Gimpel and Other Fools

This essay was accepted by Rugerosa two whole years ago. They never printed it and didn’t respond to my queries, so it’s mine now. Rereading it has given me patience for my husband’s mistake today of giving out his credit card in response to a fake email from Macafee Virus scanner.



By Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Like I. B. Singer’s Gimpel in his short story, Gimpel the Fool, my mother was foolish. Gimpel believed the unbelievable because he was a man of faith. But my mother’s foolishness was less innocent than his. The first time I really understood that was when I was sixteen and Tilt’s son came to our door selling knives. Tilt was the Vice Principal of my high school. All the kids called him that because, like a sleeping pigeon, his head rested practically on his shoulder. Tilt’s son was twenty-something with thick dark hair and shining brown eyes. Probably Tilt would have looked like that when he was young if only his head neck could have supported his head. My mother invited Tilt’s son into our modern dining room that was wallpapered with a mural of Roman ruins. I watched as he rolled out a velvet cloth with pockets for the knives that had mahogany-like handles. Those handles were supposed to be made from bowling ball material, and we all know the lasting power of bowling balls. As he sat next to her at the dining room table, my mother batted her eyelashes and spoke in a girlish falsetto while my father snored in the bedroom. I could see that she was under The Son of Tilt’s sway, that she was going to buy those knives even though they were about three hundred dollars for the set. That was fifty-two years ago. I’d have to ask an economist to find out just how much damage she did that night.

“Mom, we don’t need those knives,” I said, but The Son of Tilt had already cut four pennies in half and my mother had already lost whatever sense she had left. She bought a whole set of those knives and never used them, not once.

For my engagement four years later, she gifted them to me. I couldn’t bear to use them. Even opening the drawer where I stashed them made me feel as if I had caught my mother masturbating. I admit I did use them for one purpose. I showed my friends how they cut through pennies. That’s when I learned that Tilt’s son must have had phony pennies. My true pennies not only didn’t slice in half, but they made ribbons in the blade’s edge. A knife sharpener—they used to come around in little trucks, ding-a-linging, and women rushed out with their dull knives—came up my block. When he saw my knife, he shook his head at me.

“I can’t do a thing with it. I seen a few of these though,” he added dolefully. “The son of a man with a head that lay on his shoulder sold them to you, right?”

I wanted to say, “Not to me, to my mother,” but that would have been even more shameful. “I found the knife,” I said.

It was only two months after the son of Tilt sold my mother the knives that my mother took me to a fancy store to buy both of us something to wear to a relative’s Bar Mitzvah. She believed if we wore something obviously costly, she could get the extended family to see that although my parents owned a small grocery store, they had big bucks. For once, she was going to get people to believe her, or so she thought. The fallacy of her system began as soon as we walked into the store. My mother had on what she wore to work in my father’s grocery store—black molded shoes, elastic stockings, and my father’s plaid flannel shirt that was long and took the brunt of pickle barrel splash. Right away, you could see the shop womens’ noses go up. They didn’t believe she had the money to buy even a button at that store, so they waited on other people instead. Who would believe my mother, dressed like that, would have four hundred bucks, cash, in her pocket, ready to spend? To get someone to wait on her, she took the four hundred dollars from her pocket and flashed it around. Then the shop girls swarmed us like wasps.

“Mom, there’s nothing I would wear from this store,” I told her. “It’s for mothers and grandmothers,” but having convinced the salespeople that she was in the money, her ears and perhaps her whole head filled with cotton balls. She bought herself a black suit with a Persian lamb collar. Even though I was yelling “no, no, no,” she bought me a similar suit, but mine was a tweedy brown and the lamb collar was dyed brown too. Or are there brown Persian lambs? And of course, the bill came to four hundred dollars, not a penny less, and that was still fifty-two years ago so you can just imagine the cost today.

The store’s tailor altered the suits for us. Mine had to be taken in a lot. With the lining and the thickness of the fabric, when I sat down, I felt like I was sitting on a double, super-sized Kotex pad. At the bar mitzvah, none of the relatives believed my mother was rich because we wore those pricey suits. What happened was, in my get-up, people mistook me for my mother’s older sister, my Auntie Ethel.

“Ethel, you’re looking younger by the days,” they said to me as I shifted in my seat.

Recently, I joined my mother and Gimpel in the Province of Fooldom. I received an email that said I had paid twice for a program that supposedly ferrets out viruses and suspicious cookies. Well, I wasn’t about to get cheated like my mother always had. I tried to figure out the gobbledygook on my own. No luck. I thought about calling my tech guy, but he charges eighty-five bucks an hour, a fortune even in current times. So, I found a number on the internet to get free help. A man from India answered my call. Believing that I was saving money, I allowed him to install “Go to Assist” on my computer and gave him free access to everything. A day or so later, I received notice from iTunes that I’d purchased three hundred dollars in gift certificates that I hadn’t. Then a service that sends cash overseas, Steamship, thanked me for my three-hundred-dollar purchase. Next, my credit card was racking up bogus charges. I had to change my bank account, all my passwords, and pay a Paypal bill that had already gone to a collection agency, and more.

Suddenly, I felt for my mother and for Gimpel. Gimpel was fooled by wanting to be a holy man and put belief before what he’d seen with his eyes, such as a man fleeing from his wife’s bed, babies born to her when he never even had sex with her, believing that all the children that resulted from her affairs were his. My mother was a fool because she had no reins on the galloping stallion of her emotions. And I, who fell into the trap of believing I could get something for nothing regardless of all the scam warnings that I’d ever heard, was now forced to eat the sour pickle of shame. My mother was too much of a fool to ever see or admit her foolishness. Gimpel, who originally wanted vengeance for all the wrong done him, was made to see that a holy man would just accept and forgive. I was on the side of vengeance. I had a dream that I stabbed the scammer with a knife that could cut pennies. When I appeared in court wearing that horrible Persian lamb suit my mother bought me, the judge declared, “You’ve been punished enough.”