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

Sam Munson
December 02, 2013
Museum of Hartlepool/Flickr
Museum of Hartlepool/Flickr
Museum of Hartlepool/Flickr
Museum of Hartlepool/Flickr

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.