By Morley Torgov
eBook release: November 2011
As a rule, June evenings in Steelton, though softened here and there with the promise of summer, retained just enough sharpness to remind one that in this stony section of the north winter camped no farther away than the dark lines of firs that encircled the small city. Elsewhere, in temperate places, spring had bravely proclaimed its arrival weeks earlier. But here it was still obliged to keep its voice to a whisper, for winter — whose truces were never reliable — might awaken at any moment, as if summoned by some ungodly bugle, and march yet again on the town, paying little or no heed to timeliness and tradition.The evenings, like the mornings, began and ended in questions. Should one venture out for a stroll? Try out a new casting rod on the banks of the St. Anne River? Paint the backyard fence? Or was it wiser just to stay put behind the evening paper, avoiding all confrontations with nature? Even the bibulous drifters, greedily inhaling the beery perfume that wafted from the entranceways of the taverns, couldn’t make up their minds whether to panhandle indoors or out. Either way was a gamble.In a time of extreme indecision, one family in Steelton had its evening’s work clearly cut out. The family of Maximilian Glick — his parents Henry and Sarah and grandparents Augustus and Bryna Glick — were locked in debate over the boy’s future profession, a subject of contention since the days of his first halting steps, charged now with a sense of urgency because he would soon become three and time was flying!Henry Glick, extolling his son’s prowess with knife and fork, insisted that the boy was a born surgeon. “You can see it in his hands,” he said.Grandfather Glick, acknowledging the boy’s dexterity, argued nevertheless that MAZIMILIAN GLICK would look far better on the door of a large law firm, preferably at the head of the list. “Maybe,” said the boy’s grandfather, his old eyes watery, “I will live long enough, God willing, to refer to my grandson as Judge Glick.”To the boy’s mother, Maximilian possessed all the qualities of a scientist — alertness, inquisitiveness, a gift for numbers. In her son she saw nothing less than another Einstein, one who would fulfill her dream of altering certain natural laws hitherto considered unalterable: the tendency of cigarette smoke to rise, dust to settle, down-filled chesterfields to acquire unsightly rump-marks, neighbourhood dogs always to convene on her front lawn when there were at least ten others handy.“You’re all crazy!” said Bryna Glick. “For all we know, Maximilian may choose to hole up in some cave and write books.”The others dismissed the idea as preposterous. “Is that the best you can come up with?” old Augustus scoffed. “A man needs a real profession. Bookshe can always write in his spare time.”“I just want my grandchild to grow up like any normal child,” said Bryna Glick, refusing to back down. “The poor boy hasn’t even finished making his quota of mud pies yet!”Once again Bryna Glick, erect, white-haired, peppery despite her years and delicate physique, was playing the role of her grandson’s champion. Not that the boy was ever abused. On the contrary, there existed an ongoing family contest — she herself was a regular participant — to determine who could do more for Maximilian, who could give more, amuse more, protect more, love more. In such an overpowering atmosphere, at least one benefactor had to break ranks occasionally to speak for the beneficiary; someone had to reduce to reasonable proportions everyone’s vast expectations of him.This was a role to which Bryna Glick had appointed herself even before Maximilian was born, one for which she felt especially equipped. She too had once been an only child, eagerly awaited, late in coming. From experience she understood how parental love, too long in ferment, could transform the gentlest shelter into a maximum-security lockup, one no child could hope to escape. Bryna had kept her premonitions strictly to herself all during Sarah’s pregnancy. Anyway, who wanted to listen?
Her husband, Augustus, would say, misunderstanding his wife, “Trouble with you is, you don’t understand how much this baby is wanted.”
Bryna would retaliate by suggesting her husband go soak his head. “Of course I understand,” she would counter. “Everyone in Steelton understands!”
The fact was, everyone — well, almost everyone — did understand.
Henry and Sarah Glick had been married just over ten years, and though by no means old — they were barely middle-aged, in fact, when their one and only child was born — they had begun to think that it was not in their stars to make a child. In small cities like Steelton, where the Glick family lived and prospered, any couple that fails to produce at least one heir in ten years of marriage becomes a popular subject of speculation. Some friends and acquaintances had guessed that the trouble with Henry and Sarah was that, though bright, when it came to having a baby they simply didn’t know how. Others said they knew how but not when. Still others gossiped that they knew when but not why. And Morris Moskover, known as the Local Sage because he could take any fact, add water and come up with an instant opinion, said the trouble with Henry and Sarah Glick was that they knew how, when, and why, but not where!
Perhaps the Local Sage was right, for soon after their first visit to Europe (which included five nights in Paris) Henry and Sarah received the happy news. Some months later, and several weeks overdue, their son was born.
“The ten most wanted fugitives in the land together aren’t wanted half as much as this baby!” proclaimed Morris Moskover. This too was accurate, proving once again that being a sage has nothing to do with brains.
The air Maximilian Glick breathed was saturated with love, like the air of a forest in spring, of a seaside in summer. The child was loved from the moment his first cries bounced off the white tile walls of the operating room at Steelton General and into the ears of his unbelieving mother, loved by his father, his grandparents, their friends, by relatives who, living hundreds of miles away, sent telegrams of congratulation. Even the Roman Catholic nursing sisters, blinding white in their habits, hovered over his bassinette like overgrown doves, cooing adjectives of praise, as if he were the infant Moses neatly packaged in the bullrushes.
On the eighth day of his life, the boy underwent circumcision, the ritual prescribed for Jewish male infants. Then he was named in keeping with ancient custom, receiving his Hebrew name first, followed by his English name, after which he let out a wail that pierced Steelton General from one end to the other and could be heard clear out to the parking lot.
To the boy’s grandfather, the child’s outcry was a sign that the decline and fall of the West was complete. “There’s no excuse for this kind of thing in the twentieth century,” he muttered, shaking his head worriedly. Augustus Glick was referring to the practice of performing circumcisions without anaesthetic.
But to Bryna Glick, it was the name so ceremoniously bestowed on her grandson that was inexcusable in the twentieth century. “Wouldn’t you kick up a fuss,” she protested to Augustus, “if you were facing a lifetime of being called Maximilian? With a name like that, a boy begins life as an adult full of problems.”
Days before, when the question of the name arose, Bryna had registered her disapproval. “It sounds more like something you’d stick on a battleship … just before it sinks!”
“I’ll thank you to remember,” said her husband, “that Maximilian was one of the great kings of Bavaria.” The old man drew himself up like a soldier. “My great-grandfather served with distinction in his Department of Household Supply!”
“You mean he carried sacks of coal into the palace basement, don’t you?” said his wife.
Undaunted by the truth, old Augustus Glick went on: “My grandfather and father, rest in peace, bore the name Maximilian with pride.”
Bryna Glick had heard this story many times and at this point in her life was thoroughly unimpressed. “Caesar was one of Rome’s greatest emperors,” she retorted, “but the only thing named after him these days is a salad!”
Bryna Glick knew that people didn’t want to pick their way through ten letters and four syllables just to get to a person’s surname. Before the boy can walk, she told herself, he’ll be called Maxie and before he’s learned to count to a hundred the world will be calling him Max. No matter what, it was no name to hang on a youngster in this day and age.
Grandmother Glick was thinking mostly of her husband’s late Uncle Max from Chicago. Uncle Max was short and his bald head — too large for his body — looked as if it had been dropped into place by a not-too-gentle Providence. The man had no neck, at least none that was visible, and his fat face surrounded a cigar day and night. Uncle Max spent most of his life as a travelling salesman. Whenever he arrived in town, he and the clothes on his back, the neckties in his sample cases — even the sample cases! — reeked of stale cigar smoke. After his departure, any hotel room Uncle Max occupied had to be sealed off like an isolation ward. When he laughed, which was often because he was fond of repeating off-colour stories picked up on the road, his cigar never left the centre of his face. No, Max was definitely the wrong name for a little boy.
But uncles and the twentieth century aside, Henry Glick, with Sarah at his side nodding approval, settled the argument. “I’ll bet there isn’t another person with a name even close to it within a thousand miles of Steelton.” Henry brought his fist down like a gavel. “If it’s a boy, it’s Maximilian.” Eyeing his mother, he added, “Case closed!”
It was the first in a long succession of causes Bryna pleaded — and lost — over the next few years. Because the youngster wasn’t always capable of articulating what was on his mind, his grandmother jumped at every opportunity to present his case — or the case she imagined he was trying to make in a household where, it seemed, everything said or done was governed by some form of regulation.
There were, of course, all sorts of edicts concerning tooth-brushing, foot-wiping, television viewing, nose-blowing. Then decrees of a higher order: yesterday’s newspaper was never thrown out until Sarah’s crossword was completed and Henry had read the stock market page. (One did not interrupt during these rituals.) Lights were generally turned off in one room before they were turned on in another. Bicycles were never ridden on Tuesdays and Fridays until the garbage had been put out for collection. Toilets were called washrooms; supper was called dinner, especially when company was present. Those who wasted not in this world, wanted not. Stitches in time saved nine, except in the Glick household where they were expected to save at least ten.
At the same time, Maximilian’s defaults and delinquencies necessarily increased until they lay on his slim shoulders like the national debt. And always, it was Bryna Glick standing up for his rights, attacking, arguing, supplicating, often losing her temper, usually losing her case.
One day, just before Maximilian’s eighth birthday, Bryna Glick at last came in from the cold.
Unlike her husband, who was born into a sober, nose-to-the-grindstone family of Viennese merchants, Bryna had come from a modest but cheerful home in Odessa, a city in Russia where it seemed every second person was an artist or musician. Her mother had taught piano, her father was a violinist in an orchestra. Their apartment, small and crammed with furniture and books, constantly teemed with people tuning instruments, arguing heatedly about the correct way to play some musical phrase or other, humming melodic passages and tapping out rhythms with a fury, as musicians do when they’re sure they’re right and everybody else is wrong.
And it was because of this background that Bryna declared, one day, “Maxie will be eight before we know it. It’s high time the boy took music lessons.”
For one brief, incredible moment unanimity reigned in the Glick family (excluding Maximilian who was off somewhere on his bike at the time).
But then, the question: What instrument should he learn to play?
“Piano,” said Henry. “That’s the ideal instrument for a surgeon. Nothing keeps the fingers in shape like a piano. I’m sure we can find a good upright somewhere in town. After he graduates medical school I’ll buy him a proper grand.”
“A man ought to play a wind instrument,” said Augustus Glick. “When I was a boy, one of the finest trombonists in Austria was a judge, of all people. Judge Wilhelm von Finkenstein. Superb musician. Very conceited judge. Whenever he took time off from court to practise, everyone within hearing said, ‘There goes von Finkenstein blowing his own horn again.’ There’s something about wind instruments; they seem to go hand in hand with the legal profession. If I had my way, I’d start Maxie on a trumpet.”
“Anyone can bang on a keyboard or blow through a tube,” Sarah now said, “but to draw music from a string takes more than manual dexterity or a good set of lungs; you need a precise mind, the mind of a scientist.” Still convinced her son was another Einstein, she thought he should begin lessons on the violin.
“What about letting Maxie choose for himself?” Bryna said.
“With all due respect, Mother.” Sarah Glick always addressed the older woman in this manner during war games; it was her spear. “With all due respect, what if he chooses the kazoo?”
“Sarah dear.” “Sarah dear” was Bryna Glick’s spear, tipped in a not-too-mild solution of acid. “Sarah dear, don’t be such a snob.”
Within the week the issue was resolved. Into Henry Glick’s furniture store shambled the notorious ne’er-do-well, Doc Ingoldsby, said to be older than Steelton itself. Called Doc because he boasted an honorary degree in geology (which nobody had ever laid eyes on), Ingoldsby inhabited an unworked farm a few miles from town where he spent his days sitting on his front porch corroding like an old battery. Back in the Thirties his mining company had made and lost a fortune. Little by little ever since, Doc Ingoldsby had been forced to sell off his personal possessions to sustain himself and a procession of wives who paraded in and out of his bed and his heart, leaving him virtually bankrupt. The Glicks had become steady customers, sometimes out of pure compassion, occasionally because some item — an antique desk, a rare vase — truly appealed to them or might be resold at a profit.
Doffing a greasy derby hat, setting down his walking stick, Doc Ingoldsby smiled slyly. “Henry Glick,” he called out, rubbing his hands together, “this is your lucky day. Ever heard of a Bechstein?”
“A Bechstein? No. What is it, something you drink out of?”
Ingoldsby’s body shook like a condemned building and a rasping noise emanated from somewhere inside his throat. He was laughing. “Good God, man,” he cried, “you’ve never heard of a Bechstein?”
Ingoldsby pointed to the telephone behind Henry. “Get on that contraption, young fella, and call your dear mother. I betcha all the fish in the St. Anne River she knows what I’m talkin’ about.”
The old man easily won his bet. “Of course I know,” said Bryna. “Bechsteins were made in Germany years and years ago. Maybe they’re still making them, for all I know. Some of the finest pianos in the world. Why do you ask?”
“I’ll tell you later. I haven’t time now,” said Henry.
On the following day — Max’s eighth birthday — a van pulled into the driveway of the Glick residence and two men with arms like wrestlers inched a giant old upright piano out of the back of the truck, up the front steps of the house and into a corner of the living room that had been cleared to receive it.
Scarcely had the brawny pair set the instrument in place when Bryna Glick was seated at the keyboard playing a simple C-major scale, first with one hand, then with both, laughing with all the delight of a young girl in that human beehive in long-ago Odessa. And Maximilian’s mother, polish and soft cloth in hand, was already removing tarnish from the brass candlesticks that protruded from the carved corner posts.
Soon Maximilian’s father and grandfather showed up and all four were crowded around the Bechstein, running their fingertips over its richly grained mahogany, pounding out ambitious but clumsy chords and arpeggios on the slightly yellowed ivory keys and congratulating themselves and each other for having the foresight, the luck, the wisdom, the plain horse sense, to acquire the instrument.
At which point Maximilian Glick returned home from school.
He looked at four beaming, loving faces; then his eyes fell on the object behind.
And Maximilian Glick, just into his ninth year of life, wanting in his young heart nothing more than a model Boeing 747 — the one with battery-powered wing lights flashing on and off and engines whining as if ready for take-off — Maximilian Glick found himself led to a monstrous piano, a dark spooky form that reminded him of the sacrificial altar he’d seen recently in a horror movie.
“Happy birthday, Maximilian,” said his father.
Old Augustus Glick wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. “Many happy returns, Maximilian.”
Max’s mother kissed him first where the dark wavy hair on his head was parted, then again on the bridge of his neatly shaped nose, making him squint. “It’s not a violin,” she said, “but at least it’s got strings, Maxie.”
And Bryna Glick, swollen with happiness because to her a house without music was a body without blood, bent down and kissed him on the cheek. “Max,” she glowed, “it was my idea. Someday, when you’re a fine musician like your great-grandfather and great-grandmother in Russia, you’ll thank me for this.”
On the birthday cake, carried proudly into the dining room by Max’s mother, it seemed to the boy that there were not eight but eighty candles all burning brightly. For suddenly Maximilian Glick felt old, much older than his years.
Henry Glick had opened a bottle of wine for this festive occasion and for the first time Max was permitted a small glass all to himself. “A toast,” said the boy’s father. The adults at the table raised their glasses. “To Maximilian!”
“To Maximilian!” said his grandfather.
“To Maxie!” said his mother.
There was a pause. At last Grandmother Glick, still aglow, raised her glass a bit higher than the others. “To Maxie,” she said.
The boy managed a smile. With his elders gazing down on him, he brought his wine glass to his lips and took a sip, all the while keeping his eyes on the one person in the circle responsible for this betrayal. How could you do this to me? he asked silently. How could you?
Maximilian Glick was looking directly at his grandmother, at Bryna Glick.
While the others lingered over the dinner table, arguing as usual about what their son and grandson ought to be when he grew up, Max, having excused himself, went out onto the front porch and sat on a step. With his back against a thick wooden spindle that supported the handrail, he surveyed the world around him.
The Glick house was situated on the crown of Pine Hill, the highest section of Steelton, a city in northern Ontario of fifty thousand or so inhabitants. It was an old red brick house, built some fifty years earlier by Augustus Glick, not long after he and Bryna had settled in what was then a town of a few thousand. Max’s father was born in that house.
Eventually Augustus retired from the furniture business he had founded, leaving it in Henry’s capable hands. The elder Glicks moved into an apartment downtown, not large but modern and comfortable, with a balcony that overlooked the St. Anne, and Max’s parents took over the old house in time for the arrival of their infant son.
A wide porch, painted white with gunmetal trim, ran the length of the house. From that vantage point one could take in the city below.
The west end of town was dominated by the steel plant. By day, the plant sprawled like a gathering of dragons, belching smoke and fire. At night, the dragons breathed flames into the velvety sky, turning it red. In the clear still air of this night, the smoke from the plant rose straight up until it seemed to Max that soot would soon cover the moon.
To the east there was the harbour, bustling with lake freighters. At this hour their shapes were indistinguishable, appearing to Max as long strings of lights, some heading upriver in the direction of Duluth or Thunder Bay, others bound for Detroit and Cleveland, places Max had heard about, places he yearned to see. Occasionally, the ships would signal to each other with short sharp blasts of their horns; otherwise they moved in total silence.
At the centre of the panorama stood downtown Steelton, block after block of buildings of questionable architectural parentage arranged around the junction of King Street and Queen Street. In their prime, King and Queen were hot-blooded rivals for the town’s commerce. Recently, however, the pulse had begun to weaken in these avenues as first one, then another, shopping centre opened on the outskirts of town. With the exception of the odd hardy entrepreneur — like Max’s father — most of the downtown merchants had gone to asphalt pastures in the suburbs, leaving King and Queen to the city’s institutions.
The most noble of these were the banks, small-scale replicas of Greek temples, erected in an earlier time when depositors equated security and integrity with fluted pillars. There were insurance and financial and real estate offices with plain no-nonsense facades that could have been designed only by a committee of carpenters. The two local movie houses, battered victims of television and suburban living, huddled for comfort beside each other on King Street, their once-proud marquees shorn because of a municipal ordinance against overhangs.
By contrast, the YMCA and the Memorial Arena stood their ground directly across the street, as if to demonstrate that there were still muscle and energy left in the old ward. Thanks to the presence of Steelton General Hospital and a row of doctors’ offices and pharmacies, several blocks of Queen were as antiseptic as any public thoroughfare could be. But next door to Healing dwelt Justice, a germ-laden courthouse built in the latter days of Queen Victoria, which sat on its treeless lot looking very much like the old lady herself: stolid, crusty and humourless.
At least once a year, usually around New Year’s Eve, in one or another of the town’s bars, chairs would still fly and glassware scatter like shrapnel over nothing more important than which street — King or Queen — was the main one. But one fact about their intersection was undisputed: it was clearly the most chaotic in all of Steelton. Traffic jams, non-existent anywhere else in town, occurred with regularity at King and Queen every weekday at five, as mill workers streaming east along King locked car horns with downtown office workers streaming west, all of them intending to proceed north on Queen to suburban homes in the hill sections. As one depended upon the law of gravity, one could rely on the traffic lights at that intersection to be out of order in winter (usually the result of iced-up power lines or a delinquent snowball aimed expertly at a red light). In summer the pavement would be torn up; Steelton’s city council was forever opening, closing and reopening gaping craters in that portion of the roadway as part of some grand vision of sewage disposal to which the mayor and his aldermen had, like crusaders, dedicated themselves.
One of the last retailers on King Street, not far from its intersection with Queen, was A GICK & SON. The largest furniture store in these parts, A GICK & SON (est. 1924) catered to every taste. Among its patrons were elderly couples who decorated their modest bungalows with too many doilies, china cats and velvet cushions bearing scenes of palm trees and full moons set against black skies. Young couples, too, could find what they wanted at Glick’s — the up-to-the-minute furnishings, which, like their fantasies, were in one day and out the next. Some Saturdays, if there was nothing better to do, Maximilian would roam among the rows of chesterfields and rocking chairs and end tables pretending that they were planes lined up in a hangar and that he could choose any one and be off into the skies in minutes. Secretly, he wished Henry Glick were the captain of a jetliner and he its co-pilot.
Except for the distant toot now and then from the steel plant, or the sound of freight cars being shunted to and fro in the rail yards running parallel to the river, all of Steelton lay silent now. From inside the house came murmurs that told Maximilian his future was probably still being debated over the dinner table, as if nothing else in Steelton, or all the world, mattered. And glancing over his shoulder, he could see through the living room window the upper structure of the old Bechstein, a dark cloud over the horizon.
And for the first time a thought occurred to Maximilian: one could be surrounded by love, security, comfort — but still feel lonely. What was more, the boy couldn’t recall a time when he’d felt more like a Maximilian, burdened with becoming an adult before his time.
On the following day, at the start of Maximilian’s Hebrew lesson, Rabbi Kaminsky, his teacher — who’d been spiritual leader of Steelton’s Jewish community for more than twenty years and knew everything that went on in the lives of its people — extended his hand and smiled. “Well, Maxileh, let me shake the hand of the next Horowitz.”
“What, you’ve never heard of Horowitz, probably the greatest pianist that ever lived? There are many outstanding piano players in this world, Maxileh, but there’s only one Horowitz!”
The boy took Rabbi Kaminsky’s hand with no show of enthusiasm. As far as Maximilian Glick was concerned, unless this Horowitz had piloted an x-15 to Mars and back without stopping for lunch, the name was of very little interest.
Rabbi Kaminsky, a perceptive man, nodded his head. “Don’t despair, Maximilian,” he said. “Sometimes God has a habit of dropping pianos on us. But other times … other times He parts the waters of the Red Sea!”
All the way home from that Hebrew lesson, Maximilian thought about the parting of the Red Sea and that evening he once again sat alone on the front porch, his back pressed against the handrail spindles, looking up at the sky. A minute or two earlier the sun had disappeared, as if sucked down the enormous smokestacks of the steel plant, but there were just enough rays left to paint the trail of a jetliner passing high overhead, turning it to bright silver against the darkening blue. Max imagined for a moment that the sky was a sea and that the airliner — almost invisible now — was parting it, permitting the passengers within to pass to some promised land: a place where, in the shadows of tall skyscrapers, in the tide of human beings that swept along the sidewalks of a metropolis, a boy like him could do what a boy wanted most to do — make his own choices.
“Someday … someday …” Maximilian Glick, his eyes on the vanishing remnant of jet trail, whispered to himself. “I must get out. I must get out. I will get out!”
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“The book is delightfully humorous, a treasure trove of gently satirical insights into cultural stereotyping and human foibles. The only disappointment is that the novel ends all too quickly.” – CM Magazine
“Morley Torgov is a brilliant writer — ironic, sad, funny; his stories come out of that powerful mixture of ancient Jewish tradition and New World experience that has produced some of this century’s best literature.” – Stephen Vizinczey
“A beautiful book – very subtle and poetic – and very humorous. I had great fun reading it” – Antonine Maillet
“Torgov directs a relentless beam of light on prejudice of all sorts and some readers may squirm a little… But unlike Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler who have satirized Jewish life with sharp, sometimes vengeful strokes, Torgov’s touch is gentle.” – Quill & Quire
“His craftsmanship and deep feeling for both the antic and serious sides of comedy easily transcend the form and carry it off in the direction of fable…A delightful book for all ages.” – Books in Canada
Read or write a review for The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick on Goodreads here.
Some trivia: Saul Rubinek who plays Rabbi Teitelman in Maximilian Glick also stars as the lead Benny Cooperman in TV movies The Suicide Murders and Murder Sees Light based on the novels by Howard Engel.