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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. tried to speak, but again Gruen screamed, a glass lifted high. The hole of pissing, the holes of pissing and shitting, the hole of breathing! Here he paused, his brow damp and his smile wet. A cordial glass balanced on his proffered palm. As the glass left N.’s hand, as it shattered and as he ground the shard to fragments, dust, and other such sliced-up facticities beneath his sole, he cried out in the name and sake of a hole as well: the hole of expatiation! Gruen next apostrophized the hole of metaphysics, which is not strictly speaking an orifice, but is related to the hole of God, related paternally to that hole, and from there the relation only spreads outwards to the hole called truth and falsehood, a unitary hole, and the dual holes cause and effect, the cold hole of the state is also included, the deepest and coldest, you could call it the hole of night, fraternally related to the hole of day, which brings us to the hole of time passing, each with its destroyed glass, of course, each with its naked and sliced-up apostrophe, and then (as always) to the hole of being and nothingness. Other possible holes: you find them during the time you spend gardening, pits you’ve dug with a trowel and into which you place marigolds or phalaenopses. Also ilex, though for that you would use a trowel, not a shovel. A grave, that’s another hole. A mirror, that’s another hole. Except it is not. In a mirror you see yourself, and all the disgust and pain self-observation brings cascades down on you, you are sheeted in cold, viscous sweat—you’re nothing, essentially nothing, the mirror says when it shows you your reflection (i.e. nothing).

From the window (N. was cooling his hot forehead against the glass and listening to Gruen’s persecuted breathing) he could see the back lawn, circumscribed but lush, and the stone-blue cat no longer licking its genitals but poised on the grass, tail erect, ears pricked, staring at nothing. A second, triangular flag flapped from a greenish metal pole rising from the concrete lipping the lawn. The pianist next door (that house possessed a backyard as well, but no grass, only concrete, and an arbor adorned with wrist-thick, sleeping grapevines) reached the uppermost octave and stopped, and a fresh, systolic silence spread out. I agree, said Gruen. With what, said N. We should find another bottle, said Gruen, I really have no idea when they’re getting back. N. turned away from the window (his forehead left a cyclopic-looking grease spot on the glass). The basement blurs, well, they hovered, so to speak, but you could not see them from the kitchen, where N. searched for another bottle, he opened all the cabinets and found jar after jar of preserves, some deep-red and gelatinous fruit compote, as well as empty jars and a box full of metal lids and lid-sleeves. On the box, in hard, feminine handwriting, the words K. GRUEN, B. GRUEN. When he opened the last door, not a cabinet strictly speaking but a utility closet, against its rear wall a long workman’s shovel leaned among the brooms and mops, its handle orange with rust and its blade showing new, illuminated scars. There he found what he was seeking, i.e. another bottle of brown liquor, this also unlabelled and stinking even more powerfully of ethyl than the first. He had to shout himself hoarse to make himself heard above Gruen. His friend (framed by the dead-white doorjambs) was raising his brown boot above a black chair, helpless and febrile. He broke the chair’s back with one blow. The wood sang. Yes, people underestimate Gruen’s physical strength, but they are wrong to do so, thought N. as he tore the cork out with his teeth and drank and then carried the bottle to his friend.

Gruen explained what he wanted done with the broken chairs. N. complied: He was, after all, a guest. His host raced back upstairs, singing out the word kike as his right shoe hit each step. Dark, gazing holes (two in each wall, at fist level) observed N. as he carried out Gruen’s request, breaking the splintered chairs into uniform short segments and piling them in the kitchen stove. N. allowed himself a swallow from the bottle every time he broke a large slat or leg. This liquor burned, but it burned in a historical as opposed to metaphysical way. A nail hidden under the last whole seat carved a brief, bloody channel in his hand, and he poured liquor over the wound. He wrapped his hand in a strip from the naval jack, which he had torn into precise ribbons as an adjunct to Gruen’s instructions. He had piled all the wood fragments on a pristine tablecloth, paper-white, the depthless white of paper, when Gruen’s voice (torn open into a grunt, a howling, derisive grunt) returned. The credenza tumbled and thundered down the stairs, landing on the living room floor with its pocked deal back facing up. Gruen raced back down to the landing, shouting kike at each step, and leaped. Sunlight slid across his shoes, his lengthy legs, his heavy watchband (like a manacle). He came down with both soles on the credenza’s back. Human error—it can bear you aloft. Though N. did not know what error this statement referred to.

***

Burning lacquer, its scent high and harsh, this rose too, covering the stale human odors that had up to then prevailed in the kitchen. Gruen sat by the stove’s door, feeding splints and dowels of chair wood in with his hands and shoving them to the hungriest zones of the fire with his cousins’ poker. N. kept track of the bottle, and when Gruen seemed thirsty, he passed it off to him. The heat palpable and blank. The credenza fragments N. had stacked into a cord outside the kitchen door, ready to be fed into the fire when the chair wood ran out. At N.’s feet lay a white pile, mackled with red: all the cloth memorabilia they could find, plus heaped nightdresses. N. had discovered a wooden armoire in another upstairs room and gathered up its contents, thirty-six, he counted, ankle-length cotton nightdresses. Gruen shouted in approval when he saw N. lumbering down the stairs with the piled cloth. That’s all they ever wore, he cried, they stayed in their cots and they worse those dresses, and my father died before he could affect any changes! Once the fire was hot enough, Gruen said, they could feed in the cloth. Otherwise they’d risk suffocating the fire, those nightdresses would suffocate anything, he argued. N. had to concur. They carried the sour smell that had pervaded the beds, the now-vanquished smell.

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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