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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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He drank. The firelight glimmered on the bottle’s bludgeonlike bottom and on the shaking meniscus of liquor. Gruen, as he shoved wood in, would interrupt with shouts. The hole of epistemology! The hole of architecture! He knows the holes of the physical and metaphysical world backwards and forwards, thought N., so he stayed quiet and let Gruen apostrophize.

Midway through the chair wood (at the exact midpoint, in fact, though both Gruen and N. were too drunk to notice) the pianist in the house next door began again to play his endless scales, which proved, as N. said, that the endless and infinite do not enjoy fraternal friendliness. They’re enemies, said N. Enemies, shouted Gruen. The fire had brought out sweat on their foreheads and cheeks, it reddened Gruen’s wide, smoothed forehead just as it reddened N.’s bald, murky scalp. Firelight, that’s democracy. The blurs in the basement floor, in its dirt and nacreous oil, caused by precise digging-up and filling-in, caused by literary-slash-historical activity—well, these wavered with fiery strength and precision. They demonstrated some Euclidean proposition, thought N., as he lifted the claw of the hammer Gruen had given him and sank it into the living room wall, tearing ragged pinholes (or slits) in the sheetrock and revealing the joists that Gruen had asked him to obtain.

N. began with the north-northwest wall and tore out its innards, kicking the sheetrock shards (or sliced-up facticities, whichever you prefer) into a rough, disordered deck and stacking the gouged-out joists. The hole of physiology, shouted Gruen from the kitchen, the hole of modern ideas! A sweet, choking smell poured into the living room. N. heard wet detonations. When he tottered back to the stove with the sheetrock deck braced on his forearms and the joist pile balanced on the sheetrock, he saw Gruen hurling the dark jam jars (pearls of light suspended deep within each) into the stove’s mouth. A blackish pall now hung above the backyard.

Gruen worked without his jacket, white sleeves rolled to the elbows. With Gruen’s help N. broke apart the rolltop desk in the upstairs bedroom (or the anti-bedroom, as Gruen called it) and the emptied armoire in the adjacent anti-bedroom. Together they hurled the gathered wood down the staircase. Gruen slipped in the first anti-bedroom and a cordial glass shard sliced open his elbow. The hole of sickness and the hole of health, Gruen said. N. bound the wound up with another ribbon torn from the naval jack. At this point, they did not have to load the wood into the stove mouth any longer. Tossing it through the kitchen doorway sufficed. The fire had spread from the stove, the iron mouth. The kindling and larger planks and slats they had stacked there burned on their own, and the scent of resin burning had replaced the scent of laqueur. They passed the bottle back and forth as they worked.

When Gruen stopped to drink and rest, he swiped at his eyes, as though in addition to sweating he were weeping. That’s absurd, thought N., I’ve never seen Gruen weep, this is a sentimental episode, nothing more. When they had thrown the last of the furniture wood into the burning kitchen, Gruen kicked down the three short banisters, each glassily worn by the identical grips (N.’s opinion) of his cousins, and N. started to tear out the sheetrock and joists on the second floor, to say nothing of the doors that Gruen battered from the hinges and then held poised for N. to break, which he did, to his own surprise. The fire had now spread from the kitchen to the living room, licking at its eight sides in a pure and Euclidean manner, and this made their work even easier. They only had to throw the wood down the stairs and nothing further was required. Gruen soaked his jacket under the second-floor bathroom faucet and tore it in two. They tied the halves around their heads like burnooses and kept clawing sheetrock and wood down until Gruen tore the wet jacket from his head and wrapped it around his fist. He knocked the glass from a wide window frame and placed one shoe-sole on the sash, as though he was going to hurl himself to earth. Incorrect: by observing the regular motion of Gruen’s bobbing, limp hair outside the window N. understood there was a ladder affixed to the outer wall.

Ceaseless, living spring wind. N. kept his wet jacket half wrapped closely around his mouth and nose. He peered through a slit at the wind-kicked flames spurting through the kitchen windows and from the chimney as well, where it danced among an up-pouring of thick smoke. Gruen shouted something above the roar, his voice muted by his jacket half, pointing at his outer wrist. N. knew: he wanted the time. 3:12, N. screamed. Beneath his feet the earth felt loose. From within the house came cries and groans, not of humanity, whose cries and groans one can ignore (because they are always in bad faith) but the painful, rending cries matter makes under torture and stress, the cries, for example, ceiling beams release when they break, keel-like ceiling beams heretofore hidden within the sweltering or frigid darkness under the shingling. You could argue as well that the noise of the sirens (still distant, still ecumenical, still vitreous, still blank) constituted another torture, the torture of fly-by-night and illegitimate particles, the torture of air.

N. had no idea what fire etiquette in the Gruen family was and he did not want to violate any norms. So when Gruen, without speaking, rushed back into the kitchen, up the outdoor stairs, the cement stairs (a deep, black fissure dividing them now) and through a doorway, its jambs ablaze, he did not know whether to follow or remain. He saw Gruen’s shadow charging back and forth behind the crumbling window sashes. N. kept his place on the lawn, as a conscript must keep his place, driving his heels further and further into the loose earth to maintain his posture. Your memories become the same as everyone else’s.

Amid the rising wails, amid the rising sirens, the first neighbor to peer out into the Gruen sisters’ yard, was a man with a thumb-shaped head. N. knew at once that no-one else had played the endless but not infinite scales, knew by the impotent bristling of his broom-pale mustache. The wound on N.’s hand, the wound bisecting the skin and fat of the web between forefinger and thumb, well, it bled and sang, and a pitchless, constant ringing rose in N.’s ears as he watched Gruen’s dense, deep shadow within the kitchen totter and fall.

The mustached neighbor shouted down: What the fuck is that matter with you? What the fuck is the matter with you? N. did not hear at first, the damp jacket and the bodiless, silver sound rising in his ear canals interfered, but the words (at last, as they say) penetrated. N. opened his mouth to speak but a complex chord (glass, wood, metal, material soul) erupted from the house and blazing air gushed out. N. stumbled, the pianist repeated his shouted-out question, and new gouting, branching flames rose where the roof had fallen inwards. A vulcanological cone, N. found himself muttering, lips taut from the heat and throat abraded. Memories, thighs, flags. In the end all theft. The first arcing water struck the flame-laced roof. Gruen’s shadow reared up in the kitchen. Raised above his head (in both hands) the shovel. Implement of victorious philosophy.

***

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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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