The Café of the Question Mark

 

The Café of the Question Mark

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Wayne Karlin

 

Europe becomes a room. The same room. Cramped and cold and dark as a cave. Flowered wallpaper blistered or blotched with fantastic continents, dream portals to places-other-than-this. Peeled in stripes as if someone had clawed at it desperate to enter those countries. A stained mattress on the floor, scrawled with the graffiti of other fugitives. Desperate messages or casual musings or rants written in Latin letters or Cyrillic letters, or the barbed Hebrew letters of Yiddish. At night the same flickering candle throws their conjoined, moving shadows on the wall, multiplying them and connecting them into the forms of all those other scrawlers. When Elazar blows out the candle, cockroaches scamper across them and the noise of the street seeps into the room. Carriages rumbling over paving stones, carters yelling, their shouted words teetering on the edge of meaning.
 
Like two characters in a folk tale, Elazar and Ruhu had jumped on a white horse and galloped away from his intended bride and a wedding that sat like a black toad on their future. They had gone first ridden to Biaylstok, where he found a buyer willing to pay well for Malka, the white mare. His old boxing manager Benya had arranged, or more exactly insisted on, a quick wedding for the fugitives, coming up with a rabbi, or what Elazar hoped was a rabbi: a cadaverous stick of a man, his strangely yellow-colored hair and beard sticking out in clumps like little explosions around his face. Elazar had heard of him; the gangsters’ rabbi, and the only guests at their wedding were three lonytekniks, enforcers, he knew from the Bialystok underworld and Chaim Leikert from the revolutionary wing of the Bund, a group Elazar had also done some work for in the past. He had feared that when Ruhu became more acquainted with the Bialystoker part of his life, she would be repulsed by the sordidness, the threat of violence that strummed under every action and conversation, and would take her feet and run back to Kolno. But she seemed delighted in all of it. Including their love-making, which she took to with an enthusiasm that among other feelings about it, relieved him: he had been afraid she would be repulsed or shocked by that as well. He was ten years and a century older than her, and had feared a young girl’s romantic notions that might have only gone as far as their fairy tale escape from a witch, might now be shattered by the reality of their human joining.  
 
They had joined humanly all across Europe, and he knew they had to stop or start using protection or they would be carrying a third passenger on their journey. Neither of them had the identity papers they would need. Benya’s gangsters had given him the name of the contact in Berne who could help them get false papers and passage from Bremerhaven in Germany to either America or Palestine; they had also helped arrange the means to get to Switzerland. The price was several deliveries he would make for them in some of the towns and cities they wished him to visit, including a packet of diamonds to their man in Berne, a big macher apparently, as well as whatever other tasks the man might give Elazar. America waits in his mind like a last room now. He thinks always of her brother Dov cutting off his toes in order to escape the Russian army, like an animal chewing itself out of a trap. He didn’t mind smuggling the diamonds. But he is uneasy about the unnamed task he would need to do for the big macher, this “connection,” as Benya called him, in order to get the papers or money the two of them would need to get to a continent as fantastic in his mind as anything he can see in those blotches on the walls.
 
*
 
When they get to Berne the room changes. Walls clean and white-washed as a hospital. They leave a chalky powder on their skins when they brush against them. Pale blue translucent curtains flap from a large dormer window and caress a blue-painted wooden table. Sunlight stripes the walls, the swirling dust motes in it a new galaxy of possibilities. The bed is a miracle of shining brass, its mattress over-stuffed with down feathers and covered with clean cotton sheets and a spotlessly white comforter. Lying on it, delirious from a fever that seemed to come on him just as he entered this room, Elazar feels he is sinking into the pale breast of a bird.
 
He awakens to see a thin, pale young woman with skin as white as the walls and straw-colored hair standing next to Ruhu, looking down at him. A gold Russian cross sits in the hollow of the woman’s throat, its chain around her white neck. She feeds him cabbage soup swimming with raisins and warm bread that tastes like the eve of Shabbat in Kolno. The house, she tells them, belongs to Russian exiles, Tolstoy Christians sympathetic to the plight of their people. They like Jews, she murmurs. Your suffering redeems them, she says. Her name is Sonya. The house belongs to her parents, rich Muscovites who had maintained houses and bank accounts abroad and now themselves as well; they were in London, leaving her in charge of the house in Switzerland. Actually, they didn’t like Jews. To be utterly truthful, they know nothing of her activities, she says, smiling triumphantly.
 
 “I need to meet my connection,” he tells her. “And we need money. Work. For the meantime.”
 
“Otto Leipzing,” she says. “The Café of the Question Mark. Your friends have arranged it.”
    
 
He goes a few days later, when the fever has subsided. Sonya enjoined Ruhu to stay in the room; she only agreed after she and Elazar had had their first fight, when he lost patience with her stubbornness, though now as he walks through the streets of Berne he wishes she were here to share this with, imagines how she would see it. The city makes him understand how filthy and primitive what he had assumed to be the state of the world--that is, Poland--truly was. Electric streetlights cast warm yellow pools of light on the clean sidewalks, their tall, gracefully curved poles hung with baskets filled with brightly colored flowers. The Swiss strolled with a militant, busy confidence, drumming soft white fingers against the comfortable roll of their bellies. Even though it is night, tall, beautiful women, their hair piled high on their heads, whirled bright parasols behind them as they walked, the colors flashing in his eyes like his fever, the giddy scent of their perfume mixed with the heavy, sweet smell of strawberries and wine that drifts to his nostrils from the open doors of restaurants. People tip their hats to each other. They wear frock coats and linen or silk vests and the women wear embroidered satin dresses, both genders encased in cloth that Ruhu’s father would have had to smuggle into, or through, the Pale like gold. He is insubstantial, provincial among these people, a ragged child with a snotty nose pressed up against a bakery window filled with elaborate pastries and cakes. He feels passersby staring at him uneasily, his sharp, dark features and hungry intentness a knife in a world that rejected sharp edges. There should be different streets for him to travel around this city, a netherworld he can slip through unnoticed, like the forests along the border he used for smuggling. A Jew street.
 
 He turns a corner, following Sonya’s directions, and there it is, just as she described: a dark, narrow alley, the tops of the buildings on either side seeming to lean in towards each other, pinching the space above. In the left wall, a cave-hole of a door. No words on the small sign fastened above it. Only a red question mark, burning in front of his eyes.
 
The gray walls inside are scribbled with black soot from the greasy candles sputtering on the tables. The walls are lined with curtained alcoves; where the curtains aren’t tightly drawn, Elazar can see figures sitting and whispering, their faces close together, licked by the candlelight. Other faces, sharp-featured, framed by tangled black hair, turn and regard him with narrowing eyes as he walks into the room. A pause, silence, and then the patrons turn back to each other and their voices rise again. Their animated gestures and the staccato bursts of Polish, Russian and Yiddish he hears seem theatrically exaggerated after the discrete Swiss mutter outside. In a café like this in Lomza, Bialystok, or Warsaw, every third person would be an informer. Sonya told him that in the past many famous revolutionaries would come to the café, Jews and gentiles. Lenin, Trotsky, and Plekhanov. Jewish nationalists and Zionists also: Zhitlovsky, Weizmann, Babel, and Feivel; the writers Ansky and Asher Ginsburg, exiles waiting for a country for exiles. Their chattering shadows play on the smoke-stained walls.
 
A hand clasps his shoulder. “Don’t worry, pal; you’ll fit right in.”
 
The speaker is a barrel-shaped man with a square red beard that hangs like a curtain from his chin. He squints at Elazar from beneath a shaggy unibrow that shades bright blue bloodshot eyes.
 
“Otto Leipzig. Sonya told me you would be coming.” Leipzig extends a slab of a hand, shakes Elazar’s hand vigorously when he grips it, after a second’s hesitation. “Come, follow me. I’ll get you an apron. Your buddies have arranged everything. Can you work? You’re skinny as a branch. Come on, follow me, I’ll put some weight on you; do you know how to wait tables?”
 
He realizes the red giant has spoken to him in Yiddish.
 
*
 
Later, when Ruhu asks him what was on the menu of the Café of the Question Mark, he replies: Jews. Debating the future as if debating the choices and possible directions of his own life. Russia, Poland, Palestine, America. Where should we go? What will we do? What should be done? “Over here!” the communists yell at him. “Bring schnapps and vodka and sit with us, shake off and forget the chains of the past, and while you are at it, pour what we need according to your ability!” “Ignore those assimilationist swine, waiter!” scream the Bundists, “bring it here, stay, don’t forget where you come from, build heaven where you find your ass!” “No, no, over here!” yell the Zionists, “beer without a table for a table without beer.” “No, this way!” shout the Tolstoians, the Mensheviks, the anarchists.
 
What are you waiting for, waiter? What are you going to do?
 
Otto tells him of famous meeting between Lenin, Trotsky, and the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, right in this place years before, when there were even more exiled Jewish students in the city, attending Berne University because of the restrictions on Jews going to Polish and Russian schools. The three came for a drink after a raucous three-day debate at the school: Lenin and Lev Davidovich Bronstein AKA Trotsky against Weizmann for the salvation of the Jewish masses. “In their millions,” Otto winks, “disaffected, disenfranchised, not to mention pissed off, agitated, hungry, murdered, raped, impoverished; in a word, ripe.” At the end of the three days, most of the Jewish students signed up for the Zionist organizations. Lev Davidovich had been particularly incensed at the loss, and left this place swearing to himself after only one drink with Weizmann, though arm in arm with a female Jewish student, enflamed with a spirit of internationalism. “The girl,” Otto says, “though presumably also Trotsky.” Who had taken the rejection of the other student bodies as a personal humiliation in front of Vladimir Ilych, embarrassed as much as if his circumcised Bronstein putzhad flopped out in front of Lenin’s coldly analytical gaze.
 
Elazar tries to imagine the two men sitting here: Trotsky gone, the remaining two bald heads and pointed goatees sitting and staring at each other as if each was looking into a mirror. So waiter, what will it be? “Over here!” Lenin yells to him, “bring vodka.” “Nonsense, bring a nice glass tea and some marzipan,” Weizmann counters, both men profile to profile, each a side of a coin Elazar has yet to flip. “Nu, Vlad, how can you equate freedom with erasure?” asks Weizmann. “How can we give up our name in a world that demands names? As if we could. As if the world would let us. The cruel way we have been carved gives us our form. This waiter and I have paid too dearly for being who we are, to just let it go. I, my dear Vladimir, came from the Pale, just like this waiter, look at him, history is writ on his face. How can I explain to you, my dear future Bolshevik, how the Jews in my own shtetl, Motol of the reeking marshes, live, their poverty, the fantastic and terrible occupations they had to invent to survive it, their isolation from the Polish and Russian masses with whom you wish them solidarity. The fact is, Mr. What-is-to-be-Done, all that links Jews to Russians and Poles is the shifting piece of ground on which they balance themselves and being murdered by them—isn’t that right, waiter?”
 
“My dear Chaim, surely you see how the Pale of Settlement is a metaphor for Jewish existence,” Lenin says pedantically. “In between nations, in between classes, nichstihein, nichstihier, hated by the peasants, hated by the upper classes, hated by id, despised by ego; we should have invited Sigmund. The abnormal pressure of being in the middle, my dear Chaim, in between forces as it were, purifies and polishes some into gems, into saints and prophets, yet squeezes and misshapes more into furtive, clannish, scrambling hustlers and exploiters, distorted souls, monstrous shapes, cheapskates, greedy goblins and golems: into the very forms the gentiles accuse you of inhabiting.”
 
Weizmann is nodding, taken by the rhythm of Lenin’s words. “Yes, yes, yes, my dear Vlad, it is why we must reclaim the space we left, to become a normal people again.”
 
“Do you believe it will be different in Palestine, among the Arabs? Why define yourself so narrowly? Does freedom mean hanging onto that? Nonsense. Freedom is liberation one has to cut oneself off from the past with the stroke of an ax, swiftly and brutally. Look at the rest of Europe, with its histories and names, all those names who in the name of their names are flinging themselves on each other like foaming, demented beasts.”
 
Weizmann nods, sugar and honey from the marzipan sticking to his moustache and beard. “You make my argument for me, Vlad. You pretend we have the choice to liberate ourselves from ourselves. The choice itself is an illusion. Your people will never let us be anything but what we are. Jews. In between. Yes, nichstihein, nichstihier. Thank you. Only the Yiddish will do, our hybrid tongue. Neither here nor there. In between, never among. You need us to be the diamond in your heart and the garbage you must throw from your soul. You need us to fail at the first and to be the latter so that you can continue to crucify us.”
 
The two bald, bearded heads turn towards Elazar, their eyes gleaming in the darkness of the café.
 
“So, nu, waiter, they ask. What will it be?”
 
*
 
In the darkness of one of the private alcoves sits the man he is supposed to meet, Leo Bombas, a Jew of no politics who mocks and mimics the slogans that drift to his ears from the other tables whenever he chooses to hear them. Who is taking his time summoning Elazar, for whatever reason he may have. A caricature trying to look like a character, Elazar thinks. Bombas sits most evenings at his table cutting sausages with a folding knife, with a greasy roll of flesh hanging over his soiled collar, another over his belt. Cutting, eating, and washing down treyf with glass after glass of vodka. His appearance evokes a kind of homesickness in Elazar. He’d known others like Bombas when he boxed in Bialystok: the Jewish underworld, gang leaders, strike breakers, pimps and murderers. Bombas’ stare darts all over the café, flicking here and there along with the motions of his blade, cutting and gathering young flesh at the tables. A dark-haired Russian girl with green, flashing eyes, a slender blond Swiss-German boy demonstrating solidarity with his Jewish socialist comrades. Sometimes Elazar sees him sitting with one of the fish he nets, a young girl or boy, fresh-faced except for their eyes, which look clouded and dreamy under lids struggling to stay open. “Injected,” Otto whispered to Elazar, “with doses of laudanum.” Bombas fumbling at their crotches under the table, his eyelids half-closed also, his expression dreamy.
 
Tonight he is alone. “Sit,” he says, pointing to the opposite chair. He pushes it out with his right foot. Elazar catches it before it tips over, and sits on the edge of the chair, as if ready to leap away. Bombas peers at him.   “Don’t look so worried. I won’t eat a waiter with my meal.”
 
Elazar puts the bag of diamonds on the table. Bombas picks it up, opens it, sniffs at it as if it food. And whisks it off the table with impressive speed.
 
“You wanted to speak to me,” Bombas says, as if the diamonds never existed.
 
“I’ve been thinking about a sea voyage for two.”
 
Bombas’ cheeks quiver with mirth.   “You’re in Switzerland, waiter.”
 
“If you will it, it is no dream.”
 
Bombas nods. “And exactly what is it you dream, waiter?”
 
“A ship. Two new names, so my wife and I can board it. A new history. America. That’s all.”
 
“Papers without a man for a man without papers, that it? How much are you willing to pay, waiter? For such a dream?”
 
Elazar points at the place on the table where he’d put down the diamonds. “I was told you would help us.”
 
Bombas raises a thick eyebrow, taps the place, shrugs, as if to say there was nothing there. He cuts a piece of sausage, pushes the point of the knife through it, and pokes it towards Elazar’s face. “Why are you wasting my time?”
 
“You have the diamonds. Should I take them back?”
 
“You’re a forceful man, how could I stop you?” He raises his hand, waves a circle. The café fell silent. “How far do you think you would get, waiter? The door? Perhaps. Perhaps you would make it as far as Sonya’s flat, 9 Carl-Lutz-Weg, number 23, where your wife awaits you.”
 
Elazar shrugs. “Why the threats? Why this kassa, this play? You have the diamonds. You know my people in the Pale. You know who I am. Otherwise we would not be in Sonya’s flat or have a job waiting for me at the Café of the Question Mark. Otherwise I would not be here speaking to you.”
 
Bombas takes a long drink of vodka and then brings the small bag of diamonds back onto the table, spills some of the gems out, and runs his finger through them. “Yes, I have the diamonds. They tell me you are an adequate smuggler. From you work here, I can see you are also an adequate waiter. Do you possess any other talents? I understand you are from Kolno.”
 
Elazar understands this is an interview. He drains his glass, the alcohol warming his veins. “What other talents of mine do you require?”
 
“Everyone knows of Kolno’s horse Jews. Everyone knows of you.”
 
Elazar understands there was nothing about him that Bombas had not already known when he sat down at this table.
 
“I have a horse,” Bombas says.
 
“Congratulations. Are you thinking of smuggling it to America?”
 
“I value a waiter with a sense of humor. To an extent.”
 
“What will you have me do?”
 
“The animal is troublesome. I paid a goodly amount for her, but have not been able to mount her. If you are able to break her, that will be your first payment.”
 
“And the second?”
 
“We can speak of that later.” Bombas waves his hand. His assistant, a stocky, bald French-Swiss, appears instantly at the table. Bombas the magician. “He knows horses, Maurice.”
 
“God help him.”
 
“Be here at seven tomorrow morning, waiter. Be on time. Oh, and bring your wife.”     
 
“Why? She is not part of any of this.”
 
Bombas looks amused. He reaches across and strokes Elazar’s face. “How can you say such a thing? No matter. Bring her. Just for the company. And to meet my horse. A fellow female’s company may help to soothe the beast.”
 
*
  
He has never been in a motorcar before and sits as stiffly as he had across from Bombas at the table, the memory of the man’s touch, the casual, possessive brush of those sausage-like fingers still on his face. Ruhu, next to him, squeezes his hand excitedly, her hair streaming out behind her as they leave Berne and drive into the Swiss countryside. Bombas, massive in the front seat, looks back at them and smiles benignly, the good uncle taking them on a family outing. He sports a feathered cap and improbable lederhosen, his dimpled knees and quivering thighs hairless as slugs. He should look ridiculous, but his size and the slightly ironic twist of his mouth have an effect as menacing as it is bizarre. Or perhaps, Elazar thinks, it’s menacing because of that self-aware bizarreness. Maurice, driving, wears dark goggles, a brimmed cloth hat, and a leather coat, too heavy for the weather. He doesn’t glance back at them as he drives.
 
They wind into a valley between grassy green hills that further north grow into snow-capped mountains, the countryside somehow artificial to Elazar, as if conjured by Bombas as a backdrop to his ridiculous costume. At the thought, he sees a herd of sheep spill like cream over the crest of a hill, herded by a darting dog and a shepherd, yes, in the same embroidered suspenders and short pants worn by Bombas; the figure even wielding a shepherd’s crook. Maurice turns right onto a dirt road, the dust from it pluming behind them, and they stop in front of a small brick cottage next to a stable constructed of uneven, gray, weathered planks and streaked, mossy shingles, some of them flapping up and down in the breeze, applause at their arrival.
 
The pasture surrounding the house is unkempt and wild, spotted with evil-looking clumps of thorns and berry bushes. A tall, black-haired woman with mad yellow eyes stands in front of the door. Maurice turns off the motor and Elazar hears a metallic rustle of leaves as the wind thrashes the overgrown meadow. And under that sound, a wild whinnying.
 
“Children, meet Lillian,” Bombas says.
 
His housekeeper? His wife, his whore, his slave, his captive dybbuk? Bombas doesn’t say. His Lillian, enough name for a new creature, apparently. Her eyes, he sees, are not really yellow; just what should be the whites of them, yellow as old parchment, their corners red-stained from broken capillaries, her pupils black as the jagged crown of her hair.
 
They get out, stand awkwardly before her.
 
“Do something,” Lillian spits at Bombas, and then cringes, though he did not react at all. The cringe turns instantly to a smile, a frown, a cringe again, settles back into smile. She reaches out and strokes Elazar’s cheek and then Ruhu’s, the gesture mirroring the way Bombas touched him yesterday. Ruhu stares at her and laughs, delighted at her improbable fluidity. “Are we tender enough to eat?” she asks.
 
“Come inside,” Lillian hisses at her, “come, come. We’ll have some tea, you and me.”
 
Bombas holds up his hand. “First Argamaka. Why you are here, waiter. Smuggler. Horse Jew from the land of Horse Jews. The Centaurs of Kolno.”
 
They enter the stable. Inside, it is tight and dark, with room for only one stall, the ammoniac smell of horse shit stinging Elazar’s nose, making him homesick. The interior is lit only by the daylight coming through the open door. Bombas enters, clutching Sonya’s shoulder. Heat and stink. Shit, horse sweat, and congealed fear. Lillian crowds inside. Maurice has taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. The top buttons of his shirt are undone, revealing a chest that is as bald, or as shaven, as his head, the glimpsed flesh tattooed with a necklace of eyes. Both the eyes in his face and the eyes on his chest stare at Ruhu. Bombas’ fat, white fingers briefly touch her neck. She laughs nervously and jumps back. The mare’s hooves pound against the stall door.
 
Maurice opens the door. Argamaka rears up, eyes rolling white, shakes her head violently, flicking white gobs of slobber back onto her black hide.   Her halter is fastened with long chains to both sides of the narrow stall. Elazar stares, sick to the soul; the animal would have been beautiful if not so starved, its ribs pushed out sharply, its black hide lacerated with unhealed cuts, some dripping pus, and a cicatrize of scars. The floor of the stall is thick with droppings, their odor stinging his nostrils. He turns to Bombas, who is reaching over to stroke Ruhu’s neck again. As she steps back, frowning, Elazar seizes the man’s fore and middle finger, bends them back. “Rot in a black pit, Bombas.” Bombas smiles at Elazar even as he winces in pain. “Horse Jew,” he whispers. In the corner of his eye, Elazar sees Maurice moving towards him. Bombas raises his other hand and the Swiss stops. Lillian comes up next to Bombas and begins to fondle his crotch. Bombas throws back his head and laughs, imitating the mare’s whinny.
 
“You see what I mean, waiter. A wild Cossack horse. What can I do? Even Maurice, who knows horses, can do nothing with it. Isn’t that right, Maurice?”
 
Bombas whinnies in the horse’s face.
 
“Get away from her,” Elazar says. “If you want me to work with her, get out of here. You agitate her.”
 
Bombas nods. “Come, ladies, the waiter has ordered us away.”
 
“My wife stays.”
 
“I’m staying as well,” Maurice says.
 
For a second, Elazar thinks to insist he go. But it doesn’t seem worth the confrontation.
 
Bombas leads Lillian out, his arm draped over her shoulders, his other hand fondling her breast. Maurice and Ruhu move back a few steps as Elazar steps forward, his eyes fastened to Argamaka’s deep brown, liquid eyes. He can see the horse’s soul cringe, alone in the face of madness. She sniffs, nostrils flaring—they have been ripped by a bit and are bleeding—and rears up again, as if to assure Elazar she has not been broken.   “I know, darling, I know. Bo’ee kallah. Come, bride.” Argamaka’s ears twitch; she shakes her head back and forth frantically, but stills when Elazar lays a hand flat between her eyes.
 
 A hand on his shoulder. He steps back. Argamaka rears again, hooves flailing the air. Elazar turns and looks into Maurice’s eyes. The man nods, as if in approval.
 
 “She takes to you. She is a good horse, used to belong to a man who took good care of her. It won’t take much to bring her around. I could have done it. I’ve done it before.”
 
“So why not now?”
 
Maurice shakes his head. “Once she’s gentled, Bombas will either ride her to death or whip her to death. It’s what he does with any Cossack horse he gets his hands on. He has agents, buy them up for him. If you can, Jew, steal a look at the well in the next pasture. No, not at. Look into it. If you can stand the smell.”
 
They look at each other for a moment. Maurice reached over and touches Elazar’s right arm, the swell of his muscle.
 
“Do you think, horse Jew, that the only price for your ticket will be this horse?”
 
“Bombas made it clear it wasn’t. But without details.”
 
 Maurice says nothing.
 
Elazar waves at the stable. “Why don’t you clean up all this shit?”
 
 The door opens. Bombas steps inside, next to Ruhu. She stares into his eyes, her mouth set.
 
“You’ve had enough time. Have you introduced yourself, waiter?”
 
 “To keep an animal in this condition is a crime, Bombas.”
 
“Hold her for me. I want to kiss her lips.”
 
As if understanding, Argamaka rears, eyes frantic, spittle flying.
 
Bombas laughs. “Wild. Cossack wild. It’s in the blood, yes, waiter? The beautiful blond Christian child missing, the sudden increase in matzah production? Once upon a time, I had the acquaintance of some Cossack poets. ‘Jews bake matzah, we fry meat,’ they would sing; they wanted, you see, to help out some grieving Poles, felt the usual rapes, hangings, shootings, guttings too limited for their artistic, poetic natures. Threw a family of Jews into a well, threw in oil and wood, cooked ‘em up. My family, maybe, who can remember such occasions? ‘Jew stew for you,’ the Cossacks sang. Strummed their balalaikas, stroked their moustaches, waved their sabers. These dashing figures on horseback.”
 
 “A terrible story does not free you to do terrible things,” Ruhu says.
 
“Ah, the wisdom of the fathers. Pirkei Avot. Or the mothers. Pirkei Imahot. Do you know what it made me, that terrible story? Hungry.” He licks his lips. “Does hunger free you, waiter? To do terrible things? That’s the question, waiter. How much will you pay, for the gift of America?” He puts his arm around Ruhu, squeezes her right shoulder.
 
“Take your hand off her,” Elazar says.
 
“Of course, of course. Be calm. My tattooed friend here—Bombas points to Maurice—is reluctant to help me in this matter. He feels able to refuse, believes I need him too much for other matters. Perhaps he is right? We will discover that together, yes, Maurice?”
 
Maurice shrugs. “As you say.”
 
“I say this… to the waiter. To the horse Jew. Calm this beast for me, horse Jew.”
 
“Wait,” says Elazar to Bombas. “Watch.”
 
Again he puts his hand, palm flat, on Argamaka’s broad forehead, the hair bristling under his palm, feeling the horse’s twitch slowly stopping. He whispers again in her ear; she nuzzles against his face.

Ruhu is smiling at him; he grins back at her, they are of the same mind. He will jump onto Argamaka’s back and once more reach down for her, his bride: is this horsey exit always to be their beginning? He knows it is impossible. The horse is in a stall, chained, their three strange hosts stand between Argamaka and the barn door, and Bombas next to Ruhu, in seizing distance. A fairy tale ending, a dashing gallop into the sunset could happen only once. He squints at Bombas, Maurice, and Lillian, trying to see them as a choice as figures in a yellowing photograph, as frozen in his mind as a memory.  

 

Copyright © Wayne Karlin 2022

Wayne Karlin has published eight novels and three non-fiction books, as well as numerous short stories and articles. He has received five State of Maryland Individual Artist Awards in Fiction, two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1994 and 2004), the Paterson Prize in Fiction for 1999, the Vietnam Veterans of American Excellence in the Arts Award in 2005, and the 2019 Juniper Prize for Fiction. He was a finalist for the 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/wayne_karlin 



 

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