The View of his Last Exile
By Shula Kopf
Max felt the humid breeze through the open doors leading to his narrow balcony. He had already walked the dog and eaten the breakfast he had prepared himself: two scrambled eggs, plain rye toast, and a mug of black coffee which he carried to the table with care lest the tremor in his right hand cause him to stain the wall-to-wall beige carpet. He had read the Miami Herald, except for the sports section—good only for Americans who care about such narishkeit. He liked to read the paper before Marisha got her hands on it, after which it was rumpled, creased and covered with food stains. The day felt full before him. He hadn’t yet uttered a word. It was his habit not to speak, especially not to his wife.
He met his daughter’s gaze in a color photograph framed in silver on the dinette credenza—his untouched, lucky, goldene medina child, her American birth like a saint’s halo around her head. It pleased him to think that Helen was married with two children in Cincinnati. Her husband Mark, a dentist, was a likable fellow and, like Max, not a big talker.
He heard his wife stirring in the other room.
Again she’s walking and sniffing for mildew, he thought. If she’s so afraid of mildew, she should have retired to Arizona and, better yet, without me.
He could hear her walk into the bathroom. Every morning, after his shower, she wiped the shower walls with a towel, soaking up the drops that had beaded on the slate-blue tile. After she had made up her face and put on a red, silk robe, she walked out of the apartment, down the carpeted hallway to the common laundry room where she tossed the towel into the dryer, an act of preemptive defense in her war of attrition against the insidious advance of mold.
Max despised the small whining sighs his wife made while she dried the shower, the reproach in her tone. He was repelled by the energy in her brisk strokes.
If she knows I’m in the kitchen where I can hear her, she sighs a little louder, he thinks. What does she want of me? Sigh all you want, Marisha. One day I’ll give you something to really sigh about. I’ll pack up my suitcase and go, maybe to Cincinnati, and then, how will you pay the mortgage on your precious condominium? What does she expect? This is Florida. You’ve got to learn to live with a little mildew.
Max got up from the table in the dinette and took the dirty dishes to the sink, washed, then dried, them, and put them away in the cupboard. Then, following his morning ritual, he stepped out to sit on the folding chair on the balcony without so much as a ‘Good morning.’ He breathed in deeply.
He couldn’t stand to be closed up in the apartment. There was never enough air. He couldn’t stand for the windows to be closed, so he opened one frequently, casus belli for Marisha to complain about the humidity infiltrating the apartment, consuming everything from the Persian carpet in the living room to her mink coat in the walk-in closet. Max occupied very little space in the apartment. All the furniture, the crystal Bohemian vases and over a dozen Meissen porcelain figurines of dainty ballerinas and shepherds, were things that Marisha had voraciously collected in thrift shops. He practiced minimalism. He had a small portion of the closet allotted for his clothes, and he owned a collection of opera discs and a coffee mug his daughter had given him once for his birthday which said in red capital letters: To the best father in the world. He owned one pair of shoes, since if you have one pair, why buy another? The telephone was a means for short conversations with his daughter on Sundays and for making doctor appointments.
Max’s retreat to the balcony was the signal for Marisha to advance to the kitchen. She sat by the dinette table eating and rumpling the newspaper with intense concentration.
She reads it, he thinks, like she is the president of the United States with important decisions to make. She watches the news sitting nervously on the edge of the sofa expecting the worst. At every catastrophe—a mudslide in Peru, an earthquake in Turkey, floods in India—she wrings her hands and moans as if she personally knew the victims. If, God forbid, Israeli soldiers are killed in a skirmish, she gets hysterical. She hasn’t learned yet that nothing matters, that it’s all the same in the end. You live. You die. Death is a sure thing and nothing to get excited about. Of course, it is better to die a natural death than be shot by a firing squad and thrown into a pit. But what does it matter in the end? Will it help? God is silent.
Max could sit on the balcony for hours, thinking, dreaming, and watching the play of dappled light on the water and the boats sailing down the Intracoastal Canal. He could estimate the size of a boat and even learned to distinguish the various makes. He had no desire to sail; just to watch. Some boats were regulars; some even ventured past him on specific days and their owners waved at him. He watched them sail past his vision, and he mostly tried not to think, especially not about the past. At times, especially during the rainy season when torrential pours forced him indoors, he sprawled on the sofa in the guest bedroom and listened to opera discs. Confined indoors, the windows closed due to the rain, unbidden thoughts infiltrated his mind raking over the ashes of the dead. He would awaken startled from a nap, feeling like he was in the Stygian pit, the hiding place where during the war he could not stand or lie down for over a year. He thought of death, even his own, with the detachment of someone inured to it by frequent contact. But afterwards he had headaches that lasted for days. So mostly he tried to keep his mind clear, sit on the balcony in the fresh air, and in his silence listen to the small sounds of everyday. He listened to the rattling of dishes, the opening and closing of drawers, the soft swoosh of the blinds when Marisha closed them each afternoon to keep out the sun. He eavesdropped on her numerous and lengthy telephone conversations. He heard the voices, the hubbub of laughter and talk of the people sunning in the octagonal pool below, their accents: Brooklyn, Chicago, Montreal. And when fatigue would overtake him, his lids would grow heavy, his head would droop, chin touching chest, and he would succumb to sleep.
Max and Marisha had left New York five years earlier, as soon as he had sold the candy store in Brooklyn, and they bought the two-bedroom, two-bath condominium on South Ocean Drive. Max and Marisha were among the first to buy, so they had their pick. It was Marisha’s idea to get a corner apartment with a view. He wanted the seventh floor; she, the third, because she feared the elevator might break down. The elevator was never out of service, but a palm tree, carted to the site on a flatbed truck along with five others and planted around the pool, had grown until it blocked Max’s view. Its growth had been so gradual that it was only the previous Thursday that Max realized while sitting on the balcony that two of its fringed branches obstructed his view of the canal and the boats.
“I told you we should have bought 710,” he told Marisha with fierce intensity and no further explanations.
Max was above condo politics. At first, since he was among the first owners, he was nominated by Ida Stein in 507 to be president of the condo association. He felt flattered and, for an instant, a barely remembered sense of elation flooded him. He imagined chairing meetings. Everyone in the building would know him, respect him, even though he spoke with an accent and they were mostly American born. But the feeling lasted only an instant. Max knew he wouldn’t be good at it. Besides, there was no use in getting involved. What did it matter if grandchildren pissed in the pool, or if people didn’t put their garbage in the proper plastic bag Max attended condo meetings mostly out of a desire to get out of the apartment, but
never said anything. He didn’t contribute, nor did he complain.
But last Thursday, right after lunch, he went down to the office to explain about the palm tree.
Condo president Oscar Horowitz, a retired shoe salesman from Chicago who favored pastel-colored shirts and khaki shorts that revealed a roadmap of varicose veins, listened politely and said he would look it up in the condo rules. He promised to bring it up at the board meeting the following Tuesday.
Today was the day. As Max sat on the balcony trying to watch the boats through the obstruction of the offending branches, it occurred to him that he should go down to the pool to drum up support. He took the dog with him.
“It’s pretty. I don’t think we should cut it down,” said Sally Hillman from 710. Beads of sweat seeded her wrinkled neck and her lipstick was smeared. She lifted the brim of her straw hat to look at it. “It’s nice, it’s real nice. I love palm trees. I love sea grape trees. Max, this is Florida, and Florida is palm trees.”
“I didn’t say to cut down the tree, Sally, just some branches.”
“Max, You know you’re not supposed to bring the dog down here.” It was Jerry Hillman, Sally’s husband, who came out of the pool, dripping water.
“Yes, I forgot,” Max said, and walked away.
I really should get out of the apartment more often, he thought. The air in there is killing me. I can’t breathe. I get headaches. I get sleepy and the day is gone. And if I sleep in the morning, she takes advantage and grabs the car and I’m stuck without a car all day. She drives it all over, God knows where, and never puts in gas. She waits for me to fill up. I told her I had an appointment at two o’clock yesterday with Dr. Aronson, but she didn’t show up until four. She didn’t say anything about it and I didn’t say anything either. Why bother talking to her? Tomorrow she has an appointment to get a tooth pulled. I’ll take the car in the morning and then she’ll see. Let her take the bus.
Even as he thought it, Max knew that he wouldn’t take the car the next morning. He would do what he did every morning; sit on the balcony until sleep overtook him. He also knew that he didn’t really want his wife to take the bus.
It was Leon Chefitz from 406.
“How’s your pretty wife?”
“As usual, cleaning. You’d think ten of us live in that apartment instead of two.”
“My Ruthy’s the same.”
Max had been to Leon’s apartment. Carried away by the amiability he felt after moving to Florida, he’d accepted an invitation for coffee and cake. Ruth gave them a grand tour of her treasures: the vase her grandmother had brought from Russia, the silver candelabra from a great aunt, a silver kiddush cup that had belonged to her great-grandfather, a rabbi in Vilna. For a moment Max couldn’t breathe. He did not have a single remnant from his childhood home. And when Ruth showed them what she called her “rogues’ gallery,” sepia photos of family framed and hung along a corridor, it reminded Max that he had no pictures of his parents or two brothers, Schmer’le and Simcha, and two sisters, Mind’le and Hannah. He had no class pictures, or photos of his friends, or his old house. He didn’t even have a photograph of himself from before 1946, which is when, at age thirty-three, he went to a photographer’s studio in Lublin to get a passport photo for his immigration application to the United States.
There was a time, a long time before, when he and Marisha first came to New York, that he had looked at the mirror and wondered what he had looked like as a child. He couldn’t remember. He scrutinized his features, trying to imagine how they might have looked on a child’s face. He looked at the deep-set hazel eyes, the long thin face, the pointed nose, the narrow lips, but the image remained elusive. There were no relatives he could ask. Even the image of his son, Moshe, who was five years old when he was killed, began to disintegrate in his memory. The yingele was blond, but what color were his eyes?
“Max, you want to go across the street get a cup of coffee?”
Max liked Leon. Leon was a gambler who frequented the dog races, horse races, Jai Alai. He was energetic, even restless, but he smiled often and didn’t gossip, so he was all right.
“Sure, why not?”
He ordered a cup of black coffee.
Leon ordered black coffee with no sugar (“Black, no”) and a bagel with cream cheese (“Bagel, schmeer”).
In New York, Leon had had a luncheonette and liked to talk shop with the Greek owner.
“So, what do you say, Max? How about that Dolphins game last night?”
Dolphins, shmolphins, silly those Americans. They are not serious people, Max thought. At times he envied their lightness of being. At other times, even among Jews, he felt like a bird in the nest of another species.
“I’m a greener, Leon, I don’t follow football too much.”
He noticed Leon’s face clouding over. Max took a cracker from the table, tore off the plastic and fed his dog. Leon’s dog started sniffing and wagging his tail, so Max gave him a piece too.
“How did an ugly guy like you land a great-looking lady like Marisha?” Leon asked, his face wide with a smile, pleased with his joke.
“I had lots of money in those days,” said Max, even though it wasn’t true. He never had lots of money.
“C’mon Max, the real story.”
Max knew he could never tell him the real story. He never talked about these things.
“You know how it is with women,” he said. “She grabbed me with sex and before I knew it, I was married.”
“Did you meet her back in Poland?”
Max knew that Leon was fishing. Even though it had been many decades since the war, people never stopped being curious about the number on Max’s forearm, even those who tried to pretend they didn’t see it.
“Did you meet her before the war or after?”
“Where were you during the war, Max?”
“I survived, Leon, that’s the important thing. What can I tell you that you haven’t already heard? They show so much about it on television.”
“You say ‘I survived’ like it was nothing, like getting a tooth pulled or fixing a flat tire.”
Max lapsed into silence, then said: “It was nothing more than a matter of luck, a split-second here or there, it had nothing to do with me.”
“That’s not what the stats say, Max. The odds of your survival were the longest shot on earth. As a Jew in Poland you beat the odds almost 100 to one. That’s like Clemente’s 485 feet home run that even the great Koufax couldn’t stop, or like hitting the biggest jackpot in Vegas history with the coins jingling forever and ever. What am I talking about? What you did is more amazing by far.”
Max had never thought of it like that.
He had never wondered if the life he had lived was in proportion to the miracle of his survival. He would leave no footnote in the human archive. His greatest achievement was surviving and having Jewish grandchildren.
“Look Leon, the important thing is that for some reason I survived, and I have a daughter and she has two children and that’s all that I can do to stick it to Hitler.”
That shut Leon up. He drank his coffee and ate his bagel.
“Sometimes I wish Marisha wasn’t such a beautiful woman,” he said to Leon, to head him off from asking any more questions about the war.
Leon waited for Max to continue.
“Pretty women think they have got everything coming to them,” said Max. “Like yesterday, I went to the supermarket and bought some toilet paper. I didn’t notice the color. Who cares about the color? Anyway, I came home and Marisha took one look at the toilet paper and said I have to go back and exchange it. It clashes with the wallpaper in the bathroom. Can you believe it? She wanted beige.”
Leon shook his head in sympathy.
“Well, your wife is such an artistic woman.”
Max thought about Marisha. She was still beautiful. Her breasts were still perfect and didn’t droop. Her stomach was flabby from carrying their daughter and from two miscarriages, but with a girdle her figure looked fine. She had a sexy way of walking and good cheekbones. Her skin remained smooth and two years earlier she had gone to a plastic surgeon to do her eyes. Max had told his daughter, “She wants to look good for when I die so she can catch another husband.”
Years ago, when they were still young, Max had followed his wife to a hotel on 34th and Lexington where she met a man, someone they both knew from Lublin. Max didn’t confront Marisha but resolved he would make her pay with silence.
She had taken to calling him “the monk” or sometimes ‘the Sufi” when talking to her friends. She had many and was constantly on the phone. He listened to her conversations which were mostly in Polish, and learned about her life, her interests, her plans, since they never spoke other than short sentences about daily arrangements. He had once overheard a conversation when her friend came to visit.
“Why did you marry him?” the friend asked.
“It was after the war and I thought there were no more Jewish men left in the world. Max was from my town, although before the war I would never have married him, or probably even met him. His father was a lumber merchant, my father was a doctor. We had a telephone in the house; he didn’t have indoor plumbing. But the fact that he was from the same town was reason enough. By the time I found out there were plenty of Jewish men in America, I was already pregnant with Helen. In truth, he was also very handsome.”
When he came into the room, Marisha and her friend lapsed into silence. That happened often. He found solace in the silence. It was one of the rare moments when he felt close to Marisha, in those moments of awkward silence when there were other people around.
“Let me tell you about women,” he said to Leon, leaning across the table to get closer.
“King Solomon, the wisest of all men, went to one of his courtiers and told him, “I will reward you richly if you kill your wife and bring me her head.’ The man went home and saw his wife with their baby at her breast and he couldn’t do it. Solomon then went to the wife and told her the same thing. She brought the king her husband’s head the very next morning.”
“I never heard that story,” Leon said. “And I don’t believe it.”
“I heard it from my father when I was a boy,” Max said.
They fell into silence for a few minutes drinking the last of their coffee.
As they paid their bill and walked out, Max told Leon about his problem with the palm tree and Leon promised support at the board meeting.
The ladies crossing Ocean Drive with their beach chairs in hand smiled at them. Leon stopped on the median to talk to Irene from 308. Max kept going.
Marisha was in the kitchen scrubbing the oven.
“Max, take out the garbage. It stinks.”
He took the leash off he dog and gathered the garbage into a plastic bag, tying it carefully. His wife’s scrubbing reminded him how upset she was the previous week when she saw bird droppings on the car windshield. They were parked at Aventura Mall. She cursed in Polish and scraped it off with her long, red fingernails, only it turned out to be someone else’s car.
“What’s all this fuss you are making about a palm tree?” she asked in Polish. Max preferred speaking in English although he counted and cursed in Yiddish.
“Go, sit on the balcony and you’ll see.”
That evening the board voted against cutting the palm tree or any of its branches.
Max went back up to the apartment and watched a rerun of Colombo and then the news. Instead of reading a book or talking on the phone, Marisha sat on the couch beside him. After the news, he put on his pajamas, rubbed Ben-Gay on his shoulder and his leg, and went to sleep.
Something woke him up in the middle of the night, perhaps a dream, a sound. He got up slowly so as not to move the mattress and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. Through the window he could see a glimmer of moonlight reflected in the water of the pool and the canal. He slowly opened the sliding glass door, first carefully pulling up the vertical blinds that Marisha closed every afternoon to keep the sun from fading the furniture. It was cool on the balcony. The fake grass floor covering felt rough under his bare feet. A gentle breeze, surprisingly cool, caressed his face and he could hear the water streaming into the pool and a slight rustle of trees. A nocturnal bird sang and somewhere a dog barked.
This place is my third exile, he thought, standing on the balcony, holding the railing with both hands, my third and last. Here I will die.
He looked at the full moon and calculated that since it was just before Hanukkah, it must the middle of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. It was a habit from the camps where he wished he had the power of Joshua to make walls tumble down, to make the sun and moon stand still. Years later when he had chanced to reread that passage, he noticed that in Hebrew it wasn’t “Stand thou still” that Joshua had said to the sun, but rather, “Be silent.”
Max looked from the moon to the offending palm tree, its fronds outlined against the night in a menacing silhouette.
“Max, what’s the matter? What are you doing up?”
Marisha must have heard him sliding the doors open.
“I’m going to the storage room to get a ladder and I’m going to go down and cut off those branches,” he said.
“Are you meshugena? In your pajamas?”
He didn’t answer.
“What about the association?”
“The hell with the association.”
“Wait a minute, let me put on a robe. I’ll come with you.”
“I’m coming anyway. Climbing ladders in the middle of the night…” And she went off to put on her robe.
There was no one in the lobby. They walked down the terrazzo-covered path to the pool, Max carrying the light aluminum ladder and the largest kitchen knife he could find. He placed the ladder next to the tree and Marisha held it to keep it steady. He had no trouble climbing. Once at the top, he felt confused and wasn’t sure which two fronds needed to be hacked off. He looked back to his balcony and tried to gauge it, made a calculated guess, and started cutting patiently, relentlessly, until with a soft swish, the branches tumbled one after the other. He climbed down, picked them up, walked to the stone railing and tossed them into the canal. He could just barely make out the dark shapes in the water as they floated away in a low whisper.
He put the ladder back in the storage room, and he and Marisha took the elevator back up to the apartment.
“I’ll make a glass of tea,” Marisha said.
He sat by the table with his back to the kitchen and waited. She made the tea and sat across from him. The apartment was dark except for the kitchen light which reflected on her face, accenting the lines and deepening the shadows under her eyes. Her night cream had not absorbed into her skin and parts of her face were luminous.
“I wish things could have been different with us,” she said in a soft voice, looking down at her tea.
When he didn’t answer, she looked up at him and said, “I don’t know why you are punishing me all these years.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“If we could just stop being enemies,” she said.
The next morning was another perfect Florida morning: balmy, flooded with light. Max made his breakfast, read the paper, and went out to sit on the balcony. He had made the right choice the previous night. His view of the canal, the boats and the flat horizon beyond was unobstructed. He took a deep breath. When Marisha padded into the kitchen to make her breakfast, Max resolved that he would talk to her, be kinder.
He was more talkative that day, but the habit of silence was difficult to break.
Wednesday was Marisha’s day to water her plants. She had carried a philodendron on the plane from New York and over the years had rooted cuttings until there were new plants all over the house. Max helped her move a large ficus plant closer to a window and later, when he went out to the drugstore, he asked her if she needed anything.
All day he waited for someone to notice that the palm tree branches had been cut, but no one did.