The Journey Prize Stories 21 (9 page)

BOOK: The Journey Prize Stories 21
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What I said was true. Our love used to count for so much, enough for so much else not to matter; for twenty-six years all my life's problems, anything that threatened me, was disabled and finally dispelled by Christopher's love. Everyone could hear his voice everywhere, in commercials, voice-overs for coming attractions, in-flight audio, syndicated public radio, documentaries, but I heard him speak only for me; in a voice deeper and warmer than he ever used for anyone else, he would close his eyes and speak my name.

The village we have come to is a sprawling collection of circular grass huts. We have been told that the festival began two days ago, but we are in time for the last day. We are staying in someone's home; some family cheerfully gave up their home for us. Christopher could not disguise being sick,
and his insistence that he would not see a doctor was met with a collective insistence that he must, till he said again that he would not see anyone and a woman spoke loudly in a native language, and the discussion among the impromptu welcoming group that formed when we left the ferry simply moved on to the topic of whose hut we would stay in. We were given dinner and then, respectfully, our privacy. Now Christopher lies on his back, asleep, fevered, sweating, his breath shallow and sour.

In the morning it becomes clear that the village has understood our purpose – Christopher's purpose – when a woman comes to us with food and explains that she will come again later, when the music is to start; she and some others will come to bring Christopher to the music. He must rest till then. Then she takes my hand and leads me away to give me a tour of the village. She takes advantage of shade cast by trees, huts, anything to avoid being in the sun for long. I carefully simulate interest till our last stop, the school, where the lesson is interrupted so the children can sing to me. My guide explains that the song thanks a visitor for travelling from very far to be with them, and when it's over and the children applaud, she tells me that they are applauding for me. She is looking in my eyes when she says this and then she takes my hand again, speaks to the children, and we walk away. “I told them how very much you liked their song,” she says, and when our eyes meet I cannot tell whether she believes I did, or cares, or is hinting a criticism. She returns me to the hut where Christopher is sleeping. It's true that I liked the song, or that I would have liked the song if I could like anything, if I had a right to feel anything.

My guide returns later with two men who have a small wooden cart for Christopher, which he gets into with no complaint, and we go, the cart pulled by one man then another, me walking behind, out of Christopher's view to limit any challenge to his dignity. He holds the sides of the cart with his arms, to steady himself, but I can tell that his arms too have lost strength, and at intervals his head falls forward and bounces before he raises it again. We walk through the village and down to the lake, along the shore and then back, up through the trees, then the trees give way to a grassy plain, and there are cars, trucks – people have journeyed here from the north. A camp has been set up, and through the camp I follow Christopher in his cart to where a crowd has gathered, and then into the crowd, within view of a low stage, and now in my anxiety and anticipation I would take his hand, and he would look at me and smile, but I can't and he won't.

I can't describe music the way Christopher can. No band performs more than three or four songs. Members from one band reappear in another. Guitars, drums of all shapes, trumpets, even violins, marimbas or something like them, singers in groups and solo, dancers on stage and in the crowd. Someone brings large hats for Christopher and me, to protect us from the sun. Someone else brings us water. The crowd sings along with some songs, shouts to the musicians between songs, applauds and cheers after the songs. Christopher remains absolutely still in the cart, his face hidden by his hat, and I don't know whether he is transported and fulfilled, revivified, or as angry as ever, disappointed, defeated, in excruciating pain, or dead … or dead, and in an instant I imagine confronting all the difficulties of transporting his body through
all the legs of our journey home. Then he takes a drink of water, and with the motion of his hand I'm staggered with relief and shame. I look around stupidly to see if anyone has noticed, and another song begins.

Something delays us, and after taxiing we wait a long time for takeoff. Christopher is limp beside me – limp and weak, as though his bones are becoming rubber. I have fastened his seat belt for him, as before I carried his baggage and pushed his wheelchair, helped heave him into a taxi. I review the series of struggles with his weight and his pain back to the moment at the end of the evening of highlife, when Christopher was not angry as far as I could tell, or revived, but only weak, confused, and saying in a hushed voice that he needed to pee. There was nothing satisfying in the apparent dissipation of his anger, and suddenly I was furious that we had arrived too late, that he had missed even the opportunity to be disappointed, and my fury made the world tilt and my vision blur. “Christopher,” I said, trying to imagine a question that wasn't insulting and banal: “How was the music, was the music good enough, did the music help?” My legs failed and for a moment I had to sit on the ground.

Finally we take off. Christopher is perspiring and I reach up to aim the air nozzles in his direction. His eyes are closed and I hope he is sleeping.

I would like to sleep too; I am exhausted, but too many conversations intrude when I close my eyes.

I plug in the headphones, put them on, and Christopher is telling me, with such enthusiasm, belief and deep, warm authority, about how the Four Diamonds met in high school
and got their start at a talent contest. And then the song begins. I take the headphones off and put them on Christopher. His mouth opens and closes, then his eyes open and he turns to look at me to share his surprise.

To share his surprise, not his anger, and surprise at the song, not at my having given him something. Nothing could be surprising in a gift from me and I cannot be doubting whether he ever was angry; nothing could be more certain. The seat belt sign turns off, a flick of hurt and then relief, like pulling out a sliver.

I take the headphones back, my timing right to hear Christopher introduce the next song,
True Darling, True
. The falsetto falters on the highest note, so vulnerable that he sounds achingly like a girl. At the chorus the harmonies drop away, the quartet sings in unison, and Christopher is right, there is something defiant in this a cappella innocence and beauty, something challenging and then enticing. It is as though the song leads me on, rushes me on and over the edge of a cliff, and if I look down I will see where I am and, like a cartoon character, plummet. But if I just listen I will be carried along by the song to its gorgeous end, and then I will hear Christopher again and the ground will be under me.


here he was in Cleveland. My father liked to use this expression for his life in those days: “I was still chasing the donkey, trying to pin the tail to it.” The donkey had led him away from New York and now, at last, he had his first real job on a newspaper, though it wasn't quite what he had expected, and he was beginning what he hoped would be a glorious career. If not glorious, then at least exciting, interesting. He saw himself as Don Quixote, the hero of the famous novel he had recently read, tilting at windmills – righting wrongs – not with a lance but a pen. First, though, he had to learn to type.

And he held in his hands the hearts of thousands of readers. That was his chief concern.

“My husband beats me and the children. What should I do?”

A reader had posed this question in a letter and my father considered his answer with gravity. If he advised her to be a dutiful wife and bear what her husband meted out, he might be sentencing her to a life of drudgery, frustration, and pain,
and possibly even worse for the children. On the other hand, what if he suggested she leave the man – what sort of life would she and her children face, without a roof over their heads and a source of food, clothing, and protection? Even the middle ground was fraught with danger, he could see: should he urge her to talk to her husband, to try to mollify him, she might instead provoke him into even more extreme acts of violence. Lives might well hang in the balance.

How to respond?

It was 1920, and my father was twenty-seven; as he liked to say, he was always a few years older than the century.

Cleveland Jewish World – Der Velt –
had a grand title, but the paper itself was somewhat less than grand. Its circulation was barely 50,000, just a fraction of that of the big Yiddish dailies of New York City, but it saw itself playing a role just as important in the lives of the Jews of Cleveland and other cities in Ohio, bringing them not just news but education, entertainment, and literature. It was that part that most interested my father, who had been writing a novel and poems, but he was assigned more mundane tasks at first, not the least of which were obituaries. He got a crash course in the history of Cleveland as he succinctly documented the lives of its Jewish residents as they died. “People are dying to get into our pages,” my father's boss, Everett Heshberg, told him. “It's the last time most of them ever will. Some of them, the first time too. Treat them with respect.”

My father's chief job, though, was as newswriter, another grand title that was somewhat less than it sounded.
The World
subscribed to the Associated Press newswire, which, of course, came in English. First thing in the morning, Heshberg, who as managing editor was the heart and soul of the paper, went through the overnight dispatches, selecting stories he thought would be of interest to his readers. These included local items of government, politics, human interest, and even crime – the same stories that on that day would appear (or already had the previous day) on the front pages of the Cleveland
Plain Dealer
, which had, in fact, originated most of the local and state
items. He also selected many stories from Europe, which was still recovering and reorganizing from the ravages of the Great War. Cleveland's Jews came from many parts of Europe – Germany, Romania, Russia, Hungary, Latvia, Galicia, and elsewhere – and were hungry for news of home, even if they no longer really considered those distant countries their home.

My father and another young man, who was somewhat senior to him, shared the translation duties, which he enjoyed. The trick was not so much to literally translate as to read the story, absorb it, and write it fresh in Yiddish as if the story was his own. My father was ideally suited for such a task, as he was fluent in both English and Yiddish, and could write quickly, though his two-finger attack at the typewriter was the cause of much amusement in
The World
newsroom. When he had time to spare, he practised ten-finger typing but it seemed hopeless.

There was little spare time, though.
The World
was an afternoon paper, meaning it appeared on the street shortly after noon. My father reported for work at 6 a.m. and wrote news till the 9:30 deadline. Then he turned his attention to the death notices sent in by the Jewish funeral homes. As Heshberg
had explained it to him, “Each death represents a life, and each life is a story.” Again, my father's job was to translate, taking the bare essentials of those lives – the facts provided by the families for the mortuaries – and turn them into interesting stories, occasionally taking liberties.

“Do not fabricate,” Heshberg counselled, “but bend.”

This suited my father fine, for he was attempting, as he saw it, to tailor the soul of a poet into the mind of a journalist. Each obituary, in his hands, became a poem.

News and obituaries occupied almost all of my father's time – after that day's paper was put to bed, as the expression went, the process would immediately begin again for the next day's edition – but they took up only a small part of the paper, which was mostly filled with articles by real writers on all manner of subjects: essays on philosophical and theological subjects, usually written by learned rabbis; treatises on history, civics, and politics; and educational articles that helped the Jewish immigrant community of Ohio in establishing their lives in this new world: how to apply for citizenship, how to get a driver's licence, the rights of a tenant, and so on. Then there were poems, short stories, condensed novels, literary criticism. This is what my father aspired to write, but he knew he had to earn the right to it. So he was both thrilled and chagrined when Heshberg asked him to write the advice column.

The newspapers of New York were filled with such columns, which were wildly popular. Abe Cahan, the great editor at
The Forward
, the Socialist paper, had invented the form, which he called the
Bintel Brief
, but all the other Yiddish papers had followed, even the religious papers, which at first considered themselves too serious for such a seemingly trivial feature. But
readers demanded it. Regardless of what paper they read, they had questions, often much the same ones. Even the English papers, like the
and the
in New York, seeing all the fuss, were quick to follow.

BOOK: The Journey Prize Stories 21
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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