This story originally appeared in Northern Liberties Review, 2012
The History Lesson by Robert Sachs
“Forty years,” Kahlman says to the casket, taking a sip of bourbon from his flask. “Waiting for you to die, Max. Hoping I would live long enough to see this day. I thank God. And I didn’t have to kill you. You took care of that yourself. The news of your heart attack—Is that really what it was?—spread through the university like the clap. Our old secretary called me with the news barely a half an hour after they found your body.
‘Grief counseling will not be necessary.’ That’s what she said, Max. That’s how people thought of you: Grief counseling will not be necessary.”
“My first thought?” Kahlman continues. ‘“Suicide. Had to be pills,’ I said to myself. You hate the sight of blood. Pills it was and pills it is. Oh, I know the drill. Doesn’t look good for the chairman of the history department to off himself. So it’s a heart attack. Sounds so much better. Poor Max worked himself to death. Makes no difference to me, Max. You’re dead—that’s what counts.”
Kahlman dims the lights in the room and moves his chair close to the coffin. He lifts the heavy lid. “Look at you, all laid out in this fancy casket. The shroud becomes you. Very natty. Not like those three-button vested suits you love to wear. Always seemed to me you had more clothes than Marcia. Your feminine side, I used to tell people. Loved leaving the gay issue hanging in the air: Tall, skinny, clotheshorse. Dapper. Never married. I never said you were a homo, Max. But I never said you weren’t.”
Kahlman knows a wife or a child could insist that Max be buried in his favorite suit. But absent relatives, the default is to fulfill the technical requirements of Jewish law: shroud and talit. Kahlman too could have suggested a suit—they would have listened to him. But he chose silence, steeling himself against a smile.
“This,” he says to Max now, pinching a hem of the shroud, “This rag, this shmata, is what you’ll wear through eternity.” Kahlman smiles at the idea. He sits in the comfortable rocking chair beside the casket and unscrews the cap of his sterling silver pocket flask, taking another sip of bourbon. He knows it isn’t allowed, but when he’s alone, as he often is during these hours between midnight and dawn, he almost always has the flask with him. And as he drinks, he’s reminded of that day long ago when Max kissed Marcia and she was late coming home. What happened that day is an old wound that aches with a change in weather, but the news of Max’s death is like a cooling salve on that scar.
“There was nothing between us,” he imagines Max saying. His big dark eyes open wide, his bushy eyebrows raised—a caricature of innocence. Kahlman drinks from his flask, aware that Max died never knowing that he knew. “Nothing happened,” he might have said. “An innocent kiss. You couldn’t call that an affair.”
Maybe so, Kahlman thinks. But I know what I know, you smooth-talking devil. It happened: My esteemed colleague, the bastard who got tenure before me, lying with my wife.
“So I kissed her,” Max would no doubt argue when faced with the charge. “Ages ago. Big deal, a stolen kiss. Nothing more. There’s been penance. The statute of limitations has run.”
Kahlman concedes this. Ancient history, he tells himself. Marcia, after all, had provided a wonderful, fulfilling life for him and the girls.
Still, as he sits in this small rectangular room—an anteroom in the funeral parlor, an arm’s length from the coffin—he briefly entertains the notion of cutting off some part of Max’s body. Something small, something only God would notice—a toe, perhaps. A testicle. Enough to keep Max from being resurrected when the time for resurrection comes.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he can hear Max braying. “You never get that right. It’s a bubba meisa, a myth.”
Kahlman snickers, remembering how Max took such joy in correcting him on all things Jewish. “And you know?” Kahlman asks the casket. “You’re such a big shot, you know God’s rules for resurrection?” The casket is silent. He mouths the words big shot and takes a swig of bourbon.
Kahlman has been a member of the synagogue’s chevra kadisha since before Marcia died. These volunteers wash the dead, shroud them, pray over them, stay with them until the moment of burial. They clean the entire body, including ears, toenails, and the anus. Working shifts, they stay with the body until the funeral.
Kahlman has always been a night person, even more so with Marcia gone. He may sleep until noon now that he’s retired, but he stays up late. So his role, most often, is to sit through the night with the dead. He doesn’t see himself as a particularly religious man, but the solitary, anonymous aspects of the chevra kadisha appeal to him.
He’s been around too long to be surprised by the skin changes death exacts. Max’s complexion, once ruddy, is now pallid and waxy. His bushy hair, now combed, is neater than it had ever been in life. Still, Kahlman admits, they did a good job on him. Too bad no one will see it.
Max and Kahlman arrived at the university’s history department at the same time. Felner and Goldsmith. The older professors called them the history twins. Friendship would have been natural. And in the early years, one could be forgiven for assuming their friendship. They were colleagues and cordial. Collegial, Kahlman thinks now. But in 1961, Max was granted tenure, while Kahlman was not. Yes, he was beloved by his students, and had published a peer-reviewed article about child labor in France during the Revolution. But university politics being what they were, Max got his and Kahlman didn’t, leaving any hope of friendship to wither and die. Eventually, a full decade later, after they had met Marcia, after Kahlman and Marcia had married, after what Kahlman refers to now as “the affair,” after too much time had passed, the honor was belatedly bestowed.
Ten interminable, humiliating, maddening years, Kahlman admits when he’s being truthful with himself. He rationalizes that Max was the talker, the schmoozer. Max knew what the administration wanted to hear and he gave it to them. Yet this slight—this favoritism, as Kahlman often saw it—remains, to this day, a chicken bone in his throat.
In 1966, they met Marcia Feldman at a synagogue Hanukkah party. She was young and pretty, with bright eyes and a quick smile. Each year, she organized the party, arranging the tables, marshalling the volunteer cooks, making the table decorations. Attempts by Max that night to engage Marcia in conversation failed. Marcia, it seemed, was drawn to Kahlman. They started dating and were soon married. Together they raised three beautiful and intelligent daughters. An idyllic relationship, except for the niggling sore Kahlman carries with him: His suspicion that the sophisticated Max Felner had once seduced his wife.
Marcia had denied the affair, laughed it off. But she denied the kiss as well, Kahlman recalls. He had told her a colleague from English Lit mentioned seeing Marcia and Max in the quad. The colleague had seen the kiss and saw them walk off together. Hearsay, Marcia had called it. No more than a lie. But in truth Kahlman was the one standing by the window in his office overlooking the quad and had himself seen what had happened. Marcia was late getting home that evening. Dinner was not on the table. Her excuse struck Kahlman as vague, so unlike the usually very precise Marcia.
Oh, there was a story. They would have to concoct a story, he assured himself. And it came out soon enough. She claimed Max had agreed to help her pick out a birthday gift for Kahlman. They left the campus and went into town to shop. That, she had said, was why she was late and that was why she was vague when he asked about it. “Now there,” she had said. “Don’t you feel foolish?”
He accepted (appeared to accept) the explanation, and nothing more was said of it. But it gnawed at Kahlman. “Of all people,” he said to himself more than once over the years, as if he would have found other Lotharios more acceptable. His suspicion remained a pockmark on the complexion of their marriage. And for many years Kahlman did a silent calculus on any new man they met: Was he a threat?
At about three with the flask almost empty, Kahlman wonders if it really could be true that it was only a harmless peck on the check, as a thank you, more or less, for agreeing to help her shop. Perhaps, but he was sure that a sleaze like Max wouldn’t have stopped there. He puts the flask to his lips and drains it.
“More in the car,” he says standing up. “Don’t go way, Max, I’ll be right back.” A door in the room leads directly to the parking lot on the side of the funeral home. Kahlman throws his coat over his shoulders and, using one of his shoes to keep the door propped open, runs to his car to retrieve the almost full bottle of bourbon in the trunk.
“I know, Max,” he says to the body after hanging up his coat and sitting down, slightly out of breath. “I shouldn’t be looking at you, since you can’t look back. It’s disrespectful. Yes, yes. No need to lecture me about it. But I make an exception, you’ll forgive it please.” He opens the bourbon bottle and drinks.
“What’s that? You’re thirsty too?” He stands and moves to the coffin. After a moment’s hesitation, he pours a few drops onto the mouth of the cadaver. They roll off, staining the shroud. “Good stuff, huh?” Kahlman imagines Max’s scowl. “Fuck,” he would have said, trying to brush the bourbon drops away before they were absorbed into the cotton shroud. “Ach.”
“Don’t get your balls in an uproar, Max, you fastidious asshole. Not good for your blood pressure.” He laughs and sits down. But then his mind returns to the affair. “I’ll give you this, Max: If you did seduce her once, it was only once.” Of this, Kahlman is sure. “Marcia didn’t even know how to lie. It was foreign to her. No way she could have kept up such a deception.”
He could anticipate the rejoinder from Max: “What? You believe her 99.9 percent of the time, but not that last one tenth of a percent? Either she could lie or she couldn’t, Kahlman. Can’t be both.”
“You’re clever, Max. Always have been clever,” he says taking a swig from the bourbon bottle. “But, it is hard to believe Marcia would cheat on me. Even once.”
“Not because it’s me,” he adds quickly, hoping to blunt the anticipated quip from Max. “Because that’s Marcia—she didn’t have it in her.” Kahlman leans back in the rocking chair, takes another drink.
“So follow the logic, you fraud,” he says, putting words in Max’s sealed mouth.
“Don’t say it, Max,” he shouts. But he knows it’s too late. He knows what Max would inevitably have to say:
“This isn’t about Marcia at all, is it? This is about tenure. You never got over the fact that I got tenure in ’61 and you didn’t. After all these year, Kahlman, you still hold that against me. You still torture yourself over a stupid thing like that. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: You didn’t deserve tenure back then and you don’t deserve it now.”
Kahlman takes a long gulp of bourbon and throws the open bottle, still a quarter full, into the coffin. It bounces noiselessly between the cushioned sides and Max’s sheathed body. Kahlman leans forward, with his elbows on his knees, his hands covering his ears.
“Fuck you,” he says to the cadaver, but the question hangs in the still air: Could Max be right?
Deep down, he’s always known his limitations. Yes, he had his jokes. He was an easy grader. The students loved him. But did he inspire? Did he really teach? He always had doubts. On the other hand, he’s sure Max, to whom all things came easily, never seriously doubted himself about anything. Wouldn’t it be nice to go through life so self-assured that doubts about your ability never even enter your mind? Where does one get such self-assurance? The question gives him pause.
An hour of silence. Kahlman’s head is back against the rocker. His eyes are closed—he could be asleep. Suddenly he shouts: “You were an ass licker. Had that down to a science. We all knew it, Max. Not just me. The whole department. A fucking ass licker.” Kahlman stands and circles the coffin.
“Look at the student ratings,” he yells, bending his head close to the cadaver. “You were despised. I was loved.” He searches the casket for the bottle of bourbon.
“Still some left, Max,” he says, fishing it out from between the legs of the cadaver and pouring the remaining contents on its head. He could almost see Max recoil. “I know, you never liked bourbon. Hillbilly stuff. Scotch was your drink. Should have brought some cheap scotch. Shouldn’t have wasted good bourbon on you.
He remembers Max lecturing him about his drinking. “You’re getting a reputation, Kahlman,” he’d say. “Don’t think the students can’t tell when you’re drunk.”
Kahlman would push him away. “I’m always in control,” he’d tell Max.
“And tenure is not the issue,” he says now. “The issue is Marcia. You always had the hots for her. Everyone knows that’s why you never married. You lived your life pining for my Marcia.”
Kahlman pictures that first meeting. Marcia running around, making sure everything was just right for the synagogue Hanukkah party. Max had pointed her out. “That one,” he had said, elbowing Kahlman. “A real cutie.”
“Not bad,” Kahlman replied, moving to the buffet table. But he remembers now how much more than not bad she was. How he had feigned nonchalance. “Too young, don’t you think?” She startled them both by walking straight to them and holding out her hand.
“Marcia Feldman, chief cook and bottle washer. You boys must be from the university.” Max grabbed her hand first.
“Max,” he had said. “This is my friend, Kal.”
“Kahlman,” Kahlman corrected.
“Kal Kahlman. What an unusual name.” She was playing with him from the start. He was on his way to love.
As sharp as that image is in Kahlman’s mind, equally as sharp is the image of something he didn’t see: What came after that long ago kiss in the quadrangle? And what delayed Marcia for so long that night?
He can almost hear Max snickering from the casket. “It was an innocent kiss, didn’t mean a thing to me. But if it caused you anguish, if to this day it causes you some pain, Kahlman, then it was worth it.”
Kahlman laughs. Maybe not anguish, but a definite loss of optimism. He moves around in his chair, crossing his legs one way, then the other. That nothing happened between them was possible. But one thing he is sure of: Max had wanted something to happen. “You wanted the one thing I had that you couldn’t have,” Kahlman shouts. “Tenure wasn’t enough for you, you son of a bitch; you wanted Marcia.” The bourbon is gone. He’ll be in the room with the dead body another hour before the funeral director shows up. Time enough, he thinks, to snip a little something from the body and close the casket. Who would blame him? Who would know?