Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish-born Jewish author who immigrated to the United States in 1935, only four years before the Nazi invasion of Poland. He established his literary career in New York and was the author of eighteen novels, fourteen children’s books, and seven memoirs in English, though he remains best known as a writer of short stories. Singer was awarded a National Book Award in 1974 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. He died in 1991 at the age of eighty-seven.
Almost all of Singer’s stories were first published in Yiddish, most often in The Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish newspaper for which Singer worked. “On a Ship” is a rare exception. Believed to be written sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the story was sent to us by David Stromberg, the editor of Singer’s estate. He found the story — translated to English and in handwritten fragments in Yiddish — while going through Singer’s vast archives. This is its first publication in any language. It was translated from the Yiddish by the author and Nancy Gerstein.
The Argentine ship La Plata was sailing from New York to Buenos Aires. The Theatre Solail, which had invited me to the première of my play, had sent me a first-class ticket. The trip was to take eighteen days. We were supposed to stop in Trinidad, Venezuela, and Brazil. The month of October was warm even in New York, and after a few days of sailing to the south it became hot. I sat on the deck in a lounge chair and near me another passenger sat reading the Book of Job. He was a little man with milk-white hair that hung on his neck in tufts and with the young face of a schoolboy. In his black eyes there was the doleful mildness sometimes seen in people who suffer from a chronic disease. He nodded his head as he read, and I imagined he was saying, Yes, yes, yes, right, right, right. He wore a pink shirt, pants that hung on broad old-fashioned suspenders, and a Panama hat. He smoked a long cigar.
On the other side of the deck sat a young couple with a little girl who seemed to be the delight of all the passengers. Everyone smiled at her and tried to play with her. She was a child of about three, with yellow curls, large blue eyes, and extraordinarily white and delicate skin. She looked like a doll and wore a white lace dress with folds and ribbons as dolls are sometimes outfitted. She spoke French and also a few words of English. Her name was Mimi.
For some reason, Mimi had become infatuated with my neighbor. Every few minutes she would run over to him, her little hands spread out, all joy and playfulness. She tried to get his attention by tugging at the cuff of his pants, at his sleeve, at his book. He would immediately put down the Bible, catch Mimi in his short arms, kiss her forehead, and start talking to her in a mixture of French and English — both languages in a foreign accent — with a dash of Galician Yiddish. He bounced her on his knees, shook her little hands, and held out his index finger, which she grabbed and pulled toward her. Each time, she attempted to take off his reading glasses, but he would say to her, “Darling, sois sage. Leave my glasses in peace. Je lis livre. Be a good meidele.”
The little one laughed and tried to mimic his gibberish. He searched his pockets for something she could play with. He gave her his fountain pen to hold. He took off his wristwatch and showed her how the second hand moved. He took out a cigar and pulled off the ring of gold paper and offered it to her. For a while Mimi looked at it half with curiosity and half with mockery. Then she attacked his glasses again. Soon her mother came over and took her away. I said to him, “When you start playing with a child, it’s a story without an end.”
He looked at me with a kind of fatherly indulgence and replied, “If we could get half as much joy from adults as from children, this world would be a paradise. My name is Isadore Lemberger.”
We began to talk and he told me that he was born in Galicia, had been living in Los Angeles for over forty years, and had recently retired and given his furniture business to his three sons-in-law. I asked him where he was going. He became thoughtful, remained silent for a while, and then said, “I’ll either go directly to Argentina, or I stop over in Brazil. I don’t know yet myself. The main thing is that I’m going.”
“A pleasure trip?”
“You might call it that, but what pleasure is there when one travels alone? My wife died a year and a half ago, and without her everything is gone. The passengers here are almost all Spanish. The ones who speak English are young people and not my kind. So they placed me at a table by myself. A wagon pulled by oxen could pass between one course and the next. The music plays but my mind is still not on the music. Where are you going?”
I told him about my play and invitation. He wanted to know all the details. Then he said:
“At least you travel with a purpose. I’m running away from funerals. I belong to a synagogue. I’m a Freemason. I support Palestine. I come from Tarnow and have many landsmen. I have been in business for years and know thousands of people. When I was young and had a wife and small children, I didn’t realize that people were dying. That was something that happened to others, not to those around me. Now everybody is dying. I buy the morning paper, and the moment I open it I see that someone from my circle has died. Sometimes it’s not one but two, three, or even five. And the illnesses! This one had a heart attack and another got cancer. I brought a large part of my family over from Galicia and everyone is sick. I’m already known in all the hospitals. I am a regular visitor to the cemetery. The large broom sweeps all of us away. There are cold-blooded people who don’t care. I even know monsters who think going to a funeral is fun. They meet their cronies, they go out and get drunk — they pretend they will live forever. But I cannot deceive myself. Every time I hear bad news something in my heart is torn. Such is my nature that even if I meet a person once, he is not a stranger to me. I reached the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to my doctor and he said, ‘Why don’t you take a trip? You don’t know anyone in Buenos Aires and Rio, and you will save yourself all this pain.’ Here she is again.”
Isadore Lemberger took off his glasses and said, “Mamele, everything yes, but not my glasses. If you break my glasses, what will I read with? Tu comprends? Non, non, non.”
I invited Isadore Lemberger to sit at my table. He thought it over and said:
“I thank you. It would be wonderful. You are a Yiddish writer and what better company could I desire? But as I told you, I become attached to people, and I am afraid. If we share a table all these days, we will become like brothers, and God forbid if something should happen. Please forgive me for talking nonsense. This has become an obsession. I don’t want to be close to anybody. As a matter of fact, I have a relative in Montevideo and I’m not going to visit him. As long as I don’t know him, he’s only a name to me. Once I meet him, I will become terribly concerned. This began when my wife got sick, and since her death I worry about everyone.”
We walked down to the lounge and we played chess. Between games he told me about the furniture business, about the changing population of Los Angeles, about his journey to America almost fifty years before — how he traveled steerage, was kept on Ellis Island for five days, and got his first job in New York sewing buttons on pants for two dollars a week. Later, when I came to the dining room for supper, I saw him sitting alone at his table. He was still reading the Book of Job. The prophet Jonah tried to flee from God unto Tarshish, and Isadore Lemberger was fleeing from death unto Buenos Aires. The band was playing Spanish melodies and American songs. Through the window I could see the setting sun — unusually large and red. The sky had been blue and clear for days. Now, toward evening, a thick fog appeared. In the middle of the room sat the captain and his crew. They seemed to be talking about the weather because they kept on pointing to the porthole. One of them was the ship’s doctor. He had given me a smallpox vaccination, since I had forgotten to get one before we embarked. He was the kind of doctor that would be called a “blacksmith” in Yiddish. He had scratched me so hard that I could barely stop myself from screaming. He was tall, with a long face and watery eyes set wide apart. His flax-colored crew cut reminded me of a pig’s bristles. The gold of his epaulettes glistened. He was cutting a half-raw steak in a plate full of blood.
After supper the passengers went to dance or to bet on “races” played with little wooden horses. I went to my cabin. Instead of a porthole it had a square window. Outside, the sky had become overcast. The waves rose, black and heavy like lava. My tie, which I had hung over the sink, began to perform gymnastic feats. It stretched out straight and stiff, it turned to the right, then to the left, and once in a while it quivered. Were we entering a hurricane? I read in bed for a while and then turned off the light. Although it was dark outside, the ocean’s turbulence was reflected in the mirror. Once in a while there was a flash of lightning. I fell asleep and when I awoke it was still lightning and thundering and a heavy rain was beating down on the ocean. The ship’s motors droned. My toothbrush tinkled in its glass. The glass rang in its stand. All the springs in the mattress under me were vibrating. The insides of the ship moaned as though they were about to split. The black sky rose, receding into the cosmic heights. Then it went down and collapsed like a tent. In all this racket there was an uncanny silence in the corridor, as if the other passengers had deserted their cabins and run to the lifeboats.
I kept on dozing off and awakening. I heard a whistling sound but I couldn’t make out if it was outside or in my ear. In my dream the gale was both real and a story. Although the cabin was cold, my pajamas were damp with perspiration. The next morning it was as dark as dusk. I dressed and went to eat breakfast. The dining room was half empty. Isadore Lemberger was not at his table. Was he sick? I tried to go outside, but the deck was roped off. It looked as though it had been scrubbed all night. The wind slammed the door in my face. At lunchtime there were even fewer passengers in the dining room than at breakfast. The band did not play. Some of the crew members were missing from the captain’s table, the doctor among them. The waiter told me in broken English that at this time of year storms were rare in this part of the Atlantic.
A few days passed. The ship had been moving unusually slowly. Its chimney bellowed like an ox. The ocean spray kept on pelting my window. I was invited to a cocktail party given by the captain. Only a few attended. I noticed that the captain and the crew members were whispering and exchanging worried looks. I went to the purser to ask the number of Isadore Lemberger’s cabin. I knocked at his door and no one answered. I tried to open it, but it was locked. I became suspicious. Did something happen to Isadore Lemberger? The man had looked to me not in the best of health. Yes, one gets attached quicker than one thinks, I said to myself. In my imagination Isadore Lemberger was lying on his bed with a sheet over his face — dead, a man who ran away from funerals and missed his own funeral. I once heard that those who die on a ship are thrown into the sea. Even though there was no reason for my assumption that Isadore Lemberger was dead or dangerously sick — he could have been suffering from seasickness and nothing else — I somehow felt that something bad had happened to him. I brooded about him, his family, and about what he could be doing.
On the fifth day the rain stopped, the clouds dispersed, and the sun came out, freshly bathed and golden. The stewards put the lounge chairs back on the deck. All the sick people appeared, healthy and hardy, as if they had just been pretending. At lunchtime I saw Isadore Lemberger in the dining room. His face was yellowish and there was a gloomy look in his eyes. I greeted him and he barely answered me. I decided that he was angry with me for not having visited him. The doctor had returned to the captain’s table. He drank one glass of wine after another but for some reason he remained silent. He did not talk or laugh in his wooden voice.
Later in the day I went out on the deck with a book. Instead of lounging on the chairs and enjoying the good weather, all the passengers stood in clusters whispering. Isadore Lemberger leaned against the rail, his head low as though he were searching for something in the water.
I touched his shoulder. “Mr. Lemberger.”
He started. “Yes?”
“I want to tell you that I asked the purser for the number of your cabin. I went there and no one answered. I didn’t want to disturb you anymore.”
Isadore Lemberger looked at me in confusion. “Thank you, but what do you say about this misfortune?”
“You don’t know, or are you just pretending?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Well, it’s good to be a writer. They don’t live here, but in the clouds.”
“Mimi is dead.”
Isadore Lemberger did not say the words — he screamed them.
“God in heaven!”
“The doctor — that butcher, that murderer — poisoned her. She came down with a fever and he gave her an overdose of medicine that could have killed a horse, let alone such a delicate baby. He should burn like fire. He should be killed. Such callous people can make you despise humanity. How is it that everybody knows about it except for you?”
“No one told me.”
“Then how come I know? You hide from the truth. A real writer doesn’t go up into an ivory tower. He lives among people. Please forgive me. This was not a child but a little angel. I had hoped at least to find rest on the ship. And suddenly such a blow! The angel of death is everywhere.”
He stood there, his face worn and wrinkled, unshaven, with bloodshot eyes. He said, “Of all boats, I had to choose this one. Is this an accident? An act of God? And I, idiot that I am, was afraid to give her my glasses. You may think I’m mad, but maybe that was the reason she developed a fever. That child was not of this world and to say no to her was murder. I will not forgive myself until the day I die.”
For a while we were both silent. Then I said, “You torture yourself for sins you have not committed.”
Isadore Lemberger drew back. He stared at me, perplexed. Then he understood. “Yes,” he said, “the world belongs to those with hearts of stone. Sometimes I think that God Himself is one of them.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer