It was one of the astonishing acts of his life in America.
From a tradesman in Milburn, in the cold wet spring of 1940, he bought the radio. He, Jacob Schwart! His impulsiveness frightened him. His absurd trust in a stranger’s integrity. For the radio was secondhand, and came with no guarantee. In this reckless gesture he was violating his principles of healthy distrust of those others he meant to inculcate in his children to protect them from disaster.
“What have I done! What…”
Like a random act of adultery, it had been. Or violence.
He, he!-who was assuredly not a man of violence but a civilized man, in exile now from his true life.
Yet the purchase had been premeditated for weeks. The quickening news in Europe was such, he could not bear to remain in ignorance. Local newspapers were inadequate. Nothing would satisfy him except a radio with which to hear daily, nightly news from as many sources as possible.
In a state of barely controlled agitation he had presented himself to the teller at the First Bank of Chautauqua. Shyly yet decisively he’d pushed his bankbook beneath the wicket. The teller, an individual of no earthly significance except he held Jacob Schwart’s bankbook in his hand, frowned at the inked figures as if poised to glance up sternly at him-this cringing troll-figure in the soiled work clothes and cloth cap, “Jacob Schwart”-and inform him that no such savings account existed, he was totally mistaken. Instead, as if this were an everyday transaction, the teller mechanically counted out bills, not once but twice; and stiff freshly minted bills they were, which pleased Jacob Schwart absurdly. As the teller pushed both money and bankbook back beneath the wicket he seemed almost to wink at his customer. I know what you’re going to do with this money, Jacob Schwart!
For days afterward Jacob would suffer stomach cramps and diarrhea, so stricken with guilt. Or so elated, and so stricken with guilt. A radio! In the caretaker’s hovel! A Motorola, the very best manufacturer of radios in the world. The cabinet was made of wood, the dial warmly glowed as soon as the radio was turned on. It was a miracle how, switching the knob to on, you felt immediately the vibrating life of the marvelous instrument inside the cabinet like a thrumming soul.
Of course, Jacob had bought the radio without telling Anna. He no longer troubled to tell his wife much of what he did. Obscurely, they had become resentful of each other. Their stony silences lasted for hours. A day, a night. Who had wounded whom? When had it begun? Like dumb blind undersea creatures they lived together in their shadowy cave with only a minimal awareness of each other. Jacob learned to make his wishes known by grunting, pointing, grimacing, shrugging, shifting his body abruptly in his chair, glancing toward Anna. She was his wife, his servant. She must obey. He controlled all their finances, all transactions with the outside world were his. Since he’d forbidden the intimidated woman to speak their native language even when they were alone together in their bedroom, even in their bed in the dark, Anna was at a disadvantage, and came to resent having to speak English at any time.
Anna, too, was profoundly shocked by her husband’s impulsive purchase of the radio, which she interpreted as an act not only of uncharacteristic profligacy but also of marital infidelity. He is mad. This is the beginning. When they had so little money, and the children needed clothes, and visits to the dentist. And the price of coal, and the prices of food…Anna was shocked, and frightened, and could not speak of it without stammering.
Jacob interrupted, “The radio is secondhand, Anna. A bargain. And a Motorola.”
He was jeering at her, she knew. For Anna Schwart had no idea what Motorola was, or meant; no more than she could have recited the names of the moons of Jupiter.
That first evening, Jacob was giddy, magnanimous: he invited his family into the parlor to listen to the big box-like object installed beside his chair. Anna stayed away, but the boys and Rebecca were enthralled. But it was an error in judgment, Jacob came to realize, for the news that evening was of an attack in the North Sea, the British destroyer Glowworm sunk by German warships, but survivors of the attack had been rescued from drowning by the crew of one of the German ships…Immediately Jacob changed his mind about his children listening to the radio, and ordered them out of the parlor.
German warships! Rescuing British sailors! What did it mean…
“No. It is not predictable. There is ugliness in it. It is not for young ears.”
It was the news, he meant. Unpredictable, and therefore ugly.
Nineteen years later, hearing the radio in Niley’s room murmuring and humming through the night, Rebecca would recall her father’s radio that came to be such a fixture in the household. Like a malevolent god it was, demanding attention, exerting an irresistible influence, yet unapproachable, unknowable. For as no one but Pa ever dared to sit in Pa’s chair (a finely cracked old leather chair with a hassock and a solid, almost straight back, because of Pa’s aching spine) so no one but Pa was to switch on, or even to touch, the radio.
“You hear? No one.”
He was serious. His voice quavered.
Mostly it was Herschel and August he warned. Anna, he understood would scorn to touch the radio. Rebecca he knew would never disobey.
Pa was jealous of the damn thing like it was (this was Herschel’s sniggering observation) some lady friend of his. You had to wonder what the old man was doin with it, some nights, huh?
During the day, when Pa was working in the cemetery, the radio was unprotected in the parlor. More than once Pa suddenly appeared in the house, stalking into the parlor to check the tubes at the rear of the radio: if they were hot, or even lukewarm, there would be hell to pay for somebody, usually Herschel.
The reason for such frugality was electricity doesn’t grow on trees.
And as Pa said repeatedly, grimly war news isn’t for the ears of the young.
Behind the old man’s back Herschel sputtered indignantly, “Fuck ”war newzz.“ Fuck like there ain’t other things on a radyo, like muzik an‘ jokin, it wouldna kill the old bastid to let us lissen.” Herschel was old enough to know what a radio was, he had friends in town whose families owned radios, and everybody listened to them all the time, and not just fuckin’ war newzz!
Yet, night after night, Pa shut the parlor door against them.
The more Pa drank at supper, the more firmly he shut the door against them.
Some nights, the yearning to hear the radio was so powerful, both Rebecca’s brothers whined through the door.
“C’n we lissen too, Pa?”
“We won’t talk or nothin…”
“Yeah! We won’t.”
Herschel was daring enough to rap his scraped knuckles against the door, though not too loudly. He was growing so fast his wrists protruded from his shirtsleeves, and his collar was too tight to button over his Adam’s apple. Soon, the lower half of his face would sprout wire-like hairs he would be obliged to shave off before coming to school, or be sent back home by his teacher.
Through the door they (Herschel, August, Rebecca) could hear a radio voice that rose and fell like waves, but they could not distinguish any words, for Pa kept the volume turned low. What was the voice saying? Why was “news” so important? Rebecca was too young to know what war was (“Fightin‘ like with guns, bombs, an there’s airplanes, too,” Herschel said) but Ma told her it was all happening far away in Europe: thousands of miles away. Herschel and August spoke knowingly of “Nazizz”-“Hittler”-but said they were far away, too. No one wanted the war to come to the Yoo Ess. Anyway there was the ’Lantic Ozean in-between. The war would never come to a place like Milburn with a single lock on the barge canal. “This place,” Herschel said scornfully, “the fuckin Nazizz wouldna bother with.”
Rebecca’s mother scorned the radio as what she called a toy-thing of her father’s they could not afford, yet he had bought it. He had bought it! She would never forgive him.
Month followed month in that year 1940. And in 1941. What was happening in the war-news? Pa said it was ugly, and getting uglier all the time. But the Yoo Ess was staying out of it like damn cowwards not wanting to get hurt. You’d think, if they didn’t give a damn about Poland, France, Belgium, Russia, they’d give a damn about Britain…
Ma was nervous, and began to hum loudly. Sometimes she would hiss in her hoarse, cracked voice, “”War news isn’t for the ears of the young.“”
Rebecca was confused: Pa wanted the war to come here? Was that what Pa wanted?
There were nights when, in the midst of eating supper, Pa became distracted so you knew he was thinking of the war-news in the next room. That sick-eager look in his eyes. Gradually he would cease eating and push his plate away and take swallows of his drink instead, like medicine. Sometimes his drink was beer, sometimes hard cider (purchased from the Milburn cider mill a mile away on the river, that smelled so strong when the wind blew from that direction), and sometimes whiskey. Pa’s stomach was eat out by rats he liked to say. On that damn boat from Mar-say. Lost his guts and lost his youth Pa said. This was meant to be a joke, Rebecca knew. But it seemed so sad to her! Unconsciously Pa would drift his eyes on her, not seeing her exactly but the little one, the unwanted one; the baby born after eleven hours of her mother’s labor in a filthy cabin in a filthy, docked boat in New York harbor from which the other passengers had fled. She was too young to know such a thing, yet she knew. When Pa uttered one of his jokes he laughed his snigger-laugh. Herschel would echo this laugh and, less certainly, August. But never Ma. Rebecca would not recall her mother laughing at any joke or witticism of her father’s, ever.
The worst was when Pa came into the house in a bad mood, limping and cursing, too tired to wash up after working ten, twelve hours in the cemetery and not even the promise of the war-news could liven him. At supper he chewed his food as if it pained him, or was making him ill. More and more he would drink the liquid in his glass. With a fork he pushed fatty chunks of meat off his plate onto the oilcloth covering and finally he would shove away his plate with a sigh of disgust. “Huh! Somebody must think this is a family of hogs, feeding us such swill.”
At the supper table, Rebecca’s mother stiffened. Her flushed, soft-sliding girl’s face that was pinched inside her other, older and tireder face showed no sign of hurt, nor even of hearing what Pa had said. The boys would laugh, but not Rebecca who felt the stab of pain in her mother’s heart as if it was her own.
Pa grunted he’d had enough. Shoved his chair back from the table, grabbed his bottle to take into the parlor with him, shut the door hard against his family. In his wake, there was an awkward embarrassed silence. Even Herschel, his ears reddening, stared down at his plate and gnawed his lower lip. In the parlor, you could hear a stranger’s voice: muffled, teasing-taunting. Ma rose quickly from the table and began to hum and would continue to hum, fierce as a swarm of bees, crashing pans and cutlery in the sink as she washed the dishes in water heated from the stove. Every night, now that she was a big girl and no longer a toddler, Rebecca helped Ma by drying. These were happy times for Rebecca. Without Ma giving a sign of noticing, still less of being annoyed, Rebecca could draw close against Ma’s legs, that exuded such warmth. Through her almost-shut eyes she might glance up, to see Ma peeking down at her. Was it a game? The game of Not-See, but with her mother?
Supper was over abruptly. The boys had gone out. Pa was gone into the parlor. Only Rebecca and Ma remained in the kitchen, doing dishes. From time to time Ma muttered under her breath words in that strange sibilant language the farmer’s wife had spoken at their front door, passing too swiftly for Rebecca to grasp, that she knew she was not meant to hear.
When the last dish was dried and put away, Ma said, not smiling at Rebecca, speaking in a sudden sharp voice like a woman waking from sleep, “You were wanted, Rebecca. God wanted you. And I wanted you. Never believe what that man says.”