Read an Excerpt
The Death Committee
By Noah Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust
All rights reserved.
The stars had slowly squeezed into hiding in the bleaching sky. As the asthmatic truck left the Massachusetts Turnpike and chugged through the deserted outskirts, the long line of street lamps bordering the river flickered twice and then died in the gloom. The hot day was coming, but the loss of the line of lights ahead gave a brief, deceptive chill and gloom to the daybreak.
He stared through the dusty windshield as Boston approached, thinking that this was the city that had shaped his father, broken him and ground him down.
You're not going to do that to me, he told the passing buildings, the skyline, the river.
"It doesn't look like such a tough town," he said.
The truck driver looked at him in surprise. Their conversation had unraveled its way into tired silence eighty miles back, between Hartford and Worcester, following a tight, terse disagreement over the John Birch Society. Now the man said something indistinct which was lost against the thrum of the truck's motor.
Adam shook his head. "I'm sorry. I didn't understand you."
"What's the matter, you deaf?"
"A little. Just in my left ear."
The man frowned, suspecting mockery. "I said, you got a job waiting?"
"I'm a surgeon."
The driver looked at him in disgust, confident now that his suspicions were justified. "Sure, you beatnik punk. I'm an astronaut."
He opened his mouth to explain and then thought to hell with him and shut it again and concentrated on the scenery. Poking up through the murk on the other side of the Charles River he could see white spires, undoubtedly Harvard. Somewhere over there was Radcliffe College and Gaby Pender sleeping like a pussycat, he thought, wondering how long he could wait before he called her. Would she remember him? A quotation came to his mind uninvited—something about how often a man needs to see a woman—that once is sufficient, but twice may confirm it.
Within his head the little computer told him who was the author of the lines. As usual, the ability to remember a non-medical reference filled him with bilious discontent instead of pride. A waster of words, he could hear his father say. Adamo Roberto Silverstone, you smug bastard, he told himself, see where the gift of memory is when you're struggling with something from Thorek's Anatomy in Surgery or Wangensteen's Intestinal Obstruction.
In a little while the man swung the wheel and the truck lumbered off Storrow Drive and down a ramp and suddenly there were lighted warehouse windows, trucks, cars, people, a market district. The driver tooled the van down one street of cobblestones, past a diner whose neon still flashed, and up another long cobblestoned street, stopping before BENJ. MORETTI &; SONS PRODUCE. In answer to his horn a man emerged and peered at them from the loading platform. Beefy and balding, in his white smock he looked not unlike one of the pathologists at the Georgia hospital where Adam had taken his internship and first year of residency. Eh, paisan.
"What you got?"
The driver belched, a sound like carpet ripping. "Melons. Persians." The man in white nodded and disappeared.
"End of the line, kid." The driver opened the door and climbed heavily down from the cab.
Adam reached behind the seat, took up the worn valpak and joined the other man on the ground. "Can I help you unload?"
The driver scowled at him with suspicion. "They do it," he said, jerking his head toward the warehouse. "You want a job, you ask them."
The offer had been made out of gratitude, but Adam saw with relief that it was unnecessary. "Thanks for the lift," he said.
He carried the suitcase back down the street to the diner, struggling with it, a small bandy-legged man, too big for a jockey, not enough heft for most other sports except diving, which for him had ceased to be a sport five years before. It was at times like this that he regretted not resembling more closely his mother's brawny brothers. He disliked being at the mercy of anyone or anything, including a piece of luggage.
Inside there were wildly enticing food smells and mad diner noise: talk and laughter, the hollow clatter of panware through the small window leading to the kitchen, the solid sound of coffee mugs against the white marble counter, things sizzling on the grill. Expensive things, he decided.
"Bleed one," the straw-haired girl said. She was full-blown and firm fleshed, with pale and milky skin; but she would have an obesity problem before she was thirty. Under her white-draped left breast twin smears of red jam stood out like stigmata. The coffee slopped over the rim of the mug as she pushed it toward him, accepted his dime sullenly and swung away with an insult of hips.
The coffee was very hot and he drank it slowly, now and then gulping with great daring and feeling victorious when it became clear that he had not burned his tongue. The wall behind the counter was mirrored. Staring back at him from it was a bum, stubble-faced, wild-haired, wearing a soiled and worn blue work-shirt. When he finished the coffee he got up and carried the suitcase into the men's room. He tested the faucets; both the HOT and the COLD ran cool, a circumstance that failed to surprise him. He went back into the diner and asked the girl for a cup of very hot water.
"For soup or for tea?"
"Just for water."
With an air of patient disgust she ignored him. Finally he surrendered and ordered tea. When it came he paid for it and took the teabag from the saucer and dropped it on the counter. He carried the cup of hot water into the men's room. The floor was covered with layers of grit and, judging from the odor, dried urine. He set the cup on the edge of the dirty sink and, balancing the suitcase on the radiator, opened it to remove his toilet articles. By collecting cold water from the tap in his cupped palm and adding hot water from the cup he managed to soap up his whiskers and rinse his face with water sufficiently warm to soften the bristles. When he finished shaving, the face that looked back at him from the speckled mirror was more civilized. Dr. Silverstone. Brown eyes. Big nose he preferred to think of as Roman, really not tremendously oversized but accentuated by his lack of height. Wide mouth like a cynical slash in the thin face. Face undeniably light-skinned despite the tan and topped by hair of disordered brownness. Such a dull brown. Drab. He took a brush from the suitcase and slapped at his hair. He had always felt slightly guilty about his coloring. A child should be the color of olives, not of lemons or groats, he had heard his mother say once. He was groats, a compromise between his blond father and his Italian mother.
His mother had been dark, a woman with unbelievable heavy-lidded black eyes, the bedroom eyes of an earthy saint. He scarcely could remember her face, but to summon her eyes at will he had merely to close his own. On the nights when his father had come home sotted—apostate Myron Silberstein drowning in the strega he had adopted along with pet Italian phrases to demonstrate the democracy of his marriage, sounding his anise-scented shrieks for help (O puttana nera! O troia scura! O donna! Oi, nafkeh!)—the little boy would lie awake in the dark trembling at the sick thud of his father's fists against his mother's flesh, the slap of her palm against his face, the sounds often ending in other noises, hot and frantic, slick-liquid and gasping, that made him lie rigid, hating the night.
When he was in junior high school and his mother four years dead, he discovered the story of Gregor Johann Mendel and the garden peas and set to work plotting his own hereditary picture, hoping without admitting it that his brown hair and eyes were a genetic impossibility: that his father's blondness should have been passed on to him, and that perhaps after all he was a bastard, the product of his beautiful dead mother and an unknown male who possessed all the noble virtues so lacking in the man he called Poppa.
But the biology books disclosed that the combination of moonlight and shadow added up to groats.
At any rate, by this time he was bound to Myron Silberstein with cords of love as well as strings of hate.
To prove it, you damn fool, he told the image in the mirror, you scrape together two hundred dollars and then let him talk you out of it, out of almost all of it. What had shone in his eyes when his hands—those Hebrew-violinist's janitor's hands with coaldust engrained in the knuckles—had closed around the money?
Love? Pride? The promise of life's best surprise, an unplanned drunk? Did the old man still chase after love? Doubtful. Middle-aged impotence common to alcoholics. Sooner or later certain chains bound everyone, even Myron Silberstein.
Only one person, the grandmother, his vecchia, had ever been able to cow his father. Rosella Biombetti had been a small woman from southern Italy, white hair in a bun, everything else of course black: shoes, stockings, dress, kerchief, often even mood, as if in mourning for the world. There were pits on her olive face, left there when she was four years old in the Avellino village of Petruro and every one of her parents' eight children had come down with vaiolo, the dreaded smallpox. The disease took no one but it scarred six of the children and ruined the seventh, an eight-year-old named Muzi whose mind was burned into soft ash by the high fever, leaving him a Something who eventually became an aging bald man in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, playing all day with his spoons and bottle caps and wearing a ragged sweater even when layers of July heat shimmered over Larimer Avenue.
Once he asked his grandmother why the old great-uncle was like that.
"L'Arlecchino," she said.
He learned early that the Harlequin was the inner fear pervading his grandmother's life, the universal evil, an inheritance from the Europe of ten centuries ago. A child is dead from a sudden onslaught of unexpected disease? He has been taken by the Harlequin, who covets children. A woman becomes schizophrenic? The lean, devilishly-handsome demon lover has seduced her and eloped with her soul. An arm shrivels with paralysis, a man slowly fades under the ravages of tuberculosis? The Harlequin is plucking vitality from his victim, savoring the living essence like a sweetmeat.
In trying to lock him out she made him a member of her family. When Adam's female cousins blossomed and bloomed and began to experiment with lipsticks and high pointy bras, the old woman shrieked that they would attract the Harlequin, who stole maidenheads in the night. Little by little, listening to la vecchia through the years, Adam picked up details. The Harlequin wore breeches and jacket of multicolored patches and was invisible except under the full moon, which turned his motley into a glittering suit of lights. He was voiceless but his presence could be detected by the tinkling of the bells in his fool's cap. He carried a magic wooden sword, a kind of slapstick which he used as a wand.
The boy sometimes thought it would be a wonderful adventure to be the Harlequin, so all-powerful, so deliciously evil. When he was eleven and having his first damp nightdreams of luscious Lucy Sangano, who was thirteen, on Hallowe'en he decided that he would be the evil spirit. While the other kids ran from door to door for trick or treat he ambled slowly through the suddenly-comfortable dark, envisioning rich scenes in which he tapped the tender young buttocks of Lucy Sangano with his box-lath sword and commanded voicelessly, Show me everything.
Rosella warded off the Evil One by using four devices, of which only two, the sprinkling of holy water and the daily attendance at Mass, Adam considered harmless. Her practice of rubbing the doorknobs with garlic he thought a nuisance because of hand-stickiness, and a source of embarrassment in public school because of pungent odor, although he secretly enjoyed the last fugitive scents that remained in his sweaty palm when he held it to his nostrils late at night.
The most powerful protection was gained by tucking the two middle fingers under the thumb, extending the index and little fingers to simulate the devil's horns and dry-spitting between them, following this with the proper words: break the evil-eye, scutta mal occhio, poo-poo-poo. Rosella performed this rite many times daily, another form of embarrassment; to some of Adam's peers the finger-sign was a secret signal of another sort, a put-down, a disparaging token of disbelief summed up in one quick unlovely word. To these uninitiates it was hilarious to see 'Damo Silverstone's granny gesticulating with their raffish secret sign. She cost him his first bloody nose and great resentment.
His young soul was rent between the pious superstition of the old lady and the father who carefully remained sober each Yom Kippur so for some important secret reason he could go fishing. Her superstition and her religion had their attractions, but too much of what she said was transparently silly. For the most part he voted silently with his father, perhaps because he was searching so hard for something within the man that he could admire.
And yet, when in her eightieth year and his fifteenth year she sickened and began to fail, he ached for her. When Dr. Calabrese's long black Packard began to be parked in front of the tenement house on Larimer Avenue with increasing regularity, he prayed for her. When she died one morning with a coquettish smile on her lips he cried for her and realized at last the real identity of the Harlequin. He no longer wished to impersonate the jester-inamorato who was death; instead he decided that some day he would drive a long new car like Dr. Calabrese and fight L'Arlecchino all the way.
He said goodbye to the old lady at the finest funeral offered by her Sons of Italy insurance, but she never completely left him. Years later, when he had become a doctor and a surgeon and had done and seen things she had never dreamed about in Petruro or even in East Liberty, his initial reaction to misfortune was an instantaneous subconscious search for the Harlequin. If one of his hands was in his pocket the fingers involuntarily assumed the sign of the horns. His father and his grandmother had left him with an unending internal conflict: bullshit, the man of science mocked, while the little boy was whispering, scutta mal occhio, poo-poo-poo.
Now in the men's room of the diner he stowed away his toilet articles and then like an ungainly waterfowl, first one leg raised and then the other against the filthy danger of the unpleasant floor, divested himself of the jeans and then of the blue workshirt. The shirt and suit that he dug from the B-4 bag were somewhat wrinkled but presentable. The tie looked not nearly as good as it had eighteen months before, when it was secondhand-new, purchased from a third-year student who was a bad poker player. The dark shoes that replaced the sneakers retained a fair shine.
As he walked back out through the diner the cow behind the counter switched her tail and stared as if trying to decide where she had seen him before.
Outside, it was lighter. A taxi hummed a quiet mechanical song at the curb, the driver lost behind the racing form, dreaming the eternal dream at 8 to 1. Adam asked if Suffolk County General Hospital was within walking distance.
"County Hospital? Sure."
"How do I walk there?"
The cabby allowed one quick grin to break his lips. "The hard way. Way the hell cross town. Too early for a bus, nowhere near a subway." The man put down the racing form, confident of a fare.
How much was in his wallet? Less than ten, he knew. Eight, nine. And a month until pay-day. "Take me for a dollar?"
A look of disgust.
He picked up the B-4 bag and walked down the street, getting to BENJ. MORETTI &; SONS PRODUCE when the cab passed him and stopped.
"Get in the back seat," the cabby said. "I cruise all the way, if I pick up somebody else, you get out. For a buck."
He climbed in gratefully. The cab crawled through the streets and he gazed out the open window, perceiving the kind of hospital it would be. The streets were old and sad, lined with tenement houses with broken steps and dribbling ash-cans, neighborhoods of poor people crammed together in a glut of poverty. It would be a hospital whose clinic benches were filled each morning with the sick and maimed of one of society's self-built traps.
Excerpted from The Death Committee by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 1969 Lise Gordon, Michael Seay Gordon and The Jamie Gordon Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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