Costanza didn’t see Leopold’s eyes until he had turned around to face her. By then he had been followed into the apartment by a refined-looking older woman with rich dark skin and hair through which, here and there, white strands twisted and turned: Lorna; “our godsend,” Henry had called her.
Lorna, their godsend, was holding Leopold’s cane. Once he had entered on his own, he was apparently willing to take it back. He pivoted toward the living room and looked Costanza over with icy dark eyes. “I am Leopold, and you are Costanza. I will be just a moment.”
He stepped into the powder room and closed the door.
“He always washes his hands as soon as he arrives,” Henry explained to Costanza. “It’s left over from the camps.”
“They were pestilential places,” Costanza said.
Henry shook his head. “The water was filthy. It wasn’t about cleanliness. It was about holding on to civilized habits.”
Everyone stood waiting for Leopold, with his civilized habits, to wash his hands and emerge from the powder room.
When he reappeared, Leopold said to Henry, “You got deli?”
Henry nodded. “I got deli, Father. Yes.”
“And my cream soda?”
Henry nodded again. “Would you like it now?”
“In a minute.”
Leopold turned to Justin.
“Your father says you have something to discuss with me.”
Justin shot a dark glance at Henry.
“I thought it would be easier if I prepared him,” Henry said.
Leopold said to Henry, “I think I’ll have the soda now, after all. Maybe Lorna can help you unpack the dinner.”
As soon as Henry and Lorna disappeared into the kitchen, Leopold said to Justin, “I’m not blind, you know. Two years you don’t have a girlfriend—and look at you. They should be taking numbers.” He looked around the apartment. “So where is he, this young gentleman?”
“He might stop by later. I think you’ll like him. He’s an excellent musician.”
“Violin, like me. Some piano.”
“You make music together then!”
“Well, I can’t like someone I haven’t met, now can I?” Leopold leaned forward on his cane. “In the building across the street from me in Warsaw there lived my friend Mendel, a dancer. A very good dancer. We sat in the first row at his recitals, I could see the perspiration flying off him like sparks.” Leopold’s fogged eyes looked off into the distance. “A fagele and a Jew. That was a bad combination in my time.”
“This time could be considered your time too, Grandpa,” Justin said.
“Possibly, but not by me.” Leopold turned to Andrew, his face brightening. “And you, boychik, what news?”
“I’ve decided which class you should take for your elective next semester.”
“Let me guess. Twentieth-century history. The Second World War, maybe?”
“No. Fifteenth century. The Wars of the Roses.” Then: “Of course twentieth-century history. What else?” Then: “Girls?”
Andrew shook his head.
“You’re not a fagele too, are you?”
“I don’t think so, Grandpa, but the way things are going …”
“Oh, come on now. The one with the glasses, the librarian—gone for good?”
“It seems so.”
Leopold produced a sound. In English it might have been something like blech; but it wasn’t English.
“What about you, Grandpa?”
“What about what about me?”
“Ha.” Then: “Go, both of you, help Lorna and your father,” he said to the boys. “Make sure he puts out the mustard. He always forgets the mustard.”
The boys obediently headed toward the kitchen. “Not Dijon—French’s,” Leopold called after them.
He turned to Costanza. “Funny, isn’t it? Dijon is French, but French’s is American. Let’s sit.”
She offered him her arm. Surprisingly he took it. When she looped his arm through hers, she found herself looking, as how could she not, at a patch of his forearm where the skin differed in color and texture from the rest.
Leopold noted her glance. “I was awake when they went on. And I was awake when they came off.”
In the living room he indicated one of the easy chairs. Costanza walked him toward it. Before he sat down, he used the tip of his cane to whack the skirting, which was folded back over one corner, into place.
It was a simple chair, but Leopold sat on it as though it were a throne.
He pointed to the left end of the sofa. “This way you’ll be on my good side.” Then, appearing to understand that the sentence could be taken in more than one way, he clarified, “For my hearing.”
It was not as though Costanza thought that getting on Leopold’s good side was going to be quite that easy.
She sat down where he indicated. He focused his slate-colored eyes on her. He seemed to be reading her, her face and her body, more than looking at her. “You are not Jewish.”
“No. I’m not.”
She gave him the facts.
“But you’re light.”
“That’s your natural hair color.”
He looked her over once more. “No children?”
She shook her head.
“Do you want children?”
First the son, now the father. “I don’t know. It depends.” As the boys were still in the kitchen, she decided to add, “I might try.”
“My son tries. Every day. He tries to replace what they took away.” Leopold paused. “I know what you’re thinking. He does not make Jewish babies alone. But a lot of them he makes. Thirty, forty percent. This is New York. Manhattan. He takes care of his people. And not just his people—twenty percent pro bono too. Women with no means also have a right to reproduce. No one knows about that. Henry is a good man. Responsible. He has helped all people and he has helped in particular his people. A bisl.” He paused. “It means a ‘little.’”
“Yo, ikh vays.”
“You speak Yiddish?”
“A bisl. My husband was Jewish. And anyway I translate. I pick up languages. Bits and pieces.”
He gestured at the room. “Translate this.”
“What do you mean?”
“What went on, in this house. Put it in plain English.”
She shook her head. She wasn’t following him.
“The wife, venomous. Sneaking around with another man under my son’s nose, then bloodying him in a fight for the boys. Not how a Jewish woman should act. She broke him. Broke his spirit. Took the wedding china, the rugs, and the tchotchkes too. But not my dishes and silver, not my furniture. My furniture she did not touch.”
He tapped against the chair with his cane. “So what do you make of it?”
The question was easy enough; it was the answering that was hard.
“I think it was very difficult. Very sad for everyone. She must have been very—unhappy. In herself.”
“A translator and a diplomat too. They should pay you double.”
“Of course my son comes up with you. Literate, a thinker—I can tell. Gentile, European, so different. Serene—on the outside. Inside, who knows. But clearly not like Her Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken. The opposite. That is what men do, when they have been broken.”
“I don’t know what to say to this, Leopold.”
“Who asked for commentary? It is what it is.”
Again, further, the icy eyes worked over her body, her face. She could almost feel them lowering the temperature of her skin.
“This husband of yours. What was his name?”
She told him.
“The Morton Sarnoff?”
“You’ve read him?”
“Who hasn’t read Sarnoff? Bitter, sarcastic books. But also in places very funny. Delightful.”
“His shortcoming was his women. Too many frail waifs. In my personal experience, women are ten times stronger than men.”
“But the last novel—”
“Was not his best, even if he put a woman—three women—at its center.” Leopold smiled. “You didn’t mark me as a reader.”
Was something showing through on her face? “I didn’t mark you at all. I’m simply getting to know you.”
“We can exchange reading lists.”
“I’d like that.”
“Do you have a book club?”
She shook her head.
“I do. Me and seven ladies. At the synagogue. We meet Tuesday evenings in the Community Room. Some of them have big brains. They’ve spent entire lifetimes with their noses in books. Right now we’re reading a new biography of Primo Levi.”
“What do you think?”
“For me Primo Levi poses a problem. The books, especially the one he wrote after the war, the one no one wanted at first, they are more like the actual experience of being in the camps than anything else I have come across. But I will never read them again. I even put them back to front on my shelf. The man who wrote that sentence—I knew it by heart once, how does it go?—‘The business of living is the best weapon we have against death’—no, the best defense, that’s it—‘the best defense against death’—in the end chose to close up shop. He himself chose death instead.”
“Isn’t it more correct to say that he seemed to choose death?” Costanza asked gently.
“Really? How did he end up at the bottom of that stairwell then? Why, afterward, did his wife say he’d done what he’d always said he’d do?”
Costanza thought for a moment. “No one knows for sure what happened that day. It’s possible that he fell. He left no note. He’d been taking medicine that made him dizzy. From my reading of him, it just didn’t seem—in character. It doesn’t feel like a suicide.”
Leopold gave her an inquisitive look, which she correctly interpreted. “My father,” she said.
“I regret to hear that. How old were you?”
“Even more regrettable.” He paused. “And what about your husband?”
“Like my wife.”
“I’m sorry.” He put a small silence, a bracket, around that exchange; then he was off again. “Now you are available. Do you love my son?”
“We haven’t known each other very long.”
“What does time have to do with it, my dear? It’s gut. Gut and gonads.”
“If those are the measures, then, yes, I do love your son. I haven’t felt this much—this much hope in years.”
“You wouldn’t say this to humor an old man.”
“Love.” Leopold’s eyes lit up. “Ha!”
Excerpted from What is Missing by Michael Frank. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 8th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Frank. All rights reserved.