Zuckerman Unbound (19 page)

Henry was still talking at seven a.m. when Carol had phoned. She didn't know what she'd done wrong and begged him to come home. Zuckerman picked up the extension to listen in. Henry was crying and Carol was pleading. “—you wanted plants like your grandmother had in her living room, I gave you plants. One day you said something about having had eggs in an eggcup as a kid on a vacation in Lakewood—the next morning I presented your boiled egg to you in an eggcup. And you were
a kid, so sweet, so delighted, so content from such a little thing. You couldn't wait until Leslie was old enough so you could begin to call him ‘son.' You
wait. You used to lie on the floor with him and let him chew on your ear and you were in seventh heaven. You used to call out the door when dinner was ready, ‘Son, come on home, time to eat.' You did it with Ruthie. You still do it with Ellen. You rush to do it when I say the food is ready. ‘Little girl, come on, supper.' Ruthie plays ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' on her violin, and you, you fool, you're in tears, you're so happy. Leslie tells you that everything is made out of molecules, and you're so proud you're repeating it all night to anybody who calls. Oh, Henry, you are the softest, gentlest, kindest, most touching man there is, in your heart you are really the simplest man in the world to satisfy—”

So Henry went home.

Softest, gentlest, kindest. Responsibility. Generosity. Devotion. That's how everybody spoke of Henry. I suppose if I were Henry with his heart I wouldn't jeopardize it, either. It probably feels very good being so good. Except when it doesn't. And that probably feels good in the end too. Self-sacrifice.

They were no longer the brothers they'd once been.

A hand came gently down on Nathan's shoulder—Essie's dapper, tanned, well-meaning husband. “Finish the story,” said Mr. Metz softly. “You're telling it beautiful.”

He had stopped to watch his emotional brother, but now he smiled and assured Mr. Metz that he would go on. It was the first time that Mr. Metz had ever referred to anything of Zuckerman's as a “story.” Zuckerman's short stories he called articles. “Your mother showed me your article in the magazine. Excellent, excellent.” He was famous for buttering everyone up, Essie for tearing them down. They were an act Zuckerman always tried to take in when he flew to see his parents in Florida. With his father as a third they could have gone on tour: Dr. Zuckerman was famous for fanatical devotion. F.D.R. topped the list, followed by Mrs. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, David Ben-Gurion, and the authors of
Fiddler on the Roof.

“You are their wordsmith,” Mr. Metz whispered. “You are their mouthpiece. You can say for everyone what is in their hearts.”

He turned back to his father: no closer to death, though just as far from life. “Dad, listen to me, if you can.” For whatever it was worth, Nathan smiled at him too. Last smile. “Dad, there's now a theory … if you can follow me.”

Essie: “He can follow you.”

“There is now a theory that when the fifty billion years are up, instead of everything coming to an end, instead of all the light going out because of all the energy fizzling away, gravity will take over. The force of gravity,” he repeated, as though it were the familiar name of one of the beloved grandchildren up in South Orange. “Just at the edge of the end, the whole thing will begin to contract, will begin to rush back toward the center. Do you follow me? This too will take fifty billion years, until it's all pulled down inside that original egg, into this compressed droplet that it all began with. And there, you see, heat and energy build up again, and bang, another stupendous explosion, and out it'll all go flying, a brand-new roll of the dice, a brand-new creation unlike any that's been. If the theory is correct, the universe will go on like this forever. If it's correct—and I want you to hear this, this is what I want you to listen to very carefully, this is what we all want to tell you—”

“That's the ticket,” said Mr. Metz.

“If it's correct, the universe
been going on forever: fifty billion years out, fifty billion years back. Imagine it. A universe being reborn and reborn and reborn, without end.”

He did not, at this point, report to his father the objection to this theory as he had understood it on the plane ride down, a considerable objection, a crushing objection really, having to do with the density of matter in the universe being marginally insufficient for the friendly, dependable force of gravity to take over and halt the expansion before the last of the fires went out. If not for this insufficiency, the whole thing might indeed oscillate to and fro without end. But according to the paperback still in his coat pocket, right now they couldn't find what they needed anywhere, and the chances for no ending didn't look good.

But this information his father could live without. Of all that Dr. Zuckerman had so far lived without, and that Nathan would have preferred for him to live
knowledge of the missing density factor was the least of it. Enough for now of what is and isn't so. Enough science, enough art, enough of fathers and sons.

A major new development in the life of Nathan and Victor Zuckerman, but then the coronary-care unit of Miami Biscayne Hospital isn't the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as anyone who's ever been there doesn't have to be told.

Though Dr. Zuckerman didn't officially expire until the next morning, it was here that he uttered his last words. Word. Barely audible, but painstakingly pronounced. “Bastard,” he said.

Meaning who? Lyndon Johnson? Hubert Humphrey? Richard Nixon? Meaning He who had not seen fit to bestow upon His own universe that measly bit of missing matter, that one lousy little hydrogen atom for each volume of ten cubic feet? Or to bestow upon Dr. Zuckerman, ardent moralist from grade school on, the simple reward of a healthy old age and a longer life? But then, when he spoke his last, it wasn't to his correspondence folders that he was looking, or upward at the face of his invisible God, but into the eyes of the apostate son.

*   *   *

The funeral was a tremendous strain. There was the heat, for one thing. Over the Miami cemetery, the sun made its presence known to Zuckerman as no Yahweh ever had; had it been the sun they were all addressing, he might have entered into the death rites of his people with something more than just respect for his mother's feelings. The two sons had to support her between them from the moment they left the air-conditioned limousine and started down between a row of twirling sprinklers to the burial plot. Dr. Zuckerman had bought two plots, for himself and for his wife, six years earlier, the same week he'd bought their condominium in Harbor Beach Retirement Village. Her knees gave way by the grave, but as she had been worn down by her husband's illness to little more than a hundred pounds, it was no problem for Henry and Nathan to keep her on her feet until the coffin was lowered and they could take refuge from the heat. Behind him, Zuckerman heard Essie tell Mr. Metz, “All the words, all the sermons, all the quotations, and no matter what they say, it's still final.” Earlier, stepping from the limousine, she had turned to Zuckerman to give her assessment of the journey out for the man in the hearse. “You take a ride and you don't get to see the scenery.” Yes, Essie and he were the ones who'd say anything.

Zuckerman, his brother, and the rabbi were, by decades, the youngest men present. The rest of them wilting there were either his parents' elderly neighbors from Harbor Beach or Newark cronies of his father's who'd also retired to Florida. A few had even been boys with Dr. Zuckerman in the Central Ward before the First World War. Most of them Zuckerman hadn't seen since his childhood, when they'd been men not much older than he was now. He listened to the familiar voices coming out of the lined and jowled and fallen faces, thinking, If only I were still writing
What memories those tones touched off—the Charlton Street baths and the Lakewood vacations, the fishing expeditions to the Shark River inlet down the shore! Before the funeral everybody had come up to put their arms around him. Nobody mentioned the book; probably none of them had read it. Of all the obstacles in life that these retired salesmen and merchants and manufacturers had struggled with and overcome, reading through a book was not yet one. Just as well. Not even the young rabbi made mention of
to the author. Perhaps out of respect for the dead. All the better. He was not there as “the author”—the author was back in Manhattan. Here he was Nathan. Sometimes life offers no more powerful experience than just such a divestment.

He recited the Mourners' Kaddish. Over a sinking coffin, even a nonbeliever needs some words to chant, and
“Yisgadal v'yiskadash…”
made more sense to him than “Rage against the dying of the light.” If ever there was a man to bury as a Jew it was his father. Nathan would probably wind up letting them bury him as one too. Better as that than as a bohemian.

“My two boys,” said his mother, as they lifted her along the path back to the car. “My two tall strong handsome boys.”

Returning through Miami to the apartment, the limousine stopped for a light just by a supermarket; the women shoppers, most of them middle-aged and Cuban, were wearing halters and shorts, and high-heeled sandals. A lot of protoplasm to take in straight from the post-retirement village of the dead. He saw Henry looking too. A halter had always seemed to Zuckerman a particularly provocative piece of attire—cloth not quite clothing—but the only thought inspired by these women oozing flesh was of his father decomposing. He'd been unable to think of much else since earlier in the day when the family had taken seats together in the first row at the Temple and the young rabbi—bearded very like Che Guevara—began to extol from the altar the virtues of the deceased. The rabbi praised him not simply as father, husband, and family man, but as “a political being engaged by all of life and anguished by the suffering of mankind.” He spoke of the many magazines and newspapers Dr. Zuckerman had subscribed to and studied, the countless letters of protest he had painstakingly composed, he spoke of his enthusiasm for American democracy, his passion for Israel's survival, his revulsion against the carnage in Vietnam, his fears for the Jews in the Soviet Union, and meanwhile all Zuckerman was thinking was the word “extinguished.” All that respectable moralizing, all that repressive sermonizing, all those superfluous prohibitions, that furnace of pieties, that Lucifer of rectitude, that Hercules of misunderstanding, extinguished.

Strange. It was supposed to be just the opposite. But never had he contemplated his father's life with less sentiment. It was as though they were burying the father of some other sons. As for the character being depicted by the rabbi, well, nobody had ever gotten Dr. Zuckerman quite so wrong. Maybe the rabbi was only trying to distance him from the father in
but from the portrait he painted you would have thought Dr. Zuckerman was Schweitzer. All that was missing was the organ and the lepers. But why not? Whom did it harm? It was a funeral, not a novel, let alone the Last Judgment.

What made it such a strain? Aside from the unrelenting heat and their lost, defenseless, seemingly legless mother? Aside from the pitiful sight of those old family friends, looking down into the slot where they too must be deposited, thirty, sixty, ninety days hence—the kibitzing giants out of his earliest memories, so frail now, some of them, that despite the healthy suntans, you could have pushed them in with his father and they couldn't have crawled out…? Aside from all this, there were his emotions. The strain of feeling no grief. The surprise. The shame. The exultation. The shame of that. But all the grieving over his father's body had taken place when Nathan was twelve and fifteen and twenty-one: the grief over all his father had been dead to while living. From that grief the death was a release.

By the time he boarded the Newark plane with Henry, it felt like a release from even more. He couldn't entirely explain—or manage to control—this tide of euphoria sweeping him away from all inane distractions. It was very likely the same heady feeling of untrammeled freedom that people like Mary and André had been expecting him to enjoy from becoming a household name. In fact it had rather more to do with the four-day strain of Florida, with the wholly un-inane exigencies of arranging for the burial of one parent and the survival of the other, that had put the household name and the Hallelujah Chorus behind him. He had become himself again—though with something unknowable added: he was no longer any man's son. Forget fathers, he told himself. Plural.

Forget kidnappers too. During the four days away, his answering service had taken no message from either an ominous palooka or an addled Alvin Pepler. Had his
spent into Zuckerman's handkerchief the last of his enraged and hate-filled adoration? Was that the end of this barrage? Or would Zuckerman's imagination beget still other Peplers conjuring up novels out of his—novels disguising themselves as actuality itself, as nothing less than real? Zuckerman the stupendous sublimator spawning Zuckermaniacs! A book, a piece of fiction bound between two covers, breeding living fiction exempt from all the subjugations of the page, breeding fiction unwritten, unreadable, unaccountable and uncontainable, instead of doing what Aristotle promised from art in Humanities 2 and offering moral perceptions to supply us with the knowledge of what is good or bad. Oh, if only Alvin had studied Aristotle with him at Chicago! If only he could understand that it is the writers who are supposed to move the readers to pity and fear, not the other way around!

He had never so enjoyed a takeoff in his life. He let his knees fall open and, as the plane went gunning like a hot rod down the runway, felt the driving level force of the fuselage as though it were his own. And when it lifted off—lifted like some splendid, ostentatious afterthought—Zuckerman suddenly pictured Mussolini hanging by his heels. He'd never forgotten that photograph on the front page of the papers. Who could, of his generation of American youngsters? But to remember the vengeful undoing of that vile tyrant after the death of your own law-abiding, anti-Fascist, nonviolent father, chief air-raid warden of Keer Avenue and lifetime champion of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League? Reminder to the outer man of the inner man he's dealing with.

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