Authors: E. L. Doctorow
All societies indoctrinate their children. The marvelous Mrs. Goldstein in total innocence taught us the glorious history of our brave westward expansion: our taming of the barbaric Indians, our brave stand at the Alamo, the mighty railroads winning the plains. Thus I must understand the nature of the conspiracy against me: it is mounted in full faith and righteousness by the students of Mrs. Goldstein.
He begins to feel better. His stomach is settling. The long drawn out process of picking jurors has begun. He sits with his hands clasped on the edge of the table. He does not stare too intensively at each of these people who may decide his fate. His personal manner will offend no one. His mind is working, and he is no longer stunned. He feels the satisfaction of a soldier having done everything necessary to prepare himself for battle. It is a moment of clarity and exhilaration.
My darling, whoever is looking will think I am writing a note on some legal aspect to Ascher. I will pass it to him and he will pass it over to you. You look so pale, my sweetheart. Don’t be afraid. Don’t you know your girl longs for you with a love that is indestructible? Look up and you will see me smiling at you.
It is as she says. He smiles, and at this moment all the fear backs up on him and the treacherous muscles of his smile mean to betray him and cause him to cry out. He swallows this dreadful feeling, swallows the terror, tastes it, gulps it. Oh Rochelle! Oh my darling. Do you know what? There is no one behind us. I have checked. Not a face we know. Neither Frieda nor Ruth. Nor anyone from the Concourse Jefferson Club. We are absolutely alone.
Who is the higher authority? Who do I call? Who saves me. The muscles of let me out. The muscles of they can’t do this to me. When the cell door first closed I thought it would open if I tried it. They actually locked me in a cell. They actually do that, put someone in a place so that he can’t get out. It is done. And the same people who have put me in here are trying me. What can I expect of a trial conducted by the same people who have arrested me and put me in their jail. The wish to get out. It is a terror that makes rigid the muscles in your arms, your sphincters, the cords of your sex; your body winds up on itself, it all tightens and begins to radiate this tremendous fearful energy that attaches to nothing. You smear electrons on the cellblock. You melt the palms of your hands on the bars. The more insane and infuriating and ridiculous the fact that you must stay here in this cage, the more it is true. With every minute that passes it becomes more terrifyingly insane and more true. And finally you reach the point when you realize that the situation is contrived to make you realize you are your own enemy: the muscles of let me out will destroy you. You have to untangle them, unhitch them from the rage in your throat, loosen them from the mind. Slack your ropes. At the moment you slack your ropes and begin to breathe you begin to do time. That is the name the inmate community gives to this adjustment. Doing
time. You begin the process of outlasting the animosity of those who have put you here. You destroy the time in your life, the minutes and the hours, scorch them with your own indifference, make them valueless to yourself before they do it for you. As the Red armies retreated before Hitler, burning the earth behind them, their own earth, their own crops, their own fruition, so that it would not fall in its living ripeness to
This morning, when they came to take me to my trial, every man in the cellblock wished me luck.
WHILE YOU WERE OUT
Mr. A, a Mr. Feuerman called, left no number or message except that he had a matter of mutual interest to discuss—wouldn’t talk with anyone else. Have a happy.
“I don’t understand, Jake. You mean they even now have the power to call it off?”
“There are ways. He goes on the assumption that whatever it is you confess to generates a new legal situation that must be studied.”
“You know what you’re saying? You are saying that he punishes us with our own trial.”
“Please, Paul, we haven’t got that much time. I’m simply telling you what Feuerman said. It’s a routine matter. Let’s forget it and go on.”
“My God, the implications!” Paul laughs. He is flushed. “The uses of your precious law, Jake!”
“Please—do me a favor. No analysis.”
“That is why they arrested Rochelle, to make me talk. What do they want me to say? Whatever it is, they know that even under the threat of my wife’s arrest I did not crack. Why should I change my mind now? What do you think, Rochelle?”
She says nothing, holding his hand tightly in her two hands as they sit across from Ascher. Her shoulder touches his shoulder. Under the table her thigh touches his thigh.
“What do you think, Rochelle? Is this a tacit admission that
they know they can’t win? That’s it, isn’t it? They’re trying to bluff us before we call their hand. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“They are not without resources in this trial,” Ascher says.
“What did you tell him—Feuerman?”
“Oh honey, please,” Rochelle says. “What do you think he told them?”
“No really, Jake, what did you say?”
“I said no deals. We make no deals.”
“Tell him to ask Selig Mindish!” Paul cackles. He laughs. “Mindish knows all these marvelous stories! Maybe he’ll confess a new and better one. Tell them to ask the dentist.”
She hears the cry of terror. She worries about him. When they are together like this he becomes agitated, he colors easily. He affects a toughness that frightens her because it is so hysterical. He is very thin! She knows he does not eat. He tells her the jail food is specially prepared to have as little nutrition as possible. To dispirit them and depress their alertness and energy. He lives on candy bars from the Canteen, and advises her to do the same. They don’t have his cigars so he smokes Camels. He smokes too much and is too thin. Dear God, does he really look for justice? Dear God, grant him foresight. Make my terrible burden lighter.
Don’t worry, Jake has said over and over. Everything will be all right. When he says this he sometimes places his large heavy hand on my shoulder. He does not understand its weight and that what I feel from it is the opposite of what he says. Jake, dear Jake, you cannot know. You distinguish yourself from the burning righteousness of my husband, but look at you, my Jewish gentleman, with all your education and wisdom: you shine in the faith of the individual practitioner. Yet he himself has told me what to expect. Under the charge against us the normal rules of evidence are suspended. For us they don’t exist. We are charged not with committing espionage, but with conspiring to commit espionage. Since espionage itself does not have to be proved, no evidence is required that we have done anything. All that is required is evidence that we intended to do something. And what is this evidence? Coincidentally enough under the law the testimony of our so-called accomplice is considered
evidence. Am I a fool that I can’t see what this means? Do I have to be a lawyer to understand that this allows them to put Dr. Mindish on the stand and by Jake’s own precious law anything Mindish says against us has the weight of evidence. As surely as the gun convicts the murderer.
She carries the odds with the instinctual knowledge of a keeper of books. In the courtroom her face is impassive. She composes herself into attitudes of forbidding dignity. She thinks of her husband. She thinks of things to say to him. This is one way she can survive the ordeal without illusions—to pretend to his. For if she reveals her fatalism he will be hurt. But this is emotional embezzlement. If she is right, and how can she not be, the bill will come due—and then what can she say to him? And then what will she be able to do to protect him?
By the rules of evidence in this trial the verdict is foreordained. If the testimony of Mindish is admitted as competent, the conspiracy is proved. Because it would not be admitted except under the assumption that a conspiracy existed. She smiles. Here in the country where she was born a defendant can be found guilty of being brought to court as a defendant.
I lie in this cell and Mama’s voice of her curses comes to me down the corridor. The cholera, the Cossacks. Wait, my child. Wait just long enough and you will have what I have. For your sins a womb as dry as dust, to ashes your lifespring miracle, to the dust of the furnace and you will taste it on your tongue who have dared to challenge God, and call upon him his obligations. Wait, wait, my child.
The night before their appearance in court she writes the following letter:
My Darling Pauly,
Need I say that I’m looking forward to our trial? Not only that we will be exonerated and the children* re-
(*changed by an editor to “our beloved children” in the printed version—so that everyone would know whose children she meant; by this time there were very few people left in the C.P. who knew anything about writing)
turned to us. Not only that “every dog has his day” in court. But at the lowest level, of simple temporary release from this imprisonment that is so barbaric.
At the trial we will sit at the same table, my precious love. Can you understand how difficult I will find it to concentrate on the legal goings on! Just as in our meetings with Jake I have to pull myself away from the contemplation of you, which each time is like drinking water after a long thirst. But oh my darling, am I too bold? that water only leaves me more parched!
As ever, in love,
I ask the question of Professor Sukenick: Under what circumstances do we suspend criticism? Note the clear instance here of the paradox of the literary sensibility—that it is formed by the previous generation. But there were moments in these meetings with Ascher that were so painful to everyone, the old lawyer stealing a minute for them, standing in front of the safety-glass panel in the door with his eyes closed, his head bowed, prop papers in his hand, but unable to block from his ears the sips of salt water, the suckings of it, the bussings and suckings, the hands quickly dipping into the clothes, and that is a sound too when you don’t want to hear it—for don’t all bodies obey the laws of physics and share the properties of inanimate things, so that to our profound embarrassment cocks uncork loudly and piss pours like water from faucets, and the asshole is a musical instrument—so painful to everyone these quick horny thefts of each other’s feel and smell, sudden sharp incense of unresolved sexual sentiment, that they agree for the sake of everyone’s feelings—and Ascher sighs—it is less painful to meet in restraint. And that recalls to them their first chaste days of glances when the understanding was I would if I could, and that was enough, that and the excitement of the rally was enough. “Everyone is waiting for us to confess,” she writes later. “Suppose I confess that I love my husband, and confess as to how I fell for him on our first ‘date’—a Loyalist rally on Convent Avenue!”
A hill, a long hill rises from the valley of 125th Street, in the darkening and cold compact of clouds coming in like fleets of Hindenburgs over New York, and they are war clouds drawn by the bourgeois cartoonists, clouds too heavy with rain of death and fire for the thin taut umbrella of Neville Chamberlain. And the trolleys pull themselves up the tracks of that hill, magnetized to the rails, jerking and gliding up the hill of rails on spurts of current sucked by the pantograph from the overhead wires; and these trolleys, in parade, carry students of the City College of New York up from their jobs through the darkness to their nighttime classes. Fences of planted spears and buildings of grey and black stone, it’s not Yale but it’s free and its academic standards are high, if you’re a bourgeois romantic you can dim your eyes and pretend it’s a real collegiate campus, like Michigan, or Brown, and the grubby municipal accommodation for the sons and daughters of immigrants, poor people, largely Jewish. Why, at Lewisohn Stadium an actual football team practices in the dark, although the lavender jerseys do not all match and the football pants are black on some and brown on others, and Notre Dame will never worry or Tommy Harmon. But if you’re one of us, Lewisohn is a place for rallies, if that can be managed, or the Philharmonic in the summertime—John Barboroli for thirty-five cents on seats of stone, and two of these night students of tenuous connection to the football team sit there, known to each other less than a year, and for both of them thirty-five cents is a not inconsiderable investment. It is a feverish time, a summer of peculiar chill, and he woos her in their consanguinity of belief. Of course they cannot marry. He makes six dollars a week, part-time, in a radio and record store on Sixth Avenue, and lives with his older sisters on the Lower East Side; he is thin and fortunate. She is more fortunate, making fourteen-fifty as a bookkeeper, taking it home to her mother in the Bronx, her sole living relative. But both of them religiously hold out portions of their wealth for the Scottsboro Boys, or to free Tom Mooney, or for the Loyalists. LIFT THE ARMS
EMBARGO! And their nickels are for carfare and they carry their lunch in paper bags, rolled up when empty to be used again. An interlude at Lewisohn Stadium is a grand luxury, a dwelling in the mutuality of taste, for Benny Goodman does not move their feet, nor any of the popular numbers of the day, from the top ten of the
Lucky Strike Hit Parade
, which he hears over and over again in the Sixth Avenue store where the old Hippodrome used to be.
I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.
These songs show the cultural degeneracy of the bourgeois with their rhythms stolen from the southern Negro, cheapening a people’s music. But Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, these are the stirrers of the heart. When there is time. There’s an important workers’ rally downtown in Union Square and New York’s finest Cossacks rear their horses into the crowd and swing their sticks. Or Paul stands at the gate distributing the mimeographed leaflet protesting—what? The rape of Ethiopia, the giveaway of Czechoslovakia, Georgia chain gangs, the D.A.R., the A.F.L. The President of City College is said to support Mussolini. OUST ROBINSON! Rochelle is active organizing the union in her office. The people are uniting, offering a common front against the spread of Fascism. COMMUNISM IS THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICANISM! We go to the rally. We are the revolutionary heirs of Jefferson and Lincoln and Andrew Jackson and Tom Paine. The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it. Endless arguments in the cafeteria of dark tables. The trolley cars wind up the hill, buzzing and whining; the wind blows the overhead wires. The lights in the streetcar flicker. He shifts his books and paper bag from one arm to another. She smiles at him, her hand barely reaching the leather strap. She fell for him at a Loyalist rally on Convent Avenue. Men still sell apples on the corners, and chestnuts from stove-pails of coal lumps in the winter, or hot sweet potatoes for three cents. People sleep in doorways all over Harlem. At three a.m. the subway cars are filled. Mama, I want to invite him home to dinner. And who do you think you are—Lady Bountiful? For one year he feels her up not even thinking the words to himself, but it is all one can do in the park, or in a hall. He has never had a woman and she has never had a man. They are aware of the distance between their verbal sophistication and the actual
facts; between their friends’ view of them running hand in hand to the corner to catch the trolley, ragged coats trailing, the easy swing of their rhythm, envy of the world, the new life-style, young fighting Communists with tears stung out of their clear eyes by the wind, with red cheeks, a wadded handkerchief pressed to her nose, a sniffing in, a remark he makes, their laughter, their books bought used, the pages blackened along the edges—between this vision of them gliding off within darkness lighted by the interior lights of the streetcar (snap it quick, snap it) and their knowledge of themselves, unliberated, clothed, shy, scared, spiritualized by necessity. When you’re poor you don’t take chances. When each nickel counts and the world needs every able hand, you don’t have sex. Besides, you have no place to do it. The truth is you would if you could. You learn the art of companionship, the heavy meaning of an arm taken, the way she can glance at you one merry moment and make it go right to the root of your heavy blue balls, or when you have an idea think of it in terms of telling her, or her small beautiful mouth, a familiarity with her limited wardrobe, and in bad moments alone condemning yourself, cursing yourself for thinking of her centrality, this lady, this soft revolutionary girl, and wondering with red ears and hot ears how to get it out of your worthless degenerate mind and by will alone projecting that energy into the revolution—you do not think of her strength, only of her softness. Or loving his wiry hair, his lean boyishness, his innocence, the endless play of his mind upon the world, inexhaustibly engaged, with a passion for justice and liberation of the poor, and his shoes worn down at the heels, the way he adjusts his glasses with his middle finger, with his passion for the theory of surplus value, and the transition from capitalism to socialism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and how the state will wither away. And the problem of Father Coughlin and shall we consider him as different in kind or degree from Henry Ford, or the mine owners. Big words from a six-dollar-a-week clerk, much arrogance from this skinny boyfriend, and intimations of a passionate nature, so naïve beautiful powerful, a passionate nature, and she thrills to contemplate holding all that power of passion, that intellectual arrogance innocence in her arms in her body.