Episode 25 of “Homage to Luxenben”

Professor Ton Bitterstrom was awake, but just barely. His first utterance was a noisy yawn that he followed with a bout of scratch­ing reminiscent of a hound dog attending the same organ both in regard to its vigor and its total lack of self-consciousness. As for his mortified twin, I do believe that had Wil’s head the power, it would have unscrewed itself from its trunk that instant and gone bouncing off on its own. With no such es­cape at hand, all it could do was grimace and bury itself in a book held in their unengaged hand. For me, it was a striking reminder that the evolutionary triumph of bicephalous anatomy was not without its compromises and Mother Nature not without her sense of humor, tasteless though it might be.

His wake-up routine concluded to his evident satisfaction, our lecturer, without a hint of embarrassment, hitched up his belt and continued the account of Luxenben’s political system where his twin had left off.

As already mentioned, the Adminent Branch officed in the buildings surrounding the Volitionment Tower—each home to the eight ministries devoted, not to the needs of the bureaucracy, but rather to those of the populace. The ministries were Sustenance, Shelter, Safety, Health, Education / Research, Environment, Works, and Self-fulfillment.

Regardless of their function, all ministries shared a common objective which was to attain, in their respective areas, the highest level of conformance with existing guidelines. Theirs was not to change the rules but rather to see to it that existing rules were enforced. They enabled rather than led; facilitated rather than invented.

Operationally, each ministry contained a control room in which as many as fifty displays constantly updated the performance of the many areas under its jurisdiction. Contained within the health sector, for example, there were continuous reports on the prevalence of heart disease, the robustness of the na­tional liver, physical condition­ing, mental health, and so on. Each display contained three pieces of information: first, a performance index established by sets of linear equations that had been developed over the years; second, current conditions as measured in the same terms as the index; and, third, computer-generated recommendations as to how best to improve the current reading relative to its index. All such data, incidentally, was measured from a nadir condition –i.e., the level at which the sectors would no longer be capable of meeting basic needs. The reader might question the preference for tracking data focused on eschewing known perils as opposed to determining whether their performance fell short or exceeded predetermined goals. The explanation is that, when formulating policy, agreement was easier to obtain on the avoidance of unwanted outcomes than on the establishment of disputable targets. A second reason is that nadirs could be kept constant as opposed to hypothetical goals that were bound to fluctuate. And, third, Luxanders were firmly convinced that, as nearly as they could tell, their methodology more nearly paralleled nature’s own techniques..

 

The professor then went on to explain what the Adminent did with all its numbers. As an example, he supposed that the most recent sweep of high school students’ proficiency in mathematics revealed that this sub-index had fallen below its prescribed lower limit. The sector’s programming would then automatically deliver to the Education Ministry an order to raise mathematics test scores 5% by a given date based on its statistical analysis of the deficiency. Upon deliberating on how to best meet this objective, the regulators assigned to education would select from a variety of options such as requiring high school teachers of mathematics to take demanding refresher courses, offering prizes to the winners of math competitions, urging universities to offer scholarships to students demonstrating particular mathematical aptitude, and so on. If such steps failed to do the job, the staff would be obliged to pursue others until it was able to report back to the Adminent’s leadership that its assignment had been fulfilled.

One has to imagine, Ton added, this same general approach applied to the full range of the Adminent’s responsibilities. Whether the problem was a tornado somewhere or a planet-wide economic downturn, figurative alarm bells would trigger remedial action at the earliest possible moment and resources automatically devoted to its solution. Feedback mechanisms would then keep reporting on how efficacious were the actions until the issue had been fully resolved.

 

At this point in the presentation, Ton Bitterstrom paused and tried his best to stifle what proved to be an irresistible urge to yawn. Thus alerted, all of us in attendance leaned forward, expectantly awaiting the full rendition of his repertory of compulsive behaviors. Disappointingly, he collected himself and, instead, with a short, jerky wave of his hand, abruptly turned the remainder of the discussion back to his twin, Wil.

Having covered the high points of Luxenben’s governmental order, the Bitterstroms handed out a printed copy of their remarks from which I have extracted the above. Despite their evident short comings as lecturers, I had to admit I found their subject matter interesting and well-organized. In all fairness to the professors, however little they may have relished their teaching assignment, it was clear that they were bent on fulfilling it both in word and deed—the sort of dogged triumph, one supposed, of pedagogy over malaise that daily goes unheralded on campuses everywhere.

 

Out of the blue, as it were, Ms. Raptur appeared at the podium, stretched out her wings and asked that we show our thanks for the professors’ presentation. In this we happily concurred, though whether out of appreciation for the lectures themselves or for the fact that they had finally come to an end was hard to say. In any case, our applause dutifully rewarded our tutors in acknowledgement of which I expected to see the customary response, heartfelt or not. But the Bitterstroms were not so inclined. For the life of me, I could not have assembled a single, lousy smile from their two expressions taken together.

Ms. Raptur was not quite done with us. “Now that you’ve seen how smoothly things operate here, how about a little pop quiz? Who began the process that led to today’s government?”

“The Founder!” we shouted.

“Very good. And what guided the Founder in his deliberations?”

“Cartism!”

“Excellent. And who will you vote for in the referendum?”

“Space Ventures!”

“Class dismissed!” she screeched happily before conducting an honorary flyby over our heads and, circling back, returned to her perch on the podium, her normal decorum restored.

 

 

Afterthought. As I enter these notes into my journal, I can’t help rethinking the policy I have imposed upon myself of confining my entries to straight reportage. Why editorialize when the information I was privileged to convey was so compelling on its own? On the other hand, there are times such as this when I find it impossible to hold my tongue. How can I recall Earth’s futile thrashings and compare them with what I see of Luxenben’s purposeful advance without wanting to scream loudly enough to be heard from one planet to the next? Earthling laws are insults to nature, and the char­latans who write them are no more than legislative Mafiosi spraying intended vic­tims and innocent bystanders alike with lethal bursts of legalize.

Luxenben’s government, on the other hand, was a joint enterprise of Luxan intelligence and nature linked by a common ethos—the former to invent laws more or less randomly and the latter to self-organize them into a coherent whole. The evolutionary result was a system that was both efficient and barebones. I stress “barebones” for the advantages of eliminating both executive and legislative branches went far beyond the savings that had been directly attributable to them; it eliminated the huge parasitic growths that had clung to these institutions. Why would an industry sponsor a lobbyist when there was no governmental entity the lobbyist could influence? More generally, why would any group—racial, ethnic, labor, social, etc.—organize politically when the very word “politics” had lost its meaning? In short, by depriving groups of the means to exert political influence—by tearing down the boxing ring, as it were—the contentiousness of the Luxan spirit was reduced to low-level, manageable disputes between individuals.

Unfortunately, the denizens of Earth have become overly infatuated with legislative democracy because of its evident superiority over autocracy. How I wish I could grab the good reader by his lapels and make him realize that the government he cherishes so highly is but a halfway point on the road to a genuinely workable system. Were he instead to gaze upon this magnificent culture—even if he knew nothing of its theoretical premise—his eye would tell him, and his heart confirm, that this was the form of government he should aspire to.

All of which brings me to a point raised before, but that bears repeating at this juncture. Having been given this brief glimpse of the Luxanders’ achievements, the reader might understandably be tempted to confer upon them some inherent attribute absent from the char­acter of man. Again let me dis­pel that notion. Just as Luxenben’s explo­r­ers confirmed that there were no new physi­cal laws lurk­ing in distant space, so I can confirm that there are no new virtues, or vices for that matter, up here. Believe me, living cells have the same ap­petites one place as another. The Lux­anders are no more or less selfish, ve­nial, ambi­tious, and self-centered than Earthlings. Their great advantage is neither their dual intellects nor some inbred virtue resident in their souls. It is the acquired ethos that is now fixed in their brains—the memes that have been handed down from one generation to the next. The lucky, two-headed bastards got it right.

 

It had been a long day for the hanging chil­dren, and they had grown cranky despite their being excused from the second half of the Bitterstrom’s lec­ture and al­lowed instead to gambol about in the park across the street from the Centre. Now that it was time for us to leave, a num­ber of the little devils per­versely made their way to the topmost branches of the tallest trees and from there exercised their newly acquired skill to yell down “no’s” upon the red-faced grownups ar­rayed beneath them. Weary fathers dutifully slithered up in pursuit, but they were no match for the lighter, more agile youngsters, and it took a combination of parental flailing from below and Ms. Raptur’s artful pecking from above to finally gather the last holdouts and load them onto racks. From the sounds emanating from these vehicles one would think the children were being trun­dled to the guillo­tine (an illu­sion I lovingly nurtured) instead of to the subway that would bring us back to Ventureland.

Our arrival at the station did nothing to deafen the children’s communal whining, and I dreaded the ride back, when these same sounds would be amplified within the con­fines of a railcar. Unfortunately there was nothing to be done but stand on the platform, exchange understanding glances with Milford, and wait for the next train.

As it turned out, my fears proved unjustified thanks to Eddie’s inspired in­terces­sion. Upon his instructions, which incidentally elicited no end of spontaneous support from the rest of the passengers, the parents of the hanging children knotted each little pink hindquarter to the over­head luggage rack, after which a few minutes’ swaying up­side down was all that was necessary to render them blessedly asleep for the remainder of the trip.

Milford and I again shared a subway seat, but after a few perfunctory attempts at conversation the bulbous creature gently expanded, yawned from at least three apertures, murmured a polite apology, and then dozed off. With noth­ing better to do, I oc­cupied my time trying to predict which of his variegated features would be the next outlet for his heavy, tumid breathing, but if there was an operative formula I had not discovered before we arrived at our destination.

Once we disembarked I would simply have hurried off the platform with the rest of the group had it not been for Mil­ford’s determined pressure against my lower leg.

“Look,” he said excitedly.

“Where?” I asked, searching the poor animal’s topo­graphi­cal features for some clue as to which direction he was referring to.

“Not that way! There! Can’t you see?”

Finally, by a process of elim­ina­tion, I at last set my eyes on a vector that satisfied him and sure enough, there on the far subway wall was justification enough for my buddy’s ex­citement. Next to an old-fash­ioned vending machine dispensing four-to-a-packet Chiclets Gum, was the afternoon edition of the local newspaper. In the middle of its front page was a two-column headline reading “Local Girl to Wed Semi.” The subhead read “Girl’s parents unavailable for comment.”

Now that the tour was practically over, our buddy relationships were officially dissolved and Milford rolled on to join his friends. I stopped off at the newsstand and then boarded the chartered bus that would take us back to the tour’s starting point. Eddie was already seated in the back, but he caught my glance and waved. We would, it was clear, join forces after the bus trip and walk back to the dorm together. I needed someone to talk to.



28. THE ARBOR

 

“W

hat’s in the plastic bag,” Eddie asked as we started off.

“The Daily Luxander for me and a bag of popcorn for you. Picked them up at the station.”

“Hey, thanks. But the walk back won’t take that long. I could have made it.”

“It’ll take longer than you think,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“Not about Seedfaith, we’re not.”

“Not Seedfaith.”

“Whatever you say. Here, there’s no use you lugging all that stuff. Let me help.” So saying, the suddenly considerate little beast took the bag from my hands, extracted his carton of popcorn, and returned the bag to me. “Might as well while it’s still kind of warm, right?” The question was obviously meant to be rhetorical, for, without waiting for an answer, he dug right in.

Settling down on the nearest park bench, I opened the article in front of me. Propped up at my side and locked in a four-paw embrace of his carton, Eddie was the picture of contentment.

“Local Girl to Wed Semi,” I began reading out loud. “Parents unavailable for comment.”

“Probably a good thing,” Eddie muttered.

“That they’re getting married or that her parents are keeping mum?”

“Both.”

“Just listen, would you? We’ll talk it over when I’m done.”

Eddie’s head was buried in the popcorn, but over the crown of the carton I felt reasonably sure that I detected a nod in affirmation, so I read on.

 

“Alex Symthe, Luxenben City’s town clerk, reported that earlier this day Ms. Rosanne Kennelston, of Rochester Estates, and Mr. Neuman (first name unknown), an Earthling resident of Semiland, had appeared before him and taken out a marriage license. The event was confirmed by Ander Symthe, who, in his unofficial capacity, was able to express the surprise and dismay that his twin, for professional reasons, could not.

“Both applicants are known to be employees of Space Ventures, Inc. and presumably became acquainted at that institution. Ms. Kennelston works as an assistant in the Research Department. SVI verified Mr. Neuman’s employment but gave out no further details.

“ ‘Whereas the Kennelston-Neuman alliance is not the first of its kind, such attachments have been rare,’ said Alex Symthe. Prior to notifying reporters, he had researched his files and discovered only four cases in recent memory, the last being some six years before. All, incidentally, had been Semi-male/Full-female ties.

“Unable to obtain a statement from either the couple or the bride-to-be’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Kennelston, the press converged on Ms. Shirley Hauck, the preeminent authorities in this esoteric area. In a hastily arranged interview, the coauthors of the highly regarded book, ‘Three-Quarters Full or One-Quarter Empty? An Examination of Mixed Marriages,’ answered a number of questions that were on everyone’s lips, beginning with the most obvious. Ms. Ley spoke first.

“ ‘In our study, approximately five per cent of all Luxan girls between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, from all walks of life, have privately confessed that they find Semi males attractive—only a tiny fraction of these developing into serious relationships, of course. Quite frankly, we were surprised at the number and dug into all the literature we could find on the subject. Some authorities have theorized that it’s an extreme manifestation of the defiance of convention that afflicts all young people to one extent or another. Others have speculated that parents may be partially to blame.’

“ ‘Perhaps by going overboard in teaching our children to be ‘tolerant,’ of Semis,’ added Shir, ‘we may have inadvertently implanted a feeling of heartfelt sympathy that can evolve into an emotional attachment later in life.’

“ ‘However,’ emphasized Ms. Ley, ‘our research failed to uncover a consistent causative factor in the cases we studied. The truth is that we have no adequate explanation. The female heart, I’m afraid, is a mystery even to its owners.’

“Questions then arose as to the proposed ceremony. According to Ms. Shir, ‘Some provinces have banned such unions altogether, others have no barriers at all, and there’s every combination in-between. As far as the metropolitan area is concerned, the issue has been left deliberately ambivalent. The official stance is a liberal one—that is to say, there is no restriction on marriage between any two consenting adults. However, public sentiment in this regard, I’m sorry to say, tends to discourage any local religious leader from risking his reputation by officiating at such nuptials. Meanwhile, a civil ceremony in this area, while it would technically be available to the couple, it would, I fear, provoke, at the very least, some sort of demonstration that the city would like to avoid. So I’m frankly puzzled that they’re getting a license here. My advice would be to find another province where they could be assured of a more dignified ceremony.’

“ ‘Which is unfortunate,’ Ley Hauck broke in. ‘Actually, the four intermarriages on record, as far as we know, have been stable and happy ones. That’s not a large sample, to be sure, but it certainly doesn’t support the prejudice against such arrangements.’

“ ‘Stable, happy, and productive,’ added Shir Hauck laughingly. ‘I’m happy to say, all their children—there’ve been ten of them, you know—have been normal, intelligent, and, yes thank heaven, bicephalous. We’re blessed with some pretty damn dominant genes, let me tell you.’

 

“Well, what do you think?” I asked Eddie.

“Same thing I’ve thought all along,” the little beast replied. “Forget the incidental stuff about the wedding. The kids will get around it one way or another. The big picture is that Neuman’s hitchin’ up with a Full is just the ticket from SVI’s standpoint. The whole idea behind converting Semis to Cartism is to integrate them more closely into normal society, right? Having a prominent mixed couple like that just makes the case for integration that much stronger. Besides, from what you tell me, Rosanne will make a good missionary’s wife. Active in zoo affairs, visiting sick inmates, raising money for charity, that sort of thing. Of course, if the marriage doesn’t work out, that’s another story.”

“It’ll work. If Neuman has a grain of sense left, he’ll realize he’s getting one of the sweetest girls in the world. I can’t imagine anybody turning down those beautiful faces under any circumstances.”

“You couldn’t, apparently.”

Ignoring the comment, I somehow found it necessary to emphasize my approval of the union. “And Neuman’s not stupid, you know. With Rosanne around to keep his head on straight, he’ll do okay.”

Eddie remained determined to endow the event with political significance. “I can just see it. SVI brass focusing on the happy missionary couple. Conrad gritting his teeth.”

“So you’d think SVI would have at least given the boy a decent plug. Remember what they said?” I referred once again to the paper. “‘Ms. Kennelston works as an assistant in the Research Department. SVI verified Mr. Neuman’s employment but gave out no further details.’”

“So?”

“So why be so goddamned closed-mouthed? Why not say he’s an advisor to Research on an important project? They make it sound like Rosanne’s marrying one of your janitor friends. Give her a little support, for Christ sake. The poor thing is going to run into enough static as it is.”

“That’s one lousy line thrown in by some reporter working against a deadline. You’re reading too much into it.”

“Maybe, but there’s something else. One of the couple’s big problems is finding somebody to marry them, right? Without having to go through the hassle they’d get at the municipal court house. So why not hold off the marriage until after Neuman’s been officially appointed missionary? Then I’d bet he wouldn’t have any trouble finding a pastor.”

Eddie turned the carton upside down over his mouth and shook out whatever fragments of popcorn remained. “Nitpicking. Couples are in a hurry to marry for lots of reasons. Hey, we’re going to be late for dinner if we don’t get going. Meatloaf tonight.”

And with that the little beast scrambled off the park bench and hurried back down the path. I let him go ahead. I had a few fallen leaves to kick and besides I wasn’t hungry.

 

The next surprise came a few days later in the form of an early morning phone call from Anne. As soon as I hung up, I rushed downstairs to find Matilda.

“What took you so long?” she laughed. “It’s been a full two minutes since she called me.”

“All I can say is that it’s a good thing it’s not formal,” I said. “No tuxedo rental shops in the zoo that I know of.”

“You think I’ve got a closet full of evening gowns? Anne said no gifts so we don’t have to worry that either. All we have to do is show up at three o’clock. This afternoon.”

“At the arbor. Wherever that is.”

“Right here in the Gardens. Beautiful spot up on Clyde’s Hill. About a half hour’s walk. I’ll show you. Fulls get married there all the time.”

“They must have found a minister after all. Did Anne tell you who was officiating?” I asked.

“Nope. All she said was ‘keep it quiet.’ Apologized for not sending out invitations but they couldn’t risk the word getting out. She couldn’t talk long because she had lots of people to notify. Poor girl,” commiserated Matilda. “Bride’s got enough on her mind on her wedding day without having to make phone calls. I could hear Ros bubbling away on another line. You’d think their parents would pitch in and help.”

“They’d probably choke on the words,” I said. “Small wonder Rosanne’s so afraid of protestors. Her parents would probably join them.”

 

One of Rosanne’s girl friends was stationed on the path leading to the arbor. She dutifully checked our names against the list she had been furnished and, having satisfied herself of our credentials, graciously waved us ahead. We were next met by a Semi usher who conducted us to the rows of folding chairs set out on the grass. As I followed this young gentleman to our seats, I surmised from the width of his shoulders that should the occasion arise, he and his fellow ushers were ready to welcome any would-be intruders with less courtesy than Matty and I had been afforded. I later learned that these were not the only guards on duty that afternoon. An additional contingent was encamped out of sight in case of trouble.

Once my view was no longer obstructed by the expanse of our usher’s frame, I could see why the arbor was so popular a venue for weddings. The slight rise upon which the wedding guests were seated flattened at its base into an open semicircle where the ceremony was to be performed. Both flanks of this semicircle were beautifully delineated by wide curved trellises, some eight feet in height, covered with yellow climbing roses. Through chinks in the trellis I could make out a tent where the wedding party was no doubt assembled. And in the empty space between the trellises, a magnificent view of the park beyond provided a perfect centerpiece for the tableau.

Matilda confirmed my approval of the site by raising her neck periscope fashion, swiveling her head one-hundred and eighty degrees to one side and then another, and then summarizing her birds-eye critique of the arrangements. “Oh, it’s all so lovely,” she said and started sniffling as though she had already caught the first rustle of a bridesmaid’s dress. Too fidgety to remain seated, she hopped up on the chair back, caught an uplifting breeze and, moments later, was happily gliding overhead.

My own survey of our surrounds focused on the identity of the other arriving guests. Standing near the front row of reserved seats was a circle of Fulls. Mulhouse, Rosanne’s immediate boss, was in conversation with a middle-aged couple whose distinguished features and bearing led me to believe they were Rosanne’s parents. And the family resemblance was even stronger for the two younger members of the group, whom I took to be Rosanne’s handsome siblings. Missing was any sign of Rosanne’s grandparents who I knew were still living. My guess was that the lower one descended the family tree the less tolerance one found.

I had a harder time, however, accounting for the presence of Alfred Metzingham and Norbert Pilkinson. I had never met either of these gentlemen, but recognized them from their photos in Research handouts. That these two senior executive types would be enticed to a wedding of a minor Research employee struck me as improbable, but I took it to be a commendable public endorsement of diversity and let it go at that. Until, that is, a light scattering of applause accompanied the entrance of Leopold Hampton, SVI’s chairman, who briefly joined Metzingham and Pilkinson before everyone took their seats on cue from the harpist’s first notes.

Matty reappeared as suddenly as she had left. With everyone by now listening quietly to the music, I assumed she would do the same, but the old bird had news she could not contain. “I saw another human,” she whispered, her beak practically touching my ear. “Behind the trellis. Can’t see him from here.”

“Are you sure? What did he look like?” I excitedly whispered back into an ear that she had helpfully positioned to my mouth.

“Hard to judge much from the air. Middle age. Slim, I guess. Pretty tall.”

Despite our attempts to keep our voices down, our conversation annoyed a neighboring couple whose four disapproving looks could hardly be ignored. Matty righted her neck and I had no choice but to speculate on what little information I had. My guess was that SVI had finally picked up Hedgewick, the man who was supposed to have been picked up the same time as Neuman. Our little colony of émigrés was growing.

As startling as Matty’s intelligence had been, I could hardly dwell upon it now that the wedding procession had begun. Seeing Neuman in formal attire and decent haircut, I had to concur with Matty’s assessment of him as a positively handsome chap. No stranger, watching him solemnly walking down the aisle, would have guessed that underneath that white yarmulke resided what had to be—how could I put it on this harmonious occasion—one of the more limber brains nature had seen fit to produce.

Matty started to break down with the ring bearer’s entrance and, by the time Rosanne walked down the aisle, the old bird was reduced to troves of tears that cascaded down either side her puffed cheeks and then began their leisurely spiral down her neck. I could hardly blame the old bird, for between the bride’s lovely features, wreathed in smiles, and her white wedding gown, trimmed in lace, Rosanne did look positively radiant. So much so, I must confess, that her image in my blurred vision was that of two new suns just added to the firmament.

Often one sees what one expects to see even if it is at variance with reality. And so it was when my gaze returned to the assembled wedding party in the grassed semicircle. At first everything seemed entirely conventional until I suddenly realized that one thing was decidedly unconventional. I had attended so many Jewish weddings in my day, that I had overlooked its incongruity in this corner of the zoological gardens on the Planet Luxenben. There sat a chupeh, the four-posted canopy under which Jewish weddings are traditionally conducted.

The first surprise of the afternoon was the presence of the Semi stalwarts recruited, I guessed, from SVI’s employees. The second was the presence of the company’s noteworthies. The third was Matty’s discovery of a tall, slim Earthling. And now the literally unearthly appearance of the chupeh. What next? I wondered.

What next turned out to be the smiling, black frocked, decidedly untall and unslim figure of Rabbi Samuels striding out from behind the left trellis.

 

It was a typical Jewish ceremony until the end when, as it was wont to do, the special nature of life on this planet intruded with the lengthened exchange of four vows. Then came the minor mishap when, in the supposedly rehearsed kissing of the brides, Neuman lifted the wrong veil and was greeted not by Ros’s puckered lips but by Anne’s stuck out tongue. This bit of confusion was, however, quickly resolved and the rest of the ceremony followed without further incident. There was the traditional breaking of the glass and the exit of the newly marrieds down the aisle. From the look on Neuman’s face, it was hard to imagine a happier, less guilty bigamist.

Afterward, Matty’s approach to the punch bowl gave me a chance to resolve one of the many questions on my mind. “Slim?” I asked pointing to the pudgy rabbi who was standing nearby engrossed in conversation with the Mulhouses.

“Isn’t he?” she asked innocently.

“No,” I said.

“Well, how am I supposed to know? I bet there isn’t a one of you who could even get an inch off the ground no matter what size wings you put on. You’re all way too fat. So if some of you want to pretend you’re slim, then the rest of you might as well too.”

“That’s an inventive excuse for a lousy job of reconnaissance,” I said. “And how about the tall part.”

“He is. More than Milford and Fitzroy put together,” Matty noted defensively.

“And he’s lots taller than three cabbages. But I wasn’t asking about cabbages, I was asking about a human being.”

“Good gracious,” she complained. “No reason to snap a body’s head off. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. I’ve laid eyes on only two of you humans in my whole life. I shouldn’t have told you about him in the first place. You’re always so critical.”

Her position was, in retrospect, altogether understandable, and I immediately regretted my abruptness. “I’m sorry, you did the best you could,” I concluded leniently in the hope of closing the matter, but Matty was not one to give up a perceived advantage.

“I bet there’s lots of prejudice against birds where you come from,” she insinuated casually.

“Just the opposite,” I insisted. “There are so many ‘bird lovers’ they’ve got their own organization.”

“Really?” she asked uncertainly.

“Absolutely. And on weekends they all go out in the woods with field books and binoculars just to count how many they can spot.”

“The nerve!” she admonished. “I never heard of such a thing! Binoculars? Don’t you have any respect for privacy?” However concerned she sounded, I noticed that she nevertheless fluffed her feathers a bit to display them to better advantage.

“We do, but it was felt the public good was better served by excluding birds,” I said somewhat desperately.

“Hmph!” she muttered ambivalently before tripping off to the refreshment table with her head raised high, all the better, no doubt, to detect any prying eyes that might be focused in her direction.

Following her movements, I caught sight of Eddie for the first time that afternoon. I had assumed that he had not been invited, but apparently the little beast had simply been lost in the crowd. No longer. Periodically bouncing up to get a better view of the buffet, he was circling the table with the intent, if not the grace, of a hungry shark. Suddenly scooping up a tray full of cookies in one hand and a fistful of napkins in the other, he very deliberately and politely presented his stolen goods, waiter-like, to the few noticeably diet-conscious females standing in his path to a row of hedges, behind which he promptly disappeared.

Turning my attention back to the wedding’s attendees I noticed that the notables had all dispersed—no doubt having more important things to do than socialize or, at least, desirous of leaving that impression. Left behind were the Mulhouses who returned my glance with a beckoning smile, but there was someone I needed to talk to first.

By now the crowd around the married couple had thinned and I was able to ingratiate myself among them, congratulate Neuman, kiss the brides, and spirit away their good rabbi who, ever since the nuptials ended, had been soaking in the couple’s reflected happiness reinforced with, I noticed, an abundance of wine proffered by the wait staff.

 

“Now tell me. Am I still a rich man?” I demanded of Samuels as I embraced him.

Samuels stepped back, opened his hands wide in front of his chest, bid me sha, and toddled unsteadily over to the refreshment table. Returning with a piece of shortcake in one hand and, in the other, a cup of coffee held within inhaling distance of his nose, he responded, A, mechaye! Here I could forget about tea altogether.”

I was used to the good rabbi’s stratagems. “Never mind the coffee. Just out of curiosity. For my own satisfaction. Even up here it’d be nice to feel rich.”

“Then you’re out of luck. They cleaned you out,” Samuels answered between audible sips from his cup.

“And my wife, too?” I asked incredulously.

“Whatever they could get. Not everything, I guess, but she has to work. I know that.” A thin plume of crumbs, on its way to the floor, made it past Samuels’ beard but hit the extended plane of his upper chest and fanned out.

“And my boys?”

“One is in high school already. I understand they’ll be going to the community college. Decide what they want to do with their lives. No one’s going to roll out a red carpet for them, that’s for sure.”

Well, I thought, Emerson was right. There are always compensations. “How about yourself? You miss Brith Shalom?” I asked.

“What’s there to miss?”

“What do you mean? You had your congregation, your rabbinical duties, the Mogen David window, your luxurious living quarters. Brith Shalom was everything to you.”

“Everything is nothing.” Samuels answered extending his hands sideways, palms up.

“Nothing? I don’t understand.”

“What’s there to understand? I told you. Brith Shalom is nothing!”

“Nothing? ” I repeated stupidly. “How can it be nothing?”

“I’ll tell you how. Gornisht! One day this skinny goy—he says he’s from the city and he’s got on a dirty tie to prove it—comes up to me and starts giving me papers. I tell him I already got a drawerful of papers from the city and I don’t need any more, thank you. But this time the shlemiel says, it’s different. Playing dumb won’t do any good. The city is serious. They’re condemning Brith Shalom to enlarge the playground.”

“That playground!” I asked, recalling the barren, cheer­less bit of ghetto turf a couple of doors down from the shul.

“Exactly. That playground. The recreation building stinks so bad you can’t even go inside. And outside nobody plays except boys selling drugs and girls selling worse. So I ask him, ‘It’s not big enough now? The streetwalkers are bumping into each other?’”

“Politics,” I guessed. “Come elections, neighborhood improvements are a hot item. How many votes did you have at Brith Shalom?”

Gey shray g’vald.” the Rabbi agreed. “So I told him we’ve got lawyers. Which was true. Lawyer, anyway. Mordecai, you know. Except he hasn’t practiced for thirty years and is mostly blind. So I told this shlemiel, we’ll fight you tooth and nail. By the time my lawyers finish appealing, your lousy park will drop into hell where it belongs.”

“Oh, oh.” I said quietly.

“Oh, oh, you can say again. The goy points to the mayor’s signature on the papers. Without even the courtesy of a phone call, the city sold us out! And for what? A lousy scrap of land. I told him he ought to be ashamed of himself. Of all the places in his lousy city, he had to condemn Brith Shalom! There weren’t any office buildings filled with shyster lawyers and ganef businessmen? No slaughterhouses with treyfe meat piled to the ceilings? No police stations with cops taking payoffs? No? The city had to look for a handful of eltern with taleysim on their heads and God in their hearts! That they had to condemn!”

“Well, what can you do?” I reflected. “For us Jews the destruction of temples is practically a tradition. Tell me how you got here.”

“Wait, let me finish. A couple of weeks later here comes a bulldozer and a big dump truck. But I was ready for them. Every night since the city shlemiel, I davened my heart out. Just once in my whole life I begged for a personal favor—not just for me (though God knows where else could I live) but for Maurice, who can’t see to get on a bus, for Lazar, whose wife pushes on a wheelchair—for all of us. On the entire face of the Earth, God couldn’t find Jews more devoted. So when they start the bulldozer and I hear all that noise, in my bones I’m ready for a miracle. The goyim think the building is empty—all they see is air, farshteyst? I know that inside there’s five thousand years of Jewish tradition—solid like a rock! They can push with their bulldozer until their eyes pop out, but what can fall? Can a solid brick collapse—a brick the size of a building?”

“Oh, oh,” I repeated.

Sha! I can hardly wait for the driver to finish his jelly doughnut. I’m thinking, are you in for a surprise, fresser? You don’t go into a fight with the Lord God of the Hebrews eating doughnuts. Hang onto your hat; your gantse machine is going to bounce back so hard, you won’t know what hit you.”

“I’m sorry,” I said softly.

But the durable rabbi seemed neither crushed nor embittered. He held a bit of shortcake between his thumb and forefinger and pressed. “Like that. That easy,” he said. “One touch—what am I saying? It wasn’t even a touch—a kiss, maybe.” Then he paused, licked his fingers, looked at me and laughed. “A fine building! We’re lucky it didn’t fall down on our heads before. For all I know, the shlemiel did us a favor.”

“How did you manage after that?”

“Don’t ask. I found a room. Welfare. Bus trips downtown. Standing in line and waiting for the privilege of waiting somewhere else. They get their money’s worth from you in tsores, believe me. Meanwhile the lot’s turned into a junkyard. They don’t even cut the weeds. Papers, litter, bed springs, people dump everything. Before at least it was some kind of a shul; now it’s an aveyre!”

 

At last Samuels was ready to go into the circumstances surrounding, what was for me at least, his miraculous materialization on Luxenben.

“Before the machines came, I had to look things over, you know. What to take? What to leave? What to do with all the sid­durim? And how about the toyre itself? Lots of decisions,” said Samuels shaking his head in memory of those unhappy days.

“But then you weren’t worried,” I pointed out. “The shul couldn’t be destroyed, you said.”

“Just in case. You never knew,” Samuels hedged. “The shul maybe wasn’t so solid after all. For all I saw of God for the last twenty years, maybe he moved to the suburbs too. But maybe those ‘maybes’ were my trouble; for miracles you need faith. Es ken zayn. Anyway, I wandered in and out of the rooms—even Neuman’s classroom that I didn’t have the heart to go into before. We had to shut down the talmu’toyre after he disappeared. Who else would want to teach for practically nothing?”

Reminded of the boy, I interrupted the rabbi’s narrative and looked around for Neuman. He had to be involved in Samuels’ arrival one way or another and I wanted to get as full an account as possible. Nearly all the wedding guests had left and, for a moment, I thought the couple had too. But I caught sight of them on the bank of the pond. He was sitting with Rosanne, his back to hers and his single, shaggy head sweetly nuzzled between hers. His tie was off and his shirt partially unbuttoned; Rosanne had changed into street clothes. They were silent when we came upon them—he absentmindedly throwing pebbles in the pond and she staring blankly in the opposite direction, her hands clasped and held at her bended knees.

Apologizing for the intrusion, I asked if we could talk for a few minutes.

“Sit,” commanded Anne. Accordingly Samuels and I dropped to the ground and the rabbi resumed at the point at which he had been interrupted—there being no need to update the couple who must have heard his account several times before.

Oy, I can’t tell you how sad it made me feel just to go into this boytshik’s old classroom. But any day now the bulldozer could show up, so I cleaned out his closet and what do you think I find hidden on the shelf behind all the books and tablets? A cigar box. And inside the box?”

“Pictures of naked girls?” I ventured.

“Worse!” the rabbi expounded. “Pictures of a naked boy! How do you like that!”

Another “Oy.” This one from Neuman echoing his spiritual leader.

“Not just any boy. Inside the cigar box, right on top, pictures of Neuman, my nice, sweet yeshiva boucher from top to bottom without a stitch of clothes, muter-naket.”

“Remember the ad? I showed it to you when you visited me in Research. In it they asked for a photograph. The rabbi stumbled on the extra proof,” Neuman said sheepishly.

“I wish he brought them,” giggled Anne.

“That’s all a rabbi needs when they inspect his valise. A nude boy with talis kotn. And underneath the pictures—I was almost afraid to look—there’s papers, in his handwriting, filled with mishuggene.”

“Old drafts of my resumé,” explained Neuman. “I rewrote the damn thing ten times before it sounded right.”

“It didn’t make sense,” continued the rabbi. “But I figured it had something to do with his disappearance. And it mentions this Morning Star classified ad. Such-and-such a date, such-and-such a page, Box 152-C. I still remember it.”

“Full-time specimen for prestigious zoo,” Neuman reminded me.

“If you don’t mind, Neuman? You’ve heard the story before. Duvidul hasn’t,” said Samuels and upon obtaining the boy’s nodded assent, continued his account. “So what am I going to do with this ‘fine’ picture? Maybe I’ll hang on the wall in my kitchen for a reminder. When people come in, I can say he was my prize student until one day he gets into Mr. Stelzer’s make-you-disappear car that shows up in the middle of nowhere by a river and all they find are some ashes and some dancing-around footprints. A gantser kopdreyenish!”

The good rabbi paused and stroked his beard as though he were reliving his Eureka moment. “But then I’m thinking to myself maybe I’ve got something important. Something the police should have. They came to the shul, you know. They were so rude to me, by the way, you wouldn’t believe. Like I was the guilty one. Makes sense, right? What could be easier for an old rabbi with knowledge of the cabala. A few words in Hebrew, a wave of my staff, and (the rabbi snapped his fingers) two people go puff.

“When it finally occurred to them I couldn’t drive, they had to find another angle. If it’s not me, it had to be drugs. As far as they’re concerned, nobody disappears like that unless he’s dealing. They wanted to know what Neuman was using. How much did he sell to the kids in his cheyder? How long did I know Stelzer was his supplier? A million stupid questions.”

“See what fucking bastards the police are,” said Neuman in case I hadn’t noticed.

“Thank you, Neuman. That was very illuminating,” said Ros.

“Sorry. I forgot,” replied the husband-in-training sheepishly.

“But when you showed the police the evidence you found…” I began in an effort to move Samuels along.

“After the way they treated me? I showed them nothing!” Samuels declared heatedly. “As far as I’m concerned, they worked for the same lousy outfit that sent the shlemiel with the dirty tie and the doughnut eater with the bulldozer. Those gantser knakers in blue uniforms aren’t getting a thing from me. In d’rerd arayn.”

Neuman, who, God knows, had an ear for invective, beamed admiringly on his mentor for this simple, but heartfelt, Yiddish example. Ros was more critical. “I know what that means. Don’t you start,” she admonished Samuels.

The impervious rabbi was too intent on his storytelling to be distracted. “Nosiree, I tell myself. It’s my evidence so it’s my shtik, right? What have I got to lose? I’ve got too many pressing engagements? So I take a bus downtown, go to the library, I give them the date of the ad—it was in Neuman’s letter—and they sit me in front of this little machine with a light inside.” Samuels paused long enough to define the size of the microfilm reader with his hands before going on. “And in an hour or so, I find the ad that’s asking for replies to Box 152-C. I give them fifteen cents and the next thing you know I’ve got a picture to take home. Now I’m in business!”

One of Neuman’s pebbles landed uncomfortably close to a formation of a mother duck and her seven ducklings following along the shoreline. The splash caused her to spin around and glare at us. “It was me,” admitted Neuman raising his hand. “I’m sorry. An accident. Okay? No reason to get excited.” After some contained mutterings, the duck evidently decided not to escalate the incident and instead swam off with her brood along their original track.

The encounter gave me a moment to ponder the rabbi-turned-sleuth’s investigative efforts. My first reaction was one of mild amusement, but this gave way to grudging respect as he went on with his story.

“So now I’m back in my basement and I sit down at my kitchen table—the same one you remember, Duvidul. I can afford a new piece of furniture like I can afford a new suit. I put down on the table the ad I got from the library, Neuman’s notebook, and his picture; and I look and I look. Siz mir a kop veytik! I fix some tea and I look some more. Finally I decide that if that mishuggene pupil of mine can write to Box 152-C, I can too. Farshteyst?

“I get out some writing paper, my fountain pen, and in my letter I tell them I want my boy back.”

“What about me?” I inquired politely.

“You they can keep,” smiled the rabbi. “And if I don’t get answers quick, I tell them, I’m going to get the police after them and they’ll be in big trouble. I figured a little push or two couldn’t hurt.”

“I imagine that got the Fulls up here shaking in their boots,” I laughed.

“Don’t be so fast to imagine,” advised the rabbi. “They didn’t get the letter. Not then, anyway. A few days later, inside a nice, big, brown envelope my letter comes back from the newspaper. They’re very sorry, but after two weeks they close their ‘boxes.’ But thank you for reading the Morning Star classifieds anyway and here’s a form for a three-month’s trial subscription. Zay gezunt.”

“A dead end,” I said.

“Not for SuperSam,” whispered Neuman admiringly.

“So I make more tea,” the rabbi went on. “More looking at my evidence, but then I’m thinking, on the radio the Morning Star always wants classifieds, so I’ll give them classifieds. I pick up the phone and tell them in my best goyisher accent that the first time I didn’t get enough response so would they please be so kind as to run Box 152-C all over again. It works! All they want to know is if they should send the bill to the same place, so I tell them sure, why not? Then they ask how long should it run? And I say Sundays only for one month. Why should I be a pig?” Samuels chuckled over his little subterfuge.

“That took nerve,” I said.

“Look, when you’re Sherlock Holmes, you don’t get cold feet,” Samuels explained. “Sure enough, comes Sunday, comes the ad, and again I send my letter. One way or another Box 152-C is going to find out who they’re up against.”

“It was the funniest thing,” Anne recalled, picking up the story. “Mr. Mulhouse comes storming out of his office with the bill from the Morning Star wanting to know who the practical joker was.”

“We’ve kept a liaison office on Earth from the beginning, you know,” Ros interjected.

“Anyway,” Anne continued, “I’m sure he thought it was me. ‘One Neuman’s not enough for you,’ he says? I told him that I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about and anyway his being my boss didn’t give him the right to say whatever came into his dirty mind. Nobody really knew what was going on until we got Rabbi Samuels’ letter a couple of days later. He’s such a nice little man. Here he sends us all these nasty questions about what we’re doing to his poor little Neuman and he ends with this sweet apology for rerunning the ad and he’d try to pay us back somehow.”

“Sweet, but a little vague, maybe,” I noted.

“When I told Neuman we heard from Rabbi Samuels, he actually smiled for the first time since he got sick. I was so excited you can’t imagine. He adores the rabbi. Now that I know him, I do too. He’s so cute.”

So saying, Anne leaned over and deposited a kiss on the rabbi’s cheek.

“That’s another thing that’s wrong with Earth,” Samuels beamed. “Not once—okay, except for my mother, maybe—not even once did a girl call me cute. I come here and right away I’ve got two shayne shichelach fighting over me all the time.”

“But not hard enough to win,” I guessed.

“In my position, Duvidul, that’s good enough.”

“Anyway,” said Ros picking up the account, “Anne and I told Mr. Mulhouse he ought to bring the rabbi up here. We just knew from Neuman’s reaction that Rabbi Samuels could break through the cloud he was under.  Bring him back, you know what I mean.  Well, it’s just amazing how stupid professionals can be when they try. If it’s not their idea they don’t even want to consider it. But we kept nagging him to death until he finally decided it was his idea after all.”

“So, one thing led to another and the next thing you know, here I am!” Samuels concluded unnecessarily. If there was one thing you could generally tell about Samuels, it was where he was.

“Ah, the mysterious consultant,” I muttered.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Stelzer,” Ros said. “We weren’t allowed to say a word about who he was. But the main thing is that Anne and I were right. Rabbi Samuels made all the difference in the world. Neuman started to improve the minute he showed up.”

“I’m surprised Mulhouse agreed to the idea. Didn’t the religion thing worry him?” I asked recalling the social workers’ paranoia over all foreign faiths.

“What religion?” Samuels interjected. “Not mine. I’m not a Jew anymore. Don’t look so surprised, Duvidul. For a long time, I’d been going through the motions. You look Jewish, you pray three times a day, you eat bagels. But inside…it’s a different story? Rabbi burn-out, maybe? But I figured so long as there was Brith Shalom, I had a responsibility. The congregation needed a rabbi and it was going to get one; burn-out or no burn-out. Besides, it wasn’t as though I could go out and earn a living digging ditches. But when I stood there watching that goy kiss the shul good-bye with his bulldozer, all of a sudden it was a different story. I look up and I can’t even see the sky there’s so much dust in the air. ‘God, I tell him, with all due respect, you’re not the only one who can kiss good-bye.’” Samuels paused to clear his throat. “It was our last conversation. Like I said. I’m not a Jew. Not anymore.”

“You don’t miss it? The ritual, the…”

“What’s to miss? I didn’t tell you before? Duvidul, you’re looking at an honest-to-goodness, true-blue, Foundersheit.”

God’s general had put up a good fight and had handed over his sword to mammon with as much dignity as could be wrung from defeat. In acknowledgement of his service to the cause, it seemed fitting that, for a moment or two, we all remain silent.

Ros, who I suspect had been awaiting some such pause in the conversation, nudged Neuman with her elbow. He glanced at her and then at Anne before clearing his throat and saying as casually as possible, “I’d like to talk to you guys longer but the girls think it’s time to move along.” Upon hearing no objection, the couple sauntered off hand-in-hand. This would not be the last family decision, I surmised, in which the boy would be outvoted.

Once again Samuels and I were alone.

 

“One of SVI’s captains, a bachelor, just left on a voyage. He’s lending them his apartment. Very nice, I understand,” said the ex-rabbi. “View of the park, all the conveniences, shopping…”

“Stop, please. Why is it you’re avoiding the issue?”

“What issue?” asked Samuels.

“You owe me an explanation.”

“About what?”

“Why you’ve been up here for weeks and I haven’t heard a word. No calls. Not even a note.”

“I wanted to, Duvidul, believe me. They said ‘no.’ What could I do? Like before. Gey shray g’vald.”

“Who are they this time?”

“SVI people, you know.”

“You don’t have to do everything they say. Did they make you sign anything?”

“No, but…”

“Never mind. They’ve got you cowed like the rest of us. All right, just tell me this. It’s been bugging me all afternoon. Have you any idea why Hampton and Andersen showed up at the wedding? You can’t tell me Rosanne goes around in their social circle.”

“No more questions, please. . In a few months, at their annual meeting, you’ll find out everything.”

“I can’t even ask about Neuman? What the hell he’s up to? Something’s going on. I’ve been told they’re making a missionary out of him.” Samuels would have made a lousy poker player. The expression on his face confirmed Eddie’s speculations. “You’re in on it too? You plop in out of nowhere and right away you’re on the inside. An honorary member of the Keep-David-Stelzer-in-the-dark-club. Why am I out of the loop?”

“Oy. You’re hurt. I don’t blame you.”

“I’m not hurt. I’m mad.”

“It’s not just you, Duvidul. They’re keeping it secret from everybody.”

“Come on, I’m not everybody. On Earth we could talk about anything.”

“And we will here too. Just not now,” said the rabbi regretfully and then quickly added, “they’re keeping me busy but I’ll call you as soon as I can and we’ll have lunch. Zeyer gut?”

 

Matty had decided to fly home and, by now, Eddie had left as well. So I headed back alone.

The ushers had gathered round to share notes and a few beers. When I passed they were amusing themselves at the expense of the frustrated reporters surging onto the now vacant arbor. Any would-be protestors were, no doubt, just now hearing of the event.

I had to hand it to the couple for their masterminding the affair. Somehow they had enlisted the support of a formidable group of company heavyweights (I later found out from Mulhouse that they comprised the company’s rugby team) made all their wedding arrangements, saw to it that the affair ran smoothly without a rehearsal, and invited guests while keeping the wedding secret until the very last minute—all in the face of social pressures and family resistance. My guess was that Rosanne was the more of the two involved. As I suspected all along, she was anything but the empty-headed blond she chose to portray. But I reluctantly had to acknowledge that Neuman must have played a role as well. While still in the dark as to what they were up to, my hat was off to them.

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