“It don’t woik, one only,” she said in the Yiddish accent once prevalent on Manhattan’s lower East Side. “At my age I should foist start hopping?” Her other hand fast-fluttered toward her chin as if fingering frets on a violin. “Give back mein money.”
The boot was too big for her, probably plucked from castoffs on a sidewalk. Had she asked for a handout Cohn would have given it, but she asked for a haggle so he began: “I’d refund full price if you had both boots, but…” She stopped him right there. “How long you been in business?”
“A hundred fifty years.” No exaggeration. His grandfather had established Cohn’s Shoes for Women during the great wave of immigrants handicapped by language and lonely for missing limbs on family trees. His grandmother had scuffed through stories with abrupt endings and balanced her melancholy with “a silver dollar for Izzy” perched on her knee. Early on Cohn knew he was their Act Two in America. Every summer his grandfather took “Izzy” to the “blessed Statue of Liberty.” The statue’s right foot strode ahead of her left, her ankle chains broken off and kicked aside. “That’s what freedom looks like.” His grandfather also took him to the circus to watch men fly on a trapeze and a contortionist defy his skeleton. “Everything is possible in America,” his grandfather beamed under the striped Big Top.
The old woman’s fingers were purplish-white from the cold. She wore sturdy, black shoes of a kind his grandfather displayed in his store window. An ancient pair still resided there as tribute to the girls who arched over sewing machines by day and English language books at night. Their daughters took the next step into American commerce, completing secretarial courses and getting jobs despite a male chorus: “Why should we hire you, sweetheart? You’ll just get married, get pregnant, and leave.” Modest pumps from Cohn’s clicked on the pavement toward their upward mobility. By the time he took over the business the number of women surging off subways into a new reality nearly equaled the number of men, and female toes were manicured. He fit them into stilettos so high the ladies had to balance as if on a tightrope.
The old woman heaved the bulky, black coat on her thin shoulders and pierced the air with a shriek: “Nu, big shot shopkeeper a hundred fifty years, I lived on Delancey before you crawled on the floor of this store. Before West Lake Noodle moved into the Daily Forward Building. Before,” she flicked bony fingers against Cohn’s chest, “Italians pushed their carts into our neighborhood trying to scrape a living from lemon ices. Before the Spanish with the radios. And before drug pushers took over the street corners. Used to be if a person rolled up a sleeve wasn’t for a needle, was to fish for a pickle. I been here when it wasn’t unusual a man respects an old woman and don’t make no federal case over a stinking boot.”
Cohn pursed his lips. “What did the pair cost?”
“Eighteen ninety nine.”
“With tax twenty dollars,” Cohn saw her eyes light up, “but since you’re returning one boot I’ll refund ten.” He riffled through his wallet feeling like a philanthropist for a sawbuck. It disappeared inside the coat in a quick birdlike motion. He assumed that would end the episode, but she looked at him with an unblinking eye. “You don’t recognize me, do you? When you were a baby I was this close with your grandmother.” She tried to touch her forefinger to her thumb, but arthritis curled her fingers into a semi-circle. “She had to drag you down Delancey to shop for the Sabbath. How you cried when a farmer wrung a chicken’s neck! Then you had a soft heart. Now it’s a warehouse so empty the gypsies could move in. Your wife of blessed memory is dead two years. Why you’re not out looking for another woman?”
“Who are you?” Cohn asked, but she was gone, the long black coat dissolved into snowy, blowing cold, one of a hundred shadows on the sidewalk.
The next day she came again. A cold wind rushed into the store with her. A yellowed photo appeared in his hand, marked on the back Pesach 1951. He was six years old at that Passover table, sitting between his grandfather and Uncle Joe with the round eyes and big ears. “Joe looked like an owl from the day he was born,” his grandfather used to say. Toward the end Joe trembled like a thick pudding, but on that night he read the Haggadah in unending Hebrew while Cohn’s stomach growled for the lamb roasting in the oven.
The old woman pointed: “Look at you, Mr. Four Questions, sitting like a king on a pile of pillows. You complained you’d starve listening to four hundred years of slavery and ten plagues of misery and forty years walking the desert. Seemed like an eternity then, eh? By now you know nothing lasts forever, not the good times or the bad.”
Cohn stared at the photo as intently as he’d stared at his relatives in Joe’s mirrored dining room wall. At six years old he liked how the unframed mirror distorted reflections making people look like murky apparitions in a sideshow. He put his chin in his hand and watched his family morph into marvelous deformed creatures. Gestures that elongated their arms and incomprehensible Yiddish made it easy to believe they were aliens dropped from a spaceship into the wallpapered landscape. In fact, every relative had arrived on one nauseating ship or another and left steerage clutching a single suitcase and Joe’s address.
“Brooklyn is the new motherland,” Joe proclaimed. “There isn’t a Jew in Europe who wouldn’t rather be in Brooklyn.” He gave newcomers a bed, sometimes in shifts, in his narrow brownstone. They stayed until the tidal restlessness that forever surged within the tempest-tossed landed them their own apartments. Then Joe gave a parting gift of pots and pans.
The photo returned Cohn to the child eternally alive inside him. Every Sunday his parents had schlepped him to Joe’s house where all the family congregated for Aunt Dora’s stomach-expanding potato-rice casserole. She alternated layers of raw sliced potatoes, raw rice, and sliced onions in a deep dish, carefully dribbled in water halfway, and then poured rendered chicken fat over the top. As the casserole baked it filled the house with an aroma that made him think it was chicken he’d soon be eating. They couldn’t afford a whole bird every week.
Delancey Street to Brooklyn was four miles door to door, but it may as well have been four times around the globe. Joe’s house had a lawn. The lawn bordered a sidewalk lined with round green trees. Sunshine glittered through leaves onto tiny gold plaques affixed to the slender trunks, each plaque etched with the name of soldier lost in WWI. Joe’s name was etched onto a plaque. He was mustard-gassed in the War, but lived to tell City Hall, which never corrected the mistake. Nature did. Joe’s tree succumbed with hundreds of others to Sudden Oak Disease. Then the city sawed the trees to stumps and parted many gilded heroes from shady memory.
Cohn re-folded the photo along well-worn creases and exhaled a long sigh. Those relatives were deceased. His loyal customers weren’t getting any older, either. Friends had also departed, if not to heaven then to Florida or one of the necks – Teaneck, Mamaroneck, Little Neck. His wife’s death struck the final blow. “I’m lonely,” he confessed to the old woman, but she, too, had disappeared out the door, fast as yesterday.
The rest of the week passed without incident. On Sunday he drove to Brooklyn for no reason except he hadn’t visited Joe’s house on East 46thfor decades. It was a shock. The neighborhood had devolved into a slum. The four concrete steps to Joe’s front door, steps Joe had kept pristine white, were chipped and filthy. A spare tire circled a tiny yard. And Flatbush Avenue, once grand with streetlamps plumed in pink flowers like feathered headdresses on circus horses, had become a drab thoroughfare clogged with trucks.
Gone the 12-foot statues at Grand Army Plaza leading to Prospect Park. As a boy, Cohn named the beautiful limestone ladies Queen Manhattan and Princess Brooklyn. Manhattan wore a tiara and held a winged globe. Brooklyn was a young mother reading to a youngster, a laurel wreath on her head. What happened to them? A cop yelled above honking traffic that Moses, not the biblical one, “moved those dames to Eastern Parkway years ago.”
On Monday morning Cohn wondered if he ought to retire. The bell above the door jingled. In walked the old woman talking as if they had been deep in conversation: “You say you’re a busy man, but look at you staring out the window. For what are you working so hard, never a vacation, never a day off not even for a little personal adventure?”
A gulp of laughter escaped Cohn. “What kind of personal adventure did you have in mind?”
“Go to the Guggenheim tomorrow. They got there an exhibit on Marc Chagall, the first painter to put people in the sky without wings. It’s the last day.”
Cohn had read about the exhibit in The New York Times. He whined: “The subway’s always late and crowded. You stand on the platform an hour.”
“So take a taxi,” she shrugged. “End of story.”
That night Cohn made a liverwurst sandwich for supper and ate it standing at the kitchen counter. He contemplated a panorama of appliances now dusty monuments to his late wife: orange juicer, blender, waffle iron, crockpot. “Why not take tomorrow off if it’s Chagall’s last day?” the ghost of his wife said.
“Tomorrow is Tuesday, a work day.”
“Nu? When did you last make a fortune on a Tuesday? Go! Have some fun.”
Uptown the Guggenheim coiled a carousel of art in a concrete snake. It spiraled Cohn up a ramp the shape of a rattler’s warning. The first Chagall Cohn encounters makes him sad: a Russian ghetto surrounded by high walls. Within the walls a bedraggled Jewish town shivered in winter, its sunset frozen inside icicles, violet stars dotting a dark, moonless sky. Snow was falling on ramshackle houses with lopsided boards and broken windows, evidence of a recent pogrom. An upside-down movie house leaked reds and blues out its smashed door. A bearded man in a long black coat played a fiddle on the roof.
On the other side of the shtetl wall, Chagall had painted the paradise he imagined there. A white church spire rose into bright blue sky and gold sunshine. A young woman in a lace dress sat in warm meadow splashed with wildflowers.
Uncle Joe said, “We never knew when the Cossacks would come. They galloped in without warning, swords in hand swinging at anyone in their path. On Easter they were out for blood. I hid in a haystack. Under the bed wasn’t safe, they set fire to houses and killed people running out. They grabbed young boys to fight on the Czar’s front line. Even if the boys lived they were lost to us, fed so much whiskey and pork by the time they were 13 they forgot they were Jews.”
Within the painting a lone male figure walked a narrow shtetl street holding a lantern. “We took turns as night watchmen,” Joe had said. “Our lantern was a big, hollow beet with a candle inside. One night I found a dog the Cossacks had slashed to smithereens. He was barely alive, trembling in agony. I slit his throat. What else could I do but put him out of his misery? It haunted me so that when our cow became too skinny to give milk I refused to slaughter her. I sneaked her outside the shtetl to graze on church grass. If a soldier came by I pretended I was a choirboy practicing hymns.”
“In a voice so sweet it could have converted the pigs,” said Dora, his sweetheart since childhood. A voice in Cohn’s head asked: What are you doing looking at paintings when stewardesses are landing on Delancey looking for bargains? Another voice in his head answered: I paid a small fortune for a taxi so I might as well stay.
The next painting was called The Juggler. Cohn reads the curator’s notes:
Cohn looks at the juggler, a strange, humanoid creature with the head of a chicken, a beak for a mouth, and one eye staring straight at him. Centuries of misery were concentrated in that eye. He reads more of the curator’s notes:
Cohn steps back from the painting. The juggler’s eye follows him. He puts his left hand into a trouser pocket and feels his lucky silver dollar there. Long, formless arms of sadness wrap around him. The juggler admonishes: You get one chance at life and you’re letting yours tick by? You have only to stick your head out the door and a hundred widows would smother you in briskets.
At my age? The only thing I can wish for is a sweet death.
Then may a sugar truck rumble over your side! May you have the death-honor of a namesake – soon!
My wife and I had no children, I’m sorry to say. No one will carry on my name.
All the more reason to marry again. Find a widow with grandkids old enough to make a new batch of babies. One that could be named for you.
Take a crap in the sea.
You take a fart in the sand!
What am I doing? Cohn thinks. Arguing with a painting? He walks to Marc Chagall’s bio stamped in large white type on a blue wall:
Able to return to Berlin in 1924, Chagall discovered that valuable paintings he stored there had disappeared. Undaunted, he started anew, traveling and painting across the continent until Nazi occupation throughout Europe forced him to flee. He escaped to New York City until 1948 when he returned to France, his home until his death in 1985.
Notice Chagall’s signature motifs: flying lovers, massive bouquets, and a fiddler on the roof. These realistic images in such an unrealistic place as the sky represent dreams or wishes, and changed the direction of expressionist art. In his autobiography Chagall wrote: “Only love interests me and I choose to be in contact only with things that revolve around love.”
The juggler regains Cohn’s attention: It’s high time you find another woman to love.
Rattled, Cohn leaves the museum and hails a taxi. “What woman wants someone she’ll have to nurse in a few years?” he mumbles in the back seat.
“Speak up, sir,” the taxi driver says. “I can’t hear over the traffic. Where are you going?”
“Delancey near Essex,” Cohn answers. He hears the ghost of his wife: “The best way to honor my memory would be to give your love to someone else.” She’d said that in the hospital room. Even there she could make him laugh. “Our marriage is like a good pastrami. Well-aged, brined with tears, but when I’m gone, sweetheart, I want you to keep on living.”
Cohn’s head bangs like the Rivington Street Synagogue, closed! and Ratner’s Deli, boarded up! Yiddish theater all but defunct! Barnum and Bailey Circus ended, finished forever! The tangibles by which he recognized much of his identity: gone!
The taxi weaves past the “Chicken Soup Cures Everything” sign above Ben’s Kosher Deli and stops for a red light. The light turns green, the driver hits the gas, bobbleheads on the dashboard rotate like spectators as Cohn lurches back and then forward as though suspended on spinning ropes high in a big top. His memory soars over decades and lands on the slender edge of anticipation at one of Joe’s Sunday dinners. One look at the young seamstress Joe invited from his tailor shop on Seventh Avenue and he spilled his wine, his face as red as the spreading stain on Dora’s white tablecloth. Trucks rumble past loud as a drum roll. He catapults onto a high wire for that special aerial dance requiring grace and strength and the flexibility to trick gravity, no safety net below. He and the shy girl with big brown eyes hang in space as if by their ankles from a thin trapeze. They reach their arms toward one another swinging wildly back and forth, or so it seemed until they finally connected and floated as if guided on the tip of a painter’s brush above the swaying world. Oh, would he ever again feel that helpless feeling of falling in love? How he misses the wings of youth and the sensation of moving among millions of stars in startled air. The taxi makes a sharp right onto Delancey and zooms past the last kosher bakery, a tattered sign in its window: Old Style Rye. Authentic Strudel. “Since when did something authentic need a label?” his mother had asked.
“Since strudel is flash frozen,” his father answered. “They also got frozen kasha varnishkes.”
“In the new supermarket.”
“I remember when homemade was the only kind there was,” his mother marveled.
Cohn’s mind spins in dizzying circles, the past, present, and future interlaced, life no plodding sequence he thinks, but a balancing act, a jump through hoops on one foot while juggling the past and kicking toward a future…
“We’re here, Bud,” the driver says louder. Cohn reaches for his wallet. “The important thing is to persevere,” his grandfather used to say. “The book of the future is always open.”
“Keep the change,” Cohn says and thinks if he puts himself in the right frame of mind maybe he’ll meet a nice woman. Perhaps two arms were reaching for his this moment, this very moment passing into the next moment, and the next. You never know when something wonderful might happen, something that makes you want to contort right through yourself and risk safety like a flying Wallenda. What was the point if you couldn’t share the greatest show on Earth, each moment seeming to pass faster and faster at his age, the next moment ever more precious than the last.