The Prince of West End Avenue (7 page)

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
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But it is unfair to go on in this way, unseemly. Poor soul, she is not to be blamed for time's wintry attack upon the summer bloom of her lost youth. Do not for a moment suppose that I am proud of what I am writing here. The Contessa, I insist, was a decent, loving woman, a good wife. Nor, to go further, was I such a bargain in the Adonis department. At age 65, a natural decrepitude had made its depressing and relentless advances. We were well matched, I assure you. But before the Contessa, my last personal experience of woman had been of my first wife, Meta, still young and achingly lovely. "Look first upon this picture, and on this." Ach, it is impossible to say just what I mean.

Had I grown old along with her, as had her saintly Meurice, such details might not have pricked the bubble of contentment. Disfigurements accumulated slowly over years might have proved invisible; after all, "Love sees not with the eyes." But to have these deplorable mysteries displayed before him of a sudden, swaying sickeningly above him—thrust upon him, so to speak, by an aging woman insistent upon her nuptial rights—this is for an aging man to suffer the hell of instant emasculation. I shall say nothing of the seductive maneuvers wherewith she tried to recall to life my shattered libido, the sights and the sounds, the desperate encouragements. For a full week she persisted in her efforts:

Nay, but to live In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty!

After the first week she gave up, sobbing pitifully by my side while I pretended sleep.

One learns in time to submit oneself to Purpose, not to question it. Yet would it not have been better all around if the Plan had called for Freddy Blum, not me, to meet her at the Alice in Wonderland statue?

My fingers grow cramped from grasping the pen. Of our life together and of her death, more anon.

The gap that stands in view rvvixt hip and tits Can soon be closed in rhyme by clever wits. How curious that a self-styled intellectual In following clues should prove so ineffectual!

How now to proceed? I sense that I am being manipulated for ends other than my own. Suppose I solved the riddles: what then? Am I to confront the person thus accused? And if he denies the charge? And if he sues me for defamation of character, for slander?

My thoughts turn more and more frequently to the author of the charades. These thoughts are becoming obsessive, a condition I must guard against. It seems to me my current persecutor should be easier to discover than the thief. He has, despite his cleverness, left certain clues behind. I know, for example, that he is a man, which fact eliminates at a stroke half the population of the Emma Lazarus. How do I know? No one but a man would have followed me into the mens downstairs cloakroom to drop the third charade into my jacket pocket! I know other details about the would-be mystifier. He is a man adept at word-games, scrabble, perhaps: we have an annual tournament; crossword puzzles surely, particularly of the English kind. He is probably, although not certainly, native-born: witness his ability to compress his thought into idiomatic cum formally "poetic" English. This last point suggests he knows of my early years, he has done his research: why else should he choose verse for his medium? I have told only the Komman-dant and (necessarily) the domestic staff of my loss. Of course, in a community as close as ours the news would soon circulate. Nevertheless, one must know something of the importance of Rilke for the letter itself to have any significance. This man must know.

To be honest, I have suspected Hamburger as the author of the charades. The word ordure in the first of them, for

example, and the vulgarity of the third point to my friend. But for Hamburger, vulgarity is not inborn. It is rather a mask he put on years ago to protect himself from who knows what dangers and that has now grown into his flesh. It is clear that Hamburger is motivated by integrity, not malice. Besides, he is not native born, and he has never shown any interest in word-games, let alone poetic composition. Another point: he was with me when the first charade was slipped under my door. And besides all this, I like him.

No. I quit the search. If I recover the letter, so; if not, so. Hie arma repono.

sitting with us when Hamburger came in and joined us at the table. Lipschitz was there, too. What were we doing, you will ask, sitting with Lipschitz in the first place? A matter of simple courtesy, a token of civilization. When Blum, the Red Dwarf, and I arrived, Lipschitz was already at the big table, alone, with not one of his toadies in evidence. He looked at us, we looked at him: a standoff. He indicated his table. Naturally, we joined him.

Goldstein signaled to Joe, who shuffled over with Hamburger's regular, coffee with a dollop of whipped cream.

"The Barbra Streisand, Joe, heavy on the sauce."

"Come again?"

"You heard."

"You got it."

There were raised eyebrows. The Barbra Streisand is a mixture of finely chopped raw pike and carp, delicately seasoned and artistically pressed into the shape of a fish. A pimiento-stuffed green olive serves as the eye, a wavy sliver of green pepper as the gills. The sauce combines crushed cucumber, yoghurt, and a dash of English mustard. So far, so good. But Goldstein, for whatever reason, has listed this dish on his menu, along with the Elizabeth Taylor and the Shelley Winters, under the heading "Diva Delights."

"So, Hamburger," sneered Lipschitz, "you've gone completely over to the other side?" He flicked his tongue between his lips, darting his reptilian eyes at us for approval.

Blum tittered.

"Meaning?" said Hamburger ominously.

"Every day is ladies' day for you?"

"Food is a matter of gender now, bubble-brain?"

"Bravo!" said the Red Dwarf. "Stick it to them, the lickspittle Zionist hypocrites." He turned to Lipschitz. "On your kibbutz a woman can't eat a Tony Curtis?"

"From what I know of Tony Curtis," said Blum, "many of them did."

"For God's sake, Blum," I said.

Lipschitz, sensing that he was in the minority, licked his lips nervously and said nothing.

The tension was broken by the arrival of the Barbra Streisand. We all stared at it.

"Beautiful," said Goldstein. And in fact, so it was. But honesty compels me to record that there was something inexplicably outre about it, something frivolous and unmanly. Ridiculous, of course, but the Barbra Streisand is to the Tony Curtis what a snifter of creme de menthe is to a glass of vodka. "So eat," said Goldstein. "Enjoy." We watched Hamburger in a silence broken only by the click-clack of his knife and fork, until the fish shape was no longer recognizable.

"Well?" Goldstein wanted to know.

"Not bad, Goldstein, not bad."

A flurry of signals to Joe and our cups were refilled.

"Talking offish reminds me of a story," said Goldstein. "A Jew goes to his rabbi, it's just before Purim. He says, 'Rabbi, what am I to do? My wife refuses now to keep kosher. You want kosher, she tells me, you got to get yourself a new wife.' Wait, this one's a scream."

"How many times, Goldstein?" said Hamburger wearily. "How many times?"

Goldstein sighed.

We watched Hamburger until he was finished, his knife and fork neatly lined up on an empty plate. He wiped his lips fastidiously with his napkin, looking up at us under angry brows. "Well, what are you waiting for? You expect me to go to the powder room?"

Goldstein, knowing nothing of recent events at the Emma Lazarus Old Vic, and anxious, no doubt, to achieve a mood of

bonhomie, turned to Lipschitz. "So tell me, Nahum, how's the play coming along?"

"We're managing," said Lipschitz curtly.

"He needs a couple gravediggers," said the Red Dwarf.

"And a Fortinbras," said Hamburger.

"Maybe a couple other players," said the Red Dwarf.

' 'Why, this it is, when men are rul'd by women,' " I said half to myself.

Lipschitz heard me. "Speak up, Korner. You got something to say, we should all get the benefit." He darted his head at me, his cheeks an angry red.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," said Goldstein pacifically, "forget I said anything. Is it my business? A friendly question, was all."

"They put you up to it."

"As God is my witness, Nahum."

"Sure, sure."

"I don't even know what we're talking about."

"We're talking Hamlet" said the Red Dwarf. "We're talking Tosca Dawidowicz, we're talking Mineola."

"Take it from me, Nahum," said Blum. "I've been there. Such a good lay you should sell your soul she's not."

"Whatever she is, Blum," said Hamburger, "she's also a lady. For that reason alone you should watch your tongue."

"Lady shmady, in that department I think I know what I'm talking. Look at you, sniffing after Hermione Perlmutter. What do you smell? You think it's incense? Lift both their skirts, you'll find the same thing."

Hamburger turned purple. With his fist clenched, he lunged at Blum, who ducked back, knocking his cup to the floor, where it shattered.

"For God's sake!" said Goldstein, signaling to Joe. "Are we savages?" There was a sudden silence in the restaurant as the

few diners at the other tables looked at us in alarm. "You want to fight, you go outside."

"You shut your mouth, Blum, or I shut it for you!"

"Ignore him," I told Hamburger. "You know what he is. Calm down, you'll do yourself a mischief."

Blum, considerably cowed, bit his lip and lapsed into silence.

"Tosca has nothing to do with it," said Lipschitz. "I stand behind every one of the changes."

"What changes?" said Goldstein.

Briefly, I told him.

"That's ridiculous," said Goldstein.

"Listen who's talking ridiculous," sneered Lipschitz. "You know how to run a restaurant. How to put on a play, thank you very much, /know."

"I've devoted my life to the stage!" Goldstein gestured to the walls covered with theater posters and photographs, many of them signed, of theatrical personalities. "You think these mean nothing? The Adlers themselves were not so high and mighty they wouldn't listen to my advice." His voice rose, trembling with fury. "I've forgotten more about the theater than any of you clowns will ever know."

"Get stuffed, Goldstein," said Lipschitz.

Goldstein sprang to his feet. "Out of my restaurant, all of you!" he screamed. "Get out!"

"Lipschitz will apologize," I said. "He got carried away. Calm down."

"Why should we get out?" said Lipschitz. "This is a public restaurant."

"You want to see how public?" screamed Goldstein, livid, the veins in his temples throbbing. "You want to find out? Stay there. I'm going to phone the police, they'll tell you." He tripped over Joe, who was picking up the shards of Blum's

coffee cup, and fell to the floor. I offered him a hand, which he struck aside. There were tears in his eyes. "Get out!"

There was nothing for it. We left the restaurant and scattered.

LlPSCHITZ MUST HAVE GOTTEN WIND of our little enterprise. Well, that is not in itself surprising, what with the many wagging tongues of the Emma Lazarus. And I do not imagine that Hamburger—let alone the Red Dwarf!—has approached his quota of players with the degree of tact and discretion that so delicate a subject calls for. At any rate, Lipschitz stopped me in the hall this evening, right after Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. "So, friend," he said, "when do the gravediggers return to work?"

The hall, which runs from the lounge to the dining room, is wide and well lighted. On its walls are displayed various pictures on Jewish themes, the work of residents past and present: a haunting photograph of the Vilna ghetto, a weak water-color of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, a mosaic made up of tiny pieces cut from matzo boxes depicting a Middle European seder. Certainly it is impossible to hold a conversation there and expect not to be seen. This Lipschitz must have known.

"As for me, I have not yet made up my mind," I said, pulling away from his slimy grasp, anxious to be gone. "You will kindly remember, I agreed to play in Shakespeare's Hamlet, not in Tosca Dawidowicz's. Not even in yours. There are questions of literary integrity here that I, for one, take very seriously. As for the Red Dwarf, he must speak for himself."

As it happened, the Red Dwarf was hurrying past at that moment. Friday is boiled chicken night, and he dearly loves a drumstick. He eyed us with grave suspicion.

Lipschitz waved his hand airily, dismissing him. "Poliakov is no loss."

The Red Dwarf grinned nastily. "Cossack!" he hissed at me, and hurried on, food for thought being no substitute for the real thing.

Lipschitz drew me aside. "Listen, a little goodwill on your side, a little on mine, we can iron out our differences. What's so important it should come before the production? Cooperation is what I'm talking about; personalities, we don't need. If this one plows the field and that one makes the dinner, another keeps the accounts and still another stands with his rifle in the watchtower, each is working for the good of all. No big, no small. Any other way, the Arabs will be raping our women and cutting off our balls."

"On this particular kibbutz," I told him, "equality is achieved in other ways."

"All right," he said, "let's talk candidly." Lipschitz's lizard head darted this way and that. His tongue flicked his lips. "What I was thinking was this: a man like you, Korner, is valuable to the production. Such a man should be second only to me myself in authority. Here's what I'm offering: return to rehearsals, and you're my understudy. If anything, God forbid, happens to me, you're Hamlet! This I shall announce to the entire company."

He was trying to bribe me! My cheeks burned with shame.

"Wait," he went on. "That's not all. Come back to us and I'll make you my codirector. This, too, I shall announce. Think about it, don't answer right away. God forbid anything happens to me, you sit in the director's chair, no questions asked." He paused; his tongue flicked his lips. "That's my best ofTer."

One does not have to do with such a man. I turned on my heel and walked away. Still, I can only admire his cunning: we had been seen in private conversation by many of the residents on their way to dinner. The possible political implications of this meeting would set beaks atwitter all around the Emma Lazarus, the factions shifting and realigning: "Just a parley

BOOK: The Prince of West End Avenue
2.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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