Going to See the Elephant: A Talmed Metumtam Story

The Elephant on Coney Island

The Elephant on Coney Island

Going to See the Elephant [1] *

So big the ocean, thinks Moish, not at all like a bathtub or even a swimming pool. Moish is taking a dip in the waters off Coney Island Beach. A small man he is not. The hot dogs are yelling from the boardwalk; the Wonder Wheel is a rainbow of Bethlehem steel parading through low heaven; tenement children on roller skates, at this very moment, are racing from their homes all over Brooklyn toward the ocean and its accompanying promise of a horizon without end. The fish are practically nibbling at Moish’s feet and it is all he can do not to nibble back.

Moish lifts his eyes to the sky. His eyelids have grown brittle like onion skin in the past years. Once thick and wavy, the hair on his head has come to resemble the beard his grandmother Pesya had worn in her senility. To the adulterers and terrified green-faced boys straddling the sky at Luna Park, the Jewish man, becoming old before his very own eyes, looks like a sickly beaching whale. The irises of the fat one’s eyes are discs of darkness spinning in the blue water’s eternity.

Once, many moons ago, I took a girl here and touched her skirts under cover of darkness. How long ago that was. We both were new to the love game. I breathed hard when she took off my tzitzis. Now, I breathe heard when I take off my tzitzis. How porklike I, a Jewish man who squeals at the sight of a pig, have spread and grown. How life can make a khazzer out of any of us. Moish dreams and dreams as he soaks in the salts of G-d’s greatest puddle. Oy, Miriam Roizenkish, I touched you on the beach when we were twelve. One more year and I was already a man, wearing a black hat, rising early each day to accompany Father to shul. In two years I was saying kaddish for him. Four years after that and I could no longer tell you who was at the top of the baseball standings. What made me so stupid to think that life was more important than playing stickball with my pals? Last ballgame I saw? Cleveland Blues, visiting Uncle Peysakh.

When Moish was nine, he remembers, the sun tickling the back of his neck with its cottony August afternoon-evening fingers, some men began building a mammoth hotel near the beach. When he was ten, it burned down. But for one glorious year Moish would hop on his bicycle and race down the broad streets of Brooklyn—What streets didn’t seem broad then, to a skinny little boy on his sister’s bicycle?—and go see the Elephant. Higher than the tower of Babel, wider than the river Nile, too large to fit into Noah’s ancient cruise ship, the Elephant Hotel rose nearly to G-d’s shoulders, and on the Elephant’s back there was a – – a what? Was it a pagoda? A café up there? A private viewing space for the city’s rich and famous? Did men go up there and pinch their girlfriends’ fannies, showing them the arc of the ocean in the geometry of their short lives?

It lasted a year and then, by the time he was ten and three months the Elephant Hotel was like a bad word, an arsoned fairyland that made his mother’s face go sour as a pickle whenever he mentioned it. Today, Moish can fathom what must have gone on there, but then, in his youth, before anybody had ever lifted up his tzitzis – this is how he divided his life – back then he only felt awe at the structure, and fear of the spirits which must have inhabited it.

The Elephant Hotel. It is only nineteen twenty-three but that seems like so long ago. I am not a man of forty, but I am fat enough to be sixty-five. Still, it is nice to be here, off the coast. Unfindable. I am piggy, I am fat; I am weightless in this water. Nice, so pleasant here. An elephant feels like an ant in the Coney Island Ocean. And the hotel was already ashes when I touched Miriam Roizenkish on her pretty little nose. Yesterday Hymie Cohen told me she was dead.

[1] “Going to See the Elephant” first appeared in the 1927 collection of short stories A Raisin in My Pocket!

 * Built on Coney Island in 1985 and victim of a fire in 1986, the Elephantine Colossus housed a hotel and a concert hall. The expression “going to see the Elephant” became shorthand for visiting a prostitute, as the many nooks and crannies in the structure allowed for discreet relations.

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Zay Gezunt, America (A Talmed Metumtam Story)

Zay Gezunt, America [Be Well, America]

Hershel was born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1913. His parents were Russian immigrants from the Palest of the Pale of Settlement who spoke only Yiddish. Hershel spent seven to nine years mastering basic life skills in kindergarten until one day he came home from school practically tumbling with excitement. He was followed by a wild gang of little children, for his fellow kindergarteners, being much younger than he, clung to him much in the way that extremely well-manicured women cling to extremely well-manicured men. Hershel shook them off with vigor.

His teachers had told him that he could advance to first grade. He was sure to be a doctor.

But when Hershel, or Heshie, as he was called by the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld, walked in the door, he was greeted with a great surprise. His parents had skipped town. His baby sister was sitting in the crib, applesauce all over her mug; his older brother was shooting peanuts out of his nose, aiming straight for the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld who was passing on the street; Heshie’s twin sisters were counting rubber duckies in the bathtub. They’d been roasting in the water for G-d knows how long. When Heshie first walked into the bathroom he mistook them for two giant figs.

“Figs!” cried Heshie. The boy loved figs, and what better could a boy who loved figs imagine than two giant figs floating in a bathtub?

“No, not figs!” cried the girls. “We’re girls! It’s us, Mirrele and Sheynele.”

Heshie ran from the bathtub, horrified by the nakedness of his sisters, embarrassed that he could have mistaken them for one of the seven holy fruits and grains.

The children called a family meeting. Boarded up the windows. Locked the doors. Sent smoke signals out the chimney and loaded tight their pistols. Nobody, not even the town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld, was going to get into the house, the castle, the fortress, the stronghold, the citadel, the redoubt, the bastion…

Two days later Heshie wiped the applesauce from his baby sister’s angelic, swarthy face and, hoisting her on his back, pulled his woolen socks up to his waist. He opened the door. The sky was blue. Pennsylvania was a magnificent place to be in September. The town chazzan that mamzer Hershfeld walked by chomping on an apple like a dumb horse but that didn’t even bother a fly.

Heshie was a first-grader now.

Placing one left foot in front of another, dancing to the dreamy piglets of the alphabet and the fishes of gefilte heaven, the boy put his sister’s hand to his lips. The hand was white, oaky, delicate with a hint of lavender and tobacco. She’d gotten into the wine casks again. There was shmutz beneath the fingernails.

Heshie stuffed his pockets with dirt. It might as well have been gold.

“Zay gezunt, America!”