4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1

by Paul Auster

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He felt that his father had done the right thing in changing jobs, that television sets and refrigerators and box-spring mattresses can speak to you for just so long and then a moment comes when you should jump ship and try something else, and because his father was so fond of tennis, why not earn his living from the game he loved? It never occurred to him that she might have been exaggerating, that the grief she felt over losing her mother had distorted her vision, that she had pushed away her stepmother without giving her a chance, turning her into an enemy for no other reason than the fact that she was not her mother and never would be, that her overworked father was doing the best he could for his enraged and obstinate daughter, that there was, as there always is, another side to the story. Adolescence feeds on drama, it is most happy when living in extremis, and Ferguson was no less vulnerable to the lure of high emotion and extravagant unreason than any other boy his age, which meant that the appeal of a girl like Anne-Marie was fueled precisely by her unhappiness, and the greater storms she engulfed him in, the more intensely he wanted her. Then came the newly sworn-in president, and the moment he began to deliver his speech, the notes emanating from that tightly strung rhetorical instrument felt so natural to Ferguson, so comfortably joined to his inner expectations, that he found himself listening to it in the same way he listened to a piece of music. Man holds in his mortal hands. Let the word go forth. Pay any price, bear any burden. The power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. Let every nation know. The torch has been passed. Meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe. A new generation of Americans. That uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war. Now the trumpet summons us again. A call to bear the burdens of a long twilight struggle. But let us begin. Born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace. Let us explore the stars. Ask. Ask not. A struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. A new generation. Ask. ask not. But let us begin. Ever since that late September afternoon in 1954, the never to be forgotten afternoon he had spent with Cassie watching Mays and Rhodes defeat the Indians, baseball had been a core obsession, and once he began playing in earnest the next year, he had proved to be surprisingly good at it, as good as the best players around him, strong in the field, strong at bat, with an innate feel for the nuances of any given situation during the course of a game, and when a person discovers he can do something well, he tends to want to keep doing it, to do it as often as he possibly can. The second month at Camp Paradise was the month of the empty bed. The bare mattress on the metal springs to the right of where Ferguson continued to sleep, the bed of the now absent Noah, and every day Ferguson asked himself if they would ever see each other again. Cousins for a year and a half, and now cousins no more. an aunt who had married an uncle, and now married no more, with the uncle living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where he could no longer be with his boy. Everything solid for a time, and then the sun comes up one morning and the world begins to melt. One afternoon, during the forty-five minute rest period that followed lunch, which was usually spent reading Superman comic books, writing letters, and studying two-day-old box scores in the New York Post, Dubinsky, whose bed stood to the left of Ferguson's (Noah's was to the right), brought up the old question once again, telling Ferguson how staunchly he had argued for Snider over Mantle in a discussion with two Yankee fans that morning, fully expecting Dodger-fan Ferguson to take his side, but Ferguson didn't do that, for as much as he worshipped the Duke, he said, Mantle was a better player, and on top of that Mays was even better than Mantle, only by a whisker, perhaps, but clearly better, and why would Dubinsky persist in deluding himself about the facts? Ferguson's answer was so unexpected, so tranquil in its assertions, so thorough in its demolition of Dubinsky's belief in the power of faith over reason that Dubinsky took offense, violent offense, and a moment later he was standing over Ferguson's bed and yelling at the top of his voice, calling Ferguson a traitor, an atheist, a communist, and a two-timing fraud, and maybe he should bash him in the gut to teach him a lesson. There was no question that Uncle Don could be more loquacious than his father, funnier than his father, more interesting than his father, but only when he wanted to be, and now that Ferguson had come to know him as well as he did, he saw how often he seemed to look straight through Aunt Mildred when she talked to him, as if he were searching for something behind her back, not able to hear her because he was thinking about something else, which was not unlike how his father often looked at his mother now, more and more often now, the glazed-over look of a man unable to see anything but the thoughts inside his own head, a man who was there but not there, gone. His mother looked agitated, more confused and distraught than Ferguson had ever seen her, no longer acting as the rock of composure and wisdom he had always thought she was but someone just like himself, a fragile being prey to sadness and tears and hopelessness, and when she put her arms around him he felt frightened, not just because his mother's store had burned down and there would be no more money for them to live on, which meant they would have to move to the poorhouse and subsist on porridge and dried-out pieces of bread for the rest of their days, no, that was bad enough, but the truly frightening thing was to learn that his mother was no stronger than he was, that the blows of the world hurt her just as much as they hurt him and that except for the fact that she was older, there was no difference between them. After the festivities ended, however, as he and his parents were on their way home in the blue car, he was caught by surprise when his mother started bad-mouthing Uncle Lew to his father. He couldn't follow everything she said, but the anger in her voice was unusually harsh, a bitter harangue that seemed to have something to do  with his uncle owing his father money, and how dare Lew splurge on Cadillacs and mink coats before paying his father back. His father took it calmly at first, but then he raised his voice, which was something that almost never happened, and suddenly he was barking at Ferguson's mother to stop, telling her that Lew didn't owe him anything, that it was his brother's money and he could do anything he goddamned pleased with it. Ferguson knew his parents sometimes argued (he could hear their voices through the wall of their bedroom), but this was the first time they had fought a battle in front of him, and because it was the first time, he couldn't help feeling that something fundamental about the world had changed. His mother had never cried in front of him before, and until he saw it with his own eyes, he hadn't even known that Mildred was capable of crying, but there they were weeping in front of him as they said goodbye to each other, both of them understanding that it could be months or years before they would see each other  again, and Ferguson saw it as he stood below them in his five-year-old's body, looking up at his mother and his aunt, stunned by the excess of emotion pouring out of them, and the image traveled to a place so deep inside him that he never forgot it. He didn't like being talked to in that way, and he especially didn't like it when his uncle swatted him on the back of the head one Saturday afternoon because the sting had hurt so much he had cried, but now that he had overheard his mother say to his father that Uncle Arnold was a dope, Ferguson didn't really care anymore. It was better to visit the Adler apartment in New York than the Ferguson houses in Union and Maplewood, not least because the drive through the Holland Tunnel was something he relished, the curious sensation of traveling through an underwater tube lined with millions of identical square tiles, and each time he made that subaquatic journey, he would marvel at how neatly the tiles fit together and wonder how many men it had taken to finish such a colossal task. Mildred's help came in the form of a reading list, of several reading lists over the months that followed, and with movie theaters temporarily off-limits, for the first time in her life Rose satisfied her hunger for stories with novels, good novels, not the crime novels and bestsellers she might have gravitated to on her own but the books that Mildred recommended, classics to be sure, but always selected with Rose in mind, books that Mildred felt Rose would enjoy, which meant that Moby-Dick and Ulysses and The Magic Mountain were never on any of the lists, since those books would have been too daunting for the meagerly trained Rose, but how many others there were to choose from, and as the months passed and her baby grew inside her, Rose spent her days swimming in the pages of books, and although there were a few disappointments among the dozens she read (The Sun Also Rises, for example, which struck her as fake and shallow), nearly all the others lured her in and kept her engrossed from first to last, among them Tender Is The Night, Pride and Prejudice, The House of Mirth, Moll Flanders, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, The Charterhouse of Parma, First Love, Dubliners, Light in August, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Washington Square, The Scarlet Letter, Main Street, Jane Eyre, and numerous others, but of all the writers she discovered during her confinement, it was Tolstoy who said the most to her, Tolstoy, who understood all of life, it seemed to her, everything there was to know about the human heart and the human mind, no matter if the heart or mind belonged to a man or a woman, and how was it possible, she wondered, for a man to know what Tolstoy knew about women, it made no sense that one man could be all men and all women, and therefore she marched through most of what Tolstoy had written, not just the big novels like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection, but the shorter works as well, the novellas and stories, none more powerful to her than the one-hundred-page Family Happiness, the story of a young bride and her gradual disillusionment, a work that hit so close to home that she wept at the end, and when Stanley returned to the apartment that evening, he was alarmed to see her in such a state, for even though she had finished the story at three in the afternoon, her eyes were still wet with tears. Because she was nervous herself, and because Stanley continued to sit there mostly in silence, she wound up talking for the two of them, which is to say, she talked too much, and as the minutes ticked by she grew more and more appalled with herself for rattling on like a brainless chatterbox, bragging about her sister, for example, and telling him what a brilliant student Mildred was, summa cum laude from Hunter last June and now enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia, the only woman in the English Department, one of only three Jews, imagine how proud the family was, and no sooner did she mention the family than she was on her way to Uncle Archie, her father's younger brother, Archie Adler, the keyboard man with the Downtown Quintet, currently playing at Moe's Hideout on fifty-second Street, and how inspiring it was to have a musician in the family, an artist, a renegade who thought about other things besides making money, yes she loved her Uncle Archie, he was far and away her favorite relative, and then, inevitably, she began talking about her work with Schneiderman, enumerating all the things he had taught her in the past year and a half, grump, foul-mouthed Schneiderman, who would take her to the Bowery on Sunday afternoons to hunt for old winos and bums, broken creatures with their white beards and long white hair, magnificent heads, the heads of ancient prophets and kings, and Schneiderman would give these men money to come to the studio to pose for him, in the most part in costumes, the old men dressed up in turbans and gowns and velvet robes, in the same way Rembrandt had dressed up the down-and-outs of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, and that was the light they used with these men, Rembrandt's light, light and dark together, deep shadow, all shadow with the merest touch of light, and by now Schneiderman had enough faith in her to allow her to set up the lighting on her own, she had made several dozen of these portraits by herself, and then she used the word chiaroscuro, and she understood that Stanley had no idea what she was talking about, that she could have been talking Japanese for all the sense it made to him, but still he went on looking at her, listening to her, rapt and silent, thunderstruck.
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