Commentary Magazine


Uncle Jack

Last Thursday, heading out from the Loop to my apartment in Hyde Park, I was listening to a golden-oldie station. They were playing a tape from famous radio programs, and one of them was from the old Art Linkletter Show. Linkletter is asking a little boy what he wants for Christmas, and the kid says he wants a new bed. Linkletter asks why. The kid says because he usually sleeps in the same bed with his mother, but now he has to sleep on the couch because his uncle is staying over with her, only you see, he isn’t really his uncle. Roaring laughter. “Kids,” the ever unctuous Linkletter signs off, “say the darnedest things.”

I winced. Although I didn’t grow up sharing a bed with my mother, I too had one of those uncles who wasn’t really my uncle. Only my uncle, as I would learn, was one of the most powerful men in America. Not many people knew about him, but the small handful who did used to refer to him as Mr. Fix-It. The “it,” as I was to discover when I grew older, covered a lot of territory.

My uncle could get the unions off your back, or get you a sweetheart contract, or get you a million-dollar loan out of union pension funds at an attractive interest rate at a time when a million dollars was a million dollars and not the salary of a utility infielder. He could get major zoning ordinances changed, or set in motion the gerrymandering of congressional districts. He could persuade all sorts of people in politics, show business, and sports not to be stubborn about deals and contracts. I heard it said—whispered, actually—that, should it be required, he was the man to see if you needed to have a business partner, or a wife or husband, removed in a quiet and completely efficient manner. Jack Rafter was my uncle’s name.

I have no memory of my father. He went off to war in 1942 when I was two years old and died when I was five, shot down co-piloting a B-17 over Dresden in early 1945. A photograph of him in uniform, wearing his officer’s hat in a fifty-mission crush, used to sit on the small mantle of our apartment on Pine Grove, off Addison. He is handsome and in the photograph looks very serious, though my mother told me that one of the things that originally attracted her was his sense of humor. Asked what he did for a living, he might answer, with a convincingly straight face, embalmer or safecracker or lion tamer. He was, in fact, an electrical engineer.

When I was a boy I used to fantasize that my father would return home happily recovered. He would take me to baseball games, teach me about electricity, instruct me in life’s tricky spots, show me the ropes. I’m not sure which is worse, losing someone you’ve known and loved or losing someone you’ve never known at all. But I sorely missed not having a father, and even now, in my early sixties, I sometimes think I’m still not over it.

Twenty-six when he died, my father left little in the way of savings or insurance. Like me, he had been an only child, and his parents, who were immigrants, were in no position to offer my mother much help. Her own father had died in his forties, and her mother, my grandmother, lived with a brother in San Francisco. Soon after getting her sad telegram from the War Department, my mother went to work at Rafter’s, a high-line women’s clothing shop on north Michigan Avenue.

Twenty-four years old, a redhead with a natural sense of style in clothes—“stunning” was how other women often described her—my mother quickly caught on. Lou Rafter and his wife Estelle, who were childless, took to her straight off, and soon included us in holiday parties at their large apartment on Lake Shore Drive near Temple Sholom. It was at one of these parties that my mother first met Lou Rafter’s brother Jack. He lived on the “coast,” as people in Chicago used to say, and he was a lawyer, but the kind of law he did was unclear. He was twelve years older than she.

“Jack walked into every room confident that he was the most important person there,” my mother told me much later. “And the fact is, Billy, he was. Did I ever tell you that President Kennedy’s father used to send him a case of Piper-Heidsieck every year at Christmas?”

I never learned how Jack Rafter had swept my mother away, but it’s not hard to imagine. A man who was said to own four points of the Riviera Hotel in Vegas, large tracts of real estate in Boca Raton, and the land in San Diego on which the San Diego Padres built their stadium, a man who in a pinch could convince Jimmy Hoffa to call off the dogs—such a man could not have had much trouble convincing a war widow in her twenties, alone in the world with a young son, that he would watch out for her for the rest of her life. Which, after his fashion, and to give Uncle Jack his due, he did.

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Tie problem was that when he met my mother, Jack Rafter was already married, with two daughters. He lived in Beverly Hills, and he wasn’t the type to divorce or to abandon children, if only because divorce was much too sloppy for a man who instilled, maintained, and flourished in order. But evidently he did need a regular lady friend in Chicago, which he visited at least once and sometimes twice a month. He was a man working deals sixteen hours a day, his mind churning away full time—manipulating, maneuvering, figuring angles—and, although he could have had a different woman every night, he must have wanted company and stability of a different kind: the kind a woman as attractive and sensible as my young mother could supply.

In the early years, when their affair first began, I was shipped out to my mother’s older sister, my Aunt Florence, and her husband Julius, who lived on Sheridan Road with Lake Michigan as their backyard. This was no hardship, especially since I liked their two sons, my cousins Eddy and Sherwin, who flanked me by a year on either side. I must have been eight years old when my cousin Eddy told me my mother had a boyfriend. Until that moment, I knew nothing about it. He said it was practically his mother and father’s only topic of conversation.

When I confronted my mother, she said it was true she had a friend; she never used the word “boyfriend.” Things were complicated, she said, and she would try to explain them to me, though not all at once. Her friend was the younger brother of Uncle Lou and Aunt Estelle (as I had long ago begun calling the Rafters) and lived in Los Angeles, but she saw him when he came to Chicago.

“Are you going to marry him?” I asked. In those days, I was still hoping to acquire a father.

“I don’t think so, Billy.”

“Then what’s the point, Mom?”

“The point is that he’s very nice and wants to help us.”

“How?”

“You’ll see,” my mother said. “Mr. Rafter is a very important man.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a lawyer,” my mother said, “but his real work is to smooth the way for people who need special favors.”

I have never forgotten my mother’s formulation of Jack Rafter’s life’s work. As pure description, I still cannot better it. Nor can I forget my mild surprise the first time I entered the large office he kept in Chicago to find not a single law book in the place. So far as I know, he never appeared in court or handled a legal document.

I was nine by the time I first met him. The ordinariness of his appearance threw me. He was compact, 5′9″ or so, trim, not more than 140 pounds. Over the nearly 40 years I would know him, his weight never changed. His shoes were always shined to a high brilliance, his nails were manicured, and his black hair, lightly pomaded and parted on the left, had that perfect kemptness that comes from getting a haircut every week. He exuded an expensive smell, good leather mixed with lemon. All his shirts had French cuffs, and once I noticed the U.S. presidential seal on his links. Years later I read a novel by Henry James in which the main male character was described as not overly concerned with clothes but careful to own no vulgar things; I thought at once of Uncle Jack.

“Billy,” my mother said the day she introduced me, “this is my friend Mr. Rafter. He would like it if you called him Uncle Jack.”

“I’d like it a lot, Billy,” he said, smiling and putting a steadying hand on my shoulder. “I don’t have any nephews or nieces, and I’d really like to think of you as my only nephew.”

He said that he’d heard I was a sports fan and wondered if I’d go with him to a game. The day must have been a Sunday, in early or mid-September, because I still remember the choices: “We can go to Wrigley Field and watch Bob Waterfield and the Los Angeles Rams play the Bears, or we can go to Comiskey Park and watch Bob Feller pitch against the White Sox. Up to you, Billy.”

I chose the Bears. We were driven there, only a few blocks away, in a dark blue Buick Roadmaster by a large black man named Greenwood. At the stadium Uncle Jack had seats on the forty-yard line, in a box five or six rows off the field.

“I want you to meet someone,” he said once we were seated. He took my hand and we walked to the rail, where he called out, “Bob, Bobby, over here.”

A tall deeply tanned man in a gold-and-blue uniform trotted over. “Jack,” he said, “how goes it?”

“It goes well, Bobby,” he said, shaking the man’s hand. “Bob Waterfield, I want you to meet my nephew, Billy Siskind. Billy, this is the great Bob Waterfield, ail-American quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams.” I put out my hand, which was lost in his.

“Great to meet you, kid,” he said, then signaled to the Rams bench where someone threw him a football. “Have a pen on you, Jack?” he asked. My new uncle took out a black Parker 51 with a gold cap. The ball was signed “To my friend Billy, best wishes, Bob Waterfield.”

I still own that football—a Duke, the laces rising in high relief off its richly pebbled, deep brown leather—and the inscription and signature are still visible. Not long afterward, I learned that Bob Waterfield was married to Jane Russell, the actress whose low neckline in The Outlaw caused a great stir in the 1940′s. Uncle Jack, as he used to put it, “represented” her. I may have been only nine years old, but I recognized even then that this new uncle of mine was no ordinary man.

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Soon my mother and I had moved into a three-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor at 3300 N. Lake Shore Drive, with a swell view of Belmont Harbor from the French windows in our enormous living room. One bedroom was my mother’s, one mine, and one was reserved for Uncle Jack. It contained a single bed, a desk, a phone with his private number, and a tall mahogany dresser. In the closet he kept two suits, both of lawyerly dark gray, and a beautiful maroon-colored silk robe and pajamas from Sulka along with slippers and an extra pair of shoes in trees. The desk drawers were locked, and I was instructed by my mother never to answer the phone, which usually only rang when he was in town.

Around the same time my mother acquired a sky-blue Chrysler convertible with real wood paneling and I was transferred out of Le Moyne, the public school where I had gone since kindergarten, and put in Francis Parker, a private school. My mother kept her job at Rafter’s on Michigan Avenue.

Jack Rafter always went first-class, and as long as my mother was his special friend, so did we. But they seldom went out together in public. Like many beautiful women, my mother was an indifferent cook, so when Uncle Jack stayed over we either ordered in or ate at small and inconspicuous neighborhood restaurants. A couple of times he had his driver take us out to an Italian restaurant in Melrose Park called Slicker Sam’s, where he was treated with almost regal regard and not allowed to pay his check. We never traveled as a family, but when my mother and I went anywhere he always saw to it that we had the best accommodations. He even arranged, through John Balaban, who ran the Balaban & Katz movie chain in Chicago, a free pass admitting two to all the chain’s theaters. It had my name on it and made me a great figure among my classmates.

I always knew my mother was a great beauty. She stood 5’8”, which in the high heels of the day made her taller than Jack. Her face resembled Susan Hay-ward’s a little, with something of the same knowing intelligence the actress so successfully portrayed, but hers was warmer, less been-around-the-block. At what point I became aware of her real relationship with Uncle Jack I cannot say for certain. They were always highly discreet around me.

At the age of eleven, when I was sent off to a summer camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin, I learned the facts of life. No boy, I suppose, wishes to apply these facts to his own mother, and so long as there is a father on the premises he needn’t really do so. But my mother’s irregular connection with Jack Rafter put such matters all too squarely in the forefront of my consciousness. One of the few words absent from the otherwise nearly full sex lexicon I learned at Camp Ojibwa was “mistress,” which of course is what my mother was.

One day Uncle Jack gave her a full-length mink coat, which in her excited pleasure she modeled for us the minute she took it out of the box. I shall never forget the sound and the sight of the hem swishing and sweeping just above the floor, my mother’s thick auburn hair doing something of the same almost six feet above. At that instant I had no trouble understanding why a man like Jack Rafter would go to such trouble to be with a woman like her. Perhaps that was also why I was less than shocked when, a year or two later, my mother first told me he had a wife and two daughters in Los Angeles whose lives he did not want to disrupt. One girl was fifteen, the other my age. “Very vulnerable ages for girls,” my mother said.

So far as I knew, Uncle Jack did everything he could to spare my mother the awkwardness of her position. In all their years together, I never heard them quarrel. Each accepted the limitations imposed by the relationship. When I had my bar mitzvah, Uncle Jack came to the small but elegant party at the Drake Hotel that he no doubt paid for, but he didn’t sit at the head or family table. On all holidays, Jewish or otherwise, his family in Los Angeles, it was understood, had first call on him. He took my mother to New York on a couple of occasions when I was growing up, but I never went along.

In high school I finally came into a more precise knowledge of Uncle Jack’s position in the world. As best as I could piece together the story of his career, not long after graduating from Loyola Law School, Jack Rafter went to work for some of the Mafia-controlled unions in Chicago, the movie projectionists prominent among them. From there he had spread out in a three-pronged attack—you have to imagine here a Movietone News map of the Allied fronts during World War II—in which his reach extended from the Mafia and the unions to the entertainment industry itself. When the three overlapped, as when the “boys” took over Las Vegas, or when strikes were threatened in Hollywood, Uncle Jack was in a commanding position.

In those days people in Chicago talked about crime the way other people talked about sports. Everyone was an expert on the subject. Bugsy, Greasy Thumb, Big Tuna, in Chicago these were names that resonated like the Babe, Joltin’ Joe, the Splendid Splinter. People used to wonder why Jack Rafter was never called up before the Kefauver Commission on organized crime—his name was mentioned on a number of occasions during the televised hearings. Another unanswered question was how, playing with the rough crowd he did, and at such a high-stakes game, he managed to avoid being killed.

Uncle Jack didn’t travel with bodyguards, and as far as I know carried no gun. The closest I ever came to hearing him brag was when, staying in our apartment once recovering from a bad case of flu, he told me that he had to get back on his feet soon. “I owe it to people, some of them fairly important, who get nervous if I show up with even a light cold. One of the secrets of life, Billy, is to arrange things so that even to your bitterest enemies you’re much more valuable alive than dead.” This, too, though its meaning was a little unclear to me then, has stuck with me forever.

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Although he was always attentive to my mother, and even set something of a model for how a gentleman ought to behave with a lady, Uncle Jack chose not to take the place of the father I had never known. With what I now regard as a species of high tact, he kept a restrained distance, somehow making it plain that, though we had no true blood ties, he would be there if I ever really needed him. He would occasionally take me along to a big sporting event—a heavyweight title fight, a crucial pro football game—but my allowance through high school came from my mother and so did all my disciplining and advice. I never mentioned Jack Rafter to any of my friends at high school, and those I brought home, if they hadn’t heard otherwise, may have assumed that our money came from my mother’s family.

Meanwhile, I was flourishing at Francis Parker, which I continued to attend all the way through high school. Everyone there was very bright; and so, I discovered, was I. I ran track, specializing in the grueling 440, and I found and fell in love with mathematics.

One night toward the end of my junior year Uncle Jack handed me a blank slip of paper and asked me to write down the names of the five colleges I most wanted to attend. I handed it back with the obvious names—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Chicago—and saw him tuck it into the pocket of his suit jacket. The following spring I received letters of acceptance from all five colleges.

It was a week or so later that Uncle Jack took me to the Cubs opener against the Cardinals. We sat in a box on the third-base line two rows behind the Cubs dugout. The day was cool, still in the low 50′s. He was wearing a black coat, perfectly fitted, with a Chesterfield collar and a white silk scarf. His black hair was turning silver at the temples.

“You’re mother is very proud of you,” he said. “Getting into every school you applied for is no small thing, especially with the Jewish quotas that some of them have. Where are you thinking of going?”

“I was thinking Harvard,” I said.

“I want to ask you a favor,” he said. “I want you to go to the University of Chicago. Naturally I’ll pick up the tab.”

“Why Chicago?”

“Because it’s close to home, and I don’t want you to be too far from your mother. She needs you.”

“She told you that.”

“She didn’t have to, I can sense it. In the end, you know, you’re all she’s got.”

“What about you?” I said, feeling that, as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was sailing into dangerous water.

“Your mother is very dear to me. But for reasons I think you know about, Billy, I can’t be with her all the time. I’m not asking you to be with her forever, but for now I think it best you be nearby.”

“Can I think about it?”

“Of course,” he said, “take all the time you need. But remember, I’d consider this a very big favor.”

“Now can I ask you a question?” I said.

“Sure,” he said, “anything you like.”

“You didn’t by any chance have anything to do with my college acceptances, did you?”

“Not a thing. If you’d needed me to intervene I would have been glad to help. But the fact is you didn’t. You have my word on it.”

“Have you ever done anything like that?”

“I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “A fellow in town here, a man in the appliance-parts business in Glen-view named Meisels, called me one day to tell me that his son was on the waiting list at Northwestern Law School, and that he’d be grateful for anything I could do to get him accepted. I told him I’d look into it.”

He paused to light a Dunhill out of a red and gold box. “I didn’t feel there was much urgency about the matter, and anyway I had more pressing business to attend to. Three weeks later, the son was notified that a place had been found for him, and that same week the man sent me a check for $25,000.”

“Did you keep it?” I asked.

“Of course. I didn’t really have a choice. To return it would have been damaging to my reputation as a man of all-powerful influence,” he said, smiling almost imperceptibly. “How about a hot dog?”

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I lived at home for my first two years at Chicago, but for the second two my mother insisted that I take an apartment on campus. I sometimes thought with regret about Harvard, but in my senior year all such thoughts disappeared when I encountered a brilliant teacher, a slender and warm-hearted Argentinian named Alberto Calderone, whose mathematical specialty was wave theory. Taking me under his intellectual wing, Professor Calderone arranged a graduate fellowship, and I eventually went on to do my doctorate under him.

Uncle Jack was unable to attend my graduation. But a week later, I received a letter, on his office letterhead:

Dear Billy,

Congratulations on your undergraduate accomplishments, which have made your mother rightfully proud.

Four years ago, when I asked you to stay in Chicago for your education, I told you that I would consider this a significant favor, and I am a man who repays such favors. I would like you to know that my repayment is a small trust I have set up for you. It will provide you roughly $1,500 a month. This sum is not enough money, I hope, to smother your ambition or set you on the path to ruin, but something of a cushion and a comfort during your years of graduate study. The trust begins with the enclosed check. It is to endure for five years, after which I feel confident you will no longer need it.

I see I have neglected to add that your achievements have made me very proud also.

Sincerely,
Jack Rafter

The year was 1961, and it is perhaps a sign of Jack Rafter’s personal wealth that he was unaware that the $18,000 annual income from this trust, peanuts to him, was four times a college instructor’s salary of $4,500. The money, coming in more than handy, gave me independence, the means to travel every summer to Europe for long holidays, and that greatest of all freedoms, not having to think about money at all.

But by then Uncle Jack was staying in our apartment less and less frequently How my mother felt about this was not known to me. Maybe she was relieved. Maybe she felt she was losing her grip. Here was this beautiful woman, Jack Rafter’s girlfriend, approaching her mid-forties, getting a little old for the job and perhaps beginning to feel it. I wonder if she worried about his looking for—or having already found—another woman, a younger version of herself, tucked away in Manhattan or even in Chicago.

One night not long before I finished graduate school, I brought in Chinese food and my mother and I shared not one but two bottles of the fruity, slightly sweet Riesling wine she favored. As we worked our way through the second bottle, I found the courage to bring up the subject.

“Mother,” I asked, “was Uncle Jack a mistake?”

“Whatever do you mean?” she said.

“I mean your friendship with him made it impossible for you to find another husband.”

“Uncle Jack and I made a bargain, and he’s kept it to the letter. I knew at the outset what I could expect from him and what I couldn’t. I have no complaints, Billy, I want you to know that.”

“Do you love him, Mother?”

“I’ve loved only two men in my life, your father and you. But I have the greatest regard for Jack. He’s made it possible for us to live as we do. We were alone in the world before he came along.”

“Did you do it for me?”

“If I said yes I’d be a heroine, wouldn’t I? The truth is I did it only partly for you. I did it for myself, too. Jack isn’t exactly charmless, you know. And his power in the world has its attractions, even if I share in it in only a very small way.”

“If it were possible, would you prefer to be married to him?”

“I hope this doesn’t shock you, Billy, but I don’t think I would ever care to have been married to Jack Rafter.” And here she paused. “He cheats on his wife, you know,” she said, finishing the little bit of wine left in her glass.

Just then the phone rang. My Aunt Florence, a famous gabber, kept my mother on the line for 25 minutes as I cleared the table and washed the dishes. We never returned to the subject.

_____________

 

The blessed Professor Calderone arranged a job for me in the university’s math department, and six years later I got tenure. In the same year I married another mathematician, which turned out to be a mistake: it lasted three years, with no children and no great recriminations afterward. It was shortly after my divorce that my mother began to get dizzy spells.

At first she thought it might be diabetes, which ran in her family, but when she proved negative for that they put her through the full buffet of tests and discovered cancer of the liver. It had metastasized from the pancreas, and the prognosis was not good. With chemotherapy, she was told, she could live two, maybe two-and-a-half years. She had not yet turned sixty.

When Uncle Jack found out he insisted she go to Mayo for a second opinion. We went, more to accommodate him than for reassurance. With Jack Rafter as our sponsor, the red carpet was set out, but in the end the verdict and the sentence were the same: liver cancer, two to three years to live if treated chemically.

My mother, usually so wonderfully in control, somehow saw her cancer as a judgment—and one she didn’t quite understand. “Billy,” she would say to me over and over, “did you ever think this would happen to me?” “Mother,” I more than once replied, “it can happen to anybody. In a way it has nothing to do with you.” But after a while I stopped saying such things, realizing that I was, in effect, asking her not to take her death personally.

Uncle Jack told me not to worry about expenses. Anything my mother wanted, she was to have. The problem was that there was nothing she really wanted but to be well again. He called nearly every night, asking how she felt, giving her what I took to be little pep talks that did absolutely no good. Not even the great fixer could fix this one.

Then one afternoon, when I had come to take her shopping for groceries, she called out from the kitchen:

“Billy, come back here, please. There’s something I want to show you.”

She was seated at the counter. She had been losing weight, and the chemo had caused her skin and hair to lose their luster. I was grateful she hadn’t yet lost her hair altogether. In her beautiful eyes was that slightly terrorized look of people with terminal cancer.

She pushed a copy of the Sun-Times across the counter, turned to the page with Kup’s Column. “Look at the last item but one,” she said.

In bold type I read Jack Rafter’s name. The item read: “Influential West Coast attorney Jack Rafter in town for re-opening of Mr. Kelly’s.”

When I looked up, my mother said: “He called, as usual, but he never told me he was in Chicago.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means your Uncle Jack doesn’t like losers,” she said, seeming oddly unmoved.

I was in my mother’s apartment the next night when he called, heard her respond to his questions about her health, heard her ask about his own. She gave no hint that she knew he’d been in town.

Of course she was aware that she was dying. One Tuesday morning, after helping her into the front seat of my Volvo to take her to chemo, I reminded her to put on her seatbelt. She shot me a look suggesting I had made a joke in extremely dubious taste. On the short ride to the hospital, a barely perceptible groaning sound was mixed with her regular breathing. We seemed, my mother and I, to have run out of things to talk about.

“It won’t be long now,” she said after she had grown so weak she had to be hospitalized. And it wasn’t. I sat by her bedside at Weiss Hospital, held her ringless fingers in my hand, listened to the moaning that accompanied her breathing. My beautiful mother, I thought, I will not remember you in this terrible condition. I will remember you in your natural elegance, and I will always remember that you were the one person in this life on whom I could count.

She died on a Saturday night, which meant that Jack Rafter probably wouldn’t get word till Monday: I didn’t have his home number, and anyway it wouldn’t be right to try him there. Instead I left a message on his office answering machine.

He called back Monday morning at ten, Chicago time.

“Billy, I can’t tell you how sorry I am. It’s a great loss”—he paused—“for both of us.” There was something, I thought, ever so slightly perfunctory about his voice, as if he had already filed the subject away in a folder and placed the folder in an outbox.

The funeral service and burial were scheduled for the next day. He said he hoped I would understand that he couldn’t attend. “Lots of complications involved.”

“I understand,” I said.

“If you need help with any of the bills, please send them to me.”

“No help needed,” I said.

“Perhaps we can meet in a couple of weeks. There are a few items in my desk at your mother’s apartment that I need to clean out.”

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When he stepped off the elevator, Uncle Jack seemed smaller than I’d remembered him—age, perhaps, although age certainly didn’t detract from his standard, understated stylishness. He was wearing a dark gray hat—men of his generation didn’t go out without a hat—and one of his perfectly fitted black suits, with a lush, solid silver-hued necktie. He was carrying a plain black leather briefcase. At seventy-three or so, he was still very much in the game.

We shook hands. Looking down, I noted that he still had the benefit of a manicure. “You holding up okay?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” I said. “How about you?”

“Being in this apartment shakes me up a little,” he said. “Your mother’s death marks a major subtraction in my life.”

I wondered. Jack Rafter was a man who never said anything that he hadn’t carefully weighed, calculating its effects, side-effects, and possible after-effects ten years down the road.

“Sorry to burden you with this,” he said, after emerging from his old bedroom, “but I’ve left a couple of suits and some shoes in the closet. No hurry, but when you get a chance you could maybe send them to me at my LA office. Bill me for the cost.”

“I’ll do it in a day or so,” I said. I tried to imagine him leaving this apartment carrying his shoes and with his clothes over his arm, but I couldn’t do it. Other people carried things for Jack Rafter.

“Well, kid, what can I say? Life goes on. Let’s be grateful for your mother’s existence.”

“Look,” I found myself saying, “there’s something I have to know before you leave. What exactly did my mother mean to you?”

“She was a charming and beautiful woman,” he said, “and I cared very deeply for her.”

“Do you have another woman in Chicago lined up to take her place?”

“A little out of line, don’t you think, Billy?”

“Maybe it is, but who drew the damn lines in the first place?”

“Your mother and I had a deal, and we both lived up to it.”

“Strange kind of deal,” I said.

“Your mother knew everything it entailed, down to the fine print. She never complained. Which is apparently more than can be said for you—though you also benefited considerably from our little arrangement.”

“Little for you, maybe,” I said. “For my mother it was her whole life.”

“What exactly do you want, Billy?”

“I want you to tell me that my mother wasn’t your whore.”

“I never thought of her that way, I assure you.”

“Then how did you think of her?”

“I’ve already told you, as a charming and beautiful woman who meant a great deal to me.”

“A great deal sounds right, but then you’re the world’s premier maker of great deals, isn’t that so, Uncle Jack.”

“If taking a few shots at me will make you feel better, please, be my guest.”

“Was my mother ever anything more to you than a convenience, a place to hang your goddamn Sulka robe?”

“If I said yes, would you believe me, Billy? Forgive me if I doubt it. I wonder if something else isn’t at work here.”

“Like what?”

“Like resentment. Some of us have tried to shape the world to accommodate our desires. You either dominate life or you’re dominated by it. Don’t know if that information is available to a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.”

He glanced at his watch. “My driver is waiting,” he said. “I’d better get a move on.”

“We probably won’t see each other again,” I said.

“Probably not.” He put out his hand. “Good luck, Billy.”

“You, too,” I said, deciding, what the hell, to shake his hand.

I walked him out to the elevator. As he got in, and the door began to close, I glimpsed him standing there alone, ever so briefly, smiling, for some reason, to himself. The son of a bitch, I thought, he’s probably working out the details of a deal with God, with a small but decisive advantage to himself.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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