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Secrets of the City


By Anne Roiphe


In Chapter 65, Brooke’s deep sleep was followed by thoughts of conversion.

* * *|

Rabbi Gedali began with his youngest students, the ones with voices not yet fully changed, whose bodies had yet to grow to their allotted inches. He called them into his office, one by one. He looked deep into each set of eyes, and told them that they were under every obligation to the entire Jewish people from the time of Abraham through that of Rashi up to the present. They must honor the great Rambam and keep their minds alive and receptive to the word of Hashem, and to do so they must reveal what they might know about the boys who were shot in the snow. “There is no commandment,” he pressed on his young charges, “that you should keep secrets from your rabbi.”

He repeated this speech some 40 times, as many years as the Jews wandered in the desert, until he found Mendel Berne, who had a sharp mind and a good heart and no father at all and who wanted Rabbi Gedali to care for him, above all the others. Mendel had something to say, and when he had said it, Rabbi Gedali embraced the young man, and there were tears on his face, dripping into his beard.

“I didn’t want to make you cry,” said Mendel. “It’s not you that is making me cry,” said Rabbi Gedali. “Go now,” he told boy, “and I wouldn’t say a word about this conversation to anyone if I were you.” Mendel promised he wouldn’t. “Did I do the right thing, in telling you?” he asked. The rabbi, who wished that he did not know what he now knew, assured Mendel that in solving the mystery he had not lost his place in the world to come.

The imp of disorder, the imp of adolescent dreams, the imp of gravy spilled and dust on the books in the library danced a wild imp dance. Now it would come out, now it would be seen, now everyone would know that innocence is a sham and that man is born to disgrace himself. The rabbi would have to conduct his own investigation and fast.

* * *|

Bontshe Shvayg looked down from the heavens, and there were tears in his eyes. Tears of rage. Ah, how good it felt to be really angry. How the anger cursed through his veins and cleared his sinuses and made his heart pump the way a human heart should. Bontshe Shvayg had learned some things since his last appearance in this story.

He now knew that Eli and Nathaniel and his friends were secret members of a defense organization, a group that had dedicated themselves to the protection of their people, to the pro-active, pre-emptive activity that had been so unthinkable to poor Bontshe, who had always believed that survival rested with lying low, hiding in the shadows, asking little, demanding nothing. Although no longer, by virtue of his existential condition, able to participate in the affairs of the world, Bontshe was a new member, and with a convert’s zeal he wanted to see his boys on the go again. He wanted them in the streets chasing down antisemites wherever they might be. Sam Boxer and his good suit and his organization with its computer-outfitted offices and his palsy-walsy way with the mainstream press did not impress Bontshe. He searched all over the World to Come for Baruch Goldstein, who had shot some praying Muslims in the back, so he could give him a welcome hug and a piece of his roll, but he couldn’t find Baruch anywhere. Perhaps he was alive and well in Argentina? He was pleased with all the knocking down of homes and rolling out of tanks against the enemy in Zion, and he was pleased with the fellows in Point Shrub who had taken matters into their own strong hands. You can’t blame him for this.

* * *|

The two men had an appointment made by Vladi with the head buyer at Loomy’s. Leonid was nervous and wanted to chew a Nicorette, but Vladi wouldn’t let him. The hats were in the box that Leonid was carrying in his arms. Ms. Fiona Flaherty kept the men waiting a long time. She was chatting on the phone. Also she expected nothing from the meeting, which she had granted because Vladi’s cousin had altered her wedding gown. There had been a last-minute catastrophe that the cousin had worked all night to fix; it had something to do with the weight she had gained in the weeks immediately before the event.

Ms. Fiona Flaherty looked at the hats as they emerged from Leonid’s box. She smiled. She put one on her head. “Pull it down a little,” Leonid said, “more to the left.” She did as he had instructed. She looked in the mirror on her office door. “Well,” she said. “Well,” said Vladi, who was not quite sure what this expression meant in this context. “Well,” said Leonid, flashing his dark eyes at Ms. Flaherty, who did indeed look charming in the hat.

“I’ll take 300,” said Ms. Flaherty, “delivery next month.” “Three hundred,” said Vladi, who did not have the capital to buy the material for 300 hats. “I don’t think so,” said Vladi, and was about to explain that he couldn’t produce 300 hats in a month, not without funds he didn’t have. “Well,” said Ms. Flaherty, who had visions of seeing her hat in other stores, “I could manage 400.”

Leonid felt faint. He did not understand that there was no money to buy the cloth. Four hundred? He had hoped she would take 20. Vladi was very pale; he shook his head. “Five hundred,” said Ms. Flaherty.

Vladi said, “We’ll need an advance to produce this many.” “Of course,” said Ms. Flaherty, “we do that all the time.” “You do,” said Vladi, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice. “We do,” she said.

“I would like,” she added, “to keep this sample for myself. You don’t mind do you?” “Sure, sure,” both men responded.

“And what other items do you have, do you do anything besides hats?” “We do,” said Vladi. “We do?” Leonid asked.

Next week: The Mayor hears the whole story.

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