Skip to main content

Just So


ISSUE:  Summer 2012

The Family Herbst was never impressed with precocity—smart children had been turning up among them for generations. When Nate at five began to make up Just So stories in imitation of Kipling, the other Herbsts awarded him sincere but minimal praise. So Nate took to printing the stuff privately—crayon on shirt cardboard—and stashing them in his special drawer. One story traced the evolution of the bicycle from the eggbeater. Another, closer in style to the Master, was called How Leonard Got His Hair. Cousin Leonard had once been as bald as Grandpa Tony, Nate imagined, but during his travels a small furry animal hitched a ride on the top of his head and got stuck there. Grandpa Tony was jealous.

Back in college half a century ago people figured Leonard and Tony were brothers because they argued so much. Their disputes often referred to events they alone knew about, and to personages whose names were familiar only to them, and to recondite questions of grammar—who on Earth cared? Who even wanted to be around the Herbst boys when they were having one of their competitive spats?

They didn’t look like brothers then, and even less now. Anthony Herbst at seventy-two was compact, fit, smooth-skinned, bald. His sharp mouth could snap, yes, though never at little Nate. The thin lips could also loosen into a tender smile. His sons counted on this. “You compassionate people,” said the younger just last week, making compassionate rhyme with terminate.

“You’re verbing an adjective,” smiled Tony, verbing a noun.

As for Leonard Herbst, his face was all grooves: vertical on the cheeks and horizontal on the brow under that pelt. His mouth was as wide as two mouths. It curled up at its extremities, or sometimes down, or sometimes up at one end and down at the other.

No resemblance. Just a connection—too close to be severed, too close to be borne.

Tony’s wife Jennifer felt its intensity. Leonard was now living in the basement waiting to die; was dying in the basement one might say, though grievous fatigue seemed to be his only symptom … Leonard was around, and Jennifer was daily witness to the intensity. It was manifest in the looks the men gave each other, which the uninitiated might interpret as hostility. It was manifest in their insistent voices even if the subject under discussion was, oh, astrology, which passionated neither of them. Jennifer—often called Yennifer after the Swedish grandmother she was named for—was not Tony’s first wife, not the second, but the third, the beloved, the one who would last, the mother of the two teenaged boys. Tony had found her twenty years earlier. Past hoping for another marriage, he’d resigned himself to the study and teaching of history and the writing of books and the receiving of awards. Domesticity belonged to more agreeable fellows. But now he had this golden sweetness to cherish and their two interesting offspring as well. And a grandson. Six years ago the daughter by Wife Two had borne Nate, his father a physician from Mexico. Tony’s luck seemed almost unbearable, unbearably precarious, made more so in the presence of feckless Cousin Leonard.


Cousins, yes. Not brothers. They were the sons of a pair of Brooklyn dentists who were brothers and also partners. Furthermore those brothers had married sisters. The cousinly tie between the two only children was braided twice. And they grew up on adjacent blocks, attended the same public schools, attended the same fine university where their verbal wrangling was noticed. Tony learned much from the courses he took, and graduated with high honors. Leonard learned much from the courses he dropped in on, and little from the ones he signed up for but didn’t show up at. He did graduate, barely. Off they flew, though not together. Much later Tony returned, almost to where he’d begun … well, not exactly to Brooklyn but over the Bridge, and you still had to get yourself to the West Side and then north to 103rd Street. But it wasn’t far from where he’d begun. Time had swallowed space. “Space has banished time,” was Leonard’s contrary version.

Tony had lived in many places—France, Israel, California, Canada. He had earned a doctorate and honorary degrees (Leonard had not progressed past that early B.A.) and had written countless articles (Leonard too had written articles) and several books (Leonard had written no books). Tony was considered a Public Intellectual. Leonard could also be called a Public Intellectual, but the members of his public kept shifting and were never numerous anyway. But Leonard too had traveled mightily. After college he had gone to France, not to the Sorbonne like Tony but to the Pyrenees. He wrote half a book about the Roma, then published it piecemeal in magazines. He went on to other places—Norway, India, who knew. He had risen partway in the chess world; he had played piano in bars; he had done manual labor. Had kept himself going. Had not married. Leonard presented his recent biography whenever the cousins met, oh, once or twice a decade, if they happened to be in the same city—Tony giving a lecture, Leonard working at some job or some other job. But, really, Tony didn’t know much about Leonard.

Five months ago, in April, when Leonard turned up on his doorstep—sometimes only a cliché will do, Tony found himself thinking as he looked into the pale face of the still brown-haired now brownish-toothed man, as he looked down at a desolate suitcase held together with somebody’s tie; there is no other way to put it, he has turned up on my doorstep. Leonard looked like death warmed over. Death warmed over, soldiers’ slang, from one of the world wars. He embraced this fugitive from the charnel house and grabbed the suitcase. He guided Leonard into the living room where Nate and Jennifer were kneeling on the floor making a castle with Lego from the boys’ old collection, ur Lego it was, no special pieces, just blocks of various sizes with those tiny projecting cylinders. In the nineteenth century boys played with blocks and soldiers; they were all anyone needed to learn the nature of the world—building, unbuilding, carnage. His mind wandering in this way—one of his minds, Jennifer would say; she claimed he had two parallel mentation devices connected by a couple of cables—he undertook to introduce Leonard to the two people on the floor. But Leonard was already introducing himself.

“I am Tony’s cousin,” he said to Jennifer, who rose smoothly from kneeling to standing. Acrobatics as a child, that’s how she explained this nimbleness. Certainly she didn’t frequent a gym as an adult. She didn’t do any of the other things women of fifty did—run a business, practice a profession, belong to a book club, join a cause. “I am his wife,” she said, and held out her hand. “This is his grandson,” and she bent her knees slightly until her soft hand reached the head of the boy, standing now too. He raised dark eyes.

“Not your grandson as well?”

“In a way; but he has two other grandmothers also.”

Leonard, no longer encumbered by his suitcase—he had made a bellhop of his cousin—dropped down beside Nate.

“Jennifer,” said Jennifer, completing her introduction of herself. “Nate,” indicating the child. She resumed her place on the floor. Leonard said, “Leonard.” Tony almost lowered the suitcase, judged that such a move would destroy it entirely, carried it instead into the narrow kitchen and down the back stairs to the guest room.


Tony’s daughter Clara was studying singing twice a week, and on lesson days she dropped Nate on 103rd Street to spend the afternoon with his grandfather and with Grandma Yen. Now this mature play group included Leonard too. He had made himself at ease in what was to be his new home and no doubt his last. Most days he traveled between the first floor and his aerie, as he deliberately mis-called the basement suite. He slept late and used the telephone and read the household’s magazines and entertained a friend or two and went to bed early. In the afternoons when Nate didn’t visit, Leonard often turned one of the kitchen stools around and sat with his forearms crossed on its bamboo back and watched his cousin-in-law prepare the evening meal. He refused offers of raw vegetables and fruit. “Candy lies best on my stomach,” he explained. He kept chocolate bars in every pocket. Sweets were proscribed by current wisdom; Nate made free with those pockets. On the evenings of the afternoons he spent with his grandparents he could be guaranteed not to eat supper, Clara reported.

For most of the day Leonard wore a stained, striped bathrobe of Tony’s which kept acquiring new splotches: ink, finger-paint, drops of blood—his psoriatic skin bled here and there—and urine and smears of what Jennifer hoped was chocolate. He got dressed shortly before the family dinner which he attended though he ate nothing. But on the days of Nate’s visits he was dressed by two o’clock, wearing a pair of roomy slacks. The slacks were his; they’d risen from the collapsed suitcase along with two plaid shirts, two pairs of underpants, one ragged cardigan, some socks, and a few books. The rest of his books arrived by freight, sure of their welcome. He added them to the house’s collection after figuring out the cataloguing system. Jennifer saw that the books would be his legacy.

He always left yesterday’s clothing folded at the top of the basement stairs. Every morning Jennifer tossed it into the family wash. She washed the bathrobe separately whenever she got a chance. He must have owned a razor and toothbrush, for he was always shaven, and his breath had a strong minty smell which didn’t quite conceal the odor of decay. He’d brought pills. They had to be frequently renewed. Visits to his New York doctor (he had quacks all over the world, he mentioned) resulted in a fistful of scripts which one of the boys took to the pharmacy and whose cost went on Tony’s account.

“Is Cousin Leonard what you’d call a schnorrer?” the younger boy asked one night when they were washing up, all four crammed into in the little kitchen.

“Sssh,” said Jennifer, and pointed downwards to Leonard’s room.

“No.” Tony shook his head.

“He’s ours,” said Jennifer, leading the family into the living room.

“He’s home,” said Tony, still drying a wine­glass.

She took that glass from him and carried it back into the kitchen. From there she heard the older son, talking in a normal voice. “ ‘Home is the place where they have to take you in.’ Robert Frost.” That school! Her sons’ handwriting was still appalling, but their heads were full of poetry, sometimes garbled, so what. She put the glass away, and silently went on with the poem: “something you somehow don’t have to deserve.” The younger son was talking now, in an even louder voice. What were they arguing about, these Herbsts, these hyper-educated, penmanship-challenged verse-quoting lights-of-her-life? They were discussing the descent of man. She stationed herself in the kitchen doorway. “We would have happened anyhow,” the younger was insisting.

“We didn’t have to happen at all,” said the older.

“Who could be so lucky?” from Tony.

“One chance mutation, the rest an obligation,” from the older boy.

“Nature had us in mind from the start.” He looked so earnest, this baby of fourteen.

“How unambitious of Her,” teased their father.


Also from Leonard’s suitcase had come a twenty-page manuscript called “The Future.” It was a prediction of the path evolution would take from the twenty-first century on—eons would pass until the Future was fulfilled. Squinting at his own crabbed script (and yet such huge hands, Jennifer marveled), Leonard suggested that the next major stage of human development, of punctuated evolution, would not be a superorganism but rather a pared down individual, hermaphroditic and self-fertilizing and a twin to everybody else in the universe. He called these creatures Epsteins after a Professor of Natural Science whose class he’d audited. Epsteins would nourish themselves on a substance extracted from the air.

Leonard read this paper to the family on a June night. They were all in the living room:

A weak breeze floated between the window and the open front door. Clara, whose husband was on call, sat on the couch. Little Nate lay beside her, his head on her thighs, his ear against her pregnancy. Everyone else was haphazardly distributed. One of Leonard’s friends, a retired philosopher now suffering from forgetfulness, sat on a low footstool. Jennifer, on the floor, leaned against Tony’s slightly separated bare knees. The two hard knobs enclosed her skull. She would have leaned back further, into the crotch of his long shorts, but decorum must be preserved, though she might have disputed this principle if she’d been given to dispute. The lowering sun made the street rosy, made the living room window glow. Was Leonard’s imagined future rosy too? She wondered how her own male half would express itself within an hermaphroditic whole … would he be good company for the female half? She for him? “So you see the future as reversion,” Tony was saying.

“How so?” said Leonard.

“People becoming plants again, or maybe invertebrates. No higher animal is hermaphroditic.”

“Coyotes,” said the younger son.

“Hyenas,” corrected the older.

“The Epsteins will have locomotion, unlike plants,” said Leonard. “Who says mammals are higher than worms?”

“They’re lower, in fact,” said the philosopher. “Ethically.”


When summer came Nate visited every afternoon, school being out, and camp being the child’s idea of hell, and Clara, now in her seventh month, being glad to be left alone. Leonard read aloud all the books in Nate’s little wooden case constructed by Jennifer and the older son. Nate had heard those books often and could now read them himself. But he liked listening, following the words with his eyes while stroking his relative’s bony forearm, asking questions whose answers he already knew … “What’s that animal?”

“A dodo.”

In a book about mummies, “What are they packing up for bandage-man?”

“Toys for the afterlife. Texts to read there.”

There was a new book illustrated with stick figures. “Epsteins,” Nate identified.

There was the old collection of Just So Stories. After the first two tales Nate got up and went to his drawer and found How Leonard Got His Hair. Leonard read the cardboard with a fist gripping it on either side, as if as soon as he finished reading he’d eat it. But he didn’t: just said gravely, “Thank you, Nate.”

Usually Leonard went to bed before the rest of the family. But one night, after Clara had taken Nate home, after the boys had gone off to the movies, after Jennifer had disappeared upstairs, the guest in the house lay down on the couch like a paterfamilias tired out by the day’s work. “Oh those Just So stories,” he said to the room at large, though it included only him and Tony. “Such a blessed absence of motivation. How did Cousin Leonard get his blood disease, Nate must wonder. I’ll tell him tomorrow that an animal with a long black snout opened my vein and sucked out all the red cells.”

“You’ll scare the child.”

“Fear is essential to maturity. Anyway, the Just So stories are instructive evolutionary biology.”

“The Just So stories are creation myths.”

“Invented by a fascist.”

“Kipling had the prejudices of his time and the personality of the abused. And he had lost his …”

“Little daughter, yes. ‘Nothing gold can stay.’ Robert Frost, always useful.” One side of his mouth grinned, slicing so deeply into his cheek that it activated a long-dormant dimple. Tony remembered that dimple. “ ‘What’s true of e-coli is true of the ele­phant,’ ” Leonard continued. He’d always had a taste for non-sequiturs.

“Some biologist,” Tony foundered. “Jacques Monod?”

“Monod, yes. True of the elephant, and of the elephant’s child.”

Tony sighed. “If you say so.”

“If I say so! Have you stopped tangling with me? I must be dying. Already?”

“No, no, not yet,” said Tony, and his voice broke.

Leonard sat up, fell back again.

“ … I do wish you could live,” said Tony. “Strongly I wish it.”

“Natural feeling, we are cousins… .”

“Double cousins, in fact,” said Tony, trying to recover his poise. “Recently I reviewed consanguinity. If we were plain cousins we’d share approximately one-eighth of our genes. But as sons of siblings married to siblings, we share approximately one quarter of them. Like half-siblings.”

“People used to think we were brothers. Maybe we’re twins …”

“Only half-brothers, and only genetically.”

“ … arguing with you did feel like arguing with myself,” said Leonard.

“Maybe I’m your other mentation.”

“What?”

“Oh … a fancy of Jennifer’s.”

“Oh. I suppose as half-siblings we can each lay claim to the other’s families.”

“Somewhat. You can’t sleep with my wife.”

Leonard’s answering smile was so creased with longing that Tony wished the words unsaid. He crossed the room—he must have done so, he no longer felt the chair under him—and sat on the floor next to the couch, more or less cross-legged, his heels gouging his thighs, one elbow awkwardly commandeering the space next to Leonard’s head. He said, “It was alarming how close we were …”

“ … without much caring for each other.”

A dread silence followed this exchange. Then Leonard said: “I wanted to write a book, just one. I wanted to write one book, in time to be buried with it.” Abruptly he fell asleep. Tony gently pushed him against the back of the couch without waking him. Then he got up and went into the dining room and carried in three chairs, which he set up like crib slats in front of the sleeping man.


There was a sizeable alcove off the living room with a window looking down the alley towards Jennifer’s little garden: two hydrangeas growing improbably in the city soil. There was a tiny deck. In July Leonard had sat on the deck.

Now, as he worsened, the clever hospice people transformed the alcove into a hospital room—special bed, commode, poles hung with sacs of liquid, an oxygen tank on the floor and a cylinder they could fill from the tank. Whenever the family took him out, Leonard tucked the cylinder between his fleshless thigh and the side of the wheelchair. They took him out almost every afternoon, unfolding the chair, lowering one side of it, sliding him onto the seat—whoever did it had to embrace him frontally, forearms under his armpits, and at the same time try to avoid his breath. A similar maneuver—Tony performed it whenever necessary—got him onto the commode. The boys had constructed a wheelchair ramp from the front door to the sidewalk, bypassing those three steps that Leonard had climbed long ago, not long ago, so long ago … the nature of time had not yet been agreed upon by Tony and Leonard though they kept amiably discussing it. How The Cousins Became Brothers, Jennifer thought.

One Friday afternoon she said she had to baste a bird, beat some eggs, whip some cream … she wanted to be alone. The others walked without her. She stood on the ramp and watched. Tony was behind the chair obstructing her view of the familiar scarecrow, of the still abundant hair. The boys were behind Tony. Nate was beside the chair, holding some bones of Leonard’s that called themselves a hand. They proceeded towards Broadway, this troupe, stopping so that people could pityingly circle them. The younger boy in an access of some emotion jumped, caught the branch of a young city tree, hung for a moment, dropped—one of the things he wasn’t supposed to do, citizen that he was brought up to be. The older boy punched him in the back. The younger retaliated by trying to trip his brother, unsuccessfully. They reached Broadway and turned south and she went back into the house.


“Put my How in the … box? Why?”

“Cousin Leonard loved the Just So story you wrote. It was a wonderful gift.”

“It wasn’t a gift, Grandma Yen,” said Nate. “It was like a gift. It still is mine.”

“It would keep him company,” Jennifer murmured, ashamed of this belief. She would not ask again, at least not out loud …

“No,” said Nate, unasked, frowning. “We are not Egyptians,” ready to quarrel about that or anything else. She didn’t respond. Let him take it up with his new little brother—the infant would no doubt learn to argue early, he was a Herbst wasn’t he. 

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading