Eli, the Fanatic
Leo Tzuref stepped out from back of a white column to welcome Eli Peck. Eli jumped back, surprised; then they shook hands and Tzuref gestured him into the sagging old mansion. At the door Eli turned, and down the slope of lawn, past the jungle of hedges, beyond the dark, untrampled horse path, he saw the street lights blink on in Woodenton. The stores along Coach House Road tossed up a burst of yellow—it came to Eli as a secret signal from his townsmen: “Tell this Tzuref where we stand, Eli. This is a modern community, Eli, we have our families, we pay taxes. . .,” Eli, burdened by the message, gave Tzuref a dumb weary stare.
“You must work a full day,” Tzuref said, steering the attorney and his briefcase into the chilly hall.
Eli’s heels made a racket on the cracked marble floor, and he spoke above it. “It’s the commuting that’s killing,” he said, and entered the dim room Tzuref waved open for him. “Three hours a day . . . I came right from the train.” He dwindled down into a harpbacked chair. He expected it would be deeper than it was and consequently jarred himself on the sharp bones of his seat. It woke him, this shiver of the behind, to his business. Tzuref, a bald shaggy-browed man who looked as if he’d once been very fat, sat back of an empty desk, halfway hidden, as though he were settled on the floor. Everything around him was empty. There were no books in the bookshelves, no rugs on the floor, no drapery in the big casement windows. As Eli began to speak Tzuref got up and swung a window back on one noisy hinge. “May and it’s like August,” he said, and with his back to Eli, he revealed the black circle on the back of his head. The crown of his head was missing! He returned through the dimness—the lamps had no bulbs—and Eli realized all he’d seen was a skullcap. Tzuref struck a match and lit a candle, just as the half-dying shouts of children at play rolled in from the open window. It was as though Tzuref had opened it so Eli could hear them.
“Aah, now,” he said. “I received your letter.”
Eli poised, waiting for Tzuref to swish open a drawer and remove the letter from his file. Instead the old man leaned forward onto his stomach, worked his hand into his pants pocket, and withdrew what appeared to be a week-old handkerchief. He uncrumpled it; he unfolded it; he ironed it on the desk with the side of his hand. “So,” he said.
Eli pointed to the grimy sheet which he’d gone over word by word with his partners, Lewis and McDonnell. “I expected an answer,” Eli said. “It’s a week.”
“It was so important, Mr. Peck, I knew you would come.”
Some children ran under the open window and their mysterious babble—not mysterious to Tzuref, who smiled—entered the room like a third person. Their noise caught up against Eli’s flesh and he was unable to restrain a shudder. He wished he had gone home, showered and eaten dinner, before calling on Tzuref. He was not feeling as professional as usual—the place was too dim, it was too late. But down in Woodenton they would be waiting, his clients and neighbors. He spoke for the Jews of Woodenton, not just himself and his wife.
“You understood?” Eli said.
“It’s not hard.”
“It’s a matter of zoning. . . .” And when Tzuref did not answer, but only drummed his fingers on his lips, Eli said, “We didn’t make the laws. . . .”
“You respect them.”
“They protect us . . . the community.”
“The law is the law,” Tzuref said.
“Exactly!” Eli had the urge to rise and walk about the room.
“And then of course,”—Tzuref made a pair of scales in the air with his hands—“the law is not the law. When is the law that is the law not the law?” He jiggled the scales. “And vice versa.”
“Simply,” Eli said sharply, “you can’t have a boarding school in a residential area.” He would not allow Tzuref to cloud the issue with issues. “We thought it better to tell you before any action is undertaken.”
“But a house in a residential area?”
“Yes. That’s what residential means.” The foreigner’s English was perhaps not as good as it seemed at first. Tzuref spoke slowly, but till then Eli had mistaken it for craft—or even wisdom. “Residence means home,” he added.
“So this is my residence.”
“But the children?”
“It is their residence.”
“But you teach them here.”
“The Talmud. That’s illegal?”
“That makes it school.”
Tzuref hung the scales again, tipping slowly the balance.
“Look, Mr. Tzuref, in America we call such a place a boarding school.”
“Where they teach the Talmud?”
“Where they teach period. You are the headmaster, they are the students.”
Tzuref placed his scales on the desk. “Mr. Peck,” he said, “I don’t believe it . . .” but he did not seem to be referring to anything Eli had said.
“Mr. Tzuref, that is the law. I came to ask what you intend to do.”
“What I must do?”
“I hope they are the same.”
“They are.” Tzuref brought his stomach into the desk. “We stay.” He smiled. “We are tired. The headmaster is tired. The students are tired.”
Eli rose and lifted his brief case. It felt so heavy, packed with the grievances, vengeances, and schemes of his clients. There were days when he carried it like a feather—in Tzuref’s office it weighed a ton.
“Goodbye, Mr. Tzuref.”
“Shalom,” Tzuref said.
Eli opened the door to the office and walked carefully down the dark tomb of a corridor to the door. He stepped out on the porch and, leaning against a pillar, looked down across the lawn to the children at play. Their voices whooped and rose and dropped as they chased each other round the old house. The dusk made the children’s game look like a tribal dance. Eli straightened up, started off the porch, and suddenly the dance was ended. A long piercing scream trailed after. It was the first time in his life anyone had run at the sight of him. Keeping his eyes on the lights of Woodenton, he headed down the path.
And then, seated on a bench beneath a tree, Eli saw him. At first it seemed only a deep hollow of blackness—then the figure emerged. Eli recognized him from the description. There he was, wearing the hat, that hat which was the very cause of Eli’s mission, the source of Woodenton’s upset. The town’s lights flashed their message once again: “Get the one with the hat. What a nerve, what a nerve. . . .”
Eli started towards the man. Perhaps he was less stubborn than Tzuref, more reasonable. After all, it was the law. But when he was close enough to call out, he didn’t. He was stopped by the sight of the black coat that fell down below the man’s knees, and the hands which held each other in his lap. By the round-topped, wide-brimmed Talmudic hat, pushed onto the back of his head. And by the beard, which hid his neck and was so soft and thin it fluttered away and back again with each heavy breath he took. He was asleep, his sidelocks curled loose on his cheeks. His face was no older than Eli’s.
Eli hurried towards the lights.
The note on the kitchen table unsettled him. Scribblings on bits of paper had made history this past week. This one, however, was unsigned. “Sweetie,” it said, “I went to sleep. I had a sort of Oedipal experience with the baby today. Call Ted Heller.”
She had left him a cold soggy dinner in the refrigerator. He hated cold soggy dinners, but would take one gladly in place of Miriam’s presence. He was ruffled, and she never helped that, not with her infernal analytic powers. He loved her when life was proceeding smoothly—and that was when she loved him. But sometimes Eli found being a lawyer surrounded him like quicksand—he couldn’t get his breath. Too often he wished he were pleading for the other side; though if he were on the other side, then he’d wish he were on the side he was. Sometimes the law didn’t seem to be the answer, law didn’t seem to have anything to do with what was aggravating everybody. And that made him feel foolish and unnecessary. . . . Though that was not the situation here—the townsmen had a case. But not exactly, and if Miriam were awake to see Eli’s upset, she would set about explaining his distress to him, understanding him, forgiving him, so as to get things back to Normal, for Normal was where they loved one another. The difficulty with Miriam’s efforts was they only upset him more; not only did they explain little to him about himself and his predicament, but they convinced him, sadly, of her weakness. Neither Eli nor Miriam, it turned out, was terribly strong. Twice before he’d faced this fact, and on both occasions had found solace in what his neighbors forgivingly referred to as “a nervous breakdown.”
Eli ate his dinner with his brief case beside him. Halfway through, he gave in to himself, removed Tzuref’s notes, and put them on the table, beside Miriam’s. From time to time he flipped through the notes which had been carried into town by the one in the black hat. The first note, the incendiary:
To whom it may concern:
Please give this gentleman the following: Boys shoes with rubber heels and soles.
5 prs size 6c
3 prs size 5c
3 prs size 5b
2 prs size 4a
3 prs size 4c
1 pr size 7b
1 pr size 7c
Total, 18 prs. boys shoes. This gentleman has a check already signed. Please fill in correct amount.
Director, Yeshivah of
“Eli, a regular greenhorn,” Ted Heller had said. “He didn’t say a word. Just handed me the note and stood there, like in the Bronx, the old guys who used to come around selling Hebrew trinkets.”
“A Yeshivah!” Artie Berg had said. “Eli, in Woodenton, a Yeshivah! If I want to live in Brownsville, Eli, I’ll live in Brownsville.”
“Eli,” Harry Shaw speaking now, “the old Puddington place. Old man Puddington’ll roll over in his grave. Eli, when I left the city, Eli,
I didn’t plan the city should come to me.”
Note number two:
Please give this gentleman ten pounds of sugar. Charge it to our account—Yeshivah of Woodenton, NY—which we will now open with you and expect a bill each month. The gentleman will be in to see you once or twice a week.
L. Tzuref, Director
P.S. Do you carry kosher meat?
“He walked right by my window, the greenie,” Ted had said, “and he nodded, Eli. He’s my friend now.”
“Eli,” Artie Berg had said, “he handed the damn thing to a clerk at Stop an’ Shop—and in that hat yet!”
“Eli,” Harry Shaw again, “it’s not funny. Someday, Eli, it’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yarmulkehs chanting their Hebrew lessons on Coach House Road, and then it’s not going to strike you funny.”
“Eli, what goes on up there—my kids hear strange sounds.”
“Eli, this is a modern community.”
“Eli, we pay taxes.”
At first it was only another townsman crying in his ear; but when he turned he saw Miriam, standing in the doorway, behind her belly.
“Eli, sweetheart, how was it?”
“He said no.”
“Did you see the other one?”
“Sleeping, under a tree.”
“Did you let him know how people feel?”
“He was sleeping.”
“Why didn’t you wake him up? Eli, this isn’t an everyday thing.”
“He was tired!”
“Don’t shout, please,” Miriam said.
“‘Don’t shout. I’m pregnant. The baby is heavy.’” Eli found he was getting angry at nothing she’d said yet; it was what she was going to say.
“He’s a very heavy baby, the doctor says.”
“Then sit down and make my dinner.” Now he found himself angry about her not being present at the dinner which he’d just been relieved that she wasn’t present at. It was as though he had a raw nerve for a tail, that he kept stepping on. At last Miriam herself stepped on it.
“Eli, you’re upset. I understand.”
“You don’t understand.”
She left the room. From the stairs she called, “I do, sweetheart.”
It was a trap! He would grow angry knowing she would be “understanding.” She would in turn grow more understanding seeing his anger. He would in turn grow angrier. . . . The phone rang.
“Hello,” Eli said.
“Eli, Ted. So?”
“Who is Tzuref? He’s an American guy?”
“No. A DP. German.”
“And the kids?”
“From Europe, too. He teaches them.”
“What? What subjects?”
“I don’t know.”
“And the guy with the hat, you saw the guy with the hat?”
“Yes. He was sleeping.”
“Eli, he sleeps with the hat ? ”
“He sleeps with the hat.”
“Goddam fanatics,” Ted said. “This is the 20th century, Eli. Now it’s the guy with the hat Pretty soon all the little Yeshivah boys’ll be spilling down into town.”
“Next thing they’ll be after our daughters.”
“Michele and Debbie wouldn’t look at them.”
“Then,” Eli mumbled, “you’ve got nothing to worry about, Teddie,” and he hung up.
In a moment the phone rang. “Eli? We got cut off. We’ve got nothing to worry about? You worked it out?”
“I have to see him again tomorrow. We can work something out.”
“That’s fine, Eli. Ill call Artie and Harry.” Eli hung up.
“I thought you said nothing worked out.” It was Miriam.
“Then why did you tell Ted something worked out?”
“Eli, maybe you should get a little more therapy.”
“That’s enough of that, Miriam.”
“You can’t function as a lawyer by being neurotic. That’s no answer.”
“You’re ingenious, Miriam.”
She turned, frowning, and took her heavy baby to bed.
The phone rang.
“Eli, Artie. Ted called. You worked it out? No trouble?”
“When are they going?”
“Leave it to me, will you, Artie? I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.”
In bed Eli kissed his wife’s belly and laid his head upon it to think. He laid it lightly for she was that day entering the second week of her ninth month. Still, when she slept, it was a good place to rest, to rise and fall with her breathing and figure things out. “If that guy would take off that crazy hat. . . . I know it, what eats them. If he’d just take off that crazy hat everything would be all right.”
“What?” Miriam said.
“I’m talking to the baby.”
Miriam pushed herself up in bed. “Eli, please, baby, shouldn’t you maybe stop in to see Dr. Eckman, just for a little conversation?”
“Oh, sweetie!” she said, and put her head back on the pillow.
“You know what your mother brought to this marriage—a sling chair and a goddam New School enthusiasm for Sigmund Freud.”
Miriam feigned sleep, he could tell by the breathing.
“I’m telling the kid the truth, aren’t I, Miriam? A sling chair, three months to go on a New Yorker subscription, and An Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Isn’t that right?”
“Eli, must you be aggressive?”
“That’s all you worry about, is your insides. You stand in front of the mirror all day and look at yourself being pregnant.”
“Pregnant mothers have a relationship with the foetus that fathers can’t understand.”
“Relationship my ass. What is my liver doing now? What is my small intestine doing now? Is my Island of Langerhans on the blink?”
“Don’t be jealous of a little foetus, Eli.”
“I’m jealous of your Island of Langerhans!”
“Eli, I can’t argue with you when I know it’s not me you’re really angry with. Don’t you see, sweetie, you’re angry with yourself.”
“You and Eckman.”
“Maybe he could help, Eh.”
“Maybe he could help you. You’re practically lovers as it is.”
“You’re being hostile again,” Miriam said.
“What do you care—it’s only me I’m being hostile towards.”
“Eli, we’re going to have a beautiful baby, and I’m going to have a perfectly simple delivery, and you’re going to make a fine father, and there’s absolutely no reason to be obsessed with whatever is on your mind. All we have to worry about—” she smiled at him, “—is a name.”
Eli got out of bed and slid into his slippers. “We’ll name the kid Eckman if it’s a boy and Eckman if it’s a girl.”
“Eckman Peck sounds terrible.”
“He’ll have to live with it,” Eli said, and he went down to his study where the latch on his brief case glinted in the moonlight that came through the window.
He removed the Tzuref notes and read through them all again. It unnerved him to think of all the flashy reasons his wife could come up with for his reading and re-reading the notes. “Eli, why are you so preoccupied with Tzuref?” “Eli, stop getting involved. Why do you think you’re getting involved, Eli?” Sooner or later, everybody’s wife finds their weak spot. His goddam luck he had to be neurotic! Why couldn’t he have been born with a short leg.
He removed the cover from his typewriter, hating Miriam for the edge she had. All the time he wrote the letter, he could hear what she would be saying about his not being able to let the matter drop. Well, her trouble was that she wasn’t able to face the matter. But he could hear that answer already, clearly, he was guilty of “a reaction-formation.” Still, all the fancy phrases didn’t fool Eli: all she wanted really was for Eli to send Tzuref and family on their way, so that the community’s temper would quiet and the calm circumstances of their domestic happiness return. All she wanted was order and love in her private world. Was she so wrong? Let the world bat its brains out—in Woodenton there should be peace. He wrote the letter anyway:
Dear Mr. Tzuref:
Our meeting this evening seems to me inconclusive. I don’t think there’s any reason for us not to be able to come up with some sort of compromise that will satisfy the Jewish community of Woodenton and the Yeshivah and yourself. It seems to me that what most disturbs my neighbors are the visits to town by the gentleman in the black hat, suit, etc. Woodenton is a progressive suburban community whose members, both Jewish and Gentile, are anxious that their families live in comfort and beauty and serenity. This is, after all, the 20th century, and we do not think it too much to ask that the members of our community dress in a manner appropriate to the time and place.
Woodenton, as you may not know, has long been the home of well-to-do Protestants. It is only since the war that Jews have been able to buy property here, and for Jews and Gentiles to live beside each other in amity. For this adjustment to be made, both Jews and Gentiles alike have had to give up some of their more extreme practices in order not to threaten or offend the other. Certainly such amity is to be desired. Perhaps if such conditions had existed in pre-war Europe, the persecution of the Jewish people, of which you and those 18 children have been victims, could not have been carried out with such success—in fact, might not have been carried out at all.
Therefore, Mr. Tzuref, will you accept the following conditions. If you can, we will see fit not to carry out legal action against the Yeshivah for failure to comply with township zoning ordinances Nos. 18 and 23. The conditions are simply:
- The religious, educational, and social activities of the Yeshivah of Woodenton will be confined to the Yeshivah grounds.
- Yeshivah personnel are welcomed in the streets and stores of Woodenton provided they are attired in clothing usually associated with American life in the 20th century.
If these conditions are met, we see no reason why the Yeshivah of Woodenton cannot live peacefully and satisfactorily with the Jews of Woodenton—as the Jews of Woodenton have come to live with the Gentiles of Woodenton. I would appreciate an immediate reply.
Eli Peck, Attorney
Two days later Eli received his immediate reply:
The suit the gentleman wears is all he’s got.
Leo Tzuref, Headmaster
Once again, as Eli swung around the dark trees and onto the lawn, the children fled. He reached out with his brief case as if to stop them, but they were gone so fast all he saw moving was a flock of skullcaps.
“Come, come . . .” a voice called from the porch. Tzuref appeared from behind a pillar. Did he live behind those pillars? Was he just watching the children at play? Either way, when Eli appeared, Tzuref was ready, with no forewarning.
“Hello,” Eli said.
“I didn’t mean to frighten them.”
“They’re scared, so they run.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Tzuref shrugged. The little movement seemed to Eli strong as an accusation. What he didn’t get at home, he got here.
Inside the house they took their seats. Though it was lighter than a few evenings before, a bulb or two would have helped. Eli had to hold his brief case toward the window for the last gleamings. He removed Tzuref’s letter from a manila folder. Tzuref removed Eli’s letter from his pants’ pocket. Eli removed the carbon of his own letter from another manila folder. Tzuref removed Eli’s first letter from his back pocket. Eli removed the carbon from his brief case. Tzuref raised his palms. “It’s all I’ve got. . . .”
Those upraised palms, the mocking tone—another accusation! It was a crime to keep carbons! Everybody had an edge on him—Eli could do no right.
“I offered a compromise, Mr. Tzuref. You refused.”
“Refused, Mr. Peck? What is, is.”
“The man could get a new suit.”
“That’s all he’s got.”
“So you told me,” Eli said.
“So I told you, so you know.”
“It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, Mr. Tzuref. We have stores.”
“For that too?”
“On Route 12, a Robert Hall—”
“To take away the one thing a man’s got?”
“Not take away, replace.”
“But I tell you he has nothing. Nothing. You have that word in English? Nicht? Gornisht ?”
“Yes, Mr. Tzuref, we have the word.”
“A mother and a father?” Tzuref said. “No. A wife? No. A baby? A little ten-month-old baby? No! A village full of friends? A synagogue where you knew the feel of every seat under your pants? Where with your eyes closed you could smell the cloth of the Torah?” Tzuref pushed out of his chair, stirring a breeze that swept Eli’s letter to the floor. At the window he leaned out, and looked, beyond Woodenton. When he turned he was shaking a finger at Eli. “And a medical experiment they performed on him yet! That leaves nothing, Mr. Peck. Absolutely nothing!”
“No news reached Woodenton?”
“About the suit, Mr. Tzuref. I thought he couldn’t afford another.”
They were right where they’d begun. “Mr. Tzuref!” Eli demanded. “Here ? ” He smacked his hand to his billfold.
“Exactly!” Tzuref said, smacking his own breast.
“Then we’ll buy him one!” Eli crossed to the window and taking Tzuref by the shoulders, pronounced each word slowly. “We-will-pay-for-it. All right?”
“Pay? What, diamonds?”
Eli raised a hand to his inside pocket, then let it drop. Oh stupid! Tzuref, father to eighteen, had smacked not what lay under his coat, but deeper, under the ribs.
“Oh. . . .” Eli said. He moved away along the wall. “The suit is all he’s got then.”
“You got my letter,” Tzuref said.
Eli stayed back in the shadow, and Tzuref turned to his chair. He swished Eli’s letter from the floor, and held it up. “You say too much . . . all this reasoning . . . all these conditions. . . .”
“What can I do?”
“You have the word suffer in English?”
“We have the word suffer. We have the word law too.”
“Stop with the law! You have the word suffer. Then try it. It’s a little thing.”
“They won’t,” Eli said.
“But you, Mr. Peck, how about you?”
“I am them, they are me, Mr. Tzuref.”
“Aach! You are us, we are you!”
Eli shook and shook his head. In the dark he suddenly felt that Tzuref might put him under a spell. “Mr. Tzuref, a little light?”
Tzuref lit what tallow was left in the holders. Eli was afraid to ask if they couldn’t afford electricity. Maybe candles were all they had left.
“Mr. Peck, who made the law, may I ask you that?”
“No,” Tzuref said.
“Before the people.”
“No one. Before the people there was no law.” Eli didn’t care for the conversation, but with only candlelight, he was being lulled into it.
“Wrong,” Tzuref said.
“We make the law, Mr. Tzuref. It is our community. These are my neighbors. I am their attorney. They pay me. Without law there is chaos.”
“What you call law, I call shame. The heart, Mr. Peck, the heart is law! God!” he announced.
“Look, Mr. Tzuref, I didn’t come here to talk metaphysics. People use the law, it’s a flexible thing. They protect what they value, their property, their well-being, their happiness—”
“Happiness? They hide their shame. And you, Mr. Peck, you are shameless?”
“We do it,” Eli said, wearily, “for our children. This is the 20th century. . . .”
“For the goyim maybe. For me the 57th.” He pointed at Eli. “That is too old for shame.”
Eli felt squashed. Everybody in the world had evil reasons for his actions. Everybody! With reasons so cheap, who buys bulbs. “Enough wisdom, Mr. Tzuref. Please. I’m exhausted.”
“Who isn’t?” Tzuref said.
He picked Eli’s papers from his desk and reached up with them. “What do you intend for us to do?”
“What you must,” Eli said. “I made the offer.”
“So he must give up his suit?”
“Tzuref, Tzuref, leave me be with that suit! I’m not the only lawyer in the world. I’ll drop the case, and you’ll get somebody who won’t talk compromise. Then you’ll have no home, no children, nothing. Only a lousy black suit! Sacrifice what you want. I know what I would do.”
To that Tzuref made no answer, but only handed Eli his letters.
“It’s not me, Mr. Tzuref, it’s them.”
“They are you.”
“No,” Eli intoned, “I am me. They are them. You are you.”
“You talk about leaves and branches. I’m dealing with under the dirt.”
“Mr. Tzuref, you’re driving me crazy with Talmudic wisdom. This is that, that is the other thing. Give me a straight answer.”
“Only for straight questions.”
Eli returned to his chair and plunged his belongings into his case. “Then, that’s all,” he said, angrily.
Tzuref gave him the shrug.
“Remember, Tzuref, you called this down on yourself.”
Eli refused to be his victim again. Double-talk proved nothing.
“Goodbye,” he said.
But as he opened the door leading to the hall, he heard Tzuref. “And your wife, how is she?”
“Fine, just fine.” Eli kept going.
“And the baby is due when, any day?”
Eli turned. “That’s right.”
“Well,” Tzuref said, rising, “good luck.”
Tzuref pointed out the window—then, with his hands, he drew upon himself a beard, a hat, a long, long coat. When his fingers formed the hem they touched the floor. “He shops two, three times a week, he gets to know them.”
“He talks to them?”
“He sees them.”
“And he can tell which is my wife?”
“They shop at the same stores. He says she is beautiful. She has a kind face. A woman who might even be capable of love. . . .”
“He talks about us, to you?” demanded Eli.
“You talk about us, to her?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Tzuref.”
Tzuref said, “Shalom. And good luck—I know what it is to have children. Shalom,” Tzuref whispered, and with the whisper the candles went out. But the instant before, the flames leaped into Tzuref’s eyes, and Eli saw it was not luck Tzuref wished him at all.
Outside the door, Eli waited. Down the lawn the children were holding hands and whirling around in a circle. At first he did not move. But he could not hide in the shadows all night. Slowly he began to slip along the front of the house. Under his hands he felt where bricks were out. He moved in the shadows until he reached the side. And then, clutching his brief case to his chest, he broke across the darkest spots of the lawn. He aimed for a distant glade of woods, and when he reached it he did not stop, but ran through until he was so dizzied that the trees seemed to be running beside him, fleeing not towards Woodenton but away. His lungs were nearly ripping their seams as he burst into the yellow glow of the Gulf station at the edge of town.
“Eli, I had pains today. Where were you?”
“I went to Tzuref.”
“Why didn’t you call? I was worried.” He tossed his hat past the sofa and onto the floor. “Where are my winter suits?”
“In the hall closet. Eli, it’s May.”
“I need a strong suit.” He left the room, Miriam behind him.
“Eli, talk to me. Sit down. Have dinner. Eli, what are you doing? You’re going to get moth balls all over the carpet.”
He peered out from the hall closet. Then he peered in again—there was a zipping noise, and suddenly he swept a greenish tweed suit before his wife’s eyes.
“Eli, I love you in that suit. But not now. Have something to eat. I made you dinner tonight—I’ll warm it.”
“You’ve got a box big enough for this suit?”
“I got a Bonwit’s box, the other day. Eli, why?”
“Miriam, you see me doing something, let me do it.”
“You haven’t eaten.”
“I’m doing something.” He started up the stairs to the bedroom.
“Eli, would you please tell me what it is you want, and why?”
He turned and looked down at her. “Suppose this time you give me the reasons before I tell you what I’m doing. It’ll probably work out the same anyway.”
“Eli, I want to help.”
“It doesn’t concern you.”
“But I want to help you.”
“Just be quiet, then.”
“But you’re upset,” she said, and she followed him up the stairs, heavily, breathing for two.
“Eli, what now?”
“A shirt.” He yanked open all the drawers of their new teak dresser. He extracted a shirt.
“Eli, batiste? With a tweed suit?” she inquired.
He was at the closet now, on his knees. “Where are my cordovans?”
“Eli, why are you doing this so compulsively? You look like you have to do something.”
“Oh, Miriam, you’re super subtle.”
“Eli, stop this and talk to me. Stop it or I’ll call Dr. Eckman.”
Eli was kicking off the shoes he was wearing. “Where’s the Bonwit box?”
“Eli, do you want me to have the baby right here!”
Eli walked over and sat down on the bed. He was draped not only with his own clothing, but also with the greenish tweed suit, the batiste shirt, and under each arm, a shoe. He raised his arms and let the shoes drop onto the bed. Then he undid his necktie with one hand and his teeth and added that to the booty.
“Underwear,” he said. “He’ll need underwear.”
He was slipping out of his socks.
Miriam kneeled down and helped him ease his left foot out of the sock. She sat with it on the floor. “Eli, just lie back. Please.”
“Eckman’s number,” he said. “It’ll save you the trouble.”
“You’ve got that goddam tender ‘You need help’ look in your eyes, Miriam, don’t tell me you don’t.”
“I’m not flipping,” Eli said.
“I know, Eli.”
“Last time I sat in the bottom of the closet and chewed on my bedroom slippers. That’s what I did.”
“And I’m not doing that. This is not a nervous breakdown, Miriam, let’s get that straight.”
“Okay,” Miriam said. She kissed the foot she held. Then, softly, she asked, “What are you doing?”
“Getting clothes for the guy in the hat. Don’t tell me why, Miriam. Just let me do it.”
“That’s all?” she asked.
“You’re not leaving?”
“Sometimes I think it gets too much for you, and you’ll just leave.”
“What gets too much?”
“I don’t know, Eli. Something gets too much. Whenever everything’s peaceful for a long time, and things are nice and pleasant, and we’re expecting to be even happier. Like now. It’s as if you don’t think we deserve to be happy.”
“Damn it, Miriam! I’m giving this guy a new suit, is that all right? From now on he comes into Woodenton like everybody else, is that all right with you?”
“And Tzuref moves?”
“I don’t even know if he’ll take the suit, Miriam! Why do you have to bring up moving!”
“Eli, I didn’t bring up moving. Everybody did. That’s what everybody wants. Why make everybody unhappy. It’s even a law, Eli.”
“Don’t tell me what’s the law.”
“All right, sweetie. I’ll get the box.”
“I’ll get the box. Where is it?”
“In the basement.”
When he came up from the basement, he found all the clothes neatly folded and squared away on the sofa: shirt, tie, shoes, socks, underwear, belt, and an old gray flannel suit. His wife sat on the end of the sofa, looking like an anchored balloon.
“Where’s the green suit?” he said.
“Eli, it’s your loveliest suit. It’s my favorite suit. Whenever I think of you, Eli, it’s in that suit.”
“Get it out.”
“Eli, it’s a Brooks Brothers suit. You say yourself how much you love it.”
“Get it out.”
“But the gray flannel’s more practical. For shopping.”
“Get it out.”
“You go overboard, Eli. That’s your trouble. You won’t do anything in moderation. That’s how people destroy themselves.”
“I do everything in moderation. That’s my trouble. The suit’s in the closet again?”
She nodded, and began to fill up with tears. “Why does it have to be your suit? Who are you even to decide to give a suit? What about the others?” She was crying openly, and holding her belly. “Eli, I’m going to have a baby. Do we need all this?” and she swept the clothes off the sofa to the floor.
At the closet Eli removed the green suit. “It’s a J. Press,” he said, looking at the lining.
“I hope to hell he’s happy with it!” Miriam said, sobbing.
A half hour later the box was packed. The cord he’d found in the kitchen cabinet couldn’t keep the outfit from popping through. The trouble was there was too much: the gray suit and the green suit, an oxford shirt as well as the batiste. But let him have two suits! Let him have three, four, if only this damn silliness would stop. And a hat—of course! God, he’d almost forgotten the hat. He took the stairs two at a time and in Miriam’s closet yanked a hat box from the top shelf. Scattering hat and tissue paper to the floor, he returned downstairs, where he packed away the hat he’d worn that day. Then he looked at his wife, who lay outstretched on the floor before the fireplace. For the third time in as many minutes she was saying, “Eli, this is the real thing.”
“Right under the baby’s head, like somebody’s squeezing oranges.”
Now that he’d stopped to listen he was stupefied. He said, “But you have two more weeks. . . .” Somehow he’d really been expecting it was to go on not just another two weeks, but another nine months. This led him to suspect, suddenly, that his wife was feigning pain to get his mind off delivering the suit. Just as suddenly he resented himself for having such a thought. God, what had he become! He’d been an awful bastard toward her since this Tzuref business had come up—just when her pregnancy must have been most burdensome. He’d allowed her no access to him—but still, he was sure, for good reasons: she might tempt him out of his confusion with her easy answers. He could be tempted all right, it was why he fought so hard. But now a sweep of love came over him at the thought of her contracting womb, and his child. And yet he would not indicate it to her. Under such splendid marital conditions, who knows but she might extract some promise from him about his concern with the school on the hill.
Having packed his second bag of the evening, Eli sped his wife to Woodenton Memorial. There she proceeded not to have her baby, but to lie hour after hour through the night having at first oranges, then bowling balls, then basketballs, squeezed back of her pelvis. Eli sat in the waiting room, under the shattering African glare of a dozen rows of fluorescent bulbs, composing a letter to Tzuref.
Dear Mr. Tzuref:
The clothes in this box are for the gentleman in the hat. In a life of sacrifice what is one more? But in a life of no sacrifices even one is impossible. Do you see what I’m saying, Mr. Tzuref? I am not a Nazi who would drive 18 children, who are probably frightened at the sight of a firefly, into homelessness. But if you want a home here, you must accept what we have to offer. The world is the world, Mr. Tzuref. As you would say, what is, is. All we say to this man is change your clothes. Enclosed are two suits and two shirts, and everything else he’ll need, including a new hat. When he needs new clothes let me know.
We await his appearance in Woodenton, as we await friendly relations with the Yeshivah of Woodenton.
He signed his name and slid the note under a bursting flap and into the box. Then he went to the phone at the end of the room and dialed Ted Heller’s number.
“Shirley, it’s Eli.”
“Eli, we’ve been calling all night. The lights are on in your place, but nobody answers. We thought it was burglars.”
“Miriam’s having the baby.”
“At home?” Shirley said. “Oh, Eli, what a fun idea!”
“Shirley, let me speak to Ted.”
After the ear-shaking clatter of the phone whacking the floor, Eli heard footsteps, breathing, throat clearing, then Ted. “A boy or a girl?”
“You’ve given Shirley the bug, Eli. Now she’s going to have our next one at home.”
“That’s a terrific way to bring the family together, Eli.”
“Look, Ted, I’ve settled with Tzuref.”
“When are they going?”
“They’re not exactly going, Teddie. I settled it—you won’t even know they’re there.”
“A guy dressed like 1000 B.C. and I won’t know it? What are you thinking about, pal?”
“He’s changing his clothes.”
“Yeah, to what? Another funeral suit?”
“Tzuref promised me, Ted. Next time he comes to town, he comes dressed like you and me.”
“What! Somebody’s kidding somebody, Eli.”
Eli’s voice shot up. “If he says he’ll do it, he’ll do it!”
“And, Eli,” Ted asked, “he said it?”
“He said it.” It cost him a sudden headache, this invention.
“And suppose he doesn’t change, Eli. Just suppose. I mean that might happen, Eli. This might just be some kind of stall or something.”
“No,” Eli assured him.
The other end was quiet a moment. “Look, Eli,” Ted said, finally, “he changes. Okay? All right? But they’re still up there, aren’t they? That doesn’t change.”
“The point is you won’t know it.”
Patiently, Ted said, “Is this what we asked of you, Eli? When we put our faith and trust in you, is that what we were asking? We weren’t concerned that this guy should become a Beau Brummel, Eli, believe me. We just don’t think this is the community for them. And, Eli, we isn’t me. The Jewish members of the community appointed me, Artie, and Harry to see what could be done. And we appointed you. And what’s happened?”
Eli heard himself say, “What happened, happened.”
“Eli, you’re talking in crossword puzzles.”
“My wife’s having a baby,” Eli explained, defensively.
“I realize that, Eli. But this is a matter of zoning, isn’t it? Isn’t that what we discovered? You don’t abide by the ordinance, you go. I mean I can’t raise mountain goats, say, in my backyard—”
“This isn’t so simple, Ted. People are involved—”
“People? Eli, we’ve been through this and through this. We’re not just dealing with people—these are religious fanatics is what they are. Dressing like that. What I’d really like to find out is what goes on up there. I’m getting more and more skeptical, Eli, and I’m not afraid to admit. It smells like a lot of hocus-pocus abracadabra stuff to me. Guys like Harry, you know, they think and they think and they’re afraid to admit what they’re thinking. I’ll tell you. Look, I don’t even know about this Sunday school business. Sundays I drive my oldest kid all the way to Scarsdale to learn Bible stories . . . and you know what she comes up with? This Abraham in the Bible was going to kill his own kid for a sacrifice. She gets nightmares from it, for God’s sake! You call that religion? Today a guy like that they’d lock him up. This is an age of science, Eli. I size people’s feet with an X-ray machine, for God’s sake. They’ve disproved all that stuff, Eli, and I refuse to sit by and watch it happening on my own front lawn.”
“Nothing’s happening on your front lawn, Teddie. You’re exaggerating, nobody’s sacrificing their kid.”
“You’re damn right, Eli—I’m not sacrificing mine. You’ll see when you have your own what it’s like. All the place is, is a hideaway for people who can’t face life. It’s a matter of needs. They have all these superstitions, and why do you think? Because they can’t face the world, because they can’t take their place in society. That’s no environment to bring kids up in, Eli.”
“Look, Ted, see it from another angle. We can convert them,” Eli said, with half a heart.
“What, make a bunch of Catholics out of them? Look, Eli—pal, there’s a good healthy relationship in this town because it’s modern Jews and Protestants. That’s the point, isn’t it, Eli? Let’s not kid each other, I’m not Harry. The way things are now are fine—like human beings. There’s going to be no pogroms in Woodenton. Right? ‘Cause there’s no fanatics, no crazy people—” Eli winced, and closed his eyes a second—“just people who respect each other, and leave each other be. Common sense is the ruling thing, Eli. I’m for common sense. Moderation.”
“Exactly, exactly, Ted. I agree, but common sense, maybe, says make this guy change his clothes. Then maybe—”
“Common sense says that? Common sense says to me they go and find a nice place somewhere else, Eli. New York is the biggest city in the world, it’s only 30 miles away—why don’t they go there?”
“Ted, give them a chance. Introduce them to common sense.”
“Eli, you’re dealing with fanatics. Do they display common sense? Talking a dead language, that makes sense? Making a big thing out of suffering, so you’re going oy-oy-oy all your life, that’s common sense? Look, Eli, we’ve been through all this. I don’t know if you know—but there’s talk that Life magazine is sending a guy out to the Yeshivah for a story. With pictures.”
“Look, Teddie, you’re letting your imagination get inflamed. I don’t think Life’s interested.”
“But I’m interested, Eli. And we thought you were supposed to be.”
“I am,” Eli said, “I am. Let him just change the clothes, Ted. Let’s see what happens.”
“They live in the medieval ages, Eli—it’s some superstition, some rule.”
“Let’s just see,” Eli pleaded.
“Eli, every day—”
“One more day,” Eli said. “If he doesn’t change in one more day. . . .”
“Then I get an injunction first thing Monday. That’s that.”
“Look, Eli—it’s not up to me. Let me call Harry-”
“You’re the spokesman, Teddie. I’m all wrapped up here with Miriam having a baby. Just give me the day—them the day.”
“All right, Eli. I want to be fair. But tomorrow, that’s all. Tomorrow’s the judgment day, Eli, I’m telling you.”
“I hear trumpets,” Eli said, and hung up. He was shaking inside—Teddie’s voice seemed to have separated his bones at the joints. He was still in the phone booth when the nurse came to tell him that Mrs. Peck would positively not be delivered of a child until the morning. He was to go home and get some rest, he looked like he was having the baby. The nurse winked and left.
But Eli did not go home. He carried the Bonwit box out into the street with him and put it in the car. The night was soft and starry, and he began to drive the streets of Woodenton. Square cool windows, apricot-colored, were all one could see beyond the long lawns that fronted the homes of the townsmen. The stars polished the permanent baggage carriers atop the station wagons in the driveways. He drove slowly, up, down, around. Only his tires could be heard taking the gentle curves in the road.
What peace. What incredible peace. Have children ever been so safe in their beds? Parents—Eli wondered—so full in their stomachs? Water so warm in its boilers? Never. Never in Rome, never in Greece. Never even did walled cities have it so good! No wonder then they would keep things just as they were. Here, after all, were peace and safety—what civilization had been working toward for centuries. For all his jerkiness, that was all Ted Heller was asking for, peace and safety. It was what his parents had asked for in the Bronx, and his grandparents in Poland, and theirs in Russia or Austria, or wherever else they’d fled to or from. It was what Miriam was asking for. And now they had it—the world was at last a place for families, even Jewish families. After all these centuries, maybe there just had to be this communal toughness—or numbness—to protect such a blessing. Maybe that was the trouble with the Jews all along—too soft. Sure, to live takes guts . . . Eli was thinking as he drove on beyond the train station, and parked his car at the darkened Gulf station. He stepped out, carrying the box.
At the top of the hill one window trembled with light. What was Tzuref doing up there in that office? Killing babies—probably not. But studying a language no one understood? Practicing customs with origins long forgotten? Suffering sufferings already suffered once too often? Teddie was right—why keep it up! However, if a man chose to be stubborn, then he couldn’t expect to survive. The world is give-and-take. What sense to sit and brood over a suit. Eli would give him one last chance.
He stopped at the top. No one was around. He walked slowly up the lawn, setting each foot into the grass, listening to the shh shhh shhhh his shoes made as they bent the wetness into the sod. He looked around. Here there was nothing. Nothing! An old decaying house—and a suit. . . .
On the porch he slid behind a pillar. He felt someone was watching him. But only the stars gleamed down. And at his feet, off and away, Woodenton glowed up. He set his package on the step of the great front door. Inside the cover of the box he felt to see if his letter was there. When he touched it, he pushed it deeper into the green suit, which his fingers still remembered from winter. He should have included some light bulbs. He slid back by the pillar again, and this time there was something on the lawn. It was the second sight he had of him. He was facing Woodenton and barely moving across the open space towards the trees. His right fist was beating his chest. And then Eli heard a sound rising with each knock on the chest. What a moan! It could raise hair, stop hearts, water eyes. And it did all three to Eli, plus more. Some feeling crept into him for whose deepness he could find no word. It was strange. He listened—it did not hurt to hear this moan. He wondered if it hurt to make it. And so, with only stars to hear, he tried. And it did hurt. Not the bumblebee of noise that turned at the back of his throat and winged out his nostrils. What hurt buzzed down. It stung and stung inside him, and in turn the moan sharpened. It became a scream, louder, a song, a crazy song that whined through the pillars and blew out to the grass, until the strange hatted creature on the lawn turned and threw his arms wide, and looked in the night like a scarecrow.
Eli ran, and when he reached the car the pain was only a bloody scratch across his neck where a branch had whipped back as he fled the greenie’s arms.
The following day his son was born. But not till one in the afternoon, and by then a great deal had happened.
First, at nine-thirty the phone rang. Eli leaped from the sofa—where he’d dropped the night before—and picked it screaming from the cradle. He could practically smell the hospital as he shouted into the phone, “Hello, yes!”
“Eli, it’s Ted. Eli, he did it. He just walked by the store. I was opening the door, Eli, and I turned around and I swear I thought it was you. But it was him. He still walks like he did, but the clothes, Eli, the clothes.”
“The greenie. He has on a man’s regular clothes. And the suit, it’s a beauty.”
The suit barreled back into Eli’s consciousness, pushing all else aside. “What color suit?”
“Green. He’s just strolling in the green suit like it’s a holiday. Eli . . . is it a Jewish holiday?”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s walking straight up Coach House Road, in this damn tweed job. Eli, it worked. You were right.”
He took off the underwear in which he’d slept and went into the kitchen where he turned the light under the coffee. When it began to perk he held his head over the pot so it would steam loose the knot back of his eyes. It still hadn’t when the phone rang.
“Eli, Ted again. Eli, the guy’s walking up and down every street in town. Really, he’s on a tour or something. Artie called me, Herb called me. Now Shirley calls that he just walked by our house. Eli, go out on the porch, you’ll see.”
Eli went to the window and peered out. He couldn’t see past the bend in the road, and there was no one in sight.
“Eli?” He heard Ted from where he dangled over the telephone table. He dropped the phone into the hook, as a few last words floated up to him—“Eliyousawhim . . . ?” He threw on the pants and shirt he’d worn the night before and walked barefoot onto his front lawn. And sure enough, his apparition appeared around the bend: in a brown hat a little too far down on his head, a green suit too far back on the shoulders, an unbuttoned-down button-down shirt, a tie knotted so as to leave a two-inch tail, trousers that cascaded onto his shoes—he was shorter than that black hat had made him seem. And moving the clothes was that walk that was not a walk, the tiny-stepped shlumpy gait. He came round the bend, and for all his strangeness—it clung to his whiskers, signalled itself in his locomotion—he looked like he belonged. Eccentric, maybe, but he belonged. He made no moan, nor did he invite Eli with wide flung arms. But he did stop when he saw him. He stopped and put a hand to his hat. When he felt for its top, his hand went up too high. Then it found the level and fiddled with the brim. The fingers fiddled, fumbled, and when they’d finally made their greeting, they traveled down the fellow’s face and in an instant seemed to have touched each one of his features. They dabbed the eyes, ran the length of the nose, swept over the hairy lip, until they found their home in the hair that hid a little of his collar. To Eli the fingers said, I have a face, I have a face at least. Then his hand came through the beard and when it stopped at his chest it was like a pointer—and the eyes asked a question as tides of water shifted over them. The face is all right, I can keep it? Such a look was in those eyes, that Eli was still seeing them when he turned his head away. They were the hearts of his jonquils, that only last week had appeared—they were the leaves on his birch, the bulbs in his coach-lamp, the droppings on his lawn: those eyes were the eyes in his head. They were his, he had made them. He turned and went into his house and when he peeked out the side of the window, between shade and molding, the green suit was gone.
“I saw him, Shirley,” and he hung up.
He sat frozen for a long time. The sun moved around the windows. The coffee steam smelled up the house. The phone began to ring, stopped, began again. The mailman came, the cleaner, the bakeryman, the gardener, the ice cream man, the League of Woman Voters lady. A Negro woman spreading some strange Gospel calling for the revision of the Food and Drug Act knocked at the front, rapped the windows, and finally scraped a half dozen pamphlets under the back door. But Eli only sat, without underwear, in last night’s suit. He answered no one.
Given his condition, it was strange that the trip and crash at the back door reached his inner ear. But in an instant he seemed to melt down into the crevices of the chair, then to splash up and out to where the clatter had been. At the door he waited. It was silent, but for a fluttering of damp little leaves on the trees. When he finally opened the door, there was no one there. He’d expected to see green, green, green, big as the doorway, topped by his hat, waiting for him with those eyes. But there was no one out there, except for the Bonwit’s box which lay bulging at his feet. No string tied it and the top rode high on the bottom. The coward! He couldn’t do it! He couldn’t!
The very glee of that idea pumped fuel to his legs. He tore out across his back lawn, past his new spray of forsythia, to catch a glimpse of the bearded one fleeing naked through yards, over hedges and fences, to the safety of his hermitage. In the distance a pile of pink and white stones—which Harriet Knudson had painted the previous day—tricked him. “Run,” he shouted to the rocks, “Run, you . . .” but he caught his error before anyone else did, and though he peered and craned there was no hint anywhere of a man about his own size, with white, white, terribly white skin (how white must be the skin of his body!) in cowardly retreat. He came slowly, curiously, back to the door. And while the trees shimmered in the light wind, he removed the top from the box. The shock at first was the shock of having daylight turned off all at once. Inside the box was an eclipse. Then black sorted from black, and shortly there was the glassy black of lining, the coarse black of trousers, the dead black of fraying threads, and in the center the mountain of black: the hat. He picked the box from the doorstep and carried it inside. For the first time in his life he smelled the color of blackness: a little stale, a little sour, a little old, but nothing that could overwhelm you. Still, he held the package at arm’s length and deposited it on the dining room table.
Twenty rooms on a hill and they store their old clothes with me! What am I supposed to do with them? Give them to charity? That’s where they came from. He picked up the hat by the edges and looked inside. The crown was smooth as an egg, the brim practically threadbare. There is nothing else to do with a hat in one’s hands but put it on, so Eli dropped the thing on his head. He opened the door to the hall closet and looked at himself in the full length mirror. The hat gave him bags under the eyes. Or perhaps he had not slept well. He pushed the brim lower till a shadow touched his lips. Now the bags under his eyes had inflated to become his face. Before the mirror he unbuttoned his shirt, unzipped his trousers, and then, shedding his clothes, he studied what he was. What a silly disappointment to see yourself naked in a hat. Especially in that hat. He sighed, but could not rid himself of the great weakness that suddenly set on his muscles and joints, beneath the terrible weight of the stranger’s strange hat.
He returned to the dining room table and emptied the box of its contents: jacket, trousers, and vest (it smelled deeper than blackness). And under it all, sticking between the shoes that looked chopped and bitten, came the first gleam of white. A little fringed serape, a gray piece of semi-underwear, was crumpled at the bottom, its thready border twisted into itself. Eli removed it and let it hang free. What is it? For warmth? To wear beneath underwear in the event of a chest cold? He held it to his nose but it did not smell from Vicks or mustard plaster. It was something special, some Jewish thing. Special food, special language, special prayers, why not special BVDs? So fearful was he that he would be tempted back into wearing his traditional clothes—reasoned Eli—that he had carried and buried in Woodenton everything, including the special underwear. For that was how Eli now understood the box of clothes. The greenie was saying, Here, I give up. I refuse even to be tempted. We surrender. And that was how Eli continued to understand it until he found he’d slipped the white fringy surrender flag over his hat and felt it clinging to his chest. And now, looking at himself in the mirror, he was momentarily uncertain as to who was tempting who into what. Why did the greenie leave his clothes? Was it even the greenie? Then who was it? And why? But, Eli, for Christ’s sake, in an age of science things don’t happen like that. . . .
Regardless of who was the source of the temptation, what was its end, not to mention its beginning, Eli, some moments later, stood draped in black, with a little white underneath, before the full length mirror. He had to pull down on the trousers so they would not show the hollow of his ankle. The greenie, didn’t he wear socks? Or had he forgotten them? The mystery was solved when Eli mustered enough courage to investigate the trouser pockets. He had expected some damp awful thing to happen to his fingers should he slip them down and out of sight—but when at last he jammed bravely down he came up with a khaki Army sock in each hand. As he slipped them over his toes, he invented a genesis: a GI’s present. Plus everything else lost between 1938 and 1945, he had also lost his socks. Not that he had lost the socks, but that he’d had to stoop to accepting these, made Eli almost cry. To calm himself he walked out the back door and stood looking at his lawn.
On the Knudson back lawn, Harriet Knudson was giving her stones a second coat of pink. She looked up just as Eli stepped out. Eli shot back in again and pressed himself against the back door. When he peeked between the curtain all he saw were paint bucket, brush, and rocks scattered on the Knudson’s pink-spattered grass. The phone rang. Who was it—Harriet Knudson? Eli, there’s a Jew at your door. That’s me. Nonsense, Eli, I saw him with my own eyes. That’s me, I saw you too, painting your rocks pink. Eli, you’re having a nervous breakdown again. Jimmy, Eli’s having a nervous breakdown again. Eli, this is Jimmy, hear you’re having a little breakdown, anything I can do, boy? Eli, this is Ted, Shirley says you need help. Eli, this is Artie, you need help. Eli, Harry, you need help you need help. . . . The phone rattled its last and died.
“God helps those who help themselves,” intoned Eli, and once again he stepped out the door. This time he walked to the center of his lawn and in full sight of the trees, the grass, the birds, and the sun, revealed that it was he, Eli, in the costume. But nature had nothing to say to him, and so stealthily he made his way to the hedge separating his property from the field beyond and he cut his way through, losing his hat twice in the underbrush. Then, clamping the hat to his head, he began to run, the threaded tassels jumping across his heart. He ran through the weeds and wild flowers, until on the old road that skirted the town he slowed up. He was walking when he approached the Gulf station from the back. He supported himself on a huge tireless truck rim, and among tubes, rusted engines, dozens of topless oil cans, he rested. With a kind of brainless cunning, he readied himself for the last mile of his journey.
“How are you, Pop?” It was the garage attendant, rubbing his greasy hands on his overalls, and hunting among the cans.
Eli’s stomach lurched and he pulled the big black coat round his neck.
“Nice day,” the attendant said and started around to the front.
“Shalom,” Eli whispered and zoomed off towards the hill.
The sun was directly overhead when Eli reached the top. He had come by way of the woods, where it was cooler, but still he was perspiring beneath his new suit. The hat had no sweat band and the cloth clutched his head. The children were playing. The children were always playing, as if it was that alone that Tzuref had to teach them. In their shorts, they revealed such thin legs that beneath one could see the joints swivelling as they ran. Eli waited for them to disappear around a corner before he came into the open. But something would not let him wait—his green suit. It was on the porch, wrapped around the bearded fellow, who was painting the base of a pillar. His arm went up and down, up and down, and the pillar glowed like white fire. The very sight of him popped Eli out of the woods and onto the lawn. He did not turn back, though his insides did. He walked up the lawn, but the children played on; tipping the black hat, he mumbled, “Shhh . . . shhhh,” and they hardly seemed to notice. At last he smelled paint.
He waited for the man to turn to him. He only painted. Eli felt suddenly that if he could pull the black hat down over his eyes, over his chest and belly and legs, if he could shut out all light, then a moment later he would be home in bed. But the hat wouldn’t go past his forehead. He couldn’t kid himself—he was there. No one he could think of had forced him to do this.
The greenie’s arm flailed up and down on the pillar. Eli breathed loudly, cleared his throat, but the greenie wouldn’t make life easier for him. At last, Eli had to say, “Hello.”
The arm swished up and down; it stopped—two fingers went out after a brush hair stuck to the pillar.
“Good day,” Eli said.
The hair came away; the swishing resumed.
“Shalom,” Eli whispered and the fellow turned.
The recognition took some time. He looked at what Eli wore. Up close, Eli looked at what he wore. And then Eli had the strange notion that he was two people. Or that he was one person wearing two suits. The greenie looked to be suffering from a similar confusion. They stared long at one another. Eli’s heart shivered, and his brain was momentarily in such a mixedup condition, that his hands went out to button down the collar of his shirt that somebody else was wearing. What a mess! The greenie flung his arms over his face.
“What’s the matter . . .” Eli said. The fellow had picked up his bucket and brush and was running away. Eli ran after him.
“I wasn’t going to hit . . .” Eli called. “Stop . . .” Eli caught up and grabbed his sleeve. Once again, the greenie’s hands flew up to his face. This time, in the violence, white paint spattered both of them.
“I only want to. . . .” But in that outfit Eli didn’t really know what he wanted. “To talk . . .” he said finally. “For you to look at me. Please, just look at me. . . .”
The hands stayed put, as paint rolled off the brush onto the cuff of Eli’s green suit.
“Please . . . please,” Eli said, but he did not know what to do. “Say something, speak English,” he pleaded.
The fellow pulled back against the wall, back, back, as though some arm would finally reach out and yank him to safety. He refused to uncover his face.
“Look,” Eli said, pointing to himself. “It’s your suit. I’ll take care of it.”
No answer—only a little shaking under the hands, which led Eli to speak as gently as he knew how.
“We’ll . . . we’ll mothproof it. There’s a button missing,”—Eli pointed—“I’ll have it fixed. I’ll have a zipper put in. . . . Please, please—just look at me. . . .” He was talking to himself, and yet how could he stop? Nothing he said made any sense—that alone made his heart swell. Yet somehow babbling on, he might babble something that would make things easier between them. “Look. . . .” He reached inside his shirt to pull the frills of underwear into the light. “I’m wearing the special underwear, even. . . . Please,” he said, “please, please, please,” he sang, as if it were some sacred word. “Oh, please. . . .”
Nothing twitched under the tweed suit—and if the eyes watered, or twinkled, or hated, he couldn’t tell. It was driving him crazy. He had dressed like a fool, and for what? For this? He reached up and yanked the hands away.
“There!” he said—and in that first instant all he saw of the greenie’s face were two white droplets stuck to each cheek.
“Tell me—” Eli clutched his hands down to his sides—“tell me, what can I do for you, I’ll do it. . . .”
Stiffly, the greenie stood there, sporting his two white tears.
“Whatever I can do. . . . Look, look what I’ve done already.” He grabbed his black hat and shook it in the man’s face.
And in exchange, the greenie gave him an answer. He raised one hand to his chest, and then jammed it, finger first, towards the horizon. And with what a pained look! As though the air were full of razors! Eli followed the finger and saw beyond the knuckle, out past the nail, Woodenton.
“What do you want?” Eli said. “I’ll bring it!”
Suddenly the greenie made a run for it. But then he stopped, wheeled, and jabbed that finger at the air again. It pointed the same way. Then he was gone.
And then, all alone, Eli had the revelation. He did not question his understanding, the substance or the source. But with a strange, dreamy elation, he started away.
On Coach House Road, they were double-parked. The Mayor’s wife pushed a grocery cart full of dog food from Stop an’ Shop to her station wagon. The President of the Lions Club, a napkin around his neck, was jamming pennies into the meter in front of the Bit-in-Teeth Restaurant. Ted Heller caught the sun, as it glazed off the new Byzantine mosaic entrance to his shoe shop. In pinkened jeans, Mrs. Jimmy Knudson was leaving Halloway’s Hardware, a paint bucket in each hand. Roger’s Beauty Shoppe had its doors open—women’s heads in silver bullets far as the eye could see. Over by the barber shop the pole spun, and Artie Berg’s youngest sat on a red horse, having his hair cut; his mother flipped through Look, smiling: the greenie had changed his clothes.
And into this street, which seemed paved with chromium, came Eli Peck. It was not enough, he knew, to walk up one side of the street. That was not enough. Instead he walked ten paces up one side, then on an angle, crossed to the other side, where he walked ten more paces, and crossed back. Horns blew, traffic jerked, as Eli made his way up Coach House Road. He spun a moan high up in his nose as he walked. Outside no one could hear him, but he felt it vibrate the cartilage at the bridge of his nose.
Things slowed around him. The sun stopped rippling on spokes and hubcaps. It glowed steadily as everyone put on brakes to look at the man in black. They always paused and gaped, whenever he entered the town. But in a minute, or two, or three, a light would change, a baby squawk, and the flow continue. Now, though lights changed, no one moved.
“He shaved his beard,” Eric, the barber, said.
“Who?” asked Linda Berg.
“The . . . the guy in the suit. From the place there.”
Linda looked out the window.
“It’s Uncle Eli,” little Kevin Berg said, spitting hair.
“Oh, God,” Linda said, “Eli’s having a nervous breakdown.”
“A nervous breakdown!” Ted Heller said, but not immediately. Immediately he had said, “Hoooly. . . .”
Shortly, everybody in Coach House Road was aware that Eli Peck, the nervous young attorney with the pretty wife, was having a breakdown. Everybody except Eli Peck. He knew what he did was not insane, though he felt every inch of its strangeness. He felt those black clothes as if they were the skin of his skin—the give and pull as they got used to where he bulged and buckled. And he felt eyes, every eye on Coach House Road. He saw headlights screech to within an inch of him, and stop. He saw mouths: first the bottom jaw slides forward, then the tongue hits the teeth, the lips explode, a little thunder in the throat, and they’ve said it: Eli Peck Eli Peck Eli Peck Eli Peck. He began to walk slowly, shifting his weight down and forward with each syllable: E-li Peck E-li Peck E-li Peck. Heavily he trod, and as his neighbors uttered each syllable of his name, he felt each syllable shaking all his bones. He knew who he was down to his marrow—they were telling him. Eli Peck. He wanted them to say it a thousand times, a million times, he would walk forever in that black suit, as adults whispered of his strangeness and children made “Shame . . . shame,” with their fingers.
“It’s going to be all right, pal. . . .” Ted Heller was motioning to Eli from his doorway. “C’mon, pal, it’s going to be all right. . . .”
Eli saw him, past the brim of his hat. Ted did not move from his doorway, but leaned forward and spoke with his hand over his mouth. Behind him, three customers peered through the doorway. “Eli, it’s Ted, remember Ted. . . .”
Eli crossed the street and found he was heading directly toward Harriet Knudson. He lifted his neck so she could see his whole face.
He saw her forehead melt down to her lashes. “Good morning, Mr. Peck.”
“Shalom,” Eli said, and crossed the street where he saw the President of the Lions.
“Twice before . . .” he heard someone say, and then he crossed again, mounted the curb, and was before the bakery, where a delivery man charged past with a tray of powdered cakes twirling above him. “Pardon me, Father,” he said, and scooted into his truck. But he could not move it. Eli Peck had stopped traffic.
He passed the Rivoli Theater, Beekman Cleaners, Harris’s Westinghouse, the Unitarian Church, and soon he was passing only trees. At Ireland Road he turned right and started through Woodenton’s winding streets. Baby carriages stopped whizzing and creaked—“Isn’t that. . . .” Gardeners held their clipping. Children stepped from the sidewalk and tried the curb. And Eli greeted no one, but raised his face to all. He wished passionately that he had white tears to show them. . . . And not till he reached his own front lawn, saw his house, his shutters, his new jonquils, did he remember his wife. And the child that must have been born to him. And it was then and there he had the awful moment. He could go inside and put on his clothes and go to his wife in the hospital. It was not irrevocable, even the walk wasn’t. In Woodenton memories are long but fury short. Apathy works like forgiveness. Besides, when you’ve flipped, you’ve flipped—it’s Mother Nature.
What gave Eli the awful moment was that he turned away. He knew exactly what he could do but he chose not to. To go inside would be to go halfway. There was more. . . . So he turned and walked toward the hospital and all the time he quaked an eighth of an inch beneath his skin to think that perhaps he’d chosen the crazy way. To think that he’d chosen to be crazy! But if you chose to be crazy, then you weren’t crazy. It’s when you didn’t choose. No, he wasn’t flipping. He had a child to see.
“Fourth floor.” He was given a little blue card. In the elevator everybody stared. Eli watched his black shoes rise four floors.
He tipped his hat, but knew he couldn’t take it off. “Peck,” he said. He showed the card.
“Congratulations,” the nurse said. “. . . the grandfather?”
“The father. Which room?”
She led him to 412. “A joke on the Mrs.?” she said, but he slipped in the door without her.
She rolled her white face toward her husband. “Oh, Eli. . . . Oh, Eli.”
He raised his arms. “What could I do?”
“You have a son. They called all morning.”
“I came to see him.”
“Like that!” she whispered harshly. “Eli, you can’t go around like that.”
“I have a son. I want to see him.”
“Eli, why are you doing this to me!” Red seeped back into her lips. “He’s not your fault,” she explained. “Oh, Eli, sweetheart, why do you feel guilty about everything. Eli, change your clothes. I forgive you.”
“Stop forgiving me. Stop understanding me.”
“But I love you.”
“That’s something else.”
“But, sweetie, you don’t have to dress like that. You didn’t do anything. You don’t have to feel guilty because . . . because everything’s all right. Eli, can’t you see that?”
“Miriam, enough reasons. Where’s my son?” “Oh, please, Eli, don’t flip now. I need you now. Is that it, why you’re flipping—because I need you?”
“In your selfish way, Miriam, you’re very generous. I want my son.”
“Don’t flip now. I’m afraid, now that he’s out.” She was beginning to whimper. “I don’t know if I love him, now that he’s out. When I look in the mirror, Eli, he won’t be there. . . . Eli, Eli, you look like you’re going to your own funeral. Please, can’t you leave well enough alone? Can’t we just have a family?”
In the corridor he asked the nurse to lead him to his son. The nurse walked on one side of him, Ted Heller on the other.
“Eli, do you want some help? I thought you might want some help.”
Ted whispered something to the nurse; then to Eli he whispered, “Should you be walking around like this?”
In his ear Ted said, “You’ll . . . you’ll frighten the kid. . . .”
“There,” the nurse said. She pointed to a bassinet in the second row and looked, puzzled, to Ted. “Do I go in?” Eli said.
“No,” the nurse said. “She’ll roll him over.” She rapped on the enclosure full of babies. “Peck,” she mouthed to the nurse on the inside.
Ted tapped Eli’s arm. “You’re not thinking of doing something you’ll be sorry for . . . are you, Eli? Eli—I mean you know you’re still Eli, don’t you?”
In the enclosure, Eli saw a bassinet had been wheeled before the square window.
“Oh, Christ. . . .” Ted said. “You don’t have this Bible stuff on the brain—” And suddenly he said, “You wait, pal.” He started down the corridor, his heels tapping rapidly.
Eli felt relieved—he leaned forward. In the basket was what he’d come to see. Well, now that he was here, what did he think he was going to say to it? I’m your father, Eli, the Flipper? I am wearing a black hat, suit, and fancy underwear, all borrowed from a friend? How could he admit to this reddened ball—his reddened ball—the worst of all: that Eckman would shortly convince him he wanted to take off the whole business. He couldn’t admit it! He wouldn’t do it!
Past his hat brim, from the corner of his eye, he saw Ted had stopped in a doorway at the end of the corridor. Two interns stood there smoking, listening to Ted. Eli ignored it.
No, even Eckman wouldn’t make him take it off! No! He’d wear it, if he chose to. He’d make the kid wear it! Sure! Cut it down when the time came. A smelly hand-me-down, whether the kid liked it or not!
Only Teddie’s heels clacked; the interns wore rubber soles—for they were there, beside him, unexpectedly. Their white suits smelled, but not like Eli’s.
“Eli,” Ted said, softly, “visiting time’s up, pal.”
“How are you feeling, Mr. Peck? First child upsets everyone. . . .”
He’d just pay no attention; nevertheless, he began to perspire, thickly, and his hat crown clutched his hair.
“Excuse me—Mr. Peck. . . .” It was a new rich bass voice. “Excuse me, rabbi, but you’re wanted . . . in the temple.” A hand took his elbow, firmly; then another hand, the other elbow. Where they grabbed, his tendons went taut.
“Okay, rabbi. Okay okay okay okay okay okay. . . .” He listened; it was a very soothing word, that okay. “Okay okay everything’s going to be okay.” His feet seemed to have left the ground some, as he was glided away from the window, the bassinet, the babies. “Okay easy does it everything’s all right all right—”
But he rose, suddenly, as though up out of a dream and flailing his arms, screamed: “I’m the father!”
But the window disappeared. In a moment they tore off his jacket—it gave so easily, in one yank. Then a needle slid under his skin. The drug calmed his soul, but did not touch it down where the blackness had reached.