Previous chapter: Strad is rushing, yet procrastinating, on his way to meet his fiancée, Nina, at the birthday bash she’s thrown for him. He detours down an interesting looking alley, and encounters Reggie, a Rasta, with an ironic wit, a keg of beer, and an intriguing invitation…
They’d hardly walked through the door when a hoarse voice rang out. “Reggie, were you waiting for us all to die of thirst?” He grinned at Strad just before he slipped away. “My admiring public waits. Make yourself at home. Everyone else does.” Strad scoped out the big, roomy loft, not sure whether he had walked into an avant-garde gallery or a homeless shelter. Worn brocade couches—the kind his grandmother used to guard zealously beneath layers of clear plastic—lined the high, whitewashed walls, along with lush, creeping vines, candle-lit sconces and bright, art deco stained-glass windows that were curiously filled with light despite the post-evening hour. Some of the sofas sagged beneath the weight of people talking, tapping to the music or balancing plates of food; others were taken up by couples or lonely dozers. A massive thirty-foot oval lacquered wooden table filled the center of the room. Was that the literal Gabel’s Table?
Big baskets of homemade breads dotted the table’s length, each orbited by small bowls of multicolored dips and salads. Steaming tureens of thick, red soup alternated with tall glass pitchers of orange juice, and, thanks to Reggie’s quick work, beer. The food wasn’t going to waste either. The benches lining the lone table were packed with the most unlikely arrangement of diners: artsy hipsters, well-dressed socialites, and what appeared to be genuine off-the-street bums. Everyone was mixing like they were old friends. The atmosphere was contagious; even shy Strad felt inexplicably at home.
“Sit down and eat, friend.” Strad felt a tug on the sleeve of the flannel lumberjack shirt he wore un-tucked and unbuttoned over the day’s selection from his quirky tee-shirt collection. He looked down at the toothless smile of one of the less-well-dressed diners.
“Thanks, but I only dropped in to check the place out,” he said, moving closer. “My friends are waiting. I don’t even know how I got here…”
The man laughed, as a bit of soup dribbled down the stubble of his chin. “Join the club, pal. Gabel called you, just like he calls everyone. Now you’d better eat. By the time you finish being polite, all the food will be gone. One bite and you’ll know why. If you’re worried about money, don’t be. It’s all free, or whatever you can pay. Some of these fancy dudes drop a Franklin or two in the jar on the way out, you know, to keep the place running. Myself, I’m on what you’d call a temporary bad luck streak, going on twenty years. Haven’t paid a cent since Gabel first called me—he’s a very unusual man—and no one’s ever asked me to.”
“It sounds amazing, but I really have to go,” Strad said as he sat down. He bit into a still-warm-from-the-oven corn muffin and felt his tensions melt along with the dab of butter dripping down the crumpet’s crown. It had been a long and stressful day…
“Hey, it’s the birthday boy from the big city, honoring us with his presence. How’d you ever clear time from your, high-powered schedule?”
“Nice to see you too, Matt,” said Strad, smiling weakly at the two-years-older, twenty-pounds-heavier version of himself elbow-leaning on the cash register. He panned the garden supply store, graveyard empty except for two sales clerks playing checkers on a glass display case. “Where’s Dad?”
“Out back in the office. Now that I’m official store manager,” Matt said, throwing back his shoulders, “he doesn’t have to be out on the floor anymore.”
Strad did an exaggerated double take. “Hey! Promoted?” he said, feigning enthusiasm. “I was wondering why you weren’t wearing a sales apron.”
“That’s what happens when you work hard,” Matt said, “which, with a wife and kid to support, is what you have to do. I’m not supported by a woman like you.”
“I am not supported” Strad said, his default semi-blush deepening. “I…”
“Welcome home, son.” Bert marched out from the back room, a wide grin wreathed across his lined face, defusing the ticking bomb of a conversation between his two sons. “Glad you got my message and decided to come.”
“What’s a birthday without family?” Strad said. Though he couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent his birthday with his family and had nearly blown off the visit and the long train trip it entailed, the light in his father’s eyes—a rare sight in the ten months since Stella Crossriver had passed away—made him glad he hadn’t.
“How old are you now, son? Twenty-six?” Bert said, looking him up and down. “You’re not a kid anymore.”
“Just acting like one,” said Matt. Suddenly his sour smirk morphed into a bright, puppy-dog smile. “How are you today, Mr. Ormond? How can we help you?”
Ignoring Matt, the rotund and ruddy-faced man strode up to Bert. “If you wanna rob people, Crossriver, at least do it with a gun like a man.” Ormond had a malevolent gleam in his fat-encased eyes. He pulled a rolled-up green garden hose out of a shopping bag and waved it in Bert’s face. “Did I forget how to read, or does this label say ‘Seventy-Five Feet’? I measured it last night just after I got home from buying it right here in this store, and the thing is only seventy-three-and-a-half. I have a mind to report you to the New Hampshire Better Business Bureau. How am I supposed to hook up the three thousand dollar home irrigation system I bought at National Garden Center if you’re gonna cheat me outta hose?”
Strad grimaced as he watched the familiar scenario unfold, one he’d witnessed a thousand times growing up—the customer, after spending a bundle at the local superstore, drops a few bucks on accessories at his dad’s full-service shop, picking the salesmen’s brains for free support how to use the products that the discount outlet couldn’t be bothered to explain.
Bert exploded as if on cue. “What? If that’s not a full seventy-five feet of hose…” He shouted at the bored clerks to measure the hose immediately, barking at them with the same urgency as if he was commanding them to evacuate the premises, meanwhile grabbing onto the phone and speed dialing the supplier in disgruntled fury. Ormond, despite his scowl, glowed at the full crisis mode spectacle he’d incited.
Strad felt his stomach turn. Scrupulously honest, to what Strad felt was a fault, his father was now being accused of theft by this boor for a few pennies’ worth of hose. But what felt worse was watching his dad get sucked into the fray.
“He’s right, Bert,” called the salesman. “Seventy-three feet.”
“Seventy-three-and-a-half,” Ormond corrected graciously.
Bert was livid. “You’d just better get your act together!” he yelled into the phone at the hapless supplier. “You’re gonna put me out of business!”
“Dad, please, calm down,” Strad whispered. “Remember your heart. It’s not such a big thing. Just give the jerk his five dollars back and tell him to take his business elsewhere. He’s just trying to take you for a ride.”
“Pull ’em all off the rack!” Bert roared in Matt’s direction.
“…A candy store. We run a candy store!” Stella Crossriver’s cynical shriek clanged like a siren through Strad’s head. “A dollar for this, two dollars for that. Everyone else is getting fat while we’re the ones selling the candy!” Strad’s mother had hated the ailing business. She always said it would drive her to an early grave and it seemed she was right.
Strad stepped outside the store and slipped through the drizzle toward the coffee shop across the parking lot. “Whoever Has the Most Toys When They Die, Wins,” read the bumper sticker on one of the parked cars. Wins what? Mom certainly hadn’t won. Neither had Uncle Ollie, dead last month of liver cancer. One of the biggest commodity traders on the East Coast—he’d had plenty of toys.
Forty minutes later he returned to find the store empty again of customers, the salesmen back at the checkerboard and his father in the stockroom scrupulously measuring rolls of hose, now with more of the detached interest of an ex-accountant than a businessman’s indignation.
“There you are,” said Bert. “I was wondering where you disappeared to.” He grinned benignly at his youngest child. “It’s so good to see you, son,” Bert said. “Maybe you’re ready to change your mind and come join us in the business?”
As Strad washed the muffin down with a swig of beer, a trio of spiky-haired college women, seated on a sofa directly across from his place at the big table giggled softly, stealing glances his way. He really had to get moving, Strad thought. Showing up so late would do little towards putting him on Nina’s good side, a rarity these days. She was pressing him to get back on the career track and set a wedding date, neither of which appealed to him. He liked Nina well enough, but what was the rush to get married?
The career issue was more complicated. After graduating college, he’d moved to the city and started a decent paying job. He hadn’t given it much thought until his mother died. He took a two-week personal leave of absence from work— and never went back. His instincts told him that nine-to-five was a trap, and if he went back in, a door would snap shut and lock him out of…out of what? This was the point in his argument where he always got stuck. Neither Nina nor his family ever understood the part of him that just couldn’t toe the line…except Grandma Rose. She’d understood. And he was the only one in the family who didn’t make fun of her. As a kid, before they sent her to the nursing home where she quickly passed away, he and Grandma had shared a secret magical made-up language from a magical made-up place she’d dubbed Altruego.
…“Let’s do the ‘starfish’ one again, Gramma.”
The patient, faraway eyes met the boy’s eager ones, smiled, and formed the syllables only the two of them could decipher. “Straggling starfish, where do you run?”
“I must flee to the sea, or I’ll bake in the sun!” the boy answered, laughing…
He hadn’t thought of that in ages, and he wondered, why now? Strad’s reverie popped like a bubble as he noticed some fiery sparks shooting from a side room. “Hey, what’s that?” He tapped his tablemate on the arm of his threadbare tweed.
The guy, deep in minestrone meditation, looked up reluctantly from his almost empty soup bowl. “Huh?”
“There it is again! Those sparks of fire over there. Shouldn’t we be concerned about that?”
The man glanced over at the door then back at Strad, and shrugged. “If you see sparks, friend, it’s okay with me. Maybe some of them blonde curls of yours got in your eyes.” He pulled over a pitcher. “Here, have another beer. I’m sure that’ll put the fire right out.”
What was wrong with this guy? Didn’t he see it? The flashes and tongues of flame were growing higher and brighter. That old fire escape would never handle a crowd like this!
“We’ll be closing up shop soon, you know?”
“Nah, business is booming, look at it out there.”
“I mean the whole operation. Our charter’s up.”
“The whole operation? The world and…”
“Maybe another month or two, at best. Unless there’s a major turnaround, I don’t see how…” Suddenly the man went silent. Staring at the closed door, he shook his head. “Look at that, he’s come back.”
“Who’s come back?”
The older man, seeming not to hear him, went on. “Could be we’re not out of business after all.” He turned toward his younger companion. “Of course, we’ll need you home now—by tomorrow this time.”
“Tomorrow? Impossible. Just to pack up…”
“You’ll get help.”
“I don’t understand.”
As Reggie rushed by with refills, Strad flagged him down. “Reggie, this place is on fire!”
The man grinned. “Hottest spot in town, is it not? You fellows need more soup?”
“Reggie, wake up, man! There’s a fire coming out of that room over there! Call the fire department—we have to get everyone out of here right away!”
The waiter put down his tray, glanced across the room for a moment, and then slapped Strad on the back.
“Now, m’good mon, I see why you didn’t fancy any of my puff. Perhaps you have a wee bit of y’own left to share, do you?” Before Strad could respond, the laughing waiter-cum-maître’d had gone back to his rounds.
Strad high-stepped over the bench; he sprinted toward the side room. Ignoring the “KITCHEN – EMPLOYEES ONLY – WE DO THE COOKING, YOU DO THE EATING” sign, he pushed open the swinging aluminum-paneled doors and instinctively flung his arms across his eyes. Under normal circumstances, Strad would have appreciated the earthy and orderly kitchen; its huge mason jars of colorful grains and beans, and hanging oversized pots. He liked cooking and was beginning to take it seriously. But now he noticed none of this, as half-blinded, his whole body shook in fear as he took in the bizarre scene.
A fire was indeed blazing, yet there was neither smoke nor the intense heat that accompanies it. The leaping flames that filled the room were a strange icy blue, reminding him of the cool-burning rubbing-alcohol fires he used to light as a kid, in the bathroom when no one was home—only these were a million times brighter and a deeper, purer blue.
In the center of this surreal aureole two men stood, calmly conversing: A white-bearded old man and a younger, taller, fairer-skinned man in a chef ’s hat—not one of those cream puff things, but the low, boat-shaped type—cocked at a jaunty angle. A full-length apron was tied around his ample girth; the sleeves of his shirt pushed up to the elbows of his sturdy forearms. He stood at an awkward, almost submissive angle; both were oblivious to the fire blazing around them.
Strad edged closer, less frantic as the situation shifted from dangerous to merely strange. Suddenly, tripping on an unseen broom, he felt his legs slip out from under him. The instant before his head hit the floor he saw the old man gazing squarely into his eyes.
Gabel looked at the gangly, half-conscious young man spread out on the floor, and sighed.
The cook would normally have embraced such an encounter—after all, that’s what he was here for, and as his teacher liked to remind him, helping a bum out of the gutter was higher than the deepest meditation, and the smellier the better. He’d been able to help plenty of these ‘hungry hearts,’ some drowning in their vomit, others in their stock portfolios. But now that Kalonymos had just pulled the plug on him, what could he possibly offer this guy? At least he could give him a hand.
“You’ve gotta be careful where you step, my friend,” the man said in a deep, gentle baritone as he brushed the boy off and sat him down on a well-worn swivel chair. He filled a cup with steaming liquid from an imposingly large samovar. Glancing at a shelf full of small opaque bottles, he took one down, shook a few drops into the cup and handed it to the boy. “Peppermint tea—spiked with arnica to stop the bruise from swelling.
“Didn’t you see the sign on the door? The Board of Health could close me down in a minute if they found you back here. Not that it matters anymore…” Gabel chuckled bitterly. “The important thing is that you’re okay.”
Gabel scrutinized the young man’s face. He had the “look.” So sincere, searching…and so lost like so many others—both confused Unifiers and earnest Aborigines who’d passed through the place since Kalonymos had sent him here on his latest heart-feeding assignment…an assignment about to come to an abrupt and arbitrary end. He felt a wave of despair, but quickly pushed it away. The kid dressed the part in his non-conformist’s uniform. Gabel knew the mind-set well. He would undoubtedly still be there today—in one form or another—if he hadn’t stumbled into the Fifth Dimension and found out who he really was.
The boy sipped the tea. “I…I’m sorry I barged in like this. But when I…”
“Boss, we won’t have to do any deeshes tonight because they’ve licked them as clean as a whistler’s mother…” Reggie called out as he danced through the swinging door, balancing a tall stack of bowls. He noticed Strad. “Hey, you can’t come back here, mon! Nobody’s allowed…” But Gabel waved him off.
“It’s okay Reggie, he can stay.” Bizarre, Reggie thought. The boss never allowed anyone back in the kitchen, especially during the time each day he spent hunched over, talking to himself, as he’d just peeked in on him doing moments ago. With a habit like that who could blame him? Well, that was how it was with the boss, just when you thought you had him all figured out he’d throw you a monkey wrench. The waiter shrugged, gave the young man a conspiratorial wink and two-stepped back into the dining room.
The boy looked up. “Are you Gabel?”
“That’s what it says on the hat, friend.” Gabel cocked the worn-out chef’s hat that one of the regulars had given him, to one side of his close-cropped salt-and-red-pepper pate. “But, then again, you can’t believe everything you read. And you are?”
“What brings you to our humble eatery, Strad?”
“I was just passing by when I saw your sign out there on the street and I got this…feeling that I had to check the place out. What kind of place is this, anyway?”
“Open when you are,” The cook said, hooking his thumbs around his royal blue suspenders and flashing Strad a Cheshire-cat grin.
“Whatever. It’s a great place you have here. Amazing food.”
“Thanks. But tell me, why didn’t you just enjoy your ‘amazing food’ in the dining room like everyone else?”
Strad took another sip of tea. “That’s what I started to say. I was enjoying myself, but then I noticed that the kitchen was on fire.”
He’s sticking to that ‘fire’ story. Is he fishing for a lawsuit? Maybe he thinks he’s in trouble.
“You must have banged your head pretty hard when you fell, friend. Because I don’t see any fire back here…” he chuckled, “…do you?”
Strad leaned forward and brought his hands to his face. “B-but I was sure I saw those strange blue flames…”
Blue flames? Could he mean the aura surrounding my fifth-dimensional body as I communed with Kalonymos? That would look like fire to someone who’d never seen it before. But how could he have possibly…
“And the old man.” He’d seen Kalonymos too?
This kid was obviously something more than the typical hungry-heart. But what could he do? If the place would be staying open he’d invite him back, make him a regular. Over time, he’d introduce the idea that the world—that he—wasn’t exactly what he’d been told they were. He could grow slowly into his new five-dimensional reality. But how can you condense a story of millennia into a single night? The only thing he could do for him now was to try and calm him down.
Gabel pulled up a stool and sat down across from Strad, placing one big hand on the young man’s slumped shoulders.
“Listen friend, I’m very sorry you fell down and I’d give you your meal on the house if it wasn’t already on the house. If you feel like talking, I’m all ears, but let’s look at the reality in front of us.” He rubbed the stubble of the perennial three-day beard that segued seamlessly out from his buzz-cut hair. “Except for this ugly mug, there’s no one back here. And the only fire burning around here is the one under that pot of rice over there… The rice!”
Leaping up like a linebacker, Gabel dashed over to the big gas stove, gazed intently for a moment into the open steaming pot, and deftly slapped a cover on it with one hand and turned off the flame with the other.
“Caught it just in time!” He grinned, coming back to the stool. “The water had boiled down right below the grains. Rice cooks best when you just let it sit and absorb, but most people are in a big hurry so they boil it into mush.”
“A little oil sometimes helps,” Strad said.
“Sauté the rice in a little oil before you add the water and the grains won’t stick together.”
“Sure. That’s what I do for white or Basmati. But for short-grain brown I find it’s better to…hey are you a cook?”
“Not a pro or anything. But yeah, I’m into it.”
Gabel wiped the perspiration from his brow with a huge white handkerchief and studied the young man’s face as an implausible yet thoroughly agreeable thought flashed in his head. “Are you working?”
Strad squirmed. “Working?” he asked. “What do you mean by working?”
“I mean do you have a job?” said Gabel.
“Well…not officially…lately. Why?”
“I can see you know your way around a kitchen and I could really use some help right now. You like to travel?”
“Um, listen Gabel, it’s been great meeting you, but I’ve gotta go. My friends are waiting for me and I’m late already. You know today’s my birthday and…”
“Had I known it was your birthday, I’d have baked you a cake,” he winked. “But we’re just about to serve dessert; homemade sorbet—piña colada tonight. I’ll stick a candle in yours.”
“I’m sure it’s delicious but I really gotta go.”
“You finally got here, and now you want to leave? What’s your rush?” Strad stood up and began to back away.
Gabel started to speak, and then stopped himself. It hurt so much to watch someone dying of thirst walk right back into the desert, but he’d realized long ago that all he could do was offer water. This kid, like everyone else, would have to decide in his own time when he was ready to drink. The problem was that time was running out. He fished a small card out of his billfold and handed it, together with a small white paper bag, to Strad, who was now halfway out the kitchen door. Strad folded the card and stuffed it absently into the pocket of his jeans.
“Friend,” Gabel said, now feeling a little saddened. “I truly wish you a marvelous birthday. If you change your mind about the job, the offer is open for another 24 hours—exactly.”
 Confronting the reality of death/mortality can be an initial step in propelling people to consider and search for life’s deeper meaning.
 Without a spiritual context, there is no compelling reason for couples (especially men, who lack even the woman’s natural emotional draw – ‘tan du’ – to bonding) to marry or enter into a committed relationship.
 A person knows deep down that there is more to life than just attaining material success and achieving society’s prescribed goals. See earlier note about mortality compelling introspection.
 His tentative link to his forgotten roots.
 The Unifiers’(=Jews’) ‘operation’ or charter to rectify the world is limited in time, by which the world must transform either peacefully or otherwise.
 While meditation may have its place, Judaism is not about ‘escaping’ everyday reality, but uplifting it by engaging with it in a spiritually positive way.
Despair is from the ‘other side’ (yetzer hara).
 Non-conformity can often be just another ‘flavor’ of conformity, when devoid of real spiritual motive or insight.
 Fifth dimension – the spiritual dimension that is revealed to us via the Torah, revealing the definite spiritual impact – positive or negative – to the choices we make in our lives.
 See note on title.
 Kiruv has to take place at the right pace – it’s not realistic to think a person can absorb a whole new world view and self-concept overnight.
 Spiritual thirst