Nemesis by Philip Roth Page B

Book: Nemesis by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Roth
the harbinger of her shroud. Nonetheless, alone at home when his grandparents were working around the corner in the store, he would sometimes drift into his grandparents' room to run the tip of one finger over the glass that protected the picture, tracing the contours of his mother's face as though the glass had been removed and the face there was flesh. He did this despite its causing him to feel keenly not the presence he was seeking but rather the absence of one he'd never seen anywhere other than in photos, whose voice he'd never heard speaking his name, whose maternal warmth he'd never luxuriated in, a
mother who had never got to care for him or feed him or put him to bed or help him with his schoolwork or watch him grow up to be the first of the family slated to go to college. Yet could he truthfully say he hadn't been sufficiently cherished as a child? Why was the genuine tenderness of a loving grandmother any less satisfying than the tenderness of a mother? It shouldn't have been, and yet secretly he felt that it was—and secretly felt ashamed for harboring such a thought.
    After all this time, it had suddenly occurred to Mr. Cantor that God wasn't simply letting polio rampage through the Weequahic section but that twenty-three years back, God had also allowed his mother, only two years out of high school and younger than he was now, to die in childbirth. He'd never thought about her death that way before. Previously, because of the loving care that he received from his grandparents, it had always seemed to him that losing his mother at birth was something that was meant to happen to him and that his grandparents' raising him was a natural consequence of her death. So too was his father's being a gambler and a thief something that was meant to happen and that couldn't have been otherwise. But now that he was
no longer a child he was capable of understanding that why things couldn't be otherwise was because of God. If not for God, if not for the
of God, they
be otherwise.
    He couldn't repeat such an idea to his grandmother, who was no more reflective than his grandfather had been, and he did not feel inclined to talk about it with Dr. Steinberg. Though very much a thinking man, Dr. Steinberg was also an observant Jew and might take offense at the turn of mind that the polio epidemic was inspiring in Mr. Cantor. He wouldn't want to affront any of the Steinbergs, least of all Marcia, for whom the High Holidays were a source of reverence and a time of prayer when she dutifully attended synagogue services with her family on all three days. He wanted to show respect for everything that the Steinbergs held dear, including, of course, the religion that he shared with them, even if, like his grandfather—for whom duty was a religion, rather than the other way around—he was an indifferent practitioner of it. And to be wholly respectful had always been easy enough until the moment he found his anger provoked because of all the kids he was losing to polio, including the
incorrigible Kopferman boys. His anger provoked not against the Italians or the houseflies or the mail or the milk or the money or malodorous Secaucus or the merciless heat or Horace, not against whatever cause, however unlikely, people, in their fear and confusion, might advance to explain the epidemic, not even against the polio virus, but against the source, the creator—against God, who made the virus.

    "Y OU'RE NOT WEARING yourself down, are you, Eugene?" Dinner was over and he was cleaning up while she sat at the table sipping a glass of water from the icebox. "You rush to the playground," she said, "you rush to visit the families of your boys, you rush on Sunday to the funeral, you rush home in the evening to help me—maybe this weekend you should stop rushing around in this heat and take the train and find a bed for the weekend down the shore. Take a break from everything. Get away from the heat. Get away from the playground. Go

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