2012 Harold U. Ribalow Prize
Jay’s grandson—his only child’s only child—married a young woman born in Kyoto. Mika had an enchanting chin, like a little teaspoon. She wore sweet pastel suits with bits of lace creeping out of their Vs. Who would believe that she spent her days making money from money? The young couple occupied an apartment in Tokyo where appliances folded up to fit inside other appliances. Woody, too, was an investment analyst.
“I think I’ll take up Japanese,” Jay told his daughter on the flight home from the wedding. She looked at him. At your age!—but she didn’t say that. She was as tactful as his late wife, Jay thought, his eyes briefly stinging: Wellesley girls both. His daughter also didn’t point out that there was no need for so heroic an effort—the young couple was fluently bilingual, and if they had children the hybrids would be brought up bilingual, too; and anyway, how often would Jay lay eyes on those children? She and her husband were hale enough to make the exhausting trip from Godolphin to Tokyo and back two or three times a year. Not Jay. Nor did his daughter mention that language study required an unimpaired memory. At seventy-five, Jay had difficulty recalling the names of traded Red Sox players, and it was a good thing that name tags had been provided to the members of his Class for their fiftieth reunion. At the Night at Pops the lyrics to “Fair Harvard” had also been handed out, another aid to recollection. The Class stood and sang:
O Relic and Type of our ancestors’ worth,
That hast long kept their memory warm,
First flow’r of their wilderness! Star of their night!
Calm rising thro’ change and thro’ storm.
Jay still had a respectable baritone. Sonny Fessel, his old roommate, who had made a fortune in rhinoplasty, could barely manage a croak. But Jay, despite his strong voice, wasn’t altogether well. He suffered from a blood disorder. The disease was indolent now, but who knew what it had in mind. And his pressure was high.
The ivory hands of the stewardess removed his tray. “I’m looking for something to do,” he explained to his daughter. He was retired from a career as an actuary that had ended with an honorable stint as state insurance commissioner (Woody had inherited Jay’s skill with numbers; “numeracy,” they called it these days). He’d given up his weekly squash game when the club adopted the new, soft ball and enlarged the old courts. His town, Godolphin, a leafy wedge of Boston, was governed by a town meeting—a glorious circus—but its week-long sessions occurred only twice a year. The rituals of Judaism left him cold. His immigrant grandfather wrapped in a tallith was a sentimental memory, not a model. His father’s religious involvement had begun and ended with Brotherhood breakfasts, and Jay himself had quit Sunday school the day after his bar mitzvah. But now…he was dawdling through his days, his appetite flat, his blood thin. The study of anything might be a tonic.
Once back home he investigated workshops for elders at Godolphin High School. Bookbinding? Stained glass? He considered the nonsectarian courses given at the temple: Is Zionism Dead? maybe, or Great Jewish Women, taught by the rabbi herself, a blonde with an old-fashioned pageboy haircut. But Japanese I, offered at the Godolphin Language Center, trumped Theodor Herzl and Rosa Luxemburg. When Jay read the course description he breathed again the scent and heard the sounds of his recent week in Japan—blossoming, rustling trees; glowing incense sticks at noisy city shrines; a soupy smell at a particular noodle shop where “The Girl From Ipanema” had been playing on a radio next to the register. He remembered fabrics, too. On the Philosopher’s Walk, in Kyoto, he had encountered a group of uniformed children who did not separate to let him pass but instead surrounded him, engulfed him in their soft navy serge. His new granddaughter’s grandmother, a handsome woman with hair dyed deep brown, had come to the wedding in a traditional garment—crimson silk, with a cream sash. He almost hadn’t recognized her when the family met in a restaurant a few days later—she was wearing her everyday pants and turtleneck then. Her English was serviceable. “Hoody is gentle and kind,” she said to Jay. We are so pleased, she implied.
“Mika is a shaineh maideleh,” he said, dredging up two of his fifty Yiddish words. He grinned—an air of mischief had always endeared him to women. “A lovely girl,” he said, though he failed to tell her he was translating. She would think her hard-won English defective; oh well.
The austere beauty of the teacher of Japanese I eclipsed Mika’s prettiness as the sun the moon. Nakabuta-sensei remained standing for the entire ninety minutes of the first weekly class. Twelve pupils around a table stared up at her. The classroom in this converted hilltop mansion looked out across the river at Cambridge, at the brick Houses of Harvard, with their bell towers. The leftmost House had sheltered Jay and Sonny Fessel. “Japanese grammar,” Nakabuta told them in her rich, unaccented English, “will seem at first incomprehensible. Please forget your attachment to plurals. Please divorce yourself from pronouns. Try to float like a lotus on our pond of suggestion and indirectness.”
A few cowed pupils dropped out early in the semester. Those who hung on were businessmen or scientists or programmers whose work took them frequently to Japan, or they were young people who had lived for a while in the country and could conduct a slangy conversation. Jay was a category unto himself: the tall old man with a few streaks of red in his white hair, stains refusing to fade; the codger who hoped to converse with descendants as yet unconceived.
In July the young couple came to Godolphin to visit Jay’s daughter and son-in-law. And Jay, too, of course. Jay told Mika, in Japanese, that warm weather had arrived early in Massachusetts next spring; no, last spring; no, this spring. The tomatoes were delicious, weren’t they. He inquired after her father and mother and grandmother, chichi and haha and baba, remembering too late that these appellations were overfamiliar. She replied that her family’s health was good, thanks, and she was sorry to see he was using a cane. She spoke in considerately slow Japanese. Ah, just his arthritis attacking, he explained; flaring up was the phrase he would have preferred, but you said the words you knew, which were not always the ones you meant.
The second year, Sugiyama-sensei, small and plain, introduced the class to the passive mood, which sometimes implied reluctance and sometimes even exploitation. She gave vocabulary quizzes every week, and taught the students to count strokes when they were learning to write kanji—like slaves counting lashes, Jay thought. She counseled them to practice the ideograms without paper and pencil, to limn the things with their fingertips on any convenient surface.
During that summer’s visit Jay took the pregnant Mika for several walks around Godolphin. His arthritis was better and he didn’t need the cane. He showed her the apartment building he’d grown up in, the park he’d played ball in, the high school he’d graduated from—all outwardly unchanged through the years. The deli even is still doing business, he reported, his syntax correct in Japanese and faithful to Yiddish, too. The population was not so diverse when I was a boy, he managed to say, though the adjective he used really meant “various.” We were then only Jews and Irish and…he didn’t know how to say Protestants, so he killed them off. Now we are Russian, and also Vietnamese, and also South American, and many others there is no necessity to mention, the entire final phrase contained in a one-syllable word that he unfortunately mispositioned. Mika nodded anyway, and Jay felt proud of himself, proud of all he’d learned from Sugiyama-sensei. Sugiyama’s devotion to teaching Japanese had made up for her own rather awkward English: burn, barn, and bun, on her tongue, were all the same word.
Yamamoto-sensei, the third-year teacher, pronounced English very well. His delivery, though, was alarming. His speech was interrupted by giggles, snorts, and the n-n of agreement, less extended than the n-n-n of disagreement. Jay recoiled from this gasping, spittled fellow. In Yamamoto-san’s sallowness, in the rosy wetness of his lips, in the short fatness of his nose with its exposed nostrils, in the black rims of his spectacles, he was a painful reminder of Feivel Ostroff, who had invaded Jay’s eighth-grade class more than six decades earlier. Feivel and his siblings exuded an old-world whiff that most Jewish families had vigorously sprayed away. Under ordinary circumstances the Ostroffs would not have achieved Godolphin—the father kept a little grocery in a deteriorating section of Boston, and the brood lived over the store. But the feckless father died, and the mother’s brother, made prosperous by the war, moved widow and orphans into a big apartment on Jefferson Avenue whose rent he undertook to pay. He bought them necessaries and even bikes.
If the Orloffs had been Chasidic they would have become part of a tribe wearing queer puppet costumes; they’d have attended the Chasidic day school. Or if the Orloffs had been Orthodox they’d have worn yarmulkes and attended the Orthodox school. But they were not Chasidic, not Orthodox, not even particularly observant; they were merely dark, scrawny, and embarrassing. Their lunch boxes were crammed with hard-boiled eggs and pickles. Feivel laughed at his own jokes. Some students made friends with him—he could be helpful with Latin homework and in those days Harvard still required proficiency in an ancient tongue. Jay, all A’s anyway, ignored him.
But he couldn’t ignore Yamamoto. Jay meant to conquer the Japanese language; Yamamoto’s territory was in his battle plan. And there was a similar determination in Jay’s classmates—there were only four others now. It was as if they were attending not the decorous language center but the night school to which his grandfather had dragged himself a century earlier, even after ten hours of work, because on English his whole future depended.
Three of the others had been with Jay since the beginning—two businessmen and a programmer—and the fourth was a new pupil, a young woman who’d begun her Japanese studies in college. She was now living with a doctor from Kobe. Jay wondered what their offspring would look like—the young woman was pale and freckled, with parched hair and transparent eyelashes. Jay’s new great-grandchild, according to the pictures on the Web, was an untroubled blend of both families: he had, in charming miniature, his mother’s chin and hair and eyes, his father’s curly mouth, and Jay’s own father’s noble schnozz. In one of the pictures Mika’s grandmother held the baby on her lap. She was wearing glasses, her expression unreadable.
Yamamoto was an expert drillmaster. He made the class repeat verb conjugations and honorific forms and onomatopoeic words until Jay became mukamuka, kurakura, gennari…nauseated, dizzy, and exhausted. But Yamamoto was not entirely to blame; Jay’s disease was at last on the offensive. Well, it was his fate, wasn’t it; his unmei. Yamamoto stood during the drills, breathing noisily, waving his arms, almost shouting through his noxious giggles. He was like a soldier…like a Japanese soldier…like a Japanese soldier in the war films of Jay’s boyhood. He was dressed in salaryman’s clothing—utterly black suit, utterly white shirt, dark red tie—but he might as well have been wearing green tanker coveralls with drawstrings at waist and ankles. His mouth was always slightly open; his short white teeth grazed his plump lower lip. He liked to slice the air with his hand. Chop. Chop.
Drills were only part of the weekly class. There was also the humbling return of corrected homework, and kanji tests, and videotapes in which overwrought actors enacted workplace dramas—someone has to make an emergency presentation, someone else almost doesn’t land a contract. What a perilous life Woody must be leading. The students conducted general conversations initiated by Yamamoto.
Sheila-san, what did you do last weekend?
Cooked shabu-shabu, did tennnis, worked in the garden, did Japanese study.
Did you, now. Ralph-san?
Grilled beef, did golf, saw a movie, did Japanese study.
Sensei, what did you do? somebody usually inquired. There followed a sentence didactically employing modifiers, idioms, and contractions. Yamamoto hopefully attended a Red Sox game, but the pitiable Sox surrendered six runs. At a concert a skillful quartet performed a composition written just for them. A dog was struck on the street and ended up in trouble: dead. During these narrations the incisor-notable mouth, framed at the corners with saliva, was open in its customary smirk, a replica of Feivel Ostroff’s anxious smile.
In high school Feivel had put on enough weight to become merely thin. He had learned to giggle less. By the time he and Jay were freshmen together across the river (Feivel’s uncle paid for room and board as well as tuition) he was calling himself Phil. He majored in classics; he wrote his senior thesis on Ovid. In Jay’s eyes, Feivel-Phil retained the feverish eagerness of a greenhorn, but now he was one man among ten thousand, less odd than many—less bizarre than a couple of Inuits, less exotic than the Ismaili prince, less greasy than the Brooklyn smart alecks shuttling between class and lab, preparing themselves for distinguished scientific careers and, it turned out, a couple of Nobels.
Phil Ostroff paid court to a dowdy Radcliffe girl named Dorothea, also a classicist, whose parents were professors in some college on the prairie. Phil and Dorothea, both summa cum laude, were married right after graduation by a justice of the peace. They went off to graduate school in Chicago, where the university paid them handsome stipends for the honor of their presence.
During the spring semester of Japanese III, Passover began on the Saturday night before Easter. This weekend I will attend a religious banquet, Jay said. Bread may not be eaten. Using my dear wife’s recipe, my dear daughter will make soup. We will eat chicken, sweet potatoes, fruit, crackers, special fish.
Matzoh, amplified Yamamoto. As for gefilte, there is no Japanese equivalent.
Sheila would prepare the traditional Easter meal: ham, sweet potatoes, fruit. One businessman was going to the game and the other would be visiting family in New York and the programmer planned to organize his collection of compact discs. He would arrange them by century first, he said; within century by composer; within composer by…
Yamamoto’s lower lip stretched under his awning of teeth. Next week we will enjoy hearing about your system. Tonight’s class is over.
As for this weekend, Jay insisted. Sensei wa?
The teeth flared at him. I will attend a seder.
A guest at the feast, Jay thought: the stranger in your midst… But the teacher went on. My wife will prepare the meal. I will conduct the service.
“In Hebrew?” the startled Jay inquired, in English.
Yamamoto turned his head away from this impertinence. “Hebrew is a difficult tongue,” Jay should have said—that would have been a respectful way not to ask the question. But respect be damned—the question and its companions begged for answers.
If you have lived in Godolphin all of your seventy-seven years except the four in Cambridge, you can find out anything; you know who to ask.
“He’s married to a dentist from Worcester,” Carol Glickman told Jay. It was June; Jay had lain in wait for her at the library; he knew she went to the senior movies there. “One of those young women who can do it all.”
Jay thought of Mika, pregnant again, continuing her career from her home computer, which no doubt converted itself into a changing table after the market closed. “Mrs. Yamamoto… Dr. Yamamoto…she’s Jewish?”
“Yes, whatever we mean by that these days. Some of her family have baal-teshuvaed, become sort-o-dox.” Carol laughed. Jay would have laughed in return, but he knew his breath stank from the noxious pills he was now obliged to swallow. Carol paused, went on. “Some of them are probably Quakers or Zennists or whatever. Did you know that Feivel Ostroff’s daughter is an Episcopal priest?”
“Feivel wasn’t at my reunion,” Jay belatedly remembered.
“He died last year. Best-loved teacher at Dartmouth, or was it Williams. Made Latin popular, and Greek too.” She paused again.
Was he supposed to express condolences?
“How are you, Jay?” she said at last, in a light voice. Her husband, a judge, had served on the Anti-Defamation League with Jay. She was widowed now, like Mika’s grandmother. Her hair was dyed, again like Mika’s grandmother: the same shade of bark.… How was he? She could see how he was: yellow and shrunken. She could probably figure the likelihood of his living another year. Jay the actuary had already figured it: zero.
“I’m not long for this world,” he said, unmischievously, turning his head to exhale. She opened her mouth, ready to give comfort. “Another time,” he begged, and fled.
In September he went to High Holy Day services for the first time in years. His grandfather’s tallith lent a semblance of flesh to his frame. He sat at the end of the pew, contemplating a quick getaway.
The rabbi wore dramatic white robes. She carried the Torah down the aisle, followed by some shuffling elders: his contemporaries, he supposed. She paused at Jay’s row, and he managed one of his old playful smiles. His teeth were still good. She waited with her burden, half smiling herself, and he remembered to touch the scroll with his prayer book and bring the book back to his lips, though it grew heavy on the return journey, as if it had acquired the weight of Numbers.
In October he went across the river to a boring lecture on the Japanese economy. In November he went to the Game in the rain, and left at the half. The following week he visited Widener Library on his alumnus pass, fifty dollars a year. The library stacks had recently been strengthened but not reconfigured. Between steel shelves the aisles were as narrow as ever. Standing on Level 3, his feet on the old stone floor, his body brushed by books as gentle as Kyoto schoolchildren, he felt like a boy again. But there was not one volume he cared to read.
He hadn’t cared to enroll in Japanese IV, either. He was too weary. But what he’d accomplished gladdened him. He could make his way through children’s picture books. He could speak to the shaineh maideleh at the Japanese tchotchke shop. He could recognize several hundred kanji; and at night, floating in his bath, he could still draw a few of them on his wasted thigh. At his favorite sushi bar he listened to words flying from one sashimi master to another. Occasionally he fearlessly asked the meaning of an expression. His hematologist, a tiny Indian, urged him to eat and drink anything that agreed with him. Not much agreed with him, but Japanese beer and raw salmon were no worse than oatmeal and applesauce.
Chicken soup did lie lightly on his stomach—Jews were right about that. Wulf’s, the only kosher market left in town (there had been half a dozen during his childhood), cooked up a batch every few days and put it in jars. Jay bought a jar on Sunday, ate what he could during the week, threw out the rest. Sunday after Sunday the bearded man at the cash register looked at Jay without recognition.
His mind was on higher things, maybe his inventory.
Jay’s clothes had grown roomy. On one of his rare good days he bought two pairs of chinos, apparently back in style, at the local Gap. And a navy blazer, size what?—small, God help him. His daughter dropped in every day to say hello and straighten the apartment. They were both silently waiting for the doctor to mention hospice. Meanwhile he could still make his weekly trek to Wulf’s.
And it was at Wulf’s, on a Sunday morning, that he saw Yamamoto again, and the Yamamoto family, four children in total. Jay stepped behind a rack of spices. From this hiding place he inspected the dentist-wife. She was surprisingly pretty, and slender despite many pregnancies. She was wearing a felt hat with an upturned brim. Fetching. He recognized it as the substitution made by modern Orthodox for the matron’s wig. Rich brown hair curled below the hat. She was pushing a cart in which a two-year-old lorded over groceries. Yamamoto walked behind her, wearing an infant in a sling. Two little boys marched in the space between their mother and father, and talked in light voices—English, he noted. The children, even the infant, had the straight black hair of Woody’s little son; they had similar dark eyes, too, angled more gently than if their blood were pure. The boys wore yarmulkes. Likewise Yamamoto-san, their Yiddische chichi.
So this was the current trajectory of an immigrant’s career—this leap from one ill-favored group into another. What had happened to those necessary decades—generations, even—spent dissembling among the Yankees? Jay the commissioner, Glickman the judge, Fessel the surgeon—how delicately they’d mingled with the favored. And bold Feivel Ostroff, applying himself to pagan texts, had managed a complete metamorphosis. Somewhere a bishopric was no doubt waiting for his daughter the priest… And here, where shelves of canned mackerel faced shelves of boxed kasha, the Yamamoto children, crossbred progeny of two outcast clans, confidently trotted. Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.
Forgetting to conceal himself behind the spices, Jay stood up as straight as his pain allowed. He was still what he was born to be—an Anti-Defamation Jew; a citizen of Godolphin, Mass; a loyal Harvard man. Papa Yamamoto was perhaps immune to the lure of the Houses across the river. But in this new world of interchangeable gods, and of females dressed up in priestly robes like drag queens…in this world where nations who’d tried to obliterate each other ended up in the same bed, and where your offspring hurled themselves across the planet and forgot to return…in such a world the enduring things, really, were bricks and bell towers, a library and a stadium. They remained, they steadied you until the end—flow’rs in your wilderness, stars in your night. He’d reveal this truth to the rabbi when she made her dutiful visit to the almost dead.
A nearby church bell chimed. With his jacket floating around what was left of him, Jay moved from spice rack to register. “Chicken soup,” he said, in a voice just audible above the call to the faithful. He received the jar and put money into the impassive hand. “I’ll see you next week,” Jay promised, or maybe pleaded. It was all the same to the man with the beard.
‘Relic and Type’ from Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories Copyright © 2011 by Edith Pearlman. Used by permission of Lookout Books, an imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. All rights reserved. This story first appeared in Pakn Treger: The Magazine of The Yiddish Book Center.