The Demon Foiled
The new mayor of the city was Jewish, which didn't mean he wouldn't celebrate Kwanzaa. Also Christmas Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sea, which spread solid and squat across two blocks of prime downtown real estate. He would appear at the food kitchen serving the homeless a meal of turkey and cranberries, and sing along with a gospel choir. The camera would find him at a shelter for abused women dressed as Santa Claus some weeks before the actual birth date of the significant baby. He had been elected by a mere hair and was quite sure that many felt he was not up to the task, too inexperienced, too much an outsider, not a man of the people at all. He was aware that the schools were rundown and class sizes too large and the bridges in need of overhaul. For months now he had been worrying about bottom lines, the appearance of favoritism here or there, the failure of those he had appointed to stem the tide of disarray. He knew that the taxi drivers might strike along with the elevator operators and sanitation workers and at least half the libraries might have to close because the funds were not there. He knew that the prisons were so crowded that riots were imminent but the citizens still felt unsafe in their neighborhoods, that the police sometimes behaved like warlords, and that the minorities in his city did not trust the particular minority that had nurtured the mayor himself. All this gave him a headache, the kind that two aspirin hardly touched.
The mayor's wife had prepared for Hanukkah as she always did. The children and the children's children would come for supper. There would be presents for the younger children, and then they would light the candles; this year they would do so for the cameras. His aides had thought it would be helpful to show the mayor to his fellow citizens as a man who respected his tradition, a man of God, a family man. The mayor's wife had purchased a larger, more elaborate silver menorah than they had ever had before. This one had an eight-inch Lion of Judah at the base and grape leaves and pomegranates engraved on the cups that would hold the blue and white candles. The mayor's grown daughter, Ina, had placed red velvet ribbons in her own baby daughter's hair and had insisted her three-year-old son, Noah, wear his jacket. The mayor's son, Jacob, who privately felt that his father was a bit old for the job and should have let a younger man take his place at the top of the ticket, shaved so thoroughly that he cut himself and arrived with his five-year-old twins, Kim and Kelly, at the mayor's house with a bit of bloody tissue pressed to his cheek. He reminded his twins not to say "Merry Christmas" to their grandparents. In silent pluralism lay unity was his policy.
This year the mayor's wife did not make the potato pancakes herself. The cook made them and burned them and made a new batch. The children did not eat them because they did not like them and never had, although each year the mayor's wife offered them. The cook had to make them pasta with butter instead. They also did not like gefilte fish, rugelach, brisket, matzo balls, or apples with honey. So be it. They could always have pasta. The mayor wanted to tell the children how his own mother had grated potatoes and added onions and fried them on her old stove, and the smell clung to his clothes for days. But he had told them all that before. There was nothing new to say. For the cameras he had prepared a speech. He had rehearsed it as he dressed in the morning and added to it during the day in the seconds between appointments. He had thought of the ending in the five minutes before his luncheon guest, the CEO of a major firm who was thinking of moving the company's offices out of town and was angling for some tax concessions (also tickets to the opening game of the baseball season), had arrived. He had polished it while waiting for his internist, who had dismissed his stomach ailments as an occupational hazard and suggested a week in Florida, which could not and would not be fit into the schedule.
The computer games his wife had purchased for the children seemed to be accepted with pleasure, but then one of them was lost in the pile of blue and white and silver paper on the floor. The new owner of the game wept and stamped her feet, and the mayor's son had to fold each piece of paper before it was found. The baby whimpered and howled and would not be comforted. "The room is too hot," said the mother of the infant. The windows were opened. "It's too cold," said one of the twins, who wrapped herself in the mayor's wife's velvet evening coat. The stuffed mouse and the soft elephant were greeted with hugs but then forgotten behind the couch. The daughter and the son made polite conversation, but the mayor saw ice floes forming as they spoke. It had always been that way. Their conversation was strained through the sieve of years, through the small resentments and the larger ones that formed a toxic plume snaking its way across the living room rug. The mayor preferred to ignore these particular hostilities. The mayor of such a city knew all there was to know about jockeying for personal advantage, about the petty adversarial words of one for another, and wished with all his heart that he had not been persuaded to invite the press to his home for the lighting of the candles. But he had.
The time came. The party assembled around the now cleared dining table. The TV cameras moved in to show the glorious menorah. There was a moment of quiet. Then the mayor's wife said the prayer, which was not so short because it was the last night of Hanukkah. The mayor's son helped his daughters take the match to the large candle and light it, and then he lit all the candles, one after another. The TV cameras rolled, and the children's faces in the candlelight glowed, their cheeks were pink. The picture was picture perfect, and the mayor cleared his throat, ready to give his speech, when suddenly the candles that had been lit went out, one by one, just as they had been lit, each leaving behind a little wisp of smoke that curled upward toward the ceiling. It must be a draft; it must be the open window. "Cut, cut," said the mayor's campaign manager, Moe Alter, to the TV cameramen, who did not stop their cameras. The mayor's son picked up the matches and relit the candles. The mayor's wife said the prayer again, not sure if that was the right thing to do or not. The candles burned for a moment and then again, as if the wicks were made of river water, sank into darkness. The mayor's daughter tried, and the mayor's son-in-law, Sergei, tried, and each time the candles flamed up and then died as if a great breath had blown on them. Everyone in the room turned toward the mayor. He would have to explain this. He would have to explain the failure of his menorah to light to all the citizens of the city who would see it on the evening news.
The mayor was mute. His eyes were frightened. He could find no words for this strange, unnatural occurrence. His wife had tears in her eyes. His daughter was sulking her terrible sulk. His son was not entirely dissatisfied. What was this? The mayor searched his mind. Was it a sin of his? Was it sign that God had deserted his people? Was it a sign that he had gone too far in calling the cardinal "Your Excellence" the week before? What had he done that his candles would not light?
Behind the drapery the Spawn of Lilith, the Demon of Political Turmoil, had waited, stamping his little feet and hugging himself in malicious delight. Now, unseen by human eyes, he floated past the mayor, a tip of his scaled hoof brushing across the forehead of the sweating politician. There was noise in the room. The aides were trying to spin the situation: "cold air, bad candles, damaged wicks, sabotage by the other party." Then the mayor raised his arms and spoke. He understood the reverse miracle, which was itself a sort of miracle. "This was a year for darkness, for lights that would not light. This is a promising sign, a menorah in rebellion against taking things for granted. Clearly this is a hint of good things to come, a positive miracle, because," said the mayor, although this was not the speech he had rehearsed at all, "out of darkness creation began, out of the void there came a new beginning, and this darkness will be the beginning of all our people of our city living together not in a grim truce but in mutual respect and true affection one for another. The darkness of this menorah is the beginning of our new light. It is our opportunity to create a better world than the one we live in now. Take a moment, everyone, respect the darkness cast by the nonlighting candles. Out of the void the beautiful world was once formed. These candles are not burning, and in their not burning they leave us in darkness, and this darkness tells us that light will surely return, spring will come, that men are brave and nations can defend themselves against evildoers. We are not afraid of the dark."
The Demon, hearing these words, knew he was defeated. Depressed, deflated, he left the mayor's house disguised as an uneaten potato pancake. Before he departed he hid the computer games in the bag of a cameraman who would not find them until long after Easter.
The mayor shot so high in the polls that there was talk of his running for president. After all, someone has to be the first Jewish president.
The Angel of Death Is Hovering
Ruth Rosenberg woke up with a start. Mel was snoring, but that was not what had broken her sleep. Without waking he rolled over to her side of the bed and pulled his woman to his side, pinning her down among the tangled sheets. The snoring subsided as he tangled his legs around hers. She stroked his back and put her lips on the bald expanse on the top of his head. The dream that woke her was slipping away. Something horrible about invisible spores, visible to the dreamer, heading in V formation like geese on a flight through the window of her daughter's apartment and settling on the bars of the baby's crib. Her heart was still racing.
The night before she had heard Mel talking on the phone to the commissioner of health. "How long would it take for the smallpox vaccine to be flown in from Washington? How many lives would be lost in the first hours of contamination?" Mel was scratching his face. "Goddammit," he said, "I want more information on my desk in the morning. I want to know about cholera and bubonic plague and Ebola and TB and what you're doing to protect us."
"Why did I go to law school instead of medical school?" he yelled at Ruth, who had a few answers for that one, concerning but not exclusively a failed chemistry exam, but held her tongue. After he got off the phone he looked very pale. "I don't know what to do," he said to Ruth. "We can't seal off the city, no buses, no trucks, no strangers, no boats. We can't tell everyone to go to the country for a month or so." In his mind's eye he saw carts carrying the dead, bodies in the elevators of office buildings, the sick calling out for water in the parks. Ruth said, "Maybe it's an empty threat; we've had them before. Perhaps nothing will happen." "When," said Mel, "has nothing ever happened?"
Later while Mel was shaving in the bathroom the phone rang. It was their daughter, Ina, whose voice was low and cloudy. Ruth knew the tone. "What?" she said. "What's wrong? Is the baby sick?" "No," said Ina, "it's just something I tried in the lab. It didn't work out." "Sorry," said Ruth. "It's months of work, wasted," said Ina, who despite her higher degrees could whine as well as any six-year-old in town.
An imp sat on the breakfast table. His smile was broad but not kind. His teeth were badly in need of orthodonture. He smelled of burned rubber, which was not his fault. That's the way imps smell. He knocked over the coffee in the pot, and the liquid spread languidly across the table and down onto the rug below, which Ruth knew was the property of the people of the city and should be respected as such.
"Do you smell burning rubber?" the mayor asked. "Must be the toaster," said his wife as she went to unplug the offending appliance. The mayor remembered his father, in his bathrobe, close to the window, greeting the day with prayers of gratitude. What were those words again? Time and indifference had scrubbed his memory clean, but traces remained buried deep down like long-forgotten arrowheads resting under the cement streets. The mayor couldn't catch the words, but he heard the echo.
In the neurons and synapses of the mayor's mind fear melted like ice cream in July. "Have courage," he said to his wife. "Plagues come and go. We'll outsmart the bugs, just watch." The imp break-danced on the mayor's eardrum. "There's something in my ear," he said as he went out the door. The Angel of Death hovered high above the city, making a gray day grayer still.
Don't Print, Don't Plead
The mayor was sitting at his desk crunching numbers. They were not crunching easily. They escaped his columns, they dripped down the sides of his yellow legal pad, they added up but not the way he wished. The budget bulged in certain places, seemed shrunken in others. If only he had a counterfeiting machine in the basement of city hall. If only money were on the grief standard--x number of dollars equaled x number of woes. He drank his third cup of coffee. The police chief was waiting in the outer office. The lights on the phone blinked one after another. There was a banging on his door. In came Maddie Miller, a velvet skirt, a black angora sweater, wobbling on high heels that made her left ankle turn in toward the right one with each step forward. Maddie Miller, Miller the Killer, his legal staff called her. She was the city hall reporter for the Daily World, the biggest paper, the most serious paper in town. She leaned over his desk, and he closed his eyes so that he wouldn't look where he shouldn't. "Mr. Mayor," she said. "I need your help." What now? he thought. Alarm stiffened his arms, and he pressed them against his sides. "Don't worry. I'm not going to touch you," said Maddie. Mel blushed. There was no need to be afraid of Maddie. At least not physically. "There's a little something I overheard in the elevator that I need checked. I need you to confirm or deny." Maddie looked him in the eye. He blinked. She was not, as everyone knew, a particular woman. She had been seen with men of letters, men on boards of Fortune 500 companies. She closed bars. She attended every charity ball. She chased movie stars and made them lovers until she tired of them. It was not easy for Mel to believe, but several people had told him she wanted him, body and soul. A mayor is surrounded by flatterers, by intrigue, by nitwits, no matter how hard he tries to avoid them. Maddie confused power with sex. What worried Mel was that while he too enjoyed power, relished it, dreaded its absence, sex he preferred with Ruth. Except there was something about Maddie--a burning flame lit her face, an awkward and speedy fling of her arms as she spoke, an invitation just behind every sentence. "I heard," she said, "that we may have a terrorist alert. Is it true? What are you doing about it?"From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Secrets of the City by Anne Roiphe. Copyright © 2004 by Anne Roiphe. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.