Kuperman Awaits Ecstasy

A short story

Literature Text

Driving to the Loop to bring his tax stuff to Schapiro, his accountant for nearly forty years, Milton Kuperman, at the lengthy stoplight at Thorndale and Sheridan, had the appalling thought that his death, which couldn’t be all that far off, would matter to no one, not a soul. A widower, Kuperman would be eighty in August. His only child, his daughter Rivian, lived in Los Angeles, and saw him once a year; and that, when you got right down to it, was generally less than a visit and more like someone checking in dutifully to pay her respects. 

Kuperman was also without grandchildren. Married to a successful patent attorney and unable to have children of their own, Rivian and her husband many years ago adopted a child from Chile, a boy they named Eric — Eric Cohen — who hadn’t, as his daughter used to say, “worked out”. By this she meant that, from his adolescence until now, a man in his later twenties, Eric was a drug addict, in and out of one clinic, sanatorium, hospital and half-way house after another. 

Richard Cohen, his son-in-law, was a more powerful money-maker than Kuperman, and so the inheritance that he planned to leave his daughter — somewhere in the range of three million dollars — didn’t figure to change their life much; it would probably present nothing more than a complicated tax problem. At odd, perverse moments, Kuperman thought of leaving his money to his adopted grandson, whom he barely knew. Let him smoke it or shoot it up, inhale it or stuff it up his nose, who knew what. At least someone would get some pleasure out of the rewards of Kuperman’s lifetime of work.

Kuperman had spent the better part of his life in the auction business. He had found a niche, as his son-in-law had put it. He bought up the inventories of failed businesses — known as close-outs in the trade — and sold them, along with other items he had acquired, at auction. A good part of his success was owing to his always keeping very liquid; an even larger part had to do with his talent for knowing what goods he could move. “You make your money in buying, not selling,” he used regularly to tell his nephew Stuart Siegel, his wife’s sister Florence’s son, who worked for him. “Buy right and the rest will take care of itself.” Whether it be throw pillows, costume jewellery, outdated ties, or whoopee cushions, if Kuperman could get it for the right price, and he usually could, he could turn a profit. 

“What’s the point, Milt?” said Schapiro. “What’re you still knocking yourself out for? You’ve got more money than you can possibly use. What do you need the aggravation for?”

“I’ve come to like aggravation,” Kuperman replied. “Within reason. It’s part of life, part of the game.”

“What’d you need the game for? Enjoy life. Watch the sunset. Gaze at the stars. Do you want them to drag you out of your business feet first?”

“Someone’s going to drag me out of someplace feet first, so it might as well be from my place of business. Besides, if I retire, what do you suggest I do? Chase golf balls with the rest of the morons? Maybe I should take courses in Chinese stamp collecting or the history of Peru at Loch in Kop University downtown?”

“Milton, my friend, there’s got to be more to life than close-outs.”

Kuperman knew Schapiro had his best interests in mind. He liked Lou Schapiro — little Louie Schapiro as he first knew him at Humboldt Grammar School and later at Roosevelt High, the shortest kid in class who went on to win the gold medal in the state CPA exam at the age of twenty. But Schapiro didn’t — couldn’t possibly — know what was in his, Kuperman’s, heart.

“Of course there is, Lou, but what concerns me is what is left of me if you take my work away. I’m not sure that there’s anything left.”

“Whaddya mean? You read. You’re a thoughtful guy. So quit working and just think, at your own pace, with no pressure on you at all. Maybe travel a little. Does that sound so bad?”

Kuperman could have turned the tables and asked Schapiro why he didn’t retire. But then Lou had a son in the business, and he himself now came in only three days a week, chiefly to take care of old clients like Kuperman, who would have felt strange with their business in the hands of anyone else. 

As for Kuperman’s capacity for leisure, true, he was a reader, mostly of biography, especially of the biography of scientists. Had he gone to college, he would have liked to have studied engineering. Growing up when he did, engineers and inventors — Ford, Edison, even Charles Lindbergh held a few patents — were the great heroes of the age. But that wasn’t any longer a possibility. One of the saddest things about growing older, Kuperman long ago concluded, was the closing off of one possibility after another.

Kuperman’s only concession to retirement was to begin going into the office later in the morning: at ten o’clock instead of his usual time of 8.30. He continued to wake at 5.30am as always. Although he said he didn’t believe in the current exercise fad — “I’m a fatalist,” he liked to say. “When you’re number’s up, it’s up” — Kuperman did use the early part of the morning for walks around the neighbourhood. In the bad weather, he walked in the mall off McCormick Boulevard near his apartment on Touhy Avenue off Kedzie at Winston Towers. 

On his third lap, in front of Foot Locker, near J.C. Penney, on a grey Tuesday morning, he met Faye Perelman, the furrier’s wife, who used to play cards with Miriam, Kuperman’s wife. She was with another woman, petite, with red hair, whom she introduced as Judith Neeley. Faye asked Kuperman how things were with him, said that her and her husband’s health was good, they had a lot to be thankful for, and mentioned that Judith, who lost her husband last year, lived on the same floor as the Perelmans, two buildings down from Kuperman’s own building at Winston Towers. 

“Judy taught high school,” Faye said. “She was a music teacher at New Trier.” 

“That’s nice,” said Kuperman, not listening very intently.

“Interested in music, are you, Mr Kuperman?” Mrs Neeley said, showing a bright and winning smile.

“Well, not all that much, maybe,” he answered, and even here he was lying, for Kuperman went to no concerts, kept no phonograph, and listened exclusively to the news on his car radio. He had vaguely heard of something called CDs, but had not actually seen one. When Miriam was alive, she dragged him to musical comedies. And though he went along, he didn’t quite see the point of sitting uncomfortably in a seat at the Schubert Theatre, on Monroe, while young men and women, with great expenditures of false energy, were belting out the lyrics to Pajama Game and other such nonsense. He vaguely recalled the line, “Seven-and-a-half cents doesn’t buy a heck of a lot…” Pure Narrishkeit, nonsense.

“Without music,” she said, “life for me wouldn’t have much point.”

“Really?” Kuperman asked. 

“Absolutely,” she said. 

Kuperman looked at his watch. Faye Perelman remarked that they had better keep moving. Judith Neeley put out her hand, which Kuperman shook before heading off in the other direction. 

Driving down to his warehouse, on Ashland Avenue near Belmont, Kuperman thought about Mrs Neeley. Not a Jewish name, Neeley. Irish, he thought. Of course, Neeley was her married name. Handsome woman, though, looked to be in her late sixties. He liked her manner; there was a note of seriousness about her he found appealing. 

Kuperman had been a widower for a little more than four years. His wife had had liver cancer, and lived three years before it finally swept her away. As a husband, he was a good provider, but the fact was that his life was never concentrated in his marriage. He was most alive at his business. He loved his wife, or thought he did. But did he miss Miriam? At first, yes, a lot, but by now days, whole weeks, went by when he didn’t think about her. His best guess was that, had he died first, he would not have been constantly in her thoughts, either. We forget the dead and the living forget us when we die. That was all right, that was the deal, that was the way the world worked. 

After hesitating for more than a week, Kuperman decided to call Judith Neeley. He wasn’t sure why. At his age, the blood didn’t run as fast as once it did. He was no lady killer. He didn’t think of himself as lonely. During the day he made his business calls, worked with his nephew Stuart at the warehouse, made his own dinner or brought home Chinese, read the Trib, watched news shows on television, and was usually in bed before ten o’clock. His health had held up. He figured he had nothing to complain about. 

Still, here Kuperman was dialling up the number of Judith Neeley. “Yes,” she said, “of course I remember you. Faye introduced us at the mall.”

Feeling like a high-school boy, Kuperman heard the hesitation in his own voice as he asked her if she would like to meet one evening for dinner or maybe a movie. 

“I don’t go to the movies much any more,” she said. “But I have two tickets to a chamber-music concert at De Paul this Sunday. Would that interest you?”

“Yes,” Kuperman heard himself say, “it would, a lot.” 

That Sunday, Kuperman wasn’t sure what to wear before picking up Mrs Neeley. He wasn’t sure, either, what a chamber-music concert was, and his nephew Stuart, who had gone to the University of Wisconsin for three years, was no help. He decided on a business suit and one of his quieter ties. He wasn’t really clear about why he was putting himself through this. At least, he told himself, he didn’t have to travel far to pick up this broad.

On the way to the concert, Mrs Neeley — she asked that he call her Judy — told him that her husband had been a lawyer working in a small firm with three Jewish partners. Neeley was Irish, but he had gone to Sullivan High School, where the kids were mostly Jewish, and he had become, as he liked to say, an “honorary Jew.” Over the years he had acquired more Yiddish words and expressions than she. Her parents, who had departed Austria in the early 1930s, weren’t happy when she married Ned Neeley; her mother warned that some day, in anger, he would throw her being Jewish in her face, but she was wrong; it never happened. Her late husband hadn’t any interest in music — he used to say that his musical education ended with “Does Eat Oats and Mares Eat Oats”-and he didn’t mind her going off to the Symphony and the Lyric Opera (she was a season subscriber to both) with lady friends. 

Kuperman didn’t say much about his own wife. Miriam had in fact been a bookkeeper in a firm he did business with, a thorough and well-manner woman, pretty, five years younger than he. After marrying Kuperman, she stopped working, raised their daughter, cooked, kept house, had her special charities — the Jewish Home for the Blind, Hadassah, a cancer foundation named after her friend Edie Weitzman-played cards. She left Kuperman alone; never gave him a hard time when he needed to work extra hours or go down to the warehouse on weekends. Kuperman never cheated on her; the thought that she might have cheated on him was not possible. Before she died, she thanked Kuperman for giving her a good life. Did she have her own unspoken yearnings? Would she have preferred another kind of life? While she was alive, Kuperman neglected to ask. 

Kuperman parked his Cadillac on Belden, off Halsted. The hall for the concert also served as a chapel. There were no crucifixes on any of the walls, but the seats were pews, with red cushions added to the backs. Bright light flooded in through the tall side windows on this cool afternoon. The audience made Kuperman, at seventy-nine, feel positively young. Much osteoporosis; many people on walkers; most of the women had white hair, several of them seemed bulky; the majority of the men were bald, bent, haggard. Hard to imagine that many people in this audience were ever desirable, even when young, Kuperman thought. He had over-dressed. Only one other man, a doddering guy who looked to be in his nineties, wore a tie.

When Kuperman, seated, looked at the programme he had been handed at the door, he saw that he was about to hear something called the Vermeer Quarter. When Judith Neeley mentioned the name on the drive down, he thought she said the Veh es Mir Quartet. They were going to play works by Mozart, Hindemith, and Schubert. Kuperman had heard of the Mozart and Schubert, but not this guy Hindemith. 

Four men came out, all oddly different. When Kuperman was a kid, they used to call this kind of music “long-hair,” but all of these musicians were fairly well-kempt, at least in the hair department. His attention was attracted to the man who sat up front on the left and who played the violin. His name,
according to the programme, was Shmuel Ashkenasi. Heavyset, with curly hair, florid, the fiddle under his double chin, he looked, Kuperman thought, Jewish to the highest power. Kuperman remembered that in the Chicago public schools of his day they offered music lessons for twenty-five cents and you could rent the instrument. He thought vaguely that he might like to try the trumpet; his mother, though, was only interested in his playing the violin. Even at age eight he could not imagine himself carrying a violin case around Albany Park. The violin was, he thought looking at Mr Ashkenasi, the Jewish instrument par excellence. 

During the Mozart, Kuperman noted people around him beginning to drop off to sleep. He tried to find some attractive women or vigorous men, but was unable to do so. Why had they come here, he wondered, all these people, at some inconvenience and expense, on a sunny Sunday afternoon? What was the attraction? Did the music offer them consolation of some sort for the things that their lives didn’t offer? 

The Hindemith, the second selection, was just noise to Kuperman. He fidgeted while the four men on stage seemed to saw away at the music. The Schubert, which came after a break, was more like it. Under its melodiousness, his mind wandered, but wandered pleasantly. He remembered his unit marching into Paris near the end of World War Two. He was young, without plans, all his days were in front of him. The time that it took to play the Schubert seemed to pass so much more quickly than that of the other two pieces of music, though, checking his watch, he noted that it was in fact longer. 

Several times during the concert Kuperman glanced over at Mrs Neeley. Her face, in profile, radiated intelligence, thoughtfulness, something blissful about it. She seemed quite beautiful when concentrating on the music. Kuperman sensed that she was hearing things he didn’t. What might they have been? Whatever they were, for her they were obviously enchanting, entrancing, filled with a significance unavailable to him, though he thought he would like to be in on it. 

After the concert, Kuperman asked Mrs Neeley if she’d like to have dinner. She said she was sorry but she couldn’t, because she was expected at her daughter’s in Highland Park that evening. Perhaps another time. Before dropping her off, he suggested they go to another concert sometime, his treat, so he could repay her for this afternoon. She said that she would try to find something interesting upcoming at Orchestra Hall and get back to him. 

What she came up with was a Saturday evening performance of a man named
Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven sonatas. Kuperman looked the word “sonata” up in the dictionary, but didn’t find it very helpful. He also bought a little blue book containing musical terms. He quickly saw that any command of the subject of music was not going to be possible, at least not at his age. Mainly, he wanted to avoid embarrassing himself by saying or doing something really stupid. 

The audience at Orchestra Hall was peppered with a few more younger people than the one at De Paul. Lots of old GJs, as Kuperman always referred to himself, to German Jews. People seemed rather better dressed, though still less than glittering. Does musical culture, Kuperman wondered, make its followers a trifle shabby in appearance? This world, which Judith Neeley was taking him into, was mysterious to Kuperman, who didn’t much care for mysteries. 

The greatest mystery of all, of course, was the music. Alfred Brendel, an Austrian, Kuperman learned in the programme notes, sat upright at his piano and played with an air of the greatest seriousness. He assumed that he was Jewish. Kuperman felt that he had previously heard some of the melodies that came booming out of Brendel’s piano; or at least wisps of them. He stole glances at Judith Neeley, who had on her normally pleasant face an expression quite as serious as Brendel’s. Kuperman was not bored by the music — not at all — but if you asked him what he had heard, he couldn’t have told you, couldn’t have hummed a note. Judith Neeley seemed in a state resembling ecstasy. In the programme notes he read that one of the sonatas had an “incomprehensible sublimity.” Kuperman got only the incomprehensible part. 

Judith Neeley — Kuperman for some reason found it difficult to call her or even think of her as Judy — continued to invite him along to concerts and even twice to the opera. He cared less, cared really not at all, for the latter; the improbability of the proceedings — heavyset men madly in love with vastly overweight women, whose response to being stabbed was usually to sing louder than ever — didn’t seem to work for him. Studying the audience, Kuperman concluded that opera was chiefly for homosexual men and women whose dreams and fantasies obviously were not going to be realised. He didn’t of course mention this to Judith.

But concerts still fascinated him. He came to like chamber music more than symphonic concerts. The blend of so many instruments when played by a symphony orchestra tended to confuse him, whereas in listening to a chamber group of from three to eight players he could tell which instruments were contributing what sounds. He sensed an order here that pleased him, though he could not say exactly why it did so. He began to tune his kitchen radio at home to WFMT, the local classical music station, to the accompaniment of which he ate his breakfast. But when he would hear something played that he thought he had heard before, he could never call up what it was. Along with his other inadequacies, he had, it seemed, almost no memory for this music. Hopeless, the whole damn thing seemed hopeless. 

Kuperman sensed that a lot of music was about setting up anticipations and then satisfying them, but often in unpredictable ways. Sometimes his own mind seemed to him fairly sharp in the concert hall; and sometimes it wandered all over the place and, strain to do so though he did, he couldn’t keep it in the room and on the music. Once, presumably listening to a Handel oratorio in a church in Oak Park, all he could think of was the hundred gross of long out-of-fashion ties he had bought that afternoon at eight cents apiece. Could he move them? At eight cents a shot, how could he go wrong? Still, a hundred gross?

He also noticed that time operated very differently with and without music. While listening to some music, time sped by much more quickly than usual; other music seemed to slow time down painfully, making twenty minutes seem longer than a poor fiscal quarter. Why? What caused this? Another mystery Kuperman couldn’t pierce.

The larger meaning of music escaped him. Where, he wondered, was the payoff? What was the bottom line? Was there a meaning to it all that evaded him? One night, on the ride home after an all-Russian evening at Symphony Hall — Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev symphonies — he put the question to Judith. 

“I shouldn’t worry overmuch about it, Milton,” she said. “Music is directed to the emotions. If you like, you can try to put into thought what the great composers wanted to suggest emotionally. I suppose that’s what the good music critics try to do, though not all that many succeed. But I gave up on that project long ago. I love music because it allows me to get out of myself into something larger, which I find it not easy to specify. I am content to listen as carefully as I can and let the music come to me, if you know what I mean?”

Kuperman, in fact, didn’t know what she meant — hadn’t, really, a clue. But he decided not to press the point, lest he look as boorish as he felt. 

Kuperman and Judith Neeley had been going to concerts together for roughly four months. All this while his own movements with this woman were, you might say, strictly adagio. He did not call her every day; some days he wanted to, just to check in, but decided doing so would be pushing things. Sex wasn’t anywhere near up for negotiation, though Kuperman, obviously no longer a boy, wouldn’t have minded if it were. 

Judith had invited him to a Passover seder at her daughter’s, the one who lived in Glencoe. Judith’s other daughter and her son and their families — seven grandchildren in all — were there. Kuperman sensed he was on display, being considered for his worthiness as a companion for their mother and grandmother. He also sensed that he was failing the test. The conversation wasn’t on any of his topics. Judith’s family talked about recent plays, and books, and colleges, lots about colleges, since one of her grandchildren, a boy with bad skin and braces named Dylan Schwartz, was applying to colleges in the fall. (Kuperman could have gone to college on the GI Bill after the war, but was too eager to get back into the stream of life, to start making some money, once he was discharged in ’45.) Kuperman decided to keep his own counsel among Judith’s family, to say little and hope that his silence would pass itself off for the wisdom of the aged. More likely, he felt, they found him a schlepper

One evening in May, she took him to St Paul’s, an Episcopal church in Evanston, to hear something called the St Matthew Passion. By now Kuperman had heard a fair amount of music by its composer, J. S. Bach, some of whose things he liked — the liveliness of the Brandenburg Concertos, which he’d heard more than once, always pleased him — and others of which seemed like so much sawing away. He wasn’t sure what to expect. 

What he didn’t expect was the sight of tears dribbling down Judith’s face. As the chorus boomed away, Kuperman took Judith’s hand in his. She did not remove it. He did not know quite how to describe, for himself, the look on her face. He could only think of an old-fashioned word — transported. This woman wasn’t really here with him; the music had sent her — transported her — elsewhere. As the tears continued to flow, her face took on a radiance that made her, even in her late sixties, more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. 

That evening, after the concert, Judith invited Kuperman to come up for a cup of tea. When he had settled in one of the two chairs alongside the glass coffee table in the living room, she brought in, on a tray, two cups of tea with a dish of plain sugar cookies. 

“I need to tell you something, Milton,” she said, after she settled into the other chair, stirring the sugar into her tea. “Four years ago I had breast cancer, and now it has returned, but metastasised to my bones, including my spine.”

Kuperman had no notion about her earlier bout with cancer. They were not in the habit of retelling their medical histories, or much else of an intimate kind, to each other. He didn’t know how to respond. “I’m sorry,” he said, which sounded, as he said it, as if the returning cancer were his fault. 

“I’ve decided not to put myself through another round of chemotherapy. The last time nearly did me in. The insidious thing about cancer, as you may or may not know, is the hope — there’s always that slight wisp of hope on which patients bet and lose their last days on earth. I’m not taking the bet. Anyhow I’m told that I shall probably have no more than three or four months before the end.”

“Is there anything I can do,” Kuperman said. “Is there any place you want to see, in Europe maybe? Monuments? Great music halls? Name it, I’ll take you.”

“No,” she said, “I want to be near my family. I want to hear lots of music. And I would like it if you would stay close by.”

Kuperman was shocked and touched by this last item. He had very little notion that he meant anything to her much beyond an escort and driver to her musical entertainments. 

“If that’s what you want, it also happens to be what I want,” he said. “I mean the last part.” 

“You are solid, you know,” she said. “There’s something very solid and real about you that’s comforting to me.”

“I’ll do anything you want,” Kuperman said. “Anything. Just ask.”

“Stay near,” she said. 

Kuperman did not move into Judith’s apartment. But he began taking his breakfasts and dinners with her. He kept a robe and pyjamas, a toothbrush and razor at her place. Some nights he slept over, holding her. They fell asleep listening to Schubert Impromptus played by a French pianist named Marçelle Meyer on a small CD player Judith kept in the bedroom. He still went to work every day; still bought his close-outs; ran his auctions. He even unloaded those eight-cent ties, for a decent profit. 

Fortunately, Chicago had enough musical life for them to go to one or another kind of concert almost every night. The summer festival at Ravinia was beginning. He made a $5,000 contribution so that he could get good seats to everything Judith wanted to hear. 

They would drive out along Sheridan Road, stopping some nights in Hubbard Woods for Chinese food, other nights Judith would make a light cold dinner that they ate on the lawn. After the night she told him about its return into her body, she never again mentioned the word “cancer”, and he didn’t, either. 

They sat in the little Martin Theatre at Ravinia and watched and listened to a vast quantity of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and endless French composers whose names Kuperman couldn’t quite keep straight. Judith listened to the music with a concentrated serenity that filled Kuperman with admiration. They had taken to holding hands through these Ravinia concerts. Kuperman tried to take Judith’s advice and let the music come to him. He paid the strictest attention; his mind wandered less. He heard patterns, felt themes emerge and re-emerge, detected what he thought were subtle turns and twists in the music. But the mystery of it was never revealed; ecstasy, the deeper meaning of it all, escaped him. 

By early August Judith’s appetite had all but disappeared. She grew thin. Her energy was much less. They stayed home most nights, sat on the couch in her living room, and listened to CDs, holding hands. Kuperman made and served her tea; she might take a single bite out of a cookie. What a lottery life was, Kuperman thought, the lousy luck of the draw! A pathetic bit of wisdom to arrive at after eight decades of living, but he had no other. 

Kuperman received the call from Angela, one of the practical nurses looking after Judith round the clock, that she had died on a sunny Tuesday morning. He was at work. Her children were with her at the end. Nothing he could do. He finished the day at his place of business, locking up, as usual, at 5.30.

“Jews bury quickly,” he remembered his father saying to him, “they don’t drag it out.” The service for Judith, at Piser Chapel on Church and Skokie Boulevard, was on a Thursday. Richard Blumberg, Judith’s son-in-law, called Kuperman to inform him of the time and place of the service and asked him if he would like to join a few members of the family and say a word or two about his mother-in-law at the service. Kuperman thanked him and said he would like to say something. 

The chapel for the Neeley funeral was filled, with perhaps three hundred people present. Some among them must have been Judith’s former students at New Trier. Kuperman was glad that he had written out the little he planned to say. Each of Judith’s daughters spoke, and three of her grandchildren, also a former student who had become a friend. They talked chiefly about what a good mother and, later, friend she had been. The former student, herself now a teacher of music at Roosevelt University, recalled what a personal inspiration Judith Neeley had been when she was in high school. Except for the rabbi, Kuperman was the last to speak. 

He walked to the lectern with some nervousness, and took the two index cards on which he had written out what he intended to say out of the pocket of his dark grey suit jacket. 

“My name is Milton Kuperman,” he began, “and I was lucky, make that privileged, to be Judith Neeley’s friend during the last year or so of her life. She was a woman of real refinement, culture, and genuine courage.” Kuperman felt his eyes fog up, his throat catch, and he heard himself saying something he had not planned on saying.

“On Monday, I am going to call the Steans Institute at Ravinia and donate a million dollars for Judith Neeley scholarships to help train young musicians, in the hope that Judith and her love of music will not be forgotten.”

Leaving the lectern, he felt his face flush, his ears hot. There was a buzz of talk around him as he took his seat, but he couldn’t hear any of it. Instead, in his mind he heard a beautiful joining of a flute and a harp. Mozart, he wondered? Yes, Mozart, definitely Mozart. Whole passages of the flute and harp concerto came back to him. The music filled him with pleasure of a kind he had never known before. Although Kuperman may not have been fully aware of it, he had just achieved ecstasy.