This is the full text of the novel, in one file. The print version available from Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com . Roberta's other fiction includes: The Martyrdom of Stephen Werner, Justice My Brother, A View of Toledo, Solomon's Wisdom, Autobiography of a Revolutionary: Essays on Animal and Human Rights, and Bodmin 1349.
Micah Publications also publishes Jewish vegetarian and animal rights books, such as: The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, Vegetarian Judaism -- A Guide for Everyone, and Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. For a full list with descriptions, see www.micahbooks.com
John walked across the George Washington Bridge, carrying a single piece of luggage. His hair was unkempt, his shoes were wet from rain. There was disorder and haste in his appearance. But he was handsome and three girls who had never heard of Orpheus or Raphael's honeyed dreamings, set their teeth on the breeze and giggled with young sexuality. John did not notice and was not flattered. His sight was sucked inward upon his history, and he would never again experience benign pleasures.
After wandering two days in turmoil, he had come in this twilight gloom of an August evening, to the city seeking succor, seeking the wisdom of Morris Bloom, noctambule and Israelite, who had arrived at these shores in 1946 with his wife Annie and their son Leonard. John bore his tale of personal horror to one whose wit had been winnowed or, put the way of simple judgment, was plain crazy. But where else? Who else could take from John's shoulders his struggle with justice?
First there was the need for lodgings. John took a downtown train and with his new instincts of the dispossessed, found his way to the edge of the city along the lower East River. He opened the door to a small hotel on the river's edge and rang the bell for whoever's business it was to answer it.
Mr. Kunz came out, six feet tall and three hundred and fifty pounds. Nevertheless, or perhaps due to a sense of expansiveness and avoirdupois, he was a man with kind, blue eyes and, irrelevantly, a handsome blonde mustache. Mr. Kunz was a sober proprietor and ran his hotel with an instinct for serving others, with respect for their privacy and discrimination in gossip. He was where he wanted to be in life: running a hotel at the edge of the city. There was intelligence in his face, without vanity or judgment, and an unaggressive kindness. But Mr. Kunz was not where Mrs. Kunz wished him to be. Consequently, there was a shot of sadness in the blue eyes which otherwise would have been only kind, blue eyes, but were condemned to be kind, blue, sad eyes. He offered John the registration book which John accepted with lackluster carelessness. He wrote his name and residence in it, wishing he had arrived at Mr. Kunz' hotel without the vagaries of history.
Mr. Kunz was an intuitive man. He grasped John's mood and turned the book around to note: John Orestes from Middletown, Maine. He took in John's rumpled clothes, the classical face, the golden hair, the wet shoes, and said, by way of trying to bring the elements together, "Tired?"
John nodded grimly.
"You didn't walk from Maine, " Mr. Kunz laughed to make him feel at ease. The effort failed. "Partly," John said stolidly, who had walked, hitchhiked, and taken a bus to arrive.
Mr. Kunz picked up his suitcase and started up the narrow staircase to the third floor. His bulk took up the stairway as he wheezed his way to the top, opened a door at the end of a hallway and set down John's suitcase. "This do?"
John nodded assent, but looked without appetite at the room. The furnishings were a survival of lower hotel life, circa 1910: an old metal frame bed, a night table with brass imitation oil lamp on it, a well oiled mahogany dresser, a brocaded Morris chair with an embroidered footstool, a braided rug on the floor, and a picture of Jesus in blue beckoning to Lazarus on a wall. One window faced the river, the other faced the street.
Mr. Kunz risked another question. "Ever been in New York before?"
John resented questions and answered aggressively, "Yes. You ever been anywhere else?"
Mr. Kunz' answer was a clue to his destiny. "Nowhere else for me to go. My room is on the main floor. I got a special bed, a special chair, a special tub, even a special toilet bowl. I don't know if I'd fit anywhere else."
John's eyes softened by way of responding to human confession.
Mr. Kunz noticed they were friendly eyes after all, and felt relieved. He liked to have a little security about his clientele and drew the limit at dope addicts and murderers. He couldn't place John, but it was the quality of Mr. Kunz's generosity to conclude that most men were more innocent than not, and let it go at that.
"I run the kitchen," he said. "I do the cooking, my wife helps.
Breakfast is from seven to nine, and dinner from five to seven. I have a girl to help with the serving and the cleaning. Her name is Lilly. She'll be by here in a while to bring you towels and soap. If you mean to eat with us I need a half day's notice."
"You got it."
Mr. Kunz was pleased. It pleased him to have his hotel guests eat in his dining room. A man of large feelings in a corner of the world, a proprietor, a burgher, life's meaning was in provisions, stock, tastes, smell. The thorn in his life was his wife. He was fat and she was lean.
"He is an elephant," she shrieked, "my God, an elephant! Other women are married to men. I am married to an elephant, a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, a dinosaur, an animal, an elephant. He is not a human being.
A human being has ambitions. A hippopotamus wallows in the mud."
He blocked her way. It was her ambition to move their business "uptown!" The word released atoms of energy in her. It stroked her ambitions and stoked her dreams. It was a driving force. Her soul was a propeller. It whirled her into motion. She bumped through the hotel in a spic and span dress with no spare parts, lean as a broomstick, cleaning corners and painting bannisters, a cigarette on her lips. He was an immovable rock. She was a torrent sweeping over him and their children, sweeping along Peter and Anne, the first born and the good stock, sweeping over Georgie, who couldn't swim. Not in a river that was flowing upwards.
He couldn't even talk. He scorned sister Anne and ducked brother Peter's suspicions that he was a half-wit. "Look out, Peter yelled at him, "your sock'll get wet." Georgie cried: "M-m-m-ind your own b-b-b-usiness. Lilly wiped his tears. Peter sneered. "Look out there, girl, you're gonna get left behind. No one's gonna throw you a life preserver." They were swimming upstream, lock, stock, barrel and business uptown, and Maria had this tremendous barge behind her that could barely toot a whistle or wheeze a breath.
She measured and weighed, boiled, steamed and skimmed, poached and sliced thin, shopped lowfat, no sugar and meatless. It did not help.
Behold! He was a conscientious dieter by day and a glutton by night. By day he ate poached eggs and grapefruit, at night whipped cream and dobretortes, German or Danish, Jewish or Italian salami, port du salut cheese, corn, rye, pumpernickel or cheese bread, French, Italian, Syrian or Jewish bread. He was non-partisan, international, a continental man, a continent, an adventurer, a man of many tastes, a casanova of the taste buds, a prowler, a smuggler, hiding olives, ham, halvah, rolls, pastrami and uncooked sausages in a toolbox in the garden, in a waterproof bag in a toilet tank, in a customer's knitting bag. She reconstituted, he reinstituted. He prowled, she searched. He kept three steps ahead of her as she prowled the prowler. "Not for you, fat boy," she said if she caught him. She was a garden rake in a white uniform, raking his food out of corners and from under the bed.
To his hotel guests he was the expansive hotel keeper, the more-than-generous host, a barn which housed all their wants, a well from which they drew endless soap, towels, hot water, hot chocolate, hot milk, butter sauce and information. His girl Lilly, general woman of all chores, was his right arm, his loyal friend and Georgie's sustenance.
Alone, John's mind went mercifully blank. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. Twilight deepened and moist lights sputtered along the river, lights on the boats, the automobiles, the highway, the streets and the houses. The scene was irrelevant. John had no plans except to sit still and protect himself by sitting still and being dull, by being nothing, by being not John Orestes, boy of his father's dreams, man of outspanning ambitions, with his hand on the pulse of the sun. He was small town, well read, educated to the limits of his parents' ambitions and beyond, emptied with a single stroke of everything they had taught him, dulled back into being mere mortal, feeling how deadly quick one becomes old. The room he sat in darkened, the outside lightened. A line on the horizon remained to the sun while the boats lit their way down the river. On the opposite shore smoke rose from factory stacks, in the distance lights moved up the slope of a highway. The river swayed with the city lights.
There are rivers and there are rivers.
There was a river that went past the bottom of their farm, a pretty good river for a local and unhistorical affair, about thirty feet wide and various in temperament, home to tadpoles, minnows, and an occasional bullfrog. About a half mile down it gathered speed, became shallow, showed rocks and moss and more fish, and further down became a rapids. For a boy growing up on a farm with few friends it was an indispensable toy, a diary of the seasons. And John knew all its moods: its steely summertime heat when his father used to pull up his trousers above his knees and wade out to watch John and Leonard dunk each other under the water. John used to jackknife down and nip his father's toes. Basil played the farce to the hilt, howling that a fish had bitten him and worrying Leonard to tears because he hated water with ghostly things in it. Basil had bought the farm for John, believing that a child needed acres to wash himself in. He had married in his late thirties and they had waited ten years for a child.
It thrilled him that John ran with the cows and the pigs, cramped city boy that he had been. The farm represented a way of life, belief in freedom, harmony with nature, leisure, the expression of ordered seasonal existence, the plantational attitude. Chlore admired these sentiments, but hated the life. Moreover, to her surprise, she found being a parent difficult, fractious, as if each move had to be thought out. She plodded her way through motherhood, and doing it on a farm made the going worse.
Basil thrived on activity and privacy, and on John's youth. He could write an article as easily as swing in a hammock. Chlore liked her time organized, the hairdresser on Tuesday, a concert on Sunday, the theater Wednesday evening. She liked her time to be bolstered by metropolitan resources: to walk in museums, to window shop, to take lunch in a tearoom.
She liked the architecture of cities, brick and stone, the upward flight of tall buildings, wet pavements and snow on tiny plots of garden. Disorder, especially the kind that came from inactivity, made her feel like Humpty Dumpty: smashed.
Basil lived his ideal. He had a professorship at the college, a place on the town council, his research in archeology received critical attention, he had his travels and his country life. "Everything," he had said to Chlore when they first married, "I want everything, town and country, the active life and the contemplative life, books and music and nature, travel, and then home. Why not?" he said, the human kind in him ravishing realms, kingdoms of intellectual conquest. They lived a lifestyle that did not suit Chlore, alternating between the farm and expeditions to bereft islands and muddied valleys.
John followed in his father's footsteps. He had the same gargantuan appetite. He was interested in everything, with barely time for it all. Three days ago he had come home from graduate school, wondering which road to take: philosophy, law, physics, history, archeology? He was booked for an expedition to a Greek island that fall and had come home to pack.
Tears ran in his head to remember the time he and Basil had gone fishing half a mile below the rapids. They had walked along the riverbank and had come to a spot where the river was shallow and fast, slipped around large stones and tumbled over fallen logs. A boy, about nine, sat on a rock in the middle of the river, with his hands plunged into the running water. Basil and John set about their business and cast their lines, hoping the boy wasn't one of those with two dozen questions. He wasn't.
He sat in glum silence, with his hands plunged into the cold water.
Basil said, "I'd think his hands should be damned uncomfortable by now. His perplexity didn't stop his enthusiasm to fish. The air sang with sunlight and his line sang in the sun. Nature gloried in her light. Then a tomcat twirled by and the boy took his hands out of the river. The river's foam glinted on the cat's fur with dead communication. Basil and John looked across the running river at the boy. The tomcat caught on a log by the bank, its broken head twisted towards the sun.
"Hey, son," Basil called out.
The boy dried his hands on his shirt, and looked at them with a vacant face.
"Was that your cat?" Basil's voice quivered. The boy stared deadpan. The sun bounced off his eyes. Basil was visibly upset. Something from his youth came up like a regurgitated mess. He called across the river again. "Why'd you do it?"
The boy stared at them with dead blue eyes.
"Why'd you do it?" Basil called again, his voice thinning with ineffectuality.
The boy blinked his eyes with a fleeting concession to adult pressure. Some indecision fluttered in them for a moment. Then he crossed his arms on his knees and stared down the river with iron stoicism. No adult would break his will.
The day was ruined. John and Basil collected their fishing gear and left. The river had become tainted.
Now in his hotel room, John closed his eyes. It was only ten o'clock and he could not sleep. Hours and hours to go, plotting survival, exhausted and sleepless, in the worst of states, between opposing tendencies in his nerves and opposing needs. He went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face and his hair, rubbed his skin with a towel hard enough to feel some sting. He opened his suitcase and unpacked it. The items were ordinary: socks, underwear, a shirt thrown in unfolded and carelessly because order was beside the point. He grabbed his jacket from the bed and fled to the city streets.
Stores, lights, music from stores, CD's, tapes. The humid night provided an atmosphere for walkers. John joined them, deliquescent, as if he might gather from them a humanity that was fading from himself. He concentrated on looking normal. He glanced at shop windows and magazine stalls. He stopped at a candy store and bought a newspaper. His behavior was the model of an indistinguishable man. He walked with hands behind his back and scuffled scraps of paper with his toes.
Eventually the stores closed and the traffic thinned. The city closed down by cinema, by pedestrian, by motorist. It was inevitable and John panicked. He did not want to be by himself, with John Orestes, inheritor of memories. Nor did he wish for company. The heart of the matter was that he did not wish to be alive and did not know how to divest himself of living.
He came back to his room and tried to read the paper, but meaning broke down everywhere, even on the elementary level of words. He could put nothing together. His room had been straightened out in his absence. He had been supplied with soap and tissues, towels, flowers in a vase.
Objects listed themselves on his brain, discontinuously, without meaning.
He spent the night struggling against wakefulness, praying for sleep, for calm, for help, for Lethe, for death.
A rooster woke John. It crowed all around him with self-righteous possession of the air. Incomprehensibly the sound swept down from the farm in Maine and brought autumn skies chilled with bird song. John stiffened with unreality. Location was difficult in the earsplitting din and dazzling light in a dingy hotel. This is where he was, here in a room, in a hotel in New York. Hang on to it, John, he said to himself, better not forget where you are. He went down for breakfast and came into the dining room on the cross currents of bacon, coffee and fresh muffins. In spite of everything, John had a fund of good nature to draw on and acknowledged benign possibilities. The hum of morning sounds hung over the room, the clink of juice glasses and coffee spoons, the whisper of a dozen men of assorted sizes in inexpensive suits of gray and blue. John took a table near the window. Sunshine warmed the back of his neck. He felt incredibly good-humored. The people in the room looked innocent, and he felt it was possible to love them if one could sustain the mood of well being for more than twenty minutes.
Mr. Kunz opened the door from the kitchen and surveyed the scene.
His wife, Maria, surveyed the scene too from over his shoulder as if his report would be untrustworthy. They stepped aside to let Lilly out with a metal tray stacked with crockery, baskets of rolls, platters of bacon and eggs, bars of butters and pitchers of juice.
Poor Lilly! Her presence offended John. He was young and sensitive to the female presence, and there had not been anything in his life like Lilly. There had been a Ruth with bowed legs and a Marsha with a breast a size different from its mate, but not a Lilly. Deformity there was of a kind, but not of an analyzable kind. It seemed to be a matter of too much of this and too little of that, a voluptuous bosom and a gnomish height. John felt an instant antipathy to her, and his good mood vanished.
"Mind?" a man said and sat down at his table and snapped open his morning paper with a mission. John was jealous of such focus. "Nice morning," John said, the bon mot of good weather and strangers.
The man closed his paper and surveyed the scene on the table: toast, eggs, coffee and waffles. That was pleasant enough, but he said, "I don't care for summer weather. I don't care for it at all. It's not healthy weather. Larry Barnes the name." He inched his neck above the collar of his white shirt. "I'm in the baked goods business. What's your line?"
John went limp with memory. "I don't have one."
"Tut, you're young," the man said. He had a square shaped head and tight collar, but brimmed with adult compassion. "You're young. You'll find something and straighten out. Took me a while. Rome wasn't conquered in a day. First I sold jewelry, then I sold linen. Took me a while to find something I really wanted to sell. Everyone eats bread. You're not from New York, are you? I can tell by your accent. You haven't got one."
"Maine," John said, "small town in Maine."
"Ever been to New York before?"
"No," John lied, draining anonymity.
"Well, New York's not a bad place. Don't let them scare you with all them stories."
"Stories about thieves and dope addicts. I've lived here all my life and never met a dope addict, never had anything stolen from me except once in Tarawana, Florida, when I was in the army. I had a cigarette case stolen."
John snickered to show he wasn't the type to fall for such tales.
"What's it like in Maine? Some thing, I bet." Barnes laughed.
"Yeah, I've often thought of going somewhere else, but I have an eighty-two year old mother. Know what I mean? She don't want to go nowhere and I'd hate to leave the old lady and find out it wasn't worth it. It would kill her if I left here. Know what I mean? and it would have to be worth it."
He jerked his chin out from the pinch of his shirt and folded his paper away. "Better leave. They don't like you sitting past nine:thirty. Mrs. Kunz is very particular." He winked confidentially. "Washes the floor after every meal. You can't get service like that anywhere else in this priced hotel."
John felt a mixture of awe and cheap respect for Mrs. Kunz's strictures and fled, unsettling a chair in his hurry. He started for his room, then remembered there was nothing he needed there. There was nothing he needed anywhere. John was suspended between nullities. What he needed was a future, but the past was upon him like a hound, like a tiger's claw, and he left the hotel and fled down streets and alleyways. Run, John, run. His father handed him a glass of wine, his mother with red hair and a brown skirt, bundled him into a parka.
Run, John, run. If hate won't get you, love will. Baaa, baaaa, black sheep, and eat your cereal to make you strong. What a riot! Memories seized him with the clutch of a grizzly bear. Too bad, John, Better forget it, forget the golden prince and the golden pear, the golden princess and the golden hair, golden John under his mother's golden arm. All good things wind down. Even John. Sssshhhh, they wind down under the pillow, under the sheet, under the blanket, under the golden bed. Was the dragon.
Always was, John. Breathing fire. Better run. Bolt! Here come love chuckling bravadoes: Goodnight, dear son, goodnight, dear son, dear son, goodnight. Paterfamilias floating with a little pomp. Remember your boots in the morning, John. Because we love you, remember your boots. Because we love you remember your scarf, remember your mittens, take good care of yourself, remember us and turn out the light. Better run, John. Stir!
Get moving! The past is a god with demonic powers. His hand is upon you.
Hop, skip, scat. Here comes the nightmare mother. Scoot! The past is a devil with a thousand shapes. Don't turn that corner, John, Watch out. The past is a chariot, a whip, a wolf, a wild dog. It will run you down and eat you up. Move, John, move. The past is a bag of tricks with a million shapes, days of family warmth, papa wobbling on ice skates, mama in fur to her ears, jingling Dobbin steaming in the snow. Oh, the good times, John!
The past is a magician. Into his hat go two loving parents and out comes!
Oh, hush, John! Don't say it.
It was evening when John returned for supper. His room had been put to rights, the bed had been made, the towels had been changed, there was fresh soap in the soap dish and flowers in a vase. The orderliness outraged him, the hiatus between appearance and reality. All that John's mourning could amount to was a ritual of remembering what life had once been like. His parents were people who had lived no ordinary life. The summum bonum had sat upon their heads. Even now, contriving a piety for ancient days, John felt it had been so.
Mr. Kunz served wiener schnitzel, with potatoes au gratin, rolls and butter, and a whipped orange parfait, but his generous portions and gourmet cooking didn't help. The dining room was bleak on a dampish evening. John sat at his table as long as he could. He clung to chair and cloth, fork and spoon until he was the last person to leave. He sipped wine and crumpled the rolls until they were a mass of grain. Lilly came in to clean, sleeves rolled up, broom and dustpan in her hand. A clock ticked. Its sound exploded. It was John's wristwatch. He looked at it manfully as if checking the time for an appointment, and left as if honor bound to keep it.
He walked along the river. Foghorns bled eerily. Demon sounds.
Jumble of childhood pieces that would not fit the puzzle of what his destiny had become. He bought a ticket at a movie house to stall for time.
Dull movie bit him with desperate fatigue, and he left, stood in the street and watched the pedestrians. Paralyzed, went back to the hotel.
Lilly sat on the stoop.
John felt pity for himself that she was not more than she was.
She sat with her feet tucked in under her dress, her neck and arms bare in the print house dress trimmed with rickrack. Sitting on the stoop was obviously her summer entertainment. Loneliness thins a little in the air; in a closed room it thickens like sawdust. Could John have guessed otherwise but that she was lonely.
"Good evening," she said with a gravity that irritated him, the total lack of female vivacity. He meant to ignore her, but fatigue and terror overcame him.
"I suppose it's pleasant to sit here," he said without conviction.
The rain had stopped, the dampness was lifting.
In Lilly's life John was an event. Such men as he never came into Mr. Kunz's hotel. "It must be hard to be a stranger in a city like New York," she said.
Her opening was not wise. He despised her solicitousness. "That's not my problem," he said sharply.
To his surprise, Lilly could have told him that that was not his problem, for who knew more about strangers than she did, making their beds every morning and cleaning their rooms. When she had seen John at the breakfast table she had thought he was surely somebody's darling, he looked so much the golden boy. But he made her feel ill at ease, although it took little to make Lilly feel ill at ease.
"Do you sit here often?" he asked aimlessly.
"About every night."
He grunted to himself that he would have thought as much, and it irritated him that she was so apparent. "Aren't you ever curious to do other things?"
A dozen answers rose to Lilly's mind, but she suppressed them as she always did. She knew what she was taken for, and felt she deserved it because she could not free herself of being afraid. It seemed to her that there was not a thing she was not afraid of. She was afraid of the night and afraid of going to sleep, and when she woke she was afraid of the daytime and afraid of being alone. She was afraid of harsh words and afraid of rebuke, afraid of crowds and fast cars, and afraid of October when the sun fell in the sky. She was glad to have a job that kept her away from people. She could have been a receptionist or a secretary, but she was glad to be a chambermaid and have her own room on the ground floor, and glad to be able to live where she worked and not have to fight her way on to subways and down streets. People took her for a shadow, and she was glad to be one.
All right, all right, John said to himself, I can't muster enough good manners to keep this girl from self pity. "Look," he said apologetically, "I was lost in my own thoughts." He laughed. "I have amusing thoughts sometimes."
"Good for you. Amusing thoughts are rare."
Surprised, John recognized an intellect and felt suddenly expansive. He grinned at her. He thought of telling her, maliciously, to check her self indulgent frailty, that his mother had murdered his father and run off with her lover. Look here, he would say, free of melodrama, my fate is that I'm the child of a murderer and my fate is that wisdom. So the fact is that we mustn't, you and I, compete for pity. He laughed at the thought of this conversation, and rubbed his ankle. Then quietly, caught in the spasm of fate and thinking about it, not quite fainting, he fell on the sidewalk.
Lilly jumped to her feet. John put his hand across his eyes and squeezed them. "I'm all right," he said. "I just seem to have fallen off my perch." He laughed uproariously and got to his feet, perched drunkenly.
She took his arm. "Let me get you something," she said.
He looked at her quizzically. "What is there to get me?"
"Come in and let me make you some coffee. The heat must have gotten to you."
John could only think how gastronomically strange the whole thing was becoming. No sooner had she said that than he wanted coffee desperately. As a matter of fact, he was famished. Moreover, clean kitchens refreshed him, and Maria Kunz's kitchen, he would bet, was among the cleanest. He had expected in his own life to be a family man, and appreciated domestic virtues. It might be a hopeful sign to be surrounded by tile walls and copper pots hanging from hooks. The sight was momentarily uplifting.
Lilly brought some mugs to the table. John wished she'd offer cake. "Been here long?" he asked.
"Ten years. I used to sleep down here in the back of the kitchen, but the dogs and cats prowling at night bothered me. Mr. Kunz put the bars on the windows to make me feel better, but it didn't help because one night I saw a man watching me through the bars and it made me sick." John spotted an apple on the counter and wondered if he could take it. "Mr. Kunz gave me a room on the main floor after that, next to his daughter,
Anne. They have three rooms down at the end of the hall for themselves, and I have the fourth room there. Peter stays upstairs when he comes home which, thank God, is not too often. It makes him feel like one of the guests to be on an upper floor. I share the bathroom with Anne when she's home, which is usually only on weekends.
John snickered privately. Out loud, he said courteously, "You sound as if you have all your requirements for life." She nodded gravely.
"I do. I shall be lucky if I do no worse."
"Worse!" Her gravity jangled on his nerves. He had contempt for tidy tragedies. He craved a bacchanalia of death or sex. "What's worse?" he said.
But sober Lilly had the potential calamities of her life organized as if fate were a budget. "The usual. Old age, ill health, an unkind employer. The Kunzes quarrel often about selling this hotel. If they do, who knows what would become of me. I've worked as a chambermaid since I'm fifteen. There are all kinds of chambermaid work. Mr. Kunz employs help for the hard work, scrubbing the floors and washing the windows. We have a dishwasher, an electric ironing board, a drier and a washing machine.
That's Maria Kunz's doing. I have had jobs where I did that kind of work fifteen hours a day and went to sleep on a cot in the hall."
John despised her. He could have guessed that whatever she had to say would convey quietus. He squeezed his hands together under the table.
"What do you do with your day off?"
"I don't have days off."
"I like being where I am," she said, vexed that John looked unconvinced and she had to propitiate his consuming denunciation, yet she wanted to explain herself to him. "People like me are cursed with the frugality that belongs to our station."
He waved his hand cavalierly. "I intended to pay." She sucked in her breath at his obtuseness. He put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his palms. It was as difficult to attend to her as to anything else, but she was all he had for the moment. "It's called a date," he laughed.
Terror struck Lilly, then pride. She refused. John felt giddy.
He wished she would offer him the apple. It was monstrous to refuse him anything. "I need company," he cried, thumping the table with his fist. Lilly's nerves flew apart. It was not her fault. It was hard to know how to take John.
Lilly was spared the effort. Luckily, Maria Kunz came into the kitchen. The lights were on, but she swung her flashlight around the room. She didn't bother with greetings. She scanned the kitchen, she scanned the refrigerator, then she scanned them.
Ambition, efficiency and energy are suspicious virtues. She became John's instant enemy and he decided on aggressive measures. "Are you looking for the thin man who slips between the bars?"
She responded with warning precision. "I see that only the two of you are here."
He decided to punish her for bad thoughts. "I've asked Lilly to spend tomorrow with me." Lilly developed an instant headache and closed her eyes.
Maria did not like sudden changes in her routine. It was sloppy, like having to remake the world. But Lilly's ways were depressing, her nerves were going in shreds like a piece of wet tissue. Maria was a woman of practical remedies and knew that a little sex straightened out a few problems. "O.K. by me. You can take off from twelve to four, but better not come back late. That's all I can spare."
It was a tough warning but if anyone would obey it, Lilly would.
She froze, erect, prepared to obey it. Maria had a sense of social grading and thought as she left the room, what the hell does a guy like him want with her. That was her first clue that something was wrong with him. She had a temptation to swing back, pour light into his eyes and see what gives with his funny request. But if she had, she would have found a hole. They were gone. Lilly was groping her way to her room, like a mole down a tunnel, to safety and darkness, frantic for comfort. John was stumbling up the steps to his room, trying to feel some charm in Lilly's manner. A depression was quickly overtaking him, quickly, quickly, while he mounted the steps to his room unprotected by nothing but the feeling that he ought to be sympathetic to Lilly until, without turning a hair in his thoughts, he felt too exhausted to make the effort . He turned the key in his door and heard his mother's breath behind the sound of gunshot and felt her kiss on his cheek as he started for school by himself for the first time.
Lilly wore a seersucker suit, double-breasted and belted in the back. She wore white plastic pumps which made her thin legs look thinner, and carried a white plastic pocketbook. They went to a nearby restaurant and sat in a booth near a window.
John gazed out the window at the sidewalk. Her thrift shop suit from another era pained him. It was an attack on his masculinity. He regretted the afternoon with her and she too looked out the window at the sidewalk. Barely had she set teeth in the love apple, barely set eyes upon John and she was in hell. Eros, at this late stage of her life, found her unwitting, without contrivance for self protection: a marked victim.
It was all she could do to look at John and keep her voice from cracking when she spoke. Her soul embarrassed her. Humankind, in general, made her nervous. John brought her to the verge of neural collapse. He was just about to tell her that they looked like the owl and the pussycat when fortunately the waitress came to take their order and his cleverness deserted him. He said, instead, "How does one stop thinking?"
She sensed trouble and sat up even more erect. "I suppose you think and you think until you've thought it all out." But being Lilly, she added charitably in spite of her premonition that she would not like the answer, "What do you think about?"
John smacked his forehead explosively. "God, if I could tell you that then we'd have something to talk about."
She ground her teeth and endured their silence.
They finished eating and left the restaurant. He made a gallant effort at good humor and suggested they walk to Greenwich Village. She bravely agreed. He found it difficult to walk next to her. She hardly came to his shoulder, he felt he might stumble over her. She was stunted. Her job was to inspire him with erotic feelings, distract him with a universal formula, but nothing she did worked. He felt nauseous and wondered if his stomach would ever feel right again. Perhaps this was the beginning of enfeeblement: disenchantment and the bodily accommodation to it. Lilly wondered what savage form of good manners kept her from going home.
They wandered into Washington Square Park and sat down on a bench. Blossoms of girls dressed in summer skirts and dungarees, their warm hair piled brownly on top of their heads, fluttered by amid the pigeons. They looked supreme, but John knew that it was not true that anyone of them could be consolation. They were ordinary girls who would run off at the first exposure to his thoughts. His pain was his own, already his vision of life that was molding him into the shape of calamitous man. He wondered if there would ever be time when life would be gratuitous again, when to eat was merely to eat, and when one took a walk because the weather was fair and not because one tried to out walk the tread of insanity.
"If I told you I was in agony, what could you do for me?"
Her eyes fluttered. Conversation was not an improvement over silence. "I suppose I would sympathize," she said.
"Would that help me?" he whispered.
"I don't know," she faltered. "I think it always helps a bit."
Birds darted among the trees. They cut across the sun and the sky with swiftness, disappearing anywhere. "To a nightingale or a sparrow or a blue jay," he smirked. "Why do you suppose Keats did that, made of death
and terror a longing for birds. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Escape, escape, escape."
"I know the poem," she said in a stiff voice.
"I'm sorry. I don't know you, and I have an image of myself that I know everything. I'm well educated and the well educated are always falling on top of their ignorance." He looked at the sun without seeing
it. "My parents were ambitious for me. My father believed that knowledge was life. The more one knew the deeper one lived and my father believed that one should pursue the fullest life. I don't think my father understood what he meant by that." John put his hands over his eyes and shielded them from the sun. "My father is not alive anymore. I believe I am in mourning for him." He took his hands away from his eyes. "You haven't said one sympathetic word."
She pushed her tongue around the dry ball of anxiety in her mouth.
"I don't have to. You seem dazzled by your pain."
"That's not a very sympathetic thing to say."
"You're not used to pain," she said gloomily.
"No, I'm a newcomer to it. Tell me, does it wear differently with the years." He looked at her maliciously.
His sarcasm were like grains of sand and released her from her stifling passion. "Yes," she said meanly, "it becomes less glamorous, merely a condition, not a battle. It gets old alongside of you. It becomes an embarrassing infirmity, not a noble calling. Perhaps you never cease to resent it, but you stop fighting it. You build your life around it and make room for it. Now and then someone asks you to go for a walk, do the shopping, or mind the desk. Your stomach flutters. Here comes people. Here comes pain, you say and your mind begins to built compensations for your cowardliness. You live an inner, meaningless drama that takes up all your time and becomes simply life.
John looked at the girls strolling by, at their naked calves, their painted toes. Women pushed baby carriages, and small children toddled after them, their legs full of perplexity. The park was magnificent with the ordinary. It was all that life should be, green grass, sun, trees, water fountain, birds, old man with cane and dark glasses, young girl with her hand on the shoulder of a dreaming man. How did one become an ordinary father with an ordinary child stumbling after you? John's heart jerked with sentimentality and loathing. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. Lilly worried that he might fall again. "What is the matter?" she whispered.
He smiled coarsely. He could not tell her without feeling fantastic. He swallowed his saliva and put his handkerchief away. "I am in mourning for my father."
Unprepared for anything in life, she asked with foreboding "How did he die?"
John felt whipped across his shoulders. His head fell forward. He buried his face in her knees. She gasped. His spirit snapped. He fell apart in her lap.
A balloon man went by. A dozen balloons floated out from under his shoulder. They sailed through the trees in blues and reds and greens. The children shrieked after them. The women, in slacks and skirts, barefooted or sandalled, ran after their children. Life went by in blue and yellow and red, and a balloon floated into the sky. A distressed child ran forward to catch it and missed and sat down on the ground and cried. A hopeful child ran forward to catch it and tripped over Lilly's ankles.
John barely said, "My mother murdered him." She bent forward and rubbed her bruised ankle. The daylight sifted through the green trees. The world thundered by in bicycles, skates, voices, crying. He picked his head up.
His face was wet. The park faded into gray water. "Can you help me?" A child's ball rolled under their bench and he plunged between Lilly's legs to get it back.
Routine is the gift of the fortunate, a girdle against wasting emotions. "Please can we go?" she said. "I must get back. It's getting on to four." They took a bus back across town and walked along the river.
John's stomach flew apart. He stopped to watch a seagull fly. Like a bird his psyche dipped, delirious for control. "My father groaned and I thought he was rehearsing a play. He was reading a letter from my mother's lover.
It sounded like a script. A script!" He smacked himself on the side of his head and roared with laughter. "Stop it," Lilly said. He tried to control himself. He bit the inside of his cheeks with the effort. Her earnestness drove him crazy, it made him helpless with laughter. Better not look at her, he said to himself. He kept his eyes on the seagull, off Lilly's pruned up intensity. "I ran down the steps and saw her running out the door. Her bathrobe caught on the door hinge and she screamed. Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard for a spade and a shovel to bury the dear dead dog." Lilly winced. "Oh, my God," John laughed, "don't take it so seriously. I buried him in the river to save her." The seagull screamed.
"Ssssh, do you hear the river running?" he said. A church bell gonged four times. Lilly stiffened with disaster. "I have to go," she said. John bawled with laughter. The river rose. John was drowning in tears. Lilly tried to move. He caught her arm. His angle of consciousness spun through revolutions. "Don't," he said. Lilly felt shrunken and helpless, familiar feelings. She was sorry she knew what she did about him. "I have to go," she repeated. "Help me," he hissed. "You said you would." She shrank from him and started across the street. He caught her arm again. "Who cares about your ratty little job. I need help. God in heaven, there must be help for me." Sickness poured from his eyes. He sagged in her arms.
She led him to a garden in the back of the hotel and told him to sit there until calm or sobriety or whatever it is that comes to people in crisis came to him.
The garden was hers, an anomaly of pansies and a rose bush in a corner, a miniature rock garden in the center with phlox and daisies, a tulip bed, crocus bulbs and hyacinths against the house. Next door was Mrs. Arcano who farmed on four square yards of land lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and eggplant and kept, to the surprise of her neighbors, two chickens and a dawn crowing rooster, a retreat on a street of cars, taxis, dogs and baby carriages. "Stay until supper time," she said. I'll come back for you." He looked at her incredulously. Unprecedented shadows were falling. He stood, blinded with the shock of his confession, crumpling in a bed of violets.
Georgie sat at the table peeling onions. He looked at the clock when Lilly came in, he looked at Lilly, he looked back at the clock and his head swung low like he'd been socked. Maria kept the lid down on her explosion. Maybe Lilly's being late was a good sign, but Lilly didn't look as if it were a good sign. The skin on her neck was goose bumpy. Was that sexy? Not unless you were a chicken. Lilly was an insect. She had no spine. Maria felt confounded with sympathy and revulsion for her.
Sometimes one feeling got the upper hand, sometimes the other. She moved the onions to the sink and a pot of water to the stove, carrots to the pot and sugar to the carrots. "Your afternoon was pleasant?" she tried, but it was as hard as biting a bullet to keep back the charge that Lilly was late. Georgie's head swayed like a reed under water. No point his trying for conversation, trying to say something clever that would make them laugh and think of something else beside the clock.
Lilly wiped the perspiration from her forehead. "Fair," she said.
"Fair!" Maria snapped. "Fair" wasn't good enough for being late.
If you sacrifice a lamb, the wind better blow in the right direction. "Is he likable?"
"I don't know."
Even Georgie knew that was a bad answer.
"You don't know!" Ha! Some time they must have had. Why the hell should someone like him take out someone like her? With all due respect to Lilly, but the world is what the world is and men are what they are. "Let the potatoes go and prepare the meat." Maria threw her towel on a rack and snapped her fingers at Georgie to come with her. He swung his eyes at Lilly to let her know she had his sympathy. Lilly buried her head in the chuck as if it were a mess of flowers. As soon as they were gone, she went to the window to see if John was all right. He had fallen asleep. Desire came to her, as it always did, with denial and resistance.
Lilly, Lilly of the valley, a garden snail who keeps close to the wall, she thought, how did this inept existence which she led become unsettled? She must right it immediately. Lilly was nothing if she did not know her place, and she knew that her place was the place of a chambermaid, a cinderella among the ashes, a witch on a weathervane.
That's me, a scrawl on the wall, that's me, that's me, a bug in the bark, a ball of dust in the wind. Ladybug, ladybug, fly away, your soul is on fire, you can smell the decay. That's me, that's me, sunup and sunset, and in between the hollow day to think about how she had evolved into herself, going over the step-by-step process again and again, the internal dialogue tracing the evolution of herself:
That's him, my stepfather, coming home from work. He prowls the outside of my garden, the outside of me. I spy on him, watching for clues to what it's all about.
What is it all about?
Not much, I can tell you. He's Mr. Ordinary.
There must be something more. Look harder.
There isn't. He's not much, really. Hardly enough for philosophy.
Not a man, only a step, a sound in the hallway.
What kind of a sound?
Lilly wobbled away from the window. The sound of ordinary. He works six days a week delivering furniture. He sleeps all day on Sunday. A prizefighter once, he was defeated by illusions. He wanted to win, with all his guts he wanted to win, but he fought too dirty even for the dirty and one night they upstaged him on morality and crushed his shoulders. Now he has gloomy and unintelligent eyes and a shuffling footstep acquired in the ring. He works six days a week and brags on the seventh how he could have been heavyweight champion. Sometimes the rooster crows over him and I watch him for clues. From a corner of my window, from an angle of vision, I can see the balding spot on the top of his head, the crush of his shoulders. I spy him out, catching at threads that might untangle him. He thought I had disappeared and good riddance to bad rubbish and maybe his bad conscience that couldn't stand the sight of me lying on a bed for two years as if I was a cripple. His kids said I was a liar. They were right.
I was not a cripple, and I felt as cheap about myself as they did and joined in the game. Lilly the liar. That's me, a liar and a cripple.
What about your mother, Lilly? Couldn't she save you?
Her? She bore me. Her parents kicked her out at fifteen for bringing me home but she rode on a tide of courage and kept me and saved me. Courageous at fifteen, collapsed at twenty-two when she married him, then gave him the only prize he'd ever get for fighting dirty. Me at twelve. Oh, despicable Adam and a terror-stricken Eve.
Why didn't you call for help?
Yes. I have never stopped calling. The door opened and the door shut. My only experience of love. Now I suffer it in unregenerating darkness. That's it. That's my life. Lilly, carved upon a window sill, doomed to spy out a universe of thought upon the problem of evil condensed into only him, a man with crushed shoulders and gloomy eyes, who works six days a week and brags on the seventh how he could have been a champion; who has the peculiarity of a footstep that could be heard by me in the snow or upon sand or upon a carpet as it was heard in the hall way outside my room twenty-one years ago. The sound was never to depart from my head, it contained so much of the sound of ignorance about the way of the world, of confusion as to survival, suspension of thought, unavailable help. It became the sound an animal makes as it watches danger come close, the sound of scuttle in a trap. Not ever to go away that sound, it was originally only a footfall, a step upon a step at night, an alerted pause, it has become for me an inexhaustible symbol, a scratch upon my brain, an element in the universe, the sound of evil absorbing them one by one, the actors in my drama, him, her, them, me, absorbed their wrongs, absorbed pains they denied, virtues they forgot, her courage, his disappointment, that one's silence, this one's dullness, until I became what she was: the task of years to mold rage into quietus, to carve perspective like a monument of myself that I was only one more sufferer among sufferers without particularity, disciplining the voice inside me which had nothing to do with philosophy but was the voice of my merely single and outraged soul crying for a retribution I could not have.
That's me, I know nothing of life but resistance and endurance.
The voice warned John that reality hadn't changed. Thus spoke Rabbi Bloom the night he had come to their home and brought them his total fate: disshevelment. Coat flying, eyes twitching, pants slipping. Basil put his pipe on the mantel, stoked up the fire and tried to presume order. Chlore sat on the couch and knit, affecting domesticity, and Annie ran after her husband, squawking that the universe was going mad. Morris Bloom waved an old husband's hand at her to quiet down. "It's only an academic question," he said to Basil, "How is it? Look!" he held up his arm, "that when I hold up my arm my arm knows that it wishes to be held up? Since my brain is gone who tells my arm to go up or down?"
The door opened a sliver and Annie's blue eyes peeped through.
Then she threw open the door. "John," she gushed pleasure, as always Annie, making much of the little she had, a domestic scene played over and over.
"Come in, come in, whoever you are," Morris called out from the living room.
"Just see," Annie took John fondly by the hand, "see what the tide has brought in. A stranger, John, you hold yourself to be a stranger. We haven't heard from your father in months." She tucked his hand under her arm like a cat that might spring from her clasp. "What are you doing in New York? How's your mother? You look hungry. Let me get you something to eat."
John was cautious. Their dog, three-legged Aleph, scraped at his trousers. Aleph was known for accidents. Annie bent down and picked him up. She gave him a light rap on his head. "Naughty Aleph. You remember Aleph?" she said to John. That was only a manner of speaking, because why should he forget? John, in a twilight of unredeemable memories, patted Aleph's head cradled in Annie's arms. "How could I forget him?"
"He's unforgettable," Rabbi Bloom said. John, on the brink of greeting him, stepped back. "I see you have company."
"You call him company?" Rabbi Bloom boomed. "He's only a doctor. A doctor is never company. He comes to take my pulse to see if my brain is working. He should take my brain to see if my pulse is working."
Annie's skill was in evasion. She swept John into the living room furnished in photographs of three generations: the wedding pictures of Leonard and Dorothy, the baby pictures of David and Mark; a family picture: Leonard's hand on Morris' shoulder, Morris' daughter sitting on his lap, a graduation picture of Leonard from Harvard holding a diploma, tassel in his eye; an old picture of his sister on a street in Vienna with braids holding the handlebars of her bicycle. Annie said with aplomb, surrounded by the photographed summas of her life, "This is Dr. Mandeville. Doctor, this is the son our very good friends from Maine that I was telling you about," and she tucked John's hand under her arm again so that he knew he was as welcome as the messiah, a boon to conversation, the incarnation of a bundle of ideas they had just been discussing, in the flesh himself, who would have thought it, the very John I was telling you about. "And what a son John is. He's like our second son. You can't blame parents for doting on their children when they have a son like John. He and Leonard were the best of friends. Maybe they fought when they were children. All children fight, that's to be expected, but who would want a better friend for Leonard than John or a better friend for anyone than John's father. Such a scholar! Such a brilliant man! Would you believe it," she beamed at John with the blue eyes that was all that was left of a china doll beauty, "we were just talking about you?"
"You would believe that," Rabbi Bloom said, "because given topics A to Z in the encyclopedia what else is there to talk about? What else, what else but my good friend, John?" His eye twitched, his nose snorted, his warts danced.
John felt a titillating disgust. Not much has changed, he thought again, but was that good or bad? It all depended upon where you located the center and along what radius you traveled. Actually, he thought to himself about Morris Bloom, he's looking quite well, and said so.
"You think so?" Rabbi Bloom asked archly and put his bullish head on a side. He looked coquettish like a cow about to urinate. Then he covered his head with a newspaper. "How do I look now?"
John read: BORDER DISPUTE BREAKS OUT ANEW. "Actually," he said, "like that, not well. It's yesterday's news."
"Quite right," Rabbi Bloom said. He blew the paper off his head.
"Even insanity should be up to the minute."
Dr. Mandeville said, "Come now, Rabbi." Annie, with only ninety-eight pounds and four feet ten of body space built all the way through like Meisen china, placed her fragile shoulder beneath the weight of both her husband's orthodoxy and his apostasy, never to have let him guess her atheism when he believed or her pain when he no longer believed, condemned to be brainless beside his burly intellect who had rescued her from the Viennese upper classes where she had been condemned to sit and sew and play the piano, happy if life would only be that once again, to sit and sew and play the piano and wipe the milk from babies' mouths, to let the world go by and for her part as far away as possible.
Somebody once asked, surmising incompatibility, "Why did he marry you?" Annie was not offended. She materialized a picture of herself at twenty, black hair up in a Gibson sweep, blue danube eyes waltzing on the photograph. "He didn't marry me for my orthodoxy," She laughed. Tidy down to her pearl buttons, an inheritance of values from the upper bourgeosie, she took John's hand again like an anchor in that aquarium drenched room and sat him down on the couch and plundered her store of interests. "How long have you been in New York? Why didn't you let us know? Stay for supper." John said no. What was no? "You must. Leonard will not forgive." She looked down at the watch on her bosom. "A few minutes they will be here. Dorothy works now too. The children, David and Mark, you remember David and Mark, will be home from school soon. Stay.
Be. Let me get you something. How long? How far? Till when?"
"Chatterbox," Morris crackled.
"I must be going myself," Dr. Mandeville said.
Annie gathered the doctor up and saw him to the door. John went too to say goodbye. Good manners kept him moving. "Still overreacts," Dr. Manville whispered in her ear. Her eyes tossed for reasons. "I get on his nerves. We're alone so much."
"You overindulge him. Overindulgence is bad for the constitution.
Moderation." He looked at John. "The Greeks had a word for it."
"They failed too," John said.
"C'est la vie," Dr. Mandeville said, "nothing goes on forever.
Well, goodbye and remember," he called into the living room to Rabbi Bloom, "be good."
"How's that?" Rabbi Bloom called back. His fingers diddled on the air. His nose twitched like a dog's on the scent. Nervous tics chased each other across his face. He rapped the television set for attention.
"A gift from Dorothy and Leonard, with good wishes for my recovery. Look around, look around. Everything in the room is a gift with good wishes.
The frog in the bowl, the bird in the cage, the fish in the tank." He flattened his nose against its glass. A wagtail platy flirted by. Heckel and black angels, swordtails, hybrids, killifishes and catfishes, badis badis, carps and chromides, mormyrids his favorite, breeding habits unknown. Plants swayed in the tank, hygrophilia, polysperm, cabomba, anarchis, sagitarria, corkscrew vallismeria. "Some fish tank. Insured for five hundred dollars, a present from your parents with good wishes for my recovery."
John's nerves jumped. Hazardous identity stirred in him. His tongue almost rattled loose. Inside he growled and whined for help. He thought with agitation: why doesn't he stop with his nonsense and look me in the eye, dear friend that he is, and see what has become of John.
"Slivovitz, shnaps, wine or sherry. Who wants which and which wants who?" John took slivovitz. Rabbi Bloom poured. "Be careful," he warned, "it will swallow your tongue."
John felt sardonic.
"How long has it been?" Leonard asked.
"Four or five months."
Leonard's lashes fell, a veil, a shutout. He never gives himself away, John thought. "What's new?" he asked, an indifferent opening.
"Developing an interesting new line in textbooks, a whole new concept in how to teach mathematics at different stages of the child's development." He circled son David's wrist and stopped his reach for bread. Making the best of it all, John thought, the best of a Dachau childhood and entering Harvard at sixteen. They were a unit. Everyone did his bit, like soldiers in a war, to pay the medical bills. Leonard left graduate school, Dorothy worked as a bookkeeper, Annie raised the grandchildren. John wondered if the apartment was stuffy in the summer, if Leonard disliked New York winters and small offices whose windows faced a brick wall, if he took his two weeks' vacation alone with Dorothy or with the children, or with the children and Annie and Morris. He envied Leonard and felt unsalvageable.
Dorothy said to Rabbi Bloom, "Mark has to learn to sit at the table and eat by himself. He's old enough." Annie brought in stroganoff, noodles with poppy seeds, carrot relish, grated apples and nuts, and warm bread.
"We're never old enough," Rabbi Bloom said and circled Mark with his arms. Mark appreciated the move, hopped on to his lap and poked a finger in his eye. "What makes it go so fast?"
"It's in a hurry."
"Where's it going?"
"It has a date with fate."
"A balloon that blows away."
"Don't feed the dog under the table," Dorothy said.
"Eat, eat," Annie said," there's enough for all."
"That's why Aleph is a bad tempered dog," Dorothy said, "because you have never trained him properly."
Rabbi Bloom shot her a look from his rabbinical days. "You'd be bad tempered too if you were missing a leg and were blind in one eye."
Mark was in rapture. "How do you make it go so fast?" He practised himself. "Stop that," Dorothy said. She looked at Leonard for reinforcement. He said, comforter to a nervous wife, "Mark, it is very bad to make your eyes do that."
"Zeyde's eye does it."
"No, no, Zeyde's eye does nothing," Rabbi Bloom laughed and put a spoonful of noodles in Mark's mouth. "This eye belongs to God. The other belongs to me, the one that is peaceful and quiet. The unruly eye I gave to God. You know God once spoke to me and said, Nu, Moishe, something you must give in honor of life. I will not ask for an Isaac like I did from Abraham, but something you must give me. So I gave this eye to God.
Handsome it did not make me, and I thought God would like to see the world through this eye."
"What can I give?"
"You? You don't have to give anything. You can keep everything for yourself."
Leonard said to John, "How's your work going? Weren't you scheduled for an expedition this fall?"
John fell off his perch. Straining for balance, he reached under the table and patted Aleph who, expecting food, licked his hand. Finding nothing, he sulked away, leaving John to reach elsewhere for the normal.
"I decided not to go."
"Was that wise?" Annie asked. "You shouldn't throw your chances away."
"It was wise," Rabbi Bloom said. "What's in Crete or in Rome or Jerusalem. Grownup men playing with pails and shovels. Is that wise? A shtickel here, a shtickel there they find. A bone in Rome, a pot in Crete, and from mosaics they think they build a past. Every year comes a new discovery. Crooked vase lying by side of King Aknehotepa. The world is shaken. It cocks an ear, it wags a tongue. Professor Minatoni rebuts, Dr. Rubenstein refutes. Comes a new era, a sign in the sky, a new constellation, walk dog, go to work, feed baby." He put another spoonful of noodles in Mark's mouth. "Eat, yingale. Megst bahalten alles far zih alein. The rest play with the past as if it's a toy with movable parts."
Annie brought in a tray with cake and coffee and said, "Frederick of Prussia seduced a mistress with a cake like this," and sank the cake knife ceremoniously down the layers of cream and chocolate.
Rabbi Bloom looked at it with relish and scorn. He was trapped.
Come here, Adam liebe, have an apple. "Eat, eat," he mocked her to John, "Annie works very hard at making life pleasant. Enjoy her efforts."
"Never mind," Annie said, lifting out a wedge of cake as clean as a new ploughed furrow, "his mistress knew from such a cake that she would have the best of chefs and kitchens to command."
"She is a museum piece, a collection of old habits," Rabbi Bloom said. He raised his glass to Annie. She ignored him. She threw apples at him and knocked him out. What did she care for his irritability as long as her grandchildren licked cream from their bowls, and would she care if the sky fell down, as long as she had a washcloth in her hand to wipe food stains from their mouths. A dozen children she should have had, one for each month, three for each season, half for the cold weather and half for the warm weather, three who needed pity and three who needed punishing, two to grow up and two to stay down, one to live and one to die. Her defenses he knew were much for his rusty weapons, old housekeeping skills, coffee ground fresh daily, an excellent dobretorte, none better in all of Europe, cheeses cut by the pound fresh, tub butter as yellow as sunflower.
Annie, put the kettle on, the wind is at the door. His leg jumped with a nervous twitch. Mark broncoed his knee and shouted, "Do it again, Zeyde."
His rusty weapons: total recall from the beginning. He felt an old depression and thumped his chest to clear it away, but it would not clear.
He drained half a glass of slivovitz and said, weeping, "It clears my sinuses." Dorothy's slim hips in a herringbone skirt, moved like a shiver in her seat. Morris Bloom's eye snapped meanly at her. John was delighted, always resenting Dorothy's sociological intensity. He could not forgive her for looking breezy in a sailboat and sounding pinched in conversation as if her father had been a textbook and her mother a teenage magazine. Leonard's marriage, not made in heaven, was made on a sloop off Nantucket Bay and now there were boring years ahead of him. Morris Bloom plunged and snorted and bellowed, but depression poured in. He was a leaky raft, untrustworthy. A hop and he stood at the edge of a hole. An old snake beckoned him, tempting him to jump. Life was split second timing. A jump from a roof could end it. He clutched Mark and wept inside himself.
Control yourself, he said to himself, sanity is required of you. Here is company, here is Basil's son, John, his only son who is like my second son, who was born with a halo on his head, a silver spoon in his mouth, Icarus for whom his father had fashioned wings of accomplishment, the silver spooned, the golden haloed, the child who wears the robe of many colors, Joseph in Egypt, Isaac on Mount Moriah, Augustine beloved of Monica. "Vest hoben grois nahes fun dain zun," a hawknosed neighbor in his shtetl had said to his father. His father had received the revelation with dry eyes, measuring the possibility to a centimeter. In reality, he courted and calculated, skimped and saved. From a piece of string, a shoelace, a button, a pin, he fed, he clothed, he tutored God's gift and sent him to the university in Vienna indistinguishable from other penniless geniuses. "For you I will beg," he had said and carried coins home in a hat for him. His son threw them away. "Ya, ya," his father cried back and gathered them up again. "Your hurt is worth your staying ignorant, but what is my hurt worth?" He went. A village followed him to the train platform to wish him, God's gift, a Solomon, a Moses, a Maimonides, what? health, wealth, success, love, joy, long life, many children, a big house, a handsome wife, escape, escape. He took the train and never saw his father again. There was a parade passing by. Oif rechts, oif links. Oif rechts, oif links. Don't push. Everyone keep in line. Dorothy's athletic calf, not forgotten by John on the tennis courts of the university, wrapped tensely around her left ankle. No cue to the uninitiated, Rabbi Bloom's soul shook. "Child, do not quiver," he said. "You think my ideas are an entertainment like the fish tank. My idiocy is harmless. There are worse idiocies in the world. An army of men have pondered my guilt or innocence for millennia. Here am I, Morris Bloom, tottering in premature senility, living in an apartment house six flights into the air. I spend my summers in a bungalow in the mountains and the rest of my time surrounded by frogs and fish to keep a smile on my face while all the time I keep a smile on their faces. My frog is entertained, my fish are ecstatic. Such an important man, I tell myself, Morris Bloom, what are you doing here dozing while the theological heads of Europe decide what is just for you. Get out of your chair. You are the defendant. Turn off your television set. Give your fish and your frog to the superintendent to care for them and go make yourself heard. Mary had a little lamb and alle yid brenen."
Annie, with her cake knife in midair, prepared to split an argument or an apple, said, "Who stops you?"
Rabbi Bloom drew bitter comfort from her. "There's a woman who knows how to live with confusion."
David kneaded a ball of bread into a bullet.
John felt the need for a change in conversation and said to Annie:
"How do you like living in New York?"
"How do I like living in New York? Ask me, I'm an authority on cities. I've lived in eighteen. The other night I counted them and was surprised myself. Eat your cake. What a question! I don't like living in New York. It's too intense for me. At my age I need quiet, birds, grace.
New York is too compressed, no grace except for a street here or there."
This was a good topic to keep one out of trouble, and John continued it. "What city has grace? What about you?" he asked Leonard.
"He loves it," Annie answered as it it were a warning.
"Do you?" John persevered.
"Yes, of course," Leonard said "I thought you preferred a small town."
"That was way back when." Leonard smiled Kafka-esque, thin-lipped, brooding brown eyes, and shrugged a hapless shoulder. "An exciting city makes up for a lot." He put a restraining hand on David's wrist.
"Adults and children don't mix," Dorothy said.
"What should we do, bury them?" Rabbi Bloom asked.
Annie uncurled David's fingers and the doughy bullet fell out, but David shot a look of lethal warning to Mark. Voodooed, Mark began to cry.
"Don't make an issue," Dorothy said. "Must be cramps," Annie said. "It is not cramps," Dorothy said, "he's over tired." She rose to take him. Mark clung to his Zeyde's neck, but Dorothy uncurled his fingers. Rabbi Bloom wept at the scars he left. Aleph, half terrier, half beagle, his fate wagging in his tail, paddled after them.
"He does very well," John said.
"Better than you would do on one leg," Rabbi Bloom said.
"It's remarkable how he manages," John said.
"Not at all," Rabbi Bloom said. "He has the bitch drive of his mother, a high bred aristocrat, what did she care for papers when the right smell came. Trained properly in the best of kennels, she couldn't resist the smell of the forbidden and like Pyramus to Thisbe, kept her nose to the fence where her beagle mate waited for her. Came a bright day with a stiff wind she took a running leap, cleared the fence by an inch and landed on top of him with all fours. The kennel keepers ran, the owners raged, but by that time the beagle had figured out the nature of the thing and it was too late. Fate shivered between his legs. Together they sailed to glory and brought in Aleph, the mistake, sold in shame for half his worth, a loss to the kennel. His mother lived to win a blue ribbon and his father retired to the fireside licking his memories. Aleph, the mistake, was sold to us."
"And believe me, he is a mistake," Annie said, "a mongrel, a mutt, a hound under the feet all the time," but John knew that Annie was fond of Aleph. It was her nature to attack those whom others spoke well of and to defend those whom others attacked. She met life with contrariness, because to complain made Annie feel vivid. "More?" she asked John, cake knife up like Excalibur. To his surprise, whose soul felt as apprehensive as a fish out of water, John ate enormously. He drank enormously. Bloom wagged a finger at him. John hiccoughed back. To his surprise, he even forgot who he was, John spinning on a needle of grief when the conversation became dangerous. "How's your father?" Annie asked. John stuttered. "Still busy?" Morris asked. "Amazing how he carries on. A mountain of valorous work that man does nightly to dig up Agamemnon. And what does Agamemnon say when he's uncovered?" John was at sea and pecked at a thumbnail. Inept, Rabbi Bloom said to himself about John, educated beyond an answer. He wants to defend history, theology, archeology, anthropology, physiology, zoology, geology, biology, psychology, sociology, faith in learning, redemption through scholarship. Children, his soul cried, an army of ideas is marching. Fall in line. Oif rechts, oif links, zum rechts, zum links. To the left, to the right. Thank God, he said to himself, I have given up the profession of being an intellectual. It is no longer incumbent upon me to find answers, and he determined for the hundredth time not to utter, ever, in this universe, another word. But the habit of the sermon was too strong in him and he spoke again: "Words are a curse, a flood. Before we finish talking, calculating, educating, we are drowning in the future. Behold, everyone cries, the future is talking. Do you hear it?" He cupped his hand around his ear. "Talk! With an open mouth you drown. The more we open our mouths to plan salvation the more water falls in. Swim. The flood is rising."
John was lightheaded. Annie said, "So life is tragic," and swung her cake knife. "Life is tragic. How many times can we say it? Knock your head against a wall you get a headache."
Bloom took a drink and triumphed over Annie, over John, and over his depression. Oif rechts, oif links, zum rechts, zum links. He took another drink and triumphed over the echo. Eyes glinting, warts dancing, chest barreling, he speared John down. "Does it matter if Agamemnon lived? Some truths matter and others do not. Some truths are only curiosities, not worth the labor to confront. Agamemnon is legend now, whether he once lived or not. Homer triumphed over Agamemnon. Jesus is real, whether he once lived or not. History and fiction wear a horse's costume. Does humankind know which end it is wearing?"
John felt more entitled to Rabbi Bloom's state of mind than Rabbi Bloom. Come on, read me, he thought, and to hell with this other nonsense.
"Shoin genug, Rebbe, enough," Annie said.
Dorothy came out of the bedroom and closed the door. "I wish you would speak to them, Leonard. I don't have any authority with them."
Bloom said, "Yes, yes, talk me down. Bury me with apples. If I mention the Laws of Moses to Leonard he turns yellow and my daughter-in-law turns green, because from the Laws of Moses we go to Paul, from Paul we go to anti-Semitism, and from anti-Semitism we go to the unraveling of Bloom.
They think a thought is a fish, it comes to the surface with wishes for your good recovery and goes down again.
Annie said, "Someone must walk Aleph."
Bloom said, "That woman is an immortal scandal. We are drowning.
The air is filled with electricity. Ideas are falling like hailstones.
They are falling from the trees, from the skies, from the rooftops. Hurry, henny penny, cover yourselves. Zum rechts, zum links."
David called from the bedroom. "I want Aleph to stay with me."
"Run, run, Rabbi Bloom said. "Ideas are falling like buckshot. They are rolling in the streets like dice. The people scramble after them like money. Who's got religion, who's got socialism, who's got the welfare state, who's got free speech."
David called out from the bedroom, "I want him now."
Mark said, "It's not your turn."
Annie said, "Soon, soon."
Leonard laughed and said to John, "You're not used to such hectic meals."
John grabbed at the role of bachelor friend and laughed too.
Aleph, who knew the routine as well as anyone, went to the door and stood there with mute eyes. His tail thumped against the wall. Come on, his eyes said, somebody notice.
Rabbi Bloom crooked a finger at Leonard and John. "I have a message," he said, "found in the tomb of King Aknehetopa. The people have become gamblers. They are rolling ideas in the street like dice and everything hangs on a throw. The proletariat are threatening the middle classes and the middle classes are threatening themselves, aristocracies are dying everywhere, and men tremble as if they care. They cast dice to read the future. One and five. The third world and its threat to the first world. Three and three. Communism and its threat to the democracies. Four and two. People's democracies and their threat to people. The experts are playing their game. Ideas are rolling like autumn leaves, likes waves in a storm, like stones in an avalanche. We are being buried in a mudslide, choking on mud. We shall have to go to the bathhouses to be cleansed." He cupped his hand over his mouth and laughed behind it. "King Aknehetopa left a message. The examined life is worth as much as the unexamined life." Aleph thumped his tail against the wall.
Windbag, he said, it's now or never.
His leash caught around John's leg.
"Careful," Leonard said, and unwrapped it. The elevator door opened and they walked out. Aleph's beagle blood surged into his nose. The smell of the air transformed him into a dachshund, he spread low and slithered forth. His bladder control was at its tether end, he hit the outside with the confusion of his mother and dad, show dog, mutt and weak bladder driving him to the nearest tree.
When you have a dog, John thought, relishing dreams of placidity, that's how the day ends, and felt again balanced on the foreboding of suffering. Leonard was letting him go, fatally. Rabbi Bloom had failed to read him. A friend in need! John said to Leonard in retaliation for this failure, "How does your mother live with him?" Leonard stiffened. John immediately acquired a stately attitude towards his cruelty. After all, he thought, Horatio could have said the same thing to Hamlet, or Ismene to Antigone.
"You know my mother," Leonard said, and buried his melancholy in a quip. "She flips her fingers in the air and says, so who makes sense all the time." He searched John's eyes for a grain of accommodation to life on the lower scale. "You should try to see him again. You know how fond he is of you. He regards you like a second----
"Don't say it," John said, and hailed a taxi.
John, what have you lost?
I called it life, he said, grabbing the bannister and pulling himself up. John was the son of Basil is the son of a murderer. The event was public. Girlfriends he had warmed himself to would wonder at what they had escaped and feel fonder of their husbands. That was John, his forehead as high as the brim of a hill, only son of the best house in town, fallen down the slope of fate, while they, relishing the merely mortal of fixed mealtimes and school hour years, knew enough to keep to the grind and their noses out of trouble.
Peter gave him something else to think about after breakfast. He stood behind the desk in his father's place, in a short-sleeved shirt, arms taut and akimbo, and leaned his weight on them as he read the morning newspaper, tabloid open, his eyes snapping it up. John, forewarned by instinct and the gossip of history, braced himself as he put his key on the desk. Peter said, without looking up from his newspaper, "If you're coming for meals, you're expected to make reservations in advance. This is not a restaurant and we're not short-order cooks."
John knew from a thousand years of education and the morning news that Peter hated him. As he stood there, clothes in disorder and soul soggy all the way through with headache and hangover, fumbling for the meaning of the breach he had committed, he envied Peter his hatred. It was the best way to have one's hatred if one had to have it. It consolidated his position as a man. Having arrived at so much analysis, John flipped and said, "I'm sorry, sir, it won't happen again."
That snapped the snake. Peter looked at him with with an expression that trailed film footage of Al Capone and Humphrey Bogart honed to political usage as a social weapon. Still, John was struck all the same, be the glance genuine or artificial, by the intensity of the passion it carried. He looked at Peter from the distance of Hamlet looking at Fortinbras, wondering whether it was worth the fight. There was no doubt that as Peter looked back at him from his proprietorial position that Peter hated him. No doubt about it. It was the instant fraught with accumulated culture. Peter felt for him what John felt for his mother: damn you, damn you and damn you for betraying me. But Peter was accustomed to his hurt and had learned how to use it; John was frightened by his and didn't know what to do about it. Betrayal had destroyed John's universe; it created Peter's.
John made no reservation for meals and left the hotel, as indeterminate about fate as a random feather. He wandered, fighting thoughts. He did not notice that the afternoon was light and warm, blue from the sky down to the river and that women sat on benches minding babies who lay in their carriages sleeping and soaking in the sunlight down to their marrows; that the men were at work, the women were at peace; the children slept. A seagull cried. John's nerves jumped. The sidewalk swayed; the air splintered; the blue shattered. He thought deliriously, the delirium is in the world, not in himself. But the women knitted, the babies slept, the men worked. He wandered by river and by park and tried to locate the delirium. How many days and how many hours can John wander mulling the codes of Alfred and Ine, Hammurabi and Moses, battering the graves of old lawgivers for an answer to the problem of what to do about John, wandering, sitting on park benches, haunting museums, waiting for a resolution as if out the gift of an ordinary and endowed summer afternoon where mothers sit on benches and knit and their children lie in carriages and sleep, an answer will seize John by the shirt collar and propel him in a direction.
Morris Bloom, rabbinic by trade, having acquired roughly five thousand and seven hundred years in a diverse manner of living, having met with no new thought under a difficult sun from exodus to hexodus, John decided the compass pointed towards him. Or, put another way, having exhausted philosophy, theology and psychology, having fended off nightmares, having thought every thought, having hacked at every idea, having clutched at every straw, having nowhere else to go, having nothing any longer in common with women who sit and knit and men who commute and work, forsaking the golden ordinary, John spun on his heels and fled uptown again, determined this time to be heard, the statement of his disease clenched in his brain.
"Come in, come in, whoever you are."
John closed the door behind him and leaned against it. "I have a story to tell you." Rabbi Bloom pushed the hassock away with his feet. His toes curled upwards. "A story to tell me?" He rubbed his hands together and turned off the television set. "These days are positively fraught with entertainment. Come in, come in. I can't listen to you from across two rooms."
Jon moved away from the door. "Where's Annie?"
"Out shopping. Poor woman, she has to take advantage of my sane moments to do her errands."
"Can you come for a walk?"
"Can I come for a walk?" He twirled his fingers in the air. "Why not? Do I look as if I don't have feet?" He got up and tucked in his shirt. "I shall make myself presentable, the very image of a pleasant walking companion." He went to the foyer closet and took out his winter coat and hat and put them on. John felt a rude pain, and said sharply.
"The month is August."
"Ah, such precision. About some things we are very accurate. I suffer from chills and freezing. I never go out unless I am well wrapped against the elements. Come, come." He took John under his elbow and opened the door. "What is most on your mind, your story or my dress?" They came into the street. He blinked his eyes. "Extraordinary how the sun goes on and on." Some boys lounged against a car. "Ignore them," he whispered.
"They are anti-Semites and surprised to see me in the daylight. Which way shall we go?"
"I don't care. Anywhere you want to."
"No, no, you must choose. Never ask a Jew where he is going, for he does not know. If he knew where he was going, he would not go there. The same for you."
"Watch the street in front of you," John said, "that's all that should concern you."
"I've jangled your nerves. You do not have the right mood. You are far too elementary and very precise. That is what the Cossacks said to Shmuel." They fled across Park Avenue, dodging cars. "Or was it the other way? Shmuel was not precise at all and they threw him in a dungeon."
Flood tide on the East River Drive, a river of cars. Rabbi Bloom raised his arms to heaven, an historical quirk. The traffic stopped. He poked John's ribs. "Always works."
John grabbed his arm. "Stop your insane idiocy. Live your individual life and forget your history. Who will believe your stories a hundred years from now. Haven't you heard? Already they are accusing you of Nazi brutalities, of inheriting your oppressor's role."
"Yes, yes, I heard. My fish heard. The catfish heard. The goldfish heard. The frog heard. The bird heard. We all heard."
"Some are already saying that you can't tell the victims from the torturers."
"Can't tell. Can't tell." He ducked his head under a tree. "It's easy to tell. Just look down at your organ." He sniffed a blossom. "Who's got the foreskin?" He turned his twitching eye on John. "I can tell. Ask me." He looked up the avenue and sniffed in deeply. "I smell soap. Someone is about to wash something out and wash something in."
"To hell with you," John said. "I don't want to hear your babble."
"Not my babble. What do you want then? A verisimilitude? A parable? A paraphrase? A paradigm? A parallel?"
"Clarity," John said, "I know you've got it."
"Liar, not I. I have only entertainment. Amusing tales. What kind would you like?"
John gripped his hand. "Not any."
"Don't refuse. It'll put a laugh in your belly." He whispered in John's ear, "I have one for the educated, the man of belles lettres." He put his finger against his nose and intoned, "Eftsoon."
"Stop it," John said.
"Too late. The bird is on the wind. The brain is in the fire.
There was in England, in a quaint time, in a section of London town given over to the Jews. Here they prayed, here they lived, here they died, here they usured, and here some Christian boys threw Yitzhak in a manure pit and he drowned in shit. The setting sun burned his eyes and a frog croaked on the edge of the pit. Yitzhak's mother ran through the villages looking for her one and only. Prompted by faith in justice, she searched everywhere, for as they say, murder will out, you know that John, murder will out, if there is a God the blood of a cursed deed will cry out throughout the countryside. The townspeople dragged the cesspool and found Yitzhak. His muddied head came to the surface, from his mouth ran the slime of the cesspool and the miracle of his faith. Out poured shit as he sang with closed eyes, 'Sh'mah Yisraw-ayl.' Someone ran for the priest, someone ran for the bishop. The people picked up Yitzhak's body and carried it to a nearby house, and the inconsolable mother followed. It was Yitzhak's fault. Do you know why? He had strayed a meter from his village. He had forgotten where he belonged."
John brought his forehead against Bloom's. "You know my mother," he said. Rabbi Bloom chuckled. "Are you testing my memory? I tell you it's better than ever. I remember a thousand years of stories. John brought his face eye level with his. "That's not far back enough. I have a story to tell you." "What kind of a story?" "A story about justice." "About justice." Rabbi Bloom whistled. "I know justice very well. An overpriced whore. A woman of fabulous reputation, with nothing to show for it. Her smile makes you sweat but her bed is cold. Still, everyone runs when she beckons." John's brain whirled. He felt like Samson, Medea, Hamlet. Where should he go for wisdom if not to literary ancestors and what, he argued for himself as well as for all predecessors, real and unreal, should Oedipus have done? John shared the fate of Hamlet and Antigone: maladjustment. Voulez vous? Who can deny that when a man comes upon the detection of the devil and life will not sustain him through the smell, he will tear down the temple of his own being. Self destruction is sometimes destiny. John shook like a leaf with premonitions. "There was once a man, " Rabbi Bloom said, "who had a daughter named Susanna. You must know my daughter, Susanna. She lives wherever Christians congratulate themselves on their Christianity." John's head flipped back. He opened his mouth like a horse in terror. "My flesh is in agony, " he cried. Rabbi Bloom back away. "Hey, hey, you do have a story to tell!" John grabbed Rabbi Bloom's coat lapels and sank to his knees and wept and bled his tale out on the ground.
Rabbi Bloom covered his ears with his hands. He slapped his cheek, he tore at his warts. He wailed. John stumbled and his forehead smacked the sidewalk in a trance. "Gavolt, " Rabbi Bloom cried out. John woke from his faint and gazed at the sky.
"Say nothing to Leonard or Annie, " he said. Rabbi Bloom knelt beside him and tried to raise his head. He wiped his mouth and wrapped him in his coat. "What will become of you? Come with me. Let me hide you." John looked at the fragile sky. "Under your coat?" he laughed. "Gavolt, " Rabbi Bloom cried again, "the world is coming to an end. Run, Henny Penny and Chicken Lickin." "Ssshhh, " John snapped. "What kind of protection is that? You're attracting attention." "I can help you,
" Bloom said. "I have a room somewhere, a room in a basement. I can hide you there." John felt farcical and repellent. He wagged his finger sheepishly. "You've been leading a double life." "Of a kind. The room is a present for Leonard and Annie." "What kind of a present?" John asked suspiciously.
"I can't tell you. I have a purpose." He winked histrionically.
John dismissed the subject. He felt, suddenly, remarkably bored. "I must go somewhere, " he said, and got to his feet. He looked about him like a badger climbing out of his hole. "Will you come with me?" "Where to?"
John brought his eyeballs against Bloom's. "Home." "I smell soap, " Bloom said., He held his hand out and tested for rain. He looked down the street cluttered with late petals. "Soap bubbles are rising everywhere." "I smell justice," John said. "Phew, " Bloom said and held his nose. "A dog can't smell his own shit."
John roared at him. "Don't try to stop me." "I must. Ask the law for justice. It's their job." "What could the law do for me?"
"It could arrest your mother and hang her for murder." "I could hang her myself." "Yes, but the law will spare you. Remember Moby Dick and stick to the deck.
Don't fish for justice." "The law is not my flesh, " John cried. "My flesh has an agony in it the law can't quiet. My flesh cries for a justice it can hold in its hands. I want to see it, I want to feel it, I want to taste it, I want to know it in my soul." Rabbi Bloom moaned. "The law was made for escape from fate. Use it, John, I beg you. Find protection in it, if not justice. Do that, John, I beg you. Be John, dear John, nothing else. Be a father, a husband, a student, a teacher, not a seeker for justice. Be only John, plain John. Forget what's happened. Be my dear friend John and come to dinner with me. Annie will bake, the children will quarrel, Aleph will lick your shoe. Let the day be, the night will pass. Choose life, I beg you, John, not justice. Don't break my heart. Come away with me, come away from your thoughts, come with me and be only John." John skipped out of his reach.
"Will you come with me?" Bloom's head flipped back. His mouth opened for air. "I?" he moaned. "Don't ask me, John, do you think I am mad?" He reared his head and sniffed at the air. "No, no, I am not mad. I smell soap." He peered at John. "The gutters are choked with soap bubbles. Don't go." John felt fantastic, lightheaded, hot, disastrous, preposterous. He stood ankle deep in petals. "I am beyond choice, " he said.
"Will you come with me?" he asked Lilly.
Her mouth dried. She tucked her skirt in under her legs tucked in under the stoop. What would it have been like to have been born with a little more fortune and to have had the confidence of beauty to be able to meet John's inquiry. He wanted to make use of her and in his presence her thighs became boneless. Her weakness maddened him. He looked at her ironically. His expression threw her into self hatred.
John disregarded this aspect of himself. That was not him. He was sorry for his rudeness: that was him. He was desperate that he could not control his moodiness. He wanted to ask her to forgive him and he wanted to wound her for being so much less than he needed. "I can't seem to mount it, " he said foolishly. "What shall I do?" he whispered. "Go home," she said. "Nothing can happen to you that has not already happened."
"Will you come with me?"
She felt his remorseless need and knew herself to be wasted by it. "No, I must spare myself something."
"Spare yourself what?" he thundered. "I need help." He felt dizzy and wondered if he was going to faint again. He registered this weakness that was becoming habitual with him, at least in her presence. She drained him of spirit. She became as stiff as human nature could make her, stood up abruptly and fled to her room. She braced herself against her washstand and registered the dry triumph of willpower. That's me, she thought, the loathsome are loathsome and must make their quietus with self denial. I know nothing of life but resistance.
Man has an impulse to contradict reality. John went after her to apologize, not sure for what. She looked at him with wrathful eyes, at his blonde hair, his light eyes, his lips. "I don't want your apologies, " she said. He grasped the doorknob and muttered something. Poor Lilly, wishing him gone or dead, could not blind herself to his pain, but when in his life had he been asked to give sympathy out of the impoverishment of terror? "Don't go," she said. She had a compulsion to explain herself. The room swam around her. She was sick. She looked at John hollow brained by the open door, wanting love and sickened by the sight of it, wanting it on his terms while her thin legs shook and her narrow shoulders heaved. The room swam around her. She grabbed a towel from her chair and twisted it in her hands. "I haven't a kind thought left for myself except that I thought I had conquered myself, but it's not true. I have been to church many times and have been told to fight self pity, to fight bitterness and despair. I have read Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, but my eyes are a prey on the world, hating the young and the healthy. I pray for old age, ill health, for decay, weakness, infirmity. I would put the world in my arms and ask it to forgive me. My hatred is not what I ever meant it." John had not wished himself into this part, he recipient of someone else's confession. Born free, he had chosen for himself a role of discretion, common sense and commitment, that of the courtier, the knight, man of reason, diplomat, teacher. He felt nothing but the desire to escape and closed the door behind him. He heard her crying and looked up and down the corridor, fretting that someone might come and hear her. John, his soul whispered, you are better than this. You are better than history and civilization. You are all that's left of understanding. Where is your will to use it? John laid his aching head against the door.
He sat on the train and watched the scenery go by. He was traveling north. His emotions alternated between panic and disbelief at what he set out to do, his appetite between none and frenetic hunger, his movement between apathy and a restless pacing to the water fountain. When not in pain, or when in pain and to contract pain, he thought about Lilly. He could not fathom her. Her acquiescence outraged him. For the want of a nail her household was shattered. He sat on the train and looked at the other people in the car and wondered what their strategy for survival was, or if they needed one. Surely he wasn't the first to have had this happen, or the only, or the last. What was anybody else's solution? No one paid him anything for his thoughts.
He went to his bedroom. It was as it had always been, sprawling its childhood essence into the present. Bamboo patterned wallpaper, denim spread, a bust of Socrates, a wood painting of the Spirit of '76, a life-size plastic skeleton, a print of Botticelli's Venus rising from the half shell, his bookcase as familiar to him as his hands: Shakespeare, the Bible, the romantic poets strung on a lower shelf, the Victorians above them, the Koran, William James, Euripides, the Agamemnon. Books that were the gifts of relatives, books that had been school prizes wrapped in gift papers, the uxuriousness of Macbeth, the uproar of Lear, the intractability of Antigone who knew there was no choice but death. John sat on the window seat and clasped his soul. The day was ending. Light was gone and the windy night blew. Once, on windy nights he had walked the country lanes by himself and life was huge. A white yellow moon was low in the sky and life was huge and as near as the moon. Once he had whipped his bicycle down a road into a white blaze of blossoming dogwood, and life was enormous. His bicycle wheel had snapped a twig and the crack was decisive. He ducked his head under a low branch and made up his mind that life was going to be terribly good when he grew up and that he was going to get all of it. Now he felt the sick knowledge that what was now his shape had always been the shape of things. The world was broken. Night caught him by the heels. Without watching, the house had grown dark, and in the grey penetrable darkness he heard a noise downstairs. The rapidity of his fears startled him. He toppled over his night stand and groped for the lamp, ran out into the corridor and turned on lights.
Terrors sprouted in him like mushrooms. He threw open the doors to all the bedrooms, ran down the steps to the hallway and turned on the lights downstairs. Believing and disbelieving in ghosts, as if he had a choice of realities, he heard a key turn in the door. The sound ground him into a final dust . For a few second he was hardly conscious. Life returned in the ludicrous thought that he was suffering heart failure. The realization that a world existed outside his pain came back to him. He thought of the telephone, a doctor, the operator, He ran to the window and saw his mother with a black coat splayed out behind her, running down the path. He pulled open the door and ran after her. "Come back here," he shouted. "Damn you, you damned murderer, mother, mother, mother." The car drove toward the gate and turned down the road. The world, the whole white dogwood blossoming world sped down the road with her. His flesh tore from his bones. Without noting the momentous point he had come to, he shouted after her, "I'll get you for this." His head snapped with the underworld expression. Image and reality clamped him in a vise. He was John, child of reason, law and government. He was his father's son, John born of Basil, but his blood had an unrecognizable heat to it and burned the image away. He went back into the house and locked the door behind him. A gargantuan appetite consumed him. He went into the kitchen and rummaged through the refrigerator, found a half chicken, Italian salami, pickles, anchovies, a cold noodle pie, ate it all, not bothering to sit down, standing against the oak cabinets his mother had modernized the kitchen with, got a bottle of wine from the highboy in the dining room, old carved rotted piece of Viking wood his father had hauled in from some land or dream, ate and drank and felt bloated and unsatiated. He looked down the seven foot length scrubbed oak dining room table his father had exulted in. It was all so damned vast.
Even their bedroom exuded a sense of realm. A huge bow window swept the landscape into view with impact, down a slope of acres to the river and across the river into a stretch of woods. He went back into the kitchen and found a can of sardines. He found a jar of peaches and ate those too.
It was no use eating. Nothing was sharp enough or sweet enough. He went back to his room and lay down on his bed, with his clothes on, all the lights in the house on, his bedroom door open, knowing that whatever ghosts he didn't believe in had won this battle with him, covered his eyes with an arm and tried to sleep, and gave it up after a few minutes. Grief stirred in the corridor. Fighting pain, waiting for morning, trying not to think, he paced the floor, looked at his bookcase hoping something might distract him, and felt monumental unreality, distance from life, his tongue like wood, his spit ropey. Fighting pain, waiting for morning, trying not think, he paced and thought of the small town two miles away, its one bar, its one brothel and the two miles of dark road to get there.
He thought of Jesus in his agony in the garden, waiting for morning, Socrates, Boethius, Abraham on Mt. Moriah, waiting. No strength passed from them into him. Each had died with the secret of his agony, or had it been the same for them, praying for distraction and unconsciousness. He bumped into his plastic skeleton and knocked it down. Venus sailed towards him from the wall, wound in hair waiting to be unwound.
"My dear," Antigone said and held her arms out to him.
"I can't make it," John said. He put his forehead against the window and closed his eyes.
"I've lost the connection to life." "I know," she said and put her arms around his waist. There was milk on her lips. It was an invitation to dance, and he put his arms around her. "Do you know the waltz?" he asked. "Very well," she laughed. "I've had my eye on you." "Am I going to die?" he asked. She put her hand on his shoulder. "Does it matter?"
She dipped and picked up the hem of her skirt. "I'm afraid of tripping. That's why I couldn't run the race. But you're graceful." They waltzed around the room. John relaxed and looked inquisitive. She put a warning finger on his lips. "Please don't ask me why I did what I did." She raised a shoulder in self mockery and then reneged on it. "I lost the taste on my tongue and became diseased. I wanted to die while I still remembered my youth. Life is a long sickness and I had no patience for it."
"What happens as one grows older?" he asked, moving her past the dresser.
"One finds some comfort in living."
He pressed her to him. "Do you think I ever will?"
She looked away over his shoulder. He felt her grow light in his arms. "What are your terms?" she asked, and left him with the night still ahead.
He grabbed a sweater from a drawer and walked the two miles into town, stood on Main Street and watched the night. Rain began to fall. People hurried by, hand on hat or at the collar, hurrying for home and safety, the plan of their lives stamped into their habits in avoiding holes and strangers. The rain fell harder and Main Street was deserted, the stores closed, Bette's Beauty Parlor dark, the professional building dark, the Grab Basket dark, Wanda's Workshop dark. Elsie Maier lived down the street in a white wooden house with a white porch, Elsie Maier with flaxen hair to her waist and lovely thighs. Her father was a factory hand, but Elsie Maier was a water nymph. She dwelt in the caverns of men's minds and wore bangs cut square on her forehead. John looked up and down the street for a direction. He walked somewhere and mingled somehow. Light streamed through the torn curtains of a tavern. The only people out were drunks and the young. The others with domestic roots had taken flight. The street took on the quality of a sexual prowl. Groups of girls hugged the doorways of closed stores and houses, blatantly waiting, some so young their corruption looked naive. He looked at them standing against the buildings. Some sat on stoops, squatting, knees akimbo. He watched a dirty Dolores in her poverty asquat a stoop, hands on knees, knees swaying in the light rain. Her black eyes looked at him avariciously. Hamlet fell between Ophelia's thighs. She knew something he ought to know and he would know it too if he came closer to see that she could look him straight in the eye, red hair and swarthy nose, knowing she had no panties on she could look him straight in the eye knowing what he knew when he looked at her that he could think of nothing but how there was nothing on her, nothing between her thighs, nothing to stop him, refuge all the way up her legs stretched out front and spread apart, her skirt spread taut across her thighs so he could imagine he saw it already, saw it all, saw everything, saw his way to Babylon.
Babylon, she said.
It's a long way to Babylon, as long ago at least as the summer he worked as a waiter in a hotel. Was it only six years ago to Babylon? And he still hadn't gotten there, not knowing that no one ever got there. He was paid for the trouble of trying by a woman who clipped the wings of his dreams horseback riding in the cock crowing dawn over a mountain ridge. No Elsie Maier, she was forty with children, a guest at the hotel, a tale in the mouth of every busboy and waiter, oh! gratuity, she was short, hippy, sulky and short tempered, smelled of herring, onions and cold boiled potatoes. He liked the way women looked on tennis courts, athletic, young, tall, fair, even flat-chested didn't bother him. She, a Russian harpy via a Mediterranean freighter, dark faced, black haired, bowed gypsy legs and scowly eyes, brushed past him in jodhpurs outside his window one morning before five, and half an hour later he saw her up on the ridge of the mountain with the cock crowing all about her. The next day, victimized by an unsought desire, he followed her and caught up to her on the other side of the mountain. Her face was sweaty and her clothes smelled of meadow and horse. She looked at him with malice.
"Get going, you sonofabitch, " she hissed, "can't a human being be alone."
"It's a free world," he said sheepishly.
"Yeah, a free world. Yagoddamned right it's a free world." She whipped her horse badly and galloped away.
Later that afternoon she came up to him behind the kitchen, her blouse buttoned low so that he could see her full breasts where the tan stopped and the beads of sweat sat in the valley.
"How far is it to Babylon?" she asked.
Her brown eyes narrowed. "To Babylon. The next town from here. Don't you know where you are?"
"Oh, that Babylon," he said, relieved.
"You're pretty lost, ain't you," she laughed. Her revenge was explicit.
Could Elsie Maier make it up? He canceled the thought. Else Maier had four children, ages six, three, two and one, who had flaxen bangs cut straight across their foreheads. May your children bring you joy, Elsie Maier. May the lid on your pot hum forever. There was nothing he wanted but death, and he knew he would choose a gaudy alternative. She was five feet four, propped against a building with straw feelings, dressed in shabby Mata Hari raincoat style. The figure of Lilly crossed his mind: a reflection on fate. He could not say what made this cloak and dagger mirage of desire more appealing, but he knew he would not choose otherwise and was sorry for mankind. Anyway, it passed the time between trains to Athens.
Son, I have always feared insanity, for no particular reason that I can guess. There was my cousin Loren, Aunt Tilda's son, who was institutionalized at the age of eighteen. That was in 1922, I think. There was nothing seriously wrong with him, as a matter of fact nothing that one could say was the matter with him at all. He used to come home on Sundays and Busby, Ken, Claude and myself would watch him from behind doors and curtains. He laughed a great deal, which made us feel uncomfortable. I was a child at the time and since Loren was the first person I knew who had a reputation for insanity, I was curious about him. His laughing at the wrong times, not getting his cues right so to speak, was the only thing I could see wrong with him. It seemed rather little for so portentous a term as "insanity."
We had been expecting - -I can't say what -- but something that would have been a more definitive term for his behavior. My mother, your grandmother, would never speak about it. Parents at that time took for granted that they didn't share the same world with their children and didn't try to form liaisons with them. As a child I used to think: there is the adult world inside that box, and on my eighteenth or my twenty-first birthday, I'll open the box and see what's inside. The only thing my mother said in our presence about Loren was: "Poor Loren, it's too tragic for words," and Busby, Ken, Claude and I used to stare at him and try to understand what the tragedy was. Loren had permission to eat with the grownups and he came to all the family affairs. He was right behind Aunt Tilda when they came up the walk to a garden party, or to Busby's wedding or my own.
There was talk of what would happen to him after Tilda died. He was forty by then. That was in 1944, I think, and no one could figure out how the thing was going to keep working. He came to the funeral, which startled me. It was his presence, rather than Aunt Tilda's death, which seemed to concentrate our moods. Grief would have been misplaced. Aunt Tilda's death, as everyone says of someone who has died of cancer, was a blessing.
My own indisposition was the matter of recovery from giving birth, the adjustment to a new state of affairs and all that. We had been married ten years before you were born. I often wonder which way the stress falls hardest: to have a child after many years of marriage or at the start of it? But is there a choice between lots? I remember when Tilda was sick -- and her sickened state went on for three years -- Claire Nunnally's father died of a sudden heart attack while he was clipping his rose bushes. Mother said it was a blessing to die like that. We never told Aunt Tilda, who was very fond of Morgan Nunnally. "It would kill her," Mother said, and she outlived Morgan by seventeen months. Loren came home every Sunday during the three years that his mother was sick. Father drove every week to Cranely in New Hampshire to get him. Once he invited Busby and me to go along.
"Is that where he lives? I asked, when Cranely came into view.
"Well, that's where he stays," Father replied.
"I say," Busby said, not having outgrown Eton yet, "them's some digs."
Father winced, but said nothing.
Busby felt his silence as censure because Father did not let us get away with slang. "Do you realize," Busby once said, "that Shakespeare was the slang master of his day?" Mother said, "That cleverness is the price of an Eton education and a year abroad." But it wore off Busby. He has never been to Europe again and has no desire to go anywhere. His trip was regarded as a "finishing" touch; my trips belonged to my husband's profession and were therefore déclassé. People in our circle did not travel for business reasons in 1934, and you have no idea how quickly attitude breeds a culture. It could be wiped out a decade later, but at the moment it has pressure. In the worst of times, Basil found money to go to Crete. In the beginning it was exciting for me to go with him, except for that image of myself gathered from family gossip. Yes, I minded it. Busby's year at Eton was regarded as a rich boy's stunt and everyone enjoyed it for that. Basil's trips were regarded as an "intellectual's" folly, because no one knew what else to make of them. I hate to be the object of mistaken ideas, and I could not stand the family version of me as a femme monstreuse, independent to my teeth, experienced and intellectual, all mental angles and sharp projections. Colette could not bear that image either. Not having met a "professional" intellectual before, my family broke out into a collective rash of inferiority when Basil married me.
"What does he do?" Claude asked.
Busby cut his steak. "I think he's a professor."
"Is that so?" Claude laughed. "What does he profess?"
Well, to teach was Basil's life. To teach, for him, was to communicate a shape to life. I used to watch Basil write his lecture notes and could feel the desire in him to communicate, as if he were salivating at a steak. He would entitle a paper, "The Growth of the Idea of Privacy and Its Effects Upon Sexual Practice," and the modern world was clarified. I myself felt the modern world pulling this way and that, twelfth century roots tingling in my toes. His titles would shape up the soul and trim the psyche. But more than shaping his students, Basil carried their souls around in him. He was always arguing with them, mentally that is. He was bitter when a good student handed in a bad paper, exhilarated when a bad student handed in a good paper. Teaching for him was an experience of opening up and ordering the universe again and again to class after class. The process never bored him. His ideals were too high for that. He believed that man craved knowledge as he craved reality. Man hoarded every bone, tooth and vessel that he could.
"The world was his museum and the museum was his natural home. He was a hunter of life, the hunter of himself." He could say things like that. Father felt adventurous about my marrying a "bookish" man, not to mention a Southerner. Ken and Busby had married the daughters of Boston businessmen and Father knew their politics and connections.
Southern class strata were unknown to us. Every region has its own view of the son of a newspaperman. Father had a natural suspicion of Basil which he was willing to inhibit for my sake, and for the sake of national good sportsmanship. The best thing about manners is that when they are at their best, they are dependable, but it was Loren who accepted Basil fully from the outset without a hitch in his mental vibrations. When introduced, Loren stuck his hand out forthrightly, and said, "It's a great pleasure to meet you, Sir." I don't know what gave Loren away. Basil blinked his eyes in that way that meant, "What's coming off here?" You feel like hitting Loren between the shoulder blades when he speaks like that. He drove Father out of his mind that afternoon we took him back from Cranely. Every thirty seconds he said, "Take the left, Sir"; "watch out for that turn, Sir"; "there's a fork right ahead, Uncle." Busby crossed his arms on his chest, tickled that Loren's language was so correct it drove Father into a rage. Everything about Loren was correct. I suppose that's what made him crazy. His manners at the table were so good they made us feel cruel towards him. I think -- this is unorthodox theory, I know, when you think of the money that's been spent on him, twenty-two years at Cranely by the time Tilda died, not to mention the years after -- that there was nothing wrong with Loren except that he drove the rest of us crazy. All the way back from Cranely he sat between Busby and myself in the back of the Packard and I could not stand the feel of his thigh next to mine. No one can control the revulsion of the flesh. I remember when I was young such a confusion of thought and sensation, although I thought I had it straight. We were reading Lawrence, not openly of course -- no one read Lawrence openly -- and by "we" I mean the whole world except Mother, Dad, Busby, Claude and Ken. For Mother, naiveté was not a matter of prudery, but grace in the sexual system. She thought that far from being an expression of inhibition, naiveté was a woman's weapon because it gave the man sexual responsibility. Everyone knows that human sexuality is more than the physical. There was Lawrence and Henry Miller, and there was my passion which was so intense I did not think I could survive betrayal of it. What could I do with these feelings but hold them back until I could "bequeath" them or "sacrifice" them? I twined them around images of Adam and Jason and Sir Gawain and felt myself belittled when we played "spin the bottle," and held conversations about "necking" and "petting." The strategy of how to do it and how not to do it, how to be pure and impure at the same time, how to be clever and innocent, get away with "it," pull "it" off, the "it" being one's impassioned sex. We could do and do and do and still be pure. We could advance for months and never fall. Parlez moi d'amour. "How far?" "What kind of a kiss?" "Did you open your blouse?" I wanted a revelation, not a strategy. Even now, past prime, past Basil and Augustus I can say love should be like that. For me all sexual acts collapsed into one. I never kissed anyone until I kissed Basil. It was an ideal, and I thought at the time that the world shared it. Of course you grow up, and then you say -- it's too bad you grow up to say it, but one cannot help the process -- were Mother and Dad as moral as all that? Was I conned? And Busby, Ken and Claude? Did that morality go down through the pores of their souls? People are so constituted there seems to be no boundary to what you can or cannot rely on in them. Imagine discovering at eleven and in 1927 that Tolstoy who wrote religious parables used such rough language that he shocked Gorki, or that a certain prime minister of England used to dress incognito and accost girls in the parks, or that a famous actor who gave me a fever when I was fourteen, dressed up as a woman at night and accosted boys on the street. You would think that the flesh would know at fourteen that it could not be stirred by what it was not destined for. I was betrayed, but by what? Across three thousand miles this man betrayed me. I dreamed he knew me, but he could never know me. What do you make of such a reaction? Do men have such disappointments? How would I know? I can only judge by Ken, Busby, Claude and Basil. I could not know about Father, not being his peer. There are things we find out that seem to turn the world about. If I could pray and if I had one prayer for children it would be that the world fundamentally would be what it seems at first to be. It's working through those dreadful reversals of understanding that is so unsettling. I remember how Ken and Busby reacted when they found a volume of Marquis de Sade in Uncle Charles' closet. It was bad enough to find it, it was worse to search because they knew what they were looking for. Busby called Uncle Charles something uncouth, but it wasn't said with condemnation, it wasn't even said with hurt, though how could they have read what they did without being destroyed? A line fell between me and Ken and Busby, which they never noticed. They thought that whatever differences there were between us as we grew up was a matter of lifestyles, intellectual tones and so on. A line fell between us. I fell on one side of it, loathing the obscene; they fell on the other side, attracted to it. Was the difference between us our sex? A woman craves chastity. The man craves it for her. It is the aim of romance, but nature is not romantic.
I am trying to explain a conviction that carried me successfully through my first experience of hell. I wrote a story about it once, trying to encompass the world between de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Is romance that? Basically an attitude, and therefore a culture? I called the story, "The Lady of the Castle, because that is the earliest shape of the romantic imagination for us.
The castle was a small, three bedroom cottage in a suburb of Boston. The living room was beamed and had a fireplace. Shelves and shelves of bookcases lined two walls. The couch was upholstered in coral velvet. There were fireside chairs and a tea wagon with decanters of wine on it. The dining room was octagonal, beamed too, with stucco walls, and the kitchen had a breakfast area that looked out on a magnificent lawn.
Two maple trees and a low fieldstone wall were landscape. In the summer the trees hid the house from the street, and in the fall they filled the lawn with leaves. All that it took to produce peace in the mistress of the house was a permutation of sunshine and leaves.
They had been married nine years when Basil's nephew came from Georgia to spend a summer with them. He was of French and Welsh descent, his name had been fetched from a novel that captured his mother: Wain Parzival D'umeville. The lady took him about Boston with her, to the museums, the concerts, historic landmarks. I knew I made an impression on him with my more than female education and my garden hat. Quite a few people told me I resembled Virginia Woolf in her best days, and Basil's nephew was intelligent. He was too intelligent to be belligerent, but he was cautious as probably Basil had been when he had first come north. He had a sense of differences in histories, loyalty, but a sense of what he knew he must come to know about us. Anyway, the kitchen is not my natural habitat, and I was glad to do the squiring. He admired his aunt a great deal, he had enormous respect for her for being the kind of woman his uncle would marry, and his admiration disturbed her. His sexual innocence uncovered buried feelings, romantic chastity, alarming and always on the brink of being alarmed, a stirring affliction, sexual tension taut as a rubber band, an uproar of psychological adventure.
She came into the living room one night when Basil was in town for a lecture. Wain was sitting there, reading. Characteristically, with a self consciousness about what she had come for and an assertion about her independence, she climbed the stepladder to get a book from a top shelf. The book dropped from her hands. The sound got on both their nerves. With a quick "let me," he jumped to get it. The protocol of elaborate respect in soft, hungry accents tore at her. He fled, mortified, and left her in possession of his delicate pride, his innocence disciplined by an ideal of honor.
All night her body exploded. It poured lust in every part of her, her knees, her calves, her neck, her back. It was an experience unsought, unknown before. Her feelings tore her with abhorrence, with mountainous fear that she would not have the power to fight what was happening to her.
Images leaped into her mind that humiliated her, sexual visions of no intention, no knowledge she ever had had before, stunning her with their tenacity. She lay in bed, craven with weaknesses that attacked her.
Morning increased her pain. When she looked in the mirror everything she had built for herself as a person was gone. The sound of his bedroom door opening, the smell of his shaving cream left in the bathroom, the dampness of the towel he had used, flooded her imagination with a thousand sensations, possibilities in love she had never permitted herself. She stalked his every sound, obscene with speculations, inflamed by his footstep. His skin, his cheek! He was a child. Her fingers were feverish with imagination. When he spoke at the breakfast table, her stomach burgeoned with expectations and her breasts went hot under her blouse. The memory of his red cheek made her weep when she was alone. His torment licked at her brain, her power to release him whipped her imagination. His coffee left over in a cup was sweet, and she hoarded it and drank it when no one was around. She licked his plates, and day and night liquid ran in her body. Neither light nor darkness, day nor night, released her from this passion. Ashamed, frightened, humiliated, she excoriated herself and bled herself with insult. At night again, she could not stay in her bed.
She paced the floors, she went out for walks, she fled into corners to hide. She found moments to be alone in the basement, in the attic, where she could crouch with her fear and her passion, groaning and tearing the skin on her arms. She used his toothbrush and was terrified with the madness of it. When she came into his presence his eyes fled with their youth and their fear, but she saw that his skin was burning beneath his collar and her fingers became tense with excitement, her thoughts invaded with the thought of him, his thighs, his bones, his chest. His body became a garden, and she a toad that crept through it, a bird in his armpit, a butterfly on his toe. The tissues of her body expanded at the sound of his voice and she bit her fingers one by one and went rigid with prayer. God! she moaned, honor this madness, and tore her skin from her heretical thighs until they bled. Fidelity was sweet, God knew it was sweet to her because any woman known by two men became a soul divided against itself, hovering between sexual distractions, multiple of sexual visions, corrupt with the knowledge of distinctions, giving to one lover what she saves from the other, withholding what she knows how to savor in her imagination. The head of unity is struck down, the charity of trust is gone.
She received the news that he was leaving sooner than expected with gratitude. But the days that followed his departure brought no relief.
Weeks went by and she succumbed to a terrible depression. Medical examinations showed nothing, but she spent hours in bed, every bit of her energy drained by a ghost. She wondered if the saints who had conquered their lust rose from their beds and sang hosannas to the God of rescue. She drank from the cup of her idealism with stiff and bloodless lips.
Why is the world like that? I stretch my eyes to the horizon and know there there is nowhere that my eyes will come to rest upon a thing that is as it is. Do we all live with that worm in us? How would I know?
No one has ever said to me, "You know, Chlore, I stretch my eyes to the horizon and know that there is nowhere that my eyes will come to rest upon a thing that is as it is." Everyone else seems afflicted with confidence.
I sometimes think the difference between Loren and the rest of the world was his lack of confidence, an inability to pretend. He was stripped to self knowledge, and it quivered like jelly. When you looked in his eyes you knew they never came to rest. They were always flitting and darting and running away. "Poor Loren," Aunt Tilda used to say, "has poor powers of concentration." He couldn't be trained for anything, and it was contagious. I couldn't play a game of cards with him without getting the trembles. Ken once suggested that Loren live with us at the farm. That was to punish me because I had criticized him for leaving Loren with the servants on his day away from Cranely. The farm was lonely, but Loren was not the answer. Not even Augustus was the answer to my loneliness. I spent most of my time with Augustus flipping through cheap magazines, waiting for him to come back from trying a case, negotiating a mill strike or being at a political rally "which I shouldn't attend." Even his business trips stripped me. His going away, no matter how many times it happened, gave me a feeling of such helplessness I knew there was not enough power in the world to prevent my being destroyed. When I came into town and saw the shades down on his office window and knew he was gone, I felt life drain from the streets. Augustus wanted marriage. I couldn't leave Basil because Basil couldn't bear to have me leave him. Augustus could leave me. He was a man on the move and I suffered whenever he left town. Time moved with unforgivable slowness. I was up by five and by nine the day was unendurable. When he was in town I spent hours keeping "myself ready." I couldn't knit. It made me look "domestic" and Augustus despised me when I looked like that, but he went to his sister's for Thanksgiving when Basil was in Greece and I had nowhere to go. He could talk for hours about his nieces and his nephews, but I could never talk about you. One evening he showed me movies of his sister's family. I couldn't even tell him I had forgotten my glasses. Augustus had a typical lover's ego, imagining endless deviousness on my part, accusing me of ingratitude if I fell asleep in a negligee he had bought me. I made every effort to use his gifts. He once gave me a white, beaded pocketbook, charming, but I had to put it in a larger pocketbook when I wanted to carry it out of the house and use it. Being late to our "meetings" told him one thing, being early told him another. Our "romance" had exhausted itself or was using him up. Augustus had the logic of his ego to be incredulous when he looked down the flight of steps into your gun. But I knew better.
I had had a feeling all along that I had fallen into a way of life for which I was not fit. We spent most of our six years together, more than twenty-one hundred days and six thousand hours, talking, yet I could never say to him what was uppermost on my mind, since you were born. Isn't it amazing to discover how cowardly parents are? Remember the time that horse was shot as we came down the road in the car and I threw a blanket over your head so that you wouldn't see. I dreaded exposing you to such things.
Basil and I were both worriers, he worse than I, and I probably because of him. He made me nervous. I don't have to tell you how he felt when you were born. All his reflexes were mobilized as if he had been deprived of his fundamental pupil for too long. Sharing his life was a part of Basil's pedagogic intensity, and he reaped the harvest of it in you. When he came back from his trips, there was the gleam in his eyes as the two of you got down on the floor and traced out his travels on a map. Until you were born, he usually took me to those barren, volcanic islands that were always on the verge of eruption, natural or political, but he was afraid to take you, and after you were born I had to stay home with you. It's a wonder he trusted us alone, he was plagued by such images of disaster about you. He saw you drowning or getting lost in the woods and I was in terror that if something happened I would be blamed for it. When Noel Harris' son set fire to his pajamas, Basil showed his scorn of women "with loving husbands and comfortable homes who couldn't keep their children from destroying themselves." I defended Charlotte Harris. Her husband was not loving and her home was not comfortable. It was a box with a porch and she had been stuffed into it all winter long with three sick children whose noses hadn't stopped running since they were born. Their snot was everywhere. On their pajamas, in their hair, pasted to their lips. It was difficult to tell Basil that the list of dangers outran any parent's perspicuity. I knew better than he did the limits of human vigilance and the unlimited opportunities for accident. I never relaxed when I was alone with you. A million details of disaster were constantly on my mind: the axe in the woodshed, the rope in the attic, the open window on the top floor. Son, you are my son, I would not suffer a hangnail on you. "The first child is ourselves," Dr. Spock said somewhere. You were certainly Basil's. Well, so be it, but nature gave me a second chance when I was pregnant again. I was in a state of euphoria, the only time in my life I can remember feeling buoyant. I believed war would not break out, planets would not collide, the peak economy would continue. I even took an interest in housework and learned how to knit. There is no peace in the world like a hen sitting on an egg. I used to walk to Annie Bloom's house three times a week, and take you with me to play with Leonard. Annie was usually at one of her feats, reupholstering a couch or redoing the finish on her dining room furniture.
Well, you can't be me and not feel self-conscious about things like that.
Annie once made a birdcage from wire hangers. I studied the idea. I even had Loren down to the farm for weekends. In my mood, his rehabilitation seemed possible. He startled us by announcing that a forty-year old woman at Cranely had fallen in love with him and he was thinking of marrying her.
"Why not?" Annie said. I studied the baby sweater I was knitting and she drew up the rug she was hooking. Why not? I thought. I did things I had never done before, and with a big belly. I ice skated. I baked. I gave dinners and went to parties. A perdition of excess was in me, a metaphysical sensitivity to sensations and human movement that made me want to be with people all the time. I could hear, on another floor, someone turn his attention from one thing to another. My intuition was too rapid for thought. Sensations came to me for which there was no language. They hovered in my brain between sense and madness, a sharp knowledge of the incommunicable until one night at a dinner party in town I saw that head of shining hair and those eyes as blue as a blue jay. In that beauty the universe made the sign of the nightmare to me. When and where and how? I asked for no information. Why should I? Who knew better than me how such things could happen? Every smell and movement of Basil's nephew came back to me as if those memories had never been further away than my discipline of them. When and where and how? Basil couldn't have given me the information if I asked for it. He was forty-eight and she was twenty and beautiful. January and May, June and December. Ponce de Leon had crossed an ocean for less reality. Basil had made a guess about himself. On a bet that one could have carefreeness, not merely the wooden retellings of the body's needs, but carefreeness, who would not gamble? It is an illusion that any man or woman can get all that they ask for in passion. Basil was so fond of those lines from Shakespeare's sonnet, "To me, fair friend, you never can be old." "Yes," I used to say meanly, "but would you feel that way if I weighed three hundred and fifty pounds?" In the end it broke him to watch me grow old because I had nothing else to do. I tried consolations. I wondered how other women survived their husband's infidelities. Mrs. Coleman's husband was a stepper. Town gossip. You'd never know it to look at her, "neat as a pin." The town gave her no credit for surviving. They considered her a dumb Italian, née Feruci. But she raised her children indomitably and performed the service she had to perform. I told myself that Basil's downfall was only the curse of the old Adam, that "love is not love which alter'd is," etc., but my body revolted the first time he approached me. Basil was pained. I felt the weight of everything he was, a loving man, a loving father, a social man, magnanimous, liberal, tolerant, soft-spoken, pained by any man's discomfort, but he had never had an experience that fell dead and silent in him, that would not surrender to exegesis. Basil could not bear loneliness. I didn't want to see him bear it. I felt a religious humiliation, the lapse of an ethic etched into my bones, that I didn't have what it took to forgive him. The other cheek, I said, now, and lay back and uncurled stiff knees. But the mood of deadness in me would not pass, and the thought that it might never pass was terrifying. Who would want to live like that, haunting elusive ideals about life? We buried the stillborn child, named Irene in our anticipation, and I waited for spring to come because it is a law that the earth renews itself.
Fall, 1965. Morris Bloom had a nervous breakdown. The date isn't important, except that it was a little over a year since I had met Augustus and if I would have found it hard at any time to ask Basil for a divorce, Morris' sickness did not make it easier. Basil crossed the path of Morris' demise at a perilous angle. Basil had always been given to hypochondriacal spells, but this one lasted a long time and became more than a nuisance. I psychoanalyzed the situation. Basil's father had once had a nervous breakdown and Basil was reliving the anguish. Whatever, he was impossible to live with. He was irritable, short tempered, moody, ailing with indefinite diseases, a cold that wouldn't go away, a cough that couldn't be shaken. His correspondence piled up, but he sat for hours watching the fire in the living room grate. I could not be the straw that broke the camel's back, but Augustus wanted marriage. He put pressure on me, and when he did we had arguments. "You want to have your cake and eat it too," he would say. "What makes you think you're anything as good as cake?" I would say back, but elegantly. I wore silver polish on my nails. My nerves were torn by his incessant prodding, but believe it or not I stretched this sort of thing out for five years. It had been a long time since I had watched the drama of social power in my own family and I forgot what good connections could do for someone. Don't think I'm being unkind to myself if I say that for Augustus I represented status with a coherent potency. That's a very sexual feeling. At any rate, Augustus was not the man to separate them. Try as he would -- and he tried -- he could not shake the psyche of the parvenu. He dared me to tell him he wasn't my equal which, considering the difference in our years alone, was hard to deny.
But old compulsions do set traps: Augustus could not get rid of his frugal habits. Only vanity kept him upright. He carried the best linen handkerchiefs in town, but never used them. He could not resist a shady brush with power and insisted on driving me to my mother's funeral. I was horrified, but he had just bought a Jaguar and what better place to drive it? Basil was in Greece, and Augustus had the luxury of calling for me at the house. He wiped down the upholstery and spread out a sheet over the seat. Other than that, the funeral went well. Ken, Busby, and Claude were at the graveside with their wives. I stood next to Father. The family had changed considerably since the days when I had lived in Boston. Nieces and nephews had grown up and looked only vaguely familiar. Cousins had married into the family whom I did not know at all. Loren was the most familiar figure there, his flushed cheeks, his grey hair blowing slightly. Loren had a nervous habit that came to the fore on certain occasions like weddings and funerals. It was probably the density of the social climate that would bring it on. No one ever reprimanded him for it. I suppose one of the things that constituted Loren's "condition" is what we tolerated about him, if it's tolerance to swivel your eyes in your forehead, paste them on the sky and pretend not to see a man diddling with his genitals.
The minister said something about Mother having been an exemplary wife and mother, which she had been. I wished for her sake that someone could knock the usual funeral rhetoric apart and simply pin a medal at the grave site, at least for her housekeeping accomplishments. In her own way, on her own battleground, she put her husband's fortune to good use, never failing his standards or arguing his comforts away. Perhaps what our minister should have said was that she had understood her world and had trimmed herself to it. I felt a suffocating estrangement. The day was warm, there were so many unfamiliar faces, a new generation, old faces being yanked out of a cauldron of memory. Claude looked at me quizzically and I looked back at him in the same way. Busby looked at me reproachfully that "I hadn't changed a bit," which I thought was a remarkable idea. I met Augustus afterwards in some bleak, "safe" neighborhood where they dump old trolley cars and buses. There's a form of unhappiness that is like a wasting disease. Diagnosis turns up nothing, but the patient gets sicker and sicker. I remember sitting on our front porch one afternoon soon after the funeral, thinking something like that: "What is the matter with me? Why can't I ask Basil for a divorce? Why do I fear hurting him? Why can't I just go away?" I couldn't do any of those things as if I had a wall around me. I couldn't refinish furniture as Annie could, or leave my husband as some other women could. You and Basil were diving into the river from a new board. The sun was everywhere. I had to put on my sunglasses to look at you. I may have failed as a mother, but you seemed to have survived my failure very well. I wished I could take credit for you. When you made the valedictory speech at graduation, everyone came up in the lobby to congratulate us. I couldn't believe you were my son. "But he has exactly my color eyes," I said to myself. That was my assurance that you belonged to me, which you do. You are my child. Nothing can change that. I was surprised to find myself being "the mother" when you cried as a baby during the night and I ran down to you, but the reaction worked automatically. I would have felt safer in the world if I knew I could trust to that, punish you instinctively when you were bad, cuddle you instinctively when you were lovable, know that I would move instinctively when you cried. I had to think everything out: was this fair? should I have been so hard? should I let you sleep with us at night? should I insist you eat food you don't like? All through your growing up I seemed to suffer from a shock of introspection. I always felt inept, without supports, and I hated the feeling. I was exhausted by the end of the day and I knew I had nothing to be exhausted about. A trip to the park seemed to call for monumental energies. Perhaps Basil's worries had worn me down. Once I left you with a cleaning woman and went to Boston for the day with Annie to do some shopping. Of course, Annie in a department store is an unsettling experience. She runs in all directions at one time and becomes hypnotized by bargains, buying things and returning things, standing in interminable Adjustment Office lines. I bought a hostess gown and was trying it on in front of a triple mirror. Suddenly a panic attacked me like an animal that appeared from nowhere and sprang on me, not like something that was inside me which I might recognize as belonging to me. I saw our house on fire and I saw you running from window to window, searching for help, looking for me. "John," I shrieked to you. I banged on the door to get in. Neighbors tried to restrain me. "Not you, my son, not you, my child, not you." I wrenched free from everyone and beat on the door. The thought that you were in danger! Is there any corner of the earth I couldn't run from to save you. "What's the matter?" Annie said. I hadn't shrieked, but she saw that I was very ill. We got home somehow. For a long time I could not bear to think about that experience. I couldn't put the pieces of it together, as if I had suffered a discontinuity of myself. I sat on the porch and drank a mixture of gin with something that Basil made to quiet my nerves. The sun caught your ankles each time you dove into the water.
Basil said I should have an "outside" interest, preferably a sport, and not be so caught up with you. You know what a disaster I have always been on the tennis court. The vision continued to eat my brain like acid. I could feel its breath on my face in a dark room. I said something to myself at the time that seemed to make sense: "I don't know what the enemy is and I have no idea what to attack." I temporized. I waited for the summer to pass, then I waited for the winter to pass, then I waited to accustom Augustus to the endlessness of the situation. And why couldn't it have been like that? Chastity is for children. It tests their mettle. It was time for me to forget Adam and Eve and Sir Gawain. I didn't even care for those trips with Basil anymore. The sun -- and the sun is always hot in those places (have you noticed how all those early civilizations began in an unbearable climate?) -- gave me a headache. I had had one of those operations people used to call "women's troubles." Basil took you with him now on his trips. It astonished him that with all his political and intellectual connections he preferred his family to those acquaintances.
Morris Bloom's recovery was slow. Annie beat her fists on the air and floated somnambulistically down hospital corridors, while Basil grumbled about the incompetence of doctors. The truth was, by a law of inverse relations, he was getting lonelier and lonelier the more famous he became.
What had happened to the reliability of life? Basil had assumed an unending vitality that would lead him from one undertaking to another. He did not know how to grope for crumbs. Crete, again and again, was his answer. He wrapped you and himself in a sensorium of history, but I think he felt the senility of it. He was a man who could do almost anything, except grow old or be alone. He blamed me that my behavior destroyed his spirit. I hadn't wanted a marriage like this. I had wanted concupiscence, Christian, courtly, monogamous, ceremonial in respect and loyalty, royal.
Basil said that came under the heading of my inability to forgive. "I only fell once," he said and what could I grumble back but, "so did Adam. One fall was enough." The reason for Augustus was to free myself from these old commitments. What an outrageous pun adultery is. There's nothing adult about it. I could count Augustus' vices on both my hands, but I couldn't cope with the idea of losing him. I could imagine life without Augustus as a restoration to sanity. I could kick my heels in the air at the thought of his having an accident and being put out of commission, but he must never leave me. Life could take him, but not another woman. Let him die, but not his feeling for me. I could imagine myself killing him, going to his funeral not unhappily if some disease like the flu took him off. I could not imagine his saying to me, "I think we ought to end it."
Each time he went away on one of those trips I felt such psychological exhaustion it terrified me. Is this aging? I said to myself. My God, how does one stop it? I spent the days waiting for his telephone signals.
When they didn't come I imagined Basil saying to himself, "What did I tell you?" The comfortable look on his face shook me to pieces. I could tell myself Augustus wasn't worth these terrible moods, but I blamed Basil for them. When I saw that "saved" look on his face, his old sins, old arguments came up again. Basil and I had an accumulation of life together.
I knew every tone I could use that would bother him. We could scratch old wounds and still bleed. He panicked at the signs of old age. Absentmindedness became his worse problem "next to me." He could see without his glasses, but if he misplaced them he would spend half the afternoon searching for them. He spoke as if the house were playing tricks on him. "They were here a minute ago. How could they vanish?" I never said it, but sometimes I thought: give me a divorce and I'll tell where your glasses are. We did finally discuss it, God knows how it came out and Basil reacted as I thought he would. He accused me of trying to kill him.
I had been right not to tell him where his glasses were. What were my weapons? He was determined to put up a fight, but along with marriage to me Augustus wanted propriety. "What did he say?" he asked me later in the car. "What I thought he would say," I said, "that he'll do whatever it takes to ruin you." I did not tell him that he also said that he had known for years, "endured it, tolerated it, watched it, ate it, slept with it and dunged it," and that I could not stand that generosity. I had something in my eye and asked Augustus for his handkerchief. "Don't you have a tissue?" he said. I could only imagine how Augustus would take a divorce scandal and wondered of what use my old and weary raptures would be. Basil and I had less and less to say to each other. We ate breakfast in the morning and didn't speak at all to each other. It went on like that for days, weeks. Even the weather was unordinary. It rained day after day. From any window that I looked out I saw nothing but clouds and a steady rain.
There seems to be a summer every five, six or seven years that is washed away, crushed out of existence between a chilly spring and an early fall. The rooms of the house were as dark as a castle. The chill rose from the floor. The hallways were dreary. The lights had to be turned on by three in the afternoon. It rained so much my garden was in ruins. The roses lay broken on the ground and the half ripe vegetables lay rotting all around. A few afternoons I put on a mackinaw and hat and tried to salvage something. I could feel Basil watching me from the window of his study. He spent most of his time there, pretending to be busy, but I knew his work was piling up. He did what he could for distraction.
Frankly, I counted it as a battle won when he shut his door noisily for the sound of it. He arranged articles to be read in one pile, scholarly journals in another pile, he wrote letters to friends who didn't interest him anymore. Habit carried him around. I never looked up or waved to him.
I was out of contact and couldn't be reached. I could feel the silence I myself had built like a smothering blanket. It changed the world around me. It cut me off from Basil and from everything else. Sometimes the rain stopped for an hour or two and warm clouds appeared in the sky. The sound of a bird made me tremble with longing to break my silence. I had no idea I had such strength, but I was terrified of perishing behind a mask of rigid will. I have heard that certain African tribes and slaves can will themselves into death or catatonic seizures. I wondered whether one could will oneself into insanity, and was there a point beyond which one could not retreat or return from, when the will broke down? It was frightening to me to push myself like that, but what other way was there to salvation except to tear out the roots of my personality? I thought sanity might be a matter of habit and I might be able to break the habit. Perhaps all that was the matter with Loren was that he had forgotten how to be sane, and the longer he stayed at Cranely the harder it was for him to remember. But I wanted to live. I told myself the sun and the moon and the rain were not my enemies, though everything in the universe retired from me as if it thought I was anathema. No sensation was sharp enough or had the guarantee of life in it. I could touch my clothes, velvets, wools, knubby tweeds, and couldn't feel a difference between them. Food was tasteless to me, and I practically stopped eating. I couldn't tell the difference between wine and water. When the rain would stop for an hour at sunset and the setting un burst through the clouds, I could weep at the thought of giving up life. I had to find out how to live, how to fight to stay alive, how to put myself in motion. I got off my knees. The sun that night, my son, did not set. It fell down. I got off my knees and the sun was gone. I came into the house and hung my mackinaw away. Basil was standing in the doorway of his study. "Chlore," he called to me. I didn't answer him. I had no idea I had such strength, but I was breathless. He was the young man I had married, my sweetheart, my beau, my fiancé. He was thirty-one and thirty-eight and forty-eight, fifty-eight and sixty-eight. I kept right on going up the steps. With a harsh will I broke the ruling affection of a lifetime. "How can you do this to me?" he said. What a mad ego, I thought. Basil could never stand to feel guilty about anything. I broke my silence. "I'm not responsible for your suffering." He looked at me archly, as if every word I said meant other things, too many other things.
We heard each other through reverberations. He came up to the foot of the stairway and said, "How can you make yourself so ridiculous?" I thought I was going to fall. My hands were moist and I couldn't grasp the bannister.
I could hear my fingernails scratch along the top of the bannister as my knuckles refused to bend. I looked down and saw Basil watching me. I must have looked ill, for he suddenly looked worried. "Are you all right?" he asked. His concern was so familiar and irritating. I expected him to tell me to put on dry clothes and get a good night's rest. This is the way life is, I said to myself, why do I reject it? But what other way is there to salvation? I looked back at him and felt an endless right to redress my grievances. It was the prerogative of Clytemnestra.
Try not to suffer. It will be of no use. I bore you and I bore you and I bore you. Nothing can change that. Wherever you go, whatever life makes of you, nothing can change that. When I looked down the steps and saw you there like that, I heard the universe cry, "Not you, my son, not you, my son who was little and grew big." Darkness burst in me. I fell headlong, thinking I could prevent everything. Augustus encompassed the logic of the situation and knew better than to fall into your arms, but I fell, still struggling with the gun in your hand. Did I prevent anything?
I seemed to hear that roar all the way down the steps, not you, my son, my son, my son. A hundred million mother murderers wipe the tears from your eyes, set you free and take from me the word, son.
John fled. October came and went. Autumn raced across the land. It stood on the horizon, burning up the seasons. John fled. His passing was noted by stations on the alert for gale warnings: the angle of death would pass overhead tonight.
The land rioted. Cornfedyellow and leapingflamered. John jumped into the middle of Nebraska and ate the sky. Orange, ochre, mustard and brown. John combustulated. Autumn snapped and was gone. The rooster strutted in the yard and scratched some dirt. John burned up the roads, and ran out of land. He came back to the Kunz's hotel. The river turned slate. John watched the slate-colored river. Maria Kunz watched John watching the slate-colored river. She did not trust a man who had nothing to do but watch the river. With witless accuracy she read John. Lilly did not want John either. Too much pressure on her soul. Still he showed up in the middle of November because he had to be somewhere. You could flip a calendar or a watch and tell something about somewhere, locate yourself somehow, but not John. "I've been flipped," he said, "and now I'm here.
Nowhere." Bad time, the middle of November. Holidays coming, the place was rocking. Harry Bellevue was coming down from Vermont, Harry Bellevue the millionaire miser who signs his check with an X. Life was bad enough when the hotel was a lower middle-class third rate hotel, but not it was edging its way up to being a lower middle-class second rate hotel and life was impossible. Lilly's nerves were gone, and Maria Kunz did not need a question mark like John hanging around her place with a look longing for death. "They always do,' she said to her husband. He shook his head sadly for her sake, to avoid an argument, but for his sake he couldn't care less, he was so tired these days. Difficult business, success. Georgie couldn't wait on tables anymore because they had to get professional help. "This ain't family night at at the Bijou," Maria said. "Have it your way," Arnold Kunz said, falling wounded.
"Get him out."
"Fat elephant, him, the one with the snake eyes and the death head."
"Him? What for? He's a paying customer."
"He's got the look of a dying snake. Get him out."
"Try hard. Put his luggage on the street. I smell a suicide, and we don't need a suicide at Christmas time" She did not pry. She got to be where she was, going up and out, because she did not pry, but if ever she opened up her mouth about some of her customers she'd seen over the years she could write a book, that's how she knew something was up with him. He moved like a snake on the recoil and came and went like one, squeezing out a word here and word there from the side of his mouth as if his tongue were broken. She felt the temp drop when he went by and Georgie's temp rise so you could feel the sweat sitting on his brow like he found him a real hero and went around counting his footsteps after him. She told him to stay out of the snake's room, break his head if he didn't. You never know when that guy's gonna flip. Georgie could be up there and that guy could be swingin' from a bathroom pipe or steppin' out through the window. If she couldn't have him out by Xmas they'd have to keep an eye on him the month of December. Bad business to have a suicide holiday time. And don't that type always choose a good crowd. She'd give a penny to know what was eating him. Ain't he the type, born with a silver spoon down his throat, they always choke on it. The bowery was full of them. You couldn't carry your packages home without tripping over them, doctors, lawyers, teachers on the skids. It was disgusting to think about why they were there, a disgusting mystery. Peter! Anne! Georgie! Listen, if I ever thought you kids would wind up like that after what I put into you, I'd choke the three of you now. Not my kids, you hear? You gotta have strength. You gotta fight to stay alive. Anyone could let go. No effort, no sweat to let go.
Sleep late one morning, sleep later the next morning. Shoe pinches, wear slippers. In two days' time, they're down to Cavanaugh's flop house, down where you know what what is. Letting go was for slobs. Two days' time without doing the laundry the hotel would stink, its reputation would stink. Once, just once a client gets a dirty sheet and you could collect welfare, Kunz's Hotel would be harbor for every wooden nickel that didn't have a slot, the freak peak for funny faces, the pick of the pack for the pack hounds, the needle pushers and pill poppers. All it took was to lose a lousy inch. But she ran a mile a minute for that inch, yagoddamned right she'd run a mile a minute for an inch, an inch for her and inch for Peter and an inch for Anne. Hang on, kids, I got the strength for all of us.
There was nothing in her hotel that could remind anyone of the smell of failure, and didn't she know she got a better class of people than any other third rate hotel in the neighborhood. An inch was an inch, and she got working people who respected a dollar, who respected work, who wore clean shirts who knew what those rock bottom values were and you could bet your rock bottom dollar that they weren't the smell of vomit, shoes with holes in the soles, ties from cheap Charlie's counter, a watch from Bennie's stolen goods pawn shop or a five year old car with five years of dust on it. Anything can sink if you stop running. The hotel could sink, she could sink, the country could sink. Stop for thirty seconds and see what happens. The pot boils, the meat burns, Georgie's cat runs into the dining room and the customers type her place for one of those joints with sawdust on the floor and a dirty rag floating in the coffee pot to give it flavor. Anyone care if he's her kid? Scratchy little brown dingo running around with dirty legs. She told him a million times to keep himself and his cats out of the lobby and the dining room.
Customers don't care if your cat is sick. Customers want service. Cats don't give service. Service is what makes customers feel good, what makes them feel high, what makes them feel up there. Cats and skinny kids with dirty knees is what makes them feel down, down there where you know what what is. They don't want to know anymore what is down there. They want to think up. Here, Georgie, take your sick cat and scat. I had a banker here last week to look the place over for a loan on something better uptown and lemme tellya if we moved uptown I'd get you a fancy cat with a fancy name like Scheherezade. Georgie Porgie, your momma's gonna do that for you some day.
I saw that look in that baker's eye when he saw my air conditioning units, my eighteen point two cubic foot freezer, my twenty cubic foot refrigerator, my eight burner stove, my cast iron pots, my electric skillet, my waffle griddle with no grease on it. I saw the look on his face when he went through the rooms, no overflowing waste cans, no cheesy pieces of soap floating around in the sinks, and flowers in every room. He didn't expect to see anything as good as this in this neighborhood. I could tell by the look in his eye he was expecting dirt, maybe a hotel for slutty sallies and hopped up hippies who can't play the guitar. "I must give you credit, Mrs. Kunz," he said. You sure do, I thought. I got the best customers half a square mile around. You can't find one sitting in my dining room without a jacket. They're prizes, practically everyone. Barnes, Eli, Mason, rock bottom salesmen, never lost a day's work and wear good watches. Those queer ducks from Italy you could tell are somebody from uptown. Even if you couldn't tell why they were stayin' downtown you could tell they wouldn't pick a place like mine if they couldn't trust me to keep the cops away. Too bad Bellevue wasn't here when the banker came through, but maybe God was looking out for me because you couldn't trust a queer fish like Bellevue and any man that stayed at a third rate hotel near the skids when he could be uptown with red carpets and didn't need a place like mine for that extra woman or anything else he wanted to keep quiet, had to be reckoned for a queer fish. Some men have a natural love of dirty bath water. Wasn't that one for the books. I bet when his pants are down his underwear has holes in them, but he pays me to keep a starched dress on and my thoughts to myself, and mister you can bet your rock bottom dollar, that's just where I am too. Jesus knows that if that loan came through I would celebrate this Xmas with a bang. If I don't get it the neighborhood should take up a collection for me 'cause I keep the whole stinkin' block up with my reputation. Everything goes up with those that are going up. They could crab a mouthful but everyone is six inches higher because of me. Fat thanks the fat elephant would give her the first time there's a rat in the basement and the Board of Health slaps a notice on the front door. Life wasn't comfortable enough for him in a clean place without cockroaches. For comfort he could go to pot and she'd keep Peter and Anne for someone to talk to. No one else could have kept the rats and the cops away and you could bet your rock bottom dollar the fat elephant could never have gotten them through college. Well, they made it, yagoddamned right they made it and she knew what her thanks would be.
Don't spend the paycheck all in one place. This Xmas would be a blast.
Peter's last trip home before graduation and California because he was already picked to be trained. What the hell difference does it make how you get in and stay in as long as you get in and stay in and stay away from you know what, stay out there and marry. They always do anyway. Can't sit on an itch forever and Peter isn't someone to take his pants down in the hallways. He'll find someone the respectable way. That's what's on the billboard for him. Come home twice a year the first year, lonesome hang around the old crowd, dig his toes into the dingy holes, then swing on up and out, find himself a wife and hang on, come home the next year to let's have a look at her. After that, the long goodbye. So long, Mom and Dad, can't say you weren't good for something. At least for one last blast.
From now on that's how it was going to be Thanksgiving and Xmas, a blast straight through. There were a pound of people around town Xmas lookin' for a place to stay that wouldn't let them down. Depressing! A let downholiday. This Xmas they'd have a real tree in the lobby, not a scrawny table model. Even Georgie would like that. Saw it in his eyes every Xmas.
No help. Maybe she'd get him a dog from a regular pet shop and he'd stop naggin' her with his dirty animals, something pedigreed, with class, like a French poodle they could keep on the front desk with a bow on its head.
You'd like that, Georgie, wouldn't you! Ain't it for the books the way some people dress up their dogs! Saw one the other day in a beauty parlor window, sittin' there like a frizzled madam with a rhinestone necklace, its black eyes blinkin' like he was sayin' I got it and you ain't. Imagine that on her front desk. "Maria, you're gonna make it someday," he said.
Yeah, sure. She flirted with him, but he wasn't the one she married because he wasn't the one who was gonna make it. with her. She saw that in his eyes. The pupil always gave it away. Get outa here, nightmare, I'm gonna keep me alive. "Maria, habla inglés, señorita?" Yagodamnned right, I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna make it. I tellya I'm gonna make it, Jesus knows I'm gonna make it, I'm gonna get myself a long way from home. Jesus knows there's nothin' down there but vomit and I'm gonna get a breath of air.
Georgie Porgie, do you hear, your momma's gonna get you a cat to knock your eyes out. When you're up there, you gotta fall in with the crowd.
Arnold Kunz fell in. for two days he cooked, diced, chopped, shopped, marinated, mixed, creamed, pared, puréed, stuffed, rolled, patted and produced on the grand night four fifteen pound turkeys roasted at three hundred degrees wrapped in cheesecloth soaked with melted butter and spices, a dozen sweet potato puddings mixed with pineapple tidbits, topped with pineapple rings, yams soaked in molasses and butter, a rice dish of diced ham and chopped green pepper, cranberries with walnuts, meatballs in sauerkraut, apples in honey, carrots and onions for $15.00. You can't get a better bargain than that anywhere in the city.
John slid into his seat in the dining room.
"Can't resist coming back, hey?" his table companion said.
The swinging doors opened and Lilly trembled out, surrounded by a tray of holiday cheer, but she made a poor showing. Bussing or waiting on tables, it made no difference, Lilly made a poor showing. She caught Maria's eye on her and felt a portent. She knew she made a poor showing and depression attacked her. Instead of working harder and faster, her energies slowed down. It was too much to be surrounded by John's presence and the holiday mood. Disorder attacked her nerves. The hotel was filled with strangers, every room taken. She was on the move with soap and towels, bath mats and toilet paper and Georgie couldn't help. He didn't look good anymore. No help. The showers went all night long. No complaints from Maria Kunz. They sat in the dining room all morning, two businessmen from Venezuela, a singing trio from Korea, a husband and wife team from Norway. No complaints, new class of people.
They sat in the dining room all morning. Maria sent out the carpets to be cleaned and hung up new curtains. Gone was the solemn dullness, the familiar belches. New people came, tourists, travelers, young people who hung about the lobby making telephone calls and asking for change. Lilly's nerves stretched and stretched. She was sent here and there to the stores, the supermarket, the bakery, the fish store, the fruit store, the cheese store, the meat store, the bread store. The streets glowed and she was feverish. Children rolled through the streets, mittened and muffled, they slid and sledded, dolls danced in the windows, ice skaters skated, witches bewildered, monsters, ogres and giants entranced, Hansel and Gretel forever in terror, Snow White snowed under and Rosemunde crowned, the windows were lit with candles and stars, mistletoe, holly, pine cones, and wreaths.
Shoppers and Christmas trees crowded the sidewalks, wanderers, strangers, pilgrims and tourists, beggars, carolers, strikers and drunkards, protesters, radicals, rioters, rightists and leftists, middle of the roaders and the Salvation Army. "Flee, Flee," a placard said, "The Angel of Death is About to Descend. Flee, flee," the bearer intoned, "The End of the World Is Already at Hand."
Lilly fled. She mingled, she melted, she bought and she shopped. Alone, alone, no Georgie to help her, guitar playing minstrels made her uneasy, blind men with fiddles made her nervous, the dark of despair, the despair of the dark, a street full of gambolers she nowhere belongs. "Flee, Flee," the man said, "Flee The Wrath To Come, Flee The Judgment To Be."
"Right on, Sister," a beard said, "flee the kingdom to come, flee the system that is." She fled, she fleed. He demanded to know which side of the fence, which side of the coin, Caesar's or God, which side of the system. She gasped and fled. She weakened and sickened. To bed at night with a headache, a neck ache, a skull ache and earache.
"She's got to go," Maria said. She was not prepared for a slacker now. "She's not reliable," Maria said.
Arnold snorted. "If Lilly is not reliable, the world is coming to an end."
"We'll see about that," Maria said and stalked down the hall to Lilly's room. "Get the hell out of there," she banged on the door, "it's after eight."
Lilly rolled a woeful eye. "I'm sick," she said.
Well, it might be and it might not be. "I'll send Anne to take your temp," she said.
Anne corroborated. "A hundred and one."
"Sick?" Maria's eyes narrowed. "What makes you say she's sick?"
"She looks sick to me," Anne said.
Maria was about to snap at Anne, but changed her mind. What the hell did she send her to college for? "I guess you should know, baby. Ain't no flies on you."
But there sure were, Georgie said to himself. Man, he'd seen those flies crawlin' all up an' down her thighs, her fat back, all up an' down her arms, her neck, sittin' in her belly button he saw them there when she tried on that bikini her fat ass stuck out over like a cow's rump. Look out! That thing gonna fall off you and there's gonna be a lot of flesh to sweep up. Better stay in your uniform. "Ain't no flies on you," the elevator man said to her. Georgie howled. Man, you ain't seen her in a bikini, you just see her walkin' down this hall, her white shoes flap flapping and her eyeglasses snap snappin'. You shoulda seen her before she took to wearin' glasses she looked like any other bulge-eyed girl. It's them glasses and them white shoes and the wristwatch that keep the flies off. If she stops twistin' her wrist to look at her watch to squint her eyes to look at the temp all them flies gonna settle right back.
"You talk a good line inside your head," Anne said. "Try sayin' that out loud."
I got the good angel inside my head, Georgie said and he's gonna kill your bad angel some day. Look out there, sister. Some day I'm gonna find my tongue and let you have it.
"Yuck, yuck, I'm gonna wait. You can find me you know where."
Don't sit around waitin' for me, Georgie said, and the sentence came out just right. So he plunged ahead. Take heed, 'cause the day is comin' and the elevator man gonna miss his sweetie pie. Georgie porgie, puddin' and pie, killed the devil inside his mouth.
"Now, ain't that a sweet picture," Anne said.
That is truly a sweet picture, Georgie said, and the sentence came out just right again. Holy mother, give me a sword, give me a horse, give me a medal, give me my tongue.
"What's with him?" the elevator man asked.
Anne tucked in the blanket over her patient. "Cancer," she said, "goin' up to X-ray."
Georgie got the shakes being that close to cancer. Had them before he got to the hospital, soon as his mother said to him, "Anne forgot her glasses, getem up to her," he got the shakes. He thought a car was going to smash right in front of the hospital and Anne would have to wheel him up in a stretcher. Saw her coming down the corridor, worrying about everything, if her shoes were polished, if her dress was starched, if her hair was combed.
"That's my baby brother," she said and took his temperature. "I better get him upstairs."
"What do you want, son?" the desk clerk asked.
I want my tongue.
"Take the elevator on your right."
Anne put the glasses on her face and the elevator man cracked his gum. It was a smart sound. I got to get me some gum, Georgie thought, I can make a sound like that. The sick man's head bobbed like a balloon on the water. He belched and looked at his lap as if studying the smell.
"I better get him upstairs," Anne said. She flapped her white shoes down the hospital corridor. "Lilly's sick. I ought to bring her a tray."
"Well, that ends it," Maria said. "Now I have to serve her."
"Never thought I'd see the day when I would be serving you," Anne said, and waited for Lilly to retort. Lilly did not. Anne repeated her remark to Peter when he came home. "Never thought I'd see the day when I'd be waiting on her."
"She's got to go," Maria said.
"Go where the gonners go," Peter said. His eyes snapped up the detail. His hand reached for the telephone. Georgie drooled. The dragon roared. St. George reared up on his horse. "Wh-wh-wh-where's that?"
Peter's tale drooped in Georgie's presence. Exposure to him in the green years, the quick of his soul went slack in his neighborhood. "Who's the wet blanket?" his friend asked.
"What's up with him?"
Peter touched his head.
"Tough luck," his friends said.
"Not true," Maria said. "It's only his talk."
"That's some only," Peter said.
"What the hell," Maria said, "the king of England and Marilyn Monroe stuttered."
"The hell is he ain't never gonna be neither," Peter said, and he could say it because he was the sandlot Samson. Petieboy, Petieboy, Petieboysweeti, you make the bulge eye kids sweat with envy when they see you on the sand, come on, Petieboy, Petieboy, let's see the ball here, I said, heya, heya, heay in the leather. What a call, what a call snappin' the street. Look out, lightning, here comes Petieboy, Peitieboy, heya, heya, heya in the leather. Look out, lightning, here comes Petieboy, Petieboysweetieboyamileaminute on the glove, on the cycle, on the wing, whataheat, whatabeat, what a sound.
He's my dash, Maria said, hang on, you down and outers, you underbrothers, you dirtystreet desperadoes, we are going up.
"She's got to," she said, "she's used up."
"It's only a cold," Arnold said.
"She's got to go. She don't look good with the new customers, she don't match the curtains, she don't match the carpets, fat man, listen, she don't match the speed."
Peter flew home on the 21st of Dec., and settled the argument. "Go where the gonners go," he said and reached for the telephone.
"Never thought I'd see the day when I'd be serving her," Anne said.
"Help United Employment Agency? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Send me something good and quick."
Georgie whipped out of the rom and hightailed it to Lilly.
"They-they-they." He tore at his mouth, he stamped his foot, he whistled through his nose. "Go-go-go-gonner f-f-f-fire you." Lilly patted his head. Georgie wept. "I-I-I-I'm go-g-go-gonna k-k-k-kill them."
Lilly consoled. "Georgie, you're going to grow up and go to a good speech clinic and learn how to talk right."
Georgie's eyes flickered for a second. Then the light went out. "I-I-I-I'm go-go-go-gonna k-k-k-kill them."
Lilly laughed and kissed the top of his head. "Don't make me cry. You're going to grow up and be my friend. I'm counting on you."
Georgie's eyes flickered for a second. Then the light went out.
Peter sat in the kitchen, his legs crossed, a pencil in his hand and interviewed. "Bums," he said to Maria later, "all of them bums," but he hired a student from India in need of some loose change and told Georgie to stay out of the kitchen. Georgie did. He ran to Arnold's room because he knew where the bad, bang thing was kept hidden in case of crime or a peeping tom or anybody else got out of hand.
"Where's Georgie?" Maria asked and sniffed the air suspiciously.
"Been gone all day."
"Beats me," Anne said.
"Get down to Sacred Heart and see if he's in church."
Anne rolled off her chair and rolled down the street. Sacred Heart bathed in setting sun, St. Georgie Porgie smiling down with puddin' pie on all serene good earth gone sunny under the heel of the devil dead in the setting sun, but Georgie's sacred seat was empty. "Not there," she reported back.
"You, Peter," Maria said, "get up to the snake's room and see if he's there."
"He still hangin' around?"
"Sticks closer than a sunburn,"
"He's got to go." Peter rolled off his chair and climbed the steps, two at a time. "Anybody here seen Georgie?" John jumped from his bed. "Why the nerves?" Peter frollicked. "You didn't knock," John said.
"You've overstayed your welcome," Peter said. "Get going." Peter loved the feeling of contempt and stroked it. He roamed his eyes around the room and had a tantalizing thought. "You don't hang around for Lilly, do you?"
"Cause if you do," Peter said, "you're gonna have to move down to Cavanaugh's or Osborne's. We don't run no whorehouse, no whore garden either. You're gonna have to play the cheapies, the real cheapies." End of conversation. He said "so long" and closed the door. John's ribs ached. Holidays are bad seasons for sufferers. He counted six hundred and fifty three thousand, two hundred and six sheep. My kingdom for an hour of sleep, he roared.
"Not there," Peter reported back to Maria
"Check Lilly's room."
"Check the garden, the basement, the roof, the school yard."
"Not there, not there, not there, not there."
Maria's eyes went dull.
"What's the fuss?" Peter asked. "She'll turn up like a bad penny."
Maria swallowed down a hump of something unsaid and Peter stood in the watershed of revelation. That suddenly. He was good, clever, an aide-de-camp, hard driving, ambitious, the best runner on the street, but he was not the beloved son. He checked the sentimental point and said he was going for a shower, if anyone wanted him ring for the maitre d', and got out his bathrobe, towel, soap dish, shaving cream, hairbrush and lotion. Up there on the second floor the water ran hotter, the stream was harder, the bathroom was larger. He whistled his way up, swinging the towel around his neck. It was the best shower of his life.
Temperature just right and when he came out swinging the towel there was Georgie at the bottom of the steps found just like he said he would be, Georgie Porgie puddin' pie.
"Well, what the hell are you standin' there for?" Peter wanted to know. "Want a medal for showing up?"
"I-I-I-I'm go-go-go-gonna k-k-k-kill you," Georgie said.
The simplicity was staggering, so Peter smiled and rubbed his neck with his towel. "What for?" he said.
Well, Georgie knew he couldn't answer Petieboy, it would take him forever, so he put his hand in his shirt, drew out the gun and fired into Peter's chest. The dragon tumbled down and lay at Georgie's feet.
Everyone in America heard the shot. It blew off the top of the hotel.
Lilly grabbed at her door and pulled it open. "Georgie," she screamed. "Georgie, Georgie, Georgie."
Maria Kunz and Anne ran out of the kitchen. Georgie cocked the gun like Marshall Dillon and fired. John bolted at the familiar sound. He looked down the steps and saw the devils lying in the clammy darkness. Arnold Kunz ran out in his butcher apron, his hands coated with flour. He looked at the beloved son with the gun in his hand and swooned.
"Where is he?" he asked Annie even before she had the door open.
Her face was bloated. Bad omen, John said to himself. "Gone," she moaned.
"Gone? Gone where?' He bit the air in chunks. The question was a catastrophe. "Gone where it is he could look for you." She stiffened in the face of so much void. "He took Aleph to pick up your scent and left a note. Would you like something to eat? Come in, sit down, I'll make coffee."
"I'm not hungry."
"For coffee you have to be hungry?"
"I couldn't eat a thing."
She looked at him mournfully. "You look as if you're starving."
Her words were sorcery. An acute hunger attacked John. He almost fainted from it. "Please," Annie said, "I'll only take a minute."
"In that case, make me a sandwich too."
She clicked her teeth with disapproval. "I knew you were starving. If you were my son you would never look like this." It amazed her how a whole civilization had come to power on jam and peanut butter. He followed her into the kitchen. "Have you tried looking for him?" he asked
"Of course. Since last night."
"Where? Wherever we think he would take it into his head to go, a park, a museum, a synagogue." She brought out a tray of food, cream cheese with chives, a jar of herring in wine sauce, a potato pie, a bowl of fruit, a pot of coffee. "Sometimes he goes to a soap factory in Queens," she said with distress.
John's voice cracked. "I didn't know there was one. Do you have mustard?"
"Mustard? There's probably one in every city. Must be. Who can live without soap? How do you like the mustard pot? Leonard gave it to me when he was nine years old."
Annie would, John thought, keep a mustard pot shaped like an apple.
"I've kept it all these years." Food got stuck in John's teeth.
Annie clicked her tongue again. "I knew you were hungry." John's mouth was stuffed. He was not coherent. "Have you notified the police?" he sprayed.
She burst into tears. "We wouldn't do that. You understand our problem. They'll put him in an institution."
"How do you expect to find him without help?'
Her eyes fluttered. "Luck."
John wiped his mouth on a napkin and dragged out a piece of food from his back teeth. "I'll do what I can."
She clasped her hands together in a flurry of relief. "I knew I could count on you. Where will you start? Do you have any clues? Are you staying somewhere? Will you go back to Middletown? Do you think he went there?" She wept. "How will we ever find him. He's a man who's lost without his family."
Tears assault. John drove down reaction. Old lady, he thought, you're meant to babble like a brook, hum gossip while the world falls apart. "Don't be ridiculous," he said, "how can you lose an old man winking, blinking and nodding, praying, mumbling and singing with a three-legged dog that's blind and weak in the kidneys? He's probably been spotted by all America by now. I'll start with the synagogues."
He reached for the last piece of potatoe pie and bid her goodbye. "Don't cry," he said, but she burst into tears as he ran out of the room.
Aleph slithered along the ground and made love to every bush.
"Nu, Aleph," Rabbi Bloom said, "by the time we get home you'll have left a trail across three states. You they'll never lose. Stand in the wind and smell and there you are, everyman's companion. How many miles to Middletown? How many trees to go? How many rocks and how many stones and how many stops by the side of the road?"
The cars whisked by. He raised his hat to them. A driver swerved, a lady screamed, a boy stuck out his tongue. Aleph raised a leg and saluted. Bloom raised his hat.
"How many miles to Middletown?" he asked a trucker.
"Hop in," he said, "I'll give you a lift."
"My dog too?"
"What do I care?'
"He's got a weak bladder."
The trucker hesitated. "He's also got a leg missing."
"That's no trouble."
"I'll gamble," the trucker said.
'You're a good man," Bloom said and got in.
"Just lonely," the trucker said.
"Been driving long?'
"It's a fine opportunity to see the country."
"I never look," the trucker said. "Just watch the road ahead. What's with you? You don't look like no hitchhiker."
"Times change," Rabbi Bloom said. It was a merry thought. "Whereya bound for?"
"You'd get there by next month walkin'. How come you ain't got no money for a bus, a man like you?"
He shook his head. "My wife takes every penny I have."
"One of those. Ya gotta kickem in the teeth to getem to behave. I can see ya know nothin about wimmin."
"I know nothing about anything. I'm an innocent man."
Aleph covered his ear with his paw. He got restless and worried.
Smell of gasoline was nothing to some but everything to him. Love in the bowels. Springtime in his bladder. What a smell!
"Gotta leaveya off here," the trucker said. "You gotta stay northeast. I"m going straight north." The truck stopped, to Aleph's relief.
"Sorry, Pop," the trucker said, "stay under the sign, somebody'll giveya a lift byanby. You don't look like no freakout. Hang on to your dog and remember what I said about your wife. So long, Pop, seeya around sometime."
They hopped out. Rabbi Bloom raised his hat in farewell. Aleph saluted with a leg and rooted under the sign. Hard to get a smell under snow.
"Good luck," Rabbi Bloom called and tested the air for snow. "Something in the wind," he said and picked up Aleph.
"Wanna drive?" a driver said. His wife squinted her eyes. His son flattened his nose again the window. "I don't usually take hikers," the driver said, and looked at his wife for verification, "but I said to Betty an old man on the road must be having trouble of some kind."
"My wallet was stolen," Bloom said.
The man hung over the wheel, grim. "It's a bad world and like I say, I don't usually take hikers, but seein' you're an old man with a crippled dog."
"We don't usually take hikers," his wife said, "but seein' you're an old man with a crippled dog it be a sin to make you wait for a ride."
"Much obliged," Rabbi Bloom said.
"Dicky, move over," the wife said.
"How'd he lose his leg?" Dicky asked.
"He jumped from too high a height," Rabbi Bloom said. "When he landed he had torn a nerve in his haunch. His leg became paralyzed, then it became gangrenous. One bad thing leads to another."
"Will it grow back?"
"Not in this world."
The driver laughed. "That's a smart answer. How come I didn't think of that when they asked me if my thumb would grow back. Lost my thumb in a lathe."
"That's too bad," Rabbi Bloom said. He kept Aleph on his lap like a package. The window was open. Aleph's ears flapped in the cold wind.
"I'll say," his wife said. "They say you can chuck the other fingers if you've got the thumb."
"Told 'em it'll grow back when hell feeezes over."
"That's a smart answer too," Rabbi Bloom said amenably.
The driver looked in the rear view mirror. "You think so? Say, what's with your eyes? You got a nervous condition or somethin'?"
"Of a sort."
"What makes it go so fast?" Dicky asked.
"I keep it oiled."
The driver burst out laughing. "You got some answers there, Pop. Anyone ever tell you you should have been a comedien?"
"All the time."
"Can I pat him?" Dicky asked.
"Aleph loves to be loved," Rabbi Bloom said. Dicky put his hand out. Aleph's tail thumped with expectation. The wind blew his ears.
The driver looked in the rear view mirror. "He does all right on three legs."
"Better than I do on two legs," Rabbi Bloom smiled.
"Remember Sam," the driver's wife said, "he had a three legged dog."
"Yeah, which one?"
"The big brown dog they called Queenie."
"I mean which leg."
"I think it was the front leg. What's that got to do with it?"
"That's Middletown up the road. We gotta turn in here, Pop, but you only got a mile to go. You want me to runya up there?"
"I left stew cookin' on the stove," his wife said.
"Don't bother," Rabbi Bloom said. "I need a walk. Aleph needs a walk. It strengthens his hind muscles."
"O.K., then." He stopped the car. "Do yourself a favor and don't do no more hikin'. You never know who's gonna pickya up, know what I mean?"
"My heartfelt gratitude."
"That's some lingo you speak."
Dicky flattened his face against the window and waved goodbye.
"Wanna ride," a biker said.
"I have only a mile to go," Rabbi Bloom said.
"Hop on, anyway. The spin'll saltya lungs."
"I have a dog."
"What's that to me?"
"He's got a weak bladder."
"Tough luck to you. Hold him on your lap. Hop on. I gottamake me a mile."
They hopped on. "Hold on," Rabbi Bloom said to Aleph. Aleph crawled into his coat. The motorcycle lurched forward. The cycler's jacket flapped out. Aleph's ears went back. Rabbi Bloom accelerated backwads and grabbed his hat.
"Whereya bound for?" the cycler asked.
"It's a one way street into town, ain't it?"
"You know the place?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Ain't there one in every town?"
'Where are you bound for?" Bloom asked
"Who cares," the cycler said. He stopped with a kiss to the asphalt. "That's it, Pop, you're here."
"We're home," he said to Aleph, and opened the door. Aleph didn't have to be told twice. He leaped through the cottage with ecstasy. There was the needlepoint chair he dominated. There was the front rug he chewed. There was the couch he owned, in front of the crisscross curtains, for his convenience a view of the front lawn and every bird and cat that darted across the corner of his eye. There was one now. Homely sparrow! Get off that lawn! He growled and showed his masterful teeth. Bloom clipped his behind with a rolled newspaper. "Get off that couch." Aleph yelped and made for the top floor. "A handiwork like that," Rabbi Bloom said dolorously and wiped off Aleph's pawprints from the petalled upholstery.
Annie's greatest achievement. Her hands are made of gold.
"Annie," he called out, "I'm home."
"You want a medal?" she asked.
"A woman of valor," he said. "She greets me at the door with the Song of Songs."
"A woman of valor doesn't sing the Song of Songs. She counts her chickens and keeps her kitchen clean. Here is a basket of apples, fresh in from the orchard this morning. Have one. The large ones I'm leaving for baking, the small ones I'm keeping for apple pies, the dented ones I'm saving for applesauce, but here is one perfect for you. I saved it all the way from Dachau in the lining of my heart. Eat it, where is Aleph?"
"Where is the cat?"
"Where is the bird?"
"Leonard is cleaning his cage."
"And how was your visit?"
"The news is sad, the baby was born dead."
Annie gasped. She stepped back and clasped her hands to her chest.
"Don't cry," he warned, heading her off.
"Who said I was going to cry?"
"It was a girl," he said.
She clasped her hands again. "A girl," she moaned.
"I warned you not to cry." His nerves twanged in his head.
"I must bring the cat in," Annie said. "He drives the birds crazy. Where are my glasses? How can I find my way to the door without my glasses? Ah, here they are. Look at those dirty windows. I will break Leonard's neck. Animals he needs."
"Chatterbox," he hissed. He sat down in the clubchair, reached for his newspaper and ate the apple. "From Mcadam's orchard?" he asked.
"Yes, McAdam," she said absentmindedly, and wrapped on the window with her knuckles. "Shaski," she called, "stop that."
"Not bad," he said.
"A half dollar a basket." She rapped on the window again. "Stop," she hissed.
"Is that so?" he said.
"When will be the burial?" she asked.
He bit into the apple. "Doesn't hold a candle to last year's crops. Tomorrow morning the funeral will be."
"What do you know? They're much better this year." She scoffed and blew her nose.
"Annie," he roared, "I'm warning you."
"Shaski,' she yelled, "let the birds be." She threw a sweater over her shoulders and went out. "Come here, Shaski, Shaskala, let the birds be, come, come, Shaski, my Shaskimatski, Shaskalina, my Shaskala, Shaskalinto, Shaskatina, Shaskashina, Shaskimatiski, Shaskikashki, Kashkishaski, Shaskikaskishaskishaskalina."
He threw the apple core into a wastepaper basket with a spinning pitch. "She's driving me crazy. She's my cross. Jesus had a cross. Paul had a cross, and I have a cross."
"What did you say?" She came back into the house with the cat in her arms and put him down on the floor. "Be a good Shaski and go have your milk. Leonard, put the bird back in the cage, the cat is in the house.
What did you say?" she turned back to him.
"I got new pills from the doctor."
"It won't help."
He snapped his paper like a bullet. "Why won't it help?"
Annie called, "Leonard, put the bird back in the cage." She sat down at the piano and started to play. "Me he should give pills to. Not you. You're used to not sleeping. You haven't slept in fifteen years. Why start now?" He rattled the newspaper, he slammed his fist. "Why, I don't deserve to sleep?"
"What's deserve got to do with it?"
"You have no sympathy."
"Sympathy I should have? You've kept me awake for fifteen years. Who should I sympathize with?" She bent her ear to the keyboard. "Needs tuning, the piano. Sympathy you can get from anyone, but who else keeps you company between midnight and dawn. Remind me to call Cherkin in the morning, the piano is out of tune."
He snapped the paper absolutely open and shut. "I won't wake you tonight."
"It's all right," she said, "I'm used to it." She yawned and played the Blue Danube waltz.
"Try me," he said. See if I wake you tonight."
"Leonard," she called, "go upstairs and wash. Leave the animals alone. It's time for bed." She pressed the keys down. "What time is the funeral?"
"Early," he said, and got up.
Leonard called down from his bedroom. "Where's Aleph. I want him in bed with me."
"Go to sleep, he'll come up by himself," Annie said." She dragged herself up the steps to their bedroom, past the photographs of two generations on the wall: the wedding picture of Annie and Morris, a family picture of Annie's family, Annie sitting on her father's lap, a family picture of Annie and Morris, Leonard's hand on Morris' shoulder, their daughter sitting on his lap, a graduation picture of Leonard from public school, holding the math medal, an old picture of his sister with braids, holding the handlebars of her bicycle. He climbed the steps behind Annie and stopped at the picture of his daughter, a nightly ritual, and called out in nightly anguish, "Annie, help me. I will not sleep tonight." She pulled down the bedspread and puffed up the pillows.
"You're a grown man," she said, "close your eyes and go to sleep. Leonard, put out your light right now. How many pills did the doctor say you should take?"
"One at first. If I don't fall asleep by the end of four hours, I can take another."
"Make sure you read the instructions right or you'll go to sleep forever."
She buttoned her nightgown and got under the quilts. She disliked knotty pine wood, the attic slant, but she liked a winter crisp room. Her quilt was fresh with airing and she snuggled down.
"What keeps you up?" she asked. "I know what keeps me up, but what keeps you up?"
He shook his head lamentingly. "As soon as my head hits the pillow a fluorescent light goes on in my brain."
She sniffled her nose. "You used to sleep so fine."
"What's that got to do with it? I forgot how."
She cocked an eye at him. "How can you forget how to sleep?"
He sat down on the edge of the bed and took off his shoes. "You can forget anything, and if I forgot how to sleep I'm worried there's something else I could forget."
"Like my name."
"I know my name is Moishe Bloom."
"So if you know, why do you think you'll forget?"
"What is memory?" he asked and pulled down his pants. "It's partly a habit, dependent upon continuity. Day after day we do the same thing, we walk the same way one step in front of the other, the body carries the memory. Where is the memory of walking? In the feet or in the head? How come my feet always remember to walk forwards?"
"You want to walk backwards?"
"I want to be sure my feet won't forget."
"Take it from me, your feet won't forget. Has Aleph come upstairs?"
"Good. Close Leonard's door and go to sleep." She turned on her side and was snoring. He punched her shoulder. "How can you fall asleep so fast?"
Her eyes flew open. "You said you wouldn't wake me tonight."
"You weren't asleep yet."
"I was. The wood knocks me out."
"The wood! Don't you see the wood in the room? I feel as if I'm in a forest. The smell knocks me out."
He put his nose to the wall and breathed in. "I don't smell a thing."
"You need an inhaler, not sleeping pills. Me it knocks out."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "Go to sleep. It will be all right. I won't disturb you again." Her eyes closed and was snoring again.
"Annie?" he said.
She mumbled incoherently.
"Good, good," he said, "I'll be all right. Don't worry."
"I'm not worried," she mumbled.
"You're up?" he said ecstatically, but there was no more answer.
He put on his pajamas, took a pill with a glass of water and lay back.
"Annie," he said, "the funeral's at nine:thirty. At Morgan's Parlor. Don't disturb yourself. It will be enough if I go. It's a small affair." He looked around at the knotty pine wood and took in a deep breath. Her it knocks out, he thought jealously. Was it one pill? he asked himself. Maybe the doctor said half a pill to start and a pill later. So if I'll die, I'll get some sleep. No, no, no, Moishe, the spirit of life said to him, don't give in. I'm not giving in, he answered. I'm just trying to remember what the doctor said. You are giving in, the spirit said. As soon as a man mentions death, he's giving in. Who doesn't give in a little from time to time? he said. Don't do it, the spirit said, the devil will snap your tail. I'll snap his back, he said. He threw off the blankets and sat up.
"Doesn't work," he said out loud. "Wasted money." He put on his bathrobe and went to Leonard's door and peeked in.
"Aleph," he called softly. "Aleph, you know who I am?"
Aleph came to him, wagging his tail.
"It's remarkable," Bloom said, "you know who I am and I'm afraid I'll forget. But maybe you come to every stranger. Ha! What's my name?"
Aleph panted and licked his hand.
"See that," Rabbi Bloom said, "when it comes to positive identification you're lost. Now I can say I'm Morris Bloom. But anyone can say that. The problem is not who I am but who I am not. That is to say I stand here and not there, and not only to be but not to be all that which I am not. Now, Aleph, tell me who I'm not."
Aleph wagged his tail and panted.
Rabbi Bloom patted his head. "Yes," he said, "I am not Frank Sinatra, I am not Onassis, and I am not the Czar of Russia. Who is there now to tell me who I am? How is it I always remember who I am and never forget? I mean not only at parties and weddings where it is easy to know who you are because everyone comes up to you and calls you by your name and it is generally a pleasure to be who they call you. But what if it is not a pleasure? Surrounded by family and friends it's easy to know who you are. But how do you know who you are when you are surrounded by enemies or silence and devils who open your brain and drain away your sleep? Why would a man want to be who he is on those occasions? If we're supposed to forget what is painful how is it I remember who I am? They say a woman forgets the pain of labor, otherwise she would not bear a second child. Why do I remember who I am in the morning if I remember the pain of the night? And yet it's remarkable as soon as Annie calls me in the morning I know it's me. But maybe I know it's her and that's how I know it's me. Her I can't mistake. If she's calling me from downstairs it must be me up here. But how did I get through the night and come out in the morning to be Moishe? I think I fell asleep for a while. I seem to feel that I fell asleep. How is it I don't know if I fell asleep or not? And if I can't tell that, how can I tell who I was during the night or where I was or even if I was? I only know that in the morning I am in Morris Bloom's bed. That is how I went to sleep. I was in his bed, but what was in between I don't know. The distance between these two points is not there and I seem to feel it was not a straight line. Somewhere I deviated. Let's retrace our steps, Aleph. Here I was, lying in bed, Annie snoring and deaf to the world like a stone. I called her. Silence. Tonight I promised I would not wake her, so I got up from the bed and went to you in Leonard's room. Up to that point I was Morris Bloom all the way. I put one foot in front of the other, but how is an enigma. Imagine if now and then I put one foot behind the other, or if some men went forward while others went backwards or even sideways. We could no longer predict a man's movements. He might move any way from one moment to the next. New dances would have to be invented. Bicyling, rollerskating, iceskating, football, the whole sports world would have to change. What strategy could a coach have for a kicker who might kick backwards or a runner who might run sideways. You see, you mustn't say life isn't predictable. It's more predictable than you think. You will always kick the ball forward. And don't think that such uniformity is instinctive. Leonard used to crawl backwards when he was a baby, John used to crawl sideways. Only when they wanted something that was in front of them did they go forward. Merely to go could be anything. If there was a toy behind Leonard, he didn't turn around to it, he backed up to it. And you, Aleph, went in circles, trippng on your own paws. I don't even remember when you staightened out. Come, I know what you want. You want to show off your training. It's an achievement not to be dismissed. What would it be if it were the other way around, if we kept a house just for you where we took you to do your business and we all lived out in the woods. Sssshhh, don't bark. You'll wake Annie. Maybe I stay up because I worry about your bladder. It seems to me I stopped sleeping soon after you developed trouble. That must be it. After all, who else hears you at night if not me? Aleph, can you feel the chill? Winter is here, my friend. I won't get up so eagerly to take you out. No, no, my friend, you've had enough of me by now. I can hardly hold on to you as it is. You know the old joke. Am I walking you or are you walking me? Because I would never choose to be out here at three in the morning on a cold night while you dig in the backyard. Maybe you don't know it's the night. How would you know, blind as you are? How do babies know? What's the daylight to them when they can't see? They don't know, and when they do know do they care? What's the day light or the night time to them? Do they work? Did anyone tell them that civilization runs between dawn and darkness. Between darkness and dawn runs what? No stores, no schools, no playgrounds, no hockey teams, no sled riding. Only the devil and me. How would it be if it were the other way around? Would Leonard have let me sleep? I don't think I've slept since Leonard was born. What are you pulling at? Do you know that I am freezing? And longing for bed and standing here in my backyard talking to myself? If I had your fur, Aleph, and you had my skin you'd appreciate my position. That's an oversight on the part of nature. We should have been born clothed, private parts covered, constant thermal environment, no more unendurable shopping for clothes. My fur would grow to cover my shape, fit me sleekly. But could I love a woman covered in hair from her head to her foot? I'd get used to it. Why, bears don't copulate? What a hole you have dug, Aleph! You must have something down there that you are digging like that. Ah, you do have something down there. Alice in Wonderland! What a sleeper! I tell you, Aleph, there are some lucky people in this world. To be able to close your eyes like that at the bottom of a hole takes faith. It must be someone who knows whom he will be when he awakes."
"Don't babble so much and help me out," the sleeper said.
"Sleep, sleep," Rabbi Bloom said, "if I were you I wouldn't give up a minute."
"I have been sleeping for four thousand years."
Rabbi Bloom was carried away with envy.
"What's more," the sleeper said, "I have had an itch on my back for half that time."
"Can I help?"
"Yes, scratch my back."
"Turn over. Where?"
"Here, under the left shoulder blade. Further right. No, more right. Right, I tell you, right. Ah!"
He then stood up, Hammurabi, clinking gold in his Oriental earlobes, his hands be-ringed, his lips sultry with organic matter, his manner unabashedly royal, a hump of majesty in modernity's eye.
"Who are you?" Rabbi Bloom asked.
"Hammurabi, servant of Ilu, the Supreme God and Bel, the Lord of Heaven and Earth; Receiver of the Law of Shamash, the Sun-God; Ruler and Lord of Southern Mesopotamia; descendant of Ur Mannu, relative to Alfred, Ine, Moses, and Justine, ancestor of Fontescue and Judge Learned Hand; administrator, warrior, military strategist, lawgiver, protector of the oppressed and the divine shelter of my people." He smiled disdainfully. "Is that your dog? Tell him to stop licking me. My bones are ancient."
"He wouldn't dare, I assure you," Rabbi Bloom said.
"Don't assure me. Stop him. He's got my knee now."
Rabbi Bloom grabbed Aleph by the neck and gave him a smack on the behind. Aleph skulked away with baleful eyes.
"I apologize for him," Rabbi Bloom said. "I wouldn't want to upset you with my unruly dog. It's fate that we met. Your name is as old as the world and I have a problem."
"What sort of a problem?"
Bloom hesitated. "It pains me to tell you."
"If you can't articulate your problem, we can't begin. Is it a matter of weights, measures, housing, refugees, medical malpractice, robbery, adultery, the poor, the oppressed, the willfullness of the powerful, the willessness of the powerless?"
"Life doesn't change," Rabbi Bloom said.
"Why should it," Hammurabi asked, and opened a newspaper, The Babylonian Babbler. "Our whole civilization is here. Take a sheet. You can read about it in ten minutes. Yesterday, that is when it was really yesterday, a woman gave birth to the first set of quintuplets that has been known to survive, a building collapsed, bringing death to one person and injury to three others. An investigator has been sent down and the landlord will probably stand trial. An indentured slave killed his master on the day he was to be set free; a master killed his slave who had been in his family for twenty-three years; a woman taken in adultery was crucified; a member of a patrician family is being held on suspicion of embezzling money; the civil authorities in a northern district are being investigated for mismanaging tax funds; civic disturbances caused spoilage in two of my granaries, bringing misfortune to refugees who were waiting for the food."
"My problem is different," Rabbi Bloom said. "Come, let us walk a while. I am a noctambule. Maybe articulation will circulate with circulation."
"Why does your dog keep after my heels?"
"He's practically blind. He has only his nose to lead him."
"He does very well," Hammurabi said.
"You know what they say about the sick," Rabbi Bloom laughed. "He's doing as well as can be expected."
"He managed to get at me."
"Haphazardly, you might say, a scratch here, a scratch there, nose downward, rump upward. You should consider yourself lucky his body was pointed in such a direction. His bladder is weak, his internal organs are gone. He hangs on to life by the thread of his nose."
"It's irrelevant," Hammurabi said, "he couldn't have scratched the other way around anyway."
Rabbi Bloom stopped in his tracks. "Do you have that problem too?"
"What problem is that?'
"Considering things from the other way around."
"I can't say that's a problem. That strikes me as an exercise in justice."
"True, but that is not justice."
"What 's justice?'
"A new world. But I was considering the problem of considering things from the other way around as for instance from the point of view of a cockroach or a star. What have we got then?"
"Ah! You are Hammurabi. You are a wise man. But Aleph could have scratched his way out from you to me as well as his way in from me to you."
"My insane fellow," Hammurabi said, "in order for him to have done the former he would have had to have been buried with me all along. But you know he has been with you all this time, he is your possession. Therefore, the journey could only have been from you to me."
"But what if I deny that he's been with me?"
"Is he or is he not your possession?"
Rabbi Bloom humphed and hawed. "I deny it."
"My dear man, you're holding his leash." Hammurabi laughed. "Anyway, I have better proof than that. If your dog were with me all this time, considering his nose for knees alone, there'd be nothing left of me by now."
Rabbi Bloom's back was against the wall. "I've trapped myself."
"I'd say it in another way. He's trapped you. But it doesn't matter. With a nose like his he'll probably go on forever." He looked admiringly at poor Aleph slung out bloodhoundlow over the ground. "Tell me, do you have other interesting cosmic positions?"
"Many," Rabbi Bloom responded eagerly. "Yes, turn anything upsidedown, change the proportions and you have a new world. Give wings to cats, horns to lambs, thumbs to dogs and a stamen to the female. You see that whatever we are we are what we are because we intersect the universe with a certain precision, we were screwed in at such a time, in such a place, in such a way. We are what we are because everything else is what it is, because cats do not have wings, lambs do not have horns, and the female does not have a stamen. I am who I am because I appear not to be anybody else. I never go into a store and hear somebody call me 'George.' My mail always come mailed to me and not to Cary Grant. The world seems to know who I am and yet I seem to be no more than a homeless spouse, tied to my wife's apron strings and curtain strings. My history is in my spousesplicer. Yet it may be that if Annie had been born half a year later I might never have met her. If Aleph's nose were not so sharp he would not have survived. Yet how any of it happens is a mystery. A nose is only a nose. Yet, aha! miraculous dog, his nose has survived."
"I have only my bones," Hammurabi said.
"So you have," Rabbi Bloom said, "and it's also a miracle you have those after all these years."
"It's not the most comfortable physique, I can tell you."
Rabbi Bloom laughed. "True. The next time we bury you we shall put Aleph into your grave. He'll take care of the matter."
"Don't do me any favors. I prefer what I have to nothing. A bone is still a bone. What's nothing? Ask any dog what his choice would be. Stripped I am, abhorrent, a rattle in the wind, skinless and bloodless, eyeless and noseless, yet I'm the favorite of Aleph, the paramour of every dog, the dream of every canine. He digs, he scratches, he tears up acres of land for a glimpse of my behind. He dreams of my finger. From Aleph's point of view, who so cherished as me?
"For what purpose?" Bloom hissed. "To be gnawed upon?"
"You're wrong. I am merely tired."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Hammurabi said. "You should have complained sooner." He looked about him. "Let's sit down and rest. I'm in no hurry. Do you know where we are?"
"I know every inch of the area. I have been on this road two thousand, four hundred and seventy-five nights. My nose has become as good as Aleph's. I don't need eyes anymore. I know where I am by the smell around me. Here is a rock on which we can sit. Here is a clump of mint. Here is a dying birch, here is an old dogwood waiting for spring. Down below is a river and a cat that was drowned in it. His body lies by a bank, rotting, his flesh picked by the fish. A playful boy put him there. Around the bend of the road is the house of Orestes, old friends. Basil you must know, is an excellent scholar. If you make no noise you will hear the river that goes by their house. If we stay long enough you will hear it come back. It runs on itself, babbling along, buried in its waters the cries of our children. Leonard dived too high and broke a tooth. The chip broke my heart. Better a tooth than a bone, Annie said. I have a choice? I asked. It's a little tragedy, don't make mountains, she said. It's a little tooth, I said, it's a little nothing, I know, I only wanted it to be the other way for my son. Either the world cries or you cry. The river doesn't babble, it blubbers, boo hoo. Everything cries, the rain and the sun, the trees and the stones, the animals one by one. Sometimes I sit on a rock by the side of the river as I sit here now and hear the world crying. I hear the animals as they went into the ark two by two and if they went two by two they left behind their elderly and their fledglings, their unhatched eggs and their unwatched nests. What disasters of panic overtook those who remained behind. The claw ravaged, the hungry mouth bit. The survivors stood by the rail of the boat with eyes stretched back to the shore. Two by two they stood and watched the land panic. The gangplank was raised. Sail and oar were fixed in place. A roar of lamentation went up from the earth. Ants and bugs, snails and snakes crawled to the water's edge and begged for rescue. Two by two was the order. The signal was given, a whistle, and the ark sailed out upon legend. Those on the boat watched the condemned cling to the drowning shore. Still the sails flapped with wind and their lives sailed forth. A mother, a giraffe, a tiger, a hippopotamus stood by deckside and spotted the ground that once was hers, the unnourished cub, the waste of her progeny. Necesssity broke her bowels. A cub left behind scampered up a tree away from the rising water and cried in the branches. The saved turned their eyes away. Survival devastated their spirits. I hear the universe like that, a roar down the years. Asps and ants, bears and bugs, cats and crows, a collection of life crying."
Hammurabi sniffled through his nose. Aleph stretched out limp on the ground and howled.
"Ssssh," Rabbi Bloom said,"lamentation is in the air. This is the forest prime evil. Hush and you will hear truth taled by Tony Turtle, history harped by Henry Hare."
"You have my ear," Hammurabi said.
"I begin then," Rabbi Bloom said. "Here is a parliament of voices, woodsy creatures heard at dusk, Bats and owls, beavers, crickets, deers and elks, turtles, chucks. This is the chorus of the boo hoos, woodsy creatures heard at night, They wail like Trojan women when disaster comes in sight. Mr. Rooster, our first booster, said he'd begin as he does each day, 'What's a beginning?" said Darling Hart. 'Cock!' said our handsome bantam, 'a beginning is wherever you start. Gather around, I wear the crown, my cock is lord of the dawn, I can strut and fret and chanticleer, it's me whose call was always there From exodus to hexodus, from Isaiah to messiah. My voice is as strong as the day I was born, my clarion call is forever. I was the bird that Noah heard, Pontius rocked and Peter mocked, I am the bird that crowed the morn Caesar crossed the Rubicon. I crowed to the Hebrews as they crossed the desert forty years and more. March on, march on, this is just the beginning, march on, there's always more. Boo hoo, boo hoo, boo bloom."
Hammurabi twitched his bones and said he'd rather walk Than sit on a rock by the side of a river and listen to this squawk. The clacking and the sobbing was a thing to hear, The woodsy creatures wept and sobbed, the rooster split the air:
Cockadooboohoo, cockadooboohoo, cockadooboohootoyou
plagued, boo hoo
enslaved, boo hoo
hung, boo hoo,
bled, boo hoo
betrayed, boo hoo
dispersed, boo hoo
caught, boo hoo
bought, boo hoo
sold, boo hoo
cold, boo hoo
drowned, boo hoo
shot, boo hoo
burned, boo hoo
dead, boo hoo
Aleph covered his ear with his paw.
"What a mad bestjerry," Hammurabi said.
"Come, come," Rabbi Bloom said, "let us escape before the noise reaks our heads." He took Hammurabi by the arm. "Aleph, come."
"What would your neighbors say if they saw you walking with a bag of bones?"
"They would think it was Halloween night. From me they expect tricks. My head is beginning to clear." They climbed up the embankment and came out on the road. "Let us walk quickly. The faster we go the less we'll hear of that frightful noise."
"How many miles is it?"
"Not more than one."
"Will we get there before dawn? You understand the delicate position of the resurrected?"
"Good," Hammurabi said. "I shall entertain you with a story. When I died, a funny thing happened to me on the way up to heaven. When I got there, there was Rim-Sin, my old enemy. For years he had harried my father from the north. He made our reigns miserable. So I was out to get him, as an inheritance, you might say. Even so, I would have been willing to forego a few of those wars. Much of the time I was in debt and heavily involved in building irrigation canals and dams in the northern tip of the country. Flooding was a major hazard. I suppose you've solved that problem by now. It was also a theory of mine that abused land could be reclaimed with a proper waterworks system. We were burdened with refugees that had fled Ur and Larsa. I could hardly chase them back north again and I thought I could resettle them and reclaim the land at the same time, build a buffer between me and Rim-Sin and count on the allegiance of people we had given refuge to. Every time I had a settled feeling, as if my indigestion had been cleared up, my counsellors became over-wrought by Rim-Sin's displays of fireworks and argued that if we didn't fight a war of defense he would over-run us. The danger was always there, but we differed in theory. I don't fight wars of defense, I fight to conquer. I captured Ur, I captured Larsa, and after thirty years I captured Rim-Sin, which was the only way to put an end to this insect who had damned a hundred thousand people to a generation of misery, had constantly weakened my plans, diverted my funds, destroyed the hopes of refugee people who always had to wait for a war to end to have their problems solved. Time after time he taken my visions and blown them away. How often had I looked north and thought: what could I not accomplish if Rim-Sin were not on my border? What would it be like to be a ruler without him? Is justice a mediation between Rim-Sin and my people? Then I died. Somewhere in the midst of these thoughts. I had ruled for forty-three years, and grew old and died. My pulse disappeared. I became a mass of dizziness, outward flying force. I whirled through space without breath. Still I thought: have I succeeded? I had laid a foundation that should last a thousand years, but I slipped from the earth like a knot that came apart. There was void in me. Space blew through me. I was in terror. I grabbed someone's hand, perhaps Apil-Sin, a counsellor. Have I succeeded, I said. He bent his ear to my lips. 'What does he say?' my doctor asked. I screamed at them, 'What more can a man want than just laws? I am Hammurabi.' My voice ran through my ribs. Echoes ran around in me as if I were a vast chamber. A roar of wings attacked me. I was speeding away from them. They were only puppets in a box, my household, my doctor, my daughter, my son, my empty bed. 'Tell me,' I screamed, 'Tell me quickly, for you are all disappearing, tell me so that I can say to all the world that I, Hammurabi, lover of justice, have done with life what I wanted to do.' The sentence exhausted me. I fell at the foot of a throne so vast that I could see only the toe of the person sitting on it. I looked down and saw my doctor, as small as my thumb, pulling the blanket over my bed. 'It is vain,' He said to Apil-Sin. 'Idiots,' I screamed at them, 'why don't you hear me?' 'You are dead, Hammurabi,' a voice said to me. 'Only the dead hear you now.' I looked to see where the voice came from and there in the crevice of the pinky of the left foot was Rim-Sin, wiped clean of his slime. I had a headahce. 'What are you doing here?' I asked. 'Where should I be?' he asked back. He smiled his usual bad smile. Then I saw thousands of figures crawling in and out of the toes at the foot of throne and some, I am sorry to say, whom I recognized. There was Bibya, an early wife of mine and she looked at me with the same simpering expression she always had, which was her way of making up for the fact that while she had beauty she had no passion. 'Where am I?' I asked. She twirled a ringlet in her hair with her skinny finger. She was a great one for feminine gestures. 'This is the place of the resurrected,' she answered me. 'What are you doing here?' I asked, piqued by the sight of her.
Rim-Sin laughed. 'Did you expect to find an elite society?'
'Am I to understand that we three are to go on forever in each others' company?'
Bibya laughed too. 'The Lord who is over us all is a merciful God.' She parted her robe at the breasts' cleft. I clicked my teeth with disgust. Bibya shrugged her shoulders. 'You said yourself a thousand times I'd never change.' She put her arms around my neck. 'What else could they do with me?' I developed indigestion. Rim-Sin laughed. I looked at him with the disdain he had earned. He understood my look and repeated meanly what Bibya had said: 'The Lord who is over us all is a merciful God.'
"Wait," Rabbi Bloom said, "who else is there?"
"Just about everyone you can name."
"Did you see Haman?"
"Of course, and that other one too."
"Then what is life and what is death?"
"I should rather have asked, what is mercy and what is justice? For me it's a visit to earth now and then." He laughed until his bones cracked. Rabbi Bloom raised an eyebrow. "And I have a friend who prays for death. We should warn him. A funny thing happened to him on the way out of Egypt. A huge eagle took him in his beak and flew away with him. Puff. A beat of the wing, a swoosh of air and up he flew with my friend to his nest on the craggy peak of a nearby mountain. When my friend caught his breath and regained his equilibium, he said to the eagle, 'Why did you bring me here?'
'To see,' the eagle said. 'This is the highest point in the world and I am the most farsighted bird. From my nest and with my help you will see a picture of everything.'
'Why me?' my friend asked.
'Why not you?' the eagle said.
My friend did not quarrel with him. He was standing on a ledge hardly wide enough for one foot, let alone the two feet of a quarrelsome Hebew and a queer bird. Disobedience was not practical. If he was brought here to see, he would see. If the eagle said look, he would look. So he bent cautiously over the ledge just as the Hebrews reached the Red Sea, and saw the Egyptians coming after them. 'Look out,' he shouted. The eagle laughed. 'They can't hear you.' My friend wrung his hands. 'Only a miracle can save them now,' the eagle said. 'To tell the truth,' my friend said, 'I'm glad you carried me away.' It was obvious the game was up, the situation was hopeless, they were caught between the devil and the Red Sea. The Hebrews in the rear got restless. They saw the Egyptians coming while their leader stood at the Red Sea, saying, 'Part ye waters.' The eagle shook his head in dismay. Things looked black. 'What if it does part?' a Hebrew in the back lines said, 'what then?' I don't think this is such a good idea. I'm splitting now.'
'Where'll you go?' his friend asked.
'Where I'll go they'll never find me,' the first one said. 'If we stay together how can they miss us?'
'But in unity there's strength,' his companion said.
'That's what you'd think,' the first one said and took off.
'Wait,' his friend called, 'I'll go with you. At least we'll have each other and I'm small.' They cut a trail back south. The rest stood at the shore stamping their feet and beating their hands. 'Part ye waters,' their leader said. 'He's getting old,' somebody complained. 'His best days are over.' Just then, my friend in the eagle's nest almost fell out of his perch. The roar of the parting waters shook the trees up on the mountain and ruffled the eagle's feathers.
'Let me go,' my friend cried, 'I am one of them.'
'Wait and see how things develop,' the eagle said. 'Don't be in such a hurry. This is only the beginning. Let them cross the desert. You can catch up with them in Jericho and see what the picture is.'
'Where's that?' my friend asked.
The eagle picked him up in his beak and flew away with him.. My friend felt the wind rush against his eyes. He looked down and saw beneath him his old friends marching round and round the walls of the city while their leader blew a ram's horn with such ferocity that even the eagle covered his ears with his wings. 'What's that?' my friend asked.
'It's a street demonstration.'
'What are they demonstrating for?'
'They want the city, and the people inside don't want to give it to them.'
'Do they get it?'
'Yes,' the eagle said.
'Good, my friend said, 'let me down. They're my friends.'
'Don't be in such a hurry,' the eagle said, 'there's more.'
'I don't care. I'm out of breath now.'
'Your breath doesn't matter,' the eagle said. He held my poor friend by the collar of his robe in his beak and they flew around and around the earth, perhaps a thousand times.
'Does anyone else know the world is round?' my friend asked.
'By now, yes,' the eagle said.
My friend shielded his eyes against the terrible wind. 'It's a lucky thing the world is round,' he said. 'If it were flat we might have been driven into the sea by now.'
'Yes, it's a good design. I am now ready to let you down. I'll circle once or twice more and you pick out a spot.'
My friend looked below and attempted a survey, but the scene was unclear. There was not a spot that would entice a sane man. Below, the earth was covered with billows of grey smoke and he could not see what was beneath it.'
'Pollution?' my friend asked.
'No,' the eagle said.
The smoke parted and my friend saw a temple with a dome on its top and a cross on the top of the dome and on four sides of the dome were the words, Morituri Salute, A.D.
'I thought,' my friend said, 'that we were past the Roman era and all that business.'
'We are,' the eagle said.
My friend saw huge lines waiting to enter the temple. Some pilgrims were on their hands and knees, some beat their heads on the ground and made a wailing sound, some kept their hands over their children's eyes to shield them from seeing. Men, women, and children stood in lines miles long. The numbers were numberless, the line was endless. My friend said, 'Whatever religion it is it's apparently popular.'
'Yes,' the eagle said.
They circled again. My friend scanned the earth below. Looking was not easy now. The smoke smarted his eyes and made his lungs feel wretched. Even the eagle began to cough. Yet, frankly, my friend thought, no place looks tempting. The smoke was everywhere and even when it cleared on occasion there was nothing below but a sudsy ocean. Billows upon billows of white waves hit the shore and left a rind of bones.
'Is that the Pacific?' my friend asked.
'The Pacific is green,' the eagle said.
My friend was very uncomfortable by now and disenchanted with the flight. The smoke was a stench in his nostrils. No matter how high they flew it reached them with its smell of flesh and blood and salt. 'I can't go on anymore,' he said, 'you must put me down.'
'Choose,' the eagle laughed.
But below my friend was nothing but the milkwhite ocean. At night, as they circled he could see by the moonlight the calcimined waves come one after another, soapy, chalky, a white sea in the black shadow of the earth. Fish floated by, boneless, bloodless, albino ghosts in the white water. In the uncanny moonlight my friend heard the long sough of the undertow returning to a depth he could not fathom.
'What is that ocean called?' he asked.
'The world,' the eagle said.
They flew over it and my friend turned for a last look.
'Night is coming,' the eagle said.
'You're rushing me,' my friend said, 'I need time.'
'That's the setting sun right ahead,' the eagle said.
My friend looked. In a terrible blaze of red he saw his two children, their throats were cut and they lay by the side of a ditch looking up at him as he circled above. One lay downward, holding a handful of dirt. One lay with his face upward, his eyes leaping out of his head.
One lay with his legs akimbo, fingers clinging to a twig. One lay with his knees drawn up, his ringed eyes staring at nothing. One lay without clothes, his body sloped towards the ditch. One lay in a shirt, his head flipped backwards, his eyes leaping out of his head. My friend screamed. The eagle grinned. 'It's only a photograph,' he said. My friend lost his breath. The waters ran into his mouth. 'I am drowning,' he cried. 'I will save you,' the eagle said. He put his eyes out with his beak and they flew away into night forever.
'Now then,' the eagle said, 'choose your perch.'
"We have arrived," Rabbi Bloom said and pushed open the door to Basil's house.
"Come in,"Basil said, building up the fire. "Can't sleep again?"
If I had a cane, Morris Bloom thought, a cane with a carved knob on the top, I would look like a mountaineer, a legitimate hiker of hills and dales, everyman's countryside companion, not your oh! it's him again, the third time this week, with Aleph curled around his damp shoes and the both of them wet and smelling of the woods. Knock! Knock! Who can it be? Some man that wayfaring is stands by your spousehouse at midnight's coming, a nightwandering Israelite. For God's sake, give me a cane so that I may go about my way dressed properly. A cane in my hand instead of this three-legged mongrel I lead on a leash would do wonders for my sense of style. Stay in the foyer, Aleph. Your presence brings in an element of uncertainty.
"We still have a spot on the carpet in the hallway from him,"
Chlore said and got up to measure Basil's arm. A wing flapped in Bloom's brain. Chlore measured Basil from his waist to his armhole, his navel to his ribcage, his adam's apple to his hip. Basil put his arms up, he put his arms out. John nursed a cold on the couch. The telephone rang. At a quarter to eleven p.m.? Chlore slung the sweater over Basil's head. Not ever feeling comfortable being domestic, or thinking domestic, why was beyond fathom when for all she could see the happiest destiny in life was to be domestically happy, she sat back in the couch and laughed, "Basil will have this sweater by the end of the winter." Rabbi Bloom locked his hands behind his back and fixed his eye on the heap of bulky beige lying in her lap just as he had seen it now lying for two years in a state of almost completion, having grown into an enormous mushroom. "Take your time," he said, "he won't outgrow it." Chlore shot him a mean look and drew her needle out. "How's Annie?" she asked. "There's a sale in Wanda's Workshop she'd probably be interested in."
Yes. From a square of cheesecloth Annie makes a bedspread, from a hank of wool she makes a coat. Think of her progress. Before she had married she bought the best wool in Austria and never finished anything, now she buys only wool on sale and finishes everything. Nothing wasted. I have been, Bloom said to himself, an excellent provider, and cocked an eye on the heap of beige in Chlore's lap, the style of the professor broad in the design, cardigan with a cable on each side and the rest in a seed stitch. He felt dismayed, for such a sweater would complete the picture of a man, and for the want of a sleeve the picture was lost. The hole was depressing. Morris Bloom felt he was about to slip into the hole. He drew his toes in and clung to a rocky ledge with his nails. He twitched an eye at Chlore and said, "I have made a woman of valor out of Annie."
"A what?" Basil said and put his pipe on the mantel, although it did make him irritable that Chlore did not finish the sweater. Not that he asked for domestic accomplishments from her, but a male bone was flattered when she had come home with a bag full of wool and said she was going to knit him a sweater. Something kicked a joyspot in him as if she might have said she was pregnant again and there was his potency as good as new.
That's how he would have felt if it had been that: salvaged from wreckage, the ship narrowly missing the reef. But it hadn't been that. Basil flipped the cards through the history deck and came up with a Restoration quip: it was a muffler for the cuckold. No, no, no, no one uses that word anyore. But Basil couldn't find a modern equivalent that he'd be happy with and living in the air of Chlore's self mockery for almost forty years was contagious. Anyway, what was all that learning and literature for if it didn't prove an extension of your consciousness so that you could have a rich choice of labels for what was ailing you. He rejected the epic images of King Marc and Menelaus, Count Karenin, Parnell and Agamemnon. A slot from Congreve was where he wanted to fit. It hurt without grandeur, like breaking your toe on a door in the dark. Basil could not strike the pose of a southern gentleman. It was too late in the social scene for that.
Even cuckold was not suitable for a man of sixty-seven and a wife of fifty-three, but it was the cruelest thing he could say to himself. Nicely masochistic. So what! To hell with feeling guilty. To hell with himself.
He hated himself, he loved her. He hated himself for loving her. He loved her as no man had ever loved a woman. He was mysteriously secure in her presence, even if it was a flagellating presence, like Scott to Zelda. He loved her slithering, sly, coy, deceitful humor, he loved her grim-lipped silences, he loved to torture her, he wanted to die before she did so that he would never know life without her, he hoped to drive her crazy, see her fall apart, publicly or privately, and tenderly stitch her together again, he wanted to see her look at him at night with her sexless memories and he wanted to punch her in the face for them. He clung to her with one goal in mind. Like Samson, he'd come back and cut Delilah's throat and eat her body cell by cell, until their beings were interchangeable.
The day when a man put his hand to his sword and fought a duel over the issue was gone. His grandfather had: 1865 in Paris (more than one grand tradition in his past). And the issue was not his wife but his mistress. His wife, Basil's grandmother, left France and a scandal behind her and came to Georgia on the heels of Reconstruction with her only son, Basil's father. She had two brothers in a small town called Athens. They ran a newspaper and she settled down to a widowed life under their aegis, determined to make stick the idea that her son had been born in the New World. What was six months? She wanted to get on with living and not be bothered by scandals and matters that didn't concern anyone here. She said that her husband had died in the Civil War. Basil's father learned the details of his father's death from a newspaper clipping found among his mother's stuff after she died. That was 1912. Basil was ten years old at the time. His father was forty-eight, undynamic, intellectual, white-haired, not a trace of the Parisian about him. Basil's father buried his mother on April 2, 1912, and on April 4 he climbed down from the attic with the piece of paper in his hand that changed his life. He went from a this to a that in thirty seconds, from a man with a father who had died in honorable battle to being an orphan with a dirty dueller for a parent, an adulterer and cold deserter, a lecher, a follower of cabaret skirts; from an American to a Frenchman, from a native-born to a foreigner. It was hard to accomplish so much change on such short notice. His mind couldn't take it in. Even his legs couldn't take it. They buckled. His mind buckled. He detested his mother, and she was dead only two days. He detested the memory of her laugh whenever he asked her to tell him where his father had been killed, what battle, what day, what town, needing pride of position bought with blood in a conquered land, the price paid in advance for speaking his mind to his neighbors on how to set their sights on a slaveless horizon. Other children had their daddy's medals. He didn't even have a daddy who died in the war. He had committed suicide and left a note blaming it on a cabaret dancer. The discovery of it blew his mind.
His father wasn't who he thought he was. He wasn't who he thought he was. His tongue wagged from someone else's head, a prevaricated man. He was a fraud. The joke was he had always suspected that. Most of all, he hated his mother's white hair, fragile, pampered, made up in sweet attire.
It took years, but Basil finally managed to suppress the memory of how his father had stood in the kitchen in a semi squat position, with the newspaper clipping in his hand, his knees, buckled inward like a newborn doe's. His bushy hair stood up straight. His face was as red as a piece of hot coal. He looked electrified. They should have been warned by that alone. He stood in the doorway to the kitchen with the clipping in his hand (jam all over Basil's face), smacked the paper and said he had just discovered that the family name had never been D'ummeville, but D'umeville. Basil's mother put coffee on the table and said she didn't see what difference it made. He smacked the paper again and said that it did matter, that it would always matter and that he was going to have it out with her.
It took five hours to discover who the "her" was when they found him in the cemetery trying to dig up his mother's grave.
John sprawled on the couch, his head flipped over his arm, an inhaler in his left nostril. Rabbi Bloom clicked in sympathy. "A cold?" he asked.
'Yes," John said, and drove the inhaler deeper up his nostril.
Basil handed Rabbi Bloom a glass of wine. John wheezed. His cheeks caved in. "Ugh, whoosh, hewie," he said, and flipped his head back up, his eyes raw and running with tears.
Rabbi Bloom shook his head in contagious misery. "Have you seen a doctor?"
"Saunders," John said.
"What did he say?"
"He said it was a cold."
"What does he know!"
Basil asked Rabbi Bloom to sit down. He said he had taken a vow never to sit again, he preferred to stand. "Maybe I'll tire."
Basil chuckled. "You have to learn how to relax." Rabbi Bloom held his wineglass up to him in assent and took up a position against the mantel, anxiety-ridden. "Please, don't disturb yourselves. Go about your business, whatever you were about to do."
"The secret of surviving," Basil said, "is to relax, swing with the rhythm of the world. It's the old trick against drowning. If you struggle you go under faster."
Rabbi Bloom toasted him again. "Thank you, thank you for your kindness. I may fall alseep standing here."
"Why are you dressed in black?" Chlore asked.
"I am in mourning for my daughter. Today was her birthday and her deathday, if you can believe the records. I didn't remind Annie. I let her sleep so she'll forget."
Chlore pinched her nose to the knitting. "Won't she feel worse when she remembers that she forgot?"
'Bad," Rabbi Bloom conceded, "but not worse."
John flipped his head over the arm of the couch again and plunged the inhaler up his other nostril. All turned to listen for the sound of opening, but the blockage was immoveable.
"You should sit in a steambath," Rabbi Bloom suggested.
"You should sit in a hot shower and steam up the bathroom," Chlore said.
"We should get out of Vietnam," John said. "What kind of defense is it when American soldiers call the Vietnamese gooks?"
Chlore said it was a choice between that kind of defense or none.
"Half a loaf is not better than nothing," John said.
"Nor half ahuman being," Rabbi Bloom said.
Basil gave his customary oblique laugh that he gave whenever the subject of bigotry came up, reducing verbiage about the birthplace of presidents to a barking "ha" or "hmmm."
The telephone rang again. Chlore affected venomous amazement. "What on earth! Who can it be at this hour!" She got up, balls of wool dropping from her lap but, too late! The phone stopped ringing. "Oh, do sit down," she said irritably to Rabbi Bloom on her way back to the couch.
He put a hand up in protest. "No, thank you. I have sworn not to sit again. I have just sat for two hours on a rock, listening to the river. It did nothing for me. I am as wide awake as ever. An invitation to crouch or to stand I'll accept, but not to sit." The phone gave a peremptory ring and a half, an impatient warning. Aleph growled. Rabbi Bloom cocked his head to a side and thought: something of immense significance is happening.
If I had a cane I'd be prepared. I'd be hiker, a mountain climber, Hillary on Mt. Everest, a wayfarer, a tourist, a pilgrim. There are many modes of travelling. Chlore wheeled on her heels, about to make a stabbing gesture, a thrust or an insult to the universe, hurl her knitting needle like a spear when John said, "It must be a crank."
"Yes," Chlore said, relieved to find an excsue, "probably Loren," and sat down again.
"Loren?" Basil smirked. A muscle in his neck went spastic and he smacked at it as if it were a fly.
"Up to his old tricks," Chlore said and sank back into the couch like any domesticated woman whose will is spent.
"What old tricks?" Basil asked, the smirk sticking to his mouth.
"Loren's never rung the phone here at midnight before."
Chlore scratched her scalp with the point of a needle. She tried to draw blood and hoped to faint and claim afterwards that an exotic insect had bitten her.
"How is your cousin Loren?" Rabbi Bloom asked.
The question rescued Chlore. She blew her nose in a handkerchief, looked up at Basil to stare him down, tucked her handkerchief into the pocket of her robe and laughed in that way that meant: oh! you know Loren, what is there to say? "You know Loren," she said. "There really isn't any hope of recovery. Loren's in his seventies, but he does as well as can be expected. Besides, what could recovery do for him now? He'd only have to readjust all over again."
"How does he sleep?" Rabbi Bloom asked.
"Sleep?" Concerning Loren, the question was novel. "I've never asked," Chlore said.
"Naturally, you wouldn't think of it. But I am curious whether the insane sleep well or not."
The conversation took a charming turn for Chlore, philosophically
silly. She experienced a release of tension and said with great liberality, "Please don't call him that."
"What should I call him?"
She sniffled in her nose again. "I must be catching John's cold.
Loren's not insane. He's emotionally disturbed."
Basil assumed the pedagogical domestic pose, arm on the mantel, knee warming against the brick. "The word, insane, strikes terror, brings up old images of people in cages, the snakepit and all that. We're too advanced for that. Archaic language is as much of a menace as an outworn institution. If you want to change people's attitudes you have to change the language they use. Language and reality, the continuous circle, the chicken or the egg."
"You can't mean," Morris said, "language was here before humans."
Basil's neck was definitely spastic and worrisome. He was not in the mood for depth conversation. He ducked and passed the question with a murky "in the beginning was the word," and laughed.
"What was it?" Morris asked.
"What was the word?"
The past was upon Basil. He picked his pipe off the mantel and clamped it between is teeth. Shaky, he said to himself. The word had been shaky. "How do you feel?" his mother had asked his father when she had brought him home from the hospital. "Shaky," he had said, "goddammit, Louise, shaky like I'm being held together with chewing gum." Later, he joined them out on the porch where his mother read to Basil every evening from everything in man's creation, the Bible, Homer, Alice in Wonderland, Charles Lamb, Hawthorne, Peter Pan, Br'er Rabbit, Kipling, Twain, in her Georgian drawl at twilight. Basil sat on the porch, a plate of cookies on his lap in the hammock or on a rocker or next to her on the back steps, the sun going down into the pond, the sky dark here, light there, the moths droning, her voice drawling, his father leaning on a cane "for balance" he laughed, his glasses hanging in his hand, listening to these two who were going to hold him together. He thought with some self pity: she should have had a dozen children to read to, twenty years to say one, two, buckle my shoe. He kept on his jacket on a mid-June night and said with his eyes, "I reckon we better not. We're lucky to have Basil." His mother had no drama in her except when she read. Her voice was toneless and nasal. It went out over a flat landscape as if she were looking down a road as far as her eye could go. "That had been a mighty eventful situation," she said to her minister one morning after he had given a sermon on the Resurrection. Her minister narrowed his eyes. She shielded hers against the sun, her limp Sunday hat flapping in the breeze. He expected no good from her. He was right. She became a Unitarian after her husband's death. "Ah reckon," she conceded, "ah slipped a notch somewhere," and looked around for Basil. "Comon in, Son an' sup. Ah reckon you have a mighty appetite."
My ear is so alert it has never lost its sensitivity. I can hear beneath the acquisition of twenty years of patterning the sunbaked tonality buried like a civilization underneath the layers of acquired speech. My eye has never lost its cunning and can pick out on a page of four hundred words the word 'south' or 'southerner,' knowing what it means to mean, and he knew how to defend himself being twenty-two entering Harvard in 1924.
Relax! To relax is to conquer. Civilization always starts in a sunbaked spot: Crete, Egypt, Greece, Babylon. At the broken down station his mother and father and Moses, gardener and factotum, saw him off, his mother, Anglo-Saxon and angular in a dull print dress sagging on her hips and ankles, her Sunday hat flapping in the breeze from the steam engine. The train lurched forward. The whistle tooted like a storybook train. He clutched his piece of luggage and went North where all the pregnant souls went to give birth, and acquired identity beyond his control just by opening his mouth. His mother looked through the dusty window and scrutinized him under the brim of her hand. You don't think, he thought, that I will be homesick for this culture shrunken like a head of stubble, a warning to all that this is what it means to be conquered; catering to collective self pity, self humiliated in the light of that norm of modern civilization and the national honor called the standard of living. His eyes swept the sunsoaked town, the unmoving trees, the business section in the dip of an immense shadow, his father's newspaper office, the stagnant ponds where the humming birds hovered on the waters, his back porch, his mother's kitchen drenched in the smell of honeysuckle with maddened moths beating themselves on the screen. Behold, said the Lord, Moab had been at ease from his youth, and he had settled on his lees, and had not been emptied from vessel to vessel, neither had he gone into captivity; therefore his taste remained in him and his scent was not changed. That was hindsight, the experience of civilization reduced to uneasy nostalgia At the time Basil left he was poised for change. He tested the straps on his valise. He settled the packages his mother had given him. The train lurched forward. Moses waved goodbye with his hat. Panic shook Basil. Will they survive without me? he thought. Who will help my father? Who will run his office? He struggled to see them through the dirty window.
Down at the end of the platform his father raised his cane in a salute which did not take the worry off Basil's back. His mother kept her hand to her eyes for a long, long, time, and then linked her hand through his father's arm in defiance of their destiny.
Behold, I will cast thee out, said the Lord, into another country, where ye were not born, and there shall ye die. But to the land where unto your soul longest to return, ye shall not return.
"I apologize for my language," Rabbi Bloom said. True, he had never seen Loren disturbed by anything. Once he had played a game of chess with him and when he went to make a move, an excellent move worthy of Bobby Fischer, Loren grabbed his wrist and would not let him do it. "Don't argue," Annie whsipered. It brought tears to his eyes to give up the move. Annie shrugged her shoulders. She was impresed by Loren's appetite. She said such an appetite she had never seen in the sane. Leonard ate like a bird. She envied Loren his appetite. After dinner Loren stretched out on the couch and snored. Annie envied his appetite. Rabbi Bloom envied his snores. Chlore came into the living room and apologized for Loren's bad habits.
Basil put his pipe back on the mantel and decided he would put up with anything she did as long as she never suggested to John that they weren't what they seemed to him to be, suggesting that they were what they were: an unhappily married couple nearing the end of their days. He felt cold and looked around for a sweater. He picked up the poker and hit the burning log with force so that the log cracked in half and the sparks flew apart.
"You should sit close to the fire," Chlore said to John. He slipped off the couch and half crawled to the fireplace. "That does feel good," he said, stretching out.
"There's no place like a good fire and home," Chlore said cozily.
For the moment the sentiment fit. It was the sight of John comfortable and enjoying the fire that brought it on.
"Such a position is commendable," Rabbi Bloom said. "Natural, it does not compromise you. You would have thought they would have built chairs for that posture, one the body takes to naturally. Affairs of state should be conducted that way. It is unnatural to sit. Think of seeing the body in a sitting position without a chair beneath it. Who could stand? Or is it sit like that for more than ten seconds? Can you define the posture without a chair? But put a chair or a couch under you, a throne, a bench, a morris chair or a captain's chair, a rocking chair, a judge's bench, a wheelchair, even a folding chair, and immediately you look natural and have definition. Behold! You are sitting. What is a king without a throne? A conference without chairs? We are in bondage to the chair. Our respectablity, our civilization, even sanity, depend on it, for who would countenance for a minute anyone in a sitting position without a chair.
Could the judge pronounce while sitting without his bench? Civilization, industry, does little for the crouch, nothing for the upright position.
Every man on his own two legs can stand without an artifact, but he cannot make a lap and tuck his backside under him without civilization.
"So what?" John said and blew into his handkerchief until his eyes ran.
Chlore's good mood passed. She decided she would stay up as long as everyone else did since she would only have a nightmare if she went to bed.
She squinted at her knitting and twisted a cable into place.
Rabbi bloom looked at John, piqued. The young, he snorted to himself. "I am trying to discover what is natural to humankind," he said out loud.
Basil had come to a resolution and was beginning to relax again. He relit his pipe and drew on it. "Maybe it's between the chair and the derriere," he said. "Accommodation is everything."
"I must bend then," Rabbi Bloom said. He quivered over a precipice of thought. Chlore looked at him sympathetically. It must be taxing never to sleep, she thought. "Have you seen a doctor about your insomnia?" she asked.
"Several." He took out a bottle. "They all recommend pills." I am walking on the edge of a hole, he thought. If I am careful I will not fall in. If I am not careful I will fall in. I must pay unfailing attention to the details of existence and look neither zum rechts nor zum links.
The telephone rang. Basil's head snapped back. His pipe flipped to the foor and he stumbled to catch it. "Look out," he said, seeing it was headed for John's head. John rolled. Basil ducked under and cupped his hands to catch the pipe. Chlore jumped up to answer the phone. "Don't," Rabbi Bloom said and held her back. "The sound is holy. The world is trying to contact me." Chlore clawed the air. "Oh, do sit down," she yelled at him. He put a finger on his lips and shook his head. "You will not tempt me into an unnatural act." Basil got up with the pipe in his hands. "What's that?" he said. Morris grabbed his arm. "I am in the grips of a monstrous disease called wakefulness. For the love of God, give me an hour's sleep. Basil, Chlore, for God's sake, for the sake of twenty years of friendship, think of something."
"Get a grip on yourself," Basil said. "You should see a specialist."
"I have seen a specialist."
"Someone in New York or Boston."
"I've seen someone in New York or Boston."
"You must learn to relax." Basil fumbled for a match in his pocket and tried to relight his pipe. He had prickers in his scalp.
"For God's sake," Rabbi Bloom roared, "give me some sleep. I am exhausted because I cannot tire. To and fro I go, between dusk and dawn, beween midnight and sunrise, between my hours andyours, only wanting to do what everyne does at night, curl my pillow around my head, curl my knees up to my chin and sleep. John, Basil, give me an hour of sleep, a drop of Lethe."
"Get hold of yourself," Basil said again. He did not like the tone of Morris' voice. Premonition took hold of him. He could not tell whether it was memory or foreboding. He drew hard on his pipe, but it wouldn't draw. "Damn," he said and flung it against the fireplace. Chlore picked up her knitting and screwed her attention to it. Basil, she saw, was not going to make things easy and Augustus was determined to plague her with signals. She was between the devil and the deep blue sea. "I'm drowning," Rabbi Bloom gasped. He pivoted on the ledge of his black hole. What could be down there anyway? He peered. He backed away. "Sleep," he cried. "Give me an hour of sleep, one hour of refuge." He circled, he circled his black hole, zum rechts, zum links, trying any foothold for safety. Jump, a voice said. There is nothing there. You will jump into nothing and sleep.
Circle, keep circling, he said to himself. Come, the seduction said, jump into my arms. I am what you want. Here you will forget everything. it is the only way to forget, the voice whispered. Come, there is nothing here but darkness. "No, I want sleep," he wept. "I have a wife, a child."
Come, my darling, the voice said, jump, I am nothing but darkness. "Is that my daughter?" he cried. He peered. The ground was giving, his footing slipped. "Get Annie," Basil said. Jump, the voice whispered. Bloom reared up like a tormented beast, a rhinocerous flinging spit and horn.
The ground shifted. He struggled terribly for Annie's sake, for Leonard's sake. He drove his horn into the wall and locked his head on it. Basil clutched at his shoulders to restrain him. Jump, the voice urged. I am also your child and I am alone in the grave. Come to me, my father. "Let me go." He roared and rammed his head into the wall. his forehead split.
The old scene poured out over a makeshift dam of wisdom and personality Basil had built, where he had buried the memory in the cemetery where they had found his father on his knees knocking his head on the ground for the dead to hear him. Basil had flung himself on his father's back. His mother peeled him off. Other hands took his father away. Basil watched them over his mother's shoulders. His father screamed for her to let him go, but her grip was made of iron. Basil's stomach split and gushed memory. "Don't hurt him," he cried, even though he was in terror of him. Even when his father came home and looked not much different from before, Basil knew he had seen him lick the earth with his tongue and that he had swallowed a special excrement. He learned how to live with him, and could hardly wait to get away.
"Get a doctor," Basil cried.
John jumped for the telephone.
"Sleep," Rabbi Bloom wept. "I want only to sleep."
"Exactly," Dr. Saunders said professionally, but he coudn't manage him either. "We need help," he said. "Get the police." But Aleph stood in the doorway and growled. His master was in danger. "Get that dog out of here," a policeman said. Aleph's lips went back over his teeth until his gums showed. John leaped for the phone, but Aleph stood in his way. "Nice Aleph," John said, and put a hand out to pat him. Aleph growled from the depths of his chest.
"Aleph," Rabbi Bloom shouted.
Aleph sprang and landed on the doctor's shoulders. John reached for the phone and rang Annie. Rabbi Bloom bolted and sprang for the stairway.
Aleph sprang after him. Two steps at a time they raced up, past the sketches of Notre Dame and St. Sophia, past Berlin in The Springtime, and Moscow In the Winter. Annie stood at the bottom of the steps in her bathrobe, and wrung her hands. "Moishe," she cried, "come down here. Du bist mishugah." Why was there blood on his forehead? She snapped at him a like a terrier. "Come down, come down immediately."
"Annie," he said, "turn your eyes away. I am about to die.
Ladies and gentlemen, do not pursue me. All I want is sleep. Who does not want sleep? I am driven mad by the idea of normalcy. I am a wanderer on its behalf. I have walked leagues hoping to tire, I cross continents each night. I have been to Babylon and back only this evening. I perform outrageous exercises. I swing from pole to pole, I balance on a balancing bar, I lift weights every evening. Gentlemen, I have seen the greatest specialists and have followed everyone's advice, abstinence, breathing exercises, special diets, fasting, meditation, special baths, juggling. I have already paid a holy cost." He thumped the railing with his fist. He lost his footing and tumbled down the steps. Loyal Aleph tumbled after him.
No one applauded. The house was silent. The audience had fled.
Slowly Bloom recovered and opened his eyes. "What smells?" he sniffed.
There was an odor of rot. He patted his pocket for matches and found a package. Aleph got to his feet and licked at the floor with gusto. "What have we here?" Rabbi Bloom said. "Is that the spot you made? No wonder you're never welcome." He pushed Aleph away with disgust. "Stop licking that. It's uncivilized." He struck the match and looked about. "We're not alone. Someone has fallen with us." He cupped his hand around the match and brought the light down to the floor and peered. His eyes twitched. The blood was still wet. "My friends," he groaned and blew out the match.
John felt inept. "Everywhere," he said, knowing his answer was irrelvant, "local parks, local temples, local bars. What's your idea?"
"It's hard to know how to go about this," Leonard conceded. "We have a suspicion he may have taken the train to Middletown." John gripped the telephone with angst at the mention of the name.
Leonard explained. "He's been wanting to see your father. Thinks he holds the key to his lost sanity. But we never let him have any money, so I doubt he could get there."
John was sliced open. He split and gushed pain. "How do you live with him?" He snarled in retaliation, David to Jonathan about difficult parents. John felt sick as the words came out, spiked on guilt and lust for revenge. Leonard felt sicker, high on worry and courting decision.
Leonard's voice was melancholic and coping. He shuffled incoherence, an adroit position. The telephone hummed in John's ear. "You ask too much," Leonard said.
John hung the phone back and took a taxi into fairyland. Slight snow was falling, gossamer on Christmas trees, an invasion of angels in Rockefeller Plaza. They circled Central Park three times.
"What gives?" the taxi driver asked.
"Keep circling," John said. " I'm searching for a friend."
The driver looked in the rear view mirror. Square jaw.
Suspicions. "You ain't lookin' for a fix, areya? My cabbie ain't no switchtrack."
"This is legitimate," John said.
They moved. So did the traffic, like a circular saw. Santa Claus stood on a cardboard chimney and ho, ho, hoed. Dobbin jingled and steamed on the snow. "What's he look like?" the driver asked.
"Big man, lumpy build, twitching eye, hard to be more definite, has a three-legged dog with him."
The driver squinted his eyes and took a keen perusal. He saw nothing. Wherever John looked he saw a lumpy figure and a twtiching eye.
"That's him," he yelled three times and took it back.
"Whatya wan him for?" the driver asked.
John cracked his knuckles. "Head downtown," he said. "Take Fifth Avenue."
The driver switched on the news and put a friendly arm on the back of the seat. "Heard the news lately?" he asked. Fifth Avene was bathed in falling light, street lamps and snow, walkers walking, carolers caroling.
The news said: "George Kunz was a quiet boy, liked by all his neighbors and friends."
"Cut out,' John said, "this is not his territory. Head over to the East side. Never mind. Pull over, I'll walk." He slammed a ten dollar bill in the driver's hand and headed down the block. St. Patrick's tolled the mass mood, best youalldied greetings to pep and mummer, wellwishers wiggled freezing toes, santiclaus sang his hohoho, a mutt raised a leg, pissed and ran.
"That's him," John yelled. The lines broke.
"Dogsnatcher," the crowd yelled. John gave chase, turned the corner and fell into a song. "Elijah is coming. Washed in the blood of the lamb. Amen, amen." The mutt yelped.
"Stop him," John yelled, "that's him."
"That's who?" a man said and flattened himself against the building. "Come in, come in, all are welcome. It's an open house. Make you merrymakers make a merry.Seven tonight and double tomorrow."
"Come on, come on," John said, "you saw that man. Where'd he go?"
The man put up a placard. "Elijah is coming. Amen, amen. Washed in the blood of the lamb. What kind of dog?"
"Some tale." His eyes washed John. He whispered, "Craps inside. Wanna play?"
"I don't gamble," John said.
"Who does?" the man said. He shrugged his shoulders and rang his bell. "Come in, come in, merrymakers welcome."
"I need a bar," John said.
The man jerked his thumb to the end of the block. John climbed a stool and ordered a double of anything.
"Still snowing?" the bartender asked.
"Hard," John said. He was out of ideas. Soggy soul, the bartender thought. He blew on a glass and polished it up. John drew up his shoulders. Sobriety hit him. Bad news. His shoulders drooped. He slapped a dollar on the counter and left the bar. People hurried in the falling snow. They kept their collars up, their hats down, protection against cosmic rays. They hailed a taxi, they shouted at a bus. Puff the magic dragon uncoiled in a Christmas window. Civilization was organized, nature accommodating, the picture was good enough to eat. John's shoes were wet.
His toes were frozen. A driver shook a fist at him. John put his head down and was oblivious. But not to everything. Bloom's lumpy mirage stood at the end of every street in every doorway and Aleph was at every hydrant.
Come on, you old loon, John thought, I know you're around somewhere. Come out, come out wherever you are and get it over with. His mind slipped an era and he imagined himself writing a letter to Basil about how he had tailed Morris Bloom through the streets of New York. The conversation swished in his ear canal. Not to measure one tragedy by another, Chlore said, but there are lots of tragedies in the world (a bon mot of perspective). John looked in a bookshop window open late for the holiday and asked anxiously his inner voices, what do you think causes a man to have a nervous breakdown? Basil put his pipe on the mantel, but the thing rolled off. He bent to pick it up and said to himself or to John with a cautious chuckle, casting bait for comfort: by golly, my knees are getting stiff, pretty soon I'll be walking with a cane. John spun on a needle of grief, jammed cold hands into his pockets and froze. Worlds of creation sailed by in the Christmas windows, Eskimo figures, Lapland carvings, weavings from Borneo, tapestry from Gaul, rugs from Persia, whittling, glass, china, Cophenhagen, English, German, Danish China, cutlery, ivory from Africa, rosewood from the Orient, carving from Iceland, the Aztec, the African, a ferment of ingenuity, looped, sculpted, woven into every material that could be mined, gathered or grown, dyes from grasses, jewely from shells, houses from coral, crowns from flowers, the wealth of six civilizations. John, John, the world said, take these riches and enjoy them, these works are the crown on the human head.
My life is a pitcher of blood, John said. It has been standing in the basement of my father's house since he built it. Its odor is in my nose, the smell of an unburied body. Can't you smell it? It smells like a pail of blood that has been standing in the sun.
The owner of the bookstore peered at John through the window over his tidy row of Christmas cards and book awards for the holiday season, and raised a quizzical eyebrow. It was John's cue to move on. He staggered lopsided with pain against wellwishers who rushed to get taxis and buses, their arms filled with presents and good cheer. The dinner hour swam in the gloomy headlights of every car, a slant of snow falling from the twilight sky.
John made it to the East River, a gamble that Bloom would be there by hook or by crook or happenstance, miracle or any other conconction of causality. John was wet and cold and irritable, surprised that for a man with his mission gadflies of discomfort could plague him like this.
What John wanted supremely was a hot bath. Christmas wreaths on doorways stirred the memory of an affectionate season. He would not have bet a dollar on this sentiment for life.
The river was the color of an elephant's hide, old skin wrinkling between the shores. Flakes hit its surface and disappeared. John walked along and watched this drama until the snow froze on his eyelashes. The street seemed deserted. But no! Aha! and aha! A man leaned against the railing and rocked back and forth on his heels in the snow. John recognized the pattern. Aleph's head poked out from the man's coat, a mean glitter of recognition in his doggy eyes.
Here was the dilemma: should John stalk Rabbi Bloom? Would Bloom run? Would he panic? Would Aleph bite John if John tried to take Bloom?
Yes, John decided, Aleph would bite him, and every man fears a dogbite.
Rabbi Bloom's eyes rotated to the side of his head, blinked back in recognition, not surprised that he should see John standing beside him in a snowstorm. He continued to rock back and forth on his heels.
"They put Christopher Smart away for that," John said. Everything has a tradition, even the way people go mad. The allusion was lost on Rabbi Bloom. It was not his tradition, but John continued. "Samuel Johnson said that if one had to go mad, praying was the best way to do it."
Rabbi Bloom nodded his head, his rhythm continued. "Why not? The snow is as good to pray to as anything else. Looks like soapflakes."
"It does at that." John held out his hand and caught the tremulous flakes.
Rabbi Bloom was not agreeable. "It is snow to you. It is soapflakes to me. If it were soapflakes to you, you would be mad as I am."
John's depression lightened. He was intrigued."It is soapflakes," he pursued.
"Nonsense. You mustn't say that. If anyone heard you say that they would think you are crazy. You're not used to that look. As for me, I can take it."
John put his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth with Rabbi Bloom. "If you can take it, I can take it."
"You're deluding yourself. It takes more than the desire to go mad. It takes experience in knowing how. You have to lower yourself into insanity slowly, test it, see if you can live with it, try it a bit at a time. You're a babe in arms, a johnnycomelately to misery. What? You've discovered anguish, a little murder in your home. You think one tragedy and you go poof. Believe me, you don't poof so fast. I'm years ahead of you, I am a master of my insanity. I know my limits. If you were to go insane, John, there would be no end to your insanity. Resist the temptation.
Anyway, you're a fake. You see there are people coming and already you have stopped rocking and praying," he said with disgust. "I thought you might have talent for insanity, but you can't bear to be embarrassed, caught rocking on your heels and praying. Insanity is much more embarrassing." He raised his hands and intoned a high wail through his nose. Two men came abreast and stopped dead in their tracks, but the cold snapped their curiosity and they were gone with a look.
"The embarrassment only lasts a second," Bloom said, "then you are free to do as you like." He drew in a breath of wet air and sang, "We're a capital couple, the soap and I, I brighten the earth, and she cleans the sky." He put his hands in his pockets, an intermission in warmth. "You see how free freedom is? You have only to get over a little critical hump.
Come, I'll tell you a story about two drunken soldiers. It will appeal to your sense of ribaldry. After the war, in Germany, we had an apartment on the basement level of a house, a good angle from which to see the world from the ground up. My window was flush with the street and as I couldn't sleep then as I can't sleep now, I was sitting by the window and reading.
Along came two pairs of legs in leather riding boot, they stop by my window and present me with a little entertainment. Reading I can always do, so I close the book and listen.
Ach, Heinrich, says Kluber, we haf dronk too much. I can't shee de shtreet.
Ya, ya, says Heinrich, we haf dronk too much, vat a party.
Champagne from human skulls.
Ssssh, says Kluber and looks about him for spies from the American army. He buries his head in Heinrich's shoulder and weeps because the party is over. Kluber takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose. Those were the days, my friend. His snot misses the handkerchief. Ya, ya, Heinrich weeps and wipes his eyes, we were the envy of the world. We jumped rope with intestines. Now we sit in the movies and watch the documentaries.
They roll in the street and sag together for support. Kluber's nose goes from red to purple. He tilts it at the sky. The moon beams down with a friendly eye.
Kluber puts his blue fingers in his mouth and whistles: our kingdom forever. Piss on the earth. Away down the street they go, leaving a whistle in the dark.
I can whistle too," Rabbi Bloom said, and whistled. "I've been practising." He raised his arms, intoned a note through his nose and sang, "Soap, soap, beautiful soap, fragrant soap, wandering soap, pray for us, soap, wash my sins and clean my gall bladder."
John blew on his fingers. "Just one of those stories you keep stored in that bulge on your back."
"You don't believe me?" He clicked his tongue and pulled down his twitching eye. "How do you like me, sane or insane? Choose. Come, I'll tell you another story. One you'll believe, it will appeal to your sense of reason. One night I was sitting by my window, reading. Same window, same book. everyone was asleep, but me." He waved his arms with despair.
"You know I never sleep. Someone has to watch the world and I was appointed. Along comes two soldiers. It is cold. They rub their hands together. Come with me, says Kluber. Heinrich takes him angrily by the coat. No more, he says, I can't bear to hear anymore. It is lies. It is not possible we did such things.
You were there, says Kluber.
I? says Heinrich. He looks up at the sky, he looks down at the street. He looks for the person Kluber says was there. I, he whispers, and whistles under his breath. I did nothing. I followed the law, step by step. Less a man shouldn't do, more he can't do. Even they say the Law is life. A man is where the law is, the law is where he is, he follows his tail, the tail follows him. What else can there be to love of country?
"Can you whistle?" Bloom asked
"It won't help," John said, "your stories won't help."
"You're right. I cannot go mad enough."
"No, there's not enough insanity in you."
"Only enough and not enough to matter. Try me another way. Come, test my sobriety."
John looked at him with a malicious gleam. "I could try you in ways you haven't thought of."
"Something new under the sun? Are there ways I haven't thought of? Let me see, death by drowning, hanging, stoning, suffocating, burning, stretching, cramping."
"You can still sing and whistle, John jeered. "Ah, you envy me." He looked up at the sky. "He envies me," he said to God. Imagine that! He envies my old circumcised penis."
"Exactly. You don't have to look far to find out what's torturing you."
"No, I only have to look down."
"Or read your old histories."
"Certainly, any century will do, the nearer the better."
John took him by his coat collar. "Be grateful your enemy is not your own blood." His eyes glinted dangerously. "You're right, take no converts. Keep the enemy out of your blood."
"Would that be an advance?" Bloom laughed. "You are mad. You have made up a tale of antisemitism and with a twisted face and a poetic conscience, Christian mea culpa, you want me to believe this tale. Don't believe it," he wagged a finger, "it's not true. That's only the excuse, an historical glaze like pineapple juice on an upsidedown cake. Gives it a finish. Antisemtitism?" His eye twitched in tune to his words. "Antisemitism is simple. You don't like us, you kill us. Who does not know how to get rid of people, especially today? There are one billion Christians and twelve million Jews. If you all spit together at the same time you can drown us. Wouldn't cost you a penny in bullets. Come, come, you do not think that all that happened was antisemitism? The gas chambers," he twirled his fingers, "that was antisemitism, good antisemitism, modern antisemitism. The oven, the boxcars, yes. But the rest? To scrub a man's back with a barbed wire brush is not antisemitism, to whip a woman's breasts off her chest is not antisemitism, to toss babies in the air for shooting practice is not antisemitism, to make men walk naked in an open courtyard is not antisemitism, to make lampshades from behinds is not antisemitism, to make tobacco pouches from scrotum sacks is not antisemitism, to make people dig their own graves is not antisemitism, to bury them alive is not antisemitism, to drop naked women into tanks of freezing water is not antisemitism, to rape twelve year old girls is not antisemitism, to think the mohel eats the foreskin after the circumcision is not antisemitism. The Christian has bad dreams and farts them in our faces. To cut open the bellies of pregnant women and stuff them with cats is not antisemitism." He twirled his fingers in the air. "An historical accident. Jesus was lynched by a kangaroo court and all the Jews are held guilty. There's justice for you! His blood be upon our children's blood. What better place?" He dropped to his knees. Piety rained from his eyes.
"Father, forgive them, for they know not. To bury an old rabbi in the earth and let the birds eat out his eyes is not antisemitism, but the boy who spit in the rabbi's face was antisemitic. He did it for the love of his God, sweet Jesus. The man who threw dung at the rabbi was not antisemitic. He joined the others and flattered himself with a theology." Bloom stood up and intoned through his nose, "My litany is at an end. Sing the song of the Holocaust, the epic of a century. Soap, soap, beautiful soap." He drove his finger into John's chest. "You I tell these things to, but don't tell the goyim. It will drive them crazy. And do not ask me why they do these things, for I will not tell you either. Who am I to explain these things? Augustine could not explain why he stole a pear, and I have not Augustine's piety."
He turned back to the river and looked at the snow. "Soap. It is all done for the sake of soap. Man cannot live without soap. Baptism is good, but a bar of lye is better. And best it is to scrub his skin with barbed wire. But it will not help. Though thou wash thee with lye, John, and make thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is naked. Go, go, John, your breath fouls my mouth."
John grabbed his wrist. "You went back to Middletown,' he said tensely, but Rabbi Bloom did not answer him. He turned to the river and sang, "Wandering soap, pray for us." Aleph growled at John. John growled back. He kept his grip on Bloom's wrist. "Couldn't you have spared me that trip?" he wept.
"I went to save you. I should have saved myself." John wanted to hit him for his idiotic idea. A girl passed them, intimidated at the sight of two men whose breath wrestled between them. "Pass, pass," Rabbi Bloom said to her. She hurried past them with clicking trim boots. "Pass, pass," Bloom said again, "I will not bite you. I am tame. My idiocy is harmless.
May no worse happen to you."
"You're not mad," John hissed. "You're foolish. You cheapen yourself with this pretense. You think madness is whistling in the snow? It is a terror that takes your breath away. It is a fear that dries your lips and mouth so that you cannot swallow. You go without food for days and don't know enough to feed yourself. Your stomach cries for food and you don't listen to it. You walk on ice and take no cover. You crave death, weep for it, your body hungers for life but your mind rots and hungers for death. It falls down like bits of carcass sheared from the wall of something you call yourself. Stop! pain, stop! you howl. But it cannot stop. It is yourself. It is pain, it is is only pain, it has no levity, it is all pain. If you were truly mad, I'd wash your feet with my tongue."
"It is only one foot you must wash. It is only one eye that does not sleep. That is also pain. I tremble on a verge and covet fall, but I do not fall. I only tremble. Fall, I command myself, but I do not fall, and the imperfect balance tickles my fancy. After all, John, I have been standing on one foot for a long time. Surely, you could have done the same thing, you could have continued standing on one leg as we all do, with imperfect balance. In time, you would have found something amusing in the posture. But no, you insist on falling and going down all of a piece. Don't tell me such sad news." He put his hands around John's neck and wept. "Let me tell you a happy story."
"I don't want to hear it."
"One more. One more. There's always one more. I'm tired of your stories. We are mad to stand here like this."
"We have nothing to lose, and nowhere else to go that matters. Besides, this one is metaphysical and about justice. Ah!," he said gleefully, "I see I now have your attention. Who can resist a good story, and a little metaphysics into the bargain? It concerns a girl. Her name was Susanna. A good name for a pretty girl. She had black hair to the middle of her back and light green eyes. You appreciate that, John, because you like pretty girls. She had dark skin, with red in her cheeks. A lively combination. The color of her face is not exactly describable, something of ivory and gold. It absorbed your attention so that when she walked by, you saw in a flash something vivid. Already at twelve, men, and not just boys, turned and looked at her. Once, I thought, to safeguard her virtue and protect her against vanity I would cut off her hair, but needless to say, her mother objected. Wait a little while, she said, another year. But already her breasts were developing. She was thin, her ribs stuck out,but so did her nipples. You could see how things were going. We put her hair in braids and bound her chest. She was not happy. We were old fashioned. A new day had dawned, but she submitted. That way I slept better and did not worry when she came home late from a friend's. When we were in prison, a colonel noticed her. Flattered we were not. Our friends whispered, count your blessings, it could have been an S.S. guard. Maybe this way she'll get something to eat. Once, twice, three times a day he came by with the cigarette hanging from his mouth. She's only twelve, I roared at him. Jew, turn your face away, he said. The day, the night, the minute was coming. I felt it in his footstep, in his pause at our cell. I took her hair and braided it and bound it with a string. Then I kissed her eyes and her lips and her hands and I said, life is more than honor and it is better than death. One day, she was taken from our cell and disapeared. We did not see her again. We heard nothing. We saw nothing. She disappeared into smoke. A few months later, we heard news of her. A new prisoner said he had seen her in the camp he had just come from. Our hair stood on end. We had heard tales of this camp. Some said they made rattles from the teeth of children, some said they made marbles from their eyes. Everyone there worked in a big soap factory, and some said--but this is grotesque--is it not? How, I thought to myself, such a passion that this colonel had had, how had it come to this? His wife had found out, and her animosity knew no bounds. Why should it? Who was there to tame it? Susanna disappeared into the soap factory. A few months later the colonel was found dead in his bathtub. A confluence of events whose meaning would have gone undetected had it not been for the colonel's servant who was a witness. A fresh box of soap had arrived at the house the morning of the colonel's death. It was a fancy box with cakes of soap shaped like cameos and the profile of a woman cut into each bar. Pink and gold and ivory were the colors and the soaps smelled of roses. That evening the colonel selected a bar from the box and went to his shower. He loved a strong, long, hot shower and bathed sometimes until he drained the house of its water. The heat steamed up the room. The servant gave testimoney that he waited outside the curtain with the towels, and the sweat poured from him like from a turkish bath. The colonel left his cigar lit in the ashtray, for he intended to survive his shower, but the heat, the perfume of roses, the steam intoxicated him. He lathered himself well. The bubbles foamed. He scrubbed under the arms and between the legs and hummed a Te Deum to himself. His body was white, steaming and glistening. He reached again for the special bar of soap to wash between the legs, and noticed the profile in the cameo. A perplexity shook him. Less sure, shaking with superstition, he soaped up his hair and again under the arms and between the legs, and again on his head. The soap stung his eyes like an adder's bite and he cried out for a towel. Fidgeting, thrashing at the shower curtain to get the towel, the bar of soap slipped from his hands. He pulled back the curtain, roared at the servant for the towel and slipped on the soap. Before the servant could find the towel or his wits, the colonel lay with a broken neck, the water steaming on his face.
"What kind of justice is that?" John snarled. "What kind are you looking for? Come, tell me, maybe we have a variety of goods."
"I'll tell you exactly," John said, "I want a justice I can control, not devils or a malignant universe, a justice that's deliberate and calculated, man-made, man-prideful, capable of being a law and repeating itself. One that organizes life, not perplexes it, the kind of justice that comes from choice and leaves me alive as a witness, a visible justice, a paradigm for the mind, clean, apparent like a star, steady, not a freakish meteor; a codification, not a dirty story mumbled by an old man."
"Ah! ah! ah!" Bloom did a little dance. "Deliberate and calculated, conscious and free. You ask for so much, you stab me with wonder. I tell you, John, if someone says you're only half a man don't remind him of the other half. Come, do not talk to me with so much clarity. I know you are in a terrible fog. I have no use for intelligent young men, neither for the wisdom of the ages. It all comes to the same thing. Madness is best, you should have chosen that. You might have stayed alive. Dignity gone, true. No elevation, but the green sprouts every spring for the insane as well as the sane. Insanity is better than the rage for justice." He twisted his face into John's eyes. "You chose rage, and now you must die."
John struck him. "Don't say that to me."
Aleph leaped at John and bit him in the neck. An old lady with a great Dane witnessed it. "Monster," she said, and whacked Rabbi Bloom on the back with her fist. "A sick dog like that belongs in an animal hospital."
Rabbi Bloom scooped Aleph up and put him back into his coat. "Madam," he cried out, "envy him. He's got three legs, you've only got two," and he ran.
John chased, but Bloom's odds were better in getting across the drive. Anyone would stop his car to let an old man with a three-legged dog on his head cross the street. John lost him on the sidewalk in front of Bloomingdale's.
John sat in a bar all night. The janitor swept out under his feet.
"What times does the place fill up? John asked.
"What's it to you?" the janitor asked.
"I like company."
The man leaned on his broom and sized up John. "You don't look like a man who likes company."
John's vanity was wounded. The man gave him a fishy look and went back to sweeping the floor. Don't like his looks, he thought. Gives me the willies. He turned on the television for comfort. John yawned and fastened soggy eyes on it. The screen was filled with mourners. The morning sun bounced off St. George, jewel in The Sacred Heart. John's eyes unglued. He knew who those people were. There was Larry Barnes, there was Lilly in a brown coat and a scarf on her head, face bloated, eyes red.
There was Arnold Kunz in a black overcoat and a Stetson on his head, fashionable for the 1930's. Face bloated, eyes black as if someone had punched his face. You're right there, a newsman said, murder will out. He toasted John with a mike: "This is coming to you from the Chapel of the Sacred Heart where the mourners have congregated to pay respect tothe bodies of the murdered victims." John ordered a double double. The janitor's eyes jumped, one blue, one brown. The reporter said: "It is nine a.m." He yanked wire and surveyed the scene. "It's a cold, brisk morning, snow on the gound, and while many of you are at home enjoying Christmas with your family the family of Arnold Kunz lies in three caskets. This crowd you see here has come to pay its respects to this family. Father, Father," he grabbed a collar. John's heart jerked. "Father," the reporter said to a priest, "you've known the Kunzes for many years. What kind of a boy was George Kunz?" He handed the mike to Father Rosa.
"Quiet," Father Rosa said, "quiet and sweet." He disappeared into a tide of people. The mourners flowed around him like an ocean.
"Wait a minute," the newsman said, and grabbed an arm. He pulled line. Father Rosa re-emerged. "In your opinion?" the newsman said.
Father Rosa rocked unsteadily. "I have no opinions."
The newsman passed the mike to him. "Was George Kunz the kind of boy to murder his mother and his brother and his sister? That's the question. Have you got it?"
John drained his drink and ordered a triple.
"You got a problem you'd like to talk about?" the bartender asked. John was grateful.
"Listen," he said.
"In my opinion," Father Rosa said. The light ground its way into his eyes. He looked up unsteadily at the malevolent sky. "Any boy is, in a manner of speaking, if he's tortured enough."
The reporter adjusted his earphone. "What's that?" he tapped boom. Father Rosa's eyes popped. "Wouldn't you say?" the reporter said, "this was a terrible thing to have happened?"
"Just one moment," Father Rosa said and held up a pontifical finger. A dog jumped out from under his habit.
"That's him," John yelled and threw his drink at the set.
"I would say so," Father Rosa said.
"Then tell America, Father," the newsman thrust mike and yanked wire, "tell America that this is a terrible thing to have happened."
Father Rosa raised his face skyward. "America," he said. He held up his hands, the mourners bore him down, he thought he was drowning, he cried out for salvation. The tide carried him into the chapel. He looked down on his parish from his pulpit. "Beloved mourners." He raised his hands. The morning sun gleamed on the stained glass window of St. George behind him. His parishioners knelt.
"Ten a.m," the reporter said. "This news coverage is coming our way through the courtesy of Bottled Bath Beauty, liquid soap in a bottle, springtime in your bathtub, no more unsightly soap slivers left lying around to embarrass you. Just throw the bottle away when you're finished." He yanked wire and looked at his watch.
John apologized to the bartender, but the bartender didn't go for it. He didn't go for the double double and the triple triple by ten a.m. He signalled the janitor. The janitor signalled back.
The reporter said: "Maria Kunz came to this country as a child of six. Growing up in ghettoes and slums, she fought her way to the top until she achieved a reputation as a businesswoman, as a force for the improvement of her community. Ken, Ken, swing the boom to your right. I see her husband. Yes, Ken, right, a little more right. That's it. Watch out now! I almost got hit by it.
You're the husband, the father of this sorry event." Arnold Kunz held his hands up in self defense. "Tell us what kind of a boy he was." Arnold's face disappeared in a puff of raw. "Average," he said. "He stuttered, didn't he?" the reporter asked. Arnold's eyes floated dead in his flesh.
"I understood him." John twirled off his seat. "Kill the bloodsucker," he yelled. Lilly jabbed her elbow in the reporters's chest.
Mike flipped. The reporter fumbled and caught it. "You got some hook there," he said.
Lilly took Arnold by the arm and went into the chapel.
"Beloved mourners," Father Rosa said.
"Swing the boom back," the newsman said. "Peter was to have graduated Iowa Tech this summer and had already been selected by the Finance Board of T.U.& F in California to head their Pacifica branch. Peter was a credit to his people. T.U.&F. has expressed its sympathy for this calamity and has sent a wreath. Ken, swing camera two to the left. Yes, there it is, the wreath from T.U.&F. Scatter," he hissed at a dog and yanked line. John ordered a double triple.
The bartender said, "That's it."
John clipped him on the jaw.
The reporter said, "Get that dog out of here."
John slammed ten dollars on the counter. "Where's the nearest subway?"
The janitor jerked a thumb.
"Get the police," the bartender groaned.
The reporter said: "Her daughter, Anne, was a credit to her community, for Anne had chosen the profession of Clara Barton, the service of angels. She was a nurse at the Bronx Upland Hospital. Maria Kunz is survived by her husband, Anold Kunz, an aging mother and a sister in Philadelphia who have flown in for the funeral. The body of George Kunz has been moved to St. Stephen's Hospital for an autopsy to determine the cause of his behavior. George suffered from a speech disorder, he was slow in school. He was a lonely child. Because of his poor speech he had no friends. George couldn't throw a ball. Those who knew George, however, say he was a gentle boy. Doctors feel confident that they will discover a cluster of lesions on George' brain. It is expected that after the service the funeral cortege will follow a route up Park Avenue to the Queensboro Bridge to a cemetery near Sunnydale where the family has a plot. There must be at least seventy-five cars here this morning. Oh, now, wait. There goes the wreath. Swing the camera right, Ken. The wreath will accompany Peter's casket and the attendants are putting it into the funeral car right at this moment. Ken, tryancover the scene, willya?"
Father Rosa raised his hands. "Beloved and anguished mourners."
Arnold Kunz sank to his knees. Lilly knelt beside him. St. George drew out the sword from the dragon's side. John fled. He flipped a coin in the turnstile and caught a train.
Father Rosa said, "We have gathered this week to the celebrate the birth of a son. We know he died in violence, but we forget that he was born in violence, that he came into a world bathed in blood, was formed in the belly of blood, was received by hands into a world drowning in blood. We stand in a midway stream of blood, we are borne on a tide of blood. The child is born, the stone is thrown. It sinks midpoint into the river of blood. There is no beginning. There is no end. The river circles the earth. We are always in the middle of blood. The child lies in its mother's womb, a circle within a circle. He pipes the mystery of creation from her veins, her veins pipe the mystery of existence to him. She stands in a river of blood. Come, my child, she cries to her infant, let me celebrate your birth. I will lick you clean like a cat. I will lick the membrane from your body. She stands in the river of blood with him and washes him. She tosses him into the air for the world to see. Who has a jewel like mine? she says. He smiles and her heart is sundered. She fears the evil eye. Superstitions slumber in her brain. She hides her child in a grove, in a basket of reeds, in the river of blood. She throws him from a passing train. Feed him, she shrieks. He falls, he tumbles down a hill, he falls into the river of blood. She gathers him up in a shawl and carries him on her back. She seats him on a donkey and passes out from the land of Israel. A child is born of its mother's blood. It lies circled in the womb, a moth in the fold of a flower, an ant in the stem of a plant. The child is the womb of its mother. Her life shoots forth in him. She listens to his first movements. Life stirs. A butterfly is released in her womb. Internal wings beat in her. The world rises in flight. She hears what no one else can hear, the instant moving with life. It hums to her. Her ears strain, she hears the universe within her and mourns the death of a mother cat far from its litter, she grieves for the elephant's udders who has lost its cub. The bird who struggles to feed its young is a paragon of courage to her. Her soul moves with interior flight. She arises in the night and listens to it. She stops her daytime chores and listens. A flock of geese arise from the earth and take to the sky. Jocheved lay in the meadow by the Nile and listened to the flight. Mary stood in her field and listened. Maria turned in her bed and listened. Wherever things go forth in mutual life the child goes forth with its mother. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost we beseech thee Almighty God to give eternal mercy to the soul of George Kunz who took the life of his sister, Anne, born June 2, 1950, his brother, Peter, born April 12, 1948, and his mother, Maria, born January 2, 1930, and who, in recompense for his deed, took his own life. Receive them, God, in Your eternal union. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost I ask this congregation to pray for the souls of George and Peter and Anne and their mother, Maria."
John ran from car to car in the cortege, looking for Lilly.
"Who's the clown?" someone asked.
"He must be from his side of the family," someone answered.
An attendant stopped John broadside. "Can I be of service?"
"I'm looking for someone," John said, and pulled open a door.
"Young man, there's no room in here," an old lady snapped at him.
"I'm looking for a skinny short lady in a brown coat," John said.
"Not here," the lady said and rapped his knuckles with her umbrella. "Good heavens!" She huffed and heaved the door closed. "Letting in all that winter air for nothing."
Lilly's red face bobbed up at John through the window of a car. "What are you doing here?" she asked, vexed.
He pulled open the door to the car and got in. "I caught the scene on t.v. this morning."
"Don't ride with me," she said.
He climbed over the laps of two other mourners in the car. "You've got the only space available. The car started forward and he fell into place next to Lilly.
Her leg exploded into burning cypress. She flew into wrath at so much sacrilegious paraphernalia floating on her soul at such a time. Why you? she gnashed her teeth, but anger, like desire, got her nowhere. She turned her head toward the window and wept.
Three limousines went forward, carrying caskets wrapped in flowers. Then came the car carrying Arnold, a brother and an uncle, Maria's mother and a sister. "Why aren't you up there in the first car?" John asked.
"I'm not a chief mourner," Lilly mumbled and burst into tears.
John wiped his forehead from snow and sweat. The funeral cortege went up Lexington Avenue in a shower of snow, a line of black up the storm swept city, up the streets a ribbon of mourners. Pedestrians waited by the curb for it to pass, impatience checked by the thought of death. A poodle stood at attention with a rhinestone collar on its neck.
Conversation seemed like a possible antidote to the mood in the car. "Looks like more snow," John said.
"Somebody'll have a white Christmas," one of the passengers offered.
John almost popped out of the car. "Did you see that dog?" His eyes expanded and shot sight. His neck craned.
"Nice terrier," another passenger said, amenable to any conversation dropped into this hole of death.
"Did you see how many legs he had?" John asked.
"Four, I think," the man said.
"Three," John said.
"What of it?" the man asked.
"I'm looking for a three legged dog," John said.
"Any particular kind of three legged dog?"
"Nothing special," John said, "just a three-legged mutt about so high."
"Why don't you just catch yourself a four-legged mutt and take a leg off?"
"Man here's got a thing about three legged dogs," the man said, self exonerated for his suggestion. "Just tryin' to be helpful."
'Who are you?" John asked.
"Second cousin by marriage. Name's Charles Jackson. You can call me Charlie or Chuck or Cha. Who are you?"
Lilly burst into tears. Her nerves were shredded.
"Also second cousins," John said, "travelling in from Kenya."
"Pleased to meetcha. What a funeral, a double-header."
"Couldn't get my wife to come. When she heard the news she fainted on the kitchen floor. Lucky thing I was home. Not Georgie, she shrieks, soon as she come to. Not baby Georgie. I wheeled him in his carriage. And she fainted again. When she comes to this time she starts hollerin' and screamin' so that the neighbors sent for the police thinking I was belting her and when the police came she grabbed Dickie our youngest right out of his high chair and smacked him in the face. We had to get a doctor to give her a shot and when she came out of it the first thing she said was I can't go to the funeral, you'll have to go alone."
"Mind?" the other man said, and took out a cigarette. "I gotta have something."
"Go ahead,"John said.
"Need somethin' to calm the nerves. Like Chuck says, this is a doubleheader, a tripleheader, makes you wonder what it's all about. I gotta figure any kid who can bump off his family has got to be crazy. I'm sure they'll find a tumor or somethin' like the doctors say."
"Sorry," the man said, concerned for her bereavement, "but you gotta figure it that way."
Lexington Avenue was crowded with shoppers.
"Lucky the weather is holdin' out," Chuck said. The snow queen swung on a swing in Bloomingdale's window. A mannequin in a hostess gown poured tea. A camera snapped it. The air was as grey as steel. A woman sat in a rooftop bathtub and scrubbed her back with cameo soap. Her arm moved. The soap bubbled. A camera clicked. A tourist shot it. John envied the people in the advertisements, drinking soda in three languages, curbing their dogs, soaping their heads, driving Volkswagons across the world. Arnold's brother and uncle cast their eyes upward, frightened to look anywhere.
Maria's mother sat wrinkled up, an old toad that knew all along that things were going to end like this, because oil and water don't mix. Her daughter sat next to her skinny and tight, modish and cheap, and wondered why Maria had married Arnold Kunz, a smart girl like her who had had the pick of the pants in the neighborhood. They always wondered how she took the load at night.
The cortege filed across the 59th Street Bridge. The sentinel factories at the Queens end belched out smells: gun, chocolate, perfume, bread and soap. John's nose twitched. The world popped smell, smoke bloomed. "Used to work there," Chuck said. He stabbed a brick building with his finger. "Right there in the gum factory."
"What was it like?" the other man said.
"Sticky," Chuck laughed. "Haven't told that one in years."
"Not much call for it, I bet," John said.
Chuck shook his head with nostalgia. "We had a line for every job. Had a friend in the chocolate factory. Know what he used to say? Sweetest job you'd ever want. Ha, ha, ha."
Lilly glared at him.
"What'd you have for the bread factory?" his friend asked.
"Good dough. Come on, tryan' stump me."
"What'd you have for the soap factory?"
"Slippery work." Chuck winked. You couldn't stop him, but a coughing fit did. His friend hit him on the back. "Did you really work in the gum factory?"
"Would I stick you with that?" Chuck choked.
"Better try being serious," John advised. Lilly's tears dried for a minute. She was disgusted. John was grateful for boors. They took Lilly's mind off the funeral. He was ready to jump if she kept sobbing. Dreadful sound, that moaning. He would have expected a more dignified note from her, a nervous Cassandra, too strung up to weep in public. But her nerves had gone altogether, she was a limp stream filling the car with running water. Chuck and his friend sat rigid, side by side, riding backwards like a team of twins. Lilly moaned and they froze like rocks in her river.
Shouldagivin' her somethin', Chuck's eyes said. Who is she anyway?
"How long did you work there?" John asked Chuck.
"Straight answer?" Chuck asked.
"Straight answer," John said and stiffened for the blow.
"Two years," Chuck said. John relaxed. "I was eleven when I started," Chuck said and winked, acknowledging hardships. "They don't start in factories at eleven anymore. Used to steal packages of gum by the dozen. Stuffed my pockets with them every night, sellem in the morning for four cents a package. What the hell! The bosses all knew we were takin' stuff, they expected you to, write it off as a tax loss, business expense 'cause they knew we was fightin' the capitalist system, helpin' to spread the profits around so they kept their mouths shut and figured that way we wouldn't strike. Took it out of our salaries anyway. like we didn't know what was happening. I used to trade gum for chocolate with the kids from the chocolate factory. Two packs of gum for a bar of chocolate 'cause chocolate had more value on the street."
"It must have been fun to work there," John winked back, "I mean for a kid being surrounded by all that stuff."
"That's what you'd think,' Chuck said, "but the smell was enough to knock you out. Did you ever stick a mint plant up your nose? I used to go home at night with my brains stewed in spearmint and vomit."
Lilly's toes curled.
"Come on," the other man said, "watch what you're sayin."
They passed under the grey buildings.
Chuck thumped his chest. "Where do you think I got this cough from? Gets into your lungs same as coal does."
A train on the elevated screeched. A sign on a facory roof read: Fight Pollution. Use Cameo soap.
Chuck continued with his saga. "We used to have special tickets could get us anything at ten per cent off at any one of these here factories. You know how these bosses are, they all work together. They figured they could advertise their products through us. So they gave us this break. Used to get five coupons every week with my paycheck. But you couldn't use a perfume coupon for a bread coupon. No crossin' coupons. I couldn't see spendin' money on perfume. I had enough smell to last me a lifetime. The only thing I wanted to do at the end of the week was go somewhere where I couldn't smell a goddamn thing, pardon me, lady, I used to go to the beach every weekend and bury my head in the sand."
The cortege passed out from under the El. A spot of sun fuzzed up and fuzzed down again. Snow started to fall. The cortege wound through the small streets of a residential neighborhood, deserted except for a tree in a window, a garage door left open, a cat on a stoop, a newspaper on a door and a garbage can on the curb. The sun puffed gallantly through a mist of snow and sank for the day. The cortege went down side streets. The garbage pails grew in number. They lined up on the streets. An old bed of trolley tracks showed in the asphalt. A bus groaned to a stop, hissed open a door and took up a passenger. The cortege wound through unpaved streets, tire companies, tanning factories, graveyards for buses and trains, a lonesome bar and grill. The city was winding down, winding out into industrial areas and cemeteries. The cortege wound through a street of empty lots.
"Hard to get a cemetery near the city," the man said.
"Impossible," Chuck said, "the price of property is just fantastic."
The cortege passed through the gates of the cemetery. The gravestones huddled in the snow. The gravediggers sat on a stone wall and watched the procession.
Arnold took his hat off. His chin sank on his chest.
"You should have sat with him," John said to Lilly. She tightened her scarf on her head. Her face was blue. "He's in a stupor," she said. "His doctor gave him something. He doesn't know what's happening."
The cortege stopped. Confusion. They were at the wrong place. People wandered out of their cars, and wandered back in. The cortege started up again and wandered around through the lanes of leanto gravestones like a giant Gulliver machine. It finally found what it was looking for, four new gravesites at the far end of the cemetery. The gravediggers leaned on their spades. The angel Gabriel ascended en point from a tombstone behind them. Father Rosa lifted his cassock and climbed out of his car. He looked at the four pits before him. The mourners wandered out of their cars again. Maria's mother clamped her lips shut and looked down at the empty pits. Her daughter, huddled in squirrel fur, supported her under her arm. A rag of sanctity fluttered on her head. Arnold Kunz swayed on his feet like a circus tent in a storm. His brother and uncle held on to each other for support. The wind blew up snow. The mourners moved in on each other.
Umbrellas went up. Lilly stood behind Arnold and wept. Suddenly he collapsed, the circus tent folded up and lay at her feet, relieved of all performance. The living, like a huge sigh, moved towards themselves for support. The gravestones surrounded them like Stonehenge, a sacrament of enigma. Father Rosa opened the Bible. Lilly shifted on her feet precipitously and surprised herself by the movement. She felt such bitterness, she thought she had turned to stone. She raised her head and tried to concentrate on Father Rosa's message: Lift me up, Lord, I am weeping.
John had two choices: he could find a room in another hotel and face the prospect of a sleepless night in the clammy surroundings of strangers, or he could go back to the Kunz's hotel and face the prospect of a sleepless night in the familiar surrounding of pain. He chose the latter. Lilly groaned assent. She got back back from the funeral and prepared to meet reporters, neighbors, callers, spindly and rickety in demeanor. She took off her coat and felt as if she had taken off her skin. Her nerves fell on the floor like a bunch of worms. John couldn't mingle with the deathwatch. He told her to call him if she needed anything and climbed the steps to his room. Anybody else, he thought, would abandon the place, but Arnold Kunz did not inspire such confidence. He sat on a chair in the dining room in Stetson hat and black overcoat, a hump of sagging elephant, and looked as if the next worse thing that could happen to him would be to move his body. Not much choice, John thought, between the devil and the deep blue sea, and wondered if Lilly would now be chief cook and bottlewasher, certainly deserving, God knows, if God cared for that kind of justice. Whoever said the living weren't buried with the dead? He was up to his chin in deathmound. He stopped in the corridor and sniffed. Perfumed soap lotion from Peter's bathroom floated out. John hightailed it to his room and pulled the shades down on both windows. The blue Jesus jumped out from a shadow from his gilt frame with a look of waxy rebirth and beckoned to Lazarus or to John or to anybody. Imagine if the dead could come back, John thought, his mother with a candle in her hand walking towards him. The image hit his brain like a toad. It was the worst thought he had ever had. Almost drove him right out the window. He pulled the covers over his head. But that was no good. He shivered and thought another thought to fight the first thought. That was the second worst thought he had ever had because it might be just as bad the other way, if they all met on the other side, if his father met Augustus, or his mother met his father, or he met his mother. His spirit cawled up a wall. Choose, John, his brain said: how do you want your afterworld, now or later, here or there? A stone rolled into his stomach. His forehead broke out in sweat. I'm not going to sleep tonight, he said with fear. God! if I could only sleep I wouldn't think. Yes, but you might dream, he thought, and the thought jumped out into the middle of the floor and strutted like a fighting cock. You can bet on me, it said, hopped onto his chest and pecked at his face until he bled. There's only one way out, if only death were really death and not another life.
"Boy," Shakespeare said, "your confusion is cosmic."
"Don't call me that," John bristled. "It reminds me of something. I don't go in for this resurrection business if you trail the whole goddamned past after you."
"There is a connection between heaven and earth," Shakespeare said.
"Screw it,' John said. "I want a clean break. I'm willing to pay the price if I can disconnect."
"Every bridge connects two places," Shakespeare said. "Death is a bridge over the river of time into timelessness. Causality is cast into oblivion. Time stands in a cistern unfed by the springs of change. Events are causeless. They float upon the cistern and being causeless are therefore timeless. Being without consequence is changelessness. Come, John, make up your mind to dying. You will suffer no more than a pinprick, and you will be beyond the ruthlessness of investigation.
"And beyond life," John said.
"But not beyond art,"Aeschylus said. "Actually, what you want is neither death nor life, but a disposition towards eternity. Think of yourself as cast in bronze."
"Frankly," Einstein said, "I would stick with time and live at a very rapid rate. The quicker you live the more you'll move, the more time will pass, and time cures pain. If you live fast enough, eventually you will find yourself whirling at such a rate that the ratio of pain to living will be 1 to 8,000,000 X 2. Life offers a solution."
"Not as heaven does," Shakespeare said. "You will find surcease of pain in eternity, and you will also find justice because there all things equal each other." He bent over and whispered in John's ear, "There the ratio is unknown. Ratio is the expression of an inharmonious world."
John grabbed an ashtray and threw it at them. "What do you know about harmony?" he said. "You killed Antigone, you drove Orestes mad, you drove Hamlet mad, you drove Lear mad, you drove Macbeth's wife mad, you blinded Oedipus, you killed his wife, you tortured Medea into killing her children, and now you want me. Your record stinks."
"You wanted us," Aeschylus said. "You courted us, quoted us proudly. We're the wisdom of the ages. This is what it looks like. Besides, you're one of us. Don't struggle. In time the moss will cover your stone and your true lines will be recognized. You're a bona fide sufferer, a razzle dazzler of pain. Right now, you're only a comedian's routine.We'll sraighten you out."
"Enough," Aeschylus said. "Let's call for help and take him now."
He whistled and they all came.
John shrieked, "I'm not ready to die."
"What restrains you?" Euripides said. He opened John's mouth and examined his teeth like a horse to be sold.
"What do you think?" Aeschylus asked. "Will he make a good tragedy?"
Goethe put a stethoscope to his head. "He hasn't got the brainspan of Faust."
"Now that I won't take," John said.
Stendhal sat at the foot of his bed and crossed his legs. He dusted his lap with his gloves and cocked an eye through a monocle. "It all depends on whether you can make history express him, or he express history."
"Why am I suffering like this?" John cried.
"Your brain is infected with a multitude of diseases," Dr. Burton said, "moral melancholy and cerebral indigestion. Psychic paralysis, numb blood, frozen articulation, your passage is damned."
"I fed you on wine and honey,' a voice said. "I swaddled you in lily leaves. You were my gift to the world, my message to it. Why did you do what you did?" Basil cried. "I wanted you to live, not avenge me."
Flies attacked John. They crawled into his eyes and sat on his tongue. He put his hands over his ears and moaned. "In the name of God, don't punish me for seeking justice." The flies swarmed out from his breath.
Basil sat on the edge of his bed and wept. John struggled to open his eyes. I must not sleep anymore, he said to himself. Flies buzzed in his brain. "Get up," his father said. Yes, I must get up, John thought, it's dangerous to sleep, I must get up. "It's morning," Basil urged. Yes, John said, "I can almost see the light. My God, the cock is crowing. Somebody stop that racket."
"What is going on here?" Maria said and flashed her light in his face.
He couldn't see a thing. Everyone disappeared. They fell back into a hole. He sat up in a highchair and grabbed at a flower in the wallpaper.
His mother laughed. "That's only a picture," she said.
He opened his mouth for the cereal.
"Who killed cock robin?" his mother sang and put a portion of cereal on his baby spoon. "I did," said the sparrow, "with my bow and arrow."
John shivered and curled his toes back from the floor.
"It's only a poem," his mother said. John pulled the handle to the toilet bowl, he unplugged the bathtub.
"Where does the hole go," he asked.
"It goes to China," Leonard said.
"If we dig forever will we get there?" John asked.
"Do they walk on their heads there?" Leonard asked.
"Let's take the puzzle apart," John said.
John said he would start at his house and Leonard should start at his house. They would dig until they reached each other, and even if they never got that far they would have a terrific tunnel of sorts. They measured their progress each day.
John said he dug further.
Leonard said he worked harder, he had rocks in his way.
They measured and calibrated their efforts. John said he had more zeal, Leonard said he had started with a handicap. They dug all that spring and summer wth a beach pail and a shovel. Winter came and the snow covered up their hole. John went sliding down the hill and fell in. Down he fell, further than anyone had ever fallen. He said it was due to Leonard's carelessness. Leonard was shattered. God knew, his will was good. His will was subdued. In the spring John battered on his door and wept for him to come out. "Don't be afraid of me," he said, "I'm only a little boy."
Leonard peered through a window with thoughtful eyes. "I'm terrified of you," he said. "You're only a little boy now, but wait until they give you a sword and a cross."
"Chicken," John said, and flung a mudball.
"Here," Maria said, and flashed her light, "if you want to find him, go over the bridge."
"Actually, it's the father I'm looking for," John said.
"It's the same thing," Maria said. "Cross the bridge, take the first right, stop at the first door you see. The factory man will help you. And don't fall into the river. W HATEVER YOU DO DON'T FALL INTO THE RIVER."
"Right," John said and started out, "St. Juste at your service, the Knight of Just claims. By the way, what will happen if I do fall in?"
But she had disappeared, leaving a hole in the sky where her flashlight had been.
"If you do fall in," a bullfrog said, "don't inhale." He croaked with laughter. John didn't like that sound at all. He put one foot on the bridge nimblemouseskin. The bridge was sturdy, sturdy, as sound as a nickel, a triumph of engineering. Steady, steady, John got to the middle of the bridge and made a dash to the end of it. A triumph of movement. He followed directions, turned right and stopped at the first door. The guard shot a bolt and peered out. "Who you?" he asked inhospitably.
"St. Juste," John said.
"Phew, you stink. You could use a bath. I can tell you came over the bridge, smell sticks as close as skunkscent."
He opened the door, bit off the end of his cigar and stepped out.
Not one to be usually subdued, John asked with uncharacteristic modesty,"What is this place?" But before the words came out the information was stacked in his brain like his name, and he was frightened.
He knew the place and he didn't know the place. He had been there before and he had never been there before. Prescience hit him, aft and fore. He knew what the guard was going to say and he strained not to hear him. You bet he didn't want to hear him. The guard moved his mouth and he did not hear him, but it didn't matter because he was dreaming and he knew he was dreaming.
"Universal Bathhouse. Soporifia Saponifica." He spit out a butt of cigar. Our motto: cleanliness is next to Godliness. Where'ya bound for?"
"I'm looking for justice," John said. They both looked up at the clouds. The chimneys belched foam.
CH-O-C-R + 3NaOH CHOH + 3R-C-ONa
The precise ingredients for justice are: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and fat. An organ exploded in John's head. He didn't look, but he knew that the buildingwas five thousand stories high and that the chimneys went up, way up, way, way, way up. "Come on, I'll show you around," the guard said. "The tour starts in three minutes."
John put his hand up to ward off the blow.
"Listen, here," the guard said and poked John in the belly with his cigar end, "if you want to find him the tour starts in three minutes."
John was paralyzed. The building was made of soap bricks. Get going, somebody said. Get up, John said to himself, this is only a dream, you don't have to stay here.
"Stay on the ramp and keep in line, please," the guidemaster said through his megaphone.
"I'm looking for my friend," John said.
"Please, mister, keep in line," the guidemaster said, a sagging, little man like a basset hound, a sad wag with an unfortunate inflection.
"Be so kind as to keep in line."
John didn't look, he couldn't look, but he knew the place was vast, the line was endless, the numbers numberless. They moved along the ramp, blackened windows to their left, huge rows of kettles to their right. A woman jabbed John in his ribs with her elbow, a Greenpoint Gertie, a gumchewing Gladys. "Don't shove, mister, or you'll get yours," she said.
She shifted her grimy baby in her arms and marched on with a clamped up face. John had an urge to kick her behind. Her sandals flapped in his face on her thorny heels.
"For free information," the guide said, the accent almost broke John's ear, "everyody takes something for free, no? Who'll refuse? For free it don't cost you no extra. The Romans were maybe the first people to make what you call real soap. What do yu think of that, ladies and gentlemen? Soap, what you call real soap, like what we know what soap is is only two thousand years old. Count back on your fingers how many years before and you will see how many of the thousands of years man lived with the dirt packed on him, the horse manure, the cow manure, the doggy manure, how many thousands of years he said his prayers to God with such dirt on him is it any wonder God didn't answer, so many years he went to bed at night and made love with the dust and the stink and the goaty manure on his boots. Is it any wonder the population was low. We are a liberated generation, ladies and gentlemen, the history of soap is the history of man's fight against disease and offending God, the triumph of love and waxing and multiplying, ladies and gentlemen, the struggle to shake off the dirt from the earth, the shit, you should excuse the expression, from the lips." He hit a kettle with a ringed finger. The ping scratched John's brain and he winced with annoyance.
"Just take this pot," the guide said. "You call this a pot? This is the Grand Canyon. It holds enough stock to make 300,00 pounds of soap. Three hundred thousand pounds, ladies and gentlemen, enough to wash a small civilization." The sound went down the ramp in vibrations.
Greenpoint Gertie put her baby on her head. "How do you put anything in there?" she said. She stood on her toes. "You can't get to the top of it."
"That's right," John said smartly, "you can't get to the top of it, so it doesn't matter."
"Pipes," the guide said. He took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. He took out a card and read conscientiously. "Underground Pipes. Steam is blown in at the top of the kettle and the contents are agitated. Salt is added, the globules of glycerine and water sink to the bottom and the crud rises to the top, clear as a bell."
John sneered. "Why don't they get somebody who can speak better?"
The guide was hurt but indulgent. "Mister," he said, "if you don't like the show you can leave. For what they pay me you should have this job." He raised his megaphone and swung his voice out. "Ladies and gentlemen, please, if you would be so good, hurry along. Gentlemen, please, step to the back and let the ladies come forward."
The women drifted fore, the men drifted aft. Geenpoint Gertie bobbed away down the ramp. John panicked. The population shifted. A student in tennis clothes looked up at the kettles.
"Cheap engineering," he said. John didn't go for his cool. "Is that so?" he asked.
The student looked him down with insouciance. "Where'd you graduate from?" the student asked.
John clamped his lips shut and refused to answer. Why weren't his merits apparent. The tourists hurried down the ramp. The guidemaster was flipping cards and barking directions. The student sauntered with his hands behind his back.
"Listen here," John said behind clenched teeth, "I have a friend named Leonard Bloom."
The student flashed his tennis racket. "I have a friend named Ward Collins."
The guide swung the megaphone over their backs. "Ladies and gentlemen, please, if I can have your attention." He took out a card and squinted at it. "An education I didn't get so you'll forgive me if I read what it says here. Water and glycerine, you know what that is?" He looked at his audience for help. There wasn't any. "Well, so you're in my boat. Water I know, gycerine I heard of, together they're withdrawn from the bottom and the soap crud is pumped into large stirring bowls. Would you guess what these bowls are called? He looked for an answer, his jaw sagged with hope, his skin rippled. "No? Not a person here knows what these bowls are called? For this you don't need a college education. Crutches," he said, "liebermenschen, they're called crutches." He looked down his basset nose and hummed through his megaphone. "For this you don't need a college education. Any questions, liebermenschen?"
"Yes," a lady said. She raised her hands, two rings to a finger.
John winced. A Brooklyn belle in bell bottom trousers, a mod granmere, a dyed lady pompadour, tortoise shell glasses and a ruby necklace. "Where do the pipes come from and where do they go?"
The guide smiled. "Me you should ask? Do I look like a genius to you? I only know what I read on this card." He took out another. "We go this way."
They floated after him over the ramp, past the blackened windows and the rows of kettles. John floated too, right into a museum, natural habitat on every sign. Behind the glass cases the natives carried mortgage statements, insurance policies, bank statements, saleslips, affidavits, I.O.U. notes, credit terms and rental terms. There were teachers, lawyers, doctors, weighers, buyers, cutters, slicers and merchants,wholesalers, retailers, tax collectors and tax evaders. All the good people, the knights and the soldiers, the priests and the prelates, the dames and the damsels, stood on the other side of the room and sharpened their swords. The guide got up on a chair and raised his megaphone.
"Ladies and gentelemen, here in this museum you will see an exhibit of every type of soap to be found for every purpose known to man. Here is antiseptic and coloring and garment-cleaning, glycerine and iodine, liquid soap, liquid tar soap, liquid styrax soap,would you believe glycerine soap, massage soap, metallic soap, petroleum soap, yes, yes, there is such a thing, even pumice soap, shaving soap, soap powders, toilet soaps, sand soaps, salicylic soap. Take a deep breath, ladies and gentlemen, there is also mottled soap, laundry soap, medicated soap, ox-gall soap for such a thing as to clean piece goods, ribbons, silks, hand dainties, and would you believe even a soap for dog and cat lovers that can be used on man or beast, guaranteed to drive away vermin. Look around, ladies and gentlemen, you will find a soap for every purpose, a soap to clean scars and a soap to clean stains and a soap to make you smell nice. The best soap, ladies and gentlemen, no doubt, no doubt, is the the soap that does everything, beautifies and cleans, is antiseptic and cosmetic. And there is such a soap. Would you believe it, ladies and gentlemen, there is such a soap, perfected according to the best German patent, it has a little zinc peroxide guaranteed to combine cosmetic elements. It cures wounds and cuts, it heals and it beautifies. Ladies and gentlemen, on your way out, as we pass through our garden of soap sculptures, you may each take a souvenir. For the men a bar of Essence d'homme and for you women a bar of Fragrance d'ame. The boxes are labelled from A to Z. Aurora, Bliss, Cloud, Dawn, Evening, Flowers, Glow, Heavenly, Iris, Joie, Kindness, Lotus, Mist, Nebulae, Rainbow, Sweetheart, Truhart, Unto, Vanessa, Xeranthemum, a happy thought in every name. Now, come this way, ladies and gentlemen, the tour ends in a minute, pass into the garden."
They floated out. The sunlight exploded.
Everyone let out an "Ah."
The children let out an "Oh."
The guide got up on a chair. The light was terrific. There were soap castles and soap bridges, statues of Hansel and Gretel, tin soldiers and lovers, Rima in a forest of animals, Snow White in a forest of flowers. The children went wild. They scattered like starburst. They clambered on Samson and crawled over Boaz, they rode soap whales and dolphins and eagles and bluebirds. There was soapfruit for lovers, strawberries of hematite, pears of ochre and apples of cinnabar. Adam and Eve forever in paradise, sculpted in saffron and a trace of magenta. Queen Esther in rose soap and Haman in bismarck, David in ivory shaking a timbrel, the ark in umber under an olive tree in indigo, and all the sands of the desert in saffron and vermillion. The guide hummed through his megaphone and put on his sunglasses. He zapped and he swung, his chair twanged like a banjo. It sang and it twirled, it disappeared into light. He pushed a button and the garden was flooded. Rainbows and bubbles, eternities of circles floated into the air. "Behold," he said, and his voice hit a mountain.
"That's not our guide," John said to a bystander.
"Ssshhh," she said and stepped on his toe.
"Your manners are lousy," John said.
"Behold the perfection of form," the guide said. The garden was flooded with iridian bubbles, a spring rain of flowers, a shower of jewels, mignonette lillies, roses of cinnabar, a hailstorm of pansies in saffron and phloxine, Victorian green and indigo blue. "Behold this common object," the guide said.
A bubble sailed by in vermilion colors.
"Ain't it somethin'" Gertie said.
"It's only soap." John sneered.
"Behold this circle," the guide said, "behold its fragility, behold its reflections."
The children shrieked with delight. They couldn't be restrained.
They climbed into the bubbles and floated away. They swung into heaven on a garland of clouds. Their parents ran after them, but the children were gone. They had floated away. Only their breath remained hanging in jewels, rhodamine and magenta, saffron from the crocus.
"Behold," the guide said, "this iridian circle, behold its reflection of heaven."
"That's not our guide," John said to Gertie. "Don't you know you've been had."
But she wasn't listening. She was scanning the sky for a sign of her child. "O.K., God," she let out a yawp, "sock it to me and bind up my wounds."
"Liebermenschen," He said, "your destiny washes the pores of the human race."
Master of rhythms, Tuner of tunes. His chair sang and twanged and
twirled into sunlight.
It was too much for John. He put on his sunglasses. The scene was dimmed, the sunlight was screened out. Gertie disappeared and Liverpool Lena, Moscow Moishe and Sammy from Scranton, Rabinowitz, Goldie, Lieberwitz, Heschel, Schneider, Shapiro, Tannenbaum and Kuzetsky. The ramp was gone, but not the line. It became a parade of cars, a cortege of mourners. His mother lay in state in the first limousine, her hair piled on top, as red as in life. She's alive, John thought. The thought knocked him out. Don't you want me to come back, she said and sat up. He ran like hell, but she ran faster. Don't you want me to come back, she called after him. His right leg jumped into motion, his blanket slid to the floor. Was that a yes or a no? she asked. He burst into motion a mile a minute.
'Psst," a voice said,"come in here."
"What this?" John asked. The sweat poured from his armpits.
"The bread factory," the voice said, "amor matrix matris matrix."
"No," John screamed, "I've been tricked. Now's the time to get up." He strained, he pushed every inner muscle, his eyelids flickered, he was almost there, he was surfacing, beating the racket, climbing out of the hole, he was being saved until she put a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.
"Who killed cock robin?" she crooned, and he fell back to sleep.
He could not get to the end of the dream, he could not get to the end of the tunnel. His legs could not reach the floor, he was too little. He pushed her hand away, but she fed him and winked and sang and fed him.
Leonard peered in at the window. "Who killed cock robin?" he cried. He held a dead bird in his hand.
"Does it matter?" Annie said. She stood at a table twelve feet long and rolled out the dough for the blintzes. "Childen are children. You have to wipe their bottoms, send them to school and dry their eyes." She put her hand in her pocket and took out a fistful of candy. "Choose," she said, "you have a choice between bitter drops and sour balls. Choose wisely."
"Who killed cock robin?" his mother sang.
John shivered. He grappled for the banket. Even in his sleep he knew there was supposed to be a cover. He stood by the side of the road in midwinter and shivered. When the funforall came by he opened a door and begged to be let in.
A woman beat his fingers with her cane. "Nasty boy," she rasped, "letting in all that cold air."
But he was in anyway and said to the driver, "Where's it going?"
The driver dropped a foot of ash from his cigar. "The gum factory. That's where we make it all stick together."
The judge banged his gavel for order. The noise broke the sound barrier. Windows popped. The air crashed like a wave. "THIS TRY-ALL WILL NOW COMMENCE." The clerk took out a scroll and read twelve million names.
"Who's being tried"? John asked the lady siting next to him.
"Need you ask?" she answered, amused. "All of them, of course."
John turned away with a sly feeling. He knew who that lady was. She was his grandmother from Athens. She held Basil on her lap.
"Somebody has been hunting in the holy mountain," the judge said. "Somebody has eaten up all the porridge, somebody has broken the rocking chair, somebody is sleeping in my bed."
"I did it,' John whispered, and laughed behind his hands. "It's me, it's me, it's me. I did it with my little toy gun."
"You will be taken from this place to a place known as the ho-ho-ho-hospital, there to be investigated, operated, dissected, quartered, examined and analyzed until pronounced dead."
Maria jumped up from the witness box and bellowed bad, bad words. "I don't give a shootin' crap about your lousy trial. Take your hands off my child or I'll defunct you." She swung her flashlight in John's face. "Come this way," she said, and pushed him through a door.
He stood in a long corridor, as long as anything he had ever seen. Though he saw something at the end of it, he knew there was no end to it, that it went on forever, and he knew that what he saw at the end of it was no end. It was Georgie on a hosptial bed, a sheet up to his chin, his head over the edge, his chin atilt at the ceiling, his eyes popping at the lights. He had a cross on his forehead, an incision to discovery. His hands hung down, his fingers were open, his nails were flat, his mouth was open, his tongue hung out.
Maria shrieked, "Rescue him." John crawled the walls like a monkey but could not get away. The corridor had no end, it had no beginning, it became a room, a round turret without windows, without a door, not even walls, only roundness. There was no way out, not even a crack. In his dream he knew there was no way out, except to wake up or die. He tried, he tried both. His mother sat at the other end of the tunnel, as he knew she would. She sat in a witness box and gave evidence of all kinds, why this and why that and he really had to protest that it was too late for all that. The evidence was associational, biased, with intent to wound, even self incriminating (as if she cared), anyway mostly illusionary and ex post facto, circumstantial, inferential. He rose to protest. She had on a large picture hat, looking her best and being the star witness wore slithering champagne silk. "The case is extra legal. I've had some experience with the law, intimately you might say," she laughed. Her voice dropped to a husky low. The judge popped a button. Basil bellowed like an orangutan in mating season.
Chlore wagged her brim at the judge. "I move that the case be dismissed. The charges are absurd and antiquated."
John's breathing relaxed. He forgot about the blanket. He could almost choose to stay asleep now except that he was cold and needed the blanket. The judge banged his gavel.
"We'll see about that," he said. "WITNESS."
John's ears popped. Jesus stood in the witness stand.
"State your name, date of birth and occupation," Father Rosa said and slipped the Bible under his hand. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?" He swung the incensor. "Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. In the name of the former and of the latter and of their holocaust. Allmen!"
Rabbi Bloom cleared his throat with embarrassment at being conspicuous. Aleph sat on his head. "I found them," John whooped and swiped at Aleph. "I win the treasure hunt, I get the medal," he shouted, but Aleph made threatening moves at John's hand.
"Aleph is a bad tempered dog," somebody said.
"You'd be bad tempered too," Rabi Bloom said, "if you only had three legs."
The judge banged his gavel. "Address yourself to the witness."
"Now's your chance," Basil whispered. "You've been preparing your defense all your life. Hop to it."
"Yingale," Rabbi Bloom said, "du kenst dein alte zeyde?"
Jesus said, "I died upon the rood so that all men should be good."
"This gentleman I don't know," Rabbi Bloom said. "There was once a young man with a dark face, used to come into the streets and make demonstrations, pass secret passwords, make speeches from the steps of the Temple. His mother, may she rest in peace, was upset by it but what could she do? She threw her hands up and hoped for the best. I personally have nothing to do with that man and I personally have nothing to do with this man. Personally, I live a quiet life. I don't cheat on my income tax, I'm not a usurer, I salute the flag when it goes by. So of what should I be guilty?"
"Bravo," Basil said.
"Hang him," the judge said. "He's a bigamist. He lives in two places at the same time." Basil climbed down from his mother's lap and burst into tears. "Not true," he wept. John's heart started to beat fast again. Chlore took out a bottle and sprayed the air with perfume. She re-cocked the brim of her hat at the judge. "I move for dismissal," she said, "mistrial, guilt by association, ex post facto, prejudiced jurors, no corpus delecti, unreliable witnesses up all night carousing, fragmentary evidence, and who in fact is cock robin anyway?" There was an explosion in John's brain. They are going to answer the question, he said to himself.
His mother bent down to kiss him. Her hat blotted out his sight. "Who in fact is cock robin?" she said again and laughed, but he would never tell her. He struggled, he struggled terribly until his legs reached the floor, then he slapped the door in her face and ran for all he was worth. He knew, without turning around, that he could not waste time answering her, she stood at the door with a bow and arrow aimed at him.
"Shoot him" somebody said. The voice came out of the world. She drew the bowstring and he knew it was as far back as it would go, the arrow was set to fly, he fled as fast as he could through the forest and the cemetery, stumbling over rocks and gravestones, his hands reaching for the bridge, his feet arching for the first step, the arrow set to go, he leaped and reached the center of the bridge but he didn't feel what he should have felt. The waves were splashing over the ramp. The chimneys were bellowing smoke. A bullfrog was croaking. Everything was going. The waves were brown and cruddy.
Don't fall in, he said to himself. WHATEVER YOU DO DON'T FALL INTO THE RIVER. But what could he do? His mother was on the Queens end hacking at the bridge posts with a saw and his father was on the other side, cutting the cables.
"I'm not supposed to fall in," he said sternly to them.
"Too bad" his father said and grinned at him.
John could not believe it. They were going to ignore his words. The bridge started to give way. There was nothing to grab hold of. The cables were gone, the center was cracking. "I'm not supposed to fall in," he cried, but even as he said it he heard the bridge crack. He could not stand the terror of the sound. It was inside his head. Whatever you do, DON'T FALL IN, a voice said to him, but how could he help it, the noise was roaring all around him. He could smell the waves. Something terrible was cracking. It was inside his head. He was going over the edge.
Lilly switched on the light in his room. "You're having a nightmare," she said. "I could hear you downstairs."
"Thank God,"John said, "it was only a dream."
Lilly picked up the blanket that had slipped to the floor.
John made his way to the washstand. He checked his mental parts, his name, his date of birth. Lilly's presence came to him with her habitual cleansing odors of ammonia and lemonsmelling soap.
"It's after six," she said.
"At least I slept through the night." He drained the thought of whatever satisfaction he could. "Has everyone gone?"
"Everyone. Mr. Kunz is sleeping. His doctor was here again last night and gave hm something."
"And you," he laughed menacingly. Lilly's nerves jumped. Oh, leave me not in this eternal woe.
John pushed back the curtain on the window. "What a grey day."
He looked down at Mrs. Arcano's backyard. The old lady was already out in her black dress and shawl and rundown slippers, surrounded by two grateful chickens. The rooster strutted, clucked and clacked with idiotic pecks of his head.
"Caw, caw," John crowed. He took off his shoe to throw it at the poor fowl.
"Don't," Lilly said.
"Don't be ridiculous," John said, "he's destroying the neighborhood, running down property, he doesn't belong among civilized people."
"Come down to the kitchen. I'll make you something," Lilly said, the old story of the condemned and their last meal.
"Yes, feed me," John sniggered, "anything but fowl or their parts, no eggs, no fried chicken livers or wings."
The lobby was dark. A brown fog surrounded Maria's Christmas tree.
Peter's arrogance still snickered in the lobby, the kitchen was a wound of wasted efficiency. Lilly made breakfast for John, waffles and cereal, no animal parts, and coffee for herself. Though conversation with him was dangerous, she asked him what his plans were. He looked malicious, as only John could look when he was about to depreciate something or someone, and what better object than her? She made no effort to stop him when he got up to leave. She had slept little in the last in four days, and she had enough instinct for survival left in her not to talk to him more than was necessary.
"Goodbye, John," she said, as formally or as informally as that, depending on how you heard it. "Goodbye, John, take care of yourself."
There was a wry cut in the corners of his lips. He was about to do something disastrous and to tell her about it, and she didn't want to hear it. Spare me, she thought. There was no formula for their goodbye. He spared her, and left. She swung between belief and disbelief that he was gone, this time forever.
"Not true," she said to herself, somewhere between hope and prayer, "he'll show up again."
She left the kitchen and went out into the garden to walk. Her nerve endings hopped and crawled about in search of hope, but she knew John was gone this time forever. The garden was covered with snow, and there was no place for her to sit down.
She could remember having had that thought before, standing in the same place last year and the year before that, dreading the next three or four months of winter and here she was again dreading the winter months. Pain rose to her mind as familiar to her taste as wine drunk ceremoniously.
Death lured her. Her bones were inhumanly brittle. To move was to break.
John was gone. She was forever a bird of prey circling the earth for a sign of compensatory feeling on anyone's part.
Ragpicker! notice me. Ragpicker, tapping your picker from garbage can to garbage can. Drunk sprawled in the doorway, private parts exposed like a dead worm. That man with his legs cut off to his hips, swinging between his crutches. She will seduce him, surprise his sexuality. That man vomiting in the hallway.
They will whine with passion and regurgitate together.
Oh! leave me not in this eternal woe. Do not empty the world for me of John.
Hurry home, Lilly, there is no one for you. Scrub your spirit with lye and hem it in with barbed wire. Purify ourself with acid. Burn out hope. The gods choose virgins for sacrifice. Teach yourself survival through self revulsion.
Death clutched her by the scalp. It was the hand of John come to destroy her finally, to tear out the last remnant of illusion from her brain. She was loathesome and he had left her. She aged a thousand years on the thought. Her skin turned yellow and slippery, her hair dry and wiry. Time was irrelevant. She had done her living. The future disappeared. It ceased to have herself in it. Time belonged to impersonal processes, erosion, glacial formations. Oblivion covered her sensual parts.
She would never remember John again. The sensory apparatus was sliced away. The erotic imagination was torn from her. She watched herself dying, transfixed, covetous of death and in terror of it. Her heart beat low. How far would the process go and how much of her would death claim before it stopped. She did not wish to die all the way. She looked about with a frantic eye for something to get hold of to help her master her thoughts.
It's only terror she said, trying to control herself. I want to live.
Still the wing of death flapped in her ear. Snow began to fall. A bird, caught offguard in the migratory patterns of life, peeped its surprise at finding itself left behind in the cold. Lilly wept for everything that ever lived. "Georgie," she moaned. The cry brought her to her knees. "How could you?" She beat the air and the ground and knew it was useless to tell anyone about him. Hadn't she been unprepared herself, guilty? She spun on the thought and immediately slammed her way to God. You must not torment me like this. I want to live. Every worm and cockroach fights for its life. Why should I do less? Unprepared! Guilty! She fought back.
She pleaded her case. It doesn't matter, she said viciously. I want to live. The confession was torn from her and she spun like a top smashing against the world. Yes, yes, yes, I want to live. I'll hoard every crumb, every petal, every rain. The wing of a butterfly will see me through. Birdsong at dawn, I'll live on grass. I don't care if there's winter. I'll hoard the sun. I'll live as a snail, a worm, a newt, I'll live without love, I'll live without legs, I'll live without arms. Yes, yes, yes. Because death is real I want to live.
John tarried. The small, old man tarried with him.
"Friend of yours?" he asked.
"Just tying to read the headlines," John said.
The small man unclasped his hands and took quite a stand for his size. "You aren't trying to steal an old bum's newspaper, are you?"
John's eyebrows shot up nervously.
"Here," the old man said and fished out a dollar. "Buy your own paper." He shook his head with disgust. "It's amazing what young people are coming to. Why don't you go into the army or get a job?"
"Why don't you mind your own business?"
"This is my business."
John was delirious. "How is this your business?"
The old man flapped his hands. "Humanity is my business."
John dodged further conversation and made a grab at the newspaper.
The socialist grabbed his arm and punched him on the chest. "Thief!" he cried, "thief! thief!" The sleeper jumped to his feet and cried out, "Where? What?"
"He's trying to steal your newspaper," the socialist said.
"Who cares?" the man said and flung it away at John. "It's last week's anyway,"
"That's quite an attitude to take," the socialist said.
John slithered away as well as he could. Strollers slithered alongside him and gave him cover. A pair of stripes went by, two pairs of boots with spurs on their heels, gaucho hats on their heads, tassels on their belts.
"Didja see that old man?" one of them said.
"Man, but didja see that old man," the other one said. He slapped his belly and doubled over with laughter. "What a loon, but I mean a real bluejay." He put his finger against his nose and wailed a tune.
"Did you see an old man who did that?" John accosted them.
"Did we see an old man who did that! Man, lemme tellya we saw an old man who did that."
"Is that so?" John said. He popped a pair of sunglasses on his face and laughed with them. "Must have been something to hear."
"A regular concert."
"Did he have a mutt with him, a three-legged dog?"
"Can't count," said one. "Drop out," said the other.
John took his sunglasses off. "Where'd you see him?" he asked with a lethal thrust.
"What's it to you?"
"I like music."
"Yeah? Let's hearya sing."
John grabbed his skinny wrist. "I said where."
"Hell, man, you're really eager for a song."
"My body's cracking for it."
"Lemmego or I'll cutya in ribbons."
"I'll give you ten,' John said.
"If you're that hot for his music, make it a hundred."
'I haven't got a hundred."
"What doya have?"
"Ten," John said.
"I'll take it," they said. "Your songbird's down at Gracie Mansion."
John plunged there, but the world is filled with people who pinch their nostrils to make music. This songbird had a monkey on his shoulder, not a dog. The crowd threw money. The monkey gathered it up. "See that, Aleph," a voice said, "everything can be turned to account." John whooped through the crowd. "Gotcha," he said. Aleph reared up like a lion and bared his teeth. "Dogsnatcher," somebody yelled. An old lady hit John on his head with her pocketbook. "What'll they steal next?" she said. Bloom slipped a leash on to Aleph and ran. John bellowed and ran after him.
"Go, go, old man," the old lady said, "don't let them steal your dog. Right on, with senior citizens." Aleph matched Bloom's speed. "Look at the three-legged dog go," somebody said. "Look at the two-legged man go," somebody said. A Russian wolfhound jumped out from a garbage can and attacked Aleph. A man in a wheelchair attacked the wolfhound with a rolled up newspaper. "Go, you three-legged dog," he said, "go, go." Aleph took a breather at a hydrant. "Not now," Bloom said. "Look at the three-legged dog piss," somebody said. "Look at the two-legged man---"
"Stop them," John yelled. Aleph blew the dust off his tail in his face and ran, gallant dog by Bloom's side. They dived into side streets and alleyways and disappeared from sight.
John arrived on the spot breathless. "Did you see an old man with a three-legged dog?" he asked a policeman.
"Lots," the policeman said, "this is New York City."
"I mean an old man with a three-legged dog."
"You mean an old man with a twitching eye and a three-legged dog?"
"Yes, yes, yes, yes. That's the one."
"Yeah? Who are you? Keeper of the asylum?"
"Just point me in his direction."
"He went left at the coner."
John leaped left at the corner, but the corner was empty. So was the street. An empty street in New York! A temple squatted at the end of the block, doors wide open. A hunch hit John. He made it to the temple and hit the jackpot. There was Bloom at the altar.
John opened his mouth to inform the world that the man up there was an imposter. "Ssssh,' everybody said. A man offered him a Bible and told him to sit down. John turned to the man next to him and said, "Listen, he's not your rabbi." "Sssshh," the man said, "the service is beginning." The organ pealed. "That's not your instrument," John said. The old man bent a kind face to him. "Why not? We paid for it." John's ears popped. The accent was familiar. Sure as hell he didn't want to dream that dream again. He moved an inch away from the man. The man gathered a prayer shawl around him and moved an inch away from John. The choir let out a peel of thunder, a chord from Handel's Messiah. "That's not your music," John said. The man leaned across and touched him on the shoulder. "This is a Reform temple," he said. The chorus swelled. The candles danced. Out stepped Bloom on the podium. John gasped. "That's not your rabbi," he whispered. The old man smiled. He was cheered by such ignorance. He opened his book to page 23 and beamed at the altar. Everyone stood up.
John shot out of his seat. The choir sang. Everyone sat down. The organ pealed. The candles danced. The curtains of the Ark parted. Everyone stood up. John shot up. Sweat broke out on his forehead. Rabbi Bloom raised his hands: "Sh'ma Yisroel Adnonoi Eloheynu, Adonoi Echod." The choir held a note. Everyone sat down. John rumbled. "Some religion," he said, "up and down." Rabbi Bloom slapped the pulpit stand. Everyone scrambled to page 106. Everyone but John. He peeked at the old man's Bible. "106," the old man said. "This is the season of Maccabeus," Rabbi Bloom said. "What's that?' John asked. "Christmas," the old man said.
"A time to set the scales to weigh a miracle." Rabbi Bloom said and slapped the pulpit stand again. The pages flew. "83," the old man said.
"What's the secret of knowing?" John asked. "Watch the rabbi," the old man said, "he tells the man in the first row and everyone looks over his shoulder." "On one side of the scale," Bloom said, "we put Antiochus Epiphanus, with two hundred thousand men. On the other side of the scale we put an old man with a beard down to his knees. Who will bet on the balance of the scales? What odds, members of the congregation? Do I hear odd? Who bets on Mattathias? Who bets on Antiochus? Let's hear a bet. Members of the congregation, place your bets now. Here they go, into the scale."
"What kind of a prayer is that?" John asked.
"Antiochus," Bloom said, "went down to the ground and Mattathias' side rode up to heaven. Mattathias laughed. He liked the ride. I have a secret weapon, he said. Antiochus looked up at Mattathias swinging above him. Be reasonable, he said, you're a mad fanatic and your wife is equally crazy. We have an army of two hundred thousand. You have only a long beard.
I have a secret weapon, Mattathias said.
Secret, shmecret, Antiochus said, you haven't got two hundred thousand men and that's a fact.
You blew dust in my face, Mattathias said. Antiochus almost burst through his armor. His plume shot a flame. So wipe it away, he said. Be reasonable. Wipe your face, we'll be friends again. You haven't got a chance. Nobody likes you. Nobody ever liked you. You were an unwanted child. To tell the truth, Mattathias, you are a peculiar man, your people are a peculiar people, your religion is a peculiar religion. You may not eat pork products. We can eat anything we want. You have only one god,we have many. You'll never be popular. Drop out now, you have no future, you're a misfit.
Let me down, Mattathias said. I have a secret weapon. They let him down. Antiochus roared with laughter. Mattathias ran home to his wife. Crazy Chana was at the well getting a bucketful of water and an earful of gab. Hurry, Mattathias said, we need sons.
Right, Chana said. She dropped her bucket and ran home with him.
The soldiers were in the temple, taking bets on the outcome. For Mattathias this was cause enough for revolution: 1) soldiers on sacred ground; 2) taking the Lord's name in vain; 3) the odds were terrible; Mattathias was 20-1. Hurry, Chana, he said. The timbers of his house shook. Everytime his lions shuddered five hundred years rolled into place.
The Druids were kicked out of Egland on the first orgasm, the Celts were kicked out of Ireland on the second orgasm, the Moors were kicked out of Spain on the third, the Indians were kicked out of the western hemisphere on the fourth, and the Jews were kicked out of Europe on the fifth.
Mattathais stopped. Chana counted one, two, three, four, five, and tied up her womb. Five lions roared. Judah, Simon, John, Jonathan and Eliezer.
Mattathias laughed. Antiochus laughed back. I have two hundred thousand men.
I have a secret weapon, Matthathias said.
Shoin genug, Chana said, enough already, and went back to the well.
Mattathias went into the hills and spoke to his people. I need two men to make a flint, I need three men to catch fire, I need five men for a revolution. His sons roared back.
Antiochus went back into the temple and addressed his soldiers: Play, children. They don't even have a dozen men. I have your temple, he said to Mattathias.
I have the hills, Mattathias said. He turned to John and said, The Hand of God is upon you. He turned to Simon and said, The Lord promised us a nation as plentiful as the grains of sand. He turned to Jonathan and said, Love wisely. The future slumbers in your loins. He turned to Eliezer and said, Don't stand upon one leg. The generations are running after you.
He turned to Judah and said, Strike. Judah turned black. His head turned to flint. His legs became a bone handle. Mattathias gathered about him a hundred men. They lifted Judah up and struck at Antiochus. They flew down from the hills, hammers at every side, bows and arrows on every back.
John sneered, "Who believes such a story?"
"Who disbelieves?" Rabbi Bloom thundered. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. Could Mattathias lose! If Matthathias lost Jesus could not be born?
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts
If Mattathias lost the Christian could not get to Rome?
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts
If you can believe in God, you can believe He is the whip of history friendship to try suppression for an hour or two. For friendship with John he would even try dignity.
They went into a drugstore. John asked for a bottle of aspirins.
"Take two," the druggist said. "They're on sale today, two for the price of one. You can never have enough aspirins." Bloom urged him to sit down and eat. "I'm not hungry," John said.
"That's not important."
"Why are you people always trying to feed me?"
"Because you look hungry. You lean in the wind. Look at you. An X-ray picture has more flesh on it."
John popped an aspirin into his mouth. "You foolish man, what's a meal to you now?"
"What was it to me last year or twenty years ago?"
"Isn't it dry that way?" the druggist asked.
"No," John said and moved Bloom away to the lunch counter.
"Such a moral reflex," Rabbi Bloom said, "a man shows concern for you and you rebuff him."
John put two more aspirins into his mouth and asked for water.
"Eat rapidly and let's go," he said. Rabbi Bloom settled Aleph under the counter and ordered a sandwich, salad, French fries, pie and coffee. John was conned into ordering soup. It was too late for amenities, too late for pretenses. Differences mounted like mountains. "Why is your mind always on food," he said with disgust.
"It takes my mind off other things."
John was so angry with him he forgot his headache and his pain.
"What are you trying to prove?"
The question brought tears to Rabbi Bloom's eyes. The reaction
unnerved John. What's more, he felt it was a bluff and wanted to laugh.
"Actually, nothing," Rabbi Bloom said and pushed his plate away. His depression was monumental. John was beside himself. "Finish your meal," he scolded, feeling guilty. "I can't," Rabbi Bloom shook his head morosely. "Im not enjoying it anymore. Come, it's time to go back."
Movement was in order. He wrapped the rest of his sandwich in a napkin.
"For Aleph. Later." They paid their bills and left. Aleph slinked and caressed the buildings. He flung a bouquet at a fire hydrant. A blue wind hit John's face, a package of sensations trailing rain and cold, a sky filled with geese weaving patterns on the blue, a swoop of seagulls winding out a cry. John's forehead almost broke with terror. The dancehall was still open. Men were going in. "Wait," he said, "it's still early. Let's go in there for just an hour or two."
Rabbi Bloom twirled his fingers in the air. "It's amazing that with all your problems you can still think of dancing."
"Come with me, just an hour," John pleaded.
"Not me," Rabbi Bloom said, "go yourself. I'll wait for you."
"Maybe not right at this spot, but around it."
"I don't trust you,' John said.
"Why, what do you think will happen to me?"
"You might disappear," John said nervously.
"From you? Never. Go, go, have fun. I'll wait for you."
"I won't have fun," John said truculently. He took Bloom by the hand and dragged him across the street. "I need you to stay with me. You only have to sit at a table and drink some beer.
The ticketseller eyed Aleph suspiciously. Rabbi Bloom assuaged her fears. "I'll put him inside my coat. Nobody will even notice him." John found a table for Bloom in a dark corner and bought him a beer, set a bowl of pretzels and a glass of milk in front of him. Then he disappeared into the dancing crowd. Aleph whined. Bloom hushed him, sat him on the table and fed him pretzels. "Try not to look, Aleph," he said to him, "It will ruin your digestion."
Every eight miutes he caught sight of John slinking a girl around the floor, one in red satin, one in black, one in green. The girl in red kept her arms on John's neck and dangled a purse. The girl in black kept her arm on his back and dangled a cigarette. The girl in green kept her arm on his hips and dangled. At a quarter to one the lights went out. There were screams and ripples of anticipation. The lights went on over the stage in the back of the hall. Rabbi Bloom tied a handkerchief over Aleph's eyes. The drummer went wild. His cheeks gyrated with fury.
He flipped his drumsticks in the air, banged the cymbals, and May Torrent and her Stormtroops marched out in a blaze of lights, naked except for the military buckles that swiveled in their navels, and boots and hats to give them style. Their bellies went forward, their legs went up, their thighs quivered with muscle. The audience was silent, hushed in the darkness.
Sweat poured in the men's armpits.
At two: twenty-eight the show was over, the stage was blacked out.
The drummer collapsed over his music stand. The lights went on again.
Rabbi Bloom removed the handkerchief from Aleph's yes. Movement started, somnambulistically at first, then with conviction.
A man in a striped shirt went by Bloom's table. "Some show," he said to a man in a blue shirt. "The nuts, the living nuts," the man in the blue shirt said.
A woman in a blue satin dress stopped at Bloom's table. "What a cute doggie," she said. "How's about it, Pop?" He held his hands up.
"Please," he said. Clearly, she saw, he was not the dancing type and moved on. When John came by again with the red satin dress, Bloom caught his eye and nodded to the door.
"So soon?" John wept.
"What else?" Bloom said. "How many times can we see the same show?
They came out into the air. The wind hit John's face. It blew in from the corners of the world with dreadful memories, dawn stretching across a mountain top, Elsie Maier under a tree in the rain. The sky was brilliant with stars. John wheeled on his feet and pressed his head against a store window of brocades, silks, velvets, embroidered cottons with unicorn scenes, tapestries with medieval designs, St. Francis taming the wolf, pilgrims on foot to Jerusalem, Scandinavian cloths woven with pictures of Laplanders, bells on their hats, frosty-eyed children, the soft, regal eye of the reindeer. John pressed his hands against the world and groaned. Rabbi Bloom drew the corners of his mouth down further than any man had ever done. He poked his fingers into his vest pockets, searching for something nameless in his mind. He cocked his head, looked up at the sky, sniffed the air, made a dozen mental tunings, and said, "Dear John, stay."
John drew in his breath. "Don't tempt me, you bastard."
"That's good, that's good. Curse me. It will make things easier."
They went down through the alley. A cat jumped out of a garbage can and howled. Aleph prepared to give chase, but Rabbi Bloom held him by the leash. A man opened a window and yelled down, "Aw, shut up," and dumped a pail of water which missed them. John and Bloom congratulated each other.
"That was a close call," John said. He felt exhilarated at having escaped a dousing.
"A bath I don't need," Rabbi Bloom said. When they came to the door of his apartment he rummaged in his pockets for the key. "You put it in your shoe," John said. Rabbi Bloom knocked his temple with his hand.
"It's lucky you're here," he rasped, disgusted with himself, and took the key out of his shoe. "Now, John," he said as they came into the room, "make yourself comfortable. Don't stand on one foot like a guest. Feel as if this is your own home."
The steam was out of John, suddenly. He looked about at the bare ceiling with the exposed pipes, at the nondescript furniture, at the twin beds with matching spreads. Aleph leaped into the Morris chair before John could consider it for himself, lowered his head and eyed John with a dare.
When John made no move, he licked his paws. "Lie down," Rabbi Bloom said to John. "Rest. Let me see," he scratched under his hat. "I'll give you something to read if I can find something." He looked around the apartment with a small despair, and finally found an old newspaper lying on top of the dresser. "Here," he gave it to John, "lie down, read it for a while."
He swung his jowls. "It is a fact that one is never completely prepared.
I wonder that there are people who have ambitions for the perfect crime, life is so full of details one always forgets. No food, no interesting reading material, only aspirins." He turned on the lamp. "A dull light too." John trembled. "Come, come," he said, "I will not let you suffer.
As for myself I have forgotten how. Here, lie down. Make yourself comfortable. And don't turn around. Remember what happened to Lot's wife." He pulled down the corduroy coverlet for John. "At least the sheets are fresh."
John asked for water. He took out the bottle of aspirins. Rabbi Bloom hummed to hmself as he moved into the bathroom. "Water, water everywhere. Thank you for being kind." John, his body stiff with exhaustion, lay down on the bed. He set the water and aspirins on the nightstand next to the bed. The lights in the dancehall were out. Only a light blue in the sky lent credibility to the idea that dawn was coming.
John drank the water and swallowed the aspirins and lay paralyzed with fear. Then he whipped his feet off the bed and sat up.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Rabbi Bloom wagged his finger. "Remember Lot's wife."
"Screw it," John said, "I want to know."
Bloom raised himself up on his toes. His eyes rotated upwards towards the pipes. "How else?" he said, "but silently."
John wrapped his hands around his elbows and moaned. "Hurry up."
"Don't interrupt and it will only take six minutes."
John lay back on the bed. He drew the cover up to his chin. "Have you thought of what this will do to Annie?"
Rabbi Bloom paused with the rope in his hand. "Annie?" he chuckled. "Annie has been dead since 1944. Your parents, John, as everyone knows, have been dead for a very long time." His threw the rope for the pipe. Once, twice, three times. The sound swished in the air with authority, but he missed the pipe and slapped his thighs with disgust. "An athlete I'm not. This is a trick for a cowboy. Once, twice, three times again, and still he missed. The rope swished like a cow's tail. Aleph's ears stood up with curiosity. John bled with exasperation and remorse.
"For God's sake," he cried out.
Rabbi Bloom paused with the noose in his hand. He looked at John lying in the bed with the cover over his quivering chin. "Your nerves are worse than mine. Really atrocious. How do you live with yourself?"
"Anyone who spent a night with you would be demented."
Rabbi Bloom got up on the little stool and looked at the ceiling pipes, estimating the distance for the throw. "Maybe I'll have better luck this way." He let out a length of rope in his hand. John's toes were cold.
Rabbi Bloom swung the rope wide. His knees buckled under him. His shook his head at his unsteadiness. Once, twice, three times more he threw the rope and made it. The swishing stopped. John's head rang with the silence. He sat bolt upright. "Why?" he cried.
Rabbi Bloom stood on the little antique footstool and peered at John with dismay. "No, no, no, not you, John. Such a question! My mother used to say that why was a good cow. You could milk her forever."
John lay back again, trembling. He wrapped his hands around his body to gain control. "I want it meticulously from you," he said, his teeth chattering. "You should give me an answer."
"For the record."
"For the record?" Rabbi Bloom brought his hand up with the noose and scratched his right eyebrow. "For the record then, because I like to swing."
"Make it dignified." John clicked his teeth. "It's your last chance."
"Aaaahhhh! Dignity! Well, then, for dignity's sake, because life dishonors us. We cannot live without being corrupted. I want to go clean."
John's cheeks twtiched. "That's not an original answer."
Rabbi Bloom's knees buckled again. "What? Originality too! Well, then, because we cannot occupy the same space in a novel without becoming allegorical."
John sat up once more. He gripped his elbows. "You feel that too? What a set of circumstances," he cried through his teeth. "What can my creator be thinking about? She promised me reality, but she turned me into prophecy." Rabbi Bloom looked at John with surprise and gravity. "Are you thinking about God?"
"No, I wasn't thinking about God."
"But what else should you be thinking about now?"
John tried to take the admonition to heart, but death squeezed out his piety. His eyes drifted about for focus. He thought: I have only to let go my hold not to suffer anymore. That doesn't seem so hard. But then a furious flame split the sky and the dawn poured through. A terrible perplexity of love shook him. He lifted his chin to the coming daylight.
The sky spread out like the wings of a bird.
"What's that noise?" he whispered.
Rabbi Bloom stood balanced as best he could on the antique stool.
He looked down at it distrustfully, suspicious that it would not hold his weight. "What noise?" he asked distractedly, looking up again at the pipes.
John crawled to the edge of the bed and looked out the window. The streets were grey. All the lights were out. But the sky was the color of a grasshopper's wing. "Sounded like crowing," he said.
"Crowing? You expect roosters in New York?"
John crawled back into bed and put his head on the pillow. "Why not? Mrs. Arcano has a rooster."
"Who is Mrs. Arcano?"
John fidgeted between explanations. It was too difficult to explain. His tongue was too thick. He thought of Lilly and wondered at her idiosyncratic knowledge of survival. "No one," he muttered, "an old lady at the end of the city who keeps a rooster and a couple of chickens.
She has the world in her apron. Anyway, it's not possible we could hear it from such a distance."
Rabbi Bloom tested the knot in the noose. Aleph stretched himself out over his paws and watched. "Why not?" Rabbi Bloom asked, "a good rooster has powerful lungs. I remember a rooster once that used to wake me up from six miles away. The whole countryside was filled wih his noise.
He even had a fancy name. What did they call him?" He scratched his cheek.
"Let me see. My mind must be slipping. I can't remember what they used to call him."
John crushed his knuckles one by one with bitter impatience. The dawn was green and cool, the color of moss under a running river. "Hurry up," he said, "or I'll do it for you."
Rabbi Bloom looked at him with hurt surprise. "It's you who keeps interrupting me."
"I?" John said breathlessly. "You poor demented Jew, I can't wait."
"Who Jew!" Rabbi Bloom exploded. "What Jew! Where Jew! My name is victim. The myth is manslayer." He pulled the knot in the noose tight between his hands.
The sky was blue, the color of a running river in the sunshine. It washed over John. He raised his hands and cried out against his will, "I am in agony. There is not an inch of my soul that is not in pain."
"You will not suffer," Rabbi Bloom said. "Our death is symbolic.
Our relationship was always symbolic. A closing of the eyes will bring you into eternity, a symbolic gesture. Then you will be the more than John you always were and I shall be the more than Bloom I always was. We shall see ourselves for what we are, flesh and symbol, mortal and immortal. I shall call you John and you shall call me Morris and when we speak we shall hear the reverberations of time and taste ancient honey."
John was fatigued beyond resistance. His eyes fought for light. And then they yielded. He saw nothing more of the sky. Only an immense crowing filled the air. Aleph's ears picked up. He looked at his master's body hanging from the ceiling, casting a shadow over the footstool.
Dogs are fabled. They are among the most domestic of animals. They have lived side by side with humans for thousands of years. Their reputation for loyalty is highest among all living creatures. Hence, a heartrending premonition filled Aleph. He jumped off the chair and prowled around the room. He jumped up on the bed and licked John's face. But something told him that his was no ordinary sleep. He sat back on his haunches and howled. The sunlight lengthened in the room. He jumped off the bed and sniffed, sniffed, sniffed every inch of wall. A tale wagger, a nose knower, he was puzzled why no one came to care for him. Was the world dead? What had happened to everyone? Where was Leonard? Where were the children? A beady tear glistened in his eye. But he was a dog and soon the call of nature hit him. He sat back and waited for someone to walk him, but no one came. It's past dawn, he thought. You know my bladder is weak. It won't be my fault if there's an accident. No one came. His master did not move. What could be the meaning of it? He had never neglected him before. His insides pressed pitifully. What to do? What to do about anything? His master was up to a new trick. There was nothing to do but to leap through the window and answer the call himself.
A brisk morning wind struck him as soon as he hit the street.
"Phew, you stink," the wind said. Aleph then showed his less likeable traits: whining, self pitying, self justifying, alibiing, blaming others.
"You'd stink too," he said, "if no one took proper care of you." The wind gave him a kick for his arrogance and knocked him to the end of the city.
"Some kick you've got," Aleph said, "I'm out of breath." He sagged against a tree and panted.
The wind butted him again. "Your breath is nothing to me," the wind said, and kicked him right out into the country.
Aleph howled. "What's your secret?"
"Everlasting creation, continuous combustion, instantaneous generation, endless circling." He rammed Aleph against a mountain and blew him over the hills. "Get moving! Quick!," the wind said, "your tale's not at an end."