The Night Light
By Jane Salodof MacNeil
Isaac heard laughter and then his name. His granddaughter Ellen and her husband Steve were entertaining friends in the living room of their high-rise apartment.
“…And then there was the time we were talking about Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal.‘I didn’t know you played bridge,’ he says. I tried to explain that Trump meant business deals. ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘The Trump is short for trumpenick.’”
A pause. Steve wasn’t getting his laugh.
“Trumpenick,” Isaac heard him explain the punch line. “It’s a Yiddish word for bum.”
“So the old man is wiser than you thought,” someone said.
“He's not so old.” That was Ellen’s voice. “It just seems that way because he never was young.”
Isaac smiled. He didn't mind Steve making fun of him. Accountants don’t have much to joke about, and this one was good to Ellen. He didn’t object—Isaac would be the first to say Steve had every right—when she got this grand idea that Isaac must live with them and Avi in their apartment high above the Hudson.Isaac was going to check on the child now.
Avi was his last, perhaps his only, joy in life. Yet every night Isaac muttered to himself as he entered his great-grandson’s bedroom. Sure, Avi picked the night light himself. But Ellen ought to have known better. A Tyrannosaurus Rex! No child halfway between sleep and wonder should be trapped by its fierce red eyes, razor claws, spiked tail, grinning lines of gruesome teeth. And certainly not this beautiful child, his long brown eyelashes splayed like the crown on the Statue of Liberty. Isaac reached down and turned the sleeping four-year-old on his side, away from the troubling light fixture.
“The ball, the ball, throw me the ball,” Avi murmured without waking.
Gently, Isaac pulled the sheet over the boy’s shoulders. He did this every night. A mother should be glad to have an extra pair of eyes looking over her child, he thought. But Ellen did not accept her grandfather’s vigils as a harmless precaution. “Let the past be past,” she would have said, gently but firmly, if she had seen him now.
Turning around,Isaac spied a rubber band that Avi had dropped on the floor. He picked it up and walked out, closing the bedroom door without making a sound. Isaac heard more laughter from the living room as he walked back to the pink bedroom, the one Ellen had been saving for the next child. Without turning on a light, he walked to his bureau and opened the top drawer. His fingers found one of the balls of rubber bands that he kept between a neatly folded woolen cloth and more balls made from scraps of string. “We can afford rubber bands,” Steve would say with a bemused smile, if he could see Isaac adding to his trove. Ellen’s husband had never known need. There was no way to explain, and maybe he was better off not understanding.
After closing the drawer, Isaac continued on to the window, passing the old family portrait on the wall, the only sign that he lived here now. Outside he saw a black void, the river that Steve paid extra to look down on—even without the view, the co-op apartment would have been expensive to Isaac who had worked in a coat factory for most of his life. Across the abyss, a flashing red light moved up the West Side Highway. Was someone being chased? Isaac closed the vertical blinds and tried to dream of his old neighborhood before Reba died.
With its wealth constantly on display, Fort Lee seemed a world apart from what he had known. Today a man wearing cowboy boots, pinky rings and a mezuzah on a gold chain rode up the elevator with him. Yesterday, in the street Avi was almost run over by a redheaded harridan, who lived in the penthouse of Ellen’s building and steered a white Mercedes with the balls of her fingers. “She probably didn’t want to ruin her nails,” Ellen said nonchalantly, when Isaac told her what had happened. He wondered whether her neighbors really were Jews.
They seemed as foreign as the Japanese businessmen who settled their families in the town while on assignment in the United States. According to Steve, a Tokyo newspaper once reported that members of the Mafia had homes near Palisades Avenue. The gangsters, it was written, would not tolerate street crime where they lived. So, the businessmen thought Fort Lee would be safe for their families, too. That turned out to be true, and more Japanese families came.
Ellen was skeptical, but Steve’s newspaper explanation made sense to Isaac. The only holy words he heard on the street were spoken by giggling Japanese ladies who talked to their babies like little gods. “Adonai, Jun,” he heard them chide the naughty ones. “Adonai, Tomahiko.” “Adonai, Yoko.” He guessed they were saying, “Don’t do that” in their language, but he heard Hebrew words. The sound was gentler than he remembered, the plea less desperate than in his dreams. “Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai” the Jews called out to God. Isaac was so young when he first heard the holy words, he hadn’t known their meaning, only that they were a form of address, like Mister or Miss, for the Holy One. He could not ask the Japanese ladies what they were saying because they did not understand him.
“Bad night, Zeyde? Have some coffee. I just ground the Andes blend that you like.”
Ellen’s serenity startled Isaac on such mornings. Without makeup, before styling her hair, she was appealing in a plain sort of way. Would he have been so ordinary if he had not grown up in the streets, in the sewers, in the woods . . . anywhere he could hide until he was finally caught? The war was almost over then, and he escaped in the confusion when the Allies came, only to hide nearby for more than a week, watching, waiting, just to be sure. Finally, he let a soldier give him some food. The soldier seemed kind at first, but then he put Isaac in the back of a truck with two other children. Terrified, Isaac jumped off when it passed through a forest and found his way home.
Strangers were eating supper in his family’s house. Peasants. The father pretended not to know that anyone else had ever lived in the crumbling cottage, but one of the children followed Isaac to the charred ruins of an old stable where he would spend the night. “My mother found these in the trash,” she said, handing him his father’s black and white prayer shawl and a large black and white photograph taken at his oldest sister’s wedding. Lined up in three rows, everyone—a younger Isaac, his parents and grandparents, his six brothers, his three other sisters and the bridal couple—smiled for the camera. Everyone. He understood now. In the morning he wrapped the photograph in the shawl and walked away from the town. He was fourteen and had no idea where to go. Two years passed without purpose in a displaced persons camp. The Zionists offered to smuggle him into Palestine. He was old enough to fight and would have gone if the refugee people hadn't found him a relative, an uncle in America, who agreed to sponsor him.
Fine-boned and gaunt, Isaac was offered work as a model shortly after he arrived in the United States. The uncle, an English-speaking lingerie jobber with whom he could barely communicate, scoffed: “Who are these people who stop a poor immigrant boy on the street to take his picture?” But having no idea what else to do, Isaac gave it a try. He remembers putting on a blue blazer with shiny brass buttons, a captain’s hat and white pants with the sharpest crease he had ever seen. Then someone led him behind a ship’s wheel and told him to pretend he was sailing a yacht. He looked like he belonged at the Americas Cup, they said, carefree and so handsome. He nodded his head as if he knew what they were talking about. But the sides of his lips twitched without a cigarette, and he couldn’t stand still long enough to satisfy the photographer.
Ellen made him quit smoking in the house, for Avi’s sake. It was unhealthy, Isaac thought, her obsession with good health. But it wasn’t just her. Smokers had to sit in the back of the donut shop. A bright red sign introduced fat-free cream cheese (unspeakably tasteless) at the bagel store. At home, he couldn't pour a shot of whiskey without being warned that alcohol could hurt an unborn child he would never carry. Someone had put out the word that life itself was harmful. Who? Isaac wondered. And why? Steve had made fun of his suspicions. “Next you’ll see a plot in the angel hair pasta,” he chided one morning when Isaac refused to use margarine instead of butter. Isaac would not smile. Any marshaling of public will was a dangerous thing, he said.
On Saturday mornings Isaac had a Danish with his coffee. He liked how the sweet icing contrasted with the extra strong brew Ellen made specially for him. “Thank you,” he said, accepting a cup from her.
“Zeyde, I’ll bring your grapefruit juice.”
Avi bolted toward the refrigerator. He didn’t run in a straight line, but stopped every few steps to kick, first left, then right, at imaginary attackers. “Hiiiiiiiiiiii-yaaaahhhhhhhh!”
“No karate at the breakfast table,” Ellen ordered.
“I'm not at the table.”
“He’s only playing, my little high-con-do,” Steve interjected, scooping up the child and swinging him around the dining alcove.
“Daddy! Tai Kwon Do!”
“Ai don' know.”
A bead of sweat ran off Steve’s forehead and into Avi’s mouth. Ellen's husband had been out running. Where or why Isaac couldn't imagine. Past thirty, Steve surely was too old by now to become a track star. He’d always been too short and, even with his daily workouts, too stocky.
All Isaac wanted from life was to go to work, or so Reba, used to complain. He was a cutter, a good cutter in a big coat factory that a friend of his uncle’s had started in Brooklyn. He worked for the man’s son, and then his sons. But now there was no work, not since cheap goods from the Far East had flooded the market and put the factory out of business.
And no Reba. She’d taken a long time to die. Never having had the luxury of seeing anyone in his family grow old and sick, Isaac had been panicked by her illness. They’d met in a cafeteria frequented by refugees. Reba had had an uncle here, too, and no one else. American girls chased Isaac. He was so handsome, and they saw his moods as something they could fix, like a car with a bad carburetor or a radio that burst into static from time to time. But Isaac was afraid not to love this cheerless girl, who also woke up screaming in the night. What would become of her without him? Their uncles were strangers to them both. When Reba died, Isaac was amazed to feel relief, as if he had expected to lose her from the day they’d met. The worst had come again, and again he had survived.
At first their oldest child, Ellen’s mother, visited him once a week with groceries and regrets. She had grown up with his fears and could bear no more of them. Though she continued to phone, her visits became shorter and less frequent as time went on, and Ellen took her place. Isaac understood, but his granddaughter could not bear to see him alone, and a month ago he gave in to her pleas that he move in. She tried to get him to join a seniors’ club his first week in Fort Lee. He went once and realized he had nothing to say to anyone there. Steve tried to get him to go to the Jewish Community Center on the High Holidays, but Isaac had no idea what to do there. He’d been too young to learn, he explained. On good days he would take a long walk and watch over the children in the playground at Constitution Park. Bad days, he would stay home and watch old movies on the American Movie Channel.
Today promised to be a good day. He walked Avi to the park, tightly clutching the child’s hand as they crossed first busy Lemoine Avenue and later narrow Main Street. The sun was shining, and the trees sparkled in their autumn colors. Only Japanese women sat on the benches. The sweet voices with which they conversed sounded to him like the chirping of little birds freed from their nests. Avi knew their children; he could even pronounce their names. Isaac marveled at the fearlessness of this spirited little American boy careening down the yellow corkscrew slide. Perhaps Ellen was right. The world had changed. Though the Jews of his time had been singled out for misfortune, his descendants were destined for peace and prosperity. His had been a time like no other, and a fate that no others would be forced to endure. Amen. He knew to say “Amen.” After an hour, he called Avi to leave. He had promised Ellen they would be home by noon, and they still had to stop at the cleaners.
Isaac felt oddly at home in the cluttered little shop. It was owned by a Korean family, the elders of whom could barely speak English. Often when Isaac picked up and left off clothes on the same trip, Mr. Kim gave him the same pink slip, merely changing the number of shirts. Isaac thought this was to avoid the ordeal of spelling English names, but Steve said Mr. Kim was cheating on his taxes. No harm done, Isaac reasoned. The man did what he had to do to survive. This was a strange land for him, too. Mr. Kim’s mother always sat at her sewing machine in the corner, under a large poster of an old Jewish tailor who might have lived on the Lower East Side of New York a hundred years ago. A tiny woman, she had a plump round face, and wore bright red lipstick over a mouth that smiled shyly whenever she saw Isaac staring, bemused, at the poster. He knew she thought that the bearded man, with his wire rim glasses falling off his nose, looked a bit like him. Sometimes, he wished he could talk to Mrs. Kim.
As Isaac and Avi neared the store, Avi ran ahead to say hello to an older boy, Jun, who was coming from the opposite direction. Jun ran forward, too, pulling ahead of a Japanese man with gray hair and a military posture that made him seem taller than Isaac, though he was the same height. When the two old men caught up with the two boys, Isaac nodded his head politely and murmured hello. The man bowed stiffly. Jun explained that his grandfather was visiting from Japan and did not speak English—that he, Jun, had come along to tell the cleaner his grandfather wanted starch in his shirts. In an attempt at hospitality, Isaac smiled reassuringly at the visitor and held open the shop door.
Isaac was the last to enter, and he immediately looked toward old Mrs. Kim, expecting her to smile and fuss over Avi, perhaps even pulling out a bright red lollipop for him. Today she wasn’t smiling, however. She was staring hard at Jun’s grandfather, and her hands slowly rose up to cover her lips as they parted in an awful recognition. Slowly she stood up and took a step backward. As she retreated, her eyes widened until they had nowhere else on her face to go. Her voice unnaturally raspy, like an emery board, she whispered to her son in Korean and then made a noise—a long, loud, high-pitched AaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!—that needed no translation.
Now Mr. Kim began shouting at the Japanese man. Isaac wasn’t sure what language Mr. Kim was speaking as he rushed red-faced around the counter, raising his fists in a threatening manner, until he was within inches of Jun’s grandfather. The stranger showed no emotion—he did not flinch but seemed to stand taller—as he reached for the hand of his frightened grandson and wordlessly marched out of the store.
Silence hung in the air like the pause in a fireworks display.
“Okay. Everything okay,” Mr. Kim told Isaac with a forced smile, as if a few words of reassurance could stop Avi from shaking. He rushed to hand Steve’s shirts to Isaac and went on to the next customer. Though Isaac recognized the expression on Mrs. Kim’s face, he did not know how to reach out to her when she withdrew unsteadily to the back room.
“What happened, Zeyde? What happened?” Avi wanted to know as they walked home, but Isaac couldn't tell him. He understood, and yet he did not know. Later, Steve tried to explain what he thought might have happened. He said the Japanese had done bad things to the Koreans, a long time ago, during a war.
“Do you mean Jun’s grandpa was a bad man?”
“No,” Ellen said. “They probably just had an argument, and we don’t know what it’s about, so it looks scary to us.”
Avi seemed placated, but Isaac could not stop thinking of the look on Mrs. Kim’s face. For the first time, Fort Lee seemed familiar. This world was a place he knew.
“Why are you shocked?” Steve asked, later that evening when Isaac revisited the confrontation after Avi had gone to bed. “If you watched the news, you would know people destroy each other everywhere, every day.” Steve rattled off a list of places—Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and more—giving details that Isaac did not want to hear. “No one owns suffering,” Steve said almost defiantly. “Did you think you had it all to yourself? That it’s yours to keep? That you could claim it, and no one else would ever be tortured or killed?”
Isaac could not answer. Later, he heard Ellen chiding her husband for losing his self-control. What was Steve trying to prove? she wanted to know. That Isaac’s suffering was not special? That Isaac should stop feeling pain because the world was a terrible place?
No more was said, but Isaac could not stop thinking of Mrs. Kim’s face as he stared at the fading portrait above his bed. That night when he went to gaze at the sleeping Avi, the glowing dinosaur on the child's wall seemed to burn brighter. Its mouth could not be moving, and yet Isaac heard a voice.
I am the only light. The world always has belonged, and always will belong, to the monstrous.
Isaac nodded his head, as if to acknowledge the terrible, long-lived omnipotence of an evil that survived in the darkness of the universe. Barbarism has always been there, always would be waiting to emerge iridescent in a cruel masquerade of God’s light, here and there and there, if only for an instant. All this time, Steve had been trying to protect him from the truth, but today it burst through. This deity had not chosen the Jewish people—they were not the only nation to take a turn on its pyre. This truth, this irrefutable truth, was worse than Isaac had ever imagined.
“Give me this child,” said the night light. “Put your hands around his neck and squeeze before I take his heart.”
In Isaac’s mind, the night light would not stop threatening. Desperate, the old man pressed his fingers to his temples. The monster was supposed to be extinct, and yet no one was safe from the persistence of its hatred. Not even Avi. Especially not Avi, this beautiful child the embodiment of all the goodness and innocence upon which monsters’ prey.
Pssssssssssssssssssssssst. The hideous thing was offering a deal.
“Like this?” Isaac asked, holding his hands over the sleeping child's neck. “You will spare him from all suffering?”
Like that. You worship me like that.
“Then Avi, too, is doomed,” said Isaac, withdrawing his hands in horror at the enormity of his defeat. “I can't save him.”
Devastated, expecting the worst to happen, he turned to leave and saw his granddaughter in the doorway.