Perfection: A Story
Early in June of 1956, the summer in New York burst forth temperate and bright, the colors deep, the wind promising. This was the beginning of the summer that was to see the culmination of a chain of events that had begun, like everything else, at the beginning of the world, but had started in a practical sense in March of the previous year, when the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.
A heavy wet snow had snapped some telephone lines in Brooklyn, many of which at that time were carried on poles above the ground. When these went down, the magnetic effect coursed its way through the webs of copper and steel in the telephone exchanges and made oceans of static that flowed like backwash into every telephone in Brooklyn. The Saromsker Rebbe had intended to use the telephone to propose a meeting with Rabbi Moritz of Breel, who lived on Ocean Parkway with his followers, who trimmed their hats in mink, whereas the Saromskers lived in Williamsburg and trimmed theirs with sable. The Saromsker Rebbe wanted to discuss a theological difference that now appeared reconcilable.
The Saromskers had taken in many survivors of the Holocaust, mostly children who had been babies when their parents were murdered. Their devotion to mothers and fathers they had never known was fiercer and more concentrated than anyone might have dreamed, except perhaps for the parents themselves in the very moment they were parted from their children. The parents’ prayers for the union of souls, and their silent and intense petitioning of God had the strength of all the winds of the world, of its invisible magnetism, of oceans and seas. But they were petitions that, for all their power and urgency, and though perhaps answered in time or beyond the limits of time, were not answered then.
A few of these children had been old enough to remember, some even to have begun serious study before their world was destroyed, and to these the Saromsker Rebbe would listen when, on a point of division, they held that things had changed, that movement was possible, especially in the New World and in the eyes of the young. Thus, soon after the war, the Saromsker Rebbe had swallowed his pride and begun to speak to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, who had also taken in a number of mysteriously intense young refugees. Theological reconciliation moves at a pace that makes the advance and recession of glaciers seem like the oscillation of a gnat in the golden light of a summer evening. Braced for a lifetime of cautious exchanges, the two rabbis had discovered that the telephone, more urgent even than the telegraph, was the most complimentary way for one to get the full attention of the other.
But because of the snowstorm the telephone was not working, and the only thing audible within it was something much like the experimental music then in vogue, of which neither rabbi had even the slightest inkling. The Saromsker Rebbe held the handset and tapped at the little button on the left side of the base, first three times, and then five. “Hello? Hello?” he said to the static. He repeated this six times over the space of an hour and a half, after which he gave up. Instead of talking on the telephone, he would do what came naturally and what was holy: he would write.
He wanted to write a short note, but with fountain pen in hand the Saromsker Rebbe was a dervish. Possessed of undying momentum and driven not by his own hand but by the ancient operation just of picking up the pen, he filled it, applied it to paper, and began moving it about. It then began to drag him after it like a plowman who had attached himself by a strong harness to a gigantic young plow horse before hitching it up to the plow, which horse was then stung by a big and very angry bee, and had run until he had crossed all of Bessarabia—through rivers, over fields packed with wildflowers so that the plowman emerged looking like a huge bush in full bloom with windmill legs, in long flights off cliffs, through startled towns, breaking fences that exploded like wheat on a threshing floor, through houses, skipping across the decks of boats, following the sun so that its light fueled him and he pulled the plowman without exhaustion. The plowman as he ran shouted prayers, and the horse, having long forgotten the sting, raced the sun as if to overtake it. Horses cannot be expected not to have such notions, or rabbis not to write all night.
In the morning, when the snow had fallen off the wires because of strong winds from the Ramapos, the Saromsker Rebbe found himself with forty densely imprinted pages that left him vibrating like a piano wire and that had to be delivered as soon as possible to Rabbi Moritz of Breel. Shaking not from fatigue but from having followed his pen all night, the rebbe rang his nickel-plated bell, and one of his students, who had just started the day shift outside the study door, instantly appeared.
“I have written a little letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel,” the Saromsker Rebbe said, holding the forty pages up to the light. “It must be delivered to Ocean Parkway as soon as possible. Who is the fastest and most nimble of our students? Who is smart but not so immersed in his studies that he would be crushed by a truck? Who knows the map, and will be able to come back? Who speaks English well? And who will make a good impression on Rabbi Moritz of Breel?”
The student said, “It’s simple.”
The Saromsker Rebbe knew that nothing is simple. “Really?” he asked.
“That’s a name?”
“That’s his American name—Roger Reveshze.” Stepping forward, the student said, “Rabbi, he’s so fast he bounces off the walls. He speaks English perfectly, and he will impress Rabbi Moritz of Breel. He’s one of the ones from Majdanek.”
The children of Majdanek were the cause of many problems. Like other children of other camps they had their terrors and incurable sadnesses, but, for whatever reason, they even more so. For whatever reason, Majdanek was worse.
“He spends a great deal of time praying for his parents. He was just old enough to know them. He might study more, it’s true. He could be a better scholar. . . .”
“Who are we to say?” the Saromsker Rebbe asked. “When he prays, is it recitation?”
“No,” said the student. “When he prays, white light bathes the walls. You can see it through the cracks.”
“Why did no one tell me this?”
“It just started. He’s only fourteen. We wanted to let him calm down before we told you. He’s a kind of wild man.”
“And you want me to send him to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, a man of ninety-six?”
“Rabbi Moritz will know if he’s a baal shem.”
“Shall I send for him?”
“How is he at maneuvering through traffic?”
“Nothing can touch him. He could be a snake fighter.”
Roger Reveshze had run through the halls and up the stairs, his robes and fringes trailing him like battle flags in a strong breeze, and when he presented himself to the Saromsker Rebbe, so excellent was his blood oxygen that he did not breathe hard. Many people can do physical feats and afterward suppress the need to take deep breaths, but Roger, who did not need to suppress an urge he did not have, stood quietly before the rebbe, his eyes semi-skeptical.
Like many fourteen-year-old boys in hasidic costume, he had the sweetness of a lamb and the mischievous air of an owl. At the same time, though possessed of a slight and awkward body that had not yet solidified as it would in time, he seemed to have extraordinary gravity, or perhaps, the Saromsker Rebbe thought, I am just imagining it.
He was not imagining. In Roger’s wild eyes, big ears, and big teeth, was a face, framed by blond peyess, that led with instant speed to the Pale of Settlement the Saromsker Rebbe had known in his childhood. He merely had to look in the eyes of this boy to see the heart of Eastern Europe, and there, rising against a field of black and gray, came a fume of gold in which, like smoke, souls in transport spiraled upward.
Roger had something about him forever sad but forever indomitable. The rebbe decided to ask a question or two. He allowed them to spring whence he knew not, like an egg coming from the mouth of a magician.
“What is your Hebrew name?”
“Elchanan ben Mosheh ben Arieh.”
“What do you see, Elchanan ben Mosheh?”
“When you close your eyes.”
This was for Roger an emotional subject, but one with which he was familiar on a daily basis, so he closed his eyes, raised his arms in a gesture of surprise, for what he saw was different every time, and said, “I see a courtyard in falling snow, people wrapped in blankets and shawls, wood that is broken and steps that are worn, a man standing in a square. He is dressed in black silk robes, his shtreimel almost covered with snow, his beard white. My heart cannot convey his expression. And I see houses that are lit weakly but brightly, their windows glowing yellow.”
“Do you imagine this?”
“I don’t imagine it, it exists.”
“Do you pray?”
“Who generates the prayers? Do you?”
The boy smiled.
“And what happens when you pray, physically?”
“You don’t daven?”
“I begin to daven, and then I twirl.”
“Like a dancer, spinning?”
Roger shook his head in the negative. “No, head over heels.”
“Head over heels,” the rebbe repeated, “no gravity.”
“I’m blinded,” Roger reported matter-of-factly.
“By light: white phosphorus, pinwheels, stars on a field of fire. It’s an illusion. An ophthalmologist could tell you why. Nerve endings.”
The rebbe was not convinced. Vision and skepticism are man and wife, bride and groom. “How do you know it’s an illusion?”
“Because I prayed for the life of a bird that had flown against the window and was dying on the sill, and though I was swept up beyond the world, so was he. It’s an illusion.”
“Maybe it was supposed to die.”
“I didn’t want it to die.”
“Since when is what you want central to the scheme of things?”
The boy nodded in acceptance. These matters would have to be deferred, and the rebbe decided to return to the business at hand. “Roger, please take this letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, on Ocean Parkway. Do you know how to get there?”
“Yes, we went there two times.”
The Saromsker Rebbe put the forty pages in a manila envelope. Then he opened the top right-hand drawer in his desk and took out a box of matches and a thick candle. He lit the candle. In his left hand he held his seal and in the right the end of a little stick of saffron-colored wax. But, as the wax melted, he burned his fingers, and he withdrew the flame. “I lost my tongs,” he said.
“Tongs,” Roger repeated, fascinated by the word.
The rebbe went to get a fresh stick of wax from lower down, but he opened the wrong drawer. As soon as he saw what was in this drawer, he slammed it shut. Flushed as red as if he had just climbed a sixty-foot rope, he found the saffron-colored wax elsewhere and nervously started to soften it in the flame.
“What was that?” Roger asked.
“What was what?”
“What was that in the drawer?”
“Wax for sealing envelopes.”
“In the other drawer.”
“The one you opened before you opened the one with the wax.”
“I saw it.”
“Saw what?” The rebbe’s eyes were now beady.
“In the drawer.”
“What is Lindt?” Roger asked.
“What is Lindt? What is Lindt?” the rebbe repeated.
“Yes, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” the rebbe said, now looking at Roger with panic.
Roger successfully delivered the Saromsker Rebbe’s letter to Rabbi Moritz of Breel, whom he did not see, and who could, therefore, make no judgment as to whether Roger was a baal shem. Everything settled down and returned to normal, except for one thing.
What was Lindt? Roger’s teachers, all unterrabbis and nachmollers, didn’t know, and his classmates didn’t know, either. He went to Rabbi Eisvogel, who was second to the Saromsker Rebbe, and his designated successor.
“Rabbi Eisvogel,” Roger said, captivated by birds perching on icicles hanging from the eaves of the rabbi’s study, “What is Lindt?”
“Lint?” Rabbi Eisvogel asked back. “Lint is cloth shavings or other material, little fibers that collect and combine. Why?”
“No, not that. It was written on the box: L-i-n-d-t.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you saw a box?”
“I don’t know.”
Rabbi Eisvogel asked, “Did you see a box in a dream?”
“Are you all right, Roger?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good. Lindt, whatever it is, I’ll think about it,” the rabbi said.
Roger thought that he would never find out what it was. The world was full of mysteries, and he had much else to think about, having been immersed in moral questions day after day, like metal annealed, since he was three years old. He returned to his studies and forgot about what he had seen in the Saromsker Rebbe’s drawer. But, then, when the next Sabbath was over, a lighthearted Rabbi Eisvogel, in the presence of students and disciples, asked the Saromsker Rebbe point-blank, “Reb Hayim, tell me, what is Lindt?”
The Saromsker Rebbe’s face turned as red as the flag of the Soviet Union. “I don’t know,” he said, with a Cheshire Cat smile, “but it may be a kind of Swiss chocolate.”
Rabbi Eisvogel said, “Ah, I see. Is it kosher?”
“How would I know?” asked the Cheshire Cat, disappearing into the semidarkness, where, amid chanting and singing weakly illuminated by the light of only a candle or two among the coal-black sateen robes and dark sable hats, a passage had opened to the East, and such questions disappeared in a dim whirlpool that shattered time and revived the life of a hundred generations rising like a bonfire. The black coats, sable hats, and hallucinatory prayer were a stage setting in which light and darkness were intertwined for the coaxing, temptation, and entreaty of countless spirits that, somewhere in the closed and darkened rooms of time, existed still. And though these were as shy and delicate as fawns, they did come, in the mind’s eye. And, when they did, they floated before the speechless scholars, not in whitened afterimages but with the strength and color of figures in Renaissance paintings, for it was not death that had been summoned but life, and life came as if the sun had risen and shone through the blackness of night.
Roger thought that only he knew the Saromsker Rebbe to be imperfect. Though the Saromsker Rebbe was constantly making protestations of imperfection, Roger now understood that these were only a cover to shield from the eyes of his followers the real imperfection. The Saromsker Rebbe had lied, directly and by omission, and with what the Sage of Minsk, the Koidanyev Gaon, called “dreadful unholy serpentines.” Lying was an unsolicited insult to the divine order.
And he ate something that wasn’t kosher—not once, not twice, but over time. He concealed sin. He hid evidence. He misled his followers. Although because of the nature and scale of the offense all these things may have been morally forgivable, aesthetically they were not. The balances of the universe are precise and delicate. Depending upon the consequences, lying may be morally condemnable in varying degree, but aesthetically it is impossible in the absolute. One uncourageous lie destroys the core of the imagination. Roger hated lying, and knew that it was the outrider of malevolent forces, which come first with a lie so that they might not have to fight to subdue you. They declare what is true, how to order the elements of truth, and what is false. They ridicule, oppress, and—if you do not bend to them—they kill you.
Roger would never yield to pressure, to false commandments, or to threats, for he had something for which he could gladly die, something that he would proclaim without embarrassment, that was the root, the rock, and the holy place of his life. This was the truth of the death of his mother and father and of so many other people’s mothers, fathers, children, wives, husbands, brothers, and sisters, in the holocaust into which he was born and to which he would, until the end of his days, bear witness—even as others might forget, ridicule, dismiss, or demean it.
This was the hook with which the small, slight Roger Reveshze grasped at the robes of God in the hope of holding Him accountable. And though he was told not to, though it was illogical, a presumption—perhaps a blasphemy and a sin—Roger Reveshze knew his position and held fast. For him, this holocaust was a barrel in which the whole universe rolled. He cared little but to look forward to a life that might in a single place touch upon perfection as confirmation that blind persistence and love would lead to eventual reunion.
There was no great consequence in defying the Saromsker Rebbe: Roger had his compass, and nothing could turn him. But now he could no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to sense an impending holocaust, which was part of the rebbe’s responsibility as the leader of a community immersed in the study of ancient texts and without the time to read newspapers and journals. Perhaps the rebbe’s regular reading of the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and the Forward had led him to nonkosher chocolate, but, despite the risk, now Roger had to read them, and to study the politics of nations, as he could no longer trust the Saromsker Rebbe to do so honestly. This required as well occasional listening to the radio. But what radio? And the newspapers, being so thick, were almost impossible to conceal. You could hardly slip them between the pages of a book. Why was so much space given to advertisements for malted milk balls and brassieres—the claims for which obviously were self-serving lies—when a psalm or the Ten Commandments could be written on a diaphanous piece of parchment the size of a postage stamp?
For a boy who was used to four-hour exegeses of a paragraph, a sentence, a line, or even a single word, the prospect of reading every day a newspaper the size of a life jacket was terrifying. Perhaps, to ease his way into such things, and so he would not be faced with the problem of hiding such a big bundle of paper, he would start with the radio. He had heard radios when he passed by open apartment windows. Once, he had stopped short before an unattended parlor as a Brahms string quartet flowed like an invisible river past curtains lifting in the wind. He had not been allowed to listen to the radio, because nothing on the radio stayed still, and a lie could appear and disappear before anyone could know. A country that listened to the radio would have no way of knowing, therefore, what was true. Roger understood the reason for the prohibition, but now he had his own dispensation. And not only did he have a dispensation, he had a mission.
“Luba,” he whispered to one of his classmates, another lamb-and-owl combination, “where is a radio?”
Luba found this entrancing. “You want to listen to the radio?”
“If I could ask a Jew a question, and not have it answered with a question . . . ,” Roger began.
“You would be the Czar. There’s a radio in the butcher shop,” Luba said like a Roman conspirator. “Schnaiper can’t turn it off.”
“The switch is broken. It plays day and night.”
“Why doesn’t he pull the plug?”
“It’s plugged in behind the giant refrigerator where he keeps the liver. If he pulled the plug he would have to move the refrigerator, and if he moved the refrigerator he would have to take out all the liver.”
Roger nodded. “It’s on all the time?”
“Day and night. The cats listen to it when he leaves the store. And he can’t change the station, or he doesn’t want to. Roger, he listens to . . . boogie voogie.”
“The tubes will burn out,” Roger said authoritatively.
“No, they won’t,” Luba answered. “It doesn’t have tubes. It has new things called trahnzeestores, which never burn out. It will go forever.”
“He’ll sell the liver.”
“Not as fast as he puts new liver in.”
“How can that be? Eventually the refrigerator would expand until it was as big as the universe.”
“No, sometimes he puts in an onion,” Luba said. Luba had been born in a town, recently wiped from the surface of the earth, where logic was not held in the highest esteem when it was held at all.
“How do you know all this?” Roger asked.
“On erev shabbes I get the gribeness and other chicken stuff from Schnaiper. In the morning the truck gets the meat, but the gribeness are never ready then, so in the afternoon Rabbi Eisvogel sends me for them. I carry twenty-five pounds in a wicker basket strapped to my back.”
“That’s what that is,” Roger said, “and that’s why it smells that way.”
“Yeh,” Luba said.
“Can I take your place?”
“For how long?”
Roger thought. “Five years.”
Luba’s eyes crossed, and he rocked his head from left to right.
“I’ll give you all my hamentashen.”
Luba raised his eyebrows and looked to the side.
“And half my jelly doughnuts,” Roger added.
“All of them.”
“Okay,” said Luba, “but you’ll have to wait until May. I have a subdeal with gizzards. I bring them to Rabbi Glipsin of Foin, but in May he’s going to Neshville.”
“I don’t know.”
Schnaiper the butcher looked up. “Why suddenly a new boy? Where’s Luba?”
“He’s in training.”
“To become a polar rabbi.”
Schnaiper narrowed his eyes.
“Canada,” Roger said, pointing straight up. “Completely full of ice.”
“So?” asked Schnaiper. “We have winter, too. What would a polar rabbi have to know?”
Roger slowly and intolerantly moved his head, as if to say, “What an idiot,” but, then, instead of jumping forward with an explanation, he said nothing, and let the butcher beg for it.
“What? What would a polar rabbi have to know?”
“Tell me,” Schnaiper commanded.
“You’re a butcher, right?” Roger asked. This was a carefully plotted question to ask a man, in a white apron, with a huge knife in his hand, standing at a giant butcher block next to a case filled with ten tons of chicken liver.
“What do you think?”
“So, tell me, Mr. Butcher,” said Roger, “What walrus.”
“Walrus. Kosher for Passover, or not?”
Schnaiper’s eyes darted. “How am I supposed to know?”
“I’ll tell you.” Roger beckoned for him to lean forward, and the butcher did. “Ask a polar rabbi. He would know. At this very moment, Luba is deep in studies of precisely this kind of question. Penguins.”
“Who’s his teacher?”
“Eisvogel. Good man. Still wants twenty-five pounds of gribeness?”
“It’ll be fifteen minutes. I apologize for the radio. I can’t turn it off. It’s goyish, but if you daven you can drive it out of your mind. I myself like it. It has pretty music called boogie voogie.” He went to package the gribeness, taking the wicker basket with him like an alpine guide.
Left by himself in the ice-white interior of the butcher shop, Roger lifted his eyes and listened. The radio had been on of course, as it was an eternal radio, when first he had walked in, but it had been just noise. Now he cocked his ears to listen and decipher. He expected to hear, perhaps, an interview with a famous rabbi. No. He thought the next most likely thing would have been an interview with the Pope. No. News about wars, Germany, ships at sea, the President’s health. No. Whatever it was, however, it was as slow and deliberative as a talmudic exegesis. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised by the unhurried pace, for he had expected thoughtless gushing, and this was careful, tranquil, with long calming spaces between the words.
“Two on,” the voice said. “Two and one . . . Miller at bat. You know, Mel, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen . . . the pitch, low, ball three. It’s been a long time since a rookie, like Miller . . . winding up . . . ball four, he walks. Bases loaded.”
This desultory conversation, the epitome of a summer afternoon, and one of the most soothing things Roger had ever heard, went on and on. “A three-two pitch to Hollins . . . line drive . . . base hit. The pitch was up and Stanky jumped to get it. So he has a lead single in the bottom . . . in the bottom, of the third. He was zero for four . . . in last night’s game. The pitch, swing . . . on the way to Allen. Foul over the Yankee dugout. Allen came to the majors by way of Richmond, Virginia—a good place to play ball. . . . The pitcher winds up. Ball, low on the outside.”
In the spaces within the narrative Roger heard a lovely and persistent sound, like the sound of the ocean, and within that sound were others. Sometimes the speaker would get excited and the ocean would roar, and then, uncharacteristically, he would yell numbers and say how great it was, or how dangerous. For fifteen minutes, Roger listened to this, mesmerized, with absolutely no understanding whatsoever of what it was. Then Schnaiper returned, his pluglike body hauling the alpine basket of gribeness.
“What is that?” Roger asked, pointing up.
“On the radio?”
“That? That’s the best part. You could listen all day. I do.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s baseball,” said Schnaiper, “from the House That Ruth Built.”
“From the House of Ruth?” Roger asked, stunned.
“Live,” Schnaiper said.
“Where is it?”
Evidently, rabbis kept certain things from their students. Wonderful things. Exciting things. If Schnaiper could be believed—and never had he overweighed a chicken—there was a place in the Bronx that—symbolically? actually? miraculously?—was a direct link to the Israelites. Roger knew that such places could be found in Eretz Yisroel, but never had he heard that they existed in the Bronx. Immediately he wanted to go there, to see. The problem was that he did not understand its language, which seemed as dense and impenetrable as his studies in the Talmud, which, after all, had not come on the instant.
So he inquired of Luba, because Luba had been fetching gribeness from the outside world for so long, “Luba, what is the House of Ruth, that’s in the Bronx?”
“The House of Ruth?” Luba closed his lamb-like eyes. He had no idea what Roger was talking about, but as a direct descendant of Rabbi Vogelsblume of Hivnis, he didn’t have to know. He closed his eyes, spread his arms, and waited for the answer. This was the way of the Jews in countries where for lifetimes they had been forced to the ground, where fact was never better than dreams. Later rationalists, even among the Jews themselves, mocked this, because they had never been so long in extremis, and did not understand art, ecstasy, or the parting of seas. They did not understand that, for those who have nothing, dreams are real. Luba began to speak as if possessed: “The House of Ruth . . . is in the Bronx.”
“I told you that,” Roger protested.
“Did I say you didn’t? It’s a palace bigger than the temple or the baths of Babylonia. People dance in the aisles, and its four-hundred-foot-high walls are hung with gold and purple draperies. Lit by divine light that showers down from heaven, beautiful women work in a field in the middle, harvesting wheat, like their great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Ruth. In galleries as high as the Empire State Building, legions of rabbis read the Talmud, and klezmer bands in the vast celebration areas play for dancing as in Simchas Torah. And the food! The food! Vegetables! Roasts! Fat pieces of halvah! Poppyseed cakes! Wine. Every day at sunrise and at sunset the rabbis dance in the wheatfields with the Ruths, like daughters. And, someday, the students will marry the beautiful Ruths, and have babies.”
Luba was still vibrating with longing when Roger asked, “How many women work in the wheatfields?”
“A constant supply. As fast as boys are born, so are girls. They come together as the rivers flow. That’s the way it is. But there’s a catch.”
“What’s the catch?”
“You can’t go there.”
“You just can’t.”
“So what’s the good of it?”
“After you die,” Luba said, opening his eyes, “you’re taken there on a holy sled.”
“Luba, it exists in the world. I heard it.”
“But you’ll never get there,” Luba said, holding his finger up the way Rabbi Eisvogel did when he drove home a point, “unless . . .”
“Or,” Luba said.
“Unless you die, or they are in peril and need a champion to save them.”
“What kind of peril?”
“Defeat. Such a place is always under siege, but sometimes a champion prays and prays, and then maybe the Holy One, blessed be His name, allows him to champion the House of Ruth. But the champion must have great virtue, for he will carry in his hand the very staff of the Lord.”
“How will he know that it is the staff of the Lord?” Roger asked.
“It will be passed to him in the fields, and it will be as if of gold, and it will shine in the light.”
Until the next erev shabbes, Roger dreamed of the House of Ruth. He knew in his American mind that what Luba had said could not be and that no such place could exist, just as he knew that people, even the holiest mystics, could not fly. But in his Eastern mind he knew that the ancient rabbis of Breel and Talakreblach actually did fly, even if in earthly terms they did not leave the ground. How was this? To say that they flew, they would have had to have made, in defiance of gravity, a vertical distance between themselves and a point of reference. When Rabbi Vimy of Breel and Rabbi Canopy of Talakreblach concentrated, their point of reference was not the mere earth. They envisioned the limitless universe, in which they floated as freely as sparkling fish. And was it not true that they did float amid the phosphorus-glistening stars? That the earth came between them and what kept them otherwise afloat was a fact and not a dream, but it was not much of a fact in comparison to the gravity-less infinity in which it existed. The earth was just a speck, less than a speck, and Rabbis Vimy of Breel and Canopy of Talakreblach were, in fact, flying at blinding speed through space, as are we all, but at the time of their visions they were the only ones who both knew it and felt it, which is why they did fly, and which is why Roger could picture the House of Ruth in the Bronx: a place that, even were it not real, God—having hinted to trusting imaginations—would be obligated to make real in one way or another, such as by having Ruth build it.
The rabbis let Roger be—even Rabbi Eisvogel, who was something of a cold bird. When a student suddenly didn’t pay attention and fell off in his work, the rabbis looked carefully in his eyes. If his eyes were as eyes usually are, they brought him back around in various ways. But if within the eyes they saw a fire, they left him alone. In fact, they asked him what he required—food in his room, a certain scroll, time to pray, a trip to the ocean, music, a conference with a mystic—and they tried to supply it, to breathe air into the fire for the express purpose of keeping it alight.
Rabbi Eisvogel asked the question, inquiring about what Roger might need.
“I want to go to the butcher’s and listen to the radio,” Roger said decisively.
“Which butcher?” Rabbi Eisvogel asked.
“Schnaiper. He’s the one with a radio.”
“Go,” Rabbi Eisvogel told him, trustingly. “We’ll keep your book open where you left it.”
From Schnaiper’s radio, which had never ceased playing, came the same, languorous, slow, Southern conversation once again. “Do you know what they’re saying?” Roger asked Schnaiper, who was very busy.
“What?” Schnaiper asked back.
“This conversation on the radio.”
“Baseball,” Schnaiper said, cleaving a veal chop. “You know, the game.”
“Do you understand it?” Roger asked.
Schnaiper rested his cleaver on the butcher block as if he were a stork resting a broken leg. “Of course I do.”
“Tell me how it works.”
“The whole game? The rules?”
“It’s simple. I’ve never seen it, but I know from the radio.”
“First, there’s a peetch-hair,” Schnaiper said, breaking into their exchange of Yiddish with an English word.
“A peetch-hair? What’s that?”
“I don’t know, but without the peetch-hair they can’t play the game. I heard once how a peetch-hair was hit by a flying object of some sort, and they stopped the game until they brought in another peetch-hair. From this, don’t ask me.”
“But what do they do?”
“Well, they run around besses, and sometimes they steal the besses.”
“What are besses?”
“Puffy white things they stick in the ground.”
Roger was nowhere. “So what’s the point?” he asked. “And what are all the numbers for?”
“I don’t think the numbers mean anything, really. Anyway, I pay no attention to them. The point is that there are two teams, and the winner is the one that can stay the longest.”
“What prevents them from staying?”
“When they miss.”
“You never said anything about a ball.”
“Oh yes, there’s a ball. They throw it at each other, and hit it with a stick.”
“I don’t know. They don’t know either: ever since I got the radio, they’ve been losing.”
“The Yenkiss,” Roger repeated.
“That’s one of the teams. They used to be the greatest team in the world, Mel said. Now they’re dying. They won’t win this year, even with Mental.”
“Mickey Mental,” Schnaiper replied, knowingly.
“A person, the greatest baseball player of our time. But the Dodgers, unless a miracle will happen, are going to kill them.”
“Really kill them?”
“What could help them?” Roger asked.
“Nothing. One more game and they’re finished. But for next year, if they had a champion, another one like Mickey Mental, but better, well, that would be a different story, maybe.”
From the top floors of the building where Roger lived, and through the gaps in ocher and brown buildings and within the steel cage-work of bridges brushed with cool sunshine, the East River was visible in wide segments of blue. From the roof, the blue patches were larger, for one could see over some of the buildings that had blocked them from below. And from the top of the stair shed, yet another story high over the roof, the river was freed. You could see all the way from St. George on Staten Island, along the cliff faces of lower Manhattan and midtown looming rocklike in the day and sparkling like galaxies at night, to the Triborough Bridge. River traffic arrived suddenly on the swift current and departed with equal speed, or fought north as slowly as a man carrying a desk. Sometimes Roger saw a boat gliding out into the harbor at dusk, its stern light bobbing in recession until it became a star. The lovely light making its way into the vastness of the ocean, like the dead in their quiet departures, grew ever fainter.
That fall and winter when it was neither too wet nor too cold, he ascended the incline to reach the small rectangular space at the top of the stair shed, and there he spent many hours in prayer. He recited nothing. He sought nothing. His prayer was the hopeful resurrection, in his heart, of those who were gone. It was the dissolution, in his mind’s eye, of all elements, colors, and sound—until, lighter than smoke, they formed a picture as full of glory as the patient astronomical photographs that he had never seen and that, in later years when he would see them, would bring to his face a smile of recognition. All was grace and perfection there, all just and redeemed, all prayer answered, ratios exact, rhythms perfect, laws obeyed.
He had known such things, somehow, since infancy. And he understood that, as he grew, his responsibility was to make sense of them: not to adopt them for his purposes but to take a tiny fraction of the light of perfection for use upon the imperfection of the world, like a match that for an instant brings a little daylight to a dark hallway.
Between the Yenkiss’ loss of what Schnaiper called the Verld Series to the Dodgers, and the opening of the next baseball season, Roger concentrated upon a single obstruction that he wished to burn through, a single request, a single question. It did not come, and it did not come, and it did not come. The fall’s lucid shadows deepened the colors of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and its cold air enlivened the stars. Winter froze all emotion. Sometimes he would sit in the cold until his heart hardly beat and he was blind, and he would strain, sweeping the darkness in search of a blaze of power, but he would find nothing, he would see no light. Spring came violently and ended in soft air suffused with the scents of flowers and warm brick. Baseball season had started in April. No one was happy. Then came summer, promiscuously scattering great volumes of light, dashing it up streets that had long been in shadow, touching the undersides of bridges as if the sun were boiling in the rivers beneath. Nothing happened, but he refused to give up, and then, on the fourth of June, something did happen.
That day, as sunburned as a strawberry, Roger came down from his perch for the last time. Upon seeing him, they went to get the Saromsker Rebbe, for Roger had the pellucid eyes of a tzaddik, and the Saromsker Rebbe, whose eyes were unclouded with age, was the only one who could properly look into them. He knocked on Roger’s door. Inside, the boy was packing a small suitcase.
The Saromsker Rebbe closed the door behind him: there were many people in the hall breathing respectfully.
“I’m leaving for a while,” Roger said, “but I’ll be back in a few months.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the House of Ruth, where a miracle will come, a splinter of light, a flicker.”
With everyone following him, the Saromsker Rebbe hurried through the passageways. A thousand people packed into the assembly hall, where dust was dancing in beams of sunlight. The Saromsker Rebbe stood on a high platform. “It could be,” he said, “that there is a baal shem.”
Before the musical instruments were taken from their cases and the locks pulled on the schnapps cabinet, Roger carried his butterscotch-colored suitcase down the brownstone steps and disappeared into streets that had begun to darken and glow red with alien neon. Never had he been to the Bronx, he had no map, and did not know the subway, but he was carried as if on a puff of wind through roaring tunnels and white-tiled stations full of the temptations of kosher hot dogs prepared with nonkosher utensils. While the express idled with open doors in the green curve of the Fourteenth Street station, he listened to a saxophone. The notes for which the player of this instrument was reaching, and would never attain, were the notes Roger had just heard, and even after the doors closed and the train rumbled uptown, he heard them still.
That night, Roger slept on the roof of the 161st Street IRT station, under faintly visible stars that would have blazed but for the emanations of electric light that make the sky above the City of New York the color of a jonquil. He slept neither on a park bench nor on the pavement, because had some Irish bullies tried to beat him silly and been struck by lightning it would not have been a mitzvah for Roger. The air in his resting place was relatively cool and dry, and he was so young and flexible that the washboard indentations in his back vanished ten minutes after he left the corrugated roof.
Soon the sun was high and people were streaming from nowhere to the aquarium-dark spaces under the El to buy puffer-fish-shaped fried things the color of apple pie that were filled with potatoes and cheese, triangular slices of pizza (a new thing) from which the ingredients had tried to slide and been killed during their escape, armies of nonkosher fried chicken parts arranged in golden ranks as in the Napoleonic Wars, and candied apples that you could buy only if you signed a statement stipulating that you wouldn’t sue after you ate the paper that stuck to the flat place on the top, had all your fillings pulled out, and were stabbed by the stick. This offered neither the prospect of lunch nor any other meal for a boy whose idea of bliss was herring and dilled potatoes. What did it matter? He wasn’t hungry, and he stepped from the shadows of the El into the bright sun, where the House of Ruth loomed as white as chalk, a Pleistocene cliff against which swirled the gray-black exhausts of the Major Deegan Expressway.
Hours before the game, he approached a ticket booth. “Is this the House of Ruth?” he asked.
“This is it.”
“This is it, just like that? This is her house?”
“His,” the ticket seller said.
“His?” Roger asked.
“Ruth was a woman,” Roger stated.
“Ruth was a Babe, but he wasn’t no woman.”
“That’s not true,” Roger said, “but it doesn’t matter. I’ve come to save the Yenkiss.”
“You still need a ticket.”
“I shouldn’t just go in?”
“You have to buy a ticket even to save the team. But you’re in luck. If you buy even a cheap ticket now, you can go to the best seats for the pre-game practice. Mantle is batting this very minute.”
“Yeah, Mickey Mental.”
“He’s the one I’m supposed to replace, I think.”
“He’ll be so disappointed!”
“He can be on the team. I’ll just hit for him.”
Not having any money was no discouragement for Roger, who pivoted away from the ticket booth, faced the massive concrete walls and iron gates, and, with Moses and Joshua in mind, threw out his arms. His chest was expanded (which wasn’t saying much), his fingers spread, and his face upturned in expectation of a miracle, but no breach appeared in the walls. So he repeated the gesture, and said “Lifto’ach!” Curiously, no breach appeared this time, either, or any of the dozen times thereafter. Still, Roger had no doubt that he had been commanded upon a divine mission.
Like Joshua, he circled the walls. Unlike Joshua, he came to a truck bay into which vendors were carrying trays of freshly baked pretzels, jelly doughnuts, and other things. Stepping up to an immense Armenian who was carrying sacks of roasted peanuts to a baggage trailer inside, Roger said, “Mickey Mental sent me out here to help you because he wants all these beans inside before it rains.”
“Mickey Mental. He sent me.”
“He can’t do it. A pain in his back, from playing the violin. Get those beans in right away. You know what Rabbi Belknap of Mazlow says about beans in the rain.”
The Armenian looked at the slight, blond, hasidic Jew, and said, “Rabbi Belknap . . .”
“Let’s go!” Roger commanded.
In a kind of trance, the peanut czar of Yankee Stadium agreed. “Okay. Let’s go! You take these beans from the truck. Go ahead! Take them. Take the beans!”
After working for a half-hour, Roger was in. Not only had he found the House of Ruth, he had breached its walls without slinging a single stone or slaying a single Boabite. Gliding up a ramp in search of June daylight, he came out on the first tier near left field. Looking east toward the bladder neck of the Bronx and into the vast right-field decks rising unto the crane of his neck and topped by rows of flags and formations of lights like the radars on a cruiser, he realized that although it did not fit Luba’s description exactly—gone were the purple hangings, the maidens, the grapes—it was close. You could fill it with every rabbi in the world and you would still have room for more.
He looked at rows and rows of seats as neatly folded as laundry, lacquered hard and beerproof. Remembering the oceanic sounds on Schnaiper’s radio, he filled in the crowd. In his vision of what he heard, he saw whole steppes of people whose faces were like seeds peering from sunflowers, and whose changes of position and sudden cheers were like wind sweeping high grass. Legions disappeared in the shadows, from which a roar echoed like a hurricane. How many places like this, he thought, would it take to hold six million people, and his answer, quickly calculated, was one-hundred-twenty. Stadiums packed with fifty-thousand people could be placed in a line down both sides of Manhattan from Washington Heights to the Battery, with no space in between, and if the souls within could break their silence, the roar would be unlike anything ever heard.
“One foot at a time,” he said to himself, with no idea why he said it. “One foot at a time.” He sighed. If only his father and mother could see him, standing in Ruth’s house, about to save the Yenkiss. They would not know of either of these things, but if only they could see him.
A young hasidic boy in a black coat and a fur hat on a hot June day had no idea how to save the Yankees, but his moving feet carried him to the rail. At the elliptical center of the field a man in a white suit stood on a barrow of dirt and would periodically throw something at two men who faced him. One of the men was in turtlelike armor, squatting. The other stood, with a weapon.
When the thing that was thrown at the man with the staff would come at him almost faster than the eye could see, he would strike at it, and there would be a crack as in the breaking of a cable, after which the thing that was thrown would fly out into the air, along varying trajectories, and land in the grass. Then someone would throw the man on the dirt a new thing, and the process would continue. Sometimes the man who held the weapon missed, and the thing that was thrown was caught by the turtle, who threw it back. Who knew? But this was baseball.
On the back of the man with the weapon was the number 7. This meant, according to Schnaiper, that he was Mickey Mental. It was a good place to start. If you are going to help the needy, help those in most distress, and those in most distress are those who have fallen furthest. Roger was sure that it was no accident that the only thing between him and Mickey Mental, the greatest baseball player of the age (according to Schnaiper), was a hundred feet of perfectly clear air through which sound could easily carry.
This was at a time in the morning when the field was most like what a field is supposed to be, swept clocklike by golden legs of sun stilting across it as time progressed, insects busy in flight against the huge foils of black shadow. A white blur that is not mist but a condition of the light, a lost and miscellaneous glare, covered the empty stands and bleachers in which, to Mantle’s delight, virtually no one had yet appeared. And those who had come early kept as respectful a distance as pilgrims in St. Peter’s who have stumbled upon the Pope in the dry runs of investiture. Fragrant breezes from the field alternated pleasingly with cool downdrafts of leftover night air rolling off the second level like a waterfall. It was the perfect time for the great player to concentrate on the attainment of perfection in hitting the ball. To allow his gifts free rein, he needed something like the flow of a river. In the mornings, when Yankee Stadium reminded him most of the fields his forebears had farmed, that river flowed best. He was deep in concentration, and doing very well, when he became aware of a distraction.
From behind, from the left-field fence out toward third base, came a kind of squeak. At first he thought it was a bird or a cricket. Then he realized that it was an imploring voice. Once every great while, coarse people got into the stadium before a game and stood at the rail calling out his name, hoping for acknowledgment, a conversation, or an autographed baseball. This he had learned to ignore.
But though he tried, he could not ignore the squeak. He screwed up his face, rested the bat against his shoulder, and held up his left hand as a signal to the pitcher to hold off. What was this squeak? He lifted his head, hand still held out, and squinted, which was what he did when he wanted better to hear something behind him. He heard the calling of his own name, after a fashion. “What?” he said, as if asking why the perfect morning had to include this.
Roger had been squeaking as regularly as a tree frog in heat. For ten minutes, without even a hint of self-consciousness—indeed, with miraculous happiness—he had been calling out: “Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental!”
Convinced that he was being mocked, the champion turned his head somewhat like an ostrich and stared over his own broad back as if it were a wall. He was expecting to see a large disorganized lout with a face oriented in many directions at once, or possibly a bland-looking idiot with eyes only inches from his hairline. But he saw nothing, because he was looking too high. When he dropped his aim a fraction he spied a small, funny-looking thing in black. Not budging from the plate, he leaned back slightly on his heels and focused on the object, laboring to understand what it was, while all the time it squeaked at him, shouting, “Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental! Mickey Mental!”
By this time the turtle had stood and removed his carapace. “What is that, Mickey?” he asked. “It’s not a monkey, is it?”
“Monkeys don’t talk, Yogi.”
“Maybe it’s mechanical.”
“It’s making fun of me,” Mickey Mantle said. “I’ve got to take care of this.” He strode angrily toward Roger, bat famously in hand, as irritated and as polite as a steambath attendant. Halfway there, he saw that his tormentor was a boy in hasidic dress and a shtreimel. The face of this boy was, in fact, oriented in many different directions, but lucidly so, so intelligently in fact that it gave Mantle pause, for in Roger’s young eyes was a depth that, even though they were young, Mickey had never seen except in the eyes of the very old. Roger had stopped squeaking, and was smiling, because everything was going according to plan.
A foot taller than Roger, Mickey bent forward, squinted with his left eye, opened the right very wide, and said, “Are you . . . calling me?”
“You’re seven,” Roger said in his accented English.
“What a number! What I could tell you about that number!”
“Is that what you wanted?”
“Why did you call me that?”
“What?” Roger inquired.
Roger shrugged. “That’s your name.”
“What’s my name?”
“Mickey Mental. Isn’t it?”
“Say Mantle,” Mickey commanded.
“Mental,” Roger said.
“Mantle,” Mickey repeated.
“Mental,” Roger echoed. He could not hear the difference, and wondered at this strange form of introduction.
“Mickey Mental,” Mickey said. “Are we done?”
“Oh no,” Roger said, “not by a lung shot.”
“Not by a lung shot? Look, kid, I’ve got batting practice. Do you want me to sign a glove or something? I’ll do it, but leave me alone.”
Roger looked at his hands. “Glove.”
“Whadaya want? I’ll give you a minute.”
Now, like clouds dappling the sea, the thinking moved perceptibly across Roger’s eyes. “I’ve been sent to help you,” he said.
He spoke with absolute seriousness, with a gravity of unknown but arresting origin. Mickey forgot the passage of time. Thinking that he was losing his mind, he asked, “Who sent you?”
“Boruch HaShem,” Roger said, which means, “blessed be the Name.”
“Boruch HaShem,” Mickey Mantle repeated. “Who’s that?”
“It’s forbidden to say the Name.”
“But you just said it.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Boruch HaShem, right?”
“So, you said it.”
“I would never say it,” Roger said, “Boruch Ha-Shem.”
“Well, you tell Boruch HaShem that I’m not interested.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Roger said, in a way that indicated a nervous apprehension and his absolute certainty that one dare not do such a thing.
“Okay,” said Mickey, “your time is up. That’s it.” He turned and began to walk back to home plate, hoping that he would hear no more squeaks and that the next time he looked back Roger would be gone and would not appear again.
But he had taken only a few steps when Roger shouted, “God. I can say it in English.”
Mickey stopped, turned around, and went back. “God sent you?”
“He Himself, personally.”
Eyes closed, Roger nodded unambiguously.
“To do what?”
“To lift you from the darkness of defeat.”
“And how, did He tell you, are you to do that?”
“I was not told how,” Roger said. (The problem for Mickey, as he himself saw it, was that he believed Roger.) “Specific instructions I didn’t get, but I was watching, and as usually happens, it came to me.”
“Okay,” Mickey said, “save me.”
“I will,” said Roger. “You were repeatedly hitting that object which was thrown at you, with that axe.”
Mickey looked at the bat and rolled his eyes.
“And I noticed that you hit the object out to many different places, and that people expressed approval or disappointment depending upon where it landed. Is there an ideal place to which to direct it?”
Mickey laughed to himself a little like a crazy person. “Yeah,” he said, “there is an ideal place to which to direct the object.”
“Where?” Roger asked.
Mickey took the bat in his left hand, turned his head to the right, and extended his right hand, pointing up and away. “You see that clock over there, above the sign?”
“That says Longeens?” Roger asked, pronouncing it with a hard G.
“Longines,” Mickey corrected. “The ideal place to which to direct the object is over that clock. No one’s ever done it. No one’s ever directed a ball out of this stadium.”
“I’ll show you,” Roger said.
“You’ll show me.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Kid, we have the best batting coaches in the world. I’m supposed to be the best batter in the world. How can you show me?”
“Listen,” said Roger, losing his patience. “That’s what I was sent here to do. Let me show you, and if I can’t, I’ll go.”
Mickey stared at Roger. “What is this?” he asked.
“The goat can butt because he has horns,” Roger said, as if that settled it.
And, as if it did, Mickey said, “You wait here. I’m going to see.”
“Talk to my friends.”
Mickey walked quickly back to home. Roger prayed. Davening, he was pulled into the clouds of galaxies and stars, the explosion of suns united and uniting, the greatest glory bleeding perfectly into the smallest thing, the smallest thing assuming effortlessly the greatest glory. It was not that he imagined this or summoned it to appear, but, rather, that his prayer was that the curtain be lifted.
An agitated Mantle took up the batter’s position and tapped the plate with the end of the bat. Berra pulled down his mask. Mantle raised the bat and made eye contact with the pitcher. To dispel his confusion, he wanted to hit one into the stands. The pitcher, Martin, wound up, released, and a slow ball came down the chute, precisely in the middle of the strike zone. Mantle swung to smash the ball, and didn’t even touch it.
“Stee! Rike!” Berra said.
Knowing that his friend didn’t talk this way, Berra flipped up his mask. “What’s the matter?”
“That kid. He’s got me shook up.”
“What did he want, an autograph?”
“No. He’s come here to save us. God sent him. He says he can show me how to hit a ball over the clock.”
Berra thought. “Let him come to the plate. That’s what he wants. Let him hit one. Why not? What can you win?”
“You mean, ‘What can you lose?’ ”
“No. ‘What can you win?’ It means, ‘Grab the bell by the broom.’ Maybe he can save us.”
“How can he teach me? He’s a kid. I don’t know, twelve? He’s a hayseed,” by which the great slugger meant Hasid.
“Mick, maybe he knows.”
“I don’t think so, Yogi.”
“You were a hayseed before you got into baseball,” Berra said, expressing the almost universally held impression that Mantle was, somehow, the paradigm of American agriculture.
Mantle looked sharply at the catcher. “I was not.”
“Sure you were. Everyone knows it.”
“Yeah. Ask any baseball fan in America.”
“With the hat, and the sideburns and everything?” Mantle asked.
“That’s right,” Berra said, thinking of straw hat and rural aspect.
“I was not!”
“Yes you were,” said Berra, bobbing his head up and down in confirmation. “You’ve got it written all over you.”
Mickey thought this was a dream. “How come no one ever told me?”
“Because it’s so obvious.”
“In the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you look. Your accent. Your face. It’s part of why you’re such a hero. I’m Italian. People look at me differently. It’s a different attitude.”
“Wait a minute,” said Mickey, “wait a minute.” He turned to the pitcher. “Hey, Billy,” he shouted. “Billy. Do I strike you as a hayseed? Do I look and talk like one?”
The pitcher said, “Yeah.”
“How come you never told me?”
“Why should I?” the pitcher shouted back. “Who am I, your girlfriend?”
Mickey stared off into space.
“Mick, get the kid,” Berra said. “Bring him out onto the field. We’ll put the guys in position; it’ll be the thrill of his life. Look at ‘im. There’s no one with him. If you’re alone, you’re all by yourself.”
“Yeah, but he doesn’t know anything about baseball. He calls the ball an object and the bat an axe.
He says that he doesn’t know how, but that God will provide.”
“Get him anyway.”
“You believe him?”
“I’ll get the guys,” Berra announced.
As Mickey Mantle lifted Roger over the fence, the Yankees loped out onto the field. Maintenance workers looked up. What was this? The whole team, in an empty stadium, set up for a game?
“How much do you weigh?” Mickey asked Roger after he set him down and they were walking—Roger’s black costume flowing with the breeze—because the airborne Roger had seemed to Mickey to have had no weight.
“Thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles,” Roger answered.
“How many pounds is that?”
“I don’t know. There are eight beyngaluchs in a shvoigle.”
“Did you ever play baseball?”
“Until a little while ago, I never heard of it.”
“Well, here on the field, awaiting your direction, are the New York Yankees.”
“You know,” said Roger, almost at the plate, “God shifts an untold number of birds twice a year from the top of the earth to the middle, and from the middle back to the top—geese, herons, fingelehs, robins, chickens, starlings, woodpeckers, kibniks, stvittles, albatrosses, sprites, doves. . . .”
Mickey awaited what was next.
“If He takes the trouble to shift a goose from the North Pole to Havana, He could easily have set me in proper motion to end up here, and He did. Here are the Yenkiss, all spread out, as He intended, and here am I. Hand me the axe.”
Mickey gave him the bat. When it came into his hands, the sun, purely by coincidence, hit it in a peculiar way, and it appeared to glow. Roger held it almost at arm’s length, like an upraised sword, and stunned the Yankees as he swayed back and forth and twirled around, for the bat seemed to them—as it seemed to him—to be a staff with a power beyond that of the maker or the wood. That he would dance so, in front of them, as if unaware of their presence, or not caring, they found extraordinary. He was, in fact, momentarily unaware of them, because his thoughts had been seized, and flowed in only one direction, where the staff pointed, up. The only thing in his heart at that moment was love, and the only thing before his eyes a passage from the book of Ruth: “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead.” What the Yankees did not know was that this boy who knew nothing about baseball had come into their midst to test an ancient compact that of late had been broken. The Yankees did not know that their stadium had been turned into a court of justice in which the prosecutor was an odd little boy and the defendant was the Creator of the universe. In Christian theology—and the Yankees were Christians—this is inconceivable. God does not appear in the dock. He does not dispute with those over whom He holds absolute sway. In Jewish theology, however, He does.
When he finished, Roger looked about and realized that everyone was staring at him in absolute silence, and that now he had to do something big. Praying internally nonstop, he stepped into the position in which he had seen Mantle, and tapped the plate with the bat.
“What do you call the object that is thrown toward you?” he asked of anyone. At a distance, he had not seen that it was a ball.
“Ball,” said Berra, leaving out the article, dropping his mask, and crouching into position.
Roger looked at Berra’s segmented armor and said, “You must be trayf.” Then he turned to the pitcher and said, “Throw ball!”
“Hit it above the clock,” Mantle said matter-of-factly. After all, they had discussed this already.
Roger nodded, but Wylie, one of the coaches, who was mean and small of soul, mockingly said, “No, first knock off the hand.”
“Which one?” Roger asked.
“The minute hand,” Wylie answered, delighted. The clock read 10:20.
“Okay,” said Roger, choking up naturally on Mickey Mantle’s heavy bat.
Martin began to wind up for an easy pitch—he didn’t want to hit a small hasidic boy—but Roger stopped him, and turned to Mantle. “Mickey,” he said, “when I knock off the minute hand it will fall to the seats below. It’s pointed and it must weigh many shvoigles. The sign on the left,” he said, meaning the sign to the left of the scoreboard, “says ‘Anyone interfering with play subject to arrest.’ Does that mean me?”
“No,” half a dozen people said in unison. This broke the spell. Now they realized that he wasn’t even going to connect with the ball, and they began to think of ways—such as biting their lips—not to laugh at him so as not to devastate his pride, although they knew Wylie would.
“Hey, Mickey,” someone said, “after the kid finishes, let him keep the bat.”
“Okay,” Mickey said. It was a good idea. The kid wouldn’t feel so bad.
Roger pointed at the minute hand. This was so much like what Babe Ruth used to do, uncannily so, that even though they thought he was imitating (which, never having heard of Babe Ruth, he was not), they were troubled. They assumed that the strikeout would take quite a few pitches, with Martin kindly throwing a ball or two, and they shifted from foot to foot.
Martin wound up relaxedly. He was hardly going to throw fast or fancy. He leaned back and threw.
If you had seen it in slow motion, you would have seen a baseball traveling like a planet in orbit, precisely and languorously, though behind its sharpness the rest of the world would have been a blur. Then you would have seen the bat moving back ever so slightly, like the hammer-cock of a Colt .45. And you would have seen Roger’s left foot elevate minutely above the ground. Then you would have seen the bat itself making an arc as certain and as powerful as a comet’s, and you would have seen the flow of his muscle and the light in his eyes, and the astronomical powers fed from the billowing fringes and folds of black cloth into the almost-glowing staff. You would have seen, in Roger’s face and eyes, a battlefield look, an expression that comes only when impossible outcomes are guaranteed. And then you would have seen the impact—so tremendous that the ball shattered into a hundred thousand minute particles filling the air with a cloud of dust that disappeared on the wind.
The Yankees had never seen anything like it. No one had.
“What happened?” someone asked.
Berra flipped up the mask. “The ball was pulverized. I saw it. I’ve seen the skin come off a ball, but I never saw a . . .”
“Was that a trick ball?” Coach Wylie yelled to Martin.
“It was the ball that Mickey hit into center,” Martin answered.
No one spoke.
“I’m sorry,” said Roger. “I guess I hit it too hard. Next time, I’ll hit it more gently.”
“He hit it too hard,” Mickey said to himself, dazed.
The coach got a ball, inspected it, bounced it against the plate, and threw it out to Martin. “Try this one.”
Now no one breathed except Roger. The pitch was thrown. The same astronomical conjunctions occurred. The bat connected explosively with the ball but, this time, just under the limit beyond which the ball would have been destroyed. Leather was stretched as far as it would stretch, thread too. It traveled in a straight line, leaving behind it a brief trail of orange flame and then a hardly perceptible line of white smoke.
Mouths dropped open and bodies froze as the ball slammed into the minute hand of the clock that said World’s Most Honored Watch and blew it from its axle so that it windmilled through the air, corkscrewing, eventually, into the ground in front of the wall that had written on it the challenging notation, 407 Ft. The field of Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees standing upon it, was still.
Even Roger stared at the javelin- or propeller-like minute hand stuck perpendicularly in the ground. A seagull dipped down to examine the broken clock, and then, taken by a gust of wind, rose like a rocket and disappeared into the clouds.
“That didn’t happen,” Wylie said “It was a trick. I’ve seen it a million times.”
“Seen what a million times, Wylie?”
“They put an explosive charge in the clock, and somebody watching with a telescope pushes a button, which sends a radio signal to the detonator, which explodes the hands off the clock. It’s the oldest trick in the world.”
“And you’ve seen it?” Mantle asked.
“I saw it in the minors in North Carolina. I saw it in Florida. I saw it all over. You know, they do it.”
“I hit the object, truthfully,” Roger stated.
“I’ll bet you did, kid. Let’s see you do it again.”
“He can’t, the hand’s down already.”
“Now that the charge is gone,” said Wylie, “let’s see you knock off the other one.” He had to believe his own theory.
Roger tapped the bat against the plate. He had a grim, insulted look. “Throw ball,” he said to Martin, who was already on the mound.
Before the pitch, Wylie shouted, “Don’t go so easy on him this time!”
Martin shot back, “What’s the difference? It’s how he hits.”
“Anybody can hit a slow pitch. That’s just giving it to him.”
“Throw ball!” yelled a peeved Roger.
“You say, ‘play ball,’ or, ‘pitch it in,’ ” Mantle told him.
“Pitch it in!” Roger shouted.
Martin wound up, and the ball came in toward the plate fast but straight.
Now that the motions were familiar, Roger was unconcerned about missing, and looked forward to the sharp crack of the bat. He worried only about hitting the ball gently enough not to pulverize it. Once again, he connected. Once again, the ball smoked toward the clock and struck it, this time breaking the hour hand off at the base. It fell, bumped against the scoreboard, and landed flat on the bleachers.
The Yankees were awed, but wanted reassurance nonetheless. Knowing that there was no wind, and that the field was dead silent, Mantle almost whispered, “Kid, can you put a hole in the clock?”
“Sure,” said Roger. “Where?”
“At the two o’clock position.”
“Pitch it in!”
The ball came in, and left like an artillery shell. A crunch sounded shortly after a hole appeared near the two.
“Get Stengel,” Mantle commanded, his voice almost shaking (Mickey Mantle’s voice never shook, at least not in Yankee Stadium). “I think the kid’s just about to hit the ball out of the park.”
In no time at all, Stengel emerged from the dugout. He had already been on his way, having been told by a choking assistant manager that Babe Ruth was back, reincarnated as a kid who was fresh and could do things the Babe had never done. Stengel believed this to be an elaborate joke, and he didn’t have time for jokes. “What’s going on here?” he asked belligerently. “Why’re you guys on the field? It’s not enough that Kansas City is going to completely run over you, you want to be tired, too?”
Mantle shook his head. “Casey, this kid is going to hit the ball out of the stadium,” he said, and then laughed like a deranged person. “Really, he is!”
Stengel focused on Roger for the first time. He tried to speak, but the sight of Roger, so small and slight, in a black hasidic cloak, a shtreimel, and peyess, made him unable to. Then he said, “All right. You got me. Now let’s get back to work, okay?”
“I’m serious,” said Mantle, a little angry and a bit trembly.
“Have you been drinking, Mickey?”
“He destroyed the clock,” a Yankee said. “He did. Look.”
Stengel looked up at the blasted clock. “Who did that?” he asked.
“He did,” Mantle said.
“It’s a trick,” Wylie shouted. “I saw it in the minors.”
“Okay, jerks,” Stengel said, never known for being unimpulsive. He paraded back and forth for a moment or two, thinking. “If that kid can hit a ball out of this park . . . gimme a break, will ya . . . if he can do that, and he’s gotta do it more than once” (the businessman in Stengel could be cautious, too), “I’ll sign him for a million dollars a year and I’ll double your salaries, every single one of you.”
The Yankees were ecstatic with the prospect.
“But,” Stengel went on, “if he can’t—in fifty pitches—I won’t sign him for anything, and I’ll cut your salaries in half for a year.” Stengel loved this. Unlike his current season, it was win-win.
“All of us, Mr. Stengel?” asked an outfielder who had just risen from the farm team and had a baby to feed.
Now Stengel nearly glowed. “No, you’ve got a choice here. Everyone who thinks the kid can hit it out, get behind the third-base line. Everyone who doesn’t, get behind the first-base line. If you’re behind the first-base line, your salary stays the same, no matter what. If you’re behind the third-base line, it’s double or half. Ha!” He was sure that not one member of the team would walk north beyond the third-base line. He had brilliantly transformed their joke on him into a joke on them.
For the next few minutes, the Yankees were deep in thought, and no one moved. Then Berra stood up and, with his left hand, removed his mask in the practiced gesture that he had accomplished many thousands of times. Stengel thought he was giving in. But Berra took a breath, pulled the mask back to his right shoulder, and hurled it like a pie plate beyond the third-base line. “That stands for me!” he shouted, and squatted down, confident that he would not have to catch the next pitch.
Mantle smiled the smile of someone who, though he may be about to lose grievously, will feel a deep satisfaction even in loss—as if the things that people do, all the hundreds of millions of different things, were measured not merely in the visible and apparent accounts of the world, but in another ledger of far greater import. He crossed the third-base line, and waited. Just standing there made him feel like his ancestors who had crossed oceans, knocked down forests, and fought wars.
Then the others followed suit, until only Stengel, the new outfielder, and Wylie were left behind the first-base line. Stengel was irritated beyond measure, but delighted as well. “Wylie, you don’t even count. You’re not a player, get away from me.” He looked at his team. “Okay, nuts, you want to mutiny? Okay. You’re outa your minds. But, look, I like it! You know why I like it? I like it because it’s justice. You’re doing so badly, you deserve a cut in pay. That’s why.”
He turned to Martin, still on the mound. “What about you?”
“I’m with them,” Martin said, pointing to the team.
“And so am I, goddammit!” yelled the new outfielder, crossing over.
“You mustn’t say that,” Roger scolded as the outfielder ran by him.
“Let’s go, then,” Stengel said. And then, to Roger, “Did they put you up to this, kid? Did they pay you?”
“No one ever paid me anything,” said Roger, “in my whole life.”
After assessing Roger, Stengel turned to Martin. “Billy, don’t hurt him. Gentle pitches, nice and easy, all of them.”
“You haven’t seen him,” Martin said.
“But I have seen him. He’s standing right there. Look at him. Can you believe it? Kid, if you can hit the ball out of the stadium once in fifty pitches, you can have as many more pitches as you need to hit it out again, and then I’ll sign you as a Yankee for a million dollars a year.”
“It has nothing to do with money,” Roger said, and tapped the plate with the bat. “It can’t have anything to do with money. I don’t want the money. I just want to teach you,” he said earnestly, “to hit these objects, these . . . balls, with perfection.”
Because there was no other sound except the dim roar of traffic on the Major Deegan, even the slight luffing of the flags in the June sky was audible. The Yankees knew that what they expected was not possible, but they believed that they were going to see it.
“What lies behind the wall, past the tall white building?” Roger asked.
“The Bronx,” Berra answered.
“And what lies beyond the Bronx?”
“Long Island Sound.”
“Are there many boats in Long Island Sound?”
“On a day like today,” said Berra, “there are.”
“Beyond Long Island Sound, then?”
“Of course,” said Roger, unhappily. “And then the ocean.”
“Then the ocean,” Berra confirmed, “like water off a duck’s back. Why?”
“I wouldn’t want to hit anybody,” said Roger. “Play ball.”
As Martin wound up, Stengel was filled with joy, because, if Roger could do this, doubling salaries would be nothing compared to the revenue that would pour in. To see a ball hit out of Yankee Stadium, people would come from Borneo. If Roger couldn’t do it, the pay cut would free up funds for hiring some new players with blood in their veins. But, most of all, Stengel, like his team, like everyone, loved being at the threshold of great events.
The ball flew in, expressly. Roger now had the look of a professional, the Mantle look, the forward-oriented, concentrated gaze, the ease, the love of action. It was the attitude of the kind of racehorse that lived above all to run. Shtreimel tilted, he stepped forward and leaned gracefully into the pitch. The bat connected with the ball, this time with a sharp up-angle that every experienced batter and all the coaches deemed impossible for propelling the ball over the wall. It was simply too steep. Even had Ruth hit a ball so steeply it would have flown gloriously high but not even reached the bleachers.
This ball, however, left a faintly white trace and seemed to accelerate as it climbed. Everyone except Roger shielded his eyes and followed the trajectory. The ball made no parabola, but kept going up. They waited for it to lose power and head down, plopping into right field, but it didn’t. Only when it disappeared from sight did they realize that it was not going to come down in the stadium. They didn’t know where it was going to come down. It was gone.
It had never happened before, and no one knew what to do. So Stengel dropped to his knees and said “Holy cow,” more softly than people usually say holy cow, and he kept repeating it, as if he were in conversation with himself, a conversation limited to those two words spoken with different emphasis and intonation. It went something like this: “Holy cow. Ho-ly cow. Ho-ly . . . cow! Ho-ly . . . ca-ow! Holy? Cow?” and so on, quietly, madly.
The Yankees gave no thought to their new wealth, for as Roger hit four more pitches, one after the other, into the distant Atlantic, and Casey Stengel made an opera out of just two words, they could think only of how lucky they were to be there at that very moment.
Roger turned to Stengel and said, “You see?” “I see,” said Stengel. “I see.”
“I have a suggestion,” Roger went on.
“Sure, we’ll do it.”
“I was watching Mickey hit the balls here and there.”
“Yes,” Stengel said. (Not “Yes?” but “Yes.”)
“Three people wait out in the grass to catch them.”
Stengel nodded as if seeing the game through new eyes. “That’s right. They do.”
“They shouldn’t. The one in the middle should stay, but the others should come closer in.”
“Who would cover left and right field?” Mantle asked.
Roger pointed to both, and said, “The one in the center can go to either.”
“Uh,” said Stengel, most timidly, “we’ve found that, given the depth of the field, the most a man can cover is a third. You see, the most he’d have to run would be a sixth, which would then give him a chance to cover the field back to front.” Stengel paused. “You have another way?”
“Yeh,” said Roger. “Cover from the center. I’ll show you. Give me one of those kreplach,” by which he meant a fielder’s mitt. (They wouldn’t have known had he not held out his left hand and slapped it with his right fist, as he had seen Larsen do with his glove.)
“Get the kid a kreplach!” Stengel barked, and Mickey Mantle—Mickey Mantle—ran to the dugout as eagerly as a batboy, and emerged with his own glove to give to Roger.
Roger jogged to center field. He didn’t go particularly fast, but he seemed to rise as high with each step as if he were wearing kangaroo shoes. Mantle took the bat that had just made history and positioned himself to hit pop-ups.
“Hit one right to him. See if he can catch it,” Stengel commanded.
“What?” Mantle asked. “He just hit a ball out of the park, five times in a row, Casey. You think he can’t do what he says he’s going to do?”
“He’s probably never caught a ball,” Stengel insisted.
“So what,” Berra said. “The start of the middle is the end of the road for the beginning.”
“That may be so, Yogi,” Stengel said, “but let’s make sure to start where he is.”
“I’ll do that if you want,” Mantle agreed, and hit one toward Roger. Mantle was so good that Roger didn’t even have to shift his feet to position himself for the catch, which he accomplished swimmingly.
They weren’t expecting what happened when Roger threw the ball in. Never having thrown a baseball, or even held one, he overthrew. The ball sailed into the back of the upper grandstand. “This has gotta be a dream,” Stengel said.
“It isn’t,” said Berra. “You know how, when you’re dreaming, there’s a sign that says, ‘You’re Dreaming’? There’s no sign.”
“Yeah,” said Stengel. “You’re right. There’s no sign, so we know we’re not dreaming. Okay, Mickey, let’s see if he can do this. Hit him one as far back on the third-base line as you can.”
“I have a feeling he can do it,” Mantle said, hitting with newfound strength.
The ball went deep into left field, and Roger followed—no, preceded—it with inexplicable speed.
His run had nothing about it of gravity. He just burned across the grass, like a fast train, and waited for the ball to come in. This was astounding, but not impossible.
Stengel continued to direct. “I want to see this. He’s standing on the third-base line. Hit one right along the first-base line. If he can cross the field . . . if he . . .”
The ball went high into right. Roger kept his eye on it as he ran. He ran so fast that one of the players said, “Look at that! Look at that!” and Roger arrived in right field in time to catch the ball.
They motioned for him to come in, and as Roger glided toward them along the first-base line, this time carrying the ball with him, Stengel turned to the team and said, “This is a whole new situation.”
Because of the many complications that ensued, Stengel knew it wasn’t a dream. Dreams are notable not for their complications but for their lack of them, which is not to say that they aren’t complicated. Precisely because it wasn’t a dream, everyone who had seen what had happened had to be bribed, threatened, begged, or cajoled into silence. This meant the Yankees themselves, including a few coaches and assistant managers, four groundskeepers, and a hot-dog-roll contractor who witnessed the remarkable events while wheeling in several thousand pounds of rolls. Stengel (who, as Berra said, was the smartest jerk who ever lived) enlisted those in the conspiracy not only with huge amounts of money but with roles to play. The hot-dog-roll man was retained at $5,000 per week to provide covert transportation for Roger in a hot-dog-roll truck. The groundskeepers were promised, if they kept mum, new lawns and new houses. The Yankees themselves had everything to win.
The problem of secrecy wasn’t overwhelming. The real trouble was that Roger would have to quit a week before Rosh HaShana, which meant he couldn’t play in the World Series. This was unbearable, and as the Yankees played—brilliantly, if losingly—against Kansas City that same afternoon, the conversation in Stengel’s office went as follows.
“You’ve got to play in the Series, Roger. You can have anything you want. What do you want? Money? Broads? A car? A trip to Israel?”
“I want the Yenkiss to win.”
“So do I, Roger. That’s why you’ve got to play in the Series.”
“Roger, this is important here, really important. Who exactly says that you can’t play in the Series?”
“I understand. You want to be a good guy. You want to be devout. You want to follow the rules. But God wouldn’t mind if you played in the Series. I’m sure many famous rabbis would uphold my statement.”
“He would mind, He told me.”
“What passage says that? We’ll get the best rabbis to look at it.”
“There’s no passage. He told me.”
“He told you directly?”
“I mean He actually . . . He . . . told you Himself? You spoke to Him?”
“I always speak to Him. But this time He came down to the roof.”
“Mr. Stengel”—which Roger pronounced “Sten-geleh”—“I weigh thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles. I’m two yumps tall. How do you think I hit the ball out of the house? Do you think I could do such a thing alone? Who do you think is in charge here? You? Me?”
Not only would Roger have to quit a week before Rosh HaShana, but because of study requirements and holidays he could play only in five games. Also, he had to have kosher food, and a place to live. Even had Roger been willing to accept money (Stengel foolishly told Mantle that the Yankees would have signed Roger for $10,000,000 a year—contingent on performance), the Yankees would have put him up in the presidential suite at the Carlyle anyway. As they didn’t even have to pay him, this was almost effortless. No one in the world, Stengel reasoned, would ever make the connection between Roger Reeves, the new rookie fresh out of the Carolinas or possibly Georgia (who knew?), and Winston Wilgis, a neurotic and reclusive rubber heir whose aides paid the hotel staff large amounts of cash to be discreet, and who was never seen and never left his room, although his adopted son, a hasidic teenager who sometimes wore a baseball uniform, came and went regularly in a hot-dog-roll truck that pulled up to the loading dock.
Roger had bodyguards—two huge couches in bulging suits and bowl-like haircuts, whose enormous Magnum revolvers were like giant swellings under their coats. They stood in front of his door whenever he was there, and checked the rabbis who brought carts of kosher pancakes and chocolate milkshakes for milk meals, and Bessarabian shish kebab and chopped-liver sandwiches for meat meals. They shook the Cel-Ray celery-tonic bottles to make sure they were not bombs (which, when Roger opened them, they were), and kept all maids and waiters in total ignorance of the occupant of the hotel’s best accommodations. Roger was rather alone.
The first night he was brought to the hotel, after ten hours of unwritten contract negotiations in which he was totally inflexible and got exactly what he wanted, he was tired. At his insistence they had stopped at a delicatessen at 100th Street and Broadway, where he ate like a cow and drank six bottles of Cel-Ray, his favorite drink in the world, that he had had only once before in his life, during a raucous and disorganized Simchas Torah when he had mistakenly grazed at the rabbis’ sweet table.
They popped him into the hotel room as if he had been in a hotel before, which he hadn’t, and there he was, in the presidential suite of the Carlyle, on the day that he had hit five balls out of Yankee Stadium, but luxury meant nothing to him, and this kind of glory little.
The furniture was so European that Louis XIV might not have noticed had he by some miracle been transported to the Carlyle from his own time and place. The carpets were soft and dense, the walls smooth and solid, everything clean and well lit, the colors bleeding into one another like wounded comrades in the French foreign legion. Roger wandered from room to room, but only in the living room did he fully realize what was happening, for there, as high above the earth as an airplane, huge banks of whistle-clean windows opened out on Manhattan, which roared and glowed, fading into the distance in never-ending avenues of a million flares, draped with necklaces of bridge lights, and banked high with massive buildings twinkling like starshine on a lake.
Someone else standing in the same place, a president perhaps, a tycoon, a movie star, or even a baseball player, might have felt a feeling of power and vindication. To be high and to see the world marked out below you in cool fire is, after all, the dream of angels, but Roger felt neither pride nor vindication. Instead, his heart swelled at the great expanse of lights and a blood-red pennant left in the sky by the setting sun. He had no thought of what he had accomplished or where he had come. Looking over the miraculous work that stood before him he saw no reflection or reminder of himself, but only the kind of high glory that rides from place to place and time to time on a shower of sparks.
June was hot, perfect, and strange. It started magnificently and was slowly transformed into the initial bakery days of summer, tolerable for their novelty, when the beaches are as hot and white as molten glass but the ocean is blue and numbingly cold. A day of prairie heat would surrender to a northern European evening with cool breezes veering off the Hudson and sailing down the avenues like Dutch sloops. Morning fogs as thick as cotton could burn off in a minute, leaving behind them a newly shining world. It was a gorgeous month, but its brilliances were a foil for many peculiar things.
For example, a Mr. Winston Wilgis, rubber heir and recluse, called the Hotel Carlyle front desk to ask for a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud and sixteen cases of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic on ice. The next day, he asked for deep-sea fishing equipment, and if you had been walking on the street below his suite and had had occasion to look up, you would have seen, at various times, tarpon lures, bagels, socks, and a banana flying with dampened grace ten feet above you, a pendulum suspended by semi-invisible line.
As much as he caused others puzzlement, Roger himself was puzzled. Worked with great skill into a fruitwood enclosure in the living room of his suite were two televisions and a high-fidelity radio. One television played in black and white, the other in experimental color. Neglecting these wonders on his first night, Roger awoke early the next morning and turned the knobs. He had never seen a television. At first, nothing happened, but then a white dot appeared in the center of the pudding-gray glass, soon to move and intensify like a supernova, and then, like the opening of an umbrella, to expand into what became a picture accompanied by a hardly bearable tone. The picture was of something that looked like a spiderweb, and had written in the corner, WPIX-TV, Channel 11. Utterly useless. The one in color was not much better, though it looked like a Herschel Trixie, the only abstract artist Roger had thought he had heard of, though he had actually not heard of any.
The radio played more than just one station, and because no liver-filled refrigerator case interfered, you could turn it on or off whenever you wanted. The quality of its sound far exceeded that of the butcher’s radio, and the first time Roger turned it on the most extraordinary music filled the room, music such as he had never heard. He listened in wonderment as someone sang a lyric that sounded like, A wop bopa loobop a pop pop pop, a hop poppa loopa, a wop bop pop, and so on, with a pace and excitement that, though entirely foreign, seized him and made him dance around the room in abandon. Not even a Memphis lounge lizard could have done a better number, or swiveled his hips, bit his lips, and raised his cheeks until his eyes were slits, than did Roger, who, when the song ended and was replaced by a jingle that went, Brusha brusha brusha, new Ipana toothpaste, healthy for your tee-eeth!, stopped dead in delight.
Roger was not the only one that June to be astonished as both the sports and rabbinical worlds were thrown off balance by inexplicable changes to the New York Yankees. The only plausible explanation, that the Yankees wanted to draw new fans from the perhaps-underrepresented Orthodox Jewish community, was fairly unsatisfactory in that it did not actually explain the extraordinary measures. First came the announcement that all hot dogs sold at the stadium would be kosher. They were mainly kosher anyway. Then the revelation that on “ice-cream days” (a new term in baseball), hot dogs would not be served, and vice-versa. This caused quite a stir.
At the press conference called to announce the food plans a reporter asked Stengel if and when peanuts would be available. “I’m told that peanuts are parve, and will be available at all times,” he answered. Most of the reporters thought that “parve” was a Stengel word (perhaps picked up from Berra, who was always inventing new ways to say things) that was the equivalent of the beatnik “cool,” or the now dated “swell.” This quickly infiltrated the sports press, and announcers began to talk about “the really parve double-header,” in Baltimore, or Y.A. Tittle’s “parve new contract.”
The nation became aware that now before every game in Yankee Stadium the stands echoed with Hebrew prayers, and that hasidic rabbis stood behind the umpires at each of their positions. Disputes that had once taken seconds or minutes now sometimes took hours, with boys in black running to and fro to fetch or return leather-covered tomes for support. Stengel began to pronounce his own name with an “eh” at the end, and no longer referred to his team as the Yankees but as the Yenkiss, with the last syllable pronounced as in the last syllables of “hocus pocus.”
Speculation was that all of this was an inexplicable commercial strategy of the management, and as long as people credited the theory the inexplicable seemed explicable. Even when the team refused to play on Saturdays, everyone thought it was simply a disastrously stupid move somehow designed to increase attendance. But the changes were not solely the work of management. Some of the players now wore what everyone in New York called yamakas, a strangely Japanese way of referring to what Roger called kippehs, or, in the singular, a kippeh. When the press finally got up enough nerve to ask Eustis Jackson Jr., the second baseman, why he was wearing such a thing, he said, with some heat, “I’m a colored man, this is a free country, and I can do what I want.”
When Berra was asked, he responded with a long and phenomenally disjointed essay about freedom of speech, the free-enterprise system, and his ancestors. What did that have to do with his wearing of a yamaka? With a twinkle in his eyes that the press never saw, he said, “They would, had they could, because the least obvious reward for labor is hard work.” But that was not the end of the encounter.
“Hey, Yogi,” a reporter said. “What are those threads, those, uh, fringes, sticking out of your pants?”
Yogi tucked them in, saying, “Frayed threads. It happens when it’s washed a lot.”
“Yogi,” they asked. “What is all this stuff, suddenly?”
“All this Jewish stuff.”
“What Jewish stuff?”
“You know, kosher stadium food, Hebrew prayers, rabbis behind the umps, yamakas, fringes. What’s going on?”
“Jewish stuff?” Yogi asked. “As Eustis said, it’s a free country, right? Look, guys, when you have a choice, there’s only one way to go.”
They accepted this, and went on. “But closing on Saturday is nuts. Aren’t you worried about attendance?”
Berra laughed. “Just be there for the game against Kansas City.”
The rematch against Kansas City was also a home game, as the A’s played solely away games that June because their field had been invaded by locusts. In New York at the end of the month it was hot and nearly everyone was either at work or at the beach. That the stands were half-full might have been worrisome to management as a sign that the Yankees had lost their touch, but they were worried only about Roger.
Roger was fine, had kept up his extraordinary record in numerous practices (although, to keep the strategy secret, he hit balls out of the stadium only in the dark), and assured them that the presence of a crowd and the press would have no effect on what he could do. But they had seen too many confident rookies turn to swamp mush at the roar of the crowd to be reassured, and they breathed apprehensively all through June, especially Stengeleh, who thought that perhaps he was having an epic dream.
Just striving to imitate Roger had made the Yankees hit better, run faster, and throw harder. They were losing by lesser margins, and although no one expected them to get to the Series, there was hope that they might hold their own enough to come back the next year. In fact, the sportswriters hoped for the agonizing comeback that would give them a great theme for the rest of the season. In the bottom of the ninth inning in the Thursday game against the A’s, the score was Kansas City 3, New York 0, which wasn’t so bad, and might be good for stimulating eight-hundred words of drivel about a Yankee revival. The radio announcers, however, were used to filling dead air in any circumstance, albeit with a languor that would have been the envy of Oblomov. No matter what, they would broadcast their perfectly timed descriptions in wonderful baseball-afternoon bursts.
Thus, Red and Mel—Red from Alabama, and Mel from Alabama, Red thin and Mel stocky, Red red-haired and Mel blue-black, Red high-strung and aristocratic and Mel what you might call a garage guy, Red a prima donna and Mel a prima donna, and both as comfortable to American ears as the sound of the lines whipping against a flagpole on a windy day. Red was looking forward to catching the train up to Briarcliff, and Mel was going to dinner that night with a broad. They thought the game was more or less over. So, apparently, did a lot of other people, who were headed to the subway and the parking lots. The voices of the announcers, arrowing over the air, conveyed a yearning for scotch on the 5:06 as the sun beat off the brackish Hudson, and the anticipation of the relaxed clink of glasses and ice at “21.”
After some light opera in service of Rheingold Beer, Mel summarized: “Yankees versus the A’s, Yankee Stadium, bottom of the ninth.” The word ninth had an upward intonation, like a rising pheasant. “A’s three, Yankees nothing, Koswick on third, Miller on second, two outs.”
“Folks,” said Red, “there are two outs, and Mantle is up. Or will be . . . in a second. What do you say, Mel?”
“It’s pretty clear, Red. Mantle has to go for a homer, and Zelinka has gotta walk him.”
“And strike the next batter out. . . . There’s potential drama here, Mel. Mantle has been hitting well.”
“You’re right, Red. If he hits now the way he’s been hitting in practice, the Yanks may have a chance today.”
“I know what you’re gonna say is strange, Mel,” Red interrupted.
“You’ve seen it, too?”
“I have. He’ll hit one into the bleachers, and you’ll see a pained expression on his face, as if that’s just not good enough.”
“That’s what makes a champion, Red. Never satisfied.”
“Okay, Mantle is up. Zelinka can’t take the chance. He’s gotta walk him.”
“There’s Mick. He brushes the dust off his left leg. A few practice swings.”
“He looks intent. He’s gotta hit for the bleachers. Look, people have stopped leaving the stadium. They’re poised at the ramps, their feet toward the exits, their bodies twisted so they can look over their shoulders at the field.”
“I’ll tell you, Mel, I would not walk out of this ballpark if Mickey Mantle was up at bat, or, if I did, I’d stop just like these folks.”
“The pitch,” said Mel. “Ball one. So far on the outside that maybe it was for the Dodgers.”
Red added, “Some people are booing Zelinka.”
“Zelinka doesn’t care. The game could ride on this. He can’t let Mantle drive in three runs and go to dangerous extra innings.”
“Zelinka hasn’t fared well against Mantle in the past. He knows. . . . He winds up . . . the pitch.”
The pitch was a slow boat to the outside, so far to the outside that it had to be slow to give the catcher time to get to it. But that was not something to be taken for granted, as the pitcher and the catcher had. Most uncharacteristically, Mantle ran after the ball.
“He’s running!” the announcers shouted. “He bunts! Oh boy! He’s halfway to first already, and there’s no one there to pick up the ball!”
Koswick, the runner on third, started toward home but the third-base coach called him back. “I coulda made it!” Koswick said. The coach just looked away, as did the rabbi behind him. Meanwhile, the catcher went for the ball and found himself in the middle of the infield while Zelinka rushed in to cover the plate. The catcher frantically threw the ball to Zelinka, who almost didn’t catch it, and, when he did, stood on the plate in a state of shock, looking out at bases loaded and knowing that his options were getting fairly narrow. As he returned to the mound, the fans at the exits went back to their seats.
The radio announcers forgot what they had been thinking of, because here was what they lived for. Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three nothing, two outs. Of course they and everyone else hoped the next batter up would go to a three-two count, the ultimate precipice of baseball, but even without that, what they had was good enough. A home run would win the game, a triple would tie it, a double would put the Yankees one down, a single or a walk two down. They were still alive, and no one knew what would happen.
“Morgan is up next, Red. With his batting average . . .”
“The only question, Mel, is who will be the pinch hitter.”
There was a delay, during which an argument in the Yankee dugout was overshadowed by the inevitable Kansas City conference with Zelinka, which was very animated.
The announcers commented on the pressure, and set the scene for their audience across the nation. “It’s been a really hot day in New York. The first subways, windows open, are rolling past, taking home those lucky enough to have gotten off work early. A shadow has just begun to move across the field, and although it’s an ice-cream day in the stadium, you can smell hot dogs and hamburgers cooking in the restaurants beyond the fence. The question remains, ladies and gentlemen, who will hit for Morgan? Mantle’s not moving from first. It was a strange thing to see him bunt.”
Then, over the radio, in every town and minuscule junction in America, from Caribou to the Everglades, Norfolk to San Francisco, came the following question: “Reeves? Who’s Reeves?”
The sound of paper being shuffled was heard across the nation as Red and Mel pulled out the back pages of the roster.
“Roger Reeves,” said Mel. “A rookie out of Georgia. His first day in the majors. This is unbelievable, Red.”
“It sure is, Mel. I’ve never seen it . . . in all my life. Reeves has never played before a crowd this large, never faced a pitcher like Zelinka. The Yankees . . . well, something’s come over the Yankees.”
Mel had been reading. “He’s only eighteen years old,” he said, astonished. “He played for half a season. On a team called the Milledgeville Crab Legs. That has since been disbanded.”
Red hushed down into his portentous voice. “All I can say, Mel, is that I’ll bet this boy is seven feet tall and weights two-hundred-fifty pounds.”
“Southern boys are short, Red.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they’re short and light. Look at you.”
“A lotta colored boys are Southern boys, and they’re big, Mel.”
“Yeah, Red, but this is a white boy.”
“How do you know?”
“Because there he is.”
Roger walked onto the field, with the crowd primed for the most generous cheer of their lives, but the cheer was drowned in shock.
He was not even five-and-a-half feet tall, he was so gangly that it seemed he could not have weighed much more than a hundred pounds, and his quaquaversal gait and quaquaversal eyes made him look like someone who might indeed have been on a team called the Milledgeville Crab Legs. As a physical specimen, he was easier to associate with a hospital than a major-league baseball team. Even from far away you could see how thick his glasses were, how white and delicate his hands. The baseball cap capped his head like a mixing bowl, but did not stem the wild flow of peyess.
“You know he’s from the South,” Mel said, “because he’s got those Johnny Reb sideburns. But he’s so small. Why is that, Red? Why are people in the South so small?”
“Yes they are. What is it, nutrition? The Civil War?”
“Yes they are. Look at Reeves.”
“I think Reeves will acquit himself well,” Red offered, “no matter what the impression you have of him.” As far away as the docks of Galveston, they could tell over the radio that Red would have killed Mel but for the fact that a baseball game intervened. It was strange, in that both were from Alabama.
Roger took his position and raised his head to look at the huge stadium, now completely silent and still, with tens of thousands of people looking back at him. He looked left, and there was Zelinka, three times his size, smiling with contempt. Even the rather large Orthodox contingent in the right-field stands was quiet. They knew in their bones that Roger Reeves of the Milledgeville Crab Legs was one of them, and their overwhelming emotion was fear that he would be the reason for the defeat of this otherwise invincible Gentile team (they were somewhat behind the times), and that this might result in a pogrom.
Zelinka decided to drive a fastball right down the middle, square in the center of the batting picture. He had done this many a time before to rookies, who always had swung after the ball was in the catcher’s mitt. When pitched without complication, his fastball was so fast that no inexperienced player would ever be able to connect with it. And given Reeves’s size and weight, even if he did it was possible that the force of the ball would push the bat back rather than vice-versa. In the few cases of this that Zelinka had seen, the batter was shocked to find himself, absent his own volition, back in the ready position. The only drawback was that such balls veered up or down, and sometimes bounced off the catcher and rolled into play without anyone realizing that the batter hadn’t hit them. It didn’t matter. Zelinka wanted to make every pitch to Reeves a recoilless rifle shot. He was enraged that they would put such a batter up against him, and wanted to make the ball smoke on its way in.
The stadium was like an ocean of angry rabbis. The whole world at that moment seemed to depend on Roger, and he had no confidence that he could hit a baseball, much less one thrown by an enraged major-league pitcher, much less send it out of the stadium and thus make in the world of baseball an explosion like that of a hydrogen bomb. Roger could not even see the ball. He had no illusions. What was he? Nothing. He was, as both Gentile and non-religious Jewish children of the era called each other in derision, a “spastic.” True, he could run, and his reflexes were live wires, but, from hitting? Jews couldn’t hit, never could. Their job in the mystery of things was to take on the kidney a baseball thrown by a tall Irishman or a giant Pole like Zelinka—people who were not afraid to punch, or jump off a waterfall, or ride a bicycle on a rope stretched between the Woolworth and Municipal buildings.
It didn’t matter. Not only that, but what no one ever knew or could know was that, after the pitch, Roger always closed his eyes. It was then that he felt the arms, fluttering and feathered, golden and shiny, reach from behind him and slowly, viscously, take hold of his hands on the bat. The joy that this brought him, knowing that it was not he that held the bat, but an angel, made him float. No one ever looked at a batter’s feet at the swing, but had anyone peered stereoscopically at the photographs of record, he would have seen that Roger’s feet were held a quarter of an inch off the ground. He floated, and was happy. An angel supported him in his arms and gently held the bat, and, with eyes closed, Roger would swing with the angel.
He felt that, even were he betrayed, even were he to be abandoned, even were he to be humiliated in front of tens of thousands of Gentiles, it would be enough that he had had so intimate a discovery of so unpredictable a God. It would be enough that he had been promised, even were the promise not kept. It would be enough that in the House of Ruth, he had been clasped by an angel’s wings and raised from the ground.
“The pitch!” Mel and Red said to the nation simultaneously.
Even with eyes closed, Roger could see the ball coming in, as white as the foam of a tidal wave, moving like a cannon shell, a piston, or a comet, with a power that made the air around it roar. Then this ball slowed most graciously into an almost rhythmical stillness. It glowed, pulsed, and seemed to grow to the size of the moon, and then dutifully stopped one foot in front of home plate, with glistenings, luminous rings, showers of ice, pinwheels of diamonds, and leaping sparks spinning from it. “Hit me!” it shouted, in the visible language of stopped and floating baseballs. “Hit me!”
Feathers pressed in unison against the limitlessly powerful wing, and the bat moved like a jet as the wings grew taut to slow it lest the ball be hit too hard, and when the two connected, the ball fled like a cat on fire. It went just slowly enough so that everyone in the stadium could track the flame, and track it they did, up at the angle of a useless fly, but so far up that its trajectory seemed aimed at the huge daylight moon loitering impudently above the Bronx.
Thirty thousand people dared not breathe. Their heads lifted and their eyes opened to the maximum as the ball flew from the stadium, clearing the flagpole by six-hundred feet, headed perhaps to Africa or Rio de Janeiro, over Orchard Beach. And as everyone followed it, Roger began to walk quietly toward first.
As the Yankee runs came in, the crowd grew hysterical on account of the frail unknown Yankee who brought up the rear and ran from third to home with uncanny spastic grace to win the game for the Yankees by one run, the only one of its kind in history. In the stands the Gentiles shook the pillars of the world with their shouts, and the Jews prayed silently, thankful to have been spared.
Someone brought champagne to the locker room, and it was spilled wastefully over everyone. They picked up Roger and, dancing between the benches, carried him from place to place. One of the team held the bat and kissed it; then he elevated it above his head and marched around in triumph. They chanted in unison: “Ro-ger! Ro-ger! Ro-ger!”
Roger squiggled out of their grip and slid to the floor. “No!” he said, retrieving the airborne bat. “No!”
“No?” they asked.
“No,” he said, pausing to regain his breath. He held the bat out in front of him on display. “This is the bat of God,” he told them.
“The bat of God,” they repeated in awe.
“No!” he said again.
“It isn’t?” they asked.
“Is it,” they asked, “or isn’t it?”
“It is,” he confirmed, “but you may not worship it.”
“Why not?” Berra asked. “God! It’s the bat of God!”
“Yes,” said Roger, “but you can’t. If you worship it, you are worshipping only a thing that He made. He didn’t even make it, He caused it to be made.”
“He made everything, so if you worship only one of those things, or any of them, or all of them, you are worshipping your own choice, and thus you are worshipping yourselves, which you must not do.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do with the bat of God?” Mantle asked.
“Treat it,” Roger said, remembering a song he had heard on the radio, “like a lady.”
As the Yankees tried to assimilate this, everything was frozen, and amid the stillness, the doors of the locker room began to stretch inward with wavelike changes of pressure against them in advance of the sports press, which no force in the world could stop.
“Quick, Roger,” Mantle said, “jump in the laundry cart.”
Roger flew into a wheeled canvas hamper, and the Yankees covered him with towels. Then the doors burst open and what seemed like a thousand men with tickets in the brims of their gray hats flooded in like the tides of Fundy.
“Roger! Where’s Roger Reeves!” they screamed.
“Who?” the Yankees asked.
The great crush of press was driven into a kind of seizure, which the Yankees much enjoyed. “Roger Reeves! He’s a legend! He hit a ball . . .”
“Yes?” Mantle asked.
“He hit a ball . . .” the reporter repeated, sweeping his left arm across an imaginary horizon, “out of the . . . out of the . . .”
“He went home for the weekend,” Berra said. “He wants to spend the weekend with the former Crab Legs.”
“In Milledgeville?” they asked.
“Yup,” Berra said.
The wave that had burst in now evacuated with a sucking sound of withdrawn air, and the rest was silence. Roger popped up from the towels like a chick breaking out of an egg, and said, “I’ve got to get back to the hotel; I’m way behind in Mishnah.”
“If this is a dream,” Berra said, “then let it be your wishbone.”
Roger refused to play away games, not only because of the difficulty in getting kosher food (which, like kosher food itself, was surmountable), but because he wanted to hit balls out of Yankee Stadium each time he was up at bat. He suggested, and Stengeleh agreed, that this might be good for the Yankees. The whole country was already in a fever, the press had ravaged Milledgeville and come up with not even one former Crab Leg, and the greater the mystery the more people wanted to know. There was no Roger Reeves in Milledgeville. Never had been. No one knew him. Who was he? Was he a robot? Had Roger Reeves shown up in public, anywhere, he would have been torn apart by gushing hands, but Roger Reveshze was free to walk about, entirely ignored.
As the fervor built, the Yankees played at Cincinnati and Roger rested for a Thursday game against Chicago. Every seat in Yankee Stadium was sold, and scalpers were disposing of tickets for a premium of one-thousand percent. The front pages of the tabloids for that entire week would be devoted to Roger: Who Is Yankee Miracle Boy?; Reeves to Field Thursday; Never Again?; Stengel Says, “Watch!”; Reeves Unknown in Milledgeville; and so on. Pictures of his face, many times enlarged, like photographs of the moon, appeared in the newspapers. Television ran slow- and stop-motion films of him again and again. Industries were born putting his name on mugs and cards, though not his image, for which they needed his permission, and would have paid dearly had they been able to receive it. The President was asked about him at his news conference, prompting the normally good-natured general to snap, “How the hell do I know? He’s not a secret program. He doesn’t work for the government. Why are you asking me?”
Such fame, even pseudonymously, might have worked upon anyone other than someone who had received as the answer to his prayer the embrace of an angel. This coursed through Roger’s veins like life itself. It put the world in a very clear light, even literally, illuminating in the texts Roger studied, for example, each Hebrew letter as if it were caught from every angle by miniature suns shining on it like spotlights. This gave the letters depth, and never had the texts themselves seemed so profound, brilliant, and beautiful. He was astounded to discover that these readings, which normally were only words, were now accompanied by music. The letters and words on the page, formerly black and black-gray, now shone like bright sun on burnished brass.
Though Roger had not seen the angel, he had felt its embrace and sensed a coolly burning orb. He guessed that this would be surrounded by souls of similar perfection gliding gracefully and unseen throughout their days.
The White Sox were a repulsive bunch of taciturn midgets whose throwing arms seemed attached to stolid blocks of steel. Whereas most pitchers were like supple human flyrods, the Sox were like trench mortars or doughnut machines. They never looked anyone in the eye, they had flat heads, and although they did everything to win, as long as they belched forward like steam shovels they really didn’t care if they won or lost, which was lucky for them, because, after Roger took to the field and single-handedly prevented a single ball from touching the grass, they had to decharter their airplane and go home on a bus. The final score for this, Roger’s second game, was Chicago nothing, Yankees 147.
The Yankees were regretful but too stunned by the whole situation not to accept that Roger would play only three more games. Sure to lose him, they yearned to know how he did it, so Stengel gingerly asked if he would hold a clinic for the rest of the team.
“A clinic?” Roger asked.
“A baseball clinic,” Stengel said. “You know, teach them how to hit, how to field, how to run. You’re only going to play three more games, and we thought, well, it’d be great if you could leave behind some of what you brought. We’re doing okay now—I mean, look at the score against Chicago—but you never know. The way we were going this year, before you came. . . . We could lose it.” He laughed nervously, not daring to bring up money, which he knew Roger would refuse.
“I don’t know from baseball,” said Roger, “not a thing.”
Stengel bowed his head. “Really,” he said, in awe.
“Then how did you . . . how did you . . .”
“That?” Roger asked.
“Yes, Roger,” Stengel said politely, “that.”
“I could tell them what I do know.”
Stengel looked at Roger, who was illuminated in fading reddish-brown light. He was less than half Stengel’s size. He didn’t know the rules of baseball, much less the subtleties. By rights and the laws of physics he should not have been able, even had he connected with the ball, to have hit it beyond the diamond. A child of his size and underdevelopment would not be able to throw the ball from home to second, much less leap twenty feet in the air (as he had done in the Sox game) and then get the ball off on a flat trajectory to burn into the catcher’s mitt at home plate before the thrower was back on the ground. “Yes,” said Stengel, “tell us what you do know.”
“Okay,” said Roger, “but I’m telling you, I don’t know anything.”
That was not quite true. He had begun to think about the game. For example, he liked very much that the ball was an object descending from heaven, and he thought of it, therefore, not as an object to be captured for the glory of the captor but as a gracious gift that brought with it in train a bit of the loveliness of the sky.
For the seminar, the Yankees went to their secret practice field at Lake Honkus, near Mohonk, in the Shawangunks. The Yankees had bought a secluded estate and set up a baseball field on what had been a cow pasture, where they could practice in secret their surprise plays and coded signals. The lodge where they stayed was filled with wrought iron, Indian blankets, and buffalo heads. In fact, in Roger’s room, he and a moose had a staring contest for at least an hour.
The next morning, Roger and the Yankees put away a huge breakfast, during which Roger discovered that the maple syrup the Yankees used on their pancakes was kosher, and made an interesting sauce for pickled herring. Then they went outside and sat on benches facing a portable blackboard. The weather was wonderfully cool and clear at Lake Honkus. Stengel brought Roger up to the front, stood him next to the blackboard, gave him a piece of chalk, and said, “Kid, we’re totally secure.”
Roger looked at the Yankees, who looked at him expectantly. What could he possibly say that would enable them to hit a ball out of the park or jump twenty feet in the air?
“From baseball I know nothing,” he began, “but what’s a lock?”
“What’s a lock?” Mantle echoed.
“You mean like a lock on a door,” Larsen asked, “or a lock in a canal?”
“Both,” said Roger.
“A door lock is a metal thing with a lot of really smart junk in it,” Berra said.
“Okay,” said Roger, “and the lock of a canal?”
“A chamber for raising and lowering boats, with water from the river or canal to run it.”
“Yes,” said Roger.
Time passed. The Yankees stared at Roger. More time passed. Then Roger said, “Both illustrate the mechanism of the world.”
The Yankees inched forward. No clinic had ever begun like this.
“God is perfect,” Roger said. “His creation is perfect. It doesn’t seem so to us—we who suffer and die, who must live with sadness and terror—because we can’t see it in its entirety. If we could, we would see that it is in perfect balance. The counterweight for which we long—to right wrongs and correct injustices—is sometimes far away from us in space, time, or both. But, taken as a whole, from far enough afield, all is in balance, all is just.
“Good. What does this have to do with baseball and locks? As set out in the teachings of Rabbi Pepper of Biloxi and Rabbi Goldfinch of Barnevelt, the modern-day disciples of Rabbi Yoel ben Isaac of Zamosc and his grandson Rabbi Yoel ben Uri (whose last names I will not say), each a baal shem, and their descendants, et cetera, in God’s eyes, in fact, and in truth, all souls, absent the deficit of sin, are equal. For example, a wise and brilliant king has no higher rank in the view of the Almighty than a beggar who has not even the comprehension to speak his own name. At the final judgment, both souls can glow equally in the same circle of continuous light.”
The Yankees nodded slightly. They understood; they had all deeply loved those who were far from perfect.
“Okay,” said Roger. “So here is the question that Yoel ben Isaac put forth and Yoel ben Uri answered. If these souls occupy the same level at the end, equally beloved of God, and if God’s creation is perfect, how can an imbalance exist in their lives on earth? How can one suffer all the miseries of this life, and the other know all the glories, if in the end every account is to be reconciled and they come to the same reward? In a perfect universe, how can such a shortfall exist? How can God allow it?”
Not even the entire Yankee lineup could answer this question, though they strained to do so. Roger again challenged them. “Tell me, how can God allow it? Do you know?” He surveyed them. They didn’t. “I’ll tell you, then. It’s simple. He doesn’t. What is equal in the end is equal also in the beginning and in the middle. There is no deficit even on this earth, even in the smallest picture, the tightest section of view. But how can this be? The king and the beggar live vastly different lives. Ah! That’s what you think. That’s what may be apparent. But it isn’t true. Why? Because,” he said to the Yankees, their eyes unblinking, “the mechanism of creation is like a lock.”
The Yankees waited. How was it like a lock, both kinds?
“Both kinds. The metal lock has a cylinder that, for the door to open, must turn. This cylinder has a row of holes drilled in it, in which rest pins. In the barrel inside of which the cylinder turns and is encased, is a line of holes spaced exactly like their counterparts in the cylinder, with its own set of pins. In the locked position, the pins from the barrel fall into the holes in the cylinder and prevent it from turning, because they cross and block the interface. When the key is put in, it raises the pins exactly to the points—at a different level in each hole—where the barrel pins are above the line and the cylinder pins are below it. If all the pins were raised indiscriminately, sometimes the cylinder pins would block the interface, and sometimes the barrel pins would. If they were not raised at all, the barrel pins would block the interface and, thus, the rotation. To allow the turning, each pin must be raised according to what it requires. Some are raised more, some less, which is why the key is jagged. In the end, its unevenness makes a perfect equality that allows the lock to open.
“And a lock that lifts or lowers a boat is a mechanism that gets its power from the urge of all water to find its own level. Only that way can things flow, rivers run, and the world function—when the disparate forces of the universe are conjoined, and rest easy in an equality of perfection. Every force that exists is held in balance by a counterpart with which it must be united, and with which it is united, even if the connection be not apparent to us.
“Like the pins in a lock, the beggar and the king are lifted by God variously and invisibly, but equally, even in this world, so that the perfection will not be broken, for, by definition, the perfection cannot be broken. They ride unseen waves and are held aloft by unseen supports. Were they not so lifted, the world would not work.
“Only those who have suffered can know the strength of the compensation they acquire. The emissary that comes to them is all-embracing, and though some may deny or mock this, it is many times more real than the world itself, for next to this working of perfection the world itself seems only a tinsel of the imagination. God compensates even in this world. He must. He does. And the reception of His compensation, like a quantity of physics, is the certain though insubstantial thing we call holiness. Those who would deny it would do so simply from lack of having received it. Perhaps the king, gifted in other ways, has no knowledge of holiness, while for the beggar with no gifts, it is overflowing. You may wonder what this has to do with baseball.”
“It seems clear to me,” he said, as a breeze brought resinous air from a thick pine forest that bordered the practice field as evenly as a crewcut. “I have been able to do what I did because my arm was guided, my strength supplied, my speed achieved, by the ever-present will of God for balance and perfection. Perhaps a Phoenician ship listed too much to port, thousands of years ago; or it was too cloudy, for too long, over a glacier in the Himalayas; or a woman’s heart was broken for a day by her suitor in Montana. I don’t know. I do know that it is important to know that such balances exist, and that, if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t have the heart to continue.”
“Can we hook into this stuff?” Berra asked.
“Not if all you want to do is win games,” Roger answered.
“But wait a minute,” Berra demanded. “Let’s say someone cheated in chinese checkers a thousand years ago in Peru. If I could hook into that, I could run twenty feet back to the plate even though Zelinka is just an inch from it, and put him out, right?”
“No,” said Roger. “It doesn’t necessarily work that way, and God is not fond of games.”
“Games can become, because of their closed set of rules, an independent universe, a distraction from the seeking of perfection. If they are taken as a universe in themselves, what a meager universe that is. This offends God, who worked for six whole days to make the universe we have. Can you imagine what would come of the work of an omnipotent being for six whole days? What is the infinity of detail, the infinity of extent, the infinity of connectedness, and the infinity of surprise, times six?”
“It doesn’t apply to baseball?” Stengel asked, not quite sure of exactly what it was.
“If your object is merely to play baseball, it doesn’t.”
“What’s your object, then, Roger?” Mantle asked.
“Because of the imperfection I have seen, I live for the hope of restoration. That’s all I live for, even if it be a sin.”
“What imperfection?” Stengel asked.
Roger’s expression was incomprehensible to the Yankees as anything but some sort of nervous ailment, because boys his age who are not afflicted with a crippling disease do not show on their faces the pain of old men. “I was born during the war,” he said, to answer the question, “in a place called Majdanek. I knew nothing else. The physical privation of this place, the terror of the selections and the frequent killing of people around me, seemed natural. Until I was three, I existed in the aura of my parents’ love. I don’t know what they did to keep us alive, but I know that whatever it was it was done for me. I stop abruptly when I begin to imagine what they must have suffered, especially my mother. For this I pray with love and gratitude, every day. I wish it were they who had lived and I who had died, although that would have taken from them what they wanted most.
“Just before the liberation, when I was three, we were marched out and made to stand at the edge of a pit. In the pit were thousands of bodies. Bulldozers had compressed and shaped them. They were as white as snow, and beneath them was a lake of blood. Even among the crushed forms and severed limbs, some people remained alive, though not for long.
“My mother and father told me that they loved me. They tried to shield me with their bodies. When the firing began, the force of the machine-gun bullets caught them and the other adults and they were hurled into the pit as if a wind had blown them away. The firing had been over the heads of the children, who stood on the rim untouched and unable to move. The guns were not lowered, because bullets were scarce.
“A soldier came by and picked me up by both ankles. My head hit the ground, and then he swung me around like an ice skater swinging his partner. I remember the blood rushing to my head, and the world blurring into blue and white. Even as I was twirled, the soldiers were laughing. After I was released, for a moment, I flew. Undoubtedly, I passed over my mother and father, and though I thought I was going to fly forever, I fell into the center of the pit, face-to-face with a dead woman upon whom I had fallen, whose mouth was open.
“I thought I was dead, too, until the bulldozers drove over us. The sound of bones breaking was like the sound of burning kindling. Many times, the bulldozer drove right over me, but though I was too frightened to move, I found myself each time between the treads. Then I was caught in a wave of tumbling bodies that, pushed by the blade, washed up at the edge. The bulldozer no longer came near me. I lay quietly as it worked, and then slept.
“After nightfall, I was awakened as I was wetted with gasoline. Choking on it, I climbed over the rim and walked into the darkness. I thought that this was death and that I was dead, but when I looked back and saw the huge blaze of the fire in which my mother and father were burning, I knew that I was still alive. I knew the difference. I wanted to die, I wanted very much to die, but, not knowing how, I lived.
“That is the imperfection I have seen,” he said, “and all I want from the world is some indication or sign that, forward in time, or where time does not exist, there is a justice and a beauty that will leap back to lift the ones I love from the kind of grave they were given.”
The poor Orioles. They had no idea what was going to happen to them when the Yankees took the field in Roger’s third game. Though they knew to be concerned with Roger himself, they had closely studied the first two of his games and saw hope in the fact that in these the other Yankees had played only marginally better. If they could isolate Roger, the rest of the Yankees would still be the Yankees Brooklyn had beaten in the Series the year before. Their rivals in the Bronx, they thought, still lacked focus.
But when the Yankees returned to the Bronx from Lake Honkus they did have focus, albeit of an unusual sort. They appeared to be bent on a certain kind of vengeance that was entirely alien to and had never been seen in baseball. True, baseball had its fierce moments, and sometimes teams were arrogantly knit together into bands of primitive warriors who pressed their case in a way that knocked the wind out of their fans. When the outfielder Whitey Koski was deliberately struck in the head, or so it seemed, by the pitcher Chick Perkasky, so concentrated and angry were Koski’s teammates that they burned up the rest of the game. With home run after home run, and fielded balls thrown back with the force of cannon fire, they astonished the spectators, of whom they had become totally unaware. When Doug Little and Kevin Small, two Giants, were attacked by drunks hurling coconuts during an exhibition game in Sarasota, the Giants came alight with heavy hitting and flame-thrower pitching. For two weeks they beat every team they played, and then, when their anger dissipated, they returned to their losing streak.
Such things were expected of teams whose players had been struck by fastballs or kneed when sliding, but why the Yankees? The Yankees were in the midst of the most spectacular rise baseball had ever seen. Why would they be angry? Why would they be grim? No one had suffered indignity or abuse. If anything, they could be expected to be sheepish and self-conscious about their inexplicable good fortune and the fact that now they all had Cadillacs.
This is, anyway, what the Orioles had been counting on. Nonetheless, the Orioles saw out on the green lawn the faces not of baseball players but of soldiers. When he didn’t smile, Berra looked even more like a turtle, and he refused to be engaging. The Oriole batters felt pure concentration emanating from him as he crouched at the limit of their peripheral vision. Mantle looked no longer like a farm boy but rather like the ruthless head of a giant steel corporation. The boyishness in his eyes had disappeared and been replaced by a metallic coldness. Larsen didn’t bother to touch the brim of his hat or adjust anything before his pitches, each of which seemed designed to break Berra’s wrists. All the Yankees—except Roger, who remained mild (because the world into which they had just entered, and in which they would stay for only a short time, was his forever)—had an intense impatience that changed their timing to something such as no one had seen.
Baseball is like a clock, in that its wheels turn at different speeds and all its moves require waiting. Eventually, everything pops at once: the detents lift, springs decompress, arms rise, and hammers strike twelve times, even if only twice a day. Most of the time, however, is spent waiting for one wheel to align with another. So it is with baseball and its glorious pauses, which cannot be rushed and which even the announcers mimic with genius. Were the empty spaces to be compressed or done away with, the game would die.
Driven by emotion, the Yankees played a game with few spaces, little hesitation, and no rest. To describe just a small part of the Orioles’ nightmare, which took place within the span of a hot-dog transaction, Larsen pitched without a warm-up, firing the ball across the plate at a hundred miles an hour. The batter swung late, and before he was finished with his swing Berra had thrown the ball back to Larsen as fast as a pitch. Immediately after the ball ploughed into Larsen’s glove, he pitched it, and the batter, who had barely taken up position, swung again. This was repeated, and, within twenty-three seconds of the first pitch, the batter was out and gone.
When the next Oriole hit a fly to third, Rocky Babis, a new guy covering the base, harvested it and instantaneously rammed it across the diamond to first, where the Oriole Brutus Evans was tagged before he got back to base, making three outs. At the instant Evans was tagged, the Yankees sprinted in, and the next Yankee up stood impatiently at the plate before the Orioles were even out of their dugout, which, not surprisingly, gave the Orioles an incurable case of the heebie-jeebies.
The Daily News now referred to the Yankees as “the Invincible Engine.” Although Larsen was not pitching perfect games, his pitching was astoundingly quick and deadly. As a team, New York had become the model of a grim and efficient army that fights an unspeakable enemy and is reconciled and devoted to its tasks. Roger’s last three games and quite a few afterward were played not as games but as tributes. The Yankees no longer cared about their standing in the league or their chances for the pennant or in the Series. They did not care about their salaries and bonuses. They did not care that children ran up to them in the streets and women watched glowingly as they passed. They did not even care about winning: winning, for them, became joyless. They wanted only to play to perfection and to rush it on, as symbol and sign, to speak directly to God, and to face like men the fact of evil and sorrow in the world.
And they played so beautifully, so well, and so apparently with something higher in mind, that the announcers really did not know what to say—except that they would always remember, and that something had turned that summer to gold.
Roger’s last game was in late September, on the dry cloudless day that confirmed to all that summer was finally over. October would bring some heat now and then, but this was the signal that New York’s bejeweled fall had begun, when sharp shadows brought depth and reflection, and because of the declination of the light the rivers looked their bluest. Sounds, too, were sharper, and better sustained on the cool dense air, and no longer was everything blurred by the summer vapor that fills-in the channels of sight and sound.
Everyone knew that the Yankees would be on Detroit like a tidal wave. Bookies were giving odds of ten-thousand to one. And for a team on its way to face a firing squad, the Tigers were in a festive mood. They looked forward to the exhibition, to watching Roger hit balls out of the park, and to winning, perhaps, if not the game, a rich pool based on the point spread: the most daring Tiger had placed his stake on a spread of nine-hundred runs.
Buoyed by the summer’s place in history and coffers overflowing from the unprecedented gate since June, not to mention the miraculous improvement of the team and the likelihood of its coming back to beat the Dodgers in the Series, Stengel simply announced that this would be Roger’s last game. As Berra always said, “The middle is the end of the road for the beginning,” and Roger was going back to the South (Milledgeville, Stengel had confessed to the public, had been a feint), to a small town that, to preserve his and its privacy and peace, would remain unknown.
When people heard this, they ached. Although the sports press had never stopped trying, Roger had never been interviewed, and the public had exactly the image of him it wanted. He was the ideal and paradigmatic American—lanky, side-burned, taciturn, unmarried, young, rich (they thought), mysterious, and devout. Had he run for President he could have won by a landslide even in a non-election year, and that fall the presidential campaign was in full swing. Harvard invited him to be its president, the Treasury to be on medallions, Wheaties to be on the box. Commercial offers were so lucrative that, had he taken all thousand of them and bargained well, he could have been the richest man in the world.
But all Roger wanted to do was go home, where no one would know anything about what had occurred in baseball that summer—except that a Jewish player had been a brief sensation. Even Schnaiper would not grasp the significance of what had happened, and would not in any case realize that its agent had been the new boy who fetched gribeness for the rebbe. The Yankees would keep his secret and never call on him, content that he had helped them this one time, because this was what he had asked of them.
After the game, he would stay in the locker room until early evening. Dressed again in hasidic clothing, he would shoulder the books he had not already sent home by book post, and walk out of the deserted main gate, as obscure as he had been when he walked in. He would get on the subway and go back to Brooklyn, where he would continue doggedly the task of his life. But there was one more game to play, the most unusual game ever played in the history of baseball.
The Yankees were up, and because everyone knew the Tigers would never come in from the field, chairs were brought for every Tiger player except the pitcher. Next to the chairs were little tables with ice buckets, bottles of Coke and lemonade, and snacks. A hundred thousand people filled Yankee Stadium, double its capacity, and in the South Bronx and upper Manhattan millions had gathered, packing the avenues, cramming into all the empty spaces, their faces turned toward home plate, even though the three television networks were broadcasting live. Inexplicably, the rules had been changed, and Roger would pinch hit for everyone on his team, even Mantle. After the national anthem and ten minutes of prayer, Roger walked onto the field.
He was greeted with the longest, loudest, most extraordinary cheer that had ever been raised, a hundred-thousand voices amplified by the hornlike shape of the stadium, and a million more following on in the street. Though he knew he deserved no such thing, he was pleased nonetheless—because he understood that they were not cheering for him even if they did not know it—and he bowed his head to honor what they were cheering. Not mistakenly, they thought that this was a sign of humility, which set alight a self-sustaining, self-replicating, waxing roar that rose for a half-hour and tumbled from the stadium on waves of thundering air that could be heard from Kingsbridge to Canarsie.
Mantle gave the bat to Roger, who walked gangly-legged to the plate. When the umpire shouted “Play ball!” the cheer went up again and did not die for fifteen minutes. Then, when all was quiet, Roger turned crisply to the pitcher. The pitcher wound up and sent a one-hundred-mile-per-hour fastball screaming at the umpire, for the catcher, who was eating poppyseed cake, sat on a chair off to the side.
The ball that came in at a hundred miles per hour left at quadruple that speed, whining briefly through the air before it disappeared in the pure blue, forty degrees above the top of the flagpole. The fans were wild, but then settled in to simple euphoria as Roger hit pitch after pitch high over the Bronx toward Africa and the South Atlantic. The pitcher was supplied with one ball after another by teammates standing next to huge bins of baseballs on the sidelines. After a hundred desperate throws, his relief came onto the field and stood behind him, and when his arm gave out the relief pitcher took over so as not to break the rhythm of Roger’s drives.
Roger was lost in the soundless incantations that affirm the truth of truths. The pattern of the vast numbers of baseballs streaming over the wall was like a cloth of ghostly white threads, or seeds sown in a light and helpful breeze. Four-hundred-mile-per-hour baseballs pierced the air and whistled over the Bronx in a song, while the announcers said virtually nothing. “Let’s just look on as this unfolds,” they had said, forgetting that they were on the radio and that people listening could not see what they saw, “for it will never be this way again.” And, then, counting under their breath, they joined their audience in subdued amazement as the balls flew by in steady procession, like raindrops speeding sideways in a gale. Two thousand of them were shot from the stadium that day. There might have been more, but Roger stopped at the even number, which he thought might be a record. It was.
The players, the management, the professionals, the sportswriters, and the fans were aware that, before Roger, they had never seen a ball hit from the stadium, and that they never would again. To see two thousand in a row, without a miss, without hesitation, pause, or variations in path or timing except those that he willed, was as if God had chosen that moment to make His presence known, and they reacted accordingly in wonder and delight. For the moment, at least, they felt as if the deepest circles within them had been squared, their ragged doubts knit smooth, and the world were ablaze with the light of perfection.
Roger had long since tired of the suite in which he lived in deadening luxury on the Upper East Side. It was now empty, as it was empty before his arrival, a rosewood and alabaster tomb without even a body, a columbarium without ashes. In that neighborhood it was fairly easy to get a Fabergé egg but almost impossible to get a kosher chicken. True, the dwellings were well kept and well appointed, they often were as high as birds’ nests, and you could look out and see a half-million windows and not a foot of fire-escape iron, but the difference between this place and where he lived in Brooklyn was like the difference between a wool suit on a hanger, and a lamb. There were those who would instinctively choose the suit, and those who would instinctively choose the lamb. It was not for Roger to criticize anyone who would take the suit, but he himself would gather the lamb into his arms.
So with the place where he lived, a jumble of ancient brick in a basket weave of black iron that lay upon the tenements like fishing net sprawled to dry across a city of crates. The streets had no prospect and were tight and twisting. Only from the rooftops could you catch a glimpse of ships and blue water, and the trees, being so few and rare, were achingly beautiful.
Roger’s affection for the awkward and homely way in which he lived had not diminished, and it began to enfold him graciously even as he headed out of the stadium’s main gate. It was the way his parents had lived, and the way their parents had lived, and so forth, and so on, very far back. But it would be a sin to carry on habit for its own sake, or to venerate the old merely because it is old. After all, given the expanse of the infinite, all that occurred did so within less than the duration of a spark, so everything was new and had to be judged for what it was. Tradition was an illusion, an afterimage—comfortable, yes, but unjustifiable in itself.
The ancient ritual, the black coats, the way of speaking, the languages, the revelations and commentary, the candles, the cuisine, the marriage customs, and the fur-rimmed hats, were things as new as if they had just burst upon the world like the first rays of light. Pop. There they were. To think that they were old would be only a mistake of perspective. What made them what they were, and so different from everything else, was that each one carefully and deliberately put the things of the world in their place. Each was a declaration and vow, each the outcome of a battle in which reason strictly assigned them a post. And thus subdued, the things of the world were sweet, and the world rose, like a planet in ascension, to its proper position.
The subway, inexplicably elevated aboveground, rolled down its track, taking Roger home. It made many turns indirectly in directions different from the one in which he was headed, but the sum and subtraction of the departures would constitute the precision of the aim, and had the train gone merely in a straight line, it likely would have missed. It went noisily amid the appearance of a million gently burning lights that gradually took the place of the bright scales with which the setting sun had armored the face of every building. It went left, it went right, it lurched north, south, east, and west, but then it began its last dash toward Brooklyn like a dog following a trail.
Roger closed his eyes, and a world that once had been came alive in all its tender detail. His mother lived again in moments so taxing to him that it threatened his young heart. His father lived again. They moved in color and dimension, and as the train rushed forward the world doubled back upon itself, twisting immeasurably, confounding time. In these moments, when it was as if he were observing them, unseen, they were, somehow, observing him. He could neither explain nor understand, but he was sure they knew.
When the train rose gracefully onto the bridge and sped with immensely complex clacking over iron rails in an open box of steel held in the wind a hundred feet above the river, the sound made Roger open his eyes. There was the world clear in the night, its sparkling towers piercing a band of brilliant orange light. For a moment, and just a moment—for he had work to do—he thought about what had happened. What had happened was but a single, lovely note in an always urgent song that he had been brought up to sing, like those before him, in protest of mortality, hope of survival, and love of God. It had happened here, in the New World, and why not? If Ruth could, among the alien corn, begin the line in Judah that led to David, then what was not possible here, and what perfection would be disallowed?