The Prince of West End Avenue (6 page)

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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"Menshevik," muttered the Red Dwarf.

I began to warm to the idea. "Before we go to the Kommandant," I said, "we should sound out the other members of

the cast. After all, what if we are the sole dissidents? With numbers there is strength. Our purpose is to strike a blow for freedom, yes, certainly, but also for art. First, however, we must know where we stand with the others. If, as I suspect, they are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, and if we can impress this dissatisfaction upon the Kommandant, we will carry the day. What do you think?"

"Trotskyite," muttered the Red Dwarf.

We argued the matter back and forth, sometimes with acrimony, but at last decided upon a compromise. We would all sound out the other players. Meanwhile, the Red Dwarf would attend to logistics—that is, the most efficient means of securing the costumes, the makeup, the paints, the scenery. Hamburger would draw up a list of grievances for presentation to the Kommandant. And I? Why, I would reassign roles, not forgetful of poor Sinsheimer's conception of the play but prepared to superimpose my own vision on it.

This was the point the Revolutionary Council had reached when Blum entered Goldstein's Dairy Restaurant. Seeing us together, he naturally came over and sat down.

"What do you want?" said the Red Dwarf irritably.

"The Lee J. Cobb," said Blum.

Goldstein, who had overheard him, made signals to Joe.

"Things aren't working out," said Blum.

We three revolutionaries looked at one another significantly.

But of course Blum, being Blum, was talking about sexual conquest. Lately he had been laying siege for the heart (and other parts) of Hermione Perlmutter, but without success. He had invested, he wanted us to know, ten dollars in flowers and more than five in chocolates. "No dice": La Perlmutter remained coy. How much time could he afford to waste? "Now there, gentlemen," he said sadly, "is a sweet nooky."

"Because of the ordure, Blum, that in you passes for a brain," said Hamburger, "no one can blame you for what is engendered there. But in common decency you can keep such thoughts to yourself."

"Here, here," I said.

Blum sighed. "Anyone want to play dominoes?"

"Tell me, Blum," said the Red Dwarf. "You like being the Ghost?"

"Korner was better at it. To tell you the truth, I've always seen myself as Horatio: steadfast, loyal, true."

"And if I told you you could be Horatio?"

"Well, you know how it is. Lipschitz is in charge. What he says goes. It's not up to you."

"Gentlemen," said the Red Dwarf to Hamburger and me, "I know you have many things to do. Busy is busy. Don't hang around on our account. Blum here and me, we're going to play dominoes."

Hamburger and I rose to our feet. Goldstein, ever attentive, signaled to Joe.

"Blum is treating," said the Red Dwarf.

A SECOND CHARADE has arrived. I found it folded in my napkin at my place in the dining room. The only person to precede me to breakfast was Isabella Krauskopf y Guzman, who sat over her porridge. It is inconceivable that Sefiora Krauskopf y Guzman, long our oldest resident, could have secreted the missive or had anything to do with it. The sefiora has been off the list of solo-ambulants for more than twenty years. The tenacity with which she holds on to life is the wonder of the Emma Lazarus. The direct descendent of revolutionaries who fled from Bohemia to Chile in 1848, "Dona Isabella," as the domestic staff fondly call her, might have been a Spanish grandee of the purest blood. Frail though she is, she still holds

her back proudly erect; her eyes, sunk deep in a face wizened like a bleached prune, still flash disdain and hauteur. What blue-black hair she has retained is drawn back into a severe bun.

The aristocratic effect was somewhat marred this morning by blobs of porridge that stuck to her cheeks and dribbled down her chin, for the senora sometimes has trouble locating her mouth. Although obviously not guilty herself, she might nevertheless have seen someone placing the charade in my napkin. Accordingly, and as neutrally as I could, I pointed to the note and asked whether she knew how it came to be there.

One difficulty in talking to the senora is that she all too often responds with a remark culled from another conversation going on at the same time in her own head. Her eyes flashed beneath hooded lids. "In Patagonia," she said, "there you feel free. I read, much of the night, and go north in the winter."

The staff of the residents' dining room, of course, knew nothing and wanted to know less.

The text of the charade follows:

To give my first is sure to give offence, But may create a smile (in other sense). Who does my second doubtless finds his ease, But even if a czar must bend his knees. Together, I have proved to be quite deft At usurpation and at simple theft.

Well, I have not solved this one, either. But at last I have a way into the labyrinth, a modus operandi for finding the minotaur. The charade makes it plain that the name of the thief is composed of two elements, each of which has an independent meaning. Thus, for example, the name Krauskopf is composed of kraus ("curly") and A2»/>/("head"). So a charade based on the senora's name might divide its clues accordingly.

As for my modus operandi, I shall wheedle out of Selma in Personnel a complete list of all residents and staff at the Emma Lazarus. To attempt to assemble such a list myself is to run the risk of omissions. From Selma's list I shall produce one of my own, containing all those names that have two meaningful elements. And these names I shall test against the clues in the second charade, confirming what I shall surely discover against the unsolved riddle of the first. "The game's afoot!"

own feet, particularly in America. And so he found a small apartment for me on West Eighty-second Street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, and he furnished it from his own home, with the old, well-preserved pieces from Nuremberg, now for him too painfully evocative. A poker-playing friend of his was on the board of trustees at the library. For the next nine years I worked in the Searching Section of the Preparation Division, where I was in charge of a mountainous backlog of materials published in Germany between 1939 and 1945—yes, I am also aware of the irony! Meanwhile, with exquisite tact, Kenneth had settled a small annuity on me, my sister's private funds, he pretended, the income from which, he assured me, would in a few years provide the means for a modestly comfortable retirement. In this last, he told the truth. In 1949 I received a card from him postmarked Saint-Tropez. He was on his honeymoon. He hoped, he wrote, that I would continue to think well of him. (I did. I do.) And with that he disappeared from my life.

The Contessa was born Alice Krebs, third daughter of Shmuel and Reisele Krebs, proprietors of Krebs Famous Strictly-Kosher Meats and Poultry, on Avenue B, the Lower East Side, in 1898. She was the first of their eleven children to be born into the New World. In 1916, a year in which with romantic ardor I, in Zurich, pursued, and pursued in vain, the devastatingly beautiful Magda Damrosch, a year in which my passionate young heart throbbed upon the altar of love, in that very year Alice Krebs married Morris Gitlitz, ten years her senior, ritual slaughterer and, according to the Contessa, already a "world-class" Talmudic student. "A mitzvah a day keeps the Torah okay" was his cheery watchword.

It was an arranged marriage but successful for all that: "My father was no dope," the Contessa confided to me. In Morris (she pronounced the name "Meurice") "Poppa outdid himself: in him he found for me a saint." Perhaps Shmuel Krebs

had intuited that Meurice would shift by a kind of natural affinity from the profession of ritual slaughterer to the more rarefied profession of ritual circumciser. Such, at any rate, was Meurice's ascent. And since in those years, and in their crowd, large families were a cause for congratulation, not for disapprobation, and since, too, boy babies appeared with much the same frequency as girls, the Gitlitzes prospered. In 1922 they moved to the Bronx, the Grand Concourse, painting their apartment "passionate puce," in that year the color of the smart set.

But there was a single large and lowering cloud ever on the horizon of their marital bliss. Adonai elohenu had not blessed them with offspring, not even one, despite Meurice Gitlitz's frequent and enthusiastic efforts. They did not go to a doctor, neither wishing to be able to accuse the other of sterility. The Gitlitz line—he had only sisters—was doomed. Poor Alice Gitlitz! Where was she to direct her burgeoning creative energies? She wanted respect, and this, for a barren woman in her circle, was hard to come by. That was why she changed her name, Contessa being her second choice. Her first had been Principessa, but she was afraid that no one would pronounce it properly (except perhaps the Italian shoemaker on Fordham Road, but with him she was not on a first-name basis). So Contessa Gitlitz she became, legally: she had the paper to prove it. And soon after that she began to call Morris by the "classier" name, Meurice.

By 1953 Meurice had reached his sixty-fifth year. His hand-eye coordination was not what it had been. No longer was he the "Paganini of the Scalpel." There was talk of botched jobs, ugly rumors. It was time to retire. Financially secure, the Gitlitzes traveled south and moved into the Versailles, a condominium in Miami. Alas, Meurice's retirement was short-lived. In 1957 disaster struck: one morning before breakfast Meurice executed a perfect dive into the Versailles' "Olympic-size"

swimming pool, stayed underwater rather longer than usual, and eventually surfaced as a corpse. The Contessa, for forty years a wife, had become a widow.

I have given this account of the Contessa up until the time of her widowhood only because I want you to have something to put into the balance when I come to tell my own side of things. That is only just. Still, any reasonable person would think it unlikely that our paths, the Contessa's and mine, should ever cross, much less result in matrimony. Such a mismatching strains the credulity of even the most credulous. But note, please, the following: on the afternoon of June 30,1957,1 was given a small retirement party by some colleagues in the Preparation Division; on the morning of July 1, 1957, Meurice Gitlitz took his classic dive into Eternity. My first day of retirement was his last day of life! Coincidence or Purpose? The question answers itself. The stage had been cleared; a new act was about to begin.

I met the Contessa in Central Park, a fine spring morning in 1960. We shared a bench by the Alice in Wonderland statue. In the three years since my retirement I had continued to live, modestly and quietly, on West Eighty-second Street; in the three years since her widowhood the Contessa had acquired an apartment in Flushing ("a toehold," she said, "in the Big Apple") and now spent only the winter months in Miami. She needed, she said, the stimulation of the city. Besides, she had been born here; New York would always be her home. It was pleasant to sit in the sunshine and hear her babble on. We agreed to meet again, weather permitting, on the following day. I found her plumply attractive, a welcome point of focus for otherwise indistinguishable days. In the weeks that followed we attended matinees, went to concerts, movies. She began to cook for me. I enjoyed being reintroduced to kosher food, seeing again the candles lit on Friday night. She said I provided what was missing from her life: culture and refinement. Of the

saintly Meurice she had nothing but good to say, though she was forced to admit that in the "culture and refinement department" he had rather fallen short. "Your experience is different," she would muse. "You're European." I had for her "Continental charm," which is to say, simple politeness. Occasionally, the hour being late, she would spend the night at West Eighty-second Street, on the couch, of course. It was during this period of what I suppose I should call our courtship that I gained most of my knowledge about her past.

By August she was calling me Otto and I was calling her Contessa. In September she pointed out how foolish it was for two elderly people to be traveling almost every day between Flushing and Manhattan. (In point of fact, I had been to her apartment in Flushing only once. How shall I describe her building? There fat young women in large pink hair curlers ascended and descended in the elevator at all hours, always in the company of large mounds of laundry.) We got on well together, she added. She liked me, very much; she was sure I liked her. These were our "twilight years." Why should we not get married? Life would be simpler then.

The thought had not occurred to me. Still, as an idea it seemed to have its merits. She would make all the arrangements. Whom would I like to invite? No fuss, I insisted. Just the two of us. We would slip into marriage as into an old, comfortable shoe. Accordingly, we were married quietly in the study of Rabbi Ted Kaplan, spiritual leader of the Congregation Bnei Akiva, on West Ninety-eighth Street. Under the marriage canopy the Contessa smiled dreamily; I placed the ring on her finger without qualms.

We left immediately for Miami and her apartment in the Versailles ("very tasteful, every luxury"). I had never been to Florida before and was curious. We were greeted at the airport by some of her friends. A woman whose apartment was next door to the Contessa's expressed the hope that we would not

keep her up too late; a man in houndstooth shorts and a horizontally striped shirt told me lugubriously that I would have a hard time filling the shoes of the dead Meurice—"A hard time, get it?"—giving me a wink and a sharp nudge in the ribs.

The embarrassing fact is that I had given no thought whatever to this aspect of married life. Yes, I had supposed we would share a bed, but we were, after all, already in our sixties, I the precise age of Meurice at his retirement. Certainly the Contessa had not aroused in me even a faint sexual stirring. But there was my new wife, blushing and simpering, holding on to me tightly and saying things like, "We'll see what we will see" and "I only hope I have the strength."

Accuse me of ungallantry if you will, but I am bound to the truth. Undressed, the Contessa was a piece of grotesquerie. Like her rich blond curls, her teeth were not her own. Her breasts, once full, depended flatly, wanly, from her pronounced clavicles. Flaps of flesh hung, pitted, from her upper arms. She wore her stomach around her middle like an apron, beneath the bottom edge of which the few straggly white hairs of her pudenda sought not very successfully to assert themselves. Her every natural part yearned toward the ground as if exhausted from the struggle with gravity.

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
4.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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