Zuckerman Unbound (20 page)

Of course for some seventy-two hours now he had been wondering if his father's last word could really have been “Bastard.” Under the strain of that long vigil his hearing may not have been too subtle. Bastard? To mean what?
You were never my real son.
But was this father equal to such unillusioned thought, ever? Though maybe that's what he read in my eyes:
Henry's your boy, Papa, not me.
But from my two eyes? No, no, some things I'm not unillusioned enough for either, out of the safety of the study. Maybe he just said “Faster.” Telling Death his job the way he told his wife how to roll the winter rugs and Henry how to do homework when he dawdled. “Vaster”? Unlikely. Nathan's cosmology lecture notwithstanding, for his father, in dying as in living, there were still but two points of reference in all the vastness: the family and Hitler. You could do worse, but you could also do better. Better. Of course! Not “Bastard” but “Better.” First principle, final precept. Not more light but more virtue. He had only been reminding them to be better boys. “Bastard” was the writer's wishful thinking, if not quite the son's. Better scene, stronger medicine, a final repudiation by Father. Still, when Zuckerman wasn't writing he was also only human, and he'd just as soon the scene wasn't so wonderful. Kafka once wrote, “I believe that we should read only those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?” Agreed, as to books. But as for life, why invent a blow to the head where none was intended? Up with art, but down with mythomania.

Mythomania? Alvin Pepler. The very word is like a bell that tolls thee back to me.

That Pepler's credentials were in order—if nothing else—Essie had confirmed for Zuckerman the night after the funeral, when everyone else had gone to sleep. The two were in her kitchen eating the remains of the cinnamon cake served the guests earlier in the day. For as long as Zuckerman could remember, Essie was supposed to be eating herself into an early grave. Also smoking herself to death. She was one of many his father could always find time to lecture about the right way to live. “He used to sit at the window,” Essie told Nathan, “sit there in that wheelchair and call down to the people parking their cars. They didn't park right to suit him. Just yesterday I ran into a woman who your mother is still afraid to talk to because of your old man. Old Mrs. Oxburg. She is from Cincinnati, a multimillionairess ten times over. When your little mother spots her coming, she runs the other way. One day Victor saw Mrs. Oxburg sitting in the lobby by an air conditioner, minding her own business, and he told her to move, she was going to give herself pneumonia. She said to him, ‘Please, Dr. Zuckerman, where I sit is none of your business.' But, no, he wouldn't accept that for an answer. Instead he started telling her how our little cousin Sylvia died in 1918 of influenza, and how beautiful and smart she was, and what it did to Aunt Gracie. Your mother couldn't stop him. Whenever she tried just wheeling him away, he threw a fit. She had to go to the doctor to get Valium, and the Valium I had to keep for her here because if he found it he would start shouting at her about becoming a drug addict.”

“He went a little over the top in that chair, Essie. We all know that.”

“Poor Hubert Humphrey. I pity that poor bastard, if he read your father's postal cards. What the hell could Humphrey do, Nathan? He wasn't President, Vietnam wasn't his idea. He was as flummoxed as the next guy. But you couldn't tell that to Victor.”

“Well, Humphrey's torment's over now.”

“So is Victor's.”

“That too.”

“Okay, Nathan—let's move on. You and me are not lilies of the valley. This is my chance to get the dirt, and without your mother in between, making believe you still use your little putz just to run water through. I want to hear about you and the movie star. What happened? You dropped her or she dropped you?”

“I'll tell you all about the movie star, first tell me about the Peplers.”

“From Newark? With the son, you mean? Alvin?”

“Right. Alvin from Newark. What do you have on him?”

“Well, he was on television. They had those quiz programs, remember? I think he won twenty-five grand. He had a big write-up in the
Star-Ledger.
This is years ago already. He was in the Marines before that. Didn't they award him a Purple Heart? I think he got it in the head. Maybe it was the foot. Anyway, when he came on they used to play ‘From the Halls of Montezuma' in his honor. What do you want to know about him for?”

“I ran into him in New York. He introduced himself on the street. I would say from our meeting that it was the head, not the foot.”

“Oh yeah? A screwball? Well, he was supposed to know his Americana inside out—that's how he won the dough. But of course they gave them the answers anyway. That was the big scandal. For a while he was all anybody in Newark talked about. I went to high school with his Aunt Lottie back in the year one, so I followed every week how he came out. Look, everybody did. Then he lost and that was that. Now he's nuts?”

“A little, I thought.”

“Well, that's what they tell me about you, you know. And not just a little.”

“What do you tell them?”

“I say it's true. I say he has to wear a straitjacket all the way to the bank. That shuts them up. How about the movie star? Who dumped who?”

“I dumped her.”

“Idiot. She's gorgeous and must be worth a fortune. For Christ's sake, Nathan, why?”

“She's gorgeous and worth a fortune, but not of our faith, Esther.”

“I don't remember that stopping you before. I thought, myself, it egged you on. So who are you driving wild now?”

“Golda Meir.”

“Oh, you're a sly little fox, Nathan, behind those harmless professor's glasses. You were always taking it in, even as a kid. There was your brother, the goody-good patrol boy who never stayed up past his bedtime, and there was you, thinking to yourself what a bunch of stupid bastards we all were. Still, I have to hand it to you, you have put something over on the public with this book. If I were you, I wouldn't listen to one goddamn thing they say.”

*   *   *

The seat-belt sign had flashed off, and Henry had tilted his seat back and was sipping the martini he'd ordered at takeoff. He was hardly what you'd call a drinking man, and in fact was taking down the martini like a slightly noxious medicinal preparation. His complexion seemed somehow darkly sickish that morning—rather than darkly romantic—as though cinders had been ground into his skin. Zuckerman couldn't remember seeing his brother so emotionally done in since a weekend thirteen years before, when he'd come down from Cornell as a sophomore and announced he was giving up chemistry to become a “drama major.” He was fresh from appearing as the Ragpicker in
The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Henry had gotten the lead role in the first college production he'd tried out for, and now he spoke with reverence at the dinner table of the two new influences on his life: John Carradine, who had played the Ragpicker on Broadway, and whom he hoped to emulate on the stage (in appearance as well—he'd already lost ten pounds trying), and Timmy, the young student director of the Cornell
Madwoman.
Timmy had painted flats the summer before in Provincetown, where his parents had a vacation house. Timmy was sure he could get Henry work there too, “in stock.” “And when is this?” asked Mrs. Zuckerman, who was still abashed at why he'd gotten so thin. “Timmy says next summer,” answered Henry. “Next June.” “And what about the Chernicks?” his father asked. The previous two summers Henry had worked as a waterfront counselor for two Newark gym-teacher brothers who owned a camp for Jewish children in the Adirondacks. The job had come to someone as young as Henry as a special favor from the Chernicks to his father. “What about your responsibility to Lou and Buddy Chernick?” he was asked. In the way of vulnerable, ceremonious, intelligent children who all their lives have been delivering obedience in the form of streaming emotion, Henry couldn't give his father the kind of answer he might have come up with in a course in ethics—he ran from the table instead. Because all the way down from Ithaca he'd been expecting the worst—because for three days he'd been unable to eat, in dread of this very meal—he collapsed before it even got half as bad as he'd predicted it would to Timmy. The two boys had for days rehearsed the scene together in their dorm, Timmy playing Dr. Zuckerman like a miniature Lear, and Henry as a rather outspoken version of himself—Henry playing at being Nathan.

Only three hours into the visit, and Nathan had to be phoned in Manhattan—secretly, and tearfully, by his mother—and told to come right home to make peace between the Ragpicker and his father. Carrying messages back and forth between Henry—locked in his bedroom quoting Timmy and Sinclair Lewis's
Babbitt
—and his father—in the living room enumerating the opportunities denied to him in 1918 that life was now offering to Henry on a silver platter—Nathan was able to negotiate a settlement by three a.m. All decisions about Henry's career were to be postponed for twelve months. He could continue to act in student plays but at the same time he must continue to carry on as a chemistry major and to fulfill his “obligation,” if only for one more summer, to the Chernicks. Then, next year, they would all sit down together to reassess the situation … a meeting that never took place, because by the following fall Henry was engaged to Carol Goff, a girl judged by Henry's father to have “a head on her shoulders,” and no more was heard of John Carradine or of Timmy, either.
Timmy!
The young drama student's Christian name couldn't have sounded more Christian, or more seditious, as enunciated by their father in the heat of the fray. During that memorable Friday-night family battle back in 1956, Nathan had himself dared to counter at one point with the sacred name of Paul Muni, but “
Timmy!
” his father cried, like a war whoop, “
Timmy!
” and Nathan saw that not even Paul Muni as wily Clarence Darrow, not even Paul Muni live in their living room as patient Louis Pasteur could have persuaded Dr. Zuckerman that a Jew in pancake makeup on the stage was probably no more or less ridiculous in the eyes of God than a Jew in a dental smock drilling a tooth. Then Henry met sweet and studious Carol Goff, a scholarship girl, and gave her his ZBT pin—and so the argument ended for good. Zuckerman figured that was why he'd given her the pin, though officially, he knew, it was to commemorate the loss of Carol's virginity earlier that night. When Henry tried the next semester to get the pin back, it so upset Carol and her family that two weeks later Henry changed his mind and got engaged to Carol instead. And, in their senior year, the upshot of Henry gently trying to break the engagement was their marriage the month after graduation. No, Henry simply couldn't bear to see this kindly, thoughtful, devoted, harmless, self-sacrificing creature suffering so, and suffering so over him. He couldn't bear to make anybody who loved him suffer. He couldn't be that selfish or that cruel.

In the days after the funeral, Henry had several times simply begun to sob in the middle of a conversation—in the middle of a sentence having nothing even to do with the death of their father—and in order to collect himself, went out to take a long walk alone. One morning only minutes after Henry had fled the apartment, unshaven and again close to tears, Zuckerman called Essie in to keep his mother company at breakfast and ran downstairs after his brother. Henry seemed so disturbed, so in need of consolation. But when Zuckerman came out of the lobby onto the sunny esplanade beside the pool, he saw Henry already out on the street, making a call in a phone booth. So, another love affair. That torment too.
The Crisis,
thought Zuckerman,
in the Life of a Husband.

In Miami Beach, Zuckerman had refrained from bringing up the deathbed scene with his brother. For one thing, their mother was nearly always within earshot, and when he and Henry were alone, either Henry was too unhappy to talk to or they were making plans for their mother's future. To their dismay, she had refused to come up with them to Jersey to stay awhile with Henry and Carol and the kids. Maybe later, but for now she insisted on remaining “close” to her husband. Essie was going to sleep on the living-room sofa bed so that their mother wouldn't be alone at night, and her canasta-club friends had volunteered to take turns staying with the grieving widow during the day. Zuckerman told Essie it might be wise if Flora Sobol was excused from duty. None of them was going to relish a piece in the
Miami Herald
entitled “I Sat Shiva with Carnovsky's Mother.”

On the plane he had his first chance to learn what Henry thought about what he still couldn't puzzle out for himself. “Tell me something. What was Dad's last word that night? Did he say ‘Better'?”

“‘Better'? Could be. I thought he said ‘Batter.'”

Zuckerman smiled. As in “Batter my heart, three-person'd God,” or “Batter up!”? “You sure?”

“Sure? No. But I thought it was because of Essie talking about the old days and Grandma. I thought he was all the way back, seeing Grandma over the mandel bread.”

Well, there was Tolstoy, thought Zuckerman, to support Henry's conjecture. “To become a tiny boy, close to mother.” What Tolstoy had written only days before his own death. “Mama, hold me, baby me…”

“I thought he said ‘Bastard,'” Zuckerman told him.

Now Henry smiled. The smile his patients fell in love with. “No, I didn't hear that.”

“I thought he might be writing one last letter to Lyndon Johnson.”

“Oh, Christ,” said Henry. “The letters,” and went back unsmilingly to sipping his drink. Henry had received his share: after the near-defection at Cornell, a letter a week beginning “Dear Son.”

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