As he coughed breathlessly, Elias hated his father more than he ever had, but he had to bite his lip to stop himself from smiling.
After that, the more defiant he got the more he beat him and the more he beat him the more defiant he got. Yet Elias, never ever, failed to do what he was told. He merely obeyed with the angry smiling-eyed obedience of a prisoner who thinks he is superior to his jailers and is just waiting for the day to shank them and escape.
When Elias was sixteen, his mother developed lupus. She was still able to teach for a couple of more years, until her illness reduced her to working part-time on the kindergarten level. His father was forced to go back to work as a rabbi. He had planned for Elias to receive a full scholarship to attend a beis medrash, a school that taught Torah studies at an undergraduate level, but his son had seen to it that he only received a partial scholarship. And he wasn’t about to let his son use his mother’s illness as an excuse not to go and take up David Levy’s impertinent offer of a job with his business. (He had suspected, not entirely wrongly, that Elias was somewhat relieved by his mother’s misfortune because he sensed it might provide him with precisely this type of opportunity.)
However, within a year her condition deteriorated to the point that she could no longer work and soon medical bills they couldn’t pay began piling up. So at 19, when David asked again Elias to work for him, he permitted him to say yes.
Elias was thrilled to accept the offer and thrilled to do the work itself. It turned out he was quite a shrewd businessman. However, he loathed the greater exposure it gave him to the non-Orthodox world. Not because he loathed the world he saw, but because he loathed that this world saw him. He hated traveling on the subway every day, feeling staring eyes on him, hearing indecipherable whispered words. And he hated it even more once he got to work. His job was in Harlem. It would have been bad enough had he not had to hear the more-than-occasional jeers when he walked the four blocks back and forth to and from the subway, and avert his eyes from the frequent silent hostile stares, but once he got to work he had to contend with the men who worked in the warehouse and drove the trucks.
As for the world he saw, he only loathed the desire it bred in him. It was as if he had been locked in a closet his whole life and was now finally being let out into the sunshine, only to have to return every night and weekend. Yet still, he had his weekdays out in the sun in this place of glittering decadent freedom. Where people walked down the street and could view numerous shops with tempting sweets and savories and just walk in and buy them without checking whether they were kosher or not. A place where men could view brazenly bareheaded bare-armed women and look them in the eye and even shake their hand. A place where teenagers walked out of films hand-in-hand and even kissed right out on the street.
One day, David sent him on an errand in midtown involving some paperwork a new client needed to sign. He had been instructed that he was a “real whale,” name Mordechai Grossman, who owned a chain of upscale department stores called Forsythe and Frost.
The New York City Forsythe and Frost looked like a blown-up version of the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. The interior was bathed in velvet, silk, and marble colored shades of cotton candy pink and lemon drop yellow so fetching and sugary-sweet that it actually almost beckoned Elias to rip pieces of it and eat pieces of it. The salespeople were so attractive that at first he didn’t think they were even real and couldn’t distinguish the still silent ones from the mannequins. His eyes catching sight of a ballerina-bodied ice blonde poured into a nude sheath, they raced away from her when she smiled at him like a pair of roaches retreating from the beam of a flashlight.
Mordechai Grossman was a balding overweight man who appeared to be about 6’3, though he was in reality only five eleven. His eyes smiled even when he didn’t and his voice was like a cup of strong coffee doused with milk and sugar – robust and energizing but warm and sweet. He immediately told him to call him Morty and gestured toward one of the airy-light pastel-hued French macaroons on a silver dish on his desk.
“Would you like one- they’re shipped directly from Par-Oh, I’m sorry, they’re not kosher – I apologize for my foolishness. I’m a Reform Jew – a total pagan.”
“Not at all. I would certainly indulge if I could. They look quite tasty.”
In fact they looked more than tasty, they were actually making him salivate. Like an animal. A starving animal.
As he went through the papers, he excused himself to take a call, apologetically explaining it was quite important and would only take a few minutes. At some point, while on the call, he turned his back to him to search for some papers. Elias didn’t even realize the cookie was in his mouth until he saw Mr. Grossman staring at him. After a second, he gave him a smile and a wink and continued his phone conversation.