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Part-Time Father


ISSUE:  Summer 1982

Next to him on the seat of the old Saab, a baseball, still in its packaging. Like flowers for a date. It embarrassed him, this wooing of his own son. Embarrassed him, playing the role of good-guy camp counselor—when he wanted just to be a father. Sometimes the pain of it made him want to forget the whole thing—these long drives, the planning and knocking himself out. And for what? A weekend. Not even that. Why not be a father just to Jesse—his second family? Wasn’t that plenty? But somehow, alternate weekends when Aaron wasn’t busy with a Little League game, Herb saddled up and rode the sixty miles east to Concord—a backwards Paul Revere bringing no news, just himself.

He listened deep into the Saab’s engine—too deep for his own good. Nagging anxiety about the engine, 120,000 mile engine, throw a rod and where would he be? How could he pay for a thousand dollar repair? He imagined he heard every tappet click, felt every hesitation like a skip of his own heart. Jazz on the car stereo stopped the engine sounds, He listened deep into the music as the dying Massachusetts mill towns passed by.

At the country club courts, he stood outside the wire fence and waved. Aaron waved back with his racket, then set himself for the kid’s serve. A patsy serve—and Aaron smacked a stinger of a return down the line.

The lessons were paying off. Aaron’s own serve had possibilities. It gave Herb pleasure to see his son press forward ferociously at the stroke and charge the net, hungry to volley. But the other boy returned the ball so high above Aaron’s head it bounced over the fence. Herb tossed it back. As Aaron caught it, turned away from his opponent, he rolled his eyes in mock disgust. “About ten more minutes, Dad.”

On the way home to get his suitcase, Aaron blabbed. Nervous, Herb supposed, as his father.

“Like the sneakers? Adidas. Same as the shirt I bought you, Dad. They’re new, the sneaks. So’s the racket. Mom and I picked it out last week. It’s helped my game a lot. . . . Steve’s coming for the weekend. Okay?”

“Sure, it’s okay,” Herb said. It wasn’t at all okay, so breezily he added, “Hey. Your game has gotten stronger these past few weeks.”

“Thanks. It’s the lessons.”

As they drove, Herb admired his son—lean, with good shoulders and a face that had begun to reveal the good looking young man he was going to be. Small for his age, but strong. Herb remembered how his own father used to test his muscles with a squeeze and a grin. Now he was going the way of his father: hairline beginning to recede. Hint of a belly over his lean frame. Maybe that’s why the kid’s spunk excited him. But as he examined Aaron’s Alligator sports shirt, he felt sadness in the hollow of his chest: that this boy, growing up with the expectation of winter vacations in the Caribbean, would be lost to him.

“Can we play some hardball this weekend, Dad?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t see how. Maybe softball.”

“Well, Jesus, there must be some regular hard ball game some where.”

“Don’t you get plenty of hardball? With Little League?”

“Well, that’s the point, Dad. My glove isn’t right for softball and my arm isn’t used to it and it throws my timing off.”

“Aaah, you do fine.”

“Maybe—you think—I should get another glove?—just for softball?”

Herb shrugged, he didn’t answer. Aaron fiddled with the radio and the car was filled with the Beatles. They both loved the Beatles. Herb tapped his foot and tapped his foot, but finally he couldn’t take it:

“Another glove? Christ. New sneakers, new skates, new racket. And that—computer baseball game you’re fiddling with instead of being with me. Sometimes I wonder.”

The rest of the ride to Aaron’s, both to them were silent.

Down a street with contemporary colonials with broad front lawns, American eagles over front doors. So cornball! But just an interim street for Francine and Richard. They were looking for an elegant Victorian in Wellesley or Newton.

“I’ll be just a minute, Dad.” Aaron ran upstairs.

Already, Herb was regretting the boring lecture. The kid couldn’t help it. That was the way they lived, Francine and Richard.

Francine met him in the living room wearing the velvet lounging robe Richard had given her for Christmas, a robe that Herb couldn’t have afforded when he was married to her and now, even if he could have paid for it, he wouldn’t have spent that much on a houserobe. She wore it a lot—maroon velvet with black piping. If he resented its opulence, he also—admit it—liked to see her wear it. It created a plane of graciousness for them to meet upon, a courtly speech that protected them both. Her dark hair against maroon velvet. Looking at her now, he saw a piece of what had made her so attractive to him 15 years ago, and saw what made him want to leave her. Both were there, somehow, in that one lounging robe.

“Well, have a nice weekend,” she said.

“Hardly weekend. Thirty hours. Friday night he was busy, and Monday’s a holiday but you’re doing something. God knows what.”

“Come on, Herb. I told you long ago we were going up to New Hampshire Sunday afternoon—we’re visiting the Bronsteins. Steve’s parents. You said it was all right.”

“Did I? Okay. Then it must be all right.”

“Oh, please, come on, please don’t make it hard for me, Herb. I’m in the middle,” Francine said. “Doesn’t Aaron deserve a normal life?”

“Enough, Francine.”

“I’m supposed to appease both of you.”

“All right. Enough.”

“We’ll meet you at three—on Route 2 again, okay? Like last time. Next time I’ll drive him out to make up—okay?”

“Okay.” He kissed her goodby and, in reconciliation, put his arm across Aaron’s shoulders on their way out. “See you at three, Francine.”

“Have fun, you two,” she said and stood in the doorway waving after them.

They picked up Steve, piled his bags in the trunk, headed west. Most of the way home, Aaron played computer baseball or tumbled in the back seat, laughing, with Steve. Steve was a tall, skinny kid with an annoying laugh. Polite and sneaky. It annoyed Herb to hear Aaron and Steve sharing private jokes. In defense, he played a tape of Galway Kinnell reading from his poems. The tape over, Aaron stopped kidding around and told his father about the class unit on Egypt and about an overnight his Little League team was going on and about the model of a suspension bridge across the school pond he was constructing with a couple of classmates. “We have to use a lot of math. . . . It’s beautiful,” he added. And the way he said “beautiful” touched Herb’s chest, made his body hum with delight, and he turned for an instant and grinned at Aaron.

“Well, I’d love to see it.”

“I’ll send you a Polaroid snapshot next week,” Aaron said.

Taken with his new camera, Herb sighed. But said, “Thanks.”

Passing through Green River Falls, he pulled up at his storefront office. Gilt lettering on the plate glass already peeling: Green River Community Action. What was the plate glass advertising? Poverty? The store was as bleak as the next-door thrift shop. Unlocking, he saw the office as if for the first time, saw through the eyes of his son. Noticed that the drab, scuffed linoleum had worn through to bare wood at one spot; and noticed Sonia’s desk—a garbage step of crumpled paper, forms sprawled in collage over other forms (but she was, Sonia was, after all, his best intake counselor); noticed the boring, oppressive row of green metal files.

At the rear, his inner office. When he started this job, five years back, he refused to separate himself out as director of the agency by having his own office, his own locked door. But he got a lot more work done this way, and his staff people didn’t feel his eyes on them. Still, every time he put the key in the lock of his office door, he felt embarrassed.

The report was waiting for him on a desk piled neatly with unfinished work. “I’ll be done in a couple of minutes,” he said, gently. They didn’t mind—took turns on Aaron’s computer baseball game. Herb was annoyed—but what did he expect? He skimmed the report—a ritual: he knew it would be okay.

But if he knew, what did he come here for?

Then it hit him. Sure. A kind of moral propaganda: to model the seriousness of his commitment to these people in his files. A way of life different from what Francine and Richard were teaching Aaron. That’s why the computer game bothered him: Aaron brought that life along with him. And he wanted to tell Aaron, Listen, listen, back a few years we had the sense we could make new lives for ourselves—not just get ahead. New lives. Whatever phoniness went along with it, it was okay.

He didn’t say this. But he couldn’t help mentioning, as he placed the report in the OUT tray, “This Mrs. Skorzisky’s got cancer pretty bad. We’re asking for special payments. She’s a special case, but it’s like most of our people, Aaron—multiple problems. She’s been in and out of the hospital. Her husband’s in another state. We had to get her fuel payments last winter. The little girl’s in Head Start, and her older boy we got a job through Youth Employment. So we do what we can.

“Dad?”

“Uh huh?”

“Why don’t you go into politics?”

“What?—are you kidding?”

“Maybe run for Congress.”

Herb just shrugged and grinned at Aaron. “Come on.” He was caught between feeling flattered that his son thought him capable and hurt that his son didn’t consider this job useful enough. Or important enough. And maybe was ashamed in front of Steve? “Come on. Let’s get going. While we’ve still got the afternoon,” Herb said, feeling the time flowing out of him like breath or blood.

A few miles south of Green River Falls was the rough pine and insulated-glass house Herb had built for himself on a hill, built from foundation up with a couple of carpenters at a time when he’d hardly built anything in his life. It faced south. From the gravel driveway you could see two big solar panels that gave them their hot water and at the edge of the driveway, the remains of last winter’s woodpile, wood that gave them all their heat.

Lynn, feeding Jesse on the front porch, waved a spoon and Aaron yelled, “Hi Lynn,” yelled in his manly, uneasy, first-part-of-the-weekend voice. He carried his bag to the porch and stood hands on knees bending over Jesse in his high-chair. “Am I your brother? You remember me? What’s my name?”

Jesse, as always, went cuckoo. Did he know that Aaron was in special relation to him? What could brother mean to a one-and-a-half-year-old? But he grinned and shrieked “Aaaaaahhhhnnnn!”—and tried to squirm out of the chair.

“Wait till you’re done,” Lynn said. She hugged Aaron and said hello to Steve and asked Herb to get the kids settled in, for godsakes, while Jesse finished eating.

“Let’s get these bags up to the loft—on the double.” Cheerful camp counselor, ail-American roarer, circus barker, uneasy father—he clapped his hands and off they went. Herb grinned at Lynn. “We’re off to the woods,” he said, apologizing, without saying so, for leaving her.

Then Aaron was back, holding Jesse and grinning. “Weird little guy. He’s getting so big,” he said as Jesse manhandled him. Then Lynn was asked to admire: (1) Aaron’s sneakers, (2) his Little League jacket, (3) his Alligator shirt—a match to the one he gave his father. She admired.

“Can I have something to drink, Lynn?”

“Oh, Aaron,” she groaned. “You know where the refrigerator is. It hasn’t moved, honey.”

Herb started to help, then stopped in time, and Aaron said, “Sure,” and went off with Steve to the kitchen.

“He’s just being polite,” Herb said, hunching forward on the peeling-paint rocker.

“It still aggravates me. And why is it me he asks?”

“Because it’s you he’s less sure of.”

“Maybe.”

“About his place here.”

Leaning back and closing his eyes, Herb rocked.

It stayed warm but clouded over in the afternoon. They hiked through familiar hills. Skunk cabbages were unfurling in the swampy places, violets—he picked some and placed them reverently in a moist plastic bag—higher up on the trail.

Often, he took Aaron climbing in the mountains, serious, though not technical, climbing. It was among the best things they did together. Climb hard, feel close, not speak too much. But today was just a ramble. They wandered off the trail, cut across country—spring still new enough to make it easy to get through—hunting some miraculous meadow.

Leading the way, he played “Father.” Not that he didn’t love Aaron; it was as if fatherhood were a creation, something he had no authority for.

What about his own father? Had he ever felt that way? It was hard to imagine. His gross, lumpish, bearlike father!

“Let’s you and me go see a movie, Herb,” his father would say. Satisfied and sleepy on a Friday night after another hard week, he’d say, “Come on, tough guy, huh?” So they’d go, and it didn’t matter what movie, because half an hour into it, he’d be asleep, one hand on Herb’s knee or around Herb’s shoulder, and it was nice sitting there, his father the gross body, he, the eyes and imagination, sitting close in the dark, breathing the onions of his father’s breath, giggling to himself whenever, in the middle of sleep in the crowded theater, his father would let go a fart.

But by the time Herb was in junior high, that had stopped. So hard to remember just when. Or when he, Herb, began to disown his father, to be numb to his tender stuff. There had always been the yelling, but now there was nothing but the yelling. Fights at night with Mom. He worked late just to avoid her. Came home when she was asleep, tiptoed to escape her demands. His eyes hated the stains on the kitchen walls as signs of failure. He scrubbed the stains to death; he killed cockroaches like enemies. Or in a softer mood he’d heave a breath, checkbook and pen in hand, sag and slump, say, “The bills, Herbie. Oh the goddamned bills, the bills. She thinks I’m supposed to be a goddamned millionaire. She wants, she wants, what does she want from me?”

Herb hardened against his father’s weakness. It was better to fight with him, because then he could feel their separation. I’m not this—this poor bastard. This loser. . . .

Now, remembering, he felt tenderness for him: a hard-luck householder trying to hold things together.

Aaron and Steve had brought a pair of walkie-talkies. One would “lose” himself and then, by describing his location, lead the other to him. Herb walked on, past stumps from ancient logging.

Swiftly, fording a stream, rock to rock, Herb suddenly superimposed another forest over this one. Where?

The Berkshires. He and Francine, the first or second summer of their marriage, were camping in the hills near Tanglewood. She’d come only for the evening concerts. In the woods she was afraid: of bears, of getting lost. Afraid of the earth itself because it reminded her of graves.

But she never let on. It was a fine day, and she was supposed to be happy. Herb wedged a bottle of wine between the rocks of the stream and played guitar for her. He remembered her face as the face of a too-serious child.

Being there in memory, he knew as he hadn’t known then—he had resented her serious face, her fear. But also wanted to comfort and reassure, to shore up the world for this other creature: Love, the world is as strange to me as to you. Am I supposed to be a man? I am unsure of the ground under my feet.

He plucked the wine from the cold stream and handed her the bottle. She smiled—a fake, frightened smile Herb hated—and sipped the wine.

“Isn’t it beautiful here, Francine?” Herb asked, knowing that it wasn’t in the least beautiful for her, pressing her to say the truth so he could be legitimately angry at her.

“Beautiful,” she said, and looking around her as if Appreciating the Day, she sipped the wine. . . .

Herb took one of the walkie-talkies and hid behind an old tumbled stone wall, from which he could see the boys. He lay there, directing them “twenty steps down slope, then find a clump of birch. . . .” until they came upon him. They sat on a carpet of star moss talking Red Sox, and he felt happy. He knew these woods pretty well. He could feel, through invisible filaments threaded to his heart, Boston far beyond those hills over there, New York down river. As if he were the center point of a map laid out through his body. And suddenly, as if a forest god had made his presence felt, his dead father, hardly a forest god, urban seat-of-the-pants struggler, entered and filled his body. And then, as if the moment were no longer locked into a niche of time, he felt himself father to Aaron and Aaron father to another little boy, and all of them here this instant. He remembered the photograph on the desk of his own grandfather, the photograph of his father and two uncles impossibly as children. For an instant he was tinted sepia and framed in antique gold. His face calmed, his breath deepened, became rich: he was a photograph on a desk, a photograph in the study of Aaron’s someday child.

Father and father, son and son, he smiled for the camera. . . .

Friends came for dinner, the boys went upstairs to watch TV, and Herb was caught between. He’d hustle upstairs to sit with Aaron and laugh at the commercials, hurry downstairs listening hard to catch whiffs of table talk so he could be part of things when he sat down. Annoyed at Lynn for having eyes to smile at his nonsense, he knew that if Aaron were part of this marriage, lived here with them, he’d let the kid be for the night. But having so little time, he pressed it unnaturally, and the wine was sometimes bitter.

Next morning the same: Herb wanted a few minutes to sip a cup of coffee and play with Jesse on the livingroom rug. But outside Aaron practiced pitching to Steve. Aaach. He should join them. But Lynn wanted to shower and wash her hair. In compromise he watched Aaron through the window and from time to time trotted to the door to yell out, “Great pitch.”

“Thanks!” Until finally Lynn came in, rested, clear, calm— he could see it in her eyes, not haggard, tense, driven by the schedule of her work week—came to him, her hair in a towel above her head, wearing his terry cloth robe, and slipped the robe down off her shoulders, turned her back to him: “Lotion me, okay?” He did.

“I’ll be a few more minutes,” she said and, gathering up her robe, went upstairs.

“Take your sweet time,” he said, not meaning it, because it was after nine and he wanted to spend the morning playing ball with Aaron. No game this morning—part-time fathers had a hard time finding pick-up games—but he could take them down to the town field for practice. Even hardball practice.

He wrestled Jesse around the rug, but Jesse decided he wanted to play by himself—stack block on block on his own. Herb was amazed to see his fingers working, this little creature. . . . He went off for his shine kit and brown wingtip shoes and shined them up while watching Jesse build.

From outside, a high yell: “Strike one!”

As he shined his shoes, again Herb became his own father. His father had, of course, been more intense about getting a high shine on his Florsheims. Near bursting, face flushed and sweaty, he used to brush his shoes the way you might cut cordwood with a handsaw, so much power went into those shoes, then slap the leather with a cloth, wipe the sweat from his face with a pocket handkerchief, unfold a white shirt just back from the laundry. Herb had two pairs, black and brown, of his father’s Florsheims, twenty, thirty years old now, still in good shape, and when he wore them, he went through his father’s ritual. Gentler about it, but still he could feel his father enter his body, his own face fill out with his father’s heavier face, his own back thicken into his father’s muscular thickness; it was like possession, and he couldn’t alter his own body feelings to dismiss, to exorcise his father’s flesh. Hell, didn’t even want to. He felt himself part of a long continuity of fathers lifting up sons.

“Strike two!”

At last Lynn came down the stairs with Uncle Sam, their blue-fronted Amazon parrot, on her shoulder. Green smock, green parrot and her blonde hair. “Well,” he said. “Good morning, love.” She was back, he said to himself. Meaning? Oh, that weekdays were tough and often her eyes were elsewhere and he, too, was under pressure, and Jesse would kvetch and howl and he and Lynn wouldn’t be there for one another. Now, she was back.

“Hi, parrot lady.” He nuzzled her. Uncle Sam nibbled and nipped his ear.

She smiled at him, then she sat down with Jesse, and Herb was free. He waved from the doorway, zipped up his wind-breaker, and trotted out like a big league ballplayer at the start of a game. “Okay, let’s get some action started here,” and Aaron threw him the ball, and he realized, as he threw it back, Ah, dummy, the action had already started without you, you’re not the action, and he realized that the surge of guilty energy was very like his own father’s. But that was all right, it was all right to let his father play some of the ball. At this moment, he had room for both of them. . . .

Driving Aaron to meet Francine halfway to Boston, Herb didn’t listen to Aaron and Steve talk baseball in the back seat, baseball and baseball cards, voices over the hum of wind higher as the talk grew hotter. Herb felt the usual Sunday-afternoon-pain-behind-the-eyes, taking-Aaron-back pain. He resented him a little. Twenty, thirty minutes before he met Francine at Howard Johnson’s for the changeover, he began to cut himself off. It felt like a dream: he was chauffeur. Aaron ignored him. Weekend father, he was near tears. How’s school? How’s your Little League team? Questions like those fell into a pit and died.

A couple of years back he could have played an alphabet game with road signs or billboards, but that was too young for Aaron now. Almost a teen-ager—my God. There’d be secrets and private pain, soon, maybe already, and he wouldn’t be there for Aaron the one moment late some night when, after stirring stuff around for a week, he could talk to a father.

So.

So. So that’s the way it was.

“Hey—you remember Twenty Questions? I’ve got a Twenty-questions for you guys.” So they played. Herb had Carl Yastrimski’s Red Sox cap in mind, and the boys got it in 17— with a little help.

“So,” Herb said, “you got to play hardball after all.”

“Not really play,” Aaron shrugged.

“Well it was the best I could do.”

“Sure, Dad. And I wouldn’t mind playing even softball— you know, a choose-up game?—I mean next time. Maybe I can get Mom to buy me a softball glove.”

“Oh, Christ, Aaron, Get what you want. Get whatever the hell you want.”

Up ahead was Howard Johnson’s, and he slowed down. Whatever he was carrying, he could lay it down and breathe.

Francine, sitting in her car, reading, got out and waved as they pulled up. Left rear fender crumpled a little, but he decided not to ask, knowing without putting it into words that to ask would have meant restoring a piece of their old relationship, a piece that was never any good—he the critic, she the dolt about machines. He waved back, the boys got out, and Aaron started telling her about the Red Sox game the day before, and she nodded, nodded, wasn’t hearing, stood looking at Herb in that vague way of hers, as if wanting to be in conversation with him but distracted by the boys, transferring gloves and bat and backpack to the trunk of her Buick.

“Richard’s inside making a telephone call,” Francine said. “If you want ice cream, he might just buy some for you.”

They cheered and ran off.

She wore jeans and a sweater. He remembered how she’d been contemptuous of jeans, how she’d worn tweed skirts and forced her hair straight while they’d collaborated, without revealing it to one another, to grow far enough apart to separate. Now that they were separate, it didn’t matter what they wore.

“How was the weekend?” She asked. “Everything okay with Aaron?”

He shrugged. “It was a nice weekend.”

“We had a nice weekend, too.”

“Good.” He stretched and yawned to show her he wasn’t tense or depressed.

“Oh—” she remembered—” do you have your check? If you don’t, it’s all right,” she added in a rush.

“Oh, sure.” He fumbled for his checkbook, wrote out her check against the hood of the Buick, ashamed she had to remind him.

“Cash it quick,” he said.

She laughed her tense laugh and folded the check into her purse. She stood by the car, and they were quiet, as if taking the air.

“I was walking in the woods yesterday,” he said, “and I remembered the time we went camping in the Berkshires. You remember that weekend?”

She nodded. “We went to Tanglewood. Sure. Of course I remember. I was eight months pregnant with Aaron and sick to my stomach.”

“Pregnant. No kidding. You sure?”

She could hardly forget that, she said.

He felt ashamed. His memory seemed like a fiction— designed to give him a version of the world he needed. That she was pregnant! He looked at Francine’s face to let it remind him. But she seemed, for a moment, like some new acquaintance.

“What I remember,” he said, resenting her for making him feel ashamed, “what I remember best, is feeling I was supposed to be a Man. I was supposed to be strong and reliable. A . . .Man,” he said again, waving his hand in the air trying to shape for her the significance of the word. “I don’t know if-that-was just me or if you really laid that demand on me.

“You weren’t misperceiving. I imagined life with a fantastically wealthy older man. You know—yachts, power, invulnerability. He would take care of me. Remember—I’d lost my father a couple of years before.”

“That’s right. Your father.”

“We were little children. You and I.”

Sure.

“The fantasies,” she went on. “I could never tell you. I guess I wanted a 19th-century husband.”

He smiled. “You think that Richard is a 19th-century husband?”

“I’ve grown up a little,” she laughed.

Out came Aaron and Steve, licking ice cream cones, Richard behind them, his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. Herb waved.

“Ice-cream cones are up to half a buck,” Richard said, coming up to Herb and shaking hands. “How the hell do poor people survive?”

Balding, smiling, handsome in his belted suede jacket and Basque beret, Richard was and was not the protective 19th-century husband Francine had wished for. Was because he had some money—ran an investment counseling firm in Boston, found tax shelters and leasing gimmicks for the rich. Was not because you could see right through his stance of tough practicality to a decent, vulnerable man.

Aaron hugged him goodby and sat in the back of the Buick with Steve.

“Well,” Herb said. “So I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”

“But Herb?” Francine said. “Remember, we talked about it?—we’ve been planning to go sailing—on Arthur Quint’s boat—with Aaron and Arthur and Lisa and their son? It’s a little tradition of ours, getting the boat ready for sailing in the spring.”

“Oh, Christ.”

“Please, Herb.”

“Then—what about next weekend instead?”

“I’m afraid next week is impossible,” Francine said, looking over at Richard. “Sunday’s fine, but Saturday night he’s going to a class party or something.”

“But Sunday is fine,” Richard underlined.

Herb started to feel choked. Tears thickened unreasonably behind his eyes. “Well, it’s always something, isn’t it? And here I am, busting my hump to pay for it.” Using the idiom like a slap. But it was his own face that felt hot.

“Oh, Herb. Here we go. Please don’t make it hard for me. Doesn’t Aaron deserve a normal life?”

“Normal! You keep saying normal. So I have to pay for him to go sailing or buy twenty dollar tennis shorts or some fancy softball glove?”

“Excuse me,” Richard said. “I think I’ll go sit in the car.” He climbed in and started the engine so he could play the stereo to cover the quarrel.

“Do you really believe,” Francine asked, “you pay half ofAaron’s support? Do you, Herb?”

“Probably not. Of course not. In a house like yours? And summer camp? But in relation to my salary—”

“You’re a trained lawyer, for godsakes. You talk like you’re poor, Herb.”

“Compared to you and Richard? Do you know what I make at the agency?”

“But that’s your choice,” Francine said. “It’s fine if you want to—work for people in trouble. Somebody has to. But is it fair to make us pay for your choices? Now, listen—do you know what just his tennis lessons cost us?”

“That’s the point.”

“What’s the point?” Francine’s voice had grown raspy, monotoned, brittle.

“This life,” he said, biting off his words. “I don’t mean to put down your life for you. But I give you my money to turn Aaron into an alien. An adult who’ll look down on me as strange. But he’s going to be the strange one. In the world as a whole? Not knowing what’s really up—”

“Oh, when you get self-righteous like this—”

“—thinking the whole world is a suburb with tennis courts and sailing lessons and that Betamax of yours—”

“What sailing lessons? Oh, boring!”

“Sure, he’s been to London and Los Angeles. But he won’t care a goddamn what people have to go through.”

“Give me a little credit, for godsakes. I think he’s learning a lot about other people. Oh—you can get to be such a sad sack sometimes. You can get to be such a loser, Herb. You think I want him to grow up like that?”

He turned from her, leaned down and tapped on the window of the Buick. Aaron waved; Herb waved back and grinned.

Francine stopped at the car door. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.

“Call me later in the week. All right?” He got in the Saab and casually turned the key, and the goddamned engine wouldn’t turn over and it wouldn’t start and it wouldn’t start, old car, no money for a new one, and he kept his eyes straight ahead and his face deadpan—and suddenly it kicked over. He breathed, gunned the engine, and drove off, past the service island, into the lane that led back to the highway.

Jesse pulled his wagon filled with hats and scarves across the living room floor. Lynn curled up on the sofa, read a book on two-year olds, getting ready for Jesse’s next stage. Herb didn’t feel like talking. He went into the kitchen to fix dinner. Sipping wine, slivering chicken raw from a breast, he listened to an old Brubeck reissue over the stereo. And then, for just an instant, he remembered his father again, his father fixing a sandwich to take with him to work, and it’s maybe 6:30 in the morning, a Monday morning, and his eyes are half open and he’s slugging down coffee to get started. Pop looks up, grins, yawns comically, theatrically, as if to acknowledge that he’s a communicant in the ritual of getting up, going to work. A workingman. No. Something more: being a person who handled, somehow, the pressures.

Herb grinned back.

He started cutting onions.

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