Washington Post Best Books of 2005.
Philadelphia Inquirer Top 10 Fiction Pick, Fall 2005
At age 67, Artie Rubin finds his world shaken to its foundation by events he cannot control. His tale his both universal and unique; it is the story of the end of things and their beginnings, of friends and family, of connections lost and of the endurance of love. The Days of Awe is a breathtaking call to living.
"[Nissenson] more than holds his own in the arena of gritty, all-too-present-day realism, brilliantly conveying his characters' anxiety and suffering, their conflicting ideas,emotions and beliefs, and the love for one another that makes them so vulnerable but also lends enduring value to their menaced lives."—Wall Street Journal
"Solid character writing and attention to the details of daily life make the September 11 material well motivated; as characters continue to worry, kibitz, philosophize and complain, one feels that they have a real sense of the stakes."—Publishers Weekly
"A moving, thought-provoking exploration of coming to grips with mortality."—Booklist
"I just finished The Days of Awe. I am too moved to move. (Even this pen.) An amazing novel. It is as if we are eavesdropping on life." —Cynthia Ozick
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the days of awe
By Hugh Nissenson
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Hugh Nissenson
All rights reserved.
Artie Rubin couldn't keep his mind on Odin. His thoughts buzzed around the corpses of the two Arab kids in Nablus. At eleven, he called Johanna at her office. He read her the headline on the front page of the Times that was eating at him: "Israeli Raid Kills 8 at Hamas Office; 2 Are Young Boys; Palestinians Call for Revenge; Violence on Both Sides Shows No Sign of Letup."
Artie said, "The boys were brothers, five and six. One was found on top of the other."
"I saw the article. Their poor parents. Leslie and Chris are having dinner with us tonight. I made a reservation at Shun Lee for 8:30."
"Any bleeding this morning?"
"Yes. I spoke to Dr. Gunning. He's convinced it's just hemorrhoids. I hope he's right. But we'll soon know for sure. I've never had a colonoscopy, so he insisted I schedule one for next Monday at ten. "
"Finally! You'll be woozy from the anesthetic. I'll pick you up."
Leslie said to Johanna, "Send Daddy my love."
Johanna said good-bye to Artie. Leslie clicked on their five bellwether stocks: Citigroup 50.34, Intel 30.30, Cisco 65.79, Microsoft 66.71, Johnson & Johnson 54.25. No significant change this week; no significant change since late spring.
Leslie said, "Chris and I are going shopping after lunch. He needs a summer jacket. I'm thinking dark brown. To go with his tan pants."
Artie drank a Bass ale. It went right to his head. He squeezed out five sentences: "The god Odin appears among us as a warrior in his mid-fifties with one blue eye; his reddish-brown beard is turning gray. Instead of a helmet, he wears a blue broad-brimmed hat and carries a magic spear called Gungnir. Men hanged from trees are sacrificed to him."
Don't start with Odin. Begin at the beginning.
Artie wrote, "In the beginning was fire and ice."
He sketched Odin in pencil. The bearded, one-eyed god stood in the open doorway of a broken-down log hut with a spear in his right hand. He wore a Yankees cap. The cap and the beard made Odin look like a one-eyed Jew.
Artie tore up the sketch.
Aug. 1, 2001. Wed. Noon. This morning began Norse Myths Retold & Illustrated—my 20th book on mythology in 41 yrs. My main source is 13th century Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, trans. by Jean Young, Univ. of Cal. Press 1996. Will illustrate in style of Viking carvings; source, Viking Art by Charles Sullivan, Harry Abrams, 1995.
I often wondered why I put off tackling the Norse gods. Now, at 67, I know. The Norse gods die. Much thoughts of death these days.
Though we don't mention it, the blood in Johanna's stool over the last three weeks reminds us of Johnny Havistraw, my former editor at Harper's, who died of colon cancer in July.
At a quarter to three, Artie walked Muggs, the Rubins' four-year-old English sheepdog, up West End. He kept on the shady west side of the street. A sparrow chirped among the leaves of the big plane tree planted near the curb at the far corner of 80th Street; it chirped louder than the traffic. Artie couldn't spot it among the leaves.
Muggs, who had never learned to heel, tried crossing 81st Street against the light. Artie yanked him to a halt.
Artie and Johanna were crazy about sheepdogs. Muggs was their fourth in thirty-one years. Johanna gave him to Artie for his sixty-third birthday. He said to the four-month-old pup, "We'll grow old together."
Over spare ribs at Shun Lee, Leslie said, "I'm three months pregnant."
Artie would cherish the moment made of his daughter's words, the big dish of ribs, and a Chinese waiter serving a crispy Peking duck to the couple at the table to his left.
He and Johanna said, "Congratulations!" and Leslie and Chris each answered, "Thank you."
Artie said, "This calls for another drink. Waiter!" Johanna gave him a look. "Never mind, waiter."
Johanna said, "Oh, darling, we're so happy. Your guest room is perfect for a nursery. Take a long maternity leave. Not to worry about the office. I'll manage things."
My God, I'm going to be a grandfather. I want a grandson. Wait a sec! What's all the excitement? I'll be almost eighty when he's ten.
Leslie: "Chris and I went for an ultrasound this afternoon. Look at these pictures. The baby's about four inches long. Its heart is beating. This graph shows the movement. The baby's face is developing. Here it is in profile. See the nose? The smudge near the mouth is a hand. The mouth's open."
Artie reached for more sweet sauce. "When will we know the sex?"
"I have an appointment for another ultrasound the second week in September. We might know then. It depends on what position the baby's in—whether we can see between the legs."
"It's a girl," said Johanna. "Mark my words."
The waiter served steaming cloths on a plate. Artie wiped his greasy hands, lost in the loud conversation at the table on his left between a guy about thirty and a pretty redhead: "Don't you dare call me cheap."
"I take it back."
"You're sore we have to split the check."
"Forget it. Let's eat."
"I won't forget it."
"You're upset about the market."
Tonight was Johanna's turn to walk Muggs. Not a breath of air. Muggs panted. Johanna walked him around the block under the yellow street lamps. He crapped on the corner of Riverside and 81st Street. Johanna thought, I've got blood in my stool like Johnny Havistraw. She picked up Muggs's shit with a plastic bag from Zabar's and dumped the load in the steel mesh garbage can on the corner. She was reminded of tossing Leslie's smelly Pampers down the incinerator. My baby's carrying a baby. Let them live and be well. She said aloud, "That's a wish, not a prayer."
She'd quit Hebrew school in New Rochelle when she was going on thirteen. All of a sudden, it hit her then that nobody was listening to her prayers and thoughts. There's no God. What a relief. He couldn't read her mind about blond Tommy Rand who sat next to her in math.
A motorcycle backfire spooked Muggs on West End; Johanna held him short. I haven't thought about Tommy Rand in fifty years. There's no God. Artie feels the same. He goes to shul only because it connects him to his dad. Dead and gone twenty-three years. That pious old Jew still has his hooks in Artie. More than ever since he turned sixty-five. He's feeling his age.
Artie had high blood pressure. Before going to bed, he took his daily dose of 5 mg. Norvasc, 4 mg. Cardura, and 10 mg. Altace that kept his pressure normal: 120/80. The drugs made him impotent.
Artie and Johanna lay under a sheet and a light cotton blanket in the chilled air.
Johanna said, "A grandchild! I'm so happy."
"Me too. I hope it's a boy."
"I couldn't care less—so long as it's healthy."
The air conditioner whirred behind her voice.
Artie said, "If it is a boy, I'm gonna ask Leslie and Chris to have a bris."
"I wonder if Chris is circumcised."
Artie would have been happier if Leslie had married a Jew. At least Chris had money. He worked for his father, who owned and managed fifteen garden apartment complexes in southern Westchester.
Muggs sighed; he was asleep on the faded blue carpet at the foot of the bed.
Artie said, "Sweetheart, let's celebrate."
Artie went into the bathroom and popped 50 mg. of Viagra. It would take twenty minutes or so to work. He unbuttoned his pajama top and looked down at his big pot belly covered with grey hair and mottled by three big brown moles. He looked in the mirror at his sagging hairy tits. I'm part woman. He examined the reflection of his high, bald forehead, bulbous nose, and wrinkled, wattled neck. Two parallel wattles hid his Adam's apple. Long hairs grew out of his ears. I look more and more like Dad.
Artie slipped back into bed in his pajama tops. Johanna was wearing one of his T-shirts; it reached her thighs. She dozed off. Artie shut his eyes. Think sexy thoughts! He played with his limp cock while searching his memory for images of Johanna when she was young. He came up with her naked at twenty-two sitting on a camp bed in a sublet on East 92nd Street. She was putting up her long auburn hair. She spread open a hairpin with her top front teeth.
Johanna asked Leslie, "Is Chris circumcised?"
"How do I know?"
"You don't know if your husband's circumcised?"
Artie said, "I'm second-rate. I'm getting old."
Johanna sucked Artie's limp cock. It got hard. He went into the john and washed it in the sink. Johanna, who was naked, joined him.
She said, "Hold still," and squeezed a blackhead from his right temple.
"There's one more," she said. "Don't move."
Artie diddled her pussy with his left hand. She said, "Ah!" and left off squeezing.
Johanna washed her pussy in the bathtub. Their fucking never varied. Year after year they caressed each other in the same way to the same end: coming together.
Back in bed, she lay perpendicular to him, to his right, with her head on his stomach.
They closed their eyes. Artie gently massaged Johanna's clit; it swelled under the middle finger of his right hand. She tickled his balls. They went down on each other. Johanna pressed Artie's head between her thighs. She sucked, he licked. She pressed tighter. His tongue got tired. The muscles around her lips ached a little. They kept themselves on the verge of coming.
Johanna said, "Let's fuck."
Artie pumped away till they came together. They momentarily forgot who they were; each saw a flash of light. Then, back to being Artie, he said, as usual, "That was good for you. How was it for me?" And, as usual, Johanna smiled at his nonsense. Muggs, aroused by their juicy smells, tried climbing onto the bed. Johanna pushed him off.
Artie knew her inside out: her love of Auden, Willa Cather, and the last movement—the rondo—of the Waldstein, how she moaned in her sleep, plucked hairs from her chin, strove to be a supermom. He admired her talent for making money—her honesty that inspired confidence in her clients. He knew that a sound track of melodies always played in her head. He knew the smell of her skin, her sneezing fits in the morning, how tough it had been for her to grow up with a depressive mother in New Rochelle. He knew that Johanna brushed and flossed her teeth after eating—even at work—three times a day. And how she detested the sweet smell of lilies.
The next morning at ten, Artie gave creating the universe another shot. "Burning Muspell is in the south. Surt squats among the fires, hefting the red-hot hilt of his flaming sword from hand to hand. His hair and beard are ablaze. He exhales sparks, smoke, and glowing embers. Surt waits for Ragnarok, the final battle between good and evil, when he will vanquish all the gods and set fire to the world with his sword."
Artie wrote about Niflheim, in the north, packed with ice and snow, heavy with hoar frost, and the abyss Ginninsgap that yawns between the fire and the ice. "The fire from the south melted the ice from the north. It thawed and dripped. The slush congealed into Ymir, the vicious frost ogre. While he slept, the sweat running from his hairy left armpit became two more frost ogres, a male and a female. His right leg fathered another male frost ogre on his left."
Artie got hooked on myths when his mom gave him an English illustrated edition of Bulfinch's Mythology for his Bar Mitzvah. She said, "It's an antidote to Torah."
His mom, Lea Blaustein, was born and raised in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Her dad, Hymie, was a presser, active in the ILGWU; he knew David Dubinsky and exchanged letters in Yiddish with Victor Alter, one of the leaders of the Polish Bund. Hymie and his wife Rachel taught their daughter that religion was the opiate of the masses. When Lea was fourteen, her mom died of a stroke. Hymie wouldn't say kaddish at the funeral. He told the rabbi, "I will not praise God!"
Lea graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and wanted to study law. But to her surprise, she fell in love with Sam Rubin, a dress salesman on Seventh Avenue. She was surprised because he was religious. Every morning, Sam put on tefillin—phylacteries—and prayed. He had come to the States from Warsaw with his Orthodox parents when he was seven. He and Lea discussed marriage. Sam wanted her to keep a kosher home. She refused. They compromised by not eating pork or shellfish.
They got married in 1932 and rented a three-room apartment over Ebinger's bakery on King's Highway in Flatbush. The three-room apartment smelled of freshly baked bread. Sam just managed the twenty-dollar monthly rent. Artie was born December 2, 1933. Sam borrowed fifty-five dollars from his boss to settle the hospital bill.
At Artie's bris, Sam prayed, Master of the Universe, make my son a good Jew. Worthy of Your chosen people Israel.
Sam joined an Orthodox shul on Ocean Avenue. Artie remembered going there with him on Rosh Hashana a year or so after Pearl Harbor. They walked hand in hand on King's Highway to Ocean Avenue. Artie still pictured the brass plaque screwed into the back of the pew in front of him, his black velvet yarmulke, the bearded cantor. He often thought of Dad wrapping himself in his tallis and artfully tossing the fringed ends over his shoulders. On the first night of Rosh Hashana, between waking and sleeping, Artie saw God. He was a mop in the corner of a closet. Next day, without telling Mom why, Artie sketched her mop in pencil; she said, "Very good. I can see every tangle."
Artie sensed that Mom loved him more than she loved Dad. To ease his guilt, he kissed Dad on the lips every evening when he came home from work. Artie took Hebrew lessons for six months from the melamed at Dad's shul. Then the melamed was hospitalized with bladder cancer, and Artie dropped his studies.
Mom said, "Good going!"
In the spring of '42, Sam went into business with a refugee pattern maker named Herman Levin. Herman was married to a German shiksa with whom he had fled Hamburg in 1938. He was a talented pattern maker; his clothes were a perfect fit. Herman and Sam manufactured inexpensive dresses in a loft on Seventh Avenue and 35th Street. Sam sold the dresses in the showroom up front to goyishe buyers from Filene's, Marshall Field's, the Federated Stores.
He told Artie, "Deal honorably with goyim. Your behavior towards them reflects on all Jews."
Fortunes were made in the dress business during the war, but piece goods were scarce, except on the black market. Over Herman's objections, Sam refused to pay money under the table to the big textile houses for black-market goods.
He said to Artie, "Son, I could be a millionaire if I chose. I don't choose. It means breaking the law. I won't break American law. This is God's country."
Sam believed that God rewarded him with good business for resisting the temptation to line his pockets illegally. He pulled down thirty-five thousand dollars a year. In 1945, he moved Lea and Artie to a four-room apartment on the second floor of a gray stone building on 92nd Street, off Central Park West, in Manhattan.
Sam still put on tefillin and prayed every morning. Then he read a page or two from The Ethics of the Fathers, but for Artie's sake, he joined a fancy Reform synagogue called Temple Rodeph Sholom on 83rd Street between Central Park West and Columbus, where the service was mostly in English and there was a concealed choir singing from a loft. Lea didn't kick up a fuss because she felt guilty for loving Artie more than she loved Sam. Sam and Artie went to Rodeph Sholom on Friday evenings and the High Holidays. Yarmulkas were out; only silver-haired Rabbi Friedman wore one.
One time, Artie said to Johanna, "'Silver hair and a silver tongue'—that's how Dad described Friedman. He spoke in a deep, theatrical voice, rolling his r's, like an old-fashioned actor. Soon after the war ended, his sermons introduced me to sealed trains, gas chambers, and crematoriums. He taught me the word 'Auschwitz.' He said Jewish corpses were boiled down into soap in a factory near Berlin. It was discovered by Russian soldiers. Friedman gave details I never forgot. The corpses, hung on hooks, were boiled in vats. Friedman said we Jews are alone in the world. Every hand is against us. Trust only ourselves and God. If we lose faith in God, then Hitler has triumphed over us.
Excerpted from the days of awe by Hugh Nissenson. Copyright © 2005 Hugh Nissenson. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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