Each day of Jan’s voyage had been blessed with blue skies and undulating, acrobatic clouds—visually, Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But now the darkening view was identical from where he came to where he was headed, wind pummeling a deck preemptively swept of leisure chairs.
“I said clear the deck!” came a crewman’s shout. “Everyone inside! Captain’s orders!”
Jan hadn’t set pen to paper since the Excalibur left for New York Harbor. The initial pile-on of cheerful days had lost all discretion, and he allowed his mind to drift with the puffs of clouds. Only now, during this sudden and sinister seduction by gray, did he realize that his thirtieth birthday had come and gone three days before—and that he no longer believed in God.
“Hey, you!” the crewman hollered. “Yeah, you, big guy. What are you, crazy? I just told you below deck right now!”
What Jan knew about Americans beyond their GI rankings was limited to his studies. His studies indicated that Americans accorded much significance to the exact coordinates of their conversions, whether they found communion with the Lord in a Boston shoe store or a Kentucky saloon. He was certain that there were no coordinates for the point at which he lost communion. His pocket watch (a gift, his legacy) said seventeen past three, but he had no idea which sovereign nation’s seventeen past three, for he had forgotten to synchronize his legacy with the future, just as he had forgotten to remember his past.
He would concede that the “Hey, you!” was evidence that he’d been standing there alive, a status most coveted by the tens of millions whose status was years dead at the time of his thirtieth birthday. His studies indicated that monuments in the New World were established based on where one single body found the Lord; life showed him that those in the Old were based on where countless bodies lost countless bloodlines. Here you were born twice, back there you died once, the anvil of a functionary’s stamp both obliterating and immortalizing Dresden or Dachau—by 1948 all obliterations had somehow achieved parity. Asked if he had anything to declare, Jan fumbled his English to articulate the misfortune of God being lost at sea. The customs officer only shook his head: “Yes or no, Kaiser Joe.”
He was in a place where the omnipresence of no divine presence was like sweat dribbling down the back of the neck—you wiped and wiped with your cloth and still it persisted. He hadn’t wanted to arrive in August, but the ticket on the Queen Mary from Cherbourg didn’t come through. An American attack transport newly converted was his destiny out of Marseille. He spent four nights in the Brooklyn Heights home of an aristocratic homiletics scholar who’d died in the Pyrenees, attempting to reach Portugal. The man had lived in America some years before the war, but he owned property in Paris. Unwisely, he returned to France in August of 1939 with the intention of rounding up his manuscripts, selling off his holdings, and returning to his wife.
The widow rented rooms to refugees, transforming the home into a haven during the war and even now, three years into Pax Americana. Jan had found the connection through individuals no longer living. Maja’s Russian tutor had been a boarder for a time. Shortly before his death, he enlisted a fellow double-émigré (St. Petersburg ’17, Paris ’39) who was heading to Europe to deliver to Jan a cache of Maja’s letters. Despite the courier having succumbed to pneumonia in La Havre, the abandoned parcel, saying only “Jan Kindermetz, thyologien hollandaise,” somehow made it to its destination.
The widow’s haven was swarming with people attempting to snatch away that one needed thing—left luggage, a brother discovered not to be dead, a letter from a Geneva bank, seventy-five American dollars. Everyone seemed to speak Deutsch but used the American conceit of nicknames when referring to the dead. The homiletics scholar became “Pyrenees,” the father of the Polish girl with the enormous mole, “Brest-Litovsk”; the teenage daughter of the contrarian mathematician, “Breendonck.” In Rotterdam the Soviet-made dozers worked avidly to bury the past; in Brooklyn they spoke as if the last casualty fell yesterday.
Jan had only an army cot in a shared room, and so shoved his trunk into a vacant corner and sought refuge from the refugees. He had nothing to lose save for the Trodermann manuscript, and only in the off chance that the absconder direly needed to amuse a small boy with a wayward pencil. Oftentimes that seemed the best use of what seemed his life’s work—flip it over, draw panel after panel of Dick Tracy and Tarzan fighting the bad guys in the gasoline alleys and dark jungles.
He went for walks and rode buses from corners in one neighborhood to corners in those visible across the river. He could not stomach the cruel and foreign smell that his ample Dutch nose took in so much of. No one had warned him how permissible would be the jokes about his nose (“Hey, buddy, where can I buy one of those?”) and his height. His hatred for America brought him to a standstill more than once, even dead center on a major boulevard. “You’re lucky you ain’t dead!” He heard America shouting and recoiled from its deification of luck.
The train carrying him toward Syracuse offered more opportunity for his mind to idle. He’d been invited to lecture at Cornell in the spring, but for the autumn and winter he’d have dormitory accommodations at Hamilton College. This respite would provide ample time to patch together his Life of Trodermann—the man William James had often met with in Heidelberg and Tübingen and who may have been the most important “variety” of religious experience described in James’s book. A wealthy Dutchman named Oloff Voorhees had acted as his sponsor, paying for his ground transportation and lodging. Etiquette required Jan to meet and thank him at his home in Belmontville, southwest of Syracuse, on the occasion of the man’s fifty-fourth birthday.
The brightness of this journey stood in stark contrast to one eleven years before. While a young pianist studying in Geneva, Jan found one day that he could no longer ignore God’s nagging. He boarded a train in the dark and reached Amsterdam in the gray early morning. Six months later the war began—and so, too, his vocation. His study of Arminius was published before his twenty-sixth birthday. Notoriety was not his intention, but the feeble establishment of scholars hobbling along during the long occupation looked to turn any match strike of morality into a spectacle of fireworks.
The Trodermann manuscript at his side represented four years of research. As Europe looked up from the ashes, Jan kept his eyes downward to the archives. He learned to negotiate with both the Americans and the Russians to gain access to libraries and other archives in and around Heidelberg and Tübingen. Gerhard Trodermann was an archivist of Bach’s works who re-found God during the depths of his depression: “The Lord has finally returned to take back that which he had mislaid within me—that dense, growing blackness that might have obliterated my soul.” But despite this spiritual redemption, Trodermann later took his life while despairing of the death of his beloved niece. What did he believe? What ideas did his thinking bring about in James? What did James’s writing about the elusive Trodermann mean to the world?
Jan lifted from his pocket a book of poems by Tibor Brull, the Hungarian who threw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge days after the war’s end. Jan was told that, in America, theft on a small scale was referred to as having “lifted” the desired object, just as one would wish to have one’s spirits lifted by divine intervention. He’d lifted Five Winters from Brooklyn Heights because it appeared that the ravaged book had been discarded, of no further use to person or persons unknown. Jan did not read poetry, but these were the last works of the now-so-renowned Hungarian whose story had resonated on the Continent—the Jew who’d sat out the war in safety while his family and thousands of other Jews had been shot on the banks of Danube, when the Hungarians who murdered them knew that Hitler’s war was lost.
Jan’s eyes fell down the stanzas like an accident on a ladder:
May 1941, the wedding massacres proceed
as the field marshals intended
oh, unimaginable travesty of lemons!
their grand entry on pony carts
yellow pyramids of Italian radiance.
winds from the burnings
captured and carried white petals in their millions.
an orgy of flesh
At the small rail station the couple sat uncomfortably on a wood-slat bench, awaiting Jan’s arrival. From across the concourse they appeared fatigued if not depleted. When the businessman’s wife noticed the tall man with the prominent nose, she roused her husband, so that they immediately became convivial and jolly, like children’s balloons. They were both statuesque but overfed.
“Professor Kindermans, I am Oloff Voorhees, happy to greet you. This is Mrs. Oloff Voorhees.”
Jan gave his hand to his sponsor and bowed to his sponsor’s wife, who repeated her spouse’s “Happy to.”
“Goeiemiddag, Meneer Voorhees, Mevrouw Voorhees.”
“We speak only English,” Oloff told Jan. “In my town I am called ‘Dutch’ and my wife ‘Mrs. Dutch.’”
Jan looked startled. “And you have approved that?”
“In America one does not ‘approve,’ ” Oloff informed him. “We say ‘OK’ to this, ‘OK’ to that.”
Jan could not wrest his eyes from the expanse of his sponsor’s stomach. “You are so much girth here in America.”
The man looked perplexed. “Come, Professor Kindermans.”
Jan couldn’t help but dwell with his eyes on Mrs. Dutch’s also being so much girth. There was a curious English word that struck his fancy—mollycoddle. If America mollycoddled you, it would happen within the folds of Mrs. Dutch’s doughy belly, where, he suspected, even Barnevelder eggs could be safely hatched.
Jan entered the rear door of a large and beautiful black automobile. During the quiet ride through the afternoon torpor—as the weedy breeze from four open windows temporarily stanched the perspiration on his broad face—Oloff explained the nature of his business and the ways in which he planned on expanding the enterprise. When the three arrived at the Voorhees home—an enormous dwelling of white slats and long black shutters—Oloff declared, “We collect special cars. We own four and that does not include my son’s.”
“Four automobiles is an accomplishment,” Jan agreed.
“Come with me to the garage,” Oloff replied. “I will show you my car with fish tails.”
The garage seemed to Jan even more remarkable than the house, with two white doors stretching perhaps fifteen meters across. Mrs. Dutch having disappeared, her husband practically blistered with pride at the task of unhinging the iron latch at the center and walking slowly to roll open the left door on its several tiny wheels.
“I was not able to purchase this until March,” he said as he tripped the light switch, “and this is the ’48 model. The delivery was not for another three months. You can imagine my anticipation waiting for the Sixty Special.”
The startling color of nail lacquer gave Jan a strange feeling in the heart. The vehicle’s canvas roof was the color of a show horse’s carefully combed mane. He was undeniably transfixed by the spectacle but also now convinced that any grown man could be made to feel like a child if a large enough toy were placed before him. “So this is what ‘Cadillac’ means.”
Oloff opened the passenger door to procure a document from a box within the dashboard. “The beautiful line flowing through the body panels,” he read, “climaxing in the elegant tailfins.”
Jan blanched at the lewd-sounding words his patron read—read as if delivering a Roman ode.
“I am taking full advantage of this car’s plush interior,” Oloff said after lifting his eyes from the paper.
Though the theologian felt discomfort, when invited to inspect the plushness for himself he readily complied.
Inside the Cadillac lived a definition of exquisite that Jan had never experienced. The coloration of the leather and fabric replicated that of the roof; it was the hue of a living organism, a mammalian color. Jan could smell the sweetness of the rich tanning cream one applied to soften a saddle. His head spun and he pushed himself out and away from the source of this seduction. He was mesmerized by the gleam on the red, the impossibility of the shine.
“A fine car is like a woman is what they say!” exclaimed Oloff.
Jan nodded but wondered why his patron had not said that a fine car is like a fine woman.
As he walked to the front of the car, Oloff urged him to “notice the grille.” The face of the automobile looked to Jan like a shield one would use going into combat while laughing like a fool. Oloff entered the vehicle and turned on the ignition. Then he extracted his corpulence and offered Jan to “sit behind the wheel, please.” Again Jan complied, sliding his tall self with much ease into the mammalian pocket. The instruments were clustered in a deep pod under the dashboard, their panels magnificently illuminated like a collision of rainbows. He considered gripping the wheel but stopped himself, thinking how only a child would do so under the circumstances.
“Caught you at just the right time!” a voice rang from outside the garage.
“Ray, my friend!” Oloff exclaimed.
Jan quickly removed himself from the vehicle.
“Ray Callahan,” said Oloff, “please to meet my special guest, Professor Kindermans.”
The theologian suddenly became aware that he had not invited his sponsor to call him Jan. This was because he did not wish to be called “Jan” by “Dutch” or “Mrs. Dutch.”
“You must both call me Jan,” he said, gripping the stranger’s hand before smiling, which he later sensed to be the wrong sequence.
The man wore a loose, wheat-colored suit of such sensitivity that the wrinkles at the back of the jacket hung like an accordion. Jan was sure the man had paid much to look this American, with his shirt the color of a woman’s gloves and the tie suggesting what little Jan had seen of Picasso, but what good was the investment if a humid day could sabotage all?
“Ray is the Cadillac agent who has delivered this magnificent car,” said Oloff. He had got back inside the car to turn off the ignition.
“And I come bearing gifts,” said the agent, who with great effect produced a set of keys from under the wrinkled flap of his jacket pocket. “As the proud owner of a Cadillac,” he explained to Jan, “you not only get a second set of keys, but a third, comme ça.” He held the ring at eye level and looked at Jan through its dangling objects—two gold keys and a tiny toy replica of the red car. He had a vigorous smile and hair wetted back in designs at his temples. He was young, perhaps not even Jan’s age, but he gave the impression that he worked very hard to have the answer for everything. “Only in America, professor!”
“The small Cadillac helps that I always know the car for these keys,” said Oloff, grasping the prize.
“Professor,” said the agent, lifting his arm high to suggest it was falling naturally across the theologian’s back, “let me tell you, this luxury vehicle right here is the creampuff of the lineup. You need to step back to take in that 133-inch wheelbase. Nothing like it in the old country!
“You’ll notice our signature goddess on the hood,” he went on, “the symbol of Cadillac perfection and beauty. And get a load of that whimsical Dick Tracy face of a grille and the sombrero wheel covers. Classic and timeless yet a whole lot of fun! Also a Cadillac signature is the V emblem on the grille that we call an ‘egg-crate grille’ just for the laugh of it being anything but. See that top line there? A delicate bow of chrome, and those two inside horizontal bars run outboard to become the upper and lower borders of the parking lights.”
“When you have rested,” Oloff told his guest, “we shall take a ride in my creampuff.”
Ray Callahan disengaged himself from the theologian but thought to add a friendly chest slap with the back of his hand. “Sure,” he cried, “take a nap. You’re in America, professor. Now you can relax!”
When the Cadillac agent had driven away in his own yellow Cadillac, Dutch and Mrs. Dutch showed Jan the many rooms of their large house. They were especially proud of their four white telephones. Their four white telephones and their only child, a son to whom their discourse inevitably returned—“student at university, seventeen and one-half years.”
“My friend,” Oloff proudly assured his guest as the three Netherlanders stood tall atop the dining room’s intercrossed layers of Persian carpet, “I have great success as a new American.”
Jan could only nod at his sponsor, thinking back to the end of the war when a colleague had taken Jan to task for his brooding self-criticism. “Have you no successes?” he shouted in sarcasm. “Yes, I have successes,” Jan replied. “I have made the leap from pedestrian loneliness to universal loneliness.”
Yes, he was lonely then and much lonelier now as he looked down upon the rainbow-glass chandelier slung low over the buffed table. The gay colors reminded him of many recent surprises of coincidence—such as crossing paths with a universiteit acquaintance the previous evening, while struggling to shove his trunk into the backseat of a taxi. There on the street in Brooklyn Heights, USA, a small man holding a crinkled piece of paper assessed the stone steps ascending to the stone building. “Kindermans?” he asked, his eyes barely visible through the thick, ancient lenses of his spectacles. Jan greeted him with warmth and haste, explaining that the ticking meter was holding his wallet hostage. “I remember your wife’s beauty”—the words followed Jan into the taxi. “Like a picture outside the cinema.”
“Oloff,” said Mrs. Dutch with a bright trill that was somehow also very tired. She tilted and motioned with her head as do children parlaying in secrets.
“Ah, yes!” shouted her husband. “I have another surprise to show you over here.”
And there, two rooms adjacent, was indeed a surprise, a spectacle.
“Ferrari red!” exclaimed the host.
It was a baby grand, a Steinway, but the color of an extremely ripe strawberry—the pristine finish gleaming in the quiet room.
“Not more than ten of these have been built this year,” Oloff explained. “This is the Model S; it measures one and one half meters.”
“Why don’t you play for us, professor?” proposed Mrs. Dutch.
“Why?” was all Jan could think to say.
Mrs. Dutch pursed her lips in worry. “We were told you were conservatory pianist.”
“I mean why is this piano red?”
Dutch laughed merrily. “Because we are in the land of the free!”
“Do you play?” asked Jan, looking from one to the other.
Joint smiles and exaggerated shaking of large heads. “Oh, no!”
“Your son,” pressed Jan, “he plays?”
Dutch placed his arm on the theologian’s shoulder. “This piano is for our prestigious visitors to serenade us.”
Jan stared at the black and the white keys—shinier than any he’d ever seen—being held captive within the outlandish packaging. He imagined their shame at winding up here, untouched and unloved, in the town of Belmontville. At least they had managed in their blackness and whiteness to remain distinct and universal, like O positive blood.
Mrs. Dutch urged Jan into a nap before dinner. He slept and rose to share a meal, and slept again for a short time, only to sit up on his bed just after midnight, thinking about his wife. Her sinuous body contained nothing dross, no redundancies—a Möbius strip of muscle but with the softness of fine leather. Her head was uncharacteristically elongated for a Norwegian, more like the subject of a Modigliani sculpture. The perfection of her face brought to mind a Flemish painting he had seen at a museum in Berlin while a teenager on holiday, Petrus Christus’s Bildnis einer jungen Frau.
He married Maja Fenstad as a kindhearted favor, to allow her to continue her studies in Amsterdam during the war. She was a philosophy student writing a treatise on Spinoza’s worm; he had no way of knowing she would spontaneously become a troublemaker, a person of interest to the Nazis even at twenty-one, detained when she’d left her classroom to join the crowds in the futile Strike of ’41. Why she was not taken to a camp then and there he could not say, though he suspected it owed to her being attractive and fit. Her luck held out for five years of occupation. During those years they spoke the language of their enemy to communicate feelings about both the arrangement and the barbaric turn of civilization. She spoke rapidly in Deutsch but likewise in Norwegian, French, and Russian. She smoked away any foraged cigarette immediately, unable to delay satisfaction.
In the wee hours, pacing about the Dutchman’s house in his bare feet, Jan continued with an unwritten installment letter to his sister in Rotterdam. He’d begun thinking out the letter on the voyage and kept adding and adding, but somehow he doubted he’d ever transcribe let alone post it. Pausing at the glistening stainless-steel bread roaster, he whispered, “Everything here points toward death. They do not call me Jan even after I say it is ‘OK,’ but I am glad of that. Every object in the successful home is a shining steel monument. And what is a monument if not to death? Here rests . . . four telephones and four automobiles. Here rests . . . the Sunbeam coffee machine, the icebox large enough to board a goat. Here rests . . . To me, an interminable nightmare.”
“We reconcile ourselves to anything” he’d been told by a handler of corpses. But he could not reconcile himself to the stuff of his sponsor’s darkened kitchen; nor could he sleep through the night. “In America, waking up, sweating, stripping my clothes” is what his letter would say were he ever to approach the task. For now, he covered his large face with his large hands at the first stirrings of dawn.