Excerpt from “non/fiction”

Numbers

by Dan Gutstein, from non/fiction (Edge Books, 2010)

I didn’t reach Lampell the Tailor, but Mrs. Lampell, on the telephone. I had to give her my name (“Denny Davidson—yes, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Davidson,”) my problem (“Moths have eaten holes in my suits,”) how many suits had the problem (“Two,”) when I needed the clothing returned (“One month from now, at the latest—I’m starting a new job,”) who I would be working for (“Arthur Andersen & Co.,”) whether I had swatches of excess fabric (“Yes, I have swatches of excess fabric,”) how old I was (“Twenty five,”) my phone number (“The same as my parents,” ) and if I’d seen Lampell before (“No.”) She said, “Lampell can see you Thursday. Three o’clock sharp. Don’t be late.”

*

“Denny,” said my grandfather, “I’m nearing the part of the bible, Numbers. Where the Jews are in the desert, and they must assess their strength, to go forth to war, and to see themselves, count themselves. We take this for granted, you know. There are Jews here, Jews there. Back then, those were the only Jews. In the desert, after slavery in Egypt.”

“Yes?” I said.

“Well,” said grandpa. “I’m thinking of you and a girl, under the same roof, in the same bed. Do you enjoy the confidence of one another? Do you have plans, when the time comes, to have a baby son? Will the boy number, as a Jew? Count, as one of us?”

*

The car thumped twice. Lampell the Tailor lived at the site of a speed bump. Beside a spray of pine trees. Beside a neighbor’s house that resembled Lincoln logs glued together with toothpaste. A yellow lightbulb burned above the front door at 3 p.m., Thursday. Mrs. Lampell admitted me into the living room, clipboard in hand. “Daveedson,” she said. “With the holes.” I pointed to the sleeve of my double-breasted suit, and the collar. I pointed to the legs of the same suit, and the pocket. Every place I showed her a hole, she inserted a safety pin into the fabric, and made notations on the clipboard, which held a diagram of a male outfit, top and bottom. For the second suit, the same: Holes and pins.

“Come this way,” said Mrs. Lampell. She led me to a bright waiting room, and left the clipboard—the way a nurse would leave a patient’s chart—on a peg near the door. “Lampell will see you in a minute. Wait here.” I hung my suits on a coat rack. The room resembled the fitting area of a department store. It had an enclave of full length mirrors, two female manikins with modest breasts, a pile of tailor’s chalk, a wobbly cafeteria table, a dressing stall with louvered doors, and pins, and hangers beneath the weak, buzzing fluorescent light. A figure appeared in the doorway, a short balding man who wore a tape measure around his neck, hunched a bit, and wore no glasses.

“So, you are the son of Daveedson,” said Lampell the Tailor. He consulted the clipboard. “Mrs. Lampell tells me you have some trouble with a moth?”

“A moth ate my suits.”

“Yes,” said Lampell, examining the sleeves and pants and crotches and backs. “They take a little nibble. When do you last wear this?”

“Three years ago.”

“Mommy doesn’t put in mothballs?”

“No, mommy doesn’t put in mothballs.”

“Is going to cost you, very very much.”

“How much?” I said.

“Oh, I think, maybe, a hundred twenty.”

“For each?”

“No, for two. For Daveedson, a very nice family, I charge you a hundred twenty.”

“That’s very nice of you, Mr. Lampell. Thank you.”

“What is this new job Mrs. Lampell tells me?”

“Economics,” I said.

“And the company?”

“Have you heard of Arthur Andersen?”

“This sounds like a bunch of crooks.” Outside, a moderate peal of thunder faded into a splatter of rain. “You hear?” said Lampell the Tailor. “Ah bissel donner. Now it is summertime. Mrs. Lampell will see you out. I call you in two weeks? No worry. I can make the miracle with the re-weave. Good as new. A hundred twenty dollars for two suits. Thank you.” As he raised his hand to shake on it, I saw several small blue digits tattooed on his other forearm.

*

My mother charged me to make a grocery store run. We had reached crisis levels of grandparent food—prunes, instant coffee, garlic, cottage cheese—and I wanted to check on my grandpa’s preferences. I happened by his room, just as he completed his evening prayers, unwrapping his phylacteries. “Denny,” he said, “not only the twelve tribes, but the sons of Joseph—Ephraim and Manassah—received land in Israel. This means the son numbers, like the father. Your son will number, but only with a Jewish mother.”

“Grandpa,” I said. “I’m going out. What do you like at the market?”

“Figs,” he said, brightening. “They carry the figs behind the dirty magazines.”

*

Lampell the Tailor called earlier than expected. I waited beside the manikins while he rumbled around in the closet down the hall. “Hello,” he said, with a boyish look on his face. “The work goes well. I mend the holes, then I send to be pressed, no extra charge.” He parked the suits, in sheer dry cleaner’s plastic, on the coat rack. “Have a look at the re-weave.” He showed me collars, cuffs, and pleats. He showed me pockets, loops, and legs. On his left arm, out of a short sleeved shirt: a six-digit number, one hundred thousand or two hundred thousand something or other, before he noticed me looking. “Tell me if Lampell make a boo boo.”

“No, Mr. Lampell. That’s perfect.” I could hardly tell where he had re-woven the fabric, so expert the craftsmanship. I felt one of those warm sternums, the way I might’ve felt, as a kid, solving a jigsaw puzzle all afternoon, in dusty sunlight, with my best friend. “Thank you, Mr. Lampell. You’ve saved me a lot of money.” I handed him six twenties.

“Denny,” he said. “You are born what, 1970?”

“1968.”

“You are a young man, younger than me, by many years. You are born long after the big war. Tell me, Denny, what you think of Germany? The German people?”

“You mean Germans today?”

“Okay,” he said. “Germans today.”

“I don’t know any Germans,” I said.

“No, because it is interesting to me, what you think.”

“Only what I hear on the news. I don’t know.”

“I hate the Germans,” said Lampell the Tailor, smashing his fist into his palm. “They kill my family. And many other families. They kill woman, and children, and old men, and sick. With guns. In gas chambers. With needles. With work.” He showed me his arm. “They give me a number and would kill me, too. With gas. With bullet. With beating. With starvation. With starvation, they kill. They kill—”

“Shhhh,” hissed Mrs. Lampell, who appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a splattered apron. “He don’t need to hear this talk. Look at him. A good boy. Son of Daveedson, always bring you shirts and hats and coats and blouse. He don’t need to hear with the Germans and the gas chambers. S’iz nisht right now. Erledigt.” She put an arm around her husband and shook him playfully. They both stood the same height.

He presented me with the two suits, their holes mended. “I hope it’s okay,” he said. “I write Sam’s Place on the pockets. Inside. Sam’s Place for Sam, Samuel, Lampell.”

“That’s okay,” I said, shaking hands with Lampell the Tailor. “Thank you very much. I’m sure I’ll be back.”

“Son of Daveedson, Denny,” he called after me, at the last second, from the yellow light bulb on the front stoop, “Tell mommy, remember, she is to put in mothballs once you are done with the crooks!”

*

My mother had woken early and made me poached eggs on toast. She sat at the kitchen table with me, engulfed in her blue bathrobe and pasty, still, with sleep.

“Mr. Lampell has a number,” I said. “A Holocaust number.”

“Are you sure?”

“He showed it to me. On his right—no, his left arm. In blue ink.”

“Huh,” she said. “I never saw that before.”

Grandpa came into the kitchen looking like a shrunken apple. “Grandpa,” I said, pointing toward my mouth, and he shuffled out with an “O” of surprise.

“I thought I didn’t have my teeth,” he said, returning a moment later. “Today, I shall walk under the loud bridge to the shul. But before I do that, I will spend some time with my grandson on his first day of Arthur Andersen.”

“Dad,” said my mother. “Denny noticed that Mr. Lampell has a tattoo, a number on the left arm. From the war.”

“Are you sure?” he said.

“He showed me.”

“When did you see this?”

“A few days ago, with the suits.”

“And you didn’t tell anybody?”

“I’m telling you now.”

“They did this, I think, at Auschwitz,” said my grandfather.

“He must’ve been a boy,” said my mother.

“A young man,” said my grandfather. “They killed many babies.”

“Fuck,” I said. “I better go catch the bus.”

“Watch your mouth,” said my mother.

“When I was your age,” said my grandpa, “I had to work.”

“I’m going to work.”

“Ehhh, with a rotten attitude.”

“It’s a bullshit job, set against the other things in life.”

“Bye bye, Denny,” they said. “Good luck. Work hard. Have fun. Break a leg. Don’t miss your bus. Did you pack a lunch? Do you have busfare? Bye bye. Be good. Take care. Bring home a bread, if you remember, but only if you remember. Should you use the rest room? Maybe you meet a nice Jewish girl, today.” We hugged as if I were trooping off to combat. They waved to me from the window, as I clopped down the road in my shiny black shoes, until I couldn’t see them anymore.

At the stop, I puffed out the chest of my suit, newly mended by Lampell the Tailor. The bus arrived in a low note. A handful of my coins clanked down the throat of the change box and the bus left a few gusts of flak behind it. At the terminal, I boarded the subway, which followed the course of a big swerve, downtown. There, I walked among the thousands of workers, numbered, I hoped, on the proper ledger, by the proper hand.

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