Read an Excerpt
New York, 2002
At dawn, on the top floor of a creaking house in Greenwich Village, Joel and Audrey lay in bed. Through a gap in the curtains, a finger of light extended slowly across their quilt. Audrey was still far out to sea in sleep. Joel was approaching shore – splashing about in the turbulent shallows of a doze. He flailed and crooned and slapped irritably at his sheets. Presently, when the rattling couplets of his snores reached one of their periodic crescendos, he awoke and grimaced in pain.
For two days now, he had been haunted by a headache: an icy clanking deep in his skull, as if some sharp-edged metal object had come loose and were rolling about in there. Audrey had been dosing him with Tylenol and urging him to drink more water. But it wasn’t liquids or pills he needed, he thought: it was a mechanic. He lay for a few moments, holding the back of his hand to his brow like a Victorian heroine with the vapors. Then he sat up bravely and fumbled for his spectacles on the crowded bedside table. In a matter of hours, he would be giving the defense’s opening argument in the case of The United States of America v. Mohammed Hassani. Last night before falling asleep, he had made some last-minute amendments to his prepared address, and he was anxious to look them over.
Sometimes, in our earnest desire to protect this great country of ours, we can and do make errors. Errors that threaten to undermine the very liberties we are trying to protect. I am here to tell you that the presence of Mohammed Hassani in this courtroom today is one such error.
He squinted into the middle distance, trying to gauge the effectiveness of his rhetoric. Hassani was one of the Schenectady Six – a group of Arab Americans from upstate New York who had visited an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan during the spring of 1998. Over the last two months, the five other members of the group had all made deals with the prosecutors. But Joel hated to make deals: at his urging, Hassani had held out and pleaded not guilty to all charges.
You have been told that Mohammed Hassani is a supporter of terrorism. You have been told that he hates America and wants to aid and abet those who would destroy it. Allow me to tell you, now, who Mohammed Hassani really is. He is an American citizen with three American children and an American wife to whom he has been married for fifteen years. He is a grocer, a small businessman, the sponsor of a Little League team – a person who has lived and worked in upstate New York all his life. Does he possess strong religious beliefs? Yes. But remember, ladies and gentlemen, whatever the prosecution tries to suggest, it is not Islam that is on trial in this courtroom. Has Mr. Hassani voiced criticisms of American foreign policy? Certainly. Does this fact make him a traitor? No, it does honor to the constitutional freedoms upon which our country was founded.
The basis of Joel’s argument was that his client had been taken to the training camp under false pretenses. One of his acquaintances at the mosque he attended in Schenectady had deliberately misrepresented the camp as a religious center.
That’s right: Hassani traveled to Afghanistan on the understanding that he was to take part in a spiritual retreat. In the coming days, you will hear how he tried, on more than one occasion, to get out of participating in the camp’s mandatory weapons training – purposefully injuring himself in one instance so that he wouldn’t have to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. You will hear how he categorically refused invitations from the camp leaders to become involved in violent actions back in the United States. Ladies and gentlemen, you may take issue with Hassani’s political and religious views. You may feel he is guilty of making an extremely poor vacation choice. But you cannot, in good conscience, convict this man of being a terrorist or even a terrorist sympathizer.
Joel glanced at his sleeping wife. Audrey disagreed with his strategy on this case. She maintained that he ought to be defending Hassani on grounds of legitimate Arab rage. Audrey took a much harder political line than he did on most things these days. He didn’t mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed the irony of being chastised for his insufficient radicalism by the woman to whom he had once had to explain the Marxist concepts of “base” and “superstructure.” When he complained that she had become an ultra-leftist in her old age, he did so in the indulgent tones in which another man might have teased his wife for her excessive spending at the mall. It was a feminine prerogative to hold unreasonable political views, he felt. And besides, he liked having some old-fashioned extremism about the house: it made him feel young.
Joel was still reading when, at 6:30, the radio alarm on his bedside table clicked into life. He peeled off his clammy pajama bottoms, rolled them into a ball, and lobbed them elegantly into the laundry basket. He had been a talented sportsman in his youth – the handball champion of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn – and he had never lost the jock’s habit of improvising minor athletic challenges for himself. He stood up now and stretched in front of the mirror on the closet door. At seventy-two, his nakedness was still formidable. His legs were strong. His chest, carpeted in whorls of gray hair, was broad. His penis was thick and long enough to bump companionably against his thigh as he strode out to the bathroom.
On the landing, he paused. Somewhere down below, he could hear the dim roar of a vacuum cleaner and the tuneless whistling of Julie, his sister-in-law. Ever since Julie had arrived from England two days ago with her husband, Colin, she had been flitting up and down the groaning Perry Street staircase with buckets, dusters, and antibacterial detergents in the saintly manner of Florence Nightingale bringing succor to a Crimean field hospital. Audrey was in a terrible snit about it. The implied insult to her own standards of cleanliness did not bother her, she claimed. (This was plausible: Audrey had always been rather proud of being a slob.) What bothered her was Julie’s faith in the redemptive power of lemony freshness and the assumption that others shared it. “If she wants to practice her neurotic hygiene back home, that’s one thing,” Audrey had hissed the night before, as she was getting into bed. “But I don’t see why I have to put up with her powdered fucking carpet fragrances in my house.”
After he had finished up in the bathroom, Joel put on sweatpants and a shirt and went downstairs. He found Julie on the second-floor landing, fitting the vacuum with a special nozzle for hard-to-reach corners. “Good morning! Good morning!” he cried as he stepped around her. In order to discourage prolonged interactions with his sister-in-law, he always addressed her as if he were calling to her from the window of a fast-moving train.
Down on the first floor, Colin was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a New York travel guide. “Good morning to you, kind sir!” he exclaimed when he saw Joel flashing by. “Julie and I are off to Ground Zero in a bit. Is these anywhere down there that you’d recommend for lunch?”
“Nope, sorry,” Joel said, as he hurried down the hall. “Can’t help you out there.”
“Might I offer you a cup of tea?” Colin called after him.
“No, thanks. I’m going out to get the papers.”
Joel was just opening the front door when he felt an answering push from the other side. “It’s me,” a voice said. “I forgot my keys.”
The door swung open to reveal Joel’s adopted son, Lenny, and Lenny’s girlfriend, Tanya, standing limply on the doorstep, holding paper cups of Starbucks coffee. Tanya was wearing a jacket of ragged rabbit fur over her minidress. Lenny was shivering in a T-shirt. They both had the spectral look of people who had not slept in some time.
“Ah, love’s young dream!” Joel cried with a facetious bow.
“Hey,” Lenny said. He was a tall man with a boyish, delicate face. Were it not for the gap between his two front teeth and the slight droop in his left eye, he would have been pretty. As it was, his raffish imperfections tipped the scale and made him beautiful.
“To what do I owe this rare pleasure?” Joel asked. Lenny was officially living back at home these days, but most nights, he slept at Tanya’s apartment.
Lenny cast a pale hand through untidy hair. “Tanya had a party at her place,” he said. “Somebody pissed on her bed, so–”
“Jesus!” The vehemence of Joel’s tone suggested that it was his own bed that had been violated. “What kind of friends do you have?”
Lenny made a gesture with his hands as if he were pushing down on some invisible volume control. “It’s no big deal, Dad. The guy didn’t mean to. . . . Can we come in? It’s freezing out here.”
“What do you mean, ‘didn’t mean to’?” Joel demanded. “He pissed on her bed by accident?”
“Whatever. Just forget it.” Lenny squeezed past Joel and headed into the kitchen. Tanya followed.
“Oh, sure, go ahead,” Joel shouted after them, “help yourselves to whatever you want. Mi casa es su casa . . .” He stood for a moment, registering the impotence of his sarcasm, and then went out, slamming the door behind him.
Walking up the street to the bodega, he twitched and muttered to himself in disgust. Was it unreasonable for a man of his age and station to expect some peace and solitude in the mornings? Was it too much to ask that he be allowed a few hours of quiet reflection at the start of a demanding day in court? He tried to calm himself down by thinking about his opening statement, but it was no good: his composure had been lost.
Joel was by and large a sanguine man. He regarded his sunny outlook not as an accident of temperament so much as a determined political stance. His favorite quotation – the one that he said he wanted carved on his gravestone – was Antonio Gramsci’s line about being “a pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will.” Lenny, alas, had a rare ability to penetrate the force field of his positive thinking. The very smell of the boy fucked with his internal weather: made him prey to itchy glooms and irritable regrets.
Twenty-seven years ago, when Lenny first came to live at Perry Street, Joel had been very high on the idea of subverting traditional models of family life. Adopting seven-year-old Lenny was no mere act of bourgeois philanthropy, he had maintained, but a subversive gesture – a vote for an enlightened, “tribal” system of childrearing that would one day supersede the repressive nuclear unit altogether. Lenny, however, had proved to be an uncooperative participant in the tribal program. As a child, he had tyrannized the household with violent tantrums. As an adolescent, he had dealt pot from the Perry Street stoop and repeatedly been caught shoplifting. At last, in adulthood, his petty delinquencies had blossomed into a range of drearily predictable and apparently irremediable dysfunctions. Joel would not have minded – or at least not have minded so much – had Lenny ever put his rebellious impulses to some principled use: run away to join the Sandinistas, say, or vandalized U.S. Army recruiting offices. But the boy’s waywardness had never served any cause other than his own fleeting satisfactions. “Lenny’s not doing well,” was Audrey’s preferred euphemism whenever he dropped out of some new, expensive college course, or got fired from the job that she had hustled for him at Habitat for Humanity, or set his hair alight while smoking crack, or was found having sex with one of the other residents at his rehab clinic. She chose to attribute such mishaps to the traumas of Lenny’s infancy. But Joel had had it with that psychological crap. The boy was a mendacious, indolent fuckup, that was all – a mortifying reminder of a failed experiment.
Coming back from the bodega, Joel worked up several elaborately snide remarks with which to taunt Lenny and Tanya, but on reentering the house, he found the kitchen empty. Colin and Julie had gone off on their sightseeing jaunt, and Lenny and Tanya had vanished upstairs, leaving their soggy-rimmed Starbucks cups on the kitchen table. Joel picked up the cups with a murmur of irritation and threw them into the trash. Then he switched on the coffee percolator and ambled into the living room to look at the papers.
At this hour of the morning, there was almost no natural light at the front of the house, and before sitting down, Joel had to wander about, turning on all the table lamps. Most of the residents on this eighteenth-century street had solved the problem of their low-ceilinged, north-facing parlors by tearing down the first-floor dividing walls and creating kitchen-dining floor-throughs. But Joel and Audrey sneered at the yuppie extravagance of these renovations. Neither of them was of the generation that had been taught to regard sunlit rooms as a birthright, and insofar as they were aware of interior design as an independent category of interest, they thought it a very silly business indeed. Over the years, they had assembled various artifacts and souvenirs pertaining to their travels and political involvements – an ANC flag signed by Oliver Tambo; a framed portrait of Joel, executed in muddy oils by a veteran of the Attica riots; a kilim depicting scenes from the Palestinian struggle – but there was not a single item of furniture here that could be said to represent a considered aesthetic choice. The love seat, upholstered in a nubby mustard tweed, had been given to them by Joel’s mother. The giant cherrywood cabinet and the collection of miniature china shoes it housed were an inheritance from Joel’s aunt Marion. A silver-plated andiron set, gamely arranged around the blocked-off fireplace, had come as barter payment from one of Joel’s clients.
Joel sat down now and, with practiced efficiency, began to fillet the papers for items relating to himself and today’s trial. The New York Times and the Washington Post had two more or less straightforward accounts of the case that mentioned his name, but without comment. In the New York Post, he found an editorial that made two passing references to him as “a rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism” and as “a man whose knee-jerk leftism is thankfully now all but extinct in today’s political climate.”
He stared at the pile of newspapers for a moment and then took another pass, checking to see if he had missed anything. In a long career of defending pariahs, Joel had learned to expect and to treasure hostile public attention. It was the gauge by which he measured the importance and usefulness of his work. (“Joel never feels so alive,” Audrey liked to say, “as when someone is wishing him dead.”) Back in the 1980s when he had been defending al-Saddawi, the accused murderer of the Hasid leader Rabbi Kosse, protesters had organized rallies against him and put up posters around New York that read, “Litvinoff: Self-Hating Jew.” They had even made death threats against the children. By these standards, the animosity generated by the Hassani case had been disappointingly tame: one bomb threat to his uptown law office (deemed “not credible” by the police), a couple of people shouting “traitor” in the street. And one lousy mention in the Post. He looked at the editorial again. Well, they’d called him un-American; that was something.
He heard his wife coming down the stairs now. “Come look, sweetie,” he called out. “The Post is gunning for me!”
After a moment, Audrey appeared in the living room doorway – a thin woman of fifty-eight, with steel-colored hair and the dark, unblinking eyes of a woodland animal. She was wearing a denim skirt and a T-shirt printed with the slogan “One Nation Under Surveillance.”
Joel rustled his papers. “They say I’m a rent-a-radical.”
“Bully for you,” Audrey said.
“Did you know Lenny and Tanya were here?”
“I saw them.”
“Somebody urinated on Tanya’s bed last night. Can you believe it? Who are these people they hang around with?”
Audrey frowned, noticing that another of the living room’s floorboards had come loose. “Oh, do shut up, Joel,” she murmured.
Jadedness was Audrey’s default pose with her husband. She used it partly in the English manner, as a way of alluding to affection by manifesting its opposite, and partly as a strategy for asserting her privileged spousal status. The wives of great men must always be jealously guarding their positions against the encroachments of acolytes, and Audrey had decided long ago that if everybody else was going to guffaw at Joel’s jokes and roll over at his charm, her distinction – the mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend – would be a deadpan unimpressibility. “Oh, I forgot!” she often drawled when Joel was embarking on one of his exuberant anecdotes. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”
“What do you want for breakfast?” she asked now.
“I’ll have a bialy,” Joel said.
Audrey looked at him.
“What?” he said, glancing up after a moment. “I have to have carbohydrates sometimes. You want me to go to court on a bowl of yogurt?”
Audrey went into the kitchen.
“I can’t find the bialys,” she called out after a moment. “Are you sure we have any?”
Joel looked up from the papers. “Oh, come on! I thought you were going to get some. I asked you yesterday.” He smacked his hand against his newspaper. “Jesus!”
Audrey came back out to the living room and gazed at him archly. “It’s a tragedy, I know. How about a boiled egg?”
“I want a bialy, goddammit.”
Audrey stood and waited.
“All right, forget it,” he said sulkily. “Gimme the egg.”
He went upstairs now to shower and get dressed. In the kitchen, Audrey poured herself coffee and put a pan of water on the stove. She was about to return to the living room to look at the New York Post editorial when she heard shouting from above. Putting down her cup, she went to the foot of the stairs. “Joel?” There was no reply. With a sigh, she trekked up to the top floor landing, where she found her husband raging over an empty can of black shoe polish.
“Does no one but me ever replace anything in this house?” he demanded. “Would it be too much to ask that someone else bought fucking shoe polish around here?”
“Lenny must have finished it,” Audrey said calmly. “He used it the other night, when he went to that black tie thing with Tanya.”
The black tie detail was an unnecessary provocation, Joel thought. Audrey had an ignoble habit of dropping Lenny in it, so she might then rescue him.
“Jesus!” he shouted, taking the bait anyway. “What are we running here, a hostel for the unemployed? Next time, tell him to get his own.”
“Those aren’t the right shoes for that suit anyway,” Audrey said, gesturing at the brogues that Joel had been intending to polish. “You wear the other ones with the blue suit.”
She turned away in silent triumph and went back downstairs.
Shortly afterward, Joel followed her. With a dish towel tied around his neck to protect his shirt and tie, he ate the egg she had made for him and drank the coffee. Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. “I love you,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah.” Audrey helped him on with his coat and walked him out to the front step. “Do good,” she called, as he set off down the street.
Without turning around, or breaking stride, Joel raised a hand in acknowledgment. “Buy some bialys,” he called back.
In the taxi over to Brooklyn, Joel’s head pains grew worse. The metal object that was lodged in his skull had shifted to his frontal lobe now and seemed to be intent on boring its way out through his forehead. The cab driver was heavy on the brake, and the jerky motion of the car as it stopped and started its way through the heavy traffic on the bridge made him moan out loud. By the time he got out at Cadman Plaza, he was dangerously close to throwing up.
Standing on the curb, waiting for his nausea to subside, he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up to see his paralegal, Kate, peering at him with concern.
“Are you okay, Joel?”
“You look a little pale.”
“I have a headache, is all.” Through the veil of his pain he registered a smattering of acne around Kate’s mouth and a smear of red lipstick on her teeth.
“You want me to get you an aspirin or something?” Kate asked.
Joel shook his head. “I’ve taken about fifty Tylenol in the last twenty-four hours. They’re making it worse, I think.”
“How about some water?” She brought out a plastic bottle from her bag.
Joel smiled wanly as he took the bottle. Dear, homely, reliable Kate. How well she looked after him! He had been doubtful, when he first hired her, about taking on such an unattractive girl. He had worried that it would be dispiriting to have to confront her tree-trunk legs and her abominable complexion every morning. But Kate’s devotedness and efficiency had more than made up for her aesthetic failings. And after so many years of complicated and time-consuming office imbroglios with female employees, there was, he had to admit, something rather soothing about not wanting to fuck his assistant.
“Okay,” he said, handing the bottle back. “I’m good.”
They went in through the glass doors of the Federal Courthouse and deposited their cell phones with a lady in a booth before joining the line at the security checkpoint. One of the uniformed men standing at the X-ray machine raised his arms in greeting. “Heeeey! Here he is! How ya doing, Mr. Litvinoff?”
Joel stared at him in mock consternation. “What happened, Lew?” He took off his watch and placed it, along with his keys, in a plastic tray on the conveyor belt. “They didn’t get rid of you yet? I thought for sure they would have fired you by now.”
Lew laughed heartily – a little more heartily than was strictly credible, it seemed to Joel. That was all right. Caring enough to fake mirth was its own sort of compliment. Joel passed through the metal detector and picked up his briefcase, keys, and watch on the other side.
“A big one today, right?” Lew said.
Joel shrugged. “They’re all big, Lew, they’re all big. I’ll see you later.”
“All right, Mr. Litvinoff, take it easy.”
In the elevator going up to the courtroom, Joel found himself pressed tightly against a young blonde. “Well!” He chuckled. “My lucky day.” The woman looked away disdainfully. He felt a moment’s befuddlement at the failure of his gallantry and then an urge to take the woman by the scruff of her neck and give her a good slap. But he pulled himself together and went on chatting to Kate in a loud, cheerful voice until they reached their floor.
Joel’s co-counsel, Buchman, a pink-faced kid from Virginia, had already arrived in the courtroom. Joel nodded hello to the prosecution team and stopped to say a few words to the court stenographer, a nice old gargoyle called Helen. Then he sat down and chatted with Buchman. Soon the jury filed in, emanating the usual stagy solemnity of citizens fulfilling their civic duty. Joel put his elbows on the desk in front of him and cradled his chin in his hands. He was feeling old. The elevator woman’s rejection had bothered him. His head was throbbing. The long day’s work loomed before him like a cliff face.
Hassani was brought up now from the holding cell, accompanied by three grimly corpulent guards. Joel stood up and stretched out his arms. “Assalamu alaikum!” A blush crept across Hassani’s solemn, beanshaped face as he found himself enfolded in an enthusiastic bear hug. Joel, whose personal affections tended to follow his political sympathies and who rarely managed to get through a case without falling a little in love with his client, was famous for his public expressions of tenderness toward the men and women he represented.
“You’re looking good, man!” he said, when at last he had released Hassani. “You’re looking good!” He rubbed at the circular impression that one of his suit buttons had left on Hassani’s cheek. The energy that he had expended on the hug had left him slightly dizzy, he realized. He sat down now and stared straight ahead, trying to regain his balance.
Now, the court clerk entered and asked the people to please rise for the judge. As Joel heaved himself up, he heard a tiny noise in his head – a brittle, snapping sound like a dry branch being broken underfoot. At the same time, a blurry, dark margin appeared at the corner of his vision. He was just wondering whether he ought to sit down again when the room tipped on its side.
No one reacted immediately when he fell to the floor. Several people would later admit that they had mistaken the collapse for one of his courtroom stunts. After a moment or two, however, things began to happen. The stenographer went over and took Joel’s pulse. Several journalists ran downstairs to put in calls to their newsrooms. Kate asked a policeman to radio for an ambulance. Hassani leaned over to Buchman and politely inquired about how he should proceed with finding a replacement lawyer.