Then a gaggle of old ladies were surrounding him, holding congress over the recumbent old man like witches over a bubbling pot, issues instructions and counter-instructions. And then, above the din of confusion for confusion’s sake, a voice piped in slow Yiddish vaser, vaser, vaser, water, and it took a moment for the thin voice of Goldfarb to waft above the background scent of tumult and uncertainty.
He was gently lifted from the bed and five cups of water were thrust beneath his nose. His complexion was waxy and wan. His face had assumed the slack dimensions of a recently cast death mask. But the water revived him.
“A dank… a dank,” he said to the congress of old ladies. He stood. He told them he was going home, that literary conversation tapped his meager energy, but they all protested at once, throwing up an impenetrable wall of words. They told him he was going to a hospital in an ambulance, in a cab, but he threw up his two hands, as if to shield himself from some invisible enemy.
“Neyn, neyn,” he shook his shaggy head. “My vhole life I’ve walked or taken the subway. A big mackher in cab I am not. Vone does not change vone’s habits so late in life, good ladies.” But the ladies were insistent, recounting the dozens of ways an old man could die in New York City, from the mundane to the supernatural, from falls, blows, muggers, an errant taxi cab, the Angel of Death hovered over every manhole cover and curb. Then one woman said that dear Mr. Zimmerman would be pleased to accompany Mr. Goldfarb to his apartment. If the old man refused an ambulance, a taxi, or any standard conveyance, I was to be his beneficent conductor.
So I found myself on upper Broadway with Mendele Goldfarb, who had lost the Nobel Prize by the width of a hair. He had written a particularly large Yiddish novel fifty years ago, the Carnovksy Sisters, a stormy drama of three daughters from a Rabbinical scion, who each embody an object of Jewish male fantasy and paranoia: the young, wanton whore, the matronly yet chaste Chasidic mother, fertile within the bounds of the Creator’s first commandment, and the old crone.
The novel is a vast rumination on female infidelity, both of a sexual and spiritual nature. The work was the kind of novel that could not be published today, even in Yiddish, its slant is so overwhelmingly suspicious of the duplicitous nature of women. Goldfarb wrote many more novels, poems, short stories, and even adapted some for the stage. No others were translated into English.
He labored long and hard under the shadow of Isaac Singer until he was all but eclipsed by his rival, who even in death continued to bathe him in evening gloom. The Sister Carnovsky was translated in English and published by Doubleday, Garden City, New York, in 1953, but it had been out of print for scores of years. Every blue moon, I discovered it on the dusty shelf of a used book emporium.
“But I’ll pay, Mr. Goldfarb,” I answered him. “Where do you live?” He gave an address in upper Manhattan, near Inwood Park, the north pole of New York City. If I could get a cab driver to take us there, it would cost over $10, but luckily Mendele Goldfarb would not take my charity, and remained adamant about the subway.
We threaded our way through the rush hour crowds. At the turnstile, Goldfarb fished for a token deep in the channels of his overcoat to no avail. I offered him one, but he waived a trembling hand dismissively in the air, as if my offer was a pesky fly. I insisted on the express, but he was unwavering about the local, claiming the rapid movement made his eardrums pop. Someone offered Goldfarb a seat, he was such a display of decrepitude, but he wagged his head, proudly grasping the overhead strap. He began to speak to me in Yiddish, but over the dim of the train, whose parts sounded like a sack of bones being dumped into a bucket, I couldn’t hear a syllable. I bent down and pressed my ear against his chapped lips.
“I need my medisohn. I vant my medisohn.”