ONCE upon a time — if we counted time not by calendars but by assimilated history and scientific change, I’d be tempted to say four or five thousand years ago — before total war and all-out war, before death camps, Nagasaki, before fusion and fission, jets, moon shots, astronauts, luniks in orbit, before antibiotics, polio vaccine, openheart surgery, before TV, garburetors, and other wonders of automation, before dead-faced hoods on motorcycles, dead-faced beatniks on maldecycles; once upon that kind of time lived a boy and his horse. The year was 1939. The boy and the horse are both dead.
This is no pastoral tale.
Twenty years late, counting time by the calendar, I write you of this boy Bibul and his horse Malkeh, of Bibul’s ambition and his sad, sad end. In time-sorrowed perspective I record for you the imprint Bibul left on my mind and feeling: his ticlikc blink, his coal-black hair in bangs over his forehead, his emery-cloth shaver’s shadow, his ink-stained mouth, his immutable clothes that wouldn’t conform to style or the seasons — always black denim relief-style pants whitened by wear and washing, always a brown pebbled cardigan coiled at the wrists and elbows with unraveled wool, always a leather cap with bent visor, split seams, matching the color and texture of Bibul’s hair. And old ruined Malkeh, scorned before lamented, making her daily round under Bibid’s urging, dragging his creak of a fruit peddler’s wagon through Winnipeg’s “island” slum north of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards.
Bibid peddled while my time burned: in 1939 all of us high school boys were owlish with sixteenand seventeen-year-old speculation and almost missed seeing this Bibul. all foxy with world-weary finagling. We were out to save the world; Bibul, a buck. Hip deep in reality, trying to beat tricky suppliers, weaselly competitors, haggling customers, Bibul couldn’t believe in us vaguesters. Peddling had forced him to see, hear, and judge everything. By his practical measure, we were simply unreal. We’d speculate; Bibul would respond with “Yeh-yeh,” the Yiddish double affirmative that makes a negative. He didn’t have to say a word, or raise that skeptical eyebrow, or even frown with that tic. His smell alone argued a reality out of reach of our politely neutral, Lux, Lifebuoy, Vitalis middle-class sweetness: “effluvium Bibul” we called that mixture of squashed berries, bad turnips, dank pine apple-crates, straw, chickens, sad old horsy Malkeh. Bibul had a grand gesture to sweep away our irrelevance, a sudden movement of the hand like a farmwife’s throwing feed to chickens, his nose sniffing disgust, his sour mouth giving out a squelching sound. “Aaaa.” Sometimes he sounded like a goat, other times a baby lamb; just ”Aaaa,” but enough to murder our pushy pretensions.
We were a roomful of competitive sharks math sharks, physics sharks, English, Latin, history sharks — secretly, often openly sure that we surpassed our teachers in brains and know-how. joyfully arrogant, we shook off the restricting label of “high school student,”considering ourselves pros — mathematicians, scientists, writers, artists. In our own minds we had already graduated from the university, had passed through Toronto or Oxford, were entangled in public controversies with the great names in our respective fields, ending right but humble, modestly triumphant. But where was Bibul in this league? As loudly as we pros hollered, Bibul heard nothing. He only yawned, slouched, even snoozed, gave out with that killing “Yeh-yeh,” poked his grayish nose into his peddler’s notebook red with reality’s ooze of tomato.
“Bibul,” we’d try to break in on him, “aren’t you interested in semantics? Don’t you care for the coming intellectual revolution? Once and for all, are you for Count Korzybski or are you against him?”
“Aaaa,” was Bibul’s response, and that chickenfeeding gesture waved us back to our ivory towers. Bibul turned to reality with a lick of his indeliblepencil’s tip and a purple inscription in his book of life.
“You nuddin’ bud gids,” he’d say impatiently if we insisted on disturbing his audit. “A ‘ell of a lod you guys know aboud live.”
We’d jeer and mock, which made no impression on Bibul, nor did much for us. Weren’t we the kings of St. John’s High School? Even if Bibul wasn’t very active, he was still one of us on the top floor, dominating with us the giants and dwarfs living the underground life amid blazing forges and screeching lathes in the school basement, second-generation Canadians joyously illiterate, English having to fend for itself in their houses, a poor second to Ukrainian or Polish or German; or the salt-of-the-earth commercial students, blond and blue-eyed, clearly dedicated to the sensible life, who heard our loud violent arguments and shuddered in silence and good taste.
We might have been kings, but how could anybody crown Bibul? We ran the yearbook, but it, sad lor Bibul’s talents, was printed neither in Yiddish nor Hebrew, and on Bibul’s “island” who had mastered English? We wanted him to debate, but peddling had made him overexcited; wrought up, he Stammered, angry, he slobbered — hindrances to the winning of arguments. Tone-deaf, he was no candidate for the glee club; a business man through and through, he had no time for politics. At sports he was terrible; he couldn’t swim a stroke, or skate, was flubby-kntickled at baseball, slashingly pigeon-toed at soccer, kamikaze going over a hurdle. He had no time for women in his life. Malkeh and the ladies who bought from him were the only females Bibul knew; these customers whom he called with a little, if not much, affection schnorrers, pigs.
In recognition of his great talent, we made him room treasurer.
After school, while we theoreticians sprawled on boulevards and took pleasure from the longlimbed, large-breasted twelfth-grade girls giving the lie to an educator’s pious wish that the serge tunic neutralize the female form, Bibul hurried off to Malkeh, that wagon open-pored and gaping for paint, the running of a gauntlet of schnorrers avid for a beet or turnip to fill an empty pot. And early on a morning, when we theoreticians-turned-lovers, wearied after a long night of girls, sat in the Street Railway waiting house knocking ourselves out over my noisy reading of Panurge’s adventure with the Lady of Paris, Bibul, up and dressed at 4 A.M., waited with Malkeh for the fruit row to open and the struggle for possession of the bruised fruit and battered vegetables he’d have to wrest from ancient wizened trickster peddlers and their muscular sons so that his schnorrers would have something concrete to haggle over later in the day.
LOST in abstraction, and me, I thought little of Bibul in those days. He was a clown. A mark. A butt. The peddling was part of the sad, desperate struggle for money every family in the Depression knew. Bibul was the oldest of four children, his widowed ma supporting them on what she could make out of a tiny grocery store, doing the best she could, the dear lady, and known throughout the island as the “Golden Thumb” and the “Adder,” the latter reference ambiguous, meaning either snakes or computation, Bibul’s ma being famous for a mathematical theorem that said 5 + 6 = 12, or 13, whichever was higher.
Not till (he year of our graduation did I discover why Bibul peddled with such dedication, why he rode out like a teen-age Don Quixote to do battle with those abusive, haggling, thieving schnorrers.
What a riding out that was! His paintless wagon listed like a sinking ship, moved with the sound of fiddles scraped rosinless in a concert by deaf mutes, its wheels’ circles successfully squared, a few spokes missing from each, its seat a tatter of leatherette bulged at the ends like a horsehair cream puff, its wilted greens and culled fruit lorded over by Bibul’s faultless-in-his-favor scales, rusted fistlike weights, a battered tin scoop more dented than a defeated World War I veteran’s helmet. For such a wagon, what was more fitting than a progress through the island under the leadership of a nag like Malkeh!
As beat up as Don Quixote’s Rosinante would look next to elegant Pegasus, that’s how Malkeh would look next to Rosinante: she was U-shaped in side view, as if she’d been ridden by the fattest knight in heaviest armor; she sagged iike a collapsed sofa with its stuffing hanging low. She was bare as buffed mohair, her shoulders tanned from the rub of reins, her color an unbelievable combination of rust, maroon, purple, brown, found elsewhere only in ancient sun-drenched velvets. Her tail was a worn discarded feather boa picked almost clean. Like a badly carpentered table, ail four of her legs were of assorted lengths, which made her move by shuffling, like a pair of aged soft-shoe dancers making a final farewell. Her hoofs were fringed with luzzy hairs like a frayed fiddle bow abandoned to rain and sun, her horseshoes were thin as dimes, rusty as the metal hinges on her wagon’s tail gate.
Her faded yellow horse collar and harness once sat on a czarist artillery horse, but now, padless, dry, broken, reknotted, supported Malkeh in poor style, fitting much like the suits handed up by Bibul’s competitors’ muscular sons to their tiny fathers. To encourage her to see out of her old eyes, Bibul flatteringly covered them at the sides with a pair of snappy black racing-horse blinkers trimmed with shiny silver rivets, a touch to Malkeh’s decor like a monocle in the eye of a Bowery bum.
Out of loyalty to this Malkeh, Bibul let his wagon go to ruin: a wagon could be covered over with paint or varnish, but poor mortal Malkeh, where was the therapy or camouflage to hide from the world what she really was?
She was the horse version of The Dying Gaul. While Malkeh lived on her island she wasn’t subject to the reality of horse hierarchy, but on a main thoroughfare like Salter Street her submarginal subproletariat position was exposed. High-stepping T. Eaton Company horses, glossyflanked, curried, combed, middle-class cousins of aristocratic thoroughbreds seen only on race tracks and in stables, spurned Malkeh as they sped past, their harnesses shiny with saddle soap, their hoofs steel-ringing, their heads up, their traces white as snow, their tails prinked out with red ribbons, their wagons elegant as chariots, freshly painted, glowing blue-black, red, white, and gold where it counted, their drivers uniform and uniformed, not like sloppy Bibul. Horses like these had blankets, slept in the fancy T. Eaton stables, ate oats from an unfaded green feed bag, not the ripped postman’s pouch Bibul filled with bad lettuce, carrot tops, shriveled beets wisped over with a sign of hay. Their snubbing was a denial that Malkeh was a horse. Even the heavy, powerful working-class Percherons, inexorably destined for life to the smell of the garbage scows they pulled through the city, refused to acknowledge kinship with Malkeh, speeding up without any urging, turning into a can-ridden back lane with relief, much as a person at a high-toned party successfully hides from a waiter who turns out to be a close relative.
I saw her only once, when Bibul brought her to school. A crowd gathered, some to gawk, some to cluck, some to find cause for letters to the editor. The principal happened to look out. Malkeh died a long time ago, but her memory is gnomically preserved in a memorial tablet that went up early next day and says clearly “No Parking at Any Time.”
That was the first and last time Bibul brought Malkeh to school.
NOT that the island was without hazards. Perhaps Bibul had put blinders on Malkeh to keep the old animal from seeing reality too clearly with whatever sight she still had left in her eyes. Those schnorrers, bare feet stuck hurriedly into their husbands’ felt house slippers, wearing nightgowns at four in the afternoon, their hair uncombed, their hands deep in housecoat and apron pockets in a gesture like stick-up men’s, pennies and silver tightly clenched, prizes Bibul Could get with bargains, fast talk, tempting, threats, guile. Singly they watched for him, in concert they plotted unbeatable stratagems, their motto simple: Pay little, get much. To the victor went the spoiled spoils.
“Giddy ahb, Malgeh,” Bibul would holler from his high seat, and the schnorrers knew that war was on.
Into the lists Malkeh dragged the keening wagon, onto the island in ruins like a medieval town (Canadian history is short, but our buildings add spice by getting older faster). Foundationless houses sagged, leaned at angles to astound Pisa, some north, some south, giving an effect of pure craziness, what kids might have built with assorted-sized! decks of cards. Gates tipsy as Malkeh’s wagon swung on one hinge from a last lost post; dry, cracking wood fences leaned in surrender toward the ground, begging like old men in sight of a grave to be allowed to fall the rest of the way; windows were tar-paper patched, like pirates’ eyes, and ominous as the blackness left in the streets by uninsured fires.
Behind every window or screen opaque with dust, behind every door splintered from kids’ kicking waited the schnorrers, trying to make Bibul anxious, make him sweat a little, a cinch for persistent hagglers.
“Ebbles, ebbles, den boundz f’a quadder!” Bibul shouted.
The schnorrers didn’t move.
Unflustered, unfooled, Bibul used his phony war time well, popping into his mouth the only three unspotted cherries in his entire stock. Malkeh, for her bit, sighing and groaning, panting but pulling, dragged the exposed tin rims of the wheels off the street and into the frost heaves and crevices of the muddy back lane which Bibul and his customers had silently agreed was the Coinpleat Battlefield, Bibul because the cloudlike stench of chicken droppings and horse dung hanging over the lane was unbeatable camouflage for whatever imperfection time and decay might bring; his produce, his schnorrers because the cramped quarters of a narrow lane made scale tampering easier for their anxious old hands, detection difficult, filching not so.
“Whoa beg, whoa der, Malgeh,” Bibul ordered, and there among ripped mattresses resembling enormous wads of steel wool, in a bone yard of Model T Fords, Malkeh finally halted. Dogs came yapping from all directions, cats hissed from rust-streaked iron roof tops, frightened pigeons whirred into the air, wheeling high over sunbeaten stables, returning to their places like grandstand fans anxious to be close to the scene of scuffle.
BIBUL’S ticlike blink was a cover for all expression. He looked blanker than the Sphinx. He faked a brow-furrowing entry into his book, peeled an orange, scratched himself variously and thoroughly. The schnorrers couldn’t stand the suspense. Dead was their united front. A few broke ranks and, already cursing Bibul’s bad prices, shuffled out in a gait to match Malkeh’s.
Horseflies, the pickings so sparse they had to drop their high standards and declare Malkeh a possible host, left the poor banquet of the uncovered garbage cans — each lid long commandeered to serve as targe in the minor-league jousts of the schnorrers’ knightly kids — and, under cover of the schnorrers sneakily advancing to do Bibul battle, launched assault on Malkeh’s weak flank. In a second, both boy and horse were under siege.
The attack came swiftly: stealthily, deftly, a red-haired old woman flipped two-cent oranges into the one-cent bins, her rasp of a voice trying to get Bibul to look up at the sky and predict weather; her accomplice meanwhile made a great display of finding a terrific buy.
“Boyaboyaboy, Pa change you god good tings in this stinkin’ wagon,” she said shamelessly.
Bibul’s ticlike blink was a camera shutter ready for mischief, and snapped the entire action.
“Give over here dat bag,” he said gruffly. “Mizzuz, voisher, show a fiddle resdraind,” he scolded the old innocents watching the oranges fall back into the proper bin.
A pair of raspberry hands crunched lettuce greens. “How much you give off f’ damaged goods?” the criminal hollered, while still wiping lettuce juice off on her apron.
The red-haired old woman was set on getting oranges. “Robber, black-hearted robber,” she cried out, shaking a fist under Bibul’s disapproving nose. “Peris d’ fruit man, a father who supports eight growin’ kids and a sister in Russia, Peris charges two coppers cheaper for fresher and firmer, so ha come, ha? Ha come?”
“My oniges are Sundgizd, Blue Gooze,” came back Bibul, a sucker for brand names. “Berls’s oniges grow on ebble drees.”
With a slamming of doors and a shuffle of feet the schnorrers came now in full force, wave after wave, surrounding Bibul’s wagon, pressing fruit, squeezing, poking, tapping, filling the air with shrieks and curses that urged the pigeonhearted pigeons high to the sky. Like a bucket brigade, the ladies passed fruit the length of the wagon, each nose a compulsory inspection station. Some — baseball fans, no doubt — tried the hiddenball trick with Bibul’s apples; others, proud of what teeth they had left, showed off a little by nipping fruit as it passed by.
For each bite Bibul took his due.
“Schnorrers dad youz are,” he yelled, imposing and collecting his fine, “you god no gare vor my brovids? You eadin’ ub all my brovids!”
“Don’ be s’independent,” said the red-haired one, fruitlessly after a fistful of cherries, “don’ hold yourself big. You’ ladder ain’ no doctor, he ain’ no mayor!”
Bibul was a lone guard defending his fortress from desperate pillagers; ubiquitous as Churchill, many-handed as Shiva, he had to be compassionate as Schweitzer. Though I didn’t know what Bibul’s dedication to peddling was all about, the schnorrers did: Bibul was saving up to become a rabbi. Bibul immersed himself in the practical, pedestrian, material life because of a Great Cause the Yeshiva in New York, eventual immersion in a spiritual life dedicated to suffering mankind.
How the schnorrers used that Great Cause in their war with Bibul! It was all double: in sincerity they poured out their hearts to him; an educated boy, soon to be a rabbi, maybe he’d understand their side — the husband who had taken off and never come back, the bad-hearted rich relatives, the ungrateful kids, the treacherous friends, root, trunk, branch of a Jewish Seven Deadly Sins. They dizzied him with complicated stories, unsettled his strong stomach with demonstrations of human frailty — missing teeth, crossed eyes, wens, tumors, needed operations.
As a bonus to sincerity they hoped the tales would divert Bibul long enough for their aprons to fill with filched fruit.
Crying real tears, Bibul would free an apricot from a list already stained with cherry.
“A religious you call yourself?" the caught thief howled. “God should strike me dead if I stole ever in my life one thing!”
Glancing up at the sky, she moved closer to the other ladies: who knew what kind of pull with God a boy to be a rabbi had?
“Bibul, boychik,” cooed this Mrs. Fenson, bleached a little but not yet forty, without a man since her husband disappeared into the harvest lands of Saskatchewan years before. “Give off ten cents on this here dozen, eh, doll? I can show plenty good appreciation.”
Bibul shuddered a No. There were some things in this material world even the Great Cause did not justify.
For their part, his schnorrers prayed God to give Bibul good enough ears to hear out their incriminating bill of particulars against the human race, bad eyes to miss seeing what their energetic hands were doing; and they cursed fate when Bibul’s unaffected eyes snapped them filching. After a day of listening to lamentation, was there anything Bibul could hear that would amaze him?
“My brudder’s second wibe’s kid wid da hump in back god already her tird miscarriage, Bibul,” he’d hear, and a second later, “Ha c’n ya cha’ge two cends a pond f’a busted wadermelon?” — this to the accompanying sound of a melon being smartly cracked against the side of the wagon.
“Bay ub, bay ub.” Bibul would rise to his full height on the wagon’s seat, like a soapbox orator trying to sway these masses.
That’s when the curses changed from rain to hail, the moment for desperation measures pinching, throwing a kiss, snatching a potato, gulping a cherry, pit and all. But Bibul was through. A loving kick woke Malkeh, a swish of the broken whip banished her horseflies. The swaying tin scoop clattered retreat, the creaking wagon mocked the defeated schnorrers cursing boy and horse down through all possible generations.
WAS it any wonder, then, that when we sharks, all hot for culture, oozing ideology, long on judgments, short on facts, turned our abstract faces toward Bibul, he responded with that “Aaaa”? What was there in our books and ideas to compete with a schnorrcr’s lament? Now I know what that “Aaaa” meant in part: “Aaaa” translated “When I was a child I spake as a child” (may Bibul forgive me for invoking St. Paul!) or “You nuddin’ bud gids.” “Aaaa” said “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” and, in explanation of Bibul’s giving himself to Mammon for a term so, that he might give the rest to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”
The sharks vaguely yearned for the Higher Life; Bibul alone had a concrete goal, a building in a specific city, New York. Every knightly thrust and parry with an unqueenly schnorrer, every cull of orange he sold, every bruised apple brought him that much closer to the Yeshiva.
On graduation day at St. John’s, Bibul was already half a rabbi. Gone were the familiar cardigan and accompanying accessories. Bibul wore a brand-new serge suit. His sideburns were religious enough to be called side curls, the emerycloth shadow was lengthened. His eyes shone with a fervor no schnorrer had ever seen. He looked beautiful, incredibly happy.
“Damorrow,” he said in a low secretive voice, “I go d’ Yeshiva in New Yorg. I wanna say goo’by, Joe.”
“New York?” I said. “A city that big? Aren’t you a little afraid?”
“Aaaa.” Bibul gave me that wave of his. “Wadz t’ be sgared?”
“You’re a stranger. Winnipeg’s a village compared with New York.”
“Aaaa. Zame ding. Beoble iz beoble.”
“What about Malkeh?”
“Berls da beddler robbed me. I gave Malgeh away t’ him. Da groog knew I was goin’ d’ New Yorg.”
“Bibul,” I said enthusiastically, “good luck to you. Be a good rabbi!”
“Aaaa” he said with the usual flourish, his last word to me then or ever.
That fall we sharks entered the university, and Canada the war. Winnipeg was transformed, full of air crew trainees from places known to me before only through postage stamps; yellow skins, black, red, brown, Maori tribesmen from New Zealand, Bushmen from Australia, strange-sounding South Africans, sculpture-faced Indians thronged the city’s streets and beer parlors. But far off in New York, Bibul, who’d known war with his schnorrers since his thirteenth year, paid no attention to this latest struggle, his mind committed to the study of Torah and Talmud, his spare time involved in a fruit-selling job among the East Side schnorrers around New York’s Essex Street market. His old customers, a little cash to speculate with now that the Depression seemed ended, haggled halfheartedly with old man Peris and old Malfeeh, the one mercifully deaf, the other almost totally blind.
Once in a long while I checked in at Bibul’s mother’s store and, gleaning news of Bibul, let her weigh me up a light pound of corned beef. She wore her hair Busier Brown, carried a huge buxom body on little feet tucked into gray-white tennis shoes.
She shoved a letter at me.
“Look how a educated boy writes,” she said, pugnaciously proud. “Who but a rabbi could understand such hard words?”
She pulled it back before I could give an opinion.
“See him only, look, look.” She pushed a picture at my eyes.
Bibul huddled against a bare Williamsburg wall, grinning the same grin as three other Bibuls in the picture, all of them bearded and wild as Russians, in black beaver hats bought with money they had earned tutoring the Americanized grandchildren of rich Hasidim.
“Some boy, my Bibul,” his mother called to me as I was leaving.
WINTER passed; the war grew grimmer. Spring was beautiful; the war more dreadful. Summer was very hot in New York, where Bibul divided his time between the Yeshiva and Essex Street’s schnorrers. For days, the temperature was in the high humid nineties. Bibul had never known such heat. He couldn’t study, sleep, sell. In desperation he took himself one evening to the Y, forgetting, in the heat, that he had never learned to swim.
An attendant, going off duty, warned Bibul away, told him not to enter the pool. Who can be blind to Bibul’s response?
“Aaaa,” and that gesture.
His schnorrers, being told, wept and lamented.
We sharks, even in the midst of the war’s casualties, were moved and stricken.
Bibul was the first of us to die.
I cannot find Bibul’s like in Winnipeg today.
Somebody waved a T-square wand over the old island, and the ninety-degree angle, unknown a few thousand years ago, in Bibul’s time, has made its appearance there. Progress pretends Bibul’s island never existed: the back lanes are paved, paint has been sloshed all over the bare wood fences. When the green gave out, the painters, unflustered, turned to brown. Bibul’s world has left signs of itself: a clothesline pole, exhausted from long years of supporting soggy fleece-lined underwear, seems ready to give up the ghost; an outside staircase, impermanent as a hangman’s scallold, still mocks the fire commissioner who asked for safety and got greater danger.
Malkeh is dead. The wagon fell to pieces. Motorized peddlers in trucks like Brink’s cars zoom through the island late at night with the remnants of produce picked over by ringed and braceleted upper-middle-class hands on the day route: River Heights, Silver Heights, Garden City; places of Togetherness, Betterness, Spotlessness, the answers Comfort has given the questions of Civilization.
“Apples, apples, two pounds for a quarter,” cry the peddlers, but not too loudly, and the women once poor enough to be schnorrers — few are left—and the women living in the rebuilt T-squared houses look over the produce, ironically like Bibul’s old rejects because of prior pawing, buy a little, haggle not at all, or withdraw with a snub at peddlers, a bow in favor of the superior refrigeration of the supermarkets.
Throughout Bibul’s city, cars pass in unending gaggle, the drivers great speedsters with no goal for their horsepower. The mayor tells the people to “Think big” and hang many flags and buntings. Slums like Bibul’s island and the city hall are doomed; Winnipeg is obviously a better place in which to live; who doesn’t salute the coming of prosperity?
But the fact remains, I cannot find Bibul’s like in Winnipeg today. And that is why, here and now, in this, his and my city, I write you this requiem for Bibul, for his face, for his Cause, his tic, his wave, his ”Aaaa.” In love and the joy of remembering, I sing you this Bibul and all that’s past and passing but not to come.
When the city hall is torn down they will build Winnipeg a new one, but where, oh, where shall we find more Bibuls?