The Prince of West End Avenue (2 page)

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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believe in Order or in Fate or in the God of our Fathers to believe in Purpose. When at a royal ball an aide whispered in Prince Metternich's ear that the Czar of all the Russias was dead, the Prince is reported to have mused, "I wonder what his purpose could have been." Sinsheimer, now in Mineola, perhaps knows.

little consideration for Nahum wouldn't hurt either. He takes over from poor Adolphe not only the role of Prince but the role of director also. So maybe you should think twice before you open your mouth."

Hamburger shot Lottie a look of disgust. He would not deign to reply.

Lipschitz licked his lips. "Let me reason with him, Lottie. An objection is an objection. A director I may be, but a Stalin I'm not." And he embarked upon an apologia that wound its way like a wounded snake through intractable underbrush.

"Enough!" Hamburger held up his hand. "Dr. Comyns is on duty, Lipschitz. I diagnose an acute case of verbal diarrhea. Go see if he can give you something for it." He got up and made for the door, pausing only to point a pudgy finger at Lipschitz: "On the day of your birth, you were accurately named!" The door slammed behind him.

I, of course, adhering to my policy of aloofness from the fray, said nothing. Besides, I had experienced a sudden glimmering of understanding, like a small, dull light momentarily glimpsed through swirling mists. True, it was gone before I could locate it. But it left me convinced that there was purpose, too, in all my change of roles. Things were coming together. What things? We would see. I was to be the Gravedigger.

As A BOY—a prepubescent, we would unblushingly say today—I was always losing parts of myself. Tonsils, an appendix: those, of course, were normal. But I also lost a little toe, my left: earlobe, the tip of a finger. Nothing essential, you understand. And I can't say I remember any pain associated with "Otto's accidents," no lasting traumata. "He'll grow out of it, Frieda, don't make such a fuss," Manya, my maiden aunt, told my mother firmly. "I only hope," moaned my mother, "there'll still be something left of him."

I was reminded of these boyhood misfortunes by a devastating discovery this morning: my letter from Rilke has disappeared! Rilke, the most sublime of German poets! I've looked everywhere, turned my room upside down. Lost and Found knows nothing of it. The maids, if in fact they understand my rusty Castilian, claim not to have seen it. Naturally, for so important a loss—a theft?—I went to the Kommandant's office, pushing my way past his receptionist. In vain. The Kom-mandant was unmoved, impenetrable, a Philistine. Why was I making such a brouhaha? He was sure the letter would turn up. I grew incoherent. To my shame, I wept, I could not stop myself. The Kommandant grew severe. If I allowed myself to become so upset over nothing— nothing! —I would soon be unable to continue in rehearsals. He gave me a sedative and ordered me to go and lie down. He would look in on me later.

The pill seems to have worked.

Two WEEKS HAVE PASSED since I wrote that last sentence. I have been ill, bedridden. The headaches persisted and the constipation gave way to painful stomach cramps. There were other complications: for example, a heavy numbness in my left arm. But all that is over, and I am happy to report that I am now convalescent. What remains is a slight dizziness and a new weakness in the legs.

Hamburger has been in to see me. Also Lipschitz. He was very decent, assuring me that the role of the Gravedigger remains mine. Ordinarily, removal from the list of solo-ambulants means automatic removal from the play. But he had spoken on my behalf, he said, with the Kommandant and had managed to secure my place. He brought with him a bouquet of flowers and the good wishes of the cast.

My letter has still not "turned up."

What a catastrophe of a life! To have started at the pinna-

!3

cle, an established man of letters before one's career had properly begun, at nineteen a book of poems already published, Days of Darkness, Nights of Light, an article in the cultural section of the Niirnberger Freie Presse!

I came across an English translation of one of my poems in a secondhand bookshop some years ago. It was in a volume with the doomed title Silver Poets of Germany, 1870-1914: A Pre-War Anthology (London, 1922). Obviously I had scrambled through just under the wire. The book was thick with dust and falling apart; for twenty-five cents it was mine. Here is a sample of what a German Silver Poet sounds like in translation:

The roots dig deep,

Thrust through the shattered skull,

Drink water from the rock,

Embrace the shards of lost millennia. . . .

"But what does it mean, Otto?" I hear my father, the bourgeois literalist, asking doubtfully. To be honest, I'm not sure I myself knew; certainly I've no idea today what it meant. My poems were the vague gropings and premonitions of a very young man, expressions of feeling and thought utterly divorced from experience in the world.

But I tell you I can still feel something of the Wun-derkind's exultation as I held tremulously my first published offspring, buckram the color of dark moss, and gold-stamped. Its crisp freshness is still in my nostrils, the riffle of its pages in my ears.

The reviewers were generous. A bright future was forecast for me. Kapsreiter proclaimed me a "bold new voice in a sluggish season"; Drobil welcomed me to the Groves of Parnassus—something of a witticism since this was the name of a coffee shop in Berlin frequented by writers and poets, where he himself held a regular table. But to me most exciting of all was the letter from Rilke, a poet of infinite subtlety and

sensibility, offering warm praise for my "precocious talent." No, I did not lack for encouragement.

Even so, to have immediately submitted an article on poetry to the cultural editor of the Niirnberger Freie Presse required a wayward impudence, a youthful hubris, a chutzpah that still leaves me breathless! The NFP, after all, spoke with an authority in Europe in those days matched only by the Times of London. To appear in the cultural section was to etch one's words in adamantine rock. Max Frankenthaler, the editor then, was a man of colossal energy and integrity, and of extraordinary intellectual rigor. His contributors were the giant voices of Europe: Zola, yes, but also Shaw, Gide, Ibsen. In the NFP my parents' generation found those opinions they could with confidence adopt as their own: liberal enlightenment in the van, comfortably supported by the massed troops of conservatism in the rear. A young writer of quite exceptional talent might reasonably hope to appear in the literary pages at the back of the NFP, but in the cultural section, the feuilleton, the bottom half of the front page, separated from the ephemeral political twaddle of the day by a thick black line that ran from margin to margin? And yet Frankenthaler accepted my article. I was nineteen, for heaven's sake!

The moment in the breakfast room that morning was surely the happiest of my life. We sit around the table, Mother, Aunt Manya, my sister Lola, my father, chatting of this and that. Polished wood, white linen, gleaming silverware, a warm breeze fluttering the curtains at the window. The breakfast smells mingle with the aroma of my father's cigar. In comes the maid with the morning's letters and the NFP; she places them on the table at my father's left hand. I feel my knees begin to tremble. "A little more coffee, Kati, if you please," says Mother. Aunt Manya tells Lola that she will meet her after school for a visit to the dentist. Lola makes a face. Father glances at the front page of his paper. Consternation! I laugh out loud. There

before him is the name of his own son, a boy whose opinions until this moment have been automatically dismissed. The phone begins to ring: our friends and relatives have also been looking at the NFP. For months my mother was to carry that article with her in her purse, showing it to anyone she could buttonhole.

The descent from the heights was almost immediate. There were to be no more volumes of poetry, no more articles in the NFP. The feuilleton that had emblazoned my name among the worthies appeared on the edge of the abyss, a bare fortnight before the events of Sarajevo hurled us all into the darkness. My fate too, it seems, was bound up with that of the Austrian archduke.

The letter from Rilke, retained under glass first in my father's study and then in my own, miraculously preserved even in the concentration camps, yellowed and almost indecipherable along its creases, a spot of warmth between my bones and my rags, that letter is now gone, swallowed up in the maw of the Emma Lazarus.

Shirley Temple, in waistless frocks cinctured with satin sashes, shiny-black Mary Janes and cotton anklets. Her long, frizzy hair she ties back from her moon-round face with a velvet ribbon. In these seminars, she likes to take on the role of the martyr, receiving with painful joy the exasperated and sometimes heated responses she invites us to batter her with. She will make some outrageous, indefensible comment, and when she is challenged ("But what about xandy, to say nothing of z?"), she will assert in a high-pitched squeak, "I know nothing about that, and I don't think I need to. My bubba used to say ..." At times she is driven to tear at her hair with her tiny claws, throw her round head back, and implore the ceiling, high above which no doubt her gnomic bubba is looking down, "Why must they twist everything I say?"

Once I found myself telling Hermione that her intellectual pretensions were placing my entire alimentary system at risk—that, in short, she was a pain. Her pain, however, seemed to me at the time transmuted into excruciating pleasure. "Oh, oh, oh," she said. Still, I don't think she likes me.

But last night's topic was, for reasons I have yet to divulge, of considerable interest to me. I am sorry I missed it. Blum's attention, of course, had been on Hermione's "boobs."

How I long to find myself enrolled once more on the list of solo-ambulants!

doctor that sleeping pills should no longer be a necessary part of my regimen. The fact is, I can't sleep without them, but with them my bad dreams have returned, after all these years. What they contain, I have never known; I know only that I awaken from them in terror, my heart shuddering against my rib cage, gasping for air. The bed is soaked, not alone from the sweat that has been wrung from my withered flesh. Terror gives way to shame: the price for a few hours of drugged sleep is too high.

At any rate, I continued my little deception for a few moments and secretly watched them. Events had indeed been moving forward at the Emma Lazarus. They stood side by side, hovering over me, holding hands and gazing not at the poor convalescent but into one another's eyes. She was caressing his hip with hers, a slow, exquisitely erotic motion. From where I lay, I could not help noticing the effect she was having on him. The foolish jealousy I felt at that moment was scarcely diluted by my certainty of the outcome of this affair: she would break his heart, or what passed in him for such an organ, as she had broken mine, and the hearts of who knew how many others. Ah, Magda, Magda! Meanwhile, well within arm's reach above my bed were her fine breasts, pushing against the material of her dress. Between the buttons and the straining cloth I swear I saw a triangle of warm, dark, swelling flesh! It would have been so easy, so very easy, simply to put up my hand. I longed to join the lovers in their ecstasy. I wanted to plug into them as into an electric circuit. Instead, I coughed and opened my eyes wide. They sprang apart.

Comyns had, at least, the grace to blush. Not so my Magda, who smiled and raised her left brow. "Well, young man," she said, "and how are we this morning?"

Just like that: "Well, young man"! I almost fainted; I don't know what I stuttered in reply. You see, that was what she used

to call me all those years ago! Just so: "junger Mann," in her delightful Hungarian accent. "Talk only when you're spoken to, junger Mann"; "Ach, junger Mann, how boring you are!" Tell me, how did this child from Cleveland know that?

Comyns used his stethoscope and felt my pulse. His fingers were as cold as the metal disk. "You're as healthy as I am," he said. "All you need is a little exercise."

"Ah, but I'll still need my sleeping pills," I said cunningly. "Please, doctor, I'll still need them."

"Not on your life. No more goldbricking." He wagged a finger at me in mock admonition. "You some kind of junkie?"

Success!

Meanwhile, I am to avoid all excitement—what idiocy!— and to do as I am ordered by my therapist, a specialist in whom—here Comyns blushed once more—he has the greatest confidence.

Now it was Magda's turn. She pulled back the covers before I could stop her and revealed my shame. "Tsk, tsk." I closed my eyes. "Let's see now." She bent my arms, raised them, squeezed the muscles; she did the same with my legs. One would have sworn she knew what she was doing. "All right, now let's see what you can do." And I was made to walk around my room, a performing animal, stand in place and bend my legs, swing my arms like a drum majorette, arch my back. At the end of this demonstration of my limberness, the room was spinning. I tried to mask the rising nausea by leaning casually, unconcernedly, against the bureau. She turned to Comyns and they nodded at one another, two specialists of one mind.

"Okay," said the doctor, "tomorrow, you're a solo-ambulant. Congratulations. You can be real proud of yourself. Today, you go for a walk with Miss Dattner." He showed his teeth and narrowed his eyes. "You're on your honor, now: keep your hands to yourself."

"We've got a date," she said. "Eleven sharp, in the lobby. We'll take a stroll along Riverside Drive, look at the birds and the bees, see if they're up to their old tricks." She and the doctor were in lockstep.

"Watch out for him, now, Miss Dattner," said Comyns. "I'm told he's pretty hot stuff."

She winked at me. "Remember, eleven sharp."

"In the lobby," I said.

I watched them contrive to rub against one another as they left my room. How hateful they were! Rage boiled within me. How defenseless we are, we "old folk," in a world of the young. To them I was not a man, equipped with intelligence and feeling. I was a "character," a caricature; more accurately, perhaps, I was a child, incapable of following fully an adult conversation whose nuances were deemed to be well beyond my supposedly immature understanding.

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
8.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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