Gimpel of Surfside
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Thane Rosenbaum
When walking upright began to define the human species, running—with fleetness and determination—was the mode of action that signaled urgency, whether it was hunting an animal, eluding a tackler, catching a bus, or outrunning a cop. Running was the very next step after shouting, “Fire!”—the best physical evidence of leaving in a hurry. To run was to avoid crisis. Why else would anyone bother working up such a sweat?
In 1972, the running boom, as it was called, was still several years away. Of course, in 1972 many acts of locomotion that would later come to mean something else hardly existed at all. Jane Fonda was known as an Academy Award-winning actress and as “Hanoi Jane,” the anti-Vietnam War agitator; “aerobics” and “aerobics instructors,” as terms of art, and her bestselling workout tapes, were very much unknown quantities back then. “Pumping iron” was the province of a future California governor and foreign bodybuilder who mangled his English while deadlifting barbells. “Cardio” sounded more like a wristwatch than something that was actually good for you. Cardiologists were the boogeymen of the medical profession, so no one would have thought that cardio was anything but a fateful warning.
“Gym” was a dreaded class at school. The gym teacher at Biscayne Junior High, Coach Kesselman, was the epitome of physical fitness carried too far. The man’s chest arrived to every destination two minutes before the rest of him; his bullhorn, whistle, and other penal colony instruments served his ego to no end and cemented “gym” as a dirty word in the lexicon of a generation of Miami Beach boys. A “gym” was also what Angelo Dundee, a fight manager, maintained on 5th Street, just off the beach on Washington Avenue, and it was used exclusively for boxing. Inside there were no treadmills, rowing machines, stationary bicycles, kettle bells, or exercise devices of any kind—just sweaty men punching body bags or each other in the head with great force. Occasionally, a boxer would fall and hit the canvas so hard, it was a wonder anyone lived to fight another day.
Dundee often barked at Muhammad Ali, who had only recently returned to the ring after losing his belt not to a fighter but to the United States draft board. If he could fight heavyweights for large purses, surely he could fight the Viet Cong for America. His refusal to do the latter resulted in him being stripped of his world championship belt. Ali never claimed to be an American patriot; he was a gladiator and mercenary, but the government took away his title anyway.
“Keep moving, Muhammad, keep moving,” Dundee said from the corner of the ring. He was crouched down, forming his own cocoon as if it were he who was trying to avoid getting hit and not his famous fighter. “Let me see you rope-a-dope. That’s it, now float like a butterfly, yes . . . then sting like a bee.”
Dundee’s 5th Street Gym looked like hell and smelled like, well, a gym—with socks and underwear that could nearly stand by themselves so pungent was the unsavory, unwashed admixture of sweat and salt.
Tennis was for many the exercise of choice on Miami Beach. One of the local rabbis, Sheldon Vered, a swashbuckling survivor of those German death camps, had a serve and forehand smash that sizzled over the net like asteroids from Auschwitz. He would usually hustle a few games against unsuspecting tourists who mistook his yarmulke as a sign of easy prey instead of the religious charade and sucker punch that it actually was. Almost everyone else played doubles, which drastically reduced the amount of running and any pretenses of a sport, where an hour of tennis became a foursome of friendly gossip.
Walking was what one did after dinner, but even that was done sparingly and not for too long. It was hot in Miami Beach, after all. All year round hot. Unwaveringly hot. Chokingly hot. Fucking hot! So relentless and unsparing was the sun on these largely northern transplants that they occasionally cursed their seasonless lot, the blood red mercury temperature that made Miami nearly uninhabitable. Conversations all along Collins Avenue sounded pretty much like this:
“Our whole lives depend on air-conditioning,” a grumpy senior citizen would initiate the protest.
“It’s either freezing inside or an oven outside!” came a familiar lament.
“And the humidity is like a Russian bathhouse. Who can live like this?” asked a snowbird who obviously had missed her flight back to Great Neck.
“What I wouldn’t give for a pleasant afternoon in the Catskills where I used to vacation before these Sirens from Miami lured me down with their false advertising about paradise,” said a wistful refugee, not from Europe but the Borscht Belt.
“Paradise, feh,” replied his friend, who usually offered up words no more meaningful than “feh,” because every Jew had a not-so-bright friend who contributed little to the conversation other than restating what had already been said. Pearls of wisdom rarely washed up on the shores of Miami Beach; the oyster shells were all empty.
“Paradise shouldn’t require so much body armor—the hats, the glasses, the lotions, the bug spray, the constant reminders to drink more water. All this Miami mishigas, and for what?” came a remark from a retired year-rounder for whom overdoses of Florida’s sunshine left him feeling like a survivor of nuclear waste contamination. Solar power was unknown at the time. The sun was an energy drain, not an energy source.
“Jackie Gleason—that lying bastard!” said the self-styled comedian of the bunch, who wasn’t appreciably any funnier than the others. They were all a bunch of jokers, smart alecks, and kibitzers. “This isn’t the ‘sun and fun capital of the world’; it’s the smoke and mirrors capital, where things aren’t what they seem with all the squinting we do when we’re outside.”
There was golf, of course, but most Jews on Miami Beach were professional duffers. Like kvetching construction crews, they took to the fairways leaving moon-sized divots as evidence of their handicaps, which rose much higher than the anemic Dow Jones Industrial Averages of those days. A par five was an adventure in higher math, and all those strokes brought on too many actual strokes. When it came right down to it, golf in Miami Beach had very little to do with woods and wedges, putters and colorful pants. It was simply Jews being forced into taking a walk.
The Cubans, who had only recently arrived on Florida’s jutting peninsula a mere ninety miles north of their beloved Havana, at least knew enough about the tropics to take afternoon naps to avoid the mind-numbing heat. Everyone else wore wide-brimmed floppy hats and slathered themselves with zinc oxide, Johnson’s baby oil, Coppertone sun-tanning lotion, or whatever basting device was fashionable at the time. Some Cubans were adventurous swimmers, the desire to escape Castro’s communism so great that they risked almost certain death by trying to float on inner tubes all the way to Key West.
The other water sports of note were surfing and water skiing. Surfing, of course, required big waves, and the tepid Atlantic Ocean that far south produced swells no more gnarly than what you get in a Jacuzzi. And since water skiing required a boat, there were few takers. Most people who owned boats on Miami Beach rarely allowed them to leave the dock. They were largely decorative, something to admire while sitting comfortably amid conditioned air in Florida rooms separated by Venetian doors. Boats were expensive baubles to Jews, floating trophies, more ornamental than oceanic. Boats on Miami Beach were a lot like swimming pools—part of the landscaping, but most people were apparently afraid to get wet. Very few Jewish boat owners knew for certain whether they had an inboard or outboard motor.
For all the pretenses of a city that celebrated outdoor life, much of the days, especially during summer, were spent serenely in ambient air conditioning. Actually, staying indoors, or inside a car, was a survival strategy, an art form, and a favorite pastime of the people of Miami Beach, most of whom, frankly, couldn’t take the heat.
All except for Jacob Posner, a mild-mannered man of European refinement, silenced by circumstances that left him nearly catatonic, who took to the outdoors and its fiery temperature like a guileless wilderness survival guide—fearless of both melanoma and sunstroke. His daily uniform was simple and practical for the climate: white shorts, a white polo shirt, and white shoes that were on the far side of a sneaker. He was the sort of person who believed that a human being can never get enough camouflage in his life. White was the color of choice for those wishing to blend into the bleached palette of the tropics.
He was a slight man with a beard on his chin and thinning dark hair that retained its color despite his advanced age. In his short pants the contours of his calves extended from his shin like satellite dishes. He was nearly seventy years old in a city where the temperature and the average age of its senior citizens lined up like algebraic equations. Nearly everyone was retired and at life’s twilight. Social Security was the meal ticket du jour. Wizened was a local fashion statement. Early bird dinners were so ubiquitous it was pointless to announce them. The city’s night owls were comprised entirely of tourists and gangsters; the locals were long asleep. At times it looked as though the entire city couldn’t hold down a job.
Jacob Posner’s skin was a baked brown, with liver spots on his forehead, deep-ridged crow’s feet that resembled a plowed field, and a bald spot that gave the sun a moving target whenever he was outside. And he was always outside—a walking man, regularly in motion and on the move. He would bound the city streets of Miami Beach like an absent-minded beat cop who couldn’t keep to his own beat. For all that purported forward motion, he generally went nowhere in particular, making odd pedestrian patterns, crossing over those small walking bridges that served as canopies for the canals, then making abrupt turns as if eluding a tail, keeping his watchers off guard even though no one was watching over him. He was his very own Venn diagram.
Jacob was a walker on a small island where outdoor excursions were regarded as foolish. He seemed to be the only one who ventured out willingly, longingly even, staying out as late as possible, even after dark. And if this wasn’t enough to distinguish him from the card playing, mahjong clapping, porch and terrace hugging, frigidly air-conditioned crowd, there was the matter of his locomotion, which barely qualified as movement at all. Babies took more elongated, ambitious steps. One of Jacob’s strides followed by another advanced him so little, and in such slow motion, it was as if he were moonwalking in Miami.
Jacob moved as if he were walking a plank, as if each tiny step brought him closer to his own execution. And at times it had the markings of reckless abandon. Cars honked as he crossed streets, unmindful of red lights. Those who knew him waved from their car windows, even calling out his name, and yet received no reply. Standing right in front of them, he nonetheless appeared to be elsewhere, which was probably true. Where he was, however, no one could possibly know.
He squinted through eyes that had already seen too much, which only magnified the fuzzy, wary impression that he perceived in the people around him. In fact, perhaps as a protective device, his eyes were locked in a permanent squint, as if he were always in a plausible state of denial. Unseeing is, by definition, uncomprehending. Honking cars could blow a gasket for all he cared. Those offering him rides were better off without him, he felt. They just didn’t know it. How could they?
He walked through summer downpours that were brief in duration but positively ferocious in their tropical fury. Rain pellets struck sidewalks and windshields as if Miami Beach came under gunfire. Thunder shook the sky like Apollo liftoffs from Cape Kennedy. The skies blackened with cloud cover that hung low overhead. Petrified Little Leaguers dressed in thick gray cotton pants stood motionless in the outfield as if the clouds were close enough to suck them up into the sky. Such downpours and hellraisings in heaven had the effect of bridging the distance between man and nature. They were awe producing, and they were also close, which made them appear very much of this world, unlike volcano eruptions and earthquakes. Purple nimbus halos of rain and streaking bands of thunderous light rippled through the sky with the brashness and drama of a Hollywood premiere.
Jacob walked right through those weather patterns fearlessly while everyone else properly knew that it was time to find shelter. Perhaps he more than anyone knew that for lightning to strike twice in the same lifetime would violate the laws of nature and upset all the random odds that occupied his wife, a part-time gangster and gambler. After all, he’d survived the forests of Europe as a partisan and escaped from a concentration camp as a mere number; what could a little rain and a bolt of lightning add to what was already a formidable survivalist resumé?
Yet, the better question to ask, the one that most people on Miami Beach wondered aloud was: What kind of fool would voluntarily walk desolate, baking streets, without a hat or sunglasses, and with all sorts of friendly motorists slowing down to offer him a ride? What kind of fool doesn’t know when it’s time to come out from under the rain, that lightning foreshadows thunderous booms for a reason: it’s too dangerous to be anywhere within its electromagnetic sight? What can be said of such a person other than that he is, in fact, a fool?
No one else in all of Miami Beach maintained the same habits or displayed a similar untropical quirkiness. And that’s why, in time, “The Walking Man of Miami Beach,” as Jacob Posner came to be known, began to blend into the scenery like an iguana camouflaged within the wild foliage of Florida. After a while everyone simply took it for granted that Jacob Posner was making his rounds, or figure eights, or alternating right angles, or down and outs. It was all too hard to follow and even harder to comprehend, so senseless were his walkabouts on Miami Beach. Jacob Posner became just another fixture of the city, a curious old man with a most unusual South Florida idiosyncrasy, best left alone. There was no reason to notice him anymore, and even less reason to pity him.
Which suited Jacob Posner just fine. After all, these walks, while they kept everyone else guessing, were not without meaning, despite what these sun-poisoned provincials wanted to believe. The walks enabled a flowing rhythm to Jacob’s inner world, a runway that kept his thoughts moving freely, even though his actual steps were glacial by comparison. Walking was like truth serum; that which can’t be said behind closed doors found freedom on the road, even if it functioned as yet another attempt at covering up.
He didn’t share any of these thoughts with others, not even his own family—particularly his own family. Adam, his son, must never know. Sophie, his wife, was beyond the capacity to take in more bad news. And, as he’d long feared, she was already insane; it’s just that no one on Miami Beach had figured that out yet—least of all that lecherous Meyer Lansky, who was using his wife’s brain and steely spine to help him win back his criminal empire. The contents that Jacob had been storing in his head, those relived and yet sequestered memories, were most definitely not for public consumption. The only person who ever heard his survivor’s lament, his brief filed against God, his recitation of memories that could scare away any ghost, was I. B., his literary confidante, unofficial shrink, truth-teller, and like-minded refugee.
There was so much to think about, after all, and so much to repress. There wasn’t enough time in the day, or enough navigable streets in all of Miami Beach. It took work to train the mind to consign those memories to the very back of the recall line, to create a new hierarchy of remembrances, to essentially manufacture new memories just for the sake of keeping the old ones at bay. Imagine the stamina and self-delusion required to put strategic space between what is best forgotten and what must be remembered. It’s an exhausting enterprise, and an island seven miles long and a mile wide doesn’t offer enough lebensraum to finish the job. No wonder Jacob Posner never bothered to notice the people saying hello to him, or trying to avoid running him over. The Walking Man was busy—and not just with walking.
His son, Adam, was, by no small coincidence, a runner. The running boom had not yet sounded, but that didn’t stop freakish joggers in their tracks from running around parks, along the beach, or, in some extreme cases, right on the streets. Both father and son had little in common, spoke very few words to each other, and yet shared this one Posner compulsion—to stay out of the apartment, and on the streets, in motion, as long as possible. They each took a set of keys, nodding to the other, and then went out the door. Moving at different speeds, they headed to the exact same indeterminate destination. Neither had a map in their minds, just escape plans. Adam relied on the road to clear his own head of things that twelve-year-old boys should never have to think about. Running seemed to be a panacea for all that silence within the Posner home: the damaged parents, the nightmares that awoke the household, and even the dead, and all that strange behavior far too extreme to qualify as merely idiosyncratic. Weirdness everywhere else was downright conventional by comparison. Silence was the family tongue, avoidance the shared obsession.
Father and son moved on parallel tracks while crisscrossing different avenues. They made abrupt turns, but not toward each other. They circled one another without either of them knowing it, yet never intersected. It was a game of tag without the touching, hide-and-seek without any apparent hiding. They were the only two people out on the streets using their legs for transportation, and yet they improbably never ran into one another. It was as if their destiny was to remain apart, each maneuvering the same Miami Beach maze without the slightest sense of wonder how they managed to never collide. Two magnets in a constant state of repelling one another.
Adam ran but never left the island, never pushed himself to pass over into a neighboring peninsula. How could he? He was only twelve, after all. He was mature enough to be trusted to raise himself, to be nearly the head of the Posner household. But the world doesn’t credit hard knocks as a basis for legal emancipation. And his parents, who never noticed him, still depended on him. They needed to be reassured that, unlike what had happened to them on the European side of the Atlantic Ocean, Miami Beach would protect them from the murdering kind. South Florida would become a safe haven by default. Whatever they loved could not be taken away from this beach. They were refugees who had finally found refuge.
Of course, they didn’t really believe that. Their son, however, was determined to fool them with all manner of false assurances. And the best way to accomplish that was to stay put. Running away from home was not an option because he could not be the cause of any further loss. Each day as he took to the streets and headed toward a causeway or a bridge, he ended up turning around and returning to the site of all that shared misery. The roads that he ran never brought him to any forks, only a series of U-turns.
Jacob Posner, however, did have a route in mind, although a ridiculously circuitous one. It had an end point, but he changed the coordinates each day. Changing the pass codes and covering one’s tracks was the specialized tradecraft of the partisan fighter. All trails must be untraceable, even on Miami Beach.
And, yet, on most days they ended in Surfside, that small township at the northern tip of Miami Beach. It was there that Jacob Posner’s slow moving feet came to rest, specifically at Danny’s Restaurant on Harding Avenue, a nondescript coffee shop only a dozen years removed from its more glamorous days as the Brook Club Gambling Casino, which was owned by the Jewish mob. Jacob knew that his wife would have been interested in the joint back then. Mediocre deli meant nothing to her; high-stakes craps did. Danny’s Restaurant had become Jacob Posner’s hangout in 1972, the meeting place for his rendezvous with a baked apple and with Isaac Bashevis Singer, the world’s best-known Yiddish writer, future Nobelist, and overall Jewish raconteur.
It was only with I. B., known by his initials, to whom Jacob spoke. Not a word was uttered elsewhere on Miami Beach. But once over the border into neighboring Surfside, Jacob Posner sang like a paid confidential informant. The otherwise mute Walking Man, upon his arrival at Danny’s, became a regular canary in a mineshaft called Auschwitz.
I. B. and Jacob sat at a booth, but it might as well have been a confession booth. Jacob would order his baked apple, or raisin pudding, and wipe off his drenched forehead with as many napkins as he could rip out of the dispenser. The sidewall of the booth was mirrored, and he checked his reflection quickly as if his very existence was always in doubt. He had long known that Miami Beach was one great optical illusion. Perhaps its cousin, Surfside, was worse.
By then I. B. had usually already ordered. He was a resident of Surfside who spent hours at Danny’s each day in the same manner in which he used to inhabit the Garden Cafeteria in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where a community of Jewish intellectuals once existed, arguing over everything from the political virtues of socialism and Zionism, to the literary comparisons between Tolstoy and Proust. So much of the fare on Danny’s menu was trayf, in keeping with a very different set of kosher principles that I. B., as a strict vegetarian, lived by. But he, too, enjoyed a baked apple, or a cheese strudel, and multiple cups of hot tea—even in the Florida heat—a sugar cube placed between his teeth as a filtering, sweetening device.
He ordered little, and yet he reserved the most scenic booth and occupied it throughout the season for much of the day. The owners of the establishment had considered charging him rent. But there was value in having such an esteemed man of Yiddish letters sitting in their restaurant, cautiously avoiding the alphabet soup because of its chicken broth. And so there he sat much of the day, with a notepad and fountain pen, scribbling notes like a detective, observing the apparently famished faces in the crowd.
But Jacob Posner was his favorite subject, and so I. B. invited him to sit at his table, a courtesy he extended to no one else. It would become almost a daily ritual for the two of them—a codependency between artist and subject. Despite what they jokingly referred to as a secret pact—Indian brothers bonded in Jewish blood—Jacob didn’t seem to mind that his darkest truths were likely to resurface as plot points and character defects in I. B.’s fiction. In fact, it was all but guaranteed that Jacob had become a stand-in for many of the male Jewish refugees that I. B. had conjured for his many novels. I. B. politely borrowed from Jacob’s uncensored testimony, and spun it into literary gold.
I. B. was a small, owlish man with a prominent nose and forehead, long boney fingers, and an all-knowing smile that was both devilish and endearing. His skin was a milky shade of translucent white, very uncommon for a man living in Surfside, but not for someone who barely went outside and never without a hat. His eyes were a rough cobalt blue that softened and changed color in the light.
Jacob Posner was a most complicated, morally compromised Jew, which was I. B.’s métier and stock-in-trade. Fallen Jews, foolish Jews, corrupted Jews, unflattering Jews, Jews with dirty thoughts, were the only characters that interested his literary imagination. And for this reason many serious-minded Jews speculated why I. B. was the best-known Yiddish writer in the world. In 1972 the film adaptation to Philip Roth’s raunchy and hilarious novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, opened in theaters, and anyone sizing up the literary scene in those days could have properly wondered why only perverted Jews seemed to be of interest to the literary elite.
“So what do you have to tell me today, my good friend Jacob?” I. B. asked, as he usually did at the beginning of these sessions. It was his gentle way of luring him in. The Yiddish accent was dense and unmistakable, with w’s that were transformed into v’s. Most sentences were punctuated with uplifted shoulder blades, as if all periods merited a shrug. “Vhat are you valking away from today?” is what I. B. asked, and how it sounded.
I. B.’s stories had been translated from the original Yiddish into English beginning in the early 1950s. Prior to that his readers were dwindling with each passing year, as the birth of the State of Israel elevated Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people. Without English translations of his work, I. B. would have disappeared like so many other writers and poets who had the misfortune of writing in a language on life support. It took a few decades before he became widely known in America. At that point, Playboy started calling, not for his physical body but for his bawdy fiction. This Polish Jew was absolutely filthy—X-rated, indecent, unfit for a chaste readership. He worked almost entirely in blue like a burlesque short story writer. And he fit in so nicely in feverish, hot-blooded Florida, which proved to be a most hospitable breeding ground for degenerate Jews, whether they were adulterers, mobsters or borderline pornographers. With a magazine known for its naked women and lewd centerfolds solidly behind him, it was only another six years before he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
What were the Swedes thinking? If that isn’t winning the Jewish jackpot, then what is?
While Yiddish-speaking and artistically inclined men loathed I. B., he did have an expansive readership among Jewish women. Indeed, married women were especially infatuated with him, largely because of the sizzling sex he depicted and the license he seemed to be granting Jewesses to be as sinful as their newly liberated American counterparts. In his stories fidelity was faithless, and sex among the refugees was so plentiful and enticing, one would have thought that the migration to America—with all that sacrifice and hardship—was undertaken only so as to offer these young Yiddish-speaking, traumatized Jews an easier way to get laid than they had ever experienced back home.
There was no getting around the paradox that of all things on God’s greenhorn Earth, it was sex that I. B. was peddling in translated Yiddish—not the purity of Judaism, but the depravity of its people. The mamaloshen of the Jews was being exploited by the master of the Yiddish short story in a way that vaguely suggested a mother’s tongue could be used for something other than speech.
“Any new thoughts on the dark demons and dybbuks that won’t let you sleep?” I. B. asked slyly, like tossing chum into a shark tank. “Tell me, Jacob. Tell me everything you had to do to survive, which now shames you to no end. Last time we met you told me how many men you had to kill, and how you remember all of their faces.”
I. B. was not a survivor. He couldn’t have known the inner world of the concentration camps or the moral sacrifices of the survivors. I. B. was a refugee, for sure, but the other kind: -those who came before World War II, which was a very different world, indeed. The immigrant’s tale before the war was an Ellis Island opportunity grab—rags to riches and eventually, in the imagination of I. B., corruption and smut.
After World War II, the Statue of Liberty got a good look at the truly wretched: the survivors of a genocide who cried out for both asylum and a sanatorium. I. B. belonged to the first group, but was fascinated by the second one. He knew that literary luck had spared him; had he remained in Warsaw rather than follow his older brother to New York, he would no doubt have been killed in the ghetto or in a death camp. He possessed the skills of turning sentences around and observing humankind in its most debased state. But that skill set would have been useless in Treblinka where wile and fortitude were the essential elements of a survivor’s repertoire. Short stories were useless amid all those shortened lives.
The violinists, poets, and painters all died—and died almost instantly. I. B. saw in Jacob Posner the quick instincts and short fuse of those Jewish toughs whom he recalled from his childhood in Warsaw. They walked along Krochmalne Street with the fearless self-assurance more common to Odessa’s Jewish gangsters. The Polish Jew was a less volatile breed. Most would not have allowed themselves the swagger and cunning that Jacob would one day turn into a means of survival. And that’s how and why he remained alive. But did he survive? I. B. was obsessed with the damaged lives of such “survivors.” He saw in them the greatest defiance of God’s warped sense of humor. And he came to realize that preserving sanity in the aftermath of Auschwitz was, in some ways, a trickier undertaking than surviving the camps themselves.
“And how is the boy doing?” I. B. asked. “Still not speaking to him, forcing him to find out the family history all by himself? There is cruelty in that, you know. You are his father, and he should know where he comes from—a family legacy written in smoke.”
I. B. wore a suit and tie in sunny Surfside, one of the few who maintained the look of a Yiddish intellectual, even in brain-dead Miami Beach. He luxuriated in the dissonance of refined Europeans coexisting with all the beach bums and platinum blondes. He was often seen wearing felt hats—fedoras and porkpies—and holding on to a cane or umbrella, which he used as a walking stick, something for his hand to grab onto when not clutching a pen. Not adopting the cabana uniform—those long patterned bathing shorts fastened with a drawstring, and matching jackets—so fashionable in those days was yet another example of I. B.’s eccentricity. Who wears a suit in Miami Beach? Even the lawyers adopted more casual attire. Recreating life from the Lower East Side, or Upper Broadway, would be tough sledding in snowless Miami. And yet each day I. B. reported for duty as chronicler of the chronically miserable dressed for the occasion, as if he was a mortician who had wandered into the wrong landscape painting.
One of the reasons for Jacob Posner’s misery was the absence he felt in South Florida. The life of the Jewish mind on Miami Beach was dead. So much of his time spent with I. B. was in describing the origins of his Miami misery—the shallowness of people surrounded by deep waters. Jacob was learned but unlettered; words didn’t come easily to him, for various reasons. So much of what he had witnessed was truly indescribable—appropriately unspoken, ineffable by tragic design. And here he was, trapped in the tropics and rendered mute by Miami’s cabana culture and coconuts for brains. The smart ones had stayed in New York; the empty-headed had retired and resettled in Miami Beach. It was, in 1972, a city without bookstores. The New York Times was nowhere to be found—even the Sunday edition! The Magna Carta was more available. The Atlantic had a better chance of being surfed than read in any of the Miami zip codes. Yes, Jacob Posner barely spoke, but part of the reason for his silence was that he had no one to speak to—except for I. B.
“I agree: it is a wasteland we have here, Jacob,” I. B. said. “All the meshuganahs moved to Miami. What can I tell you: We’re alone here—just you and me, and our books, and my Yiddish Remington typewriter, and your sticky memories. So tell me more.”
In addition to the sartorial anomaly of his daily wardrobe, there was also the matter that I. B. couldn’t swim. What they say about being a fish out of water was true of I. B. in Surfside. He never ventured into the ocean or the pool at his apartment on Collins Avenue with its water view and blinding morning light. Instead of swimming like that Jewish boy with the Chippendale body who would go on to win all those Olympic medals in Munich that very summer, I. B. spent much of every day holed up in a restaurant where he couldn’t eat the food because most of it had once been alive. What he was doing in South Florida no one could quite understand. All that Miami Beach seemingly offered was material of the scandalous and racy kind. He was an able sponge and the Jewish refugees were bleeding with both nutty thoughts and naughty behavior. He had already milked the Jews on West End Avenue of Manhattan; now he would deplete the Jews of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. What I. B. found in Miami Beach was a bounty of awkward mating habits, vapid vanities, moral mishaps, common corruptions, foul infidelities, and the most loosely gripped hold on sanity anywhere in the Jewish world. Miami Beach was a mental hospital for Jews, where everyone walked freely although their minds were securely restrained in straightjackets.
I. B. wasn’t in Surfside to retire, but to follow leads and scope out the action. The vestiges of European Jewish life was fast succumbing to the obsolescence of a dead language in an America that demanded total immersion. They were his landsmen, but he took no pity in presenting them to the Gentile world in the bleakest and most unflattering of lights.
“You can’t hide from evil in the world by walking around Miami Beach like a sunburned ghost, Jacob,” I. B. said as he brushed aside the bowl holding the baked apple. “Sunshine doesn’t make problems go away.”
“What sunshine?” Jacob said. “You think I see sunshine? All I see are black clouds filled with smoke floating above Miami Beach. The rest of my family is up there; the wife and child I had before Mila and Adam. This is a ghost town with everyone dressed in white. My picture of Miami Beach is not suitable as a postcard. Maybe Jackie Gleason was taken off TV because the people up north began to see what I see, and didn’t want to ‘come on down’ after all.”
“Nightmares?” I. B. asked, although he was quite sure of the answer. “Still they are haunting you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And the heart, your condition?”
“I take nitroglycerin tablets like no tomorrow, and sometimes I wish there was no tomorrow.” And with that he popped another into his mouth, allowing it to dissolve under his tongue before searching for the water he feared the waiter had already taken away.
“I’ve been a vegetarian all these years,” I. B. said, telling Jacob something that was already well known. “When people ask me why I don’t meat or poultry, I tell them I do it for the health of the chickens. But I also know that I will probably live longer because I eat healthier than these Americans.”
“You think my problems are from food?” Jacob chuckled at the thought that something as mundane as eggs, butter, and sirloin could have sidelined him with three prior heart attacks. “My diet is fine. My cholesterol is low. I exercise, yes, slowly, but I exercise. What’s not fine is my head, and these memories, and my memory, which, at night, brings me nightmares almost as bad as the real thing. They never list nightmares as a cause of death. But I’m sure that when I die, that’s what the coroner will say. You don’t need a heart condition to have a heart that is broken.”
I. B. hurriedly sipped his cup of hot tea through a sugar cube gripped by his front teeth like a bit in a horse’s mouth. This, too, was an artifact of the fallen Europe. He then licked his pen as if it were a vegetarian meal, and recorded what Jacob had just told him. “Cause of death: nightmares.”
“I still can’t believe it was six million,” Jacob said. “That’s the number they are saying. Your family. All of my family. All those families that the world will never know. I lost my first wife. And she was pregnant with a second child—an unborn child the Nazis took from me. When my son speaks to me at night, all I hear is ‘Tateh.’ Was the second one a boy, or a girl? Does it matter? I don’t know. Even my dreams won’t tell me.” Jacob paused, his eyes moistened and he waited, perhaps for that child’s voice to reveal itself in Surfside, in a whisper. “Fathers are supposed to protect their children, to make them safe. I failed with my European children, born and unborn, and I fail every day with the son who, with a diffent father, would be an American prince. They say that we survivors should carry on normal lives. The past must not destroy the future. Do not allow the Nazis to have the ultimate victory. So we start new families. We buy a station wagon. Take the children to Little League games and, after that, treat them to ice cream. Go see the circus. Clowns make everyone laugh, and it’s important to learn to laugh again. Join the PTA. The PTA; Little League? I’m sorry: We Posners can’t do such things. There is something indecent about it. I won’t be disloyal to my first family. And we’ve seen too much to join the clubs of ordinary people. Bake sales are not for me. Let the Americans do that.
“We are not from a Normal Rockwell painting. If anything, we are the screamers that haunted Munch. Show me a genocide club; now that’s a group I can join. There I have something to contribute. But I can’t watch my son play baseball. I hear he is very good, but I have no interest in narishe games. When I see someone shaking a stick at my son, I don’t see fun and games.
“We are all such fools. We have all been so foolish. Pretending that suburbs can make it easier to forget, that sunshine can end darkness, that plastic places like Miami Beach can give survivors a second chance. Nobody can grant us that. And we wouldn’t want it, wouldn’t know what to do with it, and we wouldn’t deserve it.”
Jacob looked around nervously, as if he didn’t have a passport for Surfside and was worried about getting caught by hulking lifeguards who doubled as the city’s border patrol. As the roving bands of partisans in the forests of Europe knew all too well, it was often unclear whether one had accidentally crossed over into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, or Ukraine. In a time of madness, maps matter little. Everyone carries false papers. What does it mean to be a citizen of this world? Even the trees in the forests had seen too much that went against nature. Jacob didn’t like to stay in one place for too long. He regarded it as unhealthy, unsafe, tactically stupid. To remain immobile was to tempt fate. Movement was always the survivor’s most reliable defense mechanism; floating like one of Ali’s butterflies was a very good insurance policy.
“Survivor as philosopher king,” I. B. spoke out loud as he scribbled in his notebook, a leather bound, flaky brown block of secrets, rubbed raw from overuse. His pen was a silver Parker, the blue ink leaky, covering his fingernails, which were already blue from mashing the pen against paper, memorializing Jacob Posner’s rambling, coded reflections. “Jacob, you have the prophetic voice! These are truths only the dead can hear. The living can never know from such things—otherworldly things that would dent their station wagons and melt their ice cream. I don’t know how you carry this around with you so. And I feel such privilege that you would share it with me.” Here, of course, I. B. failed to acknowledge how he was cashing in on another’s suffering, mining his mind, the petty thefts of the fiction writer. I. B. was writing furiously like a court stenographer charged with capturing every syllable.
“And the missus? May I now ask about her?” I. B. asked. That was a sensitive subject in the Posner household. Sophie Posner was already so fully realized a character, she was beyond tinkering. Even the master fiction writer himself knew there was nothing to fictionalize when it came to Sophie Posner, no color to add to her outer life and inner world. She was a Queen Esther for the modern age, the mother of all Jews—the mother of all mobsters. For I. B. to recreate Sophie Posner would only diminish the high art she had obtained simply by being herself.
“I can’t control her,” Jacob sighed and lamented. “I’m not strong enough anymore. I don’t think I was ever strong enough. Who is? She is involved in dirty business. Who would expect such a thing from a Jewish woman, a woman whose grandfather was an important rabbi in Poland? Consorting with a hoodlum like Meyer Lansky and his peasants. And yet, who am I to talk? Obviously, she’s attracted to men with blood on their hands.”
“Don’t say such things, do not talk such narishkeit. Those that you killed deserved it,” the novelist reasoned. “Lansky makes bodies go away because he is a racketeer. He commits murder. What you had to do was morally just, and essential if one was to survive. It is the order of the universe, the first principle of the natural world. Killing is not all the same, after all.”
“I didn’t want the job,” Jacob said, his eyes now lost in both a full-on squint and a dead stare. “I shouldn’t have had that kind of a life. I wanted to be a lawyer, not a lawbreaker. Now I’m no better than Lansky.”
“Are you worried that Sophie hasn’t been faithful, that her business with Lansky isn’t strictly business, that there’s been monkey business?” I. B. was getting to the crux of what for him was always a core theme: Who is shtupping who? And when Jewish gangsters are involved, it was even better. Isaac Babel wasn’t the only writer who saw the dramatic possibilities of Jewish thugs on the wrong side of the law but with the moxie of movie stars.
“I don’t have the energy to care about that anymore,” Jacob replied, his voice fading. “I’m not alive enough to feel jealous. I am too weak to have those feelings. And if I have such feelings, I don’t notice the difference. We Posners are the laughingstocks of Miami Beach. We are a family of fools. And I feel no shame.”
Jacob creakily slid out of the booth and rose to his feet. He then reached for his wallet to throw down a few dollars. I. B. waved away his friend’s contribution to the meal. After all, Jacob had more than paid his fair share in bringing I. B. what he most wanted. It was a good day for the Jewish writer. A very good day, actually.
The two friends shook hands and Jacob turned toward the front entrance of Danny’s Restaurant. It was there that he caught the rare sight of his son, in full sprint, working up a ferocious sweat, tearing down Harding Avenue like a fire engine, a mere blur of a boy, his large shadow trailing, his heart pumping, his escape routes getting thinner and less dependable with each heavy step.