When I start to get wound-up, Big Pharmakos sits me down and spoon-feeds me a little, what he calls, Shtetl Noir:

“They’d just given birth to their first baby, a beautiful, healthy boy they named Noah, duly blessed, when they decided to move from the capital to a distant, isolated corner of the provinces, hot in summer and cold in winter, where, it was believed, a certain letter of introduction that the husband and father, Jakob, had managed to procure from his advisor in the city, would help him find a job in his field, one that would afford them, at the very least, a daily means of scraping across the threshold between one day and the next.

So, with this letter in hand, Jakob moved with his wife, Leah, and the baby, to this distant, shabby little town — like a prelapsarian (if “prelapsarian” can be taken to mean “back when things were even worse”) Dodge City marooned somewhere in the far outskirts of the Pale.

Upon arrival, they parceled out their little savings — the dregs of a student stipend, a cashed bond, and the proceeds from the sale of their furniture and a rare Spinoza volume that Leah had been given by a now-defunct grandparent years earlier — in order to establish residence in a small, cloudy cottage on the edge of this parochial nowhere where circumstance had forced them to believe their fate lay waiting.

While Leah came down in her nightclothes and settled into their one chair in their drafty (or seethingly humid — Big Pharmakos hadn’t decided what season it should be) living room, suckling baby Noah and brushing his several brand new hairs, Jakob set out for his first day of work.

There were several layers of smoked cod, a whole onion which he’d eat like an apple, and two slices of toast with a small jar of apple butter, arranged quietly in his lunch bag. His gloves (he did it always by hand, as this all took place before The Age Of Wire And String) and his mask (a sober, form-fitting burlap affair) were in a leather sack he kept slung over his shoulder, the same one he’d carried during his student days in the city.

He kissed Leah and the baby, and set out into the smell of woodfires and steaming pack animal breath, stepping gingerly across jagged floes of ice marooned on the dirt road’s dirt sidewalks, or else fetid, sweaty piles of … if it was summer.

This was all before dawn. There would be, he knew, no sleeping in now that his new family life had begun in earnest. No lazing about and dreaming of the day’s openness, of long strolls in sunlight and leisurely cups of coffee and philosophical debate, as there had been in his student days. Even Leah’s rare Spinoza volume, for many years his unwavering companion, was gone, melted down in the furnace of capital.

Walking down that pre-dawn dirt lane, alongside the other working men, both young and old, he thought with a twinge of those bygone days, the feral seriousness they’d had about them that, now, had come to seem like innocent boys’ play: all those belabored, first-pounding debates of the tangled intersections of the immanent and the transcendent, the coded demonology and eschatology of Isaac Luria and Sabbatai Zevi, seemed now as harmless as supping noodle soup through a warm spoon in a paper gown in a hospital bed.

On that first day of his profession, putting such childish things behind as well as any man can, Jakob strangled three people: two of the town’s three bakers, and an old lady.

One by one (head still masked in burlap, hands still gloved), he dragged their bodies discreetly through the streets and into a shed that his letter of introduction had helped him secure. He stacked them neatly on shelves, making sure their arms and feet were not dangling, trying to minimize the  grotesquerie of the job as best he could, putting his city training to work. He covered the bodies with blankets and switched off the light he’d worked under, seeing then that it was already dark outside.

He trudged home weary and spent, stopping at the butcher’s for a meager cut of pork and some day-old chicken legs. This was all his hard work had amounted to.

At home, Leah boiled these in a pot with a dash of salt and part of a carrot, masking her disappointment that there wasn’t more, or better. They ate this with a few radishes and shared a bottle of milk.

Jakob’s hands were so worn out from the day’s labor he could hardly hold his fork, and he was so tired inside he could hardly feel the joy he knew the sight of his wife and baby son ought to have summoned in him. That night, after soaking his hands in a bowl of warm water sprinkled with anise seeds, he fell asleep while Leah was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and she could not rouse him.


Their life continued as it had begun. Over the course of that first, lean year, Jakob strangled one hundred and eighty people, including the postmaster, the deputy mayor, eight of the town’s twelve doctors, all of its dentists, seven of its eight kosher slaughterers, nine of its thirteen schoolteachers, and all of the neighbors on their street. He even, in what had for a moment felt like a definite step forward, strangled both of the rival stranglers who’d been operating in the town far longer than he had. Neither had ever worked as hard.

All of these he stacked, all neatly, in his shed, which, to his chagrin, grew fuller by the day. Soon, he would need to invest in a new space, or else begin burying the bodies in a field or a pond, practices which his training had taught him to regard as shoddy.

He returned home each night and together he and Leah ate their crust of pork and leg of chicken, the heel of a loaf of bread or perhaps a single portion of kasha divided in two. They watched the baby grow, his face so full of hope, so full of light and life … though, Jakob couldn’t help but fear, creeped over also by a cloud of suspicion, which Jakob could not deny even for the sake of his son, a suspicion that life would not meet his expectations even if he lowered them, that life could never be for a man what it had seemed to a boy that it could, that it must, be.

Still, though, day in and day out, they persevered. Jakob came home and soaked his hands in that bowl of warm water and anise, watching the tension ebb out of the knuckles that had strangled so tirelessly all day long, and, together with his wife and child, and a new baby on the way, they prayed to the Almighty. On some nights, they believed their prayers were heard, and, if not answered, at least taken under consideration. On those nights, Jakob slept easier, flexing his hands under the sheets, gathering into them from On High the strength to wake up into a new day, set out before dawn with his lunch packed, and do it all over again.”


I sit and listen as the story winds down. If my temperament were slightly other than it is, my question might have been: “How does one make a living from country strangling?”

To which Big Pharmakos’ answer might have been: “That, my boy, is the whole point. One barely can, try as one might. That’s the whole tragedy of it, the whole moral, the whole inroad into life’s cruel but persistently beating heart.”

Instead, me being me and he being he, Big Pharmakos stands up and says, “OK, time for a snack.”

And off we go.