From Summer in Williamsburg:
The thunderstorm broke very suddenly. With the first drops excited women’s voices were heard, windows opened and wash was hastily taken off the clotheslines. It was one of those hard, mad rains that come down as if with deliberate fury. Standing in the basement doorway, Mahler, the cobbler, smoked a cigarette and quietly contemplated the downpour, his face wrinkled into a grin at the sight of it. Philip Hayman, a young man on the first floor, looked down at him. “Just watch it rain,” he said. “Just watch it.” “Yeah,” said Mahler, “maybe God is mad about something.” They both smiled, and the cobbler went into the cellar, worrying a little over the joke on God.
Soon the yard became flooded. The sewer in the middle was clogged, and the water swirled and gurgled on top of it in white foam. A boy on the third floor, eating peaches, amusedhimself by throwing down the stones. He was Davey. He aimed carefully for the center of the swirl and was visibly pleased when he made a hit. In a minute he finished with the peaches, and, having no more stones to throw, leaned far out of the window and began to spit. Davey let thick drops of saliva slip from his lips, fascinated as he watched their mysterious descent into the pool. Now the rain came down so fast the drains on the roof were overfilled and were unable to convey all the water down the pipes at once. Here it shot out in a wide arc and splashed six stories below with a loud noise.
Then abruptly the storm lost its force; the downpour diminished to a drizzle and in a minute or two stopped altogether. The sun came out brightly.
The boy on the third floor regarded the sky incredulously. Mahler came running to the basement doorway for he liked the sun to sleep in, but on the other hand Philip, who had been relishing the wild fury of the rainstorm, regretted its passing.
Two or three women arched their necks to look at the sky and, satisfied, began to hang out wash again. All together for some reason there broke out a wild confusion of music from different windows—radios, player pianos, phonographs, and someone practicing on a saxophone. The man with the sax was playing “A Russian Lullaby” in a choppy way, and he played it interminably. At the same time a man and woman were heard arguing heatedly, their words too blurred to be distinguished. The Russian lullaby and the blurred argument filled the yard in fierce competition. Then the man’s voice rang out dominatingly. “Listen,” he shouted, “I don’t care if she is my sister-in-law, the next time I see her I’m going to spit straight into her eye!”
Suddenly a woman screamed. She screamed hard, fiercely. Startled, Philip Hayman immediately visualized the creased expression of her face, the jutting jaw, her teeth revealed. It was like an alarm. Women could be heard leaving their different flats and running through the tiled hallways, their wooden heels clicking sharply on the stone. As they ran they were accompanied by waves of hubbub that grew heavier and heavier as they began to meet. In another moment it was a roar of noise, question, answer, sigh, protestation, all mixed. One woman wept in a thin, wailing voice that pierced through the confusion and seemed to move upward like a thin line of smoke.
Philip rushed through the halls. On a landing he met the kid of the peach pits, scared, but nevertheless enjoying the excitement hugely.
“What’s up, Davey?”
“Nothing, nothing. I don’t know. I could only see a man sitting on the floor with a basketball bladder.”
Philip walked up. The knot of people were talking violently but in a steady stream. Mrs. Linck stood in a circle of women, big and sloppy, dressed in a rose wrapper, her face swimming in sweat as she passionately told them the story. Mahler, the cobbler, was there, scared and pale. Mrs. Miller, even, the old miser’s wife, hung on with her eyes to every word as it came from Mrs. Linck’s mouth. Everyone was there. Philip pushed his way politely through and saw the pulmotor squad working over the man on the floor who sat in his underwear, his legs crossed, resting comfortably on pillows. Nearby lay the basketball bladder. Its tongue had been connected to a rubber gas pipe and part of it had been cut away so that it might be worn as a mask. The windows had been open all the time, and there was little odor of gas.
Now the young doctor walked out with an authoritative air in spite of his wilted white uniform. As the women clustered about him anxiously, he shook his head with self-conscious impatience. No, no, the head said, the man can’t be helped. The men carried out the pulmotor apparatus and soon the crowd began to break. In pairs, in small groups, the women went back to their flats, to finish cleaning up, to make lunch. It was all over. They would talk about it for a few days and then it would be all over. Philip was pushed with the crowd down the steps. He returned to his flat, wondering over poor Meyer Sussman. Why had he done it? No matter how hard he tried, Philip could not understand it. He remembered the butcher’s red cheeks, his hearty laughter, the kind, joking manner he had had with customers as he cajoled them into waiting quietly for their turn. This man, Philip marveled, this man; and he waited for his friend, Old Miller, to explain the riddle. Miller knew everything.
The yard became quiet again. Three little girls came back and resumed their game of potsy, kicking a thick slob of folded banana skin into the different boxes. A window above opened, and a housewife, irritable and tired from the excitement, leaned far out and yelled to one of the girls playing. “Ella, Ella, what’ll you have for lunch, potatoes in milk, or rice?”
Ella, poised on one foot, thought it over carefully for a minute. “I think I’ll have potatoes,” she finally said.
“Then,” said her mother, “I’ll have you under the ground. I have only rice.”
Meyer Sussman. Butcher to the fat housewives of Ripple Street waddling in loose kimonos,Meyer, hazy-eyed and tender-minded, gentle creature, sometimes called half-wit, perhaps because you contrasted so oddly with the bloodstains of your trade—why did you commit suicide? The autopsies of the housewives who were so fond of you were many and doubtless entirely wrong. They all began by saying that there was no reason for the suicide, and then they said it was your wife (impossible), money (you had enough, you never complained), insanity (in these things where does sanity end and insanity begin?), some disastrous secret (you lived the simplest, most even life). They all agreed that you were a fine, kindly man, and that it was a great pity, and that no one could ever have foreseen it. And this was all true.
When you meet God, Meyer Sussman, ask Him for me what made you squeeze the basketball bladder over your face. Little God in Heaven, sitting somewhere on a cloud, where are You?
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