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Benjamin's Gift

Benjamin's Gift

by Michael Golding

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A richly crafted novel, here is a tale that is at once the adventure-filled story of an unusual father and son and a front-row view of the momentous events that shaped the 20th century.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446930178
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 09/26/2009
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 495 KB

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Chapter One

The Shape of a Miracle

a pumice moon

On October 31, 1929, Jean Pierre Michel Chernovsky sat in his Carrara marble bathtub in his twenty-seven-room Fifth Avenue mansion and stared at the putty-colored, porous sphere that floated in the violet water. Approximately the size of a small grapefruit, it was carved to resemble the elusive fellow who peered down from the night sky over Manhattan. The pumice moon was not the only object to adorn Jean Pierre Michel's bath; on the broad ledge that surrounded the tub sat a red-and-gold Japanese eggshell-lacquer dragon, a hexagonal fired-clay bowl inscribed in Sanskrit, and a miniature Egyptian chrysoprase-and-moonstone funerary urn. The pumice moon, however, was the only thing that interested Jean Pierre Michel at the moment. It had been given to him the night before by one of the chief attractions of the Lieberman Follies, one Clarisse Mimsette O'Connor. She'd presented it to him in bed after having discovered, the night before that, that after having made love to her four times, at the age of seventy-one, Jean Pierre Michel was still erect. Clarisse Mimsette O'Connor had been too exhausted for a fifth round (she had, after all, performed three solo numbers in that evening's Follies, including an elaborate and somewhat embarrassing routine with an ostrich), but she'd spent the following afternoon, between the matinee and evening performances, in search of an appropriate gift to express her gratitude. When she'd found the pumice moon she was delighted: as far as she could tell, the only thing that Jean Pierre Michel did not possesswas the moon.

Jean Pierre Michel wanted everything. Cars, clocks, cloaks, pianos, horses, houses, racing yachts, swimming pools, aeroplanes. To money itself he was indifferent; he spent no Scrooge-like hours stacking up coins, and he gave away prodigious amounts to hospitals and universities and arts foundations. All that mattered was that he had enough left over to buy beautiful things. Beauty was like a drug to Jean Pierre Michel; it filled him with such intense pleasure, he became near catatonic. An Aschermann lamp or a Matisse nude simply froze him in place, and a woman—well, just thinking about Clarisse Mimsette O'Connor set his septuagenarian body on fire.

Jean Pierre Michel slid down beneath the water and laid his head back into the smooth cavity that had been carved, at the apex of the tub, to fit the exact dimensions of his cranium. As he glanced down at his body, it looked distorted beneath the water, yet even from that skewed perspective it held no surprises for him. When dressed in a waistcoat and a silk cravat, Jean Pierre Michel could easily pass for a man in his late fifties. Without his clothes, however, he was every bit his age, and he could almost chart the decay on a daily basis. It was strange to be old, like suddenly finding yourself driving a car that was desperately in need of a paint job. Only the infallibility of his sexual drive kept him from junking the entire thing; with an engine so insistent, he could accept the brutal decline of the outer shell.

Having settled beneath the water, Jean Pierre Michel looked about the room. It was lavish by any standards, with eighteen-karat-gold fixtures and carved onyx sinks and rose quartz sconces upon the walls. No matter how magnificent his surroundings, however, he could never forget that he had not always lived in such splendor. Jean Pierre Michel had been born in 1858 in the small town of Lud, North Dakota. As far as anyone could tell, his mother and father were the only Jews ever to have lived in Lud, and how they had gotten there was something of a mystery. Yes, Jews wander; in the middle of the nineteenth century, however, they rarely wandered to places where pig farming was the chief means of earning a living. Isaac Aaron and Alma Esther Rosenberg Chernovsky had nevertheless managed it and once there had set up a small general store, stocked with the basic necessities of the North Dakota life (plus a few oddities, like Isaac Aaron's mother's cheese piroshkis), and had proceeded to live quite nicely. Alma Esther was a delicate girl, with frail, slender limbs and that pale, almost translucent skin that reveals the fine tracery of the veinwork beneath. It was from her that Jean Pierre Michel got his air of nobility, as well as his somewhat unorthodox name. After a lifetime of Rosenberg, Chernovsky was little relief to Alma Esther. She therefore chose to give her firstborn son (her only son, for birth, with her tiny body, was a trauma she would never allow herself to repeat) a set of fluid French prénoms to balance it out. Isaac Aaron thought that it was ridiculous to give French names to a Russian-German-North Dakotian Jew, but he soon discovered that they suited his son: there was something strangely refined about Jean Pierre Michel, though it was coupled with a vigor that prevented him from seeming effete.

Jean Pierre Michel's affection for beautiful things was apparent from the start: before he could even walk he began rearranging the decorative objects in his mother's salon. When he was old enough to do chores, he hired himself out to the neighboring farms in return for whatever caught his eye: a pair of old stirrups, a milking pail, a piece of bubbled glass. He would carry these things back to his room and study them for hours—holding them gently up to the light, running his fingers across their rough or smooth surfaces. There was a secret inside the beauty of these treasures; there was a reason that they gave him the feeling they did, though he did not know what it was.

As childhood gave way to adolescence and adolescence to manhood, Jean Pierre Michel found his life taking on the shape and specificity of one of his gathered objects. After selling enough bromide and licorice root to gather independent means, Isaac Aaron and Alma Esther decided to move on from Lud: first to Spokane, Washington, then to Baton Rouge, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and New York. Try as he might, Jean Pierre Michel could never get either of his parents to explain their crisscross journeying. Alma Esther suggested that they were exploring the parameters of a new diaspora; Isaac Aaron suggested that Jean Pierre Michel stop asking so many questions and learn to leave his suitcases partially packed. Because each city was so far from the one that preceded it, Jean Pierre Michel was forced to assemble a new collection in each new place he went, thus experiencing respective seasons with objects of the Pacific Northwest, the South during its reconstruction, the City of the Founding Fathers, the Seenaw and Moojalook Indian tribes, and, finally, whatever his heart desired. Manhattan was a dream city to Jean Pierre Michel, a place that contained the sort of diversity and energy for which he had spent his entire life developing an appetite. When Isaac Aaron and Alma Esther announced that they were pushing on for Europe, Jean Pierre Michel took a large chunk of his personal savings and bought them a steamer trunk. He was staying put.

For the next fifteen years, from the late 1870s to the mid-1890s, Jean Pierre Michel lived the exuberant life of the New York intellectual, holding down a wide variety of menial jobs while pursuing the erudition of his soul. It was a glory time in America: the Civil War was receding into the past, the second hundred years were just beginning. It was a time of hope, of the advent of iron and steel, of the promise of a new tomorrow. And Jean Pierre Michel was content just to sit at the table and be a part of the discussion. Until one day—June 16, 1895, to be exact—he decided that it was time to become rich. It was actually a decision: he woke at dawn, and by the time he had finished his morning coffee he had determined that he would become a millionaire before he reached his fortieth birthday. Perhaps it was his version of awakening in a dark wood, or perhaps it was the brisk, wagging finger of the approaching new century. Nevertheless he made the decision, devoted himself to it, and within a few short years had earned enough money to never have to work again.

How did he do it? How does anyone amass a sudden fortune: luck, a bit of chicanery, the strength to risk everything on an idea that glows in the moment, and, in Jean Pierre Michel's case, the efficacy of trout acacia resin for making spearmint chewing gum. But what mattered more than any of these factors—including luck, which figures in everything—was will. Once Jean Pierre Michel determined himself to become a millionaire, there was little left to do but count the money as it leapt into his pockets and the objects as they accumulated, from the Lacroix boxes to the Limoges porcelain to the beads to the birds to the bells to the pumice moon.

Jean Pierre Michel raised his bony knees, and the pumice moon bobbed gently on the surface of the water. When he looked at his new toy a thrill coursed through his body, but also a trace of irritation. Why hadn't he thought of it before? To possess the moon. What was the use of all his money if there were things still beyond his reach?

Jean Pierre Michel clasped the floating ball in his hand and lowered his legs. "Cassandra!" he cried. "The water's getting cold!"

For a moment there was silence. Then, somewhere in the mansion, a door slammed. Then silence again. Then the door to the bathroom swung open and a large, coffee-colored woman (a finger of cream, four teaspoons of sugar) wearing an elegant set of gold lamé lounging pajamas entered the room. She was carrying a stack of folded garments, and she looked at Jean Pierre Michel as if he were a highly impressionable, if somewhat demanding, child.

"I told you not to stay in there so long," she said. "If that body o' yours gets any more wrinkled, I'll have to take you to the cleaners and get you pressed out."

Cassandra Nutt was Jean Pierre Michel's companion. She'd been in his service for twenty-five years, having come to him, in 1904, as a girl of sixteen and having worn, in the interim, every possible title from scullery maid to personal assistant. The only role she had consistently managed to avoid was that of mistress, although Jean Pierre Michel had tried everything he could think of to make her yield. When he'd come to her the first time, in the second-floor pantry, wearing nothing but a vast, salacious grin, the young girl had simply stared; she had seen a man's penis before, even an erect one, but she had never seen one so pale and so pink. It seemed comical to her, and strangely innocent, like the flexed, flailing arm of a petulant child. And though she'd gone on to have her share of white lovers, she could never quite take Jean Pierre Michel's penis seriously, no matter how many times, or in how many settings, he had presented it to her over the years.

In spite of her refusal to sleep with him, however—or perhaps because of it—Jean Pierre Michel lavished Cassandra Nutt with gifts. Jade-and-ivory brooches, pheasant feather hats, evening dresses trimmed with Spanish goat. Cassandra Nutt was fitted out in greater style than many of the women on the New York Social Register. More significant, she wore her finery both day and night, sporting chiffon tea dresses to do the morning shopping and hand-stitched furs to post Jean Pierre Michel's correspondence in the afternoon. She was so refined, so always elegant, that it was assumed by virtually everyone she encountered that she was Jean Pierre Michel's mistress. Cassandra Nutt, however, cared nothing for what people thought. She liked her clothes and she liked her work, despite her employer's frequently proffered penis. If she wished to wear a Paris gown to take out the trash, whose business was it but her own?

Jean Pierre Michel placed his hands on the ledge that surrounded the tub and raised himself to a standing position. "You can press me out now, Cassandra," he said. "If you like."

Cassandra Nutt placed the clothes she was carrying on the crystal stand that stood beside the sink and reached for one of the large salmon-colored towels that hung behind it. "That thing o' yours don't need pressin', Monsieur C. It needs cold storage."

Jean Pierre Michel took the towel and began to dry himself, beginning with his head and then working his way down his thin, loose-skinned body. When he was done he handed the towel back to Cassandra Nutt, who placed it in a wide-mouthed basket that sat in the corner.

"Is the Hispano-Suiza ready?" he said.

"Yes," said Cassandra Nutt.

"Then help me dress."

Cassandra Nutt reached for the garments she'd lain on the crystal stand and began to layer them over Jean Pierre Michel's naked body; they were the crisp robes of an Arabian sheikh, complete with turban and veil.

"Seems mighty early in the day to be goin' to a dress-up party," she said.

"We're not going to a party," said Jean Pierre Michel. "No one can afford to give a party besides me. And if I gave one, no one could afford to come." He raised his arms as Cassandra Nutt placed the paneled sash about his waist. "We're going to have our own party," he said. "Just the two of us." He lowered his arms. "One does the best one can, Cassandra. No matter the circumstance."

There were several interesting things about October 31, 1929. The first was that it was Halloween, a day that had special significance for Jean Pierre Michel. For though he relished beautiful things, and reveled in the splendid clothing with which he graced Cassandra Nutt, he himself always wore a black waistcoat, a pair of gray trousers, a white, wing-collared shirt, and a black-and-silver cravat. He had dozens of each, never wearing one out, never tiring of what, to someone else, might seem a prison of sartorial monotony. Only once a year, on Halloween, did he allow himself to deviate, to indulge in fancy dress, to become himself one of the elegant objects that he preferred only to look at the rest of the year. This year, however, Halloween fell precisely one week after the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange—the second interesting thing about October 31, 1929. As most of Jean Pierre Michel's friends either had leapt from one of the city's recently constructed skyscrapers or remained frozen, over their week-old coffee, in various positions of shock, a party seemed improbable, if not totally lacking in taste. So Jean Pierre Michel decided to dress for himself and to drive, like a visiting potentate, through the ruined city.

Jean Pierre Michel had not lost a penny in the stock market crash, partly because he did not believe in the stock market and partly because he did not believe in pennies. He kept his money in the country where he made it, convinced that billions of ducatos were even nicer than millions of dollars. He had what he needed wired to him regularly, and if things continued in the direction they were going, with prices plummeting and the bulk of the nation's fortunes disappearing overnight, the stock market crash would most likely end up tripling or even quadrupling his worth.

He would have to stop at Cartier and buy Cassandra Nutt a new pair of earrings.

There was one thing Jean Pierre Michel desired that could not be purchased in a shop—the third interesting thing about October 31, 1929. It was not entirely triggered by the pumice moon, yet the pumice moon had helped him to articulate it: yes, Jean Pierre Michel wanted the moon, but, more than the moon, he wanted a son. The thought had not occurred to him before, nor, more surprisingly, had it been thought of by any of the countless women he had been with. Now, however, at the age of seventy-one, that old, inevitable instinct had kicked in—and the rest was simply a matter of ducatos.

Cassandra Nutt adjusted the two veils that floated out from either side of the white turban. "Valentino lives."

Jean Pierre Michel looked into the mirror. The outfit was arresting, but even the flowing veils could not camouflage the thick folds above the eyes, the deep creases about the mouth, the tough, lived-in quality of the skin.

"Go start the motor," he said. "Before I expose myself again."

Cassandra Nutt adjusted the pearls about her neck and moved toward the bathroom door. "Nothing like an incentive," she said—and like a great, gold lam? gust of wind, she was gone.

the hard wood chair

Benjamin knew that he was expected to remain in the hard wood chair until Mr. Petersen returned for him, regardless of the fact that the bumps in the seat cushion pressed into his bottom and his feet could not touch the ground. He'd wanted to sit on the ledge that footed the window and look down at the street; he'd never been up so high in a building before, and when he'd passed by the window and had looked down, the people had looked like the tiny figures from his train set and the cars had looked like the ones that he kept in the shoebox under his bed. Mr. Petersen, however, had told him to sit in the chair, and as he did not know Mr. Petersen very well and as he was wearing his very best trousers (the gray ones, with the flaps on the pockets), he did as he was told—even if the bumps in the seat cushion pressed into his bottom and his feet could not touch the ground.

It was an awful room. The walls were covered with dark printed wallpaper, and the furniture was heavy and ominous looking. And even though it was only ten o'clock in the morning, it was mostly dark: the sunlight that came through the one lonely window seemed to stop a few inches after entering. The only thing that alleviated the gloom—the only thing that kept Benjamin from minding how uncomfortable the chair was and how long Mr. Petersen was taking in the other room—was the large oil painting on the wall across from him. It was a picture of a storm at sea, with a large boat crashing on the waves and a smaller boat carrying a group of survivors to safety. Benjamin had seen the ocean only once, on an ill-fated outing to the Jersey shore that had included a flat tire, a very bad chicken sandwich, and about forty-five minutes to actually look at the water. But he knew from that brief visit how wonderful it was, so the painting helped him take his mind off the interminable wait.

Benjamin was an astonishingly beautiful child. His body was strong and lithe, his face the product of a sculptor's chisel, perfect and radiating light. His only flaw—although a wise eye would not have seen it as such—was a large strawberry birthmark that spread, like the Russian steppes, across his right cheek and throat. When his parents first saw him, the contradiction of it stunned them into silence: the startling beauty, even as a newborn, and this strange, sprawling mark across its surface. Whatever they called it—spot, stain, blotch, smear—it stole away their joy at the birth of a wonderful child.

As Benjamin grew, his beauty grew, too, so that the strawberry birthmark eventually began to seem like a natural balancing mechanism: a silk scarf thrown up against the light of God. The more beautiful he became, however, the more his parents hated the birthmark. His mother, Lavinia, interpreted it as a punishment. It reminded her of the stain on the bedsheet in the morning after she'd made love with Benjamin's father, the dried insignia of her husband's seed that spilled out of her as she slept. At least one of those seeds had managed to find its way up into her womb, and Lavinia was convinced that the mark on the body of the child that it had grown into was intended to chastise her for the pleasure she'd taken in the embarrassing act that had produced him. Benjamin's father, Edward, had a different interpretation. To him the birthmark was a sign not of what had been, but of what was yet to come: Benjamin was the future, and there was a stain upon it.

Had Benjamin looked into the mirror for the first time in a world in which neither his parents nor anyone like them had ever lived, he would have liked what he saw tremendously. The cerulean blue eyes were strong and clear. The nose was straight and the mouth delicately curved. The dark blond hair feathered softly into neat, attractive waves. And the strawberry birthmark was really quite fascinating—a splash of color on a pale canvas, a burst of good cheer like the wine that spilled from the goblet turned over at a wedding. Edward and Lavinia, however, were most decidedly in Benjamin's world. So when he looked into the mirror and saw the strawberry birthmark, the only thing he could feel was his parents' shame.

At first he tried rubbing it off, using terry-cloth toweling, soap detergent, cotton batting, rubbing alcohol, and half a jar of what his mother referred to as, but was obviously mistaken in calling, vanishing cream. When this didn't work he tried covering it over with a paste he concocted of bourbon and baking soda, using the bottle of bootleg his father kept in the broom closet, being careful to top it up with water. When this didn't work he tried spreading strawberry jam across the rest of his face, though by the time he'd emptied the jar he realized that the strawberry birthmark was not really strawberry, but more like stewed cherries or twisted candy whips or the small glass relish dish that his mother brought out whenever company came to dinner.

It was when all these methods failed that Benjamin, tired of being sticky and seedy, stumbled upon his fate. He was sitting on the large, flowered sofa in the sitting room of the small Brooklyn brownstone where he and his parents lived. His mother had told him to wait there while she answered the doorbell, and from the emphasis in her voice he understood that she wished him to remain hidden rather than to accompany her and produce that look of amazement that always appeared on the face of whoever was at the door. As he tucked his legs up under him and listened to the conversation through the wall, he wished that he could curl up tight enough to disappear. And for a moment he did. He closed his eyes and entered a half-world—a blue zone—a limbo. And when he opened them again he found himself on the kitchen floor between the icebox and the stove. He was quite confused and had to concentrate feverishly to return himself to the sitting room before his mother came back. But the next morning, after he had transported himself from his bedroom to the bathroom, and the bathroom to the back garden, he knew that, whatever was happening, it was more than just chance.

For the next few weeks Benjamin refrained from wishing himself to be anywhere other than where he was. It was strange enough to have a strawberry birthmark; what could be the meaning of the ability to transport oneself through space? He tried to convince himself that it had not really happened. As his father always liked to say, people constantly imagined the most ridiculous things. But the vast possibilities that it held finally tempted him to test it again. So he transferred himself from the basement to the attic—from the front porch swing to the second-floor landing—and he saw that, bizarre and vaguely dangerous as it seemed, these powers were actually his.

The one thing Benjamin felt certain about, however, was that he dared not reveal his discovery to his parents; Edward and Lavinia were beleaguered enough without having to process their son's new abilities. Their problems were mostly a product of their insecurities: they had money, but they were convinced that it wasn't enough; they had a satisfying sex life, but they felt horribly guilty about it; they had a beautiful son, but he had a strawberry birthmark on his face. They were therefore poised, like a pair of overripe apples, to fall to the ground with a resounding splat should the appropriate wind blow in. And though Benjamin did his best to see that his new gift did not provide the shock, on the morning of October 24, 1929, something else did: the New York Stock Exchange collapsed into panic, and their entire life's savings were lost. Compared with the losses of others, Edward and Lavinia's losses were meager. And perhaps if they had felt good about how good they felt when they made love, or their son's skin had not looked like the backdrop to one of Macy's Christmas windows, they would have been able to sustain the shock. But they didn't, and it did, so on October 25, while Benjamin was at school, they sealed the windows, turned on the gas, and promptly asphyxiated themselves.


Benjamin looked up to find Mr. Petersen, a few strands of hair bravely combed up over his balding head, standing grim-faced in the doorway.

"Feet off the upholstery and look sharp!" he said. "Mr. Feinstein will see you in five minutes."

Mr. Petersen turned and reentered the office, and Benjamin lowered his feet so that they dangled, once more, above the ground.

Benjamin had no parents now. He also had no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, no uncles, no grandparents, and no cousins. Mr. Petersen was a social worker, the office he sat in belonged to the law firm of Wittman, Waxman, and Feinstein, and Benjamin, although he did not know what it meant, was about to be made a ward of the state.

Benjamin closed his eyes and tried to block out the dank, musty smell that filled the room. He wondered what it would smell like in the place they were going to take him, the place they had told him he was going to have to live in now that his mother and father were dead. When he opened his eyes, he looked at the painting across from him. There were twelve men in the small boat being led away from the wreckage; there were people on the boat that was sinking beneath the waves; there was a faint rainbow arcing between the two crafts. Benjamin did not know if it was possible, but he decided that he would try to enter the painting, to disappear from the darkness of the law office waiting room and enter an alternate world. He realized that he might miss his mark, that he might will himself onto the wrong ship, that he might get trapped on the sinking vessel and be pulled beneath the waves. But even that seemed better than the dull, gray fate into which Mr. Petersen was about to usher him.

He closed his eyes. He breathed in deeply. He concentrated.

Then Benjamin disappeared.

the Hispano-Suiza

What is the shape of a miracle? Is it slender, compact, able to fit, like a silver bead, within the palm of your hand? So dense, so deeply concentrated, that it carries an entire universe inside its smooth, brittle shell? Or is it fluid, ephemeral, an invisible substance that pours out over the moment, releasing upon its subjects a whiff of the sublime, transforming them, man and child and thing, forever?

Jean Pierre Michel sat in the back of his Hispano-Suiza V8 convertible with his veils carefully arranged about him and his fingertips poised, on either side of his body, upon the taut red leather interior. The top was down, and Cassandra Nutt was at the wheel: massage therapist, tax accountant, pastry chef, chauffeur, it was but another of her roles in Jean Pierre Michel's service, though one she enjoyed a good bit more than the rest. The Hispano-Suiza was superb to handle. On weekends, when Jean Pierre Michel decided to drive out to Connecticut or Long Island, Cassandra Nutt imagined herself to be a bold aviatrix, piloting the red-and-white vehicle on a sleek course through the sky. She felt the heft and grace of the automobile as she felt them in herself: powerful when necessary, fleet and subtle when she desired. It was never a chore to be asked to go driving. All she needed was the road, the car, and a destination.

Now she was purring down Fifth Avenue on a late-October morning with a pseudo-Arabian sheikh in the backseat. The traffic was light; with the industrial average still plummeting like a suicidal finch, the streets of Manhattan were open wide to the solitary Halloween parade of Jean Pierre Michel Chernovsky. They continued down Fifth Avenue until they came to Fourteenth Street, where they turned and headed west. When they reached the corner of Fourteenth and Seventh, they stopped to allow a woman pushing a dark blue baby carriage to cross over to the south side of the intersection. And that was when the miracle—solid or fluid—occurred. For when the Hispano-Suiza stopped to allow the pram to pass, it held a stunning black woman in her early forties wearing a sleek beaver coat and an aviator's cap and an elderly white man dressed in a set of flowing robes. But when it started again, turning left on Seventh Avenue into the heart of Greenwich Village, it suddenly held, in addition to these two, an exquisite young boy with a strawberry birthmark on his face.

When Benjamin saw the red leather interior of the car and the crisp white veils of the man beside him, he knew that he had not entered the painting. Yet he felt that his efforts had not entirely failed: he had definitely willed himself into something more interesting than what Mr. Petersen had had in mind. When Jean Pierre Michel became aware of the young boy beside him, he did not question where he had come from or how or when or why he had entered his car. He only knew that he had found his son—or, rather, that his son had found him. And when Cassandra Nutt glanced into the rearview mirror and saw the ravishing child with the extraordinary light in his eyes, she could only think that veils or no veils, Halloween parade or not, Jean Pierre Michel Chernovsky had finally met his match.

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