Feature: The World to Come
Benjamin Ziskind, recently divorced, looks around at what he has: a bare apartment, a pile of children’s books written by his mother and an original Chagall that, he is sure, once hung in his parents’ living room and that he pulled off a museum wall the night before. The saga that led Ben to steal the painting and the path his life takes after the theft are at the center of Dara Horn’s The World to Come, from which this excerpt is taken. It was for this wonderfully imaginative novel that Horn won the 2007 Harold U. Ribalow Prize.
There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will.
Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to his, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his mother—dead six months now, though it felt like one long night—hurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.
Ben was a full-time question writer for the quiz show American Genius, where he had worked for the past seven years. Long ago, he had loved it. He had loved the thrill of working for TV, loved telling people he worked for a network, loved thinking up new questions, loved wondering which contestant he would stump next. Secretly, he had dreamed of someday becoming the show’s host. The fact that he was five-foot-six, weighed 123 pounds, spoke in a near-monotone, and was legally blind without his glasses never struck him as an impediment to this goal, even though the only reason most people watched American Genius was for Morgan Finnegan, the show’s hunky, Texan, redheaded, hilarious, charming, and (Ben had noticed over the years) intellectually underqualified emcee. But before he turned thirty a few months ago, Ben had maintained full faith in logic. If he, Benjamin Ziskind, was the smartest person on the staff, then his intelligence would eventually be rewarded. His specialty was in the thousand-dollar-plus category, questions that no one but the true champions could answer. In the past few months, though, his questions had been repeatedly rejected, and now they were interlaced in his mind with questions he asked of himself:
What acclaimed Russian writer, author of Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry, was executed in 1940 under false charges of treason? During which of the following incidents in the past year did Nina lie when she claimed that she loved me?
Which 1965 battle in the Vietnam War, code-named Operation Starlite, was successful enough to inspire the Pentagon to send thousands more Marines to the war?
For how many of the eleven months of our brief and pathetic marriage was she actually sleeping with someone else?
To the nearest power of ten, what is the number of American soldiers who have lost limbs in combat since the end of World War Two?
Among American males who have twin sisters, what percentage are as jealous of them as I am of Sara?
Once Sara sells our parents’ house, what will be left of them?
What is the probability that my dead parents are disappointed in me?
Ben did not try to answer these questions. In the past few months, he had condensed his life into the few things that still belonged to him: his pitiful job, his twin sister, the apartment his former wife had stripped of nearly all its furniture, and a stack of children’s picture books his mother had written. And, as of last night’s theft, a $1 million painting by Marc Chagall.
It was Sara’s fault, really. She was the one who persuaded him to go to the singles’ cocktail hour at the museum. In the weeks since his divorce, Sara had begged him to try to meet someone new, to make at least some vague effort toward being happy—perfect, productive Sara, hopeful enough to have just gotten married in their mother’s hospital room two weeks before their mother died, and tough enough to already begin picking up the shards. It had been easier to say yes to Sara than to explain to her why he had no hope or interest in going.
But when he passed through the museum’s metal detectors and entered the crowded gallery, he saw that the other people at the exhibit of “Marc Chagall’s Russian Years” were little more than walking ghosts: his mother, his father, preserved in other people’s skin. Glimpsing the side of a woman’s head—a younger woman, of course, but another remarkable thing about the dead is that they are all ages, preserved at every age you ever knew them, and at no age at all—he had to fight the impulse to glance at the profile again, unwilling to feel the sick relief that came with confirming an unfamiliar face. It was easier to look at the art.
Ben edged away from the crowds at the center of the gallery, toward the paintings on the walls. He stopped alongside a giant canvas titled—he stooped to read the caption—The Promenade. A man stood in the middle of the painting, legs apart as if striding with confidence, one hand at his side holding a small bird, the other in the air, holding the hand of a woman—a woman who flew in the air like a flag on the flagpole of his wrist, her magenta dress fluttering in the wind. Another large canvas, called Over the Town, cast both man and woman into the sky, wearing different clothes this time, a green shirt for the man, a blue dress for the woman, with petticoats flying at her ankles. The two of them soared over the town below, in a sky pure white, as if the flying people, ruling the air, hadn’t yet decided what to fill it with. For a moment Ben wished he could fly. And then, as he turned around to cross the gallery, someone called his name.
“And what about you, Benjamin Ziskind?”
Ben looked up, startled. Had someone from the show tracked him down? But as he scanned the unfamiliar faces of the three women who had closed in around him beneath the flying woman, he realized that everyone was wearing a name tag, and someone had just read his aloud. He was trapped.
The three women laughed, and Ben forced a smile, wincing as he remembered why he was ostensibly here. He glanced at the name tag of the woman who had spoken: “Erica Frank, Museum Staff.” A shill, he thought. Too bad; she was the most attractive of the three. She was slightly shorter than he was, with curved hips, long hair the color of damp rope, and (Ben was captivated and then ashamed to notice) a glimpse of shadowed skin that shimmered between the buttons of her bright blue blouse. Her green eyes were watching him. In the glass covering the painting behind her head, he turned away from his own reflection: short, dark, unworthy. He remembered how he had first met Nina two years ago—at a party like this one, but in Sara’s apartment. He was happier then, less fearful. He had told a joke, a bad one, some horrible pun, and she had laughed. Ben wasn’t used to people laughing with him instead of at him. He would have married her on the spot. On the night two weeks after his mother died, when his wife failed to come home from work, he had assumed she had been kidnapped.
We were just talking about languages in museum work, translations, that kind of thing,” Erica Frank was saying. “Do you speak any foreign languages?”
Ben resented being forced into this inane conversation, but he remembered Sara pleading with him and knew he owed it to her to try. He in fact spoke several languages, but he tried to pick the one that would end the conversation the fastest. “Yiddish,” he said. He immediately wished he had lied.
He regretted it more when Erica Frank, Museum Staff, appeared suddenly intrigued. “Wow, I didn’t know anybody knew Yiddish anymore,” she said, staring. Yes, Ben wished he could announce, I am a freak, a relic, a generational error, a leftover shard from a broken world. Now please let me go home. But he was caught. “Why did you—I mean, where did you learn it? From your grandparents?” she asked.
Ben looked at the three women and felt as if he were facing a panel of judges. “From my father,” he said. Erica was looking at him, absently brushing a strand of golden hair away from her cheek. For a moment he felt hopeful, but then he remembered where the conversation had lurched. He was beginning to wish he could leap over their heads and vanish into the sky.
“Do you still speak it with him?” Erica asked, a wide smile on her face.
“He’s been dead for almost twenty years, so no.”
Ben hadn’t meant to snap at her, but he was strangely happy that he had. The smiling faces on the panel seemed to fall to the ground, like dropped masks. The air yawned between him and the three others, stretching into a wide, blank space of empty canvas. “I’m so sorry,” Erica stuttered.
Everyone looked at the floor for the obligatory seven seconds before someone changed the subject, a ritual deeply familiar to people whose parents die young. Ben waited for the obligatory seven seconds to pass. It had been years since he had felt embarrassed during those seconds. By now they felt to him like time spent waiting for an elevator: boring, wasteful, a chance to run errands in one’s head. Sara had mentioned that she was going to stop by his place after he got home, he remembered. She claimed to have news, and she promised him that it wasn’t about selling their parents’ house. But it was impossible that it wasn’t about selling the house, Ben thought. What else was there to talk about?
“What’s really interesting about Yiddish,” Erica was saying, the first courageous soul to break the silence, “is how much humor there is in it.”
Her smile, which had seemed so promising just moments before, was beginning to sicken him. “No more than any other language,” he muttered. But what it really does have, he thought—what you don’t know it has, because it isn’t in any Woody Allen movies—is a world of the dead built into it, a true fear of heaven, an automatic need to invoke the presence of God whenever saying anything good or bad about anyone or anything, an absolute trust that the other world, if one could call it that, is not separate from this one, that eternity is always breathing over your shoulder, waiting to see if you will notice. But Ben didn’t say anything more. Instead he glanced at Erica and then looked at his feet, noticing for the first time that in the haze of changing his clothes after work and going to the Chagall exhibit, he had somehow ended up wearing two slightly different shoes.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he announced, and pushed his way out of the circle into the very crowded room.
He moved toward the sides of the gallery, staring up at the paintings that interrupted the walls like gigantic plate-glass windows, offering views beyond the room. Some of them, he saw, hung limp on the gallery walls, tired and derivative, a parade of boxy men like early Cubist works, or distorted interiors with absurdly bright wallpaper borrowed from Matisse. Ben became more interested when things started to fly: first clouds, then words, then angels, then goats, and finally men and women, soaring through the air. The more things flew, the better the paintings became. Occasionally, as he moved along the gallery walls, he thought of Erica Frank. He stared at the flying goats and resisted the impulse to search for her again over his shoulder. A few times, he allowed himself to turn around and scan the crowd for her face. When he didn’t see her, he was surprised to find himself disappointed. He stared at the paintings until they seemed to dissolve into blank white space.
A man near the door at the end of the gallery cupped his hands to his mouth, trying his best to roar above the crowd. “The band will be starting up downstairs in five minutes,” he bellowed.
A band? Sara must not have known about the band, Ben thought. He wasn’t about to listen to music; the year of mourning wasn’t over yet. For a moment he panicked. Then, as the hordes of jabbering singles began to flow down toward the door on the opposite end of the gallery, he realized, grateful, that he now had an excuse to go home. The room emptied quickly, and soon he was the only person in it, standing at the far end of the gallery next to a series of tiny paintings. He was about to turn around when a woman’s head leaned back into the room from a nearby doorway, a blur of light brown hair. Erica Frank.
“Going downstairs?” she asked.
He was surprised to see that she was smiling. Had she forgotten their awkward conversation before? No, it didn’t look that way. Her smile was different from before: dark, canny, her upper lip slightly curled as if they had shared a private joke. Suddenly he felt as though he were seeing an actress backstage, shifting from playing a part to being herself. She was forgiving him, it seemed. Or was she just laughing at him? He searched for something to say to make her stay a moment longer, to test her, to see. “I’ll be down in a minute,” he answered, and for a split second he wished it were true.
But it wouldn’t have mattered. “I can’t stay for the music,” she said, and Ben briefly wondered why. But only briefly, because she was already moving away. “Have fun,” she said with a wave.
Ben watched as she vanished from the room, cutting back into the gallery and through a white door marked “Staff Only.” The door hovered open for a moment, framing the back of her hair, which glimmered gold in the shadow within the outlines of the doorway. Then the door closed behind her, a blank white wall. Ben felt the entire wasted evening draining through his gut. Well, Sara, he thought, surveying the empty gallery, I tried. He turned to leave. And then he stopped.
It was a painting of a street. The street was covered with snow, and lined by a short iron fence and little crooked buildings whose rooftops bent and reflected in all directions. Above the street, a man with a beard, pack, hat, and cane hovered in the sky, moving over the houses as if walking—unaware, in murky horizontal profile, that he was actually in flight. The painting was tiny, smaller than a piece of notebook paper. The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia, titling it Study for “Over Vitebsk.” This intrigued Ben, who despite his mastery of trivia on all topics, including modern art, had never before known this particular painting’s name. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room of his parents’ house.
Now in the silent white gallery, in front of Study for “Over Vitebsk,” Ben stood still. He looked at the floating man with the cane, the dark late autumn or early winter of the painting’s twilit evening, and thought of fall evenings long ago, years when his father would take him and his sister trick-or-treating. He and Sara used to take turns carrying a folded artist’s stool along with their candy bags for when their father got tired and needed to rest, which was usually at every house. As the long night of house-to-house waned, Ben would try to walk more slowly, self-consciously copying his father’s eternal limp, dragging his right leg deliberately through the heaps of leaves on the side of the road as if only for the joy of crunching leaves beneath his foot, but really, as the evening grew darker and the circle of trees drew the horizon closed like a drawstring bag around them, tightening the early evening sky with wrinkles of naked branches, he was thumping out his father’s perpetual four-legged pace: left leg, two crutches, bad foot, left leg, two crutches, bad foot, left leg, two crutches, bad foot. His father, he thought as he looked at the painting, had probably wished he could fly.
Ben stared more closely at the painting. It had been over fifteen years since he had last seen it. There was no way it was the same one. Artists often paint the same picture over and over again, he told himself, thinking of Sara in her paint-splattered apartment. Even the idea that it might be theirs was just a momentary deception, like the people on the street or at the cocktail hour, dead ringers for his parents only because he wanted them to be.
Ben breathed out slowly and took one last look before turning again to leave, this time for good. But then he noticed, in the painting’s lower right-hand corner, a tiny glossy area that gleamed white under the gallery lights—the same place where Sara, at the age of seven, had once tried to coat the painting with clear nail polish until their parents caught her. And then Ben’s entire body started shaking with rage.
He read the label again, still stunned. On loan, it read, from a Russian museum. He stretched his arms toward the painting without even noticing that he was doing so, reaching for it, ready to grip the bottom of the frame like the rung of a ladder. In his mind he saw his feet walking up the wall until he could step into it, sliding through the frame and out and up and away. Instead he caught a glimpse of his own hands out of the corner of his eye and stopped himself, lowering his arms and turning his head to see if anyone was still around.
No one was there, not even a lingering guard.
Strange things happen to paintings that no one looks at. They start to sing. In the absence of people, the empty room reverberated with the colors humming on its walls. Ben stood alone and listened as each wide flash of color vibrated at a different pitch: wistful wavering high notes for the airborne woman, deep resonating low tones for the Lovers in Blue. The dark little picture rattled the air with the banging of piano keys like the ones that once lay below it in his parents’ living room, a minor chord struck by accident in the middle of a song.
He stepped closer.
With all his strength, he grabbed the painting’s thin frame and yanked the whole thing off the wall. It was so light that he nearly flew backward. And then he left.
Reprinted from The World to Come by Dara Horn. Copyright © 2006 by Dara Horn. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.