Read an Excerpt
A Quick End in Four-Four Time
Eli Rabbinowitz was shaped like a hamster, though larger and somewhat less furry. As Sonia Cohn Seltzer applied her long, skilled fingers to his rubbery white flesh, he squeaked and sighed—noises that reminded her of his rodentlike qualities.
Lying on his stomach, he reached around with his pale, stocky arm. “Touch it. Touch it,” he murmured. “I’ll pay extra.” Grabbing her wrist, he started to turn over.
Sonia freed her hand and smacked him with a towel, a hard blow with a limp club.
“I warned you. Get out and don’t come back.” She exited the small room by what looked like a closet door but actually led to the rest of her apartment. Without her, the room looked antiseptic except for a Chagall print of a couple floating over rooftops. The door was slammed and locked and Sonia went back to her desk to work on her play about Emma Goldman, the anarchist, while her husband looked after their daughter in another room.
“Aayoych,” said Eli, blending several Yiddish and American expletives. Then he got dressed and left, turning down Avenue A, which was already a bit redolent as the early summer heat cooked the trash on the street. Furniture was placed neatly along the garbage-strewn edges of sidewalks—a special place where things were found and things were given away every day. The streetlamps in metallic paint were wrapped with paper flyers up to seven feet up the poles, like badly laid strudel dough, leaves dangling, advertisements for everything, some legal, including the exact time and place for demonstrations that had already been missed against every known form of repression. The trashy streets were occupied in shifts—different people at different hours of the day. The older people, such as Eli, were out first, beaten only by those who had spent the night on the sidewalk. Then the smarts, the new young people, walked quickly to the subways to their promising jobs in other neighborhoods. At eleven, shaggy young people staggered out into the blinding sunlight looking as though they had spent the night with drugs and sex and not much food or sleep. But soon the smarts would be home from their jobs and the streets filled with the entire assortment.
The tenement buildings were color-coded for age—not of the buildings, but of the last paint job. The oldest were brick red—a color designed to match the bricks, which it never quite did. Then there was forest green, that too one of the older colors, a nonbotanical attempt at greening a working-class neighborhood. More recently, buildings were painted battleship gray—paint that was said to have been left over from World War II and designed to obscure warships on a gray day at sea. Buildings painted in the sixties when the neighborhood became the East Village were in colors that escaped any rational explanation, such as orange, hot bubble-gum pink, deep purple—once brilliant but now dull as dirt. The psychedelic storefronts looked more out-of-date than the tenement buildings themselves. Then the Puerto Ricans brought cobalt, which was very big on Avenues A and B, and the Dominicans came with turquoise, and now the smarts were there with cream, peach, café au lait, and buff—colors that were so up-market, they did not even try to hide dirt.
It was raining, an unimportant warm summer drizzle that caused puddles to form in the ruts of the pockmarked asphalt streets uneven from one failed repaving over another; even a few cobblestones showed through in places. Eli saw his feet but did not bother to notice the paint-splattered sidewalks of street art that everyone gazed at and no one looked at deliberately—street artists must know that the street is the perfect spot for subliminal messages.
Walking in the fast Jewish four-beat, Eli headed toward the kosher dairy restaurant on Houston Street of which he was the unloved owner.
Chow Mein Vega, who knew more about rhythm than anyone else in the neighborhood, had a theory. He claimed that Latins and Jews walked to different beats—that Jews walked to a very fast four-beat. “You can clap your hands to it,” he would say. “You can almost hear that short loud ‘Hey!’ between measures—dom-domdom dom—hey. Latinos have a three-beat like a cha-cha-cha. One, du—dat-dat-dat. It moves your body a lot more, but it doesn’t get you down the street nearly as fast. Jews get there faster with less effort and don’t understand that the Puerto Ricans’ way is style.” Chow Mein made a graceful sweep with his arm to illustrate, then added, as though he had just had the thought, “Of course, the Puerto Ricans don’t understand that this is why the Jews always get there first. Dominicanos are even more slowed down by that syncopated thing. That little ‘y’ between the downbeat and the second beat. That’s why, have you ever noticed how long it takes a Dominicano to get somewhere?”
Rabbinowitz’s restaurant was closed and the Dominicanos were cleaning up. Outside, the union picketers were bundling up their angry signs and getting ready to leave. They didn’t acknowledge the fast-paced, short, stocky Eli Rabbinowitz, whom they vilified in chant and by placard every evening. And he ignored them.
Since most of the neighborhood’s blintz and kreplach eaters were pro-union, the picketing, in the words of Eli Rabbinowitz, “is killing me.” But he would not give in. The Poles and Ukrainians had an endless supply of immigrants who worked for nothing, and they weren’t picketed because their customers wouldn’t care. So why should he pay union scale? “Who’s going to buy a ten-dollar blintz?” he would say. “These guys are killing me. A bunch of Communists. Like my father. That’s why we never had anything.” And soon all the sufferings of his childhood were blamed on these ten people who had been picketing his restaurant for the last three months.
It was early Thursday evening, the evening when Eli Rabbinowitz picked up the restaurant’s revenues in a canvas bag and deposited them at the bank.
“These schmucks are killing me,” he said once more as he closed up the canvas bag with a few thousand dollars instead of the tens of thousands he had deposited on Thursday nights before he was singled out.
“Killing me,” he muttered as he made his way up First Avenue to the deposit box on Fifth Street. In the fast Jewish four-beat, Rabbinowitz and his money were getting to Fifth Street quickly, charting a determined course around the amblers and street hustlers brought out by the first heat of summer and the halfhearted cooling rain, which had already stopped. One two-three four—hey!
A man was waiting for him, a large, dark-skinned man with eyes that seemed unable to focus. The pupils looked wide enough to take in all the night light on Fifth Street. He blinked continually as his shaking hands lifted an automatic pistol of a dull-finished metal, the first bullet already in the chamber, to the back of Eli Rabbinowitz’s head. The steady finger of his shaking hand squeezed the trigger, jerking Eli forward and exploding most of his face onto the brass fittings of the night deposit box. The police would observe that the assailant must have been much taller than the victim. This was deduced by the downward angle from the entry wound at the top of the head and the low height of the place where the pieces that had been Eli Rabbinowitz’s face hit the wall and the box. A pool of dark blood marked the spot on the sidewalk where Eli’s body fell without the canvas bag. Rabbinowitz probably died instantly, but had he lived another minute, he might have laughed at the thought that because of the picketing, the thief had lost out on more than $10,000.
The Natural Order of Rodents
Daddy, why did you kill him?” Sarah, with a pencil in one hand and small notebook in the other, wanted to know.
As Nathan Seltzer looked down at the dead body stretched across the kitchen floor, no good explanations were coming to him.
“You didn’t have to kill him. Why did you do it?” his daughter insisted.
How to explain such things to a three-year-old. He had been warned about the poison. It caused the victim to bleed internally and die in agony. And the body was left behind to confront the killer.
The mouse was lying belly-up, and it was a soft, white belly. It had been an almost cuddly little animal, if you overlooked the tail, a naked white worm that trailed behind. Sarah had a favorite book, a gift from Nathan’s mother, about furry animals. Each page had an animal with a different kind of fur, a little fluffy patch that the reader was invited to rub. The mouse’s white belly looked like such a patch. “I am a mouse. Would you like to rub my white belly?”
The mouse had stretched its body with its last breath—forepaws straining up and the hind ones back, the tail dragged straight behind. It had not been a peaceful death. They probably don’t bother to make a gentle poison, something that will just put it to sleep. They could do that. It doesn’t have to be some sharp, unbearable pain, a soul-splitting convulsion. How long do they struggle? Long enough to drag themselves halfway across the kitchen floor. A mousetrap breaks the neck instantly. People prefer the pet cat method, though, because it is the most natural. It is not coincidence that the most natural is the cruelest of all. Of course, Nathan had none of these thoughts when putting out the poison; only now did he, faced with the insistent questioning of the little inquisitor. But now, he had to admit, the line of questioning had an inescapable validity.
“Why did you kill him, Daddy?” she asked, pen poised over notebook as though ready to write down his answer.
“Because he can’t live here, and you cannot just ask a mouse to leave.”
Sarah drew three irregular but concentric circles on a page in the notebook. “How did you kill him?” She was growing bolder, poking the white belly with a small, pale index finger.
“Don’t touch him. I killed him with poison.”
They could hear police on Avenue A with loudspeakers. It took Nathan only a strange half second to realize that the police were not looking for mouse killers.
“Uncle Mordy said that we are all being poisoned. That the general electorate is poisoning us. Is that right?”
“Is it true that the general electorate is putting poison in the water and it gets in the food because the food is wet?”
“No, it’s General Electric. But Uncle Mordy gets a little nutty.”
“Then why did you use poison? Are you a little nutty?”
“Maybe. I poisoned him because I thought it would be quick. Kinder than Pepe Le Moko.”
Sarah’s eyes opened round and cartoon expressive. “Does Pepe Le Moko kill?”
“Yes, he does.”
Sarah put several exciting vertical lines through the circles. “Why?”
“It’s nature. Everything kills in nature. Cats kill mice.”
“Am I going to kill?”
“No. Of course not.”
She turned the page in her notebook and drew a long, wavy line. “Does Pepe kill as much as General Electric?”
“He only kills mice.”
“I like mice. Why do we have to kill them?”
Nathan listened to the sounds of Avenue A as though there were answers to her questions out there in the horns, the sirens, the clanging of some makeshift construction project, cars thudding over steel plates in the street, someone shouting, “Hey!,” the police loudspeaker: “Anyone on First Avenue and Fifth Street between ten and eleven last night . . .” He thought he could even hear his father on the floor above whistling Irving Berlin.
“Daddy, why does Uncle Mordy have little nuts?”
“What? Listen, do you want to come with me to the shop? We can feed Pepe Le Moko.”
“Are we going to feed him the mouse?”
Nathan thought about it for a second and decided against it. Instead he swept it up into a dustpan. The sight of the rubbery little stiff was a little sickening. She didn’t seem to mind. Was the idea of death upsetting to her? She didn’t look upset, but she didn’t always show these things. The sight of a dead animal was a great curiosity to her, but she seemed to be troubled only by moral, not aesthetic, implications. As he dumped the dustpan into the plastic trash bag, she said, “Shouldn’t he be buried?”
Ritual, too. Moral conundrums and the law. She was Jewish, after all. For as long as he could remember, his parents had worried that he would “marry a shiksa and your children won’t be Jewish.” Why had they always talked about this? Nathan wondered. He had rarely even conversed with a non-Jew. In high school he went out on two dates with Luisa, the beautiful Puerto Rican from Avenue C. That alone was enough for Nathan’s father to say to his own brother, Nathan’s uncle Nusan, “Nathan’s children will not be Jewish.”
Was that why he stopped going out with Luisa? Was it pressure from his parents? He couldn’t remember. In fact, he couldn’t really remember Luisa—only that she was Puerto Rican and that at the time he thought she was very beautiful and that when his father told Uncle Nusan that their children would not be Jewish, Nusan had responded, “Baruch hashem,” and let slip an ironic smile. God willing. Uncle Nusan’s invocation of God’s will was always intended as the darkest of ironies, his curse at God. Nusan seemed to have a close but troubled relationship with God, the same kind of relationship that he had with his brother.
Nathan was named after Nusan. At the time, no one foresaw the burden, because Nusan was supposed to be dead. As Ashkenazic Jews, they named babies only after the dead. Nusan, like the rest of the family, had vanished during the war. But unlike the others, Nusan reappeared years later with a bitter voice, a number tattooed on his forearm, and dark eyes that could see through everything. According to Nathan’s father, Nusan used to have light blue eyes and they had changed color during the war. This was hard to believe, but Nusan did have the kind of broad, Slavic looks that seemed intended for light blue eyes.
Nathan was Nusan’s favorite, a position that no one envied him. The family supposed that it was because Nathan was named after him, even though he was given the name only in the belief that Nusan was dead. Nusan often said to Nathan, “You are the living proof that I am dead.” And with that he would reach up to put his arm fondly on Nathan’s shoulder.