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What Life Can Make You Ask

A young newspaper boy encounters his neighbor's haunting memories of the Holocaust

YOU were supposed to be at least 12 years old to get a paper route in my town. But if you were younger and you could show the boss that you were able to carry as full a bag of news as anybody else, without becoming round-shouldered or lopsided, you could have yourself a route. I got mine at 10, a morning one. And it was this age of mine, I think, and the littleness that went with it, that endeared me so much to my best customer on the route, Mr. Tessler, the bagel maker. He had come to America from Poland after World War II, many years ago. It was said that he had lost his whole family in one of the Nazi death camps - his parents, his wife, his two daughters. But he never talked about it. He lived and toiled only for his bagel shop, so people should eat and be happy, and his life, too, should go on.

Every morning as I walked along in the dark, rolling my papers and trying to toss them within an arm's distance of people's doors, I would look forward to seeing the lights of Mr. Tessler's bagel shop. They were so bright and warm that even when it was cold and rainy they lit a glow in me from my toes to my fingertips.

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Always I would first press my nose against the window and peer in. Mr. Tessler would either be in the back of his shop, with his tubs of dough and his palettes of kosher ingredients and his ovens, or he'd be out front arranging some of his already baked masterpieces behind his glass display counters. I would tap on the window and he would come, a short, roly-poly man in his late 50s, his face and apron bedabbed with the stuff of bagels, and open the door for me. We'd exchange the brave smile of early risers, I'd hand him his paper, and he'd hand me my warm, sugar-coated bagel, my ``energy booster for those young bones of yours.''

While I stood there fortifying myself and taking deep breaths of the fresh bagels, that heartening aroma of plenty, Mr. Tessler would open his paper and scan the front page.

His hooty-owl eyes would get bigger, his cheeks would puff out, and he would run his fingers through his bushy gray hair. Sometimes a sigh would whistle through his teeth, but rare was the occasion when he didn't turn to me, smile, and say something cheerful, like ``Well, David, the world's still got its troubles. But they could be worse, no?''

Then one morning, one especially gloomy morning, his lights weren't there when I looked. The whole bagel shop and even the apartment above it, where Mr. Tessler lived, were dark. I peered in the window. No sign of him. There weren't even any masterpieces behind the display counters.

I went around behind the shop and, unhitching myself from my bag, climbed the stairs two at a time to Mr. Tessler's door. Something told me not to knock but just to turn the knob and go in.

I stood for a few moments in a little kitchen, letting my eyes get used to the indoor dark. Then I went down a hallway until I came to an open door. And there was Mr. Tessler, sitting on the edge of his bed in pajamas and a stocking cap. His face was wet with tears.

``Mr. Tessler,'' I whispered, ``it's me, David, the paper boy.''

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Startled, he jumped up. ``David,'' he said, ``what are you doing here?''

``I didn't mean to scare you, Mr. Tessler. Your door was unlocked. You must have been tired last night and forgot. I didn't see your lights on this morning and I got really worried.''

Mr. Tessler wiped his face with the sleeve of his pajamas and then put on his bathrobe. ``You thought maybe I had departed from the world, David? No, I am still here. I had a bad dream, that's all. Come, let's go out to the kitchen and I'll make us something nice and hot to drink.''

I was bewildered. What had Mr. Tessler dreamed that was so bad it had made him cry, and then put such a weight on him that he couldn't rise to open his shop? Was it something from the war? Were the memories coming back to haunt him?

We sat at his kitchen table, sipping melted marshmallows from the top of steaming chocolate, letting the mugs warm our hands. Neither of us spoke. I thought: He doesn't want to tell me about his dream. Either it's too painful, or he thinks I'm too young to hear it.

But then, as if he had been silent only to gather his thoughts, Mr. Tessler began to talk.

``After the war, I had bad dreams every night, David, for years. Then they came less and less often. Then they stopped. Tonight was the first one since then. Tonight I dreamed that hoodlums broke into my shop, grabbed me, and dragged me outside. They beat me up, and then they tied me by the feet to the rear bumper of a car. Then they got in the car and sped off.

``I was dragged and dragged. I kept calling my wife's name, for her to come back from the dead and help me. Finally the car stopped. The hoodlums got out, untied me, and then drove away. They just left me there in the street. I didn't know if I was dead or alive.

`SOMEHOW I got up and started walking. But I was lost a long time. While I was lost, the hoodlums must have driven back to the shop, because when I found it, it was wrecked. Glass everywhere. My window, my counters. And smoke was in the air.

``I went and looked in my ovens. They were full of hundreds and hundreds of bagels, all burned. The hoodlums had even burned my bagels. I just stood there looking at them, my onion bagels and my sesame-seed bagels and my butter bagels and all my bagels. That's when I cried. I didn't cry when I was beaten, or even when I was dragged. But to see what they did to my bagels....

``Then I woke up. What could such a dream mean, David?''

I shook my head.

``Could it mean that a Jew is always afraid for what he brings into the world, no matter whether it's a big thing like children or a little thing like bagels? No matter whether it's life itself or something to eat? Afraid that if his children could be burned, his bagels could be too?''

``I don't know, Mr. Tessler.''

``The ones who burned the children, if they would only have looked at them, they couldn't have done it. But they didn't look. Or was it that they did, but they didn't feel anything? How does a man bring a child into such a world? How does he bring even a bagel?''

``This is all kind of over my head, Mr. Tessler,'' I said. ``All I know is that I'm glad you're all right.''

He smiled at me. ``Forgive me for all the questions. It's the rabbi I should be asking, not my little paper boy. But sometimes when a child listens, it's better than when the rabbi answers.'' He dressed and we went down and opened the shop together. He apologized for having no fresh bagel to give me, but presented me with a day-old one heaped with strawberry jam. And I gave him his paper.

That morning I walked slowly backward up the street from the shop. I wanted to see the lights as long as possible. I wanted to remember what a deep thing life was, what it could make you dream, what it could make you ask, even there among the lights and the bagels.

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