Authors: Philip Roth
Across the street from the boys' back bedroom, on the other side of a high wire fence, was a Catholic orphanage with a small truck farm where the orphans worked when they weren't being taughtâand, as Nathan and his little friends understood it, being beaten with a stickâby the priests in the Catholic school. Two old dray horses also worked on the farm, a most unexpected sight in their neighborhood; but then the sight of a priest buying a pack of Luckies in the candy store downstairs, or driving by in a Buick with the radio on, was more unexpected still. What he knew about horses he knew from
about priests and nuns he knew even lessâonly that they hated the Jews. One of Zuckerman's first short stories, written in his freshman year of high school and called “Orphans,” was about a small Jewish boy with a bedroom window overlooking a Catholic orphanage, who wonders what it would be like to live behind their fence rather than his. Once a dark heavyset nun had come over from the orphanage to have his father cut away an ingrown toenail. After she left, Nathan had waited (in vain) for his mother to go into his father's office with a pail and a rag to clean the door handles the nun had touched coming and going. He had never been more curious about anything in his life than about the nun's unshod feet, but his father said nothing that evening within hearing distance of the children, and at six, Nathan was neither young enough nor old enough to go ahead and ask what they looked like. Seven years later the nun's visit became the centerpiece of “Orphans,” a short-short story sent out to the editors of
The Saturday Evening Post,
under the ersatz name Nicholas Zack, and for which he received his first set of rejection slips.
Instead of going directly back to New York, he instructed the driver to follow the sign that said “Newark,” postponing for just a while longer the life of the Nathan Zuckerman whom the mute inglorious little Zack had rather surprisingly become. He guided him along the highway and up the ramp to Frelinghuysen Avenue; then past the park and the tip of the lake where he and Henry had learned to ice-skate, and up the long Lyons Avenue hill; past the hospital where he had been born and circumcised, and on toward that fence that had been his first subject. His driver was armed. The only way, according to Pepler, to enter this city anymore.
Zuckerman pushed the button that lowered the glass partition. “What sort of weapon do you carry?” he asked the driver.
“A .38, sir.”
“Where do you carry it?”
He slapped his right hip. “Like to see it, Mr. Z.?”
Yes, he should see it. Seeing is believing and believing is knowing and knowing beats unknowing and the unknown.
The driver hiked up his jacket and unsnapped a holster hooked to his belt, a holster not much larger than an eyeglass case. When they stopped for a light, he held up in his right hand a tiny handgun with a snub black barrel.
What is Art? thought Zuckerman.
“Anybody comes within ten feet of this baby is in for a big surprise.”
The pistol smelled of oil. “Freshly cleaned,” said Zuckerman.
“On the range, sir, last night.”
“You can put it away now.”
Predictably the two-story apartment building where he'd first lived struck him as a lilliputian replica of the red-brick canopied fortress he'd have described from memory. Had there been a canopy? If so, it was gone. The building's front door was also gone, torn from its hinges, and, to either side of the missing door, the large windows looking into the foyer had lost their glass and were boarded over. There was exposed wiring where once there had been two lamps to light your way in, and the entryway itself was unswept and littered with trash. The building had become a slum.
Across the street, the tailor shop had become a store for idol worshippersâholy statuary on display in the window, along with other “Spiritual Supplies.” The corner storefront, once a grocery, was now owned and occupied by the Calvary Evangelistic Assembly, Inc. Four stout black women with shopping bags were standing and talking at the bus stop. In his early childhood, four black women at the bus stop would have been domestics up from Springfield Avenue to clean for the Jewish women in the Weequahic neighborhood. Now they left the neighborhood, where they themselves lived, to clean for the Jewish women in the suburbs. Except for the elderly trapped in nearby housing projects, the Jews had all vanished. So had almost everyone white, including the Catholic orphans. The orphanage appeared to have been converted into some sort of city school, and there was a small new nondescript building on the corner where the truck farm had been. A bank. Looking around, he wondered who banked there. But for candles, incense, and holy statuary, nothing seemed to be for sale any longer on Lyons Avenue. There didn't seem to be anywhere to buy a loaf of bread or a pound of meat or a pint of ice cream or a bottle of aspirin, let alone a dress or a watch or a chair. Their little thoroughfare of shops and shopkeepers was dead.
Just what he wanted to see. “Over,” he thought. All his lyrical feeling for the neighborhood had gone into
It had toâthere was no other place for it. “Over. Over. Over. Over. Over. I've served my time.”
He had the driver cruise slowly down the block toward Chancellor Avenue, the way he'd walked each morning to school. “Stop,” he said, and looked up an alleyway between two houses to the garage where the superintendent's wayward daughter, Thea, and the grocer's daughter, Doris, had enticed him one day by telling him how pretty he was. 1939? 1940? When they shut the garage doors he feared the worstâhis mother had warned him that Thea was too “developed” for her age, and no one had to remind him that she was Christian. But all Thea made him do was stand beside a big black grease spot and repeat everything she said. The words meant little to him but a great deal obviously to Thea and the grocer's daughter, who couldn't stop giggling and hugging each other. It was his first strong experience of the power of language and of the power of girls; as the orphanage fence beyond his bedroom window was the first momentous encounter with caste and chance, with the mystery of a destiny.
A young black man, his head completely shaved, stepped out of one of the houses with a German shepherd and stared down from the stoop at the chauffeur-driven limousine in front of his alleyway, and at the white man in the back seat who was looking his place up and down. A chain fence surrounded the three-story house and the little garden of weeds out front. Had the fellow cared to ask, Zuckerman could without any trouble have told him the names of the three families who lived in the flats on each floor before World War II. But that wasn't what this black man wished to know. “Who you supposed to be?” he said.
“No one,” replied Zuckerman, and that was the end of that. You are no longer any man's son, you are no longer some good woman's husband, you are no longer your brother's brother, and you don't come from anywhere anymore, either. They skipped the grade school and the playground and the hot-dog joint and headed back to New York, passing on the way out to the Parkway the synagogue where he'd taken Hebrew lessons after school until he was thirteen. It was now an African Methodist Episcopal Church.
BOOKS BY PHILIP ROTH
When She Was Good
The Great American Novel
My Life as a Man
Reading Myself and Others
The Professor of Desire
The Ghost Writer
A Philip Roth Reader
Philip Roth was born in New Jersey in 1933. He studied literature at Bucknell University and the University of Chicago. His first book,
won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1960. He has lived in Rome, London, Chicago, New York City, Princeton, and New England. Since 1955, he has been on the faculties of the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he is now Adjunct Professor of English. He is also General Editor of the Penguin Books series “Writers from the Other Europe.” Recently he has been spending half of each year in Europe, traveling and writing.
Copyright Â© 1981 by Philip Roth
All rights reserved
Published simultaneously in Canada by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., Toronto
Sections of this book appeared in somewhat different form in
The Atlantic, The New Yorker,
Library of Congress catalog card number: 81â4640
First eBook edition: May 2013