The Book of Stone: A Novel

The Book of Stone: A Novel

by Jonathan Papernick

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941493045
Publisher: Fig Tree Books
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 389
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author


Dara Horn calls Papernick “an utterly original writer,” and The New York Times writes, “There is a muscular certainty to the best of Papernick’s stories.” Papernick has taught fiction writing at Pratt Institute, Brandeis University, Bar Ilan University, and GrubStreet. A Toronto native, Papernick lives with his wife and two sons outside Boston, where he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at a Boston-area college.

Read an Excerpt

The Book of Stone


By Jonathan Papernick

Fig Tree Books

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Papernick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-941493-04-5


CHAPTER 1

Matthew Stone opened his eyes and looked down onto the street. People in twos and threes moved languidly in the pale yellow haze as if constrained by a barely discernible gauze. A whisper of breeze on his face brought him back into his body, his hard-beating heart. It convulsed in a sudden, discordant two-step that left him gasping for air. The sleeves of his father's robe hung beyond his wrists and flapped like wings as he leaned over the rusted railing, the street five stories below vertiginous, noisy. A bus roared past, a trail of vapor shimmering in its wake.

Stone pulled the robe tight around him, binding his chin against his chest. He smelled his father's scent, the sour odor of his tobacco. It was ironic, he knew, that he would seek comfort beneath his father's robe. After all, the exact article of clothing that had drawn his father away from Stone during the Judge's lengthy trials was the very same robe that embraced him when the endless empty space around him was too much to bear. As a boy he snuck into the Judge's closet, awed by his father's tremendous bulk, and pulled the majestic robe — which forever smelled of the stale smoke of Nat Sherman Originals — from its heavy wooden hanger. He would drape the robe over his slight body and feel full, as the vast emptiness around him closed up like a slamming door. In an instant he felt like a superhero, like Batman, or the Caped Crusader. Anything was possible.

But that was a long time ago.

It was hard to believe that morning the Honorable Walter J. Stone had lived and breathed and existed. He had still been reading a book at five o'clock in the morning, as if preparing for a lecture later in the week. Now he was what? An empty vessel? Food for worms? Nothing. Forever is impossible to conceive until it's upon you: the realization that forever is forever is forever. The Judge was gone and Stone was alone in the world.

As an only son, Stone faced the overwhelming task of selecting his father's burial accoutrements. The body was barely cold and the funeral director, a thin arrow of a man with jet-black hair and a weak chin, who introduced himself as Mr. Ehrenkranz, had asked whether the Judge would enter eternity in a muslin shroud or a linen one, Israeli or one handmade here in America? It had never occurred to Stone that somebody actually had to make such a decision, as though picking out a Father's Day tie at Macy's. He didn't care. His brain fired blanks.

He let Ehrenkranz decide.

"You'll note," Ehrenkranz added, handing Stone his father's beloved school ring — yellow gold with a glittering blue sapphire in the center, bracketed with the words COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, "shrouds have no pockets to carry man's material possessions into the next world. However, it is customary for the deceased to be wrapped in his prayer shawl. Do you happen to have it with you?"

The pigeons cooing on the ledge below sounded almost human, a choir full of sorrow and regret and loss, unintelligible, but almost human. Stone threw one leg over the railing, feeling dizzy exhilaration, a vein jumping in his wrist. He stood on the street side of the railing now as the pigeons chattered, beckoning him forward. You can fly like us, the pigeons teased, you have wings. Stone spread his arms wide and knew the black robe could just as easily be his own burial shroud; all he had to do was step forward, and the pain would be gone in a pure act of erasure. He could fill the empty space below him in an instant.

Instead, he pulled a pack of matches from his pocket and lit a loosely rolled joint. As he inhaled, the heat of the burning tip near his skin, he was reminded of the elemental power he held in his trembling hand. He dropped a match onto the street, lit another match, held it for a five count — nearly burning the tips of his fingers — and dropped it. A cluster of pigeons rose into the sky and scattered, a pungent rush of air blowing past on the updraft. A few streets over, a car alarm wailed.

Looking across the river toward the city and the fading pink sunset, he could see from the monolithic Twin Towers and the crenellated spires of the Woolworth Building all the way to the Chrysler Building halfway up the island, rising like a stainless steel rocket ship from the dissonant chaos of Midtown. He took another hit of his joint, pondering. This squat, ordinary apartment house set against a backdrop of brown brick tenement buildings was exactly the sort of end he deserved. As the smoke filled his lungs, his father, vibrant with life, appeared before him floating in the air, wearing a three-piece suit and half-moon glasses, a paragon of scholarly civility, shaking his colossal bald head in disapproval.

"Do it," his father said, with characteristic cruelty. "You're nothing but a coward, Matthew. You're not even a shit stain in my shorts."

"Would it make you proud?" Stone said aloud, his voice weak.

But the Judge vanished as quickly as he had materialized.

Now, in the cool air of the rooftop, a pigeon alighted on the railing beside Stone, strutting with stupid avian bravado; a challenge. He flapped his wings and disappeared into the sky. Stone spread his arms, the fabric fluttering in the wind. A single green iridescent feather floated in the air just out of Stone's reach, taunting him.

"I can do it if I want to," Stone shouted to the sky. It was strange how foreign his voice sounded to his ears in the thick evening air. "But I won't. Because you want me to."

He slumped against the railing, breathless, realizing he had made up his mind to live. For now. Stone might have nodded off because the sky was dark, full of heavy black clouds rolling in high on the wind as eerie yellow lights came on in the streets between his tenuous perch and the river. Brooklyn looked somehow more lurid now that night had fallen, its low buildings more shabby. Its windows were filling with broken silhouettes of WIC-assisted poor bent over dinner plates in the blue glare of their televisions; rooftop water tanks hunched like wild things about to spring; disembodied renegade shouts filled the air, the streets below burning with anger freed by the cover of darkness. Manhattan, too, looked different, its jagged spine illuminated, lights flaring along the length of the island like torches lit by primitives in another age.

Stone heard footsteps at his back, and then: "What the fuck are you doing?" It was Pinky. Stone had almost forgotten, amid the bewildering whirlwind of emotions, that he was staying with Pinky now; his father's Midwood apartment was no longer safe. "You look like Count Dracula in that thing. Get off there before someone gets hurt."

Stone had come up to the roof to get away from Pinky, who understood death and loss the same way a twelve-year-old boy understands sex by gawking at pictures in a National Geographic magazine — distant, exotic, virtually impossible. But Pinky had phoned at the right moment, with Stone in a panic at the state of his father's apartment; he had come right away and filled a white cube van with Bankers Boxes of the Judge's belongings and loaded them into his street-level apartment. Pinky had offered Stone a mattress and a bare room, but he offered no comfort aside from empty platitudes and a firm handshake. As soon as the last box was stacked in the middle of Pinky's living room, he cranked up his stereo, subwoofers pulsing, blasting some hideous, bass-thumping rap music that threatened to split Stone's head in two. Pinky produced a nasty resin-filled bong from a kitchen cabinet and presented it to Stone with a be-my-guest gesture meant to be comic, but that only made Pinky more of an insensitive jackass.

His father had just died, and this was what he was left with.

All Stone's childhood friends were gone. Danny Green was in med school in Baltimore; Alan Grinstein, Harvard Law; Alvin Zuckerbrot, Stanford Law; Jay Coopersmith head chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Amsterdam; Mickey Zin was married, lighting out for the suburbs of Westchester County; Ami Alfasi, dead two years in the Security Zone in Lebanon and buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Only Pinky, Michael Pinsky, the schmuck who dropped out of twelfth grade to try out for the Yankees, who got genital herpes from a prostitute in Paterson, New Jersey, who believed Jack Ruby was a great American Jew, only Pinky remained. He was a friend, but a friend of habit more than desire. They had known each other a long time and they were the last two childhood friends left standing. It was hard to believe they had once had so much in common, but passion for baseball cards, bike riding, and ding dong dash was a flimsy foundation for an enduring bond.

"It's time to come inside, bitch," Pinky said, offering a hand to Stone as he climbed back over the railing. "We've got a funeral tomorrow." Stone returned to the apartment reluctantly, wordlessly, and he and Pinky descended the stairs. When they were back inside, Pinky asked Stone if he wanted to play blackjack or something, but Stone didn't answer and locked himself behind the bathroom door. He hung the robe on a hook and turned on the fan. Then he sat down in the cool bathtub and lit a cigarette. Stone unbuttoned his pants, pulled aside the zipper, and found the pale white of his upper thigh. It had been a long time, but the skin called to him now. His skin was nothing more than a tight-fitting body bag anyway. He took a deep drag on the cigarette. His hand shook as he maneuvered the cigarette toward his thigh. An old purple scar in the shape of the letter C smiled at him, beckoning. The hair burned first, then the skin. His vision went white and his blood began to calm and, soon, he closed his eyes.


THE MORNING SKY was a bright Dodger blue and the glare of the piercing sun was sharp and pricked Stone's retinas like needles. Dressed in his only suit, a modish single-breasted number he rarely had cause to wear, he asked Pinky if he had an extra pair of sunglasses. Pinky disappeared inside the apartment, leaving Stone alone on the sidewalk. His chest was tight, as if filled with cement — some invisible force had been crouching on his chest all night long, whispering in his ear, whispering something in a strange language he could not understand. He wanted to go back inside and close his eyes, but he was even more afraid of sleep than he was of facing the real-life nightmare of his father's funeral.

A long black limousine idled in front of the apartment. The neighborhood homeboys, who had been throwing dice on the pavement and laughing when Stone arrived yesterday, now gathered around the limo, faces pressed to the tinted windows in curiosity. Stone could not imagine ever laughing again. For some reason, he had an overwhelming urge to shout something terrible at them, something sharp and biting, like a broken bottle to the face, something he would later regret. He just wanted to be alone with his anguish, and the shouting and hollering before him made him feel as if he were losing his sense of reason.

"Take your pick," Pinky said, tossing Stone a Bloomingdale's shopping bag. There must have been a dozen new pairs of brand-name glasses, still in their original packaging. He fished out a pair of dark Ray-Bans and slipped them on.

"Lookin' good," Pinky said.

"What's with this?" Stone asked.

"I figured we should ride in style. You really want to gypsy cab it to your old man's funeral? Don't worry. I've got you covered." Then Pinky turned to the homeboys and said, "Nothing to see here. You think Biggie's back from the dead? Well, he ain't."

They drove in silence out to Queens, that inimitable borough of escape, of airports and cemeteries, as Stone imagined the unimaginable, the fact that he would be burying his father so soon, before he himself had accomplished anything in this life. Stone had no job, no advanced degree, no skills. Nothing. He would be alone, no wife, no girlfriend, no children, no mother, no aunts, no uncles, no friends to share his burden. Just Pinky.

How could his father die so young? There were ex–Nazi executioners still living into their eighties, unrepentant killers on death row eligible for Social Security, and his father, a fit sixty-three, was gone. His father had been a force of nature, molded out of pure brass. Even pale and faded, his father struck Stone as awesome, frightening. Even when the cancer had ruined his voice, withered his body, his will was radiant. It was clear the Judge didn't believe he was going to die, lying in bed with his half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose, reading to the end, a book propped on a pillow before him. Then yesterday morning, not long after sunrise, with the swiftness of a sudden summer storm, they both realized he was going to die.

The limousine passed a ragged handful of protesters by the cemetery gate, waving handmade signs announcing: ABU DIS & RAS AL-AMUD = PALESTINE! and ARAB BLOOD FROM ZIONIST STONE. Stone had become so used to his father's divisive cult of personality that the clownish activists barely registered in his mind. The ride out had numbed him with a sort of vestigial comfort, the light humming of the road soothing his nerves, and he drifted in and out of consciousness. But he was awake now, as Pinky rolled down the window, flipped them the bird, and called out something crude.

Stone recalled the time his father brought him to Montefiore Cemetery as a boy to pay respects to his hero Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Of course this stern-faced man with the cruel expression and round rimless glasses, whose framed picture his father kept on his desk, meant nothing to Matthew. He remembered the brutal black granite slab platform set in the center of a limestone plaza. His father handed Matthew a small stone and asked him to place it on the grave, and, rather than doing as his father asked, he said, "Why?"

"Jabotinsky was the creator of the first Jewish army since the time of the Romans —" his father began.

"I know," Matthew said. "But why the stone?"

"It indicates someone has visited, and a stone, unlike flowers, lasts for eternity."

Eternity is forever and death is for eternity.

Stone was shocked to see how many people had come to pay their respects to his father. There were hundreds upon hundreds of men gathered, some dressed in the customary black of the ultra-Orthodox, bearded and black-hatted, others wearing knitted skullcaps, typical of militant Zionists, many of whom spent time studying or living on the West Bank.

"Quite a shit-show," Pinky said, lighting a cigarette. "You sure this isn't the great American beard-growing contest?"

"Put it out," Stone said. "It's disrespectful."

Overcome by swirling vertigo, he leaned against the side of the limousine for balance. Who were all these people? He knew his father had achieved a lot in his life. He had accomplished good deeds but also suffered his share of controversy. Somehow, when Stone had imagined the funeral as he tossed beneath the thin sheet on Pinky's bare extra mattress he was certain had fallen off the back of a truck, he'd seen only himself, alone with his father, saying good-bye. He had imagined a poignant moment after his father had been lowered into the ground in which he would close the book and move on with his life.

"There you are, Matthew. I was worried you were going to be late." It was Ehrenkranz, the funeral director. "You might want to clip this on to your garment to show you are grieving. Near the heart, if it feels right to you." He handed Stone a small black ribbon, torn at the corner, which Stone slipped into his pocket. Ehrenkranz led Stone by the elbow through the throngs of mourners toward the graveside. "This is a very nice turnout," Ehrenkranz said. "You should have seen the Lubavitcher Rebbe's funeral. Thousands of mourners. Absolute chaos. Trust me, you don't want that."

Stone did not recognize one single soul, not one familiar face, as strangers reached out and blessed him and wished he be comforted among the mourners of Zion.

When they arrived at the grave, Ehrenkranz asked Stone if he was all right.

"All right is entirely relative," Stone said. "Especially here."

Ehrenkranz gave an avuncular laugh and patted Stone on the shoulder. "Here comes the shomer."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Book of Stone by Jonathan Papernick. Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Papernick. Excerpted by permission of Fig Tree Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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