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Chapter 2(1 / 2)

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The mail.

The clerk who gave it to him did not carte what sort of appearance he made this morning. He only glanced at him from under his brows, upward, as the letters changed hands. Why should the hotel people waste courtesies on him? They had his number. The clerk knew that he was handing him, along with the letters, a bill for his rent. Wilhelm assumed a look that removed him from all such things. But it was bad. To pay the bill he would have to withdraw money from his brokerage account, and the account was being watched because of the drop in lard. According to the Tribune’s figures lard was still twenty points below last year’s level. There were government price supports. Wilhelm didn’t know how these worked be he understood that the farmed was protected and that the SEC kept an eye on the market and therefore he believed that lard would rise again and he wasn’t greatly worried as yet. But in the meantime his father might offered to pick up his hotel tab. Why didn’t he? What a selfish old man he was! He saw his son’s hardships; he could so easily help him. How little it would mean to him, and how much to Wilhelm! Where was the old man’s heart? Maybe thought Wilhelm, I was sentimental in the past, and exaggerated his kindliness—warm family life. It may never have been there.

Not long ago his father has said to him in his usual affable, pleasant way, “Well, Wilky, here we are under the same roof again, after all these years.”

Wilhelm was glad for an instant. At last they would talk over old times. But he was also on guard against insinuations. Wasn’t his father saying, “Why are you here in a hotel with me and not at home in Brooklyn with your wife and two boys. You’re neither a widower nor a bachelor. You have brought me all your confusions. What do you expect me to do with them?”

So Wilhelm studied the remark for a bit, then said, “The roof is twenty-six stories up. But how many years has it been?”

“That’s what I was asking you.”

“Gosh, Dad, I’m not sure. Wasn’t it the year Mother died? What year was that?”

He asked this question with an innocent frown on his Golden Grimes, dark blond face. What year was it! As though he didn’t know the year, the month, the day, the very hour of his mother’s death.

Wasn’t it nineteen thirty-one?” asked Dr. Adler.

“Oh, was it?” said Wilhelm. And in hiding the sadness and the overwhelming irony of the question he gave a nervous shiver and wagged his head and felt the ends of his collar rapidly.

“Do you know?” his father said. “You must realize, an old fellow’s memory becomes unreliable. It was in winter, that I’m sure of. Nineteen-thirty-two?”

Yes, it was age. Don’t make an issue of it, Wilhelm advised himself. If you were to ask the old doctor in what year he had interned, he’d tell you correctly. All the same, don’t make an issue. Don’t quarrel with your own father. Have pity on an old man’s failings.

“I believe the year was closer to nineteen-thirty-four, Dad,” he said.

But Dr. Adler was thinking. Why the devil can’t he stand still when we’re talking? He’s either hoisting his pants up and down by the pockets or jittering with his feet. A regular mountain of tics, he’s getting to be. Wilhelm had a habit of moving his feet back and forth as though, hurrying into a house, he had to clean his shoes first on the doormat.

Then Wilhelm had said, “Yes, that was the beginning of the end, wasn’t it, Father?”

Wilhelm often astonished Dr. Adler. Beginning of the end? What could he mean—what was he fishing for? Whose end? The end of family life? The old man was puzzled but he would not give Wilhelm an opening to introduce his complaints. He had learned that it was better not to take up Wilhelm’s strange challenges. So he merely agreed pleasantly, for he was a master of social behavior, and said, “It was an awful misfortune for us all.”

He thought, What business has he to complain to me of his mother’s death?

Face to face they had stood, each declaring himself silently after his own way. It was: it was not; the beginning of the end—some end.

Unaware of anything odd in his doing it, for he did it all the time, Wilhelm had pinched out the coal of his cigarette and dropped the butt in his pocket, where there were many more. And as he gazed at his father the little finger of his right hand began to twitch and tremble; of that he was unconscious, too.

And yet Wilhelm believed that when he put his mind to it he could have perfect and even distinguished manners, outdoing his father. Despite the slight thickness in his speech—it amounted almost to a stammer when he started the same phrase over several times in his effort to eliminate the thick sound—he could be fluent. Otherwise he would never have made a good salesman. He claimed also that he was a good listener. When he listened he made a tight mouth and rolled his eyes thoughtfully. He would soon tire and begin to utter short, loud, impatient breaths, and he would say, “Oh yes . . . yes . . . yes. I couldn't agree more.” When he was forced to differ he would declare, “Well I'm not sure. I don't really see it that way. I'm of two minds about it.” He would never willingly hurt any man's feelings.

But in conversation with his father he was apt to lose control of himself. After any talk with Dr. Adler, Wilhelm generally felt dissatisfied, and his dissatisfaction reached its greatest intensity when they discussed family matters. Ostensibly he had been trying to help the old man to remember a date, but in reality he meant to tell him, “You were set free when Ma died. You’d like to get rid of Catherine, too. Me, too. You’re not kidding anyone”—Wilhelm striving to put this across, and the old man not having it. In the end he was left struggling, while his father seemed unmoved.

And then once more Wilhelm had said to himself, “But man! you’re not a kid. Even then you weren’t a kid!” He looked down over the front of his big, indecently big, spoiled body. He was beginning to lose his shape, his gut was fat, and he looked like a hippopotamus. His younger son called him “a hummuspotamus”; that was little Paul. And here he was still struggling with his old dada, filled with ancient grievances. Instead of saying, “Good-by, youth! Oh, good-by those marvelous, foolish wasted days. What a big clunk I was--—I am.”

Wilhelm was still paying heavily for his mistakes. His wife Margaret would not give him a divorce, and he had to support her and the two children. She would regularly agree to divorce him, and then think things over again and set new and more difficult conditions. No court would have awarded her the amounts he paid. One of today’s letters, as he had expected, was from her. For the first time he had sent her a postdated check, and she protested. She also enclosed bills for the boys’ educational insurance policies, due next week. Wilhelm’s mother-in-law had taken out these policies in Beverly Hills, and since her death two years ago he had to pay the premiums. Why couldn’t she have minded her own business! They were his kids, and he took care of them and always would. He had planned to set up a trust fund. But that was on his former expectations. Now he had to rethink the future, because of the money problem. Meanwhile, here were the bills to be paid. When he saw the two sums punched out so neatly on the cards he cursed the company and its IBM equipment. His heart and his head were congested with anger. Everyone was supposed to have money. It was nothing to the company. They published pictures of funerals in the magazines and frightened the suckers, and then punched out little holes, and the customers would lie awake to think out ways to raise the dough. They’d be ashamed not to have it. They couldn’t let a great company down, either, and they got the scratch. In the old days a man was put in prison for debt, but there were subtler things now. They made it a shame not to have money and set everybody to work.

Well, and what else had Margaret sent him? He tore the envelope open with his thumb, swearing that he would send any other bills back to her. There was, luckily, nothing more. He put the hole-punched cards in his pocket. Didn’t Margaret know that he was nearly at the end of his rope? Of course. Her instinct told her that this was her opportunity, and she was giving him the works.

He went it the dining room, which was under Austro-Hungarian management at the Hotel Gloriana. It was run like a European establishment. The pastries were excellent, especially the strudel. He often had apple strudel and coffee in the afternoon.

As soon as he entered he saw his father’s small head in the sunny bay at the farther end, and heard his precise voice. It was with an odd sort of perilous expression that Wilhelm crossed the dining room.

Dr. Adler liked to sit in a corner that looked across Broadway down to the Hudson and New Jersey. On the other side of the street was a supermodern cafeteria with gold and purple mosaic columns. On the second floor a private-eye school, a dental laboratory, a reducing parlor, a veteran's club, and a Hebrew school shared the space. The old man was sprinkling sugar on his strawberries. Small hoops of brilliance were cast by the water glasses on the white tablecloth, despite a faint murkiness in the sunshine. It was early summer, and the long window was turned inward; a moth was on the pane; the putty was broken and the white enamel on the frames was streaming with wrinkles.

“Ha, Wilky,” said the old man to his tardy son. “You haven’t met our neighbor Mr. Perls, have you? From the fifteenth floor.”

“How d’do,” Wilhelm said. He did not welcome this stranger; he began at once to find fault with him. Mr. Perls carried a heavy cane with a crutch tip. Dyed hair, a skinny forehead—these were not reasons for bias. Nor was it Mr. Perls’s fault that Dr. Adler was using him, not wishing to have breakfast with his son alone. But a gruffer voice within Wilhelm spoke, asking “Who is this damn frazzle-faced herring with his dyed hair and his fish teeth and this drippy mustache? Another one of Dad’s German friends. Where does he collect all these guys? What is the stuff on his teeth? I never saw such pointed crowns. Are they stainless steel, or a kind of silver? How can a human face get into this condition? Uch!” Staring with his widely spaced gray eyes, Wilhelm sat, his broad back stooped under the sports jacket. He clasped his hands on the table with an implication of suppliance. Then he began to relent a little toward Mr. Perls, beginning at the teeth. Each of those crowns represented a tooth ground to the quick, and estimating a man's grief with his teeth as two per cent of the total, and adding to that his flight from Germany and the probable origin of his wincing wrinkles, not to be confused with the wrinkles of his smile, it came to a sizable load.

“Mr. Perls was a hosiery wholesaler,” said Dr. Adler.

“Is this the son you told me was in the selling line?” said Mr. Perls.

“Dr. Adler replied, “I have only this one son. One daughter. She was a medical technician before she got married—anesthetist. At one time she had an important position in Mount Sinai.”

He couldn’t mention his children without boasting. In Wilhelm’s opinion, there was little to boast of. Catherine, like Wilhelm, was big and fair-haired. She had married a court reporter who had a pretty hard time of it. She had taken a professional name, too – Philippa. At forty she was still ambitious to become a painter. Wilhelm didn’t venture to criticize her work. It didn’t do much to him, he said, but then he was no critic. Anyway, he and his sister were generally on the outs and he didn’t often see her paintings. She worked very hard, but there were fifty thousand people in New York with paints and brushes, each practically a law unto himself. It was the Tower of Babel in paint. He didn’t want to go far into this. Things were chaotic all over.

Dr. Adler thought that Wilhelm looked particularly untidy this morning – unrested, too, his eyes red-rimmed from excessive smoking. He was breathing through his mouth and he was evidently much distracted and rolled his red-shot eyes barbarously. As usual, his coat collar was turned up as though he had had to go out in the rain. When he went to business he pulled himself together a little; otherwise he let himself go and looked like hell.

“What’s the matter, Wilky, didn’t you sleep last night?”

“Not very much.”

“You take too many pills of every kind—first stimulants and then depressants, anodynes followed by analeptics, until the poor organism doesn’t know what’s happened. Then the luminal won’t put people to sleep, and the Pervitin or Benzedrine won’t wake them up. God knows! These things get to be as serious as poisons, and yet everyone puts all their faith in them.”

“No, Dad, it’s not the pills. It’s that I'm not used to New York anymore. For a native, that's very peculiar, isn't it? It was never so noisy at night as now, and every little thing is a strain. Like the alternate parking. You have to run out at eight to move your car. And where can you put it? If you forget for a minute they tow you away. Then some fool puts advertising leaflets under your windshield wiper and you have heart failure a block away because you think you've got a ticket. When you do get stung with a ticket, you can’t argue. You haven’t got a chance in court and the city wants the revenue!”

“But in your line you have to have a car, eh?” said Mr. Perls.

“Lord knows why any lunatic would want one in the city who didn’t need it for his livelihood.”

Wilhelm’s old Pontiac was parked in the street. Formerly, when on an expense account, he had always put it up in a garage. Now he was afraid to move the car from Riverside Drive lest he lose his space, and he used it only on Saturdays when the Dodgers were playing in Ebbets Field and he took his boys to the game. Last Saturday, when the Dodgers were out of town, he had gone out to visit his mother’s grave.

Dr. Adler had refused to go along. He couldn’t bear his son’s driving. Forgetfully, Wilhelm traveled for miles in second gear; he was seldom in the right lane and he neither gave signals nor watched for lights. The upholstery of his Pontiac was filthy with grease and ashes. One cigarette burned in the ashtray, another in his hand, a third on the floor with maps and other waste paper and Coca-Cola bottles. He dreamed at the wheel or argued and gestured, and therefore the old doctor would not ride with him.

Then Wilhelm had come back form the cemetery angry because the stone bench between his mother’s and his grandmother’s graves had been overturned and broken by vandals. “Those damn teen-age hoodlums get worse and worse,” he said. “Why, they must have used a sledgehammer to break the seat smack in half like that. If I could catch one of them!” He wanted the doctor to pay for a new seat, but his father was cool to the idea. He said he was going to have himself cremated.

Mr. Perls said, “I don’t blame you if you get no sleep up where you are.” His voice was tuned somewhat sharp, as though he were slightly deaf. “Don’t you have Parigi the singing teacher there? God, they have some queer elements in this hotel. On which floor is that Estonian woman with all her cats and dogs. They should have made her leave long ago.”

“They’ve moved her down to twelve,” said Dr. Adler.

Wilhelm ordered a large Coca-Cola with his breakfast. Working in secret at the small envelopes in his pocket, he found two pills by touch. Much fingering had worn and weakened the paper. Under cover of a napkin he swallowed a Phenaphen sedative and a Unicap, but the doctor was sharp-eyed and said, “Wilky, what are you taking now?”

“Just my vitamin pills.” He put his cigar butt in an ashtray on the table behind him, for his father did not like the odor. Then he drank his Coca-Cola.

“That’s what you drink for breakfast, and not orange juice?” said Mr. Perls. He seemed to sense that he would not lose Dr. Adler’s favor by taking an ironic tone with his son.

“The caffeine stimulates brain activity,” said the old doctor. “It does all kinds of things to the respiratory center.”

“It’s just a habit of the road, that’s all,” Wilhelm said. “if you drive around long enough it turns your brains, your stomach, and everything else.”

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