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Vol. 6, No. 2

The Argument
by Rachel Kadish

Kreutzer reads in the newspaper. Sipping coffee that is lukewarm, he reads about a thing called False Memory Syndrome. This is a new syndrome, just discovered. It happens when something terrible a person thinks they remember turns out not to have happened after all. Kreutzer sighs. Imagine. Such relief.
     The quote from one of the girls interviewed in the paper reminds him of someone, he can’t think who. “But if it never happened,” the girl says, “why do I feel so terrible?”

~

Jacobson’s room in the nursing home is decorated in pastels. He wears a stained powder-blue sweater; there is a yellow scarf across his legs. The colors of springtime.
     Today Jacobson’s mind has turned to opposites. “What is the opposite of a curtain?” he asks his guest.
     Leaning heavily against the wall, Kreutzer breathes. The long flight of stairs has tired him. He looks at the sun-filled curtains.
     “A carpet,” Jacobson answers. He bobs his bald head at Kreutzer. There are crumbs in his beard.
     Kreutzer clears his throat. He is not a cruel man, but he has a job to do. There is a reason Kreutzer needs to quiz Jacobson: in his former life Jacobson was also known as Rabbi Harold Jacobson. And a rabbi never stops being a rabbi, even when he thinks the president of the Women’s Division is her dead great-grandmother. Even when he tells the sexton in front of the man’s entire family: I always liked you more than I liked your wife. You have a sense of humor but she is wretched. Even ten years after his congregation and his own weary brain have fired him, a rabbi is still a rabbi. Especially when he knows the location of the deed to the land the synagogue stands on.
     Which paperwork the synagogue needs if it is to avoid extra legal fees for the new building.
     The congregation is ready to give up on the deed. It is digging into its pockets and hiring a lawyer. A search of the synagogue’s files has revealed nothing. This is no surprise; the rabbi made it his habit to hide important documents in places known only to himself. Now Jacobson’s mind has sailed to the highest branch of a tree and will not be coaxed back to earth. Even the rabbi’s oldest friends have given up, not only on deeds but on words—it is impossible to have a conversation with the man.
     Kreutzer, standing in his bathrobe in the kitchen while the president of the congregation made his plea over the telephone, toyed with this notion: the congregation was asking him to visit Jacobson in the hope it would spur Kreutzer, widower that he is, to become active in the synagogue once more. After brief reflection, however, Kreutzer found it unlikely the congregation hoped this. He finds it more likely the congregants think that because he and Jacobson are the same age, Kreutzer can enter the maze of the rabbi’s mind. Kreutzer is not certain whether to be insulted.
     But he agreed. And now he must do, although it will not be pleasant. The rabbi, as the president of the congregation informed him, is unaccustomed to visitors. Only the rebbetzin still comes, she knits beside her husband’s bed; wife and husband do not always, Kreutzer knows, need words. As for the rabbi’s son, he lives too far to visit—so says the rebbetzin, who loves her boy. The son, everyone knows, lives someplace far from Jersey City, someplace where there is snow that he skis on. Worse, the son moved to this someplace with a black girl. His wife. Together they ski. Kreutzer tries to imagine. Black people should not ski. They have no camouflage. Jews also, Kreutzer thinks, should not ski. If God meant them to ski He would have chosen Norway for a promised land. He would have written it in one of His books. The Book of Skis.
     “What is the opposite of a Dorito?” Jacobson picks a chip from his lunch tray.
     The man was a rabbi, thinks Kreutzer. He had conversations with God.
     Rabbi Jacobson turns the chip in his palm, forlorn.
     “Jacobson.” Kreutzer leans forward, hands on his knees. Jacobson’s gaze drifts in his direction like a rudderless ship. “Rabbi.”
     The rabbi’s face registers alarm. Then, as Kreutzer waits, the rabbi grows solemn. “You may be seated,” he says.
     “Rabbi, I have a question for you.”
     But it is no good asking. The rabbi’s head refuses to crack open like an oyster, revealing the tiniest pearl of information. The rabbi has never heard of a deed. He has never heard, it turns out, of a synagogue.
     Kreutzer takes out the book he has brought: a holy book. Perhaps with some study of familiar words he will lull Jacobson into memory. All those years of training, of devout study, surely are lodged somewhere in the rabbi’s mind. And if the rabbi can summon these memories, perhaps he will summon others. Unless—the thought gives Kreutzer pause—this contemplation of opposites is a code. Could it be that the rabbi has become a mystic? He has chosen forgetfulness—abandoned his Talmudic training and fooled them all, tiptoed beyond the everyday and vanished into the forests of kaballah.
     Kreutzer eyes the rabbi. The rabbi, eyeing Kreutzer, passes wind noisily.
     Kreutzer opens the book. In as patient a tone as he can muster, he addresses the rabbi. “We begin with the laws of kashrut.”

~

Kreutzer knows now who he was reminded of. The girl in the newspaper reminded him of his daughter, Marjorie. Marjorie who also used words like “terrible.” The pollution of the environment? It was terrible. The attitudes of Kreutzer and Kreutzer’s wife and everyone they knew: terrible. Also, always, the war in Vietnam. He thinks of Marjorie in high school with her terribles. He thinks of her the summer she was twenty-two years old. That was the summer she packed her things in borrowed suitcases and left. Jersey City wasn’t close enough for her, she had to move right up in its face and breathe its polluted breath: Manhattan. She stopped seeing movies and started seeing films. She met people named Portia and Nikita, and within two years she married a violinist.
     A violinist.
     And now this. Marjorie, with news.

~

This reunion with the rabbi is bitter, thinks Kreutzer as he watches Jacobson pick through his cup of fruit cocktail with a gritty teaspoon. Bitter not because of the man’s health; the rabbi is not in pain. Today Jacobson is eight years old. Hitler has not come to power, the Brooklyn Dodgers sign baseballs even when handed them by Jewish boys. Jacobson is happy.
     Bitter because unfair.
     Rabbi Jacobson was a learned man. Few people know Kreutzer appreciated this; out loud, Kreutzer spoke only of the rabbi’s faults. But for twenty years Kreutzer relished his Sunday morning ritual. His wife swept in the kitchen, his daughter, Marjorie, sat upstairs listening to her radio; Gabriel, Kreutzer’s studious son, read the newspaper as Kreutzer passed it to him, section by section. And when Kreutzer had read the news, he sat at the coffee table and began his letter. To Rabbi Jacobson with regards, he wrote. Sometimes he read aloud to Gabriel as he composed. I attended your sermon this sabbath.
     And although I respect your intentions in choosing your subject, I believe you have erred in the following manner.
     It was certain omissions of detail, certain liberal tendencies with the text, that irked Kreutzer. You of all people will agree, Kreutzer scratched onto the paper, our nature as Jews is to preserve. It bothered him when Jacobson did not mention minor commentators who had dissented in an interpretation, even if all agreed that the majority was clearly in the right. The rabbi should have mentioned the dissenters in his sermon, for sake of thoroughness. And then there were their disagreements over the state of Israel—not, Kreutzer admitted, true disagreements. But in the formation of a state every nuance counts, and so he took it as his responsibility to correct Rabbi Jacobson when the rabbi strayed.
     When Kreutzer argued he felt his muscles tense and the blood breathe in his veins. It felt right. Life was not easy and neither was argument, but both necessary. When Kreutzer was a boy in heder, the rabbis talked to him about his soul. The rabbis did not use this word, but Kreutzer knew when they encouraged the boys to debate one line of the Bible for hours, this is what they were after. Souls are not easy to talk about, even for rabbis. In the public-school hallway when lockers slammed and gym-class teammates cursed him, he was Kreutzer. But in the softening evening hours of heder, he was David. The rabbis rounded his name, added the diminutive. Duvidl. Gently Duvidl was instructed in the proper posture for highest prayer: the three bows, the backward step at the prayer’s finish, for one must never turn one’s back to God. Paired with another boy—for a Jew must study with a partner, a co-counsel in the court of the One True Judge—Duvidl was instructed in the skills of debate. When God’s people debate His tradition, He knows they love Him. True faith, the rabbis taught, was an unresolved argument. Jews argued; in His heavens God laughed and was satisfied. And how He loved their labor. For a week once the heder boys were made to write essays not in regular Hebrew script but in the cockeyed alphabet of the great sage Rashi. Even the learned man’s handwriting, the rabbis intoned as the boys worked, even the slightest twist he put on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in his rush to commit his thoughts to parchment, must be preserved. God rewarded vigilance; God rewarded devotion; not a single nuance must be forgotten.
     A block from the heder the Italian and black boys from Leonard Young Elementary School waited to pound a Jewish soul until it bled from the nose and cried hot shaming tears. Kreutzer could not ask for help at home; evenings he tiptoed through the entry so as not to distract his father, seated at the kitchen table worrying over the books of his faltering real-estate office. Kreutzer’s mother was easily frightened, and if she knew she would insist on walking him home from heder; the other boys would see. David Kreutzer turned to God. He looked in the Torah and saw that Moses defended his people against the slave driver. He understood that God wanted him to hit back. Kreutzer was eleven years old. He whispered his prayer and stepped out the heder door. Better their faces should break my hand than God should be disappointed in one of His people. Kreutzer repeated this to himself as the boys approached. And God guided his fist to the face of Anthony Marcetti. After that the Italian and black boys left him alone. God was good in other ways also. Duvidl was not the smartest boy, the rabbis said, but he worked. Kreutzer’s father came to pick him up early for a rare weekend outing and the rabbi turned to the man fidgeting in the entryway waiting for his son and said the compliment loud enough for all to hear: the boy thinks.
     Kreutzer was not saying, he explained to his son, Gabriel, while folding his letter to Rabbi Jacobson, that writing an essay in the handwriting of a man dead nine centuries was the only way to learn. Simply that it taught a principle.
     On Wednesdays came the rabbi’s replies. In haste, they began. In haste was Rabbi Jacobson, in haste enough to warn Kreutzer this would be a short letter, but not so much as to prevent his defending himself on each point. Rebuttal filled a page of the synagogue’s stationery, sometimes both sides. There was a period of years when the rabbi responded mildly—I have reread the text as you suggest. And while I believe you are mistaken, I do see whence your interpretation arises. Other times, particularly the year the rabbi’s son brought home his fiancée as well as a handful of Black Panther pamphlets, the rabbi’s letters were longer than Kreutzer’s. Will you contradict the wisdom of our great sages? Must you mock the tradition? The rabbi’s thick script cried out on the paper in Kreutzer’s hands.
     In person he and the rabbi were polite, although it was not lost on Kreutzer that the rabbi managed to position himself across the room from him at synagogue gatherings. This did not concern Kreutzer; a rabbi needed someone to keep him on his toes. Jews studied in pairs. This was the nature of the world. Kreutzer came to understand it as a duty. He stayed home from backyard barbecues and poker games to write his letters.
     Now Rabbi Harold Jacobson, his old sparring partner, was sprung from memory like a schoolboy on holiday. It was indecent—a coward’s way out of an argument. The disgrace was not that the rabbi had skipped out on an argument with Kreutzer. The disgrace was the other argument the rabbi was trying to escape: with God.
     Sitting opposite the rabbi, book open on the table between them, Kreutzer pauses. For the past hour he has led the rabbi through legal reasoning. Now he ventures a test. “When a kosher pot is accidentally touched by nonkosher metal, what is the ruling?”
     “If the metal is cold, kosher,” the rabbi responds without hesitation. “If hot, the pot must be repurified.”
     Kreutzer is elated. With patience he has cajoled the rabbi into precious memory. Now he will make him confess the whereabouts of the deed.
     They have closed the book; Kreutzer makes a solemn nod to Jacobson.
     “What is the opposite of a spider,” the rabbi asks Kreutzer happily.
     Kreutzer places a hand to his chest. This sudden beating against his ribs, can it be a heart attack? He thinks he cannot bear this cresting tension another minute. He thinks he hates the rabbi.

~

He hadn’t meant any disrespect to the shiksas. He was simply stating a fact. It was the shiksas that killed Moe Roth, who was the next-door neighbor when Marjorie was a girl. Marjorie had asked, Whatever happened to the next-door family from all those years ago? So Kreutzer was telling. The shiksas in Moe’s factory unionized, and it was the stress of it what killed Moe. Moe was a good boss. There wasn’t any need for union.
     But Marjorie, whom they had named for Iris’s mother Malka, got mad. “Your racism is staggering,” Marjorie told him. Kreutzer had thought racism was shvartzes and white people. He was careful about shvartzes. About Negroes, he corrected himself. Black people. But no one told him shiksas counted. “Do you have any plans whatsoever to even visit the modern era?” Marjorie was not finished. “I certainly hope you’ll let us know if you’re coming. We’ll leave a light on for you.” Marjorie had a mouth. Always she wanted something different from what you put in front of her. Extracurricular activities. Guitar lessons. Food with seaweed in it, like a person ate in Japan. Food that looked like the Japanese person already ate it. When Iris was alive she would defend it. It’s a new world, Iris said. Let’s give our daughter a chance to explore it.
     “It’s a new world.” Marjorie stood with her hands on her hips. “In case you haven’t noticed. In case you haven’t noticed, Dad, you’re a dinosaur.”
     And Yuri, Yuri the violinist who converted to Judaism just in order that Kreutzer’s daughter can now ignore everything she knew all her life about Jewish customs—can even have a Christmas tree in her living room and still Marjorie calls the house Jewish, because officially both the people who live there are. Dad, I do have a Jewish home. Like a home was a thing you circumcised and then no matter what it did, it was still part of the tribe; even if the house went out and ate pork sausages with milk all night long, still when it dropped its pants to take a leak, right there carved on its doorpost was the message: still a Jew.
     Yuri the violinist took Marjorie by the shoulder. “Easy, sweetheart,” he said.
     Marjorie closed her mouth.
     Kreutzer does not know what women see in violinists.

~

And now suddenly he cannot sleep. Kreutzer who always could fall into dreams like a baby instead lies looking at shadows. His brain is a fountain; all what he knows pools in his head. He cannot stop the fountain’s spigot from running. Details threaten to overflow his mind. The address of a man he once did business with. Names of a couple he met who said they would invite him for a dinner. Surely he copied their telephone number into his address book? By the light of the bed lamp his pajama legs look shabby. The stripes remind him of prison uniforms; he stops this thought but cannot keep his brain from pivoting elsewhere. There in his own handwriting in his address book is the number of the couple. Should he? Accept a social invitation, get out into circulation as everyone urged him after Iris’s death? If Iris were still alive, she would tell him to stop worrying and call. David, she would say, it’s no shame for a man to reach out for company. No, Kreutzer corrects himself: she would not say this. She would have called already.
     The clock flips a papery card: three twenty-five in the A.M. Maybe in the daylight he will call.
     When at last Kreutzer sleeps he cannot dream a regular dream. He can only dream what was real, what he will not allow himself to think in waking hours. Thoughts that punch through darkness to torment. He does not know why suddenly this should be happening, yet there is no denying it: these dreams have visited him nightly since he heard Marjorie’s news.
     In his dream his son, Gabriel, is once more seventeen years old and tells Kreutzer he is thinking of becoming a rabbi. Kreutzer can imagine his son at the pulpit; his son the rabbi’s words sing out. The congregation sits rapt. But to Gabriel he says only, So. So everybody thinks they can be rabbi. He does not let Gabriel know it would please him. Same as he never shows his disappointment when Gabriel chooses doctor instead.
     Kreutzer slips from sleep, he presses a heavy palm to his forehead, he is not dreaming but remembering. In his waking remembering mind a fountain has spilled over, now he is unable to keep the thoughts away. Of his son Gabriel, a doctor in the war in Asia. Kreutzer sees once more Marjorie. Marjorie protesting on a college campus while Gabriel finishes his medical-school training and applies for Air Force commission. “It’s that or get drafted,” Gabriel says to his sister’s turned back. “At least this way I have some choice about where I end up.” Marjorie will not speak. “Run away to Canada,” she writes on the piece of paper she throws at her brother before stalking out of the room. “Defect to Russia. Have some imagination.”
     “Thailand is beautiful,” Gabriel’s letter reads that spring. “Although smelly if you get close to the canals.”

~

The legs of the chair Kreutzer sits in are spindly. He imagines them breaking, his weight crashing to the floor. A sack of flour, Kreutzer is. A sack of meal. He can’t think what he is a sack of. Something soft, heavier than is reasonable. He imagines the nursing home aides running to help. In his imagination, the rabbi sits watching Kreutzer swimming on the floor. Belly and liver spots and gray tired face. The rabbi’s expression is thoughtful.
     “Your letters,” says Kreutzer now to the rabbi, “ended always the same. Thank you for your response to my ministry. Tell me, Jacobson. Did they teach you to say this in rabbinical school?”
     The rabbi looks at Kreutzer as at a form spied through a wall of glass brick.
     Three weeks of visits and such is Kreutzer’s reward: today Jacobson refuses even to recognize him. Kreutzer halves his doughnut and passes a portion across the table. The rabbi mutters a blessing—the correct one—and bites, scattering shards of glazed sugar over his sweater.
     “Did you wonder,” Kreutzer asks, “why I stopped writing to you?”
     The rabbi picks the pieces of sugar off his sweater with care and deposits them on his tongue.
     “Did you wonder why I stopped coming to synagogue except on highest holidays?”
     Pleasantly the rabbi nods.
     On Jacobson’s windowsill, an envelope from a state where there is skiing. A son, even a son who defies his father, sends a letter now and again. They are perplexing, such rebellious tenacious children. This son and Marjorie would have made a good pair. Just as Kreutzer thinks to tell the rabbi this, he notices that the son’s letter is unopened, and at the same moment he is assaulted by a rapid slide show: shutting his burning eyes he sees his own son, Gabriel, leaving for Thailand without even a goodbye from his sister. He sees Gabriel’s airmail letters to Marjorie crumpled unopened in the wastebasket. Since there is no satisfaction in not speaking to someone who’s far away, now Marjorie, a freshman in college, refuses to speak to Kreutzer.
     Forcing his eyes open, Kreutzer thinks: Young people can afford to believe their parents know nothing. They can afford to cram their heads with liberal ideas. They marry people who play violin on ski slopes. They run through the woods eating marijuana. Kreutzer pictures young people stirring marijuana into their coffee at breakfast.
     He and the rabbi know better. They know that life is no joke. They have argued commentary together. They have argued six presidents, three wars in the Mideast. Kreutzer has in his house two letters of condolence from the rabbi. Together they have seen life.
     Yet now Kreutzer does not understand what is happening to him. He can feel the weight of the air in the room, pressing down. Air denser than any air he has ever felt.
     “I am a dinosaur,” he says to Jacobson.
     The rabbi gives an amiable smile. “I also.”
     “Perhaps,” Kreutzer concedes. “But tomorrow you will be a butterfly. Tuesday a horse or woodpecker. And I? Again a dinosaur.”
     The rabbi pulls on his beard.

~

Kreutzer thinks he knows the reason he cannot sleep. Why his daughter, Marjorie, has not had children before now is a mystery to Kreutzer. Iris would have asked, but Iris has been gone since before anyone noticed Marjorie forgot to have children.
     Because he does not know why there have been no children all this time, the reason Marjorie has decided to have a child now, at the age of forty, is also a mystery to Kreutzer. But now she is pregnant. It has been over a week since she and the violinist drove to Jersey City to inform him. There is something about Marjorie’s pregnancy that seems significant. Momentous. The pregnancy is like a verse of Torah; it cries out for interpretation. For days Kreutzer has been trying in vain to figure out what it means. It means—he has been able to proceed no further than this—she is going to have a baby.

~

For no reason he can fathom, he cleans his attic. In a box beneath a trunk he discovers a notebook Iris must have saved from the garbage, a memento from his boyhood. In the margins in painstaking hand is the script of the great sage Rashi. “And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a sacrifice in place of his son.” Rashi teaches: The ram had been waiting for this duty ever since the six days of creation.
     Kreutzer takes the notebook downstairs. He takes it into his bed. A foolish postulate: it might help him sleep. Before shutting the light he peers once more into the notebook, furtive like a spy. Inside, handwriting inscribed centuries ago. Bit by bit, without his being aware, Kreutzer’s own boyhood has receded, now it is as ancient to him as this argument nine centuries past. Yet there is no denying: once he was a boy. Before Sputnik, before Hitler, before the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Then a skinny teenager. He was a virgin when he married Iris and she too. That night she was so shy, he had to learn boldness or they would never have been man and wife. How he loved her, her gray eyes, her pale shy hands, that night and after. Later he became a father. He became a man in the world. Those years are lost to him. When he tries to think of them, he can remember little more than finishing his morning prayers: unwrapping his tefillin, buttoning his shirt. Walking out the front door. He does not understand how this can have happened. He does not understand why his wife and his growing children are not vivid in the pictures he summons from those years when they were all young. Only the hardships are real to him this last week: memories he has banished so forcefully they have come back to haunt him. With the greatest of will he tries to summon his wife’s face; instead, he sees before him the one face in this world that most resembles hers. Helpless as if watching a film on a screen before him, Kreutzer is witness to the single time he nearly hit Marjorie, weeks after the solemn visit from the Air Force officer. Nineteen seventy-one. Marjorie is twenty; letting herself into the house at midnight she stumbles into the door. Kreutzer and his wife, roused from sleeplessness, hurry silent into the living room to discover her kicking the door, cursing the pain. Their daughter is foul-mouthed in her rage, she is made-up as though she would give herself to any man for a nickel. It freezes Kreutzer to his heartstrings. He wants to shake her, wake her out of this madness that has reigned in his home since the news from Thailand. He calls Marjorie’s name; she looks at him with wild flat eyes he does not recognize, a distorted mirror of Iris’s gray eyes, and he is certain now of the worst, he is certain it is marijuana. Kreutzer turns to his wife. And a thing happens that has never happened before: Iris gazes back at him as if she can look through him. Kreutzer does not recognize his own wife’s eyes. There is nothing in this world he can control. Suddenly Iris cries out. She huddles Marjorie in her arms, she will not let him near. Kreutzer hears his daughter’s muffled words as she sobs against her mother’s blouse: I hate him.
     That week he reads in Marjorie’s diary. Shooting up with James and Portia at Portia’s apartment. Late afternoon. Kreutzer cannot force himself to close the diary. That feeling when it takes command of your pulse and your body fights at first but then after a while you submit to that new rhythm and just feel quieted. I said to James, Isn’t it spooky the way it makes your heart jump in its cage, like playing jazz on the car radio with the bass cranked, windows sealed tight. James said, That’s it, exactly. I think James likes me. For once this afternoon I didn’t think about opening a vein. Kreutzer closes the diary. He is not a father. He is not a man. He is nothing. There is a knock on his door; Rabbi Harold Jacobson wanting to plan a memorial service for the one-month anniversary of Gabriel’s death. Kreutzer shuts the door in the rabbi’s face. He does not understand who James is or where his daughter is spending her time but he wants to cry out to Marjorie, Your mother has lost already. I myself am beyond forgiveness but you are young. Don’t do the one thing that cannot be forgiven. Don’t break your mother’s heart.
     Memory is cruel. The days Kreutzer would like to relive, the sweet days, are lost to him. How can the good years have disappeared? How can a man disappear from himself? Yet it is true: this ancient heder notebook and the letters from Rabbi Jacobson are the sole evidence Kreutzer has of a life vanished. Now, in the mornings, the night’s visions swirl about him; the stubble on his face is white. He is an old man. How he longs for a single thread of argument to shepherd him past his sleeplessness—the clear pulse of debate in which he used to feel the murmuring of God. He would like to bring a case before the ancient court of rabbis; he imagines assembling the Sanhedrin to hear his argument. If Kreutzer cannot summon the good times, if he cannot recall the years of innocence, he would like to murder the bad. Would it be so wrong? If a man kills a year, Kreutzer would petition the assembled sages, what is his punishment? If he murders the day of a rasping doorbell chime, the day of an Air Force officer on his stoop, what penalty? Opinions vary. If a day kills a man, the sages say two thousand souls have been lost. A first rabbi poses the question, Who has been killed: the day or the man? If either, says another rabbi, a goat must be sacrificed. If both, a third rabbi insists, slaughter the man’s ox and divide the value among the family. Price an uninjured day in the marketplace and compensate the wronged party for the loss of value.
     Kreutzer cannot sleep.

~

At dawn he dials. “I wanted to know, is there anything you need for the baby?”
     There is a long pause. “Dad?” says Marjorie.
     Immediately Kreutzer regrets his foolishness. He has insulted her. His daughter is a grown woman. She will soon be, in fact, an enormous woman. Why would she need from him? “I’m sure there is nothing you need,” he says.
     In the background is the sound of the violinist yawning. “Who is it, honey?”
     Marjorie’s voice sounds strange. “No, Dad,” she says. “I guess there isn’t.”

~

Kreutzer dozes. The sun is pressing a pink radiance through his swollen lids when Gabriel visits. Dad, he begins. Kreutzer plugs his ears. Gabriel is trying to forgive him. Kreutzer will not be forgiven. With his fingers in his ears he gazes upon his son trying in vain to address him. The boy is suntanned. His eyes, green-brown like Kreutzer’s own, were always so gentle Kreutzer worried for the boy. Now these eyes, they refuse to convict. You are my father, Gabriel tells him.
     You are my son.
     He wakes in a sweat. The telephone is ringing. It is Marjorie calling back. Holding the receiver, Kreutzer glances at the clock and realizes it is time for prayers. His thoughts lurch. If his daughter learns he no longer prays, she will think he has admitted she was right to marry the violinist. So Kreutzer tells her, “I will call you back. I have to pray.”
     He watches the clock. After twenty minutes he calls.
     “I’m wondering,” Marjorie says, “what time will you be at the cemetery tomorrow?”
     Something about Marjorie’s question is not right. Kreutzer has a feeling in his gut. Marjorie should not be in the cemetery. He isn’t yet certain why, but he is sure she must not go—not now that she is pregnant. Kreutzer remains rational. “You could fall,” he says.
     “I’m fine,” Marjorie says. “I’m stronger than you are.”
     “We’re not going this year,” he insists. “It’s dangerous.”
     Marjorie sighs heavily to be sure Kreutzer knows he is frustrating her. “I’ll call you back when you’ve had time to come to your senses. Will you be home this afternoon?”
     “I’m visiting with the rabbi.”
     “Jesus, Dad. You tormented the poor man all his professional life. Can’t you let him retire in peace?”
     “We enjoy each other’s company is a fact.” Kreutzer is surprised at the anger in his voice. “We study Torah together.”
     “Dad, if he recognized you he’d bolt for the door. Even Rabbi Jacobson didn’t care about every dot and comma of the Bible. You were a thorn in his side.”
     “I won’t be home this afternoon,” he enunciates. “I have to visit the rabbi.”
     “Fine, so this evening.” Marjorie hesitates. “Dad. Why do you hate him so much?”
     “Hate?”
     “You’re obsessed with him, and you’re obsessed with digging up that deed. Look, what’s lost is lost, OK? It’s lost, Dad. They’ve already had another deed made up, they’ve broken ground on the new building.”

~

He tries to shave before going to see the rabbi. Iris would tell him to. He lathers but cannot bring himself to lift the razor. He gazes at it, heavy in his hand. The words float through his mind: an old man’s blood. Afraid, he looks in the mirror. Clear as day he sees the scribes fluttering around him with wings of ink; each brush against the walls leaves a searing paragraph. Kreuzer blinks at the black spots floating in his mirror. Bit by bit his bathroom walls are being covered in tiny script like bird prints. “I am ashamed,” he tells the scribes scaling the reflected bathroom walls. They write down his words, and immediately surround them with interpretation: miniscule lettering that stretches from ceiling to floor. “I should not be alive,” Kreutzer says.
     The scribes, angry, stop writing and are gone.
     After a while he towels the shaving cream from his face, leaves the towel folded neatly over the lip of the sink.

~

At the nursing home, under the rabbi’s gaze, Kreutzer produces the clipping from the previous day’s paper. His hands are shaking. He points to the phrase on the newsprint. “See here,” he says.
     It is an article about politics in today’s Israel, but that is not the important thing. What is important is this reference to the time of Palestine under British Mandate. Mandatory Palestine, the newspaper says. When Kreutzer first read these two words, they meant only 1930s Palestine, Palestine when it flew British flags. But by the time he set down the paper to rummage for scissors he understood the words meant more. “Mandatory Palestine”: now that was Jewish. Palestine because you had to. Palestine because Jews owed allegiance there and no place else. Jewish wasn’t marijuana and oblivion and T-shirts telling you to drop out. Jewish wasn’t a Christmas tree in a living room. Jewish was Jewish. Was holding on tight. What was so bad about guilt? Why was everyone so eager to bury hatchets, forget deeds? So what if the rest of the world thought guilt was a nasty word? Jews proudly fought a War of Atonement. Jews had memory even if it hurt.
     “Banana?” Jacobson offers the fruit.
     On the rabbi’s windowsill is the envelope from the son with the black wife. The son who still lives, breathes, wants communication with his father. The envelope is unopened. Kreutzer’s head feels swollen as if someone banged on it through the night. All those precious letters from Gabriel, he thinks. Envelope after envelope, white with red-and-blue stripes, each holding one of his son’s carefully penned pages. Kreutzer must tell the rabbi something. “A son’s letters are important,” he says. “My son wrote to me every week during the war.”
     “War?”
     The banana waves slowly in the air. Kreutzer is nauseous. “The war in Vietnam.”
     “There is a war?”
     Kreutzer stands. The room reels about him. Pastel fabrics swirl, a field of fluttering flowers; he staggers against the wall. He wants to murder the rabbi. He wants to punch the rabbi until he bleeds from his nose. “Gabriel was a good boy!” he shouts at Jacobson.
     The rabbi cowers in his chair. His eyes widen, then begin to tear.
     In the doorway appears a nurse. Holding one hand to his temple, Kreutzer nods to her. From the corner come soft whimpering noises: Jacobson crying, his arms wrapped around his waist, a quivering cocoon. The nurse watches Kreutzer put on his jacket.
     Leaving, Kreutzer pauses beside Jacobson’s doubled form. He sets a heavy hand on the back of the rabbi’s chair. “What is the opposite of Alzheimer’s?” Kreutzer demands.
     The rabbi’s gaze wavers in confusion.
     “Jewish,” Kreutzer curses him.

~

In the parking lot and on the access ramp to the highway, Kreutzer’s anger is so great he cannot concentrate on his driving. That he, Kreutzer, should be trapped by memory, while the rabbi—a rabbi, who has chosen to shoulder the suffering of the Jewish people—is excused, is too much to bear.
     But as he passes the airport, planes thundering into the sky, Kreutzer thinks. He is not a mystical man but it occurs to him that maybe the rabbi is showing him something. On the way home the thought grows in Kreutzer’s mind. He is so excited he nearly drives past his exit. What if the rabbi has found the answer, not only for himself but for everyone? What if God has sent the rabbi to show Kreutzer the truth?
     If you can’t forget, at least you can forgive, Iris used to say. David, I forgive you. Kreutzer never knew how his wife could say this. He will never forgive himself for his son’s death. But there is—he now sees—another option.
     Reaching home, he composes his first letter to Jacobson in over twenty years. Dear Rabbi, at last I understand: word and deed are dispensable to you. You have defeated suffering. Others linger in yesterday; you soar past. Kreutzer is so excited he feels feverish. He will not be selfish and save this discovery for his own sole benefit. He will bring the world’s Jews to Rabbi Jacobson’s feet, let them learn oblivion under the rabbi’s instruction. Never forget was a mistaken rallying cry; together they would erase the painful memory of Inquisitions, of the Holocaust. Kreutzer tries to picture it: his whole people with Alzheimer’s, millennia of troubles gone in a flash. What couldn’t the Jews be without the last two thousand years? And beneath all, Kreutzer is a compassionate man; he will see to it that not only the Jews benefit. If the shiksas and shvartzes and Italians need, Kreutzer will bring them to the rabbi also. Kreutzer will lead the parade of forgetfulness, all who have suffered thronging at his heels. Together they will become innocents, babes, far from any reminder of sorrow.
     And now Kreutzer knows he must call his daughter. His finger swerves over the dial; the telephone is too slow. Marjorie is right—he is a dinosaur. He with his rotary telephone. Kreutzer laughs at the folly of his life. “You can go to the cemetery,” he explains when Marjorie picks up her telephone. “But not the baby.”
     During the few seconds’ silence he thinks he has convinced her.
     “Funny thing is, Dad, right now the baby and I are rather inseparable. If I go to the cemetery, she has to go too.”
     “She?”
     Marjorie giggles. Kreutzer is almost certain it is a giggle. “I wasn’t going to tell.”

~

She meets him at the gate. Together they walk to the grave. She is bundled in a jacket and her belly sticks out.
     “You’re staring at me.”
     He cannot deny. He needs to tell her what he understands now about her pregnancy. But first he must explain to her why they need the rabbi’s help. “Do you ever think about Gabriel?” he asks.
      “Do I think about him?” Now Marjorie stares. “Dad, I think about him every single day.”
     Kreutzer is so surprised he does not utter a word. That Marjorie should also think of Gabriel at every turn? Marjorie who refused to hear his name after he went to Thailand? Marjorie who called her brother Traitor?
     Marjorie who wears now a serious expression on her face. A hopeful expression. As if for the first time in her life maybe her father said something not entirely terrible. Standing beside her brother’s gravestone, she speaks. “I think about everything. I think about the stupid fake advice he used to give me about boys. I think about the time he convinced me to put Alka-Seltzer up my nose. I think about the day we heard about the plane crash, when the captain came to our house.”
     There is more that Marjorie thinks. There is, it turns out, no end to her thoughts. Every detail of Gabriel she recalls, the blond hair that darkened as he grew older, the A’s on his homework, his tears the time he received a C. Marjorie dredges up the names of both girls her brother asked to his senior promenade—the one who refused and the one who agreed. Things Kreutzer never knew about his son. Kreutzer is drowning. He cannot breathe. At this very moment, when he has determined to shed all, his contrary, bewildering daughter insists on parading her memories. She insists on remembering how she refused to speak to her brother. She refused to speak to him and then he died. Marjorie is crying.
     It has never occurred to him that Marjorie might have guilt. Not in all the years since he pleaded with her silently at the dinner table, Help your mother; and his daughter looked out at the world through stringy bangs and would not speak. And Iris grew silent and Marjorie was silent and the great silence that engulfed Kreutzer’s home drove him to silences of his own until he could no longer speak even the most intimate speech of all: he could no longer pray. And why now? Now that he has at last decided that there will be no more memories, nor guilt, nor struggle, now that he has decided to embrace oblivion with all his being? Why now should his daughter speak?
     “I was high for years after Gabriel died. If not for Yuri I’d be dead in a gutter somewhere.”
     Suddenly Kreutzer sees. Tears threaten to overflow his own lids; blinking them back, he tells himself for the first time since Gabriel’s death: I am a father. Joy floods his heart—there is something, after all these years, he can give to his daughter. For his mission will bring peace not only to himself but to Marjorie as well. Quickly, before the baby is born, they both will learn to forget. All their guilt will be absolved. And Marjorie will share Kreutzer’s joy at what he has foreseen: her baby will be a new generation, protected from sorrow, raised according to the wisdom of the rabbi.
     Marjorie has finished. They stand together on the grass. Kreutzer regards his daughter, wind blowing her jacket against her belly. There are fine lines around her eyes. Kreutzer is overwhelmed with a love so powerful he cannot move a muscle. He knows his daughter cannot feel the same way about him. How could she?
     “Will you come for lunch tomorrow?” Marjorie says.
     If he could speak, he would tell her that by tomorrow noon everything will be different. But a nod is all he can muster.
     “Dad,” she says. Then she does something. She stands heavily on her toes, and kisses him on the cheek. “I’m glad we had this talk.”

~

Dear Iris, Kreutzer would say, if he could. I bid farewell to you tonight, because soon I will no longer remember. And I want you to know I am sorry to lose these things. Your quiet and your loveliness.
     He lies awake, tears slide down both cheeks and pool in his ears. With all his strength he will endure this last night of memory.
     Dear Iris, he would say. You told me I did not cause Gabriel to die. But in this one matter you were wrong. There are things between a man and his son. There are things. Sometimes, when he is frightened, a son turns to his father.

~

A son comes to his father in wartime. A son—a son who is close to his father—does not make an important decision like this without consulting.
     “It’s a choice,” Gabriel tells him.
     Gabriel in jeans and a T-shirt, pale from his medical studies. Gabriel with a buzzed haircut that makes his ears stick out.
     “Either I accept this commission in Thailand, Dad, or I refuse it. If I accept it, I’ll be working in a hospital far from the fighting.”
     If not, he will be drafted. The next assignment, the one he will be forced to accept, might be a base in Europe. It might be Plattsburgh: a couple of dull years in upstate New York, not too far from home.
     Or it might be Vietnam. Gabriel knows a surgeon who refused an Air Force assignment in Thailand; at this very moment he is on a plane to the heart of combat in Vietnam.
     They sit in the living room. The sunset is stretched across the carpeted floor. Outside, the evening newspaper lands on the doorstep with a thump. Slowly, irregularly, thumps recede down the street.
     “If Thailand is safe,” says Kreutzer.

~

Rabbi Jacobson beside the window, under a blanket of pink and yellow. Braiding the tassels of the blanket like fringes on a prayer shawl.
     Kreutzer is nervous, and excited. Who will he be once oblivion descends? What will it feel like to learn the rabbi’s secret?
     He is willing to lose his mind. He will forget the soft voices of long-dead teachers who called him Duvidl, forget his own father’s shadowed tired face; he will sacrifice the years of earning his family’s livelihood, the curl of the great sage’s pen, everything that makes him David Kreutzer. And along with it will disappear all that makes his daughter, Marjorie, weep. Marjorie will forget guilt, she will forget fury, she will forget wanting to drown her own heartbeat in some other hot, jarring rhythm. She will change her mind about naming the baby Gabrielle; the rabbi, in his wisdom, will not permit such a tribute, for the child must not bear a single old sorrow. Such they will be: old man, mother, child, all washed of memory.
     “Rabbi,” Kreutzer breathes.
     The rabbi smiles a cordial smile.
     Kreutzer opens his mouth to tell Jacobson about the baby, how she will be born into forgetfulness. But he sees something on the floor. It is an envelope, fallen from the sunlit windowsill. Unopened. “Jacobson,” he stumbles. “Have you not reconciled with your son?”
     “My son,” says the rabbi, “married a wonderful girl.”
     “So you have forgiven his intermarriage.”
     “My son married a Jewish girl. The whole congregation danced at the wedding.” The rabbi pats his stomach, pleased. “There was almond soup.”
     Kreutzer remembers that soup. Iris so wanted the recipe, she went on the sly into the kitchen to ask. The cook, preparing dessert in a rush of steam and barked orders, ejected her back onto the dance floor with a flurry of curses. Iris was embarrassed and they left early; Kreutzer remembers that almond soup well.
     “That was your nephew’s wedding,” Kreutzer says. “Not your son’s.”
     Jacobson beams. “My son’s wedding.”
     What matters a detail from the past? Forgetfulness is best; how sweet its honey will taste on his eager tongue.
     Yet he cannot let it rest. “Your nephew’s,” says Kreutzer.
     “No,” says the rabbi gently. He sighs.
     It is the moment Kreutzer has awaited. But something in this conversation is not right. A son has written a letter; it must be answered. The son is loyal despite transgressions, he is waiting for the father to forgive. How can the rabbi excuse himself for condemning his boy? Whatever a man feels, mustn’t he be mindful of his children? Kreutzer pictures Marjorie standing in the cemetery with her belly. He pictures Marjorie with her terribles.
     The smile on Kreutzer’s face tumbles, it feels to him it will never stop tumbling.
     Forgiveness. There is no escaping it. Marjorie has forgiven him; this Kreutzer is forced to see. In the cemetery she peered at him through tears as if to say: A child needs a grandfather. Even one who rails about Christmas trees. And a daughter, a daughter needs a father. She looked at him with eyes that were, after all these years, Iris’s eyes. Telling him: Forgive.
     Yet if he absolves himself? For years he has known he mustn’t. Because if Kreutzer admits his own powerlessness, if he admits there was nothing he could have done different, then there is only one other to blame for what should never have happened—for an airplane failing mid-landing; smashing into the single building along the base’s airstrip that was occupied. The building in which David Kreutzer’s son lay on his cot reading.
     He looks at the rabbi. The sweetness of oblivion is so near Kreutzer is lightheaded. But the muddy business of life will not be ignored. A wrong has been done and it must be righted. Not all may ever be well between a man and his family once there has been difficulty. But a father has a responsibility to try.
     “We are old men,” he tells Jacobson. “We have little to offer. But what we can, we must.”
     The rabbi considers Kreutzer.
     “Forgive him,” Kreutzer says. “Forgive your son.”
     The rabbi makes no answer. Shifting his attention to his blanket, he unbraids a single tassel, then rebraids.
     Kreutzer lifts weary eyes to the clock. It is noon. His daughter has invited him to lunch.
     He stands. He is an old man, the chains of gravity are heavy. For years he has made the greatest sacrifice, a sacrifice worthy of the sages: he has blamed himself and spared another his rage. Now he will forgive himself; David Kreutzer will rejoin the world as best as he—dinosaur, racist, fool—is able. But at what cost. For now he must call to account the one with whom he has held the longest silence. Dreadful words form in his mouth: words to which there can be no rebuttal.
     As Kreutzer steps past Jacobson’s chair, the rabbi stretches a hand to touch Kreutzer’s sleeve. He does not reach it; his fingers plait empty air. He chants quietly. “The responsive reading is on page one hundred and five. The Torah remains in the ark.”
     Kreutzer’s voice is empty. “And the deed to the synagogue’s land?”
     “In the storage room of Temple Beth Shalom, beneath a box of hagaddahs. Twelve Grove Street second floor.” The rabbi purses his lips, meditative. “We turn to page one hundred and five for the responsive reading. We begin with blessings for a sweet new year.”
     With a wave Kreutzer deflects Jacobson’s piety. The rabbi follows his gaze. In tandem they face the sharp haze of the window, blinding as the brightness of heaven. “No blessings without atonement,” says Kreutzer.
     “Atonement,” echoes the rabbi. His head bobs slightly as in prayer. “At the new year, atonement must be made for both types of sin. Two categories: man against man, man against God.”
     “You are wrong,” says Kreutzer. “There is a third category of sin.”
     “Two only,” murmurs the rabbi. An anxious flicker of his eyes says to Kreutzer, Stay.
     Kreutzer stares: at the luminous window, at the spare furnishings, at the rabbi wrapped in a tassled blanket, his mottled neck tremoring. With a leaden step, he turns his back. “Rabbi,” Kreutzer says. The corridor before him is silent. He drapes his jacket over his arms. “God has picked my pocket.”

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