The Magnificent Kornblatt
by Todd Schindler
Knowing what I know about Benjamin Kornblatt, I'll tell you a story. First, by way of explanation, let me say this: Civilizations disappear all the time and most of us will never know of them. Seven universes, seven kings, the rabbis tell us, were condemned to ruin before time began. As it is written: "God made many worlds and destroyed them until he made the present one."
That's all I can offer—an unhelpful rubric at best—because Kornblatt's tale always puzzled me. You see, just as water births bubbles which rise to the surface only to disappear, so the earth has bubbles, and Kornblatt was undoubtedly one of them. "We are only what our masters wish us to be," he used to say half-seriously, "and our masters only what we wish of them." Nonsense or magic, it's hard to judge. His was a queer case. Let me tell you.
Kornblatt was an intelligent man and had been a precocious boy, but with that certain type of philosophic bent and emotional sensitivity that often serve as a liability in this world rather than a blessing. He would have made a good librarian, or even a monk, his mother had said, removed from the roil and tumult of day-to-day existence. Yet at one time, he had been the proprietor of a rather successful camera shop, had made a nice living, and, while a bachelor, had many friends, both men and women. But a series of questionable personal and business decisions had bankrupted him and soon after, he moved out of his apartment, sold his car and his expensive furniture, pawned his small collection of Stieglitz originals, and dropped out of sight. Acquaintances and family members heard rumors from time to time: Kornblatt was in India, he was running an import-export business from a Bulgarian town on the Black Sea, he'd sequestered himself in an Orthodox yeshiva in Hebron. Someone even claimed to have sited him at the Vatican, sipping espresso with several important prelates. None of it was true, he had said upon his return years later, but he offered no further explanation.
What is known is that Kornblatt left and came back different. There was an otherworldliness about him, an aura of remoteness and inaccessibility that some mistook for stupidity or naïveté and others interpreted as intellectual pomposity. Whatever it was, it was alienating, and those closest to Kornblatt were frustrated by its manifestation. He could hold forth on any number of topics, but would often disengage in the middle of conversation, withdrawing into himself and muttering, only to perk up after several moments and return to discourse as if nothing had happened. He laughed at inappropriate times, made inappropriate comments, and occasionally insulted people in a particularly vicious and personal manner, all the while presenting an air of bemused serenity.
His condition, for that is what his younger sister Hannah called it, worsened over time, and his odd outbursts eventually gave way to a profound and troubling silence. So when Kornblatt approached Hannah, having been evicted from his boarding-house room, and asked to take up residence in the small unfurnished guest cottage in her backyard, she bowed, against her instinct, to familial obligation and concern for her stricken brother and consented, rationalizing that the arrangement might allow her to keep a closer eye on his malady and prevent him from doing himself harm.
They had never been close. Kornblatt was the oldest of three children; a younger brother, born four years after him, had died at the age of nine. Two years later, Hannah arrived, but by the time she was three, Kornblatt was gone, off to study architecture at university, then on to Paris, where he dabbled in painting and photography for several years. They saw each other only sporadically during that time, and even when Kornblatt returned to Los Angeles to live, he remained distant, an enigma, like a satellite with an obscure mission that occasionally drifted into her orbit, radiated humor and intelligence, then drifted off again. Still, Hannah had always cherished those meetings. She treated him more as one would treat a favorite uncle, and he, returning the favor, treated her like a niece. Then he vanished altogether. Now, she thought, he seemed like someone she had never known, a ghost in his skin, and it frightened her.
In the time Kornblatt had slipped away, Hannah had married, and although she had been unable to give birth to a child, she had settled into a life of comfortable domesticity. She worked days for the Parks Department, organizing athletic leagues for underprivileged children. Her husband, Daniel, an actuarian, was a gentle and naturally curious man who had a sympathetic affinity for Kornblatt and was willing to accept and even engage his eccentricities.
In the beginning, Kornblatt dined with them in the evenings, never speaking, but grunting assent or dissent whenever he was addressed with a question. Did you have a nice day today, Benjamin? Is it too hot in the guesthouse? Any luck looking for a job, Benjamin? Can I put you in touch with my friend Ruth?… She might be able to get you some work down at the Fotomat. After several weeks of this, Hannah's annoyance grew, and, with difficulty, she confronted him.
"Benjamin, I don't know what the trouble is," she said, "but to come in here every night, to eat the food I make you, and then to sit there speechless, like an infant—I just don't understand it."
Kornblatt said nothing.
"Are we doing something wrong?" she asked.
"Hannah—" Daniel began imploringly, but he was quickly silenced by his wife's upraised hand.
Hannah watched Kornblatt sympathetically, waiting for a response, waiting. "Benjamin?" Suddenly, she rose from her seat, her eyes welling with tears. "I can't take this," she sobbed, and walked off to the bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her. From that point on, Kornblatt took his meals in the guesthouse.
Todd Schindler, a former child star in Mexico, is a filmmaker and writer. He currently lives in New York City.