Ben looked at the three women and felt as if he were facing a panel of judges. "From my father," he said. Erica was looking at him, absently brushing a strand of golden hair away from her cheek. For a moment he felt hopeful, but then he remembered where the conversation had lurched. He was beginning to wish he could leap over their heads and vanish into the sky.
"Do you still speak it with him?" Erica asked, a wide smile on her face.
"He's been dead for almost twenty years, so no."
Ben hadn't meant to snap at her, but he was strangely happy that he had. The smiling faces on the panel seemed to fall to the ground, like dropped masks. The air yawned between him and the three others, stretching into a wide, blank space of empty canvas.
"I'm so sorry," Erica stuttered.
Everyone looked at the floor for the obligatory seven seconds before someone changed the subject, a ritual deeply familiar to people whose parents die young. Ben waited for the obligatory seven seconds to
It wasn't about selling the house, Ben thought. What else was there to talk about?
"What's really interesting about Yiddish," Erica was saying, the first courageous soul to break the silence, "is how much humor there is in it."
Her smile, which had seemed so promising just moments before, was beginning to sicken him. "No more than any other language," he muttered. But what it really does have, he thoughtwhat you don't know it has, because it isn't in any Woody Allen moviesis a world of the dead built into it, a true fear of heaven, an automatic need to invoke the presence of God whenever saying anything good or bad about anyone or anything, an absolute trust that the other world, if one could call it that, is not separate from this one, that eternity is always breathing over your shoulder, waiting to see if you will notice. But Ben didn't say anything more. Instead he glanced at Erica and then looked at his feet, noticing for the first time that in the haze of changing his clothes after work and going to the Chagall exhibit, he had somehow ended up wearing two slightly different shoes.
He moved toward the sides of the gallery, staring up at the paintings that interrupted the walls like gigantic plate-glass windows, offering views beyond the room. Some of them, he saw, hung limp on the gallery walls, tired and derivative, a parade of boxy men like early Cubist works, or distorted interiors with absurdly bright wallpaper borrowed from Matisse. Ben became more interested when things started to fly: first clouds, then words, then angels, then goats, and finally men and women, soaring through the air. The more things flew, the better the paintings became. Occasionally, as he moved along the gallery walls, he thought of Erica Frank. He stared at the flying goats and resisted the impulse to search for her again over his shoulder. A few times, he allowed himself to turn around and scan the crowd for her face. When he didn't see her, he was surprised to find himself disappointed. He stared at the paintings until they seemed to dissolve into blank white space.
Reprinted from The World To Come by Dara Horn (the full text of chapter 1). Copyright (c) 2006 by Dara Horn. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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