Landsman is tripping on the memory of those old chess-playing yids, hunched at the back of the Café Einstein, as he drives out to pick up Berko. It is six-fifteen in the morning, by his watch. By the sky, the empty boulevard, and the stone of dread lying in his belly, it is the dead of night. Sunrise, this close to the arctic circle and the winter solstice, is still at least two hours off.
Landsman is at the wheel of a 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport, which he bought ten years ago in an access of nostalgic optimism and has driven until all its secret flaws seem indistinguishable from his own. In the ’71 model year, the Chevelle went from two pairs of headlight bulbs to a single pair. Right now one of these bulbs is blown. Landsman gropes his way cyclops-style along the promenade. Ahead of him rise the tower blocks of the Shvartsn-Yam, on their artificial spit of land in the middle of Sitka Sound, huddled in the darkness like prisoners rounded up with a powerful hose.
Russian shtarkers developed the Shvartsn-Yam during the mid-eighties, on purest quake-bait landfill, in the first heady days of legalized casino gambling. Time-shares, vacation homes, and bachelor pads, that was the idea, with the Grand Yalta casino and its jumping tables at the center of the action. But legal gambling is out now, banned by the Traditional Values Act, and the casino building houses a KosherMart, a Walgreens, and a Big Macher outlet store. The shtarkers went back to bankrolling illegal policy rackets, betting mills, and floating craps games. The swingers and vacationers gave way to a population of upper-lowlifes, Russian immigrants, a smattering of ultra-orthodox Jews, and a bunch of bohemian semiprofessionals who like the atmosphere of ruined festivity that lingers in the neighborhood like a strand of tinsel on the branch of a bare tree.
The Taytsh-Shemets family lives in the Dnyeper, on the twenty-fourth floor. The Dnyeper is round as a stack of pie tins. Many of its residents, spurning fine views of Mount Edgecumbe’s collapsed cone, the gleaming Safety Pin, or the lights of the Untershtat, have enclosed their curving balconies with storm windows and louvers in order to gain an extra room. The Taytsh-Shemetses did that when the baby came along: the first baby. Now both little Taytsh-Shemetses sleep out there, stashed away on the balcony like disused skis.
Landsman parks the Super Sport in the spot behind the Dumpsters that he has come to view as his own, though he supposes a man should not come to cherish tender feelings toward a parking place. Simply having a place to put his car that is twenty-four stories down from a standing invitation to breakfast should never pass, in a man’s heart, for a homecoming.
He’s a few minutes ahead of six-thirty, and though he’s pretty sure that everybody is awake in the Taytsh-Shemets household, he decides to take the stairs. The Dnyeper stairwell reeks of sea air, cabbage, cold cement. When he gets to the top, he lights a papiros to reward himself for industry and stands on the Taytsh-Shemets doormat, keeping the mezuzah company. He has one lung coughed up and the other on its way when Ester-Malke Taytsh opens the door. She holds a home pregnancy test stick with a bead, on its business end, of what must be urine. When she notices Landsman noticing it, she coolly makes it disappear into a pocket of her bathrobe.
“You know there’s a doorbell, right?” she says through a tangled curtain of hair, brick-brown and too fine for the bob she always sports. It has a way of spilling across her face, especially when she is cracking wise. “I mean, coughing works, too.”
She leaves the door open and Landsman standing there on the thick coir mat that says GET LOST. Landsman touches two fingers to the mezuzah on his way in and then gives them a perfunctory kiss. That is what you do if you are a believer, like Berko, or a mocking asshole, like Landsman. He hangs his hat and overcoat on an elk-antler rack by the front door. He follows Ester-Malke’s skinny ass, wrapped in her white cotton robe, down the hall and into the kitchen. The kitchen is narrow, laid out galley-style, the stove, sink, and refrigerator down one side, cabinets down the other. At the end a breakfast bar, with two stools, overlooks the living-dining room. Steam curls out of a waffle iron on the counter in cartoon-locomotive puffs. The drip-filter coffee maker hawks and spits like a decrepit Jewish policeman after ten flights of steps.
Landsman sidles up to the stool he favors and stands beside it. From the hip pocket of his tweed blazer he takes a pocket chess set and unwraps it. He bought it at the all-night drugstore on Korczak Platz. “Fat man still in his pajamas?” he says.
“Picking the necktie.”
“And the other one, what’s his name?” In fact, his name, thanks to a recent vogue for crafting given names from family names, is Feingold Taytsh-Shemets. They call him Goldy. Four years ago Landsman had the honor to hold down Goldy’s scrawny legs while an ancient Jew with a knife came after his foreskin. “His Majesty.”
In answer, she nods her head toward the living-dining.
“Still sick?” Landsman says.
Landsman goes around the breakfast bar, past the glass-topped dining table, and over to the big white sectional sofa to get a look at what the television is doing to his godson. “Look who it is,” he says.
Goldy is wearing his polar-bear jammies, the height of retrospective chic for an Alaskan Jewish kid. Polar bears, snowflakes, igloos, the northern imagery that was so ubiquitous when Landsman was a boy, it’s all back in style again. Only this time it seems to be meant ironically. Snowflakes, yes, the Jews found them here, though, thanks to greenhouse gases, there are measurably fewer than in the old days. But no polar bears. No igloos. No reindeer. Mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog, and rain, and half a century of a sense of mistakenness so keen, worked so deep into the systems of the Jews, that it emerges everywhere, even on their children’s pajamas.
“You ready to work today, Goldele?” Landsman says. He lays the back of his hand against the boy’s forehead. It feels nice and cool. Goldy’s Shnapish the Dog yarmulke hangs crooked, and Landsman smooths it and adjusts the bobby pin that holds it in place. “Ready to fight crime?”
“Sure thing, Uncle.”
Landsman reaches out to shake the boy’s hand, and without even looking, Goldy slides his dry paw into Landsman’s. A minute blue rectangle of light swims on the tear layer of the boy’s dark brown eyes. Landsman has watched this program with his godson before, on the educational channel. Like 90 percent of the television they watch, it comes from the south and is shown dubbed into Yiddish. It concerns the adventures of a pair of children with Jewish names who look like they might be part Indian and have no visible parents. They do have a crystalline magical dragon scale that they wish on in order to travel to a land of pastel dragons, each distinguished by its color and its particular brand of imbecility. Little by little, the children spend more and more time with their magical dragon scale until one day they travel off to the land of rainbow idiocy and never return; their bodies are found by the night manager of their cheap flop, each with a bullet in the back of the head. Maybe, Landsman thinks, something gets lost in the translation.
“Still want to be a noz when you grow up?” Landsman says. “Like your dad and your uncle Meyer?”
“Yes,” Goldy says without enthusiasm. “You bet I do.”
“That’s the boy.”
They shake hands again. This conversation is the equivalent of Landsman’s kissing the mezuzah, the kind of thing that starts out as a joke and ends up as a strap to hang on to.
“You taking up chess?” Ester-Malke says when he walks back into the kitchen.
“God forbid,” says Landsman. He climbs up onto his stool and struggles with the tiny pawns and knights and kings of the travel set, setting them up to reflect the board left behind by the so-called Emanuel Lasker. He has a hard time telling the pieces apart, but every time he holds one up to his face to get a good look at it, he drops it.
“Stop looking at me that way,” he says to Ester-Malke, just guessing. “I don’t like it.”
“Damn it, Meyer,” she says, watching his hands. “You have the shakes.”
“I didn’t sleep all night.”
The thing about Ester-Malke Taytsh is that before she went back to school, became a social worker, and married Berko, she enjoyed a brief but distinguished career as a South Sitka fuckup. She has a couple of small-bore criminals in her past, a regretted tattoo on her belly, and a bridge in her jaw, a souvenir of the last man to mistreat her. Landsman has known her longer than Berko has, having busted her on a vandalism charge when she was still in high school. Ester-Malke understands how to handle a loser, by intuition and habit, and without any of the reproach she brings to bear on her own wasted youth. She goes to the refrigerator and takes out a bottle of Bruner Adler, pops the top, and hands it to Landsman. He rolls it against his sleepless temples, then takes a long swallow.
“So,” he says, feeling better in an instant. “You’re late?”
She puts on a half-theatrical expression of guilt, goes for the pregnancy-test stick, then leaves her hand in the pocket, clutching the stick without taking it out. Landsman knows, because she has broached the subject once or twice, that Ester-Malke worries he might envy her and Berko their successful program of breeding and their two fine sons. Landsman does, at times, with bitterness. But when she brings it up, he generally bothers to deny it.
“Shit,” he says as a bishop goes skittering across the floor and disappears under the bar counter.
“Was it a black one or a white?”
“Black. A bishop. Shit. It’s gone.”
Ester-Malke goes to the spice rack, tightens the waistband of her robe, studies her options. “Here,” she says. She takes out a jar of chocolate sprinkles, unscrews it, tips one into her palm, and hands it to Landsman. “Use that.”
Landsman is kneeling on the ground under the counter. He finds the missing bishop and manages to poke it into its hole at h6. Ester-Malke puts the jar back in the cabinet and returns her right hand to the mystery of her bathrobe pocket.
Landsman eats the chocolate sprinkle. “Berko knows?” he says.
Ester-Malke shakes her head, hiding behind her hair. “It’s nothing,” she says.
“Didn’t you look at the test?”
“I’m afraid to.”
“You’re afraid to what?” says Berko, appearing at the door to the kitchen with young Pinchas Taytsh-Shemets—inevitably, Pinky—tucked into the crook of his right arm. A month ago they made a party for the kid, with a cake and a candle. So, Landsman reckons, that will bring in the third Taytsh-Shemets, if any, at around twenty-one, twenty-two months after the second. And seven months after Reversion. Seven months into the unknown world to come. Another diminutive prisoner of history and fate, another potential Messiah—for Messiah, say the experts, is born into every generation—to fill the sails of Elijah the Prophet’s demented caravel of dreams. Ester-Malke’s hand emerges from her pocket without the pregnancy test, and she gives Landsman a South Sitka high sign with one arched eyebrow.
“Afraid to hear what I had to eat yesterday,” Landsman says. By way of creating a diversion, he takes Lasker’s copy of Three Hundred Chess Games out of the other hip pocket of his jacket and lays it on the bar beside the chessboard.
“This is about your dead junkie?” Berko says, eyeing the board.
“Emanuel Lasker,” Landsman says. “But that was just a name in the registration. We found no kind of ID on him at all. We don’t know who he was yet.”
“Emanuel Lasker. I feel I know the name.” Berko squeezes sideways into the kitchen in his suit pants and shirtsleeves. The pants are heather-gray merino with double pleats, the shirt white on white. At his throat, tied with a handsome knot, hangs a navy necktie patterned with orange blobs. The tie is extra long, the trousers capacious and held up by navy suspenders taxed by the span and the arc of his belly. Under the shirt he wears the fringed four-corner, and a trim blue yarmulke perches on the glossy black furze at the back of his head, but no beard will grow on his chin. There is not a beard to be found on the chins of any of the men in his maternal family, reaching back all the way, no doubt, to the time when Raven created everything (apart from the sun, which he stole). Berko Shemets is observant, but in his own way and for his own reasons. He is a minotaur, and the world of Jews is his labyrinth.
He came to live with the Landsmans in the house on Adler Street on a day in late spring 1981, a shambling giant boy known, in the Sea Monster House of the Raven Moiety of the Longhair Tribe, as Johnny “the Jew” Bear. He stood five feet nine inches in his mukluks that afternoon, thirteen years old and only an inch shorter than Landsman at eighteen. Until that moment no one had ever mentioned this boy to Landsman or his little sister. Now the kid was going to be sleeping in the bedroom that had once served Meyer and Naomi’s father as Klein bottle for the infinite loop of his insomnia.
“Who the hell are you?” Landsman asked him as the kid stole sideways into the living room. Twisting a billed cap in his hands, taking everything in with his dark, all-consuming gaze. Hertz and Freydl were standing out on the front walk, screaming at each other. Apparently, Landsman’s uncle had neglected to mention to his sister that his son was coming to live at her house.
“My name is Johnny Bear,” Berko said. “I’m part of the Shemets Collection.”
Hertz Shemets remains a noted expert on Tlingit art and artifacts. At one time this hobby or pastime sent him wandering deeper and farther into the Indianer-Lands than any other Jew of his generation. So, yes, his study of Native culture and his trips into the Indianer-Lands were a beard for his COINTELPRO work during the sixties. But they were not only a beard. Hertz Shemets was drawn to the Indian way of life. He learned to gaff a seal with a steel hook, through the eye, and to slaughter and put up a bear, and to enjoy the flavor of candlefish grease as much as that of schmaltz. And he fathered a child on Miss Laurie Jo Bear of Hoonah. When she was killed during the so-called Synagogue Riots, her half-Jew son, an object of torment and scorn among the Raven Moiety, appealed for rescue to the father he barely knew. It was a zwischenzug , an unexpected move in the orderly unfolding of a game. It caught Uncle Hertz off guard.
“What are you going to do, turn him away?” he yelled at Landsman’s mother. “They’re making his life a living hell up there. His mother is dead. Murdered by Jews.”
In fact, eleven Native Alaskans were killed in the rioting that followed the bombing of a prayer house that a group of Jews had built on disputed land. There are pockets in these islands where the map drawn by Harold Ickes falters and gives way, dotted stretches of the Line. Most of them are too remote or mountainous to be inhabited, frozen or flooded year-round. But some of these crosshatched patches, choice and level and temperate, have proved irresistible over the years to the Jews in their millions. Jews want livable space. In the seventies some of them, mostly members of small Orthodox sects, began to take it.
The construction of a prayer house at St. Cyril by the splinter from a splinter of a sect from Lisianski was the final outrage for many Natives. It was met with demonstrations, rallies, lawyers, and dark rumblings from Congress over yet another affront to peace and parity by the overweening Jews of the north. Two days before its consecration, somebody—no one ever came forward or was charged—threw a double Molotov through a window, burning the prayer house to its concrete pad. The congregants and their supporters swarmed into the town of St. Cyril, smashing crab traps, breaking the windows of the Alaska Native Brotherhood hall, and setting spectacular fire to a shedful of Roman candles and cherry bombs. The driver of a truckload of angry yids lost control of the wheel and plowed into the grocery store where Laurie Jo worked as a checker, killing her instantly. The Synagogue Riots remain the lowest moment in the bitter and inglorious history of Tlingit-Jewish relations.
“Is that my fault? Is that my problem?” Landsman’s mother yelled back. “An Indian living in my house, that is something I do not need!”
The children listened to them for a while, Johnny Bear standing in the doorway, kicking at his duffel bag with the toe of his sneaker.
“Good thing you don’t speak Yiddish,” Landsman told the younger boy.
“I don’t need to, dickwad,” said Johnny the Jew. “I been hearing this shit all my life.”
After the thing was settled—and it had been settled before Landsman’s mother ever started with the yelling—Hertz came in to say goodbye. His son had two inches on him. When he took the boy in his arms for a quick stiff hug, it looked like the side chair was embracing the couch. Then he stepped away.
“I’m sorry, John,” he said. He gripped his son by the ears and held on tight. He scanned the boy’s face like a telegram. “I want you to know that. I don’t want you ever to look at me and think that I’m feeling anything but sorry.”
“I want to live with you,” said the boy tonelessly.
“So you have mentioned.” The words were harsh and the manner callous, but all at once—it shocked the hell out of Landsman—there was a shine of tears in Uncle Hertz’s eyes. “I’m well-known, John, as a complete son of a bitch. You’d be worse off with me than living in the street.” He looked around his sister’s living room, the plastic slipcovers on the furniture, the art like barbed wire, the abstract menorah. “God knows what they’ll make of you here.”
“A Jew,” said Johnny Bear, and it was hard to tell whether he meant it as a boast or a prediction of ruin. “Like you.”
“That seems unlikely,” Hertz said. “I’d like to see them manage that. Goodbye, John.”
He gave Naomi a pat on the head. Just before he went out, he stopped to shake hands with Landsman. “Help your cousin, Meyerle, he’s going to need it.”
“He looks like he can help himself.”
“He does, doesn’t he?” said Uncle Hertz. “That at least he gets from me.”
Now Ber Shemets, as he came in time to style himself, lives like a Jew, wears a skullcap and four-corner like a Jew. He reasons as a Jew, worships as a Jew, fathers and loves his wife and serves the public as a Jew. He spins theory with his hands, keeps kosher, and sports a penis cut (his father saw to it before abandoning the infant Bear) on the bias. But to look at, he’s pure Tlingit. Tartar eyes, dense black hair, broad face built for joy but trained in the craft of sorrow. The Bears are a big people, and Berko stands two meters tall in his socks and weighs in at 110 kilograms. He has a big head, big feet, big belly and hands. Everything about Berko is big except for the baby in his arms, smiling shyly at Landsman with his thatch of black horsehair standing up like magnetized iron filings. Cute as a button, Landsman would be the first to acknowledge, but even after a year, the sight of Pinky still puts a dent in the soft place behind Landsman’s sternum. Pinky was born exactly two years after Django’s due date—September 22.
“Emanuel Lasker was a famous chess player,” Landsman informs Berko, who takes a mug of coffee from Ester-Malke and frowns into the steam. “A German Jew. In the teens and twenties.” He spent the hour between five and six at his computer in the desolate squad room, seeing what he could turn up. “A mathematician. Lost to Capablanca, like everybody else back then. The book was in the room. And a chessboard, set up that way.”
Berko has heavy eyelids, soulful, bruised-looking, but when he drops them down over those pop eyes, it’s like the beam of a flashlight bleeding through a slit, a look so cold and skeptical it can lead innocent men to doubt their own alibis.
“And you feel,” he says, with a significant glance at the bottle of beer in Landsman’s hand, “that the configuration of pieces on the board, what?” The slit draws narrower, the beam flares brighter. “Encodes the name of his killer?”
“In the alphabet of Atlantis,” Landsman says.
“The Jew played chess. And he tied off with tefillin. And somebody killed him with a great deal of care and discretion. I don’t know. Maybe there’s nothing in the chess angle. I can’t get anything out of it. I went through the whole book, but I couldn’t figure out which game he was playing. If any. Those diagrams, I don’t know, I get a headache looking at them. I get a headache just looking at the board, a curse on it.”
Landsman’s voice comes out sounding every bit as hollow and hopeless as he feels, which was not his intention at all. Berko looks over the top of Pinky’s head at his wife, to see if he really needs to worry about Landsman.
“Tell you what, Meyer. If you put down that beer,” Berko says, trying and failing not to sound like a policeman, “I’ll let you hold this nice baby. How about that? Look at him. Look at those thighs, come on. You have to squeeze them. Put down the beer, all right? And hold this nice baby for a minute.”
“He is a nice baby,” Landsman says. He removes another inch of beer from the bottle. Then he puts it down, and shuts up, and takes the baby, and smells him, and does the usual injury to his heart. Pinky smells like yogurt and laundry soap. A hint of his father’s bay rum. Landsman carries the baby to the doorway of the kitchen, and tries not to inhale, and watches as Ester-Malke peels a sheet of waffles from the iron. She is using an old Westinghouse with Bakelite handles in the shape of leaves. It can blast out four crisp waffles at a time.
“Buttermilk?” Berko says, studying the chessboard now, stroking a finger along his heavy upper lip.
“What else?” Ester-Malke says.
“Real, or milk with vinegar?”
“We did a double-blind test, Berko.” Ester-Malke hands Landsman a plate of waffles in exchange for her younger son, and even though he doesn’t feel like eating, Landsman is happy to make the trade. “You can’t tell the difference, remember?”
“Well, he can’t play chess, either,” Landsman says. “But look at him pretending.”
“Fuck you, Meyer,” Berko says. “Okay, now, seriously, which piece is the battleship?”
The family chess madness had burned out or redirected its energies by the time Berko came to live with Landsman and his mother. Isidor Landsman had been dead for six years, and Hertz Shemets had transferred his skills at feinting and attack to a much larger chessboard. That meant there was no one to teach Berko the game but Landsman, a duty that Landsman carefully neglected.
“Butter?” Ester-Malke says. She ladles fresh batter into the cells of the waffle iron while Pinky sits on her hip and offers his unsolicited advice.
“You don’t really want a waffle, do you, Meyer?” Berko says. He abandons the pretense of studying the board and moves on to the volume by Siegbert Tarrasch as if he will be able to make heads or tails of that.
“Not in all honesty,” Landsman says. “But I know that I should.”
Ester-Malke eases the lid of the iron down onto the grids of batter. “I’m pregnant,” she says in a mild tone.
“What?” Berko says, looking up from the book of orderly surprises. “Fuck!” This word is spoken in American, Berko’s preferred language for swearing and harsh talk. He starts working over the stick of imaginary chewing gum that seems to appear in his mouth whenever he’s getting ready to blow. “That’s great, Es. That’s just great. You know? Because there’s still one fucking desk drawer in this shit-ass apartment that doesn’t have a motherfucking baby in it!”
Then he raises Three Hundred Chess Games over his head and prepares, showily, to hurl it across the breakfast bar and into the living-diningroom. This is the Shemets in him coming out. Landsman’s mother was also a big one for the hurling of objects in anger, and the histrionic displays of Uncle Hertz, that cool customer, are rare but legendary.
“Evidence,” Landsman reminds him. Berko raises the book higher, and Landsman says, “Evidence, God damn it!” and then Berko throws it. The book struggles through the air, pages fluttering, and strikes something jingly, probably the silver spice box on the glass-topped dining table. The baby sticks out his lower lip, then sticks it out a little farther, then hesitates, looking from his mother to his father and back. Then he bursts into desolate sobs. Berko glares at Pinky as if betrayed. He goes around the bar to retrieve the mishandled evidence.
“What did Tateh do?” Ester-Malke says to the baby, kissing his cheek and scowling at the large black-edged hole in the air that Berko has left behind. “Did bad Detective Super-sperm throw the silly old book?”
“Good waffle!” Landsman says, setting down his plate untouched. He raises his voice. “Hey, Berko, I’m, uh, I think I’m going to wait down in the car.” He swipes Ester-Malke’s cheek with his lips. “Tell what’s-his-name Uncle Meyerle says goodbye.”
Landsman goes out to the elevators, where the wind whistles down the shafts. The neighbor, Fried, comes out in his long black coat, his white hair combed back and curling at his collar. Fried is an opera singer, and the Taytsh-Shemetses feel he looks down on them. But that is only because Fried has told them he is better than they are. Sitkaniks generally take care to maintain this view of their neighbors, in particular of the Natives and all those who dwell in the south. Fried and Landsman get into the elevator together. Fried asks Landsman if he has found any dead bodies lately, and Landsman asks Fried if he has made any dead composers turn over in their graves lately, and after that, they don’t say anything much. Landsman goes back out to his parking place and gets into the car. He runs the engine and sits in the heat blowing in off the engine. With the smell of Pinky on his collar and the cool dry ghost of Goldy’s hand in his, he plays goalkeeper as a squad of unprofitable regrets mounts a steady attack on his ability to get through a day without feeling anything. He climbs out and smokes a papiros in the rain. He turns his eyes north, across the marina, to the looping aluminum spike on its windswept island. Once more he feels a sharp nostalgia for the fair, for the heroic Jewish engineering of the Safety Pin (officially the Promise of Sanctuary Tower, but nobody calls it that), and for the cleavage of the uniformed lady who used to tear your ticket on the elevator ride to the restaurant at the Safety Pin’s tip. Then he gets back in the car. A few minutes later, Berko comes out of the building and rolls like a bass drum into the Super Sport. He has the book and the pocket chess set in one hand, balancing them atop his left thigh.
“Sorry about all that,” he says. “What a jerk, huh?”
“No big deal.”
“We’ll just have to find a bigger place.”
“That’s the trick.”
“It’s a blessing.”
“You bet. Mazel tov, Berko.”
Landsman’s congratulations are so ironic that they are heartfelt, and they are so heartfelt that they can only come off as insincere, and he and his partner sit there for a while, not going anywhere, listening to them congeal.
“Ester-Malke says she’s so tired, she doesn’t even remember having sex with me,” Berko says with a deep sigh.
“Maybe you didn’t.”
“It’s a miracle, you’re saying. Like the talking chicken in the butcher shop.”
“A sign and a portent.”
“One way of looking at it.”
“Speaking of signs,” Berko says. He opens the Sitka Public Library’s long-missing copy of Three Hundred Chess Games to its inside back cover and slides the return card from its pasted pocket. Behind the card lies a photograph, a three-by-five color snapshot, glossy with a white border. It is the picture of a literal sign, a rectangle of black plastic into which are stamped three white roman letters, with a stamped white arrow underneath, pointing to the left. The sign dangles on two lengths of slender chain from a dirty white square of acoustic tile.
“PIE,” Landsman reads.
“It seems to have fallen out in the course of my vigorous examination of the evidence,” Berko says. “I figure it must have been wedged into the card pocket, or with your keen shammes vision, you would have noticed it. Recognize it?”
“Yes,” Landsman says. “I know it.”
At the airport that serves the raw northern city of Yakovy—the terminus from which you set off, if you are a Jew looking for modest adventure, into the modest bush of the District—tucked away at the far end of the main building, a modest operation offers pie, and only pie, American-style. The place is nothing more than a window that opens onto a kitchen equipped with five gleaming ovens. Next to the window hangs a whiteboard, and every day the proprietors—a couple of hostile Klondikes and their mysterious daughter—write out a list of the day’s wares: blackberry, apple rhubarb, peach, banana cream. The pie is good, even famous in a modest way. Anybody who has passed through the Yakovy airfield knows it, and there are rumors of people who will fly in from Juneau or Fairbanks or farther away to eat it. Landsman’s late sister was a devotee of the coconut cream in particular.
“So, nu,” Berko says. “So what do you think?”
“I knew it,” Landsman says. “The minute I walked into the room and saw Lasker lying there, I said to myself, Landsman, this whole case is going to turn on a question of pie.”
“So you think it means nothing.”
“Nothing means nothing,” Landsman says, and all of a sudden he feels choked up, throat swollen, eyes burning with tears. Maybe it’s lack of sleep, or too much time spent in the company of his shot glass. Or maybe it’s the sudden image of Naomi, leaning against a wall outside that nameless and inexplicable pie shop, scarfing up a slice of coconut cream pie from a paper plate with a plastic fork, eyes closed, lips pursed and streaked with white, grooving on a mouthful of cream, crust and custard in a profound and animal way. “God damn it, Berko. I wish I had some of that pie right now.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Berko says.
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