Copyright is held by the author. This is an excerpt from Marvin’s Novel.
TWO VANS with MAKE YOUR SPECIAL EVENT NEISSER printed on their sides pulled up in front of the Beth Israel Synagogue early Saturday morning. Richard Neisser, heir to the Neisser Photography Company prided himself on leaving nothing to chance. In addition to the usual sound and lighting checks, Richard liked to take his time to get the lay of the land. When the festivities began it was Neisser’s intention to get a close up of every guest in action — drinking, laughing, eating, copping a feel — the good the bad and the tasteless. Early in his career Richard learned that you could never take too much footage.
The videos could be turned into still shots as souvenirs for the party goers. Or, in some cases, as evidence that needed to be suppressed. Neisser’s mouth fairly watered as he recalled some of his past more lucrative photo ventures at a variety of celebrations. The Reverend putting it to a the lead singer of a band in the sacristy. The Priest a bit too intimate with a choir boy. An exchange of some white powdery substance in the men’s room at a hotel….
Marvin’s mind wandered as the Rabbi droned on. It was hard to believe that the wedding, his wedding, was underway. It seemed only moments ago that he, his parents, and his brother, Warren, had stepped out of the stretch limo and into the glare of lights in the synagogue’s vestibule.
“What is this?” his mother asked. Are we such celebrities that we’re on television?”
“No Ma, this is the way they do it nowadays. Video cameras instead of still shots. In place of a wedding album you get a bookshelf of cassettes, edited and catalogued.”
The sounds of Finjan’s Klesmer music in the distance drew them into a great hall. Early arrivals were clustered around a bar like bees around a hive.
“I think I need a drink,” said Marvin’s father.
“What are you talking about, Sidney. You never drink.”
But that was no longer strictly the case. The few days away from an ordered life in New York wrought a number of changes in Sidney’s persona. Foremost among them was a burgeoning self esteem which up until then had been kept in check by his wife’s careful ministrations.
In Winnipeg Sidney was unfettered. He basked in the special attention accorded him by the Bermans and their well-heeled acquaintances. He was swept up in the excitement of dinners, brunches, and lunches for friends, relatives and out-of-town guests. And he was more than a little flattered when Mr. Berman introduced him to important business associates and close friends as “the famous doctor from New York.”
Although initially dead set against the marriage, Dr. Sidney Keselman quickly reassessed his position when he got his first glimpse of Myrna.
The Keselmans arrived in Winnipeg a week before the wedding. From the top of the escalator in the airport, Sidney spotted his son among the waiting throng below. Even from afar, Sidney could see that the woman with Marvin was extremely attractive. And from his vantage point, as the escalator descended, Sidney couldn’t help but notice the orbs of Myrna’s breasts threatening to burst from the top of her flimsy summer jumper.
After exchanging perfunctory greetings with Marvin, Dr. Keselman pulled Myrna towards him and gave her a kiss. Then, still holding her by both hands, he stepped back and gave her a long, lingering look. “So this is my daughter-in-law to be. It’s a real pleasure to meet you. Marvin never told me how beautiful you are. Don’t you think she’s beautiful, Ethel?”
The diminutive Mrs. Keselman, having tilted her head up and pursed her lips to receive the obligatory peck from Marvin, now turned toward her husband and Myrna. From his vantage point, slightly behind the trio, Marvin could see his mother grasp a bit of loose, freckled flesh on the back of her husband’s upper arm just where it emerged from beneath the short sleeve of his light blue Lord & Taylor shirt. With a smooth motion born of constant practice, Ethel gave the flesh a generous twist. Marvin winced. A recipient of this manoeuvre many a time, Marvin knew how much it hurt.
“Sidney, please you’re embarrassing the poor girl.”
“Oh, he’s not embarrassing me,” Myrna said, batting mascara-laden eyelashes. “It’s always nice to receive compliments especially when they come from such a handsome man.”
Sidney sucked in his gut and puffed out his chest at the tribute. But ever mindful of Ethel’s agile fingers still resting on his arm, he said. “I think I’ll see if our luggage is on the carousel.”
“Good idea,” Marvin said. “Why don’t I get the car and you can meet me at the front entrance.”
The trio emerged from the airport just as the commissionaire was about to tell Marvin to move on. Dr. Keselman opened the back door of his son’s Honda and ceremoniously ushered Myrna in. His lecherous examination of Myrna’s shapely thigh as the hem of her dress rode up her leg did not go unnoticed by the ever vigilant Ethel.
“I’ll sit in the back with Myrna,” she said, pushing her husband aside.
“Well will you?” Marvin’s reverie was suddenly interrupted by a less than gentle poke from Myrna.
“Will I what?”
“Take Myrna to be your lawful, wedded wife?
“I do. I mean I will.”
“And will you Myrna, take Marvin, to be your lawful wedded husband? Will you love him, comfort him, honour and protect him, in times of prosperity and health, and in times of trouble and suffering and be faithful to him so long as you both shall live?”
“The rings please,” the Rabbi said, looking in turn at the Maid of Honour and the Best Man.
As if by magic, a purple velvet box appeared from the folds of Patricia Walsh’s dark green dress and rested in the palm of her white-gloved hand. She opened it to display a wide band made of white gold.
Marvin turned to his brother who was desperately hunting for Myrna’s ring in the pockets of his tuxedo. The congregation stirred uneasily. Sweat broke out on Warren’s brow. Under the harsh video lights his face swiftly coloured, running the spectrum from bright vermilion to deep purple.
Marvin felt a moment of sympathy for his brother until he realized the implications of the loss. Neither ring was insured. Hadn’t the sales clerk mentioned something about that?
Warren approached the Rabbi and croaked a despairing apology. “I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find the ring. I think I might have left it in the limo.”
The experienced Rabbi Baruch had overseen many a wedding calamity and this was certainly not a new one. He knew exactly what to do. “Does anyone have a cell?” he intoned, almost as if the question were part of the marital litany.
At least a hundred hands dipped into the recesses of suit-jacket pockets. And almost in unison, a hundred cellular phones, flaps open and ready to go, were held aloft.
“Mr. Opochinsky,” Rabbi Baruch called, “if I may.”
Rapheal Opochinsky, a regular worshipper and pleased to be recognized, scampered forward from his aisle seat and handed the Rabbi his phone.
“Was it King Limousine?” the Rabbi asked Warren.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes,” Myrna snapped, glaring at Warren.
“Does anyone know the number?”
“Two Two Two King,” Murray Bronstein shouted.
The Rabbi dialed the number. Uncharacteristically, the members of the congregation strained to catch the Rabbi’s words. A murmur went through the crowd as Rabbi Baruch shut the cellular phone down. All smiles, Rapheal Opochinsky returned to his seat.
“The ring is on its way, the Rabbi announced. “So just sit tight.”
Minutes later the door at the back of the synagogue swung open and a small, mustached man in the livery of King Limousine scurried down the aisle. He handed a purple velvet box to Rabbi Baruch who passed it on to Warren.
“Marvin, hold Myrna’s left hand in yours and the ring in your right hand…”
“Hey Rabbi, aren’t you forgetting something?”
Startled, the Rabbi turned to discover that the chauffeur was still there on the platform with the wedding party.
Now here is something new, the Rabbi thought. “My good man, we’re conducting a wedding service here. If you want to remain, just have a seat with the rest of the congregation.”
“Look, I got better things to do than hang around here. I passed up a fare to bring that ring here.”
The rotund Mr. Berman moved with surprising quickness and agility from his seat in the front row. Mounting the three steps to the platform, he seized the little man’s arm in a vice-like grip with one hand while thrusting a $50 bill into his pocket with the other.
Then he leaned forward and whispered in a voice so low that even Neisser’s ultra-sensitive mikes could not pick up the words, “Now get the fuck out of here before I throw you on the ground and piss on you.”
“Yes sir! Thank you sir!”
The Rabbi waited for the door to close behind the chauffeur.
“Marvin, take Myrna’s left hand in yours and place the ring on her finger. Now repeat after me, I give you this ring in God’s name as a symbol of all that we have promised and all that we shall share.”
Marvin glanced at his parents who were sitting next to the Bermans in the front row. Another snag. During the Rabbi’s prenuptial counselling, Marvin laid his cards on the table. “I’ve only been to synagogue once in my life,” he said. “My father took me to a Yom Kippur service when I was a little boy. He thought it was important for me to see how the holiest of days is celebrated even though he’s an atheist.”
Myrna was astonished and started to cry. “You mean you weren’t even bar mitzvahed?”
“No Myrna, I was never bar mitzvahed. And my father’s not the only atheist in the family. So are my mother and brother. As a matter of fact I come from a long line of atheists and…”
“That means we can’t get married. You’re not really a Jew.”
“Myrna, that’s not true. If you’re born to a Jewish mother you’re a Jew, whether you’ve been bar mitzvahed or not.”
“Is he right, Rabbi?” Myrna said, sobbing.
“Yes Myrna, Marvin’s right. His Jewishness is a birthright; you’ll be able to get married in the synagogue. There won’t be any problem at all.”
“That’s not strictly true. I do have a problem.”
“I know what you’re getting at, Marvin,” the Rabbi interjected, “but frankly, you’re being a bit of a sophist.”
“But Rabbi, Marvin graduated from college a long time ago. In fact, he even has…”
“I’m aware of that, Myrna. But what Marvin doesn’t seem to comprehend is that since Judaism is a religion, the term `Jewish atheist’ is an oxymoron. In short, Marvin, by birth and hence by definition you are both Jewish and a believer in God. The two are inexorably bound together.”
“With all due respect Rabbi Baruch, that’s simply not the case. Even you must know that there are an enormous number of secular Jews. Like me…
“Please let me finish Rabbi. I’ve been thinking about what I want to say for a few days now, and it won’t take long. Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my heritage and proud of our accomplishments. And I’m also dismayed by our failures as exemplified by our oppression of the Palestinians in Israel.
“You see, Rabbi, it’s the history of the Jews on this earth, including the good and the bad, that constitutes my identity as a Jew, but certainly not a belief in God.
“In fact, the only time in my life that I came close to praying was when I was a kid and I’d try to make deals with God. You know, please God, if you just keep my mother from finding out that I stole money from her purse this time I promise I’ll never do it again.
“Come to think of it, that might have solidified my atheistic beliefs if you can say such a thing.”
“What do you mean?” Myrna asked.
“Well, the truth is that my mother invariable found out when I stole money from her purse and she discovered other transgressions that I asked God to conceal from her. Like the time Freddy Finkel and I threw water-filled balloons from the Finkels’ sixth floor apartment window. I don’t remember how old we were, maybe 11 or 12.
“You can imagine my horror as I leaned over the window sill to enjoy the aftermath of a Freddy Finkel bull’seye only to discover Howie Waxman’s mother staring back up at me. I slunk back home. And that was the last time I prayed to God.”
“Because, although I was certain that Mrs. Waxman knew where the balloons had come from, I prayed that she hadn’t seen me, and that only Freddy would get into trouble. I knew he’d never squeal. Or if she had seen me, I prayed that Mrs. Waxman wouldn’t tell my mother.
“But she had seen me. And she did tell my mother and I got an awful beating because of it.”
“I know, Rabbi. It belittles the image of an almighty God, to imagine that he would entertain such self-serving prayers of a little boy. I’m just teasing. It’s not that incident, or others like it, that turned me into an atheist. Nor the beliefs of my parents. It’s a conclusion I would have come to all on my own, sooner or later.
“The existence of a God just doesn’t make any sense to me. Or at least no more sense than the beliefs of other civilizations in a veritable society of gods on high, amused by the pathetic actions of human beings on the earth below.
“Which brings me to the point of this whole diatribe. It’s important for Myrna and her family that we get married in a synagogue. And I respect those wishes.
“I also realize that there are certain ground rules that you in good conscience must follow. All that I am asking is that there be a small modification in the ceremony, an unimportant modification in the ceremony, but a modification that will make me feel a bit more comfortable.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’d just like to drop the reference to God at the exchange of the rings. It’s the only time in the ceremony when we actually have to repeat a statement rather than answer a question. Removing the reference to God won’t alter the meaning but it will make me feel better.
“In other words, Myrna and I would merely say `I give you this ring as a symbol of all that we have promised and all that we shall share.’
If we say it that way, the meaning really does remain the same, because it refers to everything we have promised before in the name of God without me having to feel hypocritical about verbally acknowledging God. It’s a small point, Rabbi and it may be silly. But it would make me feel better and as far as I can tell it’s a compromise that really doesn’t alter anything you have to say. You have your God and say it too. I tacitly affirm the existence of your God but don’t have to refer to Him.”
“That does sound reasonable, Marvin. I’ve got to admit that much. But it involves an alteration in the basic service and it’s possible that the very omission of reference to God in your pledge connotes something of importance. Let me think about the potential ramifications of your suggestion.”
Marvin was so sure that the apparently reasonable Rabbi Baruch would honour his request that he never raised the issue again. Nor was Marvin particularly concerned when he noticed that the sermon, at least that part of it that filtered through the haze of his musings, was replete with references to God. He simply imagined that it was Rabbi Baruch’s way of compensating for his ostracism at the vows accompanying the exchange of rings.
But no such luck. Here it was. Marvin’s gaze swung from his parents to Myrna. He sensed more than saw the anxious expression on her face, hazy through the diaphanous veil. He felt the sharp sting of her red painted nails digging into the palm of his hand and he knew what he had to do.
“I give you this ring in God’s name as a symbol of all that we have promised and all that we shall share,” he said.
The insistent pressure on his hand eased. “I receive this ring in God’s name as a symbol of all that we have promised and all that we shall share.”
As the exchange of rings ended, Rabbi Baruch deftly joined Marvin and Myrna’s right hands, cupping them in his own. A cunning smile slid across the Rabbi’s thin, pasty lips as he intoned, “Now, in the presence of God and under the power vested in me by the Province of Manitoba, I pronounce you husband and wife. Whom God has joined together, let no one separate.”
A wine glass was placed on the floor. Marvin raised his foot and started to lose his balance. He clutched at Myrna in order to right himself and struck the glass a glancing blow, sending it sideways off the platform. It bounced once on the parquet floor before it shattered. “You may kiss the bride,” the Rabbi murmured.”
Richard Neisser imagined the scene in super slo-mo.
“Hi, I’m Harold Painter, a business associate of your father-in-law’s,” a short, fat man said with a smile as he came upon Marvin on the receiving line. “I think you have the makings of a professional football player.”
Marvin noticed that everything about Harold Painter was fat. Fat lips, fat cheeks, fat pouches surrounding small piggish eyes, fat earlobes and globules of fat on the sweaty palm extended for a congratulatory handshake.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The way you kicked the glass off the stage. You’re an absolute natural.”
Marvin stared at the wide, bib-like tie that rested on the ample expanse of a striped shirt-covered stomach that was starting to quiver with laughter. The wit, the quick repartee that Marvin had been noted for throughout his life, in fact the only thing quick about Marvin, eluded him for the moment. Before he could come up with an appropriately cutting remark, the fat man was away.
The seemingly endless flow of people continued. The line up of well-wishers snaked through the double doors and out into the Synagogue’s vestibule. Marvin longed for a drink. He fleetingly thought of trying to snatch a glass of ersatz champagne from the tray of one of the white-aproned waitresses circulating among the guests, but prudently decided against it.
Marvin searched in vain for the end of the line. It occurred to him that this was as bad as being trapped at the Waverly railroad crossing on the way to the University. Since there were no longer cabooses to signal the end of the train, the best he could do was hope that that box car or that tanker emerging from behind the tree line would be the last and he would finally be free to be on his way.
The only difference, Marvin thought, is that now instead of one more train it’s one more Berman business associate or relative or long-time friend. And instead of appearing from behind the tree line they appear in a never-ending stream from behind the vestibule doors. The Bronsteins, Myrna’s Aunt Sonja and Uncle Melvin, a Chretien who was rumoured to be a distant relative of the Prime Minister, and the widowed Sadie Binder were among the many who passed through Marvin’s hands.
But finally it was over. Marvin lunged at a passing tray and snatched up two glasses of champagne. He downed the first in a gulp and was working on the second when a voice broke through the muted mood music and the amiable hubbub of the crowd.
“Hello, everyone. My name is Darren. I’m your emcee for this special evening.” Conversation died as people turned toward the stage. “On behalf of the Berman and Keselman families, I’d like to welcome you to the wedding celebration of Myrna and Marvin.
“Dinner will be served in a few moments so if you could find your places, the festivities can begin. Those of you who have not already done so, can pick up the card with your name on it in the vestibule. The card has a number on it which corresponds to the number on the table that you’ll be sitting at.
“During the course of the dinner, I will be calling on various people to say a few words about the happy couple and of course I will be reading telegrams from well-wishers literally from all over the world. In fact, let’s start off with one right now. Here’s one all the way from Israel. It’s signed Cousin Misha and simply says Mazel Tov. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that just perfect? Doesn’t that just sum up it all up? I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we give Myrna and Marvin our own Mazel Tov. Okay now, on the count of three. One, two, three — Mazel Tov! That was great. You’re a really great crowd and we’ll be having a lot of fun tonight celebrating the wedding of Myrna and Marvin. But I’m getting the high sign from the kitchen. Dinner’s about to be served so it’s time that you all found your seats. And bon appetit as they say in Israel. Just a little joke folks…”
Marvin found his seat on the dais next to Myrna whose knee, he noticed, was being fondled by his father seated to her right. Waiters were already moving efficiently among the tables below shouldering trays laden with plates of food. Behind them came others carrying bottles of red and white wine.
A waiter slid a plate of cold asparagus vinaigrette in front of Marvin. Deftly he speared a spear and slipped its middle into his mouth, leaving the ends to flop like a live anchovy from between his lips. Too late he heard the crescendo of tinkling glass. “Stand up, Marvin,” Myrna hissed, “and for God’s sake swallow your food.”
As he stood, Marvin chewed quickly trying to down the asparagus before giving Myrna the compulsory kiss to quiet the guests. But the recalcitrant spear was stringy and it was clear that mastication was not the answer. Desperate, Marvin tried to suck the spear down in its entirety. It was no go. Marvin realized his mistake too late and started to sputter and cough.
Fortunately Warren was on hand. Though inept with rings, he was well versed in the Heimlich method. He quickly stepped behind his brother and grasped him around the stomach. A short, upward hard jerk and squeeze and the spear arced out of Marvin’s mouth and landed in the centre of the central concentric circle of the yamolka perched atop Rapheal Opochinsky’s head. The guests applauded, Warren bowed and Marvin and Myrna kissed. Richard Neisser smiled. And Harold Painter nearly fell off his chair with laughter.
The well-trained waiters, undeterred by the asparagus crisis, were already collecting plates and setting new ones in their place. Murmurs of appreciation greeted the arrival of the huge tureens of chicken soup with dumplings accompanied by wicker baskets heaped with warm breads and rolls.
Conversations resumed. Sadie Binder exclaimed at the texture of the dumplings while sopping up her second serving of soup with the remainder of her third kaiser roll. She didn’t miss a beat when the brisket with mashed potatoes and carrots and peas arrived. She quickly finished her own plate and moved on to the her daughter, Irma’s, leftovers.
“Mom, take it easy. You’re eating like there’s no tomorrow.”
“But it’s so good,” Sadie screeched as she deftly shovelled a spoonful of potatoes and gravy into her mouth.
The New York slice, a precursor to the numerous desserts and the multi-layered wedding cake still hidden on a table behind a curtain at one side of the room, was Sadie’s undoing. Irma was in the powder room, when Sadie, like a newly christened ship, slid quietly from her chair and lay motionless under the table. A garish coating of chocolate lipstick attested to her fatal misdemeanour.
On her return Irma thought nothing of her mother’s absence. She was sure the peripatetic and garrulous Sadie was off to another table visiting with some of the many people that she knew. In fact, it was possible that Sadie would have remained undiscovered until the end of the festivities except for the salacious desires of Harold Painter.
Although seated next to his wife, Harold had unsuccessfully been trying to play footsie with Irma during the entire meal. So he was ecstatic when he finally made contact. Emboldened by the seeming responsiveness of Irma’s shoe, Harold contemplated unlacing his own black, patent leather Armani shoe in order to message Irma’s thigh with his silk-stocking clad foot.
When he bent down to execute this manoeuvre, made more difficult by the huge quantities of food he had consumed, Harold discovered that the shoe he had been massaging with his own, and that had been hidden by the long white table cloth, was not the delicate, high-heeled dress shoe of a young woman that he had imagined, but a squat, square shoe characteristically worn by older folk. What’s more, the sole of the shoe was perpendicular to the ground.
Harold lifted the table cloth a bit more. Shaken by what he saw he let the cloth drop and said to Irma, “Your mother’s under the table.”
“Your mother’s under the table.”
“That’s impossible. She never even had so much as a glass of wine. Look her glass is still full.”
“No I mean it, Irma, literally. Take a look for yourself.”
From Herman Berman’s perspective, Irma couldn’t have handled the situation any better than she did. She didn’t shout. She didn’t scream. She merely fainted.
Summoned to the table by Harold Painter’s desperate gestures, Herman sized up the situation in an instant. No sense in alarming the guests or putting a damper on the festivities. Sadie was dead, nothing to be done for her. Irma was another problem. She could come to and start screaming.
By judicious use of a series of hand signals, Herman caught Darren’s attention and directed him to announce the unveiling of the drinks and desserts table. With a fanfare and drum roll from the Knappen Street All Star Band, the curtain at the side of the room was slowly drawn back revealing two bars and tables laden with an enormous variety of deserts and sweets surrounding the massive wedding cake.
There was a chocolate orange torte with raspberry sauce, a lemon feather cake, a peach pie, a rhubarb tart, a cream pie, a strawberry short cake, a chocolate cheese cake, an apricot soufflé, a tarte aux pommes, an almond cake and a trifle.
There were crème caramels, snow eggs, crepes suzette, madeleines, macaroons, meringues chantilly, finger sized eclairs, nanaimo bars, and petit fours.
Carefully arranged on an ice sculpture of the Beth Israel Synagogue were slices of pineapple, peaches, pears, nectarines, apples and watermelon. Nestled among the sliced fruit were large red strawberries and green and purple seedless grapes. And in the stalls of the sculpted parking lot were containers of ice cream and sorbets.
Central to this panoply of goodies was the huge wedding cake. Beads of sugared icing meandered gently down its layers. On its top, a gowned bride and tuxedoed groom looked benignly out at the guests from underneath a chocolate chuppa.
Uniformed bartenders and servers, with their spatulas, spoons, scoops, knives and swizzle sticks at the ready, stood at attention. The guests oohed and aahed and surged forward to stuff themselves again. The diversion provided Herman with enough time to put his hastily formulated plan into action.
Herman beckoned to Byron Lanchester, a doctor whom he had bailed out of legal difficulty arising from Byron’s penchant for prescribing huge quantities of assorted drugs that ultimately (although he claimed he couldn’t understand how) found their way into a lucrative street market.
“Byron, Ms. Binder has just received a shock and passed out in her chair. Harold and you should be able to get her into the vestibule without too much trouble and then I want you to give her a shot to keep her calm. Later we can get her to a hospital if necessary. But in the meantime there’s no sense in getting the rest of the guests alarmed.”
Byron’s drug dealings had taught him never to ask questions. Harold already had hoisted Irma from her chair and was standing at her side, his left arm around her waist. It was quick and easy work to move Irma past the guests at the dessert table who were squealing with delight, like pigs at a trough.
Removing Sadie unnoticed was another matter but Herman was up to the task. He summoned a couple of waiters, slipped them some cash and explained what had to be done. The waiters disappeared and quickly returned with a trolley big enough to accommodate both Mrs. Binder and the table at which she had met her unfortunate if perhaps happy end. And in a matter of moments Mrs. Binder had rejoined her now-sedated daughter in a private room adjacent to the vestibule.
Mr. Berman breathed a sigh of relief. Richard Neisser rubbed his hands together with glee.
The guests danced into the wee hours of the morning.