“What Happened to the Baby?”
When I was a child, I was often taken to meetings of my Uncle Simon’s society, the League for a Unified Humanity. These meetings, my mother admitted, were not suitable for a ten-year-old, but what was she to do with me? I could not be left alone at night, and my father, who was a detail man for a pharmaceutical company, was often away from home. He had recently been assigned to the Southwest: we would not see him for weeks at a time. To our ears, places like Arizona and New Mexico might as well have been far-off planets. Yet Uncle Simon, my mother told me proudly, had been to even stranger regions. Sometimes a neighbor would be called in to look after me while my mother went off alone to one of Uncle Simon’s meetings. It was important to go, she explained, if only to supply another body. The hall was likely to be half empty. Like all geniuses, Uncle Simon was—“so far,” she emphasized—unappreciated.
Uncle Simon was not really my uncle. He was my mother’s first cousin, but out of respect, and because he belonged to an older generation, I was made to call him uncle. My mother revered him. “Uncle Simon,” she said, “is the smartest man you’ll ever know.” He was an inventor, though not of mundane things like machines, and it was he who had founded the League for a Unified Humanity. What Uncle Simon had invented, and was apparently still inventing, since it was by nature an infinite task, was a wholly new language, one that could be spoken and understood by everyone alive. He had named it GNU, after the African antelope that sports two curved horns, each one turned toward the other, as if striving to close a circle. He had traveled all over the world, picking up roots and discarding the less common vowels. He had gone to Turkey and China and many countries in South America, where he interviewed Indians and wrote down, in his cryptic homemade notation, the sounds they spoke. In Africa, in a tiny Xhosa village hidden in the wild, he was inspired by observing an actual yellow-horned gnu. And still, with all this elevated foreign experience, he lived, just as we did, in a six- story walkup in the East Bronx, in a neighborhood of small stores, many of them vacant. In the autumn the windows of one of these stores would all at once be shrouded in dense curtains. Gypsies had come to settle in for the winter. My mother said it was the times that had emptied the stores. My father said it was the Depression. I understood it was the Depression that made him work for a firm cruel enough to send him away from my mother and me.
Unlike my mother, my father did not admire Uncle Simon. “That panhandler,” he said. “God only knows where he finds these suckers to put the touch on.”
“They’re cultured Park Avenue people,” my mother protested. “They’ve always felt it a privilege to fund Simon’s expeditions.”
“Simon’s expeditions! If you ask me, in the last fifteen years he’s never gotten any farther than down the street to the public library to poke his nose in the National Geographic.”
“Nobody’s asking, and since when are you so interested? Anyhow,” my mother said, “it’s not Simon who runs after the money, it’s her.”
“Her,” I knew, was Uncle Simon’s wife, Essie. I was not required to call her aunt.
“She dresses up to beat the band and flatters their heads off,” my mother went on. “Well, someone’s got to beg, and Simon’s not the one for that sort of thing. Who’s going to pay for the hall? Not to mention his research.”
“Research,” my father mocked. “What’re you calling research? Collecting old noises in order to scramble them into new noises. Why doesn’t he go out and get a regular job? A piece of work, those two—zealots! No, I’ve got that wrong, he’s the zealot, and she’s the fawning ignoramus. Those idiot jingles! Not another penny, Ruby, I’m warning you, you’re not one of those Park Avenue suckers with money to burn.”
“It’s only for the annual dues—”
“The League for Scrambling Noises. Ten bucks down the sewer.” He put on his brown felt fedora, patted his vest pocket to check for his train ticket, and left us.
“Look how he goes away angry,” my mother said, “and all in front of a child. Phyllis dear, you have to understand. Uncle Simon is ahead of his time, and not everyone can recognize that. Daddy doesn’t now but someday he surely will. In the meantime, if we don’t want him to come home angry, let’s not tell that we’ve been to a meeting.”
Uncle Simon’s meetings always began the same way, with Uncle Simon proposing a newly minted syllable, explaining its derivation from two or three alien roots, and the membership calling out their opinions. Mostly these were contentious, and there were loud arguments over whether it was possible for the syllable in question to serve as a verb without a different syllable attached to its tail. Even my mother looked bored during these sessions. She took off her wool gloves and then pulled them on again. The hail was unheated, and my feet in their galoshes were growing numb. All around us a storm of furious fingers holding lit cigarettes stirred up halos of pale smoke, and it seemed to me that these irritable shouting men (they were mostly men) detested Uncle Simon almost as much as my father did. How could Uncle Simon be ahead of his time if even his own League people quarreled with him?
My mother whispered, “You don’t have to be upset, dear, it’s really all right. It’s just their enthusiasm. It’s what they have to do to decide, the way scientists do experiments, try and try again. We’re sitting right in the middle of Uncle Simon’s laboratory. You’ll see, in the end they’ll all agree.”
It struck me that they would never all agree, but after a while the yelling ebbed to a kind of low communal grumbling, the smoke darkened, and the next part of the meeting, the part I liked best (or disliked least) commenced. At the front of the hall, at the side, was a little platform, broad enough to accommodate one person. Two steps led up to it, and Uncle Simon’s wife mounted them and positioned herself. “The opera star,” my mother said into my ear. Essie was all in yellow silk, with a yellow silk rose at her collarbone, and a yellow silk rose in her graying hair. She had sewn this dress herself, from a tissue-paper pattern bought at Kresge’s. She was a short plump flat-nosed woman who sighed often; her blackly gleaming pumps with their thin pedestals made her look, I thought, like Minnie Mouse. Her speaking voice too was mouselike, too soft to carry well, and there was no microphone.
“Sunshine Beams,’” she announced. “I will first deliver my poem in English, and then I will render it in the lovely idiom of GNU, the future language of all mankind, as translated by Mr. Simon Greenfeld.”
It was immediately plain that Essie had designed her gown to reflect her recitation:
If in your most radiant dreams
You see the yellow of sunshine beams,
Then know, O Human Race all,
That you have heard the call
Of Humanity Unified.
So see me wear yellow with pride!
For it means that the horns of the gnu are meeting at last,
And the Realm of Unity has come to pass!
“Yellow horn, yellow horn, each one toward his fellow horn” was the refrain, repeated twice.
“The opera star and the poetess,” my mother muttered. But then something eerie happened: Essie began to sing, and the words, which even I could tell were silly, were transmuted into reedlike streams of unearthly sounds. I felt shivery all over, and not from the cold. I was not unused to the hubbub of foreign languages: a Greek-speaking family lived across the street, the greengrocer on the corner was Lebanese, and our own building vibrated with Neapolitan and Yiddish exuberances. Yet what we were hearing now was something altogether alien. It had no affinity with anything recognizable. It might just as well have issued from the mouths of mermaids at the bottom of the sea.
“Well?” my mother said. “How beautiful, didn’t I tell you? Even when it comes out of her.”
The song ended in a pastel sheen, like the slow decline of a sunset.
Uncle Simon held up his hand against the applause. His voice was hoarse and high-pitched and ready for battle, “For our next meeting,” he said, “the program will feature a GNU rendition, by yours truly, of Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark,’ to be set to music by our own songbird, Esther Rhoda Greenfeld, so please everyone be sure to mark the date…”
But the hall was in commotion. A rocking boom was all at once erupting from the mostly empty rear rows, drowning Uncle Simon out. Three men and two women were standing on their chairs and stamping their feet, drumming faster and faster. This was, I knew, no more unexpected than Essie’s singing and Uncle Simon’s proclamations. It burst out at the close of nearly every meeting, and Uncle Simon reveled in the clamor. These were his enemies and rivals; but no, he had no rivals, my mother informed me afterward, and he took it as a compliment that those invaders, those savages, turned up at all, and that they waited until after Essie had finished. They waited in order to ridicule her, but what was their ridicule if not envy? They were shrieking out some foolish babble, speaking in tongues, pretending a parody of GNU, and when they went off into their customary chanting, wasn’t that the truest sign of their defeat, of their envy?
“ZA—men-hof! ZA-men-hof!” Uncle Simon’s enemies were howling. They jumped off their seats and ran down the aisle toward the podium, bawling right into Uncle Simon’s reddening face.
“Esper-ANto! Esper-ANto! ZA-men-hof!”
“We’d better leave,” my mother said, “before things get rough.” She hurried me out of the hall without stopping to say goodnight to Uncle Simon. I saw that this would have been impossible anyhow. He had his fists up, and I wondered if his enemies were going to knock him down. He was a small man, and his nearsighted eyes were small and frail behind their fat lenses. Only his ridged black hair looked robust, scalloped like the sand when the tide has run out.
Though I had witnessed this scene many times in my childhood, it was years before I truly fathomed its meaning. By then my father had, according to my mother, “gone native”: he had fallen in love with the Southwest and was bringing back hand-woven baskets from New Mexico for my mother’s rubber plants, and toy donkeys made of layers of colored crepe paper for me. I was in my late teens when he persuaded my mother to move to Arizona. “Ludicrous,” she complained. “I’ll be a fish out of water out there. I’ll be cut off from everything.” She worried especially about what would happen to Uncle Simon, who was now living alone downtown, in a room with an icebox and a two-burner stove hidden behind a curtain. That Essie! A divorce! It was a scandal, and all of it Essie’s doing: no one in our family had ever before succumbed to such shame. She had accused Uncle Simon of philandering.
“What a viper that woman is,” my mother said. “And all on top of what she did to the baby.” She was filling a big steamer trunk with linens and quilts. The pair of creases between her eyebrows tightened. “Who knows how those people out there think—out there I might just as well be a greenhorn straight off the boat. I’d rather die than live in such a place, but Daddy says he’s up for a raise if he sticks to the territory.”
I had heard about the baby nearly all my life. Uncle Simon and Essie had not always been childless. Their little girl, eleven months old and already walking, had died before I was born. Her name was Henrietta. They had gone to South America on one of Uncle Simon’s expeditions—in those days Essie went everywhere with him. “She never used to let him out of her sight,” my mother recounted. “She was always jealous. Suspicious. She expected Simon to be no better than she was, that’s the truth. You know she was already pregnant at the wedding, so she was grateful to him for marrying her. As well she should be, considering that who could tell whose baby it was anyway, maybe Simon’s, maybe not. If you ask me, not. She’d had a boyfriend who had hair just like Simon’s, black and wiry. The baby had a headful of black curls. The poor little thing caught one of those diseases they have down there, in Peru or Bolivia, one of those places. Leave it to Essie, would any normal mother drag a baby through a tropical swamp?”
“A swamp?” I asked. “The last time you told about the baby it was a desert.”
“Desert or swamp, what’s the difference? It was something you don’t come down with in the Bronx. The point is Essie killed that child.”
I was happy that the move to the Southwest did not include me. I had agitated to attend college locally, chiefly to escape Arizona, My father had paid for a year’s tuition at NYU, and also for half the rent of a walkup on Avenue A that I shared with another freshman, Annette Sorenson. The toilet was primitive—it had an old-fashioned pull chain and a crack in the overhead tank that leaked brown sludge. The bathtub was scored with reddish stains that couldn’t be scrubbed away, though Annette went at it with steel wool and bleach. She cried nearly every night, not from homesickness but from exasperation. She had come from Briar Basin to NYU, she confided, because it was located in Greenwich Village. (“ Briar Basin, Minnesota,” she said; she didn’t expect me to know that.) She was on the lookout for bohemia, and had most of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s verse by heart. She claimed she had discovered exactly which classroom Thomas Wolfe had once taught in. She explored the nearby bars, but legend eluded her. Her yearnings were commonplace in that neighborhood: she wanted to act someday, and in the meantime she intended to inhale the atmosphere. She was blond and large all over. Her shoulder blades were a foot and a half apart and her wrist bones jutted like crab apples. I thought of her as a kind of Valkyrie. She boasted, operatically, that she wasn’t a virgin.
I took Annette with me to visit Simon. I had long ago dropped the “Uncle”; I was too old for that. My mother’s letters were reminding me not to neglect him. A twenty-dollar bill was sometimes enclosed, meant for delivery to Simon. I knew my father believed the money was for me; now and then he would add an admonitory line. Essie was still living in the old apartment in the Bronx, supporting herself well enough. She had a job in a men’s clothing store and sat all day in a back room doing alterations, letting out seams and shortening sleeves. I suspected that Simon was on the dole. It seemed unlikely, after all this time, that he was still being shored up by his Park Avenue idealists.
Is your uncle some sort of writer?” Annette asked as we climbed the stairs. The wooden steps creaked tunefully; the ancient layers of paint on the banisters were thickly wrinkled. I had told her that Simon was crazy about words. “I mean really crazy,” I said.
Simon was sitting at a bridge table lit by a gooseneck lamp. A tower of dictionaries was at his left. A piece of questionable-looking cheese lay in a saucer on his right. In between was a bottle of ink. He was filling his fountain pen.
“My mother sends her love,” I said, and handed Simon an envelope with the twenty-dollar bill folded into a page torn from my Modern History text. Except for a photograph of a zeppelin, it was blank. My father’s warning about how not to be robbed in broad daylight was always to keep your cash well swaddled. “Otherwise those Village freaks down there will sure as shooting nab it,” he wrote at the bottom of my mother’s letter. But I had wrapped the money mostly to postpone Simon’s humiliation: maybe, if only for a moment, he would think I was once again bringing him one of my mother’s snapshots of cactus and dunes. She had lately acquired a box camera; in order not to be taken for a greenhorn, she was behaving like a tourist. At that time I had not yet recognized that an occasional donation might not humiliate Simon.
He screwed the cap back on the ink bottle and looked Annette over.
“My roommate. Annette Sorenson.”
“A great big girl, how about that. Viking stock You may be interested to know that I’ve included a certain uncommon Scandinavian diphthong in my work. Zamenhof didn’t dare. He looked the other way. He didn’t have the nerve.” Behind his glasses Simon was grinning. “Any friend of my niece Phyllis I intend to like. But never an Esperantist. You’re not an Esperantist, are you?”
This, or something like it, was his usual opening. I had by now determined that Essie was right: Simon was a flirt, and something more. He went for the girls. Once he even went for me: he put out a hand and cupped my breast. Then he thought better of it. He had, after all, known me from childhood; he desisted. Or else, since it was January, and anyhow I was wearing a heavy wool overcoat, there wasn’t much of interest worth cupping. For my part, I ignored it. I was eighteen, with eyes in my head, beginning to know a thing or two.
I had what you might call an insight. Simon coveted more than the advancement of GNU.
On my mother’s instructions I opened his icebox. A rancid smell rushed out. There was a shapeless object green at the edges—the other half of the cheese in his saucer. The milk was sour, so I poured it down the toilet. Simon was all the while busy with his spiel, lecturing Annette on the evil history of Esperanto and its ignominious creator and champion, Dr. Ludwik Lazar Zamenhof, of Bialystok, Poland.
“There they spoke four languages, imagine that! Four lousy languages! And this is what inspires him? Four languages? Did he ever go beyond European roots? Never! The man lived inside a puddle and never stepped out of it. Circumscribed! Small! Narrow!”
“I’ll be right back,” I called out from the doorway, and went down to the grocery on the corner to replenish Simons meager larder. I had heard this grandiose history too many times: how Simon alone had ventured into the genuinely universal, how he had roamed far beyond Zamenhof’s paltry horizons into the vast tides of human speech, drawing from these a true synthesis, a compact common language unsurpassed in harmony and strength. Yet tragically eclipsed—eclipsed by Zamenhof’s disciples, those deluded believers, those adorers of a false messiah! An eye doctor, that charlatan, and look how he blinds all his followers: Germanic roots, Romance roots, Slavic, and then he stops, as if there’s no India, no China, no Arabia! No Aleutian Islanders! Why didn’t the fellow just stick to the polyglot Yiddish he was born into and let it go at that? Did he ever set foot twenty miles into the Orient, into the Levant? No! Then why didn’t he stick to Polish? An eye doctor who couldn’t see past his own nose. Hamlet in Esperanto, did you ever hear of such chutzpah?
And so on: Esperanto, a fake, a sham, an injustice!
As I was coming up the stairs, carrying bread and milk and eggs in the straw-handled Navajo bag my mother had sent as a present for Simon, I heard Annette say, “But I never knew Esperanto even existed,” and I saw that Simon had Annette’s hand in his. He was circling her little finger with a coarse thumb that curved backward like a twisted spoon. She didn’t seem to mind.
“You shouldn’t call him crazy,” she protested. “He’s only disappointed.” By then we were already in the street. She looked up at Simon’s fourth-floor window. It flashed back at her like a signal: it had caught the late sun. I noticed that she was holding a white square of paper with writing on it.
“A word he gave me. A brand-new word that no one’s ever used before. He wants me to learn it.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
“It means ‘enchanting maiden,’ isn’t that something?”
“Not if maiden’s supposed to be the same as virgin.”
“Cut it out, Phyllis, just stop it. He thinks I can help.”
“I could recruit. He says I could get young people interested.”
“I’m young people,” I said. “I’ve never been interested, and I’ve had to listen to Simon’s stuff all my life. He bores me silly.”
“Well, he told me you take after your father, whatever that means. A prophet is without honor in his own family, that’s what he said.”
“Simon isn’t a prophet, he’s a crank.”
“I don’t care what he is. You don’t get to meet someone like that in Minnesota. And he even wears sandals!”
It seemed she had found her bohemian at last. The sandals were another of my mother’s presents. Like the photos of the cactus and the dunes, they were intended as souvenirs of distant Arizona.