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Saturday Afternoon at the Zoo With Dad

Levine’s heart sank when he heard the honking siren—just like the Gestapo in that old Anne Frank movie—and then saw the red lights twirling atop the police car behind him. “Please turn right at the light,” instructed a voice over the speaker. Levine moved his green Jaguar off Sheridan onto Granville. Dammit, there goes another twenty minutes. He was late as it was. A heavyset black cop approached. “May I see your license and insurance card, sir?” Removing them from his wallet, Levine passed the documents through the open window.

“I wonder if you’re aware that you were speeding, Barry,” the cop said, “doing 43 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone.”

Levine considered responding, “What’s this Barry bullshit, officer, do we know each other? Just give me the ticket and let’s both get going.” In the good-old, bad-old Chicago days, he would have kept a ten-dollar bill in the plastic window of his wallet along with his driver’s license, the cop would have slipped it out, returned the wallet, and everyone would have gone away happy. No longer. Levine decided to go with the honesty ploy. “I wouldn’t be surprised, officer. I’m already late to pick up my kids for my weekend visit, and I guess I was pushing it. I’m awfully sorry.”

It worked. “I’m a divorced father myself,” the cop offered in return. “I know how it is.”

“Yeah,” Levine said, “it’s not so great.”

“I’m going to let you off on this one, Barry.” The cop handed back Levine’s documents. “But watch it. The next officer stops you may just be a happily married man.”

“Not too many of those,” said Levine with a smile, “but thanks a lot. I appreciate it.”

Nice cop, decent guy, a good sign, lucky day maybe. Levine could use the luck. He had been living in dread since he first heard from Sandy on Monday.

“Barry?” she had said over the phone, and at the sound of her voice, Levine froze. “Barry? It’s Sandy.” Her casualness blotted out the fact that she and Levine hadn’t spoken for more than four—Jesus!—it would soon be five years.

“Sandy, good to hear from you,” Levine lied. “What’s doing?”

It turned out she was coming from Los Angeles to Chicago for her 20th high-school reunion, and she was bringing the kids. They were going to stay for three days, and she had all the bases covered except for Saturday afternoon, when a class picnic was planned and she had no one to watch Jonathan and Jennifer. Could he take them off her hands for five, maybe six hours?

Had he been faster on his feet, Levine would have claimed an out-of-town appointment, a golf date, exploratory surgery, some damn thing. But somehow he lost it. He heard himself saying, in a dopey, unbelievably saccharine voice: “Sure, Saturday afternoon will be great. Where can I pick them up?” What a schmuck!

_____________

 

Mrs. Sandra Kantor Levine Kravitz, Levine’s first and former and only wife, had been remarried for nearly eight years now, and thank God Kravitz had come along when he did. Ten years older than Levine, never married, a lawyer who worked in trusts and estates with a big Jewish firm in L.A., Harvey Kravitz had gotten him off the hook in more ways than one. Because of him, Levine did not have to think about his ex-wife with pity, anger, or guilt; he didn’t have to think of her at all, and in fact he almost never did.

Soon after marrying her, Kravitz also told Sandy they needn’t bother with child-support payments. Although Levine put up a feigned protest, this was dandy with him. Two grand less a month going out, and not an easy check to write—two G’s for the maintenance of children he no longer saw and to help out a wife he’d really just as soon didn’t exist. He could find better uses for the money.

Jonathan had been three and Jennifer a year and a half when Levine and Sandy divorced. In their generally acrimonious separation, visitation was one of the biggest bones of contention. Marty Spivak, Levine’s attorney, had fought for Levine to get the children every weekend and—once they were in school—during spring and Christmas vacations and for a full month each summer. It sounded good at the time. But what was a bachelor, then in his early forties, supposed to do with two infant children for a full weekend?

Levine’s parents were still alive, and at first he used to bring the kids over to their place. They were very good about it, doting and generous in the way of Jewish grandparents. But for him, hanging around his parents’ apartment in Winston Towers with its lime-colored, wall-to-wall shag rug, the weekends stretched out interminably. Pushing his daughter in a stroller around the streets of West Rogers Park, carrying his son piggyback, he often went to a nearby playground to put Jonathan on the swing or play with both children in the sandbox. Each weekend came to seem like a fiscal quarter—a bad fiscal quarter.

Levine began to skip occasionally. Then his mother got liver cancer, and, with her chemo treatments, became too weak to help look after the kids. By the time Harvey Kravitz came along, Levine was ready—relieved—to let him move Sandy and the kids to Los Angeles. Two years later, after a couple of notably unsuccessful visits—he stayed at a Rama-da Inn in Westwood, mostly watching pay-per-view movies in his room—Sandy announced that Kravitz wanted to adopt Jonathan and Jennifer, and he was ready to concede that, too.

“Barry,” his father told him, “don’t be crazy. They’re your children, your flesh and blood, they should carry your name.” But Levine felt he had no leverage. The children had never come to Chicago, and his Los Angeles visits were a complete bust, demoralizing in every way. What the hell, he thought, Kravitz pays all the bills, and they seem to like him well enough. Let them be Kravitz’s kids, let them take his name. In the end, what, really, does it matter? After a year or so, he ceased calling every few weeks; then he stopped sending birthday gifts. Finally, he no longer even thought of himself as a father.

_____________

 

When they were married, there was nothing that Sandy and Levine couldn’t find to fight about: her parents, his parents, his friends, her friends, money, child-raising methods, food, and of course sex. Levine was thirty-five when he married—no kid—Sandy twenty-four. He had felt maybe it was time for him to come in with his hands up. A grievous error. The problem probably wasn’t even Sandy; it was marriage. He, Levine came to conclude about himself, was just one of the world’s natural bachelors.

After the divorce he moved into an apartment on Scott Street, on the old gold coast. He left the commodities market each afternoon at 2:00, and by 2:30 he was on the treadmill at the McClure Court Club, or shooting baskets in a pickup game, or sitting in a Jacuzzi, checking out passing women, of whom, for a man with money and leisure, there seemed to be no shortage. Most evenings, when not with a younger woman, he would have dinner with a few guys from the club. They would talk sports, or stocks, or funny adventures with broads.

He liked things the way they were. One Friday afternoon at McClure a guy named Lou Berlin asked if he was free for the weekend. Berlin had just invited two girls on a high-rollers’ junket to Vegas; he needed to make a foursome, but they had to be on a plane at O’Hare in two hours. Levine looked at the woman he was to escort—Debbie was her first name, Berlin hadn’t quite caught her last—a racquetball player at the club, small, nice body, thick dark hair, and said, why not, let’s go. He boarded the plane with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and his American Express card and bought everything, even underwear, at Caesar’s Palace. Debbie turned out to be a very accommodating young lady, Levine won more than three grand at craps and blackjack, and as a souvenir of the weekend he still had two pair of cashmere socks for which he had paid 50 bucks a shot.

When Levine went out with a new girl—and most of the women he went out with he thought of as girls—he would tell her that he was divorced but never mention having had children. If they asked, he lied and said no. He wasn’t likely to be with the girl that long, so the lie was unlikely to catch up with him. And thus far it hadn’t.

_____________

 

It was 11:10 when Levine’s Jaguar pulled up in front of the Northshore Hilton. He was 40 minutes late, and Sandy and the two children were waiting at the entrance. He felt an urge to accelerate and keep driving. From the car, he could see that the girl, now ten-and-a-half, had her mother’s fair skin and light hair—dishwater blond, it used to be called; he noted, too, the braces on her teeth. Jonathan looked more like a Levine, dark, small, with curly hair; he looked, in fact, astonishingly like Levine at the same age. Sandy, who had put on a few pounds, seemed exactly what she was, a rich attorney’s wife and a mother who had fought, successfully, to keep her family together. A brief and thoroughly unexpected flare of admiration shot through him.

Pulling the car over, Levine left the engine running and walked up to them. He had neglected to prepare an opening line.

“Sorry to be late.”

“Hello, Barry,” his ex-wife said, all business. “I’d like it if you could have Jonathan and Jenny back here at the hotel by 5:00.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Great,” she said, “and thanks for helping out.” Was there a touch of sarcasm in her voice, or was Levine imagining it? His radar wasn’t working so well this morning. Probably he was imagining. At any rate he hoped he was.

“Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk later,” Sandy said, turning back into the cool dark of the lobby.

Levine and the children had not yet spoken. Both kids got into the back seat. As Levine pulled out, he caught a glimpse of them in the rearview mirror sitting close together, almost huddled. It occurred to him they might feel even more awkward than he.

“What do you say to lunch and a trip to the zoo in Lincoln Park?” He had nearly six hours to kill. Although it was early June, the Cubs were out of town, and besides it might be a mistake to take a girl to a ball game, though for all he knew his daughter might be one of those girl athletes. He didn’t really know about the boy. Maybe he was a video-game nut Who knew?

“Whatever you want,” replied Jonathan.

“OK,” Levine said, sensing a long afternoon, “the zoo it is.”

He took McCormick over to Devon, thinking the kids might be interested in the neighborhood where he and their mother had both grown up. Of course, it had all changed drastically since those days. West of California, it was now dominated by kosher butchers, Jewish bookstores, Hebrew day schools. Men in hasidic garb walked the streets; on weekdays, young wives wearing wigs and with three or four children in tow popped in and out of stores. East of California, Devon became heavily East Indian, with lots of sari shops, vegetarian groceries, jewelry emporia, stores with appliances wired for India. “West Rajah’s Park,” his friend Mel Rosen now called the neighborhood.

“Your mother and I grew up here,” Levine said. “Has she ever told you anything about it?”

“She said that people didn’t think too much about crime,” the girl piped up. “Not like now.” To Levine, studying her in the mirror, her braces made her seem all the more vulnerable.

“That’s true,” he said. “When I was younger than you, Jonathan, my parents let me go downtown on the El by myself. My father—you probably don’t remember him—grew up with two guys who owned a gym where boxers trained. They let me hang out there. You care about sports?”

“Pro basketball,” the boy said.

“Me, too,” Levine agreed. “Follow the Bulls?”

“Who doesn’t? Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, crazy Dennis Rodman.”

“I like Rodman’s hair,” the girl said, “but Mommy says his bleaching it so many colors is going to ruin it”

“He can rebound like crazy,” Jonathan put in. “But he can’t stand up to Shaq in the low post. In the low post Shaq would take him on tour.”

“You’re both right,” Levine said. So he had a son who knew sports. His own boyhood was dominated by them: playing, watching, fantasizing. Something nice about this discovery.

On the Outer Drive he passed Weiss Memorial Hospital, where both his parents had died. Best to leave this unmentioned. Through his divorce, he had deprived his own parents of the pleasures of their grandchildren. Neither had ever said anything to him about it. He doubted that he himself would ever be a grandfather, except in the most remote and technical sense. Right now that didn’t seem to him much of a deprivation. Different generations, different views.

At a Greek restaurant on Halsted named Demi’s he ordered an omelette made with egg whites while the children had cheeseburgers with fries and Cokes.

“You like growing up in California, Jennifer?”

“Nobody calls her Jennifer,” Jonathan said. “Everybody calls her Jenny.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fun,” the girl said, “though maybe I’d like to see snow sometimes.”

“California’s all we know,” Jonathan added. “We’ve got nothing to compare it to.”

“When you were little, of course,” Levine reminded them, “you lived in Chicago.”

“You mean when you were our father,” Jenny said.

“Right.” Past tense noted.

Halfway through lunch Jenny knocked over her Coke, half of which spilled onto her brother’s fries and uneaten cheeseburger. Rising to wipe up the mess, Levine noticed a redhead, maybe in her late twenties, entering the restaurant; impressive jugs but, in his judgment, a little short in the leg. Not, right now, a good time to make a move. He must have seemed like a divorced father out with his kids for the weekend, or maybe a guy giving his wife a break on a Saturday, but certainly not what he was—a permanent bachelor, perpetually on the attack.

_____________

 

Apparently A visit to the zoo on a sunny early summer day was not an altogether original idea. Three times Levine drove around the streets before finally pulling into a garage on Clark where a sullen Mexican took a twelve-buck fee without any thanks.

At the entrance to the park, Jenny wanted a great blue bouffant of cotton candy being sold by a Pakistani.

“She’s not supposed to eat candy because of her braces,” her brother said, a note of satisfaction in his voice.

“Yes I can,” the girl protested, “if I rinse after.”

“Where are you going to rinse here, dork?”

“None of your business, moron.”

“OK,” Levine stepped in, “let’s take a pass. We’ll get some ice cream and peanuts inside. How’s that?”

“But I love cotton candy,” Jenny said, “and I can rinse out at one of the fountains.”

Screw it, Levine thought, I see these kids for one day; am I supposed to be responsible for her character as well as her dental hygiene? He shelled out two bucks and handed Jenny the blue cone.

The zoo was teeming. Lots of kids being wheeled around in strollers. Many grandparents, plus some guys with younger wives and little kids—second-family men. A band was playing: blacks in dreadlocks clanged away on steel drums while a woman with a shaved head sang a combination of African and Caribbean melodies. Levine took Jenny’s hand. Jonathan walked a few steps ahead. They joined the crowd around the seals, who were darting in and out of their pool and hooting as they slapped themselves dry on the rocks.

Levine looked around for Jonathan, but he was gone. The seal exhibit had an underground walkway with windows that allowed you to view the animals from beneath. Probably, the boy had gone down for a look.

“Jenny,” Levine said, letting go of her hand, “wait right here. Don’t move. I have to find your brother.” Quickly he walked downstairs, the blue from the water giving off a slightly eerie light in the darkish corridor. Three black kids in NBA jerseys with baggy shorts, big shoes, and baseball hats worn backward stared into one of the windows. At the end of the walkway Levine found Jonathan peering through another. He thought briefly of scolding him but instead took his hand and walked him back outside. When they got there, Jenny was gone. “Shit,” Levine said aloud. “Now what?”

“She sometimes just goes off by herself,” the boy replied, “like in a department store or something. She can get kinda dreamy. My mom and dad always find her.” The “dad,” of course, was Kravitz.

The sun was shining with particular radiance. People seemed happy to be out with their children, gazing at animals, drinking soda, eating lemon ices, listening to music. Calm seemed everywhere but in Levine’s heart. He wasn’t even sure in which direction to begin. There had to be a central lost-and-found somewhere, but would Jenny know where to find it and have the good sense to wait for him there?

He steered Jonathan into the nearby big-cat house. Most of the lions, leopards, and tigers were out-of-doors, lazing, along with a solitary cheetah, in the sun. Searching the nearly empty building, he noted only a single panther padding slowly around its cage. The muscles in the beast’s chest, the cold look in its eyes, sent a shiver through Levine. These days the press was full of child-molestation stories. Block it out.

They tried the snake house. No Jenny. Then the ape house, a new building. The large gorillas were napping. The orangutans seemed idiotic, the baboons even lewder than he remembered. Where the hell was she? C’mon, sweetheart, Levine pleaded silently, don’t put me through this. Outside, back in the beaming sun, Levine took Jonathan’s hand. They passed the giraffes with their gentle quizzical looks, the zebras swishing their tails, shaggy bisons and wildebeests seriously in need of a bath. Finally, they came upon a building marked Information Center.

“Excuse me,” Levine said to the young woman inside with a diamond chip on the side of her nose. “Is there a lost-and-found for kids? I want to report a little girl missing.”

“It’s at Gateway House,” she said, “at the East Gate. Would you like me to call to see if she’s there? We could also have her paged.”

“Please,” Levine said. “Her name’s Jenny Kravitz. She’s ten, and she’s wearing a red T-shirt and jeans. Braces on her teeth.”

“No problem.”

Maybe for you, Levine thought. He had a pretty good imagination for disaster, and at the moment it was envisioning Mexican street gangs, old perverts, canny kidnappers, ransom notes; the possibilities were practically endless.

_____________

 

“Im sorry, your daughter’s not at Gateway House,” the girl reported, hanging up the phone. “But she could show up at any moment, Mr. Kravitz, and in the meantime I’ll do a page.”

“Thanks,” he said. “But it’s Levine, not Kravitz.”

“I thought you said her name was Kravitz.”

“It is, but mine’s Levine. It’s a long story.”

“I see,” she said, not looking as if she did. As they left the building, they heard Jenny’s name over the public-address system.

“I’m thirsty,” Jonathan said. “Could I get a Coke or something?”

The closest spot was Café Brauer, a bit in the distance, but Levine thought he ought to accommodate the boy. They sat for a moment at one of the tables along the lagoon.

“What will you do,” Jonathan asked, “if my sister’s dead?”

“Jesus,” said Levine, “she’s not dead. Don’t even talk that way.”

“No, I mean what would you do if she was?”

“I’d feel terrible,” Levine said. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure, but I mean I’m her brother. I’m supposed to.”

“Well, I’m her father.”

“Not really.”

“What do you mean not really?”

“I mean you’re only sort of our father, but not really. Isn’t that right? I mean you don’t see us, you don’t talk to us. Do you think about us?”

“Of course I think about you,” Levine said. “All the time.”

“Then how come you never call or anything?”

“I guess I think maybe it makes it easier on everybody if I don’t. I mean, you live far away and everything.”

“I once asked my new dad what he would do if he didn’t live with his children, and you know what he said?”

“No,” said Levine.

“He said it would kill him if he lost his children. But then he said that everyone is different and we shouldn’t judge you. Maybe you have your reasons.” The boy paused.

“I do have reasons,” Levine said, sweating. “The main one is that I didn’t want to make your lives more complicated. Your mother and I didn’t get along so well when we were married, and I thought maybe it would be easier if I just sort of disappeared.”

“I see,” Jonathan said, dropping his eyes and putting the straw in his mouth.

“Look,” Levine said, “we better get to Gateway House. Maybe your sister is there waiting for us.”

“Maybe,” the boy said, noisily draining the last of his drink.

Levine thought they should check the petting zoo, which was in a nearby barn. As he and the boy walked through the door, he saw Jenny standing near a small black goat. A flash of anger was quickly swallowed by relief. He watched as the child made a tentative approach to the little goat. Hard to believe she would be a woman one day, exciting to men, with her own plots and agendas. As they walked up to her she turned and smiled as if nothing in the world were wrong. God, Levine thought, those braces! He put his hand on her head, about to pet her just as she was petting the goat. Then he remembered his anger.

“Where have you been?” he said, hearing the sternness in his voice. “You had your brother and me worried sick.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just got tired of waiting for you at the seals.”

“Mom would kill you if she knew what you did,” her brother lectured her.

“It’s none of your business.”

“It’s my business,” Levine interjected. “I’m responsible for you, at least for this afternoon. And Jonathan’s right. Your mother would be furious with both of us if she knew you just took off on your own the way you did.”

“You know she would, too, Jenny,” Jonathan added.

“Look, let’s get out of here,” Levine said. “Let’s get out of the zoo and get an ice cream or something.”

They made their way out, Jenny’s hand tightly folded in Levine’s, Jonathan walking alongside. The Lincoln Park neighborhood seemed very youthful on this summer’s day. Lots of young women in spandex, their hair pulled back in ponytails, out for a jog. They found a Baskin-Robbins on Clark, near Fuller-ton, where Levine stood in line behind a homosexual couple roughly his own age, two bald guys in tank tops. He bought double-dip sugar cones for the kids—rocky road and cherry vanilla for Jenny, two scoops of pistachio for Jonathan—and a nonfat frozen chocolate yogurt for himself. A booth opened up, and they grabbed it.

“Are you gonna tell Mommy about my getting lost?” Jenny asked.

“Would you prefer I didn’t?”

“Yeah,” she said, “I think she’d only get mad—I mean, really mad.”

“What do you think, Jonathan?” Levine asked. “Can we keep it a secret, just between the three of us?”

“OK,” he said, “I won’t tell.”

“Bet he does,” Jenny said.

“Bet I won’t.”

“If Jonathan says he won’t tell, he won’t tell,” Levine said. “He looks to me like a man who keeps his word, and I believe him.” He put out his hand; Jenny took it. Levine then reached for Jonathan’s hand and put it on top. “So it’s our secret then,” he said.

_____________

 

Driving home, brother and sister once more sat in the back seat. Passing Weiss Memorial again, Levine, feeling like a chauffeur in his own car, said: “See that red-brick building on the left? That’s where my mother and father died. They were your grandparents, you know.”

“Were they nice?” Jenny asked.

“Very nice, fair and kind and good-hearted, and they loved you both when you were babies, though of course you can’t be expected to remember them.”

“What did they die from?” Jonathan asked.

“Cancer. Both of them. Your grandmother first.”

“Why did you and Mommy get divorced?” Jenny asked. “Mommy said you stopped loving each other. Is that true?”

“Sort of,” Levine said. “But maybe it’s just as true to say that I didn’t like being married all that much.”

“Does that mean you didn’t like being our father?” the girl asked.

A tough question. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said, looking at the kids in the mirror. He was glad to be sitting where he was, where they couldn’t see directly into his face. “I would say that I wasn’t all that good at being a father.”

“Is that a good reason for leaving us?” Jonathan put in.

“No, I suppose not. But your new father’s good to you, right? He loves you, right? So maybe it worked out for the best.”

“It’s not the same thing,” the boy said. Had Levine himself at twelve been as relentless as this kid?

“It’s not the same thing as what?”

“It’s not the same thing as having your real father,” Jonathan said.

Levine, turning off the Outer Drive and onto Sheridan Road, didn’t answer.

“Do you love us?” Jenny asked.

“What a question. Of course I do.” He was passing the place where, earlier today, the cop had stopped him for speeding. No response from the back seat After another block or two, the silence seemed chilling. At the corner of Sheridan and Devon, Levine thought to tell them about the great Granada movie theater that once stood here, an Aladdinish place, huge and wildly ornate, where he went every Friday night through high school. Going to the Granada as a boy to watch Cary Grant and Gary Cooper and Tyrone Power, he certainly never thought he might one day become a father who would abandon his children. Life had its tricks, all right. Not that they had been left to poverty, hunger, or anything like that. They were probably living better with Kravitz than they would if he had stayed married to their mother. Maybe if they hadn’t moved to goddamn California he would have managed to keep in touch. But they were two thousand miles away, for shit’s sake. What was he supposed to do? Sneaking another peek in the mirror, Levine realized he couldn’t quite successfully suppress what he knew was the correct answer to that question.

It was 5:05 when the Jaguar pulled up to the door of the Hilton. Sandy, waiting inside, came out and opened the back door.

“Did you have a nice time?”

“Yes,” Jenny said. Jonathan said nothing.

“The zoo was crowded,” Levine offered. “We had an ice cream about an hour or so ago. Hope it won’t spoil their dinner.”

A bit nervous, Levine wasn’t clear about the choreography of his departure.

“Want to come in for a cup of coffee?” Sandy asked.

“Thanks, but I’d better be off. Besides, you probably want to get going.”

“I suppose we should.”

“It was fun,” Levine said. “They’re good kids.” He put out his hand to Jonathan, who shook it without looking at him. Turning to Jenny, he found himself pulling the child to him and kissing the top of her head. “Bye, baby,” he muttered.

“Good-bye,” she said. It occurred to him that neither of them had called him anything all day long.

In a slightly jerky movement, Sandy quickly leaned in, brushing his cheek with hers. “Thanks.”

Somehow Levine managed to get back behind the wheel, lower the window on the passenger side, and try his best to smile and wave as he pulled away. In the rearview mirror he saw his ex-wife, her free arm around the shoulder of her daughter, the two of them waving back; her son made no movement at all. For once, Levine was glad he had nothing on for the evening. Maybe he’d grab a sandwich, watch a ball game on television, hit the sack early. It had been a long day.

_____________

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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