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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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There’s no mistaking the gait you adopt in a place known to you since childhood, a sureness of gait that resembles the sureness of the blind. Gruen displayed it as he crossed and recrossed the room. When N. asked Gruen why they had come, he said that he had to take care of some small transactions. Family transactions, he said, his voice raw from (N. thought) suppressing a laugh. Go see if there’s anything to drink, said Gruen, I don’t know when they’ll get back. Gruen could drive with impeccable skill when drunk, N. had sat in the backseat of the car with his hand high up on the (warm, wide and goldenly dusty) thigh of a woman from whom he would go on to contract gonorrhea, a woman he privately called Korb (first name: Euphrosyne), a Greek woman whose Italian friend had sat in the passenger seat next to Gruen as they drove along a rain-glazed road curving up Bear Mountain among the green, black pines on the way to Gruen’s country place. The blind, full moon above. The stars like pinholes (or slits). Your memories in the end resemble everyone else’s.

Korb and her friend had nothing to do with what N. found in the kitchen, before he could find any liquor. I.e. two military cots clothed in grey blankets at the foot of the stove. Not a modern range but a cast-iron stove with a red bucket holding pine logs by the northeast corner and by the southwest a black bucket. A blue-handled trowel stood upright in its pale ash. Three faded-gold hairs curled on one pillow. A faded-gold halo of dried sweat decorated the other. Some sour, faint odor arose. Yes, said Gruen, who’d wandered up to the doorway, they always said they couldn’t sleep when they weren’t next to the stove. If you’re near the stove you can sleep, if not, Gruen went on in a false, high cackle, then you can’t sleep. From a cupboard he took a bottle of brown liquor, unlabelled, and two glasses. The sunlight picked out spectral, segmented lip-prints on the rims. My father tried to convince them otherwise, but he died before he succeeded, said Gruen (this time laughing in his own voice). Liquor from an unlabelled bottle, N. said, burns the way liquor from a labelled bottle never could. In fact you could develop a whole system based on that. Based on what, said Gruen. He was peering into the cold stove, from which a light whistle emerged (or else Gruen was whistling lightly, in his throat). The dead-black door hid his face. Based on the sufferings caused by typological systems, said N. The liquor in its nameless way burned his throat again. I don’t see it like that at all, said Gruen, we need typology because we can’t stand living concepts, we need graves for them. You can’t claim the world would get along without graves, can you? The stone-blue cat had migrated from the front walk to the garbage can and licked itself in the sunlight. Gruen shouted out: Cousin Katarina! Cousin Batya! Katarina! Batya! Then he sighed as the dead echoes multiplied and said: I need you to help me move these cots. Gruen was correct: they looked like trivial folding cots but they weighed as much as iron bedsteads. Their legs and crossbars cut into his palms. Moving the cot with the stained pillow (which Gruen said belonged to Batya) took almost an hour, they had to thread it down the narrow, kinked stairway that led from the kitchen to the frigid basement. Floored in dirt and oiled and packed down with a roller, or at least a roller stood in one ashen corner. My father tried to convince them about the basement floor as well, said Gruen, but he failed there too, death intervened. It was death’s decision that my cousins should have this kike floor, instead of a Jew floor, said Gruen. N., coming as he did from a Catholic family, did not understand the distinction Gruen made between Jews and kikes, but he kept his mouth shut. On certain subjects you can’t ask any questions. My father, said Gruen, my father attempted to make a number of changes here but they never let him, and then, as you know, he died. N. braced himself for the mirrorlike (holelike) appearance, for the story of Gruen’s father to drift into view, but Gruen did not permit this to happen, he took the bottle from the last step and drank from its mouth. Two door-sized oblong blurs (as if a mirror had joined with a hole) disturbed the fresh and nacreous oil coating the floor.

They finished the bottle, according to N.’s watch, at 11:43. Gruen asked for the time, the precise time, he said, as he lifted a faceted cordial glass from a credenza (both decorated with the crown-and-eagle flag, or not the flag itself but a heraldic plaque on which the flag, in some fury, some defecatory act of translation had been based) and when N. told him the time he hurled the glass to the floor and ground it beneath his heel. They stood in an upper room. The credenza and a rolltop desk, that’s all N. could see as far as furniture went. Both resembling defeated statesmen. Leaden scales, played on a watery-toned piano, floated in. The window: open. The breeze: grass-fringed and punctuated. The sunlight: mild. The breaking of glass: musical. Gruen did not let up. N. counted sixteen glasses and Gruen lifted, hurled down and shattered first one, then the next, his face calm, stony, and his wide mouth working. The harsh, sweet chords the glasses made as they broke were resolved by the scales the practicing pianist played, and above all this noise, as N.’s bladder throbbed and his saliva flowed (he had reached the lucent, lucid stage of drunkenness where it becomes dangerous, philosophically dangerous, to stop drinking), above all this noise Gruen’s clear, even voice recounted, at last, the story about his father. N. knew all the details. The hallway wallpaper where Gruen had discovered his father, for example: N. knew its pattern, infinite white schooners on an infinite periwinkle field. And the noise Gruen senior made, a cat’s weak cry, a mewling and weeping, this N. knew as well as his own weeping, to say nothing of the fecal suffering Gruen senior suffered, he had shit himself copiously during the stroke, his feces liquid and yellowish. The stain left on the beige hallway carpet shaped like a second-rate European nation. Gruen senior’s open, black, imperious mouth and the promise he had extracted from Gruen junior never to reveal this event. When Gruen came to the part about the promise, he would throw up his hands as usual, N. thought, and stop smashing these cordial glasses, we’ll go smoke, he thought, a cigarette on the front steps and then leave, I can call up Korb and her Italian friend (N. was assiduous about staying in touch with women). In the end, he thought, your memories are the same as everyone else’s. The common grave, memory, N. thought, and was about to speak, to explain this thought to Gruen and say they should go have a smoke and get another bottle, but Gruen was not finished with the story yet. This fact disturbed N. Gruen had mentioned the promise, and he in all other cases had stopped the story of finding his beshitted father after the promise incident. Instead of stopping, he raised another glass high in the air and shouted: the hole of shitting!

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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