MRS. WASSERMAN ONE, WORLD WIDE WEB ZERO
by Phyllis Rudin
The courtroom was SRO. As trial crowds go it wasn’t standard issue. Almost all women, and most of them pushing eighty. Though they were chattering to each other sotto voce as befitted the premises, they were still a noisy bunch as they filed in. The fragile plates of their hips were rasping against each other, announcing their intention to snap like a piece of matzo any second now, and their ill-aligned choppers were click-clacking, providing an inappropriate maraca backup to the sober proceedings. The women were dressed similarly, almost as if in uniform, dark modest dresses, pillbox hats, and handbags from the Eleanor Roosevelt collection. Their feet were lashed into industrial-strength oxfords that allowed their old-growth bunions plenty of legroom.
Issue #122 soundtrack: Sophia Bastian “Blind Ambition”
It was their common profession that brought them here today. They had to stick together. Theirs was a métier that didn’t get injected with a lot of new blood. It wasn’t one, as most people assumed, that was passed down from mother to daughter. It was more like the priesthood. You had to hear the call. And lately, fewer girls were hearing the call, let alone heeding it. The younger generation could see the handwriting on the wall. This was a dead-end occupation, about to be entirely supplanted by bits and bytes. Today’s eighteen year-olds were too savvy to sign on for a career whose death knell the world wide web had already tolled. Thanks but no thanks. I mean OMG.
The elderly ladies in the courtroom were not unaware that the internet was horning in on their turf, but they were still optimistic that they could hold their own against the juggernaut. Their beloved union president would keep that threat at bay just as she had all the others. A tough cookie like Frieda could chew up the internet and spit it out dead onto the sidewalk. All those young girls who thought the web would stomp their occupation into oblivion, they didn’t know from nothing.
But now their leader, their miracle-worker, was in trouble. They couldn’t just stand idly by. This was the woman who’d succeeded in lifting their working conditions up out of the gutter after her predecessor had snoozed away her mandate. This was the woman who’d brought their piddling wages up to a level that could actually put food on the table. For God’s sake, this was the woman who’d finagled them dental. Powerhouse Frieda had supported every last one of them when they needed her, so now they were here assembled to support her in return.
A flutter passed through the courtroom when the accused took the stand. This was the moment they’d all been waiting for. Three full days now they’d sat through the endless yada yada of the witnesses and the experts, but finally they were about to hear about that fateful day from the horse’s mouth. Luckily they’d had the foresight to pack a sack lunch inside their dowager’s humps so they wouldn’t have to miss out on any of the proceedings for refueling.
“State your name for the record.”
“Frieda Wasserman. Mrs.”
“Mrs. Wasserman, could you please tell the court your profession?”
“The technical term for my profession is shadchen.” She turned to the court reporter whose 225-words-a-minute fingers were hovering uncertainly above the keyboard. “That’s spelled with a ch in the middle, sweetheart. But you can just type matchmaker if you find that easier.”
“It must be difficult,” the lawyer started in, “for matchmakers like yourselves to find work in this day and age, what with all the singles sites out there on the internet. Some might say that in the current business climate your career is an anachronism.”
Bang. Right out of the gate and already Mr. Sharkskin Suit was pushing her buttons. Her attorney had cautioned her to stash her hair-trigger temper in a holding pen, so she flushed the outrage out of her voice, and answered in what passed for a civil tone. “Our profession has evolved with the times. It is as relevant today as it ever was. Think of it this way. It’s like using a head-hunter. Hospitals do it, universities do it, governments. It’s a very 21st century concept. I save my clients time and energy, plus they benefit from my years of experience brokering successful matches. I separate the pearls from the drek. A girl doesn’t have to suffer through sixteen miserable dates, wishing she was back at home scrubbing out the grout from between the bathroom tiles. With my services she cuts to the chase.”
“I see. Now, Mrs. Wasserman, could you walk us through how the process works? Let’s start with who generally approaches you. Is it the potential bride or groom, or the parents?”
“I’ve had it all ways, but in most cases it’s the parents who make the contact. They tend to get panicky before their children do. Especially the parents of girls. Nowadays their daughters are all professionals, doctors, lawyers, putting off marriage and babies until they’re near the last tick of their biological clock. They worry that one day soon their daughter will wake up with a shrivelled-up uterus and no chusn on the horizon.”
“Sorry, in your parlance that’s bridegroom.”
“Thank you for that clarification. Now tell me, Mrs. Wasserman, do you need a license in your line of work, or can anyone hang up a shingle?”
“A license, no. There’s no governing body. It’s all word of mouth. Without good references, you’re dead in this business. Like in any trade. Who’d hire a housepainter who slopped latex on the neighbour’s broadloom? My reputation is all that separates me from the poorhouse.”
“So you don’t advertise? No billboards, no flyers, no commercial spots?”
“No, that would be unseemly. But I do have a website that outlines my services and fee structure.”
“Since you bring up the subject of remuneration, I’m a little unclear on how that works. Do matchmakers only get paid if a marriage results? Or do they get a payment for the hours they put in, regardless of the outcome?”
“We ask for a non-refundable deposit up front. For expenses. You know, photography, epilation, secretarial, that kind of thing. Then there’s a second fixed payment if a marriage takes place. Plus an extra five percent if the client signs on for our top choice.”
It was all the little biddies in the courtroom could do not to cheer when she mentioned the five percent. Frieda’d fought long and hard to get them that signing bonus.
“So, Mrs. Wasserman, in your kind of business, I suppose it occasionally happens that you have a dissatisfied client?”
“Who has a perfect record, I ask you, when you’re dealing with the human heart?”
The lawyer riffled ominously through his sheaf of notes until he landed on the detail he was looking for. “Does the name Irwin Teplitz mean anything to you?”
Frieda struggled to keep her head at the same self-assured tilt, though that name, curse it to hell, set her kishkes roiling. “Yes, it does.”
“Could you tell us in what context?”
“I matched him up with the Sandler girl last year.”
“And how did that match work out?”
“It didn’t pan out in the end. There happened to be a slight flaw in the vetting of the gentleman and it turns out he wasn’t exactly what you’d call, well, single.”
“A slight flaw? He still had a wife in Winnipeg. Isn’t that true?”
“And no divorce proceedings had ever been undertaken between them, is that not correct?”
“Yes,” she had to admit. This shyster was trying to make her out as a slipshod shadchen when nothing could be further from the truth. Out-of-province cases were notoriously difficult. She had to subcontract. And once you went that route you left yourself open to all kinds of risks. She made a mental note to restrict herself to her home soil of Montreal in future. From now on, if some kosher princess out in the tundra needed to find herself a mate, tough bananas. It wouldn’t be her lookout anymore.
The prosecutor didn’t even have to refer to his notes to come up with the next name to plague her with. It tripped right off his tongue as if he’d been rolling it around in his mouth, savouring the tasty morsel.
“Mr. Adam Weiss. Could you tell the court about your dealings with him, if you please?”
Frieda sighed. This guy had done his homework. “That was a very exceptional case. I discovered, quite far along in the process unfortunately, that Mr. Weiss wasn’t actually Jewish, and I had to withdraw his candidacy after a girl had already fingered him as her choice. But you have to understand that with a portfolio the size of mine, sometimes there can be a glitch in the paperwork. Even accountants misplace a T-4 here or there. It’s not unheard of. In the rare cases like these I offer a full refund.”
The hoary spectators in the gallery sent vibes of fellow-feeling wafting over towards Frieda. They’d all had iffy cases like this. What were they supposed to do, ask the potential groom to drop his pants to confirm full membership in the Tribe? They had to rely on their sixth sense when the documentation was undefinitive. Who among them could claim a career without blemish? They all had a clunker or two in the closet. It went with the territory. Poor Frieda, to have her snafus rubbed in her face in a public forum. They wouldn’t have had the grit to bear it.
“All right, Mrs. Wasserman, I think you have enlightened us sufficiently on the particulars of the shadchen profession.” The ethnically challenged lawyer over-pronounced shadchen, hawking out the phoneme at the beginning of the second syllable as if it were an olive lodged in his windpipe. Frieda wiped the resulting spittle off her face with a lace hanky.
“Let’s move on now,” he said, “to the details of the specific case that brings us here today. Mr. Alton Meckler hired you to find a husband for his daughter?”
“And he came to your office on October first?”
“Could you please describe what went on at the appointment?”
“The meeting was unexceptional. At first. He filled out the forms. I asked him questions about his daughter. Whether she knew he was coming to see me and so on.”
“And did she?”
“No, but this isn’t necessarily unusual. Things do tend to go more smoothly, though, if we have buy-in from the potential bride or groom right from the start.”
“You said the meeting was unexceptional at first. What transpired to make it exceptional?”
“I feel bad saying it in front of the party in question, but it was when he handed over the snapshots of his daughter. I realized right then it would be one of my most challenging cases.”
“In what way do you mean?”
“I know that looks aren’t everything, but in her case, poor kid, looks were nothing. Mr. Meckler’s daughter, Elise, well, she’s built like the Stanley Cup.”
All the women in the visitors’ seats periscoped their heads to cop a better view of the daughter’s architecture. They nodded in agreement. The unfortunate girl did bear an uncanny resemblance to that particular piece of hockey hardware.
“But it wasn’t just that,” Frieda offered up in a show of forthcomingness. “I’ve found great matches for dogs before.”
“What else was there?”
“The fact that she was blue-collar. A carpenter. And she drove a pickup truck. Now in Calgary that might go over, but not in Montreal. We’re not a four-wheel-drive kind of town.”
“So that’s an unusual profile?”
“Oh, yes, by me very unusual. The girls I deal with are normally college graduates, highly refined. And worldly, too. They know from French nails and Brazilian wax. Elise’s father, he was very worried what type of man she’d hook up with working on building sites, tradesmen with sawdust in their hair instead of dandruff, goyim with tattoos and basement IQs. That wasn’t what he wanted for his little girl.”
“So, did you show him some prospects from your files right away? At that very meeting? Get the ball rolling?”
“Absolutely not. That isn’t how it works. Once the parent puts down the deposit, I meet with the girl one-on-one. The mother or father is never present at that stage. It’s like a doctor-patient consultation. What goes on in that meeting is private.”
“Well, Mrs. Wasserman, since the type of meeting you describe isn’t actually protected by confidentiality guidelines as set out in the statute books, could you please relate to us the discussion that went on between you and Ms. Meckler at that appointment?”
Inwardly Frieda bristled at his brute intrusion behind the drawn curtains of her operations. And to think the law sanctioned his peep-show. She’d been lobbying for years to secure for her workers the same confidentiality privileges that reigned in the confessional, but she’d never managed to strong-arm those Ottawa lawmakers into seeing things her way. It was one of the bitterest failures of her tenure. She responded to his prurient question, but decided to go chintzy on the details in protest. “Ms. Meckler rejected my top choices out of hand. Pooh-poohed the next tier down as well. It ended up being a marathon meeting. The girl was finicky in the extreme.”
“But you did succeed finding her a match.”
“Yes, I did. And I’m proud to say that when they met they hit it off right away.”
“So, you considered it a closed case.”
“Yes. I transferred the file over to my archives and never gave it a second thought.”
“Now, can you relate to us what transpired on the afternoon of October twenty-first?”
“On that day, the father, Mr. Meckler, he comes storming into my office. Blows right past my receptionist. Nearly throws the door off its hinges. He’s sweating, dishevelled, pounding his chest with his fist shouting, “I’m the client, I’m the client.”
“What did he mean by such a declaration? He was the client after all, wasn’t he?”
“Some parents think that because they pay the bills, they have some say over their child’s choices, but that’s not how it works. The parent isn’t the client, strictly speaking. He’s just the money. If a daughter picks herself out a woman from my files, as happened in Ms. Meckler’s case, and a lovely, kind woman, if I may say so, papa can’t undo the match. At least not through me. I’ve done my job. What does he think? That Elise and I met in my office and I talked her into becoming a lesbian?”
“Relate to the court what Mr. Meckler did next.”
“He kept on screaming. Called me a pimp. Said that I was twisted and that I preyed on innocent children. That my practices were perverted. He said that I was lower than the pedophile who opens up his raincoat at the playground.”
The observers in the courtroom slipped their blood pressure meds under their tongues prophylactically. Freida’s account, sordid as it was, could only go downhill from here.
“Then he came around to my side of the desk. Lunged towards me. I grabbed my letter opener that luckily was sitting on top of some correspondence I was working on, and I stabbed him with it. Self-defense.”
“Except that there were twenty-seven stab wounds in the body, Mrs. Wasserman. It’s hard to swallow your plea of self-defense when you effectively perforated Mr. Meckler.”
“The first hole WAS self-defense. The remaining twenty-six were for emphasis only. Like the dot in an exclamation point.”
He paused a few beats to allow her punctuational justification to dig its own grave, and then moved in for the kill. “Is it not true, Mrs. Wasserman, that Mr. Meckler never came around to your side of the desk at all? That he never lunged towards you? Our crime scene investigators measured the angle of his fall which proves that it was you who came out from behind the desk with the letter opener in hand to attack him, that you were the aggressor.”
A collective gasp from Frieda’s devotees sucked the oxygen out of the room. The lawyer steam-rolled on with his interrogation even though his lungs were starting to feel shrink-wrapped.
“Now, weren’t you aware, Mrs. Wasserman, that Mr. Meckler was one of Canada’s pre-eminent dot-com entrepreneurs? That he founded, among numerous other internet ventures, E-Bliss.ca, the nation’s top-rated singles site, based on the ratio of successful matches to registered members?”
Frieda didn’t reply as snappily as she had earlier, though she couldn’t very well deny any prior knowledge. You would have had to be living with a bag over your head for that name not to ring any bells. The lawyer nudged the poky defendant with his cattle prod. “Remember, you’re under oath.”
“Yes, I was aware.”
“Then surely you were also aware, Mrs. Wasserman, that that one site has caused more of your fellow shadchens to close up shop than any other dating site on the internet. According to Statistics Canada figures, 38% of shadchens have stopped plying their trade since E-Bliss.ca came online.” He placed a line graph on a tripod at the front of the courtroom that illustrated the opposing trajectories.
“So maybe we do have a smaller footprint in the marketplace than we used to,” she retorted. “But if his site is so high-power, so successful, why didn’t it work when he tried to find a match for his own daughter? Tell me that. Why did Mr. Hot-Shot Internet Procurer have to bring her to me?”
“Mrs. Wasserman, I’ll ask you to mind your tongue.”
“I’m done minding my tongue, sonny.” Somehow, the hard evidence of the bottoming out of her beloved profession, the profession she had striven to strengthen and advance her entire working life, set her free.
Frieda rose to her feet, but she was built so squat that she was barely any taller standing up than sitting down. She couldn’t see out over the dock so she hitched up her skirt and jumped up onto her chair to continue. So taken aback were the bailiffs by the octogenarian’s spry leap that rather than reach for her, they froze. The judge, similarly dazzled by her Senior Olympics acrobatics, was struck dumb. He had the urge to scribble a 9.8 on his legal pad and hold it up above his head, but he remembered himself just in time.
“I stand before you today,” she proclaimed, “as chief representatrix of the shadchen sisterhood. And, as such, I warn you that we will not be bullied or cowed by electronic interlopers, dot-com snot-noses like Alton Meckler who think that they can barrel in on a profession drenched in history, biblical even, and squash it like a roach to make a few more bucks.”
Frieda was just warming up. “The bunglers behind these singles sites, they have no training, no ethics. They’re nothing but programming brutes, robots completely unqualified to handle a field of endeavour that requires delicacy and personal judgment. Scum, they are, without principles or scruples.”
She turned to lock eyes with her inquisitor. “The angle of the fall proves that I was the aggressor you say? You bet I was the aggressor. What kind of leader would I be if I let a golden opportunity to protect my flock slip through my fingers? When Meckler, that reptile, burst into my office, reviling me and mine, I wasn’t about to sit back and take it. I snatched my letter opener off the desk, charged him, and stabbed him where his heart would have been if he’d had one. You think I’d let our life’s work be threatened by that piece of lint? He had no idea who he was dealing with.”
Oy, she’d snapped. Frieda’s partisans were worried this might happen. Gertie in the first row gave the signal. In unison the ladies reached behind their ears. They fiddled with the frequency on their hearing aids till the devices emitted a high-pitched squeal to which they themselves were immune, but had a vuvuzela effect on everyone else in the courtroom who clapped their hands over their ears, though to no effect. The shrill e-e-e-e seemed to penetrate through their pores.
With the court thus discombobulated, the grandmothers were free to charge the stand. The motorized wheelchairs cleared the way. The suspension on those babies was top drawer. You could hardly feel the bodies of the guards and lawyers passing under their wheels. Following up in tight formation were the geriatric foot soldiers. When they stopped in front of their leader, eyes shining and expectant, Frieda flexed her knees and executed a swan dive that landed her on their shoulders. The volunteers who took the direct hit would be slathering on the Deep Heat tomorrow, but it was a small price to pay.
The group marched her out of the courtroom pallbearer-style. A few border skirmishes broke out as they headed towards the exit but the shadchens assigned to the formation’s periphery had been trained by the Irgun and quashed them handily with their canes. The women poured out through the front doors of the building and passed their precious cargo to the Dykes on Bikes who’d been demonstrating in Frieda’s support throughout the trial in a new coalition that suited their mutual needs. Mitzi revved up her Harley with Mrs. Wasserman in the sidecar, and whisked her away to a safe house in the east end.
Frieda was exultant. Next time the internet would think twice before it tried to muscle in on working stiffs. And if it didn’t, she, Mrs. Frieda Wasserman, that enforcer in Depends, would come to their rescue. She’d have to operate underground from now on, of course, but she’d always be on call for the downtrodden. Viruses to bring down web thugs? They were so yesterday. Nothing beat the human touch.
Phyllis Rudin lives in Montreal, Quebec. Her first novel, Evie the Baby and the Wife (Inanna Publications, 2014), is a fictionalized account of the Vancouver-to-Ottawa Abortion Caravan. Her second novel, My True and Complete Adventures as a Half-Assed Voyageur, will be published in 2017 by NeWest Press. Her recent short stories have appeared in AGNI, Massachusetts Review, Prairie Fire, and This Magazine, among others. Visit her at phyllisrudin.com.
Olivia Pecini is a soon-to-be graduate of Rhode Island School of Design's animation program, with an emphasis in illustration. Pecini has worked at Cartoon Network, Ignition Creative, and The STUDIO. In her free time she runs Muse's Milk, a blog featuring interviews with creative women. Her work has been included in exhibits at the RISD Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum (Archives), Professional Women Photographers New York Rye Arts Center, Concordia College and the College of New Rochelle. Visit the artist online at oliviapecini.myportfolio.com and follow her illustration blog on Tumblr.
Sophia Bastian is a bluesy New York-based singer with a young attitude, a vintage soul, and reggae infatuation who previously appeared in Storychord Issue #7. You can find her music on Spotify and iTunes, and follow her Facebook.