Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (7 page)

“That's good, Ma. If you want to put it that way, that's all right. Though you don't even have to say that much if you don't want to. You can just laugh, if you like.”

“In his face?”

“No, no—no need to insult anyone. That wouldn't be a good idea either. I mean, just lightly laugh it off. Or say nothing at all. Silence is fine, and most effective.”

“All right.”

“‘Mrs. Zuckerman?'”

“‘Yes?'”

“‘The whole world wants to know. They've read in your boy's book all about Gilbert Carnovsky and his mother, and now they want to know from you, how does it feel to be so famous?'”

“‘I couldn't tell you. Thank you for your interest in my son.'”

“Ma, good enough. But the point I'm making is that you can say goodbye any time. They never quit, these people, so all you have to do is say goodbye and hang up.”

“‘Goodbye.'”

“‘But wait a minute, not yet, please, Mrs. Zuckerman! I've got to come back with this assignment. I've got a new baby, a new house, I have bills to pay—a story about Nathan could mean a big raise.'”

“‘Oh, I'm sure you'll get one anyway.'”

“Mother, that is excellent. Keep going.”

“‘Thank you for calling. Goodbye.'”

“‘Mrs. Zuckerman, just two minutes off the record?'”

“‘Thank you, goodbye.'”

“‘
One
minute. One
line.
Won't you please, Mrs. Z., one little line for my article about your remarkable son?'”

“‘Goodbye, goodbye now.'”

“Ma, the truth is, you don't even have to keep saying goodbye. That's hard for a courteous person to understand. But by this time you could go ahead and hang up without feeling that you've slighted anyone.”

Over dessert he put her through it again, just to be sure she was ready. Any wonder that by midnight she needed a Valium?

He knew nothing about how disturbing a visit it had been until his last trip to Miami just three weeks ago. First they went to visit his father in the nursing home. Dr. Zuckerman could not really speak comprehensibly since the last stroke—just half-formed words and truncated syllables—and there were times when he didn't know at first who she was. He looked at her and moved his mouth to say “Molly,” the name of his dead sister. That you could no longer tell just how much of anything he knew was what made her daily visits such hell. Nonetheless, she seemed that day to be looking better than she had in years, if not quite the curly-headed young madonna cuddling her somber first-born son in the 1935 seaside photograph framed on his father's bed table, certainly not so done-in as to frighten you about
her
health. Ever since the trial of caring for his father had begun for her four years back—four years during which he wouldn't let her out of his sight—she had been looking far less like the energetic and indomitable mother from whom Nathan had inherited the lively burnish of his eyes (and the mild comedy of his profile) than like his gaunt, silent, defeated grandmother, the spectral widow of the tyrannical shopkeeper, her father.

When they got home, she had to lie down on the sofa with a cold cloth on her forehead.

“You look better, though, Ma.”

“It's easier with him there. I hate to say it, Nathan. But I'm just beginning to feel a little like myself.” He had been in the nursing home now for some twelve weeks.

“Of course it's easier,” said her son. “That was the idea.”

“Today was not a good day for him. I'm sorry you saw him like this.”

“That's all right.”

“But he knew who you were, I'm sure.”

Zuckerman wasn't so sure, but said, “I know he did.”

“I only wish he knew how wonderful you're doing. All this success. But it's really too much, dear, to explain in his condition.”

“And it's all right too if he doesn't know. The best thing is to let him rest comfortably.”

Here she lowered the cloth over her eyes. She was beginning to weep, and didn't want him to see.

“What is it, Ma?”

“It's that I'm so relieved, really, about you. I never told you, I kept it to myself, but the day you flew down to tell me all that was going to happen because of the book, I thought—well, I thought you were headed for a terrible fall. I thought maybe it was because you didn't have Daddy now as somebody who was always there behind you—that you didn't on your own know which way to turn. And then Mr. Metz”—the new husband of Dr. Zuckerman's old cousin Essie—”he said it sounded to him like ‘delusions of grandeur.' He doesn't mean any harm, Mr. Metz—he goes every week to read Daddy ‘The News in Review' from the Sunday paper. He's a wonderful man, but that was his opinion. And then Essie started in. She said that all his life your daddy has had delusions of grandeur—that even when they were children together he wasn't happy unless he was telling everybody how to live and butting in on what was none of his business. This is Essie, mind you, with that mouth she has on her. I said to her, ‘Essie, let's leave your argument with Victor out of this. Since the man can't even talk anymore to make himself understood, maybe that should put a stop to it.' But what they said scared the daylights out of me, sweetheart. I thought, Maybe it's true—something in his makeup that he got from his father. But I should have known better. My big boy is nobody's fool. The way you are taking all this is just wonderful. People down here ask me, ‘What is he like now with his picture in all the papers?' And I tell them that you are somebody who never put on airs and never will.”

“But, Ma, you mustn't let them get you down with this business about Carnovsky's mother.”

All at once she was like a child at whose bedside he was sitting, a child who'd been cruelly teased at school and had come home in tears, running a fever.

Smiling bravely, removing the cloth and showing him the burnish of his eyes in her head, she said, “I try not to.”

“But it's hard.”

“But sometimes it's hard, darling, I have to admit it. The newspapers I can deal with, thanks to you. You would be proud of me.”

To the end of her sentence he silently affixed the word “Papa.” He had known her papa, and how he'd made her and her sisters toe the line. First the domineering father, then the domineering, father-dominated husband. For parents Zuckerman could claim the world's most obedient daughter and son.

“Oh, you should hear me, Nathan. I'm courteous, of course, but I cut them dead, exactly the way you said. But with people I meet socially it's different. People say to me—and right out, without a second thought—'I didn't know you were crazy like that, Selma.' I tell them I'm not. I tell them what you told me: that it's a story, that she is a character in a book. So they say, ‘Why does he write a story like that, unless it's true?' And then really what can I say—that they'll believe?”

“Silence, Ma. Don't say anything.”

“But you can't, Nathan. If you say nothing, it doesn't work. Then they're sure they're right.”

“Then tell them your boy is a madman. Tell them you're not responsible for the things that come into his head. Tell them you're lucky he doesn't make up things even worse. That's not far from the truth. Mother, you know you are yourself and not Mrs. Carnovsky, and I know you are yourself and not Mrs. Carnovsky. You and I know that it was very nearly heaven thirty years ago.”

“Oh, darling, is that true?”

“Absolutely.”

“But that isn't what the book says. I mean, that isn't what people think, who read it. They think it even if they
don't
read it.”

“There's nothing to do about what people think, except to pay as little attention as possible.”

“At the pool, when I'm not there, they say you won't have anything to do with me. Can you believe that? They tell this to Essie. Some of them say you won't have anything to do with me, some of them say I won't have anything to do with you, and the others say I'm living on Easy Street because of all the money you send me. I'm supposed to have a Cadillac, courtesy of my millionaire son. What do you think of that? Essie tells them that I don't even drive, but that doesn't stop them. The Cadillac has a colored driver.”

“Next they'll be saying he's your lover.”

“I wouldn't be surprised if they say it already. They say everything. Every day I hear another story. Some I wouldn't even repeat. Thank God your father isn't able to hear them.”

“Maybe Essie shouldn't pass on to you what people say. If you want, I'll tell her that.”

“There was a discussion of your book at our Jewish Center.”

“Was there?”

“Darling, Essie says it is already the main topic of discussion at every Jewish wedding, bar mitzvah, social club, women's club, sisterhood meeting, and closing luncheon in America. I don't know the details about everywhere else, but at our Center it wound up a discussion of you. Essie and Mr. Metz went. I thought I was better off minding my own business at home. Somebody named Posner gave the lecture. Then there was the discussion. Do you know him, Nathan? Essie says he's a boy your age.”

“I don't know him, no.”

“Afterward Essie went up and gave him a piece of her mind. You know Essie, when she gets going. She's driven Daddy crazy all his life, but she is your biggest defender. Of course she's never read a book in her life, but that wouldn't stop Essie. She says you are just like her, and you were even when you wrote about her and Meema Chaya's will. You say what's on your mind and the hell with everybody else.”

“That's Essie and me, Mama.”

She smiled. “Always a joke.” Whether the joke had eased her of her burden was something else. “Nathan, Mr. Metz's daughter was down here last week to see him, and she did the sweetest thing. She's a schoolteacher in Philadelphia, pretty as a picture, and she took me aside in the sweetest way to tell me that I shouldn't listen to what people say about the subject matter, that she and her husband think the book is beautifully written. And he is a lawyer. She told me that you are one of the most important living writers, not just in America, but the entire world. What do you think of that?”

“It's very nice.”

“Oh, I love you, my darling. You are my darling boy, and whatever you do is right. I only wish Daddy was well enough to enjoy all your fame.”

“It might have distressed him some, you know.”

“He always defended you, always.”

“If so, it couldn't have been easy for him.”

“But he defended you.”

“Good.”

“When you were beginning, he was unhappy about some of the things you wrote—involving Cousin Sidney and the friends he had. He wasn't used to it, so he made mistakes. I would never dare to say it to him or he would chop my head off, but I can say it to you: your father was a doer, your father had a mission in life for which everybody loved and respected him, but sometimes, I know it, in his excitement to do right he mistakenly did the wrong thing. But whether you realize it or not, you made him understand. This is true. Behind your back he repeated the very words you used, even if with you he got upset sometimes and argued. That was just a habit. From being your father. But to other people he was behind you like a wall until the day he got sick.” He could hear her voice beginning to weaken again. “Of course, you know and I know, once he got into the wheelchair he was unfortunately a different person.”

“What is it, Ma?”

“Oh, just everything at once.”

“You mean Laura?” He had finally told her—weeks after leaving Bank Street—that he and Laura were no longer together. He had waited until she was over the immediate shock of having a husband move into a nursing home from which he would never return to live with her. One thing at a time, he had thought, though as it turned out, to her it was still everything at once. Of course, it was just as well that his father wasn't in any shape to get the news; all of them, including Laura, agreed he needn't know, especially as in the past, each time Zuckerman left a wife, his father brooded and suffered and grieved, and then, utterly cast down, got on the phone in the middle of the night to apologize to the “poor girl” for his son. There had been scenes about those calls, scenes that summoned up the worst of the son's adolescence.

“You're sure she's all right?” his mother asked.

“She's fine. She's got her work. You don't have to worry about Laura.”

“And you'll get divorced, Nathan? Again?”

“Ma, I'm sorry for everyone that I'm compiling such a bad marital record. On dark days I too put myself down for not being an ideal member of my sex. But I just don't have the aptitude for a binding, sentimental attachment to one woman for life. I lose interest and I have to go. Maybe my aptitude is for changing partners—one lovely new woman every five years. Try to see it that way. They're all wonderful, beautiful, devoted girls, you know. There's that to be said for me. I don't bring anything home but the best.”

“But I never said you had a bad record—oh, my darling, not me, never, never, never in a million years. You are my son and whatever you decide is right. However you live is right. As long as you know what you're doing.”

“I do.”

“And as long as you know that it is right.”

“It is.”

“Then we are behind you. We have been behind you from the very beginning. As Daddy always says, What is a family if they don't stick together?”

Needless to say, he wasn't the best person to ask.

Dear Mr. Zuckerman:

I read my first erotic book seven years ago when I was thirteen. Then there was a lapse in sexy (and emotionally stimulating) reading as I had the real thing (seven years with the same putz). When that ended last winter it was back to books to forget, to remember, to escape. It was heavy for a while, so I read your book for a laugh. And now I feel as if I'm in love. Well, maybe not love but something as intense. Mr. Zuckerman (dare I call you Nathan?), you are just a definite up emotionally for me—as well as an excellent way to increase my vocabulary. Call me crazy (my friends call me Crazy Julia), call me a literary groupie, but you are truly getting through. You are as therapeutic as my shrink—and only eight ninety-five per session. In these times when a lot of what people communicate to each other is nothing but grief, guilt, hate, and the like, I thought I'd express my gratitude, appreciation, and love for you, your great wit, your fine mind, and everything you stand for.

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