A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, The Southern Humanities Review, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including Playboy. His story How Birds Communicate won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award.
I recognized him instantly. How could I not? In the course of my life I’ve read every word the man ever wrote. It was because of him I learned French, and went to Algeria, and spent time in Paris. When I was younger I taped that iconic photo of him to the closet door of every crummy apartment I ever rented. You know the one I mean: a mostly smoked cigarette between his lips, coat collar turned up. The intelligent self-awareness on his face spoke to me of integrity and of what I imagined, back then, must be the cost of experience. Now, seeing him I felt my gut twist. He was 47 when he died, younger than I am today.
I was waiting for a bus, in Northern Virginia, in a Washington suburb. It was early April and the noon rain was cold. The sky was uncooperative; the luster on the blossoms of a row of pear trees was subdued, exposing the essential flaw in the trick of light, or beauty as it is sometimes called.
I should add that I was on my way to see my father at The Gloaming, where he lived on a wing with locked doors dedicated to inmates who might cause harm, to themselves or others, if they wandered.
The writer was sitting on the bench in the three-walled structure where you waited for a bus out of the weather. He looked European, in that indelible way people used to have of belonging to their cultures. He wore dark pants, a white shirt with an open collar, a zippered rain jacket. When I came in he was smoking. We nodded. It was obvious to me that he knew I recognized him. I thought he must be grateful I didn’t make a big deal out of it, but there was more to it than that. Humor was spilling out of him, and I was mesmerized by its invisible sparkle.
I have noticed, once or twice in my life before, the appearance of fissures. Without warning the physiognomy of the earth around you wrinkles. Wrinkling, it cracks. You become aware of a rift, and of a choice. You can play it safe, step around the crack, go about your business. Or you can go forward into the fissure. My father was too far gone to be expecting me; he hardly knew what day it was. Sometimes he mistook me for Sam Talarico, the dry cleaner he used to play pinochle with until they had a falling out over twenty dollars. I went forward. I told the writer, “I’ve always wondered about Meursault’s father.”
He nodded. “You’re not the first.”
It felt good to speak French, it felt natural, like running into an old friend you hadn’t thought about, remembering in a rush all the things you had in common. I am not a gifted linguist. After years of effort I’m a journeyman with the language. I’ll never be more. A fur of accent I can’t quite shave off holds me back. But he didn’t seem to mind.
“Go on. That’s what we’re here for.”
His generosity surprised me, and I instantly warmed to him. If I had expected anything it would have been the emotional ice one so often finds in highly intelligent people. This was different. It was way different. I took a seat.
“It’s just that…. Well, naturally I respect the economy of the thing. Part of the brilliance of the book is its brevity. Nothing that shouldn’t belong, and everything that must.”
He waved his hand in irritation and I kicked myself. Where he was, the last thing he wanted was a fan’s adulation. He felt in his pocket for cigarettes. Somehow—these sorts of things happen in a fissure—I came up with a pack of Gitanes Brunes and a box of matches. I offered him one, then lit it for him. I did not dare light one for myself. I was never able to get past the choke of the smoke.
I tried to explain myself. “What I mean to say is that there is no room in the story for Meursault’s father. I understand that. But I can’t pick up the book without wanting to know more about him. It has been a bit of an obsession for me.”
“Leaving him out was not my choice.”
In my eagerness to show him that I got it, I cut him off. “Yes!” I said. “Yes! Meursault demands it. Meursault, that is, the man as he is. You had to be true to him, his nature.”
I was embarrassed. I sounded like a man with an idea; a critic beating his small drum. But he nodded encouragingly. He wasn’t bored, or caustic, or impatiently superior. He was past all that. Even if I had nothing of real interest or value to say on the subject he wanted to hear me out.
“Meursault’s indifference to the story of his father,” I said slowly. It was not that I felt hesitant, I only had a great desire to speak accurately. “It reflects who he is.”
He shrugged. My words were not his words. “Perhaps.”
“The apathy he feels on the subject of his father, does it not parallel his indifference to God? They are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.” I took a breath. “The same alienation.”
The comment delighted him. His laughter was silent but huge. It echoed off the walls of the shelter. “Is that how one writes a novel, by propounding a thesis?”
I was grateful there was no one else around, waiting for a bus. I did not want to share. “No, of course not.”
“This obsession of yours…. It has something to do with your own father.”
“I won’t deny it.”
“And do you expect me to lay out the case for you?”
“It’s not a question of time, you know. There is plenty of time.”
It frustrated me that he felt he had to explain, although I appreciated his patience. “I understand,” I told him. “With all the good will in the world, there are limits to what you can do. It’s up to me to figure things out.”
“There’s my bus.”
For the record, he boarded the 3B, which would have taken him all the way to the end. As anyone who has read him understands, there are routes and there are routes, but only one terminal.
The Gloaming has upper-middle-class pretensions, a sop to my guilt when I put my father there five years ago. The inmates have, or used to have, secure social identities, along with the income to support them. There is a former ambassador to the Netherlands who wears a blue blazer and flannels to breakfast; at the end of every meal he removes an ivory toothpick from its leather case, covers his mouth with one hand, and routs out potential corruption. On the wall of his room, opposite the bed, hangs a map of Europe with color-coded pins that have significance to him, or used to have. There is a former assistant secretary of the Treasury Department I have seen compulsively tying and retying a bow tie in his mirror, listening to Debussy with an air of hoping to catch the composer out in a mistake. There is a woman with hair piled like hay who waylays you in the hall, wraps cools fingers around your wrist, and talks about the invention of organdy in a tone of fond regret as though she had the patent.
And there is my father, Armand, who was a D.C. fireman for more than thirty years. His left arm is mangled and badly scarred, the result of a house fire in Anacostia. As he was going up the porch steps to save a bedridden woman, the roof gave way and crashed on him. He could have taken total disability but chose to keep working although by the time of the accident he was soured on everything in his life. Work was just the most outrageous example of what was wrong.
Armand is Armenian and used to hate the Turks above all things on earth. I’ve noticed that he’s lost the passion of his hatred, in recent years. When the subject comes up with the handful of old-timers left in his life, he behaves as though he hasn’t quite heard, he would make a contribution to the conversation if he only knew what people were talking about. He is a broad, stocky man but not fat; burly, my mother liked to say. His wiry mustache is a spirit’s pure white, his nose is a schnoz, and his face is worrisomely red, advertising his choleric temperament. I do not remember a time when he did not glare.
I often feel a pang of remorse, going through the door onto the locked wing. Sometimes the pang intensifies to panic. My chest tightens up. The palms of my hands sweat. My mind casts about desperately for excuses to justify what I did, agreeing to have my own father put into such a place. When I see him, the anxiety usually subsides. I realize as if for the first time that he no longer blames me. He can’t, because he does not associate me with the son who had him committed.
This time, when I came into the room he looked at me in angry alarm. He picked up the hairbrush from the table next to his bed and heaved it at me. I ducked.
“You weren’t there.”
Vague as it was, the accusation hurt. “I’m sorry.”
“Miserable goddamn bastard. Sorry, he says. Sorry.”
My mother used to go on about what she called her husband’s firehouse language. The language hasn’t changed, but its force has faded.
You crippled me, I wanted to say to him, you made me unfit for love. What I actually said was, “Tell me what happened, Pop.”
I picked up the hairbrush but did not return it to him. I wanted to lean over and kiss him on the forehead, but experience had taught me that any display of emotion only upped his anger. Even if he did not remember I was his son, I was still to blame. So I took a chair in a corner of the room, far enough away from him not to incite.
“It was hotter than blue blazes,” he told me.
“All the frigging trees, they’re going up in flames, like so many matchsticks. Everywhere you turned you saw dogs. Black dogs, evil damn things. Howling like so many devils. One of the dogs was on fire, its tail was smoking like a torch. You got into my wallet, didn’t you? You were always into me for a sawbuck. More, sometimes. Jesus you should’a seen the sky.”
When he said anything about money I knew he was seeing me as his friend Sam, who once borrowed twenty dollars and claimed he gave it back. Armand never forgave him. His bitterness seemed to rise in intensity with every repetition of the story. It was the one thing about my father that hadn’t gotten smaller with age and infirmity. His sense of aggrievement dwarfed everything in the room.
“What about the sky, Pop? What was it about the sky?”
The glance of contempt with which he withered me chilled my heart. There are laws about being a father, about being a son. Whichever of those you are, breaking them is the one inviolable commandment.
“I couldn’t catch my breath. The heat, the smoke. All the oxygen got sucked out of the air. You weren’t there, were you? For chrissake you never even showed up let alone did anything useful for your country. I could’a used a hand you know. The phone was ringing off the hook. Blasted thing rang all night and you never did me the courtesy of showing up. The sky. Yeah. Sky was on fire too.”
He turned his face away, intent on recalling, or forgetting, what I believed to be a false memory compounded of work and dread, fused by his indignant imagination into one more illustration of betrayal. However counterfeit the scenario that had him in its grip, it told the same truth he had been hammering at me for as long as I could remember. Big things were happening in the world, terrible things were being done to him. And I hadn’t had the nerve to show up. If I wasn’t a coward I was disloyal. More likely I was both.
The nurse who materialized at that moment had thick arms, a weightlifter’s upper body, and a livid scar running the length of his face. Had he been hired for his impressive physical appearance? How much strength still lurked in the angry oldsters finishing their days on the locked ward of The Gloaming?
“I’ll be back in a few days,” I told my father, but his sense of outrage kept him from speaking if he had anything to say.
I thought often about the writer that Washington spring. I went back and read The Stranger yet again, and then The Plague. Reading him rekindled my love of the French language. When I was younger it had been intoxicating to take on a book in French and lose myself in it, find myself. Rereading his books was like being liberated all over again, Allied soldiers rolling into the town square in their Jeeps with chocolate bars and hope, sprigs of fresh daisies plugging the barrels of their rifles. I did not expect to see him again. One cannot command the earth to wrinkle and crack and create fissures. And, past a certain age, wishing becomes the stalest of bad habits.
Spring in Washington is stately, and rich with natural pomp. I went to see the cherry blossoms brim and spill their color on a plate of air. I watched an osprey ride a wind current above the Potomac, and the quicksilver of a leaping fish. I walked on the mall letting the sun soak my shoulders. I jogged in the Arboretum. But if you pay attention you can’t help realizing our local spring also has an elegiac quality, the seeds and blooms and bursting green prefiguring in their splendor the dark certainty of extinction.
It was evening when they called from The Gloaming to tell me that my father had died. I sat in the gathering dark for a long time, grieving the loss as though we had been the best of friends.
My mother was buried in a family plot back home in Wisconsin. Her choice. There was no room for my father in Appleton, which must have provided her a certain amount of relief. It was no easier being the wife of Armand than it was being his son. By the time he was put there, the cemetery he had picked out for himself in Fairfax County, outside Washington, had become a point of local contention. The ferocious growth of the county had chewed up green space, open space, family farms, any acreage that could be tortured into development. A small, old-fashioned cemetery with gigantic willow trees was a standing offense. Standing graveside listening to the priest recite traditional prayers, those of us in attendance could not help being distracted by the hum of unending traffic, the peppery sound of honking horns.
The weather was appropriately miserable, the sky so thickly overcast you couldn’t guess where the sun was. Drizzle fell like cold spit, and my skin was clammy. I felt bad for my father at the scanty turnout. We were four: one elderly cousin and two retired firefighters who refused to make eye contact with me. And, to my surprise, the former ambassador from The Gloaming. He had put on a pinstriped suit, along with a somber tie. He walked under his own power but seemed unsteady on his legs. Throughout the service I watched him from the corner of an eye. Something exasperated the man. He was visibly vexed.
The priest assessed me as indifferent to his orthodoxy, and he had another funeral to conduct, in another part of the county. He left quickly after we shook hands. My father’s cousin and the two friends went away in a shared cab after doing the same. Only the ambassador lingered. The moment I was left alone he made a beeline in my direction as though I were a government minister he meant to buttonhole at a cocktail party.
In an assertive, flinty voice he told me, “Your father was a hero.”
“Aren’t all firemen heroes? Like policemen, and the people who work on the ambulances? That’s what we are constantly being told by the politicians. By the media. Do you disagree with all those authorities?”
“Were you friendly with my father?”
He looked at me as if to say, What kind of damn fool question is that? But his diplomatic discipline kicked in, and I watched a smile spread on his face like a thin sheet.
“I counted on your father.”
The smile flattened still thinner. A scatter of cold rain fell on us. At a respectful distance two gravediggers in denim overalls waited indifferently with an evil machine. I wished I could cry. More than anything in the world I wanted the ambassador to tell me something good about my father, something that would cast him in a new light and redeem him in memory.
“What did you count on my father for?” I insisted when he hesitated.
He took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh that humanized him. To hell with diplomacy. “For being the most thoroughgoing bastard I ever met in my life.”
I nodded. In an odd way I was grateful. The next day I went back to work.
Grief and relief. Accomplices in a rotten marriage, and I lived in their house. One Saturday morning their bickering drove me out. I walked for a long time, winding up eventually in a park in my neighborhood. There was a Little League game going on. I’ve always enjoyed watching Little League although I’m not sure why. I suppose we all need rituals, the humbler the better. Their intimacy grounds us. And of course I never had children of my own. I don’t need to know the players, or choose a team. I sit in the stands and root for whichever team is at bat. It’s not the anonymity of the experience that pleases me so much as the chance to savor sensible emotion, however vicariously. Like many people I get upset when a player’s parents lose it and start berating the umpire, or the coach, or the pitcher who has just struck out their son.
Standing in line to buy popcorn, I recognized him from behind by the set of his shoulders. He bought a small bag. I bought a small bag. We walked back to the stands together and took seats on the top bleacher. It was late morning and the sun was very hot. In the vivid sky a few thin clouds were visible toward the south. They looked like scribbled notes.
“It must be difficult to enjoy baseball. I mean, not having grown up with the game, how does one appreciate it?”
He nodded. He was wearing a striped shirt, jeans and running shoes. That bothered me. Was he becoming one more victim of globalization? The thought appalled me, but there was no way I was going to bring it up.
“I am sorry to hear of the loss of your father,” he told me.
The way he said it, it was more than a conventional expression of sympathy. The man had heart, and being in his presence again warmed me, cheered me, gave me relief. I felt the heat penetrating, in probing fingers, to the coldness at my core.
“Thank you. May I tell you something about him?”
“Armand had one great friend in his life. Sam Talarico. Sam ran a dry cleaners two blocks from our house. They played ten thousand games of pinochle together. They were always on the same team, used to read each other’s mind. One always knew what was in the other one’s hand, and they weren’t cheating.”
“But they had a falling out.”
“Yes. One time Sam borrowed a little money from my father. He insisted that he paid it back. But my father did not remember, or did not believe him.”
“Perhaps he did not want to believe him.”
I shrugged. “It was the end of their friendship. A year later, my mother found a twenty dollar bill behind the dresser in their room. Attached to it with a paper clip was one of the little cards Sam had printed to advertise the business. Bring in the card and you got a ten percent discount on your shirts.”
“When she showed it to your father, he accused her of engineering a fraud, in order to put the friendship back together.”
I nodded. “I think you’re right. He did not want to believe.”
Talking, we were only half watching the game. But we both happened to see the double play unfold. It happened in a baseball instant. A hard-hit ball caromed from the ground into the glove of the White Sox shortstop. The force of it startled him—he felt the sting through his glove—but he reacted the way he had been coached to react. Still moving, he threw the ball to the second baseman, who stepped on the bag before the runner was halfway down the baseline. Then he threw a rocket to the kid on first, who had to stretch to snag the ball but did, making the second out cleanly and with conviction. The inning was over.
“Did you understand that?” I asked the writer.
“No. But I have the impression it was elegant.”
“Yes, it was elegant.”
I did my best to explain a double play, and he did his best to take it in.
At a certain point he told me, “I think I begin to grasp the concept.”
Something good was happening, I did not know exactly what. But as we talked, and the game went on, I felt a warm wave of ease rise slowly in me until it sloshed. Without effort I was speaking better French than I had ever spoken in my life, smooth and fluid, in a conversational rhythm as natural as the sunshine, which was making emphatic statements about every object, every living thing it lit up. I looked around at the players in their game-dirty uniforms, at their enthusiastic parents, and the redheaded umpire with dark blue pads on his bulging belly. Two rows down from us, a woman with raven hair was so absorbed in the game that she had lost all consciousness of her beauty. You could observe it the way you observed a bird on a branch, exquisite and thoughtless. Unspoiled by awareness, the beauty was simply there. Next to me, the writer was soaking up the game.
I finished my popcorn and balled the empty bag. He was eating more slowly.
“I feel good,” I told him.
He nodded. “That’s the idea.”
“Not just good. I feel free. There is a kind of euphoria. Here. In the park. Do you feel it?”
“Poor Meursault,” he said. He picked a few kernels of popcorn from the bag, held them in the flat of his hand examining them but didn’t eat them. “He struggled so, carrying the burden of absence.”
“Yes, whereas you, well, you’ve had to struggle with the opposite difficulty, haven’t you.”
“You mean my father’s overwhelming presence.”
“All the things that, being there, he did not say. And all the things that he did say which you did not understand.”
“I tried. I spent my life trying.”
“Are you asking for credit?” The question was not hostile, it was merely curious. He was like a doctor making sure he correctly understood the patient’s symptoms before coming up with a diagnosis.
“No. I don’t need credit,” I told him. “Not any more.”
Three pigeons were fretting the patchy grass beneath the bleachers. Kernel by kernel the writer dropped his popcorn there, and the birds ate it. It seemed to give him real pleasure, which in turn gave me pleasure. I was aware of a balance being established. As the euphoria around me in the park pressurized the lambent air, a corresponding feeling inside me pushed outward, creating a happy equilibrium whose object and purpose was me.
When he began feeling in his pockets I knew what was happening. It was time for him to go. Wanting a smoke and not finding his cigarettes was a graceful pretext to leave, and this time I had no Gitanes to offer him. I made it easy on him. I went along with the little pantomime, nodding but saying nothing when he excused himself for a moment. With all the generosity available – the park was practically dripping with it – it was not difficult to let him leave in the manner he obviously wanted to leave.
It was the bottom of the ninth inning and still a close game. Only one run separated the White Sox and the Tigers. Overhead, a cloud in the shape of a stout clown turned a lazy cartwheel, disintegrating as he tumbled. There was something fine about his heedless unbecoming, a disregard of consequences that was almost heroic, if you looked at in in a certain way.
There is nothing quite like the crack of a bat making hard contact with the ball. To everyone’s surprise, the White Sox pitcher connected for a solid single. The White Sox parents stood and cheered. I stood and cheered with them. When we sat down I recognized the figure in the distance walking away. There was a lilt in his step, going through the gates leading out of the park. There was no denying it, it was that kind of day.