"What's the matter with him?" Sammy said. He slid over until his shoulders touched cold plaster. He was careful to take both of the pillows with him. "Is he sick?"
"What do you think?" said his mother, slapping now at the vacated expanse of bedsheet, as if to scatter any offending particles of himself that Sammy might have left behind. She had just come home from her last night on a two-week graveyard rotation at Bellevue, where she worked as a psychiatric nurse. The stale breath of the hospital was on her, but the open throat of her uniform gave off a faint whiff of the lavender water in which she bathed her tiny frame. The natural fragrance of her body was a spicy, angry smell like fresh pencil shavings. "He can barely stand on his own two feet"
Sammy peered over his mother, trying to get a better look at poor Josef Kavalier in his baggy wool suit. He had known, dimly, that he had Czech cousins. But his mother had not said a word about any of them coming to visit, let alone to share Sammy's bed. He wasn't sure just how San Francisco fitted in to the story.
"There you are," his mother said, standing up straight again, apparently satisfied at having driven Sammy onto the easternmost five inches of the mattress. She turned to Josef Kavalier. "Come here. I want to tell you something." She grabbed hold of his ears as if taking a jug by the handles, and crushed each of his cheeks in turn with her lips. "You made it. All right? You're here."
"All right," said her nephew. He did not sound unconvinced.
She handed him a washcloth and went out. As soon as she left, Sammy reclaimed a few precious inches of mattress while his cousin stood there, rubbing at his mauled cheeks. After a moment, Mrs. Klayman switched off the light in the kitchen, and they were left in darkness. Sammy heard his cousin take a deep breath and slowly let it out The stack of newsprint rattled and then hit the floor with a heavy thud of defeat. His jacket buttons clicked against the back of a chair; his trousers rustled as he stepped out of them; he let fall one shoe, then the other. His wristwatch chimed against the water glass on the nightstand. Then he and a gust of chilly air got in under the covers, bearing with them an odor of cigarette, armpit, damp wool, and something sweet and somehow nostalgic that Sammy presently identified as the smell, on his cousin's breath, of prunes from the leftover ingot of his mother's "special" meatloaf--prunes were only a small part of what made it so very special--which he had seen her wrap like a parcel in a sheet of wax paper and set on a plate in the Frigidaire. So she had known that her nephew would be arriving tonight, had even been expecting him for supper, and had said nothing about it to Sammy.
Josef Kavalier settled back against the mattress, cleared his throat once, tucked his arms under his head, and then, as if he had been unplugged, stopped moving. He neither tossed nor fidgeted nor even so much as flexed a toe. The Big Ben on the nightstand ticked loudly. Josef's breathing thickened and slowed. Sammy was just wondering if anyone could possibly fall asleep with such abandon when his cousin spoke.
"As soon as I can fetch some money, I will find a lodging, and leave the bed," he said. His accent was vaguely German, furrowed with an odd Scots pleat.
"That would be nice," Sammy said. "You speak good English."
"Where'd you learn it?"
"I prefer not to say."
"It's a secret?"
"It is a personal matter."
"Can you tell me what you were doing in California?" said Sammy. "Or is that confidential information too?"
"I was crossing over from Japan!'
"Japan!" Sammy was sick with envy. He had never gone farther on his soda-straw legs than Buffalo, never undertaken any crossing more treacherous than the flatulent poison-green ribbon that separated Brooklyn from Manhattan Island. In that narrow bed, in that bedroom hardly wider than the bed itself, at the back of an apartment in a solidly lower-middle-class building on Ocean Avenue, with his grandmother's snoring shaking the walls like a passing trolley, Sammy dreamed the usual Brooklyn dreams of flight and transformation and escape. He dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person, like Clifton Fadiman, or perhaps into a heroic doctor; or developing, through practice and sheer force of will, the mental powers that would give him a preternatural control over the hearts and minds of men. In his desk drawer lay--and had lain for some time--the first eleven pages of a massive autobiographical novel to be entitled either (in the Perelmanian mode) Through Abe Glass, Darkly or (in the Dreiserian) American Disillusionment (a subject of which he was still by and large ignorant). He had devoted an embarrassing number of hours of mute concentration--brow furrowed, breath held--to the development of his brain's latent powers of telepathy and mind control. And he had thrilled to that Iliad of medical heroics, The Microbe Hunters, ten times at least. But like most natives of Brooklyn, Sammy considered himself a realist, and in general his escape plans centered around the attainment of fabulous sums of money.
Excerpted from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon Copyright© 2000 by Michael Chabon. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. 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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