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In the Land of the Living

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In the Land of the Living

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  In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  To James Ratner

  Corpore de patrio parvum phoenica renasci;

  cum dedit huic aetas vires, onerique ferendo est,

  ponderibus nidi ramos levat arboris altae

  fertque pius cunasque suas patriumque sepulcrum

  perque leves auras Hyperionis urbe potitus

  ante fores sacras Hyperionis aede reponit.

  And from his father’s body, so they say, a little phoenix springs up which is destined to attain the same length of years. When age has given him strength, and he is able to carry burdens, he relieves the tall palm’s branches of the heavy nest, piously bears his own cradle and his father’s tomb through the thin air, until, having reached the city of the Sun, he lays the nest down before the sacred doors of the Sun’s temple.

  Ovid, Metamorphoses

  Frank Justus Miller, trans.

  Part I

  Nine Worthy and the

  Best That Ever Were

  That there lived a man named Isidore Auberon, there can be no dispute. There is the reflex hammer with the reddish rubber tomahawk head bearing his initials. There is the red shirt, thick and coarse like Indian jute, with black buttons, in which he appears in many photographs. And in many other places there are many other things, and many people will give accounts of him.

  “It is notoriously known through the universal world,” William Caxton said, “that there be nine worthy and the best that ever were.” Three pagans—Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar; and three Jews—Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus; and three Christians—King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Boulogne. Many stories portray them, and we know that they lived in this world. It must be so with Isidore Auberon.


  Of the Mad King on a Bicycle All Green; of That Boy Fairly Shaped and Yclept Isidore, Who Forsooth Had but Little Save Shirt and Breeches; How Isidore Waxed Big and Strong and Smote the King of the Hard Hand with Shiverous Words and Blows; and Eke How He Departed from There

  THEIR FATHER PEDDLED certain lies the same way he pedaled his bicycle to and from his many jobs all over Cleveland Heights, with his monstrous canvas bag balanced on his back and his giant toolbox strapped to the bike with a three-pronged canvas belt. He pedaled his bicycle slowly and resolutely, so that he never got up any momentum, as if momentum would have been cheating, pressing and pressing on the pedals, advancing up the sidewalk righteously, slate by slate, lie by lie, without caring when he got there, without knowing he was lying. His first name was a lie: Ezer. It sounded like one of the seven dwarves, but Ezer didn’t whistle, except through his asshole. His last name was a lie, though perhaps it wasn’t his own lie: Auberon, some Ellis Island gag on Abramowicz or whatever it had been, which was itself a Polish joke on whatever it had been before that, maybe nothing. Another of Ezer’s false propositions was “corned beef soup,” being the grease water in which a hunk of corned beef had been boiled, served in three bowls as unmatched and misbegotten as the brothers who sat before them: Burt, the oldest, Isidore (his father called him Isser), and Dennis, the youngest. And Ezer didn’t like football—that was still another lie. “Such a rough game, they kill each other,” he said. But when he entered the house at 6 P.M. and sat at the table like a sphinx with sawdust sticking to his face and on his shirt, he himself was rough. When Burt reached for the jam, Ezer said without warning, “Enough jam! Jam is for breakfast!” and seized Burt’s wrist and lowered his whitish face like a hobgoblin’s, and he didn’t let go until the boy’s hand was pale as wax. Then the man got up and went off to lie in his bed with sweaty sawdust on his face. Burt held the cool jar in a hand now electric and red, and his mother let him dip his painful sleeping finger in the cold jam.

  Of course, their father wasn’t a hobgoblin. No, he was human, with coarse unruly hair that he’d given to his sons, and a terrible gut that made the house reek, and a fleck of corned beef on his eyeglasses when he ate his lunch, and only one suit, and watery eyes cracked with tortuous red lines, lines twisted like the twisted history of life in the hovels of Jedwabne from which he’d come. And his eyelids were sad and slanted like the sad and slanted life of the shtetl and when he took his eyeglasses off, the sad hooded froggy eyes were disarming in their softness, as were the smithereen tiny purple veins across his contused rosaceous nose.

  Isidore’s mother, Sophia, came over from Europe in 1937. Her brother owned a grocery store in Cleveland and had a little money. The brother sent his wife to Poland to get Sophia, but it was hard to get out by then, and the sister-in-law came back without her. So her brother sent money, and somehow she escaped the jaws of the beast in time. Sophia never learned to speak English, and the tale of her passage to Cleveland was lost to the chasms of language, of marriage, of the Atlantic Ocean, and most of all to death. Her other brother in Poland didn’t come, or anyway, he never arrived, and there might have been a photograph of him somewhere, but there was never a sound.

  Now Sophia was in New York in a hospital bed, alone except for a woman from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union who mailed her letters for her. Her brother and sister-in-law had sent her there for treatments to her stomach, Ezer said, because they had something in New York that Ezer called “the radiation.” The war, the ship full of rotting tubercles, the rains of Cleveland, and the garment factory on East Sixty-sixth Street couldn’t kill her, but after all that, it turned out she’d not been particularly strong, just lucky. Delivered at last and undamaged to the unassailable well-being of America and its International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, she got cancer of the stomach. Her letters were addressed to Burt because, Isidore told himself, she hated Ezer like they did, and Burt was the only one of them who could read Yiddish. “Remember that I love you, Burt,” she wrote. “Take care of your brothers.” She was a soft, nice sort of mommy. He wished she’d put his name on the envelope.

  Isidore waited outside the house where his father was fixing somebody’s faucet—one that as usual he’d already fixed before—and wondered if he was to see his mother again.

  His baby brother, Dennis, had asked for a picture. Isidore drew a tank on the cold Invermere Avenue sidewalk with great big chalky clouds of smoke arising from the superheated wreckage of a battle. It was a busier sidewalk than the one outside their own house on Hildana Road.

  “Is that a tank?” Dennis said.


  “And what’s that?” Dennis said, pointing.

  “That’s wreckage.”

  “That’s a good cabbage,” Dennis said.

  “It’s not a cabbage.”

  “That’s a good tank,” Dennis said. “I can’t draw that tank.”

  “You’re four,” Isidore said. “I’m older.”

  “I could maybe draw a cabbage, though. Why is there a cabbage under the tank?”

  “It’s not a cabbage,” Isidore said. “It’s wreckage.”

  “Oh,” Dennis said, thinking. “I can’t draw a tank. You can draw it because you’re older.”

  “You’ll be older too,” Isidore said.

  “Why did the lady say we could use the chalk?” Dennis said. “It’s not ours.”

  “I guess she wanted t
o share it.”

  A rubber-tipped cane stabbed down into the chalk drawing. “Watch it!” said the woman who belonged to the cane. She pounded her cane once more at a crack in the sidewalk and limped on. She was lugging a heavy shopping bag.

  “Why did she yell?” Dennis said.

  “Shhh,” Isidore said, and pointed to the woman. He watched her plodding ahead on the sidewalk with her heavy bag.

  “Why did she yell?” Dennis said, more quietly.

  “I don’t know,” Isidore said. “She was mad.”

  “Was she mad because she has a cane?”

  “Quiet, Dennis! Maybe. I don’t know.”

  “Or because she was old? If I get old, I’ll be mad. Because your face cracks off and your eyeballs fall out and your brain falls out your eyeholes and they put you inside a pyramid. And your hair falls off too and then you’re bald. And you have nothing to drink.” Dennis looked down sadly.

  “She wasn’t old, really,” Isidore said. “She looked young.”

  “Then was she mad because you drew on the sidewalk? I’m not mad. That’s a good tank. I like it. Because you’re a good drawer.”

  “Thanks, Dennis. Come on, let’s go inside.”

  “I don’t want to go in there. Who lives there? That lady who gave us the chalk?”

  “Just come on. Let’s go,” Isidore said. “Aren’t you cold?”

  “Are we gonna go see Mommy now?” Dennis said. “I’m not going in till we go see Mommy. I’ll just go to New York myself. I’ll just walk. Which way is it?”

  It was cold and getting colder. They hadn’t worn any jackets because no one had told them to. Isidore took a butter cookie out of his pocket and told Dennis if he came into the house he could have it.

  All the way home, walking behind their father, who stopped pushing at his bike occasionally to turn around and tell them to hurry up, Isidore kept thinking about the woman with the cane. He’d forget her and then she’d intrude into his thoughts yet again, much as she had into his chalk drawing. He wished he’d thought to get out of her way. But the moment had come and gone. The woman was somewhere else and he wouldn’t ever see her again.

  They came to Hildana with its familiar hydrant with the rusted chains and its flat and square front lawns littered with yellow leaves. Then they came to their house, which seemed to be half the size of the houses on either side of it—the green one on the left with the listing portico over the drive and columns and a low brick wall along the front of the porch and a third floor, and the house on the right with two porches, one on the first floor and one above and a high triangular roof above that over a third floor. The house where they lived, in between, had a porch too, but its steps had no railing, and there was no brick wall. Their house had no third floor, either—or rather, it had no second floor, as its second floor looked more like a third floor, with a dormer window like the other houses had on their third floors and a roof that slanted up from the gutter on top of the porch.

  Their father said he had to go to the store, and the three boys went inside and sat down on the floor of the dark living room without the lights on. Isidore took the army surplus blanket from the arm of the sofa (it was so scratchy, Dennis wouldn’t touch that one), and Dennis took the plaid wool one that he considered to be “his.” Burt never used the blankets, even if it was cold. Sometimes he slept on top of his covers. They heard their father’s bicycle chain clanking in the back of the house.

  Burt tried to build a house of cards. Isidore drew a picture of the woman with the cane on the back of an envelope with a pencil and Dennis watched him.

  “Her face is a skull?” Dennis said.


  “I thought you said she wasn’t old.”

  “She wasn’t. It’s just a picture. And old people don’t have skulls for faces, Dennis! They still have skin!”

  “Oh,” Dennis said. “Izzy, I want some milk.”

  “You want milk?” Isidore said, and sighed. “Okay.”

  Isidore put his pencil down and stood up, and Burt’s cards fell.

  “Ah, I can’t build a second level,” Burt said, “I don’t know how Moseley does it, I’m no good at this,” and he started collecting the cards into a pile.

  “Who’s Moseley?” Dennis said.

  “What?” Burt said. “He’s just a kid at school.”

  Isidore went up the steps into the kitchen and he didn’t expect to see what he did: his father under the sink. He thought his father had gone out, but there he was, right on the kitchen floor, grunting and kicking with his face up under the sink as though trying to wrestle himself inside the jungle of pipes back there. You never knew when he’d decide to try to fix something, and neither did the people he worked for, it seemed, since they were often surprised to see him when he showed up, and angry that he hadn’t showed up sooner.

  “Tateh,” Isidore said, “are we gonna go to New York to see Mommy?”

  His father didn’t answer.

  “Do you know what her favorite book is? I was just wondering. I never asked her.” The only things his father liked to talk about were books and labor unions, but he only read Yiddish books. He still didn’t answer.

  “Tateh,” Isidore said, “why would a young woman have a cane?”

  Instead of an answer, a towel came flying out from under the sink and landed near Isidore’s shoe. It had brown grease on it.

  “Watch it!” Isidore said suddenly, though he hadn’t meant to. It was too much to feel guilt just then, and he blurted something else: “Ezer.”

  Ezer peered out at him from under the sink. The low sun coruscated orange on every piece of glass, and outshone the dim light of the fixture on the ceiling. His father’s face looked naked and small without his glasses on. Ezer rolled himself over quickly, so quickly that he bumped his head under the sink, but he persevered and fought back against the bottles and the pipes; he clobbered the pipes with his elbows and upset the bleach bottles and at last emancipated himself from the kitchen cabinet. Ezer heaved himself off the floor with a merciless inconsideration toward the hinges of the cabinet doors and toward his own stiff joints. He kicked at the greasy towel. Meanwhile, the cabinet doors, as if to deny the sincerity of Ezer’s struggle with the pipes and bottles, stood agreeably open behind him and displayed sticky paper with mocking roses up and down them.

  “Of a dirty towel, you are afraid?” his father said with foreign-sounding, Yiddish consonants that inflected his speech with bad portents.

  “No,” Isidore said, and kicked at the towel himself.

  “Am I to worry about you, too?” his father said.

  “Huh? I’m just getting some milk for Dennis.”

  “For Dennis, I worry, because he is small. For Burt, I worry, because he is…Burt. For you, I cannot worry.”

  “Burt’s right in there,” Isidore whispered. “He could hear you.” Isidore was by now fully awake to the long history of unequal warfare between his father and his older brother, who had according to Ezer failed—failed to recite Yiddish verses, failed to clean the dishes properly, who was always dropping things and making a mess, who had failed, who had failed, who had failed. The history seemed for both combatants to be rich with memorable incident and lay fresh in his father’s memory like a disappointment he was not yet ready to accept. He yelled at Burt often and by now Burt always yelled back. He shoved Burt and Burt slapped blindly at their father’s arms. Now that their mother was sick, there was no one besides Isidore to referee.

  “From a baby, Burt made worries for your mother!” his father said loudly. “She worries so, it makes her sick! She worries so, she thinks of nothing but Burt! She does not think even of me, her husband! And now her stomach—the radiation destroys it! Fills it with burns because your uncle Mo took her to New York for treatments that I tell him are no good! And a debt, he says I owe him for the treatments! He blames me for the cancer, he says! He told her it should be a divorce between us, he says! She agrees. She wants it, he says! A divorce! Well, t
hen I divorce her!” He swished his hands together as though ridding them of dirt. “Mo, he should drop dead! And your aunt Mara, too!” He swiped at the air.

  A slow-melting fire had arisen in the kitchen window behind Ezer and the weird, doomed light made Isidore feel that something terrible was about to happen and that he’d been appointed to this moment for some time without knowing it—perhaps since before he was born, even.

  “Her worries over Burt made a cancer in her stomach! I should know! As if Mo knows a single thing about my house! And I am one man!” Ezer yelled. “How much worry am I to bear all alone? Worry from boys who never know one day of work, even! Who never even know a worry! I fix the sink—for you to fill your greedy mouth without we have leaks and smells and holes and bugs! A child, I worked! Do you? You see this house? These walls? My walls?” He slapped his hand against the wall. “Insulated! Strong! Warm! My house in Jedwabne, it burned! To the ground! Gone! We lived in a cellar! That is no bubbe meise, that is truth what I saw with my own skull! And when we get a new house, Russian soldiers take it and again we sleep in the cellar! Unbelievable, I think. Again, here am I in a cellar with bugs! And for my brothers and sisters are the nice places. Warm! Dry! For me, the youngest almost, except for the baby what is bited by a rat and dies in that cellar, I sleep on dirt with rats and bugs, everywhere bugs, afraid that I too should die! One of those soldiers, he almost kills my father! What do you know from worry? Do you see Russian soldiers on Hildana Road? Do you see guns? Do you see fire? Do you see cold and dirt and rats?”

  Ezer reserved most tirades for Burt. This marked something very different, it seemed, a mutation in the atoms of the air and the ground, and Isidore felt himself compelled to memorize the light of the sun before it disappeared, as if it might not ever return.

  “What name do you call me?” his father said.

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