The BOOKPRESS October 1999

Fat Aaron and the Night Rider


Jascha Kessler

 


I.

Fat Aaron was a bloated angel. This is what the mothers called him, winking that smile about things you weren’t supposed to know. Mothers, aunts, they would have been sweetly right to have put it this way—you couldn’t be supposed to know yet. Then their secret might have been washed down safe with coffee and buttered rolls; then their innocent suns would have careered unswerving and unspotted above the summer, neat and simple over the rolling haymeadows golden with birdsong and buzzing clover in that good morning reserved for children since the night Adam covered Eve, for children, who are set apart romping in an idyll, and growing quiet as appleblossoms in spring.

In such dumb warm August nights the Holstein bull over the next hill bellowed black and white through the hours of that teeming darkness; he rattled the steel chain ringed in his mist-snorting muzzle, and the clanking links of his celibate bondage rang out through the roar that yearned out of the pink giant skinbags swollen between his shanks, and burst from the organ pipes of his heaving chest, thundering over the valley to rattle the boards of the sleeping barns. And the fields seethed with chirruping crickets, the heavens dripped meteor milk, there! there! A hot wind rushed up from the panting earth; flowers, berrybushes, wheatstalks of grass burst their skin; the ground reeked with the rank musk, juice, and scents from the wrestling bodies and mixed sweat of things. In such nights you squatted round the gloam of a weenyroast fire as the spuds pulsed, idol eyes hot in the ruined embers of a jungle temple, you looked up at those bombinating skies, you hummed songs and dabbled fingers with freckled brown girls whose mouths were fruit, moss their hair, and downy arms baskets to cradle your soft melon head. While far below on the porches of the clumped cottages the mothers mumbled over cards and tea, or strolled the road, their flashlights glimmering like squids’ eyes beneath a tepid sea. Though there was a black thunderhead beckoning in the dog days, and an arm of stuttering fire by night, there was no voice in that furious music. Until I heard Fat Aaron’s. And I knew him to be the arcane, masterful rabbin of that season.

Fat Aaron was the bakery man. He delivered to the bungalow colonies. About eight in the morning the truck would bounce, bang, hurtle up the driveway, that sassy horn tooting, and skid along to a rest as if it had no brakes and no driver. The women would collect at the back. Then he trundled out of the cab, puffing and heaving, pawing and pinching his way through them to the doors. Once at his station he dispensed breads, rye and pumpernickel and wholewheat and white, sticky jelly buns, cinnamon buns and cupcakes. They dribbled from his fat fingers into the paper bags, endlessly fluttering doves of dough, miraculous with each sweep of the arms. And like the greatest of Magi palming the eggs of milk and honey, he kept up his pudder all the while, with every bagful a daub of smut. The long rolls called saltsticks he called "pacifiers," and "Wednesday husbands"; cherries in the pie he said were gathered from the hotels clustered around Swan Lake; the plain burntsugar drynutted coffeecake was "Ol’ Sarah."

I never heard enough of his pitch to make sense of it from the outside, and I was never allowed to push through the harem of housecoats. There were the heads all pressed together, pronged with those big aluminum curling pins, from among which the gray tendrils of cigarette smoke threaded up into the clear mountain morning. I’d hear his mumbling treble mutter. They would knee each other in their blueveined thighs, wallop one another’s loose rumps, and screech with laughter. He was giggling too, burbling rather; the chortle foamed out of his lungs and coughed through the tight fat channel of his throat as if they were tickling him. And, though their ringed hands, their strong bonyknuckled, longnailed, fishchopping, meatslapping, carrotscraping, redpainted fingers picked at and patted and poked him, could he have felt anything through that blubber massed on his breast, blubber that came under his arms from his broad back and rolled down over the lead vat of his vast belly? When they had their day’s bread the knot broke; each went clopping back in her slippers to her bungalow for breakfast, grinning. Sometimes one raised a word of raucous warning that Fat Aaron had had for another, "Sadie! If you can’t sleep, don’t try to beat it. Go see the big specialist down at the bakery!" At which a chorus of chokes and sniggles racketed through the screendoors from half a dozen coffeemugs.

I puzzled about Fat Aaron’s being a bloated angel. He weighed three hundred pounds. He had the whitest lily skin, a great round head of golden curls, moist cupid lips of wet pink, and downy cheeks red as McIntoshes. His skin was white and smooth, white as the flour on his baker’s trousers. A cherub without wings I glimpsed in him, but not a seraph. Surely, he was not pure, not refined from all sensuality, a mature specimen of any of the host, not one of the thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues or powers. But even cherubic there was something terrible about him. Not the fatness, though he was something like those chubby hovering infants with their gold heads and disingenuous expressions: not baby, yet not adult, yet more naked somehow than the grand naked women sprawling on velvet, more naked than the holy fat child in its mother’s lap. Maybe it was his blue eyes, chunks of lake ice they were; maybe the frizzled cigarette burning always in his mouth of sharp white teeth.

II.

It was near twelve Sunday night. The town still woke. Buses and cars yapped south to the city: happy people rested in the juices of the flesh were driving to their week’s sweltering work. The prison gates of the rancid theater grated shut at my back and I stood in the dusty threshold of Main Street. The ache of murder was in me: my heart lusted after payrolls and molls. Warner Brothers had marked me a snarling four-reel con; my eyes were gorged with blood, my nose was pulped, cheeks and skull scarred by pistolwhippings, my feet dragged the irons of a spirit brought to book. I took desperate bearings for our cottage and cut out of town.

Then, climbing the sharp hill that led my way home, I came into the cold native air blowing from the stars. Where the sidewalks gave out, the last houses were humped snoring shadows. I stepped onto the westering macadam road for the two miles. A young moon floated at the end of it, just above the dark world’s edge. It was the sire of the Holsteins, the wonderful metaled horns of the father of bulls, who cropped whole forests in his grazing meditation. The thin arc of the young moon was a boomerang brandished by the hunter of king kangaroo, who was stalking into the long Pacific combers of the night sky, the last of the aboriginal pride. It was a Viking galley; the road unrolled toward it, wavering over a blue tundra, the track upon which the wolfpelted plunderer marched. The young crescent was the mythological brow of the silver queen: the grassroot congress of katydids fiddled her virtues night long, the cottontails mumbled praises as they munched their silver salads, the owls swooped on silver fieldmice for her sport, and in deference to her virgin nudeness most creatures dropped their eyes and slept.

I topped the rise and glanced good midnight to the town sputtering out below. A truck careened past me going downhill like the yellow ghost of a comet. It was the Manna Bakery’s. I turned and walked after it. There was a crossroads a few blocks back where the bakery loomed; when I came to it the truck was parked for loading against the sliding doors. I sidled up to them and stuck my nose through to get a look at the plant.

The air inside was hot moist and delicious with the aroma of baking dough: hot poppyseed, hot sesame, nuts, nutmeg and ginger, cinnamon and cloves. At the near end were tables loaded with baking trays; on the floor the great wicker baskets were lined up, some already filled with breads and heaped rolls. In the center of the vaulted room there were grouped the mixing machines, coated with flour dust, all fumbling and churning, their pronged steel arms plunged in steel cauldrons of golden batter, revolving this way and that, backward and forward and around. Far down was the bank of roaring gas ovens, and their attendant, Fat Aaron.

He was the only one there. He was ladling loaves out of the black maws of his ovens with a twenty-foot pole. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up to the bulging elbows; a linen apron stained with the stiff goo of white icing, splattered with chocolate and the blood of tarts, draped from his neck to his ankles like a white caftan. He was monumentally brisk. A dozen breads at one scoop came out on the tongue as he stepped back, balancing his staff, and tipped them into a basket. After some hundred, he clanged the last little door to and turned around. He walked deliberately to me as far as the center of the hall, holding the long heavy shovel lightly upright in his right hand, and stopped mid the cluster of his thumping dancing machines, where he planted the regal ash of his baker’s scepter. His left arm swung out to invite me in. He smiled. In his high reedy voice he laughed, "Shalom, sonny! Come into the ark of my tabernacle."

He waggled a derisive wrist at the ceiling. "There’s nobody else here tonight to keep me company but the living god: BaalBerith, the lord of cookies and cupcakes; Baal-Zebub, the lord of leavened loaves; Baal-Phegor, the lord of the little broken hardon. Adonai must be lonely; he needs a quiff to keep him company. You should have brought a girlie with you. We’d tickle some cunny juice from her: that makes good cake."

The batter had begun to thicken; he adjusted the mixers to a slower stroke. I was set to filling a tray with cupcake paper. After a while he switched off one of the machines; when he pressed another button the arm drew up out of the sucking yellow stuff in the vat. "Take a taste of this," he said as he stroked the vanes of the beater. Batter dripped from them and diffused in the rest of the mixture. I ran my thumb over an edge. I said it was good, and it was better actually than after it was baked.

"Dropped from heaven," he sighed modestly, lolling a pious head to one shoulder.

"What’s in it, vanilla?"

"Sure, sonny. Vanilla, and a little flour, and some scraping off the floor; ten pounds of butter, a squirt of machine oil, and a little spit." He giggled at the expression on my face. "You don’t believe? The baker’s spit is good: the breath of life, the smoke of ruach, like God’s in the mouth of the gingerbread Adam." He hawked, and spat a nicotined glob into a pot still on the mix.

"Come here and hold this sack." He handed me a coneshaped linen bag that had a wooden nipple at the apex. I held it spread open; he tipped the cauldron and poured the stiff batter into the open end, shoving it over with his palm. Then he slipped a ring over the gathered ends and knotted them. The whole sack went under his arm like a sucking pig to market. As I laid out the paper molds, he squeezed the dough through the nipple with pressure from his arm against the sack as it rested on his hip, and with two fingers flipped each gobbet neatly into a cup.

We worked fast. "What about the icing?" I asked when we were done.

"It’s already made for this batch. Next time, sonny, you’ll help. You’re young and pure. It’s a boy’s sweet seed I got to have for icing. That makes it good!" He squealed, drumming his belly.

I helped him load the baskets of bread into the pungent truck, and we went off full gun. Fat Aaron drove with his belly, so tight did that girth press into the wheel. One arm lazed out the window, the other was dropped comfortingly on my shoulders: the roads were his, he did as he pleased.

The Manna truck had been so tinkered with, the muffler magnified the blast of each cylinder’s stroke, groaning and boiling on the upgrades with a monstrous catarrh, and letting off slobbish dysenteric grenades as it zoomed down slopes. The nightly passage of this dragon through fifty miles of countryside was wanton; it expressed the joyous contempt and abandon of the driver who plied the gas pedal of the highballing thing. The slipstream dragged sparks from the cigarette in his mouth. He handed me one from his shirt pocket and I lit it from the tip of his.

He said, "This is one of the beautiful facts of life. You don’t know enough to like it. You’re still a kid, cabbage is the leaf of your heart. Look at you, you’re skinny with innocence. But me, I deliver the staff of life, I’m round on all sides, white bread and dark bread and nutty dough."

I laughed at him. He pulled over and stopped on the peak of the spur of Walnut Mountain. "And here’s another fact." He drew a bottle of whiskey from under his seat, drank, and passed it to me. "It might burn at first, but drink it."

It seared; I swallowed bravely each time he urged me. We walked to the edge of the road. "Look at that country," he said. "Soon it’s going to be all yours; but you won’t like it."

"It looks all right to me," I said.

"Yes, from here that quilt looks like a bed of delights. But once you get down there for a good whiff it’s all small, it crawls with scurrying sucking people. They’re vampires."

I didn’t say anything. From that height I made nothing of it. Yes, a bed, heaped and various, of hummocks and pastures and glacier-rolled valleys, stands of trees under starlight like patches of black broccoli, ponds and lakes where there was darkness visible, and simple scattered blocks of guileless habitation. What could he see, I wondered, in that lambent void which was to my vision mere massy landscape?

He drank and continued, "Look over there. Swan Lake. We’ll drive to the hotels, The President, The Ambassador, The Swan Lake. That’s a world chock full of girlies. The lights are still on in their rooms. You know what they do all night? They dance and they swizzle. They stand by the windows naked, and they comb their hair and look at the stars. Lovely. What I see in those bully buildings you couldn’t imagine. Let’s go, sonny."

I leaped to my saddle in the truck and he squeezed in behind the wheel once more. The road coasted around the south end of the lapping waters of Swan Lake and descended between ranks of maples and poplars. We ran down and turned into a gravel strip that led to the rear of The President.

Most of the windows, line over line for five stories, were dark. We lugged several baskets into the quiet kitchen. In the vague light the long galvanized tables gleamed dimly. The stoves and sinks and dishwashing machines were empty, quite dead; the floor was a holystoned spotless deck. Only an old white tom hissed, stretched himself, and shuffled away.

While Fat Aaron scribbled the bill, I went outside to look around again. The buildings seemed asleep; there was no life of the night to be seen. I strained to see something. There, it might have been the glimmer of a languorous form; no, there, what I thought was a lifted arm and the nubile ivory of a breast, a delicate hand caressing the rondure of a young belly. No. Yet they must be there behind the bluey sheets of glass; any moment a shade would roll generously up, or a ripple of cuddled laughter would sound. But the night brought only the sough of summer through foliage, the clunk of rowboats against the little wooden wharves a hundred yards off.

We stopped at The Ambassador, The Swan Lake. We delivered orders. Fat Aaron whispered of what he’d seen just the night before; he pinched me and prophesied wonders. And, yes, there were some lights, there were momentary insignificant shadows that moved in rooms; there were some murmurous voices, the tinkle of a dropped tumbler, gushes of water in hidden plumbing; but no music, none of the promised cries of ecstasy, no noises of pleasure at all. Each time he came from the kitchens he asked me what I’d seen, and I shrugged in disappointment. "It’s there," he insisted, "you’re blind, sonny. The world is too cunning for you." His eyes brimmed conviction as he flapped pictures with his obscene magical fingers. "But wait, we’ll go up to Miriam’s at White Lake. She keeps the gold calf. I’ll show you what’s what."

By that time my brains were flaring. We bowled along in the skies, plunging and rearing with the contours of the earth. Fat Aaron cursed and laughed and sang words I couldn’t distinguish in queer tunes that never were, and he made the truck skitter at sixty miles an hour.

Then we were there. I stepped down in front of an old foursquare frame building sided over to simulate logs. It was a tavern backed by the lake: The Harvest Moon. About a dozen cars were parked off under the trees. Inside, the lanterns over the bar were dimmed; the front door was locked, but the lights on the second floor glowed through drawn blinds, and a jazzy hullabaloo was blaring upstairs.

He rattled the door. No one came. He kicked it, and sent me to hold down the horn of the truck. Finally, a shape appeared and moved along the bar. "Miriam," he whispered. The door was opened to us. They grappled on the sill.

In a bassoon throat as deep as his was high she boomed out, "Angel cake! I thought I’d have to have a party without you. Come on in, virgin, you’re on time; the joint’s jumping. ...Who’s the man of the world?"

"Sonny? I was shorthanded tonight, so I snatched him from his pisspot of a mother. He’s pimply, but he looks already at home with that bottle."

"Doesn’t he stare!" she rumbled, and, latching hold of my ear, yanked me to her. "What a sweet present, Aaron: a ladyfinger."

Miriam, cased in green satin, bangles and bracelets of gold on her arms, loops and rods of gold freighting her ears, was as big and as fat as Fat Aaron himself. Her hair was an auburn mane: without pins or curls, it parted from the middle of her brow and cascaded to her shoulders where it fell as it wished over her bare arms, down her back, and down the freckled expanse of two breathing monadnock breasts. She crushed my head between them and I smelled the thick richness of the living body of an orchard. But when she bent her head to kiss me, it blew a west wind of gin.

The stairs climbed to a posh parlor beneath whose scarlet ceiling swayed clouds of a strange sweet smoke. In the center of the room an ivory babygrand was surrounded by clubchairs in which a trombone, a clarinet, a sax, and a trumpet slouched. They made music that no leg or heart ever beat to. I slumped in a couch.

There was a throng in the house who drifted in and out of the music, joined head to knees in a kissing sigh. Like smoke they came and they went; doors banged down halls; there was singing, laughter, men growled and shouted, women shrilled in delight, in pain, in anger; there were muffled chants such as I’d never heard, though human voices made them. And the music played on and on, slow and cavernous, so slow it barely moved, or whipping, looping in the eyes so swift it dazzled like sheet lightning in the muggy glow of the room. The buzzing place was rank with the writhing and kicking of naked ruddy arms and legs.

Suddenly the trumpet flourished a clarion fanfare. I was yanked to my feet by a hand of long nails and rings twisted in my hair, and dragged to a ring where I swayed between the hips of two tall women whose arms were hot around me. The music had stopped. Then, with lonely hooched chords it began again.

Knees dipped, arms wagging loose before them, their bellies grinding and bumping, Fat Aaron and Miriam snaked to the center of the circle. Their faces shone with sweat; their eyes blank and orbed, they approached, gyred, retreated. The music stepped up its rhythm and the crowd clapped and stamped in time, shouting, "Go! Go! Go it!"

The dancers thumped their backsides, bumped stomachs, swiveled, pressed and bumped, faster and faster. At the moaning climax their hands grasped each other’s hair, the auburn and the gold. I joined in as the chorus yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" and I heard his whinny and her contralto laughter sounding over the music.

III

I knew in my stupor that I was back in the truck, running through mists. I was aware of the wet road, the cool dripping gray trees and the dank fernery past which we rushed. He said nothing all the way. When the truck slowed on the last hill I stumbled from it with a loaf of bread under my arm. It never stopped, and as it picked up speed Fat Aaron’s pinkwhite arm fumbled out and slammed the door shut. With a last sneering blat of exhaust, it disappeared over the russet crest of the hill into the jubilee of dawn.

I stood on the shoulder of the road breathing the dew-washed day. Rank upon rank of air in light, grain in the fields glinting against the first shafts of the fresh sun and rippling in the blue breeze, the grapes bunched from the green arbors, swallows barreling over the treetops, the hawks spread in the upper skies. As I walked down to the colony across the wet lawn to the white cottage, the sun shone full hurrah for victory. So this was Canaan! The green flesh of the world, that solemn land, was mine.

Jascha Kessler is a writer and professor emeritus at UCLA.

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