Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.
“He didn’t answer the phone, he wouldn’t open his door,” says Tenenboym the night manager, when he comes to roust Landsman. Landsman lives in 505, with a view of the neon sign on the hotel across Max Nordau Street. That one is called the Blackpool, a word that figures in Landsman’s nightmares. “I had to let myself into his room.”
“Did you touch anything in the room?” Landsman says.
Tenenboym says, “Only the cash and jewelry.”
Landsman puts on his trousers and shoes, and hitches up his suspenders. Then he and Tenenboym both turn to look at the doorknob, where a necktie hangs, red with a fat maroon stripe, already knotted to save time. Landsman has eight hours to go until his next shift. Eight rat hours, sucking at his bottle, in his glass tank lined with wood shavings. Landsman sighs, and goes for the tie. He slides it over his head and pushes up the knot to his collar. He puts on his jacket, feels for the wallet and shield in the breast pocket, pats the sholem he wears in a holster under his arm, a chopped Smith & Wesson Model 39.
“I hate to wake you, Detective,” Tenenboym says. “Only I noticed that you don’t really sleep.”
Landsman puts his hand on Tenenboym’s shoulder, and they go down to take stock of the deceased, squeezing into the Zamenhof’s lone elevator, or elevatoro, as a small brass plate over the door would have it. Fifty years ago, when the hotel was first built, all of its directional signs, labels, notices, and warnings were printed, on brass plates, in Esperanto. Most of them are long gone, victims of neglect, vandalism, or the fire code.
The door and doorframe of 208 do not exhibit signs of forced entry. Landsman covers the knob with his handkerchief and nudges the door open with his toe.
“I got this funny feeling,” Tenenboym says, as he follows Landsman into the room. “First time I ever saw the guy. You know the expression ‘a broken man’?”
Landsman allows that the phrase rings a bell.
“Most of the people it gets applied to don’t really deserve it, if you know what I mean,” Tenenboym says. “Most men, in my opinion, they have nothing there to break in the first place. But this Lasker. He was like one of those sticks you snap, they light up for a few hours. You know? And you can hear broken glass rattling inside of them. I don’t know, forget it. It was just a funny feeling.”
“Everybody has a funny feeling these days, Tenenboym,” he says, making a few notes in his little black pad about the situation of the room, even though such notes are superfluous, because he rarely forgets a detail of physical description. Landsman has been told, by the same loose confederacy of physicians, psychologists, and his former spouse, that alcohol will kill his gift for recollection but so far, to his regret, this claim has proven false. His vision of the past remains unimpaired. “We had to open a separate phone line just to handle the calls.”
“These are strange times to be a Jew,” Tenenboym agrees. “No doubt about it.”
A small pile of paperback books sits atop the laminate dresser. On the bedside table Lasker kept a chessboard. It looks like he had a game going, a messy-looking endgame with Black’s king under attack at the center of the board and White with the advantage of a couple of pieces. It’s a cheap set, the board a square of card that folds down the middle, the pieces hollow, with plastic nubs where they were extruded.
One light burns in a three-shade floor lamp by the television. Every other bulb in the room apart from the bathroom tube has been removed or allowed to burn out. On the windowsill sits a package of a popular brand of over-the-counter laxative. The window is cranked open its possible inch, and every few seconds the metal blinds bang in the stiff wind blowing in off the Gulf of Alaska. The wind carries a sour tang of pulped lumber, the smell of boat diesel and the slaughter and canning of salmon.
According to “Nokh Amol,” a song that Landsman and every other Alaskan Jew of his generation learned in grade school, the smell of the wind from the Gulf fills a Jewish nose with a sense of promise, opportunity, and the chance to start again. “Nokh Amol” dates from the Polar Bear days, the early forties, and it’s supposed to be an expression of gratitude for another miraculous deliverance: Once Again. Nowadays the Jews of the Sitka District tend to hear the ironic edge that was there all along.
“Seems like I’ve known a lot of chess-playing Jews that used smack,” Tenenboym says.
“Same here,” Landsman says, looking down at the deceased. Realizing he has seen the yid around the Zamenhof, couple of times. Little bird of a man. Bright eye, snub beak. Bit of a flush in the cheeks and throat that might have been rosacea. Not a hard case, not a scumbag, not quite a lost soul. A yid not too different from Landsman, maybe, apart from his choice of drug. Read a book with footnotes once. Clean fingernails. Always a tie and hat. Now Lasker lies on his belly, on the pulldown bed, face to the wall, wearing only a pair of regulation white underpants. Ginger hair and ginger freckles and three days of golden stubble on his cheek. A trace of a double chin that Landsman puts down to a vanished life as a fat boy. His eyes are swollen in their blood-dark orbits. At the back of his head there is a small, burnt hole, a bead of blood. No sign of a struggle. Nothing to indicate that Lasker saw it coming, or even knew the instant when it came. The pillow, Landsman notices, is missing from the bed. “If I’d known, maybe I would have proposed a game or two.”
“I didn’t know you play.”
“I’m very weak,” Landsman says. By the closet, on the plush carpet that is the medicated yellow-green of a throat lozenge, he spots a tiny white feather. Landsman jerks open the closet door, and there on the floor is the pillow, shot through the heart to silence the concussion of bursting gases in a shell. “I have no feel for the endgame.”
“In my experience, Detective,” Tenenboym says, “it’s pretty much all endgame, right from the start.”
“Don’t I know it,” Landsman says.
Landsman wakes his partner, Berko Shemets.
“Detective Shemets,” Landsman says, into his mobile phone, a department-issue Shoyfer AT. “This is your partner.”
“I begged you not to do this anymore, Meyer,” Berko says. Unlike Landsman, Berko Shemets has not made a mess of his marriage or his personal life. Every night he sleeps in the fragrant arms of his wife, whose love for him is merited, requited, and appreciated by her fine, big specimen of a husband, a steadfast man who never gives her any cause for sorrow or alarm. “A curse on your head, Meyer,” he says, and then, in English, “God damn it.”
“I have an apparent homicide here at my hotel,” Landsman says. “A resident. Room 208. Using the name Emanuel Lasker. A single shot to the back of the head. Silenced with a pillow. Very tidy.”
Sitka, with a population, in the long jagged strip of the metro area, of 3.2 million, averages about seventy-five homicides a year. Many of these are gang related: Russian shtarkers whacking each other freestyle. The rest of Sitka’s homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of alcohol and firearms. Cold-blooded executions, such as this appears to be, are as rare as they are tough to clear from the big whiteboard in the squad room, where the tally of open cases is kept.
“You’re off duty, Meyer. Call it in. Give it to Tabatchnik and Karpas.”
“Well, I would,” Landsman says. “Except for this is my place of residence.”
Berko can’t argue with this line of reasoning.
“You knew him?” he says, his tone softening a little.
“No,” Landsman says. “I did not know the yid.”
He looks away from the pale freckled expanse of the dead man stretched out on the pulldown bed. Sometimes Landsman can’t help feeling sorry for them, but it’s better not to get into the habit.
“Look,” Landsman says, “you go to back to bed. We can talk about it tomorrow. I’m sorry I bothered you. Good night. Tell Ester-Malke I’m sorry.”
“You sound a little off, Meyer,” Berko says. “You okay?”
In recent months Landsman has placed a number of calls to his partner at questionable hours of the night, ranting and rambling in an alcoholic dialect of grief. Landsman bailed out on his marriage two years ago, and then last April his little sister crashed her Piper Super Cub into the side of Mount Dunkelblum, up in the bush. But Landsman is not thinking of Naomi’s death, now, or of the shame of his divorce. He has been sandbagged by a vision of sitting in the grimy lounge of the Hotel Zamenhof, on a couch that was once white, playing chess with Emanuel Lasker, or whatever his real name was. Shedding the last of their fading glow on each other, and listening to the sweet chiming of broken glass inside. That Landsman loathes the game of chess does not make the picture any less touching.
“The guy played chess, Berko. I never knew. That’s all.”
“Please,” Berko says, “please, Meyer, I beg you, don’t start with the crying.”
“I’m fine,” Landsman says. “Good night.”
Landsman calls the dispatcher to make himself the primary detective on the Lasker case. Another piece-of-shit homicide is not going to put any special hurt on his clearance rate as primary. Not that it really matters. On the first of January, sovereignty over the whole Federal District of Sitka, a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline running along the western edges of Baranof and Chichagof Islands, will revert to the State of Alaska. The District Police, to which Landsman has devoted his hide, head and soul for twenty years, will be dissolved. It is far from clear that Landsman or Berko Shemets or anybody else will be keeping his job. Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion, and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.
Landsman learned to hate the game of chess at the hands of his father and his uncle Hertz. The brothers-in-law were boyhood friends back in Lodz, fellow members of the Makkabi Youth Chess Club. Landsman remembers how they used to talk about the day, in the summer of 1939, that the great Tartakower dropped by to put on a demonstration for the boys of the Makkabi. Savielly Tartakower was a Polish citizen, an international grandmaster, and a character, famous for having said, “The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.” He came from Paris to report on a tournament for a French chess journal and to visit with the director of the Makkabi Youth Chess Club, an old comrade from his days on the Russian front in the army of Franz Josef. At the director’s urging, Tartakower now proposed a game against the club’s best young player, Isidor Landsman. They sat down together, the strapping war veteran in his bespoke suit and harsh good humor, and the stammering fifteen-year-old with a wall eye, a receding hairline, and a mustache that was often mistaken for a sooty thumbprint. Tartakower drew Black. Landsman’s father chose the English Opening, bungled it, then managed to recover. But after that early blunder the boy could never regain the offensive. Two hours and thirty-four moves in, Tartakower, with genial scorn, offered Landsman’s father a draw. Landsman’s father needed to piss, his ears were ringing, he was only staving off the inevitable. But he declined. His game by now was based on nothing but feel and desperation. He reacted, he countermoved, his sole assets a stubborn nature and a wild sense of the board. After seventy moves and four hours and ten minutes of play, Tartakower, not so genial anymore, repeated his earlier offer. Landsman’s father, plagued by tinnitus, about to wet his pants, accepted. In later years Landsman’s father sometimes let on that his mind, that queer organ, never quite recovered from the ordeal of this game. But of course there were worse ordeals to come.
“That was not in the least enjoyable,” Tartakower is supposed to have told Landsman’s father, rising from his chair. Young Hertz Shemets with his unfailing eye for weakness spotted a tremor in Tartakower’s hand, holding a hastily fetched glass of Tokay. Then Tartakower pointed to Isidor Landsman’s skull. “But I’m sure it was preferable to being obliged to live in there.”
Less than two years later, Hertz Shemets, his mother, and his kid sister Freydl arrived on Baranof Island, Alaska, with the first wave of Galitzer settlers. He came on the notorious Diamond, a WWI-era troop transport that Secretary Ickes ordered taken out of mothballs and re-christened as a left-handed memorial, or so legend has it, to the late Anthony Dimond, Alaska Territory’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Until the fatal intervention on a Washington, DC, streetcorner of a drunken, taxi-driving shlemiel named Denny Lanning—eternal hero of the Sitka Jews—Delegate Dimond had been on the verge of getting the Alaskan Settlement Act killed in committee. Thin, pale, bewildered, Hertz Shemets stepped from the Diamond, from the dark and the reek of soup and rusty puddles, to the clean cold spice of Sitka pine. With his family and his people he was numbered, inoculated, deloused, tagged like a migrant bird by the stipulations of the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940. In a cardboard pocketbook he carried an “Ickes passport,” a special emergency visa printed on special flimsy paper with special smeary ink.
There was literally nowhere else for him to go. It said so, in large type, on the front of an Ickes passport. He would not be permitted to travel to Seattle, or San Francisco, or even to Juneau or Ketchikan. All the normal quotas on Jewish immigration to the United States remained in force. Even with the timely death of Dimond, the Act could not be forced up the American body politic without a certain amount of muscle and grease, and restrictions on Jewish movement were part of the deal.
On the heels of Jews from Germany and Austria the Shemets family was dumped with their fellow Galitzers at Camp Slattery, in a muskeg swamp ten miles from the hard-bitten, half-decrepit town of Sitka, capital of the old Russian Alaska colony. In drafty, tin-roofed huts and barracks they underwent six months of intensive acclimatization by a crack team of fifteen billion mosquitoes working under contract with the US Interior Department. Hertz was conscripted for a road gang, then assigned to the crew that built Sitka Airfield. He lost two molars when he was smacked by a shovel, working a muck detail deep in a caisson sunk in the mud of Sitka harbor. Whenever you drove with him over the Tshernovits Bridge, in later years, he would rub at his jaw, and his hard eyes in his sharp face took on a wistful air. Freydl was sent to school in a chilly barn whose roof rang with steady rain. Their mother was taught the rudiments of agriculture, the use of plow, fertilizer, and irrigation hose. The short Alaskan growing season was held up, in brochures and on posters, as an allegory of the brief duration of their stay. Mrs. Shemets ought to think of the Sitka Settlement as a cellar or potting shed in which, like flower bulbs, she and her children could be put up for the winter, until their home-soil thawed enough to allow them to be replanted there. No one imagined that the soil of Europe would be sown so deeply with salt and ash.
Despite the agricultural palaver, the modest homesteads and farm cooperatives proposed by the Sitka Settlement Corporation never materialized. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Interior Department’s attention wandered toward more pressing strategic concerns like oil reserves and mining. At the conclusion of their term at “Ickes College,” the Shemets family, like most of their fellow refugees, were kicked loose to fend for themselves. Just as Delegate Dimond had predicted, they drifted up to the raw, newly booming town of Sitka. Hertz studied criminal justice at the new Sitka Technical Institute and on graduating in 1948 was hired as a paralegal by the first big US law firm to open a branch office here. His sister Freydl, Landsman’s mother, was among the earliest Girl Scouts in the Settlement.
Nineteen forty-eight: strange times to be a Jew. In August, the defense of Jerusalem collapsed and the outnumbered Jews of the three-month-old republic of Israel were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea. As Hertz was starting his job at Foehn Harmattan & Buran, the House Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs began a long-delayed review of status called for by the Sitka Settlement Act. Like the rest of Congress, like most Americans, the House Committee was sobered by grim revelations of the slaughter of two million Jews in Europe, by the barbarity of the rout of Zionism, by the plight of the refugees of Palestine and Europe. At the same time, they were practical souls. The population of Sitka Settlement had already swollen to two million. In direct violation of the Act, Jews had spread up and down the western shore of Baranof Island, out to Kruzof, all the way up to West Chichagof Island. The economy was booming. And American Jews were lobbying hard. In the end, Congress granted the Sitka Settlement “interim status” as a federal District. But candidacy for separate statehood was explicitly ruled out. no jewlaska, lawmakers promise ran the headline in the Anchorage Pioneer. The emphasis was always on the word interim. In sixty years that status would revert, and the Sitka Jews would be left once again to shift for themselves.
One warm September afternoon in 1948, Hertz Shemets was walking down Seward Street, prolonging his lunch break, when he bumped into his old chum from Lodz, Isidor Landsman. Landsman’s father had just arrived in Sitka, alone, aboard the Williwaw, fresh from a tour of the death and DP camps of Europe. He was twenty-five, bald, and missing most of his teeth. He was six feet tall and weighed a hundred and twenty-five pounds. He smelled funny, talked crazy, and had outlived his entire family. He was oblivious to the raucous frontier energy of downtown Sitka, the work crews of young Jewesses in their blue headscarves, singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx. The lively stench of fish flesh and felled tree and turned earth, the rumble of the dredgers and steam shovels grading mountains and filling in Sitka Sound, none of it seemed to touch him.
He walked with his head down, a hunch in his shoulders, as if he were only burrowing through this world on his inexplicable way from one strange dimension to the next. Nothing penetrated or illuminated the dark tunnel of his passage. But when Isidor Landsman realized that the grinning man, hair slicked, shoes like a couple of Kaiser automobiles, smelling of the grilled-onion cheeseburger he had just consumed at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s, was his old friend Hertz Shemets from the Makkabi Youth Chess Club, he lifted his eyes. The eternal kink went out of his shoulder. He opened his mouth and closed it again, speechless with outrage, joy, and wonder. Then he burst into tears.
Hertz took Landsman’s father back to Woolworth’s, bought him lunch (an egg sandwich, his first milkshake, a decent pickle) and then led him down to Lincoln Street, to the new Hotel Einstein, in whose café the great exiles of Jewish chess met every day to demolish one another without pity or heart. Landsman’s father, half-demented at this point by fat, sugar, and the lingering ill-effects of typhus, mopped up the room. He took on all comers and sent them out of the Einstein so soundly thrashed that one or two of them never afterward forgave him.
Even then he displayed the mournful, agonized style of play that helped to ruin the game for Landsman as a child. “Your father played chess,” Hertz Shemets once said, “like a man with a toothache, a hemorrhoid, and gas.” He sighed, he moaned. He tugged in fits at the patchy remnant of his brown hair, or chased it with his fingers back and forth across his pate like a pastry chef scattering flour on a marble slab.
The blunders of his opponents were each a separate cramp in the abdomen. His own moves, however daring, however startling and original and strong, struck him like successive pieces of terrible news, so that he covered his mouth and rolled his eyes at the sight of them.
Uncle Hertz’s style was nothing like that. He played calmly, with an air of unconcern, keeping his body at a slight angle to the board, as if he were expecting very shortly to be served a meal or to take a pretty girl onto his lap. But his eyes saw everything, the way they’d seen the telltale tremor in Tartakower’s hand that day at the Makkabi Club. He took in his reversals without alarm, and his chances with a faint air of amusement. Smoking Broadways end on end, he watched his old friend squirm and mutter his way through the assembled geniuses of the Einstein. Then when the room was laid to waste, Hertz made the necessary move. He invited Isidor Landsman home.
In the summer of 1948, the Shemets family lived in a two-room apartment in a brand-new building on a brand-new island. The building was home to two dozen families, all of them Polar Bears, as the first-wave refugees called themselves. The mother slept in the bedroom, Freydl got the sofa, and Hertz made his bed on the floor. By now they were all staunch Alaskan Jews, which meant they were utopians, which meant they saw imperfection everywhere they looked. A barb-tongued and quarrelsome family, in particular Freydl Shemets, who at fourteen already stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed a hundred and forty pounds. She took one look at Landsman’s father, hovering uncertainly in the doorway of the apartment, and correctly diagnosed him to be as unreclaimable and inaccessible as the wilderness that she had come to regard as her home. It was love at first sight.
In later years it was tough for Landsman to get much out of his father about what if anything he had seen in Freydl Shemets. She was not a bad-looking girl, Egyptian-eyed, olive-skinned. In her short pants, hiking boots, and the rolled sleeves of her Pendleton shirt, she exuded the old Makkabi movement spirit of mens sana in corpore sano. She pitied Isidor Landsman deeply for the loss of his family, for the suffering he had endured in the camps. But she was one of those Polar Bear kids who handled their own feelings of guilt at having escaped the filth, the starvation, the ditches and killing factories by offering survivors a constant stream of advice, information, and criticism disguised as morale boosting. As if the choking, low-hanging black pall of the Destruction could be lifted by one determined kibitzer.
That first night Landsman’s father slept, with Hertz, on the floor of the Shemets apartment. The next day Freydl took him shopping for clothes, paying for them out of her own nest egg. She helped him to rent a room from a recent widower who lived in the building. She massaged his scalp with an onion, in the belief that this would cause his hair to renew itself. She fed him calf liver for his tired blood. For the next five years, she nudged and badgered and bullied him, until he sat up straight, made eye contact when speaking, learned American, and wore dentures. She married him the day after she turned eighteen, and got a job at the Sitka Tog, working her way up through the women’s page to features editor. She worked sixty to seventy-five hours a week five days a week until her death, from cancer, when Landsman was in college. During that time Hertz Shemets impressed the American lawyers at Foehn Harmattan so much they took up a subscription and pulled the strings they needed to pull to send him to law school, in Seattle. He later became the first Jew hired by the Sitka detail of the FBI, its first deputy director, and eventually, having caught Hoover’s eye, the head of cointelpro for the entire region.
Landsman’s father played chess.
Every morning, in rain, snow, or fog, he walked two miles to the Hotel Einstein coffee shop, sat down at an aluminum-topped table at the back, facing the door, and took out a small set of maple and cherry chessmen that was a present from his brother-in-law. Every night he sat at his bench in the back of little house on Adler Street where Landsman grew up, in Halibut Point, looking over the eight or nine correspondence games he had going at any one time. He wrote notes for Chess Review. He revised the biography of Tartakower that he worked on all his life. He drew a pension from the German government. And, with the help of his brother-in-law, he taught his son to hate the game he loved.
“You don’t want to do that,” Landsman’ father would plead, after Landsman released, with bloodless fingers, his knight or pawn to meet the fate that always came as a surprise to Landsman, no matter how much he studied, practiced or played the game of chess. “Take it from me.”
But in the service of his own small misery, Landsman could be stubborn, too. Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face.
After some years of this sport, Landsman sat down at his mother’s typewriter to write his father a letter in which he confessed his loathing for the game of chess, and begged his father not to force him to play anymore. Landsman carried this letter in his satchel for a week, enduring three more bloody defeats, and then mailed it from the Untershtat post office. Two days later, Isidor Landsman killed himself, in room 21 of the Hotel Einstein, by an overdose of Nembutal.
After that Landsman started to have some problems. He wet the bed, got fat, stopped talking. His mother put him in therapy with a remarkably gentle and ineffectual doctor named Melamed. It was not until twenty-three years after his father’s death that Landsman rediscovered the fatal letter, in a box that also held a fair copy of the unfinished biography of Tartakower. It turned out that Landsman’s father had never even opened the letter from his son, let alone read it. By the time the mailman delivered it, Landsman’s father was already dead.
The north end of Peretz Street is all slab concrete, steel pillars, aluminum-rimmed windows double-glazed against the cold. The buildings in this part of the Untershtat went up in the early fifties, rapidly assembled shelter machines built by survivors, with a kind of noble ugliness. Now they have only the ugliness of age and vacancy. Empty storefronts, papered-over glass. In the windows of 1911, where Landsman’s father used to attend meetings of the Edelshtat Society before it gave way to a beauty-supply outlet store, a plush kangaroo with a sardonic leer holds a cardboard sign: australia or bust. At 1906 the Hotel Einstein looks, as some wag remarked on its opening to the public, like a rat cage stored in a fish tank. It is a favorite venue for the suicides of Sitka. It is also, by custom and charter, the home of the Einstein Chess Club.
A member of the Einstein Chess Club named Melekh Gaystik won the world championship title over the Dutchman, Jan Timman, at St. Petersburg in 1980. The Sitka World’s Fair fresh in their memory, the Sitka Jews viewed Gaystik’s triumph as further proof of their merit and identity as a people. Gaystik was subject to fits of rage, black moods and bouts of incoherence, but these flaws were overlooked in the general celebration.
One fruit of Gaystik’s victory was the gift of the hotel ballroom by the Einstein management, free of rent, to the chess club. Hotel weddings were out of vogue, and management had been trying for years to clear the patzers, with their mutterings and smoke, from the coffee shop. Gaystik provided management the excuse they needed. They sealed off the main doors of the ballroom, so that you could enter only through the back, off an alley. They pulled up the fine ashwood parquetry and laid down a demented checkerboard of linoleum in shades of soot, bile, and surgical-scrub green. The modernist chandelier was replaced by banks of fluorescent tubes bolted to the high concrete ceiling. Two months later, the young World Champion wandered into the old coffee shop where Landsman’s father had once made his mark, sat down at a booth at the back, took out a Colt .38 Detective Special, and shot himself in the mouth. There was a note in his pocket. It said only, I liked things better the way they were before.
“Emanuel Lasker,” the Russian says to the two detectives, looking up from the chessboard, by the reception desk, under an old neon clock that advertises a defunct newspaper, the Blat. He is a skeletal man, his skin thin, pink, and peeling. He wears a pointed black beard. His eyes are close-set and the color of cold seawater. “Emanuel Lasker.” The Russian’s shoulders hunch, and he ducks his head, and his rib cage swells and narrows. It looks like laughter but no sound comes out. “I wish that he does come around here.” Like that of most Russian immigrants, the man’s Yiddish is experimental and brusque. He reminds Landsman of somebody but Landsman can’t say who it is. “I give him such a kick to his ass for him.”
“You ever look at his games?” the Russian’s opponent wants to know. He is a young man with pudding cheeks and rimless glasses and a complexion tinged with green like the white of a dollar bill. The lenses of his glasses ice over as he aims them at Landsman. “You ever look at his games, Detective?”
“Just to make this clear,” Landsman says. “That isn’t the Lasker we have in mind.”
“This man was only using the name, as an alias,” Berko says. “Otherwise we’d be looking for a man who’s already been dead sixty years.”
“You look at Lasker’s games today,” the young man continues. “There’s too much complexity. He makes everything too hard.”
“Only it seems complexity to you, Velvel,” says the Russian, “for the reason of how much you are simple.”
The shammeses have interrupted their game in its dense middle stages with the Russian, playing White, up by a bishop, a knight, and three pawns. Both queens are gone. The men are still caught up in their game, the way a pair of mountains gets caught up in a whiteout. Their natural impulse is to treat the detectives with the abstract contempt they reserve for all kibitzers. Landsman wonders if he and Berko ought to wait until they have finished and then try again. But there are other games in progress, other players to question. Around the old ballroom, chair legs scratch the linoleum like fingernails on a chalkboard. Chessmen click like the cylinder turning in Melekh Gaystik’s .38. The men—there are no women here—play by means of steadily hectoring their opponents with self-aspersions, chilly laughter, whistling, harrumphs.
“As long as we’re making things clear,” Berko says. “This man, who called himself Emanuel Lasker but was not the noted world champion born in Prussia in 1868, has died, and we are investigating that death. In our capacity as homicide detectives, which we mentioned but without, it seems, making much of an impression.”
“A Jew with blond hair,” the Russian says.
“And freckles,” Velvel says.
“You see,” the Russian says. “We pay close attention.”
He snatches up one of his rooks the way you pluck at a stray hair on somebody’s collar. Together his fingers and the rook take their little trip down the file, and break the bad news to the remaining Black bishop with a tap.
Velvel speaks Russian now, with a Yiddish accent, offering his wishes for the resumption of friendly relations between his opponent’s mother and a well-endowed stallion.
“I am orphan,” the Russian says mildly.
He sits back in his chair as if he expects his opponent to require some time to recover from the loss of his bishop. He knots his arms around his chest and jams his hands into his armpits. It is the gesture of a man who wants to smoke a papiros in a room where the habit has been forbidden. Landsman wonders what his father would have done with himself if the Einstein Chess Club had banned smoking while he was alive. The man could go through a whole pack of Broadways in a single game.
“Blond,” the Russian says, the very soul of helpfulness. “Freckles. What else, please?”
Landsman shuffles through his scanty hand of details, trying to decide which one to play.
“A student of the game, we’re guessing. Up on his chess history. He had a book by Siegbert Tarrasch in his room. And then there’s the alias he was using.”
“So astute,” the Russian says without bothering to sound sincere. “A couple of top-dollar shamuses.”
The remark does not so much rankle Landsman as nudge him half-a-wisecrack closer to remembering this bony Russian with the peeling skin.
“At one time, possibly,” Landsman continues, more slowly, groping for the memory, watching the Russian, “the deceased was a pious Jew. A black hat.”
The Russian tugs his hands out from under his arms. He sits forward a little in his chair. The ice on his Baltic eyes seems to thaw all at once.
“He was smack addict?” The Russian’s tone barely qualifies as a question, and when Landsman doesn’t immediately deny the charge he says, “Frank.” He pronounces the name American-style, with a long, sharp vowel and a shadow-less r. “Ah, no.”
“Frank,” Velvel agrees.
“I—” The Russian slumps, knees spread, hands dangling at his sides. “Detectives, can I tell you one thing?” he says. “Truly sometimes I hate this lamentable excuse for a world.”
“Meyer,” says Berko, soft, meaningly. He flies the flags of his eyebrows in the direction of the next table. They have an audience.
Landsman turns. Two men confront one another over a game in its early stages. One wears the modern jacket-and-pants and full beard of a Lubavitcher Jew. His beard is dense and black as if sketched in with a soft pencil. A steady hand has pinned a black velour skullcap trimmed with black silk to the black tangle of his hair. His navy overcoat and his blue fedora hang from a hook set into the mirrored wall behind him. The lining of his coat and the label of his hat are reflected in the glass. Exhaustion stains the underlids of his eyes; fervent eyes, bovine and sad. His opponent is a Bobover in a long robe, britches, white hose, and slippers. His skin is as pale as a page of commentary. His hat perches on his lap, a black cake on a black dish. His skullcap lies flat as a sewn pocket against the back of his cropped head. To the eye not disillusioned by police work they might appear to be lost as any pair of Einstein patzers in the diffused radiance of their game. Landsman would be willing to bet a hundred dollars, however, that neither of them even knows whose move it is. They have been listening in to every word at the neighboring table; they are listening now.
Berko walks over to the table on the other side of the Russian and Velvel. It’s unoccupied. He picks up a bentwood chair with a ripped cane seat and swings it around to a spot between the table of the black hats and the table where the Russian is two up on Velvel. He sits down in that grand fat-man way he has, spreading his legs, tossing the flaps of his overcoat behind him, as though he is going to make a fine meal of them all. He takes off his own homburg, palming it by the crown. His Indian hair stands thick and lustrous, threaded lately with silver. Gray hair makes Berko look wiser and kinder, an effect which, though he is in fact relatively wise and fairly kind, he will not hesitate to abuse. The bentwood chair grows alarmed at the scope and contour of Berko’s buttocks.
“Hi!” Berko says to the black hats. He rubs the palms of his hands together, then spreads them across his thighs. All the man needs is a napkin to tuck into his collar, a fork and a knife. “How are you?”
With the art and determination of the very worst actors the black hats look up, surprised.
“We don’t want any trouble,” the Lubavitcher says.
“My favorite phrase in the Yiddish language,” Berko says sincerely. “Now how about we get you in on this discussion? Tell us about Frank.”
“We did not know him,” the Lubavitcher says. “Frank who?”
The Bobover says nothing.
“Friend Bobover,” Landsman says gently. “Your name.”
“My name is Saltiel Lapidus,” the Bobover says. His eyes are girlish and shy. He folds his fingers in his lap, on top of his hat. “And I know nothing about anything.”
“You played with this Frank? You knew him?”
Saltiel Lapidus gives his head a hasty shake. “No.”
“I have seen him here,” the Lubavitcher says, boldly, his eyes on his friend, as if to show him they have nothing to fear. “This so-called Frank. Maybe I played him one or two times. In my opinion he was a highly talented player.”
“Compared to you, Fishkin,” the Russian says glumly, “A monkey is Raúl Capablanca.”
“You,” Landsman says to the Russian, coldly, his voice level, playing a hunch. “You knew he was a heroin addict. How?”
“Detective Landsman,” the Russian says, half-teasing, half-reproachful. “You do not recognize me?”
It felt like a hunch. But it was only a mislaid memory.
“Vassily Shitnovitzer,” Landsman says. It has not been so long—a dozen years—since he arrested a young Russian of that name for conspiracy to sell heroin. A recent immigrant, a former convict swept clear of the chaos that followed the collapse of the Third Russian Republic. A man with broken Yiddish, this heroin dealer, and pale eyes set too close together. “And you knew me all this time.”
“You are handsome fellow. Hard to forget,” Shitnovitzer says brightly. “Also snappy dresser.”
“Shitnovitzer spent a long time in Butyrka,” Landsman tells Berko, meaning the notorious Moscow prison. “Nice guy. Use to sell junk from the kitchen of the coffee shop here.”
“You sold heroin to Frank?” Berko says to Shitnovitzer.
“I am retired,” Vassily Shitnovitzer says, shaking his head. “Sixty-four federal months in Ellensburg, Washington. Worse than Butyrka. Never again I don’t touch that stuff, Detectives, and even if I do, believe me, I don’t go near Frank. I am crazy but I am not lunatic.”
Landsman feels the bump and the skid as the tires lock. They have just hit something.
“Why not?” Berko says, kindly and wise. “Why does selling smack to Frank make you not just a criminal but a lunatic, Mr. Shitnovitzer?”
There is a small, decisive clink, a little hollow, like false teeth clapping together. Velvel tips over his king.
“I resign,” says Velvel. He takes off his glasses, slips them into his pocket, and stands up. He forgot an appointment. He’s late for work. His mother is calling him on the ultrasonic frequency reserved by the government for Jewish mothers in the event of lunch.
“Sit down,” Berko says, without turning around. The kid sits down.
A cramp has seized Shitnovitzer’s intestines; that’s how it looks to Landsman.
“Bad mazel,” he says finally.
“Bad mazel,” Landsman repeats, letting his doubt and his disappointment show.
“Like a coat. A hat of bad mazel on his head. So much bad mazel, you don’t want to touch him or share oxygen nearby.”
“I saw him playing five games at once,” Velvel offers. “For a hundred dollars. He won them all. Then I saw him vomiting in the alley.”
“Detectives, please,” Saltiel Lapidus says in a pained voice. “We have nothing to do with this. We know nothing about this man. Heroin. Vomiting in alleys. Please, we’re already uncomfortable enough.”
“Embarrassed,” the Lubavitcher suggests.
“Sorry,” Lapidus concludes. “And we have nothing to say. So, please, may we go?”
“Go,” Landsman says.
Lapidus lurches to his feet like a man defeated by his bowels. The business of coat and galoshes is undertaken with a show of battered dignity. He returns the iron lid of his hat by half-inches to his head, the way you ease a manhole cover down. With a grieving eye he watches Fishkin sweep the unplayed gambits of his morning into a hinged wooden box. Side by side the black hats conduct themselves among the tables, past the other players who look up to watch them go. Just before they reach the doors, the left leg of Saltiel Lapidus comes unstrung at its tuning key. He sags, gives way, and reaches to steady himself with a hand on the shoulder of his friend. The floor under his feet is bare and smooth. As far as Landsman can tell there is nothing to catch the toe.
“I never saw such a sad Bobover,” he observes.
On their way out, Landsman and Berko stride past the patzers: a seedy violinist from the Sitka Odeon; a chiropodist, you see his picture on bus benches. Berko bursts through the doors.
“Jew was on the verge of tears,” Landsman says. “A gangland hit, it just doesn’t mean that much to your average Bobover.”
He gives his chin another few pulls, and then makes up his mind. He looks up at the narrow strip of radiant gray sky that stretches along the top of the narrow alley behind the Hotel Einstein.
“Berko, tell me this, what kind of a yid can make a prison-hard Russian sociopath want to crap in his pants?”
“I know you want me to say a Verbover,” Berko says.
After Berko passed out of the academy, his first billet was the Fifth Precinct, the Harkavy, where the Verbovers first settled, along with most of their fellow black-hats, after the 1948 arrival of the ninth Verbover Rebbe, father-in-law of the present model, with the pitiful remnant of his court. It was a classic ghetto assignment, trying to help and protect people who disdain and despise you and the authority you represent. It ended when the young half-Indian latke took a bullet in the shoulder, two inches from his heart, in the Shavuos Massacre at Goldblatt’s Dairy Restaurant.
“I know that’s who you want me to say,” Berko says.
This is how he once explained to Landsman the sacred gang known as the chasids of Verbov: They started out, back in the Ukraine, black hats like all the other black hats, scorning and keeping their distance from the trash and hoo-ha of the secular world, inside their imaginary ghetto wall of ritual and faith. Then the entire sect was burnt in the fires of the Destruction, down to a hard, dense core of something blacker than any hat. What was left of the ninth Verbover Rebbe emerged from those fires with eleven disciples and among his family only the sixth of his eight daughters. He rose into the air like a charred scrap of paper and blew across the world, to this narrow strip between the Baranof Mountains and the end of the world. And here he found a way to remake the old-style black-hat detachment. He carried its logic to its logical end, the way evil geniuses do in cheap novels. He built a criminal empire that profited on the meaningless world beyond the theoretical walls, on beings so flawed, corrupted, and hopeless of redemption that only cosmic courtesy led the Verbovers even to consider them human at all.
“I had the same thought, of course,” Berko confesses. “Which I immediately suppressed.” He claps his big hands over his face and leaves them there for a moment before dragging them slowly down, pulling at his cheeks until they stretch past his chin like the jowl flaps of a bulldog. “Woe is me, Meyer, you want us to go out to Verbov Island?”
“Fuck, no,” Landsman says, in American.
They stand there, in the alley behind the Einstein, thinking through the numerous arguments against and the few that can be made in favor of pissing off the most powerful underworld characters north of the 55th parallel. They attempt to generate alternate explanations for the squirrelly behavior of the patzers in the Einstein.
“We’d better see Itzik Zimbalist,” Berko says.
The street grid here on the island is still Sitka’s, ruled and numbered, but apart from that you are gone, sweetness: star-shot, teleported, spun clear through the wormhole to the planet of the Jews. Friday afternoon on Verbov Island, and Landsman’s Chevelle Super Sport surfs the wave of black hats along
Avenue 225. The hats in question are felt numbers, with high, dented crowns and mile-wide brims, the kind favored by overseers in plantation melodramas. The women sport headscarves and glossy wigs spun from the hair of the poor Jewesses of Morocco and Mesopotamia. Their coats and long dresses are the finest rags of Paris and New York, their shoes the flower of Italy. Boys career down the sidewalks on in-line roller skates in a slipstream of scarves and sidelocks, flashing the orange linings of their unzipped parkas. Girls hobbled by long skirts go along braided arm in arm, raucous chains of Verbover girls vehement and clannish as schools of philosophy. The sky has turned steely, the wind has died, and the air crackles with the alchemy of children and the promise of snow.
“Look at this place,” Landsman says. “It’s hopping.”
“Not one empty storefront.”
“And more of these rotten yids than ever.”
Itzik Zimbalist’s shop is a stone building with a zinc roof and big doors on rollers, at the wide end of a cobbled platz. The platz starts narrow at one end and broadens out like the nose of a cartoon Jew. Half a dozen crooked lanes tumble into it, following paths first laid down on the other side of the world by long-vanished Ukrainian goats or aurochs, past house fronts that are faithful copies of lost Ukrainian originals. A Disney shtetl, bright and clean as a freshly forged birth certificate. An artful jumble of mud brown and mustard yellow houses, wood and plaster with thatched roofs. Across the platz from Zimbalist’s shop, at the narrow end of the platz, stands the house of Heskel Shpilman, tenth in the dynastic line from the original Rebbe of Verbov, a famous worker of miracles. Three neat white cubes of spotless stucco, with mansard roofs of blue slate tile and tall windows, shuttered and narrow. An exact copy of the original home, back in Verbov, of the present Rebbe’s wife’s grandfather, the eighth Verbover Rebbe, right down to the nickel-plated bathtub in the upstairs washroom. Even before they turned to money laundering, smuggling, and graft, Verbover Rebbes distinguished themselves from the competition by the splendor of their waistcoats, the French silver on their Sabbath table, the soft Italian boots on their feet.
The boundary maven is small, frail, slope-shouldered, call him seventy-five but looking ten years older. Patchy cinder-gray hair worn too long, sunken dark eyes, and pale skin tinged yellow like a celery heart. He wears a zip cardigan with collar flaps and a pair of old plastic sandals, navy blue, over white socks with a hole for the left big toe and its horn. His herringbone trousers stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood. The maven’s face is bony, mostly nose and chin, evolved for noticing, probing, cutting straight to the gaps, breaches, and lapses of the world. His full ashy beard flutters in the wind like bird fluff caught on a barbed-wire fence. In a hundred years of helplessness, this would be the last face that Landsman would ever turn to hoping for aid or information, but Berko knows more about the world of the black hats than Landsman ever will.
Standing next to Zimbalist, in front of the arched stone door of the shop, a beardless young bachelor holds an umbrella to keep the snow off the old fart’s head. The black cake of the kid’s hat is already dusted with a quarter-inch of frosting. Zimbalist gives him the attention you give a tree in a pot.
“You’re fatter than ever,” he says by way of greeting, as Berko swaggers toward him. “Big as a sofa.” He turns to the bachelor with the umbrella. “Tea. Glasses. Jam.”
The bachelor murmurs an Aramaic allusion to abject obedience quoted from the Tractate on the Hierarchy of Dogs, Cats, and Mice, opens the door for the boundary maven, and they go in. It’s one vast, echoing room, divided by theory into a garage, a workshop, and an office that’s lined with steel map cabinets, framed testimonials, and all the black-spined volumes of the endless, bottomless Law. The big rolling doors are there to let the vans go in and out. Three vans, judging from the trey of oil stains on the smooth cement floor. Landsman gets paid—and lives—to notice what normal people miss, but it seems to him that until he walked into Zimbalist the boundary maven’s shop he hasn’t paid enough attention to string. String, twine, rope, cord, tape, filament, lanyard, hawser, and cable; polypropylene, hemp, rubber, rubberized copper, Kevlar, steel, silk, flax, braided velvet. The boundary maven has vast stretches of the Talmud by heart. Topography, geography, geodesy, geometry, trigonometry, they’re a reflex, like sighting along the barrel of a gun. But the boundary maven lives and dies by the quality of his string. Most of it—you can measure it in miles, or in vershts, or in hands, like a boundary maven—is coiled neatly on spools hung from the wall or stacked neatly, by size, on metal spindles. But a lot of it is just heaped here and there, in crazes and tangles. Brambles, hair combings, huge thorny elf knots of string and wire, blowing around the shop like tumbleweeds.
“This is my partner, Professor, Detective Landsman,” Berko says.
Landsman and the Professor shake hands. Zimbalist waves them over, past the stout oak map table, to a couple of broken ladderback dinner chairs beside a massive rolltop desk. The bachelor can’t get out of his way fast enough and the boundary maven grabs him by the ear.
“What are you doing?” He seizes the kid’s hand. “Look at those fingernails! Feh!” He drops the hand like it’s a piece of bad fish. “Go, get out of here, get on the radio. Find out where those idiots are and what’s taking so long.”
He pours water into a pot and throws in a fistful of loose tea that looks suspiciously like shredded string.
“One eruv they have to patrol. One! I have twelve men working for me, there’s not a single one of them who couldn’t get lost trying to find his foot-fingers at the far end of his socks.”
Landsman has put a lot of work into the avoidance of having to understand concepts like that of the eruv, but he knows that it’s a typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker. It has something to do with pretending that telephone poles are doorposts, and that the wires are lintels. And you can tie off an area using poles and strings and call it an eruv, then on the Sabbath pretend that this eruv you’ve drawn—in the case of Zimbalist and his crew it’s pretty much the whole District—is your house. That way you can get around the Sabbath ban on carrying in a public place, and walk to shul with a couple of Alka-Seltzers in your pocket, and it isn’t a sin. Given enough string, and enough poles, and with a little creative use of the existing walls, fences, cliffs, and rivers of the world, you could tie a circle around pretty much any place, and call it an eruv. But somebody has to lay down those lines, survey the territory, maintain the strings and the poles, and guard the integrity of the make-believe walls and doors against weather, vandalism, bears, and the telephone company. That’s where the boundary maven comes in. He has the whole strings-and-poles market cornered. The Verbovers took him up first, and with their strong-arm tactics behind him, one by one the Satmar, Bobov, Lubavitch, Ger, and all the other black-hat sects have come to rely on his services and his expertise. When a question arises as to whether or not some particular stretch of sidewalk or lakefront or open field is contained within an eruv, Zimbalist, though not a rabbi, is the one to whom all the rabbis defer. On his maps, and his crews, and his spools of polypropylene baling twine, depends the state of the souls of every pious Jew in the District. By some accounts he’s the most powerful Jew in town.
“We’re working a homicide, Professor Zimbalist,” Landsman says. “And we have reason to believe the deceased may have been a Verbover, or had ties to the Verbovers, at least at one time.”
“Ties,” the maven says. “I suppose I know something about those.”
“He was living in a hotel on Max Nordau Street, under the name of Emanuel Lasker.”
“Lasker? Like the chess player?” There’s a crease in the parchment of Zimbalist’s yellow forehead, and deep in the eye sockets a scrape of flint and steel: surprise, puzzlement, a memory kindling. “I used to follow the game,” he explains. “A long time ago.”
“So did I,” Landsman says. “So did our dead guy, right up to the end. Next to the body there was a game all set up. He was reading Siegbert Tarrasch. And he was familiar to the regulars at the Einstein Chess Club. They knew him as Frank.”
“Frank,” the boundary maven says, giving it a Yankee twang. “Frank, Frank, Frank. That was his first name? It’s a common Jewish last name, but a first name, no. You know, for a fact, he was a Jew, this Frank?”
Berko and Landsman exchange a quick look. They don’t really know anything for sure.
“We have reason to believe,” Berko repeats calmly, “that he may at one time have been a Verbover Jew.”
“What kind of reason?”
“There were a couple of likely telephone poles,” Landsman says. “We tied a string between them.”
He reaches into his pocket and takes out an envelope. He passes one of the Polaroids taken at the crime scene across the desk to Zimbalist, and Zimbalist holds it at arm’s length, just long enough to form the idea that it’s a picture of a corpse. He takes a deep breath, and purses his lips, getting ready to lay on them a solid professorial consideration of the evidence at hand. A picture of a dead man, it’s a break, to be honest, in the routine of a boundary maven’s life. Then he looks at the picture, and in the instant before he regains absolute control of his features Landsman sees Zimbalist take a swift punch in the belly. The wind departs his lungs, and the blood drains from his face. In his eyes the steady maven flicker of intelligence is snuffed out. For a second, Landsman is looking at a Polaroid of a dead boundary maven. Then the lights come on in the old fart’s face again. Berko and Landsman wait a little, and then a little more, and Landsman understands that the boundary maven is fighting as hard as he can to maintain that control, to hold on to the chance of making his next words Detectives, I have never seen that man before in my life, and having it sound plausible, inevitable, true.
“Who was he, Professor Zimbalist?” Berko says at last.
Zimbalist sets the photograph down on the desk and looks at it a little more, not bothering now about what his eyes or his lips might be doing.
“I taught that boy to play chess,” he says. “When that man was a boy, I mean. Before he grew up. I’m sorry, I’m not making sense.”
He goes for another Broadway but he has already smoked them all. It takes him a while to figure this out. He sits there, poking around in the foil with a hooked finger, like he’s going for the peanut in a package of Cracker Jack. Landsman fixes him up with a smoke. “Thanks, Landsman. Thank you.”
But then he doesn’t say anything, he just sits there watching the papiros burn down. He peers out from his cavernous eyeholes at Berko, and then steals a little cardplayer peek at Landsman. He’s recovering from the shock, now. Trying to map the situation, the lines he cannot cross, the doorways that he mustn’t step through on peril of his soul. The hairy, mottled crab of his hand flicks one of its legs toward the telephone on his desk. In another minute the truth and darkness of the world will once again have been remanded to the custody of lawyers.
“Come on, Professor,” Berko says. “You know the victim since he’s a boy, right? All those memories have got to be going around and around in your head right now. As bad as you feel, it’s going to feel better if you just start talking.”
“It isn’t that,” the boundary maven says. “It’s—it isn’t that.” He takes the lit papiros from Landsman, and this time he smokes most of it before he starts to talk. He is a learned yid, and he likes to have his thoughts in order.
“His name is Menachem,” he begins. “Mendel. He is, or was, thirty-eight, a year older than you, Detective Shemets, but he had the same birthday, August 15, isn’t that right? Eh? I thought so. You see?” He taps his hairless dome.
“Mendele’s IQ was measured at 170,” he continues. “By the time he was eight or nine he could read Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Spanish, Latin, Greek. The most difficult texts, the thorniest tangles of logic and argument. By then Mendele was already a much better chess player than I could ever hope to be. He had a remarkable memory for recorded games, he had only to read a transcript once and after that he could reproduce it, on a board or in his head, move by move without a mistake. When he was older and they didn’t let him play so much anymore, he would work through famous games in his head. Two, three, four games at a time.”
“That’s what they used to say about Melekh Gaystik,” Landsman says. “He had that kind of mind for the game.”
“Melekh Gaystik,” Zimbalist says. “Gaystik was a freak. It was not human, the way Gaystik played. He had a mind like some kind of bug, the only thing he knew to do was eat you. He was rude. Filthy. Mean. Mendele wasn’t like that at all. He made toys for his sisters, dolls out of clothespins and felt, a house from a box of oatmeal. Always glue on his fingers, a clothespin in his pocket with a face on it. I would give him twine for the hair. Eight little sisters hanging off him all the time. A pet duck that used to follow him around like a dog.” His thin brown lips hitch themselves up at the corners. “Believe it or not, I once arranged for a match to be played between Mendel and Melekh Gaystik. You could do such things, Gaystik was always broke and in debt and he would have played against a half-drunk bear if the money was right. The boy was twelve at the time, Gaystik twenty-six. It was the year before he won the championship at Petersburg. They played three games in the back of my shop, which at that time, you remember, Detective, was on Ringelblum Avenue. I offered Gaystik five thousand dollars to play against Mendele. The boy won the first and the third. The second game he had Black and played Gaystik to a draw. Yes, Gaystik was only too happy to keep the match a secret.”
“Why?” Landsman wants to know. “Why did the games have to be kept secret?”
“Because this boy,” the boundary maven says, “had been forbidden to play chess with outsiders. Somehow or other, I never learned how, Mendele’s father got wind of the match against Gaystik. It was a near thing for me. In spite of the fact that my wife was a relative of the father, I almost lost his haskama, which at that time was the foundation of my business. I built this whole operation on that endorsement.”
“The father. You’re not saying—it was Heskel Shpilman,” Berko says. “The man there in the picture is the son of the Verbover Rebbe.”
Landsman notices then how quiet it is on Verbov Island, in the snow, inside a stone barn, with dark coming on, as the profane week and the world that profaned it prepare to be plunged into the flame of two matched candles.
“That’s right,” Zimbalist says at last. “Mendel Shpilman. The only son. He had a twin brother who was born dead. Later that was interpreted as a sign.”
Landsman says, “A sign of what? That he would be a prodigy? That he would turn out to be a junkie living in a cheap Untershtat flop?”
“Not that,” says Zimbalist. “That nobody imagined.”
“They said … they used to say… ,” Berko begins. He screws up his face, like he knows what he says next is going to irk Landsman or give him cause for scorn. He unscrews his little brown eyes, lets it pass. He can’t bring himself to repeat it. “Mendel Shpilman. Dear God. I heard some stories.”
“What kind of stories?” Landsman says, duly irked. “Stories about what? Tell me, already, damn you.”
So Zimbalist tells them a Mendel story.
A certain woman, he says, was dying of cancer at Sitka General Hospital. A woman of his acquaintance, call her. This was back in 1973. The woman was twice a widow, her first husband a gambler shot by shtarkers in Germany before the war, her second a string-monkey in Zimbalist’s employ who got tangled in a live power line. It was through supporting the widow of his dead worker with cash and favors that Zimbalist got to know her. It’s not impossible that they fell in love. They were both past the age of foolish passion, and so they were passionate without being fools. She was a dark, lean woman already in the habit of controlling her appetites. They kept their affair a secret from everyone, not least Mrs. Zimbalist.
To visit his lady friend in the hospital, when she took ill, Zimbalist resorted to subterfuge, stealth, and the bribing of orderlies. He slept on a towel on the floor of the ward, curled between her bed and the wall. In the half-dark, when his mistress called out from the distances of morphine, he would spill water between her cracked lips, and cool her forehead with a damp cloth. The clock on the hospital wall hummed to itself, got antsy, kept snapping off pieces of the night with its minute hand. In the morning Zimbalist would creep back to his shop on Ringelblum Avenue—he told his wife he was sleeping there because his snoring was so bad—and wait for the boy.
Almost every morning after worship and study Mendel Shpilman would come and play chess. Chess was permitted, even though the Verbover rabbinate and the larger community of the pious viewed it a waste of the boy’s time. The older Mendel got—the more dazzling his feats of scholarship, the brighter his reputation for acumen beyond his years—the more painful this waste appeared. It was not just Mendel’s memory, the agile reasoning, the grasp of precedent, history, Law. No, even as a kid Mendel Shpilman seemed to intuit the messy human flow that both powered the Law and required its elaborate system of drains and sluices. Fear, doubt, lust, dishonesty, broken vows, murder, and love, uncertainty about the intentions of God and men, little Mendel saw all of that not only in the Aramaic abstract but when it appeared in his father’s study, clothed in the dark serge and juicy mother-tongue of everyday life. If conflicts ever arose in the boy’s mind, doubts about the relevance of the Law that he was learning in the Verbover court at the feet of a bunch of king-size ganefs and crooks, they never showed. Not as a kid who believed, and not when the day came that he turned his back on it all. He had the kind of mind that could hold and consider contradictory propositions without losing its balance.
It was because the Shpilmans were so proud of his excellence as a Jewish son and scholar that they tolerated the side of Mendel’s character that loved only to play. Mendel was always getting up elaborate pranks and hoaxes, staging plays that featured his sisters, his aunts, the duck. Some people thought the greatest miracle Mendel ever performed was to persuade his formidable father, year after year, to take the part of Queen Vashti in the purimshpiel. The sight of that somber emperor, that mountain of dignity, that fearsome bulk mincing around on high-heel shoes! A blond wig! Lipstick and rouge, bangles and spangles! It might have been the most horrible feat of female impersonation Jewry ever produced. People loved it. And they loved Mendel for making it happen every year. But it was just another proof of the love that Heskel Shpilman had for his boy. And it was the same loving indulgence that permitted Mendel to waste an hour every day at chess, with the proviso that his opponent be chosen from among the followers of Verbov.
Mendel chose the boundary maven, the lone outsider in their midst. It was a small display of rebellion or perversity that some, in later years, would have occasion to revisit. But in the Verbov orbit only Zimbalist had even a prayer of beating him.
“How is she?” Mendel said to Zimbalist, one morning after Zimbalist’s lady friend had been dying at Sitka General for two months, and was nearly gone.
Zimbalist experienced a shock at the question, nothing to compare to the fate of the widow’s second husband, of course, but enough to stop his heart for a beat or two. He remembers every game that he and Mendel Shpilman ever played against each other, he says, except for this one; of this game he can manage to recall a solitary move. Zimbalist’s wife was a Shpilman, a cousin to this boy. Zimbalist’s livelihood, his honor, even perhaps his life, demanded that the secret of his adultery be kept. He felt absolutely certain that, so far, it had been. The boundary maven felt every whisper and rumor through his wires and strings, the way a spider hears in his feet the thrashings of a fly. There was no way word of it could have reached Mendel Shpilman without Zimbalist hearing about it first.
He said, “How is who?”
The boy stared at him. Mendel was not a handsome kid. He had a perpetual flush, close-set eyes, a second and hints of a third chin without clear benefit of a first. But the eyes though too small and too near to the bridge of his nose were dense and fitful with color, like the spots on a butterfly wing, blue, green, gold. Pity, mockery, forgiveness. No judgment. No reproach.
“Never mind,” Mendel said gently. Then he moved his queen’s bishop, returning it to its original position on the board.
The move had no purpose that Zimbalist, pondering it, could see. At one moment fantastic schools of chess seemed to be contained or implied by it. The next it appeared to be only what, in all likelihood, it was: a kind of retraction, offered in the hope that it would, unlike the question that preceded it, neither surprise nor alarm his friend.
Zimbalist struggled for the next hour to understand that little move, and for the strength to resist confiding, to a ten-year-old whose entire world was bounded by the study house, the shul, and the door to his mother’s kitchen, the sorrow and dark rapture of Zimbalist’s love for the dying widow, how some secret thirst of his own was quenched every time he dribbled cool water through her peeling lips.
They played through the remainder of their hour without further conversation. But when it was time for the boy to go, he turned in the doorway of the shop on Ringelblum Avenue, and took hold of Zimbalist’s sleeve. He hesitated, as if reluctant, or embarrassed. Or maybe he was feeling afraid. Then he got a hard little pinched expression on his face that Zimbalist recognized as the internalized voice of the Rebbe, reminding his son of his duty to serve the community.
“When you see her tonight,” Mendel said. “Tell her that I send her my blessing. Tell her I say hello.”
“I will,” Zimbalist said, or remembers saying.
“Tell her from me that all will be well.”
The little monkey face, the sad mouth, the eyes saying that for as much as he knew you and loved you, he might still be pulling your leg.
“Oh, I will,” Zimbalist said, and then he broke down in hiccuping sobs. The boy took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to Zimbalist. Patiently he held the boundary maven’s hand. His fingers were soft, a little sticky. On the inside of his wrist his younger sister Reyzl had scrawled her name in red ink. When Zimbalist regained his composure Mendel let go of his hand, and stuffed the damp handkerchief into the pocket of his pants.
“See you tomorrow,” he said.
That night when Zimbalist crept onto the ward, just before he spread his towel on the floor, he spooned the boy’s blessing into the ear of his unconscious mistress. He did it without hope and very little in the way of faith. In the dark of five a.m., Zimbalist’s lady friend woke him and told him to go home and eat breakfast with his wife. It was the first coherent thing she had said in weeks.
“Did you give her my blessing?” Mendel asked him, when they sat down to play later that morning.
“Where is she?”
“At Sitka General.”
“With other people? On a ward?”
“And you gave my blessing to the other people, too?”
The idea had never occurred to Zimbalist.
“I didn’t say anything to them,” he said. “I don’t know them.”
“There was more than enough blessing to go around,” Mendel informed him. “Tell them. Give it to them tonight.”
But that night when Zimbalist went to visit his lady friend, she had been moved to another ward, one where nobody was in danger of death, and somehow or other Zimbalist forgot the boy’s reminder. Two weeks later, the woman’s doctors sent her home, shaking their heads in puzzlement. Two weeks after that, an x-ray showed no trace of the cancer in her body.
By then she and Zimbalist had broken off their affair, by mutual agreement, and he slept every night in the marital bed. The daily meetings with Mendel in the back of the shop on Ringelblum Avenue continued, for a while, but Zimbalist found that he had lost the pleasure of them. The apparent miracle of the cancer cure forever altered his relations to the Mendel Shpilman. Zimbalist could not shake a sense of vertigo that came over him every time Mendel looked at him with his close-set eyes, flecked with pity and gold. The boundary maven’s faith in faithlessness had been shaken, by a simple question—How is she?—by a dozen words of blessing, by a simple bishop move that seemed to imply a chess beyond the chess that Zimbalist knew.
It was as repayment for the miracle that Zimbalist had arranged the secret match between Mendel and Melekh Gaystik, king of the Café Einstein and future Champion of the World. Three games in the back room of a shop on Ringelblum Avenue, with the boy winning two out of three. When this act of subterfuge was uncovered—and not the other, no one else ever learned of the affair—the visits between Zimbalist and Mendel Shpilman were broken off. After that he and Mendel never shared another hour at the board.
“That’s what comes from giving out blessings,” says Zimbalist the boundary maven.