Leo Gursky is expecting to die today—or maybe tomorrow. So he's busy thinking about his obituary.
He's certainly not busy cleaning house. His apartment is ridiculously cluttered. There is only a narrow path—like a baseball diamond—between "bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door" (1.1).
He is terrified of dying on a day when he has not been seen by another human being. So he forces himself to go out and, for example, intentionally drop things at the supermarket, so that at least a few folks will notice him.
Much of this fear stems from a time when his neighbor died and it was three days before anyone found her body.
His friend Bruno lives upstairs, and they check on each other often, finding excuses to make sure the other is alive and well. They've known each other since childhood.
Leo spends a little time recalling his past:
When he first arrived in America, the only person he knew was his second cousin, who was a locksmith. So Leo became a locksmith too.
Later, the cousin died and Leo took over the business. He sent half the profits to the cousin's widow, even after she got married again (to a doctor, no less).
All in all, he was a locksmith for over fifty years.
One day, Leo had a heart attack, and one-quarter of his heart muscle died (so, you know, you could say he literally has a broken heart).
Some years ago, Bruno tried to kill himself. Leo found his friend on the floor, next to an empty bottle of pills.
Leo grew up in a town called Slonim, "which was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia" (1.14).
He wanted to be a writer—it was the only thing he loved to do.
He wrote three books before he turned twenty-one, all of which have been lost.
There was only one person whose opinion he valued: a girl he was in love with. He gave her his first book, which she said was too realistic.
So he wrote another, a fantastical work, and she said that he shouldn't "make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything" (1.14).
So he started writing yet another book, "about the only thing [he] knew" (1.15). The girl moved to America, but still he continued writing the book.
Shortly after she left, World War II began, and with it came the persecution of Jews. Leo is in Slonim when the German tanks—the Einsatzgruppen—arrive. This is 1941.
Leo's mother urges him to flee into the woods. He stays there and hears shots from the village. Everyone in his family is killed.
Shortly after his heart attack (mentioned above), and fifty-seven years after writing the book for his love, he starts writing again. He knows he will never show it to anyone else. He writes 301 pages.
Back in Poland, after Leo's spent three-and-a-half years in hiding—"mostly in trees, but also cracks, cellars, holes" (1.34)—the Russian tanks arrive and the war ends. Leo leaves for America. He is twenty-five years old.
He arrives in New York and immediately goes to see his beloved. She is now married. And it turns out that, when she left Poland, she was pregnant with Leo's child.
She wrote him letters but Leo never responded, and she heard lots of stories of the Nazis killing Jews. She stopped going to work, and soon her boss's son came to visit and brought her flowers. A few months later she married him, and two years later they had another child.
She gives Leo a photograph of the boy, who is now five years old. His name is Isaac.
Leo asks her to come with him, but she says she can't. So he takes his hat and walks away.
Once upon a time, we are reminded, Leo promised never to love anyone else. He keeps his promise—not out of stubbornness or crazy loyalty, but because he can't help it.
Okay, so now we're back in the present. Leo has decided to pose as a nude model for an art class, as part of his "be seen by as many people as possible in case of death" thing.
The night before the class, he stands in front of the mirror and wishes he was a better looking fellow.
He describes the history of his non-handsomeness in great detail. Still, he says, over time, he became less and less hung up on it.
He wonders again who will be the first person to see him dead.
The next day he takes the bus to the art class. He arrives an hour early, since he assumed he would get lost on the way.
The address ends up being a sketchy old warehouse. Standing outside, he starts thinking that maybe he's going to be robbed and murdered.
But he isn't. It's really just an art class.
He is shown to a corner where there's a curtain he can change behind. He is terrified and regrets coming—"Suddenly I didn't care anymore about being seen" (1.44).
But then he remembers his most recent book and realizes that, although he thought he was writing it for himself, the truth is that he wants someone else to read it, too.
Then he steps out from behind the curtain and stands in front of the drawing class for what seems like hours. The teacher pays him fifteen dollars for his trouble.
He goes back to his apartment and falls asleep in his clothes.
In the middle of the night, he is woken by the phone ringing. It is someone needing a locksmith; the caller's locked out of his house.
Leo hesitates, saying he's retired, but the man is so disappointed that he finally relents and agrees to help the guy.
Again, it's the middle of the night—no buses—so he calls a car service. They send a limousine. It's pouring rain.
He gets to the guy's house and unlocks the door. They both go inside to dry off, and Leo walks over to the man's bookshelves to see if he has any of his son Isaac's books. He does.
Leo takes the opportunity to describe his favorite of his son's stories, called "Glass Houses." It goes like this:
There's an angel (yes, a real angel) that lives in downtown Manhattan. He can't remember why God put him on earth, so every night he talks to God and waits for an answer. He wanders around the city and sees so much suffering that he starts to think God's not such a good guy. Eventually he stops talking to God. One night he meets a man living under a bridge. He gets drunk and tells the man he's an angel, and (long story short) the guy gets mad and punches the angel, and the angel falls into the river and drowns. The end.
Leo keeps an index card in his wallet, just in case he dies. It reads: "MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" (1.96).
Leo looks at his son's photo on the book jacket and remembers the time he met his son at a book reading, but didn't have the guts to introduce himself.
Back in the unlocked house, the guy comes in and asks Leo if he knows Isaac's work. Leo says he's the author's father, but then changes his mind and says he's Isaac's uncle. And he then says okay so he's not really his uncle either.
He takes a cab home. It's three in the morning. He takes out the pages of the book he's been writing and decides to give the book a title: Words For Everything. Then he puts the pages in an envelope and writes his son's address on the front. He waits six hours for the post office to open and then leaves the apartment to go send the package.