By Joan Leegant
My father calls to me from the other end of the apartment, his voice thin and urgent. Nowadays everything is thin and urgent, life paring itself down to the essentials. He’s eighty-six, how many days can he count on? he says. What are the odds, Francie? he adds, the syllables slurred, as if he’s got rocks in his mouth. He’s coming apart so quickly I feel like I’m watching it in fast forward: first the hearing, then the dexterity, then the balance. Age, age, he tells me. Don’t underestimate, Francie. Number words. An accountant, they’re in his speech, rolling around and colliding with each other, his whole life in his mouth.
“Francie?” he calls again.
“I’m here, Dad, what is it?” He’s propped up on the sofa in the den, watching the nothing that’s on TV. I’m feeling rushed, waiting for the soup to finish so I can dole it out into the little freezer containers that will hold him for the three days until I return. The woman who comes in each day to make the bed, help with his shower, the laundry, warms the food so he won’t burn himself. One hot meal a day, the rest he manages on his own. Something cold or nothing. He lives on air. That and cashews. It used to be pistachios but he can’t open the shells.
He points to the TV, I should turn it off, a wide-mouthed woman asking about her guest’s Internet date.
Did you lie to him online?
I did. I told him I was a 36D.
I switch off the set, embarrassed. “Something I forgot to tell you,” he says.
“Yes?” A new prescription, I think. Or a doctor appointment, can I tell him again the name of the service that drives him. Or maybe he’s out of socks.
“I spent a year in prison,” he says.
I sit down on the sofa, perch on the edge. “You were in jail?”
“Prison,” he says, emphatic. “There’s a difference.”
He waits, wanting me to ask. “When was this?” I manage.
“1948.” I begin to calculate. He beats me to it. “I was twenty-two,” he says. “Before I met your mother.”
“Twenty-two,” I say, stalling. I don’t know where to begin. My father is not a talkative man; my mother had done all the talking for us.
“I fell in with a bad crowd,” he says. Soon he’ll rattle off names like Bugsy and Louie and Spats, names that go with Bronx gangsters like in the movies, like where he grew up. Tough gizzards in fedoras chewing on cigar ends and skidding down rainy streets in big Roadsters. I can’t help but turn it into caricature, fat guys with scars devouring turkey legs and terrorizing the peaceful inhabitants of the city.
“What did you do?” I ask.
My father runs his hands along the tops of his thighs. He’s wearing navy blue sweatpants. He can’t manage buttons and zippers. “It was a scheme. Terrible. We had no brains. No, that’s not true, we had schmaltz for brains.” He shakes his head. “Remember Sidney Haberman and Joe Giller?” I nod. His card playing buddies in the summers. The beach club at Long Beach. Pool and day camp for the kids, canasta and diet salads for the women during the week, pinochle and Scotch for the men on weekends.
“And Harold Krantz,” my father throws in, gazing at the ceiling. “All of them.”
“Those guys were in prison?” I say. “A bunch of accountants?” It sounds like a joke. Four accountants are sitting together in a cell. One asks two of them to move to the other side in order to make it balance.
My father shoots mea look. “Harold wasn’t an accountant. At least not a CPA. He never passed the exam.”
I open a palm. “OK, but you know what I mean. Those guys...” I trail off. Harold and Charlotte Krantz had a fussy house in Wantagh decorated in pink floral. My mother of the Good Taste Brigade made fun of it. Their son Jerry had a crush on me in eighth grade. He went to college in Binghamton, became a dentist.
“It was a financial scheme,” my father says. “Investments. Electronics, the Japanese weren’t doing it all yet, we sold some shares.” He pauses. “Imaginary shares.”
“You stole people’s money for bogus investments?”
My father looks at his hands. “I didn’t know they were bogus.” He looks up at me. “At least I think I didn’t know. Maybe I really did know.” He looks at the ceiling again, then back at me, eyes misty. “I don’t remember anymore what I knew and didn’t know.”
It’s not adding up. My father is the most honest person on the planet. Scrupulous, he accounted for every penny. His clients loved him but he was conservative on the deductions and never shaved a nickel off anyone’s income. I was the only waitress in my college dorm to report the tips.
He leans back, closes his eyes. I reach across and pat his hand. “It was a long time ago, Dad. You paid your dues, did good in your life.” I’m patronizing him but we’re both tired and I’m not eager to resurrect this chapter of his history because I’m afraid it will eat up precious resources, gnaw at him when there isn’t enough of him left as it is.
He opens his eyes, pulls his hand away. “No, Francie, you don’t understand. I didn’t pay my dues. There’s unfinished business. That’s the reason I’m still alive when everyone else from those years is dead. God is making sure.”
“God? Since when did God get into the act? You’re alive and your old friends aren’t because Harold Krantz ate his way into the grave and the others smoked like chimneys. It’s your good constitution, the fact that you eat fish, also that your mother lived to ninety-three.”
My father waves me away. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I have to take care of this.” His eyes are silvery blue marbles, clear and direct.
I smell something. “The soup!” I say, and rush off the couch, dash into the kitchen. The pot has boiled over, tomatoes and carrots and potatoes pooled all over the stove. I yell to my father that I’ll be back in a minute, that first I have to clean up a mess.
“Me too!” he calls. “Exactly the same for me!”
A week later we’re driving in a light rain from Boston to New York in my twelve-year-old Honda, a check in my father’s shirt pocket for ten thousand dollars that I wrote out because he can’t grip a pen. The name of the payee is blank. He’s being cagey; other than giving me a vague neighborhood—somewhere in the Bronx, near the Grand Concourse—he’s been pointedly mysterious about the whole thing. I’ve pressed. Someone they defrauded? A victim’s widow or child? But he’s refusing to spill. All he’ll say is that it’s been weighing on him for years, asserting itself with increasing urgency in the months since my mother died, as though the void she left was filling with ghosts.
I check in the rear view mirror. My father’s asleep, cushioned in the back in a cocoon of quilts and pillows partly because it’s comfortable and partly because that’s the only place I’ll let him sit if he refuses to wear a seat belt. I was not living near my parents when my mother got sick, was off for the year in Oregon in a last ditch effort to save my unraveling marriage, so now I attend to my father out of a mix of love and guilt. After a futile ten months trying to coax our limp union back to life under Portland’s grim skies—Jay’s idea of the ideal destination for his sabbatical—Jay and I spent an equally futile if sunnier July driving every inch of the Pacific coastline looking for the spark that was supposed to reignite us, as if one was right there, glinting off the ocean if only we searched hard enough, our son hiking in Spain allegedly to celebrate his college graduation but really to get away from us. We went down through California and up to Canada and saw fishing towns and scenic rocks and showy waves tossing up their monumental spray, but we didn’t find any sparks and I came back to Boston alone. My mother died three weeks later. By then I’d shipped Jay’s things to his new address in Oregon, the apartment of one Johanna Smart, his exceptionally friendly sabbatical colleague and, it turned out, the reason we couldn’t find that vivifying spark and why he’d wanted to hightail it to Portland in the first place. It seems they’d met and fallen in love the year before at a romantically stirring conference in Buffalo on Contemporary Applied Ethics, a fact he’d felt ethically obliged to disclose when he called to say his stuff had arrived. Though he wondered if I’d overlooked a shelf of his books, his most valuable ones, which for some reason hadn’t gotten there, could I take another look? A month after that, our son announced he was moving with his girlfriend to Tasmania for the year, wherever that was. Right now my father is all I’ve got.
The rain has let up and I pull into a service area outside Hartford.
“Coffee?” my father says brightly, suddenly awake. He’s pulling himself up from the pillows, smoothing back his hair, checking that his shirt is buttoned. No sweatpants today. Once a dapper dresser, his condition is taking a toll on his sartorial pride.
I bring the walker from the trunk, help him out, fix the pant leg that’s riding up his calf. He pilots himself inside, lands heavily in a booth. Once, he was a swimmer; I’ve seen the pictures, my handsome father poised at the end of the diving board at the pool at City College, arms extended like wings.
“So where was this prison?” I ask after I’ve brought over two cups of coffee and a stale apple pastry to share. If I eat, maybe he will too.
“Pennsylvania. We took a bus. Traveled at night.”
Already I’m turning it into a buddy movie, three Jewish convicts who’ve never set foot out of the five boroughs bumping along on country roads dressed in prison stripes and watched over by guards who look like bulldogs. I’m filling in the snappy dialogue, the goofy gaffes, hapless city boys asking for rye bread and Russian Dressing, the guards looking through their hair for horns. This tendency to ill-timed comic invention, I’ve been told, is part of my problem. This marriage is in grave trouble and you’re making jokes, Jay had accused halfway through the fall semester in Portland. We were in his idling Saab at a bases-loaded four-way stop and I’d offered up the observation that one could expire before any of the excessively polite locals made the first move.
“So what was it like in prison?” I ask my father.
“I don’t remember.”
My father kneads his fingers. “They gave us a lot to eat. It wasn’t bad. We played ball outside when the weather was good.”
He lifts his coffee cup with both hands. His knuckles are purplish and swollen. “I can’t remember.”
“But wasn’t it a huge deal?” I whisper. “I would think some things you’d never forget.”
“Oh no? You remember giving birth? How you felt that day? That week, that first month? That whole first year?”
I sit back, sip the awful coffee. A dishwater smell rises up from the styrofoam like a dare. Drink at your own risk. The sleepless nights, the wailing infant, the leaking breasts, the resentful husband. The beginning of the matrimonial end. Who’d want to remember that?
My father takes a bite of the vile pastry, puts down his fork with finality. He’s right about the birth. All I remember are the jokes.
What do you get if you cross a mountain and a baby ?
A cry for Alp.
The sky has cleared and the coffee’s kicked in. My father dozes in the back. After my mother died, I emailed Jay to tell him the news.
You don’t have to come to the funeral. Oregon’s far away and though we were married for twenty-six years, your presence would probably not be a comfort to me.
What about for your father? he wrote back. He treated me like a son.
Save yourself the trouble. There’s a reason they stopped trying after having a daughter.
Never one to deny himself, Jay came anyway. For our son’s benefit, he claimed when he showed up at my door, Sam should see that not all relationships have to end with divorce. Not that Jay was doing a very good job maintaining his own, especially with Sam—not emailing, not calling, ducking at all costs. Since I was in mourning and not in the mood to argue, I let him in. The next day at the funeral home my father asked him what the hell he was doing there.
“I came to pay my respects, Herb. You and Bea were family to me. That doesn’t change just because Francie and I have gone our separate ways.”
“Separate ways my ass. The only respects you need to pay are to my daughter. I don’t want you here making Bea turn over in her grave before she’s even in there. Go back to your trashy little tootsie in Seattle.”
“Get out of here before I call the cops! I didn’t like you from day one!”
I stared at my father. I’d never heard him talk like that. Sam watched the volley, amazed. He hadn’t been able to say anything to Jay about the defection but now my father had said it for him. Jay tugged on his lapels like an insulted lawyer in a police procedural and huffed out of the funeral home.
Why did the judge grant the divorce on the grounds of religious differences?
Because the husband thought he was God and his wife didn’t.
My father rouses himself after we cross into New York State.
“Getting close,” he says. He’s squinting out his window. It’s all changed, I know this without asking. Six years ago, he and my mother moved from New York to Boston to live near me in one of those places you never get out of alive. But it’s not the Bronx of six years ago that’s changed outside the car window, it’s the Bronx of sixty years ago. That’s when my father last lived there, before he and my mother joined the great exodus to suburban Long Island.
“Can I have the address now?” I say. That was the deal. When we hit New York, I’d get to put it in the GPS.
“Dekalb Avenue,” he says. “3595.”
I reach over and type it in.
“That’s capital D, small E, small K. Capital K is the one in Brooklyn,” he says.
“I know how to spell it, Dad. I know that street name.”
He goes silent. The name hangs there. It’s where he grew up, the address inscribed in neat script in his City College yearbook, on his high school diploma from De Witt Clinton, on his birth certificate. I can’t believe he still knows anyone in the building. Or does he? Is this the famous hidden dementia everyone warns you about, the kind where you can’t tell it’s happening because the person has been cleverly covering up?
“You sure, Dad? Dekalb Avenue?”
“Yes I’m sure. Stop asking me that way. I’m not a child, I know what I’m doing. Speaking of which, where’s your boy?”
Your boy. A definite cover. That’s what all the magazines say. They find workarounds.
“Sam’s in Tasmania.”
“Tasmania,” he says slowly. “Is that a place? Or a mental condition.”
I laugh and a little satisfied chuckle bubbles up from the back. He’s still got it, the family affliction. You think everything is so funny, Jay had said. Life as one big hoot. Well, I have news for you. It’s not that way.
My father continues his vigil at the window. A new one comes to me, unbidden.
What’s the difference between a federal penitentiary and a house in the suburbs?
In prison they actually use the yard.
I didn’t want to go to Portland. San Francisco, L.A., even Florida would have been better. Jay and I needed a place where we could defrost. Boston was a hard place to stay warm and cuddly in after twenty-six years. We needed sunshine and beach, not rain. A place where we could frolic naked in the waves and sip Mai-Tais and spend less time indoors brooding and reading books.
But Jay was persuasive. A prestigious college was offering an office, a stipend, a once-a-week honors “conversation” that was a cross between a cocktail hour and a toga party. My work was portable; I could write sleazy marketing copy for the gaming industry from anywhere. Mostly I could feel the stirrings of Jay’s discontent. Things were not good between us. He was starting to find fault and mean it. I was trotting out the names of his premarital exes with alarming frequency, an old game that had always diffused the tension before. You want a wife who’s not messy and cooks more? You should have married that Marianne. You don’t want a wife whose friends throw parties with belly dancing? You should have married that Ruth. A little well-worn shorthand to remind us that we all come with plusses and minuses. Because Marianne, he’d told me, though neat and an excellent baker, had talked too much, and Ruth had refused to try marijuana and oral sex. So weren’t my brash friends and culinary deficiencies a small price to pay for my otherwise stellar attributes?
But now the banter wasn’t working. He informed me that he didn’t appreciate my poking fun at his old girlfriends who in fact had been very fine people with many exemplary qualities. That’s when I knew we were on thin ice. I bought a raincoat down to my ankles and a guide to mushroom hunting and, like the pioneer women of old who, undeterred by bandits and hail, forged their way west to brave life in a log cabin on a desolate plateau, I sucked it up and sturdily told him I was game, Lewis and Clark here we come.
Fortune smiles on us as I successfully bribe the driver of a two-tone vintage Cadillac with fins to let us have the parking spot he’s edging into in front of 3595 Dekalb in exchange for a cool fifty. I get the walker from the trunk. My father uses the occasion of the journey to the front door to open the conversation.
“So you see this is my old neighborhood.”
“Yes. Very interesting.”
“So I might as well tell you.”
“Okay.” I’m watching the broken sidewalk for holes, holding his arm.
“It’s a girl I went with before your mother. That’s who I’m coming to see.”
A girl? From sixty years before? Now?
He turns to me. He’s teary-eyed. “Irene Popkin. We were engaged. 1947. We were twenty, twenty-one. First love. I promised her I’d come back for her after prison. But then I couldn’t. I was too ashamed. Sidney, Joe, Harold, we were all too ashamed. So we decided to cut the ties to the old neighborhood. I came home to break it off, fifteen minutes in her living room, like a coward, then I fled to the East Bronx where I didn’t know anyone and met your mother. I never came back here. Until today.” He pauses, looks at the building, faded brick, six stories, straggly shrubs and the first green shoots of spring poking up from the dirt. “Even my parents moved, the humiliation was too much for them.”
He picks up the walker, inches forward. Clop walk clop walk. I give him a minute. “But why are you bringing her a check?” I ask. “Did she pay for your defense? Give you a loan?”
He fixes me with a look. “A boyfriend who goes to jail? Who swindles? It was a scandal. Her parents despised me. She told them they were wrong, that I was just impressionable, too trusting. Six months with the lawyers and back and forth negotiations, then a whole year I’m in the pen where she came a few times to visit. An entire day on the train, staying in some fleabag motel by herself against her parents’ wishes. And then, when I’m free, what do I do? I abandon her. I tell her I can’t marry her. What I did to her, it was worse than selling phony shares.”
We’re nearing the building’s entry. Something’s not right. “Why didn’t you just arrange to meet her somewhere else and get married there, take her away from here? Didn’t you love her?”
Clop walk. He stops. “I did love her. But I couldn’t do it. I needed a fresh start. I had to run away, even from myself.” He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his eyes. Why the visit now, I don’t need to ask; he couldn’t do it while my mother was alive. It would have felt too much like cheating.
“But why money?” I ask.
He looks at me, helpless. “What else have I got to give?”
I knew something was wrong when Jay came back from the Buffalo conference. He was moody and irritable. He picked a fight with Sam because he said Sam didn’t have plans for after college and was irresponsible. He knocked over a crystal vase and flew into a rage and blamed me for moving it. He pointed to stains on the carpet and said our housekeeping was driving him crazy. He said a man turning fifty shouldn’t have to live like a college student, eating take-out three nights a week.
I began trawling the Web. Changes in affect, clumsiness, insomnia. I asked him what they’d put in the drinking water in Niagara Falls and told him I thought he was in the midst of either a midlife crisis or a brain tumor, both incurable. He said, Enough with the jokes! When are you going to stop?
I thought: It really is a brain tumor.
I told him to go to a doctor. He rolled his eyes. He said he had no headaches, no dizziness. It was just a bad mood. But justified. Sam was lazy and would get nowhere. The house was sloppy and unkempt. We ate terribly. Nobody liked turning fifty.
Then he went into his study and closed the door and made a call to follow up on a professional contact he said he’d made at the conference. For his sabbatical. The door was closed for a very long time.
Irene Berliner, nee Popkin, lives on the second floor. Thankfully there is an elevator. A weary-looking aide in a stained pink uniform lets us in and informs us that Mrs. Berliner is in the living room but won’t be able to hear us because her hearing aid has gone missing plus she has dementia and won’t know who we are and sleeps most of the time anyway. But her son Arthur is coming over; he saw the letter from my father and wants to meet him.
We sit on the couch and watch Irene sleep in a wingback chair, an afghan over her lap. My father accepts a glass of seltzer; I politely decline. Irene is delicate and withered. She was probably once very pretty in a fragile sort of way. The aide takes a chair in the corner and watches a small TV, the volume on low. Within minutes, my father is asleep. The aide goes to the kitchen, comes back with a cup of coffee, changes the channel. Outside, there’s a light drizzle. If my mother were living, she’d ask my father what he hoped to accomplish by giving his long abandoned fiancée ten thousand dollars instead of leaving it in his estate for me, especially now that I’m single and need the money even more, and if I were still married to Jay, he’d tell me that it’s ridiculous for my father to give away this much to a near stranger; that even the most stringent ethicist wouldn’t characterize it as restitution since it brings nobody to wholeness, ameliorates no measurable wrong; that even in the most obvious cases—compensation for the loss of a limb, or, say, wrongful imprisonment—everyone knows that money can’t restore one’s faith in one’s fellow man. But neither of them is here to stop us. For the fact is, I agree with my father. Just because lovers run away from each other—out of shame or fear or the dying of passion—doesn’t mean the guilty party shouldn’t try to make things better for the innocent.
For three months after Jay returned from Buffalo, I pressed him to go to a doctor. He was jumpy and on edge, sleeping poorly, closeting himself in his study for hours, and, most worrisome for a man who managed to be reliably if mechanically amorous regardless of anyone’s spirits, cool toward me. He said he didn’t feel well enough.
I prodded. He relented. The internist looked concerned. Jay got the full work-up, the deluxe neurologist’s special. No expense was spared. You didn’t mess around with a man’s brain. For a month I didn’t eat. When the results came back normal, I breathed a great sigh of relief and went out for a steak. So what if the uncovered medical costs topped five thousand and meant I could forget replacing my crummy Honda for another three years? It was worth it. He was my husband. How many times had I heard of people whose personalities had changed because of tumors? That the meanness wasn’t the person but their frontal lobe being colonized? The fact that Jay continued to carp after the results came in seemed unimportant; at least he wasn’t growing a melon in his head.
At the shiva for my mother, I asked my father if he thought I had an ethical obligation to send Jay the books I hadn’t packed for him, the rare first editions and expensive philosophical treatises that were still on the living room shelves and which I chose to overlook for no reason other than a primitive soup of anger and hurt. My father and I were cleaning up the coffee cups and cake plates. The last of the visitors had left. My father was not a religious man but he wanted to observe the whole deal in case my mother’s soul was wandering and any of that hocus-pocus turned out to be true. He looked at me, sad-eyed. They’d been married for fifty-nine years, all of them, he’d told me, happy.
Immediately I realized I shouldn’t have asked him about Jay, that the timing was all wrong. I started to tell him never mind, but he held up a hand and said he had something important to impart, something I needed to hear now that I’d reached a certain age. I sat on the edge of a dining room chair and held a stack of sticky plates in my lap.
“What’s the difference between a nasty divorce and a circumcision?” my father said somberly.
I shook my head. What?
“In a divorce, you get to cut off the whole prick.”
A soft dusk. The Hutchinson River Parkway winds prettily toward Boston. My father sleeps. Irene’s son Arthur was a nice man who said he couldn’t possibly take my father’s money. My father insisted, telling him to donate it in Irene’s name if he didn’t want to use it for her care; he didn’t expect a young man like Arthur to understand, but there comes a time when you have to set the past right. The aide packed us two thick tuna sandwiches in tin foil and a couple of homemade muffins. We thanked her and Arthur and took our leave. Irene never woke up. My father never spoke to her.
I sip my coffee. My father ate one of the muffins and half a sandwich the minute he got into the car, then washed it down with a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic from a grocery near Irene’s apartment that he said reminded him of the happiest parts of his youth. While my father waited in the living room for the aide to finish wrapping the sandwiches, Arthur took me aside in the kitchen and told me he’d heard the story of my father from his mother a few years back, before her cognition went, and that she said she’d felt guilty all her life because she no longer wanted to marry him by the time he returned from prison. Not because of anything my father had done but because she’d met Arthur’s father by then, and because a year is a long time for a twenty-one-year-old girl to wait. The way she told it, my father came to see her after he was released and she told him she had to break it off and that she was going to marry someone else. She’d always felt terrible about that. Though she never thought he’d committed the crimes he was charged with; he was too sweet. It was the other boys who were to blame. They were older and sneakier and had bamboozled him. Everyone knew that.
“That’s funny,” I said. “He thinks he left her.”
Arthur shrugged. “Who knows? But anyway they loved each other once and that’s what counts. How it ended doesn’t matter. One of them is probably right.”
My phone beeps. A message from Sam. It’s already tomorrow in Tasmania. I pull off at the next rest stop to read it.
Heard from Dad. His girlfriend is pregnant. Says he’s not sure how he feels about that at his age. Also that he wants us to be in better touch.
I write back. That’s good. About being in touch.
A moment later, a blinking reply. Yeah. I wrote him back with a joke. Billy: My dad’s having a new baby. Bobby: What’s wrong with the old one?
I smile, swell with pride. I tell Sam it’s a winner and pull back onto the highway. Toward the end of our time in Portland, I told Jay a joke I’d heard on the plane coming back from a work conference. It was the low point for him and me, and it meant a lot to me to hear people laughing on the flight. I thought: things are bad but maybe they don’t have to be thatbad. Maybe we can still save ourselves. But when I told Jay the joke, he lost it. When was I going to wake up? he shouted. When was I going to get serious about life?
This was serious, I told him. That joke was the most serious thing I’d ever said to him. He shook his head and went into his study and closed the door, and that’s when I knew it was over. I thought: if only he had laughed once, everything could have been different.
Why wouldn’t the cannibal eat the clown?
Because she tasted funny.