The morning after Jan’s arrival in Belmontville, a telegram addressed to him was delivered to the Voorhees house: “They want more money for Maja.”
She died at the end of the war, but her death was only the beginning of a long and dismal process. Jan felt himself aged less by the deprivations of occupation than the three-year ordeal of transporting Maja’s body from its grave in Amsterdam to a reburial in Norway—to Kristiansand, where her father was a chemistry professor and her mother sang folk songs. It had cost him dearly, had sabotaged his passage on the Queen Mary. When he sailed for America he thought it all behind him.
“Jan,” the telegram went, “they have not dug the body. Three hundred guilders and transport will be made 25 September.”
The theologian was driven into Syracuse by a neighbor of the Voorhees whose mouth did not stop moving. She strongly objected to the pawnshop when the address Jan recited turned out to be that. “My husband will give you the money you need, Reverend. Tell me what it is. You needn’t have to go into that place.” He lied to her. “Madam, I come here not to give something away but to retrieve what was lost.” He pawned his watch for a value he could not gauge and had the woman drive him to the Western Union office to wire the entire amount to his sister.
“Do you plan to put down roots in the States?” she asked on the drive back.
“I only have plans to finish my book.”
“And then go back to Holland?”
“My plans do not exceed the book.”
“Well,” she said with a breathy laugh, “let me tell you this. I have a strong suspicion that in no time at all you will develop a marvelous little ailment we in the States call a crush—a crush on America. Happens to everyone. And before you know it, one year turns to two and two to five and you have a lovely wife and two beautiful children.”
“Three beautiful children,” he corrected. “One, two, three.”
“See what I mean!” she exclaimed. “You’re infected already!”
Mrs. Dutch’s neighbor returned Jan just in time for the early start of his sponsor’s birthday celebration. The invitees numbered more than seventy; many chickens would be grilled on an enormous spit tended by a hired staff in white jackets. “I have sixty-four bottles of Ketel Jenever,” Dutch informed the theologian and others, “so please indulge!”
It was announced that the Voorheeses’ son was unable to attend that evening but would return in the morning. Mrs. Dutch held up the boy’s voice from the white telephone that had been carried outside by a woman in a maid’s uniform. His voice, said his mother, sent good cheer and many happy returns. The guests applauded; the wire on the white telephone extended for many meters.
Oloff Voorhees pointed out to Jan and others the terraced-garden highlight of the landscaping project completed in June. To Jan he noted the special leisure chairs brought out for the lawn. “They are of aluminum construction,” he explained. “Here, see how easily they unfold.” Jan frowned at the object: How does something this flimsy bear such weight? First his corpulent sponsor tested the claim, and then he followed suit with himself. “A small miracle,” he declared skeptically.
The Vooheeses’ various guests took their turns making what Mrs. Dutch called “chit chat” with the theologian. Several thought he would be charmed hearing their thoughts on religion; another handful broached the irony of the Dutch having sold off on the Empire state. What did he think of Henry Hudson? What did he think of the Chrysler Building? What bad luck that Oklahoma! had closed in May, denying him the thrill of seeing this five-years-running production. To his relief, the queue included a Flemish scientist eager to know about the quality of life in the various postwar economies. The man was particularly interested in the previous year’s trial of Han van Meegeren, the Vermeer art forger and Nazi sympathizer. And also “That girl’s diary—I am wondering did you read it?”
Oloff spent much of the festive evening chauffering guests in his Cadillac convertible—taking them “for spins.” Finally there came a point when Mrs. Dutch intervened. “Oloff, you have drunk too much to be at the wheel of your Caddy.” She apologized to Jan, whose turn for a spin had been next, and her husband left the car idle in the driveway. Later, after further merriment and dining and the distribution of slices from an elaborate tiered cake, Jan found himself sitting on an aluminum chair near to Oloff’s.
“I had a man here in the garden last summer who scolded me—scolded me in my own home—with the claim that I could have sponsored Dutch Jews.” He lifted his glass in mock-salute. “Why should I do that? I am a Christian man. Instead I sponsor a Christian theologian.”
“The war is three years past,” Jan replied.
Dutch was not happy with this tone. “We left Rotterdam for the colonies ten years ago,” he insisted, “in 1938. I traded in Jakarta and Oranjestad until we settled here. I have not set foot on the old continent for these ten years. Who are these people to question my scruples? Do you question my scruples?”
Jan could not answer this troubled man leaning forward so perilously on his tilted folding chair.
“We did not know here in America!” Oloff shouted. “We could not see, we expatriates. If that makes us lucky twice over, then we are lucky twice over!”
After the war, such ennobling stories were told of resistance. In the town of Amersfoort, for instance—that Jews were sheltered in a house near the forest. When a German raid was immanent, a sympathetic police chief would dial the house, let it ring twice, hang up, then repeat the code, so that his fellow heroes could lead the Jews into the woods for safety. Jan had heard this story in too many ways (the phone would ring three times, four times; it was the fire brigade commander who was sympathetic, or the dog warden) for any of it to be true.
Jan had decided that through prayer he would fight—such was his course of resistance. “Damned your prayers, Jan Kindermans!” Maja scolded the many times he collected her from the Sicherheitsdienst or a holding cell or the local police. “There is no resistance in this country!” She had miraculously managed to elude incarceration at Vught on five separate occasions, but her husband took no risks. He traveled for Arminius but not to save those being hunted to die. He visited his home in Leiden only three times, the last after being summoned to his mother’s deathbed. He found an antiaircraft gun stationed behind his family’s house—also that his father had died without his knowing the day before. “Telegrams, they are costly,” his mother had whispered.
His sister’s husband had been taken to Vught in an early round of Communist arrests. His death came in an unknown place, for he’d gone with the Leenderts, a couple he’d known as a party secretary, when they were herded on a train to Bergen-Belsen. He was pulled off the train to be sent to a German factory, but had been beaten so badly during the process that he died from hemorrhaging. His sister told Jan that when the Canadians arrived to liberate the city, she could not even look them in the eye. She married a man from Rotterdam—a soldier, a double amputee—and moved there, where the local shame was unfamiliar.
“Luck never gives,” Jan told his sponsor. “It only lends.”
“Well,” Oloff said with a sigh, “I am lending you my luck so that you relax as my guest.” He smiled to show his teeth but looked to his guest beseechingly, for validation.
“The Nazis killed my wife,” Jan finally said. “The Nazis killed her brother. The Nazis killed my sister’s husband. The Nazis used coal shovels to bludgeon children. Think also of the unborn children of the six or eight million Jews slaughtered. And in Russia, the unfathomable numbers starved to death. How does one calculate such deficits without going mad?”
He stood from the aluminum chair, causing its backward fall and silent embrace by the grass. Estranged from a nonexistent Christ, he cast himself from his sponsor’s garden and into the luminous night with its distant and unmistakable odor of pig manure. He looked up to many millions of galaxies and these fetishes called stars—the very sky that caused Goethe to point with his cane: “There is my conscience.” How could he grieve so much for her in relation to the death and suffering across such a swathe of earth, the globe, the universe?
“We do not love each other” is what they agreed in Deutsch. As Maja explained it, “There is affection in habit and animal magnetism in proximity.” They began having sexual relations after the vows, even though he was convinced she would never grow to love him. His rationalization to himself was spare—“Life was excessively carnal at that time.” Intercourse without reciprocal love was acceptable under the conditions of brutality and murder. He did not think the words making love, even after enduring the pregnancies lost—one, two, three, like tulip bulbs lost to a squirrel.
And now what of his prayers that God was being kind to her, the nonbeliever whom he loved with every shred of his being? Would those prayers be rescinded now that he no longer believed in God? But his question was absurd. No one was being kind to Maja because there was No One to be kind to Maja.
“Your moral universe does not exist,” she had informed him. “You are foolish to believe such a thing.”
He’d sat silently in the audience the many times she read papers to fellow students. “Excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Baruch de Spinoza believed in a universe ruled only by the cause and effect of natural laws, without purpose or design. He believed man’s soul and body are inextricably tied and progress together through the world, subject to natural laws. The soul dies with the body.”
Asked if he believed in God, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being.” Spinoza’s God, Spinoza’s God, Spinoza’s God—for a time Jan could not break free of the clenches. He or it—this God—will make no exception of you to his or its natural laws. He or it will work no miracles for you; he or it will give you no favor, show no sign of concern for your welfare. He or it will give you nothing that you do not already possess or possess the capacity for achieving.
“If you believe in Spinoza’s God,” Jan proposed to his wife, “are you not at bottom an atheist?”
“You are limited, Jan Kindermans, in your ability for spiritual comprehension.”
“Your problem with Spinoza,” he told her, “is that you cannot embrace his philosophy. You cannot exit Christianity. You have anger against an enemy.”
“I have anger against evil. Your homeland and mine, smothered by evil. I speak of morality and not Christ.”
“You are more with Kierkegaard,” he told her, “when he writes of ‘the strange suffocating atmosphere we encounter in Christianity’ or ‘I came into existence against God’s will.’ You are the adversary who will not relinquish from argument that which she does not believe.”
“By believing what you do, you cannot love the way that people around you need to be loved.”
“Who are these people?” he asked her.
“People such as me.”
The falling stars here in America, scratching spontaneous flares into the blackness—he was surprised at their abundance. He’d read that the lights in Manhattan prevented the viewing of stars, depriving its people of this natural wonder. In Europe, the skies of the blackouts made visible millions more galaxies than he thought possible of ever seeing at one time. The war provided the world with so many possible ways to die.
He returned to the garden to find his sponsor asleep in the flimsy chair. The man could be dead, his body so bizarrely arrayed, his face’s expression so contorted. Perhaps this was the look of the lucky when they took inventory against suffering. Wake up, you filthy hog! Wake up because I want to tell you about Maja’s leap from the Magere Brug! And then he corrected his mind’s assault. She did not leap from anything. Despair made her sit on the bridge’s railing with a bronze bust of Spinoza tethered to her waist.
A Gestapo agent had taken a liking to that statue after a drunken ransacking of the campus early in the occupation. He later sent his men to remove it from a passage connecting the university’s philosophy buildings. They placed the bust in a popular tavern and put a German officer’s cap on its head—the first Portuguese-Dutch Jew of the Reich. When the Germans fled the city, Maja went to the tavern with a wooden cart to retrieve Spinoza. Everyone was weak because of the Hunger Winter. Twenty thousand had starved to death. But there was Maja with her cart. Spinoza’s head had sat harmlessly in the cart until the day after she and schoolmates returned from traveling to identify classmates who’d been rescued from camps but were unable to identify themselves. People passed her, people turned to look. “We saw her, the lady bound to the statue.” She wore a plaid skirt, and she pushed the bust into the Amstel.
Near the war’s end Maja had warned, “We will separate when the war is over.”
“Is that what you wish?”
“We are much too different. Circumstances bring out strange affections. But I have too much to accomplish to struggle being your wife.”
“You’ve been lucky through this war—you have survived. You lost Trygve, but you are lucky. I hope luck continues to bless you.”
She laughed. “As the Swedes say, Luck never gives; it only lends.”
As he lie on his back atop the large, soft bed the Voorheeses had provided, Jan suffered this certainty: The way he loved—it was a failure. What did he do all five years of the war but learn to love Maja to the very depths her soul required? He did so because life was excessively carnal at the time—and existence excessively arbitrary. It was reported that the delay in the witnesses making any effort to save her from drowning was a factor in her not being saved from drowning. None jumped in the river; they merely leaned over the bridge and studied the foam and bubbles in the wake of the pair’s descent. Her body was pulled from the river two kilometers away, free from her tether to Spinoza. She was lost beneath the surface for thirty minutes. She had a body temperature of a catch of herring, and no pulse. Her eyes were open and pupils dilated. A Dr. Molenarr pronounced her very dead.
In a matter of hours her body was again lost. Somehow it was heaved into a grave with three men identified as collaborators. They’d been locked in a makeshift jail and then shot in the head with one of their handguns. The desire to dig a hole and make rot of these bodies was intense. Four bodies, one hole. Maja in with the wretched (or possibly wretched) of the earth. The error was acknowledged; Jan was pointed to the grave and given the option of unearthing her, disentangling hers from the strangers’ limbs, freeing her cherished reputation from this pitiable fate. He began to dig before a small but growing audience. He took off his jacket to reveal the cut end of a loaf of bread. He was stopped by a boy tugging his elbow, a boy of no more than thirteen. “I’ll do it when you give me the bread.” Jan Kindermans wept and handed the child the shovel. With this bread we take your body. His knees fell to the ground, and he remained there in the path of the boy’s frantic flinging of dirt, so that he himself was partially buried by the time that the boy, with the assistance of two finally chastened onlookers, had extracted the corpse.
He was awoken by the shrill voice of a Dutch speaker. “You must drive me, Professor Kindermans.” It had been a long time since he was awoken from sleep by a woman leaning over him.
“Our only son has been killed in an automobile collision at high speed.” Mrs. Dutch had gripped his sleep-numbed arm, rocking it back and forth as one would the oar of a boat. “On County Route 7. I must go there to collect his body from hospital in Rotterdam.”
“But we must wake your husband,” said Jan as he snapped to alert, his arms making a gesture to grasp the woman but freezing at the moment of contact, not knowing where or how with so many belly-rolls.
“No,” she said firmly, wiping tears with her entire palm. “We do not wake Oloff. Not today. Not today when he rests so happily.”
It was then that Jan connected this early-hour moment of confusion with what had sent his sponsor to sleep beyond the Ketel Jenever, what had made him a refugee of consciousness. If this woman were to know that her husband was not resting happily, her grief would be compounded.
“But you told me Rotterdam,” Jan asked. “How can that be?”
“There is a town called Rotterdam, near Albany, where lives his friend from university. That boy has died also. They were racing cars with other boys. I do not know the distance, but we must go there now.”
When they reached the driveway, Jan could see that the canvas roof of the spectacular red car had been left down overnight, his sponsor’s precious vehicle exposed to the elements of Belmontville.
“The keys are in this car,” Mrs. Dutch said as she opened the Cadillac’s passenger door, “so we take this car.”
“Mevrouw Voorhees,” he objected, “I cannot be entrusted with such a vehicle.”
“Please!” she shouted through tears, adjusting her elliptically shifting weight to the vehicle’s pocket, “take the wheel, professor.”
He had driven a camion for five months at the end of the war, but where on this creampuff was the clutch? He turned over the engine and sat panicked at finding there to be no pedal for his left foot. How terrible that the thing of all things you expected was suddenly not there—be it God or an only child or a peddle on the floor. But then the idling vehicle moved forward on its own volition when the brake was relieved. Only in America, professor!
The woman wept inconsolable tears as the theologian steered her husband’s Cadillac, top down, onto the road. She leaned her large head back on the plush leather seat and allowed it to roll lugubriously from side to side, like a melon gone loose in the cargo bed. “God heeft hem weggenomen, maar God zal voor hem zorgen,” the theologian offered in comfort. “Hij is niet alleen; vergeet niet dat hij niet alleen is.”
The automobile glided up and down the pasturelands on the narrow, tarred road like a low-billowing cloud. It was not just swine Jan smelled but cows and sheep and rolled grasses and the porous earth. He was reminded of the road from Leiden to Lisse, the beautiful Lisse with its ribbons of red and yellow in the springtime. And here now was such beauty in the numbers of cows and sheep clustered near and far, the terrain so breathlessly empty of people. Such beauty in the emptiness! And the freedom of the wind blowing hard and there being no aerial bombardments in the next village, no black smoke snaking on the horizon. The rainbows that illuminated across the dashboard dazzled the eyes even more so in such early light. Such leather as that covering the steering wheel, when it is so good, will discolor forever with a drop of water. Jan nonetheless wiped streams of tears from his eyes with his hands that held the wheel. “God heeft hem weggenomen, maar God zal voor hem zorgen.”
“County Route 7!” Mrs. Dutch cried in agony.
Could this be, Jan wondered—could this be the death of the son on the Cross . . . again? County Route 7 for Pyrenees and Brest-Litovsk and Breendonck? County Route 7 for a ditch in Jedwabne, the bed of the Amstel? Was this why he suddenly felt at peace? Had justice finally been meted out? Or perhaps it was displacement—this one boy for his wife in her plaid skirt and millions of others. Before this the equation had been that millions of others were the equivalent of his wife in her plaid skirt. How could a theologian the height of a barn door possess so small an economics of humanity? But now this one boy was the equivalent of his wife who’d been the equivalent of millions. God’s existence was validated.
The Bach that claimed Jan’s ear was the sixth Brandenburg Concerto. The master must certainly have anticipated such a magnificent vehicle when scoring the allegro movement—a red automobile without a roof, cutting through the tang of dawn like a warm knife through butter. And now it was Gerhard Trodermann speaking to him as Bach rang out from this roofless spectacle: God existed because the world was terrifyingly cruel and quick, not because it was equitable. God existed because we took our own lives out of excessive love, not because others took them out of hate.
God’s existence being validated meant for Jan Kindermans that he could feel lucky, blessed to find himself alive at another dawn. It meant for Jan Kindermans that he could relax here in America, confess to strangers that he had very much loved his brave and brilliant wife—his wife who suffered three miscarriages and whose death at the age of twenty-five was a terrible mistake. It meant for Jan Kindermans the possibility that he himself, at some point in his life, might be able to understand and say “OK to this, OK to that.”