John J. Clayton has published nine volumes of fiction, both novels and short stories. His stories have appeared in AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, Sewanee Review, over twenty times in Commentary; in Kerem, Conjunctions, Notre Dame Review, Missouri Review and The Journal. Stories have been published recently in MQR and Missouri Review. His stories have won prizes in O.Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He taught modern literature and fiction writing as professor and then Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
This is 1967, maybe 1968: the upper West Side in Manhattan, a Saturday. Ben, in his early thirties, spending the weekend in New York, is visiting his parents with his wife and daughter.
“So what’s wrong with Grandpa?” Julie asks. “Is he sick?”
“Some people,” Elise says—they’re taking a taxi from the apartment on Riverside Drive they borrowed from friends to the apartment on 84th where Ben grew up, apartment his parents have lived in for thirty years—“some people, when they get old, their brains slow down. It’s not their fault, sweetheart. You’ll see. He’s lost a little of his memory. But he’s the same old grandpa.”
Same old grandpa? Julie doesn’t seem happy about that.
It’s a Saturday. When his mother opens the door to Elise, their daughter Julie, and Ben, Ben’s father is kind of hiding behind his wife, a little bent, hiding, smiling like a shy child.
When, in 1968, Ben thinks about his father, he still sees him with eyes of childhood: a beefy, angry middle-aged man with a florid face, enraged at the existence of anything different from himself. Difference disturbed him—different language, different color, different style. He shouted his anger.
When Ben was a child, in powerful voice his father roared rhetorical questions at Ben: What are you, a goddamn pansy, your hair that long? You gonna get yourself a haircut or you want me to cut it myself? Or say if Ben put a string quartet on the record player—all right, sure, he did it as cultural challenge to his ignorant father—his father took the bait and sneered, Whatare you—some kind of furriner? Foreigners, all of them—wops and spics, micks and even sheenies, though he was himself a Jew—all suspect, none real Americans. Strange, since he was a foreigner himself—born in Toronto soon after his parents immigrated from Odessa. But he saw himself as unalloyed Chicago.
It was all different by 1968. No rage during this visit. Lou King, né Cohen, then in his late seventies, backs away from the door and smiles a sweet smile. The old man has changed so much—even in the few months since Ben saw him last. He’s sweetened. Not just sweetened. Dwindled. Over Myra’s shoulder he says gently, “You’re A-okay in my book, mister. Let’s look at that gorgeous kiddo of yours.” The kiddo, Julie, about eleven, doesn’t take kindly to being called a kiddo.
And Lou grins at Elise, Ben’s wife. “Look what a beauty you married, Ben, m’boy—with them Park Avenue blue eyes.” Dad has known Elise for years and he still says that, though her eyes are brown, now and always. But blue means Park Avenue, means wealth, means class.
Ben can’t escape imposing upon his father the template by which he saw his childhood father: angry, humiliated at work by his rich brother who ran the show; template of a powerful, insecure man who slammed doors and ripped phones out of the wall, man who yelled out his car window at any driver who didn’t give way to him—Stopping at a red light he’d get out of his car to pound on the other driver’s window, challenge him to a fistfight. This happened maybe five, ten times in Ben’s childhood. No one was ever crazy enough to take him up on the challenge. Satisfied, he’d return to his car. But this father, new father, retired, near the end of his life, grinning, soft, tender, grateful to see his family—seems to Ben a father he doesn’t know how to know.
This new father—old father—his muscles slack, skin sagging. In this weakness it’s hard for Ben to keep emotional distance. He can’t help pitying him, almost loving him. Ben knows there’s a touch of schadenfreude in the way he sees his father: an old enemy, damaged. But there’s also pity.
From 225 pounds his father has gone down to maybe 175. The bones of his shoulder stick out. Timid, gentle, on Elavil for depression (his mother has told him), he no longer shouts at his wife and then, when she dramatizes her shame—the neighbors! —by shutting the windows, goes around opening them. No longer. He’s peaceful. And she’s peaceful, too, no longer the mother Ben knew in childhood. When Ben was five, or eight, or ten, she goaded Lou—it was her bitter pleasure—C’mon, big shot, c’mon, you lift your hand to me? You want to kill me? I know you do. Go on. I’ll get you the hammer. I’ll get you the knife! Which knife will do the job best?
Or she’d make fun of him, How does it feel to be such a smart genius?
Or she’d curse him in Yiddish under her breath.
Whadda’ya think I am? he’d growl—you think I’m goddamn made of money?—when she’d bought a steak or bought Ben new sneakers. And she’d answer, as if it were a real question, Hmm. Let me think. She’d sigh. No my dear, no, I surely do not think you’re made of money. Or else I’d have an entirely different life. I wouldn’t have to wash your dirty underwear.
That was when Ben was a child. But now, 1968—now Myra took care of Lou, watched him, suggested he sit down and relax, enjoy his family. In the old days, days of Ben’s childhood, his father would have yelled, Don’t you goddamn tell me what to do! But now he eases into his wing-backed chair and seems to appreciate she wants the best for him, and he grins at Ben and says again, “You’re A-Okay in my book, m’boy.”
Ben is here mostly to visit his mother; Elise and Julie are supporting him, lightening the pressure. But it’s his father he can’t help but focus on. It’s hard this afternoon to see him stand outside the bathroom, his pants drooping, see him rock foot to foot, waiting for a call from his colon. It must be hard for his mother, Ben thinks, that she has only her faded husband to talk to. What does she have going? What life in her life?She’s not a member of a synagogue. She doesn’t volunteer. She has no true friends. Her sister and sister-in-law are dead. She’s alone with her husband. She listens to the radio. Mornings she used to read Walter Winchell in the Mirror. His column has ended; the paper’s defunct.
“Why don’t you and your father go for a walk and bring me back a pack of cigarettes?”
Ben waits for his father to say, What? More goddamn coffin nails? but no—Dad just goes for hat and coat. And Myra, Ben’s mother, says quietly, “I want you to see what he’s like.”
They walk down 84th past a bodega where Dad would never buy anything from the PR’s, to Columbus Avenue and into a sad little store near the corner to get cigarettes. It was where Ben as a child used to get comic books and egg creams, candy and newspapers and the little pink hollow balls they called Spaldeens. His father buys a pack of cigarettes; Ben pokes through headlines.
When he turns around, a minute later, his father is gone.
Ben can see halfway up 84th Street. Dad isn’t on his way home. Where the hell can he be? He was annoyed. What would his mother say if he lost him? He looks up and down Columbus. Has his father wandered into one of the stores? Dad’s orientation is toward 81st not 86th. Ben half runs, peering into stores—the grocery, the pharmacy. Columbus is already starting to morph from the shabby street of his childhood. The saloons are gone, cheap lunch places seem less cheap. Sheffrin’s Deli near the corner of 81st has been transformed, sad to say. The dirty counters and glass cases have been cleaned up—it’s hardly the place he remembers. The old pickle barrel is gone. Fat Mr. Sheffrin recognizes Ben, waves. “Your dad was just in,” he calls.
“Know where he might have gone?”
Sheffrin shrugs. “He seemed strange, Mr. King, Bennie—like something wrong, you know? He asked for a half-sour pickle, I gave him a pickle. Frankly, he didn’t seem to know me—and how long has he been a customer? How long have you and your dad been coming here?” He comes out from behind the counter. “I saw him go toward the corner. Tell me—is he all right?”
On the phone last week his mother told him that his father has “a touch of senile dementia.” Ben didn’t take it seriously—thought in fact she was one-upping Dad, putting him down the way she used to. But suppose he’s lost? —just a few blocks from home, but lost? What do we do? Call the police? Ben turns the corner onto 81st, and there he is, there’s Dad—a block ahead, past the Planetarium, nearly at the Beresford, nearly at Central Park.
Ben hustles to catch his father before the light changes and his father enters the park. He stands waiting to cross Central Park West. Ben calls, “Dad! Dad!” The light changes, and changes again by the time he gets to the corner. Too much traffic—he has to wait.
As Ben waits, a memory comes to him: the time he was only six or seven years old and his mother—so foolish! —sent him out to the corner for cigarettes—this was before you needed to be a certain age to buy cigarettes—and since he was near the park he wandered into the playground looking for his best friend. The boy—Doug—wasn’t there, but someone had seen him, yes, and thought he’d gone with his nanny to the zoo, across the park. So Ben followed; by the time he got to the zoo, he started to realize his mother might be worried, so after a few minutes looking for and not finding Doug, he got on a crosstown bus and transferred to get home, paying with change from the cigarettes. When he walked in, there was his mother, in tears, shattered, and his two aunts, comforting each other, and he handed his mother the cigarettes and couldn’t figure what was so terrible.
Now, it’s his father off in the park alone. Father as child.
When the light changes, Ben runs across the street and into the park. He passes the hill where he used to sled. Is that his father—the man on the other side of the bridle path? He gets closer—no, it’s not him. Then, turning back, he spots his father on a bench outside the playground. “Dad! Why’d you make me chase you?”
“Ben! There’s m’boy! Hey! Remember—” he thumbs to the East—“we used to play baseball on the big lawn?”
“Yeah, I remember all right.” Remembering makes Ben shut down, harden. Yeah, they played ball—what?—a couple of times, just a couple of times, they played ball. When Ben, nervous in front of his father, stiffened up and muffed a ball, his father boomed, What’re you, blind? What in hell’s wrong with you? You a girl or something? You don’t stick your fingers straight out like that!
“Sure,” Lou says. “At first you were lousy, but you got pretty good at playing ball. Sure, sonny boy. Real good times. But where you going in the park? Hey! I didn’t even know you were in the city. Why’n’t you call?”
“C’mon, Pop. Let’s get those cigarettes home to Mom.”
“The pack bulging out of your pocket. We’re visiting you and Mom this afternoon, remember?”
“Oh, sure.” His father slaps fingertips to forehead. He taps. “I forget things, Ben. Pain in the ass. Sorry. Visiting with that little girl of yours, right? What’s her name?”
“Oh, sure, my granddaughter Julie. We went out to get cigarettes, you and me. Hey! What did you run away for?”
“That’s right, Pop. Cigarettes. Coffin nails. Sorry we got separated.”
“That’s all right, Sonny Boy. ‘Coffin nails,’ huh? That’s a good one. We better be getting back. Your mother will be worried.”
But it seems she isn’t worried. She was sure they’d come back. “So, my son, now you understand a little what I have to deal with?”
“I’m really sorry, Mom. So that’s what it’s like.”
“That’s. What. It’s. Like,” she repeats slowly, as if she were a great tragedienne.
“Dad and I took a walk in Central Park.”
She sighs. “That’s nice. While you were gone, dear, I’ve been telling your sweet wife what we’ve been going through. She’ll tell you later on. I’ve been taking good care of the lord and master. That’s my occupation these days. Isn’t that right, Lou?” When she speaks to Lou she raises her voice and he knows she’s talking not to his dad but specifically to him.
“She spoils me,” Lou says. “Some wife.”
“But you know, your father makes it easy. He’s so gentle. Some people, when they lose memory, they become angry. I’ve heard that. He makes me cry he’s so sweet.”
Lou is right there listening when she says this. He grins. “You hear? I get good grades as a husband. And I’m some healthy guy, ain’t that right, Myra? I can still knock ’em dead,” he says, punching fist into palm. “You should see my numbers—you know, my blood workup.”
“You have my cigarettes, dear?”
“‘Coffin nails,’” Lou says. “That’s what your son and heir calls them. Hah-hah! Okay, okay. Here you are, sweetheart.”
“He’s right, Mom,” Ben says. “I wish you’d stop or at least cut down.”
Elise flutters her hand, wiggles her fingers—a signal to Ben to lay off: Your mother doesn’t need one more thing to worry about. He nods—okay, you’re right—only Elise can read his nod.
“You hear that?” Lou says. “That’s my boy.”
“It’s too late for me,” she says. “Your lovely wife, she knows—I’ve told her what I cope with. But I’m glad you don’t smoke.” Now Myra touches her fingertips to her mouth to indicate, as he remembers they’ve always indicated, that her next words are to be in code. More precisely, her words are both in code and not in code; they mean one thing for Lou, another for Ben and Elise.
“Middle of the night, twice, the poor man has gotten out of bed and forgotten the layout of the house. Isn’t that right, dear? Forgotten where the bathroom is. You understand me?”
“Oh, Mom. Oh.”
“I wake up,” Lou says, “and where am I? Know what I mean? I guess I’m still half asleep.”
“So it means a little middle-of-the-night cleanup. The carpet in front of the bureau. Which is not so terrible. Now I’ve got a towel there. Folded. You think I’m complaining?”
“She doesn’t complain, your mother.”
“But that’s what you get in a marriage—even a marriage like ours.”
“Like yours?” Ben says. “A marriage like yours?”
She sighs. “What I wouldn’t give to have my dear man back with me the way he was! What a good man, your father, a strong man. I know, sometimes he could be harsh. You fought at times. Do you remember? But he always meant well. It takes something like this to realize what a mensch I’ve been married to.” She holds her cheeks between her palms. “What I wouldn’t give to have my husband back the way he was.”
Ben stares. To whom is she saying this? Maybe it’s meant as a gift to Lou? But Ben looks into her eyes. No, she’s speaking honestly to him, to Elise. Who’s the one suffering memory loss? Maybe it’s not just his father. Is his mother rewriting their story? It’s enough to make him crazy.
In the taxi back to their borrowed apartment, he broods. Elise says, “Your mother is so sad. Ben, dear, do you know she cried in front of me—when you were walking with your father. Can you imagine? I usually see her as affected. I don’t mean affected by your father’s disability. I mean affected, false, full of affectation.”
Ben tilts his head to remind Elise that Julie’s here and it’s not good for her to hear her grandmother put down. Elise closes her eyes and nods, meaning, Sorry. He puffs out his lips: It’s okay.
“Sometimes,” Elise tells him, “it gets bad, the weight of it, what’s happening to him, and she says he doesn’t know how she can cope. He forgets how to cut up his meat. I’d never heard of that before. Sometimes he just sits there at the table and she has to remind him or cut it herself. But then sometimes he’s almost okay—just a little slow.”
“She doesn’t remember her actual marriage,” Ben says. “She’s got a silk stocking softening the lens. You know what? They’re both suffering memory loss.”
“Or else,” Elise says, “you are. No. I’m not attacking you. Think of it this way. Suppose there was a terrible period in their marriage, a period that lasted only a couple of years—a couple of years in a long marriage—but it was your childhood, so you think of it as their whole time together.”
“I’ve seen what I’ve seen.”
Elise looks into his eyes. “Honey, I’m not saying it’s not real.”
Julie looks from one to the other. “Are you guys fighting again?”
“If you think we fight, Miss,” he laughs, “you don’t know what fighting is.”
“Great. I don’t think I want to know,” Julie says. They all laugh. Uneasily.
“Elise, you think I want the life I remember—all that rage, all that grief—to be the truth?”
The taxi crosses Amsterdam and Broadway and West End Avenue while they sit with this. He takes Elise’s hand. The taxi descends 79th toward Riverside Drive. They’re all silent. The longer the silence, the more weight the question carries.