FROM "BY THE ST. LAWRENCE"
Not the Rob Rexler?
Yes, Rexler, the man who wrote all those books on theater and cinema in Weimar Germany, the author of Postwar Berlin and of the controversial study of Bertolt Brecht. Quite an old man now and, it turns out, though you wouldn't have guessed it from his work, physically handicapped-not disabled, only slightly crippled in adolescence by infantile paralysis. You picture a tall man when you read him, and his actual short, stooped figure is something of a surprise. You don't expect the author of those swift sentences to have an abrupt neck, a long jaw, and a knot-back. But these are minor items, and in conversation with him you quickly forget his disabilities.
Because New York has been his base for half a century, it is assumed that he comes from the East Side or Brooklyn. In fact he is a Canadian, born in Lachine, Quebec, an unlikely birthplace for a historian who has written so much about cosmopolitan Berlin, about nihilism, decadence, Marxism, national socialism, and who described the trenches of World War I as "man sandwiches" served up by the leaders of the great powers.
Yes, he was born in Lachine to parents from Kiev. His childhood was divided between Lachine and Montreal. And just now, after a near-fatal illness, he had had a curious desire or need to see Lachine again. For this reason he accepted a lecture invitation from McGill University despite his waning interest in (and a growing dislike for) Bertolt Brecht. Tired of Brecht and his Marxism-his Stalinism-he stuck with him somehow. He might have canceled the trip. He was still convalescent and weak. He had written to his McGill contact, "I've been playing hopscotch at death's door, and since I travel alone I have to arrange for wheelchairs between the ticket counter and the gate. Can I count on being met at Dorval?"
He counted also on a driver to take him to Lachine. He asked him to park the Mercedes limo in front of his birthplace. The street was empty. The low brick house was the only one left standing. All the buildings for blocks around had been torn down. He told the driver, "I'm going to walk down to the river. Can you wait for about an hour?" He anticipated correctly that his legs would soon tire and that the empty streets would be cold, too. Late October was almost wintry in these parts. Rexler was wearing his dark-green cloaklike Salzburg loden coat.
There was nothing familiar to see at first, you met no people here. You were surprised by the bigness and speed of the St. Lawrence. As a kid you were hemmed in by the dinky streets. The river now had opened up, and the sky also, with long static autumn clouds. The rapids were white, the water reeling over the rocks. The old Hudson's Bay Trading Post was now a community center. Opposite, in gloomy frames of moss and grime, there stood a narrow provincial stone church. And hadn't there been a convent nearby? He did not look for it. Downriver he made out Caughnawaga, the Indian reservation, on the far shore. According to Parkman, a large party of Caughnawaga Mohawks, crossing hundreds of miles on snowshoes, had surprised and massacred the settlers of Deerfield, Massachusetts, during the French-Indian wars. Weren't those Indians Mohawks? He couldn't remember. He believed that they were one of the Iroquois nations. For that matter he couldn't say whether his birthplace was on Seventh Avenue or on Eighth. So many landmarks were gone. The tiny synagogue had become a furniture warehouse. There were neither women nor children in the streets. Immigrant laborers from the Dominion Bridge Company once had lived in the cramped houses. From the narrow front yard (land must have been dear), where Rexler's mother more than seventy years ago had set him cross-strapped in his shawl to dig snow with the black stove shovel, you could see the wide river surface-it had been there all the while, beyond the bakeries and sausage shops, kitchens and bedrooms.
Beside the Lachine Canal, where the "kept" water of the locks was still and green, various reasons for Rexler's return began to take shape. When asked how he was doing-and it was only two months ago that the doctors had written him off; the specialist had told him, "Your lungs were whited out. I wouldn't have given two cents for your life"-Rexler answered, "I have no stamina. I put out some energy and then I can't bend down to tie my shoelaces."
Why then did he take this trying trip? Was it sentimentality, was it nostalgia? Did he want to recall how his mother, mute with love, had bundled him in woolens and set him down in the snow with a small shovel? No, Rexler wasn't at all like that. He was a tough-minded man. It was toughness that had drawn him decades ago to Bert Brecht. Nostalgia, subjectivism, inwardness-all that was in the self-indulgence doghouse now. But he was making no progress toward an answer. At his age the reprieve from death could be nothing but short. It was noteworthy that the brick and stucco that had walled in the Ukrainian-, Sicilian-, and French-Canadian Dominion Bridge Company laborers also cut them off from the St. Lawrence in its platinum rush toward the North Atlantic. To have looked at their bungalows again wouldn't have been worth the fatiguing trip, the wear and tear of airports, the minor calvary of visiting-lecturer chitchat.
Anyway, he saw death as a magnetic field that every living thing must enter. He was ready for it. He had even thought that since he had been unconscious under the respirator for an entire month, he might just as well have died in the hospital and avoided further trouble. Yet here he was in his birthplace. Intensive-care nurses had told him that the electronic screens monitoring his heart had run out of graphs, squiggles, and symbols at last and, foundering, flashed out nothing but question marks. That would have been the way to go, with all the machines confounded, from unconsciousness to nonconsciousness. But it wasn't over yet, and now this valetudinarian native son stood in Monkey Park beside the locks shadowed with the autumn green of the banked earth and asked himself whether all this was a justified expense of his limited energy.
The cook, she's nam' was Rosie
She cam' from Mo'real
And was chambermaid on a lumber barge
In the Grand Lachine Canal.
Rexler had more than once thought of opening an office to help baffled people who could remember only one stanza of a ballad or song. For a twenty-five-dollar fee you would provide the full text.
He remembered that when a barge was in the locks, the Lachinois, loafing unemployed or killing time, would chat or joke with the crew. He had been there himself, waving and grinning at the wisecracks. His boy's body was clean then. As such things are reckoned he had still been normal during his final childhood holiday in Lachine. Toward the end of that summer he came down with polio and his frame was contorted into a monkey puzzle. Next, adolescence turned him into a cripple gymnast whose skeleton was the apparatus he worked out on like an acrobat in training. This was how reality punished you for your innocence. It turned you into a crustacean. But in his early years, until the end of the twenties, his body was still well formed and smooth. Then his head grew heavy, his jawline lengthened, his sideburns were thick pillars. But he had taken pains to train himself away from abnormality, from the outlook and the habits of a cripple. His long eyes were mild. He walked with a virile descending limp, his weight coming down on the advancing left foot. "Not personally responsible for the way life operates" was what he tacitly declared.
This, more or less, was Rexler, the last of the tribe that had buzzed across the Atlantic early in the century and found limited space in streets that shut out the river. They lived among the French, the Indians, the Sicilians, and the Ukrainians.
His aunt Rozzy, who was fond of him, often rescued him in July from the St. Dominick Street slum in Montreal. His older cousins in Lachine, already adults, all with witty strong faces, seemed to like his company. "Take the boy with you," Aunt Rozzy would say when she dispatched them on errands.
He tooted all over Lachine with them in their cars and trucks.
These were solid detailed recollections, nothing dreamlike about them. Rexler knew therefore that he must have come back to them repeatedly over many years. Again and again the cousins, fully mature at twenty, or even at sixteen. The eldest, Cousin Ezra, was an insurance adjuster. Next in age was Albert, a McGill law student. And then Matty, less tough than his big brothers. The youngest was Reba. She had the odor stout girls often have, Rexler used to think-a distinctive sexy scent. They were all, for that matter, sexy people. Except, of course, the parents. But Ezra and Albert, even Matty, varied their business calls with visits to girls. They joked with them in doorways. Sometimes with a Vadja, sometimes a Nadine. Ezra, who was so stern about business, buying and trading building lots-the insurance was a sideline-would laugh after he had cranked his Ford and say as he jumped into the seat, "How did you like that one, Robbie?" And, playful, he surprised Rexler by gripping his thigh. Ezra had a leathery pleasant face. His complexion, like his father's, was dark and he had vertical furrows under each ear; an old country doctor had cured him surgically of swellings caused by milk from a tubercular cow. But even the scars were pleasant to see. Ezra had an abrupt way of clearing his nose by snorting. He trod the pedals of the Ford. His breath was virile-a little salty or perhaps sour. Over Rexler he had great seniority-more an uncle than a cousin. And when Ezra was silent, having business thoughts, all laughing was shut down. He brought his white teeth together and a sort of gravity came over him. No Yiddish jokes then, or Hebrew with double meanings. He was a determined man out to make good. At his death he left an estate in the millions.
Rexler had never visited his grave or the graves of the others. They all lay together somewhere on a mountainside-Westmount, would that be, or Outremont? Ezra and Albert quarreled when Reba died. Ezra had been away and Albert buried her in a remote cemetery. "I want my dead together." Ezra was angry at what he saw as disrespect to the parents. Rexler, recalling this, made a movement of his crippled back, shrugging off the piety. It was not his cup of tea. But then why did he recall it so particularly?
On a June day he had gone in the car with Albert across the Grand Trunk tracks where the parents owned rental property. They had been here no more than fifteen years and they didn't know twenty words of the language, yet they were buying property. Only the immediate family were in on this. They were secretive. At Rexler's age-seven or eight years old-he wouldn't have understood. But when he was present they were guarded nevertheless. As a result, he did come to understand. Such a challenge was sure to provoke him.
Cousin Albert put you off with his shrewd look of amusement. For women he had a lewd eye. And at McGill he had picked up a British manner. He said "By Jove." He also said "Topping." Joe Cohen, an MP in Ottawa, had chosen Albert to be a student clerk. Clerking for Joe Cohen, he was made. In time he would become a partner in Cohen's firm. He'll stop saying "By Jove," and say instead "What's the deal?" was Cousin Ezra's true prophecy. But Ezra had airs of his own. The look of the firstborn, for example. A few thousand years of archaic gravity would settle on him. The advantage of being in remote Lachine was that he could freely improvise from the Old Testament.
Anyway, Rexler was in the family's second Ford with Albert on the far side of the tracks, over toward Dorval, and Albert parked in front of a large bungalow. It had a spacious white porch, round pillars, and a swing hanging on chains.
"I have to go in," said Albert. "I'll be a while."
"As long as it takes."
"Can I go out and walk back and forth?"
"I'd like you to stay in the auto."
He went in, Rexler remembered, and the wait was interminable. The sun came through the June leaves. Dark periwinkle grew in all the shady places and young women came and went on the broad porch. They walked arm in arm or sat together on the swing or in white wooden Adirondack chairs. Rexler moved into the driver's seat and played with the wheel and the choke-or was it the spark lever? Crouching, he worked the pedals with his hands. A cloven hoof would be a good fit on the ovals of the clutch and brake.
Then it became tiresome to wait.
Then Rexler was fretful.
He might have been alone for as long as an hour.
Did he, Rexler now wondered, have any idea as to what was keeping Albert? He may have had. All those young women passing through the screen door, promenading, swinging between the creaking chains.
Without haste Albert stepped between the green plots to the Ford. Smiling, a pretense of regret in his look, he said, "There was more business to do than usual." He mentioned a lease. Baloney, of course. It wasn't what he said but how he spoke that mattered. He had a lippy sort of look and somehow, to Rexler, his mouth had become an index: lippy, but the eyes were at variance with the lower face. Those eyes reflected the will of an upper power center. This was Rexler's early manner of observation. His eagerness, his keenness for this had weakened with time and, in his seventies, he did not care about Albert's cunning, his brothels, his secret war against his brother Ezra.
At the first candy store Albert parked the Ford and gave Rexler a copper two-cent piece-a helmeted woman with a trident and shield. With this coin Rexler bought two porous squares of blond molasses candy. He understood that he was being bribed, though he couldn't have explained exactly why. He would not in any case have said a word to Aunt Rozzy about the house with all the girls. Such outside street things never were reported at home. He chewed the candy to a fine dust while Albert entered a cottage to make the rent collection for his mother. Not a thing a university man liked doing. Although where money came from didn't much matter.
Albert was in a better humor when he came out and gave little Rexler a joyride through the pastures and truck gardens, turning back just short of Dorval. Returning, they saw a small crowd at the level crossing of the Grand Trunk. There had been an accident. A man had been killed by a fast train. The tracks had not yet been cleared and for the moment a line of cars was held up and Rexler, standing on the running board of the Model T, was able to see-not the corpse, but his organs on the roadbed-first the man's liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs. More than anything, it was the lungs-Rexler couldn't get over the twin lungs crushed out of the man by the train when it tore his body open. Their color was pink and they looked inflated still. Strange that there should be no blood, as if the speed of the train had scattered it.
Albert didn't have the curiosity to find out who the dead man was. He must not have wanted to ask. The Ford had stopped running and he set the spark and jumped down to crank it again. When the engine caught, the fender shuddered and then the file of cars crept over the planks. The train was gone-nothing but an empty track to the west.
"So, where did you get lost such a long time?" said Aunt Rozzy.
Albert said, "A man was killed at the Grand Trunk crossing."
That was answer enough.
Rexler was sent down to the garden in the yard to pick tomatoes. Even more than the fruit itself, the vines and leaves carried the strong tomato odor. You could smell it on your fingers. Uncle Mikhel had staked the plants and bound them with strips of cloth torn from old petticoats and undershirts. Though his hands were palsied, Uncle Mikhel could weed and tie knots. His head, too, made involuntary movements but his eyes looked at you steadily, wide open. His face was tightly held by the close black beard. He said almost nothing. You heard the crisping of his beard against the collar oftener than his voice. He stared, you expected him to say something; instead he went on staring with an involuntary wag of the head. The children had a great respect for him. Rexler remembered him with affection. Each of his olive-brown eyes had a golden flake on it like the scale of a smoked fish. If his head went back and forth it was not because he was denying anything, he was warding off a tremor.
"Why doesn't the boy eat?" Aunt Rozzy said to Albert at dinner. "Did he let you stuff yourself with candy?"
"Why aren't you eating your soup, Robbie?" Albert asked. His smile was narrow. Albert was not at all afraid that he, Rexler, would mention the girls on the porch swing or his long wait in the car. And even if something were to slip out, it would be no more than his mother already suspected.
"I'm just not hungry."
Shrewd Albert smiled even more narrowly at the boy, bearing down on him. "I think it was the accident that took away his appetite. A man was killed on the tracks as we were coming home."
"God in heaven," said Aunt Rozzy.
"He burst open," said Albert. "We came to a stop and there were his insides-heart, liver...."
His lungs! The lungs reminded Rexler of the water wings used by children learning to swim.
"Who was the man?"
"A drunkard," said Aunt Rozzy.
Uncle Mikhel interrupted. "He may have been a railway worker."
Out of respect for the old man no more was said, for Uncle Mikhel was once a CPR laborer. He had been a conscript on the eastern front during the Russian war with Japan. He deserted, reached western Canada somehow, and for years was employed by the railroad, laying tracks. He saved his groschen, as he liked to say, and sent for his family. And now, surrounded by grown sons, he was a patriarch at his own table in his own huge kitchen with large oil paintings out of the junk shop hanging on the walls. There were baskets of fruit, sheep in the fold, and Queen Victoria with her chin resting on her wrist.
Cousin Albert had turned things around with sparkling success and seemed to be saying to little Rexler, "See how it's done?"
But Rexler was transfixed by the chicken soup. As a treat, Aunt Rozzy had served him the gizzard. It had been opened by her knife so that it showed two dense wings ridged with lines of muscle, brown and gray at the bottom of the dish. He had often watched the hens upside down, hanging by trussed feet, first fluttering, then more gently quivering as they bled to death. The legs too went into the soup.
Aunt Rozzy, his father's sister, had the family face but her look was more sharp and severe by far. There was nothing so red as her nose in zero weather. She had cruelly thick legs and her hindquarters were wildly overdeveloped, so that walking must have been a torment. She certainly did not put herself out to be loved, for she was wicked to everyone. Except, perhaps, little Rexler.
"Did you see what happened? What did you see?"
"The man's heart."
"His liver, and the lungs."
Those spongy soft swelled ovals patched pink and red.
"And the body?" she said to Albert.
"Maybe dragged by the train," he said, unsmiling this time.
Aunt Rozzy lowered her voice and said something about the dead. She was fanatically Orthodox. Then she told Rexler that he didn't have to eat his dinner. She was not a lovable woman, but the boy loved her and she was aware of it. He loved them all. He even loved Albert. When he visited Lachine he shared Albert's bed, and in the morning he would sometimes stroke Albert's head, and not even when Albert fiercely threw off his hand did he stop loving him. The hair grew in close rows, row after row.
These observations, Rexler was to learn, were his whole life-his being-and love was what produced them. For each physical trait there was a corresponding feeling. Paired, pair by pair, they walked back and forth, in and out of his soul.
Aunt Rozzy had the face, the fiery face of a hanging judge, and she was determined to fix the blame for the accident on the victim. The dead man himself. And Rexler, walking in Monkey Park and beginning to feel the strain of his excursion, the weakness of his legs, sat down with the experienced delicacy of a cripple on the first bench he came to.
Cousin Reba, always ready to disagree with her mother, said, "We can't assume he was drunk. He may have been absentminded." But Aunt Rozzy with an even more flaming face seemed to believe that if he was innocent his death was all the more deserved. She sounded like Bertolt Brecht when he justified the murder of Bukharin. The one thing to be proud of, according to the playwright, the only true foundation of self-respect, was not to be taken in by illusions and sentiments. The only items in the book of rules were dead items. If you didn't close the book, if you still harked back to the rules, you deserved to die.
How deep can the life of a modern man be? Very deep, if he is hard enough to see innocence as a fault, if, as Brecht held, he wipes out the oughts which the gullible still buy and expels pity from politics.
The destruction of the dwarf brick houses opened the view of the river, as huge as a plain, but swift nevertheless, and this restoration of things as they had been when first seen by explorers opened Rexler himself to an unusual degree, so that he began to consider how desirable it could be to settle nearby so that he might see it every day-to buy or rent, to have a view of the rapids and the steely speed ... why not? He was a native son, and he had no present attachments in New York. But he knew this was an impracticable fancy. He could not (for how long?) spend his final years with no more company than the river. Since giving up his Brecht studies, he had no occupation. Brecht was light on the subject of death. If he was to live with Stalinism this lightness was essential. Hence the joys of the knife, as in "Mackie Messer," so many years on the hit parade. All that pre-Hitler Weimar stuff. It was Stalin, whom Brecht had backed, who should have won in 1932. But Rexler did not intend to go public with such views. He was too ill, too old to make enemies. If he turned polemical the intelligentsia would be sure to say that he was a bitter aging hunchback. No, for him it was private life from now on.
He didn't want to think about the books and articles that had made his Lachine cousins so proud of him. "Just look how Robbie overcame the polio and made something of himself," Cousin Ezra would tell his growing children.
Nobody could say exactly how extensive Cousin Ezra's real-estate holdings were.
But toward the end, dying of leukemia, Ezra greeted Rexler by throwing his arms wide. He sat up in his hospital bed and exclaimed, "A maloch has walked into my room." His color was his father's exactly-very dark and with pleasant folds, and he had become the Old Testament patriarch through and through-an Abraham bargaining with the Lord God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah or buying the cave of Machpelah to bury his wife.
"Angel," Ezra said with delicacy because of the mound on Rexler's back: not exactly a pair of folded wings. The truth at that time was that Rexler looked like one of the cast of a Brecht-Kurt Weill production: hands sunk in his trousers' pockets and his skeptical head-it was too heavy, it listed-needing cleverly poised feet to support it. His hair was gray, something like the color of drying oregano. What did his dying cousin make of him, of his reputation as a scholar and a figure in New York theatrical circles? Rexler had gone against the mainstream in the arts, and his radical side was the side that had won.
All those years of error, as it now seemed to Rexler. Hands clasped behind his back he tramped, limped, along the Lachine Canal, thinking that his dying cousin Ezra gave him high marks for his struggle against paralysis.
© Saul Bellow