War Story: A Novelby Gwen Edelman
Kitty and Joseph meet in a bookstore in New York. She is thirty-two, an aspiring writer. He is sixty, a Viennese Jew, a famous playwright who survived the Holocaust. In a faded bohemian hotel, they begin an obsessive and all-consuming affair. Night after night he spins stories for her, tales of prewar Vienna, his childhood in Amsterdam hiding from the Nazis, his literary triumphs, the countless women he has loved and left. One day, he tells her, he will leave her too.
Author Biography: War Story is Gwen Edelman's first novel.
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Out the train window lie the endless fields of northern France, fallow, the spiky stubble dusted with frost. Everything is tinged with white, even the flat wintry sky and the pale face of the moon which rushes headlong through the white sky although it is only noon. How is it, wonders Kitty, peering out, that the moon keeps pace with them, always just above them, moving, moving as the train speeds through the frozen countryside. Chilly air seeps in beneath the window and Kitty pulls up the collar of her coat. Every so often they pass a small village, a cluster of houses and the sharp narrow steeple of an old church. The country makes me nervous, Joseph used to say. One night with the darkness and the baying of hounds and I'm ready to pack up and leave right away. You find little villages charming? Good. You can have them. Kitty hasn't seen him in ten years. Now she never will. Far away on a country lane a figure in high boots appears for a moment and fades out, too slow for the train which sweeps through like a cold wind.
All those years ago, he would rush ahead of her down the platform, his old battered suitcase bumping against his leg. Hurry, he would call out, almost running, we'll miss the train. His pace would speed up, she could hear him panting as he began to run. We can't miss the train. Hurry up. The train was nowhere near ready to leave. It stood there, empty of passengers, the conductor lolling on the quay. But Joseph climbed the steps breathlessly and rushed down the empty aisle to a seat. Settled next to her, he would pull out a large white handkerchief and wipe his moist forehead. We made it, he would say, trying to catch his breath, we made the train. And there they would sit, squeezed together on the seat and he would take her hand. Thank God, he would say, we made it. And Kitty would stare at the empty luggage racks, the undisturbed squares of white cloth pinned to the backs of the seats.
How could she understand this rush, having to arrive an hour early, the headlong flight down the platform, the sweaty palms, the damp forehead? Why should they miss the train? And if they did they would get the next one. There was always another train. You don't understand, do you? he would ask, turning toward her in the seat of maroon plush. No, she would say shaking her head, how can I? No, he agreed, you can't. Well never mind. Would you like an orange? He pulled one from his pocket. You know I don't like them. He put it back again and looked at his watch. Good, he said happily, we're in plenty of time. And they would sit together, all alone in the long train. Come in the bathroom darling, he would whisper. Let me make you a baby.
The train arrives in Amsterdam at 2:13. The funeral is at three. In a synagogue. When she knew him he wouldn't have dreamed of setting foot inside a synagogue. Yet he knew the prayers and one of his favorite jokes ended with the first lines of the kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Go to synagogue? he would ask her. What for? He doesn't hear me from where I am? Only in His own House? I don't believe it. Where were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when they called out to Him? Certainly not in a synagogue. Kitty studies the whorls of frost that have collected in the corners of the glass. Besides, he would add, He wouldn't let me in. I've slept with too many women.
How do people live with this interminable soil, wonders Kitty. She would feel buried alive. A tractor lies tipped at a precarious angle on a small embankment, its heavy black treads off the ground. Why has the farmer left it so far away? He will have to walk miles to reach it, thinks Kitty, but she knows nothing about the lives of farmers and perhaps there is another solution. Before I became a writer, Joseph used to brag, I worked in the fields. In the orange groves in Palestine after the war. Where do you think I got these shoulders from, these strong upper arms? Kitty would touch his upper arms lightly. I thought, she would say, that you got them from lifting so many women and carrying them off to bed. It's you I'd like to lift, he would say, never mind the others. And he would bend down and press his broad forehead against hers. I am listening to you think, he would say.
The conductor comes through and asks for her ticket. His dark mustache fills the space between mouth and nose and spreads out toward his cheeks as though he had been barbered in another century. Because she wants to keep him in front of her for another minute Kitty asks him when they will arrive in Amsterdam. Never, I hope, he says surprisingly. Why is that? Kitty wants to know. The mother-in-law's expected. She's blowing in with the snowstorm. It's already coming down in Amsterdam. We've had it over the radio. They're expecting a blizzard. Kitty has read that when the ground is frozen and cannot be dug up, the body must wait above ground. A gravedigger can break his shovel on frozen ground. . . . And burials? asks Kitty sharply. What's that, miss? replies the conductor. He punches her ticket and tips his hat.
With his wild crown of wavy hair, his heavy dark lidded eyes, obstinate chin and large chest, he attracted attention wherever he went. He had a magnetism that drew not only women, but men as well. He lorded it over waiters, he rapped impatiently at the windows at railroad stations, he treated cabdrivers imperiously. Though he had no money he always traveled first class and would not set foot in a bus or subway. His white hair stood out from his head, he radiated confidence. This was a man, one would have said, who knew his place in the world.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
There was no place for us, he told her, not a place on earth that wanted us. And so he called out in restaurants and barged ahead in lines, and when he sneezed, as though he were playing in a Viennese operetta, everyone turned to look. Not so loud, Kitty would plead as he called out impatiently, the waiter will come in a moment. Poor darling, he would say looking at her with disdain. Are you suddenly a small mouse? Afraid to stir the dust? It's not that, she would protest. What then? You hypocrite, he would whisper, pressing his forehead against hers. Haven't you dreamed your whole life of escaping from tiresome rules?
Don't forget me, she used to say to him. Forget you, my darling? he would reply. How could I forget you? You are tattooed on my heart. But then his attention would wander, he would move into the past, absent himself. The electricity disappeared and he was no longer there.
The white winter sky is endless above the fields. The wonderful Dutch, he used to say, who reclaimed their land from the sea. The brave hardworking Dutch. Kitty likes the old Dutch paintings of this sky, this flat placid landscape. He wasn't interested. Shall I float in an old sentimental tale? he asked. My Holland is a different Holland. I'm not a sentimental dreamer like you. Don't frown my darling, he would say seeing her expression, taking her chin in his hand and kissing her. He would shake his head. So sensitive. How would you have survived the war? You better learn a little toughness.
Kitty winds her cashmere scarf around her neck. By the side of the window the aqua pleated curtain fans out like a skirt. Why are you going? Henri asked this morning, helping her on with her coat. She has lived with him for nine years. You don't still love him? She laid her head against his clean white shirt and closed her eyes and felt him lay her collar down flat. His fingers lifted up her hair. There's a casserole for you in the refrigerator, she told him, and a chocolate dessert. But what was it about him, he insisted, that was so fascinating? She stood up straight and began to button her coat. Nothing at all, she replied. I'll call you when I get to Amsterdam. He ran his hands quickly through bristly gray hair. I never could read his plays, he said irritably. Could you? So depressing. She went to turn out the chrome lamp over his desk. I'll be home tomorrow. He stood helplessly. I'll come down with you. No darling, it's light as a feather. He lifted the small leather bag and grimaced. It's heavy. What have you got in here? She took the bag from his hand. Don't be so curious. A book for the train. She kissed him quickly, a hand on his hip. He is always there, a fixed planet. Call me, he said with worried eyes. Kitty nodded. While Joseph was never in the same place twice.
When she went to the market with Joseph, he bought everything. Pounds of fruit, cheeses, vegetables, coffee, sausages, three loaves of bread. What are you doing? she would ask him. We can't eat all that in a month. You never know, he would reply, prodding a melon with his fingers, lifting it to his nose to smell its ripeness. Don't throw it out, he would say a week later as she stood above the garbage can with the soft spoiled fruit, the overripe cheeses, the two hardened loaves. I absolutely forbid you. But Joseph, she would plead, it's gone bad. Never mind. We can eat it anyway. Once there was no food to be had, he reminded her. You know nothing of that. But that was fifty years ago, she would say wearily. And there was a war on. If there was one, there can be another, he told her, taking the rancid-smelling box of cheese from her hand. Later when he went out for cigarettes, she threw it all out and put it out back to be collected.
The trolley passes and a cadaverous man in a short black jacket with gold buttons asks if she would like something. She studies the display of nuts and candies, the basket of croissants, the sandwiches in paper. The man waits expressionless, his face waxy, his pale blue eyes staring beyond his cart. Monsieur? Slowly he turns to her and inclines his bony head. Les biscuits au chocolat. His pale fingers pluck out the package and he hands it to her in slow motion. She munches on the cookie, like those she used to eat as a child. Against the low-leaning white sky a village flashes by, and in the distance a water tower the size of a child's toy. Joseph would come back from the snack bar armed with boxes of cookies and candies, sandwiches, chips. My God, she would cry in alarm, we can't eat all that. What if there is an emergency? he wanted to know. We won't starve. What emergency? Anything can happen, he told her, holding out a box of chocolate cookies. Better to be prepared. She looked at the candy bars in her lap and shook her head. He kissed her then, pulling her chin around to him. I know better, he murmured
It was in a bookstore in New York that she first saw Joseph. A dim old-fashioned shop paneled in dark wood, silent in the heat of summer. She sat hunched on a three-legged stool in the corner of a small alcove, reading. "The woman was wearing a kimono and the long skirts trailed on the wooden floor." Kitty bent over the book. But soon she became aware of someone breathing, and putting her finger on the page to mark her place, she looked up. In the doorway stood an older man with broad shoulders, a belly, and unruly white hair, looking at her out of heavy-lidded eyes. I thought you looked Polish, she told him later. Or Israeli. The man seemed to be staring at her legs. And her breasts. Kitty pressed her legs together and held the book up in front of her blouse. He wore baggy corduroy pants. And a blue shirt. A button was unbuttoned over his belly and she caught a glimpse of white. He stared fixedly at her.
The air was heavy and the spines of the books muted with dust. Well, asked Kitty at last to break the silence, what is it? I want to know, he said slowly, although he could easily see the title, what it is you're reading. He had a guttural accent she could not identify. Why do you ask me when you can read it yourself? I'm making conversation. Kitty smiled. All right, she conceded. What is it about? It's about a man who goes to visit a geisha. And? he asked. What happens with this man and his geisha?
His forehead was covered in perspiration from the heat of the small room. The man from Tokyo has not seen the geisha in a year, has forgotten to send the dance instructions he promised her. The woman tries to smile behind her white powder but suddenly her face collapses and her eyes fill with tears. She loves him more than he loves her, said Kitty out loud, the book resting on her lap. The man shrugged. That often happens. And then? Does she sing to him plucking a ukulele or do they go right to bed? Kitty looked at him, hesitant. Through the gap in his shirt, she saw the white sliver of undershirt. They go right to bed, she said at last.
Later he would say: I met you in a whorehouse. Or was it at an all-night poker game. I met you in a bookstore, Kitty would remind him. In a bookstore? Impossible. I never set foot in bookstores. You're the one who likes to read, not me. You're the one who told me you spent your childhood in an apple tree, hidden by leaves, turning the pages. One leafy afternoon . . . you told me. Do you remember? Kitty nodded. But I still met you in a bookstore. I was seated in the corner on a three-legged stool. Reading a book. What nonsense. I found you in a bordello. You were only fourteen. Thirty-two. Then you lied about your age, you strumpet. How can I have anything to do with you? You monster, she murmured, tugging at his hair. He had always to find the better story.
From War Story by Gwen Edelman. (c) 2001, Riverhead Books, used by permission
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