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Authors: Mordecai Richler

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BOOK: The Acrobats
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The headaches are purely imaginary. I’m afraid, Mrs. Bennett, the child is abnormally high-strung.

Oh, doctor, I’m sure it is his artistic background coming out.

 … had seemed like the last explosion, the merciful explosion after which self-destruction would be complete, no more headaches after.

Later, he knew, Juanito would summarise this evening’s exploits for him with a long eloquent harangue apropos of what magnificent idiots were all Americans. Of course, excluding André, who was, after all, a great, great artist. Hadn’t Chaim told them? Didn’t he have the letter from the great Gibbins in his pocket to prove it?

“…   and the canvas discovered by Mr. Fitzpatrick in the Student’s Union,
The Agony
, shows a great and original talent.… more than promising.…

If you will ship us posthaste whatever pictures you have done in Paris, and fill out the enclosed contract authorising Kendell Galleries to act as your agent in New York, I can more than assure you …”

The Canadian artists! Mediocrity draped in the maple leaf! Sonnets by the ageing virgin grand-daughters of Tory tradesmen evoking the memories of rather un-Presbyterian passions, slick paintings by sophisticates with a shrewd eye turned towards New York. Kultchir, ladies! Step right up and get yur goddam Kultchir while it’s real hot! Kultchir as celebrated by imperial favour annually consisting of fifty gold guineas for the horse that wins the King’s Plate and an honorary award for either virgin poetess or pipe-smoking historian-novelist.

So damn their contracts! Paint for whom?

Chaim refilled the glasses.

“You should have seen me, André. It was really so goddam funny. Me, a pale greenhorn with questioning
Yiddish
eyes landed in New York. America, America! I ran away from home and joined a
Yiddish
comedy troupe as a singer of hymns. I left them in St. Louis. I must have been all of sixteen then. Sidecurls, and Old World illusions, clipped and fallen on the blazing asphalt of progress, I wandered like a tramp over the
bullshit of the American wilderness. Salesman, dishwasher, cabbie, jobber. When the depression came I was properly screwed. All the money I had with me went towards buying a plot of earth for my mother and a husband for my sister.”

“But I thought you were in Paris during the depression?”

Chaim shoved a cigar into André’s breast pocket. “Tell me,
boychick,”
he said, fingering André’s lapel contemptuously, “you call that a suit?”

“You told me that story.”

André had shaved. His seedy brown hair was combed flatly back on his head, making him look something of the young fool and something of the well-brought-up young idler. It was this physical proof of his privileged past that failing to absorb and define he hoped to uproot by methodical abuse of his person, by unbuttoned collars and unshined shoes, by hair uncombed and face unshaven. Not knowing that he could not sever himself from his past but instead could absorb it intelligently.

“No. I didn’t leave America until after the death of Rebecca,” Chaim said. “Didn’t I ever tell you about my Rebecca? My God, it’s been more than twenty years now! We worked in the same sweatshop and I was very much in love with her. I won’t bother you with all kinds of details and complications, but at the time I was a very earnest revolutionary. Then one night a comrade who had been thrown out of work said to me: ‘Sometimes, Chaim, I wish I had a machine-gun. Then I would go out and shoot every goddam capitalist who thought that the only way to solve a problem was through war.’ ”

“That has nothing to do with the party.”

“No. But it proved that I wasn’t a revolutionary.”

The band stopped playing. Slowly the sweaty couples cleared the floor, slinking back to their tables unwillingly.

“I loved her very much, André. When she died I returned to the Warsaw ghetto. I read all night and during the day I
repaired shoes. I must be boring the hell out of you. Who wants to listen to an old man’s memories?

“You,” he waggled a finger at him, “can, if you choose, sit up all night and paint, but I am too old. The organism doesn’t respond. When I was your age, death was just a funny story, but now I’m fat and vulnerable and the joke has become a threat.”

“Chaim, they’re going to get you in bits. Five more years and poof! out with the prostate gland.”

Chaim belched loudly. “If you were a Jew I’d tell you where to get off that remark. As it is I have respect for the
Goyim.”

“Talking about the
Goyim,”
André said absently, “do you know anything about the German? The one who’s always in the club.”

“Kraus? His sister is the brains of the family. He’s a pretty dumb bastard himself. Sometimes I give him work smuggling cigarettes from Palma. I like to have him run messages for me. It makes me feel like a Cossack. Why do you ask?”

“He seems to be everywhere I go. Maybe I’m afraid of him?”

Chaim drained his glass, rolling the wine on his tongue. “Don’t get mixed up with him. Keep out of his way.”

Chaim refilled the glasses and André yawned.

The band idled back on stage and began to fiddle with their instruments. The lachrymose pianist, his pin-point eyes way out of focus, giggled foolishly. The bandleader, a gaunt morose-looking man, yanked the cigarette out of his mouth. The others laughed.

“I wish I could paint like you. I mean that.”

“It’s always wrong to kill, isn’t it?” André asked suddenly.

Chaim lit a cigar. “Why did the priests teach that the sun goes around the earth?”

“That’s no answer.”

“You were very ill. You had a bad breakdown, so don’t …”

“Please, Chaim. I’m okay now.”

“Well don’t talk like a
yold
then.”

André swung around on the bar stool to see if he could find Toni.

Chaim plucked the cigar from his lips. “You want another cognac?”

“Okay. But just one.”

A cognac was ordered from Luís.

“The good word, according to our friend Juanito, is that God is dead,” André said. “He also says that the moneychangers have inherited the earth.”

Chaim scratched his balding head and chuckled. “Juanito is a
shmock
. His forte is egoism, women. As a wit he is only a Spaniard.”

“He’s not such a bad guy.”

Chaim waved his arms in the air indicating dismissal. “His father was a great surgeon and a good man,” Chaim said. “His mother came from the aristocracy, but the hard way if you know what I mean. About eight times removed. I guess her mother changed the dressings on Alfonso’s piles. Something like that. Juanito is the butt-end.”

André slapped his thighs and laughed.

“An ignorant man,” Chaim began earnestly, “cherishes another man’s sin because …”

“Don’t be so solemn. This is fiesta! Spain! Music! Do you want them to cancel your B’nai Brith card?”

“Do you want to hear a story about Rabbi Akiba?”

“You’re always telling me stories about Rabbi Akiba or Hillel.”

“But we’re getting places, don’t you see? Without Hillel there couldn’t have been Christ. Without Christ who knows what might have been? Chaos? But that’s what we’ve got now, isn’t it? For hundreds of years men have murdered in the name of Christ. It’s a contradiction, isn’t it? Killing
for
God? Isn’t anything you can kill for bad?”

“Okay,” André said impatiently, “nothing is good.”

“Man is good. He made God. Christ was good too. It’s the Christians that stink! But Christ was proud and that’s why he was crucified. That’s why you’re so melancholy sometimes, because you’re proud. That’s why Moses never got to the Promised Land, because he was proud.

“Judas was good too. You know what really happened? Christ was getting prouder and prouder. He thought he was so good people had to wash his feet when he sat down. Imagine allowing another man to wash your feet! Judas was his best friend. Jesus kept saying over and over again to Judas I’m the Son of God and very holy, God will never let me die. And Judas said like hell you are! Everybody is the Son of God and we all die and return to Him. No, Jesus said, I’m special. Nobody is special before God, Judas said. Not even you! So they made a bet. Jesus said you go tell the Romans where I am and they’ll come to crucify me but in the last moment God won’t let me die because I’m His Son. And Judas wept. We said, you’ll die, Jesus. You’ll die. But Jesus was proud and he insisted. So Judas went. And the Romans came and got Jesus. When Pilate said to the people should I let him go? They said, no! no! And in a way they were right because Jesus was always making them feel guilty and ashamed because they were human instead of godly. So poor Jesus was crucified and he died. And Judas knew that no Son of God was that important. The rest of the story is all fantasy.”

“Oh, that’s just crap, Chaim. You don’t really believe it.”

“Believe it? But the story doesn’t matter. It is the idea of the story that is true and important.”

André thought he saw Toni dancing with the German and he was angry.

“Tell me, André. Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with you kids. You seem to build everything around a circle, and the circle is empty. What do you believe in?”

André laughed shyly. “I guess more than anything else we believe in not believing.”

“But that doesn’t mean anything.”

André frowned. “I feel uneasy,” he said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Toni looks at me sometimes as if she expects me to pop off or be shot any moment. She makes me nervous.”

“Don’t worry. She probably thinks she’s a gypsy. They all do.”

Softly she kissed him on the lips.

He was pleasantly surprised. They had dallied with each other for a bit without him meeting with the coy rebukes that he was so accustomed to. (Secretly he wished André was in the booth so that he might see for himself what a maestro was his friend Juanito.) In a hoarse voice he whispered the classical Spanish endearments which poor Jessie failed to comprehend.

She was embarrassed by the incongruity of his passion.

“Perhaps we should dance?”

“Your lips are poetry and your eyes full of moons of love.”

He embraced her tightly. Long, lingering kiss.

“Spanish men are such great lovers. All the foreign ladies …”

“I’d better go and fix my face before the others get back.”

“Poor, lost Juanito.” He lowered his eyes. “His soul burns with such a love, his heart …”

She kissed him lightly on the forehead, rather like one reprimands a somewhat naughty child, and disappeared through the curtain.

Juanito sulked. Resentfully he watched Barney shove María about the floor. Derek held on to Carmen as if she disgusted him, and he was not even following the music. It is late, Juanito thought. And we haven’t even consumed much champagne with those
crudos
dancing all the time! Barney’s sport jacket fell to the floor and Juanito bent down to pick it up. The wallet fell out.

When had Barney possessed her as a lover? They had made a deal, and that was it. Still, Barney had money, so why force
him into a divorce? She gave her hair one last delicate pat and gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Yes, at thirty-five she still had a fine figure, much more to offer a man than any nasty child of nineteen. She had been wise to insist on only two children.

Perhaps because she detected the first sagging lines of age on her neck she turned sharply away from the mirror.

When she stepped out of the powder room she noticed André idling at the bar. He seemed so intent on something. The admonished child – told No by his parents but not Why. A deep tenderness for him swelled within her. Encouraged by this rare honesty she walked towards him slowly.

“Why didn’t you keep your appointment, André?”

“I don’t like your brother,” he said.

“He’s just a spoilt child. No good perhaps, but harmless all the same.”

She wanted badly to say I want to be kind, I want to be nice – but she didn’t know how to express it.

Jessie wandered through life not experiencing things but accumulating memories. One day she would be old and men would find her body ugly. In preparation for this she was collecting episodes, a book of satisfactions over which she could ruminate when she was no longer a desirable woman. So all happenings were snatched at greedily, double-taken, and not honestly enjoyed. She did not guess that instead of remembering her “memories” she might only be able to recall the unfilled intervals between, the duds, the awful blanks.

“You don’t get along with your family, do you?” she asked.

“No.”

“Are they really wealthy?”

“Very.”

“So was my father. He was a very great man. A banker. He was one of those people who was just too good to live. He died quite suddenly in the early days of the New Deal. We could have faced the bank auditors together if not for my
mother. She made life unbearable for him. And then she was always so fussy about Derek.” She smiled kindly. “I was in Canada once.”

“Did you see any beavers?”

The bar stool he sat on was high. She leaned up against his knees.

“Your buttons are undone.”

“Button them for me.”

He did up the buttons slowly. The feel of her breasts tingled on the backs of his fingers.

“Why don’t you come to New York? Take Barney’s offer of a job.”

“For one thing I haven’t got enough money for a train ticket to Paris.” Guillermo is right, he thought. I am without hope or reason or direction.

“If I ask him he’ll buy you a boat ticket.”

Her voice was still soft, but unsubtle also. An implement studied in the seduction of bored lawyers and doctors with frigid career wives.

Suddenly André burst out laughing. “Hey, you must really clean up in the U.S., eh?”

She giggled. “Will you come?” she asked.

André considered her offer. Back to America – the done version of a bum world already gone bad. Slogan thoughts and tabloid ideas, a bedside Freud and a billboard neurosis. He had the letter from Norman in his pocket: “
WHO AM I AND WHY AM I HERE
? Ask yourself this daily
for you are running away.”
And of course, the suburban sophisticates – Saturday night is beer and ideas, talk cozy with intellectual commonplaces.
We are the enlightened!
We are
SUFFERING
for the
rotters
, the
stinkers
, the people who lead such boring godawful lives not like us at all (Warren, darling, please play those Eliot records again, I’m worried about the meaning). O God, O Christ!
America is a furnace and the temperature is 180 F and still going up. Men in rimless glasses and women in
slacks are stoking and stoking and if you don’t wear a white-Protestant-imgoingplaces-TV-B.A.-Luce-rugged nonentity uniform, then in the fire with you – Rogue!
 … Another rented room, long walks at night on the cold neon-lit desert, pretty girls just pretty in their summer print dresses.…

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