The Little Red Umbrella

***

On the day Janet Silver had chosen for the date with the poet she didn’t know, it rained. They were supposed to meet in front of a French restaurant. She’d told him he would recognize her by the little red umbrella she’d be carrying regardless of the weather. But he already knew who she was, he said. She’d caught his eye at a Hanukkah party and had made an indelible impression on him. He had a strong intuition that something intangible connected them and had a feeling that a face-to-face meeting would solve the mystery of what it was.

His tone of voice on the telephone did not quite match his words, as if he were reciting a prepared text. He asked no questions. In contrast to other arranged, so-called blind dates, he didn’t barrage her with inquiries as to how old she was or what she thought about free love. Typically, the candidates wanted to find out on the spot whether it would be worth their while to spend an evening with her. Janet Silver knew all about them. Her standard response was that she didn’t conduct business over the telephone.

The prospect of going out with a poet both frightened and excited her. Years ago, when she’d dreamed of poets, she’d ended up meeting revolutionaries, for whom poetry smacked of the petite bourgeoisie, if not outright treason. She recalled going to hear T.S. Eliot by herself, without either female or male companions. When she entered the auditorium, all the seats were already taken. Standing room was also limited. Someone stepped on the foot she had recently sprained. The wound appeared to be bleeding, but removing the shoe was not an option. People were packed together so tightly that she was barely able to free herself from the curious hand groping under her coat. The tension in the auditorium was overpowering. When the poet finally stood up and began to read, something in her tore. Over the heads of the audience, the gaunt creator of “The Waste Land” reached her and transformed her into a kind of exotic wild animal, from whose depths emerged a hysterical scream followed by a harsh hiccup. After that incident she stopped attending poetry readings. The shame of being led from the auditorium stayed with her for many years.

Janet now thought that had it not been for that incident, she herself might have written poetry. Instead of writing, she married, raised children, and then lived alone–one more widow on the flooded market. Dilettantes did happen by to share the double bed. They came and went like stars in the night: a washed-up actor, a sock manufacturer, a card player, a man who had left his wife and child to travel around the world in disguise.

The rendezvous with the poet came like a jolt from the very heart of life, awakening the butterflies from their lethargic dozing. White silk wings hovered in the air. The studio apartment, which a moment before had been cold and dark, brightened with an ethereal light. The walls began to sing again. “There’s still life at close to fifty,” she said to the fly that was spending the winter in her house. Janet did what she could to keep the fly alive. She left bread crumbs for it on the table, an unwashed plate, a drop of water, a bit of sugar. The fly flew from room to room and warmed itself in the sun and, during long winter nights, on the shade of her night light. Once when it was flying around happily, it met another fly just like itself looking out from the mirror in the corridor. It came closer. With its multi-colored antennae it tapped the glass. The fly stayed there for an entire day without moving. It sniffed, licked, spoke, and asked the lonely fly to come to it. It stayed like this for an entire day and night until both died.

Once more the walls fell silent. Janet sat from dawn until dusk. Just before sunset her studio came alive. Fantastic patterns streamed through the cracks in the Venetian blinds. Lost ships swam to her mountain, bringing regards from distant lands, magic keys to locked doors. Janet loved to play make-believe; she tried out the keys to the rusty cabins. On each door–a name, each one world-renowned: Churchill gleaming in gold on a black marble sign, Prince and Princess Radziwill, Jean-Paul Sartre and Mme. de Beauvoir. Janet lost her way among the turbines. Madame Butterfly’s heartrending song drew her forward. Only Maria Callas could sing so well. She followed the voice through the dark corridors until she reached a door locked from the inside. There was a transom up above. Janet found a chair, climbed up, and peeked in. A purple light filled the room. On a bed of sky-blue silk, the Greek was lounging with a high-born lady.

Janet pulled herself back to reality. The room grew dark. The music flickered. As the great Thomas Carlyle once said, “All tomorrows become yesterdays.” She accepted the idea without sadness, closed her eyes, and swam away with the phantom ship waiting for her in the harbor.

She swims without moving over still water, not forward but backward in time from today to yesterday, to last year, to what once was. The ship takes her back from the twentieth century to the Middle Ages, to another world, on another continent, to when Galileo proclaimed: “And yet it moves.” She leaves him standing up to his neck in water and continues on to the land of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, then to the promised land of milk and honey. Moses descends from Mt. Sinai, his head wreathed in burning thorns, bringing the Ten Commandments to the waiting world. The golden calf comes to greet him. The ship swims deeper into primeval times. It passes the well where Rebecca waters her sheep, Abraham smashes the stone idols, and Sarah drives Hagar from her home.

All around is pitch black, but the ship sends out a beam of light that casts a glow over all that is, was, and will be.   The farther she goes, the narrower the channel becomes. It leads her into a tight passageway from which she can’t extricate herself. The shorelines close in, seizing her in their grip like a pair of shears. The walls burst. The mast collapses. The great heat intensifies. Giant trees grow on the mountains on both sides. Fantastical birds nest in their branches. They fan with their wings, cooling the air. Under an outspread fig tree Adam dozes. He has just emerged from the soil of the earth, from the salt of the sea, from stardust. He does not yet know the difference between good and evil, life and death, man and woman.

She leaves the ship behind and approaches him. She bends down, far down into the grass. “I’m looking for my little red umbrella,” she whispers into his ear. “Without the umbrella the poet will never recognize me.” Adam opens his eyes–two bloodshot slits. He blinks and scrapes the weeds from his body. In the glow of the morning star she sees that he is naked, without a fig leaf. She too is naked and unashamed. He extends a hand, and his touch sends feverish tremors over her body, penetrating to the core of her being like the very essence of life that has a will of its own.  The heat is tremendous. The snake in the tree is laughing. It laughs loudly, harshly. No, it’s not the snake. It’s actually the telephone.

Janet Silver pulled herself out of the primeval encounter. It was the poet again. Yes, she remembered that they had an appointment; they were to meet in a French restaurant. But no, she’d made a mistake. The caller was actually an English speaker asking for someone she didn’t know. She told him he had the wrong number. “No, I don’t, sweetheart,” he laughed.   “Don’t worry, I’ve got the right number. All I need is your address…” Janet hung up on him, but he called back again and again, obscenities streaming from his mouth.

Janet turned on the lights, but her terror did not abate. The telephone continued to ring. She didn’t answer. The clock on the nightstand showed that it was just nine-thirty. In an hour’s time she’d traveled around the world. If not for the psychopath on the telephone, she could still be dreaming. The red umbrella, the one she’d asked Adam about in the Garden of Eden, came to mind again. Her grandmother had given her the little umbrella when she became a bat mitzvah. It was meant to serve as a magic charm. But she’d put it aside in a corner and forgotten about it. Years went by. Janet never thought about the little umbrella, never remembered it. Only when the poet called did she unthinkingly say he would recognize her by her little red umbrella, regardless of the weather. Now, given her dream, she thought the little red umbrella must be a Freudian symbol. How long would the dream last? she wondered. There was a time when she was content to be independent, free to do whatever she pleased. Now freedom had another meaning. Now it meant she was free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo. And yet she kept searching. She searched, found, lost, and searched again. The search had become a kind of addiction, the shot of alcohol a drunk couldn’t do without.

On the night before the date, Janet could not sleep. Her hairpins poked her head like pins in a cushion. Bits of conversation that might arise in the company of a poet jumbled together in her mind. Words that had previously seemed extraordinarily interesting now sounded banal. And the dress she’d selected for the date appeared vulgar in the dark.

At daybreak she fell asleep and as usual slept through the time she’d planned to get up. She had no time to bathe or freshen up. She grabbed the first good dress, removed the hairpins, applied some rouge and lipstick, picked up the little red umbrella and left the house.

Outside, a March rain poured down. The passing taxis would not stop. Janet was running in high heels, the little red umbrella high over her head, when suddenly a gust of wind turned the umbrella inside out and ruined her swept-up hairdo. Her face also took a beating: the mascara ran, leaving black streaks. Janet kept running, even while thinking it might be better not to show up for a first date in such a state. The weather forecaster had specifically promised a sunny day, and here was such a flood. To make things worse, the coffeehouses were also overflowing. There was nowhere to hide. She ran on, the little broken umbrella under her arm. Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder. Someone held an umbrella over her head. She didn’t see his face, but she recognized his voice.

“Where is your little red umbrella?” he asked. Without waiting for a reply, he pulled her toward him. “I thought the rain might keep you away.”

They passed the French restaurant, but they didn’t stop. The conversation she’d prepared was no longer relevant. She was shocked by his appearance. Not the slightest resemblance to the picture she’d created in her imagination. A Hasidic beard. A broad-brimmed hat. A red face. Eyes without brows.

“Did I scare you?” she heard him saying. “I’m used to it. Since the civilized Germans turned me into a scarecrow, I lie in wait like a wolf among sheep. But don’t be afraid, a Jewish wolf doesn’t bite.” He laughed. Janet forced herself to smile.

“Do you like goulash?” he asked.

“Goulash in a French restaurant?”

“We’re not going to a French restaurant. We’re going to a Hungarian restaurant–my restaurant. The best restaurant in New York.”

“Why not a French restaurant?” Janet asked with forced cheer.

“Because I can’t stand how the hoity-toity French wipe their plates with their bread.”

The Hungarian restaurant was warm, bright, pleasant. The glare of an unseen sun was reflected in freshly washed windows. Where did the rain go? she wondered. She struggled not to look at the black toupee sliding down his forehead–or maybe she just imagined she wasn’t looking.

“Don’t be concerned,” he said of his appearance. “Worse things happened, and the world was silent.” He spoke of his horrific experiences in a relaxed tone, as if he were talking not about himself but about someone with whom he had no connection.

Janet felt she had to say something, a word, an expression of sympathy. She was still in shock. Of all the possibilities, she hadn’t expected an encounter like this one. She sat and looked over his head to the spring evening outside, searching there for the words that could free her tongue for relaxed conversation.

The poet called the waiter and ordered goulash. She asked for a black coffee.

“That’s all?” he asked as if she had insulted him.

“Maybe later,” Janet says. “First coffee.” Now she saw sunglasses perched on his nose. They covered his naked eyelids and made it easier to look at him. She even attempted a smile.

The poet leaned over the table. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Janet. Janet Silver.”

“Tell me, Janet, would you mind if I called you Gitele?”

“Why Gitele?”

“Gitele means more to me. Just this morning I wrote a poem dedicated to my sister Gitele. I believe it’s quite a good one.”

“You’re a prolific writer then?”

“Do I have a choice? When the heart dictates and the pen is willing, one writes. Do you know what I mean, Gitele?”

“No, I don’t.”

“I know women who when asked a yes-or-no question respond with an entire paragraph. From you, my dear, it’s hard to extract a simple yes or no.”

“It may seem that way,” Janet said, “but I’m just waiting for the coffee to take effect. Meanwhile I’d very much like to hear your poem.”

“I don’t remember it by heart.”

“Do you remember the title?”

“The title is not important.”

“What is, then?”

“It depends. For some poets, it’s the syntax, the music, the rhyme. For me it’s the main idea, how it emerges from the depths of the imagination, naked, raw, without form, without shape, but with a yearning to become the visual expression of one’s innermost drive.”

Janet sipped and considered the poet. She’d never tasted such extraordinary coffee. Across from her, the poet was eating his goulash. Fat oozed over his lips. But his terrible appearance and sloppy table manners no longer bothered her. She wanted to know the person underneath the skin. She wanted to feel what he felt, what he suffered, what he thought. For his part, he was trying to penetrate her thoughts. But all he could see was the external: her face worn, her body full-figured and promising.

“You still haven’t told me the theme of this morning’s poem.”

The poet shoved his plate aside. He wiped his lips and pushed his dark glasses up, then immediately pulled them back down. “My theme,” he said, “is Moses, Moses our teacher.”

“With or without horns?” she asked calmly.

“My Moses is not an exhibitionist. He wears his horns on the inside. He struggles with man and with God. My Moses insists on speaking to God face to face. He has much to ask, much to say. When God says that a human being cannot see his face and remain alive, Moses still insists. He accepts the possibility of a horrible death for a single glimpse of his creator.”

The poet mopped the sweat from his brow. He removed his hat and laid it on the chair beside him. His face was as red as embers; his lips glistened. He opened his napkin and brushed a fleck from his lapel. His eyes behind the black glasses gleamed with poetic self-confidence. He took her hand across the table and brought it to his lips. “Don’t you think the weather has cleared up beautifully?” he said. A broad but ambiguous smile appeared on his face.

“Is that what you’re thinking about?”

“No,” he responded. “Civilized people do not discuss what they’re thinking.”

“What’s holding you back? I’m an adult and quite used to hot and cold.”

“You’re sure?”

“A hundred percent sure.”

“The truth is that I’d like to invite you up to my place on the third floor. I live here. This is my building, my restaurant.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, I’m not joking. A person has to make a living. You can’t make a living from poetry. I want to introduce you to my creativity, my true self, what makes me tick.”

“Not today,” Janet responded. “I have a headache.”

A heavy silence fell over the table, enshrouding them in a private fog. Around them guests were talking and laughing. A red sunset colored the windowpanes. After a long moment the poet leaned over the table and in a steamy voice said directly into her face: “Excuse me for disappointing you. No doubt you were expecting a Byron, a poet in a black cape with a red lining. You hoped he would overwhelm you, take you by force. Perhaps you wanted him to kidnap you, to rape you. You’d ride his chariot into the pages of books, into the realm of literary celebrity. Pardon me, Janet, if I’m mistaken. The truth is that we both deluded ourselves. I waited for you with great excitement. I had a vague premonition I would re-experience the same shiver that made me a poet long ago. I hoped that as we grew closer we would discover things that were unknown perhaps even to ourselves. But you arrived all upset and scattered, without the little red umbrella. Maybe that’s why we’re so out of sorts, without knowing why.”

Janet’s fixed her gaze on her wet shoes. A heavy sadness overtook her. She felt as if she were sealed inside a bell jar. A feeling of humility compelled her to close her eyes, to spirit herself away to some dark house of prayer. There she pleaded without words, without tears, like a worm wriggling after being cut in two. She wanted to plead for herself, for him, for the shattered human soul, for the contradictory feelings that thrust her forward and then held her back. She knew that his appearance ought not to drive her away. She also knew that the only reason she could consider keeping company with such a burned skull and singed eyes was that she too was born a Jew.

Janet picked up the broken umbrella and laid it in her lap. There was nothing more to say. It was no longer important to change his opinion of her. With sealed lips she understood him better. With closed eyes she saw him more clearly. He was the eternal Jew whom even death could not annihilate. When his face was burned, his soul ascended. A caricature on the outside, a poet within. He’d survived all the calumny, all the pogroms. History had rendered him immortal.

Bios

Blume Lempel

Blume Lempel was born in 1907 in Khorostkov, Galicia (now Ukraine). She immigrated to Paris in 1929 and fled to New York just before World War II. She wrote in Yiddish into the 1990s and received literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic. She died in 1999.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub won the 2012 Translation Prize awarded by the Yiddish Book Center for their (unpublished) collection of translated stories by Blume Lempel (including this one) entitled Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Cassedy’s translations appear in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories (Time Warner Publishing, 2003). She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Taub is the author of four books of poetry, including Prayers of a Heretic/Tfiles fun an apikoyres (Plain View Press, 2013). He was named by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists. They can be reached, respectively, at ellen@ellencassedy.com and yermiyahuahrontaub@gmail.com.

Dos royte shireml. Copyright (c) Blume Lempel, 1986. English translation copyright (c) Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, 2016.