Last summer, the Forward dipped its toes into the world of fiction by co-sponsoring a monthly literary series in New York called “Novel Jews.” The series has become an enormous success, with one drawback: It is not available to the majority of our readers, who live outside New York. In an effort to include them, this month we initiate the “Novel Jews” column, a monthly excerpt from the work of that month’s series guest or guests.
This month, we will feature readings by Steve Stern and Pearl Abraham (for full details, please see box at right), and the excerpt we have chosen to highlight is from Stern’s new book, “The Angel of Forgetfulness.”
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With my help Aunt Keni had begun to reinhabit the past, where the insults of age couldn’t reach her; this was her strategy. She could take shelter in her living memories, safe from the depredations of the advancing years. No doubt it was irresponsible of me not to have insisted more strenuously that she seek some manner of medical advice, though how could I force the issue? If I pushed it, she would invariable inform me, “Like a million bucks I feel; the walks, they give me back my pep….” So maybe I was complicit in her decline, but in my defense let me say that I, too, had come to believe in the healing powers of time travel. Our walks were restoring her health, she maintained, and I respectfully abetted that delusion.
So on we trudged, advancing one nippy fall afternoon into the previously unattained reaches of Orchard Street, where Aunt Keni remarked, “That was Pishkin’s Ready-to-Wear.” She was pointing to the onetime haberdashery (now a carnicería) where she had lived and worked with her Aunt Pesha Pishkin after her mother’s death from some local pestilence in 1909. (Her sapless father had not survived the crossing from Europe.) I looked, and what I couldn’t see for the flayed, rodentlike animals hung in the window, I imagined: the ragged awning and the glass-paned door with its sleighbell chimes, the rack of coats like a file of soldiers you had to push through in order to enter the sunken shop with its heavy camphor smell.
“A full-bodied lady, Aunt Pesha,” my aunt was recalling, a tremor fluttering her wattled chin. “I used to help her to put on her corset. I would tug like I’m pulling the reins on a plow horse, while the clasps, like popcorn they snapped and flew off!” It was in this shop that her first husband, Nathan Hart, whom I couldn’t remember her having mentioned before, had appeared one day to exchange some ill-fitting long underwear. That was one autumn evening on Orchard Street. Then, as we continued down along East Broadway, Aunt Keni indicated the Little Odessa Tearoom (now Carmelita’s College of Cosmetology), where this same Nathan, clearly smitten, had turned up a second time and tried to enlist her interest in a story of his own devising.
“He was very persistent,” she said a bit boastfully, looking as she leaned on her walker like some lumpish ship’s figurehead. “It was a screwball affair, his story, about a angel that he comes to earth and has by a human girl a child. Feh,” she spit ptui, a coarse gesture she sometimes employed against the evil eye. Always assuring me that she wasn’t superstitious, the old lady had me to know that demons, dybbuks, angels, and such were scientifically proven phenomena. (About God the jury was still out.) Shuddering slightly, she spit again. “Angels, they give to me a pain!”
But something about Nathan’s angel must have intrigued her, because she’d begun, despite her relationship with the artist Yanobsky, to visit the young man in his Cherry Street garret (now a vacant lot) for further installments of his fantastical story. This much I’d gleaned over the course of a dozen walks, collecting the crumbs of narrative that Aunt Keni dropped with increasing frequency, like a trail that (if we got lost) we could follow home. No matter that home was some sixty years ago.
“He was a newspaperman, Nathan Hart, which it means a liar by trade. Always he was with the bubbeh mayseh — you know bubbe mayseh? A whopper. This is how he earns his living. Real? Make-believe? His whole life I don’t think he knows the difference. Anyhow, we wasn’t married six months when there comes one night a knock at the door. ‘An anarchist, that he threw a bomb in Mulberry Street; your husband lays in Bellevue on a slab.’ But when I go and see, no husband: they got there instead only a foot, a ear, an unmentionable item which I recognize it’s his, but there ain’t nothing he can’t get along without. To this day I’m wondering is the rest of him somewhere alive and well.”