The Overlooked Man
MY UNCLE EDWARD was the overlooked man, at least, that’s what people said about him. I guess what they had in mind was that he was some sort of symbol for all those people who nobody particularly thinks about, cares about, even notices. I have to confess it was hard not to think that way about him, and maybe even laugh a little about it.
“Edward is like a neutrino,” my father once said to me. My father was a physicist. “We know there are trillions of them out there, ﬁlling in all the empty spaces in the universe, pretty much making up the universe, but nobody ever sees them, really knows they’re there. A neutrino can pass right by you, go right through you, and you’d never know it.”
If you asked me how I’d describe my uncle, I’d say that overall he was a lot like those stocky, Belgian men in the paintings by Magritte. You know the ones—the innocuous men in plain, tight-ﬁtting black suits, in black bowler hats, usually holding umbrellas, ﬂoating in midair, like large, bemused Charlie Chaplins. Yes, he was a lot like them, except that my Uncle Edward didn’t have a bowler hat. Someone without a cultural background would say he was just an overweight, forty-year-old man, perpetually in suit and tie, who always looked a bit lost.
Getting lost must have been something that had happened to my Uncle Edward early in life. In the family, there’s a story of him as a teenager, surrounded by young men and women of high school age possessed of course by devilishness and sexuality. To tease him, almost on a daily basis, my Uncle Edward was urged to invite on a date the sixteen-year-old girl of his dreams, one Miss Vanessa LeMoyne. He was manipulated into thinking that she was receptive to such a gesture on his part, so that when he ﬁnally did approach her, on one of those rash, inexplicable occasions that aﬄicted him two or three times in his life, she recoiled in horror, in absolute terror and horror, instinctively, she was quick and sad to say, whenever she told the story later.
“Ohhhhh, nooooooo,” she told him to his face. “How could you think I would want to do that with you?”
Perhaps to compensate for fate’s decree to have him a rather portly, lifelong, ineﬀectual, invisible man, my Uncle Edward became an unobtrusive and passionate collector of things, most notably stamps, coins, old phonograph records, books, innumerable books. With these things, especially books, he could fantasize about places he’d never gone to and perhaps never would.
“Why live and never know about life?” he’d say to me. “I can study about any place in the world, learn about any thing. It’s like going to the movies, even better.”
My grandmother, with whom he lived until her death, as a gentle, caring son, was really very good about it all, this proclivity for possession of inanimate objects and intimacy with them. As long as Uncle Edward kept his things and did his fantasizing more or less in his own room, well out of her sight, she was happy enough. What was most important to her was that he shop for her, dispatch her ﬁnancial aﬀairs, pay attention to her personal needs.
“Edward is my godsend,” she once told my mother, who was scrupulous about her visits to Granny. “He buys my tea, he ﬁles all my medical insurance forms, and shovels the sidewalk in front of the house when it snows. I cannot do without him. And I won’t.”
There was a time when my uncle thought to be a school teacher. He was working in a lab, for the Department of Health in our area, compiling statistics on how mice reacted to various new antibiotics, a job my father managed to get for him, when it occurred to my uncle that perhaps he could do more in life. So, once again subject to what might be described as a fugitive existential gesture, a sudden, inexplicable attempt at personal re-deﬁning by a most domesticated man, my Uncle Edward left his position at the lab, in midlife quickly earned his university degree and teaching license, and one day stood at the front of a sophomore English class of a large, suburban, contemporary American high school, a terrifying prospect even for some more robust personalities.
How he survived nearly two weeks of such an exposure is one of the mysteries of family lore, but, inevitably, inexorably, the time came when Uncle Edward found himself at the crossroads of his pedagogical career. Students in his class were streaming at will in and out of the classroom, willy-nilly, oblivious to my uncle’s presence. He had just given up his attempt to instruct his students in the intricacies of the predicate nominative and predicate adjective, and was hoping desperately that the dating and mating colloquies of his students would at least not be heard too far down the school corridors, when the debacle began.
“You really shouldn’t be talking and leaving the classroom whenever you want,” my uncle tried to say to his students. “The principal himself might be right outside, and we don’t want him to think there’s any trouble going on in here.”
“Quack, quack,” came a sound from somewhere in the back of the room. “Quack, quack, quack!”
“What is that?” my Uncle Edward asked, in general.
One of the girls in his class who always sat right in front of him, who always sat in front of all her teachers, said, “It’s the sound of a duck, sir.”
My uncle was confused. “A duck? A duck? Why make the sound of a duck?”
The girl tittered, and so did some other girls and boys sitting close by, overhearing.
“Because they don’t know how to make the sound of a penguin back there,” the girl continued to explain.
“But why make the sound of a penguin?” Uncle Edward asked.
The tittering continued, despite the fundamental kindness of these least cruel of his students.
“Is that a sound for me? Are they making that sound about me?” My Uncle Edward simply could not give credence to the facts. “Why would that be a sound for me?”
“Quack, quack,” the aria continued, from another corner of the room. And then students started tossing things, though only at each other, not directly at Uncle Edward as the principal of the high school was fair-minded enough later to point out to other oﬃcials of the school.
* * *
At my Uncle Edward’s return to the lab, which was again accomplished with the help of my father’s inﬂuence, my uncle decided to stay with statistics and mice for the next several years. Whenever he was asked about his life, during some errant conversation, my uncle was quite forthcoming.
“Apparently, I am a man for whom people ﬁnd little value. It is not that I mind their opinion so much, as it is my belief that I have never been given enough of a chance. I know that smacks of some kind of poor sportsmanship, or self-pity. But I don’t really see it that way, if I may be allowed to make an observation. I truly believe that if conditions could be diﬀerent in my life, other things could be diﬀerent.”
I am ashamed to say no one entirely followed him on this point.
At any rate, one spring afternoon when he was nearly ﬁfty, with the sun shining through my Uncle Edward’s lab window like a messenger from the gods, my uncle suddenly decided to take himself on a trip. My uncle’s aspiration, typical of him, of course, was not extraordinary. Not much time was needed to elapse before he settled on a trip to New York City, a brief, almost-shy trip to a land whose fabled places of culture long had beckoned to him. It was arranged that he would go for one entire week, that my mother and father would look after Grammy, who had now shrunken to a tiny lady necessitating exotic and perpetual care, and that my uncle would take himself on a whirlwind tour of museums, monuments, historical spots, famous neighborhoods, etc.
It fell to me, it became my lot, if I may be a bit poetical, to take him to the train station in our town, for my uncle had never learned to drive an automobile. I remember him standing on the platform at the station, amidst other passengers, not alien as he, but solid, respectable, serious-looking business men and women, families, couples, goal-oriented, bright-looking young people impatient, eager, to be on their way, wherever that was. Uncle Edward held his valise in his hand, grinning, as cute as a pumpkin.
“Lawrence, it’s all right,” he said to me. “I’m just ﬁne. Go on your way. You have your things to do, I can guess. I’ll be just ﬁne.”
“No, Uncle Edward,” I said, to my eternal credit. “I’ll stay until I see you safely oﬀ, until I see the train disappearing down the track.” At that, we both laughed.
I would have given him the heavens if I could.
* * *
According to how I heard the story of what happened to my uncle in New York, he arrived at Grand Central Station, on time and happily enough. He checked into the hotel where he had a reservation, at low government rates, and was quite satisﬁed at the sight of what would be his tiny home for the week—a tidy bed, a lamp beside it, an arm chair by the window. It was only when he descended into the crowded streets of New York did his courage ﬁnally desert him. Inexplicably, the immense energy and opportunity of the City did not cause his spirit to soar, as he had every reason to believe it would. Instead, the numbers of people suddenly engulﬁng him, with their hurry and certainty, overwhelmed him, depressed him, and, in a moment not unfairly described as hysteria, my uncle retreated to his room after only one or two more of these sorties into the streets, and occupied himself exclusively by watching old movies on the worn television set provided by the hotel. My uncle was a veritable connoisseur of old movies—comedies, Westerns, cine noirs—and so, on his bed in the security of the hotel room, he watched movies for most all of his week, venturing down in the hotel elevator and outside into the streets only to get something to eat—that is, until the last day of his trip.
On the afternoon of his last day, before he was to leave New York quite early the next morning, Uncle Edward, after several hours of watching a Western ﬁlm festival, as suddenly as he had done several times before, decided he had enough of himself, that he was entirely disappointed with how he was behaving. In a repudiation of his fate, or at least in an attempt to repudiate his fate, he left the hotel, hailed a cab, and had the cab driver to take him through various neighborhoods of the City—Midtown, The Diamond District, The Fashion District, Chelsea, Tribeca. On and on he went: Greenwich Village, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown. In the end, he directed the cab driver to let him out on the lower East side, by now Uncle Edward wild with momentary abandon.
“This is where you want to be, mister?” the cab driver asked him, surprised.
“That’s right,” Uncle Edward said. “I feel like ﬁnding a jolly-good bar on the lower East side and having a good, stiﬀ drink.”
“But do you know where you’re going?” the cab driver further asked. The cab driver, a person could see, was a pleasant-enough man underneath his quintessentially skeptical, urban exterior.
“No. Why should I?” Uncle Edward asked. “Why should one always know where one is going? Is that the path to greatness?”
“Well, I don’t know about the path to greatness,” the cab driver said. “But in this neighborhood you should have an idea of where in hell you’re going.”
“I’ll take my chances, sir,” Uncle Edward told the cab driver. “I have been careful long enough in my life.”
“Boy, you meet all kinds of weirdoes in this town,” the cab driver mumbled to himself, as he took Uncle Edward’s fare, watched him exit the cab, and prepared to drive oﬀ. “Try McGeary’s then,” he said, as parting advice. “On Second Avenue. You might have some fun there, and maybe you won’t even get mugged.”
“Thank you,” my uncle said to him, as the cab driver moved the cab into traﬃc, and then indeed vanished into thin air.
Looking about, my uncle oriented himself, enjoying the worn, old buildings, the people around him in ordinary clothes rather than high fashion, their faces generally frank and undistinguished rather than high-powered and aﬄuent. The streets were littered, and my uncle saw overﬂowing garbage cans against the buildings, but the sight of all this made him happy, even exhilarated.
“Ah,” he said aloud to himself. “This will do. Yes, this will do.”
Walking in the direction the cab driver had indicated, Uncle Edward found himself smiling broadly at people as they passed him, and in his exuberance would have tipped them his hat, had he had one. A few blocks later, somehow ﬁnding his way, he crossed a street and went boldly into the bar the cab driver had recommended.
McGeary’s was crowded, a few people eating at tables, but mostly drinking, men surrounding the bar with their whiskies or beer in front of them or in their hands, the bartenders furiously working to ﬁll orders. My uncle saw that everyone was obviously having an extraordinary time, and this, too, pleased him greatly. It took him a few moments, but then in one far corner of the bar he saw a particular stirring going on, and when he managed to position himself better, he saw that a portly man with a round, meaty face and tired, shinning eyes was reading from an open book he had in his hand. The man’s gray-black hair was furiously tousled and his clothes were rumpled, but he was reading with terrible, glorious energy, booming out his words to the delight of his audience.
“What is going on?” my uncle asked a man beside him, who was holding a glass of whiskey and had his eyes ﬁxed on the ﬁgure before them.
The man gestured with his head toward the reading ﬁgure. “It’s himself,” the man said. “It’s the great man himself, Shamus Flanagan. He comes to McGeary’s when he’s in this country. He feels at home here, and he doesn’t mind reading to us. It’s a wonderful thing he does.”
“What? What?” my uncle stuttered.
At the words of the man holding the glass of whiskey, my Uncle Edward couldn’t believe what he had just heard, what was apparently happening to him. He had read much in his time, and the famous poet only a few yards in front of him had of course been a favorite of his, we all knew that. My uncle had gone to the poet’s lyrics and books many times when my uncle’s soul, so starved, yearned for something else besides the ordinariness, the banality, the emptiness of his own life. The poet, as others writers, had taken my uncle to a higher reality, a more perfect reality that soothed my uncle’s sadness, that comforted him in his despair.
As if following a script he already knew, my uncle made his way closer to the bar, caught the bartender’s attention and, though he was not a drinking man, ordered himself a whiskey, took it from the bartender with gladness, and turned back to the poet. The poet was now declaiming louder than before, booming and bombastulating out his lines, sending them with welcomed passion to the delighted audience about him. The poet swayed back and forth with the emotion of his poetry, waving his free hand in the air, the crowd cheering him on. My Uncle Edward began swaying back and forth himself, in sympathy, grateful sympathy, in hungry union with the great poet. Suddenly, my Uncle Edward was raising his glass high into the air, above all the others, now for the moment someone other than himself, saluting the poet with the grandest exuberance, shouting out.
“Yes, yes, that’s it, sir!” he called out, his voice above those of all the others, almost above the voice of the poet himself. “Yes, yes, that’s it. Read on. Please. Read on, Shamus Flanagan. Take us to where only you can. Please, please!”
The others in the bar began turning and looking at my uncle as he went on, outside himself. The great poet himself heard him.
“I am glad I am here, sir,” my Uncle Edward said, shouting. “I am glad…I…am…here!”
The great poet, immensely pleased and amused, actually paused in his reading, grinned, took up his own glass and raised it to my uncle. My uncle returned the gesture, smiling back, a beaming Charlie Chaplain. My Uncle Edward perceived that he was a part of history, at the center of the world, ﬁnally, and that he would relish every moment of it.
“Yes, sir, I am glad I’m here,” he said one more time. “This is where I should be. Where I always should be. Where I always should have been.”
AT SIXTY, MY Aunt Beatrice was still a beautiful woman—there was no denying that. Smart, classy, curvy, she was an executive secretary to the president of a major cosmetics ﬁrm. Her oﬃce was on top of 666 Fifth Avenue and seemed nearly as large as an entire ﬂoor. She bought dresses at Bergdorf’s, and her long brown hair was done by whatever Frenchman was the latest rage in stylists. At sixty one, we later learned, she began to suﬀer the onslaught of lateral arteriosclerosis, better known to the world, of course, as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
It seemed she had always been hostage to a mindless fate. Being so beautiful, she had been spied on a street corner in Brooklyn by a minor mobster. Carmine DeStephano was more handsome than successful, and for over twenty years my Aunt Beatrice was the mistress of a mysterious man who took orders instead of giving them, but disreputable enough to cost my aunt her reputation and her friends. He took her to fancy restaurants and nightclubs, when he could steal away from his wife and children, spent more money than he had on drinking and gambling, and then out of the blue died of a heart attack when my aunt was in her forties. She loved him with the sad passion of a captured soul, and after Carmine’s death did not date another man for ﬁve years.
When she did agree to see someone else, it was because Ray Hershinger was hard not to like, hard not to like very much. This time she had been taken to a jazz club in Harlem by one of the salesmen in her company. The great trumpeter Miles Johnson spied her at her table, where she still looked beautiful and sexy enough for him to say, “Hey, who’s the dame in the third row? Somebody get me her name and number. Damn!”
Later, as she waited for the salesman to retrieve their coats from a busy cloakroom attendant, Ray passed her by on his way to the bar and, thinking her alone, asked her to have a drink with him. He was in his forties, too, a slender, powerful, red-haired man, who looked like he wouldn’t put up with anyone’s nonsense, but somehow also the kind quite happy to go along with whatever pleased the person or people he was with. Ray ran a meat-packing plant in the Bronx, and chain smoked cigarettes.
“I’m with someone now,” my Aunt Beatrice told Ray, deciding she liked the looks of him. “And I won’t leave him, but I’ll give you my number, if you’d like.”
As soon as she let him, Ray made it clear he would do anything for my Aunt Beatrice. He was always available to her, he had no hidden life, and she was never a dark secret. Ray took her to his meat-packing plant, and she watched as workers came up to him and asked for his advice or instruction, or to have him sign various pieces of paper. He didn’t gamble, he had no mobster friends, though he did drink plenty.
Once Ray explained it to me. “You see, Cal, she straightened out my life, your Aunt Beatrice did. When I met her, I didn’t know what I was doing, I don’t mind telling you.” He plucked his next cigarette out of the pack that was in his shirt pocket. “I was drinking awful then, spending my money like crazy, and she put the cap on the booze and me on a budget. Turned my life around. Yep, that’s what she did.” Ray blew out a large puﬀ of smoke and held his cigarette at arm’s length, looking at it. “Now I just smoke cigarettes all day long and will give them up soon, too. The big guy upstairs gave me a second chance and a real treasure when He had me pass by your aunt in that jazz joint.”
For twenty years once again my Aunt Beatrice was the mistress of a man, though far more willingly this time. For her part, she fussed over her man and made them both feel as if they lived a family life, perhaps not like the typical family, but a little family nonetheless, of two people encased in the pretty cocoon of their private existence. Maybe not as often as she approached sixty, but my aunt still turned the heads of men as she walked down the avenue, still inspired in them secret thoughts of lust or love. Sometimes one of these men would mistakenly venture too close to her, suddenly making it clear without words that he could be hers in a moment. But Ray was there, too, politely but like steel making it clear the man acted at his great peril. As for my aunt, she took this attention as something she had long ago lost real interest in, and laughed it away as only a woman beautiful enough to have this eﬀect for a lifetime can.
“I’m tempted to say it’s all nonsense,” she once said. “But I know it’s not quite that.” I stared at her face, with her truly long lashes, and her hair to her shoulders, and at how she stood, as feminine as Rita Hayworth. “And yet there are times when I’d be happy to have it never happen again.”
Her disease began with numbness in her ﬁngers. One afternoon, as she was on the phone for her boss, holding the line for a very important client, she noticed she had no feeling in her ﬁnger tips. At the time, she didn’t think much about it, though the lack of feeling didn’t go away. But then suddenly she had trouble with her back, and pain and stiﬀness that also didn’t go away. In her studio apartment on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, she started to shuﬄe a little when she walked, and even at work in Manhattan her co-workers saw she walked slowly and had trouble even crossing a room.
“Beatrice, what’s the matter?” Mr. Schulman, her boss ﬁnally said to her one day, just before quitting time. “Have you had a check up with a doctor?”
My aunt held on to the edge of her desk for stability. “Oh, Mr. Schulman,” she said. “Don’t bother yourself over a little arthritis. It runs in the family, I think.” She tried to stand straight up. “Some days are better than others.”
When some days she could hardly get out of bed and now her neck started to stiﬀen and pain her, Ray took her to a doctor, who told them both he didn’t know what was wrong, but my aunt should see a specialist if she wanted to. She did, and the specialist said he had some ideas, some good hunches, but after several tests he had to admit he couldn’t say anything conclusive. Meanwhile, her neck began to get much stiﬀer and pain her much more, and my aunt told Ray that just holding her neck up wore her out. At work, she walked less and less, and couldn’t focus beyond the pain, and Mr. Schulman told her to take a leave of absence and ﬁnd out what was happening to her. As he had for months, Ray showed up at her oﬃce, helped her into an elevator, and led her from the oﬃce building to his car.
“I think you should try acupuncture,” one of the other women in her apartment building told her. “Acupuncture is oriental, and it’s ﬁve thousand years old. It does miracles, Beatrice.”
So Aunt Beatrice visited an acupuncturist for several treatments, Ray, of course, driving her to the doctor’s and back. But nothing really changed.
The acupuncturist asked her about it, and my Aunt Beatrice didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “Yes, Dr. Chen, I think I do feel better. I really think so.”
Dr. Chen smiled, pleased.
When her Lou Gehrig’s Disease was ﬁnally diagnosed, she was using a walker a good part of the time. Her hair out of sorts, her make-up indiﬀerent, her face exhausted, she listened to a specialist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital explain to her how her body was being irreversibly ravaged. That night, alone in her studio after Ray returned to his own room at nearby St. George’s Hotel, my Aunt Beatrice suddenly became hysterical.
“No, no!” she screamed, over and over again, until other tenants brought the building superintendent to open her door and calm her down. She said she would have stabbed herself to death, if she could have used the kitchen carving knife with enough strength. When she was ﬁtted for a neck brace, to go along with the walker she always used, the few times now that she tried to walk, she tried to kill herself again. This time was quite prosaic. She took all the pills she could ﬁnd. After that, Ray and her doctor talked her into getting an emergency alarm system she could use to alert her hospital if she felt the need for suicide. Then, with the alarm around her neck, wearing an untidy house dress she had slept in, my Aunt Beatrice sat in a chair and, her face blank, watched television for hours, bloating to nearly two hundred pounds in weight. Ray stayed with her every moment he could.
“Hey, beautiful,” he would say to her. “You’re looking especially good today. I’ll take you out to Alfredo’s.”
Alfredo’s was their favorite restaurant, a few blocks from where they lived, just oﬀ the promenade of Brooklyn Heights. Ray carried my aunt to his car now, and, of course, also into the restaurant.
* * *
For me, my Aunt Beatrice had been a treasure in my life, too. My family was of course, especially in those days, all working class—clerks, plumbers, carpenters. My father worked for a heating supply company, and when that deﬁning moment in high school came when one often chooses for a lifetime, chance had it that I was chosen by lottery to go to Vietnam.
“My birthday was picked forty-third,” another boy muttered, as he passed by me in the school hallway after the results of the lottery were known. “Hell!”
“Hey, mine was ninth,” I called after him. “You think you got bad luck?”
I made a point of seeing my aunt before leaving for military training camp—now that I think of it, I pretty much always saw my aunt at each turning point in my life. Not that I didn’t see her regularly, too, or keep in touch. She had always written me chatty little letters, sent me money on my birthday, and taken me out whenever I got to New York City, which was the best. Aunt Beatrice took me to fancy restaurants, as the two men in her life had taken her. She took me to Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall. The best of the best were the shows on Broadway.
“I’m trying to bring our family some culture, Cal,” she said. It was an intermission between the acts of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We were at the back of the theatre, sipping Cokes. I felt so proud to be with her. “I’ve given up on your father and your uncles, but I have high hopes for you and me.”
The night before I left to go to basic training, my aunt took me to dinner, a show, and then afterward to a nightclub. At the nightclub, we even danced. She had really high heels on—she always had high heels on—but they didn’t stop her from twirling around during a fast number.
The next time I got to see her was three years later, when I returned from Vietnam. She was just starting to use her walker then. She was not at all happy to have me see her, and I tried to hide my shock at how she looked. She shuﬄed along with the walker, at the sink and stove end of her studio apartment, to make me coﬀee. She was wearing those house dresses then, her face already meaty from the weight she was gaining. I told her about Vietnam, and she told me about never going back to work.
“I will not let those people see me like this. I won’t. It’s bad enough Ray has to see me.” Using the walker, she slowly turned to look at me. “Boy, he got himself a bargain, didn’t he? God bless him, Cal, I don’t know what I’d do without him. He does everything for me.”
Not knowing what to do, I asked her if she would like to go out, if she could.
“Oh, no. I only go out once in a while, when Ray takes me to the restaurant around here we always went to,” she explained, bitterly.
The next time I saw my aunt, or, rather, didn’t see her, though I tried, was over a year later. I must explain that I was so inattentive for a few reasons. First, I confess seeing her go from Rita Hayworth to a crippled, old woman so quickly was more than I could deal with well. I wanted her to be, remain always classy, smart, curvy, even ﬂamboyant, as she was the night before I went to boot camp. Maybe it was having reached my limit for horror in Vietnam, maybe not. Or maybe it was because my own life was not exactly skipping merrily along. After Vietnam, I attended a community college on a veteran’s scholarship, and then went to work for the county where I lived, being a veteran helping there, too. I married a woman I met on the job. But we didn’t have any kids. She didn’t want a family—at least, not at that time, because she wasn’t sure she could handle the commitment. At any rate, it wasn’t hard just to think about my own problems and not to think about my aunt’s.
When I did take a day oﬀ from work to go see her, to get away to something I cared about, I took the elevator of her building to the ﬂoor where her studio was. I rang her door bell, and waited for her to shuﬄe along with her walker and let me in. But it didn’t happen. Nothing happened. Just silence. I rang her bell again, starting to panic a little.
“Aunt Beatrice?” I called out. “Aunt Beatrice, it’s me.
You in there?”
I hadn’t heard that she’d moved. I had the right apartment. Perhaps she was out, I thought, though I knew the chances of that being the case would be slim.
“Aunt Beatrice? It’s Cal. I came to see you. You sleeping?
You there? I know I should have called ﬁrst.”
I looked up and down her hallway, maybe to spy a neighbor, but instead was only surprised to realize her building was getting run down. The hallway seemed old and worn out.
I rang the bell again. “Aunt Beatrice? It’s me, Cal. Please open the door. I came all this way to see you.”
Suddenly, after about a minute, I heard her speak. It was a very weak voice, thinned out, tired and distraught.
“Go away, Cal. Go away. I don’t want you to see me.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Aunt Beatrice, what do you mean, go away? I can’t go away. I don’t want to go away. Let me in.”
She continued to speak as if in great pain. “No. Go away.
Please. I won’t let you see me like this.”
I grabbed the knob of the door and shook it. “Aunt Beatrice, it’ll be all right. You’ll see. What you look like doesn’t mean anything to me. Aunt Beatrice, I love you. I want to see you. You can’t not let me in. I don’t believe it.”
There was silence. She didn’t speak again. She never spoke to me again.
* * *
Nor did I ever see her again. I told my father about what had happened, and he shook his head. “Yeah, I’m not surprised that’s what she’d do.” And I called up Ray.
“Ray, I couldn’t believe what happened. She wouldn’t even open the door.”
Ray’s voice seemed so tired and sad. “That’s the way she wants it, Cal.”
“Is she that bad oﬀ?”
“Well, she thinks so. She wants you to remember her at her best. We don’t care, but it matters to her. She’s in a lot of pain, Cal. You wouldn’t believe it. All the time. It must mess her head up a little.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Search me. Beatrice calls the shots. I’ll wait for her to tell me what to do.”
“I see.” I remembered my manners. “By the way, Ray, how are you? Except, of course, for this thing with my Aunt Beatrice.”
“Just ﬁne. Smoking a little more than I want to these days, but everything else is just ﬁne.”
After that, for the most part I went about my business. Apparently, there was nothing else to do. She wouldn’t even answer the phone. From time to time, I heard about my aunt from my father, when we met up. Her condition wasn’t getting any better. She could move around less and less, and she was getting more and more bloated. But medication was helping a bit with the pain and her moods.
As for myself, my wife and I split up. We both worked, and spent a lot of time apart from each other, especially when she went on night shift at her company. My time oﬀ I spent with my friends.
One Saturday afternoon, my father called my house. He wasn’t much of a telephone person, so whenever he called I immediately got worried.
“Cal,” he said. “Your Aunt Beatrice died this morning.” He waited for me to absorb the news and the shock.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It was coming. Sooner or later. The last time I saw her—I went to this nursing home in Brooklyn where they had to put her—she looked terrible. She looked just awful—she didn’t even look like herself.”
“From the pain?”
“Sure, from the pain. And the disease. You could see it all over her face. It was a terrible thing.”
I felt I needed to explain something. “She never let me see her toward the end.”
“Cal, when I was there she was over three hundred pounds. I mean it. And she was such a beautiful woman. What was it, three or four years ago?”
“Cal, I tell you she had gotten so heavy from never moving around anymore that they had to lift her up with a machine. Yeah, they have this contraption. It’s like a winch. I swear to god. Can you imagine your Aunt Beatrice having to be in such a thing? I’d a killed myself.”
“But you know the funny thing? When I was there at the nursing home, I could swear to god, she seemed happy.”
“What? What do you mean, she seemed happy?”
“No, I’m serious. You’re not going to believe this, but she was the secretary of the patients or something. I don’t know. They had these organizations, and projects and things, and your aunt helped to run them. Like she did at work for the cosmetics company all those years. She kept records and the books and told people what to do. She loved it. At least, that’s what she said to me when I was there. Can you believe it?”
I didn’t answer his question. “And what about Ray? Have you talked to Ray? Did he call you to give you the news? God, the man’s a saint, isn’t he? To watch what happened to her like that? She told me he did everything for her.”
“Cal, Ray’s dead, too. He died a couple of months ago.” “He did? How?”
“The damnedest thing. He had this cough that wouldn’t go away, so he went to see his doctor. The guy told him he had lung cancer. From smoking all those cigarettes. Ray was dead six weeks later.”
“Good god. He was the healthy one. He took care of her. How could he go ﬁrst? He had to watch everything that was happening to her. Damn.”
From his tone of voice, I could see my father smiling at the other end of the telephone.
“But, Beatrice, was helping to run the place, at the end of her life—all right, helping out as best she could. She was right in the middle of things, as she always was. I get a kick out of that.”
* * *
When I had ﬁnished talking to my father, I put the phone down and sat in my chair in my apartment, looking straight ahead of me into empty space. I tried to imagine my Aunt Beatrice and Ray making their way to their favorite restaurant. It is after the onslaught of her Lou Gehrig’s Disease. But that’s okay. She can no longer walk, not into the restaurant, not anywhere. Ray is carrying her through the front door. She is not yet that heavy, and he is so strong. The owner of the restaurant is watching them enter, smiling, very pleased to see them. So is the maitre d’, the waiter who usually serves them, and the busboy. My Aunt Beatrice is in Ray Hershimer’s arms. He carries her like a god carrying a goddess, a bridegroom carrying his bride. There is pain in my Aunt Beatrice’s face, she is no longer beautiful at all, only crippled, old looking, obese. But she and Ray are proud of themselves, happy to be together. There are tears in my aunt’s eyes, that is true. But there is also a kind of deﬁance in them, and triumph.
THE TRIP UPSTATE, out into the country, had been a ﬁasco right from the beginning, in Elizabeth’s opinion. Not that she wanted to be harsh towards Jonathan.
She didn’t feel that way. It was simply the truth. Manhattan had been insuﬀerably hot all week, so when Jonathan said he could stand it no more and had to be somewhere else on the weekend, Elizabeth agreed to travel with him.
He came out of his oﬃce and stood by her desk. “My friend has a cottage upstate that he never uses,” he told her. “We’ll drive up on Friday night. I have to do some-thing.”
It had taken them nearly two hours to get out of the City. Jonathan tried to control his temper as best he could, but when they were stuck on the George Washington between two trucks, he suddenly brought his ﬁst down on the steering wheel and said, “Damn, damn, damn. Does anything go right anymore?”
Once oﬀ the Bridge, the traﬃc thinned, spreading out to use all the arterials, and the trip started to improve. Jonathan even pointed to a truly wonderful view of hills and trees on Elizabeth’s side of the car as he sped up the Palisades Parkway. “Look at that. Look at that.” He was like a boy. “You don’t get to see anything like that in the city, do you? Just oﬃces and meeting rooms.”
But, about half an hour later, Jonathan decided he knew an alternate route upstate to his friend’s camp, at a place called West Sand Lake. The highways were too ordinary, boring, with their endless miles of macadam and rest stops.
“This alternate route winds around, Elizabeth. It goes through these little towns and things, and has a lot of character. You’ll see what I mean.”
“But are you sure of the way, Jonathan?” Elizabeth asked carefully. It was getting dark now, and Elizabeth, who had rarely been upstate, had absolutely no idea of where they were going.
“Of course I’m sure of the way,” Jonathan said, turning oﬀ the highway onto a smaller road. “I wouldn’t go if I didn’t. I’ve already done it. The time I ﬁrst went up to the camp.”
But it wasn’t long before they were lost. At ﬁrst, Jonathan didn’t say anything, but Elizabeth could see he was unsure of exactly where he was going, and then after a series of stops and corrections in towns or on roads, asking directions of the local people or of just someone in a car next to them waiting at a light, she knew they were completely lost, that Jonathan was in a combination of anger and panic, and the road they were driving on was without lights, twisting and completely black. “I knew the way,” Jonathan said to her, as if she had told him that he didn’t, which she hadn’t. “I can’t believe this.”
A few minutes later, they neared a building on the side of a country road that up closer turned out to be a bar. Jonathan pulled into its small parking lot and stopped the car.
“Do you think we should go in here and ask for directions?” he asked her. “I don’t think we’re too far oﬀ.”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth told him, not wanting to say anything to upset him more, though she was beginning to wish that maybe she shouldn’t have agreed to go on the trip with Jonathan. Not that she was a particularly judgmental woman. She didn’t think people would accuse her of that. She just felt that way.
“Well, let’s,” Jonathan said, apparently wishing for her to agree with him. “Let’s give it a try.”
“Do you think it will be all right?” Elizabeth said, the quintessential city girl. “It looks pretty run-down, and kind of strange.”
“You mean redneck?” “Something like that.”
“Don’t be silly,” Jonathan said to her, though he didn’t look like his usual totally-assured self, as he did in the oﬃces and hallways of the company.
The experience was unsettling, to say the least. There were a half dozen men at the bar, and they did look like rednecks even if it was up north. Maybe mountain-men was what she should have called them. They were red-faced, long-haired, scraggly men in work clothes or farm clothes or whatever, and they weren’t particularly hospitable by any means. Once again, Jonathan didn’t seem his old, commanding self and talked to the men almost apologetically, as if he didn’t want to rile them. There were no smiles to make lost people feel any better, and when they ﬁnally decided to be helpful, they did it with amused looks that were scary, and for a moment Elizabeth, fearless in the middle of the city, worried in the middle of the country that they might follow her and Jonathan out of the bar, and then god knows what might have happened.
“Well, at least they’ve put us back on the right path. I really do know now the way we have to go from here.” Jonathan pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the dark, empty road. “I can’t believe I missed the turn back there a while ago.” He smiled weakly, looking for something supportive from her. “We’re so close.”
“Were you scared in there?” Elizabeth asked him, brushing back her hair absent-mindedly in the dark.
“Not really,” Jonathan said. “Though they did seem to like you. I was wondering what I was going to do if they decided to start something.”
Elizabeth blinked. “Did you really think that?”
Jonathan seemed annoyed at her. “Of course I did. How many women do you think they’ve seen in their life who look like you? Why, if you get the boys in the city all hot, just walking down the street, it sure as hell could happen here. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said, feeling small.
And when they ﬁnally got to the camp, it was a disaster. Elizabeth couldn’t believe Jonathan had thought it was a good idea to spend the weekend at the place. The camp was very damp and smelled moldy, and it was really in no better shape than the broken down bar they had stopped at. The truth was it was even worse, being simply a camp, and apparently an unoccupied building for most of the year. Of course she didn’t say anything about how she felt to Jonathan. He had been through enough, and she was going to make the best of it. But when he said he was really hungry and wanted to go back down the road a mile or two to where he saw a country restaurant that looked pretty respectable, she was happy to go.
“Getting something to eat would be ﬁne,” she said brightly. “I’m hungry, too. Yes, Jonathan, let’s go and have dinner.”
* * *
The restaurant was respectable. In fact, she liked it, as soon as they walked in. Not that it was The Four Seasons or L’Esperance, or anything like that, but it was…quaint. It was a big, log cabin place, with moose heads on the wall and an old juke box in one corner, and ﬁlled with old, wooden tables and chairs. The tables had pretty, country tablecloths on them, and the bar, to one side, was lit softly with diﬀerent colored lights.
“Oh, I think it will be fun here,” Elizabeth announced to Jonathan, wanting to make him happy.
“I hope so,” Jonathan said, clearly a little discouraged. It was truly the ﬁrst time she had ever seen Jonathan Trilling discouraged. It was hard to believe. If she didn’t know the way he usually was, she’d say he was like a little boy with his…no, she wouldn’t even think it.
The only thing now that bothered them was that except for the bartender, the restaurant was deserted. Catching the bartender’s eye, Jonathan called out.
“You open for business here? I mean, are you serving dinner?” He was trying to be nice.
The bartender was a little smaller than Jonathan, about ﬁve-six, ﬁve-seven, but nice looking, a sandy-haired guy, a little unshaven. He was tanned a gold-brown color, and he had a tattoo on his arm, the typical heart with an arrow through it, saying I Love Mom. Elizabeth had to laugh. Of course his black tee-shirt had the sleeves cut oﬀ them, he was wearing faded-out jeans, and when he came out from behind the bar, Elizabeth could see he had motorcycle boots on. The man was very accommodating, even apologetic, which surprised her, and, if she had thought about it, was even endearing.
“Yes. We’re open for dinner.” He smiled, cute, and nodded a little toward the empty room. “I know it doesn’t seem that way, but we are.” He was holding a bar towel, which he used to ﬁnish wiping his hands. “Please have a seat.” He giggled. “Anywhere.”
Jonathan glanced at Elizabeth, and she smiled, and nodded her head. Jonathan turned and walked forward into the room, wandered around a bit, and ﬁnally took a table at the far end of the room, Elizabeth following him.
“Let’s see. Where can we ﬁt in?” Jonathan said, amusing himself. “The crowd makes it diﬃcult to choose.” He pulled a chair away from the table, and Elizabeth could see that his eyes ﬂicked involuntarily over the place settings, presumably to see how clean the knives, forks and spoons were.
When they both were seated, the bartender came after them, carrying menus. To Elizabeth’s surprise, she saw that the man, at ﬁrst sight so masculine and cute behind the bar, was limping, almost severely. As soon as she saw his walk, she looked away.
“I gotta tell you folks you’re the ﬁrst people I’ve ever served.” He was at the table now, beside them. “I’m a part-time bartender, and the girl who’s usually here when I’m here didn’t come in tonight. She’s sixteen years old. What can I tell you? And the regular waitress, Eva, she’s in the back. In the meeting room, serving about thirty people. It’s a Kiwanis meeting.”
“Is it,” Jonathan said, rather dryly, holding his hand out for the menus, which the bartender, suddenly remembering he had, gave to them.
Elizabeth remembered seeing a number of cars parked in the parking lot, and now that was explained.
The bartender chatted on, friendly. “Yeah. They meet once a month here. We put on a pretty good feed for them.”
Elizabeth nodded, to be polite, and smiled. Jonathan perused the menu. Elizabeth, who didn’t want to make the man have to wait, did the same right away, and Jonathan, leaning back, moved his eyes over the menu, as if he were in a highclass city restaurant.
“What can you say about the beef?” Jonathan asked the bartender, who was holding a pencil and an order book in his hands, leaning over her and Jonathan. The bartender was awkward, the pencil and book awkward in his hands.
The bartender grinned, a little nervously, a little confused. “What can I say about it?”
“Yes, what can you say about it?” Jonathan took a deep breath. He was just not pleased.
“Uhh…uhhh…it’s pretty good, I guess. We’ve never gotten any complaints, as far as I know. The cook here’s pretty good. The owner’s sister.”
“And the chops? The lamb?”
The bartender, learning Jonathan’s way of doing things, could answer this one. “They’re good, too. Had some of them myself last week.”
Elizabeth wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to intervene, either. Jonathan put the menu on the table. “Well, then I’ll have the lamb chops.”
The bartender didn’t write Jonathan’s order down. “You know, sir,” he said, thinking, trying to do a good job. “Let me go into the kitchen and make sure we have them. I don’t want you to see something and then ﬁnd out we don’t have them.”
“All right,” Jonathan said, and the bartender left their side, limping, almost painfully, as far as Elizabeth was concerned, Jonathan rolling his eyes a little at her. But the bartender wasn’t gone long, only took enough time to stick his head into a door at the back of the empty dining room, which obviously was the door to the kitchen.
“The owner’s sister says she has the chops, but they’ll take a little while, given all the action she has in the back with the Kiwanis club.”
“I see.” Again Jonathan took his breath in deeply. Then he went back to the menu, muttering, “Well, I really can’t wait. I’m very hungry. We’ve had a very long trip up here from the city.”
“I’m sorry,” the bartender said.
Now Elizabeth saw her chance to speak. She gave a little laugh. “You don’t have to be sorry. It’s our problem.”
“Oh. Okay,” the bartender said. “I guess, I’m just sorry to hear that that happened.”
“What about the beef? Will that take a long time?” Jonathan asked. “Do you think you should check with the owner’s sister on that one?”
The bartender, ingenuous, thought about Jonathan’s remark, and then agreed with it. “Yeah, you’re right. I’d better.” He talked to both of them, and went oﬀ again. In a few minutes, he was back for the second time at their table. He was pleased to deliver his message. “She says there’s no problem with the beef. That’s easier.”
“Good. Good,” Jonathan said, ironic. “I’m so glad.” He looked up at the man, who was now poised to write down their order. “What does it come with?”
The bartender seemed stricken. Apparently, he had not anticipated the question. He tried to think and act as quickly as he could. “Uh, uh,” he said, leaning over Jonathan and pretty much reading the menu with him. “I think it says there what the beef comes with, doesn’t it?” He found what he was looking for. “There. There, it is.” He was reading it for Jonathan, with his ﬁnger. “Choice of salad or soup. Choice of vegetable. Coﬀee and dessert. We even give you a glass of wine, if you want.”
Jonathan, himself learning something, could see what was ahead of him, so he ordered with dispatch.
“Okay,” he said, leaning back again, probably feeling once more in control of the situation. “I’ll have the soup.” He spoke quickly. “What kind do you have?”
The bartender knew the answer to that one. “Barley and rice or tomato.”
“I’ll have the barley and rice. And the vegetables?”
The bartender knew that one, too, glancing at the menu for some help. “Red cabbage, spinach, coleslaw, macaroni salad. You get your choice of two.”
“The red cabbage and the spinach,” Jonathan told him. “And no wine.” Jonathan didn’t drink.
The bartender felt triumphant and wrote down Jonathan’s order. “All right,” he said, happy that things were starting to go well. “And what will you have, ma’am?” he asked Elizabeth, looking at her for the ﬁrst time. Elizabeth could see that he had nice, blue eyes.
* * *
When Elizabeth had given the bartender her order, he smiled and thanked her, thanked them both, and then walked away, limping. When he had gone, Jonathan rolled his eyes once again and shook his head. “What do you have to do to get a meal around here?” he asked her.
“He was nice, Jonathan,” Elizabeth risked saying to him, hoping to turn the situation around a little. “He was trying his best.”
Jonathan raised an incredulous eyebrow.
They did wait for sometime for anything to happen. She and Jonathan made a little, further conversation about the restaurant. They looked around the walls at the stuﬀed, mounted heads, and they glanced over at the bar several times. At ﬁrst, the bartender smiled, probably as a signal that he was on their side during their waiting period, and then he limped oﬀ into the kitchen, presumably to see about their meal. Elizabeth watched him, making his way, his tattoo on his arm, and noticed for the ﬁrst time that he was sporting a small pony tail. While waiting more, they speculated about the restaurant.
“There are probably millions of places like this all over the country,” Jonathan said.
“Yes. I guess you’re right,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “At least, though, he could bring me my soup,” Jonathan
appealed to her, after more time. “I…am…simply…starving.” He clipped his words out one at a time.
Finally, a very sweet-looking, older woman came out of the kitchen, carrying Jonathan’s soup, and was quite apologetic.
“I’m so sorry this took so long,” she tried to explain to them. She had white hair, tied in a bun, and some make-up on, and she was wearing a neat, waitress outﬁt. “We’re so busy right at this moment. This is a pretty big Kiwanis meeting, their once-a-year meeting. Everybody’s here.”
“Well, at least we’ve got the soup,” Jonathan managed to say.
“Jamie’s in the kitchen helping out the cook, things are so bad. Thank goodness there are no customers at the bar.”
“He’s been very nice,” Elizabeth assured her. The old waitress appreciated this.
“The poor boy, he’s doing everything he can. Whatever he can. He’s a bartender, you know. Our part-time bartender. The sweetest boy God ever made.”
Jonathan furrowed his brow at this.
The old waitress shook her head. “He’s had a terrible life recently. Had that thing happen to his leg a few years ago. Showing oﬀ was what it was. On his motorcycle.” The old waitress put her hand to her chest. Jonathan sipped his soup. “I tell you, there’s no end to what a man, especially a boy like that, will do for a woman. Anything to please her.” She looked at Elizabeth. “Women should know that, shouldn’t they, honey? Not that they’re responsible in the end, I don’t think, but they should know that.”
Elizabeth had to smile and found herself nodding in agreement.
“Well, I’d better get back,” the old waitress said. “I told Jamie I’d bring the soup to the gentleman.” She glanced at Jonathan. He nodded, thanking her, though clearly half-heartedly. “Your meals will be out at any moment. Jamie was getting them ready when I came out here.”
“Thank you for that, ma’am,” Elizabeth said to her.
They waited for another few minutes, and then ﬁnally the bartender came out of the kitchen, holding a tray with their meals on it. He carried them carefully, the tray in front of him in both his hands, as if the safety of the meals meant more than anything to him. He walked slowly, his head down, until he got to their table.
“I know it’s been forever,” he said, putting their meals out before them, still as careful as he could be. “You people are really nice. Eva said she enjoyed talking to you. And the cook said she took extra care and also gave you extra portions.”
Elizabeth wondered if Jonathan’s patience was running out, or at least running dangerously low. When all the plates were oﬀ the tray, including the small ones with the vegetables on them, the waiter—Elizabeth decided to now think of him as Jamie—looked up at them brightly. “There, that’s it,” he announced. “You’ve got everything we’ve got.” He seemed so proud of himself, and of his restaurant. “I wanted everything to get here just ﬁne for you. I certainly didn’t want to mess up.”
Elizabeth had to say something. “Our meals look wonderful. Looks like a lot of ﬁne country cooking. I know we’ll enjoy it.” She turned to Jonathan, who simply didn’t think he owed anybody anything. Then she turned back to Jamie, their bartender and their waiter, the motorcycle boy who apparently had ended up giving up his leg for a lady he had fancied, a girl who probably stole his heart the moment he ﬁrst saw her. “This is a very ﬁne way to end the day,” she told him, but leaning towards Jonathan, too, trying to include him in her feelings. “Thanks for worrying about us so much.”
Jamie brushed his hair back with his hand and made a little toss of his head. It was just darling, Elizabeth thought.
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. You people are about as nice as they come. I don’t mind saying it.”
Elizabeth had to smile. “Well, that’s very nice of you to say.”
As Jamie limped away, Jonathan, cutting his beef, shook his head. “‘You people are about as nice as they come’,” he mimicked. “Can you believe that? What does he even know about us? The presumption, really. He probably wants a good tip. Thinks he can get a good tip out of us with some of that ol’ country boy charm.”
“I didn’t think he was trying to do that,” Elizabeth said to Jonathan, gently really. “I think he meant it sincerely.”
“Terriﬁc,” Jonathan said, putting his beef into his mouth with his fork. “That’s what I love beyond everything else. Wait-service that makes itself part of your meal.”
* * *
After that, and for the rest of their meal together, Jonathan and Elizabeth hardly spoke. Jonathan concentrated on his beef, and his vegetables, and then the coﬀee and dessert, rice pudding, that Jamie brought to him after Jonathan ordered it. Elizabeth declined dessert, something she had always been able to do in her life, and had only coﬀee, lingering over it. Still they didn’t talk, as if Jonathan had decided that he’d be dammed if he’d be the ﬁrst one to speak. Finally, the point not at all being important to her, she spoke.
“Good meal, Jonathan, huh?”
Jonathan backed away from the table, and she even thought she heard him suck on his teeth. “It was okay. I’ve had better, I’ve had worse.”
Elizabeth screwed up her face a little. “Oh, come on, Jonathan, you have to admit, that was a good meal. Mine was wonderful—the roast chicken—” She tried to make a joke. “—the red cabbage, the creamed spinach, the gravy.”
“Some of us are pleased easier than others,” he said, snippy. There was no other way to describe it. He really wanted to be unpleasant, for the time being. “I thought you were the quintessential big-city woman,” he pointed out to her, archly.
She didn’t answer him.
“At any rate, I’m going to use the facilities,” Jonathan went on, getting up abruptly from the table. “I can’t wait, and god knows what’s back at the camp. And I want to clean up, too. I hope their bathroom is relatively clean.” He reached into his back pocket, took his wallet out, and his credit card. “Here. Pay the bill for me, will you? Sign my name. Give him ten percent, Elizabeth. No more. That’s perfectly right.” Again Elizabeth didn’t answer, but she took the credit card, watching him walk away, so handsome, so conﬁdent.
When Jonathan had disappeared into the men’s room at the far end of the dining room, opposite them, Elizabeth looked over to the bar and caught Jamie’s eye, waving the credit card and signaling that she wanted the check. A couple of men had now come into the restaurant, and Jamie was talking and waiting on them, plopping beers down on the bar. Almost immediately, he came over to her, limping, and smiled. “Was everything okay?” he asked, giving her the check.
Elizabeth waved him oﬀ and just handed him the card. “Everything was perfect,” she said. “Please don’t worry yourself.”
“All right,” he said, enjoying himself, limping away with the card and check, and then returning in a minute. Jonathan was still in the men’s room.
As Jamie came towards her, limping, holding the credit card, tanned, tattoo-ed, his sandy hair with a little pony tail, his black sleeveless shirt and boots reminding her again of his motorcycle, she had a sudden swell of emotion. He looked… so cute, so sweet.
I wonder what it would be like to sleep with this man, she thought.
When he was beside her, she quickly signed the charge receipt, added thirty percent to the bill as his tip, and wrote something else on the piece of paper. Then she handed him the receipt back, placing the receipt on the little platter that restaurants usually provide along with the bill. Out of politeness, she supposed, he didn’t look at what she had written. As she stared at him, she wondered where she would be when he read her note, and if she were kidding herself to think it would mean a lot to him. She also wondered about her capacity for love—genuine, giving love—where it came from at this moment, and what percentage it was of what she had just done. She did not think he would do what she had written, didn’t see how he could, but she thought it would be nice for him to know that she had made the oﬀer.
She had written her phone number on the receipt and told him to call her.
The Steinmacht Radio
JESSE TRIED TO do the right thing. Things never worked out in high school and for a few years after that—some odd jobs. But he did try to do the right thing, tried hard.
That’s why when he met Meg in the bar and fell in love with her, instead of just living with her and her kids, he talked her into marrying him.
At ﬁrst, she didn’t want to. “Oh, Jesse, you don’t have to do that,” she said to him. But Jesse insisted, so in the end they did, by a Justice of the Peace.
“All right, you can give the judge your donation now,” said the fat lady who worked for the judge, who stood up for them.
“What?” said Jesse.
“The money,” Meg whispered in Jesse’s ear. “She wants, they want the money for marrying us.”
“Oh,” Jesse said.
The ﬁrst place Jesse rented for his new family was a whole house, not too bad, either, not too old or out of shape. Meg liked the roominess it had. But just behind the house, which was built on a pretty steep hill, the earth dropped away pretty much straight down, and he and Meg could never rest with the kids outside. Their was a hedge that kind of protected against the fall, but it was pretty skimpy and for no good reason, it seemed, there was a big space in the hedge just about where the kids came out the back door of the house, maybe ten, twelve feet away.
“Some backyard,” Jesse said, scratching his head. “How would you know someone would build a house like this?”
The second place Jesse rented for them was better—at least, you could make a pretty good case that it was better. It was a little ranch house on a concrete slab, smaller but newer than the ﬁrst house and in a better neighborhood. But this house turned out to have the beginning of a railroad yard behind it, about a couple hundred feet away. The backyard to this house was big enough, and there was a line of trees between the house and the yard, but the yard was there nonetheless, and even at night you could hear them banging the train cars together, coupling them, Jesse learned from the neighbors.
“Hells bells,” Mr. Lafayette, their next door neighbor, said. He had worked for the railroad for years, but was now retired, except for when he worked part-time as a guard for the small-engines factory where Jesse worked. “A person can get used to the banging and the booming. It’s when they come down roundin’ that mountain that scares the b’dickens out of me. It ain’t outa the question that some day or night a train could be in our garden or even the house. They’ve had wrecks over there before. Especially when some conductor’s all liquored up. They just never got quite up to here yet.”
Audrey, Meg’s oldest, and a real wise-ass, if the truth be told, sat at the Formica table in the little kitchen they had, eating dinner Meg had made for all of them and said, “It think it’s dumb living here.”
“Be quiet, Audrey,” Meg said, sticking up for Jesse. “Yeah,” Ralphie, Meg’s boy, who disagreed with every-
thing his older sister said, chimed in.
“I need a beer,” Jesse said, getting up from the table and walking into the living room, where he could light up a cigarette and watch television.
At the factory, Jesse worked hard and tried to keep his nose clean. He even liked the place and hoped that everything was going to work out there. In the beginning, he didn’t think it would. Mr. Pavlich, who was his supervisor, was the father of a guy Jesse had met a few times who had told him about the job at the factory. On Jesse’s ﬁrst day, Mr. Pavlich walked Jesse into the supervisor’s oﬃce and more or less asked him to spy on his fellow workers for him. Mr. Pavlich was a short, square-set man, who talked with an accent.
“Jesse, you do me a favor, huh? You let me know what the mens say about me, okay? You know my son. It helps me out, okay?”
At Mr. Pavlich’s words a distress alarm went oﬀ somewhere in Jesse, and he actually felt himself get warm. He had just gotten to the job!
“Uhhh, gee, Mr. Pavlich…” He let his sentence trail oﬀ, not knowing what to say, hoping his being unable to say anything would somehow excuse him. But it didn’t help.
“It’s no big deal, Jesse,” Mr. Pavlich told him, patting him fatherly on the cheek.
Jesse never knew exactly if anybody saw him go into Mr. Pavlich’s oﬃce and get a talking to, but he always ﬁgured at least somebody had to. After that, every few days Mr. Pavlich would come up to him where Jesse sat at his machine, raise his eyebrows as a question and say, “Huh? What they say, huh, Jesse? You tell me something?”
But Jesse never did. He just looked at Mr. Pavlich confused and uncomfortable and said, as quietly as he could, “Gee, Mr. Pavlich, I don’t hear anything. I really don’t. I just stay here by my machine and keep working. I got my quota to make. You know.”
And to show Mr. Pavlich his loyalty in another way Jesse worked as hard as he could. The factory had a reputation for making good small engines, and Jesse had been assigned to the polishers’ section. All day long, he sat at his machine and picked an engine part out of the bushel basket on his left, polished and buﬀed it to absolute smoothness, according to speciﬁcations, and then dropped it into the bushel basket on his right. Though he was in a line with all the other polishers, he hardly talked to anyone else while he was working. The company policy didn’t want people gabbing all day long while they were working, but it didn’t forbid it, as long as nobody abused the privilege. But even so Jessie just kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated on always making his quota, and even going over it some days. He had worked out a routine that really let him polish and buﬀ cam shafts and rotors as fast as possible, without wasting any motion or time, and he was proud of it. One time, he even showed Mr. Pavlich exactly how he did it.
“Hey, we ought to let you show the other polishers what you do, Jesse, you know,” Mr. Pavlich told him, beside him and his machine, beaming. “They could use the help.”
But working like that, to show Mr. Pavlich what ‘a good man’ he could be and to secure his job, got Jesse—he never realized it, he never saw it coming—into trouble with the other side, not management, but his fellow workers. One lunchtime, he went to the room where people could eat. He sat down at one of the tables and had just opened a sandwich that Meg had made for him when Arthur, a thin guy who worked in the plating department sat down next to him. Arthur was about Jesse’s age, maybe a little older, and he giggled nervously when he talked, but he was always very, very serious, especially now. “Hey, Jesse,” Arthur said to him, with his little, nervous
giggle. “I gotta talk to you, man.” “Okay,” Jesse said.
Arthur looked around him. “Jesse, I don’t know if you know it or not, but I’m the union representative around here. The men voted me in.”
“Oh,” Jesse said, nodding.
“And, uh, Jesse…I gotta tell ya…that…” Arthur leaned closer to Jesse. “…that…you’re working too hard, man…too good…you know what I mean?”
Jesse, who had started eating his sandwich, stopped. “What do you mean?” he asked Arthur.
“I mean, you’re working too hard, too good. It’s not good for the rest of us. You know? It puts pressure on us, the management picks up on it. Someday maybe they tell us we should increase production, they look to a guy like you for justiﬁcation.”
“You’re kidding,” Jesse said ﬁrst. Suddenly, he felt like he was in a movie he had seen somewhere. But he knew he wasn’t. It was a very real thing. “But I didn’t know that? Why didn’t somebody tell me? I don’t want to cause any trouble for anybody. I just want to do a good job. Hell, I really need the job.”
Arthur agreed with Jesse. He nodded his head, showing Jesse he understood. “I know. I know. That’s why I’m telling you now. Just so you understand. We all want to do a good job, Jesse.” Now Arthur leaned back and smiled, and theatrically spread his arms apart. “We all need our jobs, too.”
Jesse tried to make himself as very clear as he could. “Look, Arthur, I’m happy to do anything anybody wants me to do. I knew we had a union, but I was told that I couldn’t join up right away. There’s a waiting period, a trial period or something. To see if you’re going to stay at the factory. I’ll join up right now. My trial period’s gotta be over. I don’t want any goddamn trouble. I just want things to work out. That’s all I want.”
“You don’t have to do that, Jesse. You don’t have to sign up yet.”
“But I want to, Arthur. I’ll do whatever anybody wants me to. I’ll join up. I’ll help out. You got committees or something? I’ll be on them.”
At that, Arthur didn’t know what to say, and Jesse tried to breathe easier, thought he could breathe easier.
And then one day, several months later, a Saturday, Jesse had the encounter with the radio, the Steinmacht radio. The morning had been busy. Everyone was tired from the week.
“Boy, it sure was a long week,” Meg said, in bed, stretching, in her nightgown, as if all the weeks were not long. She looked especially desirable to Jesse, but he found himself uncertain about letting her know that. Besides, the kids were only around the corner, in the little house’s other bedroom. It was morning, not a good time. He should have thought ahead last night.
A few minutes later, while they were all gathered in the kitchen, his mother called. It was about Jesse’s father, of course. His mother and father lived back in the city, where they had always lived. Moving out with Meg to where he and she were did have its positive side. Jesse remembered once he and his father had had such a bad ﬁght that Jesse actually thought his father was going to have a heart attack and die right in the living room of the house in the city.
“Is everything all right?” he asked his mother, knowing it wasn’t.
“I just wanted to talk with you, Jesse,” his mother told him. His mother had become an enormous woman, and not much good in any situation in the last few years. “Your father’s drinking real bad now. Worse than ever before.”
“Ma, he’s trying to drink himself to death. I told you that before.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier on me, Jesse,” she said to him, after a few moments of silence.
But at about noon, Jesse insisted they all get in their car, which Jesse had swapped for his pickup truck when he married Meg, and drive to the new shopping center in the next town. Audrey didn’t want to go, she wanted to play with her friends, but Ralphie did and Meg was happy to please Jesse.
“It’ll be fun,” Jessie told everyone, especially Audrey. “You’ll see. “We can walk around. See what they got.”
“Yes, but are we going to buy anything,” Audrey said. “We always walk around, but we hardly buy anything.”
“Oh, Audrey, stop it,” Meg told her daughter. Now she looked tired to Jesse, and lit up another cigarette. He had to ﬁgure out how to get her to stop smoking, at least cut down.
“We’ll buy something,” Jesse said, taking up Audrey’s challenge.
When they got to the new shopping center, Jesse thought he had never seen so many people, a place so crowded, he soon learned, because of all the opening-day sales the stores were having. Jesse was especially drawn to an enormous store, called Superworld, and he asked Meg and the kids if they could go into it. Inside the store, people had to squeeze by each other, brushing up against the counters and display cases to do so. On the second ﬂoor, in the electronics section, next to the appliance section, Jesse saw the Steinmacht radio. It was on display with a number of other radios, behind a glass case that was locked. The radio was larger than most and very sleek-looking, with a hard, brown, bright-lacquer ﬁnish. The face of the radio had several dials, more than ordinary radios, and it just seemed foreign looking, with its strange signs and notations. A small card, in front of the radio to one side said: On Sale!
“Look, guys,” Jesse said, pointing to it, almost pushing everyone towards it. “That’s a Steinmacht radio. Isn’t it gorgeous? Did you ever see anything like it? And it’s on sale!”
Meg and Audrey and Ralphie were obviously confused. They weren’t quite sure how to react, what to think. Jesse was all excited about this radio, which was handsome enough, but it was, after all, just a radio.
“So?” Audrey asked. “Yeah,” Ralphie said.
Now Jesse was up close to it, his nose almost against the glass. “It’s a Steinmacht. It’s a Steinmacht. Don’t you know anything about Steinmacht radios?”
Meg was wide-eyed. “No, they don’t, Jesse. How could they?”
“Well, it’s only the best radio made in the world,” Jessie explained, turning to them. “I mean, there may be greater radios, in the Army or something, really top-secret kind of stuﬀ. But for ordinary people, this is as good as it gets.”
“So? So what?” Audrey said again. There were all these other parts of Superworld she wanted to see, see bad.
“So, nothing,” Jesse said. “I just wanted you to see it, that’s all. I just wanted to see it.”
Audrey shrugged, not impressed.
“Where’s the toy section?” Ralphie asked his mother, turning and looking up at her.
“And it’s on sale, too,” Jesse repeated. “Can you beat that? I never thought I’d see the day. Hell, I never thought I’d see the day that I’d see a radio like that in a place like this.”
Meg stared at Jesse, carefully. “Do you want to get it?” she asked him. “You want the radio, Jesse?”
Jesse stared at Meg back. “Are you kidding? We couldn’t aﬀord that radio, Meg. Not by a long shot. Sure, I’d like it in my wildest dreams, but that’s about it.”
“No, get it, Jesse,” Meg told him. She took him by the hand. “I want you to get it. We’ll aﬀord it somehow.”
“I still don’t know what’s so special about that radio,” Audrey said. “How do you know about it anyway?”
“My father,” Jessie explained. “He isn’t good for much, but he always used to tell me about a Steinmacht radio. That’s what he always wanted. He said the old machinists from overseas, where he worked, told him about it and said it was the best.”
“Can we look at some toys, Momma?” Ralphie said, ﬁnally a little unpleasant, thinking more about himself.
“Get it, Jesse,” Meg repeated. “I don’t know why. I just feel you ought to get it.”
“I can’t,” Jesse told her. “Even on sale, it’s way out of our league, Meg. You know that.”
Meg shook her head at him. She seemed very convinced. “Oh, get it, for god’s sakes,”
“We got bills, Meg. Big bills. And they’re gonna keep coming. They ain’t going away. That ain’t going to change.” “All right, I’ll just come back another time, when you’re
not with me and get it,” Meg said.
“Don’t you do that, Meg. I want things to work out. I don’t want anything to go wrong. Please understand that.”
In the end, Jesse bought the Steinmacht radio. It was clear to Meg that he wanted it, and when he considered that fact, he saw the truth of the matter. As he made the purchase, though, he did feel sheepish and edgy.
“You’re getting a good buy, mister,” the salesman, who was writing up his order, told him. “This is a good sale price.” It seemed there were customers all around them, waiting impatiently, even asking questions over Jesse’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Jesse said. “But it’s still a lot of money. I mean, a lot of money.”
The salesman was a little younger than him, obviously some middle class kid, who pretty much felt smarter than anyone else.
“Well, it is a Steinmacht.”
“I know that,” Jesse told him. “What are the terms of the payment plan?”
The salesman shrugged. “Pretty much the usual thing. You pay it oﬀ in a year. Twelve installments. Plus sales tax and interest. Unless you want the insurance policy, too. That’s extra.”
Jesse shook his head. “No. No insurance policy. I don’t know why people have to buy an insurance policy when something’s brand new.”
The salesman didn’t agree. “Well, I don’t know. Some people think that’s a better way to go. You never know.”
Jesse decided to ignore him. “Twelve installments? What does that come out to each installment? And what’s the whole total?”
The salesman seemed to sigh, but computed the ﬁgures for Jesse, and then told him, when Jesse looked at them closely, “You want to go longer? I can bring the monthly payment down if you go eighteen months, two years.”
“No, no,” Jesse said. “I don’t want this to go on for more than a year.”
“Suit yourself,” the salesman said, turning to the next customer.
On the drive back to their house, Jesse didn’t say much or pick up on anything Meg said about the purchase. As for the kids, he hoped they didn’t say anything that would rattle him. As he took the Steinmacht out of the car, he handled it, in its cardboard carton, as carefully as he could, lifting it out of the trunk of the car and carrying it into the house as if it were a carton of eggs. Once inside the house, he had to decide where to put it, something he hadn’t thought of, and ﬁnally decided on one end of the living room, rather than in his and Meg’s bedroom.
“I want it to be the family’s radio,” he explained to Meg and the kids. “That way I’ll feel better. What do you think everybody?” He put the carton on the ﬂoor in the living room and began to, rather delicately, open it up, not tearing at the carton.
Audrey didn’t seem to care. She was starting to lose interest, and besides she had wanted something of her own. Ralphie, clearly, wanted to go and play.
“Put it wherever you want,” Audrey told him. “I just don’t understand why I couldn’t get anything.”
“Me too,” Ralphie said.
“Knock it oﬀ,” Meg was quick to intervene. “You two do all right.”
“I don’t think so,” Audrey said. “Can I go out now?”
“I wish you had let me get something for you, Meg. You’re the one who should have gotten something.”
Jesse thought about Meg, about her life so far—things not much better than his, a ﬁrst marriage that should never have happened, and now him, Jesse, who could just about manage, if he worked hard enough, was smart enough, and minded his p’s and q’s. She shouldn’t have been so good-looking and sexy, from the time she was a kid even. That would have probably made a part of her life a lot better.
“What would you like, Meg, if you could have anything?” Jesse asked her.
“I don’t know, Jesse,” she said, not wanting to be bothered, but good-natured about it, too.
“I mean, more clothes? Your own car? A chance to do some traveling around?”
“I don’t know, Jesse. Just enjoy your radio, won’t you?”
As he continued to unpack the carton, the others all went their own way, not wanting to wait around until he set it up and played it for them. They could listen to it later. Audrey went across the street to a girlfriend’s house, and Ralphie went outside to see which of his neighborhood friends might be there.
Slowly, Jesse unpacked each piece of the radio—the tuner itself, its two speakers, its antenna, and the connecting wires that came with it.
“Man, this is no one-piece aﬀair,” he commented.
When he had all the pieces unpacked and on the ﬂoor beside him, Jesse took the directions and began hooking the speakers up to the tuner and attaching the antenna. The job went easy, and for the moment Jesse began to feel a little better about everything. After the antenna was secure, he spread the ears of it open and pushed the now-assembled radio towards the electrical outlet low on the wall underneath the table by the living room chair. Plugging the radio in, he backed away a little and turned it on, and almost immediately it lit up nicely where the dials were, a glowing green color, and began to send out strong, screechy noises.
“Static,” Jesse commented. “Let me ﬁnd a good station.” He turned the radio’s tuning dial. “God, I don’t even know what a good station is around here,” he said.
Finally, a station came in loud and pretty clear, Jesse kneeling before the radio on the ﬂoor, leaning forward. At its sound, Meg came into the living room from the kitchen, where she was cleaning up.
“Oh, you got it going, huh?” she observed to him.
“Sort of,” Jesse said to her. “I just gotta get one good station coming in perfectly. Gimme a minute.”
“It sounds pretty good to me,” Meg said.
“Yeah, but I want it to be even better.” Jesse was whirling the tuner dial now, bleeping past one station after another whenever he couldn’t immediately ﬁnd one that was staticfree. “A radio like this can pull in other countries. Look at those other dials. I think they’re even for overseas.” Jesse looked up at Meg. “It least, it ought to. It damn well better, seeing how much it’s going to cost us.”
But try as he may, Jesse could not get the exact sound he wanted from a station. He thought he had it from a few of the local stations, but in the end, he wasn’t so sure.
“Those sound just ﬁne, Jesse,” Meg tried to assure him, wiping her hands on a towel she had brought into the living room with her. “Those sound just ﬁne to me.”
Jesse was wondering if he were getting impatient. “Yeah, but not good enough for what we’re paying for this thing. Hell, Meg, it’s going to take us a year to pay it oﬀ. It better come in better than this. This radio is supposed to be one of the best in the world.”
“Well, it sounds okay to me,” Meg repeated, thinking it better to go back into the kitchen.
“But the static-y part, Meg. That’s what I’m talking about.
Listen real carefully.”
Jesse put his ear up close to one of the speakers, and Meg leaned forward to oblige him.
“This is the best station I can get. Do you hear it?”
In the end, Meg couldn’t hear what Jesse wanted her to hear and did go back into the kitchen. For the next hour or so, Jesse continued to work with the radio. He tried station after station, moving the dial as little and carefully as he could to a promising station, to try and capture the perfect sound, or at least a sound that would satisfy him. He got up oﬀ the ﬂoor and re-connected the antenna, and moved them around in various directions and to various heights to see if he could get what he wanted. He moved the radio itself, sliding it across the ﬂoor. He even took it into the bedroom, to see if the reception would be better there. Soon after that, he walked away from the radio, left it oﬀ in the bedroom, passed Meg without saying a word, and went outside the house. He wandered around the backyard for some time, not sure whether or not to start a project. A few times the train cars in the yard, behind the trees and bushes, were boomed together. Trying to calm down, he went back inside the house, again not saying anything to Meg, who was cooking, and had another try at the Steinmacht. The radio’s reception was the same, no change, a decent-enough sound, but nothing clearly perfect, in his opinion, nor from the overseas dials, which were even less satisfactory. A few times more, as the day progressed, he tried again, and again nothing had changed. Finally, just before supper, Jesse walked into the kitchen. Meg had supper on the stove, and was setting the table, Audrey helping her. Ralphie was on the ﬂoor, playing with a toy car.
“That’s it,” he announced. “I’m bringing it back. I’m bringing it back to that damned store. I’m not going to pay for this thing for a year and only get that kind of sound. Do you know what I mean, Meg? Think of all those payments. All that might. I’m just not going to do it.”
“But I don’t think you can bring it back,” Meg said to him. “I don’t think you can bring back something when it is on sale.”
Jesse was ﬁrm. “Oh, no? Well, just wait and see. Just watch me. I’m bringing it back. I really am. Just let them try and give me a hard time.”
Meg stood up straight from placing plates out for everyone and put her hands on her hips. “Jesse, the radio’s ﬁne. It’s okay. I listened to it, and it plays just ﬁne. Stop going crazy over it.”
“I’m not going crazy over it, Meg. How can you say that? You think I want this to happen? I just wanted everything to be nice.”
Meg turned away from him. Audrey and Ralphie looked at him. “Well, do what you want, Jesse. But they’re not going to take it back.”
“We’ll see about that,” Jesse said, almost ﬁercely. “I don’t know how I could have done something so stupid.”
All day Sunday Jesse was out of sorts, and the day wasn’t much fun for Meg and the children, either. Jesse seemed almost ready to explode, he was so angry and frustrated. Everyone stayed away from him mostly, which he realized and made him try very hard to control himself. Several times he wanted to go into the bedroom and try the radio, but he resisted, except for once, when he more or less snuck into the bedroom, so that no one would see him and get upset. But even that one time, the Steinmacht was no better. There was no change. It was just like on Saturday. The reception came in, but it wasn’t what it should be. It wasn’t what it should have been for the cost, and for the fact that it was a Steinmacht.
On Monday, Jesse tried hard to concentrate on his work at the factory, and not make matters worse. Silently, he dropped Audrey and Ralphie oﬀ at school, and then Meg oﬀ at work. He was pretty much the same at his own work. He went into the factory, took his seat at his machine, and began polishing and buﬃng, minding his own business. At lunch, he tried to talk with some of the other workers, relax, enjoy himself. But, at the end of the day, after punching out, he got back into his car, picked everyone up, and drove straight into the next town to the giant store, Superworld, where he had bought the Steinmacht. He had packed it in the trunk of the car Sunday night.
When they got to Superworld, the parking lot in front of it was not nearly as crowded as it had been on Saturday afternoon, and when they were in the store itself, it was even less crowded. Holding the Steinmacht in its carton in front of him, with his little family hurrying behind him, Jesse made his way to the section where he had bought it. They had to walk across most of the ﬁrst ﬂoor of Superworld, take the escalator up to the second ﬂoor, and then march halfway across the second ﬂoor to where the electronics section was. Getting there, Jesse saw, to his momentary chagrin, that the same unpleasant young salesman who had sold him the radio was again behind the counter. He was waiting on a customer, but he did glimpse up to see Jesse, the radio, and the family, sigh, in no good humor, and return his attention to his customer. The sigh was enough to increase Jesse’s angry frustration and resolve. Seeming to take his time, the salesman continued to wait on his customer, a lady about in her ﬁfties, in no apparent hurry. Jesse became more and more agitated. Meg and the children stayed behind him, silent.
Finally, the salesman was ﬁnished with his customer, who walked away in the opposite direction, and turned his attention to Jesse, steeling himself for what he could very well guess was coming.
“Yes?” he asked Jesse, on guard, prepared to stand his ground. He looked at the radio in its carton, torn open, as Jesse wanted it to appear. “What can I do for you, sir?”
The two men just didn’t like each other. It was perfectly clear.
“Well, what you can do for me,” Jesse said. “Is to take this damned thing back. It doesn’t work right.”
There were a few other customers nearby, but Jesse certainly didn’t care. Meg and the children backed away a little, and pretended to be looking at some of the other electronic merchandise.
The salesman raised an eyebrow. “It doesn’t work right? That’s impossible. It’s brand new, and every one of those radios is checked over and over in the factory before it is shipped. It has to be working right.”
“Well, it isn’t,” Jesse insisted. “I don’t care what they do in the factory. If they check it, or checked it, a million times. It just doesn’t work right.”
The salesman wasn’t impressed.
“And maybe now I know why it was on sale,” Jesse said. The salesman simply did not feel like, was not going to,
give ground. “And why is that, sir?”
Jesse made out as if he were spelling to an infant. “Because…it…doesn’t…work!”
“Please, don’t shout, sir,” the salesman said. “Let me see it.”
Jesse put the radio and the carton down, and pushed them at the salesman. “Sure,” he said.
Slowly, deliberately, the salesman took the radio out of the carton, other customers paying some attention to what was going on between the salesman and Jesse.
“We have to put it together, of course,” the salesman said, not looking up at Jesse.
“Fine,” Jesse told him. “Put it together.”
“We have to take it over to the other counter, where there is more room and outlets.”
“Let’s go there then,” Jesse responded, ready for anything, war even.
Putting the parts of the Steinmacht back into the carton, almost willy-nilly, the salesman carried it to another counter behind the one they were at, Jesse and his family following along, at a bit of a distance. At the second counter, the salesman again unpacked the radio, assembled it quickly, as if an expert, and plugged it into an available electrical socket. The radio burst into noise, and the salesman as quickly grabbed one of its dials to bring a station in.
“Hmmmph,” Jesse uttered, in vindication.
When he had found a station, the salesman listened to its sound carefully. Then he twisted the dial to another station, listened, and then repeated this process several times. Each time the station came in, and the salesman nodded his head.
“There’s nothing wrong with this radio,” the salesman said. “You can hear for yourself. I’ve tried several stations, and they all sound ﬁne. And we’re inside the store with all this other electrical equipment, as well.”
“You thought that was clear?” Jesse asked the salesman. “You thought that was the kind of reception that the best radio in the world should have?”
The salesman stayed ﬁrm, speaking almost with his mouth closed. “Yes, I thought it was perfectly clear. What do you want?”
“I want what I’m going to pay for,” Jesse said, his anger starting to increase even. “I want what is going to be worth a year of payments, one hell of a lot of money.”
“Well, you have it, sir.” The salesman was stony. “There is nothing wrong with this radio. I don’t know what you want. Would you like to speak to the store manager?”
Jesse took a very deep breath, and leaned forward toward the salesman menacingly. “That would be just ﬁne with me. You go and get the store manager. Go and get the owner of the whole damn store.” More people now were listening the what was going on between Jesse and the salesman, and a few had collected around them. Jesse was aware of Meg and the children staying even farther away from him and the salesman.
“I don’t care if you get the god damn president. Nothing’s going to change. I want out of my contract. I’m not going to pay all that money for this thing. You go and get your manager and have him tell me that I’m out of the contract. That you’re going to take back this thing.” Jesse waved at the Steinmacht, as if to wave it far away from him.
The salesman, who had started to come out from behind the counter, paused. “That’s not going to happen, sir. So you’d better forget it. The manager isn’t going to say anything diﬀerent from me. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the radio, nobody’s going to tear up the contract. The radio is yours.”
“Oh, it is, huh?” Jesse said, suddenly moving over to where the salesman was, and grabbing onto him by the shirt. “It is, huh? Well, we’ll see about that, buddy.” Jesse was now pulling the salesman completely out from behind the counter. The man seemed stunned and terriﬁed, as if even in his own anger and stubbornness he had not been prepared for this.
“Jesse, Jesse,” Jesse could hear Meg calling, from behind him. “Jesse, Jesse, please.”
He could also hear that both Audrey and Ralphie were starting to cry, even Audrey.
But he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t stop himself. He just wanted them to take the radio back, to be out of the contract. He just wanted everything to be all right, to work out. That’s all he ever wanted, for god’s sakes.
He could feel the salesman start to crumble under his grip, and his own life start to come apart. But he couldn’t help it.
Trees by the Edge of the Lake
I HAVE ALWAYS enjoyed this northern city, this capital. As prosaic as it sounds, I suspect one of its principal attractions is that it is neither too big nor too small. An-
other, it came to me yesterday, is political. The few men who run this city, whose family and friends have for so long been in power, make certain that very little changes here. What is necessary, what is proﬁtable to them without unsettling anything, what keeps the city more or less up-to-date, not behind the times, which would also be unsettling—these are allowed. Young people, therefore, can come into their own here and at their own pace, a person can write a book here, evolve a philosophy. They have all the time they need. You get the idea, don’t you?
But what I like most of all about the city, if I think hard, if the truth be known, is its park. Yes, that’s right, it’s park. Heaven’s Gate Park is a masterpiece. I have always felt that way. Other residents may take it for granted or overlook it, or agree if you ask them if it is indeed beautiful, splendid. But I, I have never needed anyone to tell me what a jewel it is, situated right in the very center of the city. I have thought so since my ﬁrst day in this city, which is when I ﬁrst saw the park, so many years ago.
Let me to try to describe it for you. First, allow me to go halfway. To my mind, given my particular experience, Heaven’s Gate is simply in miniature a nineteenth-century English landscape. You know. I mean the landscape that Constable or Turner oﬀered to the world, the stunningly placid lake surrounded by trees, the reﬂections of the trees dark on the lake’s surface, sunlight silver on its surface, a few trees an abundance of green and compatibility by the edge of the lake? Well, add a broad pathway around the lake, a charming bridge at its middle, a handsome boat house at one end, and an expanse of ﬂower beds and smaller paths radiating from a giant statue of Moses atop a fountain, and there you have Heaven’s Gate Park.
Yesterday, in early evening, I had occasion to visit the park. You see, my wife is dying of brain cancer. She had these headaches, which we thought were brought on only by allergy, so, unsuspecting, she saw her doctor, who to the shock of us all had her take tests. The tests made it clear she had an astrocytoma, like a star, entwined among the still-healthy parts of her brain. A nurse at the hospital where I rushed her for surgery said my wife was doomed the moment the ﬁrst cell went bad and split. Of course I’ve done everything I could—I wasn’t one to withdraw, physically or emotionally from a stricken woman, as I’ve heard men sometimes do. I saw her through the operation to cut some of the cancer out of her brain, to lessen the pain, and I listened to her surgeon observe that he thought things went well. I gave her chemotherapy pills, which made me feel I was poisoning her, and watched the medication cause a blistering rash over her entire body except, curiously, for her hands and face, except particularly for her face. Simultaneously, I held her in my arms when the ﬁrst seizure came suddenly upon her, and called for an ambulance, comforting her with cooed words of love. I brought her home again, slept on the ﬂoor beside her bed in the event she went into some cataclysmic shock, and then repeated the process once more when she had another great seizure. The ﬁrst seizure gradually took away her I.Q. Anyone could see that. I remember one day she could read the newspaper, rather easily, I thought. A few days later she could not understand what she read when I asked her opinion of an editorial I’d recommended. The second seizure—we should have known—took away her sanity, or rather, her reason. After that, I placed her in the best of nursing homes, where she just sits in a wheelchair or lies in her room, and babbles away.
“Won’t someone please help me?” she asks, endlessly. “We should have a meeting, shouldn’t we? I need to make dinner. I’m so scared. Won’t someone please help me?”
The doctors have told me, as much as they dare, that more and more she’ll sleep away the days, until she never wakes up and her organs shut down. And I, after much anguish will agree to turn oﬀ the machines that keep her alive.
“To feed her, intravenously as we are—there’s no other way—” as one of her doctors says, “will only bloat her, until she explodes. Therefore, she has to die.”
All that will remain will be for her heart to beat less often, weaker and weaker, until the moment comes when it never beats again. Then the nurses will lead me from her bedside, gently, and ask if I’ve arranged for a funeral home to take her body away.
So, yesterday, unable to think of much anything else, having done everything I could, I visited Heaven’s Gate Park. That’s all. Just visited the park. I suppose, I hope, it was instinct, not proximity. I walked downhill the three blocks from the hospital to the park and its lake and, reaching the bridge, stopped and looked out upon the lake. It was so peaceful—the sunlight lambent upon the surface, the trees surrounding the lake. Despite my anguish, despite everything that had happened to my wife and myself, I felt its…how may I put it?…I want to get it exact…its goodness? Yes, its simple…goodness. The trees by the edge of the lake, particularly those trees, ﬁlled, inexplicably, my soul with their poetry. Their leaves trailing in the water, their reﬂection harmonizing with the slivery reﬂection of early evening light, the strolling couple I suddenly saw to one side on the path beguiled me, seduced me, hinting of some ageless truth and beauty, something incontrovertible, an intimation of meaning beyond pain, beyond petty decay and death. I sighed. I did not move. Standing there, I told myself this vision was not mere fantasy. It could not be, must not be. I told myself I had found a modicum of comfort.
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.