In Lyndhurst, if a Gentile spoke enviously to a Jew about how rich the Jews of Lyndhurst were, how clever they were, how well they did in business, the reply was often made, “Well, it’s not really true about all the Jews. Just look at Lipi Lippmann!” No one, not even the biggest anti-Semite in the world, could say that Lipi Lippmann was rich or clever or did well in business.
Lipi Lippmann once said that the Jews of Lyndhurst should pay him to remain poor, his poverty was so useful in arguments. But the joke was received in silence; it was felt to be in bad taste. The Jews of Lyndhurst were ready to use Lipi Lippmann’s poverty to propitiate an envious Gentile, but they were ashamed of him nevertheless; ashamed of his old Ford lorry, laden with fruit and vegetables, going from door to door; ashamed that Lipi was the only white man who bickered among the colored and Indian hawkers at dawn in the market place. Every other Jew in town was a licensed wholesaler or a licensed hotelkeeper, a licensed dentist or a licensed doctor; but Lipi Lippmann had remained nothing but a licensed hawker. And his only son, Nathan, was nothing but a licensed radio operator in the South African Airways, who still did not earn enough to support his aging father. What a ridiculous job Nathan’s seemed to be, anyway, for a son of Lipi Lippmann! “How’s the airman?” people sometimes asked Lipi patronizingly, when they saw him; and Lipi looked up at the sky, wrinkling his brow, and said, “He’s fine, still up in the air.” In fact, Nathan had been in the ground staff for a long time, but Lipi did not know this, for he and Nathan wrote to each other so seldom. Lipi himself had never flown in an airplane; he never listened to the radio either.
Lipi was a small man, with the head of a large one: his cheekbones were strong and prominent, his nose was bony and arched, his eyes were set wide apart. He was a widower, and lived by himself in a tiny single-storied house in one of the oldest suburbs of Lyndhurst. Around Lipi’s house were houses as small and as shabby as his own, with the same high stoeps in front, and the same iron roofs above. In the back yards behind the houses there lived troops of raucous African servants who, with their dirty bare feet and torn clothes, were as different from the trim, white-overalled servants in the wealthier suburbs as the employers in the one district were from those in the other. All Lipi’s neighbors in the street were Afrikaner railwaymen or mine workers, and their children sometimes shouted “Koelie-Jood” after him—Koelie being an insulting term for an Indian, and thus being a disdainful way of referring to Lipi’s trade. But the mothers of these children always waited for Lipi to return home at the end of the afternoon, when they bought from him at cut-prices the softened carrots and moulting cabbages he had been unable to sell elsewhere. Then the children also came round, and asked Lipi if he had any ertjies for them. And often enough Lipi would produce a handful of pea-pods which were no longer green, but gray and pale brown or white, and distribute them among the clamoring children. When they had dispersed, he would pack the empty crates neatly together in the back of the van, tie them down with rope, and go into his house.
Nobody followed him inside it. Once inside, he took off his hat, collar, and tie (he always wore rather stiff detachable collars, even in the fiercest heat), and washed himself in the small, smelly bathroom. His “girl”—a withered Basuto woman whose grandchildren played about in the back yard—served him his supper. Soup, meat and vegetables, and stewed fruit followed one another in unvarying succession, while Lipi slowly read the paper from front to back. After supper he sat on his stoep, with the light burning above him, listening to the street noises and the shunting of trains in the distance. He never sat up late. Saturday was his busiest day, so he went to synagogue only on the high festivals; but he always went to the evening meetings of the local Zionist society. At these meetings he sat in the front row, listening intently and nodding his large head, almost like a man at prayer, to every word that was said.
That nod was Lipi’s characteristic gesture; it seemed to be a gesture of profound acquiescence, of acceptance; yet it never brought to an end the debate he appeared to be having with himself. He nodded at Zionist meetings, he nodded when he drove his lorry, when he bargained with the housewives, when he sat alone on his stoep. And he nodded in the same way when he came home from work one day and found that while he had been away and the girl had been paying her regular afternoon visit to a friend in the back yard of a nearby house, someone had broken into his house and robbed him of everything that could be put into a trunk and carried out of the house. Almost all his clothes were gone, including his best shul-going suit; so was the money-box in which he kept the few pounds he earned one day and laid out for stock the next day. The thief or thieves had also taken the single bottle of whiskey Lipi kept hidden in his wardrobe; an old gold fob-watch and chain he had bought on the occasion of his marriage, and which he had not worn for years; two silver napkin-rings, with his own and his wife’s initials engraved upon them; a couple of table-cloths. Someone, it was clear, had been unable to believe that Lipi was as poor as he had appeared to be; someone must have had the fantasy that Lipi was a miser, and had been hoarding money and valuables over the years. Whoever it was—a black man or a white one—was no doubt disillusioned now; and he had left the marks of what looked like rage in the splintered drawers thrown upon the floor, the razor-rents in the armchair in the front room and the mattress in the bed-room, the wanton destruction of the basin in the bathroom.
Because the basin was smashed, Lipi went into the kitchen and washed himself carefully at the sink, and then, in his shirtsleeves, came into the front room of the house. All day it had been hot; now, with the sun hanging low in the west, the heat seemed to have a settled, brooding quality, quite different in its intensity from the morning’s direct glare, or the throb of noon. The windows of the room were wide open, but no breeze came in through them; it was as warm indoors as it was outside. Lipi stood in the middle of the room, staring at the drawers of the side-board upside down on the floor, and the hideous lumps of blue and white stuffing protruding from the ripped armchair. A strange, cracked sound came from his breast; this sharp noise was followed by a sigh, as if something broken inside him sought to knit itself together again. He hunched his shoulders higher and went to the window. His shoulders shook, and again he uttered that abrupt sound, which was again followed by the faint complaining wheeze.
Lipi was laughing. When his girl came back she found him standing at the window, looking across the stoep and garden into the bit of street beyond. Seeing the wreckage in the room and the blood on Lipi’s knuckles, she thought he had been in a fight with the intruders; and Lipi could not explain to her how he had laughed and bitten at his own knuckles, laughed and bitten at himself, like a madman, with the smashed room behind him.
It was the girl who went running to the neighbors with the news, and the neighbors who telephoned the police. The police found Lipi standing alone in the room. While one man in the police squad went around looking for fingerprints, the other, perturbed by the fixity of Lipi’s expression and the sudden jerky nods of his head, tried to get him to sit down. But Lipi would not move; he did not seem to know what the man wanted of him. Readily enough, however, when the policemen asked him to make a statement, he began to detail what had been taken from him. There was his best suit, and the other clothes; his gold watch and the bottle of whiskey; there was his money-box.
“Money-box?” the policeman interrupted. “What kind of money-box? How much was in it? Where did you keep it?”
“How much was in it?” Lipi repeated. He laughed loudly, and his eyes stared forward without expression, looking beyond the policeman. “A fortune, what do you think? The work of a lifetime was in the money-box. Isn’t that enough? Enough—enough—for what? What do I want? I want to go to Eretz Yisroel before I die. That’s how much money there was in the money-box.”
“Yes,” Lipi cried out, “put it down in your book, why not, put it down that there was money to go to Eretz Yisroel in the money-box, put it down. What difference does it make now?” Lipi laughed and shouted, he gnawed at his fists, he cried out that before he died he wanted to go to the Holy Land, and now he knew he never would be able to. He was a poor man, he had always been poor, but he had had one ambition, one hope; now he saw what nonsense it had always been. “I look around and see my whole life is rubbish, here it is in this room.” When the policeman told him that he should get in touch with his insurance company, Lipi laughed for the last time. “Where am I insured, who insures me? It is lost, everything is lost. Put it down.” Lipi began kicking at the furniture, tearing at the few strands of black and gray hair that usually lay flat on his scalp. Eventually, a doctor was called and he administered a sedative; Lipi fell asleep in the bedroom, on the torn mattress, with the wardrobe doors still hanging open and various articles the thieves had not bothered to take scattered about the floor. By that time a small curious crowd of people had gathered on the pavement outside, and the news of Lipi’s loss had spread all over the neighborhood. The amount of the loss was greatly exaggerated as the story went from one servant or housewife to the next, though no single exaggeration was greater than the one that the policeman, at Lipi’s bidding, had written into his book.
The next morning the story was in the local paper. Lipi was described as “a well-known city fruiterer and greengrocer”; his loss was estimated at “several hundred pounds, which Mr. Lippmann had been saving to fulfill his lifelong ambition of visiting the Holy Land.” The police, the report added, were continuing their inquiries.
A few days later another report appeared, in which it was stated that several leading members of the Lyndhurst Jewish community were offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of the thief or thieves; the report stated also that it had been decided that, should the money not be recovered, a fund would be established to make good Mr. Lippmann’s loss, and thus enable him to fulfill his lifelong ambition of visiting the Holy Land.
For Lipi had become a hero, even something of a martyr in Lyndhurst, and especially so to the members of the Lyndhurst Jewish community. If they felt any embarrassment or shame in connection with him now, it was only because they had been ashamed of him and embarrassed by him in the past. His poverty now appeared to them noble; his ambition to visit Israel exemplary; his attempts to realize that ambition inspiring; his defeat pitiable. There was none among the well-to-do Jews of Lyndhurst who did not feel himself humbled by Lipi’s humility, shamed by his self-sacrifice. When Lipi went to shul he was now greeted with great friendliness, even with deference; in the streets Jews and Gentiles alike stopped his lorry to express their sympathy with him and to assure him that from now on they would buy all their fruit and vegetables from him. The police continued their investigations, without success. And three months after the burglary had taken place, the paper published a photograph showing Lipi being presented with a return air ticket to Israel and a check large enough to cover his expenses during the visit. The presentation was made by half a dozen leading members of the Jewish community, among them an ex-Mayor of Lyndhurst, the local rabbi, and the chairman of the Zionist society. Many Gentiles, including some of Lipi’s neighbors, it was said, had contributed to the fund.
Lipi dreamed that he was in Palestine. It was a dream he very often had, and the landscape was familiar to him, though it was unlike any he had ever seen. In front of him, pale ploughed fields stretched away to a group of white houses with red-tiled roofs, in the distance; behind the houses were hills, vaguely outlined. Nothing grew from the fields, yet they were not barren; there was no sun in the sky, but the scene was evenly filled with light; no one stirred about the houses, yet Lipi knew that there were people living in them. As he had done a hundred times before, Lipi began walking toward the houses.
As always, Lipi awoke before he reached the houses. And immediately he was fully awake, in the darkness, confronting once again, with the poignance of the dream still upon him, the enormity of his lie, his crime, and its consequences. Lipi had not anticipated anything of what had happened since he had told the policeman, in a frenzy of rage and self-hatred, that the thieves had stolen from him savings he had never had. Lipi could not even remember telling the lie to the policeman; if it had not been for the report in the newspaper the next morning he would never have believed that he had in fact done so. All Lipi could remember of that afternoon when he had come back to find his house in disorder, was a stunned sense of humiliation and anger, which had not at all been directed against the strangers who had come into the house, fingered and thrown about his meager possessions, and taken those few they had thought it worth their effort to carry. Lipi’s rage had been directed against himself; against his own poverty and powerlessness; against the lifetime he had spent toiling in the sun, for so little reward, for a house that ten minutes could despoil, for possessions that ten pounds could buy.
These emotions, as he lay in his bed at night, with his departure for Israel only a few days off, Lipi could remember. But what had taken place subsequently was all an absurdity, a confusion of noise, of darkness and light. His own frenzy, and the faces of the policemen, the reports in the newspaper and the friendliness of strangers, the rumors of the collection that was being made for him and the tense, jovial little ceremony when he had been handed his tickets and money—all these were less substantial than a dream, far less substantial than the dream he had just had of Israel. But the tickets and the money were real, and had been given to him: they were waiting for him now at the bank. (How many jokes had been made at the ceremony about the money being safe from burglars in the bank; how many about Lipi being able to teach his son to fly when he came back from the trip.) What a lifetime of work had failed to bring him a single lie had made possible; and Lipi lay in his bed and marveled at the world, and especially, of all the world, at the city of Lyndhurst. With a satisfaction that was sweeter than any he had felt since he had been a young man lying beside his wife, Lipi knew that at last, at last, he would be able to settle the problem that had for so long been a dear, familiar, secret riddle to him: he would be able to see if Israel really looked as it did to him in his dreams.
But later that same night, Lipi woke again. His own beating heart had shaken him out of sleep; his body was filled with a dread that his mind was still ignorant of. Baffled by the warm, thick darkness around him, hardly knowing who or where he was, Lipi again remembered, as when he had woken earlier, the journey he was about to make. But this time the recollection came slowly, painfully, and seemed to carry the dread with it. Was he afraid of the burglars? Did he fear that the police might find them, or that they might come forward themselves, and expose his fraud? But that was an anxiety that had visited him before, and that had never had the power to make him lose his own sense of himself. It was another fear that possessed him now, and it was as formless, impenetrable, and insistent as the darkness around him. And even when he had recognized it, the dread remained formless to Lipi, and as compelling as before. He could not believe that the landscape of his dreams would accept him, if he came to it as a liar and a fraud. It would reject him—he did not know how—it would thrust him from itself, it would disgorge him as unclean, a tainted thing.
In the morning Lipi rose and went to see the ex-Mayor, who had formally handed to him his travel tickets and money, on behalf of the Lyndhurst Jewish community. The ex-Mayor was a wholesale merchant who had inherited his business; he was twenty years younger than Lipi and twice Lipi’s size; his manner was authoritative and his complexion rubicund; he wore spectacles with heavy black rims, though his eyesight was excellent without them. He had not only been Mayor of Lyndhurst for a time; he had also been the captain of the local golf club and the president of the local Red Cross Society; he was still chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and a member of the City Council; and at public meetings, and even when he was alone with his wife, he was in the habit of putting forward his own career as an illustration of the cordiality of “interfaith relations” in Lyndhurst. He received Lipi with the benevolence of a man who knows he has done well by his visitor; but his benevolence had altogether disappeared by the time Lipi had finished his confession. However, the ex-Mayor was a man of decision; and he said nothing to Lipi of his rage at the deception Lipi had practiced upon the people of Lyndhurst, or of his own personal indignation at having been shown up as a sentimental fool, or even of his anxieties about the possible effects of Lipi’s confession on “interfaith relations” in Lyndhurst. Instead, he told Lipi, “Look, I want you to leave for Johannesburg at once, and wait for your plane there. You can go on the train tonight. And I don’t want you to say a word of this to anyone else, do you hear? Not a word. As far as I’m concerned, this conversation never took place. I haven’t heard you, and no one else ever will. Now go, go on, go on, I’ll send my car around to pick you up tonight. Do you understand? Just go!” Only at the every end did the ex-Mayor add, with sudden ferocity, “And I wish you’d never come back!”
Bewildered, Lipi allowed himself to be hustled out of the office; he found himself on the placid sunlit pavement, his hat in his hand. Around him the people of Lyndhurst went about their business, and Lipi joined them, though he had no business to attend to. In his ears there was a voice that shrieked that everyone, everything in the world was tainted; that he had nothing to fear, for Israel was tainted too. All day he wandered about the town; he was seen standing outside the shops in the commercial district and walking down the middle of streets in residential areas far from his own; he was even seen in the African locations around the town, where people stared in amazement at the spectacle of a white man, alone and on foot, making his way between the mud and iron huts laid down in rows upon the veld. At nightfall Lipi found himself in the railway shunting yards; and there, too late, he was glimpsed by a horrified engine driver, in front of whose slowly moving locomotive Lipi threw down his body. What the engine driver most vividly remembered, what he always mentioned when he subsequently told his tale to others, was how Lipi had brought his hands to his ears, at the very moment he fell.
At the inquest it was declared that Lipi had committed suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed. The coroner added that the death was all the more tragic in view of the efforts that had recently been made to restore to the deceased his own hopes for himself and his faith in the good will of the people around him. Lipi’s funeral was enormous; and it was noted that the ex-Mayor of the town was among those who seemed most affected by grief at the graveside.