Commentary Magazine


Family Ties
A Story

His father sitting at the glass-topped desk looked him square in the eyes. His father’s deep-cut face lines were not hard now but compassionate. “You don’t have to keep it a secret from me—I know your business is going bad.”

“It’s true. I’ve done my best to keep it up. But the money’s gone.”

“And suppose you put in a few thousand more . . . would it do any good?” the older man asked.

Why is he afraid of saying “I”? Art asked himself. He didn’t want money from him. The wound was his own, not his father’s.

“No, it’s hopeless,” Art admitted apathetically. Something was missing in his own attitude. Something proud, willful, and fiercely defensive. Now he was inclined to be soft, defeated, and comfort-seeking. He wouldn’t have made an admission before. But that was because his father always sought this from him, evoked a guilt. He had said that Art had no mind for business—he was too dreamy, too impractical. And always on a moral, unforgiving note that robbed him of something within. His father played the melody with a thousand variations, even when Art’s business had been growing and making money.

“Well, I can’t blame you,” Mr. Kaplow said. “I told you some time ago, there’s no money in cheap wash dresses.” It was comforting that his father didn’t blame him now for what had happened. For once he didn’t feel guilty. “So what are you going to do?”

“Close the business and pay my bills,” Art said. Mr. Kaplow reflected by working his mouth.

“Do you have any money outstanding?”

“Some. . . .”

“Will anything be left over for you?”

“Hardly. . . .”

“Don’t think it hasn’t bothered me, Art. Whatever you may think, I’m still a father.” Art looked downward in silence as he waited for the other to spell out his thoughts. The accusation was there but it had no sting. He hoped his father would avoid for once the old differences, seeking an impossible triumph.

“I have a proposition for you . . . come into my business. And I’ll take the inventory off your hands, pay you what it costs. What do you think?”

Art was startled, almost unbelieving. “It’s a great help,” he said. The stern challenge went out of his father’s face and he smiled with pleasure. Art found human vulnerability there.

“You have a family to support. I know what a worry that can be.”

“It’s a weight off my mind.” Mr. Kaplow hung expectantly on his son’s words. His well-boned face hinted at disappointment. But his father’s feelings escaped Art, struggling against his own natural reserve.

“Let’s set a time of three weeks to work it out,” his father said. “Sell all you can—talk to your landlord about releasing you from the loft. Let’s have everything settled by then because I want to leave for Miami a few weeks after that.”

“I’ll settle everything.”

“And that isn’t all. . . .” He met Art’s eyes, possessively. Art felt exposed to his father’s sense of drama, and readied for a blow to his pride. Mr. Kaplow continued: “When you come into the business, I want you as a partner, not a salaried man. You will get a share of the business.”

Art smiled thankfully. Yet the next moment he wondered what had come over his father. Why so suddenly charitable after so many years? It was bewildering, even frustrating to face this change. Now he would feel the weight of obligation after the bitter feelings, the long unreasoning injustice. He felt reluctance. He would lose his freedom to be bitter, would have to adjust his sense of what was real, his normal expectations. The feeling persisted that his father was getting off too easily. Why should his father assume that all this generosity was in character? He should have explained the change, some small admission. . . .

“There’s one more matter I haven’t mentioned yet,” Mr. Kaplow said, dropping his voice. “There’s more involved than myself. I’ve talked about this to Oscar and Jack Posner and, frankly, they aren’t enthusiastic. You can understand how they feel.”

“You’re the boss, aren’t you?” Art asked, laughing and almost crowing. Oscar, his father’s younger brother, had too good a thing in the business to want to share, and it was obvious that Posner, the general manager, would resent any change of authority.

“So they will have to accept it,” his father said, finding pleasure in his power.

_____________

 

When he told his wife Ellen about the offer she narrowed her eyes omnisciently, saying, “I knew it, I knew he would come through with something good!” The whole world had a different look, now they could settle down to enjoy life, buy the things they needed. The girls could take piano and ballet lessons again. Money would no longer be the main topic of conversation. Her enthusiasm was infectious.

They had his father and his second wife Elsa, a neat attractive little woman, over for dinner and Ellen went all out to please them. The favorite family dishes were prepared and each serving seemed to provoke an endless round of pleasures and reminiscences. It was a ripe, homey atmosphere that kindled old attachments and awoke nostalgic delights. His father had no end of praise for Ellen and her abilities as a home-maker. Elsa smiling at Ellen shared her husband’s feelings at the happy reunion and it seemed as much on her account as his. But his granddaughters of six and ten brought a transcendent warmth to his face. Dressed in matching plaid skirts and embroidered blouses, they pushed and wrestled each other for his attention. They draped over him, closed sticky fingers over his eyes, played the piano, danced, and recited to exhaustion. Art and Ellen exchanged wide-eyed recognitions. When the older couple had left that evening, they were agreed that bygones should be left bygones. Ellen was sure of his father’s change of heart; Art was more reserved. Ellen argued that this would keep him at a distance from his father and spoil the fine start made. After all, she told him, his father had to be convinced too of Art’s good will. Art heard her out, nodding attentively.

“Do you or do you not agree?” she demanded with brusque humor.

“Yes and no. . . .”

The day Art came into the firm of Dearie Designs, Inc., his father called Oscar and Posner into the inner office. Oscar shook Art’s hand in big style, grabbing his elbow with his free hand. Art was introduced to Posner, a short man, built broad and hearty with a military stance and a self-confident expression to match.

“We’ve discussed this before,” Mr. Kaplow said, settled in his chair. “Today Art is coming into the business. Work with him as an equal.” Both nodded as though pulled by a string. Mr. Kaplow continued, “The idea is teamwork, cooperation,” repeating and savoring the phrase, “teamwork, cooperation. Nobody specializes here. If there’s a job to do, we do it no matter who.”

“We’re not too proud to sweep the floor, Art,” Oscar added.

“Well, we have other people for that,” Mr. Kaplow said with a trace of irony. “You won’t have to. But get together when any important matter comes up. Come into my private office—close the door and discuss.”

“It sounds good,” Art said. “But shouldn’t I have some particular work, besides?”

“We can wait for that. You should get to know our operations. I’m sure that Posner and Oscar will give you all the help you’ll need.”

It sounded reasonable enough to Art.

Art stepped into the factory through the entrance door and walked along the work tables at which the girls sat sorting out half-finished garments. Some of the older women whom he had known before recognized him and he waved to them. The din and chatter of sewing machines was deafening but he got a comforting sense of purpose and activity like the answer to a deep need. He walked to the cutting table where Patsy, the forelady, marked out patterns. She was a volatile little woman with deft hands.

“I heard the good news,” she said bright-eyed.

“Thanks.”

“I think the old man means well this time.”

“I hope so. . . .”

“It’s time you got together. But I should warn you.” Her eyes darted alarmingly. “Watch out for Mr. Posner—he’s no good!”

“But why?”

“I can’t say. He’s coming.”

She snatched up her crayon and began marking with swift strokes. Art turned round to find Posner smiling at him with unnatural fixity.

“Learning things?” he asked with a facsimile of kindness. Art smiled, conscious of trying to be pleasant. Patsy looked up from a forehead lined with concentration.

“I think he’ll do very well,” she said belligerently. Posner was sucking a tooth and nodding without conviction. He asked abruptly about a certain order and left.

“We’ll talk about it some other time,” she said to Art.

_____________

 

He came back to the office, and listened to a fabric salesman showing swatches of material to his father and Posner. The man had a huge, beefy face like some mythical fruit. When Art’s father introduced him, mentioning Art’s connection with the firm, the man beamed violently as if suddenly galvanized. Every cell in his red face strained with toadyism, his fat eyes leading the parade.

“Isn’t that too wonderful for words . . . father and son . . . what a combination!”

Mr. Kaplow’s smile broke through his pride. Posner ignored the salesman’s enthusiasm. “How much is the material?”

“Sixty-eight cents.” The big face examined the three anxiously.

“High count?” Posner asked.

“The best for the money,” the salesman said. Posner looked severe.

“It’s not bad,” Mr. Kaplow broke in easily, “but not this week.” The salesman relaxed and sighed.

Posner blinked as if he had been undermined. A bright red spot appeared on his full cheeks like a touch of disease. He stood still, then stepped away suddenly to talk to the secretary at the other end of the office. Mr. Kaplow’s heavy eyebrows raised in discernment. The salesman picked up his samples and left. When Oscar returned from the bank, it was decided to go to lunch.

They were seated in a booth at the restaurant. Art’s father was telling him about conditions in the trade.

“Buyers are getting harder to deal with. They will chisel your last nickel away if you don’t watch out.” He turned abruptly to Oscar. “What price did you quote to the April Stores?”

“What price?” Oscar asked, high-pitched and tremulous. “We talked about our whole line.”

Mr. Kaplow was exasperated. “Look, Oscar, didn’t we make up a special number for the buyer?”

“Seventeen-fifty a dozen,” he answered meekly. The corners of his mouth turned down unhappily like a drooping mustache. “I had to meet the New York competition. . . .”

“We didn’t have to cut. The buyer saves on freight.”

“We need the business,” Oscar said attempting a gay confidence. “We’ll make it up on the volume.”

“Volume, volume . . . the more we ship the more we lose,” Mr. Kaplow said.

Posner looked self-satisfied. “You’ve got to treat them rough. They like it better. I was talking to Mabel at Allied this morning. . . .”

“I didn’t know it,” Mr. Kaplow said, startled.

Posner went on unperturbed. “She wanted her order in two extra patterns. I told her nothing doing!”

“We could have given it to her without trouble.” Mr. Kaplow shrugged shoulders and face in perplexity.

“Why spoil her? She’s eating out of my hand.” Posner’s smile turned sardonic. When the waitress came along bearing their sandwiches, Oscar’s face lighted up. She was made up to the hilt. Oscar followed her aggressively, refusing to give way as she bent over the table. He winked to Art. “Fix you up?” Art guessed his wounds had healed quickly.

Out of the restaurant, Oscar shined up to him. “Everything is going to be all right, don’t you worry. We’ll make a great team. Sure, we have our differences of opinion. Remember, it’s fight for dear old Dearie!” His smile was all-encompassing. Art figured that the old man had laid down the law to both of them. But he felt warmly generous. Oscar too had his problems and if everybody got closer it was all to the good. As for the rah-rah stuff, he could overlook a certain amount. So, it was Oscar’s personal style!

The next day his father announced that he was leaving for Miami in a couple of days. It seemed abrupt and premature to Art, who wished he would stay on and help fix his position in the business. Art was assured that everything would be all right. As for the legal papers making him a partner, that could wait till Mr. Kaplow got back. Art put his doubts out of his mind.

Privately in his office Mr. Kaplow told his son of certain misgivings about the others. Posner was bull-headed and not inclined to admit his mistakes; his brother Oscar was too easy-going and careless. Perhaps more than anything else, this implied a confidence in Art that Art himself hadn’t suspected.

_____________

 

When his father left, Art took up the job of making himself a vital part of the business. Actually, there was no readymade place for him. It had to be created. The line had to be learned, the big customers and their requirements, and the backlog of orders, the problems of delivery, and the bottlenecks of production. He familiarized himself with the different operations, worked with Patsy at the cutting tables, helped her lay out the materials and handled the cutting knife. Oscar and Posner made no effort to obstruct him.

When they called him in for a conference, it was often to discuss matters that were new to him. He was content to listen for the most part, only occasionally making a positive suggestion. He was aware that a certain lofty manner of theirs was calculated to exclude him from the discussion, but he wasn’t surprised; he didn’t expect the information handed him on a platter. As if to make up for their clubbishness, Oscar turned to Art with a certain patronizing air as he explained matters, an elaborate clarifying of the obvious, and not inconsiderable moralizing. It was the last that was most trying. Art saw clearly that Oscar was only imitating his brother.

Trying to make himself valuable to the business, Art hit on a number of labor-saving improvements in the operations, and suggested changes in the shop layout. Oscar was careful to point out that he was glad to see Art was thinking “positively,” and that something good would be sure to come out of all these ideas. He became expansive and eloquent. Posner was much more to the point. He dismissed them summarily.

Undismayed, Art shrugged and continued. It occurred to him that a number of separate sewing operations could be combined if the sequence could be changed. He had checked the different methods and found a time-saving of almost 50 per cent. Now he had something that couldn’t be turned down. But he was mistaken. Posner took it in the same way, but with the characteristic red, angry spots on his cheeks. Art realized that he had stepped into the man’s special area which was the sewing machine operations, and cast a doubt on his ability. In fact, almost any improvement coming from Art was bound to touch him in a sensitive spot, because any evidence of talent would rob him of authority.

Art considered a change of pace. Perhaps a trip for business through some territory not covered by the firm’s salesmen would help to establish him. When he made his suggestion, he received an entirely new response. Posner was warm and receptive for once, telling him it was just what the firm needed. Oscar agreed, adding his own fulsome rhetoric. Art caught the look of relief between the two, but decided that it was worth taking the chance. It was possible that he might get few or no orders, but he was, after all, a new man in virgin territories and couldn’t be expected to write much the first time. There would be little that could be used against him.

All things considered, it was a successful trip with a half-dozen sizable orders in the bag. It was evident that Posner and Oscar were not overjoyed—the general manager with his characteristic reserve, his uncle with even greater exaggerations. But there were breaks of sudden silences in Oscar that spelled hollowness, as if fatigue had suddenly struck in the middle of a sentence. Art felt disappointment from the moment he laid out his orders. As for Posner, he looked at the orders almost blankly, without comment except to repeat the numbers and prices. His opaque brown eyes moved in a stiff face, like captive marbles. Art felt he had returned to the same point he had left, and he couldn’t avoid self-disgust for expecting anything better. He felt he deserved what he got for all his innocence, stubbornly refusing himself the indulgence of righteous anger. The forelady was absolutely right. Posner was his enemy and the weak Oscar was on his side.

_____________

 

Art saw that he had come to an impasse. He could accept his useless position, and wait for an opportunity to come up, but that wasn’t very likely. Besides, his pride, his whole substance cried out against it. Only his father could settle the question, but he wasn’t very likely to see his side from a distance. He could phone him, of course, and ask him to intervene, but he had no desire to be the complainant knowing that it would put him in a bad light. In view of his father’s convinced optimism, he could only feel disappointment and Art was sure it would be turned against him. The past lay at hand for Oscar and Posner to work on. There was no other way then but to keep doing what he was and make it clear for the record. He would at least put up a good fight.

Labor costs appeared to be a good place to start. Art knew that for the last few years work rates had gone up, fringe benefits had increased, and operations been made more involved due to changed styles; yet the old figures were being used in determining costs. When he told Oscar about the need for a study of the problem, he found him quite agreeable. It was hard to see how Posner could turn him down. If he did, it would be clear how matters stood. In fact, Oscar told him to go right ahead.

But the next day, after Art had begun to check the records, Oscar had changed his mind: the time was inopportune, the prices were set anyway, the machine operators would be upset by timing them. Something within Art gave way all at once. He didn’t care what happened; he was unable to.

“Are these your own reasons?” he asked.

Oscar drew himself up to full dignity. His weakness was swept under the rug.

“It would be better if you had respect. It’s your big fault, you know. . . .” Art opened his mouth to answer, then caught himself. It was funny, but there was Oscar puffed up many sizes too big, trying to fill the old man’s shoes. He felt he could have deflated and humanized him all at one stroke; then he’d build a bridge to him. But one look at the formidable front told him to desist. He played no independent part anyway. Today he leaned on Posner; tomorrow it might be him. He felt an overpowering resentment against his father. He must have known that their opposition couldn’t be put aside so easily. Did he think that a simple order was enough?

He thought that it would be wiser to talk it over with Ellen before facing Posner. It was a concession to his uncertainty as well as her own rights in the matter. Art determined to check himself and not let himself be provoked into an outburst. He had nothing to say to Posner for the rest of the day, but there was a trace of a self-confident smile on the latter’s face that deepened the doubt within Art. He looked the other way, feeling guilty over his hostility, while the other seemed to take it as food and drink that made his lips shine with malice.

Ellen saw no other way than standing up for his rights, the sooner the better. Anything else was weakness. Before her clear-cut view Art felt inadequate, as if his caution were only an excuse for accepting defeat. He agreed to her line of thought because it seemed to lift a weight from him and lead to action, but it was not without a feeling that responsibility was its other meaning. He knew she wanted him to be a “man” without her saying so.

_____________

 

It came very soon after coming to work. Settling it one way or another was the first point to be taken up. This was what had been resolved at breakfast and what was on his mind as he drove to work. He called Oscar and Posner together to the inner office. Oscar looked positively frightened, Posner intensely wary. He began with a few remarks about his father’s wishes to overcome years of disagreement. He hadn’t arrived at his decision lightly either.

He said: “My father meant me to come into this business as a partner, not a flunky.” Oscar fingered his collar, trying to loosen it around his neck. “I didn’t come here just to collect a pay check. I wanted to be of value. I’ve made any number of suggestions for the factory and office. Now, I’m asking you, Posner, if you consider them all useless, without exception?”

“I don’t know which ones you’re talking about,” the other answered. “But none were very practical.”

“You weren’t willing to try even one.”

“We’re too busy to experiment.”

“What’s your objection to checking production costs?” Art asked.

Posner’s mouth closed firmly, bloodlessly. He shook his head, denying it absolutely. “We can’t let you do it now.”

“And you deny that our costs are not in line?”

“They are not. . . .”

“I’ll tell you what’s bothering you, Jack,” Art said. “The ideas come from me and you can’t stand it. What do you care if the business loses money?”

“So why don’t you take it up with your father?”

“That’s what I’m doing!” Art shouted. “And I’m getting out of here now.” He turned to Oscar, who looked as if he were facing the last judgment. “I thought you had more guts than that.”

Oscar waved him away. Art trembled with anger and frustration, a hot turbulence too huge to handle. It seemed to join in one piece with the weakness of fear, a blank uncertainty of the future. He put on his hat and coat reluctantly as if sealing a doom. When he left he felt he had left a vital part of himself behind, his courage too. Only a blind, burning sensation remained as if it was all that was left of himself. Oscar and Posner had kept everything for themselves.

Walking up the stairway to his apartment, he heard music from the radio and it struck him like a mocking insult. He felt wholly inadequate and unworthy of any kind of pleasure. Ellen, who was dusting the furniture, was startled as he came in. She switched off the music.

“I was thinking about you . . . almost expected you,” she said.

“I told them off. I couldn’t help it.” Before anything he needed to justify himself.

“Maybe you should have held back till your father returned,” she said.

“But we discussed it before . . . didn’t we?”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. Why should we regret our actions?”

“I was patient up to my ears.”

“It’s true, it’s true!” she cried out a shade too vigorously. Art told her what had happened. The story now seemed to him cold and unimportant. But the prickling of insecurity was a knock at the door. He saw no exit.

“They planned it that way,” Ellen said. Art wasn’t so sure.

That night Art wrote a letter to his father and sent it by air mail. It was Monday and he figured on getting an answer by Wednesday or Thursday. It came the following Tuesday and it said simply that he would return within a week and take up the matter then.

_____________

 

Waiting out the week wasn’t easy. There were times when Art and Ellen felt that it would turn out all right, and others when they were sure they had acted rashly. They went over the grounds so thoroughly that there was nothing left to say. They reassured each other over and over but failed to dispel each other’s doubts. They agreed finally that only his father had the answer and nothing would be certain until they heard it. That was their only assurance.

When they arrived early one afternoon at the apartment, the elder Kaplows behaved as if nothing at all had gone wrong. They relaxed comfortably on the living room sofa, talking about their trip, the weather in Miami. Art and Ellen listened patiently, taking a measure of comfort from their talk. They inquired about the children who were at school as if no shadow could possibly affect their future. His father himself raised casually the question of Art’s position in the firm and his wife sensibly suggested that they discuss it privately in the kitchen. Art went over the story again, stressing his patience, his concern over his usefulness to the firm. But Posner stood in the way, Oscar playing along with him because of his dependence. Art did all he could to work with them but it was impossible. As far as he could see, there was one solution—and that was to fire Posner. Oscar and he could work out their differences easily.

“You know,” his father confided, “I don’t blame you for what you did. I would have done the same.”

“Oscar and I together can run your factory. I’ve had ten years on my own. I know the trade.”

“You tried your best. It’s not your fault.”

“Do you call him a good manager?” Art asked with returning confidence. “He opposes any change that isn’t his own.”

“But I can’t let him go,” his father said, shaking his head.

“Would you keep a man who doesn’t want to know his costs?” Art’s voice rose high in alarm as he searched the older man’s face.

“He is a capable man,” his father said, unyielding.

“And have me go back to the factory under the same conditions?” Art asked feelingly.

“No. . . .”

“I get it.” Impulsively Art’s open hand smashed down on the kitchen table. “So this is how you set things right!” His anger welled up uncontrollably, wheeled him wildly around; a sudden revulsion forced him into flight to the living room. His ringing appeal sought the two frightened women.

“This man who calls himself my father stands by and lets them force me out of his factory!” Mr. Kaplow whitened, followed him into the room, sat down weakly in a chair. He turned his face aside as from a driving rain.

“Please . . . control yourself,” his stepmother pleaded. Art went on unheeding.

“He tells me he wants us together . . . the family. He wants to be a father to us. He says he wants security for his grandchildren.” Rage elbowed sarcasm aside. Mr. Kaplow turned to him in a towering righteousness.

“Do you think you’re the only one? What of my obligation to Posner—his family?” Art was stunned momentarily by this surprising argument. Then he saw the hypocritical force of it—the galling enormity. He thought:

“That I should recognize the other’s right by depriving myself of mine.”

“What of your grandchildren . . . their needs, forgetting us?” Ellen demanded. His father didn’t answer, as if in sculpture. His decision was set in a death grip.

“I know now why you left so early for Miami,” Art said. “Very clever, weren’t you.” He sought a soft spot.

“That’s not true!” his father returned, blazing up.

“You never had any intention of going through with it.” It was the bitterest thing he could have said and he was satisfied that he had struck home. His father couldn’t disprove it. He wasn’t sure that it was so, but he wasn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt. The precise truth was an irrelevance anyway, hiding in the shadows.

“I can understand why you are so upset,” his father said with a surprising change of persuasion. He was resilient if nothing else, holding on to a last bridge to his son and daughter-in-law. “You think you’ve lost a piece of the business by not signing the legal papers before I left. Believe me, they were worthless. The majority of stock is still in my hands.”

“So this is the good news you brought?” his son asked.

“How can you blame us?” Mrs. Kaplow interrupted, seemingly out of patience for having withheld comment. “After all, you did walk out of the factory.”

Ellen glared at her. “You know well enough why he left.”

“We came here for a friendly visit,” she addressed Art as if he were sympathetic, “and all we get is insult.”

“Maybe we should be more polite. It’s only our livelihood,” Ellen asserted.

Mrs. Kaplow threw off the last remnant of graciousness. “You people are always crying about your troubles. You’d think you were the only ones. Look at the world.”

“It’s easy for you to tell us to forget . . . with your mink stoles and diamonds,” Ellen answered. The other uttered something incomprehensible through her anger. In the deadly silence that followed, they stared at each other, stalemated, obsessed, and uncommunicative. Art and his father sat breathing hard with averted faces, as if withdrawn from battle to nurse their wounds. Mr. Kaplow made a vague and futile gesture and gave up, dropping his arm hopelessly at his side.

“I’ll tell you, Art. I’ll be open,” he said, rising with a violent wrench of will. His eyes drilled accusation. “It would never work out, not in a thousand years. We are different like day and night. You have no respect for me, no res-pect! And I . . . can’t see your way.” His head shook with endless denial. “Did you hear yourself lose your temper? It was full of hate, plain hate. Am I right?” “Did you expect praise?”

“I remember years ago,” his father said as if he hadn’t heard, “when you raised your hands to me in an argument, you almost struck me. I haven’t forgotten. I will never forget.”

“And you were always the innocent party?”

“I could go on and on to show how you felt toward me.”

“And this is letting bygones be bygones.” Art suddenly felt something give way within, like the slipping of an underlying rock mass. It was hopeless, impossibly hopeless. In his frustration his wrath had dissolved into nothing, without a trace, leaving him empty-handed. Perversely, his vague emptiness might have veered blindly into a semblance of good will toward his father. Ellen turned to Art, and the prolonged look they gave each other almost shivered with apprehension of the truth.

Mrs. Kaplow stood up and spoke dryly. “Let’s go, Harry. There’s nothing more to be said.”

Art and Ellen made no effort to help them as they went to the closet for their coats which they put on in complete silence. Following his wife through the open door, Mr. Kaplow paused and turned irresolutely, as if to consider the intervening space between himself and his son. He closed the door and left.

_____________

 

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