The Book of Lifeby Stuart Nadler
Forced together on a trip from Manhattan to Rhode Island, a father and son attempt to renew their bond over lobster, cigarettes, and a buried secret. A pure-hearted artist finds his devotion cruelly tested, while his true love tries to repent for the biggest mistake of her life. Unwittingly thrust into an open marriage, a man struggles to reconnect with his newly… See more details below
Forced together on a trip from Manhattan to Rhode Island, a father and son attempt to renew their bond over lobster, cigarettes, and a buried secret. A pure-hearted artist finds his devotion cruelly tested, while his true love tries to repent for the biggest mistake of her life. Unwittingly thrust into an open marriage, a man struggles to reconnect with his newly devout son. And in the book's daring first story, an arrogant businessman begins a forbidden affair during the High Holidays.
Written in clear, crystalline prose, The Book of Life comprises seven stunning tales about faith, family, grief, love, temptation, and redemption that signal the arrival of a bold and exciting new writer.
A writer of keen perception and sensibility, Nadler describes the difficult thresholds that separate absence and presence, arrivals and departures, the sacred and profane, bright memory and dark nostalgia. His writing reminds me why I love to read."Gina Ochsner, author of The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight"
Stuart Nadler is an artist of secrets. Line after line of clear, revealing prose turn out to be incendiary. These are stories that expand without warning. A striking, rousing collection of people waking up fast. Nothing in The Book of Life is without consequence."Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There"
In The Book of Life, Stuart Nadler offers a fresh, funny, perceptive take on the current state of the Jewish family, including the families we make with our friends and lovers. Like Bernard Malamud, Nadler has a gift for comic/ironic dialogue and for setting thoroughly modern characters on a collision course with the distant past. A truly talented writer."Sharon Pomerantz, author of Rich Boy
Stuart Nadler treats his characters like people. The Book of Life is a fitting title for this collection-that's what it's about: life. Here's a Chekovian fascination with the human condition-the pleasures and tortures of family, love, sex, money, work, religion. These are stories about fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, friends, lovers-people with complex lives, troubled souls, deep hearts and messy desires. Nadler is a writer, who, like Alice Munro, John Cheever or Bernard Malamud, does not write about "ordinary people" because he knows there's no such thing as an ordinary person. Each of these carefully wrought stories is as moving and masterful as a Chopin sonata; the notes and the silences between them will resonate with the reader for a very long time after they're done.Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore"
Stuart Nadler has written seven of the most gorgeous, poignant, intricately crafted, and compulsively readable stories I have read in a long time. His flawed protagonists tend to be forever on the brink of heartbreak, yet the unlikely effect of Nadler's fiction is that life is continually reaffirmed."Frederick Reiken, author of Day for Night
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Read an Excerpt
The Book of Life
By Nadler, Stuart
Reagan Arthur / Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2011 Nadler, Stuart
All right reserved.
The Book of Life
In the Book of Life
She appeared first to Abe in the parlor, carrying a platter of dates, each wrapped delicately in a thin ribbon of bacon. It was Rosh Hashanah. This was the sort of house his friend Larry Reinstein ran. It was a calculated bit of brashness that made him popular among those he wished to impress, and repulsed those whom he felt obliged to invite, like the rabbi who was milling around, still in his tallith and kippah. Under the lights, the bacon glistened. She held the tray to the side of his body and leaned forward to whisper into his ear, “L’shanah tovah,” her lips brushing against his skin. She was Larry’s daughter.
“You have no earlobes,” she said, stepping back and then rubbing the skin of his ear between her fingers. “I’ve never noticed that before. How strange.”
“Maybe you weren’t looking close enough,” he said.
She smiled and then turned her bare right shoulder toward him. Her blouse seemed designed to fall off her this way. “Oh, I think I’ve looked close enough,” she said.
“Have you, now?”
“Once or twice,” she said. “Or perhaps three times.”
Her laughter sounded very much like her father’s. It was a husky sound, a gust of wind caught within her. She wore a low-cut black blouse and a short black skirt that ended two inches above her knees. He couldn’t look away. Shoshanna, his wife, allowed this sort of behavior, but little else. They held to the old adage, looking but not touching.
“Have you seen my wife?” he asked.
“I haven’t. Isn’t that funny?” She smiled and ran her free hand along the length of his necktie. “I adore silk.”
“Maybe she’s in the yard with the girls,” he said.
“Yes, maybe,” she said, letting go of his tie, her hand brushing the buckle of his belt. “She’s quite the woman, your wife.”
“My mother and my father speak of her often.”
“I’m blessed,” he said.
“Give thanks to God for that,” she answered.
He felt himself flush with color. Behind them, one of the children at the party changed the music on the stereo. The new song was too loud for Rosh Hashanah, and someone immediately rushed toward the radio dials. She put the platter of dates down on a table and stepped slowly out of her heels. For the girl she’d been, she was an improbably sophisticated young woman. He saw no sign of Shoshanna or his girls in the yard. She stepped closer to him. Without her heels, she rose only to his chin.
“Tell me something,” she said.
“As far as Rosh Hashanah parties go, this one’s swinging,” he said.
“You’re not very funny, are you?”
He touched his ear. “You know, they say that not having any earlobes is a sign of hereditary brilliance.”
“So you have no sense of humor, but you think you’re brilliant?”
“Your father and I have made a living selling mediocre food,” he said. “That means one of us is brilliant.”
“I think the jury’s still out,” she said, looking away, her eyes narrowing. “Either way, I like your strange ears.”
“Where’s the booze?” he whispered. “I haven’t seen any.”
“My mother’s trying to quit,” she said, winking. “We’re trying to be accommodating.”
“That’s understandable,” Abe said. Jackie Reinstein was a famous, if not a gentle, drunk. “You wouldn’t have a secret stash somewhere, college girl?”
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Rivkin, I might,” she said. “Follow me.”
Abe had seen little of her over the years. As a girl, she’d been awkward, bucktoothed, clad in orthodontics from the day after her bat mitzvah until the day she graduated high school. He was glad to see she’d changed. She walked in front of him. He held onto the banister as he made his way down the stairs. She carried her heels in her hand. It began quickly. She stepped toward him, put one hand on his shoulder, the other on his belt buckle, and as if she were a physician about to anesthetize him, she whispered, “Just relax.” After a moment, he backed her up against the pool table.
He was not the sort of man to do such a thing. This was something he knew, unquestionably, deep in his heart. If ever he was to turn into one of these men, he would not do it with the daughter of his best friend, however terrific she looked in her skirt and blouse, and then, later, without her skirt and blouse. He had always admired his friend’s pool table, but he had never wished to use it this way. In fact, he thought to do so might violate some deeply crass cliché. And this was a holiday. He would most certainly never commit such a sin during the High Holy Days. In all of Westchester County, he was perhaps the poorest and least observant of Jews, but he knew, at least, when to give respect to God. All of this aside, he knew he shouldn’t expect this ever to happen again. A repeat performance, an encore, or some subsequent rendezvous would certainly be a catastrophically foolish thing to do. Abe Rivkin, for all of his flaws, was not a man who liked to do wrong. He was, after all, a man of business, and this, he knew, was bad business.
Her name was Jane Reinstein.
The next day, she appeared on the sidewalk outside the office, standing in the wind on lower Broadway. She was beautiful. This he couldn’t argue with, even if, in the course of the preceding day, he’d hoped otherwise, wishing away the lust he’d felt in Larry’s basement. He’d never met a man who hadn’t been ruined by his mistress. One way or another, something went to hell when a man’s cock ended up where it wasn’t allowed. If there was ever a maxim to live by, this was it.
He paused in the lobby to watch her. She wore a black raincoat that she’d tied loosely at the waist. It was the sort of coat—cut at the knee, open at the chest—that allowed the thought that nothing else was on underneath. The thought was a pleasant one. Her face possessed no lines, only a trace of makeup, and, most important, none of the signs of mischief he took pride in recognizing. This was a skill of paramount importance for any half-decent businessman: a man needed to know when someone was trying to take something from him. In one hand she was holding a black-and-white leather handbag, and in the other she clutched a yellow umbrella. He hadn’t been anxious in the presence of a woman in years.
“What a nice surprise,” he said, a hand on her shoulder. He thought this was a suitable nod to what had happened. “Are you here to see your father?”
“I’m not,” she said, pulling his elbow. “Let’s go for a walk, Abe.”
They turned the corner onto Spring Street. He and Larry had picked SoHo for the headquarters of their business because of the status it afforded them. They’d been nearly destitute as children, and they’d never tired of the accoutrements of good fortune. The rent was exorbitant, but, as Larry liked to joke, it wasn’t as if either of them kept a mistress. It wasn’t just the woman that presented the trouble, but the money a man spent to keep her happy—using the company card at Le Cirque, renting a Carrera soft-top for the day trip to Montauk, booking the honeymoon suite at the St. Regis—that could sink a company’s free capital.
“First thing,” she said. “If we’re going to keep doing this, you’re going to need to get an apartment in the city. I’m not schlepping all the way to Westchester to see you.”
“Do you want to keep doing this?” Abe asked.
“Oh, Abraham,” she said, a hand on his cheek. “Don’t be foolish.”
She pushed him against a wall and kissed him. Her eyes were closed. His were open. In the reflection of a store window, he caught sight of himself. He was good-looking enough. However dubious he was of Jane’s intentions, he allowed himself the benefit of the doubt. He was funny, he knew, and he was successful, and, on a good day, he looked decent in a blazer and slacks.
“I don’t know if I can spring for an apartment, darling,” he said. “New York’s quite an expensive city for a pied-à-terre.”
“Oh, please,” she said, smirking. “You’re lying.”
“I certainly can’t write a check on your behalf.”
“I’m not asking you to write a check,” she said.
“Then what are you asking?”
“Just pinch a little off the top,” she said, pinching him on the stomach.
“Your dad’s a hawk with the books,” he said. “You know that.”
“Don’t lie to me, Abraham,” she said. “I know you control the purse strings. Everyone knows that.”
“Yes, darling,” she said. “You’re the good Jew. My dad’s the bad Jew. This has been established.”
He paused to consider her, standing here with him in the middle of the afternoon. In the light, he thought, she seemed like she might be someone entirely new. She touched the back of his palm gently.
“What do you say?” she asked.
“If I were to do this, however unlikely the possibility,” he said, “where should this apartment be?”
“Wherever,” she said. “Brooklyn is good.”
“I love Brooklyn,” he said.
She pulled him close to her, bringing his head toward the folds of her raincoat. “Look,” she said, pulling the fabric at her chest away to reveal a body unaffected by gravity or childbirth.
“You’re trouble,” he said. “You’re certainly trouble.”
“Tell me I’m sweet.”
“That would be a lie.”
He brought her to Hotel Paulette, a small boutique hotel hidden away in the intricate crosshatch of the West Village. A year ago, he’d taken Shoshanna there to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary. Just a day earlier, he might not have considered ever doing such things, but he found the arrangement—the furtive lurking, the promise of an afternoon in a hotel room, the temptation beneath her raincoat—so foolish that it thrilled him. At his core, he considered himself a serious, intelligent man. He had always thought himself capable of anything he desired. Even this most explicitly forbidden of trysts felt to him somehow manageable. All of life came down on two sides, he believed: that which was within his control, and that which was not.
He looked into the eyes of the receptionist, the same woman who had, twelve months earlier, complimented Shoshanna on her earrings. It felt brazen to do this. His marriage had become an arrangement bereft of such boldness. There was a saucer filled with mints resting on the reception counter. He took one, and put another in his mouth. He wanted to taste good. In the room, Jane was naked within moments.
He picked Brooklyn Heights not simply because it was gorgeous, but because, when he was a boy, the neighborhood had seemed so outlandishly extravagant, an exclusive province of the wealthy, the subway stop at which every rich-looking man, wearing a cashmere overcoat and carrying the Times under his arm, left the train with his head high. His mother once made the claim that any random dog plucked indiscriminately off the sidewalk in Brooklyn Heights was apt to be wearing more expensive jewelry than she. As he walked to meet a real-estate broker, he thought of this, and of his poor mother, dead now for half his lifetime. She would be proud of the money he’d made, but she would undoubtedly be ashamed by what he was about to do. The streets weren’t crowded, but they weren’t empty, and in the face of every stranger that passed him he thought he detected an implicit knowledge of his wrongdoing. He stopped to take in the view, leaning against a lamppost near the broker’s office. He lit a cigar. Smoking allowed him time and the proper rush of blood to the brain to think well. A good cigar also helped to stanch the guilt.
He took great pleasure in surveying the riches before him: the row houses on Pierrepont Street, the bare cherry trees near the river promenade, the garden planters blooming with chrysanthemums, the patisseries on Montague blowing sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon into the wind. If there was ever a place to make love to a beautiful young woman, this was it. It seemed a far more profitable experience to think of this private triumph than to think of the wrong he was committing.
When his broker, an older woman with white hair, long fingers, and short, chewed fingernails, asked why he wanted to live in Brooklyn Heights, he cracked his knuckles.
“My wife’s leaving me,” he said. “And she hates the city.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the broker said.
“It happens,” he said. “Such is life.”
He felt terrible saying such a thing. He and Shoshanna had long since stopped making love, as she put it, but they hadn’t stopped, as far as he knew, actually loving each other. Theirs was a love that transcended displays of physical affection. She’d been his girlfriend when he was a boy, his next-door neighbor on Division Street. No one alive knew him better than she did. If they wanted to make love, they could remember how it had been when their bodies were young. It was like a song they’d adored since childhood, learned by heart, replayable in their memories at any time.
“How much are you willing to spend?” the broker asked.
“However much I have to,” he said, reaching into his briefcase. He put an envelope of money onto the desk. Doing such a thing felt absurd, but he couldn’t deny the pleasure. The experience was the sort of thing he’d have told Larry if the circumstances had allowed it.
She showed him a studio near the river. It had a small galley kitchen, and a window that looked out at the downtown skyline. The view possessed none of the famous buildings, but merely the lumped, anonymous cluster of steel and glass that now sat at the foot of the island. He stood there for a moment watching the early autumn chop on the East River, and the cars stuck in traffic on the bridge. An oak tree rose from a garden across the street, its branches poking through the steel grates of a fire escape. The broker stood near the doorway, scribbling onto a pad of paper, chewing her fingernails. He imagined leading Jane through the door here, taking off her raincoat, fucking her on the floor. He’d buy a small stereo and a television. She’d smoke her cigarettes here, stub them out into the houseplants she’d put on the windowsill. The beginning of his own marriage had looked something like this: a small Brooklyn studio, a mattress on the floor, cold dinners eaten by the television. Shoshanna wasn’t the sort of woman who’d become angry at his infidelity, he knew. She was the sort of woman who’d crumple and dissolve and shut down.
“It’s not the Taj Mahal,” the broker said. “But it has fresh paint.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “Draw up a lease.”
He stayed behind for a few moments. The place was clean, but it seemed, in the marks he found on the walls, and in the scuffs on the hardwood, so very ordinary, and so clearly possessed by the life of its previous tenants, that he couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The complexity of this affair was beginning to feel underwhelming. He felt foolish that he might have expected otherwise. An old studio in Brooklyn Heights was the same as its counterpart seven miles south in Bensonhurst. Somewhere, a few miles from here, a young couple was living in the apartment where he and Shoshanna had lived and fought and where they’d conceived their first daughter. He’d never imagined that he would be in such a position. His mother had always warned him against turning into a fool. It was three in the afternoon. His wife, he knew, was about to pick their girls up from school.
Shoshanna had dinner waiting when he came through the door. When they’d met, she’d had aspirations of working in public service. Her life in Westchester had dispossessed her of the boundless energy Abe remembered from their youth. There was now a permanent expression of disappointment on her face, and most days Abe believed it existed there as the result of some judgment she’d made of his character, one that he hadn’t yet been made aware of. On the coffee table, she’d splayed a collection of her recent reading material. She was a policy wonk, and because of it she enjoyed lecturing him. The topics were numerous, and uniformly beyond Abe’s interests. She could speak as easily about energy conservation or about the imminent consequences of Chinese ownership in American T-bills as she could about the various teenage boys who doted on their daughters. He was far less intelligent than she, but it was something he was used to. He gave her a small kiss. She grabbed onto him.
“I just received the most disturbing telephone call,” she said, leading him by the arm into the kitchen.
His two daughters, Leah and Rose, were already at the dinner table. They were eleven and thirteen, and had begun to openly disdain him for the utter ignorance he maintained of the popular culture they found to be so important. He took his place at the head of the table. She’d cooked lamb. He could smell the rosemary and the fresh mint.
“Larry called,” she said.
“He did? What did he want?” he said.
He thought of Jane, and of her body, the bitter and salty taste of her skin, the way she’d closed her eyes when she kissed him on Spring Street—so eager and trustworthy, like a young girl. Shoshanna, if she were to discover him, would be one thing, but Larry Reinstein might actually try to put a bullet in him.
“He’s having quite the problem with Jane,” she said.
“Really?” he said.
“You might want to call him.”
“I have my own daughters to worry about.”
“I still think you should call him.”
“I see the guy every goddamned day. I’ll talk to him tomorrow.”
“She’s getting into all sorts of trouble. She’s hard up for money. It’s that wife of his. If Jackie wasn’t so drunk all the time, she might have raised her daughter right.”
“How hard up?” he asked.
“She’s run up some exorbitant amount of debt,” she said. “Something ridiculous. Fifty thousand or something.”
He smiled at his girls. They rolled their eyes at him. This was the greeting he received. He loved his children. They were beautiful and bright and sarcastic and would one day make great, tough women. They took no shit, not from him or their mother. This, he thought, was the most important lesson he could ever give his children.
“Jane Reinstein is a tramp,” Rose said. She was his older daughter. “Did you see her outfit at Rosh Hashanah? Rabbi Scheinman couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Go figure.”
“Watch that mouth,” Shoshanna said.
“I think she’s pretty,” Leah said. “I think she looks like a Jewish Barbie doll.”
“She does not,” Rose said. “You know who looks like a Jewish Barbie doll?”
“Yes, I do,” Leah said. She was sweet and smarter than her sister. “Jane Reinstein does.”
“You annoy me,” Rose said.
“Just because you want to be Jane Reinstein’s best friend doesn’t mean you have to be so mean to me,” Leah said.
He felt diminished by the thought that Jane might be after him for his money. The idea, however, seemed terribly transparent and obvious, and because of this, he considered it implausible. He had just spent ten thousand dollars in cash on an apartment for the two of them. This was what two months’ rent and a security deposit ran these days. He’d made countless business deals in his life that, in their way, felt riskier than this. This was something he prided himself on, a barometric aversion to bullshit he’d honed since childhood. If he’d learned anything over the years, it was how to deal with his money. Should Jane Reinstein want his wallet, he was confident he could fend for himself. Very little about life, he believed, was beyond his means to handle.
“Are you going to call him back and talk about this?” Shoshanna asked.
He leaned back in his chair. He needed to seem nonchalant about all things that concerned Jane Reinstein. He took a bite of the lamb. His wife was a good cook, not great, but she was better than his mother. Good cooking was all a man could ask for.
“About Jane Reinstein, Dad,” Leah said.
“Right,” he said.
“Don’t you think she’s pretty?” Leah asked. “I do. She has straight hair. Do you think she could teach me how to have straight hair?”
“What do you want me to do?” he said to Shoshanna. “She seems like a sweet kid.”
“Well,” his wife said. “Larry’s worried. He called to ask our advice. You should help him. He’s been such a good friend to you.”
“Advice?” he said, yelling. “How about he lets her do whatever she wants to do? She’s a goddamned grown-up, for Christ’s sake. If she wants to run up some debt, then let her.”
He’d silenced the table. His daughters looked down at their plates. He knew, from the heat he felt from his body, that his face had turned red. This was a problem he was going to have to fix.
The following afternoon, Abe arrived at the apartment in Brooklyn Heights some time before he’d agreed to meet Jane. He stood by the front windows, looking out on his new beautiful street, all red-and-black brick and ivy and sugar maple. It was raining. He lit a cigar, rolled up the windows, and let in the cool air. He usually smoked only when he was nervous, or when he was about to finalize a business deal. He wasn’t sure now which was which. Clinton Street was pocked with puddles. Across the river, the buildings were shrouded in mist, the tops of the skyscrapers emerging from the weather. He checked his watch, and a few minutes before she was to arrive, he stubbed out his cigar, checked himself in the mirror, and put a hand through his hair.
He watched her cab arrive. She stepped out onto the street, holding her black-and-white leather handbag and her yellow umbrella. He listened to her footsteps in the stairwell as she climbed the two flights. She came in smoking a cigarette, wearing her raincoat, dripping wet. Again, it seemed that the raincoat was all she wore. There was the small ball of her kneecap below the hem, and the wet skin on her chest, glistening between the lapels. He wondered if she ever wore clothing. She looked around and smiled at the mattress he’d had delivered earlier in the day. There was music playing from a small stereo he’d brought with him. He’d had no idea what to play for her. A clerk in a record shop had made suggestions. He found the music awful.
“How many months’ rent did you pay up front?” she asked.
“I just wanted to know how long you thought this would last,” she said, placing her bag and her umbrella down on the hardwood.
He fiddled with his cigar stub and wondered if the truth would sound adequate. “Two months,” he said.
“That’s it?” she said, frowning. She thrust her hands to her chest. “I’m hurt.”
“I thought two months was sufficient.”
“Listen to you,” she said, pushing him toward the mattress, sitting him down on it. “Sufficient.”
“Do you like it?” he asked. He put his hands on her hips.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s great. It’s cold.”
“I thought you might like it,” he said. “Do you need anything else?”
“Like what? Like jewelry?”
“Do you want jewelry?” he said. He wasn’t prepared to do such a thing, and he hoped she wouldn’t demand gold or diamonds.
“Never buy your mistress something your wife doesn’t already own,” she said. “It’s bad karma.”
“How would you know?” he said. “You’ve never had a wife.”
“But I know Shoshanna,” she said. “And she wouldn’t take kindly to it.”
At this, he attempted to laugh, but failed. He removed his hands from her hips.
“So, how’re you feeling, you big cheater?” she asked.
She turned away from him, kicked her heels across the room, and walked barefoot toward the windows.
“I feel fine.”
“Really? How was it sleeping next to your wife last night?”
“It was fine,” he said. “I have quite a bit of practice at it.”
“But you haven’t done this before,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“You have it all over you,” she said, smiling, walking toward him.
She touched the crest of his upper lip with the point of her finger. He closed his eyes.
She laughed and gently took hold of his hands. “Yes, darling.”
“Maybe you’re wrong about me.”
“So you’re saying you don’t feel guilty?”
“Well,” he said, “I suppose I feel somewhat surprised by how easily it happened. But I’m older than you, remember, and I’m generally in control of my emotions.”
“You know what they say,” she said.
“No. What do they say?”
“If an affair is that easy, then something else is going on at home.”
“Is that so?” he said. “I’ve never heard that.”
He found her delightful and stunning and utterly full of shit.
“Then you don’t feel like hell?”
“You need to stop asking me that. Do you feel like hell?” he asked.
“I like to feel like shit every once in a while,” she said, smiling.
The sight of her white teeth, straight, perfectly aligned, brought back the memory of her as a girl. This was not, he felt, an opportune time for this sort of recollection.
“Besides,” she said. “I was raised to feel guilty. Weren’t you? Isn’t that the way we’re made? This is, after all, the High Holiday season. We need something to atone for.”
“If you say so.”
She smiled. “You know, I really do like you, Abraham. I really do.”
She pretended to be tough, but he saw the gentleness in her.
“Here,” she said. She placed his hands on the ties to her raincoat. “Pull.”
He wanted to go slowly, to take it all in, but he finished too quickly. She made him feel like a teenager. Afterward, she lit another cigarette. They were side by side on the mattress. He’d forgotten to bring fresh linens. He began to run his finger along her skin.
“I want to live here,” she said.
“I bet you do,” he said.
She grabbed his finger and squeezed and started to bend it backward. He was stronger than she was, capable of resisting her, but he was amused to see her do this. Her father had done the very same thing to him when they were children, the two of them on the stoops of their tenement, listening to the Dodgers game on the radio.
“Did you hear me?” she asked.
“I know,” he said. “You want to live here. The place is great. The area is great. Do you want to go for a walk?”
“No,” she said, laughing, rolling over on top of him. She put her fingers through the hair on his chest. “I really want to live here. I’m going to move my things in.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said.
“I don’t know what my father told you about me,” she said.
“Let’s not talk about Larry,” he said. “Not while I’m without my underwear.”
“I’m a smart girl.”
“Of course you are,” he said.
“I’m smarter than you are,” she said.
“You think so?” he said, picking her up, kissing her mouth.
She didn’t kiss him back. He was sure he possessed the greater mind, but she was able, with the simple act of refusing him, to deprive him of his confidence. She got off the bed and walked to the open windows. His scarf and coat were folded over a chair. She took the scarf and wrapped it around her neck; she wore nothing but her eye makeup, her earrings, and his scarf. A fire engine drove by, its red-and-white lights flashing into the apartment, across her flat stomach and her thighs.
“I should get some curtains,” he said.
“No,” she said. “I like it like this. It’s like anyone could see us if they knew we were here.”
She was exciting, in her way. He put on his pants and walked over to his coat. He took a fresh cigar from his jacket. He liked to make a show of clipping his cigars. Years ago, Red Auerbach, the old basketball genius, lit his cigar when he knew his team had sealed a victory. For this very reason, Abe had always considered Red one of his personal heroes. He found an irrefutable brilliance in that sort of psychological gamesmanship, in the bravado involved in that one tiny act. Gamesmanship and bravado were valuable currency in the business world. Abe put the cigar into the teeth of the clipper and brought the blade down loudly.
“You’re a cute kid,” he said, speaking from the corner of his mouth, wagging the cigar over the flame of his lighter.
“I’m moving in tomorrow, Abraham,” Jane said.
Larry came to his desk the next afternoon, an hour before lunch.
“We need to talk, Rivkin,” Larry said. “Get your car keys.”
Larry turned around and headed for the staircase. For a moment, Abe sat still at his desk, alternately trying to catch his breath and wondering about how many punches he might be able to take. It seemed foolish that he might have kept this going without getting caught. Their families were too tightly entwined to escape unscathed. Larry turned around in the doorway and threw his hands up in the air.
“Let’s go, Abe. Don’t dillydally. I’m in a hurry.”
“Okay,” Abe said. “I’m coming.”
He followed Larry out onto the sidewalk on Broadway. His hands were shaking, and he put them in his pockets. To appear calm seemed impossible. In the unseasonable warmth, he began to sweat through his shirt.
“I’m gonna fucking kill her,” Larry said.
“Jackie?” Abe said. “What’s she done now?”
“Not my wife,” Larry said. “Jane.”
“Jane your daughter?”
“What’s the matter with you, Abe? Are you slowing down?” Larry struck the side of his head with his knuckles. “Of course Jane my daughter.”
Larry put a hand on Abe’s shoulder. He remembered how Jane had done this to him days ago in the basement. Larry fumbled with a cigarette.
“Is something wrong?” Abe said. He took his lighter from his pocket. “Talk to me.”
“We need to go to Brooklyn,” Larry said. “Give me your damn keys.”
“What for?” Abe said.
“I just need to show you what my daughter is up to. I need to drive your car. She’ll recognize my car.”
They went in Abe’s Mercedes. It was a good car, Larry said, as he drove across the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the shorthand Larry used, a false display of modesty, for they both knew that the car was far better than good. It pleased both of them to pretend that they were still the boys they had been decades ago in Brooklyn, shoplifting food on their way to school.
“Where are we going?” Abe asked.
“Brooklyn Heights. Clinton Street.”
At this, Abe felt ill. “Why? I hate it there.”
“I do, too. But my daughter and her boyfriend just moved into an apartment there.”
“Her boyfriend?” Abe asked. He took a deep breath. “How come I haven’t heard of this boyfriend? I see you every day.”
“It’s not serious. It’s some shaygets she’s been running around with for the past few months,” Larry said.
“She’s dating a shaygets. A goy. Some Jew-hater.”
“A Jew-hater? How lovely,” Abe said. “How do you know this?”
Larry made a show of exhaling, throwing back his head and clenching his fists.
“I don’t want to have to worry about you, too, Rivkin. What’s happened to your head? I called your house the other day and talked to your wife about this.”
“She told me that Jane was in debt. She didn’t say anything about a boyfriend.”
“She and her boyfriend are in some sort of trouble,” Larry said. “Drugs or something. I don’t know. No serious person runs up that much debt.”
When they arrived at the apartment, Larry parked the Mercedes by the large oak tree that only yesterday Abe had stared at from the window. The street felt more illicit from the ground than it did from two stories in the air.
“How did you know she was here?” Abe asked.
“She came back to our house last night and picked up some of her things. I asked where she was going. She wouldn’t tell me. So I followed her here.”
“Why would you need to do such a thing?”
“So, I get this call a few days ago,” Larry says, his hands moving wildly. This was the way Larry Reinstein told a story, half narrative, half pantomime. “My daughter’s calling me from a pay phone. Says she’s in some trouble. Says she needs me to wire her money.”
“Okay,” Abe said.
“She says she needs fifty grand.”
“That’s quite a lot.”
“Right. I tell her I love her. I tell her that I’ll help her however I can, but that I can’t give her that kind of money.”
Excerpted from The Book of Life by Nadler, Stuart Copyright © 2011 by Nadler, Stuart. Excerpted by permission.
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