respond right away. She actually waited and permitted a small significant moment of silence to intervene and stand between them like the wall between Pyramus and Thisby. She seemed lost in thought. Her cheeks were flushed, her green eyes watery, and with her tightly woven blond hair--real blond, not bleached, I happen to know--she seemed more beautiful than ever, even ethereal, though her heaving bosom and the legs that extended at an angle beyond her chair to the round table in the next room made her earthy and earthbound.

"I'll make a better bargain with you," she said finally. "I'll live. I'll infuse myself with the will to live if you do your part of the bargain. You must go to shul every Friday night after I light the Shabbis candles, and you must come home and sit at the table and make kiddish over the kosher sweet red wine that you hate and think is low-class ghetto poison and sing the z'meeris after the chicken that my father sang and then recite the bentshn after the prunes comput and the Gelusil tablet. How about that? Fair enough?"

He was aghast. It went against his very nature. It also shocked him because she hadn't lit candles in all the Friday nights of their non-marriage. He thought she was as anticlerical as he was, in spite of her parents and grandparents.

"I can't do it," he said.

"Then you'll let me die," she said.

"I can't go Friday nights," he said.

"Then you'll live till a hundred and twenty without me," she said.

"Not Friday nights," he said. "All the writers come to Minsker on Friday night to discuss the week's publications. It would be unfair to them and to Yussel Pundrik who owns this place and makes a living only from the Friday nights filled with Jewish writers and hangers-on like him." Like him meant like me.

"I'll settle for Saturday mornings instead, for a holy Shabbis morning," she said with finality and steel in her liquid voice.

And so they made the deal, the pact, the bargain. They didn't shake hands over it, didn't even sign a paper. Feigenbaum and I did not sign as witnesses. There were no pieces of paper between them in their relationship. Their eyes met, hers watery green, his invisible because he always crinkled the skin around his eyes as if he were narrowing the slits to squint and see far far beyond anybody else.

Gussie went in for the operation and came out the same Gussie. She looked none the worse for the wear. She must have turned to falsies because there was no change in her voluptuous appearance either. She still commanded the attention of all the men both by her looks and by her stream of endless talk.

I prayed to whatever God that she would live, that the disease would not spread before her time, because though somebody else's, she was the light of my life.

Gutterman prayed to God too. He kept his side of the bargain and went every Shabbis morning to the neighborhood shul and came back singing at the top of his lungs.

"V'kawrev pizooreinoo meebein hagoyim," and so on and so forth.

A year, two, maybe three later, with four more poems and five more stories of Gutterman's suddenly appearing in periodicals, but this time one of each genre in The New Yorker, no less, which made him a celebrity and got him a high-powered literary agent and even a major publisher for the fourteen novels he had already written in a span of twenty-seven years and had never succeeded in getting published, while all this made Gutterman dizzy with disbelief, Gussie was still alive and kicking and talking a blue streak.

"That was quite a bargain you struck up with her," I said to Gutterman one evening at Cafe Minsker Gubernyeh when the two of us were alone in the world, without Gussie, without Feigenbaum. "You remember when I sat in on your conversation just before her operation? You remember the bargain with Gussie?"

Gutterman crushed the sugar between his teeth and sipped the hot tea. His narrowed eyes--wherever they were, in his eye sockets or one in the middle of his head like the fabled Cyclops--looked towards eternity.

"I didn't make a bargain with Gussie," he said calmly.

"Your memory playing tricks on you or are you trying to cut me out of your lives again? I was here. I was right here at this table. I heard the deal. I witnessed the bargain. I could have signed as a witness, but there were no papers. But there was a bargain."

He shifted his body on the seat. Though I described Gussie at some length at the beginning of this story, I never described Gutterman. He was very tall and very skinny. He looked like a string of spaghetti, a long lanky string. When the writers talked theoretical physics and spoke about black holes in space and quarks and leptons and neutrons and crayons and grand unification and string theory, I would always envision the moment of creation at the Big Bang out there with many many many many Guttermans unraveling and floating away to form the heart and the soul of the universe. He was all the strings that floated down to earth and wriggled into human beings, or evolved.

He had a big head at the top of his skinny body, like a knot at the top of the string, with a wisp of blond hair that had never grayed, almost like the ring around Venus. His brain must have weighed a ton, like Einstein's, and compared to his giant head, the rest of him looked even skinnier than a string of spaghetti, much more like the narrower wisps of pasta called Angel Hair. Funny, sometimes I felt that his wisp of blond hair floating in a strange circle over the great head was like an angelic halo. But all that is according to Christian paintings and doesn't have any substance in Jewish tradition where the righteous in heaven carry kingly crowns on their heads, not halos, and study Torah day and night, a fate much better than having to go to shul every Shabbis morning to please your wife.

"Gutterman, there was a bargain," I repeated when he hadn't responded to my testimony.

"Yes," he finally said. "I didn't say that there wasn't a bargain. I was merely disputing with whom the bargain was made."

I almost laughed in his face. "Feigenbaum the teacher/ writer and I were the only other ones there. With whom else could it have been made? With me? With Feigenbaum? We were witnesses, not participants."

"The bargain," Gutterman said, "was not with Gussie and not with you or with that teacher in a high school who thinks he's a writer."

I was growing impatient with Gutterman's deviousness. Just as I said--every man an exploiter in this world. In this case, he was exploiting the moment in order to build up the suspense, a devious and worthless trick.

"Then with who was it, with the devil?"

"No," he said. "The devil who doesn't exist is inside us, and he doesn't have to make bargains to get his way. The Faust story is goyish nonsense."

"Then with who else, for God's sake?"

"With God," he said. "With an angel of God. Do you know the old story about the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the beautiful young Fromit Guggenheim? Moses Mendelssohn many years later was the grandfather of the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn."

I did not nod in agreement because, to tell the truth, I didn't know the story about this woman Fromit, but I was also momentarily annoyed at his need to identify Moses Mendelssohn for me. Faust--whether by Marlowe or by Thomas Mann or in Gounod's opera--he didn't have to identify, so why embarrass me by identifying Moses Mendelssohn for me as the grandfather of Felix? Gutterman didn't seem to have much respect for me after all these years.

"Moses Mendelssohn," I intervened, "was a faithful religious Jew in Germany all his life who championed enlightenment and modernity in Jewish life. But his gutless son Abraham baptized his own son Felix and raised the grandson of the great Jewish philosopher as a Christian. Who doesn't know that?"

"Luckily," Gutterman said, "the grandfather did not live to see the conversion of Felix and of most of his family to Christianity in order to advance their careers in German high society. You're not telling me anything I didn't know. That's why I remained a Jew myself, though a non-believing Jew. I'm a Jewish writer and a lover of the great Jewish texts, and a Jewish cantor, not a converted musician."

I remained silent. There was no sense trying to go one up on Gutterman. But I jumped back into the conversation. "So you made a pact with God Himself in whom you don't really believe? What do Moses Mendelssohn and Fromit Guggenheim have to do with all this?"

Gutterman sighed the sigh of a thwarted angel. "Moses Mendelssohn was a hunchback, an ugly little man. Was he born that way? No. He was actually a tall good-looking young fellow, as skinny as a long strand of spaghetti, a scholar, a writer, a great philosopher who rivaled Kant, and an Orthodox Jew. One night he had a dream. This was unusual for him because he rarely slept long enough in bed to reach the depth of significant dreaming. On this night, he did, and in his dream, an angel, an emissary from God, came to him, and Mendelssohn seized the opportunity to ask the angel to show him a picture of the bride intended for him by Almighty God. God, in those days, spent His time in heaven, pairing up lovers. It was a full-time job, and it was not so easy. The Talmud says so.

"The angel showed Mendelssohn a photo of his intended, and alas, she was a hunchback and therefore ugly. Her name was Fromit, a nice girl, but, but .... Moses Mendelssohn did not flinch. After all, he was a philosopher. He said calmly to the angel and by extension to God: 'A woman is made for beauty. If Fromit is my intended, please God, make this bargain with me to which I readily assent. Put her hunchback on me, bend me down and break me in two for her sake, and make her tall and slim and voluptuous and yes, very beautiful, instead of me.'

"And so God listened to his poignant plea, his proposed bargain, and Moses Mendelssohn, the famous philosopher became a hunchback overnight, and Fromit Guggenheim, the young woman fated to be a hunchback, became a raving beauty. Naturally, Mendelssohn told her this unusual story years later, and she was so moved by it that she accepted his proposal of marriage."

I have to admit this. Gutterman could tell a story, even a silly old tale, so beautifully that it touched the heart. There was a tear in my eye to the extent that I almost forgot his original point. Then I remembered.

"So what does the story of Moses Mendelssohn and the lovely Fromit Guggenheim have to do with you?" I asked foolishly.

Gutterman finished his tea. "I made the same bargain with God." He hesitated for more than another moment this time, but this time it did not seem contrived and devious. It was not exploiting. The silence was filled with unspoken emotion.

Finally, he spoke again. "I made the same bargain with God," he reiterated. "I wanted Gussie to live, and now I must pay up on the debt. God is worse than the Mafia when it comes to paying up on a debt and keeping your side of the bargain. It has to be done without kvetching, and it has to be done on time.

"Listen"--and he suddenly grabbed me by the lapels, "do me a favor, for old times' sake." He held me with a gentle hand of steel. "Take good care of Gussie afterwards," he said. "Look after her, as you always wanted to do, my dear chaver."

Then he sang, softly, almost to himself: "V'kawreiv pizooreinoo meebein hagoyim ..."

He had addressed me with the Hebrew/Yiddish word for "friend, comrade," than which there can be no greater appellation or calling, and he made a great bargain with me from which I could not escape, nor wanted to.

A week later, we heard of the diagnosis of cancer of the liver which Gutterman had received with dignity and with unaccustomed silence. Even Gussie embraced him at Minsker's and did not say a word. He died within three months, luckily before the disease could break him in two and leave him a yellow shard of himself, a pathetic fraction of his long spaghetti-like form with the great head of haloed hair and the narrow slits in his eyes that saw to the edge of creation.

Soon after, at Gussie's urging and at the behest of Gutterman's literary agent who had already struck a deal with a publisher, I began with extreme care to gather together all of Gutterman's papers and to edit his novels, one by one, all fourteen of them, for posthumous publication.

And soon after that, I gave up my apartment in Lynbrook and stopped wasting so much valuable time in one's life driving back and forth over great distances and moved back in with a cancer-free Gussie on the Lower East Side of Manhattan near the Cafe Minsker Gubernyeh. But I refused to limit myself to three hours of sleep in bed in spite of the practice of Moses Maimonides and maybe Moses Mendelssohn too.

LEO HABER, Midstream's editor and author of the novel The Red Heifer, was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Yiddish was his mother tongue, English was his major in gaining a B.A. at CCNY and an M.A. at Columbia, and Hebrew was his full-time study at Herzliah in New York. He also sang as a boy alto with great cantors. Hence the background for this fictional tale.
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Author:Haber, Leo
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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