Despite the undercurrent of anxiety--a sense communicated daily that hardship was a persistent menace that only persistent diligence could hope to keep at bay; despite a generalized mistrust of the Gentile world; despite the fear of being battered that clung to many families because of the Depression--ours was not a neighborhood steeped in darkness. The place was bright with industriousness.
There was a big belief in life and we were steered relentlessly in the direction of success: a better existence was going to be ours. The goal was to have goals, the aim to have aims. This edict came entangled often in hysteria, the embattled hysteria of those whom experience had taught how little antagonism it takes to wreck a life beyond repair. Yet it was this edict-- emotionally overloaded as it was by the uncertainty in our elders, by their awareness of all that was in league against them--that made the neighborhood a cohesive place. A whole community perpetually imploring us not to be immoderate and screw up, imploring us to grasp opportunity, exploit our advantages, remember what matters.The shift was not slight between the generations and there was plenty to argue about: the ideas of the world they wouldn't give up; the rules they worshiped, for us rendered all but toothless by the pa.s.sage of just a couple of decades of American time; those uncertainties that were theirs and not ours. The question of how free of them we might dare to be was ongoing, an internal debate, ambivalent and exasperated. What was most cramping in their point of view a few of us did find the audacity to strain against, but the intergenerational conflict never looked like it would twenty years later. The neighborhood was never a field of battle strewn with the bodies of the misunderstood. There was plenty of haranguing to ensure obedience; the adolescent capacity for upheaval was held in check by a thousand requirements, stipulations, prohibitions--restraints that proved insuperable. One was our own highly realistic appraisal of what was most in our interest, another the pervasive rect.i.tude of the era, whose taboos we'd taken between our teeth at birth; not least was the enacted ideology of parental self-sacrifice that bled us of wanton rebelliousness and sent underground almost every indecent urge.It would have taken a lot more courage--or foolishness-- than most of us could muster to disappoint their pa.s.sionate, unflagging illusions about our perfectibility and roam very far from the permissible. Their reasons for asking us to be both law-abiding and superior were not reasons we could find the conscience to discount, and so control that was close to absolute was ceded to adults who were striving and improving themselves through us. Mild forms of scarring may have resulted from this arrangement but few cases of psychosis were reported, at least at the time. The weight of all that expectation was not necessarily killing, thank G.o.d. Of course there were families where it might have helped if the parents had eased up a little on the brake, but mostly the friction between generations was just sufficient to give us purchase to move forward.Am I wrong to think that we delighted in living there? No delusions are more familiar than those inspired in the elderly by nostalgia, but am I completely mistaken to think that living as well-born children in Renaissance Florence could not have held a candle to growing up within aromatic range of Tabachnik's pickle barrels? Am I mistaken to think that even back then, in the vivid present, the fullness of life stirred our emotions to an extraordinary extent?
Has anywhere since so engrossed you in its ocean of details? The detail, the immensity of the detail, the force of the detail, the weight of the detail--the rich endlessness of detail surrounding you in your young life like the six feet of dirt that'll be packed on your grave when you're dead.
Perhaps by definition a neighborhood is the place to which a child spontaneously gives undivided attention; that's the unfiltered way meaning comes to children, just flowing off the surface of things. Nonetheless, fifty years later, I ask you: has the immersion ever again been so complete as it was in those streets, where every block, every backyard, every house, every floor of every house--the walls, ceilings, doors, and windows of every last friend's family apartment--came to be so absolutely individualized? Were we ever again to be such keen recording instruments of the microscopic surface of things close at hand, of the minutest gradations of social position conveyed by linoleum and oilcloth, by yahrzeit candles and cooking smells, by Ronson table lighters and Venetian blinds? About one another, we knew who had what kind of lunch in the bag in his locker and who ordered what on his hot dog at Syd's; we knew one another's every physical attribute-- who walked pigeon-toed and who had b.r.e.a.s.t.s, who smelled of hair oil and who oversalivated when he spoke; we knew who among us was belligerent and who was friendly, who was smart and who was dumb; we knew whose mother had the accent and whose father had the mustache, whose mother worked and whose father was dead; somehow we even dimly grasped how every family's different set of circ.u.mstances set each family a distinctive difficult human problem.And, of course, there was the mandatory turbulence born of need, appet.i.te, fantasy, longing, and the fear of disgrace. With only adolescent introspection to light the way, each of us, hopelessly p.u.b.escent, alone and in secret, attempted to regulate it--and in an era when chast.i.ty was still ascendant, a national cause to be embraced by the young like freedom and democracy.
It's astonishing that everything so immediately visible in our lives as cla.s.smates we still remember so precisely. The intensity of feeling that we have seeing one another today is also astonishing. But most astonishing is that we are near-ing the age that our grandparents were when we first went off to be freshmen at the annex on February 1,1946. What is astonishing is that we, who had no idea how anything was going to turn out, now know exactly what happened.
That the results are in for the cla.s.s of January 1950--the unanswerable questions answered, the future revealed--is that not astonishing? To have lived--and in this country, and in our time, and as who we were. Astonishing.This is the speech I didn't give at my forty-fifth high school reunion, a speech to myself masked as a speech to them. I began to compose it only after the reunion, in the dark, in bed, groping to understand what had hit me. The tone-- too ruminative for a country club ballroom and the sort of good time people were looking for there--didn't seem at all ill-conceived between three and six a.m., as I tried, in my overstimulated state, to comprehend the union underlying the reunion, the common experience that had joined us as kids. Despite gradations of privation and privilege, despite the array of anxieties fostered by an impressively nuanced miscellany of family quarrels--quarrels that, fortunately, promised more unhappiness than they always delivered--something powerful united us. And united us not merely in where we came from but in where we were going and how we would get there. We had new means and new ends, new allegiances and new aims, new innards-- a new ease, somewhat less agitation in facing down the exclusions the goyim still wished to preserve. And out of what context did these transformations arise--out of what historical drama, acted unsuspectingly by its little protagonists, played out in cla.s.srooms and kitchens looking nothing at all like the great theater of life? Just what collided with what to produce the spark in us?I was still awake and all stirred up, formulating these questions 44.
and their answers in my bed--blurry, insomniac shadows of these questions and their answers--some eight hours after I'd driven back from New Jersey, where, on a sunny Sunday late in October, at a country club in a Jewish suburb far from the futility prevailing in the streets of our crime-ridden, drug-infested childhood home, the reunion that began at eleven in the morning went ebulliently on all afternoon long. It was held in a ballroom just at the edge of the country club's golf course for a group of elderly adults who, as Weequahic kids of the thirties and forties, would have thought a niblick (which was what in those days they called the nine iron) was a hunk of schmaltz herring. Now I couldn't sleep-- the last thing I could remember was the parking valet bringing my car around to the steps of the portico, and the reunion's commander in chief, Selma Bresloff, kindly asking if I'd had a good time, and my telling her, "It's like going out to your old outfit after Iwo Jima."Around three a.m., I left my bed and went to my desk, my head vibrant with the static of unelaborated thought. I wound up working there until six, by which time I had got the reunion speech to read as it appears above. Only after I had built to the emotional peroration culminating in the word "astonishing" was I at last sufficiently unastonished by the force of my feelings to be able to put together a couple of hours of sleep--or something resembling sleep, for, even half out of it, I was a biography in perpetual motion, memory to the marrow of my bones.Yes, even from as benign a celebration as a high school reunion it's not so simple to instantaneously resume existence back behind the blindfold of continuity and routine. Perhaps if I were thirty or forty, the reunion would have faded sweetly away in the three hours it took me to drive home. But there is no easy mastery of such events at sixty-two, and only a year beyond cancer surgery. Instead of recapturing time past, I'd been captured by it in the present, so that pa.s.sing seemingly out of the world of time I was, in fact, rocketing through to its secret core.For the hours we were all together, doing nothing more than hugging, kissing, kibitzing, laughing, hovering over one another 45.
recollecting the dilemmas and disasters that hadn't in the long run made a d.a.m.n bit of difference, crying out, "Look who's here!" and "Oh, it's been a long time" and "You remember me? I remember you," asking each other, "Didn't we once ..." "Were you the kid who . . . ," commanding one another--with those three poignant words I heard people repeat all afternoon as they were drawn and tugged into numerous conversations at once--"Don't go away!" . . . and, of course, dancing, cheek-to-cheek dancing our outdated dance steps to a "one-man band," a bearded boy in a tuxedo, his brow encircled with a red bandanna (a boy born at least two full decades after we'd marched together out of the school auditorium to the rousing recessional tempo of Iolanthe), accompanying himself on a synthesizer as he imitated Nat "King" Cole, Frankie Laine, and Sinatra--for those few hours time, the chain of time, the whole d.a.m.n drift of everything called time, had seemed as easy to understand as the dimensions of the doughnut you effortlessly down with your morning coffee. The one-man band in the bandanna played "Mule Train" while I thought, The Angel of Time is pa.s.sing over us and breathing with each breath all that we've lived through--the Angel of Time unmistakably as present in the ballroom of the Cedar Hill Country Club as that kid doing "Mule Train" like Frankie Laine. Sometimes I found myself looking at everyone as though it were still 1950, as though "1995" were merely the futuristic theme of a senior prom that we'd all come to in humorous papier-machemasks of ourselves as we might look at the close of the twentieth century. That afternoon time had been invented for the mystification of no one but us.Inside the commemorative mug presented by Selma to each of us as we were departing were half a dozen little rugelach in an orange tissue-paper sack, neatly enclosed in orange cellophane and tied shut with striped curling ribbon of orange and brown, the school colors. The rugelach, as fresh as any I'd ever snacked on at home after school--back then baked by the recipe broker of her mahjongg club, my mother--were a gift from one of our cla.s.s members, a Teaneck baker. Within five minutes of leaving the reun- 46.
ion, I'd undone the double wrapping and eaten all six rugelach, each a snail of sugar-dusted pastry dough, the cinammon-lined chambers microscopically studded with midget raisins and chopped walnuts. By rapidly devouring mouthful after mouthful of these crumbs whose floury richness--blended of b.u.t.ter and sour cream and vanilla and cream cheese and egg yolk and sugar--I'd loved since childhood, perhaps I'd find vanishing from Nathan what, according to Proust, vanished from Marcel the instant he recognized "the savour of the little madeleine": the apprehensive-ness of death. "A mere taste," Proust writes, and "the word 'death'
. . . [has] ... no meaning for him." So, greedily I ate, gluttonously, refusing to curtail for a moment this wolfish intake of saturated fat but, in the end, having nothing like Marcel's luck.Let's speak further of death and of the desire--understandably in the aging a desperate desire--to forestall death, to resist it, to resort to whatever means are necessary to see death with anything, anything, anything but clarity:One of the boys up from Florida--according to the reunion booklet we each received at the door, twenty-six out of a graduating cla.s.s of a hundred and seventy-six were now living in Florida ... a good sign, meant we still had more people in Florida (six more) than we had who were dead; and all afternoon, by the way, it was not in my mind alone that the men were tagged the boys and the women the girls--told me that on the way to Livingston from Newark Airport, where his plane had landed and he'd rented a car, he'd twice had to pull up at service stations and get the key to the restroom, so wracked was he by trepidation. This was Mendy Gur-lik, in 1950 voted the handsomest boy in the cla.s.s, in 1950 a broad-shouldered, long-lashed beauty, our most important jitterb.u.g.g.e.r, who loved to go around saying to people, "Solid, Jackson!" Having once been invited by his older brother to a colored wh.o.r.ehouse on Augusta Street, where the pimps hung out, virtually around the corner from his father's Branford Place liquor store--a wh.o.r.ehouse where, he eventually confessed, he'd sat fully clothed, waiting 47.
in an outer hallway, flipping through a Mechanix Ill.u.s.trated that he'd found on a table there, while his brother was the one who "did it"--Mendy was the closest the cla.s.s had to a delinquent. It was Mendy Gurlik (now Garr) who'd taken me with him to the Adams Theater to hear Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Johnson, and "Newark's own" Sarah Vaughan; who'd got the tickets and taken me with him to hear Mr. B., Billy Eckstine, in concert at the Mosque; who, in '49, had got tickets for us to the Miss Sepia America Beauty Contest at Laurel Garden. It was Mendy who, some three or four times, took me to watch, broadcasting in the flesh, Bill Cook, the smooth late-night Negro disc jockey of the Jersey station WAAT. Musical Caravan, Bill Cook's show, I ordinarily listened to in my darkened bedroom on Sat.u.r.day nights. The opening theme was Ellington's "Caravan," very exotic, very sophisticated, Afro-Oriental rhythms, a belly-dancing beat--just by itself it was worth tuning in for; "Caravan," in the Duke's very own rendition,made me feel nicely illicit even while tucked up between my mother's freshly laundered sheets. First the tom-tom opening, then winding curvaceously up out of the casbah that great smoky trombone, and then the insinuating, snake-charming flute. Mendy called it "b.o.n.e.r music."To get to WAAT, and Bill Cook's studio, we took the 14 bus downtown, and only minutes after we'd settled quietly like churchgoers in the row of chairs outside his gla.s.s-enclosed booth, Bill Cook would come out from behind the microphone to greet us. With a "race record" spinning on the turntable--for listeners still unadventurously at home--Cookie would cordially shake the hands of the two tall, skinny white sharpies, all done up in their one-b.u.t.ton-roll suits from the American Shop and their shirts from the Custom Shoppe, with the spread collars.
(The clothes on my back were on loan from Mendy for the night.) "And what might I play for you gentlemen?" Cookie graciously inquired of us in a voice whose mellow resonance Mendy would imitate whenever we talked on the phone. I asked for the melodious stuff, "Miss" Dinah Washington, "Miss" Savannah Churchill--and how arresting that was back then, the salacious chivalry of the dj's "Miss"-- while 48 .
Mendy's taste, spicier, racially far more authoritative, was for musicians like the lowdown saloon piano player Roosevelt Sykes, for Ivory Joe Hunter ("When ...
I lost my bay-bee ... I aahll. . . most lost my mind"), and for a quartet that Mendy seemed to me to take excessive pride in calling "the Ray-O-Vics"
emphasizing the first syllable exactly as did the black kid from South Side, Melvyn Smith, who delivered for Mendy's father's store after school. (Mendy and his brother did the Sat.u.r.day deliveries.) Mendy boldly accompanied Melvyn Smith one night to hear live bebop at the lounge over the bowling alley on Beacon Street, Lloyd's Manor, a place to which few whites other than a musician's reckless Desdemona would venture. It was Mendy Gurlik who first took me down to the Radio Record Shack on Market Street, where we picked out bargains from the 19-cent bin and could listen to the record in a booth before we bought it.
During the war, when, to keep up morale on the home front, there'd be dances one night a week during July and August at the Chancellor Avenue playground, Mendy used to scramble through the high-spirited crowd--neighborhood parents and schoolkids and little kids up late who ran gleefully round and round the painted white bases where we played our perpetual summer softball game--dispensing for whoever cared to listen a less conventional brand of musical pleasure than the Glenn Miller-Tommy Dorsey-inspired arrangements that most everybody else liked dancing to beneath the dim floodlights back of the school. Regardless of the dance tune the band up on the flag-festooned bandstand happened to be playing, Mendy would race around most of the evening singing, "CaWonia, Caldoma, what makes your big head so hard? Rocks!" He sang it, as he blissfully proclaimed, "free of charge," just as nuttily as Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five did on the record he obliged all the Daredevils to listen to whenever, for whatever refractory purpose (to play dollar-limit seven-card stud, to examine for the millionth time the drawings in his Tillie the Toiler "hot book," on rare occasions to hold a circle jerk), we entered his nefarious bedroom when n.o.body else was home.
And here now was Mendy in 1995, the Weequahic boy with the biggest talent for being less than a dignified model child, a personality halfway between mildly repellent shallowness and audacious, enviable deviance, flirting back then with indignity in a way that hovered continuously between the alluring and the offensive. Here was Dapper, Dirty, Daffy Mendy Gurlik, not in prison (where I was certain he'd wind up when he'd urge us to sit in a circle on the floor ofhis bedroom, some four or five Daredevils with our pants pulled down, competing to win the couple of bucks in the pot by being the one to "shoot" first), not in h.e.l.l (where I was sure he'd be consigned after being stabbed to death at Lloyd's Manor by a colored guy "high on reefer"--whatever that meant), but simply a retired restaurateur--owner of three steakhouses called Garr's Grill in suburban Long Island--at no place more disreputable than his high school cla.s.s's forty- fifth reunion."You shouldn't worry, Mend--you still got your build, your looks. You're amazing.
You look great."He did, too: well tanned, slender, a tall narrow-faced jogger wearing black alligator boots and a black silk shirt beneath a green cashmere jacket. Only the head of br.i.m.m.i.n.g silver-white hair looked suspiciously not quite his own but as though it had had an earlier life as the end of a skunk."I take care of myself--that isn't my point. I called Mutty"-- Marty "Mutty"
Sheffer, star sidearm pitcher of the Daredevils, the team we three played on in the playground softball league, and, according to the biographical listing in the reunion booklet, a "Financial Consultant" and, too (unlikely as it seemed when I remembered that, paralyzingly shy of girls, babyfaced Mutty had made pitching pennies his major adolescent diversion), progenitor of "Children 36,34,31. Grandchildren 2,1"--"I told Mutty," Mendy said, "that if he didn't sit next to me I wasn't coming. I had to deal with the real goons in my business.
Dealt with the f.u.c.king Mob. But this I could not deal with from day one. Not twice, Skip, three times I had to stop the car to take a c.r.a.p."
"Well," I said, "after years and years of painting ourselves opaque, this carries us straight back to when we were sure we were transparent.""Is that it?""Maybe. Who knows.""Twenty kids dead in our cla.s.s." He showed me at the back of the booklet the page headed "In Memoriam." "Eleven of the guys dead," Mendy said. " Two from the Daredevils. Bert Bergman. Utty Orenstein." Utty was Mutty's battery mate, Bert played second base. "Prostate cancer. The both of them. And both in the last three years. I get the blood test. I get it every six months since I heard about Utty. You get the test?""I get it." Of course, I didn't any longer because I no longer had a prostate."How often?""Every year.""Not enough," he told me. "Every six months.""Okay. I'll do that.""You been all right though?" he asked, taking hold of me by the shoulders."I'm in good shape," I said."Hey, I taught you to jerk off, you know that?""That you did, Mendel. Anywhere from ninety to a hundred twenty days before I would have happened upon it myself. You're the one who got me going.""I'm the guy," he said, laughing loudly, "who taught Skip Zuck-erman to jerk off. My claim to fame," and we embraced, the bald first baseman and white-haired left fielder of the dwindling Daredevil Athletic Club. The torso I could feel through his clothes attested to just how well he did take care of himself."I'm still at it," Mendy said happily. "Fifty years later. A Daredevil record.""Don't be so sure," I said. "Check with Mutty.""I heard you had a heart attack," he said.
"No, just a bypa.s.s. Years ago.""The f.u.c.king bypa.s.s. They stick that tube down your throat, don't they?""They do.""I saw my brother-in-law with the tube down his throat. That's all I need,"
Mendy said. "I didn't want to be here in the worst f.u.c.king way, but Mutty keeps calling and saying, 'You're not going to live forever,' and I keep telling him, 'I am, Mutt. I have to!' Then I'm schmuck enough to come, and the first thing I see when I open up this booklet is obituaries."When Mendy went off to get a drink and find Mutty, I looked for his name in the booklet: "Retired Restaurateur. Children 36, 33, 28. Grandchildren 14, 12, 9, 5, 5, 3." I wondered if the six grandchildren, including what appeared to be a set of twins, were what made Mendy so fearful of death or if there were other reasons, like reveling still in wh.o.r.es and sharp clothes. I should have asked him.I should have asked people a lot of things that afternoon. But later, though regretting that I hadn't, I understood that to have gotten answers to any of my questions beginning "Whatever happened to . . ." would not have told me why I had the uncanny sense that what goes on behind what we see is what I was seeing.
It didn't take more than one of the girls' saying to the photographer, the instant before he snapped the cla.s.s photo, "Be sure and leave the wrinkles out,"
didn't take more than laughing along with everyone else at the nicely timed wisecrack, to feel that Destiny, the most ancient enigma of the civilized world-- and our first composition topic in freshman Greek and Roman Mythology, where I wrote "the Fates are three G.o.ddesses, called the Moerae, Clotho who spins, Lachesis who determines its length, and Atropos who cuts the thread of life"-- Destiny had become perfectly understandable while everything unenigmatic, such as standing for the photograph in the third row back, with my one arm on the shoulder of Marshall Goldstein ("Children 39,37. Grandchildren 8, 6") and my other on the shoulder of Stanley Wernikoff ("Children 39,38. Grandchildren 5, 2, 8 mo."), had become inexplicable.A young NYU film student named Jordan Wa.s.ser, the grandson of fullback Milton Wa.s.serberger, had come along with Milt to make a doc.u.mentary of our reunion for one of his cla.s.ses; from time to time, as I floated around the room doc.u.menting the event in my own outdated way, I overheard Jordan interviewing somebody on camera. "It was like no other school," sixty-three-year-old Marilyn Koplik was telling him. "The kids were great, we had good teachers, the worst crime we could commit was chewing gum. . . ." "Best school around," said sixty-three- year-old George Kirschenbaum, "best teachers, best kids. . . ." "Mind for mind,"
said sixty-three-year-old Leon Gutman, "this is the smartest group of people I've ever worked with. . . ." "School was just different in those days," saidsixty-three-year-old Rona Siegler, and to the next question Rona replied with a laugh--a laugh without much delight in it-- "Nineteen fifty? It was just a couple of years ago, Jordan.""I always tell people," somebody was saying to me, "when they ask if I went to school with you, how you wrote that paper for me in Wallach's cla.s.s. On Red Badge of Courage." "But I didn't." "You did." "What could I know about Red Badge of Courage? I didn't even read it till college." "No. You wrote a paper for me on Red Badge of Courage. I got an A plus. I handed it in a week late and Wallach said to me, 'It was worth waiting for.'"The person telling me this, a small, dour man with a dose-clipped white beard, a brutal scar beneath one eye, and two hearing aids, was one of the few I saw that afternoon on whom time had done a job and then some; on him time had worked overtime. He walked with a limp and spoke to me leaning on a cane. His breathing was heavy. I did not recognize him, not when I looked squarely at him from six inches away and not even after I read on his name tag that he was Ira Posner.
Who was Ira Posner? And why would I have done him that favor, especially when I couldn't have? Did I write the paper for Ira without bothering to read the book?
"Your father meant a lot to me," Ira said. "Did he?" I asked. "In the few 53.
moments I spent with him in my life I felt better about myself than the entire life I spent with my own father." "I didn't know that." "My own father was a very marginal person in my life." "What did he do? Remind me." "He sc.r.a.ped floors for a living. Spent his whole life sc.r.a.ping floors. Your father was always pushing you to get the best grades. My father's idea of setting me up in business was buying me a shoeshine kit so I could give quarter shines at a newsstand. That's what he got me for graduation. Dumb f.u.c.k. I really suffered in that family. A really benighted family. I lived in a dark place with those people. You get shunted aside by your father, Nathan, you wind up a touchy fellow. I had a brother we had to put in an inst.i.tution. You didn't know that.
n.o.body did. We weren't allowed even to mention his name. Eddie. Four years older than me. He would go into wild rages and bite his hands until they would bleed.
He would scream like a coyote until my parents quieted him down. At school they asked if I had brothers or sisters and I wrote 'None.' While I was at college, my parents signed some permission form for the nuthouse and they gave Eddie a lobotomy and he went into a coma and died. Can you imagine? Tells me to shine shoes on Market Street outside the courthouse--that is a father's advice to a son." "So what'd you do instead?" "I'm a psychiatrist. It's your father I got my inspiration from. He was a physician." "Not exactly. He wore a white coat but he was a chiropodist." "Whenever I came with the guys to your house, your mother always put out a bowl of fruit and your father always said to me, 'What is your idea on this subject, Ira? What is your idea on that subject, Ira?' Peaches.
Plums. Nectarines. Grapes. I never saw an apple in my house. My mother is ninety-seven. I got her in a home now. She sits there crying in a chair all day long but I honestly don't believe she's any more depressed than she was when I was a kid. I a.s.sume your father is dead." "Yes. Yours?" "Mine couldn't wait to die. Failure went to his head in a really big way." And still I had no idea who Ira was or what he was talking about, because, as much as I was remembering that day of all that had 54.
once happened, far more was so beyond recall that it might never have happened, regardless of how many Ira Posners stood face to face with me attesting otherwise. As best I could tell, when Ira was in my house being inspired by my father I could as well not have been born. I had run out of the power toremember even faintly my father's asking Ira what he thought while Ira was eating a piece of our fruit. It was one of those things that get torn out of you and thrust into oblivion just because they didn't matter enough. And yet what I had missed completely took root in Ira and changed his life.So you don't have to look much further than Ira and me to see why we go through life with a generalized sense that everybody is wrong except us. And since we don't just forget things because they don't matter but also forget things because they matter too much-- because each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint--it's no wonder that the shards of reality one person will cherish as a biography can seem to someone else who, say, happened to have eaten some ten thousand dinners at the very same kitchen table, to be a willful excursion into mythomania. But then n.o.body really bothers to send in their fifty bucks for a forty-fifth high school reunion so as to turn up and stage a protest against the other guy's sense of the-way-it-was; the truly important thing, the supreme delight of the afternoon, is simply finding that you haven't yet made it onto the "In Memoriam" page."How long is your father dead?" Ira asked me. "Nineteen sixty-nine. Twenty-six years. A long time," I replied. "To whom? To him? I don't think so. To the dead," said Ira, "it's a drop in the bucket." Just then, from directly behind me, I heard Mendy Gurlik saying to someone, "Whoja jerk off over?" "Lorraine," a second man replied. "Sure. Everyone did. Me too. Who else?" said Mendy. "Diane."
"Right. Diane. Absolutely. Who else?" "Selma." "Selma? I didn't realize that,"
Mendy said. "I'm surprised to hear that. No, I never wanted to f.u.c.k Selma. Too short. For me it was always 55.
twirlers. Watch 'em practicing up on the field after school and then go home and beat off. The pancake makeup. Cocoa-colored pancake makeup. On their legs. Drove me nuts. You notice something? The guys on the whole don't look too bad, a lot of them work out, but the girls, you know ... no, a forty-fifth reunion is not the best place to come looking for a.s.s." "True, true," said the other man, who spoke softly and seemed not to have found in the occasion quite the nostalgic license that Mendy had, "time has not been kind to the women." "You know who's dead? Bert and Utty," Mendy said. "Prostate cancer. Went to the spine. Spread.
Ate 'em up. Both of them. Thank G.o.d I get the test. You get the test?" "What test?" the other fellow asked. "s.h.i.t, you don't get the test?" "Skip," said Mendy, pulling me away from Ira, "Meisner doesn't get the test."Now Meisner was Mr. Meisner, Abe Meisner, a short, swarthy, heavyset man with stooped shoulders and a jutting head, proprietor of Meisner's Cleaners--"5 Hour Cleaning Service"--situated on Chancellor between the shoe repair shop, where the Italian radio station was always playing while you waited on the seat behind the swinging half-door for Ralph to fix your heels, and the beauty salon, Roline's, from which my mother once brought home the copy of Silver Screen where I read an article that stunned me called "George Raft Is a Lonely Man." Mrs. Meisner, a short, indestructible earthling like her husband, worked with him in the store and one year also sold war bonds and stamps with my mother in a booth right out on Chancellor Avenue. Alan, their son, had gone through school with me, beginning with kindergarten, skipping the same grades I did all through grade school. Alan Meisner and I used to be thrown into a room together by our teacher and, as though we were George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, told to turn something out whenever a play was needed at a.s.sembly for a national holiday. For a couple of seasons right after the war Mr. Meisner--through some miracle--got to be the dry cleaner for the Newark Bears, the Yankees' Triple A farm team, and one summer day, and a great day it was, I was enlisted by Alan to help him carry the Bears' freshly dry-cleaned away uniforms, via three buses, to the Ruppert Stadium clubhouse all the way down on Wilson Avenue."Alan. Jesus," I said, "you are your old man." "Who else's old man should I be?"
he replied, and, taking my face between his hands, gave me a kiss. "Al," Mendy said, "tell Skippy what you heard Schrimmer telling his wife. Schrimmer's got a new wife, Skip. Six feet tall. Three years ago he went to a psychiatrist. He was depressed. The psychiatrist said to him, 'What do you think when I ask you to imagine your wife's body.' 'I think I should slit my throat,' Schrim said. So he divorces her and marries the shiksa secretary. Six feet tall. Thirty-five. Legs to the ceiling. Al, tell Skip what she said, the longer loksh." "She said to Schrim," said Alan, the two of us grinning as we clutched each other's diminished biceps, "she said, 'Why are they all Mutty and Utty and Dutty and Tutty? If his name is Charles, why is he called Tutty?' 'I shouldn't have brought you,' Schrim said to her. 'I knew I shouldn't. I can't explain it,'
Schrim said to her, 'n.o.body can. It's beyond explanation. It just is."'And what was Alan now? Raised by a dry cleaner, worked after school for a dry cleaner, himself a dead ringer for a dry cleaner, he was a superior court judge in Pasadena. In his father's pocket-sized dry-cleaning shop there had been a rotogravure picture of FDR framed on the wall above the pressing machine, beside an autographed photo of Mayor Meyer Ellenstein. I remembered these photographs when Alan told me that he had twice been a member of Republican delegations to the presidential convention. When Mendy asked if Alan could get him tickets to the Rose Bowl, Alan Meisner, with whom I used to travel to Brooklyn to see Dodger Sunday doubleheaders the year that Robinson broke in, with whom I'd start out at eight a.m. on a bus from our corner, take it downtown to Penn Station, switch to the tubes to New York, in New York switch to the subway to Brooklyn, all to get to Ebbets Field and eat our sandwiches from our lunch bags before batting practice began--Alan Meisner, who, once the ballgame got under way, drove everybody around us crazy with his vocally unmodulated play-by- 57 .
play of both ends of the doubleheader--this same Alan Meisner took a pocket diary out of his jacket and carefully inscribed a note to himself. I saw what he'd written from over his shoulder: "R.B. tix for Mendy G."Meaningless? Unspectacular? Nothing very enormous going on there? Well, what you make of it would depend on where you grew up and how life got opened up to you.
Alan Meisner could not be said to have risen out of nothing; however, remembering him as a little hick obliviously yapping away nonstop in his seat at Ebbets Field, remembering him delivering the dry cleaning through our streets late on a winter afternoon, hatless and in a snow-laden pea jacket, one could easily imagine him destined for something less than the Tournament of Roses.Only after strudel and coffee had capped off a chicken dinner that, what with barely anyone able to stay seated very long in one place to eat it, had required nearly all afternoon to get through; after the kids from Maple got up on the bandstand and sang the Maple Avenue School song; after cla.s.smate upon cla.s.smate had taken the microphone to say "It's been a great life" or "I'm proud of all of you"; after people had just about finished tapping one another on the shoulder and falling into one another's arms; after the ten-member reunion committee stood on the dance floor and held hands while the one-man band played Bob Hope's theme song, "Thanks for the Memory," and we applauded in appreciation of all their hard work; after Marvin Lieb, whose father sold my father our Pontiac and offered each of us kids a big cigar to smoke whenever we came to get Marvin from the house, told me about his alimony miseries--"A guy takes a leak with more forethought than I gave to my two marriages"--and Julius Pincus, who'd always been the kindest kid and who now, because of tremors resulting from taking the cyclosporin essential to the long-term survival of his transplant, had had to give up his optometry practice, told me ruefully how he'd come by his new kidney--"If a little fourteen-year-old girl didn't die of a brain hemorrhage last October, I would be dead today"--and after Schrimmer's tall young wife had said to me, "You're the cla.s.s writer, maybe you can explain it. Why are they all called Utty, Dutty, Mutty, and Tutty?"; only after I had shocked Sh.e.l.ly Minskoff, another Daredevil, with a nod of the head when he asked, "Is it true what you said at the mike, you don't have kids or anything like that?," only after Sh.e.l.ly had taken my hand in his and said, "Poor Skip," only then did I discover that Jerry Levov, having arrived late, was among us.
I.I.hadn't even thought to look for him. I knew from the Swede that Jerry lived in Florida, but even more to the point, he'd always been such an isolated kid, so little engaged by anything other than his own abstruse interests, that it didn't seem likely he'd have any more desire now than he'd had then to endure the wisdom of his cla.s.smates. But only minutes after Sh.e.l.ly Minskoff had bid me good-bye, Jerry came bounding over, a big man in a double-breasted blue blazer like my own, but with a chest like a large birdcage, and bald except for a ropelike strand of white hair draped across the crown of his skull. His body had really achieved a strange form: despite the majestic upper torso that had replaced the rolling-pin chest of the gawky boy, he locomoted himself on the same ladderlike legs that had made his the silliest gait in the school, legs no heavier or any shapelier than Olive Oyl's in the Popeye comic strip. The face I recognized immediately, from those afternoons when my own face was target for its focused animosity, when I used to see it weaving wildly above the Ping-Pong table, crimson with belligerence and lethal intention--yes, the core of that face I could never forget, long-limbed Jerry's knotted little face, the determined mask of the prowling beast that won't let you be until you're driven from your lair, the ferret face that declares, "Don't talk to me about compromise! I know nothing of compromise!" Now in that face 60.
was the obstinacy of a lifetime of smashing the ball back at the other guy's gullet. I could imagine that Jerry had made himself important to people by means different from his brother's."I didn't expect to see you here," Jerry said."I didn't expect to see you.""I wouldn't have thought this was a big enough stage for you," he said, laughing. "I was sure you'd find the sentimentality repellent.""Exactly what I was thinking about you.""You're somebody who has banished all superfluous sentiments from his life. No asinine longings to be home again. No patience for the nonessential. Only time for what's indispensable. After all, what they sit around calling the 'past' at these things isn't a fragment of a fragment of the past. It's the pastundetonated--nothing is really brought back, nothing. It's nostalgia. It's bulls.h.i.t."These few sentences telling me what I was, what everything was, would have accounted not merely for four wives but for eight, ten, sixteen of them.
Everyone's narcissism is strong at a reunion, but this was an outpouring of another magnitude. Jerry's body may have been divided between the skinny kid and the large man but not the character--he had the character of one big unified thing, coldly accustomed to being listened to. What an evolution this was, the eccentric boy elaborated into a savagely sure-of-himself man. The original unwieldy impulses appeared to have been brought into a crude harmony with the enormous intelligence and willfulness; the effect was not only of somebody who called the shots and would never dream of doing what he was told but of somebody you could count on to churn things up. It seemed truer even than it had been when we were boys that if Jerry got an idea in his head, however improbable, something big would come of it. I could see why I had been infatuated with him as a kid, understood for the first time that my fascination had been not solely with his being the Swede's brother but with the Swede's brother's being so decisively odd, his masculinity so imperfectly socialized compared with the masculinity of the three-letterman."Why did you come?" Jerry asked. 61 .
About the cancer scare of the year before, and the impact on urogenital function of the ensuing prostate surgery, I said nothing directly. Or rather, said everything that was necessary--and perhaps not merely for myself--when I replied, "Because I'm sixty-two. I figured that of all the forms of bulls.h.i.t-nostalgia available, this was the one least likely to be without unsettling surprises."He enjoyed that. "You like unsettling surprises.""Might as well. Why did you come?""I happened to be up here. At the end of the week I had to be up here, so I came." Smiling at me, he said, "I don't think they were expecting their writer to be so laconic. I don't think they were expecting quite so much modesty."
Keeping in mind what I took to be the spirit of the occasion, when I'd been called up to the microphone near the end of the meal by the MC (Erwin Levine, Children 43> 41. 38, 31. Grandchildren 9, 8, 3,1, 6 weeks), I'd said only, "I'm Nathan Zuckerman. I was vice president of our cla.s.s in 4B and a member of the prom committee. I have neither child nor grandchild but I did, ten years ago, have a quintuple bypa.s.s operation of which I am proud. Thank you." That was the history I gave them, as much as was called for, medical or otherwise--enough to be a little amusing and sit down."What were you expecting?" I asked Jerry."That. Exactly that. Una.s.suming. The Weequahic Everyman. What else? Always behave contrary to their expectations. You even as a kid. Always found a practical method to guarantee your freedom.""I'd say that was a better description of you, Jer.""No, no. I found the impractical method. Rashness personified, Little Sir Hothead--just went nuts and started screaming when I couldn't have it my way. You were the one with the big outlook on things. You were more theoretical than the rest of us. Even back then you had to hook up everything with your thoughts.
Sizing up the situation, drawing conclusions. You kept a sharp watch overyourself. All the crazy stuff contained inside. A sensible boy. No, not like me at all."
"Well, we both had a big investment in being right," I said."Yeah, being wrong," Jerry said, "was unendurable to me. Absolutely unendurable.""And it's easier now?""Don't have to worry about it. The operating room turns you into somebody who's never wrong. Much like writing.""Writing turns you into somebody who's always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn't completely wreck your life.""How is your life? Where are you? I read somewhere, on the back of some book, you were living in England with an aristocrat.""I live in New England now, without an aristocrat.""So who instead?""No one instead.""Can't be. What do you do for somebody to eat dinner with?""I go without dinner.""For now. The Wisdom of the Bypa.s.s. But my experience is that personal philosophies have a shelf life of about two weeks. Things'll change.""Look, this is where life has left me. Rarely see anyone. Where I live in western Ma.s.sachusetts, a tiny place in the hills there, I talk to the guy who runs the general store and to the lady at the post office. The postmistress.
That's it.""What's the name of the town?""You wouldn't know it. Up in the woods. About ten miles from a college town called Athena. I met a famous writer there when I was just starting out. n.o.body mentions him much anymore, his sense of virtue is too narrow for readers now, but he was revered back then. Lived like a hermit. Reclusion looked awfully austere to a kid. He maintained it solved his problems. Now it solves mine.""What's the problem?""Certain problems having been taken out of my life--that's the problem. At the store the Red Sox, at the post office the weather-- that's it, my social discourse. Whether we deserve the weather. 63 .
When I come to pick up my mail and the sun is shining outside, the postmistress tells me, 'We don't deserve this weather.' Can't argue with that.""And p.u.s.s.y?""Over. Live without dinner, live without p.u.s.s.y.""Who are you, Socrates? I don't buy it. Purely the writer. The single-minded writer. Nothing more.""Nothing more all along and I could have saved myself a lot of wear and tear.
That's all I've had anyway to keep the s.h.i.t at bay.""What's 'the s.h.i.t'?""The picture we have of one another. Layers and layers of misunderstanding. The picture we have of ourselves. Useless. Presumptuous. Completely c.o.c.ked-up. Only we go ahead and we live by these pictures. 'That's what she is, that's what he is, this is what I am. This is what happened, this is why it happened--' Enough.
You know who I saw a couple of months ago? Your brother. Did he tell you?""No, he didn't.""He wrote me a letter and invited me to dinner in New York. A nice letter. Out of the blue. I drove down to meet him. He was composing a tribute to your old man. In the letter he asked for my help. I was curious about what he had in mind. I was curious about him writing me to announce that he wanted to write something. To you he's just a brother--to me he's still 'the Swede.' You carry those guys around with you forever. I had to drive down. But at dinner he never mentioned the tribute. We just uttered the pleasantries. At some place called Vincent's. That was it. As always, he looked terrific.""He's dead.""Your brother's dead?""Died Wednesday. Funeral two days ago. Friday. That's why I was in Jersey.
Watched my big brother die.""Of what? How?""Cancer.""But he'd had prostate surgery. He told me they got it out."Impatiently Jerry said, "What else was he going to tell you?"
"He was thin, that was all.""That wasn't all."So, the Swede too. What, astoundingly to Mendy Gurlik, was decimating the Daredevils right up the middle; what, astoundingly to me, had, a year earlier, made of me "purely a writer"; what, in the wake of all the other isolating losses, in the wake of everything gone and everyone gone, had stripped me down into someone whose aging powers had now but a single and unswerving aim, a man who would be seeking his solace, like it or not, nowhere but in sentences, had managed the most astounding thing of all by carrying off the indestructible hero of the wartime Weequahic section, our neighborhood talisman, the legendary Swede."Did he know," I asked, "when I saw him, that he was in trouble?"
"He had his hopes, but sure he knew. Metastasized. All through him.""I'm sorry to hear it.""His fiftieth was coming up next month. You know what he said at the hospital on Tuesday? To me and his kids the day before he died? Most of the time he was incoherent, but twice he said, so we could understand him, 'Going to get to my fiftieth.' He'd heard everyone from his cla.s.s was asking, 'Will the Swede be there?' and he didn't want to let them down. He was very stoical. He was a very nice, simple, stoical guy. Not a humorous guy. Not a pa.s.sionate guy. Just a sweetheart whose fate it was to get himself f.u.c.ked over by some real crazies. In one way he could be conceived as completely ba.n.a.l and conventional. An absence of negative values and nothing more. Bred to be dumb, built for convention, and so on. That ordinary decent life that they all want to live, and that's it. The social norms, and that's it. Benign, and that's it. But what he was trying to do was to survive, keeping his group intact. He was trying to get through with his platoon intact. It was a war for him, finally. There was a n.o.ble side to this guy. Some excruciating renunciations went on in that life. He got caught in a war he didn't start, and he fought to keep it all together, and he went down.
Ba.n.a.l, conven- 65 .
tional--maybe, maybe not. People could think that. I don't want to get into judging. My brother was the best you're going to get in this country, by a long shot."I was wondering while he spoke if this had been Jerry's estimate of the Swede while he was alive, if there wasn't perhaps a touch of mourner's rethinking here, remorse for a harsher Jerry-like view he might once have held of the handsome older brother, sound, well adjusted, quiet, normal, somebody everybody looked up to, the neighborhood hero to whom the smaller Levov had been endlessly compared while himself evolving into something slightly ersatz. This kindly unjudging judgment of the Swede could well have been a new development in Jerry, compa.s.sion just a few hours old. That can happen when people die--the argument with them drops away and people so flawed while they were drawing breath that at times they were all but unbearable now a.s.sert themselves in the most appealing way, and what was least to your liking the day before yesterday becomes in the limousine behind the hea.r.s.e a cause not only for sympathetic amus.e.m.e.nt but for admiration. In which estimate lies the greater reality--the uncharitable one permitted us before the funeral, forged, without any claptrap, in the skirmish of daily life, or the one that suffuses us with sadness at the family gathering afterward--even an outsider can't judge. The sight of a coffin going into the ground can effect a great change of heart--all at once you find you are not so disappointed in this person who is dead--but what the sight of a coffin does for the mind in its search for the truth, this I don't profess to know."My father," Jerry said, "was one impossible b.a.s.t.a.r.d. Overbearing. Omnipresent.
I don't know how people worked for him. When they moved to Central Avenue, the first thing he had the movers move was his desk, and the first place he put it was not in the gla.s.s-enclosed office but dead center in the middle of the factory floor, so he could keep his eye on everybody. You can't imagine the noise out there, the sewing machines whining, the clicking machines pounding, hundreds of machines going all at once, and right in the middle his desk and his telephone and the great man himself.
The owner of the glove factory, but he would always sweep his own floors, especially around the cutters, where they cut the leather, because he wanted to see from the size of the sc.r.a.ps who was losing money for him. I told him early on to f.u.c.k off, but Seymour wasn't built like me. He had a big, generous nature and with that they really raked him over the coals, all the impossible ones. Un- satisfiable father, unsatisfiable wives, and the little murderer herself, the monster daughter. The monster Merry. The solid thing he once was. At Newark Maid he was an absolute, unequivocal success. Charmed a lot of people into giving their all for Newark Maid. Very adroit businessman. Knew how to cut a glove, knew how to cut a deal. Had an in on Seventh Avenue with the fashion people. The designers there would tell the guy anything. That's how he stayed abreast of the pack. In New York, he was always stopping into the department stores, shopping the compet.i.tion, looking for something unique about the other guy's product, always in the stores taking a look at the leather, stretching the glove, doing everything just the way my old man taught him. Did most of the selling himself.
Handled all the big house accounts. The lady buyers went nuts for Seymour. You can imagine. He'd come over to New York, take these tough Jewish broads out to dinner--buyers who could make or break you--wine and dine them, and they'd fall head over heels for the guy. Instead of him b.u.t.tering them up, by the end of the evening they'd be b.u.t.tering him up. Come Christmastime they'd be sending my brother the theater tickets and the case of Scotch rather than the other way around. He knew how to get the confidence of these people just by being himself.
He'd find out a buyer's favorite charity, get a ticket to the annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, show up like a movie star in his tuxedo, on the spot make a fat donation to cancer, muscular dystrophy, whatever it was, United Jewish Appeal--next thing Newark Maid had the account. Knew all the stuff: what colors are going to be next season's colors, whether the length is going to be up or down. Attractive, responsible, hardworking guy. A couple of unpleasant strikes in the sixties, a lot of tension. But his employees are out on the picket line 67 .
and they see him pull up in the car and the women who sew the gloves start falling all over themselves apologizing for not being at the machines. They were more loyal to my brother than they were to their union. Everybody loved him, a perfectly decent person who could have escaped stupid guilt forever. No reason for him to know anything about anything except gloves. Instead he is plagued with shame and uncertainty and pain for the rest of his life. The incessant questioning of a conscious adulthood was never something that obstructed my brother. He got the meaning for his life some other way. I don't mean he was simple. Some people thought he was simple because all his life he was so kind.
But Seymour was never that simple. Simple is never that simple. Still, the self- questioning did take some time to reach him. And if there's anything worse than self-questioning coming too early in life, it's self-questioning coming too late. His life was blown up by that bomb. The real victim of that bombing was him.""What bomb?""Little Merry's darling bomb.""I don't know what 'Merry's darling bomb' is.""Meredith Levov. Seymour's daughter. The 'Rimrock Bomber' was Seymour's daughter. The high school kid who blew up the post office and killed the doctor.
The kid who stopped the war in Vietnam by blowing up somebody out mailing a letter at five a.m. A doctor on his way to the hospital. Charming child," he said in a voice that was all contempt and still didn't seem to contain the load of contempt and hatred that he felt. "Brought the war home to Lyndon Johnson by blowing up the post office in the general store. Place is so small the post office is in the general store--just a window at the back of the general storeand a couple rows of those boxes with the locks, and that's the whole post office. Get your stamps right in there with the Rinso and the Lifebuoy and the Lux. Quaint Americana. Seymour was into quaint Americana. But the kid wasn't. He took the kid out of real time and she put him right back in. My brother thought he could take his family out of human confusion and into Old Rimrock, and she put them right back in. 68 .
Somehow she plants a bomb back behind the post office window, and when it goes off it takes out the general store too. And takes out the guy, this doctor, who's just stopping by the collection box to drop off his mail. Good-bye, Americana; h.e.l.lo, real time.""This pa.s.sed me by. I had no idea.""That was '68, back when the wild behavior was still new. People suddenly forced to make sense of madness. All that public display. The dropping of inhibitions.
Authority powerless. The kids going crazy. Intimidating everybody. The adults don't know what to make of it, they don't know what to do. Is this an act? Is the 'revolution' real? Is it a game? Is it cops and robbers? What's going on here? Kids turning the country upside down and so the adults start going crazy too. But Seymour wasn't one of them. He was one of the people who knew his way.
He understood that something was going wrong, but he was no Ho-Chi-Minhite like his darling fat girl. Just a liberal sweetheart of a father. The philosopher- king of ordinary life. Brought her up with all the modern ideas of being rational with your children. Everything permissible, everything forgivable, and she hated it. People don't like to admit how much they resent other people's children, but this kid made it easy for you. She was miserable, self-righteous-- little s.h.i.t was no good from the time she was born. Look, I've got kids, kids galore--I know what kids are like growing up. The black hole of self-absorption is bottomless. But it's one thing to get fat, it's one thing to let your hair grow long, it's one thing to listen to rock-and-roll music too loud, but it's another to jump the line and throw a bomb. That crime could never be made right.
There was no way back for my brother from that bomb. That bomb detonated his life. His perfect life was over. Just what she had in mind. That's why they had it in for him, the daughter and her friends. He was so in love with his own good luck, and they hated him for it. Once we were all up at his place for Thanksgiving, the Dwyer mother, Dawn's kid brother Danny, Danny's wife, all the Levovs, our kids, everybody, and Seymour got up to make a toast and he said, 'I'm not a religious man, but when I look around this table, I know that something is shining down on 69 .
me.' It was him they were really out to get. And they did it. They got him. The bomb might as well have gone off in their living room. The violence done to his life was awful. Horrible. Never in his life had occasion to ask himself, 'Why are things the way they are?' Why should he bother, when the way they were was always perfect? Why are things the way they are? The question to which there is no answer, and up till then he was so blessed he didn't even know the question existed."Had Jerry ever before been so full of his brother's life and his brother's story? It did not strike me that all the despotic determination concentrated in that strange head could ever have allowed him to divide his attention into very many parts. Not that death ordinarily impinges upon the majesty of self- obsession; generally it intensifies it: "What about me? What if this happens to me?"
"He told you it was horrible?""Once. Only once," Jerry replied. "No, Seymour just took it and took it. You could stay on this guy and stay on this guy and he'd just keep making the effort," Jerry said bitterly. "Poor son of a b.i.t.c.h, that was his fate--built for bearing burdens and taking s.h.i.t," and with his saying this, I remembered those scrimmage pileups from which the Swede would extricate himself, always still clutching the ball, and how seriously I'd fallen in love with him on that late- autumn afternoon long ago when he'd transformed my ten-year-old existence by selecting me to enter the fantasy of Swede Levov's life--when for a moment it had seemed that I, too, had been called to great things and that nothing in the world could ever obstruct my way now that our G.o.d's benign countenance had shed its light on me alone. "Basketball was never like this, Skip." How captivat- ingly that innocence spoke to my own. The significance he had given me. It was everything a boy could have wanted in 1943."Never caved in. He could be tough. Remember, when we were kids, he joined the marines to fight the j.a.ps? Well, he was a G.o.dd.a.m.n marine. Caved in only once, down in Florida," Jerry said. "It just got to be too much for him. He'd brought the whole family down to visit us, the boys and the second superbly selfish Mrs. 70 .
Levov. That was two years ago. We all went to this stone-crab place. Twelve of us for dinner. Lots of noise, the kids all showing off and laughing. Seymour loved it. The whole handsome family there, life just the way it's supposed to be. But when the pie and coffee came he got up from the table, and when he didn't come back right away I went out and found him. In the car. In tears.
Shaking with sobs. I'd never seen him like that. My brother the rock. He said, 'I miss my daughter.' I said, 'Where is she?' I knew he always knew where she was. He'd been going to see her in hiding for years. I believe he saw her frequently. He said, 'She's dead, Jerry' I didn't believe him at first. It was to throw me off the track, I thought. I thought he must have just seen her somewhere. I thought, He's still going to wherever she is and treating this killer like his own child--this killer who is now in her forties while everybody she killed is still killed. But then he threw his arms around me and he just let go, and I thought, Is it true, the family's f.u.c.king monster's really dead? But why is he crying if she's dead? If he had half a brain, he would have realized that it was just too extraordinary to have a child like that--if he had half a brain, he would have been enraged by this kid and estranged from this kid long ago. Long ago he would have torn her out of his guts and let her go. The angry kid who gets nuttier and nuttier-- and the sanctified cause to hang her craziness on. Crying like that--for her? No, I couldn't buy it. I said to him, 'I don't know whether you're lying to me or you're telling me the truth. But if you're telling me the truth, that she's dead, it's the best news I ever heard. n.o.body else is going to say this to you. Everybody else is going to commiserate. But I grew up with you. I talk straight to you. The best thing for you is for her to be dead. She did not belong to you. She did not belong to anything that you were. She did not belong to anything anyone is. You played ball--there was a field of play. She was not on the field of play. She was nowhere near it. Simple as that. She was out of bounds, a freak of nature, way out of bounds. You are to stop your mourning for her. You've kept this wound open for twenty-five years.
And twenty-five years is enough. It's driven you mad. Keep it open any longer and it's going to kill you. She's dead? Good! Let her go. Otherwise it will rot in your gut and take your life too.' That's what I told him. I thought I could let the rage out ofhim. But he just cried. He couldn't let it go. I said this guy was going to get killed from this thing, and he did."Jerry said it and it happened. It is Jerry's theory that the Swede is nice, that is to say pa.s.sive, that is to say trying always to do the right thing, a socially controlled character who doesn't burst out, doesn't yield to rage ever.
Will not have the angry quality as his liability, so doesn't get it as an a.s.set either. According to this theory, it's the no-rage that kills him in the end.
Whereas aggression is cleansing or curing.It would seem that what kept Jerry going, without uncertainty or remorse and unflaggingly devoted to his own take on things, was that he had a special talent for rage and another special talent for not looking back. Doesn't look back at all, I thought. He's unseared by memory. To him, all looking back is bulls.h.i.t- nostalgia, including even the Swede's looking back, twenty-five years later, at his daughter before that bomb went off, looking back and helplessly weeping for all that went up in that explosion. Righteous anger at the daughter? No doubt that would have helped. Incontestable that nothing is more uplifting in all of life than righteous anger. But given the circ.u.mstances, wasn't it asking a lot, asking the Swede to overstep the limits that made him identifiably the Swede?
People must have been doing that to him all his life, a.s.suming that because he was once upon a time this mythic character the Swede he had no limits. I'd done something like that in Vincent's restaurant, childishly expecting to be wowed by his G.o.dliness, only to be confronted by an utterly ordinary humanness. One price you pay for being taken for a G.o.d is the unabated dreaminess of your acolytes."You know Seymour's 'fatal attraction'? Fatally attracted to his duty," Jerry said. "Fatally attracted to responsibility. He could have played ball anywh
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