Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Trouble with Stealing Cows

When Harry Houdini was still Erik Weisz, stealing milk cows out of fields in northern Hungary, his cousin Emmanuel was already scheming escapes. Nineteen year old Manny Weisz’s considerable debt was unlikely to be aided by the great cow heist of 1890 – limited in its scope to three skin thin heifers observed wandering from a neighbor’s herd while out to pasture.

The dramatic notion in Erick’s design was to steal the cows at mid-day – an audacious attempt he hoped would be widely gossiped. This precocity for risk and want of celebrity would mark Weisz’s later endeavors (and tickle the genes of certain descendants down the line and once removed). But a few curdling cows promised no relief to cousin Manny, up shit creek with the slick tradesman Hoenig.

Hoenig was in and out of the village monthly hawking medicinal herbs he pledged were seeded in the same clay as the Vilna Golem in Lietuva, grown under strict kashrut law, and sung to maturation with mystic Hebrew hymns. Every fortnight, Hoenig spent the night at his cousin-in-law’s, playing cards with her son Uvi and his credulous friends. He fattened them on fantasies of the exotic women from his travels, and they did not notice their pockets empty. At the card table is where Manny and Hoenig found they shared a disposition for speculation and investment – entrepreneurial passions so different from the local malaise of breeding, hand-me-down farms and trades, and the very occasional university bound.

Manny had been to Budapest. Had lingered long enough outside the expensive caf├ęs to have his throat parched by his craving for richly seasoned goulash. Had splurged on a trip to the bathhouse where the mushroomy air soured any lingering appetite for prude village women. Manny had a citified soul, some congenital bent towards tight urban alleys and loose urban women, to noise and the indifference of passersby, to good suits, to hot wine, to never waning waltzes in the red-fringed backrooms of gentleman’s joints. Manny knew in his heart he was a gentleman. He had been to Budapest only once, on an errand to pick up a package sent to his family from a relation in America, but it took only that one trip to assure him. Every angle he worked pointed east to the city.

Manny Weisz was born a malcontent. Once weaned, he refused to eat. What his mother could get him to swallow he didn’t like. Incessant crying was punctuated by bouts of listlessness. Manny cried to be held then cried when he was touched. The midwife suggested curdling milk with a drop of vinegar to induce the child to vomit up his unrest. The pharmacist prescribed small doses of laudanum, a rather progressive recommendation for the time. It had to be ordered from another town. It was the laudanum that helped. Baby Manny accepted his meals with little resistance. The household was finally quiet. An opium addict at 19 months.

But the frequent tantrums didn’t end. By his fourth birthday, it was a common village irritation to see Little Manny, flat on his stomach, egg-sized hands balled tight, cheeks bulging at the injustice of being denied a sweet sesame bun. And when it became too much and his father demanded his mother put a stop to the child’s ranting, Hilda, remembered the sweet passivity of Manny’s narcotized baby years, and added a few drops of laudanum to the boy’s milk and even to his bloody purple borscht.

Nine years of a cottage filled with tension and sleeplessness, petulance and tantrums, of trouble at school, and the bullying of friends. “Little Manny has bitten my Moshe on the foot!” And then a surprising thing. One inauspicious night at the dinner table, the dark eyed, fat-faced, pout-lipped ten-year-old, interjected in an argument his parents were having about the price of cloth, parroting verbatim an observation he’d heard on that same topic at the family shop.

His parents didn’t hear him immediately, accustomed as they were to tuning out his tantrums. Only his brother paused in setting the table, and turned his head sharply and suspiciously towards Manny. Manny continued on, regurgitating, nearly word for word, opinions he’d heard in the day about local politics and the news trickling in of pogroms to the east. Finally, his mother slowed in her stirring of the stew and his father put down his torah and there was Manny chatting away at all of them and to no one in particular, happy enough (at the moment) with the sound of his own voice.

At first Manny’s interlocutions were just diverting, a reprieve from his sullenness and fits. But his talking grew in scope, drawing from conversations Manny was in proximity to hear as he wandered the village, freed from his chores by mother Hilda, who preferred to have him out and bothering others then irritable at her feet.

Manny’s gift was unexpected. Up to this point he'd spoken only to refuse or demand. Now at night, curled against his big, beloved Hilda, Manny’s father could dream his dreams for his sons, for Manny especially, of great rabbinical posts, of celebrated teaching, of wealth and wisdom. Of himself as the father of a genius.

When Manny started belching out words in addition to bile, his rages were accepted as a mark of his prodigy. A late explanation providentially granted. Hilda, always afraid she’d carried him wrongly or cried too much at his birth, now exonerated herself. His father, who had spoke little of his youngest son to his shul mates now paraded him happily out at dinners and sat him down at the front counter of his little tailor shop to greet costumers.

Manny’s older brother Herman was less enthusiastic. Manny, with his capricious moods, and his newfound words suddenly had the monopoly on his parents’ attention. Had amended Herman’s long-standing position as the favored son, sympathizer to his family’s burden, to something more auxiliary. The backup, should Manny fail in his promise, as Herman knew he would.

As Herman suspected, Manny left the rabbinical aspirations to his brother, technicalities didn’t interest him. He didn’t have the attention span to sit down to study with the elders as most of the boys his age were forced to do. Neither could he stare at a piece of thread and sewing needle for twelve hours a day, then retreat to the study with his books as his father did.

Frustrated to have a genius son, who was not acting geniusly, Manny’s father gave him time and space to think (and told his friends that his brilliant son was in deep contemplation). This immunity to his father’s constant pressure to perform was another thorn in Herman’s heavily prickled side.

While Herman labored over book and bodice (sewing them up without the catharsis of ripping them off) Manny used his time to walk. Manny loved walking, loved how his brain emptied of thoughts as he weaved through the alleys of the small village, climbing out to the pastures and up the hills, as he wallowed in the cemetery, sometimes stooping his considerable weight (inherited from his mother’s side) to study a grave or pick a flower.

Though Manny’s head at these times where meditatively vacant, the myth of his brooding journeys did a right job on his reputation. As his father hoped, Manny had the mien of a deep and learned man. His complicity in maintaining the pretense of his son’s wisdom bothered him. But with so much early, and boasted of promise, Manny’s father could not now reveal his disappointment. Not even to Herman, who longed for reassurance that his father was wrong in loving Manny more.

Walking gave Manny time to consider his future. He knew he was not a tailor, and would never be satisfied glued to a book. But despite not having the aptitude for serious study, Manny was sure he was smarter than his pinch-faced brother, who fogged his glasses with sneezing, whispered his opinions and then second guessed them.

At first, Manny’s eloquence surprised him. It was a shock that people turned to the sound of his voice. He practiced speaking slow and methodically, with inflections mimicked from his father and brother’s midrashic debates. The baritone coupled with his youthful self-assurance and his considerable, if superficial comprehension of most topics of village interest made him an easy companion. Manny found he was welcome on the outskirts of conversations.

Manny could listen to an exchange between two butchers and come out with enough authentic jargon to convince the butcher’s brother, that he was a butcher too. If he listened long enough at the lender’s, he could quote prices and who had borrowed on what speculation, he could sit at the back of the local magistrate’s office and recall the next day why the judge had ruled against a father on a dowry negotiation, peppering his report with words like precedent, illegality, and breech, though without fully knowing their meaning.

Much more than his facility with words, Manny’s gift was confidence. Because he was smarter than others he had special dispensation to deserve what he wanted and to do whatever to get it. Manny guiltlessly set the butcher against the dairyman with a rumor that that dairyman had promised his older breeding bulls to a man three villages south instead of to his good neighbor who had always given him the most lusciously marbled cuts. Without a hint of guile or self-reproach, Manny could chat either up with sympathy, as the dairyman churned his complaints into butter and the butcher took his fury out on the slab and Manny went home with an extra cup of cream and a slice of shoulder.

Still, Manny couldn’t figure out what to do with himself. But during a particularly impoverished time for his family, when bad local crops pinched extra spending on the luxury of new suits and dresses, Manny found his calling in sales.

His father had received an over-shipment of ugly green cotton that the distributor refused to rescind. Manny for the first time perceived a demand for his abilities. Out most of his money from a bet he’d lost to Erick concerning Erick’s ability to free himself from a locked storage shed, Manny convinced his father to give him twenty percent profit if he could get rid of the cotton.

In the matter of a week, Manny had convinced the ladies that moldy green was a godly hue, and also sought-after by the finest ladies of Budapest. His confidence in describing the popular women’s fashion in a city he had visited only once over a year ago had an emollient affect on the town girls, softening their hearts both to the ugly fabric and to the hereto unappreciated Manny. Green frocks sprouted up across the village like shoots of early summer corn. And Manny took his commission under many a verdant hem.

Manny could sling a load of bull and make it stick. Only the experts on any particular subject knew, after a time (of perhaps ten to fifteen minutes, if a conversation lasted that long), that he was faking. Noticing this was a weakness, Manny made a study of the elders. Rebe Hirt never interrupted, but waited until everyone else had spent their two cents before he spoke – and people listened. Old lady Torok withheld her opinion until the ladies begged and begged.

This was the trick, Manny decided. Thoughts offered too eagerly are rejected. Wise men parcel out their knowledge like sweets, made sweeter by the hording. Manny used the family dinners to practice his look of casual impartiality, pinching himself when he had the impulse to jump in, holler and persuade. In conversations at the tavern, if he kept his opinion out of it until he could have the last word, and then interjected with feigned disinterest, he could noodle almost anyone into assuming he knew what he was talking about. Even himself.

And this is how he got into trouble with Hoenig.

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