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Secrets of the City


By Anne Roiphe


In Chapter 64, an old man on a bridge evoked Elijah.

* * *|

That night after Brooke hit the stranger on the bridge she slept as she hadn’t slept since she was a girl. Jacob came home late from the office and, after seeing that his children were in their beds where they belonged, he poured himself a glass of good Pinot Grigio so his muscles would relax and the back of his neck would once again sink down on his shoulders. When he walked into the bedroom he hung up his suit carefully so that it would appear perfectly pressed when he wore it the next day. He set out a freshly ironed shirt and a blue pin-stripped tie and matching socks. Then and only then did he sit down on the edge of the bed and look over at his wife. Her hair was lying about without clips, her face without makeup or smeared applications of anti-wrinkle cream. He held his breath for a nanosecond. She seemed in her sleep so peaceful, as if she were lying by a riverbed, listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing out her heart from the car radio parked on the road above them, just the way it had been that afternoon shortly after they met and he had found some wildflowers and brought them to her. It was unfortunate about the poison ivy he had included in his bouquet, but what does a city boy know about weeds?

As she slept, he wanted to kiss her toes, to stroke her calves, to touch just gently the place behind her ears where she put the perfume he had given her for their first anniversary. God he was lucky she was in his bed. Did she understand that? Had he been so busy, clocking so many hours that he had neglected to tell her, to hold her, to say to her that she was — well, what was she? He considered. He couldn’t put a name to it, couldn’t find a way to explain it, but he knew she was a soul and this soul was his beshert, his fate, his mate, his only hope.

He lay down on the bed and reached for her hand. He held it without putting pressure on it, without pulling it toward him or placing it on his own chest. He just held it and waited. She slept on undisturbed, a strange sweet smile on her face as if she were dreaming of good things either in the past or the future. Jacob startled. Am I turning her into an object, he wondered. Do I like her so much because she isn’t talking or demanding anything or making me feel wrong about something? Do I like her because she seems half-dead?

Jacob searched his mind. He looked again at Brooke’s face and felt a deep sorrow. She was only flesh and blood and wouldn’t last forever. She was not an object of the sort you find in the museum. She was a living person, the one he had selected above all the others, and tonight he knew why, even if he could not have told you, not for a million dollars, and Jacob was a man who did indeed care about money.

When he woke in the morning, there was Brooke by his side. She was awake.

She was smiling at him. “Jacob,” she said, “do you remember when we got married and your mom and dad wanted to know if I would convert and I said, ‘Never, ever.’” “Yes,” said Jacob. “I’ve been thinking,” said Brooke, “maybe I made a mistake.” “What!” said Jacob. “I could study it for a while,” she said. “Well,” said Jacob, “as long as you don’t make me relearn my bar mitzvah portion, what harm can it do?”

Brooke looked at her husband, at his dark eyes, at his chest with the clumps of hair sticking out from his pajama top, “Do you remember that I was a history major?” “Of course,” said Jacob, who in fact had forgotten that Brooke had ever studied anything. “I would really like to know something about Jewish history — the real thing, not your mother’s thumbnail version.” She looked intently into his face. Would he laugh at her now? He didn’t.

“What brought this on?” he asked. “I ran over some old guy on the bridge yesterday,” Brooke said. “You did what?” Jacob jumped up and began reaching for the phone. “Did you call the insurance company? Is he in the hospital? Is he dead? Why didn’t you tell me?” “Oh, don’t worry,” said Brooke, “he disappeared.” “What do you mean, ‘disappeared’?” asked Jacob. “I mean he was there, and then he wasn’t.” “What has this to do with you studying Jewish history?” “Well, I can’t convert if I don’t know the history and the traditions and all,” she said. “The man you ran over, are you sure he’s all right?” Jacob asked. “I told you,” said Brooke, “he disappeared. “Into thin air,” said Jacob. “Into thin air,” said Brooke.

* * *|

Puzzling over the murders of his yeshiva students, Rabbi Gedali sat in his office and considered the situation. Why, he wondered, had he not been able to find anyone, not a vendor of pretzels, not a mother with a child on the way to a friend, not a man coming or going from prayer to work, no one had reported seeing any coffee-colored boys coming through the streets. No insomniac had noticed them out his window. No woman had been tossing and turning, fearing whatever she feared in the dark. The night watchman at the store that sold olive oil and spices had not heard any footsteps, and the store was just around the corner from where the bodies had been found.

Rabbi Gedali had not honed his reasoning on the Talmud for nothing. He knew when something was odd and that the easy answers were too easy. He also knew that the yatzer hara was everywhere, his own community not excepted, and that something worse than what everyone now believed may have happened in Point Shrub. But how to find out what, how to settle the matter? His heart was prone to skipping a beat or two when he got excited. His doctor had given him medicine so this wouldn’t happen. It was happening anyway.

Next week: The mystery is solved.


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