Cheesecake: A Short Story
That creamy, dense texture, that sweet and lingering taste—
it is no wonder that a young boy’s
very first taste of the luscious,
iconic Jewish dessert brings with it a life-defining epiphany.
When I was ten I became a philosopher—sort of. This is how it happened.
One fall afternoon, I was standing in Posner’s Bakery in the middle of a swirl of customers all anxious to get home before sundown. The bundle of newspapers under my arm began to slip, so I shifted it awkwardly up into my armpit. The Eagle delivery truck had been late, a flat tire or something, so I was far behind schedule. I’d never been caught by the late afternoon rush before, and Friday was the worst possible time for it to happen. Usually, I just left the paper, but it was collection day and I could not go home to face my mother without all the money coming to me.
The redheaded lady behind the counter who settled accounts was busily bagging hallas and honey cakes. There was no way she could see me, a frail, stunted weed in a forest of grownups.
A man, powdered all in white, his face glistening with sweat, balanced a tray of rolls past me. I tugged at his shirttail.
“Where’s Mr. Adelman?”
“In the back. Who are you?” he asked, as if he couldn’t see the papers under my arm.
“The paperboy. I get paid today.”
He grunted and slid the tray into a rack at the end of the counter. “Here, come.” He grabbed my elbow and hauled me in his wake into the back room. I could barely hold on to my bundle.
“There.” He pushed me toward an enormously fat man seated at a table covered with a mass of paper slips. A large flowered teapot was planted in the middle of the pile. The man’s bald head was bent over a plate as he shoveled large chunks of cake into his mouth. He ate with such intensity that I couldn’t think of disturbing him. I stood there watching him eat.
He didn’t notice me until the plate was empty and he reached out for his glass of tea. “Nu?” He squinted up at me. “A peasant boy. What can I do for you, peasant boy?”
“The paperboy,” I insisted. I didn’t know what a peasant was. I thought the man was dumb. “I get paid today.”
“Everybody gets paid today, so why not you?” He fished into his pocket and held out a quarter and two nickels.
I stood there with the coins in my hand.
“Well, little golem?” asked Mr. Adelman, glass of tea poised.
My eyes darted to the racks of rolls, breads and cakes; my nostrils quivered.
“So the little peasant sees something he likes. Maybe even smells something he likes.”
Just then the white-powdered man steered past again, this time with a tray of round, yellow cakes.
“A minute, Abie.”
Mr. Adelman stopped the man and took one of the cakes. “Do you know what this is?” He held it under my nose.
I shook my head.
“You never tasted cheesecake?”
I shook my head again. A birthday cake once years ago was a dim memory. The cake that I knew was dry, sandy—tasteless.
Mr. Adelman stared for a moment and shook his head. “A real peasant. Here, sit down.”
He pushed me into a chair and dumped my papers on the floor. “AShabbos treat for you.” He cut into the cake and put a wedge in front of me on a napkin. “Eat,” he said, prodding his fist into my back.
I didn’t like cheese, so I just took a tentative nibble. But it didn’t taste like cheese, nothing at all. I took a big bite, and another. When the piece was gone, I licked my fingers. A lingering sweetness clung to my palate, and I felt my body fall into a dreamy weariness. The sensual joy almost brought tears to my eyes and I looked at Mr. Adelman through a kind of glaze. Oh, cheesecake!
Mr. Adelman giggled with delight as he pushed another, even larger piece toward me on the napkin.
Two slices later I was out on the street with my papers again. Life blossomed with vast new possibilities. All the lofty ideals that had ever been held up to me, even Cousin Hershel the accountant with a suit with a vest, no less, dwindled in the face of my determination to be at all costs—a Cheesecake Eater! And, as best as I could, lugging my bundle, I strutted nobly down the street with Mr. Adelman’s napkin, still redolent of my late feast, stuffed in my shirt pocket.
In a hopelessly distracted state, I nevertheless managed to finish the rest of my route, though I was almost run over by a truck while I was crossing Pitkin Avenue. And, three or four times, my clients had to remind me to give them change.
My route was nearly a large circle, and every afternoon I ended at Dr. Amos Klotzman’s Painless Dentistry about a block from where I started. The office and waiting room were three floors up over a furniture store and a kewpie doll factory. Believe me, it was no joy hauling a bundle of papers up those steps, which is why I saved the stop for last. When I huffed and puffed into the office, the receptionist usually took the paper and, after a quick glance at the headline, handed it to the nearest patient sitting gloomily—always gloomily—on one of the cracked leather chairs.
But all the chairs were empty that afternoon and Painless Klotzman himself was in the waiting room, striding back and forth over the threadbare rug, hands clasped behind his back.
“He cancels again the last minute,” he growled. “What does Pincus think this is, a barbershop he can walk in any time he feels like?” He stopped at the receptionist’s desk. “Look, Olive, make sure you charge him for this, a consultation, whatever. Soak the lounge lizard. Send him a bill.”
Olive said nothing but continued filing her nails with great concentration. Dr. Klotzman resumed his pacing. “A shnorrer,” he muttered. “Like all my wife’s side,” he added.
I tried to edge past him to drop the paper on Olive’s desk, but on his next turn on the rug he found himself towering over me. I gave him my best “Say-Hello-To-Aunt-Sadie” smile. He stopped and bent down as close as he could to my face.
“Your teeth are green!” he shouted.
I nodded. So what’s new? Weren’t everyone’s—my parents’, my little brother Murray’s and especially my cousin Melvin’s? Everyone I knew had green teeth more or less.
“When did you go to a dentist last?”
I shook my head. Dentist? Were we the Rothschilds?
Dr. Klotzman pinched both my cheeks. “You green-toothed peasant.”
“Paperboy,” I tried to say. It came out “Beeperboo.”
He shifted his grip to my right ear and, with a slight twist, pulled me after him into his inner office, which was filled with lights and strange gurgling pipes and tubes.
“We’ll see what’s under that green shmutz,” he said. “And you can thank Pincus when you see him, the prize loafer of Eastern Parkway.”
I worried a lot in those days, and I couldn’t imagine where I’d find that mysterious Pincus. I’d probably have to ask a policeman.
By then Dr. Klotzman had propped me up in an oversized armchair and, before I knew it, I was on my back looking at the ceiling. What followed was a confusion of buzzing, scraping, gagging, mixed with a generous helping of Klotzman male-diction hurled at the invisible Pincus.
When the tumult subsided and I was propped right side up in the chair again with an aching jaw and quivering lips, Dr. Klotzman gave a little yelp of triumph. “Aha, come, Olive, look at this little peasant’s teeth. Pincus should look so good.”
The receptionist, still filing her nails, shuffled into the room and stared blankly at me. “So?”
“Look,” Dr. Klotzman cried triumphantly, “they’re white, not a cavity, beautiful!”
Olive shrugged. “Swell,” she drawled in what I recognized later as a bored Joan Crawford imitation.
But her apathy didn’t dampen Dr. Klotzman’s spirit. In his mind, cleaning my teeth must have put him one up on the treacherous Pincus. He was buoyant as he led me to the door.
“You have wonderful teeth,” he said, “just like the peasants in the old country. Just stick to milk and kasha. You’re lucky your parents can’t afford all that junk, that cake and candy and all that chozerai. My kids should be so lucky. They’re killing themselves with Mallomars and candy kisses and all the poison the bakery comes up with.”
I was halfway out the door when a thought struck me. I turned and looked up at him.
“What about cheesecake?”
“The worst,” he answered. “It costs a fortune. They charge double to kill you twice as fast. Stay away from it,” he intoned. “Eat like the peasants in the old country.”
I couldn’t bring myself to confess to him about my resolution, about Mr. Adelman and the napkin in my pocket. I walked home in a state of deep depression, weighed down by my first encounter with one of life’s great ambiguities. What were a few miserable teeth compared to cheesecake?
But at the same time, I knew in my heart that Dr. Klotzman had pointed to the path of health and virtue, to the discipline and self-denial that had been drummed into me all my life.
I suddenly recalled the image of my Uncle Jake. Whenever he was mentioned someone would describe him as “hard working,” with a mixture of praise and melancholy wonder. But the sight of him, his shuffling gait and sagging shoulders, his aura of joylessness, always depressed me. He definitely wasn’t a Cheesecake Eater. He was—a peasant, that’s what he was! And so was Cousin Hershel, vest and all.
I knew then that I too was doomed to be a peasant, and life wasn’t going to be much fun. It was just going to be one bigger and bigger bundle of papers—a real shlep. Who needed it, even with good teeth? Only a philosopher could live with that kind of knowledge.
Edmund Janko is a freelance writer living in Bayside, New York.