A blessing

I sing of a man who's little known, and of his quiet heroism. He's my friend, Shlomo Rubinski, a struggling actor of the Yiddish stage. Yesterday was his birthday.

It began behind the dark window of a room in an old hotel. An alarm clock went off at three in the morning, as usual, and a groggy soul sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes, and then, remembering what day it was, let out such a groan as made the whole room shrink into its corners.

Climbing out of bed, Shlomo went over to the mirror, switched on the light, and then, before he could look, shut his eyes. Don't let me see there the same person I saw yesterday, he prayed. That raving hair, those raccoon eyes, coathanger shoulders, and xylophone ribs, haven't they persecuted me enough? Let me see a new man, his chest rippling with the second wind of life. Please!

He looked and, between blinks, saw a figure that seemed to waver before him, hugging itself as if it were cold, or in grief. But then, looking closer, he saw the familiar sight, all goosebumpy and yearning. Tears welled to his eyes.

To cry in a hotel room, no matter what hour, is never prudent. You don't know who might be peeking at you through the keyhole, grinning at your misery.

There was the ceiling, its flaky sky hinting at the urge to fall. There the dresser, slouched like a critic in the corner of a small audience, smiling cynically at the idea of his fame. There the bed, that Israel for the bedbugs. There, on the window sill, his flowers nearing surrender in their fight. And he, why was he up at that desolate hour? To go and do in his car (to support himself), what he'd done on his bike as a boy - deliver newspapers.

This was it, he thought, the bottom, I've hit it; forty years old, and what am I? He looked in the mirror again at his face, tear-streaked, woebegone. And he swore at that moment he didn't care two cents what became of him. What difference would it make if there were no Shlomo Rubinski in the world?

Just then, completely unbidden, as if it had been waiting for the cue of this outrageous question, a smile presented itself. It was a first a rather ghastly smile, such as a ghoul might attempt in polite company. But it held on and gradually won its way even to the eyes. Whoever has watched a seagull falling upward from rough, gray water has seen something of Shlomo's smile.

Instinctively he felt his ancestors had come to help him, those brave souls who'd parted from their birthdays to join the agelessness of eternity. They had to send him a smile to lift him from the bottom and to remind him how precious life was, in all extremities.

Shlomo forgave himself for being such a ninny on his own birthday. How old he was, in years or disappointments, what did that matter? What mattered was that he was alive and free to cheer up the ceiling, surprise the dresser, boot out the bedbugs, reinforce the flowers, and maybe even right the world.

He went through his route in record time, and that afternoon he gave an inspired performance at the little playhouse known not widely but devotedly as ''A Beser Teyater'' - A Better Theater. His friends clapped and cheered when he took a bow with the rest of the cast. I held up a sign wishing him happy birthday. Removing his parchment mask made up of hundreds of comical wrinkles, he declared, with feeling, that any calamity could be borne if only one had the heart of his ancestors.

We all went back to his hotel with him, and then up to the roof to see the sun go down on the great day. Shlomo brought a chair, and he climbed on it so he could see farther and longer than any. He looked like a little boy up there, shy and proud and happy. ''It's a big birthday cake with all those candles on it,'' he said, smiling at the sunset. Then, closing his eyes and making a wish, he blew them all out.

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