And who could say what other treasure had been left behind, in favor of these things? The ashtray, souvenir of Alma's deceased husband's bank desk, was a chunk of German reality, imported against absurd obstacles, to prove the unreality of Alma's present circumstance. That being: Broadway and Ninety-Second, the Knickerbocker Apartments. A one-bedroom on this island of Manhattan, furnished conspicuously with what could be saved apart from the ashtray, the half set of china, a crucial framed photograph or two (showing Alma among cousins, on Alpine vacations, they might as easily have been Nazi memorabilia to Rose's eye), Viennese-lace curtains. An apartment less a home than a memorial to the life abandoned. Two windows staring onto Broadway traffic to replace a house placed high enough in Lübeck's posh district to give panoramas of both river and mountains, next door to none other than the family home of Lübeck's great scion Thomas Mann, the Buddenbrooks house. Alma and her banker had more than once conversed with the visiting author, across the distance of two back porches. Another life. Before exile. Alma, formerly an opera singer on Lübeck's greatest stages. Alma, flower of Lübeck. (Rose got her fill of this word, this holy name, Lübeck.) More German than German, barely Jew at all until the degraded sons of Bavaria had wrenched the nation to pieces. All this is what that ashtray knew, up to and likely including the exact sums Alma had used to buy herself and her brother, Lukas, and her son, Albert, escape to New York, at that last minute when, after the approaching nightmare had induced the banker's heart attack, Alma's and Albert's denial had been torn from them: Jew, not German. Alma had had to sell it all, maybe was lucky even to keep the ashtray.
Here at the Knickerbocker was the "parlor," the sole public room, really, where, sitting over cups of tea, Rose abased herself to Alma's contempt in order to win grudging approval to marry. Albert was that much a mother's boy. Here, the same room, Rose had then learned to open her voice at serious Communist meetings, to smoke and argue with the men, while Alma, sealed in her aristocratic German, unwilling or unable to learn English, had, gratifyingly, been reduced to a hostess for their cell's meetings. And here, spring of '47, was the site of Rose's first living-room trial, the one that mattered, that changed everything. The meeting where, with classic party perversity, Albert, wrongly accused of spying when he was only an incompetent blabbermouth, was made a spy. The trial in which Albert was aided and abetted in flight from his family, his wife and seven-year-old daughter, by the party.
Where was Miriam? Right there. The daughter Albert was abandoning was the whole while in Alma's bedroom. She sat through the trial as she'd sat through previous meetings, gobbling the foil-wrapped Mozartkugeln Alma always provided the granddaughter with whom she couldn't converse in English, only coo at, to the solitary child's increasingly evident boredom. Miriam sat amid a litter of the unwrapped foil, playing quietly with her rag doll, likely smearing it with the German chocolate, and understanding, God help her, who knew how little or much of the things she overheard. The expulsion that would reverse-exile her father from New York, from America forever.
As for Rose, her voice wasn't for once available to be overheard. Knowing, that day, that if she spoke she'd scream, Rose never said a word that would have given Miriam, as she listened from the next room, the least alarm. Nothing to alert her that this meeting was out of the ordinary, that the party men were handing down anything other than Albert and Rose's next irritating errand, the next recalcitrant shop steward or union chief to pester with their pamphlets and talk, the next cultural gathering to uselessly infiltrate. If anything alarmed the seven-year-old girl, it would have been the absence of her mother's voice.
Excerpted from Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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