excerpt two: The Definitive Albert J Sterne

An excerpt from the story “The Rending of Cloth” (New York City, October 1952). The child Albert grieves for his murdered parents.

Microsoft Office clipartAlbert’s early childhood was mostly vague impressions. The love between his parents, and their love for Albert, was strong and constant and inviolate. But none of them were ever very demonstrative, there were never any displays of sentiment. The love was simply there as the foundation of everything they did, all the choices they made, the way they kept company only with each other, the scrupulous care taken to ensure that Albert had everything he needed to grow into everything he could be.

There were hazy moments he could remember. Albert, curled up in his father’s lap, listening to Rebecca’s calm voice tell the story of an old friend, long dead; Miles as rapt as the boy. The three of them being polite at some obscure relative’s afternoon tea, then mischievously sharing their boredom with each other through grimaces and raised eyebrows behind the woman’s back – they had gone home and read all evening, happy in their shared silence. Both of his parents a little giddy, someone having talked them into the indulgence of a fine restaurant on their twelfth wedding anniversary, dressing in their usual dull clothes – but Miles had bought Rebecca a silk scarf. The dark green of it picked out the reddish tint to her brown hair, which she left loose for once. Her eyes had glowed.

Late that night, she clutched the scarf in her dead hand and wouldn’t let it go.

When theorizing, the cops fastened on the poor of the soup kitchen with all the determination of the unimaginative – his parents had, it seemed, raised the resentment of some street bum, with their un-Christian wealth and their patronizing airs. And if not one of the down-and-outs, then it must have been a robber surprised at their unexpected return to the apartment, panicking into violence.

Years later Albert, with studies in forensics and criminal psychology and an FBI career behind him, would find sounder theories. It was more likely that their murderer was a person Rebecca and Miles knew well, or perhaps they had been carefully selected by someone falling into the broad category of psychopath. Few murders were random or motiveless in 1952, and very few surprised robbers or resentful bums had the resources for quite that much blood-spilling. Besides which, he and old Aunt Rose had discovered the bodies an hour or two later, and there had been nothing missing from the apartment, nothing disturbed except by the violence. One of the neighbors had heard a scuffle, a cry of protest – but Miles had been knocked unconscious and Rebecca had her throat slit too quickly for much of a fight.

Albert had never believed in a God he was not even allowed to name. Rebecca and Miles had done all their good works in honor of the Holy One, and for humanity. But Albert had never felt their religious faith, had never seen anything in their hearts but a pure love for him and a saddened love for troubled humanity. The simple rituals of their religion were only dusted off when in company. Perhaps they doubted, in the face of all the world had become, and inadvertently hid their faith as well as their doubts from their son.

There was a gentle joke that Rebecca sometimes shared with Miles and Albert, when they came across someone hopelessly muddled with religion: “He needs his faith and reason reconciled,” Rebecca would lament with a mock sigh. “Albert, fetch our Guide of the Perplexed.”

It had been years before Albert had realized with some disappointment that the title wasn’t born of his parents’ wry, wistful humor. There was indeed such a book, written in the Middle Ages, purporting to list the thirteen principles of faith of a good Jew.

The wake for Rebecca and Miles was a quiet, understated affair. Albert was expected to sit through hours on a bench, the closed caskets on a dais before him. They were lying there, his dead parents, in wooden boxes. Macabre. There was material draped over the coffins; one piece a plain red clashing with the polished maple, the other a muddy green, and a small cluster of cream-colored flowers on each. The room itself was plain; unornamented benches, off-white walls, and glass in the windows that filtered out the warmth of the sunlight. Uninspired organ music drifted through speakers tucked away high in the corners, repeating the same tunes every forty-three minutes.

What must have been hundreds of people filed through over the long hours of the day. There was a handful of the poor and homeless, uncomfortable but determined to show respect. And a host of distant relatives, doing the right thing by their kin. Then there were the immigrants and the children, the businessmen and the politicians. The social workers and the doctors. Tens and hundreds of mourners.

But none of them cried. They signed the book, stood before the coffins for a while, wandered over to speak to their acquaintances in whispers, patted Albert on the head as if he could be dismissed that easily – then left as soon as their consciences set them free. They all wore the little round hat, the yarmulke; most of them, unused to the custom, having been handed one at the door. Some of the Jewish faithful had a torn ribbon pinned to their lapels to symbolize the rending of cloth – but they wore it as if it were a decoration rather than an expression of grief. Most of the people, whatever their beliefs, wore dark clothes.

Albert quickly grew to hate the hushed voices, the muted tone of the whole thing. Except for the somber clothes, this wasn’t what his parents were truly about. Yes, they might have appeared to these people as quiet and sober and dispassionate. It may have been assumed they were devoted to the One God and Torah, the One Law. They might be thought to be facing Judgment now, after the death of their earthly bodies. But none of this reflected the Rebecca and Miles he had known.

As the morning stretched into afternoon, Albert wondered which of his parents was in which box. It seemed right, somehow, for his mother to be in the one with the green shroud over it. For a while, as he kicked his feet in small precise arcs, he thought over this instinct. Until he remembered the night they died. He looked up and saw Aunt Rose standing a few feet away with one of the funeral home attendants.

“Does she still have the scarf?” he asked her.