I. Old Amos
Old Amos stood in the southeast corner of the garden, the corner closest to Jerusalem, the city of gold. The sour cherry tree behind him was in full bloom. When the breeze stirred, white petals floated down. It was the middle of June, spring going into summer.
It had rained for almost three solid days, then turned fair as a high pressure system swept down across the Great Lakes from the northern reaches of Canada, wild country. Three lazy clouds drifted like lost pieces of cotton in a blue sky. Momentarily, they lined up in a row…
Jerusalem was still seven thousand miles away. In all his eighty-one years, Amos had never been there. Yet he had not forgotten her. He had obeyed faithfully the Biblical injunction, “Jerusalem, if I forget thee, may my right hand lose its cunning.” He longed to let her clasp him to her bosom. A scruple kept him from taking his longing quite literally.
Each life was both lucky and unlucky beyond measure. When it came to souls, scales failed. You knew for sure that you didn’t know what was coming next, wouldn’t quite know what it had been once it was gone. Whatever you planned changed in the making.
If you thought of yourself as its author, you sinned. You might as well lust after the making of graven images. Also you were a fool. Oblivion was the privilege of fools, an enviable one at that. A little bit of vision, no great amount, took a man a long way down the road to damnation.. Then there was no way to quell the restlessness.
You could detach yourself from it ever so slightly. You could catch odd glimpses of what you were up to. But still it blew, still it railed, still it insisted upon entering into the great book of existence its futile protest.
Amos sighed, then covered the track of his sigh with a chuckle, half wry, half genuine in its bitter disappointment. These were no thoughts for a wedding.
Amos’s head was red, near the color of a lobster’s shell when it is cooked. More and more as the years passed, the sun brought that color out. Leah used to scold him about not wearing a hat. That was more than forty years ago. Just this morning, Esther had told him that he should wear a hat to the wedding because the sun wasn’t good for him. He’d forgotten his hat. He’d just have to wear a yarmulka.
Actually, there was nothing accidental about it. He liked the feel of the sun on his scalp. He’d been bald since the age of thirty. Now his hair was so fine, so white, that it had a half presence like a ring around the moon. His eyes were sea blue, sea blank. Nowadays tears came often unbidden, when he was in the grips of no strong emotion. He had been a powerful man, large through the chest. The years had stolen half his substance. Only in his dreams physical strength came back and he performed prodigious feats, even beyond Samson’s in extremity.
Fifty or sixty people, dressed in their festive best, had gathered in this yard behind an old frame house with wide eves and porches on both sides, one glassed in and one screened in. The house was painted in two shades of gray. Old oaks and maples and nut trees towered up above the house and the yard. The sun that filtered through was the light part in a complicated dance of dapple that was always too intricate for the eye to grasp.
A robin chirped in the lowest branch of the oak tree beneath which the marriage canopy had been set up. A mother squirrel was teaching her brood to walk along the telephone wire that ran parallel to the northern boundary of the property. One of the young squirrels slipped, caught himself by his claws, then managed somehow to right himself. His mishap was accompanied by a burst of chattering, rapid as gun fire. The squirrels’ scolding spooked the robin, so that it abandoned its perch, flew off, showing its orange breast to the sun. When the light caught it just right, it glistened.
Everything was connected. One thing led to the next. Things were always in a flux. Or, to put it the other way around, flux was all that was real. Things were no more than abstract illusions, artifacts created by custom in order to aid in bookkeeping. Amos wondered how many times in his life he had had this thought or one very similar to it. A man didn’t really have many thoughts. He did the same thing over and over, without much awareness, like the squirrels or the robin.
Between himself and the crowd, Amos had left a space of ten or fifteen paces. Just in front of him, not a yard from the shining toes of the black shoes he had polished this morning at dawn until he found in them a series of distorted images of his own face, two dandelions reared up their yellow heads. He stood beside a wooden arbor where wisteria and grape twined together. Fuzzy shoots covered with white down and still furled near their ends reached out to sample the breeze.
Amos set himself apart not from disdain, but rather from discretion. Old people frightened the young. He knew that from memory as well as from observation. It was not only the bodies of the old that put fear into the hearts of the young. It was the job of the young, their lot in life, to be preoccupied with, as matters of life and death, things with which the old could no longer maintain a similar preoccupation, even if they desperately wanted to, which many of them did. Nothing was more disconcerting to the young than an old person who butted in where he was not wanted.
What, after all, did the old have to tell the young? Only that things changed, came into different relationships with each other, so that patterns and perceptions could be radically altered just when and where you least expected. It boiled down to the idea that time was the medium of surprises, so that raw persistence was of all virtues the cardinal one. No advice could be, in the heat of the moment, either less apparently practical or more loftily irritating.
Dignity and self-respect demanded of the old distance, fastidiousness of manner and expression, at least the appearance of calm in the face of circumstances. He was not about to move to Florida and play shuffleboard in the sun. Was the worst to come or had it already been, time and again? To such a question there was no ready answer.
About what went on within his own breast Amos kept his own counsel. Five years earlier he had had a cancer cut away from just beneath the nipple. In a way, he had hoped it would kill him. Yet, even so, he had gone to see the doctor. He tried not to lie too abjectly to himself, yet he was far from trusting in unburdening himself of what he discerned within.
Each one was primarily fascinated with himself. The spell was devilishly difficult of extension. Private and skeptical, hankering after the unsaid, he had been since the most remote times of his memory. So he would continue to be, he supposed, until the moment of his death.
He imagined the peculiar circumstances of his early life, that he had been born far away in the bosom of a civilization that no longer existed, that he had been cast out and forced to fend for himself at a very tender age, that survival he had early ceased to be able to take for granted, that he might very well not have survived, had played no small part in inclining him this way. Still, circumstances were at root nothing more than accidents in series, while a man’s nature was a deeper, darker, more irreducible mystery.
A man’s nature, so Amos believed, used circumstances to give itself an outward guise, to make itself appear to others in a way that might seem comprehensible to them. Amos was not at all sure that one person could come to know another one, so perhaps the gap of ten or fifteen paces of lawn that he had left between himself and the other wedding guests had, as the most matter of fact incidentals often do, a panoply of meanings.
As was the custom of their species, or at least of that part of their species which had taken a fancy to thinking of itself as remorselessly civilized, the women wore the bright colors. When the robin’s orange breast flashed metallic in the sunlight, it drew Amos’s eye to Malkie Rosen’s peach colored silk dress with the square, simple, wide open neckline.
As a child, Malkie, now in her early forties, had been raven haired, with dark brown eyes. Currently, through the miracles of technology, her hair was straw blonde. When she’d greeted him before, Amos had been stunned to see that her eyes had become blue as the sky.
First, he had doubted himself. Had he slipped so far as to make a mistake like this? Then he remembered contact lenses, that it was possible now to get them tinted whatever color you wanted.
Malkie had lost both breasts, survived two courses of chemotherapy. Despite her doctors’ cautions concerning the diagnostic complexities it would introduce, she’d insisted on having both breasts artificially reconstructed, so the net effect was augmentation.
As a little girl she had been thin, not radically so, but just sufficiently to leave the point lingering in the air after she walked away, that something was subtly but deeply awry. It was an accusation. Amos had felt its force.
She had been one of those little girls who is always on the alert, watching with a mixture of fear and hope to see whether she is being watched from any quarter at all. Only once, when she was five or six, had she so far lowered her guard as, at the peak of a Chanukah celebration, to fall asleep under the old oak table with the elaborate scrollwork legs in her grandparents’ dining room. It was the eighth night, also the eve of the Sabbath.
The small, vivid flames were dancing around their black wicks like souls unfortunately tethered to bodies as the candles burnt down into the sockets of the menorah. The other children were gambling with the dreidel for pieces of chocolate hand wrapped in scraps of colored paper. Their shouts and laughter came from the living room. No one had thought to miss her.
Amos had been one of the small circle of adults sitting around the table, smoking, sipping tea, talking. It was during the very darkest days of the war, so this holiday of improbable liberation had both a special savor and a special pathos. With the chill darkness outside, with the snow that fell fitfully down, with the wind that howled around the corners of the house, they felt very close to history, not only the contemporary catastrophe, but all that had gone before.
Their good fortune of the moment, that they sat together with warm bellies and rosy cheeks and could share their worries out loud, seemed at once precarious and vaguely shameful, as if it might be because of an inner taint that suffering had passed them over. How could they ever expiate their failure to be chosen? What manner of remorse, what manner of reconstruction would suffice to atone?
Amos’s pipe had gone out. He drew and nothing came. The pipe wheezed at him. He took the small silver companion out of his shirt pocket in order to tamp down what remained of the tobacco before he relit it. As he carried the metal instrument toward the bowl of his pipe, it slipped from his fingers. It fell by his right foot onto the old blue carpet with its worn, faded floral patterns. Then, having hit just so on its end, it bounced farther under the table, toward where the carpet, having been shielded all these years from wear, retained more of its original coloring, its almost forgotten plush. To retrieve his companion, he had to lift the tablecloth like the flap of a tent and thrust his head, shoulder, arm and hand down under the table itself.
So it was, by reason of the companion’s leading bounce, he had chanced to catch a glimpse of Malkie he kept with him ever afterwards. She lay with her head on the wooden crossbar that braced the two sets of legs. Her black hair curled across her pale cheek. Her tiny knees were drawn up to her chest. Her black velvet holiday skirt rode up over her thighs. Her white panties showed against the blue of the carpet. Her thumb was in her mouth. She sucked it rhythmically as she slept. Her chest rose and fell, softly, delicately.
He had gazed into another world, a private one. He felt immediately the intruder. By what right did he gaze on her so unprotected? It was hard to believe that anyone might fall asleep in such a place and in such a posture. How hard, Amos thought, the wood must be against the soft, childish, cheek. Yet she was obviously at peace, oblivious to everything that went on around her. She had found a way to comfort herself. Amos withdrew his head, said nothing about what he had glimpsed there. He kept her secret.
Now almost four decades later Malkie threw back her head and laughed. Amos couldn’t tell whether she laughed at something someone else said or as the flourish to something she said herself. She opened her mouth and her white teeth gleamed. She was still on guard, only aggressively so now, as if she obeyed the maxim that a good offense is the best defense.
Far from simply rejecting the cancer that, for no good reason, ate away at her and threatened her life, Malkie seemed to have made an alliance with it. When the devil cornered her, instead of despairing, she bargained. Let the cancer only give her license, allow her to remake herself, to become what she had always wanted to be, the cynosure of all eyes, secure in her right and, after a term, it could take her. Immune to reproach, she would be blonde and blue-eyed.
Wasn’t most of life counterfeit? Wasn’t most of it a kind of posturing and play-acting? Weren’t wishing and strutting two of its most vital ingredients? The disease made it possible for life, that illusion of illusions, to appear to her according to her lights to be worth living. Seen in this special way, at least for the moment, the disease appeared as much cherished associate as implacable foe.
It was astonishing that a little girl could come by imperceptible stages such a long way. The slope was smooth and treacherous. But who was he, Amos, to object? Everyone was an improviser. Everyone was an imposter. Everyone did the best he could. That was the sad melody that played in the midst of the splendor of the ordinary.
Malkie’s husband, Irving, had on a suit of pale blue linen, a bold green tie and white shoes. He was a traveling toy salesman, who, so he said, could not believe his good fortune. Not only did he have the most vivacious, the most voracious, the most exciting of wives, but also in the previous year, thanks to the sudden unaccountable craze for computer games, he had managed to make over a quarter of a million dollars in commissions. This had enabled him to pay off all his debts, to provide for college tuition for his three children by previous marriages, to take Malkie on a three week vacation to the Seychelles and to appear on the threshold of fifty a robust, secure and confident man.
He was shorter than his wife by some three or four inches, the space from her eyebrows to the peak of her scalp. He hung on her every word, not like a man who renders a duty, but enthusiastically, like someone who embraces his calling and rejoices in it, considering himself fortunate to have spied out just the niche in life that suits. It pleased him to grant Malkie’s superiority.
When he spoke, it was to proclaim her graces, as if it were too much to expect her to keep track of all of them at once herself. She hardly seemed to notice how well he served her as a chorus. For his part, he didn’t seem to notice how little she noticed. His ardor was self-sustaining. If it was also self-serving, it was secretly so.
As duty prescribed, shortly after arriving they had made a point of seeking Amos out to pay him their respects. Malkie had been animated, aglow with herself and the simple joys of living. She had used that very phrase. .She was so glad to see him. She saw him so rarely. She wanted to tell him everything. Irving underlined the salient points, added an accent here and there. They were both deeply tanned. Their skin was so oiled it gleamed. Malkie wore a golden choke collar. They reminded Amos of marauding Tartars he had seen when he was no more than four or five years old.
Their marriage was the third for both. The happy couple professed no doubts at all about matrimony. It was a state of bliss, right and perfect.. If at first you failed to find the bliss, the fault was yours, not that of the institution. Neither bemoaning your fate nor critically scrutinizing yourself to see what part you had played in your own misfortune’s making was of the least profit.
The thing to do was simply to try again, to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and make a new match, for luck in mating, like luck at cards, was simply a matter of permutations. Ruthie, of course, would grasp the enchanted ring (or be grasped by it) the first time around. They knew it. She looked so lovely, so ravishing, just the way a young bride should look. He, Amos, her grandfather, must be so proud of her…
They had talked only a few minutes. They were anxious to go on about their rounds. He had no desire to make them tarry further. He could afford simply to stand by the arbor with the sour cherry tree in full white bloom behind him. As they moved off, half bowing and smiling and inclining their heads, he felt he had received a sustained tongue lashing.
They left him feeling tired and frail, only too aware of the limitations not only of his body, but also of his own spirit, in short, of just exactly what they shoved so energetically to the side. He was glad to be outdoors in the company of the birds and the trees. He did not know why people like Malkie and Irving were the way they were, only that there always had been such people and always would be. Which was not altogether a bad thing.
You could decide they were ugly and write them off. Only they had, in the midst of all that was irritating and abrasive about them, a gaiety that was, like the breakneck gaiety of fever, something unto itself.
When the robin’s breast flashed, when he saw Malkie laugh, all this ran again through his mind. People like Malkie and Irving were required, he thought, in order to establish a standard, admittedly not one of gold, but rather of fool’s gold. He smiled. Somehow the thought had refreshed him
He was glad to observe, standing by himself with his hands in the pockets of his serge suit jacket, that his mean streak had not deserted him. He showed his teeth, small yellowed pegs worn down by more than seventy five years of gnawing on bones. The habit was a talisman of where he had started out.
Maybe he would live to be ninety, maybe even a hundred, although he hoped not. Alas, he thought, he was a good bet to outlive Malkie. Now, who would have ever expected that? Tears came unbidden to his eyes, brimmed over. He felt one run down his left cheek, then, a moment later, tasted salt in the corner of his mouth. Brusquely, he wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket.
It embarrassed him to have so little control. He was not the instrumentalist, but rather only the instrument. He never knew what would set him vibrating next. All he had achieved in a lifetime of pondering was to extract this awareness of a peculiar inner passivity and receptivity, to clasp it close, as if mere awareness could console or protect…
Amos watched the crowd. The day was fresh, sparkling. Things stood forth and shone. Their edges were sharp and distance was diminished. It was as if the windows of the soul had been newly washed until they were squeaky clean, so clean, in fact, that you could have the illusion that there was no glass in them at all, no panes in these portals that gave onto the marvels of mortal existence.
The throng of wedding guests, each one rapt in himself, each one pursuing uniquely what held its allure for him, yet formed an assemblage. It was, if not more than the sum of its parts, yet other than the sum of these parts. It resembled a bowl of fruit or a bouquet of flowers, with one cardinal difference, namely, that it was not still, it could not be still. No amount of force of will could freeze it.
Whatever it was, it no sooner assumed a particular shape, a specific guise, than something within it forced it to abandon its perch. So the condition of its beauty, its appeal to the eye, was a devastating insecurity, a perpetual instability. Like a tightrope walker who twitches his arms and shoulders, cocks his head abruptly to one side, in order to adjust the balance of the pole in his hands, but yet, for all the effort, manages to maintain the strand of gleaming wire beneath his feet, this collectivity held within it a kind of balance, a tension awaiting consummation. It was odd that what it awaited would act to dissolve it..
Like a ripe grape of purple skin near black, one dark, massive head covered in buoyant curls rose up above the others. This was Reuben, Amos’s oldest grandson, the thirty year old son of Amos’s older daughter, Becky. And yet it was not Reuben, but only Reuben’s namesake, Reuben’s physical likeness peculiarly transmuted, because Reuben himself, Reuben his own first-born was dead now these past thirty-eight years. If he’d lived, he would have been sixty years old in September.
Amos shivered. Such a thought, that Reuben might have aged so, no would have aged so, was as inconceivable as that he should be dead, erased from the book of life in his prime. If Reuben had lived, he would now be ten years older than Irving Rosen.
This practical, concrete comparison unnerved Amos. The dead lived on within those who survived them. They had their own enclaves, calm, evenly lit. Like royalty in a constitutional monarchy, they had excellent sources of information.
They were kept scrupulously up to the minute concerning matters which they no longer had power directly to influence. This did not prevent them from having and expressing a point of view, often slightly quaint, embodying as it did the crystallized convictions of eras in human feeling that had already been banished a certain interval from the face of the earth.
In their castles, not oxygenated, but ethereal, the dead could be kept secure. If they followed the news, still they were out of reach, undergoing no physical wear and tear. Not a wrinkle needed to change in their faces. Their gazes could remain absolutely what they had been. On the dead, insofar as you had bound them up within you, provided them like the ancient Egyptians a proper send-off into the world to come, you could count. You could have them just exactly as you liked.
What would have become of Reuben? Had he lived, he would have changed. The fact was that, all the while that Amos kept him above the fray, a changeless talisman of what might have been, Amos had also run countless simulations. A thousand predicaments would have taken their toll on Reuben. His hair would have fallen out. His brow would have wrinkled. The feet of crows, ominous black loud cawing birds, would have tracked the corners of his eyes down onto his cheeks. His eyes themselves would have dimmed, darkened and retreated more deeply into their bony sockets.
His mouth would have pursed every so slightly, as his tongue brought him intelligence of the sourness that lurked in life’s sweetness, putting him on guard. His shoulders would have hunched forward, then begun infinitesimally to sag as he adjusted his posture, the way he held his hips and pelvic girdle so that his back could support his neck and head upright to maintain his gaze forward. A sadness would have crept into his hands, into his long thick fingers. Amos knew what would have happened and he didn’t know.
Amos sucked on a paradox tart as lemon: to have had Reuben would have been to discover a new way of losing him, more retarded certainly, but just as surely pointed in the direction of the same destination, while to have lost him was still to possess him, perfectly preserved and elusively malleable all at once.
Now the namesake, the copy, the variation on the theme was already eight years more advanced on the road of life than the original had ever gotten to be. He had the same huge head. No, in honesty, it was even larger. He had the dark hair, the thick skin, the full lips, the eyes pale blue as the moment when dawn shades into morning, the bluff sheer forehead beveled just slightly back.
But he was slower than the original, shyer, seemingly less sure. That was what Amos had most marveled at in his son and from the very first, namely, how little he seemed to fear. The baby, the little boy, was intrepid. With his pluck, the courage he took wholly for granted, he had completely conquered his father’s heart. Amos had allowed himself to love without reservation. He had not been frightened Reuben would hurt him.
Leah had loved cats, but Melinda Kastenbaum, the landlady who lived downstairs forbade them. She said she was allergic. She was a widow and could not carry on a conversation without referring three or four times to her late husband, Fred. In all the years that Amos knew her, this habit never changed. She was not able to get it through her head that Fred was not as present to others as he was to her. She lacked a critical partition in her mind.
She was devout. It worried her that they were not observant. She told Leah she feared they would lose their way. It was a wicked world and the Evil One was a wily fellow. He had so many disguises and he was so very clever. He could slip in under a pleasing and familiar shape, one you trusted as much as you trusted your own father, and then what were you to do? Melinda Kastenbaum was much taken with the Evil One. If she spoke of her late husband, Fred, it was with reverence and dignity. The Evil One galvanized her more, set her all atwitter.
In any case, when Leah let Melinda Kastenbaum in on the fact that she was pregnant, the prohibition against cats evaporated. Without another word, the allergy vanished.
It came about that Amos found a tiny kitten, a tiger, curled up inside a length of sewer pipe. It was thin and its fur was ruffled, as if it lacked a mother’s care. It looked up at him with wide eyes and meowed at him. He had been a motherless waif himself when he had first come to these shores. This tiny kitten, making its small plaint against a huge world, touched something in him. He was unable to resist its appeal, so he picked it up and carried it home to Leah, expecting all the while that they would be forced to get rid of it, because Melinda Kastenbaum would object.
However, Melinda didn’t so much as murmur. Soon the cat, the color of orange marmalade, was a thriving member of the household, an advance party for the child who was on the way. It sipped milk from a saucer. It rubbed up against the leg of Amos’s pants when he came home in the evening. It learned to claw its way up the covers into their bed, so that it could sleep nestled up against Leah’s hip.
Leah named the cat Daniel, because, she said, it was a valiant creature and she thought it would be able to survive in a den of lions. It grew to be a large tom. It got into the most horrible scrapes, but around the house it was a gentle and loving creature. Its purring was a fond sort of growling, a contentment that rumbled out from deep within its chest and belly. When he was just a little more than a year old, still in diapers and at that amphibious stage where it was never clear whether his preferred method of locomotion over the next few minutes would be slightly unsteady walking or furious, hell for leather crawling, Reuben became fascinated with the cat.
It was summertime and hot. There were large sycamore trees out in front of the house. In the afternoons, since the house faced west, the sunlight came in the windows of the front room, split into separate shafts by the interfering branches of the sycamores. It lit up the hardwood floor and made it shine, just a few shades deeper that Daniel’s fur.
There was one particular patch of light in which Daniel was fond of stretching out to take his afternoon nap. When he slept like this of an afternoon protected indoors, he slept utterly. You could come on him with his paws with their whitish pads turned up into the air and waving while he lay in a most undistinguished posture over on his back. He was a puddle of luxury and sensual contentment.
One memorable Sunday afternoon, Reuben was fresh from his nap, smooth cheeked and bright of eye, eager for whatever came next in the perpetual program of wonders that was his world. Unsuspecting Daniel was still fast asleep, rolled over on his back, his paws and mustache twitching, as, in the depths of dream, he pursued some fabulous prey. Reuben made a beeline for the cat. He stood above him, then reached down to pet his belly. When this failed to rouse the sleeping Daniel, Reuben grabbed his tail. He had to tug at it two times before the cat leapt out of his slumbers, righted himself in an instant and swiped at the child with an unsheathed claw.
The claw caught Reuben on his arm. It hurt. Reuben grimaced and backed off a step. He seemed on the verge of tears. Then he had a change of heart. As Amos watched, a look of determination came over Reuben’s face. He marched forward, pulled back his pudgy right, the biceps still covered with baby fat, and cuffed the cat on the head. It was a hard, purposeful swat, meant to convey a message.
Fully awake now, Daniel looked up at the figure of Reuben, then turned and slunk off behind the couch. The cat’s claw had drawn blood from Reuben’s arm, but Reuben did not seem to notice. Only when Amos had picked him up had the child allowed himself to squall, dissolving in his father’s arms, molding himself up against his chest. It seemed to Amos even now as he recalled it that he could feel the warmth of Reuben’s soft body. It was a fond hallucination of the skin.
Some grief stayed fresh. Reuben had been killed off an atoll in the South Pacific which most maps failed to show. It was called Aratapoa. A boiler had blown on the USS Franklin, tearing a hole in the deck above and also ripping out a piece of the hull. Reuben had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were no remains. It was March 24, l943.
Amos had never been sure he believed the story. It was such a freak occurrence. It meant everything to him personally and nothing in any wider context. For years, well into the fifties, he had cherished fabulous hopes of Reuben’s turning up miraculously alive, with a tale of adventures that would have properly beggared Odysseus’. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in l963, it tore again the scab off the wound.
It was the details that Amos missed. Had Reuben been awake or asleep at the time? If he had been awake, what was he thinking? Had he ever had a chance to appreciate what was happening to him? Had he been alive when he hit the water? If he was alive, had he been conscious? If he had been conscious, what had his struggle been like? In l964, right after Leah had died, Amos had been troubled for six or seven months by a recurrent nightmare in which he went charter fishing on a boat out of Honolulu. A large fish took his hook. He struggled with it, played it over three hours. When he reeled it in, it was Reuben, but with green scales. He yelled at the mate who was gaffing the fish to let it go, but it was too late. Reuben lay still on the deck.
“Nu,” said Israel Sharfstein, ”a man simply waits long enough and all things come to pass.”
Amos came to with a start. The last he remembered Israel had been over talking to Becky and her husband, Mark. Thinking about Reuben, he must have dozed off on his feet, slipped away into a timeless dimension. He had had since he was a young child the faculty of taking cat naps, anywhere at any time. Sometimes he didn’t even close his eyes. As he aged, he seemed to indulge himself more. He could doze off even in the midst of a conversation.
Israel seemed simply to have materialized, like a genie in a spell. Of course, the grass was thick and plush and it would have muffled any sound footsteps might otherwise have made. Israel was his wife’s next oldest brother. He had always been her favorite, too. Israel was two years older than Leah would have been, had she lived. Leah was seven years younger than Amos, so that made Israel a sprightly seventy-six.
“Congratulations, Amos,” Israel went on, “unless I’ve forgotten somebody, and I don’t think I’m that far gone yet, this is the very last of your grand-daughters that you’re marrying off today.”
In combined assent and acknowledgement, Amos bobbed his head energetically. The vigorous motion also had the hidden purpose of reassuring himself that he was awake. Israel beamed. His face lit up with a sudden access of joyfulness. He looked for a moment so idiotically and ravishingly innocent that he could as well have been a babe as an old man.
The disconcerting thing about this, quite apart from the far from straightforward way in which it confounded apparent opposites, was that Israel had always had and still had now exactly Leah’s smile, the same unmistakable dimple with exactly the same complicated crevices disposed in a whorl around a central dark well. If Amos had riveted his attention simply on the part of Israel’s face below the nose, he would have been able to produce for himself the passing illusion that Leah had been reincarnated and just dressed up a bit peculiarly.
Amos often toyed with the theory that people were much less individual than they seemed, that what each thought of as the precious difference that made him unique and so made all the difference was an attribute that would vanish if you simply looked a bit more closely at the constituent elements, if, as it were, you imposed the mental discipline upon yourself required to draw the veil back from a crude carnival trick, instead of indulging yourself in being gulled along with the crowd.
Love’s caprice insisted on uniqueness. In short, just as Reuben’s namesake would never quite do for Reuben, so Israel, however wrenching the similarity of his smile, would never do for Leah.
“Ruthie’s a lovely girl,” Israel said. “Always was.”
“I, her own grandfather, should disagree with you?”
Amos raised his white eyebrows as high as he could get them, wrinkled his nose and used a tone that was almost caustic. Its irony was part playful, part very much in earnest. It had been perfected over centuries of usage in a vast array of languages.
“I know just what you mean,” Israel agreed, cutting short Amos’s rebuke. “The rabbi’s late. Becky says he called Rachel to say not to worry, that he hadn’t forgotten, only that he was having some kind of trouble with his car. He explained everything to her. He said the transmission fluid was leaking, so the car made a horrible racket when it shifted up from one gear to another. Can you imagine that? Car trouble. What a trouble for a rabbi to have. Only Ezekiel, he should have a car and not from Ford or General Motors. There was a time when a rabbi wouldn’t have such a trouble, because he wouldn’t have a car. He’d go on his own two feet, with his hands clasped behind his back while he thought, while he pondered the shadowy recesses of God’s law and the commentators’ wisdom. That’s how God meant rabbis to be.”
“If he went on foot,” Amos objected, “he might step in a hole when he wasn’t paying attention, or a dog might leap out and bite him, or someone might stop and ask him for a particularly pressing interpretation.”
“He told Rachel he’d called a cab, but with cab service the way it is these days, he might never get here.”
“And would that be any great shame?” Amos asked mildly. “You don’t need a rabbi to get married. All you have to do is to say the right words. God has big ears. It’s the rabbis who need the weddings, not the other way around.”
“You won’t get any argument from me,” Israel said. “I never had much use for these rabies myself. But a fellow’s got to earn a living somehow, got to pass his time occupied with one sort of foolishness or another.”
The topic was closed. Looking up, Amos noted in the crowd a momentary restlessness, as of disappointed appetite forced to cast about for a new object. The wedding guests had realized that there was a hitch. Things were not going to go off on schedule, so that, for at least a few more minutes, as the ceremonial contraption awaited the arrival of a crucial gear, they would be forced to make do with each other, perhaps to explore just a bit further than they had originally intended. Innumerable tiny social calculations were thrown off. A readjustment, tactical if not strategic, was necessary, particularly as the two parties, the bride’s and the groom’s, knew next to nothing about each other and were, by the unspoken rules of the game, both dedicated to learning only that which would be conducive to maintaining a warm glow about the proceedings.
The groom’s people were small folk, well turned out, who went around with bright smiles on their faces, cheerfully chirping in lilting English accents. At first the accents had given Amos something of a turn. But at the pre-nuptial dinner the evening before, Amos had had a chance to sit down with Manny, Lloyd’s father, and work out the pertinent geographical facts.
Manny and his three brothers were now furriers in Capetown.
They did quite well, thank you. Through discrete intermediaries located in Holland, a country by custom quite hospitable to Jews, they even managed to play a significant part in fur trading with the Soviet Union. It was perhaps slightly cynical on both sides, Manny conceded, but, in any case, wasn’t just a slight admixture of cynicism, like a dash of black pepper, necessary to survival?
Manny was in his late fifties, or, at the very most, in the first years of his sixties. He played tennis every day, but still managed to keep a small paunch that showed in the well tailored rise of his pants. His silver hair he combed straight back from his forehead, all in one direction, as if to proclaim that incipient baldness held no terrors for him. His eyes were slate gray and sharp. Every few seconds, they shifted their focus, expressing a hunger for new information. He wore hexagonal glasses with no rims. Below the finish of his delicate, rather tubular nose, a rigidly clipped mustache, one or two shades darker than his hair and shaped like a circumflex, occupied the slope of his upper lip.
Manny was in good spirits, evidently sociable. He went about chattering, expressing his considerable pleasure in having the good fortune to encounter one and all. Yet the effect was of a quivering alertness, a special receptivity, not defensive, not attacking, but somewhat guarded, as if there was more to this man than met the eye. He had a knack to his personality, one common to most who are skilled and resourceful in complex negotiations, of producing a sense of intrigue about himself, his circumstances and experiences, his highly individual manner of putting things together.
This knack, so subversive to disciplined concentration on the intricacies of the business matters at hand, operated, of course, quite independently of any effort of will on his part. For all his affability, he appeared disinterested. If he was even conscious that there was anything out of the ordinary about the impression he gave, he didn’t betray his awareness.
Amos was a Littvak by origin, His father had said goodbye to him in the port of Gdenia when he was only seven years old. That was in 1907, before the First World War, before the Revolution, when the century had not yet the faintest inkling of itself. Now, as it turned out, Manny’s grandfather had been a Littvak, too. He’d moved as a young man to Kiev to work as a clerk in a commercial enterprise run by one of his mother’s uncles. It was by reason of an arranged marriage that he became involved in the fur trade. Manny’s own father was the youngest of this Isaac Stalnikov’s five sons. He had made his way to South Africa after the Revolution.
The Stalnikovs had gotten quite well-to-do, so an exit from Russia in those tumultuous days was an act of discretion, of protective foresight. A judicious reserve of liquid assets maintained by the not very trusting Isaac Stalnikov in a bank in Switzerland had rendered the move a bit more comfortable.
Ironically, despite his care to warn his offspring away, his clear sense of what was in the wind, old Isaac Stalnikov hadn’t deigned to desert his old stamping grounds. The details of his end, at least as they were known to Manny, were not clear.
Two versions of the story were extant. In one, a family retainer had done him in. The old man had discovered this Sergei in the act of stealing. Far from showing any fear or remorse, Sergei proclaimed it was his right and duty to expropriate the bourgeois expropriators. When old Isaac had tried physically to stop him, Sergei had stabbed him in the belly and left him to bleed alone to death. In this version, it was a silver Menorah, handcrafted in Jerusalem, a family heirloom, that Isaac gave his life to defend. In the other version, old Isaac was murdered in a pogrom, killed in the summer of 1923 as he was travelling south from Moscow. A companion identified him as a wealthy Jewish merchant and that sealed his fate. According to this telling, he had made up his mind to leave Russia after his wife died of natural causes the previous winter.
Manny, in recounting the traditions extant in his family, maintained a dispassionate distance from both versions, retailing both as quaint if somewhat gory tales, but underwriting the authenticity of neither. Although he was plainly no innocent in the ways of the world, his narrative attitude seemed to proclaim an autonomy from any of the convoluted happenings of the past, as if he existed in his present state of affable good fortune by reason of qualities intrinsic to himself, ones which could, no matter what upheavals might have chanced, in no way have been prevented from ruling the day and bringing him through with flying colors.
Now was this, Amos had found himself inquiring of himself, something like the essence or soul of the man, this vanity, this concupiscence, or was it instead an accommodation he had made, a protective coloring he had assumed, an adept concession that he had made to the surrounding cruelty of circumstances? You could, of course, travel so far in an accommodation, however justifiable it may have been to undertake it in the first place, this journey of artful revision, that you could scarcely tell yourself from it any more and might find yourself moved to react with bitter fury, if anyone presumed to come to your assistance in making, or recollecting at any rate, the distinction.
The underlying question, at least as Amos put it to himself, was, “Did you remember Jerusalem or did an oblivion steal over you, so that you forgot her?” It wasn’t, so it seemed to Amos, precisely a physical locale that the tradition had in mind, but rather a quality of spirit not easy to describe, to express, even to approximate. Forgetting and remembering were so intimately allied. One was inconceivable without the other. Yet there were so many different stripes of each one, so many different patterns…
Amos’s own first conscious memories, what had become the bedrock on which he founded his inner construction of himself, were of hunger and cold, pain in the belly coupled with an involuntary shivering that barely served to keep at one remove a beckoning numbness whose brandishings were by no means friendly, although they could certainly come to seem so. Very likely, Manny had never experienced the like, having been born as he was in South Africa, materially and physically at least a relatively safe haven.
It was so peculiar that, of all the young men available (and Ruthie was a vivid, pretty, full figured young woman with a sparkle of mischief in her genuinely blue eyes), his grand-daughter should pick one whose people, two or three generations back, were rubbing shoulders with her own. Perhaps there was even a blood relationship. What determined the affinity? How did they recognize each other? What did they need in each other? So far as Amos knew, Ruthie and Lloyd, at the point where there paths intersected, had suspected nothing of the historical connection. It hadn’t come to light until he and Manny had worked it out.
And what had moved them to work it out? Amos himself had initiated it. What had attracted his attention was the merest flicker of something familiar beneath the accent, under the alien, exotic, faintly repulsive protective coloring. It was a pattern of which what showed or rather simply hinted was only a very small portion. There had been moments in his life when Amos had been tempted to give mystic significance to this, this constancy of purpose in design working itself through individual lives across the trail of the generations. If there was a divine presence, then this might well be how it gave intimations of itself, or at least of certain aspects of itself. Maybe all of existence was only a kind of dawning.
“I’ll tell you the truth, anyway as I see it,” Manny had said to Amos the night before. “My first-born only begotten son is, in his way, an odd kind of chappie. Now, I’ve always tried to keep things simple. If it is simple, let it be. If it isn’t, then find a way to make it so. Or, if you can’t, then let the difficult part, the rub, you might say ,slide by until you know how to deal with it. That, as I understand it, is the spirit of the practical. Nor is the spirit of the practical something without which we can live. My son Lloyd, on the other hand, has a penchant for the difficult. If it’s simple, he wants to know why it appears so, what has been excluded in order to produce the illusion. He wants to know how the stage props are managed, every rope and lever, every gear and pulley. If it’s difficult, then he wants to gnaw away at the difficulty. He’s a polite enough fellow, very considerate actually, He won’t intrude on anyone else, but he also won’t let go of the bone once he’s grabbed it in his mouth. The sheer impracticality of it all can be quite exasperating, I can assure you, not that he means ill by it. In fact, part of what makes it so exasperating, so worrisome is that his intentions are so palpably, I might even say pathetically good. He’s a dreamer. Now I’ve got nothing against dreaming. But he dreams as if he expects his dreams to be realized. He wants the world, by which I mean actual individual people, to be better than they, or perhaps I should say ‘we’ can bear to be. He takes it all so personally. I think sometimes that there’s something he’s very angry about, something buried deep within. Only it’s a mystery to me. We’ll miss him, what with their plans to settle here in this country, but, all in all, I do think it’s better. You know, South Africa is not at all a safe kind of place for someone like Lloyd who takes life quite so hard and refuses to be charmed by it. I do hope Ruth can find a way to smooth him out.”
If only, Amos thought as he went back over their peculiarly intimate conversation, life permitted of such neat resolutions, if only it were given to one person to smooth out another’s turbulence, to put at their ease the conflicting forces that warred in his breast. But, then, Manny was consistent. If it was simple, he tried to leave it that way. If it wasn’t, he tried to find a way to slip past the difficult. However, wasn’t there a duplicity in this that pointed towards a baffling complexity, a region of the most treacherous cross-purposes? Wasn’t the genius of deception, the genius of dissimulation, however creative, however comforting, at root simply the genius of self-deception, itself a kind of internal exile, a Diaspora within?
Manny and his wife Burt stood now by the flower bed. Their pointed chins were raised, exposing their smooth throats, as they looked up towards Reuben’s enormous head. He shrugged his shoulders, gestured. Manny and Burt laughed. Reuben’s cousin Anita, who lived in Santa Fe, looked on admiringly. Burt started to respond to Reuben. She was disagreeing, but the disagreement was flirtatious. That much Amos could tell from across the space of the yard, also across a much vaster space…
Why was it that he would not allow himself to surrender and be happy, to be simply content? Why was he haunted? Why did he search out the shadow in every gleaming sunbeam? Why couldn’t he rest on the surface of things? His heart felt like a stone in his breast. Was life anything more than a melodramatic mockery, a succession of alluring tableaux manufactured by a bored imp whose brush was just a bit too quick to be caught at its work? Amos found himself fleetingly in sympathy with the imp. How dull it was that the same tricks, the same illusions of depth and perspective worked over and over again…
Although he couldn’t have said what the stimulus was, because it was compound and not simple, a summing, an accumulation, a shape in multiple dimensions rather than a point or a prod, Amos’s eyes brimmed over again. By his side, his hands in his pockets, his head tilted off to one side, Israel was softly humming a tune, sweet and low, an accompaniment. Israel’s eyes were hooded, more than half closed. As he hummed, he swayed back and forth. Was it memory or forgetfulness. something near or something far, rapture or an intuition of the boundless necessity of sorrow that held him in its thrall?
It seemed to Amos that he, too, knew the tune, that once it had had words that went with it, words and another voice, another voice and another face, another place and another time. As he stood and listened, as the tears spilled over the edges of his eyes, he felt his heart pick up the pace of its beat, flutter in his chest like a caged bird, so that a dizziness and a roaring and a beginning of darkness came over him…
The trellis was only two paces away. Despite the fact that his breath was short and things were beginning to spin around him, he was able to get himself to it, to prop himself up against its comfortable solidity, to bend his head downward and forward. He felt weak and faint. Waves of nausea coursed upwards from his belly. He felt as if he were on board a ship and seasick. He thought he was going to vomit.
He desperately didn’t want to do that. This was the day of his grand-daughter’s wedding. It was bad enough the rabbi was dragging his feet. What kind of an omen would it be if her only surviving grandfather were to fall sick and puke like a baby? He fought back the urge by telling himself that it would be a sin, that he would bear the responsibility for ruining an innocent young woman’s marriage. He broke out in a cold sweat. He could feel it on his forehead and all over his skin. He could feel it and the shame that went with it soaking through his dress shirt, so that the shirt clung to him. But he welcomed this sweat, too, because he could feel his heart slowing in his chest, its frenzy beginning to break and calm. He knew he wasn’t going to vomit. Although his legs and arms were like rubber or, worse than that, almost like jelly, he would weather the spell.
Israel was by his side. Israel was holding his hand. No, it wasn’t his hand that Israel was holding. Not exactly, anyway. Israel, who had been a cardiologist prior to his retirement some seven years earlier, had a practiced finger on Amos’s pulse. Israel was quite calm. He didn’t seem in the least disturbed by whatever it was that he felt. Amos noted this, found it encouraging, although it all went without words. Reuben arrived quickly, bearing in one big hand a lawn chair for him to sit in. Amos tried to protest, to say that it was nothing, that everything was all right, that this happened from time to time. Israel nodded, but still guided Amos into the chair. Once Amos was seated, Israel shooed the others away, for quite a little knot of people had gathered.
He sat in the lawn chair. He looked about him. The day was just as before, just as splendid. Only his own position, his own perspective was modified. His mouth felt dry. He overheard Rachel talking with Israel Sharfstein, just a few paces away…
“You know, Izzie, what a stoic he is. He thinks he’s invincible. He doesn’t give himself the least quarter. When he had his appendix out, he was already sixty-four and he walked around with it until it ruptured and even then he didn’t complain. For all we know, he’s got chest pain. Sometimes it’s unnerving how self-sufficient he tries to be, because, underneath it all, he’s not that way. He’s the opposite. Oh, I haven’t any idea what to do…”
She began to sob. Israel held her in his arms. Amos felt simultaneously guilty and jealous, guilty because he was the cause of Rachel’s sobbing and jealous, because it was Israel’s shoulder on which she was crying, not his own. But then, he’d never been good at dispensing comfort. It hurt him too much to see anybody he cared about in pain. He couldn’t keep the distance that was required in order to be comforting. You couldn’t be comforting if you were caught up in the suffering, yourself. But it was selfish to get so caught up.
Rachel, his youngest daughter, got control of her breathing, pulled herself out of Israel’s arms.
“I feel so foolish,” she gasped, rearranging her hair and dabbing at her cheek.
“He’s all right,” Israel said. “Really he is. We’re none of us such spring chickens any more and, sometimes, especially when a rabbi’s late, things get to be a little too much. So we rest a little bit. We try to remind ourselves we’re not so young, anymore. Wait. You’ll be lucky, too, I hope. Some day, you’ll know yourself, without talking to an old geezer like me, what it’s like. Ask him if he wants something to drink, a little ice water, schnapps, maybe…”
“Thanks, Izzie,” she said, pecking him swiftly on the cheek.
Reuben loomed over Amos’s left shoulder, an awkward bodyguard. Becky stood by his right. Rachel came and asked if he wanted anything to drink. He stilled the impulse to refuse, to say that he was fine, that he didn’t want a thing, that he refused to be a bother to anyone, especially his own children. He reminded himself his mouth and lips were dry.
“Just a glass of cold water, please.” He felt the urge to explain. ”I didn’t sleep so well last night. I guess it’s all the excitement.”
Rachel bustled off to get the water. It helped her to have something to do, something to get. A pulse of breeze stirred the nut tree. The leaves rustled, made a sussuru, as if an invisible snake, known only by its effects, slithered through them. He lifted his gaze up to the sky. Where there had been three distinct puffs of cloud, now there were only two. He wondered what had happened. Had two been pushed together or had one simply dissolved, thinned out until it was no more?
It wasn’t just Reuben, the original Reuben who was dead and gone. Amos had had the misfortune to outlive both his sons. Benjamin was gone, too. But that was only eight years ago, after Leah was in the ground. He was glad, for her sake, that she hadn’t lived to see it. How it would have grieved her! Benjamin, Ruthie’s father, was clearly her favorite. He was the youngest. He’d died of leukemia, rapid moving, implacable.
Allan was in law school now, following in his father’s footsteps. He’d had a bad time with drugs for a few years, but, after he’d met Linda, he’d come to his senses. Linda was still in therapy. She was a funny, fussy, angular girl who didn’t like to eat. But she was very practical and she and Allan seemed to suit each other. Amos absolutely could not understand someone who didn’t like to eat. He recognized that it was possible. He had known women before Linda who didn’t like it, but still he had no grasp of it. Linda had on a yellow dress with a full skirt. Allan had left her with Anita while he talked with Manny.
When Benjamin died, Esther had gone to pieces. Ruthie had been only fifteen, but hers had been the level head. Becky was out in California, so she hadn’t been much help, not practically, day-to-day. Rachel and Esther had never gotten along. Amos was surprised that Rachel had offered to have Ruthie’s wedding at her house. He supposed she’d offered more for Ruthie’s sake than for Esther’s.
Amos had moved in with Esther and Ruthie for six months after Benjamin was killed. Ruthie was the one who had insisted that her mother get professional help. Ruthie herself cried only in her room, alone. One night, when Esther was already asleep, Amos had heard her. He’d knocked on the door.
It had gotten still and, in the stillness, he’d heard the steady throb of the furnace all the way down in the basement. He’d heard the winter wind gust outside and fall away. He’d heard the high, weird whistle of trucks on the highway, probably ten or fifteen miles away and, for a moment, he’d wondered why he was standing there, an old sleepless man, in a belted blue robe and worn slippers. Was it for her or for himself, because he worried that she was lonely and bereft or because he was the one who was lonely and bereft? He didn’t have an answer to the question, only an impulse, one that was irresistible.
“Come in,” Ruthie called in a low, melodious voice, a voice that had a caress in it.
He opened the door. It squeaked as it swung on its hinges. He’d oil them in the morning. He’d been meaning to do it.
“Oh,” she said in some surprise, “I’m glad it’s you. I thought it was Mom at first. She might knock, but then she just comes right in, without giving me a chance to say whether I want her to or not. I can’t stand it when she comes in to worry over me. She’s the one who always ends up hysterical. I was thinking of pretending I was asleep. I know it isn’t right, but I might have done it.”
“With the light on?” Amos asked.
“People fall asleep with the light on,” Ruthie returned.
“And the crying?” Amos persisted.
“That would have been harder,” Ruthie conceded. “People don’t cry in their sleep.”
They both laughed, a conspiratorial laugh. It covered over the tension.
She was sitting on her bed. She had on a green nightgown that was sheer, so, when the light fell in the right direction, Amos couldn’t help seeing through, seeing her perfectly formed little woman’s body, the taut breasts, the smooth, unwrinkled skin. He felt a thrill of shame, felt his cheeks begin to redden, so he looked away, looked over at the walls, which, during this phase, were covered with pictures of zebras.
There were zebras singly and in groups, two zebras racing in the wind across a bare sere plain, their manes flying behind them, like foam that flecks off the top of a wave, a mother zebra still against new green grass with her colt nuzzling her flank and looking up to nurse, five zebras lying down, the head of one rising above the body of the other, four zebras going to drink at a pond in the wild, the sun just right so that, as their lips went for the water, their reflections in the silvered surface came up to meet them, a whole herd of zebras, a riot of stripes out on the savannah, great ruddy snow-capped Kilimanjaro looming up against the sky behind them.
The assemblage of pictures of zebras hung together. It intimated something about the eye that had picked these images out, arranged them in this way, then pulled back in order to gaze on what it had made, to puzzle over it.
“He’s gone Grandpa, and he wasn’t perfect. That’s the worst part about it, that he wasn’t, no matter what Mommy says.”
She looked at him. She wanted him to say something. He was still standing. He hadn’t ever expected to be talking this way with his son’s daughter at this time of night. He felt like a ghost, an apparition that has lost its way and managed to materialize against its will at the most awkward place of all. Was he dreaming? If he struggled hard enough, would he wake up to discover not only that Benjamin was alive, but Reuben and Leah as well?
“None of us are perfect,” Amos said, “not even when we’re dead. We’re made of clay, of dust, of earth. We never lose that.”
“But is he happy?” Ruthie asked.
There wasn’t any answer to that. Amos didn’t try.
“I get a headache when I think of Daddy being dead. I’ll never see him again. Last night, I dreamed he was in the closet. I kept telling him to come out. He wouldn’t do it. I lost my temper and yelled at him, `Daddy, why do you have to be so stubborn?’ You know, Grandpa, that’s true. He was stubborn. Mommy says I’m like that sometimes, too. But I don’t think it’s the same.”
She stopped and looked up at him, as if she were trying to gauge something about him in order to come to a decision. She knitted her brow.
“Grandpa, can I tell you what I really think?”
“I don’t see why not,” Amos said.
There was a chair in front of the dressing table. The table had a round mirror on it. As Amos sat down, he caught a glimpse of himself in it. He was shocked at how pale, how sad he looked.
“Daddy couldn’t stop worrying. He was always worried about something. He never said anything, but it was a look he had on his face. He’d get it when he didn’t know anybody was watching. I wanted to ask him what it was, but I never got up my courage. It was like he was disappointed, or he’d lost something, or something like that. Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about…”
Disappointment? Amos would never have used that word himself, but he knew just the look that Ruthie meant.
The truth was that, because of the way from the very first Benjamin and Leah took to each other, Amos had always envied Benjamin. Benjamin came four years after Rachel. They’d been married eleven years then. They hadn’t planned for him. They hadn’t hoped for him. Things were strained between them. He knew there was something Leah wanted, something that she needed that he hadn’t been able to give her, not before Benjamin was born, not after.
Sitting in Ruthie’s room late that winter’s night three months after Benjamin’s death, Amos was transported in his mind back half a century. It was spring, the time when the lilacs bloom and stink, fill the air with their heavy, oily, exhilarating scent. It was already hot. Swollen bellied dark clouds were moving in from over the lake. Amos had been dripping with perspiration.
He didn’t remember the circumstances, but he was home early. He walked up the slate steps in front of the house on Essex and was about to call out to announce his presence, when something in his chest caught and he went shy. Maybe it was the stillness of the house. Maybe it was the mood of a lowering spring day just before a thunderstorm, the tension, the expectancy in the moist, thick air. He opened the front door and slipped into the house, as if he didn’t trust himself, as if he were slipping into someone else’s house…
Perhaps it was the urge to see without being seen, to be a fly on the wall that made him do it. Perhaps he wasn’t quite thoroughly convinced of his own reality, of the reality of this life into which, by a dizzying set of happenstances, he had been transported, this life that remained, for all his efforts to accommodate himself to it, so other than anything he could possibly have imagined in that far-off world into which he had been born. Perhaps it was suspicion, jealousy that he carried within him, preformed, a half conviction of the precariousness of his hold on what he treasured. Or it was all these things, compounded, confounded.
There was silence in the living room. The furniture was still, solid, expressionless, grave as beasts which had long ago been charmed into immobility, utter impassivity. A vase on the mantle piece, mottled green gray, swelled up from its base, curved wider toward its mouth, cast a faint shadow against the wall behind it. A brass spoon sat beside it.
Then from some distance, from the back of the house, he heard a woman’s voice. It came sweet and slow. It flowed as smooth as honey. The sound, wordless, seemed to glow as with a warm light from within. It held him, stopped him, transfixed him, like a piece of dust, a tiny island, caught momentarily in a shaft of sunlight, waiting for the next infinitesimal eddy of the air to send it once more on its way.
It was so beautiful, so calm, so aimless. It slowed his breathing, took the tension out of his shoulders, soothed him. Yet, even as it charmed and disarmed him so, it rankled. What rankled was its familiarity, an inkling he had that he knew, or ought to have known, that voice. For it was Leah who was singing. Recognition broke the spell of immobility. He passed through the living room, following the voice, letting its sweetness beckon him on. He skirted the staircase, traversed the dining room, paused in the bay window at its far end. The sky had darkened. Coming from the northwest, the rain would arrive in no more than a minute or two.
Leah was sitting in a wooden rocking chair out on the back porch. She was singing to little Benjamin, who sat cradled in the crook of her arm. From where Amos stood, he could see both of their faces. As Leah sang, Benjamin moved his lips, smiled, gurgled, cooed. There was rapture written on his face. The same rapture showed in her expression, too. Only about the corners of her lips a sadness hovered, as if she alone of the two knew that this contentment, this calm, this sufficiency was doomed to be temporary. In her singing, too, now Amos could hear the sad along with the sweet, as if, although she didn’t look up, didn’t take her eyes from her baby’s face, she yet sensed the approach of the storm.
He wanted to go out there, to make his presence known. He wanted to embrace her and tell her all of what he had felt as he listened to her sing. Only he couldn’t do it.
In the distance was the muffled rumble of thunder. Its quiver came up through the house from the earth underneath. A nearer streak of lightning cut a zig-zag white path through the sky. After a few seconds, thunder crashed and boomed, much louder, much closer. The wind picked up, rushed through the trees. It set their leaves hissing as the smaller branches waved frantically about. Then came the rain, first a few large drops, then as if at a signal a sluice gate had been opened in the sky, all at once white sheets of it driving on a slant, so that it was impossible to see even as far as the elm at the back of the garden.
Amos retreated, away from the porch, away from Leah and the child. As he slipped away, he saw the thunder had frightened Benjamin, who screwed his face up and began to cry, adding his small distressed piping to the larger turbulence of the storm. Amos hurried back out the front door. He walked across the lawn to the sidewalk, allowing himself to get soaked through to the skin. He stood for a moment under the green canopy of a maple, listening to the sounds the raindrops made as they struck the leaves, dripped from them. Then he ran for the house. As he came in, he banged the screen door behind him, announcing his entrance. Leah was occupied in the kitchen, trying to sooth Benjamin. Amos went immediately upstairs to change his wet clothing. The other children, who had been upstairs in their rooms, surrounded him, glad that he was at home.
Neither then, nor in all the years that came after, did Amos tell Leah, or for that matter anyone else, what he had heard, what he had seen, what he had felt that afternoon just before the thunderstorm. When Ruthie said her father had always seemed disappointed to her, he thought of that spring scene. For just an instant, he was tempted to try to tell her about it, but the impulse vanished as quickly as it had come. Only for himself, he made then a connection, that Benjamin, having lost in growing up that wonder he had known with his mother, what Amos had witnessed that spring day, might well have cherished a feeling of disappointment, of loss unprovoked and unmerited, far below where he or anyone else could have seen to identify it. Anyone else, that is, except a daughter like Ruthie, all of whose barely formed instinctive divining was trained on him.
Bitter and sudden, Amos felt remorse. How different things might have been, not just for Benjamin, but for all of them, himself, Leah, Reuben, Becky and Rachel, Esther, Ruthie and Allan, too, had he been able to bear what swept through him in that charmed hush before the storm, to make his peace with it, to go out on that porch, to let Leah see the effects of her enchantment on him, to join her as she joined with Benjamin, to join Benjamin as he came to the difficult wonder of himself in a paradise half real and reliable, half the most perfidious of deceptions…
If only he had been able to master in his depths the force required to submit. But no, some vanity, some pride, some fear of the knowledge of his own need and greed, had held him aloof, prevented him from doing so. He had deserted.
He was thinking these thoughts, watching these burnished images bathed in the light of what can never be again pass across the inner screen, tracing yet another one of the countless patterns that mingle and meld to become destiny, when Ruthie spoke again.
“Grandpa, I know you know what I mean. Right now, you’ve got that some look, that same worried, disappointed look. You do.”
“I’m sure I do,” Amos had said. “After all, he probably learned it from me.”
Ruthie began to cry. Amos went over and sat down beside her on the bed. He put an arm around her. He felt cleansed as she cried, as if she had shown him a way to apologize to his lost wife and son for some small portion of his own selfishness. Afterwards, neither of them ever spoke of this conversation, how close they had come one to the other.
Why did he think of it now, an old man with a glass of ice water in his hand sitting in a plastic lawn chair while the sun warmed the bald top of his head? Because there were two clouds in the sky, two shapes of mist…
To his lips he lifted the glass, swallowed down a gulp of cold liquid, felt it find his gums, his cheeks, the back of his throat, his voice box, the pipe that led to his stomach. He licked his lips, shrugged his shoulders, rearranged himself in his chair. When, a few minutes later, Izzie walked by to check on him, he smiled at his brother-in-law.
“Nu,” said Izzie, “so you’re as good as new.”
“Maybe better even,” Amos said.
“So go ahead, be a sport,” Izzie retorted, “live another hundred years.”
“Oy,” Amos intoned.
“You said it,” agreed Izzie. “It’s no joke this life.”
Shaking his head and whistling softly, pensively, Israel Sharfstein walked off.
The rabbi’s coming caused a stir among the guests. Even before he appeared in the back yard, when it was only known that he was finally on the premises, in the house, talking with the bride and groom, the crowd shifted and straightened and primped. Wives admonished their husbands. The angle of a sash was adjusted. A slip was pulled up, prevented from peeking out from under a hem. Parents inspected their children. Little Debbie Margolin was pulled down out of the plum tree, where she had been playing hide and seek with her brother, Joshua.
Each one looked over his neighbors, giving himself up at the same time to the scrutinizing gaze of other eyes, newly intent on their task. This mutual examination, this cascade of unspoken commentaries and comparisons, this keen taking of stock, elaborated silken ties of regard and ranking among the guests, caught them up together in the web of celebration, bound them and held them.
The shining present dimmed both the past and the future, inducing a sensation of buoyancy, a sense of confidence. Wishes could come to pass. Dreams could find embodiment. In community was creation and the fulfillment of one was the fulfillment of each.
Amos sat still in his chair, if not less absorbed in preparation and anticipation than most of the others, then differently absorbed. What accounted for the difference? Perhaps it was a question of principles of internal economy, mental parsimony as a counter to flagging physical energy. The more you had seen, the more had washed over you, the more you found the habit of keeping a slight distance from each instance. Nothing quite fit the mold of what went before. You developed a diffidence. It wasn’t only caution and it wasn’t only vagueness. What had once seemed solid, finished, opened up and showed itself to be a lattice work, more emptiness than substance, more absence and possibility than presence. Happenings weren’t statements. They weren’t responses, but only the most rudimentary of questions, haltingly phrased.
Amos looked down. He could feel behind him Reuben’s bulk. Something caught his eye in the grass just off to the right. At first he thought, by the way it glinted, that it might be a piece of cellophane, a stray wrapper from a cigarette package that had been carelessly dropped there by one of the guests. A second glance served to correct that impression. It was too dark. It was mahogany dark, but yet it gleamed. What could it be? He reached for it to resolve the puzzle. It met his fingers smooth and dry and brittle and round.
It was, as he saw when he lifted it out of the grass towards him the husk of a large beetle, perfectly preserved from the two horns that protruded from the head down to the ridges that circled the abdomen like belts. It was dark, yet transparent. You could see through it. Amos, even though he was aware of the impropriety of what he was doing, held the empty beetle shape up to his eye and looked. It dimmed everything. Yet the people were recognizably themselves. Through the beetle’s skin, he saw Becky take her husband Mark’s arm, lift up on tiptoes to whisper something in his ear.
He dropped it back into the grass. He didn’t want to disturb it, to break it. It was astonishing that it had endured so long, that no one had crushed it underfoot. Life went on, abandoned ship, left the cast off form behind. It endured some space of time longer, then was obliterated, reduced back toward its elements, dispersed and reworked into all sorts of other phantasms of the material and vital, equally contingent, equally fleeting.
Amos felt a certain kinship, a certain closeness with the departed beetle who had left behind this memento. He wouldn’t be long for this world, himself. He didn’t like to think it, but he seemed now, the lone seated figure in the whole crowd, to feel it. He wouldn’t even know it, if some morning he simply failed to wake up. He would be just an inert lump in the bed. But that had been true all along. He might have failed to wake up any one of ten or twenty thousand mornings. Only so far he hadn’t failed. Death was an idea, the unfailing prophecy toward which life tended…
He made himself break off this line of thinking. He had said Kaddish for two sons. The grandson who would say Kaddish for him, so he assumed, stood above him. Had Reuben noticed him look through the husk of the beetle? If he had, what had he thought?
A man and a beetle weren’t so far apart, after all…
Rachel came to insist that he allow them to reposition him, to put his chair closer to the canopy, where he would be able to see and hear, where Ruthie wouldn’t miss him. It would mean so much to her. Amos knew that, didn’t he? Ruthie had told Esther that Amos was the closest thing to a father she had, that she was so glad that Amos would be there to see her get married. Hadn’t Esther told Amos about that? Amos nodded. She had.
It wasn’t so much a request that Rachel put to him, as a command, doubly irresistible because of the forms of deference in which it shrouded its willfulness, its confident calculation of the generational balance of power. It made no difference what your stage of life was. You had to give in. You had to play your part. You had to let what was meant to happen to you happen to you. You had to let others make of you what they needed to make of you. You couldn’t set yourself apart.
If you really examined your own heart, you could see that you didn’t want to.
Although it was light as a feather, Rachel wouldn’t let Amos carry the lawn chair himself. Reuben picked it up for him, put it down square in front of the canopy. Amos sat down, settled in.
He remembered when he and Leah had gotten married. Her mother had been so upset that she had pretended to have a heart attack. Old Rabbi Porath, who had known her for years, hadn’t been in the least shaken in his resolve. He went ahead and performed the ceremony, insisted to Leah’s father that it was his responsibility to make certain that his wife, Leah’s mother, attended her daughter’s wedding, for if she did not, she would, as he put it, chastise herself the rest of the days of her life.
Joel Paravant, the rabbi, was a thin, taut man, all angles and sharpness. He came out into the yard, striding briskly, a prayer book in his hand. He left the bride and groom five or six paces behind him. As he waited for them, he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a powder blue yarmulka. Whether the effect was intended or not, its color was uncannily near the sky’s.
He unpleated it and placed it on top of his black tight curls. Lloyd and Ruthie arrived, positioned themselves. There was a hush. Joel Paravant opened the book and began. Just as he started to speak, a flash bulb went off, surprising him, so that he had to blink. He scowled in the direction from which it had come, but Irving Rosen, the offending photographer, had slipped back into the crowd.
Amos looked at Esther. Barely a minute had gone by when she started to weep. The tears smudged her powder. She sniffled and the sniffling infiltrated the sing song of the rabbi’s voice. Joel Paravant bobbed his head up and down as he pronounced the ancient words in the ancient tongue. He used the Sephardic pronunciation. Aside from that, he could have been back in the old world, back in the earlier part of the century.
This was doubly peculiar, because Amos remembered that Joel Paravant had played on the same Little League team with his grandson, Reuben. Joel had been the catcher, a good hitter, even then without an extra ounce of flesh on his bones. Joel was two years older than Reuben. He had broken his leg sliding into home on a close play the last day of the season. Reuben had been nine years old then.
Amos drifted off. How many weddings had he attended? A hundred weddings or even more than that? Of those whom he had seen married, how many were living and how many were dead? How many couples had found happiness and a measure of understanding? He thought of Jacob’s labor, before he finally won Rachel and met the angel and wrestled him through the night until the dawn, when the angel left him marked with a limp for life. Old Jacob had known how to endure, how to take bad fortune and good, looking askance at each in its turn. Lloyd’s Hebrew name was Jacob…
Ruthie was smiling. She seemed to be at her ease. She wore a simple white dress. She and Lloyd had been living together for more than two years, much to Esther’s chagrin. It didn’t help when Ruthie told her it was the only way to tell if a marriage would work. On her head, Ruthie wore a wreath of daisies. The white petals, each at a slightly different angle, stood out against the black of her hair. The gold centers gleamed. Lloyd, sandy-haired, looked much stiffer. He held himself very straight. His jaws were tight. Yet, as he looked at Ruthie there was no mistaking his fondness, no mistaking his regard for her. The words continued to tumble forth out of Joel Paravant’s mouth. There was no translation, no lapse into English. That was the way that Ruthie had wanted it. They had considered getting married in Israel, because it was halfway between here and Capetown, but they had decided against it.
The ancient formulas were spoken. But then there was a hitch. It came at the moment when the groom was supposed to crush a glass beneath his foot, commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Some said it was in order to give the Evil One his due, as well. Whatever it was, no one had remembered to provide the glass. It was a vital part of the ritual, its climax, so to speak. Even Joel Paravant was without words. Lloyd looked stricken, went pale, then flushed beet red, mortified at his own oversight, its appalling symbolic reverberations. The whole congregation was frozen. No one had any idea what to do.
Then, in a twinkling, Irving Rosen came to the rescue. He was standing off to the side, his camera at the ready. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a used plastic flash cube. He rolled it across the grass, so that it stopped just short of Lloyd’s foot. Lloyd, Ruthie and the rabbi all looked at it in total astonishment. But, peculiar as it was, there was no ready alternative to hand. Looking, if possible, even more strained and awkward, Lloyd raised his foot and crushed the used flash bulb under his heel, perhaps putting a little extra something into the act because of his frustration and embarrassment. Then he kissed Ruthie, who whispered something in his ear that seemed to restore the balance of his spirits.
Afterwards, Ruthie and Lloyd sought Amos out, to drink a toast with him. Lloyd insisted on fetching Amos a glass of champagne.
“L’chaim,” Lloyd said, giving it an anglicized twist.
They raised their glasses and drank. Ruthie kissed Amos, not on the cheek, but full on the lips, ardently.
“Would you mind awfully, darling, if I told your grandfather just what it was you whispered in my ear after I crushed the flash?” Lloyd asked.
Ruthie beamed at him.
“She told me we had plenty of fine Waterford in among the gifts, that, once we got it safely home, we’d do the Temple proud.”
It was impossible for Amos to imagine what might become of them, these two young people. Who, for example, would ever have been able to imagine that he, in his lifetime, would sit in front of a glassed in box in an artificially cooled room and watch men walk on the moon?
For some reason, an image of his own father’s face, precise as life, flashed before Amos’s eyes.
Only the tiniest fraction of life is realizable. The wonder is that so much depends on so little. Old Amos respected poets and dreamers, men who lived in images of their own making. Wasn’t everyone, as Schulman used to say, a madman after his own fashion?
Time was empty, still, languorous, huge. He found his poise and lost it again, then found it once more. He sought a pattern, something simple that came out of instances, yet stood apart from them. His search was anything but simple, calm or clear. It was a private frenzy.
Old Amos thought of himself as a seed blown on the wind. His progeny might take themselves for granted. He could not. He had had his sorrows long enough so that he could not escape the knowledge that he cherished them. They represented links to what was lost, not only to the rich texture of what had actually been, but also to what might have been and never came to pass.
In retrospect, actuality and imagination moved closer and closer.
Occasionally, as he sat by himself and reminisced about a particular incident or event, a particular snapshot from the internal album of his life, he wondered if it had actually happened. Had he dreamed it or made it up out of whole cloth? Could it have happened to someone else, not to him?
It was past 4 AM, going on towards 4:30. He heard the first birds begin to pipe the approach of dawn. First only a few voices in the night, each call discrete. Then, like the snapping as brush catches fire, the number of voices grew.
He sat on the edge of the bed. His feet found leather slippers.
He was dizzy when he stood up. He steadied himself against the footboard of the bed. He didn’t turn on a light. He knew the place, the intervals between objects, what lay where. It had been a long time since he’d changed anything.
He walked into the living room and sat down in the big leather chair. In this chair he’d sat thousands and thousands of hours. The cushions kept his shape. It was dark outside. The birds sang. The picture window faced east, but there was no hint of the light of dawn.
How did the birds know when to start singing? He listened, but he heard no mourning doves. They were his favorites. At dawn and then again at twilight a couple sat on the telephone wire that ran between the pines at the back of the garden. Their heads were small, coming to the precise points of their short beaks. Their breasts were mottled brown. Their calls were long and smooth and cool.
On fine days, Amos would take a lawn chair out near the pines to watch the sun set. After a time, he’d close his eyes. Could it be mere birds that made those lovely sounds? This song that wove through the days of his life stirred both memory and hope. The sweet soothing notes came at intervals, not regular, but without gaps long enough to let dread creep in.
On many occasions Amos nodded right there in the flimsy lawn chair. He came back awake when the first stars sparkled in the deepening blue of the sky and there was already coolness in the air and dew on the grass. Did he hear now the first call of the mourning dove? Or did he imagine it?
Perhaps to the glory of man there is neither certainty nor clarity in such matters. Outside and inside are confounded. It is no great thing for a bird to leave its perch on a telephone wire, pass through the air in flight, then find a perch on a wire in the mind where it can sing to its heart’s content. Was this cooing in or out? Whichever was the case, the effect was the same.
Amos’s shoulders rounded and his head drooped forward. His breathing slowed. He snored. His left hand lay palm down on the arm of the chair. It was still, fingertips relaxed on the leather. After half an hour, they began to twitch, almost to writhe. Amos’s breath came in irregular snorts. Then his chest went still. The fingers went on twitching. Then both shoulders lifted. A sigh drew air into his chest. He dreamt.
When Amos woke up, he wasn’t sure who he was or where he was. Then he picked out the cooing of the mourning dove. There was no doubt. It came from outside. There was light in half tones. The morning was misty. Amos couldn’t see past the pines. Amos’s left shoulder ached. He rolled it forward. He knew it was the old bursitis. He’d seen the calcium deposits on X-rays. The hurt sharpened, but was better because he was active in it.
The pain that Amos feared was the dull kind that didn’t bargain. It ate away at you. You changed. You got vaguer and vaguer. Your ties to other people loosened. The pain was what was real. You knew you were going to die. That didn’t make much difference to you. You changed how you thought about death. Now you thought about it only as a way to get the pain to stop. It was your friend. The tormentors were the ones who wanted you to go on.
Amos knew because he had watched Leah die. She had died in the fall. Whenever he thought of her dying, he thought of the pin oak in front of that house. Its leaves turned late. They went deep brown, the color of rich earth or dark chocolate. But when the sun caught them at just the right angle they lit up red as blood. That tree kept its leaves all winter. It made a striking figure in the snow. He remembered asking himself that first winter whether Leah had gone into that tree.
He’d assumed she would outlive him. She was younger than he was. She was a woman. Maybe he’d felt that she owed it to him. He’d had so much loss in his life. They didn’t talk about it. She didn’t ask his permission. When she felt well enough, she liked to sit outside under the pin oak tree. She liked to watch the children riding their bikes in the street. She had pain all the time. She took the narcotics Blasitsky prescribed, but she didn’t like them.
Towards the end she didn’t like Blasitsky either. She kept her eyes closed. She wouldn’t look at him. If he asked a direct question, she’d answer it. He always asked if the medicine helped. She said the pain was still there. Once she made a grim joke. She said she knew the pain wasn’t going to leave her. She could count on it. It was faithful.
She sat outside under the pin oak. She watched the light. He watched how she watched. She watched in a kind of rapture. She would talk about how beautiful the light was, just the light. She kept losing weight. She looked more and more like a very sad bird. Her skin stretched tighter and tighter over her bones. She started to turn yellow. Blasitsky said that meant it was in her liver, too.
Through the summer Leah tried to pretend with the girls that she was still interested. That was before Becky and Mark moved out to the West Coast. Becky came each day to be with her mother.
One fine morning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Leah was sitting out under the pin oak. Becky tried to comfort her. Leah got angry and snapped at her that she didn’t have any idea what pain was. She didn’t apologize. Becky told Amos she thought Leah meant to hurt her. Becky didn’t come the next day.
Leah hadn’t gotten angry with him. He wished she had. She had just left him out. The last three months she looked at him with a hint of a question, as if he might not be real. Occasionally she touched him, just lightly on the arm, when he wasn’t expecting it. Her touch was so light.
Up until the very last week she still made a smile for Benjamin.
That was the second week in November. She was much more yellow. Maybe it was in her head now, too. Amos thought it might be. But he didn’t want to say anything about it.
Blasitsky wanted to put her in the hospital. He wanted to transfuse her, then to try an experimental regime. He said it was the duty of man to hope. Benjamin thought the experimental regime was a good idea. They would reproach themselves, he said, if they didn’t try.
Amos realized he envied her. Everything was becoming simpler and simpler for her. She looked exhausted, but in her wan face there was also a suggestion of superiority. There was a division between the two of them. That wasn’t new. But it was widening. She was passing beyond him. He struggled not to blame her.
She refused to go into the hospital. She told Blasitsky not to treat her like a fool. She knew she was dying. It wouldn’t be long. If he didn’t know that, then he didn’t know how to use his eyes. With Benjamin’s approval, Blasitsky tried to persuade her. Amos felt guilty this was going on. But he couldn’t stop it. They had their claims, too.
“Dr.Blasitsky,” she said very softly, “please don’t waste your efforts in a lost cause. Let a sick old lady die.”
Amos sobbed alone in what had been their bedroom. She was much too weak to go up there any more. They put a hospital bed in the study. She stayed there. A nurse came during the day. He managed the nights by himself. He slept fitfully. Most of the time he was awake in the dark, listening to her breathe.
The days were bright and charged with color. It seemed to him the whole world was on fire, that, if this went on much longer, it would be consumed. It would shrivel up, turn to ash, crumble. He didn’t want her to die. Even so he longed for her death. Each second, each minute had weight. He was with her. He wantedit done.
This was the activity of his life now, to move from one compartment of memory to the next. Did it really make a difference if he was wandering or if he was following a path? There was no one to call him to account. He wasn’t sure if he was putting things together or taking them apart. Or both simultaneously. You had to do both to make shapes. Did shaping have, itself, a shape? Or many shapes, ghosts in the mist?
A story came to mind. Early one spring evening between the two wars, Sam Sclatberg went out to a card game. He left his wife, Sonia, home with the three little ones. One thing led to another. Sam didn’t get back until first light. Sonia hadn’t slept a wink. She wouldn’t talk with him. Her eyes were glassy. Her long black hair was disheveled.
She went to bed. She wouldn’t lift a finger to help with the children. Her brow stayed knitted in a frown. No matter who came to see her, relatives, rabbis, doctors, charlatans, she refused to utter a syllable. She didn’t make a sound. She ate what was offered her. She bathed.
She lay in bed. If she was aware of the passage of time, she gave no sign. The situation became intolerable. If only for the sake of the children, something had to be done. Sonia’s mother had a sister fifteen years younger than she who was barren. She and her husband agreed to take the children. It was to be temporary, just until Sonia came out of it. Weeks lengthened into months. Months ran into years. The children thrived. The temporary took on the aura of permanence.
Sam blamed himself for his wife’s troubles. Self-reproach became devotion. He spoke of her anguish as his own. When others admired his devotion, he said it was only sad Sonia had to suffer so. When they wondered if he didn’t go too far, his lips thinned and tightened. His brow furled until it looked just like hers.
No syllable of complaint or reproach escaped his lips.
Each Thursday he went to visit his children. For their birthdays he brought them presents from Uncle Sam and Aunt Sonia. The years passed. The children grew up. They left home. They went off to school. The oldest boy became a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. The two girls married and started families. Sam went alone to their weddings.
The world changed. A war came and went. Amos’s own Reuben was dead. A lifetime’s whole heart went by. Like a spider steadfast at the center of her web, Sonia maintained her silence. It was once more spring. The daffodils were in bloom. The trees were leafing out a fresh, tender green. Sam went out to get a quart of milk. He liked it in coffee, even though Sonia took hers black.
She was at the door when he got back.
“Where have you been so long?” she asked. “I was afraid something had happened to you, something terrible.”
“Don’t be silly,” Sam replied, “I only went down to the corner to get some milk. What could happen to me?”
Amos heard the story from one of Sam’s cousins. They took up where they left off. No resentment or hard feeling showed on either side. Sonia remembered everything. She had been wide awake, charged with attention.
“But how could Sam accept such a thing?” the cousin wondered, striking his palm against his forehead. “And he’s a Republican. He hates welfare cheaters.”
They’d been at a bar mitzvah. Amos couldn’t remember whose. It made no difference. You got to be responsible for your sins at thirteen no matter what you did. Amos didn’t set much stock by ceremonies. Still, he went. Because you shouldn’t put yourself too far apart. At bar mitzvahs people clapped each other on the back and told each other stories.
These stories were more or less true. Now, years after he’d heard it, the story of Sam and Sonia Sclatberg sounded from the depths. It intrigued him. Sonia hadn’t intended thirty years of silence when she pursed her lips and refused to speak. She hadn’t started with a plan. It was an invention. Then she found something in the silence.
Maybe it was a repose. Maybe it was a way to be indifferent. Maybe it was a sense of beauty. She watched the effect on Sam.She found that it was salutary. Maybe she was frightened of what she would do to the children, how she would taint them in her own image. She found peace, something to hold on to for thirty years. She sank like a stone to the center of the pond.
Amos couldn’t judge her. He rummaged in his mind for a word, the name of the sect of monks who didn’t speak. He’d known someone once who’d joined them. A tall fellow, with an idiot’s smile. Jeffrey Smerdow. He’d been an accountant. Then he gave it all up. He didn’t explain, any more than Sonia had. Trappists, that was the name. They said silence was sweet. At least those of them who deigned to talk said so. Maybe those who never spoke knew even a greater sweetness, an undisturbed closeness to something monstrously satisfying.
Amos fell back again into the chasm of sleep. When he came to, it was still the transitional zone, when night is no more and day is not yet. He rubbed his eyes.
Soon, he thought, he would go over and put water on to boil for tea. Becky had given him a sleek, shiny aluminum kettle. It mirrored and distorted everything around it. It turned him into a gaunt figure who came to a point at its shoulder. If he rested his finger beside it on the counter, his finger turned into a sausage. He thought of the kettle as a samovar. He missed the smell of wood smoke.
Each morning from long ago he remembered steam searching in quick irregular spurts of high urgent sound for a melody it never found.
He was looking out the picture window, scanning. Low to the ground between the two pines motion caught his eye.
Three creatures. Larger than cats. Not so big as good sized dogs. Ringed tails. They didn’t move with the line of their backs parallel to the ground.
One stopped and squared and looked straight in at Amos. His face had a black mask. His eyes glinted green.
The spark of kinship flew across the gap that separated Amos from this particular raccoon. They both lived. They both breathed. Neither knew what was coming next.
There was a wooded ravine half a mile away. A small creek ran in dark gray shale at its bottom. It roared after rain. A young woman’s body had been discovered there three months ago. She had been raped and murdered. Her assailant had not so far been found. The newspapers had been following the case, bemoaning the fact that crime, even violent crime, did seem to pay.
The girl was from Elmira, New York. The evening paper printed an interview with her mother. She said it wasn’t for this kind of an end that she had brought her daughter into the world. If she had known what was going to befall her only daughter, she would have become a nun.
Amos thought of Reuben. He didn’t agree with this girl’s mother. But, even if he didn’t agree with her, Amos felt she was entitled to her opinion. She was entitled to be bitter.
This raccoon and his fellows probably lived in the ravine. For all Amos knew, there was in that wooded ravine a whole community of raccoons. When they set forth at night to forage for food, to search the trash cans and refuse heaps of this suburban area, they might well feel they were leaving safe refuge and entering the wilds. Amos had read that raccoon coats were coming back in style. Raccoons were being ranched for their pelts.
This was a free-living raccoon who looked in at him. The animal’s gaze served to assuage his loneliness. Amos was grateful. It crossed his mind that there were no raccoons in the old country. Wolves there were. Once you heard the eerie howling of wolves on a cold night, it stayed with you. It touched deep within you, where fear lived.
The raccoon wheeled and scurried. Who knew what cue it took?Amos had heard nothing, seen nothing that startled. But his own senses were duller and differently attuned. The raccoon was simply gone, leaving the dawn emptier than it had been, more alien.
Lingering after the animal itself, its image, those feral eyes that glinted for an instant green in the black masked face, triggered a memory in Amos’s mind.
A key was touched. A note played. A key was turned. A vault opened.
Schulman’s eyes had a hazel cast. They weren’t so green as the raccoon’s in just that instant. Only near enough for suggestion’s sake. His beard was black as coal, curled tight. There was so much energy in him it had to be stored in those tiny springs.
He was a man whose center of gravity was low to the ground. His belly pushed his belt down towards his groin. With rounded,powerful shoulders and great flat forearms, he came at you like a boulder with a soul. He moved in a cloud of smoke from the fat black cigar he kept clamped between his teeth. His big bass voice boomed out like thunder from within the cloud. His speech was like a demiurge’s.
He had a special high cackling laugh, like a goat. It was so out of keeping with the man’s physical appearance that you never got over the surprise of it. Each time you heard it was like the first time. It was as if it had been created anew to astonish you and to reprimand you for the dullness of your imagination. It took you over. You could laugh until you cried and your belly ached for no good reason. Only because Schulman laughed.
But it wasn’t a single image of Schulman that came back to him.
There were thousands and thousands, hordes of images, all of the same man, but each one different. There were sounds and smells, atmospheres, cadences, tactile sensations. Times and places, segments of sky, other people, other days, dogs, cats, horses, children. There were patterns of light and shadow, dancing, whittling away at the emptiness of space.
The internal resurrection of all these Schulmans and all these surrounds did not leave Amos unchanged. For each Schulman there was also a version of Amos himself, someone intrinsic, but by now become strange, shy, a bit aloof not only from the present investigator, an old man far along the road to becoming an ancestor, but also from the other versions of himself, the host of claimants to the title of protagonist. He was well on the way to going to join his fathers and still there was this competition. There was no resolution.
He felt as if he were coming apart at the seams. It reminded him of the circus. A small car painted bright yellow pulled to a stop in the midst of a sawdust ring. One clown got out, then a second, then a third, then a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh even larger than the first six. Nor did it stop there, when it simply strained credulity. Clowns with huge red noses and sad eyes kept getting out of the car.
The audience tittered, then laughed outright. Children screamed and jumped up and down. Beside themselves with the miracle of abundance, they pinched and poked their mothers. It made no real difference if you were a grown up. So what if you knew the secret of these shenanigans: the car didn’t stop at random, but precisely above a trap door? Its own bottom was a sliding hatch. Underneath the ring a crowd of hot and sweaty clowns teased and jostled each other around a ladder. Some swilled beer from the bottle. Others dragged on cigarettes.
So what if you knew they could smell the raw stink of animal urine down there? You were so caught up in the spectacle you didn’t care. Even if this was a trick whose contrivance you understood, life was full of tricks whose ins and outs you didn’t get. Life itself was a conjurer’s trick, but with the difference that you didn’t begin to fathom the mechanism by which the simplest thing became manifest.
An acorn, a stroller, a box of matches, a scuffed shoe.You were at a loss. You felt as if you were the proverbial sorcerer’s apprentice. Too much of a good thing became terror. There was freakishness everywhere. For all the trappings of harmless entertainment, the circus was charged with the primitive frenzy of religious excess, of idolatry. Suppose a hungry lion escaped from its cage. Would the clowns make light of that? Would they die laughing? You tried to imagine for them an escape from their predicament, but you couldn’t do it.
Schulman took him to his first circus. Schulman shelled peanuts and kept pushing the little nuts in their brown jackets at Amos.
“Eat, eat,” Schulman encouraged him. “You’re flesh and blood like the rest of us, not a ghost. You have to eat and grow. You’re not even bar mitzvah yet. You’re not responsible for your own sins, let alone mine. You don’t have to be as big as Goliath or some of the other goyim. God forbid your proportions should be so distorted. But also a midget you shouldn’t be. What kind of a life do you think it is, always staring at belly buttons? Ah, those big blue eyes. Eyes the color of the ocean on a hazy day. Eat and forget. What’s past is past and tomorrow isn’t here yet. Wait, it has to come. Nobody asks it if it wants to or not. The luck of the beasts is that from tomorrow and yesterday they don’t know. About the Almighty’s design they don’t worry their heads.”
Schulman’s laugh turned heads for rows around them. He popped another peanut and puffed again. High above the ring a spotlight shone on a man all in black who stood on a single wire. He had flowers in his right hand. A woman in red sequins approached him on the wire. She looked like a star on fire. He bent his knee. Using it as a step, she caught his shoulders and balanced upside down on them, her knees tucked back close to her body.
She extended her legs, so that there was but a single slender vertical, first black, then fierce ruby, then the soft tone of flesh, her legs pointing up to the sky. Amos’s heart was in his mouth. She was going to plummet to the ground and lie still there like a broken bird. He felt so sad when he came across dead birds, so small, so perfect. Not just here, but in the Old Country, he wondered what happened to them once they were dead. Could their souls, severed from their bodies, still fly, still sing?
She held the handstand. The wire quivered. For Amos time was suspended. She was falling through space. He was falling with her. No, it wasn’t so. She was steady, alive, poised there above everything. She tucked her legs back near her body. She found the wire again in one fluid motion. She held the man’s arms for an instant, then edged back away from him. He presented her the flowers. She took them and did a curtsy.
Amos was thrilled. If this impossible thing could come to pass,then other impossibilities were possible, too. A tyranny was overthrown. Soon would come Messiah the son of David. The rivers would turn to honey and run lazy golden in the sunshine. The crowd broke into applause. Amos smacked his hands together until they were red and raw. He laughed aloud as he clapped. A feeling of triumph surged through him. Schulman put his arm around Amos’s shoulder. As Schulman pulled Amos in toward the barrel of his chest, Amos looked up to see that Schulman’s eyes brimmed over with tears. They ran down his cheeks and disappeared into his beard.
Now, seventy years later, Amos, older than Schulman had ever gotten to be, found himself weeping. This wasn’t one of those times when he wept for no reason. There was sadness in his breast for himself and Schulman and the raccoon, all becoming one, for the woman in red and the man in black, both almost certainly dead now. Or, if by some miracle not dead, certainly too stiff, too weak for any such feats on the wire. If it hadn’t been for Schulman, what would have happened to him?
Amos sobbed. There was bitterness in his reproach to himself that, in all the years that he had taken his children and grandchildren to the circus, he had never asked himself why Schulman wept. Was it that he’d been unable to bear remembering how vivid in his mind had been the image of the woman in red falling through the air, lying still after she hit?
Before Schulman died, he had lost both legs. He’d gone blind. There was no justice in it, that a man’s spirit should be tried so. Yet, he hadn’t complained. The last thing that Schulman had said to Amos was that Amos had been one of the two great joys of his life. It still seemed inconceivable that a man like Schulman could die. A senseless principle of waste was built intimately into the basic plan of life. Amos felt restless, angry. In his breast, he bore a grudge. But so small, so helpless, so insignificant was he that his grudge would never be noticed, never even come to the attention of Him against whom he held it. Lamentation was useless.
Amos got up to put the kettle on. The blue flames danced below the black burner ring. He heard a truck cough and sputter as it went down the street. It wasn’t with anything outside him that he was trying to come to terms. It was with something within him. It was a small still voice that whispered from the edge of extinction. It wasn’t telling a story. It objected to the telling of stories.
Through all his life this voice had been with him. It had whispered always from the edge of extinction. It had kept him company and told him when he was lonely. It had known his shame and his fear. It knew all about his meanness and his jealousy. It knew about his pride and the thousand and one ways he tried to disguise it from himself. It knew his rage and what a miser he was with forgiveness. Even knowing all this, it did not leave him.
It went on whispering. But it spoke often in tongues he could not decipher. It was a voice from after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Sometimes, in his dreams, he would have the illusion that he understood it perfectly. Then a few words would change, not many, but just enough to garble the message. Once he dreamt the voice belonged to a tiny creature who slipped up his nostril and tickled him until he sneezed. This was a frightening dream, because even after the sneeze expelled the little creature, he heard the voice.
Was there something in him at the core that wasn’t him? Was a man built around a speck of something alien the way a snowflake formed around a particle of dust?
Amos felt extraordinarily frail, like nothing impersonating something. Death was all around. Always. The thought sent a sensual thrill through him. Consciously he maintained the conceit that it was he himself who was in danger, but just a few strata deeper in his imagination was the illusion of sovereignty over the whole world, a notion of union that said it would die with him. So he could threaten it. He could blackmail it. The prospect of vengeance made the sensual thrill.
Amos looked at the back of his right hand. A filigree of fine lines crisscrossed the skin. Different shapes could be discerned: triangles, oblongs, figures of five and even six sides, no two alike. These were the products of a life-time of foldings, fingerings, graspings and relaxings, innumerable unconscious adjustments and readjustments. His skin was dry. It had a scaly shine like a lizard’s. Or it might have been a fertile landscape seen from high in the air to be sub-divided into thousands of different plots according to minute accidents of geography that had their roots in eons of folding, buckling, pleating, scraping, all sorts of natural adjustments.
He wasn’t sure if he remembered the first time he’d seen Schulman or if, having been told about it, he’d imagined it so vividly that it had taken a place in his memory simply by reason of its compelling intensity.
Did it make any difference at this point? Tests of authenticity changed as time went by. Everything changed. Each today altered every yesterday, became one and was altered in turn, retouched over and over again. So it wasn’t quite things in themselves, events, feelings, people, hopes, losses, disappointments, bitterness, unanticipated sensual bounties, that you tried to fix on, but rather elusive tricks of the shifting of perspective within which all this presented and represented itself to you as time flowed on. Only something in the nature and subterfuge of change could be conceived as constant. Something akin to style.
Schulman had told him that they were afraid at first that he wouldn’t live. Many others had died on the way over. They didn’t know why. But it often happened that way. It was a disease of some kind usually. Or it was bad food. People were the cargo the owners of the ship cared the least about. Their passage was prepaid. Not cheap either. It made no difference if they actually reached their destinations.
When they died, they were just thrown overboard in the night. It was a great sacrilege to treat human beings that way. But what could you do? At least the ones who were thrown into the great salt sea at night were human beings. About the crews of these ships and their owners, Schulman wasn’t so sure. As he talked of these things, Schulman’s eyes burned. His great head tilted to one side. His chin moved down towards his breast bone. He gathered the intensity of an avenging angel. Amos had imagined a sword of fire in his hand and drawn comfort from the picture.
Schulman had found him sitting on a bench. The immigration official, an old man named Reeves, told Schulman he’d been sitting there for four days. Silent, waiting, watching him, so that it made his skin crawl with pity. Reeves didn’t know what to do with him. Reeves was Irish. He didn’t speak Yiddish. Schulman had gone out to Ellis Island because he was trying to find out if the ship carrying a second cousin of his Uncle Nugie, his mother’s middle brother, had docked yet. He knew Reeves because Reeves’ son was the cop who worked the beat where Schulman had a cigar rolling factory. Each Christmas Schulman gave him a nice present. Schulman himself could roll a cigar faster than anyone else Amos ever saw.
“You were a bag of bones,” Schulman would tell him. “A bag of bones from the Old Country sitting on a bench. Not a drop more flesh than it took to keep the bones from collapsing in a heap all by themselves. I asked you what happened to your parents, to your brothers and sisters. You didn’t say a word. Only the look in the eyes changed. A spark of interest, a spark of hope. So I went back to Reeves and I told him that God’s providence is a miraculous thing. It makes no difference if you’re Jewish or Catholic or Hindu or Moslem or Buddhist. Reeves looked at me, like he thought I’d finally gone all the way around the bend. I said you were the very one I’d come for, that you were the only son of my Uncle Nugie’s second cousin. Your father and mother had both taken sick and died during the long voyage. I said that you had told me that. As I said it, I half believed it myself.”
Schulman laughed the impossible, miraculous laugh. He believed it more than half way. That was what the laugh said. The laugh made it be true. The laugh paid homage to the force in everything that was arbitrary beyond understanding.
“So,” Schulman went on, “I was all you had in the New World. You never said a word. But when I put out my hand, you took it. I could feel each one of the tiny little bones of your fingers. When I got you home, you stood in the doorway. You wouldn’t go forward and you wouldn’t go backwards. You stood there and stared at Naomi with those great hungry eyes of yours. I could see you asking yourself who we were, how you’d fallen into the clutches of such strange creatures in such a strange place. Were we ghosts or humans? What sort of spirits were we, friends or enemies? You looked so tired. Naomi went to the kitchen and got a red apple. She came over and held it out to you. You looked up at her and took it. We stood and watched you eat it in the doorway. You didn’t speak for the first two weeks. You ate the first day. You ate as if you hadn’t seen food in a month. But then you got sick. We had no idea what was wrong. The doctors had no idea either. Naomi wouldn’t let them take you off to the hospital. She said she’d already lost one child that way. She wasn’t going to lose a second. You had high fever. Your lips moved, but we couldn’t make out any words. We thought you were talking, trying very hard to say something. For three days, you wouldn’t take a thing. Your skin tented. Your eyes retreated even farther back into their sockets. They were so far away that we thought your spirit had gone back to the Old Country, maybe even to the Promised Land. Naomi never left the side of your bed. On the third day, you took some chicken soup. You had nightmares. You would wake up screaming. We didn’t know your name for the first two weeks.”
Schulman would look him straight in the eye, a look at once fierce and tender.
“So we didn’t call you anything. We just waited. I’m not ashamed to say that I was terrified. Not only for you. For Naomi, too. I didn’t know what would happen, if you died. I didn’t know if she’d be able to go on. If you died, then I thought she might go to the grave with you. I wondered if I had sinned in some way I didn’t know. I should tell you the truth. Maybe you needed us, but maybe we needed you more.”
Amos had an image in his mind of a man approaching him. He was sitting on a bench. He was waiting for his brother Simon to come from Chicago to get him. Only he knew that Simon wasn’t going to come. He had been sitting there a long time. He was too confused to do anything else. The only thing he had in his mind was to go on sitting there as long as he could. He had passed beyond the point where what happened to him seemed to have any connection with what he did. Things happened because it was in them to happen.
He had waited in the ship. The ship had been tossed about. He had heard the roaring and the ripping, the tearing and the clawing of the wind. He had prayed for the calming of the seas. He had clung to Batya until he had lost track of the time, of whether it was day or night. Then Batya had disappeared. Before she had disappeared, she had taken to smelling foul. He had listened to her breathing. It was a small wheezing sound. Then there was bubbling in it. By the light of a candle he’d seen a pink froth coming out of her mouth. Then the candle went out. Then the sound stopped altogether.
When the man came towards him, Amos knew immediately that he was different than the others. He came with a confidence and expectancy that the others didn’t have. He seemed familiar. This wasn’t his brother Simon. He was too old, too burly. He remembered that his father had told him that, when Simon came for him, he would have the tefillin that had belonged to his grandfather with him. This man had no tefillin, but he put out his hand, so Amos took it. He assumed that this was what had been meant to be. Things happened because it was in them to happen. That was the lesson of the storm on the sea.
There was a gap in Amos’s memory. The next thing that he remembered was himself sitting in Mrs. Conlon’s classroom. Mrs. Conlon had white hair and a double chin. She was very strict. In her classroom, there was order. She spoke in an accent that had a burr in it. She had a special smell. She sat up very straight in her chair. She had a way of making him feel safe.
When she asked you a question, she looked you straight in the eye. For that instant when she asked you the question, there was no one else in the world besides you and Mrs. Conlon. He had never in his life seen a person who looked like Mrs. Conlon. He hadn’t known that there could be such a person or such a smell or such a way of sitting in a chair.
There were three horse chestnut trees in front of the school. When he remembered himself sitting in Mrs. Conlon’s classroom, sunlight was streaming in the bank of windows to his left. Mrs. Conlon sat at her desk. Her chin was tilted upwards at a characteristic angle. She still had the double chin, but it was less like a chicken’s crop. When she would forget herself for an instant and bury her chin in her neck, she looked like someone else. When she laughed she would first throw her chin all the way up in the air, then suddenly bring it down towards her breast. Amos had the sense that, for some reason, Mrs. Conlon liked him.
He had on the first pair of leather shoes that he’d ever owned. In the pocket of his pants were two horse chestnuts. He’d pried them out of their spiked green shells that morning. They were round and smooth and slightly moist, with a brown luster that let him see his reflection in them.
There he was: smooth, thin cheeks, high forehead, curly hair, eyes moist and wide, narrow nose with flared nostrils, full lips, a dimpled chin that came to a point, ears that stuck out from his head, a long neck with a sharp Adam’s apple. Below the Adam’s apple nothing was visible. That was all the nut could show. It thrilled him to have it in his pocket. He held it and it held him. It was his secret, so also his security.
Now, so many years distant, he was back in the sensation of the moment. It was round and full like a drop of dew that hangs from the petal of a flower and holds mirrored within it an image of all that surrounds it. He was aware as he sat in his chair that this was complicated. A floating sensation started to come over him. He was reflecting on his reflections about carrying about with him something reflective in which he had caught a glimpse of himself. He was both inside this hall of mirrors and outside of it. He felt an intuition of fear.
He had no memory of his brother Simon. Simon was much older and had left home when Amos was only an infant. Amos resisted telling Schulman about the plan to meet his brother. It wasn’t a reasoned resistance. It was just that so much had happened to him, so much of it so strange and so overwhelming, that he could not bear the possibility of any further upheavals in his life. He loved the bread that Naomi baked. He wanted nothing except to smell that rich, warm smell. He wanted only to be allowed to put his small hands on the still warm loaves as they cooled down.
He wanted nothing more than to go on eating this bread day after day. He would be content if only each day was the same as the one that had gone before it. That was the expectation in which he had already been so disappointed. He was trying to retrieve something. He was doing the best he could. He could ask no more of himself. Whatever brought him knowledge of the difference between the old and the new, brought him only dread and terror.
Amos had sailed from Gdenia in the spring of 1907 when he was seven years old. The name of the ship was lost. It was early spring. He remembered the light, the brightness, the wind cold and sharp as a scythe that skimmed the tops of the waves. It cut them so that they bled white foam, salt spray that caught the sun and glinted as it flew. He remembered the sharp edges of shadows. He remembered the crowd, the hubbub, the noise. It was like a holiday. He remembered seeing an old man, a peasant, cry. His elbow stuck out the sleeve of his coat. He remembered walking near him, smelling even in the cold, raw weather of the first days of spring, the reek of alcohol on his breath.
A horn blew. Its sound was enormous. From where he sat huddled against a wooden post in the hold, he couldn’t tell what was going to happen. A woman with white hair in a green babushka sat next to him, watching him. He felt a small jolt, a slight shock. This meant motion. After all the waiting, they were getting under way. The horn blew again. Its huge whistling roar, what he would later hear in the wind, filled him finally with the fear from which he was hiding. He trembled with it.
It had none of the soaring joy of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. This was a larger, more dreadful horn, a horn the power of whose sounding could summon the end of days, crack his whole world into useless shards with jagged edges, spill out everything it contained. He had a premonition. He was already dead. His body had no substance. He was a spirit among spirits. Yet he could still feel pain and fear. These alone of his faculties had been spared.
The others who crowded around him in the hold were dead, too. But they weren’t just any collection of the dead. These were the most hideous sinners, specially selected for this vessel. He had his place among them by right. Even so, even though everything was decided and determined, terror took hold of him. He had never intended this. He was meek and mild and loving. He had strayed from the path. That was certain. Finding himself where he found himself, there could be no doubting. But where had he strayed? How had he managed to close his eyes to the danger? Why hadn’t he been warned?
He remembered a line from the Talmud, “Subtle are the ways of evil and soft its touch.” Rabbi Fein had reminded him of that once when he had caught him whistling. Anger rose inside him. He wanted to shout out that he was being wrongly judged. The woman with the white hair in the green babushka was watching him. He thought he saw compassion in her eyes. Maybe she, too, had been unjustly judged and condemned. But it was too late now for any appeal. Perhaps their protest against their lot was the very kernel of their sinfulness. The horn went on blowing, became intolerably loud, rising in pitch and insistence until it threatened to drown everything else out. He could feel its vibration travelling through his body, rippling and agitating it the way wind works shapeless water that can not resist it…
It was only the tea kettle coming fully to the boil and announcing that fact with an increasingly shrill whistle. Amos brought himself back to the present and pushed himself up out of the chair. He turned the fire down under the kettle, poured water over the tea bag laid out in his cup. He replaced the kettle on the stove. Then he pulled the tea bag through the clear water by its white string. The tannin stained the water brown. There was the sheen of oil on the water. So many different things happened on so many different levels all at once.
He had enough money. He didn’t have to worry about that. He was well off. That was an accident, too. He certainly found it very hard to think that it had anything to do with him. When he was a kid, he had sold vegetables during the summers. Naomi had been against it, but Schulman had been for it. Schulman thought it would be good for him to be out on the street, to see what people were like.
“School?” Schulman said. “A nice idea. Why do you think the rabbis have been pulling the hair out of their beards for centuries, no, millenia? Because there’s always a new twist. The beast himself doesn’t know what he will do, what strange passion will grip him next. He doesn’t know what strange idea will occur to him, what maniacal notion will present itself to him as an inspiration. I don’t mean men, only. A woman’s imagination is richer, freer, capable of a different frenzy. Just yesterday I was walking down Judson street. I saw a crowd gathered. So I made my way towards it. At first, I thought cats were fighting, by the noises that were coming out of the knot of people. But it wasn’t cats at all. It was two women, two Jewish women, Rumanians, fighting with knives, trying to cut and scar each other. Two beauties. Fighting and screaming. No one made a move to try to stop them. It was too powerful.
Then, just after I got there, an old man shouldered his way through the crowd. He said one word, `Dead.’ The two beauties looked at him and then threw their knives down. They fell into each other’s arms and wept. The young man they both loved had died. He hadn’t told either one about the other. So they were enraged with each other. When they saw the old man, they realized neither one was going to have him. From mortal enemies, they became sisters in sorrow in an instant. Do they teach this in the schools? Do they show you there what is in the hearts of men? No, to know the hearts of men, you have to walk among them, to mingle with them, to watch and to sniff, to love them and to fear them. On some days, the Almighty Himself wakes up with a headache and a troubled brow, for He isn’t sure what He has wrought, what manner of creature, full of surprises, this is that He has created in His own image. As a matter of fact, the creature is so inventive, so apt to take both himself and his Creator unawares, that the Creator has occasional pangs of worry. He wonders if it might not be possible one day that He Himself might become obsolete.”
Schulman laughed the laugh. In his mind, the matter was settled. Amos would sell vegetables in the street. He would rise with Schulman himself before the dawn. He would be caught up in the life of the street, in the bustle and the noise and the smells and the argument.
Naomi protested. She and Schulman were always at odds about Amos, what should be done for him, what was to become of him. They quarreled when he was there. They quarreled when they thought he was asleep. But the quarrelling, the ceaseless disputation, was warm. It surrounded him with care. It made him feel wanted, while at the same time it provided him with a liberty, a freedom to think about things in more than one way at a time. He supposed that it had helped to confuse him, too, to instill in him the itch, the restlessness. Or had he brought that with him from the Old Country?
“The notions that you want to put,” Naomi dissented, “into a child’s head, and not just any child’s head, but the head of a child who, in his tender years, has already seen and suffered more than most people do in a lifetime. So you are a rogue and a renegade and a freethinker who can run in circles around the rest of us. This is a child. He needs shelter and comfort. He’ll learn in his time and according to his ways. Let him have a respite. Criminals and liars and cheats he’ll know soon enough. Let him have peace and a measure of ease.”
Naomi’s voice shook.
“To the Garden of Eden there’s no going back,” Schulman returned. “Adam sinned, taking his inspiration from Eve, who was curious. Since then, there’s no security. Man lives by wit and accident, not by any plan of our own making. It’s all very fine to wish for the boy a life of ease and comfort, even to try to give him what we can. But of the days to come we know nothing. Now, we’re flushed with life and hope. But so once were his parents in the Old Country. We write letters and get no response. What does that mean? This is a gentle boy. He has been loved and is capable of loving in return. Better he should know the world around him, the vices and ruses of men, than be in their midst a de lamb, a kid to be sacrificed at the whim of whatever brute finds it convenient. There’s no better time to learn than when you’re young and inconspicuous, when you can watch without anyone suspecting that you are watching. You and I won’t live forever, so he must learn to take care of himself.”
This carried the day. Amos lay in his bed and listened. In Schulman’s voice there was sadness and conviction mingled together. In his own belly, he felt pain. There were no words, no images for what hurt in there.
“A tomato, an apple, a bunch of grapes,” Schulman said, “anybody can sell. But that’s not what they want to buy, these women. They want something special, something that’s only for them. They want to buy something that makes all their dreams come true, that changes the whole world in an instant. You say a tomato, an apple, a bunch of grapes can’t do that? I say that you’re wrong. If you give it to them in the right way, if you wait for them to ask you for it in the right way, if you look on each tomato, each apple, every bunch of grapes as a miracle in itself, a wonder that has no right to be, but yet is, a marvel that establishes the greatness and glory of the Almighty, then you can meet their desires and satisfy them. You can give them the hope and the trust for which they hunger. Then, of course, they will buy. Not just today or tomorrow, but the day after and the day after that. They will seek you out for the privilege of buying from you what only you can offer, tomatoes like no others, apples like no others, grapes of a kind without comparison. The mystery’s in the things we do everyday without thinking about them, that we do dully out of habit, in the sloth of the spirit. Once we see through that, they take on a new shine, more inviting than the gleam of silver or gold. This is what you must remember when Mrs.Klinefelter or Mrs.Rubinstine or Mrs.Zetzel or Mrs.Stullmeister or Mrs.Kolbovski yells at you. You must remember what she has forgotten and smile back at her, as if to say that it is utterly beyond your comprehension how she can have failed to notice the incomparable beauty of this tomato, this radish, this carrot, this celery, this apple.”
It was remarkable, but, perhaps because Schulman had so successfully hypnotized him with his own enthusiasm, his own unshakeable confidence in his own powers of persuasion, Amos discovered that he had the knack of selling. The women wanted to buy from him. They would wait for him. Or, if he didn’t have what they wanted, they would buy something else.
And he liked them. He felt for them. He watched their faces, detected there the sorrows and the worries, the unvoiced reproaches and fears.
He hadn’t been shy with them. He loved the street and the noise and the haggling and the quips that flew back and forth. Some summer mornings were hot and heavy. The dawn would be loaded with the weight of the rain that was coming. Others were silver and brilliant, with great wide open skies, as if ladders positioned just right would make it possible to climb up into them, to achieve the point of view of the heavenly hosts.
People flowed and hurried and scurried. Each was a part of the whole, each a tatter of color and motion. Each day was different. He overheard stories, arguments, anecdotes, watched feuds in the making, then reconciliations, some sincere and smooth, others strained, mere stopgaps until the next occasion for open hostilities.
He got to know Shmuel the deaf-mute and his wife Aviva, who was blind and had a sixth finger on her left hand. He got to know Lefkowitz who could tell you what day of the week your birthday fell on no matter how old you were without looking at a calendar. Lefkowitz could also tell you the name of every boy bar-mitzvah at Anshe Zedek in the last twenty years and what portion of the Torah he had read. He got to know Zizi who loved cats and whenever she found a stray took it home, so that she always had twenty or thirty living there with her.
He got to know the Rebbetzin Brudno, who always asked him if he had any fruit that was a little rotten, so that she could have it for her men who were simple and couldn’t fend for themselves. Soon he got to thinking of her men as his men, so he gave her something whenever he saw her, no matter whether it was rotten or not. That was a kind of taxation, he supposed now as he thought back on it, but it was the kind of taxation that made you feel good about yourself.
He could see her in his mind’s eye, the Rebbetzin Brudno. She was a tiny little thing, always in a hurry. If you gave her a plum, an apple, a pear, a peach, a battered old dirty head of lettuce, her face would light up. She would clasp her hands together and begin to sing your praises. It was the most wonderful head of lettuce, the most wonderful cucumber. You were the most wonderful young man who had ever lived. What would she and her men do without you? Why, without you they would be doomed to perish from the face of the earth!
He didn’t remember all the details, but it had happened that one of her men, a certain Menachem Malachevski, a huge slow brute with an enormous jaw and hands as broad as shovels, had been accused of murdering a woman. He had been arrested and indicted. He had no relatives, no connections at all, except for the Rebbetzin, Shalvah Brudno. It was a foregone conclusion in the street that he had actually done it. There was murmuring that this time she would learn her lesson, for she was only lucky that it hadn’t been her who had been killed.
The Rebbetzin was unaffected. She went down to the jail where Menachem Malachevski was being held. When she first went there, he was so moved that he wept and wept and was unable to talk with her. So she scolded the police because they were keeping him in a cell all by himself. They had taken his clothing away to inspect it for bloodstains. He had only a blanket to cover himself. She told the police that he wasn’t capable of hurting a fly and, furthermore, he hadn’t the least interest in women. The crime was in their evil imaginations, not in this simple, but gentle and upright man.
She went back the next day to discover that they had found Menachem some clothes. This time, despite his weeping, he was able to talk with her. She asked him point blank if he had committed the crime of which he was accused. At first, he could not answer. But then she insisted. He stammered that it hurt him that she could even think such a thing. She told him it wasn’t a question of what she thought but of what he knew. He said he hadn’t done it.
As far as she was concerned, that settled it. When it came time for the trial, she testified on his behalf. She said that she had known him since he was a tiny child. Neither his mother or his father had an unkind bone in their bodies. His understanding was limited, but that was no crime. Before the eyes of Heaven, everyone’s understanding was limited, even more limited than was Menachem Malachevski’s in their eyes. If they were to judge him, they should judge him by the light of mercy, lest the harsh judgment come upon them in their time. Her husband, Rabbi Baruch Brudno, sat in the back of the courtroom, listening and running his right hand through his long, white beard.
All these events were related in the street, vividly, in the quick cadences of everyday speech. What you heard there was alive, on the fly, glimmering with the particular accents of a particular person’s retelling of a story he had half heard from someone else, half imagined on his own. Each one shared the experience of the others. When Menachem Malachevski was released, there was consternation mixed with joy. Suppose the Rebbetzin had been wrong? Suppose this was truly a murderer who was being returned to live among them. Someone had the temerity to put this question to her husband, the rabbi.
He pondered for a moment, let his hand wander through his beard as was his habit. Turning his head upwards and to the right, he let the silence stretch out as he stared at the ceiling. It was said among his followers that Rabbi Baruch heard the voice of heaven whispering to him all day long.
“Did the Almighty, Blessed Be He and Blessed Be His Name, fall into error when he brought the people of Israel out from the land of Egypt and removed from them the burden of their oppression? Did the Almighty, Blessed Be He and Blessed Be His Name, fall into error when he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land, because this is a stubborn and iniquitous people? Would they presume to counsel the Almighty to return them to Egypt because of their crimes?”
On the day after he heard the story of Rabbi Baruch’s response, Amos gave peaches to the Rebbetzin. She was overcome with joy, because, she said, Menachem Malachevski, simple soul that he was, loved nothing better on this earth than a ripe and juicy peach. It was for such things that he lived.
It was staggering what twists and turns there were in an old man’s train of thought. He had started out thinking about having enough money. What had set him off in that direction was glancing over at his desk beneath the glassed in book case and noticing the envelope in which Ruthie’s letter thanking him for the check he had sent her for her wedding had come. He had sent her a thousand dollars. When you were his age and you happened to have enough money, that wasn’t really so very much.
That had got him thinking about how it had happened to turn out that he didn’t have to worry about money. That had taken him back to selling vegetables in the street, to thinking about the dispute he had overheard between Schulman and his wife concerning whether he ought to do this. Surely, he had absorbed something about selling from Schulman, a knack. It was strange that he had remained always extremely shy in private life, reticent with the ones about whom he cared the most. He hadn’t been free to sell himself to them. Thinking about selling vegetables had brought back to his mind the Rebbetzin Brudno and the story of Menachem Malachevski.
To sell, to persuade, to convince, to share, to tell, to give what you had once received... He wasn’t good at writing letters. Maybe he wrote three or four in a year. Yet, he felt the urge to try to write to Ruthie, to try to convey something of what had been going through his mind just now. He wondered how many others there were still alive who remembered the Rebbetzin Brudno, who might remember also the story of Menachem Malachevski. There was a way in which when you got very old you could not help but want to try to empty yourself out, to give away to others what you had stored up in you.
It wasn’t that you didn’t love or cherish it. In fact, it was precisely because you loved and cherished it that you wanted to give it away. For its sake as much as for your own, you wanted someone else to have it. You wanted someone else to assume towards it a relationship akin to the one that you had taken up in your own lifetime. You weren’t naive. You didn’t expect that anyone else’s relationship to it could be just what yours was. It had to be different, but it could be different down a line of succession and development that had a certain coherence. If you could believe that, then you could achieve a certain peace of mind.
This process of giving things away, giving away memories and feelings, flavors of events and people, was not so straightforward as giving away furniture or books, objects with certain associations. Because of the circumstances of his life, the dislocations, he had very little of that sort of thing to pass on.
What he had was more intangible. Of his grandchildren, only two, Ruthie and Reuben, were receptive. Ruthie lived in another city. He saw her only rarely. He would have liked to be able to talk with her just as the impulse came on him, but that was a luxury that wasn’t available to him. Reuben was still here in town, working on his doctorate at the university. He knew Reuben less well than he knew Ruthie. He could sense Reuben’s interest, but it put him off a little bit.
When he saw Reuben, or even thought of him, it put him once again in mind of his namesake, his own son Reuben. Why was it that you lost what most you wanted not to lose? Why was it that no allowance at all was made for your desires? There was no point in cursing. That didn’t help or change anything. Yet the urge to do so was there. You could be very old and physically quite weak, but that didn’t diminish the capacity for rage that was in you. In fact, if anything, it might augment it. Because you were less able to act, because there was less chance of your physically wreaking havoc, you might know more about how angry and deceived you felt. You might suffer more. On some things you just didn’t seem to be able to give up. Even if you knew what you wanted was impossible, even if you knew that in a thousand different ways, in a whole variety of keys of experience, still you searched on, hoping always for a form of deliverance yet unsuspected.
Was this something about which he should try to tell his grandchildren? Was this something that they might be able to grasp? Could they learn from him to spare themselves this bitter and implacable persistence? When Amos thought back on Schulman, there were many ways in which he envied him. This didn’t change his gratitude towards him, but it was real nonetheless. Schulman’s enthusiasms, his teeming, scheming mind, carried him over much that was difficult and obscure. He had resolved himself to confine his attention only to certain matters. Where he loved, there he loved entirely, without questioning much the inward form of the experience. Schulman had had some idea how wounded Amos was, but he had responded with tact, despite all his bluster.
There were mortal wounds that weren’t physical. Things could happen inside people from which they never recovered. If they didn’t die, then still their living was compromised. There were areas into which they couldn’t venture, intimacies, hopes, aspirations, even angers and recriminations that they couldn’t risk. There was a brand of loneliness and doubt with which they had to wrestle apart from the community and fellowship of others. He didn’t know why, but he had the sense that both Ruthie and Reuben had experienced something of this, which was how they had become receptive to what he had to say, what could be carried forward from him. He remembered how, at Ruthie’s wedding, he had picked from the emerald green grass the mahogany dark husk of a beetle, how he had looked for an instant at the world through the lens of that husk.
If he didn’t get his pen out right now and try to write to Ruthie, then he never would. There was just a small moment of opportunity. Once that was gone, it would never return. It was as if the empty air teemed always with the shapes of actions. Some you put on. Some you didn’t. It was a matter of fit. The rest were like cast off clothing. Your life was an original. This was always true. There wasn’t any way around that. People always worried about doing something new, something original. Or they worried about having something that was different, something that was special. All by himself, Amos shook his head disapprovingly.
Another memory of Schulman came back to him. Schulman talked all the time, about one thing or another, about whatever chanced to catch the glint of his attention. He used the language, let the words cascade off his tongue, but he also listened to himself. It was surprising, but he listened to himself with the same kind of skeptical ear that he turned on everybody else. He was at the same time the vainest of the vain, a man entranced with himself, and a man with a healthy disregard for his own pretensions. He kept up a running argument with the language.
“You know what they say, `Alike as two peas in a pod.’ Yes, yes, they say it for good reason. The peas in a pod are alike. But that’s not the whole story, not by any means.”
Schulman reached down into a bin full of peas, grasped one out at random. With his big hands, he stripped the delicate thread off the edge of the pod. The thread was tiny and silken. It floated down to the ground. Schulman snapped the pod open. Inside were eight peas.
“Look,” he said, “there they are, the peas in the pod. Eight of them. Maybe that’s not an accident. I’m one of eight children. The sixth, as it happens. Now, just for the fun of it, look at the sixth pea in there. You see how many bumps it has. Number five is round and smooth. Hasn’t a care in the whole world. Oh, that seems to be a lucky pea, that number five. Four’s the biggest of all, but look at that dimple in the pea. Seven and eight are so small. You don’t know what will become of them. So, when you look, you have to ask yourself, `Just how alike are the peas in a pod?'”
He scooped the peas out of the pod. He ate them.
“The same, yes, they’re the same, but different.”
He guffawed. He was pleased with himself.
“But they’ll be better next week.”
Amos wanted to write to Ruthie and to tell her about Schulman, to tell her about the peas in the pod, how they were the same but different. Why? So that she could see Schulman, so that she could know him. So that when she had a child of her own, a plump ruddy two or three year old toddling about on a brilliant green lawn, she would be reminded of Schulman. When she saw on the child’s face a look that mixed appetite and intensity, greed and inquiry, when she saw the child’s hand reach out to grasp and push, to test and see, to assert the power of his mischief, an image of Schulman would come to her.
It was odd, Amos reflected, that he wasn’t so concerned that others should remember him. That didn’t seem to matter very much to him. Once he was gone, he would be gone. What others wanted to make of him, if anything, was up to them. Where the hurt came was when he thought that there would be no one to love what he had loved, to remember and cherish all the tiny things that had thrilled and pleased him.
He didn’t see himself. He saw through himself. He was transparent to himself. So, when he thought of not being there, what he felt was a loss in the cherishing of what he loved.
It wasn’t like him to write a letter about things that he felt deeply. It wasn’t like him to talk about them. He felt a pang of fear that he would hesitate too long and the moment of opportunity would be lost forever. Was it really true, though, he wondered, that moments of opportunity came only once and then were lost and gone? Of course, it was true. But it was also untrue.
If what the moment presented was important enough, there was repetition. It knocked over and over. It wouldn’t let you rest until you had responded, not simply in a perfunctory manner, but in a way that did not so much settle the question, but altered it so that you could be asked something else.
He got up to find the pen. He was going to write the letter. It would say something different than what he had intended, but no matter. It would be a tiny remnant of him, of this morning and of the bafflement of his will.
He wrote. The blue line the pen made introduced a feeling of precision. There was a sensual pleasure in it. It made an edge. He was impressed with the intricacy of what he was doing, the encoding. He could make the pen twist and turn, enter a loop and exit from it, turn back upon itself, slash and dart.
It’s early in the morning here. Sleep lets go of you when you get to be my age. The long sleep is coming, so there’s no need to sleep so much before it. I’ve been up listening to the birds and watching the light change and thinking about so many different things. It made me so happy to get your letter. I know you have so much to do. You make a big fuss over my present, but that’s your generosity, not mine.
You know that I lost my parents and my family when I was very young. I was thinking again this morning about coming to this country and about the man who took me in and raised me. You never knew Schulman. He was one of a kind. I suppose he was a crook. Certainly, he knew how to bend the rules to suit himself. But, he wasn’t one of those crooks without a code. It was back when Jews weren’t as rich as they are now. I suppose many of us are still crooks, but the stealing is more subtle. It has to do with numbers and tax deals and so forth.
Schulman was so alive. It seems to me impossible that he is gone. I think I believe that he is still alive somewhere. He had such a glint in his eye. There’s little doubt that he saved my life. I was all alone in this country at seven. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my parents. I think I remember that they were supposed to come after me. They never came. My brother was supposed to come from Chicago to meet me. For all I know, he never got word that I was coming.
When I think back on it, down all the years in between, I think I can remember that my mother had a bad cough during the months before I left. She seemed to be getting weaker and weaker. Now, I don’t know if I remember all this or if I have made up a story to try to comfort myself. But I think I remember it. Inside myself, I always blamed my father for sending me away. But it’s more likely that my mother had tuberculosis. My father must have thought I’d have a better chance in this country.
He just couldn’t bear to tell me the truth. Maybe he was right, too. If I had known that my mother was dying, I would have refused to go. There’s no doubt at all about that in my mind. So many died on the trip over here. All this happened so long ago. What became of my father I have no idea. Schulman did everything he could to help me get in touch with my family. But there was no response.
So it’s a great luxury for me to be able to sit down to write you a letter. I could even talk to you on the telephone. But that seems at once too great an indulgence and, for me, less of a pleasure. When I write to you, it gives me an excuse to call you up in my mind. I can linger over the letter. What I write down is only a small fraction of what I think about. I know Boston is a great and bustling town, teeming with people and ideas. It thrills me to think of you exploring new frontiers, thinking thoughts and understanding things far beyond me.
But, since I’m old and my head is almost all filled up, my mind goes back to what was and will be no more. I was remembering this morning what it was like when I was a boy and I sold vegetables in the street. Schulman got me the job. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. In his way, he was like a king. He had his domain and his subjects. There was very little he couldn’t arrange. His wife, Naomi, adored him. She trusted that what he did wasn’t to hurt anyone. I think she was right, too.
Now, you go to the supermarket and everything is wrapped in plastic. You can’t reach out and touch it. You can’t lift it up to your nose and smell it. It was different back then. Neither the produce nor the people were packaged. You could tell more easily what was what and also who was who. We had characters in those days. I was remembering the Rebbetzin Brudno and how she saved the simpleton Menachem Malechevski from being convicted of a murder. I suppose that, all my life, there’s been a streak of sadness in me. How I felt for that simpleton, Menachem Malechevski! How I rejoiced in the Rebbetzin’s triumph over injustice! It must have seemed to me that, were I in a similar predicament, this remarkable woman, scrawny as a starving chicken would come to my rescue, too.
Maybe it’s because I had to trade one world in for another when I was very young that I’ve always felt this sadness. Or maybe this sadness would have been with me no matter what had happened to me. I don’t mean to say that I haven’t had my share of joy. I’ve lived to a ripe old age and I’ve seen my family prosper. Even Hitler couldn’t stop that. Or should I say that Hitler could have, but chance wouldn’t let him? But still there’s the sadness, because I know that so many like me perished then. Perhaps even some of my own brothers and sisters died. Maybe even my father survived to meet such an end. I remember what his face looked like, but do you know I can’t remember the sound of his voice. I don’t even remember if he kissed or hugged me before he put me on the boat.
But I hadn’t meant to write a lament. Rather a celebration. I was remembering life in the street and the hustle and the bustle and how close the different bodies came to each other and all the things that were said, the insults and the jokes and the jibes that flew back and forth. I was remembering that and I wanted to tell you about it. Schulman used to say that the sons of Adam endured in spite of themselves. He said it off hand. I don’t think that he ever meant for anyone to take what he said as seriously as I did. I took it so seriously because he said it so lightly.
You described in your letter going to Nantucket, taking the ferry across to the island, visiting the whaling museum. You said what most impressed you wasn’t the skeleton of the whale, huge as was the cage that his ribs made. Rather it was the portraits of the captains of the whaling ships, each one dressed in ceremonial garb to have his likeness painted. You said they were on a wall opposite a gallery of pictures of leaders of tribes they had encountered on their travels. These chiefs, too, were in ceremonial garb, with feathers and horns and bits and pieces of the skin of all sorts of different animals. You said you were struck by how the two groups seemed to stare at each other with the same ferocious expressions.
Each one thought of himself as a very imposing figure, someone who stood not only for his own weight and dignity and worth but also for the weight and dignity and worth of his whole way of life. But those were young men, men in the prime of life. If they had doubts, they dared not express them. It’s different when you get old. You feel in yourself the weight and dignity and worth of a feather, an acorn, something slight. You stand out less against the background. You can begin to feel yourself blending in. Yes, there are pangs of loneliness that come along with that. But they are pangs of passage. It is a great comfort to me, Ruthie, to know that you have kept your head. I think you know what I mean. I think you would have loved Schulman as I did. Not only loved, but also understood him. I suppose that’s my clumsy way of saying how grateful I am to you for having loved and understood me.
My hand is getting to ache now. I’ve written more than I intended, but it’s turned out very different than what I’d planned. That’s always true though. It makes no difference whether we write or we talk. We never go where we set out for.
Much love to you and to Lloyd. I hope that I will see you soon. However, you shouldn’t take that as putting any pressure on you, because you are very present to me now as I write to you.
He signed the letter with only his first name. There was an intimacy in that that he relished. He read the letter over again. It was so very different than what he had intended to write when he started. But still he was proud of himself for having written it. It was something.
On white paper, it was a design of blue ink. He folded it and slipped it into an envelope. He addressed it. He licked the stamp. He pressed it in place. He picked up the cap of his fountain pen and sheathed the pen again. This fountain pen was older than Ruthie.
The wind that breathed life into people was the strangest wind of all.