It is the summer of 1941 and Abe Auer, a Russian immigrant and small–town junkyard owner, has become disenchanted with his life. So when his friend Max Hoffman, a local rabbi with a dark past, asks Abe to take in a European refugee, he agrees, unaware that the woman coming to live with him is a volatile and alluring actress named Ana Beidler. Ana regales the Auer family with tales of her lost stardom and charms and mystifies Abe with her glamour and unabashed sexuality, forcing him to confront his own desire as well as the ghost of his dead brother.
As news filters out of Europe, American Jews struggle to make sense of the atrocities. Some want to bury their heads in the sand while others want to create a Jewish army that would fight Hitler and promote bold, wide–spread rescue initiatives. And when a popular Manhattan synagogue is burned to the ground, our characters begin to feel the drumbeat of war is marching ever closer to home.
Set on the eve of America's involvement in World War II, The Houseguest examines a little–known aspect of the war and highlights the network of organizations seeking to help Jews abroad, just as masses of people seeking to escape Europe are turned away from American shores. It moves seamlessly from the Yiddish theaters of Second Avenue to the junkyards of Utica to the covert world of political activists, Jewish immigrants, and the stars and discontents of New York's Yiddish stage. Ultimately, The Houseguest is a moving story about identity, family, and the decisions that define who we will become.
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Abe auer should have been paying attention to work, not to the picture he'd seen that morning in the Yiddish Daily Forward, a picture of a body lying lifeless in the street. Work was work. Work was real. A picture, on the other hand, was only ink. And yet it was the picture he saw while he stood in the middle of his junkyard. It was the picture that lurked in his brain and gave him a queasy, lopsided feeling in his stomach, a pinching sensation behind his breastbone, a sharp pebble in the pinpoint center of his throat, and a nervous, frightened contraction in his temples.
All day, every day, he did his best not to think about these pictures. He opened his morning Forward and read about Jews ordered to register in the Netherlands, drafted for forced labor in Rumania, sealed into ghettos in Lublin and Warsaw. Then he closed the paper and went about his business, unloading inventory, processing shipments, making small talk with whoever came by, lowballing potential buyers, factory managers, scrap metal dealers, and construction company owners. He wrote receipts and appraised old appliance frames. He worried about his daughter and was glad for the time away from his wife and kept an eye on his assistant, and if he had the chance, he moaned about the cold or the humidity, or the price of steel, or the dormant ulcer in his gut that occasionally turned non-dormant and erupted a geyser of lava through the tender tube of membrane over his heart. These were normal worries, regular concerns, the accepted method of passing days. This was the way every Jew he knew seemed to be operating lately. There were moans and sighs and pounding of fists at the dinner table and prayers beseeching the wise and benevolent President Roosevelt to find a way to oppose the Nazis and protect the Jews. Then they closed their papers and washed their dishes. Even this morning with news of a synagogue fire not in Hamburg but in Manhattan, they read and worried, lamented aloud and clenched their teeth, and then they closed the papers and washed their dishes. How else could it go?
Abe knew that this was what he was supposed to do. People he loved, his daughter, his wife, were depending on him to continue on with life as usual, just like everyone else. And so he tried. Day after day, he tried. He poured milk into his coffee as he read reports of the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on Warsaw. He buttered his toast, then skimmed an article on the confiscation of the telephones of all German Jews. Just today he'd read about thousands of Jews from the town of Jassy, Rumania — men, women, and children — shot in front of a ditch. Then, he'd carry these details around with him all day, sealed off from the rest of him. It was like a bag of gravel he lugged on his back, grinding him lower, slowing him down. It was important to be informed, everyone agreed, but what one was to do with the information — that was another question.
The best answer Abe could settle on was a mixture of stoicism and resignation. Mostly, it worked. He could keep going. He got by. Only occasionally would he falter, read an article in the Forward about an expulsion in Cisenau and then remember something from his childhood in Grodno, his brother Shayke who disappeared one night and never returned, not even when the police came to the house. There were things in his past that he did not discuss. The people who knew and loved him accepted this. Only now, the Yiddish papers were full of news that no one wanted to discuss. The Jewish community was catching up with him; he was good at keeping secrets.
Now he stood in his junkyard, staring at the sky and thinking of the shipments due that week while his assistant kept things running. He stood there, his hands black with oil and his eyes tired from lack of sleep, watching the June sky pass above a hollowed-out Oldsmobile. The car was hooked by a crane and making a slow circle as it inched toward the expanse of rusted rubble, corrugated metal frames, and heaps of burnt rubber covering the ground. It dangled and twisted on its chains as Abe's assistant lowered it, then all at once it crashed down, sending up a burst of gray dust. Then the engine went quiet and Tadeusz Kazimierz called out to Abe. "Hey, shouldn't you be in the office? You're meeting with a buyer at 3:15."
It was the third time that day Abe had forgotten. It shouldn't have been such a hard thing to remember, to meet with a man interested in buying his business.
The man coming to see him was not the first to be interested in Abe's junkyard. Every week they came. Businessmen from Albany, entrepreneurs from Chicago, a few factory owners and manufacturers from New York. Men with money, some from well-off families. Some self-made. They came to meet with Abe and put in an offer on the yard, and they told him, in varying degrees of directness, what kind of an idiot he'd have to be to turn it down. Then he turned them down.
He'd done it so many times in the past year it had almost become a habit. He knew what they'd say before they said it. What the hell was he going to do with a junk heap worth eight times what he'd paid for it a decade earlier? Was he going to melt down all the metal and turn it into artillery to be sent to Europe himself? Did he know how to manufacture machine guns and ammunition? Or was he just allergic to success?
They asked him the questions everyone in town was asking, the question his own wife had been asking for years — was he stupid or just stubborn? How could he not recognize the fortuity of the hand he'd been dealt? He'd bought the yard for nothing in '26 from an Italian family gone broke, bought it with the savings he'd scraped up selling hardware on the East End. He'd bought it without any clue that fifteen years later, with Europe once again grinding toward war, iron would be selling for forty cents an ounce. Steel and aluminum twice that, and factories all across the country would be scouring for cheap sources of exportable metal wherever they could get it.
Three offers a month he got, many of them generous. Scrap metal was not a glamorous business in times of peace. War was another story. Remington. General Electric. The one today was with Chicago Pneumatic. He watched the man pull up in a brand new Buick. He was well-dressed and grinning in the bright light. He walked across the dusty gravel, looked more like he was on his way to a gala than a junkyard, a perfect picture of the prosperous Jew. Too prosperous, thought Abe. Too lucky. Jews shouldn't have so much luck — they should all start out as Abe had when he'd first come to America twenty-eight years ago, picking rags under the Second Avenue elevated. When a man started out this way, everything that followed felt like a huge success.
"Takeh a shmelke." I'm a huge success, Abe muttered to himself, patting his front shirt-pocket for a pack of cigarettes that wasn't there before finding a single smoke behind his ear, then turning to find the buyer standing in his doorway.
THE MAN'S NAME was Nate Suskind. The offer was a sound one, and he drove home its soundness again and again. They talked across the small round table in Abe's office, an empty table, the wood waxy from the days it spent in the rain before Abe had dragged it indoors. The man's hands were the color of the wood. Everything about him connoted layers of concealment, a fine veneer of gloss lain over weathered pulp.
"Now listen," he said, leaning against the table with his elbows. "I wouldn't be making an offer if I wasn't impressed with what you've done here."
Abe resisted the urge to smile. Then he stopped resisting. "If it's so impressive, why in the hell would I sell it to you?"
"Did I say sell? A partnership. Not a sale. You understand the difference?"
"I understand," he said. "It's not so complicated."
There were only two junkyards in the city of Utica. Abe's American Junk Co. and a smaller one on the east side owned by the Campo family. The Campos were in trouble. They could be bought cheap. Suskind wanted to invest in Abe's yard, and he wanted that investment used to buy out the Campos. The two of them would be partners. They'd own all the scrap metal east of the Adirondacks. Together, they could be kings of junk. This was a good position to be in now — exports were rising by the month, production was up — but if America got into the war, it would be more than good.
Abe listened but didn't speak. He sat there staring at the man, then squinted out the window to where Kazimierz was unloading a truck. He hoisted out a large lip of whiteness that eventually revealed itself to be part of, most of, a claw-foot bathtub. He lugged the thing across the yard and then went back to the truck. And came out with another partial tub. This one wasn't as cleanly broken. It was jagged and toothy where the ceramic had been cracked. Someone had done something violent to this tub. Kazimierz stood at the edge of the truck, trying to think of the safest way to get it down. He decided to kick. He dragged it through the yard, then went back for another destroyed bathtub. After a few minutes, Suskind began tapping his foot on the floor, then his fingers on the table, then the palm of one hand against his knee. The stillness was killing him. Abe supposed this man was not used to people mulling over his propositions for very long.
"Do you see this?" he asked.
"What's that?" said Suskind.
"Who breaks bathtubs? Who gathers them? Why do I have them?"
Suskind rolled his eyes. "They're junk, junkman."
Finally, Abe shook his head. "Thank you, but no. Not interested."
Suskind sat still, seemed to be waiting for more, some follow-up, some explanation. When ten seconds passed and still nothing, his smile faded. He leaned back in the chair as though putting space between them would clarify what remained unclear. "Really?" he said.
"Take some time. Consider it?" "I did. Just now."
"Humor me, in that case. Tell me your reasoning."
"I wouldn't call it reasoning. More a feeling. A hunch."
"I don't understand this language. Are you a businessman or a fortune teller? I'm asking you to make a deal, not read my palm."
"I can't do either. Now, if you don't mind "
The man made an elaborate show of packing up his briefcase, putting each paper and binder back in its place. He clipped one latch, then the other. Even the latches on his briefcase were polished, the brass catching the glare of the bulb overhead. Abe could already see him thinking about whatever came next. A man like this would cash in on war, one way or another. The currency of the world was suffering and misfortune. Only idiots like himself sat on the sidelines, watching the weather.
"Suit yourself," the man said, then he knocked the briefcase once against the table and gave Abe Auer the broadest smile while holding out his hand. "Narishe kop." You're a fool, he added, then tipped his hat and strode across the yard.
Abe made his way to his Buick. Inside, the seats were hidden beneath the week's newspapers he hadn't thrown out. The car smelled damp, musky with the day's warm rain. He gathered up the papers in his arms, carried them back to the trash can beside the office. He returned to the car, cranked the engine, wondered what Irene made for dinner, hoped it wasn't chicken. He'd made the right decision with Suskind. Too risky to sell. Why rock a boat that had carried him this far? "Narishe kop." You're a fool, a voice repeated. He looked out the passenger window, expecting Suskind, seeing his brother Shayke instead, gangly and dark, sharp elbows and knees, a flickering presence, the memory of the ghost of the man, vanished almost before it appeared.
WHEN ABE GOT home that evening, Irene was in the kitchen, cooking. Judith was in the hallway, leaning against the wall and talking on the telephone to her intended, saying something that required her to turn her back when Abe stepped into sight. He took off his hat and stomped the dirt off his shoes, sank down onto the sofa, and stared at the wall for a few minutes until his feet stopped throbbing. Then he stood up again and went into the kitchen. He came up behind Irene, pressed his face into the back of her neck. She was still the woman he'd married, thicker through the middle, perhaps, worn down in her posture, still gorgeous — her gorgeousness wasted on him. She turned to face him. "Hello, husband."
He pulled her closer.
"You want to cuddle or you want dinner?" She held out a wooden spoon. "Taste," she said. He put his hands on her hips as he did. The sauce was too salty, but he didn't say so, just made an appreciative noise and nodded. Then, he continued to watch her when she turned back to the stove.
"I missed you today," he said.
He pulled a stray apron string tied above her behind. The apron slipped but she didn't bother to fix it. The ceiling above them shook. Judith running to her room. "I thought tonight was Bezique night with Max Hoffman," she said.
"We moved it to Tuesday so he doesn't have to cheat so close to Shabbos."
She pointed her spoon at him. "That man's always so glum. You should let him cheat if it cheers him. You should encourage it."
"I think he finds losing more enjoyable. Some men are like that."
"Go change your shirt before dinner."
He went upstairs, took a white undershirt out of the dresser, dropped his soiled one onto the floor, then thought better of it and tipped it into the hamper. All this without turning on the light. What was there to see? This room, this house, the furniture and walls. It was more familiar to him than the contours of his own face. He emptied his pocket change onto the dresser, emptied the ashtray beside it into the trash. The morning paper was folded up beside the ashtray. He started to read, then stopped, tossed it onto the trash.
Downstairs, he watched Irene sprinkle salt and pepper over a bowl of green beans, and while he watched, he imagined what she'd say if she knew he'd turned down another offer. "You wonder why you're so low all the time," she'd say. "You're low because you have the time to be low, sitting all day at the yard, clipping your nails. I'd go crazy, too. Anyone would. You need a regular job. A get-up-and-put-on-a-suit-and-talk-to-people-throughout-the-day sort of job."
She was wrong, of course. They were different. She needed the things he wanted least: small talk, acquaintances, the everyday meaningless give-and-take. She didn't understand inaction for inaction's sake. The grease sizzled over the pan into the sink, pooling like lava in the water. Everything smelled rich, fragrant, overflowing. The top of her blouse was damp and clinging slightly, see-through like wet tissue. He liked to watch his wife. Also, he wished she would be quiet. He wished he could watch her in pure, perfect silence, like a film. Words ruined everything, even her elegance, but what did it matter? Her elegance was out of place here.
THE EVENING CAME together around him as it always did. A well-set table. A decent meal. An attractive woman to serve it to him. A moody but basically well-behaved girl, loving, sharp-witted, and darkly beautiful. Not a fancy house but good enough to keep the cold out. Not a fancy dinner but filling. What was so bad about all this? What was insufficient? He interrogated himself at times. So Jews were being murdered in Rumania. What was that to him? He tried to push it away but something always drew it back. A feeling he couldn't shake, a feeling that he wasn't really outside it, wasn't exempt. He'd been seeing Shayke more and more. This apparition that came when he failed to sleep.
Irene and Judith sat on either side of him now. Judith was wearing a yellow dress with a black bow along the collar, a watch with false pearls on the band. Her lashes were thick and sticky black. Her hair long with a dark wedge of bangs. Not to his taste but pretty, so pretty these days. She could be on a magazine cover if she would ever smile.
"Stop staring at me," she said.
"Staring? I was chewing."
"Do I have something on my face?"
"I was thinking how beautiful you are, if you must know. Next time I'll keep my compliments to myself."
"Don't sulk. I'm only joking."
"I like to look at my daughter's pretty face. Es tut dir vey? Am I hurting you? Is that a crime?" He was asking his wife.
"Do it without discussing it," said Irene. "No one likes to be gawked at. Besides, she has to lose five pounds before the wedding. Too many compliments will sap her willpower."
"My willpower's fine, thank you."
"Did you follow up with Max Hoffman about the ketubah?" Irene said.
"Since you asked me ten minutes ago, no."
Abe stopped listening. He'd stopped following the details of Judith's engagement. It only took a few seconds for his eyes to glaze. Irene and Judith yammered as they passed the dishes. Meat drippings and margarine and soft-boiled vegetables were pushed to the edges of the plates. Water was sipped. Salt and pepper shaken. The windows were faintly fogged from all the cooking. Bread was buttered. Glasses refilled. Meat stabbed. Sauce sopped. The neighbor was mowing the lawn. He could smell it through the window. The sweetness of the grass took his appetite away.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Houseguest"
Copyright © 2016 Kim Brooks.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Fire,
I. The Arrival,
II. The Lake,
III. The Hotel Utica,
IV. The Departure,
Epilogue: The Station,