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Tablet Original Fiction: Light

Tablet Original Fiction: For Alexander Gruen, there are no real Jews left in the world, only holes—and fire

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N. had heard it ten, twelve, fourteen times. At this point, the story might as well have concerned his own father. Though he didn’t complain. He did not suffer his fate alone. All Gruen’s close friends knew the story with crushing exactitude.

Which is why, even though N. had been reduced to stealing bread, with a skill he had no previous idea he possessed, for he had grown up in a timid, educated household where theft was never practiced, only the endless brutalities of culture, and occasionally reviewing novels, though when he stole bread his pulse surged and the sweat of joy and travail erupted from his pores and when he reviewed novels he could think only of sleep, death, a dead or sleeping village (villages being another phenomenon he was unfamiliar with before his period of unemployment and poverty, he had spent his entire life in the city) stunned by the silent and thunderous sunlight lining a brown slope—despite all this, when Gruen (first name: Alexander) asked him if he wanted to come along that morning, he almost said no. He had, as well, a freshly stolen loaf shoved into his overcoat sleeve. He lacked any idea how to explain this to Gruen if Gruen should notice. But the real curse of poverty, in N.’s novice opinion (he would later come to revise it) was the boredom it inflicted, not the privation.

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When Gruen called out to him from the doorway he was suffering (or so he imagined) acutely. So despite the stolen loaf, he said yes. Gruen rushed from the doorway directly across the sidewalk to his parked convertible, slate-blue. The moiré pattern formed by the ties in the shop window wavered and buzzed in the golden light. The proprietors, who sold nothing but ties, arranged their wares in chromatic order, from black to white, with every color encompassed along the way. Even the absurd colors puce and smaragdine shone from their inexorable places. Gruen, who bought all his ties here, liked to say that the owners didn’t stop with the visible spectrum. They could provide neckties in ultraviolet shades, infrared.

Gruen worked as a commercial insurance salesman, a trade he had inherited. His father enjoyed great success and Gruen had doubled and redoubled that success. Though he was the same age as N. (in this case, twenty-nine) he already owned a second home, to which he had invited N. at least as many times as he’d told him the story about his father. N. had only accepted once, and the turquoise, light-webbed, grave-shaped pool still gaped and blazed in N.’s memory. When they reached the midpoint of the Brooklyn Bridge, Gruen again said that N. should come and visit him some weekend, that he would love to see him, and that he should feel free to bring a date if he liked, because while he, Gruen said, could provide everything else, linens, food and intellectual companionship, that he could not provide. Due to his natural inclinations, he said.

Still, solitary clouds hung over the river and the bay, and the sky took on the same shade as Gruen’s countryside swimming pool. The only trouble, Gruen said, as the wind disarranged his copious black hair, with owning a second home is related to shovels, and how many you have to purchase. One for earth, one for snow, a third for sand, in case you want to have an outdoor fire. You need sand to put it out. I never thought I would need so many shovels.

When N. asked where they were going, Gruen said they were going to Gravesend to see his two elderly cousins. These two cousins, he explained, were twin sisters, children of his great-aunt. They had resisted the Gruen migration from Brooklyn, they still lived in the same house Gruen remembered from his childhood visits there. N. slid the loaf from his sleeve and was about to drop to the floorboards and kick it backwards beneath the seat when Gruen saw it and started to laugh. You carry bread around with you, he said. N. said that you never know when you might get hungry. They do that as well, said Gruen, whenever we go out to eat with them, to a restaurant, they take rolls from the table, wrap them in napkins and hide them in their purses. My father hated it, he called it an embarrassment. You clearly understand their outlook on the world, however. So N. sat with the bread growing warmer and warmer in his lap as the powerful sunlight struck it, sunlight dissected by cables and girders, sunlight blinking like an eye. He had eaten nothing but stolen bread (he estimated) for three weeks. The slightest external stirring could exhaust him, the breathing of the wind, the rustling of Gruen’s hair. You look pale, said Gruen. N. closed his eyes. He nonetheless saw the blunted concern smoothing Gruen’s lower features (including his simian jaw) and corrugating his brow and the skin near his greyish eyes. Not for the first time, N. wondered whether human imagination (as they say) amounts to nothing more than a hole, into which immensity after immensity (all specious) pours, but he could not express this to Gruen or even to himself, so he leant his head back against the leather headrest and inhaled its light carrion smell, and sitting in silence beside Gruen he crossed the steely river.

***

Above the house of their destination, a flag flapped and whickered. This is another of their fucking affectations, said Gruen. N. did not recognize this flag. It bore a modified version of the so-called Pan-Slavic colors (top to bottom: blue bar, white bar, green bar) decorated with a red crown afloat above a red double eagle. Yes, said Gruen, as the car boated into its place by a hard-nippled, garbage-green fire hydrant, there are no real Jews left in the world, only kikes who fly the flag. A stone-blue cat licked its genitals in a polygon of still shade as they waited at the door, elevated by three cement steps and two iron railings from the earth of Gravesend. I used to come here with my father, said Gruen, and N. prepared himself to hear the story for the fifteenth time, or even the sixteenth (in such affairs, well, you touch on the infinite and the uncountable). But Gruen did not launch into the story (though he never launched into the story, it simply began, as a mirror begins without warning), he knocked again and pressed his ear to the door, and then he opened it with a key, a silver, reflective key, one of the keys he carried on his keyring, which had always looked to N. like a keyring belonging to a bumbling jailer. The first room dark and, N. saw with some surprise, octagonal. No Jews, only kikes, crowed Gruen. More emblems of this unknown republic covered the eight walls. Handsewn flags, a version with crossed yellow anchors, a naval jack; fez-like knitted caps; photographs of mustached men astride small, narrow-faced horses. In addition (as they say) two spindle-legged armchairs faced each other in obscene sadness. A poker, tongs and fire-blackened shovel all hung on iron hooks near the cold, soot-smeared fireplace (another hole). Through the front windows you could see the sleek back of the busy cat, its leg pointed at the mild sky. The noise the roof flag made went on and went on, blow after blow.

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Tablet Original Fiction: Light

Tablet Original Fiction: For Alexander Gruen, there are no real Jews left in the world, only holes—and fire