Fisher Out of Water
Avi Fisher dreams of women and cheeseburgers. A congregation of naked honeys on horseback ingesting Whoppers at a prayer service he's supposed to lead. He's not focusing on prayer. He's gawking at breasts, inhaling the scent of forbidden beef, fixating on grease drizzling from lips to thighs.
Avi considers himself a normal, open-minded, 23-year-old college man – more closet freethinker than uptight Yeshiva student. Even in his dreams though, he can't shake the feeling that this minyan is bad juju. He forces himself to turn away from the ladies, faces the ark, bangs out a sloppy repetition of the silent devotion and dispatches closing prayers at warp speed. Then, like a young Houdini, he slips free of prayer shawl and phylacteries and spins back around to resume ogling. Sadly, the honeys are gone. Only Leah, his flat-chested, weasel-faced sister, remains. She reaches down from her horse, grabs him by the wrist, swings him up behind her and offers her half-eaten burger. Avi can taste the cheese but, before his teeth touch meat, a chime sounds and he's mumbling "what the fuck" into his cell phone.
"Ma?" His tongue feels like it’s been coated with steel wool. “Jesus Christ, Ma . . . What time is it?"
"It's 9:30, sweetheart. Seven hours till the wedding. We're waiting breakfast for you at the Melmans'."
Christ! Leah's wedding. "Ma, listen. I've got a killer headache and some junk to take care of. I'll get my own breakfast. Meet you at shul in a couple hours."
"Take something for your headache, sweetheart. Eat a good breakfast and rest up. We need you full of life at the chassana."
Like he's some kind of wild man at wedding parties and the family's counting on him to make this one memorable. "Bye, Ma."
Avi staggers across his dorm room to the sink where he splashes cold water on his face. He leans into the mirror. No new zits. Cool. He runs his Norelco vigorously over light stubble, then notices three nose hairs which he'll have to yank out with tweezers. The procedure makes him sneeze and brings tears to his eyes. The things he does for love.
Avi loves his sister, weasel-face and all. Has loved her since the day his parents brought her home from the hospital. "Is that a doggie?" he'd asked hopefully. "No, Avramala," his mother said. "This is your baby sister. You'll take good care of her, I know." He was two at the time and grateful the infant never ratted on him for stealing her bottle. Growing up, she let him take her cookies and her toys. Let him call her names and punch her in the stomach when he needed to work off steam.
Yet, she was no patsy. He could remember snowing her once, when she was five, with an outrageous spiel about Christmas and the magnanimity of Santa Claus. Got her good and excited about the imminent arrival of a pony, then told her on Christmas morning, Santa'd snubbed them both because she'd been a bad sister. Even as a five year old, Leah could distinguish justice from jive. She flung herself on top of Avi, bit, scratched, kicked and slapped him until he took back the lie. You could be mean to Leah up to a point, but you couldn't fool her. Avi guesses now he loves that about her.
He hopes Shmoo Melman will not attempt to abuse Leah in any way. That's all he was trying to convey last night at the bachelor's party when, drunk out of his gourd, he pushed his future brother-in-law against a wall and shook a fist in his face. Avi didn’t have time to make his point because Sid Opperman, Shmoo's oversized best man, separated Avi from the groom and tossed him out of Frummers' Funhouse.
Avi wishes only the best for the new couple. Figures he needs to come up with a gift in the next couple hours that will make that clear. Something unique that will touch Leah's heart and clear things up between himself and Shmoo.
Naturally, it's a gray morning, the kind Avi's always found conducive to sleep. Not a great day for a wedding, and a lousy one for shopping. He's having trouble coming up with an idea. He regrets having snapped at his parents three weeks earlier when they asked if he'd like to sign the card accompanying their gift to the newlyweds.
"I'm twenty three for God sakes," he'd said. "Old enough to pick out a Goddamn wedding gift for my own sister."
His father bristled. Warned Avi not to use such language in his mother's presence. He questioned the kind of education Avi'd picked up in his six years at the four-year institution. Threatened to quit paying tuition; threatened to stop supporting the ingrate altogether.
On the A-train, Avi's got problems. Three black teenagers have entered his car laughing. Black teens laughing can mean trouble for Yeshiva guys. Avi makes sure he’s pocketed his yarmulke, relaxes his shoulders, uncrosses his legs, attempts to achieve the appearance of a devil-may-care Gentile. The black kids sit down three seats in front of him and he breathes easier. Then he notices the old lady sitting across from him – seventy-eight if she's a day – batting her eyes, spreading her legs, licking her fingers and making other lewd gestures in his direction. Avi bolts at 42nd Street.
The day’s no prettier here. Grayer and colder than it had been Uptown. Plus, it's raining. He's window shopping, heading up 8th Avenue towards Central Park, watching out for holier-than-he Yeshiva colleagues on the one hand and possible anti-Semites (everyone else) on the other. Clips his yarmulke in place at the sight of the former, slides it off at the approach of the latter. “You’re like a fish forever out of water," Leah once lectured him. “Grow up already. Believe what you believe and stop worrying about the rest of creation."
As if anybody’s beliefs are fully his or her own. As if believers mix their own Kool-Aid from scratch. Avi believes that's bullshit. Still, he's moved by his sister's näiveté, and finds himself peering in the window of an adult paraphernalia shop, thinking an instructional video might make a useful gift. He runs his right hand through his black hair, makes sure that yarmulke is off, loosens his shoulders, and swaggers into the store.
He walks past the S&M wall. Bridle bit? Naaaah. Leah'd miss the pun. Shmoo too, hopefully. Avi's in the video section in no time, eyeballing the blue-ray selection. He's most drawn to the one featuring his all-time favorite actress, Tamponica Honeybush, kneeling alongside three jockeys in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
He emerges from the store half an hour later, empty handed and disgusted with himself. He wishes he could think of the perfect gift, but, with time running out, doubts it'll happen. He should have just signed the card and piggybacked once more on his parents' largesse.
Avi tries convincing himself Leah doesn't care about gifts. Tells himself she'd be happier with a stick of fresh gum given with love than an expensive punch bowl/dinette set/whatever culled mindlessly from a bridal registry. He's almost sold on this line of reasoning, walking briskly towards Columbus Circle, when he steps into a steaming pile of dung. He can see the horse responsible: a thin, miserable-looking mare, ten yards away and barely mobile. The old nag is attached to a carriage it has no business pulling, claims of the carriage driver notwithstanding.
"Hey," Avi hollers, slogging through the horseshit and closing in on the carriage. "Hey, listen . . . "
~ ~ ~
The wedding of Shmuel Melman and Leah Fisher goes off without a hitch. Rabbi Resnick speaks almost coherently about the need for love and understanding in the home and in the world. He speaks of courage, faith, mutual respect, trust and responsibility. Leah circles Shmoo seven times. Shmoo slides a ring onto Leah's finger, vows are exchanged, and, amid the sound of breaking glass and shouts of "mazel tov," Leah Fisher becomes Leah Melman.
Avi, an usher at this affair, feels nearly invisible, a condition he both relishes and resents. Sid Opperman has glared at him twice – once before and once after the ceremony – but Shmoo's been nice. Hugged Avi and thanked him for his good wishes once the newlyweds reached the social hall. Avi knows he should be glad this boy is now his brother-in-law. Leah could have done worse.
The music begins: a wild, improbable blend, a joyous tight-rope romp across an abyss of sorrow. The band, made up entirely of Yeshiva guys – friends of Shmoo, acquaintances of Avi – seems especially fond of "Ketzad Merakdim," an annoyingly repetitive tune that asks the musical question, "How does one dance before the bride?" They play this migraine-inducer with unwarranted gusto.
Leah sits in a fold-out chair and the male guests take turns dancing in front of her. Sid Opperman all 6'3", 280 lbs of him squatting, fat ass no more than six inches from the floor, performs a red-faced Kazastky. Avi's father steps up next, bends his knees, wags his ass and snaps his fingers just long enough to guarantee induction into the rhythmically-challenged hall of fame. Chaim "Li'l Wuss" Swirlowitz, Shmoo's diminutive, overly studious roommate, does a jig on his hands. Dov Himmelfarb, always two sheets to the wind, rolls to Leah’s feet, then rolls back. Shmoo's father executes some disco-robot moves, and the groom's Great Uncle Morris pirouettes spasmodically, falls, gets up, pirouettes some more.
Avi, standing alone and off to the side, craves invisibility. The internal pressure he's feeling to get out there and top all revelers is profound. Sadly, he's inherited his father's lack of rhythm, has no acrobatic skills, no disco moves and no fondness for public humiliation.
Feeling clammy, he bolts for the bathroom where he engages in dry heaving. He emerges from the stall when the band shifts to something less frenetic. Something one might comfortably sway to, if mixed dancing were allowed here, and if one weren't unnerved by the public prospect. Avi inches his head out of the restroom. He's delighted to see the males have ceded the dance floor to the ladies, a couple dozen of whom are executing a slow, sloppy line dance. Some men sit at their assigned tables stuffing hors d'oeuvres into their mouths and gawking. Others have joined Himmelfarb at the bar.
Avi can drink most Yeshiva guys under the table. He jogs across the floor and slaps his hand on the bar. "Whiskey sour," he tells the bartender. "Make it a double."
"Mazel tov to the bride's brother," says Rabbi Horowitz, ancient black-hatter from the old country. "They should be happy and make scholars."
"Yeah, well. . . thanks," mutters Avi and downs his drink.
"L'chaim," says the rabbi and downs his. "So. I buy you a drink!"
The music continues flitting in and out of Avi's consciousness. He and Rabbi Horowitz are taking turns with the buy you a drink joke. This rabbi, strict as an S&M mistress in the classroom, likes his schnapps. "Put in a drink, comes out a secret," he says, slamming down his fourth shot. "So, I tell you a secret."
The rabbi tells about being a 14-year-old Yeshiva boy in a small Lithuanian town that Avi's never heard of. He admits to liking a girl, whose name he can't recall – the butcher’s daughter from a neighboring village. Tells about riding his bike to this neighboring village one gray morning, kissing the girl for several hours, pedaling home blue-balled late that afternoon. "So, happens this was the day the Nazis came to visit," says the rabbi, too soused for sarcasm. "Happens I saw them before they saw me. So, I climbed a tree was good for hiding. And . . . I watched. They'd tooken the Jews to the woods, and was making the men dig a big hole in the ground. When the digging was finished, came the shooting. Everybody lines up, gets shot, falls in the hole. Finished."
Avi, veteran of hundreds of holocaust tales, is more annoyed than moved by the narrative."Yeah, well," he says, but the rabbi keeps talking.
"Wasn't monsters did these things. Was boys and men, not so different from me then and you now. Lost boys with no beliefs inside. Empty vessels filled with a big ugliness. It made my pants wet – that I could be these boys." He taps Avi's forearm lightly. "When they finished, they got in their jeeps and drived away. Maybe to my girlfriend's village, maybe not. I stayed in that tree for a long time, feeling shamed about my pants."
"Right," says Avi. "Got to go."
"It's okay to be scared," the Rabbi says, holding on to Avi's sleeve. "It’s good to be worried a little about being safe. But, to be afraid all the way down in your bladder, this is a sin. Shows no faith."
The rabbi tells about retrieving the bodies of friends and family from the mass grave and providing them with proper burials. "Most of the people I didn't care about. These I left where they was. Another sin."
Avi's heard enough. This is supposed to be a party. "Yeah, well," he tells the rabbi, "I got to go."
The rabbi has an arm around Avi's shoulder, and the old bastard is strong. "Stay. I buy you another drink."
The band's trying something different, now. A piece that starts out jazzy but quickly deteriorates into a bad hora. Avi'd snicker, if he weren't busy getting manhandled by an octogenarian.
Male guests, having long since reclaimed the dance floor, are now lifting Leah and Shmoo's chairs into the air. Bride and groom, each holding one end of a handkerchief, are smiling and laughing, teetering precariously, seemingly unaware that they could fall at any moment.
"This" says the rabbi, nodding toward the couple in their airborne chairs, "is the biggest secret of them all . . ."
Avi doesn’t want to hear any more of this rabbi's secrets. He's trying hard to break free and the rabbi's telling him some parable about a raven who tries to pass for a dove, when a series of loud, incongruous thumps causes the band to stop playing. Leah and Shmoo are lowered quickly to the ground and hurry back to the head table. Rabbi Horowitz releases Avi. Nearly all conversation in the social hall stops and guests look around for the source of the sound.
"Cossacks!" shouts Shmoo's Great Uncle Morris. "Run!"
"Cossacks are gone, zayde," someone points out reassuringly.
"Correct," someone else chimes in pedagogically. "Now we got Arabs. Jihadists. Meshugenahs in Iran. We got White Supremacists. Neo-Nazis . . ."
"Where?" roars Opperman.
"Christ," mutters Avi.
The thumping intensifies and the atmosphere inside the social hall shifts from celebratory to shtletl-fretful.
There's a collective gasp from the guests when the partition separating sanctuary from social hall creaks open. An outsider – tall, gangly, pug-nosed, pasty-faced and red haired – stands panting at the opening. He's got no tie, no hat, no evidence of propriety. He's struggling to push the partition further open using only his hip and buttocks. His hands are busy trying to control something more ungainly, the source of the thumps.
Avi's not pleased with how this is unfolding. The carriage driver was supposed to leave the mare outside – hitched to the carriage. He was supposed to arrive, if not stone sober, at least able to walk a straight line. Supposed to be wearing a top hat. And clean livery – not this oversized, vomit stained overcoat. He was supposed to approach the bride and groom, bow formally and declare for all to hear: "Mr. and Mrs. Shmuel Melman: your carriage and steed await outside."
Mother fucker, Avi thinks. This imbecile must have dragged the mare in through the sanctuary. Like the old nag needed extra trauma. The mare has to be out of her comfort zone. The driver, too, but . . . fuck the driver. Avi figures this is the horse's first encounter with linoleum flooring. He can't tell now if the driver's holding the reins to keep the spooked beast under control or to keep himself from falling over shit-faced. Either way, the driver and wild-eyed nag are both slip-sliding across the floor, careening in the general direction of the head table.
At least the idiot left the carriage outside, Avi tells himself. His face reddens. Now or never, he thinks, and takes a deep breath. "Mazel tov," he calls out more sheepish than proud. "Mazel tov, Leah. Mazel tov, Shmoo."
It takes a moment for the guests to figure it out: Avi has either rented or bought this broken down beast as a wedding gift. Word spreads through the social hall. There's some tittering. Looks of bewilderment. Tentative shouts of "mazel tov" trickle in from all sides. The band gets itself together and cranks out the opening bars of Simmon Tov u Mazel Tov -- Good omen and good luck.
The music sends the horse over the edge. She rolls her eyes, whinnies and snorts. Then she rears up arthritically, neighs, knocks her handler over, slides about wildly trying to regain her footing and topples several tables before banging into a wall and coming to a stop.
A noodling clarinet sets her off again.
Several guests bolt for the exit, knocking plates and more tables over in their wake. The carriage-driver, having suffered what will later be diagnosed as a broken collarbone and sprained wrist, regains his feet and pursues the mare, shouting, "Settle down, y'fooking bag of glue. Easy now . . ."
The band segues boldly into "Ketzad Marakdim." The mare seems to share Avi's distaste for this number. She neighs loudly, kicks the wall three times with her hind legs, neighs again, stumbles wild-eyed into several more tables, rears once more, makes a weird keening sound and collapses in a dead heap near the back of the hall.
The band stops playing, and the room is silent for a moment. Avi can hear his stomach gurgle. Then:
“Cossacks!” screams Great Uncle Morris.
"Iranians!" someone else proposes.
"Fooking Yids!" the busted-up handler, struggling to his feet, bawls back.
A red haired Iranian, Avi considers. A Cockney-accented mullah.
Shouts of "anti-Semite," "Jihadist," "Mahmoud" and "never again" rain in from various directions.
Opperman and a half-dozen red-faced vigilantes head for the horseman but Chaim Swirlowitz, seated nearest the tumult, reaches him first. Avi's jaw drops for the first time in nearly a decade watching Li'l Wuss sneak the driver out the back door.
The defenders of the faith, unable to locate their anti-Semite, vent their rage on the dead horse. The sound of shoes and fists thumping against the animal troubles Avi, who has the equivalent of a front row seat for the spectacle. He holds his hands over his ears. Looks downward. Breathes deeply and closes his eyes.
When he reopens them, Leah's in the middle of things and Shmoo, nowhere in sight. Leah's gown is ripped, her makeup's smeared and she's screaming at the thugs to "lay off." She's wrapped herself around Opperman's leg, alternately scratching, tugging, biting into his beefy right thigh.
Avi's jaw drops a second time, and, with no memory of having abandoned his seat, he finds himself at Leah's side, arms windmilling blindly.
The fracas doesn't last long. By the time peace is achieved, Avi's got a split lip, chipped tooth and sore hand, Opperman, a bruised jaw and bloody thigh. Avi's still seething,
Opperman apologizes "for possibly over-reacting." Avi apologizes back "for possibly over-reacting" in a drooling moronic voice. He doesn't care who reads what into the mimicry. His mouth hurts, the gift horse is dead, his sister's married and he's taken a public stance – however brutish and inadvertent – against idiocy. What's the worst that could happen now?
The corpse is covered with two tablecloths and cordoned off. Tables are righted, makeshift repairs are made to Leah's gown and ice applied to the wounds of all combatants. Then, to Avi's chagrin, the band starts playing again. The music gets louder, the dancing resumes, intensifies, carries on past midnight into the dawning of a new day.