The Book of Intimate Grammar

A Novel

David Grossman; Translated by Betsy Rosenberg

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Book of Intimate Grammar
1
Aron is standing on tiptoe for a better view of the street below, where Mama and Papa have just stepped out to breathe some fresh air at the end of a long hot day. They look so small from here. He can taste the dusty metal of the blinds on his lips. His eyes glow. It isn't nice to watch like this. From above. They almost seem like dolls down there, a slow tubby one and a little snippety one. It isn't nice to watch, but it is kind of funny, and kind of scary maybe. The trouble is, Zacky and Gideon see them too. Still, he can't tear himself away. Y'alla, let's go, grumbles Zacky, his nose squashed flat against the blinds. If What's-her-name turns up now we're history. Hey, whispers Aron, here come the Kaminers. Old man Kaminer is going to die, says Gideon. See how yellow he is? You can tell.
Mama and Papa stopped to talk to the Kaminers from Entrance A. They flickered in and out of sight behind the spreading fig tree. Don't ask, sighed Esther Kaminer. Snatches of conversation drifted up to the fourth-floor window. Poor Avigdor--she shook her head--it's a miracle he's still alive, and Mama clucked her tongue: God help anyone who falls into a doctor's clutches. They chop you to pieces for diploma practice. Avigdor Kaminer, slouching as usual, stared blankly at his chattering wife. And you wouldn't believe what it's costing, she moaned, what with the medication and the dietetic food, and a taxi home every time after the dialysis. If you ask me, said Mama as she and Papa continued their stroll, she can hardly wait to be rid of him, he's gettingtoo expensive for her--Aron saw her lips move and guessed what she was saying--and who does La Kaminer hope to hook after he's gone, with her hair falling out by the handful already, as if she didn't have enough of a dowry; she isn't fooling anyone with that savings-and-loan bouffant, the bald spots show a mile. Papa merely nodded as usual, distracted by a bit of litter on the sidewalk, a scrap of newspaper, a lemon rind. Don't look now, it's Strashnov, said Mama, her lips twisting into a sour smile. You think the snob will say hello? Hello, Mr. Strashnov, how's the family?
It's your father, said Aron flatly. Y'alla, let's go, said Gideon, transfixed at the window: his father, dressed to the nines in Terylene trousers, with a tie on, even in this khamsin. Mr. Strashnov nodded disdainfully and pursed his lips as he minced along. Well, that's a fine hello; thinks he's too good for us, does he? Papa blocked his way. Back from the whatsit ... the university? Mr. Strashnov pursed his lips again. Ha, he has to make faces before he'll talk, before he'll open his mouth and say hello, afraid to let in a little air, is he? And his wife has to take in typing and work her fingers to the bone, because Professor Inallectual can't earn a decent living, hissed Mama, waving goodbye and shuddering in his chilly wake.
Come on, Ari, let's go, said Gideon, backing away from the window. But we haven't seen anything yet, whispered Aron. Why're the two of you so scared all of a sudden? Zacky and Gideon exchanged glances. Look, Ari, said Gideon, staring down at his sandals, actually ... there's something I wanted to tell you before, before we broke in--Not now! fumed Aron, we'll go ahead as planned! And he strutted back to the center of the room, with Zacky and Gideon reluctantly following him till they too fell under the spell of this raided sanctuary, this unsuspected ice cube in a block of steamy flats, and they tiptoed after him over the rug-checkered floors, past the black leviathan of a piano in the salon; Aron pointed to a trio of ivory figures on the bookshelf, then paused to contemplate the statuettes on another shelf, a group of naked men and women holding hands as they danced, a boy with his chin resting on his hand, a curvaceous torso--and suddenly he remembered his old guitar with the crack down the middle and the strings all torn; he had taught himself to pick out tunes, his sister Yochi loved to hear him play, but Mama and Papa said he couldn't have a new one, his bar mitzvahwas only a year and a half away and they had other plans for him. Aron paced resentfully and stopped in front of the painting with a castle carved out of a cliff that looked as if it might crash into the sea any moment. Her and her pictures, he muttered, hands on his hips, you've got to be meshuggeneh to paint like that. And Gideon said, Right, that's what my father calls "modern art." Aron could just imagine him saying those words. It's phony, it's ridiculous, I feel like taking a hammer and smashing it to bits, he ranted, kicking the wall for emphasis. And then he stopped: the piano seemed to rumble a warning.
Come on, squealed Zacky, haven't we seen enough already? No, and we don't have proof yet either, replied Aron, turning away. That was really dumb, what you said about her not having a shadow, said Zacky. Well, she doesn't, snapped Aron, surveying the book-lined shelves. Why else does she carry a parasol all summer, and what about the time we followed her, why did she slink behind the buildings and the trees? To fool us, that's why; Zacky snarled and shifted his weight, pressing his legs together in distress. His lumpish potato face glowered at Aron. Then he peeked through the blinds and recoiled.
Aron noticed and peeked out with him. Below, under the fig tree, was a heavyset man glancing anxiously over his shoulder. Gideon too peeked out. The man approached a small green Fiat and started fumbling in his pockets for the keys. Aron had never seen this man before, but with a pounding heart he knew who it was. Once he'd overheard a grownup say that Zacky's mother, Malka Smitanka, had someone on the side. He had started following her around, watching her whenever she went out, but he'd never caught a glimpse of the someone on the side before. Now the big man straightened his belt, smoothed his thinning hair, and got into the car. Zacky's lips moved in a silent curse, a scream of alarm that resounded all the way to Africa, where his father drove a bulldozer for Israel Waterworks. The boys stood frozen at the window. Aron was sad that Gideon had seen the someone on the side, his Gideon, who was so pure and noble; whenever Zacky told one of his jokes, he and Aron would laugh politely and look away. A moment passed, and they stood together in silence, afraid to budge, and then Zacky's mother stepped out on the balcony, wearing her bathrobe, and called him home for lunch. Lunch she feeds him at five in the afternoon, said Mama as the green Fiat drove by; we're not inviting her to the barmitzvah, and that's that. I will not shake hands with her after him. She's calling you, said Aron quietly. Mind your own business, growled Zacky, I'm not hungry, let's look around some more.
They lingered in the semidarkness for a while, and then slowly, like sprats in a stream, began to drift through the corridor into Edna Bloom's bedroom, where they circled quietly, past the neatly made bed, the ornamental mirror above her dressing table, the tiny basin ... and the nylon stocking draped over the chair. Zacky and Gideon peeked at each other, and bright red stains spread over their faces, but Aron noticed nothing, he had just been overwhelmed by a painting that went on for half the wall. "Get a load of him." Zacky signaled Gideon, who saw what was happening and quickly grabbed Aron's hand. Let's go, Ari, he murmured uneasily, you'll get in trouble if you hang around. But Aron only shook his hand off and continued staring at the fettered horse in the foreground, mimicking the lips that curled with strain; "Modern art" they call this crap? But his eyes bulged out with the gasping horse. Move, wake up! called Gideon, as Aron spotted the dead man under the horse, and then recognized the shape of the bull, only its eyes were in the wrong place, though strangely enough they looked right that way; and then he saw the tortured faces, the fractured bodies, and the woman hovering in the background, lamp in hand. He tried to fight it, this "modern art," and staggered out of the saton--Where'd they go, I'm stranded--but he found himself staring at the picture again, this is ridiculous, even I can draw a better horse, I can definitely draw a better bull, with all the practice I've had copying the label on Green Cow cheese. But suddenly there were tears in his eyes, big, slow drops from a secret well. What's the matter, dum-dum, you're crying like a girl? I am not. Are too. If Papa could only see you now! Who cares. Let him laugh at me. Let him run home and tell Mama. Little Aron's going "artistic" on us, going inallectual!
Ari! Gideon called impatiently from the doorway. He was sick of waiting. But Aron didn't answer. Gideon peered around the room till his eyes rested on an enormous pink-lipped conch adorning the shelf. Where does she find this sickening stuff, he sneered, thinking, Hurry up, she'll catch us, as he nearly ran out, but stopped himself and turned to stare again at the baffling conch that seemed almost to come alive and squeeze itself around an invisible object. Goodbye! He was out of there, jumping three stairs at a time with Zacky close behind him,shaking off the prissiness of Miss Edna Bloom, her and her paintings and her matchstick furniture, but Aron, they knew, would yell at them later for running out on him.
Aron shook a fascinating paperweight, watched the snow falling on a lonesome mountaineer, and kept him company through the blizzard. By the entrance door there was a display of soldier dolls in uniform, the kind Shimmik and Itka collected from their trips abroad, only hers were arranged in a grand parade of trim guardsmen and mustachioed gendarmes, from Greece and Turkey, and England and France, like a great international army; and then, casually, Aron went back to the painting. First he faced it, then he turned away, then he turned back to gape at it some more, shutting his eyes, surrendering with open arms, backing off with a little dance, meandering like a lost panther, like a spy colliding with his mirror image, scratching where his skin tingled, glancing over his shoulder, what if it came off the wall and started following him, and a flower blooms out of the sword in the dead man's hand, and suddenly you see the eyes everywhere, run for your life.
Edna Bloom's had purity. Oho, just look at those surfaces, hissed Mama in his brain, look at this dust, but to him it was stardust, and someday a knight would come riding into this enchanted castle and break the spell, and then--Aron shivered and hugged himself.
He paused in front of the refrigerator. You think this is a cupboard you can open any time you like? If you want something, ask me. He pulled the handle. Amazing. Starvation corner, rasped Mama's voice: a vegetarian refrigerator. A spinster's kitchen. I tell you it's unnatural! It is, he agreed, so white, so empty, no meat, no chicken, no salami, no medicine vials or stools to take to the clinic; there was hardly anything in there, except for a couple of shriveled cucumbers, a jar of sour cream, a bottle of milk, half an apple wrapped in a napkin, a bowl of cottage cheese. Yet in a way it was beautiful, unspoiled. He stood and stared, eager to learn more, the secret of her ascetic code. Are you crazy? She'll be here any minute, she'll catch you red-handed. No, she would never do anything to hurt me: My gallant knight, you've come at last. And then he hurried to the toilet and peed luxuriously, who knows, someday he might even bring himself to poop in here; to rehearse the possibility he pulled his pants down and sat on the toilet, all sweetness and light, dangling his trouser-bound legs; behind the door was another picture, of a kneeling bull and a beautiful lady stroking its back. Sure,why not, he could do it here. Masterfully he pulled the chain, smiled at the water swirling in the bowl. No fear of disgusting surprises in this toilet.
Aron took one last peek through the blinds. Mama and Papa were about to disappear into the house, but just as they reached the fig tree, Edna Bloom approached from the opposite direction, slender, boyish Edna Bloom, with her fuzzy yellow hair shining between the leaves. Okay, let's see if you have any guts now. Good evening, Miss Bloom. Good evening to you, Mrs. Kleinfeld, Mr. Kleinfeld. You seem a little tired today, Miss Bloom. Well, I have to work for a living, Mrs. Kleinfeld. Yes, but you're awfully pale. Ha, did you see that, Moshe, the way she blushed when she looked at you? Oi, Hindaleh, you're imagining things, a girl like her and a man like me. You should relax more, take things easy, Miss Bloom, you have your whole life ahead of you. Ha, any minute she'll miss the boat. What are you talking about, Hindaleh, she's just a girl. Allow me to be the judge of such matters, Moshe, to you she may seem young enough, but I looked at her teeth and teeth don't lie, she's thirty-eight if she's a day. So, maybe she isn't interested in men. Not interested? Ha! Don't you see the way she devours you with her eyes, the little lemaleh, butter wouldn't melt, pshhhhi, pshhhhi--Bye-bye, Miss Bloom, take care now. Yes, thank you, goodbye. And Aron watches her trail away; twenty-five seconds left to lock the door with his passkey, but he can't resist one last look, and now she's in the building, now she's walking up the stairs, now she's on the second floor, run for your life.
Wait.
Because as soon as Mama and Papa turned their backs she played a trick on them: instead of walking up the stairs to her apartment, she waited in the hallway till they disappeared into Entrance B, and then, breathless and birdlike, she reappeared, and Aron's heart soared, so she too had tricks, she too had secrets, and she rested under the leafy branches of the fig tree, surrendering to it like a girlish bride, breathing in its fragrance, her delicate hand on the massive trunk. And suddenly she trembled. Papa was there. He had returned. How did he know? He approached the tree and stood beside her. A hunk of a man, twice her size. A bull and a crane. But where was Mama? The broad leaves rustled, concealing, revealing. "Moshe!" She called Papa from afar. Papa hunched his shoulders. Then he reached up and tapped one of thebranches. A cloud of tiny insects swarmed through the air. Edna recoiled. Papa looked away. "Moshe!" shouted Mama from the hallway, key in hand. "Where did he go?" "See, I had this feeling, Miss Bloom," said Papa, his words fluttering up to the fourth-floor window. "What feeling, Mr. Kleinfeld?" She tilted her chin up but avoided his eyes. A blush spread over her smooth white neck, visible only to Aron. "The fig tree is sick," said Papa simply. Their eyes did not meet. They spoke through the tree. "My fig tree, sick?" whispered Edna Bloom, saddened, shocked, though the tree belonged to everyone.
By the time Mama came down again, all three boys were standing under the fig tree with Edna Bloom. A single glance was enough for Mama. There was something murky in her eyes. High and low she hunted for Papa, squinting suspiciously up at the tree. At last she caught sight of his fleshy red heels flopping around. Controlling her temper she called his name. The leaves fluttered, and Papa's sunny face popped out between the branches. "Oioioi," he greeted her. "This tree is covered with sores, Mamaleh, it needs a good wiping." Mama pursed her lips and squeezed her collar tight. Then she turned abruptly and hurried home.
THE BOOK OF INTIMATE GRAMMAR. Copyright © 1991 by David Grossman. Translation copyright © 1994 by Betsy Rosenberg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.