Zuckerman Unbound (18 page)

Though Lyndon Johnson turned out to have neither the time nor—in Mrs. Zuckerman's phrase—”the common decency” to respond to the letters he received from the lifelong Democrat ailing in Florida, Dr. Zuckerman went on dictating some three or four pages to his wife just about every other day, lecturing the President on American history, Jewish history, and his own personal philosophy. After the stroke that had wrung all coherence from his speech, he seemed not to have any idea what was going on in his room, let alone in the Oval Office, where his arch-enemy Nixon was now ruining things; but then slow improvement began once again—his will, the doctors told Mrs. Zuckerman, was a wonder to them. Mr. Metz came to visit and to read aloud to him from
The New York Times,
and then one afternoon Dr. Zuckerman managed to communicate to his wife that he wanted his correspondence folders brought to him from the table beside the wheelchair at home. She would, after this, sit there by his side and turn the sheets of paper, so he could see all he had once written and would live to write again. At his request, she began to show the letters to the doctors and nurses who stopped by his bed to attend him. He was regaining his clarity, he was even beginning to demonstrate some of his old “fire,” when one day, only moments after Mr. Metz had left, just as Mrs. Zuckerman had arrived to take up the afternoon shift, he dropped into unconsciousness and had to be rushed to the hospital. Mrs. Zuckerman found herself inside the ambulance with the correspondence folders in her hands. “Anything, anything,” she said, explaining her state of mind to Nathan later, “anything to give him the will to go on.” Zuckerman wondered if to herself, at least, she was able to say, “Enough, let it be over. I can't endure his enduring like this anymore.”

But then, she was the wife whose every thought the man had been thinking for her since she was twenty years old, not the son who'd been fighting his every thought since he was younger even than that. In the plane flying down, Zuckerman had been remembering the summer just twenty years ago, that August before he'd left for college, when he read three thousand pages of Thomas Wolfe straight through on the screened-in back porch of his family's stifling home—stifling that August as much because of the father as of the weather. “He believed himself thus at the center of life; he believed the mountains rimmed the heart of the world; he believed that from all the chaos of accident the inevitable event came at the inexorable moment to add to the sum of his life.” Inevitable. Inexorable. “Oh yes!” noted stifled Nathan in the margin of his copy of
Look Homeward, Angel,
unaware that the resounding privative clang of the Latinate adjectives wasn't necessarily so stirring when you ran into the inevitable and the inexorable at the center of your life instead of on the back porch. All he wanted at sixteen was to become a romantic genius like Thomas Wolfe and leave little New Jersey and all the shallow provincials therein for the deep emancipating world of Art. As it turned out, he had taken them all with him.

Zuckerman's father got “better” and then worse again all through the first night Nathan was there, and most of the following day. Sometimes when he came to, he seemed to his wife to be inclining his head toward the letters in the folder beside the bed; she took this to mean that he had something in mind to tell the new President. Inasmuch, thought Zuckerman, as he still had a mind. She wasn't making much sense anymore herself—she'd had no sleep for over twenty-four hours, and little during the four preceding years—and finally it was easier than not for Zuckerman to pretend that she might be right. He drew a yellow pad out of his briefcase and printed in large letters “STOP THE WAR”; below it, in his own hand, he signed “Dr. Victor Zuckerman.” But when he showed the page to his father it evoked no response. Dr. Zuckerman made sounds from time to time, but they were barely distinguishable as words. They were more like the squeals of a mouse. It was awful.

At dusk, after Dr. Zuckerman had again been unconscious for several hours, the resident took Nathan aside and told him it would be over in a few hours. He would silently slip away, the doctor said, but then the doctor didn't know Nathan's father the way the family did. In fact, near the end, as sometimes happens to you if you're lucky—or unlucky—the dying man opened his eyes and seemed suddenly to see them all and to see them together, and to understand as well as anyone in that room exactly what was up. This was awful too, another way. It was more awful. His soft, misty gaze somehow grew enormous, bending their images and drawing them to him like a convex mirror. His chin was quivering—not from the frustrated effort of speech but from the recognition that all effort was pointless now. And it had been the most effortful life. Being Victor Zuckerman was no job you took lightly. Day shifts, night shifts, weekends, evenings, vacations—for sheer man-hours, not so different from being his son.

Gathered around him, when he came to, were Henry, Nathan, their mother, Cousin Essie, and the newcomer to the family, Essie's kindly, genial husband Mr. Metz, a retired accountant of seventy-five, who stood benignly apart from their ancient entanglements, reproaching no one for anything and thinking mostly about playing bridge. Each was only to have stayed with Dr. Zuckerman for five minutes, but because Nathan was Nathan, hospital rules had been suspended by the physician in charge.

They all closed in to look down at that terrified, imploring gaze. Essie, at seventy-four still nobody to tamper with, took hold of his hand and began reminiscing about the winepress in the cellar of the house on Mercer Street, and how all the cousins used to love to watch Dr. Zuckerman's father crush the Concord grapes there in the fall. She had as big and commanding a voice as ever, and when she moved on from Victor's father's winepress to Victor's mother's mandel bread, a nurse came to the open door with a finger to her lips to remind Essie that people were sick.

Tucked way down into the bed sheets, Dr. Zuckerman could have been a frightened four-year-old listening to a story to put him to sleep, but for his mustache, and what three strokes and a coronary had done to his face. His gray, imploring eyes looked steadily back at Essie as she recalled how the century had begun for the new family in America. Was it getting through to him—the old winepress, the new American children, the sweet-smelling cellar, the crunchy mandel bread, and the mother, the revered and simple mother who baked the mandel bread? Suppose he could remember it all, every cherished sensation that had been his in the life he was leaving—was that necessarily the easiest way to go? Having buried her share, maybe Essie knew what she was doing. Not that not knowing had ever worried her before. Precious time was passing, but Essie wasn't one to stint on details, nor did Nathan see any way to stop her now that she had the floor. Besides, he couldn't hold anyone in check anymore—he couldn't hold himself in check anymore. After a day and a half, he was finally in tears. There were tubes to deliver oxygen to his father's lungs, tubes to drain the urine from his bladder, tubes to drip dextrose into his veins, and none of them would make the least difference. For several minutes it was he who felt like the four-year-old, discovering for the first time how utterly helpless his protector could be.

“Remember Uncle Markish, Victor?”

From Essie's vantage point, the homeless rascal Markish had been the family character; from Dr. Zuckerman's (and his older son's—cf. “Higher Education”), it had been Essie. Uncle Markish painted their houses and slept on their stairwells, and then picked up and went off one day in his coveralls to Shanghai, China. “You'll wind up like Markish,” was what they would tell the children in that clan who came home from school with any grade lower than B. If you wanted to leave Jersey for China, you did it through the Oriental Studies Department of a top-flight school and not with nothing to your name but a paint bucket and brush. In their family either you did things right, preferably as a D.D.S. or an M.D. or an L.L.B. or a Ph.D., or you might as well not do them at all. Law laid down by the son of the toiling, uncomplaining mother who made the mandel bread and the driven, impregnable father who pressed the wine.

On the airplane down, Zuckerman had read through an illustrated paperback for laymen about the creation of the universe and the evolution of life. The author was a NASA scientist who had lately achieved celebrity by explaining elementary astronomy once a week on public television. Zuckerman bought the book off a rack at Newark Airport after meeting Henry for the flight to Miami. There were books from his boxes that might have meant more to him on his way to see his father die, but he couldn't get at them and so left the apartment for Newark empty-handed. What did those books have to do with his father anyway? If they'd ever meant to his father what the discovery of them had meant at school to him, it would have been another household, another childhood, another life. So, instead of thinking the thoughts of the great thinkers on the subject of death, he thought his own. There were more than enough for a three-hour flight: plans for his mother's future, memories of his father's life, the origin of his own mixed emotions.
Mixed Emotions
had been the title of his second book. It had confused his father no less than
Higher Education,
his first. Why should emotions be mixed? They weren't when he was a boy.

Zuckerman had reached Henry just as he'd gotten back to the office from a conference in Montreal. He hadn't heard the news, and when Zuckerman gave it to him—“This looks like it”—Henry emitted the most wrenching sob. Another reason Zuckerman wouldn't be needing anything inspirational to read on the flight down. He had a kid brother to tend to, emotionally more fragile than he liked to let on.

But Henry arrived at the airport looking nothing like a kid, in a dark pinstriped suit and carrying in his monogrammed briefcase the back issues of a dental journal he meant to catch up on. And so Zuckerman, a little let down at not having to buck him up, and a little amused at feeling a little let down—stunned a little, too, that he should have been expecting a ten-year-old child to be in his charge flying south—Zuckerman wound up reading about the origin of everything.

As a result, when it was his turn to say goodbye to his father, he did not hark back to Grandma's mandel bread. Grandma's mandel bread had been wonderful enough, but Essie had covered it as thoroughly as anyone ever could, and so instead Zuckerman explained to him the big-bang theory, as he'd come to understand it the day before. He would try to get through to him how long things had been burning up and burning out: maybe it would get through to the family as well. It wasn't just a father who was dying, or a son, or a cousin, or a husband: it was the whole creation, whatever comfort that gave.

Back before Grandma's mandel bread then. Before even Grandma.

“I was reading on the plane about the beginning of the universe. Dad, do you hear me?”

“He hears, don't worry,” said Essie. “He hears everything now. He's never missed a trick in his life. Right, Victor?”

“Not the world,” said Nathan, to his father's searching eyes, “but the universe. Scientists now believe it began between ten and twenty billion years ago.”

His hand rested lightly on his father's arm. It seemed impossible—there was nothing to that arm anymore. As little children the Zuckerman boys would watch with delight while their father pretended to inflate his biceps by blowing air in through his thumbs. Well, they were gone now, Papa's Popeye biceps, vanished like the primordial egg of hydrogen energy in which the universe was conceived … Yes, in spite of a growing sense that he was engaged in a flagrant act of pretentious, useless, professorial foolishness, Zuckerman lectured on: the original egg that one fine day, reaching a temperature of thousands of billions of degrees, blew itself wide open, and like an erupting furnace forged on the spot all the elements that would ever be. “All of this,” he informed his father, “in the first half hour of that very first day.”

Dr. Zuckerman registered no surprise. Why should he? What was the first half hour of the first day of Creation to the last half hour of the last day of his life?

Oh, the mandel bread was a much better idea. Homely, tangible, and to the point of Victor Zuckerman's real life and a Jewish family deathbed scene. But the oration on mandel bread was Essie being Essie, and this, however foolish, was himself being himself. Proceed, Nathan, to father the father. Last chance to tell the man what he still doesn't know. Last chance ever to make him see it all another way. You'll change him yet.

“—the universe expanding outward ever since, the galaxies all rushing away, out into space, from the impact of that first big bang. And it will go on like this, the universe blowing outward and outward, for fifty billion years.”

No response here, either.

“Go on, he's listening.” Essie, giving instructions.

“I'm afraid,” he told her softly, “it's hard enough to grasp when you're on top of the world—”

“Don't worry about it. Go on. This family has always been smarter than you think.”

“I grant that, Esther. It's my stupidity I was thinking about.”

“Talk to
him,
Nathan.” It was his mother, in tears. “Essie, I beg you, let sleeping dogs lie, at least tonight.”

Nathan looked across the bed to Henry. His brother had a tight hold on one of his father's hands, but he too was running with tears and didn't look in any shape to say anything by way of farewell. The inexpressible love breaking out, or the blockaded hatred? Henry was the good son, but it didn't come cheap, or so Zuckerman was inclined to believe. Henry was the tallest, darkest, and handsomest by far of all the Zuckerman men, a swarthy, virile, desert Zuckerman whose genes, uniquely for their clan, seemed to have traveled straight from Judea to New Jersey without the Diaspora detour. He had a light, mellifluous voice, and the most kindly, gentle, doctorly manner, and invariably his patients fell in love with him. And he fell in love with some of his patients. Zuckerman alone knew this. Some two years earlier Henry had driven to New York in the middle of the night prepared to sleep in Nathan's study in Nathan's pajamas because he could not bear any longer to sleep in the same bed with his wife. Watching Carol undress for bed had caused him to remember (not that he had reason to forget) the body of the patient whom he had himself undressed only a few hours earlier in a north Jersey motel, and he fled to New York at two a.m., without even taking time to pull socks on under his loafers. He sat up all night telling his big brother about his mistress, sounding to Zuckerman like some miserable, yearning, tenderized lover out of the great nineteenth-century literature of adultery.

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