Weintraub asks me if I know Abraham Feldstein, the dead man brought in yesterday. The Weintraub Funeral Home, sandwiched between the Wildcat Roller Skating Rink and Mee Mah’s Chinese takeout on Kedzie Avenue, is the next-to-last stop for virtually every Jew in Albany Park. No one claimed the body and Weintraub is calling around to get a minyan for the funeral.
I shake my head. “Doesn’t ring a bell."
“Looks to be around forty. I checked the synagogues. No one seems to know him.”
“No friends? Relatives?” I ask.
I attend all the funerals held at Weintraub’s, whether the deceased is a relative, an old friend or a complete stranger. It began about ten years before, when Weintraub called me to make a minyan at a funeral. The deceased, in that instance also unknown to me, was a peddler who for forty years drove a horse-drawn wagon through the alleys of Albany Park, Budlong Woods and up through Chicago’s Golden Ghetto.
Standing next to the casket, I was wrapped in a finespun sadness that left me feeling peaceful, even spiritual. My friend Stern rolled his eyes when I tried to explain. But after that, I was a regular. I’d listen as the rabbi recited the Twenty-third Psalm, followed by some gracious comments on the exemplary life of the deceased. A family man. Honest. Hard working. It did seem to me that the good were the ones dying young, or were the rabbis just making them sound good? I’d pay my respects to the family, drive to the cemetery and watch the burial. Sometimes I’d attend the meal of consolation.
But this funeral is different. I don’t feel uplifted. That the man was my age is unusual, but not shocking. Cancer, heart attack, automobile accident. God forbid, suicide. No, what shocks me is that a man of forty has no relatives or friends at his funeral. So there are no comments about the man’s exemplary life, or how he was a loving husband and father. The required prayers are chanted and the casket is sent off to the cemetery. The rabbi leaves with the casket as does Weintraub, while I stand with the other seven men and chat for a few moments, confirming that the deceased, the mysterious Abraham Feldstein, was unknown to anyone in the community.
I begin thinking about who would attend my funeral. My mother, of course, if she was still living. What about my customers, the people who buy debit life insurance policies from me? Surely one or two of them would take the time to pay their respects. My fellow congregants at the synagogue? Some, to be sure. Stern, the druggist, without doubt. But the list isn’t long and this nags at me. I guess everyone wants to believe there will be an overflow crowd at their funeral.
“You’ll be dead,” Stern chides me, after I mention my angst. “You won’t know whether there were a thousand people or two. You don’t have enough to worry about, my friend? Think about the hydrogen bomb, world hunger, something important, not whether some Chaim Yankel is going to show up for your funeral.”
“You’re right,” I say, not convinced.
A few days later, still mulling over the lonely funeral, I get Feldstein’s address from Weintraub and walk over. It’s a yellow brick three-flat. Feldstein’s name is still on the door. I ring and almost instantly the door is buzzing. I walk up the stairs. On the second floor landing I’m met by a small, thin woman.
“Oh,” she says. “I thought you were the movers.”
“Yes. My fiancé died recently and I’m moving some of his things.”
“I was at the funeral, and...”
“Oh, I wanted so much to have been there,” she says. “But I couldn’t go against his dying wish. I’ll bet it was really something.”
“Well, his position in the community. You know. It wouldn’t look good for the president of his synagogue to have a non-Jewish fiancé.”
Feldstein, as far as I know, was not the president of anything. And as for his position in the community, well, he might as well have been wearing Hades’ helmet of invisibility.
“Please come in,” the woman says. “The movers are due shortly. But I need to hear about the funeral. I’m sure it was mobbed. Did they have to turn people away? Doris Shanklin.”
“Herman Cogan,” I say, shaking her hand.
She leads me into a small living room painted powder blue. The smell of fresh paint hangs in the air.
“Abe loved powder blue” she says, acknowledging the smell. “After the doctor told us there was nothing more he could do, after Abe was confined to his bed, I painted the walls and moved his bed in here.”
Now there is no bed, just a brown tufted sofa with claw feet and two dark green upholstered armchairs, one by the window and one near a doorway leading to the kitchen. “Sit.”
I choose the chair by the window, and I sit, knees together, hands folded in my lap. The woman is attractive, shapely. My mother would call her petite. She has moist hazel eyes and a sad, warm smile—a smile that says to me, I’ve seen things.
She sits on the couch and leans forward. “So tell me.”
I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I see truth as an integral part of my faith in God. On the other, to tell Doris, this grieving woman, that the man she was engaged to marry is not the man she thought he was, seems cruel. And I don’t see myself as a cruel man.
“It was a lovely service,” I say at last.
“Yes?” Her tone indicates she expects more.
“The rabbi’s comments were very moving.”
“Tell me what he said. The high points, I mean.”
“You understand, Jewish funeral services are plain vanilla affairs. There are the prayers, etc. Pretty much the same for everyone. Without relatives…”
She stands up, moving past me to the window. “Auschwitz took care of relatives,” she whispers.
A familiar story. Entirely plausible. But if he’d lie to her about being a big macher in the synagogue, he could have lied to her about his family. Such a man can capture the heart of this woman? It seems wrong, unfair. I am alone, while this, this deceiver can convince a woman like Doris to marry him. It’s enough to make you sick. I feel the need to leave.
“I should go,” I say, standing. “I’m glad there’s someone to look after his things.”
She turns to face me. “His prayer shawl. He told me all about it. I would understand if the synagogue wanted to keep it, perhaps put it on display. But I would love to see it, wrap myself in it. If only just once. Is this possible?”
Possible! Is it possible to produce a tallis that doesn’t exist? Is it possible to make a sham into a shaman? “You’ve seen it?”
“No. Of course not. Such a relic—handmade by his great, great grandmother in Poland and worn by the chief rabbi of Warsaw—I understand it needs to remain safely stored at the synagogue. But Abraham described it to me. The finest wool, the heavy gold threads around the collar, the fringes. To wrap myself in it….”
“Jewish law.” I begin to explain the strictures of our faith, when she takes both of my hands in hers and pleads with those large hazel eyes. Her hands are warm, or perhaps mine are cold.
“I’ll check,” I say.
The glass of water and the Alka-Seltzer tablets are waiting for me at Stern’s drug store.
“Plop plop, fizz fizz,” Stern says, pushing the concoction in front of me. “You look worried, Cogan, more than usual.”
“It’s Feldstein. The corpse. He told his shiksa fiancé he was president of the shul, a mover and shaker. And she believed him. I’ve talked with her. Attractive with large hazel eyes that can grab your soul. And her one wish is to wrap herself in Feldstein’s tallis.”
“Sounds like her eyes grabbed more than your soul, my friend. But if all she wants is to wrap herself in a tallis, the shul is full of them. Take one to her.”
“There’s the rub,” I moan, taking a swig of the Alka-Seltzer. “It’s a special tallis. Supposedly hand made by Feldstein’s great, great grandmother and worn by the chief rabbi of Warsaw. He described it to her. In detail.”
“This guy Feldstein was a real nut case,” Stern says.
“He had an active imagination. So do I break her heart or become an accessory to a lie?”
“You have to ask?”
I don’t have to ask. I know exactly what Stern will say: Don’t make her problem your problem. But I also realize I never see things as clearly as Stern.
“You say she described the tallis in great detail?”
I lean back in the green leather armchair in front of the rabbi’s desk and nod. On the wall behind the rabbi are framed certificates—Columbia University, The Jewish Theological Seminary, an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University. There are photos of the rabbi with Mayor Kennelly, with Harry Truman, with Chaim Weizmann!
“What now?” I ask.
“Well, finding such a tallis will be a problem,” the rabbi says. “The woman is in a fragile state. She just lost the man she was to marry. To tell her the truth now may be more than she can handle. But to string her along is only postponing the inevitable.”
“Yes. So?” I try not to sound like I’m pleading.
“Get to know her, Cogan. Take some time. If you think she can handle the truth, that is, of course, the best thing.”
“And if not?”
“If not, well, that is a difficult question.”
The following day, I’m outside the three-flat. I ring the bell, but there is no buzzer to let me in. I wait twenty minutes. An hour. There is no sign of Doris. I’m about to leave when I spot the janitor.
“Feldstein?” I blurt out.
“Dead,” says the janitor.
“Yes, I know. But his fiancé, Doris, I was talking with her yesterday. Here in his apartment.”
“Yes. The blue room. She had no right painting the living room. Strictly against the rules. I warned her. But she’s the kind of person who never listens.”
“The woman. She was here yesterday. We were talking.”
“I see her in the bakery,” he says. “I think she works there.”
I thank the janitor and walk the three blocks to the bakery on Lawrence. There is no sign of Doris. The woman behind the counter seems suspicious of me when I ask.
“We were talking. After the funeral. She asked me to find out something for her.”
“Come back tomorrow afternoon,” the woman says.
The next day, Doris is there, behind the counter. She smiles. “It’s hard to talk here. Can you meet me at six-thirty? Abe’s apartment?”
“Are you sure we should be here?” The place looks different in the evening light. The couch and both of the chairs are gone. The emptiness emphasizes the blueness of the walls. She snaps open two folding chairs.
“The rent’s paid to the end of the month. I have the key. Sit.” We sit facing each other.
“Tell me about my Abe. Was he a good president?”
“One of the best. The best,” I hear myself saying. “A prince among men.”
“And his voice,” she says. “He would chant the Torah portions for me. Here, in this apartment. A voice like an angel. Did he really chant the entire service?”
“Well,” I say, “I think he loved doing it. And we certainly loved listening to him. On the High Holy days, his chanting would make grown men cry. Legendary, is how I’d put it. A real Jan Pierce.” I’m sitting there listening to myself lose control. Why am I saying these fantastic things, feeding her need to believe the lie that was Abraham Feldstein? Is this what the rabbi had in mind?
Doris, for her part, is swooning. She’s looking at me with those wide, wide hazel eyes. The prospect of telling her the truth makes my stomach lurch and my neck itch. “The tallis,” I say, “is kept in the synagogue vault. It’s been years since the last time it was shown.”
Doris nods. She’s like a little girl: trusting, gullible. I have the feeling she’d believe anything I told her.
“It will take time.”
Again she nods.
Stern laughs when I tell him. I knew he would. “So what’s the plan, big shot? Where do you go from here?”
I nod. “I know, I know. But she’s suffered enough. I shouldn’t make it worse.”
“And you’re sure you’re not making it worse, Mr. Psychiatrist?” This is the characteristic I like least about Stern. He dispenses advice like he dispenses prescriptions—from behind the counter. Sometimes I want to yell at him to see things from my side, where things are never so clear.
“Sure?” I say. “In my life sure is in short supply.”
We meet most evenings in the blue room, each on our own folding chair. I tell Doris about the time Feldstein delivered a fiery oratory about the need to support Israel. The congregation stood as one and cheered him for fifteen minutes. “A fifteen minute standing ovation; think of it. And then more money than ever before was donated toward the purchase of an ambulance for Israel. And that ambulance, scurrying around the Western Galilee saving lives, has Abraham Feldstein’s name emblazoned on it.” Where these stories come from, I don’t know. They seem simply to flow out of me, unmediated by reason or veracity.
This is wrong, I tell myself. But then I look at Doris and fabricate new stories.
Doris holds her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my,” she says. Sometimes she giggles with delight. One night, after I tell her about the time Feldstein foiled a robbery at the synagogue, she leans forward and touches my hand.
One evening as we’re opening our folding chairs, I tell her I have bad news. “The insurance company won’t allow the tallis out of the vault. I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.”
Doris tears up, bites her lower lip. “I understand,” she says.
“To them it’s just a business.” “No, no. I understand, Herman. You’ve done all you can.” She leans over and kisses my cheek. A matronly kiss, I think, with no hint of romance attached—no more than a thank you. But coming from the fiancé of someone as important as Abraham Feldstein, it means a lot.