By Beth Adelman
Alarmed at seeing the chubby new congregant in his pew for the second time, Max Arnold sat instead in the last row on the men’s section of a small Manhattan synagogue. Although it was a freezing cold morning, Max saw that the men near him were dressed as usual in suits and ties, and he felt he might have been wrong to wear a knit vest and thick trousers. The men were of the same medium height as Max, who was sixty-two, yet he saw himself as smaller than they were.
However, after opening the prayer book, Max became absorbed in anticipation. He looked around at the familiar dark-paneled walls and up at the blue ceiling of the sanctuary.
Last Saturday, the chubby man in Max’s pew had sung the Etz Chaim or “Tree of Life” with such emotion, it sounded as if he were imploring God on Yom Kippur. At the end of the song, the chubby man’s deep voice rose in an unexpected harmony on the last four triplets. He thrilled Max with a final sob. After the song was over, congregants glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.
Yet the man’s singing had moved Max deeply. During the following week, he heard that imploring voice in his mind. In the mornings, as he walked to work from his apartment on 49th Street to 31st Street, he kept those harmonies close. “V’nashuva k’kedem”—return us to our days of old. The memory of so much feeling came to him when he looked up from his ledger books at Juno Real Estate Company and it made him happy, as if he were someplace wonderful.
On Wednesday evening, Max was in his living room, about to practice the harmony so that he could sing on Shabbos too, when sirens stopped short front of his building. Frightened, he looked out his window. An ambulance was double-parked in the street and two emergency technicians were running into his building.
Because he had no rugs on his parquet floors and no curtains, Max could hear the technicians giving orders in the apartment below. He heard his downstairs neighbor shout in despair. A door shut. Max looked out the window again. It was night. Cars were parked bumper-to-bumper along the curb, and the double-parked ambulance stood quietly waiting. In the park across the street, the white snow around the base of the street lamps shone brightly under the light. Then someone strapped to a stretcher was carried out of the building, followed by Max’s downstairs neighbor.
While the stretcher was loaded into the ambulance, the neighbor gestured to a younger man who had come outside in his shirtsleeves. No, no, the neighbor’s hands gestured. The sirens cried out as the ambulance drove away, leaving the younger man behind.
Max went into his kitchen to dry his dinner plate and put it away with his heart pounding. He opened the refrigerator without thinking and saw that there could be a better arrangement of the fruit. He stooped to the middle shelf. “Orange,” he said, as he moved the orange to the right of the shelf, but he could still hear sirens. His voice shook as he said, “Grapefruit.” He said, “Blueberries out-of-season,” and listened.
The sirens gone, he returned to the living room. With his back to the window, he sang the Etz Hayim, not like the chubby man in shul, but with his own feeling, to try to calm his fears of sirens, flashing lights, and uniformed men.
In the synagogue, after the Torah reading ended, the scroll was lifted up to show it to the congregation and then laid on a chair. The Torah crowns jingled as two men dressed it. The rabbi held the Torah and, with his entourage, began a procession around the sanctuary. The rabbi started singing the Etz Hayim, and the men and women of the congregation sang in unison.
The song began hushed as a lullaby, with a repetition of the first two lines. Then it ascended by a fourth to a stronger mood. Max gripped the top of the pew in front of him for support. The broad-shouldered man to his left swayed from side to side. Men shuffled to the aisles so that they could touch their prayer books or the fringes of their prayer shawls to the Torah, and the chubby man sang. Astonished again by that powerful voice, Max didn’t open his mouth. After the rabbi completed his circuit through the aisles, he mounted the bima with the Torah.
Still singing, the rabbi placed the Torah in the ark and stood to one side. The congregation and the chubby man paused, as if the melody had come to a bend in a winding road.
Then the song continued, and the chubby man’s sure voice soared over the voices of congregation, harmonizing on the first triplet.
The door behind Max was opened to the lobby, letting in cool air. “Ch-ah-desh.” He gathered his strength and whispered the harmony while the congregation sang.
Did he dare? The fourth triplet was his last chance. Why should he hold back? He had feelings too! He shut his eyes. “K’kedem.” Our days of old.
The song was finished.More shuffling signaled that the congregation was sitting down for the rabbi’s sermon. Drained, Max was the only man standing.
The broad-shouldered man next to Max plucked his shirtsleeve to remind him to sit. After Max was seated, the man whispered, “Good for you! That guy thinks he’s in the Metropolitan Opera.”
On the bima, the rabbi stepped forward to the lectern, rested his hands there, and said, “My friends.”
There was no harm, Max reflected. The thought that his whispered harmony had been all right occupied him, throughout the rabbi’s sermon and the prayers that followed.
After services, Max entered the crowded men’s cloakroom off the lobby. A tall man shouted at a shorter man who was having difficulty unwinding his scarf from a hanger.
“How was Poland?”
Poland! Max stepped back. He bumped into someone, apologized, and wondered, Could you go back to the land of the dead?
“Don’t shout,” said the short man.
Max stood still.
“How was our Poland?” insisted the first man.
The man who had gone back to Poland got his scarf off the hanger and began to wrap it around his neck. Both men moved aside, leaving a space for Max at the coat rack. Very quietly, Max took his coat from the hanger so that he could hear the answer.
“I walked on the old streets.”
“They’re letting Jews back now? They need the tourist money, huh?”
One of the synagogue officials stepped into the cloakroom to remind the men about a special kiddish. The two men who had been talking sighed as if they really wanted to leave, but hung up their coats again.
“What about him?” The one who had returned from Poland nodded at Max, who was buttoning up his coat.
“He don’t socialize,” answered the other, and they left.
As Max walked home, he turned over in his mind the conversation in the cloakroom. “I walked the old streets.” Where? What streets? What town? Was anyone still alive?
When he reached his street, instead of going into his apartment building, Max turned into the small park opposite. He stepped across last week’s icy packed snow behind the benches. Standing next to a tall tree, Max watched the street to see if anyone was coming. It was very cold and the street was empty. Max laid a gloved hand on the tree trunk and felt the striations in the bark through his glove. He pressed his hand flat against the tree. The tree was a comfort to him.
In the Polish forest of 1942, there were other people on his side. It made life bearable to know that, even though they were being hunted by the Germans, he had compatriots.
He had been in New York since 1950, for twenty-seven years. Who was on his side here? Was he on anyone’s side? He knew the dreadful answers.
After he entered his apartment and put away his coat and boots, he stood still in the foyer. He felt perplexed and didn’t know what to do, so he made lunch.
After eating, Max sat down on the brown corduroy armchair in the living room, which was sparsely furnished: to the right of the chair stood a tarnished brass floor lamp; on the left was a small bookcase filled with worn volumes in Yiddish and in English. On a low wooden table in front of the armchair were a large old radio and a black desk telephone. The only colors in the room were the red and yellow stripes of a folded woolen blanket on the wooden table. He wished he had curtains. He didn’t know how to put up a curtain rod, or even if it was allowed. Max pictured to himself how cozy the room would be with brown velvet curtains. They would warm the room and block out the February sky and the bare branches of the tallest trees in the park.
Years ago, he used to socialize. A woman in the New York Hebrew Immigrant agency liked him, and they went for walks.
There were certain things he could not do. He refused to take the subway and wouldn’t explain why.
“Is it the smell?” she wanted to know. He shook his head. He didn’t know what the subway smelled like since he had never gone into it. “The closeness of people?” He shook his head. He could not say that he didn’t want to go “underground.” His apprehension about the subway was something he couldn’t put into words. She finally gave up on him. Goodbye, dear, he thought. He couldn’t help what had happened. He told himself that without her he would have fewer explanations to make.
In New York, there had been people who looked at his forearm to see if he’d been tattooed at a concentration camp. When they saw that he had no numbers, they’d look up at him with less interest. The Germans had other ways to torture you, Max thought at those moments when he saw someone’s eagerness to pity him subside. But he didn’t say it. He didn’t explain how he’d spent part of the war in forest tunnels, or what the post-war years were like, or how he took a chance in 1950 and came to New York.
He avoided other refugees at the shul. He didn’t understand his own experiences and felt that they didn’t understand theirs. He would rather sit in shul behind the big, healthy American men who had no experience of Europe.
In his living room, there were long hissing sounds as the heat came up in the radiator. Tucked into his blanket, Max fell into the Sabbath nap that his family used to look forward to, in that incalculable time long ago. He slept peacefully for a few hours.
It was twilight when the telephone rang. Max opened his eyes, saw there was still light in the sky, and waited for the phone to stop by itself.
He watched the sky beyond his windows darken until he was sure that he could turn on a light, and then got up. As soon as he went into the kitchen, the phone rang again.
Two phone calls in one day? Max wondered.
The phone shouted: B-b-bring! B-b-bring! He had been unconsciously counting the rings. On the fourth one, Max decided to find out what it was about. Throughout this event, the tone of the ring seemed to change. The rings first sounded urgent, then excited, and now, at the eleventh ring, triumphant.
He picked up the receiver and heard breathing.
“It’s,” said a woman.
“It’s who!” Max demanded.
“Never mind who I am!” The words astounded him. “Who are you?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Is this Max Arnold from Sochaczew?”
“Your name, please?”
“I know no one surnamed Kron,” Max said.
“I don’t know you either, but I heard plenty. If you are Max Arnold from Sochaczew?”
“I am he.”
“Your Aunt Malka from the Bronx is dead and left you something. Malka, Malka Arnowicz. I guess she didn’t change her name to Arnold.” The voice cackled. “I took care of her, and then she died, and she left you a present. We have to meet.”
“How do I know—" Max asked, but she cut him off before he could say, “that you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t know. Who knows anything? I thought I knew something – but I was wrong. Come tomorrow.”
“Why should I?” he asked.
“Oy, Gott in himmel! He’s a stubborn one. Someone’s at the door.” She hung up, and Max sat down in his armchair again.
Although he didn’t have a television and listened only to classical music on the radio, Max had seen the tabloid headlines. A killer was roaming New York City and the police were looking for him, but in the meantime the killings continued. What if the killer was using Henriette to lure him to a meeting where he’d be robbed and killed? Yet how would the killer know that Malka Arnowicz was his aunt? It didn’t make sense. On the other hand, the killer had a Jewish name: “Son of Sam”. Maybe it was a Gentile trying to give Jews a bad name by calling himself “Sam”?
These ideas troubled him as he heated up his soup. Before going to bed that night, he put his shoes at an angle by the door to trip whomever might be able to break through the double locks. He turned on his kitchen radio and the lights in the hallway, the bathroom, the coat closet, and the living room, to make it seem as if a whole crowd was staying awake in his apartment. Barricaded in, Max spent the night in an uneasy sleep.
On Sunday morning the phone woke him at a quarter to eight. Max did not want to talk and was relieved when the ringing stopped. It rang three more times over the next hour. The peace of an early Sunday morning on a Manhattan side street made the phone seem louder than it had last night. Each time the phone rang, Max felt that Henriette was accusing him: “I know you’re there!”
Finally, when it rang at nine o’clock, Max answered it.
“With a present from a dead relative, you have to know why we should meet?” Henriette shouted.
To get her to lower her voice, Max whispered, “Why so loud?”
“She never saw you in New York, but she left you something anyway. Blood ties,” Henriette continued at the same volume.
“What should I do?” Max made himself speak a little louder than usual.
“You have to come to her apartment in the Bronx. I’m supposed to make sure you’re the Max Arnold she means. I don’t know who else you could be, but she wants you to come here since you never did while she was alive. Nu? I don’t know what she left for you, Mister, but it’s heavy. I shouldn’t say if it rattles or not.”
“Why does it rattle?” Max asked. He imagined going to the apartment and finding this Henriette and the killer laughing when he opened the box that contained his own murder weapon.
“She said I gotta watch you when you look in the box and then, if you say what she says you’ll say, if you say what she wrote down for me, then you’re the real Max Arnold. It’s to tell the truth —like the TV show!”
Henriette talked. Sitting in the armchair in his robe, Max rocked back and forth as if he were praying.
“Oy! Hello?” Henriette said.
“Why can’t you bring it to me?”
“Why?” she mocked. “Because it’s heavy and I’m not a moving company.”
He didn’t know how to answer jokes and let it pass.
“Did you write a letter to Malka where you said you wouldn’t come visit her because you don’t take the subway?”
“Yes,” Max said, unhappy that this loud woman knew this about him.
“You’re a working man, you got money. Take a taxi here.”
Max pulled his bathrobe closer around him. The only way to get rid of her was to agree. After he set a date for Tuesday evening, she demanded his office phone number, and he gave in.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” she was saying. As he hung up, he heard her say, “You gonna say what she said you would say?”
He knew he had no defenses against this woman. After sitting in the chair for some time, unable to think, Max reminded himself to follow his regular Sunday routine, starting with the laundry. The routine would calm him. He bundled his sheets into a laundry basket, and thought of a new problem: What if the cab driver he hailed refused to go to the Bronx? Max had heard of the Bronx as a place where desperate men who took drugs burnt down entire apartment buildings, or if the buildings on their block were already rubble, they held up strangers at gunpoint. He wished he had someone to tell, “I’m going to the Bronx on Tuesday evening, and if I’m not back by seven o’clock, come and look for me at 1221 College Avenue.” Yet there was no one to tell.
In his narrow, white-walled kitchenette, Max poured himself a bowl of cold cereal and sat down at the small table. Hoping to hear the comforting music of Mozart or a Baroque composer, he turned on the radio. Dum-dum-dum-dah! To Max, the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounded a warning against going to the Bronx, and he turned off the radio.
In the basement laundry room, Max started a washing machine. There was nothing in the Bronx but tenements, muggers, and a zoo full of captive animals, he thought. The animals had been hunted and brought to where they did not want to be—like the Jews. He would never go to a zoo. On the other hand, thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, including Jewish people, lived in the Bronx. Yet the word Bronx felt threatening.
In his apartment, Max washed his underwear in the bathroom sink rather than expose such intimate things to strangers in the laundry room. He spread the clean, wet underwear on a wooden rack he set up by the bedroom radiator. Each time he went between the bedroom and
the bathroom, he glanced at the telephone on the living room table to see if it was going to ring. It did not. The bedroom took on its Sunday smell of dampness.
Although it had been quiet, after lunch Max decided to go for a walk to escape the reach of the telephone. He stepped out of his even elevator in the lobby at the same time that two people were getting off the odd elevator. It was his downstairs neighbor, a distinguished-looking man in topcoat and trim white goatee. Max and this man had occasionally exchanged greetings in Yiddish at the mailboxes in the lobby.
The neighbor was arm in arm with a young man whose black ponytail was draped over the shoulder of his green parka. The pair stood in front of Max, and after the neighbor introduced his son Barry, he said, “Barry was visiting when my wife fell, so now he’s helping me while she’s in the hospital. He’s doing the cooking—all kosher, too—a young guy like him!”
“You like my cooking, right?” The young man looked at his father with happiness.
“As long as you follow your mother’s recipes, I do,” said his father. “And when his girlfriend comes back from Paris”—he let go of his son and looked at Max—“he’s going to cook a kugel for her like you wouldn’t believe!”
“Dad, calm down.”
“You’ll come over and have some too—my wife’s recipe,” the father said loudly, as if he were about to cry.
“Mr. Arnold probably wants to go outside.”
Max would have liked to have kugel, and thought he might say so, when Barry spoke again. “We’re going to visit Mom.” Barry took his father’s arm. Max bent his head and stepped aside to let the pair out. As the door closed, he watched them turn north, to the right. He had meant to go in that direction but, to avoid bumping into them again, he went south. As he walked, he wished that he had told them that he had to go to the Bronx on Tuesday, but what would they do? They had their own worries.
After walking several blocks in midtown, Max turned and headed north. At 70th Street, he stopped in front of a radio store whose gates were closed across the storefront. If the store were open, he would have gone in to buy a radio
for to put in his bedroom so that he could hear a voice when he woke up.
“Hey!” a loud male voice called to him. Max looked towards the next corner. The chubby man from shul was walking fast towards him. He wore a black leather jacket and jeans—clothes that shocked Max—and when he came closer, Max saw that he had a short, wide face, and that his dark eyes moved from side to side to take in everything about Max.
“I know you!” said the man. “You were sitting next to me last week in shul. Were you there yesterday?” The man was a little short of breath from hurrying to Max. Max nodded yes.
“Let’s have tea—or coffee?” He took Max’s arm and directed him into a small coffee shop next to the radio store without waiting for an answer.
The chubby man chose a booth and then struggled to get into the tight seat. Max, thin and nimble, easily got into the opposite seat.
“I’m in books,” announced the chubby man. Max tilted his head at the man, as if to ask, Why so loud? The chubby man pointed with both index fingers at his ears. At first, Max thought he was admitting that he was crazy. When Max didn’t respond, the chubby man told Max that he was hard of hearing.
“I’m a bookkeeper,” Max answered in his normal voice.
“You’re in books, too?” the man shouted.
Raising his voice, Max explained that he was the bookkeeper for Juno Real Estate. The man laughed. “You’re working for a pagan god,” he said. Max, being unfamiliar with pagan gods, shrugged.
They ordered tea and introduced themselves, Max and Herman. Herman told Max that he published self-help books. Max asked for an explanation of this type of book.
“A lot of people want to explore their potential, save their marriage.”
“A book tells them how to do that?” said Max. He’d read Peretz, Grade, and Sholem Aleichem for stories about the people from his native country, not to improve himself. The idea was new to him.
“Maybe. You have to want to change.”
Max was embarrassed by their loud conversation, which the waiter behind the counter could hear.
He was ashamed of books that told people how to change themselves.
“We sell lots of books. Mostly women buy them. They’re the ones who want to save their marriages. You married? Ever married?”
Max hesitated. He wanted in a sly way, to puncture this man’s belief in self-help, which he found silly.
“Thinking about it?” said the publisher.
The waiter splashed their cups of tea down on the table, and the chubby man ripped open three sugar packets and poured them, one at a time, into his cup.
“Almost,” Max said in a low voice, but he looked directly at the publisher, so that if he couldn’t hear, the man could read his lips.
“Ah! She got away?” Herman stirred his tea, put down the spoon and leaned forward, resting his chin in his chubby hands, as if he were about to hear a story.
“Is it self-help to sing the way you do?” Max turned the conversation away from himself.
“Wait a minute. Aren’t you going to tell me about the almost-marriage?” the publisher said.
“Who, what, where? What’s her name?”
Max shook his head. He could not say Raisele’s name. He couldn’t say that in September 1939, when his fiancée was about to cross from the synagogue side of the street to the opposite side where he was standing, there was a tremendous explosion. The synagogue was smashed, flames rose, and cinders floated in the air. He never found his Raisele.
Under pressure from Herman, Max said that he had been in Poland during the war.
“All right. Then I’ll have to tell you my story.” The publisher put down his cup. “It’s probably not as good as yours, but here goes. I wanted to become a cantor but my father was a red”. He lowered his voice when he said “red”. Max knew what that meant, and nodded for Herman to go on. “My mother encouraged me to have a bar mitzvah, but my father wouldn’t go. Under those circumstances, I didn’t have the right preparation.” He smiled wryly at his misfortune.
“So you sing on Shabbos?”
“Yes, it’s good for me to sing like that,” said the publisher. “The only place I can sing is in shul.” He smiled at his irrepressibility. “When I sing, I gotta let it all out.”
Max gestured to the waiter, who poured more hot water in his cup instead of handing him the bill, as he wanted.
The publisher of self-help books looked aside at the counter with its glass case of frosted pastries and then back to Max. “Imagine, if you’d got married instead of living through a war, you’d have grown children now.”
The suggestion that he might have been a father seemed fantastic to Max.
“If there hadn’t been a war,” said the publisher, who had put three dollars on the table and was now struggling to get out of the booth. “But that was a long time ago, Max. You should move on. Didn’t you find a girlfriend when you came to New York?”
Max stood up and put on his coat, and the image of Raisy’s sweet face came to him. Yes, he had once had a girlfriend in New York. But he finally came to believe that better than a girlfriend was the routine he had developed over the years. He’d wanted to avoid shocks or surprises. Max thought that the publisher, who seemed to like disturbances, was certain to argue with him about this, so he kept the girlfriend to himself.
Outside, the two men faced each other on the sidewalk. Max decided that there was something he could tell the publisher. “I have to go to the Bronx on Tuesday evening.”
The publisher raised his dark eyebrows. “How you getting there?”
“By taxi.” Max watched for his reaction. Maybe the publisher would offer to go with him.
“There’s good and bad in the Bronx, like everywhere. Taxi, hmm,” Herman said, and paused to think. “How’re you getting back? If I was you, I’d pay the cabdriver extra to wait, if you’re not gonna be long. You don’t want to walk around looking for a cab there. Probably won’t be any. Yeah, pay the guy to wait for you, that’s the best thing. Till next week!”
The publisher waved goodbye and headed north, while Max turned south to go back home, thinking over this advice. It was good that he had mentioned the Bronx. If he planned for the taxi ride home, there would be one. He imagined leaving Malka’s apartment and running out to a warm cab waiting for him. He was grateful to the publisher for this advice.
Walking south against a cold wind, Max passed a large supermarket whose windows were papered over with red hearts for Valentine’s Day. There were enormous photos of chocolates nestled in paper cups in a box, and boxes of strawberries. Because the store lights were on, although it was a Sunday, Max went in to warm up and look around.
He visited the produce aisle to enjoy the shapes and colors of oranges, grapefruits, apples, and the raspberries out of season, which he decided against, since he already had blueberries. After a few minutes of pretending to choose an orange, he felt that he should find something to buy. Walking towards the bins of onions and garlic, which didn’t attract him as much as the fruit, he noticed a table spread with plants arranged like a school group in size order. The first row was small ivies; behind them, plants with shiny green-and-white leaves; and behind these, taller green plants that stood up very straight. Thinking that he should buy something to pay the store for its respite of warmth, Max looked at the rows of plants. He had never had any living thing in his apartment—no parakeet, like one of his neighbors, or a cat. A plant could be something to look at and take care of.
Max picked up a plant at the back of the table. Its tall, dark leaves were edged in a lighter yellowish color. Yes, in his mind’s eye, he saw it on one of the living room windowsills where, being green, it would make a contrast to the winter weather.
He told the girl at the register, “It’s cold outside,” as he put the plant in a second bag to keep it warm on the way home. On the street, he held it close against his chest.
It was too late to go back to the store, but he would get another plant next weekend. In the meantime, he would take good care of this one. Did it need water? Max put his finger into the soil: cracked and dry as dust. Oh, those supermarkets, he thought as he ran to get a cup of water from the bathroom. As he poured water into the plant, he thought again, those supermarkets! He had nothing against them: he liked large, well-lit stores with bins of fresh fruit and aisles of colorful, packaged food, but they neglected their plants.
He touched the leaves of the plant and found a little dust on his finger. He wiped each of the thick green leaves with a tissue and examined the plant’s dark vertical lines.
If the plant could talk, he wondered, what would it tell him? He raised his eyebrows at this thought, which was unusual for him. No, it would be a quiet listener. That idea cheered him.
Outside, the sky was getting dark. While his dinner was cooking, he returned to the plant. The air by the window behind the plant was chilly: he couldn’t let the plant freeze all night long. He pulled several sheets from a roll of paper towels and pressed them against the window to absorb the cold.
Here was a simple living thing that asked for nothing.
Max poured another quarter-cup of water into the plant and leaned over it. The plant smelled like damp soil and the beginning of new life. There was a faint gurgle. The water he had poured into it was going down, deeper, into the roots. He was touched by the plant’s small sound.
He put both hands around the pot and bent over it. Choking up with tenderness, Max spoke softly to the plant.