Awakening (1932)

From the other side of the door, the human noise came in waves—a riot of normalcy. People talked normally, laughed normally, shouted normally as they moved in and out of the apartment. Ike could fake normal when he had to—at school, for example—but the effort exhausted him. Plus this was his home, where he shouldn’t have to fake anything.

On they came, talking, laughing, and shouting, though it was shiva, the time of mourning, and death surrounded them.

“Something happened to Sid…”

Something happened to Ike too. Intimations about him would soon start flowing under the door like mustard gas. Where’s Ikey? Where’s the kid?

If he didn’t go out there, they’d start intuiting the truth: that he was approaching the same bridge Sid had crossed, the one that connected strange to crazy. He’d long feared becoming “the new Sid.” He had an excuse, they told him—a memory ruined by head trauma from the Proskurov pogrom, causing the loss of nearly all time before age six, the year he’d been brought from the Ukraine to America. He knew this fueled their expectations. He’d never be like them. He knew he wouldn’t.

If tonight he could force himself to take up even a brief position in a conversation—say one reasonable thing, have one regular thought—maybe that would hold back the tide long enough so he’d start to feel better. Mama insisted these were “growing pains.” She kept telling him that everything would be fine. Soon.

Sid’s absence filled the apartment, caused him to sweat in the cool air. Mama had accidentally invited his ghost to haunt her son.

The ghost started talking.

“All I needed was money. You should have convinced them. It’s your fault as much as anyone’s.”

The word “money” was bloody and raw.

I didn’t know you’d do this!


These days, when a dark thought rose, it didn’t sink again until it stained every other thought. Maybe it was stupid or unfair, but it always ended up blaming you for something. Sometimes you could fight it off, but you never knew if you were letting yourself off some hook you shouldn’t.

The longer he hid in his room, the harder it would be to leave.

Go. Talk.

Talking meant having something to say, and these days, more often than not, what he had to say froze conversations. He laughed in the wrong places; he knew this when people didn’t laugh along, just looked away. He’d imagine himself disappearing into the floor. And when he did manage to say something suitable, the words came out so quietly, they hardly seemed words at all.

He held his ear to the door, studying the way voices moved from sentence to sentence. He marveled that he had once been able to do this himself. He didn’t know when or why he’d lost the ability, but he had to find it again tonight, even for a few minutes—had to leave his room, stand with his uncles, aunts, and cousins, talk.

A slight breeze breathed under the door and he heard Jonah’s voice. Jonah was his best friend; he asked after Ike, Ike heard that—accepted whatever was said to him, then slipped right into conversation. Jonah was proof that it was possible to be strong and happy even without a father—or with a father like Ike’s, which was the same thing. Back when the Rabbi died, Ike assumed Jonah would become like him. He hadn’t. Jonah might be the only friend he had left, but sometimes Ike caught himself hating him. And hated himself for that.

The thought of talking was drying his mouth; his tongue would stick, he’d make weird noises. He scratched his arm so hard he drew blood. It seemed that he was trying to slice a way out of himself.

Someone clucked that they were “mystified” about Sid.

Mystified? Who was mystified? Sid wasn’t mystifying—they were. He envied Sid for being done with them. He remembered his eyes the last time they talked. He’d stared at Ike with pity, as if at a younger version of himself.

And out there—such a racket! Even suicide couldn’t shut these people up. Conversations ebbed and flowed, laughter exploding like breakers at Rockaway. Laughter during shiva? He didn’t understand it. If he was going out there, it had to be soon—but he felt he had to time his entry or be knocked down by all this human surf.

With a surge of bravado, he yanked open the door. The edge banged against his cheek. Putz! Can’t even open a door! Face burning, he watched himself move quickly across the room. Why did he ignore all the greetings? Without thinking, he grabbed his coat. His father, Mama, and Jonah were each calling to him, but he ran to the door and slammed it behind him. What was he doing? People were coming upstairs; he tried to hide his face behind his coat. Someone called, “Ikey, you okay?” and he threw a wave back over his head, taking the rest of the stairs two at a time. He shoved open the street door and trotted toward the Avenue.

Goddamn him! He’d done exactly the thing he hadn’t wanted to. They must be buzzing up there: he really was the new crazy.

How long before his father told Mama it was time to lock him up?

More people were moving toward him—was there nowhere to hide? He crossed the street; felt in his pockets; found enough change for a movie. Which movie didn’t matter; the point was that a theater would be warm and dark. Back before talkies, when his father and Sid played music in orchestra pits, popcorn for dinner wasn’t unusual; Mama would feed him soup or eggs later on.

At least he was out. If he sat through two shows, everyone would be gone when he got home. If the movies were dull enough, he might even sleep. He tried not to consider what repercussions would be waiting for him when he got back.


The feature was a few years old, though he’d never seen it: Nanook of the North.

A newsreel started. The opening title: “Protests in the Ukraine.”

His past was following him.

At least it wasn’t Proskurov—no, this was a big city. People wore unbuttoned overcoats; it must be spring or early fall.

There were sidewalks and skinny trees. In one sequence people milled in front of the camera. Most ignored it. Most of those who noticed, stared blankly. A few got angry and moved toward it, two or three making threatening gestures. Ike shrank into his seat; just as they seemed about to bang into the lens, they veered off to either side. A woman’s face leered up suddenly, so close it was blurry. Her lips were pulled back in a sneer. She mouthed something.

The film cut to another group, where a similar pattern repeated: unaware, noticing, rushing the camera, veering off. What was going on? Some kind of violence. Why was this in a newsreel? Ike imagined that the people on the other side of the screen saw him there, silver light washing over his face. Maybe he was what made them angry.


He leaned forward. Again, not Proskurov—but perhaps there were some people who’d moved from the shtetl to wherever this was, people he’d known and forgotten. He studied the faces; maybe one would wake up a memory.

He wondered what it would be like to jump into the screen—the Ukraine was where his life had started, then abandoned. He imagined it as a huge, loyal dog, wandering around looking for him.

A close-up of a pretty girl came onscreen. He pictured her diving into his lap, imagined her weight on him. Smiled. His smile seemed to offend her. He felt his face redden.

Shots of others followed—maybe Cossacks, maybe killers, maybe Jews—future murderers mingling with future victims. If only he could jump onscreen and warn them. He’d be a hero, not the little piece of a person he was. If he stayed onscreen he’d come alive as long as the projector was on. When it was off he wouldn’t die, just sleep.

Wasn’t this the condition of the people on the screen? Weren’t they alive—in the past, sure, but wasn’t that still a kind of life? And they’d have the potential for life for as long as the newsreel existed. Better, they’d never lose more than they’d lost before being sucked onto film. Some of the originals might already be dead, and none of them could ever again be the versions of themselves they were here and now, onscreen. But did that matter?

He began to wonder how all this worked—really worked—the nuts and bolts of it. He turned to stare at the projector. Studying it as if he’d never seen one before.

A dim bar of light he’d never paid attention to flickered over his head in a downward-tilted trapezoid that widened as it neared the screen. Barely visible, just a flicker—a flicker full of people, flying overhead like ghosts or angels. He could sense them but couldn’t see them until he turned back to the screen.

He tried to locate the place where the trapezoid touched it, tried to locate exactly where things exploded back to life—where that dim light managed what no amount of prayer, no amount of pleading, no amount of rage ever had. Resurrection—of a kind.

In all the years he’d been going to pictures, he’d never recognized this magic, though it had been happening over and over. It was an authentic miracle. There were techniques, mechanics, and explanations, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a miracle.

A new kind of hunger began to form.

He remembered flicker books, the ones where fanning your thumb made people move. As a kid he’d loved them, loved controlling the running people, until he decided they were silly tricks. Now he thought: maybe they were tricks but they weren’t silly.

He began to turn back and forth more quickly. Dust and smoke tumbled through that magical light while, beneath it, the audience sat as unaware as Ike had been of what was happening. People were flying, tumbling, spinning down above them as the projector flung them at the screen. He turned again, again, again…

A voice growled: “Fuckin’ picture’s up there, kid!”

An hour ago this might have sent him running to another seat. Now he only muttered an apology, upset enough to shake but not to leave. Within seconds, unable to stop, he turned again. This time the man’s angry stare was oddly irrelevant—and indeed, seconds later, it was he, not Ike, who changed seats, muttering curses loud enough for half the theater to hear.

Ike was astonished.

The man moved. Not him.

He settled in again. Newsreels—they might be the perfect way for ruined memories like his to be replaced by memories he could trust. Even someone with a healthy memory must get things wrong sometimes. The way to be sure was to get it on film.

An image of himself behind a camera came into his mind. He’d seen cameramen; as long as light fell on the film—Ike knew that much—they went on storing memories of whatever and whomever they wanted.

If he’d had a camera right now, maybe he’d turn it on the angry man and capture his anger forever. Film really was memory—stored life—like God’s memory, if there’d been a God.

He wondered if someone had ever filmed his birth mother’s face. There would have been no forgetting her then. A sob rose in his throat—but he swallowed it. This wasn’t a time for sobbing. And how did he know someone hadn’t filmed her? If so, he’d find it someday.

Cameramen! They spent their days immortalizing things, though they themselves were unnamed, unknown—except that when you watched their pictures, they were right behind you, their invisible eyes watching over your shoulder. Never anywhere exactly—always somewhere inexactly.

Might this be one way to avoid ending up like Sid? If you were never really anywhere, you wouldn’t suffer over the presence or absence of anyone. No one would expect you to do or say things, yet you’d rarely be alone. So much better than hiding—well, still a kind of hiding, but an acceptable, exciting way.

You could even make money at it.

His heart started pounding. He was worried—were some people seated around him thinking the same things? How could they not?

Somehow he had to act fast.


When he left the theater, he tried to hold onto these new thoughts like cut crystal full of precious liquid. He walked along in confused excitement. For the first time in years, he could imagine an adult life he might actually live. The idea that he could do this was crazy—but maybe it was also possible.

Approaching his building, he prepared himself: Mama’s tears, Jacob’s shouts, maybe even a slap. But things like that didn’t—couldn’t—matter anymore; he wouldn’t let them. The new thoughts wouldn’t survive if he didn’t protect them. No ridicules, insults, or threats could be allowed to touch them because the way things were going, if they didn’t survive, he might not either.

Now he found himself thinking about Sid—only this time with something other than fear or disgust. Maybe even a sort of grief. He remembered the sweetness of Sid’s violin, and in his mind he let himself daven a little, running through the Shema and Mourner’s Kaddish. He even imagined Sid shifting from ghoul to guardian.

He experimented with this—in his imagination he told Sid what was happening. I went to a movie tonight because of you. And I realized there might be a place for me. Maybe I’ll find footage of you out there, maybe from a good time of your life! If you promise not to haunt me, I promise I’ll look.

Sid nodded and faded away.

Now Ike wasn’t just excited—he was certain. All he had to do was learn.


From the street he saw that the apartment lights were out. Mercifully, they’d gone to bed.

Upstairs he picked his way across the living room, hardly breathing, avoiding the floorboards that were most likely to creak. Strips of streetlight slipped between the curtains, just bright enough to guide him.

A single, rhythmic gleam stopped his breath. His father’s clarinet! It moved with his father’s heartbeat; Ike’s eyes were adjusting and, as they did, his own heart dropped to his stomach. Shadowy hands held the instrument like an oar.

There was a loud crack, and light cut the room open like an orange.

“I’m tired,” Ike whined, blinded.

Mama’s outline shook her head. “Why?”

Ike’s eyes cleared and his hands balled into fists.

“I’m sixteen!” he shouted. His father moved toward him, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a Golden Gloves fighter. Ike threw his palms in front of his face. He stuttered—“Ca‑calm down! I was out! It’s not a crime!”

His father shouted, “NEVER,” and danced closer.


Her voice was deep, definitive. Breathing hard, Jacob lowered his hands. But as he did, Ike’s throat started to pinch closed; remorse—it was going to choke him. Again?

No, not even for Mama, not even if it made her hate him…

“STOP IT!” he exploded. He took two steps toward his father. For the first time he saw the old man flinch—in fear of him! He tried to freeze the moment in his mind so he’d never forget it. A voice whispered: a camera could do that. He felt giddy.

“WHAT!” he shouted again, this time with something like joy. What could that bastard do to him now? He stuck out his chin, daring. “I CAN’T BREATHE!” He leaped into a weird, airborne about-face, loped three steps to his room, and slammed the door, as he’d so often dreamed of doing.

Pictures shook on the walls. The light from his room spilled out on the sidewalk below the window. A broom handle slammed up against the floor; outraged shouts echoed up the stairwell, full of unintelligible denunciations.

“SORRY, Mr. Menshovitz!” Ike shouted. “SORRY!” But ferocity surged again and he slammed his heel where the broom handle had hit. He felt stinging pain, a burst of fear. Was he trying to ensure that everyone hated him, even neighbors he hardly knew? His hands shook.

He caught sight of his face in the mirror. It seemed inhabited by a strange light he’d never seen there.

He was bewildered: for the first time in a long while, there seemed to be nothing he was required to be ashamed of.

Photography CreditJason Rice

Andrea Barrett called Burton Shulman’s first collection of stories, Safe House, “lean and beautifully written… A strong and unusual debut.” The book was well reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and other publications. Charles Baxter said, “It takes nerve to write stories like these—nerve, intelligence, and heart.” His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Elm Leaves Journal, Forge Journal, The Paragon Journal, Penmen Review, and SLAB.