By Bill Teitelbaum
Wedged like a rolled carpet in the back seat of the Dodge, Appleman watches as the first moon of summer rises dumpling-like above the trees along the perimeter of the hotel parking field, a matzahball moon, plumply gold, softly pocked, adrift in the soup of an Appalachian night. In Appleman's opinion you could eat a moon like this, you could catch it in a spoon. Your eyes might take in woodlands but the air smells of cafeteria, of cabbage rolls braised in raisin sauce, of pearled barley smothered with mushrooms and onions. Roasted chickens roost here in the trees. The streams leap with sweet-and-sour fish. Where are we, Ladies and Gentlemen? Of this there can be no doubt.
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Borscht Belt, the Catskills, that promised land of all promised lands between the Hudson and the Delaware. Before Prozac, before Miltown, here angst once took its vacations. In these gently rolling hills God Himself seemed to take things more easily, a forgiving divinity lolling among the tamaracks. All men were rich here, all women were pretty, all boys were men, and all women were girls. You got lucky in the Borsht Belt. One imagined it similar to that relieved exhilaration of those funded colonies in the Argentine where there was no such thing as a Jewish occupation. You didn’t have to be pre-med and bookish. You could be a gaucho, a conquistador. You could strain the earth for its hidden riches. This last of course is Appleman’s choice. The pictures of his life are crisp in his brain. No mistaking this brown-eyed, lippy, roguish lad, panning for color in a clip-on bow. For there's gelt in them thar hills. When Jews relaxed their pockets fell open. Another waiter of Appleman's acquaintance had a station so lucrative on the windowed wall at Brown’s Hotel & Country Club in Loch Sheldrake that after less than two weeks in the staff bunkhouse to which he had been assigned he could take a double room under an assumed name in one of the guest cottages on the golf course.
Why then, one asks, isn’t Appleman dancing? A lean nineteen, vital with neurotic pep — but consumed by an irony more voracious than the mosquitoes, Appleman is displaced by misfortune to the bottom of the food-chain, bats eating bugs eating bugs eating Appleman. In a next life Appleman resolves to be an endogenous event, preferably sprung from his own forehead but in any case an orphan, a creature of his own invention, indebted to no one and free in particular of inherited commitments.
Consider the inequity. Working autumn and winter weekends that his responsibilities as a student had scarcely permitted, Appleman had earned for himself a summer station at The Laurels Hotel near Monticello on Sackett Lake, remote from him now as the fleshpots of Egypt, a veritable sinecure, broods Appleman, a twelve-week succession of crisp, palm-Sunday envelopes materializing for him like a father's kisses. Then — calamity! Friday, the precise day of his scheduled departure, Appleman's dear uncle Nathan dies, a massive stroke carrying him off on the verge of filling a 400-point, lay-down contract in spades. Who exactly this dear uncle Nathan might have been Appleman does not know, and though a rising junior at City College his education has not prepared him to understand why the funeral of an uncle he would not have recognized in the street should interfere with his plans to fatten for the coming semesters on vacationing landsleit. But never mind, the indignant Mrs. Appleman informs him. This uncle Nathan was from the family’s Jersey City wing, moneyed people, distributors of liquor some of them, others dealers in rebuilt machine parts, and according to Hilda Appleman a decent gesture is obliged, respect veering toward a kind of sympathetic magic. One dared not turn one’s back on those whom fortune has blessed, nor fail, given the chance, to rub up against them. Period in so many words, suck it up, matters like these are not negotiable. Sunday Uncle Nathan is buried, and Monday, precisely three days late, Appleman attends a funeral of his own, presenting himself at Reliable Personnel, where Julie Schenk, presiding magus of Monticello, itinerant-labor tsar of three rural counties, sifts Appleman’s immediate future from a little tin box of index cards. Needless to say, Appleman’s promised plum of a station at The Laurels has evaporated, handily divided between two other waiters with the ordinary good fortune simply to have been there for the weekend, and Appleman’s destiny has dwindled to the following options: he can be a groundskeeper at a fat kids’ camp near Kerhonksen, or, if he doesn't like that, Schenk advises with the same dead-pan face, there's a dude ranch on the Delaware between Cochecton and Calicoon that's short two wranglers. Appleman is invited to consider his options while Schenk unwraps an early lunch from Kaplan's Delicatessen across the street. Smoked whitefish salad on wheat with Russian dressing, a small container of potato salad, a waxpaper envelope of garlic sours, a regular coffee, some butter cookies — with the Memorial Day weekend safely behind him, Julie Schenk has nothing but time.
“You couldn’t call them?” Schenk asks pleasantly, noshing a pickle. “Why didn’t you call them?” Schenk inquires.
“I did call them,” says Appleman even more pleasantly, for you could not be baited by people like Schenk. There was no end to it, Appleman warns himself.
Yet the situation's injustice insults him afresh. Spring break for others had been a frozen Catskill Passover for Appleman.
“Julie,” Appleman begins, but then smiles painfully, hoping in this way to communicate the situation’s gravity without making, as one used to say, a big thing out of it. Appleman has a pishy scholarship from the New York State Board of Regents to cover his bursars’ statements, but the Borscht Belt is his operating cash, not merely walking-around but everything-money. Food and gas, books and subscriptions, haircuts, clothing, dues, ladies, concerts, movies — life as he knows it is financed by these summers. This is serious, Appleman would have Schenk know. But would any of this matter to Schenk? Of course it wouldn't matter to Schenk. Trafficking in flesh has coarsened this man. Who else but Schenk would matter to Schenk?
Accordingly, Appleman decides to impute Schenk with discretion. Schenk the bodysnatcher, the skin-broker, the prince of coyotes, Schenk can do as he wishes if he wishes to do it. He can work his phone, he can make some calls.
Immediately, however, Schenk becomes defensive; which is something, Appleman feels, but nothing to his advantage. He's a bureaucrat, this Schenk, an order-taker. His only power resides in saying no to the powerless.
Opening wide his tinbox file Schenk displays its irrelevant contents. “You see waiters here? Two bellhops and a busboy.” He pauses then, fingering a longshot. “You got your Red Cross?” He shows Appleman the order. The Paramount needed a lifeguard. Essentially a cabana boy. Chaise rentals, towel service. Appleman compels himself to smile, simulating patience.
“But you'll like it there,” Schenk protests. “Teachers go there, single girls. It'll be an education.”
“Julie, you're not focusing,” Appleman says, but now Schenk frowns, suddenly Mr. Sensitive, as if Appleman has insulted him.
“You wanna be a counselor? It’s a good year for counselors.” He passes a card under Appleman's nose, a gesture evoking diaper pails and recently digested food. “How about a nice daycamp?” Schenk asks.
Okay fine, he gets it, Appleman nods, he'll stay in touch. Besides, he asks on his way down the stairs, what am I, helpless? Appleman has to laugh. You mean me? he says. Which is to say, not entirely.
In less time than it takes to tell it, Appleman has counted his blessings. Mostly he has mobility, a twelve-year-old Dodge with a sprung frame, misfiring on two of its sclerotic bangers, a shamelessly rolled odometer, and a suspension perhaps most charitably considered imaginary. Housing too, as it happens. For three nights beneath an ominously waning matzahball moon Appleman sleeps in this creampuff, a buffet for the mosquitoes in the furthest corner of the parking field of a B-house near Woodbourne, the Aladdin on the Neversink, so that in the morning, marinated in serum and sweat, he can beg shower privileges from the gainfully employed before canvassing the dining rooms of Monticello and Fallsburg, Parksville, Hurleyville, Kauneonga, Liberty, Ellenville, Swan Lake, White Lake, Kiamesha, Spring Glen, Woodridge, Mountaindale, hoping perhaps that the instantaneous access to the replacement he represents will encourage a moody maitre d’ to fire someone. For Appleman the prospect seems reasonable enough. People are sacked on the spot every day. Whole pogroms transpire from time to time.
It's a cheering picture, this possibility of massacres in his behalf. For the next three mornings it enables Appleman to face the day, fastening his clip-on jauntily to one collar of his shirt, then lightly Vaselining his shoes. He's cleanly shaved, his eyes do not roll, his fingernails are clean and short, his hair is short and neatly parted on the left, his short-sleeved white shirt is crisp and neat, and though his black polished-cotton chinos are creped with wrinkles, everyone’s black polished-cotton chinos are wrinkled. He’s fast on his feet this Appleman, he remembers orders, he’s funny but polite, his fly is zipped, he doesn’t steal food, he doesn’t buck lines — they’ll love him here, wherever he is. Where is he, he asks, besides in the shit? The Stevensville, the Brickman, the Flagler, the Pines? The Fallsview? Paul’s? The Nevele? The Delano? The Raleigh? The Roxy? The Normandy? Kutscher’s? Gilbert's? The Fallsview? The Homowack? The Paramount? The Commodore? Shawanga Lodge?
And they appreciate his initiative. No really, they tell him, he has nerve, they like that. He walks upright, he wears socks, they wished they had a spot for him, and encouraged by this flattery, Appleman persists for three days in a quest that reduces him to his case-money and a jailhouse diet of milk and bologna so that on day-four Appleman must sue for terms. Here is Appleman suing for terms:
“Julie, can we get serious for a second? This isn't right.”
But he was lucky, Schenk tells him. It just came in. Appleman waits patiently for the punchline while Schenk pulls the index card from his tinbox file and holds it out for Appleman to read. Near Liberty, an unrated shlockhouse called Kaminer Lodge. Appleman examines the card for himself, then turns his puzzled face to Schenk. He called this being serious?
“I never heard of it,” Appleman says.
“Who are you,” Schenk asks. “You want it or not?”
He indicated the hotel’s location on the wallmap behind his desk, a bleak corner of Liberty Township, west on 52 past White Sulfur Springs, north and west on humped alphabetics— AA, FF. “There’s a shortcut but it’d take too long. Better go like I’m telling you.”
Appleman followed Schenk's directions, creeping now for the sake of his tires along a rutted secondary for half a mile past a collection of weather-tattered vacation cabins identified by a faded blue sign as Friedman’s Famous Bungalow Colony. Further along he saw a sheen of water through trees and at the next curve the three gabled stories of the Kaminer guesthouse appeared on a slight rise above the access road, a Newport-style “cottage” replete with gingerbread verandas on two sides and steeply peaked dormers of the sort first erected late in the nineteenth century to test the possibilities of balloon-frame construction. Small brown evergreens lined the driveway.
They had opened only the week before, Schenk said, after taking nearly three months to repair the damage of a freak gale that had lifted a chicken house from the valley adjacent and slammed it into the roof of their main guesthouse. Now the tourist season had arrived but the feathers of spring continued to drift down from the guestroom ceilings. Radiating from the lodge two or three acres of scalped and desiccated lawn turned ochre in the sun, and on the other side of the access road a short row of single-story wood-frame and cement-block shotguns faced the lodge like the barracks of a Nisei internment camp.
Cue the tumbleweeds, Appleman sighed. There was a swimming pool adjacent to the last of the guest-barracks, a small grim rectangle of raw cement enclosed by a chain-link fence, but not a flower, not a shrub, not a daub of color relieved the sun-struck, yellowing emptiness of Kaminer Lodge. All the lawn furniture had been removed to the shade of the front veranda, green-painted iron chairs and settees, the enamel flaking away from the primer, and among these stood a small, inquisitive knot of elderly men in discount cruisewear. The bright colors of their outfits heightened the wintry pallor of their skin, the clothing so fresh from its wrappings that Appleman could see the packing creases. Their spotless canvas tennis shoes were stiff with sizing. What was Appleman doing there, they seemed to be asking one another. At least so it seemed to Appleman, since Appleman, too, pondered this question.
He paused at the drive and looked up at the lodge. On the third story toward the rear where disaster had struck an attempt had been made to match the old shingles, but the demarcation between old and new was as vivid as bruising and as Appleman rolled slowly up the drive each rotation of the vehicle’s wheels seemed to bring another detail of disintegration into view. The plank flooring of the porch was compressed into waves. The windows were wracked so far out of square that it seemed a miracle the glass hadn’t shattered. The shingle line on the roof of the veranda was as fluted as a piecrust.
Appleman turned into the kitchen yard and smelled the familiar notes of standing dishwater and metal polish. It might have been a rail-spur on the commuter line from Warsaw to Otwock: Miedzeszyn, Falenica, Michelin, Josefow, then the turn-around, Kaminer Lodge, where they off-loaded the caskets. He parked beside a faded Ford stationwagon that might have been older than the Dodge. Trash was piled everywhere. Defunct window screens and rusted bedframes. The crushed remains of a gumwood dresser. Sidechairs with sprung and ruptured seats. Sheared window shades on splintered rollers, cracked planters, ragged carpeting, fruit crates of torn linoleum. Reflected in the mirror of a smashed medicine cabinet, even the mild and neutral sky seemed shattered in this forsaken place.
Still, did he have a choice? Nobody said he had to like it. He'd make do, Appleman resolved. He didn't plan to be here that long.
At the flapping screen of the kitchen door Appleman shaded his eyes to peer briefly at the tableau within, then knocked on the jamb and admitted himself to a scene from Sholem Aleichem’s shtetl childhood. There an old woman of whipcord and wax, her ancient eyes bitter with defiance and terror; to her left a round-shouldered giant with a melted face, checked chef’s pants with a sag in every molecule; and in the shadow of a storage locker, limp as a windsock, a haggard woman in a nylon chambermaid’s shift slouched on a milkcrate as if waiting to be called for her turn on the scaffold. Smile, I dare you, she seemed to say. Appleman smiled and she scowled at the giant as if this, too, probably, had been his doing.
Yet Appleman understands them. It's the shock of the new. A tiny bow, an appearance of enthusiasm. “Hi,” he chirps. “My name is Michael and I’ll be your waiter.” A smile, a pause, and suddenly nothing happens? Definitely a tough audience. "Lemme guess, you’re from outtatown." He raises his open palms in surrender. Not a breath of life, not a sigh of disgust? But then the giant, too, breaks a grin, enough space between his teeth to swing a cat, and Appleman is reminded of a classmate from fourth grade, a mountainous child, at age nine at least six foot two with a full beard and ax-handle shoulders, whose mother was always taking him to the doctor. With a lurch of welcome Myron Kaminer seized Appleman with both hands. “Helene,” he cried, “it's the waiter!”
Helene Kaminer shifted on her milkcrate and with an immense effort raised the corners of her mouth, then resumed dunking a chunk of rye bread in a glass of coffee, a watered light gathering around her head. A captivating creature, Appleman had to admit, striking and yet attractive in no way whatsoever.
Helene, Appleman learned, was the housekeeping crew, the front desk, the corporate staff and the back office. She took reservations, paid the bills, kept the books, pleaded with the jobbers, prayed for collapse, then cleaned the rooms and made the beds. She had also waited table for several days, Myron said, since in the confusion of opening they had neglected to hire a waiter, but now that Appleman was here she was much better.
Ida Kaminer, Myron's mother, glared at the grease-coated clock on the kitchen wall. It was already past eleven and luncheon was served promptly at one. She gestured impatiently at Appleman, then pointed at the butcherblock where a basket of rolls had materialized, accompanied by a plate of sliced farmer’s cheese garnished with quartered tomatoes. “You want eggs?” She was pouring a glass of milk for him.
“This is fine,” Appleman said.
The old lady frowned and gestured at the rolls.
Appleman would eat, Myron said. Everything was going very well. The summer was here, the weather was good. Things would work out, Myron insisted. Only last season two different union locals had sounded him out about converting the Lodge into a retirement home, a third was thinking of it as a conference center, and the Satmar Hasidim were shopping the site for a women’s secondary school. It could be a ski lodge, it could be something for the handicapped. The real estate alone was worth a fortune. Basically all they had to do was pay the taxes. If they could do that, Myron laughed, then anything was possible. He proudly showed Appleman the Kaminer guestlist, five short lines with the poignancy of a do-not-resuscitate provision. All had arrived the past Sunday before lunch. There were the Kreidlingers, the Wiseltiers, the Bessamins, the Weisses, and a stag, Sonia Regenstein, a widow, Helene Kaminer volunteered, who still owed for last season.
Appleman, struggling to maintain a constructive demeanor, stuffed his face with tomato quarters, yet couldn't help wondering how an optimism like Myron’s could fail to put the Kaminers in receivership. Why had they even bothered to open, he asked.
But there were reservations, Myron protested. They were regulars. People had sent in their deposits.
The old lady glanced slowly at Myron, then lowered her sallow eyelids like a lizard. “Don't listen to her,” Myron laughed. “Come,” he said, “we'll get you settled.”
Motion inspired Myron with confidence. He fidgeted unhappily while Appleman retrieved his grip from the Dodge but then released to the exaltation of purposeful activity he led Appleman double-time down the driveway, across the access road, to the first of the barracks buildings where Appleman was offered the first room off the entrance. Appleman would get two windows that way, Myron enthused, like crossed ventilation. He looked about then as if checking to make sure he had not forgotten anything. An odor of heated dust filled the room but Myron nodded with satisfaction. Appleman would be happy here. There were windows, there was a bed, Helene would be over in a minute with the linen. Abruptly he left to turn on the water and light the boiler, and Appleman opened the windows, then unrolled the mattress.
The bed was brown-painted iron pipe, a header and footrail connected by a simple frame of linked springs, and layers of crushed cotton batting showed through a split in the canvas ticking of the mattress, but Appleman had no complaints. He had shelter, he was fed, he had stopped spending money. He would be fine, Appleman decided. He needed an income, that went without saying, but easy does it, one day at a time — if alcoholics could manage their anxieties that way, then so could Michael Appleman. He had access to a phone, he had half a tank of gas. He sat on the ticking and counted his money. So much for a social life. At this point it was the Dodge that was murdering him, but if he didn’t drive too much and looked out for the tires he would be all right. The insurance premium was paid through September, and once he promoted a station somewhere he would find a busboy or a bellhop to take it off his hands.
Helene, along with towels and bedding, had thought to save steps for herself by bringing Appleman’s employment forms, but had forgotten his federal withholding application. In the days to come Appleman would learn that aborted efficiencies like these were the defining aspects of the Kaminer style and that all efforts to save time or prevent waste were frustrated not by lack of will or intelligence but a stupefaction of mind that made it impossible to sustain more than a single thought in the course of an errand. Myron would run into Roscoe to pick up kitchen and plumbing supplies, light bulbs, fuses and window screening, but at the service station he would gas up the wagon and forget to have the spare tire repaired. Helene would walk down three flights of stairs to the supply closet for towels and bed linen, soap and, as long as she was down there, a new window shade for the Bessamins, then schlep three flights up the stairs without the pillow slips or washcloths.
Appleman watched as Helene Kaminer made up his bed, puzzled that she would do this for him. Was it easier simply to avoid exceptions? Even her makeup, he noticed now, seemed mindlessly mechanical, she used nothing but eyeshadow, abrupt iridescent smears in a ferocious, cocktail-lounge blue— no lipstick, no powder, yet the effect was so strident that Appleman could see her applying it — blowsily buttoned into yesterday’s shift, her short hair brushed, ripped, abandoned finally with a violent gesture, pinned anyhow, shrouded in a kerchief, then wetting her mouth with her tongue, what now, she asked, her lips, her skin, her lashes, her eyelids? Yes! Why not, that much she could do, a fingertip dipped in cobalt smut, a wipe, a blot, right, it looked fine, trying now to remember if she'd remembered the deodorant. Is that her, that smell, or something baked into the dress? Listless, abandoned, not yet noon and already exhausted, she leaned forward to smooth the topsheet and Appleman tried to look away, but it was as if his eyes had become trapped in the snarls of small purplish veins behind her knees, and it touched him that her thighs were so thin.
She folded his blankets at the foot of the bed.
“You know,” he said, “you don’t have to do this for me.”
She paused in the doorway, looking at him, then she shook her head slowly and without expression as if at last she had heard everything. “You don’t think it’s crazy enough here?” she asked, and without waiting for an answer gestured at the bathroom. “I’m leaving you extra towels. If you need more they’re in the office, in the closet.”
Helene left and Appleman stretched out on the bed where he found that by flexing his buttocks he could count the bedsprings, but he borrowed a second mattress from the guestroom next door and all he felt then were the buttons of the mattress tufts. He would be fine, Appleman assured himself. He had a bed with two mattresses, two sheets and two pillows, two blankets, three towels, a washcloth and two windows. He had mobility and ambition, the resilience of youth, and a station of guests who looked like they would be happy as long as no one beat them. He emptied his pockets and counted his money for the third or fourth time that morning. He would be fine, he nodded. He had eaten lunch, he had aspirin and a phone — maybe he would call Julie Schenk, he thought. “Hello, Julie? How are you? Yeah, it’s me, how y’doin’?”
He fingered the scratchy, nearly threadbare towels and wondered again whether to unpack. It was not his comfort but his prospects that concerned him. These were guest quarters at Kaminer Lodge.
He took a shower then, running both water-lines wide-open until they cleared of rust. The pressure was adequate but lighting the boiler would probably have to wait until tomorrow.
On balance, though, things could certainly be worse. Compared to sleeping in the Dodge? He'd be fine, Appleman kept repeating, and in that way relaxed to the extent that an Appleman relaxes, adopting a feisty Yankee pragmatism, riddled with ambivalence but respectably American in its optimism. The future was real for Appleman, and the present in the meantime was temporary by definition. How could the present not be temporary? He would study patience, Appleman promised himself, so carefully avoided calling Schenk more than twice a day. Instead he strived for order, adopting a routine to serve him for stability, and tired himself enough to sleep through the night by swimming miles in the Kaminer pool after breakfast and lunch and running measured distances after dinner each evening like a hamster on a wheel along the Kaminer access road. His days in these ways were not fulfilling but the passing hours were accounted for, mitigating that sense of being stalled in a taxi with the meter running, the important thing being to hold his center, a dream of work, of productive labor, and after three days of orbiting himself this way a tender amber light collecting in the morning woods encouraged Appleman to assure himself that he was probably doing as well as could be expected.
He paused at the veranda steps to wipe the dust and grass clippings from his shoes. With the early-morning breeze came the soft greens of clover hay and wild onion, then he smelled the coffee brewing in the kitchen and thought he might have a cup before it turned bitter in the urn.
“You want eggs?” Ida Kaminer asked. She passed him a small carton of heavy cream for his coffee.
“Maybe I’ll just have some juice.”
She nodded and then cracked two eggs into a china bowl and set a shmear of butter to melt in a skillet.
Appleman had tried at first to negotiate an accommodation with this old woman, to persuade her in any case that he was someone else, but distinctions like these were entirely beyond her. Instead she simply muttered to herself, cursed her life, and then wondered aloud why she wasn’t dead. “Tell me,” she had demanded of him the day before at lunch as Appleman arranged nine servings of fruit cocktail on a tray, “Tell me why I’m alive.”
“Maybe God wants you to see your grandchildren,” Appleman had suggested.
He had wanted to console her — providing the Kaminer clan with an heir seemed to have been another of Myron's oversights — but the old lady's anguished cries brought Helene coursing down from the third floor like an astral body and in the meantime a tray of Spanish omelets turned to terracotta in the warming oven. “He’d forget his head!” the widow shrieked. Starting that day Helene had to accompany Myron to the pantry-jobber at the freight terminal in Stewart. They needed beets, they needed bleach, they needed dill. Helene made out the list while in the dining room Appleman improvised a luncheon entrée to substitute for the petrified omelets, serving ice cream scoops of tuna salad from a canister he’d found in the dairy cooler.
“What’s going on in there,” Mr. Bessamin needed to know.
Appleman continued to improvise. “As I understand it, Myron forgot the beets.”
“For the borscht,” Appleman explained.
“There’s borscht?” Mr. Weiss asked.
“Maybe later," Appleman temporized. "Maybe tomorrow. We’ll see.” He held the ice cream scoop aloft. “Who’s for more tuna?”
More was the most important word in a waiter's vocabulary. Anything could be forgiven if only there were more.
“No more? You're sure?”
Their contentment was a marvel. They were chafed, sunburned, footsore, insect-bitten, stuffed like period furniture with fats and starches, but discomforts like these seemed evidence to them of therapeutic processes. They believed in health of this kind. Nothing too much, nothing to excess. A little snack, a little nap, a little sun, a little walk, but on a regimen of modest indulgences like these their faces shone with satisfaction. One would have thought it was Epsom the way they strolled those sun-scorched grounds. They looked scrubbed, like the guests at a child’s birthday party, and three times each day, unfailingly, like the life-size figures of a townhall clock, they delivered their appetites to the dining room where fuellings were facilitated by lively discussions of wealth and illness, food, gambling, childhood, suffering, influence, surgery, gangsters and real estate. About sex, Appleman found, they were rather prudish, but romance appealed deeply to them. Fated love and heroic rescues, quixotic missions, divine interventions, these they embraced without reservation. It was life's ordinary randomness that baffled them, the antic distributions of luck and talent, the having and not having, the tricks of time and accidents of place. One couldn't help feeling it was all a mistake of some sort, like failing to screw down the lid on the pickle jar. All seemed to know perfectly healthy human beings who had dropped dead inexplicably. Fits and explosions would carry people off. Spontaneous fires would break out in their bodies. Brain fevers. Blood poisonings. One moment a person might be vigorously alive, and the next moment finished, a brisk dusting of hands. A near cousin of Mrs. Regenstein's was typical of these. A strong man, a very annoying man, robust and terrible, but all of a sudden he caught a cold in his liver, he laid down to take a nap, and that was that. “Bim-bom,” said Mrs. Regenstein, “goodbye and good luck.” Mrs. Regenstein herself had once suffered a pain so severe and relentless that finally she couldn't breathe it was so bad. It wasn't funny, she said. She almost got killed from it.
“So what did you do,” asked Mrs. Weiss.
“What did I do? What was there to do? I stopped breathing — what else could I do? I didn't breathe, and finally it went away.”
“I never heard of such a thing,” said Mrs. Weiss.
“You could look it up,” said Mrs. Regenstein.
Appleman, too, was an object of curiosity. They wanted to connect with him, to offer him advice.
“You’re a college boy I understand. That’s a wonderful thing. You live in New York? You have family there?”
They pecked for these details like chickens at grain. They could place him that way. One of Mr. Wiseltier’s cousins had attended Appleman's college for a while — now he owned a house on Pelham Parkway. Non-sequiturs like these seemed rich with implication for these little people. They invited Appleman to take walks with them, to sit with them after lunch on the veranda. When he emerged from the pool, a committee of inquiry would convene on the terrazzo.
So — where did he live in New York? He had family there? Or they lived someplace else? Was his father alive — a working man? And he did this for himself? Or he worked for somebody?
It was, thought Appleman, like attending an endless wedding reception, those high-energy Uncle Nathans who appeared in a puff of herring. “I’ll bet you don’t know who I am! Try it, go ahead, guess who I am!”
They were coffeecake Jews, the how-am-I-doing people, the approval hunters, vanity without ego. Am I right? Am I right? Am I handsome? Am I smart? You ran into them at night when you went out for the papers. They included him in their snapshots. They wanted to show him things—the ruins of a backstop where a ballfield had been, the brambled remains of the old Kaminer casino— a whole theater, according to Jack Kreidlinger, a playhouse with a raised stage, a lounge with a bar, card rooms, dressing rooms, storage closets for the furniture, a kitchen so coffee and cake could be served. The entire Perlis family used to vacation at the Kaminer, said Bessamin, then paused in surprise that Appleman has never heard of these people. “They would stay four weeks, five weeks, everything first class. He was some operator that Perlis. At one time they said he owned all the nursing homes in Rockaway. They sent him to jail finally, a great man like that.”
“They had some fabulous entertainment years ago,” said Mr. Wiseltier. “They had Kalmen Sirota, they had Bucky Harris.”
Kreidlinger raised a salacious eyebrow. “Remember the Nussbaum Sisters?”
“Zissel and Minya Nussbaum,” Bessamin sighed. “Esther Levine, too, they used to have her here.”
“Not Levine — LeVine,” said Kreidlinger. “That was her stage name, Esther LeVine.”
Suddenly it seemed to Mr. Weiss that he had known an Appleman who was originally from Bessarabia. “The family I mean. Although now of course they call it Moldova.”
Appleman nodded politely to this and when he returned to the dining room with a second tray of miniature Danish the conversation had turned to the subject of Carpathian delicacies, karnatslakh, mammaliga, and the question of whether there was such a thing as Jewish Gypsies.
Appleman, too, these days would find himself occasionally straying from the point, but he tried not to let Schenk get on his nerves and persisted in pursuit of a wholesome fatigue by stepping up his laps in the pool, maintaining a rhythm by shortening his reach on the pull and frogging every fourth or fifth lap under water. One two one flip, one two one. Appleman swims to Bermuda this way, burning water, pickling himself in chlorine like a beef-tongue in brine, but what else can he do, he asks himself. Since hiring is a zero-sum, Schenk, too, can only wait for the call.
“How's the prisoner,” Schenk inquires.
“Good, Julie,” Appleman laughs. “I'm tunneling out. I stole a spoon.”
Schenk is delighted. “That's the spirit.”
Up yours, too, Appleman mutters to himself. Appleman will swim to Gibraltar if he has to. His sclera are permanently suffused with blood but his complexion has never been so clear and in the reaches of the night he seems to be developing a method for exercising in his sleep, a variation on George F. Jewett's registered system of dynamic tension, pushing and pulling against himself, then coiling and uncoiling in place like a spring.
Yet adjustments like these are not palliative, Appleman discovers, he has a schedule to observe, his window is closing, and that night the slow air thick with heat settles heavily on his body. How many showers can a man take, he asks. Stepping out to his little porch Appleman looks up at the sky, but the liquid night envelops him like the darkness at the bottom of a lake. Have the heaven’s lights been turned down as an economy measure? Where were those bright-winking heathen stars with their oracular constellations? What was the promise of these nothing nights, that he would piece out another hand-to-mouth year working holiday weekends like a migrant? An enchanted Hannukah in Livingston Manor? Passover in scintillating Asbury Park, when by rights he should be lounging on Lauderdale Beach, bronzed as babyshoes?
It rained heavily later on and the closeted air of Appleman's room freshened gradually with the mushroom scent of the leafmold washing from the gutters, yet thoughts of failure needled him. He saw himself returning to school a pauper — eating at home, selling his textbooks for pocket change, tutoring again, writing book reports for fraternity drools, sophomore themes — the meaning of the cave, our knowledge of good, Lincoln’s leadership, Whitman’s yawp, a Christian resolution in Billy Budd?
Wakened by the birds in idiot chorus, Appleman holds fast, his body like a single rigid muscle, determined to keep the new day from beginning, then galvanized, bolting, he rushes to the dining room as if his own youthful torque might accelerate the motion of this cockeyed universe he occupies. Even to himself this urgency seems overwrought. He has food, shelter, soap, occupation, a pool to swim in, an admiring audience to watch him do it, to remind him of his fortune to be young and not dead, yet all he can think of is what he lacks. An income? A future? But what is youth’s jurisdiction if not the future? Is this what life must be for him, dumb as a post and empty as a garbage pail? Paging that afternoon through the weekend section of the New York Post, Appleman locates himself in time and space. Tito Puente, the mambo king, is in residence for the summer at the Raleigh in South Fallsburg, at the Concord on Kiamesha Lake Totie Fields is alternating weekends with Jan Murray and Alan King, Jackie Mason is at the Pines, Jack Carter is at Grossinger’s, Gene Baylos is at Kutscher’s, Shecky Green is at the Nevele, and Michael Stuart Appleman, the Borscht Belt's famous swimming waiter, is at Kaminer Lodge? It doesn’t even make sense, Appleman protests. He feels his youth betrayed, the victim of a conspiracy to diminish his expectations. What then should be his heart's desire, to merely survive? In America of all places? In 1962? Obviously there's been a mistake. What isn't possible for him? His president is a Catholic, a bootlegger's brat. The New Frontier lives in Michael Appleman. Fulfillment comes with the territory.
“Young man,” Jack Kreidlinger informs him at dinner that night, “Young man, I'm going to tell you the secret of my success.”
“Secret is right,” says Mr. Weiss from the corner of his mouth.
“Pay no attention to that person,” Kreidlinger says.
“That's your advice?” Mr. Weiss asks.
“Let me get the chicken,” Appleman says, and when he returns from the kitchen they're chattering about something else — the possibility of life on other planets? Bessamin needs to know how far it is to the moon, roughly, it doesn't have to be exact, and a moment later Mrs. Regenstein has begun a tangled story about the Zionist, Theodore Herzl, whose son Hans had converted to Christianity. “And why?” she asked, “One word,” said Mrs. Regenstein. “Spite! Spite like a deadly poison!”
In bed that night, eventually, Appleman sleeps, but his rest isn't wholesome and in the morning he finds himself struggling awake unable to catch his breath, shredded by dreams of rupture and dislocation, clichés of insecurity, of nakedness, of falling, of missing his trains, of escalators running in mobius loops and elevators that fail to stop at the basement, of losing things—his keys, his voice, his locker combination, the registration cards for cherished electives. His transcript shudders with Incompletes. His professors have no record of Appleman's attendance. Why is he being followed? Where did he leave his shoes? How can he be standing in the snow on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade when there are people waiting for him at the news kiosk on Broadway and 116th Street?
That afternoon the Mediterranean is nothing for Appleman. Earlier, shortly after breakfast, after loping to the Canaries, Appleman had called upon the Graham Greene ménage at Majorca, then balanced his tan with a backstroke to Trieste where the Joyce family had invited him to tea. But enough of this lollygagging — this afternoon Appleman ventures the Arctic passage to Murmansk, steaming north along the Norwegian coast, past Bergen, past Trondheim, smack into the teeth of Nazi wolfpacks. Sharks like Buicks pass beneath him. He’s a blockade runner, a mercy ship, the floating delicatessen S.S. Bubbeleh, her vast holds bursting with nourishing farfel for the Kaminer’s beleaguered troops. Green tons of water heave like ice, shattering across young Appleman’s shoulders, yet Appleman swims on, tireless, colossal, adjusting at measured intervals for the arc of the earth. The oceans are his home, laughs Appleman, half mariner, half dolphin, a marine centaur is Appleman. Call him Merman. Call him Ethel Merman?
“Her real name was Zimmerman you know.”
It’s Kreidlinger, lounging poolside with his legs in the water, savaging one of his noxious coronas while sharing show-business lore with Harvey Bessamin.
He’ll take a shower, Appleman decides. Eleven showers.
“That’s the greatest exercise, swimming,” Bessamin observes. “Only how do you break a sweat?”
Is it funny, asks Appleman. Maybe it is. But Appleman is no longer amused. For suddenly he discerns a sinister, conspiratorial intelligence at work beneath this compulsive jokiness, not merely to minimize suffering but to render it desirable, a welcome source of entertainment. Their airless rooms, the bedding that never seemed to dry—what didn't tickle these benighted people, as if their only real purpose in life might be to determine how much absurdity a person could endure.
“Actually, though, you'd be surprised,” said Mr. Weiss at dinner that evening. “I knew this one fellow, the doctors took everything out of him, but he would listen to the radio and he was happy.
“Of course they had some great radio programs then,” said Mr. Weiss. “They had Fred Allen, they had Burns and Allen, they had Baby Snooks, they had Easy Aces.”
In failing light, inviting calamity, Appleman pounds the broken access road, the ground unreeling beneath his feet like a scrolled invitation to arthroscopic surgery. Through his mind pass images of traction cables, suspended weights, gowned figures gathered in baleful consultation, while above him squirrels watch him pass like figures frozen in tenement windows. They seem gaunt to Appleman. The checkered light on their brindled pelts suggests the outline of tiny ribs.
There's no mistake here, Appleman insists. These images are real for him, as vivid as the pounding of the blood in his ears, while the fact that almost two weeks have passed for him at Kaminer Lodge strikes Appleman as hallucinatory.
He's a joke himself, Appleman realizes at breakfast the next morning, a divine rimshot, badum-boom. Yet if only he holds on he'll be delivered. There's a cosmic rightness in this world, the justice of physics, the reality of an expanding universe, and on these grounds, from the dining room veranda, Appleman addresses his celestial mechanic, comedian of all comedians.
“God, look at me, you blunderer! Aren’t you ashamed?”
But God can’t be bothered, and sadly even Appleman has trouble putting up with Appleman. His own companionship has become unpleasant, a sensation of borrowed underwear, like that disgust he feels when illness takes him.
Fortunately, however, no one notices — rather, a spirit of adventure has seized Appleman’s little gang. Near the pond at the abandoned bungalow colony Kreidlinger has discovered a raspberry thicket and at luncheon that day the group's excitement is sharp as appetite. Helene Kaminer has found waxed paper ice buckets for them, and the talk of the table is of berries and berries. Blueberries, gooseberries, blackberries, mulberries, but nothing, says Jack Kreidlinger, nothing can compare to fresh raspberries as a total experience. Sweet yet piquant, with a bit of a bite? And those crunchy seeds? Oh my God!
Also there had been little rain so far, he pointed out. This concentrated the sugar. The berries, usually plump and barrel-shaped but bland, were narrow and succulent.
In no time Kreidlinger had them whipped to a lather. Visions of Linzer tarts danced in their heads. They could have muffins and pies, said Bessamin. They could make raspberry jam and put it in their tea. The tsars themselves had savored tea with raspberry preserves, said Mr. Weiss. You could put them on pancakes, you could stir them into seltzer. Liqueurs with mysterious, elixir-like qualities were infused from raspberries. Mrs. Regenstein knew a woman who had eaten so many raspberries at her daughter's wedding shower that she burst a blood vessel.
Wiseltier barely wolfed his mushrooms, then snatched up a handful of butter cookies to eat in his room while he changed into jeans and long sleeves, then the Weisses and Bessamins left, and almost immediately the dining room was empty. It was warm and Appleman was looking forward to his swim. He would swim to Cartagena this afternoon, where he would be shot dead by federal troops, dispatched presumably to prevent his abduction by leftist rebels.
He cleared the table and stripped the linen, then carried the busbox to the sink in the kitchen where Myron, too, seemed to be enjoying a delusional moment. Mrs. Regenstein would be staying another week, and although the rest of the guests would be leaving after luncheon on Sunday, another eight couples would be arriving on Sunday; that is, on the following Sunday. Nevertheless Myron was delighted. Cycling repeatedly through the scant handful of deposit checks, he counted each of them six or seven times. Could bookkeeping like this not be fatal?
Well, he would be poor, thought Appleman. Poverty could be honorable. He would learn how to ask for things. Maybe he could become good at it. He understood there were courses offered in this skill.
Schenk had one waiter’s job, but Appleman wasn’t going to like it. It was the staff dining room at the Edison, the social activities people, the lifeguards, the dance instructors, the band, the office personnel, the featured acts.
“I’ll take it,” Appleman tells him.
“It’s staff I said. They’ll run your ass off. What do you expect to make off staff?”
“I said I’ll take it I said.”
“I don’t know," Schenk stalls, "I feel bad about this.”
“You’re not going to help me, are you, Julie?”
Silence in the circumstances would be answer enough, but Schenk can’t resist the opportunity to justify himself.
“They like you,” he protests.
“They told you this?”
“Helene told me. They’re happy with you."
Appreciate the gall, ethical instruction from Julie Schenk. With a gift for double-entendre as well. “They took you in,” Schenk has the nerve to tell him.
But he had always known this, Appleman sees now. That he had ever expected consideration from Schenk seems madness to him. “Julie, they would’ve hired Heinrich Himmler if he knew how to keep kosher.”
“So what are you saying, it lets you off?”
“No, not me,” Appleman says. “It lets you off, though, doesn’t it? Where would you find someone to replace me in this dump?”
“That’s true, too,” Schenk agrees, and Appleman hangs up without saying goodbye. He’ll be fine, he recalls. Maybe he’ll take a little swim.
Yet somehow Appleman never makes it to his room. Instead, selecting a chaise on the pool apron, Appleman allows his fatigue to take him, a waking coma that seems to free his mind, for suddenly a bright career unfurls, a destiny of addressing the major questions of his time. Is the brisket lean? Is the farmer cheese fresh? What kind of honey do sweat-bees make?
Appleman was still asleep at the pool when the berry-pickers returned from their outing. His station, thought Appleman. He felt a shadow fall across his face, followed by a warm aroma of crushed fruit, Eva Bessamin offering her berry bucket.
Appleman rose on one elbow. “Blackberries?” He looked questioningly at Kreidlinger, and then looked again into Mrs. Bessamin's berry bucket. Some of them were red but all of them were blackberries.
“Everyone’s a critic,” Kreidlinger muttered.
“You’re not swimming?” asked Harvey Bessamin.
Appleman peeked at Bessamin from behind the screen of his folded arms. “I have a headache. It’s not safe.”
“You want an aspirin? You should wear a hat.”
“I thought if I just rested here quietly it would go away.”
“You should cover your head though.”
Appleman closed his eyes, but in a moment he felt another shadow, this one smelling faintly of sen-sen and eucalyptus.
“What’s the matter?” the shadow asked. “He fainted?”
It was Sonja Regenstein. Appleman listened while Harvey Bessamin brought her up to the minute.
“It could be serious,” she said. “You don’t monkey with these things.”
Appleman opened his eyes.
“You should take something,” Mrs. Regenstein advised.
“I already told him that,” said Bessamin.
“But did he do it? This is not a joking matter.”
Soon the last of the medical team arrived.
“I just need a little rest,” he assured Mrs. Weiss.
A little nap? A little sleep? Had he really said that, Appleman asked.
After dinner that night Myron helped Appleman serve a dessert buffet in the hotel lobby with the French doors opened to the front veranda. Attracted by the ceiling lights, moths swarmed and bounced against the fixtures, powdering the milkglass with their wings, and the close air hummed with small biting creatures that seemed to express a particular appetite for Mrs. Regenstein.
“They’re eating me alive,” she wailed.
“It’s because you’re so sweet,” said the gallant Mr. Weiss.
“We used to have bugs like this,” said Bessamin. “Every morning the sheets were stained with blood.”
“You had sheets?” asked Kreidlinger.
“It wasn't funny,” Bessamin laughed.
The common room smelled of vinyl upholstery and the coal-oil fumes of the citronella buckets, but after the long day’s warmth the evening breezes felt moist and fresh, and a thin silage-like perfume seemed to rise from the ground and flow like a tide through the stiles of the veranda. Sweaters and jackets appeared. Kreidlinger produced a cigar and that, too, became part of the evening’s entertainment.
“Myron must be burning the garbage,” said Mr. Weiss.
“I like a good cigar,” Kreidlinger snapped.
Mr. Weiss shrugged complacently. “Who doesn’t?” he asked.
“Gevalt!” cried Mrs. Regenstein. “Mr. Weiss, for that I have to kiss you!”
“Thank you," said Mr. Weiss, "I’m good here by the fire.”
“The man is killing me,” Mrs. Regenstein complained happily.
As the darkness gathered the walls of the room seemed to recede. The ceiling, now gray and indistinct, seemed higher, and the spaces between objects lengthened.
Appleman laid out paper napkins, teabags, a paper plate of lemon wedges, plastic trays of cookies and macaroons, then returned to his room, the cheerful voices accompanying him down the drive, outbursts of scandalized shrieks from the women, followed closely each time by the barking laughter of the men.
The darkness was thick now, a velvety blackness that filled the sky, and sitting on his bed with the jumping lights of the citronella buckets throwing fragmented shadows on the hotel clapboards, for a moment it seemed as if the guesthouse, bobbing at the top of the drive, might be suspended like a paper lantern from a bamboo pole. Impulsively Appleman stripped one of the blankets from his bed and wrapped himself against the mosquitoes in order to perch on the rail of his porch. There was no moon and the low sky obscured the stars, but a bluish light like the reflection of tarnished silver seemed to rise from the cropped grass of the lawn, causing the massed black of the trees to bulge suddenly against the softer black above them. He could smell the darkness settle, an aroma like yeast that seemed to rise and then condense like a dew, then a breeze came up and he listened to the downspouts chafe against the aluminum strapping. Looking down he saw that a mosquito had commenced drilling operations on the back of his hand. A bird called out. A frog somewhere mawed like a calf.
He could use a vacation himself, Appleman thought. Tomorrow, without fail, he would take his socks and underwear to the coin-op in Liberty.