I was tossed twenty, thirty feet into the air, without, I noticed, my body coming with me. My mortal remains, below, stood a second or two, then dropped like a pile of kicked-over books.
Mourners rushed over, no trace of decorum, blocking my view from above…
…where I hang suspended, high above the plot where, moments ago, I’d been officiating the funeral of Saul Rubinstein.
Now I’ve never felt entirely comfortable around Rubinstein – Rubinstein whose shadow only darkened my shul on High Holidays, and only then to pass his business card around, not that this is so rare, Rubinstein who’d shoot me looks that could slice salmon if I even glanced at his wife (his second, a convert half his age, if that) in passing on the street, Rubinstein who shuffled like a thief in his oversized shoes whenever I went with Lottie to buy a nice dress in his shop – but I’d thought burying him at least would be easy.
It had started fine: in the prayer hall, tears, wailing, everything good. Things done the way they’re always done. It’s not the best part of being a rabbi but I’m told I give a good funeral. “They’re queuing up to be buried by you,” Lottie would tease. “Because you sound like Paul Robeson. If he came from Manchester. Or even…,” and she’d bump her eyebrows up toward the ceiling, once, twice, until I poked her to be more reverent.
After the service, we went out to the graveside, the less steady attendees catching a ride on the back of the groundsman’s buggy. It rattled off between the gravestones, passengers clutching each other, risking death and mutilation. Nevertheless, a beautiful day, rows of wet marble sparkling in the sunshine. There must have been rain in the night.
A few minutes to get to the plot, then wait for the stragglers. This place is always expanding but people won’t stop dying. “I’m glad we didn’t get lost,” I said to the widow. “It wouldn’t have been the first time.” She smiled at me, and wouldn’t look away, and I didn’t want to be rude, so there we were, staring at each other, until finally she said, “You want to carry a sat nav around widya,” in her Irish accent and laughed. It’s actually not such a bad idea.
Everyone finally gathered, I was just about to say some words, my head dipped, the crumbling mouth of the grave in the corner of my vision, when suddenly I heard five loud raps against wood.
And that’s when I seemingly leapt out of my skin.
* * *
I don’t like this.
“I don’t like this!” I cry, no Paul Robeson now. Nobody looks up. Can they not hear me? Or see me? (I’m not a small man.) Is a six foot three rabbi hovering in the air a thing to ignore?
I flap, I flail, to no avail.
Looking down at the mourners crowded around my body, I wonder can they not hear Saul’s banging either? Who knows what sort of mood he must be in, almost choking to death on a fish supper, then waking up to find he’s being buried alive?
And I think I’m having a bad day.
* * *
My mind, as it’s wont to do, begins to fret.
My late wife, Lottie, may her memory be a blessing, I drove crazy from the first day we met with my thoughts and doubts. “What if we’ve been wrong all these centuries?,” I’d ask, four in the morning. “You think Jesus will forgive us?”
“I know,” another time, “The Lord gave us Free Will so we must actively choose the right path, but couldn’t He have at least given us a nicer nature with it?” For four hours in this vein. That one got me banned from drinking coffee after 7 pm.
Our daughter Simone was even worse, all big black eyes and bad nerves from birth. Her night terrors would have her paw the paper off the bedroom wall, that when we could wean her out of our bed and into her own. We’d talk to her, “What are you so frightened of, darling? You’re such a good girl, we love you ‘til our hearts burst” – not a good thing to say, it turns out.
I’d watch “The E.T.” with her, over and over, she loved that one, we must’ve worn the video tape thin, and Lottie would radiate with amusement to see how it wet my face, every time.
Lottie said Simone had an overactive imagination, something she’d outgrow. (“Don’t you worry,” she’d whisper, stroking hair off Simone’s forehead. “Don’t you worry about her,” she’d whisper, doing the same with me, hours later.) Now Simone lives in Tel Aviv, and takes medication against “panic attacks.” She should know the morning Saul and I are having, she thinks she has anything to panic about! Of course, she should never know such a thing. My little girl.
Her husband Yoshi Muginstein is a giant. Even I, at six three, have my face pressed into a wall of chest when he insists on embracing. “Let him be,” Lottie would say when I’d complain. “He’s a warm man, and he makes her feel safe.” Reading my mind: “Most the time.”
I wish he were here now, the giant Yoshi, to reach up and pluck me from the sky.
I wish Lottie were, even more so.
A handsome young man, seeing the waving-around arms and poor Mrs. Rubinstein, the young widow, is sprinting from his service to ours, leaping over headstones, skullcap clutched to his head with his right hand so it doesn’t fly off. The huddle around my body breaks to let him in. I hope he’s a doctor and not just nosey.
* * *
I’m still here.
Though I think I’m managing to slow now, thank HaShem. I was only trying to reach down, wave for attention… The spinning’s made me dizzy. Like a hamster wheel, round and round! Oy gevalt, I hope it stops entirely soon…
This reminds me of the night Lottie and I tried to help Simone with her P.E. phobia. Ha! Never a small-boned creature, she’d come home from primary school sobbing, drained, her face like putty, “Please write me a note that I never have to do P.E. again!” So Lottie and I, and we weren’t young parents, Simone was a late and unexpected blessing, like with Abraham and Sarah, we dragged all the furniture in the living room to one side and we were all three of us practicing forward rolls on the carpet, my legs and feet crashing into the side tables, Lottie toppling sideways, bottom over head. Oh, we ached and hurt afterwards, but for the laughter, it was worth every bruise. What the congregation would have thought to see us, rolling about. We could probably have sold tickets.
* * *
The young grave-hurdler is performing CPR on me. Some of the mourners are getting restless. They see enough medical drama on television. Stray members begin to drift off.
My gaze falls upon a girl in her forties on the edge of the party. Lottie always complained that I had an eye for the ladies, and I cannot, floating above holy ground, deny this girl’s a beauty, her eyes, under her hat, huge and dark like prunes soaking in water. A healthy figure, too, but I’m not dwelling on that, Lottie. I’m noticing that, hand raised against the sun, she’s got her back to everyone else, and is looking around.
Can she see me? Did she spot a foot, dangling down, black polished shoes shining in the sun?
Someone calls, and she turns. She’s walking towards an older couple and the three of them are striding away, to the car park. So maybe not.
Then suddenly she stops and turns again, touches the older woman’s arm… What’s she pointing at?
Quieter from up here but tap, tap, tap…
He’s behind you!, I want to shout. Could I sound more like a pantomime?
Tap, tap, a couple more.
And in the far trees see a tiny woodpecker.
I’m floating in the air, a blimp, because of a farshtinkener woodpecker.
If I wasn’t probably already dead, I’d die of shame.
* * *
A short time later, and Mrs. Rubinstein’s hugging the young man. Men are hugging him. They’re queuing up now to hug him, to pat his shoulders, bank notes are being stuffed in his top pocket to his protests.
All the while, I’m drifting down, slow as tree fluff airborne on a hot summer’s day. My face is a few feet below me, the eyes still closed but there’s colour in my cheeks, egg yolk in my beard. Why didn’t I notice that before leaving home? The least of my problems.
Not too decrepit looking, from a certain distance. Would you still take a dance with me, Lottie?
Before I even get there, my old dry lips start to part in a smile.
Nick Black manages two small public libraries in North London. His writing has been published in lit mags including FlashBack Fiction, Entropy, Jellyfish Review, (b)OINKzine, the Lonely Crowd, Open Pen, Train Lit Mag, and Funhouse, He tweets about things he likes as @fuzzynick.
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brilliant should be published in the Jewish Chronicle