On the TV screen before them was the BBC World: its black globe revolving within red ribboned arcs to a syncopated electronic theme.
“Funding for this presentation is provided by the Freeman Foundation of New York and Stowe, Vermont; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Ford Foundation; and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.”
“Yet another episode of bourgeoisie world,” quipped Sol, “brought to you by Rockefeller and Ford.” On the living room rug beside him sat his younger brother, Sol, propped up by a pillow before the couch. In a purple nylon cycling suit, he wore special shoes with soles that fit the pedals. At his feet lay Quark, his elderly black cat, whose sphinx-like silhouette was illumined by the hallway light beyond them.
The anchorwoman appeared before an image of Capital Hill: “This is BBc World News. I’m Katy Kay in Washington…” Golden hair, copper-tanned, her eyes, a chocolate hue. In a sleek black blouse, she wore tiny pearls in her ears. And round her freckled throat hung a gold-linked chain, that was framed within her plunging neckline.
“Headlining tonight’s BBC World News: Pentagon spokesmen admit the use of white phosphorus by U.S. troops last year against Iraqi insurgents in Falluja. Reporting for BBC World News from Bagdad is Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.”
“Rupert Wingfield-Hayes.” Echoed Sol with a British accent. “Don’t you just love those names?” Sol leaned forward to massage Quark’s pointed ears. With luxurious black fur and emerald eyes, he responded like a purring engine.
“A senior U.S. spokesman confirmed today that white phosphorous was used in ‘Operation Phantom Fury’, last year’s U.S. attack on Falluja.” On the screen before them were charred and blackened corpses, in a city reduced to rubble.
“White phosphorous –“ the reporter continued, “known to the troops as ‘Willy Pete’ – is said to ‘burn to the bone’. Its victims’ skin is carmelized by this lethal chemical weapon.” Interviewed about the use of white phosphorous, an American commander replied:
“Yes, the generals love it. It has a big psychological effect. They use it in ‘shake and bake’ missions to flush the enemy out.”
“There have also been charges,” the reporter added, “that napalm has been employed as it was in Vietnam.”
“That’s true.” The commander replied. “It’s an updated version – Mark 77 – dropped in 510 lb. bombes.”
“Caramelize.” repeated Sol. “Let’s see what Webster’s has to say.” Sol rose to remove the dictionary from the bookshelf beside the TV. “’Caramelize v. to melt sugar and convert it into a brittle, brown, molasses-like substance.’ That’s what it does to human flesh.”
“Using it against the Kurds is one of the war crimes for which we’re currently trying Saddam.”
“Eactly.” Said Sol. “War criminals trying war criminals.”
“Not to mention those U.S. charges last week of torture against Iraq.”
“By those who brought you Abu Ghraib. Torturers accusing tortures.” Sol concluded. Like an old married couple they often thought of the same thing at the very same time.
Pausing between news stories, the BBC World returned. A computer-generated electronic ballet, its rings and arcs and black globe danced, assembling at the center of the screen. On the rug beside the TV set, Quark’s tail beat like a metronome to the Muzak.
“Next on BBC World News: President Bush defends the War in Iraq at the U.S. Naval Academy. Reporting from Annapolis is Damian Grammaticas.”
“Damian Grammaticas.” Echoed Sol.
President Bush appeared on the TV screen before a banner readking “Strategy for Victory”.
“President Bush spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy today before thousands of cheering cadets.” the reporter began. “Some of his critics charge that a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops; others, that a secret network of U.S. prisons exists where prisoners are kidnapped and subject to torture through so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’. Opinion polls now show that 52 percent of Americans believe they were intentionally misled about the war; 54 percent want U.S. forces withdrawn; and 60 percent believe it was a mistake to have sent troops in the first place. Responding to his critics, the president replied:
“America will stay the course. We will not be blackmailed by terrorists. Americans will remain until Iraquies are ready to fight.”
“Vietnamization?” quieried Sol.
“Iraquization.” he answered. “And talk about euphemisms – ‘extraordinary rendition’. As in ‘the violinist gave an ‘extraordinary rendition’ of the Beethoven Violin Concerto last night at Covent Garden.’”
“Next on BBC World: for the second week running, riots continue to spread throughout France. Reporting for BBC World from Paris is Gavin Huett.”
“Gavin Huett.” echoed Sol.
On the screen was an image of flaming cars at night on the streets of a poor French suburb. Police in riot gear – carrying truncheons and plastic shields – battled groups of fleeing youths hurling rocks.
“In Clichy-sous-Bois – one of France’s poorest immigrant suburbs – youths torched vehicles, burned warehouses and shot at police throughout the night. Like America’s black ghettos, a generation ago, unemployment among male minority youth in France is double the rate of others. Poor, uneducated, and regarded by the police with suspicion – these youngsters live with little hope of improving their lives. All that it takes for this powder keg to explode is one tragic incident – like the electrocution last week of two North African youths who were chased to their deaths by police.”
“Like Detroit in ’67.” He remarked to Sol. “Iraq and Vietnam. Clichy-sous-Bois and Detroit-“
“History repeats itself.” Sol concluded.
Following the remainder of the news, the BBC World returned. By remote control he muted the sound.
“Did I tell you about the article I read in the Wall Street Journal about “Building a Better Bra.”?
“No. Tell me.” Sol replied with a roguish grin.
“Above it was a photo of a young Chinese seamstress hard at work behind a sewing machine. It reminded me of grandma…of the beautiful afghan she knit us.” He turned his head toward the woolen shawl on the arm of the couch behind him. “Our precious family heirloom. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen when she crossed the ocean from Europe to America. All by herself, traveling steerage. Like that Chinese girl, she worked in the rag trade, year after year. Six days a week, twelve hours a day; until she finally saved enough to bring her entire family over her. A century later Chinese workers are doing the same to bring their families from the country to the city.”
“Like Britain and America in their heyday,” added Sol, “China’s become the ‘sweatshop of the world’”.
“Would you believe it? – they built a bra lab – created to unlock the ‘mysteries of the seamless bras’ and the ‘shape-retaining cup’. Fearing competition between firms to undercut each other’s prices, they’ve invested in ‘bra research centers’; established a degree in ‘Bra Studies’. Their biggest firm produces 2,300 styles, with profits of $24 millions!”
“Imagine being a Professor of Brassiere Studies!” exclaimed Sol. “It reminds me of our cousin Barry, as a kid. You remember his version of “Brazil”? Sol began to sign to the tune of that popular song:
“You hold the things that are so dear…(2…3…4…5)”
“I’d like to put one in my ear…(2…3….4…5)”
“Professor Solomon Wolf,” he announced like a BBC reporter, “formerly of the Stanford University Department of Lingerie, has today been appointed Harvard University’s first Mansfield Professor of Brassiere Studies. The Mansfield Chair was created by the Jane Mansfield Endowment, a non-profit organization dedicated to the furtherance of bra technology.”
“Among the course in the new curriculum,” continued Sol, “are ‘The History of the Bras from Cleopatra to Monroe” and ‘The Bra (An Evolutionary Perspective): Weapon in the Struggle to Find a Mate’”.
“And we mustn’t forget the scholarly journals, the international conferences and the scholarships sponsored by Playtex, Victoria’s Secret and Maidenform.”
“Culminating in the award in Stockholm, every four years, of the Nobel Prize in Brassierology!” Sol announced with a flourish.
“What do you say we give the folks a call?”
“Good idea.” Sol agreed.
They rose from the couch and the living room carpet. He proceeded through the hallway to his bedroom and picked up the telephone, while Sol continued further down the hall to a second phone lying on the floor. Now he dialed his father’s new number. The phone rang several times before his father finally answered.
“Dad, it’s your sons from Chicago!” he began. Because their elderly father was hard of hearing, they were forced to speak up and repeat themselves.
“It’s Sol, dad. How’re things at your new place?”
“Not too bad.” his father replied, in his soft, breathy voice. He spoke slowly as he paused to gather his thoughts. “The apartment’s comfortable…food’s good…and the people are really quite friendly. Your mother took me to dinner and a movie last night.”
“Great!” he exclaimed.”So you’re getting along better?”
“Yes, she’s been a great help.” His father replied. “We hope to get together once or twice a week for dinner.”
“And now – here from Chicago – “ announced Sol, “is Quark, the sub-atomic cat!” He held the cat to the receiver so his father could hear him purr. “Dad, can you hear his feline greetings?”
“Yes, I can!” his father chuckled.
“How are you feeling, dad?” he asked. “Are you getting settled in?”
“Yes, I feel much better,” his father replied, “since I received my medication. It gives me a little pep and energy. I take one every morning.”
“Are you meeting new friends?” Sol asked.
“I sure am.” said his father. “I’m the toast of the town with the ladies.”
“And you’re still taking classes at the Jewish Center?”
“Yes.” his father replied. “There was a good one last week on recent developments in the Middle East.”
After speaking with their father, they telephoned their mother.
“Hi, mom.” he began. “It’s your boys from Chicago.”
“I knes it was you!” she replied in her sweet, throaty voice. “It’s mother’s intuition.”
“And Quark’s here, too,” added Sol, “to wish you a purrfect evening.”
“Oh, let me hear him purr, dear.” she answered with a girlish laugh.
As he held Quark to the receiver, Sol remarked: “Listen to that little engine purr!”
“How are you feeling, mom?” he asked.
“I can’t tell how relieved I am,“ she replied, “now that your father’s settled in. I can finally relax. Especially, since he gave up driving.”
Hesitating, he asked:”Any word about the business?”
“No.” she sighed. “Frank is waiting to hear about that offer.”
“And how’s Janet? Sol asked.
“I don’t know what I’d do without her!” she said. “Without her and Frank – she’s the daughter I never had – I don’t know how we’d have handled your father.”
“It’s over now, mom.” he tried to reassure her. “He’s finally settled in.”
“I know that, dear, “ she replied, “you’ll never know what an ordeal this has been…And I miss you. When are you coming to visit?”
After speaking to their mother, they returned to the living room. From his place on the rug at Sol’s feet, Quark began to miaow. Sol, a gifted mimick, reproduced his plaintive cry; then, in a tiny cat-like voice, he added:
“Feed me…feed me…” Though Sol massaged his ears, Quark continued to whine.
“If the Feline Masseur Supreme has failed, “ he said, “perhaps Quark yearns for something stronger.”
Rising from the couch, he left the living room, with Quark following closely at his heels. He continued down the hall to the kitchen, where he opened the freezer door. Removing a plastic bag of catnip, he placed in on the counter beside the sink. In the cabinet above the sink, he found some cloth and a bit of string. Opening the bag, he smelled the fresh herb’s fragrance, felt its frost-covered leaves and clumps of flowers. Crumbling them between his fingers, he disposed of the stems in the trash. Then he tied the cloth with a double-knot and replaced the bag in the freezer. Returning to the living room with Quark close behind him, he flung the toy in the middle of the carpet.
Quark pounced!; captured his prey; licked the toy with his rough, pink tongue. With sharp teeth and claws, he attempted to untie the knotted bag: ever seeking the potent drug within. But, after a quarter of an hour, he’d exhausted himself with licking. So he lay on the carpet between them – serenely purring away – with an occasional flick of his long black tail.
“In Cat Heaven!” he exclaimed, stroking his silky paunch.
“Goooood Quark…” Sol chanted, massaging his ears, “the fundamental particle…the building block of the universe.”
“Listen to that purr-“ he said, “like a feline Rolls Royce!”
“That’s one stoned puss.” Said Sol with a Chesire Cat’s grin. “That’s what you call catatonic.” Quark lay on the carpet with his front paws tucked beneath him: a purring black ball of contentment.
By remote control he switched to the Nature Channel, where they watched “The Deep”, from David Attenborough’s series, The Blue Planet. As the evening advanced, he recalled his previous week in Detroit, reporting his visit to Sol. He’d helped his mother move his father into a retirement home, and attended a meeting about their failing family business.
Heavy snow had been forecast, but his plane got off on time. And, as they landed – through a cloudy, overcast sky – he viewed a bleak, wintry scene like a landscape our of Breughel. Before him was a grid of black, white and gray: blocks of houses; bare-limbed trees; planes of snow, divided by streets.
After landing, he caught a taxicab, which Telegraph Road north, to their home in Bloomfield Hills. As the taxi climbed the snow-covered drive, he saw his mother waiting above him in the window. It was a small, modern house, set like a crystal on a hill in the forest. Surrounded by evergreen hedges, it had a gray, flagstone base. From this rose walls of glass, framed by black wooden beams, in whose center was a balcony, like an aerie in the tree tops. Entering the doorway, he embraced his mother at the foot of the stairs.
“How was your flight, dear?” she asked, as she hugged him close. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you!”
Despite her eighty-two years, his mother was remarkably youthful. With bright, brown eyes, a pert little nose, and a brow unmarked by lines, her oval face could easily have mistaken for a woman many years younger. She wore a lavender sweater, cranberry slacks and an amethyst necklace he’d given her on her birthday. But her hands were marked with large blue veins, liver spots and swollen joints. They climbed the stairs to the living room, where a fire was burning in the fireplace. The pastel tones of its pillows, vase and rug, had matched his mother’s outfit.
The following morning, they drove to his father’s apartment, to prepare for the move, the next day. At ninety-two, his father was still a handsome man. With an abundant head of white, wavy hair, he had deep-brown eyes and a an arched, Hebraic nose. But, like a mask of wax – during the past few years – his face appeared to have gradually melted: pale, puffy cheeks; creases at the corners of his mouth; drooping jowl beneath his throat. And from his eyes a web of wrinkles spread throughout his face. He wore a turtleneck sweater and matching beige slacks; walked slowly, with a slight stoop forward. He sat beside his father on the living room couch, with his mother in an armchair, before them.
“Don’t worry, dear,” his mother began, “everything’s been arranged. Jeff’s hired a U-Haul and he’s bringing a friend along to help. By tomorrow night the move’ll be over.”
“I’ve so little energy.” his father replied. “I just sit around the apartment all day long, reading the New York Times.”
“Dad, you’re ninety-two!” he replied, placing his arm around his shoulders. “You’ve got a right to sit around. Remember, your doctor said you’re the healthiest man your age he’s ever seen.”
“Who else do we know, dear,” his mother smiled, “who’s still around at ninety-two?”
“It’s true, I don’t have aches and pains.” he said. “I’ve still a good appetite. And I sleep well.”
“You should be thankful for what you’ve got!” his mother exclaimed.
“And we’re here to help in any way we can.” he said. He hugged his dad and kissed him on the forehead. Later, they began to pack his things.
He removed his clothes from the closets, boxed the contents of his dresses and desk. In large plastic bags he stuffed underwear, handkerchiefs and socks. And, as he worked in the bedroom, his mother packed the contents of the kitchen. She wrapped the dishes and glasses in newspaper, emptying the cabinets and refrigerator. As they assembled the boxes and bags in the center of the room, his dad had napped on the couch.
They’d dined at a restaurant together; then drove home with his mother. That evening, they watched a Masterpiece Theater production of King Lear, with Ian Holm. He laid in the double-bed beside his mother, in what had been his father’s place. Her bedroom was decorated with rare antiques – the fruit of a lifetime of collecting. Over the years, she’d tracked each of them down, carefully arranged and assembled her treasures. His mother was a woman of exquisite taste; had a genuine passion for beauty. On the wall, to his right, were miniature portraits, in their fine-wood, tortoise-shell frames. At the foot of the bed, was her French provincial desk, with its gallery of family photos. Beyond, were her mirrored closets, in which they were reflected, lying in bed. As they watched the film, his mother remarked about the resemblance between the old king and his father.
“’…Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’” she said. “The bard had your father down to a T.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” he replied, “isn’t it, mom?”
“Why, his wife was lucky she predeceased him,” she added, “at least she wasn’t forced to watch him go mad.”
“Is that so, Mrs. Lear?” he asked. Now his mother muted the sound with the remote control.
“You’ve no idea the thing’s he’s done!” she said. Now she turned in bed to address him. “Thank god he’s stopped driving. You can’t imagine how I’ve worried…” She paused to sight, shake he her and remember. Now her eyes met his across the bed. “Don’t forget your uncle Sherman. He killed someone, driving. It pretty much ruined his life, not to mention the victim and his family. You saw him in Florida, in that dump of a nursing home.”
“I agree about dad’s driving.” he answered. “But, for a man his age, giving up driving’s a question of pride.”
“How dare you men talk of pride!” she cried. “Just remember my brother Sherman: in a wheelchair, slumped over, pumped full of drugs, with those plastic tubes bristling in his arms!...Just remember him, dear, and behold the image of male pride!...”
Later, that evening, at the end of the film, his mother once again turned to him:
“And, don’t forget, dear: he left me. He told all our friends he couldn’t stand to live with me anymore.” She paused to look away, then continued with emotion:
“I felt betrayed, deserted.”: ‘…the bond cracked twix’t husband and wife…’You can’t imagine how humiliated I felt…”
He tried to take her hand, but she pulled it away, adding:
“He moved out on me: now he’s on his own. I’ve finished looking after him. I’ve had it up to here. Now he’s your responsibility.”
“I accept that responsibility, mom.” he replied. “That’s why I’m here.”
“I gave him a business; made him a home. He was never much of a businessman. And now that business is shot to hell. Your cousin Morris has been stealing from us for years. But it’s your father’s fault, too. He let him get away with murder.”
Before falling asleep that night, in what had once been his father’s bedroom, he recalled the circumstances that led to his parents’ separation and the failure of their family business.
It had been built by his grandpa Julius, a self-made man, who, as a youngster, had come from Russia to Detroit. For years he’d worked as a laborer, doing carpentry and bricklaying, while attending classes in engineering at night. With the knowledge he’d slowly acquired, he built a factory in his own backyard. The way he’d told it to his grandson, he’d built that factory all by himself!
He drew the blueprints, laid the bricks, sawed and nailed each board; raised the roof and walls on the steel beams he’d welded. And, as the concrete business grew, he bought the vacant lot next door, where he built another factory, selling steel. At fifty, he’d retired – a millionaire – leaving his sons and son-in-law to run them. Now he brought his powerful mind to bear on the market.
He bought blue chip stocks and bonds, purchased apartments and vacant lots. Each winter, he and his wife, flew down down to Miami Beach, where they danced the cha-cha or played mahjong around the pool. And, in the meantime, he collected dividends from his stocks and bonds, and rents, from his inner-city tenants.
With a father like Julius, his mother had been forced to learn to fight back. The youngest of four children – with a bullying elder brother and self-centered elder sister – her only ally had been her younger brother, Sherman. It was his son, Morris, who’d taken over the business when Sherman and his own father had retired. Although he’d kept it running, they had fallen deeply into debt. Then the bank had finally called in their loan. Needing to meet the demands of their creditors and the bank, his father had turned to his wife for the money. But she’d refused him, claiming it was a bad investment.
So his father had turned to his sons for a loan. But, because a substantial part of their savings consisted of gifts from their mother, she’d accused him of obtaining the loan “behind her back”. So the process that had led to his parents’ separation had begun with the loan for the family business. But age and illness had also factored in.
During that time, his parents had both been ill. To his mother’s long-term arthritis, was added cystitis and uterine cancer. Surgery proved successful, but she’s taken a long time to recover. Then his father developed prostate cancer. Once again, the surgery had succeeded, but there had been side effects. And facing these resulted in his urgent need to live.
He’d entered a manic phase – planned to travel around the world—and accused his bedridden wife of holding him back. When she pointed out the madness of his epic travel plans, he’d moved out and into an apartment of his own. Soon, his manic phase had ended, and he wished to move back in. But his wife had had enough of what she’d called his “High Anxiety”.
Then his dad slowed down; grew depressed and lonely; and finally decided to move into a retirement community. There, he would have more social life; have his meals prepared, and be look after. It had been to help his father move, that he’d flown that week into Detroit.
The following morning, they’d driven to his father’s, where they met Jeff, his parents’ handyman. He’d rented a U-Haul and brought his buddy, Sam, to help move. Jeff was a stocky, middle-aged man, with a salt-and-pepper beard, who did odd jobs for his folks. He and Sam began to load the furniture, while he and his mother completed the packing. They sorted through his father’s belongings – bagging and boxing the valuables and disposing of what remained. Back and forth, they’d moved throughout the day, between the apartment and the van; then they’d driven the van and his mother’s car to the retirement home. Pulling the U-Haul up to the freight elevator in the rear, they unloaded and carried his things to his fifth-floor apartment. It was a large modern red-brick building, with white-trimmed walls, and peaked, green roofs. His father had a one-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom, kitchen and living room.
As they finally drove away that evening, having competed the move, his mother pointed to the cemetery, across the street: “How convenient.” she said wryly, gesturing from one place to the other. “All you have to do is cross the road to get from the last stop to the final destination.”
Returning home, they met Jeff and Sam, who had brought an extra sofa in the van. After carrying it into the basement, they were spent from their long day’s work.
“The first thing I do when I get home is dive into a hot bath with Epsom salts!” Jeff exclaimed. His mother told them how relieved she was that her husband had finally given her his car keys. It reminded Jeff of an incident with his own father.
“I had to take away his ladders so he couldn’t work on the roof.” he said. “I pretended I needed to borrow them, but my old man saw right through me.”
“You’ve got plenty of your own.” My dad replied, fixing me with a look. “Don’t think you can fool your old dad.”
“But I had to do it,” Jeff said, “like you’ve had to take away his car keys.”
“Remember Lear,” his mother said to him as the movers drove away, “’…sons at perfect age, and fathers declined, the father should be as a ward to the son.’”
After dinner, they’d watched a film of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, with Ulanova and the Bolshoi Ballet. His parents had first seen it performed in Paris, on their tour of Europe in ’59. On successive nights, they’d watched Juliet performed by Ulanova and Maya Pletsetskaya. Since then, “Romeo and Juliet” had become their favorite ballet. Over the years, they’d owned numerous recordings of Prokoviev’s score, and a film version, with Fonteyne, Nureyev and the Royal Ballet.
After the film had ended and he’d wished his mother good night, he lay awake in his father’s bedroom. Above the bed, on the wall, hung prints by Calder and Richard Lindner. Across from these, was his father’s antique desk, with a framed photo of Sol, himself and their dad. It reminded him of the last time he and Sol had come to visit.
They’d flown in from Chicago, took a cab from the airport, and spent the entire day shopping with their dad. They’d returned to his apartment, late that afternoon, where the three of them were seated in the living room. Their dad had confessed that he was lonely, living by himself, and was worried about the family business. A winter of heavy snow had brought his problem driving to a head; it had become so erratic that even he saw the danger. Then he’d finally broken down and began to cry. They held him; tried to comfort him: his father never cried. Only once before had he seen him in tears. It had been on a Sunday morning, many years ago, when he was a child of five, living at home, in Detroit. His father had been sitting at his desk in the den, when he’d received his weekly phone call from his sister in Philadelphia.
Hearing his father cry, he’d entered the room to see him seated with his head in his hands. His mother stood behind him, with her hands on his shoulders. She spoke softly, trying to comfort him. His sister had informed him that their mother had passed away the night before. After many months of struggle, she’d finally succumbed to colon cancer. Her silver-framed photograph held the place of honor on his father’s chest of drawers, upstairs. He had her large, arched nose, her dark-brown eyes, her massive, deep-lined brow. His mother rubbed his shoulders, held his head in her arms. But, as a boy of five, it’d been a shock to see his father cry.
“What happened?” he’d asked his mother. She had taken him by the hand and led him from the den into the living room, where she sat down on the sofa beside him. Above them hung portraits of Old Testament prophets, staring down at him from their dark, oak frames.
“Bauby Becky passed away.” she’d told him. His father’s mother had passed away. As he heard his father sobbing through the living room wall, he remembered a story that they’d once told him about her.
It had been during the Great Depression – and his father had been waiting in line – when he’d learned that the bank had failed. Returning home, he’d told his parents that their life savings had been wiped out. Without it, he’d be unable to finish college. His mother had risen from her chair, climbed the stairs, and removed her wedding ring from her jewel box in the bedroom. Descending the stairs, she then left the apartment and took the bus to a pawnshop, downtown. There, she had pawned her wedding ring to pay for his college tuition.
Seeing his day cry, he put his arms around his shoulders. Now Sol tried to comfort him with a joke.
“Dad, here’s a joke you can tell Aunt Ellen.” Each Sunday morning, when his sister called him, she would tell him her weekly joke.
“Two old Jews are bemoaning the sadness of the world,” Sol began, “the trials and tribulations of their people.”
“Life is hard.” Said the first, as he stroked his long, white beard.
“Better we should have never been born.” Said the second one, shaking his head back and forth.
“Yes, but who can have such luck?” replied the first, shrugging his shoulders with a gesture of upraised hands.
“Maybe, one in a million!” his companion had concluded.
Sol’s joke had done the trick: his father had smiled through his tears.
On the Sunday morning following the movie, a meeting was held to determine the future of their family firm. They’d gathered in the living room, seated on plush, white sofas and chairs, around the coffee table made of a single sheet of glass, resting on two white, marble cubes. The ceiling rose above them, supported by black, wooden beams. To their left, was a wrought iron fireplace, whose logs were set ablaze. Through the glass, before them – beyond the black wooden porch – was an eyrie-like view of tree tops, hills and snow. Seated across from his father, he’d studied the meeting’s participants.
At one end of the room, on a bench before the fire, sat his mother and their family attorney, Frank. He was a husky, ex-MSU halfback, with thinning brown hair, wearing a heavy blue pullover and jeans. The husband of his cousin, Janet (who was like a daughter to his mother), Frank was considered one of the family. On the sofa, beside him, sat his father in a colorful, patched-leather jacket. James Farber, the company accountant, was in an armchair, across from his mother. He wore a double-breasted suit, and had his notes arranged on the metal briefcase, before him. To his left, sat Howard Berman, an energetic little man of eighty, with slight, wizened features. A long-time family friend, he was a wealthy financier, and a noted figure in the Jewish community. On the couch, facing the window, were he and Art Segal. Art was the son of his mother’s brother’s (uncle Sherman’s) wife. He was bald, wore a blazer and red-striped tie, and had a piercing, tenor voice. Having flown in from Texas to represent his mother, he now addressed the meeting:
“As majority shareholders,” Art began, “we should simply fire Morris.”
“Then who will run the business?” asked his mother.
“How much do we owe our creditors, James?” his father inquired of their accountant.
Examining the notes spread out before him, he replied: “$750,000, altogether. First, there’s $240,000 – our line of credit from the bank. Then, the cost of health insurance and the cars the company pays for.”
Art turned to Howard: “You’re an experienced financier, Mr. Berman. If one of your investments was being mismanaged, what would you do?”
“I monitor each of them, monthly.” re replied. “First, I determine the larger picture: objective market conditions. Only then do I consider management, the subjective factor. In your case, Clare and Ed, there’s also a sentimental value of a business that’s been in the family for so many years. It’s a going concern, with your customer’s trust. They, too, have a stake in its success.”
“Tell us what you want, Ed?” Frank now turned to his father.
“I just want out.” his father sighed, shaking his head. “These past three years have been nothing but grief.”
“You were always a worrier, dear.” his mother added.
“You can stop worrying, Ed.” Frank tried to reassure him. “All you have to do is sign your shares over to Clare; then your liability is over and done with.”
“I’m more than willing to do that.” His father agreed. “I just want to get this damn thing behind me.”
“He can’t help it.” said his mother. “It’s just the way he is.”
“Clare, please.” his father pleaded. “Like you say, I can’t help it. Please try to be patient with me…” His parents paused to exchange a hard look. Then Howard continued, saying:
“But we still have to deal with Morris. What about the offers to buy the firm, Frank?”
“Doric withdrew its offer.” answered Frank. “I’m waiting to hear from them again at the beginning of the week.”
“Halliwell offered to purchase the business for $800,000.” Added James. “But that doesn’t include the plant.”
“They’re our biggest competitors.” said his father. “It would be a natural for them.”
“But who will negotiate the deal?” asked Howard. “We still have to deal with Morris.”
Art rose from the sofa and stepped behind it to address them:. “Morris is a thief. He’s responsible for the lion’s share of our debt.”
“He’s been stealing from us for years!” exclaimed his mother. “Try reaching him at the office on a weekday afternoon. He’ll be out on the golf course, or at the tennis with his buddies.”
“And he surely knows about this meeting.” Art emphasized, as he swept the room with his gaze. “Knowing he could be fired any day now, he’s playing his own little game.”
“Then we need someone to sell the firm,” Howard insisted, “someone to run it in the interim.”
“I’m willing to step in.” said Art. “I ask for no compensation. I’m just looking after my mother’s interests. She depends on the rent, the car, Sherman’s health insurance. Her life style is at stake.”
“Whatever we do,” said Frank, “we have to deal with Morris now.”
“Just fire him!” Art exclaimed. “He’s been eating our flesh for years. I say we put that bastard in jail!”
“He’s an employee-at-will.” said Frank, “he has no written contract. We can fire him any time we want. He should’ve attended this meeting, however. He’s still managing the firm and has a quarter interest in the business. Although he’s mainly responsible for the mess we’re in, the rest of you are also to blame. After all, you’re absentee owners who’ve neglected the business for years.”
“How many times have I told you that, dear?” his mother accused his father. Turning to the others, she explained: “Sherman left the business more than a decade ago and Ed’s lost touch, completely. You should’ve talked to James. You’ve only made a bad situation worse.”
“I admit it.” His father replied. “I just haven’t been myself, lately. I’m willing to give you my shares, if I can just get this whole thing behind me.”
“Are Doric’s and Halliwell’s genuine offers?” Howard asked Frank.
“By next week, I’ll know.” He replied. “I’ll get word to each of you. Then we’ll schedule an official corporate meeting at which Morris will be present.”
“We still have the element of surprise on our side.” said Art. “We could fire him, lock him out, notify our customers of the change in management. The longer we wait, the more trouble he can make. There could be law suites – and there’s the question of bankruptcy.”
“Can’t we at least avoid bankruptcy?” asked his father.
“Bankruptcy is not the way to go.” Insisted Howard, turning to his father. “It’s simply too costly, you’ll end up with nothing, Ed, we simply want to give you peace of mind...”
“Here’s the game plan. Frank will talk to Doric and Halliwell and report back to us next week. Art is on deck, if we need someone to take over. If the three of you – Clare, Ed and Art – combine your shares, you have a controlling interest and can simply fire Morris. But we’ve got to decide quickly.”
After the meeting, the others departed, backing down the steep driveway. His mother retired to her bedroom, and his father lay down on the couch. He was soon asleep with his mouth slightly open, and a wave of white hair falling over his brow. Sitting on the sofa across from his dad, his eyes scanned the contents of the room. It had been decorated by his mother, the collector of the family.
At the far end was a breakfront, containing her art glass bottles; in various sizes, shapes and colors, they were displayed on its illuminated shelves. Across from them, on a wall, were a pair of antique barometers; and on, a bookshelf, over the desk, were her rare boxes of tortoise shell. On the desk was a lamp, made out of a spiral candlestick; and, across from it, on the sideboard, vases of flowers were displayed. She was particularly proud of her plants (claimed she “talked to them”); loved to plunge her fingers in their rich, dark soil. Throughout the home were pots and plants and flowers she’d nourished from bulbs and cuttings. There were huge amaryllis, multi-colored tulips, hayacinths and tuberous begonias. But, of them all, her favorites were orchids. His mother was an orchidophile, a fancier of this, the queen of flowers. The largest family of flowering plants, there were 25,000 species, over 100,000 hybrids! Their enormous variations, in fragrance, color and shape, had each evolved to attract particular insects.
“What’s a flower?” she’d once asked him. And when he hesitated, she’d answered: “A flower is a sexual organ. Her purpose: to attract the male. Her fragrance draws him on. By shape and color, he’s beguiled. He’s led a wild, wasp’s dance to sip her nectar, bathe in her pollen. From flower to flower he flies, entranced, casting seed among her blossoms and buds.”
Among her favorites were the Phalaenopsis. There was the Phalaenopsis amabilis, “Snow Flake”, deriving from the Greek word for mother, with its huge leaves like glossy, green tongues. And the Paphiopedilum ciliolare, “Ruby Prism”, with its dark red labellum, and smaller, speckled leaves. She joked about her whorchids: her private bordello of buds. Mocked their erudite classification; coined her own names for them – Scalet Harlot, Vestal Virgin and Tantalizing Tart.
From her orchids, his eyes returned to his father, asleep on the couch. Above him hung a mobile, from the ceiling’s black wooden beams. Like a planetary system, it slowly turned in orbits through the air. On the table, beside them, was a Hoya vase, that he had given his parents on their fiftieth anniversary. The entire room was miniaturized and warped within its curving crystal walls. And in the flagstone fireplace, beside him, danced orange and blue tongues; flickering and licking the artificial logs, they’d emerged with low, kissing sounds.
As the evening had advanced, he informed Sol about his week in Detroit.
“Not once were the workers mentioned.” he concluded. “Over a dozen employees – who’d been with the company for decades, who had families and dependents. It never even occurred to them that they had anything to say.”
“It’s been so long since dad and uncle Sherman have worked there,” replied Sol, “that they barely know the workers, themselves. It’s just a business decision for them…”
“Did you catch the article in the New York Times, when you were away, about the Catholic Church and limbo? Sol asked.
“No, I missed that one.”
“Apparently, the International Theological Commission – a group of the most respected Catholic scholars – met at the Vatican to advise the Pope on the “Doctrine of Limbo”. According to St. Augustine, each of us is subject to the “Doctrine of Original Sin”; unless we’re baptized, we’re not eligible for salvation. Unbaptized babies, fetuses, virtuous pagans who preceded Christianity – they’re all simply consigned to Hell. Apparently, limbo was invented as a gentler place for unbaptized babies.”
“Reminds me of Kate, our Hyde Park roommate.” he said. “Didn’t she write her dissertation on St. Augustine?”
“Yes, she did; and it took her long enough to do it. According to Aquinas, there’s a limbo for the unbaptized, and another for virtuous non-christians like Moses and pagans, like Socrates and Virgil.”
“Amazing – grown men disputing the merits of hell vs limbo!“ he chuckled. “In this corner – unbaptized babies – roasting like hams on spits in hell; and, in the far corner, aborted fetuses – wandering aimlessly through limbo’s clouds. It reminds me of our philosophy profs at Michigan. Remember Aubrey Fitch?”
“Of course – what a character! He’d have a field day with the “Doctrine of Limbo”! Why, I can see him – like it was yesterday – framed by the blackboard, leaning against the lecturn. That large, longish head, hair falling in a wave across his brow. Those big horsey teeth, lantern jaw, eyes that pierced you like a lens, through his wire-rimmed specs.”
“And what a voice!” he exclaimed. “Like a Medieval instrument – krumhorn or shawm. High and nasal – with that Cambridge drawl –and an entire repertoire of mannerisms and phrase.”
“How decidedly trivial.” Sol said with an accent, a sigh and a shake of the head. “How patently false.” He continued, as his eyebrows rose, almost detaching themselves from his brow.
“What could that mean?”he added. “Could that possibly mean? Weasel words and all?”
Hearing their neighbor’s cats gallop across the ceiling, Quark bolted down the hallway into the kitchen. When he returned to the living room, he began a plaintive chorus of miaows.
“Not bad for a grandpa cat!” said Sol.
“But all he ever says is ‘miaow’. He complained. “Can’t he a least enlarge his repertoire – learn to bark or moo like a cow?”
Sol imitated Quarks whining; then pretended to flap his arms like wings, cackling like a hen.
“Brother, you missed your calling.” he laughed. “You’re even better than Quark!”
“Next, you’ll have him grow scales like a fish,” Sol replied, “or sprout wings like a vampire bat!” Sol scrutinized his mewing pet.
“Ah, the mysteries of the feline soul.” me mused, tickling Quark behind the ears.
As Sol removed his cycling shoes, there was the sandpaper sound of Velcro. Then he rose from his seat on the floor to lie on the couch, behind him. It stood against the wall, forming an L, together with the love seat on which he, himself, lay. As the evening advanced, they watched “The Deep” on TV. A region of”…mountain ranges, perpetual night, pressure extremes and frigid cold…”, it had “…the weirdest forms of life on our planet…”
There was the Fangtooth, which possessed the largest teeth in the ocean; its fangs were so large that it couldn’t close its mouth! Next, came Siphonofores – gigantic jellyfish – and Harry Antlers covered with antennae. Some of these creatures were bioluminescent ( had light-producing cells), creating a pyrotechnical display of color in the dark. Others, like the Angler, had flashing lures to catch their prey. And there were the Sea Cucumbers, Deep Sea Mushrooms and the gruesome, Gulper Eel. Quark curled up on the couch beside Sol, where the two of them were soon fast asleep.
With the remote control, he muted the sound. Sol’s mouth was slightly open, his glasses remained on his face, and from his chest emerged an aria of snores. Great intakes of breath were followed by sighing exhalations, glissando gasps, flutter-tongue trills, snorts and groans. A rumbling purr was Quark’s response, as the pair performed a duet nocturnal.
He switched the TV off; closed his eyes and listened. There was the throbbing hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen; steam hissing from the radiator, beside him. Sounds of wind and waves, outside, made him open his eyes. And, as he gazed out the window, the lakeshore had unscrolled like a Chinese screen before him.
On the far side of the glass, was a great black tangle of branches, through which trees could beseen in the streetlamp’s ghostly light. Beyond, lay the beach, with its three brown piers, their battered walls armored with rusty iron plates. Columns of waves advanced on the darkened shoreline; their white crests skimmed the surface against the base note of the lake. And, at the far pier’s tip was a miniature lighthouse. Along it walked a tiny pair – who, because of his view’s foreshortening – appeared to stroll through the branches of the trees!
Inside, between the windows, stood an African mask. Its owlish abstract visage presided over the apartment like a private, household god. He turned to Sol, fast asleep on the couch. Quark had climbed onto its arm, where he’d perched on their grandmother’s afghan, his black coat seen against its zigzag black-and-white. He remembered, as a boy, watching his grandma crochet: row by row, she drew and looped the thick colored yarn with the hooks of her silvery needles. She’d learned as a girl; was seamstress, already, at twelve. To help support her family, she’d become a sewing machine, herself. It reminded him of his previous week in Detroit, where he’d covered his father with another of her hand-knit shawls.
He’d laid down on the couch, in his new apartment, after completing the move. On the desk beyond the couch, stood an African ceremonial knife, that he’d given his father when his parents last visited Chicago. That had been before they’d separated. On that final Sunday, before returning to Detrot,they’d visited the Art Institute of Chicago, together.
At the rear entrance, they’d rented wheelchairs, so his parents wouldn’t have to walk. He’d pushed his father, and Sol pushed his mother, across the polished parquet floors of the galleries. Passing a sculpture by Henry Moore (one of his father’s favorites),he was reminded of his “Reclining Figure” in Elmwood in Detroit. The sculptor had been inspired by a memory of his mother’s back. As he pushed, he studied his own father from the back: his pale scalp appearing beneath his tousled, white hair; his loose jowl hanging from his throat.
Passing slowly through the museum, they’d finally arrived at the elevator to the second floor. As the elevator door opened, a young couple emerged pushing a baby carriage. The middle-aged sons, with their elderly parents, faced the young parents with their infant son. As she spotted the baby boy, his mother’s face lit up. Turning to her own sons, she exclaimed with joy:
“You’re still by little boys!”
As he bent to kiss her forehead, Sol replied:
“Now you’re our little mother.”
That was three years earlier: before his parents’ separation. Lifting Quark from the couch and placing him gently on the carpet, he spread his grandma’s afghan over his sleeping brother.