S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 May 1, 1954: 28-36

On a grim and forbidding February day not long ago, at the end of a day's work, I lay down on the couch in my room to take a nap. It was late Saturday afternoon. My older brother had died a short time before, after a long and harrowing illness. Presently I was dreaming of him; there he was—alive, vital, casual. I cautioned myself against taking too seriously his seeming to be alive, because I knew that in dreams the dead often appear as the living, and I suspected that I was dreaming. However, the apparition of my brother persisted so naturally that I finally began to take sombre reassurance from what appeared to be the evidence of my senses. Gradually, I began to wonder why I had succumbed to the illusion, to the unfounded rumor, of my brother's death. There we were—both young and happy and living on Providence Street, in Worcester, Massachusetts. My brother was in Yale, and he was wearing the cream-colored cap with a blue "Y" on the visor that he affected during his summer holidays. This sartorial detail, which I knew to be historically accurate, snapped for me the last clinging spider web of skepticism about his being alive. I then accepted the fact joyously, with immense relief and with a kind of defiant challenge to those unseen malevolent rumormongers who had spread about the false report of his death. I even repeated the rumor to my brother, and he laughed good-naturedly and flexed his forearm as an assertion of life.

After that, it was all cozy. I saw him after a return from an afternoon's canoeing on Lake Quinsigamond. I heard him make a speech of acceptance when he was elected president of the Maccabees, a social club that had its headquarters next door to our tenement on Providence Street. It was the Fourth of July, and the Maccabees' yard was festooned with colored Japanese lanterns. I heard him say in conclusion, "And I shall fulfill this office to the best of my knowledge and ability." I had heard many such speeches and they all ended with this sentence, but there was a special inflection of confidence in my brother's voice and it made me proud of him. The evidence, the living evidence, that my brother was not dead but alive mounted and mounted, routing that unseen rogues' gallery of skeptics, of whose dissidence I was still dimly aware in some submargin of consciousness. It was a really lovely summer—a soft, eternal summer. Still, it merged into fall (further evidence that this was reality, not dream), and it came time for my brother to go back to New Haven. These departures were occasions. My brother was very popular, and all his crowd and a few small fry like myself used to go down to the old Union Station to see him off. We did so now, and the train came in from Boston, and my brother stood on the steps of one of the cars, laughing and talking and giving as good as he got in reply to the teasing jokes of those few among his friends who were Harvard men. (One could really not ask for more corroborative detail!) I was very happy, very proud, to have a brother who was doing well at Yale and who now promised to come back to Worcester and take me to the big football game when Yale played Holy Cross.

Then, suddenly, the halcyon moment was chilled and blighted with fear, for in the happy, laughing crowd wishing my brother Godspeed was his best friend and my best friend, Willie Lavin. This was dreadful. This destroyed everything. For I knew that Willie was dead. Willie was the best friend I have ever had, and his death many years ago was the greatest loss I had ever suffered. And yet there he was, laughing and joking and seeing my brother off as he had done so many times when he was alive. The sight of Willie there paralyzed me. With the wild logic of dreams, I felt the whole structure of evidence supporting my belief that my brother had not died crumbling into dust. Another awful thing happened that was scarcely natural. The moment after I saw Willie, the train pulled out of the station, leaving my brother there, suspended in midair, unsupported by the car steps. Finding himself this way, his smile vanished. He looked bewildered suddenly—sad and anxious. I cried out to him. The sound of my voice roused me and broke off my dream.

I found that I had a terrible thirst, but I could not have been more than half awake, for I reached for one of the brass knobs that used to crown the iron posts at the head of the bed I slept in when I was a child. At the same time, my lips formed some words that bewildered me; they were familiar, but for the moment their meaning eluded me. The words were "I must have a little glass of warmth," and I kept repeating them. For a moment, lying there between sleep and waking, I thought that this strange phrase was something uttered by one of the phantoms in my dream, or something I had been saying to one of these phantoms while I was asleep. All the dream people had vanished; the only thing that remained was the vision of my brother's face, disembodied, suspended, and with an expression, already beginning to fade, that was tense and awkward, and anxious. I was similarly suspended, but between dream and reality, and I felt an agonizing pain of nonentity and a gasping reach for orientation in time and in space. The brass knob was not there. The objects in the room were unfamiliar, and I did not know whether it was still the Saturday afternoon when I had fallen asleep or whether I was waking up the following morning after sleeping through the night. Then I saw that I was dressed, so I knew it could not be morning. Everything was in recession and I was grasping vainly for a foothold on a nonexistent surface. The only reality was my painful thirst and the overwhelming wish to slake it with a little glass of warmth.

With agonizing difficulty, the fixed points in my present room were slowly recaptured, and I knew what had happened: I had lain down for a nap on a Saturday afternoon in New York City, far away from Providence Street and the Union Station, in Worcester. Still, when everything in the dream was gone and I knew that what had taken place in the station was now only the memory of a dream, my waking words persisted, in a kind of reiterated cadence—the whispered cry for "a little glass of warmth." For a long time I lay wondering about these odd words. And then in a flash I remembered exactly what they were, what they meant, and where they came from.

When I was a child, the Sabbath on the Hill, as we used to call the steep incline of Providence Street, was characterized by somnolent piety. It began at sundown on Friday and ended at sunset on Saturday. There were synagogue services Friday evening, Saturday morning, and early Saturday evening. Friday afternoons, my father used to take me to a public, ritual bathhouse—a mikvah—which had a steam room, an attendant with a besom, and a tiny pool for lustral immersion—the symbol of the special cleansing required for the Sabbath day. The synagogue we attended was directly across the street from our flat, so it was especially convenient in inclement weather. These twenty-four hours theoretically, and in our house, as far as one could tell, even actually, belonged entirely to God. It was forbidden, for example, not only to touch money but to talk about it. It was forbidden to make a flame, so the gaslight fixtures had to be turned on early Friday evening, and enough coal put in the kitchen stove so that the fire would last till Saturday night. It was forbidden to carry bundles, to write a letter, to ride in any vehicle. When my pals on the Hill and I grew old enough to sniff emancipation, we used to walk boldly downtown to Main Street on Saturday mornings and ride up and down in the elevators of the Slater Building just for a fling at the illicit. Since the liftman demanded an objective before he would take us up, we learned to look up the names of the august Worcester law firms in the lobby directory, and arbitrarily we gave our business to one or another of them.

As I probed painfully for the origin of the long-lost phrase that I found myself repeating this particular Saturday afternoon, I thought of Saturdays in Worcester, and I suddenly recalled a scene that had taken place when I was very young—a snow scene. I couldn't have been more than six or seven, and it happened after the substantial Sabbath midday meal in our flat on Providence Street. As I look back on it, it was an oddity of our lives that in spite of the fact that we were very poor, there was always enough to eat. Though my father never, even by Providence Street standards, made a living, we always lived, and on the Sabbath our meals were always particularly good. To this day, I don't know exactly how it was managed. My oldest brother went to work very young, and I suppose the better-off relatives—especially my uncles—helped out from time to time. For a while, my father kept a small grocery store on Winter Street—it was his only business venture—and I imagine that during that time we ate the inventory. Perhaps this accounted for the early failure of the enterprise.

Thus, in my snow scene, my mother, her sister, and my grandmother sat in the kitchen near the stove after that good meal, gossiping—I hope piously. My grandmother lived with my aunt downstairs from us, and on Saturday afternoons my aunt would bring the old lady up for a visit. A rocking chair would be pulled into the kitchen for my grandmother, and she would be given the place of honor next to the stove. That day, my father was having his Sabbatical nap in the next room. Outside, a soft, silent, wet snow was falling; it had already gathered on the window sills, so that the lower parts of the panes were covered. Above were fir-tree configurations of frost, and on the inside of the panes a thin film of ice had formed, on which I was etching matching configurations with my thumbnail. The women spoke in low tones, because it was the Sabbath and in order not to wake my father; their voices made the murmur of a little stream running over pebbles, and there was a continuing sound from the stove, too—a kind of modulated, unhurried Sabbatical hum. The room was a little pocket of warmth, communion, and safety in a world of softly falling stars of snow. My improvisations on the frosty windowpanes grew in ingenuity and grace, and my thumbnail left a furrow of ice filings behind it, like the wake of a miniature snowplow.

This peace was broken into harshly by a cry, with the quality of terror in it, from the next room. My grandmother went on rocking. "He's had a bad dream," she said placidly, out of her vast experience.

My mother rose at once and went automatically to the teakettle simmering on the stove.

The desperate appeal from the next room was repeated; the words were "Ein glaesele warems!"

By this time, my mother had poured a glassful of tea, and I followed her as she carried it into my father's room. My father was lying fully dressed on his bed. He was very dark in complexion and wore a full black beard; he looked, normally, like a benevolent Saracen, but that day, as he lay there on the bed, his face was grayish. His lips were muttering the Hebrew words that meant "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." This prayer, I was to learn later, was uttered in extremity, by the dying. My mother gave him the tea and he drank it greedily.

I became accustomed to hearing my father wake up from his Saturday-after-noon naps with a demand, sometimes casual and sometimes, as on this occasion, terrified, for ein glaesele warems. Later, I made my own literal translation of the Yiddish words—"a little glass of warmth." I even used to make fun of this strange expression, and repeated it, ridiculing it, to those of my playmates who were unfamiliar with it. We used, in parody, to invite each other in for ice-cream sodas at Pop Webster's with the elegant mock-ritual question "A little glass of cold?" This symbolized the aeons we had travelled beyond the comical rigmarole of our elders! We need not have been so contemptuous. The analogy so often made, especially in verse, between sleep and death is a false one; our little life is not rounded with a sleep, since it must be a characteristic of death that it is dreamless. I echoed, on my own awakening that February afternoon so short a time ago, not only my father's words but his desperation. He must have been lost in the phantasmal jungles (reanimating what dead of his own? ), and his cry for the little glass of warmth symbolized the desire of all of us to break off the winding filaments of the nightmares that bedevil us and find a foothold on the tiny, lit plateau, incessantly eroded by time, that is everyone's fragment of reality.

It was an early perplexity of mine that my father, a godly man, who believed completely in the immortality of the soul, should be so obsessed by the fear of death. He indulged in funerary fantasies (supported, he said, by ancient Hebrew texts) of the lacerating pains to which the body was subject after death. For him, evidently, the immortality of the soul was accompanied by a persistence of corporeal sensibility. I have heard quoted these words of another sage: "Where life is, death is not; where death is, life is not." But this was not at all my father's idea. For him there was no such dichotomy. The security of his belief in immortality was threaded with lurid visions of continuing expiatory pains after death for the lapses of his lifetime; it was an immortality of guilt. There was nothing jolly or comforting in this concept, no hope of joyful reunion with lost loved ones, no atmosphere of club night. It was an immortality of loneliness, each soul with its personal account to settle, and no borrowing to tide one over.

As I grew older, the perplexities multiplied. I wondered how my father, living, as he did, under a canopy of faith as wide as eternity, could permit the constant obtrusion of petty civil war within our house. I wondered, too, how there could be quarrels within the portals of the house of God across the street. I never in the least understood the relationship between my father and my mother. My mother was quiet, my father darkly voluble. My mother's pietism was passive, my father's the active core of his life. My mother stood in worshipful awe of my father's book learning. She herself was not expected to know; it was taken for granted that she would be ignorant forever. Indeed, for her to be learned, or even knowledgeable, would have constituted a kind of solecism, a violation of good manners. Their relationship, as far as I could tell, was curiously impersonal. Both of them were tenderhearted and loving people, but there was never any manifestation of love between them; their tenderness was all lavished on their children. For my mother, it must have been like living with a priest of the Delphic mysteries to whom she could never hope to be more than an acolyte. She was relegated, by common consent, to a comfortable and, I suspect, not uncozy darkness. They had been married before they emigrated to this country. But what was their life before then? How did they meet, how woo? (I asked them once, but the inquiry was considered frivolous.) I don't ever remember hearing my parents converse, and they never even chatted. My father would expound on law and ritual, my mother would listen, Most of the time my father was buried in his religious books, and my mother recognized it as her function to keep this communion undisturbed; she was like the wife of an artist who is engaged in creating a masterpiece and whose concentration she must incessantly strive to protect. And yet their relationship cannot have been as neutral as it appeared, because it was harshly broken into from time to time by fierce quarrels. I was never present at one of these quarrels, but I overheard them from another room. I cannot remember what they were about, but I remember their intensity. My mother would say very little; indeed, she would be almost completely silent except that she cried, softly. My father's voice would rise higher and higher in uncontrollable fury, and then there would be a tinkling crash as a glass or a cup shivered on the table—at the point, evidently, where his vocabulary proved inadequate to his grievance. Such quarrels were infrequent but shattering; for days after one of them, my mother would be sad as well as silent, and my father, when he returned to his studies, which he always did immediately, would have a smoldering look as he bent over his books, as if he were churned up still with resentment at the untoward interruption, caused by some fallibility in my mother, of his toiling search for salvation.

These quarrels, rare though they were, caused me intense pain. They were also confusing. I wondered how my father, so patently occupied with the eternal, could permit himself to be so roiled by the temporal. I once spoke to my mother about this, a week or so after one of these outbursts. My mother was defensive, and, as usual, laconic. "Your father," she said simply, "is a kaissen" a fierce-tempered man. She let it go at that; she would have considered it unreasonable to expect a kaissen to coo like a dove when he was irritated.

The coup d’état at the Providence Street Synagogue was even more bewildering than the quarrels at home. It concerned the inauguration of a new rabbi, who had been duly elected and whose name was Silver. From the start, the proposal of Rabbi Silver for this post was the cause of a bitter feud among the members of the congregation. The dissenting faction was headed by my Uncle Harry. He was my mother's brother, and his devotion to my father, whose learning he revered, amounted to worship. He was himself unlearned, but he knew erudition when he met it. Some time before this, my Uncle Harry had made a tremendous short cut to a vast sea of learning when he married Ida, the daughter of the Ramaz, who was a world-famous rabbi. One of the first things Harry did after he achieved this fabulous coup was to arrange a meeting between the Ramaz and my father. After he had introduced the two men, he left them alone in his fiat, modestly aware of his unworthiness to be present at a communion between two such cognoscenti. I remember hearing my older brothers tell of Uncle Harry's glowing, breathless entrance into our flat to report on the results of the meeting. A big, blond man, he was perspiring with triumph. "The Ramaz says your father is a kenner [a learned man]," he blurted out ecstatically, as if he were announcing a Nobel Prize. Moreover, Harry was manifestly relieved at having his own opinion of my father, which had been based on instinct rather than scholarship, confirmed by an authority that was unimpeachable.

Uncle Harry's bitterness against Rabbi Silver was due to the simple fact that the Rabbi, within Harry's hearing, had made a slighting remark about my father, casting doubt on his eminence as a Talmudist. Perhaps Rabbi Silver, humanly enough, slightly resented my father's reputation on the Hill, and felt that it encroached unduly on his own domain. But my Uncle Harry was no mean kaissen on his own account, and when he heard this disparaging remark he saw red. He made a solemn vow. "You will never become Rabbi of the Providence Street Synagogue," he told the candidate. Nevertheless, Rabbi Silver was elected. Uncle Harry defied the democratic process. When the day came for Rabbi Silver to be inducted, Harry, with a loyal cohort of adherents, forcibly barred his entrance into the synagogue. The rebel squad was compactly organized, and the Silver men retired, taking the new Rabbi with them. Uncle Harry repeated his vow that Rabbi Silver would never enter the synagogue. This impossible situation was resolved by my father, who persuaded Uncle Harry to withdraw his opposition. He realized that Harry's personal honor was involved; with a certain humor, he pointed out to Harry that since he (my father) had been given a kosher tzettl, or certificate of purity, by the great Ramaz, Harry could afford to ignore the cavillings of lesser lights. Harry saw the point and rested on his oars. Later, my father and Rabbi Silver became firm friends. But the feud was a whirlpool while it lasted, and it increased my perplexity about the relations between man and God; to me they seemed needlessly edgy.

My father was extraordinarily sensitive to the feelings of other people and was constantly on guard against hurting them. This may have been the result of his own persecution complex, brought with him from Poland, where he had lived under the shadow of a blood feud reaching back into the dim corridors of time. He lived his entire life as if in ambush, perpetually under the shadow of ancestral massacre. All sensitiveness, at bottom, is an intimation of pain and of fear, for oneself or for others—a shrinking from the bruise, and an awareness of transitoriness. It was because of this delicacy of feeling in my father that his occasional outbursts at my mother shocked and bewildered me. They were out of character. I remember that once, in a gathering of some of his friends at our house, my father was greatly put out with my Uncle Harry, who boasted of the virtues and of the promise of his children to a man whose tragedy was that he was childless. After the man left, my father chided Uncle Harry for his thoughtlessness. My uncle understood and was contrite. Having made his point, my father then told Harry that his lapse was human and natural. Thus restored to pride, Harry went on to explain to my father—who was not childless—how difficult it was to be secretive about children as remarkable as his own.

My father's small grocery store on Winter Street was a frail enterprise at best, and my planned and persistent thefts from its stock must have hastened its demise. What I stole were the little pictures of celebrities that came in the packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes. I was shortsighted and had to wear glasses very early. The glasses were always getting broken, and each lens cost seventy-five cents to replace. It got to be an agony to me to report at home that I had again broken my glasses. Simultaneously, I discovered that complete sets of the Sweet Caporal pictures had a market value; the more opulent among my pals on the Hill would pay cash for them. One day, in a crisis of guilt over breaking a lens that had been replaced only the week before, I desperately conceived the notion of stealing some of these cigarette pictures and selling them, so that I could get the repairs made myself and would not have to tell my father about the new disaster. It worked. I must have opened five dollars' worth of packs of cigarettes to get enough pictures for the seventy-five cents I needed. That was the first time; after that I took to filching the pictures out of general acquisitiveness. It was a simple operation, because Sweet Caps came in cardboard packs, which in turn were inserted into cardboard shells. I had only to slide a pack out of the shell, remove the work of art, and slide the pack back again. The excise stamps luckily did not seal the opening, as they now do, but were pasted on the back of the package. Every once in a while, my father would leave me to mind the store. One day he came back sooner than I had expected and caught me red-handed in this criminal activity. Before me on the counter were the raped packages, and in my hand a half-dozen colored prints of famous contemporary prizefighters, wearing shorts and crouched in belligerent attitudes. I was terrified. I expected the worst. Greatly to my surprise, my father was sad rather than angry. He was so gentle that I felt awful; it would have been much better for me if he had lost his temper and got it over with. He questioned me and I told him about the broken glasses. He reproached me for not telling him; he would have managed to find the money to repair them. But how could he—or I—repair the sin of my having broken one of the Ten Commandments? The Ten Commandments were his personal code, and ever since I could remember, he had patiently expounded them to me. What failure was it in him that rendered his teaching so ineffectual? He was disconsolate.

Then his eyes fell on the pictures. "Who are these people?" he asked. This diversion of interest proved to be a stroke of luck for me. It was fortunate for me that the photographs were not, as they so easily might have been, of admirals or actors or generals. That I was collecting prizefighters added acutely to my father's unhappiness; it compounded the original sin, but at least it distracted him from that sin. The broken Commandment was forgotten, and he now attacked me for my choice of heroes; he set out to deracinate a mistaken ideal. I was so relieved to be fighting on more defensible ground that I expressed an enthusiasm for these giants that I did not feel. My father got really excited; he saw that he had much work to do. Prizefighters! Only recently, in the Yiddish paper from New York, he had read that a prizefighter had died from injuries received in the ring. My father had shifted his ground from "Thou shalt not steal" to "Thou shalt not kill." These mercenaries, he said, shoving aside the pictures with loathing, kill for money. Killing and mutilation were in their hearts as well as in the hearts of the spectators. I gathered that my father would have forgiven me on the spot had these little pictures been of men of good will—of Spinoza, say, and the Rambam. (Rambam was the affectionate nickname for Maimonides, based on the ancient doctor's initials.) But the Sweet Caporal people had not—up to then, at least—hit on the idea of using my father's cherished worthies as subjects for their come-ons, and I was stuck with Jack Johnson and Joe Choynski. My feeble defense of these wonderful physical specimens deepened my father's wrath. He warmed to his theme; he invoked, as was inevitable, our slaughtered ancestors—his and mine. How could I, whose forebears had suffered so from violence, honor as heroes those who made a profession of violence Would I, he shouted at me, condone murder? On this point I would not commit myself; by my silence I allowed him to think that I might. I preferred being accused of a crime I had not committed to standing sentence for the one I had; I repeated my stupid defense of Jack and Joe as practitioners of a manly art. From this point on, my father took me for a potential murderer and mobilized all his resources toward averting the dread actuality. He picked up one of the hated pictures and tapped it gingerly with his finger. "Thou shalt not kill," he adjured me solemnly. He was carried away, as if struck for the first time—and maybe he was—by the amazing revolutionary quality of the concept behind this prohibition, which had been enunciated first by one of his ancestors. For the moment, he stopped sharing ancestors with me!) He expounded on what a remarkable feat of the imagination it was, and what courage it must have taken, to make such a heterodox pronouncement in a time when killing was accepted social behavior. Conscious of having had a very narrow escape, I promised faithfully to renounce murder and to forswear prizefighting forever. And, indeed, I have, as far as I know, kept these promises to my father. I have certainly, to this day, never seen a prizefight. On that critical morning, my father scotched whatever taste I might have developed for pugilism.

There were other feuds—contemporary as well as ancient ones—to add to my perplexities. One of these was of such searing intensity that the scars it left have not, after fifty years, entirely healed. I was astonished to learn not long ago that because I had confessed to having loving memories of a certain Providence Street girl, a very old friend of mine had expressed considerable bitterness; it had wounded him that I had apparently forgiven this girl for a crime that in my eyes she had certainly never committed. Providence Street youth, en masse, was in love with Myra Ellender—or so I shall call her—just as Oxford youth was with Zuleika Dobson, although there all resemblance ceased. Myra was a contemporary of the younger of my two older brothers, and he was in love with her, too.

Among the many suitors who came in quest of Myra were the two Eisner boys, Dan and Aaron, the eldest sons of a large and fairly prosperous Providence Street family. The younger, Aaron, was a poet; at least, he wrote verse. Aaron was inclined to be secretive about his poetic vocation; he would show his verses to no one except Myra, who adored them. Aaron's reticence about his poems dated from the time when an English teacher in the Classical High School wrote in the margin of one of them, in red pencil, "Fine feeling—conventional imagery." Like so many prone to art, Aaron ignored the compliment and brooded over the animadversion. Myra, to whom most of Aaron's poems were dedicated, did not find the imagery conventional; she thought it wonderful. "Aaron is a poet!" she would say flatly in defense of him, implying that this was more than sufficient compensation for his deficiencies as a dancer, sportsman, and general good fellow. Aaron was dark, silent, withdrawn, and melancholy; Dan was red-headed, gay, vivacious, and very popular—that is, until Myra began to show a marked preference for him. Then his rivals began to discover the reverse side of his qualities, and they began to wonder whether his gaiety was not an indication of superficiality, and his good-fellowship somewhat artificial. Myra spent a great deal of time with Aaron; she was the confidante of all his dreams. She was in ecstasy over his poems and was flattered that they were dedicated to her. But when it came to the point, she chose Dan.

Aaron was not the only one to suffer because of her choice. Willie Lavin did, too. Of all my brothers' friends, Willie was the one my father esteemed most highly. Had Willie lived "at home," my father used to say, he would surely have become a gaon, or genius. By this he meant that if Willie had been born and brought up in the Lithuanian village his parents came from, he would naturally have devoted himself to theological studies and, because of the subtlety and inquisitiveness of his mind, become eminent in them. At the time, Willie was majoring in chemistry at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and doing brilliantly in it. My father had no objection to chemistry; he thought it was all right as far as it went, but he resented its presumption in displacing what should be everyone's major preoccupation—to get a sure footing on the complicated and thorny approach to God. In spite of this, Willie and my father were great friends; they used to have prolonged discussions on abstract philosophical questions in the evenings in our kitchen, to which I listened from my bedroom next door.

One day, Willie brought to my father a dilemma that was not in the metaphysical realm at all but uncomfortably close to home. It concerned Myra, whose marriage to Dan Eisner was only a few weeks off. Willie, as well as my brother, had been in love with Myra. Both of them had chafed when Myra made her choice but had accepted the inevitable with what good grace they could muster. Now Willie felt that he had to impart to my father a devastating fact about Dan, which had been confided to him—in violation of professional ethics—by his friend Dr. Nightingale. Jim Nightingale was the family physician of most of us on Providence Street, and he and Willie had a special friendship, founded on the rock of science. A few evenings before, Willie had dropped into Jim's office for a chat about chemistry. The phone rang and Willie heard Jim talking to Dan, inquiring how he felt and asking him to come in in the morning. After Jim hung up, Willie asked him whether Dan had been ill. Jim said casually that Dan had diabetes and had not much more than two years to live. Willie was overcome. "How can that be when he is marrying Myra in a month?" he asked. "Marriage," said Jim jocularly, "is no cure for diabetes!" Jim seemed anxious to return to chemistry, but Willie was so appalled by the implications of Jim's prophecy that he could not drop the subject. "Shouldn't Myra be told?" he asked. "I told Dan he ought to tell her," said Jim, "but if he doesn't want to, that's his business. Don't worry about Myra. She'll be an attractive widow!"

Lying in my bed in the next room, supposedly asleep, I overheard Willie repeating this conversation to my father. When Willie had finished, there was a long silence. Finally, I heard Willie say—and his voice was somewhat tremulous—"Well, Reb Yosel, don't you think we ought to do something?" Still my father said nothing. Willie took the plunge. "Don't you think we ought to tell Myra?" he said.

There was another silence. At last my father spoke: "With what motive, my son?"

I had never heard my father address Willie in this way before. He usually addressed him by the affectionate nickname of "Velvel." Why, I wondered, does he now refer to him as his son when Willie is not his son?

There was no answer from Willie. I felt that my father's question had probed some delicate concealed membrane of emotion. After a moment, my father repeated the question. "With what motive, my son?"

Willie's voice, when he answered, had risen in pitch. "Don't you think we ought to do something to prevent such a tragedy?" he asked.

"Is Dr. Nightingale, then, omniscient?" said my father.

"He knows Dan has got diabetes," said Willie stubbornly. "He knows he'll be dead within two years."

"Can he peer into the future? Is he God? What if, in those two years, some specific is discovered that may cure Dan? What if, through divine intervention, he gets better? Look into your heart, my son. Is it to avert tragedy that you wish to tell Myra this or for some other, less disinterested reason?"

I began to apprehend, dimly, what my father meant. So did Willie. He defended himself stoutly. "Don't you think we ought to save her from early widowhood? A beautiful young girl . . ." His voice trailed off.

"In any case," said my father dryly, "she will not be a widow long. Is not Aaron in love with Myra? If this happens, Aaron will have the right to marry her. He will marry her, unless he and his family decide to give her a halitzah, which I very much doubt they will. You know this law, my son?"

Willie may have known, but I did not know. It was the first time I had ever heard that strange word. I have found out since that more than a hundred and fifty pages of my father's Talmud were devoted to the exposition of this law.

Meanwhile, my brother had come in from his nightly work in Willie's father's store. Apparently he had already heard from Willie the news about Dan's health and now he barged head on into the argument. "It's true Willie and I are both interested in Myra," he said. "But that's not why we want to tell her. We want to tell her for her own sake. If, as you say, after Dan's death she'll have to marry Aaron, it's all the more reason to tell her. She doesn't like Aaron!"

"She has told me often she loves Aaron," said my father.

"Not that way," said my brother bluntly.

There was a silence, and I could imagine my father appraising both of them. "Look into your hearts," I heard him say finally. "Do not take on the prerogatives of God."

Evidently neither Willie nor my brother cared to look into their hearts at that particular moment.

"Let's go down the line for a soda," said Willie.

"Fine," said my brother, as if greatly relieved to have even a brief postponement of divine responsibility. I heard the door slam after them as they went out.

I lay for a long time trying to unravel the mystery of what I had overheard. Dan was to die. How could this be? I had seen him only a few days before on the Providence Street trolley and he had greeted me cheerfully. He had looked trim and natty. Dan was a careful dresser; his beautifully knotted tie bulged just enough between the margins of his high, stiff linen collar—the sort of collar often seen at that period in the color lithographs of John Drew on the theatre posters announcing the actor's arrival at the Worcester Theatre. John Drew was generally acknowledged to be "the best-dressed man in America." How could one predict death so calmly in relation to a man dressed Like that? Did Dan know? If he knew, how could he take so much trouble about knotting his tie? If he knew, if Dr. Nightingale had told him, why didn't he take measures against the dread invader, as I was doing even now? My hand reached instinctively for the brass knob at the top of the iron bedpost and closed compulsively around it—my usual childish gesture of clinging tightly to the terrestrial during my frequent night fantasies of the approach of death. From the kitchen, as I fell asleep, I heard the familiar drowsy creaking of the floor boards as my father paced the room intoning his nightly prayers: ". . . and may the Angel Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel on my left; before me, Uriel; behind me, Raphael; and over my head the divine presence of God."

In the second year of his marriage to Myra, Dan did die. It was before the discovery of insulin. Almost from the day of Dan's death, even we children became aware of a whorl of dispute between the two families—Dan's and Myra's. I have said that the virulence of this controversy was so scarifying that at least one of the participants was still exercised about it nearly half a century later and bore me a grudge for speaking warmly of Myra. I myself recalled it unexpectedly one night in Weld Hall, at Harvard, some fifteen years after Dan's death. I was enrolled in a writing course called English 12, which was taught by a famous Harvard figure, Charles Townsend Copeland. Copey, something of an eccentric, gave us only one assignment for homework—to read a chapter of the King James Version of the Bible every night before going to bed. He fondly hoped that this would help us form a style. For a time, at least, I conscientiously followed his instruction. One winter night, I was drowsily absorbing style from the Book of Ruth. Suddenly I sat up straight in bed, flicked by the whip of recognition. I was deep in the autumnal romance of Ruth and Boaz (the wealthy landowner who was a relative of Ruth's late husband), and had reached the point where Boaz finally knows his own mind and decides to marry Ruth. There is a quite intricate inheritance situation, involving the land of Elimelech (Ruth's dead father-in-law), which his widow, Naomi, had inherited, and there is a secondary story, involving an even nearer kinsman of Ruth's late husband than Boaz; this kinsman, apparently, is next in line both to redeem the property and to marry Ruth. But he is cagey. Boaz has decided that Ruth is the girl of his dreams. Absorbed in all this, I read:

Then said Boaz, What day thou buyest the field of the hand of Naomi, thou must buy it also of Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.

And the kinsman said, I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance: redeem thou my right to thyself; for I cannot redeem it.

Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel.

Therefore the kinsman said unto Boa; Buy it for thee. So he drew off his shoe.

The shoe stopped me; the shoe made me sit bolt upright in bed. Where, formerly, had I encountered this shoe? What was it about the shoe?

I read on:

Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day.

I forgot completely that I was reading for style. I felt intimately, though enigmatically, concerned. It was as if this ancient and bizarre romance were a contemporary mystery to which an essential clue was maddeningly eluding me. Hadn't I, sometime long ago, overheard a conversation involving this very situation? Didn't I know—hadn't I heard—something about the ceremony of the shoe? Hadn't there been a terrible fight over it? And what was the fight about?

I couldn't stand it. I got up, put on my bathrobe, and went into the hall to put in a call to Willie, in Worcester. Willie knew all about it. Willie told me.

After Dan died, Aaron stepped forward to claim Myra. According to the ancient Jewish law, the widow of a son with a surviving brother cannot marry anyone but that brother unless she gets from the brother a halitzah, or release. One of the symbols in the ceremony is the removal of the brother's shoe by the widow, if her husband has died childless; by this gesture, the brother is released from the obligation of marrying her, and she becomes free to marry whomever she desires. ("Halitzah" means literally "taking off," "untying.") But in Myra's case, Willie told me, Aaron did not want to be released. He wanted terribly to marry Myra. She had always said she loved him and his poetry; to be sure, he was no longer a poet, having given up his versifying for the law, yet he had never wavered in his love. He could understand her having impulsively succumbed to his older brother's dash, but his brother was dead, and surely now Myra would marry him.

Myra wouldn't. She loved him as she always had; Aaron was very dear to her, but she would not marry him. Aaron's father, a choleric man—an uncontrollable kaissen, in fact—and the whole family were in an uproar. If Myra wouldn't marry Aaron, they would support him in refusing to give her a halitzah, which meant that, according to the Talmudic law, she couldn't marry anyone else. It was a terrible time, Willie said. The Eisners were, by Providence Street standards, a powerful family. Eisner père was a proud, arrogant man. He had an overdeveloped patriarchal sense, and of his seven children four were unfortunately daughters, who could not be expected to perpetuate his name. Aaron was his second son, and the third was only seven years old at the time of Dan's death. Frustrated in everything so far—in poetry and in love—Aaron became embittered by Myra's second refusal. He insisted on his rights. In the absence of a formal religious court, he came to see my father, who had a kind of quasi-judicial authority in the community as a learned man, and who was also a friend of his family, to ask him to persuade Myra to obey the letter of the Hebrew law.

Unexpectedly, my father pleaded with Aaron not to insist on his prerogative. He had talked to Myra, who wept and told him that although she adored Aaron—the manuscripts of his poems, she said, were still her most cherished possessions she could not bring herself to marry him. My father asked Aaron to disregard the letter of the law—to be magnanimous. Aaron, melancholy and withdrawn, said nothing. He went home and told his father, who flew into a towering rage against mine. (It was the start of a feud between the two men that was never healed in the lifetime of either, and smolders, as I have indicated, even yet.)

Willie told me, too, that night, how he and my brother had shamelessly encouraged Myra in her recalcitrance. Myra's father was a religious man; he shuddered at the thought of his daughter's defying the law. But Myra held out. So did the Eisners. They would not let Aaron give a halitzah, and thus they condemned Myra to lifelong widowhood. For two years, Myra lived on in this dreadful suspended state, during which time she went out with Aaron, my brother, and Willie. Then, suddenly, Myra did a shattering thing—performed a feat of emancipation compared to which Nora's exit from the Doll's House was a peaceful stroll in the country. She lightly threw over centuries of tradition, snipped the Gordian knot of legal entanglement, and married a lace salesman from Albany, leaving Willie and my brother to console each other for the second time.

After my long telephone conversation with Willie, I went back to my room and got back into bed. But I couldn't, somehow, pick up with Ruth where I had left off; she was still waiting there for her kinsman to take his shoe off—just as Myra had waited, ten years before on Providence Street, and waited in vain. I reflected, though, on the bizarre histories of Ruth and Myra; Boaz had been so much luckier than Aaron. I thought with feeling of poor Aaron, sadly pleading his hopeless cause, and tried to reconstruct in my mind the scenes of his wooing, his interview with my father, and his inability, so bogged down was he in love, to take a high line. Oddly enough, Aaron died, too, several years after his rejection by Myra, and the patriarchal Eisner was unable to avert the fate that he dreaded most of all; he went to his grave with his name unperpetuated—in the words of the Book of Ruth, with the name of his dead "cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place...."

From that night in Weld Hall, in Cambridge, in 1915, to the February afternoon in 1953 when I lay down in my apartment in New York to take a nap, Aaron had disappeared for me among the anonymous dead. It remained for a nightmare to resurrect Aaron. Not even when I was told that his only surviving brother, my friend and contemporary, had been angered by a warm reference of mine to Myra in a quite different connection, did I really remember Aaron. He had been so sad and passive and ineffectual. His brother Dan, though, I always remembered vividly. Submerged memories of the dead are like actors waiting for a cue in the wings of the subconscious; the more assertive come on oftener. Even as a ghost, Aaron lacked vivacity and had to take second place to his livelier brother. Perhaps it would have been different had he not died without tasting, however briefly, what, in one way or another, we all reach for—a little glass of warmth.

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