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Secrets of the City

CHAPTER 60: THE QUEST FOR A CULPRIT

By Anne Roiphe

IIn Chapter 59, Ina asked Sergei to help with researching her new idea about cell reproduction.

* * *|

Leonid did not take time for lunch. He needed a lawyer right away. A man had a good idea only so often. He did not intend to give it away. How did a man in America with an idea, a design, make sure no one stole it from him? He called his brother in his lab. When Sergei heard Leonid’s voice his stomach knotted. What now, he wondered. Will I always be my brother’s keeper? He was tired of police stations, bail forms. He was tired of carrying his brother. The cash he slipped Leonid out of the joint account he and Ina shared was making it hard for him to pay the mortgage on their apartment. The kindergarten bill for his son was enough to buy a Russian family a dacha, at least it had been when he was last in Moscow.

He heard the tension in his brother’s voice as he greeted him. But then he heard this extraordinary request. A lawyer to make sure his hat would not be stolen. A business lawyer, who could incorporate. Hats, a business with Vladi Meyrowitz — a small request for funds that would be returned, a startup loan. This was not so bad. His brother had not knifed or punched anyone. He had not made a deal with gamblers or thieves. At least not yet. Sergei agreed to the loan.

* * *|

In the back room of Synagogue Beth El a group of young men in black jackets and white shirts had gathered. Some had heavy beards and others had beards that had just begun, and some had payes and some didn’t. Many of them wore glasses, a few of them still had braces from Moishe Mendel, the local orthodontist, who was responsible for most of the flashes of silver on the smiles of the neighborhood boys.

Their faces were grim, their bodies were tense. “We are not going to be murdered again,” one said. “We are here to make a plan, to turn ourselves into protectors of our people. They will pay for this.”

“But who is they?” one young man asked. “We will find out. We will take pre-emptive action. We will not wait for them to strike again.”

“But,” said the young man, “who did this?” The speaker stopped. He decided to stand on a chair to answer this question. He needed to be both closer to God and above his fellows. “We know who did this. It is the enemy of the Jews, those who have hated us and spread libels about us through the centuries, the Poles who chased our ancestors in the streets, the Russians who hunted them on horseback, the Italians who converted their children and stole them away, the French who turned their backs as children were herded into train stations and sent away before their indifferent eyes. We know who did this.” “Yes,” said the young man who had already spoken, “but who did this?”

* * *|

And now a word about the moth-

ers of the murdered boys. They all, except for Ruthie Kleinschmidt,

had other children, other boys. Nevertheless in Point Shrub all the trees on 35th, 34th and 32nd streets now in winter hibernation snapped their branches and uprooted themselves, and throughout the day they lay at strange angles across snowy streets and in the backyards reproaching nature itself. The Parks Department sent out a truck to pick up the dead trees, which had keeled over due to the grief of too many mothers in too close proximity creating a force of typhoon intensity. In the wig shop on 35th Street all the wigs, the beautiful expensive wigs, blonde and brunette, shinning black and copper toned, red wigs and auburn wigs turned, every last one of them, the day after the discovery of the bodies, a washed-out, empty gray. A shop full of suddenly gray wigs was something no insurance could cover.

* * *|

Mel in his office spoke to the Police Commissioner. “It’s probably the Arabs in Muttonfoot.” “Maybe,” said the Police Commissioner, “but no witness saw a single Arab in the neighborhood. This seems more like a drug thing. A sort of Valentine Day’s shooting.” “Oh, please,” said Mel, “you’ve been watching too much TV. These were innocent yeshiva boys lying dead in the snow, not members of Tony Soprano’s family.”

“You think Italian boys aren’t innocent?” asked the Police Commissioner. Mel sighed. “I didn’t mean that, sorry.”

That evening the newspapers carried the report that the Mayor suspected mob involvement in the yeshiva murders.

* * *|

Bontshe Shvayg, created by I.L Peretz and an ancestor of Charlie Brown, was awakened from his sleep by a group of angels who rang bells in his ears. “Look down,” they said. “Listen,” they said. As always, Shvayg did as he was told. “What do you think of that?” asked one of the angels.

Bontshe Shvayg watched as the yeshiva students in Point Shrub made their plans to protect their neighborhood, themselves, their families from the course of history whose tides could always be counted on to wash Jewish bodies up on the shore. Bontshe Shvayg’s eyes widened, his shoulders hunched up. He took a bite of his warm roll and felt the sweet taste of butter as it went down his throat. Was this the way it should be? Had he been a fool to accept without complaint all the cruelties of his life? He remembered now with a bitterness he had not known at the time the sorrows of his life lined with poverty and loneliness. Should he, like these brave young yeshiva students wearing clothes he recognized but wearing them with a swagger he had not, have fought back, pushed hard against his sad fate, done something, anything to bring change to his days? Bontshe Shvayg stared down from the heavens — where, yes, he was a favorite — but he couldn’t help knowing that some smiled at him with pity in their eyes, a pity that bordered on contempt. Some of Heaven’s citizens smiled at him as if he were a pet, a bird from some exotic place with pretty feathers. No one asked his opinion. No one seemed to notice if he slept all the time or followed the conversations that swirled about him. He may have been offered the crown jewels of Heaven on his arrival, but as the centuries turned he realized he could and should have asked for more than a warm roll and that God himself seemed to find him boring.

To Bontshe Shvayg these Jews sounded like Cossacks. They spoke of bats and hammers and knives, and one spoke of an Uzi his cousin had brought home from a trip to Israel and stashed in the family cellar. Bontshe Shvayg felt faint. These were not nice Jewish boys.

Next Week: The tough get going.

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