Spring is on the city today. The spongy swelling earth, the thick boles of the still leafless trees, here, under your heart, crowding. The stones warm visibly in the silvery sun; the sky leans upon the tall buildings full of hazy depth and nearness. You look at the buildings and the grey stone streets, and at the back of your hands where the blood jets feebly, blue and thin, beneath the greenish pale blight of winter. And you know again that this winter’s shape of city is but a fragile dream from which one day the marsh grass and the blinking frogs and the quiet water will waken, but that you who bend so easily, who move in these long seasonal pulses so surely and vulnerably upon death, are eternal.
And what has this to do with a tragedy that occurred in Brownsville some thirty years ago? Well, just today, in the mocha-colored building across the street, with the green shutters and the soiled white door, someone has put a geranium out on one of the upper window sills—a solitary geranium in a little red pot. And suddenly I am looking down, across thirty years, at a wagon jolting along the street in front of our house. Every spring it goes by on its way to the city—a shallow wagon with sloping sides and the warped little velvety blooms lined up eight deep inside, drawn by the same Wizard-of-Oz looking horse in a straw bonnet who seems always on the verge of pausing on his clomping way and, with a quizzical glance back at his master, singing out, “Who will buuuuuuy my red geraniums?”
Lord. It is so long, suddenly. All these years — have those little red and sand-colored pots been standing about on window sills and fire escapes just as they used to when I was a boy? And ragweed, and clover in the empty lots out toward the Bay . . . daisies on spindling stems bending in the wind, already dust-blown and dimmed, beside the old Jamaica Road . . . the haunting smell of clay and rubbish soaked in melting snow . . . bits of colored glass like gleams of Eldorado. . . . And somewhere a boy dreaming turgid dreams about stumbling over rusty cans filled with buried treasure. . . .
In a few weeks the gypsies will be coming out to the flats and mother will deliver her annual warning about staying away from that enticing flame-lit moor after dark. Soon the rains will come and the smell of earth in the back yard will reach up and tug at you across time, from some marvelous place at the very center of life. And sometimes, when you think yourself unobserved, you will fling yourself down on the moist ground and dig your face into that rich, gritty, maddeningly evocative smell, as if you thought you might get back to the place. . . .
And these days you will see, often, from the window of your bedroom, the tall spare form of Mrs. Sussman coming out into her yard, moving about in a dun-colored house dress, striking a curious note of melancholy against the still bare shapes of her rose bushes and grape arbor.
Ours was one of the more prosperous sections in the Jewish settlement of Brownsville, far out in what was then the wilds of Brooklyn. The houses on our block were part of a real estate development and as a consequence were somewhat regimented in style. But they were well built and set in somewhat larger plots than usual; we all had a piece of lawn and a large back yard and all the householders on the block vied with each other in the cultivation of their gardens. I can still see those back yards vividly—not different, I suppose, from some millions of back yards, then and now, throughout Suburbia: morning-glories climbing frailly up the rails of the back porch; lilac, snowball, rose bushes; perhaps a tiny grape arbor like the Sussmans’, or a struggling small fruit tree—peach or plum or cherry; and always the centerpiece designs of flowers—zinnias, phlox, pinks, nasturtiums, delphinium—laid out as if with calipers and T-square.
Everyone on the block spent a good deal of time in his back yard during the spring and summer months. Some of the more enterprising of our neighbors even went in for truck gardening in a small way, and if ever so much as a puckered tomato or a wizened radish was successfully brought to harvest it was the occasion for a community Sacre de Pantonine. Yet it is only the lonely figure of Mrs. Sussman against the bright shapes of her flowers that strikes a note of congruity in my recollection. Whenever I think of the others it is usually to recall the women moving about clumsily with their rakes and packages of seed; the children stepping off the swings into the soft newly-seeded loam and getting smacked; the men going about with garden hose or watering cans, looking curiously out of place. . . .
Yes, they were a sad lot somehow, out there in their yards. I guess it’s just that Jews just don’t belong with gardens. Pushcarts, markets, warehouses, pavements, walled places— these are their proper milieu. No longer the earth. More than a shade pathetic they were, those little Brownsville men, home from their shops and offices on Saturday afternoons, with their plump white hands gingerly clipping their hedges or spraying their rose bushes; God himself must have wondered how they had got so far from the green and growing things.
A mood, you say? Invoked by my own Jewish consciousness of our exile’s destiny, our eternal not-belonging? The same mood, perhaps, that makes me find a curious consonance in that warped little geranium shape across the street, condemned to grow ignominiously on window sills and fire escapes, robbed of its heritage of field and wind and sun, to sit day long in its tiny clump of bleached earth, dreaming of some distant home beyond city walls—while behind it, through the shadowed opening of the window, the old-fashioned lace curtains move mysteriously, in disheartened, self-defeated shapes.
A mood? Well, perhaps. Two thousand years is a long time. Long enough to develop a fine, pervasive mood. A long time to be running, hiding—behind ghetto walls, in synagogue basements, in counting houses where gold pieces and bales of goods provide a momentary illusion of immunity against the next bath of blood. Long enough for the torrents of hate that have swept us of the earth and into the walled places to have washed us clean too of our affinity with the earth. . . .
Do we not turn now for our abundance almost instinctively to the market place rather than to the soil? They say it is because we cannot make money fast enough from the soil—the old hate speaking. But we know why. It is because we have lost the earth, and with it that beauty which still lives for many races of men, as part of their heritage, in growing shapes dark against the sky. But it still haunts us, returning in odors, in twisted little ghosts of flower forms on window sills; in the dreams that rise like vapor from the crowded narrow walled places of our lives — the pitiless mirage shapes of pride, of dignity, of no more running, no more blood.
Well, maybe you are wondering impatiently what all this has to do with the story I have set out to tell. Nothing really —or perhaps everything. You see, this is a story about Jews and I was thinking how bitter and strange it is that, in the face of all that has happened to them, Jews can still be cruel and blind and hateful to one another. Strange—the shadow forms of the wolves and adders that live on in us, beside the godhood and the beauty. Death forever flowering from the rich and rotten earth. . . . Spring and the youth that stays always young in the aging heart. . . .
Geraniums on window sills and the worlds that lie buried under a flower petal, under the remembered taste of camomile tea. . . .
The Sussmans lived directly back of us, on Elm Street. And it is this image of Mrs. Sussman that comes most often to my mind—of her tall distinguished figure, with its curiously attractive suggestion of spareness under the gapey folds of a house dress, moving about in an unmistakable aura of melancholy among the bright shapes of her little garden. Alone among all our neighbors she looked right there, as if she belonged with the earth and growing things. And it was only because she looked so little like the rest, so little like a Jewess. With her lean height, her straight light brown hair and grey sad eyes, set wide in a plain, bony, intelligent face, she might have been a farm woman from upstate, or the wife of a Congregationalist minister, or almost anything, in fact, but what she was—the daughter of a rabbi somewhere in the middle west—Cleveland, I think—and the wife of a well-to-do retailer in the neighborhood.
She was, by our Brownsville standards, an unusually solitary person—not pointedly shy or retiring, but with an impalpable wall of reserve, rare among Jews, that set her a little apart from the rest. There was, I remember, a sort of absorbent quality in her silence that defeated conversation. By all outward criteria she was a most fortunately situated woman. Her husband was that pearl of great price, a good provider; he was known to be generous, kindly, devoted. The Sussmans indeed appeared to enjoy the kind of quiet sympathetic relationship that women dream about. There was only one circumstance that might have accounted for that aura of unhappiness which Mrs. Sussman trailed about with her like an invisible dark scarf. She was childless—in a community where a wife who was childless was like a tree standing bare against the summer sky.
There had been a baby, during the early years of her marriage; it had lived only a few hours. Fortunately, everybody said. I still remember the wall of hush that surrounded the event. Fortunately: that was the conception which my child’s consciousness could not digest. What circumstance could make it fortunate for a baby to die? I wrestled with the problem but it remained always a vague calamitous thing which I contemplated with troubled, half-fearful anticipation yet could never define. Years later I concluded from things my mother told me that the child must have been a Mongolian idiot.
Perhaps the experience left an ineradicable scar on Naomi Sussman’s consciousness. I know that she remained childless and that somewhere, deep inside, she was an unfulfilled and lonely woman. Even before the girl Miriam came to join that fated little group at 433 Elm Street she kept very much to herself, in the seclusion of her house and her garden.
Mr. Sussman, on the other hand, was a gregarious sort. He was often at our house, being equally fond of father and a “good argument.” He was, as I recall, a very good-looking man, slightly under six feet, heavy shouldered, with a largish humorous face, a wide curly mouth, and thick growing wavy black hair that made a crescent of his forehead. It seems curious to me now to remember that I always thought of him vaguely as an “elderly” person. I suppose he must have been thirty-two or three—about father’s age. That seemed ancient to me—I was nine or ten at the time.
I gather that, like father, he was what passed in our circle for an “intellectual.” Possibly it may surprise you to learn that not all Jews are Anarchists and Communists; that in fact the average Jewish community can give Main Street cards and spades in its attitude toward the Left—in matters political, religious, and aesthetic. Joe Sussman, I surmise, was given to the kind of honesty in his thinking that disturbs people and puts them on the defensive. He spoke, in other words, more plainly than judiciously. But this, father assured me, was merely a surface bluntness, designed more than anything else to cover up an innate shyness, a wonderful gentleness—almost an innocence—of spirit.
It is quite possible that my final impression of the man as an extremely attractive, kindly, and engaging fellow may rest more on my recollection of how father regarded him than on the sum of my own first-hand judgments. He was one of the few people in the neighborhood of whom father was genuinely fond. The two must have felt in each other a kindred spirit. They both read Artsybashev and Zola and Gorki and Kropotkin, endorsed free love and the franchise for women, thought Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger great women and Tolstoi a mossback, recited Heine at each other in bad German and Pushkin in bad Russian, considered Socialism inevitable and were down, between themselves, on the Talmud—though they didn’t generally go so far as to flaunt this last in public.
Despite his honesty, Sussman had built up a flourishing retail business in the neighborhood. He was a furrier by trade. If you go often to the movies and read the smooth-paper magazines regularly, this fact will perhaps prove a little disappointing to you. I myself have had the greatest difficulty coming to understand that a Jewish furrier may be undone by a dream of beauty, just as swiftly and completely as Narcissus was.
Her name was Miriam. To me that has a lovely sound, though its meaning in Hebrew is “bitter.” She was a niece of Mrs. Sussman and an orphan. Her father had been ruined some years before—by a flood, I think, that swept away his business and his wife’s health; she died and he committed suicide shortly afterward, leaving nothing but debts. But whatever else that I must leave to surmise in this narrative, I know this: for Joe Sussman, in the months that followed Miriam’s arrival at his house—however in his secret heart he acknowledged her—she became that dream of womanhood, that something white and shimmery, that Demeter whom all men acknowledge in their hearts, and kneel to.
Of Miriam it is tones, impressions, rather than a photograph, that my memory retains. She was young—sixteen, I believe, when she first came to the Sussmans—and soft and transparent and feminine and everything that Naomi Sussman was not, as a woman. It is strange to think that if she lives at all now it is as someone nearing fifty, the beauty which once she wore so bright in her lovely supple form stiffening now into a waiting tracery of death. I can still see her beside the thin lonely figure of the older woman in the Sussman’s yard, rinsing her beautiful chestnut hair in the keg of rain water by the porch, or letting her aunt fuss with it, braiding it or pressing finger waves into the thick softness.
Was Mrs. Sussman aware of what was happening? I think she must have been, almost from the first. She was in love with her husband; and she was a woman of unusual refinement and sensibility. She must have been aware of those overtones of her husband’s growing love for the girl that were beyond concealment: little unconscious tendernesses followed by self-conscious gruffness; sudden flarings of high spirits alternating with spurts of unaccustomed irritability; the too careful matter-of-factness in discussing questions of Miriam’s future. . . .
Yes, I think she must have known. But she had set out to mother this orphaned girl and to the end her attitude toward her never changed. Perhaps at first it had been merely her Jewish feeling of responsibility toward an unfortunate relative. But it was much more than that at the end. Miriam was a beautiful child; her youth, her softness, her very dependence must have reached down into some hunger in Mrs. Sussman that went deeper finally than outraged pride and possessiveness. I knoAv that she rose above those womanly prerogatives. And I know that it would have been much better, somehow, if she hadn’t. For it was, in a way, her very success in understanding, in rising above her blind hurt, that undid her, and the others with her.
I can see her there in the yard, standing over this child who had grown so mysteriously entwined with her motherhood and wifehood—no doubt brutally hurt, hardly knowing where to turn between hurt and pride and her will to forgive; and all the while hovering over the girl like a restrained mother hen, fussing with her hair. I can see so clearly the mounting significance of every casual interchange between Joe Sussman and his niece, significance unwanted, fought against, but always there, growing—a chance brushing of the hands, eyes meeting suddenly across a room, the sudden crowded little silences. . . . The first kiss behind the stair, with each trying to behave as if it is still uncle and niece between them and knowing it isn’t, ashamed and a little frightened, and yet moving resistlessly to other kisses. With the mind closed, going deeper and deeper, imperceptibly, catching themselves now and again with a feeling of complete disbelief, panic, sudden hot shame and fierce resolve—resolve melting again like mist in a touch or a glance.
I can see Joe Sussman lying awake, night after night, staring at the ceiling, aware of the still spare form of his wife beside him, turning to look at her with a helpless pain gnawing at his heart—and listening meanwhile to the sound of her breathing, wondering if he dare risk getting out of bed and going to Miriam . . . and suddenly aghast at the direction of his thought, the horrified realization: “The girl’s here as your charge, you’re old enough to be her father —God, man, what are you thinking of?”
I don’t know just when suspicion began to flower in our neighborhood. I know that in any neighborhood, wherever there is some beauty, wherever life flames a little more brightly, with some heightened quality of aliveness or integrity or simplicity, there is always suspicion waiting to extinguish it. You know the jokes Sussman listened to, you’ve heard them again and again, the vulgar ribbing—usually characterized as good natured — about his having such a good-looking young girl in the house. You can hear the women; the barbed remarks of the young men who’d called on Miriam and never received any encouragement to call again, the impersonal innuendoes of Miss G., head saleslady in Mr. Sussman’s store, concerning the basis for her boss’s undeniably erratic behaviour. . . . I don’t have to tell you what they said. You can hear them, any day, in any street—speaking without any special malice, just out of some great impersonal malice toward everything that seems to reach beyond the confines of their own cautious, narrow lives.
One day Mrs. Sussman was gone, quietly. Home for a visit—that was the report left with the tradespeople and with her maid Jenny. The women on the block looked at each other significantly. Was she crazy — leaving that young girl alone in the house with her husband? Suspicion quickened, eyes on the house from behind hedges and curtains, watching the goings and comings of Mr. Sussman. I can recall the atmosphere of tension that hung over the neighborhood; we looked at the house on Elm Street with a mixture of apprehension and excitement, not knowing just what to expect, but expecting something.
And one day it came, a buzz of excited whispering that riffled the curtains, rustled through the hedges, echoed through our streets. I don’t know how the news got out. But it’s not hard to imagine Jenny, the Sussman’s maid, whispering first among the other maids about the things going on right under her mistress’s nose; then, when Mrs. Sussman had gone, moving about the house with eyes and ears alert, noting her master’s harassed demeanor, observing Miriam at the breakfast table, food untouched, face a little greenish and drawn; coming upon her finally, perhaps, in a faint on the bathroom floor. . . .
Not documentary evidence, of course, any of it. No one could really be sure that Miriam was pregnant, or if she was, that her uncle was to blame. But everyone seemed willing to take that chance. We saw our maids and our mothers turn their backs now, or cross the street, or become suddenly absorbed in the condition of their fingernails, whenever they saw Miriam or Mr. Sussman approaching. We knew what that meant. I remember standing about on the fringes of deep conversations among the older boys about babies and Sin. Some of the bolder spirits among us advocated taking a hand in Retribution ourselves and putting a few rocks through the Sussman windows. You can imagine what happened to trade at his store.
For a while, before the infection of shame and embarrassment reached even between him and father, Mr. Sussman continued to drop in at our house. At first this worried me, until I realized that, for some reason, instead of losing caste for me with the boys on the block, it actually gained me a modicum of prestige. I’d never paid much attention to Mr. Sussman before; now for the first time I really began to notice him. And I recollect I found him a distinct disappointment—though I never admitted this to the fellows when I was being pumped by them about “how did he look,” “what did he say,” “did you hear anything.” The fact is, I think that secretly I’d expected Sin to cut rather more of a figure in the world, to step mincingly on cloven feet in an aura of sulphur fumes—or at least to wear some kind of recognizable dark effulgence, like a brand of Cain on the forehead. And there was nothing even faintly sinister about Joe Sussman. He seemed, if anything, a little scared—the habitual humorous comportment of his mouth changed now, and his explosive laughter, that had always decrescendoed into a coda of low deep chuckling in his throat, becoming a little forced. I remember now—that especially struck me. It seemed odd enough that Sin should be just a neighborhood furrier with an address around the block. That he should look scared too seemed rather more than inappropriate. It was a gyp.
Mrs. Sussman was away a long time, almost two months. The neighborhood prophets shook their heads with dark knowledge. They had certain sources—inside information. Mrs. Sussman wasn’t coming back. . . . And one day she returned, as quietly as she had gone. Tension in the neighborhood mounted to a new high. What now? A wave of excited speculation swept through our streets. Was she going to throw the girl out? Would she get a divorce? Or would she perhaps refuse to give Sussman a divorce so he could marry that-?
Again we were waiting, half fearfully, for the inevitable explosion that would blow the lid off 438 Elm Street. We half expected, I guess, to hear a girl’s shrill scream in the night, or the ragged hoarse cry of a man staggering to the door with a kitchen knife in his throat. To no one, absolutely no one, did the possibility occur of the amazing, incredible, unspeakable thing that actually did happen.
One day a hired carriage rolled up in front of the Suss-mans’. Presently, Mrs. Sussman came out of the house, followed by Miriam. The older woman was carrying a suitcase and on the steps Miriam tried to take it away from her. But Mrs. Sussman resisted and they were still fussing about it when they got to the carriage. There Mrs. Sussman took the girl’s arm and helped her up the high step, giving her a little shove finally on the backside. It all seemed to be following an expected pattern. The confusing thing was that both women were laughing as the carriage rolled off.
In the next weeks our confusion grew. Mrs. Sussman had returned, that afternoon, alone. Obviously she had at last come to her senses and sent the girl packing. It was a quieter denouement than some of us had secretly been hoping for. Still, it settled the matter. . . . But was it settled? An unusual activity seemed to have descended on the Sussman household now. We could hear a carpenter at work on the upper floor. Packages from Namm’s Department Store and A. and S.’s and Altaian’s kept arriving for several days. Evidently Mrs. Sussman was on a buying spree of some sort. . . .
And then, on an afternoon about six weeks after Miriam had gone away, the same carriage rolled up in front of the Sussman house. Mrs. Sussman got out, holding a small bundle in her arms that couldn’t be anything but a baby. She turned and held out her hand to a familiar slender figure emerging from the carriage behind her. It was Miriam, looking a little taller than when we had seen her last and more beautiful than ever. She swayed slightly as she stepped to the sidewalk; Mrs. Sussman took her arm and they went together toward the house, laughing a little. A while later they were in the yard, Mrs. Sussman helping the girl to a chair, arranging the cushions behind her, bringing her a glass of milk. During the ensuing weeks she was always in attendance on Miriam, helping her with the baby, the two of them fussing over it together, crowing over it.
We looked on in stunned unbelief. This thing we saw couldn’t actually be happening; it was the wildest sort of fantasy. These people had sinned and been sinned against, and now, instead of dedicating themselves to perpetuating the mess into which passion had led them, they had determined to understand, to forgive. They had made peace with a difficult situation and they were going on now to try and make a good life for themselves, regardless. It just wasn’t possible—it wasn’t human at all. We hung on, still waiting hopefully for the explosion, the cry in the night. But the weeks went by and gradually the awful truth came home to us. There was going to be no explosion, no murder, no divorce—nothing. Just understanding, forgiveness. . . .
Then it was that horror began to grow on us. Until now we had understood what was happening with the Sussmans. Mr. Sussman was a rascal, Miriam was a Jezebel in the house of her benefactress, Mrs. Sussman was a betrayed wife. It had been rather pleasant feeling sorry for her and reflecting that she was being made a fool of in the business, poor thing. We could all sit in judgment, glowering at the guilty, bestowing sympathy where sympathy was due.
But now? What could one feel superior about in this situation? Where was the pound of flesh for the outraged household gods? Where was the example for the growing children? This thing rocked the structure of morality to its very foundation. And there is a time honored custom for dealing with that sort of thing, that started, with us at least, on Golgotha.
Ostracism, I imagine, came first. We had all of us, even the children, got used to the idea that there was some good reason for pulling our mouths to the side and compressing our.lips when we saw Mr. Sussman or Miriam; we didn’t even bother to remember why anymore, we just did it. It was a simple transition to carry over this attitude to Mrs. Sussman now, forgetting entirely that a brief while before we’d very much enjoyed sympathizing with her. Don’t ask me what else was done. You know what a community can do when it decides on a bit of quiet lynching. I know that after a while we hardly ever saw Mrs. Sussman in the street anymore. Once in a while we’d see Miriam come out to do the shopping, in the increasingly frequent interims between maids. Jenny of course had left, unable to withstand the social pressure from the other maids in the neighborhood. None of the subsequent girls Mrs. Sussman was able to get lasted very long. So we would get a glimpse of Miriam now and again—thinner than before but still lovely as a dream— hurrying along the street to and from the stores with her head held high and the cords standing out a little in her throat.
More and more, as the invisible moat of their exile deepened about the lives of these three, the two women turned to each other for companionship and solace. They were always together in the yard. And it was impossible to doubt, watching them as they sat talking, or reading to each other, or tending the baby, that they had become sisters and friends, and mother and daughter.
“Like concubines in a harem,” was the way the neighbors described it, their horrified eyes on the Sussman yard.
The end came slowly but inevitably. No right thinking woman in the neighborhood, of course, would trade at Mr. Sussman’s store any longer. About the time it began to be pretty generally known that his business was “on the skids,” one of the elders of the synagogue came through with a really brilliant bit of inspiration. The thing hadn’t been done in anyone’s memory. He called together a number of the more devout members of the congregation, and several days later Joe Sussman received a formal bill of excommunication. A year before he’d have laughed, that heart-warming chuckle deep in his throat; maybe he’d have sent back a letter thanking the gentry for honoring him as several hundred years before they’d honored a much greater man, Spinoza. But now —can you see him, scared, unbelieving, not knowing where to turn against this resistless tide sweeping him into disaster? By turns defiant and desperate; finally putting in an appearance before an assemblage of his inquisitors. “Why are you hounding me?” His eyes, his fine humorous intelligent eyes, hunted now, pleading. “Why are you intent on ruining me? What have I done to you?”
I have sometimes wondered why he didn’t get out, move with his family to some place where his iniquity was not known and where he could make a new life for himself. Perhaps it was because the mind is actually competent to grasp only little calamities, and the finality of disaster eludes it so that one goes on from day to day, unable really to believe, or hoping against hope that there will be some change, until suddenly the realization is upon us that we are lost, and it is too late. Sussman’s business was here, his home, the life he had made. Perhaps he had an unconscious understanding that his trouble was not a matter of geography but of people —that ultimately it wouldn’t make any difference where he lived.
It took about a year and a half for the job to be completed. Sussman had been trying to attract business from out of the neighborhood by distributing circulars in other sections advertising ruinously low prices. To this the women responded by furtive, unofficial picketing; ladies who came to Sussman’s store were warned against dealing with an unnatural monster who was living at peace with two women at one time in one house.
Finally a suit was started for non-payment of an overdue bill. Mr. Sussman ran a sale placarding his window with signs that read, “Going out of Business.” He didn’t really intend to even then; he was merely subscribing to the general formula for sales in the neighborhood. Within the week, two additional suits were begun by creditors. There was no cash available with which to settle these matters and they went to judgment by default. Execution was issued and a marshal was directed to take charge and arrange for a sale at auction to satisfy the judgments. The following morning when the marshal came to take over and post his notices, he discovered Joe Sussman hanging from a rack by his necktie with his knees bent.
Father was among the first to see him after they cut him down. He hadn’t done a neat job; evidently he’d had to jump a couple of times to get it finished. He’d been hanging for some time—probably from the previous night when he’d been wandering about the store, after everyone else had gone, realizing all at once that this was the end, that he was through; thinking of the two women and his heavy insurance on which an annual premium was due within a few weeks.
He wasn’t, father assured us all, a pretty sight. It seemed to prey on father’s mind and he talked about it a great deal during the ensuing months. He wasn’t careful about us children not hearing either. Mother used to remonstrate with him about it, I remember, but he paid no attention to her strictures. He kept saying it was undoubtedly the finest community murder we were ever likely to produce and he wanted us to know all about it. He would go into Rosov’s Dairy Restaurant on Bates Avenue, where most of the better grade merchants in the neighborhood and several elders of our synagogue foregathered at noon to eat pickled fish and borscht and noodle kugel, and sitting down at table with several of them, peering around at their plates with his squinting eyes, he would start talking about it.
“Ach,” he would say, conversationally, “that was a sight to see. You knew Joe Sussman, didn’t you?” He would raise his voice to call across to Mr. Rosov standing apprehensively behind his cash register, “You knew him, Rosov? He used to come here once in a while. A nice-looking fellow, no? Remember the way he used to laugh, deep in his throat? You should have seen what he looked like when they took him down from that rack. I’m telling you, you never saw anything like it. It was something to see, his eyes bulging out. . . .”
Of course, it wasn’t the thing to do. It was morbid. And I don’t think father got any real satisfaction out of it. He was just sick, sick to death inside, and hot and raving. But it doesn’t do any sort of good—that kind of revenge. These people weren’t monsters. They were ordinary folk from whom, under ordinary circumstances, you could expect kindness sometimes—justice sometimes—even generosity.
And it doesn’t do any sort of good to rebuke them, to keep ramming their own terrible humanness down their throats the way my father did. They felt bad enough. I’m sure all the people who had anything to do with hounding Sussman to death, felt pretty awful about it when he finally killed himself. All the hardness and the justification they went in for afterward were merely defenses against their own feeling of guilt. And give them six months to forget and they’d do the same thing all over again.
Of course, the community turned out en masse and gave Mr. Sussman a really impressive funeral. Since he was a suicide, he couldn’t be interred in hallowed ground, but our rabbi himself undertook to make excuses for Mr. Sussman to God, citing his many good qualities, his generosity, his charity, and so on. Afterwards the women tried to make it up to Miriam and the older woman. It was unfortunate that it was a little too late. When you’ve lynched somebody, crucified him, it doesn’t do much good to send the widow a basket of fruit and tell her how sorry you are. The two had grown accustomed to living their own life independent of the community; despite all advances now they kept to themselves and their own devices. The house belonged to Mrs. Sussman, and the insurance, a considerable sum, had come to her as beneficiary immune from the demands of Mr. Sussman’s creditors. They might have gone on indefinitely, their lives focused on the child, Joe Sussman’s child, growing up between them—but the child died the following year, of diphtheria. Mrs. Sussman put the house up for sale; she went back to the remnants of her family in the town where she was born. Miriam went back west too; I understand she married a few years later, but where she is now or how, I have no notion.
And so it is spring again and I don’t know why the fact that someone has put a geranium out on a window sill across the street should have made it necessary for me to tell this story. Perhaps it is because in the spring you cannot help but feel the greatness and the beauty of life implicit in every particle of pregnant earth and bursting leaf. And because you cannot help but wonder, in the spring, why forever and forever, through all the springs of eternity, the need to belittle greatness and beauty, to sit in judgment, to condemn, to spit upon each other, is part of the mysterious profane destiny of all of us little men on earth.