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"The Holocaust," Rosenbaum writes, "is the great equalizer of stark interior dramas: Reordering nerves, creating strengths and frailties, transforming individuals into something they would not have otherwise been." And those individuals, the ones who survive, will in turn transform those with whom they come in contact, none more so than their children—this is the running theme, the major preoccupation, of these nine stories. Adam Posner, the central figure, is a multifaceted version of the author himself, here a tennis prodigy growing up in Miami Beach, there a lawyer struggling against demons from the past, elsewhere a child summering in a Catskills bungalow colony with a crazy, gambling-addicted mother. Using the pieces like a fragmented mirror, Rosenbaum plays out nine variations on what life could have been for a son of Holocaust survivors, dark improvisations on the themes of death, distrust, and psychic dislocation. In the most successful tales—generally the longer ones—Adam is primarily a witness, a device that effectively allows the reader entry into a psychologically troubled world. Two stories set in the Miami Beach of the '60s, "The Rabbi Double-Faults" and "Lost, In a Sense," are particularly astute in their understanding of the inner life of childhood and the emotional confusions generated by the adult world. The weakest story, "Cattle Car Complex," reduces these insights to a weak irony worthy of a failed Twilight Zone episode.
Rosenbaum is a writer of promise who must learn to eschew the overwrought metaphor and occasional easy irony. The best pieces here are quite good indeed, however, and make their author a voice worth hearing.
CATTLE CAR COMPLEX
He pushed the button marked "Down." He pushed again. The machine ignored the command. Slowly he pivoted his head back, staring up at the stainless-steel eyebrow just over the door. No movement of descending light. The numbers remained frozen, like a row of stalled traffic.
For bodily emphasis, he leaned against the panel—pressing "Down," "Up," "Lobby," "Open," "Close"—trying vainly to breathe some life into the motionless elevator. But there was no pulse. The car remained inert, suspended in the hollow lung of the skyscraper.
"Help!" he yelled. "Get me out of here!" The echo of his own voice returned to him.
Still no transit. The elevator was stuck on 17. A malfunctioning car with a mind for blackjack.
"Remain calm," he reminded himself. "I'll push the emergency alarm."
Then he saw a conspicuous red knob that jutted out more prominently than all the other buttons. Adam reached and pulled. A pulsating ring shook the car and traveled down the shaft, triggering a flood of memories he had buried inside him. He covered his ears; a briefcase dropped to the floor.
"That should reach them," he said, running his hand through his hair, trying to relax.
It was late, well past midnight. Adam Posner had been working on a motion for court the next day. Out his window the lights of the Manhattan skyline glittered with a radiance that belied the stillness of the hour.
A lawyer's life, connected to a punchless carousel of a clock.He hated being among them—being one of them—with their upscale suits and shallow predicaments; those conveniently gymnastic ethical values, bending and mutating with the slightest change of financial weather. Gliding by colleagues in the corridors, walking zombies with glazed eyes and mumbling mouths. No time to exchange pleasantries. That deathly anxiety over deadlines—the exhaust of a tireless treadmill, legs moving fleetingly, furiously.
He played the game reluctantly, knowing what it was doing to his spirit, but also painfully aware of his own legacy, and its contribution to the choices he was destined to make. Above all else he wanted to feel safe, and whatever club offered him the privilege of membership, he was duty-bound to join.
And so another night on the late shift. He was working on behalf of a lucrative client, his ticket to a partnership at the firm. He was the last attorney or staff member to leave that night, something he always sought to avoid. Adam didn't like being alone in dark places, and he didn't like elevators—especially when riding alone.
Some of the lights in the interior hallway had been turned off, leaving a trail of soft shadows along the beige, spotless carpet. His Hermés tie, with the new fleur-de-lis pattern, was hanging from his neck in the shape of a noose, and the two top buttons of his shirt stayed clear of their respective eyelets. A warrior of late-night occupations.
There was a car waiting for him downstairs, one of those plush Lincolns that cater to New York's high-salaried slaves. When he entered the elevator, he could think of nothing but returning to his apartment building, commandeering yet another elevator, and rising to his honeycombed domain overlooking the Empire State Building. He lived alone in a voiceless, sanitized shrine—his very own space in the sky. Not even a pet greeted him, just the hum of an empty refrigerator filled with nothing but a half-empty carton of ice cream, a solitary microwave dinner, and a box of baking soda.
Sleep. How desperately he wanted to sleep. But now the night would take longer to end, and sleep was not yet possible.
"Behave rationally," he said, a lawyerly response to a strainedsituation. "They'll come and get me. At the very least, they'll need to get the elevator back," he reasoned.
Then with a nervous thumb, he stabbed away at the panel in all manner of chaotic selection. At that moment, any floor, any longitude, would do. Defeated by the inertia of the cab, he ran his hands against the board as though he were playing a harp, palms floating over waves of oval buttons and coded braille, searching for some hidden escape hatch.
The dimensions of the car began to close in on him. The already tight space seemed to be growing smaller, a shrinking enclosure, miniaturizing with each breath.
Adam's parents had been in the camps, transported there by rail, cattle cars, in fact. That was a long time ago, another country, another time, another people. An old, trite subject—unfit for dinnertime discussion, not in front of the children, not the way to win friends among Gentiles. The Holocaust fades like a painting exposed to too much sun. A gradual diminishing of interest—once the rallying cry of the modern Diaspora; now like a freak accident of history, locked away in the attic, a hideous Anne Frank, trotted out only occasionally, as metaphorical mirror, reminding those of what was once done under the black eye of indifference.
Adam himself knew a little something about tight, confining spaces. It was unavoidable. The legacy that flowed through his veins. Parental reminiscences had become the genetic material that was to be passed on by survivors to their children. Some family histories are forever silent, transmitting no echoes of discord into the future. Others are like seashells, those curved volutes of the mind—the steady drone of memory always present. All one needs to do is press an ear to the right place. Adam had often heard the screams of his parents at night. Their own terrible visions from a haunted past became his. He had inherited their perceptions of space, and the knowledge of how much one needs to live, to hide, how to breathe where there is no air.
He carried on their ancient sufferings without protest—feeding on the milk of terror; forever acknowledging—with himself as living proof—the umbilical connection between the un-murdered and the long buried.
All his life he had suffered from bouts of claustrophobia, and also a profound fear of the dark. He refused to find his way into a movie theater when a film was already in progress; not even a sympathetic usher could rid him of this paralyzing impasse. At crowded parties he always kept to the door, stationed at the exit, where there was air, where he knew he could get out.
Condemned to living a sleepless nightmare, he began to pace like an animal. His breath grew stronger and more jagged. He tore his glasses from his face and threw them down on the elevator floor. An unbalanced goose step shattered the frames, scattering the pieces around him. Dangling in the air and trapped in a box, a braided copper cable held him hostage to all his arresting fears.
"Where are they? Isn't there someone at the security desk?" He undid yet another shirt button, slamming a fist against the wall. The car rattled with the sound of a screaming saw. He yanked against the strip of a guardrail. It refused to budge. With clenched fists he punched as many numbers of random floors as his stamina allowed, trying to get through to the other side without opening a door. Ramming his head against the panel, he merely encountered the steely panel of unsympathetic buttons. The tantrum finally ended with the thrust of an angry leg.
Adam's chest tightened. A surge of anxiety possessed him. His mind alternated between control and chaos, trying to mediate the sudden emptiness. His eyes lost focus, as though forced to experience a new way of seeing. He wanted to die, but would that be enough? What had once been a reliably sharp and precise lawyer's mind rapidly became undone, replaced by something from another world, from another time, the imprinting of his legacy. Time lost all sensation; each second now palpable and deafening.
"Hel ... p! Help!"
The sweat poured down his face in sheaths of salt, and the deepening furrows in his forehead assumed a most peculiar epidermal geometry. In abject surrender, with his back against the wall of the car, he slid down to his ankles and covered his face with his hands. Nerves had overtaken his sanity. He was now totally at the mercy of those demons that would deprive him of any rational thought. And he had no one but himself to blame; the psychic pranks of his deepest monstrous self had been summoned, reducing him to a prisoner within the locked walls of the elevator.
Suddenly a voice could be heard, glib scratches filtering through a metallic strainer built right into the panel.
"Hello, hello, are you all right in der, son?"
The voice of God? Adam wondered. So silent at Auschwitz, but here, shockingly, in the elevator—delivered with a surprisingly lilting pitch. An incomprehensible choosing of divine intervention.
"It's the night guard from the lobby. Can ya hear me?"
Adam looked up to the ceiling. He squinted, trying to make out the shapes and sounds of rescue amidst an evolving fog of subconscious turmoil.
"Can ya hear me?" an urgent male voice persisted in reaching him. The voice carried the melody of an Irishman from an outer borough, but Adam, unaccountably, heard only a strident German.
"Yes, I am here," Adam replied, absently, weakly, almost inaudibly.
"Are ya all right?"
"We 'ave a situation 'ere," the security guard said calmly. "The motor to the elevator is jam'd. I can't repair it from 'ere; so I've called the maint'nance people. There's a fire in another buildin' downtown; and they're busy wit' dat. They said they'll be here as soon as humanly possible. Will you be okay, son?"
Adam lifted himself to his feet, pressed his mouth against the intercom—a static current startled his face—and then screamed: "What do you mean by 'okay'? How can I be okay? This is not life—being trapped in a box made for animals! Is there no dignity for man?" After another pause, he wailed, "You are barbarians! Get me out!"
The guard's lips pursed with all due bewilderment, and his tone sank. "You 'aven't been inside der long, mister. I know ya want to get out and go home for de night, but let's not make this a bigger ordeal than it already 'tis."
Adam then volunteered the nature of this "ordeal."
"Why should we be forced to resettle? This is our home. We are Germans! We have done nothing wrong! Nazis! Murderers! Nazis!"
The lobby of the building was barren, the only sound the quiet gurgle of water dripping down the side of a Henry Moore fountain. The stark marble walls were spare. The interior lights dimmed for the evening.
The security guard pondered Adam's reply, and then muttered to himself: "It takes all kinds. The elevator gets stuck, and he calls me a Nazi. Who told him to labor so long? Goddamn yuppie, asshole." Recovering, he picked up the receiver and said, "I'm sorry, sir. I don't get your meanin'. Say, ya got a German in der wit' ya?"
"We can't breathe in here! And the children, what will they eat? How can we dispose of our waste? We are not animals! We are not cattle! There are no windows in here, and the air is too thin for all of us to share. You have already taken our homes. What more do you want? Please give us some air to breathe."
By now the guard was joined by the driver of the limousine, who had been parked on Third Avenue waiting for Adam to arrive. The driver, a Russian émigré, had grown anxious and bored, staring out onto an endless stream of yellow cabs; honking fireflies passing into the night, heading uptown. By radio he called his dispatcher, trying to find out what had happened to his passenger, this Mr. Posner, this lawyer who needed the comforts of a plush sedan to travel thirty blocks back to his co-op. The dispatcher knew of no cancellation. Adam Posner was still expected downstairs toclaim his ride. This was America after all, the driver mused. The elite take their time and leave others waiting.
So the driver left his car to stretch his legs. Electranically activated doors opened as he entered the building and shuffled over a burnished floor to a circular reception pedestal. The security guard was still struggling to communicate with Adam.
"I am looking for a Mr. Posner," the driver said, with Russian conviction. "I should pick him up outside, and to drive him to Twenty-ninth Street, East Side. Do you know this man?"
With a phone cradled under his chin, and a disturbed expression on his face, the guard said, "All I know is we have an elevator down, and at least one man stuck inside. But who knows who—or what—else he's got in der with 'im. I tink he's actin' out parts in a play. To tell you the truth, he sounds a bit daft to me."
With the aplomb of a police hostage negotiator, the Russian said, "Let me talk to him. I'll find out who he is." The guard shrugged as the phone changed hands. The Russian removed his angular chauffeur's cap and wiped his brow. A determined expression seized his face as he lifted the cradle to his mouth, and said, "Excuse me. Is a Mr. Posner in there?"
"What will become of the women and children?" Adam replied. "Why should we be resettled in Poland?" He did not wait for a reply. A brief interlude of silence was then followed by a chorus of moans and shrieks, as if a ward in a veterans' hospital had become an orchestra of human misery, tuning up for a concert. "I don't believe they are work camps! We won't be happy. We will die there! I can feel it!"
The Russian was himself a Jew and winced with all too much recognition. "Is this Mr. Posner?" he continued. "This is your limo. Don't worry, we will get you out. We will rescue you."
Adam now heard this man from Brighton Beach with his Russian accent, the intoned voice of liberation. Who better to free him from his bondage than a Bolshevik from the east—in this case from Minsk or Lvov—the army that could still defeat the Germans."Liberate us! We are starving! We are skeletons, walking bones, ghosts! Get us out of this hell!"
"What's 'e sayin'?" the security guard asked.
"I'm not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with the Holocaust, my friend."
"Ah, de Holycost; a terrible thing, dat."
The Russian nodded—the recognition of evil, a common language between them. "I'll talk to him again," he said, and grabbed the intercom again. "Mr. Posner, don't worry. We will get you out. You are not in camps. You are not in cattle car. You are just inside elevator, in your office building. You are a lawyer; you've worked late. You are tired, and scared. You must calm down."
"Calm down, calm down, so easy for you Russians to say," Adam replied, abruptly. "We have been selected for extermination. We cannot survive. Who will believe what has happened to us? Who will be able to comprehend? Who will say kaddish for me?"
The lobby was crowding up. Two drowsy-looking repairmen, their sleep disturbed by the downtown fire and now this, entered the building and went up to the guard console. "What's the problem here?" one of them asked. "We're with the elevator company."
Fully exasperated, the guard indignantly replied, "Ya want to know what's wrong, do ya? Ya want to know what the problem is? I'll tell ya! It's supposed to be de graveyard shift. Piece o' cake, they say, nothin' ever happens, right? Not when I'm on duty. No, sir. When I'm 'ere, graveyard means all the ghosts come out, the mummies, the wackos! We 'ave a loony tune stuck in one o' the elevators!" Jauntily, winking at one of the maintenance men, he added, "I think de guy in de elevator thinks he's in some fuckin' World War Two movie."
"This man in elevator is not crazy," the Russian driver said in defense. "It is world that is crazy; he is only one of its victims. Who knows what made him like this?"
One of the repairmen dashed off to the control room. Moments later he returned, carrying a large mechanical device, an extraction that would bring the night to an end and allow everyone to gohome. "I think I fixed the problem," he announced. "It was just a jammed crank."
As he was about to finish explaining the exploits behind the repair, the elevator began its appointment with gravity. The four men moved from the center of the lobby and gathered in front of the arriving elevator car.
"Should we ring an ambulance?" the security guard wondered. "I hope I don't lose me wages over this. I've done all anyone could. You know," he gestured toward the limousine driver, "you were here." The driver refused to take his eyes off the blinking lights, the overhead constellation that signaled the car's gradual descent.
The elevator glided to a safe stop. Like a performer on opening night, the car indulged in a brief hesitation—a momentary hiccup, of sorts—before the doors opened.
As the elevator doors separated like a curtain, the four men, in one tiny choreographed step, edged closer to the threshold, eager to glimpse the man inside. Suddenly there was a collective shudder, and then a retreat.
The unveiling of Adam Posner.
Light filtered into the car. The stench of amassed filth was evident. It had been a long journey. An unfathomable end.
Adam was sitting on the floor, dressed in soiled rags. Silvery flecks of stubble dappled his bearded face. Haltingly, he stared at those who greeted him. Were they liberators or tormentors? He did not yet know. His eyes slowly adjusted to the light, as though his confinement offered nothing but darkness. He presented the men of the transport with an empty stare, a vacancy of inner peace. As he lifted himself to his feet, he reached for a suitcase stuffed with a life's worth of possessions, held together by leather straps fastened like rope. Grabbing his hat and pressing it on his head, Adam emerged, each step the punctuation of an uncertain sentence. His eyes were wide open as he awaited the pronouncement: right or left, in which line was he required to stand?
ELIJAH VISIBLE. Copyright © 1996 by Thane Rosenbaum. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
|1||Cattle Car Complex||1|
|2||Romancing the Yohrzeit Light||13|
|3||The Pants in the Family||35|
|4||An Act of Defiance||55|
|6||Bingo by the Bungalow||105|
|7||The Rabbi Double-Faults||127|
|8||Lost, in a Sense||157|
|9||The Little Blue Snowman of Washington Heights||189|
Posted March 15, 2013