| SHORT STORY |
Between the Book and Shapiro
By Eric Maroney
The Montréal Review, April 2011
The Open Book (1925) by Juan Gris
My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
--- Psalm 42:10
Shaul Shapiro stopped leaving his house on busy Avel Street, and despite the pleas of his neighbors, he stayed at home for ten years, and no one saw as much as a shadow pass across his closed shades.
Not even his curly gray hair was visible above the old rusted fence that enclosed his spacious garden, once alive with swaying mint, oregano, oleanders, poppies and a squat and broad olive tree. Now the plot was overgrown with dandelions, hummocks of thorns, and drifts of brown leaves. This continued for a decade, and then one late spring day, Avel Street saw Shapiro sitting on an old lawn chair in the sun, an open book lying face down in his lap, his pale wrinkled face pointing up toward the sun, and his eyes very much closed.
At first, the sympathy for Shapiro was profound. When the army doctor and the two officers walked up his path, Avel Street knew before he did what had happened to his son Rami. They did not know specifics, but they knew the outline; the trio had come as couriers of death. Shapiro, without friends or family, accepted the gracious sympathy of the street, and when his boy was lowered into the ground, he stifled a moan, as if the very act of placing that wooden box in the gray and yellow earth was as senseless and worthless a work of violence as the boy's death.
Then people on Avel Street left Shapiro. He was alone in his house, doing what people do, they imagined, in such atrocious circumstances. Shapiro was in his sixties; his boy only nineteen. The disparity in age, they reasoned, must have made Shapiro's grief especially acute. What was left for such on old man? His own death was no longer abstract. And now his boy was gone. Then a year went by, and he did not come out. People came to his house and rang the bell, but there was never an answer. Finally they called the police, who forced their way in, and when they came out after a few minutes, three representatives of Avel Street peppered them with questions.
"He's fine. He wants to be left alone," one policeman told them. And then another added, "He's of sound mind. Just let him be."
So they did. And when the decade was up, Shaul Shapiro emerged from his house, his skin as ashen as dry birch, his hair as white as a blizzard. And he sat in that chair in the sun, and the children of the street, who didn't even know him, orbited around his figure on bikes, scooters, and skateboards, oblivious to his very existence.
Avigail fell from the bicycle, her handlebars skidding on the concrete and her face tumbling over them, and she landed squarely on both elbows.
Shapiro opened his eyes. He kissed the book, closed it, and laid the tome on the seat which had just supported his rump. He walked over to the girl, who was bleeding and silent. She gazed at Shapiro like a hurt bird: more afraid of his aid then her injury. Shapiro picked her up and carried her to his house. He sat her on a well-worn sofa in a dim living room and returned with bandages, iodine, scissors and a damp cloth. He gazed at her elbows through half-glasses, squinting at the blood and the flap of torn skin.
"A little water," Shapiro announced, and held the towel to one elbow and then the next. The girl hissed.
"Painful, yes." Shapiro answered. "And it will hurt more. But don't cry for this, and I will tell you a very big secret about pain, little girl."
Shapiro applied iodine to one elbow, and then the other. He knew the girl wanted to cry, to scream, even to slap his old man's face, but she bit her tongue. And when he was done cutting the bandages and taping them to her elbows, he smiled a little.
"First one pain --- a pain by water," Shapiro explained. "And then the next --- a pain from this," he held up the iodine. "This is far worse! That is the way of pain. One pain comes and is bad. Then another one comes, and it is worse. Maybe a third one comes. Not in your case. We're all done. But even if a third does come, and the pain is worse, it will go away. All pain goes away. Sometimes in ways we want, and sometimes not. We can't control this. So you see, little girl. A few cuts and a little lesson. You pay the price of pain and I tell you something for your payment: all pain goes away."
He patted her on the head and smiled broadly. "Now go out and play. Please be careful on the busy street."
Shapiro was out again, the book in his open lap, his face turned toward the sun, which was now diminished in strength by a great canopy of gray clouds hanging low and thin over Avel Street. But still he sat, and all around him, the scooters made wide loops, the bicycles jumped curbs, the skateboards arched over improvised ramps. Avigail stole looks at Shapiro, but he did not see. He was engaged in some silent, inner contemplation. It was only when Ori fell from his skateboard and landed on the curb that Shapiro was roused. He strode over to the boy, who was cradling his leg and crying.
"What is your name? Where do you live?'' Shapiro asked, and the boy answered. He lived a few blocks away. "You're here with someone? A friend?" Ori pointed to a boy. "Get his parents, please," Shapiro instructed his friend. "Bring them here." Shapiro carried the boy into his house.
"A lot of pain?" Shapiro asked the boy. The boy was crying. Shapiro gently rolled up the jeans and saw a dark blue bruise, the crinkle of broken skin, the shadow of a bone, all the signs of an interior fracture. Shapiro went to the kitchen, filled a bag of ice cubes and brought it back to the boy. He whispered to him:
"At first this hurts. The cold will be painful. It will feel like adding another pain. But after a minute, maybe two, the cold will change; it will numb, and though the numbness itself is a kind of pain, it will also bring an absence of pain. A strange thing. Then your parents will come and the doctors will fix the bone and they will give you things to get rid of the pain so you won't feel it again. You're lucky. Some pain you can't mask. For some, there isn't a pill or a bag of ice and there isn't a fix. You just wait until it gets a little dimmer each day. Then it gets so dim you only remember it a little, and that brings a problem: you forget why you are sad. But that is enough for now. You rest. You'll soon be with your family and doctors."
"What are you reading?" Avigail asked. She had silently walked up to his old chair. He was wrapped in a gray coat. The sun was behind murky clouds.
"Your elbows are better?" Shapiro asked. The girl nodded. "What do I read, you ask? Here, look at the spine. Does it look familiar?" The girl said no. "Yes, hardly anyone reads such books anymore. Rashi script and strange grammar. You know why? Because the answer is not on the first page, or in the middle, or at the end for that matter."
"Then why read it?" she asked.
"Because there is an answer, but it lies somewhere between the book and me --- or the book and the sky, the book and you, the book and the ground, the book and everything. A strange answer, I know."
The girl looked at him narrowly, strangely. Then her friends called, and she ran away.
The day was rainy, so Shapiro sat beneath the battered awning near his front door. Still, three bicycles looped ever-widening figure eights in the street. Shaprio sat with the book, gazed at it for a moment, and then shut his eyes once more.
When his eyes were closed, he heard the rasping skid of a tire, a few muffled screams, and when he stood up, even before his eyes were focused, he knew a child was dead in the street. He rushed over, feeling his heart beating in his chest like a mad bird trying to escape from a snare. The driver was out of the car, yelling and screaming. Avigail was face down. Her bicycle was up the road and wrapped around a pole. Shapiro sat down beside her and touched her neck. He took a deep breath. He opened a hand on top of her head and stroked her hair.
Shapiro was there at the graveside, far in the back. He knew it was not his business to be in front, near the family and close friends. But he felt the pain of loss on his chest like a heavy, invisible mass. A few tears rolled down his cheek. He tried to remember what he had told the girl about the nature of pain, about the cost of suffering, but he could not remember. He knew that life was a great stream, and that all around him, things were happening in torrents. Beneath him, ants burrowed in the ground. High above, clouds whisked off to other lands. Food moved invisibly through the bowels of the man in front of him. A woman a few feet away was pregnant; life grew inside her. All around him were buried bodies in states of decay. And here was Shapiro, and how much of it did he see and understand? He heard a tiny fraction of the wild pulse beat of the world --- the mere echoes and rumors of its reverberations. He told stories about himself and the world and hoped they cohered, but the world was simply one event followed by another and another, and layered on top of endless more without any trace of order. Suddenly he knew this, and he trembled, and thought: what to do?
At shiva, he approached the family. Their faces appeared washed by bleach, and their trembling hands were as delicate as porcelain. He had prepared a few sentences, and he spoke slowly.
"We don't know why. We never will. There is nothing we can do but accept, although it feels like swallowing a boulder of grief. All we can do is what is in our meager power. All we can do is what we have the will do to ."
And then someone whisked Shapiro to the food, thinking that the Avel Street eccentric was about to make a spectacle of himself. So he stood by the fruit bowl and cried and smiled.
No one on Avel Street noticed when Shapiro moved away later that month. When he died shortly after, the paper announced it, but no one paid attention. But they did observe the bulldozer that came and so easily demolished his house. Then two dumpsters arrived, the debris was hauled away, and there was an empty, overgrown lot. The next week, a fence went around the property. The citizens of Avel Street pressed the workers for answers, but they were tight- lipped. They wrapped the fence in thick green mesh, and no one could see in; a procession of trucks arrived and departed. Everyone thought a villa, in the gaudy new style, was to rise on Shapiro's old plot. But when the barriers came down they saw a park: a swatch of green grass below the old hoary olive tree. A skateboard ramp and a bicycle run. The newest modular playground and a water park and a flower and herb garden. The sign above the park read: Avigal Arad & Rami Shapiro Park.
The mayor came and gave a short speech to open the park. All of Avel Street attended. When the mayor was done speaking of the generous work of Shaul Shapiro, who had suffered so much and given so much, he opened the gate and the children stormed in, invading the citadel that promised safety and joy.
The mayor was not a source of answers. He explained that Shapiro had provided the property and the money --- a very large amount of money, and exact instructions through a lawyer. The mayor knew nothing else. And no, he told them, he did not know who Rami Shapiro was. perhaps Shapiro's relative? And then he was gone.
And in ten years a new group of children played in the park. New parents arrived with new babies who learned to walk. They were taken in strollers to the park to learn to crawl on its grass and pluck flowers from the garden. They picnicked under the shade of the old olive tree. Later they would ride their bicycles around the path; later still they would climb the fence at night to kiss. And no one remembered Avigal, Rami, or Shaul Shapiro. One day when the sign blew down in a ferocious storm, no one bothered to hang it up again. But no child ever died again on busy Avel Street. And no one realized the suffering Shaul Shapiro had spared them.
Eric Maroney is the author of two books of non-fiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010). His fiction has appeared in Our Stories, The MacGuffin, ARCH, Segue, The Literary Review, Eclectica, and Per Contra. He has an MA from Boston University, and lives in Ithaca New York with his wife and two children. More of his work can be found on his web page: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/ econ/em75/