Ben Shein, the furrier, lay awake. The moist breeze that blew up from the Passaic River
sucked the thin white curtain against the screen. Ben's mind was empty except for the
sound of the wind. He drifted. Between waking and sleeping, he saw her, his dead wife Tess
as she had been before the cancer that had killed her. He could not force her up out of
memory. She came when she wanted. Her blond hair frizzed around her pink face; her blue
eyes were hot, her pale skin tight around her light bones. The Polak, he used to call her.
Her feet were firm on the ground, her trunk twisted: she was stopped in a dance. She stood
in front of him naked. The hair between her legs, thick and honey colored, still surprised
him. Her arms and legs were covered in downinvisible except in certain light, as
now. A tender slant of lightlike a caress. He couldn't read her face. She seemed to
"Who made the dress?" Ben asked, though Tess was naked.
"Who did you think?"
"Wise guy. Show me. The hem. You're supposed to be the finisher."
"Deeper," Tess said. "Go deeper."
His palms felt wet. He heard himself talking, but couldn't understand the words. He was
crossing over into sleep. He could hear the ocean. He saw himself reaching for her, felt
his fingers graze her belly. When he looked at his fingers he saw blood. Something lay
across Tess's chest. It looked like a rabbit with its neck broken. Or was it a child? In
Tess's chest, just above her breast was a small jagged hole. Tiny drops of blood dripped
from the wound. A look of agony closed her face. He heard her moan, but it was his own
cry. He tried to cover the wound with his hand. Unaccountably she smiled, "It doesn't
matter," she whispered. Her voice was so light-hearted that Ben knew again that she
was dead. He might have been far out at sea on a moonless night, the stars covered by low
thick clouds, so black was his sleep.
When Ben left the house, a little after six, a rosy light washed the sidewalk. The mist
from the Passaic River had burned off and the sky was blue and pink. Ben walked down
Broadway, into the center of Paterson.
The streets had not obliterated the landscape. They lay loosely buckled over red shale
and sandstone. Decaying red shale turned the soil of Paterson a raw dark red. The city was
bound by a deep curve in the river. Paterson was a peninsula with river water on three
From the sloping street he could see the green woods of Garret Mountain. When he got to
Four Corners, he heard the roar of the Paterson Falls. The rain gorged river dropped
seventy feet into the narrow chasm filled with mist. The buildings of Four Corners, their
deeply carved facades, rosettes, curving leaf-shapes, the recessed windows like open space
in their darkness between the incised half-columnslooked like a temple route to the
green glades of the mountains and the rushing roar of yellow water.
Farther on, clouds of starlings rose from the City Hall where they nested in the
arches, balustrades, deep cornices. They would come back at dusk, the loose clouds
whirling into a spinning funnel, so closely packed on their perches that the City Hall
looked draped in black bunting, as if Paterson were in official and perpetual mourning.
Just before night, their chirping throbbed like a prayer from the City Hall into the
surrounding streets. There had been a plan to poison them, which, because of what
opponents called its "murderous cruelty," had been replaced by a scheme to
frighten the birds away by exploding Roman candles in a gorgeous public display. Again the
lovers of starlings protested and won. The starlings remained sacredtemple birds,
protected in their defecating, in their devouring. Their going out and their return framed
the business day.
The Shein Salon was on Ellison. Whoever had built it had looked back to art noveaux,
simplifying the curves. Across the narrow street, the Quackenbush department store fronted
Market. The Shein Salon was elegant and spare in the shadow of the massive gothic palace
Before they had built on Ellison, the Sheins, new immigrants, had set up shop on
Broadway. It was the twenties, before the crash. Ordinary people had bought fur coats.
"Not just well-to-do women," Ben had said. "Girls. Not even high school
graduates. From the factories. They save every penny. For what? A coat." In five
years, he had bought the building on Broadway, rented it and built a new store on Ellison
The crash had almost finished the fur business, but by then he was married to Tess. It
had been her idea to set up a fabric and notions shop next door to the fur salon. In
Paterson the farmers would come down from the mountains and buy. Even women who had never
sewn before were making their own curtains and pillowcases. Tess's shop had made money and
carried them through the worst years of the depression. And Ben had been able to hold on
to the Shein Building, which had cost him so much. He gave his customers quality.
There were no breaks on quality. Unless you were the maker. Unless you were inside the
family of the maker. The makers knew the truth. "Hudson Seal" was muskrat. Musk
rat. Rat. "Persian" lamb was actually from Russia. Lamb was lamb.
Customers heard that word but they didn't hear. As the skin was cut from the lamb and
became "Persian," so the word "lamb" was further removed from the
actual lamb, from the ages of the lambhours, days, months. But the makers did not
forget. "The best Persian comes from the karakul. We take it before the curl
loosens," Israel had told Ben. They did. From the youngest lamb, the silkiest, a week
old. A nursing. Toothless. The teeth-buds still deep in the soft gums. For the best
quality pelts, the slaughterer skinned the animal while it was still warm. The skin was
bloody, the skinned animal bluish red like a fetus. Ripped flesh stuck to the skins. With
rare exceptions, the skin of the most darkly furred animal was white. White under dark.
White streaked with blood.
The customer didn't know, didn't want to know, didn't have to know. The customer had to
pay. The furrier had to pay too: He had to know.
Eventually what Ben made was beyond him.
Only once in a blue moon did Ben Shein make a coat without a customer. He didn't need
to fill the vault with his creations. Besides, it would have been too expensive. But in
order to sell, he had to fit fur to a woman's body.
Ben Shein came to his salon on Ellison. Its two bow windows, their glass panels held at
angles by butterfly-shaped clips, were like a pair of full-length three-way mirrors in
which the mannequins stared at themselves. Ben refused to hire a window dresser. He did
the work himself. One window was bare except for a dressing table and a plush-covered
stool pushed back as if "someone" had just put down the silver backed mirror,
risen from her seat and left. In the other window stood the mannequin, who, in Ben's
illusion, had made herself up at the dressing table and passed into the second glass
chamber where "she" stood in a close-fitting dress of thin violet wool.
Ben let himself in. He chose a long brace of silver fox tails from the vault and,
carrying it in two hands, brought it to the window. He arranged the thick rope of fur so
that it fell just below the hem of the violet dress. Ben went out to the street to judge
his work. The fur did not hang right. He climbed back into the window through the narrow
glass door. Hunched in the small space between the wall and the mannequin, with no room to
extend his arms, he adjusted the fur, slowly moving his wrists as if he were working a
pulley. He had chosen the pelts, as he did for all of his coats. When he got the skins,
they were bloodless, "fleshed"the flesh scraped away. He matched skins. He
had eyes that fed on color then narrowed as he finessed the shading. He cut. He stitched.
He wetted the skin-side and nailed the sections over a pattern. They dried. He pieced the
sections. He fitted.
Ben went back to the street to judge the effect. The fur looked wild and fresh against
the fine violet wool. Finally he was satisfied.
He entered his store again. He walked over his own name set in the mosaic.
The salon took up most of the first floor. The vault was at the back, and the workrooms
upstairs, reached by a spiral metal stairway that rose above the vault.
Ben turned on the ceiling fan, opened the back door, and looked quickly around the
room, checking the low table between two chairs near the door. The black glass candy bowl
was half-filled. Ben took a bag from the drawer in the table and ritually heaped the bowl
with hard candy, coffee-flavored Hopjes, His dead wife's choice. He couldn't get away from
Tess, the thrust of her voice, "Tokas, it's the real Hopjes." Tess would mutter
these words under her breath when a customer would ask whether the mink was really mink
and not rabbit. Ben twisted the bag and pushed it deep into the drawer. The hard, dark
candies like black coffee.
July was a slow month. The Sheins refurbished coats, stored them, made repairs to the
store. Ben's helpers were on vacation, except for his assistant, Moe Black who would soon
arrive. Brona came at nine to open the showroom.
Upstairs at his desk, Ben, who usually took this time to sketch new designs, to
straighten his files, now planned his life. Why not? he asked himself. I could get married
again. He rested his chin on his hands. His skin still gave off the smell of his lemony
shaving soap. He got up from his desk and walked to the mirror above Moe Black's table. He
appraised himself without looking into his own eyes. "Why not?" he said out
loud. "I could do it." He clenched his fist to fight off his hidden adversary.
Instead he summoned him. He heard his grandfather Israel's voice, the voice that had
soaked into Ben's head day after day of his childhood, "Happiness comes like a streak
of light across a table." Ben answered him back, "I'm too old to wait
again." His eyes tightened in anger. Against fate. Against Tess. He pressed his hands
against his ears. Tess, Israelall night, all day: he didn't want to listen to them
Ben heard the sound of feet, a hum, a whistle, a sigh. Moe Black came up the
stairsfat, balding, his thin hair combed forward and wetted down that morning had
dried and lifted from his head like brittle frosting. "Ben," he crooned in a low
whisper as if he were meeting him at a wedding or a funeral. It was difficult to know if
he were offering congratulations or condolences.
Ben smiled, "I've got a coat for you. Mrs. Gayner."
"The same coat?"
"The same schmata. She could afford a new one. The woman has money. What it costs
her to bring this rag in every year, I could make her a beautiful coat. But no. Look at
it. The coat is dead."
"Not dead, worn out." Moe held the coat by the collar. He flicked it with the
back of his plump fingers. He turned it. The skins were dry. "What does the Bat
do?" Moe asked. "Put it on the radiator? It's stiff. Like wood. Believe me, this
Bird ain't got otter."
"Otter," Ben repeated. He knew what was coming.
"A black like you'll never see," Moe rhapsodized. "The silkiest."
"I know," Ben answered. His grandfather Israel had worked on otter; Ben would
"A regular pogrom. No more. The Russians got them all. Not one pelt have I seen
for years," Moe chanted.
Ben heard again the elegy of his childhood. "Mrs. Gayner," he said.
"I'll sell her a new coat."
"For The Behind, I'll make this one like new. The Behind don't need
you, Mr. Perfect, Norman Norellfirst the black thread then the white thread, the
coat is too wet, the coat is too dry, talk to the customer don't talk to the customer, the
store is too hot the store is too cold."
Ben laughed, "Genug. Mrs. Gayner."
Moe lifted the coat high. "We'll put in a new lining, with big initials. What's The
Behind's first name? Dora? How about a middle nameOlga? You know why she don't
buy a new coat? She does it to get him, the husband. To shame him. For years he got
someone else. A Polish woman."
Moe knew every story. He had once told Ben about a coat that a daughter had brought in.
Her mother had died in the coat, in a car accident. Thrown through the windshield, over
the hood, she had landed face down on the road. The fur was stiff with dry blood, the
front of the coat scraped to the skin where she had slid along the rough pavement. She had
hit so hard, even the pockets were gritty with dirt. Out of one pocket Moe had drawn a
white handkerchief. "Folded. Like a letter," Moe had said. "I kept it. Then
I lost it."
Ben looked at himself in the mirror. His silk tie glittered. The spender answered the
saver. "You," Ben said. "You think you can bring back the dead."
The owners of the stores along Market Street locked and unlocked their front doors,
letting their help out one at a time, holding the heavy doors open partway, one arm
extended, leaning forward toward the street. To open the door all the way they would have
had to step outside like doormen. The departing women passed close to them, slipping
through the narrow opening, laughing their goodnights, their bosses courtly,
fatherlyfor the moment. Most of the lights in the stores had already been turned
The saleswomen walked out into the bright light of the July evening. The day had seemed
over inside the store, like the end of a movie in a dark theater. Now the day began again.
Cars drew up as if to a theater. Here and there a car door opened; a woman entered. The
rest, carrying shopping bagssome women had shopped for a few groceries during lunch
hourwalked toward home. There had been a brief violent storm in the middle of the
day; the gutters were still wet, and the sound of the falls mingled with the noise of the
traffic. Ben Shein and his brother Nat walked toward Four Corners. They met once a week to
eat together at the Ding Ho Palace, two flights up at Four Corners.
Nat was the outside man for the Shein businesses. He did the same kind of work he had
once done for Paterson bootleggers: he drove a truck; he picked up and delivered. He could
not stand to be in the store all day, could not stand to be anywhere. Nat raced ahead.
Ben puffed. "Slow down. What's your hurry? I don't have time to go to the gym like
"Why didn't you say something?
"OK," I heard you. Nat Shein reined himself in. His large head shot back. His
legs jerked. His glossy rag-whipped shoes skidded on the pavement. He had thrown a dressy
suit jacket over his open necked work shirt and gabardine pants. The suit jacket strained
across his broad back.
"Where did you get that jacket?" Ben asked. "It's too small."
"From Mendy. Ready made. He let it out."
"But not enough."
"There was no more. I like the material."
"A good piece of goods. You know what a good piece is."
When the brothers got to the restaurant, they found crazy Joe Mavet squeezed against
the wall of the small downstairs hall. Nat pushed forward to the steep stairs. Ben stopped
and was already reaching into his pocket.
"Ben Shein, Ben Shein," Joe Mavet sang in his high voice. He wore, despite
the July heat, a heavy black overcoat held closed with safety pins. He had pinned a sock
around his neck, the large safety pins in the front. His long filthy hair stuck out from
his apple pie cap, which looked new.
Somebody must have just given to it him, thought Ben. "So how are you?" he
asked in a soft voice. Though he had known Joe for years, ever since Joe's sister had
worked in the Shein's fabric shop, he still stared, his heart contracting.
"I've got news for you," Ben. "In my house, from the icebox, comes
voices. From the radio. They know all about me. Also from the radiators. Noises."
Joe had flung the radio out the back window, but he had not been able to move the
refrigerator to reach the plug. He had covered the refrigerator with blankets and tied the
blankets with clothesline. The sounds of the motor turning on and off came through the
blankets. He had covered the radiators to muffle the spit of the steam, to staunch the
moist hisses coming up through pipes that, in Joe Mavet's mind, sunk deep under Paterson
into the molten center of the earth, into the mouth of mouths. Wired with menace, the
world hummed with murder; the dentist drilled for blood.
"Joe," Ben said in a reasonable voice.
"I know. They tell me. I listen. That dentist Essie made me go to is not a real
Jew. He's a German. The fillings have wires. They are talking. I know what God says. They
will kill us. Our children. I don't have. You got. Yours. What's-her-name. What is it?
"Yours. They'll eat. Everybody. Watch out for her."
Joe lifted a lock of his filthy hair. "Under my hair is a number. I try to hide
it. You have to take a microscope. In the scalp, deepa number. Maybe you have one
Joe held his hands close to his own eyes and made a fussy cutting motion as if he here
sewing. His hands were surprisingly clean. When he visited his sister Essie, she would
trick him into washing. She would pile dirty dishes in the sink and coax him to wash them
with her as they had done when they were children. They played and washed. She hummed and
coaxed. The water turned black; she dried her brother's hands on the kitchen towel. She
felt his bony hands through the coarse fabric. Joe left with a package of food. Hers was
the only food he would eat. After Joe left, she would wash the dishes again.
"How's your sister?" Ben asked.
"How's your daughter?" Joe answered.
"Fine, fine. Susan is fine."
"A Susan you got? I got an Essie Sister. Sis. She's OK too. But she's going
to die. They can go just like that. Joe snapped his clean fingers. Joe's eyes were
gleeful. He opened his mouth wide, showing his large square teeth. His laugh was a howl.
Tears ran down his face.
Ben took the charge of Joe Mavet's galvanic laugh. It thrilled him, the dutiful son,
the good son, the tender father. He laughed himself, released from the burden of virtue.
He thought that he was laughing at Joe's foolishness.
"You're cock-eyed," Joe said, pointing a finger at Ben's eyes. "You
better hurry up, your brother is hungry. He'll eat the wall. An animal."
Ben looked over his shoulder at Nat, "He doesn't know what he's saying, he doesn't
Nat's black eyes turned darker in his pale face. His muscled neck swelled. He shook his
head. A lock of his black hair, which he wore combed straight back, broke from its stiff
glaze and fell across his eye. He raked it back.
Ben turned away and handed Joe a twenty-dollar bill.
"Ben Shen, Ben Shein," Joe Mavet sang as he walked out to the street.
"Meshuge," Nat said. "How can you give him money? Twenty dollars. He'll
throw it away. They should lock him up."
"I like to give him. In the hospital, he'd get worse. This way his sister can take
care of him. He knows my name; he talks to me. No one should be alone. It's not good. He
has good days."
"This? You call a good day?" Nat's voice rose.
"Don't get excited. It's nothing."
Nothing? What do you need Joe Mavet for? You got me. The fucking stooge. The Lugger.
You're the genius, the Bar Mitzvah boy, not me.
"What are you talking about? You're my brother."
"Who needs it? Give him money."
"I give you."
"For what? Buy another Shtarke."
""You're good for the business," Ben lied. In this family of makers, Nat
couldn't make a thing. "People know you. You can make your own time."
"My own? What's my own?"
"You can do what you want."
"Leave it." Nat took the steps two at a time, ahead of Ben.
Swaddled in white, the Ding Ho Palace was silent. The tablecloths dropped to the floor.
The napkins were large as towels. Two layers of white curtains filtered the sun that at
sunset still burned hot and yellow.
Ben handed his brother a menu, "Whatever you want." He'd make it up to him,
he'd take care of him.
When they had slept together as children, Natolder, sturdy, his muscles already
strongwould wake up in Ben's thin arms, his head resting on Ben's chest, in the vee
of the pajama top. Against his ear, his brother's smooth skin, the bump of bone, the
beating heart. Nat would be comforted. He had turned to Ben in his sleep, never the other
way. Yet Nat, years later, had comforted Ben when Tess died. Ben could remember Nat's
leading him away from Tess's coffin into the kitchenshe had been buried from the
house, the way they did it then. Nat had cupped the back of his head, drawing him against
his chest when Ben had called out, "I don't want my wife in that box, I don't want
it." His tears had soaked into Nat's shirt. Nat had not pulled away from his
shuddering sobs. It seemed to Ben that Nat had drawn them from him, drawn them into his
hard body where they sweetenedonce. Once was not enough for Ben. He wanted always.
He wanted again.
The waiter, his white apron falling to his ankles, brought the heavy covered dishes
that sunk into the thick layers of linen without a click or a clatter.
Ben raised the cover of the shrimp in lobster sauce.
Nat repositioned his knife and fork so that they lay perpendicular to the table edge.
He yoked his restlessness to order. He grinned, inhaled, and for a moment forgot himself.
They both loved the succulent richly spiced food. They loved the white meat pulled from
Nat brought the meat to his mouth and ate.
Ben watched his brother's face, "I want to get married."
"You want to get married?"
"You were married."
"What about Susan?"
Children forget," said Ben, who could not forget.
"Who's the woman?"
"You haven't met the woman yet and you want to get married?"
"I'm out of circulation. In the store, who do I see? Married women. I don't want
to start with them. Where do I go? I'm inside all day, not like you. You get whatever you
"I get whatever I want," Nat repeated. He put his hands palms down on the
white cloth. They were small, stroked with fine black hair. His skin was
blue-whitethe family pallor. He tilted his head back. His dark brows lifted. The
shining cap of his hair slid back. High up close to the hairline: livid scar, a present
from his last lover.
He had been wild to have her on her knees in her father's house, her lace-trimmed
underwear disheveled, his cock in her mouth. He had gotten what he wanted. More: he had
looked down while she knelt, her mouth on him, and he had seen his toes with their thick
yellowish nails curled into the floor, like talons, and he had driven his cock deeper into
her mouth, hurting her as he came. At the end, he had came away from their lovemaking, his
mouth sore, his back bloody where she had raked him with her sharp red-painted nails. He
had become afraid of his cruelty. "I should put my cock in a sling," he had told
himself. "Pack it up with all that." When he broke with her, she had opened up
his head with a crystal vase. Drunk when the doctor had stitched up the deep gash, Nat had
been ashamed to go back to have the stitches removed. He had leaned close to the bathroom
mirror and, with a tweezer, gasping from the pain, he had pulled out the black stitches,
reopening the wound.
None of this did he tell his brother.
"Lover boy," Ben said. "What do you think?"
Nat went on eating, his face hard, like a hammer.
"Tell me?" Ben pleaded.
Nat put his fork down. His mouth opened in a little smile.
"I do know someone. Lillian Tondow. Works for lawyer Redstone. Divorced from Dave
Tondow, the gambler. The one who's in jail."
"Did I what? Nat's voice rose.
"I helped her out."
"You helped her?"
"I talked to her. I listened. After the husband went away. She finally got rid of
"A divorced woman?"
"You want a virgin?"
"Ben laughed. "I don't know what I want."
"I'll talk to her," Nat said. "Tondow's a good scout, smart. I lent her
money. She paid me back. I'll be a matchmaker. Me." He pointed to his broad chest.
"You. It could happen." Ben took courage. Nat would stand with hima
dark blue suit, a white carnation. Both of them in blue.
"Tondow'd be good with Susan. No kids from the gambler but she's calm. Ben stared
at the table. What happened to the bill?
"I got it. I'm fast.
"When you want to be."
Nat opened his jacket. He held the bill against his chest. "Let me."
"OK." Ben raised his hands and moved them against the air as if he were
searching for a wall in the dark. For once Nat could pay.