“Your mother thinks she’s doing me a favor looking for bargains,” his father said. “What she doesn’t understand is you buy good. Once. She should cut me a break, spend the extra dollar, save me the trouble.”
They were sitting in the Chevy Cavalier in an abandoned parking lot in Manhattan Beach. It was March, the year before Timothy left for college, the turbulent Atlantic the color of dishwater left overnight. Timothy’s mother had purchased a sponge at a 99-cent discount store, and the thing had disintegrated while his father was scouring meat loaf grease from a pan after dinner. So, at eight o’clock, Timothy’s dad decided to drive all over Brooklyn looking for a seven-and-a-half dollar Good Grips sponge, the kind that rations out dishwashing liquid from its clear dispenser handle. It was the kind of quest his father periodically indulged in, a form of domestic protest, the understanding that the time away from the house was good for his head, good for the marriage, and good for the kid. Only this time Timothy, knowing he’d be leaving for college in just a few months, and already longing for his father’s voice—the undulating, nearly musical way he had of telling a story—Timothy volunteered to go along. Before he knew it, the two of them were sitting in an empty parking lot, sipping Carvel vanilla thick shake floats, waiting out the rain.
“You’re too young to understand this, or you’ll think you understand it now because you’re a smart boy, but this living business is not for the weak of heart,” his father said, eyebrows working like fast-moving needles on the knotted, worried sweater of his forehead.
“I know, dad,” said Timothy, wondering how this man could possibly prepare him for the brilliance and perversity and complexity of the world. “I know the kind of pressure you’re under with work and mom and money and stuff.”
“No, Timothy, you don’t. That’s the thing. You can’t. You just see what happens on the outside. In the house, the fights with your mother over money, or nonsense about what we’re going to watch on television that night. But that’s only part of it. And not even the biggest part. It’s up here,” his father said, pointing a thick-knuckled finger to his cranium, “is where the living business is conducted. That’s where the action is. That’s where all the real transactions take place: reprisals, recriminations, accusations, embarrassments, mistakes, failures, fist-fights, insults, lost opportunities, things left unsaid, the shoulda-woulda-couldas, all there, jostling for pride of place on the official docket. It’s a goddamned bookkeeper and a tape recorder and a magic lantern, too.
“I ever tell you about Becky Cohen?” he asked, a DJ launching into some arcana about the oldie he was about to play. “This was 1967, just before I met your mother but after I’d been laid off by First Prudential, when I was out of work for thirteen months. Looking back, I was probably clinically depressed, but this was the before the whole depression thing. And I’m walking out of Saks Fifth Avenue—I’d go there to look at suits and scarves, reminded me of when I used to work in retail—and I see my very first girlfriend, Rebecca Cohen. And what do I do? First girlfriend I ever had, hadn’t seen in seven years? I cross the street so I don’t have to shake hands with her and explain what I’d been doing with myself all this time. She was with her fiancée or husband. A nice looking guy in a camel hair coat. I remember being impressed by the coat, thinking she’d done well for herself. Even from across the street you could tell this was some kind of coat.”
“What about the girl?” Timothy pressed. “How come you couldn’t talk to her?”
“Because I was ashamed. My first girlfriend and I was embarrassed to talk to her. Yunderstand?”
“I think so.”
“And sweet, like a piece of birthday cake, this girl was.”
“But weren’t you happy to see her?”
“Yeah, sure, but I couldn’t face her.”
His father reached over to Timothy’s side of the dashboard, opened the glove compartment, and with arthritic fingers made an inventory of Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand cassette tapes, ballpoint pens from the Ramada Inn, yellow and red napkins from Nathan’s Famous, then closed it.
“When I started dating Becky, we petted and necked, but it was all very chaste.”
“But this was the sixties, wasn’t it?”
“No, when we began seeing each other was like sixty, sixty-one, which, for all intents and purposes was still the fifties, really. This was before men discovered women enjoy it. It was all rationing and deal making and negotiations and you felt lucky for whatever you got. And by the time the sixties finally did arrive, I was still listening to Sammy Davis and Perry Como records, I didn’t know what was flying. Anyway, so I knew Becky was seeing other boys, and I was seeing other girls, too. I’d go to Grossinger’s or the Concord or take a week with my buddy Charlie in Miami, and there was always a lot of screwing around going on, but nothing too serious, and with her, like I said, things were relatively chaste. Back then, the thinking was, if you’re serious about someone, here’s the list of things you don’t do. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way the thinking went. Anyway, for some reason, when I get back from Florida, things cooled off between the two of us. At the time, I couldn’t understand why, but looking back, of course I know why. Sex is glue, Timothy. Remember what I’m telling you. Once you find a nice girl up at school and you’re getting it regular, you’ll understand. Sex is glue. Human glue. Between a man and a woman, that’s what makes things stick.”
An image appeared before Timothy of himself and an anonymous girlfriend stuck together at the hips, Siamese-style, attending class, sitting in the dining halls, squeezing a driving instructor out of the front seat.
“But back to Becky. After we’d stopped seeing each other, several months go by, and I get a call from her, that she’s in some kind of trouble and needs to see me. Okay. So we meet not far from here, over there by the benches, and she tells me that this other kid, Italian kid I knew from the neighborhood named Jimmy knocked her up and won’t help her. He’s saying she’s loose and it wasn’t him and he never should’ve gone with her. Now, you have to understand, to me the idea that this girl was not only not a virgin, but that while I was seeing her, while I was finger-fucking her in the hallway outside of her mother’s bedroom, she was getting schtupped by all the other boys in the neighborhood, this was just devastating to me. It was like the magician’s trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under the plates and the silverware and everything somehow stays in place. That must have been what my face looked like when she told me. That’s the effect it had on me, the way I looked at things. Everything looked the same, but everything changed.”
“But you agreed to help her?”
“Yeah, I agreed to help her. I knew it could never be between the two of us, and you have to understand I loved this girl, but, yeah, I agreed to help her. Terrible little troll of a doctor almost killed her, but that part of the story’s not what’s important. . .”
“And that’s why you couldn’t face her years later?”
“Part of it, there’s more. Months later, after your grandfather dies, rest in peace, your uncle Jules and I take a ski trip together, and he asks whatever happened to that nice girl I was seeing. Now, we were close, but not too close when it came to things like that, not in that way. But I must’ve had the need to talk to somebody, so I explain the whole story, and Jules just hits the fucking roof. Only he’s not indignant that this girl broke his kid brother’s heart, or that some laws of propriety had been broken, or even that we’d broke the law and could’ve wound up in some serious hot water. No, he’s mad over the money. That abortion cost over a hundred dollars that I paid for like a sucker without getting my just desserts, and he’s gonna make this little harlot pay.”
“That was Uncle Jules?” asked Timothy. “Uncle Julius said that?”
“Yeah, that was your Uncle Jules. Your uncle. My brother. So one night he goes over there to Becky’s and tells her he knows the whole story and that if she doesn’t play ball, he’ll spill the beans to the whole neighborhood. Now, Becky lived with her mother, who was a widow, and a fairly religious woman, too, and hearing this would have destroyed her, so she agreed.”
“Waddaya think? He screwed her! Now, don’t misunderstand me, your uncle wasn’t some back alley rapist with a razor between his teeth. After he put the contract out on the table, so to speak, he even courted her a little. Took her out for Chinese food and to the movies and Radio City. The Empire State Building once, I think. Then he screwed her. More than once. ‘That’s how you treat a bim like that,’ is what he says to me weeks later when he sees I’m still smarting over it.”
“No, Timmy, that’s what I want you to understand. I wasn’t mad at Jules for taking advantage of the situation like he did. And I wasn’t mad at her for getting into all this trouble in the first place. I was mad at myself for not being the one to put her there! That was the terrible truth. I was angry with myself. Jules was doing me a favor. He wanted to teach his kid brother a lesson. To impart a lesson on how to take. You have to learn how to take! he tells me. To take! Not to be mistaken for a human toilet. To have the authority to take! The assertiveness to take! The audacity to take! That’s what kills people, he tells me. That’s what killed our father, may the lifelong schlepper rest in peace. This is what kills people most: this terrible lack of assertion. Now, I don’t know if you remember this, but before he got diabetes, in his prime your uncle was a big man, six three, maybe two hundred thirty, two hundred forty pounds.”
“I remember,” said Timothy, “when I was a kid thinking he was huge. A giant.”
“An impressive looking piece of work, your uncle was. In a jacket and tie, he could talk his way in just about anywhere. He’d take dates to crash proms and weddings at the Waldorf and the Plaza, just show up in a neatly pressed suit with a flower in his lapel, handshake his way in, eat and drink for free, and end up the hit of the evening, too. Anyway, before he went into real estate, your uncle studied history with the big shots up at Columbia. When they were through with his tuition there wasn’t much left so I ended up going to City College. Y’know what the City College campus was like? We painted the third floor green, called it a campus. Anyway, Jules is up there at Columbia studying American history so, for months after this thing with Becky, at the breakfast table each morning, with a napkin tucked into his collar like a baby’s bib, and a big shit-eating grin on his face, working away at a tower of pancakes, lowering one hardboiled egg into his mouth after another, he expounds upon this idea for me, tries putting it in an historical context. America, he tells me, was founded on this simple idea, this self-imposed authority: the country made a policy of taking. Even gave it a fancy name. Manifest Destiny, okay? And that’s why I was a dumb immigrant schmuck in a coat while Jimmy was right for screwing her and leaving the girl in the loop and Jules was a hero for righting things the way he did. Because they understood this authority to take—innately—and I didn’t. And that’s the same reason why it was so important for my parents to send both us kids to college: to learn this American instinct to take. To learn it without thinking. And that’s why we sent your brother, and now you, off to college.”
“Listen to me for a minute. Xerox’s nearest competitor, Canon, you know where their headquarters are located? One Canon Plaza, Lake Success, New York. Lake Success! Where else but in America would that not be some kind of joke? Lake Success, England? Lake Success, Yugoslavia? Lake Success, Zimbabwe? Here you don’t even think twice about it. Don’t misunderstand me Timmy, we want you to go to the best schools and read and learn loads and get your culture, but that degree is your honest to God Declaration of Independence. All men might be created equal but they sure as hell don’t end up that way. Your mother and I don’t even really care what you study: that degree leaves you credentialed to take. And that’s what I’m saying to you,” he said, pointing at his son with the sponge like a wizard’s wand. “You’re about to go off to school where you’re going to be inundated with opportunity and enrichment, surrounded by great books and hot pussy, brought into contact with minds far more learned than your mother’s and my own. When it comes to your professors, when it comes to your classmates, and especially when it comes to girls: you mustn’t be afraid to take!”