MY NAME IS Peter Ross, and I am not, emphatically, a nice man–at least, that is what some people say, and, to be honest, I should add, this is what I think about myself at times. There are several possibilities, I suppose, as to why I am so unpleasant. I have discussed them with various people in my life, particularly with my girlfriend Regina and with my shrink, Dr. Farb, and they think it has to do with the kind of life I lead (Regina) or my viewpoint (Farb). Regina says, for instance, that by working for the city administration I feel I am not successful enough in life, or that being in my forties I am going through a phase, or that I had the very bad luck of losing my mother at an early age.
“You say yourself, Peter, that you are always upset, always complaining, always angry,” Regina reminded me the other day as we sat on the steps of City Hall, starting, I guess, my recent big trouble. It was lunch time, and we wanted to enjoy fresh air and the sudden sunshine of May. Regina is a very pretty woman, and really quite reasonable, who also works for the mayor, in his secretarial pool.
“That’s got to be because of your life in general–to feel so strongly.”
I didn’t buy it for a minute.
“No, Regina. I won’t blame it on myself.”
Regina pouted, which made her look more sexy than she usually is.
“It is not me. I swear there is good cause, which has nothing to do with me. My god, Regina,” I started in. “We live in an world that’s gone absolutely mad. Nobody does any thinking for themselves, or if they do, it is only what they’ve been told to think–by the mind-scrubbers.”
At this, Regina groaned a little and rolled her eyes, modestly enough, but I wonder if she finally has had her fill of me, and if our relationship will not last much longer.
“The mind-scrubbers, Peter? Who are the mind-scrubbers? This is the first time I’ve heard that one. Is this going to be a conspiracy theory?”
“Who are the mind-scrubbers? Why they’re all around us. Everywhere.”
Regina made a face.
“You think I’m kidding? Well, I’m not. Let’s start with television, for instance. Whenever I’m in a rash mood and turn the damn thing on, what do I get? I get ads that tell us if we buy this automobile or that deodorant, we’ll be happy in life. That’s right–happy in life. On every channel, day in and day out. Bathroom cleaners, fabric softeners, peppermint gum–”
“Advertisements designed to scrub our minds away–”
“Peter, you’re being silly. You’re overdoing it.”
“Oh, am I?” I wondered if I was getting red in the face. “You don’t think people believe this endless nonsense?”
“No, I don’t think they do, at least, not as much as you’re making out. After all, everyone knows about advertising.”
I felt like I wanted to jump up and start walking about, back and forth, fast.
“Well, then, who needs to talk about advertising, Regina? You want to talk about more ‘serious’ subject matter? What about these biographies that they’re featuring now? Have you seen them recently?”
“I sit there sometimes, like a fool, watching and listening to these pieces of video claptrap that make actors and rock stars, politicians and CEO-s, into god-like creatures, American icons, for god’s sakes. When the truth of the matter is that these people are actually egomaniacs or drug addicts, or rapacious, garden-variety robber barons.”
“Or if their actual characters are admitted, we’re told that we’re supposed to be sympathetic towards them, to be understanding, and be terribly impressed that they have overcome their bad behavior. We are to be proud of them, praise them for overcoming their shocking egoism or addiction or money madness, now that they are on the advice of their handlers, donating a little bit of their money to good causes.” I tried to catch my breath. “Mind-scrubbing. Mind-scrubbing, Regina, all of it. I’m not fooled.”
“You’re really serious, aren’t you, Peter?”
“You bet I am. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s even worse.”
“Good god, what else?”
“I think the mind-scrubbing is virtually everywhere. It’s part of our culture, or has become part of our culture–I haven’t figured it all out yet. Everybody does it. And I’m not just talking about ordinary people putting their spin on things, the best spin they can on things from time to time. That’s okay, that’s just human nature. We just want to feel a little good about ourselves, or we don’t want to go stark raving mad over reality or the reality of our lives. I can understand that. Hell, I do that. We can’t every minute of our lives concede that we’re ugly or dull-witted or have made simply disastrous mistakes. But what I’m talking about, Regina, is the general cynicism among people who know better, who know exactly what they’re doing, who know that they are being about as disingenuous, as exploitative as they can be. They are on the move, they are the movers and shakers, the ones who would be winners at all costs, the aggressive, me-first souls who are defining our society, who are turning us all, all of us, by their example or out of necessity, into a society of hustlers and hucksters, hustling and huckstering each other…”
Regina sighed deeply.
“…a whole damned society of people scrubbing and scrubbing away at each others brains!”
I stopped. Spent, I guess.
Regina looked at me, sadly, real sorry for me, and very worried. She stood up, gathering her pocketbook and lunch things together.
“I don’t know what to say, Peter,” she told me.
I studied her face. “Do you agree with me?”
“I…I…don’t know. You make everything all sound so terrible.”
“…Yes. I know. I think that’s fair to say. Don’t you think I’m right?”
“I don’t know, Peter. I don’t know.” Regina stood up, and I thought to myself that I would not like very much losing her. “Actually, the only thing I’m sure about is that I’m worried about you, Peter. Worried for you.” She studied me closely. “You really feel this way? I mean, do you really believe everything you just said?”
“I think I do. Yes.”
“Terrific,” she said, softly, shaking her head, and walking away from me.
When Regina had gone, I went back to work at City Hall, up into the converted attic of the building, where my desk was, more than a little shaky, I had to admit. Sylvie, my co-worker on Special Events, was on the telephone, continuing to make arrangements for the annual cultural festival coming up in two months. When she got off the phone, she asked me about my lunch.
“I think I got a little too emotional,” I told her. “Regina walked away from me.”
Sylvie was in her fifties, and had worked for the administration for a number of years longer than I had. “Really, Peter, you got a little emotional?” she asked me, having some fun.
“Yes,” I said, trying to go along with her. “Sometimes, I can be a little difficult to take, you know.”
“Hmmm?” Sylvie grinned. “I hadn’t noticed.”
I smiled, not greatly amused.
Suddenly, Sylvie grew serious. “Well, let me give you something else to think about, darling. While you were gone, I got some gossip from downstairs.”
“What kind of gossip?”
“Hold on to your hat, Peter. The mayor is already starting to gear up for his re-election, and once again he’ll want us all to work on his campaign for him.”
I cringed. “God, is it that time again?”
“It is, my dear. You know the routine. He’ll be wanting us to make phone calls, stuff envelopes, strong-arm people…”
I started to breathe deeply.
“All for the cause, you know. His cause.”
“Sylvie, I just work for the City, that’s all,” I said to her. “I’m a crummy worker-bee. I help to make arrangements for community events.”
“You work for the mayor, Peter.”
I was silent.
“I just wish…”
“You just wish what?” Sylvie asked me. “You wish you could work for someone better than the mayor? It bothers you that you are part of his plan to make his career triumphant in local, and then state, politics?”
“Sylvie,” I protested.
“Why, Peter? What’s the matter? The mayor’s only following in his daddy’s footsteps. It’s all been planned. Long ago. Probably when you were still a little kid.”
“I think you’re cruel.”
“Oh, it gets better. Much better.”
“Now what?” I started to stiffen.
“Peter…” Sylvie’s voice was very serious now, even cautious. “I’ve heard that he’s even thinking of making anybody who works for him register in the party. If you plan to work for him, and you’re not in the party, you lose your job.”
“Yes. He may very well mean it. If you’re not in the party, you lose your job.”
“But…but, Sylvie,” I sputtered. “I can’t do that. I just can’t do that. I can’t join the party. I can help to make cultural events happen. But I can’t join the party. Dear God, I just can’t be part of these people. They are not my friends, not my brothers, not my group, whatever you want to call it. We have nothing in common.”
“Well, sweet stuff,” Sylvie said, also, like Regina, looking at me concerned, worried. “Then you may very well have to find another line of work. Won’t you? And is that what you really want, Peter?”
For the next few weeks, after this delightful little revelation by Sylvie, I found myself playing a rather debilitating, delightful, little game with myself. On the one hand of course, I thought about nothing else than the real possibility that I would have to lose my job, my work, my livelihood. But, on the other, I completely denied the approaching reality and didn’t think about it at all. I made no plans, no contingencies. I simply went about my business as if nothing would ever really happen, dumbly, in shock, totally paralyzed, I suppose.
One evening, my sister Dorothy phoned and asked if I would come to a party she was having for family and friends to meet my niece’s–her daughter’s–fiancé. At first, I didn’t want to go. As you can well imagine by now, I’m not exactly the quintessential house-party type. People are usually smart enough to leave my name off a list of guests happy to sit around and chit-chat, holding drinks and devouring munchies. Besides, I’d never had that much in common with my niece, who understandably was far more interested in Bergdorf-Goodman’s, if the truth be told, than she was in a strange, ratty, little uncle. But my sister was very insistent.
“Peter, you never accept any invitations. Do you ever go anywhere? Do you have a life?”
“…well, Dorothy, I…I do date Regina…,” I reminded her.
“Yes, but I want you to meet Candy’s Kyle and his family. You must do this for me. I very much want all MY family to meet all HIS family, right up front. You can understand that, can’t you? I want everything to go completely perfectly for Candy.”
I thought of my niece Candace, and couldn’t imagine life not going ‘completely perfectly’ for her. She was twenty-two, a beautiful blond girl–there was no arguing the point–and already well-placed in her father’s business. My brother-in-law’s firm was the largest kitchen cabinet manufacturer in the state.
“Peter, you must do this for me. You’re the only sibling I’ve got. I don’t ask you much.”
There was no getting out of it. “All right. All right, Dorothy,” I told her. “I’ll…come.”
When I hung up the phone, I told myself that perhaps the house party would be something of a diversion for me at this particular moment in my life.
That Friday evening Regina and I got into Regina’s car–I don’t own one myself–and drove outside of town to where my sister lived, in a really quite exclusive neighborhood. We drove around lots of hilly circles of roads, passing one huge and extravagant home after another, desperately following the directions my sister had given me, since it had been so long since I’d last visited her. Finally, we made a sharp turn, I recognized my sister’s house, and Regina parked the car at the end of a long line of other guests’ cars. Getting out of the car, Regina and I looked at each other. Even though it was dark, we could see enough of Dorothy’s house to be duly impressed. The house was a big, brick, Georgian affair, a very broad, three-story structure that seemed to move out from its center to wing after wing. As we walked up the driveway, Regina suddenly gave my hand a little squeeze, as if she were trying to comfort me.
Inside, the house, which consisted of airy rooms opening onto each other, was very crowded with guests. It was clear they were virtually all bright, well-off, good-looking people, going busily–successfully–about their lives. I scanned the room to locate my sister, or her husband or her daughter, and after a few moments saw the three at the far end of the room I was in, very animated, happily chatting. Regina asked if we should make our way across the room and let my sister know that we had arrived, but I declined.
“Oh, she’ll catch up to us sooner or later,” I told Regina. “Besides, I suspect she already quite well knows that we are here.”
Just then I felt someone take me by the arm and, turning, a bit surprised, I saw my brother-in-law, Harold, a big, hairy, brown-haired man, a man obviously satisfied with his position in life.
“Peter,” he said, in his booming voice, seeming to be very pleased. “Dorothy did manage to get you here. Good. Good.”
Harold looked at Regina, and I introduced them.
“May I get you two a drink? Has someone offered you anything to eat yet? The hors-d’oeuvres are fantastic, the best money can buy, I can tell you…”
Harold caught sight of a couple seated on a divan, just a few feet back and to one side of us. “And can I introduce you to the Donaldsons?” Harold made his next remark for the Donaldsons as well. “Peter, the Donaldsons are two of best people I know. All the way from Texas. Their home’s in Dallas, or Fort Worth, or something like that. ‘Tex’ sells my cabinets there.”
Harold moved us to them.
“Hello, ‘Tex.’ Hello, Betty Jean,” he said. “Let me introduce you to my brother-in-law and his friend.”
The Donaldsons rose, and we shook hands. Betty Donaldson giggled. She was a skinny, edgy woman in her fifties. “Oh, Harold, we’re from Dallas, Harold. You know that.”
“Of course. Of course, I know that, Betty,” Harold said,” taking her by the arm. “I was just teasing you.”
Already, Harold was starting to look away. Someone or something else had caught his attention.
“Well, my friends,” he said to the four of us. “Now that I’ve introduced you, let me leave you people to all get to know one another. And remember, if you need anything–food, drinks, whatever–just let me know.”
To my horror, the Donaldsons almost immediately began talking about themselves and Texas. Betty Jean Donaldson said that she had originally been from Fort Worth, but had lived all of her adult life in Dallas.
“Though if I had to choose between Fort Worth and Dallas,” Betty Jean explained, “I’d live in Dallas.”
“Of course you’d live in Dallas,” her husband ‘Tex’ said. He was well over six-foot, lean, a little stooped over. “That’s where all your stuff is, Betty Jean. Where your home and kids and friends are.”
Betty Jean giggled again, after considering what ‘Tex’ had pointed out.
Then ‘Tex’ turned to me. “Though I tell you, Pete, it doesn’t really matter. Any place in Texas is great. I know you think I’m prejudiced when I say this, but Texas IS the greatest place on earth.” ‘Tex’ leaned toward me, his arm on the arm rest of the divan. “We’ve got some real big things there. Big, big oil fields. Big companies. Big people. Hell, we’ve got the biggest people I know. Good people. Down home people. Country people, but real big people. You know what I mean, Pete?”
I wasn’t sure what to answer. Betty Jean spoke up again, talking, it seemed to me, mostly to her husband.
“But it really isn’t just good people in Texas, ‘Tex.’ It’s special people. Extra special. Do you have people like that in this part of the country, Mr. Roth? Miss Regina? Extra special people?”
As Betty Jean Donaldson spoke, my attention–I suppose, to my shame–began to wander. Glancing around the room, which now was filled more than ever with people, prosperous and self-assured, I noticed my sister with her daughter and a young man I took to be Candy’s soon-to-be fiancé. They seemed getting ready to speak to everyone, and sure enough a few moments later Dorothy was tapping on a wine glass, wanting the attention of people in the room and the surrounding rooms. She held a wireless microphone in her hand and spoke into it. I wondered if she had had too much to drink.
“Hello, hello,” my sister cooed, laughing softly, looking around her. “I’d like to make an announcement. Actually, I’d like to introduce you all to someone you already know…my daughter Candy.”
People began to break off their conversations and turn towards Dorothy.
“As you know, I’ve invited you all here tonight to meet someone very important in Candy’s life these days.”
Dorothy looked fondly at the two young people, and then back to her audience.
“But I want Candy to do the talking,” my sister said, just the slightest bit tipsy. “Candy? Candy?”
Candy, who had been whispering to another young woman standing near her, turned to her mother.
“Candy, I’d like you to tell all these nice people out here about Kyle.”
Reaching out, Candy took her fiancé by the hand, smiled broadly at everyone now facing her, and began.
“Well, the first thing I want to say is, this handsome man next to me is Kyle Farnan, and…” Candy paused deliberately, and then rushed ahead. “…he’s just the greatest guy around.”
Dorothy began to clap, and others followed her lead, a little unsure, but willing to go along with her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Candy continued. “I’m proud to tell you Kyle already has his B.S. degree, and a Master’s from The Wharton School.” Now she clapped. “And…and, at his firm, he’s already making policy decisions!” She clapped a second time, and somewhat uncertain again, people followed her lead.
“How about that?” Candy asked, smiling proudly. Then she switched to a comic conspiratorial tone. “And the best thing about him is…he does what I tell him to! How about that?”
“Only kidding, only kidding,” Candy said, laughing, too.
Seeming to enjoy Candy’s joke, Kyle Farnan took the microphone from her. He was a tall, real handsome fellow, I had to give him that, clearly a well brought up young man by very doting parents. It was obvious that he had not been ill-treated by life in any way, so far, and that the future would be a wonderful time for him.
“Is it my turn?” he asked his audience, grinning, confident. “No, seriously, folks…the person who is the really greatest around here is…ol’ Candy herself.” Kyle made like a master-of-ceremonies at a beauty contest. “Check her out…drop-dead beautiful, always in the latest styles, already on her way at her father’s company, shaping up the human resources management program there. Can you believe it? See what I mean? The one to applaud, folks, is surely not me, but our little Candy.” And Kyle started to clap.
When all this was over, people went back to partying, nibbling their hors-d’oeurves and finger food, sipping their drinks. After a few minutes, I glanced over at Regina to see if I could find anything in her demeanor to suggest that perhaps we could leave early. She looked at me carefully non-committal, maybe a bit apprehensive.
Suddenly, my sister was beside us, or, rather, above us as we sat on her couch, with Candy and Kyle Farnan in tow. She seemed very pleased, and pleased with herself. She had a drink in her hand now, and I could see ol’ Dorothy was indeed on her way to getting drunk.
“Well, hot stuff,” she said to me, for starters, amused rather than belligerent–at least, for the moment. “I see you deigned to show up after all.”
I didn’t saying anything to this.
“Well, what do you think? We’re not so bad, are we?”
I still didn’t say anything.
My sister back off a little, and addressed everyone, holding up her drink. “Actually, if I do say so myself, I think we’re pretty good.”
She looked at me, wondering how come I had not yet taken the bait.
“Don’t you think so, Peter? When you look around, couldn’t you really call us the hoi-polloi? And don’t you think these to kids here are where the action is?”
“They sure are,” I said, dryly, finally.
“Where our future lays?”
I struggled not to lose control, despite myself.
“You bet…just where the future lies.”
“Where the future is in good hands?”
But slowly, I started to come apart.
“Absolutely. In great hands, Sis.”
Dorothy saw she had a little something at last.
“I’m so glad you agree.” She addressed the room, and raised her glass. ” My little brother the genius agrees, everyone.”
With that, I couldn’t hold on.
“Under a little duress,” I muttered.
She jumped. “What’s that?”
“Under a little duress,” I said louder.
To my astonishment, Dorothy suddenly seemed murderous. How much must I have angered her over time.
“Just what do you mean, Peter?”
I sighed, looked at Sylvie, who was at once alarmed and displeased. Then I let go completely.
“I mean, Dorothy, that you’ve got to be kidding.” I repeated myself, to my sorrow. “You’ve just got to be kidding. If all this is the future, if this scene here is the future…I’d have to shoot myself.”
Stricken, probably pretty amazed by just how far I’d go, Dorothy recoiled. “You bastard, Peter,” she said to me. “You bastard. You really are a bastard, you know?”
“Thanks,” I told my sister.
On the way home, Regina would hardly talk to me. I had been afraid of that from the moment I lost control at my sister’s. I asked her if I weren’t justified to have said what I did, but she only shook her head and looked at me as if she couldn’t understand how I could be the way I was. I pleaded with her not to be angry with me.
“I’m not angry with you, Peter,” she said, coldly.
The next day I tried to be in touch with Regina by phone. I tried not to think of what had happened after what I told my sister. Dorothy had become even more furious with me, and a few other people had said things to me as well. The Donaldsons seemed horrified, and Howard, I think, seriously considered taking a swing at me. In the end, Dorothy told me that the more she thought about it, the more she would be happy probably never to see me again, at least not for a long time. She said she thought I was truly nuts. No matter how many times I tried, I could not get Regina on the phone, and by the end of the day I started to panic and thought that Regina wasn’t going to have me in her life anymore, either. I even thought of going over to where she worked and asking her if our relationship was over. But I resisted doing that, as hard as resisting was. After all, a big hint is a big hint.
For the next few days, mostly what I could think of was to go over again and again what I was doing, what I was feeling. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I was taking the wrong view of everything. Maybe the world wasn’t crazy, maybe it was me. Except for work, I stayed in my apartment and tried to figure things out, or at night walked around the streets when I could no longer stand being alone in my apartment. Because I lived in the city, and not in the suburbs like most of the people I knew and worked with, I took to walking down the hill where my apartment house is all the way to the river and back up again, talking to myself.
By the end of the week, on top of everything else, and particularly with what might be going on with my job, I found myself–where God knows I had been before–as jumpy as a cat. I existed in this strange state where I looked out on the world, looked out on other people and wondered how they could be going about their business, how they could be happy, normal, how they could be thinking of me as normal, when secretly I was so scared that my world was just about out of control.
“How can you be treating me as if nothing were wrong?” I wanted to say to everyone. “Though thank God, you are. Thank God for something. It calms me down, I guess. But, the truth is I am not all right. I can’t get the world to stop moving–or what I mean is, I can’t get myself to stabilize, to stop shaking. I may have to go to Dr. Farb again, and I don’t want to do that.”
One look at Sylvie’s face when I got to work on Friday made it clear I was in for more trouble. But before I could ask her exactly what was going on, she turned and pointed to the television set we kept in the office to monitor the media coverage of our special events. Our boss, his Honor Mayor Hugh Williams, of course a presidential-looking man of about forty, was on the TV. The camera was up close on him, and his head filled the television screen.
“He’s announcing his candidacy,” Sylvie told me.
I leaned against my desk and listened to the mayor. The look on his face was very serious, sincere, and intense.
“My friends,” he was saying. “My friends, I have announced my candidacy to once again be your mayor because it is very important that I do so. This candidacy is not about me. It’s about you. It’s important that I continue the good work that I began for you nearly four years ago.”
Mayor Williams paused for emphasis, contracted his brow a bit to exhibit his concern, and went on.
“Let me take this time to tell you about it. First, it was honest. My administration has been an honest administration, for I believe honesty is indeed the best policy. If you’re honest, everything else will follow along.” The mayor paused again, and then went on again. “Second, my track record is clear. It is not hard to see that my administration has had energy. From the first day, it has had energy. No, not energy, more than energy. I would call it spirit. Yes, that’s it–spirit. I kind of energy plus. And I know you have seen this energy in everything I and my people have done. The record is clear.”
Sylvie glanced back at me.
“Third,” the mayor said, moving on. “As you all know, as you all can clearly see, even my opponents, my administration has had vision. Vision. That’s what has really set it apart from other administrations. Mere politicians have their agenda, their little plans that benefit their own personal careers and the welfare of their cronies. But I, Hugh Williams, a true friend of the people, all of the people, know where I want to go, where I want to lead this city. I’m thinking as a leader of the new millennium, not looking backward, but keen to the challenges of a new age, ready to accept the challenges of a new age, ready to seize the day that is upon us!”
The mayor stopped, visibly moved by his intensity and passion, as if he had been to the mountain top, and then his face relaxed and he smiled, a smile of great, apparent love. He took a deep breath, readied himself for the next phase of his announcement speech, and began.
“Now let me share with you, my friends, my thoughts on the kind of program my opponents will soon, I know–it is inevitable–will soon unfairly present to you…”
“Turn it off, Sylvie, please,” I asked her. I think I was shaking, and I think Sylvie noticed, for she dutifully left her desk, walked to the television set rather quietly and did indeed turn it off. Then she turned to me.
“Peter, he wants everyone to have signed on with the party by the close of the working day today. It’s all been arranged. You must be a party member by five o’clock. I was given a list of personnel they know are not members. At least, not yet. You, of course, are on the list. You’re supposed to go over to headquarters between three and five and join up. They’re very serious, Peter. It has to happen. And today.”
“What?” It was as if I didn’t understand.
“You have to join the party. Today. This afternoon.”
I sat down, behind my desk. “That can’t be, Sylvie.”
Sylvie’s voice was quiet. “Yes, it can, Peter. It most certainly can.”
“But I’m not going to do it. I can’t do it.”
“You have to, Peter.”
I looked around the room, the room where I had worked for ten years–Sylvie’s desk and papers, my desk and papers, the ceiling arching down on two sides, because, as I said earlier, we really were in the attic of the city hall building. The television set mounted on the wall, our computers, the reference books on my desk, the Impressionist magazine reproductions scotch-taped on the walls–now suddenly all old friends, comforters, essentials to my sanity. I stood up.
“Is there no way around it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“There must be.”
Sylvie didn’t speak further.
“I can’t do it, Sylvie,” I told her, and left the room.
Downstairs, I found a phone booth, feeling oddly separated from the old man there who acted as a guard, from the few visitors crossing the marble of the first floor, from the young interns chatting near the information booth.
“Hello? Dr. Farb, please?”
It was his receptionist’s voice, Phyllis, already on guard. “Who is this?”
“I want to speak to Dr. Farb. Is he there?”
Phyllis was tough. “Who is this please? Are you one of Dr. Farb’s patients? Would you like to make an appointment, sir?”
“Is he there?”
“What is your name, sir?”
“Is he there?” I nearly whimpered. “Please, tell me if he’s there.”
Leaving city hall, I caught a bus uptown to where Dr. Farb had his office. When I got to his building, I could see Phyllis at her receptionist’s desk, behind the wall with the little window cut into it, designed I suddenly realized, for safety and protection against distraught clients. Looking up from some forms she was working with as I came up to the window, Phyllis stared at me, smiling routinely, but perhaps a bit confused.
“Oh…Mr. Ross.” She furrowed her brow. “Did you by any chance call Dr. Farb earlier? About half an hour ago?
Somebody called, and after thinking about it, I thought it was you.”
Several feet behind her and off to the far side of the area was Farb himself, standing, reading a chart. He, too, looked up, very curious.
I ignored Phyllis. “Dr. Farb? Dr. Farb? I have to see you. Now. Please.”
Phyllis and Farb glanced at each other.
Slowly, Farb nodded to Phyllis, and then addressed me. “What is the matter, Peter?
“I have to see you.”
“I DO have clients, Peter.”
“Let me talk to you. Just for a few minutes.”
Farb thought for a long while. Phyllis watched his face as attentively as I did. “All right,” he said, finally, and then spoke to Phyllis.
“Phyllis, tell people I am with Mr. Ross.”
“And let Mr. Ross in.”
Phyllis pressed a button that unlocked the door to the rest of the facility.
“Come into my office, Peter. A few minutes.”
I followed him down the hall, into his office, a place I knew well.
Farb sat down in a leather chair near a coffee table and motioned for me to sit in another one. I couldn’t sit. I stood, and Farb prepared to take notes.
“What is the trouble, Peter? Why must you see me now?”
Farb seemed wary. Not that I blamed him. “Is it the usual?” Did he seemed annoyed with me, bored?
I looked at him, and realized I was trying to catch my breathe. It must have seemed pitiful to him.
“I…I…it is…the usual. Yes, the usual.” My life captured in his banal word. “Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Peter, we’ve talked about this several times now. You’ve got to come to terms with it.”
“I know that, doctor. God, I know that. Why do you think I’m here?”
He seemed very alert, caught somewhere between his superiority, his boredom, his safety.
I leaned forward and put my hands on the back of one of his expensive, leather chairs.
“You’ve got to understand, doctor. This isn’t the usual that I have to come to terms with. As weird as it seems, everywhere I go I see and hear this disgraceful scrubbing of minds. I know I’m wrong. Good God, I know I’m wrong, but everyone is hustling, pushing their point of view, their own ego needs, their own self-defenses, desires, agenda. The truth doesn’t matter. People just want to get on, with whatever it is that is important to them. They want to sell products, if they’re merely expedient or cynical, or create a vision about themselves, if they want to seem heroically good to their adoring society, or just be better positioned, if they’re like you and me–to be better liked, better respected, better in sync with what they believe about themselves. I can’t process it all, it’s so all around me. I try to ignore it. But there’s no ignoring it. I try to go about my business, but one can’t ignore or avoid the world one exists in!”
I tried to catch my breath, and not too much alarm him. “I don’t want to be unhappy. I don’t want to cause trouble, not for you, or Regina, or my sister, or myself. I want to be happy, Dr. Farb. I so much want to be happy. You wouldn’t believe it. I don’t want you to say, is it the usual, Peter?”
Dr. Farb looked at me, almost warily, I thought. Was he alarmed, afraid for himself? I tried to calm down, though I just couldn’t manage it. I tried to sit down in the chair I was holding onto, but I popped up out of it again.
“Peter,” Farb said, rather slowly, given the nature of our encounter at the moment, given the nature of me at the moment. “Have we ever talked about medication? Maybe that’s what we should do at this point. I didn’t want to bring it up, but now it seems to me that something may be appropriate. You know there are many very useful medications these days. They are really quite wonderful, I think it’s fair and even appropriate to say. There are so many people who they help function. So many people who don’t have to hurt any more, feel the kind of pain you feel. What do you think, Peter? Let me prescribe some medication for you at this point. I have thought that perhaps we could talk it out, that you could learn to come to terms with what upsets you so much. Remember how often we’ve spoken of your need to draw boundaries, to have limits? I thought that was the way to advise you, but I think we should move on at this point. Shouldn’t we?”
I stared at him, and grew even more upset, in the end even unfair to him. “What kind of a man are you, Dr. Farb? What would you have me do? We are dealing here with a fundamental problem of our society, aren’t we? Is it me? Is it something to be dealt with by drugs? This is a matter of perceiving reality, not of soothing me. Someone has to say something, don’t they? Though I am not the one, though I don’t have the strength, somebody has to do something? Surely, that is so? I want you to help me. I want more than to be told to draw boundaries, whatever that means. I don’t want to be given more drugs. Please, please, please, please…”
As I went on, humiliating myself, disgorging the ontological poison in my system, I wondered if Dr. Farb weren’t going to push a button somewhere and have a covey of white-uniformed men rush into the room to restrain me from causing the good doctor bodily harm.
“I can’t help you, Peter,” he said to me, looking me carefully in the eye.
I returned the gaze, some crazed animal, I venture.
“I know…I know.”
I left Farb’s office and its building, passing by Phyllis, who smiled blandly at me, thinking me, I’m sure, just another lunatic her boss dealt with. Outside, on the broad, tree-lined avenue, under a sunshine blue sky of late Spring afternoons, I looked for the bus that would take me back downtown–to my office, to my home, to the pressing realities of my day and my apparently unfortunate life. I glanced, rather sadly, at the this quintessential, outer-city scene, this old-time suburban place, and felt so forlorn, so alienated from its assertion of comfort, stability, sanity. Everything is all right, the scene seemed to be saying. Nothing can be too terribly wrong, as long as scenes such as what is before you exist. And my heart, the wretched heart of Peter Ross, yearned for the comfort–the blessing of consolation–that it asserted.
Not even watching for traffic, I crossed the avenue, familiar enough with the neighborhood to know that a bus would most likely be on its way soon. It was now a little after four o’clock. I had less than an hour to get to party headquarters, to choose, I may fancifully say, to fashion my particular destiny. It came to me to wonder where a phone booth was. I wanted to try to get in touch again with Regina, to hear perhaps something familiar and warm, in her voice. Where was she? Why had she not called me? Had I really offended her so much, taken her beyond where she could go? I yearned for her physical presence beside me, to be in her arms. How could she abandon me, when I most needed her? Was she at her desk at work? Of course she was. Or, maybe, she was not. Maybe she was out somewhere, functioning without me, living her life without me, bringing happiness to herself and to someone else, opting for some goodly measure of peace, complacency even–and why not? People above all want peace. Isn’t that right? Not truth. For what’s truth anyway? Who really knows, when you get down to it? What maddens me, for instance, doesn’t exist for the fellow next to me, huh?
Spying a public phone booth a half block away, I ran to it. I dug into my pocket, found change, and called Regina’s work number. I held my breath as the phone rang. Once, twice–no cause for concern. Three, four–I began to grow fearful. Five, six–she was not going to be there. Or she knew somehow it was me calling her and was not going to answer her phone for me. Where could she be? Have I really lost her? Have I really done so much bad that I have lost her?
After several more unanswered rings, I hung up the phone. I could see my bus coming.
I got off the bus a few blocks from city hall, which was a short walk through the buildings of the downtown municipal center. To my astonishment, as I walked along, pieces of my life actually passed before my mind’s eye, which really shocked me, and made me wonder if some way I weren’t approaching some kind of death. Suddenly, of all things, I thought of myself in high school, of my father raking leaves off the lawn of our little house, of my sister sitting on our stoop in the early evening with her boyfriends, of my mother–God bless her departed, cancer-defeated body and soul–making sandwiches in our kitchen for our school lunches. Two blocks from city hall, I asked myself where was I going, why I was returning to my job? Was there nowhere else for me to go? Was I going to walk into that converted-attic room and continue to argue a moot point with Sylvie, as if she were the one who needed convincing? What was I doing? Was I really mindlessly on my way to convince her, my fellow office worker friend, as unimportant as I, why I couldn’t sign my name to a piece of paper, that she had nothing to do with in the first place? Explain once again to her, fatuously, why I couldn’t fall in line behind our mayor?
About a block from city hall, I heard some music, the music of a small band, a small brass band. I could make out trumpets, playing slowly, softly, soulfully. Yet they were also playing with triumph, as if underscoring and underpinning the feelings and thoughts of the little group of people listening appreciatively to the music, a little group of colored people dressed in their best clothing, their church and formal-occasions clothing. Mostly there were middle-aged people, men in dark suits and women in bright, print dresses, who I realized as I got closer to them were singing low the plaintive notes of prayer. In their midst were a few very old people, clutching prayer beads and small, black Bibles. They were all standing and staring in the direction of an official-looking man behind a podium, who, I noticed was alongside a small monument with a plaque of someone’s sculptured face, underneath which were carved a few, apparently commemorative words.
Glancing at my watch, I crossed the street, to be closer to what I now understood was a dedicatory ceremony, however modest, however almost shy.
As I stepped onto the sidewalk and found my place among the colored celebrants, the man behind the podium began to speak. He was a large man, with a full white beard, a man of dignity, but palpably also a man of thoughtfulness.
“Brothers and sisters,” he began, in his deep voice. “You know that we are gathered together here this glorious day to honor our own…Miss Annie Mae Murchison. We are here today to pay tribute to her with this monument that shall forever mark her many, many accomplishments. Day after day, month after month, year after year, people will pass by this little spot of city ground, given over to her memory, and know the kind of blessed soul she was.”
The gentleman paused and wiped his brow, smiling beneficently at his audience.
“Now I don’t want to bore you with no long speech,” he resumed. “I don’t want to take from the celebration of Miss Annie Mae. But I do want to record for posterity, to make it known publicly, something of who this kind, little lady was. I want to tell to those souls out there who don’t quite know, or to remind those who do, how from the time she was a young woman sister Annie Mae labored unceremoniously for her community, labored for over sixty years. In my mind, I see her caring for our sick, comforting our old ones, teaching our children. I see her knocking on door after door, asking for donations for our church–for the church that was to be built. I see the great, broad grin on her black face when we overcame.” He spoke very slowly, punctuating his statement. “When we overcame trouble, poverty, discouragement, injustice. When we overcame… That smiling, black face that broke your heart to see it and reminded you why you were alive, what work there was to do, what good work there was to do, that took you out of yourself.”
The gentleman shifted his weight, to ready himself for his valedictory point.
“Brothers and sisters, I remember what my mother once said to me a very long time ago about Miss Annie Mae. ‘Son of mine’, she said to me. ‘That little coal black lady, that peoples don’t even see, so little you look right over and by her, that nobody pays no mind, has been chosen by God. She has been touched by God. She has been given a gift. Yes, that’s right, a gift. Keep your eye and mind and spirit on her, son, for there is deliverance in her every step, in her every word.'”
The man stopped and sighed. I looked as closely as I could at the plaque that held the sculptured likeness of Miss Annie Mae Murchison’s face and some few words that I couldn’t make out. There was some shuffling among the audience, and then the gentleman held out his hand towards a lady on his right. She was very, very old, in her eighties, I guessed, also a small woman, very black, dressed in a hat with a long, colored feather attached to it. She was happy, shyly grinning, giggling almost, her eyes literally bright and shining.
“And now,” the gentleman said. “I want to bring Miss Annie Mae’s sister up to me. I want the lady to stand before us and receive our appreciation.” He looked to the little old lady. “Come on up, Miss Gloria, come on over here.” He continued to hold out his hand.
Ever so slowly, still grinning, giggling now, eyes still shining, Miss Gloria made her way, shuffling carefully to the gentleman, the podium and the monument, helped by a man and a woman, each holding her by the arm. The people in the audience began to clap, and, suddenly I found myself clapping, as furtively as I could manage it.
“Miss Gloria, accept this gift of our love for Miss Annie,” the gentleman asked her.
The little old woman reached his side and collected herself, straightening up as best she could and looking out upon the audience. She blinked her eyes a few times, steadied herself, and spoke in one of the most kind and frail voices I’ve ever heard.
“Pastor Thomas, I do thank you for my sister… though…” Miss Gloria continued to smile and giggle nervously. “I don’t know…how she’d take all this. Annie Mae was a simple woman…and she made no fuss about herself…My sister, God rest her soul in the deepest rest, just wanted to help people…she didn’t seem to care about anything else…that’s all there was to her…she just wanted to help people…”
A few minutes later, the crowd dispersed, leaving me alone on the sidewalk in front of Miss Annie Mae’s monument. Some people looked at me curiously, but didn’t pay too much attention, which I was happy about. I had an impulse to talk to someone, to one or two in the audience, to introduce myself, but I resisted. I simply stood there dumbly, gazing at Ms. Annie’s sculptured face. It was now nearing five o’clock. I would be soon losing my job. I had no idea where Sylvie was. My sister had lost all kindness for me, I suspected. Perhaps Dr. Farb would never see me again.
As best I could, I resisted the impulse to drop upon my knees.
Instead I held my hands in front of me, clasped, hardly noticeable as clasped, elbows close to my side, and began to talk to Miss Annie Mae.
“Ma’am,” I began to her. “Teach me to be like you. Teach me your secrets. For I cannot do it by myself. I so want to be happy. I so want to walk through my life, my day, and feel that I am not doing something terribly wrong, thinking something terribly wrong. Miss Annie Mae, be my guide, be my teacher. Please, Miss Annie Mae. Please. Please. Please.”
Once I Saw The Calypso Star
I MUST TELL you at the outset–it is very important to my little story and to its point–that my life has not gone well, did not go well, I suppose, I should say, now that there is really no way I can avoid understanding that it is on the way down the metaphoric hill. Things just did not turn out as I would have liked, as anybody would have liked. Simply, honestly, I never was quite good enough, blame it on luck, fate, genetics, my lack of enough will, whatever. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but my career turned out to be quite undistinguished, my marriage indifferent, my children pleasant and suitable enough, though no more. The good Lord knows, if indeed there is one, I wanted to be someone, I wanted so much to do something special, extraordinary, worthy of pride in my life. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have at last been a captain of industry, a painter or composer whose works would never be forgotten, an inventor, an athletic champion, a leader of my people? But when I look back over my life, to scrutinize it for its meaning, its nature, none of these triumphs is there, not remotely. In my weakness, I have even, in my darkest moments–to my incontrovertible shame–almost wished for a great war in my lifetime, to be able in my old age to look back on acts of extreme danger and courage, of heartbreaking partings, of disconcerting beauty and, again, of meaning. I stand here at this beach, on this boardwalk, where I come habitually, leaning upon a rail, and stare at the ocean of perpetual wave and roar, of course both an intimation of eternity and my own mortality, unable to resist its seduction to philosophic contemplation. It is early October, the beach is cold, and my only companions, except for a few human malingerers like myself, are the noisy sea birds.
All this having been said, though, something, one thing, that I feel truly was significant did happen to me. It was many years ago, and when I sort it out from other occurrences in my life that might outstrip it or rank with it, I return always to the firm opinion of its being better than they are. I cannot help it. It is just my decision. Oh, once I did have a famous media person pass by me, blind to me as I toured the famous building in the great city where he worked. Another time, I actually shook hands with the governor of our state, on New Year’s Day, when he by tradition received mere citizens. But, too, his gaze was not on me, nor was his “Hi, how are ya?” anything I could prize. He looked blankly, above me, smiling like plastic, and then was on to the next person in line, before the sounds of his hello had ceased in the air. But the one incident, once when I saw the Calypso star, as I said, was different, very different.
I remember it was at Kennedy Airport only miles from the modest suburban house in which I’ve lived for the past many years where the incident occurred. Aircraft from all parts of the world flew into the airport or ascended away from it day and night, crowds of busy, hurrying people entering, within, or leaving one or the other of its spectacular terminal buildings, arabesques of long runways behind the buildings, fields of parking lots in front of them. I had been able to park my car only at some distance from the terminal where I would find and greet my aging aunt, who had flown across country to visit my parents after many years, and I was making my way across the road immediately in front of this terminal, awaiting a pause in the swirl of automobiles and buses and vans that were dropping off or taking on passengers. The afternoon was very hot, the skies utterly cloudless, and my clothing, as light as I possessed, was wet and stuck to me from perspiration. I felt so uncomfortable, but I was committed to receiving my aunt, about whom I was fond, without being in the slightest degree cross. Suddenly, to my absolute amazement, there, across the roadway, only yards away from me, about to enter a car, his own car, was…the Calypso star!
I must tell you, it is my belief I am not of a personality that would make me a particularly adoring fan of anyone. I do not see myself as necessarily needing to be someone’s sycophant, nor do I think of myself deficient in whatever psychology that is necessary to call myself a normal, healthy, stable man. This point, too, is important. But, I have to admit, I must admit, I was thrilled, thrilled on the spot at what was happening to me. Perhaps it would be best to explain that at the time there was arguably no more famous personality in the lives, the attention, or the yearnings of nearly everyone of my generation. For some reason, or reasons, which I have never taken the time to try to understand fully, the Calypso star was never far from anyone’s attention. Call it his time in history, popular history, I know I should say, the fad of an era, the splendid good fortune of this man somehow to capture with his singing the heart of an age, but the Calypso star was–what is the word we use?–it. Certainly, there were others, politicians, movie stars, famous and wealthy personalities that occupied our public thoughts, whenever we had them, but none of these so happily, so fondly, with such admiration came to our collective mind as the Calypso star. At least, it seemed so, was so, to me.
At any rate, there he was, and I was about to move toward him, and not because I wanted to, though I would have wanted to if I were standing somewhere else, but because I had to, because it was my right to. He was directly in my path. Two or three cars passed between us, a bus took its interminable time to approach and roll beyond us, and then I took my steps. I moved towards him, my eyes upon him. He was tall, and slender, a chocolate color, graying at the temples, which surprised me, a handsome man dressed in silk slacks and shirt, open at the neck, one of his trademarks. He may have been wearing a gold chain around his neck, or a gold ring on his finger. I not sure of this point. But his shoes were fabulously expensive, I could tell that, and he seemed to me an intelligent man, with a strong forehead and intense, concentrating eyes, which I realized, now that I saw him in the flesh, was part of his affect, his charm, his unsurpassing appeal, when we average souls saw him on television or on the cover of one of his many music albums. Almost involuntarily, I began to bring to my mind and to hum silently to myself the haunting and stirring melodies of his Island songs. And it was as I crossed the roadway between us, and moved towards him, before he entered his car–his own car, however sleek and grand–and sped away from my life forever, that the experience occurred that made itself so important to me, more than just the passing by of a mere media personality or the fake greeting of a politician presently in office.
When I was no more than five yards from him, the Calypso star turned and looked at me! Yes, our eyes met, and stayed met, for more than a moment, much more. I paused, as if to say to him, what is it that makes you do this thing, this extraordinary thing, to me, for me? What confirmation can I possibly give you? I walked across the roadway to him, closer. It now registered upon me that he had just closed the back door of his car, and was folding a piece of clothing, the lightweight jacket matching his slacks, for it was far too hot to wear it, to do anything other than to fold and put it away inside his car until a less intense time of heat from the sun. I saw that he had helped someone into the back seat of the car, a child, I believe, probably one of his own, though previous to this experience I had no knowledge that he had children. In this extraordinary moment, I also had time enough to see that the car was full of people, other young people in the back seat and a woman in the front seat, together comprising, in my judgment, his family. The Calypso star is a family man, I thought. Just like me! He is at an airport, entering his car, hot and sweaty, maybe on the verge of being cross–just like me. There was common humanity between us. Common humanity! What I had lacked in my other confrontations with famous people. For that moment, we were connected, on equal footing, partners in the humanity of man.
“It is hot, mon, bloody hot. Doncha think?” he said to me as I prepared to pass close by him.
“Yes, yes, it is,” I answered, almost wildly, but determined to keep my balance, a respectable reserve. “It certainly is.”
And then I was past him, walking a few more paces, and stepping up onto the curb of the sidewalk. Behind me, I could imagine him slipping now into the front seat of his car, preparing to drive away–drive away, in his own car, just like the rest of us–into the heavy, airport traffic. I heard a car door close, an engine start up. I turned, and saw him, the Calypso star, speed away. For a while, I watched after him, hoping he would manage all right in the traffic. After all, there was something between us now, something good.
I am aware that my account must seem to you, my reader, somewhat bizarre, sad, even….even pathetic. Am I right? But, after some quite considerable thought, I must tell you that I do not agree. And I must urge you to try as best you can to honor how I feel. This incident involving the Calypso star does have much merit. For me, it is–hold onto your hat–even redemptive. Let me explain. All right, my life has not contained anything of excellence. I have not led men into battle, I have not invented or created, I have not been a star in my own right. These triumphs were for others. But from my point of view, from the viewpoint of any ordinary man, I once saw a star, talked with him. He treated me like a friend, a brother, a person with whom he had something in common and could understand how he felt at a particular moment. That’s something, isn’t it? Think about it. Not everybody, not really, can say what I can. Won’t you please agree? Doesn’t this serendipitous experience bring some real warmth to the memory of my life? Can’t I say that something did happen to me? A certain beauty. I believe so.
Or think of it this way. Have you ever, on a morning, the weather may be threatening, or you feel especially discouraged on your way to work, or someone you love doesn’t love you, and then, from right out of the blue, a man or a woman whom you admire, or–better–would like to know, perhaps a passerby you had seen on occasion, suddenly smiles endearingly at you, and your spirit nearly soars, no, does soar, don’t you feel then that life is worth living after all? Well, that’s how it is for me, when I recall how once I saw the Calypso star. That is how it is for me. Only it is even more wonderful, given the extraordinary importance and fame he enjoyed at that time.
Breakfast With Father
HEARING ABOUT HER father’s seventieth birthday party from her sister Meg, Laurie flew from Los Angeles to New York as quickly as she could, which surprised her, for she had never gotten along very well with her father. Not one to sleep in the same house overnight with him, she stayed at Meg’s, but visited him the morning after she arrived. She hoped she could contain her perpetual anger at him and not fight.
As luck would have it, she found him alone in the condo a few miles outside of Albany her parents now rented, in a little room he apparently used as a study for reading or to do any professional work he still might have. He was a tall, handsome man, his long hair gray now, his long limbs still impressive.
These tall Brits, she thought. I certainly know where the lost Vikings went.
Seeing her, he put his book down and smiled, genuinely enough, and put out his hand for her to take it, which she did, ending up kissing him on his cheek, like a nervous girl.
“Always reading, huh?” she said to him.
She wondered if she trembled or if her heart fluttered.
“Have you had something to eat?” he asked her.
“No, Daddy, I came right over. I thought I’d have some breakfast with you.”
“Good idea.” He rose from his chair, towering over her, for she was just a normal-sized woman.
“Your mother’s gone. To one of her things. So we can the two of us fend for ourselves.”
Smiling despite herself, she followed him to the kitchenette, a table at one end where they’d eat. Dutifully, he made her coffee, and then tea for himself.
“So, Laurie,” he said, sitting down across from her. “You’re looking well.”
She knew he lied. A beauty contest winner when she was younger, she’d win no contests now, and he’d had a hand in that, though she could still attract most men she wanted.
“Don’t kid me, Daddy.” She blushed.
He sipped his tea, and leaned back, and looked at her, a man, but still her father.
“How has it been?”
She wouldn’t lie. “All right, I suppose. It could be better.”
“It could always be better, dearie. I know something about that. Are your children well?”
She sighed and looked around. The duplex was the most recent of a long line of rented homes that her parents had occupied. “One of them sneaks out her bedroom window at night, so she can go with men. The other does the best he can. He has trouble learning, I think.”
“I see. And your own man?”
Laurie shrugged. “Nothing has changed there.” She watched her father put his large hands together and rub them, perhaps nervously.
“And you, Daddy?”
He looked in her eyes. “They told you I’ll retire?”
“Yes. It’s been a long time coming. I thought it’d never come, the way you go on.”
“I wish it would never come. I don’t take easily to growing old. It’s a hellish business. The strength’s not there. The tired, old man in the mirror, with the fleshy neck, is me. And it’ll never get better. That’s the surprise, and the terror. Each day’s passing, it just gets worse.”
For a moment, she thought she felt a tiny bit sorry for him, for the first time in a long while.
“We are all condemned to death, huh, as the philosopher says?” he observed.
She lit a cigarette, and leaned back a bit herself, studying him. He was too much.
“Though you’ve had your good times, Daddy, haven’t you?” She exhaled. “You’ve gotten off better than most.”
“What do you mean?” She wondered if he thought he should go on his guard.
“You’ve done just what you’ve damned well pleased, you know. You can’t deny it. Remember when we all had to leave Boston because you wanted to show your solidarity with the other workers? We had a nice home there, and I never went to a better school.”
He wanted to protest, but the incident was a long time ago, and he’d heard about it often enough before. “I’m a man, Laurie. I’m not a boy, like so many. You couldn’t have expected me to go on as if nothing had happened.”
“Daddy, we had lives, too. You don’t seem ever to understand that.” She sipped her coffee, and then lit another cigarette. “And what about mother?”
He said nothing.
“What has it always been for her?”
“I don’t know what you mean, lass.”
This morning, on the eve of his seventieth birthday, she simply couldn’t feel like letting him off the hook, of doing what they always did in the end. It was late September outside, only a few stalwart, red leaves left on the trees, a time of endings. But it was also a time of beginnings.
“Don’t you?” she insisted.
“My, but we’re getting down to the essentials this day. Will you never forget? These things were a long time ago.”
“Not so long ago. For all I know they may still be going on.”
He looked down. “You needn’t worry about that.”
“I don’t know how Mother ever endured.”
“She has her activities, Laurie. She always had her activities, and they always had nothing to do with me. Absolutely nothing. She still has them now.”
“Oh, Daddy. You are impossible. For such a big man, for the man all the women swoon over, you’re such a child.”
He stood up, wanting to do something else.
“I’m glad my seventieth birthday only comes once in a lifetime, lass. I thought it would be different. Party hats and presents. You know?”
She took a last puff on her cigarette, and put it out in an ashtray, roughly. “You reap what you sow. Doesn’t the philosopher say that, too, Daddy?”
He stared at her, as if he were looking at a woman, not his daughter, then chuckled. “Could I interest you in a walk? It’s not a poetic walk in the woods. Only around the housing development. But it’s something to keep the blood up and the muscles from total atrophy.”
When they were outside walking the streets of the condos, Laurie began to feel depressed. The condos were not distinguished in any way, but quite common, multiplied block after block, and several years old. The few trees, young and clearly only in the past few years planted along the sidewalks, looked puny and wretched, saplings completely bare and hardly taller than her father and even she. Above, the sky was gray and cloudy, and the wind was strong enough to annoy her. She now wished she had brought an overcoat with her from California. It was cold, and it would only get colder.
So this could very well be the end of the road for my parents, she thought. That it should come to this–a neighborhood of aging condos, for young people just starting out and for old people more or less poor, which is pretty much how it is for my mother and father.
“We’ll pick up the morning newspaper at the store,” he said to her. “It’s only a few blocks. Down the hill.”
“Sure,” Laurie said. “Looking for part-time work?” she asked him, only half kidding.
“No. I still do some work for the company.” Her father had spent the last several years of his career, such as it was, as a branch manager of a small airline at the local airport.
Out walking like this, Laurie noticed that her father walked slowly, even shuffling a little, bent over ever so slightly, the gait of an older man, she realized to her surprise.
“Do you have any plans? Something dramatic?”
He put his hands in his pockets, like a boy, unthinking. “Well, nothing particularly dramatic, I don’t suppose.”
“Why not?” she asked him. “God knows, you’ve had some drama in your life before.”
“It won’t be drama. That is, unless it comes from a doctor’s office.”
Her heart skipped a beat.
“What do you mean? Is anything the matter?”
He kept walking, head down, doing that just-perceptible shuffling. They were on their way downhill now, and she wondered if she should take him by the arm.
He was not going to make anything out of it. “Ah, you know, there’s always these worries. Aches and pains. Bumps and lumps. It drives old folks to distraction.”
“Are you taking any tests?”
“A few. All part of the yearly routine. I assure you.”
At one corner, a plump, middle-aged woman was on the stoop of her house–if that’s what the three steps to the front door of a condo were called. Despite the early time of day, the woman had already dressed up, in floral dress, high heels, and makeup. She waved cheerily to Laurie’s father, and her big bosom heaved and jiggled.
“What, does she wait for you?” Laurie asked her father, noticing that her father at first was not going to respond to her question, but then apparently changing his mind.
“But haven’t they always? Waited for you, the women?”
He ignored her. “She’s a married woman, dear. And besides her husband is a big shot in a bank.”
“Did that ever matter?”
He still ignoring this kind of remark from her, they walked farther, more and more downhill. Then they came to a flat stretch of sidewalk, approaching a set of stores, a small shopping center.
“Perhaps it was a generational thing,” he said suddenly. “Did you ever think of that? I have. Recently. You know, taking stock and all that. Perhaps men of my time just did not get that close, that mixed up in the family’s day-to-day business.”
Laurie put her hand on her father’s arm, but not to support him, but to underline her disagreement. “Oh, no, mon pere, you won’t get away with that. Forget it. Uh-uh.”
“But it was. In a lot of families.”
“No, no, no, no.” She wanted to make sure she explained it to him very clearly, maybe once and for all. “I, for one, Daddy–” She nearly bit off the word. “So much wanted you to be there for me. You have no idea. I wanted your attention so badly, I would have died for it. Just a thoughtful word from you. Just a smiling look, a hug, God knows, and I would have melted in delight. Did you know that?”
He didn’t say anything, but as they had reached the corner where the little shopping center began, he put his hand out to protect her from traffic before they crossed, though there was only one car in sight, some ways from them.
“Did you know that, Daddy?” Laurie repeated, as they crossed.
“I suppose I did. Now that you make me think about it.”
They passed several stores–a delicatessen, a bootery, a Chinese restaurant, a supermarket–until they came to a newspaper shop. Her father stepped aside, to let her pass inside before him.
“Mr. Donovan,” a young man behind the counter called out, obviously happy to see her father. “Good morning. The papers just came in. Hot off the press.”
Her father smiled, and started to make his way to the far side of the store, where the papers were stacked on the floor.
And then, suddenly, as he bent over, stiffly, to pick up one of the newspapers, someone else called out his name. Laurie would never forget the tone of voice.
It was another man, even bigger than her father, older, commanding-looking, a man apparently used to giving orders and being obeyed.
“Donovan? That you?”
Laurie watched her father straighten up, to locate where the man was, a few feet away, standing above him. “Mr. Bork,” he said, seeing who the man was.
“Donovan, what are you doing here?” The man himself had bought a newspaper and was perusing the shelves of magazines behind him.
Laurie’s father answered slowly. “Why, I live nearby here, sir. In one of the condos, up the hill.”
The man made no movement to step forward and shake her father’s hand, but kept his distance. He was wearing an expensive, gray overcoat, and had a suit and tie on underneath it.
“Well, I’ll be. Have you retired yet? You’re old enough, man, aren’t you?”
“No. I haven’t, Mr. Bork.” Her father spoke, Laurie realized, as if mesmerized. “Soon, though. Very soon.”
Now the man started to move, to pay for his newspaper and exit the store.
“Well, good. Good. That’s what I like to see. I always like a working man who knows when to retire.”
As he passed them both, the gentleman glanced at Laurie, but he made no attempt to acknowledge her. Then he left the store.
When was gone, her father paid for his paper, too, and also made to leave the store.
“Who was that man, Daddy?” she asked him.
He looked at her, and sighed. Energy, or something else very important, seemed to have drained from him. In a shot. “Oh. That was Mr. Bork, Laurie. My supervisor at the company. For years. For many years. We never liked him, much.”
“My God,” she said.
On their way back to the condos, Laurie watched her father. They continued to walk, again a bit slowly, perhaps dominated by his slight shuffle, perhaps not. He did not speak a word, and when they began to ascend the hill they had come down, she resisted the impulse to reach out and take him by the arm. Once or twice she thought he steeled himself against their task, furiously masculine and proud. When, finally, they reached home, she followed him into their condo, where he sat down again in the chair in the kitchenette.
“Father, I have to go back outside,” she told him, suddenly. “To my car. I’ll be right back.”
He looked up at her curiously.
Her voice was soft, and she did reach out this time, to touch him on the shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Outside, she hurried to her car, opened it, and leaned forward to the back seat. She took two packages, one quite small, off the seat, put them against her chest, backed up, and closed the car door. Then she nearly ran back into the condo.
Her father was still sitting at the table, doing nothing. Seeing her, he shifted his weight and looked around, pretending to be thinking of something.
“Father,” Laurie began. “I have these two presents for you. I was going to give them to you at the party later. With everyone else. But just now I decided I want to give them to you now. Is that all right?”
He seemed confused, but smiled and nodded his head, taking her presents.
She sat down next to him. “They’re nothing much.” She found herself chattering on. “I was only going to give you the one present, the larger package. It’s a standard kind of thing…” He started to unwrap the book. “The kind of thing, I guess, you get all the time. It’s a history of the ancient kings of Britain. Silly, isn’t it? I don’t know why I thought you’d like it. I just figured you might.” He had it opened and was now holding the book in his hand, glancing at the cover. “Do you like it, Father? What do you think?”
He turned the book over and scanned the quotations on the back of the jacket.
“A book, huh?” he said. “I like it. Of course I like it.”
She went on. “The second present I didn’t think I’d give you. I wasn’t sure. I’ve been going back and forth in my mind, all week. You know–Monday, yes, Tuesday, uh-uh.” He started to open the small package. Laurie swallowed. “Finally, I decided I’d go with it. The other day. No, really just now. I don’t know why. I just felt like it.” He had the bow and the wrapping nearly off her gift. “It’s a little more personal than the other. About a month ago I found it among my things. I was cleaning. Funny, don’t you think–to find it after all these years?”
Now he held her gift in his hands. She thought she could see clearly that he wasn’t sure what to do about it, what to say about it.
She rushed to his rescue, her rescue. “It’s a little picture of me, Father. My first communion picture. I was about five then, right? Don’t I look funny in that communion dress, all white and fluffy? Don’t I look like an angel? God, look at that expression! I don’t believe it.”
She was shaking a little. “Do you like it? Was it a stupid thing to do? I mean, for a birthday gift, to give you my own picture, when I was a little kid? Wasn’t it stupid? Maybe I should take it back?”
She thought he spoke with a bit of energy now, as if something had come back to him, finally.
“I don’t think it was stupid, lass. And I won’t give it back to you. I love it…very much.”
Her heart starting to beat rapidly, she looked around her, for a mantle over a fireplace perhaps, any place he might put it, for it to be in his sight and consciousness, not a drawer.
“Can we find a place to put it?” She wondered if she were starting to cry.
He nodded in agreement, and slowly handed her gifts back to her, for her to do the job. Then he looked up at her, and thought for a moment, and leaned back in his chair.
“Laurie,” he said to her. “I want to tell you a little story. Okay?”
She was uncertain. “Sure.”
He proceeded very deliberately. “…The night you were born, your Uncle Matthew and I, we went to the hospital together. Before he moved away…” Her father clasped his big hands in front of him, resting them on the table top. “…After a while, the nurse finally let us into the place where they kept all the babies that were just born–they were really tough about visitors in those days.” He smiled to himself. “Finally, we were able to see you…”
Laurie listened, as if entering a dream. Her father seemed to growing even more animated, more infused with energy as he went on.
“…There must have been twenty, thirty babies in that room, behind some glass windows. Your Uncle Matthew didn’t know which one you were, and there was no one around to tell us.”
Her father cleared his throat.
“…I told Matthew that it didn’t matter. I said to him, ‘I know which one she is, Matt. I’d know her anywhere. Do you see the one in the back, in the back but in the middle of the row? Over there, behind all the funny-looking kids? Do you see her there? The little one, with the golden hair. The beautiful one. There. In the back, with the golden hair, I tell you. That’s my Laurie. That’s my darling baby. That’s my love…'”
At his words, she thought she would go wild. Her heart grew pounding in her ears, and she thought to catch her breath. She marveled at the overwhelming power of tenderness, of his tenderness, so late, so desperately hungered for, something secret, even to herself.