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By Lyle Rockler
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Lyle Rockler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHal thinks he heard someone yelling for him to get out of bed, but that's impossible. His son is at work in the city, and he's alone in the house. He's curled on his side under the thick comforter Mimi bought him at the start of winter, struggling to keep his eyes open and puzzle it out. It was a dream—a dream of Zaida Chaim who died only months before he was born and whom he was named for and around whom myths were spun as soon as he could understand. Zaida Chaim—handsome, blue-eyed, a master joker, the first of the family to set out for America, the first lover of chazzonos. But Zaida Chaim, who always looks like George Burns in Hal's dreams, had already faded when the yelling began. And now he remembers: it was Myra, his ex, now eight years, angry again at his lazy habit of sleeping in on his day off.
Sleeping in this morning will be a mistake. The women in the office will be there at nine and he doesn't want to answer any questions. Last night he sat at the huge oak table in his kitchen, writing draft after draft, filling the floor with crumpled paper. Giant hail thrown by God. Just what does one say about leaving after twenty years? It's like ending a marriage—the truth is too complicated. Is it Dear Mr. President? Dear Mr. Deutsch? Dear Fred? I'm leaving because I have all this money now and to hell with you? In the end he chose simple. Dear Fred—This is to inform you. I'll remember the good times. No reason given. Yours Sincerely, Cantor Henry Perlmutter.
He's about to doze off again, but he starts to see Lea, the yenta secretary at the front desk, bracelets dangling from her arm, pointing a stubby yellowed finger and asking, double-chinned, in her husky smoke voice just why he's there on his day off. This gets him on his feet. In the foggy bathroom mirror he declares "Sloth ain't gonna win today" and then puts the words to the tune of Camptown Races: "Sloth ain't gonna win today, doo-dah, doo-dah." He recalls that sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.
In the living room, he laces his well-worn hiking boots. The streets around Mirthgate Lake are still full of gray winter slush, and he plans to walk after it's done. His heavy-lined plaid flannel jacket is so tight that he has trouble with the buttons. "Shmagegy, buy yourself a jacket," he says out loud while putting on a wide brimmed black felt hat that makes him look like half a Chasid. He grabs the resignation letter off the coffee table where he left it last night, addressed to the president of Mirthgate Temple, Fred Deutsch.
So here he is, Cantor Hal, walking in the light drizzles of a New Jersey late winter (or is it early spring?) the two blocks to Mirthgate Temple, the place of his employment, the place where he gave away his neshama and his kishkes for almost twenty years, momentous missive in his hand, about to sever ties, say goodbye, adieu, shalom and all that. And how does he feel? In a word, crappy. In his head, he's resigned a thousand times. This one was no good, this policy stunk, that policy was nuts, who do they think they are, my personal life is my own business, they don't appreciate chazzonos anymore, they want nothing but this new schlock or Shlomo, they don't realize what I do for them, why don't they just let me sing, yadda, yadda, yadda. Mostly he stayed on account of David; but Rabbi David's been retired for five years and for five years it's been the reign of the hapless, spineless Jerry Salmon. But now it's real, he's actually going to do it—place the letter in the president's box, and that will be the end of it. Of course now it's because of the money. He doesn't need them anymore. But why then crappy? Because twenty years is a long time, and it's like leaving your family—they're dysfunctional, meshuga, they give you heartache without end, but they're your family.
He passes Anna Dumbroff's house halfway to the shul and fights the impulse to walk up to her door, knock on it, tell her. Anna is certainly up by now, probably for hours, cooking up a weeks worth of food despite living in that house alone. She's been a friend all his years in Mirthgate—practically a mother for God's sake. Why shouldn't she know? She should have been the first to know. But he promised Mimi not yet, so he keeps moving.
At the double glass doors that lead to the Temple offices, he fishes for his key. He checks and double-checks to see if the envelope is still in the inside pocket of his jacket. Still there. Once inside the building, he almost forgets to punch in the numbers that de-activate the alarm. Wouldn't that be nice? So much for doing this quietly.
At the box marked President in the main office, just behind Lea's desk, Hal starts to place the envelope. His hand freezes—he can't do it. He paces the room trying to recall a month's worth of reasons, the sleepless nights hashing it over with Mimi. "You must do this," he tells himself and tries again to place the envelope. When he finally places it, he grabs it back quickly. He looks at the front once more: Fred Deutsch in bold letters. Finally he shoves it in the box and runs. He locks the front doors, but forgets to set the alarm.
He starts his walk, the one he's taken a thousand times—the mile and a half of sloping streets that follow the circumference of Mirthgate Lake. No jogger, swimmer, tennis player—this brisk walk is Hal's only real exercise, the only thing he does for his health. Three times a week—Monday, Wednesday, Friday, as soon as he gets out of bed. With David he used to do the walk on Shabbos afternoons—but that was leisurely. David knew who lived in every house on the lake, or who had lived there. He had stories to tell. David had spent his whole adult life in Mirthgate. Sometimes he spoke of the foolishness of his ever-changing bosses. "Balabatim," he would say, shrugging his straight, almost stately shoulders, "what can you expect from balabatim?"
At the high point halfway, Hal stands in an empty lot and takes in the panoramic view. The rain has stopped. The sun burning through the gray casts tentative rays on the lake. All around is a wide arc of houses in the hills, fancy and plain, huge and modest, houses of people he's known for twenty years. Far below on the other side are the beach, the clubhouse, and the landscaped grounds across the street from the Temple. Twenty years ago, when he first told his family in Minnesota that he had taken a position in New Jersey, they asked him if it was ugly there. "What do you mean?" he answered. "You think the shul sits right on the Turnpike? It's far from there. It's got hills. It's got a lake. Mirthgate is beautiful."
He starts walking again on the long flat stretch. A woman in robe and slippers out to retrieve her paper waves to him. He has no idea who she is, but he waves back and smiles. David would know. It dawns on him that he could still go back and remove the letter and make some excuse to Lea. She'll look at her purple polished nails like she always does and wonder why he's there on a Wednesday. "Just forgot to pick up something Fred left for me," he'll say. He wishes he didn't have to think about it any more. It was enough going back and forth with Mimi. It would be nice if for once a big decision would come without pain, but no such luck.
After the walk, same as always, Hal stops at Hy's Deli on Mirthgate's small and primitive business street. Hymie carries the Times and serves a strong, good cup of coffee. Myra, Hal's ex, meshuga over clean, would never step in the place. She was offended by the clutter and the pungent mix of grease, dust, pastrami and pickles. But Hymie's place for Hal is welcome and familiar—his haunt for as long as he's been cantor in Mirthgate. Hymie, his friend, sings in the choir and sits on the board.
"Good morning, good morning Cantor" Hymie says, almost singing. He wipes his hands on his already soiled apron.
Hal takes his regular seat at the counter and throws his jacket and hat on the stool next to him. As is true most of the time, he has the place to himself. "How about a garlic bagel Hymie? With a shmear, some whitefish, a slice of tomato and some red onion."
Hymie pours Hal's coffee. "All you gotta say is whitefish or lox. The rest is always the same."
"You know me too well, Hymie."
Hal watches as Hymie cuts the bagel with a long silver knife. Hymie reminds him of his father, Isaac, short and solid, also a deli man. He even has Isaac's sweet baritone. But Hal wonders if coming here this morning was a mistake. Everything's changed and he can't say a word. Not yet.
Some customers come in as Hal eats with the Times spread in front of him. He's trying to follow an article about soaring real estate in all the boroughs of New York, but no matter how he tries, he can't focus. He sees himself putting that letter in Fred Deutsch's box. He knows he should be pleased, but somehow he feels as if the ground has given under him. He felt that way when he married Myra.
"More coffee, Cantor?"
Hymie's voice startles Hal out of his thoughts, but then he nods for him to fill his cup. "Hymie," he says, "I've been cantor in Mirthgate for twenty years and I've come in here almost every morning of all that time, even when I was married. You can't call me Hal?"
"All right," Hymie says, joining this old dance between them, "I'll call you Hal. But you're my cantor, chazzan extraordinaire. A young man who still sings in the synagogue like the old greats."
"I'm not so young anymore Hymie, I'm fifty three."
"Ha, not so young. When you'll be looking at seventy like me, you'll remember what young was. Boychik, I'm looking to retire. You want to buy a going business?"
Hal laughs. He sees himself wearing the shmutsik apron. All these years a cantor and finally a deli man like his father.
"Hymie, you just never know. I might be retiring one of these days myself."
Hymie comes around the counter and sits on the stool next to Hal. The sun which had been hidden behind clouds comes out and transforms the room. For a moment, the faded green walls seem fresh.
"What would you want to retire for Hal?" Hymie's face is creased and serious.
Hal can't find the words. He looks at Hymie and sees his father. Finally he answers: "Maybe I'm tired of bosses."
On his way home, Hal stands for a moment on the tiny bridge over the creek that runs to Mirthgate Lake. He thinks again about his father, and sees him peeling potatoes in the dingy basement of Milstein's Deli at five in the morning. Isaac bemoaned bosses all his life. Then he remembers his cousins in Minneapolis and how they cheered his decision to become a cantor, but warned him: "You'll be in the public eye. Everyone will be your boss." He looks at the moving water and the pale growth around it, crazy to burst out of wintersleep. On summer nights, lying in his bed, windows wide open, he can hear this water on its determined way to the lake. The music of it soothes him, beckons him to adventure, to another landscape. Once he shared this with Myra. She called him a hopeless romantic.
When he reaches the top steps to his front door, Hal hears the phone ringing. He fumbles with his key, anxious to take the call before the machine clicks on. Too late. He hears Mimi saying: "Hal, I was hoping I would catch you. Did you do it? Call me at work"—
"Mimi, I'm here," Hal says, out of breath.
"Oh good, I was anxious"—
"I don't even have my jacket off"—
"Did you put the letter in Deutsch's box?"
"How do you feel?"
"Like a herring in sauce"—
"The service is over. I'm about to be eaten at the Kiddush. But don't worry, you still have until August as the cantor's girlfriend."
"Good, I always liked that."
Indeed, Hal sees Mimi beaming after a service when congregants swarm around her wishing her "Shabbat Shalom" and telling her what a sweet singer Hal is. Someone once told him, years before he became a cantor, that women are attracted to men who sing. Mimi savors the envious praise.
"Hold on," Hal says, "I've got to take my jacket off."
He throws the cordless phone to the couch and drops his jacket on the floor. With his hat still on, he sits to talk, muddy water from his boots dripping on the carpet.
"Where were we?"
"We were nowhere—I want to hear how you feel and you start with herring in sauce."
"That's how I feel."
"Never mind, let's celebrate. I'll be in the office until six—after that, I can pick up some things and be there by say, nine, nine thirty. Will Todd be there?"
"I don't know. He hasn't been home the last couple nights. I think there's someone new."
"Good, I hope he's someone nice."
Yes, Hal thinks. Someone nice. And safe. He sees his son bar-hopping in that wild gay scene and his stomach constricts. He imagines judgment-impairing drugs, music so loud, it's surreal. Multiple partners, destructive characters, all-night binges, kink and sleaze. No matter that his son has told him it's not like that: "It's out there, Dad, yeah, but I'm not part of it—at least not any more. I'm looking to be domesticated." Hal had suffered his own bizarre city-years of pursuit. But he didn't want to think about that.
"So I have no idea if he'll be here or not," Hal says.
"Well, I hope he is—he can celebrate with us."
"All right, I'll see you tonight."
"Yes—and Hal, please take it easy. Make it a nice day, go somewhere you like."
"Good idea—Mimi does it again. But I'll probably have Molly Pinsky on my mind all day and how this is her fault."
"It's true, it is her fault. But while you're at it, don't forget to thank her."
"Thank you, thank you dear Molly," Hal says out loud as he pulls off his muddy boots. "I mean that sincerely, but dear Molly, just a little signal about what to do now—how to use your gift wisely."
It was Valentine's Day, almost a month ago. The mailman had handed him a registered letter from the law offices of Goldman and Salita in Minneapolis, which said that Molly Pinsky had left him in her will the sum of six hundred and forty thousand dollars and a portfolio of securities worth at the writing close to two hundred thousand. To him, to Hal, to Henry Perlmutter, who had never saved a dime in his life, who had raided every false start passbook, who had not even provided for his kid's college education. Every dime he had ever earned in twenty years in Mirthgate, spent, spent, gone. Even the pension funds. To him, to Hal, who only owns a house (half a house, the other half is Myra's) because his mother-in-law gave the down payment. To him, whose parents, Hinda and Isaac, had nothing and left nothing. He stood there that morning reading the letter over and over, unbelieving, thrilled, terrified, exhilarated, confused, dumbfounded, his blood in a NASCAR race to his heart. He paced the living room floor, then ran out to Hymie's and bought two packs of Marlboros. "You don't smoke, Cantor, what the heck?" Hymie asked. But Hal gave away nothing, just said "Today I'm smoking." He paced the house the rest of the morning into afternoon, smoking cigarettes to calm himself, weighing possibilities, strategies, fantasies, choices. Already the money was making him crazy. He fought the impulse to call anyone, not even Mimi, not yet. To him, to Hal, a kobtzin cantor, a ne'er-do-well with money, almost a million, a fortune, a velt mit gelt. So what was the problem? Good fortune rains on your head and you pace your rooms like a meshugganer? You live your adult life from check to check and when you're suddenly wealthy you take up cigarettes? What gives? The fear of pissing it away? He could do that—certainly money took wing from his palm (of course, he had never had a sum like this to squander)—but he would get good advice, and Mimi would help too. But it wasn't only the money that put him into a sweat. It was the instant dilemma that now he could leave Mirthgate if he wanted to (and hadn't he wanted to for years?) he could be free of bosses, he could thumb his nose, he could walk away. But did he really want to? Mirthgate was home—and it had sometimes been good, his Shangri-La, his Brigadoon, his familiar shtetl, an emese velt, the center of his universe for twenty years.
Since it was Valentine's Day, he had already made plans to meet Mimi that night at Salvino's, an elegant little Italian place on Route 22. Most of the cigarettes were bent stubs jammed in a crystal ash tray (he had taken only three or four puffs on each and hadn't even inhaled), when he finally was ready to call her. It took a while to reach her. She was busy with a client at her teacher's agency. (Mimi could find a job for even the worst and sometimes felt guilty about it.) But when she took the call Hal changed his mind. He only told her he had "big, big news" which she would have to wait until dinner to find out.
Excerpted from Chazzonos by Lyle Rockler Copyright © 2011 by Lyle Rockler. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Totally enjoyed this tale of the life of fictional cantor Hal Perlmutter and his decision to retire.
A touching blend of a time gone by with a hopeful glimpse to the future. In his first work, the author paints pictures that remain after the last words have been read. Looking to Lyle Rockler's next novel.