Fabulous Small Jewsby Joseph Epstein
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In Fabulous Small Jews, the best-selling author Joseph Epstein has produced eighteen charming, magical, and finely detailed stories. They are populated by lawyers, professors, scrap-iron dealers, dry cleaners, all men of a certain age who feel themselves adrift in the radically changed values of the day. Epstein's richly drawn characters are at various crossroads and turning points in their lives: bitter Seymour Hefferman, who anonymously sends scathing postcards to writers until he gets caught; Moe Bernstein, who, inspired by his grandson, decides to attend to his own health after long delay; divorcé Artie Glick, who wants to marry his pregnant girlfriend. Fabulous Small Jews is a marvelous collection from a master of the short form.
"Epstein, always a graceful writer, also happens to possess a stand-up comic's gift for punch lines..." --Diane Cole The New York Times Book Review
"Epstein has compiled a collection of short stories as thoughtful and arresting as its title . . . Gratifying and genuine . . ." Publishers Weekly
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
Felix Arnstein was dismantling his library. It would, he decided, have to be
reduced by at least three-fourths, possibly more. At the Northwood
Apartments, the old-age home (no euphemisms for Felix, thank you all the
same) into which, after much thought, he had resignedly decided he must
now move, there was scarcely room to accommodate even a fourth of his
books. Felix could have done nicely without the Northwood Apartments
altogether, but the standard symptoms of old age had begun to show up in
him with too great insistency. Clearly, there was now nothing for it but to
make the move.
Still, Felix might have fought off this move if his various illnesses
hadn't conspired to cause him to require so much medical attention. Along
with his angina attacks, Felix had colitis, and now, in his late seventies,
diabetes had shown up. If his mind seemed to be closing down on him at a
considerately slow pace, his body was closing in much more relentlessly.
These days he seemed to spend more time in doctors' offices and in
hospitals than out of them. At the Northwood Apartments there was a
physician on the premises and nursing care when needed. He would get, in
addition, all his meals, maid service, his laundry done, haircuts, a bedroom,
bath, and small sitting room — all this for $1,700 a month. Between his
income from his pension from the university, his Social Security checks,
and the small royalties that his books still brought in, he could afford it easily.
The last time Felix had given a little dinner party, he had begun to
run water to wash the dinner dishes in thekitchen sink while serving the
dessert, napoleons bought at the Tag Bakery on Central Street. Half an
hour or so later, a phone call from the occupants of the apartment downstairs
informed him that water was coming through their kitchen ceiling. The
leaking water, of course, was caused by Felix's neglecting to turn off his
kitchen faucet. This was the third time it had happened.
Constanze, Felix's sister, worrying about his having further angina
attacks, insisted that he buy a cellular telephone, so that should he have
another attack or even fall in his apartment, he would have the phone ready
at all times to call her or at least to dial 911. This all sounded reasonable
enough, except that Felix kept misplacing the new phone; being portable, it
was also misplaceable. Then there was the morning he woke to find that all
the electricity had gone off in the apartment, only to discover, on calling
Commonwealth Edison, that he had neglected to pay his electric bill for the
past four months.
No, Felix had to admit that, approaching eighty, he was losing —
if not, thank God, his taste for and interest in things of the mind — his
ability to concentrate on the quotidian details of life. These had never, true
enough, been his strong suit. Until now, though, they had never threatened to
sink him. He was able to get by, to make do, but, little as he liked to own up
to it, apparently no longer. Who was it said that a man is likely to hang
himself on the loose threads of his life? Felix couldn't remember.
Felix decided that he must give up his volumes of Fontane. He
would retain his Karl Kraus, his Thomas Mann, his Robert Musil. The 143
volumes of his great Weimar edition of Goethe would have to go, of course.
Also the many volumes of von Hofmannsthal; a lovely man, Hugo von
Hofmannsthal, but, truth to tell, not a writer of the first class. Werfel and
Zweig, out; so, too, his volumes of Zuckmayer, though he would retain the
autobiography, a lovely, cleanly written book. His Ernst Jünger volumes, out
also; a Nazi, Jünger, but a real writer nevertheless. Ah, the mysterious
contradictions of art. Out, too, the books of Joseph Roth.
A bachelor, Felix had tried to keep himself free of too many
possessions. He enjoyed travel, spent many of his summers in Tuscany.
On three different occasions he had lived for an entire academic year at other
universities — at Harvard, at Oxford, at Stanford — residing in other
people's houses and apartments. He thought of himself as traveling light
through life, unencumbered, disentangled, a free man. Yet he now saw that
he had nonetheless managed to accumulate a great deal. He must have
nearly two thousand books in this small apartment. Then there was the
furniture: simple Scandinavian things mostly, bought in the 1950s, meant
more for utility than for comfort — how different from the richly ornate furniture
he had grown up with as a boy and young man in Vienna — but now pretty
well worn out. Most of this would not go with him. He would take his reading
chair to the Northwood Apartments and his desk and a small couch and
chest of drawers. The rest would be dealt with by the Salvation Army people,
called in by his sister.
Dear Connie was helping him with this move. She, his only
surviving relative, and her husband, Moritz, who worked as a chemist at
Abbott Laboratories, were all that remained of Felix's family. The rest had
been murdered by the Nazis. Felix, Connie, and Moritz had been in
America for more than forty years, yet all three retained their Viennese
accents, their old-world ways. Felix could remember to this day the terror
that he felt, departing the ship upon his arrival in London in 1946, when he
realized that he would have to wrestle with and conquer the English
language. Conquer it he had never quite succeeded in doing, at least not as a
speaker. But all his books had been written in English, and over the years
more than one reviewer remarked on his mastery of English prose style — a
source of pride to Felix. He was nearly thirty when he had left Vienna, and
while he had left it for good — having returned only once, and then with the
most complicated of feelings — its accent had never left him, and also, in
many respects, its way of looking at things.
Felix's fate had been that of permanent exile. Much about
America he loved. The country had been good to him. By all accounts his
had been a successful, even distinguished career. He had published six
books of criticism, was the Haverling Distinguished Professor of European
Literature at his university, had been a major contributor on his subject to
the Times Literary Supplement in London — he was highly regarded in
England, which, as a bit of an Anglophile, much pleased him. Yale had
offered him a professorship and so, too, had the University of California at
Berkeley, but he could not bear to move far from his sister and her husband,
who gave his life such ballast as it had.
For Felix was in reality a double exile, or so he had long thought
himself. Along with his living away from the country of his birth — Arnsteins
had lived in Vienna since early in the eighteenth century — Felix's
secondary exile had to do with his homosexuality. It was something with
which he had long ago learned to live. But well before that he recognized that
it had put him outside what he thought of as regular life. A card that life had
dealt him, such was how he had taken his homosexuality when he first
recognized it in his late adolescence, and he had since come to learn that
the pack of life was full of such jokers. His homosexuality gave him freedom
from certain kinds of responsibility — from women, from children — but it
also cut him off, sometimes he felt in fundamental ways, from the simple
everyday pleasures of life. It made him realize that he had, in a way that men
with children had not, only one life to lead.
His age and his bad health had in any case caused Felix for
some years to be beyond sexual activity. He alternated in his view of
homosexuality as a mixed blessing, rather like the bow of Philoctetes in the
Greek myth, and as an all but unbearable complication. Although Felix had
his arguments with Freud, and especially with the Freudians' peculiar way
of twisting literature to make their master's points, he nonetheless believed
Freud when of homosexuality he wrote that it could not be changed by
therapy because, essentially, you could not persuade anyone to give up
something that gave him intense pleasure. Felix was what he was —
though, he reflected, his illnesses long ago having rendered him sexually
hors de combat, he was perhaps no longer even quite that. He was, he
supposed, if an exact category were wanted, a former homosexual.
Bitterest of bitter ironies, the one time in his life that Felix did not
feel in exile was during the three years he spent at Buchenwald. Hateful
dark years, monstrous in every way, and yet now, in retrospect, Felix
sometimes viewed them as a period when he lived without the weight of
introspection, lived chiefly with survival on his mind, lived truly in a
community, however degraded and humiliated a community the one shared
with his fellow captives might have been. It was not something he had ever
spoken about, not even to Connie or Moritz, both of whom were able to elude
the Nazis in their successful flight to America. Nor did he ever advertise
himself as a survivor of the Nazi camps; he even avoided short-sleeve shirts
lest the still unfaded tattooed number on his forearm show. He did not want
his years at Buchenwald to define his life, thus giving Hitler, or so he thought,
the ultimate victory over him.
Felix had met many people who did, who thought and spoke of
little else but the camps, for whom the subject swallowed up their entire
lives. It was not difficult to understand why. At least once a month,
sometimes more, Felix himself would dream about those dreadful days at
Buchenwald; these dreams were of course nightmarish, as the days there
had been. But, hideous though they were, at Buchenwald Felix, for the only
time in his life, did not feel himself somehow separate and alone, an exile.
Many were the oddities of life — many more, he had come to realize, than he
would have time to contemplate.
All this was fine with Felix, who, after being freed, had determined
as best he could to enjoy and be amused by life. This seemed to him more
sensible than to be perpetually tragic and endlessly shocked by it. Men
were capable of enormous beastliness; he had been witness to that.
Imperfectability was the lot of mankind; this, too, could scarcely go without
notice. But men could also be immensely kind and goodhearted, full of
unexpected generosity and sweetness. Also pathetic in their pretensions.
Of pathetic pretensions Felix had seen more than his fill as a university
teacher, where he daily noticed scores of little snobberies as he watched his
colleagues skate perilously across the fragile ice of their thin status.
Perhaps they sensed his amusement at this spectacle, for in his own
department, that of comparative literature, he had no close friends. He was
able to succeed not through academic politics — after Buchenwald, taking
academic politics seriously was not possible for him — but because he had
a reasonably high standing in the world of international culture.
Perhaps it was owing to his priding himself on the absence of
snobbery that Felix had decided to move into the Northwood Apartments
rather than one of two other retirement homes in the neighborhood:
Hamilton House, which had no Jews that he knew of, and the Walter
Roebuck Home, which was all male. Northwood Apartments was all Jewish,
chiefly Ostjuden as far as he could tell, and lived in by both men and women,
mostly widows and widowers. Its advantages included its being less
expensive than Hamilton House, closer to the home of Connie and Moritz,
and, as it seemed to him on his two inspection visits before moving in,
livelier. It was bad enough being elderly and ill, Felix thought; one didn't have
to be stuffy and dull into the bargain.
But no sooner had Felix moved into the Northwood than he began
to wonder if he hadn't perhaps made a serious mistake. Part of the problem
was living so exclusively among the old. Would he ever grow used to it? So
many osteoporotic women, humped and bent forward; one woman, in a
crueler trick of nature, was bent backward, each of her steps seeming
perilous, as if she were permanently backing away from the edge of a cliff.
Every second person at Northwood seemed to wear a hearing aid, and
some wore two — Felix's own hearing was not so good, though thus far he
had resisted getting such a device — with the result that people seemed not
to talk but to yell at one another. Because of bad hearing, too, few people
answered to knocking on their doors. Metal canes with thick rubber
bottoms were everywhere. One man, who Felix learned had had three
strokes, trudged about on a walker, a piece of hideous aluminum scaffolding
the mere sight of which never failed to lower Felix's spirits. No shortage of
toupees among the men, nor wigs among the women. Eyesight everywhere
was damnably dim, and it was common to see people reading the newspaper
or letters with their heads two or three inches from the paper. Conversation,
at least much of it that Felix overheard, seemed to be chiefly about health,
when it was not about death and the dead. The old women complained about
the present, Felix noted, while the old men tended to lie about the past.
Such — as Felix recalled hearing Miss Iris Godkin, the social director of
Northwood, often call them — were "the golden years."
So many little Jewish women, Felix thought when he came down
to his first dinner at Northwood; they seemed, on the average, to be about
four foot ten. But then Felix had long before noticed the propensity of age to
shrink the small and make the tall blurry. He was one of the tall, six foot
one, and before his illnesses he had weighed 210 pounds. He assumed that
he had himself become somewhat blurry, as if someone had fiddled with the
contrast dial on his face, though, perhaps mercifully, his eyesight was not
good enough to know for certain. When checks came to him in restaurants,
he could not always make out their sums, even with his glasses on. Still,
Felix stood out among his fellow residents at Northwood as a veritable
giant. The only one in the place taller than he was Miss Godkin, blond and
buxom, a real Wagnerian heroine, Felix thought, remembering that he never
felt any regard for Wagner, no matter how much so intelligent a man as
Thomas Mann may have struggled to come to terms with him. Wagner
represented for Felix the worst of Teutonic culture: heavy, vastly overstated,
grossly overdone, bloated, tinged all over with anti-Semitism.
Miss Godkin, walking about with a walkie-talkie of some sort in
her hand, bright capped teeth always flashing, was unrelentingly, almost
brutally cheerful. Miss Godkin felt it her duty to enforce a spirit of happiness
among the denizens of Northwood Apartments. She would have smiled
through an earthquake, Felix thought, perhaps planned on her deathbed to
say to whoever it was who gathered around her, as her last words, what she
said to everyone she encountered at Northwood: "Have a wonderful day!" It
took considerable restraint on Felix's part not to respond to one of Miss
Godkin's "Have a wonderful day"s by saying, as it often occurred to him to
say, "An uneventful one will be sufficient, thank you all the same, madam."
But Miss Godkin was only one of the obstacles at Northwood.
There was also Morris Manzelman, at whose regular table Felix had sat at
lunch his second day at Northwood. The first time they met, this
Manzelman, a short man with white hair and a carefully groomed white
mustache, held out a small, manicured hand. "Morry Manzelman," he
announced, "used to be Arrow Transport."
Felix did not at first pick up that Arrow Transport was the name of
the trucking company Manzelman had begun and worked at his entire life.
His two sons, Arnold and Irwin, ran the company now. When Manzelman
learned that Felix had taught in a university, he ever afterward referred to
him as Professor. Manzelman had a taste for jokes, but regrettably it didn't
usually match Felix's taste in jokes. At breakfast, the third full day that
Felix spent at Northwood, Manzelman, over a meal of bran flakes, stewed
prunes, prune juice, and hot chocolate, announced that he heard a good one
the other day from a friend, Al Bergman, used to be a union agent, now
retired in Florida.
"It seems, Professor, this fella, a widower, maybe he's sixty- five,
moves into a retirement home. Pretty soon he sees that he's one of only
three guys in the joint, the others being in their nineties and a bit gaga, if
you know what I mean, and all the rest is women. A man who uses his kop,
he sees there's a chance for a bit of extra cash in a situation like this. So he
puts up a sign on his door, 'Sex for Sale.'"
Manzelman paused for a long draught of prune juice.
"Pretty soon a little old broad knocks on his door. 'I saw your
sign,' she tells him, 'and I wonder how much you charge.' The fellow hadn't
really thought about it before, so he says, on the spur of the moment, you
know, he says, 'Well, five dollars for on the floor, ten dollars for on the
couch over there, and twenty dollars for on the bed.' The lady opens a small
change purse and takes out from it a twenty, which she hands to him. 'You
want to do it on the bed, then?' the fella asks. 'No,' she says, 'four times on
Felix was not a rude man. But he found it difficult to respond
properly to this joke told at eight in the morning. Manzelman seemed not to
mind. The joy for him, Felix concluded, was as much in the performance as
in the response. A pure kind of artist, this Manzelman.
That morning at breakfast they were joined by three other men.
Felix later learned that two, like Manzelman, were widowers; the third had
divorced his wife long before moving into Northwood. Apparently they met
regularly at this table for meals. Felix, owing to his having sat with
Manzelman two days in a row, was now considered a regular along with
them, which meant that they expected him to eat all his meals at
Manzelman's table. Wishing to avoid awkwardness, Felix went along.
"Professor," Manzelman said, "I'd like you to meet Sam Karzen,
used to be Turner and Hess Menswear; Harry Feldstein, used to be
Linoleum City on Cermak Road; and Max Schindler, used to be Schindler
and Rabinowitz Plumbing. Boys, meet the Professor."
"Felix Arnstein," Felix said, putting out his hand, thinking perhaps
he ought to add, "used to be Central European Literature."
Over their breakfasts, they carried on what Felix surmised must
have been their normal conversation. "How 'bout those Cubs?" said
Feldstein. "Do they stink or what?" Sam Karzen mentioned seeing a
building for sale in the morning paper's real estate section that was going for
$8.5 million. "You're not going to believe this, but I could have bought that
same building, in 1938, for sixty-five grand," he said. "But in those days sixty-
five grand looked like serious dough."
"Tell me about it," said Manzelman. "You could have had it for a
song, but at that time who could afford sheet music? Right? Same old
Schindler said less than the others. He was a smallish man, with
a nose that depended well over his upper lip, on which he had a dark but
wispy mustache. He had large, fleshy ears. The expression on his face had
a striking sourness, which gave him a look of perpetual discontent. Felix
would later learn from Manzelman that the great event of Max Schindler's life
was an acrimonious lawsuit against his deceased partner's sons — he
himself had no children — for control of his and their dead father's plumbing
company. It was a protracted lawsuit that, according to Manzelman, had
cost Schindler hundreds of thousands of dollars and that he finally lost,
forcing him out of the business.
"You boys heard about the widow Schwartz?" Manzelman
asked. "She called the Tribune to place a death announcement for her late
husband. The fella on the Tribune tells her that they charge by the
word. 'O.K.,' she says, 'make it "Schwartz dead."' 'No, madam,' the fella
from the Tribune says, 'there's a fifty-dollar minimum, and for that you get
five words.' The widow thinks a minute, then she says, 'O.K., make it
"Schwartz dead. Cadillac for sale."'"
Yes, Felix thought, moving into the Northwood Apartments may
have been a serious mistake, but it was too late to do anything about it.
This was, he knew, to be his last move but one, and that ultimate move was
probably not all that far in the future. More than once Felix had told his
sister that he didn't mind death so much as dying. But now, surrounded by
the aged and the infirm, he realized that this was a cheap attempt at
aphorism. Dying and death — the truth was, he minded both.
Felix never quite caught on to the rhythm of the almost ceaseless
activity at Northwood. Miss Godkin was indefatigable, not only in her
cheerfulness but in her determination, as Felix put it to himself, to enforce
gregariousness among the residents. She planned endless events, requiring
only the least excuse and sometimes doing without that. There were
Halloween parties and Hanukkah parties and New Year's Eve parties; there
were also Victorian teas, Hawaiian luaus, an Africa Safari Day, an Evening
in the Orient, a Roman Orgy Supper. There was something called a Spring
Change Over, in which hairdressers came in and changed the hairdos of
any woman at Northwood who was in the mood to do so. They were ready,
too, to provide hairstyling for any of the men who wanted it, and a few did (for
the first time in his life Felix felt himself fortunate to be bald). There was even
a St. Patrick's Day party, for which Miss Godkin had decorated the large
dining room and the other public rooms with cardboard shamrocks and
leprechauns and green bunting and at which she arranged to have served a
lunch of kosher corned beef and cabbage.
When the men met that morning at their regular table, Morry
Manzelman, looking at all the green decorations, said, "This broad is really
pushing it." Harry Feldstein, who tended, Felix noted, to take a somewhat
simplistic view of human nature generally, added, "What this dame needs,
all the goddamn parties in the world ain't going to provide. One good schtup
and maybe she'd calm down and we'd have a few less parties and a lot more
peace and quiet around here." Felix noted that lots of women, in Feldstein's
view, seemed to need one good schtup. It was his single idea, his idée fixe.
A bit of a hedgehog, this man Feldstein, Felix reflected, remembering Isaiah
Berlin's little essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox." Felix knew Isaiah Berlin
from his year at Oxford: a man full of interesting anecdotes and a love of
gossip; Felix had sat with him more than once at high table at All Souls.
Now dining regularly with Manzelman, Karzen, Feldstein, and Schindler,
Felix could scarcely be said to be quite at high table any longer.
"An old guy, maybe ninety-six, ninety-seven," Manzelman began
at breakfast, "announces to his friends that he is going to marry a girl
twenty-five. 'At your time of life, sex with a girl that young could be fatal,' a
friend tells him. 'Look,' the old guy says, 'what can I do? If she dies, she
Perhaps it was not the best morning for such a joke, for two
weeks before Sam Karzen had had a stroke. He was in his early seventies,
younger than Felix. Formerly in the clothing business, Karzen always
dressed dapperly, but for another era. He put together fancy color
combinations, matched up ties and socks with the handkerchiefs that
flounced jauntily out of his jacket pocket, wore monogrammed shirts with
French cuffs, had a gold key chain with the letters of his first name pending
from his alligator belt with its initialed gold buckle, kept a dazzling shine on
his buckled loafers. Karzen's stroke was not fatal — he was out of the
hospital a week afterward — but now the left side of his face sagged, his
jaw tended to go slack, and he had temporarily to use one of those wretched
walkers. He resumed his seat at what Felix now thought of as the
Manzelman table. Since his stroke, Karzen stared out vacantly during
conversation; his speech was slightly slurred. The old Jewish dandy had
looked death in the eye, Felix sensed, and it had clearly left him stunned.
A strange way to live, Felix often thought since his move into
Northwood. Everyone was waiting around for the inevitable. Cancer, stroke,
heart attack, or, worst news of all, Alzheimer's disease. If you had the good
fortune to reach your late seventies or early eighties, these were what
awaited. Not even Miss Godkin's fierce smile could put them off. One day
one of the familiar little women would not appear at her table in the dining
room, and the word would go around that an embolism had taken her. The
fellow who always wanted to talk about the stock market, and whom Felix
one day heard shouting at another resident that if he didn't use the kop God
gave him, what the hell good was he, now this man's own kop was
permanently stilled by a heart attack he suffered while sitting on the toilet in
his apartment on the seventh floor. The rather handsome Mrs. Fay
Bernstein, always so neatly dressed and coifed — still on the attack, still
looking for a husband, Felix thought when first he saw her — was now out of
the game, taken by a cerebral hemorrhage. Teitlebaum, a small, red-faced
man, pudgy and robust, always a ready audience for Manzelman's jokes,
used to be in the wholesale meat business, was swept away three weeks
after he was found to have cancer of the pancreas. What awaited himself,
Felix wondered. He hoped for a clean, quick end. A heart attack in his sleep,
or perhaps a swift stroke while reading in his chair — what he yearned for
was a gentle schtup from God, as Harry Feldstein might have put it.
So much thought about death reminded Felix of his years at
Buchenwald. Altogether too facile to compare this life with that, except to
say that in both places the population was all Jewish and thoughts of death
dominated and concentrated the mind. Who said that the knowledge that
one would hang in a fortnight concentrated the mind? Samuel Johnson or
Hobbes? Felix could not just now recall. But he did recall that it was Pascal
who said that the human condition was everyone gathered in a room
awaiting being called to be garroted in the next room, without knowing which
among them was to be called in next. Just so. Here at Northwood everyone
knew he or she would be called into that room fairly soon.
The comparison between the Nazi death camps and old age in a
retirement home was ridiculous, Felix knew. Everyday terror was absent, for
one thing; and for another, here at Northwood one came and went as one
pleased. Felix had dinner at least once a week — usually on Sunday —
with Connie and Moritz. Sometimes they went to concerts together on Friday
night at the symphony downtown. He would occasionally accept an
invitation from a former colleague and his wife at the university. Felix had met
Manzelman's two sons, who picked up their father for Jewish holidays and
for his grandchildren's birthdays and other family occasions. They were nice
boys with ambitious hairdos, worn long in the back. Karzen sometimes
spent a weekend with his daughter's family in the northern suburbs. Feldstein
was taken by a nephew to baseball and football games; the day after, at
breakfast, he would regale the table with accounts of how the games were
fixed; another of his obsessions, evidently. Felix, having no interest in
athletics, could not follow these conversations. He was hesitant and finally
chose not to ask who a man frequently referred to — and always with
vehemence — as "Ditka" might be.
The only man who never left Northwood was Max Schindler. No
one ever picked him up. He never spoke of relatives. He seemed without
friends outside the Manzelman table. Even at the table he was not
particularly friendly. Felix felt that there was something permanently dark
about Schindler — dark and disappointed. Schindler did not much join in
with the others at Manzelman's table and seemed less to participate than to
observe from the sidelines. Manzelman once told Felix that Schindler was
extremely well balanced. "Do you think so?" asked Felix, not realizing he
was falling for a joke. "Yes," said Manzelman, "he has a chip on both
shoulders." Felix sensed that Schindler was thoughtful, but what he thought
about was far from clear. Felix recalled that Schindler had had an
apparently bitter divorce, had gone through long and expensive litigation that
had cost him his business. For an American, Felix supposed, Schindler's life
had not been easy.
Felix, too, had remained aloof at Northwood. He had tried to do so
without seeming in any way unduly distant or cool. Among these retired
businessmen, lawyers, physicians, and the widows of businessmen,
lawyers, and physicians, he — the Professor — was doubtless considered
something of an oddity, but not so much of one as to make anyone
uncomfortable in his presence, or so Felix hoped. He shared with Max
Schindler the quality of being a bit on the sidelines, of not being able to join
wholeheartedly in the general atmosphere of Northwood, either in its aspect
of false gaiety imposed by Miss Godkin or in its aspect of amused
knowingness about the world — of having heard everything before — lent by
It was on the night of Rosh Hashanah that Felix went down to the
dining room to find Schindler alone at their usual table. Manzelman,
Feldstein, and Karzen were spending the evening with family. Schindler had
no family, or at least none that he ever spoke of. And Connie and Moritz,
secular Viennese Jews that they were, did not celebrate Jewish holidays.
The dining room was nearly empty. A buffet of soup and sandwiches was
set out. Felix approached the table with his food on a tray. Schindler was
already eating, somewhat noisily, his soup.
"Sit down, Professor," he said. "Just the two of us here tonight.
We'll get by fine without Manzelman's jokes, eh?"
"Good evening, Mr. Schindler," said Felix. "The quiet is a nice
change, I agree."
"I have to tell you, Professor, I tried to read your books," said
Schindler, his nose no more than two inches above his soup. "I took two of
them out from the local library, but I have to report it was no-go."
"I am sorry to hear this," Felix said. "What seems to have been
"I tried to read the one about this philosopher. Neetsy, is it?"
"On Nietzsche, yes."
"Too complicated, too abstract for me. I couldn't follow the damn
thing, though I did understand that this Neetsy wrote about serious stuff.
But tell me, do you only write about what other writers have written?"
Felix tried to ignore the condescension implicit in this description
of his work, though he had to admit that as pure description it was
accurate. "Yes, I suppose that is all I do," he said. "But you tell me, Mr.
Schindler, do you find much time for reading?"
"Not that much," said Schindler. "I find writing much more
"Really?" said Felix. "And what do you write?" "I've written a book
about my life, an autobiography, I guess you'd call it, though it is maybe
more about my thoughts about life than about my life itself."
"Sounds most interesting."
"Do you think so?"
"Yes, yes, of course."
"I've got a Xerox copy. I'll drop it off at your apartment later
Felix realized that he had made a significant error. Among
academics it was understood that when you said that you thought the next
person's writing was "most interesting," it certainly never for a moment
meant that you wished to read it. In Schindler he was not dealing with an
academic but instead with someone who apparently took words for what they
said. He would have to be more careful in future. Too late now, though. When
Felix left his rooms the next morning, there at the door in a brown grocery
bag was a Xerox copy of a 376-page manuscript, written in rather
schoolboyish handwriting, with the title Dog Eat Dog: My Life and Thoughts
by Max C. Schindler.
Breakfast a few days later began with Manzelman telling the story
about a man who reports to his wife that, even though he wasn't able to
produce his birth certificate, he was able to convince the bureaucrats at the
Social Security office that he was old enough to collect benefits by opening
his shirt and showing them the white hair on his chest. "'Oh, yeah,'" said
Manzelman, imitating the high and whining voice of a long-suffering
wife, "'while you were at it, you should've opened your fly — you could've
Felix, still very much the literary critic, always looking for patterns
in thought, wondered why so many of Manzelman's jokes seemed to be
about impotence or excessive potency. Nothing on the surface funny about
either subject, surely. Or was this some American craziness that, like
many another, he had no hope of ever grasping?
Schindler, meanwhile, made no mention of his dropping off his
manuscript. Nor did he mention it at lunch or at dinner. Felix sensed that
Schindler didn't want the other men at the table to know that he had written
a book. Felix fully understood this. But he began to feel a certain pressure to
read the manuscript, which he didn't look forward to doing. Plowing through
all those pages written in longhand, for one thing. For another, what sorts of
lies would he have to tell Schindler after he read it? Schindler, he sensed,
was not a man whom one could put off with gracious evasions. He would
have to find a way to tell him the truth without hurting him. But first he would
have to read it.
Felix avoided Schindler's manuscript for more than a week. It sat
there in its brown bag, like a sack of tomatoes first ripening and then going
bad, on the floor beside his small desk. Merely to look at it gave Felix a bad
conscience; and in his small apartment at Northwood, he could not evade
looking at it for long. Yet, Felix said to himself, it remained easier to feel
guilty about the manuscript than actually to read the damn thing. Schindler,
meanwhile, still made no mention of it.
Finally, Schindler's stoicism and his own bad conscience got to
Felix. One evening after dinner, up in his sitting room, he removed the
thickish pages, and, exhaling deeply, like a man setting out to swim in a
cold and choppy sea, he plunged in. Schindler's handwriting was far from
illegible. And his manuscript, Felix found, was far from unreadable. It was, in
fact, immensely readable without being particularly good. Perhaps Felix had
lingered too long in his professional life over Kafka and Kraus, Musil and
Mann, but he had developed a taste for the dark in literature, even though
his own temperament tended toward the sweet and sunny. And if you liked
dark, then you had to be interested in what Schindler had written, which was
Dog Eat Dog turned out to be Max Schindler's apologia. It was an
apologia, however, with an interesting twist. Schindler's defense of his own
life was not that he was better than the rest of mankind, but that he was
merely no worse, if only because it was impossible to be worse. The saga
began with Schindler's parents, who he felt had betrayed him. His younger
brother, he early discovered, was their favorite child. He, Schindler, was put
to work once he had completed high school, while both parents sacrificed
to send this brother to college and dental school. (The brother died, of a heart
attack, in his forties.) Behind his parents' religion Schindler found nothing
but fear; he found their yearning for respectability pathetic. Outside the home,
going to school, he everywhere ran into anti-Semitism: among the Irish and
Polish children with whom he went to school and among his Protestant
teachers, who he now confidently felt had held him back. Accounts were
offered of various bosses who cheated and insulted and humiliated
Schindler in his youthful jobs.
And then sex entered Schindler's life, or at any rate his
manuscript, and things promptly became worse. Schindler described
without embarrassment the blistering heat of his adolescent urgings. These,
as he wrote, "found no surcease" in his young manhood. However great his
attraction to women, just that great, it seemed, was their revulsion from
him. In Schindler's pages — and Felix felt that he could not read more than
fifty or so of them at a sitting — all men were beasts, all women whores. But
the greatest whore of all was the woman he eventually married. She, before
the second year of their marriage was out, cuckolded Schindler with his
brother, the dentist, and later with other men, thus setting him forever outside
his own family. After his divorce, Schindler never again entered into anything
resembling a serious relationship with a respectable woman, but instead,
once a month or so, took his trade to prostitutes, who, as he recounted in
Dog Eat Dog, were "a good deal more honest or straightforward than any
respectable woman I was likely to meet." In his manuscript, he talked of his
visits to prostitutes as having "his ashes hauled." Felix wondered what the
etymology of such an expression might be.
Apart from the few prostitutes he frequented, the only other
person in his book for whom Schindler had a good word was his business
partner. Here though, Felix, a close reader, could not help but notice that,
while he said that his partner was a relatively honest and dependable man,
he, Schindler, never referred to him by anything other than his last name,
Rabinowitz. And many more pages in Dog Eat Dog — a venomous
forty-three-page chapter, in fact — were devoted to Schindler's lengthy
lawsuit with Rabinowitz's sons. These included attacks on lawyers, on
municipal corruption, on the unfitness of judges, on the inaccessibility of
justice through the courts, and on the venality and greed of young and old
When Felix set the last page on his lap, he felt a mixture of relief
and admiration for the man. Schindler was often ungrammatical and
sometimes pitifully awkward in straining after grandiloquent effects ("no
surcease"), but one had to recognize his manuscript's relentless bleakness
of tone. In 376 pages Schindler had not once lapsed into humor (except of
the bitterest kind), affectionate feeling, or, so far as Felix could tell,
dishonesty. Somehow, while recounting the ghastly treatment he had met
with throughout his life, Schindler never set himself up as someone whose
own splendid virtues deserved better of life. On the contrary, he made it
plain, this was the way life was. This was human nature. Men were pigs,
women and money were the filth they rolled in. What more could one expect?
It was quite a performance.
The question that soon occurred to Felix was, Why had Schindler
given him this book to read? Did he think that Felix might help him to get it
published? That was not a possibility; apart from its literary crudities, libel
laws alone ensured the book's being unpublishable. Did he want Felix's
admiration? Perhaps, though if so, then only in a limited way, or so Felix
thought. He may have wanted Felix to know that he, too, was a highly
sapient fellow, a writer of a sort, and not merely one who wrote only about
other men's writings — odd, Felix reflected, even the slightest insult stuck
in one's memory — but out of hard, direct experience. Felix knew enough
about writing to know that no one writes merely for himself, no matter how
unregarding he may claim to be about the rest of the world. What Felix
concluded was that Schindler's book was a cry from the heart; and that
though until now Schindler had no one to cry out to, with the advent in his
life of Felix Arnstein, himself obviously a thoughtful man, there was finally
someone who would understand both the pain the world had inflicted on
Max Schindler and his need to leave some record of it, but for whom and to
what purpose it was, again, far from clear.
The question that confronted Felix was how to answer this cry for
understanding from this sad yet otherwise altogether unattractive man, a
man who had gone through life quite loveless and without any of the world's
small rewards of achievement, recognition, simple pleasure in daily activity, a
man whose only victory, if victory it could be counted, was survival. Felix
could not in good conscience greet Schindler as a fellow human sufferer —
mon semblable, mon frère — for even though, by most measures, Felix had
been given a larger bowl of the world's bitter provender, he did not find life
anywhere near so dread an affair as Schindler. Yet he could not go on living
in the same building with this man, taking most of his meals with him, and
not formally recognize that he, Max C. Schindler, used to be in the plumbing
business, had been allowed a look into the darkness of the human heart.
"An old guy," said Morry Manzelman at breakfast, "maybe he's a
hundred and four, maybe a hundred and five, he complains to his doctor
that he thinks he's slowing down sexually. The doctor, amazed that the old
guy has a sex life at all, asks him when he first noticed this. 'Oh, last night,'
says the old-timer, 'and then again this morning.'"
Felix looked at Schindler when Manzelman had finished his joke.
He was smiling politely, Felix felt, perhaps even perfunctorily. What could
Schindler possibly think of a man such as Morry Manzelman? Or Sam
Karzen, dressed up with his mouth gaping slightly from his stroke. Or Harry
Feldstein, with his sex panacea for all the world's troubles. What did he
think of Felix himself? Not easily known, of course, but Felix suspected that
he thought the men he dined with dupes, fools who preferred not to look life in
the face, as he had done, and take it for the horrendous business it was.
Another two weeks had gone by and Felix had still not told
Schindler that he had read his book. Yet, having read it, he viewed
Schindler differently. For how long could a man carry such a load of disgust
and loathing for the world? Schindler, according to his book, had done so for
some decades. What was behind all the hatred for life in Dog Eat Dog?
Felix, when he thought about it, had perhaps greater reasons for sustaining a
permanent grudge against life: there was his enforced exile from the country
of his birth, the true horrors he had seen and lived with at Buchenwald, his
congenital inability to lead a normal family life. Felix did not think that he
underestimated the difficulties and darkness that life was capable of putting
before a man, but next to Schindler he was almost childlike in his
What Felix and Schindler shared, or so Felix concluded, was their
singleness, their detachment, their condition, as the French called it, of
célibataire, which meant finally their aloneness in the universe. Here
Schindler far outdid him, Felix knew. But neither of them, the old literary
critic in Felix also knew, propelled any plot; each existed in a state of nearly
total inconsequence. Whatever they did, including the discourteous yet
inevitable act of dying, the world would in no serious way be altered. Felix did
not believe in God, even though he would on occasion invoke his name; the
best he could manage by way of a position on the question of God was the
rather boring one of hopeful agnosticism. Yet the oblivion in lieu of an afterlife
that was the most likely outcome promised by this position held its own
terrors. But there were no satisfactory answers to such a momentous
question, not for Felix there weren't. He had long ago decided, against the
advice of the poet, to "go gently into that good night," though he wished he
could be more certain about how gentle how his going was figured to be.
Schindler, on the other hand, as his book made plain, intended to go
screaming into the same night. In the end, of course, go they both would,
and each would be lost in the darkness. Perhaps Schindler and Felix shared
more than he, Felix, had at first realized.
Normally, Felix made it a point to avoid Miss Godkin's special events
evenings, but he often forgot to check the bulletin board in the main lobby of
Northwood, where notification of them was always posted. So when he
came down to his evening meal, he was surprised to discover that he had
walked into Viva Mexico Night. He was greeted at the door to the dining room
by the Brunhild-like Miss Godkin.
"Hello, Professor," she exclaimed in a rich singsong voice. She
was wearing a long black gown, very décolleté, revealing an enormous shelf
of bosom, with a rhinestone-studded mantilla and a rose in her blond hair.
"Or should I say Buenos noches?" and she twice clicked her heels against
the parquet floor.
Felix was flustered. He blinked at all the color in the usually
subdued and sedate dining room. Bright-colored crepe paper festooned the
walls, with papier-mâché birds and little burros hanging at various places
from the ceiling; also a piñata hung from the chandelier at the center of the
room. Two pudgy Mexican musicians, mustachioed, wearing wide
sombreros, short black embroidered jackets and trousers with stripes up the
sides, boots, and what Felix took to be toy revolvers in holsters around their
waists, were singing a song with a refrain that sounded to him like "Wonton
and mayo." Miss Godkin, the hem of her lavish black gown sweeping across
the floor, led Felix to his regular table.
"Muchachos," she said, "may I present Don Professor Arnstein?"
And then, as Felix, still a bit stunned, fell into his chair, Miss Godkin,
kicking up a large leg backward, left, calling out "Adiós."
"What do ya mean, want to marry her?" Manzelman was saying,
ending yet another of his jokes. "The old coot had to marry her."
Felix looked around the room. Many of the women, who seemed
to have more enthusiasm for these evenings of Miss Godkin's than the
men, were got up in garish clothes: peasant blouses, red and green scarves,
long dangling earrings, flowers in their hair. But many of the men, committed
no doubt to the idea of being good sports, went along, too, and wore
bandannas around the loose skin of their necks; a few had turned up in large
sombreros, which sat awkwardly on their bald heads or thinning gray hair.
Looking around the room, Felix felt a stab of sadness for its occupants, once
serious people whose usefulness was now considered exhausted and who
were passing their last years in this pitiful charade.
One of the two Mexican musicians now abandoned his guitar for a
large drum, which he carried supported by a strap around his neck; the
other musician joined him with a trumpet. Miss Godkin, in the middle of the
floor, encouraged everyone — "señores, señoritas!" — to join her in
something called "The Mexican Hat Dance." The music of the drum and the
trumpet was very loud; a number of residents, most of them women, joined
Miss Godkin on what was now the dance floor. The five men at the
Manzelman table were unable to hear themselves talk, though Felix thought
he saw the word schtup form on Feldstein's lips. Schindler, looking at Felix,
nodded his head, pointing toward the door in a signal that he join him in
avoiding all this racket. Felix rose from the table and did so.
The early autumn air was clear and cool. After the noise in the
dining room, the relative silence of the streets seemed luxurious. The
crepuscular light had a calming effect. Without either man saying a word
about their destination, both turned at the corner and headed for the park
along the lake. Felix was six or seven inches taller than Schindler. Odd, he
felt, but he seemed to think of this man only as Schindler, never as Max,
even though he had shared so many meals with him, even though he had
read of his endless humiliations. Something there was about Schindler that
resisted intimacy without encouraging formality.
At the park, they sat on a bench facing a small lagoon and the
lake to the east of the lagoon. A jogger ran by, a heavyset man in orange
pants and a chartreuse sweatshirt, red in the face and listening to a radio
through earphones. Then a couple, a young man and woman, wearing black
spandex shorts, sped by on green-wheeled roller skates, their arms
swinging vigorously. Four men in helmets and wearing colorful tops and
shorts, also of spandex, cycled past. They looked to be in their fifties.
"Trying to evade death," said Schindler.
"A new American pastime, I believe," said Felix.
"Can't be done," said Schindler. "Still, you can't stop people from
"I suppose not," said Felix.
"Tell me, Professor," said Schindler, "have you had a chance to
read my book?"
"I have. It is very powerful, Mr. Schindler, very powerful indeed."
"Powerful is good?" "Yes, powerful is good. Not that you can hope
to publish such a manuscript. It would invite yet more lawsuits, as you
must know. But then you must have known that when you wrote it."
"I didn't really write it with publishing in mind," said Schindler. "I
wrote it because I felt I ought to say what I thought about the world before I
left it. If someone reads it, good. If not, not. Either way, I guess it don't
matter that much. Still, I'm curious to know what you thought."
"They are dark, very dark, your thoughts about life, at least as you
set them down in your book," Felix said. "Does life really seem so
unremittingly bleak to you?"
"Only," said Schindler, a rare smile playing across his
mouth, "when I think about it."
"What of acts of kindness?" Felix asked. "Or of self-sacrificing
heroism, such as occur in war or even on the street? Do not such things
lead you to believe that not all life is so dark?"
"I consider things like that exceptions that prove no rule, brief
intermissions from a cruel comic show that always goes on. Life, Professor,
is no picnic, as you may have noticed, but a stern test that everyone fails.
That's how I, at least, have come to look at it."
"I am sure that you must have asked yourself why we are all put
through this test and why it is prescribed in advance that all must fail."
Schindler ran his hand through his thin hair. "I think there may be
a God or gods or some such being — who knows, Professor. But I also
think that it or him or they don't give a damn. I think someone may be
laughing at us. That we are all the butt of some big joke. A bigger joke than
our friend Manzelman ever dreamed of. That, since you ask, is what I think."
"And what of a mother's love for her children? Of the disinterested
kindness of people toward one another? Of charitable impulses? This
means nothing in your view?"
"I haven't known any of that personally, you see. What I have
known — actually experienced — is very different. Maybe, Professor, your
own life has been easier than mine. You've never married. You have been a
teacher all your life. I don't mean to be insulting, but maybe you've been
better protected from the bitterness of the world than me."
As if by an impulse over which he had no control, Felix pushed up
the sleeve of his suit jacket, unbuttoned his shirt cuff, and showed
Schindler the tattooed number on his forearm.
"I underestimated you," said Schindler. "You have seen the devil."
He looked at the ground.
"Perhaps I have," said Felix.
"How, after the Nazis, could you go on living?" asked Schindler.
"Perhaps because I like life," said Felix, "and am not unduly fond
of the unknown alternative to it. Who knows, maybe each of us brings his
own darkness into the world with him. Also his own light. I continue to see
life as a gift. You, I gather from your book, see it otherwise."
"I am too old now to see it any other way," said Schindler. "I have
encountered mostly fools. I have known too little kindness. I have drawn my
Felix wished he could say something even mildly comforting. This
conversation had gone deeper than he planned, or cared, for it to go. And
now it had nowhere else to go.
Schindler rose from the bench. A slender, beautiful young woman
in a purple sweatsuit with a red headband encircling long blond hair jogged
by at a good pace. Run, young lady, Felix thought, let your mind linger on
thoughts of love, on your own beauty, on all the delights of life. One day
you, too, will know decrepitude. Your mind, too, will have little to think about
but its own extinction. He, too, rose from the bench. Wordlessly, the two old
men, one tall, one short, shuffled slowly out of the park to return to the
party in celebration of the people and culture of Mexico.
Felix did not go down to breakfast the next morning. Around ten
o'clock the fire department's emergency vehicle, siren screaming, pulled up
at the main entrance of Northwood. Felix heard it from his room, where,
after reading that morning's newspaper, he was treating himself to a bit of
Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus, which he loved. Nothing unusual about the
siren. Some days the fire department vehicle pulled up at Northwood two or
three times, to resuscitate someone with breathing trouble, or take a heart
case off to the hospital, or remove the corpse of a resident who had expired
during the night. It was at lunch that Felix learned that the fire department
had come this time for the removal of another corpse, that of Max Schindler.
Schindler, Morry Manzelman explained, had taken his own life.
He had run a hot bath, put himself in it, then opened the veins in his wrists
and ankles. Or so Manzelman learned from the Puerto Rican maid who found
Schindler's body when she came in to do his room earlier this morning.
Manzelman reported that Schindler also left a $50 tip, with a note saying
that it was for whoever had to clean up the mess. He left no other message.
"A handsome gesture," said Manzelman. "The fifty-buck tip, I
mean. You fellas know the joke about Mrs. Goldberg?" Manzelman
continued. "Goes on a cruise as a slave where they imitate all the
conditions of a Roman slave galley. They aren't out of port ten minutes, she
asks the woman seated next to her, Mrs. Silverman, who has been on this
cruise before, 'Tell me, Mrs. Silverman, when this cruise is over, how much
do you tip the whipper?'"
"He died in the manner of Seneca," said Felix, aloud but to no one
in particular. "A philosopher's death." And then, to himself, he thought:
Max, dear fellow, bon voyage, Godspeed, rest at last in peace.
Copyright © 2003 by Joseph Epstein. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Meet the Author
JOSEPH EPSTEIN is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.
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Like Hemingway, Epstein has the ability to tell a simple story and suffuse the story with more than life, but unlike Hemingway wit abounds. Known more for his exquisite essays, Epstein's ability to observe human nature permits him to move into his less familiar genre, short story, and turn over the leaves of life engagingly. In fact, his short stories are so realistic one wonders if some of these characters were not recently seen drinking coffee at the local cafe. America's finest essayist, and now rallying on the fiction shelves