THE RESURRECTIONS OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
For breakfast, as was his habit, he drank a boiled egg from his cup, but even that made him nauseated. Thinking of all the plates of pea soup he ever drank, all the bread he ever ate, made Singer sick to his stomach. That day, he was determined anyway to follow his routine, so he left his apartment and paced forty blocks around the building courtyard, waiting for his wife to come outside. Then they walked down Broadway. He didn’t joke as usual about stealing whatever caught his eye – a trashcan, a jar of creamed herring in a store window, a building. His leg began to hurt – shooting pains in the calf and a slow ache in the thigh- and his breath began to stink. They turned back and for the first time didn’t make it downtown to his booth at the dairy restaurant.
It was a cool, early April day and the window was wide open. He sat in his wing chair where he always wrote stories, but none came. His neck was getting stiff. He put down his pen, got up, took off his trousers and placed them, folded, on a chair near his bed. Without even taking off the spread, he lay down, broke into a sweat – a schvitz he’d say – shut his eyes, and never got up.Read more...
“Every time I think of the corn, the schvitzing comes! It’s bad for my nerves to think of corn. Better I should think of veggie burgers. When I schvitz, I put away my fountain pen and play a game of solitaire. The cards help with my nerves. Now I will tell you-I was about fifteen. I got in trouble everyplace – with my folks, even the police. Believe me, those shameful stories are not for your ears. I was sitting on the stairway and heard my parents fighting in the kitchen. My father, may he rest in peace, threw the yahrzeit candle across the floor and yelled, I don’t know why, ‘You shiksa!’ Something my mother had done not exactly right. And my mother, may she rest also, shrieked, ‘You with your whiskey! You with your women! Go away, leave this house and take your no-good son with you!’
“They never prayed, my parents, never went to schul. Maybe if they knew Torah or Talmud, they wouldn’t have fought like that. The schul down the street I liked and when I heard my mother yell, ‘Leave!,’ I snuck outside to the schul. Ladies were preparing a bar mitzvah, putting out chickpeas and chopped herring. I took some, took – who knows, herring maybe was the Almighty Himself – stuffed pumpernickel in my pockets and hitchhiked out of New Jersey for good.
“A talkative man, Italian, picked me up and began to tell tales about a whorehouse in Pennsylvania. Kitty’s Bordello was his destination, and when he told about it, it was mine too. He dropped me off on a ramshackle street and pointed. He was visiting his cousin first. When I walked in, oh, were there women in that place! Before that, I’d go to a girl’s house. She’d open the door, you’d give her a few dollars and quick – that was that, you understand. But here, exotic girls dressed in costumes from The Arabian Nights. Like colorful fruits, they were. Any of them, or even two, could be mine. The big room on the ground floor had wallpaper all over with leaves, green, that looked like wind was blowing them. I believe now wind was blowing. Chickpeas and herring by then had left my mind. My mouth tasted dates and cashews and mangos.
“Why I chose this girl named Joan, I don’t know. She was a little plain. I like plain. When we got upstairs, I told her I was going to die that very night of a rare disease I had. All my money from fixing hot dogs at the deli was in my pockets and I gave her it all. Did I need it? No. ‘Love me to death,’ I said.
“She unbuttoned my shirt, pulled down my trousers. But slowly. I was lying naked there and she kissed me on the lips first, then put her tongue in my ear and began to whisper. I thought I’d go crazy. Maybe God was there, then, in Allentown, in my ear. I could hear nothing.
“‘Corn,’ was all she said. Just the vibrations of her words in the morning made my ears excited again. Then she said, ‘You will live until you are an old man. You will never rest and be besieged with telling stories. One day you will have enough of pumpernickel and enough of the women’s breasts. Your leg will begin to have pain. Then finally you will have peace. Take these kernels of corn. Go!’
“I went to New York City. For more than seventy years, I lived in an apartment on Broadway and followed my habits. I never asked anyone for favors. I walked, I answered letters, I always had a good lunch. How stories came, I don’t know, but my ears, they were always excited – whatever came in my ears, came out a story. I wrote always in Yiddish and how that came I don’t know either. My parents probably heard about the Jew from Warsaw, the storyteller, but how could they imagine it was their own son. The corn? I forgot about it.
“Last spring one day when I was walking, my leg started to hurt. I went home, lay down, closed my eyes. The room was quiet. I concentrated on my breath as it slowed down. I think I felt someone draw a sheet over my head. That night, Juanita, a woman who came sometimes to me in dreams, we made love in the air above my bed in which my wife Alma was mourning me. Ahhhh – I kissed Juanita’s broad cheekbones, ran my skinny hands through her gray hair and felt her big belly. My schvitzing completely stopped. When I put my tongue in her ear, I drove her insane. Now. I will tell you one thing. I was Juanita. I was making love to myself.”
A few months later, The New York Times printed this story:
One morning last spring, driving down Broadway, the policeman spotted a heavyset, gray-haired, Spanish speaking woman carefully cultivating the soil, picking up trash and pulling weeds at 153rd Street.
“I stopped to talk to her,” he said. “And she told me – she spoke only broken English – ‘I plant; I take care.’ She said she lived nearby. That’s all she said.
“At first being a New Yorker, I didn’t know it was corn, but then, it was the most amazing thing. Yesterday I saw it – 131 stalks, some nearly six feet tall, sprouting on upper Broadway! I drove up and down looking for her. I could see her handiwork, but I never saw her again.”
No. That’s not what happened. I’m sure of it. I should know. He was in Miami Beach when he died, not New York. He was a boy in Warsaw, I’m sure that’s true. Come to think of it, though, when I used to ask him to send me pictures of himself as a boy, he said he had none. He explained that he wasn’t allowed to be photographed. “Thou shalt not make any images,” the Ten Commandments said. The whole thing with the corn, the corn seeds, the corn growing, is beyond me; I don’t get it. That he turned into Juanita when he died, that’s another story.
If you read his obituary, you may recall that it only mentioned a son, Zamir from Israel. I am younger than Zamir. My father and I always corresponded, but we never met. Last week on a cold March day, I went to Miami Beach, God knows why, to see the spot where he died.
Leaving the Miami Airport, I saw palm trees blowing and felt warm air on my skin. Magenta bougainvillea bushes were blooming. I took a cab to my old friend Ricky’s house and started to call around to find out exactly where my father had died. Newspaper stories just said “a Miami Beach nursing home.” First I called the University because he had taught there. I tracked down a man who had translated some of his stories. “Call his wife if you want to find out,” he said, annoyed. I had never spoken to Alma and wasn’t about to now. I called schuls, I called libraries, The Miami Jewish Tribune, The Miami Herald. I tried a Judaica bookstore. The man there didn’t know. When I asked if another bookstore might, “Oy, bookstores,” he sighed.
I walked to a coffee shop in South Beach, wondering why no one knew where my father had died. A scrap of paper blew over near my feet. “Love, Herbie,” it said. Herbie? Who was Herbie? Was this supposed to mean something? A man with long, wavy black hair in a royal blue shirt paced in front of my table yelling into a cellular phone, acting as if he was alone in his house. “vulgar-smulgar,” Pop once wrote me in a letter about Miami. “If there are vulgar Jews there, or if they’re crazy or funny, I want to know about it.” The man on the phone circled other tables, almost spitting into the phone. I looked up and down this strip of beach at the old art deco hotels, the parade of long-legged models with foreign accents, and the chatting gay couples. When the waitress brought me my check, she set down a small bowl of corn pudding. “On the house,” she said, “our specialty.” As she walked away from the table, she mumbled, “Eat. Eat.”
I went back to Ricky’s, took out the Yellow Pages to try again. Someone must know where Isaac Bashevis Singer had died. This time I talked to a librarian who happened to know where his funeral had been. I dialed Parkside Memorial Chapel. “Call back in an hour. We can’t just whip this information out. We’re very busy, we’ve just had a lot of death calls.”
I needed a nap. I went outside, lay down on a chaise lounge in the shade, and began to dream. Angels in housedresses are standing around a table where my father is sucking marrow from soup bones. Some angels are off to the side rolling dough. Others keep clearing the table. He’s laughing, his blue eyes are gems. Now I’m fixing him a platter of raw vegetables. I make designs with strips of red pepper and wet radishes. I place slices of pale green cucumbers next to brilliant green scallions, then cut carrot sticks and rounds of red onions. He crunches loud, makes appetizing sounds. Black bread, sweet butter I give him.
It is Friday night now, Shabbos in the dream. I am lighting candles, saying prayers. My husband unplugs the phone, chants. We’re smoking marijuana, eating rye bread and honey. It is winter. He opens all the windows. Wind blows the potted palm trees in our house. “The spirits like our party. Let them join us,” he says. We are in bed. “The Torah decrees this,” he whispers. The ceiling above our bed cracks apart. Purple bougainvillea petals fall onto our bed. A clarinet plays minor notes outside. A lizard runs across my leg and wakes me up.
I went back into the house and called the funeral home again. “You took care of the arrangements for a Mister Singer, Isaac Singer, who died last July; do you know where he died?” “The name rings a bell. Hold on, it might still be on the computer.” Muzak came on the line: “What a day for a daydream& .”
“Yes. Here it is. We picked the body up from a large facility, the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged. Here’s the number if you want it.”
I got a Mr. Randell there who agreed to meet me the next morning. I said I was writing a story about Isaac Bashevis Singer, just a little story, and wanted to see the spot where he died. “Do you want to take any pictures?” he asked. “No, I want to see the bed he was in. Why would I want to take pictures? I just want to spend five minutes at the most, probably less.”
When I got there the next day, I waited for Mr. Randell in a hallway. There was a big sign on the wall next to the nurses’ station that said, “Today is Friday. It is March 4, 1992. The weather is sunny.” A big red poster said FLORIDA. Everything to look at was big, simple. Mr. Randell came from his office and extended his hand. “Bad news. Let me tell you, this went right to the top. You know, I have a mortgage and two kids. I can’t lose my job.”
Then Fiddler on the Roof began to play. Randell seemed nervous. I was speechless and must have looked puzzled. “Every mealtime, the whole soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof plays over our PA system,” he offered, fidgeting. I was still silent. Finally he said,”One thing I can tell you. He wasn’t on this floor.”
The instant I.B. Singer died, stillborn air fell on South beach like a drape. A funny odor – was it Juicy Fruit gum? – hung in the air. A girl dressed in green went to buy her usual ice cream, but the food vendor was selling hot corn. “Weird,” she thought.
The wind stirred up. Old men, regulars who sang Yiddish songs at the bandstand, walked up the beach playing horns. A man who looked blind, he must have been ninety-five, played a trumpet, a mute at the end of his horn. A skinny fellow conducted with a chopstick. A fan, a lady with lots of protective cream on her lips, clapped.
The girl in green walked down to the water. Suddenly, she looked at the wind – to the right, to the left. She felt her neck becoming stiff. Feverish, she took off her clothes. The wind had turned green, as if a thunderstorm were coming. The girl stood still as the wind clothed her body, wrapped her shoulders in green. The man with the chopstick continued to conduct. In unison, five elderly ladies began to weep – for what?
The girl’s arms disappeared. She imagined dancing. Her legs disappeared. “I’m leaving home,” she whispered. Her throat tightened. She could make no sound now, nor move. But the wind did.
The instant I.B. Singer died, on a small side street in Warsaw, up and down Broadway in New York City, in a schul in New Jersey, even at a bordello in Allentown, Pennsylvania, something happened. Thousands of people in one private moment were short of breath. No one mentioned it to anyone else, except a few hypochondriacs who shot off to see their doctors. In the insulation of their own minds, some thought, “My whole body needs to breathe.” It was nighttime in Warsaw. People threw off their sheets and said, in Polish, “Open the window a crack.”
The Gettysburg Review, copyright 1993, Citation in Best American Short Stories 1993
White cows made sounds on the hot lawn the night we came. They chewed in the dark, wandered from their field far down the beach. Awakened by heat, we tuned to their grazing sound.
My husband woke, called me to come out. Men talking by the water lit torches, rowed under the black sky, threw their nets for bait. They had come from Parrottee. Then they steered their painted boats to sea, going for kingfish.
We heard music from a shut-up bar, walked down the beach in the dark. A boy inside was drinking white rum, Peter Tosh sang on the juke box. We saw an alligator way out in the water. It swam on a path across the bay from river to swamp in that dark.Read more...
Black River nights were full of sound, out of proportion like dreams. We burned cow dung to keep mosquitos out. Days were different. We’d wake at five, watch light snake through the palm branches, come through the slats, play on the stucco wall. Then we’d make love. Lizards clung to the ceiling.
Men’s voices out front. They’d paddle their yellow carved boat out, cast their nets for shrimp, return to shore. Four men to a rope tugged the net in, hauled hard. Boys helped pick through the nets for shrimp. Women dressed in flowery skirts, gathered, each carrying a pot. I stood by, watching. Then I’d go in the house, bring out my bucket to buy shrimp, always two pounds.
I liked the man with big hands. He lived six miles down the beach where I had walked once. I had seen huge pigs in front of a hut, sprawled, sleeping in the sand. The skin of the man with big hands shone like our mahogany bed, his neck straight. His footprints made one straight line. His faded maroon pants had a broken fly. It wasn’t surprising to see his privates.
After a few days, the fishermen and I agreed on a fixed price for two pounds of shrimp, so each day’s purchase did not start with haggling. Two pounds though, did not mean a standard amount, it meant abundance. The man with big hands always gave me a generous two pounds. I wondered whether it was generosity on his part, or simply how much his hands held when he reached into his blue pail.
One time, I was in the kitchen washing shrimp I had purchased from a surly stocky fellow. Hilma, one of the skirted women, screeched into the house. “How much you buy today? Two pounds! Let me see. Not enough there! I take the shrimp, show that swindler!”
By now the men were throwing their nets way down the beach. Appearing out of nowhere, eight women were suddenly gliding towards the fishermen, their skirts fanned out. Hilma lead them, holding my washed shrimp in her grip. I ran to catch up.
As we reached the men, she bombarded the one who had sold me the shrimp. “Flimflam man – thief,” she erupted into a stream of fast words I couldn’t follow. He answered her with equal speed. She finished with, “I send my son to bring my scale to measure these shrimp.” In minutes, a boy with an old scale materialized. When Hilma loaded my shrimp onto it, the needle barely budged. “You cheat!”
Some fishermen clicked their tongues on their teeth. One said, “It isn’t a scale! Broken old scale! Take the shrimp to the hotel in town, to the modern scale that works.” Hilma and the shrimp seller went off with the bucket. People were murmuring. Some made restrained eyes at each other. When they got back, they handed over my bucket, both stoney. I walked home, couldn’t tell if I had more or less shrimp than before.
Soon we were to leave Black River. One morning, men were hauling in their nets as usual, and as usual I was watching. As they picked for shrimp, the man with big hands pulled out his machete, began to chop at something long and alive. Everyone stood still. “I kill the sea snake, the sixth this month. In the water, if you step on the hole they live in, they rise up, shock you. Small chance to live then. We care for the harbor.”
I looked back at our thick stucco house, looked down at his feet. The tide was rising near the palm. Waves were washing the snake remains out. Cows grazed on the lawn in broad daylight.
The Ohio Review Thirtieth Anniversary 1971-2001 New and Selected, copyright 2001
The Ohio Review Number 56, copyright 1997
PINICUS THE FISHERMAN
This is the story of two men, one thin and one heavyset, each called Pinicus The Fisherman and a woman they knew called Radish Pie. Both men were Jewish and had grown up poor, and both were very interested in sex, although they showed it in different ways. The thin one never did anything outright, he just flirted and rolled his eyes in a way that anyone could tell he was interested in sex. The heavyset one was full of lively song and lively play. It didn’t matter much how they showed their bent, because each of them, in their way, demonstrated good sexual sense. I tell you these personal details in order to help you better understand the story.Read more...
One day Radish Pie was walking. She became thirsty, hungry and tired. She knocked at the door of a stucco house set on a hill above a river. Pinicus The Fisherman, the thin one, answered. On the spot, she was taken by his blue eyes and provocative manner. She sensed his complicated view of life and liked it. He, as well, was taken by her. As time passed, he showed it in funny ways. He would paint pictures in which a man would help a girl reel in fish when she had one on the line. He painted pictures of a man baiting a hook with a woman standing next to him, too squeamish to do it herself. They would stand on the riverbanks, across from his house and cast out. In these pictures, each of them was skillful and lucky in hooking fish. Though it was not his intent, he once was surprised to find himself painting delicate and complicated pictures of lures. Radish Pie and Pinicus The Fisherman cared very much for each other and taught each other a great deal.
One day Radish Pie was standing alone by the river practicing casting when the heavyset Pinicus approached her. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Pinicus The Fisherman.” “I am Radish Pie,” she said. He had noticed her skimpy red skirt which had gotten wet when she walked in the river to get a hook from the weeds. He was interested. Surprised by his name, she looked up and saw his blue eyes. Because of her affection for The Thin One and because of her quick curiosity for The Heavyset One, she could tell matters had gotten out of hand. Lucky for her, she enjoyed fishing a great deal and was getting better at it. And thus, she proceeded to fish for a long while, wholeheartedly.
As I have told you, the thin Pinicus and the heavyset Pinicus shared a name, as well as a friendship with Radish Pie. Let me tell you how each of them got his name. She got hers from doing the obvious, that is eating radishes particularly often.
The Thin One loved fish. He thought about fish, he read about them and talked at length to other people about fish. But, he never fished. He never even touched one. Although this was something to note, it, in no way, would have justified his being called Pinicus The Fisherman.
He was a painter. And what he painted was fish. Picture after picture of fish. And when he would vary his subject matter, which he rarely did, he would paint water. As he painted, he hummed sea waltzes. His work was beautiful. The paintings looked so real, it was hard to remember they weren’t. If you looked at the ones of fish when you were hungry, you knew that those were fish for eating. If you looked at the ones of water, you knew there were plenty of fish to be caught in that water. For this talent, he was called Pinicus The Fisherman.
From the time Radish Pie was a small girl, she especially loved paintings and especially loved fish. So when she met The Thin One, she especially loved him. Sometimes she could not believe that the paintings were just paintings.
When she met The Heavyset One on the bank of the river, she was struck by certain things. Here was a man who not only loved fish, but he loved to fish. He caught fish, he cleaned fish, cooked them and ate them. One could say, he dealt with fish.
He took Radish Pie fishing everywhere – lakes, rivers, and the sea. They traveled. By actually fishing with her, he taught her to catch fish. It was hard for him to teach her patience while waiting for fish to bite. Because sometimes, appearing patient, her mind would wander and she would dwell on the beauty of The Thin One’s paintings and she would forget to concentrate on the line. Sometimes he joked with her about how she wished for paintings of fish rather than the real thing, because then she wouldn’t have to clean them.
Together, they bought a big net and made sure their reels and rods were in good shape. One time, after they returned from a long trip, she took apart their fishing box and scrubbed it and washed all the lures and bobbers and put everything back in neat.
Here’s how the two men talked to Radish Pie about fish. The Thin One would sometimes mention to her how it was when he was young. He would hint. He would say puzzling words like 1946 or he would say Brighton Beach or the word breeze. Once he said, “When I was little, I rode the bus to the beach all the while imagining big bluefish.” She never exactly knew what he was getting at, except that it usually hinted at fish. One time he mumbled glimmering trout, and for ages, she tried to understand what he was talking about.
The Heavyset One, on the other hand, talked to Radish Pie like this. “When I was about eight, my father would take me to this bar in Ramapo. There was a guy there named Wagenti, an Italian, and a Polish guy, I forget his name. And they’d sit at the bar and talk about pussy and shoot bears and not one of them was a drunk. I’d never seen a drunk before. Not in my house, that’s for sure. When my father and the two other guys got good and plastered, they’d take me to some godforsaken place, the drive must’ve taken hours, and we’d go fishing for pike.” When Radish Pie would ask questions like, “You mean your father would really get drunk and talk about that stuff in front of you?” he would answer her and say things like, “He was cool, but I could tell he got his share.” So Radish Pie thought she knew why he liked fishing so much.
Years passed. Pinicus The Fisherman (The Thin One) painted less. He began to compose waltzes on the piano. He and Radish Pie rarely saw each other. She slept in bed every night with Pinicus The Fisherman (The Heavyset One) and they continued to fish together. Their life became wider. Often, Radish Pie would quietly say to herself, “Paintings of fish are paintings, but fish are fish.” Though at times she was seen walking on the road mumbling it backwards.
Crab Creek Review, copyright 1987