After the taxi driver had been promised $25 plus a five dollar tip he became silent. The two passengers were silent, too.
David Melnitz crammed his frail shape into a corner of the cab. He was dozing lightly, but every once in a while he opened one eye and looked through the window. The summer night had a blackness which nothing could lighten. Street lamps, headlights, lit-up windows made the darkness even denser. For a moment the air smelled to him of forests and in the next of gasoline, oil, melting asphalt and something American which the European nose can never identify. The taxi went over a bridge, through a tunnel and past a garish restaurant with richly covered tables, waiters in frock coats, men in tuxedos and women in evening dresses. Then it vanished like a mirage and the taxi rolled by a mountain of broken automobiles riding on top of one another in a kind of ruinous bacchanal. For a time the taxi stopped — David Melnitz saw police cars, a blazing light, an ambulance. Men were trying to pull a victim from under an overturned truck. Then the taxi continued.
On the left side, Dora crouched. It was hard to tell if she was asleep or just sinking into torpor. As she got into the taxi, she had said to David: “I am going to my own funeral,” and since then, Melnitz hadn’t heard a word from her. He wondered if she had already taken some of her sleeping pills or she had changed her mind altogether. After all, it was her plan.
They came to a colony of bungalows with a neon sign over the office. The taxi stopped at the door, and Melnitz handed the driver three ten dollar bills. The driver said nothing. Grim as the circumstances were, Melnitz became annoyed at the driver for not showing even the minimum of civility. “This country is falling to pieces,” he said to himself. Aloud he said: “Dora, we’re here.”
Dora started. He took her by the wrist and helped her out. She dragged her feet and only now he noticed that she was wearing dark glasses. After the taxi rolled away, Melnitz said to her: “Don’t make a scene. If you’ve changed your mind, tell me openly.”
“I didn’t change my mind.” Her voice was hoarse, almost mannish.
“Wait. I’ll be back soon.” He left her not far from the office. She remained standing, bent like a rag doll ready to collapse. Her handbag, hanging from her wrist, almost touched the ground. “Well, she’s an actress to the very end.” He went to the office and paid for the room. A girl with a man’s shirt and cut-off blue jeans on her naked legs took them to the bungalow. The girl opened the door and lit a single, naked bulb. The room was unpainted and had a beamed roof but no ceiling. It contained a broad bed, a clothes rack and a toilet. “The shower is outside,” the girl said.
Then she went back to the office. Melnitz put down his satchel.
“Take off the dark glasses.”
Dora said nothing.
“What do you need the sunglasses for? It’s dark in here anyhow.”
Dora sat down on the edge of the bed, with her head in her hands. He said, “It was all your idea. You always talked as if life had no value for you. I don’t insist you keep your word. We can stay here tonight and tomorrow you can go wherever you want. I may stay here, but it has nothing to do with you.”
“Everything will happen as said,” Dora mumbled.
Melnitz went into the toilet and dallied there a few minutes. He came out and said: “This night was supposed to be a holiday for us, not Tishahb’ov. Take off the glasses. I want to see your eyes.”
“Leave me alone.”
He opened his satchel and took out a bottle of cognac, two glasses and a box of cookies. There was no table, so he placed them on a chair. Through the screen window he could see cars passing, and a bit of glowing sky, without moon and without stars. “This colony is a brothel where everyone must bring his own whore,” he thought. He asked: “Do you want a drink?”
Without taking her hands from her face, she nodded.
He filled two glasses. Usually when they drank, they clinked glasses and said L’chaim. But now these words would have been a mockery. Dora took her left hand from her face, lifted the glass and poured the drink into her mouth with the expertise of a drunk. David sipped his slowly. He never had much desire for liquor. He felt a harshness in his nose and his throat burned. He had to chase it down with a cookie. He heard Dora say: “More.” He gave her a second glass and then a third. He could never understand how such a skinny girl could pour so much alcohol into herself. She opened up her pocketbook, took out a cigarette and lit it. She was sitting up straight and her face had become somewhat more animated.
“Now,” he insisted, “take off those miserable glasses.”
“Well, if that’s the way you want it. What are we going to do now?” he asked, ashamed of his own question. According to their plan, they were to spend the night making love, but it was clear to him that Dora would sabotage even that. “I’ll be completely passive,” he decided. For a while he rummaged in his open satchel where he had his passport, a pair of pajamas, two bank books which together accounted for about $1500 and an envelope with the inscription: To Whom It May Concern. Where were the pills? He found them. He put his hand absently into his breast pocket and pulled out a prescription that had never been filled and his Blue Cross card, which entitled him to three weeks in Mt. Sinai Hospital, where Dr. Beller had already arranged a semi-private room for him. All this was unnecessary now. He no longer needed doctors, documents, nurses or money. He had forgotten what day of the week it was. All he remembered was that it was the middle of August because that was when he began to suffer from hayfever.
“I wonder why I’m not sneezing,” he thought, and at that moment, he felt an itching in his nose and sneezed three times.
He glanced at the bed. Dora had taken off her shoes and stretched out in her stocking feet, flat, small, thin, her hair half black, half blond from the time she had dyed it, her face narrow and white with sunken cheeks and a pointed chin. She was still wearing her sunglasses. He had almost forgotten the expression in her eyes. He stood for a while, musing to himself. Fear? — no. Desire? — no again. “I shouldn’t have dragged her into all of this,” he reproached himself. Aloud he said: “You can get undressed if you want.”
Dora did not reply.
“I’ll put out the light.”
“Give me another glass.”
Melnitz turned off the light, undressed and put on his pajamas. Dora remained in her dress and stockings. She didn’t answer when he spoke to her. He nudged her from under the sheet. It was obvious that her silence was calculated: she was trying to wreck their plan without admitting that she had changed her mind. He was certainly not going to remind her of her passionate statements about their dying together and being buried beside one another. He had bought two plots from the Prashker Society — one for himself and one for her, but he knew now that she was not going to be his neighbor there.
Somewhere in his mind, he was laughing. For all his skepticism, he still believed in people and their talk. But who had asked her to make all these promises? They lay silently, she with her face toward the wall, he facing her back on the other side of the bed. He put his hand on her hip for an instant and then took it away. The pills and a glass of water were on the night table where he had put them, but he would have to send her away before he swallowed them. He had reached the point at which no human behavior, no matter how contradictory, surprised him. After Maydanek and Stutthof, nothing could astound him. He had seen a former Yiddish teacher become a kapo and serve the Nazis. In the ghetto he had seen Jewish women going to a nightclub, dressed in silk and velvet stepping over people who were dying of starvation. He witnessed a Nazi whipping a girl to death in the presence of her mother. Dora had been through the same things, and although their experiences were similar, they could never really communicate with each other when they talked about them. He could never make out how she had survived, and she still wondered how he got out alive. She had sworn holy oaths that she had never given herself to the murderers, but he was far from convinced. He heard himself say: “Dora, darling, I have no complaints. This is my last night with you. Let’s not lie around like angry honeymooners. Talk to me. That’s all I ask. Tomorrow, you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine.”
She didn’t answer, and for a while it seemed that she wouldn’t speak at all. Then she said in a clear, unsleepy voice: “What should I talk about?”
“First of all, turn to me. Let’s not part like strangers.”
Again she waited, and then turned slowly. The springs of the mattress vibrated.
“Dora, you shouldn’t think that I ever believed your promises, even for a minute.” He spoke with the painful feeling that he was not saying what he wanted to say. “You’re thirteen years younger than I, and thank God, you’re not sick. I want you to live and if possible, be happy. Don’t interrupt me. I know in advance what you want to say. You owe me nothing — absolutely nothing. What I have is cancer, not a tumor. I couldn’t even get through this operation and if I did, it would only prolong the process a few months. You know this as well as I do. Your life is just beginning, and if there is a God, and one can pray to Him, you can be sure that I’ll——”
“I came here to die with you, so don’t try to change my mind.”
“The way you sat in the taxi, I thought ——”
“I have a terrible headache. It took everything I had not to scream.”
“I think I have some aspirin in my satchel,” he said, realizing how wild and funny and idiotic his words sounded. He also knew that no matter what else they said tonight it would sound ridiculous, melodramatic and unnatural. Language is for the living, not for the dead. He asked: “Shall I give you something?”
“Shall I put on the light?”
“I’ll bring out the bottle.”
He rolled out of bed. By this time, he was used to the darkness. From outside, a dim light shone into the room. He got back into bed and reached her the bottle. She drank straight from it and it sounded like gargling. When she passed the bottle on to him, it was lighter in his hand. He took a draught, but he couldn’t get drunk and he didn’t intend to. He put the unfinished bottle on the floor. Vapors of alcohol passed from his stomach to his brain. He was neither intoxicated nor sober. Could one drink himself to death? Dora was still silent, but it seemed to him she was coming around and was getting ready to talk. He felt a rush of love for her: she had come here to die with him. He wanted to embrace her and kiss her but a bashfulness that often goes together with the deepest intimacy held him back. It had gotten colder and he was about to cover himself, but he delayed it. A single mosquito buzzed. Somewhere, in a third or fourth bungalow, a radio was playing and he heard the muffled music. If only it could always be night and the bed could be their grave! Dora said: “Come cover me.”
They lay down and he covered her with the sheet and blanket. He put his arms around her and she clung to him as she had in the old days, at the beginning of their relationship: his arm around her neck, her knee between his. How many times did they lie like this, in hotels, bungalows, furnished rooms, in her house and in his! But everything had conspired to make this night the last: his tumor (or whatever it was), his quitting his job at the Bialik school, his wife’s refusal to divorce him, Dora’s mother’s heart attack, Dora’s quarrel with Sylvia and the liquidation of their shop. All of this could not be mere chance. Both of them had lost one job after another. They became estranged from their relatives and friends. It was eerie, but he had foreseen their coming here tonight — perhaps he had dreamed about it. He had envisioned the bungalow, its coolness, the broad bed, the hard pillow and the window that let in a bit of shimmering light. Even a rationalist like Spinoza had believed in the theoretical possibility of predicting life with the same exactness as charting eclipses of the sun, except that he hadn’t realized that causality and teleology are two sides of one coin.
As he kissed Dora’s neck, he took stock of his life. God? The mortality of the soul? Hell? If the world was a product of God’s justice, then he, Melnitz, was ready to roast on a bed of coals. His acceptance of death was somehow connected with the hope of revelation. If there is a soul, and a hereafter, he wanted to know what they were like. It was strange to think that all this could be reached with a few pills.
It had started to rain. There was lightning and thunder. For a second, the bungalow lit up and he saw his jacket, his trousers, the bottle of cognac, Dora’s shoes.
“Aren’t you hot in that dress?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you bring a nightgown with you?”
Yes, what for? He had imagined that in this last night with Dora he would devote himself to his passion for her body, indulge all his whims, shake off all his (and her) inhibitions. But it seemed that it was not to be. He remembered the Yiddish expression “I made my calculations without the Boss.” Apparently, sex and suicide make strange bedfellows. He heard himself say: “I have one request before it’s all over.”
“What kind of request?”
“Let’s not die with lies. Let’s tell each other the entire truth, no matter how ugly.” His words sounded overly solemn to him. He realized that he was preparing for their mutual confession all this time. He didn’t want to die deceived or even a deceiver. Dora stiffened and moved away from him slightly. For a long time she said nothing, and he suspected that she had fallen asleep. Then she said: “Very well.”
“Let’s swear that we tell each other everything.”
“Swear by what?”
They haggled, each demanding that the other confess first. He was afraid that she would change her mind about confessing if he made his revelations first, but then he gave in. They had to go through this. It was the culmination of his plans — perhaps the only reason for his bringing her here. He was giving his tongue permission to divulge all his secrets: he didn’t intend to censor himself.
“I had other women while we were together,” he said, with a kind of choked solemnity.
“Who? How many?”
He was silent while he counted them in his mind. According to his calculation (made days or weeks before) there had been seven, but now he remembered only five. Two had vanished from his memory. Perhaps he already was entering the amnesia that he intended to make total. He said: “It’s strange, but I’ve forgotten.”
“How many do you remember?” She moved even further away from him.
He was suddenly frightened, although he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. The worst she could do was refuse to confess.
“About one you certainly know—my wife.”
“Who are the others?”
“You know about two others. I was with them before you and while we were together. Bella and Esther.”
“All this time?”
“With Bella just for a year. With Esther it dragged on until not long ago.”
“Until about half a year ago.”
Even though she had moved to the other side of the bed, he could hear her heavy breathing. He thought he could feel the beat of her heart.
“Who else?” Dora’s voice became rasping.
“A woman from Lublin.”
“Who is she?”
“A middle-aged woman. Her husband left for Russia in 1939 and she stayed with her daughter in a village near Krasnistaw. A peasant hid them. The daughter was shot by the Nazis. She was denounced by a Szmalcownik. Her mother came here after 1945. I knew her when I was a teacher in Lublin.”
“What happened to her husband?”
“He died in Jambul of dysentery.”
“And she never re-married?”
“She has a second husband. A simple man. A furrier.”
“Is he a refugee too?”
“Yes, he’s a refugee too.”
“When did this happen?”
Melnitz had to think, unwilling to lie even about a date.
“A few months after we met. Do you remember an evening when I went to a lecture at the Labor Temple and you refused to go with me? I met her there.”
“I remember it very well. My mother was in the hospital.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Who were the others?”
He told her and she asked him short, dry questions, apparently restraining her anger. He now had recalled one of the two he had forgotten, but the other had left his mind a blank. He began to doubt if there had been a number seven, as he referred to her. Of those he remembered the first he had met in a cafeteria on Broadway and the second was the mother of one of his pupils. They were all middle-aged refugees, either verging on poverty or complete paupers. The one he met in a cafeteria was a divorcée. She worked in a pocketbook shop and had a thirteen year old daughter who studied in a yeshiva in Brooklyn. These weren’t love adventures, but continuations of what went on in the ghettoes, and later, after 1945, when people were smuggled across borders, searching for relatives in ruined cities and wandering from camp to camp. While he answered Dora’s questions he kept on searching for some lead to his lost number seven — who had been erased from his memory leaving him numb and baffled. How could this have happened? “I can’t die until I remember who she is.” Dora had not yet made any comments and he knew from her clipped sentences and the way she kept away from him that what he told her had turned her into an enemy. He imagined he heard her grit her teeth. She might even try to kill him.
“Who was the seventh?”
“Really, I don’t know.”
“In that case, maybe there were ten others you’ve forgotten.”
“No, not more than seven.”
“Who was she?”
“Wait — it’ll come to me.”
He lay quietly, thoughtless, as if clearing a space in his brain for recollection. But minutes passed, and the cell that contained this adventure remained locked. “Really,” he said, “there’s some block in my mind. As soon as it comes to me I’ll tell you. I swear.”
“Very well. I’ll wait.”
“Tell me about you,” he said, and he felt himself shudder. She didn’t answer. He could almost hear her fighting with herself. Then she said, “Well, there was one.”
His heart stopped for an instant.
“Dr. Salkind.” The word hit him with a physical blow on his temple. He could barely speak: “Why?”
“Oh, just because. He was chasing after me. Besides, I knew you weren’t faithful.”
“How did you know?”
“I knew. I was only with him a few times.”
“Why only a few times?”
“He didn’t interest me, either physically or spiritually. Actually, he disgusted me.”
“That didn’t stop you from sleeping with him.”
“Yes … I’m sorry.” Silence followed. Salkind was the one who tried to persuade Dora to be psychoanalyzed. He had wanted to send her to a colleague of his, but she refused. Now Melnitz tried to recollect when Dora began her visits to Salkind. Did it happen this year? No, last year. Melnitz couldn’t keep his teeth from chattering. At that instant he discovered who his seventh lover was: Florence, his English teacher. They had spent one miserable night together — a failure in every way; it was one of those nights when all of a man’s illusions collapse. What he was feeling now was not hurt, but shame for his own conduct, for Dora’s, for modern man. It didn’t even pay to die. He rolled off the bed and went into the toilet, banging his knee on the chair, groping as if blind. He found the toilet and even before he could put the light on he began to vomit. He retched again and again. Fiery patterns flew in front of his eyes and bells rang in his ears, just as when he got sick as a boy. He recognized the designs, the colors, the sparks, the changing of the shapes. The whole dreamy web seemed to have been lurking in his optic nerves waiting to appear with full exactness. The smell of today’s and yesterday’s meals floated up to him: the cinnamon of the cookies and the aroma of the cognac. “She’s unclean. Unclean,” a voice called in him. He didn’t know himself if it was piety or hypocrisy. “We’re not Jews anymore, we’re Nazis.” He was about to return to bed, but his stomach lurched again. “When did I gorge so much?” He felt he was spitting out his innards. He groaned. His knees buckled. A terrible stench came out from the bowl and Melnitz realized it could not only be physical. Matter could never stink like that. He heard Dora’s voice say: “What’s wrong. Can I help you?”
“You can’t help me,” he called back, and began to retch again. He slammed the door. He tried to flush, but the chain broke.
They lay in bed. “Now I don’t mind dying,” Dora said to him. “You’re such a cheat that nothing matters anymore.”
“What about you? You’re nothing but a whore!”
“I did it because I knew you were fooling around. In spite of all your reassurances and oaths.”
“Only yesterday you swore you were faithful,” he said.
“Compared to you, I was fidelity itself!”
“Wait, it’ll all end tonight. We won’t leave here alive. They’ll carry us out.”
She fell into silence. “If I could at least take my mother with me,” she said half to herself and half to him.
“It’s too late for that. You have no right to kill your mother. She’s a decent Jewish woman.”
“Who cares about rights? If everyone is so ugly, there are no rights.”
“There still may be a God.”
“What kind of God?”
“A heavenly Hitler.”
“Yes, that’s what he is. I want a cigarette.”
To get out of bed, she had to crawl over him. She was looking for her pocketbook. She lit a match and in the pale light he saw her barefoot, her hair rumpled, a crooked smile on her half opened lips. Instead of getting back into bed, she sat on a chair. As she pulled on the cigarette, her face glowed. He saw the glint in her eyes.
“I don’t want you to be buried near me, Dora. You should be buried next to Dr. Salkind.”
“Dr. Salkind is not about to die.” She gave a snorting laugh.
“I don’t want to have your defiled body near mine.”
“In that case, I’ll leave a letter that they cremate me.”
“Yes, you do that.”
“You speak like some kind of saint,” she said after a pause. “You are the worst liar and hypocrite. You keep on babbling about God, but you act like a devil. You never loved me.”
“I did love you, to my regret. You said yourself that a man could love more than one woman, but if you could lie around with that schlemiel Salkind, you don’t know what love is.”
“If I don’t know now, I never will.”
“You don’t even regret it.”
“No, not now.”
“I never hated anybody as I hate you,” he said, with the feeling that he had already spoken these words, a long time ago. “Get out of here. Keep a four cubits distance from me!” he shouted, suddenly recognizing his father’s voice. It was his voice, his tone, the same words his father had used years ago to rebuke him for cutting off his sidelocks and shortening his gabardine. Dora moved as if to get up. The chair squeaked under her.
“Where am I supposed to go in the middle of the night?” She took a last puff of her cigarette and threw it down on the linoleum. Melnitz watched the cigarette glow, then dim on the floor. A cigarette and it doesn’t know it’s a cigarette. Dying, without knowing that it’s dying, Melnitz mused. Even if Spinoza was right and thought is one of the attributes of substance, what would a cigarette think? Unless each atom and molecule thinks by itself. Or maybe the earth has a brain in its center made up of molten metals — gold, iron, nickel, uranium. But it was too late for such nonsense. Aloud he said: “Did you do it in the daytime or at night?”
“The first time during the day.”
“Where, in his office?”
“And there were patients in the waiting room?”
“There were no patients.”
Melnitz felt like vomiting again. “What about the other times?”
“We went to a hotel.”
“Where was I?”
“Probably with one of your whores.”
“Cursed be the day I met you!” Again, it was not his language, his style. His father entered him like a dybbuk.
“Shut up. You’re making a fool of yourself.” She said quietly and matter-of-factly, “For you to preach morality is like Al Capone becoming a rabbi.”
“Now it’s even a disgrace to die,” he said, almost apologetically.
“No one’s forcing you.”
“I’m going to gluttonize and sleep around until this cancer finishes me.”
“You have no cancer. You’ll go on swindling and deceiving until you’re eighty.”
He did not answer. He listened to his own body. He literally felt the growth in his stomach: heavy and bloated, the way, he imagined, a woman would feel if her baby died in her womb. He was pregnant with death. He could hear Dr. Beller’s warning: “It has to be cut before it spreads.” But how had it begun? Did he, Melnitz, subconsciously desire death? “I’m sinking in slime,” he said to himself. He remembered a scene he had witnessed in a camp: a young Jew spat at a Nazi, and the Nazi buried him in excrement. Like that young fellow, he was perishing in filth. But why should that young man have had to suffer, and how could God, if He existed, ever rectify such evil? No Messiah, no angels, no paradise could compensate for the hours it took this young Jew to strangle in offal. The past is stronger than God; it is the law that even He has to obey. Who said it? Not even the Omnipotent can erase what has happened already.
“Come over here, you stinking carcass.”
“Are you talking to me?” Dora asked.
“Who else? Come, you filth, you faithful servant of the God of Wrath,” Melnitz called, surprised at his own words. There was an element of parody in them.
“What are you ranting about?”
“Oh, never mind.”
“Wait. I’m going to smoke another cigarette.”
“How many Nazis did you whore around with?”
She lit her cigarette and a whiff of smoke reached Melnitz. After a while, she crushed it out and went to him as if his terrible words were a code and a signal for her. She fell into his arms and he clung to her both with passion and disgust. All their inhibitions left them momentarily. They wrestled with each other, scolding one another and caressing with forgiving vengeance.
“I don’t want to die,” Dora moaned. “I want to kill all your females first. I’ll take them all with me. I’ll tear them all to pieces.”
“And I’ll murder that Dr. Salkind.”
“Yes, do. He meant nothing to me. He didn’t even satisfy me, that creep.”
They fell back into their old familiar love chatter: half crazy fantasies, incoherent exclamations, promises of eternal love, dying together, being buried together, loving after the Resurrection — overtaken by that short-lived pathos which almost has an existence of its own and is degrading even while it lasts. They raved and grew silent. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. He opened them and it was still dark. “What an unending night,” he wondered. “A wintry summer night.” He poked Dora and she awoke — if she had not been shamming sleep.
“If you want to die, now’s the time.”
“I don’t want to die.” She hugged him tightly and wrapped her legs around him. Her hair tickled his face. Only now did he realize the strong scent of cognac on her breath. She half sighed, half giggled, in the way he once imagined Lilith the she-demon, whom Satan sends out at night to entice Yeshiva boys to sin.
“What happened to the pills?” he asked.
“I threw them down the drain.”
“All of them?”
“Yes, my beloved. All of them.”
Translated from Yiddish by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Laurie Colwin. Reprinted by permission of Lescher & Lescher, Ltd. All rights reserved.