IT WAS a lovely house, seated in the middle of what once had been a pear orchard, and yet it had seemed way out on a limb, a giddy place to live, so far from the protection of Stern’s city. Mr. Iavone, the real-estate agent who had taken Stern and his wife to the house, said, “If you like this one, it’s going to be a matter of kesh. Tell me how much kesh you can raise and I’ll see what I can do.” Mr. Iavone was a grim, short-tempered man who had been showing them selections all day, and when they finally drove up to this one, Stern felt under obligation to buy some house, any house, since Mr. Iavone had spent so much time with them. Golden children began to spill out of it, and the one that caught Stern’s attention was a blinking woman-child with sunny face and plump body tumbling out of tight clothes. Stern, had his life depended on it, would not have been able to tell whether she was a woman or a child.
Iavone, in an aside to Stern, told him that the girl-woman was the reason the Spensers were selling the house, that she had taken to doing uncontrollable things in cars with high-school boys, bringing shame to Mr. Spenser, her father, who was in data systems.
The house had many rooms, a dizzying number to Stern, for whom the number of rooms was all-important. As a child he had graded the wealth of people by the number of rooms in which they lived. He himself had been brought up in three in the city and fancied people who lived in four were so much more splendid than himself.
But now he was considering a house with a wild and guilty number of rooms, enough to put a triumphant and emphatic end to his three-room status. Perhaps, Stern thought, one should do this more gradually. A three-room fellow should ease up to six, then eight, and, only at that point, up to the unlimited class. Perhaps when a three-roomer moved suddenly into an unlimited affair he would each day faint with delirium.
While Stern examined the house, Mr. Iavone sat at the piano and played selections from Chopin, gracefully swaying back and forth on the stool, his fingers, which had seemed to be real-estate ones, now suddenly full of stubby culture. (Later, Stern heard that Mr. Iavone always went to the piano for prospective buyers to show he did not drive a hard bargain. Actually, his favorite relaxation was boccie.)
Mr. Spenser, a man with purple lips and stiff neck, who seemed to Stern as though he belonged to a company that offered many benefits, walked around the house with Stern, clearing his throat a lot and talking about escrow. Stern listened, with a dignified look on his face, but did not really hear Mr. Spenser. Escrow was something that other people knew about, like stocks and bonds. “I don’t want to hear about stocks,” Stern’s mother had once said. “It’s not for our kind. Not with the way your father makes a living. There’s blood on every dollar.” Stern was sure now that if he stopped everything and took a fourteen-year course in escrow, he would still be unable to get the hang of it because it wasn’t for his kind. Still, he felt very dignified walking around a house with a data systems man and talking about escrow. Mrs. Spenser invited Stern and his wife and child into the kitchen and brought out a jar of jam.
“Did you make that in this house?” Stern asked.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Spenser, a skeletal woman Stern imagined had been worn down by her husband’s dignified but fetishistic lovemaking requests.
“This is quite a house,” said Stern.
The price was $27,000. Someone had told Stern always to bid $5,000 under the asking price, and, adding on $1,000 to be nice, he said, “How about $23,000?” Mr. Spenser muttered something about expediting the escrow and then said OK. Stern’s heart sank. He had been willing to go to $25,000, and his face got numb, and then he began to tingle the way he once had after taking a one-penny sharpener from the five-and-ten and then waiting by the counter, unable to move, to get his Dutch Rubbing from the store owner. Getting the house as low as he had, he felt a great tenderness for Mr. Spenser; he wanted to throw his arms around the stiff-necked man, who probably knew nothing of Broadway plays with Cyril Ritchard, and say, “You fool. I just got two thousand dollars from you. How much could you get paid by your company, which probably gives you plenty of benefits but only meek Protestant salaries? Don’t you know that just because a man says one price doesn’t mean that’s all he’ll pay? You’ve got to hold on to those two thousands, because even though you’re a churchgoer you’ve got a glandular daughter who’ll always be doing things in cars and forcing you to move to other neighborhoods, pretending you’re moving because of oil burners or escrow.”
Mr. Iavone left the piano and said to Stern, “I see we have nice people on both sides. Would you like to leave some kesh now?”
“I want someone to see the house,” said Stern.
“But you’ve already talked price,” said Mr. Iavone. He grabbed his coat and slammed the top of the piano. “You bring people out, you’re a gentleman with them, you spend the day,” he said, “and you wind up holding the bag. You think they’re nice people. ” I closed three million dollars’ worth of homes last year.”
“I’ve always lived in apartments and I want someone I know to look it over. Then I’ll buy it,” said Stern, but Iavone slammed shut the front door. Mr. Spenser cleared his throat, and Stern was certain that the next day he would tell the other data systems people in his company about the tall, soft man who had come out, talked price, and then left without buying, the first time this had ever happened in the history of American house-buying.
“I think I’m just going to take it without doing any inspecting,” said Stern. ‘sometimes it’s better that way.” Mr. Spenser called back Iavone, who came in and said, “I knew there were nice people on both sides. If we can get the kesh settled, we’ll be on our way.” There was much handshaking all around, and Iavone played a jubilant march on the piano.
The closing was held several weeks later in the office of Mr. Spenser’s attorney, a polite man whose barren office had only one small file in it. Stern felt a wave of pity for this attorney whose entire law practice could be squeezed into that little file cabinet. He wanted to say to him, ‘stop being so polite. Be more aggressive and you’ll have larger cabinets.” Stern’s own attorney was Saul Fleer, an immaculate man with clean fingers, who took out a little pad when he met Stern at the station and, writing, said, “The train was eighty-nine cents. I enter every penny right in here.” Stern and Fleer had cokes, Fleer paying for his own and then writing “$.05” on the pad.
At the closing, Mr. Spenser and his wife sat upright, close together, their arms locked as though they were about to defend a frontier home together. Their marriage was a serious one; this was a serious, adult matter; and at such times they locked arms, sat upright, and faced things together. They blended in with their polite lawyer, and Stern had the feeling they paid him in jellies.
Stern thought Fleer drove too hard a bargain and cringed down in his seat each time Fleer, pointing a clean finger at legal papers, shouted at the Spensers’ attorney, “You can get away with this out here. If I had you back in the city, you wouldn’t try anything like this.” Stern wanted to tell Fleer not to yell at the man, that he had only a small file.
On the matter of who should pay a certain fifty dollars, Fleer said, “I’d like to see you try a trick like this in the city.”
Iavone said, “You put a gun right to my head. I have three million dollars’ worth of closings a year, and this is the first time I’ve ever had a gun put to my head.”
He walked out of the room, and, after a while, the Spensers, arms still locked, rose grimly and followed him, as though their property had been erased by an Indian raid. Their attorney, smiling politely, walked out, too. Stern wanted to be with them on the side of politeness and marital arm-linking and not have an attorney who waved fingers at people and was from the city.
“Do I have the house?” he asked.
“You saw what happened,” said Fleer, stuffing papers into a briefcase, his face colored with anger. “They’re strong out here. I’d like to get them in the city.” Then Stern, because he didn’t want Iavone to fall under his yearly three million, because the polite lawyer’s tiny file touched him, and because he felt vaguely un-American, whispered, “I’ll pay the fifty.” Fleer said, “Aagh,” and threw up his hands in disgust. Stern went to the staircase and, in a cracked voice, hollered, ‘mr. Iavone.” The papers were signed, and immediately afterward Iavone began calling him ‘stern” instead of ‘mr. Stern.” At the end of the closing Mr. Spenser handed over the key, and Stern, who had always lived in the city, suddenly became frightened about being away from it. He wondered with a chill whether he really did want to live “out here.”
Later that afternoon, he drove to the house with his wife and child and, as if to certify his possession of it in his own nonlegal way, Stern, in suit and tie, rolled from one end of the wide lawn to the other while his wife and child shrieked with joy. The boy had large eyes and a strange, flaring nose, and his looks changed; in the bright sun he seemed pathetically ugly, but then, coming swiftly out of a sleep, or by lamplight, hearing stories, his face seemed tender and lovely. Stern, standing on the lawn now, made up a game right on the spot called “Up in the Sky” in which he took his child under the armpits and swung him first between his legs and then up in the sky as far as he would go. On the way down once, the boy said, “Throw me up high enough to see God.”
“How does he know about God?” Stern asked, a little chilled because he wasn’t sure yet what God things to tell the child and hadn’t counted on it coming up so early.
“A little girl on Sapphire Street where we used to live,” said Stern’s wife.
“God can beat up a gorilla,” said the little boy as Stern flung him skyward. Stern threw him up again and again, once with viciousness, as though he really did want to lose him in the sky so that he would not have to figure out what to tell him about God.
A stab got Stern in the bottom of his wide, soft back then and he dropped to his knees and said, “Everyone on the giraffe.” His wife and child got on, Stern becoming excited by the heat of her crotch. He went across the lawn carrying them, but there was a strained frivolity about the game. He wanted someone to see him, and when a car drove by, he smiled thinly, as if to say, “We’re homeowners. See how much fun we always have and how we fit in.” But when the one car had passed, there was no one left to show off for; in the distance there was a bleak, lonely, deserted estate, where once a man named Bagby had each Sunday skidded through the snow in a horse-drawn sleigh, entertaining his grandchildren. Stern went inside his house and walked from room to room, giving each one a number and hollering it out aloud as he stood in the center of each. “I always wanted a lot of rooms,” he said, clasping his long-nosed, great-eyed wife to him. “Now look how many I’ve got,”
After moving in officially several days later, Stern hired a trio of Italian gardeners to prepare the elaborate shrubs for summer–two old, cackling, slow-moving ones and a fragrant and temperamental young man who spoke no English but had worked on the gardens of Italian nobility. The old men made straight borders along their flower beds, but the young man did his in curlicues, standing off after each twirl and making indications of roundness in the air with his hands. Their price was three dollars an hour, and as they moved along Stern began to worry that they weren’t working fast enough. He saw the shrub preparation costing him $800, leaving him no money for furniture. Stern wanted to tell the young man to stop doing the time-consuming curlicued borders and to do straight ones like the old men to keep the bill down. But he was afraid to say anything to a handsome young man who had worked on the grounds of Italian nobility. Stern watched the gardeners from inside the house, ducking behind a curtain so they wouldn’t see him. He hoped they would hurry and perspired as the dollars ticked away in multiples of three. The old men rested on their rakes now, poking each other and cackling obscenely at the handsome young man as he made his temperamental curlicues. Then Stern lost sight of the young man and imagined that his long-nosed, great-eyed wife had inhaled his fragrance and dragged him with a sudden frenzy into the garage, her fingers digging through his black and oily young Italian hair, loving it so much more than Stern’s thinning affair, which fell out now at the touch of a comb.
But the young gardener was making tiny paths in the backyard rock garden, and when he and the two cacklers were paid and had left, Stern called his family together and said, “We’ve got paths. I’m a guy with paths.” Even though they were narrow and largely decorative, Stern insisted his wife and child walk in and out of the paths with him, the whole child and half his wife not really fitting and spilling over onto the grass.
That night, Stern gathered his wife and son to him and they sat on the front steps of the house, Stern feeling the stone cold against his wide, soft legs, bare in Bermuda shorts. They watched it get dark, felt the air get dewy and unbalancing. “This is the best time,” he said, as though he had lived ten thousand nights in houses, analyzing all the various hours of the day for quality before settling upon this one as the best. The night made him feel less jittery and isolated. Whatever bad was out there would wait until the next day. He had his boy on his lap and his wife’s hips against him and he was sitting on stone steps. He might have been in the city with a thousand families all around him, ten minutes from his mother’s three rooms. As he sat on the stone, a fire truck screamed to a halt before his house and a man in a fireman’s uniform raced across his lawn to the steps. The man was small and had low hips with powerfully thick legs. Stern, walking through meat sections at supermarkets, had always wondered who bought the pork butts and ham hocks, strange cuts of meat Stern would never consider. It seemed to Stern that this man was probably someone who ate them, and, instead of making him undernourished, their gristle and waste went to his legs and perversely made him wiry and powerful.
“We’re having a firemen’s ball,” the man said. ‘do you want to go? The twentieth of this month.”
Stern smiled in what he thought was home-owning folksiness and said, “We can’t make it that night. I’m sorry.”
The fireman wheeled on his trunklike legs and ran apishly back to the truck.
“You were wrong,” his wife said. “Everyone buys tickets. Nobody really goes. You just give them the money.”
Stern, in Bermudas, ran across the lawn, shouting, “I’ll take two after all,” but the truck had already screamed off, and Stern heard a voice yell ‘shit” into the night.
“My first thing in this town,” said Stern, “and I’ve got an enemy.” He put his great, soft body on the stoop against his wife’s hips, not at all comforted by the night now, and imagined his house with all its rooms burning to the ground, his child’s hair aflame, while thick-legged firemen, deliberately sluggish, turned weak water jets on the roof, far short of the mark.
The Spensers had failed to tell Stern to spray the area, and, a month after he moved in, a caterpillar army came and attacked the grounds. When Stern first saw the insects, he said, “I’m going to get them,” and went out to the lawn and began to flick them off the shrubs and then step on them when they were on the ground. But there were huge wet clumps of them on everything, and he called the spray company. “It’s too early to get after them,” the man said. “If you get at them too early, you just waste your spray. You’ve got to wait till they’re sitting up perky .” Stern waited a day and then called again; another voice answered and told him, “It’s too late. You missed the right time. They’re in there solid now.”
“The other man in your place said to wait,” Stern said.
“I’ll rap you in the teeth you get smart,” the voice screamed. “I’ll come right over there and get you. You want to make trouble, I’ll give you trouble all right.”
Stern bought some chemicals in a store and said to his wife, “I know there are billions, but I’m going to get every one of them. This is our house.” He went to work on a beautiful mountain ash tree first. There was little of it showing; the tree might as well have been one large wet caterpillar. Stern sprayed at it for an hour, until his hands were broken with blisters, but only a few caterpillars fell, not really from the potency of the chemical but simply because they lost their balance and got washed off. They were hardy when they touched the ground and Stern knew they would find their way back to the tree. He stopped spraying, and in a few days the caterpillars had left and Stern and his wife were able to see that they had attacked in a funny way, eating approximately half of everything, half of each bush and half of each shrub. In front of the house stood a wild cherry tree, lovely and fruitful on one side, black, gnarled, and cancerous on the other. The plants never went back to normal, and since it was too massive a job to replace each one, Stern and his wife learned to approach them only from certain angles, ones from which they looked complete, and pretend they were whole shrubs instead of half ones. Stern was sickened by the diseased shrubs; it was not so much their appearance that troubled him but the feeling that he had betrayed a sacred trust. “The house has been standing here for thirty years with whole shrubs,” he said to his wife. “We’re in it a month and there are halves.”
There was, too, the dog escort problem. The house was somewhat isolated from transportation conveniences, and to get to the railroad station each day (where he left for his job in the city), Stern had to cross the huge, long-deserted estate old man Bagby had once skidded across in a sleigh. It was spread out over eighty acres and took Stern twenty-three minutes each way, much too long a walk to be brisk and refreshing. The train ride then would be an hour and six minutes, which meant that Stern would be traveling roughly three hours each day. When they had first considered the house, his wife had said, “Take the ride once. It may be too long. See how you like it.” But Stern had answered, “I don’t want to know about it. I love the house. If I take the ride, I may not like it and we’ll never live in this house. I love this house and I don’t want to know about any rides.”
The estate was a lonely, windless, funereal place, terribly quiet, with many odd little buildings, and for the first weeks of walking its length Stern made it his business to investigate a different one of them each morning. On one such morning, he climbed the watchtower and stood on the second floor, looking out of the cracked windows onto huge, rolling lawns and at bushes that had holes in them, seemingly torn out at random by large fists. Stern wondered how the estate was when it was new, and then he walked over to the main estate building. On an impulse, he poked his elbow through a weak door panel and looked around innocently in the clear morning as though he, too, was surprised at all the commotion. Able to open the lock now, he waited till the echo had quieted and went inside the estate building, sweating hard, and then climbed the winding steps to the second floor. Doing everything in a hurry, he stood first in the elegantly constructed floor tub of the main bedroom and then went out to the circular balcony, extended his arms, and hollered, “Throw them to the lions,” to imaginary throngs below. Then he decided to take something. The rooms seemed empty, except for a packet of newspapers tied with string. Stern worked a single paper loose and, tucking it under his arm, walked swiftly down the stairs. He smelled coffee burning and then ran out the door and kept running all the way to the train, running so hard he got a pain in his chest. He did not look at the dusty newspaper until he was in the coach. It was dated 1946, and its recent vintage somehow spoiled the whole estate for him; he never went into any of the buildings again. In any case, it was not the walk through the estate each morning that troubled him so much as the walk back at night.
At the farthest corner of the estate area, near the train, stood a loosely scattered group of houses in a heavily wooded thatch. They seemed at one time to be part of the estate and were still being lived in. In darkness each night, Stern had to cross this cluster of houses. There was no easily defined road in the area, and since it was not a real community, the only light was from an occasional window; Stern had to walk through using a pocket flashlight and not really sure whether he was on someone’s property. On the second night of his estate-crossing, it was not quite so dark as it was to be later on, and Stern was able to see two thin, huge dogs vault a fence that encircled one of the houses and make for him with a whistling sound. They skimmed through the night and came to an abrupt halt at his feet, their gums drawn back, teeth white, both dogs reaching high above his waist. One took Stern’s wrist between his teeth, and the two animals, hugging close to his side, walked with him between them, as though they were guards taking a man to prison. Stern went along with them, not crying out, not really sure he could cry out. The houses were fairly far off; it would take a loud cry to reach them, and Stern was certain only old people lived in them and wouldn’t be able to make out voices in the night. He tried not to perspire, having heard you showed your fear that way, but he wasn’t able to tell whether he was or not since it was chilly. They walked a quarter of a mile with him that way, hugging him tight on both sides, until the dog released his wrist, which was soaking wet; then both turned and went back, trotting swiftly through the night. The next day, Stern bought a penknife in the station, but when the dogs vaulted the fence that evening, he was taken aback by their speed and the whistling sound. He remembered hearing once as a child that you should never draw a blade unless you really meant to use it. Deciding the blade was probably too short, he succumbed meekly and allowed the lead dog to take his wrist again. There didn’t seem to be anything he could do. He had heard too that you could break a dog’s back with a swift judo chop on the spine, and he took his wrist out of the dog’s mouth and tapped it lightly on its leathery back, but the dog made a sound and he put his wrist back. He thought of walking up to the house from which the dogs came, but he was certain the animals were trained to kill all people who passed through the fence and would get him in the throat before he reached the door. The houses were in a vague sort of grouping, not in any definite town or area, and there didn’t seem to be any way to get close enough to the dog-protected house to see its address. The following day, Stern tried to guess what the address might be and called a number on the phone. An old woman’s voice, hearing his, hollered, “Crumbie, crumbie,” and hung up. There didn’t seem to be any special police to appeal to; nor was Stern sure an ordinance was being violated. He was afraid of the police and did not want to call them anyway. He pictured the police in the section to be large, neutral-faced men with rimless glasses who would accuse him of being a newcomer making vague troublemaking charges. They would take him into a room and hit him in his large, white, soft stomach. So each night he continued to walk slowly through the estate, waiting for the dogs, almost a little relieved when they finally whistled to his side, never really sure they wouldn’t decide one night to kill him in a muffled place where there would be no one to pull them off. He saw himself fighting silently in the night with the two gray dogs, lasting eight minutes and then being found a week later with open throat by small Negro children. Certain he would be killed, if not by the dogs then because his white, soft body did not seem capable of living past fifty, he called a broker one day and doubled his insurance.
There was no one to complain to. No one who could help Stern with that kind of problem. His only neighbor at the new house was an ancient man with a thin chest who was always being placed and arranged in different positions. He would be placed in the sun and then shifted to the shade when the heat got too intense for him. Then he would be moved inside and placed before the television set, great care being taken not to jostle him. In the wintertime he would be shifted to a train going to Virginia, where he owned a small farm. Stern later heard that once he touched down in the South, he would leap spryly out of his wheelchair and rarely be seen in daylight without two plump-chested young girls at his side.
One bright day, the man sat vegetablelike in a folding chair, having recently been placed there by his wife. Stern, in a shining burst of weekend hope, had run out of doors with a two-pronged shovel and was loosening the earth around one of his half shrubs, hoping that the sun’s warmth would get through to it and make the cancerous side blossom and start to flourish. Across a low fence, he saw his thin-chested neighbor and told him about the dogs. “They wait for me each night,” he explained. With frail wrists, the man drew from his wallet a commissioner’s badge and said, “I was very powerful when I had my health. I was able to get stop signs put up. Forget the dogs. I’ll take care of them. Do you want to get me around a little to the east ” ‘stern shifted his neighbor around, hardly able to suppress his joy; he was thrilled to have commissioner-type power on his side and wanted to hug his neighbor’s thin chest with delight. Actually he was a little afraid of him now, convinced that as a onetime commissioner he had weapons nearby and probably knew judo holds, ones you could deliver despite a thinness at the wrists. Stern looked forward to swift action, but the dogs continued to slip through the night to Stern’s side until he decided the man had done nothing after all. To get any action out of him, Stern imagined his neighbor would have to be carried to the police station and placed before the chief.
The man’s wife was of little help. A short woman who wore loose-flowing Alpine dirndls, she had a garbage problem and was always carrying a bagful out to a wire basket in front of her house to burn it. “I don’t know where it all comes from,” she would say to Stern as she made her endless pilgrimage to the basket. Often, on her way back for another load, she would see Stern across the fence, working silently to bring life back into his halves, and say, “I can remember when your house was really beautiful.” Once she invited Stern and his wife into her own home. She took them into the kitchen and said, with arm extended, “This is my kitchen.” Then she took them into the living room and said, “This is my living room,” and so on through the house. She pointed to her husband, who had been placed in front of a fishbowl, and said, “This is my husband.” Then she bid them goodbye, saying, “There was a time when your house was so lovely.” She never asked them in again.
Since the summer had been cruel to him, Stern looked forward to cold weather, when he would at least not have to bother with neighbors and to face the half shrubs each day. In the winter your shrubs were not supposed to be beautiful, and Stern watched with delight as the grass faded and the leaves dropped and his half shrubs fell in with the bleakness as though their black cancer shapes were the fault of the cold and not a caterpillar miscalculation. The snow came on fast that first winter. One night it built up to eight-inch drifts and was still dropping heavily when Stern, in low-cut Italian rubbers, left the train. The dogs did not clear the fence, hanging back instead to make cold choking sounds at him in the night–as though aware that the snow would make them clumsy, unable to terrorize Stern. He was halfway across the estate when the snow piled up knee-deep and stung its way into his eyes. He bent his great back, lowered his head, and shuffled into the wind; when he had walked far enough to get to his house and still could see no lights, he knew that he had lost his way. A great pain pounded through his nose, and he could not feel his face or catch his breath. With no knowledge of the stars, he saw himself making an endless circle in the snow and then falling silently asleep in a drift, to die of frostbite yards from his new home. The wind and snow flew at him with bitterness and his face seemed to belong to a stranger. He was unable to go further and stopped, defeated by the wind, not after a forty-day trek from Point Barrow, but twenty minutes from his commuter train. Feeling ridiculous, he sat down in the snow, but then he quickly became frightened and shouted “Get me!” into the night. He napped that way for a moment, and when he awakened things were not too much better. He urinated in the snow, feeling giddy and dangerous in this white place more private than a thousand bathrooms. When the wind hit him in his open fly, he imagined himself freezing up swiftly, breaking off with a quick snap like winter wood, and he withdrew quickly with drops remaining. Then, pulling his collar together and making a serious face, he bent to the snow again, as though, by being very businesslike about it and pretending he knew exactly where he was going, the fates would somehow carry him to his door. Later, he came out of the estate, not opposite his house, but in a new part of town. He had to walk three steep hills to his house, but then, turning a corner, with everything wet upon him, he saw it suddenly, as though through a curtain drawn open quickly. It was bathed in frosty light and all its diseased half trees and shrubs were cloaked with mounds of jeweled snow. It was an enchanted candy house, the loveliest in all the world, and Stern, standing wide-hipped and breathless as though beneath a spell, enjoyed what was to be his finest moment of the winter.
Stern thought that in the cold weather he would turn his thoughts inside to family and home, creating a handsome interior that would make up for the cancer garden. He would then lead visitors swiftly through the mottled shrubs, entertain them in interior splendor, and rush them out under cover of darkness. The paint-store owner delivered gallons of paint one Saturday morning, and then, when Stern raised his brush to deliver the first dab, the owner hollered, ‘don’t paint.” Stern lowered the brush and the man continued to shout: “Never paint. Lay your brushes aside and, for Christ’s sake, don’t paint. You paint and you’re a fool. Uh-uh. No painting, don’t paint, never paint.” And then he lowered his voice to a whisper and added, “Until you’re ready to paint.” He then imposed a long list of conditions which would have to be met before it would be all right for Stern to paint. ‘scrape your walls, scrape your floors, paper your halls, drape your dainty pieces, test your tones, check your temp, dress properly. But, for Christ’s sake, don’t paint. That is, until you’re ready to paint.”
Stern and his wife set all the paint in the corner of the room and waited until the ideal day came along, but it never did, and they gradually lost interest in painting. It was decided they would get rolling by laying tile, and Stern’s father sent Crib, an ageless Negro with great strength in his wrists, to help them lay it, his services a moving-in gift. Stern’s father, a small, round-shouldered man who always wore slipovers, had worked most of his life in a shoulder pad concern for his brother, Uncle Henny, expecting to be made a partner or to take over when Henny, a coronary patient, passed on. When Henny did expire, however, the business went instead to a distant nephew who had always worked in civil service positions, and Stern’s father had to continue in a subordinate position, his life more or less gone up in smoke. Crib, a sweeper and handyman, had supported Stern’s father for head of the business, almost as though it had been an election, and now, years later, remained a faithful supporter of his.
“He a fair man,” Crib once said to Stern. “And nobody cut a pad like him. No waste.” And Stern’s dad, in turn, spoke with admiration of Crib’s great strength. “He must be about ninety, but he’s some strong guy. You ought to see what he can lift.”
Crib appeared early one morning, wide nose parched with cold, slapping himself as though he had come all forty miles on foot, and Stern, who had a special feeling for all Negroes, hugged him in a show of brotherhood. He raced upstairs to rouse his wife and bring her downstairs, long-nosed and cranky, so she could fix some bacon and eggs for the Negro. To make Crib feel at home, Stern howled with laughter as his father’s friend made such remarks as “It too cold for ole Crib out here.”
When Crib had cleaned his plate of eggs, Stern asked if he wanted some milk to wash them down and Crib, with a wink, said, “That ain’t what I want.” Catching on, Stern filled up a tumbler with rye and Crib drained it, smacking his lips. “That what I want,” said Crib slyly, and Stern howled with laughter once again. “Now ole Crib fix you up,” said the Negro, rising and going to the tile. He rolled his sleeves back over his great wrists, and Stern felt that even though tremendous power would not be needed to lay the tiles, it was comforting to have it on tap anyway. Crib spent the morning on his knees, measuring and arranging and muttering, “Ole Crib forgot his tile cutter.” Stern silently placed a variety of sandwiches and another tumblerful of rye on a loose tile near Crib, and in the evening, when the job was finished, Stern’s wife had a roast ready. Later, Crib went back to inspect his work, shaking his head and saying, “Crib wish he bring his tile cutter.” Stern gave him twenty-five dollars, hugged him tightly, and saw him off, thinking for a moment how wonderful it would be if he could have Crib out there with him, using his great wrists to fight Stern’s enemies, police in rimless glasses and short, powerful-legged firemen. “You made too much of a fuss over him,” said Stern’s wife, and Stern replied, “He’s a saint. We were lucky to get him.” A day later, the tiles buckled, and Stern had to put books, A Treasury of the World’s Great Classics, about the room to hold them down. When the Treasury was removed, great crevasses remained between the tiles and Stern’s wife said, “We really needed him.”
“We got him for nothing,” said Stern. “It’s not a bad job. Nobody gets tile exactly right.”
But the crevasses made them suddenly lose interest in fixing up the house. They left the paint cans in the corner of the living room. The floors remained bare of carpeting, the windows without drapes. They took to ducking down when passing open windows in the nude, to avoid being spotted by cars. Upstairs, in Stern’s bedroom, the color scheme remained Mr. Spenser’s winter-green selection, and inferior artwork whipped up by the golden Spenser children still hung about the walls.
At this point, all of the sweetness seemed to drain out of Stern, a man who had once played a thousand inventive games with his son, Donald. There were no young children in the neighborhood for the boy to play with, and often, with the air clear and sun out full, the boy would sit alone on the front stoop, stroking a blanket, shaking quietly and trying to rock himself to sleep at the height of day. “Why do you need a blanket?” Stern would ask, and his son would answer, “I don’t know.” And Stern, in early morning, jittery and uncertain, an endless pilgrimage in front of him, would kneel at his wife’s bed and say, “For Christ’s sake, see that he has activities.”
“What am I going to do out here?” she would answer, and at night, when Stern had gotten past the dogs, he would find his son standing in the middle of the lawn, holding his blanket as though he had been there all day, waiting for Stern to come back. So Stern, his stomach bursting with guilt, had made up games. A favorite had been “Butterfly Hand,” in which Stern’s quiet, fat hand would suddenly begin to flutter and wiggle. “It’s turned into a butterfly,” Stern would say to his son as it flew about the room. “There’ll be no controlling it now.” The hand would then go still and Stern would lift his son above his head, the boy’s arms extended, for a bout of “Airplane,” carrying him with droning sounds about the room and then bringing him in for tabletop landings in ‘san Diego.” Top game of all was “Billy One-Foot,” in which the boy would fight an all-out battle with Stern’s leg, “Billy One-Foot, the toughest of all fighters.”
They had endless thumb fights, too, but now Stern could no longer muster spirit to play the games. He would sit cold and heavy in an empty room, and when the boy said, “Let’s play Billy One-Foot,” Stern would pat him on the head and say, “Billy One-Foot is sick now.” Occasionally, he would swing his boy round the room in a circle, clamping his own eyes shut in an effort to black out a vision of himself heaving the boy headfirst against a stone wall, forever ending thoughts of God and blankets and other children.
He had always found it amusing that his wife was lax about managing things. “You think you can get away with carelessness because your behind is beautiful,” he would say, and clasp her surging buttocks. But a banister was loose that winter in their bare and windy house. It fell into no special category of repair–neither carpentry nor stairway work–and when his wife was slow to have it attended to, Stern took to shocking her with vivid accounts of what would happen because of her inaction: “Your son will fall, and perhaps when you see him at the bottom of the stairs with his head open, you’ll realize the importance of having it fixed” or “A slight push on top and he’ll be at the bottom dead.” And Stern imagined such a scene, his son with cleaved skull and Stern unable to cry convincingly. Once, a childhood friend named Ruggie had gone to climb a fire escape and given Stern his dog’s leash to hold. Stern purposely let go the leash, and the dachshund ran a mile before it went beneath a speeding car. Ruggie then came back carrying the dog in a dumb march, the dachshund’s body staining his sleeves, to put him some place, while Stern watched, frozen to the ground. Now Stern imagined himself with his son’s smashed body in his arms, going dumbly outside to put him someplace, too. He imagined a scene in which he was putting all the dead boy’s toys in a box but continually finding new ones as years rolled by.
Stern’s wife, too, became sullen, mostly about having no friends. For a while, a distant cousin of Stern’s named Barbie visited and served as a companion to her. But she centered everything, the food in the middle of plates, flower vases in the center of tables. She even put Stern’s son in the exact center of the couch as he watched television. Stern’s wife finally wearied of her because of having to listen to her constant teen-age questions. Though she was far out of her twenties, she would ask Stern’s wife, ‘do you think it’s sinful to allow petting on a first date?” and “Will I lose Phil if I don’t let him go as far as he wants?” When she left, Stern’s wife had no one, and when he asked her about this, she said, “I don’t need anyone,” and this infuriated Stern. “You’ve got to have friends,” he screamed at her, and then he had a picture of all three of them, his wife, his son, himself, sitting on the lawn, sucking blankets, shaking and trying to rock themselves to sleep.
He had met his wife at college after being rejected by a young girl with musical voice and tangles of blond hair who acted in Arthur Wing Pinero plays, doing deep, curtsying walk-ons that made Stern weak in his middle. He had scrupulously avoided taking the blond girl to bed, preferring to think of her as “not the kind of girl you do that with” until, disgustedly, she refused to see him, telling him, ‘someday you’ll understand.” A week later, he met his wife, a girl with great eyes and shining black hair and no music in her voice, and, after an anecdote or two to establish his charm, he went with her to a blackened golf course and, with clenched teeth and sourness, drove his fat hand through her summer-smelling petticoats and, as she moaned “God no,” kissed her and tried not to think of curtsies. Later that first night, he went into her a little, and they both froze and clung to each other. Stern at that time boarded off campus with a trembling old ex-bass fiddle player who sat each night wearing truss-like old-man belts and gadgets and twanged his instrument in the basement. The old man was not particularly nice to Stern. He feigned munificence by asking Stern to have glasses of milk but actually used him as a sourness tester. At night, while the old man sat in his bands and trusses, Stern would spirit the petticoated girl into his room, undressing her swiftly and then tasting and biting her, going at her with anger and closed eyes to drive away all traces of Victorian curtsies. She was the only daughter of a man who had missed great opportunities as a baseball executive and now lived with silver tongue and failing eyesight in an Oregon apartment. Her mother was Hungarian, had lost three children in infancy, and spent her time crocheting bitterly, dreaming of three dead sons. Lean of funds, they had sent the girl, with heavy trunk-loads of petticoats, for a single year of college and then no more. She dated constantly, afternoons and evenings, an endless succession of boys. Stern asked her what she did on these dates and she said she’d kissed most and allowed some to “kiss her on top.”
“You’re the only one from New York I’ve known, and you’re different,” she said to him. “You care for different things. The others just care about being a good dresser.”
Psychology interested her, but she mispronounced words, and it bothered Stern, a man who waded without joy through classics, that she had never tried Turgenev. She had total recall of her childhood and, her voice filled with pain, she told Stern tales that failed to move him. “I had twelve birds, and each time I got to love one, my parents would get rid of it. I’d come home and see it not there and look all over and then I’d realize that they’d given it away. They’d just give me enough time to love it, and then it would get out of the cage and make on the floor and my father would say, “It’s a filthy animal,’ and give it to a girl friend.” She was aware of her long-nosed beauty and would say to Stern, “You should have seen me at eight. I tapered off a little up through ten, but at eleven my face would have killed you. I don’t even want to talk about my face at thirteen. I was really beautiful then, really something.” She complained much of her childhood ordeals, telling Stern, ‘my mother never gave me sandwiches, even though she knew I would have loved them. She’d give me what was inside, and even the bread, but not sandwiches.” Most of the time she would listen to Stern, though, sitting with great and shimmering eyes as he told of New York; and when he was finished, she would say, “You really are different. You’re not interested in shoes or dancing. You’re the most different person I know.” Their talks were only bridges, and when it seemed to Stern they had put in enough time at it so that he could feel they legitimately interested one another, he would begin to kiss her and bite her and stroke her and undress her and examine her while she stood or sat calmly, great eyes shining, and let him explore her body. When he touched her a certain way they would fly at each other and she would do a private, nervous, whimpering thing beneath him. They clung to each other all over the campus, and sometimes she came to his room with nothing beneath her summer dress. She would wheel about him, nude and happy, while Stern feigned calmness and watched her with held breath as though it were a scholarly exercise. Then his loins would go weak and he would sail at her and bite her thighs too hard. He did crazy, tangled things to her, thinking he would break her frail body, but when he had finished she would come to him with great eyes wide, scrape his neck with her nails, and ask him to “be a man again.” One night, after finding the very middle of her in a new way, he called her later, trembling, and said, “I shouldn’t have done that to you. Let’s not do it again.” But they did it again the next night in his room and the fiddler opened the door, his elasticized old-man gadgets dangling, and caught them at it. Stern, in an action he could not explain, carried her, without a word to the old man, out the window and to the garden below, and they never did that thing again.
They parted for a year. She stayed in Oregon, and Stern, heavy with guilt as he stole a final bite, flew to New York in search of girls who knew Turgenev. A great singing freedom came over him, but the closest he came to a Turgenev lover in the following weeks was a divorc”e’s daughter who lived in midtown, tossed her hair, ate exquisitely, and said often, with appealing phoniness, “Perhaps I’ll sleep with you. Perhaps I shan’t.” Mostly for Stern it was a time of long and lonely calls to Oregon while he tried to see how long he could stay away. One night her phone voice said, “The funniest thing. A Venezuelan wants to marry me. He has two children, but he says he’ll leave them. I just thought I’d tell you,” Stern flew with nausea to Oregon in bad weather and saw her at the airport, her great eyes lovelier than before, the Venezuelan at her side. They did an intricate Latin dance for Stern, and she said, “Look what we do together. We’re always dancing.” Stern excused himself to vomit in the men’s room, but when he emerged he pretended to be confident and the Latin took his leave. In a hotel room, she said, “You’re losing your hair,” and Stern said, “I don’t understand this Venezuela bit.”
“I enjoy his company very much,” she said, and Stern, a vomit swiftly coming on, feigned coolness one last time and said, “I’m packing.” She let him fold his T-shirts and then put her head deep into his lap and said, “I’ve been so lousy bad,” and he knew he was bound to her for a hundred years.
Now, together with her in this house, it was as though a small, cold jail cell of steel had dropped out of the sky, encircling Stern’s heavy body, surrounding his movement. He tried to free himself of it; he bought his son a trampoline. The boy saw it and said, ‘daddy, put a rope in the sky so when I jump I’ll be able to catch it and stay up there. Maybe God will catch me. God has the biggest muscle in the world.” Weekend afternoons, Stern would watch his son jump sturdily on it, feeling this would build his body and protect him from banister falls. One day, the two of them heard a shot and a long crinkling of glass and saw a boy of about eighteen fly by in the street, as though he had been fired from a gun, and land on the concrete street, his arms stiffly at attention, a soldier still marching. Fingers had broken off him, and his face had swiftly turned black. Riding a motorcycle, the boy had jumped a traffic light on the corner next to Stern’s house and collided with a speeding car, which had hit him head on. Stern took his son inside, not offering to be a witness, although he had seen the accident and knew the motorcycle boy was in the wrong. He just held his son tightly and kept him inside the rest of the winter, feeling the more the boy’s bones grew sturdy on the trampoline, the greater chance he would be shot out of a cannon onto the concrete.
At the end of March that year, Stern went to cover his son at night and saw that the boy’s head had swelled to twice its size. Stern kissed the dead side while his wife called a doctor, who said, “You’ve never called me before. I don’t come in the middle of nights unless you’re a regular patient.” Stern said he would call the man and rehearsed the things he would say to him, that he had no right to call himself a doctor, that he was a peasant son of a bitch, that if he wasn’t a doctor he would be selling diseased poultry to housewives. What kind of a man was he who could go to sleep while a child’s fever rose and his face grew large and moonlike? He got on the phone and said, “I want to tell you that I know what you said to my wife. You wouldn’t say it to a man.” The doctor repeated what he had said, and Stern choked, “It’s a shame.”
They called a second man, Dr. Cavalucci, hesitant because of his home remedies. When Stern’s chest had been inflamed or his wife’s fingers had curled in shock, Cavalucci, the doctor, a soft, youthful man, wary of pills, had chuckled and begun, “Now I know this is going to sound funny, but you know those shopping bags you get at the supermarket? If you take one of them and breathe deeply into it for half an hour, you’ll get to feeling better.” His treatments always involved shopping bags or typewriter ribbons or old shoe polish cans, “the kind you open with a penny, brown, preferably.” And he would always begin his instructions by saying, “This is going to make you feel silly, but “” That night he touched the heavy side of the boy’s face and said, “I don’t have one for his case. I’m taking him in.” In the ambulance, Stern held the child, but now he kissed the good side of the face, afraid of what was inside the bad one, and ashamed of himself for feeling that way, and finally kissing lightly the bad side, too. He said to the doctor, “Anything I’ve got. Anything I own. Just make him better.” But he felt as though he were giving a performance and wondered how many other men had said the same thing. The hospital had long corridors and Stern had heard it was good but needed grants. Inside, a cluster of young men gathered round the child, and when Cavalucci said they were all fine specialists, Stern wondered if he should be calling in men from Europe. When Stern was a child, a cousin of his had once fallen in love with a dying girl, and Stern remembered hearing that he had done everything for her, even to the point of “bringing in men from Europe.” The phrase ‘men from Europe” had stuck with Stern, and he wondered how you went about getting them. It seemed so hopeless, standing in the children’s ward now, just to go to the phone and get some of them over, and yet he felt that if he were a real father he would stop at nothing and bring several across. The doctors talked near the child, and when Stern asked what they were doing, Cavalucci said that two of them didn’t want to go in and disturb the area and one did. Stern asked which one wanted to disturb it, and Cavalucci pointed him out. He was the surgeon. When the conference broke up, Stern glared at him but was afraid that now the man would push home his view and not only disturb the area but also try risky, tradition-breaking techniques. They waited round the clock while the live part of the face took food, and then Stern and his wife went home awhile and ate veal cutlets. They looked at each other after every bite, and when they had finished, Stern said. “He’s lying there, his face as big as a house, and I just ate veal cutlets and kept them down.” And then Stern wondered whether to call Winkel and whether Winkel still took cases and could come, because in his heart he still felt that all other doctors would be wrong except Winkel.
As a child, being sick had not been altogether a bad time for Stern. He would lie in his mother’s bed and listen to radio shows all day, and then at night, when his fever rose, he would pull up the covers and wait to hear his father’s whistle down the street, meaning he was back from work. A minute or so after the whistle, his small, round-shouldered father would stand at the bedroom door and say, “Jesus Christ ” hmmph ” oh, Jesus Christ,” and shake his head sympathetically. Then, the first night of the sickness, Winkel would come, his hulking body supported by reedlike legs, and thump gravely at Stern’s chest and back with thin, businesslike fingers. He liked cherry sodas, and Stern’s mother would always have one ready for him after he finished up and washed his hands. She was a tall, voluptuous woman with dyed blond hair who wore bathrobes whenever Stern was sick. ‘do you know what I would do for that man?” Stern’s mother would say after Winkel had left. “I owe him my life. He’s some guy.” Stern’s mother would then send Winkel a pair of tickets for the opera. When Stern got older, he would say, “But you paid him for coming,” and his mother would answer, “You can’t really pay a man like that, can you? You’ve got a lot of growing up to do.” Winkel was always grave and unsmiling with Stern, and once when Stern had a stubborn pimple above his eye, Winkel squeezed it with what seemed to Stern like hatred and said, “Love sweets, don’t you?” Though Winkel later specialized in gynecology, he continued to treat Stern in his teens, and Stern’s mother said, “I thank my lucky stars ten times a day I have a man like that. You have a man like that, you don’t need anyone else.” Nine out of ten of Stern’s boyhood friends were planning to become doctors, and there was a time when Stern considered the idea too. His mother told Winkel and the doctor said, “Why doesn’t he ever come up and talk to me? All the other boys come up and we have long talks.” Stern did not like the sound of those long talks and never went up. He knew a little about chromosomes and Ehrlemeyer flasks, but he could not imagine ever filling up a long talk with Winkel. Later, when Stern went to college, he heard that Winkel had gone on to great eminence, giving talks on television. “I can still get him, though,” his mother would say. “I’m the only one he’ll still come to.” Winkel had been married to a woman whose frugality supposedly made him insane. Driving from Newark to the opera one night, Winkel and his wife, so the story went, had gone off the road and into a tree, the windshield shattering and glass getting into Winkel’s head. With half an hour remaining to curtain time, his wife left him in the car, forehead red, hands locked about the wheel in shock, and went to redeem the tickets. Weeks later, he ran amok while performing an appendectomy and cut two deep crosses in his kneecaps with a scalpel. Now he sat in a room, his practice gone, coming into the street only for occasional cherry sodas. Stern knew what his mother would say if Stern suggested that Winkel come look at his son. “Even with half a mind he knows more than anyone else. Do you know how big that man was? And I can still get him, too. He’ll come to me in two seconds if I want him, no matter how crazy he is.”
The swelling disappeared mysteriously one morning, and in a few days Stern, with a leaping heart, was able to carry his son into his car and back to the house. He kept his nose deep in his son’s neck and marveled that some good had come out of the sickness. He had finally been among people in this bleak town, nurses and doctors and visitors in the halls. A day later, he spotted a blossom on the cancer side of the wild cherry tree–and there were other things, too, that happened quickly. A new stop sign on Stern’s corner, one that would prevent motorcycle boys being shot out of cannons; a shortcut across the estate; a plan to kill his boiler; and a new attitude on the part of the dogs.
And then, of course, a week afterward, the man had said kike and looked between his wife’s legs.
There were only three other occasions on which Stern and his wife discussed the kike man. One occurred the very next night when Stern, still in his topcoat, caught her wrists around the oven and said, “I just want to see how it happened.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“I want to get a picture in my mind of what it was all about. Get on the floor and show me exactly how you were. How your legs were when you were down there. It’s important.”
“I won’t do that,” she said, breaking through to clean the oven.
“I’ve got to see it,” said Stern, grabbing her again. “Just for a second.”
“I’m not going to do anything like that. I told you to forget it.”
“I’m not fooling around,” he said, and, taking her around the waist, he threw her to the kitchen floor, her jumper flying back above her knees.
“You crazy bastard.” she said, flicking a strip of skin from his nose in a quick swipe and getting to her feet.
“All right, then–me,” said Stern, getting on the floor. ‘my topcoat’s your dress. Tell me when I’m right.” He drew the coat slightly above his knees and said, “This way?”
“I’m not doing this,” his wife said. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Were you this way?” he asked. “Just tell me that.”
“No,” she said.
He drew the coat up higher. “This?”
“Uh-uh,” she said.
He flung the overcoat back over his hips, his legs sprawling, and said, “This way?”
“Yes,” she said.
Stern said, “Jesus,” and ran upstairs to sink in agony upon the bed. But he felt excited, too.
On the weekend, several days later, as Stern unloaded cans of chow mein from the supermarket, his wife said, “He has big arms.”
“Who?” Stern asked, knowing full well who she meant.
“The man,” she said. “The man who said that thing.”
“Oh,” Stern said. “What do arms mean?”
The third and final time was when they sat one day beneath a birch tree while their son dug a hole in the dirt to China. The kike man drove by in his car and Stern’s wife said, “I hate that man.”
“You’re silly,” Stern said.