It must be warm weather, for the front door and the hall are both open, and I am sitting on the path watching crowds in a field above the high Braniel who are themselves listening to an amplified roar that is Paisley’s, unmistakably, and echoes down this far to Woodview Drive, although his words are lost in their own noise, and only the outrage and the scorn come through intact on lazy, slow-dancing thermals.
I start to look instead at an almost cloudless sky, a blue sky in fact, and I tune the new transistor to a mixture of midsummer babble and pop music, cushioned, buoyed up, and floating over the big noises to See my Baby Jive and Summer (The First Time) long after the audience has trickled from the hill.
I didn’t see it, although I heard about it later, the little gift that entered straight through the front door early one evening, when everybody was out, and broke on the cold floor-tiles, the ox-blood tiles, igniting in the dark for maybe a few seconds then burning low, then fading completely away to be found later: scattered bits of a milk-bottle, heat-stains beneath them; the burned rag, and the smell.
Bruno Schulz was born in in the Galician town of Drohobycz, a station of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father Jacob ran a haberdashery; the family was decently well-off, and although
Bruno regularly attended the synagogue with his elder brother and sister the family was not religiously conservative. In , Schulz’s father died, and Drohobycz’s marketplace, including his father’s shop, was flattened by the Russian army. This was the great divide in Schulz’s life. Unlike Kafka, to whom he bears some resemblance, he doted on his father. One of the fetish images he carried through his life was ‘of a child carried by its father through the spaces of an overwhelming night, conducting a conversation with the darkness’. It is, as he recognised, the story of the father who tries to shelter his sick son from harm as they ride through the night, wind and wood in Goethe’s poem of frightened eroticism
‘Der Erlkönig’. With one difference: the roles are reversed. All his writings were to become a mythological consecration of his father’s cabalistic speculations in the backroom to his shop, literary returns on what the Book of Isaiah calls ‘all the glory of his father’s house’. Double-entry bookkeeping has rarely been described so enticingly: ‘The Book lay in all its glory on my father’s desk, and he, quietly engrossed in it, patiently rubbed with a wet fingertip the top of decals, until the blank page grew opaque and ghostly with a delightful foreboding and, suddenly, flaking off in bits of tissue, disclosed a peacock-eyed fragment.’ The obvious is a most terrible enigma.
Affluenza is a family problem. In a variety of ways, the disease is like a termite, undermining American family life, sometimes to the breaking point. We have already mentioned time pressures. Then, too, the pressure to keep up with the Joneses leads many families into debt and simmering conflicts over money matters that frequently result in divorce. Indeed, the American divorce rate, despite reaching a plateau in the 1980s and declining a bit since then, is still double what it was in the ’50s, and family counselors report that arguments about money are precipitating factors in 90 percent of divorce cases.1
But modern life in the Age of Affluenza affects marriage in more complex ways, spelled out clearly by the psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz in their book The Lonely American. Longer working hours and the demands of caring for stuff require that parents find something to cut in their frenetically busy lives. What goes is time spent with friends and community members. Parents spend more time with their children today than a generation ago, though much of it consists of chauffeuring their children from one event to another, as Dr. William Doherty points out.
– I don’t, Helena says. But I do know that you’re much too polite to say if I bore you.
– That shows how little you know me, the old lady says.
If you knew me better you’d know that I always speak my mind.
– You always say that, Helena says, but I doubt if you really do. Not when you think it would hurt someone.
– I value my privacy just as much as anyone else, the old lady says. You don’t have to worry. I’ll tell you when I don’t want to see you. Go on, she says, nodding towards the box, help yourself.
Helena eases a cube out of the box and lets it slide into her cup of tea. They both watch as it slowly disintegrates and merges with the brown liquid.
The old lady says:
– In Russia, before the Revolution, my mother told me, there was one cube of sugar for the whole family. It hung over the table, attached to the lamp cord by a piece of string, and anyone who wanted to sweeten their tea pulled it towards them and had a suck.
– I wouldn’t like to have been the youngest, Helena says.