“Zalman,” the man said, jumping up and shaking Charles’s hand. “Rabbi Zalman Meintz.”
“Charles Luger,” Charles said, taking off his coat.
The couch, though it had seen brighter days, was clean. Charles had expected dust to rise when he sat. As soon as he touched the fabric, he got depressed. More chintz. Sun-dulled flowers crawled all over it.
“Just moved in,” Zalman said. “New space. Much bigger. But haven’t organized, as you can see.” He pointed at specific things: a mirror, a china hutch. “Please excuse, or forgive — please excuse our appearance. More important matters come first. Very busy lately, very busy.” As if to illustrate, a phone perched on a dollhouse set to ringing. “You see,” Zalman said. He reached over and shut off the ringer. “Like that all day. At night, too. Busier even at night.”
The surroundings didn’t inspire confidence, but Zalman did. He couldn’t have been much more than thirty, but he looked to Charles like a real Jew: long black beard, black suit, black hat at his side, and a nice big caricaturish nose, like Fagin’s but friendlier.
“Well, then, Mr. Luger. What brings you to my lair?”
Charles was unready to talk. He turned his attention to a painted seascape on the wall. “That the Galilee?”
“Oh, no.” Zalman laughed and, sitting back, crossed his legs. For the first time Charles noticed that he was sporting heavy wool socks and suede sandals. “That’s Bolinas. My old stomping grounds.”
“Bolinas?” Charles said. “California?”
“I see what’s happening here. Very obvious.” Zalman uncrossed his legs, reached out, and put a hand on Charles’s knee. “Don’t be shy,” he said. “You’ve made it this far. Searched me out in a bright corner of a Brooklyn attic. If such a meeting has been ordained, which by its very nature it has been, then let’s make the most of it.”
“I’m Jewish,” Charles said. He said it with all the force, the excitement, and the relief of any of life’s great admissions. Zalman was silent. He was smiling, listening intently, and, apparently, waiting.
“Yes,” he said, maintaining the smile. “And?”
“Since yesterday,” Charles said. “In a cab.”
“Oh,” Zalman said. “Oh! Now I get it.”
“It just came over me.”
“Wild,” Zalman said. He clapped his hands together, looked up at the ceiling, and laughed. “Miraculous.”
“Unbelievable,” Charles added.
“No!” Zalman said, his smile gone, a single finger held up in Charles’s face. ”No, it’s not unbelievable. That it is not. I believe you. Knew before you said — exactly why I didn’t respond. A Jew sits in front of me and tells me he’s Jewish. This is no surprise. To see a man so Jewish, a person who could be my brother, who is my brother, tell me he has only now discovered he’s Jewish — that, my friend, that is truly miraculous.” During his speech he had slowly moved his finger back; now he thrust it into Charles’s face anew. “But not unbelievable. I see cases of this all the time.”