The following short story appeared in our 2010 Print Issue 13 and is available in Kindle format.
Shlomberg didn’t know from methane—its physics, its reliability, how it behaved in a leaky wooden container like his Brooklyn apartment. Why should he? He was a scholar, not an explosives expert.
From the tinny speaker of his Westinghouse clock radio—a remnant of his marriage to Rivka—Joseph Suk’s “Fantastic Scherzo” soared and swooped in its melodic argument: a piece that, for Shlomberg, always evoked the cliché, “Life’s sweet, sad song.” From his own body, perhaps from a region near his groin, Shlomberg’s nose registered a sour, ammoniac smell.
How sweet, in the final analysis, was life, for that matter? Arthritis wasn’t sweet. Diabetes, maybe, but checking fasting blood sugars wasn’t the kind of sweet that made you eager to rise in the morning, cook a bowl of oatmeal, and greet the day. Sad, Shlomberg knew about, though Rivka had always considered him something of a cry-baby.
“You confuse sadness with self-pity,” she had said to him once, over divorce papers and luke-warm coffee.
Shlomberg fingered the box of wooden matches, rubbing the rough striking area like a Hasid caressing the fringes of his prayer shawl. And what was wrong with a little self-pity, after all?
“If I do not pity myself, who will pity me?” Hillel himself might have said in a moment of weakness. After thirty-five years of hacking away at scholarship; after the failed book proposals, rejected manuscripts, and—most ignominiously— dismissal from the New School for “inappropriate contact” with a female student who could have been his granddaughter—what’s not to pity?
The world once had opened to him like a cascade of fruit and flowers. At the age of ten, Shlomberg was regarded as a “prodigy”, a “second Rambam,” by his own rabbi, the eminent Talmudist, Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Dov Seidner. At fourteen, Shlomberg had won every academic award that could be bestowed by the Bronx High School of Science. At sixteen, the spindly teenager had gone off to Harvard on a full scholarship from the Shimon Drucker Center for Integrated Judaic Studies, a California-based institute that aimed at unifying Jewish mysticism with the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience. (In 1959, you could ask, what did they know about neuroscience? And you would be right: a few studies linking “mystical states” with changes in the temporal lobes and complex partial seizures was about the most anyone knew—a far cry from the fancy PET scans and MRI studies the neuroscientists were doing nowadays).
Ronald Pies MD is a physician, poet, and writer living in the Boston area. He has academic appointments at Tufts University and Upstate Medical University, and is the author of several psychiatric textbooks. Dr. Pies is also the author of “Creeping Thyme” (a collection of poems); “Zimmerman’s Tefillin” (a short story collection) and “Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living.” Dr. Pies’s most recent books are “The Three-Petalled Rose”, a study of the links between Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism; his new novel, “The Director of Minor Tragedies” (iUniverse); and a new collection of essays on psychiatry, “Psychiatry on the Edge” (Nova).
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