Authors: E. L. Doctorow
“He can’t even get her out of there!” I tell them. “He can’t get her out of a public asylum for wards of the state and bums they pick up off the street.”
“Another twenty-four hours in what happens to be one of the best facilities in the East is not going to hurt your sister,” Duberstein says coolly. “I had a long talk with one of the staff people who, as it happens, took his residency at Jacobi when I was there. It’s a mistake that they admitted her. But the situation is under control.”
“He makes it sound like a personal triumph,”
“Danny.” My mother takes a handkerchief out of her pocketbook. “We’re all under a strain. Please, Danny.”
Duberstein says: “Why do you resent anyone who tries to help Susan?” He looks keenly at me as befits his question.
“Screw off, Doc. Go find your golf clubs and play a round with Dwight David Eisenhower.” It is a witless, anachronistic retort that astonishes even me. I must be on the edge. Everyone is pale. Even the baby has felt the current. He’s begun to cry. I leave the table.
Daniel leaving the Howard Johnson’s dining room perceived walking ahead of him, toward the crowd of people waiting for a table, the draped aqua ass of the hostess. And a regal ass it was, well girdled, and set on a pair of still-young legs. Her golden beehive bobbed on her neck and wisps of untucked hair at its base intimated dirty times for the lucky dong who happened to be there when all that hair came down. Her arm was raised, and for a moment Daniel thought she made the peace sign with her fingers. But it was a table for two.
Daniel made his way through the hungry families standing on tiptoe. Kids swarmed in front of the candy display. Popcorn lay in the carpet. In the men’s room all the crappers but two required a coin in the slot. On the other side of this wall, Susan had opened her veins and stood over the toilet until she fainted. He tried to get the picture. The sound of fountaining urinals distracted him. He noted on the wall a dispenser which, for twenty-five cents, offered the discriminating customer the choice of a pre-moistened soap-impregnated paper hanky, or a sanitized pocket comb, or a compass from Hong Kong in the form of an automobile tire, or two plastic dog magnets, one black, one white, stuck together in the pack by their magnetized feet.
He went outside. People eating ice-cream cones drifted through the parking lot. A stout woman in a housedress walked a
bulldog from the tires of one car to the tires of another. At the gas pumps cars were waiting on line. The sun was out now, late in the afternoon, and the air was close and full of fumes. The thing is, Robert and Lise Lewin do not belong in highway service stops. It is misleading to show them out of their element. Especially when they are not feeling their best.
Daniel walked between the rows of parked cars. He found the Volvo. It was black and covered with a layer of grit. It was parked between an old station wagon, low on its springs with kids climbing in and out of the back, and a blue Futura convertible in which a teenage girl in shorts and halter was rolling her hair in curlers, the rear-view mirror tilted so that she could see what she was doing. Daniel took the keys out of his pocket. He felt that it would be obvious to this girl in the convertible and these children in the station wagon that he was not the owner of the Volvo. Through the window he saw on the seat beside the driver’s seat a plaid suitcase. And next to it, half hidden, the celluloid and cardboard wrapping for a pack of Gillette Super Stainless blades. This describes the picture the moment before Daniel got the picture. To be just, he had started something in the restaurant so as to get to Susan’s car. He had needed to see the car. The feeling that crept upon me was of being summoned. They’re still fucking us. That somehow it wasn’t the old pain-burn across Susan’s eyes that was important, or the brand-new wreckage of someone who has tried something devastating and has failed, no, nor that grieving for her or being in agony for her agony could matter, or believing that some of the force that propelled her razor was supplied by me—none of this mattered—or imagining, even, the scene in its details—locking the stall door, taking out a fresh Gillette Super Stainless blade, slicing veins, holding the opened veins over a toilet bowl in a public bathroom, fainting from loss of blood or courage or both, perhaps hearing a scream from a stout lady in a housedress, or a child, and, in a coma, perceiving the door as it opens, the lady in the blond beehive hairdo with the master key attached to a wooden handle holding up her fingers—V for Victory, or V for Peace? Or V for the victory over peace?—an error, I say, to dwell in any of this gore or pity, or to think how bad it is now, and how much worse it is than it
was, and that it is definitely worse and getting worse, remembering moments when the Lewins were still solemnly charmed by the two fresh orphans to whom they had committed their lives, and the orphans charmed by peace. And how they would take us to Boston on the Beacon Street trolley and we’d ride on the swan boats and trudge through the Commons and see where Paul Revere was buried, and Sam Adams, feeling the flesh healing, the flesh of the soul healing in peace and irony—Oh, Freedom Trail! It was better then. Hope was not tested then—all of it a mistake for being beside the point, and unimportant because Susan had communicated with me; just that; and if now in our lives only extreme and dangerous communication was possible, nevertheless the signal had been sent, discharged even, from the spasm of soul that was required—and that was the sense of summons I felt sneaking up over the afternoon like a blanket of burned space around my ears. Susan and I, we were the only ones left. And all my life I have been trying to escape from my relatives and I have been intricate in my run, but one way or another they are what you come upon around the corner, and the Lord God who is so frantic for recognition says you have to ask how they are and would they like something cool to drink, and what is it you can do for them this time.
One picture poster, 36 × 24, used in demonstrations. Like new! Black and white double portrait depicts Isaacsons two faces historical curiosity cheap very cheap worthless comes in its own up-yours tube corners slightly deteriorated weighted with pieces of plaster amuse your friends with this historical curio free them. I remember his cock. Face it, if I do, I do. Always shaved without clothes. She, too, shameless by design. I remember the hair around her slit, sparse and uneven. One of the theories of aspiring modernity. Treat the body without shame. Let the kid see it, let him learn to be natural and uninhibited. They didn’t go so far as to let me watch them fucking, but I did that too one way or another—I
was a small criminal of perception; and that doesn’t mean just to see them or hear them, which is the same as seeing, but knowing when they had and sometimes even when they were going to. But everything was theory. Everything was done for a reason, and was usually not the way the rest of the world did it. All the more reason. All part of the plan. The idea I had was of life as training. We were all training for something. There was some kind of moral, intellectual and physical award that would be available to those who worked for it, and were worthy of it. The State of Perfection Award. And I was not to be amazed that we were serious candidates, or that our pursuit of this perfection never brought us any closer. And I wasn’t, I bought it all. Why shouldn’t I? We were us.
Like those trips to the beach. My God. Late Sunday morning, Dr. Mindish would come by in his car; I remember it, a 1942 Chrysler New Yorker, high off the ground, with small windows, the upholstery torn. And we’d all pile in and go down the Concourse, across the Triborough Bridge, to the Grand Central Parkway, on toward Jones Beach (named for the common man), and the traffic would stack up, and maybe by three in the afternoon we’d get to the huge parking lot packed with baking cars and buses fourteen miles from any beach, and they’d all be sweating, and grumbling and arguing with each other and shushing each other, Dr. Mindish and his dumb wife and their cretin daughter, almost six feet tall, and Mom and Pop and me and the baby, Susan, all stuck in that stuffy car, sick with the fumes, and no, my father would say, this lot is too far away and we’d angle around, and sneak past the attendants, and bickering and sweating, complaining, and swearing never to do it again, my mother declaring my father a torturer, the Mindishes mad now because they wanted to park and walk the damn five hundred miles from the lot to the beach, with the sun baking the roof of that car and the baby spitting up like mushed bananas, and little carsick bastard Daniel complaining too (Mindish drove cruelly, starting and stopping, a jerk driver too), and then my father, leaping out of the car and guarding a parking space, miraculously found near the beach itself, with horns blowing and another driver threatening, he, Paul Isaacson, sweating and triumphant, guiding, like a cop, the big
dented Chrysler into the space; and then a long enough walk to the beach through odd grass gardens for the common man: planted with tiger lilies and geraniums unbelievably ugly in the hot sun; to the beach so crowded that it seemed impossible to find room to put down a blanket. And following Paul, our safari of babies and towels and blankets, large paper bags with sandwiches, thermoses, the
, the week’s
, the Sunday
, bottles of baby food, through the sand that burned your feet; and then finally to Paul’s mystical spot, the best spot inevitably and all the fussing and grunting and exchange of directions as the rented umbrella went up and the blankets went down, and the goods were arranged, and the shoes off, and the clothes, and finally, sweating, unbelievably, hours since the first good idea had occurred to go to the beach this Sunday, I stood at the shore of the ocean and looked out at the waves.
And my father said, “Some things are worth the effort.”
So if they walked around nude or shopped for the best meat at the lowest price, or joined the Party, it was to know the truth, to be up on it; it was the refusal to be victim; and it would justify them—their poverty, their failure, their unhappiness, and the really third-rate families they came from. They rushed after self-esteem. If you could recognize a Humphrey Bogart movie for the cheap trash it was, you had culture. If you discovered the working class you found the roots of democracy. In social justice you discovered your own virtue. To desire social justice was a way of living without envy, which is the emotion of a loser. It was a way of transforming envy into constructive outgoing hate.
But they stuck to it, didn’t they, Daniel? When the call came they answered. They offered up those genitals, didn’t they, Dandan? Yes, they did. There were moments when I thought he would crack, I had my doubts about him. But I knew she would take it finally, to the last volt, in absolute selfishness, in unbelievably rigid fury. But with Paul you couldn’t help feeling that the final connection was impossible for him to make between what he believed and how the world reacted. He couldn’t quite make that violent connection. Rochelle was the realist. Her politics was the politics of want, the things she never got, the
chances she never had. If my mother had been anything but poor, I don’t think she would have been a Red. I can’t say that about him. He had that analytic cool; he claimed to believe in the insignificance of personal experience within the pattern of history. He even wrote that when he was in jail. The electric chair as methodology of capitalist economics. But he didn’t fool me. He was scared. He was without real resources of character, like most intellectuals. He was a brash, untested young man who walked out of CCNY into the nineteen forties, and found no one following him. No one followed my papa where he went. He was a selfish man. Or maybe no, merely so physically rude that he appeared selfish. Whatever he did had such personal force that it seemed offensive. Like sticking his tongue out to examine it in the mirror. Like shaving in front of me, talking all the while, while my eyes followed his razor through the thin spread of brushless cream. And when he was through, his jaw was as blue as before. That was offensive. That was selfishness of a profound sort. He didn’t keep his razor clean. He left blotches of gloppy shaving cream in the sink. He left the shower faucet dripping. He left towels wadded up. You knew he’d been there. He had a way of being conspicuous. Nothing he did was obscure—how beautiful that is to contemplate. Even his breathing was noisy. Bending over those radios. You could hear the concentration of the job in his release of breath, as if assuring himself that he was working hard and that something considerable was at stake. I would stand at his worktable and listen to him breathe, the twist of a screw or the soldering of a wire allowing him to reward himself with another exhalation. It was just the way he existed in the space he occupied. Right out to the edges. He didn’t dig me for a long time. He found it odd that he was my father. Why would I think that if it wasn’t so? Smoking one of those cigars that didn’t go with his face, he studied his son like a psychologist through a pane of glass. He didn’t understand what I meant when I flirted with him like a woman, as all little boys flirt with their fathers, or my angers, or what I wanted when I pleased him. With his long legs crossed at the knees and his large rude eyes magnified by his glasses. Like Susan’s eyes. And his skinniness, and the same face I have with the big lips and big teeth, and round bulb
Russian nose. And the sleeves of his blue work shirt rolled up to the elbows—to just below the elbows. I remember his thin arms, with then jet-black hair, and the sinews moving under the skin. The hair grew right down over the backs of his hands to his knuckles. He was skinnier than I am. His hair was like wire.
But this describes just a moment’s oversensitive perception by the little criminal of perception. He was warm and affectionate. What I remember is the lectures. He wanted me to grow up right. He wrestled society for my soul. He worked on me to counteract the bad influences of my culture. That was our relationship—his teaching me how to be a psychic alien. That was part of the training. He had to exorcize the influences, the bad spirits. Did I ever wonder why my radio programs had commercials? He’d find me reading the back of the cereal box at breakfast, and break the ad down and show what it appealed to, how it was intended to make me believe something that wasn’t—that eating the cereal would make me an athlete. There were foods one didn’t eat, like bananas, because they were the fruit of some notorious exploitation. There were companies whose products we boycotted because of their politics or labor history. Like National Biscuit Company cookies. He didn’t like National Biscuit Company. He didn’t like Standard Oil. He didn’t like General Motors—not that we were ever in a position to buy a car. He didn’t like General Motors because they were owned by Du Pont, and Du Pont had had cartel agreements with I. G. Farben of Nazi Germany.