Authors: E. L. Doctorow
She seems to be taking the whole business with more fortitude than my father. My father speaks in his soft voice to Duberstein, suggesting various alternative courses of action. There are doctors at work even on Memorial Day. Find the senior doctor in charge. Talk to him. If he’s not in the building, find out where he is and call him. My father is very fond of Susan. Her excesses have always seemed to render him contemplative. This is the worst she’s been, the worst thing she’s done; it has occurred to him, perhaps, that the pattern of our lives is deterioration, that the movement of our lives is toward death.
With great justice he refuses to pick up my pusillanimous charge. I have long since given up rights in Susan’s welfare. Who am I to tell them what to do or not to do? But he grants me my rights. “Let’s go outside,” he says. We all wait in the parking
lot while Duberstein goes off to find the medical administrator. The women and the baby sit in the Lewin car, a 1965 Impala with a regular shift, and leave the doors open; my father and I with our backs to the hospital lean against the car grille and look down the hill. Behind us, near the entrance, a sleek red and grey ambulance lurks in wait, the driver asleep behind the wheel with his cap tilted over his eyes. The hill is dotted with patients clutching brown paper bags.
“We knew she was depressed,” Robert Lewin says. “We wanted her to come home for the weekend. But she said she had to get away. She didn’t sound so bad. She’s been making her classes. She’s been doing her work.” My father is looking older by the minute. He is bound to feel that Susan’s attempt at defection is his fault. If my mother feels that way she won’t show it. It occurs to me that they didn’t call me immediately because they were afraid of my reaction. They weren’t sure what it would be, they weren’t sure that Daniel wasn’t capable of the same thing, as if what Susan did was contagious.
Suspense is all Robert Lewin can look forward to as the father of these children. He doesn’t even have the assurance of his own genes. I feel such sad tenderness for the guy, I put my arm around his shoulder. He’s no slouch. He works like hell, and belongs to committees, and practices law for poor people and writes for the law journals. He is big in the ACLU. He is popular with his classes, a thorn in the Dean’s side, a demonstrator against Dow Chemical recruiters. When he has the time, he likes to read
The New Yorker.
Neither of the Lewins is capable of regretting what they did for Susan and me. As cruel as we are. And we are really terrible low down people. I mean really low down. But they must know we mean them no harm except the harm in our love for them. Everyone in the family understands the mythological burden of acts much smaller than their consequences. My sister and I can never inflict total damage—that is the saving grace. The right to offend irreparably is a blood right.
Suddenly Daniel was overwhelmed with a strong sweet sense of the holiday. The sun was trying to come out, the warm slight breezes of the overcast day played across the eyes, he was here with everyone in his immediate family standing on this really
groovy prospect in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was thankful to Susan for relieving the dangerous tedium of his graduate life. She would be all right. In the meantime there was drama, a sweet fatality, a recharging of the weak diffused impulses of giving a shit. Robert Lewin felt his sympathy and was warmly reciprocating. Was Daniel all right? Had he or Phyllis eaten anything since leaving home that morning? He produced from the glove compartment a handful of candy bars. “Milky Ways all around,” he said with a sad smile. And there was a car to take care of, Susan’s car, still in the lot at the Howard Johnson’s near Exit II on the Westbound side of the Turnpike. The two men chatted quietly, building comfort for each other in the warm afternoon while Duberstein went about his futile attempts to get the hospital authorities to release Susan. Building concern for each other and then, in a widening circle of small talk, for their wives, for the innocent fat baby, and for anybody still within their power of concern, for anybody who could be saved by concern. The afternoon grew festive—
Bukharin was no angel, of course. In the course of his trial he spoke of condoning the murder of Whites in the heat of the revolutionary struggle. Going down before Stalin, he felt obliged to make the distinction between murder that was politically necessary and factional terrorism. In 1928, ten years before his trial, he criticized Stalin’s line of forced industrialization and compared Stalin personally to Genghis Khan. In September, 1936, a meeting of the Central Committee was called to consider the expulsion from the Party of Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov for leading a Right Wing-Trotskyite conspiracy. Bukharin said that the real conspiracy was Stalin’s and that to achieve unlimited power Stalin would destroy the Bolshevik Party and that therefore he, Bukharin, and others, were to be eliminated and that was the source of the charge against him. The Central Committee accepted Bukharin’s defense and voted not to expel him. The conspiracy charge was dropped. Within a year, ninety-eight members of the Central Committee were arrested and shot. (We learn this from N. Khrushchev in his address to the 20th Party Congress.) Then the charges were reinstated and Bukharin was put on trial.
Actually, there are separate mysteries to be examined here.
Why do the facts of Russian national torment make Americans feel smug? Why do two state cops, finding a young girl bleeding to death in the ladies’ room of a Howard Johnson’s, take her not to the nearest hospital, but to the nearest public insane asylum? On second thought these mysteries may not be unrelated.
Subjects to be taken up:
1. The old picture poster that I found in Susan’s Volvo, in the front seat, in a cardboard tube.
2. The terrible scene the previous Christmas in the Jewish household at 67 Winthrop Rd., Brookline, a two-family house built, in the style of that neighborhood, to look like a one-family.
3. Our mad grandma and the big black man in the cellar.
4. Fleshing out the Lewins, maybe following them to the Turnpike and then to Brookline. Remember it wasn’t until you got into Susan’s car that it really hit you. They’re still fucking us. You get the picture. Good boy, Daniel.
5. Just as long as you don’t begin to think you’re doing something that has to be done. I want to make that clear, man. You are a betrayer. There is no cheap use to which you would not put your patrimony. You’re the kind of betrayer who betrays for no reason. Who would sit here and write all this, playing with yourself instead of doing your work—what do you think, Professor Sukenick will come to see if you’re really working? Do you think it matters to him? Or are you just looking for another father. How many fathers does one boy need? Why don’t you go out and get a job? Why don’t you drop something heavy? Why not something too heavy? Why not something to show Susan how it’s done?
SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY: Who is this cat who starts out of his chair and bumps the reading table, and rushes into the stacks looking for anything he can find? Does Columbia University need this kind of graduate
student? Going through the shelves like a thief—plundering whatever catches his eye, stumbling back to his place, his arms loaded with Secondary Sources! What is his School! What is his name!
6. The trip downtown to see Artie the Revolutionary and the suspicion of financial shenanigans afoot.
7. The Isaacson Foundation. IS IT SO TERRIBLE NOT TO KEEP THE MATTER IN MY HEART, TO GET THE MATTER OUT OF MY HEART, TO EMPTY MY HEART OF THIS MATTER? WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH MY HEART?
The summer of 1967 was just beginning. There would be a wave of draft-card burning. There would be riots in Newark and Detroit. Young people in the United States would try a form of protest originated in this century by the Buddhist monks of South Vietnam. They would douse themselves with gasoline and light matches to themselves. They would burn to death in protest. But I, Daniel, was grieved, and the visions of my head troubled me and I do not want to keep the matter in my heart.
Ascher’s huge hand was like a band of steel. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man, but when he was excited he lost control of his great strength and didn’t know he was using it. Daniel tried to pull away, to loosen the ring of pain around his wrist, but Ascher’s response was to tighten his grip and pull even harder. “Come, children, come,” the lawyer said. Laboriously they scrambled up the steps from the subway—a steep flight encased in black dirt and littered with gum wrappers and flattened cigarette butts. Rising after them were the hot odors of arcade popcorn, pizza, donuts, pretzels—all the marvels of cheap nourishment following after them like the cries of animals in a pet store. He always imagined they wanted to be bought.
“Come, children, come.” Susan—smaller, lighter, shorter in the leg—couldn’t keep up. She dangled from Ascher’s hammy hand, her shoes banging on the steps, finding purchase only to
be hauled into the air again. “You’re hurting me!” she screamed. Why was he holding them so? Did he think they’d run away?
“You’re hurting her arm, Mr. Ascher,” Daniel said. “If you let us go we can get up the steps faster than you.”
“What? All right then, scoot,” Ascher said. Rubbing their wrists they clambered up, easily outgaining the huge, heavy lawyer. “Don’t fall!” he called after them. “Stay right there at the top.”
Calm now, curious, they watched the great bulk straining to reach them. Where they stood, in the mouth of the precipitous entrance to the subway, two winds converged, the hot underground draft rising to caress their faces and the cold blast of the street cutting at their backs. Dust, paper, soot, swirled along the ground. It was a cold, windy day. The brightness of the sun made their eyes squint.
Ascher climbed the last two steps with his hands pushing at his knees. “I’m not going to live long,” he said, trying to catch his breath. He pulled them out of the stream of people pouring down the stairs.
They stood against the building while Ascher took deep breaths and got his bearings. Across the street was Bryant Park and the Public Library. To the right was Sixth Avenue. “That way—we go west,” Ascher said, and he took their wrists again and they were off. They waited for the lights, crossed Sixth, and proceeded along 42nd Street toward Broadway. The newsstand man wore earmuffs. The wind blew hard. The kids walked with their faces averted, Daniel with the nubbin brim of his wool cap down on his forehead. His nose was running and he knew the wind would chafe him. It cut right through his pants. Ascher’s heavy grey overcoat moved in front of his eyes. Abruptly the hand let go of his wrist and he was thrust up against Ascher’s side, contained by the hand, sheltered from the wind. “Stay in close, that way you can walk,” the lawyer said. So it was like a strange six-legged beast walking down the windy range of Sixth Avenue, the two kids pressed into the man’s sides.
“Like the rest of our luck,” Ascher muttered into the wind. “Like the way all our luck is running.” With his face buried in the man’s coat Daniel was aware of sounds: horns, cars starting
and stopping, the large yet soft sound of innumerable people walking, music coming out of a record store. And then a clop-clopping that made him pull back and look around the coat. Two cops on horses, straight backed, tall, manly on their really fine brown horses. And he felt guilty for admiring them, for he knew they were reactionaries.
The lawyer spoke. “Now you must stay close to me and do as I tell you to do. We are a little late. I can tell from here, a tremendous crowd, it’s a great tribute. You should feel proud. When you’re standing up there, keep your heads up, look proud and tall and don’t slump, stand up straight. So that everyone can see you.
Don’t be afraid. What is it, little girl?”
“I’ve got something in my eye.”
“We have no time now, Susan. Come.”
Susan leaned back against Ascher’s grip and planted her feet. “I’ve got something in my eye,” she insisted.
“Keep your eye closed. It will come out.”
“No! It hurts,” she said.
Ascher let go her hand and started to yell. Daniel understood that everyone was nervous. He took his sister by the hand and led her into the doorway of a shoe store. Here they were protected from the wind. He took off his gloves and lifted the back of his mackinaw and dug into his pocket for a handkerchief. “Take your glasses off,” he said. “Don’t rub it. Take your hand away—that’s it. Look up.”
Her little red face was squinched up around the closed eye. “How can I see what it is if you don’t open your eye,” Daniel said.
Daniel laughed. “Come on, Susyanna—you should see what a funny face you’re making.”
“I am not!”
“Please, children, we are late. This is very important! Quickly, quickly!”
“Just a minute, Mr. Ascher,” Daniel said. “She’s only a little girl, you know.”
The poignancy of this description so affected Susan that she began to cry. Daniel put his arms around her and said he was
sorry. Ascher muttered in Yiddish and lifted his arms. Then he dropped them, with a smack, against his sides. He walked away and came back.
“Come on, Susan, let me get it out and when we get home I’ll play with you. I’ll play Monopoly with you.” That was a treat because it was such a long game.
Susan opened the afflicted eye, blinked and blinked again. She discovered that whatever it was was gone.
“Will you still play with me?” Susan wanted to know.
“Yes.” Daniel wiped away her tears, wiped her nose, and then wiped his own.
“Hurry, hurry !” Ascher said.
When they reached the corner of Broadway the wind wasn’t so bad because the street was filled with people. They were moving into a crowd. More police on horseback, in ranks of two, stood along the curb. Other policemen, on foot, were diverting the Broadway traffic east and west on 42nd Street, which is what made the traffic jam. Horns sounded and a policeman blew his whistle. In the surge of people Ascher held Susan and Daniel by the wrists and crossed with them through the spaces between the cars. Two entire blocks from 40th to 42nd on Broadway were cordoned off. People stood in the street. It was an amazing sight. The center of attention was down at 40th: a man on a platform was shouting through a microphone. Two loudspeakers on the tops of trucks beamed his voice at the people but it was hard to hear what he was saying. The crowd, which was attentive, seemed by its massiveness to muffle the sound. A man saying something quietly to someone next to him destroyed the amplified words. Only the echoes of the unintelligible voice bounced off the buildings. Some people in the crowd held placards aloft, and at moments in the speech when applause rattled like marbles spilling on the ground, these were poked upwards rhythmically.