Some writers begin to write with talent, quickly earn a reputation among readers and critics, and then are suddenly silenced forever. We had two such men at the Yiddish Writers’ Club in Warsaw. One, Menahem Roshbom, had managed, before he was thirty, to publish three novels. The other, Zimmel Hesheles, had at the age of twenty-three written one long poem. Both got enthusiastic reviews in the Yiddish press. But then, as the saying goes, their literary wombs closed up and never opened again.
Roshbom was already in his fifties and Hesheles in his late forties when I became a member of the Writers’ Club. Both were considered good chess players. I often saw them playing together. Menahem Roshbom was always humming a tune, swaying, grimacing, and trying to pluck out the remaining few hairs from his salt-and-pepper goatee. He would raise his thumb and forefinger as if to move a piece, and then pull them back as if they had been singed. It was said that he was a better player than Hesheles, but toward the end of the game he inevitably lost his patience. Menahem Roshbom was a chain-smoker. His fingers and nails were stained yellow, and he suffered from a chronic cough. It was said that he smoked even while asleep. He was tall, emaciated, wrinkled, stooped. After he stopped writing fiction, he had taken to journalism and had become the head feuilletonist at one of the two Warsaw Yiddish newspapers.
Although he was sick and it was said that he was consumptive, he carried on with women, mainly actresses from the Yiddish theater. He had in his lifetime divorced three wives, and the children of all his three wives came to him for money. His steady mistress was the wife of a Yiddish actor. It was never determined why her husband allowed her to be with Roshbom. I often heard it said that Roshbom deplored being too clever, too cynical. Frequently in his conversations, and even in his articles, he belittled the value of literature and the delusions of immortality. He had never allowed himself to be honored at a banquet. If someone called him a writer, Roshbom responded: “Maybe at one time . . . ”
Zimmel Hesheles was small, reserved, a lonely and silent little bachelor. His narrow face was always closely shaved and his cheeks were unusually smooth. Some thought that he was a eunuch whose beard didn’t even grow. He dragged a foot and carried a cane. One of his shoes had a higher heel. His brown hair had an unmanly thickness and sheen.
For a pauper who supported himself by filling in as a proofreader during the summer vacations, Zimmel Hesheles dressed decently enough. Both summer and winter he went around in a black broad-brimmed hat, spats, and an artist’s foulard. He had hardly given up his literary ambitions and let it be known that he was still writing even though he didn’t publish. He belonged to the Pen Club and attended literary evenings. He exercised a professional punctiliousness. He didn’t smoke, didn’t hum, didn’t grimace. He came each day to the Writers’ Club precisely at noon, ordered a glass of tea with lemon and nothing else, read the newspapers, played a game of chess with Roshbom or someone else, and left at two when the crowd began to gather for lunch.
It was said at the club that Zimmel Hesheles prepared his own meals on a hot plate and that he even did his own laundry. Someone had seen him buying cheap army bread at Kercelak Place, where bargains could be found. Zimmel Hesheles had once blurted out to the management of the journalists’ association that he managed to feed and clothe himself on a sum that were he to reveal it no one would have believed him.
Menahem Roshbom was what is called an open book. But Zimmel Hesheles always sat erect over the chessboard, and after Roshbom had had his say, Zimmel would mumble: “So where does the king go?”
And we kibitzers knew that Roshbom’s king had fallen into a trap. When Roshbom realized that the situation was hopeless, he would knock the chess pieces away with a sweep of his hand and say something like: “I shouldn’t have moved the pawn.”
And he would blow a thick cloud of smoke right into Zimmel Hesheles’s face.