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The Shomer

by Shai Afsai

Parts 1-5 appear
in this issue.


After Schwartz’s departure, Ganzenberg set the table in his room, covering it with a white tablecloth, and placing on it two candles, two challahs, and a bottle of wine. His preparations complete, Ganzenberg lit the candles. Having prayed mincha earlier in the day — which I mention only so that you should not think Ganzenberg was the kind to miss davening— he now sang the kabbalas Shabbos service softly to himself. He did not have a bad voice, Ganzenberg, but even when alone, he always sang softly and hesitantly.

He had concluded maariv, and was about to recite kiddush and begin his meal, when he heard knocking at the side door of the funeral home. At first he ignored it, but it persisted, becoming louder and more determined.

As the night had grown quite cold, Ganzenberg found Rebecca Leipan shivering when he unlocked and opened the door. She smiled through chattering teeth. “Good Shabbos, Josh. I thought you might like some company.”

True, it was nice of her to show up. On the other hand, a man wants some peace, and if he can’t find it at night in a funeral home, then where?

“Are you going to keep me shivering out here or are you going to invite me in?”

So Ganzenberg let her in, but conversation was sparse during the meal. On the one hand, he did not want to make her feel uncomfortable for visiting; at the same time, he did. He spoke only when she addressed him and figured this was an acceptable compromise.

As they ate, Rebecca noticed a book on the couch. “The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Is it good?”

“I haven’t started it yet. I was going to read it tonight. I’ve always liked ‘The Overcoat.’ Pass the lo mein, please.”

Ganzenberg read a good deal, as I have said. He also had a Bachelor’s in Comparative Religion, and several of his professors had communicated a hope that he would pursue graduate studies, although Ganzenberg had no inclination to do so. This, too, troubled Rebecca, who made no secret of her disappointment. She voiced it on numerous occasions, including this one. “You read so much, you should be a professor.”

“Every man who reads should be a professor?”

“A man with a B.A. in Comparative Religion should not be watching Cambodians cook.”

“That’s religion. I watch the cooks. I watch the dead. I compare them, too.”

“Can you compare your salary with a professor’s?”

“Rebecca, not everything is money.”

“With you nothing is money. My father wants to know who will support us. How we will eat.”

“You need to eat? Here, have an egg roll. There are more in the fridge.”

Dinner progressed in silence and Rebecca excused herself after bentshn. Ganzenberg escorted her to the side door of the funeral home.

Outside, she turned and faced him. “I don’t mean to pressure you or fight with you, Josh. I just want you to think a little long-term, that’s all. Good Shabbos.”

“Good Shabbos, Rebecca.”

He followed her with his eyes, admiring her gait as she walked down the street.

On a recent evening, unbeknownst to her, Ganzenberg, with melancholy fingers, had begun typing a resume for graduate school. The following morning, as resigned as a piece of cloth to the seamstress’s sewing needle, he had phoned a few professors for letters of recommendation. Then, in the afternoon, pulling himself away from the philosophy section of a bookstore, he had quietly purchased a tome on nursing home administration, the Leipan family business, leaving behind a collection of Spinoza’s writings for which he had been saving.

After shutting and locking the door, he decided to check on Ruben Katz.


Ruben Katz’s arms rested at his sides and his eyes were tightly shut. Despite the visible traces of a wound on his head, he looked peaceful to Ganzenberg, as though taking a much-needed nap. How we ignore the exhaustion of living. Even the elderly fail to take full notice. Like tired children refusing to go to bed, we resist the slumber of dissolution, throwing every tantrum at the world to ward it off. I resist it too.

Ganzenberg pulled a chair up beside Ruben’s body and opened his Book of Psalms. He looked at Ruben’s face, and concentrated on comforting him and elevating his soul.

Ruben’s eyes opened slowly and he blinked hard several times. “It’s bright in here.”

Ganzenberg dropped the Book of Psalms and fell backward in his chair, smacking his head firmly on the floor. The intense pain muffled some of his shock.

“Sorry I scared you,” Ruben said, rising into a seated position.

Full terror set in on Ganzenberg and he shook uncontrollably. He held one hand to his bleeding skull and with the other groped around the floor for the Book of Psalms as for an amulet, his head aching in a way he had not previously thought possible. He searched his confused mind for some intimation of what the many books he had read might suggest he do in such a predicament, but all he could summon was a story of two Zen monks who met a beautiful woman on the road as they traveled one day.

“Please, don’t be afraid.”

Ganzenberg was by now sweating wildly. Having located the Book of Psalms and opened it at random, he recited its verses hurriedly, believing they offered the best protection under the circumstances. He had difficulty making out the words, his hands were trembling so, but he kept his eyes on the pages. He could hear Ruben shifting on the table where he had lain dead only moments before, and as though through water, Ganzenberg gradually made out the words he was saying.

“Try breathing slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Good. Good. In through the nose — out through the mouth. In — out. Good. I see you’ve hurt your head.”

Ganzenberg thought of Akaky Akakievich, in Gogol’s story, wanting to shout for help as he was being robbed of his overcoat, but instead getting knocked unconscious to the ground. By the time Akakievich yelled, his coat was gone, and the police were of no use. Ganzenberg’s fear turned to painful resignation. He touched his head and examined the blood on his fingers. “It’s okay.”

Ruben glanced around the refrigerator room. “Ganzenberg, I want to thank you for watching my body.”

“It’s my job.”

Avoiding the area of his wound, Ruben felt his face and ran his hands through his hair. “I’m not sure what’s happening to me, Ganzenberg. I’m being flung here and there like a pebble. I’m still connected to my body, but also headed somewhere else. I’m not sure it’s an entirely pleasant place, either. I worked in advertising, you know. I was on my way to work this morning when it happened. Just getting off the bus. Unbelievable.”

“Mr. Schwartz — the funeral director — told me.”

Ruben recounted the circumstances of his premature death, beginning with his troubled sleep the night before, and ending with the fatal bus ride. Shaking his head and sighing, he concluded, “I can’t believe this has happened to me.”

“I’m very sorry, Ruben.”

“Yeah. Well.” Ruben glanced around the room again, then fixed his gaze on Ganzenberg, and on his yarmulke and tsitsis. “You’re Orthodox, huh?”

“I am.”

“I wasn’t a very religious person. I had a bar mitzvah and was confirmed, but I don’t know much at all about our religion, really. I suppose I’ll be finding out a lot more soon. What do you do when you’re not watching the dead, Ganzenberg?”

“I’m a mashgiach at a Chinese restaurant. I make sure the food is kosher.”

“I love — loved — Asian food. Asian women, too, for that matter. You plan to do this for the rest of your life?”

“You too? I already get that from my girlfriend.”

“She has a point, no? You look like a smart guy. It seems kind of a waste. Look what happened to me, Ganzenberg. I can tell you, there’s a lot I wish I had the chance to do now.”

“What would you do?”

“Quite a few things with Asian women, for one.” He laughed sadly. “But that’s not here or there anymore.”

“Look, Ruben, I don’t mind what I do. I help people. I harm no one. And I have time to read. Don’t worry, though, I’m making plans to change.”

“The girl you’re with — you plan on marrying her?”

“Rebecca? I don’t know. It might be time. She’s a good woman. Very patient. My parents really like her.”

“Chinese women,” Ruben sighed. He hung his head and stared at the floor. “I’m being flung around, Ganzenberg. Flung around. I’m on my way somewhere. I’ll tell you, it’s the advertising that has me most nervous. It looks like the piper might be coming around to collect. I feel it.” He shuddered slightly. “You may be right about what you said. You help people. I certainly didn’t. And now I’m here.”

“Ruben, do you have someone to say kaddish for you?”

“My uncle, maybe. I’m not sure.”

“I’ll say kaddish for you if you’d like.”

Ruben nodded. “I wonder what’ll be with my cat now. You know, your head’s bleeding pretty badly, Ganzenberg. You should probably put something on that. Go get some ice. Maybe you can get me a little water, too. I’m thirsty, if you can believe that. I think I’d like a drink of water.”

Perhaps Ganzenberg should have gotten water from a closer faucet, but he thought it only proper to bring Ruben water from the cooler — a man wakes from the dead, he wants a good drink — and this cooler was located at the other end of the funeral home. Ganzenberg staggered painfully to the bathroom, retrieving a cold pack and a bandage from beneath the sink, and made his way to the cooler.

As he walked quickly back to the refrigerator room, drink in hand, ice pack on his head, his mind was ablaze with the many questions he wished to ask Ruben. Ganzenberg had been graced with a visitation from beyond the grave. The implications were astonishing.

“Ruben, you were right. My head feels better with the ice,” Ganzenberg said, entering the refrigerator room. “Here’s your water.”

Ruben did not answer.

“Ruben, your water,” Ganzenberg repeated. “Ruben?”

Ruben had returned to a prone position, his eyes again tightly shut. Ganzenberg picked up the fallen chair and sat down beside him. Studying Ruben’s face and body, he opened the Book of Psalms and concentrated on comforting him and elevating his soul. He read the Book of Psalms twice before falling asleep in the metal chair.


You probably expect me to tell you that soon after this encounter Ganzenberg enrolled in a university and was fast on his way to becoming a professor, a great scholar, or some such thing; that he proposed marriage to Rebecca, who was delighted by his newfound seriousness and readily accepted, with her father’s blessing; or that Ruben Katz had imparted to Ganzenberg an enthusiasm and ambition that led him to embrace what he might otherwise have avoided, such as nursing home administration.

No. In fact, Ganzenberg still lives in the same one-bedroom basement apartment that is between the restaurant and the funeral home, making his living as a mashgiach and a shomer. After Ruben’s burial, Ganzenberg said kaddish the entire eleven months, often coming for that purpose to the minyan at Mishkan Tefillah, the shul where I’m the gabbai.

Some say Schwartz has hopes for him to carry on the funeral business when he is himself taken to the next world, but even if this is the case, I doubt Ganzenberg is interested. There is an unmistakable seriousness in his approach to his current employment, particularly as a shomer, and also as a mashgiach. How can I say he’s wrong? There is no shortage of regrets about one’s younger years when one has aged, but not having selected a more lucrative profession is seldom among them.

And Rebecca Leipan? What should I say? A woman’s grip, when she wants to hold on to something, is tighter than the Gates of Heaven when they are closed before the wicked. Sometimes, above, there is mercy — the hinges will loosen, the Gates will open — but with a woman... So Rebecca has not let go of Ganzenberg. Still she wants him to propose; still she waits for him to become a professor.

Now, if you ask why Ganzenberg chose to share with me the events of that Friday night, I will tell you that for one thing, you can usually trust an old man with a secret. When he tells you that he would sooner die than reveal it, there is an uncomfortable certainty to the promise.

More than that, though, after living on this mysterious earth for so long, there is little that can be said to an old man which he will not believe — if a person whose word is true imparts it to him. Maybe this does not mean much to you now, but such matters gain in clarity the more one gains in years.

Copyright © 2012 by Shai Afsai

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