Between white tablecloths and glassware and glancing silverware, through overfull light, the long figure of Mr. Perls went away into the darkness of the lobby. He thrust with his cane, and dragged a large built-up shoe which Wilhelm had not included in his estimate of troubles. Dr. Adler wanted to talk about him. “There’s a poor man,” he said, “with a bone condition which is gradually breaking him up.”
“One of those progressive diseases?” said Wilhelm.
“Very bad. I’ve learned,” the doctor told him, “to keep my sympathy for the real ailments. This Perls is more to be pitied than any man I know.”
Wilhelm understood he was being put on notice and did not express his opinion. He ate and ate. He did not hurry but kept putting food on his plate until he had gone through the muffins and his father’s strawberries, and then some pieces of bacon that were left; he had several cups of coffee, and when he was finished he sat gigantically in a state of arrest and didn’t seem to know what he should do next.
For a while father and son were uncommonly still. Wilhelm’s preparations to please Dr. Adler had failed completely, for the old man kept thinking, You’d never guess he had a clean upbringing, and, What a dirty devil this son of mine is. Why can’t he try to sweeten his appearance a little? Why does he want to drag himself like this? And he makes himself look so idealistic.
Wilhelm sat, mountainous. He was not really so slovenly as his father found him to be. In some aspects he even had a certain delicacy. His mouth, though broad, had a fine outline, and his brow and his gradually incurved nose, dignity, and in his blond hair there was white but there were also shades of gold and chestnut. When he was with the Rojax Corporation Wilhelm had kept a small apartment in Roxbury, two rooms in a large house with a small porch and garden, and on mornings of leisure, in late spring weather like this, he used to sit expanded in a wicker chair with the sunlight pouring through the weave, and sunlight through the slug-eaten holes of the young hollyhocks and as deeply as the grass allowed into small flowers. This peace (he forgot that the time had had its troubles, too), this peace was gone. It must not have belonged to him, really, for to be here in New York with his old father was more genuinely like his life. He was well aware that he didn’t stand a chance of getting sympathy from his father, who said he kept his for real ailments. Moreover, he advised himself repeatedly not to discuss his vexatious problems with him, for his father, with some justice, wanted to be left in peace. Wilhelm also knew that when he began to talk about these things he made himself feel worse, he became congested with them and worked himself into a clutch. Therefore he warned himself, Lay off, pal. It'll only be an aggravation. From a deeper source, however, came other promptings. If he didn't keep his troubles before him he risked losing them altogether, and he knew by experience that this was worse. And furthermore, he could not succeed in excusing his father on the ground of old age. No. No, he could not. I am his son, he thought. He is my father. He is as much father as I am son—old or not. Affirming this, though in complete silence, he sat, and sitting, he kept his father at the table with him.
“Wilky,” said the old man, “have you gone down to the baths here yet?”
“No, Dad, not yet.”
“Well, you know the Gloriana has one of the finest pools in New York. Eighty feet, blue tile. It’s a beauty.”
Wilhelm had seen it. On the way to the gin game you passed the stairway to the pool. He did not care for the odor of the wall-locked and chlorinated water.
“You ought to investigate the Russian and Turkisk baths, and the sunlamps and massage. I don’t hold with sunlamps. But the massage does a world of good, and there’s nothing better than hydrotherapy when you come right down to it. Simple water has a calming effect and would do you more good than all the barbiturates and alcohol in the world.”
Wilhelm reflected that this advice was as far as his father’s help and sympathy would extend.
“I thought,” he said, “that the water cure was for lunatics.”
The doctor received this as one of his son’s jokes and said with a smile, “Well, it won’t turn a sane man into a lunatic. It does a great deal for me. I couldn’t live without my massages and steam.”
“You’re probably right. I ought to try it one of these days. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, my head was about to bust and I just had to have a little air, so I walked around the reservoir, and I sat down for a while in a playground. It rests me to watch the kids play potsy and skiprope.”
The doctor said with approval, “Well, now, that’s more like the idea.”
“It’s the end of the lilacs,” said Wilhelm. “When they burn it’s the beginning of the summer. At least, in the city. Around the time of year when the candy stores take down the windows and start to sell sodas on the sidewalk, But even though I was raised here, Dad, I can't take city life any more, and I miss the country. There's too much push here for me. It works me up too much. I take things too hard. I wonder why you never retired to a quieter place.”
The doctor opened his small hand on the table in a gesture so old and so typical that Wilhelm felt it like an actual touch upon the foundations of his life. “I am a city boy myself, you must remember,” Dr. Adler explained. “But if you find the city so hard on you, you ought to get out.”
“I’ll do that,” said Wilhelm, “as soon as I can make the right connection. Meanwhile—”
His father interrupted. “Meanwhile I suggest you cut down on drugs.”
“You exaggerate that, Dad. I don’t really— I give myself a little boost against—” He almost pronounced the word “misery” but he kept his resolution not to complain.
The doctor, however, fell into the error of pushing his advice too hard. It was all he had to give his son and he gave it once more. “Water and exercise,” he said.
He wants a young, smart, successful son, thought Wilhelm, and he said, “Oh, Father, it's nice of you to give me this medical advice, but steam isn't going to cure what ails me.”
The doctor measurably drew back, warned by the sudden weak strain of Wilhelm’s voice and all that the droop of his face, the swell of his belly against the restraint of his belt intimated.
“Some new business?” he asked unwillingly. Wilhelm made a great preliminary summary which involved the whole of his body. He drew and held a long breath, and his color changed and his eyes swam. “New?” he said.
“You make too much of your problems,” said the doctor. “They ought not to be turned into a career. Concentrate on real troubles—fatal sickness, accidents.” The old man’s whole manner said, Wilky, don’t start this on me. I have a right to be spared.
Wilhelm himself prayed for restraint; he knew this weakness of his and fought it. He knew, also, his father’s character. And he began mildly, “As far as the fatal part of it goes, everyone on this side of the grave is the same distance from death. No, I guess my trouble is not exactly new. I’ve got to pay premiums on two policies for the boys. Margaret sent them to me. She unloads everything on me. Her mother left her an income. She won’t even file a joint tax return. I get stuck. Etcetera. But you’ve heard the whole story before.”
“I certainly have,” said the old man. “And I’ve told you to stop giving her so much money.”
Wilhelm worked his lips in silence before he could speak. The congestion was growing. “Oh, but my kids, Father. My kids. I love them. I don’t want them to lack anything.”
The doctor said with a half-def benevolence, “Well, naturally. And she, I’ll bet, is the beneficiary of that policy.”
“Let her be. I’d sooner die myself before I collected a cent of such money.”
“Ah yes.” The old man sighed. He did not like the mention of death. “Did I tell you that your sister Catherine—Philippa—is after me again.”
“She wants to rent a gallery for an exhibition.”
Stiffly fair-minded, Wilhelm said, “Well, of course that’s up to you, Father.”
The round-headed old man with his fine, feather-white, ferny hair said, “No, Wilky. There’s not a thing on those canvases. I don’t believe it; it’s a case of the emperor’s clothes. I may be old enough for my second childhood, but at least the first is well behind me. I was glad enough to buy crayons for her when she was four. But now she’s a woman of forty and too old to be encouraged in her delusions. She’s no painter.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a born artist,” said Wilhelm, “but you can’t blame her for trying something worth while.”
“Let her husband pamper her.”
Wilhelm had done his best to be just to his sister, and he had sincerely meant to spare his father, but the old man’s tight, benevolent deafness had its usual effect on him. He said, “When it comes to women and money, I’m completely in the dark. What makes Margaret act like this?”
“She’s showing you that you can’t make it without her,” said the doctor. “She aims to bring you back by financial force.”
“But if she ruins me, Dad, how can she expect me to come back? No, I have a sense of honor. What you don’t see is that she’s trying to put an end to me.”
His father stared. To him this was absurd. And Wilhelm thought, Once a guy starts to slip, he figures he might as well be a clunk. A real big clunk. He even takes pride in it. But there’s nothing to be proud of—hey, boy? Nothing. I don’t blame Dad for his attitude. And it’s no cause for pride.
“I don’t understand that. But if you feel like this why don’t you settle with her once and for all?”
“What do you mean, Dad?” said Wilhelm, surprised. “I thought I told you. Do you think I’m not willing to settle? Four years ago when we broke up I gave her everything—goods, furniture, savings. I tried to show good will, but I didn’t get anywhere. Why when I wanted Scissors, the dog, because the animal and I were so attached to each other—it was bad enough to leave the kids—she absolutely refused me. Not that she cared a damn about the animal. I don’t think you’ve seen him. He’s an Australian sheep dog. They usually have one blank or whitish eye which gives a misleading look, but they’re the gentlest dogs and have unusual delicacy about eating or talking. Let me at least have the companionship of this animal. Never.” Wilhelm was greatly moved. He wiped his face at all corners with his napkin. Dr. Adler felt that his son was indulging himself too much in his emotions.
“Whenever she can hit me, she hits, and she seems to live for that alone. And she demands more and more, and still more. Two years ago she wanted to go back to college and get another degree. It increased my burden but I thought it would be wiser in the end if she got a better job through it. But still she takes as much from me as before. Next thing she’ll want to be a Doctor of Philosophy. She says the women in her family live long, and I’ll have to pay and pay for the rest of my life.”
The doctor said impatiently, “Well, these are details, not principles. Just details which you can leave out. The dog! You’re mixing up all kinds of irrelevant things. Go to a good lawyer.”
“But I’ve already told you, Dad. I got a lawyer, and she got one, too, and both of them talk and send me bills, and I eat my heart out. Oh, Dad, Dad, what a hole I’m in! said Wilhelm in utter misery. “The lawyers—see?—draw up an agreement, and she says okay on Monday and wants more money on Tuesday. And it begins again.”
“I always thought she was a strange kind of woman,” said Dr. Adler. He felt that by disliking Margaret from the first and disapproving of the marriage he had done all that he could be expected to do.
“Strange, Father? I’ll show you what she’s like.” Wilhelm took hold of his broad throat with brown-stained fingers and bitten nails and began to choke himself.
“What are you doing?” cried the old man.
“I’m showing you what she does to me.”
“Stop that—stop it!” the old man said and tapped the table commandingly.