The goddamn subway took so long getting up to Penn Station that I ended up missing my usual late train, the 8:06 local to Babylon, stopping at Woodhaven and Jamaica and everywhere in between. You know, one that still had a bar car. Im more pissed off than usual; its bad enough that I had to come in on a Saturday to catch up. But now, Ive gotta wait. Even though many others have the grand illusion, in this miniature underground city of one thousand and one delights, that theres a lot that to do to fill up the time, all I really want to do is to get on the damn train and buy a beer and catch a nap and get off at Lindenhurst and get into my ten-year old car and drive home to my one-bedroom apartment and sit down to a decent dinneryeah, if you call frozen ravioli nuked in the microwave decentand then, finally, Ill be able to unwind from a crappy day in an empty office with the boss, sitting on his fat ass in his big Connecticut home, calling in, like clockwork, every hour on the goddamn hour. Another hour on a Saturday night to kill. Damn it all. Damn it to Hell! The dingy waiting room across from the LIRR gates, as always, is a joke. Hard plastic seats packed close together. A few down- and-outers milling around, trying not to attract attention. And the fat old lady with the shopping bags. Why do the cops let her sit there? Shes got to be just about the worst, with the open sores on her legs, splayed for all to see, with that obscene wizened face and the rictus smile, and just looking at her, you could almost hear and see the unimaginably bizarre thoughts and delusions running through what is left of her mind. How can these dregs live this way? But heyat least theyre home. Yeah, thats funny! At least theyre home, and I wont be for another two hours or so. If the trains on time. So I slowly walk around to kill time and I feel way out of synch with the crowds scurrying around and hurrying past me. I look into the discount book store and I know it has the same stuff as always. Im even too tired to walk in and give the books a second or third or hundredth glance. I also realize that Im too worn out to get a hard-on over those lovely young secretaries, assistant bookkeepers and buyers whove also wasted a Saturday, now on their way home to their boyfriends and husbands and starter apartments in the suburbs. Oh well its their tough luck that they wont have me to make them happy tonight. So I decide to take the elevator up to the main waiting room and sit around for a while. Anythings better than sticking around in this rushing river of people on their way to somewhere else. I sit down on the well-worn wooden bench and place my attache next to me on the bench. Im city smart enoughor paranoid enoughits all in the point of view, I guessto keep my hand firmly on the case. I close my eyes and I try to shut out the random noises and the flashes of unpleasant memoriesmy crappy job, the two failed marriages, a couple of empty love affairsthat bubble up so sourly from my kishkesmy intestinesfrom way down deep inside. Then like a wink, like a light switch just between on and off, there comes the heavy-headedness that is so welcome and comforting, like when a Valium first starts to take effect, and the noises fade down to a dull hum and then, almost silence. My eyes begin to feel even heavier and my head sinks down to my chest. I awaken with a start, sensing a presenceand at the same time smelling the acrid body odor that took me up and out of a dream about something that made me feel good really good, if you know what I meana presence of someone standing directly in front of mesomeone whos much too close. Before I react, a con mans voice with a kidding, childlike lilt says to me, I betcha cant guess what I got in this bag. The words come at me like a challenge, a tease, a public schoolyard lunchtime dare. My eyes focus in on a brown leather pocketbook-sized bag which has been thrust right in my face, almost touching my nose. Stained and discolored, it has a leather lace for a drawstring, with an almost profanely pregnant quality about it, as if something were pulsating wickedly inside. Cmon, guess, the voice now demands. You really wanna know what I got. I force myself to stop reacting for a momenta mental pause, a momentary time outand then I say, What the hell do you want from me? For I suddenly realize that I dont exactly feel threatenedreally, I dontbut, rather, very aggravated about being awakened and bothered by this guy, whos got be some kind of freak, and whos right inside my space. Maybe just another New York City homegrown asshole. I look up, away from the bag did it just throb?no it couldnt have and Im staring directly into the piercing gray eyes of a short, pasty-faced guy with a long white unkempt beardJesus, I cant believe ita Hasid, no lesswearing the obligatory long black coat and black hat. He couldve been fifty or he couldve been eightythey all look the same to mebut its hard to tell because the bearded face is almost devoid of color and identifying features, except for the deep wrinkles on his forehead. His eyes avert my stare for just a second, and then they regain their hold on me. A brief smile shows that maybejust maybehes kidding around, but his eyes retain their intensity as he says, now with a discernible Yiddish accentwhy hadnt I heard it before?Cmon give me a guess. I relax just a bit. I wouldve said, Its your nuts or something equally as New York friendly, except that this personwell, you know about the Hasidim being all serious and all thatjust like priestsand maybe closer to God than the rest of usexcept that this old man standing before me might have been offended, or even worse. As if I shouldve cared. So I say, with only slightly more patience, How the hell should I know? Just one guess, he whines. You gotta give me a guess. Its part of the game. This guy has really crossed over the edge. What are they teaching them in basement rooms of the shtiebels, in the back rooms illuminated by dim light bulbs and gray sunlight through grimy windows, while they sit hunched over the holy books, reading and studying, arguing and davening? And I immediately flash back, remembering the pictures on my grandmothers calendars from the Home of the Sages of Israel. I quickly glance at my watch and realize Ive just missed the 9:06 and at this hour theyre running every hour or sowith no expresses, goddamn itand I have more time to waste. So I decide to go alongwhat do I have to lose?and I try to think of some funny response. I blurt out, Its my grandmothers heart, which is the first stupid thing that comes to mind. It might have been a bit offensive to him, but what the hell. Nope, youre wrong, he responds expressionlessly, with that annoying accent, with no humor whatsoevernot even an inkling that I might have been fooling around. You want another guess? he asks, almost like a threat. No, I dont I say, matching his intonation quite by accident. Why dont you just go away now and leave me alonesomething I should have said right at the beginning. But he ignores me. Still standing over me, but then having backed away just a few inches to give me a little room, he says, Okay, Ill give you a clue. With a subtle beckoning hand motion, he makes me want to look inside the bag, and he starts to untie and loosen the drawstring. Im almost absolutely sure that the bag quivered. He slowly licks his lips, clears his throat, lowers his voice and he begins, secretively and almost whisper-like, to chant the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, a prayer that even the least devout Jew would recognize. Nervously, I glance around to see if anyone is watching, but everyone nearby is engrossed in something else. Nobody is even watching this one-act play of deranged urban drama. The bag flutters faintly in his grasp as he entices me to peer more closely into the ever so tiny opening. Im sitting mesmerized and transfixed and then I look into the bag and I dont see anything at first. The chanting of the Hebrew words continues. But wait a minute, inside therestheres something dark and amorphous and a slimy roundness. Theres also the stench of cheap wet leather. Then from inside emanates a welcome warmth and the harsh sting of rejection. Theres a dryness in my throatI try to swallow and theres the very palpable throbbing of my heart beating in my chest. My head starts to throb. Inside it, as if from outsidebut I know all too well that it is from withincome red-hot explosions of mortal desperation, of terrors so well-hidden that just the acknowledgment that they are from within makes me shiver, exposing me entirely, rendering me naked and hopeless, without any possibility of covering my inner eyes to the blackest, the foulest, the most despicable infestations of the human soul. I feel like Ive been struck, like Ive been stricken. I cringe and I shudder and I scream without sound. And then suddenly and mercifully it stops. The bright light, the everyday sounds of passing humanity, the muted conversations of people around us, the announcement of the boarding of a Metroliner to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., all at once register into my consciousness. I feel myself covered with sweat; Im gasping for air. Im hot and Im cold and Im paralyzed and Im completely overwhelmed. I realize with horror hes still there, standing in front of me. And then, yet again, the taunting, Wanna take another look? The bag is thrust right under my face. He opens it fully now, stretching wide the opening with vengeance and spitefulness. I cantIm unable toturn away. I can sense without seeing the sneer on this demonsthisits gotta be!this dybbuks mocking face. But I dare not look up again. My mortal dreads, the hauntings of my mind, the depths of my trepidations, are released to spew forth, like a festering abscess thats just been lanced. The bag becomes the receptacle of my primordial anguish and the excretions of my soul. I cant resist being drawn in. The drumming in my temples becomes excruciating. Beads of sweat run unavoidably down my forehead and into my eyes. I feel like Im going to faint; light-headedness saps me of my resolve. Theres no way out. Theres no returning. Theres no From far away, from over the hours and the years and the aeons and the ages, I hear the teasing whiny voice with the Yiddish accent saying, with just a hint of a chuckle, What I have here in my bag is your soul. And then the sound of the snapping of the leather drawstrings. I barely hear his one last muffled triumphant word: Gotcha And then nothingness.
* * * * * * *
The bag lady in the dirty coat sat on the floor in the corner, laughing with uncontrollable mirth, gaps in her front teeth, as the emergency medical technicians failed to revive the unconscious man slumped over on the wooden bench. She laughed even harder when his body was unceremoniously dumped on the stretcher, when his body and face were covered with a sheet, when the body was strapped to the gurney, and when the gurney was wheeled away to be packed up inside the ambulance waiting outside. On the rain-slick streets en route to the city morgue, the driver reached up to flick a switch so that the lights of the ambulance were no longer flashing.
November 26, 1984 with last major revision, February 24, 1998 Copyright © 1998, Lloyd B. Abrams