Despite his name, Himmelman was not a Jew — at least not as far as he knew; on the other hand, neither was he an antisemite. Not that he had ever thought about it, and he really didn’t now, except that the seat next to him was the only one left on the plane, and it was apparently reserved for the man whose chaotic approach amazed Himmelman, and whose bulbous features and skullcap clearly marked him as a Jew.
The man was coming down the aisle, swaying to and fro and knocking passengers with his simple bag as though he were on a subway rounding a curve. He wore a wrinkled blue raincoat and a blue beret partway over the skullcap, and he had the biggest nose Himmelman had ever seen, hooked and purple veined.
Himmelman looked at the empty window seat on his left and then at the man coming up on his right. The Jew made his way seat by seat, stopping every so often to touch his beret as if in a windstorm, apologizing even to those by the windows who had turned to stare. “Pardon, pardon, Monsieur, Madame.”
He stopped in front of Himmelman, touched his beret, apologized, looked at the reservation number in his hand and at the window seat. Again, he touched his beret and apologized.
Himmelman rose to let the Jew pass at the same moment that the Jew moved in. As a consequence, the two became locked in an embrace.
With effort, Himmelman extricated himself into the aisle so the Jew could get by — which he did, hitting Himmelman in the face with his bag.
Himmelman accepted the Jew’s apology with grace, sat back down, and stared out the window at the preparations for takeoff: men in overalls wheeling boarding ladders, gasoline trucks puffing along the striped concrete. When he shifted his gaze, he found the Jew staring at him.
“Bon soir, Monsieur,” said the Jew. “I hope I do not bother you.” He was struggling out of his disheveled raincoat as out of a cocoon. In the process, the beret fell onto his lap. He wore a dark blue shirt with cavernous short sleeves, out of which protruded thin, frail arms.
When the Jew readjusted his skullcap, Himmelman noticed he wore two wristwatches, one on each arm. The Jew caught him staring and accommodatingly held both wrists up. “Two watches: one for here, one for there,” he said, then lowered one of his arms to the armrest. “Could you be so kind to tell me the time?”
“Yes, of course,” said Himmelman, lifting his jacket sleeve and placing his arm next to the Jew’s as though in transfusion. “It’s 8:25” (as was the Jew’s watch, to the minute).
“Is correct,” said the Jew.
The propellers spurted and roared, and the Jew poked his spindly arms into his bag and took out a tiny prayer book. He opened the pages and his lips moved silently. Himmelman gazed uncomprehendingly at the Hebrew characters, but noticed the title of the page was in English: “Prayers for Traveling.”
They were in the air, and the Jew was talking incessantly about past destinations and the relative merits of different airports. The stewardess who had earlier helped the Jew put on his safety belt was now helping him out of it. She bent tautly across Himmelman as the Jew talked; Himmelman, understanding only half of what the Jew was saying, tried to keep out of the way of the stewardess’s breasts.
“There we are,” said the stewardess, finally straightening back up, much to Himmelman’s relief.
“Merci beaucoup,” said the Jew, smiling. Then he continued talking. “We arrive at the Iceland in eight hours and one half.” He pushed up one of his sleeves and presented his wristwatch to Himmelman’s view.
“Yes,” said Himmelman, involuntarily checking his own watch.
“You travel many times?”
“Oh, just once in a while,” said Himmelman.
“The —” the Jew pointed out the window — “too much.” He revolved a bent finger along the side of his head.
“Yes, the propellers do make a lot of noise,” Himmelman said, making a small, irrelevant laugh — which apparently was contagious, for the Jew began laughing too, as if they got on famously.
When the stewardess announced that they would be landing at Keflavik Airport in approximately seven and a quarter hours to refuel, the Jew checked his watch. He lifted his arm up to the light overhead — by now it was black outside — then rose to get out of his seat, saying nothing to Himmelman but pressing against him. The Jew extricated himself into the aisle and disappeared.
In the next hour the Jew went to the back of the plane three times. By the third time Himmelman automatically stood when he caught sight of the Jew returning. One or two passengers nearby gave Himmelman a sympathetic smile.
The stewardesses, with aprons over their uniforms, made their way up the aisle, wheeling carts laden with trays of food. One stewardess handed Himmelman a tray and bent to hand one to the Jew.
Suddenly, the Jew waved his arm and shook his head, refusing the tray, which the bending stewardess was having a hard time balancing. He motioned her nearer and said that the airline had promised him special meal preparations. With the tray tilting precariously in Himmelman’s face, she said she would ask the chief stewardess and be back.
As Himmelman put his fork into the roast pork, the Jew leaned close and said with evident distaste, “Schwine.”
“Pardon?” said Himmelman.
The Jew unlaced his fingers, hit his stomach, then shook his head. “Schwine!”
Himmelman lowered his fork and waited for the stewardess to return.
When she did, she brought the same tray. She told the Jew that no special instructions had been received; this was all the airline had. But the Jew was adamant, insisting there was to be a special platter for him. The stewardess said she would check again.
Ten minutes later, she returned with a small salad and an orange sitting on a tray. “I’m sorry,” she said without a smile, “this is the best we can do.” The Jew shook his head but took the tray. Then he pointed a finger at Himmelman’s chocolate bar. Himmelman immediately offered it to the Jew, who accepted. Himmelman took a sip of his tepid coffee.
Emerging from the restroom, Himmelman thought he might read a magazine. In front of him, a stewardess was collecting the contents of a rack — eight or nine magazines. Himmelman eyed a Newsweek.
“Excuse me, do you have a magazine?”
“No,” said the stewardess, magazines in hand.
“Oh,” said Himmelman.
“These are taken. I will bring you one from the other side.”
After fifteen minutes Himmelman was on the edge of his seat, peering up and down the aisle. The stewardess was pouring coffee. Himmelman stared for a full minute, expecting to catch her attention.
“Stomach cramp?” asked the Jew.
“Oh, no,” said Himmelman, turning.
“It is the food, believe me, I know,” said the Jew. He looked into his bag, shaking his head. “I have just the thing. Drop in glass of water and you feel like new suit of clothes.”
“No, no,” said Himmelman, “I feel fine, really,” and he touched the Jew lightly on the sleeve to prevent his further rummaging. “I was just looking for a magazine to read. The stewardess said she would bring me one.”
“Perhaps it is a prayer you want?” said the Jew. “I apologize, but I have no magazine. But prayers are not bad reading.” Smiling, he offered Himmelman the small black book. “I help you with the difficult parts.”
Himmelman stared at him. Then, withdrawing the book, the Jew said with a small laugh, “Free thinker. Ach!” Himmelman started to say something but the Jew threw up his hand. “I know, you don’t have to tell me.”
Himmelman returned to looking up and down the aisle, but the Jew touched his knee. “You go to Luxembourg, vacation?”
“No, not really. More for business.”
“But I think I should enjoy myself.”
“You should,” said the Jew.
There was a lapse in the conversation. Then Himmelman asked the Jew where he was going. “University Sorbonne,” the Jew replied. Not wishing, for some reason, to drop the thread of conversation, Himmelman inquired about the Jew’s line of work.
“My line of work,” said the Jew, “is librarian.” He patted his armrest and leaned back in his seat as if that closed the matter. Then he abruptly sat forward. “I am librarian —” he deliberately spaced the syllables — “for Jewish Theological Seminary of Montreal. Is only one in Montreal.”
“Oh,” said Himmelman thoughtfully.
“I go to translate manuscripts.”
“I go live in Paris. But, ach! Paris. You call that living?”
Himmelman and the Jew were both reflecting on this when the Jew lifted his arm. “Nineteen minutes past ten o’clock. You got?” He motioned toward Himmelman’s wrist.
“Yes, nineteen minutes past ten.”
Himmelman began wondering again about his magazine, and the Jew turned and said, “We stop in Iceland. Reykjavik. You have been?”
“No,” said Himmelman.
“You ask about my ‘line of work’. . . .” There was a pause, and Himmelman readied himself.
The Jew continued: “I am also poet. For five years is what I have been. Poet. For five years I am writing one poem.” And before Himmelman could anticipate the worst, the Jew said, “You would like to hear?”
“Why . . . yes, of course.”
“I recite for you,” said the Jew, and, looking steadily at the seat in front of him, he began to recite the poem in Hebrew. When he finished — mercifully, in a few seconds — he turned back to Himmelman with a smile.
“In English, I translate,” and he repeated carefully, with surprisingly little accent:
“In Jerusalem, birds circle above dark rooftops. In city on tragedy’s brink Faces lift and mark with envy Birds that swoop to drink. . . .”
Himmelman expected the Jew to continue; he was actually quite struck by the poem. But the Jew had ceased.
“It is poor translation,” said the Jew apologetically.
“Yes,” said Himmelman. “I mean — is there more? Are there just — those lines?”
“Just those lines, yes,” said the Jew. “But when is finished, ach! What a poem.”
When the Jew continued to look at him with a radiant expression, Himmelman asked, “Have you been to Iceland before?”
“Ah, yes, Iceland. So many times, Reykjavik always . . . how you say, overstop?”
“Stopover, yes. But maybe, I think, where always should have been my destination.” Himmelman looked at him quizzically. “There,” said the Jew emphatically, “at least is peace.”
After a moment, Himmelman said, “The people in Iceland must be very friendly.”
“No,” said the Jew thoughtfully. “No, it is fact, Icelanders have no love for anyone but Icelanders. They want only to be left alone.” He reflected some more. “But is, after all, a kind of tolerance. Anyway, I have work press me in Paris. Sorbonne,” he said. “And at my age, you should believe, it presses. Like old pair of pants.” And he laughed at his own joke.
The airplane engines droned on, and the Jew leaned back and closed his eyes. Who knows? thought Himmelman as he looked out at the wings receding into the darkness, the propellers reflecting the lights of the plane. Perhaps he is a poet.
When Himmelman and the Jew awoke from a couple of hours of half-sleep, another meal was being served. Predictably, another fuss arose between the Jew and the stewardess regarding the special plate the airline had supposedly promised him. This time, however, the Jew ended the round with a new tack: he demanded to see the captain.
The stewardess was taken aback. “Yes, but I will see him for you.”
“I will see him,” the Jew said, pushing himself up with his thin arms.
“No, it is all right,” said the stewardess. “I shall see the captain now. Thank you.”
The Jew leaned far over Himmelman, his gaze following the stewardess, who, to Himmelman’s surprise, went into the pilot’s cabin and closed the door behind her.
The Jew waited tensely, leaning with one elbow nearly on Himmelman’s lap.
Finally the door opened and the stewardess emerged. She made her way back to the Jew.
“The captain has informed me that there have been no special instructions whatsoever. I am sorry. Can I bring you something else?”
“Bring me some orange juice and tea, please,” said the Jew, in the best English Himmelman had so far heard him speak — except for the poem. Then, much to Himmelman’s relief, the Jew sat back in his seat and stared out at the propellers.
Twenty minutes passed and the Jew said not a word. He continued to sit, hunched over, gazing at the propellers. Himmelman was debating whether or not to hazard another request for a magazine when suddenly the stewardess was at his side. The Jew, as if sensing her presence, turned toward the aisle. She had a tray full of coffees and an orange juice. “I have your orange juice,” she said, handing the small glass across Himmelman to the Jew.
“And the tea?” the Jew asked.
“I’m afraid this is all we have at the moment.”
Down the aisle two rows and to the right Himmelman noticed a man having what looked like tea in a tall plastic glass.
The Jew took his orange juice. The glass was filled to the brim, and in bringing it down, he spilled some of it on his lap.
“But surely,” said Himmelman, rising slightly in his seat, “there is some tea. The gentleman over there seems to be having some.”
“Why, yes,” said the stewardess with hardly a glance in that direction, “I will see once more.” And before she left, she gave Himmelman a very unpleasant look.
Beneath the dull silver wing, gray tufts of cloud floated over icecaps, which in turn floated on leaden-looking water. Himmelman had been watching out the window for nearly an hour. The Jew was asleep. A voice came on, announcing arrival; as it would be a two-hour stopover, passengers might wish to take their carry-on luggage with them.
When the plane landed, the Jew awoke.
“Iceland,” said Himmelman.
The Jew took a long look. “Ach,” he said and sighed deeply. He pushed up his sleeve and turned to Himmelman, who automatically pushed up his own and said, “6:20.”
Stepping out onto the landing ladder, Himmelman felt a cool breeze wash across his face and down his back. He scanned the flat panorama: no trees, no color, nothing vertical except a signal tower at one end of the airfield, like a futile attempt to punctuate the terrain. The land was a reflection of a gray sky surrounding a small, gray, morning moon. The hard ground had the filminess of a still lake. There was a sense that time had stopped; or, rather, that it was confined to a small, drab, prefabricated building in front of which passengers moved slowly to and fro and a ground crew lounged, smoking cigarettes.
Himmelman, with the Jew’s luggage suddenly jabbing at his back, descended. On the ground, though, Himmelman felt a sudden buoyancy: a freedom to move at will. He lifted his head and scanned the sky for birds. Instead, his gaze was drawn downward by the sight of the Jew descending the ladder, huffing along with his one bag, moving as if in a windstorm toward the terminal.
Inside, the terminal had the air of a refugee station, or what Himmelman imagined a refugee station to be like. People sat on their suitcases or idly walked back and forth or gazed vacantly, hands in pockets, at the items in a small booth where unsmiling women sold souvenirs.
Himmelman spent an hour or so walking about, first in the terminal and then outside. More and more he had the feeling that he had been washed up on a gray slab of rock. But there was also a feeling of restfulness, a feeling of . . . release.
People were gathering at the terminal door. The airplane engines were spitting and spreading a wide cloud of smoke. With a sense of deliverance, and yet a bit of sadness at being so delivered, Himmelman went to rejoin his fellow passengers.
Back on the plane, Himmelman stared over the vacant window seat at the propellers blurring a circular stretch of runway. He was half listening for the bustle of the Jew coming down the aisle. Then, as the seats filled, he became curious as to what the Jew was doing all this time. Himmelman could not remember having seen him at all after they had disembarked.
The engines revved deafeningly, then steadied, and the captain’s voice came on the loudspeaker. The stewardesses were flitting from passenger to passenger. No one else was in the aisle.
The Jew had not arrived.
Suppose something had happened to him? Surely the stewardesses count heads. Himmelman turned swiftly around; the aisle was completely empty.
Then Himmelman was on his feet. He walked hurriedly down the aisle, apologizing a couple of times in his haste, although no one impeded him.
“Stewardess, I believe there is a passenger missing.”
“Yes, the gentleman seated next to me. The plane is starting and he hasn’t come aboard yet.”
The stewardess looked over Himmelman’s shoulder. “Well, really,” she said, “I am sure he had passage only to Iceland.”
“No, he said he was going to Paris.”
“But he could have changed his mind. And there are other planes. Frankly,” she said after a pause, “we do have a schedule to make. There are other passengers to consider.”
“I assure you there were adequate announcements at the terminal. The gentleman had ample time to board. I am sorry, but he will have to await the next airliner. Surely the terminal will look after him.” She smiled.
Himmelman stared into her gray, unmoving eyes.
“I would like to see the captain,” he said.
Himmelman looked over the vacant seat and out the window at ice floes a thousand feet below. Unlike the stewardess, the captain had not smiled. After listening to the stewardess explain in Icelandic, he had said that a message would be sent back. That was all that could be done. He had, as Himmelman could plainly see, duties that required his immediate attention.
Himmelman moved over to the Jew’s window seat and looked down. It was four hours more to Luxembourg. There, down on the ground somewhere at this very moment, was the Jew, perhaps picking his way among barren rock. Up here in the window seat, the plane was quiet, warm, quite comfortable really.