Commentary Magazine


Apples
A Story

Larry, awaking, heard his chin stubble rasp the satin ribbon of their white blanket.

“Oh, you lucky bum!” he said to himself, as a small doubt hit him. “Oh, you no-good lucky bum!” Finnegan had said to him on Larry’s wedding day. Larry said it to himself now as, stifling the doubt, he stretched between fine percale sheeting and turned to his wife.

To where his wife should have been.

“Where is she?” he asked himself. She was always beside him, nuzzling close till he was ready to get up, just as she always waited for him at night, no matter how late he sat over his books. And last night had been a late night. He had sat in his study, reading and re-reading what he had already written of his thesis, asking himself if he would ever be able to finish.

Larry twisted his neck to see the gold wedding-present clock on the bed table. A little past one. The blinds were drawn, but he could see enough gray light to know it was a cold, gloomy day, a wonderful afternoon for sleeping. He remembered now that his father was coming for dinner, and after that, Finnegan. But that was later.

“Then where is she?” he asked himself again. At the same moment he was telling himself, “Don’t panic. For God’s sake, why the panic?” It came to him at times when the unreasonable panic rose up that on the reverse of the coin of his lucky-gold-piece life was engraved a shipwreck. Somebody, someday, might flip that coin.

He strained to hear sounds. He flung back the blanket and in his pajama bottoms only, he went down the short hall, through the dining room and to the kitchen.

He watched her first from the doorway. Tall, long-legged, slender—the baby hardly showed yet—Penny stood at the table, furiously whipping some grey stuff in a bowl. He admired all over again those long, fine legs, that silky blond hair that she let go just any which way. All of her body was fine and long-boned and tennis-y, even to the elegant stoop of her shoulders. (“Wings, Penny!” he had heard her mother say, on the very day Penny and he were married.) Now and then dabs of the grey stuff flew out of the bowl and spattered her shorts.

“Penny?” he said. “You didn’t wake me.”

She continued whipping for a moment in silence. Then she turned her young, unsure face to him and answered, “I got up early.” She picked up their cat, Maxine, and rubbing her face against Max’s ear, she continued, “I’m making things your father likes.” She moved away for him to see.

Larry peered into the dishes and pots to see the careful replicas, like wax-works in a museum, that Penny was making of the contents of the old-time meal. On a plate, chopped liver in a mound surrounded by slices of white radish. In the huge pot, yellow soup, bubbling and breaking like a turbulent sea. Upon its surface, round matzomeal balls, yellow and smooth, bouncing like buoys; a faggot of greens, neatly tied with white thread, sailed and steamed and gave off its crisp, acrid odor. Deep in the pot, the long thick slices of breast meat, each with three flat marrow bones protruding from their slippery envelopes of gristle.

“Well, it’s perfect, wonderful,” Larry said. “It smells like home, which is—you know—good and bad. But you’ve done it all wonderfully. Where did you learn it?”

“From a book,” Penny answered. “I had to get a book. You know. There was no one I could ask.”

He put his arm around her and made her sit down, because she hadn’t yet had breakfast. He took her answer as a reference to the death of her parents, and also as a sad little complaint about other things too.

_____________

 

Six months before, suddenly and nightmarishly, Penny’s parents had been killed in an auto crash. For a year before that—part of it was over him—Penny and her mother had not communicated. And with her father the connection had been mainly money, because he was a man who converted love obligations into money ones, and discharging those, cleared the books. Their death had left Penny and him rich enough so that he need never finish his thesis and begin to teach, except that if he didn’t live out his old dream, what would he do?

Penny did her best to feel grief. What wasn’t grief was guilt and confusion, and they worked as well, bringing tears to the mourning, and a sadness and sense of loss thereafter.

“Penny,” he said. “Penny Benny.”

He made coffee for them and poured it into two big mugs. He toasted coffee cake and buttered it and put it on a big plate between them. Penny held her mug in her two hands and sipped from it dreamily. Though she was tall, a little taller than he, she huddled down small when she sat.

“Eat, Penny dear,” he said. “Eat coffee cake. Get fat.”

“For the kill?” she asked absent-mindedly.

He said nothing. His wife was given to extravagant sayings and doings. He felt satisfied when she took a piece of coffee cake and began licking the butter off the top.

“Let him come live with us,” she said.

“I’d ask him, Pen, you know,” he answered, “but what’s the good?”

“He’d want to come.”

“Maybe. Maybe he would, if I could ask him a right way, a welcoming way. I’m willing to do whatever duty I owe to him, but I can’t put in feeling if I don’t feel it, can I?”

“Just ask him.”

“But I know him. He won’t come that way.”

“He looks so lost every time he leaves,” Penny said.

“I know,” Larry answered.

“He looks so frail.”

“I know.”

“I wonder, how does he shop for food and make his meals?”

“You don’t have to wonder. When my mother was alive, she had to yell to him to get out of the pots.” Larry said this with more assurance than he felt. His father had been a different man then.

As suddenly as it began, the conversation stopped.

They dressed and settled in the living room. It was Sunday. The Times lay on the table, a challenge to Larry’s nerve and will. He picked three sections to read in order of his duty as he saw it: first, “News of the Week”—caring for a world that might reciprocate by blowing him up; second, books—his profession, if he had one; and last, music—his love.

Larry offered Penny a piece of the paper, but she refused. She had settled awkwardly on the sofa. Though her belly hardly showed anything, she had already started to move with the deliberateness of a pregnant woman. In her lap was Max, who at the first sign of disturbance was ready to plunge off. She gave her a few soothing strokes, and Max purred.

The “News” was full of horrors. But the cat purred, good if disturbing smells came from the kitchen, the room was filled with Brahms, his wife sat content. . . . Or did she? He looked up, just in time.

“Cigarette, cigarette!” he yelled wildly, pointing to where her cigarette had toppled to the cushion from the ash tray balanced on the sofa arm.

Penny thrashed the cushion and poured coffee from her cup on it. Larry went to examine it. Not quite burnt through, but a brown scar on the beige-and-yellow tweed within the brown coffee stain.

He couldn’t help then looking back at the coffee table at older scars there, and thinking of chips or mars or scars throughout the house.

“Penny,” he said, “Penny, for God’s sake, don’t be tearing up the playground.”

“I don’t do it on purpose,” she said.

He put his hand on her head. “Of course you don’t. Any more than I care about it on purpose.”

She smiled at him then. “You didn’t fall so far from that tree.”

He smiled back. “We are what we are?” he asked.

“But we’re changing every minute?” she asked back.

“Falling from the tree is easy; it’s rolling away that’s hard,” Larry concluded, and with it finished their ceremony of repentance, their restatement of their situation in life.

“If I hadn’t met you then, I could have met you now,” Larry said. He was referring to the night he had dropped his ping-pong paddle at the USO and dashed across the room yelling, “Listen, your skirt’s on fire!”

It had been her expression he had noticed first. He liked it. A kind of naked look about her face, despite a childish stubborn set to the mouth that he could see too. But naked the way the forehead was smoothed tight back, the way all the skin of her face lay tight against its bones, something the way a dog looks when it lays its ears flat—naive and scared and hopeful. She had been staring ahead, not talking to anyone, one hand lying across the edge of her lap, holding a cigarette. He had kept one eye on her—she seemed to be falling into a daydream. And then he thought he saw the live end of her cigarette nestle into the fold of her tweed skirt. It wasn’t exactly on fire, of course, but there was a fair-sized scorch in it that, as she worried it with her fingernail, became a hole.

At first, without much interest she had looked down, poured a little coke into her lap, and thanked him. As he continued to stare, she had added, “Don’t worry, it was bound to happen. It always does. I guess I like things to be worn and torn.” Then she had looked at him with sudden clear interest and said, “Your forehead has wrinkles. That’s nice.”

_____________

 

He had sat down and that very night had begun to tell Penny about himself, his mother, his father, the store. About how his mother and father had told him that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and how he had vowed it would. That night and the nights after, as he said much and Penny said little, he learned, out of the corner of his eye, about her too. Not only did she burn, she cut, scratched, and bumped herself, and never remembered how or when. She also lost purses, containing a good deal of money. The naked watchful look was not for that, but instead for the many interrupted scenes where the mother and father had stood silent and glaring, the unspoken words hanging in the air like blimps.

He had told Penny how he had had so much energy as a boy that he could not sit still. He sometimes even read or wrote standing up. When he ate supper, he used to shake one leg under the table until his father and mother, who wanted a deathlike stillness in which to ease their aching bones that they said felt broken, declared, “Did you ever see? Such a crazy kid? Stop with the shaking!” But he was like a runner, warming up, ready for the sprint, to be gone.

He had tried to tell his father about his dreams. “Not for me, Papa. Not the store. Something I’ll be happy with. Here the son doesn’t have to follow the father. The son can do new things. . . .”

Larry knew he should keep the excitement out of his voice. He should be grave, to show he understood life was hard. But he got swept up. And his father was a choleric man. With a way of moving his glance furiously up and down the length of a person as if to include every bit, from crown to toe, in his contempt.

“Did the parents struggle so the son could be a failure?” he shouted. “Who gives up a store for a nothing—a maybe?”

And his mother, who had it in for him because he dated girls who weren’t Jewish (he had to admit they had a fatal attraction for him—the pale, quiet ones with freckles and sandy eyebrows and a shy admiration for the way he talked, incessantly, about his work), said, “You think if you read your eyes out and run around till all hours you’ll stop being my son and Abe Goldstein’s son? Never! It was already too late twenty years ago. You should have talked to God before you were born.”

When everything else lost its sting they even—anything to stop his flight—sacrificed the image of their own self-esteem. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” they said wearily.

It seemed that all during his growing up, for one reason or another, his parents were angry with him. And he too, mixed with his pity, felt angry and choked.

Knowing he should leave, but unable to get the power, he had sweated it out at home, working in the store days, at night grinding his way through a dreary B.A., a dreary M.A., and at last starting on his Ph.D. This was to be the dove that would bring him back in its mouth a piece of the green growing life at some university far from the East Bronx.

But before that could happen, the army had taken him. Then he had met and married Penny (she had put her hand on his sleeve once after they kissed good night and said in her whispery voice, “I want to be new too. But not alone. I can’t make it alone.”) and they had gone to live in a good but not flashy apartment house in downtown Manhattan where he was to finish—finally finish—his thesis.

They had seen his parents infrequently. Penny had seen hers not at all since the wedding—though there the excuse was that they lived in Cleveland. When Larry’s mother was dying, his father did not summon him until she was far gone, and her mind in confusion. She took Larry’s hand and said, “Promise me. . . . Promise me you’ll find a nice girl and settle down,” even though Penny was there the whole time.

“Put Max in the kitchen,” Larry said to Penny now. It was getting near the time—it was always near evening—when the cat’s digestive system went to pieces.

Ignoring that, Penny said, “You don’t have to be afraid of your father any more, if that’s it. A television set, a warm room, and some food is all he needs now. He’s changed.”

It was true. Although it never made the elderly stranger seem less a stranger, he could see that his father had changed.

After his mother died, his father had shut up shop. He had taken Larry aside and said, “I have to be a different person now. The world has changed. I spent too many years in the store—in the dark.”

He then sold out the store, moved to a smaller apartment in the Bronx, and bought a television set.

“Look, look how people live,” was all his cry.

He saw with his own eyes that people had more rooms in their houses than they could live in. That they burned lights for the joy of warm, beautiful light, that they ate from uncracked plates on clean white tablecloths. He peered inside the set at “Person-to-Person,” his neck stretched forward, his mouth open as if he would take a bite out of the fruit that was just standing around in a bowl, getting rotten.

He learned that people who read and wrote books and talked about them were not sunk in the river with their feet in cement, but were actually paid. Scholars and scientists became his heroes. “Brilliant mind!” he said, whenever one appeared. All the same, he squinted in perplexity, searching the screen. Where was the aggressiveness, the loud voice, the smooth brag of the success? Vanished. Gone from this new, well-lighted world. He hesitated, confusion peeping out from under his wrinkled, straining lids. Then he gave up, leaned back, and pronounced the benediction, “Brilliant mind.”

Penny had told Larry his father was proud of him. But Larry thought rather that his father looked upon him as a straggler who had fallen to the rear of his own parade. “Larry!” his father would say, tearing his eyes from the screen for a moment. “You read more than him. Why don’t you get up there?”

The new and the modern was wonderful. His father was determined not to be a back number, and to go along with all of it. When Penny burned a cigarette hole, threw out a piece of sterling with the garbage, or when the cat, whose diarrhea was chronic, did it on the sofa pillow, Larry’s father sat stunned for a moment. Then he leaned back, gave himself up to the new and the modern and nodding his head, dumbly smiled.

“I’m nervous,” Penny said. “What are you thinking about? The past? Then you won’t ask him.”

“I would if I could,” said Larry. “If I can I will. Can I help it if I don’t feel it yet? If I just don’t feel it?”

“All right,” said Penny. “But please. I can’t bear to see him walk out into the cold another night without some offer from you.”

“I’ll try. I’ll try. I’ll try,” said Larry.

The doorbell rang. Penny gave him one full glance before she went to the door.

_____________

 

The next moment Larry’s father stood before him. Not, as he still thought of him from his childhood—a heavy, powerful man. But as he had been for years now, shrunken, frail. The soft yellow sports shirt was buttoned at his throat and he had made a careful knot in his navy-blue-and-red flowered tie—a big, loose, slippery knot, and the collar and the knot fell away from his wasting neck. He stood rubbing his hands uncertainly, searching for a joke.

“Well, professor, did you get your TV contract yet?”

“Not yet, Papa, not yet. Sit down.”

“I’ll put everything on the table,” Penny said. “We’ll eat soon.” She hurried out to the kitchen.

His father sat down on the sofa. In the old days he would certainly have first shooed off the cat that was curled in a deep cup on the pillow beside him. The dog he had brought to the store to catch rats when Larry was a boy he had forbidden Larry to take home. And the dog had—so Larry had thought—died of loneliness and starvation in the first few months. But now his father sat with his hands in his lap, meekly sharing the sofa with the cat.

Larry reached for the whiskey bottle. “A little schnapps, Papa?”

“All right. I will. For the appetite.”

He knocked his back neat. Larry did the same, and they sat silent for a moment.

“Tell me the truth, Larry,” his father began. “You’re a married man, almost a father, you could tell me.” He said it with a smile and a wink, now that the mother was safely underground, and nodded in the direction of the kitchen. “She’s really a shiksa, no?”

It was a two-year-old joke between them. And each time Larry answered with a shrug and a laugh, “Could be.”

“How’s your apartment, Papa?” he asked.

“Fine, fine,” his father answered, looking into his shot glass.

“They give you enough heat?”

“Oh, sure.”

Larry couldn’t go on with it. Reaching for the whiskey bottle again, he asked, “A little more, Pop?”

His father raised his palm vertically. “No.”

Larry let his hand fall from the bottle. His father gazed through the window where snow was beginning to fall. Suddenly he said, “All right, yes, I will, a little more.”

As they finished their seconds, Penny called them to the dining room. “It looks good,” said Larry’s father politely. Penny’s face brightened. Then his father, about to sit in his accustomed chair, seemed to remember something. Taking Penny’s arm he said, “Let me look at you. I hardly saw you before. You look good. But tell me, where you keeping it, in your handbag?”

Penny’s face broke into a delighted smile. “Oh, Papa!” she said. “Just a few more months and you’ll be complaining that the crying keeps you up. You’ll. . . .” she stopped abruptly.

“Let’s eat,” said Larry.

They sat down and Larry felt grateful, as he always did when his father came to a meal, that he was not intimidated by the Jensen silver candlesticks—tarnished as they were—or the white Museum of Modern Art dishes—wedding presents from Penny’s side. None of these things could disguise from his father the real purpose of such a sitting down. It was to eat, and he did. They had little conversation.

Larry thought of another “dining room” that had been no more than a bulged passageway between two other rooms, without windows, where they had sat under the six-bulbed chandelier with little brown paper lampshades—his mother’s extravagance. But his father kept three of the bulbs twisted loose so that they did not light. “Who sees us here?” he had asked.

_____________

 

When the meal was over, Penny, Larry, and his father seated themselves in the living room. Larry looked at them all now in the moonlight of television. His wife, nervously reaching for a cigarette with one hand, rubbing the cat down with the other; the cat, looking to him to be dangerously near her hour; his father, open-mouthed as at the creation of the world. All his straggly, limping household. The next move was his. He couldn’t make it.

He jumped up. “Papa, I still have work to do on my thesis tonight. I’m going inside for a while.”

His eyes glued to the screen, Larry’s father waved him away. “Sure, sure. Go, Larry.”

He went to his study and found Penny close behind him. “Get back inside,” he said.

“Are you going to ask him in here?” she demanded.

“Leave me alone. I don’t know. Go watch television.”

He wanted very badly to go to sleep. But he sat at his desk, gazing at the index cards, the card-file boxes, the library reserve slips with catalog numbers written on them, his half-written first chapter: “Roots of the Present Dilemma in Antiquity,” and tried to think. But nothing came to his mind except that he wanted to crawl under the blankets and sleep.

He took a packet of cards from the file box, rolled off the rubberband, and idly began turning the cards face down on the desk in a kind of mosaic arrangement. One by one he faced each card up, looked at it, replaced it face down in another spot. It came to him what he was doing: dealing out the cards for a game of “Concentration” that he had played as a kid. All the cards in the deck were laid face down on the table and you tried, when your turn came, to make a pair with two picks. You had to show your cards when you picked, and if they were unpaired, you turned them face down again, but changed their locations so that only you, you hoped, would remember where they were when your turn came again.

Soon it came to him also why he had been playing “Concentration,” because he had begun to think about an incident from the store. He had come to the store after his classes one day to help, and a woman had walked in after him and asked his mother for a blue slip, size 44. His mother had looked first on one shelf, then another, bending down to the bottom, standing on the little stepladder to peer at the top of a column of shelves. She had come down, her face flushed.

“I don’t think if they make that size in such a color,” she had said to the woman. “Take a black.”

“What’s the matter,” his father had roared out from the back of the store. “You don’t want to sell your customers? Or you don’t know your own stock?” He had ducked under the counter and pulled out a dusty box—blue slip, size 44.

Larry had tried on many Saturday nights and Sundays when the store was closed, to arrange the stock. But it was hopeless. Soon everything would be a jumble again, because they would shove merchandise back in the bins any old way in their eagerness to please a customer.

Or was it only that? Sometimes he thought there was something else too. That they really wanted to trick each other, like in “Concentration.”

_____________

 

He picked up the cards quickly and put them into the file box again. He didn’t like to think about the charades in the store. It still made him feel sick, even at this distance.

Through the half-open door of his study, Larry heard, mixed with the television voices, the voice of his father, in his new wisdom, explaining the commercial to Penny.

“You think that’s the cake from the recipe they tell you they put in the oven? No! It’s a different cake entirely.”

“You said it, Papa,” Penny answered.“They’re all goniffs.

Something Penny picked up from Larry’s father was this old-time Yiddish word for thief. In Penny’s family no flick of the old sorrowful-comical tongue had been allowed to touch the children. But like the princess in “Sleeping Beauty,” Penny wandered through all the rooms of her young life till she came to what was forbidden.

“My father,” his father was saying, “what did he know of such things? Never a kind word to us, never a sweet look to his wife. Can you imagine, I should have had such a father like in the play? I should go to school, my father should buy me a car, give me money to travel and see the world? He was as mean as could be, to prepare us for later on. So we wouldn’t be disappointed in life.”

There was silence. Then Larry’s father sighed deeply. “Aah, what’s the good? I lived in the dark. Now it’s almost over for me.”

Larry had never heard his father speak this way before, and his face grew hot. What kind of parody was this? Then he thought better of it. No, it was sincere. His father’s own wail for his own sorrows. He never saw the connection between Larry’s and his. The generations could only project backwards, on a bridge of grievances. How ludicrous that was. When you came down to it, just ludicrous.

Larry stood up. “Papa!” He went to the doorway of the living room.

Federal-Man was on. The scene was the inside of a bank vault. Thieves were packing in dynamite.

“Papa,” he said.

“It’s going to go off before they get away,” his father said.

Larry waited. There was a tremendous explosion. Martial music came up loud, and a strong male voice told how many years everybody was getting.

“How do you like the way they figured out where the money was?” his father said. “Brilliant men, aren’t they?”

Larry wasn’t sure whether his father meant the crooks or the cops, but what the hell did it matter?

“Papa,” Jerry said, “come into my room. There’s something I want to show you.”

“Oh yeah?” said his father in surprise. Meekly, he got up and followed.

In his room, Larry pointed to the stack of papers on his desk. “This is how far I am in my thesis.”

“Wonderful, wonderful,” said his father. “When it’s all through how many stacks like this will you have?”

“About five.”

“Don’t say! So big? That’s wonderful.”

“Papa,” Larry said abruptly, thinking it would be over soon, “Why don’t you come live with us?”

“You mean I should move in?”

“Sure. Why not? We have the room.” He didn’t say any of the little lubricating things needed at such a time—about how much they wanted him, how they worried about his being alone, about how he could be company for Penny and the baby. He kept it plain fare. Not very nourishing maybe, but all he had to set before him—a hard-boiled egg in a cracked soup-plate.

“I should stay here with you and your wife? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

He looked Larry soberly and steadily in the eye and shook his head up and down a few times. Larry had no idea what it meant. He knew it was not an answer. A reflection of some kind.

Suddenly his father’s face cleared. He laughed a formal little deprecating laugh. A Jewish-type laugh. Or maybe it was Japanese.

“Then where would I visit?” his father asked. “You know I like to visit. If I lived with you, where would I visit?”

“You’re sure, Papa?” Larry asked.

“I’m sure,” his father answered.

This time it was Larry’s turn to give his father a heavy look and to nod his head. “All right, Papa,” he said.

They returned to the living room and his father announced that he was leaving.

“Must you, Papa?” Penny asked sorrowfully.

And Larry added, “Stay a while Papa, and meet a friend who’s coming. In fact you know him. Finnegan, remember? Then I’ll drive you home.”

“No. It’s enough,” his father said.

Larry helped him on with his coat, a shabby brown herringbone. His father pulled out of the pocket the beige cashmere muffler Penny had knitted for him, looped it around his neck and crossed it carefully over his chest.

He went out, refusing, as usual, Larry’s offer of a lift or of company on the walk to the subway.

Larry leaned against the window looking down, waiting to see his father come out into the street, and watched him walk in the lamplit snow.

“Did you ask him?” Penny asked.

“He refused,” Larry answered.

He turned from the window to look at her. Her eyes were intently on him, very full and unhappy. She was stroking Max, who looked at him once, and yawned.

Larry sat next to them. “Some things,” he said, “just can’t be made new.”

He stuck out his little finger. “Fins?” he asked softly. Slowly she hooked her little finger around his and answered, “Fins.”

_____________

 

Finnegan, of course, came early. Loneliness beat him from his furnished apartment the way hunters in Africa beat small animals from the bush.

He tore off his overcoat, kicked off his shoes, pulled off his wet socks and draped them on the radiator, gave Penny a resounding kiss, and sank into an armchair.

“Aah,” he said, “Aah comfort, aah companionship. Oh, people, people, you’ll have to give thanks for your blessings when I tell you what my life has been like.”

“Poor Finny,” said Penny. “What’s the matter?”

“Everything. All of it. You two probably don’t even notice—what does it matter when there’s someone to come home to?”

“What’s eating you, Finn?” Larry asked.

“Have you noticed how early it’s getting dark lately?”

“It happens every year,” Larry said.

“I thought you’d take that insensitive tone,” said Finnegan. “Sure, it’s bad enough ordinarily. You step into the street after work. Bingo, it’s already dark. You go straight home because tonight you’re going to work. You’re going to be somebody. You eat your supper fast, just to get through with it. You want to know what I eat?”

“No,” said Larry.

“I do,” said Penny.

“Never mind,” said Finnegan. “It’s not appetizing. So there you are, the whole evening ahead. Do you work? I give you half an hour, myself forty-five minutes because of strong character and self-discipline. Then, brrp, brrp, brrp!” In quick, agile movements, Finn pantomimed picking up the receiver, dialing, drumming his fingers on his knee. “Hello, hello. Help, save me.”

Penny leaned over and put her hand on Finnegan’s arm. “It will be spring before you know, Finny. In the meantime, you can come live with us.”

Finn looked at her blankly. “That’s what I mean though. It’s not just winter solstice—that crap. It’s not going to lighten up. It’s The Dark. Inching up, creeping in, taking hold. Every day a little darker. It’s like leprosy. You don’t know it’s got you until one day your nose falls off, splash! into the soup.”

He leaped onto his bare feet. “Oh, my children. The time of the great darkness is coming. You must cleave unto one another.” He sat down moodily again, his feet on the chair, hugging his knees. “Everyone’s got someone to cleave to but me.”

Larry heard Penny saying gravely, “I know what you mean, Finny. My nose doesn’t have to drop off before I know what’s coming. I know the dark is coming too.” He was already heading toward the kitchen and called to Finnegan to help him dig the ice cubes out of the trays.

“I’ll do it, I’ll do it,” said Penny, dumping Max to the floor. Larry watched their progress into the kitchen, Penny slow and listing, Max following closely, high-tailed and suspect.

_____________

 

Larry took hold of Finnegan’s arm. “I want to talk to you.” Instead of taking him to the study, which was too close to the kitchen, he led him to the bedroom. Both he and Penny had been back to the room several times, but it struck him now for the first time that the bed was still unmade. The big white fleecy blanket with its satin ribbon binding—more trousseau—dragged to the floor on the side of the bed nearest the door. Someone, maybe Penny, maybe he, had walked on it and left shoe marks. He looked at it as though it were an injured child. A beautiful blanket. How many people had white blankets on their bed? Why did they have to walk over it? At the same time he cursed himself for a covetous bastard. He was houseproud on his wife’s father’s money.

Finnegan flopped on the bed and Larry turned away, pretending to examine his chin in the mirror. “I need a shave,” he said. On the dresser top were Penny’s toilet articles—bottles and jars—set at odd intervals and angles, like chessmen in a suddenly interrupted game.

“Nothing in this house is in one piece,” he burst out to Finn. “Everything’s broke, chipped, cracked, crocked, or burned. Us too, Finn.”

“Why you silly bastard. You fell in so lucky you don’t even have a complaint.”

“Things aren’t right, Finn.”

“Sure, I told you. It’s the dark. It’s closing in.”

The glum insistence of Finn’s joke was making itself felt. It crept along Larry’s skin like a draft.

“Penny wants my father to come live with us,” he said.

Finnegan had been letting his shoes dangle off the edge of the bed. Now he hoisted himself back so that his heels rested on the blanket, and he folded his arms under his head. “If I were you, and Penny was my wife, and your father my father, I’d make a strong stand. I remember him from the old days.”

“He’s changed a lot, Finn. You haven’t seen him since my mother died.”

“They get old they get feeble. That’s justice.”

Larry didn’t answer. Instead, he looked at his face in the mirror. He was the picture of his father as he used to be. He had the same deep-set black eyes, the same long, down-curving nose, the same large, soft cheeks that he knew from watching his father’s old age would one day sag lower than his chin. His beard, like his father’s, was tough and very black, and grew high up under his eyes. When he had dressed his best to appear on the City College debating team his mother had said with pride to his father, “Did you ever think you would see yourself dressed up in a tweed jacket so handsome?” But when he wore his tuxedo and took his date (who wasn’t Jewish) to the prom, his mother shrieked with bitter laughter and said, “Look, look at that face, how it thinks it’s going to stop being Abe Goldstein’s son!”

_____________

 

Finn sat up on the bed. “Why all of a sudden does Penny want your father to live with you?” Without waiting for an answer he went on. “Maybe because of impending motherhood. She wants to consolidate her world into one big cozy crib. Then of course she couldn’t stand her own parents, so by some crazy logic it all fits.”

“Maybe she should have married someone else,” Larry said slowly, scaring himself as he said it. “Why don’t mothers see to it that their daughters marry the right men? I know, it’s too square. Besides, the daughters aren’t even speaking to the mothers.”

“Penny couldn’t be married to anyone else,” Finn said. “She’s positively your woman.” Then he added glumly, “Everyone’s got somebody to cleave to but me.”

“Then tell me why is it things are so wrong? Penny gets more and more eccentric. And then there’s me and my thesis. It doesn’t get done. It just doesn’t get done. I work on it. But I also don’t work on it. I’m so much better suddenly at everything else. I practice my recorder. I read the papers, three a day—do I have to read three a day? Why do I have to be so perverse? And I clip things. My filing consumes hours. And talk. And dream. Waking and sleeping, I dream. I daydream sometimes that I’m giving a lecture at the Sorbonne in French, and there’s my mother in the audience, wearing a cockade hat and knitting, and shrieking above the applause, ‘Look at that face!’”

“You think your father living here would bring a benediction?”

“I don’t know. But how do you think it would be, just once, to be able to do a right thing?”

Finn thought a moment. “First straighten yourself about what’s right. Every story, you know, every situation, has its own right ending. The right ending is finally what everything adds up to. Not what you wish it did, but what it does.”

“Life is arithmetic, you think?”

“Certainly. Every relationship a long column of additions and subtractions. In your case, with your father, sum it up, you get zero. Don’t try to make it a passing grade and don’t blame yourself. Zero is the right answer. Look, if I read in the paper that a boy kills his mother, I’m not filled with horror. I read on. He babbles things: his mother burned his hand with a candle when he was seven, punished him by making him stay in bed for a week, and so on. By the time I’ve finished the article I’ve seen the beautiful mathematics of life shine through. We see the right answer because the poor mad boy is incapable of juggling the figures the way the rest of us do. The mad boy doesn’t conceal his right answer from us any more than Einstein tried to fool us about the speed of light.”

Larry’s attention had not stayed with Finnegan’s argument. It had wandered back to his father, and now he said, “He’s so stiff-necked. For him to agree to it, I’d have to go out to him in a way that’s just not in me to do.”

“How could it be in you?” Finn said impatiently. “He never put it there.”

Larry lifted the perfume bottle, removed the stopper, and sniffed. A sweet, flowery scent filled his nostrils. He was startled to find that it conjured up all of Penny—her face, body, and voice, as well as her smell. He felt a stab in his heart as he recalled what he had said about her marrying someone else. As if to atone, he turned his back on Finn and kissed the bottle before putting it down. But in doing so he noticed again that the stopper was chipped and he said sadly to Finnegan, “I don’t know. It seems as if everything has started to smash or warp or crack.”

Finn stood up, walked on the blanket, clapped his hand on Larry’s shoulder as he passed through the door and said, “It’s the dark.”

Larry began making the bed. He had opened something in his mind to Finn and now he couldn’t shut it down again. A welter of images to describe his state was forming in his brain. To calm himself, he smoothed the bedclothes with care. “Out, chaos!” he cried, shaking a sheet.

Never, he reflected, since he had been old enough to read a book, had he ever done a thing with undivided attention. While he read he would make double images—one from the book, one from his fantasy world of the future. He had done well in school because—why? Because he was bright. Wasn’t he bright? Didn’t all the IQ tests testify and hadn’t his teachers wrung his hand and told him so? And then the competition. And the challenge of a particular class to crack, a particular exam or paper to hurl himself through in a mad frenetic sweat of particular goal and achievement.

But here, now, finished with classes and conferences and seminars, adrift on his own, where was his brilliance? Shattered into a hundred shining points, scattered over a swelling surface like glitter on the ocean. And he couldn’t—God—couldn’t drop anchor and sink into a subject. Just as it seemed the bright pieces might, in a lull, come together, up rose the thought of his father like a wave, humping the water, sending the points of light dancing again.

_____________

 

He asked now the question he had ignored when Finnegan asked it. Did he think his father’s coming, if he could go so far as to believe in his father’s coming, would bring a benediction? For him, not. A too-late closing of the barn door was all. With the horse already galloping over the plain (he threw away the water image and saw the heaving, panting horse, frantic, unguided, what a shame, what a shame) without shoes, or saddle or bridle, all unprepared. He would run till he stumbled, and if he was able, pick himself up and run some more. He hadn’t grown up slow and easy and sure. No, the barn door had opened a crack and he had streaked out, thundering hoofs and flying mane, and his teachers, and he with his mirror eye, had watched his frenzy and sweat and said, “There’s what it takes to get there.” But time to graze boy, family and Sweet home tethers, and flying horses write no theses, boy. The unshod hoofs were tender from too many stony paths, and the legs were gamey, and the early diet of brambles and bitter herbs marred the digestion forever.

For Penny it was different. She wanted, needed this father. And looked to him to somehow make it right. But suppose he couldn’t make it or anything else right, what then? Why then, she was just mixed up enough herself to take it without quite knowing why or what was wrong. It wasn’t for nothing he had picked for wife a girl just this side of the loony bin. She would never hate him for failing.

She knew the feel of a right thing though, he’d say that. She had a child or an idiot’s feeling for home and warm things and nice smells and “Oh! to be able to do a right thing,” he ended saying to himself as he had said to Finn. The sheer, refreshing, sweet springtime rain and therapy of a right move.

“But not alone, I can’t do it alone,” he readdressed to his father the echo of Penny’s long-past appeal. “And you won’t help me. Let’s blame it all on your father, pop. I never knew him so let’s blame him. Let’s give the old bastard a kick. It’s not in us because—we have Finn’s word for it—he never put it there.”

Larry gave the two pillows a final caress (“You at least can lie easy till we get here”) and headed for the living room.

Penny and Finn had already started their drinks, sitting friendly and silent across the coffee table.

“I’ve just been telling Penny,” Finnegan said to Larry, “maybe I’ll take her up on the invitation to move in. Paying boarder of course. At first. Later I’ll take advantage. Become indispensable—you won’t hear of my leaving. And of course, I’ll never go.”

Larry thought of having their very own herald of the dark, night and day in the bosom of the family, and shuddered. “Where’s my sense of humor gone?” he wondered. “I used to enjoy old Finn’s idea of a joke.”

“Up to Penny,” he said, moving nearer her chair. “I can’t stand the thought myself.” He saw his chance to lift the cat off Penny’s lap and said quickly, in a low voice, “I’ll put Max in the kitchen.”

“No,” said Penny. “She’ll be lonely there. Just put her on the floor. She’ll be all right.”

Penny watched him deposit Max gently on the floor, beyond the rug, and then said in her serious way, “Finny certainly can’t go out in all this snow. No one should go out in all this snow.”

Finnegan put down his glass and made a humble Hindu bow.

“But not the extra room, Finny, I’m sorry, it would have to be the sofa. We have to leave the extra room open for a little while longer.”

“You’re not still thinking of it for my father!” Larry burst out in spite of himself.

Penny’s face flushed. “No,” she said, looking away. She dived suddenly out of her chair, scooped up Max like a seagull skimming a fish out of the sea and ran for the kitchen. Larry looked at the floor and saw three little dots like melted chocolate, while Penny’s voice, suddenly brave, called from the kitchen, “I meant for a while. In general.”

“This calls for a reduction in my rent,” said Finnegan. “How often does it happen? At, say, a dollar-fifty per episode?”

“Well, Penny takes care of it,” Larry said nervously. Raising his voice a little he added, “She’s wonderful with animals. She has a lot of patience.”

In a few minutes Penny returned and sat down. With one hand she held Max, towelled like a wine bottle, in her lap, with the other hand she lifted Max’s little pointed face, which drooped. “Poor Max,” she whispered.

“Time for refills,” Larry said, setting up a clatter with the ice cubes and bottles. “Penny, refill? Finnegan? A touch?”

Finnegan was leaning forward to extend his glass, when he sounded a piercing whistle that shattered Larry’s ear. Larry’s nerveless fingers let fall the jigger glass, spilling whiskey and sending a glass chip, naturally, skittering across the table. He followed Finnegan’s stare to Penny’s blouse. Max’s droopy head peeped out from between the middle buttons.

“Good old Penny,” said Finnegan, leaning back and hugging his knee.

Under Penny’s blouse the body of the cat spread grotesquely.

“It’s too much,” Larry thought. He wanted to stand up and say, to whatever devils gathered, leering, in the four corners of his house, “Begone. . . .” He wanted to say to his old friend Finn, “Dear buddy of my childhood, go home. My wife is not well. I am not well. Our cat, Maxine, also. . . .” In fact, he did stand up and opened his mouth, but he never found out what it was he was about to say because just then the doorbell rang.

Larry went shakily to the door, expecting to see a ghost—Banquo or Ichabod Crane maybe—and threw it open.

Bareheaded, soaked, his few strands of hair plastered to his scalp, tiny ice-crystal flowers abloom on the ridges of his muffler—there stood his father. He was carrying his old black suitcase in one hand. The other hand he extended formally for a handshake.

“Papa, my God!” was all Larry could say as he pulled his father inside with the handshake.

“I was thinking, thinking, all the time in the train,” his father began calmly. “My son asked me something and I refused. Why should I refuse? Because I didn’t believe a person should say yes. That’s the old way. From the old days. From the dark. I came back to tell you that if you want me to stay, I’ll stay. Why should I say no? I even brought a few things, for a start.”

“That’s fine, Papa. Very good. I’m glad you did it. Yes,” Larry said, while he helped his father off with his things. And the whole time he asked himself, “How do I feel? How do I feel? How do I feel?”

The truth was that, aside from the shock, he didn’t know.

But one thing he could do was call into the living room and say, “Tenny, Papa’s here!”

He heard the cat’s short yowl as she got dumped to the rug, and then Penny’s heels clattering on the bare parts of the floor. In the doorway to the hall where they stood she stopped, suddenly shy or scared. A smile curved her lips, her eyes widened, she stared entranced, as if some prophetic stranger out of Biblical days had stepped across her threshold. So at least for the time being, Larry had that for a guide.

_____________

 

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