A few weeks before Thanksgiving I got a telephone call from a producer who had optioned one of my screenplays. He wanted to know if I knew much about the writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I told him I knew that Singer was a Polish Jew who wrote in Yiddish, that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, and that his novel,"The Slave" was one of my favorite books.
The producer asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book about Singer's 30-year relationship with his mistress (I'll call her Esther), that the woman's daughter (I'll call her Deborah) was looking for a writer.
"Esther is a Holocaust survivor," he said, "and Deborah told me she'd be more comfortable confiding in a Jew. I told her you were Jewish, and that cinched it."
"Sounds intriguing, but I write fiction."
"From what the daughter told me this is more fantastic than any fiction a writer could dream up. Singer was eighteen years older than Esther. She was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She married another survivor she met in a Displaced Persons camp in Europe and divorced him when she came to the States. She had Deborah then and was destitute. Singer offered her a job as his translator. She had been a poet in Poland, spoke seven languages, and when you hear what Deborah has to say about her mother's affair with Singer, you'll realize that she was the inspiration for the character of Masha in the movie of Singer's book, ‘Enemies: A Love Story.'
"Is this a vengeance book, a woman scorned?"
"She says no, that Esther doesn't want to hurt him or his wife, that she's agonized over it for the past few years and now that he's dead she's decided it's time to tell the story. Mother and daughter are broke. They need the money. If you agree to do it, Deborah wants you to go to New York and stay with them for as long as you need." He laughed. "From what the daughter said, it seems that Singer was something of a sexual athlete."
"Is the mother willing to go into all of that?"
"No holds barred. The straight scoop. Diaries and photographs and letters. Full cooperation. And Deborah contends that Singer got many of the ideas and material for his work from Esther, that she was victimized twice, first by the Nazis and then by Singer."
I had made my first solo trip from California to New York ten years before to meet the editor of my first book. At that time I was such an inexperienced traveler, that my husband, worried something would happen to me en route, had me call him when I got off the plane, when I got to the hotel, and when I got to my room. It was as if I were a kindergartener on my first day of school, except that he didn't pack a snack or tie my shoes.
This second solo trip had my agent worrying about me. Is this woman's story for real? Who are these people? But go, please go, it's irresistible.
I was on a plane to New York the next day.
Deborah picked me up at the airport, a tall woman in her forties, with even features and a mane of auburn hair. She was dressed for cold weather, a stylish scarf wrapped around her neck (I was dressed for California and didn't own a scarf). She insisted on carrying my bag, told me she had gone to the wrong gate, "what the hell was wrong with the airport putting the wrong gate up on the board?" gave me a hug and said she was happy I had agreed to do this.
She had parked her battered Chevrolet in the airport lot.
"My mother is on welfare and food stamps," she said as she drove through the rain swept streets. "This is a desperate move on our part. We have no money. What my mother and I have to say about Singer has never been said before. It will be a shock to everyone, but a good shock, a shock worth money. He ruined my mother's life and mine as well. I want to go to Israel to live, get out of New York, take my mother away. We can forget everything in Israel. I get a few days of substitute teaching, but it's not enough. My husband and I are separated. My daughter lives with him, so you'll have her bedroom. The house isn't much. As a matter of fact, it's falling apart. I don't have the money to fix anything. Wear socks and a sweater to bed. The heat isn't working. It gets cold at night."
I wasn't prepared for cold weather. I was sorry I hadn't brought the coat I bought the year before that I had never worn because it never gets cold enough in California for a coat. I also wasn't prepared for the extravagance of hope that Deborah had placed in me. I felt overrun, outtalked, although I did manage to say that my agent wanted to meet her and her mother, and that nothing was settled yet, that I'd have to see how much story there was, and then there was the contract to be agreed to, and, well, let's just see what happens.
She wasn't kidding about the house. It was a wounded relic of a 1950's brick faux-Tudor in a housing tract in Flushing, its walls gouged and scarred, the kitchen a half-remodeled ruin of missing appliances and broken cabinets. Bales of twine-wrapped newspapers moated the dining room table, the uneven rampart of old news planted beneath the windows as though to protect against invasion. In the living room frayed drapes cloistered the scatter of furniture and a reek of tobacco and gribbines floated up out of worn upholstery as from the windings of talliths in some ancient talmudic study hall.
There was no sign of Esther.
"Where is your mother?" I asked.
"She reads most of the night and then sleeps on and off all day. She knows you're coming. She should be up soon."
My bedroom was upstairs, a cell-like narrow room, the only sign of Deborah's absent daughter a few abandoned stuffed animals on the single bed. The door had no doorknob, merely a reamed-out hole stuffed with toilet paper. I was startled to find myself in this strange house, this strange room, and overwhelmed that Deborah expected me to produce a book that would rescue her and her mother from the final teeter into the abyss.
There was a phone in the hall. I called my husband..
"I haven't seen the mother yet."
"Say the word and I'll get you a flight home tomorrow morning."
"I'll let you know."
When I went downstairs Esther was there, standing in the door to the kitchen. A diminutive woman in a cotton house dress, a wild ruff of gray hair partially tamed by a plastic head band, her long-ago beauty reviviscent in the barely lined face and crushed-ice blue eyes.
She took both of my hands in hers and cocked her head mischievously.
"Don't worry about anything," she said. "I will be the worm to catch the fish."
Copyright Nina Vida 2009