Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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We received Lawrence Rudner’s manuscript for “Memory’s Tailor” by way of his friend the author John Kessel. In his letter, Kessel explained that Rudner was terminally ill, and that friends were attempting to get parts of his last novel, Memory’s Tailor, published before he died. We were taken with what we read, and agreed to excerpt the chapter that appears here.
Lawrence Rudner died in May 1995. Kessel, who is acting as Rudner’s literary executor, has this to say about him:
“He was an inspiring teacher, a thoughtful and humane man, and a good friend. We are lucky to have this last novel. As the hero of Memory’s Tailor tells us, ‘About some people you should remember.’ ”
Kessel has also provided us with a synopsis of the novel’s events:
Memory’s Tailor takes place in the final days of the Soviet Union. Alexandr Davidowich Berman is an elderly Jew who makes a meager living as a tailor for Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet, keeping the moldering costumes in order. Scarred by antisemitism, he stays shut up in his tiny apartment, hiding away from the world. But his skill as a tailor brings him to the attention of museum curator Vasilly Petrovich Arkov, who asks Berman to repair czarist clothing for a traveling exhibit.
One day, Berman discovers, sewn into the lining of a costume, the memoir of a Jew who lived in the early 1800s. Berman is inspired by what he reads, and, when the memoir is thoughtlessly destroyed, he becomes determined to collect, before they are forgotten, the life stories of Soviet Jews and sew them into the clothing in all of Russia’s great museums.
In the following chapter, Berman is called upon by Soviet bureaucrats to mend the suit of Lenin’s corpse, on display in the mausoleum in Red Square.
— Andrew Snee
“Listen carefully, comrade,” Academician Pudenkin told Berman, the tailor, when they were seated in the Zil limousine. “There is no excuse for being unprepared, and no time to waste once we are inside. Here is what you need to know.”
And Pudenkin explained the plan: The academician’s special group would wait until the mausoleum was cleared of all regular personnel, save a few security officers (“for our own protection, I assure you”) and two “preservation and refrigeration” technicians from Pudenkin’s Institute of Anatomy and Pathology, who would remove the plexiglass cover from the chilled remains; next, the tailor would be allotted five minutes (“only five, comrade”) to study Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s suit before beginning the repairs. “Please remember,” Pudenkin stressed, “that you have a moral obligation to do nothing that will disturb Ilyich’s peaceful repose. Do not press too hard against his chest or remove anything. Above all, do not touch any exposed areas on the face or hands.”
Berman nodded. He had some ideas about corpses. “And my tools? Scissors, needles, thread, a swatch or two of extra material?”
“Everything will be waiting for you.”
The academician opened his leather briefcase and gently withdrew a neatly drawn sketch of a suited torso. He switched on a small reading light above Berman’s head and drew a heavy purple curtain that hid them from the half dozen or so drunks staggering around Moscow’s deserted streets.
“Here are the trouble spots,” Pudenkin said, pointing to several marks below the figure’s lapel, above the right knee, and along a leg seam. “Study these specific areas. The wool there is pulling apart or is too frayed to hold together. The idiots we’ve employed in the past to take care of this business were never up to the demands of such detailed work. I suggest you use the time we have left to make yourself ready. Memorize everything.”
The tailor took the paper and adjusted his glasses, which Academician Pudenkin suggested he “make spotless,” lest any dust interfere with his vision and concentration.
Berman obediently cleaned his glasses, then looked at the sketch, a headless torso drawn as precisely as an architect’s blueprint. Minus his balding head, Lenin, measured in exact centimeters, seemed to be floating between here and there. “V. I. Lenin,” he read. “A cross-sectional view.”
Beads of sweat formed on the tailor’s forehead, and his back began to ache as he felt himself sinking into the soft plush of the Zil’s overstuffed seat. His ears were buzzing. “Give me more light and a sharpened pencil,” he said, huddled over the drawing like an artist protecting his work from the world. “Trust me, I’ll fix everything.”
(Someday, ladies and gentlemen, when a dozen historians try to piece together the changing fragments of Berman’s incredible life, much will be made of this particular episode in the Zil. There will be facts to sift through, testimonies to judge, chronologies to establish, mysterious actions to evaluate. As part of this process, a nervous academician, Dr. Pudenkin, will describe in detail the visit to Berman’s room in Pushkin — “I thought he might be a bit disturbed from his flu,” the doctor will say, “but understand how time was pressing in on us!” — the flight from Leningrad, and the exacting protocol he explained to Berman. He will then present the tailor’s signed pledge with its several rewritten signatures. Curator Vasilly Petrovich Arkov will also be called on to account for his obvious errors of judgment. After much probing from his interrogator, he will undoubtedly reveal the manner in which, during the darkened ride from Shremetyevo Airport to the hub of the quickly diminishing Soviet universe in Red Square, the old Jew studied the sketch of the headless, levitating Lenin as thoughtfully as any rabbi engrossed in the Talmud. “He was paying attention to what needed to be done,” the curator will say. “How was I to know what else he was planning?” And the Zil’s driver, a young KGB private reprimanded for not being more vigilant about his vehicle and passengers, will say, “I thought I heard the Jew whimper when the motor died.”)
Not a whimper, exactly; and certainly not a moan born of a moment’s panic. No, it was more a high-pitched “ayyy” — the sound, you might suspect, made by an excellent costume tailor just before he inserts a first, carefully considered stitch into a choice piece of aging, expensive cloth. Remember, as Berman surely understood at this point: “About some people you shouldn’t forget.”
“Dear Vladimir Ilyich,” Berman quickly wrote in the open space just beneath the diagram of Comrade Lenin’s floating body, in letters so small they fit under half of Ilyich’s foot, “The Revolution is over. This is your last chance. Pay attention to what I write.”
“Berman,” Pudenkin asked, somewhat concerned about the manic way the pale Jew was scribbling his tailor’s instructions, “do you want a cigarette?”
But Berman was somewhere else. Cigarettes meant nothing to him. Nor did he hear the tongue-lashing Pudenkin delivered to the driver when, somewhere along Kutuzov Avenue, the magnificent black Zil came to a sputtering stop.
“Idiot, idiot!” the academician yelled at the nervous driver. “Give me your name!”
The driver promised on his mother’s sweet life that all would be set right within twenty minutes, maybe even fifteen.
“Twenty minutes until you fix this thing? You can’t do any better? Who is your commanding officer, idiot? Who? Who?”
Berman, who couldn’t be touched by anything, just kept writing, forcing his hand to keep pace with the images and voices that swirled around him. After so many years of hiding like some sort of phantom, throwing himself behind walls because there was no other choice, he now knew what was possible when he sensed a long, collective past chasing after the Zil’s enormous red taillights.
“Ah,” he moaned. “Ahhh!”
“Berman? Berman?” Pudenkin was calling from somewhere far away.
“My name is Alexandr Davidowich Berman,” he wrote in the space above Lenin’s vest. “My mother’s name was Sophie. She knew Hebrew and gave me my first needle; we made a suit for a doll. She could dance and sing. My father was David Aaronovich, a locksmith who could fix anything made from metal or wood. He believed in you, comrade. He thought that even a Jew could pray for your revolution’s success, Ilyich; even one who wrapped himself in a tallit. ‘It will be a better world for us, Sasha,’ he’d say to me. ‘This Lenin has good eyes!’ Me he gave up on (‘Talmud is lost on this one!’ he said) because I didn’t care.
“But I learned to sew better than anyone else. Others talked; I made with my hands and this was enough for me. I was saved by needles and cloth. My mother smiled. ‘Talented kike,’ they called me in school. ‘No,’ said others, who studied my thick, dark hair, my black eyes, ‘a Gypsy.’ But I said I knew Stalin, and they let me be because there was a war before the war. Millions vanished! (Have you added up the numbers yet, Ilyich? You should, you bastard!) Stalin went crazy, Ilyich; you should have known better than to trust that murderous shit; you should have done something about him when you had the chance.”
“Only fifteen minutes, I swear,” promised the Zil’s driver once he’d finally ignited the monster’s engine. “Rest easy, comrades.”
“And then, Ilyich, Stalin made war on all of us. Everyone vanished like a late-spring snow. This I will tell, Ilyich: In ’38, David Aaronovich, my papa, made the mistake of fixing a lock on the wrong door, one belonging to a state enemy. He should have left the building earlier, but he did good work, and a job was a job . . . so he stayed. Was it his fault to be there when the thugs showed up to take some general away and, not to be messy, also took the Jew locksmith who was inside? ‘He must have done something!’ people say. ‘Everyone did something in those days.’
“My mother loved her husband. After he was taken away, she had nothing. I was living away, old enough to care for myself, she must have thought. Then why hold back? ‘I’m also an enemy, take me!’ she told them. ‘The Revolution is crap! Stalin is a pig!’ she screamed, until the neighbors informed.
“So she was taken away, too. And I, barely twenty, pissing my pants every hour, lost my head for two years in an asylum in your prize city by the Neva, Ilyich — until the beautiful summer of ’41, when even the crazy ones, at least the ones like me who could still walk, had to be in another war for the Socialist Motherland, to help Stalin, who was asleep or drunk when the real Yid-killers from Berlin came running east like wolves to do what he couldn’t do for himself.”
“Along the embankment. Take us by way of the embankment road,” the academician ordered the driver. “They have a space for us.”
The flashing red light of a militia patrol car reflected inside the Zil, and Berman dropped his pencil. He quickly hid the paper in his sleeve.
The Zil’s driver followed the militia escort along the Moskva River side of the Kremlin. Within minutes, the tailor saw the illuminated onion-shaped cupolas of Saint Basil’s Cathedral hanging in the air like great colored clouds. When both cars stopped, Berman thought about what was left to write on the diagram-become-letter.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” he said to the militia lieutenant who opened the door, “I need to urinate.”
But who listens to the concerns of a tailor when there are busy, important men all around? “We’re ready now,” the academician announced, pushing Berman into the cold air. “We’re late.”
Although Berman wished for this night to pass quickly, he still needed a bit more time. Clutching his midsection, wincing from some imagined pressure, he feigned a good Kirov theatrical grimace. “Comrades,” he moaned, doubling over, “I beg of you, give me a moment to do my business.”
“Yes, yes, anything he likes,” Academician Pudenkin said, throwing his hands up. “Take him behind the barricade.”
The lieutenant saluted Pudenkin, then escorted Berman to a small tree by the embankment and used his flashlight to point out a spot. “I’ll wait here. Don’t take long.”
Working up to his second act, the tailor held his hands in front of his face. “Forgive me; I don’t need a light to pass water, but with my tricky bladder I need to take my time.”
The officer swore and shut off the flashlight. He walked over to the others. Everyone smoked and laughed. A very nervous Academician Pudenkin put his arm around Curator Vasilly Petrovich and stared at the Moskva.
(“And so, my dear comrade,” an elderly officer with a notebook will one day ask the militia lieutenant, “what did Berman do when you escorted him away from the Zil?” “He found a tree, sir. He did what he had to do.” “For how long?” “A few minutes.” “So much time?” “It was just an old man’s piss.” “And?” “Sir?” “Speak up, then what?” “He bent over.” “And?” “He made sounds and talked to his prick.”)
Or maybe, as you must have guessed, what the young officer heard was actually the scratching of a pencil, withdrawn from a sleeve and directed across a sheet of paper held crotch high by a tailor who had a few more thoughts to add to an important letter.
“Ah, Ilyich,” Berman muttered, then scrawled, “about some people you should remember.”
“Quickly, you!” the officer called from the darkness. “We need to leave.”
Berman, who was always good with his hands, made a smooth shift from his pencil to his zipper to his member, but not before he added a few more lines — filled with names — for Vladimir Ilyich, dressed in his best wool suit, to consider until the end of time.
“Enough! We’re waiting, Alexandr Davidowich.”
“I, A. D. Berman, present these thoughts for the sake of my mama and papa and —”
“— Isaak with his bad shoes and for all the others whose lives were twisted like rags.”
And then Berman, who had been hiding away for so long, who knew now what he must do before there weren’t any Jews left to remember what used to be, dropped his pencil and forced out a thin stream of water that washed over his good shoes and the Kremlin’s cobblestones.
Flanked by bored technicians who fiddled this way and that as they worked to lift the heavy cover of the sarcophagus, the tailor, wearing the required surgical mask, waited until the air conditioning that chilled the preserved remains was switched to high, sending a sickly sweet odor of preservative chemicals throughout the chamber. Two guards in face masks, automatic weapons resting against their chests, stood at attention on either side of the technicians. A dim light shone on Lenin’s face, brighter lights on what needed to be repaired. The cool breeze parted several wispy strands of Ilyich’s carefully trimmed and beloved goatee.
“To work,” Pudenkin ordered his special tailor. “The cover must not be removed for more than ten minutes.”
(“So you never took your eyes off the Jew, is that correct?” the academician will be asked. “No, he just did his mending.” “And the diagram, dear comrade academician?” “I destroyed it,” Pudenkin will lie, suddenly realizing his terrible mistake; “nothing remains.” “You say there was no talking or slip of the hand?” “No, he just sewed, from top to bottom, as instructed. Nothing more.” “How long did he work?” “By my watch, no more than six minutes. He was very well prepared by my specific instructions. He never said a word.”)
A half-truth: there was no talking, but there was a bit of whispering behind a muslin face mask. “Like so,” Berman said to himself as he quickly repaired three frayed edges along Ilyich’s lapels, working a long needle into the rough wool. “And like so.” He tried not to touch what was beneath the material; Ilyich felt to him like a badly dressed mannequin.
Berman then worked on the torn seam that ran along Ilyich’s left thigh. Easy enough: pinch the wool, trim away the bad parts, tuck and fold the material under, draw the matching thread through in three spots, then snip. Done, done, done.
Academician Pudenkin stood next to Berman like an assisting nurse in an operating theater. The old pathologist held the precious material and the tailor’s implements. “Such an artiste,” he cooed when Berman closed the final cloth wound over Lenin’s knee. “You’re a true believer, Alexandr Davidowich.”
Berman turned toward Pudenkin’s voice, and then it happened.
It might have been the result of an itch inside the tailor’s nostrils — Berman’s nose hairs were tickled by the irritating chemical smell and the constant rush of cold air — or it’s possible that, with the final penetration of his needle into Lenin’s bourgeois suit (bought, as everyone knew, from a banker’s tailor in Zurich), Berman sensed he had less than a minute left. When he tied off the last stitch just above Lenin’s skinny mummified knee, Berman gave off a loud sneeze in three, maybe four rumbling tones that began somewhere deep inside his lungs, shooting forth a blast of moist air with enough force to send his muslin mask flying across the room.
Two horrified technicians, two guards, and Academician Pudenkin dropped to the floor — a bomb? a pistol report? another revolution? the end of Ilyich’s socialist utopia coming sooner than anyone had expected? During the ten seconds of nervous excitement (in which Pudenkin had scrambled beneath the sarcophagus), no one saw Alexandr Davidowich Berman place his letter inside Lenin’s silk shirt and — absolutely astounding to imagine — quickly squeeze the great Bolshevik’s waxy nose so that, to be honest, it looked a bit like the late David Aaronovich Berman’s thin Jewish beak. And certainly, just before Pudenkin recovered enough presence of mind to reclamp the muslin face mask over Berman’s mouth, no one saw the tailor inspect his sculpting or heard him tell Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the unquestioned father of the Revolution, to “fuck off, now and forever.”
When order returned — and it required but a few seconds to realize that a sick old Jew’s sneeze was not a bomb — the sarcophagus cover was immediately replaced and fastened. Arm in arm with the academician, Berman was hustled from the chamber, down an underground passageway, through a control room filled with operators seated before computer monitors, past more uniformed guards, up a stairway, through a large door that led to another narrow catacomb, down a few red steps, and finally, with the rearranged and newly informed Lenin now somewhere behind him, into the cold Moscow air of Red Square, where the black Zil waited in front of a fir tree.
Berman clutched his coat lapels tight against the chill. His nose dripping, a thick sliver of mortician’s wax wedged beneath two fingernails, the tailor was congratulated and kissed by both Curator Vasilly Petrovich and Academician Pudenkin.
“You gave us a fright in there, comrade,” Pudenkin said. “Still, a true hero will always enjoy the undying gratitude of the Soviet people.” Then he added, “But he will also remember his solemn promise never to reveal what he has done.”
That said, Pudenkin stuffed an envelope into Berman’s pocket. “With our gratitude,” he said, making his way toward the car. “There may be other work for you in the future.”
Berman refused the offer of a quick return to Leningrad, saying that, given his nervous stomach, he preferred a later flight and could find his own way to the airport. “A long walk will help.”
Before he left with Pudenkin, Vasilly Petrovich again embraced his tailor, saying, “Do you realize how you are bound to history, Sasha? My debt to you is enormous. And you have my promise that, when I return from England in three weeks, we will discuss the future.”
“Of course, you don’t know, do you? I’ve arranged for our exhibit of czarist clothing to be displayed in London. This is just the beginning, Sasha. If the Louvre also is interested, Milan can’t be far behind. I leave this evening.”
Vasilly Petrovich gave Berman a fresh package of Marlboros before he kissed him, as one must under such circumstances. He also promised that Alexandr Davidowich Berman’s name would be “prominently displayed” in the coming exhibitions. “But about this arrangement,” he said, motioning toward the mausoleum, “nothing will ever be said, yes? No matter what happens.”
Just before Vasilly Petrovich walked away, Berman asked him how many museums there were in the country.
“Enough for a thousand tailors and twice as many curators, Sasha,” he laughed. “Enough to keep us busy for three lifetimes.”
Berman smiled and clapped his hands. His cheeks were burning, as if on fire. Vasilly Petrovich thought Berman looked like a clown in the Moscow Circus.
After the Zil pulled away and the guards resumed their vigil at the entrance, a toothless old woman rounded the far corner of the mausoleum. She pointed to the cigarette Berman had carelessly deposited next to this holy place. Cursing his ignorance, she swept clean the ashes at the Jew’s feet. The tailor apologized and slowly walked across the expanse of Red Square just as a fresh contingent of young guards marched toward the mausoleum from the Kremlin’s Savior Tower. Even though the tomb would not open to the public for another few hours, a long queue was already beginning to form.
When he was finally alone beneath Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Berman faced the mausoleum in the distance, into whose polished red granite Lenin’s huge golden name was engraved. Without fear (who, after all, would notice an old Jewish tailor acting like any other drunk hobbling from one loss to another across Red Square?), he cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted out names — his mama’s and papa’s, among many others — in time with the cathedral’s great clanging bells. With his vision and head now clear, he saw them all walking past him, these victims of so many different czars: his mother laughing, a man named Leo Gelbat covered by Polish river mud, a poorly shod boy in a thin coat standing next to a long-haired rebbetzin, and even his father, holding up a broken lock as if nothing else mattered.
Then, knowing he had nothing left to lose, Alexandr Davidowich Berman pointed a steady hand at Lenin’s mausoleum and waved toward the old babushka sweeper, who was, with her birch-twig broom, the size of an insect.
“Hey, Ilyich, I want them to know that you’re still an asshole,” he shouted, so that the others could hear him before they vanished again, “but at least now you’ve got a decent suit and a much finer nose!”
That said, Berman smiled and finally removed his dirty spectacles. He lit another precious cigarette. After a few comforting puffs, he closed his eyes and savored the sliver of mortician’s wax jammed beneath his fingernail.
I was heartened to find the posthumous chapter from Lawrence Rudner’s Memory’s Tailor in your December 1995 issue — heartened, and shocked, and shamed.
Larry Rudner directed my thesis at North Carolina State University in 1990. Between teaching classes, advising students, and attending faculty meetings, he found the time to read what I had written. He had a wife and children, and a novel in the works, yet he found time to give me the smile and the nod and the nudge I craved. How could I return such a gift? Now I discover I will never have the chance.
I have only lousy, inadequate excuses for losing touch with him since then. Selfishly, I realize he could have helped me further; and I never even gave him the chance to refuse help from me. The best tribute I can give him now is to hear what he was trying to tell me — to tell all of us — in his work.