Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Redemption By Jews
Redemption By Jews
Jacob was sixty-one when he came to the Philippines. He had been divorced two years before and had just wrapped up the sale of his carpentry company to a young man who had worked for him as an assistant for ten years. He decided to try the hot countries where he had never been to see if he might like to retire there.
The divorce was Jacob’s third. His wives accused him of insensitivity, irritability and ill temper, all of which were true. He had violent temper tantrums in which he smashed crockery, broke windows and hurled things at his terrified wives, fortunately without hitting them. They said he was insanely jealous and controlling, which was also true. All of these accusations were on the record for each of his divorces went to court. What his wives did not say, out of delicacy, or on the advice of their lawyers, or both, was that even in his fifties he was oversexed, demanding sex two or three times a day at the very least. His wives found this at first flattering but later tiring. They also did not put on the record that he was a raging antisemite, a significant portion of whose conversation was composed of rants against the Jews. He babbled the usual ragbag of inane shibboleths from the tradition of that particular obsession at them until they were driven almost mad. Perhaps the lawyers advised them not to mention this for Jacob himself was a Jew, on both his mother and father’s side, and it might introduce an element of confusion into the court proceedings. It should also be mentioned that Jacob was an exceedingly handsome man, highly intelligent, capable in business and very charming. Not in court, for obvious reasons, but privately to their lawyers (women, all) they mentioned that for some time after their marriage to Jacob they were very much in love and were convinced they had made a wonderful match.
When Jacob landed in Manila he stayed over only one night. For the past five years he had lived on a farm outside the medium sized city were he ran his business, commuting every day. Over this time he had come to see cities as the old prophets saw Sodom and Gomorrah, as cesspools of moral slackness and depravity. After his night surrounded by such dangers on every side he took a bus on a day’s journey to a small provincial town he had once read about in a magazine. Here he put up in a small hotel, not a tourist hotel for the town was far off the beaten track and had no tourist trade to speak of. The other guests were mostly business travelers, salesmen and small contractors. The management gave him a very reasonable monthly rate, including meals in the restaurant, and he decided to stay for at least a few months.
The town was on the sea as just about all towns there are, for the Philippines is a country of islands. It was hot, in the high thirties centigrade, with brilliant sunshine. Every day he walked to the beach a kilometer from the hotel and swam in the sea. In the afternoons he bicycled on the gravel roads leading out of town through little villages with houses built on stilts and thatched with straw, past groups of people working in the fields. He brought a sandwich and a bottle of juice with him and had a mid afternoon snack usually on a hill where he could look off into the distance while he ate. He was back at the hotel for supper at six. Afterward he climbed the stairs to his room on the third floor and took a nap.
Every evening at nine o’clock on the dot, for Jacob was man of clocklike routine, he left his room with its tiny balcony overlooking the town and descended the stairs to the lobby. At the foot of the stair he turned right, and, crossing in front of the main desk, passed through a set of double mahogany doors leading to the bar. The bar was much larger than needed for the guests because it served not only the hotel but also the surrounding community. Jacob sat at a table in the corner frequented by a small group of European and North American ex patriots. There were about twelve regulars, most retired and a little older than Jacob. Since it was Wednesday night and the full complement appeared only on Friday and Saturday evenings, there were only five present. As Jacob approached the table it struck him for the twentieth time how brightly their pale skins shone pink and strange in that sea of brown Filipinos made even browner by so much time outside under the hot season sun. This was accentuated for three of the men who had taken to combating baldness by shaving their heads. Jacob gave a general wave and, when the very attentive waiter appeared almost immediately, ordered a beer.
“Over there, Jacob,” said the man on his left, one of the billiard balls whose jet black eyebrows appeared as finger clouds crossing the face of a pale full moon. This was Carson, a retired pharmacist from the American mid west who lived in the hotel eight months a year and dabbled in local real estate. Jacob didn’t remember his first name or even if he had ever heard it. Everyone called him Carson. Even Carson referred to himself as Carson. Jacob turned his head to follow the pointing finger until his eyes came to a stop at a table where four young women were drinking beer.
“The closest one on the left,” said Carson.
The closest one on the left was wearing a bright yellow dress printed with figures of elegant blue and white flowers. She was beautiful with the particular kind of beauty that only a mixture of Melanesian, Spanish and American blood can bring. Even, perfectly formed features, high cheek bones, flawless skin, a lovely rich brown, jet black hair done up in a bun secured by a comb at the back of her head, and almond eyes which were perhaps Formosan, perhaps American Eurasian, or perhaps even the eyes of a Castilian Duchess come to rest after many years of restless wandering, here in this little provincial town. She was talking animatedly to her friends who were also speaking animatedly so that one wondered if they had some magical ability to speak and listen at the same time. There were no men at their table. While he was watching a young man approached the women, but after a brief, polite exchange, he went on his way.
“And what about her?” Jacob asked.
“A widow looking for a husband. Preferably a rich one.”
“How do you know?”
“I bribe waiters. I have intimate conversations with my barber.”
“How did she get to be a widow? Arsenic?”
“Ha ha, very funny. And with some of these women not far from the truth. In her case, however, it was perfectly above board. He was a fisherman and died in a storm at sea. That would be difficult for even the most malicious wife to manage.”
“What about age?”
“My informants tell me she is amenable with a top range of late sixties. That is, of course, if there is enough money involved so there is no need for her to be embarrassed by lack of a dowry. Her husband took the boat which her dowry helped to buy to the bottom of the sea with him.”
“She’s very beautiful, Carson. Perhaps a little rich for my blood.”
“O, I don’t know. This is a poor place and a Westerner of even modest savings is quite a catch, the equivalent of a multi millionaire back home.”
Jacob and his friends went on to talk of other things and he forgot about the young woman. But an hour later when the band got up to play he walked across the floor and asked her to dance. She rose, took his hand and followed him onto the floor. A waltz. She held herself at arm’s length of course, for it was unseemly for strangers to dance close like lovers or a married couple. When the dance was over she invited him to sit at her table and was introduced to her friends. Jacob bought a round of beer – a European beer, which they claimed, on its arrival and a few sips, to be inferior to their local beer with the added penalty of being twice as expensive. Jacob stayed at the table for the rest of the evening, dancing with Julia, the young woman, six or seven times and once with each of her girlfriends. When he was crossing the lobby to ascend the stairs to his room, Carson, who was leaning on the front desk chatting to the clerk, said to him, “well, I guess we won’t be seeing you for a while.”
Jacob chuckled politely but kept on his way.
Julia came to the bar on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Jacob spent these evenings at her table but they were seldom alone. There was at least one girlfriend, sometimes three or four. Julia worked in the laundry at the local hospital and the girlfriends were all co-workers. After two months of this, one evening, Jacob was sitting alone with one of the girlfriends, a plump, affable young woman named Rose. Julia was late coming for some family reason and the other two girlfriends at the table were up dancing. After she had scrutinized him for some moments with her dark eyes, Rosa asked, “are you married?”
“Divorced,” replied Jacob, not insulted at all by the question. He was delighted that someone was finally coming to the point.
“Are you going to live here full time now?”
“Julia doesn’t want to leave. She’s a home girl.”
Jacob said nothing to this and a few moments passed by until Rose brought her eyes back from the dance floor where they had wandered and asked, “if you married would you be bringing your property here?”
Rather blunt but how else could you ask such a question? Jacob mentioned a figure.
“You will invest here?”
“Julia has connections through which mortgages could be let out.”
“And how much would such mortgages amount to?”
“Two hundred thousand American.”
“Yes. Such beauty has a high premium.”
“The mortgages are to be let out to family?”
“Some but not all. Will you buy a house?”
“I suppose, yes.”
“Julia has three children, a mother and an older sister who live with her.”
“They come with her is what I mean to say.”
“And am I correct in assuming that it is marriage you have in mind?”
“Julia trusts me. I will make the arrangements.”
Two days later Jacob and Rose met in the hotel restaurant and made the arrangements. He gave her a sum in cash to cover the costs and six weeks later Julia and he were married in the Catholic Church for she and all her family were devout Catholics or at least Catholics. There were four bridesmaids, three flower girls and three hundred and fifty guests who did not have to jam themselves into the small parish hall for it was a warm nightand after loading their plates with food and clutching bottles of beer in the crooks of their arms, went out under the stars and ate sitting on the ground. Jacob, at Julia’s insistence, wore a rented tuxedo for the ceremony but changed into shorts and T shirt for the reception. Julia wore her bridal dress all evening until they left to catch the late night bus taking them to the other side of the island for their honeymoon.
The honeymoon was not a great success but not an unmitigated disaster either. They had sex but Julia’s participation was tepid and Jacobs’s rife with performance anxiety. They stayed in a rented cabin by the sea and went swimming every day. Afternoons Julia went off by herself to visit relatives in the area. They had supper at the local restaurant and danced afterward when the band came on later in the evening. After two weeks Jacob was quite smitten with his new wife but Julia was bored to tears with her new husband. He spoke of little besides house construction, brick laying and Jews. He had a great passion of hatred for the Jews and accused them of terrible deeds in high places. He was an atheist. He hated the Christian God as much as he hated the Jews. He made loud, peasant like sounds slurping his soup at the restaurant. He complained when she bought trinkets at the local market to take home to her relatives. His love making was almost unbearable. He aroused no desire in her so she had to pretend like a woman in a bordello. He didn’t seem to notice. When he slept he snored all night, tremendous pig like snortings from deep caverns beneath his long, fleshy, North American nose.
Jacob bought a modest but roomy house not far from the hotel. He did not consult his wife for it was his opinion that such matters should be decided by the male. Fortunately, by blind luck, he had bought just the house which Julia and her mother looked at and fell in love with some weeks before. This had something to do with the fact that the real estate agent recommended by Rosa was Julia’s cousin. It was single story, spreading itself out over most of a large lot. It had a central courtyard opening onto a back lot overlooking the sea. There were fifteen rooms, one of them a long, wide living room/dining room, with a lean to kitchen at the back. Julia’s three children, mother, older sister and two elderly women cousins moved in with them. In the mornings, after seeing the children off to school, the women set up their work stations in the living room. One of the cousins worked a loom upon which she wove rugs and wall hangings. Julia, her mother and sister wove straw baskets. The other cousin made ornaments people buy to decorate children’s birthday parties. They worked from nine in the morning till supper time. At noon Julia and her mother walked to the market to buy food. Usually mama, as Julia called her, cooked supper.
Julia insisted that Jacob replace the old stove in the kitchen. They went out together and she picked out a gas stove with a large oven. As soon as it was installed two of Julia’s younger sisters came every night except Saturday and worked from midnight until seven in the morning baking bread, muffins and cookies. After breakfast they loaded their baked goods onto a handcart and pushed it off to the local market. Jacob complained. “Somebody is running a bakery out of my kitchen.”
“Our kitchen,” Julia replied.
“OK. Somebody is running a bakery out of our kitchen.”
“They are my sisters.”
“And what does that have to do with it?”
“My sisters are welcome in my house.”
“All night, every night, running a bakery?”
“The oven is just perfect they say.”
“I’m sure they do. And I’m sure they find the free gas is also perfect.”
Jacob did not know that he was also buying the flour, yeast, raisins, baking powder, etc which went into the baked goods. Julia was an expert at jiggling household accounts so that turning a repair bill into bags of flour was no problem for her. But Jacob decided not to press his complaint. There were women everywhere, baking, weaving, painting walls, cooking, cleaning, talking, arguing and he felt a little intimidated. When the day ended the house filled up with cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, a seemingly endless parade of Julia’s family. Some came and went. Others stayed for a month, others for longer, and still others never seemed to leave. It seemed to Jacob that there were at least five children, besides Julia’s, who lived with them full time. When he brought this up to Julia she was vague. When he spoke to mama she told him that yes, ‘some’ children were with them for a bit because their parents were off working in Manila. She was vague about exactly how many. They were good children who ate very little and only required a tiny space to sleep in. (actually they slept in hammocks hung in a room which thus resembled the focsle in an old time sailing ship) The parents would be back any day now she assured him. But months went by and they still had not come. Jacob learned their names. In the evenings he sometimes took them for a walk on the beach along with Julia’s children and bought them ice cream from the little stand a few hundred yards down from the house. Eventually he ceased to ask when the parents would arrive.
At the far west corner of the house was a two room suite, the rooms separated by a short hallway in turn closed off from the rest of the house by a rough plank door. Here, where it was quiet no matter what was going on in the rest of the house, Jacob had his bedroom. The second room served as his study. Julia slept with him here once or twice a week. The rest of the week she slept in some other room. Where he was unsure. At first Jacob complained but eventually he gave it up. He was of an age when often his number one priority was a night of undisturbed sleep. Julia was restless in bed. She often got up in the middle of the night and helped her sisters baking bread. Mama was especially solicitous of Jacob’s sleep. After he said good night and went through the door to his suite she had one of the older children help her cover the door with two heavy rugs to muffle the sound from the main part of the house. Jacob slept well in his bedroom and when the noise and bustle in the house became intolerable to him he had a quite place to retreat away from it all.
Four months after the wedding, on a rainy day, when the whole world seemed composed of rain beating on the steel roof and water rushing from the gutters, Rose came through the kitchen and onto the patio where Jacob was having his coffee watching the torrents of rain fall into the sea. He was happy to see her for he considered Rose an affable, business like person with whom one could deal in a direct manner and get some results. This was very different from the women in his house who were slippery as eels, elusive as weasels. Rose carried a cup of mama’s coffee with her and sat down opposite him at the ornate wrought iron table. After the usual formalities and a pause, Rose, as was her way, got to the point.
“The mortgages,” she said.
“O yes,” said Jacob.
“Julia has a cousin lawyer who can draw up the agreements. He has already done the preliminary work.”
“Fine,” said Jacob.
“He can come tomorrow afternoon for the signing of the papers and the transfer of the money. You can go to the bank in the morning.”
In the morning Jacob went to the bank and made the arrangements. The lawyer came after lunch, an enormously fat man who sat at the long kitchen table and unburdened an immense briefcase of a tall pile of documents. Jacob signed. Julia signed. The lawyer signed. Mama and the older sister signed as witnesses. They were small amount mortgage agreements, a thousand here, two there, the largest being ten thousand. Some were on agricultural land, some on houses and small businesses in town. When this was completed Jacob made out and signed a series of cheques certified on the spot by a clerk sent over by the bank. The documents and cheques then went into the lawyer’s case and mama and the older sister brought out several plates piled high with the younger sisters’ baking and a tray of gleaming bottles of beer wet from the ice bucket. The lawyer proposed an elaborate and comical toast and everyone laughed heartily. When the plates and tray were empty the lawyer rose and, accompanied by Julia in her best dress with her hair drawn up in a bun with a comb as it was the first time Jacob saw her, left through the front door to climb into his late model Japanese car to drive the documents and cheques around to the owners of the properties. Jacob walked them to the door and then went to his suite for his afternoon nap.
Julia did not come back until after dark. Jacob was having his beer on the patio and she came out to join him. She talked excitedly about where she had gone and the people she had seen, for driving in the car and meeting with so many people happy to conclude a hopeful business arrangement, stimulated her. Jacob listened impatiently. When she wound down he asked her once again about the baking sisters.
“I suppose you want their children to go hungry,” Julia said.
“What does that have to do with a bakery being operated in my house?”
“That’s how they feed their children.”
“Don’t they have husbands?”
“The husbands are fishermen. How can a fisherman feed all those children?”
Jacob had no answer for this. Julia took the opportunity to rise in triumphant and stately dignity and go back into the house. When he came through the kitchen mama stared at him censoriously. The elderly cousins sitting at the table turned their eyes away. He continued down the hallway to his study where he sat in his armchair and brooded.
One morning, some months later, Jacob cornered Julia alone in the kitchen. All of the other women had stayed up all night baking for a festival and were now off selling their wares at the market. He sat down at the long table opposite her and said, “mortgages have income.”
“Of course mortgages have income,” replied Julia.
“Then where is it?”
“The lawyer says some payments are late and others have been deferred for unavoidable reasons. The income from the others is just fine.”
“Yes. Just fine.”
“What does that mean, ‘just fine’?”
“It means it went to places it was needed.”
“The Fuentes cousin needed dental work.”
“School just started and the children needed clothing and supplies.”
“Consuela’s husband had his tools stolen and they had to be replaced. Carpentry tools are expensive as you should know.”
“But Julia, don’t you see that mortgage money is capital money? If the income is spent on expenses then the money is frittered away and the capital disappears.”
“Of course what?”
“Necessary things must be dealt with whatever you call the money. After all you can call it various names but in the long run it is just money.”
“Well, I would like you to give me an accounting of the mortgages, income, expenses and so on.”
“No problem. The lawyer is good at giving accountings and making lists. I will speak to him.”
Whether Julia spoke to the lawyer or not Jacob did not know but some time passed by and he was still without an accounting. Six times he spoke to Julia who each time claimed the lawyer was about to appear any day but he never did. The last time she gave him this answer Jacob became enraged. He shouted at her in the kitchen. He chased her around the long table but she was much too lithe and quick for the likes of an aging, arthritic carpenter. He grabbed a cup from the table and was about to throw it at her when mama and the two baking sisters appeared in the doorway. They stared at him with terrible neutral looks on their faces. He placed the cup back on the table and went out through the patio door. He could hear the kitchen filling up with the other women, talking in excited voices. No doubt they had ways to rid themselves of unreasonable foreigners. Perhaps they threw them down a well then buried them alive with a rain of useless mortgage agreements, piano lessons, gas ovens, dental bills and the mouths of hungry fishermen’s children.
Julia refused to speak to him for a month after this event. She did not come to sleep in his room. The other women spoke to him but distantly. It was a week before the little children came to sit on his lap as they had before. But after another month it blew over. Julia came back to sleep with him but now only once a week. The children once again ragged him after supper until he took them down the beach for ice cream. Mama began once again to tease him occasionally about the fact that he was ten years older than her and the baking sisters to leave a few delicacies for his morning coffee. He had to admit to himself that these women had generous hearts. They did not carry grudges and they wanted very much that their house not become a place of war and division.
Mama and her daughters were possessed of an age old tradition of household gender relations. The man was officially recognized as the head of the house, the titular power. Jacob was seated at the head of the table and fed the choice cuts of meat. His coffee cup was filled before he mustered a desire that it be so. On all official occasions, family gatherings, he was treated like a grandee. His clothes were cleaned, pressed, adjusted and fussed over as if he were the King of France or the Emperor of all the Russias. On very special occasions one of the older sisters even shaved him for they claimed he did not pay close enough attention to the corners. He sat in the big chair in the living room while all the guests came to greet him, shaking his hand and kissing him on his cheek. Adorable children were plunked into his lap and he obediently fed them with the chocolate candies the woman had stuffed into his pocket. Even though he was not a Christian he was called upon to say the grace before meals, taught to him by Julia. His suite at the back of the house was sacrosanct. When he was sleeping the children were kept away from it with a stern discipline. In matters of household renovations he was deferred to. Was the patio to be retiled? Julia brought it up with him. Should the screened porch on the front be enlarged? Mama discussed it with Jacob over coffee. They allowed themselves to be guided by his wishes.
In the matter of children’s expenses, however, it was another matter. After all men are lazy creatures of pleasure and did not bear children. In such matters their wishes, instructions, were to be interpreted in a broad fashion and not taken literally. Jacob did not want to pay for art lessons for Julio, Julia’s eldest? Fine. Then the grocery money could be squeezed, extra loaves of bread baked. The contractor cousin who did the patio could be asked to give a finder’s fee. That dense man should have offered it himself before he was asked. As a last resort there was the mortgage income, managed by Julia out of an ancient iron safe, a relic from the days of the Spanish and left in the house by its former inhabitants who perhaps did not have the energy to carry its many hundreds of pounds out the door. But only as a last resort for Julia was a careful manager. Not long after the letting out of the mortgages she was a part owner of several hectares of crop land and had a controlling share in a fabric shop.
All of this went along reasonably well but it was obvious that something was building up in Jacob. He began to feel he was living at the edge of a terrible tyranny of women. To be fair to the poor man he did his best to find some way to release the pressure and stop paranoia blossoming in his mind as a single, overwhelming obsession. But he failed. He became moody. He spent long hours alone in his room. Then one day he got up from a night of broken sleep and changed his mind about everything. He dressed in his old carpentry overalls, stormed into the main part of the house and began shouting at the women. Even Julio, who was often able to calm him, was brushed off to the side. The women scattered like chickens before a diving hawk. Lifting up young children into their arms they rushed out the kitchen door onto the patio.
Jacob stood in the doorway and hurled insults at them. They were deceivers, witches, devils from the nether regions of hell, thieves, manipulators, foul fornicators, workers of dark arts, destroyers of the minds of men, evil, devouring vulvas, depraved monsters. He would have no more to do with them. He would have no more to do with their money sucking brats, their one long endless meal, their decorations and renovations, their whinings and wheedlings, their cajolings, their cunning, their steady, inexorable chisellings. All this he was leaving behind him. All this he was now, at this very moment and forever, banishing from his mind. “No more!” he screeched at them in a spray of spittle. “No more you evil, torturing, squeezing bitches. No more!” And with that he collapsed in a heap in the doorway.
The women had watched this performance quite dispassionately as if they were watching a speech given by a politician from Manila. But when he collapsed they rushed in a body to see if he was dead. He wasn’t. He was breathing regularly and his pulse was strong. Mama sent one of the daughters for the doctor. The older sister brought a blanket and spread it out on the floor beside him. They tugged and rolled him until he was lying face up on the blanket and lifted him up with many hands and carried him into the bedroom. They laid him on his bed, positioning his hands on his stomach as if he were laid out in his coffin.
When the doctor came out of the bedroom into the kitchen he said that Jacob was perfectly healthy. “The man is as sound as a two year old donkey.”
“And of much the same nature,” Julia replied.
The doctor laughed. After pocketing his fee, delicately folded into a linen envelope, he wrote a prescription for a sedative. “Three days in bed,” he said. “All that shouting and frothing at the mouth is hard on the system.”
Jacob was enervated by his bout of rage. He lay quietly in his bed studying the ceiling while the pills the doctor gave him loosened his muscles and set his mind pleasantly drifting. Julio sat by his bedside reading one of his textbooks. His concentration was intense. He turned the pages with a deft movement of his right hand. After watching him for a while Jacob reached over, covered the text with his hand and looked into Julio’s face, a pleasant, evenly featured face every bit as beautiful as Julia’s. “I am afraid, my dear Julio, that for many years I have been wrongly maligning the Jews. What are they, after all, but poor fellow wanderers seeking to place their feet firmly on the ground wherever their ill stared fate has led them? For this they should be hated? I don’t think so. Hereafter my policy will be not to love them, for that would be condescending, but to create for them in my mind a warm limbo of nonjudgment where they can be free to be whatever they are going to be. As there is, apart from myself, not a single Jew in this town or even on this island, they will not notice my change of heart but I will and that is what counts.” Then he smiled and Julio smiled back. He removed his hand from the book, replaced it with the other on his stomach and went to sleep.
He did not rise from his bed for three days. Julia looked after him. She was careful not to say anything which might upset him and he himself avoided all contentious subjects. He asked her about the children. He talked about the weather, wondering why it was that the people here on the island dreaded the rainy season while he, a foreigner, loved it dearly. He told her of his childhood when he and his brothers slid down snow covered hills on a wooden toboggan and made snowballs with their mittened hands to hurl at one another. He spoke of his mother, a large, warm hearted woman whose sons teased her mercilessly. He asked her to bring him an umbrella from the market and gave her two one hundred dollar bills from the drawer beside the bed. He told her to spend what was left over on clothing for the children.
When he rose on the fourth morning, before breakfast and his morning coffee, for a great necessity lay upon him, Jacob removed all the furniture from the study excepting the roll top desk holding his personal papers. Julia, mama and a staying over cousin helped him carry it out the back door and put it in the storage shed. The women wanted to clean the resulting dusty corners but he would not allow them. He took broom, dustpan, mop and pail from the closet off the kitchen and cleaned the room himself. When he was done he had breakfast on the patio and then walked to the lumber store pulling one of the toddlers along behind him in a bright blue wagon.
That afternoon a truck delivered a pile of lumber and plastic bags filled with nails and hardware. Jacob had the men carry the lumber through the house and lay it on the floor of the study. When they were gone, after mama had fed them cinnamon buns and coffee at the kitchen table and Jacob tucked tips into their pockets at the door, he began constructing a workbench along one wall of the room. It took him three days to finish and then he put a series of shelves and pegboards above it on the wall. The women kept peeking in to see what he was doing but they did not ask any questions, fearing it might set him off. They watched him silently for a few moments and then left. When the toddlers came he did not chase them away. He sat them in the corner and gave them blocks and wood shavings to play with.
When everything was finished he closed the door and would not let any adults see inside for two months. He spent ten hours a day inside the room he now referred to as the shop. When the toddlers knocked on the door and called his name he let them in and reclosed the door. When they were tired of playing with the blocks he gave them he let them out again. Sometimes he went to the lumber store and brought back chunky blocks of wood. In the evening he strolled along the beach stopping to look at the fishing boats pulled up on the sandy beach.
When the two months were up he opened the door and thereafter seldom closed it. Everyone came to look. The toddlers squeezed through the legs of the women and headed for the corner where Jacob had left a pile of ends and shavings. Along the workbench was a line of fishing boats carved from softwood and painted the same bright colours the fishermen painted their own boats. There were masts, tiny sails, oars, and figures of fishermen, some looking off over the sea, others leaning over the gunwales pulling up their nets. There were twenty or so, all of slightly different sizes and designs. They were propped up with small chocks. They were awash in the soft light of the day glow lamps Jacob hung from the ceiling, and, as he had painted the top of the bench blue, it was as if they were floating upon a magically created, strangely calm, indoor sea. The women’s eyes grew as round as saucers. They entered the room and spread themselves out along the bench peering closely, sucking in their breath in silent admiration.
The next day while Jacob was drinking his morning coffee with Julia on the patio, he handed her a letter. The letter gave her sole rights to the mortgages he had signed a few years before. It listed them – the lawyer cousin had done this for him – in a long column extending to a second page. It was notarized by the lawyer, signed by Jacob and witnessed by two clerks in the lawyer’s office. Julia read the letter, thanked him very solemnly and kissed him on the cheek. What was hers practically was now hers in the eyes of the law. She showed the letter to her mother and put it away in the safe.
In his sixty-fifth year Jacob took a piece of white wood and etched upon its surface “Forgive me dear Jews”, first in English and then, below in letters the same size, in Latin. The translation was supplied by the lawyer who spent his Saturday afternoons reading Tacitus and Ovid in the original. Lettering complete, he framed it with a thin border of mahogany and hung it on the wall above his workbench.
When Julia saw the plaque she asked him what it meant. “The Jews whom I hated for so many years have redeemed me,” he said. It was obvious from Julia’s expression that she did not understand but he gave no further explanations.
When Julia came into the kitchen her mother asked, “What did he say?”
“Something about Jews and redeeming but I really don’t understand it.”
“Seems a strange thing to put up on the wall when there is not a Jew within a hundred miles. Did he do bad things to them when he was young?”
“No. He just hated them. He feels bad because he hated them. I suppose the plaque is a propitiation, a kind of blood payment. Maybe they do that where he comes from.”
Mama said nothing but she was worried Jacob might be going crazy again. Perhaps all the carving was only a temporary abatement of his madness. For her the Jews were people she heard about in school who had a tiny country half way round the world. To make plaques asking them for forgiveness as if they were spirits floating around in the air, seemed to her not quite sane.