Art by Monika Sosnowski
Excerpt from Ravage & Son. Copyright © 2023 by Jerome Charyn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
He was a seller of metal pipes and bones who had accumulated his own dross, a graveyard of fittings and clamps and screws, and had to employ a blond she-cat as big as a church, with paws that could swipe at any intruder, twist a doorknob, or paralyze a monstrous rat that thrived on the lead inside his pipes. Her name was Chlöe, and she answered to no one but the boss himself. She’d hiss at strangers and his employees, but all he had to do was shout “Chlo-o-o-eeee,” and she’d abandon the gray rat she was toying with, rise above that graveyard of pipes, and leap right into his lap. Sometimes the whirling force of her would knock him out of his chair, and she clung to him without her claws, while his shop steward muttered under his breath, “Lionel and his lioness.”
But he couldn’t spend his whole day with a cat. He wandered about and hunted like Chlöe, when he should have gone home to his wife. He’d tired of Henrietta before they were even married at Temple Emanu-El. He slept with her out of some rabbinical rule that had never made sense to him. He preferred Chlöe’s musk to Henrietta’s. He’d married into a tribe of Bavarian merchant princes, when his own papa was a prince of another sort, a hardware man, like Lionel, a speculator in real estate with husky arms, who collapsed when he was fifty-six and died in the street like a dog, without a soul to offer him a cup of water.
Lionel kept his papa’s signboard, Ravage & Son, continued to grab up tenements below market price, and went to Allen Street, hunting for female flesh. All he found were rotten sinks—flea- bitten sisters who couldn’t amuse him with their practiced steps. And whenever he tore up a brothel and blacked out in a maddening fit, a merchant prince would arrive with a detective from Mulberry Street and bliss was soon restored at the brothel, even if Lionel was covered in blood after all his rampaging.
“Ah, Mr. Ravage, a gentleman like yourself shouldn’t be mingling with this kind of trash. These ladies have their cadets, and they might carve you up one fine afternoon. You’d leave us with a stinking mess of paperwork if we found you in the morgue.”
So he had a weapon handcrafted for him by a silversmith on Baxter Street. It was much more fashionable than a policeman’s billy or a baseball bat. Lionel Ravage had his own pinewood walking stick with a handle in the shape of a wolf’s head, burnished in silver. He could crown any cadet with his walking stick, and fend off robbers who wanted to relieve him of his rent bag. He sent more than one of these lowlifes to the Hebrew hospital with a good thwack. Lionel preferred to be his own rent collector. It was his way of meeting a plump housewife who was behind in the rent and whose husband was coughing his lungs out in some charity ward. Lionel was never crude. He wouldn’t hammer an eviction notice on her front door, wouldn’t call upon the services of the county sheriff. He’d permit three or four months’ rent to slide. The housewife would stare into his silver-blue eyes. He’d recite poetry to her. He’d had a semester at Amherst College before his papa pulled him back into their hardware empire, which occupied more and more of Canal Street. Lionel missed the countryside, not the college. His intimate sense of sewers and the arcane world of pipes had made him Amherst’s prize plumber. But he’d had to leave. And now, near enough to a bachelor of arts in plumbing, he’d deliver lines from Shakespeare to the housewife in the Yiddish he had picked up from his papa’s customers, and Lionel would play all the parts—Prospero one moment, Caliban the next.
You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
The housewife was enthralled. She undressed in front of her lyrical landlord. And if a certain housewife was hard to get, he might offer to marry her on the sly. He plucked a renegade beadle from a Norfolk Street synagogue, produced a wedding band from a variety shop, kissed the bride under a prayer shawl, and drank a cup of kosher wine. Soon Lionel had a dozen mistress- wives, and was sick of every one. He returned to Allen Street with his silver club, like some Caliban of the Lower East Side, master and servant of his own appetites and ambitions, with a crippling anger against his papa’s associates, who tried to cheat him out of his patrimony. He ruined them all, bought up their assets, and increased his graveyard of pipes and fittings, with Chlöe as his constant companion. But he couldn’t make love to a cat with whiskers and claws, no matter how often she crashed into his lap. Lionel had to troll. . . .
He met her by accident. He was collecting rent on Attorney Street, and she came to the door in a silk robe with loose threads that unraveled all around her. She had the carved cheeks and wild blond hair of a dybbuk. His tenant, Rabinowitz, was a consumptive philosopher from Vilna who sold apples in the street whenever he was lucky enough to locate a pushcart and a consignment of apples. Lionel didn’t care about the rent. He could discuss the notion of gravity with Rabinowitz, and the elevator cars that would soon command taller and taller buildings in Manhattan and miles of pipe that only Ravage & Son could furnish.
Lionel didn’t believe in dybbuks. He’d been to a college in the middle of Massachusetts. He hadn’t come to America in a cattle car—he was an aristocrat with an artisan’s grip. Still, he couldn’t take his eyes off this blonde in threadbare silk. She’d hooked herself to his own interior plumbing with those high cheeks of hers. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen.
“Hey,” he said, in that rough vocabulary of a rent collector, “are you one of those imported brides, huh? How did the old man pay for the passage? He doesn’t have a cent.”
She slapped his face. It was a wicked blow, with all the force of Chlöe, but Chlöe wouldn’t have been that unkind.
“I’m his daughter,” she said, in an accent that couldn’t have come from any school in Manhattan. “And he’s not your old man.”
“Yeah, he’s an apple polisher who can’t pay his rent.”
She slapped him again, and those magnificent cheeks throbbed with malice. “I love this crazy girl,” he muttered under his breath, and it frightened him. Lionel had never been in love, not with errant housewives, nor uptown princesses like Henrietta, with all their fine breeding, nor brash downtown girls, who would have robbed him blind if they could. All he had was Chlöe. Now he had to deal with this one, and he was at a disadvantage. Rabinowitz’s girl with the wild blond hair had much sharper claws than Chlöe.
Her name was Manya, she said. And she’d been raised at her father’s feet. Her mother had died giving birth to Manya. She had neither brothers nor sisters. Her father was a maverick in a community of religious Jews. He’d studied the laws of Russian grammar rather than the Talmud. A servant in the castle of a Lithuanian lord, hired to polish silverware, he became, in a matter of months, tutor to the nobleman’s son—only Rabinowitz, the Jewish polisher, could instruct the boy how to read and write. Manya lived at the castle with her papa, wearing the discarded silks of the nobleman’s daughters. The other servants grew jealous of this self-taught savant, and plotted to kill him and Manya. He couldn’t return to the Jewish quarter, where he was considered a pariah.
“So you escaped to the Promised Land,” Lionel said. “But I’ve visited your father many times. Where the hell were you?”
“Hiding in the closet,” she said. “Papa says you have an insatiable lust. He didn’t want you to feast on my flesh.”
“And where did you learn all that pretty talk?”
“From Papa,” she said. “He’s an alchemist who can breathe languages.”
When he’s not polishing apples like the silverware he used to polish, Lionel reassured himself. Manya must have had the skills to work as a bookkeeper or a salesclerk, but Rabinowitz wouldn’t allow her to descend into the Lower East Side, where some cadet might capture her, and anonymous men with filthy fingernails could ogle her like wild beasts. So the princess would sit in the back room of their tenement palace and recite to her father the Russian and English classics he himself had taught her. And whenever she had to shop on Hester Street, she disguised herself in her father’s hat and overcoat.
“Then what made you answer the door? You could have hid in the closet.”
“I’m not a child,” she said. “And I was curious. I could see you through a crack in the closet door. You have beautiful eyes, you know, when you’re not playing the landlord.”
Lionel was losing whatever little stature he had left. “But I am the landlord.”
“Who allows Papa to live rent-free,” she said, and laughed for the first time; her sweet roar was like the rasping jingle of toys he’d had as a child: Manya could have been Lionel’s own music box.
“But how many savants do I have on my rent rolls?” he asked. “Our talks enrich me. I don’t need to collect from him.”
And that’s when Rabinowitz returned in fingerless gloves, with a torn blanket as a cloak. He was in a dark mood. He couldn’t control the tremors in his jaw. His stoic nature was gone. He’d have butchered Lionel if he’d had a hatchet in his hand.
“Papa,” Manya said, “why such a long face? I’m a debutante in America. I’ve met the landlord. Now wash your hands and invite us both to tea.”
That’s how it began; Lionel neglected his business, neglected Chlöe, neglected his wife. He had some junior accountant at the office visit the sites and collect whatever rent was due. He did meet with his most important builders, and the pipes moved out of that graveyard. He bought presents for his children only when Manya reminded him. He was always there, at that flat on Attorney Street, with hissing gas jets in the halls and the perennial stink of cabbage. Rabinowitz wouldn’t allow Lionel to move him into a front apartment, where he might have had a glimpse of sunlight.
“Ravage, my daughter is not for sale. I am not bartering her, do you hear?”
Lionel remembered the moment he first clutched her hand; Rabinowitz was padding about in his slippers, his memory shot as he was maddened by a jealousy he couldn’t quite comprehend. And Lionel seized her hand in his, like a brigand. The two of them were renegades in a rear, sunless apartment that Rabinowitz rented and Lionel owned.
They had to accompany him into the backyard whenever Rabinowitz ran to the privy. Lionel’s plumbers had begun to install indoor toilets in some of the newer tenements, but none of these pipes had come to Attorney Street, where the stench was unbearable, even in winter, when the privies froze. Lionel would lick her face like a lunatic while the savant sat on his splintered throne.
“Landlord, we’ll lose you once and for all,” Rabinowitz cackled from the privy, but he didn’t have the courage or the means to move. It was Manya who broke up their little engagement party. Lionel had never once felt her moistness, or fumbled under her clothes.
“Lionel, we’re killing him, and he’s the last papa I’ll ever have.”
He returned to his graveyard on Canal with violent dreams. He meant to finish off Rabinowitz, send him to paradise with the silver handle of his cane. But he had some residual fondness for that savant. He didn’t hate Rabinowitz. He just wanted him to disappear. Meanwhile, his business seemed to blossom around him. Contractors stood in line to bid for his pipes. He had to install a Teletype machine. Chlöe could sense his moodiness. She bumped him with her head and brought him the carcass of a big brown rat. He was losing inventory. Pirates had come from the Jersey Shore to steal his merchandise, until Chlöe blinded their chieftain with her claws and sent the band back to Hoboken. But not even that victory could heal Lionel’s wounds.
A few months later, he heard of Rabinowitz’s demise. The savant had dropped dead on the privy. Lionel didn’t rush to Attorney Street. He still felt bitter and bruised. Finally he went there without his rent bag and with the wind in his eyes. A gale was blowing. The gas lamps had gone out. Attorney Street had descended into a pit of darkness. The Lower East Side could have been a barren island in a storm. Lionel lost his bearings for a moment. He suffered a kind of vertigo that was near enough to amnesia. But Chlöe came back to him in a flash, the huntress in that graveyard of pipes. He recognized Manya’s building in Attorney Street’s tenement row. He stood on the crumbling stoop and entered the pitch-black hallway. The banisters were broken. He had to mount the stairs with one hand on a wall of corrugated tin that might collapse and come crashing down on his head. The linoleum on Manya’s landing was like a wicked sea of lumps. He knocked on her door, announced himself. “Manya, it’s me—the landlord.”
The door was unlocked. He entered the apartment while the windows rattled, and the whole tenement seemed to quake. The gas jets hissed a poisonous fire, sputtered, and blew out with a final cough. She wasn’t in the front room, a parlor with a ragged settee that Lionel’s own men had supplied. They must have found it in a junkyard north of Canal. Lionel’s apartments were always fully furnished; that way, he didn’t have to endure the crisis of tenants moving in and out. A family came with their linen and left with their linen—and a few additional bedbugs.
He trod into the bedroom, frightened of what he would find.
“Manya,” he whispered, “I won’t harm you.”
She was lying on a rumpled bed in the same threadbare silk robe she’d worn when he first met her. She didn’t move, even when he touched her arm. He ran into the kitchen. The shelves were all vacant except for a spiderweb—there wasn’t a noodle or a slice of cheese in the house. He returned to the bedroom, wrapped her in his overcoat, and carried her down into the storm. She lay against him like some lanky doll with a bit of breath in her lungs.
The corner lunchroom was closed. Lionel knocked on the door with that silver skull of his cane. The cook appeared with a blanket around his shoulders and shouted through the window, “Are you meshuga, or what? The wind is breaking glass and knocking down trees. I haven’t had a customer since last night. Go away!”
Lionel knocked again, and now the cook recognized him as the young prince who owned half of Hester Street. Lionel was his landlord, in fact. He unlocked the door.
“Forgive me, Herr Ravage. The wind was playing tricks. I didn’t . . .”
“He wasn’t sure how long he stayed with her. He kept no calendar inside his head. He knew that certain bills had to be paid, but his bookkeeper could worry about that. He should have notified his wife. What could he say? Henny, I’m on a long voyage. I might never be back.”
The cook wore a derby and long underwear under his blanket. He had to light a large candlestick—he was lost without his gas jets. Then he saw her wild blond hair and curious pale complexion, like an alabaster idol. Both her eyes were shut.
He went to his stove, almost by instinct. But he couldn’t prepare a French omelette or heat a pot of chicken soup on a dead flame. So he leaned into the icebox, with his derby still on, pulled out ingredient after ingredient like a master chef, and was still able to fry an egg on an old fire pit, fix up a cucumber salad and a farmer cheese sandwich, while Lionel fed her little pieces at a time—until she opened her crystal blue eyes, a fixture of the finest Lithuanian Jews. She even managed a slight, trembling smile that was almost like a twitch.
“Landlord, you should have left me in peace.”
“My father’s lying in a potter’s field. I want to lie there with him.”
“He won’t lie there very long. We’ll bury him again, in my family plot.”
“He doesn’t belong there,” she said, suddenly ravenous. “You have your own children and a wife.”
“You’re my family. Have you had enough to eat?”
“Yes, Lord Lionel,” she said, with a touch of amusement in her voice.
The cook prepared a great bundle of food but wouldn’t accept money from his prince. “Please come again, Herr Ravage. You’re always welcome in a storm.”
And Lionel carried her across the wind in his overcoat, back to her upstairs cave, where the windows rattled through the night. She fell asleep in his arms and woke with the same alabaster look.
“You could work for me, you know. I’ll fire my bookkeeper.”
“And create a scandal at Ravage & Son. You’ll lose the art of collecting rent.”
She reached for Lionel, her arms still dug inside his overcoat, and kissed him on the mouth. It was their first kiss. He was trembling now, not Manya. She had the sweetest taste on her tongue. She snapped his suspenders until the pair of them lay curled on the bed. She plucked off his pants and winter underwear like some courtesan in a dream. And he entered her while she was still draped in his long coat. Entwined, they moved together mercifully slow. He did not think of his accounts or his dead father or the cat that waited for him in that endless terminal of pipes. They didn’t talk. He listened to her heartbeat, and licked the salt behind her ear.
“I’m embarrassed,” she finally said. “Lionel, I haven’t bathed in a week.”
“That’s perfect. You’ll live with my smell on you forever, like a Chinaman’s tattoo.”
He wasn’t sure how long he stayed with her. He kept no calendar inside his head. He knew that certain bills had to be paid, but his bookkeeper could worry about that. He should have notified his wife. What could he say? Henny, I’m on a long voyage. I might never be back.
They could have gone to Lord & Taylor, or another ladies’ shop on Grand Street. But she forbade him to buy her clothes. They never rode the horsecars into another neighborhood, never watched Yiddish jugglers on the Bowery. Lionel ran out of cash. It didn’t seem to matter. He signed his name on the grocer’s bill, and it was good as gold. The gas jets turned on miraculously a week after the storm, with a lick of blue flame. Lionel carried in pails of water from the leaky faucet near the landing, and he spent hours scrubbing her back. She read to him at night from the leather- bound books her papa had brought from Lithuania, books lent to him by the lord of the castle and never returned, classics of a kind with illustrations. Their favorite was Barnaby Rudge; they both reveled in Dickens’ greatest outlaw and grotesque, Dennis the hangman, who loved to lead a riot, turn around, and hang the rioters. They were convinced that Dennis could have thrived in America as a police captain on Mulberry Street if he himself hadn’t been hanged in the novel.
“What a shame,” Manya said. “We might have had Dennis knock on my door.”
“Our door,” he said, and then there was a sudden knock on the front door, as if they were onstage somewhere, thrust into a Yiddish melodrama.
“Come in, please,” Manya said.
Lionel’s shop steward appeared out of the blue, with a derby in his hands. He wore red suspenders, like Lionel. “There’s been a terrible tragedy, boss, or I wouldn’t inconvenience you.”
“What happened? Was there a fire uptown? Are my children hurt?”
“No, boss, but I think you’d better come with me.”
The shop steward had to stand in the corner with his eyes closed while Lionel crept into his pants and overcoat, which had all the dizzying aromas of Manya in every curl of wool.
“Manya,” he whispered, “I’ll be right back.”
The shop steward was silent all the way to Canal Street. Lionel entered that graveyard of pipes in a surly mood. And then he saw her dangling from a hook in the wall, with his best copper wire wound like a necklace under her ears; her blond coat was ripped through with blood, and her paws had been mangled.
Lionel sobbed in front of his own men. “Look at my little girl.”
He freed her from the wall with a pair of pliers, held that enormous cat in his arms, and ruffled her bloody coat with one hand. “Idiots, don’t we have watchmen around the clock?”
“Boss,” said the steward, “it was the same gang from Hoboken. They scared off our watchmen, and didn’t steal a thing. It was personal, boss. Them and the cat.”
“Shut up,” Lionel said. “They couldn’t have gotten near Chlöe, not a hundred of them.”
“They blinded her, boss, with acid. Look at her eyes.”
She didn’t have any eyes. She had scorched pits where her eyeballs had been eaten away, and yet he could still feel the luminous green eyes of his dead cat—nothing could diminish her, not that band of louts from Hoboken, all of whom he swore to kill. He’d have to lure members of the harbor patrol to ride across the Hudson with him in a police barge and descend upon those Hoboken rats. He’d pay any price to avenge Chlöe. And while he dreamt of destruction, men in black coats arrived on Canal Street. They were a different kind of pirates, these merchant princes who were Henrietta’s uncles, nephews, and brothers, and Lionel himself was the outlaw with a dead cat in his arms.
“Go away,” he said. “I’m mourning.”
But they didn’t cower in front of Lionel like his shop steward. Nor had they come to bargain with him over a glass of schnapps. They ripped off his overcoat, thrashed him with their walking sticks, until he lay in the sawdust, in that world of copper and lead.
Henrietta’s favorite uncle loomed over him in his waxed mustache. “Nephew, you haven’t been home in a month. Your children are wild animals without their father. You wife is even wilder—with worry. She hasn’t slept. She won’t eat.”
“Uncle,” he cried. “I cannot help her. I have another wife.”
They thrashed him again and again, until Chlöe dropped beside him, and he saw nothing but the scorched black holes in her head. And then she disappeared, behind the Russian boots of the Bavarians.
“Your father was a bankrupt,” said Uncle Rainer. “We pulled him out of ruin. We gave our best flower to you—a bride you didn’t deserve. The richest men wanted her, handsome men, brilliant, and she fell in love with a silky blond snake. There are consequences, Lionel. You will lose everything, this shop, your real estate holdings, every plot of land.”
“I’ll survive,” he said.
Uncle Rainer smiled; he was the smartest of the lot.
“The way your cat survived, eh? And what will happen to the apple peddler’s daughter when you’ve lost your fortune? It won’t be a pretty sight. We’ll have her arrested as a vagrant. And how will you help? Paupers can’t fight the police.”
Lionel lunged at Uncle Rainer, whom he’d always admired. Rainer had bailed out Lionel’s papa once the wedding contract had been sealed. He and Henny owned half of Ravage & Son.
“I’ll kill you,” Lionel howled in a ragged voice that signaled his own defeat. Rainer could afford to laugh. The Bavarian princes left him in the sawdust, with his dead cat buried in the pipes somewhere. The blood had gone out of him. He was as blind as Chlöe, but that didn’t matter much. He’d grow whiskers, and he’d prowl. He’d make love to Henrietta once in a blue moon, between her menstrual cramps. He’d buy up land, sell his pipes, sit inside the Moorish castle of Temple Emanu-El, pray with the Bavarian princes and plot against them. He’d mangle, he’d maraud, and wear that mask of propriety. Let them all invent their own Lionel Ravage—master plumber, hardware merchant, real estate tycoon. They’d never find the monster or the man. He sat in the sawdust and clucked in front of his shop steward and his pipe fitters, “Chl-o-o-o-eeee.” But the cat never came.
Fall / Winter 2023
Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Ravage & Son (published by Bellevue Literary Press in August 2023); Sergeant Salinger; Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin; In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song; Jerzy: A Novel; and A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. Among other honors, his work has been longlisted for the PEN Award for Biography, shortlisted for the Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award, and selected as a finalist for the Firecracker Award and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Charyn has also been named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York.
Monika Sosnowski is a Polish-American visual artist based in New York. Born in Detroit, she grew up in Poland and the US. The duality of this experience has strongly influenced her artistic sensibility. Her subject matter is the everyday wonder evoked through landscape, still life, and portraiture. Themes of loss, the fleeting, fickleness of memory, patterns of chance, possibilities of fate, and a fragmented self echo throughout. Desiring coherence she looks for traces—presence in absence and absence in presence; the in-between and the beauty it reveals.