Evy tells us we got it wrong about our brother. She’s his wife, Artie’s defender, and she says we misunderstand him, that there’s a goodness about him hidden in the antics. And I agree with her. There’s the time he taught my daughter Helen how to make a bunny out of a cloth napkin, and when he first showed it to her, she backed away because she thought it would attack, but for years afterward she asked for it. There was also a house of cards (the two of them on the floor like kids) and some piano lessons, because Artie’s always been musical. Hum a tune to him and out it comes on the keyboard, no sheet music or nothing.
But Evy keeps going. He’s the best of us, she says, and I keep quiet. He has a spirit that we lack, and I say okay, fine, but then she says, “He’s the most sane of all of you,” and I tell her, “If that’s true, Evy, we’re going faster than I thought to the bin.” But she doesn’t crack a smile to that one, just stiffens a bit.
They love each other. We hear it from them often, especially from Artie after he’s been sucking on a bottle, which is often, too. When he’s at a get-together, he calls out for her. All super-emotional, “Where’s my Evy? Where’s she hiding? Let me see her face.” And she’ll come in smiling, shaking her head maybe, but still smiling. She tells a story that the day they were married, she was at his desk and found that he had written on his personal calendar, “My New Life!” And she saved the page. She keeps it in her drawer or somewhere. Nightstand, maybe. They both married late, and there’s a sense with the two of them that if not for the other, no one.
What is also true about Artie is that he’s a huge arguer. With my brother Henry the most, but against me as well, and the world. And then back at Evy, which bothers him, because he knows he is unkind to someone who gives him only kindness, but he can’t help himself. He still goes after her, his voice getting all up, and then apologizes for days.
They live near the Brooklyn Parkway, in an apartment on the wrong end of the building. Closed in, sunless. If not for Evy, a real cheerless place. She works at a furniture showroom, so she can get the stuff half-price, but for Artie, he could hardly care. Or as Henry likes to say, “When he opens his wallet, moths fly out.” He’s always for the underdog, talking like he’s working some counter instead of sitting in his doctor’s office. Henry’s opinion: a phony baloney. “Spare me the common man, Artie. I put in twice as many hours. And while you’re working on the rest of the country, why don’t you straighten yourself out first.”
“And you, Henry, are a matrimonial lawyer who’s never married. So I’m not the only one with contradictions.”
The truth is my brother Henry is too hard on him. The comments might be equal, but Henry hurts him more, if only because Artie’s more sensitive. He’s the smartest boy—this is easy to see—but also the weirdest. I was walking with him once, out in the rain, and it got turning cold, changing to snow, and he just stops. “Hey, Lou, you know what? These raindrops. They got legs.” And he’s got his hand held out, letting the flakes drop down. When I told Henry about it, he said, “Well, it takes a flake to know a flake.” And I agree with him, a peculiar duck.
He feels a breed apart because he was educated. He’s the youngest of us, the five brothers, and he and Henry, who’s next to him in age, are the only two that went to college. The three oldest went straight into the business—clothing—and we all saved a little so Artie and Henry could get to play professionals, Henry a lawyer and Artie a doctor. He’s a good one, without the recognition, which is fine by him. All the other brothers like to shine—Henry especially—but Artie’s got a respectable practice, without going for the dough. “Old-time prices,” he calls it, because he doesn’t jump up the rates. He played the stock market once and got so burned that Henry called him “the minus touch,” but Artie just shrugged. Gave another one of his mottoes: “I’ve never been better and had less.” Then he told us about his new business cards: Artie Gottlieb. Consulting Philosopher. Closed Wednesdays.
Smart guy, Artie. Evy’s smart, too, but against him, not much. When he’s drinking especially, you—she—are double wrong. That’s when he pushes her to the background, becoming a real bull-head. Not that he’s a violent guy, but he has a look that way, like he might just crown you with a bottle. For all those times, I wonder how she stays. Sticking through his wrath. I said it to Henry once after I’d heard about a big fight, and Henry said, “He must have a big frankfurter.” “Seriously, Henry.” “Seriously. She’s an enabler.” Which isn’t true at all. She takes all types of measures. Pouring the liquor down the sink, or calling up the store and asking them not to deliver when he’s too sick to go out and get it himself. Or even switching the bottles to a higher shelf—which is a small gesture, a minor inconvenience, that accomplishes nothing—or hiding them altogether. Of course he’s probably hiding them, too, a little dance between them, and he always wins. “She can’t pour out every bottle,” he’s said, which isn’t with pride, just factual speaking. Or as my brother Max said, “It’s always five o’clock somewhere.”
Evy told my wife that when Artie got like that, all raging, she could have the radio on and miss the whole program. He’ll scream about everything. About Eisenhower or the sag in the chair. She really has to tiptoe around him, which maybe he’ll notice when he sobers up, because then the apologies will come. “I’m so sorry, Evy.” Because really, his heart is very large. He does things that I see I don’t do with my wife, and I consider myself a doter. He’ll cup her hand like it’s some bird, turn his chair to her to get closer, and sometimes brush the seat for her and call her Queenie or Milady. Or Evy Lovey. And just the way he talks about her. “I’ve found my fortune.” How she’s a miracle, a dream. And then she adores him again. His words ringing like Moses. Once, he said he searched the world for her, and Henry wisecracked how they must’ve found each other on Pluto. Which got a turn from Artie, and a comment, to our perennial bachelor. “Henry, you got no one. Who’s gonna take you to the end? You gonna go there all by yourself.”
“Sure. That sounds like good company.”
“Marriage . . . Let me tell you about marriage.”
“Marriage is a time-waster. A booby trap,” and he cupped his chest just so we all got the joke.
“I get a kiss in the morning, a kiss at night.”
“That’s all?” And Henry chuckled. “Some of us got bigger needs.”
“Fine. Go get yourself a giggly girl. Brush up against her and make yourself happy.”
But then it got silent and Artie turned to Henry all serious. “Why you wanna be so lonely?” And he looked at Henry, like how could he be so foolish, how could he be so asleep to what really mattered in life. Being married, of course I agreed with Artie. I looked at Henry and I could see it hit him—it really made an impact—and he was sitting there like some fool, with no response. And I thought about Henry at the club last summer, flirting with a girl. Some pretty thing, and she was giving him some look like she couldn’t care less, which maybe was what caught my attention, because it was usually the other way around. And so I saw how he was breathing all over her, all up close and unpleasant, and his hair all full of tonic—wetter than the guy who had just come from the pool—and I thought, my brother: quite a picture. So now Artie was judging Henry, too, and it was one of those rare times that I agreed with him, and, more importantly, based on Henry’s delayed answer, he did too. You could see it, for a quick second, before he pushed it away with his hand and then said, “My brother the nutcake,” and looked to us for relief. And maybe, just maybe I gave it to him.
* * * *
Artie came over last week, surprised me with a visit. He does this sometimes, pops up, and usually I can tell from his walk what kind of frame of mind he’s in. There are times when he’s walking fast, where you know he wants to bite your head off. He’s bringing some issue of the day, and when that happens, Henry might see it too and say, “Uh-oh, here comes the newsreel.” Or even some older stuff. Like what the Greeks did to the Romans or something. Or whatever, something more personal, where he knows what’s what. And when Artie gets going, he doesn’t just talk, he speaketh. He’s got his thunderbolt in his hand, telling you how wrong you are. I’d tell him, “Hey, if we’re gonna argue, let’s make it my argument,” and he’d look at me and say, “This is about you.”
But this time, I could see his walk was different. Slower. I invited him in, and he asked where everyone was, and I said at the club. And he didn’t pause at that, which was relevant, because this was usually another one of his subjects. One of his peeves. How my daughters were gonna meet the wrong kind of guy there—this from the great authority on children, even though he’s got none himself. Artie’s been there a couple of times, and he claimed that once there was a lady sitting in a chair reading a novel upside down. “A bunch of posers,” he said. “All status. This guy’s Waterman Pen, this guy’s something else—the heir to mustard. That’s what you want for her?” Because my older daughter, who’s twenty, had a suitor recently, and how could I not be excited? She marries this guy, diamonds from here to here. And what’s wrong with that, if he’s a nice guy? “Except she doesn’t seem like the type that likes to read her books upside down,” he said. Situation turned into nothing anyway. Nice enough, but my daughter says he was kind of boring, too, and so short he had blocks on the car pedals.
It’s not just the club, though. It’s even with my wife, the cruise we took to the Caribbean. On the Vulcania. “I didn’t know you were in charge of corrections,” I’d tell him, but he’d just go on, do this, do that.
But this time he said nothing about the club. Just came in, sat down on the couch, and puffed on his cigarette. The ashtray right in front of him, but he wasn’t going for it. He looked depressed. So when the ash hit the carpet, I didn’t criticize. Instead, I said, “Hold on,” and I went into the kitchen and brought back a soup pot, which I placed down on the table. “See if you can hit that,” I said, and he laughed and said sorry. Then he stood up and looked around the room, like he’d never seen it before, then through the window at the garden in the back. It’s a nice one. You name a pretty shrub, I’ve got it. Weeping cherries, magnolias, rhododendrons. Rose bushes climbing up the garage. “You’re a real horticulturist,” he said, which reminded me of when Henry had looked out there and said the same thing, except with an added joke: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
He turned and shrugged. “Heard from anyone?” he said, meaning the brothers, Max and Ben, the ones away, but he said it without interest.
I thought of Ben, how he had the store—kiddie clothes—going fine in Schenectady until he got in the car crash and wound up a cripple. So now, a life in Florida, collecting on a settlement. And since I was already thinking of Henry’s words, it reminded me of when he said the only thing that came out of that car in one piece were the golf clubs. Instead I talked about Max, how he was coming down from Albany soon. “Store’s doing well,” I said. The inventory’s in line, the merchandise moving. But I could tell this wasn’t why Artie was here. “What’s wrong, Artie?” I asked.
He paused long, sat down. “I’m tiring her out,” he said, and if Henry had been there, I’m sure he would’ve answered with some crude remark, but I knew it was different.
“You should go easy on her.”
He nodded a bunch.
“You should go easy in general.” And if it had been any other time, he would’ve come after me for that one, but instead he just lifted his head and let it pass. “She say anything?”
“No. She’s not like that. She just gets quieter.”
“It’s fine, Artie. You’re both fine.”
“Yeah. We’re fine. The world’s fine.” And his jaw clenched a little.
“I’m not talking about the world.”
“Yeah.” He stood up, went back to the window. He turned back to me to speak, which maybe was a moment when again he was thinking of challenging, but he returned to the garden. He was silent, and then he said, “What’s that one there?”
“Nice. Hey, can you give me one? For Evy. Last month, you know what I did? I walked by a flower stand. I swiped some flowers. I don’t know why.”
And I wanted to say, “You must’ve had to put your ideals away to steal from some merchant.” But I decided to stay on the subject. “What do you wanna tell me?”
“I did something last night,” he said, and I waited. “We got in the car, I was mad about something. I kicked her out.”
“Of the car? Evy?”
And he just stood there.
“Physically, you did this?”
He paused, then said no.
“You yelled till she got out?”
“At the end, I may have pushed her.”
And it would’ve been ridiculous to tell him not to do that—don’t push your wife, a real tough one—so instead I switched around. “You should take her out sometime.”
He shook his head.
“That’s your prescription? With what I tell you.”
“Artie, I’m not talking about anything big. No cruise here. Take her for a walk. Get a change of scene. I’m in your place for ten minutes, I’m going crazy.”
“So open the windows next time.”
“You think I don’t go anywhere? I take her places. You and Henry got an incomplete picture. We do things.”
“I know. But a suggestion. Why don’t you go down to Atlantic Beach.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Because it’s nice. Take my place for a weekend. Get some sun. Kick up some sand.”
“I don’t need sand.”
“Yeah, well, maybe Evy does. She works, too. Let her float in the surf. Forget about the problems of the world for a weekend.” And with that last one, he gave me a look. “Okay, just take in the moonlight.”
“You think the moon’s only in Atlantic Beach?”
“Yes, Artie, I do. For my week … And the sun, too. It’s brighter there.”
“And the sky’s all different, huh? Jesus Christ!” he said, and his anger flashed.
“Fine,” I said.
He shook his head hard. It was silent for a while and I looked away from him. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the image of him stealing the flowers popped into my head. Artie sprinting down the street, and I almost broke a smile. The flower guy running out of the store, cursing, with the broom raised over his head, and the police whistle going off. Some fat roly-poly giving chase. And the petals falling on the ground, or maybe he’s got it tucked in his coat, so when he gets home, it’s this crushed bouquet.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Atlantic Beach. Maybe.”
“No, not maybe. Do it. Forget about things.”
He was quiet for a while, and when he spoke his voice was softer. “I don’t know how I can be mean to her.” His cheek muscle twitched.
“Evy’s not going anywhere,” I said.
“I’m not talking about that.” And he looked at me like I was some moron, then lectured me that she didn’t need to leave to be away. She’d just choke it back more, turn into a bigger secret.
“Okay,” I said. “You know her best.”
“That’s right.” And he just sat there, thinking that last one. Then he stood up. He thanked me for the offer. He took one last look around, at the house, the garden, the comfort, I guess (or maybe the pretension—his word), like it was all some system he couldn’t understand, and maybe he was trying to take something from it—or leave it behind, more likely. I didn’t know.
But he did go out to Atlantic Beach. Last weekend, and he had a time of it. Acted like the rest of them, from what I heard from Evy to my wife, Charlotte. They sat in the cabana chairs, soaked up the sun, dunked in the water. And in the afternoon hung around the card tables, Evy playing mah-jongg and Artie a couple of hands of gin, before he tired of the game—or rather, of the men sitting there. Boasting, he said, about their kids. Either it was about their marks in school or if they were younger, “My kid built the biggest sand castle today. A future master builder.” Or maybe other activities. Like swimming: “My kid’s strong enough to get across the English Channel.” And then onto themselves. “I just got this tv, and it’s not one of those huge consoles, some bulky thing you got to be a wrestler to move. This one, light as a feather.” A bunch of schmoozers, Artie said. Everyone outbragging one minute, schmoozing the next. Nonstop. A bunch of cluckers. And still, it was nice. Artie admitted it, definitely not a mistake. He just said, “Let’s go. Back to the chairs,” or maybe it was Evy directing him back, turning him away from it. Either way, they left it behind, they were able to keep the agitation—Artie’s—to a minimum. He had gills that weekend. Evy said this. And he came back not tan, but not his usual tombstone white, either, which for Artie was as good as sunburn.
* * * *
But the drinking didn’t stop. When he backed out of the driveway onto Passaic Avenue, it’s lucky he didn’t kill himself. And when he stood in the street, dancing, it’s lucky he didn’t fall over. He’d hop around like some comedy act, and it was only funny when you told someone about it. “Artie, you’re embarrassing yourself, top to bottom.” “Top to bottom?” he’d say. “Here’s my bottom,” and he’d drop his drawers right there.
Today, he’s out there singing a cigar jingle. Slurring it, actually. “Muriel, ah Muriel, the taste is so divine. Why don’t you pick me up and smoke me sometime.” Staggering left and right, and every step like he’s gonna hit the concrete. We hear him laugh, mumble a little. And then he gets louder, belting it out like he’s ready for the opera, and you just want to bury him. I can’t see him, but I’m sure his hair’s all wild and he’s got some look like the guy from the institute. Evy could tell us this. She’s at the door, watching. She told him to come inside a minute ago, but he didn’t budge—having too much fun with the performance—so now she’s just standing there watching the street and the houses. Henry’s in his chair, saying this is why we don’t take him to the club, because he’ll show bad form. And he’s right. Odds are Artie’ll be slobbering drunk and embarrass himself, and when he’s all loaded up—and we all drink, but not like him—it’s not the image you wanted. You’d think to say, “No, just a friend of the family, that’s all. Just in town for a visit.” And never bring him back.
“Why don’t you help him?” We turn to the door and Evy’s standing there, accusing.
Henry says, “Yeah, somebody stuff him in the car.” And he turns to me.
Evy turns too, and her stare keeps me quiet. She storms outside, and we hear a little back and forth between them, Artie ordering her to go back in, and Evy saying the car, get to the car, quiet but still with a force, and a little later the engine starting up. And I think, “If we don’t hear the crash, Evy’s driving.”
Henry says, “Too bad, the show gets cut,” and I say, “No, Henry,” but instead silently.
* * * *
Evy always asks why we destroy each other. Brothers should help, not add to the grief. She’s talking about Artie, of course, why we don’t treat him like he’s on our side. And I say it’s not always so simple. Yes, Artie gets the brunt, but things aren’t just that: somebody’s always being ganged up on, even if it’s usually Artie. We’re always on the ins and outs with each other. Henry’s against Max for removing himself upstate and away, Max’s against Ben because when they were upstate together, Ben was a hard-ass son of a bitch, an impossible person, and Ben’s on me because I don’t do enough for him now that he’s down in Florida. (And I think Henry’s put that thought in his head, but this is how it works.) We feed upon each other. Everybody’s got a little story about somebody else. Suspicions run high. “The stuff that brings down empires,” Max likes to say. But Evy doesn’t want to hear about empires, and anyone else’s grief. It’s about Artie, all directed on him. “You’re all with your arms folded, saying, ‘I’m right, he’s wrong,’” she says. “Each one of you wrote the book. Your own book.”
Artie blames our mother, not for the dynamics and the criticism, but for the way she raised us, who we became as people. He’s the only one that’s turned on her, with this view, and he says she was a great pretender. Always making it like we had more than we had, being perfect to the outside world. That’s how we showed ourselves. Pretense and impressions. And she did that so long, he says, she forgot she was putting on an act.
“I took off the blinders,” he’s said. “You’re all still wearing them.”
“That’s right. Our mother’s. Blinders and a mask.”
“Well, which one is it, Artie?”
“It’s both. A big costume.”
I wasn’t up for this argument, so instead I defended our parents, told him they were fine, more than that even. He just shook his head.
“You’ve always been a good daughter.”
“Huh? That’s a clever one. How about a translation?”
“You’ve always been a good daughter to our mother,” he said, and I told him he wasn’t getting clearer. “Ah, you’re a real Amelican,” he said, and he threw his hand up. Amelican. That’s Artie-speak, which meant you were an American, but a schmuck one.
“Yeah, and you talk in syllables, not sentences.”
“Okay,” he said, “how about your giving yourself a middle name. Just making one up. A fake one. Or when your daughter Helen applied to college, and you said our father went to Riga University. ‘Let them check it,’ you said. A little charade you got going. You’d tell people our parents met at the pyramids instead of a cherry farm in Paramus if it made a better story. You’re keeping up the family tradition.”
“Stop pointing out my life.” Because he’ll go through all your choices and decisions, bring them up and dissect them. Snoop around your life like some inspector.
But enough. Artie’s the one that holds grudges, not me. Way back when, you did something, and now here it comes again. “When I was ten, I was the first one up, and why is it you got the socks that matched? Why do you get the good handkerchief?” Well, that’s Henry’s argument probably, but the idea’s the same. Back to the beginning, if he has to.
* * * *
Everyone’s over again, dinner this time, except plus one, Henry’s date. They’ve been going together two months, which makes her not just a girlfriend but nearing the record books. She’s young, of course, and pretty, with long legs and a squeaky voice, and she laughs at Henry’s jokes. He smiles back. He’s smiling a lot—until the taboo subject of marriage comes up. Artie was saying how nice it was being married, and the date responded, “I’ll bet,” with a strong hint, and now Henry’s looking all ashen. Real agitated. Soon enough, he’s saying, “Why are you interrupting me so much?” when she’s barely making a peep. And Artie sees this, too, the overreaction, so he starts egging Henry on. “Hey, Henry, she’s your Greek chorus,” and Henry throws him a look, and Artie’s just loving the reversal. “Maybe you two can make a family,” he says, and the girl blushes, but still happy, and Henry’s all but searching for a window. If there was any game of footsie going on, it’s certainly stopped. Or else, his feet have turned very cold. And he’s too caught up in his own discomfort to realize he could’ve had a comeback there, with Artie’s family comment, namely, “I’ll have kids as soon as you do.” Because, like I said, Artie and Evy married late, but not so late that they couldn’t have made kids, so the brothers had suspicions that maybe there was something broken with Artie’s equipment or that Evy wasn’t just infertile but a little sexless. She had stood up once at a party and toasted the brothers. It was in Yiddish, which I can’t remember, but I recall the translation: “May your sexual parts grow bigger, and mine should grow smaller.” And we thought it said something. About her likes and dislikes. Henry joked that when they bought the hide-a-bed, Evy climbed in and disappeared. Nighttime comes, and you can’t find her.
But now, Henry’s got no wit. It’s gone out the window, just where Henry wants to be, and it makes me think of a joke: “Hey, Henry, if you elope, I’ll hold the ladder.” He’s all flustered and we enjoy it for another minute, until we rescue him by switching topics, and I switch my attention to Artie. Artie’s barely picking at his plate. This is usual. If Henry and Artie are two extremes of people, me and Artie are the same way except with bodies. Artie’s a stick, a skeleton, whereas me, I’m big, too big. I live to eat, whereas Artie’s the opposite, deriving no pleasure from it. Most of my recipes start with the stick of butter or worse, and I like to finish things off with the pie. (My wife, of course, is trying to push me the compote.) But Artie, if you didn’t put it in front of him, right under his nose, he wouldn’t touch it, and he’ll get a steak and start trimming the fat until he’s turned it into some ration. I can’t be that way. I’m reaching across the table for seconds. I finish eating, I’m famished. My wife says, “You’re digging your grave with your teeth.” Sometimes she calls me King Faruk, whereas Artie gets Mahatma. He’s also in on the names, calling my stomach the great bellyhoo.
But he really is one finicky eater. The most delicious dish in front of him, and he’d find something wrong with it. There must be a thing with his taste buds. Something busted. Some switch that didn’t get turned on. Tonight I’ve made my special casserole, and he’s interrogating it, asking all sorts of questions. “Where’d you get this meat? What kind of beef is this?” “What do you mean what kind? Good kind.” He shakes his head. “You didn’t watch the butcher closely. I think he gave you his left arm.”
“Artie, what do you want instead? A thin soup? You want me to heat up some broth?”
But tonight maybe his finickiness is only part the food. The other part being Evy, who seems kind of off. Away. Artie asked her a question and she ignored it. “Huh? What’s that?” she says, like some deaf girl. And Artie’s not worried about her hearing, but about himself, like she’s just cursed him. It happens again a little later. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.” Right next to each other, and some haze between them. And instead of Artie being angry, again he just looks at her like he’s seeing something terrible. Where’s Evy?
* * * *
This leads to a few nights later, when Artie wakes up and finds the bed empty. I hear this from him, when he phones me at work, how he woke up and found it was just him there. Sleeping alone, and he felt like he was twenty again. And then eighty the next. From a bachelor to a widower, all in an instant. He got up and found her in the next room, sitting in a chair with a single light nearby. “Evy?” he said. And if there had just been a book in her lap, instead of just her thoughts, it would’ve been a nonstory. But there she was, polite, smiling, even, but a faint one. “Evy?” he said, and she asked if she woke him. “Woke me? How could you wake me? You’re not making any noise.” And she answered that she meant the light. Artie said he looked at the light, which faded out nowhere close to the bedroom, barely made it to the hallway. “It’s three o’clock,” he said. “Three-thirty.” And he heard in his voice a hope that he was pointing out something that she didn’t know, that she had made some mistake and gotten up too early. That she’d looked at the clock wrong, and now they could laugh at her error. But she just nodded. Then she got up and returned with him to bed. “Lou,” he says, “it felt like I was marching her back. She just stepped in front of me. Like if I hadn’t come out there …”
“All right, Artie.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it. I close my eyes, it’s all I see.”
* * * *
Max is in town on a buying trip. He’s staying at a Manhattan hotel near the showroom, but he’s finishing up business, so he’s out here for the day. Max is a gentleman. The calmest of the bunch, never out of control. And handsome. Enough that he could have gone to Hollywood, but our mother said, “No son of mine is gonna get into that bummy life.” He’s got a nice deal up in Albany. A good business, good family, with a wife he’s always running for, doing things. Henry jokes about her, how she came from a tight German family and that’s why dinner’s at six sharp, and there’s no mess anywhere, everything swept up and put away, past the point of rigid. He adds that she’s a cheapskate, too, that if she had ten people coming over, she’d put out ten pieces of candy. But I don’t share the objection.
It’s nice to have Max around, maybe even good for Artie, too—see a brother living so peaceful—although Artie’s just watching it all from the corner chair, not taking part in the reunion. If any brother stays out of the arguments, it’s Max. He finds the most comfortable seat, pulls up, and goes to sleep, which is what he’d like to do now except Henry won’t let him. “How’s Siberia?” Henry asks. And Max laughs, but Henry doesn’t want that reaction, so he says, “No, I don’t mean Albany. I mean you.” And now Max is confused, which is better for Henry, because then he smiles and says just kidding, just throwing him off. I look at Max. Welcome home.
Max’s being in Albany is double-edged: it gets him away from Henry’s accusations that he’s neglecting the family, but then the charges build up, so he gets it worse when he’s back. So far, so good, though. After the Siberia comment, Max gets off the hook by saying he just heard from Ben, who’s all but disappeared. Henry says he’d be the same way, too, just vegetating on the vine, except he probably would’ve reached for the gun by now. Max says, “You can put a bullet in the brain, but you can’t take it back,” and Henry looks at him like some preachy bastard. I’ll say this for Henry, he went down there with Ben and set things up, moved him into a single-level with wide corridors, got ramps in, hired a caretaker. If he had stopped right there with the act it would have been a good one, but of course he has to let us know what a samaritan he’s been. So now it’s more of a contest, a competition, who’s doing the most for Ben, and Henry lets us know who’s winning.
I decide to ask Henry about the date from a few weeks back, and sure enough he shakes his head. She’s out of the picture. Dumped. He shrugs and says the relationship lost its spark. She changed on him. How so? we ask, and he searches for a while and comes up with that she was pushy. She had these big red fingernails and she liked to point with them. At him. “Is that so? Really, Henry?” “Yeah, like talons.” And if he goes on for a while, I’m sure he could make her into some monster. Some three-eyed thing, or maybe with extra fingers to go along with those nails, and maybe she can spit through her teeth. She could hit something clear across the room, like some champion spitter. Amazing. Who knew she was such a stinker? Henry nods to himself and says, “She’d be the wrong person to go down that road with.”
“That road? Henry, when you gonna go down that road?” Max asks.
“I’ll get married on Thuesday,” he says, which isn’t only a nonday but a joke, a reminder of our father’s speech. He didn’t know English too well—he couldn’t even pronounce the week—so when he went on a woolens trip, he’d say, “Be back on Thuesday.”
“Really, though, what exactly are you looking for?” Max says. “Who is this Miss Perfect?”
“He wants her to bring something to the table,” Artie says. “Heaps of treasure.”
“That’s right. More than just a subway token.” Which was probably a dig at Evy, although it could have been anyone, since nobody married riches.
“No, it’s not just the money. You want her young as Shirley Temple.”
“Artie . . . Artie, I love you, but I don’t like you.”
“Well, that’s good. Because I don’t like you, either.”
“Hey, you two, not in my ears today, okay?”
Artie turns away, slumps back in his seat. He’s been sitting there alone with his drink, until Henry started up, and now he’s returned to the position. He’s past the point of gloomy. He’s always had a morose side, looking deathlike with his black car and his thin frame, and his skin paler than his hospital coat. But now, more so. He’s as far from dancing outside as any of us, which means of course that he’s farther. Evy’s a no-show, and I figure that’s the reason. I thought to ask when he walked in, but now seems a better time. “She’s got stuff to do,” he answers.
“Yeah,” Henry says, “she’s buying the arsenic. She’s mixing the drink.”
I want to say enough, look at him, his guard is down, but instead it’s Max. “Quit it, Henry,” he says.
“Oh, you,” Henry says. “Came all the way down from Albany to tell me that.”
“That’s right. I like to see your reaction.”
“Please. This guy. I’d take you seriously if you had a single hair on your balls.”
And suddenly I’ve got two tough guys in my living room. A couple of Jack Dempseys.
They call a truce, settle down. Henry switches to a story (an old one, which I’ve heard, but maybe new to Max) where there’s this gal with a poodle, and he asked her to spend the night, and she said only if the dog can, too, so he wakes up and the dog’s gone on the carpet. His white carpet. So he says to her, “Should I dye my whole place beige now?” End of the joke, and everyone laughs. We’re getting along fine, but a little later Henry comes back and asks Max how he sells a suit, that if he were to take his coat off, could Max get him to buy it again. It’s irritating. Henry’s baiting him and Max deserves better. He runs a good shop. I’ve been up there and he’s got everything running smoothly. A neatnik, so he’s got all the clothes folded, everything hanging up and in its place, the suits lined up like little soldiers. Brushing the hats, straightening the coat sleeves, dusting the hangers—even down on his knees sweeping the dust in the corners.
But more than that. A clever guy. Sometimes when new merchandise comes in, he puts it out on the floor, shipping crate and all. Just cuts the lids off the boxes and pushes ’em out, real hot-off-the-presses stuff, and the customers come in and dig around like they’ve found some lost relative. “How much is this? How much is this?” And watchful. He’s got steps going upstairs with a window to look out on the store, and he can see everything. So if he notices something funny, he’ll cruise the floor and whisper to his salespeople, watch out for the shoplifting. How he says it is: “Watch out for 410s”—which meant keep four eyes out for ten fingers.
I like to hear Max talk about work, because it gets me thinking about my own situation, the factory in Paterson, which I run pretty well. Sure, we’re a knockoff house, but I can still take pride in the product, the way we fill an order and get it out there. I do a good job, and I think Max appreciates this. A mutual respect. I pride myself on knowing every facet. Sewers, patternmakers—I know how to do what I’m the boss of. I’ve got a good color sense—fabric, styles I know—but people even better. I’m a good judge of horseflesh. And I think I’m tactful. I don’t drive a fancy car because I don’t want to pull up to the factory with it. Other guys, they take their chariots to work, but that’s the wrong impression. I don’t set myself apart. I’m not saying I’m pushing the broom or carrying tools, but I’m close. And sure, I don’t mind the perks. Trading favors. “I buy them with snowsuits,” that’s my line. The gasoline attendant, not free gas, but he pays attention to my car when I pull in. “Let me know your kids’ size,” I say. And I bring things for the butcher so I get the best cut of meat, which is why Artie’s comment was so wrong.
“How’s business, Max?” Artie asks.
Max and I have joined Artie at the couches. He’s been studying the carpet for a while, with his long face, and Max gave me a look, so we walked over. “It’s good,” Max says. “Real good.” Except . . . And he tells us about this saleslady named Nettie who’s very sweet, with a husband that nobody ever sees and assumes isn’t real. She’s a terrible seller. Doesn’t know how to outfit a person. Gives the customer a wrong size, gets them looking all wrong, and they sort of know it, so even if they buy the stuff, they walk out of the store kind of shaking their head and never coming back unless maybe they’re lost. And she’s real slow with the shoplifters. So slow, you’d think she was in on the scam. And also she’s got a kid that likes to come in and waste the gift-wrapping spool and the tape dispenser. Stays at the counter, just pulling on the stuff.
If only, Max says, she could be more like Sollie. Sure, he speaks confused at times, like our father with his old tongue—the same age if he were still alive. “If you need again shoes,” he says. “What are again shoes?” Max likes to kid. But Sollie can really show an outfit. He controls the sale, brushing the shoulders when he takes it off the rack, and tying the tie with his hands right in front of the guy like some magician, and then setting it down on the counter and pinching a dimple at the top so the guy can see what it looks like on without lifting a finger. And he builds up the customer. He knows the psychology. Max hears the stuff and he walks over to Nettie. “Nettie, you hear that? Would it be so bad if you told them they looked good in something. Repeat after me: ‘This is for you, this is wonderful, this is hot. This you’ll do real well with.’”
It’s a good story, but the whole time Artie’s watching his hands, as if Max is doing some ventriloquist act and throwing his voice there. Max finishes and looks at Artie for a reaction, and it’s obvious Artie hasn’t heard a thing, and he doesn’t even try to hide it. He gets up and goes to the door. “It’s good to see you,” he says, more to the wall than turning around.
“Artie, you wanna talk?” I ask.
“Yes, to Evy,” he says and leaves.
* * * *
But she won’t tell him what’s wrong. It’s all in Artie’s head, according to her. He’s imagining things. They’re the same as always, but Artie knows this is false, because every time he approaches, she gets extra fidgety, switching around, “Let me just fix these papers,” or leaving the room altogether. Artie’s calling all of us, asking for advice. He wants to know is Evy right? Is he making it up? Have we seen anything?
“Yes, Artie, I have.”
“Lou … I don’t know how to talk to her. If she won’t let me say sorry.”
He even calls Henry, risking a punch line, for any wisdom.
“What did you tell him?” I ask Henry.
“I told him to stop acting like a martian.”
“No, you didn’t say that?”
It’s silent, and Henry says, “I told him she’d come around, okay? Not to worry.”
I hear from Max, how Artie went to Bamberger’s looking for a gift. He had a blouse picked out, Max says, but then he imagined her face. He pictured her opening it quickly, with displeasure, then pushing it aside and getting back to whatever it was he was only imagining. And he didn’t want to do that to her. And himself, too. To feel this shame. Rejection. Like he’d be giving her some toy, or more like being a pet dog trying to lick away an apology.
“She keeps insisting everything’s all right,” Max says. “And he’s only making it worse by bringing it up. Every time he speaks, she gives him this look like, ‘No, softer.’ Like she wants to get him down to a whisper. This is how he puts it. I think you should go over there.”
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll talk to him.”
“No,” he says. “Not him. Her.”
* * * *
I try calling her first. Artie answers and I tell him what I’m doing, and he says, “Good, good.” Then he hems a bit and asks what I’m gonna say.
“Artie, I . . . ”
“Lou, she’s making me lost. Like I’m not knowing anything. Like . . . how do I sign my name or something.”
“Okay. Put her on.”
“Yes. Listen, don’t start off with it right away. Just say you’re calling to call.”
I say fine and he puts the phone down. But a little later, it’s still him.
“Lou, why don’t you come over instead. I’ll go for a walk, and it’ll just be the two of you.”
“She won’t come to the phone?”
“No, I didn’t say that. Just, I think it would be better this way.”
So I drive over, and sure enough it’s Evy at the door, with Artie gone. “Lou?” she says, and I say hello. But she keeps standing there with a question mark, so I ask if I can come in. She nods and we walk through the hallway, to the living room, where we sit in the smoke. She takes the club chair and I get the couch. Her hair’s drawn back in a bun—soft, though—and she’s dressed simple. Low-heeled pumps, tweed jacket. Classy. She looks pale—but like Artie, that’s nothing new.
“Listen,” I say. “Artie wants me to dance around this, but I’m not gonna. I understand if you’re punishing him. For how he treats you.”
And she shakes her head. She looks around the room like she’s trying to be the visitor, taking in the pictures. And it makes me look, too. Most of them are old ones: old pictures in old frames. Past generations, hers and Artie’s, but also one of my kids, where a photographer got them posed in the yard, and Max’s too. I wait for her, but it’s still nothing. “Evy?” I say.
She gives me a quick look, then it’s back to the wall. This time the painting, like here she is in a museum and what a lovely piece of work that is.
“We gonna talk in silence?” I say.
“I’m not doing that at all. The punishing.”
“I’m thinking. Do you think? Well, I do.” And she switches in her seat.
“You’re hurting him, though. I know he does that, too. I’m just saying, you’re giving it back. In case you didn’t know.” She looks away. At the telephone like it’s ringing, and then at the window like there’s a fire or some other spectacle going on. “Evy, I’m right here,” I say, and she turns back.
“Lou, how many times you been over this year?”
“Okay, Evy. But still, I can’t say that?”
“Let’s just skip this, okay.”
“No, come on.”
She shrugs. Then fiddles with her stickpin.
“So what is it? You’re mad at him. You’re teaching him a lesson.”
“No. No lesson.”
“I’m just treating it like it’s not nothing. That’s all. I’m not saying what it is. Just not nothing.”
“Evy, help me out. You’re speaking a puzzle.”
“Well, use your smarts then.” She crosses her arms.
“Okay. You’re saying you want him to change.”
“No, Lou, that’s you. You’re the one that wants him to be his opposite.”
“I never said that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s there. And it’s funny, because if you want him so different, how come you don’t give him more advice? The most I heard you say, maybe he shouldn’t drink so much after dinner. And that was Max even, not you. The biggest suggestion. The most I ever heard stop.”
“Fine. But I came over for Artie now. He says you’re turning into some mystery. Like he doesn’t know you.”
She looks to her right. There’s a pincushion filled with stickpins, and she grabs it and makes to add one to her lapel, but then thinks otherwise. “Well, listen, don’t worry. Enough mystery. You’re coming over too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because I’m almost finished.”
“That’s right. With my break. I’m resting.”
“Jesus, Evy. I thought you were gonna say something else.”
“Oh, Lou, I’m doing nothing more than being tired.”
“Taking a vacation,” she says.
“I see. Without going anywhere.”
And back to the window.
“So it’s fine?” I ask.
“Good, Evy. That makes me happy.”
She shakes her head a little, just sits there, and we stop with words. Then she futzes with her pin. “You know, I’ve done this before. Maybe you haven’t seen it. But this one, long enough to notice. For Artie, too.”
“So the next one’s even longer?”
And she waves her hand, like I’m not getting anything. “Lou, you’re not gonna tell me about my pain? Artie’s, either? I mean, you don’t think you could do that, do you?” And she says it with only one answer.
“Good,” she says, and she smiles at me, happy that I got it right.
* * * *
So, back again at my house. Evy and Artie, Henry with a new girl, pretty again—no, more than that, an eyepopper, this one—and younger even, maybe his age by half. The most I’ve heard about her is that she’s got this brother who’s a mooch, a real percentage guy, which doesn’t sound like the type of thing you hear before someone heads for the aisle. Oh, well. He seems happy. He’s standing in the corner, leaving his fingerprints on her bum. He’s got a nifty three-piece, and his cufflinks are flashing. And he’s regaling her with his exploits, about how he kills in court, and about his life on the town. With Henry, everything’s a major story, so when he tells her about going to the El Morocco, where he gets special treatment because the owner or somebody big is a client, it’s like he’s walking in and they’re saying, “Here Comes Mister New York.” To hear him talk about it, the trumpets are blaring, the confetti raining down. And all the eyes following him. Of course he’s gotta tell her about the nobodies and the tourists sitting on the wrong side of the dance floor, to point out that he’s sitting pretty in the inner circle. Artie’s standing nearby, and I’m waiting for him to interrupt, to give a check to Henry’s boasting. “Self-praise is no recommendation,” Artie might say, another one of his slogans, and Henry’s heard it before, and he might answer that he could run for president with that one. On the communist ticket. And then Artie would come back with something, about needing to take the ego out of him, and Henry would say, “Here comes the union button,” and Artie would say, “Money is your god”—both old phrases. Soon enough, the both of them not counting their words. But none of it happens. Artie’s too happy with Evy to argue. He’s sitting on the couch, mooning over her, his face full of worship.
We sit down at the table. Max wanted to come, I say, but he’s too busy, and Henry says, “I heard he became a monk.” Then he says he’s heard from Ben. A story no one’s known before, that Ben just told him. That when he was in the hospital, he didn’t think he was getting the full story about his condition, so he called admissions and posed like he was a family member asking about his own health. He wanted to know the truth: “What’s happening to me, what am I?” That’s how Henry said Ben put it: What am I? And he heard them say, “Critical.” He didn’t even know you could be critical and awake at the same time, but there it was. Lying in his bed all broken up, and they were telling him critical. So he knew he was one sick cookie. We’re quiet for a while, unsure of where to go, how to break it, until Henry gets us out. He said he was in this building yesterday, in the elevator, and he asked the operator how his day was going, and the guy said, “Not bad. Up and down.” It’s an abrupt switch, but we act like it’s nothing forced—we’re too busy being thankful. And Henry keeps going. The elevator ride makes him remember another one, our father’s car ride. This is a story we all know; it’s for Henry’s girl, which is fine. When he first bought a car, our father was used to a horse, so when he came up to a traffic light, he pulled on the steering wheel like it was the reins, and said, “Whoa, Nellie,” and went straight through. After that, he drove so slow, you thought he was carrying eggs.
Then Artie joins in and brings up another mishap. But before he does, he takes a sip, then a bigger one, gulps it down, and Evy’s hand comes up from the table. Just slightly, before she returns it, and I guess it’s that moment, that pause between those sips that Evy’s always wanted us to deal with. To help her.
Artie’s telling his story. Again, it’s an old one for the benefit of the girl, or maybe us too. When he was first setting up a practice, he ran it out of the old house. He put up a shingle outside the door, Arthur Gottlieb, MD, and he paced the floor waiting. The neighbor, Mr. Stelzer, was the first patient. He came in and our father met him in the front room, and Mr. Stelzer says he’s got something with his eye. Artie’s in the other room. He’s hearing the door and some muffled conversation, but he’s expecting his career to begin. Instead, Dad’s saying, “Oh, you got a sky. Go home and wash it out with Boric solution.” And Artie hears the door again, and he goes out there and asks, “Where’s my patient?” and our father just shrugs and says not this one. Our father beats him to the diagnosis.
Evy laughs. Actually, she pauses first, then laughs. Almost despite herself. And Artie turns to her. Gives her this big smile, staring at her like he’s staring at everything. And then he tells us how they were walking down the street, day before yesterday. And they came across this couple. The woman was criticizing the guy’s walk. “Harold,” she said, “Lift your feet. You’re walking like an old man.” What made it funny was that they both were old already. Upper eighties. Ninety, even. A couple of ancients. “That’s gonna be me and Evy. I’ll be a hundred and two and Evy’ll be saying, ‘Come on, move it, you.’” He’s saying it with his hand on his heart, like he’s just seen his perfect life. He takes Evy’s hand and swings it gently, like he’s turning into some conductor. And he closes his eyes and starts humming. There’s a sweet sound in his head. You can see it from his eyes, some ballad for Evy and Artie, and maybe we’ve all developed a soft spot (or maybe Henry’s preoccupied with something else), because we’re letting him hear it through. His head’s tilted back, his brow is raised, his face lit. A song for Evy. And who could interrupt such a tribute?