Commentary Magazine


Wish List A Story

A sheik rushes through Heathrow airport followed by his wives and children and his childrens’ servants, each pushing a luggage cart. A young American couple cuts through with a screaming baby. “Where’s the plug?” the mother asks desperately. Her husband fishes out a pacifier from his load of baby gear and plugs the baby’s mouth. “We really shouldn’t do this,” he sighs. A group of stewardesses scuds across the terrazzo with their tiny rolling suitcases.

“And so,” says the youngest of them, “I just said, ‘I would hardly worry, sir. Our security is excellent. But if you are disturbed by your neighbor, we have one vacant seat in the smoking section.’ ” A young Hasid runs to catch a 10 a.m. flight closely followed by a group of middle-aged women wearing doubleknit polyester pantsuits, then a Japanese school tour, the students dressed like French schoolgirls.

Swaying a little in the crowd, Professor Edward Markowitz stops for a head count: Miriam, Ben, Avi, Yehudit—four kids, two friends, Grandma, six suitcases, three duffels, and the goddamn violin. Ed and his wife Sarah look warily at the crowd they have brought to England for the summer, the whole summer. Teen-agers and other non-grownups waiting to be transported to Oxford, fed and amused. Two of the kids are fighting already. The others want to get some real breakfast. Then there are the friends the boys have brought along: Noam, the gum chewer, and Ben’s friend Scott, who leans against the wall reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ben lifts the left side of Scott’s Walkman. “Still living in the 60′s?” he asks.

Ed clears his throat. “Sarah, could I talk to you for a minute?”

His wife gives up fishing for a brush in her huge leather-thong bag. As they walk out of earshot Sarah calls back, “Ben, get a chair for your grandmother.” Ben flashes Grandma a pearly smile and offers her a suitcase.

“What we should do,” Sarah tells Ed drily, “we should get two cabs and a limo. One cab for the luggage, one cab for the kids, the limo for your mother. We’ll send your lectures along with them. Then just the two of us cash in our tickets right here and bicycle through Brittany.”

“Not bad,” mutters Ed, “but I wouldn’t trust my lectures to that crew.”

Noam has gone to sit next to Grandma. “Piece-gum?” he offers.

“I wear dentures,” Rose Markowitz says in a terrible voice.

“O.K., O.K.,” Noam eases, “’scool, ‘scool.”

“This was not what I pictured when I got the invitation to Oxford,” Ed tells Sarah. “The Wantage Center is very elegant. Underendowed, but elegant. It’s got a kind of impoverished gentility and . . . Christ, what am I going to do with six stir-crazy teen-agers out there? This is not going to work, Sarah. I’m supposed to be in a lecture series with Israeli novelists and medieval Arabists—all these people take themselves very seriously. Not that anyone in Oxford ever comes,” he adds. “What do Oxford philosophers and Russian historians care about Jewish-Arab relations? Half the speakers don’t know a thing about any relations after the 13th century.” Ed looks at the kids again and begins to smile. “Well, people are going to come to my lectures. Looks like I’ve shlepped myself an audience.”

They squeeze into two cabs; the older Markowitzes in one, the younger tribe packed into another with Cadbury chocolate bars. The gray airport lifts away, and they speed through bright June fields.

The Wantage Center for Arab-Jewish relations is housed in an Elizabethan manor, or, as the kids dub it, “Jesus, the real thing.” The cabs approach the manor on a long curving drive shaded with yew trees. Green lawns surround the house, sunken gardens, and flower beds. Beyond the gardens, the cottages, barn, and greenhouse are also owned by the Center. In each cottage lives a scholar with or without family. Some stay for the summer, some for a sabbatical. The manor itself is built of gray stone, a three-storey, heavy-browed building with deep walls, massive windows, and chimneys.

Dick Frankel greets the Markowitzes at the door—a massive oaken portal with iron-claw hinges and a mezuzah. Frankel has pale blue eyes and a delicate beaklike nose.

“Edward, Sarah, welcome to Wantage!” the director beams. “Do come in. How was your flight? My goodness there are so many of us! The cottages seem quite crammed, so we’ve roomed you in the manor. Would that be too awful? Oh, excellent, then we can push on. Yes, all the way to the top of the stairs,” he tells the kids, who have already pushed on. “McBride would help with the bags, but I don’t want to trouble him.” Frankel laughs nervously. “He is very probably the most important person at the Center. Sees to the heaters and the grounds. I’m certain we should all collapse without him. He has that practicality—well, I suppose we academics will always live in awe of it.”

As Frankel utters these words, McBride is stirring in the second-floor blue bedroom. He grimaces and sits up in bed. “Yoff,” he grumbles, “where’s my clothes?” The other occupant is already dressed. She sits at her writing table watching him with dark, burning eyes.

“Why do you not say my name in all?” she demands in her heavy Israeli accent.

“ ‘Stoo long.” McBride groans, trying to find his pants without leaving the warm bed.

“I think sometimes you do not know me—my name or my art. I am Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni. Do you read me, do you know my soul?”

McBride flops back in a tangle of sheets and shuts his eyes.

Her voice softens just at the sight of him. “But you do not need novels,” she murmurs fervently. “You are a novel. D.H. Lawrence gave birth to you.”

“She did?” McBride asks distantly.

“My God,” Yaffa breathes. “Your hair, your eyes. My God, your shoulders. That mustache.”

“D’you think I should shave it off?” McBride asks with sudden interest.

“It would kill me.”

“Oh.”

“I thought yesterday of your arms,” she tells him. “They remember to me Anna Karenina. The meadow mown with peasants. Their muscling arms around the scythes.”

McBride takes a towel and stumbles toward the bathroom.

“When will I see you again?” she asks.

“When I come out,” he says, his mouth full of toothpaste.

“Tonight?” she persists urgently. “If you see the hall light burning, come to me tonight.”

“Ease off, woman,” he bellows and slams the door.

_____________

 

Ed Markowitz stops on the first-floor landing to catch his breath. The great staircase is carved, with dusty banisters. Below him lies the tiled entrance hall with its dark paneled walls. The front door is bolted shut with a massive wooden bar. Above it gleams a red exit sign.

The kids bang up the stairs with the cleaning woman. The attics have been finished and partitioned into bedrooms. “There’s a ghost been seen in these attics,” she tells them breathlessly.

“Yeah? Was it a girl or a guy?”

“She is the ghost of the lady who lived here and hanged herself because she loved a Moor and her parents locked her up and wouldn’t let her see him.”

“Good deal,” says Noam looking around the rooms with new respect. He opens a diamond-paned window and looks out at the grounds in back of the manor: a wide green lawn and then a low stone wall; beyond that, a sunken garden, a higher wall, then an apple orchard; and beyond that, stretching out to the horizon, wind-ruffled fields of wheat. The others join him at the window. “Football!” he yells. The kids charge downstairs to take on the field.

On the second floor Frankel shows the older Markowitzes to the Rose Bedroom. Grandma has a green room next door. “It’s small,” she says. “But I’m glad of any place to lay my head. Edward, would you draw the drapes and bring me my book? Thank you.” She eases a chair to the desk and turns on the little desk lamp. “It doesn’t burn very brightly,” she observes.

Frankel touches the desk pensively. “A brilliant graduate student used to live here.” He says it much the way the maid had spoken of the ghost. “He was shortlisted for a post at Leeds but was edged out and forced to go to a ghastly university in America.” Frankel shudders. “Texas, I believe.”

“Austin?” Ed laughs. “He’ll have the highest salary and lowest cost of living in the country. Somehow I wouldn’t pity him.”

“Oh, not pity. No one wants pity. In fact, when he left we did not speak of it. He was very proud.”

“Come now,” Ed says. “When you consider the money that school has.”

“But you come from America yourself, Ed. So it wouldn’t affect you the way it would him,” Frankel urges gently.

_____________

 

Frankel drives home that evening in his Hillman Minx. He waves to McBride, who stands at the gate doing something clever with the hinges. Splendid. And when one thinks that ten years ago the place was used as a dormitory and cut up into little rooms! Mrs. Frankel was very unkind about that. Hostel for academics, she had called it. Cheap place for Israeli aesthetes, sanatorium for languishing Orientalists, halfway house for Persian miniature cryptographers after budget cuts.

It is absolutely untrue. Frankel’s lips twitch in indignation. “We have a mission of peace,” he says aloud, quoting the Center brochure. Even Mrs. Frankel admits it was quite a coup getting Ed Markowitz for the summer. A Georgetown expert in terrorism. It certainly modernizes the lecture series. “Professor Markowitz spent his undergraduate years at Cornell,” Frankel murmurs, formulating a little off-the-cuff introduction for Thursday. No, perhaps something a bit more dramatic. “Understanding the motives, the practice, indeed the science of terrorism has always been, though we hope will not always be, of much concern to students in the field of Jewish-Arab relations.” Yes, that has a nice ring. Personal, but solid and well considered.

Frankel turns on the little black radio perched on the dashboard. A modern string quartet prickles against his skin. He supposes it must be interesting, but turns down the volume just the same. Have they ordered the cakes for the Center’s anniversary? Little white chairs on the South Lawn. He’ll have to say a few words. “We have done much, but there is much to do.” Yes. Frankel smiles at the modesty of the phrase. He hasn’t spoken of it publicly, but he sees unlimited possibilities for the Center. Who knows? It is even possible that Arab scholars will one day accept invitations to Wantage.

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As Frankel muses on progress in his Hillman Minx, Ed Markowitz wearily drives a rented Fiat to the Oriental Institute in Oxford ten miles away. He had not intended to make the trip on the very day of his arrival, but this is the only time he can be sure of seeing Mujahid Rashaf, who is returning to Saudi Arabia within the week. Rashaf is an Oxford Fellow and the son of a merchant prince. He will provide just the reasoned yet religious opinions that Ed seeks for his book, Terrorism: A Civilized Creed.

“A provocative title,” the Institute director says languidly at tea. They sit in dark green leather chairs and sip Lapsang Souchong. A dozen scholars chat at the inlaid tables, leaning forward from the shadows of their hooded chairs.

“But it’s meant to be provocative,” Ed replies. “Terrorism must be understood as part of an ethical code. To study terrorism with any dispassion, we have to begin from the understanding that it is a logical, rational, and ethnically valid form of action. The real issue in the Middle East is cultural absolutism—something we must recognize in ourselves as well as in the Arab nations.”

“Hmm.” The director bites a chocolate-glazed biscuit delicately. “Not to press you to divulge your conclusions, but I suppose there are no easy answers.”

“Exchange, moderation, tolerance,” Ed answers confidently. “Not easy, but certainly answers.”

Ed rises to refill his cup at the buffet table, glad to leave the director, who speaks in such a flat, bored voice. He joins the livelier circle around Mujahid Rashaf. The young man wears white trousers and a simple but hand-tailored linen shirt. He speaks with the natural, artless manner of one used to an audience. His features are not as delicate as his accent. He has a fleshy face and small bright eyes. Ed sees at once that Rashaf is absolutely brilliant. His dissertation is a study of the early industrial influences that shaped Fitzgerald’s distortion of Omar Khayyam.

Ed is nearly faint with exhaustion when he leaves the tea. He shakes hands with Rashaf and suggests corresponding about the changing role of terrorism in Israel.

Rashaf smiles and presses Ed’s hand. “There is no change,” he says gently, patiently. “We will drive you into the sea.”

_____________

 

At Wantage a few scholars gather in the library after dinner. The small oak-paneled room contains a strange collection of chairs—some overstuffed and Victorian, some anorectic and modern. Books have overrun the shelves and advanced to the table tops: Saadya, Bellow, Imru ‘l-Qais, Amos Oz, Abu Nuwas, Kissinger. A new history of Lebanon, an old study of international law as applied to the West Bank, Hourani’s classic, almost elegiac History of Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Bound in green and red leather, rival Arabic dictionaries compete for space; French-Arabic edges out German-Arabic by a tome. The Fellows of Wantage talk placidly in a room of books uncatalogued and wild, toppling in precarious layers toward the light.

Itzhak Tapuz, the eminent Israeli playwright, confers in a corner with his illustrator, a young cousin he has commissioned to draw sketches for his forthcoming volume of collected stories. A birdlike anthropologist-poet perches on the movable library stairs. “So. Are you the scholar or the spouse?” she asks Sarah Markowitz.

“I earn my living as a novelist, so I’m probably. . . .”

“Got that. I’m Tiki Sofer. I’m the scholar. My husband drives a cab in New York. The Center invited me to speak, but the plane fare came from the cab. That’s the way it is; the real work supports the fancy stuff. I write poems on Ocean Parkway, in the cab. I even got myself a cheap publisher right in the cab. From Oxford, yet. Just sitting in the back seat. And none of this vanity-press shit. I pay only expenses. That’s the way I work.”

“I have to use a desk,” says Sarah, amused and discomfited. She had always thought of the desk in Washington as an emblem of the Great Tradition: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Tillie Olsen, Cynthia Ozick.

The door opens and the resident anthropologist Jonathan Collins steps in, his beard meaning to get trimmed. “Sarah!” he cries. “Come here, old thing. How are you? Where’s Ed? Haven’t seen him since the New York conference. What, tucked away in bed already? After all those hours on the plane? I always do a good run to reorient the spine. I’ve only just returned from the field, myself. Now, now, oral history in Albania is every bit as much field work as the Ituri forest. I would tell you, but you’d never believe me. But really, we’re frightfully glad to see you. Especially Frankel. The thing is, it’s been a dreadful winter. Peace institutes are simply becoming a drug on the market—not to mention the funding problem. But now the great American capitalist is coming to save us, and our Ed is the whole show. Oh, didn’t you know? He’s to make us relevant to the times and talk up the peace process and other American things.”

Tiki looks at Jonathan shrewdly. “And what does this American get?”

“Oh—glory, of course. The one who gets is the little bourgeois fund-raiser who found him.”

“A commission for bringing in money?” asks Sarah.

“What commission? Terrence Glueck finds and brings this donor and he gets the Center. One more donor like this and he could have full feudal rights to the place. We’ll all labor in the cottages and pay a tithe of our pages.” Jonathan laughs at his medieval vision. He himself cannot tell whether he speaks bitterly or from an instinct to amuse.

_____________

 

That night Sarah Markowitz sleeps deeply as only the jet-lagged can sleep: legs and arms extended without seat belt, cramped neck and shoulders melting slowly into relaxation. On the third floor only Scott is awake, still reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On the second floor, Ed leafs through the Center brochure. The photo of a dark-eyed woman fills the back page with the legend: “Wantage is so precious a place for the majority of us. Even if I write only one chapter here I will know that I wrote it at the Center.—Yaffa Yehuda-Yardeni, novelist.” Ed yawns and turns off the lamp.

Except for the one in the hall, the last light in the manor is Grandma’s. Rose Markowitz never sleeps. If she did, she would be the first to notice, but sadly sleep is impossible because of the Pain. She feels it most when she is alone and when the rest are talking about things that mean nothing to her. It is an agonizing pain. It tears through her so fast that she could not tell you where it hurt. Rose closes her thick paperback romance. A loathsome thing and badly written. Not at all tasteful like The Thornbirds. She pads to the night table and bravely takes out her bottle of pills. There are now only 61 pills left. In the lighted hall, the door to that awful Israeli woman’s room stands ajar. Rose walks past it to the high-ceilinged bathroom. A scalding bath is the only thing for the Pain besides the pills. She floods the claw-footed tub with steaming water. The sound reassures her, reminds her of bubble baths and white lace dresses. She had been a picture in that dress. The water rushes on. She turns off the faucet and suddenly is afraid to step into the brimming tub. It is too deep for her and she cannot climb out alone. She would sit down and sob, but no one would even hear her. She looks at the water and wonders briefly how to drain it, then turns off the hall light and shuffles back to her room.

_____________

 

The next morning Yaffa thunders into the kitchen. The kitchens are remnants of the manor’s days as a student dorm. Now the scholars use them. On the third floor an unshaven medievalist piles dishes in the sink; on the second floor a young Arabist grows bean sprouts. And here on the first floor, Yaffa slams a frying pan on the stove and takes out a stick of butter. She wears a man-sized shaggy plush bathrobe and orange terry-cloth slippers. Keys clatter down the hall and McBride enters whistling. He stands in the doorway with his cocker spaniel, Lorna. The two of them look at Yaffa bright-eyed. “Make me an egg, Yoff,” McBride orders.

“What?” she snarls with her back to him.

“Not too runny.”

She tilts the pan to spread the melting butter. “My only weapon,” she whispers dramatically. Then she calls out, “Let Her do it.”

“The wife hates eggs. Can’t stand the sight of them. Calls ‘em liquid chickens.”

Yaffa slams the pan on the stove and whirls to face him. “Look. These shadows. These lines,” she cries, pointing to the dark circles under her eyes. “I never slept.”

“Huh,” McBride says thoughtfully. Lorna thumps her tail at his feet.

“Where were you?” Yaffa explodes.

“In bed,” he answers. “Look, are you making my egg?”

Yaffa takes an egg from the icebox and hurls it at him. The egg smashes on the doorframe and drips down to the floor where Lorna licks it up.

“In bed. With Her,” Yaffa hisses. “You lied.”

“You said if the hall light was on and it was off,” reasons McBride.

“Liar!” screams Yaffa.

“Bloody mess,” mutters McBride. He whistles to Lorna and ambles down the hall.

The Markowitz kids run past him into the kitchen. “Food! Breakfast!” they scream. They freeze in the doorway as Yaffa slaps into the seething pan three strips of fat-marbled bacon.

_____________

 

The manor Orangery has been converted into a three-bedroom house for the Albert and Joyce Siedenstein Fellow on a year’s sabbatical from the Hebrew University. This year’s fellowship funds the Yemenite Arabist Gavriel Ben-Zion, his wife, and their two children who eat chocolate Rolos behind the couch and watch the neighbors through the glass walls of the converted greenhouse. “People are coming,” thirteen-year-old Ezra whispers to his younger sister Naomi.

“Back to the table,” orders Geulah Ben-Zion. Her voice carries. Ezra and Naomi push their Rolos under the couch and join their parents for blueberry muffins. The Orangery is filled with modern furniture in keeping with its glass structure. In winter it’s the warmest place in the institute, but in June the greenhouse effect overheats the place. Geulah Ben-Zion has put up green curtains to screen out the sun and passersby. She has covered the picture window in the bathroom and the glass walls in the kitchen. “I hardly blame her,” the cleaning women in the manor said to one another. “It’s like living in a cucumber frame.”

“Can’t you see them?” little Naomi calls out. She draws the curtains by the kitchen table, revealing a long line of Markowitzes winding toward the door. Gavriel Ben-Zion puts down the Times and goes to greet them. He stands in the doorway imposingly, a tall dark-eyed man with a military haircut.

“Hi!” Sarah Markowitz says hopefully.

Ed puts out his hand. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen us before, but I’m Ed Markowitz; we just got in last night. Uh, this is my family,” he gestures hurriedly.

“Edward,” Grandma hisses disapprovingly at his elbow.

“This is my mother, Rose Markowitz,” Ed adds. “As I said, we just woke up this morning; I mean we just got here last night. . . .”

“Food, Dad,” one of the kids prompts from behind.

“We had no idea the kitchen wasn’t kosher,” Sarah tells Geulah at the table.

“It is kosher on the second and third floors.” Geulah reaches for the plate of blueberry muffins. Only crumbs are left. The kids have finished off the muffins and run outside. At the window Geulah sees Ezra and Naomi leading the teen-agers to the sunken garden. McBride passes, naked to the waist and carrying a rake. “That is a beautiful man.” Geulah opens the green curtains a little wider for Sarah to see.

“Yes, he certainly is,” agrees Grandma.

“You have beautiful children,” Sarah says, embarrassed. “The little girl looks just like you.”

“Oh, no.” Geulah comes back to the table. “They’re both adopted. And they’re Yemeni like Gavri, not like me.”

_____________

 

“I am so glad to find you here, Gavriel,” Ed says in the study. “I’ve heard a great deal about you.”

“Really,” Gavriel replies drily. “What have you heard?”

Ed searches quickly for something repeatable. He is a left-winger. He married money. She is six years older. He has a whole house in Jerusalem. “Well, about your eminence in the field,” Ed beams with vague joviality. “I was riveted by your book Jihad as Proletarian Uprising. I’m hoping to get a lot of work done this summer. I’m just finishing my new book about terrorism.”

“A difficult subject.” Gavriel shifts his weight back in his swivel chair.

“Oh, yes, of course. Very difficult,” Ed agrees. “But not necessarily tragic. In fact, I do something I haven’t seen done in any of the literature. I’ve been talking about terrorism as a dynamic process involving elements of anarchic creativity. In fact, we see in the four terroristic elements the mirror image of so-called constructive action. In simple terms, both the terrorist and the rescuer use the four elements, secrecy, surprise, team or theistic loyalty, and escape. You’re smiling. You think this is shocking.”

“No,” Gavriel says honestly, “I think you’re a jackass.”

_____________

 

Back in the kitchen, Sarah and Geulah plan for both families to go to the Eights Week boat races.

“None too soon,” says Sarah. “The kids will have done and seen everything in the village by tomorrow.”

“It’s important to plan activities,” Geulah says earnestly. “I work with the children every day on their projects, but they must have outings.”

“You sound very scientific,” Sarah laughs. “I just let the kids scrounge.”

The women hear rising voices from the study.

“Listen!” shouts Gavriel. “You know nothing about rescue missions.”

“What do you mean nothing? I was on-call consultant for EntebbeThe Movie.”

“Right!” Gavriel shoots back bitterly. “The movie. Creative dynamics. You don’t know.”

“So you were there?” Ed asks sarcastically.

“I was in Yemen. Operation Magic Carpet. I was sixteen, and I knew the language. I was ordered to go from village to village and gather up the people. So I did, and they followed me to the landing strips. Sold everything to get there. And there they were. We got them there. Was there organization? Dynamic? Not enough planes, and the flights came late. They died on the landing strips without food or money. No shelter. Waiting for the planes I promised them. Don’t tell me about creativity. There’s a fifth element, you see: the success factor. And terrorists have more success than rescuers. It’s a lot easier to blow up people than to keep them in one piece.”

“Hey,” says Ed, abashed, “I should have been more sensitive. This is heavy stuff. We run into this a lot.”

“Go to Ethiopia,” says Gavriel. “More of you experts should go out into the field.”

“Oh, no, the field is very crowded at the moment,” Ed demurs. “You have no idea the numbers of grad students.”

_____________

 

Outside on the lawn the kids tramp past the little garden study built for Tapuz. They peek in the window and see the playwright scribbling furiously in his undershirt. Ezra and Naomi take the Markowitz kids through the Elizabethan grass tennis courts where Ian Scott and his wife Gwendolyn live in the converted tennis pavilion. “This is not a Jewish Center,” Frankel likes to tell prospective donors. “This is a Center studying Arab-Jewish affairs.” He always mentions the Scotts’ excellent work in ancient siege archeology at this point. The Scotts are charmed by this, and try to come to Wantage every winter. “It’s lovely at Christmas time,” Gwendolyn says. “I get out all my traditions and we have a great big Advent party for all the Wantage Fellows. Not everyone eats, of course, but everyone can come because there aren’t any other Advent parties competing. The whole thing seemed a bit Jewish at first. But we hardly notice any more.”

The kids walk past the barn, now the Center library, and the other cottages. They climb over the low stone wall and jump into the orchard. “A rabbit!” gasps Naomi. She points to a tiny gray rabbit with quivering ears startled from under an apple tree’s gnarled roots. Naomi moves toward it slowly and takes it up in her hands. The rabbit sits in her cupped hands paralyzed with fear. “It’s a girl rabbit,” Naomi announces without looking. “And her name is Shlomit.” “It means peace,” she explains to the visiting Americans.

_____________

 

After the Markowitzes have gone, Geulah gathers up the wash in her wicker basket and walks to the gray stone horse stalls at the side of the manor which now house the washing machines. Red roses cover the stalls outside, and inside iron rings still lie embedded in the stone. Tiki Sofer is folding towels from a pile on the drier.

“Hi,” she says briskly.

“I didn’t know you did laundry, Tiki.” Geulah has heard Tiki expound on domestic philosophy.

“I take my turn. You should put your husband on the rotation system. Why slave? I learned that from watching Yemeni women. Even in America they want to kill themselves. I say, look—they want peeled vegetables, I’ll buy them peeled. Diced? I’ll get prediced from Birdseye. They want child care? I’ll send the kids to day care.”

“I’m not like you,” Geulah says defensively. “My children are a full-time occupation. Their needs come first.”

Ima—Mummy!” calls Naomi running into the laundry stall. She holds out the baby rabbit in her hands. “Ima, we have to take her in.”

“Please, Ima,” says Ezra. “We’ll keep her in our room. Her name is Shlomit the Rabbit.”

_____________

 

Jonathan Collins’s worst fears gain substance that afternoon when he sees Frankel drive up with the American fund-raiser and his multimillionaire find. As Jonathan watches at the library window, the fund-raiser emerges from the car. He is a tall, bony man wearing white pleated pants and a sapphire-blue silk shirt unbuttoned at the chest. He carries a small leather purse under his arm. “Oh, my God, my God,” Jonathan gasps in real horror. “Is he a pansy, or is he just American?” A woman in a red silk dress follows the fund-raiser. She wraps her arm around the American’s waist and whispers something into his ear. The couple help an elderly man out of the car. He walks bent and wispy-haired toward the stone manor steps. Frankel pops out, looks around for McBride, and then opens the trunk to carry the suitcases himself.

Jonathan turns away from the window miserably. He picks up a copy of the Economist and tries to read. He puts it down again. What will become of the Center? Can Frankel really be that desperate? He’ll give it to the Americans and they’ll send their students over. Girls taking their junior year abroad. The old man will die and the Americans will take on the trust, carve up the lands. Start high-tech concessions.

“This is the library,” says Frankel, opening the door grandly. “Oh, Jonathan! What a pleasure! Jonathan, I’d like you to meet Terrence and Pat Glueck from Miami. And this is Mr. Armistead Buchsbaum, also a Miamian. Mr. Buchsbaum, Jonathan is one of our treasures here at Wantage—an anthropologist doing marvelous things with the study of fundamentalism in the Middle East. I think he’s taught us all how much common ground there is for extremists qua extremists. Jonathan, Terrence was up at Oxford a bit before your time.”

“What did you read?” Jonathan asks Terrence.

“I’m an art historian,” Terrence answers with unaffected boredom. “I focus on the Mannerists.”

“You all make me feel terribly unacademic,” Pat asserts comfortably.

“Oh, heavens,” Jonathan moans after they have left. She must be an orthodontist. The American Dream: stainless-steel teeth. They’ll hollow out the Center and fill it with silver.

_____________

 

That evening two desk lights shine in the library. At one desk, Ed Markowitz is revising his lecture for Thursday—“Gathering Storm: The Bekaa Air Strikes.” At the other desk, Sarah is revising part three of her novel, about a woman named Rachel Meyers who grew up in the 1950′s in New York and studied English at Barnard. After she moves to California with her husband, Bob, Rachel finishes her Masters at UCLA. The job market is tight, and Rachel takes a job on a research grant with a group of linguists evading the draft. By the end of the 70′s the soft money is gone and Rachel takes time off to paint. She joins a painting group and starts discussing her work with others. Friends urge her to develop her talent, but she decides to go back to school and finish her Ph.D. in English. With Bob’s support, she does this. After she has earned her Ph.D. she leaves the field to paint full time.

“Sarah,” Ed looks up from his desk. “We’re going to have to do something about my mother.”

“You make it sound like euthanasia.”

“No, no. I mean you’re going to have to take her to see Henry.”

“Why me?” Sarah unscrews the parts of her ballpoint. “He’s not my brother.”

“But she’s been kvetching about it all day: I only came to England to see Henry. I must see my son.”

“Then you should take her, Ed. How is Henry going to feel if his sister-in-law brings her? He knows we’re all here.”

“I can’t go to that house.”

“You mean you won’t.”

“No, I can’t. And don’t do that to your pen. You’re getting ink all over.”

“Don’t tell me what to do with my pen. I want to know why you can’t take your own mother to visit your own brother. You don’t have to stay very long.”

“Can’t do it. I’m allergic to that house.”

“You are not.”

“Yes I am. Look, don’t use that tone of voice with me.”

“You don’t have any allergies,” Sarah reminds him.

“Yes I do. It’s just that I’m allergic to very rare things that we don’t have in Georgetown.”

“Like what?”

“Cracked leather bindings, moldy shmattes from the 17th century, old wine with cork fragments.”

“You mean you’re allergic to his whole lifestyle,” Sarah huffs. “I think that’s extremely insensitive.”

_____________

 

In the end they decide to take Henry on neutral ground. Henry will meet them at the boat races with all the kids and the Ben-Zions. Grandma will be happy, and Ed can escape his allergies in the open air.

The Markowitzes rent another Fiat for the overflow of kids. After long and violent disputes, the oldest daughter, Miriam, gets to drive it. Miriam secures this right by convincing Naomi Ben-Zion that Shlomit the rabbit doesn’t want to go to the races.

The day is hot, the lines long. Students drink beer in Edwardian clothes. The men are dressed as usual, but many of the women wear long skirts and white starched blouses with high collars and muttonchop sleeves. They sport straw boaters with wide ribbon bands. One woman with her hair piled up wears a blue dress with a bustle and carries a parasol. The Markowitzes meet Henry in front of the boat house of St. Edmund Hall, Teddy Hall as it is called.

“Darlings!” Henry cries and runs toward them with wet kisses. He wears a Greek fisherman’s cap incongruously small on his large domed head. “Mother!” Henry beams. “You’re looking well!”

“As well as can be expected,” sighs Rose.

“Children!” Henry moves on. “Tell me everything!”

“I’m at Georgetown,” Miriam begins.

“She’s doing very well,” Sarah continues. “And Ben will also be going to Georgetown in the fall.”

“Are you still playing that tuba?” Henry asks Yehudit.

“Sax,” she corrects.

“She just made the Northwest Washington select band. And Avi got the Most Improved award in all of high-school gym.”

“Mom,” Avi groans.

“And who are these young people?” Henry points to Scott and Noam who watch the oarsmen carry the boats down the cleated boathouse ramp to the river.

“The boys brought their friends, Scott and Noam.”

“Hey,” says Scott.

“ ‘ts-happenin’,” says Noam.

Ed appears, having found a parking space.

Henry takes Ed’s hand and presses it between his own. He looks into Ed’s eyes and says, “You mean a lot to me.”

“Uh, yeah,” says Ed and laughs at himself like a bad stand-up comedian. “You look well,” Ed says.

“I feel good.” Henry clings to Ed’s hand. “I’ve decided to be happy. I’ve decided; it’s really a conscious decision like deciding to go to the theater or switch analysts.”

“Is that what you’ve done?” asks Ed.

“What have I done?” Henry echoes. “Is that what you’re asking? Well, I went to Stratford and saw Romeo and Juliet. You really must go. They did it as an episode from Miami Vice. With the commercials. It was just astounding technically, especially the use of the rock video for the Queen Mab speech. Yes, it was incoherent, but the fragments added up to a sort of anarchic realization of pattern. And it was also a real indictment of American society.”

“It sounds terrible,” says Ed.

“Oh, it was terrible, but after all, that was the point. The ass in the Times headlined his review: More Pity Than Terror. But I personally thought that was just his bit of egoistic fun. Obviously a theater critic has read Aristotle, but the fact that he has to prove it so vulgarly really speaks to us about the educational system. But I’m telling you this, Ed, because I think you should go—as a student of violence.”

“A student of terrorism,” Ed corrects as they follow the Ben-Zions to the bridge.

“Well, it’s the same thing,” Henry eases.

“No it is not, Henry.” Ed’s face reddens. “It’s a valid cultural expression.” How could the two of them possibly be brothers, he wonders.

Henry takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. Ed’s opinions always make him ill.

The starting gun fires and the boats pulse forward, oar blades skimming the water.

On the other side of the bridge stand Terrence Glueck and his wife Pat. “Darling,” Pat says. “Do you really think old Armistead is going to give a million to the Center? It’s not very hope-of-the-next-generation looking. I haven’t seen any students.”

“They’re working,” says Terrence.

“In their little garrets,” Pat muses. “Manual typewriters. If I were Frankel I’d get the whole place Wanged. Wang gives matching funds and they would have some word-processing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Terrence asserts. “Armistead Buchsbaum doesn’t know from high-tech. Frankel has charm and English teas, and Oxford stumble in his voice.”

“Well, I think that before Buchsbaum pops off, he’s going to give it all to the Cancer Society or the Lung Association.”

“He doesn’t have any major diseases.”

“Then he’ll give it to the osteoporosis fund.”

“Oh, Pat, don’t be morbid. He’s going to live a long time and give the money here. And we’ll have a nice little Chair at Wantage for the summers. Without the children.”

“I wonder how they’re doing with Mrs. Lopez.” Pat gets out her binoculars to watch the faraway boats.

“I wonder how Mrs. Lopez is doing with them.”

_____________

 

The weeks pass, and the Markowitz kids take over the television room to watch the Wimbledon matches. “It’s live,” says Ben. “It’s there,” says Noam.

Ed Markowitz delivers his weekly lectures on terrorism in the paneled ballroom. He has the largest audience of any summer fellow: a core number of seven and a half people (Rose comes about half the time) plus an occasional student. Sarah has finished revising her novel. Despite the fact that the heroine’s mother-in-law, Iris, comes to live with the family, Rachel’s future as a painter is assured. In the Orangery, Shlomit has grown from a tiny ball of fluff into an enormous gray jack rabbit. She shreds her newspaper, knocks over her water dish, and thumps across the carpet leaving behind a trail of brown pellets.

_____________

 

On the day of her lecture, “The Novelist as Peacemaker of Nations,” Yaffa walks with McBride in the orchard.

“Why will you not come to hear me?” she asks, gripping his arm.

“I don’t want to come.”

“It’s Her,” Yaffa thunders.

“No.”

“Someone else.” Yaffa holds him by the shoulders and stares into his eyes.

“No. I have to go into town and rent chairs for the anniversary lunch.”

“They exploit you,” Yaffa whispers. “Let’s run away. I would sleep on the moors.”

McBride looks at her, puzzled. “You’re a funny girl, Yoff.”

“It’s crazy,” she hisses. “They walk on you.”

“They pay me.”

“You no longer want to leave.” Yaffa’s black nylon skirt catches on the rough bark of an apple tree.

McBride says dreamily, “What I really fancy is a ladies’ hairdressing shop.”

“A hair shop! A head shop! You want to finger ladies’ hair after I leave! You have no money!”

McBride smiles. “I’m going to hock the silver tray Frankel gives me for ten years of service.”

“The Novelist as Peacemaker of Nations.” Yaffa pronounces the title of her lecture slowly. Then she throws up her hands and cries, “What can the novelist do?”

She clasps her hands behind her and paces the floor as some members of the audience scribble, “novelist peacemaker nations,” and others note down, “what can novelist do?”

Yaffa stands against the dark wood paneling and continues. “What can she do but work and learn, developing her own work in the singular experience that is her own? I can only tell you the method of my own. The life of my own days. The novel is a thing of work and blood. A love-child of mysterious parent. The birth is long. A longing for the soul to speak to a companion. A desire great like the lust of the crops in the earth.”

Frankel creeps into the back row to take full-length pictures.

“And,” continues Yaffa, “the novel is a tension, an inner fight of split identities. Rain and Piss. Stream and Consciousness. Dream and Illusion. Pregnancy and Barrenness. Woman and Male.”

The Markowitz kids slump drowsily by the end. Ben’s friend, Scott, lies with his head thrown back, Adam’s apple exposed on his long neck.

“Ms. Yehuda-Yardeni,” Sarah Markowitz asks during the quiet question period, “how valuable do you find the writing-workshop experience?”

In-valuable,” Yaffa spits disdainfully.

Sarah writes in her notebook: “workshops invaluable.”

_____________

 

That night, McBride directs the caterers as they set up white tables in the great hall for the Wantage dinner honoring Armistead Buchsbaum’s visit and his lifelong commitment to peace. McBride sets out placecards according to Frankel’s seating chart. Ian and Gwendolyn Scott sit with Tiki Sofer and Itzhak Tapuz. Dr. Ben-Zion the Arabist sits next to Dr. Markowitz, and the Gluecks of Miami sit with Buchsbaum and Frankel at the head of the table.

At dinner Terrence Glueck talks to Frankel with earnest rapidity. “You see, what we’ll do next year is have the same dinner, same food, but for 200 pounds a head.”

“Dear me,” says Frankel. “I certainly wouldn’t pay 200 pounds for a bit of trout. Though it is superb,” he smiles up at McBride who serves the fish with heavy silver tongs.

“No, no. That’s not it at all,” says Terrence. “The 200 is a donation to the Center; it’s not really for the food. Maybe ten pounds for the food. That’s the way it’s done in America. You’d need more tables, of course. Then if you want to make it a real gala, charge 300 pounds. Open up the ballroom for dancing. Wine-tasting on the tennis courts. Cash bar in the Blue Room. Strolling violinists. If you sent out a mailing you’d be in good shape. You’ll have to cull your list and put together a group of donors good for 500 pounds or more.”

Frankel stares at Terrence. “It sounds rather frightening.”

“Just a matter of organization,” says Terrence. “I hope you have someone working on bequests.”

Armistead Buchsbaum looks up vaguely and mutters, “Good fish.”

At the other end of the table, McBride takes a trout in his tongs and says, “Well, Yoff, do you want it with the head?”

After McBride clears the dishes away, Frankel stands up and taps his spoon against his glass. “All of us at Wantage would like to welcome and honor Armistead BuchsbaUm, one of the newest, and we hope soon to be one of the closest friends of Wantage in America. And surely one of the greatest friends of peace in the world. He is a man who has visited India and Russia and served as an ambassador of peace in his position as one of the most prominent leaders of the world’s scrap-metal trade, both ferrous and non-ferrous. Accompanying Mr. Buchsbaum are his two young friends and fellow Miamians, Terrence and Patricia Glueck, new, and we hope frequent, visitors to Wantage. . . .”

McBride appears in the doorway with a tray of key lime pie slices. Yaffa’s eyes brim with angry tears.

Frankel continues, “In honor of these three distinguished guests, I would like to propose a toast: to peace in the Middle East, an end to war among nations, and better understanding through culture—and, as Ms. Yardeni showed us so eloquently. . . .”

The sight of McBride serving pie is too much for Yaffa. That magnificent body stooping to serve Geulah Ben-Zion! Yaffa can bear it no longer. She pushes back her chair and rushes from the room.

“Oh dear, oh dear!” gasps Frankel. “The poor girl. Is she ill? Should someone go after her?”

“Contact lens trouble,” Gwendolyn Scott murmurs.

“No, no,” Tiki tells Gwendolyn. “She is lusting for him.”

“Who?” whispers Gwendolyn, laughing.

“The old lech, McBride,” Tiki answers, more loudly than she intended.

“Oh God, Tiki,” gasps Gwendolyn. “You’re such a card.”

“But he is a magnificent specimen,” Geulah

sighs as she watches McBride pick up a fallen fork. Geulah glares at her bullet-headed husband who eats placidly, allowing Ed Markowitz’s insights about Libya to float by him.

“I wish Yaffa’s books were in English,” Sarah Markowitz tells Geulah.

“Oh, it’s all rubbish,” Geulah sniffs. “She has written no good books since the first one. Now that book was a work of genius. Induction Currents. That was takeh a best-seller. Not a cheap best-seller. A real seller of excellence. That book had a power—men just could not understand it. It had new ways of writing Hebrew never done before. That was a book. But now? She has nothing. Nothing.”

Jonathan picks at his pie miserably. He watches Terrence Glueck draw out a plan for the Wantage campaign on a cocktail napkin. “Well,” Jonathan says to Frankel’s wife, “exciting new developments for the Center, eh?”

Mrs. Frankel spoons in more pie. “Hmm,” she replies. “About time, I’d say. Dick has done enough. I’ve told him time and again he should leave the administration to an administrator. Dick has his own books to write.”

Jonathan groans. “You don’t really think this Glueck is going to take over the Center?”

“We can only hope and pray he does,” sighs Mrs. Frankel. “You know, Dick originally wanted to live here in the manor! Like living above the shop!”

McBride finishes serving the pie, but takes Yaffa’s piece back to the kitchen and eats it himself.

_____________

 

The following Thursday, Ed delivers his last lecture on terrorism. The lecture is a special layman’s summary for Armistead Buchsbaum and a tour group of senior citizens from Temple Beth Shalom in Cleveland, Ohio. Ed begins his lecture: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” He looks up mildly at his audience. Suddenly Tiki Sofer stands up.

“I object!” she screams.

Ed sighs. “I assumed,” he says, “that I wouldn’t have to delve into relativist methodology. All right, let’s backtrack. Let’s take a look at what cultural relativism means. When a man. . . .”

“I object,” Tiki repeats, still standing. “I object to you using the male noun.”

“Oh, I see,” says Ed, relieved. “Thank you. I was afraid we were going to have to deal with some epistemological stuff, here. Well, there you go. All right, once more with feeling. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

_____________

 

After the applause, the Markowitzes pile into the two rented cars and drive off to the Cotswolds. “A picnic in the fields,” Rose sighs. “This is what I came for.”

“I thought you came to see Henry,” Sarah teases.

“Henry? Never. He just came to see me only a few months ago. He knows that I don’t like to travel.”

They spend the day spreading out food and picnic blankets and then packing up to move as cows graze closer. Rose sits on a folding chair and falls asleep under a tree. The kids drive off in one of the cars in search of ice cream. As the sun sets, the Markowitzes walk along the river and watch the swans.

_____________

 

It is late when the family returns. Ed gets into bed, pulls up the covers, and falls asleep.

In the distance a telephone rings. Thudding sounds on the door and a woman’s husky voice. Sarah shakes Ed awake. Yaffa stands, back-lighted in the hallway. “It’s long distance. The public radio in America. They are calling for Edward Markowitz.”

Ed stumbles out of bed to the bathroom. Splashes water on his face. He pulls up his pajama bottoms and runs to the telephone in the common room.

“Hello. Hello,” he says.

“Hello, Professor Markowitz? This is Peter Henkey in Washington from National Public Radio. We’ve been discussing tonight’s hijacking with several specialists and we would like to ask you for your insights. I understand you are at work on a book about terrorism.”

“Yes. I am,” Ed replies in a clear voice as he gropes frantically for a copy of the Times.

“Well, Professor, as you know, the hijackers have allegedly killed three and wounded eleven. The terrorists claim to be members of the radical Shiite group, Black December. How would you describe the mind of a Shiite terrorist to our American listening audience?”

Ed shakes himself. “Perhaps the most important motive for a Shiite terrorist is his belief in the rise of Islam through jihad. This term is commonly mistranslated as ‘Holy War,’ but the actual meaning of the Arabic word is moral struggle. As for the mind of the guerrilla fighter, I would like to stress that terrorist tactics are not necessarily implied in Arab culture. It is a dangerous oversimplification to say. . . .”

“Yes. Now, we understand that the two young men on Flight 52 have no other supporters in the plane. The captain reports three passengers have been shot in three hours by one young man, while the other guards the plane. Very briefly, what further developments do you envision?”

Ed feels suddenly nauseated. It must be the mayonnaise from that chicken salad.

“Professor Markowitz?”

Ed’s stomach tightens. He needs to get to the bathroom. Nevertheless he clutches the phone and continues. “We must first take a closer look at what terrorism means on a level deeper than the ideological—the human level, if you will. . . .”

But the caller interrupts. “Thank you, Professor

Markowitz. That was Professor Edward Markowitz, expert on terrorism from Georgetown University.”

Ed hangs up and takes two Pepto-Bismol tablets. He climbs back into bed, a pillow under his stomach. He feels fat and soft and angry with himself. Always overeating, oversleeping, overachieving.

_____________

 

The day of the garden party is clear and cool. The maids lay out the tables with petits-fours and chocolate-covered strawberries.

Tiki follows the girls, questioning and taping them with her little black machine. “English oral histories,” she writes home to her husband. “I’ve found publishable material. This Jonathan Collins has to go to Hawaii, Albania; and I find data under his own nose!”

“Who told you about the ghost in the manor?” she asks a maid.

“My mum.”

“Who told her?”

The garden fills with people. The Markowitz kids mob the tables. The Ben-Zion kids clutch their sprawling jack rabbit. Yaffa arrives all in white. She wears a white lace dress, white stockings, white shoes, and long white gloves. McBride pinches her behind the punch table. “Yoff,” he tells her, “this is my last day. They’re going to give me a silver tray and I’m going to hock it.”

“We’ll hock together,” Yaffa whispers.

Women in silk dresses gather in little groups, spike heels sinking into the turf. The American and English men wear three-piece suits. Gavriel Ben-Zion feels awkward with all this formality. He wears a long-sleeved white shirt open at the collar. He makes his way to Tapuz who wears a clean khaki jacket. Gavriel looks the playwright up and down. Jacket, pants, new shoes, champagne flute in his hand.

“Bialik,” he says, saluting him with the name of the Olympian poet of modern Hebrew.

Eyes glittering, Tapuz clicks his heels and bows before returning the name of the Shelley to Bialik’s Keats: “Tchernichowsky.”

Rose Markowitz pulls Sarah by the elbow during Frankel’s anniversary address. “I feel ill,” she says. “I can’t bear crowds.”

Sarah guides her to a chair as Frankel concludes, “Peace is an elusive quality. One which seems, at this point in our culture, almost ineffable, impossible to grasp. Only through scholarship, I submit, can peace become graspable, effable, if you will.”

The audience applauds and Frankel continues, “Like peace, the subject of funding has always been problematic. I know I am among friends today, and so I can confess I have a little list.” He puts on his reading glasses and unfolds a piece of paper.

“As the Center director, I am a bit of a

librarian, a bit of a housekeeper, and so I’ve compiled a wish list I thought you could help me with. First on the list—and you must excuse me mentioning this just after eating—new toilets for the first-floor lavatories.”

“Oh, my God,” shudders Terrence Glueck to the man next to him. “The Center needs a program, a major gifts committee, a fund-drive, leadership! He just never learns.”

“No,” Jonathan Collins agrees happily.

Naomi Ben-Zion begins to cry. Shlomit has jumped out of her arms and run away.

“Naomi, you are nine years old,” Geulah scolds. “And high time the rabbit goes. She’s too big, and she ransacks the house.”

“Oh, Shlomit,” Naomi wails. “She was such a sweet rabbit.”

Ed sees Shlomit dash behind the punch table. He jumps up and tears after her.

“Oh, Ed!” Geulah tries to call him back.

“Don’t worry,” laughs Sarah, “He won’t catch her.”

Frankel presents McBride with his silver tray engraved in huge script letters:

For Lt. C.P. McBride
On the Tenth Anniversary
of the
Wantage Center
for
Arab-Jewish Relations
in recognition and gratitude
for his ten years
of
Outstanding Service

“Mm,” smiles Tiki, “He can’t sell that with the whole citation.” And just at that moment, Ed appears red-faced and panting from his run around the garden and entanglement with a tablecloth. Even he cannot quite believe he holds Shlomit in his arms.

“My rabbit!” screams Naomi.

Many years later, Ed would still remember the look of disappointment on Geulah’s face.

_____________

 

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