by Kass


Written as a pinch-hit story for Carolyn as part of Yuletide 2007.


A river was, it turned out, essential. If Josef were to feel comfortable in a city (he neither expected nor wished for any of them to constitute "home," those cities he passed through in the years after he left the Ice, though still he preferred a place where he could be at least reasonably at-ease) it needed to have a river.

This winter he was in Cleveland, which suited him reasonably well. In comparison with Antarctica the winter days felt deliciously long, and he still had not tired of watching the sun set and rise, a smudge of red against the low grey sky. What a luxury, to see the sun come and go daily.

He rented a room from a Mrs. Ehrenberg at a boardinghouse on the edge of the Flats. He gave his name as Ernst Hofzinser, unable to conceal the momentary wistful smile the memory evoked. He refused to allow himself to wonder whether the Hofzinser Club still stood, and if it did, who might frequent it now.

By the end of his first week in town he secured a temporary job at Harris-Sebold-Potter doing offeset lithography. He liked the rattle and clack of the great press, the way it shook the room, the smell of inks and chemicals.

Mrs. Ehrenberg clucked her tongue over his hands, which were stained from ink and nicotine, but each week she restored his laundry to him clean and folded and fresh. Her cooking was uninspired but substantial; evidently she felt he needed fattening.

At dusk, he walked along the Cuyahoga. Once he saw a man being dragged along the river's edge at breakneck pace by a malamute whose bright eyes and toothy smile were a parody of canine glee, and memories of Oyster threatened to overflow the banks of his heart.

The bridges here were young and utilitarian; no cobblestones here, no ancient pillars encrusted with moss. He told himself that he did not miss the soot-blackened statues along the Charles Bridge, nor the vivid red peaked roofs of the Mala Strana like stepping stones up to Hradcany. Still, he could lose himself in watching the river's cold waters fight to break through the ice that wanted to hold them back.

Christmas Goose Dinner: $1.50 He had ignored the sign for days. A dollar and a half was extravagance. True, Mr. Seybold had granted everyone, even the Jews, half the day off; Josef was planning to spend it at home listening to the radio. But he couldn't countenance the expense of taking himself out to dinner.

Yet as he walked past the Harbor Inn on his way to work each day, the sign caught in his imagination like a hook in thread. He had never eaten there; it was beyond his means. He still sequestered most of his money, by force of habit, though to what end he no longer knew.

In the end it took a jocular inquiry from Alexander, his shift supervisor, to spur him into motion. "You got plans for Christmas, Ernst?"

He knew instantly that an invitation was forthcoming, and the thought filled him with a quiet dread. Making polite conversation for the duration of a Christmas meal was impossible; Ernst Hofzinser had no history, no humorous anecdotes to share, and as he remembered from his days on stage, patter had never been Josef's strong suit.

"Ah...yes," he said, after a brief pause. "I do. Dinner out."

Having escaped the invitation, he felt honor-bound to make his lie true. That evening, on his way home, he entered and asked the hostess to reserve him a single seat for Christmas Day.

The Harbor Inn was warm and noisy, and as he opened the door on Christmas Josef was bathed in the smell of crackled goose fat and cinnamon. As a result, his mouth was watering from the moment he first sat down. Americans were not partial to goose, and Mrs. Ehrenberg never served it; he had not tasted it in years. He had chosen his least threadbare white shirt for the occasion, and a jacket with only a tiny tear, which he had carefully mended.

The meal began with hearts of lettuce, kissed with Thousand Island dressing, which made him think for an instant of Sammy. It seemed like the sort of thing he would have liked -- that air of foreign elegance -- though Josef could not remember, in that moment, whether he had ever seen Sammy eat a salad. He pushed the thought away with the ease of long practice. Kornblum had schooled him well in the art of stilling his mind.

The goose was accompanied by mashed potatoes and "seasonal vegetables," which appealed to him not at all. "Excuse me," he said to his waitress, who beamed at him sunnily. "Have you cabbage on your menu?"

She looked mildly perplexed. "There's the red cabbage we serve with the pork loin," she said, hesitant, "but I don't know if we have any of that today."

"If you do," he said, "I would much appreciate to trade these," gesturing toward his saucer of carrots and broccoli, "for the cabbage. It is traditional to eat with goose, where I come from."

"Sure thing," she said, "Lemme check on that for you."

While she was away, he folded a scrap of paper into an iris, and presented it to her when she returned with his zely. Her girlish laugh made him smile. She was young, perhaps seventeen. Rosa had never looked that young, and for that he was obscurely grateful.

The zely was neither as sweet nor as vinegared as what he remembered, but it matched well with the goose. After eating, he savored a slow cigarette, and then chose a dessert off of the cart she wheeled past his table. "That one," he said, pointing to the bread pudding, though he refused the hard sauce with which it was customarily drenched. Made from ends of rich white bread, soaked and shaped and baked again, the bread pudding reminded him of the knedliky his father had made.

A man dining alone on Christmas was, if not expected to weep quietly into his handkerchief, at least forgiven for doing so. Everyone in the restaurant graciously looked the other way.


In Cuba Josef had felt no urge to draw at all. In his years of working with Sammy, he had grown accustomed to the back-and-forth of creative collaboration, and in the vacuum of their distance illustration seemed ridiculous. He had suspected that something in him had been irreparably broken: when he received the news of Thomas' death, perhaps, or during his isolation in Augustaburg at the edge of the Weddell Sea. It had seemed likely to him that he would not draw again.

But as he crossed North America, an itinerant schooled in the rootless art of moving on, something in his consciousness began -- much as he feared to admit it even to himself -- to thaw.

He knew this was so because he began again to dream. To his relief, he did not dream of the people to whom his heart had bound him: his parents, his brother, Sammy, Rosa, his son Tommy (such an American name!) whom he might never meet. He dreamed, that first year, only of carved stone and cobbled streets. When he woke, he pushed his dreams aside like food picked-at but not savored. He knew how little dreams meant, in the end.

The cold did not trouble him (how could it, after Kelvinator?) but the damp irritated his lungs. Not long after the new year, Josef took the bus south. He spent a few days at a VA hospital in Temple, Texas, and then continued on to San Antonio, which charmed him. There was something in the local attitude of southern gentility which reminded him of Europe, although this was manifestly an American city, brash and sprawling with new construction.

He rented a room from a Jewish family named Blum. The man was German and the woman Polish; they kept chickens in the back yard, beneath the spreading elm and magnolia trees. Yiddish was her most comfortable language, and she was clearly disappointed that it was was not his forté; between her Yiddish and his German they could be cordial but not intimate. She had emigrated to the United States via Mexico. Josef regretted that he could not converse with her in Spanish.

Here he gave the name Alois Hora -- the giant in whose stolen clothes he and Kornblum had dressed the golem, a lifetime ago. He liked to imagine that he was keeping the dead alive, peppering the memories of these Americans with pseudonyms which pointed toward real people long gone.

Naturally there were also names he would never use, although they were always the first ones behind his lips. Emil. Thomas. Sam.

The Blum family kept kosher, which was curious to him. In deference to their dietary custom, he never told them that each day when he took lunch at the pharmacy on the corner, he chose the pork chop taco, a savory pork chop rubbed with Mexican spices and served on a corn tortilla, bone and all.

Living was cheaper here than it had been in Cleveland. When a few inquiries failed to secure him temporary work, he resigned himself to spending an interval jobless. His needs were few.

And there were other compensations to this temporary home. The three Blum daughters, for instance, all under the age of twelve. Josef did card tricks for them occasionally after supper, though once it became clear that the girls were growing attached to him he relinquished the custom, somewhat sadly. He wouldn't be there long, and it would be easier for them when he left if they had already let him go.

In European fashion, weather permitting, he took a nightly postprandial stroll. Once he had grown tired of the Blums' neighborhood, he struck out further afield. He walked sometimes along the San Antonio River, politely ignoring the occasional rowdy drunk. He had been warned of pickpockets, and saw several plying their trade, but they steered clear. In his more fanciful moments he imagined that his lock-picking prowess was somehow palpable to them, marking him as a petty criminal too. On more prosaic days, he suspected he simply looked too poor to be worth their while.

Often he encountered packs of servicemen with girls on their arms. Fort Sam Houston was filled with baby-faced Army boys, half of whom seemed to be walking along the river at any given night.

The men nodded to him in greeting as they passed. They seemed to recognize him as one of their own, although his tour of duty had been, he thought wryly, so unlike theirs as to be unrecognizable. Still, he tipped his hat as they walked by.

By March, the heat was beginning to rise, and his contentment in this adoptive city had begun to wane. He left before Pesach, departing on an eastbound bus. The bluebonnets were just beginning to fill the fields, and he felt an unexpected pang when they traveled far enough east that the flowers were gone.


During the day he rode a Greyhound Scenicruiser through the American southeast, surely the only European -- the only Jew -- for miles. He learned to enjoy grits seasoned with cheese alongside his daily fried egg.

But in his sleep he inhabited another world. In dreams Josef walked down Karlova Ulice. He strolled through Staremestska Namesti toward Josefov, and peered through curtained windows at homes and shops he would have sworn he didn't remember at all. He stood inside the Staronova, the oldest synagogue on the European continent, inexplicably moved by the painted lines from Psalms adorning the walls and the low plastered ceiling above which the golem had once slept.

The bus stopped at railroad crossings, and he watched the cars of the Texas & New Orleans Railroad heading east. The train was a speedier way to travel, and arguably both more civilized and more comfortable, but he couldn't bring himself to buy a ticket. He told himself this decision had nothing to do with the one-way train journey so many of his compatriots had been obligated to take. The bus was cheaper than the train, that was all, and Josef had more time than money.

New Orleans in spring was muggy, the air damp and stifling. But the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter were comfortable beneath his feet, and Josef had no difficulty finding a cheap room to rent. LeFavre's boardinghouse was full of single men, most of whom were high or drunk or mourning losses too esoteric and personal to explain.

Here Josef used the name Max Loeb. A peculiar compunction prevented him from using as a pseudonym the name of anyone who yet lived, as though he might confuse fate into granting (or denying) him an experience which was not rightly his own. But Loeb had been an old man when he worked as a waiter at the Hofzinser club, and was surely dead by now.

For a time Josef worked nights washing dishes. Everyone else in the kitchen was Negro. The music of their speech was different from what he had heard even a few days' travel to the west, and after the first two nights they seemed content to shout back and forth to each other over the rattle and crash of dishes in the enormous stainless steel sinks, allowing Josef the privacy of his memories.

When his shift ended, he would sit on the steps and smoke a cigarette, then walk down to a smoky bar between Basin Street and the river where an ever-shifting cast of musicians played Dixieland jazz until dawn. The music had a tragicomic air; it wove together suffering and rejoicing in a way that suited Josef's peculiar form of contented melancholia. Once he was out so late he saw the sun rise over the Mississippi, marveling at the steam that rose from the river in the chilly night air.

After some weeks he was able to use his references from Harris-Seybold-Potter to secure a position in the print room of the Times-Picayune, refilling ink and coaxing the finicky rollers and mechanisms of the press to clack smoothly. There was a familiar comfort in coming home reeking of ink again.

It didn't take long for Josef to acquire the habit of starting each day with a bowl of coffee large enough to swim in, accompanied by light pillows of sugar-dusted dough. Chicory coffee had a satisfyingly bitter bite, and if he found himself from time to time remembering U zlateho hada (where the air had been redolent with freshly-roasted coffee beans; where his mother had once lingered, buying small cups of cocoa for him and for Thomas to satisfy them while she slowly savored her own treat) he found that he curiously did not mind.

It seemed only natural that Prague would enter his waking hours, since Josef spent most of his nights in zlata Praha (and what did it mean, he wondered, that he was in exile from his own "Golden City," a kind of echo of the exile from Yerushalayim shel zahav, "Jerusalem of Gold?") His dreams were fevered and rich. He woke with names reverberating in his mind like the sound of distant church bells: Rava and Rav Zeira. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal, who had created a being out of clay.

The first superhero he had drawn for Sammy had been the golem. A tall stocky golem in a cloak with Hebrew letters on his forehead -- aleph mem tav, "truth," the name of God which along with inconceivably arcane meditations and prayers had granted the golem life. And Sheldon Anapol had laughed.

Josef had been in America only a few weeks, and already that laugh had stung. The heroes of his imagination held no currency here. He would need to find a way to speak in an American voice.

But this was ancient history. As Sammy would say, "water under the bridge." (To this day, that phrase made him uncomfortable; it reminded him of his near-drowning in the Moldau, the sinking certainty that he would never be free.) In Anapol's ridiculous office, his lonely bed poorly-concealed by a blanket draped over a clothesline, Josef had exiled the golem from his mind, and it had not lurched into his consciousness since.

They had shared a coffin once, though, and perhaps that was the sort of connection which was impossible to break. He dimly remembered that the Biblical Josef, his namesake, had pleaded with his brothers and his grandchildren to raise his bones someday out of Egypt. The golem's substance was long gone, but the skeleton of his story remained. Perhaps it was Josef's obligation now to bring that story -- the cobblestones of Prague, the defeat of a terrible enemy, the Jewish people's unexpected survival -- back to life.

This was, he decided, the reason for his dreams, which restored him each night to the city which could never again be his own. Though his first attempt to leave had failed, it had pulled a scrim between Josef and his home which had solidified over the intervening decades into an impermeable wall. Even if by some miracle he were able someday to set foot again on Nicholasgasse, the city for which he yearned no longer remained. It had been destroyed, banished to history books.

Josef was an unobservant Jew, born into an assimilated family which ate carp and goose each Christmas Eve and which, most years, eschewed synagogue even on Kol Nidre. But on some inchoate and wordless level he understood that his existence was defined by exile, and that the story he carried was at once the weight pressing him into the silt and the key that might unlock his heart.

Josef walked past the art supply store on Royal Street at least two dozen times before he finally entered. They stocked Bristol board and tracing paper, pencils and conte crayon, and he fingered them eagerly, already imagining the spiky elaborate towers and narrow alleyways which would spring from his pencil and the bearded rabbis and Bohemian brides with whom he would populated those imagined locales.

He filled a basket with materials and carried them to the front of the store, presenting them with a flourish to the young man who was working behind the cash register.

"What's your name, Mister?" the kid asked.

"Marco Polo," he said, and prepared to gather up his bags.

"Naw, what's your name really," the boy insisted. "I gotta write it in the ledger here."

Josef considered. "Ehrich Weisz," he said, finally. Houdini's birth name, though he presumed he could trust this boy not to recognize it. "Thank you for your assistance," he said, smiling, and the kid grinned back at him, apparently satisfied.

The little bell attached to the hinge rang as Josef stepped out onto the street. He paused to light a cigarette, inhaling deeply, and then set off with his parcel under his arm, walking down an alley between two ornate old buildings which seemed to him in that moment like the panels of a page, as though he had finally succeeding in stepping outside the frame.

The End