By: Gavriel Guttman  | 

The Octopus, A Short Story

Isaac Sussman leans his elbow on the cheap white tablecloth, silver fork fixed perpendicularly in front of his face. Mouth is shut tight. Nostrils contract and a salty pearl of sweat rolls slowly down his long face. Darkness is peering from the corners of the room as light like magic seeps through paper lanterns.“Do it Isaac.” Voices whispering all around and the honey of persuasion dripping like water.The thing is swaying in the windless air. A suction cup, pierced by the shiny silver spear, its fate captive to the bravery of those that now peer down at it. Raw-pink, pink and raw, this octopus has met its end, the cook endowed in the morticians white and Isaac on his way to be the grave. All he must do, say the voices, is take the earthy plunge and swallow, to be truly free.

The brochure is glossy. And the colors jump right out. Blue. Boom! Green. Boom! Yellow. Shabam! Isaac is having a hard time turning the pages. They all are stuck together. But Isaac sits: so excited but uncomfortably impatient as he looks at the brochure of his chosen place of study for the upcoming year: Yeshivat Yoshvei. A wistful sigh. He tries to imagine what it’s going to be like living in Israel for a whole year. He thinks he has a pretty good idea. It’s going to be pretty awesome. One of the boys pictured in the brochure stands out. He graduated last year so was only a year above Isaac. He is smiling in the picture, his red hair perfectly brushed, newly grown side locks curled behind his ears. Isaac notices the thick, pearl white strings hanging down from the boy’s sides, then he looks at his own tzitzit. Pitiful. They are yellow and curled like a supermarket french fry.  And they’re not the thick kind. Isaac bites his lip and makes a decision: he grabs the pamphlet and strides purposefully toward the foot of the stairs that lead to the second floor.  “Mom!”   Sarah Sussman comes stumbling down the stairs dragging an overstuffed black duffle bag, dropping it at her son’s feet.

“What is it sweetheart?”

Isaac shows his panting mother the brochure. “I need tzizit like these. I want to fit in.”

“Sweetheart, I told you: we’re leaving to the airport in ten minutes. Not exactly the best time to talk about buying tzizit.”

She crossed her arms and stared at him. Isaac coughed loudly into his fist.

“What it is it now, Isaac?

“Um Mom, you’re not Tzniut right now.” He points to his mother’s curly gray hair.

“Isaac, I’m your mother. Stop being ridiculous.”

He bit his lip. “Mom, just cover your hair when we go to the airport..” A pause. Eyes lock. ”Like you promised..”

“Alright. Should I bring my hijab too?”

“Mom, stop! I’m serious.”

“Alright, Isaac.” She swats at his head affectionately. “Oy, what am I going to do with you? You’re going to come back from Israel and we’re going to have a Rabbi in the house.”

It’s Passover time and the Sussman family are gathered around the dining room table. Isaac is home. He’s not happy about it.

“It’s nice to have you home.”

Mark Sussman speaks his words gently as his ever-furrowed brows swim the expanse of his forehead in detached thought. Unsavory lint is flicked casually off the front of his green corduroy vest, and his shirt collars, without stays, take strange forms, like shrubs in the wilderness. He looks like a cliche small town college professor, and that is exactly what he is. The professor looks into Isaac's eyes now. They are filled with tears but also with anger and determination. A sigh. “Listen, Isaac.Your mother and I do very well understand that you have taken Torah study on as your passion. And as Orthodox Jews, we can only encourage you to continue your studies. However, we also believe that secular education is important too.”

Isaac sniffles. Blinks hard.

“We will not be paying for you to go back to Israel.” Mark gestures at his wife. She nods, signaling her concurrence.

It is gray. “It” is everything and everything is “it.” Wind, and then water sprinkles from the sky in retaliation, swaying and spraying by the Conductor’s thrust. Wherever he may be. Isaac looks up at the cloud. There is normally sky there. He feels nothing. Now he is sad: Sad about nothingness. He receives eyes from the guard upon entering Rubin Hall, the old brown facade not offering much internal security at all. The light in the stairs down to the caf flickers yellow and white, and the paper mache walls tickle Isaac’s palms as he submerges himself in the world down below. It’s light downstairs. Too light. What to eat? The question at life’s true core. Bird, slaughtered and cooked, jumps onto a tray. Yellow rice and something with carrots are  in their appropriate cardboard squares. I guess I’m having chicken. The room is empty: it’s still too early to be social. Feet stop moving and eyes start scanning. Need someone with whom to speak. Need someone with whom to speak. He stands in place for too long. Walk, idiot. Walk. Feet move and eyes stop scanning; there’s a table filled with people who seem to be talking out of fashion. Ignited eyes of all colors, hands, nails cut or long, speaking sentences and whole paragraphs while their lips move, words filled with passion. Isaac, lit with color, takes a seat and finds out with whom he has the pleasure to eat. It’s the heretics, the irreligious and in-between ,infamous in the YU social scene.

The room is warm and dimly lit. Isaac sits on a faux leather couch, which is uncomfortable, but whose sticky nuisance is irrelevant in the midst of lively conversation. There sit his best friends. Some of them are girls. Oh yeah. Life has become a smorgasbord of new things, begging to be sampled, and this is the kitchen. Leaning against the window sill in the center is Simcha Kleinman, his reptile pattern glasses perfectly centered, pontificating as usual. “God is a preposterous idea.” He says. “The ancients didn’t know better but we-” his fist punches through the air and he pauses for dramatic effect- “we must rise to the occasion.”

Simcha’s sister, Rina, rolls her head back, sending her long blond curls twisting and bouncing. “Okay Sim. You can step off the podium now.”

Her legs cross, ankles flex. Isaac is intrigued. Grunts from the others in the room signal general agreement with Rina. She smiles in satisfaction. Isaac is spellbound.

“Hey, Isaac!”

The spell is temporarily broken. Sam Kirchner is looking all smug, her chin pointing forward as she talks.

“What’s your deal? I mean, what do you believe in?”

A flush of blood to the face. Palms clench and all breathing stops.


Simcha steps forward now.

“Yeah, Sam. That’s a good question. What does Isaac believe in?”

“What do you mean by that?”

Simcha does an intake of air and rubs the side of his neck. “Like-like what defines you. Who are you? If you had to describe ‘Isaac Sussman’, what would you say?”

“That’s a stupid question.” Isaac was caught off-guard.

“Why is it stupid?” Simcha was smirking now.


“Why is it stupid?” Sam’s sleeveless arms were crossed against her chest.

“Why is it stupid?” Rina laughs.

“I-I don’t know.” Isaac holds back tears.

“So you’re telling me that all of it just doesn’t mean anything to you?” They are sitting in the Glueck Library, on the second floor, at a large rectangular table. The books are are out, computers running, and chit chat on cue.

“Um, yeah. I’m just kind of dispassionate to all of it. Detached in a way.”

Isaac doesn’t look directly at Simcha as he spoke.

“And ‘all of it’ is… religion?”


Simcha leans back. The chair turns slightly on its wheels from the weight. His locks his fingers behind his head, ruffling the meticulously combed straw blond hair and letting out a deep, long sigh. “I know how we are to going to find out if this is true - that your religion is devoid of meaning to you. Isaac, as your friend, it’s my duty to tell you that the journey that is religious thought is one that must be embarked on at an early stage in life. Otherwise, you could end up clueless, empty and alone, with your social security money on the kitchen table. You don’t want that, do you? Listen, we’ll do this tonight. I’ll take care of everything, just meet me outside the dorms at 8.”

The night is cold, but they make the dark, frosty trip by foot. They reach the restaurant, it's dimly lit sign flickering as the they entered. The room is dark. Isaac’s ears are buzzing and his vision blurry. Hands and voices guide him to an old, plush chair, in front of which a full plate awaits.  A pair of reptile glasses are telling him how he needs to do this.

“No more false constructs!  Simcha yells, pounding his fist on the table. Momentary silence.  A Hitler joke is made. Laughter. To the right, dumplings float peacefully in broth. A vision: Aunt Sarah’s famous kreplach soup that always could ignite the internal bonfire. Wooden chopsticks are perched between curled fingers. Wood like that of the sukkah that he helped build for Succot every year. A stab of cool air sneaks up on Isaac’s neck. It travels down his shirt collar and into his spine, chilled waves spreading through his body. The room is cold. A little boy, his smile deep and permanent, sits on his father’s lap and strokes the man’s stringy brown beard. A face. Mark Sussman is floating in the air. He watches, expression blank, eyes staring directly at him. Isaac looks away and down at the creature dangling on his fork. Do I believe?