Focus (Arthur Miller – 1945)

Focus
by Arthur Miller
Book Find Club – 1945

“I’m Lawrence Newman, and this is Mrs. Newman…”

The old man nodded to her, saying, “How do you do,” and closing his eyes, which opened again only when he was facing Mr. Newman an instant later.  The introduction did not seem to make much difference to him, for he stood smiling kindly at Mr. Newman just as though they had not gotten beyond his initial “Yes, sir.”

Mr. Newman started again.  “I had a very good room here five summers ago.  I wondered whether we could get it again.”

“You can’t get anything here.  Full up,” the old man said, closing his eyes once and opening them to stare all blue into Newman’s face.

_____

Laughing quietly, he chided, “Hotel won’t run away.”  Then he leaned inside the car again and pulled out two valises, set them on the ground beside the running board, and stood locking the car.

“They’re all watching us,” she whispered gleefully from behind his back.

He picked up the valises and, turning toward the hotel, saw some people sitting on the porch in rockers.  She took his arm and they walked across the road and mounted the wide steps of the hotel.  He kept a shy smile on his face, a proper smile as the guests looked through them in the usual way.  One old man was carving a piece of wood, with a little boy watching close by his knee, and he looked up and nodded pleasantly to them as they crossed the porch and entered the lobby.

“Very nice crowd here,” Newman said quietly as she crossed the empty lobby at his side.

They stood before the registering desk and he put the valises down and rubbed his hands together to get the sweat off.  His back was wet with it.

“Some of them looked pretty young,” she said hopefully.  Through the white-curtained windows the backs of heads were showing from the porch.

He looked around at the silent lobby which smelled of the pines.  To their left were three open French doors through which they could hear the tinkle of silverware.  Now and then a waiter passed beyond the doorways, carrying clean dishes or tablecloths.  How often he had sat here waiting, waiting desolately …

“Setting up for lunch,” he said with experience.  She had let go of his arm and was leaning against the desk looking taller than usual, he thought, for she was stretching and standing on her toes with her back a little arched as she surveyed the lobby with comfortable appreciation.

“I’d better let them know we’re here,” he said, and touched a little bell that was on the desk.

They waited several moments, looking out toward the porch.  Low conversational voices rose and died momentarily out there.  He felt the embarrassment of being ignored, and turned to her.

“Always find somebody interesting to talk to here.  Nice lively crowd.”

“You recognize any of them?”  She indicated the porch.

“No, there’s always new people.  But they don’t stand for any of this summer-hotel rowdyism.”  He talked with relish, enjoying the unique privilege of opening a little bit of the world to her.

“I’d like to take a swim before lunch,” she said, glancing at the suitcases to recall where her suit was.

“You can swim all day if you want to…”

They heard the loud creak of the rocker on the porch, and looked toward the door as a man entered the lobby.  He was the small old man who had been carving the wood.  Mr. Newman did not recall him from his previous stay.  The old man crossed the lobby toward them, smiling tiredly with his head cocked to one side.  As he walked he was wiping off the long blade of his knife and snapping it shut and knocking it against his palm as though it were a pipe. 
Ignoring Gertrude altogether he stopped before Mr. Newman.  His head was bent forward a little.  He had a thick head of white hair through which he ran his fingers now that the knife was settled in his pocket.

“Yes, sir,” he said quietly and with a soft smile.

“I’m Lawrence Newman, and this is Mrs. Newman…”

The old man nodded to her, saying, “How do you do,” and closing his eyes, which opened again only when he was facing Mr. Newman an instant later.  The introduction did not seem to make much difference to him, for he stood smiling kindly at Mr. Newman just as though they had not gotten beyond his initial “Yes, sir.”

Mr. Newman started again.  “I had a very good room here five summers ago.  I wondered whether we could get it again.”

“You can’t get anything here.  Full up,” the old man said, closing his eyes once and opening them to stare all blue into Newman’s face.

“Oh,” Mr. Newman said.  Somehow he could not meet the blue gaze of the old man.  Looking down and then glancing at him, he said, “Is Mr. Sullivan around? He’d remem…”

“He’s swimming,” the old man said, his head unmoving, “but he couldn’t help you.  He’s my son.  I own the hotel.”
Mr. Newman met the old man’s adamantly kind gaze.  “I see,” he said, quietly.  He took a breath.  “I thought he’d remember me.  I was here for two weeks…”

The old man’s eyes closed as he shook his head with the smile still soft.  “Full up, mister.  Couldn’t help you if I wanted to.”

“We’ll go on to the other one then, Lawrence,” Gertrude said, coming to them from the desk.  Newman turned to her quickly.  She was looking at the old man.  Her eyelids were heavy and low and the little red splotches were showing on her face.  “We wanted to save gas, that’s why we tried you.”

The old man’s smile came down.  “I’d be glad to help you if we weren’t so full up,” he said, with deeper baritone.

“Yeh, I know.  You must be mobbed with twelve cars out there.  What, did the rest of your guests get here by yacht?”

“I said what I have to say, lady.”

“Jump in with your son and drown, will ya?”  She turned now to Newman who was standing between the valises gaping at her.  “Let’s go, Lawrence,” she said huskily.

Newman could not bend his back.  He felt as though turned to iron.  “Come on,” she said angrily, “before I get squeezed to death in the mob here.”  With which she turned and strode across the empty lobby to the door and went out across the porch.  Newman picked up the valises and hurried after her without turning back to the old man.
They bumped along the dirt road through the woods.  He did not look at her, but instead involved himself in the details of driving.  He rolled up his window when dust rose from the road, then rolled it down an inch, then down three inches more; held the wheel tightly in both hands, moved way over to the forested edge of the road to avoid a tiny bump, wiped a film of auto dust from the dashboard with his fingertips, pulled up his trouser legs a little more to keep them from creasing.  And he drove at a crawl in low, as though they were not running away at all.  She sat drawn away from him against the door, and he knew her body was stiff.

At the highway he pulled to a stop, and looking left to see if any cars were coming he noticed the billboard sign.  He had remembered it all through the five years since he was last here, like the washstand in the room he had, and a certain tree by the lake at which he tied his canoe.  The sign was something he clearly remembered about the place – the English-type scroll of the lettering and the red and white border.  And he was stilled and surprised now at the words, in smaller letters, set under “Riverview Hotel.”  “Restricted clientele,” it said.  In the ten seconds it took for him to glance up the road and at the sign he wondered whether they had had that on the sign the last time.  He drove onto the highway thinking about it.  It couldn’t have been on there before …and yet somehow he knew that it had been there.  But in those days it simply meant that anybody was welcome who was nice, and wasn’t loud.  It meant there would be your kind of people there, not that they would absolutely refuse a room to a person if he looked a little…  Strangely, as he drove on slowly, he saw himself standing in front of that Mr. Stevens of the Akron Corporation.  And for a moment he felt hot with anger again that they should lie to his very face that way, as though they could tell by glancing at him that he was loud and unmannerly and a low person, and his hands hardened on the wheel and he said, aloud but in a whisper, “The idea!”

“You’d think he’d at least of thought up a good excuse.  Crowded!  I wanted to choke him, I wanted to choke him, I swear I would have choked him!” she cursed, gritting her teeth.

“Don’t…don’t take it to heart, dear,” he pleaded, feeling his own failure to come off with dignity.  “Please, try to forget about it.”

“Why don’t they do something about it?”  She was on edge and he speeded up as though to ward off her imminent explosion into tears.  “Why don’t they take everybody and find out who’s who and put the damned kikes off to themselves and settle it once and for all!” She breathed in a quick sob.

“Now, dear…” he said helplessly.

“I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it any more.  You can’t go out of the house any more without something happening.  Go to another place, Lu.  Where are you going?  Go to another place,” she demanded, as though she would grab the wheel momentarily.

“We’re going home,” he said.

“I want to go to another place.  You hear me?  I want to go to another place!” she shouted.  “Now stop that!”

“No, let me out, I’m not going home!  Stop the car!”

“Let go of my arm.  Now let go!”  He flung one arm out and she let go of it.

“I want you to stop the car.  I’m not going home.”

He pulled over to the road shoulder and drew to a stop.  She sat looking rigidly ahead.  With a nod back, she said,

“Turn around and find another place.”  She turned quickly in the seat and looked through the rear window. 

“Go ahead, there’s no cars coming.”

“Gertrude…”

“I want you to turn around,” she said, implacably watching for cars through the rear window.

“Now just calm down a minute,” he said with warning in his tone, and drew her shoulders around until she was facing front.  But she would not relent in her demand and merely sat waiting to repeat it.  “I’m not going through that again today,” he said.  “I don’t want you insulted and myself either.”

“Turn around,” she said.

“They’re all restricted hotels along here.  I’d forgotten about it, but the sign reminded me.  It’ll be the same everywhere else around here.”

She looked at him with her eyes sizing him up.  He could feel her probing him.  “Listen,” she said, abruptly, “why do you always let them make a Jew out of you?”

“I don’t always do anything,” he replied.

“Why didn’t you tell him what you are?  Tell him.”

“What?  What am I going to tell him?  If a man takes that attitude you know you can’t tell him anything.”

“What do you mean, you can’t tell them anything?  When they pull that on me I let them know what I am.  Nobody makes a Jew out of me and gets away with it.”

He started to speak and cut himself short.  The garbage can…

Facing the wheel, he laid his hand on the gear shift and pressed down on the clutch pedal.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

He stopped moving.  He could feel the waves of her anger.  Without turning to her he said, “There’s a little state park down the road.  We can have lunch there and sit by the river.”

“But I don’t want to sit by the river!  I want…”

His head jerked around and his words clipped out, “I can’t go through that again!  Now stop it!” he commanded angrily.

Rolling along the highway, they sat silent and apart.  Momentarily words rose to his lips, and then slid down again.  He could not bring himself to tell her what had been happening to him on the block.  It would soil all their days.  It would crawl in between them during the nights.  (112-117)

____________________

“It was the pogrom that was inevitable, but not its outcome.”

_____

It had taken most of the morning to complete the trip and make the purchases and he was about to call it a day and take the subway home when he remembered something.  It was the anniversary of his father’s burial.

Mr. Finkelstein was not a religious man.  Furthermore, he had buried his father some seventeen years ago and was not particularly attached to his memory any more.  Despite the Law which requires the son to do homage at the elder’s grave at least once each year, Mr. Finkelstein had not been to the grave in three, maybe four years – he did not remember exactly.  This negligence was due chiefly to his lack of awe for the dead, rare among the Jews, and his intense preoccupation with the events of this world and the news of the day.  To the dead he wished all good luck, but he saw no reason for standing before a stone in the cemetery and pretending that he was sorry.  He despised all hypocrisy, and this weeping over people who had been dead for years was to him a travesty and he refused to have anything to do with it.

So it was strange for him to be halted at the very turnstile of the subway, recalling that his father had been buried on this day and wondering whether he really oughtn’t go and see the old man.  But wondering is a false word for his mental state at this moment.  All he knew was that something was drawing him to the cemetery.  A true solemnity of soul had somehow descended upon him, and he obeyed it and went back to the street, walked some seven blocks to the trolley, and took it out to the populous graveyards at the northern edge of Brooklyn.

The Jewish dead lie in the earth much as they lived on it-crowded together, one headstone touching its neighbor.  Mr. Finkelstein entered the cemetery and walked along a winding concrete road which meandered through all parts of the grounds in great loops.  To a man of Mr. Finkelstein’s speculative propensity, this roundabout way of arriving at a grave presented interesting possibilities.  He noted, as he walked, how most of the expensive mausoleums were congregated within easy view of the gates of the cemetery, lending the place a staid and upper-class atmosphere.  But once past them the long acres of headstones told the real story, to Mr. Finkelstein’s mind.  Here were the people, the mass of them.  And for every broad and well cared-f or stone there were hundreds, thousands, of cheap slates tilting to leeward, their graves sunken or flattened out like so many deflated chests.  Off to the right a small funeral procession was making its way and he listened for a moment to the faint sound of the wailing.  Another one for Moses, he mused, and went on down the curving road.

His father’s grave was hard to find, but his sharp memory led him surely.  He turned off the main road into a little gravel path, then left it and stepped gingerly among the graves of a plot, and squeezed himself up to the resting place he sought.

Looking at the inscription on the stone transfixed him.  It always did, despite his cold views on death.  But today it was worse, somehow, worse than ever.  He looked at the gnarled slab of rock and at the lumpy grass grave, and there was speech forming in him.  It distressed him, for he did not like to be affected by this kind of thing.  Despite himself he set the carton of toys with one end on the ground and the other resting against his leg, and placed his hands on his hips.

What am I doing here? he wondered.  Underneath is probably not even bones left.  Maybe one bone.  What can I say to a bone?  What am I doing here?

He could not leave yet, however, for it was as though he knew he had come for some reason and nothing had happened yet.

And then he knew.  Standing like this before the old stone he could remember what he had to remember, what he needed now.  An old story.  He had come to recall the story, the one story his father had been able to tell time after time from start to finish without changing it.  Mr. Finkelstein had always believed this story, as he had disbelieved the others the old man told, because this one had come out the same every time.  And he stood staring at the stone recalling it.

In the old country, the part of Poland that belonged to Austria in those days, there was a great baron who lived on an estate to which there was no end.  No man in the nearby village had ever walked completely around it and nobody really knew where its boundaries lay.  But there was one part of it that was surrounded by a high iron fence which had taken many years to build.  Behind this fence were high trees and thick bushes and no one in the village could tell what lay beyond them.  But it was assumed that the baron’s house was inside there somewhere.  Who would build such a fine fence except around a fine house?

It was always quiet, however, beyond this fence; no people were ever heard talking beyond it, and no sounds of wagon wheels or scythes ever came over it.  And then one day there was heard a great shouting and roaring inside the fenced acreage.  The people of the village ran to the fence and some of them hoisted themselves over it and climbed the trees and looked inside.  They saw peasants running toward a mired wagon, and they saw men with pikes and whips fighting them off.  They saw a kind of battle going on, and the battle ended only when the men with the weapons were beaten to the ground.  Then the peasants took the pikes from them and killed them all.

The whole story only came out later.  What had happened was this.  Inside this fence the baron kept several hundreds of serfs.   The emancipation had been proclaimed generations before, but it had not penetrated many estates.  The serfs were never let out of the estate and lived and died there never knowing the world outside.  Then one day they were dragging this wagon along when its wheels sunk into the mud and refused to be pulled out.  The overseer ordered them to pull harder, and finally raised his whip.  As they pulled on the straps he brought the whip down on several of their backs.  This was not unusual but it had happened once too often, for this time the peasants dropped the straps and turned and looked at the overseer.  Then they surrounded him and as he struck at them again and again with the whip, they took hold of his throat and broke his neck as he stood there.  They let him go when he stopped flinging the whip and when they stepped away from him he fell to the ground and they saw he was dead.

There he was, dead, with the whip still in his hand.  They did not know what to do, so they stood there waiting.  For now their anger had cooled and they were waiting for someone to come and take the overseer’s place so that they could go on with the day’s work.  After a few hours of waiting they saw another official and they called him over to tell him that they needed another overseer, because this one had fallen and broken his neck.  The official looked at the dead man and saw, and he went back to the house.  Then it was that this gang of overseers came charging down on the peasants with apparent intent to kill them.

But they were against being killed, so they screamed for help and sent men running, and while they fought off the attackers they made contact with other peasants working in other fields and pretty soon there were about two hundred of them beating up the overseers.  And finally they killed them all.  Then they started to move, and they went to the baron’s house.  He was away at the time and they knew it.  So they went into the house and tore it apart.  They broke the furniture and pulled the strings out of the piano – which they had never seen before – and they ripped the stuffings out of the sofas and tore the pictures out of their frames on the walls.  They went into the kitchen and spilled salt all over everything edible and they ran up the big stone staircase and tore the bedrooms apart.  And then they found the box.

In the master’s bedroom they found this strongbox, and because it had a big lock on it they ripped the lock out and opened the box.  And inside they found many beautiful pictures of the king.  They knew it was the king because in their huts the baron had ordered that they hang the king’s picture beside the crucifix.  But their pictures of the king were not as beautiful as these in the trunk.  These were surrounded with golden curlicues and there were words written along the borders.  They loved their king so they took the bundles of pictures out of the box and distributed them among themselves.  It was very strange that all the pictures were exactly alike, and they could not get over the fact.  After this they left the house and went back to their fields and continued their work, each man with at least ten or twelve of the pictures carefully folded in his pocket.  They were going to replace their old pictures of the king with these new ones.  A few of them had enough to cover all the walls of their huts and could not wait for the sun to set so they could get home and do it.

But that evening the baron returned.  When he found his house that way and all his overseers murdered, he dispatched a rider to the city which lay a few miles to the east where the king’s soldiers were kept in barracks.  Then he walked among the huts of his peasants and saw these pictures on the walls.  He said nothing, however, and went back to his house.

But he did not stay there long.  He got on his horse and rode out of his estate and into the little village that lay nearby.  There were many Jewish families in this village and one of them was that of Itzik, a peddler, who was at home after a season of traveling the countryside with pots and pans which he sold to the country folk.  The baron called this Itzik out of his house and said, “I have changed my policy.  The gate of the manor will be open to you tonight.  Go there with your wares and if any of my serfs wish to buy, you may sell them whatever they can pay for.  I am not going to supply them myself any longer.”

Itzik thought about this and calculated the face of the baron.  Squinting up at the setting sun, Itzik said, “I would be very happy and honored to do this, Excellency, but you know I must pay in money for my pots and pans and your serfs do not have any money.”

“Go and they will pay you.”

“But, Excellency, already my house is filled with sour cream and many hides which I have had to take in exchange for my goods.  The people even outside the estate have very little money.  I have no way of disposing of these things, Excellency.  I can’t buy pots with sour cream, I must have money to buy.”

The baron looked down at him and said, “Go into my estate and take your business with you.  Go now.”

Itzik realized it was a command and bowed low and the baron rode away.  He hitched his horse to his wagon and drove behind the baron and when he reached the gate of the estate he found it open for him and he drove in.  He rode through some woods and then he came to the huts of the peasants.  It was the first time that a stranger had entered their compound and they all came out to see.  Sadly, Itzik got down from his seat and they crowded around him and his shining pots and pans.  In Polish he told them that they could buy anything on the wagon.  Then he fell silent.  It was the worst sales talk he had ever given.  He hoped, too, that they would not understand about buying, for he knew they had never bought anything in their lives.  But some instinct led them to understand that he was trying to exchange these pots and pans, and several of them gingerly pointed to certain of the articles on the wagon and asked Itzik how they could have them for their own.

“Well,” he said, “if you have in your houses anything of value, show it to me and I will tell you how you can have these pots and pans.”

Several of them went into their huts and brought out what they thought might have value.  One woman brought him a shoe which she said a priest had worn, but Itzik shook his head.  Another showed him a little bag of broken buttons, and he shook his head.  Then a man came to him and said,

“I have a picture of the king.  I have twenty of them.”

“How big is this picture?” Itzik asked.

“Here, I have a few of them in my pocket,” the man said.  With which he drew out a handful of the carefully folded pictures.

Itzik looked at the pictures and noted well the numbers printed in the corners.  “1,000 Kroner” was printed there.  He took a breath.

“Have any of you others got such pictures?”

A babble of replies greeted his question.  Before he knew it they pulled him into a hut and there on the walls he saw pasted up hundreds of 1,000 Kroner notes.  He went into the next hut and the next and finally stood in the middle of the rutted road and realized that he had walked into a gold mine.

What could he do?  He saw now why the baron had commanded him to sell to the peasants…they certainly did have money.  He had been one of those who had climbed the fence and seen the peasants murdering their overseers.  He added one and one and knew that this fortune of money had been stolen from the baron’s house.  He added still another digit and concluded that the baron would like nothing better than that he, Itzik the Jew, should fleece these ignorant people out of their fortune and later be found at home with the piles of money on his person.  In short, he saw a pogrom in the making.

His first desire was to flee.  Leave his wagon, pans and all, and streak for the fence and get away.  But he had a family in the village outside and he could not bear to desert them at a time like this.  And there was another reason why he did not simply run away.  He was not a fool, this Itzik.  He knew what was going on in Europe for he had, in his travels on his wagon, seen many sections of the country, an opportunity denied to most people in those days.  And in his travels he had been often degraded and spat upon for being a Jew, and he had come to a time in his life when he was sick with it all.  And this predicament now seemed to him to be the final indignity in a life of indignities.
So with the great bitterness that comes when a man must display his rebellion, he went about among the huts and took down the king’s pictures wherever he could find them, and in return gave his wares to the peasants until his wagon was empty and in his pouch lay more than a million Kroner.  Then he got onto the wagon, took his seat, and drove out of the estate.  On the way he saw no one and arrived at home unmolested.

Night fell.  He ate his supper, said long and special prayers, and lay down to sleep.  Around him slept his children, and beside him his wife.  He waited for the sound of horses’ hoofs and the smell of burning.

And when it was very dark he heard the hoofs coming.  He ran out of his house and warned his neighbors, who bolted their doors and shuttered their windows.  Then he ran back into his house and did the same.  In a few minutes the cavalry pounded into the town and started smashing the houses of the Jews.  First one house and then another, with the women screaming, and two of them being raped on their doorsteps.

Then they came to Itzik’s house and smashed down his door.  His roof started to burn.  He tried to hold his family around him but the soldiers ripped away his children and spitted them like little pigs, and they raped his wife three times, and him they clouted on the head with bayonets and left for dead.

When morning came Itzik awoke in great pain.  He looked around at his dead family and got to his feet.  To his surprise, in the middle of the room lay his pouch.  He opened it.  The hundreds of notes rested snug and untouched.

Like Job he sat on his floor staring at the sunshine outside.  Later in the morning the baron came with two soldiers, walked into his house, bent over and took the pouch.  Without even looking at Itzik he went out again, got on his horse and rode away.

From that day onward Itzik the peddler was insane.  Others had to bury his dead, and for many years after he said not one word to anyone.  And one day he walked out of the village in the direction he had taken in years past when setting out on his journeys.  It is still told in that region that he walked the whole route, which covered hundreds of miles, and when he had finished he came back to the village and after a few days he died.

Mr. Finkelstein stood looking not at the gravestone which was before him, but at the face of his father which floated in his mind.  And within himself he framed the old question that he had always asked his father when the story was done.

“So?  What does it mean?”

“What it means?  It means nothing.  What could this Itzik do?  Only what he had to do.  And what he had to do would end up the way he knew it would end up, and there was nothing else he could do, and there was no other end possible.  That’s what it means.”

Mr. Finkelstein turned away from the grave and started to return to the gravel path when an old man with a curly gray beard came toward him.  He recognized the man as one of those who make their living saying prayers for visitors to the graves.  He did not like these characters, just as he did not like anything that was formalized and insincere.  The man, dressed entirely in black, met Mr. Finkelstein as he stepped over a grave onto the gravel path.  He asked whether he might not say a prayer for whomever it was that Mr. Finkelstein was visiting this day.

“No thanks, I’m all right,” Mr. Finkelstein said.

Apparently the old man had been watching Mr. Finkelstein before, since he pointed at his father’s headstone and said, “You didn’t leave anything.”

Mr. Finkelstein looked at the headstone and recalled that he ought to have placed a little pebble on it to signify his having paused there and paid his respects.  Here and there on other headstones were pebbles of all sizes, like calling cards that would survive the rains.  He turned to the old man and said in Yiddish, “If he saw me he knows I was here.  If he didn’t see me he won’t notice a pebble either.  Let be.”

He started to turn to go when the old man said, “You saw the broken grave?”

Mr. Finkelstein turned back and looked in the old man’s tiny eyes.  Now with the business behind him the old man had a moment to waste.  Pointing behind Mr. Finkelstein he said, “They came in and they broke it, the momseirem.”
Turning around, Mr. Finkelstein saw a headstone lying on its face.  He walked over to it with the old man and stared down.  Upon the smooth back of the stone which now looked up at the sky a yellow swastika was painted.

It turned something in his stomach.  For the stone in falling had dug a hole in the soft earth of the grave.  Tears threatened his eyes and he turned away and looked at the old man.

“Did they catch them?”

“They did it at night.  Nobody knew till this morning.”

“They shouldn’t leave that mark on it that way.”

“They’re getting something to wash it away with.  What will be, mister?  In America noch.”

Mr. Finkelstein looked into the old man’s watery blue eyes.  The mystification he saw there, the sadness and the death of hope that this had happened “in America noch” – the face and the slumped attitude of the old man somehow recalled his father to him.  He shrugged his shoulders and hoisting up his carton of toys walked up the winding road to the gate.

On the trolley home he sat in a quiet mood as does one whose life is approaching a verge, an unwanted climax, a moment that need never have come and yet, despite all planning and all illusory hope, was coming closer and would soon arrive.  He felt within him that peculiarly philosophical brooding that is the cemetery’s souvenir to its visitors.  And he saw again, as he had seen it many times before in his life, how terribly wrong his father had been and so many other fathers who lay beside him there.  That Itzik, that peddler – there was a meaning to his story.  And it was not that the Jew was fated to a bloody end.  (Mr. Finkelstein did not intend to die that way, nor would he allow his children to die that way, nor his tall wife.)  The meaning, he saw again as he rode the trolley through Bushwick, was that this Itzik should never have allowed himself to accept a role that was not his, a role that the baron had created for him.  When he saw that the baron was bent on diverting the peasants’ wrath from himself, he should have allowed his indignation to carry him away and gotten on his wagon and driven directly home.  And then when the pogrom came, as it would have no matter what he did, he could have found strength to fight.  It was the pogrom that was inevitable, but not its outcome.  Its outcome only seemed inevitable because that money was in his house as the horses’ hoofs came pounding into the village.  That money in his house had weakened him, it was the blindfold they had put upon his face and he had no right to let them put it on him.  Without that blindfold he would have been ready to fight; with it he was only ready to die.

To Mr. Finkelstein rocking homeward on the trolley the moral was clearer than it had ever been.  I am entirely innocent, he said to himself.  I have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.  If there are others who have something to be ashamed of, let them hide and wait for this thing that is happening, let them play the part they have been given and let them wait as though they are actually guilty of wrong.  I have nothing to be ashamed of and I will not hide as though there were something stolen in my house.  I am a citizen of this country.  I am an honest man, he thought as he got off the trolley and went down into the subway that would take him home, I am no Itzik.  God dammit to hell, he said to himself as he pushed through the turnstile, they are not going to make an Itzik out of me.

A clattering on the floor of the platform brought him back to his surroundings.  In going through the turnstile his cardboard box had broken open.  At his feet lay two baseball bats.  A third was starting to slip through a hole in the box.  He set the box on the concrete and gathered the two bats together and pushed them back through the hole.  Then he went on to the front part of the platform and waited.  Next time he would see that they wrapped bats in heavier boxes.  It was the first time he had ever bought bats, having decided only in the last few days that they were a good thing to have in the store.

____________________

“Mr. Finkelstein stared at him a long time.  “In other words, when you look at me you don’t see me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I said.  You look at me and you don’t see me.  You see something else.  What do you see?  That’s what I don’t understand.  Against me you got nothing, you say.  Then why are you trying to get rid of me?  What do you see that makes you so mad when you look at me?””

_____

Mr. Newman found himself listening.  For beneath Mr. Finkelstein’s deep voice a quavering betrayed itself.  It drew him.  It was something he instinctively believed he might comprehend.  The man beside him was feeling some intense emotion.  They kept walking.  He wanted something tonight that he could understand.  He listened to the deep, nervous voice.

“The other day,” Mr. Finkelstein began carefully, “a colored man – I never seen him before – he comes into the store for Camels.  I ain’t got Camels and I tell him I ain’t got them.  ‘Who you savin’ them for?’ he says, ‘the Goldbergs?’  If we was outside the store I would have hit him with a box.  On times like that I get a certain feeling about those people.  To me they ain’t regular.  But I try to stop my thoughts about them.  I say to myself; after all, how many colored people do I know?  Better I should be saying, this colored person and that one I don’t like.  But I got no right I shall condemn the whole people because I don’t know the whole people, you understand me?  If I never seen California redwood trees what right I got to say they ain’t so big?  You understand me? – I got no right.”

They crossed a street, and Mr. Finkelstein went on.  “So what I don’t understand is this – mind you this is information I’m asking, not favors from you.  You understand?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Newman.  He realized that the man was still taking him as one of the Front.  It relieved him, for he had a lurking fear that Mr. Finkelstein was about to embrace him as a brother.  And now he found he was more at ease with this Jew, for he was not imposing after all.  “I understand what you mean,” he said.

“What I don’t understand is how so many people can get worked up to such a pitch about Jews when in that whole hall there ain’t a person who knows – himself personally – more than three Jews to speak to.  Before you answer me – I understand how a person can hate a whole people because I myself slip into the same thing when I forget myself.  But I don’t understand how they can get excited enough to go sit in a meeting on such a hot night for the purpose they shall get rid of the Jews.  To have a…a disliking is one thing.  But to go to work and put yourself out like that…I don’t understand it.  What’s the answer to that?”

Mr. Newman shifted his rolled-up jacket to his other arm.  “Most of them aren’t very intelligent,” he said, peaking his brows judiciously.

“Yeh, but I seen some there that looked more intelligent than me.  If you don’t mind my saying, I think you’re a man of education yourself…”  He hesitated and then said rapidly, “I want to lay things out on the board, Mr. Newman.  Not I shall ask you for favors, just man to man I want to understand.  If you don’t mind you shall discuss with me.  Why do you want I shall get out of the neighborhood?”

He was breathing harder and was beginning to sniff.

“Well, it’s not you particularly…”  Newman felt embarrassment now, for in the face of Finkelstein’s bold question he somehow could not spell out his heart’s answer.

“But it is me particularly,” Mr. Finkelstein said.  “If you want the Jews shall get out you want me to get out.  I did something you don’t like?”

“It’s not a question of doing something I don’t like.”

“Yes?  Then what?”

“You don’t really want to know, do you?”

“Why, don’t you want to tell me?”

Now the man’s obdurate strength hit Mr. Newman in its full force, and the smile of condescension that had been forming on his face broke; his air of chieftaincy shrunk before the indignity of leaving Mr. Finkelstein with the notion that he was as stupid and irrational as the mob that had just thrown him out of the hall.

“I’ll tell you if you want me to,” he said.  “There’s a lot of reasons why people don’t like Jews.  They have no principles, for one thing.”

“No principles.”

“Yes.  In business you’ll find them cheating and taking advantage, for instance.  That’s something that people…”

“Let me understand.  You’re talking about me now?”

“Well, no, not you, but…”  His right hand began trembling.

“I ain’t interested in other people, Mr. Newman.  I live on this block” – they were approaching his candy store now – ”and there ain’t another Jew on this block but me and my family.  Did I ever cheat you in my business?”

“That’s not the point.  You…”

“I beg your pardon, sir.  You don’t have to explain to me that certain Jews cheat in business.  There is no argument with that.  Personally I know for a fact that the telephone company is charging five cents a local call when they could make a good profit charging a penny.  This is a fact from the utilities investigation.  The phone company is run and owned by gentiles.  But just because you are a gentile I ain’t mad at you when I put a nickel in to make a phone call.  And still gentiles are cheating me.  I am asking you why you want to get me off this block, Mr. Newman.”

They halted before the lighted window of Mr. Finkelstein’s store.  The block was deserted.

“You don’t understand,” Newman said shortly, pressing his trembling hand against his stomach.  “It’s not what you’ve done, it’s what others of your people have done.”

Mr. Finkelstein stared at him a long time.  “In other words, when you look at me you don’t see me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I said.  You look at me and you don’t see me.  You see something else.  What do you see?  That’s what I don’t understand.  Against me you got nothing, you say.  Then why are you trying to get rid of me?  What do you see that makes you so mad when you look at me?”

Finkelstein’s voice was coming from deep in his chest, and Newman suddenly knew that the quavering was the sound of his fury.  He had been furious since the moment in the lot.  And standing there looking into his angry face, Newman’s idea of him altered.  Where once he had seen a rather comical, ugly, and obsequious face, now he found a man, a man throbbing with anger.  And somehow his anger made him comprehensible to Mr. Newman.  His clear anger, his relentless and controlled fury opened a wide channel into Newman’s being, just as Gertrude’s had the time she had sat across the desk from him in his glass cubicle.  And for a moment he felt intensely ashamed that Finkelstein, this adult and not at all comical man, was identifying him with the moronic mob at the hall.  For he did not know how to answer Finkelstein as a Fronter, as a man consumed by hate.  The fact of the matter was that he had no complaint against Finkelstein in particular and he could not face the man like this – and he was a man now – and tell him that he disliked him because he disliked him.  Nor could he tell him that his ability to make money was objectionable, for Finkelstein obviously had no such ability.  It was equally impossible to tell him that he was personally unclean because Finkelstein was not that way.  True enough, Finkelstein often let his beard grow for two days, but it seemed childish to tell him to get off the block because he did not shave often enough.  And looking at Finkelstein now, Newman saw that he had not really hated him, he had simply been always at the point of hating him – he had passed this man each morning with the knowledge that he had in him the propensity for acting as Jews were supposed to; cheat, or be dirty, or loud.  That Finkelstein had failed to live up to expectations had not changed Newman’s feeling toward him.  And in the normal course of such events his feeling would never have changed, however correctly Finkelstein comported himself on the block.

But the feeling changed now.  For now Mr. Newman realized that the only answer he could give to this man was that he disliked him because his face was the face of a man who should be acting in an abhorrent way.

“What do you see when you look at me, Mr. Newman?” repeated Mr. Finkelstein.  Newman stared at him, troubled.
A spasm of distress began to take hold of Mr. Newman’s stomach.  It was as though all the tokens of the known world had been switched, as though in a dream his own house numbers had been changed, the name of his street, the location of the El in relation to his corner, as though all the things that had been true were now all catastrophically untrue.  He felt he was going to throw up and cry.  Without a word he strode away, and before him he saw Gertrude’s face and the way its foreign evilness had dissolved that time in Ardell’s office…the astonishing way she had become a familiar part of his life…

The street beyond the area lighted by the store was dark.  Mr. Newman fled into this darkness as into a private room that would enfold him.  The eyes of Mr. Finkelstein were on his back, hurting him more.  If the man would just disappear, just go away…for God’s sake go away and let everybody be the same!  The same, the same, let us all be the same!  He quietly opened his front door.

The light was on in the kitchen.  Mr. Newman walked through the living room on tiptoe, with the shreds of his jacket rolled up under his arm, and without drawing the attention of his mother, gained the stairs in the dining room and silently walked up.  At the head of the stairway he saw that the light was on in the front bedroom.  He hesitated for a moment and walked along the corridor above the stairway and entered the bedroom.

Gertrude looked up from the bed on which she was sprawled with Screenplay magazine in her hand.  He laid his bundled jacket on a chair.  She kept looking at him.

He sat beside the bed on a little satin-covered stool.  Her lips

“You’re cut,” she said, and sat up on the edge of the bed.  “Where’d you get cut?”

“I’ll wash in a minute,” he said.

“What happened to you?  How’d you get cut?  You’re all dirty.”

“I was sitting next to some moron there.  He started yelling at me.”

“Why, what’d you do?”

“I didn’t do anything.  He saw I wasn’t applauding.  I never applaud, you know that.”

“Well, you should have told him,” she complained.

“How can you tell him anything, a man like that?  They were all excited.  You know how they get.”

“It’s not over yet, is it?”

“I don’t know.”  He could not believe it: she was angry at him

“Didn’t you stay to the end?  You should’ve stayed to…”

“They pushed me out.”

She blinked.  An expression grew on her face that he had never seen before.  It was pugnacious and cruel and her lips puffed out like swelling bladders.  He was so annoyed at her being angry with him that he got up abruptly and started undressing.  Her expression did not change as he shed his trousers and shoes.  Every mass inside his body was floating up against his throat.

“Well, don’t look at me,” he warned.  “I just never applaud.”

He got to the bedroom door with only his shorts on.

“You should have applauded,” she shouted.

“Don’t shout, Gertrude,” he replied, his voice rising.

“Christ almighty, you act like a…”

“They’re a bunch of morons!”  He yelled, furiously…she looked so common when she cursed.