Tristan Brodsky hunches low over the kitchen table, consuming his helping of boiled beef and cabbage as quickly as possible. Just above his head, a conversation about him is being conducted in Hebrew, a language he understands but does not speak.
"They give him a scholarship, and what does he do?" his mother asks his father, half-turning from the sink with a big woman's grace and brandishing an arm at her son's back.
"What kind of a class meets at night?" she adds when no answer is forthcoming, and returns to the sud-filled basin and the bobbing pots. The dinner has been shaken from these pots into the serving vessels and the vessels placed onto the table only minutes before, accompanied by the hearty exhortation Eat, eat, but Rachael has not yet sat down. When she’s indignant, she cleans.
When she is tired, which is most nights, responsibility for the dishes shuffles between Tristan’s sisters, Pearl and Liza, and his little brother Benjamin. Tristan is expected to return to his room, his yellow lamp, his studies. The wisest men in the country where Jacob and Rachael were born and raised, where they met and married, were nurtured after this fashion: sustained with food and solitude, shielded from the trivialities of life and left unmolested to contemplate the Talmud. The same reverence for intelligence persists here and now, in the Brodsky household in the East Bronx in 1935, but the appropriate vector for it is no longer so clear.
"Law classes he could take, Jacob. Or medicine. Even science. Your son could be another Albert Einstein, with a brain like his. Will you not talk to him?"
Tristan’s father dabs his mustache with his napkin and gazes sideways at his oldest son. With his mouth concealed, Jacob’s expression is reduced to ambiguity, perhaps censorious, perhaps bemused. The napkin falls onto his empty plate, where it lands like a teepee.
"Tristan," he says in lumbering English, "how about being the next Einstein for your old mother here?"
"Sorry, Pop," says Tristan. "I don't think so."
"I see." Jacob drops his elbows on the table, interlaces his thick fingers, and rests his heavy chin atop them.
"He refuses," Jacob reports. "You want I should ask again?"
Rachael waves a soapy wooden spoon at both of them. "You two think you are funny," she says in English, then switches back to Hebrew. "Ask him why he should waste a whole class on this instead of studying something that will help him get ahead."
Jacob turns his great square head back toward his son. “Your esteemed mother wonders why you do not take up something of more utility, such as perhaps ditch-digging or clock repair."
"Ach," says Rachael, slapping her husband on the shoulder with the spoon and turning away.
"It's just one class," says Tristan. "I think I'm entitled to study something just because it’s interesting."
Jacob pulls at the chin of his thick beard, then cups Tristan's cheek in his hand and gives it a light pat. "What do I know? When I was your age I was working in my father's shop. If not for your mother I would hardly have picked up a book."
"And if you had grown up here, you’d be a doctor yourself." Tristan glances at Rachael. "Both of you."
Jacob smiles. "I would be a pushcart peddler still. The real brains skip a generation in this family." The outstretched palm again, reaching for the cheek. The pat, harder this time. The refrain: "Better you than me, boy. Better here than there." He jerks his thumb toward the air shaft and, presumably, Poland. "But remember, my son, my fifteen-year-old American college student, that intelligence does not always bring happiness."
"I'll keep that in mind." Tristan stabs the final chunk of meat on his plate, swipes it through the thin gravy, and plucks it from the fork with his teeth, chewing as he pushes back his chair and rises from the table, swallowing as he kisses his mother on the cheek. From atop a cabinet he snatches a cardboard-bound notebook and clamps it in his armpit, then steps around his father and makes for the door. Benjamin's clear blue eyes dart after Tristan, drinking in the brusque departure of his elder.
The street is three flights down, twelve mingled dinner smells away. Everyone cooks the same food the same way in this building, this part of town. The thick-waisted matriarchs pick through the same piles of pale vegetables at the same woodcrate market, filling their sad cloth bags with potatoes and turnips and flaccid cabbages and waddling down the street to the meat vendor to haggle over stringy grey beef. Undernourished chickens dangle from the butchers’ rafters on bloodstained lengths of rope, as if they have lost patience with the low-grade gore of shtetl life and flung themselves to their demise. Every mother in the neighborhood culls dignity from her ability to sate a growing brood on water, chicken bones, and wilting carrots.
It seems sometimes that the Jews think of nothing but food, that for all the ritual and history and custom Tristan has endured in Hebrew school and seen dimly reflected at home, for all the professed sanctity of knowledge, all the Jews really care about is sitting down to a full table -- full with what doesn't even so much matter, as long as the platters overflow.
Tristan's parents, everybody's parents, chase one foot with the other all day long and come home to a bowl of hot stew and a hunk of crusty bread to dip into it, and talk to their children about education with their mouths full. They buy two sets of dishes, buy the more expensive kosher meat, buy shul memberships, buy into the notion that the Jews are smarter than everybody else and that things are getting better for them all the time. Already some of the most prominent men in America are Jews. Already we have Bernard Baruk, Felix Frankfurter, Groucho Marx. Already we have Hank Greenberg, the best first baseman in the history of baseball.
Already we have Tristan Brodsky, walking past the rising smells of stewpots and gefilte fish, notebook in hand and the coin he will trade for a downtown subway ride in his pocket. Fifteen years old, the sum total of six thousand years of Jewry, one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter. Here is hope and proof incarnate even if he has not been to shul since his bar mitzvah and dines downtown whenever he can, jukes his way into strange neighborhoods as poor as his but where they eat differently. Already he's had chitlins, snap peas and hominy grits. Already arroz con pulpo. In his parents' ice box, next to the horseradish, is a small bottle of red sauce he bought himself, a blazing concoction of crushed habanero peppers. If Benjamin is faithful to his brother's will he gets a few drops on his plate as well.
Tristan's ears perk, listening for clicks and slaps and shouts as he lopes down the block in the September dusk, hoping for craps or stickball. This despite the fact that class starts in an hour and the train will take at least that long, and he has never been to the address printed on the card that arrived in the mail last week noting that due to special circumstances the first meeting of Professor Pendergast's Contemporary Literature seminar will be held not on the City College campus but rather on 52nd Street, and it will meet not at eleven in the morning but at nine p.m.
Tristan is a two-gutter man: if stickball is being waged against the wall of Moishe's Delicatessen, he can cut the line and step up next to bat on neighborhood respect alone, take his two broom-handle swings at the blue rubber orb. No matter who is pitching, the fielders will walk backward until they have retreated to the second gutter -- the greatest compliment in life.
If eager dice-tumblings and nervous tough murmurs reach his ears, Tristan can follow them into the brickwall alley and extend a math-filled hand and be given the cubes as soon as the shooter makes his point or craps out. He can wager his train fare and perhaps win enough to buy himself breakfast tomorrow, or else lose his nickel and be fucked and miss his first class: yet another setback for the Jews.
The block is quiet, though, of boys his age. Only the old men are out tonight, standing three and four beneath the failing butter-yellow of the streetlamps, each group very close together, many hands moving in English, Yiddish, German. German, Tristan likes best, though he understands least. He and his brother have a game in which they pretend to speak it, the joke being that each word of German is incredibly long, articulates a concept or circumstance so complex or specific that it takes a paragraph of English to fully define it. Their father speaks Yiddish, but only on the street, and though most everyone else's parents speak it at home, he will not teach it to Tristan. Jacob's face darkens and he shakes his head when Tristan asks, as if embarrassed to speak the tongue of the old shtetl or scornful that Tristan wants to learn it. Tristan is unsure which is unworthy, he or the language.
The elevated tracks rumble, and Tristan sprints up the stairs and reaches the platform just in time to slip on board the last car. As the train shimmies and heaves its course through the recuperating, ruminating city, Tristan stands by the window, staring at warm kitchen-window dioramas, cutouts in the soldier-stolid buildings, and marveling at the whole stalwart notion of living within the cramped enormity of stone and brick that man has heaped upon this island. Paving the roads: how on earth did they do it? How long did it take? How was the water separating Brooklyn from Manhattan bridged?
He wonders if there were any Jewish architects or city planners, and decides not. Jews would still be debating the precise shape of Central Park. Tristan imagines a great gaggle of them, shouting and pointing compasses and slide rules at each other while teeming immigrants stand in an endless line outside the office window, freighted with suitcases and babies, waiting for their domiciles to be built. Across from the immigrants loiters a row of construction workers with broom-bristle mustaches, tools at the ready, thick forearms crossed over their chests, rolling their eyes at one another.
And just like that, Tristan's exuberance trades itself in, and the world is recast in wan, selfish hues. Tristan is sick of his own judgements, sick of striving, slaving New Yorkers and unconvinced by his own attempts to differentiate himself from them. He thinks of Mr. Jennings, the best teacher he had in high school, the one who impressed upon Tristan that to understand the beauty of Latin you must think like a Roman -- receive the words in the order they are written rather than transplant them mentally to their Germanic homes.
One day Tristan is partnered with a fellow by the name of Zucker for a writing excercise. After class Jennings detains Tristan, looks up at him with his small hands laid flat on his desk and says You don't like Zucker, do you?
I like him fine, Sir.
No you don't, says Jennings, smiling. Go on, Brodsky. You may be frank.
Tristan shifts his weight. I suppose I don't particularly care for him, Sir. No.
Jennings bends forward over the desk and says That, Brodsky, is because Zucker is exactly like you, then leans back, appearing quite pleased with himself.
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