The Boy Who Walked to Distant Lands
“Your mother is going to have a baby,” his father said, holding him by the hand, sitting beside him on the stoop in front of the house in Brooklyn with the big trees that were just around the corner and down two blocks. “What do you want, a sister or a brother?”
“I want a dog.”
“I see. What sort of dog?”
“A black dog with curly hair. A dog that comes from Africa.”
“I see. All right.”
When he got home from school his sister was sitting in the high chair and his mother was making kugel for Pesach, the kitchen steamy.
“Is it only the Jews who have a history?” he asked her after she’d given him the snack.
“No, it isn’t. The others have their histories, too.”
“Do the Schvartzes?”
“Yes. You can read it at the library.”
He walked to the library the next day and began.
He rode the subway lines to their last stops, all the buses to their termini. The F train stopped nearest his father’s law office on 42nd Street near the public library and the lions. Whenever he visited, his father would ask where did you go? And what did you see? And just before he left the office, his father would reach into his wallet and give him five dollars, saying, “See how far you can get on that.”
He took the Broadway line to the Orientalia bookshop near Columbia University for stories of the old lands, Africa, Babylon, Arabia, Greece. He picked up a heavy Arabic grammar and carried it to the cash register.
“I want this.” When he put the book on the counter and pulled the five-dollar bill out of his pocket, two Superman comics fell to the floor and the clerk laughed.
He went home and taught himself Arabic.
When his father was disbarred for things that were not all that wrong, nor anymore his father’s fault than that of several other men who weren’t disbarred, his mother wept. He walked his mother every night along the esplanade, her arm drawn through his bent elbow. His father found a new job selling things and went off every day with cheer; he was, after all, a man of character.
Entering college, he carefully circled two mistakes that the professor had made on the qualifying exams for Arabic. He learned eight languages, including the very dead one of Akkad, where Semites had lived. He read their laws, just as they were when they’d been pressed into clay with little lines and triangles: My heart is pleased at the end of this transaction for the sale of a field that is 700 paces by 224 paces. Here is the bridegroom and here is the bride. I take you as my adopted son. Here was the origin of his father’s former trade. He learned it and did not marry. Sometimes the heart is full.
He visited the new Israel. It frightened him.
“Wunderkind,” they said to him. “He will save us.”
He took the next plane out.
At the seminary, he stood in the corner of the elevator car next to the scholar Abraham Heschel, so tiny beside him. He reached for the great man’s great beard and pulled out a single white strand, “There is a god,” he said. He pulled out another. “There isn’t a god.”
Or perhaps he did that. Many say so, those who know the tales of the rabbis.
He began a book, The Personality of God—all about the Almighty’s whimsy, His short temper, His shilly shallying, His terrible disloyalty, His plain stubborn rage, His great desire to be brought round by some dubious human, to have it all come out okay. And about the prophets’ gains and losses at learning to mollify Him, how they had to calm Him down before they could point out where He’d gone too far, messed up, overshot. Only the cleverest of prophets could get Him to listen. But gradually, with their help, century after century, He grew more temperate, more patient. Though you couldn’t really relax at this job; and you might as well forget about trusting Him entirely.
He flew to ancient lands. Moslems with wrapped heads sat beside him in the airplane. Dravidians sat in front of him. The stewardess wheeled up, trays filled with food.
“No pork! No shellfish!” he told her.
“No pork! No pork!” the Moslems waved the stewardess back.
“No meat! No meat!” the Dravidians gestured with their hands to ward off evil.
Truly, it was time to marry.
She said yes, even though the Parkinson’s that had been diagnosed in far too young a man would surely reduce him. My heart is willing, she said. Here is the bridegroom, here is the bride. They married at forty, a hot day in a catering establishment on the Upper West Side. She knew all the words to the ceremonies but, being female, was forbidden in those days to sing—until he insisted that she come and join the men. Then she sang. He could walk enough to dance a little.
“Such a tragedy,” relatives whispered, as the bride and the bridegroom rejoiced. Guests watched the dancing and sweated out the sleeves of their dresses.
He was early to his therapist’s and found a message on the door. The Doctor cannot see you today. The doctor had killed himself. So even therapists had no answers, except the old answer: do not believe. This is what happens to believers: you are left at a door that is shut in front of you, reading a no-show message. He returned to his teaching and then his most brilliant student hanged himself. Abandon truth, it doesn’t do. It makes a person sad.
“Come, Muffs,” his wife waltzed him out of his chair—he needed her to get him moving, so he could stand, so he could walk. Onto the Persian rug, past the carved gods from Africa, out into the elevator, up to the roof where the orthodox built their succah. Below them flowed the great river Hu-du-so-nu. “We are alive,” she said. “Get with it.”
He fathered no children, but words. Don’t get confused, he told the scholars, turning his face from them. I am a poet. The scholars did not accept this and came to his house to listen for truths. When they rang the doorbell, he set a bowl of milk before the stilled, wooden gods of Africa that stood at the side of his couch. Idols, their name. In his own house. Because he understood. Enter the scholars to sit on the couch and question. When they stepped out of the living room for the bathroom, he would tilt the milk into the hanging plant and return the empty bowl to the table.
The scholars never laughed.
Young men filed his papers, transcribed his thoughts, pulled him from chairs, cut up his apples, spread his cheeses. Bless me father, his students said. Who, me? He laughed inside the great bald, immobile head. Laugh! he told them. It is all a joke. But when he opened his mouth, his tongue froze. When he stretched forth his hand to show them where in the testament, at the bottom of this page, on the left, second paragraph up, exactly here . . . his hand would not move to lift the tissue-thin paper.
“Come, Muffs,” his wife said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Other days he found himself stuck in the opposite manner, stuck moving. He could not stop walking, so he kept going along a sidewalk until he could angle himself to smack into the wall of an apartment building and that way come to halt. Otherwise he would plunge right along 103rd Street past the statue of the man on the horse and into the wall that kept him from the river. He stood then looking over the wall, his feet and legs still moving.
It’s the words that I have loved, he told the river. Birds flew over the water; trees held steady against the wind. For words I will live. Years passed and, according to some, there came the day that his legs did move over the wall, up the ladder that is placed at the edge of the world, high and higher into the blue arc over Hu-du-so-nu. There in the sky with the George Washington Bridge far below, he got stuck again—and this, they say—is how a man may live forever.