Tell It to Polaris

Tell It to Polaris

An excerpt from Joshua Cohen’s new novel Book of Numbers.

(Mansour Man / Flickr)

[[[[OPENING VERSION 2 BIOGRAPHY: Sari’s parents, Imre and Ilona Le Vay, were Hungarians to the Americans, but Jews to the Hungarians. Above all, though, they were Budapesters, geographically and culturally marooned between Joseph’s [Abs’s father’s] ghetto origins and Eve’s [Abs’s mother’s] haughty ancestry in Cologne.

To them, Joseph was just a [coarse] peddler of frozen water who’d tried to socially elevate himself through his union with a [wealthy snobbish] yecca wife, Eve, who invariably played the same EZ piano arrangement of Mozart’s Variations KV.265 (“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”/“Baa Baa Black Sheep”/the ABCs), dabbled in depopulated watercolors (kitchen still-lives, insipid landscapes of the wildlife preserves around JFK), and in lieu of financially solving whatever problems their daughter was having with her monkeywrench son, preferred to waste her fortune on transcontinental flights, to offer her opinions in person.

The Le Vays would have sudden fevers and lymphatic surgeries whose recuperation periods would last the durations of Eve’s visits. They called her “the princess gourmand [Princesse de Guermantes] of the synagogue women’s league.” Or else “the doyenne of the mooing bourgeois [la doyenne de la moyenne bourgeoisie].” They mocked her Shalimar perfumes, her Scherrer suits worn always with the gloves, her inaccurate recitations of Heine that never aspired to more than the first two couplets of Die Lorelei, and were just the malapropic asyntactic expressions of the trait that most provoked them: Eve’s Deutschtum, or the conceit of her Germanness. Though it wasn’t just that she persisted in a vain attachment to that identity, it was that she hadn’t suffered for it—she hadn’t suffered like they had. The Le Vays had cultivated the full European education and with such unflagging intensity the continent had no choice but to plan their genocide so that they embodied its quintessence.

The Le Vays were the conjugation of generations of linguists, etymologists, philologists, and lexicostatisticians who’d been querulously crossreferencing one another ever since their forebears—who on both sides included Lévais and Lévajs—Magyarized their surnames in solidarity with the Kingdom of Hungary following its fraught unification with the Austrian Empire in 1867. [Their grandparents?] had learned how to speak, read, and write all the Germanic, Slavic, and Romance languages, and how to speak, read, and at least write about all the Baltic languages too. [Their parents?] were capable of griping about the dissolution of the dual monarchy in its every single tongue, and in the Ural-Altaic, the Finno-Ugric-and-Permic, Samoyedic, and Oghuric—in everything but the Semitic. The stiff leatherskinned and authoritative edition that was their family would go to its death incompletethe Le Vays the missing volumes.

Imre and Ilona had been doctoral candidates at the University of Budapest, where they’d maligned each other’s talents so publicly that when their professor paid a university janitor [how much?] to shelter them both in the janitor’s dacha [Hungarian equivalent?] outside Sárospatak, the beneficiaries, even with the Nazis at the door, interpreted the gesture as only partly altruistic. If the other part was a joke, though, the professor never laughed. Dr. Péter Simonyi died fighting with the Resistance. He never got to meet the couple’s daughter, born in spring—or witness its nuptials, civil in fall—both 1945.

But then neither did their parents and siblings [how many?]: Imre’s family had perished in Auschwitz/Auschwitz-Birkenau, while Ilona’s had been executed and left to the Danube [by the Arrow Cross?].

Following the war, the couple was unable to find employment—despite Imre’s formidable achievement as an Esperantist (his dissertation sought to officialize the artificial language’s first natural phonological evolution, the replacement of the phonemic ĥ with the k), and despite Ilona being one of the great hopes of Hungarian bibliography (her dissertation had proposed conversion mechanisms between the author/title taxonomies then prevalent in Hungary? and the various faceted? international standards). They labored, instead, in the dissident underground, as translators, interpreters: in Russian, vragi naroda—“enemies of the people.”

In 1956, with a popular revolt roiling the boulevards of Budapest, and columns of Soviet tanks about to roll in[, stretching like the lists for arrest they were on], Imre and Ilona took Sari on a train to Szombathely, and telling her they were just visiting her new Gymnasium, slipped across the border[—parted the Iron Curtain—]for Vienna.

In Vienna they renewed contacts with prewar colleagues, now adjunct émigrés abroad suffering from visa problems and pleionosis. Jobs were arranged, nonetheless [how?], and in 1958 they moved to Saint ?, Minnesota, initially to teach a discipline called Sovietistics at the Lutheran Bible Institute?, and then to Berkeley, to teach Magyar language under the auspices of the Center for Slavic Studies at the University of California [but Hungarian’s not a Slavonic language?].

Sari attended Berkeley for what she then called her bachelorette’s, mistress’s, and PhD degrees, initially studying applied linguistics, though under the guidance of Professor Debora Laklov she chose to do doctoral work in the specialized field of sociolinguistics, focusing particularly on the confluence of language and gender [on the genderlects of disclosure? second-language intimate differencing/contextual integrities?]. “Iceman,” to her, was more than an occupation, but not in the sense that it might’ve been to her future father inlaw, while “Icewoman,” which term Eve might’ve used to describe her daughter inlaw, would become similarly reprehensible. “Iceperson” was less deterministic, preferred. Sari’s dissertation, “Male without Prefix, Male without Suffix: Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, and the epicene misnomer in international(ist) language(s),” became a chapter in her seminal [no, no] book, Toward a New “Neuter”: what is ideal about the sexist, and what is sexist about the ideal, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979.

In September 1973, Sari traveled to a Reassessing Animacy summit at the University of Texas, Austin, leaving Abs with their two year old son, and prompting a visit from Eve. Abs insisted he was managing on his own, but Eve refused to accept this, and wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to spend time with her grandson who at the time was two years old.

Eve had strict ideas about the proper way to raise a child, but none approached the method by which Abs and Sari split their parenting duties: divvying up the caregiving by tallying, individually, at the end of each day, and together, at the end of each week, and then again monthly, their changings and feedings, playtimes, and sessions of counting and reading, to ensure an utterly equal distribution of responsibilities. Eve was not aware of this Had Eve been aware that her coming to take charge of her grandson would not redound toward Abs’s total time spent with the child, and that, quite to the contrary, he’d have to make up whatever time he’d been relieved of upon Sari’s return, she might never have made the trip.

Eve would usually spend her visits sitting in the den of the splancher on Fulton Street[, bobbining mundillo, or reading only the best new American fiction][—Leon Uris, Herman Wouk—]while Cohen slept in his playpen, or toddled on the floor. But on this visit she decided that her grandson’s rompers were no better than rags, and that there was no one better than her, there was no one else but her, to dress him appropriately.

As the Le Vay-Cohens had only one car—a Ford Pinto, which Abs had taken to work—and as Eve wasn’t able to ride a bicycle, especially not with a grandson atop, she called for a cab, raided the pantry for supplies, and the note on its door for the address of Sari’s parents, whose atopic dermatitis that’d prevented them from stopping by was surely noncontagious. Eve wasn’t familiar with the greater Bay Area, so might not have expected the hour drive, the traffic, the toll bridge, or the $48 that got her to Hillcrest Road, in Claremont. After the Le Vays assured her she hadn’t been swindled but didn’t offer to contribute to the fare, Eve gave them stringent instructions regarding Cohen’s regimen[—the Le Vays had never been left alone with their grandson before?—], had them repeat to her his feeding times, on what foods in what portions, which she’d provided in a diaper bag along with diapers, wipes, powders, creams, told them she’d be back in two hours, apologized to the driver for keeping him waiting, and asked to be taken “downtown.” [Why didn’t she ask the Le Vays to recommend a children’s clothingstore?]

She was let off in San Francisco[, paid the driver another extortionate fee], went shopping. It was while exiting a Family Wearables on Page Street and turning onto Market, having purchased a pair of overalls and onesie pajamas, that she walked directly into a VW Combi, described only as “tiedyed,” its drivers never described and so never identified—a hit and run [she was left to bleed to death on the sidewalk].

The body lay at the UCSF Medical Center and, since Eve’s driver’s license listed her residence as New York, and the Le Vays’ address was the only local contact contained in her purse, it was Ilona who got the call, and it was Imre who called Abs[—imagine the amount of energy being used in enthusiasm control]. At UCSF Medical, Abs could identify the body only by pantsuit and purse. After, he went to pick up his son from his inlaws’, and call his wife, who convinced him that an earlier flight could change nothing. Finally, Abs called his father, who broke. Joseph was unable to decide whether to have the body sent back to New York or buried out in California, and Abs was unable to tell his father that there wasn’t much of a body left to bury, and so Eve was cremated, on Sari’s recommendation. [COMPRESS.]

Joseph never recovered from this trauma. Cancer, the family’s remontant curse, developed. Colorectal. Adenocarcinoma of the bowel.

Joseph arranged to sell Cohen Cooling Solutions, Inc., to his employees, liquidate and sell the locations of his two Chilliastic outlets—one in New Jersey, one in Staten Island—to Lowe’s? Walgreens? and to the Staten Island Mall (Sears was built on its ashes), retiring to oncologists’ offices and New York Presbyterian for a colectomy and two rounds of chemotherapy that left him uncured, without options, and so weakened that he stayed most of the time not at his too oppressively large splitlevel in Valley Stream, Long Island, but in that small bungalow he also owned on the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens.

The decline of the iceman was tragic [REWRITE]. Joseph Cohen, with his cold [business sense?] and warm [heart?], had exerted an indelible influence over his son, and over his grandson too, who regarded him as a wizard, with the power to change the elements[, to turn the states]: liquids to solids, to liquids again, to gas.

Joseph Cohen [might’ve been a greenhorn but he had a green thumb, a man] who grew apples from asphalt, berries from tar. An inveterate tinkerer who [FILL ALL THIS IN].

Cohen, who founded his career on memory, on the notion that memory is the future’s greatest commodity,

The time Cohen spent with his grandfather in the last summer of his grandfather’s life comprises Cohen’s only memory of

Summer 1977, Joseph was ailing, and Abs took a leave of absence from PARC, and took his only son, then six years old, to New York. Cohen’s memories of that trip are myriad. The trains submerging and surfacing, the pneumatics of the bus. How whenever he entered and exited a deli it rained [the dripping air conditioning?]. How wherever he was, even at night, it was daytime—neon, the commonest of the noblest gases. His grandfather’s plot: the raspberry and blueberry bushes. The feel of the house—a cottage, remote, damp, decaying, in no way accessible to masstransit [the A train back then too?]. Two bedrooms, a livingroom—a tiny garage in which Joseph kept a white Plymouth Duster and a workbench. Tools were kept in pristine condition, orderly. Mason jars had been saved from neighboring trash, meticulously labeled: “screws,” “nails,” “nuts ’n’ bolts,” “good nuts.”

One morning Cohen only remembers as having been about a week before his birthday a last issue arose? regarding the pending sale of Cohen Cooling Solutions, and Abs insisted on going into Manhattan to handle it himself. Joseph, surprisingly, agreed. He’d never felt healthier. He’d spare his son the job of minding a child so that Abs would have the tougher task of minding the lawyer, ? Dubin, a Park Avenue Litvak.

Abs went, and then called from the law office to check in, and since his father’s positive report was convincing he took the opportunity to have dinner with ? Ramirez—formerly the cooling business’s supervisor, now the president of its ownership cooperative—and a few friends from Stanford who’d just been hired at Columbia?

That evening Joseph took his grandson for a walk on the beach. The setting both was, and was not, unusual [THIS SENTENCE BOTH IS, LAZY AND RIDICULOUS]. Abs and Joseph had taken Cohen out for a walk along the beach each day of their stay. Cohen liked the air. He liked being under the sky. What impressed Cohen the most was how his grandfather knew the names of all the trees on the way to the beach, and even knew the names of the rocks and stones, and the game was that Cohen would point at one or pick one up and his grandfather would tell him what it was and in doing so would bring it into being, into a better or clearer being [UNLIKE THIS WORSENING AND UNCLARIFYING SENTENCE]. Joseph was also familiar with the shells and related to Cohen how they were the homes of animals, huts of protein and mineral, keratin and calcium carbonate, though they weren’t homes in the human sense in that the ocean creatures didn’t hire architects and contractors but made them themselves, they made them with sweat, he explained, or by sweating, and when they outgrew them, they left to sweat out a larger one, and when they died, they left their shells behind but no other ocean creatures would touch them because, he said, “It is indecent to dwell in a shell you haven’t sweated for.” Cohen remembers his grandfather always trying to take his hand whenever he went to touch something, to take it. “This is the story of the Jews,” Joseph had said. “The story of the Jews in America.” He remembers his grandfather always removing from his hand that something he’d taken and placing it back on the beach, placing it, not letting it fall, exactly where it’d been taken from. “Seagulls are goyim—they pick up and drop, pick up and drop.”

Joseph shocked his grandson by telling him that sand was made out of rocks and stones—“ground down into dust,” he told him, “grinding is their working”—and Cohen was skeptical. Joseph also shocked Cohen by telling him that the clouds were made out of the same stuff the ocean was, water, the same stuff that he and his grandson were made out of, and that water was two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen brought together by covalent bonds, and then he told Cohen to take off his flipflops and wade, and that the water was as old as the earth, billions of years old, and that the water they drank was billions of years old too, all water was, even the water inside him and his grandson. When they purchased a knish from a boardwalk vendor and Joseph requested water and the vendor charged him a nickel, he said to Cohen, “Remember when you drink it this water is billions of years old, that you have stuff billions of years old in you, and that the chances are that the molecules, the atoms you’re drinking, have been in you before and so are now just coming home.” And then Joseph said, “You should never pay for water—you should maybe have to pay for the cup but never for the water.”

Then it was fully night and the stars were in full relief and Joseph pointed out how they too had shapes like clouds, or were as shapeable as clouds. Joseph pointed out Ursas Minor and Major, the bears, and Orion, who could never lose or gain weight because his belt had only a limited number of notches, and the clawing crab, which he said had given its name to the disease he had, Cancer, because the marks it left on the body were like pincer pricks, and then he said, “And that’s the lobster thermidor, and that’s the shrimp scampi.”

He said, “They’re incredible, the constellations, how random they are, how arbitrary—the Chinese think Orion is actually a white cat playing with a purple bird, or else it’s really the Japanese who think that but about the Canis constellations, the dogs.”

Then, though Cohen was only dimly aware, his grandfather continued to invent them: “That constellation,” but Cohen wasn’t able to follow Joseph’s finger, “is the davening rabbi,” and Joseph waved his entire hand and pointed out, “the negligent mechanic—there, there, there, there,” and “the criminal nurse with the catheter needle—just here,” and “the east-west yarmulke, also called the angry beard,” and he encouraged Cohen to find his own and Cohen tried.

Joseph went on to mention Europe, which was “there, then,” and Cohen was aware that his grandfather was talking about a landmass now and not stars.

Joseph had never mentioned Europe before, but Abs had, a bit, and Sari, to be cryptic, would speak in its languages to her parents, “Ma and Pa Le Vay. Ilona and Imre, the elders I.”

“Think of our ancestors,” Joseph said. “They knew the very same stars. As old as water. Older maybe. Then again maybe not. Same stars.”

He said, “Pick one,” and Cohen, when faced with all those fantastical animals and archers, those electricians and plumbers, settled on the shiniest, and Joseph said, “Polaris, the North.”

“Common,” he said. “Never be ashamed of the common. The common is useful. Common understands.”

Joseph said that just as Cohen had a father, he, Joseph, had a father too, he still had one. “Other people are unlucky and have never had a father, but anyone who has ever had a father will have him forever.”

Joseph’s father had been named Yehoshuah, Joseph said, which was just Joshua in Hebrew, though his family had spoken Yiddish and called him Heschel, and his wife, Chava, called him Shy. In America he cut ice, this was before refrigerators, before freezers, he would have to wait for the freeze—“it froze more often back then, it froze more thick”—and then when the ice was sturdy enough he’d venture out onto it, the ice over the river, ice over the bay, and cut it out in blocks, cutting the ground out from under himself, like how the Israelite slaves built the pyramids.

[REPETITION: In Egypt, Joseph said, the Egypt of Europe, his father, Yehoshuah, had been a rabbi—in Bershad. Cohen asked what Bershad meant and his grandfather answered it meant Bershad. It was a city the size of a city block. All of it might fit inside Grand Central, or Port Authority. Yehoshuah didn’t have a congregation, but instead navigated the territory around Bershad delivering rulings on kashrut and fair labor practices, performing weddings and funerals. He’d be gone for days, even a week, at a time, like a traveling salesman, offering women brushes, combs, fertility incantations, fiduciary spells.]

“He had many brothers and sisters,” Joseph said. “In America, people don’t have that many brothers and sisters, even though they have the money to have them. I could never understand. My mother, and Evele, never could.”

Joseph told Cohen that Yehoshuah was the eldest of eight or nine children and Cohen asked how it was that his grandfather didn’t know whether the number was eight or nine and Joseph answered, “Old people have trouble remembering, young people have trouble knowing.”

Cohen was confused and Joseph said, “We left so young I barely knew how many hands I had, let alone how many fingers. Such a rush we didn’t count.”

But Yehoshuah knew the numbers, Joseph said, he was the type who always knew. “If you don’t keep the numbers in your head, they keep them for you on your forearm.”

Joseph said his parents, Yehoshuah and Chava, took him out of Bershad but left their family behind. “Uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters on both sides, cousins—the family was now what is called nuclear.”


But it was difficult to stay in touch with the rest of the family, Joseph said, especially given all the turmoil. It wasn’t like he could just pick up a telephone, or send a telegram so easily. Rather he could, Joseph said, but it wasn’t like the family was always available to pick up the other end, or reply. The post was unreliable too, especially for packages. Instead, Joseph said, we could only think certain thoughts, and they could only think certain thoughts and, but this was important, “Each half of the family had to know that’s what the other half of the family was doing.” Joseph said, “At least, that’s how my father explained it.”

“He told me he’d picked his own star,” Joseph said, “like Polaris—lots of people pick Polaris, especially if they’re young, especially if they live in the north, in the cold. And he told me that if he was in the mood to communicate with his family he faced this star, not at a certain time or from a certain place, but whenever, wherever, and he talked to that star, or he didn’t even talk, he told me, he just poured himself into it, all his life and frustrations, all his feelings, his dreams, he just poured all of himself into that fire.

“Then he told me,” Joseph said, “that I could do the same thing, that I could just find a star, any star—I could find my own or I could use his star, because any star has the capacity of all of them—and I could invest this star with my emotions, I could make this star the outside pocket for everything inside me, and that the family still over in Europe would have their own stars and would do this same thing too, all of them, all of us, sending and receiving.”


Joseph told Cohen that these communications would become stored in these stars, turning them into mutual archives, common caches, omnipresent and yet evanescent. From which they could be accessed, not at a certain time or from a certain place—“people have to work, after all”—but at any time, and from any place, and ultimately not just by the relations and friends they were intended for but also by anyone sensitive enough to go seeking. Anything ever communicated to a star, Joseph told Cohen, could be accessed even after the death of its transmitter, and, unlike with the spinning satellites and their transmissions, could be accessed and even altered by the dead themselves, and then he mentioned Oma Eve and encouraged Cohen to speak with her in this way, freely, and then he mentioned himself and encouraged Cohen to speak with him in this way too, freely, once he himself passed, to that light on the other side of the darkness.

“Your father does this kind of thing now with machines, which I don’t have to understand. Because what they do isn’t new to me.”

But returning back to the bungalow, Cohen turned to his grandfather and asked about daylight, pointing out that this system worked only at night, or in darkness, and furthermore he’d studied at school how the sky was always changing around in circles and if in some seasons the stars decided upon were present, in other seasons they were absent, and so access was not as universal as his grandfather had said it was.

Joseph turned to Cohen and said, “Tell it to Polaris.”



Joshua Cohen is an American novelist and the author of Witz and Four New Messages. He has also written nonfiction for the New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, and the Forward, and is a critic for Harper’s Magazine. The above excerpt appears in his new novel, Book of Numbers, published in June 2015. Copyright © Joshua Cohen. Reprinted by permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.