Commentary Magazine


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Dear Aunt Ida,

Attalia is screaming under the piano. She has taken it into her head that she needs a pair of boots. Having explained that her mother and I are perfectly willing to provide our children with necessary items, but unable to supply their ceaseless demand for toys, clothes, and every extravagance, the vital necessity of which is impressed on them by seven-year-old peers, I have resolved to let her scream herself to sleep. I'd say she's good for at least half an hour.

Beatrix has been exhausting herself. She is in London for the topology conference. As soon as she comes back Sunday she will have to prepare her paper for Majorca. These conferences are always a strain and raise numerous logistical problems. Beatrix's parents, living upstairs, would seem the logical choice for baby-sitting, but they are really no longer able to control the kids—especially now that Adam can walk. Aunt Clare is out of the question.

Cecil looks fondly at the smooth black surface of his Olivetti electronic and with a grim smile flicks off the switch. If only Beatrix were home to manage the kids. She goes to a three-day conference and they become unreasonable. Parents over forty-five should use the buddy system. He and Beatrix had made a pact to that effect when Adam was born. If either of them ran away he or she would take the other along.

They had both thought the baby-sitting situation would be better in Oxford than it had been in Brooklyn. When Beatrix taught math at Hunter and Cecil had a class at Brooklyn College their schedule had been much more hectic, but there was always Aunt Ida to take care of the kids. Then Beatrix got her chair at St. Ann's and Cecil had to give up the part-time position in English at Brooklyn. He had enjoyed that—the resignation letter, the packing. He feels he has made a small but significant political statement by leaving America, voting with his feet. American culture is dying. Apart from the museums and the ballet, there isn't much left of the city. It was also a relief to leave the Brooklyn shul, which had rejected the books of biblical criticism he had donated in his father's memory. But above all, Cecil was making a feminist statement by following his wife to Oxford. And besides, he hadn't got along with his department.

The great domestic advantage of moving was that Beatrix's parents, the Cahens, owned this enormous Norham Gardens house right here in Oxford, and glad of the company and the cooking, they had given over the first floor to Beatrix and Cecil. It had seemed ideal: two live-in babysitters upstairs. But naturally there were complications. The Cahens are in their late seventies; last winter Mrs. Cahen slipped on the ice and broke her arm; the cavernous house is unheatable; and as Beatrix is exhausting herself teaching her seminar and writing papers, it is Cecil who is stuck with the kids. He doesn't really mind babysitting up to certain limits, and he enjoys re-plastering the ceilings and shopping for pipe fittings, but keeping up with his research is difficult. Last year Cecil was invited to apply for a position at Leeds, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, the house and the kids are time-consuming but usually tolerable, except when Beatrix is away and Attalia decides to scream herself sick. And except for Beatrix's older sister Clare, who has lived in the Norham Gardens house all her life. Suddenly inspired, Cecil flicks on the Olivetti and continues:

Attalia is becoming more and more like her Aunt Clare—ruining her voice with screaming, and abandoning herself to increasingly frequent rages. Unfortunately, she follows Clare in her slovenliness. Even more unfortunate, Attalia shares her aunt's lack of artistic talent.

In the three years since we moved from New York, Clare has insisted on making life in this house intolerable. She is sullen and angry, a bad influence on both children. But perhaps we will be spared the pleasure of living en famille in this battleship with Victorian plumbing if the sale on the Brooklyn house goes through. Or at least we'll have the cash to fix up this place. It will take at least two years to rewire the house. I don't see why Mr. Cahen won't subdivide it. Most of the other Norham Gardens castles are now quite nice 20th century. . . .

Cecil gives up on the letter to his aunt in New York. He leafs through the new June issue of Shavian Studies. Finally he walks to the piano and the screams and whimpers stop. He bends down heavily under the keyboard. “Come to bed now.”

Attalia glares at her father through the strands of her slippery brown hair. She screams rather loudly for her size. Fine pair of lungs. Pity she doesn't have an ear for music. Cecil had tested both of his children early on for any signs of musical aptitude. When Attalia was two he set her on the piano bench. She struck at the Steinway with her fists, banging the ivory keys. Cecil had waited a few minutes and then given up.

“I'll read to you in bed,” Cecil concedes. The tired children scramble up and pad to their room. Cecil glances about for something readable. A stack of Times Literary Supplement's balances on the sofa; the dining-room table is weighted with Beatrix's mathematics, Adam's crayons, Attalia's homework (probably not done), a bunch of bananas (probably soft).

“This puts me to sleep within minutes,” Cecil tells the kids. He opens Shavian Studies onto Adam's bed. “Well, well—Lewis has found a variant text of Major Barbara.” Now both children begin to cry.

_____________

The next morning Cecil puts up a pot of coffee for his in-laws, the Cahens, and rushes to put on his tefillin before the children wake up and the Cahens and Clare come down to be served breakfast. For a moment the house is quiet. The sun glistens on Cecil's black-framed glasses and glows red through his ears. Then the kitchen stairs begin to creak as the old couple make their way down in the dark, and little shrieks escape from the children's room, where Adam is trying to comb Attalia's hair.

“Molly,” Morris Cahen calls out hoarsely, “Molly, it's dark, turn on the lights.”

“I can't see the switch.”

“Above your head.”

“You want me to break my neck jumping for a light bulb?”

At the bottom step a wooden door blocks the way to the kitchen. Morris grasps the doorknob, pulling and twisting until it is jammed.

“Cecil, you've locked us out!”

Cecil shuts his eyes tightly.

“He's locked us out, what do you think of that?”

Cecil opens the door and the Cahens stumble in. Morris has a gray suit and a quivering, jowly face. Molly wears a shapeless dress—conservative, she calls it. Cecil unwraps his tefillin and pours the Cahens their coffee. Attalia runs in.

“Daddy, I can't go to school.”

“Oh, yes you can.” Cecil lifts her up and seats her at the table.

Adam toddles in with nothing on. “Pot,” he says plaintively, “pot.”

After cleaning the living-room rug, Cecil makes an enormous quantity of porridge. Attalia watches morosely as her father dishes out the mush. She is dressed in dark green corduroy overalls and a brown and blue striped jersey. Cecil and Beatrix Birnbaum are non-sexist, so they dress their children in unisex clothing. Attalia's hair has never been cut. All ballerinas have long hair. Cecil takes Attalia to ballet class evey week. Even though she is the smallest girl there, Attalia is the most meticulous about the steps. She always watches her feet to make sure they are in the right places. Cecil pours each of the kids a glass of milk and a glass of orange juice. Adam drills a hole in his oatmeal with the back of his spoon and pours the juice and the milk into it together. Quite a chemist for a three-year-old, Cecil thinks. Delightful fellow.

“Cecil, I want to know why you are sending Adam to that Jewish kindergarten—or gan as you people call it—with the four-year-olds.” Molly's voice gathers strength at the end of the sentence.

“Daddy, I can't go to school,” Attalia whimpers.

The phone rings.

Upstairs on the third floor, Clare shuffles out of bed. She is wearing a dark pink velour skirt, three sweaters, and a shawl because she knows that if the radiator is left on she will catch fire, and if the windows are closed she won't be able to escape. Clare's hair hangs like water weeds; she pushes the stuff out of her face, puts on a pair of boots, and kneels down to examine the bottom of her bedroom door. The match she wedged in the door jamb is still in place. Then quickly Clare bolts the windows shut. Clare's room is the most dangerous in the house. The walls slant inward with the sloping roof, and at night Clare lies in bed knowing that if she sleeps the walls will crush her. Clare never bathes. She is wanted by the police for writing poetry. Why should she wait for them like Marat, alone and naked in the bathtub? Clare's life is doubly dangerous because she knows Hebrew. She pauses on the kitchen stairs, sensing she has forgotten something. Windows locked, door bolted, what could it be?

The kitchen always makes Clare nauseous. Adam is throwing oatmeal at his grandparents.

“Bad boy,” Cecil frowns; then back into the receiver: “No, I was talking to my son. Sixty thousand—that's below appraisal. I know the house is in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was fine when I was there last. / Just some perfectly respectable Puerto Rican fellows. / Never any problem at all—/ Let them drink their beer on the front steps—they'll keep away the crazies. / I'm throwing in the appliances. / No, not the fridge. / I'm shipping it to England. / What do you mean irrational? They don't make that model any more. It would cost as much to buy a new fridge as it would for me to ship the fridge from Brooklyn! Ben, are you there? …”

Clare walks slowly to the sink and drops her bowl and spoon in: “Burned,” she states flatly.

“Well, we do our best,” Cecil answers. But Clare is already deep in the hall closet pulling on a black trenchcoat.

“Clare, it's 70 degrees outside,” protests Molly. “There are going to be patches of sun—you don't need the umbrella.”

But Clare slides the thin steel point of the furled spear through her belt loop, and she is gone.

_____________

The gan is housed in an annex to the Oxford shul. All the money for it was given anonymously by Marv Pollack, the father of Children's Vitamins. The playground reminds Cecil of a hamster habitat he once saw displayed in a pet-store window. The sandbox is filled with cedar chips. Sand becomes dirty and stale and transmits common childhood diseases. There is no jungle gym or slide or swing set. Instead an enor-mous complex of smooth wood has been built in the shape of an amino-acid chain. All the classroom furniture is made out of natural woods and fibers. There are seven computer terminals with full-color capability and joystick. The art center is decorated with laminated Chagall posters. It is here that Adam fingerpaints creatively, listens to Bible stories about HaShem (a/k/a God), plants pumpkin seeds, and during naptime learns deep relaxation on the futon rolled up in his cubbyhole. In the third-grade classroom Attalia will soon be sitting in a circle of tiny chairs for Good/ Bad Talk. On the blackboard Ms. Nemirov has printed today's question:

HaShem or Darwin?
you
decide.

“I can't go to school, Daddy,” Attalia wails. She clings to the foam seat of the Citroen. Cecil pries her loose, grasping her arms and hair. “Daddy,” Attalia howls, “I don't have any teeth!”

“Well of course you don't; it's part of the human life cycle,” Cecil reassures her. “If you could compose yourself, no one would notice. Right now, you're crying and looking ugly as the very devil,” he tells her, quoting Henry Higgins, “but when you're all right and quite yourself, you're what I should call attractive.” Not having read Pygmalion, Attalia sniffles off to class.

Another father passes by with his little girl and fat wife. Cecil looks at the heavy woman and whispers softly, “there but for the grace of God…,” thinking of all the similar types his mother and her anxious friends had introduced to him. They all had the three D's: they were dumpy, dowdy, and devout. Beatrix is none of these things. She is lean and brilliant—and as for being devout, she agreed to keep a kosher kitchen and let the kids attend the gan. Cecil does not expect more. He himself had been brought up in a house of strict observance, exquisite baking, and strenuously fond academic expectations. And although he does not believe in God he remains observant. His friends find it contradictory and even hypocritical, but Cecil has always enjoyed the contradiction, and still nurtures it. He finds spiritual sustenance in his academic discipline and intellectual structure in the rituals of his childhood.

He was thirty-five when he married. His parents hadn't lived to see it. His friends, of course, were flabbergasted. They remembered Cecil from his Columbia days when he refused to go to dances or talk to women. He swore he hated children, traveled to the Middle East, and enjoyed Swedish pornographic films.

He had met Beatrix on a bus in Israel. And in fact had written to his father in the hospital about the “ugly woman.” “She's nothing to write home about,” he had written. He showed Beatrix the letter soon after their marriage and she loved it. Cecil's father had died just before the wedding and left him the Brooklyn house. And so they spent the first years of their marriage there, with the old letters, the dusty furniture, the faded Schumacher drapes, and the framed pictures of Cecil that had been propped up on all the tables by his mother. They changed nothing.

In the evenings Beatrix would tell Cecil about the mathematical problems she was working on. He had been a math major before he switched to English, and so he knew just enough to see how beautiful the schemes were. He loved the way physicists came to Beatrix's seminars to see if they could apply her ideas to their work. But it made him strangely happy when it seemed there wasn't any real-world application for her ideas. The formal structure of Beatrix's mathematics had to be appreciated for its own sake. He'd often said the same was true of halakhah, Jewish religious law.

_____________

In the schoolyard Adam is already rolling in the cedar chips and rubbing dirt in his face and hair. The only clean thing about Adam is his eyes. Yes, he is a charming fellow, Cecil tells himself as he maneuvers out of the parking lot. There seems to be a bottleneck at the exit, where Margo Bettleheim is standing. Cecil reaches for the flyer stuck on the windshield and peers at the bleeding purple mimeograph.

To Whom It May Concern

As a specialist in Jewish early-childhood education with a masters in the subject from the Hebrew University, and as a parent, I am compelled to speak out against a situation which I feel threatens the learning environment of the entire gan.

I will state flatly and unequivocally that I am appalled at the deception and irresponsibility of certain parents who have falsified official gan records and have registered their child under false pretenses. In short, by misrepresenting the age and stage of development attained by this child. Thus endangering the learning process of all involved.

It has been shown by Piaget that perceptual development and physical hand-eye-mouth coordination as well as other behavioral processes require a definite time period to develop. I am not convinced that this child has developed these skills, or that this child is ready to interact at the level of food-and-toy sharing interpersonal interplay required at a more mature level.

We know the preschool years to be the most significant formative experience in the educational process (Golding and Simon, 1978). Join me in protecting the future of the next generation: fill out the form below.

Margo Bettleheim

—Yes, I want to focus on the issue of an ordered educational process—and allow each child to develop as an organically-centered person.

—No, I am unconcerned with the process of development, which is uniquely important to the success of the prescholastic learning environment. I am unconcerned about the interplay of persons of the same age.

Signature. . . . . . . . . . . .

Inching toward the exit in the line of cars, Cecil reads the letter and checks the space marked Yes. He signs on the dotted line:

Cecil Eugene Birnbaum

and hands the form to Margo, who stands firm at her post with a mass of blonde curls and two hard lines of lipstick.

_____________

On high street, Clare takes one last breath of fresh air and dives into Laura Ashley Fine Clothes and Fabrics. The place is lousy with sweet summer perfume, bolts of dizzy little prints, mulberry sailor suits, and American tourists with loud voices pulling all the flowered dresses off the walls. Clutching her black umbrella Clare squeezes her way to the dressing-room corridor. Rose-ruffled chintz is drawn between the women struggling into harebell-blue puffed sleeves and twenty-three-button dirndl skirts.

“May I help you, Miss?”

Clare stares at the new salesgirl wearing a starched pinafore.

“I'm afraid all our dressing rooms are occupied at the moment. Was there something special you had in mind? I have some lovely linens. But perhaps you want something more of a gamine look.”

Clare walks to the great beveled mirror at the end of the corridor. She taps the mirror lightly. “Henry,” she whispers hoarsely. The mirror swings open.

“Clare, dearest, how are you?” Henry puts a motherly arm around Clare and ushers her into his office. The walls are bare except for a bookcase which contains Henry's Rupert Brooke collection and the bound copy of Henry's lifework, a bibliography of the Lost Generation. There is no sign of chintz, flowers, or perfume at all. On the desk is an Incan statue of a fire god.

“Oh, I'm simply marvelous, Clare, simply marvelous. Pardon the mess.” He points to the computer printout on the desk. “I've been checking the sales figures.” Henry has dark shadows under his eyes because he works nights. After he finishes the day as manager of Laura Ashley, Henry turns to his real work—Equinox Press, known as Bleak House to its competitors. Equinox publishes a small dark circle of poets. Clare is now bringing out her second book with Equinox.

“I think you will be so pleased. I know I am,” Henry tells Clare. He lifts a cardboard carton onto his desk and slits the strapping tape. “Two thousand copies, and this is the first one.” He gives Clare a small rust-covered booklet. The cover is printed:

22 poems
by Clare Cahen
Equinox Press

“I got the paper from Holland,” he continues, “I knew when I saw it that the texture was perfect. Absolutely exquisite. Just between us girls, the good Holland paper is worth the extra money.”

_____________

Cecil is appalled by the prices in the Covered Market. He buys eggs, Greek olives, currants, but rejects the outrageously expensive sole just as it is about to be rung up. “I'm not made of money,” he tells the old woman behind him in line. She looks at him strangely and moves away. New carts of vegetables are being unloaded. The market is full of exotic produce and the prices are being driven up. They are even selling kiwi fruits and orange-brown mangoes. Next thing you know, they'll put in a cappuccino bar and gentrify the whole neighborhood. Grasping his carrier bag and his Times, Cecil makes his way to the car. A violinist is playing on the sidewalk, and Cecil drops his change in the musician's open violin case.

_____________

At home Clare has barricaded the kitchen with her carton of books. She is reading a poem to her enthralled mother and her dozing father:

Roman Ruins

Sun bones
Stand white—
Unlying in the grass
You swore was unafraid.
Strange song of my death
You left me lone—
Remembering the hollow
Of marrowed bone
And seeping sand.
Forgotten blood,
Numb, unpitying—
The sorrow of it is
You are
All—
And I—
I saw a black rock—
Alive in knowing death
Skitter away.

“Correct me if I'm wrong, Clare,” says Cecil from the hallway, “but the ruins are gray, are they not? I don't remember a black rock, either—the area is hilly and green, that is, if you are talking about where you were sent as a kid during the Blitz.” Cecil trips sprawling over the carton in the doorway. “Get this wretched trash out of my way!”

“Cecil, you are screaming at my daughter!” Molly screams. Cecil limps into the kitchen doubled over. He dumps the groceries on the table and eases himself into a chair, eyes smarting with pain. “I think I've thrown my back out.” He states it with an icy coolness lost on his three in-laws.

Clare picks up the carton of books and moves slowly up the kitchen stairs. “Clare,” Morris calls after her, “I don't want you to carry that load yourself. Cecil, go help her with those books.”

Cecil doesn't move.

“In our family we were brought up to help and sacrifice for each other,” Molly hisses. “Cecil, what are you doing for your family? I'll tell you what you're doing. You are working Beatrix to death. You are taking the grandchildren away from us.”

Cecil turns around gingerly to face Molly. “I've been meaning to speak to you about this. Beatrix and I will be going to Majorca next month. . . .”

“Why do you send them to that frumnik school?” Morris breaks in suddenly. “You want them to grow up Israelis?”

“The gan isn't an Orthodox school, or frumnik as you so quaintly call it. Besides, it's not any of my business what the children grow up to be,” says Cecil matter-of-factly. “I am forty-five now, and so I'll be too old for it to matter when they do grow up.”

“Morris, did you hear that?” shouts Molly. “Pawns is what they are. Innocent children destroyed.”

“Hello. Yes, this is he,” Cecil speaks loudly into the telephone receiver. “Oh hello, Miss Greenberg. No, I was not aware there could be any difficulty with Adam at the gan. Yes, he is at a mature stage of development. / No, I would not say completely trained, but very nearly, yes. / I'm afraid I can't collect the children yet, I'm off to the Bodleian in just a minute. Yes, I consider myself a concerned parent. / What you are saying, then, in layman's terms, is that my son has peed in the prereading center. / No, I do understand the seriousness of the problem, but I'm afraid I really cannot collect him at this time. Well, smack him one. / Psychological scars? / You don't encourage this kind of behavior, do you?”

In the cool dim rooms of the Bodleian Library, Cecil muses on the hysteria of adults involved with small children. Taken in the proper perspective one's children are really rather amusing, actually. Spread before him are his notes on Shaw's music reviews. He may have found a connection between the theory of sound that can be extrapolated from Shaw's music criticism and the form of Shaw's language theory suggested in Higgins's phonetic experiments. A subdued sense of righteousness fills Cecil as he checks the originality of his idea by searching the bibliographic citations of Shavian Studies: Sound Theory. Nothing under that heading. Music Criticism. Nothing there. Confidence rising, Cecil checks under Phonetics. He winces. The idea must be discarded stillborn. There, in the column of papers on Shaw's phonetics, is the listing: “Musical Intonation in Higgins's Phonetic Theory,” Shav. Qt. Apr. '59. Cecil pushes away the book bitterly and goes to collect the kids.

_____________

Miss Greenberg wears a bright green dress printed with daisies. She has white plastic daisy earrings to match. “Dr. Birnbaum, as grade-level chairperson, I have been delegated to ask you to withdraw your child from the gan. I think it is clear from our discussion on the phone that Adam's presence at this time could disturb, or even traumatize, the classroom environment.”

“My good woman,” Cecil begins, and then bursts into laughter.

“It may seem a trivial matter, but an important principle is involved. The gan is an extremely selective school, and there are many children on the preschool waiting list. Margo Bettleheim, for example, is particularly anxious about her son, Moshe.”

“Well, I hardly know what to say,” Cecil replies drily, “Perhaps I should let Adam speak for himself.”

Miss Greenberg is relieved. “Yes, do discuss it with your son. This discussion could play a beautiful part in the bonding of your relationship. You know, whenever I have to speak as a teacher to a child, I try to think of the experience less as an evaluative encounter, and more as an opportunity to nurture growth and understanding.”

_____________

The Cahens always sit at the kitchen table and watch while Cecil prepares the Sabbath dinner. Cecil can't decide which is worse, Attalia and Adam underfoot, or their grandparents who ask plaintively: “Could I trouble you for a little something in a tiny glass—very sweet?”

Cecil lifts Adam onto the kitchen counter and says briskly, “I hear you made a fool of yourself in school today.” Adam giggles and crawls into the sink, then he stands unevenly with one foot in the drain.

“My God, he's going to maim himself,” gasps Molly.

Cecil pulls Adam out of the sink and places him on the floor, where he begins to scream.

Attalia runs in from the living room. “Daddy, I have a new tooth,” she shrieks. She opens her mouth and points to it.

“Congratulations,” says Cecil, “I can't see anything, but I'll take your word for it.”

“Clare, where are you going?” Morris calls out to his daughter, who is almost out the door.

“To dinner,” she mumbles.

“To dinner where?”

“At the house of my publisher, Henry Markowitz.”

“I told you, I don't like the looks of him,” says Molly suspiciously.

“Clare is forty-eight years old,” reasons Cecil, “I should think she can go where she pleases.”

The Cahens are taken aback by this flat statement that their daughter is forty-eight. But Molly asks just the same, “You are going alone?”

“Sid Berglund is coming!” Clare screams suddenly, and escapes into a waiting cab.

“That dinner sounds like a silent auction,” Cecil remarks as he sets the table. “Clare speaks very little, and Berglund . . .”

“What does this Berglund speak?” Morris queries.

“Well, he's one of Beatrix's ex-graduate students. Some kind of shell-shocked physicist. He speaks math, I suppose.”

Cecil sets out the dinner on the dining-room sideboard: challah, choucroute garni (with corned beef, of course), couscous with baked eggs and onions, kosher wine and currant cake with a double measure of currants sunk to the bottom. Molly looks at the dinner with a practiced eye. The egg in the couscous is overbaked, the kosher wine is like vinegar, the currant cake is burned on the bottom. She looks at Cecil and says sweetly—“Could I trouble you for a piece of bread?”

_____________

Clare has never been to Henry's house. It lies in a new development near Summertown. Henry has lived here for three months, and he could not have visitors until his things were in place. Henry has many things.

“Clare, welcome!” Henry draws her into the parlor. Each parlor armchair is covered with swatches of fabric because Henry is in the process of choosing colors and textures for reupholstering. “Dear girl, I'm so glad you could come—forgive me—I'm making a hollandaise.” Henry clatters into the kitchen with his white enamel pan and calls back to Clare, “Won't you look at the azaleas? They're just—just—I took photos of them this morning at dawn with one-thousand ASA, because you never know if the light will hold, and I do hope they came out. I would be so disappointed if those lovely colors got caught in the sprockets. There by the window in the blue. I've left some books by the lamps that might amuse you. Quarto leather—did you know I got a personal letter from Blackwells at Christmas? Don't ask how much I spent.” Clare does not ask. She is looking at Henry's decanters. The cut crystal is clouded with the mossy stain of old, still liquor.

“Ouchy! Ouchy!” Henry is taking little biscuits out of the oven and burning his fingers as he pops each one into the basket lined with starched linen. The door opens softly and Sid Berglund enters with a bottle of Scotch. Sid wears a tattersall shirt tucked into his gray wool trousers; he has a flat nose and a receding chin.

Clare greets him.

Sid nods to her and walks into the adjoining dining room where he puts the Scotch on the sideboard. Above the sideboard hangs a framed drawing. Sid leans toward it squinting at the clear face behind the glass.

“I've willed it to the National Portrait Gallery,” Henry tells them at dinner. “I wanted them to have my Dürer. Partly because they already have the oil from this study. And partly—oh, one really can't explain these things—the attachment to an institution.” Henry spoons hollandaise onto Clare's salmon and asparagus and then dishes out the potatoes au gratin. “But I must tell you,” Henry continues, “the exhibit at the British Museum is simply unbelievable. It is an Egyptian linen exhibit. We are all used to the preservation of stone, but that this delicate material can survive through the ages—Sid, I bought the catalogue. I want you to see it. I am really much more expert in silver, a maven really, but I have a few nice linen pieces. But silver is just so much more, somehow—you know. I felt that somehow I experienced a tremendous coming of age when I bought my service for twenty-four. I always associate it with that tremendously exciting yet frightening experience of renting one's own apartment and buying one's own books for the first time.”

Clare and Sid look away, respecting Henry's emotion. Henry sets each piece of china on a tray and goes to fetch dessert. Suddenly Sid and Clare are alone.

“There will be an animal-rights demonstration at Wantage,” Sid tells Clare urgently.

“When?”

“Ten o'clock. Bring lunch. Be there?”

For the second time that day Clare thinks she has forgotten something. She looks behind her quickly, feels for the purse between her feet. At her side the sharp spike of the umbrella is sheathed.

“I will come,” she whispers furtively.

Henry sets down three Venetian glass bowls of pear sorbet. Each sorbet has on it five thin slices of kiwi fruit arranged to form a flower. “I am sorry I didn't bake; it's just that I take such childish delight in using this set of sorbet spoons. They were made by a very important woman silversmith. But, Sid, Clare, you have hardly said a word all evening. Sid, how is your dissertation progressing?”

“Much the same.”

“Clare? This dinner must be quite different from Cecil's concoctions. I will never in my life forget the last meal I had in that house. Those children! On the floor, on the table. Good God!” Henry laughs. “Adam simply reached across the table—took a chicken leg and began to eat. No plate, no knife, just began to eat. I can't tell you! But Clare, this is your day. In honor of your book. I do wish you would be a good girl and let me give you some of our lovely dresses. Come to the store and pick out anything you like. Anything.”

Henry looks at his two solemn-faced guests. “Well,” he chirps brightly, “perhaps now would be the time to break out some champagne!”

_____________

At home even the children are asleep. Clare steps on the edges of the kitchen stairs so they won't creak. She holds the umbrella close to her so that the tip won't scrape the wall. Softly Clare eases open the door to her room. Then she shoots her arm around the door jamb, flicks on the light, and bursts into the room. A slight shadow flickers on the wall. With all her energy Clare lunges. She pushes the button of the automatic umbrella and the black shield unfurls shooting the steel tip at the wall. Nothing. Clare closes the umbrella and wearily crouches down on her bed. Slowly the ceiling lamp fades and Clare begins to dream:

She stands on the dark pavement of Regent Street. She senses that Cecil is behind her. And there he is in the lamplight with his Olivetti electronic taking down her thoughts. Henry confronts Cecil. “My dear man, why are you troubling this poor girl?”

“I am merely recording her accent,” Cecil replies. “I can locate anyone by his pronunciation. You, for example, are from Vienna, Brooklyn, NYU, Cambridge, Princeton, and Los Angeles.”

Good God. You are good. Have you met Cecil Birnbaum, the phonetics expert?

I am Cecil Birnbaum.

Really? I am Henry Markowitz. I came from Los Angeles to meet you!

Cecil disappears, but Henry puts on a white apron and ushers Clare into Laura Ashley. He helps Clare into a wedding dress while he chants an incantation:

The white taffeta is pure silk. Marvelous design. / Off the shoulders. / Notice the details at the waist. / Fan-shaped train. / Just between us.

Clare looks into the beveled glass. The bodice hangs loosely on her. The satin train is tangled at her ankles. The sleeves fall off her bony shoulders and show the shaggy hair under her arms. She is untransformed.

_____________

The next morning Cecil and the kids walk to shul. Attalia loves shul. She is allowed to wear the pink dress that her American aunt gave her. Beatrix is against pink. But out of courtesy to the relatives, Attalia should wear it once in a while. Adam wears an Oxford United sweatsuit. Cecil sports an “Abortion Rights” button. When they reach the shul, there are two strollers on the steps of the building. One of them has cross-stitched along the awning, M. Bettleheim.

Attalia stays in the cloakroom to play with the Goldman girls. Adam follows his father into the men's section. The shul was originally designed for an egalitarian congregation that never made a go of it. Now the sanctuary is rearranged for separate seating, and there are red velvet curtains in front of the Ark. But the walls are still covered with cork bulletin boards. One of the notices pinned up is Margo Bettleheim's open letter to the gan parents. Next to it is an advertisement for a cantor:

Young, vibrant Jewish group in Honolulu seeks like-minded lay leader to energize holiday services.

Will provide plane fare.

Write to The Bet Knesset Connection, Unitarian Church, Old Pali Rd., Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

Ref. required.

Must Know Hebrew!

“Good God,” mutters the man standing next to Cecil.

“Oh, I quite agree, announcements like that in the sanctuary,” says Cecil in sympathy. He recognizes the speaker as George Lewis, the very man who found the variant text of Major Barbara and was written up in Shavian Studies.

“I was not referring to the notice on the wall,” Lewis replies coldly. “I was speaking of the obscene statement you are making by wearing that button on your lapel. I find it extremely offensive.”

“Do you, now? Well, if we are to be perfectly candid, I found your little book rather offensive. I can imagine that twenty years ago a book like yours could accrue some kind reviews and perhaps earn you a lectureship at York. But at this time, when the whole question of the variant text has ceased to be an issue, when the very concept of a normative, authoritative text has been discarded, I am simply at a loss to understand how your book could contribute anything to the field.”

“I do not talk about these things on Shabbat,” Lewis replies scornfully. “You know, I'm always amazed at your lack of sensitivity. This congregation is not a place for statements, political or otherwise. But I will say this. If you utter a word in Shavian Studies challenging my work I am prepared to write a letter such as the pages of that review have never seen.”

Today is Ezra Ben-Zion's bar mitzvah. Cecil walks to the back of the shul to congratulate Jonathan Collins, the wiry-bearded anthropology lecturer who instructed Ezra. “He did a fine job with the morning service. It's nice to hear the proper consonantal values for a change, and not those twisted Hungarian and Rumanian vowels from the old-timers. I compliment you on your teaching.”

“Oh, it was nothing, really,” Jonathan demurs, “he's Israeli.”

“Jonathan, before the Torah reading starts, I'd like to have a word with you.” They duck out of the sanctuary and stand in the quiet atrium.

“We have discussed this many times,” Cecil continues, “but nothing has been done about it. You still allow Jack Bettleheim to come up to the Torah. Now you know as well as I that he isn't a Sabbath observer. And as if that isn't enough, he flaunts it by pushing a stroller to shul.”

“Well, if we must be technical, Cecil, Margo Bettleheim pushed the stroller.”

Cecil is not amused: “I am not talking about technicalities.”

“Why, Cecil!” Jonathan whispers, fascinated, “Do you mean to say, you are talking about the principles of Jewish law as they are connected to God?

“God has nothing to do with the problem at hand.”

Jonathan looks closely at Cecil's stern face. “Oh, I see,” he says slowly, “you've heard about Margo Bettleheim's open letter.”

“Don't try to trivialize this,” Cecil says seriously. “What I am saying is that I cannot participate in a service in which men who are not shomer Shabbat—who don't observe the Sabbath—are called to the Torah. I thought I made my position perfectly clear when I was forced to resign from the religious practices committee.”

“But Cecil, Jack was the Ben-Zions' choice.”

“Where is it written,” Cecil says sarcastically, “that the parents of the bar-mitzvah boy are allowed to choose a man who is not shomer Shabbat? Halakhah is halakhah.”

“And God has nothing to do with this?” Jonathan chuckles. “You know, Cecil, you're what Mary Douglas used to call a primitive ritualist—the term primitive meaning nothing derogatory, of course. It's quite the best thing to be in anthropological circles.”

Cecil presses on with quiet restraint. “I cannot and will not suffer a violation of Shabbat. I come here to pray and find Bettleheim's stroller at the door; I go in to the sanctuary and George Lewis threatens me and impugns my freedom of expression on reproductive rights.”

“Oh, Cecil, they've found your soft spots.”

Cecil turns away.

“Though I always have felt Lewis was a complete loss,” Jonathan adds sympathetically. “I mean, there he is, filling up an academic post, with an office, a telephone, and half a secretary.”

“I don't complain,” Cecil says stiffly. “This is a matter of principle.”

Jonathan coughs politely into his beard. He jumps nimbly into the service and Cecil follows more slowly. As Jonathan calls Jack Bettleheim to the Torah, Cecil folds his prayer shawl deliberately and kneels down on his hands and knees to search myopically under and between the seats for Adam.

Attalia puts on a full-scale show as they leave the social hall.

_____________

At home Morris and Molly Cahen are waiting for lunch in the kitchen. Cecil puts out a plate of herring, a basket of challah, and for Adam a bowl of mashed salmon. “Pink!” Adam screams. Carefully, he pats the salmon into his ears.

The doorbell rings five times in rapid succession and Cecil hears a deep female baritone cry out, “Hello! Are you home? Hello!”

“There is an Israeli accent at the door,” Cecil tells Morris.

“So answer it,” Morris replies.

The door swings open in Cecil's face, revealing a fierce woman in a fuzzy brown skirt, gray sweater, and hairy stockings. She grasps Cecil by the arm, “My name is Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni. I am here for Clare Cahen.”

“In what capacity are you here for Clare, Miss Yardeni?”

“My name is Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni. I am here for Clare Cahen,” she repeats. “Take me to her.”

Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni enters the kitchen darkly. She sits down and crosses her legs—one hairy gray kneesock over the other. She glares with disgust at Adam on the table. “I dislike children,” she tells him. “I should explain my presence here,” she continues.

“What is this woman's name?” Molly begins to ask but Cecil cuts her off.

“As you know,” Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni announces, “I am not unknown as a novelist in Israel. For one of my most important works, by the name Induction Currents, I have been urged to seek greater audience in the West. I am staying at the Wantage Center for Study of Jewish-Arab Relations until my rebound in August. The novelist and the novel is a parent-child relation of love and hate. I have entrusted this child of love and hate to Clare Cahen.” She pauses dramatically. Then, in a dark, urgent voice, “Clare Cahen was to translate that child.”

“Watch it, Adam, or I'll translate you!” Cecil moves the orange juice out of his son's reach.

“I have come for Clare Cahen. I have come for the money that I gave her.”

Cecil begins to understand. “You mean that you paid Clare to translate your book and now you want your money back? You aren't going to get any money back from her. You have paid her, and she has spent the money. The exchange is completed.”

“I have given to Clare Cahen 800 pounds from the 1,000 that the British Council gave me to translate my novel into English for the English and American audience. I will get it back.”

“I'm afraid you underestimate my sister-in-law. She has a tremendous capacity to spend money. She believes she is wanted by the police, and when she doesn't take her pills she calls a cab and tries to get a flight out of Heathrow. Just last winter she managed to get as far as Spain.”

“I want my money back and my manuscript. Take me to Clare Cahen. I will sue.”

“Cecil,” Molly calls out, “who let this woman in the house?”

“I think that before you sue,” Cecil says with growing interest, “we need to establish whether Clare has translated your book.”

Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni pulls a thick sheaf of pages in English from her bulging black bag.

“Is this Clare's translation?”

“This is not translation, this is fraud.” She thumbs the pages of the manuscript. She reads:

Yellow soap. Yellow hands. The egg bled into the sink from the surgical disks. The inner

moan of the grinding garbage disposal gnawing at my flesh.

“Where is the passion? Where is the shock and the pain? I will sue. Take me to Clare Cahen.”

Morris rises and walks over to the novelist. Bending down he speaks loudly into her ear. “My daughter is a very sick girl.”

“Your daughter is a psychotic! My ex-husband has experience with lawsuits. I have the name of his firm's solicitor in London. I came all the way from Wantage! I will sue!”

“Well, I am sure if you had an appointment Clare would be here.” Cecil speaks with a strange mixture of defensiveness and formality. “As it stands, it seems she had an unavoidable conflict.”

Yaffa stands up. She straightens her lumpy gray sweater and pulls up her hairy socks. “This is an overheated kitchen,” she hisses.

“Only when people are in it,” Molly snaps.

At the front door Cecil gives one last piece of advice. “Look here, Miss Yardeni, Clare is schizophrenic. You won't be able to get a penny out of her in court. To put it simply: she's got you.”

Yaffa grips Cecil's arm. “Clare Cahen has not seen my last.”

_____________

Clare walks slowly on the dirt road outside of Wantage. The fields hide a network of mines in the long grass. She sees a man walking a leashed terrier. “Morning,” he calls out. Suddenly Clare knows that today she will die. She turns out of the road and her boots sink into the deep mud. Fighting the tall grass Clare sinks deeper. She lifts herself dripping from a small weed-strangled pond.

“Clare.” Sid crouches on a rock near her. “Clare, I miscalculated. My directions to the caucus ground were insufficient. Apparently the site was too obscure.” He points to the damp stack of animal-rights leaflets at his feet. Clare says nothing. They sit among the reeds in silence. A brown-feathered wild goose gathers her goslings into the weeds watching them, her plumage shades of pale brown and vibrant blue, barred with black and cream. At last Sid stands up. Clare follows him.

They climb the overgrown bank to the railway bridge. “Is this bridge high enough to die from?” Clare asks Sid.

Sid wipes his glasses with the bottom of his tattersall shirt. He peers over the edge of the bridge. “The distance can be calculated using a falling object and a stopwatch. Simple equation.”

“And what if you had no watch in the wilderness?” Clare asks.

“In the wilderness there are no bridges,” Sid replies.

The sun slips behind a cloud. Clare intones the opening lines of her work in progress. “Darkness”: “Black, black, / Spiral down the sun.”

“Spiral down the sun,” Sid repeats, “That's lovely.” Clare is silent. Then slowly she unsheathes her umbrella, unfurling it over the railing. She lets it float down open—spinning to the ground. It catches on some brambles and snaps inside out in the wind.

“Abandoned umbrella; false trail,” Clare says smiling. They bend into the wind and walk back toward the village. A dirty Fiat swerves off the road narrowly missing them.

“You want to get killed?” screams the deep-voiced driver. The Fiat races on, leaving the couple unrecognized and alone.

_____________

That night Cecil sits down at his Olivetti. The letter to Aunt Ida is still in the typewriter. “Most of the other Norham Gardens castles are now quite nice 20th century. . . .” Suddenly Cecil is stricken by a terrible thought: where will he put the refrigerator when it arrives from Brooklyn? The only clear kitchen space is in front of the door. Never mind. When Beatrix returns she will work out the math. He will have to shop in London for that transformer on Monday. So much to do. Tickets for the Royal Ballet. The linen exhibit at the British Museum—who was it told him about that? The paper for Helsinki still to write. Run down for milk. The Bodleian closed. That ass Lewis.

Cecil unrolls the letter to Aunt Ida and inserts a new piece of paper. “As an active member of the Society for Shavian Studies, I was surprised and not a little disappointed to see. . . .”

“Daddy,” Attalia stands sleepily in the lighted hallway. “Can I say shehecheyanu for a new tooth?”

“And while Lewis claims. . . .” Cecil types.

“Daddy?”

Cecil looks up. “I am not really qualified to rule on whether that benediction is appropriate. You'll have to ask a rabbi.”

Attalia shuffles back to bed. Cecil feels a twinge of sadness. He flicks off the typewriter and turns out the lights. Never mind, he tells himself, Beatrix will be home tomorrow, and Clare returned in a cab, not an ambulance. He walks down the dark hall and looks in on the sleeping children. The little beasts are lovely when they're sleeping. “Attalia,” he whispers, “I think it might be all right to say shehecheyanu.” His words surprise him.

Attalia rolls over in her sleep, and he adds, “Or some sort of blessing. I'll look it up first thing in the morning.”

About the Author




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