On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Arthur Kaplan-nicknamed Arkey by his brother-in-law and transformed to OurKey
in the BillyBooks series Tales from the Kabbalah
-bounced nervously in a taxi, bumping along on an Israeli jockey's Island City route to the courtroom. Asleep or awake, in long reveries and fleeting images, Arkey Kaplan was given to dreaming, mixtures of memory and longing that transformed and commanded him. Today, a sentient corpse ordered him to pat his jacket pocket to make sure he had his checkbook-in case he needed to pay his childhood friend Beth Jacobs bail for not showing up for trial in Chicago nearly a decade before. Or for setting bombs throughout this great land of ours. Or for God knows what else.Can you actually pay bail with a personal check?
Distracted, Arkey forgot to tell the cab driver to take the bridge. Too late
. The Israeli jockey had thrust them into the line for the Holland Tunnel-that insecure Dutch dike against the river, that clammy, oppressive place, that long, tight ceramic tomb.
Ghouls and coffins were much on Arkey's mind. Perhaps they always had been, but a year and a day ago, Arkey had had his second operation for skin cancer at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. "Happy Birthday," his surgeon had said as Arkey lay nauseous in the recovery room, dreaming of the time he'd opened a mojo hand's rolled scroll and so put a curse on himself. "The margins were very good," the doctor had said. "We got it all." His savior had looked down at his chart then and had added, mildly, "Probably."
Arkey wore his long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top so the sun couldn't tickle his weak-willed skin. He had a white scarf around his neck and a Panama on his head, and he even kept his hands in his pockets. Moisture bloomed under his arms, formed a fragrant acid-and-roses river with the Guerlain cologne he wore to mask his continual sweating. How had Billy Green managed to predict that in his comic books?
And how much longer would this damn tunnel go on for? Any dark enclosed space made Arkey feel already trapped in his grave. How long
, each bump said, how long, how long?
This fucking tunnel ends in Pardes, Arkey dreamt, and the cab would take him to join the person he had most respected, his grandfather Abraham, the shop steward, now one month in his own tomb. The word reminded him of the Tombs, where Beth waited, just as Granddad had predicted, Avraham having found strength to denounce her, among others, before he died, this allrightnick's Eleventh-and scrupulously observed-Commandment being Thou shalt criticize others
. "She was never part of the world she supposedly wanted to save, Arthur. She acted without guidance from any class organization. No discipline. No solidarity."
"They had solidarity, Granddad. With the Third World."
"Baloney!" Abe's once strong voice was now a harsh whisper. "A fantasy," he gasped-magisterially. His finger, skinny but for the swollen knuckles, tapped a temple. "She and her pals really served their own meshuginah psychologies. That's it!"Thank God
, Arkey had thought, I've always remained faithful to long dead socialist organizations
-for avoiding Abe's poking finger had been, since childhood, Arthur Kaplan's Eleventh Commandment. And Abe's approval? That miracle was reserved for the great-the greatly moral, observers of the mitzvahs, heroes of labor. I.e., not Arkey
, who was merely a historian of the movement, not a participant.
His grandfather had coughed, the ratchets of his lungs grinding on each other. A claw reached toward the night table for Kleenex, scattering bottles, letters, flowers, capless ballpoints. Arkey had knelt to pick things up, bobbed up and down by the bedside, trying to arrange things by category, with the long black box of the nurse's call button in front.
"Thank you," Avraham said. "You are a pillar for me, Arkey."
Well, Arkey tidied, Arkey loved, but on the whole Avraham didn't make much distinction between Beth Jacobs, for example, and the rest of Arkey's generation, including the grandson himself. "It was never a revolutionary situation in this country," Avraham had said, that visit. "She was putting on a show for herself and her friends with those bombings. America is a stage set for her psychodrama. The audience stops watching, boychick, she'll get bored and surrender."
Apparently true. Anyway, according to Jesse Kelman, at least Arkey and his friends had nothing to worry about from Beth's trial. The State, he said, didn't know anything more than before about the MIT bombing-or anyway, it couldn't prove anything-so long as Michael Healy didn't talk. And as for what Beth might have done after
that, well, whatever it had been, other parts of the Weather Underground-known as the Eggplant, at least in their own frenetic, whimsical imaginations-had gotten wrist slaps when they'd surfaced: suspended sentences, probation, tiny morsels of county time. Mark Rudd had-in Eggplant patois-inverted
a year before Beth. He'd gotten off with a two-thousand-dollar fine and some probation time. Only Cathy Wilkerson, Jesse said, might get more-her parents had owned the town house, which put her in legal possession of the dynamite. But all the government could hang on Beth Jacobs was being there. Or so Jesse Kelman had said. And, as always, his friends had rested themselves in Jesse's quiet certainties, his You're home now, I'll take care of you
tone. Thus his nom de BillyBooks: The Defender
, with its overtones, rare for Billy's work, of Campbell's Soup and Mom.
Special Agent Olson, still especially piqued with Beth, had managed to delay her bail hearing a week with jive about a vast international terrorist network still crouching in the American night. But even Olson couldn't jerk off to that fantasy for long. Beth's hearing this morning, Jesse said, would be brief and pro forma. She would probably walk out with them this afternoon, bored with setting bombs, ready for a new life; the final bow of the Weathermen-with most of the audience already at their summerhouses.
But when a brusque guard stopped Arkey in the courthouse lobby and passed a metal detector's curved rods over the legs of his seersucker suit and into his sweaty crotch, Arkey knew there'd been a glitch. Jesse had got it wrong. Maybe Beth had been heedless again, suffering from a masochistic desire for a restrictive, punishing authority (her psychoanalyst father's theory) or just from an upper-middle-class certainty that the world would once again conform to her fantasies.
A Hispanic TAC Squad officer holding a rifle with a curved clip stood next to the guard. He glared at Arkey as he walked past him into the courtroom, probably able to tell from Arkey's long nose that he was a friend of the guard's hated enemy, the defendant, the notorious comic book star Beth Jacobs, i.e., Athena X
, or Ninja B
., or (in the Justice series) Deborah
, AKA the Prophet
. The guard muttered something. A curse?
Arkey loosened his scarf as he walked to the front of the court and took a seat next to his friend Jeffrey Schell. The guard, Arkey knew, wanted him to die. He needed wood to knock on, to stop new tumor cells from sprouting. This must be the throne room of Zargon, or of the devil himself! Only concrete everywhere!
Arkey tapped his own head lightly, clearly wood through and through, Avraham often said. Arkey knew superstitions meant religion had failed him; or he'd failed it, Arkey fitfully observant only for the last six months and lacking the hefty Abe-style moral greatness that might provoke God's protection. Besides, old habits die hard; probably after the person, even. Had he been this bad, he wondered, before the melanoma?
"Yeah," Laura had said, last time he dragged this subject up. He'd always been a wood knocker, she said, a crack skipper. A penny swallower. Laura usually wore stylish versions of peasant things, thickly textured, many different-colored threads-but both a little more intricate and more muted, this peasant's patron Saint being Laurent. In fact, Laura, in consultation with her dressmaker, designed her own knockoffs, gathered her fabrics for her kimonos moderne, her très riche Irish milkmaid cloaks, Laura a multiethnic tribe unto herself. That day for an amiable lunch-croque mesdames in the faded Bauhaus of the Brasserie-she'd worn a straight, long tweed skirt, a woven forest-garden.
"Wood knocking," Arkey had said, "that's ordinary kid stuff, you ask me." He'd hoped still that Laura might make love again even if only for old times' sake; pity even. Touching someone pushed death away-for a moment anyway.
"Arkey, darling," Laura said, with a mock shake of her head, "you have to spin around every time someone mentions sausage. You have to tie your hair in knots and rip the knots out at one in the afternoon and one at night. We won't even talk about the dropped-coin thing, or that you can't even listen to 'Take Me to the River' because someone you knew who died once listened to it, all right? None of that is ordinary, dear. You're more like a tribe of your own."
Him, too? "You know, I think it was Billy's sixth-grade school report that traumatized me. I had to come up with magic spells to keep the Nazis away from Great Neck."
Laura had laughed at that explanation. Insufficiently Oedipal, probably. "Well, thanks for your effort. It seems to have worked."
"Yeah. So far
." He took another forkful of fried bread and cheese. Join the Jews for a Larger Tribe and Better Spells? Not that theirs had worked so very well against Germans. Or even Babylonians, for that matter.
Then, just as he was imagining Laura's bow-shaped lips, his dream became reality and Laura Jaffe-AKA SheWolf
, and Dr. Fantasy
in BillyBooks-walked into the crowded courtroom, in a short black skirt-more professional today than haute couture peasant-a short-sleeved, white scalloped shirt and small pearls, and a cane topped with a silver wolf. The lawyers, as if on cue, started to gabble at each other in excited voices. The whole thing, Arkey thought, must have sounded to Laura like a murderous argument at her family's dinner table. After all, Robert Brown, the government's lawyer, was the handsome nephew of her family's maid, and the defense counsel was played today by Jesse Kelman, her first lover-and still, Arkey suspected bitterly, the champeen.
Laura glanced at Arkey-the not-quite-father of the child she hadn't had-and she smiled almost warmly at him (or was it at her best friend, Jeffrey Schell?)-but the seat she decided on was across the aisle from them. A snub
. Arkey couldn't help himself; he tucked his leg under his bottom so he'd look taller.
Laura, as if responding, put her right hand under her long black hair and lifted it over her blouse collar, a gesture that seemed to Arkey, like everything she did since they'd split up two years ago, both enticing and dismissive.
Though what Laura actually felt that morning was anxious-like she'd
suddenly become the one on trial here. She liked being looked at, loved being wanted, but she didn't cotton to being divided, used up, found wanting, and she sat now in a courtroom with Jesse Kelman, a handsome boy who, in girl-times, she'd deeply loved; Arkey Kaplan, a lover in penny loafers who'd always wanted too much from her; and Bobby Brown, a man with whom she'd already, in fantasy, started to make love. So she touched her hair to reassure herself, anxiety being most certainly not good for her under-siege myelin. How important could this case be
-she said to herself to mock her own desire-if the Justice Department has sent a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer to try it?
Still, she couldn't take her eyes off Robert Brown, who, with an expertly controlled lawyer's death-voice that without inordinate volume could push you into the corner of a room and beat your brain black and blue, now said that Laura's dear friend Beth Jacobs had, to the government's certain knowledge, participated in several bombings over the last ten years. The government would show that during the course of these conspiracies the defendant had seriously wounded at least one man. And those were just the felonies the government could be certain about. The government soon would present evidence of other, even more destructive, crimes and conspiracies, some of them just at the point of explosion. The defendant had jumped bail before, he said, and would undoubtedly flee again when she realized how desperate her situation really was, coldly indifferent as always to the effects of her actions on her community and her family. Robert Brown nodded his head toward Beth's parents, and the strength in Brown's muscular body, his numen of banked power and anger, or so Laura dreamt him, gave the downward tilt of his large head an expressive force, as if this strong man was simply overcome with righteous sympathy for these wronged old people, whose dearest wish, he knew, was that their cruel daughter should be denied bail. Laura couldn't help herself, she became a little wet for square-jawed Bobby Brown, could feel his arms pulling her toward his chest. (Too square, too large? What would children of his look like?)
Then Harrison Baker, the other of Beth's lawyers, smiled, showing wolfishly long, Chesterfield-patinaed teeth, and whispered a question in Jesse's ear. Arkey felt confident his friend could pass the Talmud's test for a lawyer's ability to try a capital case: that he could elaborate sixteen reasons why it was all right to eat snake, even though Leviticus expressly forbade it.
Jesse rose in an ill-fitting gray suit and shook his curly black-haired head with sad surprise at Bobby Brown's "unreasonable cruelty." In slow, soft tones that made him sound like a weary father correcting an obtuse, obstinate child, Jesse said that the State's claims were a government fantasy to clear the books at this poor woman's expense, for if the State had evidence of supposed conspiracies why had no other Weathermen ever been charged in them? Beth had surrendered voluntarily, and this huge, nonsensical show of force-metal detectors, pat searches, police riflemen inside the courtroom-was the State's unconscionable attempt at intimidation, its way of substituting innuendo for argument, trying to convince the judge that Beth was a dangerous character, when, in truth, she never had been a violent threat to anyone and her parents' dearest wish was only that she be returned to them and to Great Neck, Long Island, the town where she was born and still had deep roots. Surely the court could give some consideration to how much this family had already suffered?
Was Beth a threat? Laura wondered. Beth had spent two weeks hiding out in Laura's studio apartment, while Jesse negotiated her surrender. She'd been meek, bewildered, and obviously bored. Does a terrorist spend her afternoons watching Family Feud
? Nights, they'd eaten takeout Kung Pao Chicken together, and Beth had never once mentioned the violent overthrow of the government. The only secret communiqués she'd received had been love notes from her boyfriend, Snake, scrawled on torn magazine pages.
Excerpted from Great Neck by Jay Cantor. Copyright © 2003 by Jay Cantor. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.