A Cold Night For Crying
by Milton Lesser
It's much easier to believe than disbelieve, whether it's a truth or an untruth, when you have to. And when the brain and body are weak ...
The snow sifted silently down, clouds of white confetti in the glare of the street lamps, mantling the streets with white, spilling softly from laden, wind-stirred branches, drifting with the wind and embanking the scars and stumps of buildings that remained of what had been the city.
Mr. Friedlander trudged across the wide, quiet avenues, his bare, balding head burrowed low in his tattered collar for warmth, chin against chest, wet feet numb and stinging with cold inside his torn overshoes which could not be replaced until next winter, and then only if the Karadi did not decrease the clothing ration still further.
All the way home, he conjured fantasies from the white, multi-shaped exhalations of his breath. Here it was the smoke of a good Havana-rolled cigar and there the warm hissing steam from a radiator valve and later the magic-carpet clouds from the funnel of an ocean liner that might take him to far, warm places the Karadi had not reached. Almost, he thought he heard the great sonorous drone of the ship's whistle, but it was the toot of an automobile horn as the sleek vehicle came skidding around a corner, almost running down Mr. Friedlander before it disappeared in the swirling flurries of snow. He thought if he followed the tire tracks before the snow could cover them he would discover in which section of the city these particular Karadi lived, but he shook his fist instead, knowing the gesture would bring, at worst, a reprimand.
In the dim hallway of his tenement, smelling pungently of cabbage and turnips—and from somewhere way in back the faint, unmistakable aroma of beef—Mr. Friedlander shook the snow from his coat and stamped his numb feet before he climbed the three dark flights to his apartment. At each landing he would pause and look with longing and resentment at the door of the unused elevator shaft, then shrug and wonder why the Karadi had denied man even this simple luxury.
On the floor below his own, Mr. Friedlander heard the unmistakable crackling sound of a short-wave radio receiver. The fools! He wasn't going to talk, he lost no love on the Karadi. But there were others. There were neighbors, friends, brothers, even wives, there were the obvious quislings you shunned and the less obvious ones you didn't suspect until it was too late. One thing you never did was listen to the short-wave radio so defiantly its crackling could be heard not merely on the other side of the door but all the way out on the landing. The punishment was death.
Mr. Friedlander paused in front of his own door, where the odor of strong yellow turnips assailed his nostrils. It was so unsatisfyingly familiar, he almost gagged. The new generation hardly remembered the delightful old foods, but if Mr. Friedlander shut his eyes and thought, he could clearly smell steak and roast chicken and broiled lobster swimming in butter and a dry red wine to wash everything down slowly, so slowly he could taste every tiny morsel.
He pushed open the door and began to shrug off his worn coat. "I'm home," he said to the scabby walls, the gas range which had been converted to wood when the Karadi suspended all public utilities, to the bubbling pot which exuded the turnip smell, to the drab sofa, the two wooden chairs, the table he had constructed from two old saw horses and the planking he had found long ago after the Fourteenth Street Bomb.
From the small bedroom, he heard sobbing.
Mrs. Friedlander blinked red-rimmed eyes at him and squeezed his hand, wringing it as if it had been a wet rag. She was forty-four years old, six years younger than Mr. Friedlander, with a face which once had been comely but now was lined, gaunt and big-pored. She was even thinner than Mr. Friedlander, but looked shapeless in her thick woolen sweater and the baggy work trousers he had stolen from the quartermaster store of the plant where he worked.
"Try to tell me, Martha," he said. "It's good to talk."
She looked at him mutely, opening her mouth to talk but swallowing instead.
"You tell me, Martha. There now."
She managed to get the words out. "It's Freddie."
Mr. Friedlander placed a tired arm about her shoulder. The feeling had started in the pit of his stomach, like when their son George had died of pneumonia two years ago this month. The Karadi had outlawed all wonder drugs, all hospitals, all medical schools. Helpless, they had watched George die, his big child eyes not understanding, asking for help. Mr. Friedlander always wondered if he had died hating them.
"People die and you see them. You know," Mrs. Friedlander said. "They are sick and you can't do anything but try to nurse them, anyway. Or the big Karadi cars run them down and you see the broken body. You see them. Alive. Then dead. It's hard, so hard you want to stop living too, but there's God and God shows you they are dead and you have the memories, all the sweet ones. You know they're dead because you see them dying. You can forget. In time, you forget. You have to forget because otherwise you don't want to live, but you ... hold me. Hold me tight."
Mr. Friedlander patted her hair awkwardly. The Karadi not only condoned but encouraged displays of simple emotion and for that reason Mr. Friedlander tried to avoid them. "What are you trying to tell me?" he asked.
"Freddie. Freddie. His plane was shot down over the mountains, they told me. Freddie is dead. Freddie."
Mr. Friedlander stopped patting his wife's hair, stopped stroking the tangles into a smooth glossiness. He bent down and carefully unbuckled his torn overshoes, placing them carefully in a corner of the room. Then he walked to the window and stared out at the snow sparkling in wind-blown puffs under the street lamp which remained only because the Karadi liked to drive their confiscated autos at night. "What are you saying?" he asked his wife.
"Just because they tell us Freddie is dead—"
"Stop it. Don't say that."
"Freddie is dead. Because they tell us, that's no reason to believe. How can we believe? We saw Freddie alive, but now they tell us Freddie is dead. Far away, two thousand miles. Over the mountains. Did we see him die? He's dead. Oh, he's dead. But we'll never learn to live with it. Don't you see? How can we believe? How can we know? We saw him alive. Now he's dead."
Freddie was flying a Karadi plane against the last strongholds of free man in the Rocky Mountains. Not because Freddie had wanted to pilot the dart-swift craft particularly, but because they had made him. The Karadi announced their own human losses readily, almost as if they took great pleasure in the impressive figures. "They told you this?" Mr. Friedlander asked.
"That Freddie's plane was shot down. That he is assumed dead."
"You saw nothing in writing?"
"They sent a man."
"You knew him?"
"No. He wore good clothing. He drove up in a sleek Karadi car."
"Freddie died a hero's death, he said. Against the rebels."
"Rebels? Trying to preserve their own freedom? Freedom which we lost because the bombed cities couldn't survive?"
"I only know what the man told me, but how can we ... how ... all my life, always, forever, I will be praying and waiting for Freddie to walk in, right behind you, through that door. We never saw him die. They should at least send something. Some proof. Anything to make me understand he is dead."
Mr. Friedlander had been thinking the same thing. If you loved someone, your son, all his life and then a stranger came and said he was dead you could forget the stranger came and go on thinking of that someone, your son, alive and not dead, but too busy to come and see you, eating the food you could only dream about, sleeping in a warm bed, in some clean place far away. Only it was like the cat he once had read about. You took the cat and gave it food, catnip, but every time it ate you also fed it electricity, a shock. It wanted to eat but it was afraid of the electricity, the shock. It starved to death screeching from hunger in a room full of food. If that was what the Karadi wanted, he would say Freddie was dead. He would believe and laugh every time he saw them because they thought he was screeching from hunger in a room full of food.
"Stop it," Mr. Friedlander told his wife. "You stop that. If they say so, then Freddie is dead. We must put an announcement in the Karadi newspaper and make plans for a funeral."
"In all this snow? It's so cold."
Mrs. Friedlander walked to the stove and stirred the bubbling turnip water. "You come and eat your supper," she said. "We'll talk about Freddie later."
"There's nothing to talk about. Only the funeral."
"Maybe he was lying. The stranger."
"Stop that. It's what they want. They want us to be animals. They want us never to know. Always doubting. Always clean in dirty places, working hard, using all our energy to be only a little better than animals. Every time you see a Karadi, you won't hate him. You'll think maybe he's going to tell you some good news about Freddie. It was all a mistake. They want that, too. They feed on our sorrow and despair and confusion. There is a word for them and their invasion and why they are here. They don't need us, our resources. They feed on what we feel. They are a—a sadistic fungi."
"Fred! Eat your supper and you'll feel better. You must be half frozen."
"It's warmer in here."
Mrs. Friedlander shivered, although she stood near the stove. "It's still cold. I hope it's warm where Freddie is."
He slapped her and was glad when she cried, then sorry, then glad again when she came into his arms, sobbing. They would make funeral arrangements in the morning.
After supper a man from the Karadi newspaper visited them. He wore a new overcoat and shining plastic overshoes and a bright scarf of red wool around his neck. His face was plump, his cheeks rosy, his well-groomed hair smelling of some expensive perfume when he removed hat and earlaps.
"Mr. and Mrs. Friedlander," he said, his voice like the dimly remembered taste of pure maple syrup, "I bring you the heartfelt sympathies of the Karadi Newspaper. If it is any consolation, know that your son, Freddie Friedlander, Jr., died a hero's death against the barbarians of the mountains." His nose was running with the cold; he padded it daintily with a pale blue silk handkerchief. He offered Mr. Friedlander a small, dry-crackling cigar, took one himself and touched flame to them with a monogramed lighter. Mr. Friedlander inhaled gratefully, allowing the unfamiliar smoke to sear his lungs painfully before he exhaled a long blue plume at the ceiling. For Mrs. Friedlander the man from the Karadi Newspaper had a small box of candy, the chocolate frozen over with powdery white but, by the expression on Mrs. Friedlander's face, succulent nevertheless.
"At times like this," the man from the Karadi Newspaper said after he had politely refused what was left of the yellow turnip mash, "it is customary to place an ad in the newspaper in memory of the departed. The cost, in such cases, is quite reasonable—benevolent, you might say. Seven days of overtime for Mr. Friedlander."
"But," said Mrs. Friedlander, "if we place the announcement in the Karadi Newspaper, don't you see? We are admitting Freddie is dead."
The man from the Karadi Newspaper cocked an eyebrow in practiced surprise. "He is quite dead, Mrs. Friedlander."
"What my wife means is that, well, we didn't see him die."
"Then you don't believe the Karadi?"
"That's not it at all," said Mr. Friedlander. "If Freddie is dead, it is unhealthy not to believe. We want to believe. We find it difficult."
"I understand," the man said. "I would suggest a large ad in that case. Two weeks overtime, Mr. Friedlander. Write it yourself. Don't use any of the forms. Write it from your heart, from what you feel deep inside."
"I suppose that is best," Mr. Friedlander admitted, secretly amazed at his own objective reaction to his son's passing. The sorrow would come later, he told himself. The grief, when it came, would be good. It would wash them clean so they could live again. Even at the funeral. He guessed, they would walk slowly with measured tread and be sad, but they would expect Freddie to join them in their sadness, as if it were a funeral but not his funeral at all. Mr. Friedlander was about to tell this to the man from the Karadi Newspaper because he thought it was a great truth and he had discovered it, when there was a knock on the door.
It was Mr. Davidson from downstairs on the second floor, a small old man, just bones and clothing and a high voice, who lived alone in the apartment where his wife had died four years before of old age. It was said the Karadi wanted old men like Mr. Davidson to go on living because they were unproductive and had to be cared for by younger people who could hardly make ends meet, thus lowering the standard of living. Everyone in the tenament took turns inviting Mr. Davidson in for dinner.
"Beautiful snow, isn't it?" Mr. Davidson demanded, puckering his dry lips in a toothless grin. "Have you heard about Freddie? Have you heard the news?"
He seemed spitefully cheerful, Mr. Friedlander thought. Happy because he had outlived a man two generations his junior? If, indeed, it was such a case of sadistic glee—so like the Karadi themselves—Mr. Friedlander made a mental note to stop inviting the old man to share their dinner.
"Yes, sir, great news," chirped Mr. Davidson. Then: "Who's your friend?"
"He's from the Karadi Newspaper," Mrs. Friedlander explained. "Here to see about placing an announcement in the paper."
"Damned quisling," spat Mr. Davidson. The old folks certainly had privileges. That remark would mean a month of overtime for Mr. Friedlander, who turned earthenware kitchen pots on an archaic wheel. All it earned Mr. Davidson was a scowl from the man from the Karadi Newspaper.
"What great news are you talking about?" the man wanted to know.
"Great news? Who said anything about great news? Why don't you mind your own business, anyway?"
"You said it, old man. Great news, you said. I want to know."
"Maybe I did and maybe I didn't."
"Don't always remember. Just what were we talking about? Freddie Friedlander, wasn't it?"
"Like I said, great news. We all don't get to die a hero's death. No, sir. Lookit me, now. Die in bed one of these nights, just like that." Claw-like fingers snapped and made a singularly dry sound. "Who'll care? Who'll know until I don't show up for dinner one night? Great news. Great thing to die a hero's death, I always say."
The man from the Karadi Newspaper smiled. "I certainly misunderstood you, old timer. I like your attitude. If the boy is dead, let's look at the bright side of the picture."
All at once, Mrs. Friedlander wailed Freddie's name and cupped her face in coarse, work-hardened hands. "Freddie's dead," she sobbed. "Dead, dead, dead...."
Mr. Friedlander gulped and turned away. If he touched her now he would break down too. He plopped a fork in the turnip mash and made little tracks with the tines, criss-crossing them like the tracks in the deserted railroad yards down by the river.
"You see," the man from the Karadi Newspaper said, "that's exactly what I said. The announcement is good for you. Let other people know about Freddie and you'll be able to live with your terrible loss. This man has been very helpful."
"Please," Mr. Friedlander told him. "Not now."
"But now is exactly the time." The man explored through his pockets and found an announcement blank for Mr. Friedlander, a stiff yellow sheet of paper folded over crisply three times, with words printed in upper case letters and many blank lines to be filled in. Mr. Friedlander read it, handed it back to the man from the Karadi Newspaper, who then asked questions and filled in the blanks with a precise hand as Mr. Friedlander answered him.
The man stood up, giving Mr. Friedlander another small cigar and giving two of them to Mr. Davidson. "Karadi blessings on you," he said. "You'll be notified at work about your overtime, Mr. Friedlander."
"When will we see it in the newspaper?"
"Tomorrow. Afternoon edition. Karadi blessings."
The man was gone.
"There," said Mr. Friedlander. "Go ahead and cry. It will do you good. Cry all you want."
"Young jackass," muttered Mr. Davidson. "Thought he'd never leave. And don't you cry, young lady. Laugh. Sing. Jump for joy. I couldn't tell you the great news about Freddie while that man was here."
"We heard about Freddie," Mr. Friedlander said in a chill voice. "Will you please go downstairs?"
"You heard baloney, or you wouldn't be talking like that. Freddie ain't dead."
"What did you say?" Mr. Friedlander stood perfectly still, in the center of the room, his back to the stove, trying to peer through the window which by now had frosted over. Mrs. Friedlander had stopped her crying, hands clasped in front of her, below her waist, in an obsequious Oriental pose which the Karadi promoted.
"I said Freddie ain't dead."
"What are you talking about?"
"Heard it on the short-wave, by God. Wouldn't kid about a thing like this. I came busting in here to tell you, only that quisling was here and I had to wait."
"You mean it's you who owns the short-wave set downstairs?" demanded Mr. Friedlander. "I never stopped on the landing. I always ran upstairs. You see, I didn't want to know who owned the short-wave, who listened to the—"
"The free radio, other side of the Rockies? Go ahead, say it. Listen to me, Mr. Friedlander. Those Karadi ain't here to stay. If you stopped to think of it a minute, you'd understand like the rest of us."
"The rest of you?"
"Well, a lot of us, anyway. They don't need us. We have nothing they want. They enjoy making us knuckle under, is all. Something in their makeup, I don't know what. They won't stay here forever, though some of us won't be around long enough to see them go."
"What's all that got to do with...?"
"With Freddie and the short-wave? He's been captured, Mr. Friedlander! By the free folk. He's on their side now, the side all of us want to be on but can't be. He's alive, you understand?"
"You wouldn't just be saying this? You're sure?"
"Wouldn't you trust the word of your own people, the people who saw him come down by parachute, who took him in, got his name and beamed it back here so you, his folks, wouldn't have to worry none? Well, wouldn't you?"
"Yes!" Mrs. Friedlander cried in a tremulous voice. "Oh, yes...."
"Sensible girl," said Mr. Davidson.
Walking to the window and wiping away a circle of frost with his hand, Mr. Friedlander felt a spring in his step he hadn't felt for twenty years, since the day the Karadi came swooping down from space and caught the world in a tired breathing spell in World War III. Freddie was alive—and safe. Freddie was free. He must tell everyone. He must shout it now, to all the neighbors, and shout it again at work tomorrow, and withdraw his announcement from the Karadi Newspaper and a hundred other things. He lifted the warped window, with cardboard replacing two of the shattered panes, and breathed in the crisp, cold night air. "I'll visit the newspaper in the morning," he said. "Tell them to forget all about the announcement." He turned around and faced his wife and Mr. Davidson. "What are you crying for? Stop crying."
"I'm so happy, Fred."
"Maybe I can get down to the newspaper now and see their night man."
"Hold on there," Mr. Davidson said. "Are you crazy or something, young feller? Want to fit the noose around my neck yourself? Not just me, but all the others. Think I'm the only one? There's Mr. and Mrs. Peters, and the Schwartz's, the McDonalds, the Kopaks. You're just slow catching on, that's all."
"You mean they all have short-waves, all those people?"
"That's exactly what I mean. We have to find freedom our own way. Oh, we conform. We cry when we're supposed to, and laugh. But at night we listen to the radio and learn some of the truth, so that when the Karadi get bored with us and decide to leave, we can take our places in a free world. Took me two years to build that short-wave out of spare parts, but it was worth every minute."
"What do you do when they come around hunting?" Mr. Friedlander asked.
"Hide it, of course. Son, you're afraid of your own shadow."
"I am not. I just didn't know."
"For a time we were worried about you. Thought maybe you was a quisling. Now I had to take the chance. I just had to tell you. Listen, here's the thing. Here's what we'll do. We'll let the announcement stick in the paper. Got to make them think we believe. Then we'll have ourselves a real solemn funeral out to the graveyard near 92nd Street. Know a preacher who'll wring every last tear out of all of us. I mean all. We'll all go. The Kopaks, the Schwartz's, the Peters, everyone who heard in on the short-wave about Freddie and how he's alive and everything. The sadder we look, the happier we'll feel later on. Then we'll have ourselves a real old fashioned celebration, like before the Karadi came. Mr. McDonald says he has a bottle of real champagne he was saving for when his girl Betty got married, but I talked him into letting us use it. Son, we'll pull out all the stops. Of course, you can't really get looped on an ounce or so of champagne, but we sure can try! Well, see you at the funeral."
And Mr. Davidson went downstairs, cackling and whistling the dirge from Beethoven's Eroica.
"Well," said Mr. Friedlander to his wife, "what do you think?"
"I think it's wonderful. That nice man, going to all that trouble."
"I'm not so sure. What do we know about Mr. Davidson? Maybe he's lying. Maybe he's—"
"He wouldn't lie, not about a thing like that."
"I know how you feel. I felt that way at first, too. Free and—well, relaxed for the first time in so long I can't remember. But then I got to thinking. What if he's senile? What if he imagined the whole thing? It would be a sin to celebrate, with Freddie dead."
"We could ask Mr. Peters, or the others. And Freddie's not dead!"
"That's what you want to believe. It's what I want to believe, too." Mr. Friedlander walked to the window again, where the pane was frosting over once more, giving a ghostlike quality to the street, the lamps, the facades of the other tenements, the snow-laden trees outside. He wanted to believe. But he had wanted to believe, in his youth, that the killing war would one day end. When it did, the Karadi had come, with talk of peace—although with their invincible weapons they had disarmed all the world's armies and, instead of rebuilding, had made a shambles of our civilization. Every day the Karadi told lies and told you to believe. And planted spies to see that you did. And visited you at unexpected moments to see that you conformed. And trained your children to fight against free people, free people who they said were your enemies. And gave extra clothing rations to a spy, to a believer, to a man in the Karadi image.
"We can't ask the others," Mr. Friedlander said. "What if Mr. Davidson was lying, or making it all up? You can't go around talking about short-waves and things. It isn't safe."
"We have to know!"
"Do you want to be turned in as an undesirable? Is that what you want? We already know. The Karadi told us." The more he spoke, the easier it was to convince himself. You couldn't live with doubt. The Karadi fostered doubt and taught you that: you had to avoid it. You had to know. This is so, this is not so—if this other thing may or may not be so, I don't want to talk about it. Alternative A or alternative B. Simple. Concise. What did old Mr. Davidson know, anyway, listening to his subversive radio? Why should the barbarians in the mountains tell the truth any more than the Karadi or their agents? The barbarians are our enemies. It's propaganda. Maybe Mr. Davidson is a saboteur for them.
"Is that clear?" Mr. Friedlander demanded. "Is that quite, quite clear? Cry if you want. Freddie is dead. Freddie is dead. Dead. You can't believe all the wild stories you hear."
Mrs. Friedlander was smiling at him through her tears, wiping them away, assuming again the Oriental pose. "You believe what you want," she said. "We won't celebrate. We won't pretend. We'll say Freddie is dead. But I'll believe—what I believe. And I'm thankful to Mr. Davidson."
"So you can live in doubt all the rest of your life? For that you're thankful?"
"I'm thankful for a crumb when I expected nothing. Where are you going?"
Mr. Friedlander was buckling his worn overcoat and forcing his shoes into wet overshoes. "Out for a walk," he said. "I want to think."
"It's a cold night."
"I don't care."
Outside, with the snow still falling, drifting down in unhurried silence, he found himself hating Mr. Davidson. The man should have minded his own business. Old meddler. He was a menace to the community, too. Whose side was he on, anyway? A senile old man? An agent provocateur for the barbarians in the western mountains? Was his self-appointed mission in life to see to it that people like poor Mrs. Friedlander never knew another moment of peace all the rest of their lives?
The short-wave radio—all lies. It had to be lies. If it weren't lies you could understand nothing. Black is white or white is black. Everyone saying something else. You don't know. You never know.
He didn't want to start any trouble. He wasn't looking for trouble. He was only a good, Karadi-fearing citizen who knew his place. But Mr. Davidson had made a revelation to him. If all the others, if all those people Mr. Davidson had named, chuckling over each name, taking secret delight in each one as if he, the patriarch of the tenament had converted them, one at a time or in groups, into clandestine outlaws, if all those people were subversive, thought Mr. Friedlander, why should he suffer along with them? Was it fair that he received the same inadequate food, the same squalid lodging, the same menial jobs to perform? He knew his place.
But they had told him about Freddie—or Mr. Davidson, their spokesman, had—and he owed them something for that, for the one brief moment in which they had shoved back the snow, the grim cold winter, the bleak building and the smell of turnips, as a curtain, and revealed his own youth to him, sparkling with hope, with promise, with a life unfulfilled.
Even that had been unkind. Premeditated? His lot would be all the more unpleasant for it. And Mrs. Friedlander's. They'd sealed her in a half-mourning, half-hoping future. They'd ruined her whole life.
He'd have to move, of course, with his wife. But perhaps they'd earn the right to a better neighborhood. He walked up the six snow-covered steps to the police station, went inside, sat down and started telling the uniformed figure at the desk about the subversives in his building who owned short-wave radios, starting with Mr. Davidson and going right on down the list. He hoped the Karadi would come and take them away before the funeral.
End of A Cold Night For Crying by Milton Lesser