Nemesis

Nemesis by Philip Roth Page A

Book: Nemesis by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Roth
his house, down the hill on Hansbury Avenue.
    "It's piling up on everyone, Ken. You're not the only one in the neighborhood," he told him, "who's feeling the pressure of the polio. Between the polio and the weather, there isn't anybody who isn't at the end of his rope."
    "But he's spreading it, Mr. Cantor. I'm sure of it. I shouldn't have gone nuts, I know he's a moron, but he's not clean and he's spreading it. He walks all over the place and drools over everything and shakes everyone's hand and that's how he spreads the germs everywhere."
    "First off, Ken, we don't know what spreads it."
    "But we
do.
Filth, dirt, and shit," Kenny said, his outrage revving up again. "And he's filthy, dirty, and shitty, and he's spreading it. I know it."
    On the pavement in front of Kenny's house, Mr. Cantor took him firmly by his shoulders, and Kenny, shuddering with revulsion, instantly shook free of his hands and cried, "Don't touch me! You just touched him!"
    "Go inside," Mr. Cantor said, still composed but
retreating a step. "Take a cold shower. Get a cold drink. Cool off, Ken, and I'll see you tomorrow up at the playground."
    "But you're only being blind to who's spreading it because he's so helpless! Only he's not just helpless—he's dangerous! Don't you understand, Mr. Cantor? He doesn't know how to wipe his ass, so he gets it all over everyone else!"

    T HAT EVENING, watching his grandmother while she served him his dinner, he found himself wondering if this was how his mother would have come to look if she had been lucky enough to live another fifty years—frail, stooped, brittle-boned, with hair that decades earlier had lost its darkness and thinned to a white fluff, with stringy skin in the crooks of her arms and a fleshy lobe hanging from her chin and joints that ached in the morning and ankles that swelled and throbbed by nightfall and translucent papery skin on her mottled hands and cataracts that had shrouded and discolored her vision. As for the face above the ruin of her neck, it was now a tightly drawn mesh of finely patterned wrinkles, grooves so minute they appeared to be the work of an implement far less crude than the truncheon of old age—an etching needle perhaps, or a lacemaker's tool, manipulated by a master craftsman to render her as ancient-looking a grandmother as any on earth.
    There had been a strong resemblance between his mother and his grandmother when his mother was growing up. He had seen it in photographs, where, of course, he had first noticed his own strong resemblance to his mother, particularly in the framed studio portrait of her that rested on the bureau in his grandparents' bedroom. The picture, taken for her high school graduation when she was eighteen, was in the 1919 South Side yearbook that Bucky leafed through often as a young schoolboy beginning to discover that the other boys in his class were not grandsons living with grandparents but sons living with a mother and father in what he came to think of as "real families." He best understood how precarious his footing in the world was when adults bestowed upon him the look that he despised, the pitying look that he knew so well, since he sometimes got it from teachers too. The look made only too clear that the intervention of his mother's aging parents was all that had stood between him and the bleak four-story red-brick building on nearby Clinton Avenue with its black iron fence and its windows of pebbled glass covered with iron grates and its heavy wooden doorway adorned with a white Jewish star and the broad lintel above it carved with the three most forlorn words he'd ever read: HEBREW ORPHAN ASYLUM .
    Even though the graduation picture on the bedroom bureau was said by his grandmother to catch perfectly the kindly spirit that animated his mother, it was not his favorite photograph of her, because of the dark academic robe she wore over her dress, the sight of which never failed to sadden him, as if the robe in the picture were a portent,

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