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Chapter 6(1 / 2)

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Rye was still ahead when they went out to lunch, and lard was holding its own.

They ate in the cafeteria with the gilded front. There was the same art inside as outside. The food looked' sumptuous. Whole fishes were framed like pictures with carrots, and the salads were like terraced landscapes or like Mexican pyramids; slices of lemon and onion and radishes were like sun and moon and stars; the cream pies were about a foot thick and the cakes swoHel6 as if sleepers had baked them in their dreams.

“What'll you have?” said Tamkin.

“Not much. I ate a big breakfast. I'll find a table. Bring me some yogurt and crackers and a cup of tea. I don't want to spend much time over lunch.”

Tamkin said, “You've got to eat.”

Finding an empty place at this hour was not easy. The old people idled and gossiped over their coffee. The elderly ladies were rouged and mascaraed and hennaed and used blue hair rinse and eye shadow and wore costume jewelry, and many of them were proud and stared at you with expressions that did not belong to their age. Were there no longer any respectable old ladies who knitted and cooked and looked after their grandchildren? Wilhelm’s grandmother had dressed him in a sailor suit and danced him on her knee, blew on the porridge for him and said, “Admiral, you must eat.” But what was the use of remembering this so late in the day?

He managed to find a table, and Dr. Tamkin came along with a tray piled with plates and cups. He had Yankee pot roast, purple cabbage, potatoes, a big slice of watermelon, and two cups of coffee. Wilhelm could not even swallow his yogurt. His chest pained him still.

At once Tamkin involved him in a lengthy discussion. Did he do it to stall Wilhelm and prevent him from selling out the rye–or to recover the ground lost when he had made Wilhelm angry by hints about the neurotic character? Or did he have no purpose except to talk?

“I think you worry a lot too much about what your wife and your father will say. Do they matter so much?”

Wilhelm replied, “A person can become tired of looking himself over and trying to fix himself up. You can spend 'the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.”

“I believe your dad told me he had, some money to leave you.”

“He probably does have something.”

“A lot?”

“Who can tell,” said Wilhelm guardedly.

“You ought to think over what you'll do with it.”

“I may , be too feeble to do anything by the time I get it. If I get anything.”

“A thing like this you ought to plan out carefully. Invest it properly.” He began to unfold schemes whereby you bought bonds, and used the bonds as security to buy something else and thereby earned twelve per cent safely .on your money. Wilhelm failed to follow the details. Tamkin said, “If he made you a gift now, you wouldn't have to pay the inheritance taxes.”

Bitterly, Wilhelm told him, “My father's death blots out all other considerations from his mind. He forces me to think about it, too. Then he hates me because he succeeds. When I get desperate–of course I think about money. But I don't want anything to happen to him. I certainly don't want him to die.” Tamkin's brown eyes glittered shrewdly at him. “You don't believe it. Maybe it's not psychological. But on my word of honor' A joke is a joke, but I don't want to joke about stuff like this. When dies, I'll be robbed, like. I'll have no more father.”

“You love your old man?”

Wilhelm grasped at this. “Of course, of course I love him. My father. My mother–” As he said this there was a great pull at the very center of his soul. When a fish strikes the line you feel the live force in your hand. A mysterious being beneath the water, driven by hunger, has taken the hook and rushes away and fights, writhing. Wilhelm never identified what struck within him. It did not reveal itself. It got away.

And Tamkin, the confuser of the imagination, began to tell, or to fabricate, the strange history of his father. “He was a great singer,” he said. “He left us five kids because he fell in love with an opera soprano. I never held it against him, but admired the way he followed the life-principle. I wanted to do the same. Because of unhappiness, at a certain age, the brain starts to die back.” (True, true! thought Wilhelm.) “Twenty years later I was doing experiments in Eastman Kodak, Rochester, and I found the old fellow. He had five more children.” (False, false!) “He wept; he was ashamed. I had nothing against him. I naturally felt strange.”

“My dad is something of a stranger to me, too,” said Wilhelm, and he began to muse. Where is the familiar person he used to be? Or I used to be? Catherine–she won't even talk to me any more, my own sister. It may not be so much my trouble that Papa turns his back on as my confusion. It's too much. The ruins of life, and on top of that confusion–chaos and old night. Is it an easier farewell for Dad if we don't part friends? He should maybe do it angrily–”Blast you with my curse!” And why, Wilhelm further asked, should he or anybody else pity me; or why should I be pitied sooner than another fellow? It is my childish mind that thinks people are ready to give it just because you need it.

Then Wilhelm began to think about his own two sons and to wonder how he appeared to them, and what they would think of him. Right now he had an advantage ,through baseball. When he went to fetch them, to go to Ebbets Field, though, he was not himself. He put on a front but he felt as if he had swallowed a fistful of sand. The strange, familiar house, horribly awkward; the dog, Scissors, rolled over on his back and barked and whined. Wilhelm acted as if there were nothing irregular, but a weary heaviness came over him. On the way to Flatbush he would think up anecdotes about old Pigtown and Charlie Ebbets for the boys and reminiscences of the old stars, but it was very heavy going. They did not know how much he cared for them. No. It hurt him greatly and he blamed Margaret for turning them against him. She wanted to ruin him, while she wore the mask of kindness. Up in Roxbury he had to go and explain to the priest, who was not sympathetic. They don't care about individuals, their rules come first. Olive said she would marry him outside the Church when he was divorced. But Margaret would not let go. Olive's father was a pretty decent old guy, an osteopath, and he understood what it was all about. Finally he said, “See here, I have to advise Olive. She is asking me. I am mostly a freethinker myself, but the girl has to live in this town.” And by now Wilhelm and Olive had had a great many troubles and she was beginning to dread his days in Roxbury, she said. He trembled at offending this small, pretty, dark girl whom he adored. When she would get up late on Sunday morning she would wake him almost in tears at being late for Mass. He would try to help her hitch her garters and smooth out her slip and dress even put on her hat with shaky hands; then he would rush her to church and drive in second gear in his forgetful way, trying to apologize and to calm her. She got out a block from church to avoid gossip. Even so she loved him, and she would have married him if he had obtained the divorce. But Margaret must have sensed this. Margaret would tell him he did not really want a divorce; he was afraid of it. He cried, “Take everything I've got, Margaret. Let me go to Reno. Don't you want to marry again?” No. She went out with other men, but took his money. She lived in order to punish him.

Dr. Tamkin told Wilhelm, “Your dad is jealous of you.”

Wilhelm smiled. “Of me? That's rich.”

“Sure. People are always jealous of a man who leaves his wife.”

“Oh,” said Wilhelm scornfully. “When it comes to wives he wouldn't have to envy me.”

“Yes, and your wife envies you, too. She thinks, He's free and goes with young women. Is she getting old?”

“Not exactly old,” said Wilhelm, whom the mention of his wife made sad. Twenty years ago, in a neat blue wool suit, in a soft hat made of the same cloth–he could plainly see her. He stooped his yellow head and looked under the hat at her clear, simple face, her living eyes moving, her straight small nose, her jaw beautifully painfully clear in its form. It was a cool day, but smelled the odor of pines in the sun, in the granite canyon. Just south of Santa Barbara, this was.

“She's forty-some years old,” he said.

“I was married to a lush,” said Tamkin. “A painful alcoholic. I couldn't take her out to dinner because she'd say she was going to the ladies' toilet and disappear in the bar. I'd ask the bartenders they shouldn't serve her. But I loved her deeply. She was the most spiritual woman of my entire experience.”

“Where is she now?”

“Drowned,” said Tamkin. “At Provincetown, Cape Cod. It must have been a suicide. She was that way–suicidal. I tried everything in my power to cure her. Because,” said Tamkin, “my real calling is to be a healer. I get wounded. I suffer from it. I would like to escape from the sicknesses of others, but I can't. I am only on loan to myself, so to speak. I belong to humanity.”

Liar! Wilhelm inwardly called him. Nasty lies. He invented a woman and killed her off and then called himself a healer, and made himself so earnest he looked like a bad-natured sheep. He's a puffed-up little bogus and humbug with smelly feet. A doctor! A doctor would wash himself. He believes he's making a terrific impression, and he practically invites you to take off your hat when he talks about himself; and he thinks he has an imagination, but he hasn't; neither is he smart.

Then what am I doing with him here, and why did I give him the seven hundred dollars? thought Wilhelm.

Oh, this was a day of reckoning. It was a day, he thought, on which, willing or not, he would take a good close look at the truth. He breathed hard and his misshapen hat came low upon his congested dark blond face. A rude look. Tamkin was a charlatan, and furthermore he was desperate. And furthermore, Wilhelm had always known this about him. But he appeared to have worked it out at the back of his mind that Tamkin for thirty or forty years had gotten through many a tight place, that he would get through this crisis too and bring him, Wilhelm, to safety also. And Wilhelm realized that he was on Tamkin's back. It made him feel that he had virtually left the ground and was riding upon the other man. He was in the air. It was for Tamkin to take the steps.

The doctor, if he was a doctor, did not look anxious. But then his face did not have much variety. Talking always about spontaneous emotion and open receptors and free impulses, he was about as expressive as a pincushion. When his hypnotic spell failed, his big underlip made him look weak-minded. Fear stared from his eyes, some times, so humble as to make you sorry for him. Once or twice Wilhelm had seen that look. Like a dog, he thought. Perhaps he didn't look it now, but he was very nervous. Wilhelm knew, but he could not afford to recognize this too openly. The doctor needed a little room, a little time. He should not be pressed now. So Tamkin went on, telling his tales.

Wilhelm said to himself, I am on his back–his back. I gambled seven hundred bucks, so I must take this ride. I have to go along with him. It's too late. I can't get off.

“You know,” Tamkin said, “that blind old man Rappaport–he's pretty close to totally blind–is one of the most interesting personalities around here. If you could only get him to tell his true story. It's fascinating. This what he told me. You often hear about bigamists with a secret life. But this old man never hid anything from anybody. He's a regular patriarch. Now, I'll tell you what he did. He had two whole families, separate and apart, one in Williamsburg and the other in The Bronx. The two wives knew about each other. The wife in The Bronx was younger; she's close to seventy now. When he got sore at one wife he went to live with the other one. Meanwhile he ran his chicken business in New Jersey. By one wife he had four kids, and by the other six. They're all grown, but they never have met their half-brothers and sisters and don't want to. The whole bunch of them are listed in the telephone book.”

“I can't believe it,” said Wilhelm.

“He told me this himself. And do you know what else?' When he had his eyesight he used to read a lot, but the only books he would read were by Theodore Roosevelt. He had a set in each of the places where he lived, and he brought his kids up on those books.”

“Please,” said Wilhelm, “don't feed me any more of this stuff, will you? Kindly do not—”

“In telling you this,” said Tamkin with one of his hypnotic subtleties, “I do have a motive. I want you to see how some people free themselves from morbid guilt feelings and follow their instincts. Innately, the female knows how to cripple by sickening a man with guilt. It is a very special destruct, and she sends her curse to make a fellow impotent. As if she says, 'Unless I allow it, you will never more be a man.' But men like my old dad or Mr. Rappaport answer, 'Woman, what art thou to me?' You can't do that yet. You're a halfway case. You want to follow your instinct, but you're too worried still. For instance, about your kids–”

“Now look here,” said Wilhelm, stamping his feet. “One thing! Don't bring up my boys. Just lay off.”

“I was only going to say that they are better off than with conflicts in the home.”

“I'm deprived of my children.” Wilhelm bit his lip. It was too late to turn away. The anguish struck him. “I pay and pay. I never see them. They grow up without me. She makes them like herself. She'll bring them up to be my enemies. Please let's not talk about this.”

But Tamkin said, “Why do you let her make you suffer so? It defeats the original object in leaving her. Don't play her game. Now, Wilhelm, I'm trying to do you some good. I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery.”

When Wilhelm heard this he had, in spite of himself, to admit that there was a great deal in Tamkin's words. Yes, thought Wilhelm, suffering is the only kind of life they are sure they can have, and if they quit suffering they're afraid they'll have nothing. He knows it. This time the faker knows what he's talking about.

Looking at Tamkin he believed he saw all this confessed from his usually barren face. Yes, yes, he too. One hundred falsehoods, but at last one truth. Howling like a wolf from the city window. No one can bear it any more. Everyone is so full of it that at last everybody must proclaim it. It! It!

Then suddenly Wilhelm rose and said, “That's enough of this. Tamkin, let's go back to the market.”

“I haven't finished my melon.”

“Never mind that. You've had enough to eat. I want to go back.”

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