When I was a child, I was often taken to meetings of my uncle Simon’s society, the League for a Unified Humanity. These meetings, my mother admitted, were not suitable for a ten-year-old, but what was she to do with me? I could not be left alone at night, and my father, who was a detail man for a pharmaceutical company, was often away from home. He had recently been assigned to the Southwest: we would not see him for weeks at a time. To our ears, places like Arizona and New Mexico might as well have been far-off planets. Yet Uncle Simon, my mother told me proudly, had been to even stranger regions. Sometimes a neighbor would be called in to look after me while my mother went off alone to one of Uncle Simon’s meetings. Going was important, she explained, if only to supply another body. The hall was likely to be half empty. Like all geniuses, Uncle Simon was—“so far,” she emphasized—unappreciated.
Uncle Simon was not really my uncle. He was my mother’s first cousin, but out of respect, and because he belonged to an older generation, I was made to call him uncle. My mother revered him. “Uncle Simon,” she said, “is the smartest man you’ll ever know.” He was an inventor, though not of mundane things like machines, and he had founded the League for a Unified Humanity. What Uncle Simon had invented—and was apparently still inventing, since it was by nature an infinite task—was a wholly new language, one that could be spoken and understood by everyone alive. He had named it GNU, after the African antelope that sports two curved horns, each one turned toward the other, as if striving to close a circle. He had traveled all over the world, picking up roots and discarding the less-common vowels. He had gone to Turkey and China and many countries in South America, where he interviewed Indians and wrote down, in his cryptic homemade notation, the sounds they spoke. In Africa, in a tiny Xhosa village nestled in the wild, he was inspired by observing an actual yellow-horned gnu. And still, with all this elevated foreign experience, he lived, just as we did, in a six-story walkup in the East Bronx, in a neighborhood of small stores, many of them vacant. In the autumn the windows of one of these stores would all at once be shrouded in dense curtains. Gypsies had come to settle in for the winter. My mother said it was the times that had emptied the stores. My father said it was the Depression. I understood it was the Depression that made him work for a firm cruel enough to send him away from my mother and me.
Unlike my mother, my father did not admire Uncle Simon. “That panhandler,” he said. “God only knows where he finds these suckers to put the touch on.”
“They’re cultured Park Avenue people,” my mother protested. “They’ve always felt privileged to fund Simon’s expeditions.”
“Simon’s expeditions! If you ask me, in the last fifteen years he’s never gotten any farther than down the street to the public library to poke his nose in the National Geographic.”
“Nobody’s asking, and since when are you so interested? Anyhow,” my mother said, “it’s not Simon who runs after the money, it’s her.”
“Her,” I knew, was Uncle Simon’s wife, Essie. I was not required to call her aunt.
“She dresses up to beat the band and flatters their heads off,” my mother went on. “Well, someone’s got to beg, and Simon’s not the one for that sort of thing. Who’s going to pay for the hall? Not to mention his research.”
“Research,” my father mocked. “What’re you calling research? Collecting old noises in order to scramble them into new noises. Why doesn’t he go out and get a regular job? A piece of work, those two—zealots! No, I’ve got that wrong, he’s the zealot, and she’s the fawning ignoramus. Those idiot jingles! Not another penny, Lily, I’m warning you, you’re not one of those Park Avenue suckers with money to burn.”
“It’s only for the annual dues—”
“The League for Scrambling Noises. Ten bucks down the sewer.” He put on his brown felt fedora, patted his vest pocket to check for his train ticket, and left us.
“Look how he goes away angry,” my mother said, “and all in front of a child. Vivian dear, you have to understand. Uncle Simon is ahead of his time, and not everyone can recognize that. Daddy doesn’t now, but someday he surely will. In the meantime, if we don’t want him to come home angry, let’s not tell that we’ve been to a meeting.”
Uncle Simon’s meetings always began the same way, with Uncle Simon proposing a newly minted syllable, explaining its derivation from two or three alien roots, and the membership calling out their opinions. Mostly these were contentious, and loud arguments broke out over whether the syllable in question could serve as a verb without a different syllable attached to its tail. Even my mother looked bored during these sessions. She took off her wool gloves and then pulled them on again. The hall was unheated, and my feet in their galoshes were growing numb. All around us a storm of furious fingers holding lit cigarettes stirred up halos of pale smoke; these irritable shouting men (they were mostly men) appeared to detest Uncle Simon almost as much as my father did. How could Uncle Simon be ahead of his time if even his own League people quarreled with him?
My mother whispered, “You don’t have to be upset, dear, it’s really all right. It’s just their enthusiasm. It’s what they have to do to decide, the way scientists do experiments, try and try again. We’re sitting right in the middle of Uncle Simon’s laboratory. You’ll see, in the end they’ll all agree.”
It struck me that they would never all agree, but after a while the yelling ebbed to a kind of low communal grumbling, the smoke darkened, and the next part of the meeting, the part I liked best (or disliked least), commenced. At the front of the hall, at the side, was a little platform, broad enough to accommodate one person. Two steps led up to it, and Uncle Simon’s wife mounted them and positioned herself. “The opera star,” my mother said into my ear. Essie was all in yellow silk, with a yellow silk rose at her collarbone, and a yellow silk rose in her graying hair. She had sewn this dress herself, from a tissue-paper pattern bought at Kresge’s. She was a short plump flat-nosed woman who sighed often; her blackly gleaming pumps with their thin pedestals made her look, I thought, like Minnie Mouse. Her speaking voice too was mouselike, too soft to carry well, and the podium was bare of any microphone.
“‘Sunshine Beams,’ ” she announced. “I will first deliver my poem in English, and then I will render it in the lovely idiom of GNU, the future language of all mankind, as translated by Mr. Simon Greenfeld.”
My mother saw immediately (she informed me later) that Essie had designed her gown to reflect her recitation:
If in your most radiant dreams
You see the yellow of sunshine beams,
Then know, O Human Race all,
That you have heard the call
Of Humanity Unified.
So see me wear yellow with pride!
For it means that the horns of the gnu are meeting at last,
and the Realm of Unity has come to pass!
“Yellow horn, yellow horn, each one toward his fellow horn” was the refrain, repeated twice.
“The opera star and the poetess,” my mother muttered. But then something eerie happened: Essie began to sing, and the words, which even I could tell were silly, were transmuted into reedlike streams of unearthly sounds. I felt shivery all over, and not from the cold. I was not unused to the hubbub of foreign languages: a Greek-speaking family lived across the street, the greengrocer on the corner was Lebanese, and our own building vibrated with Neapolitan and Yiddish exuberances. Yet what we were hearing now was something altogether alien. It had no affinity with anything recognizable. It might just as well have issued from the mouths of mermaids at the bottom of the sea.
“Well?” my mother said. “How beautiful, didn’t I tell you? Even when it comes out of her.”
The song ended in a pastel sheen, like the slow decline of a sunset.
Uncle Simon held up his hand against the applause. His voice was hoarse and high-pitched and ready for battle. “For our next meeting,” he said, “the program will feature a GNU rendition, by yours truly, of Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark,’ to be set to music by our own songbird, Esther Rhoda Greenfeld, so please everyone be sure to mark the date …”
But the hall was in commotion. A rocking boom was erupting from the mostly empty rear rows, drowning Uncle Simon out. Three men and two women were standing on their chairs and stamping their feet, drumming faster and faster. This was, I knew, no more unexpected than Essie’s singing and Uncle Simon’s proclamations. It burst out at the close of nearly every meeting, and Uncle Simon reveled in the clamor. These were his enemies and rivals; but no, he had no rivals, my mother assured me, and he took it as a compliment that those invaders, those savages, turned up at all, and that they waited until after Essie had finished. They waited in order to ridicule her, but what was their ridicule if not envy? They were shrieking out some foolish babble, speaking in tongues, pretending a parody of GNU, and when they went off into their customary chanting, wasn’t that the truest sign of their defeat, of their envy?
“ZA-men-hof! ZA-men-hof!” Uncle Simon’s enemies were howling. They jumped off their seats and ran down the aisle toward the podium, bawling right into Uncle Simon’s reddening face.
“Esper-ANto! Esper-ANto! ZA-men-hof!”
“We’d better leave,” my mother said, “before things get rough.” She hurried me out of the hall without stopping to say good night to Uncle Simon. I saw that this would have been impossible anyhow. He had his fists up, and I wondered if his enemies were going to knock him down. He was a small man, and his nearsighted eyes were small and frail behind their fat lenses. Only his ridged black hair looked robust, scalloped like the sand when the tide has run out.
Though I had witnessed this scene many times in my childhood, years passed before I truly fathomed its meaning. By then my father had, according to my mother, “gone native”: he had fallen in love with the Southwest and was bringing back handwoven baskets from New Mexico for my mother’s rubber plants, and toy donkeys made of layers of colored crepe paper for me. I was in my late teens when he persuaded my mother to move to Arizona. “Ludicrous,” she complained. “I’ll be a fish out of water out there. I’ll be cut off from everything.” She worried especially about what would happen to Uncle Simon, who was now living alone downtown, in a room with an icebox and a two-burner stove hidden behind a curtain. That Essie! A divorce! The scandal was Essie’s doing: no one in our family had ever before succumbed to such shame. She had accused Uncle Simon of philandering.
“What a viper that woman is,” my mother said. “And all on top of what she did to the baby.” She was filling a big steamer trunk with linens and quilts. The pair of creases between her eyebrows tightened. “God knows how those people out there think. As far as they’re concerned, I could just as well be a greenhorn right off the boat. I’d rather die than live in such a place, but Daddy says he’s up for a raise if he sticks to the territory.”
I had heard about the baby nearly all my life. Uncle Simon and Essie had not always been childless. Their little girl, eleven months old and already walking, had died before I was born. Her name was Henrietta. They had gone to South America on one of Uncle Simon’s expeditions—in those days Essie went everywhere with him. “She never used to let him out of her sight,” my mother recounted. “She was always jealous. Suspicious. She expected Simon to be no better than she was, that’s the truth. You know she was already pregnant at the wedding, so she was grateful to him for marrying her. As well she should be, considering that who knows whose baby it was, maybe Simon’s, maybe not. If you ask me, not. She’d had a boyfriend who had hair just like Simon’s, black and wiry. The baby had a headful of black curls. The poor little thing caught one of those diseases they have down there, in Peru or Bolivia, one of those places. Leave it to Essie, would any normal mother drag a baby through a tropical swamp?”
“A swamp?” I asked. “The last time you told about the baby it was a desert.”
“Desert or swamp, what’s the difference? It was something you don’t come down with in the Bronx. The point is Essie killed that child.”
I was happy that the move to the Southwest did not include me. I had agitated to attend college locally, chiefly to escape Arizona. My father had paid for a year’s tuition at NYU, and also for half the rent of a walkup on Avenue A that I shared with another freshman, Annette Sorenson. The toilet was primitive—it had an old-fashioned pull chain and a crack in the overhead tank that leaked brown sludge. The bathtub was scored with reddish stains that could not be scrubbed away, though Annette went at it with steel wool and bleach. She cried nearly every night, not from homesickness but from exasperation. She had come from Briar Basin to NYU, she confided, because it was located in Greenwich Village. (“Briar Basin, Minnesota,” she said; she didn’t expect me to know that.) She was on the lookout for bohemia, and had most of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s verse by heart. She claimed she had discovered exactly which classroom Thomas Wolfe had once taught in. She explored the nearby bars, but legend eluded her. Her yearnings were commonplace in that neighborhood: she wanted to act someday, and in the meantime she intended to inhale the atmosphere. She was blond and large all over. Her shoulder blades were a foot and a half apart and her wrist bones jutted like crab apples. I thought of her as a kind of Valkyrie. She boasted, operatically, that she wasn’t a virgin.
I took Annette with me to visit Simon. I had long ago dropped the “Uncle”; I was too old for that. My mother’s letters were reminding me not to neglect him. A twenty-dollar bill was sometimes enclosed, meant for delivery to Simon. I knew my father believed the money was for me; now and then he would add an admonitory line. Essie was still living in the old apartment in the Bronx, supporting herself well enough. She had a job in a men’s clothing store and sat all day in a back room doing alterations, letting out seams and shortening sleeves. I suspected that Simon was on the dole. I doubted, after all this time, that he was still being shored up by his Park Avenue idealists.
“Is your uncle some sort of writer?” Annette asked as we climbed the stairs. The wooden steps creaked tunefully; the ancient layers of paint on the banisters were thickly wrinkled. I had told her that Simon was crazy about words. “I mean really crazy,” I said.
Simon was sitting at a bridge table lit by a gooseneck lamp. A tower of dictionaries was at his left. A piece of questionable-looking cheese lay in a saucer on his right. In between was a bottle of ink. He was filling his fountain pen.
“My mother sends her love,” I said, and handed Simon an envelope with the twenty-dollar bill folded into a page torn from my Modern History text. Except for a photograph of a zeppelin, it was blank. My father’s warning about how not to be robbed in broad daylight was always to keep your cash well swaddled. “Otherwise those Village freaks down there will sure as shooting nab it,” he wrote at the bottom of my mother’s letter. But I had wrapped the money mostly to postpone Simon’s humiliation: maybe, if only for a moment, he would think I was once again bringing him one of my mother’s snapshots of cactus and dunes. She had lately acquired a box camera; in order not to be taken for a greenhorn, she was behaving like a tourist. At that time I had not yet recognized that an occasional donation might not humiliate Simon.
He screwed the cap back on the ink bottle and looked Annette over.
“My roommate. Annette Sorenson.”
“A great big girl, how about that. Viking stock. You may be interested to know that I’ve included a certain uncommon Scandinavian diphthong in my work. Zamenhof didn’t dare. He looked the other way. He didn’t have the nerve.” Behind his glasses Simon was grinning. “Any friend of my niece Vivian I intend to like. But never an Esperantist. You’re not an Esperantist, are you?”
This, or something like it, was his usual opening. I had by now determined that Essie was right: Simon was a flirt, and something more. He went for the girls. Once he even went for me: he put out a hand and cupped my breast. Then he thought better of it. He had, after all, known me from childhood; he desisted. Or else, since it was January, and anyhow I was wearing a heavy wool overcoat, there wasn’t much of interest worth cupping. For my part, I ignored it. I was eighteen, with eyes in my head, beginning to know a thing or two. I had what you might call an insight. Simon coveted more than the advancement of GNU.
On my mother’s instructions I opened his icebox. A rancid smell rushed out. I saw a shapeless object green at the edges—the other half of the cheese in his saucer. The milk was sour, so I poured it down the toilet. Simon was all the while busy with his spiel, lecturing Annette on the evil history of Esperanto and its ignominious creator and champion, Dr. Ludwig Zamenhof of Bialystok, Poland.
“There they spoke four languages, imagine that! Four lousy languages! And this is what inspires him? Four languages? Did he ever go beyond European roots? Never! The man lived inside a puddle and never stepped out of it. Circumscribed! Small! Narrow!”
“I’ll be right back,” I called out from the doorway, and went down to the grocery on the corner to replenish Simon’s meager larder. I had heard this grandiose history too many times: how Simon alone had ventured into the genuinely universal, how he had roamed far beyond Zamenhof’s paltry horizons into the vast tides of human speech, drawing from these a true synthesis, a compact common language unsurpassed in harmony and strength. Yet tragically eclipsed—eclipsed by Zamenhof’s disciples, those deluded believers, those adorers of a false messiah! An eye doctor, that charlatan, and look how he blinds all his followers: Germanic roots, Romance roots, Slavic, and then he stops, as if he knows no India, no China, no Arabia! No Aleutian islanders! Why didn’t the fellow just stick to the polyglot Yiddish he was born into and let it go at that? Did he ever set foot twenty miles into the Orient, into the Levant? No! Then why didn’t he stick to Polish? An eye doctor who couldn’t see past his own nose. Hamlet in Esperanto, did you ever hear of such chutzpah?
And so on: Esperanto, a fake, a sham, an injustice!
As I was coming up the stairs, carrying bread and milk and eggs in the straw-handled Indian bag my mother had sent as a present for Simon, I heard Annette say, “But I never knew Esperanto even existed,” and I saw that Simon had Annette’s hand in his. He was circling her little finger with a coarse thumb that curved backward like a twisted spoon. She didn’t seem to mind.
“You shouldn’t call him crazy,” she protested. “He’s only disappointed.” By then we were already in the street. She looked up at Simon’s fourth-floor window. It flashed back at her like a signal: it had caught the late sun. I noticed that she was holding a white square of paper with writing on it.
“A word he gave me. A brand-new word that no one’s ever used before. He wants me to learn it.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
“It means ‘enchanting maiden,’ isn’t that something?”
“Not if maiden’s supposed to be the same as virgin.”
“Cut it out, Vivian, just stop it. He thinks I can help.”
“I could recruit. He says I could get young people interested.”
“I’m young people,” I said. “I’ve never been interested, and I’ve had to listen to Simon’s stuff all my life. He bores me silly.”
“Well, he told me you take after your father, whatever that means. A prophet is without honor in his own family, that’s what he said.”
“Simon isn’t a prophet, he’s a crank.”
“I don’t care what he is. You don’t get to meet someone like that in Minnesota. And he even wears sandals!”
She seemed to have found her bohemian at last. The sandals were another of my mother’s presents. Like the photos of the cactus and the dunes, they were intended as souvenirs of distant Arizona.
After that, though Annette and I ate and slept within inches of each other, an abyss opened between us. Friendship had never been possible. I was serious and diligent, she was not. I attended every class. Annette skipped most of hers. She could spurt instant tears. I was resolutely dry-hearted. Besides, I had my suspicions of people who liked to show off and imagined they could turn into Katharine Cornell, the famous actress. Annette spoke of “thespians” and “theater folk,” and began parading in green lipstick and black stockings. But even this wore off after a time. She was starting to take her meals away from our flat. She kept a secret notebook with a mottled cover, bound by a strap connected to a purple sash tied around her waist. I had nothing to say to her, and when in a month or so she told me she had decided to move out (“I need to be with my own crowd,” she explained), I was altogether relieved.
I was also troubled. I was afraid to risk another roommate: would my father agree to shouldering the full rent? I put this anxiety in a letter to Arizona; the answer came, unexpectedly, from my father, and not, as usual, in a jagged postscript below my mother’s big round slanted Palmer-method penmanship. The extra money, he said, wouldn’t be a problem. “Believe it or not,” he wrote, “your mother thinks she’s a rich woman, she’s gone into business! There she was, collecting beaded belts and leather dolls, and God only knows what other cheap junk people like to pick up out here, and before I can look around, she’s opened up this dinky little gift shop, and she’s got these gullible out-of-staters paying good dollars for what costs your mother less than a dime. Trinkets! To tell the truth, I never knew she had this nonsense in her, and neither did she.”
This time it was my mother who supplied the postscript—but I observed it had a later date, and I guessed she had mailed the letter without my father’s having seen her addendum. It was a kind of judicial rider: she had put him in the dock. “I don’t know why your dad is so surprised,” she complained in a tone so familiar that I could almost hear her voice in the sprawl of her handwriting. “I’ve always had an artistic flair, whether or not it showed, and I don’t much appreciate it when your dad puts me down like that, just because he’s disillusioned with being stuck out here. He says he’s sick and tired of it and misses home, but I don’t, and my gallery is already beginning to look like a success, it’s all authentic Hopi work! But that’s the way your dad is—anywhere he finds culture and ambition, he just has to put it down. For years he did it to Simon, and now he’s doing it to me. And Vivian dear, speaking of Simon, he ought to be eating his greens. I hope you’re remembering to bring him a salad now and then.” A fifty-dollar bill dropped out of the envelope.
That my mother was writing to me without my father’s knowledge did not disturb me. It was of a piece with her long-ago attempts to conceal our attendance at Simon’s old meetings. But I felt the heat of my guilt: I had neglected Simon, I hadn’t looked in on him for … I hardly knew how many weeks it might have been. Weeks, surely; two months, three? I resented those visits; I resented the responsibility my mother had cursed me with. Simon was worse than a crank and a bore. He was remote from my youth and my life. I thought of him as a bad smell, like his icebox.
But I obediently chopped up lettuce and cucumbers and green peppers, and poured a garlic-and-oil dressing over all of it. Then, with the fifty-dollar bill well wrapped in wax paper and inserted into a folded piece of cardboard with a rubber band around it, I went to see Simon. Two flights below the landing that led to his place I could already hear the commotion vibrating out of it: an incomprehensible clamor, shreds of laughter, and a strangely broken wail that only vaguely passed for a chant. The door was open; I looked in. A mob of acolytes was swarming there—no, not swarming after all: in the tiny square of Simon’s parlor, with its sofa bed in one corner and its makeshift pantry (a pair of wooden crates) in the other, hardly a clear foot of space was available to accommodate a swarming. Yet what I saw through a swaying tangle of elbows and legs had all the buzz and teeming of a hive: a squatting, a slouching, a splaying, a leaning, a curling up, a lying down. And in the center of this fleshy oscillation, gargling forth the syllables of GNU, stood Annette. She stood like a risen tower, solid as bricks. She seemed to be cawing—croaking, crackling, chirring—though in the absence of anything intelligible, how was it possible to tell? Were these the sounds and cadences of the universal tongue? I could not admit surprise: from the start Annette had been so much my unwanted destiny. What else could she be now, having materialized here, in the very bosom of GNU? Or, if she wasn’t to be my destiny, she intended to be Simon’s. She was resurrecting his old meetings—it was plain from the spirit of the thing that this wasn’t the first or the last. Anyhow it was flawed. No enemies lurked among these new zealots, if they were zealots at all.
At that time faddists of various persuasions proliferated up and down the Village: anarchists who dutifully went home every night to their mothers’ kitchens, a Hungarian monarchist with his own following, free-verse poets who eschewed capital letters, cultists who sat rapturously for hours in orgone boxes, cloudy Swedenborgians, and all the rest. These crazes never tempted me; my early exposure to Simon’s fanatics had been vaccination enough. As for where Annette had fetched this current crew, I supposed they were picked up from the looser margins of her erstwhile theater crowd. Corroboratory instances flickered, here and there, of black stockings and green lipstick: but no Esperantists. Zamenhof was as alien to these recruits as—well, as GNU had been two months ago. Not one of them would have been willing to knock Simon down.
Annette lifted her face from her mottled notebook. All around her the wriggling knots of torsos turned inert and watchful.
“Oh my God, it’s Vivian,” she said. “What’re you doing here? Can’t you see we’re in the middle of something?”
“I’m just bringing a green salad for my uncle—”
“Little Green Riding Hood, how sweet. She’s not his actual niece,” Annette explained to the mob. “She doesn’t give a hoot about his work. Hey, Viv, you don’t think we’d let a man like that starve? And if you want to know what a real green salad looks like, here’s a green salad.” She swooped to the floor and swept up a large straw basket (yet another of my mother’s souvenirs) heaped with verdant dollars. “This week’s dues,” she told me.
I surveyed the bodies at my feet, sorting among them. “Where is he?”
“Simon? Not here. Thursday’s his day away, but he gave us the new words last time, so we carry on. We do little dialogues, we’re getting the hang of it. We’re his pioneers,” she declaimed: Katharine Cornell to the hilt.
“And then it’ll spread all over,” a voice called out.
“There, you see?” Annette said. “Some people understand. Poor Viv’s never figured it out. Simon’s going against the Bible, he’s an atheist.”
“Is that what he tells you?”
“You are such a dope,” she spat out. “The Tower of Babel’s why he got to thinking about GNU in the first place, isn’t it? So that things would go back to the way they were. The way it was before.”
“Before what? Before they invented lunatic asylums? Look,” I said, “as far as I’m concerned Simon’s not exactly right in the head, so I’m supposed to—” But I broke off shamefacedly. “I have to watch out for him, he’s sort of my responsibility.”
“As far as you’re concerned? How far is that? How long’s it been since you showed up anyhow?”
Annette, I saw, was shrewder than I could ever hope to be. She was stupid and she was earnest. The stupidity would last, the earnestness might be fleeting, but the combination ignited a volcanic purposefulness: she had succeeded in injecting a bit of living tissue into Simon’s desiccated old fossil. She was a first-rate organizer. I wondered how much of that weekly green salad she took away with her. And why not? It was a commission on dues. It was business.
“Where is he?” I insisted. I was still holding the bowl of cut vegetables, and all at once discovered a tremor in my hands: from fury, from humiliation.
“He went to visit a family member. That’s what he said.”
“A family member? I don’t know of any around here, there’s only me.”
“He goes every Thursday, I guess to see his wife.”
“His ex-wife. He’s been divorced for years.”
“Well, he didn’t want that divorce, did he? He’s a man who likes being affectionate—maybe not to you. He gives back what he’s given, that’s why, and believe me he doesn’t need you to turn up with your smelly old veggies once in a blue moon.” Behind her the mob was breaking up. It was distracted, it was annoyed, it was impatient, it was uprooted, it was stretching its limbs. It was growling, and not in the universal tongue. “Just look what you’ve done,” Annette accused, “barging in like that. We were doing so beautifully, and now you’ve broken the spell.”
Circumspectly, I wrote the news to my mother. I had been to Simon’s flat, I said, and things were fine. They were boiling away. His old life had nicely recommenced: he had a whole new set of enthusiasts. His work was reaching the next generation; he even had an agent to help him out. I did not tell her that I hadn’t in fact seen Simon, and I didn’t dare hint that he might be courting Essie again: wasn’t that what Annette had implied? Nor did I confess that I had unwrapped the fifty-dollar bill and kept it for myself. I had no right to it; it couldn’t count as a commission. I had done nothing for Simon. I had failed my mother’s charge.
My mother’s reply was long in coming. In itself this was odd enough: I had expected an instant happy outcry. With lavish deception I had depicted Simon’s triumphant renewal, the future of GNU assured, crowds of mesmerized and scholarly young people streaming to his lectures—several of which, I lied, were held in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, at the very lectern Lincoln himself had once sanctified.
And it was only Annette, it was only the Village revolving on its fickle wheel: soon the mob would be spinning away to the next curiosity.
My mother was on a wheel of her own. She was whirling on its axle, and Simon was lately at the distant perimeter. Her languorously sweeping Palmer arches were giving way to crabbed speed. She was out of time, she informed me, she had no time, no time at all, she was glad to hear that Simon was doing well, after all these years he was finally recovered from that fool Essie, that witch who had always kept him down, but so much was happening, happening so fast, the gallery was flooded with all these tourists crazy for crafts, the place was wild, she was exhausted, she’d had to hire help, and meanwhile, she said, your father decided to retire, it was all to the good, she needed him in the gallery, and yes, he had his little pension, that was all right, never mind that it was beside the point, she had so much stock and it sold so fast that she’d had to buy the building next door to store whatever came in, and what came in went out in a day, and your father, can you imagine, was keeping the books and calling himself Comptroller, she didn’t care what he called himself, they were importing like mad, all these kachina dolls from Japan, they certainly look like the real thing, the customers don’t know the difference anyhow …
It seemed she was detaching herself from Simon. The kachinas had freed her. I was not sorry that I had deceived her; hadn’t she taught me how to deceive? For my part, I had no desire to look after Simon. He was hokum. He was snake oil. What may have begun as a passion had become a con. Simon’s utopia was now no more than a Village whim, and Annette its volatile priestess. But what had Essie, sewing out her old eyes in the lint-infested back room of a neighborhood haberdashery, to do with any of it—on Thursdays or any other day? She had thrown him out, and for reason. I surmised that along with Simon’s infidelities she had thrown out her fidelity to GNU. How many strapping young Annettes had he cosseted over the decades?
I did not go back to Simon’s place. I did what I could to chuck him out of my thoughts—but there were reminders and impediments. My mother in her galloping prosperity had taken to sending large checks. The money was no longer for Simon, she assured me; I had satisfied her that he was launched on what, in my telling, was a belated yet flowering career. The money was for me: for tuition and rent and textbooks, of course, but also for new dresses and shoes, for the movies, for treats. With each check—they were coming now in scrappy but frequent maternal rushes—Simon poked a finger in my eye. He invaded, he abraded, he gnawed. I began to see that I would never be rid of him. Annette and her mob would drop him. He would fall from her eagle’s claws directly into my unwilling hands. And still I would not go back.
Instead I went down into the subway at Astor Place (where, across a broad stretch of intersection, loomed my lie: the venerable red brick of Cooper Union), and headed for the Bronx and Essie. I found her where time had left her, in apartment 2-C on the second floor of the old walkup. I was not surprised that she did not recognize me. We had last met when I was twelve and a half; emulating my mother, I had been reliably rude.
“You’re who?” She peered warily through the peephole. On my side I saw a sad brown eye startled under its drooping hood.
“Vivian,” I said. “Lily and Dan’s daughter. From down the block.”
“They left the neighborhood years ago. I don’t know where they went. Ask somebody else.”
“Essie, it’s Vivian,” I repeated. “My mother used to take me to hear Uncle Simon.”
She let me in then, and at the same time let out the heavy quick familiar sigh I instantly recognized: as if some internal calipers had pinched her lung. She kept her look on me fixedly yet passively, like someone sitting in a movie house, waiting for the horses on the screen to rear up.
“How about that, Simon’s cousin’s kid,” she said. “Your mother never liked me.”
“Oh no, I remember how she admired your singing—”
“She admired Simon. She thought he was the cat’s pajamas. Like every other female he ever got near, the younger the better. I wouldn’t put it past him if he had some girlie in his bed right now, wherever he is.”
“But he comes to see you, and he wouldn’t if he didn’t want to be”—I struggled for the plainest word—“together. Reconciled, I mean. At his age. Now that he’s … older.”
“He comes to see me? Simon?” The horses reared up in her eyes. “Why would he want to do that after all this time?”
I had no answer for this. It was what I had endured an hour or more in the subway to find out. If Simon could be restored to Essie, then—as Annette had pronounced—things would go back to the way they once were. The Tower of Babel had nothing to do with it; it was rather a case of Damocles’ sword, Simon’s future dangling threateningly over mine. I wanted him back in the Bronx. I wanted him reinstalled in 2-C. I wanted Essie to claim him.
Her rooms had the airless smell of the elderly. They were hugely overfurnished—massive, darkly oiled pieces, china figurines on every surface. A credenza was littered with empty bobbins and crumpled-up tissue paper. An ancient sewing machine with a wrought-iron treadle filled half a wall; the peeling bust of a mannequin was propped against it. In the bedroom a radio was playing; through spasms of static I heard fragments of opera. Though it was a mild Sunday afternoon in early May, all the windows were shut—despite which, squads of flies were licking their feet along the flanks of the sugar bowl. The kitchen table (Essie had led me there) was covered with blue-flowered oilcloth, cracked in places, so that the canvas lining showed through. I waved the flies away. They circled just below the ceiling for an idling minute, then hurled themselves against the panes like black raindrops. The smell was the smell of stale changelessness.
Essie persisted, “Simon hasn’t been here since God knows how long. Since the divorce. He never comes.”
“Not on Thursdays?” The question hung in all its foolishness. “I heard he goes to visit family, so I thought—”
“I’m not Simon’s family, not anymore. I told you, I haven’t seen him in years. Where would you get an idea like that?”
“From … his assistant. He has an assistant now. A kind of manager. She sets up his meetings.”
“His manager, his assistant, that’s what he calls them. Then he goes out and diddles them. And how come he’s still having those so-called meetings? Who’s paying the bills?” She coughed out a disordered laugh that was half a viscous sigh. “Those famous Park Avenue philanthropists?”
The laugh was too big for her body. Her bones had contracted, leaving useless folds of puckered fallen skin. Her hands were horribly veined.
“Listen, girlie,” she said, “Simon doesn’t come, nobody comes. I do a fitting for a neighbor, I sew up a hem, I put in a pocket, that’s who comes. A bunch of the old Esperantists used to show up, this was when Simon left, but then it stopped. By now they’re probably dead. The whole thing is dead. It’s a wonder Simon isn’t dead.”
The flies had settled back on the sugar bowl. I stood up to go. Nothing could be clearer: there would be no reconciliation. 2-C would not see Simon again.
But Essie was pulling at my sleeve. “Don’t think I don’t know where he goes anyhow. Maybe not Thursdays, who could figure Thursdays, but every week he goes there. He always goes there, it never stops.”
I asked it reluctantly. Was she going to plummet me into a recitation of Simon’s history of diddlings? Did she think me an opportune receptacle for an elderly divorcée’s sour old grievances?
“Why should I tell you where? What have you got to do with any of it? Simon never told your mother, he never told anyone, so why should I tell you? Sit down,” she commanded. “You want something to drink? I’ve got Coca-Cola.”
The bottle had been opened long ago. The glass was smudged. I felt myself ensnared by a desolate hospitality. Having got what I came for—or not having got it—I wanted to hear nothing more.
But she had my arm in her grip. “At my time of life I’m not still squatting down there in the back room of somebody’s pants store, you understand? I’ve got my own little business, I do my fittings right here in my own dining room. The point is I’m someone who can make a living. I could always make a living. My God, your mother was gullible! What wouldn’t she believe, she swallowed it all.”
My mother gullible? She who was at that very hour gulling her tourists into buying Pueblo artifacts factory-made in Japan?
“If you mean she believed in Simon—”
“She believed everything.” She released me then, and sank into a deflecting whisper. “She believed what happened to the baby.”
So it was not simple grievance that I took from Essie that afternoon. It was broader and deeper and wilder and stranger. And what she was deflecting—what she was repudiating as trivia and trifle, as pettiness and quibble—was Simon and his diddlings. He had his girlies—his assistants, his managers—and for all she cared, staring me down, wasn’t I one of them? No, he wouldn’t go so far as his cousin’s kid, and even if he did, so what? It hardly interested her that I was his cousin’s kid, the offspring of a simple-minded woman, an imbecile who would believe anything, who swallowed it all, a chump for any hocus-pocus …
“Lily had her kid,” she said—torpidly, as though reciting an algebraic equation—“she had you, and by then what did I have? An empty crib, and then nothing, nothing, empty—”
When I left Essie four hours later, I knew what had happened to the baby. At Astor Place I ascended, parched and hungry, from the subway’s dark into the dark of nine o’clock: she had offered me nothing but that stale inch of Coke. Instead she had talked and talked, loud and low, in her mouselike whisper, too often broken into by her big coarse bitter croak of a laugh. It was a joke, she assured me, it was a joke and a trick, and now I would know what a gullible woman my mother was, how easy it was to deceive her; how easy it was to trick the whole world. She clutched at me, she made me her muse, she gave me her life. She made me see, and why? Because her child was dead and I was not, or because my mother was a gullible woman, or because there were flies in the room? Who could really tell why? I had fallen in on her out of the blue, out of the ether, out of the past (it wasn’t my past, I hadn’t come to be anyone’s muse, I had come only to dispose of Simon): I was as good, for giving out her life, as a fly on the wall. And did I want her to sing? She could still sing some stanzas in GNU, she hadn’t forgotten how.
I did not ask her to sing. She had hold of me with her fingernails in my flesh, as if I might escape. She drew me back, back, into her young womanhood, when she was newly married to Simon, with Retta already two months in the womb and Simon in his third year at City College, far uptown, dreaming of philology, that funny-sounding hifalutin stuff (as if a boy from the Bronx could aspire to such goings-on!), unready for marriage and fatherhood, and seriously unwilling. And that was the first of all the jokes, because finally the other boy, the one from Cincinnati who was visiting his aunt (the aunt lived around the corner), and who met Essie in the park every night for a week, went home to Ohio … She didn’t tell Simon about that other boy, the curly-haired boy who pronounced all his rs the midwestern way; even under the wedding canopy Simon had no inkling of the Ohio boy. He believed only that he was behaving as a man should behave who has fathered a child without meaning to. It was the first of all the jokes, the first of all the tricks, but the joke was on herself too, since she was just as much in the dark as anyone: was Retta’s papa the Ohio boy, or Simon? Simon had to leave school then, and went to work as a salesman in a men’s store on East Tremont Avenue. Essie had introduced him to her boss; she was adept with a needle, and had already been shortening trousers and putting in pleats and letting out waists for half a year.
Their first summer they did what in those days all young couples with new babies did. They fled the burning Bronx sidewalks, they rented a kochaleyn in the mountains, in one of those Catskill bungalow colonies bristling with musty one-room cottages set side by side, no more than the width of a clothesline between them. Every cottage had its own little stove and icebox and tiny front porch. The mothers and babies spent July and August in the shade of green leaves, among wild tiger lilies as orange as the mountain sunsets, and the fathers came up from the city on weekends, carrying bundles of bread and rolls and oily packets of pastries and smoked whitefish. It was on one of these weekends that Essie decided to tell Simon the joke about the baby, it was so much on her mind, and she thought it would be all right to tell him now because he liked the baby so much, he was mad about Retta, and the truth is the truth, so why not? She had been brought up to tell the truth, even if sometimes the truth is exactly like a joke.
But he did not take it as a joke. He took it as a trick, and for the next two weekends he kept away. Essie, alone with her child and humiliated, went wandering through the countryside, discovering who her neighbors were, and what sort of colony they’d happened into. All the roads were plagued by congregations of wasps, and once the baby, pointing and panting, spied a turtle creeping in the dust. They followed the turtle across the road, and found a community of Trotskyites, beyond which, up the hill, were the Henry George people, and down toward the village a nest of Tolstoyans. Whoever they were, they all had rips in their clothes, they all required mending, they all wanted handmade baby dresses, they all had an eye on styles for the fall, and Essie’s summertime business was under way.
When Simon returned, out of sorts, Essie informed him that in the interim she had taken in fifty-four dollars and twenty-five cents, she could get plenty more if only she had a sewing machine, and besides all that, there was a peculiar surprise that might interest him: next door on one side, next door on the other, and all around, behind them and in front of them—why hadn’t she noticed it sooner? but she was preoccupied with the baby, and now with the sewing—their neighbors were chattering in a kind of garble. Sometimes it sounded like German, sometimes like Spanish (it never sounded like Yiddish), and sometimes like only God knows what. Groups of them were gathering on the little porches, which were no more than leaky wooden lean-tos; they seemed to be studying; they were constantly exchanging comments in their weird garble. They even spoke the weird garble to their older children, who rolled their eyes and answered in plain English.
Which was how Simon fell in among the Esperantists. Bella was one of them. She lived four cottages down, and had a little boy a month or two older than Retta. Julius, her husband, turned up only rarely; his job, whatever it was, kept him at work even on weekends. Bella ordered a dimity blouse and a flowered skirt (dirndl was the fashion) and came often to sit with Essie while she diligently sewed. The two babies, with their pull toys and plush bears, prattled and crowed at their feet. It was a pleasant time altogether, and Simon, when he arrived from the city, seeing the young women sweetly side by side with their children crawling all around them, seemed no longer out of sorts. He was silent now about Essie’s deception, if it was a deception, because, after all, Essie herself wasn’t certain, and the boy from Ohio was by now only a moment’s vanished vapor. Besides, Retta’s pretty curls were as black and billowy as Simon’s own, and Essie was earning money, impressively more than Simon would ever make selling men’s underwear in the Bronx. One August afternoon he arranged to have a secondhand sewing machine delivered to the cottage. Essie jumped up and kissed him, she was so pleased; it was as if the sleek metal neck of the sewing machine had restored them to each other.
After that, Essie’s orders increased, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, while she worked her treadle, Simon went round to one porch or another, happy in the cenacle of the Esperantists. They were eager for converts, of course, and he wanted nothing so much as to be converted. Of all of them, Bella was the most advanced. She was not exactly their leader, but she was an expert teacher, and actually had in her possession a letter of praise from Lidia Zamenhof, Zamenhof’s own daughter and successor. Bella had sent her a sonnet in fluent Esperanto; Lidia replied that Bella’s ingenuity in creating rhyming couplets in the new language exceeded even that of Ludwig Zamenhof himself. Bella knew everything concerning Esperanto; she knew, for instance, that the Oomoto religion in Japan held Esperanto to be a sacred language and Zamenhof to be a god. Zamenhof a god! Simon was entranced; Essie thought he envied Bella even more than he was inspired by her. Also, she felt a little ashamed. Simon loved all those outlandish words, he was possessed by them, words had always been his ambition, and on account of his wife and the child whose hair was as black and thick as his own he had been compelled to surrender words for a life of shirts and ties, boxer shorts and suspenders.
So when Bella asked Essie to take charge of her little boy for just two hours that evening—perhaps he could be put to bed together with Retta, and Bella would come to fetch him afterward—Essie gladly took the child in her arms, and stroked his warm silky nape, and did the same with Retta, whose nape was every bit as silky, and sang both babies to sleep, while Simon walked with Bella through the grassy dusk to be tutored in the quiet of her porch. An electric cord led indoors; there was a lamp, and a table, and a bottle of citronella to ward off the mosquitoes, and (the point of it all) Bella’s weighty collection of Esperanto journals.
Bella had promised two hours, but it was closer to five, and the crickets had retired into their depth-of-night silence when she and Simon returned. Simon had under his arm a fat packet of Bella’s journals, borrowed (Bella explained) to occupy his empty weekday evenings in the city. Essie had fallen into a doze in the old stained armchair next to the big bed—Simon and Essie’s marital bed—where she had set the babies down, nestled together under one blanket. Retta’s crib was too narrow for the two of them; they lay head to head, their round foreheads nearly touching, breathing like a single organism. Bella looked down at her sleeping boy, and murmured that it was a pity to take him out into the cold night air, he was so snug, why wake him, and could she leave him there until morning? She would arrive early to carry him off, and in the meantime wasn’t Essie comfortable enough right where she was, in that nice chair, and Simon wouldn’t mind a cushion on the floor, would he, for only a few more hours …
Bella went away, and it was as if she had plotted to keep Simon from Essie that night. But surely this was a worthless imagining: settling into his cushion at Essie’s feet, Simon was fixed with all the power and thirst of his will on Bella’s journals; he intended to study them until he could rival Bella, he meant to pursue and conquer the language that was to be humanity’s salvation, the structure of it, its strange logic and beauty, and already tonight, he said, he had made a good beginning—and then, without a sign, in the middle of it all, he sent out a soft snore, a velvety vibrating hum. Haplessly alert now, Essie tried not to follow her thoughts. But the night was long, so much of it was left, and the mountain chill crept round her shoulders, and except for the private voice inside her, a voice that nagged with all its secret confusions, she had nothing to listen to—only one of the babies turning, and Simon’s persistent dim hum. She went on listening, she wasn’t the least bit drowsy, she forced her eyelids shut and they clicked wide again, of their own accord, like a mechanical doll’s. Simon’s hum—was it roughening into a wheeze, or something more brutish than a wheeze? A spiraling unnatural noise; an animal being strangled. But the animal noise wasn’t coming from Simon, it was hurtling out of one of the babies—a groaning, and then a yowling—good God, was it Retta? No, no, not Retta, it was Bella’s boy! She leaped up to see what was the matter: the child’s face was mottled, purple and red, his mouth leaked vomit, he was struggling to breathe … She touched his head. It was wildly hot: a tropical touch.
She pummeled him awake.
“Something’s wrong, you have to get down to the village right away, you have to get to the doctor, the boy’s sick—”
“It’s the middle of the night, Essie, for God’s sake! Bella’s coming for the kid first thing, and maybe by then it’ll pass—”
“Simon, I’m telling you, he’s sick—”
In those unaccoutered years none of the kochaleyns had a telephone, and few of the families owned cars. On Friday evenings the husbands, Simon among them, made their way up the mountainside from the train station by means of the one ancient village taxi, or else they trudged with their suitcases and their city bundles along the mile of dusty stone-strewn road, between high weedy growths, uphill to the colonies of cottages. The village itself was only a cluster of stores on either side of the train station, and a smattering of old houses inhabited by the year-round people. The doctor was one of these. His office was in his front parlor.
“Go!” Essie cried. Then she thought of the danger to Retta, so close to the feverish child, and seized her and nearly threw her, sobbing, and awakened now by the excitement, into her crib; but the thin little neck under the moistly knotted curls was cool.
“I ought to stop at Bella’s, don’t you think, and let her know—”
“No, no, don’t waste a minute, what’s the point, what can she do? Oh listen to him, you’ve got to hurry, the poor thing can’t catch his breath—”
“It’s Bella’s kid, she’ll know what to do,” he urged. “It’s happened before.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Bella told me. She said it in Esperanto actually, when we were working on it last week—”
“Never mind that gibberish, just go and get the doctor!”
Gibberish. She had called the universal language, the language of human salvation, gibberish.
He started down the road to the village: it meant he had to pass Bella’s cottage. Her windows were unlit, and he went on. But a few yards beyond her door, he stopped and turned back—how perverse it seemed, how unreasonable, it wasn’t right not to tell the mother, and probably the kid would get better anyhow, it was a long walk down the mountain in the dark and cold of the country night, Essie had hurried him out without so much as a sweater, and why wake the poor doctor, a doctor needs his sleep even more than ordinary people, why not hold off till morning, a decent hour, wasn’t the main thing to let Bella know?
And here, waiting and waiting, was Essie, with the boy folded in her lap; she kept him there, in the big armchair, lifting him at times (how heavy he was!) to pace from one wall of the narrow room to the other. Now and then she wiped the soles of his feet with a dampened cloth, until he let out a little shudder—almost, it seemed, of satisfaction. But mainly she stood at the window, her wrists aching from the child’s weight, watching the sky alter from an opaque square of black to a ghostly pinkish stripe. Retta had long since grown quiet: she lay in the tranquil ruddiness of waxworks sleep, each baby fist resting beside an ear. And finally the white glint of morning struck the windowsill and lit the walls; and at half past eight the doctor came, together with Simon and Bella. He had driven them both up from the village in his Ford. The child was by now perfectly safe, the doctor said; there was nothing the matter that he wouldn’t get over, and wasn’t the mother told repeatedly not to feed him milk? Her son was clearly allergic to milk, and still she had forgotten, and put some in his pudding.
“You know your boy’s had these episodes before,” the doctor said, peevishly, “and he may have them again. Because, dear lady, you don’t listen.”
And Bella, apologizing, said, “It’s a good thing anyhow we didn’t drag you out of your bed at three o’clock in the morning, the way some people would have—”
Essie knew what “some people” meant, but who was “we”?
“While I’m here,” the doctor said, “I suppose I ought to have a look at the other one.”
“She’s fine,” Essie said. “She slept through the rest of the night like an angel. Just look, she’s still asleep—”
The doctor looked. He shook Retta. He picked up her two fists; they fell back.
“Good God,” the doctor said. “This child is dead.”
They buried her on the outskirts of a town fifteen miles to the west, in a small nonsectarian cemetery run by an indifferent undertaker who sold them a dog-sized coffin. There was no ceremony; no one came, no one was asked to come. A private burial, a secret burial. In the late afternoon a workman dug out a cavity in the dry soil; down went the box. Simon and Essie stood alone at the graveside and watched as the shovelfuls of earth flew, until the ground was level again. Then they left the kochaleyn and for the rest of the summer rented a room not far from the cemetery. Simon went every day to sit beside the grave. At first Essie went with him; but after a while she stayed away. How he wailed, how he hammered and yammered! She could not endure it: too late, that spew, too late, his shame, his remorse, his disgrace—if only he’d gone earlier for the doctor if only he hadn’t stopped to see Bella … if only he hadn’t told her the kid’s all right, my wife exaggerates, morning’s time enough to bring the doctor … if only he hadn’t knocked on Bella’s door, if only she hadn’t let him in!
In her flat whisper Essie said, “What happened to the baby, maybe it wouldn’t have happened—”
She understood that Simon had become Bella’s lover that night. She was silent when she saw him carry out Bella’s journals and set them afire. The smell of Esperanto burning remained in his clothes for days afterward.
She did not know what the doctor could have done; she knew only that he hadn’t been there to do it.
Summer after summer they returned to the town near the cemetery, far from all the kochaleyns that were scattered along the pebbly dirt roads in those parts, and settled into the top floor of a frame house owned by a deaf old widower. Simon never went back to his job in the men’s store, but Essie kept busy at her sewing machine. She placed a two-line advertisement in the “Personals” column of the local paper—“Seamstress, Outfits Custom-Made”—and had more orders than ever. Simon no longer sat by the little grave every day; instead, he turned his vigil into a sabbath penance, consecrating one night each week to mourning. Their first year it was Saturday—Retta had died on a Saturday night. The following year, Tuesday: Simon had burned Bella’s journals on a Tuesday evening. Always, whatever the day and whatever the year and whatever the weather, he walked out into the midnight dark, and lingered there, among the dim headstones, until daybreak. Essie had no use for this self-imposed ritual. It was made up, it was another kind of gibberish out there in the night. She scorned it: what did it mean, this maundering out to the cemetery to talk to the wind? He had deceived her with Bella, he had allowed Retta to die. Essie never spoke of Retta; only Simon spoke of her. He remembered her first steps, he remembered her first words, he remembered how she had pointed with her tiny forefinger at this and that beast at the zoo. “Tiger,” she said. “Monkey,” she said. And when they came to the yellow-horned gnu, and Simon said “Gnu,” Retta, mistaking it for a cow, blew out an elongated “Moo.” And how Simon and Essie had laughed at that! Retta was dead; Simon was to blame, he had deceived her with Bella, and what difference now if he despised Bella, if he had made a bonfire of Bella’s journals, if he despised everything that smacked of Bella, if he despised Esperanto, and condemned it, and called it delusion and fakery—what difference all of that, if Retta was dead?
Not their first summer, but the next, when Simon was setting aside Tuesdays to visit his shrine (“His shrine,” Essie said bitterly to herself), he began writing letters to Esperanto clubs all over the city, all over the world—nasty letters, furious letters. “Zamenhof, your false idol! Your god!” he wrote. “Why don’t you join the Oomoto, you fools!”
This was the start of Simon’s grand scheme—the letters, the outcries, the feverish heaps of philological papers and books with queer foreign alphabets on their spines. Yet in practice it was not grand after all; it was remarkably simple to execute. Obscure lives inspire no inquisitiveness. If your neighbor tells you he was born in Pittsburgh when he was really born in Kalamazoo, who will trouble to search out his birth certificate? As for solicitous—or prying—relations, Essie had been motherless since childhood, and her father had remarried a year after her own marriage to Simon. Together with his new wife he ran a hardware store in Florida; he and Essie rarely corresponded. Simon himself had been reared in the Home for Jewish Orphans: his only living connection was his cousin Lily—gullible Lily, silly Lily! The two of them, Simon and Essie, were as rootless as dandelion spores. They had to account to no one, and though Simon continued jobless, they had money enough, as long as Essie’s treadle purred. She kept it purring: her little summertime business spread to half a dozen towns nearby, and her arrival in May was regularly greeted by a blizzard of orders for the following autumn. She changed her ad to read “Get Set for Winter Warmth in Summer Heat,” and had an eye out for the new styles in woolen jackets and coats. She bought, at a discount, discarded pieces of chinchilla, and learned to sew fur collars and linings. And all the while Simon was concocting GNU. He named it, he said, in memory of Retta at the zoo; and besides, it announced itself to the ear as New—only see how it superseded and outshone Esperanto, that fake old carcass!
In the fall of each year they moved back to the Bronx. By now Essie owned two sewing machines. “My city Singer and my country Singer,” she liked to say, and in the winter worked her treadle as tirelessly as in the summer, while Simon went out proselytizing. He printed up flyers on yellow paper, with long rows of sponsors—lists that were anonymous but for their golden Park Avenue addresses—and tacked them on telephone poles.
Essie was not surprised that GNU could attract its earliest adherents—all the kochaleyns come home for the winter, and more: the Trotskyites, the Henry George people, the Tolstoyans, the classical-music lovers who went to the free concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the Norman Thomas loyalists, the Yiddish Bundists, the wilder Hebraists, the evolving Thomas Merton mystics, the budding young Taoists and Zen Buddhists, the aging humanists and atheists, the Ayn Rand enthusiasts … and, most dangerously, the angry Esperantists. But after the first few meetings, too many of Simon’s would-be converts fell away, the merely inquisitive to begin with, the rest out of boredom, or resentment over dues, or because the rental hall was unheated (the stinginess of those Park Avenue donors!), or because the accustomed messianisms they had arrived with were more beguiling than Simon’s ingrown incantations.
“What these people need to keep them interested,” Simon argued, “is entertainment. If it’s a show they want, Essie, let’s give them a show, how about it?”
So Essie was recruited to sing. She had not immediately agreed; the idea of it repelled her, but only until she perceived the use of it; the ruse of it. She was already complicit in Simon’s scheme; give your little finger to the devil, and he’ll take your whole arm. And even the little finger was not so spare: no matter what Simon’s yellow fliers boasted, it was Essie’s industry at her two sewing machines that had paid for the rental hall. Well then, all right, she’d sing! It turned out, besides, that she had a way with a rhyme. Her rhymes were inconsequential ditties, private mockeries—the latest of her mockeries: the Park Avenue philanthropists were the first of her inventions. As for her singing voice, it had no range, and she was nearly breathless at the close of a long verse, but she poured into it the fury and force of her ridicule, and her ridicule had the sound of conviction. She put herself in the service of Simon’s gibberish—why not, why not? Retta was dead, Simon was to blame! Her performances in the cold hall—the costume, the patter, the ditties—were her own contraption, her secret derision, her revenge for what happened to the baby.
And still Simon’s meetings shrank and shrank, until only the quarrelsome diehards remained, and Simon’s enemies, the Esperantists.
“Jealousy!” he said. “Because I’ve outdone them, I’ve finished them off. And it’s Bella who’s sending them, it’s got to be Bella, who else?”
But it was Essie. She knew where they were, she knew how to find them: she had helped Simon with all those letters calling them fools, she had written their names on the envelopes. Slyly, clandestinely, she summoned them, and they were glad to come, and stand on chairs, and stomp and chant and shriek and pound and threaten. Simon, that usurper, with his shabby homemade mimicry of the real thing, had called them fools! They were pleased to shout him down, and some were even pleased to put up their fists in defense of the sole genuine original universal language, Zamenhof’s! Essie herself gave the signal: when she ended those nonsensical couplets, when she hopped off the little podium, the assault began.
She let it go on, winter after winter, with the summer’s expeditions to look forward to. From a secondhand bookshop she bought herself a world atlas, and instructed Simon in latitudes and longitudes, all those remote wadis and glaciers and canyons and jungles and steppes he was to explore from May through August (she always with him on every trek, never mind how hazardous), all for the purpose of uncovering fresh syllables to feed and fatten his GNU—while here they sat, the two of them, from May through August, lapping up their suppers of bananas-and-sour-cream at the kitchen counter, half of which held Essie’s faithful Singer, on the top floor of the deaf old widower’s decaying house.
She let it go on, the meetings winter after winter in the city, in the summers hidden away in their mountain townlet close to Retta’s grave. She let it go on until it was enough, until her mockery was slaked, until the warring Esperantists had left him sufficiently bruised to satisfy her. Her scheme prickled with more than spite, the almost carnal relishing of spite, the gloating pleasure of punishing Simon with his own stick. It was the fantastical stick itself: Essie’s trickster apparatus, the hoax of those exotic wanderings, when all the world—simpleminded, credulous world!—believed them to be … where? Wherever Dravidian-Munda, Bugi, Veps, Brahui, Khowar, Oriya, Ilokano, Mordvinian, Shilha, Jagatai, Tipura, Yurak, and all other swarming tongues, were spoken. From May through August, Essie’s atlas marked out these shrewdly distant regions; and on a Tuesday, or a Sunday, or any chosen day of the week, Simon moaned out his gibberish beside Retta’s grave in the misty night air.
It did not take long for Annette and her crowd to tire of GNU. They cleared out, I learned afterward, on one of those Thursdays that took Simon conveniently away: there were no good-byes. When I went to see him again, he was alone. This time, and all the times that followed, I was not prodded by my mother. Her mind was on business; she trusted that Simon was still, as she put it, blooming, and I did not disabuse her. She too, she reported, was blooming like mad—importing the kachinas was no longer economical; so she had gone into producing them on her own. She’d bought up a bit more property, and had a little factory buzzing away, which made not only replicas of the dolls, but all manner of other presumably local artifacts, shawls no Indian had ever worn, moccasins no Indian had ever trod in. Many of these she had designed herself (“I do have this flair,” she reminded me), and to tell the truth, they were an improvement on the raw-looking native stuff. My father wrote often, asking when I was coming out for a visit, since from my mother’s point of view a trip to New York was out of the question: they had their hands full, the business was so demanding. I answered with commonplace undergraduate complaints—I had too many papers overdue, catching up would consume the winter break, and as for vacation later in the year, I was intending to take courses all summer long.
I was becoming an easy liar. My papers were not overdue. I was reluctant to witness my mother’s pride in turning out fakes.
The checks she continued to send (with my father’s signature over “Comptroller” in print) grew bigger and bigger. I cashed them and gave the money to Simon. He took it sadly, idly, without protest. He was unshaven and wore his sandals on bare feet. His toenails were overgrown and as thick as oyster shells. His breath was bad; he had an abscess on a molar that sometimes tormented him and sometimes receded. I begged him to see a dentist. Little by little I had begun to look after him. I tipped the grocery boy and hired the janitor to take a brush to the toilet bowl. He had given up those fruitless hours among alien lexicons; but every Thursday he put on his frayed city hat, with its faded grosgrain ribbon, and locked the door of his flat and did not return until late the next afternoon. I imagined him in a rattling train headed upstate, toward a forgotten town in the Catskills; I imagined him kneeling in the dark in damp grass alongside a small stone marker. I went so far as to conjecture what Thursday might commemorate to a mind as deluded as Simon’s: suppose it was on a Thursday that Essie had confessed her doubts about the baby; suppose it was on a Thursday that Simon first heard about the curly-haired boy from Cincinnati—then the grieving guilty mourner at the graveside might not be a father at all, but only the man Essie had gulled into marriage long ago. If he did not know which one he was, the father or the dupe, why should he not be half mad?
And what if everything Essie had confided was a fickle fable, myself (like those flies to her sugar bowl) lured into it, a partner to Simon’s delusions?
The sophomore term began. One morning on my way to class I saw, across the street, Annette and two young men. The men were dressed in gray business suits and striped ties and had conventional short haircuts. All three were carrying leather briefcases. Annette herself looked less theatrical than I remembered her, though I could not think why. She wore a silk scarf and sober shoes with sharp little heels.
“Hey, Viv,” she called. “How’s your uncle nowadays?”
Unwillingly, I crossed the street.
“Tim. John. My old roommate,” she introduced me. Close up, I noticed the absence of lipstick. “Is Simon okay? I have to tell you, he changed my life.”
“You wrecked his.”
“Well, you were right, maybe I took him too seriously. But I got something out of it. I’m in the School of Commerce now. I’ve switched to accounting, I’m a finance major.”
“Just like Katharine Cornell.”
“No, really, I have this entrepreneurial streak. I discovered it running Simon’s meetings.”
“Sure, all that green salad,” I said, and walked off.
I did not honestly believe that Annette had wrecked Simon’s life. Her defection had left him depleted, but some inner deterioration, from a source unknown to me, was gnawing at him. Perhaps age was the spoiler: he was turning into a sick old man. The tooth abscess, long neglected, had affected his heart. He suffered from repeated fits of angina and for relief swallowed handfuls of nitroglycerin. He implored me to visit more often; there were no more Thursdays away. I had come to suspect these anyhow—after so many decades, was he still looking to set his thin haunches on the hard ground of a graveyard, and in icy winter to boot? Had he acquired, instead, a once-a-week lover? One of those girlies he diddled? Or Bella, secretly restored? He had no lover now. When he put out a hand to me, he no longer attempted to feel for my breast. He hoped for comfort, he wanted to hold on to warmth. The old man’s hand that took mine was bloodlessly cold.
I loitered with him through tedious afternoons. I brought him petits fours and tins of fancy tea. While he dozed over his cup, I emptied the leaves out of their gilt canister and filled it with hundred-dollar bills: froth and foam of my mother’s fraudulent prosperity. I tried to wake him into alertness: I asked why he had stopped working on GNU.
“I haven’t stopped.”
“I don’t see you doing it—”
“I think about it. It’s in my head. But lately … well, what good does it do, you can’t beat the Esperantists. Zamenhof, that swindler, he had it all sewed up long ago, he cornered the market.” He blinked repeatedly; he had acquired a distracting twitch. “Is Lily getting on all right out there? I remember how she hated to go. You know,” he said, “your mother was always steadfast. The only one who was steadfast was my cousin Lily.”
Some weeks after this conversation I went to see Essie; it would be for the last time.
“Simon’s dead,” I told her.
“Simon? How about that.” She took this in with one of her shallow breathy sighs, and all at once blazed up into rage. “Who made the arrangements? Who! Was it you? If he’s buried there, next to Retta, I swear I’ll have him dug up and thrown out!”
“My mother took care of it. On the telephone, long distance, from Arizona. He’s over in Staten Island, my parents own some plots.”
“Lily took care of it? Well, at least that, she doesn’t know where Retta is. She thinks it was Timbuktu, what happened to the baby. I’ve told you and told you, your silly mother never knew a thing—”
The apartment had its familiar smell. I had done what I came for, and was ready to leave. But I noticed, though the mannequin still kept its place against the wall, that the sewing machine was gone.
“I got rid of it. I sold it,” she said. “I saved up, I’ve got plenty. Me, I could always make a living, no matter what. Even after the divorce. But people came in those days, it was like a condolence call. I don’t suppose anyone’s coming now.”
I said lamely, “I’m here.”
“Lily’s kid, why should I care? I mean the Esperanto people, they’re the ones who came. Because they saw I was against Simon. Some of them brought flowers, can you believe it?”
“If you were against him,” I said, “why did you go along with everything?”
“I told you why. To get even.”
“A funny way of getting even, if you did just what he wanted.”
“My God, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, just like your mother, blind as a bat. You don’t think I’d let anybody know my own husband managed to kill off my own child right in my own bed, do you?”
She was all zigzag and contradiction: she had taken revenge on Simon; she had protected him. She was both sword and shield. Was this what an improvisational temperament added up to? I was certain now that no word Essie uttered could be trusted.
She had little more to say about Simon, and little more she cared to hear. But before I left she pushed her brownish face, wrinkled as a walnut, into mine, and told me something I have never forgotten.
“Listen,” she said, “that goddamn universal language, you want to know what it is? Not that crazy Esperanto, and not Simon’s gibberish either. I’ll tell you, but only if you want to know.”
I said I did.
“Everyone uses it,” she said. “Everyone, all over the world.”
And was that it really, what Essie gave out just then in her mercurial frenzied whisper? Lie, illusion, deception, she said—was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?