The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University. Finkle, after six years of study, was to be ordained in June and had been advised by an acquaintance that he might find it easier to win himself a congregation if he were married. Since he had no present prospects of marriage, after two tormented days of turning it over in his mind, he called in Pinye Salzman, a marriage broker whose two-line advertisement he had read in the Forward.
The matchmaker appeared one night out of the dark fourth-floor hallway of the graystone rooming house where Finkle lived, grasping a black, strapped portfolio that had been worn thin with use. Salzman, who had been long in the business, was of slight but dignified build, wearing an old hat, and an overcoat too short and tight for him. He smelled frankly of fish, which he loved to eat, and although he was missing a few teeth, his presence was not displeasing, because of an amiable manner curiously contrasted with mournful eyes. His voice, his lips, his wisp of beard, his bony fingers were animated, but give him a moment of repose and his mild blue eyes revealed a depth of sadness, a characteristic that put Leo a little at ease although the situation, for him, was inherently tense.
He at once informed Salzman why he had asked him to come, explaining that his home was in Cleveland, and that but for his parents, who had married comparatively late in life, he was alone in the world. He had for six years devoted himself almost entirely to his studies, as a result of which, understandably, he had found himself without time for a social life and the company of young women. Therefore he thought it the better part of trial and error–of embarrassing fumbling–to call in an experienced person to advise him on these matters. He remarked in passing that the function of the marriage broker was ancient and honorable, highly approved in the Jewish community, because it made practical the necessary without hindering joy. Moreover, his own parents had been brought together by a matchmaker. They had made, if not a financially profitable marriage–since neither had possessed any worldly goods to speak of–at least a successful one in the sense of their everlasting devotion to each other. Salzman listened in embarrassed surprise, sensing a sort of apology. Later, however, he experienced a glow of pride in his work, an emotion that had left him years ago, and he heartily approved of Finkle.
The two went to their business. Leo had led Salzman to the only clear place in the room, a table near a window that overlooked the lamp-lit city. He seated himself at the matchmaker’s side but facing him, attempting by an act of will to suppress the unpleasant tickle in his throat. Salzman eagerly unstrapped his portfolio and removed a loose rubber band from a thin packet of much- handled cards. As he flipped through them, a gesture and sound that physically hurt Leo, the student pretended not to see and gazed steadfastly out the window. Although it was still February, winter was on its last legs, signs of which he had for the first time in years begun to notice. He now observed the round white moon, moving high in the sky through a cloud menagerie, and watched with half-open mouth as it penetrated a huge hen, and dropped out of her like an egg laying itself. Salzman, though pretending through eye-glasses he had just slipped on, to be engaged in scanning the writing on the cards, stole occasional glances at the young man’s distinguished face, noting with pleasure the long, severe scholar’s nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain, almost hollow quality of the dark cheeks. He gazed around at shelves upon
shelves of books and let out a soft, contented sigh.
When Leo’s eyes fell upon the cards, he counted six spread out in Salzman’s hand.
“So few?” he asked in disappointment.
“You wouldn’t believe me how much cards I got in my office,” Salzman replied. “The drawers are already filled to the top, so I keep them now in a barrel, but is every girl good for a new rabbi?”
Leo blushed at this, regretting all he had revealed of himself in a curriculum vitae he had sent to Salzman. He had thought it best to acquaint him with his strict standards and specifications, but in having done so, felt he had told the marriage broker more than was absolutely necessary.
He hesitantly inquired, “Do you keep photographs of your clients on file?”
“First comes family, amount of dowry, also what kind of promises,” Salzman replied, unbuttoning his tight coat and settling himself in the chair. “After comes pictures, rabbi.”
“Call me Mr. Finkle. I’m not yet a rabbi.”
Salzman said he would, but instead called him doctor, which he changed to rabbi when Leo was not listening too attentively.
Salzman adjusted his horn-rimmed spectacles, gently cleared his throat and read in an eager voice the contents of the top card:
“Sophie P. Twenty-four years. Widow one year. No children. Educated high school and two years college. Father promises eight thousand dollars. Has wonderful wholesale business. Also real estate. On the mother’s side comes teachers, also one actor. Well known on Second Avenue.”
Leo gazed up in surprise. “Did you say a widow?”
“A widow don’t mean spoiled, rabbi. She lived with her husband maybe four months. He was a sick boy she made a mistake to marry him.”
“Marrying a widow has never entered my mind.”
“This is because you have no experience. A widow, especially if she is young and healthy like this girl, is a wonderful person to marry. She will be thankful to you the rest of her life. Believe me, if I was looking now for a bride, I would marry a widow.”
Leo reflected, then shook his head.
Salzman hunched his shoulders in an almost imperceptible gesture of disappointment. He placed the card down on the wooden table and began to read another:
“Lily H. High school teacher. Regular. Not a substitute. Has savings and new Dodge car. Lived in Paris one year. Father is successful dentist thirty-five years. Interested in professional man. Well Americanized family. Wonderful opportunity.”
“I knew her personally,” said Salzman. “I wish you could see this girl. She is a doll. Also very 2
intelligent. All day you could talk to her about books and theyater and what not. She also knows current events.”
“I don’t believe you mentioned her age?”
“Her age?” Salzman said, raising his brows. “Her age is thirty-two years.”
“Leo said after a while, “I’m afraid that seems a little too old.
Salzman let out a laugh. “So how old are you, rabbi?” “Twenty-
“So what is the difference, tell me, between twenty-seven and thirty-two? My own wife is seven years older than me. So what did I suffer?–Nothing. If Rothschild’s daughter wants to marry you, would you say on account her age, no?”
“Yes,” Leo said dryly.
Salzman shook off the no in the eyes. “Five years don’t mean a thing. I give you my word that when you will live with her for one week you will forget her age. What does it mean five years–that she lived more and knows more than somebody who is younger? On this girl, God bless her, years are not wasted. Each one that it comes makes better the bargain.”
“What subject does she teach in high school?”
“Languages. If you heard the way she speaks French, you will think it is music. I am in the business twenty-five years, and I recommend her with my whole heart. Believe me, I know what I’m talking, rabbi.”
“What’s on the next card?” Leo said abruptly.
Salzman reluctantly turned up the third card:
“Ruth K. Nineteen years. Honor student. Father offers thirteen thousand cash to the right bridegroom. He is a medical doctor. Stomach specialist with marvelous practice. Brother in law owns garment business. Particular people.”
Salzman looked as if he had read his trump card.
“Did you say nineteen?” Leo asked with interest.
“On the dot.”
“Is she attractive?” He blushed. “Pretty?”
Salzman kissed his finger tips. “A little doll. On this I give you my word. Let me call the father tonight and you will see what means pretty.”
But Leo was troubled. “You’re sure she’s that young?”
“This I am positive. The father will show you the birth certificate.”
“Are you positive there isn’t something wrong with her?” Leo insisted.
“Who says there is wrong?”
“I don’t understand why an American girl her age should go to a marriage broker.”
A smile spread over Salzman’s face.
“So for the same reason you went, she comes.”
Leo flushed. “I am passed for time.”
Salzman, realizing he had been tactless, quickly explained. “The father came, not her. He wants she should have the best, so he looks around himself. When we will locate the right boy he will introduce him and encourage. This makes a better marriage than if a young girl without experience takes for herself. I don’t have to tell you this.”
“But don’t you think this young girl believes in love?” Leo spoke uneasily.
Salzman was about was about to guffaw but caught himself and said soberly, “Love comes with
the right person, not before.”
Leo parted dry lips but did not speak. Noticing that Salzman had snatched a glance at the next card, he cleverly asked, “How is her health?”
“Perfect,” Salzman said, breathing with difficulty. “Of course, she is a little lame on her right foot
from an auto accident that it happened to her when she was twelve years, but nobody notices on account she is so brilliant and also beautiful.”
Leo got up heavily and went to the window. He felt curiously bitter and upbraided himself for
having called in the marriage broker. Finally, he shook his head.
“Why not?” Salzman persisted, the pitch of his voice rising.
“Because I detest stomach specialists.”
“So what do you care what is his business? After you marry her do you need him? Who says he must come every Friday night in your house?”
Ashamed of the way the talk was going, Leo dismissed Salzman, who went home with heavy,
Though he had felt only relief at the marriage broker’s departure, Leo was in low spirits the next day. He explained it as rising from Salzman’s failure to produce a suitable bride for him. He did not care for his type of clientele. But when Leo found himself hesitating whether to seek out another matchmaker, one more polished than Pinye, he wondered if it could be–protestations to the contrary, and although he honored his father and mother–that he did not, in essence, care for the matchmaking institution? This thought he quickly put out of mind yet found himself still upset. All day he ran around the woods–missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry,
walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand; had even not recognized his landlady in the street when she passed with a friend and courteously called out, “A good evening to you, Doctor Finkle.” By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts.
Almost at once there came a knock on the door. Before Leo could say enter, Salzman,
commercial cupid, was standing in the room. His face was gray and meager, his expression hungry, and he looked as if he would expire on his feet. Yet the marriage broker managed, by some trick of the muscles to display a broad smile.
“So good evening. I am invited?”
Leo nodded, disturbed to see him again, yet unwilling to ask the man to leave.
Beaming still, Salzman laid his portfolio on the table. “Rabbi, I got for you tonight good news.”
“I’ve asked you not to call me rabbi. I’m still a student.”
“Your worries are finished. I have for you a first-class bride.”
“Leave me in peace concerning this subject.” Leo pretended lack of interest.
“The world will dance at your wedding.”
“Please, Mr. Salzman, no more.”
“But first must come back my strength,” Salzman said weakly. He fumbled with the portfolio straps and took out of the leather case an oily paper bag, from which he extracted a hard, seeded roll and a small, smoked white fish. With a quick emotion of his hand he stripped the fish out of its skin and began ravenously to chew. “All day in a rush,” he muttered.
Leo watched him eat.
“A sliced tomato you have maybe?” Salzman hesitantly inquired.
The marriage broker shut his eyes and ate. When he had finished he carefully cleaned up the crumbs and rolled up the remains of the fish, in the paper bag. His spectacled eyes roamed the room until he discovered, amid some piles of books, a one-burner gas stove. Lifting his hat he humbly asked, “A glass of tea you got, rabbi?”
Conscience-stricken, Leo rose and brewed the tea. He served it with a chunk of lemon and two
cubes of lump sugar, delighting Salzman.
After he had drunk his tea, Salzman’s strength and good spirits were restored.
“So tell me rabbi,” he said amiably, “you considered some more the three clients I mentioned yesterday?”
“There was no need to consider.”
“None of them suits me.”
“What then suits you?”
Leo let it pass because he could give only a confused answer.
Without waiting for a reply, Salzman asked, “You remember this girl I talked to you–the high school teacher?”
But surprisingly, Salzman’s face lit in a smile. “Age twenty-nine.”
Leo shot him a look. “Reduced from thirty-two?”
“A mistake,” Salzman avowed. “I talked today with the dentist. He took me to his safety deposit box and showed me the birth certificate. She was twenty-nine years last August. They made her a party in the mountains where she went for her vacation. When her father spoke to me the first time I forgot to write the age and I told you thirty-two, but now I remember this was a different client, a widow.”
“The same one you told me about? I thought she was twenty-four?”
“A different. Am I responsible that the world is filled with widows?”
“No, but I’m not interested in them, nor for that matter, in school teachers.”
Salzman pulled his clasped hand to his breast. Looking at the ceiling he devoutly exclaimed, “Yiddishe kinder, what can I say to somebody that he is not interested in high school teachers? So what then you are interested?”
Leo flushed but controlled himself.
“In what else will you be interested,” Salzman went on, “if you not interested in this fine girl that
she speaks four languages and has personally in the bank ten thousand dollars? Also her father guarantees further twelve thousand. Also she has a new car, wonderful clothes, talks on all subjects, and she will give you a first-class home and children. How near do we come in our life to paradise?”
If she’s so wonderful, why wasn’t she married ten years ago?”
“Why?” said Salzman with a heavy laugh. “–Why? Because she is partikiler. This is why. She
wants the best.”
Leo was silent, amused at how he had entangled himself. But Salzman had arouse his interest in Lily H., and he began seriously to consider calling on her. When the marriage broker observed how intently Leo’s mind was at work on the facts he had supplied, he felt certain they would soon come to an agreement.
Late Saturday afternoon, conscious of Salzman, Leo Finkle walked with Lily Hirschorn along Riverside Drive. He walked briskly and erectly, wearing with distinction the black fedora he had that morning taken with trepidation out of the dusty hat box on his closet shelf, and the heavy black Saturday coat he had throughly whisked clean. Leo also owned a walking stick, a present from a distant relative, but quickly put temptation aside and did not use it. Lily, petite and not unpretty, had on something signifying the approach of spring. She was au courant, animatedly, with all sorts of subjects, and he weighed her words and found her surprisingly sound–score another for Salzman, whom he uneasily sensed to be somewhere around, hiding perhaps high in a tree along the street, flashing the lady signals with a pocket mirror; or perhaps a cloven-hoofed Pan, piping nuptial ditties as he danced his invisible way before them, strewing wild buds on the walk and purple grapes in their path, symbolizing fruit of a union, though there was of course still none.
Lily startled Leo by remarking, “I was thinking of Mr. Salzman, a curious figure, wouldn’t you say?”
Not certain what to answer, he nodded.
She bravely went on, blushing, “I for one am grateful for his introducing us. Aren’t you?”
He courteously replied, “I am.”
“I mean,” she said with a little laugh–and it was all in good taste, to at least gave the effect of being not in bad–“do you mind that we came together so?”
He was not displeased with her honesty, recognizing that she meant to set the relationship
aright, and understanding that it took a certain amount of experience in life, and courage, to want to do it quite that way. One had to have some sort of past to make that kind of beginning.
He said that he did not mind. Salzman’s function was traditional and honorable–valuable for what
it might achieve, which, he pointed out, was frequently nothing.
Lily agreed with a sigh. They walked on for a while and she said after a long silence, again with a nervous laugh, “Would you mind if I asked you something a little bit personal? Frankly, I find the subject fascinating.” Although Leo shrugged, she went on half embarrassedly, “How was it that you came to your calling? I mean was it a sudden passionate inspiration?”
Leo, after a time, slowly replied, “I was always interested in the Law.”
“You saw revealed in it the presence of the Highest?”
He nodded and changed the subject. “I understand that you spent a little time in Paris, Miss Hirschorn?”
“Oh, did Mr. Salzman tell you, Rabbi Finkle?” Leo winced but she went on, “It was ages ago and
almost forgotten. I remember I had to return for my sister’s wedding.”
And Lily would not be put off. “When,” she asked in a trembly voice, “did you become enamored of God?”
He stared at her. Then it came to him that she was talking not about Leo Finkle, but of a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that Salzman had dreamed up for her–no relation to the living or dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness. The trickster had obviously sold her a bill of goods, just as he had him, who’d expected to become acquainted with a young lady of twenty-nine, only to behold, the moment he laid eyes upon her strained and anxious face, a woman past thirty-five and aging rapidly. Only his self control had kept him this long in her presence.
“I am not,” he said gravely, “a talented religious person.” and in seeking words to go on, found
himself possessed by shame and fear. “I think,” he said in a strained manner, “that I came to God not because I love Him, but because I did not.”
This confession he spoke harshly because its unexpectedness shook him.
Lily wilted. Leo saw a profusion of loaves of bread go flying like ducks high over his head, not
unlike the winged loaves by which he had counted himself to sleep last night. Mercifully, then, it snowed, which he would not put past Salzman’s machinations.
He was infuriated with the marriage broker and swore he would throw him out of the room the minute he reappeared. But Salzman did not come that night, and when Leo’s anger had subsided, an unaccountable despair grew in its place. At first he thought this was caused by his disappointment in Lily, but before long it became evident that he had involved himself with Salzman without a true knowledge of his own intent. He gradually realized–with an emptiness that seized him with six hands–that he had called in the broker to find him a bride because he was incapable of doing it himself. This terrifying insight he had derived as a result of his meeting and conversation with Lily Hirschorn. Her probing questions had somehow irritated him into revealing –to himself more than her–the true nature of his relationship to God, and from that it had come upon him, with shocking force, that apart from his parents, he had never loved anyone. Or perhaps it went the other way, that he did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man. It seemed to Leo that his whole life stood starkly revealed and he saw himself for the first time as he truly was–unloved and loveless. This bitter but somehow not fully unexpected revelation brought him to a point to panic, controlled only by extraordinary effort. He covered his face with his hands and cried.
The week that followed was the worst of his life. He did not eat and lost weight. His beard
darkened and grew ragged. He stopped attending seminars and almost never opened a book. He seriously considered leaving the Yeshiva, although he was deeply troubled at the thought of the loss of all his years of study–saw them like pages torn from a book, strewn over the city–and at the devastating effect of this decision upon his parents. But he had lived without knowledge of himself, and never in the Five Books and all the Commentaries–mea culpa–had the truth been revealed to him. He did not know where to turn, and in all this desolating loneliness there was no to whom, although he often thought of Lily but not once could bring himself to go downstairs and make the call. He became touchy and irritable, especially with his landlady, who asked him all manner of personal questions; on the other hand sensing his own disagreeableness, he waylaid her on the stairs and apologized abjectly, until mortified, she ran from him. Out of this, however, he drew the consolation that he was a Jew and that a Jew suffered. But generally, as the long and terrible week drew to a close, he regained his composure and some idea of purpose in life to go on as planned. Although he was imperfect, the ideal was not. As for his quest of a bride, the thought of continuing afflicted him with anxiety and heartburn, yet perhaps with this new knowledge of himself he would be more successful than in the past. Perhaps love would now come to him and a bride to that love.
And for this sanctified seeking who needed a Salzman?
The marriage broker, a skeleton with haunted eyes, returned that very night. He looked, withal, the picture of frustrated expectancy–as if he had steadfastly waited the week at Miss Lily Hirschorn’s side for a telephone call that never came.
Casually coughing, Salzman came immediately to the point: “So how did you like her?”
Leo’s anger rose and he could not refrain from chiding the matchmaker: “Why did you lie to me,
Salzman’s pale face went dead white, the world had snowed on him.
“Did you not state that she was twenty-nine?’ Leo insisted.
“I give you my word–“
“She was thirty-five, if a day. At least thirty-five.”
“Of this don’t be too sure. Her father told me–“
“Never mind. The worst of it was that you lied to her.”
“How did I lie to her, tell me?”
“You told her things abut me that weren’t true. You made out to be more, consequently less than I am. She had in mind a totally different person, a sort of semi-mystical Wonder Rabbi.”
“All I said, you was a religious man.”
“I can imagine.”
Salzman sighed. “This is my weakness that I have,” he confessed. “My wife says to me I shouldn’t be a salesman, but when I have two fine people that they would be wonderful to be married, I am so happy that I talk too much.” He smiled wanly. “This is why Salzman is a poor man.”
Leo’s anger left him. “Well, Salzman, I’m afraid that’s all.”
The marriage broker fastened hungry eyes on him.
“You don’t want any more a bride?”
“I do,” said Leo, “but I have decided to seek her in a different way. I am no longer interested in an arranged marriage. To be frank, I now admit the necessity of premarital love. That is, I want to be in love with the one I marry.”
“Love?” said Salzman, astounded. After a moment he remarked “For us, our love is our life, not
for the ladies. In the ghetto they–“
“I know, I know,” said Leo. “I’ve thought of it often. Love, I have said to myself, should be a by- product of living and worship rather than its own end. Yet for myself I find it necessary to establish
the level of my need and fulfill it.”
Salzman shrugged but answered, “Listen, rabbi, if you want love, this I can find for you also. I have such beautiful clients that you will love them the minute your eyes will see them.”
Leo smiled unhappily. “I’m afraid you don’t understand.”
But Salzman hastily unstrapped his portfolio and withdrew a manila packet from it.
“Pictures,” he said, quickly laying the envelope on the table.
Leo called after him to take the pictures away, but as if on the wings of the wind, Salzman had disappeared.
March came. Leo had returned to his regular routine. Although he felt not quite himself yet–
lacked energy–he was making plans for a more active social life. Of course it would cost something, but he was an expert in cutting corners; and when there were no corners left he would make circles rounder. All the while Salzman’s pictures had lain on the table, gathering dust. Occasionally as Leo sat studying, or enjoying a cup of tea, his eyes fell on the manila envelope, but he never opened it.
The days went by and no social life to speak of developed with a member of the opposite sex–it
was difficult, given the circumstances of his situation. One morning Leo toiled up the stairs to his room and stared out the window at the city. Although the day was bright his view of it was dark. For some time he watched the people in the street below hurrying along and then turned with a heavy heart to his little room. On the table was the packet. With a sudden relentless gesture he tore it open. For a half-hour he stood by the table in a state of excitement, examining the photographs of the ladies Salzman had included. Finally, with a deep sigh he put them down. There were six, of varying degree of attractiveness, but look at them along enough and they all became Lily Hirschorn: all past their prime, all starved behind bright smiles, not a true personality in the lot. Life, despite their frantic yoohooings, had passed them by; they were pictures in a brief case that stank of fish. After a while, however, as Leo attempted to return the photographs into the envelope, he found in it another, a snapshot of the type taken by a machine for a quarter. He gazed at it a moment and let out a cry.
Her face deeply moved him. Why, he could at first not say. It gave him the impression of youth–
spring flowers, yet age–a sense of having been used to the bone, wasted; this came from the eyes, which were hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange. He had a vivid impression that he had met her before, but try as he might he could not place her although he could almost recall her name, as he had read it in her own handwriting. No, this couldn’t be; he would have remembered her. It was not, he affirmed, that she had an extraordinary beauty–no, though her face was attractive enough; it was that something about her moved him. Feature for feature, even some of the ladies of the photographs could do better; but she lapsed forth to this heart–had lived, or wanted to–more than just wanted, perhaps regretted how she had lived–had somehow deeply suffered: it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes, and from the way the light enclosed and shone from her, and within her, opening realms of possibility: this was her own. Her he desired. His head ached and eyes narrowed with the intensity of his gazing, then as if an obscure fog had blown up in the mind, he experienced fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil. He shuddered, saying softly, it is thus with us all. Leo brewed some tea in a small pot and sat sipping it without sugar, to calm himself. But before he had finished drinking, again with excitement he examined the face and found it good: good for Leo Finkle. Only such a one could understand him and help him seek whatever he was seeking. She might, perhaps, love him. How she had happened
to be among the discards in Salzman’s barrel he could never guess, but he knew he must urgently go find her.
Leo rushed downstairs, grabbed up the Bronx telephone book, and searched for Salzman’s home
address. He was not listed, nor was his office. Neither was he in the Manhattan book. But Leo remembered having written down the address on a slip of paper after he had read Salzman’s advertisement in the “personals” column of the Forward. He ran up to his room and tore through his papers, without luck. It was exasperating. Just when he needed the matchmaker he was nowhere to be found. Fortunately Leo remembered to look in his wallet. There on a card he found his name written and a Bronx address. No phone number was listed, the reason–Leo now recalled–
he had originally communicated with Salzman by letter. He got on his coat, put a hat on over his skull cap and hurried to the subway station. All the way to the far end of the Bronx he sat on the edge of his seat. He was more than once tempted to take out the picture and see if the girl’s face was as he remembered it, but he refrained, allowing the snapshot to remain in his inside coat pocket, content to have her so close. When the train pulled into the station he was waiting at the door and bolted out. He quickly located the street Salzman had advertised.
The building he sought was less than a block from the subway, but it was not an office building,
nor even a loft, nor a store in which one could rent office space. It was a very old tenement house. Leo found Salzman’s name in pencil on a soiled tag under the bell and climbed three dark flights to his apartment. When he knocked, the door was opened by a think, asthmatic, gray-haired woman in felt slippers.
“Yes?” she said, expecting nothing. She listened without listening. He could have sworn he had
seen her, too, before but knew it was an illusion.
“Salzman–does he live here? Pinye Salzman,” he said, “the matchmaker?”
She stared at him a long minute. “Of course.”
He felt embarrassed. “Is he in?”
“No.” Her mouth, thought left open, offered nothing more.
“The matter is urgent. Can you tell me where his office is?”
“In the air.” She pointed upward.
“You mean he has no office?” Leo asked.
“In his socks.”
He peered into the apartment. It was sunless and dingy, one large room divided by a half-open curtain, beyond which he could see a sagging metal bed. The near side of the room was crowded with rickety chairs, old bureaus, a three-legged table, racks of cooking utensils, and all the apparatus of a kitchen. But there was no sign of Salzman or his magic barrel, probably also a figment of the imagination. An odor of frying fish made weak to the knees.
“Where is he?” he insisted. “I’ve got to see your husband.”
At length she answered, “So who knows where he is? Every time he thinks a new thought he
runs to a different place. Go home, he will find you.”
“Tell him Leo Finkle.”
She gave no sign she had heard.
He walked downstairs, depressed.
But Salzman, breathless, stood waiting at his door.
Leo was astounded and overjoyed. “How did you get here before me?”
They entered. Leo fixed tea, and a sardine sandwich for Salzman. As they were drinking he reached behind him for the packet of pictures and handed them to the marriage broker.
Salzman put down his glass and said expectantly, “You found somebody you like?”
“Not among these.”
The marriage broker turned away.
“Here is the one I want.” Leo held forth the snapshot.
Salzman slipped on his glasses and took the picture into his trembling hand. He turned ghastly and let out a groan.
“What’s the matter?” cried Leo.
“Excuse me. Was an accident this picture. She isn’t for you?”
Salzman frantically shoved the manila packet into his portfolio. He thrust the snapshot into his
pocket and fled down the stairs.
Leo, after momentary paralysis, gave chase and cornered the marriage broker in the vestibule. The landlady made hysterical out cries but neither of them listened.
“Give me back the picture, Salzman.”
“No.” The pain in his eyes was terrible.
“Tell me who she is then.”
“This I can’t tell you. Excuse me.”
He made to depart, but Leo, forgetting himself, seized the matchmaker by his tight coat and shook him frenziedly.
“Please,” sighed Salzman. “Please.”
Leo ashamedly let him go. “Tell me who she is,” he begged. “It’s very important to me to know.”
“She is not for you. She is a wild one–wild, without shame. This is not a bride for a rabbi.”
“What do you mean wild?”
“Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now.”
“In God’s name, what do you mean?”
“Her I can’t introduce to you,” Salzman cried.
“Why are you so excited?”
“Why, he asks,” Salzman said, bursting into tear. “This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell.”
Leo hurried up to bed and hid under the covers. Under the covers he thought his life through. Although he soon fell asleep he could not sleep her out of his mind. He woke, beating his breast. Though he prayed to be rid of her, his prayers went unanswered. Through days of torment he endlessly struggled not to love her; fearing success, he escaped it. He then concluded to convert her to goodness, himself to God. The idea alternately nauseated and exalted him.
He perhaps did not know that he had come to a final decision until he encountered Salzman in a
Broadway cafeteria. He was sitting alone at a rear table, sucking the bony remains of a fish. The marriage broker appeared haggard, and transparent to the point of vanishing.
Salzman looked up at first without recognizing him. Leo had grown a pointed beard and his eyes
were weighted with wisdom.
“Salzman,” he said, “love has at last come to my heart.”
“Who can love from a picture?” mocked the marriage broker.
“It is not impossible.”
“If you can love her, then you can love anybody. Let me show you some new clients that they just sent me their photographs. One is a little doll.”
“Just her I want,” Leo murmured.
“Don’t be a fool, doctor Don’t bother with her.”
“Put me in touch with her, Salzman,” Leo said humbly. “Perhaps I can be of service.”
Salzman had stopped eating and Leo understood with emotion that it was now arranged.
Leaving the cafeteria, he was, however, afflicted by a tormenting suspicion that Salzman had 13
planned it all to happen this way.
Leo was informed by better that she would meet him on a certain corner, and she was there one spring night, waiting under a street lamp. He appeared carrying a small bouquet of violets and rosebuds. Stella stood by the lamp post, smoking. She wore white with red shoes, which fitted his expectations, although in a troubled moment he had imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white. She waited uneasily and shyly. From afar he saw that her eyes–clearly her father’s–were filled with desperate innocence. He pictured, in her, his own redemption. Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky. Leo ran forward with flowers out-thrust.
Around the corner, Salzman, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead.
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