The Magic Barrel
Leo watched him eat.
“A sliced tomato you have maybe?” Salzman hesitantly inquired.
The marriage broker shut his eyes and ate. When he had finished he carefully cleaned up the crumbs and rolled up the remains of the fish, in the paper bag. His spectacled eyes roamed the room until he discovered, amid some piles of books, a one-burner gas stove. Lifting his hat he humbly asked, “A glass tea you got, rabbi?”
Conscience-striken, Leo rose and brewed the tea. He served it with a chunk of lemon and two cubes of lump sugar, delighting Salzman.
After he had drunk his tea, Salzman’s strength and good spirits were restored.
“So tell me, rabbi,” he said amiably, “you considered some more the three clients I mentioned yesterday?”
“There was no need to consider.”
“None of them suits me.”
“What then suits you?”
Leo let it pass because he could give only a confused answer.
Without waiting for a reply, Salzman asked, “You remember this girl I talked to you—the high school teacher?”
But, surprisingly, Salzman’s face lit in a smile. “Age twenty-nine.”
Leo shot him a look. “Reduced from thirty-two?”
“A mistake,” Salzman avowed. “I talked today with the dentist. He took me to his safety deposit box and showed me the birth certificate. She was twenty-nine years last August. They made her a party in the mountains where she went for her vacation. When her father spoke to me the first time I forgot to write the age and I told you thirty-two, but now I remember this was a different client, a widow.”
“The same one you told me about? I thought she was twenty-four?”
“A different. Am I responsible that the world is filled with widows?”
“No, but I’m not interested in them, nor for that matter, in school teachers.”
Salzman pulled his clasped hands to his breast. Looking at the ceiling he devoutly exclaimed, “Yiddishe kinder, what can I say to somebody that he is not interested in high school teachers? So what then you are interested?”
Leo flushed but controlled himself.
“In what else will you be interested,” Salzman went on, “if you not interested in this fine girl that she speaks four languages and has personally in the bank ten thousand dollars? Also her father guarantees further twelve thousand. Also she has a new car, wonderful clothes, talks on all subjects, and she will give you a first-class home and children. How near do we come in our life to paradise?”
“If she’s so wonderful, why wasn’t she married ten years ago?”
“Why?” said Salzman with a heavy laugh.
“—Why? Because she is partikiler. This is why. She wants the best.”
Leo was silent, amused at how he had entangled himself. But Salzman had aroused his interest in Lily H., and he began seriously to consider calling on her. When the marriage broker observed how intently Leo’s mind was at work on the facts he had supplied, he felt certain they would soon come to an agreement.
Late Saturday afternoon, conscious of Salzman, Leo Finkle walked with Lily Hirschorn along Riverside Drive. He walked briskly and erectly, wearing with distinction the black fedora he had that morning taken with trepidation out of the dusty hat box on his closet shelf, and the heavy black Saturday coat he had thoroughly whisked clean. Leo also owned a walking stick, a present from a distant relative, but quickly put temptation aside and did not use it. Lily, petite and not unpretty, had on something signifying the approach of spring. She was au courant, animatedly, with all sorts of subjects, and he weighed her words and found her surprisingly sound—score another for Salzman, whom he uneasily sensed to be somewhere around, hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street, flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union, though there was of course still none.
Lily startled Leo by remarking, “I was thinking of Mr. Salzman, a curious figure, wouldn’t you say?”
Not certain what to answer, he nodded.
She bravely went on, blushing, “I for one am grateful for his introducing us. Aren’t you?”
He courteously replied, “I am.”
“I mean,” she said with a little laugh—and it was all in good taste, or at least gave the effect of being not in bad—“do you mind that we came together so?”
He was not displeased with her honesty, recognizing that she meant to set the relationship aright, and understanding that it took a certain amount of experience in life, and courage, to want to do it quite that way. One had to have some sort of past to make that kind of beginning.
He said that he did not mind. Salzman’s function was traditional and honorable—valuable for what it might achieve, which, he pointed out, was frequently nothing.
Lily agreed with a sigh. They walked on for a while and she said after a long silence, again with a nervous laugh, “Would you mind if I asked you something a little bit personal? Frankly, I find the subject fascinating.” Although Leo shrugged, she went on half embarrassedly, “How was it that you came to your calling? I mean was it a sudden passionate inspiration?”
Leo, after a time, slowly replied, “I was always interested in the Law.”
“You saw revealed in it the presence of the Highest?”
He nodded and changed the subject. “I understand that you spent a little time in Paris, Miss Hirschorn?”
“Oh, did Mr. Salzman tell you, Rabbi Finkle?” Leo winced but she went on, “It was ages ago and almost forgotten. I remember I had to return for my sister’s wedding.”
And Lily would not be put off. “When,” she asked in a trembly voice, “did you become enamored of God?”
He stared at her. Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her—no relation to the living or dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness. The trickster had obviously sold her a bill of goods, just as he had him, who’d expected to become acquainted with a young lady of twenty-nine, only to behold, the moment he laid eyes upon her strained and anxious face, a woman past thirty-five and aging rapidly. Only his self-control had kept him this long in her presence.
“I am not,” he said gravely, “a talented religious person,” and in seeking words to go on, found himself possessed by shame and fear. “I think,” he said in a strained manner, “that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.”
This confession he spoke harshly because its unexpectedness shook him.
Lily wilted. Leo saw a profusion of loaves of bread go flying like ducks high over his head, not unlike the winged loaves by which he had counted himself to sleep last night. Mercifully, then, it snowed, which he would not put past Salzman’s machinations.
He was infuriated with the marriage broker and swore he would throw him out of the room the minute he reappeared. But Salzman did not come that night, and when Leo’s anger had subsided, an unaccountable despair grew in its place. At first he thought this was caused by his disappointment in Lily, but before long it became evident that he had involved himself with Salzman without a true knowledge of his own intent. He gradually realized—with an emptiness that seized him with six hands—that he had called in the broker to find him a bride because he was incapable of doing it himself. This terrifying insight he had derived as a result of his meeting and conversation with Lily Hirschorn. Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing—to himself more than her—the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. It seemed to Leo that his whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless. This bitter but somehow not fully unexpected revelation brought him to a point of panic, controlled only by extraordinary effort. He covered his face with his hands and cried.
The week that followed was the worst of his life. He did not eat and lost weight. His beard darkened and grew ragged. He stopped attending seminars and almost never opened a book. He seriously considered leaving the Yeshivah, although he was deeply troubled at the thought of the loss of all his years of study—saw them like pages torn from a book, strewn over the city—and at the devastating effect of this decision upon his parents. But he had lived without knowledge of himself, and never in the Five Books and all the Commentaries—mea culpa—had the truth been revealed to him. He did not know where to turn, and in all this desolating loneliness there was no to whom, although he often thought of Lily but not once could bring himself to go downstairs and make the call. He became touchy and irritable, especially with his landlady, who asked him all manner of personal questions; on the other hand, sensing his own disagreeableness, he waylaid her on the stairs and apologized abjectly, until mortified, she ran from him. Out of this, however, he drew the consolation that he was a Jew and that a Jew suffered. But gradually, as the long and terrible week drew to a close, he regained his composure and some idea of purpose in life: to go on as planned. Although he was imperfect, the ideal was not. As for his quest of a bride, the thought of continuing afflicted him with anxiety and heartburn, yet perhaps with this new knowledge of himself he would be more successful than in the past. Perhaps love would now come to him and a bride to that love. And for this sanctified seeking who needed a Salzman?
The marriage broker, a skeleton with haunted eyes, returned that very night. He looked, withal, the picture of frustrated expectancy—as if he had steadfastly waited the week at Miss Lily Hirschorn’s side for a telephone call that never came.
Casually coughing, Salzman came immediately to the point: “So how did you like her?”
Leo’s anger rose and he could not refrain from chiding the matchmaker: “Why did you lie to me, Salzman?”
Salzman’s pale face went dead white, the world had snowed on him.
“Did you not state that she was twenty-nine?” Leo insisted.
“I give you my word—”
“She was thirty-five, if a day. At least thirty-five.”
“Of this don’t be too sure. Her father told me—”
“Never mind. The worst of it was that you lied to her.”
“How did I lie to her, tell me?”
“You told her things about me that weren’t true. You made me out to be more, consequently less than I am. She had in mind a totally different person, a sort of semi-mystical Wonder Rabbi.”
“All I said, you was a religious man.”
“I can imagine.”
Salzman sighed. “This is my weakness that I have,” he confessed. “My wife says to me I shouldn’t be a salesman, but when I have two fine people that they would be wonderful to be married, I am so happy that I talk too much.”
He smiled wanly. “This is why Salzman is a poor man.”
Leo’s anger left him. “Well, Salzman, I’m afraid that’s all.”
The marriage broker fastened hungry eyes on him.
“You don’t want any more a bride?”
“I do,” said Leo, “but I have decided to seek her in a different way. I am no longer interested in an arranged marriage. To be frank, I now admit the necessity of premarital love. That is, I want to be in love with the one I marry.”
“Love?” said Salzman, astounded. After a moment he remarked, “For us, our love is our life, not for the ladies. In the ghetto they—”
“I know, I know,” said Leo. “I’ve thought of it often. Love, I have said to myself, should be a by-product of living and worship rather than its own end. Yet for myself I find it necessary to establish the level of my need and fulfill it.”
Salzman shrugged but answered, “Listen, rabbi, if you want love, this I can find for you also. I have such beautiful clients that you will love them the minute your eyes will see them.”
Leo smiled unhappily. “I’m afraid you don’t understand.”
But Salzman hastily unstrapped his portfolio and withdrew a manila packet from it.
“Pictures,” he said, quickly laying the envelope on the table.
Leo called after him to take the pictures away, but as if on the wings of the wind, Salzman had disappeared.
March came. Leo had returned to his regular routine. Although he felt not quite himself yet—lacked energy—he was making plans for a more active social life. Of course it would cost something, but he was an expert in cutting corners; and when there were no corners left he would make circles rounder. All the while Salzman’s pictures had lain on the table, gathering dust. Occasionally as Leo sat studying, or enjoying a cup of tea, his eyes fell on the manila envelope, but he never opened it.
The days went by and no social life to speak of developed with a member of the opposite sex—it was difficult, given the circumstances of his situation. One morning Leo toiled up the stairs to his room and stared out the window at the city. Although the day was bright his view of it was dark. For some time he watched the people in the street below hurrying along and then turned with a heavy heart to his little room. On the table was the packet. With a sudden relentless gesture he tore it open. For a half-hour he stood by the table in a state of excitement, examining the photographs of the ladies Salzman had included. Finally, with a deep sigh he put them down. There were six, of varying degrees of attractiveness, but look at them long enough and they all became Lily Hirschorn: all past their prime, all starved behind bright smiles, not a true personality in the lot. Life, despite their frantic yoohooings, had passed them by; they were pictures in a briefcase that stank of fish. After a while, however, as Leo attempted to return the photographs into the envelope, he found in it another, a snapshot of the type taken by a machine for a quarter. He gazed at it a moment and let out a cry.
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