“Hungarians are famously inclined to delusions of eminence and persecution,” Yuli Arkadievich Tynyanov warned his newest—and by his reckoning his last—student. Despite the cancer in his chest, his eyes remained sufficiently lubricated to twinkle. “I would avoid your Hungarian boyfriend at all costs.”
His student smiled.
“And I do not wish to know who he is.”
“He’s married,” she told him.
He held up his hand like a guard at a checkpoint.
“She’s Italian and strikingly beautiful—a novelist, though her work is plodding and dull, at least the one book translated to English. Villages and villas, neighboring estates with teenage children in love, families in which every member is beautiful and fit. Just like real life, right?”
“Maybe he should stay with his beautiful wife.”
“She’s in London, seducing the Allies. And besides that, she likes to seduce girls as well.”
The hand went up with more urgency. “I do not wish to know.”
“Hitler’s war is now four days gone and I’m going to Russia as soon as it’s possible.”
During these past few months, her large green eyes and assertive gaze had constituted an enigmatic comfort, for they reminded him of something from his native Kamianka—not someone but something he simply could not pinpoint. He was a very sick man who had managed to see out yet another war, and thus was surprised by nothing. But her accommodating mouth always seemed on the verge of curling into a smile or leaping to laughter—something to be looked forward to in a world of dead souls.
“I would say you should go were this 1910,” he advised. “But now, Emiliya? You are naïve or a fool. Take your lucky American life and invest it wisely.”
“And Poland,” she added, widening those large eyes and stealing a grin. She reached out and put her hand atop his on the arm of the chair.
“You’ll need to wear a black gown,” he replied, making a weak gesture with his arms to pull something imaginary over his head, “a scythe on your shoulder.”
Though Yuli considered his student lucky, up until not so long ago Emily Hanscomb had been anything but. An infant abandoned within a covered bridge in a rural Upstate town, she was brought to nearby Schenectady, and from there sent north to a town near Lake Placid and adopted by an entire parish. Her ready-made name came from a character in a novel one of the parishioners had been reading when her basket was plunked down to challenge their God-fearing complacency. She was raised in a Victorian convent, mostly by an illiterate cook but under the watchful eyes of two French-speaking nuns, who sent her away at seven to be schooled by sisters-in-trade in Montreal. From there, she ran away and ran away and had an affair with a forty-one-year-old head of a surgical unit at a Toronto hospital.
She longed to enter college despite her constant flight from the convent school, but there was no money let alone desire for that within the parish. Thus she struck out on her own at seventeen, working for newspapers in St. Louis and then Baltimore before heading to New York. A year after landing she married a soldier whose name was also Hanscomb, took the vows right before he shipped out. Wally was a spotty correspondent, an avid boxer, and had contracted malaria twice. He sent what money he had home to his folks in Jamestown.
So here she sat in a shabby room in a shabby Brooklyn Heights brownstone, the lucky girl who caused her dying Russian tutor to sigh. “Finish writing your masterpiece before you leave for Oz.”
“I’ve written a great deal of it,” she said with a fleeting look of distress, “yet I need to travel much more before I can make a definitive draft. Yuli, I feel like a horse wearing blinders. How can I write about war if I haven’t seen what’s left in its wake?”
He realized there was no reaching her. “If you write a heroic character,” his weak voice reminded her, “you should make her like my student Maja Fenstad, a brave Norwegian girl.”
“The only Norwegian girl I know is Hedda Gabler.”
“Maja is not narcissistic but idealistic.”
“I’m afraid I might be both.”
This made him laugh. “Is there anything you are not?”
“It’s been only a month since I’ve been a Jew,” she said. “Give me time.”
He submitted to his native disposition and sighed. “So where is this Yiddish blanket?”
She pulled out what was buried in her dress pocket. “That’s the trouble, Yuli. Apparently it had once been a blanket, but now look at it—this measly scrap.”
“This is your legacy?”
“They said it was nibbled by mice.”
“Very many mice, it appears.”
“Perhaps an entire mouse fraternity—Alpha Beta Cheddar.”
He lowered his head and looked at her over the top of his spectacles before studying what was left of the embroidered characters.
“Can you tell what it says?”
He made a face. “Gibberish. Perhaps your blanket is a forgery.”
She shook her head. “I knew something was off with my life, Yuli—from the start I did.”
Though she aspired to be a novelist, she made her living writing advertising copy for Gimbels. She lived for both her writing and Tibor Brull, the poet who’d escaped Mussolini in 1941. It wasn’t from Tibbi’s wife, Natalia, that their affair was secret but from Ola Sklar, the aluminum heiress who was his episodic lover and permanent source of revenue. They called her Ola Moneybags and discussed her as if she were a character from Euripides and not simply a rich divorced woman with nothing to do.
Their recent trysts had been conducted in a lavish apartment on West 86th. A friend was tending her boss’s place while he and his wife were in California setting up a new arm of their plumbing fixtures empire. The boss was known as The Faucet King, and his secretary’s task was to keep their place dusted and aired out, and to have fresh cut flowers always in a vase by the door in the off chance that their son the naval officer with an office posting in Annapolis should visit overnight. In exchange for nylons and two brassieres from the Gimbels black market, the secretary had given Emily a key to use the place as long as she tidied up and took care of all matters related to the bed.
After saying goodbye to Yuli, Emily hopped a bus into town and hailed a taxi to meet her friend Margie for a drink. Any social activity Margie suggested involved “a drink” in the comically inaccurate singular, and now that half of the war was won, the floodgates were open on reasons that gin and rye should wind up in the same glass.
It was a fine Saturday afternoon in springtime; people all over New York were still feeling for the confetti in their hair from the week just passed—happy to be Americans even if unhappy to be themselves.
“So it’s really true,” Margie asked after they’d each ordered a scotch and soda in the bar of the Grosvenor Hotel, “you’re a Yid?”
“I told you about the letter,” said Emily. “I have to take it as true, don’t I?” Why would someone make that up?”
In April she’d received an anonymous letter wrapped around a small scrap of wool. The writer described his or herself as “an imparshall observer” of the matter and felt compelled to disclose this information to Emily before “I am reyunited with my Maker.” The postmark said Watertown; Emily didn’t recognize the handwriting or any revealing characteristics of the exceptionally poor spelling and punctuation. The words the writer managed to spell correctly—and set off in capital letters—were those he or she had sought out assistance with—ESPERANCE, for instance, or LWOW. It was the everyday terms—what you meant when you wrote brewt—that posed the problems.
From this impartial observer, Emily learned that her father, after having left his baby in Esperance ten years before, had returned when Emily was at school in Montreal. The local police sent him to the Schenectady child welfare agency, which sent him to the convent near Lake Placid. In his audience with the two nuns and this impartial observer, Emily’s father said that he and his wife had fled the Lwów pogrom in 1918, and that she died in Brownsville, two weeks after Emily was born. He confessed to being so filled with despair that he lost all touch with common sense. A relative of his wife’s—a brute of a man known to beat women—had been ready to set off in a stolen Model T to look for work in Michigan, where some of his people had gone. This man charged Emily’s father twenty dollars to take him and the baby as passengers. Her father had barely the money for the infant formula let alone food for himself, but he left in the car with a baby and little else.
Six hours into the drive they stopped to sleep in the car pulled off the road, and sometime in the night the brute had walked into the brush to relieve himself. When he’d failed to return by dawn, Emily’s father went to look and found him on the ground with his trousers down. He had died in that spot. Emily’s father removed money from the man’s pockets and, though he had never driven a vehicle before, left in the Model T, now even more filled with despair.
It was because of the roadside placard pointing in miles toward “Esperance” that the idea came to him. He sensed magic in “Esperance.” When the car rolled into a covered bridge, he left the baby there in her basket.
At this point in the letter writer’s painfully splintered tale, Emily’s imagination took the wheel. A glistening morning, a protected bridge whose loosened roof slats created radiant, piercing rays of light. The baby girl would be like Moses, he assured himself. He was in no state of mind to care for a baby, so he positioned his daughter within a sunbeam—there in the wicker basket with her jar of SMA—and phoned the police from a filling station, where he ditched the stolen car. Then he walked to where he could buy a ticket for a bus headed west.
Margie caught the attention of a passing man with a newspaper under his arm to give her a light. She liked to think while taking those first three drags on the cigarette. “Do you know his name,” she asked her friend, “your father?”
Emily shook her head. “You’d think I’d at least find out my own name. But there was nothing about what my father did, or does, or where he lives or went off to.”
“And you’re quite sure you’re never going back to force a confession from the nuns?”
Emily again shook her head. “They had the blanket all those years. The letter-writer was the one who filched it from the two of them to send as evidence. Les Soeurs Laurel and Hardy—one tall and stick-like and the other short and fat, like a dada cartoon.”
“What did Yuli say about the writing on the blanket?”
She made a face. “He couldn’t decipher the script.”
“Is there anything about the story you can research? You spend your life in that damned library.”
“You can hunt for facts that are public, but the private things come at you at random—the letter home from a boy in the Union army, the diary of a girl working in a mill. Like those captivity narratives with Indians.”
“Yours was a captivity narrative without Indians.”
“I’d take the Apache any day.”
“Was your father horrified, I wonder, to realize his kid was raised in a convent? I mean, isn’t that the worst possible thing?”
“My being torn apart by wolves in the basket—that would’ve been the worst possible thing.”
“Or raised in a brothel, sold into white slavery.”
Emily made a face, a mime’s pout. “I wish I knew my name.”
Margie reached out with the cigarette between her fingers to pat Emily’s hand. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. It probably ends with something like schitz.”
Emily smiled at her friend. If any girl in Manhattan was lucky it was Margie Thresher. Many other of their mutual literary friends envied Margie’s degree from the University of Chicago—even men didn’t have diplomas. She came from Colorado Springs and wanted to write like Willa Cather, only better. Philip Rahv had offered her a chance to write for the Partisan Review a week after she got off the train.
“It’s so maddening,” said Emily, “to learn that nothing can be known about you. Was it so long ago 1920? There’s going to be a time when you can press a button and know everything about a person.”
“Why did the nuns even want to keep you when you came with Hebrew embroidery?” asked Margie. “Wasn’t there a Home for Little Jew Wanderers they could give you to?”
“No little Jews wandered anywhere that far north. And besides, they will tell you again and again, ‘Our Jesus was a Jew’—our Jesus, mind you. I must’ve presented them with an irresistible opportunity. Why, they could beat it out of me, my Judas proclivities.”
“Nuns terrify me,” said Margie, “and I’ve not even had any history with them.”
“They’d hold these half-meter sticks—rulers I guess they were. Everything you learned had to be memorized, and in order to memorize you needed a Gestapo nun beating it out in time with her stick. If you failed to memorize, not only would you get a skin-ripping thrashing across the knuckles, but the nuns would take glee in humiliating you with taunting en français. They got me good one time when I’d failed to memorize the five aspects of classical rhetoric. ‘This girl here looks not for knowledge but for sin!’ Smack. ‘Her idle and insignificant mind will fate her to remain une imbécile vis-à-vis la langue des rois!’ Smack.”
“Ouch,” said Margie, wincing.
“They were always on patrol, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs and troikas, on the hunt for sin, as if they could sniff it out with their ugly noses. What I grew to find hilarious is that they didn’t even know what sin looked like. By the time I escaped, I was certain they were desperately trying to learn about human life from us girls—to learn the stimulating ways in which nubile flesh could arouse itself to make up a little sin. How the pre-fuck worked. What sad, sad lives they led.”
“Stop the press: Being the bride of Christ is not all fun and games.”
Emily shook her head. “I never had any fun and games in that wretched house.”
“Did the nuns tell your father where you were?”
She shrugged. “According to this mysterious observer, his intention in coming back wasn’t to take me with him. He just wanted to know that I was alive and had found a home.”
“But you didn’t find a home.”
“Stop the press: People lie.”
“Now it all makes sense to me, Margie. That’s why Stan and Ollie and the parish didn’t want to send me to college. There’s a lot of danger in an educated Jew.”
Margie sighed. “And a lot of hubba-hubba—the boys I mean.”
“Speaking of hubba-hubba,” said Emily, reaching across the table to pluck a Lucky from Margie’s pack, “I’m meeting Tibbi at half-past four.”
Almost immediately the man with the paper was there again with his lighter. Both women smiled as he clicked for Emily, Margie more so. When he’d gone she asked, “Is he still missing those two fingers?”
“Funny you should ask,” said Emily. “They appear to have miraculously grown back by drinking Ovaltine.”
When Tibbi was arrested by the Blackshirts in a 1940 roundup, a centurione wanted to make sure the poet would never write again, ordering a sergeant to chop off his hands. When it was pointed out that chopping off Tibbi’s hands would render him useless for labor and thus better off shot, the centurione lightened the sentence to thumbs. But the superstitious capo believed that the severing of thumbs would place him bad with certain patron saints and instead lopped off Tibbi’s third fingers. It was a miracle he wasn’t shot then and there, and that he got out of Italy in one piece minus two digits.
Margie puckered her lips in the wry way she prefaced the whispering of a dirty joke. “He’s the most beautiful man in the world, that man of yours.”
“I tend to agree, but he won’t ditch Ola. I fear I’m in love with a coward.”
“All men are cowards.”
“Then why do we marry them?”
“You have to be the good Dutch boy and put your finger in the dike.”
“That’s not why I married Wally.”
“That was a notably senseless move there, chippie. He sends all his money home to old ma and pa, and you have to wear that dreadful ring.”
“I told you,” said Emily, holding up her wedding hand and wiggling her fingers, “this here is my carte blanche. I can go behind enemy lines with this thing on my finger.”
Margie laughed. “And yet you can’t bring a man into your rooms.”
Emily closed her eyes and shook her head before taking a puff. “I doubt my rooms, such as they are, would now be good enough for Tibbi, such as he is.”
“Trouble in paradise?”
“Oh, Margie,” she lamented, “never would you know he’d once been the brave Communist going in and out of prison. This ‘aristocratic metamorphosis’ of his has caused very important people to shun him.”
“Lady Liberty has been a bad influence.”
Emily shook her head. “It wasn’t that way at first. Oh, it’s all so complicated—his wife, his rich lover, his poor lover, and all these Village waifs throwing themselves at him. He hasn’t seen Natalia since May of 1941.”
“Is she even alive? Does anyone know?”
Emily shrugged. “Is Ed even alive? Does anyone know?”
Margie stiffened as she tapped her cigarette’s head into an ashtray. “My husband is a drunk, a coward, and a drunk. Did I mention he’s a drunk?”
“I’m afraid some of it’s rubbed off.”
She pointed her finger like it was a gun. “Don’t preach to me, convent wench.”
Margie was a month younger than Emily and already had a failing, drawn-out marriage—her writer husband had gone off to Mexico seeking literary inspiration—but she didn’t let this worry her. She was involved with a much-talked-about French painter who lived in Yuli’s building. The painter was known less for his art than for his drunken stunts at bars—like shaving off half of his mustache.
Margie drank up and signaled the bar for another. The barman appeared to be a happy soul polishing his tumblers. He was young and walked with a limp. “Either of you girls interested in a Moscow Mule?”
Margie turned her wide smile toward the man. “Sounds like something that would smell awfully.”
“I just learned how to make them,” he said from across the room, rapidly lifting his eyebrows like Bugs Bunny.
“Is that the one they serve in a mug?” asked Emily.
He nodded. “Smirnoff and Cock ’n Bull with lime.”
Margie shuddered. “All these Hollywood types have nothing better to do than hunt for ways to ruin perfectly fine hooch.”
“Another scotch then,” he confirmed, looking at both women.
Emily shook her head and covered her glass with her hand. Then she looked at her friend with one part pity to two of admiration. “So what will you do about Ed?”
“I’ll divorce him once I hunt him down,” said Margie. “I’ve never really liked this Thresher business anyway—think I’ll go back to Swain.” Then she caught herself in rumination. “I’m sorry, Em. Is that being too much a shrew—to throw in your face the fact that I have the luxury of a maiden name?”
Emily smiled. “You’re not a shrew. Although you never said anything about my typescript. And by the way, thanks for leaving it in the box.”
Margie hid her head under her arms and then looked up. “Em, am I terrible for hating you?”
“A lot of people hate me—I think.”
“I’m jealous and want to write a character like your Jack—someone who can be the mortar for action fanning out over seventy years.”
“He’s a bit of a goof, isn’t he?”
“So that’s the secret?”
Emily shrugged. “I can’t decide whether or not he should die at the end.”
“You have such a big talent—and you’re a perfectionist. Those two things rarely go together.”
“I’m slow, Margie. I’m fast in my life but slow at my art.”
She was indeed a slow writer, and hers was to be a very big novel. Life took time, and she felt she didn’t have enough of it. She was lucky to have a boss who let her spend afternoons at the New York Public Library. But when booted out for the day, she went back to an office to finish the wage-earning work she’d left dangling in the afternoon. She worked incessantly every day, sometimes barely seeing Tibbi for two weeks at a time. She dreaded looking up to a clock telling her it was almost time to go. Night would advertise itself over and above the high windows; everywhere below, pale faces volunteered themselves to be caught out as they stared blankly into the isolated packets of communal toil, like those erect gophers staring down the prairie.
She sighed. “I hate thinking of myself as such a plodder.”
Margie raised her glass. “Better than being a plotter.”
Emily thought about this as she smoked. “Like the busy, busy anarchists making their precious little letter bombs in the backroom of the printing press.” She smiled and shook her head. “It’s all rather ridiculous, isn’t it, the ways men come up with to seem like one in a million?”
Margie stubbed out her cigarette like she was destroying evidence behind a locked door. “Is that going in your novel?”
Emily’s pose could make you believe she was giving the idea a great deal of thought. “Don’t quite know. But I may have a new title for the wily bastard—The Moscow Mule.”
Margie looked jolted by a current. “But this of course would be a sexual biography of Uncle Joe!”
“Oh, but of course!”
“How about you do a book within a book?”
“Splendid idea! A grand, century-spanning Yankee bildungsroman—only with the life and times of The Red Tsar as your musical interlude.”
Margie’s joyful, intoxicated laughter made Emily feel like the world was suddenly OK. “I will always be your greatest fan, Emiliya.”
“Queen Mary to Liverpool,” Emily declared, raising an empty glass—“spectacularly hard to get but all taken care of. I think the change of scenery will do me good.”
“You make it sound like you’re going to Knott’s Berry Farm.”
“I used all the money I have in the world on that ticket. I meant to tell Yuli, but the poor man is close to death.”
“Have you told Tibbi?”
She exhaled deeply. “Today.”
Having taken possession of a fresh drink, Margie looked ready to cry. “I know that when you get on some big boat you will sail off and never come back to me. Why am I like that, Em? When I see who I love, I see who I’m losing.”