The education of the exceptionally promising begins early and ends almost never, and this Nathan Berditchev understood long before the age of twelve when, one muggy night in the cramped Berditchev living room over glasses of tea and slices of stiff sponge cake, the rabbis of the Yeshiva of Eastern Queens informed his parents that he, Nathan, had certain gifts.
It was not seemly to make too much of it, the rabbis murmured, Nathan listening from the stairs in cowboy pajamas that in the sticky August night clung to his back. A layer of humidity had been hanging in the apartment all day, unable to move; to neither escape out the open windows nor disperse among the four rooms—a two-story, two up, two down, his mother had told her mother, the only time Nathan had heard even a twinge of a boast in his mother’s voice, a sin as severe as eating traife or going to the movies on shabbas, temptations, all, of an unholy world—a stillness so thick that Nathan had felt as though he were swimming through soup as he’d gone from room to room looking for something to do, the worst heat wave in New York City, the headlines said, in fifty years. Humility was a trait to be cultivated by all, one of the rabbis said softly, the nervous tinkling of a spoon against glass, just as they mustn’t allow themselves to be bitten by the serpent of pride; but this was something Mr. and Mrs. Berditchev needed to know about their son, a child gifted even more, God should forgive them, than his brother Carl, himself a brilliant boy, a light to the yeshiva, they should make no mistake, a shining example for Nathan to follow. But a Nathan he was not, and never would be.
A sharp intake of breath—his mother? father?—the spoon silent; an ambulance wailed in the distance. Another casualty of the weather, heat stroke, the phrase his mother had ominously repeated all afternoon, visions percolating in Nathan’s brain of a giant paint brush lapping over innocent victims walking home from the bus. The siren stopped; Nathan hunched over and wrapped his arms around his knees. This was the way of the world, was it not, the other rabbi said, his voice gravelly and absolute, not a question but a pronouncement, moving as though weighted through a lower stratum of air, reaching Nathan at his feet and traveling through him like a current, the sort of voice you never argued with, addressing itself almost sternly in response to what Nathan could only imagine was his mother’s bowed head, hearing her children compared, the terrible truth that one, in some terrible respect, had come up short. It was not her doing, the voice said, more a reprimand than a comfort. Nor was it a reflection on the merits of her sons. This was the will of the Creator, dispensing a little more of this here, a little less of that there, and it was not for them to presume to understand. It was only for them to accept what was, safeguard what had been given, and see to it that it wasn’t squandered.
The slightest movement at Nathan’s back. He quickly turned, looked up the steps. Nothing stirred on the landing above him, not the sheer curtain that hung on the airless window nor the shaft of light from the room he shared with Carl. What if this one time Carl hadn’t been so stubborn? What if this one time he’d given in to Nathan’s pestering to defy their parents’ orders and join him to eavesdrop on the stairs? What then?
A shuffling in the living room, footsteps on the linoleum in the hall. Nathan curled himself into a ball. “Who knows,” the lighter voice said, striving for cheerful. Rabbi Lerner, the new principal for the younger boys, an American, no trace of an accent, who brought in old clippings of Hank Greenberg, three-time American League champion and a practicing Jew. “Maybe one day Nathan will be teaching all of us—Maimonides, the Tosefta, even”—Lerner’s voice dropped to a loud whisper, a dramatic flourish—“The Zohar.” The four of them appeared in Nathan’s vision, his father and mother, small and defeated-looking, even smaller next to the visitors, whose backs were to him—Lerner, young and athletic like the ball players he admired, and the other man, gray-haired under his black yarmulke, powerful shoulders to match the powerful voice. Nathan’s father opened the door, the thick heat standing under the light of the street lamp like a sentry, and the visitors, putting on their hats, stepped out into the night.
Slowly, his parents walked back to the living room; Nathan heard their muffled voices, life never rising up in triumph to give them joy, good news clothed always in an outer layer of bad, their heads bowed as though a great weight had been deposited in the house. When he heard the stacking of plates, the rattling of silverware, he turned and ran soundlessly up the stairs, Carl asleep with his glasses on, a book open beside him on the damp sheets, doomed now in their parents’ eyes though he would never know why, and hurried into his own bed and pulled the blanket up over his face. Why him? Why couldn’t it be Carl? Carl, who would grow up to teach Lerner? Who would pore over volumes of commentary, Tosefta, Maimonides?
And, worst of all, The Zohar. The Book of Splendor. Nathan had been told little of it, revelations of mystics and hermits. But he had heard. Knew that it was supposed to contain the keys to the secrets of heaven, codes to all the mysteries in the universe. It was so dangerous no one was allowed to open its pages until they reached the age of forty. Because if you did, you could go crazy. Cross over to the other side. Even die.
But what if he didn’t want to know? What if he didn’t want to see into the hidden meaning of all things? Why couldn’t it be Carl? Carl, who was always searching, who would spend the rest of his life looking for the answers to every question anyway?
The light in the hall went off; he heard his parents on the stairs. He reached across the night table and removed Carl’s glasses from his face, turned off the lamp and lay on his back. He closed his eyes, the evening sitting on his chest like a safe, and swore to himself he would never repeat a word of what he’d heard, not to anyone, not even to himself, certain that neither the rabbis nor his terrified parents would either. Then he squeezed his eyes tighter and prayed to God that someone had made a mistake.
September, the bus to school an hour instead of twenty minutes, the new apartment with the separate dining room and built-in china closet worth the trip. His mother’s tone describing it to her mother had been one of amazement, disbelief that sometimes things improved. His father was no longer a cutter but a supervisor, maybe one day a foreman, his mother had whispered, straining to keep not so much pride out of her voice but all hope and expectation. Too, one had to be scrupulous about the evils that came of too much talk. What’s the most lethal weapon a person can own? she would say. A loose tongue, and point to each of their mouths and then her own to show that she too wasn’t above such weakness. On the bus ride home, Nathan did his homework by the flickering lights of the evening traffic; Carl squinted by the glass and read his poetry. Whitman, Schwartz, Shapiro, Ginsberg, names Carl rattled off from the books he kept hidden under his bed. Poetry was Carl’s religion, Nathan told him. Every few weeks, he would swear Nathan to secrecy and make him go with him on the subway to a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on Fourteenth Street, installing Nathan on the sidewalk to keep watch before ducking into the bookstore as if he were robbing a bank, then coming out forty minutes later with his loot, half to be stuffed into Carl’s book bag and half into Nathan’s so as not to arouse suspicion. The books were dusty and old and had a mildew smell that clung to Nathan’s bag for days.
Now they strained by the dim light while rain sheeted the glass. The first bleak portents of winter. Nathan hated winter, hated waking in the dark, coming home in the dark. They lived like bats, Carl said; the only good thing about winter was his birthday. He would turn eighteen at the end of December. For one night he’d insist on light, he told Nathan. Every lamp in the house on, even the one over the stove. The door of the bus flew open; a gust of wet air funneled in. A lady with two shopping bags of groceries sank into the seat opposite Nathan, knocking his textbook to the floor with the hem of her coat.
“Stupid assignment,” Nathan murmured, bending for it. “Inventions of America. The lousy book is so old it has only forty-eight states.” Everyone knew the secular studies at school were a joke.
“Ah, the folly of dry fact masquerading as language. Unlike real language,” Carl said, patting his own book, the faded green cover like old cloth. It smelled of moth balls, closets that were never opened. “One day, Nathan, you’ll see how the written word can change your life. I don’t mean the Talmud, I mean these words. The real truth is in these.” He lifted his book reverently, like a treasure brought up from the bottom of the ocean, and recited, dramatic. The woman across the aisle turned to look. “‘Of Life immense in passion, pulse and power, cheerful, for freest action formed under the laws divine, the Modern Man I sing.’ Isn’t that spectacular? Man, Nathan. That’s what he’s saying. We are the real story. Because we have free will. We determine our lives. Without a god. Courtesy of Mr. Walt Whitman.” He smiled broadly at the woman, who tsked and turned away. “Such a shame,” whispered Carl, looking at the woman. “A philistine.”
Nathan didn’t know about philistines or free will. He knew only the relentless logic of the Gemara, the endless volleys of the Mishnah. He understood the law. Rules, argument, reason. He didn’t understand Carl. But then again, no one did.
Weeks of unending rain. Ponds formed on the walkways to the apartments and never drained away. Carl wanted to go to the bookstore again.
“We just went,” Nathan said. “And how do you even have any more money? You’re supposed to be saving up for college.” Cards for the 1960 Dodgers lineup were laid out before him on the bedspread. Their parents had closed their door hours ago. Their father was out of the house by four-thirty, doing everything he could to impress the owners so he’d have a shot at the foreman’s job. This was his chance, he told Nathan’s mother. If I’m the first one in and the last one out, they’ll pay attention. No sick days. No leaving early on Fridays. Don’t give me that look, Miriam. I can be home before shabbas or we can eat. Which do you want?
Carl straddled the back of the desk chair. His feet were huge in his socks. There had been a call that evening from the yeshiva; Nathan, from the stairs, overheard his mother telling his father. Carl’s marks were slipping, he seemed distracted, preoccupied. Had he taken on something extra-curricular? Was something wrong? He’d never had trouble in the past. “I vant my books!” Carl said and opened his mouth wide and pretended to eat his arm. “More books! More books!”
“You’re crazy, Carl,” Nathan said, returning to the lineup. He needed only two more to complete the team. Lerner had offered him ten bucks for Koufax alone. Lerner was nuts; it was just a piece of cardboard. If he could find the Koufax, he’d gladly take a ten off the principal.
“Crazy? You call me crazy?” Carl was up on the bed, on his knees across from Nathan, messing up the spread and scattering the cards. “I vant, I vant!” Duke Snider was in Carl’s mouth.
“Give it back!” Nathan said, pulling at the card. Carl held on with his teeth, whipping his head around like a fierce dog. He was loving it, Carl the vampire, Carl the wild animal.
“Give it!” Nathan yelled. Carl raised his eyebrows and pointed at the door. They’d wake their father and have to hear a speech by their mother about respect for parents and peace in the house. “Give it back!” Nathan hissed.
“Argh!” Carl growled, jerking his head before taking the whole card into his mouth. He chewed, took it out, dangled it in front of Nathan, then dropped the soggy ball onto the bedspread. In the next instant, he pulled from behind his back a perfect Duke Snider.
Nathan grabbed it. “Stinker. Now get that spitball off of here.”
“Certainly,” Carl said, pretend British, delicately lifting the wad with two fingers and tossing it into the air, then catching it in his mouth and making an exaggerated swallowing sound.
“Carl, no! You’ll choke!”
Carl stretched his head back, giving Nathan a full view of his Adam’s apple and the stubble on his neck. “Never fear, my dear Watson. It’s perfectly edible.” He held up a finger. “`Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth! Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!’ See? Liquid trees? Completely natural. Per the peerless Mr. Whitman.”
“Eating cardboard is gross.”
“Don’t vory,” Carl said. He went to his own bed. “I’m satiated now. I don’t need any more bessball player blood.” He did the eyebrow raise again. “But I do need more books. And you vill be my accomplice.”
Nathan lifted his covers, eased himself in and slid the cards under his pillow. He lay on his back and closed his eyes, heard Carl taking off his pants, rummaging under the bed for another book. He knew Carl had been skipping school but would never tell. Anyway Carl was always at the bus stop at the yeshiva by the time Nathan got there for the ride home. He had told Nathan he didn’t want to go to CCNY or Queens next year; he didn’t want to go to college at all. He wanted to be free. To ride the rails and criss-cross the country. I hear America singing!
“Nathan, you awake?” Nathan rolled onto his side and looked at Carl, who was on his back, his book held high above him, like the Torah after the reading. What if Carl went away and never came back? “Listen to this! `Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!’ Allen Ginsberg. A Yid!” He grinned at Nathan. “Did you hear? Everyone’s an angel! Everybody’s holy!”
Their father didn’t get the foreman’s job. The company brought in an outsider. Rumor was that the factory was being sold, the foreman the new owner’s man; even his supervisor job wasn’t secure. He had maybe a month, then he was out on the street.
If I’d done more, maybe they’d have kept me, he said to their mother behind their half-closed door. Maybe I could have persuaded them.
What—get there at four in the morning instead of six? Work eighteen hours a day instead of twelve? Don’t be crazy, Avrum. They wanted an outsider all along. They were playing with you. Like they always do.
There were more calls from the school. Carl was absent too much, when he was there he didn’t pay attention, his thoughts elsewhere, Mr. and Mrs. Berditchev needed to have a talk with their son.
“Boys his age, their thoughts should be elsewhere,” his father said. “Like on getting a job.” He’d gotten his notice. Walking papers. Nathan saw papers with little legs. They needed to think about moving, his father said; the new apartment was too much. At supper Carl had brought up the birthday lights. What kind of foolishness was that? their father snapped. Now, when he was about to be out of work, they should burn more electricity? Carl might as well have asked to burn dollar bills. “Lots of boys take afterschool jobs, Miriam. If they go to the public school.” The faucet went on, Nathan’s mother rinsing something. Seething. His father’s voice rose. “There’s nothing wrong with a little more responsibility, a little less Gemara.”
The water shut off. His mother was descended from a line of scholars and rabbis that stretched back to Peter the Great. In more than two hundred years, not a single male in her family had attended a secular school. Nathan and Carl had been told this a thousand times; it was their birthright. Unlike what they got from their father’s side, uneducated laborers and tradesmen. It was nonsense to talk of public school, his mother said now. Hadn’t he heard the rabbis? Both boys were exceptional; they needed the proper education. She was disappointed in the yeshiva. They were probably ignoring Carl and he was bored. They weren’t giving Nathan all the attention they promised either.
“Well, you can forget the yeshiva, Miriam. Two weeks I’m out on the street. Did you hear me, two weeks? Even with their scholarships, we won’t be able to cover. Just covering for Nathan will be impossible. That’s right, even for our mister prodigy. Where are we going to get the money? You tell me—where?”
“What are you talking? The boy has a gift, Avrum! You can’t let something like that come to nothing!”
“Oh no? Then you go out and get the job! You find the money!”
His father stormed into the hall. Nathan, on the stairs, huddled into a ball. Too late. His father glared at him, went out the door.
November. The sun was a miser. On the days Carl disappeared he no longer met Nathan at the bus for the ride home. Instead he waited for him in front of their apartment building when Nathan walked up in the dark.
Shh, don’t tell. It’s alright. I’m doing something important.
What, you’re looking for a job?
Shh. I can’t say. Don’t tell anyone.
Other days, Carl slept the whole ride to school, up all night with his poetry, not only reading but writing now, pages stashed where he wouldn’t reveal. His books numbered in the hundreds. To keep their mother out of their room Carl made Nathan promise to make his bed; Carl would vacuum and dust. They were helping out, Carl told her. She’d found a job taking care of newborn twins of a rich relative of someone in the building. Each day she rose at five to take two buses to Jamaica Estates where she stayed until the husband got home at night. After a cold supper she went straight to bed. Their father pounded the pavement. Nathan saw his father pounding with a hammer. Or his fist.
One cold wet night two weeks into his mother’s job, Nathan waited for her in the kitchen. He’d been intercepting calls from the school: they’d be cancelling Carl’s scholarship after the first of the year, more deserving boys were waiting. He set out a plate, a fork, a knife, made his mother tea. She sat down and he brought out butter, two slices of rye bread, a hard-boiled egg. He took a chair and watched her take a bite, then told her he didn’t want to go to the yeshiva anymore. That he’d wanted to go to the public school for months but had been afraid to say so.
She put down her knife. “Is this because I’m working? Your father will get a job, this won’t last forever.”
“That’s not it. I’m thinking I might want to be a lawyer. Or learn the stock market. Or go into business. I think I have a head for that.”
She folded her hands. She was trying to control herself. People in her line didn’t go into the stock market, into business. “You’re a very gifted boy, Nathan. You could become a scholar. More than a scholar. An illui. You know what an illui is? A Talmudic genius. My father, of blessed memory, was one. In Europe. Before this country made him grovel, made him give Hebrew lessons to ignorant American children who didn’t deserve a minute of his attention. You take after my family. They were intellectuals. People of quality.” She stopped as if she’d said something she shouldn’t have. “Enough. There’s time to decide all this when you’re older, I don’t want to hear another word.”
He inched up on his chair. “You don’t understand. I don’t care about what they’re teaching me. The Mishnah, Gemara, it’s all riddles. Puzzles. Mental exercises that don’t mean anything. Nobody cares about the Talmud except a bunch of rabbis who don’t know anything else. I don’t believe in any of it. It has nothing to do with real life.”
The sting of her palm on his cheek threw him back into his chair. She stood up and left the kitchen. He heard the door of his parents’ room sharply close.
His father found work at a striking coat factory in Brooklyn. A two-hour commute for half the pay. A scab; Nathan saw him as a thick red mark over an old wound. Each day his father wanted to flee in shame as he walked through the picket line. One morning he saw someone he knew from his old factory. The man shouted an insult and Nathan’s father wanted to turned around and go directly home. He told Nathan’s mother some indignities weren’t worth it.
And being some rich girl’s cook and maid isn’t an indignity? Wake up, Avrum. Principles like these we can’t afford. Look at your sons. Do you see how anxious Nathan is? How thin and tired-looking is Carl? We’re wearing them out with our worries.
December moved in. A frozen fist. Christmas carols blanketed the radio stations. Posters in the subway showed red-cheeked Santas and smiling families sitting beside brightly wrapped presents under a tree. That’s how they got people to buy, Carl whispered to Nathan, pointing to the ads in their train car, his blue knit cap pulled down low. By making you believe this was happiness. But it was a trick. Because once they got you to buy things, they could get you to do other things. If Nathan had any doubt, all he had to do was look at the signs right in front of their noses. Act now! Call today! There were forces out there trying to penetrate their minds. You had to build up mental shields to keep them from controlling your thoughts.
Mental shields? Nathan asked.
Defenses, Carl murmured. To keep the forces from getting through. But he and Nathan were lucky. They weren’t susceptible because they were Jews. So the forces couldn’t invade them. For now.
Outside the bookstore, Nathan waited at his usual spot, hands shoved into his pockets, collar up against the cold. He hadn’t wanted to come. But Carl had insisted; he’d gotten hold of a Koufax and weaseled Nathan out of half of Lerner’s ten. Nathan would have given Carl the whole ten if it would’ve made Carl stop acting so strange. Everything was secret now. He wouldn’t read his poetry out loud at night because someone might hear. He vanished for whole days, coming back to the apartment long after their parents went to sleep. He told Nathan he was working on something important but couldn’t tell him what it was.
A tap on the shoulder. A man as old as his father. “Don’t be frightened. I’m from the bookstore. There’s a boy inside.”
Their footsteps on the linoleum were drums. The man described: glasses, blue hat, fingers gripping a five dollar bill like a life preserver.
He was huddled on the floor at the end of a long row. He looked at Nathan blankly. Was this another joke? Was Carl about to jump up and play vampire? Hah, hah, got you! No. Carl only made jokes at home, never in public. His eyes darted from Nathan to the man to the crowd collecting behind them.
The man herded the strangers away—Someone’s just a little ill, let’s give the boy some room. Nathan inched up to his brother. Carl’s lips trembled. The wrinkled bill stuck out of a balled fist. “Come take my hand, Carl. Let’s go home.” He grasped Carl’s clenched fist and Carl rose, teetering like a golem. “He’s not feeling well, that’s all,” Nathan said to the man, his arm around Carl’s waist. “I think he’s coming down with something.”
“Sure, sure,” the man said, leading them through the store. Nathan ignored the stares. At the door the man said, “You going to be alright? You want to call your folks?”
There was something in the man’s face. Had he seen Carl before? Had Carl been coming to the bookstore alone? Had he acted strange before?
“We’re okay, thanks,” Nathan said, and he shuffled Carl out the door and to the subway. Within seconds of the train pulling out, Carl was asleep, the five sticking out of his fist. Nathan pried it loose, stuffed it into his pocket.
Two stops from their own Carl woke up. He pressed his face against the glass. “Where are we? What are we doing on the subway?”
“You don’t know?”
Carl turned to him.
“We’re going home, Carl. From the bookstore. We left early.” He showed Carl the book bag on his lap. “See? It’s empty. Remember?”
Carl looked at the bag, then at Nathan. He looked outside the window again, then at his hands. He lifted them and sniffed. Then he looked at Nathan again. A wave of something Nathan had never seen before crossed his face. Fear. “What are you talking about?”
“You wanted to spend your five from Lerner.” Nathan dug in his pocket for the bill and made to give it to Carl but Carl recoiled as if it were a poisonous bug. “I went to the sidewalk like always. You went into the store. You were there a long time. A man came out and found me.” He searched Carl’s face. Nothing. Why didn’t Carl remember? “He brought me to you. You were sitting on the floor.”
“Had I fallen?”
Carl stared at Nathan, then out the window again. He turned back to Nathan. “Not a word to anyone, okay?”
Nathan nodded. His eyes were welling up. “Are you sick, Carl?” he whispered, leaning into his brother’s coat, mildew and must clinging to the wool.
In the dark space between them, Carl squeezed Nathan’s hand. “I don’t know.”
The yeshiva cancelled classes on Christmas for the first time in its history. Rabbi Lerner had persuaded the headmaster, the man with the gravelly voice, that it was time to acknowledge that they were in America and that it wasn’t right to require the secular studies teachers and janitorial crew, none of whom were Jewish, to come to work.
“All of a sudden we’re like the goyim,” Nathan’s mother said, filling a cake pan with batter. “Soon he’ll tell us to go sing carols and buy ourselves a tree. It’s a disgrace.”
Nathan watched her from the table where he sat with his father, eating a roll. A blizzard had dumped six inches on the city. Nathan had slept late, and when he woke up, Carl wasn’t in his bed. His parents thought Carl was still upstairs.
“Why are you complaining?” his father said. “Better I should have to go to Brooklyn today in this weather? Better you should be at the prima donna’s house, killing yourself on the ice walking from the bus? You said she was paying you for today.”
“A Jewish girl giving a Christmas bonus. I don’t want to take it.”
“Take it, Miriam.”
“Don’t push me, Avrum.”
His father sipped his coffee and gazed at the newspaper. White Christmas Blankets New York. But it was no blanket, Nathan thought. His mother slid the pan into the oven, dusted her hands on her apron. “What’s with Carl? It’s ten o’clock.”
“So? You’re going somewhere? He’s exhausted, Miriam. Let him sleep.”
She poured herself coffee, pulled out a chair. “I don’t like how he looks. Not that I ever see him.” She turned to Nathan. “Not that I ever see either of you.” She pulled a tissue from the apron and wiped her eyes.
“It’s alright, Ma.” Nathan reached across the formica and patted her hand. “We’re doing fine.”
“You’re not doing fine. Coming home from school every day to an empty house, a cold supper. Shabbas”—she looked at his father, who kept his eyes on the paper—“hardly shabbas. We’re living like animals. Existing just to eat and sleep.” She sipped her coffee. Nathan finished his roll. After a few minutes he went to the living room and lay on the couch, watched the falling snow.
The doorbell woke him. Two policemen and, between them, a silent shivering Carl. They’d found him wandering in Forest Park, no coat, his clothes and sneakers soaked. He didn’t know where he lived; they got the address from the phone book.
“Downstairs,” his mother commanded after they’d walked Carl up to his and Nathan’s room and gotten him out of his frigid clothes and layered on extra blankets, gave him tea, waited until he fell asleep. “Did you know he wasn’t here?” she said when they were in the living room.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Nathan watched the falling snow. “He goes on a lot of walks, I don’t know where.” He looked back at his parents. “I just figured he’d gone for another one.”
“Is he worried from something?” his father asked. “Money? College? He hears our arguing?”
“The yeshiva’s been calling,” Nathan said. “They’re taking away his scholarship.”
“I told you, Miriam! I told you we should’ve let him go to the public high school when he asked!”
Carl had asked to go to public school? “Carl wanted to go to the high school?” Nathan asked.
“That’s not your business,” his mother said.
“Don’t listen to her! Yes, he was sick of the yeshiva! We should have listened! You were so stubborn, Miriam!”
“Enough, Avrum! When did you hear about this, Nathan? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Why didn’t he tell us?” his father erupted. “Because look what happens when he does! Do we listen to our sons? Do we pay attention? No! Because of you! You’re blind to your own children!”
“I’m blind? What about you? Working on shabbas, what kind of example is that! And not enough money to keep the same roof over our heads, we have to move again! Whose blindness is that!”
His father stomped out. Nathan watched the snow. He and his mother sat in silence. After a few minutes his mother went upstairs to check on Carl.
All night Nathan heard his parents fighting. By the next morning they had a plan. They told Nathan that when the yeshiva resumed the following day, his mother would go with him and Carl and demand to speak with Rabbi Lerner and find out what was going on. Then, when the public school reopened, she would go there. Tell them Carl was a smart boy, no more scholarship money, when can he enroll. Things were going to change in the family. Peace in the house. Financial worries were for parents, not for children. They were going to take better care of things from now on.
“What do you think Carl will say?” his mother asked, teary. Carl was still asleep. His father had gone out to buy the newspaper. “Do you think he’ll be happier now?”
Nathan looked at her. How could he save her? How could he save any of them?
“It’s his birthday tomorrow,” he said. “Let’s turn on all the lights.”
The next morning Carl whispered to Nathan at the kitchen table not to worry, that he’d had a breakthrough with his secret work, but that he would go to school because it was his birthday and his absence would be noticed. Nathan listened, feverish, didn’t touch his breakfast. Fifteen minutes later, the thermometer plucked from his mouth, his mother sent him back to bed. She would stay home with him and go to the yeshiva the next day. Meantime they would have a birthday cake for Carl when he and his father returned home that evening. They would turn on all the lights.
At three o’clock Nathan woke to the sound of the front door. The snow was still falling. He went downstairs. His father stood in the living room in his coat and hat, his face ashen. His mother sobbed on the couch.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Nathan said. “Why are you home? Did you get fired? Did they shut the place down?”
His father turned to the window. The sky was slate.
“Is it Carl? Did something happen to Carl? It’s Carl, isn’t it. Tell me!”
“Sit down, Nathan.” His father’s voice was shaking. “Your brother, he was on the roof. The roof of the school. Naked, no shoes, nothing, standing in the snow, the ice, yelling.” His voice broke. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, held it against his eyes. “Yelling about angels, they were telling him the secrets of heaven, coming back for him, he was waiting, ready. Crazy nonsense, out of his mind. Four teachers had to hold him down. He was going to jump. They had to tie him up to carry him downstairs.” He began to cry and Nathan felt himself splitting in two, floating onto the ceiling and watching the living room as though it were a play being performed by people he didn’t know. A woman weeping on the couch. A bent man, shoulders shaking, in a wet hat and coat. A boy staring out at a gunmetal sky.
The school sent Carl to Bellevue in an ambulance; Nathan’s parents went by taxi. Nathan wasn’t allowed to go despite his pleas. Mrs. Gottlieb from next door came to stay with him until his parents returned. Nathan wasn’t to breathe a word.
He lay on his bed and watched the ceiling. The bell at the back door rang, a single ding. Mr. Gottlieb with Mrs. Gottlieb’s dinner—a piece of chicken, still warm—Mr. Gottlieb standing on the mat, wiping his shoes of the dirty slush from the alley where the Dumpsters were. Nathan looked over at Carl’s bed. The bedspread ached for Carl, the night table whispered for Carl, the curtains fluttered for Carl. Everything longed for Carl.
He looked down. But not the books.
He scrambled to the floor and lifted Carl’s dust ruffle. Hundreds of them, like vermin. He reached in and pulled them out, stood up and threw back Carl’s bedspread, found them under the blankets, the pillows. Then the dresser, behind the radiator, hidden in newspapers on Carl’s chair. He threw them onto the floor, pulled the linens off his own bed, pushed up the mattress. Hundreds of pages scattered on the box spring. Numbers and shapes like impenetrable formulas, sentences scribbled along the tops and sides, words curled inside circles, snaked inside hexagons. The comet’s tail saves the sufferer. Bring me to the palace of radiance. A perfect world, full of splendor.
He flung the papers onto the floor with the books, emptied shoeboxes, shook out sweaters, dug in pockets and hats. Then he went into the hall. The Gottliebs were talking in low tones in the kitchen. From the linen closet he pulled down the old white sheets they took to the bungalow colony in summer—they would not go again—and piled in the papers, the books. When he got to the green one, Carl’s favorite, he flipped it open.
You road I enter upon, you are not all that is here. I believe that much unseen is also here.
Carl had thought it was only words. They both had. But they’d been tricked. Words could betray you. They promised you truth and they told you things you should never know and then they took your life.
Because everyone knew there were things no one should ever know.
He filled the sheets, tied them tight, put on his sneakers. He waited at the top of the stairs. Mr. Gottlieb went out the back door. Mrs. Gottlieb rinsed her dish. He saw the kitchen light go out, heard her pad into the living room, click on the TV.
He hurried down the steps, a sheet over his shoulder, its contents digging into his back. When the noise from the television billowed up with laughter, he unlatched the kitchen door, ran out into the icy black night through the alley to the open Dumpster and hurled his terrible burden into the stinking bin. Then the next one and the one after that, two, three, four trips, heaving his burden into the trash again and again until it was all gone and he raised his trembling face to the moonless sky and cursed the God who answers his prayers.