Read The Street Online

Authors: Mordecai Richler

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Short Stories (Single Author)

The Street (14 page)

BOOK: The Street
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“But I ordered something special from the butcher for us here.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“So now you know. Please yourself, Mervyn. Oh, it’s alright. I changed your bed. But you could have told me, you know.”

Mervyn locked his hands together to quiet them. “Tell you what, for Christ’s sake? There’s nothing to tell.”

“It’s alright,
boyele,”
my mother said. “Accidents happen.”

Once more my father slipped into Mervyn’s room. “It’s O.K.,” he said, “don’t worry about Saturday night. Play around. Work the kinks out. But don’t put anything in writing. You might live to regret it.”

“I happen to think Molly is a remarkable girl.”

“Me too. I’m not as old as you think.”

“No, no, no. You don’t understand.”

My father showed Mervyn some clippings he had saved for him. One news story told of two brothers who had discovered each other by accident after twenty-five years, another was all about a funny day at court. He also gave Mervyn an announcement for the annual Y.M.H.A.
Beacon
short story contest. “I’ve got an idea for you,” he said. “Listen, Mervyn, in the movies … well, when Humphrey Bogart, for instance, lights up a Chesterfield or asks for a Coke you think he doesn’t get a nice little envelope from the companies concerned? Sure he does. Well, your problem seems to be money. So why couldn’t you do the same thing in books? Like if your hero has to fly somewhere, for instance, why use an unnamed airline? Couldn’t he go
TWA
because it’s the safest, the best, and maybe he picks up a cutie-pie on board? Or if your central character is … well, a lush, couldn’t he always insist on Seagram’s because it’s the greatest? Get the idea? I could write, say,
TWA
, Pepsi, Seagram’s and Adam’s Hats and find out just how much a book plug is worth to them, and you … well, what do you think?”

“I could never do that in a book of mine, that’s what I think. It would reflect on my integrity. People would begin to talk, see.”

But people had already begun to talk. Molly’s kid brother told me Mervyn had made a hit at dinner. His father, he said, had told Mervyn he felt, along with the moderns, that in-laws should not live with young couples, not always, but the climate in Montreal was a real killer for his wife, and if it so happened that he ever had a son-in-law in, let’s say, California … well, it would be nice to visit … and Mervyn agreed that families should be close-knit. Not all the talk was favourable, however. The boys on the street were hostile to Mervyn. An outsider, a Torontonian, they felt, was threatening to carry off our Molly.

“There they go,” the boys would say as Molly and Mervyn walked hand-in-hand past the pool room, “Beauty and the Beast.”

“All these years they’ve been looking, and looking, and looking, and there he is, the missing link.”

Mervyn was openly taunted on the street.

“Hey, big writer. Lard-ass. How many periods in a bottle of ink?”

“Shakespeare, come here. How did you get to look like that, or were you paid for the accident?”

But Mervyn assured me that he wasn’t troubled by the boys. “The masses,” he said, “have always been hostile to the artist. They’ve driven plenty of our number to self-slaughter, you know. But I can see through them.”

His novel was turned down again.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mervyn said. “There are better publishers.”

“But wouldn’t they be experts there,” my father asked. “I mean maybe …”

“Look at this, will you? This time they sent me a personal letter! You know who this is from? It’s from one of the greatest editors in all of America.”

“Maybe so,” my father said uneasily, “but he doesn’t want your book.”

“He admires my energy and enthusiasm, doesn’t he?”

Once more Mervyn mailed off his novel, but this time he did not resume his watch by the window. Mervyn was no longer the same. I don’t mean that his face had broken out worse than ever – it had, it’s true, only that was probably because he was eating too many starchy foods again – but suddenly he seemed indifferent to his novel’s fate. I gave birth, he said, sent my baby out into the world, and now he’s on his own. Another factor was that Mervyn had become, as he put it, pregnant once more (he looks it too, one of Tansky’s regulars told me): that is to say, he was at work on a new book. My mother interpreted this as a very good sign and she did her utmost to encourage Mervyn. Though she continued to change his sheets just about every other night, she never complained about it. Why, she even pretended this was normal procedure in our house. But Mervyn seemed perpetually irritated and he avoided the type of literary discussion that had formerly given my mother such deep pleasure. Every night now he went out with Molly and there were times when he did not return until four or five in the morning.

And now, curiously enough, it was my father who waited up for Mervyn, or stole out of bed to join him in the kitchen. He would make coffee and take down his prized bottle of apricot brandy. More than once I was wakened by his laughter. My father told Mervyn stories of his father’s house, his boyhood, and the hard times that came after. He told Mervyn how his mother-in-law had been bedridden in our house for seven years, and with pride implicit in his every word – a pride that would have amazed and maybe even flattered my mother – he told Mervyn how my mother had tended to the old lady better than any nurse with umpteen diplomas. “To see her now,” I heard my father say, “is like night and day. Before the time of the old lady’s stroke she was no sour-puss. Well, that’s
life.” He told Mervyn about the first time he had seen my mother, and how she had written him letters with poems by Shelley, Keats and Byron in them, when all the time he had lived only two streets away. But another time I heard my father say, “When I was a young man, you know, there were days on end when I never went to bed. I was so excited. I used to go out and walk the streets better than snooze. I thought if I slept maybe I’d miss something. Now isn’t that crazy?” Mervyn muttered a reply. Usually, he seemed weary and self-absorbed. But my father was irrepressible. Listening to him, his tender tone with Mervyn and the surprise of his laughter, I felt that I had reason to be envious. My father had never talked like that to me or my sister. But I was so astonished to discover this side of my father, it was all so unexpected, that I soon forgot my jealousy.

One night I heard Mervyn tell my father, “Maybe the novel I sent out is no good. Maybe it’s just something I had to work out of my system.”

“Are you crazy it’s no good? I told everyone you were a big writer.”

“It’s the apricot brandy talking,” Mervyn said breezily. “I was only kidding you.”

But Mervyn had his problems. I heard from Molly’s kid brother that Mr. Rosen had told him he was ready to retire. “Not that I want to be a burden to anybody,” he had said. Molly had begun to take all the movie magazines available at Tansky’s. “So that when I meet the stars face to face,” she had told Gitel, “I shouldn’t put my foot in it, and embarrass Merv.”

Mervyn began to pick at his food, and it was not uncommon for him to leap up from the table and rush to the bathroom, holding his hand to his mouth. I discovered for the first time that my mother had bought a rubber sheet for Mervyn’s bed. If Mervyn had to pass Tansky’s, he no longer stopped to shoot the breeze. Instead, he would hurry past, his head lowered.
Once, Segal stopped him. “What’s a matter,” he said, “you too good for us now?”

Tansky’s regulars began to work on my father.

“All of a sudden, your genius there, he’s such a B.T.O.,” Sugarman said, “that he has no time for us here.”

“Let’s face it,” my father said. “You’re zeros. We all are. But my friend Mervyn …”

“Don’t tell me, Sam. He’s full of beans. Baked beans.”

My father stopped going to Tansky’s altogether. He took to playing solitaire at home.

“What are you doing here?” my mother asked.

“Can’t I stay home one night? It’s my house too, you know.”

“I want the truth, Sam.”

“Aw, those guys. You think those cockroaches know what an artist’s struggle is?” He hesitated, watching my mother closely. “By them it must be that Mervyn isn’t good enough. He’s no writer.”

“You know,” my mother said, “he owes us seven weeks’ rent now.”

“The first day Mervyn came here,” my father said, his eyes half-shut as he held a match to his pipe, “he said there was a kind of electricity between us. Well, I’m not going to let him down over a few bucks.”

But something was bothering Mervyn. For that night and the next he did not go out with Molly. He went to the window to watch her pass again and then retreated to his room to do the crossword puzzles.

“Feel like a casino?” I asked.

“I love that girl,” Mervyn said. “I adore her.”

“I thought everything was O.K., but. I thought you were making time.”

“No, no, no. I want to marry her. I told Molly that I’d settle down and get a job if she’d have me.”

“Are you crazy? A job? With your talent?”

“That’s what she said.”

“Aw, let’s play casino. It’ll take your mind off things.”

“She doesn’t understand. Nobody does. For me to take a job is not like some ordinary guy taking a job. I’m always studying my own reactions. I want to know how a shipper feels from the inside.”

“You mean you’d take a job
as a shipper?”

“But it’s not like I’d really be a shipper. It would look like that from the outside, but I’d really be studying my coworkers all the time. I’m an artist, you know.”

“Stop worrying, Mervyn. Tomorrow there’ll be a letter begging you for your book.”

But the next day nothing came. A week passed. Ten days.

“That’s a very good sign,” Mervyn said. “It means they are considering my book very carefully.”

It got so we all waited around for the postman. Mervyn was aware that my father did not go to Tansky’s any more and that my mother’s friends had begun to tease her. Except for his endless phone calls to Molly he hardly ever came out of his room. The phone calls were futile. Molly wouldn’t speak to him.

One evening my father returned from work, his face flushed. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he said, “that Rosen he’s a cockroach. You know what he’s saying? He wouldn’t have in his family a faker or a swindler. He said you were not a writer, Mervyn, but garbage.” My father started to laugh. “But I trapped him for a liar. You know what he said? That you were going to take a job as a shipper. Boy, did I ever tell him.”

“What did you say?” my mother asked.

“I told him good. Don’t you worry. When I lose my temper, you know.…”

“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Mervyn to take a job. Better than go into debt he could –”

“You shouldn’t have bragged about me to your friends so much,” Mervyn said to my mother. “I didn’t ask it.”

“I’
m a braggard? You take that back. You owe me an apology, I think. After all,
you’re
the one who said you were such a big writer.”

“My talent is unquestioned. I have stacks of letters from important people and –”

“I’m waiting for an apology, Sam?”

“I have to be fair. I’ve seen some of the letters, so that’s true. But that’s not to say Emily Post would approve of Mervyn calling you a –”

“My husband was right the first time. When he said you were a sponger, Mervyn.”

“Don’t worry,” Mervyn said, turning to my father. “You’ll get your rent back no matter what. Good night.”

I can’t swear to it. I may have imagined it. But when I got up to go to the toilet late that night it seemed to me that I heard Mervyn sobbing in his room. Anyway, the next morning the postman rang the bell and Mervyn came back with a package and a letter.

“Not again,” my father said.

“No. This happens to be a letter from the most important publisher in the United States. They are going to pay me two thousand five hundred dollars for my book in advance against royalties.”

“Hey. Lemme see that.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course we do.” My mother hugged Mervyn. “All the time I knew you had it in you.”

“This calls for a celebration,” my father said, going to get the apricot brandy.

My mother went to phone Mrs. Fisher. “Oh, Ida, I just called to say I’ll be able to bake for the bazaar after all. No, nothing new here. Oh, I almost forgot. Remember Mervyn you were saying he was nothing but a little twerp? Well, he just got a fantastic offer for his book from a publisher in New York. No, I’m only allowed to say it runs into four
figures. Excited? That one. I’m not even sure he’ll accept.”

My father grabbed the phone to call Tansky’s.

“One minute. Hold it. Couldn’t we keep quiet about this, and have a private sort of celebration?”

My father got through to the store. “Hello, Sugarman? Everybody come over here. Drinks on the house. Why, of Korsakov. No, wise-guy. She certainly isn’t. At her age? It’s Mervyn. He’s considering a five thousand dollar offer just to sign a contract for his book.”

The phone rang an instant after my father had hung up.

“Well, hello Mrs. Rosen,” my mother said. “Well, thank you. I’ll give him the message. No, no, why should I have anything against you we’ve been neighbours for years. No. Certainly not. It wasn’t
me
you called a piker. Your Molly didn’t laugh in my face.”

Unnoticed, Mervyn sat down on the sofa. He held his head in his hands.

“There’s the doorbell,” my father said.

“I think I’ll lie down for a minute. Excuse me.”

By the time Mervyn came out of his room again many of Tansky’s regulars had arrived. “If it had been up to me,” my father said, “none of you would be here. But Mervyn’s not the type to hold grudges.”

Molly’s father elbowed his way through the group surrounding Mervyn. “I want you to know,” he said, “that I’m proud of you today. There’s nobody I’d rather have for a son-in-law.”

“You’re sort of hurrying things. Aren’t you?”

“What? Didn’t you propose to her a hundred times she wouldn’t have you? And now I’m standing here to tell you alright and you’re beginning with the shaking in the pants. This I don’t like.”

Everybody turned to stare. There was some good-natured laughter.

BOOK: The Street
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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