Friday, November 4, 2011

Fiction: The Wild Night I Was Born

by Sarai Sarai
from Tampa Review 23: 2003
I, Adin Pearlman, am a tailor and salesman. My haberdashery establishment is on Wilshire Boulevard, the Miracle Mile of Los Angeles. I don’t mean to press a point as flat as I would an inseam, but I think about miracles as I alter and sell suits. Suits are my living, although I had other plans when I was younger.

It’s a Friday; I’m in the store, thinking, Why? Why? Am I a failure? Must my thoughts always fray into useless scraps? I’m agonizing; the buzzer rings, and I look up to see a lawyer, I can tell right away from his arrogant and stagy, yet lumbering, stride. He takes one step back, investigates, his eyes half-closed, and coughs, nervously.

This lawyer is cautious and a little broken. I zoom in. A look of fatigue crossed his face years ago and lingered—I’ve seen it before. He’s a big man, big shoulders, thick hands, broad belly, and a head you want to grasp for the pleasure of feeling its heft. The lawyer tells me his name, Simon Zimmerman, and we get to work.

“So, Simon” I remove an ill-placed pin from a light wool hound’s tooth check jacket. “You’re a lawyer, an attorney.” His eyebrows rise. “This suit proclaims your dignity which an attorney needs.”

“Everyone needs dignity” As if they were a balanced scale of justice, Simon holds out his hands palm up. Your honor, his pose suggests, let us be fair.

I lower his arms. Motion denied. I explain that for all the heartache in my life, I’ve always dressed so as to advertise my worth and additionally, my education and scholarship. “My suit for example. A nice blue, very good lines, right?” I pound my stomach which has no give—not bad for a 50 year-old. “I wasn’t always a haberdasher, you know. I was going to become a professor of literature at U.C.L.A.”

Simon buttons and unbuttons the vest with ease; smiles. “From academic to haberdasher? You left school?”

As if I were an opera singer—Jan Pearce or Placido belting out an aria, I fling my arms wide. Silver pins silently plip on the carpet. “It wasn’t a lack of publications, nor lack of tributes that caused my career transition, Simon.” I’m pleased his vest doesn’t gap, is quite flattering. “It wasn’t even doubting the possibility of tragedy and classical sentiment in this shoddy world.”

“Was it a woman?”

I slap my forehead. This Simon’s an astute man, a seer, so I offer him a low price, over which we dicker and I offer to buy him a beer in the bargain. “What about Canter’s?” I notice he’s not wearing a wedding band; neither am I. “Like me you’re a bachelor.” I bend down to pick up a pin, a maneuver requiring delicacy and persistence.

“Adin, you’re making assumptions.”

“You’re divorced?” I glance up as I slide the entrapped pin from the carpet.

“I’m widowed, but there’s more.”

I shake out the crease to my trousers. “You’re dark with a furrowed brow, you’re a sufferer. Is that right?” I’m not convinced this Simon Zimmerman is a human of overwhelming dimension, but as usual, I need to talk to someone—anyone.

“A sufferer?” They say that Sarah laughed and now, apparently, it’s Simon’s turn.

I’m veering towards sensitive at Simon’s guffaw, but continue. “Where was your family from?”

Simon shrugs. “Russia, the Caucasus.”

Ah! “Georgian, that explains ferocity.”

“Like Stalin?”

“Russian accounts for the sadness.”

“What’s all this genealogy? I’m Jewish.”

“Right, landsman, Jewish accounts for the suffering. But...” I victoriously plunge the retrieved pin into a cushion around my wrist, “...Russians suffer better than anyone, so it follows that Russian Jews suffer better than other Jews.” Suffering: a topic of consequence. Don’t we all suffer? Greatly?

“You should have been a lawyer.” Growls from Simon’s stomach.

Separately we drive to the twenty-four-hour deli on Fairfax, and soon are seated at a round booth roomy enough for a party of five. Before sliding in, I wipe the maroon vinyl with a paper napkin. Even a little grease is no good for the gander, as I tell my customers.

A gray-haired waitress saunters over. She leans on her left leg, making her left hip a table for her crooked arm. I don’t like it when they lean.

“Do you want to bring us a couple of beers, dear?” I scan the menu.


She has a name; good for her. “You want to bring us two Heinekens?” I consult, first the menu, second, Simon. “That okay with you, Si?”

Maybe Simon prefers Bud Lite or Corona; he doesn’t say. “Certainly. And I’ll order.” He smiles at this Ellen.

“Let the girl get our drinks.”

She, Ellen, taps the order pad with her pencil. The dark gleam in her eyes is no cipher: two post middle aged farts; bad tippers; can’t get it up. The woman does not have my gift of perception.

I order roast chicken. Simon, the special, brisket, gravy, latkes, a vegetable, a dinner salad. He struggles with himself before requesting a bowl of chicken soup with two matzo balls. “I shouldn’t push my luck.”

Feh. “Now, Simon, my life’s an open book.” As is my face, which, like my almost kinky hair, is red, not florid, but bright, a pimento. My forehead is lined. My eyes faded blue as if they had been left in a sunny window and forgotten. “I’ve told volumes of it to different people.”

I left my jacket at the shop and now I roll up my shirt sleeves. “I was born in Palmdale—a few Jews lived there, and this is my story.”

From the moment of my grand entrance in the universe, I reveal, there were signs I could have been a Jonah. For on the night I was born, desert winds blustered, dust swirled and stars shivered. This night, wild enough for a prophet’s birth, the midwife coddled me in the fullness of her encircling arms, then offered me to my mother who sighed. What a sigh! I remember it with perfect clarity—and I am born anew, alas, each time I remember). “No thanks.” Mother was resolute. Ten months later she sped off, leaving me and Pop with one another.

“You could be more sensitive than some of us.” Simon drums his round fingers on the marbleized table top. “Your mother said 'No thanks’?”

I calm myself, admirable considering the lava flows erupting from my volcanic heart. Ellen bangs our dinner salads before us. Her manicured nails are crimson; her fingers are short, round and strong.

“Dear, I’ll tell you what I would really like.” A woman such as this does not get my goat. “Ranch dressing. Think you can find a side of Ranch for me?”

“One Ranch, coming up.” Ellen is a train conductor, announcing. Away she plods to return with a bowl of flecked white stuff, it’s quite tasty, which I spoon over iceberg lettuce, two cherry tomatoes, four cucumber slices and carrot. Grated.

“So, Simon.” I shake on the pepper. “As a man of integrity and intelligence, what do you think?”

“If your story’s accurate, and of course it is,” he adds hastily, “it’s remarkable. From prophet to academic to tailor. And many stops in between, I’m sure.”

I think, how true.

“I, as I mentioned, am not entirely what I appear to be.”


Simon pauses to swipe at his forehead with his embossed paper napkin. Does he want a Jewish deus ex machina, a device of an argumentative Yahweh to descend and outtalk us both? Simon, Simon, only to a few did God speak. Only in the Bible or a few dark shtetl tales are human events influenced by anything but time and a theoretically natural course of events.

“So be it. My wife died recently.”

“I’m sorry!”

“And now I can be open.”

I note Simon’s uneaten tomato. Sometimes food draws my keen attention.
“I didn’t want to get married, but my father forced me.” Ellen arrives to clear our salad plates. “I realized very young that I was,” he pronounces all syllables, “homosexual.” Ellen’s head juts forward. I shoo her away.

“We shouldn’t tip the waitress.” In the abstract I have no trouble with Simon’s revelation.

“Adin, I realized it when I was 12, but what could I do about it? I couldn’t say a word to my father—and my mother? My Jewish mother, if you’ll indulge me, converted to Christian Science. My father was domineering, hateful to her, the woman needed escape. After she gave birth to my youngest sister she was ill; one of our neighbors introduced her to Mary Baker Eddy and the concepts of Christian Science.”

It’s hard to imagine Simon, so weighted by his body, connected to Christian Science, a woman’s religion, an hysteric’s religion, advocating avoidance of medical attention.
But he was. “My daughter tells me that Mary Baker Eddy was a victim of internalized misogyny. We’re all victims of the internal. I was in the closet until my wife died.”
My hand speeds to my Vesuvius heart.

“My mother didn’t have much use for most things in the perceivable world, i.e., the human body. I don’t know how much of that came from dealings with my father.” We both gulp.

“I learned about Matter, Mortal Mind, and how to disregard the body and its wants. I learned Puritanism. Jews can be Puritans, you know that.”

We have that strain, certainly there is the possibility of being a little tight in Judaism, although: “I would like to say no other religion understands life’s joy like Judaism.”

“Joy, celebration, the holidays, shabbat, right. But, if you’ll allow me, Adin, being Jewish is no Sunday picnic. I stay away from religion. I eat Jewish, that’s how I’m Jewish.”

Ellen arrives with the entrees. “One chickie, one beefie.” She winks at Simon as she plops down his full plate.

“Have you considered the stage, dear?” I ask.

At me, Ellen sneers, and shifts her half-century of weight, left to right leg. Far better to suit up men than women, I reflect.

“Terrible person, I’m sorry I came here.”

“I think she’s funny.” Simon fumbles for his fork.

I remonstrate myself for my facile dismissal, earlier in the day, of this humane and oh-so-suffering soul.

“What’s to say?” Simon continues. “My father terrified me. My mother taught me to disregard my body. They set the stage; I was the actor. Until recently I’d never been to a gay bar and to tell you the truth, at this point in my life, I have a mix of feelings, of which relief is only part.”

I spear slippery chicken skin and pile it on the plate’s ledge.

“And my wife would have been happy with an arranged marriage. I gave her two daughters. Maybe she suspected. Life isn’t perfect, life can be disappointing. We all know it.”

He chews and talks; the roast beef adds robustness to his words. “I wish things could have been different. I wish I could have been brave enough to come out, but I raised two children, I’m respected in my field—this is all legitimate. I’ve done what I’ve done and I’ve lost what I lost. And now, at least, I’m honest.”

In the rubble of Simon’s middle-aged life I see an inner-Phoenix taking wing. I reach over for some brisket from his plate. A little beef is good. You’ll notice even the Chinese, whose arteries run free, eat just a little beef with many vegetables. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Simon’s eyes are lapel wide.

“Look at me.” My fork is in my hand; its tines pointing to my chest. “I thought I was a scholar and a husband.” I steal a bit of Simon’s latke, plunk applesauce on top.

“While I was teaching I married Sansi. I was in love before we spoke. You should have seen her! I took her to the desert on our first date, hoping the stars would inspire her heart.”

I slump. “We married, we divorced. It took years before I ceased awaiting her return, during which time she slept with every man in West L. A., and then married an English professor at U.S.C. I became a tailor, suiting up others so they could attract and conquer.

“And irony reigns supreme. I hear she’s faithful to her new husband.” I sigh. “I’m a good haberdasher.”

“What good, you’re great. Adin, listen, you’re right, we all need to come out. You need to come out as a sufferer.” He considers. “No, as an ascetic. You’ve lived without a wife, without the career of your dreams. There’s a reason.”

“I hope so.” I reflect. I’ve hoped that for years. I’ve hoped for something, someone. Trust me, I’ve hoped. “You know, I sometimes wonder about women.” Simon snickers. I’m entertaining! “Like your wife, didn’t she have her own story to tell—how she kept her inner flame burning, fanned by a goose feather of hope. Was she happy? Was happiness a possibility?”

“I didn’t say this is a happy story or that I’m always a righteous man.” Simon’s phoenix becomes a falcon with talons. “I gave her a home. It was a marriage. At least in the beginning. If I’ve turned her into cardboard when I talk about our marriage, it’s because she wasn’t a complainer.” He lowers a hood over the falcon. “I know there are always two sides to an issue.”

“That isn’t true in my life!” I snort. “In my life there’s one story, it’s mine, and the women can all go to hell.”

“You boys done?” Ellen taps her pencil against her thumbnail. Tapping, tapping. So this one is a raven. I glare. “Excuse me.” As if she cares. “But I’m doing my job.”

“Why don’t you give us the check?” Simon reaches towards his back pocket.

“We’re not done.” I’m adamant. “Leave the plates. There’s more to eat here.” I refer to the bits and pieces of meat and vegetables, scraps. Ellen heaves a sigh and marches, heavily, I might add, to another table. I touch Simon’s arm. “Here you’ve told me a phenomenal story and I go on about my troubles.”

“What do you want, Adin? Your wife left you. What if you’d left your wife! Think of the guilt you’d be feeling. At least you didn’t cause anyone pain.”

I consider. “If you mean you caused your wife pain, well, we all cause pain.”

“So what’s left?”

“Maybe I’m gay.”

“By now, you’d know.”

I rest my head on my hands folded before me on the tabletop. “How can I trust anyone when I was betrayed?”

“How long ago was that?”

“Twenty years.” I giggle.

Simon purses his lips. He lifts two twenties from his wallet. “I insist.” I don’t protest. He calls out. “Ellen!” He says to me, “You need someone who is honest, will speak her mind. A person, you need a person.”

“You called?”

Simon hands Ellen the money and check and asks, “Are you married?”

“What do you care?” This is not a woman well-versed in the civil reply.

“It’s a question, you’re a woman,” he pauses to make sure judge and jury are attentive, “of depth, and I want to know if you’re married.”
She rubs the pencil eraser on the tip of her nose.

“My friend here, Adin, is divorced.”

“Surprise, surprise.”

“Simon, please.” His line of thought hangs between us, its dirty laundry flapping in the breeze.

“Pay at the cash register.” Ellen tosses the bills on the table.

“Good, I’ll do that. But first add on two deserts and two coffees. I want you and Adin to have desert. Isn’t it time you took a break?”

“This is ridiculous, no offense, Ellen, you’re a fine person, I’m sure.” What is happening here?

“You’re not sure, and I certainly don’t have much good to say about you.”
Simon rummages in his wallet and spreads five more twenties on the table. “The tip.”

She laughs. “I feel like Julia Roberts. And at my age!” She scrutinizes the money; me. “I like cheesecake. My break’s coming up and I do like cheesecake.” She pushes next to me in the booth. There’s no escape. My life passes before my eyes.

“Good, then it’s settled.” Simon waits as Ellen adds in the deserts, then takes the check to the register and leaves the twenties. “Adin, I’ll pick up the suit in a week.”
I squirm.

“You’re a tailor?” Ellen zeroes in. “Where are you from, do I hear a little New York accent?”

“My parents were New Yorkers,” I explain with reluctance, noting, however, she knows place-of-birth is important. “I come from a long line of tailors.”

“You were born in L.A.?”

“I was born in Palmdale, a few Jews lived there.”

“Just a sec.” She leaps up with more speed than I’ve yet seen her exhibit. “Let me get our dessert.” She prances off—a girl.

I press my fingertips against each other. I consider. Perhaps my guru Simon has provided me with an object lesson. Then again, perhaps I should leave now. Ellen’s back. Oh well. She takes Simon’s seat. I grab my fork, slice a corner of her cheesecake. I tell her, “On the night I was born, winds blustered, dust swirled and stars shivered.”
As for Simon Zimmerman, maybe after he starts his car he turns onto Rosewood, then waits at the light on Fairfax. When the light is green maybe he turns left to Sunset or Santa Monica and an assortment of clubs and bars; maybe right to Wilshire and his apartment.

Meanwhile, back at the House of Ranch Dressing, I tell Ellen the story of my life, the joy, the not-so-joyous. She listens. I’ll give Ellen that much credit.

With her consent, I’m no weirdo, I follow her to her apartment in Hollywood proper, to the small, tidy living room with its long, beige couch upon which a weary waitress has flopped many a night and thumbed through a magazine. I sit at one end, instruct myself to disregard fraying on the arm rest, kick off my shoes and continue talking. I know Ellen has a life of her own, problems, I’m not unaware that such empathy as Ellen displays is wrought from having lived through not a few ordeals.

“Your mother had her story,” Ellen suggests, taking a seat not quite at the couch’s opposite end. “Maybe your father was cold?”

“My father said he was never good enough for her.”

“And you weren’t good enough for your wife.”

“And she left.”

“You’ve been hoisting some heavy luggage, doll.” She runs her hand under the couch cushion. This is no time to clean. There I go again, judging.

“I’ve been living with hopes that an archaic god will talk to me.” Just what kind of a person am I? Has this been a life?

“You need fire, or a wheel turning in the sky. I’ve read prophets, I know.”

“What do I need with a wheel?” What’s this?

Ellen is rubbing her stockinged feet, which are not dainty. She’s been on them most of her life.

“You need a sign, you need something Biblical.”

I cannot believe I mocked this woman just hours before. I need a sign? Of course I need a sign. That’s exactly what I need. That’s what I was hoping for today.

“Myself, I’ve been looking for something for a long time, buster, I don’t know if you’d call it a sign, but a way out of this.” Ellen points to her feet, which as I have mentioned, have borne a burden.

“Retirement, a new job?”

Ellen stares. A possible rude assessment is being made. “My first husband left me, my second husband died. And that was all within five years.”

Two husbands; I need to think.

“I killed my second husband.” Now she is brushing her hands together. Lady Macbeth. I killed him. It hangs there in the air between us, not her husband’s corpse, but the challenge she is posing to me, because I realize she did not kill her husband. She is taunting me.

“He had leukemia, was in bad shape, it all came so quickly, we only had two years together. He was very near the end and asked me to help him. I did it.”

So I was wrong. She killed her husband. I think about it for a while, what it would be like to know that for the rest of your life. This was not a crime of passion, although it was a crime of love, to be sure. Premeditated murder, although I don’t know if murder is the correct term. Assisted suicide, that’s what they say, isn’t it, and hers went unchallenged. I think about Simon Zimmerman, what he would say to Ellen. I summon the spirit of the great man I have known less than one day, but whose being lingers. Simon would not judge Ellen. Hers would be one more story. He deceived his wife, she “helped” her husband. My wife deceived me. My mother didn’t want me. My father did what he could. And God has not lived up to His promise. Those winds, the stars. What right does He have to set me up for disappointment?—I’m sensitive. Maybe winds and stars herald every birth. If that’s so, everyone is unique, and life is more of a cruel joke than I believe.

Ellen’s words intrude on my reverie. “Are you judging me?” She’s picked up a ball point pen from the heavy, dark coffee table next to the solid couch and now is rapping it against her palm. A waitress and her pen. Bonded for life.

“What, what’s so wrong about what you did?” I lift one foot to the table, far from hers. “It has something to commend it.”

She’s interested.

“You had a life going with your husband. I haven’t had a life going for quite a while. I didn’t have a chance, my wife left, and I don’t understand why I’ve been deprived of that opportunity.”

Ellen scans the room as if she’s left a book lying about that contains the answers. “So everything happens for a reason?”

“That’s what I’m wondering about, that’s it, I don’t know.”
“You feel deprived.”

That’s a fair assessment. I have been cheated, yes, of the chance to help someone end their life, of the chance to deceive someone, all that.

“You loved your wife.”

I respond that I was hoisted with the petard of my affection.

“But you interacted. You got killed in a way. My husband was in pain, you know.” I wonder if she’s going to cry; she doesn’t look happy.

“Prophets don’t even get to marry. When do you ever hear of a husband and wife prophet? You don’t.” All my pain and suffering would be redemptive if I had a truth to tell the world. Of course if I were to feel happy about my life—I try that on for size, it’s an emperor’s new suit. Fits the emperor well, nicely tailored, but he’s exposed, no grumbling to hide him. This won’t do. “I do have something to tell the world.”

Ellen leans and hands me a pen and a torn envelope she’s been using as a bookmark. “So say it. Write it, start, here, here’s an envelope, be like Lincoln, write on an envelope.”

Be like Lincoln, thoughtful, if not anguished. “But I don’t have it formulated.”

She grabs back pen, and the envelope. “Dictate,” she commands, “What do you want to say?”
“I don’t want to say anything. I want to be told.”

“But you’ve already been told. A windy birth, an unloving mother—someone was trying to get something across. What, what, we’re just brainstorming here.”

Well, even Jonah had a boyhood; it had to make a difference. “I grew up waiting for a sign. This reflected in my choice of a wife who I wished would recognize nature’s innuendo.”

“What kind of a prophet waits for signs?” Ellen’s head juts forward. I shoo her away.

“You are the sign.”

No, Simon Zimmerman was the sign. I’m not the sign. Ellen’s asking me to justify my life. I put my other foot on the coffee table. Both of my feet; both of hers. Ellen is smiling.

“Why such a big smile?”

“I think you made a prediction.” She squints at my socks. Not a hole to be seen. I’m a clothier, after all. But it’s not the socks which this transparent and, thank goodness, decent-enough, woman is assessing. It’s the whole move. Two feet, two feet. This woman, Ellen, communicates with a mere, crushing, glance.

“What, because I rest both feet on your card table?”

Why is she doing that—inching down the couch so her feet are closer to mine? Next she’ll be removing my socks. And God knows what. And then—I realize—I’ve done it! I’ve made a prediction. No shoes, no socks, nature’s course.

And I wonder, as I accept Ellen’s massaging touch on my tight instep, if I’m about to save the world, or merely my life.

Sarah Sarai, Tampa Review: 23, 2002

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