My grandfather, whose name was Pinchas, always wanted me with him when he removed his leg. Whenever I slept over at his house, we practised the same nighttime ritual. I followed him up the three flights of stairs to the cold front bedroom that smelled of wax. Balancing on the very edge of the ornate brass bed, he began, slowly and rhythmically, to roll up his pant leg, cuff over cuff, exposing a tube of light orange plastic. He stopped only when he reached the leather harness just above the spot where his knee should have been. Then he began unbuckling the straps, one at a time. As the pressure on his stump eased I could hear him groan with relief. Finally, clasping the leg and its heavy black shoe, he raised the apparatus above his head and slammed it down on the floor with a loud smack. All this time he watched to see whether I cried or looked away. I never did, even though I sometimes felt sick, especially at the beginning. I was thirteen, and the sight of normal male limbs confused me. I told myself I didn't have to look, he couldn't make me. The truth was I was fascinated and felt oddly privileged to be there.
The stump itself was neatly done, the skin folded in and crimped like the butt end of a salami. Still, it looked far less human than the plastic leg standing by itself beside the bed. Instead of a knee there were two indentations like dimples and the calf was large and shapely. Everyone told me that Pinchas was only half the man he used to be, but I couldn't help feeling more fear than pity.
"You can go now," he shouted when he wanted me to leave. "The show's over."
The part missing from my grandfather's leg had already been buried in the plot where one day it would be joined by the rest of him. They said it was a Jewish law. My family became religious at moments of high drama -- births, marriages, deaths, amputations. Years before, I overheard my father consulting a rabbi on the telephone about the protocol of dismemberment. The leg was to be removed in Baltimore even though Pinchas lived in Toronto. There was a widely held belief that Americans did this sort of thing better, and in matters of health my family treated itself to the best. Since my grandfather's ultimate resting place was the Pinzker Cemetery, just north of the Toronto city limits, my father was faced with logistical as well as religious problems.
The rabbi argued that whatever small inconvenience we might experience in carrying out the biblical prescription would be far outweighed by future advantages to my grandfather. He said that, according to the Bible, on the final day of judgment in the year 8000 (one of God's years being equal to a thousand human years), the angel Gabriel would blow his horn and corpses from all over the world would rise up and march off to heaven.
"How," asked the rabbi, "could a corpse march without a leg?"
"That's the stupidest question I ever heard," my mother declared to my father. "I know you don't believe all this stuff, Irving - why don't you let the hospital do what they usually do with a leg? Who's to know?"
My father felt that the issues raised in disposing of the leg were not amenable to logic. He knew his father would suffer terrible humiliation as a cripple. No matter what the cost, he, as the elder son, would see that God's will was done even if he personally thought it was all a lot of hooey.
"And just suppose the rabbi is right?" he asked my mother. "What about that?" So he called Benjamin's Funeral Parlour and arranged delivery of a coffin small enough for a baby. He ordered a simple pine box, the kind used by Orthodox Jews. It wasn't because he was cheap, he wanted us to know. It was just that he thought, under the circumstances, a fancy casket with brass handles and pink satin lining was in poor taste.
That was the last I ever heard about the amputated leg or the tiny coffin. I assume my father arranged with the railway company and the customs people for safe passage. My mother did say it was a blessing that the whole family didn't have to attend the leg's funeral. The rabbi assured us that no formal service was needed. Prayers said at the time of the final interment would be sufficient.
My uncle Benny and aunt Pearl agreed that my father had done the right thing. Losing a leg was hard enough for anyone, but for their father it would be a real tragedy. Pinchas was a man of great strength, a rude, uneducated ox of a man who could not read or write in any language-not Yiddish, not Polish, certainly not English. He couldn't even read the Hebrew prayers. My grandmother couldn't read either, so there wasn't a single book in their whole house.
News of the outside world came through their children, their neighbours and the living-room radio. The radio hummed constantly, but my grandfather never paid much attention unless there was a boxing match direct from Madison Square Garden. Then it didn't matter who else was in the house or what they were doing. He turned up the volume, and throughout the blow-by-blow account he lunged up and down the hall, cursing and swearing at the commentator, at my grandmother, at me, shouting that no one could hold a candle to the great Jack Dempsey. These young guys, he'd say, were all a bunch of bums.
Back in the 1920s, when Dempsey was a hero to the world, my grandfather was also, in his own way, a hero. People said he was the strongest man they ever saw. My grandfather never denied it. He said he was proud of his past and that I should be too. He said it brought honour to the family and a little extra money when it was needed.
Pinchas had been a fish peddler going door-to-door in his horse-drawn cart filled with ice and piles of perch, pickerel, whitefish and carp. He worked the area near his house, around Kensington market, where most of the Jewish immigrants first settled. Earning a living wasn't easy but everybody managed, one way or another. Life was safe and nobody was trying to kill you. What was missing was excitement, a little risk, so on weekends they gambled -- poker, craps, the track. Pinchas decided he wanted a piece of the action. Why shouldn't he make a little money by showing how strong he was? Didn't everybody invite him to their weddings so he could lift up the bride and groom on their chairs and carry them around the room? Didn't he make kids laugh at birthday parties when he bent coins in his teeth? Wasn't he always a welcome pallbearer? Why should he use his talent for nothing? Why shouldn't they bet on him as they bet on cards or dice or horses?
So on Sundays when the weather was good they came to see Pinchas the Ox lift or pull or smash something, placing their bets in the hope that this time he had bitten off more than he could chew. Once they bet he couldn't lift the baker's wife, who sat spilling over the sides of her kitchen chair, a blanket wrapped around her legs so no one could see up. They lost. Once they bet that he couldn't budge this cart, half-filled with cement blocks, the wheels removed, and again they lost.
It was my father's job to collect the bets, all small amounts but they added up-pennies, nickels, dimes. Whatever the stunt, Pinchas offered the same odds: two for one, double or nothing. Some of the stunts were suggested by the audience; some were his own ideas. He was no fool when it came to judging his own strength. He never tried anything he couldn't do unless he wanted to lose, to keep up the audience's interest so that the ante would go up the next week. Once he tried to break a railway tie with his head. He didn't mind knocking himself unconscious for a good cause. Pinchas was a man in complete charge of his talent.
He was a great admirer of Harry Houdini. He went to the movies just to watch Houdini escape from a locked box or hang upside down wrapped in chains. He talked endlessly about Houdini and how he used his brains to get out of tough situations. Pinchas confided to his son Irving that the only way to make it as a strongman was to use your brains, Houdini-style.
"Control, Irving, it's all about control. You just gotta keep those muscles quiet. Don't wake them up until you're really in a jam. Then, whammo!"
My grandmother, whose main ambition was to be just like the neighbours, suffered from her husband's notoriety and stayed indoors more than she had to. She subjected her husband to offended silences, which he chose to ignore. He did say to the children when she was around that no sane person could object to being famous, especially when it was so good for business. After all, who wanted to buy fish from a nobody?
Pinchas was the first to notice that he was losing his strength. One night as he sat at the kitchen table opposite my father and prepared to arm-wrestle he said: "Don't worry boychick. Some day soon you're gonna win for sure!" My father remembers it was shortly after that night that my grandfather announced his intention to do the biggest stunt of his career, the one that would make him famous forever.
Word spread down Spadina, across Baldwin, D'Arcy and Cecil, up Bellevue and Augusta: that Sunday, Pinchas the Ox would let his horse walk across his chest! The doorbell at 24 Oxford Street started ringing and the bets poured in. Few people in the old area knew their neighbours' full names. Some earned special titles like Raisel the Moocher, Herman the Tailor, or Pinchas the Ox, but usually they were identified by their street addresses. So my father took bets from people such as 24B College, 304 Augusta, and Upstairs, 19 D'Arcy. For this event even the gentile world showed an interest. The Toronto Daily Star and The Telegram sent reporters to take pictures of Pinchas and his overweight mare, Faird. Pinchas called all his horses Faird, the Yiddish word for horse. He said it made life simpler and he didn't want his children to become too attached to any one animal. He always bought his horses when they were old. They never lasted long.
Years later I saw the newspaper photographs for myself. They hung in the hall of my grandparents' house, framed, yellowing newsprint with bold black print. They showed my grandfather looking large and confident under his woollen hat, his monstrous palm resting on Faird's head. One caption read "Levine and his horse face off." The other asked, "Can he take it?"
Two days before "The Stunt to End All Stunts," as one of the papers described it, Pinchas kept his son home from school. It was Friday, the busiest day in the fish business, and my grandfather wanted Irving with him to collect bets when he made his rounds. For the occasion my father painted a big sign and stretched it across the back of the cart. "Can this driver get stepped on by this giant horse and survive? Put your money where your mouth is!! See Pinchas or his son Irving 24 Oxford Street. Or step right up now!!!" Between them they collected from almost every house on the route. By Sunday there was more than $200 in the pickle jar.
Finally the big day arrived. My father thinks the police must have blocked off both ends of Oxford Street, because there was no traffic, only dozens and dozens of people walking on the road waiting for 2 o'clock, starting time. My father was stationed at a card table on the porch, ready to take any last-minute bets, keeping his accounts on the family stationery, a long roll of brown wrapping paper. His younger brother, Benny, made change while he stood on a stool so he could reach the top of the pickle jar. My grandmother Hinde was too nervous to come out and watch. If Pinchas lost, she said, they'd be ruined-and if he won she'd most likely be a widow. Both Hinde and her daughter, Pearl, were hiding behind the curtains at the third-floor bedroom window. Pearl claimed she was mortified because all the kids at school said her father was a freak.
From their position above the street they could watch my grandfather strutting up and down the road, waving and posing for the photographers, making a fist and squeezing until the muscles in his upper arm looked as if they were dancing. First he'd work one arm, then the other, and then, to the delight of the crowd, both arms at once. People lining the sidewalks shouted "Show us your chest! Show us your chest!" Pinchas wore an old workshirt, splattered with fish blood, the odd scale shimmering in the sun. He opened his shirt to the waist and paraded around, looking brown and healthy. But the relaxed muscles of his chest appeared weak beside the puffed-up biceps of his arms. Several onlookers felt encouraged and rushed to increase their bets.
At 2 o'clock, right on schedule, my father screwed the lid on the jar. The crowd formed a circle around Pinchas, who appeared preoccupied with buttoning his shirt. My father reappeared, leading Faird. The crowd let out a howl, and Irving, who was already an experienced horseman, brought Faird onto the street.
As soon as he spotted Faird coming around the house, Pinchas knelt down and carefully folded a Hudson's Bay blanket from the stable and placed it on the road in the centre of the human ring. He lay down on it and pressed his arms tightly against his sides. Then he nodded to some cronies standing on a nearby lawn. They dragged over an old wooden door. With one man on each corner, they lowered it like a teeter-totter across the fulcrum of Pinchas's chest, one end touching the road.
The crowd parted as Irving led Faird into the circle. Those close to the animal reached over to touch her, their lips moving in silent prayer just as they did in synagogue when the Torah was carried down the aisle. Here, too, they were seeking divine intervention. Were they praying to win? Or for Pinchas to survive? Or was it just a habit, this asking for a special favour, tempting God from his hiding place?
Into the growing silence came the voice of Irving. "Pa, are you ready?"
There was no answer. Pinchas just lay there under the door staring up at the sky, appearing not to notice that his son was standing above him, the horse's feet touching the makeshift ramp.
The night before, Pinchas had visited his son's room, where he sat with him on the side of the bed. "Irving, if you were to forget everything I ever told you in your whole life, that would be OK with me just so long as you remember what I'm going to tell you now." He grabbed Irving's hands and pressed them together. "Don't start that Faird up the plank until you let me know you're starting. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yeah, Pa, I understand. But what should I say?"
"Say whatever you like so long as you say as long as you say it just before you start going up with the horse. I gotta have time to prepare my muscles. If you forget I swear I'll break every bone in your body -- even if I'm dead!"
Now, looking down, Irving was not at all sure his father had heard the question. He bent closer. "Pa, are you ready?"
This time Pinchas closed his eyes and nodded, just once.
As Abraham hesitated, a dagger poised over the head of his son Isaac, so Irving hesitated at the head of his father. This time God did not speak. All was silent except for the clanging of the Spadina streetcar.
Irving tightened his grip on the reins and then, not knowing why he did it, walked around his father's body, afraid to step on the door, afraid to walk across his father's chest, all the while pulling on Faird, urging the reluctant horse onto the ramp.
"Pa," Irving prayed. "Pa, for godsakes be ready. Just like you said, Pa, 'Whammo!'"
Faird put one foot up on the door, then another, testing her balance. She moved slowly, almost delicately, right to the middle, her full weight resting on Pinchas. His eyes remained closed, his jaw tight. With a thud the far end of the door hit the asphalt. The cameras flashed and the crowd, as if waking from a trance, took in a loud breath. Faird whinnied and clumped off. The door resumed its place, perfectly balanced, on my grandfather's chest.
Pinchas lay there, his eyes still closed. Nothing moved. Finally a bunch of boys rushed forward and lifted off the door.
With the speed of a jack-in-the-box, Pinchas was on his feet, arms high above his head, leaping around the circle like Dempsey in the ring. A champion.
Pinchas the Ox retired that day, in glory.
Years later, when he was unloading a case of fish in the market, he stepped on a nail. His foot became infected and his leg turned green. My grandfather claimed it happened to him just like with Houdini -- he wasn't ready, that was all. If only he'd spotted the nail or someone had shouted warning, he could have stretched the muscles on the bottom of his foot. He could have stomped that nail right into the ground, or maybe even snapped it in two.
The doctors in Baltimore said Pinchas shouldn't have let the infection get so bad, that he might have died right there on the operating table if he hadn't been so strong. Built like a horse, they said.