By Raphael Magarik
This is not my story—it happened to Ezra, my older brother. I heard it on a roof in that formerly Jewish part of Manhattan, the Lower East Side. I still buy pickles on the edges of Chinatown, in stores that unnaturally cling to the earth, like bunkers. They sell barrels of sweet, sour, semi-sweet, and spicy pickles; eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and cabbages; sardines, herring, whitefish, and salmon roe; in short, allowing for the idiosyncrasies of Jewish dietary law, any organic matter imaginable by a perverse communal mind, which has itself fermented for millennia in nostalgia and bitterness. But those places are the exception. The area was ours; now it’s not. The story was my brother’s.
Below, cardboard boxes filled the apartment. Dishes, clothes, a bad Parisian painting, a silk tapestry from Shanghai, junky pottery excavated in Jerusalem. My brother was moving.
It was three a.m. The roof was emptying, and crushed plastic cups were accumulating near the alcohol. New York, in the summer, never fully darkens. We do not, of course, have white nights. Still, as I sat in my pants, slimy with sweat, shirt stuck to my back, I waited for the streetlights to be extinguished and for darkness and cold to pass over me like the angel of death. It did not happen. My legs felt heavy, my belly distended with beer. The sky resembled curdled milk. Soon the sun would rise again.
“This heat is awful,” I said to Ezra.
“Oh, I love it. I feel so at home. So comfortable. Only in the summer it’s like this—in New York, in the summer. Like a warm cradle, a gentle hand rocking it.”
“A pretty sweaty hand.”
“Once you’ve been cold, it’s different.”
“I’ve been cold.”
“Really cold?” At the other edge of the roof, Ezra’s roommate sat with his girlfriend, their legs dangling over the concrete edge. A foot of the space between them revealed a slice of the horizon, maybe hundreds of feet when you account for perspective. The next day, the roommate would leave for Tibet, Ezra for Seattle. I don’t know about the girlfriend.
“It gets pretty cold up at school,” I said. Ezra placed his left hand gently on my right knee, patting it twice.
“I mean really cold.” For some time neither of us spoke. Then he started this story.
He had been studying in Oslo for a semester. He decided to visit Riga, where our paternal grandfather’s family sold lumber for a century. To fly from Stockholm to Riga cost little—this was before terrorism and the hundred-dollar security tax. A golden age of flight. In January, several feet of snow froze on the ground in Riga. The bureaucrat responsible for clearing the streets and sidewalks siphoned most of his budget into a summer estate on the Baltic. “You could walk on the surface,” my brother told me, “and no footprints. Frozen solid.”
“So it was cold there. I got it.”
“At night, negative forty.”
“Fahrenheit or Celsius?”
My brother paused to think. “I don’t know. It was really fucking cold. But that’s not the point—there’s a story. Let me tell the story.” I waited. He continued.
He wanted to track down the Magarik family, find where they had lived in the years before the Revolution. There was little else to do in Riga. Bombs destroyed much of the city during World War II—“and the Soviets didn’t rebuild.” London is completed by post-war ugliness; in Riga, healthy houses stand next to charred wreckage. In the summers, Ezra was told, snowmelt rots the old wood of condemned buildings. The fungus emits a foul odor, and the city stinks.
My brother had no address. He knew nobody in Riga. He had no idea whether we had living relatives in the old country. He was traveling blind.
“You really planned this one out, huh?”
My brother did not immediately reply. A guest staggered over to say goodbye. He embraced my brother. They talked about the party Ezra threw when he moved into this apartment. The friend had puked on a stack of Ezra’s shirts. “I had them tailored in Cambodia—less than fifty dollars apiece,” Ezra reminded us. I had been introduced to this friend several times, but I did not know his name. I shook his hand warmly. He left.
“So you had nothing. No plan, nothing.”
“Well—I don’t know. I was lonely. Homesick. I mean in Oslo. Also a cold city. All the heat, they turn it into electricity—geothermal, it’s called. Middle of the winter, they’re serving fish—cold, pale fish. I’d never been in a place so cold. I was lonely.
“All of a sudden, I wanted family. Jews, you know? People, kin. I wanted a musty house in Queens, the faded wedding pictures, bad food. And all the words and thoughts I had of it were like that—vague and indistinct. I called the parents. God. It was four in the morning in the States. They didn’t pick up at first, and when they did they were—groggy. They thought I’d been hit by a car or something. When they realized I was physically okay, they hung up. It was cheaper to fly to Riga. See dead family. The idea grew on me. Literally, like it’s a parasite, growing on me. It’s not healthy when ideas grow like that. Cancerous.” Ezra’s eyes flickered opened and closed, like a dreamer’s. “Cancerous” was one of our father’s words, used to describe politicians, synagogue presidents, museums of modern art, and tollbooths. Hearing the word, I remembered my father before the bathroom mirror, untying and retying his tie, shaking his head and grimacing. Before holidays and funerals, my mother would begin, days in advance, to complain about his hogging of the bathroom, but he was implacably devoted to the full Windsor. I wanted to ask Ezra which family he had missed.
“In my economics lecture, there’s a girl who sits to my right, a couple rows down. Also American, I think. Looks a little like that great aunt we have in California. Only what she was, when she was twenty. I start to wonder—is this a cousin? Is she a long-lost cousin? I don’t know. How can I know—how can anybody know who doesn’t know his roots? And there aren’t too many of us Jews—who knows, maybe you marry your cousin. So many generations of good Ashkenazi breeding, Talmudic genes, the whole package—I could ruin it all, make a bunch of slobbering, incestuous hemophiliacs. Like in Leviticus.
“I know, I know, it’s crazy. But, she had great tits, and it got so bad. Even looking at the side of her sweater, even seeing the smallest suggestion of the breast, the hint of flesh—like boiling water in the eyes. Like Oedipus. How do I know she’s not my sister, long-lost? Crazy, I know. But that’s what you get, not knowing your family.” He paused to drink.
“She was cute?”
“No. Nobody in our family’s gorgeous. Great aunt Resl was never gorgeous. Call me old fashioned, but Jews aren’t gorgeous.”
“Oh, you can’t tell with old women—you have to imagine. Anyway, she was different. Same features, plays out differently. You see it in sisters all the time.” I tried to imagine the folds in Aunt Resl’s face, the flaps and handles of skin, melting into a smooth surface, the breasts vibrating and ascending inside her linty sweater like spaceships under the pull of an energy beam, the waistline narrowing like clay on a potter’s wheel. I couldn’t see it.
“So you go to Riga to avoid this girl.”
“No, the girl—she’s just one example. The point is, I feel the past, everywhere. I need it. I need my dead family.”
The roommate was smoking a cigarette, talking quietly on his phone, stumbling on the tar. His foot caught the odd protrusions of vents, wires, satellite dishes; everything conspired to render that roof a minefield. The girlfriend still sat on the edge. Now gaps stretched on either side of her, to infinity.
My brother resumed his story. He was lucky to be visiting a post-Soviet country. The communists had a mania for censuses, a lust after telephone books and registries, a colossal, collective hard-on for any resources facilitating the reduction of society to tables, figures, and graphs. They obsessed retrospectively; there were whole publishing houses specializing in outdated train-schedules for academic study. Professors made careers by applying the science of history to the eight o’clock from Odessa to Minsk.
Everywhere you went, you could buy record books. In restaurants, next to the samovars, there would be a stack of Russian booklets, with a note-card designating them the “1961 Ministry of Agriculture Report, Comprehensive.” Instead of a current newspaper, with breakfast the hotel gave Ezra one from 1946, on its cover photographs of Stalin and brown stains—borscht? blood? At the central market, a man stood by a mountain of outdated atlases, which he could date to within six months by examining the map of Europe. “It was like in that movie, when they’re on the steamer, and they start burning the ship itself to fuel the engines. A people selling its past to keep afloat. God knows what they sell when they run out of old books.”
At the market, Ezra bought a directory from 1905—names and addresses of every adult male then in Riga. He paid nearly ten American dollars, for which he could have instead bought two officers’ uniforms, a green bottle of absinthe and an ounce of caviar, or a working Kalashnikov. Other directories, from 1860, 1875, 1925, or 1938, were about a dollar apiece. An old woman, who had a white beard and smelled of herring and paint thinner, explained: “Jews buy these. Jews love dead Jews. They want to know. Jews only come when Riga is big enough to take money from us. They leave when trouble started. This is Jews—clever, but crazy too. The book from 1905, I sell many to Jews. Jews can pay.” She laughed and belched.
The directory contained so many Magariks, my brother cried. In the States, we are a small family—I could name all of us. Here, thirty-six names—Ezra imagined flocks and hordes of great-grandchildren, an army of Magariks, flung across the globe. They were sworn to each other so secretly they themselves did not know the oath. Human languages rot and crumble like old buildings; the Mendelian language of Genesis transcends ignorance, overcomes exile. Truly, a moment of awe. If each Magarik male only stuck his little finger into Mother Earth at that moment, Ezra was convinced, the earth might have ceased revolving on its axis. If this sounds crazy, you will remember: this is not my story.
Ezra rode in a taxi to 965 Alexandrov, at which five Magariks were listed. The driver explained that the street had been named for Tsar Alexander, after his defeat of Napoleon. When the inevitable consequences of dialectical materialism arrived in Riga, it was unthinkable for a street to remain named after such a reactionary. It was renamed Napoleon Street. The name rankled Latvians, who by the time of communism’s crumbling had discovered a virulent and provincial strain of nationalism. When Ronald Reagan tore down the Berlin Wall, Rigans tore down the signs for Napoleon Street; they demanded a name from the annals of local history. An obscure nobleman from the twelfth century, notable for his impressive collection of furs and unusually vicious exploitation of his serfs, was proposed, and his name met with popular approval. But the officer who diligently neglected to clear Riga’s streets of snow was also responsible for street-signs, and no signs ever materialized.
Ezra found a thin multistory building, with bars on the windows and a dented metal door. He knocked; a slit opened. He was appraised. The door opened. He entered. The door closed.
Someone said, “You break, you buy.” For a moment, my brother saw only flashing images—football matches, pornography, news conferences and world summits, cooking programs, pop-up ads, web browsers, a plethora of American movies, all starring Clint Eastwood. Televisions and computers crowded the room—they squatted on the floor, hung from the ceiling, clung to the walls by bolts, balanced on and leaned against each other.
On the far side of the room, old men played cards around a plastic table. They did not look at Ezra. The man who had opened the door darted through the labyrinth of screens, jumping over some, stepping on others, finally returning to his hand of cards. Ezra waited to be greeted. The old men finished a round of their game and began another.
“Excuse me,” he said finally. “Excuse me, do any of you speak English?”
Someone said something in Russian; the old men laughed. One turned. His thinning hair was slicked back and shone with grease. Although the room was dim, he wore sunglasses. The breast pocket of his suit contained a faded rose.
“Yes, I speak excellent English. I was once professor of English literature at the Free University of Berlin. I specialized in the work of the late Ms. Jane Austen.”
A thin man nodded furiously. Smiling, he revealed decayed teeth. “Exactly so,” the thin man said, “exactly right.”
“I assure you,” the man with the rose continued, “that these other gentleman, though perhaps lacking my facility with the language of Ms. Austen, were once similarly esteemed in their respective academic disciplines. As you see us now”—he waved his hand across the electronics—“we are very far reduced in circumstances. Would you like to buy a television? We have very fine televisions, so reduced in price—almost unimaginably so.”
“Maybe later,” Ezra said. “I think—well I’m trying to find out what happened to my family. They lived here. I have this directory that says so. I was hoping someone here might have known them.”
More Russian; more laughter. The group’s spokesman invited Ezra to join the game. The door-opener leapt up, climbed through the jungle of modernity, and returned with Ezra. A glass of cloudy liquor was poured, the cards mucked, a new hand dealt.
The thin man began to explain the rules of the game. They were very complex, and frequently the men would squabble about whether playing an ace after a seven merited a full or half ante penalty, or whether when your right hand neighbor discarded a red queen and your hand was vulnerable, you were compelled to cash in trumps or just had that as an option.
In the middle of all this, the rose-man turned to Ezra.
“So you are looking for your family.”
“Yeah. My father’s family lived here before World War I.”
“And you are the first to come here to find them?”
“Yeah, nobody’s been back.”
“It is very commendable in a young man—Sergei, you miserable son of a bitch, we have the second round of betting only after everyone’s written his total down for the bidding—as I was saying it is a very fine instinct, showing the highest breeding and cultivation to seek knowledge of his father’s line—no Sergei, the rest of us were not raised in a brothel, and we play gentleman’s rules, so go fuck yourself and your whore of a mother too—but what did you say your family name was?”
“I didn’t. It’s Magarik—M, A, G, A—”
“Yes, yes, I know how to spell it—oh and it’s your turn to play, you’d better ante—you need chips, how careless of me—shit for brains, Sergei, you have shit for brains, get the young gentleman some chips—indeed, we are all acquainted with the name of Magarik here.”
My brother paused in the story, exhausted from the effort of the Russian accent.
“I know what happens next.”
“You don’t understand Latvians.”
“I understand the card-game and the liquor. That’s cross-cultural.”
Ezra said nothing.
“They took all your money, didn’t you?” My brother does not understand money. He is basically a primitive. In Seattle, he planned to live on a houseboat. The houseboat, he had told me, lacked electricity. I had suggested that he buy a generator, and he told me I was missing the point. I remember an incident from my childhood. My parents, who would entertain any alternative, however mind numbing, to television and video games, encouraged my interest in numismatics; I still have my complete set of Buffalo nickels. Desperate for a Nintendo 64, my brother had bought one with my collection of old dollar coins. My parents and I has been furious, but brother had kept repeating, “You don’t understand the point of money.” One of us was definitely missing something.
“You don’t understand that card game,” Ezra said.
The card game, Ezra explained, had nothing to do with money; it was the artifact of a past world. The old men had all been academics. Four of them were physicists; the fifth, the rose-man, on exchange with a university in West Berlin, traveled back and forth across the Iron Curtain. “You understand yet?” Ezra asked. “They were spies; the card game was their way of exchanging information. Right in front of their KGB handlers, they’d sit and play for hours. The penny-ante was just a charade. The whole thing was just a game—this whole structure of signs and signals and symbols. The physicists passed formulas, weapon designs, budgets, the whole bag, all with the queen of diamonds and the seven of clubs. Made a fortune, too, seven figures in an account in Delaware, waiting for them to defect.”
“The Cold War ended. The Wall fell over. Spies were useless, and the account in Delaware disappeared—a government auditor looked a little too hard. Plus, the military jobs dry up, and the four physicists get laid off. So they go into fencing stolen electronics.”
“And they still play cards?”
“Nostalgia. For twenty years, this was the most important game in the world. When they were somebodies—the secret bridge between East and West—they were going to defect—teach at Harvard and Yale, leave their wives behind, marry American women. The dream.”
“They told you all this?”
“They told me everything. The shit they told me. You could float the Titanic with all the shit they told me.”
I did not understand. The roommate went downstairs. The girlfriend stood with her arms outstretched, her back to us. She stood that way for a long time.
Ezra and the old men drank and played cards for a long time. I won’t tell all the details—I’m not sure I even remember how they started singing the Internationale, or toasting the liquidation of the Kulaks, or reminiscing about the bread lines of 1984, the year my brother was born. At some point, the thin man turned his yellow teeth to Ezra and said: “So now it is time to tell about how you come to be named Magarik, yes?”
The rose-man said: “Of course he knows, Sergei. Probably it’s why he came here, to us.”
“I think it’s after an Italian Rabbi, in the fourteenth century—the Maharik.”
The old men laughed—one of them, who was fat and wore suspenders, expelled, in his excitement, an olive from his nose. He spoke at length, spraying spittle onto a laptop screen a foot away. Sergei translated.
“Vladimir says that this is the story they tell little boys. When their penises are short. Now we will tell you the story for men.”
Here was the story for men: In 1912, Ezra’s great-grandfather, at the time named Josef Levack, wanted to leave Riga. The 1905 uprisings had been bad for business—the leftists saw him as a capitalist, the nationalists as a Jew. Neither liked what they saw. Nearly every month, the windows of his Riga office would be smashed. Inside, he found the charred remains of a rotting pig, stuffed with excrement. His workers drank on the job and stole from the safe. His sons were flirting with the long beards and peasant coats of the Hasidim, and his daughters were flirting with Russian officers. He liquidated his lumber-mill in the countryside, and sent his children by train to Danzig.
My great-grandfather could not get a visa: convinced that he was richer than he appeared, the official held out for an impossibly large bribe. Jobless, my great-grandfather could not raise the money. He spent quickly: alone in Riga, he drank and gambled, not shaving for weeks, burning unread letters from the West. Soon he was poor.
“When my father,” the rose-man said, “met your great-grandfather, he looked as if he’d been around for a millennium. Eyes that sat stiffly in the head and would not turn from side to side. Teeth rotted at the roots, so that they dangled from his gums and collided with each other musically. Hair that was some of it gray, some white, some black. He had cuts in his tongue—sometimes, he was so drunk, he chewed the tops of bottles and swallowed the glass. Blood on his beard, his shirt, his coat—you could even tell which money had been his because he kept it all in a little wallet by his side, and it was sticky and tinted with blood and mucus. It’s funny—you take your Jew and you stick him in one place like a normal person for just a couple months, he looks all of a sudden like he’s been wandering for a millennium.”
The rose-man’s father was a thief, the fat man’s uncle an arsonist, Sergei’s cousin a murderer, and so on. Out of pity, they decided to help my ancestor. There was an Irish businessman in town, a certain Mr. McGarrick. He was traveling alone, and spoke no Russian. After Riga, he planned to travel to Odessa, to sell a large fishing company operating on the Baltic. The criminals kidnapped and killed McGarrick. They wanted Levack to impersonate him—if he wired the money from Odessa, he was free to keep the stolen British passport. They cleaned him, sobered him, and bought him foreign-looking clothes—a bow tie, a bowler hat, a walking stick, and a cape. He grew and waxed a mustache. They bought him a train ticket to Odessa; he left one morning at eight o’clock.
“He took our money,” the rose-man said. “We never heard, never got the money. We thought he was dead. Then we heard from relatives in America about this ‘Magarik,’ the rich new Jew who walks around in coattails and speaks with an Irish accent. We knew we’d been swindled.”
My brother shook his head. He laughed. I laughed. The girlfriend on the other edge of the roof laughed. She walked across the roof.
“What a load,” Ezra said, “of bullshit.”
“It doesn’t add up,” I said. “What about the names in the phone book?”
“I don’t know—I was confused. You don’t understand. They took me in a cab to a Jewish cemetery. Over the gates, a stone menorah, three of the branches in pieces on the ground, thick dark vines over everything. The gravestones were almost smooth—they were so worn down. Bums were living there—they dragged the stones and made little shelters out of them. The graveyard was lit by torches, and the ground was covered in bits of colored glass—broken bottles. They shone like crazy. They showed me a whole group of Levacks, read the Cyrillic names for me—our whole family’s named after people in that graveyard—Yasha, Klara, that cousin named Oskar. It was uncanny. You might have believed it, too.”
“But the point of all this was to take your money?” I could not believe Ezra fell for this crap.
“Yes. This time, it’s the money. They march me to an ATM. The man with the rose tells me I am righting a great historical wrong. The fat man says he will start praying for my ancestor’s heathen soul. We empty my account, but when they discover how little I have, they get nasty. They want my watch, my wallet, my coat. I give them away happily—this is going to singled-handedly rewrite history. Lift my curse, the Magarik curse. Still, they’re in a lousy mood—they mutter to each other and frown at me. ‘Nothing else?’ the rose-man asks. ‘Nothing else,’ I say—‘Your clothes,’ says the one with yellow teeth. I’m shocked. I need my clothes. I start to explain that I’ll give them the rest when I get back to the States but the fat man spits on me—‘We’ve heard that before from Jews like you.’ They pin me down and pull off my shoes, cut my pants from my legs with a box-cutter, remove my down jacket, my sweater, then my shirt. Buttons fly everywhere—feathers from the jacket—it’s got holes now from the box-cutter—feathers everywhere, pieces of fabric on the ground. All of a sudden, they’re gone. I’m alone. Naked. On the streets of Riga.
“You have no idea what it is to be cold. I start running almost immediately—so my feet won’t freeze to the ground. Every breath I take is like swallowing acid—the cold air shreds my lungs. My arms are locked at my side—my shoulders, totally involuntarily, jiggling up and down. I can’t see to the left or right—just straight ahead. My lips are frozen. I pass in and out of the streetlights, running blind. I pass the same spot a dozen times. There’s no one in the street. I have no idea where I am. I’ll fucking die any minute. I start to think I’m drowning.
“All of a sudden, I’m there. A well-lighted square—a statue of a man on the horse, and a cracked stone fountain full of ice. Someone throws a horse-blanket over me. There’s hundreds of us—naked except for our gray wool blankets, the hairs on our thighs still standing up—like with a magnet, you know. Standing around drinking hot chocolate and tea from inside. All Jews—you can tell because all the penises, white and drained of blood, lots of cold wrinkled skin—they’re all circumcised. You would know anyway—you could recognize those bodies anywhere, the extra flesh connecting pockets of muscle, the freakishly distributed hair, the balding, the squinting without glasses—Jews one hundred percent.
“And all of a sudden, the hundreds of us, conned Jews—a hundred stories like mine—who came looking for their past and found only the cold—all at once we all start dancing—like in a nuclear reaction, when the particles are all vibrating separately, and suddenly they’re shivering together, they’re all shaking together, we’re doing one big Hora in front of the American Embassy, and crying, and comparing bruises, and laughing at ourselves.”
We sat in silence. I could have explained that that’s not how nuclear reactions work, but I didn’t. Then the girlfriend took my brother’s hand. They rose shakily from their seats, and they danced to music that wasn’t playing. They were solemn, and slow, and though they stood at a distance and barely touched, they were perfectly in rhythm. I sat in my chair. I watched them dancing together, and I watched the light in the East.