“Dinosaurs,” Lou Levin said, “let’s face it, we’re a pack of goddamn dinosaurs.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Irv Brodsky asked.
“It means,” said Levin, “that guys like us are destined no longer to appear on the face of the earth. We’re soon to be extinct. The way we think, the way we act, Jesus, even handball, the game we play, is on its way out. Nobody under sixty plays this game any more.”
Slowly slipping off his knee brace, Moe Bernstein, though he didn’t say anything, tended to agree. None of the sporting-goods stores carried handballs any longer; you couldn’t find a proper pair of gloves anywhere in the whole city. Only here at the Horwich Jewish Community Center was there equipment for the game he and his friends loved.
Once upon a time, handball was a game for serious athletes, real gym rats. You had to develop both your left and right hands, which not everyone, even the best athletes in other sports, could do. Players tended to be stocky, the better not to be pushed around on the court. Moe himself was five foot five and weighed 180 pounds, thick in the legs, barrel-chested, a real handball build. He still thought of himself as in good shape, even though breathing came heavier now and he and his friends confined themselves to playing doubles, and for only an hour at that.
“Lou’s right,” Sid Melman chimed in. “It’s another world. I was telling Sam Kantor, my broker, the other day about my niece. She announced she’s converting to Catholicism. ‘Don’t complain,’ he says to me, ‘my own daughter, at thirty-three, last week tells my wife that she’s a lesbian and is moving in with another broad. Next to lesbian, Catholicism is nice, Buddhism is nice. Shit, I’d take Islam before lesbian.’”
“That,” said Levin, “is precisely why you’re a dinosaur, Sidney.”
“Up yours, Louie.”
“Said like a true schmuck dinosaur,” replied Levin. “Look, boys, the rules have been changed. We got caught in the switch. Everyone now can do what he likes. It’s open season on everything. Delay no desire. Stop saving. Stick it anywhere you please. Walk away from any mess, any time. All this comes a little late for us, but whose fault is that?”
Stuffing his gear—jock, shorts, sweat socks, gloves, knee brace—into his gym bag, Bernstein could have contributed his own stories to the conversation, his own chronicles of the brave new world they all lived in, but decided against it. What was the point? Levin was probably right. They were dinosaurs, Moe included. He felt the calluses on his hands, mementos of half a century of swatting balls around YMCA and JCC courts all over Chicago. Even his hands marked him as a dinosaur—but at least he was a dinosaur who still had a great kill shot.
Bernstein drove his Buick, a Park Avenue, the five blocks from the JCC to his house on Fargo. He had kept the house after Sylvia died four years ago, though what he needed with three bedrooms, two baths, and a finished basement he couldn’t exactly say. It seemed like too much trouble to move. Besides, he didn’t mind mowing the lawn in spring and summer; in the autumn there were the leaves to rake; and he still had the back muscles for shoveling snow, though this past winter he had begun to feel it.
The neighborhood was changing, but still safe. Korean families lived in the houses on either side of his, and an Indian physician, an anesthesiologist, lived across the way; his wife walked the neighborhood in saris. On Devon, once the main hub of shopping in the neighborhood, the Indians had taken over much of the retail business east of California Avenue—many sari palaces, as they called them—while west of California the ultra-Orthodox Jews dominated. The tonier Jews had long since departed: to Lincolnwood and Highland Park and Glencoe.
Nothing of interest in the mail: bills, catalogues, charity appeals, the usual junk. You want to get letters, Bernstein reminded himself, you have to write letters. Who today wrote letters? You called long distance, or faxed. There was also something called e-mail, or so he had heard. He had decided to take a pass on the whole computer thing; at sixty-seven, he figured he was close enough to the grave to get away with it. He had thought about installing a car phone, but decided no.
He did have a VCR, which he used occasionally to record a Bears game when he was going to be out of the house. When he first got the thing, he rented movies, mostly the old ones he had grown up with, the Bogarts and Fred Astaires, William Powells and James Cagneys and Spencer Tracys, but he soon lost interest. Television news and the Cubs and Bears and Bulls gave him all the entertainment he needed. Most nights he went to bed before ten anyhow.
Bernstein popped a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna into the oven, then, gym bag in hand, walked upstairs. The room next to the master bedroom he had fixed up for his grandson, Nathaniel, soon after he was born, though the kid almost never used it. Bernstein had put Big Ten pennants on the walls along with a blown-up photograph of Walter Payton somersaulting into the end zone against the Packers and another of Babe Ruth finishing a home-run swing. In a bookcase were a few of his own handball trophies, a copy of Abram Sachar’s History of the Jews, and a plaque from the Israel Bonds office with Bernstein’s first name Morris misspelled Maurice.
He had never bothered to redecorate the master bedroom after his wife’s death, and so it remained essentially a woman’s room, with gauzy curtains, prints of French ladies in gold frames, great lacy throw pillows over the flowery bedspread, and a frilly ruffle on the bed. His thick body slept alone in that feminine double bed. Whole days went by now when Bernstein forgot to think of Sylvia. They had been married forty-two years when she died. Sometimes, out in the car, at odd times of the day, he would try to recall her face and, concentrate though he might, he could not summon it up. After Bernstein himself died, there would be no one left to summon up his own. There was his son, of course, and there was his grandson, but he doubted he was likely to be on the mind of either for very long.
When the Stouffer’s was ready, Bernstein fixed himself a salad of iceberg lettuce which he covered with Kraft Thousand Island dressing, poured a glass of ginger ale, and took it all into the den. Setting it on a TV table before his favorite chair, he turned on the local six o’clock news and ate to the accompaniment of stories about west-side murders, south-side arsons, northwest-side juvenile-gang warfare, and, for comic relief, political scandals. At the break after the weather, he returned to the kitchen to cut a slice of Sara Lee cheesecake, which he ate while watching the sports news.
After washing the dishes, Bernstein transferred himself to the couch to watch the Cubs-Cards game. It had, he thought, lighting a cigar, been a pretty good day. For the past thirty-four years Bernstein had been a salesman for the Toledo Scale Company, and had made a damn good living. Good enough, at any rate, to buy this house, send his son through college and law school, never drive a car more than three years old, and—himself a child of the Depression, and hence always a careful saver—live without any real financial worry. He no longer had to scramble for business the way he once did. He continued to service his old accounts, mostly butcher shops, looking after repairs and temporary replacements, updating old equipment, selling scale stickers and register tapes. He had notified the home office that he would take retirement at seventy, less than three years away.
Bernstein had started off the day by dropping in on Mikhail Petrovich, a Ukrainian butcher who had been using an antiquated machine, originally produced in 1948, which he took over when he bought the shop and which had finally broken down completely. With scarcely any effort on Bernstein’s part, Petrovich had bought a $4,600 scale, the biggest ticket item in Bernstein’s line. After writing up the order, on the way out of the shop, he heard Petrovich, in his greenhorn accent, say to his assistant, “You know, I wake this morning, I never dream I buy scale.”
Bernstein unlaced his shoes, put out his cigar, propped a pillow behind his head, and let his mind wander, the Cubs game playing like Muzak in the background. His mind drifted to his son. He had never really approved of the kid’s marriage to begin with. The girl was never his cup of tea. She was pretentious, hipped on psychology; he could never feel close to her. And the mother was even worse. Before marrying a woman, it’s always a good idea to have a close look at the mother, so you see what’s in store.
Much as he had wanted to alert his son to steer clear, Sylvia warned him against doing so. Besides, even though Leslie was his only child, Bernstein had never been that close to the boy. He couldn’t tell you why, but they never had the kind of relationship where the father could have slipped his arm around the son and said, “Look, Leslie, you’re in some pretty serious trouble here. These women are crushers. No one’s got you in a hammerlock. Cut and run while there’s still time. I’ll cover you. I’ll take some of the flak. Say your old man doesn’t want you to marry so young. Make up any story you like. I’ll back you all the way.”
Of course, Bernstein thought at the time, he could be wrong. Nothing harder to figure than marriages. All begin in sexual attraction and most end in personal irritation. Yet sometimes the most impossible combinations, marriages you would have thought never had a chance, worked out just fine. So Bernstein never said a word; he went along with the show.
And quite a show it was. The Shapiros must have spent no less than forty grand on their daughter’s wedding—like Leslie, Deborah was an only child. Seymour Shapiro, a lawyer specializing in personal injury, turned a big buck. Bernstein would never forget the fuss Miriam Shapiro made when the rabbi showed up at the Drake Hotel without the huppah. He remembered the rabbi muttering something to the effect that the less religion people had, the more they insisted on the niceties. The bridal couple had written their own vows, of which Bernstein could now recall nothing except that he had shuddered while listening to them. He did remember that the rabbi, from a Reform temple in Glencoe, spoke in an English accent and seemed to get seven or eight syllables into his pronunciation of the word Israel.
The kids, Leslie and Deborah, appeared to get on well enough. Leslie finished law school. Deborah taught “exceptional children,” which Bernstein later learned meant that they had serious problems. She called Bernstein “Dad,” but it never felt quite right. Three years they waited to have a child of their own. When they wanted to move from the city to Highland Park, Leslie came to his father to ask for a loan of twenty-five grand to help with the down payment, and of course Bernstein lent him the money, no interest.
Bernstein should have sensed trouble when Leslie showed up one day wearing a mustache. It was brown and so luxuriously thick it looked as though it might be made of mink. Bernstein restrained himself from mocking the boy, but he couldn’t take this seriously. “Leslie,” he wanted to say, “you planning to store that with Traeger the furrier in the summer?” Soon Leslie began to show up in Italian suits, double-breasted jobs, with ample shoulders; they went, Bernstein understood, for a grand apiece. He wore loafers with gold chains. A funny way for a lawyer to dress.
It was at Passover dinner at Bernstein’s own home that he first realized trouble was brewing. Between the fish and the soup, his daughter-in-law began to cry and had to leave the room. His son excused himself, then came back ten minutes later to say he was sorry but they would have to leave, Debbie was so upset. In some panic himself, Leslie told his parents he would call later to explain. Nathaniel was not yet two at the time.
What Leslie had to explain was that he was leaving his wife and moving to Seattle with a young paralegal in the office, a girl named Lisa Podolfski. When Bernstein asked his son if he had thought this through, Leslie replied, with some impatience in his voice, of course he had. When Bernstein next asked if he was prepared to accept his responsibilities as a father, Leslie countered that he would do everything he could at a distance of two thousand miles. Why Seattle? Bernstein wanted to know. Because, Leslie explained, he had lined up a job with an important law firm there. And besides, it was a beautiful city, one of the prettiest in America.
As a lawyer, Leslie had to know that the Shapiros were a family that played hardball. Bernstein reminded him that no injury was more personal than divorce; they weren’t about to let him off the hook. Miriam Shapiro would want to exact vengenance, see that her ex-son-in-law paid till it hurt. There were ways of fighting that, Leslie replied. He wasn’t, after all, himself a lawyer for nothing.
The long and short of it was that a year and a half after Leslie left his wife, his new lady friend had left him. Two years later, he stopped coming in to Chicago for his regular, legal visitations with his son: a month in the summer, a week in the spring, another week at Christmas. As far as Bernstein knew, Leslie kept up alimony and child support, but he had cut himself emotionally free. He claimed the visits with the boy were too stressful—that was the word he used, stressful. And, besides, he said, Nathaniel’s mother and grandmother had poisoned the boy against him.
At Sylvia’s funeral, Leslie told Bernstein that of course he had a bad conscience about Nathaniel, but what was he supposed to do? He brought along with him a young woman with blond hair flowing down her back named Yolanda with whom he was living at the time. He had a permanent, and was wearing a gold chain around his neck. Leslie, thought Bernstein at the time, Leslie, my son and heir, you are a phony and a putz.
Bernstein awoke with a jolt and a sour taste in his mouth. Indigestion? Heartburn? He had difficulty swallowing. His left arm felt numb. Everyone knew this left-arm business was the first sign of a heart attack, so he had to be careful he wasn’t imagining symptoms that weren’t really there. He rose from the couch. He was all right on his feet; not shaky or anything. But the sour taste wouldn’t go away, even after he had walked into the kitchen and rinsed out his mouth. The constricted feeling in his chest, caused by heartburn or heart attack or some hot peppers he had had for lunch or whatever the hell it was, refused to go away. Breathing wasn’t easy. He slipped into his pants and, in some pain, bent over to lace his shoes.
The nearest hospital was St. Francis, in Evanston. Bernstein decided not to call an ambulance but to drive. He did so easily enough, though the traffic light at Western and Howard seemed to last for a goddamn fiscal quarter. He heard a voice say, in Petrovich’s greenhorn accent, “I wake this morning, I never dream I have heart attack.” He parked on the street and walked into St. Francis through the front door, asking the way to the emergency room. The numbness in his left arm and shoulder seemed so insistent as to be humming.
They strapped him to an EKG machine, which revealed that his heartbeat was irregular, though only slightly so. They gave him some pills. They suggested he stay the night for more tests, which he agreed to do. The next afternoon a cardiologist named Arnold Meyers, a man in his forties with a manicure who seemed too well-dressed and who knew his son’s former in-laws, recommended that Bernstein undergo a bypass operation. His heart attack—yes, it had been a heart attack all right—was a minor one, but a harbinger of worse to come.
“What if I do nothing?” Bernstein asked. He saw all those men walking around the Horwich Center with their elaborate, zipper-like scars: up the leg, where the vein had been taken out, across the chest, where it had been sewn in. He’d heard stories about the post-operative depression a lot of guys went through.
“If you do nothing,” said Dr. Meyers, more than a touch of menace in his voice, “you are likely to die some time within the next two or three years. You figure to have a number of these attacks, to grow weaker and weaker, and, owing to the absence of oxygen getting to your heart and finally to your brain because of your clogged arteries, a final stroke or heart attack will take you.”
“How soon you want to do this surgery?” Bernstein asked.
“The sooner the better, of course. But it’s probably best not to put it off for more than a few weeks. Fortunately, this last little attack—and there may have been others—did not do damage of a kind serious enough to prevent surgery.”
“I’ll get back to you,” Bernstein said, buttoning his shirt and eager to be the hell out of the hospital.
Before he reached home—less, that is, than twenty minutes later—Bernstein had decided not to go ahead with the surgery. What did he need it for? He didn’t feel like putting himself through the ordeal, and he didn’t feel like changing the way he lived, which this young doctor claimed he would have to do even if the surgery succeeded. Lots of guys checked out on the operating table—no guarantees there. Heart attack or stroke, when you came to think about it, weren’t bad ways to go. Both beat slow cancer deaths, let alone an extended nightmare like Alzheimer’s.
Bernstein was alone in the world. Nobody depended on him. He’d had his innings; he’d had a pretty good roll of the dice. So he wouldn’t get to eighty—the age at which his father died and which he had always thought he would reach. But he had a shot at seventy: three score and ten, the traditional biblical life span. No need to be a pig. He would settle for seventy.
At home, Bernstein popped in a Stouffer’s Salisbury steak, opened a small can of corn niblets, another of stewed tomatoes, which he set to warming on the stove. He checked the calls on his answering machine. Only one, from his former daughter-in-law, Deborah. “Dad,” the message went, “I could use your help this weekend with Nathaniel. Please call when you have a free moment.”
While his steak was still in the oven, Bernstein dialed Deborah.
“Oh, hi, Dad,” she said in her slightly distracted way. “You got my message?”
“Of course,” said Bernstein. “What is it? Nothing wrong with the boy?”
“Nothing at all. Why I called is that I’ve been invited to spend this weekend with friends in Wisconsin, at Green Lake, and there aren’t going to be any children there. My parents are in Palm Springs. And I was wondering, if you’re free, if maybe Nathaniel could stay with you?”
“Sure,” Bernstein said. “When do you need me to pick him up?”
“It would be great if you could come get him on Friday afternoon. I’ll be back by early Sunday evening.”
“No big problem,” Bernstein said.
“Thanks a million, Dad. You’re a lifesaver.”
That Friday afternoon, on his way to pick up his grandson, driving out to Highland Park along Sheridan Road, the fine trees forming a tunnel overhead, the mansions on the lakeside of the street seeming as impressive as ever, Bernstein thought about his death. Now that he had made the decision to forgo surgery, the weather, which he had never been all that concerned about, somehow seemed more important. His days, he now knew, were numbered, and he wondered what their final tally might be: 396, 582, 712? He hoped that when the moment came he might be at home, alone, no hospitals, no tubes in his nose or catheters up his gazoo. If he was lucky, he would expire without too great a struggle: a choke, a cough, a battle for breath, over and out.
His business was in order. He had a will. He had an insurance policy worth two hundred grand. He had another hundred fifty grand and change in savings, mostly in CD’s and Israel bonds. Bernstein didn’t think the stock market was for little guys like him, and so had stayed away from it. His house was worth maybe another hundred and a half. All this would go to his son. It would buy a lot of Italian suits and loafers—buy lots of dinners for lots of Yolandas. Bernstein didn’t much like to linger on the subject.
As for what waited on the other side, there, Bernstein assumed, was nothing. Lights out. Oblivion. End of story. He was someone who had honored his religion without observing it. He had put Leslie through Hebrew school, just as he had himself gone as a boy, but the truth was he never could visualize either God or heaven. Yet, he now thought, he had always acted as if there were a God. He had tried to be hardworking, faithful, honorable, decent, within what you might call big-city limits. He was no angel, but neither was he a son-of-a-bitch. He tried to do what was right. What was disappointing, as he now thought about it, was that he hadn’t made any real difference to anyone else’s life. Not even to Sylvia, who was very self-sufficient and who, had she not met and married Moe Bernstein, would probably have had a similar life with someone else.
Bernstein parked his Buick at the side of his daughter-in-law’s house, the same house for which he had lent his son twenty-five grand for the down payment. Two Mexicans were working in the yard. Deborah’s red Toyota was in the open garage.
“Oh, hi, Dad,” Deborah said when she came to the door. She put out her cheek for Bernstein to kiss. They were a very kissy family, the Shapiros. Bernstein was not from the ready kissers, and always found greeting his ex-daughter-in-law a bit awkward.
Deborah, now in her mid-thirties, was starting to show her mileage, mostly around the eyes, which looked to Bernstein sad and tired. A woman raising a little boy alone had no picnic; Bernstein, though he did not care much for Debbie, allowed her at least this much.
“How go things with Leslie?” she asked, when Bernstein had come in.
“He’s pretty well,” Bernstein said, knowing this line of questioning was as unpromising as it was inevitable. “You know Leslie.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I know Leslie.”
“Nobody ever calls him that,” she reminded him.
“So what do I call him?”
“Nathaniel,” she said, “everybody calls him Nathaniel.”
She called her son to come down, handing Bernstein a small suitcase she had packed for him. She also gave him a bottle of pills for Nathaniel’s allergies and a piece of paper with a telephone number where, in case of a crisis, she could be reached. Bernstein had long ago been informed that Nathaniel was allergic to grass and dust. There wasn’t much to be done about it. Apart from building the kid a cottage on the moon, or letting him live in an igloo, he was always going to be vulnerable.
Vulnerable is how Nathaniel looked as he came down the stairs. He was thin, he wore glasses, and as if—toss in his allergy—that wasn’t enough, this past winter he had had braces put on his upper teeth.
“Hi, Grandpa,” the boy said.
“How are you, son?” Bernstein replied. “Ready to live the hard bachelor life with your grandfather?”
“I guess so.” Nathaniel did not sound very enthusiastic.
“Kiss your mother goodbye,” Deborah said, “and don’t forget to take your allergy pills. Grandpa’s got them.”
Bernstein noted the boy’s scrawniness, in his T-shirt and shorts, as he permitted himself to be hugged by his mother. Bernstein waited outside, a few steps down the walk, to avoid the awkwardness of another kiss from his former daughter-in-law.
“Thanks again, Dad,” Deborah said, “I’m really very grateful.”
In the car, Bernstein didn’t have to tell his grandson to buckle up; the boy did it automatically. He was a cautious kid. On the way back to West Rogers Park, Bernstein asked a number of questions that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Was he looking forward to going back to school in a few weeks? What were his current interests? What was the meaning of the turtles on his shirt? As Nathaniel explained the mysteries of the Ninja, Bernstein’s eyes began to glaze. It occurred to him that he would not be alive to see this boy turn thirteen.
They stopped to pick up a few videos, and at home Bernstein put a couple of chicken pot pies in the oven. He asked Nathaniel if he’d like a glass of ginger ale, but the boy said he’d prefer milk, which Bernstein didn’t keep in the house; he gave him orange juice instead. After dinner, they ate ice cream in the den, where the cartoon videos Nathaniel had selected quickly put Bernstein to sleep.
“Grandpa,” Nathaniel said, “Grandpa, better get up. It’s eleven o’clock.”
Bernstein awoke in a daze. Nathaniel had already taken the videos out of the VCR and removed and washed their ice-cream dishes. He was, Bernstein began to sense, used to looking after himself. After all, his mother, who had long ago left teaching and now worked as an interior decorator, wasn’t always home when he returned from school.
Nathaniel slept in pajamas, Bernstein in a Lawson YMCA T-shirt and his boxer shorts. He put Nathaniel in the bedroom with the Walter Payton and Babe Ruth photographs. Tucking the boy into bed, Bernstein wasn’t sure whether or not he was supposed to kiss him goodnight. But as he put his grandson’s glasses on the night table, he leaned down and kissed his forehead.
“’Night, kid,” Bernstein said. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s a long and an old story, kiddo. It goes back to when people were poor and didn’t always live in the best conditions. I’ll explain in the morning. Sleep well.”
At 2:37 by his digital clock Bernstein awoke to the sound of sobbing. He found his grandson crying in his sleep. Instead of turning on the light, he picked the boy up and brought him into his own room, setting him down on the bed as gently as he could so as not to wake him.
“OK, sweetheart,” said Bernstein, lightly patting his grandson’s back with his callused hands, “it’s OK, nothing to worry about. Your grandpa’s with you. Nothing bad’s going to happen.”
Soon the sobbing stopped. Bernstein lay down next to the boy and slipped his arm around him. His thick hairy arm touched the boy’s ribs. God, the kid is thin—this was Bernstein’s last thought before he fell off to sleep.
Next morning Bernstein rose at his usual six o’clock and, before showering, ducked out to the Jewel to pick up some milk, hot dogs and buns, potato chips. He also bought a pound of corned beef and a rye bread in the deli section.
When he returned home, Nathaniel was awake. “Grandpa,” he called out as Bernstein came in through the back door. He was sitting in front of the television, watching cartoons, in his pajamas and robe.
“How did I get in your bed last night?”
“I was wondering that myself,” Bernstein said. “I’ll bet you sleepwalked. I was glad to have you there, though. It was cold for a summer night. Now what d’you want for breakfast? How about I scramble up some eggs for us? Or make French toast? Your grandma taught me years ago to make very good French toast.”
“I’ve already had my eggs for the week,” Nathaniel said.
“How many do you have?”
“Mommy doesn’t think it’s a good idea to eat more than two eggs a week. She watches our diets.”
“What can you eat?”
“How about some juice and toast and yogurt?” said the boy.
Nathaniel ate his toast without butter. Bernstein had no yogurt in the house. After they both showered, Bernstein asked his grandson to help him mow the lawn, but soon saw that the boy didn’t have much strength or endurance. When Bernstein asked if he wanted a Coke with his lunch, Nathaniel said he’d prefer Perrier, which Bernstein didn’t have. The kid just nibbled on the corned-beef sandwich Bernstein made. His stomach was easily upset, he confided, and he wasn’t supposed to eat spicy foods.
The Cubs were out of town, but through his friend Irv Brodsky, Bernstein had been able to get a couple of tickets to the White Sox game that night. Nathaniel was not exactly thrilled at the prospect. Bernstein knew the kid wasn’t much of an athlete, but now he learned he had no interest even in watching sports. The only things he played, it seemed, were computer games.
“Your dad is a big sports fan, you know,” Bernstein told him. “When he was a kid he knew everything there was to know about every active player in both leagues and a lot about some players long dead.”
“I guess I didn’t know that,” the boy said.
Bernstein remembered that Leslie had left when Nathaniel was only two. His other grandfather apparently hadn’t spent all that much time with him, either, and after the divorce Bernstein too had tended to drift away, the ambiguities of dealing with your son’s ex-wife being too complicated for him, especially after Sylvia died. He sent his grandson a birthday gift, gave him another at Hanukkah, and saw him at most four or five times a year. Sometimes he would have a guilty conscience and would telephone, but the conversations were always unsatisfactory. Like the other men in Nathaniel’s life, Bernstein, too, had checked out.
“Look,” he now said. “We don’t have to go.”
“It’s up to you, Grandpa.”
“No, Natey, it’s up to you. I want you to enjoy yourself. How about we go out to dinner and rent another movie? Does that sound good?”
“Fine, Grandpa,” the boy said, looking up through his thick glasses. Bernstein had the feeling that his grandson was accommodating him, not the other way around, and felt a surge of love for the boy. He found himself wondering how things might turn out if he, Bernstein, were to raise him. He would do a damn sight better job than his mother, or than he himself had done with Leslie. He imagined taking the boy with him to a place like Arizona, where no one knew either of them, and teaching him all he knew about being a man and surviving in a tough world. But this was pure fantasy, not something Bernstein normally allowed himself to indulge in.
They ate at a Greek restaurant on West Devon, in Lincolnwood, after stopping to pick up an old Lassie movie. At dinner Bernstein told Nathaniel about all the great animal movies he remembered from his youth: Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, My Friend Flicka, and others whose names he couldn’t now recall. At home, he was surprised to learn that the hero of the video they had rented was a young Peter Lawford—in later life, apparently, a stooge for Frank Sinatra and a procurer for President Kennedy. Wonderful English accent, though.
“Grandpa, Grandpa,” Nathaniel said, rousing Bernstein gently. Once again he had fallen asleep, and once again the boy had rewound and taken out the cassette.
“Did things work out OK, Natey?” Bernstein asked. “Lassie come home all right?”
“Yeah, Grandpa,” the boy reported, seriously, “it all worked out fine.”
Upstairs, they brushed their teeth together, the boy in his pajamas, Bernstein in a T-shirt that read “B’nai B’rith Handball Championships, Men’s Seniors, 1979.” Nathaniel asked for dental floss, but Bernstein had none. He made a mental note to stock the joint with yogurt, Perrier, and dental floss for his grandson’s next visit. He wanted to ask if Nathaniel would like to sleep in his bed, but decided not to, lest the boy think his grandfather was babying him.
Bernstein awoke on Sunday morning, the sun shining into his room, the acrid smell of urine in his nostrils. Nathaniel’s room was empty, the sheets stripped from the bed. He called out his name, and the boy answered from the basement. There, in his jockey shorts, a sharp bone protruding in a little bump from each of his shoulder blades, Nathaniel stood near the washing machine, trembling. A wash was already churning away.
“I had an accident, Grandpa,” he said, remorsefully.
“I see that,” Bernstein replied. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” said Nathaniel. “I’m OK. I’m sorry I made a mess.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bernstein said. “C’mon upstairs, I’ll give you something to wear.”
Back in the kitchen, Bernstein poured orange juice for the boy, who was swimming in his grandfather’s Detroit Senior Nationals T-shirt.
“Natey,” said Bernstein, “does this happen to you often?”
“Just every once in a while,” said the boy. “Dr. Holtzman tells Mommy it’s nothing to worry about.”
“She’s Mommy’s therapist. Mine, too.”
“You see a therapist?”
“For how long has this been?”
“Just once a week.”
“What do you talk about?”
“Mostly about my missing not having a father and stuff.”
“But you have a father.”
“You know what I mean.”
Again Bernstein had a desire to pick the boy up, load him into the Buick, and just drive off. They’d buy clothes later. He’d take over the job his own son had quit. Toward this child with his glasses and braces, this bed-wetter and sobber in his sleep, worried at age eight about his diet and already seeing a therapist, toward this small bundle of bones and anxieties, not at all the sort of grandchild he would ever have imagined having, Bernstein felt a stab of protective love such as he had never felt before in his life. Listening to his grandson recount his sessions with the therapist, Bernstein went foggy in the eye and had to hold back the desire to weep.
A handball game had been scheduled that afternoon, and so Bernstein took Nathaniel along with him to the Horwich Center. He introduced him to Levin and Brodsky and Melman.
“How are ya, Nate?” Brodsky asked. “Gonna be a handball player like your Grandpa?”
“Probably not,” the boy answered, humorlessly.
“I suppose a handball genius like your grandfather comes along only every four generations or so,” said Lou Levin.
“He’s teasing me, not you, Natey,” Bernstein said. “I’ll make him pay for it on the court in a minute or two.”
The four old athletes suited up for their game, slipping into their jocks and sweat socks, shorts and shoes, putting on their special bandages and supports: Bernstein his knee brace, Melman a pad for his left elbow, Brodsky an Ace bandage around the thigh, Levin his corset for a back that tended to go out on him.
After whapping the ball around for a half-hour or so, Bernstein took one low off the back wall with his left hand and zapped it, cross-court, into the crease of the front wall on the right—a winner, a zinger, a beauty. He looked up to the balcony where his grandson stood watching. Bernstein waved, the boy waved back, flashing a dark smile with his wired-up teeth. “Great shot, Grandpa,” the child yelled. Bernstein’s heart jumped.
Later that afternoon, driving Nathaniel home, impressed as always with the lushness and wealth of Sheridan Road along the North Shore, Bernstein could not help thinking of all the secret miseries, little and large, that must reside in these vast homes with their tennis courts, German cars, and healthy-looking daughters with suntanned legs. People passing his own ex-daughter-in-law’s house, with its careful landscaping, could not know that it sheltered a sweet and sadly screwed-up little boy.
“You know, Natey,” Bernstein said. “I was fourteen when my father died. So I know a little bit about living without a father. Maybe not as much as you, but a little bit.”
“Did you love him, Grandpa?”
“I guess I did, Natey, but you know, I never really saw all that much of him. He was from the old country, Russia, and he worked in the produce market on Fulton Street. He used to go to work at four in the morning. When he’d come back at four or so in the afternoon, he was pretty tired. He had a strong foreign accent, my father, your great-grandfather. He worked very hard. He didn’t have a lot of time for his children or for anything else but his work.”
“Did you miss him when he died?”
“I did, Natey, but I knew that life had to go on. Just like it has to go on for you. You drew a terrible card, having parents who couldn’t live together; and then another bad one when your Dad moved to Seattle. But, you know, you can’t let that knock you out. You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to survive so that some day, when you’re a father, you’ll never do anything to cause your own son or daughter to feel all the sad feelings you’ve had to feel.”
The boy didn’t reply. He was looking straight ahead. Bernstein silently cursed the seat-belt, which prevented him from pulling the boy closer, slipping an arm around him, kissing the top of his head.
“I can’t promise you things are going to work out, Natey. I wish I could. Life’s a tough pull, if you know what I mean. But you can’t let it beat you. Sooner or later, everyone is called on to be a man. Your problem is that you’ve been called on much earlier than most guys. But you’ve still got to try. You’ve got to give it your best shot, you know what I mean, Natey?”
Bernstein’s words suddenly sounded hollow to him, a combination of psychotherapist, rabbi, and Knute Rockne. In the end, after preaching to the boy, he, too, would drive away. Another bullshitter. Words weren’t going to help his grandson. This was a boy whose life was missing something no words could ever give back. If the sins of the fathers are supposed to be visited on the sons, Bernstein thought, maybe it also worked the other way around, and this was his turn to pay.
“Natey,” Bernstein said, as the Buick pulled up in the driveway before the boy’s house, “would you by any chance like me to teach you to play handball?”
“Would you have time?”
“I’ll find time. It’s a great game, and I’d really like you to learn how to play it.”
“I’m not sure I can do it, but I’ll try.”
“You can do it, Natey. It’s in your blood. Suppose I pick you up next Sunday morning. You’ll come with me to the Center and we’ll work out for an hour before my game with the boys. You’ll warm your grandpa up. How’s that sound?”
“It sounds like fun.”
The boy released his seat-belt buckle. Bernstein got out of the car with him, handing him the small suitcase from the back seat. He put out his hand, then pulled the boy toward him and hugged him, patting him gently on the back.
“Next Sunday at eleven. Bring your gyms and a pair of shorts.”
Holding his suitcase against his thin leg, the boy waved as Bernstein backed out of the driveway.
On Monday, at ten of twelve, just before breaking for lunch, Moe Bernstein called Dr. Arnold Meyers from a pay phone on Roosevelt Road to announce he was ready to schedule bypass surgery.
“No doubt about it, absolutely none, Mr. Bernstein,” the young cardiologist said, in a somewhat smarmy voice, “you’ve made the correct decision.”
A good deal less than certain himself, Bernstein hung up and stepped around the corner into Manny’s Delicatessen, where he ate a four-inch-high pastrami sandwich on a kaiser roll, a potato latke the size of a cake dish, and a heaping serving of rice pudding, all washed down by two cups of black coffee. Sure, OK, all right, let them cut out his whole heart. But if they thought they could change Moe Bernstein, they had another think coming.