Authors: Cynthia Ozick
"You'll never know how to do 'em anyhow, I guarantee you," my father said. "You can spend the time in study hall. You're big on reading, so you can go read in study hall. Don't worry about it. It's all bureaucracy, it's nothing but filling in the blanks. I'll take care of it." I must have looked wildly troubled—my whole head heated up—because he added, "I won't have you in with Doherty, and I can't have you in with me. So that's that, you understand?"
In this way I came to the end of my sophomore semester with a hole in my education. As he had predicted, it was simple enough for my father's deception to go undiscovered; and on my part, I was anyhow insulated from much of the life of the school. After classes, when the others went off to clubs or sports, I was on my way to the grocery store. I was mainly a watcher and a listener. No one invited me, and I invited no one. I felt apart; I felt the weight of the house and the mercurial weight of my father. For nearly two years, his fabricated records concerning my nonexistent math provoked no questions.
Yet finally he was brought down by an informer. It was my father's conviction that the informer was Austin Cockerill Doherty. With the friendliest smile, Doherty, to whom I had never spoken a word—and he had certainly never before addressed me—approached one morning and asked, "Aren't you one of those female math whizzes your dad manages to churn out?" My father took this to be a telling hint or a revengeful probe: it signaled that Doherty suspected I was not among my father's students; and since I was not among Doherty's, where could I be? But Doherty as informer seemed to me implausible. In my mind a more feasible candidate was Timmy's younger brother, who had grown out of his corduroy knickers and into a football uniform. He was—nominally—in my history class, always late, always inattentive. Sometimes he would get up out of his seat and swagger around the room, and on one of these excursions he stopped at my desk and whispered, "Come on, Rosie, how's about another birthday cake? I could get my ma to do you one in a minute." I thought his conspiratorial sneer less horrible than Doherty's ripened smile.
But these were speculations. We did not really know who had uncovered my father's crime; or how. The outcome was quick and not without mercy: my father was allowed to resign—but this, of course, was merely the language of dismissal. It was also the language of our humiliation. Soon afterward, my father sold our little house and moved us to Troy.
1930 was larger and more attractive than Thrace. It had earned its thimbleful of fame through the manufacture of the detachable shirt collar; and because Ossip Gabrilowitsch, who was married to Mark Twain's daughter, had once conducted at the music hall, with Mark Twain himself in the audience. It was an excitable place, much given to religious stimulation: preachers came and went, sometimes performing miracles. A certain downtown street corner was admired as the site of an outdoor revival where, in 1903, a wooden pulpit had, all of its own accord, split in two, knocking the preacher unconscious. When he woke (according to the story, a fellow pietist spilled a bucket of ice water over his head), he claimed to have been "slain of the Lord," after which Troy had its portion of ecstatic fainters. The miraculously severed pulpit was kept on display in a local church.
Troy had its Jews, too—mainly immigrants who were brought straight from Castle Garden to work in the shirt factory. Newcomers summoned other freshly arrived relations; an uncle drew a nephew, a sister a sister-in-law. My father and I found ourselves living on the top floor, converted into an apartment, of a frame house abutting a rundown little building in what appeared to be an immigrant neighborhood. The building next door was a makeshift synagogue; it had once been a store. On Saturday mornings I stood at the window and watched the thin parade of worshipers heading there, mostly worn-looking young men in gray fedoras. Sometimes I could hear the singing, in a language I took to be Hebrew. Though I knew my father could read a little Hebrew, falteringly, and (he once admitted) had even gone through the bar mitzvah rite, he was indifferent. "I don't hold with it," he said. "I've got bigger troubles than worrying about who runs the universe." He was a stubborn atheist.
And by now I understood him to be a trickster. I saw that he was volatile and dangerously open to gratuitous impulse. He was, besides, innocent of cause and effect: he had believed that our move to a different town would mean an unblemished new beginning. Inevitably, the old events followed him. Because of his deception in Thrace, he was anathema in Troy. Teaching jobs were rare enough, and no principal would take him on. As for me, I was even more wretched in Troy than I had been in Thrace: again and again I was made to explain why, starting the junior year of high school, I was ineligible for trigonometry, having never been taught geometry. This led to a cumulative complication: while I was catching up on math, I was missing out on French. Consequently I was a year or two behind in one course or another, and was tossed into classes with students younger than myself. To me they seemed like little children; they had no fears. I watched the laughter and the horseplay with a melancholy so ingrained that it crept downward into my hands: often my palms were damp. I was afraid day and night. My father had joined the terrifying company of the unemployed.
He appealed finally to the man he called "our cousin Bertram," a name I had never heard him speak. Bertram, my father told me, was my mother's first cousin. He lived in Albany. He was a bachelor and a pharmacist; he worked in a hospital. Beyond these paltry items my father knew nothing about him; Bertram was a stranger. "But he might have some ideas," my father said, licking the stamp on his letter. "And he's a cousin, he owes it to me." I protested: how could a pharmacist get my father a job teaching math? As it turned out, Bertram knew a doctor in his hospital whose brother-in-law was the dean of Croft Hall, a boys' preparatory academy just outside Troy. It was nothing more than a private high school run on British mimicry; it was set among green lawns, with an artificial castle at its center.
No one at Croft Hall cared about my father's old transgressions; no one asked; what was needed—and right away—was a math teacher to replace a malcontent who had fled in the middle of the term. Overnight my father became a "master." He was delighted with his new status. The pay was low, considerably less than his salary in Thrace, but the boys were rich. They had vast allowances and were accustomed to tip the masters; on weekends they went off to Saratoga to bet on the horses. They concentrated on the crease in their trousers and were particular about the shape of their collars. My father acquired a second-hand car and drove every day to the castle and its lawns; after a time he began to drive some of the younger boys to Saratoga on Saturday afternoons. One evening he came home jubilating, clutching a roll of bills. It was three hundred dollars; I assumed he had won it at the track. "Nah," he said, "I got it off an upper-form kid. Wilson. A poker fiend, his mother's married to that German, Von Something, some kind of baron."
Bertram, our cousin in Albany, had saved us.
Toward the end of my last semester of high school—we had been in Troy nearly twenty-one months—my father divulged a new plan: "I'm getting out of this Yid place—just you watch me skedaddle." The headmaster, he said, had ruled against masters who commuted: there was too much disorder, more men were required to be on the spot, especially at night, to keep an eye out for mischief. There were rumors of boys gambling right on the property.
"Inviting the fox in to guard the chicken coop," my father chuckled.
"You'd better be careful," I said.
"It's high society over there," he said. "What do
know about it?"
In the fall my father was designated housemaster of Croft Hall's third form, and went to live in the fake castle; and I departed for Albany, where I moved in with my cousin Bertram.
OR A LONG WHILE
it was not clear to me why Bertram had taken me in. Sometimes I thought my father had reverted to his old habits and had arranged for a barter: housekeeping in exchange for lodging. Unlike my father, though, Bertram was orderly and self-sufficient; he kept a handkerchief in his breast pocket and wore dandyish suspenders. He was almost too fastidious, and never left a dish on the table for more than five minutes before he got up to wash it. His shirts were picked up by a laundry van, and the neighborhood storekeepers delivered bread and milk and vegetables and cheese. Bertram was skilled at making omelets. There was almost nothing for me to do, and if there was, Bertram would not allow me to do it.
"Go work on your Chaucer," he would say. This was a bit of comradely mockery. Chaucer had no place in my misshapen little college; literature, except for the pedagogical kind, was hardly wanted there. I had dreamt of Gothic arches and the worn flagstones of old libraries—where such a grand yearning came from, I hardly knew. Unaccountably, my heart was set on Smith or Vassar or Bryn Mawr; I imagined afternoon teas, and white gloves, and burning lips (mine, perhaps) murmuring out of a book. But all that was wistfulness—there was no money for such romantic hopes, and my patchy record in high school, my father warned, would never have won me a scholarship. I was only an average girl from Thrace Central, what was I thinking of? The right spot for me, he said, if I expected to earn my way, if he was ever going to get me off his hands, was Albany Teachers' College. He couldn't afford to keep me in the dorms, and anyhow they were famous for resembling dungeons. With luck he might manage to talk cousin Bertram into putting me up. "Makes sense, doesn't it?" he said.
I hated that college. There were classes in pedagogy and psychology and "early childhood and adolescence": these were taught like the tenets of a cult. I did not believe in any of them. I had no interest in becoming a teacher. I had observed enough of my father's predicaments to want to flee any reminder of schools. What I cared about was reading novels.
Bertram lived on the ninth floor of a modern apartment building, with fire escapes jutting from the window ledges. I discovered that if I climbed out and stood on our own fire escape—a kind of latticed metal balcony—I could just see the roof of the State House. This was impressive; it was a glimpse of history, of law; there was gravity in it. Sometimes, when Bertram was away, I sat on the windowsill, with my legs stretched along the cool slats of the fire escape, and smelled the rain. Albany rain was different. It smelled of excitement.
Bertram was away much of the time. Hospital shifts went halfway around the clock, and pharmacy hours conformed. Often he came home when I was already asleep. And once I was not asleep—I lay dozing, vaguely dazed: how had I arrived in this bed, in this room, in Bertram's big flat? I had a bedroom to myself, with a dressing alcove (Bertram had put a desk and a typewriter in there, and turned it into a tiny study), and my own bathroom. When my father forgot to pay my first quarter's tuition, Bertram instantly sent a check to the college bursar. I was certain my father had not forgotten; Saratoga, or poker with Wilson, had cleaned him out.
Bertram was quietly loitering at the partly open door of my room. I heard him breathing, and wondered whether he was listening for my own breathing. There was something maternal about his standing there, and I wanted to call out; I wanted to ask, out of the darkness, whether it was true that my mother had died in childbirth. But I held back. Bertram was my mother's cousin, though not as my father had made me understand this: he was not a cousin by blood. Instead he was a cousin to my mother's first cousin; it was a tenuous in-law connection. Laughing, Bertram had worked it out for me—he was the son of my mother's aunt's husband's sister. He was not really a relation. He had never known my mother. He had no stories to tell. But when, some days afterward, I confided my phantom memory—my mother lying on a couch and holding a rag doll—Bertram said, "That's what you should trust."
"My father says it's a hallucination. A wish-dream."
"That's why you should trust it. The world doesn't get better without wishes."
"My father doesn't care about the world." I thought of him crouching behind a closed door at Croft Hall, clandestinely gambling with his pupils.
Bertram said mildly, "Well, maybe you'll make up for him."
It was not only his work at the hospital that occupied Bertram's nights. He went to weekly meetings and occasionally to what he called "rallies," after which he was hoarse for days; sometimes he stood on picket lines. He was thinking, he said, of joining the Party, but he was still unsure. "It takes your whole life," he explained, "and I may not be able to give it the time. Got to pay the landlord. But they're on the right track, those people." I asked what the right track was; this made him smile. I had seen the half-turn of that smile before. It meant that he thought me as innocent as a savage.
"First we're going to abolish rent," he said, "and after that tuition. Shelter and education for everyone." Again the twist of a smile: Bertram was not above self-parody. "To each according to his need. That's how the poet puts it."
At that instant I discovered why he had let me come and live with him. It was because of my need. Or, at any rate, my father's.
Bertram was thirty-six. He had once been married, a dozen years ago, but she—he never said "my wife"—had left him after only two years. "She didn't like me," he told me; he never said her name. "I suppose I was too short." I could not imagine not liking Bertram, or finding him unbeautiful. He was not much taller than I, but his head was large, with crescents of unshorn brown curls sticking up from around his neck and ears. "Got to get a haircut," he would say. Or else: "Beginning to look like Karl Marx or Jesus Christ, take your pick." Or else, when he was actually on his way to the barber shop, "Goddamn hospital rules. Bad enough they dress me up in a white coat, like a dogcatcher."
Now and then he said, "Put the chain on the door, will you? Won't be home at all tonight, got a date."