“The Expatriate” is the fourth of Julius Horwitz’s stories of urban Jewish life to appear in COMMENTARY.
The first thing he did when he stepped off the hot grimy train was to go to the public washroom and clean up. Then, while waiting for his luggage to come up from the baggage car, he got on the phone and started calling his friends. It had been over a year since he had heard from any of them and he was anxious to know how they were making out After all, he had grown up with them and they were still his closest friends. During the war they kept in constant touch with one another. One couldn’t sit over a salami sandwich and a cup of hot tea and argue destiny, so one wrote letters. Letters that were forwarded from every part of the world, letters that were often retyped into a dozen carbons, and so reached the whole gang.
But now the war was over and nobody wrote letters any more. Letter-writing had died in the same imperceptible manner as their solemn wartime pledges to change the face of the earth. And now, instead, whenever he came into town, once, maybe twice a year, there was a general get-together. His friends chipped in for a couple of cases of beer, some whisky, port wine, invited their wives, girl friends, and spent the night spouting half-remembered college texts reimpressing themselves with their awful hate of the world. . . .
“Hello-is that you Irv?”
“Sol! What the hell are you doing in town?”
“I’m in for my sister’s wedding.”
“Good deal—listen—I’ll get hold of everybody. We’ll have a party tonight At Pete’s house. His place is open house now.”
It was that simple. They were always ready for a party. What else was there to do in Detroit?
Strange, how all during the week he was making plans to leave New York, his friends had been constantly on his mind. Perhaps because this time he had been away longer and had heard less news. Often during the day and just before he fell asleep he would think about his trip and imagine how various of his friends would act For the first time, he had the uneasy feeling, somehow, that he was returning to an alien world. He knew that he had made the break—that his friends still lived with their families and only Irv and Pete had married, and they too, despite their marriages, were still all tied up with their families. Last trip he had noticed how they were sinking into the emptiness of their home town. They felt it, too. Of course, Pete talked a different line. “This is where the real people live,” Pete would say, “right here on our block. I wouldn’t move for all the dough in the world. These are my people. Flesh and blood. Everything else is phoney. . . .” The others complained openly that Detroit was a desert. But they never tried to lift themselves out of the neighborhood life they were entangled in. . . .
Of course, the neighborhood wasn’t a bad place to live in for the men who went forth daily on the morning tide to their tailor shops, dry-goods counters, grocery stores, factory benches, the big ugly dark industrial plants, airless offices—and on the ebb tide came home tired, ate, read the news that never seemed to affect them personally, talked a little to their wives, and then went to sleep in their nice roomy, detached houses on streets lined with trees. But for those who had wanted something better than this workaday round, who had considered themselves intellectuals of a sort, what kind of life was that for them?
Sol hurried out of the Union Station. The downtown section was just beginning to crowd up with people. He wondered what it would be like to get off the dismal streetcar coming from his neighborhood, take an elevator up to a business office, careful of his shoe shine, choice of tie, matching socks, his ideas, work eight hours, take the same elevator down, take the same dismal streetcar home, five days a week, forever, until he died. When he had come home from the army this was a hungry sight. But now—
The party began early that evening, and was already well under way when Sol walked in. There were a lot of unfamiliar faces, people holding glasses, people lined up neatly on the Regency sofa, against the sparsely filled bookcases. But he quickly picked out the faces he had known from grade-school days. Irv poured him a shot of whisky. Sol drank it straight and then took his time looking around the room, to get a sense of how he stood.
Pete asked, coming up to Sol, “Does everybody in New York wear those miserable looking cotton cord suits? It looks like a street-cleaner’s uniform to me.” No hello. No handshake.
Sol had a feeling what was coming next.
“At what bargain counter did you pick up the suit?”
Sol knew that none of his Detroit friends wore cord suits. They disapproved of them—they were made of cotton, didn’t keep a crease, weren’t sharp—nuts—the whole thing was ridiculous! He had bought it at Macy’s because it was a damn sensible outfit to wear for the hot New York summers. What kind of junk was this, being attacked for the suit he wore? Especially after he hadn’t seen Pete in over a year.
“Who’re you trying to fool, Sol!” Pete persisted. “You know you don’t belong in a suit like that!”
They did! He didn’t! They should be studying at Columbia, not him! They should be living in New York, not him!
“Look, you goddamn fool!” Sol sharply said to Pete. “If you can’t talk to me straight like a mensh without making a lot of stupid remarks about the clothes I wear then you can go straight to hell!” Pete stopped short He had expected Sol to acquiesce; it was a game they played.
Sol’s outburst didn’t go unnoticed. So Sol was on his high horse. There was a sense of battle lines being drawn.
The talk now became vague, nobody really said anything. Bernie stood in the comer with a stupid beery grin on his face saying, “I love my wife, I love my wife more than anything else in the world. My wife is my whole world to me. . . .” Sol wondered how drunk he really was. His wife was nothing extraordinary. A girl, what else?
Irv took Sol into the kitchen. Pete, Harry, Morrie, Dave sat down around the kitchen table. Irv tried to pin Sol down on what he had accomplished in New York, red ink, black ink. Sol felt himself slipping. He knew he was selling himself too hard. That was a mistake. Now was the time for him to be on guard. These people, his friends around the kitchen table, they no longer understood what was on his mind. Stupid to continue to talk about himself—to try to find among these faces an audience for his experiences, more important, his expectations. . . .
“Tell me-how’s New York? Making a lot of money?”
“Whatta you doing Sol, still living in the same old hole?”
“Why don’t you get out of that crazy town?”
Question, answer. They weren’t expressing their true feelings—perhaps they didn’t understand themselves. But Sol felt he knew what the tribe was up to. This fellow Sol Katz, they were saying. This outsider!
The party broke up at two in the morning. Sol wasn’t sorry about telling Pete to go to hell, but they had parted, on the surface, as friends. “We can’t quarrel over a thing like a suit, you’re my buddy, my friend,” Pete told Sol when the party came to an end.
On Sol’s last night in town his mother invited all of the relatives over to the house and there was a general get-together for his newly married sister. The dining room table was piled high with every kind of delicacy, the kind that Sol could only afford on rare occasions when his money permitted a Delancey Street feast. As soon as the party began to die down, Sol drove over to Pete’s house—one of his cousins dropped him off. Irv and his wife were over, Pete had told him over the phone, we can talk a little before you catch your train.
Sol felt glad he was going to see Irv again before he left. He and Irv had been friends ever since they were old enough to enter grade school. Of course, by now they had drifted apart, but they were still best friends. And to be a best friend has a very definite meaning. The highest relationship of your life. . . .
Pete, his wife, Irv and his wife, the four of them were playing rummy when Sol walked in. They didn’t lay down their cards. Sol busied himself studying Irv’s hand. He expected they would stop when the deal ran out. Instead, Pete picked up the cards and shuffled them, dealing out a new hand. Sol realized he had been looking forward to a kind of last-minute friendly confab. Well, this wasn’t it. It was sure a cold welcome, especially after coming from a house full of relatives, laughing, joking, eating the strudel his mother had baked, listening to the Yiddish records he had brought home from Clinton Street. . . .
Sol walked over to the refrigerator, took out a bottle of beer. Surely they weren’t angry because of last night. That would be too much! The night before the five of them had been discussing extra-sensory perception till three in the morning at Irv’s apartment. Sol had argued that there are curious facts in the world, events outside our ordinary experience that demand honest investigation. Irv and Pete had argued that these curious facts were nothing but accidents. Sol had laughed in their faces. “These facts have been recorded,” Sol had told them. “Don’t be goofs.” And now the card game.
It was already past 1: 30. Pete dealt a new hand. They gave no sign of intending to give up their card game. If they did have something they wanted to talk about it was too late now, Sol told himself. He had a 6:45 train to catch in the morning. Sol mentioned his train. He waited, expecting Irv to say he would drive him home. Irv picked up the discarded cards and shuffled the deck as though he hadn’t heard a word. He flipped out the cards, seven to a player. The cards fell silently on the kitchen table. And then Sol realized what it was all about—
This was it. Pete and Irv had asked him to leave his mother’s house so that they could pay him off, and send him crawling back to New York. What else? In the world he had grown up in, if you have an automobile and your friend does not, then you drive him home.
But why this game of cards? Words would be much better. Then they could spew out their hate! The whole thing was too damn funny—. But he couldn’t resist being caught up in the excitement of the drama. He walked over to the telephone. They all looked up from their cards.
“What’s the number of the local cab company?” he asked Pete.
Sol dialed the number. Each turn of the dial filled the room. He knew he was being melodramatic, forcing a crisis—he could easily have walked to the comer and hailed a cab there. Sol wondered what would be the first word said after he finished dialing the number. But nothing would be said. That was the way the game was played. For an instant he felt like fighting it out with them, tooth and nail, laying the whole business bare, his life against theirs. But what would be the use? This was the end of an era. These people had been a very real part of his life. Now he knew that he could never be with them again and for a moment he felt a little sad. Well, he had known that something like this would happen on the trip. At least now he knew in what direction he had to keep going.