Brief EncountersInternational LiteratureShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 27: “Sin” by Cynthia Ozick

From Antiquities and Other Stories

“The eye is the hand. … And without the eye, the hand is as good as dead.”

The speaker here is Sol Kerchek, an aged painter now reduced to the status of a de facto recluse. Kerchek’s vision is failing and he is dependent upon the much younger Mara Kerchek for support. We first meet Mara on the streets of New York City, where she propositions a street artist named Eva, offering her $400 to accompany her to Kerchek’s house, where she hires Eva to act as a minder for the mobility-challenged painter and to assist in what remains of his studio.

The lambent and exquisitely crafted story “Sin,” about art, failure, and the agony of getting old, is further proof (as though any more were needed) that Cynthia Ozick is one of America’s most criminally underappreciated authors. If she is known at all in the general public, it is likely for her canonical short story “The Shawl,” set during the era of Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War. Among those in the know, it is her short fiction that is most lauded, though she is also a consummate essayist and critic, including the volumes Metaphor and Memory and The Din in the Head.

By her own admission, Ozick was a late bloomer, having worked for close to two decades before making significant inroads into publishing. Now ninety-four, she seems more like a force of nature, continuing to produce brilliant technical pieces that run circles around most other living American writers. Of her almost preternatural facility for language and metaphor, Joyce Carol Oates has written, “Hers is an art that, though cast in prose, employs the strategies of poetry.”

This is apparent in the opening paragraphs of “Sin,” which find Eva in her usual spot, hawking her artwork by a chain-link fence downtown, competing for attention with “the pretzel man‘s salty cart on one end of [the] sidewalk and the soda man’s syrupy cart on the other.” Uptown, there stand the high-class galleries, “discreet and sleek as salons,” catering to a rich and refined clientele. These establishments feature “Japanese pots on polished lion-pawed tables” and walls hung with “small framed paintings ratified by catalogues signalling critical repute.” The city’s “grand museums with their marble stairs and broken-nosed Roman busts in halls mobbed by foreign tourists” also operate in blissful ignorance of or disdain for the “fence daubers” who crank out $5 portraits of passers-by.

The descriptions of the rarified New York art world are juxtaposed with a list of repurposed items used to fasten material to the fence from which Eva tries to sell her art: “coiled wire, duct tape, butterfly clips, boat hooks, coat hangers, pellets for industrial glue, nylon strips, braided strings, and whatever other contraptions stubborn ingenuity can dream up.” The contrast could not be starker, nor painted in more graceful or economical strokes. Eva’s character unfolds before us not through staid exposition, but by way of evocative imagery and precisely chosen detail.

Eva, who acts as the story’s first-person narrator, is balefully aware of her place in the pecking order. “I call it merchandise,” she says of her wares at the fence. “I don’t presume to call it art, though some of it might be.” The mercantile aspect of Eva’s practice is significant, since we quickly learn that she is facing a financial crisis as a result of the imminent departure of her roommate and the end of a stipend she had been receiving from her late stepfather’s brother, who was under a misapprehension about her course of study. Eva’s would-be benefactor believed she was going to school to study fashion; when he visits her from Ohio only to find she is “cohabiting with a pair of degenerates” and crafting “imbecile oozings,” he promptly cuts her off. “He hadn’t believed me when I told him that the study of swirls and random swipes was a prerequisite for fashion design,” Eva says, going on to worry about the reality that “fences can’t supply steady cash the way uncles do.”

Eva’s financial precarity leaves her vulnerable to Mara’s offer of employment, notwithstanding the fact that Mara insults Eva’s work, calling it kitsch, and assumes (correctly, as it turns out) that Eva would have no clue as to who Sol Kerchek is or what his reputation might be. When Eva protests that her part-time job as a server at a local Italian restaurant, which she took to augment her meagre fence-based income, would not allow her the time to tend to the ailing painter, Mara reacts with undisguised contempt: “You don’t have time for Sol Kerchek? You don’t have time for a man whose work sits in Prague, in Berlin, in Cracow? In London? Those were the old days, but he’s not dead yet, he’s worth something. You should get on your knees for the privilege, you don’t deserve what I’m offering.”

It becomes apparent that Mara, who Eva presumes to be Kerchek’s daughter, acts as a marketer for the painter, whose work has fallen out of favour in recent years. She also provides for his assisted living at home, since she claims she must go out to work. The pair recently let go a young man whose abilities were wanting – he “didn’t know his left hand from his right hand,” Kerchek says, in a phrase that gets repeated throughout the second half of the story.

The complaint about the former helpmate is significant: it ties in closely to Kerchek’s observation above about the connection, so central to a visual artist, between the eye and the hand. This, of course, is an ironic observation, given the loss of sight that has made it impossible for him to work. “My eyes can’t see,” he tells Eva morosely. “Faces gone, colour no.” Eva’s significance for Kerchek is largely tied to her ability to see – to her eyes. As the relationship between the two deepens, eyes and hands are recurring metaphors. Kerchek attempts to console Eva when she expresses upset at Mara’s dismissal of her art as kitsch by asking for her hand. Significantly, Eva places her left hand over the old man’s right, an ironic inversion of the clueless former minder, who didn’t know the one from the other.

The trajectory of the plot in “Sin,” such as it is, is much less important than the subtlety and grace with which Ozick uses language to extend and deepen Eva’s relationship with Kerchek. His precise connection to Mara, who Eva comes to understand was also the nude model for a series of divan paintings he did in his prime, is the central pivot in the evolving understanding between the two artists, and also gives the story its title. “Only men sin,” Kerchek tells Eva. “Only women. It’s an innocent God who wakens ruin.”

Kerchek’s confidences first confound, then frighten Eva, who persists in her essential misapprehensions until a climactic confrontation in which Kerchek makes clear where things stand between him and Mara, and why he feels such guilt over the way he has treated her. Eva’s shock at her misunderstanding drives her back to her job as a server and back to the fence; “I have to go now,” she tells Kerchek. “I can’t stay.” We come to recognize her essential failing in one of Kerchek’s frustrated demands of her in his studio: “You don’t see, you don’t see? You with your eyes, you can’t see?”

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