Landsman weighs the sholem in his hand now - a cute little Beretta .22 with a plastic grip - poisons himself on nicotine, tries to understand the lamentations of this black Delta yid, Mr. Johnson.
- Michael Chabon
These are of course strange times to be a Jew. They are not yet as strange as they will get -- you do not, Landsman thinks, have to be a decorated shammes to see this. Fourteen months until the whole District turns into an existential no-man's land, until the tanks roll down Max Nordau Street and the suited, smiling Americans pour out, clowns out of their armored clown cars.
The thoughts coming out of Landsman's mind tonight are bitter. From a distance he realizes this, through the comforting fug of plum brandy. Landsman notes that the fire in his throat has burned down to embers, indicating to him that the wise course will be to retrieve another drink before the end of the next set. At this time the guitarists will lay their guitars to rest on their stands, the clarinet and sax players will remove their reeds and place their horns on their stands, the drummers will balance their sticks in their pockets, the pianists shut their lids and the horn players unscrew their mouthpieces. The noise that Landsman likes, that primal B-flat major stew out of which something in him will always rise against his will, something crawling out of the mud in the quest for opposable thumbs -- that noise will cease. It will be replaced instead by Yiddish and broken American, a slurry of vowels and broken-glass laughter. There will be drinking, enough drinking so that in a few hours when the weaker among them have left the Vorsht in an effort to be home a respectable few hours before sunrise (no great task in Sitka in November), the tempos will rise, fray, split into a dirty dozen yids, playing to the beat of a drummer who is not the one on the corner stage.
Landsman considers this nightly breakdown the music of the District -- a blueprint for how things will fall out over the next fourteen months. These fleabitten alcoholics and addicts who smoke and drink and play as men taken by St. Vitus, they are the real prognosticators. The hour grows later and the musicians grow drunker until, by the time the taciturn, tobacco-chewing proprietress of the establishment arrives at approximately eight-thirty the following morning, all is silence, overturned chairs and silence, empty bottles and scattershot broken reeds and guitar strings and silence. It will be the job of Sitka Central to ensure easy handover of the District to the Americans, Landsman has predicted, but who is to say that the men (and woman, Landsman interjects, one red-haired woman in Yakovy) of the District Police will be here to see such a thing? Already there are rumblings of departing Jews, names tossed around like the remnants of a torn-up marriage contract: Arkhangelsk, Medicine Hat, Cheltenham, Alice Springs, and -- Landsman's favorite -- Addis Ababa.
Meyer Landsman feels -- he can admit this while the musicians are still on stage, before the noise ends and the racket begins -- scattered.
He has repeated this process for several nights running: whenever someone isn't dead and Berko Shemets, his monolithic half-Tlingit cousin, has seen fit to go home to that family of his in their apartment in the Shvartsn-Yam, Meyer Landsman chooses to drink alone in a crowd. In front of him there is a spectacle consisting of twelve musicians. Who are the standouts? Landsman asks himself every night. Who will be the first to fracture? Who has ties to the more prominent shtarkers, and will Benito Taganes, the Filipino donut king, whisper any information in Landsman's ear that Landsman can use against these men between their sets?
Landsman has followed this sequence of events before, more than once; there is a reason he stays parked at his back table. Between the curtain of smoke separating the stage and the seats and the way all of these yids have blue and white light caging them for Landsman's scrutiny on their platform, there is next to no chance they will notice the solitary shammes at his table before it is too late. Scattered might Landsman be, but he is not dead yet. This condition is a testament, he feels, to his very recently resuscitated edge. Landsman needs his edge, especially when his partner has gone home to his family. But for Berko, Landsman is rootless, ever since -- all of a month ago -- his sister Naomi crashed her Super Cub into the side of a mountain.
The first two weeks -- they were bad. After that, three homicides in a row, bam-bam-bam, gave Landsman the excuse to don his porkpie hat and leave his room at the Hotel Zamenhof, the estimable flophouse. Now, though -- these cases, they've come together, and Landsman is beginning to feel the fungal blackness creep in again, as it does whenever he is idle for more than a few hours. So: time to sit in the Vorsht. He will watch these musicians and bide his time, build his network of informants, and he will not drink alone in the strictest sense. Berko, psychiatrists, psychologists, Felsenfeld his boss, his ex-wife -- they have all told him that it is a symptom of the word he does not want to hear; in his numbness shaded by anger, Landsman has made a deal with himself. He doesn't give them reason to stage any kind of intervention about some condition he might have, and he does not have to think about Naomi. Nor does he have to think about his ex-wife or the terminated pregnancy that caused that condition. Landsman has his family of informants. He is out to prove, he thinks, that this and his work are all the decorated shammes really needs.
Still: were his visits to the Vorsht strictly about maintaining the network, why take that table in the back at all? Why drink as much as he does, and why thrill when one of the musicians elevates himself above his brethren with a cadenza so heartbreakingly glorious it's obscene? Landsman hears these riffs and these runs, and he can feel something inside him sit up and take notice and begin to claw its way to the surface. This cannot be allowed. Who will respect and fear the blubbering policeman? Landsman's work with the low-lifes of the Sitka District hinges on his ability to outwit, outmuscle, and outcynic these schmendricks. What will it say to them if their work brightens his eye and sends him out the door into the indifferent arms of the Zamenhof and his bottle of slivovitz? These evenings at the Vorsht are a luxury that Landsman cannot afford, not if he doesn't want to start slipping, but what are his alternatives? Place the three-in-the-morning call to Berko, waking his good wife and probably both small Taytsh-Shemetses, and start crying? Place the same call, God forbid, to Bina up in Yakovy? And what would he say to his ex-wife then? They're making a mess of Art Blakey and those messengers of jazz he had, and I thought of you?
Because that's what they're doing, those schmendricks on the stage: they're blasting their way through one of Blakey's pieces from the early sixties. It is called, naturally and cruelly (if you are Meyer Landsman, that is, with your casual appreciation for the more frenzied strains of jazz), 'Mosaic'. It's cop music. He will not admit it, but Landsman thrills to the brutality of Blakey's hi-hat â" Blakey's part here being taken over by a yid with a skin problem, and (Landsman suspects) a minor rhythm problem. He rushes. Landsman never closes his eyes to make sure of it, with one finger tapping on the table, but he knows all the same. The yid rushes.
His finger finds its way to the tabletop anyhow, tracing the wood grain. Landsman finds himself irritated; how's it supposed to work, him tapping his heel on the faintly slushy floor of the Vorsht, if the yid can't keep a rhythm going? How are any of his cohorts on the stage supposed to keep time if the tremors in the drummer's wrist keep that hi-hat from running a beat a shammes can appreciate? Blakey and the messengers of jazz are supposed to have the benefit of a rhythm section -- what is wrong with these people? They take his 'Mosaic' and they do to it -- what? All these time signatures, these instrumental rides swapped back and forth; the title of the piece is Mosaic -- all the tiles are out of joint because of this one fucking yid who can't keep the alcohol tremors out of his wrists, or maybe the heroin tremors, Landsman doesn't care. Landsman wants another drink before the end of the set, but watching the drummer with the skin problem is watching the train wreck, or the plane crashing in the side of the mountain. Landsman keeps his seat and grits his teeth and works his heel on the floor of the Vorsht; he will outlast this momzer if it kills him.
What's he doing, the drummer, trying for hard bop anyhow; the way Landsman hears it the Americans have moved on to different things. Stylistic imports come slow to the District, only recently has the best regular klezmerite moved on to different, greater things in Seattle, and only recently has Landsman's favorite, the electric guitarist with the red ribbon necktie, moved on from his attempts to play Django Reinhardt every fucking night. It was a crapshoot, coming in here tonight, and Landsman does it to test himself: can he do it without breaking? When the work is slow the set list is the best barometer of Landsman's mental state: can he hear "Nuages" without weeping, "Belleville" without wanting to get a little violent, "Minor Swing" and "My Sweet" without getting close to pulling out that damned shoyfer and calling the number in Yakovy he has not admitted to Berko that he has in his possession?
Landsman finds to his vague pleasure that he is getting angry rather than weeping into his empty lowball, hardening under the pressure rather than giving way. Of course the schmendricks on the stage will move on, even in the District where moving on means no more District at all; of course they will pick up their instruments and say to each other listen, this arrived in the mail from my Indianer acquaintance in Juneau, can you do it, will you try it, do you think we could do it in Ketchikan, in Anchorage, in Vancouver. Django Reinhardt is passé even among these momzers; they have moved on to Art Blakey. Where is Meyer Landsman with his Django?
His copy of Djangology is in an unlabeled box at the Hotel Zamenhof, a cassette among dozens, gathering dust. Meyer Landsman has a choice: he can listen to these musicians at the Vorsht fumble their way through something new and unknown and drink his way through the night, or he can visit Benito Taganes, inquire after the health of Miss Olivia Lagdameo, Benito's estimable lady friend who is no lady at all, eat some donuts and drink some tea, and find out whether or not there are any tips to round out the evening. Landsman could stay up all night, prowling the District and beyond in his Chevelle Super Sport, and still present himself at Sitka Central the next morning with a smile on his puss and a song in his heart. Let Bina see his record, up in Yakovy; let Berko see that Landsman hasn't slept and will still make it through the day of paperwork and bureaucracy with his usual degree of cynical, sour cheer. Let no one ask the questions or stage the interventions. Landsman will show them all.
He will not, Landsman decides as he shoves back his chair and blasts his way through the door of the Vorsht into a Sitka November fourteen months before Reversion, shoot these messengers of jazz; he will not ask Benito for their names or any items on their community rap sheets. Landsman can afford to feel benevolent, with his old car and his old music and his old lamentations: for fourteen months the District is his. Strike up the castanets, Landsman thinks, as the door to the Vorsht slams and disappears in a swirl of snow. Fourteen months: all the time in the world.