Cogan awakens on the Sabbath with a headache. His sleep had been fitful and filled with difficult choices: This door or that, this path or another, and on. Twice during the night he awoke uncomfortable and sweating, the left side of his head pounding. “Oy,” he groans now, stepping into his slippers. He knows the problem: The previous Tuesday he was making his usual rounds, collecting the weekly premiums for the debit life insurance policies he sells, when he saw something he should not have seen.
It was at the second floor apartment of the Weintraub twins on Kedzie. They paid the small premium, but insisted Cogan stay to listen to the new song they had written. Everybody liked to talk to Cogan—he was a natural listener—and the twins liked to sing for him as well. “Stand over there,” one said, pushing him in front of the living room window, giggling with excitement. “Turn around.” Cogan turned his back to them while they donned blonde wigs, tuned up their ukuleles and cleared their throats. As he waited, he had a clear view of the apartment building on the other side of the courtyard. There, in a second floor apartment, he saw, to his horror, Sapinsky with his arms around Mrs. Levine, and she with her arms around him.
“Okay,” yelled one of the twins, “We’re ready.” Cogan turned back into the room. As the women began their duet, Cogan pretended to listen—he was good at that too—but he was deeply troubled by what he had just seen. What was Sapinsky doing in Mrs. Levine’s apartment? Sapinsky, who davens mincha, who is honored with an aliya on Yom Kippur. A pillar of our synagogue, thought Cogan, should not be embracing Mrs. Levine at three in the afternoon. Not with Mr. Levine, the barber, a block and a half away, cutting hair.
Mercifully, the twins’ song was short. Cogan thanked them for the serenade, kissed each on the cheek and hurried off to think about what he had seen. Maybe it was innocent. After all, he had seen them for only an instant. “Was I mistaken?” he mumbled. Yet, as he walked down Kedzie, on a sunny Chicago spring day to his next customer, he concluded with sadness, he was not. Mr. Levine was totally bald, while Sapinsky had thick, curly hair. Levine was short. Sapinsky tall. Levine was stout. Sapinsky, thin as a rail. It was, beyond doubt, Sapinsky.
He enters the sanctuary determined to drive the tryst from his thoughts. But as he wraps his prayer shawl around his head and shoulders and prays to the God who has sanctified us with His commandments, he doesn’t see, as he often does, an image of Moses on Mount Sinai. In its place, Cogan sees Sapinsky smashing the holy tablets and caressing Mrs. Levine.
He takes his seat quickly and opens the prayer book, but he can’t stop himself
from looking around. There is Sapinsky and his wife, Muriel, near the front on the left side of the sanctuary. He notices Mr. and Mrs. Levine in the back, on the right side. Instead of praying, he watches for a sign, any signal between the adulterer and the adulteress. He imagines they have worked out a code, subtle hand movements perhaps, to secretly communicate. But there is nothing. No nods. No raising of an eyebrow or hand movements. At the communal lunch after services, he stands off to the side, holding half a bagel with cream cheese. People greet him and he nods, but his thoughts and his eyes are on Sapinsky and Mrs. Levine, their every move. No one could be as unaware of Mrs. Levine as Sapinsky seems to be and vice versa. A sure sign of guilt, Cogan decides.
The following Monday, after his rounds he makes his usual stop at Stern’s drugstore. A glass of water and two Alka-Seltzer tablets are waiting for him. He puts his worn briefcase on the counter and as he eases onto a stool, he decides to unburden himself. He tells Stern everything.
“You see what you’re doing?” Stern says. “You’re making Sapinsky’s problem your problem. What business is it of yours if Sapinsky is cheating on Muriel? Or if Mrs. Levine is cheating on Mr. Levine?”
“He davens mincha,” Cogan moans. “He’s an important person in our synagogue. Do I ignore it? Do I forget what I saw with my own two eyes?”
“So he prays,” Stern says. “Maybe he’s praying he won’t get caught.” He laughs at his own joke, but Cogan isn’t laughing. To him, being a leader in the synagogue means being a leader in every aspect of your life: a role model.
“How can it be otherwise?” he asks himself. “And how,” he says to Stern, “do I look Mrs. Levine in the eye when I collect her premium? And do I continue to shop at Sapinsky’s? And on and on.” Cogan’s voice trails off as he thinks about the fall out.
Stern, seeing his friend wrestle with his feelings, says, “Look, can it be you’re the only one who saw Sapinsky together with Mrs. Levine? Can’t be. Others have or will. It will come out. Wait. Levine will find out and he’ll shoot Sapinsky. Or Muriel will find out and she’ll kill him. Things will work out.”
The druggist has been his confidant for so long and has so often come to his aid, Cogan automatically accepts his advice. He waits. Week after week, he sits in the synagogue and watches. But there is nothing. He begins to doubt his memory. What did he really see? He goes over the incident in his mind. The Weintraub twins, the window, Sapinsky with his arms around Mrs. Levine. It’s all there, vivid and in Technicolor. He saw, he concludes, what he saw.
He stops in Sapinsky’s store to buy pencils. They chat as they have always chatted. “You look pale,” Sapinsky says. “Something wrong?”
Cogan assures him he is fine. But it pains him to admit to himself that Sapinsky has never looked better.
At the barbershop, Mr. Levine is humming while he cuts Cogan’s hair. The barber’s bliss only adds to the sense of injustice Cogan feels. “Quiet today,” Levine says. “What’s on your mind?” Cogan would love to tell him, but he knows he can’t.
Neither the Sapinsky’s nor the Levine’s miss a Shabbat morning service. In short, no scandal has erupted. No one has shot Sapinsky. “It’s over a month now,” he complains to Stern, waiting for the Alka-Seltzer tablets to dissolve. “Not a peep.”
“Tell me again exactly what you saw.” Stern’s request stabs at Cogan’s heart. Is he questioning what I saw?
“What happened, happened,” Cogan replies with a defensive tone even he finds surprising. “Of that there is no question.”
Stern puts his hands on the counter and leans in toward Cogan. “Then you must talk with the rabbi,” he says. Cogan nods. Of course Stern is right. He knows he has no choice. To be silent, he concludes, is to condone. He finishes what’s left of the Alka-Seltzer and leaves.
Cogan, his briefcase in his lap, sits before the rabbi in the paneled office next to the sanctuary. “Rabbi,” he begins. “If I accidentally witness one of our distinguished congregants engaging in an act prohibited by the Ten Commandments, should I, must I, disclose the information?”
The rabbi leans back in his chair, his eyes closed in meditation. After a minute or two of silence, he leans forward and speaks: “You must be silent,” he says. “It’s a sin to speak ill of others even if you’re telling the truth. To do otherwise is to destroy the world.” Cogan loves the rabbi, but his penchant for hyperbole is often annoying.
“I must be silent?” Cogan repeats as if to himself. “And if I see someone with a gun about to shoot into a crowd, I must say nothing?”
“There are limits,” the rabbi allows. “To save a life, anything is allowed. But Maimonides teaches to vilify another, even if factual, is a sin. So, Cogan, my old friend, you know something that is gnawing at you, that flies in the face of your religious beliefs, and yet you must keep silent. I know how difficult that is, but you will be a better Jew and a better person for having done so.” Cogan leaves the synagogue no happier than when he entered. The rabbi’s advice—his injunction—leaves no choice but to remain silent.
“Oy, oy, oy,” he whispers turning for home. He plops down in the upholstered armchair his mother gave him. “I must do something,” he says to himself. And he broods, like Archimedes over a scientific conundrum. The next morning he is up early, but instead of starting on his rounds collecting the weekly premiums, he goes to the public library and sits before one of the typewriters available to holders of library cards.
“Dear Mrs. Levine,” he types. “You must break off your secret liaison with Sapinsky. He’s a married man.” Cogan yanks the paper out of the typewriter, crumbles it up and puts it in his briefcase. He begins again with a new sheet of paper. He has an idea.
“My heart aches to have to tell you this, but I have decided our affair must end. To continue on the way we have been is unfair both to Muriel and to your husband. Both are good, decent people and they deserve better from us. You will remain in my thoughts, but we will forever be apart. My decision is irrevocable.
Cogan takes the paper out of the typewriter and folds it neatly into thirds. He places it in his briefcase and loads another sheet into the typewriter.
“You rotten home wrecker. My wife confessed everything last night. My first thought was to wring your neck. And if I ever catch you with my wife again, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Better, I’ll tell your wife what you’ve been up to and she’ll castrate you while you sleep, you no good gonif. I’ll supply the razor. You’re never to so much as look at my wife again. Never speak to either of us.
Cogan folds this letter as he had the other. He addresses two envelopes and puts everything in his briefcase. Only then does he sit back and mull over the likely effect of these letters. Sapinsky will have no choice but to stop seeing Mrs. Levine. She has told her husband about it—so he will think—and Mr. Levine can spill the beans to Muriel if Sapinsky even twitches the wrong way. Mrs. Levine, for her part, will be crestfallen, but there will be nothing for her to do. “Will I have the nerve to send these?” Cogan asks himself. “And what if I’m discovered?”
“So, my friend,” Stern says later that day while Cogan sips his Alka-Seltzer. “You spoke with the rabbi? What did he advise?”
“Jewish law requires that I be silent,” Cogan replies. “I must say nothing. I’ve sinned even telling you.”
“Me?” protests Stern. “Sometimes I think your rabbi has a screw loose. You bottle things up, you get a coronary. Talk is healthy.”
“I didn’t tell him I talked with you. I’m telling you what he said. I must be silent, so I’ll be silent.” Cogan doesn’t mention the letters. If he decides to send them, he feels, even Stern must not know.
A week goes by. Two. The letters remain in Cogan’s briefcase. As he makes his rounds, collecting premiums, selling new policies, he feels the extra weight, as if each letter is tied to a brick. He hears about births and deaths, illnesses, crazy relatives, insane co-workers, divorces, sons who are geniuses, daughters who are angels. Everyone, it seems, is talking about everyone else. But there is no talk about Sapinsky and Mrs. Levine. It’s as if neither really existed.
While Cogan remains strong in his decision not to speak of the issue, Stern is unrestrained. “You talk with everyone in the neighborhood,” he says, filling Cogan’s glass with cold water. “Are you telling me you’ve heard nothing?” Cogan is silent, waiting for the Alka-Seltzer tablets to dissolve. “Cat got your tongue?”
“Why are you taunting me?” Cogan asks finally. “I told you I must remain silent. What you’re doing is a sin.” His face is red. He takes a drink and one of the Alka-Seltzer tablets clicks against his teeth.
“I don’t believe in that nonsense, Cogan. You know that. Lightning hasn’t struck me dead. Worms aren’t oozing from my ears.” Stern laughs. “Now let me tell you the news: Sapinsky has been nominated to be the next synagogue president. For two years, he’ll be sitting on the bema, a real macher. For two years, you’ll have to listen to him make the announcements. When you have an aliya, it will be Sapinsky who calls you to the Torah. It’s as if he were being honored for his infidelity.”
“President,” Cogan moans. He pictures Sapinsky wrapped in his colorful tallis, davening as if he were a high priest in Jerusalem. He imagines him on Yom Kippur, proud and erect as he marches to the bema for his aliya. He anticipates the note in the synagogue’s newsletter that Sapinsky has made a significant contribution to the rabbi’s discretionary fund in honor of his wife, Muriel.
It’s almost too much for Cogan to bear. “President,” he wails. He takes the two envelopes out of his briefcase and quickly heads toward the door, leaving what’s left of the Alka-Seltzer to fizz and go flat.