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Chapter 7(1 / 2)

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I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on MY back, and I thought I was on his. He made me carry him, too, besides Margaret. Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones.

Once more the hoary old fiddler pointed his bow at Wilhelm as he hurried by. Wilhelm rejected his begging and denied the omen. He dodged heavily through traffic and with his quick, small steps ran up the lower stairway of the Gloriana Hotel with its dark-tinted mirrors, kind to people's defects. From the lobby he phoned Tamkin's room, and when no one answered he took the elevator up. A rouged woman in her fifties with a mink stole led three tiny dogs on a leash, high-strung creatures with prominent black eyes, like dwarf deer, and legs like twigs. This was the eccentric Estonian lady who had been moved with her pets to the twelfth floor.

She identified Wilhelm. “You are Doctor Adler's son,” she said.

Formally, he nodded.

“I am a dear friend of your father.”

He stood in the comer and would not meet her glance, and she thought he was snubbing her and made a mental note to speak of it to the doctor.

The linen-wagon stood at Tamkin's door, and the chambermaid's key with its big brass tongue was in the lock.

Has Doctor Tamkin been here?” he asked her.

“No, I haven't seen him.”

Wilhelm came in, however, to look around. He examined the photos on the desk, trying to connect the faces with the strange people in Tamkin's stories. Big, heavy volumes were stacked under the double-pronged TV aerial. Science and Sanity, he read, and there were several books of poetry. The Wall Street Journal hung in separate sheets from the bed-table under the weight of the silver water jug. A bathrobe with lightening streaks of red and white was laid across the foot of the bed with a pair of expensive batik pajamas. It was a box of a room, but from the windows you saw the river as far uptown as the bridge, as far downtown as Hoboken. What lay between was deep, azure, dirty, complex, crystal, rusty, with the red bones of new apartments rising on the bluffs of New Jersey, and huge liners in their berths, the tugs with matted beards of cordage. Even the brackish tidal river smell rose this high, like the smell of mop water., From every side he heard pianos, and the voices of men and women singing scales and opera, all mixed, and the sounds of pigeons on the ledges.

Again Wilhelm took the phone. “Can you locate Doctor Tamkin in the lobby for me?” he asked. And when the operator reported that she could not, Wilhelm gave the number of his father's room, but Dr. Adler was not in either. “Well, please give me the masseur. I say the massage room. Don't you understand me? The men's health club. Yes, Max Schilper's–how am I supposed to know the name of it?”

There a strange voice said, “Toktor Adler?” It was the old Czech prizefighter with the deformed nose and ears who was attendant down there and gave out soap, sheets, and sandals. He went away. A hollow endless silence followed. Wilhelm flickered the receiver with his nails, whistled into it, but could not summon either the attendant or the operator.

The maid saw him examining the bottles of pills on Tamkin's table and seemed suspicious of him. He was running low on Phenaphen pills and was looking for something else. But he swallowed one of his own tablets and, went out and rang again for the elevator. He went down to the health club. Through the steamy windows, when he emerged, he saw the reflection of the swimming pool swirling green at the bottom of the lowest stairway. He went through the locker-room curtains. Two men wrapped in towels were playing Ping-pong. They were awkward and the ball bounded high. The Negro in the toilet was shining shoes. He did not know Dr. Adler by name, and Wilhelm descended to the massage room. On the tables naked men were lying. It was not a brightly lighted place, and it was very hot, and under the white faint moons of the ceiling shone pale skins. Calendar pictures of pretty girls dressed in tiny fringes were pinned on the wall. On the first table, eyes deeply shut in heavy silent luxury lay a man with a full square beard and short legs, stocky and black-haired. He might have been an orthodox Russian. Wrapped in a sheet, waiting, the man beside him was newly shaved and red from the steambath. He had a big happy face and was dreaming. And after him was an athlete, strikingly muscled, powerful and young, with a strong white curve to his genital and a half-angry smile on his mouth. Dr. Adler was on the fourth table, and Wilhelm stood over his father's pale, slight body. His ribs were narrow and small, his belly round, white, and high. it had its own being, like something separate. His thighs were weak, the muscles of his arms had fallen, his throat was creased.

The masseur in his undershirt bent and whispered in his ear, “It’s your son,” and Dr. Adler opened his eyes into Wilhelm’s face. At once he saw the trouble it, and by an instantaneous reflex he removed himself from the danger of contagion, and he said serenely, “Well, have you taken my advice, Wilky?”

“Oh, Dad,” said Wilhelm.

“To take a swim and get a massage?”

“Did you get my note?” said Wilhelm.

“Yes, but I'm afraid you'll have to ask somebody else, because I can't. I had no idea you were so low on funds. How did you let it happen? Didn't you lay anything aside?”

“Oh, please, Dad,” said Wilhelm, almost bringing his hands together in a clasp.

“I'm sorry,” said the doctor. “I really am. But I have set up a rule. I've thought about it, I believe it is a good rule, and I don't want to change it. You haven’t acted wisely. What's the matter?”

“Everything. Just everything. What isn't? I did have a little, but I haven't been very smart.”

'You took some gamble? You lost it? Was it Tamkin? I told you, Wilky, not to build on that Tamkin. Did you? I suspect—”

“Yes, Dad, I'm afraid I trusted him.”

Dr. Adler surrendered his arm to the masseur, who was using wintergreen oil.

“Trusted! And got taken?”

“I'm afraid I kind of–” Wilhelm glanced at the masseur but he was absorbed in his work. He probably did not listen to conversations. “I did. I might as well say it. I should have listened to you.”

“Well, I won't remind you how often I warned you. It must be very painful.”

“Yes, Father, it is.”

“I don't know how many times you have to be burned in order to learn something. The same mistakes, over and over.”

“'I couldn't agree with you more,” said Wilhelm with a face of despair.. “You're so right, Father. It's the same mistakes, and I get burned again and again. I can't seem to–I'm stupid, Dad, I just can't breathe. My chest is all up–I feel choked. I just simply can't catch my breath ' “

He stared at his father's nakedness. Presently he became aware that Dr. Adler was making an effort to keep his temper. He was on the verge of an explosion. Wilhelm hung his face and said, “Nobody likes bad luck, eh Dad?”

“So! It's bad luck, now. A minute ago it was stupidity.”

“It is stupidity–it's some of both. It's true that I can't learn. But I–”

“I don't want to listen to the details,” said his father. “And I want you to understand that I'm too old to take on new burdens. I'm just too old to do it. And people who will just wait for help–must wait for help. They have got to stop waiting.”

“It isn't all a question of money–there are other things a father can give to a son.” He lifted up his gray eyes and his nostrils grew wide with a look of suffering appeal that stirred his father even more deeply against him.

He warningly said to him, “Look out, Wilky, you're tiring my patience very much.”

“I try not to. But one word from you, just a word, would go a long way. I've never asked you for very much. But you are not a kind man, Father. You don't give the little bit I beg you for.”

He recognized that his father was now furiously angry. Dr. Adler started to say something, and then raised himself and gathered the sheet over him as he did so. His mouth opened, wide, dark, twisted, and he said to Wilhelm, “You want to make yourself into my cross. But I am not going to pick up a cross. I'll see you dead, Wilky, by Christ, before I let you do that to me.”

“Father, listen! Listen!”

“Go away from me now. It’s torture for me to look at you, you slob!” cried Dr. Adler.

Wilhelm's blood rose up madly, in anger equal to his father's, but then it sank down and left him helplessly captive to misery. He said stiffly, and with a strange sort of formality, “Okay, Dad. That'll be enough. That's about all we should say.” And he stalked out heavily by the door adjacent to the swimming pool and the steam room, and labored up two long flights from the basement. Once more he took the elevator to the lobby on the mezzanine. He inquired at the desk for Dr. Tamkin.

The clerk said, “No, I haven't seen him. But I think there's something in the box for you.”

“Me? Give it here,” said Wilhelm and opened a telephone message from his wife. It read, “Please phone Mrs. Wilhelm on return. Urgent.”

Whenever he received an urgent message from his wife he was always thrown into a great fear for the children' He ran to the phone booth, spilled out the change from his pockets onto the little curved steel shelf under the telephone, and dialed the Digby number.

“Yes?” said his wife. Scissors barked in the parlor.

“Margaret?”

“Yes, hello.” They never exchanged any other greeting. She instantly knew his voice.

“The boys all right?”

“They're out on their bicycles. Why shouldn't they be all right? Scissors, quiet!”

“Your message scared me,” he said. “I wish you wouldn't make 'urgent' so common.”

“I had something to tell you.”

Her familiar unbending voice awakened in him a kind of hungry longing, not for Margaret but for the peace he had once known.

“You sent me a postdated check,” she said. “I can allow that. It's already five days past the first. You dated your check for the twelfth.”

“Well, I have no money. I haven't got it. You can't send me to prison for that. I'll be lucky if I can raise it by the twelfth.”

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