Men Who Laughed

Ari Belenkiy

“And He asked him, what did he see. And he answered: I see a seething pot and a face which goes from the North” (Jeremiah, 1:9)

“He who has intercourse with his mother in a dream should expect Torah wisdom” (Berachot, 57a)

He saw himself standing in the middle of his small room on the second floor of the hateful seminary and his mother sitting on his bed, trying to persuade him to apologize: you have to apologize, these pamphlets which were found in your bag are distasteful and full of hatred. Hatred -- she trembled pronouncing this word, her lips jumping up and down. Besides, you have to stay here for another year because it is your only chance to get an education -- otherwise what? Be a cobbler? Do you want to be a cobbler like your father? He yelled: No! With all the muscles of his face, with his tongue and lips. No, no, and no! He ran around the room, knocking down chairs. He was already clever and strong, he knew the whole Bible by heart, he was full of ancient history, he had read all the modern authors. He was able to withstand this blackmail, he did not want to be a crooked cobbler, the very thought was unbearable for him. He cut the air with his hand before her eyes. You cannot say this - I will get through, I will! He saw a smile, a sad smile on her lips and lost control of himself - he decided to shut her up, to close the mouth which pronounced these horrible words, to erase her smile. She resisted, he turned her down, she fought, and suddenly a strong desire caught him, he began to unbutton her dress, his hands greedily touched what was forbidden, what in his seminary even to pronounce aloud was considered as a mortal sin. She still fought weakly but he was already over, already in, his body convulsed... He awoke, turned over on his back and poked his hand into his pants, trying to stop the convulsions, and was too late. He once more closed his eyes, half dreaming. And he saw Joshua, the High Priest, clothed with filthy garments, standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan, standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said unto Satan: the Lord that has chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee, O Satan! And He said: Take out your filthy garments from off you, I cause thine iniquity to pass from thee and I will clothe thee with robes...

He opened his eyes. The odor of the dirt on his loins became noticeable. He unbuttoned the upper button of his pants with his clean hand, slipped off the bed and walked barefoot a few steps into a small restroom. Then he tore off and cleaned himself with the first page of the newspaper, with the profile of the Bald Man covered by his own profile, and threw it into the waste basket. He leafed through the other pages - all of them told the standard truth of what happened 30 years ago. He smiled approvingly, looked for chief editor’s name on the last page, and wiggled his lips, remembering. He threw the newspaper back and began to leave but stumbled upon his image in the mirror and stopped. In the mirror he saw a different picture from the one he saw in the newspaper. He studied it for a while, then brought the face closer to the mirror and snarled, opening his upper yellow teeth. He poked his finger in the mouth and looked there for something, then spat in the sink, lightly caressed his mustache, nodded to his image in the mirror and went back to his bed. There he put aside the army trenchcoat which served him as a blanket, sat ponderously down on the bed and slowly pushed his feet into the high boots made of soft leather. The left boot did not go on and he studied it attentively, pulling its sole and checking the insole...Cobbler! He giggled crookedly and with no small force put the boot on. He did not apologize, he already felt he was on his way up. A thorny and crooked road, but the one for real men. He needed only a guide at the start. He changed guide several times before he found what he needed - the Bald Man.

The clock showed eleven. He stuck his unfilled pipe under his mustache and made a few circles around the room, before walking toward the window. There he took the pipe in his left hand and carefully pulled the corner of the curtain aside. The moon helped him catch a glimpse of a short stout figure near the fence around the house and the feeling of security came back. He liked to watch these silent figures for hours, he even learned how not to breathe at these moments as if his breathing might disturb either the earthly or the celestial guard outside. As if the moon were in league against him with that silent figure …

The smiling moon tonight was his partner, and he tried to win her smile by caressing his moustache. It was the same young moon as 30 years ago… This made him feel younger and made this night a true anniversary. The Bald Man liked to say that on anniversaries it is appropriate to talk about one’s own mistakes. He nodded, it was an appropriate thought. The Bald Man had made some well-known mistakes, it would be useful to stir a public discussion about them: it was his duty to defend the Bald Man. An academician’s arguments could be settled by a factory worker or a veteran soldier. The discussion should not last for more than a month or two. Then some organizational conclusions would inevitably follow… He replaced the curtain, came to the table, lit the lamp, took out of the drawer a box with tobacco and started stuffing his pipe. The Bald Man’s legacy is worthy of a short, not excessive anniversary discussion. Besides, these days there was also another anniversary to dwell upon but he would not give it such noisy publicity (a word he picked up recently in Potsdam), he would recall it alone.

It was 25 years ago. Missing details could be completed with a bit of imagination and the detailed reports of his personal spies -- no! not spies, friends who helped him know in order to judge properly; their reports on every step of the Bald Man were here, in the middle drawer of his desk. Here it is, in a small grey folder, though he did not actually need to look into, he remembered the report almost by heart…

It was just after the Bald Man’s second stroke when his ugly wife with the enlarged goiter, Naden’ka, had come into his room at a run, bumping into a chair. (The party functionaries had not chosen their furniture, it was given to them together with a house: high backs with awkward adornments. With a thick grayish fabric she covered all the furniture as well as all the heavy pictures on the walls - pictures of the old masters distracted the Bald Man.) He dared, she said, he dared! The Bald Man did not ask “who?” because he was unable to talk. Besides, he knew the answer: the Man with the Mustache.

Naden’ka continued her story: that man (she said: “That man”) found out that she informs him about inner Party current news, thus disturbing him, contrary to the doctors’ recommendations. Her husband twitched his head and she understood him: yes, she already told this story to Grisha and Leva -- and?! -- you know -- what?! -- they are now in a conspiracy… you know…against the Man with the Pince-nez and cannot openly ... The Bald Man choked: his close disciples who had been at his side for all the internal Party battles since their first meeting in Brussels in 1903 – now even they had given up on him... Naden’ka was always his mouth, his lips -- it was taken for granted when he was healthy. Now she was treated as an ordinary Party member who violated Party discipline. Violated -- informing him...Him.

The Bald Man faced a new fight, this time for his own dignity and with his recent comrades -- all right, he knew how to fight. He had to turn the tables as he had so many times in the past. He made a frantic effort to persuade evil spirits to collaborate, as he did in 1895 after his first arrest, looking in the jail cell for a convincing explanation about a certain suitcase with a double bottom which he brought from abroad with illegal literature, as he did in 1903 in London, at their first Congress, when majority of delegates suddenly swayed from his grasp, as he did in 1906 when the ice of the Finnish bay began to swing under his feet, as he did in 1912 when the Man with the Pince-nez split the Party apart, as he did in 1917 when the power was already in sight -- take it! -- and 47 leading members of the Party abandoned him. An old, cherished hatred made him strong once more for a second. He almost stood up on his feet... Almost. Instead, a strip of spittle jumped out of his mouth and crawled down to his chin. He cried, trying to persuade himself that the tears were only due to his disease, that he would never concede, never! In a month, when his right hand was able to hold a stub of pencil, he wrote a brief letter to the Man with the Mustache demanding an apology: You offended my wife and thereby myself, I stop all contacts between us unless you apologize...

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Image: Raphael Lomas, The Dance

January 2005

Let them Eat Myth
Douglas Rushkoff

Hipster Antisemitism
Jennifer Blowdryer and Alvin Orloff

To Ohio and Back
Avi Steinberg

The Knowing
Jay Michaelson

Abba Kovner: The Warrior in Old Age
James Russell

Men who Laughed
Ari Belenkiy

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From previous issues:

David Goldstein

The Wrong Half
Margaret Mackenzie Schwartz

Temima Fruchter