From Bondage, Part I: Chapter 5 by Henry Roth

BOMB 56 Summer 1996
Issue 56 056  Summer 1996

He could summon up the tableau at will, many years later: Edith standing in the open door of the weather-stained day coach of the railroad train. In a light sage summer dress, figured with pale vines, petite, olive-skinned, she stood framed within the gunmetal sides of the railroad car that appeared to have slid apart to make room for the slight figure between. It was Edith Welles herself, her large, heavy-lidded brown eyes searching, seeking for a familiar face among the few people awaiting the train. The station had no platform, only stout planks between tracks. And while the gold-spectacled conductor in his blue uniform, with his immemorial brass plate on his visored cap, and his heavy gold chain across his vest, stooped paternally to set the snub pair of wooden steps to supplement the iron ones on the train, she continued to survey the scene before her. Her chin was tilted, which gave her whole mien an aspect of defiance, proud defiance and determination. And yet, about the large brown eyes, and the brow under its black cloche, something contrary hovered, something akin to doubt, to concern. Within a bland, September-sunlit doorway of a day coach, a small figure, her countenance self-denigrative, but still brave, she peered into the light drenching the primitive station that was Woodstock.

At the hail of her joyful young lover, she smiled, tenderly, ruefully, resignedly, as if accepting her foolhardiness and folly, as if claiming her prerogative of enjoyment at her own deliberate act of imprudence. Pleased and unbeguiled, she descended the iron steps of the day coach to the wooden ones below, steadied in descent by the conductor, who solicitously relieved her of the suitcase she was carrying—in the one hand—and set it down on the planks below, while she held on to her black portable typewriter case in the other. And in the dusty train windows, faces of passengers, contemplative and discreet witnesses of a glowing reunion of a handsome youth bounding with a cry of unrestrained rapture to greet the new arrival, a woman of indeterminate age, not girlish, though girlish in figure, girlishly diverted by the brimming ardor of the youth who took her portable typewriter, her suitcase, and guided her to the single taxi already engaged and waiting …

Eyed by the departing passengers in the train windows, the two would be left behind forever, it seemed to Ira, who trailed, conscious of his inveterate, twofold role of being part spectacle, part spectator—the two would be left behind in unresolved attitude, while the passengers themselves would be borne away to their obscure destinations.

A wave of the conductor’s arm. He stepped aboard the train, in his hand the stumpy auxiliary stairs. To the accompaniment of gleaming wheel and chuffing locomotive, the mystery of arrival and departure was accomplished.

The three got into the taxi. Not venturing to embrace, Larry and Edith sat hand in hand, gazing at each other. What transport of love Larry exuded, while Edith, indulgent recipient, patted his large hand with her tiny free one. And Ira, conscious of self as always, slum youth from a shabby tenement in East Harlem, privileged to assist at this wondrous, romantic encounter: so beautiful, beautiful, yes—and beyond him, as someone in limbo, or on the other side of a diaphanous, intangible partition of blissful, acceptable amorousness, of love, love, the state he was barred from. He had forfeited empathy, or ruined it. Yes, once again, who would understand? He had ruined it by knowing the end before knowing the beginning: knowing the shattered consummations, but torn out of the context of tenderness, the sanctity of tenderness and affection he witnessed here—that was it. By craving, or cravenness, stealth, or collusion, coupling having united him with Minnie, now Stella, only to bar him from all else that love meant—”Don’t kiss me,” his sister had said. And Stella, except that once, who wanted to kiss her? Watching you come in her astride, her shallow, wide-open blue eyes glazing in orgasm. So where was love? Love, shmuv, shove.

They had come there to spend the two weeks just before college opened, to tryst in the mellow old stone cottage on the outskirts of the town of Woodstock. Enchanting to Ira, unbelievable the freedom within unity, of its random, stony facade that seemed to draw its enduring strength from the rambling white veins of lacy mortar that bound rock to haphazard rock. The house gave him a sense of nestling in continual shade, whether of vines clinging to the walls, or the large trees overshadowing the front lawn, or the sunken front entrance in a corner, a sense of shade—and seclusion. Even the mowed backyard, a retreat rather than a yard, though open to the sky, was walled about with a high and stately, yet rustic wall. Green lawn, late flowers, flagstones embedded in turf, shaded by hemlocks above. Natural beauty everywhere floated on the surface of sensation—anchored unseen below by sights and scenes of East Harlem.

The house had been made available to them by John Vernon, Edith’s colleague in the English department. “My fairy godfather,” Larry quipped. Not that John owned the place. It belonged to his sister, who planned to join her husband, a corporation executive, at present in Scotland. With great aplomb, with worldly urbanity, Larry met the very finical, well-nigh askance scrutiny of the proper mistress of the estate, and won her over with a convincing display of responsibility, maturity, and appreciation of the antique charm of the appointments and decor. They conferred about kitchenware and facilities, the care of the grounds, the gardener, who would come in at least once during their stay, and his wife, who was the cleaning woman. Debonair, yet deferential, Larry listened with close attention to all the lady’s instructions. In the end, obviously satisfied the place would be well cared for, she named, as she said, a nominal sum, little more than would cover the utilities. Larry made out a check, a blank check, which Edith had already signed, and handed it over to the lady—who, after a glance at it through her lorgnette, stood for the briefest interval, contemplating Larry. Never had he looked so expressive, handsome, and worldly-wise … All this while, to one side, scarcely taken note of, stood Ira, like a mute in a play, hat in hand, hearkening intently, feeling his face flicker with wonderment within, but too bewildered with novelty to grasp more than the merest snatches of what went on.

They were alone that night, Ira and Larry, after Larry telephoned Edith to confirm that he had successfully obtained occupancy, and the place was beautiful. She called him the next morning to tell him what train she was taking, and when it would arrive. It would reach Woodstock by late afternoon, and though Larry chafed with impatience, Ira secretly welcomed the interlude. It gave him time, time to orient himself, accustom himself to utterly new surroundings, isolate their elements, hedge them within memory. He was grateful for a chance to admire, humbly and slowly to appraise simple elegance, and to try and judge what made it elegant. Again and again he felt like shaking his head: he shouldn’t be there; he was learning too much, and hardly understanding what he learned, just feeling it. Yes, he wanted to learn. But he was too susceptible, impressionable, or something; he was being—he was being spoiled. That was funny. He didn’t really mean spoiled; he was being moved away, further away than ever before, from his customary round of existence, his established base, like being moved away from his center of gravity—and once moved, he couldn’t return. Elegance didn’t just grow; didn’t sprout out of having a lot of possessions, a lot of money, being wealthy, a pooritz, as Mom would say in Yiddish, a magnate. None of that by itself made for simple elegance. It went beyond that. How should he say it to himself? That’s what was spoiling him: taste. He could feel it right away—like that feeling he got inside the brownstone house into which he mistakenly delivered his first Park & Tilford steamer basket when he was 12. He was vulnerable to it. It made his mouth water like something delectable: good taste. The rough gray flagstones before the sunken entrance to the cottage, the thick rich ivy draping the field-stone walls. And the flowers and shrubs, he didn’t know what, between cottage and road. The spruce tree sentinels before the house. And inside, in the big living room, the fireplace wrought out of boulders, under the mottled marble mantelpiece, and the brass andirons, so appealing, Hessians in Revolutionary-time uniforms, in tall, imposing hats. And on the wall, paintings of early Americans, in the colorful vests and knee breeches, against a background of light blue, and women in high white bonnets. You could really study them, portraits of once-living people, maybe the owner’s own ancestors, in their wrought gilt frames posing so tranquilly in the azure atmosphere of another age. And those opulent and plainwooden chests, and the sideboards with deep mirrors, and those spindly high-backed rocking chairs, and settees and divans with striped cloth. And that lustrous piano—and even the round, rotating piano stool with wood that was warm and dense and rich.

He went outdoors again, to the lawn in the backyard: leafy-covered walls surrounded it, walls conferring delicious privacy, communion with sky and cloud. On the grass stood filigreed iron garden furniture, so white, so heavy—how lovely to eat out there. So informal, so lovely and pleasant everything. Elegance. What else should you call it? And now all of a sudden, go back in your mind to East 119th Street, near Park Avenue and the Grand Central overpass, the stoop with the kids sitting on it above the cellarway, the dark hallway after the battered letter boxes, the dingy stairs, climb them, enter the scrubbed kitchen, clean and bleak, Jesus, and after it, through the railroad flat with the vile air shaft on the way. It wasn’t fair: Mom and Pop arguing about how much allowance was still coming to Mom for the week. Arguing about the relatives, about money, about who ought to pay for the new wash line. Upbraidings and beratings, and Jesus Christ, his own machinations and designs, having devised secret snares for Minnie right in the house, while Pop and Mom argued, right there, around the kitchen table, figuring out enticing webs, disarming wiles. Like a crook casing a joint for the best entrance. Best entrance was right. Wasn’t that funny? Now that she had dismissed her Rod, her “goyish feller,” Minnie tried to steer clear of her brother, steer clear of Ira, suspicious of him still.

But, boy, was he a coaxer, when he wanted to be, what was the word? What a wheedler, wheedler, yeedler. Cajoler, cadger. Well, what could you do? He wanted it, and having seen when he was eight that rusty pervert pull off, his scum dripping from the tree, he just fought it; he wasn’t going to do it. Nearly every time he did, he felt like cutting his prick off afterward, as if he’d sunk to something worse than he already was: like “Joe,” that pederast in a porkpie hat. Anh, kill yourself, you bastard. No. Better to assume his well-practiced fake negligence, say he would walk to Mamie’s, show his duty to Zaida, pay his respects to the old hypochondriac. Sure his grandson was a louse. But to whom wasn’t it fair? Were they doing him a favor? Right away his head turned into a mulligatawny, the word he read in a book, a farrago. Why couldn’t things be straightforward with his mind, the way they were within Larry’s mind, clean, unlittered, instead of always crisscrossed with shunts and with crazy Moebius detours, like those Dr. Sorel showed the math class? Why?

And he had to be careful, on guard. It was just at these times of baffling rumination that Edith would regard Ira with her large, solemn eyes, trying to fathom him, and he would hang his head slightly, and grin. Step up and call me crazy Moebius the Dopius, he should have said to her, and maybe made her laugh. But then she would have asked him to explain. And hoo-hoo, that crawling, infested mire he had inside him; his hideosities, he called it, admiring his triple portmanteau. Even to hint of it, even as close as he had come with Larry, was unthinkable. But what the hell, enough of that.

He tried to think, those two days while he and Larry were awaiting Edith—and after she arrived. He tried to think of matters outside himself—in this sumptuous house he was living in, in this all but bizarre situation. He tried to think, to conjecture, to grope toward motives: perhaps Edith was deliberately coming to test the feasibility of marrying her young swain, as he had continually implored her to do. Perhaps not. The idyll at Woodstock might be a defiant assertion of her right to a private life as a woman in a male-dominated world, as she so often emphasized. Defiant. But necessarily cautious, because it was a male-dominated world, and her livelihood, her position at the university, could be jeopardized. Her own and the welfare of those dependent on her, her mother, father, sister, all of whom she was supporting in part, the younger brother she was helping through college; their welfare was in jeopardy, if her highly unconventional behavior was discovered—highly unconventional at best, turpitude at worst.

Foggy as Ira felt himself to be about all kinds of sophisticated matters like these, he couldn’t escape awareness of how dangerous this adventure was for Edith, altogether different from his sordid ones, but just as clandestine. So alike in that respect, it made him all the more keenly mindful of the trust placed in him, all the more determined to deserve it, to protect Edith. She was violating accepted mores; she had to be circumspect, very much on the lookout for friends and acquaintances who might recognize them, and especially recognize Edith. What a scandal, what a commotion, that would whip up at the university! Certainly there would be much ado in the English department, that was certain. Confronted by it, Professor Watt, respectable and decorous head of the English department, for all his flirting with the unconventional in the hiring of his teaching staff, would undoubtedly protect himself by dismissing Edith. She could expect to be fired. A love affair with a freshman, an 18-year-old freshman. Bad enough with a graduate student.

So Edith was tense, on edge. The more so because Iola, who had agreed to join them in their rendezvous, and had all but decided to go when Edith did, reneged at the last minute, leaving Edith to bear the whole burden of exposure herself. An illicit ménage, Iola had blandly avoided it, disloyally too, shirking the debt she owed Edith, who had helped get her the position in the NYU English department. Edith was piqued, Ira disappointed. Edith attributed Iola’s refusal to join them to the imminent return of Richard Smithfield, to whom she was as good as betrothed—if he opted in favor of heterosexuality and not, as John Vernon hoped, homosexuality. Some such picture as that, Ira fuzzily gathered: Iola didn’t want to offend her quasi-fiancé who would soon be returning to America on completion of his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. But Richard had been “raped” by a sodomist, or someone like that, in a taxicab in Paris, and the shock had unnerved him to the extent that he had become ambivalent about his own sexuality, uncertain in his relation to Iola. She was no longer sure of him.

But Ira had his own surmise to account for Iola’s last-minute defection from the symmetry her presence would have conferred on the group: how the hell could a grown man get raped in a taxicab, Parisian or otherwise? A man, not a woman, get raped without consenting? Christ, stop the cab, even if he didn’t know French, and Richard, scholar that he was, must surely have known the language. And how would a man get raped? Open his fly, get at his cock, suck him off, pull him off, or what? Without compliance? Jesus Christ. Nah, the guy must have had half a mind to submit to the experience. No wonder Iola was beset by doubts, and Vernon was licking his chops in anticipation.

Iola would have taken a chance and joined Edith, made it a four-some. There was plenty of room, and bedrooms and bathrooms, in the fine two-storied abode. No, he himself was the reason Iola declined to accompany Edith: it was his irresolute, his tenuous appeal, his wavering sex appeal. The supposition refused to be lulled or staved off: it was his timidity, his shyness, his accursed flimsiness of libido because of what he had become, or had made of himself, with his never-ending steeping of himself in incurable guile and guilt, stealth, fear, degradation, and worst of all, in an ambiance of violated taboo. No, he had wrenched normalcy apart forever, for aye and for good, that terrible afternoon, when only a few problems in plane geometry leashed frenzy from committing murder. Leashed madness, yes, but gnarled something in the mind too far, irrevocably. That was how it felt.

That was how it was. That was why Iola didn’t join them. What would Richard have known about it if she had? John Vernon wouldn’t have told him. He might be a homosexual, but he was honorable: look what he was doing for Edith, like a good sport who had lost: securing this wonderful place in Woodstock for her and her young lover. No. It was he himself who was to blame. Iola could sense his vitiated manhood, suppressing virility, his shrinking from adult encounter. No. Ruined for the rest of his life his—his—ability to rise to the occasion. Yeah, some joke. That time she took the rolled-up papers out of his hand—rolled-up prospectus of CCNY courses of study, or something like that, after his “Impressions of a Plumber” appeared in The Lavender: “You’ve written another piece? For me?” She reached out her hand and took hold of it, her blue Scandinavian eyes sinking into his as she reached for the scroll. God, you get the cuckooest ideas, you know: phallic, her holding it, veiled incitement in her gaze. But no, he didn’t have a manuscript for her. No. Goddamn it. How arch she was, that afternoon, that matinee, when they had all met on the upper balcony of the Theater Guild to see Shaw’s Arms and the Man.

A dark fearful anguish once more assailed him in a way it hadn’t for a long time, and he smiled drearily at Iola’s teasing. Christ, yes, no doubt about it: he had telegraphed once again his botched virility. So why the hell should she come here and join them, if he had nothing to offer? Not Richard she was concerned about, but Ira, his perceived lack of phallic response. He saw in her droll, Scandinavian-thin features that she could be wanton. She could flirt, and did. But what did he have to offer her? Nothing but his rolled-up CCNY course summary. Epitomized it: braided haired blond woman provocative in a green dress, coquettish before curtain call to Arms and the ManArms and the Man! Jesus, everything scrambled around in horny symbols, and you, paralyzed long ago by the illicit—you, riven by shameful false alarms—flinched away from the overture. But hell, months ago you could have asked her to stroll through the woods of Bear Mountain, if you could have screwed your courage, as Bill Shakespeare said, to the sticking point. But you couldn’t. So goodbye. You stripped your threads, or most of ’em …

They settled down in their elegant quarters, each in a different study by day. At night, Larry and Edith shared the same bedroom, the master suite at the other end of the house. Ira had a smaller one off the hall near a separate bathroom. Mornings were fresh and crisp—the three breakfasted in the kitchen. By noon, the day had warmed enough to have lunch outdoors on the white-painted iron furniture on the lawn enclosed by the high stone walls. Larry usually prepared breakfast, though sometimes Edith did, with Larry—or Ira—squeezing the oranges on the latest leverage orange-squeezer. Luncheon consisted of soft-boiled eggs and asparagus, or chicken à la king out of a can, and boiled fresh peas and carrots. She needed bulk, but had to avoid too much roughage, she said, because she had colitis. Ira ate ravenously as usual, barely able to keep from wolfing his food, at each meal consuming twice as many slices of bread or toast as both Larry and Edith. Talk about roughage: nothing was better than bread, good loaves of Russian rye or heavy pumpernickel, not fluffy slices in packages. Boy, if it were up to him, he’d have eggs, he’d have lox, he’d have chopped tomato-herring and onions for breakfast. But he had to try and behave, to avoid chompken, as Pop chided him for doing: masticating out loud. “When the fress falls on him, he’s like one possessed,” said Pop. And even Larry called him aside and said gently, “I don’t mind, but you ought not smack you lips after every mouthful.”

Ira was surprised—and embarrassed. “Gee, I do?”

“Yes. It’s very noticeable.”

Ira was penitent, silent.

“You don’t mind my telling you?”

“Oh, no. I’ll try to stop. Anything else I do wrong?”

“It isn’t wrong exactly. It’s just a habit.”

“I know. But you might as well tell me,” Ira urged. “You know how it is: you know what it is.”

“Do you realize you keep saying ‘gee’ all the time?”

“I do?” Ira suddenly realized he did. “Boy!”

“And ‘boy,’ too,” said Larry.

“Oh, boy.”

Larry chuckled.

“Gee, I’ll try. Boy, I’ll try. I mean it.”

Edith’s portable chattered away a good part of the day. She had two reviews of books of poetry to do, one for the Sunday New York Times, and one for The Nation. She didn’t think much of the verse in either book, she said, and neither did she get paid very much for the reviews, but she was especially pleased to have made a contribution in the New York Times: small as the notice was, it was her first. Larry read the book, read her review afterward. They discussed it. Ira was given the book of poems to read, and scratched his earlobe apologetically: “I don’t know. I read it, and I don’t understand it.”

“Oh, you do too!” Edith refused to believe. “Anyone as sensitive as you are.”

“I mean, I know the words. And I get the similes too. But I don’t get the—” He gesticulated. “I don’t get the jumps from one thing to another.”

She and Larry laughed.

She wrote letters, many of them, dashed them off, like those he had received from her when she was traveling in Europe. The typewriter clacked without pause. She was rewriting some of her lectures too, those on modern English and American poets. Glancing at the thin books strewn on her table, Ira secretly marveled. She had brought them along in her suitcase: books of poetry, by Wallace Stevens, by Elinor Wylie, by Archibald MacLeish, by Edith Sitwell. How could she extract meaning from all that disparate, oblique wording? It was beyond him. How could she perceive so much, type so much about what she read? It mystified him, when he leafed through the pages; the poems were either too opaque to penetrate, or they were like a wide-open grid through which he fell, missing gist to grab on to, missing enlightenment. He was ashamed to admit it. He looked at a poem that was given him to read, nodded appreciatively, or tried to show his appreciation by illuminating his features with pleasure, like a glowworm. Why didn’t they say what they meant? They didn’t have to say something simple-minded, like Longfellow’s “Village Blacksmith.” But why couldn’t they say what the particular figure of speech meant? Say it was this or say it was that. Or come close enough to the meaning so that he could comprehend it, and maybe even be moved by it, the way he was by Robert Frost in the Untermeyer anthology: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep.” Anybody could guess what that meant. Or the poem by Baudelaire, “L’Albatros,” that Iz Rabinowitz, who was going to major in French, showed him: “Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées … ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.” Gee, that was good. He felt like that himself sometimes: a prince in fantasy, and a dub in practice.

Maybe he was both.

The first two days after they moved in, while Edith in the master bedroom industriously plied her portable typewriter, Larry sat in the library, reading the book Edith had brought from France. When not reading, he devoted himself to writing poetry, “lyrics” as he called them, which he returned to in the evening, when he felt the poetic mood more strongly. Ira took naps, and brought back staples and groceries. Or, still hopeful that his interest in biology would revive, he sat in the sunny, enclosed yard, studying the biology text that he had brought with him. It was an outmoded Biology I text, which he had gotten from a sophomore for nothing, because it was being supplanted next term by a later edition, and the college bookstore refused to buy the outmoded one back. “The bastards don’t want it,” said the sophomore. “Here. You can have it.” So Ira conned pages of mostly familiar material, alternated reading by catching grasshoppers, and with his jackknife crudely dissecting them. Oh, he knew every part of a grasshopper—its name and function, the spiracles and mandibles, the ovispositor and the tarsi. He could draw a diagrammatic sketch of a grasshopper’s anatomy from memory. Maybe next term, not that he didn’t have to compete with sophomores or with droves of bright, incoming freshman eager to get started on their medical careers, Biology I would be open, and he could get started on his own career. He could test his own interest again, awaken his forte maybe. For Edith’s and Larry’s edification, Ira discoursed learnedly about the grasshopper, its anatomical features and exoskeleton, the insect’s species, genus, phylum. “You know, the funny thing is,” he observed, “I think they’re kosher. I think Jews can eat them. I’m not sure why, but I think that was because they spent forty years in the desert, and maybe that’s all they could find to eat sometimes. Gee, I’d like to find out what the rabbis think the ravens fed Elijah, whether it was grasshoppers or what? I must remember to ask my grandfather when we get back. He lives in Harlem now with my Aunt Mamie.”

Edith would just sit with her tiny hands in her lap and gaze at him with her large, brown eyes fixed on him unwaveringly, the expression on her face sober, yet, to Ira, inscrutable. What was she trying to plumb? Larry seemed to welcome the disquisitions; he encouraged them. Still, he really didn’t seem to listen—that was the peculiar part of it. He sat receptively with big hands locked, but it was clear his mind was elsewhere—about what? a poem? And yet Ira got the feeling it wasn’t that, something else was disquieting Larry, and Ira’s lectures about biology filled a kind of troubled interlude in his friend’s mind. Where the hell Larry got his ideas for poems anyway, Ira didn’t have the slightest notion, but he seemed more and more receptive of late to Ira’s impromptu lectures. A little puzzling, wasn’t it? But if that was what Larry wanted—

“They’re called Orthoptera, because they have straight wings,” Ira discoursed. “You know, insects are cousins to crustaceans, like the lobster. But just the same, Jews can’t eat lobster. Isn’t that funny? My father once when he waited at a fancy banquet ate so much lobster that was left over on the plates he got sick and threw up.”

Edith laughed. Larry smiled—absently.

“My Uncle Moe loves lobster too. But not clams. He can’t eat a clam.”

“Why not? They’re seafood,” Edith said. “Is that the kosher thing again?”

“Oh, no, they’re neither of them kosher.” Ira hesitated, grinned apologetically. “Boy, have I got myself into it. It isn’t very nice. It’s because of what people commonly call them. Common people call them.”

“What do they call them?”

“It isn’t nice. I said I’d get myself in trouble.”

“Heavens, Ira. I’m not that squeamish. Do I seem to be?”

“No.”

“Then why not tell me?”

“Another time. I know, I’ll tell Larry. I’ll leave it up to him.”

Edith smiled, unenlightened, but indulgent.

There came a day, the third or fourth day after Edith had joined them, on which one of those not entirely casual episodes occurred, not entirely casual because it seemed fraught with remote rumor, or stirred by a hint of challenge. It would only be later, when all that remained of the environs of the incident was the spacious, quiet living room in which the incident had taken place, later condensed into a workaday patch of daylight, with a woman standing in it. The woman was Edith, and with simple generosity, she proffered a book, a fairly thick volume, proffered it to Larry. It would only be some time later that Ira came to realize the import of what took place in that elegant living room in that small fraction of time. And yet, the very fact that the event left behind, however small, an irreducible knot within memory would forever mark in Ira’s mind the momentous instant of transition when the past departed from its old aim, its previously envisaged future, to a new one, the instant when sensibility redirected its commitment from an old to a new function.

The book that Edith held out to Larry was one she had brought with her from France. She had smuggled it through customs, a blue paper-bound book, an untitled copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. And that was something else to mark, to note about her—the errant insight fluttered through Ira’s mind—that behind her steady, gentle gaze, deception could lurk, duplicity within the friendly dimple of her smile. Yes, she had broken the law deliberately, she explained, and she took pride in doing so, and was jubilant that she had succeeded. “It tickles me no end that I slipped the book through the barrier they’ve built around it,” she said. “Of all the silly prudishness. As if a book that demanded so much from the reader could possibly impair anyone’s morals. Only Mr. Sumner or other prigs like him in the Watch and Ward Society who hunted for the four-letter words might think a reader would take all that trouble for so little titillation. But anyone with ordinary common sense would know better.”

She not only saw no reason to abide by the puritanical standards of the Watch and Ward Society, which she characterized as nothing more than a lot of inhibited prudes, but she was also genuinely curious about the book, which had won so much critical acclaim, on which so many encomiums were bestowed—by Eliot, by Pound, by other leading critics of English literature, critics who appeared in The Hound & Horn and The Dial. She wanted at least to become acquainted with it. Above all, she was eager to have Larry read it. She hoped that its daring literary innovations might provide impetus to his own writing, might steer his imagination into uncharted regions. “It may give you some new ideas, darling,” she said, when she tendered him the blue-covered volume. “I’d love to hear your reactions. It’s made such a clean break with convention. And of course it’s so daring in its treatment of sex.”

“You’re so sweet to do it.” Larry kissed her. He took the book from her, leafed through it, glowed with pleasure. “I don’t know how else I’d have gotten to see it. And speaking of taking a chance.” He shook his head with admiration. “I’ve gone through customs coming through Bermuda. Even with nothing really valuable to declare, I shook in my toes. I don’t know if I’d have had the nerve to look those customs officials in the eye with this in my suitcase.”

“Oh, poof. The worst that could have happened was confiscation of the book. They would have relieved me of it—if they had recognized that it was banned from the country, and that’s dubious. And of course, I would have played innocent. I didn’t know it was banned. I just hope it does something for you, dear, encourages you to experiment.”

“And so do I.” Larry opened to the first page, read: “‘Stately plump Buck Mulligan … Introibo ad altare Dei … ’ My Latin can certainly handle that. Well, there’s no time like the present. Thank you, darling. This is just the right required reading for Woodstock.” He kissed her again.

Edith fondly watched him depart for the library, and when he settled into an upholstered leather library chair, she went to her portable typewriter among the scattered papers, folders, and carbon sheets in her master bedroom study, leaving Ira to wander out to a seat in a white filigreed chair in the enclosed lawn and absently mull over the incident, while he studied the grass to catch sight of some unusual insect.

Henry Roth was born in Austria-Hungary in 1906. His family emigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in Brooklyn and then in the Lower East Side slums, where his first novel, Call it Sleep is set. Published in 1934 to mixed reviews, Call it Sleep has since become a classic. Roth worked as a woodsman, a schoolteacher, a psychiatric attendant, a waterfowl farmer, and a Latin and math tutor. He is also the author of Mercy of a Rude Stream, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, and the upcoming Mercy of a Rude Stream, Vol. III: From Bondage (St Martin’s Press). Henry Roth died on October 13, 1995, at the age of 89.

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from HEX by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Hex, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, Viking Press

I am a woman who wakes up hungry. Tom touched only coffee till noon. You do what you’re capable of at some point, so Tom and I left each other.

From My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman
Akerman Photo

“I preferred that others not be neglected but found the neglected gender suited me better than the not-neglected genders. I found my neglected gender to have a certain style. A style I like.”

nobody checks their voicemails anymore not even detectives by Sasha Fletcher
Fletcher Voicemail2 Banner

Jimmy, it’s your girl. The one at the desk whom you pay a living wage. This is what could be known as a wake-up call if we were the sort of people who relied upon others to remind us of our tasks.

Originally published in

BOMB 56, Summer 1996

Featuring interviews with Martha Plimpton, Irvine Welsh, Jeffrey Vallance, Nick Pappas, Mark Eitzel, Lee Breuer, Ornette Coleman, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Janwillem van de Wetering, and Ada Gay Griffin & Michelle Parkerson on Audre Lorde.

Read the issue
Issue 56 056  Summer 1996