Dear Nachman, he wrote. I know it was you I saw on 8th St. last Monday. Running away from me. Moses Herzog’s face darkened. It was you. My friend nearly forty years ago—playmates on Napoleon Street. The Montreal slums. In a beatnik cap, on the razzle-dazzle street of lion-bearded homosexuals wearing green eye paint, there, suddenly, was Herzog’s childhood playmate. A heavy nose, hair white, thick unclean glasses. The stooped poet took one look at Moses and ran away. On gaunt legs, under urgent pressure, he fled to the other side of the street. He turned up his collar and stared into the window of the cheese shop. Nachman! Did you think I’d ask for the money you owe me? I wrote that off, long ago. It meant very little to me, in Paris after the War. I had it then.
Nachman had come to Europe to write poetry. He was living in the Arab slum on rue St. Jacques. Herzog was installed in comfort on the rue Marbeuf. Wrinkled and dirty, Nachman, his nose red from weeping, his creased face the face of a dying man, appeared at Herzog’s door one morning.
“Moses, they’ve taken my wife away—my little Laura.”
“Wait a minute—what’s up?” Herzog was perhaps a little cold, then, repelled by such excesses.
“Her father. The old man from the floor-covering business. Spirited her away. The old Sorcerer. She’ll die without me. The child can’t bear life without me. And I can’t live without her. I’ve got to get back to New York.”
“Come in. Come in. We can’t talk in this lousy hallway.”
Nachman entered the little drawing room. It was a furnished apartment in the style of the 20’s—spitefully correct. Nachman seemed hesitant to sit down, in his gutter-stained pants. “I’ve been to all the lines already. There’s space on the Hollandia tomorrow. Lend me dough or I’m ruined. You’re my only friend in Paris.”
Honestly, I thought you’d be better off in America.
Nachman and Laura had been wandering up and down Europe sleeping in ditches in the Rimbaud country, reading Van Gogh’s letters aloud to each other—Rilke’s poems. Laura was not too strong in the head, either. She was thin, soft-faced, the corners of her pale mouth turned down. She caught the flu in Belgium.
“I’ll pay you every penny.” Nachman wrung his hands. His fingers had grown knobby—rheumatic. His face was coarse—slack from illness, suffering, and absurdity.
I felt it would be cheaper in the long run to send you back to New York. In Paris I was stuck with you. You see, I don’t pretend that I was altruistic. Perhaps, thought Herzog, the sight of me frightened him. Have I changed even more than he has? Was Nachman horrified to see Moses? But we did play in the street together. I learned the aleph-beth from your father, Reb Shika.
Nachman’s family lived in the yellow tenement just opposite. Five years old, Moses crossed Napoleon Street. Up the wooden staircase with slanted, warped treads. Cats shrank into corners or bolted softly upstairs. Their dry turds crumbled in the darkness with a spicy odor. Reb Shika had a yellow color, Mongolian, a tiny handsome man. He wore a black satin skullcap, a mustache like Lenin’s. His narrow chest was clad in a winter undershirt—Penman’s woolens. The Bible lay open on the coarse table cover. Moses clearly saw the Hebrew characters—Dmai Ochicho—the blood of thy brother. Yes, that was it. God speaking to Cain. Thy brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth.
At eight, Moses and Nachman shared a bench in the cellar of the synagogue. The pages of the Pentateuch smelled of mildew, the boys’ sweaters were damp. The rabbi, short-bearded, his soft big nose violently pitted with black, scolding them. “You, Rozavitch, you slacker. What does it say here about Potiphar’s wife, Va’tispesayu b’vigdo. . .”
“And she took hold of . . .”
“Of what? Beged.”
“Beged. A coat.”
“A garment, you little thief. Mamzer! I’m sorry for your father. Some heir he’s got! Some Kaddish! Ham and pork you’ll be eating, before his body is in the grave. And you, Herzog, with those beheimah eyes—Va’yaazov bigdo b’yodo.”
“And he left it in her hands.”
“Bigdo, the garment.”
“You watch your step, Herzog, Moses. Your mother thinks you’ll be a great lamden—a. rabbi. But I know you, how lazy you are. Mothers’ hearts are broken by mamzeirim like you! Eh! Do I know you, Herzog? Through and through.”
The only refuge was the W.C., where the disinfectant camphor balls dwindled in the green trough of the urinal, and old men came down from the shul with webby eyes nearly blind, sighing, grumbing snatches of liturgy as they waited for the water to come. Urine-rusted brass, scaly green. In an open stall, pants dropped to his feet, sat Nachman playing the harmonica. “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.” “Love Sends a Little Gift of Roses.” The peak of his cap was warped. You heard the saliva in the cells of the tin instrument as he sucked and blew. The bowler-hatted elders washed their hands, gave their beards a finger-combing. Moses observed them.
Almost certainly, Nachman ran away from the power of his old friend’s memory. Herzog persecuted everyone with it. It was like a terrible engine.
Last time we met—how many years ago was that? I went with you to visit Laura. Laura was then in an insane asylum. Herzog and Nachman had transferred at six or seven corners. It was a thousand bus stops out on Long Island. In the hospital the women in green cotton dresses wandered in the corridors on soft shoes, murmuring. Laura had bandaged wrists. It was her third suicide attempt that Moses knew of. She sat in a corner, holding her breasts in her arms, wanting to talk of French literature only. Her face was moony, lips however moving quickly. Moses had to agree with what he understood nothing of—the shape of Valéry’s images.
Then he and Nachman left, toward sunset. They crossed the cement yard after an autumn rainfall. From the building, a crowd of ghosts in green uniforms watched the visitors depart. Laura, at the grill, raised her taped wrist, a wan hand. Good-by. Her long thin mouth silently said, Good-by, good-by The straight hair fell beside her cheeks—a stiff childish figure with female swellings. Nachman was hoarsely saying: “My innocent darling. My bride. They’ve put her away, the grim ones, the machers—our masters. Imprisoned her. As if to love me proved she was mad. But I shall be strong enough to protect our love,” said gaunt, furrowed Nachman. His cheeks were sunken. Under the eyes his skin was yellow.
“Why does she keep trying to kill herself?” said Moses.
“The persecution of her family. What do you think? The bourgeois world of Westchester! Wedding announcements, linens, charge accounts, that was what her mother and father expected of her. But this is a pure soul that understands only pure things. She is a stranger here. The family only wants to part us. In New York we were wanderers too. When I came back—thanks to you, and I’ll repay you, I’ll work!—we didn’t have money to rent a room. How could I take a job? Who would look after her? So friends gave us shelter. Food. A cot to lie down. To make love.”
Herzog was very curious, but he merely said, “Oh?”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone but you, old friend. We had to take care. In our ecstasies we had to warn each other to be more moderate. It was like a holy act—we mustn’t make the gods jealous. . . .” Nachman spoke in a throbbing, droning voice. “Good-by, my blessed spirit—my dear one. Good-by.” He blew kisses at the window with painful sweetness.
On the way to the bus, he went on lecturing in his unreal way, fervent and dull. “So back of it all is bourgeois America. This is a crude world of finery and excrement. A proud, lazy civilization that worships its own boorishness. You and I were brought up in the old poverty. I don’t know how American you’ve become since the old days in Canada—you’ve lived here a long time. But I will never worship the fat gods. Not I. I’m no Marxist, you know. I keep my heart with William Blake and Rilke. But a man like Laura’s father! You understand! Las Vegas, Miami Beach. They wanted Laura to catch a husband at the Fountainblue, a husband with money. At the edge of doom, beside the last grave of mankind, they will still be counting their paper. Praying over their balance sheets. . . .” Nachman went on with boring persistent power. He had lost teeth, and his jaw was smaller, his gray cheeks were bristly. Herzog could still see him as he had been at six. In fact he could not dismiss his vision of the two Nachmans, side by side. And it was the child with his fresh face, the smiling gap in his front teeth, the buttoned blouse and the short pants that was real, not this gaunt apparition of crazy lecturing Nachman. “Perhaps,” he was saying, “people wish life to end. They have polluted it. Courage, honor, frankness, friendship, duty, all made filthy. Sullied. So that we loathe the daily bread that prolongs useless existence. There was a time when men were born, lived, and died. But do you call these men? We are only creatures. Death himself must be tired of us. I can see Death coming before God to say, ‘What shall I do? There is no more grandeur in being Death. Release me, God, from this meanness.’”
“It isn’t as bad as you make out, Nachman,” Moses remembered answering. “Most people are unpoetical, and you consider this a betrayal.”
“Well, childhood friend, you have learned to accept a mixed condition of life. But I have had visions of judgment. I see mainly the obstinacy of cripples. We do not love ourselves, but persist in stubbornness. Each man is stubbornly, stubbornly himself. Above all himself, to the end of time. Each of these creatures has some secret quality, and for this quality he is prepared to do anything. He will turn the universe upside down, but he will not deliver his quality to anyone else. Sooner let the world turn to drifting powder. This is what my poems are about. You don’t think highly of my New Psalms. You’re blind, old friend.”
“But a good man, Moses. Rooted in yourself. But a good heart. Like your mother. A gentle spirit. You got it from her. I was hungry and she fed me. She washed my hands and sat me at the table. That I remember. She was the only one who was kind to my Uncle Ravitch, the drunkard. I sometimes say a prayer for her.”
Yizkor Elohim es nishmas imi . . . the soul of my mother.
“She’s been dead a long time.”
“And I pray for you, Moses.”
The bus on giant tires advanced through sunset-colored puddles over leaves, ailanthus twigs. Its route was interminable, through the low, brick, suburban, populous vastness.
But fifteen years later, on 8th Street, Nachman ran away. He looked old, derelict, stooped, crooked as he sprinted to the cheese shop. Where is his wife? He must have beat it to avoid explanations. His mad sense of decency told him to shun such an encounter. Or has he forgotten everything? Or would he be glad to forget it? But I, with my memory—all the dead and the mad are in my custody, and I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten. I bind others to my feelings, and oppress them.
Was Ravitch actually your uncle, or only a landtsman? I was never certain.
Ravitch boarded with the Herzogs on Napoleon Street. Like a tragic actor of the Yiddish stage, with a straight drunken nose and a bowler pressing on the veins of his forehead, Ravitch, in an apron, worked at the fruit store near Rachel Street in 1922. There at the market in zero weather he was sweeping a mixed powder of sawdust and snow. The window was covered with large ferns of frost, and against it pressed the piled blood-oranges and russet apples. And that was melancholy Ravitch, red with drink and cold. The project of his life was to send for his family, a wife and two children who were still in Russia. He’d have to find them first, for they were lost during the Revolution. Now and then he soberly cleaned himself up and went to the Hebrew Immigrants’ Aid Society to make an inquiry. But nothing ever happened. He drank his pay—a shicker. No one judged himself more harshly. When he came out of the saloon he stood wavering in the street, directing traffic, falling among horses and trucks in the slush. The police were tired of throwing him in the drunk tank. They brought him home, to Herzog’s hallway, and pushed him in. Ravitch, late at night, sang on the freezing stairs in a sobbing voice.
Alein, alein, alein, alein
Elend vie a shtein
Mit die tzen finger—alein
Jonah Herzog got out of bed and turned on the light in the kitchen, listening. He wore a Russian sleeping suit of linen with a pleated front, the last of his gentleman’s wardrobe from Petersburg. The stove was out, and Moses, in the same bed with Willie and Shura, sat up, the three of them, under the lumpy wads of the quilt, looking at their father. He stood under the bulb, which had a spike at the end like a German helmet. The large loose twist of tungsten filament blazed. Annoyed and pitying, Father Herzog, with his round head and brown mustache, looked upward. The straight groove between his eyes came and went. He nodded and mused.
Alone, alone, alone, alone
Solitary as a stone
With my ten fingers—alone
Mother Herzog spoke from her room, “Yonah—help him in.”
“All right,” said Father Herzog, but he waited.
“Yonah . . . It’s a pity.”
“Pity on us, too,” said Father Herzog. “Damn it. You sleep, you’re free from misery awhile, and he wakes you up. A Jewish drunkard! He can’t even do that right. Why can’t he be freilich and cheerful when he drinks, eh? No, he has to cry and tear your heartstrings. Well, curse him.” Half laughing, Father Herzog cursed the heartstrings, too. “It’s enough that I have to rent a room to a miserable shicker.”
Al tastir ponecho mimeni
I’m broke without a penny.
Do not hide Thy countenance from us
Vich nobody can deny.
Ravitch, tuneless and persistent, cried in the black, frozen staircase.
Lo mir trinken a glesele vi-ine
Al tastir ponecho mimeni
I’m broke without a penny
Vich nobody can deny.
Father Herzog, silent and wry, laughed under his breath.
“Yonah—I beg you. Genug schon.”
“Oh, give him time. Why should I schlepp out my guts.”
“He’ll wake the whole street.”
“He’ll be covered with vomit, his pants filled.”
But he went. He pitied Ravitch, too, though Ravitch was one of the symbols of his changed condition. In Petersburg there were servants. In Russia, Father Herzog had been a gentleman. With forged papers of the First Guild. But many gentlemen lived on forged papers.
The children still gazed into the empty kitchen. The black cookstove against the wall, extinct; the double gas ring connected by rubber pipe to the meter. A Japanese reed mat protected the wall from cooking stains.
It amused the boys to hear how their father coaxed drunken Ravitch to get on his feet. It was family theater. “Nu, landtsman? Can you walk? It’s freezing. Now, get your crooked feet on the step—schneller, schneller.” He laughed with his bare breath. “Well, I think we’ll leave your dreckische pants out here. Phew!” The boys pressed together in the cold, smiling.
Papa supported him through the kitchen—Ravitch in his filthy drawers, the red face, dropped hands, the bowler, the drunken grief of his closed eyes.
As for my late unlucky father, J. Herzog, he was not a big man, one of the small-boned Herzogs, finely made, round-headed, keen, nervous, handsome. In his frequent bursts of temper he slapped his sons swiftly with both hands. He did everything quickly, neatly, with skillful Eastern European flourishes: combing his hair, buttoning his shirt, stropping his bone-handled razors, sharpening pencils on the ball of his thumb, holding a loaf of bread to his breast and slicing toward himself, tying parcels with tight little knots, jotting like an artist in his account book. There each canceled page was covered with a carefully drawn X. The Is and 7s carried bars and streamers. They were like pennants in the wind of failure. First Father Herzog failed in Petersburg, where he went through two dowries in one year. He had been importing onions from Egypt. Under Pobedonostsev the police caught up with him for illegal residence. He was convicted and sentenced. The account of the trial was published in a Russian journal printed on thick green paper. Father Herzog sometimes unfolded it and read aloud to the entire family, translating the proceedings against Ilyona Isakovitch Gerzog. He never served his sentence. He got away. Because he was nervy, hasty, obstinate, rebellious. He came to Canada, where his sister Zipporah Yaffe was living.
In 1913 he bought a piece of land near Valley-field, Quebec, and failed as a farmer. Then he came into town and failed as a baker; failed in the dry-goods business; failed as a jobber; failed as a sack manufacturer in the War, when no one else failed. He failed as a junk dealer. Then he became a marriage broker and failed—too short-tempered and blunt. And now he was failing as a bootlegger, on the run from the provincial Liquor Commission. Making a bit of a living.
In haste and defiantly, with a clear tense face, walking with mingled desperation and high style, a little awkwardly dropping his weight on one heel as he went, his coat, once lined with fox, turned dry and bald, the red hide cracking. This coat sweeping open as he walked, or marched his one-man Jewish march, he was saturated with the odor of the Caporals he smoked as he covered Montreal in his swing—Papineau, Mile-End, Verdun, Lachine, Point St. Charles. He looked for business opportunities—bankruptcies, job-lots, mergers, fire sales, produce—to rescue him from illegality. He could calculate percentages mentally at high speed, but he lacked the cheating imagination of a successful businessman. And so he kept a little still in Mile-End, where goats fed in the empty lots. He traveled on the tramcar. He sold a bottle here and there and waited for his main chance. American rum-runners would buy the stuff from you at the border, any amount, spot cash, if you could get it there. Meanwhile he smoked cigarettes on the cold platforms of streetcars. The Revenue was trying to catch him. Spotters were after him. On the roads to the border were hijackers. On Napoleon Street he had five mouths to feed. Willie and Moses were sickly. Helen studied the piano. Shura was fat, greedy, disobedient, a plotting boy. The rent, back rent, notes due, doctors’ bills to pay, and he had no English, no friends, no influence, no trade, no assets but his still—no help in all the world. His sister Zipporah in St. Anne was rich, very rich, which only made matters worse.
Grandfather Herzog was still alive, then. With the instinct of a Herzog for the grand thing, he took refuge in the Winter Palace in 1918 (the Bolsheviks allowed it for a while). The old man wrote long letters in Hebrew. He had lost his precious books in the upheaval. Study was impossible now. In the Winter Palace you had to walk up and down all day to find a minyan. Of course there was hunger, too. Later, he predicted that the Revolution would fail and tried to acquire Czarist currency, to become a millionaire under the restored Romanoffs. The Herzogs received packets of worthless rubles, and Willie and Moses played with great sums. You held the glorious bills to the light and you saw Peter the Great and Catherine in the watermarked rainbow paper. Grandfather Herzog was in his eighties but still strong. His mind was powerful and his Hebrew calligraphy elegant. The letters were read aloud in Montreal by Father Herzog—accounts of cold, lice, famine, epidemics, the dead. The old man wrote, “Shall I ever see the faces of my children? And who will bury me?” Father Herzog approached the next phrase two or three times, but could not find his full voice. Only a whisper came out. The tears were in his eyes and he suddenly put his hand over his mustached mouth and hurried from the room. Mother Herzog, large-eyed, sat with the children in the primitive kitchen which the sun never entered. It was like a cave with the ancient black stove, the iron sink, the green cupboards, the gas ring.
Mother Herzog had a way of meeting the present with a partly averted face. She encountered it on the left but sometimes seemed to avoid it on the right. On this withdrawn side she often had a dreaming look, melancholy, and seemed to be seeing the Old World—her father the famous misnagid, her tragic mother, her brothers living and dead, her sister, and her linens and servants in Petersburg, the dacha in Finland (all founded on Egyptian onions). Now she was cook, washerwoman, seamstress on Napoleon Street in the slum. Her hair turned gray, and she lost her teeth, her very fingernails wrinkled. Her hands smelled of the sink.
Herzog was thinking, however, how she found the strength to spoil her children. She certainly spoiled me. Once, at nightfall, she was pulling me on the sled, over crusty ice, the tiny glitter of snow, perhaps four o’clock of a short day in January. Near the grocery we met an old baba in a shawl who said, “Why are you pulling him, daughter!” Mama, dark under the eyes. Her slender cold face. She was breathing hard. She wore the torn seal coat and a red pointed wool cap and thin button boots. Clusters of dry fish hung in the shop, a rancid sugar smell, cheese, soap—a terrible dust of nutrition came from the open door. The bell on a coil of wire was bobbing, ringing. “Daughter, don’t sacrifice your strength to children,” said the shawled crone in the freezing dusk of the street. I wouldn’t get off the sled. I pretended not to un-understand. One of life’s hardest jobs, to make a quick understanding slow. I think I succeeded, thought Herzog.
Mama’s brother Mikhail died of typhus in Moscow. I took the letter from the postman and brought it upstairs—the long latchstring ran through loops under the banister. It was washday. The copper boiler steamed the window. She was rinsing and wringing in a tub. When she read the news she gave a cry and fainted. Her lips turned white. Her arm lay in the water, sleeve and all. We two were alone in the house. I was terrified when she lay like that, legs spread, her long hair undone, lids brown, mouth bloodless, deathlike. But then she got up and went to lie down. She wept all day. But in the morning she cooked the oatmeal nevertheless. We were up early.
My ancient times. Remoter than Egypt. No dawn, the foggy winters. In darkness, the bulb was lit. The stove was cold. Papa shook the grates, and raised an ashen dust. The grates grumbled and squealed. The puny shovel clinked underneath. The Caporals gave Papa a bad cough. The chimneys in their helmets sucked in the wind. Then the milkman came in his sleigh. The snow was spoiled and rotten with manure and litter, dead rats, dogs. The milkman in his sheepskin gave the bell a twist. It was brass, like the winding-key of a clock. Helen pulled the latch and went down with a pitcher for the milk. And then Ravitch, hung-over, came from his room, in his heavy sweater, suspenders over the wool to keep it tighter to the body, the bowler on his head, red in the face, his look guilty. He waited to be asked to sit.
The morning light could not free itself from gloom and frost. Up and down the street, the brick-recessed windows were dark, filled with darkness, and schoolgirls by twos in their black skirts marched toward the convent. And wagons, sledges, drays, the horses shuddering, the air drowned in leaden green, the dung-stained ice, trails of ashes. Moses and his brothers put on their caps and prayed together,
Ma tovu ohaleha Yaakov. . . .
How goodly are thy tents, O Israel.
Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather—the bootlegger’s boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses’s heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find. The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving what they found. What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he ever wanted was there. His mother did the wash, and mourned. His father was desperate and frightened, but obstinately fighting. His brother Shura with staring disingenuous eyes was plotting to master the world, to become a millionaire. His brother Willie struggled with asthmatic fits. Trying to breathe he gripped the table and rose on his toes like a cock about to crow. His sister Helen had long white gloves which she washed in thick suds. She wore them to her lessons at the conservatory, carrying a leather music roll. Her diploma hung in a frame. Mlle. Hélène Herzog . . . avec distinction. His soft prim sister who played the piano.
On a summer night she sat playing and the clear notes went through the window into the street. The square-shouldered piano had a velveteen runner, mossy green as though the lid of the piano were a slab of stone. From the runner hung a ball fringe, like hickory nuts. Moses stood behind Helen, staring at the swirling pages of Haydn and Mozart, wanting to whine like a dog. Oh, the music! thought Herzog. He fought the insidious blight of nostalgia in New York—softening, heart-rotting emotions, black spots, sweet for one moment but leaving a dangerous acid residue. Helen played. She wore a middy and a pleated skirt, and her pointed shoes cramped down on the pedals, a proper, vain girl. She frowned while she played—her father’s crease appeared between her eyes. Frowning as though she performed a dangerous action. The music rang into the street.
Aunt Zipporah was critical of this music business. Helen was not a genuine musician. She played to move the family. Perhaps to attract a husband. What Aunt Zipporah opposed was Mama’s ambition for her children, because she wanted them to be lawyers, gentlemen, rabbis, or performers. All branches of the family had the caste madness of yichus. No life so barren and subordinate that it didn’t have imaginary dignities, honors to come, freedom to advance.
Zipporah wanted to hold Mama back, Moses concluded, and she blamed Papa’s failure in America on these white gloves and piano lessons. Zipporah had a strong character. She was witty, grudging, at war with everyone. Her face was flushed and thin, her nose shapely but narrow and grim. She had a critical, damaging, nasal voice. Her hips were large and she walked with wide heavy steps. A braid of thick glossy hair hung down her back.
Now Uncle Yaffe, Zipporah’s husband, was quiet-spoken, humorously reserved. He was a small man but strong. His shoulders were wide, and he wore a black beard like King George V. It grew tight and curly on his brown face. The bridge of his nose was dented. His teeth were broad, and one was capped with gold. Moses had smelled the tart flavor of his uncle’s breath as they played checkers. Over the board, Uncle Yaffe’s broad head with short black twisted hair, a bit bald, was slightly unsteady. He had a mild nervous tremor. Uncle Yaffe, from the past, seemed to find out his nephew at this very instant of time and to look at him with the brown eyes of an intelligent, feeling, satirical animal. His glance glittered shrewdly, and he smiled with twisted satisfaction at the errors of young Moses. Affectionately giving me the business.
In Yaffe’s junkyard in St. Anne the ragged cliffs of scrap metal bled rust into the puddles. There was sometimes a line of scavengers at the gate. Kids, greenhorns, old Irishwomen, or Ukrainians and redmen from the Caughnawaga reservation, came with pushcarts and little wagons, bringing bottles, rags, old plumbing or electrical fixtures, hardware, paper, tires, bones to sell. The old man, in his brown cardigan, stooped, and his strong trembling hands sorted out what he had bought. Without straightening his back he could pitch pieces of scrap where they belonged—iron here, zinc there, copper left, lead right, and Babbitt metal by the shed. He and his sons made money during the War. Aunt Zipporah bought real estate. She collected rents. Moses knew that she carried a bankroll in her bosom. He had seen it.
“Well, you lost nothing by coming to America,” Papa said to her.
Her first reply was to stare sharply and warningly at him. Then she said, “It’s no secret how we started out. By labor. Yaffe took a pick and shovel on the CPR until we saved up a little capital. But you! No, you were born in a silk shirt.” With a glance at Mama, she went on, “You got used to putting on style, in Petersburg, with servants and coachmen. I can still see you getting off the train from Halifax, all dressed up among the greeners. Gott meiner! Ostrich feathers, taffeta skirts! Greenhorns mit strauss federn! Now forget the feathers, the gloves. Now—”
“That seems like a thousand years ago,” said Mama. “I have forgotten all about servants. I am the servant. Die dienst bin ich.”
“Everyone must work. Not suffer your whole life long from a fall. Why must your children go to the conservatory, the Baron de Hirsch school, and all those special frills? Let them go to work, like mine.”
“She doesn’t want the children to be common,” said Papa.
“My sons are not common. They know a page of Gemara, too. And don’t forget we come from the greatest Hasidic rabbis. Reb Zusya! Herschele Dubrovner! Just remember.”
“No one is saying . . .” said Mama.
To haunt the past like this—to love the dead! Moses warned himself not to yield so greatly to this temptation, this peculiar weakness of his character. He was a depressive. Depressives cannot surrender childhood—not even the pains of childhood. He understood the hygiene of the matter. But somehow his heart had come open at this chapter of his life and he didn’t have the strength to shut it. So it was again a winter day in St. Anne, in 1923—Aunt Zipporah’s kitchen. Zipporah wore a crimson crepe de Chine wrapper. Discernible underneath were voluminous yellow bloomers and a man’s undershirt. She sat beside the kitchen oven, her face flushing. Her nasal voice often rose to a barbed little cry of irony, of false dismay, of terrible humor.
Then she remembered that Mama’s brother Mikhail was dead, and she said, “Well—about your brother—what was the matter?”
“We don’t know,” said Papa. “Who can imagine what a black year they’re making back home.” (It was always in der heim, Herzog reminded himself.) “A mob broke into his house. Cut open everything, looking for valuta. Afterwards, he caught typhus, or God knows what.”
Mama’s hand was over her eyes, as though she were shading them. She said nothing.
“I remember what a fine man he was,” said Uncle Yaffe. “May he have a lichtigen Gan-Eden.”
Aunt Zipporah, who believed in the power of curses, said, “Curse those Bolsheviks. They want to make the world horev. May their hands and feet wither. But where are Mikhail’s wife and children?”
“No one knows. The letter came from a cousin—Shperling, who saw Mikhail in the hospital. He barely recognized him.”
Zipporah said a few more pious things, and then in a more normal manner she added, “Well, he was an active fellow. Had plenty of money, in his time. Who knows what a fortune he brought back from South Africa.”
“He shared with us,” said Mama. “My brother had an open hand.”
“It came easily,” said Zipporah. “It’s not as if he had to work hard for it.”
“How do you know?” said Father Herzog. “Don’t let your tongue run away with you, my sister.”
But Zipporah couldn’t be restrained now. “He made money out of those miserable black Kaffirs! Who knows how! So you had a dacha in Shevalovo. Yaffe was away in the service, in the Kavkaz. I had a sick child to nurse. And you, Yonah, were running around Petersburg spending two dowries. Yes! You lost the first ten thousand rubles in a month. He gave you another ten. I can’t say what else he was doing, with Tartars, gypsies, whores, eating horsemeat, and God only knows what abominations went on.”
“What kind of malice is in you?” said Father Herzog, angry.
“I have nothing against Mikhail. He never harmed me,” Zipporah said. “But he was a brother who gave, so I am a sister who doesn’t give.”
“No one said it,” Father Herzog said. “But if the shoe fits, you can wear it.”
Engrossed, unmoving in his chair, Herzog listened to the dead at their dead quarrels.
“What do you expect?” said Zipporah. “With four children, if I started to give, and indulged your bad habits, it would’ be endless. It’s not my fault you’re a pauper here.”
“I am a pauper in America, that’s true. Look at me. I haven’t got a copper to bless my naked skin. I couldn’t pay for my own shroud.”
“Blame your own weak nature,” said Zipporah. “Az du host a schwachen natur, wer is dir schuldig? You can’t stand alone. You leaned on Sarah’s brother, and now you want to lean on me. Yaffe served in the Kavkaz. A finsternish! It was too cold for dogs to howl. Alone, he came to America and sent for me. But you—you want alle sieben glicken. You travel in style, with ostrich feathers. You’re an edel-mensch. Get your hands dirty? Not you.”
“It’s true. I didn’t shovel manure in der heim. That happened in the land of Columbus. But I did it. I learned to harness a horse. At three o’clock in the morning, twenty below in the stable.”
Zipporah waved this aside. “And now, with your still? You had to escape from the Czar’s police. And now the Revenue? And you have to have a partner, a goniff.”
“Voplonsky is an honest man.”
“Who—that German?” Voplonsky was a Polish blacksmith. She called him a German because of his pointed military mustaches and the German cut of his overcoat. It hung to the ground. “What have you in common with a blacksmith? You, a descendant of Herschel Dubrovner! And he, a Poilisher schmid with red whiskers! A rat! A rat with pointed red whiskers and long crooked teeth and reeking of scorched hoof! Bah! Your partner. Wait and see what he does to you.”
“I’m not so easy to take in.”
“No? Didn’t Lazansky swindle you? He gave it to you in the real Turkish style. And didn’t he beat your bones also?”
That was lazansky, in the bakery, a giant teamster from the Ukraine. A huge ignorant man, an amhoretz who didn’t know enough Hebrew to bless his bread, he sat on his narrow green delivery wagon, ponderous, growling “Garrap” to his little nag and flicking with the whip. His gross voice rolled like a bowling ball. The horse trotted along the bank of the Lachine Canal. The wagon was lettered
Lazansky—Patisseries de choix
Father Herzog said, “Yes, it’s true he beat me.”
He had come to borrow money from Zipporah and Yaffe. He did not want to be drawn into a quarrel. She had certainly guessed the purpose of this visit and was trying to make him angry so that she might refuse him more easily.
“Ai!” said Zipporah. A brilliantly shrewd woman, her many gifts were cramped in this little Canadian village. “You think you can make a fortune out of swindlers, thieves, and gangsters. You? You’re a gentle creature. I don’t know why you didn’t stay in the yeshiva. You wanted to be a gilded little gentleman. I know these hooligans and razboiniks. They don’t have skins, teeth, fingers like you but hides, fangs, claws. You can never keep up with these teamsters and butchers. Can you shoot a man?”
Father Herzog was silent.
“If, God forbid, you had to shoot . . .” cried Zipporah. “Could you even hit someone on the head? Come! Think it over. Answer me, gazlan. Could you give a blow on the head?”
Here Mother Herzog seemed to agree.
“I’m no weakling,” said Father Herzog, with his energetic face and brown mustache. But of course, thought Herzog, all of Papa’s violence went into the drama of his life, into family strife, and sentiment.
“They’ll take what they like from you, those leite,” said Zipporah. “Now, isn’t it time you used your head? You do have one—klug bist du. Make a legitimate living. Let your Helen and your Shura go to work. Sell the piano. Cut expenses.”
“Why shouldn’t the children study if they have intelligence, talent,” said Mother Herzog.
“If they’re smart, all the better for my brother,” said Zipporah. “It’s too hard for him—wearing himself out for spoiled princes and princesses.”
She had Papa on her side, then. His craving for help was deep, bottomless.
“Not that I don’t love the children,” said Zipporah. “Come here, little Moses, and sit on your old tante’s knee. What a dear little yingele.” Moses on the bloomers of his aunt’s lap—her red hands held him at the belly. She smiled with harsh affection and kissed his neck. “Born in my arms, this child.” Then she looked at brother Shura, who stood beside his mother. He had thick, blocky legs and his face was freckled. “And you?” said Zipporah to him.
“What’s wrong?” said Shura, frightened and offended.
“Not too young to bring in a dollar.”
Papa glared at Shura.
“Don’t I help?” said Shura. “Deliver bottles? Paste labels?”
Papa had forged labels. He would say cheerfully, “Well, children, what shall it be—White Horse? Johnnie Walker?” Then we’d all call out our favorites. The paste pot was on the table.
In secret, Mother Herzog touched Shura’s hand when Zipporah turned her eyes on him. Moses saw. Breathless Willie was scampering outside with his cousins, building a snow fort, squeaking and throwing snowballs. The sun came lower and lower. Ribbons of red from the horizon wound over the ridges of glazed snow. In the blue shadow of the fence, the goats were feeding. They belonged to the seltzer man next door. Zipporah’s chickens were about to roost. Visiting us in Montreal, she sometimes brought a fresh egg. One egg. One of the children might be sick. A fresh egg had a world of power. Nervous and critical, with awkward feet and heavy hips, she mounted the stairs on Napoleon Street, a stormy woman, a daughter of Fate. Quickly and nervously she kissed her fingertips and touched the mezuzah. Entering, she inspected Mama’s housekeeping. “Is everybody well?” she said. “I brought the children an egg.” She opened her big bag and took out the present, wrapped in a piece of Yiddish newspaper (Der Kanader Adler).
A visit from Tante Zipporah was like a military inspection. Afterwards, Mama laughed and often ended by crying. “Why is she my enemy! What does she want? I have no strength to fight her.” The antagonism, as Mama felt it, was mystical—a matter of souls. Mama’s mind was archaic, filled with old legends, with angels and demons.
Of course zipporah, that realist, was right to refuse Father Herzog. He wanted to run bootleg whisky to the border, and get into the big time. He and Voplonsky borrowed from moneylenders, and loaded a truck with cases. But they never reached Rouses Point. They were hijacked, beaten up, and left in a ditch. Father Herzog took the worse beating because he resisted. The hijackers tore his clothes, knocked out one of his teeth, and trampled him.
He and Voplonsky the blacksmith returned to Montreal on foot. He stopped at Voplonsky’s shop to clean up, but there was not much he could do about his swollen bloody eye. He had a gap in his teeth. His coat was torn and his shirt and undergarments were blood-stained.
That was how he entered the dark kitchen on Napoleon Street. We were all there. It was gloomy March, and anyway the light seldom reached that room. It was like a cavern. We were like cave dwellers. “Sarah!” he said. “Children!” He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out—empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him—a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?
Then Father Herzog told his story.
“They were waiting for us. The road was blocked. They dragged us from the truck. They took everything.”
“Why did you fight?” said Mother Herzog.
“Everything we had . . . all I borrowed!”
“They might have killed you.”
“They had handkerchiefs over their faces. I thought I recognized . . .”
Mama was incredulous. “Landtsleit? Impossible. No Jews could do this to a Jew.”
“No?” cried Papa. “Why not! Who says not! Why shouldn’t they!”
“Not Jews! Never!” Mama said. “Never. Never! They couldn’t have the heart. Never!”
“Children—don’t cry. And poor Voplonsky—he could barely creep into bed.”
“Yonah,” said Mama, “you must give up this whole thing.”
“How will we live? We have to live.”
He began to tell the story of his life, from childhood to this day. He wept as he told it. Put out at four years old to study, away from home. Eaten by lice. Half starved in the yeshiva as a boy. He shaved, became a modern European. He worked in Kremenchug for his aunt as a young man. He had a fool’s paradise in Petersburg for ten years, on forged papers. Then he sat in prison with common criminals. Escaped to America. Starved. Cleaned stables. Begged. Lived in fear. A baal-chov—always a debtor. Shadowed by the police. Taking in drunken boarders. His wife a servant. And this was what he brought home to his children. This was what he could show them—his rags, his bruises.
Herzog, wrapped in his cheap paisley robe, brooded with clouded eyes. Under his bare feet was a small strip of carpet. His elbows rested on the fragile desk and his head hung down. He had written only a few lines to Nachman.
I suppose, he was thinking, that we heard this tale of the Herzogs ten times a year. Sometimes Mama told it, sometimes he. So we had a great schooling in grief. I still know these cries of the soul. They lie in the breast, and in the throat. The mouth wants to open wide and let them out. But all these are antiquities—yes, Jewish antiquities originating in the Bible, in a Biblical sense of personal experience and destiny. What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog’s claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. These personal histories, old tales from old times that may not be worth remembering. I remember. I must. But who else—to whom can this matter? So many millions—multitudes—go down in terrible pain. And, at that, moral suffering is denied, these days. Personalities are good only for comic relief. But I am still a slave to Papa’s pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His I had such dignity.
“You must give it up,” Mama cried, “You must!”
“What should I do, then! Work for the burial society? Like a man of seventy? Only fit to sit at deathbeds? I? Wash corpses? I? Or should I go to the cemetery and wheedle mourners for a nickel? To say El malai rachamim. I? Let the earth open and swallow me up!”
“Come, Yonah,” said Mama in her earnest persuasive way. “I’ll put a compress on your eye. Come, lie down.”
“How can I?”
“No, you must.”
“How will the children eat?”
“Come—you must lie down awhile. Take off that shirt.”
She sat by the bed, silent. He lay in the gray room, on the iron bedstead, covered with the worn red Russian blanket—his handsome forehead, his level nose, the brown mustache. As he had from that dark corridor, Moses now contemplated those two figures.
Nachman, he began again to write, but stopped. How was he to reach Nachman with a letter? He would do better to advertise in the Village Voice. But, then, to whom would he send the other letters he was drafting?
He concluded that Nachman’s wife was dead. Yes, that must be it. That slender, thin-legged girl with the dark brows that rose high and recurved again beside her eyes, and the wide mouth which curved down at the corners—she had committed suicide, and Nachman ran away because (who could blame him) he would have had to tell Moses all about it. Poor thing, poor thing—she too must be in the cemetery.