A story by Isaac Bashevis Singer
The telephone rang and Dr. Max Greitzer woke up. On the night table the clock showed fifteen minutes to eight. “Who could be calling so early?” he murmured. He picked up the phone and a woman’s voice said, “Dr. Greitzer, excuse me for calling at this hour. A woman who was once dear to you has died. Liza Nestling.”
“The funeral is today at eleven. I thought you would want to know.”
“You are right. Thank you. Thank you. Liza Nestling played a major role in my life. May I ask whom I am speaking to?”
“It doesn’t matter. Liza and I became friends after you two separated. The service will be in Gutgestalt’s funeral parlor. You know the address?”
“Yes, thank you.”
The woman hung up.
Dr. Greitzer lay still for a while. So Liza was gone. Twelve years had passed since their breaking up. She had been his great love. Their affair lasted about fifteen years—no, not fifteen; thirteen. The last two had been filled with so many misunderstandings and complications, with so much madness, that words could not describe them. The same powers that built this love destroyed it entirely. Dr. Greitzer and Liza Nestling never met again. They never wrote to one another. From a friend of hers he learned that she was having an affair with a would-be theater director, but that was the only word he had about her. He hadn’t even known that Liza was still in New York.
Dr. Greitzer was so distressed by the bad news that he didn’t remember how he got dressed that morning or found his way to the funeral parlor. When he arrived, the clock across the street showed twenty-five to nine. He opened the door, and the receptionist told him that he had come too early. The service would not take place until eleven o’clock.
“Is it possible for me to see her now?” Max Greitzer asked. “I am a very close friend of hers, and . . .”
“Let me ask if she’s ready.” The girl disappeared behind a door.
Dr. Greitzer understood what she meant. The dead are elaborately fixed up before they are shown to their families and those who attend the funeral.
Soon the girl returned and said, “It’s all right. Fourth floor, room three.”
A man in a black suit took him up in the elevator and opened the door to room number three. Liza lay in a coffin opened to her shoulders, her face covered with gauze. He recognized her only because he knew it was she. Her black hair had the dullness of dye. Her cheeks were rouged, and the wrinkles around her closed eyes were hidden under makeup. On her reddened lips there was a hint of a smile. How do they produce a smile? Max Greitzer wondered. Liza had once accused him of being a mechanical person, a robot with no emotion. The accusation was false then, but now, strangely, it seemed to be true. He was neither dejected nor frightened.
The door to the room opened and a woman with an uncanny resemblance to Liza entered. “It’s her sister, Bella,” Max Greitzer said to himself. Liza had often spoken about her younger sister, who lived in California, but he had never met her. He stepped aside as the woman approached the coffin. If she were to burst out crying, he would be nearby to comfort her. She showed no special emotion, and he decided to leave her with her sister, but it occurred to him that she might be afraid to stay alone with a corpse, even her own sister’s.
After a few moments, she turned and said, “Yes, it’s her.”
“I expect you flew in from California,” Max Greitzer said, just to say something.
“Your sister was once close to me. She often spoke about you. My name is Max Greitzer.”
The woman stood silent and seemed to ponder his words. Then she said, “You’re mistaken.”
“Mistaken? You aren’t her sister, Bella?”
“Don’t you know that Max Greitzer died? There was an obituary in the newspapers.”
Max Greitzer tried to smile. “Probably another Max Greitzer.” The moment he uttered these words, he grasped the truth: he and Liza were both dead—the woman who spoke to him was not Bella but Liza herself. He now realized that if he were still alive he would be shaken with grief. Only someone on the other side of life could accept with such indifference the death of a person he had once loved. Was what he was experiencing the immortality of the soul? he wondered. If he were able, he would laugh now, but the illusion of body had vanished; he and Liza no longer had material substance. Yet they were both present. Without a voice he asked, “Is this possible?”
He heard Liza answer in her smart style, “If it is so, it must be possible.” She added, “For your information, your body is lying here too.”
“How did it happen? I went to sleep last night a healthy man.”
“It wasn’t last night and you were not healthy. A degree of amnesia seems to accompany this process. It happened to me a day ago and therefore—”
“I had a heart attack?”
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“With me everything takes a long time. How did you hear about me, anyway?” she added.
“I thought I was lying in bed. Fifteen minutes to eight the telephone rang and a woman told me about you. She refused to give her name.”
“Fifteen minutes to eight your body was already here. Do you want to go look at yourself? I’ve seen you. You are in number five. They made a krasavetz out of you.”
He hadn’t heard anyone say krasavetz for years. It meant a beautiful man. Liza had been born in Russia and she often used this word.
“No. I’m not curious.”
In the chapel it was quiet. A clean-shaven rabbi with curly hair and a gaudy tie made a speech about Liza. “She was an intellectual woman in the best sense of the word,” he said. “When she came to America she worked all day in a shop and at night she attended college, graduating with high honors. She had bad luck and many things in her life went awry, but she remained a lady of high integrity.”
“I never met that man. How could he know about me?” Liza asked.
“Your relatives hired him and gave him the information,” Greitzer said.
“I hate these professional compliments.”
“Who’s the fellow with the gray moustache on the first bench?” Max Greitzer asked.
Liza uttered something like a laugh. “My has-been husband.”
“You were married? I heard only that you had a lover.”
“I tried everything, with no success whatsoever.” “Where would you like to go?” Max Greitzer asked.
“Perhaps to your service.”
“What state of being is this?” Liza asked. “I see everything. I recognize everyone. There is my Aunt Reizl. Right behind her is my Cousin Becky. I once introduced you to her.”
“The chapel is half empty. From the way I acted toward others in such circumstances, it is what I deserve. I’m sure that for you the chapel will be packed. Do you want to wait and see?”
“I haven’t the slightest desire to find out.”
The rabbi had finished his eulogy and a cantor recited God Full of Mercy. His chanting was more like crying and Liza said, “My own father wouldn’t have gone into such lamentations.”
“I’ve had enough of it,” Liza said. “Let’s go.”
They floated from the funeral parlor to the street. There, six limousines were lined up behind the hearse. One of the chauffeurs was eating a banana.
“Is this what they call death?” Liza asked. “It’s the same city, the same streets, the same stores. I seem the same too.”
“Yes, but without a body.”
“What am I then? A soul?”
“Really, I don’t know what to tell you,” Max Greitzer said. “Do you feel any hunger?”
“No. No. What do you say to all this?”
“The unbelievable, the absurd, the most vulgar superstitions are proving to be true,”Max Greitzer said.
“Perhaps we will find there is even a Hell and a Paradise.”
“Anything is possible at this point.”
“Perhaps we will be summoned to the Court on High after the burial and asked to account for our deeds?”
“Even this can be.”
“How does it come about that we are together?”
“Please, don’t ask any more questions. I know as little as you.”
“Does this mean that all the philosophic works you read and wrote were one big lie?”
“Worse-they were sheer nonsense.”
At that moment four pallbearers carried out the coffin holding Liza’s body. A wreath lay on top, with an inscription in golden letters: “To the unforgettable Liza in loving memory.”
“Whose wreath is that?” Liza asked, and she answered herself, “For this he’s not stingy.”
“Would you like to go with them to the cemetery?” Max Greitzer asked.
“No—what for? That phony cantor may recite a whining Kaddish after me.”
“What do you want to do?”
Liza listened to herself. She wanted nothing. What a peculiar state, not to have a single wish. In all the years she could remember, her will, her yearnings, her fears, tormented her without letting up. Her dreams were full of desperation, ecstasy, wild passions. More than any other catastrophe, she dreaded the final day, when all that has been is extinguished and the darkness of the grave begins. But here she was, remembering the past, and Max Greitzer was again with her. She said to him, “I imagined that the end would be much more dramatic.”
“I don’t believe this is the end,”he said. “Perhaps a transition between two modes of existence.”
“If so, how long will it last?”
“Since time has no validity, duration has no meaning.”
“Well, you’ve remained the same with your puzzles and paradoxes. Come, we cannot just stay here if you want to avoid seeing your mourners,” Liza said. “Where should we go?”
Max Greitzer took her astral arm and they began to rise without purpose, without a destination. As they might have done from an airplane, they looked down at the earth and saw cities, rivers, fields, lakes—everything but human beings.
“Did you say something?” Liza asked.
And Max Greitzer answered, “Of all my disenchantments, immortality is the greatest.”