Voices of a Summer Day

BOOK: Voices of a Summer Day
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Voices of a Summer Day

Irwin Shaw

Contents

Opening

1927

1964

1927

1964

1927

1931–34

1964

1942

1948

1964

1936

1964

1927

1957

1964

1946

1964

1959

1964

1944

1933

1944

1964

1957

1964

1932

1964

A Biography of Irwin Shaw

DEDICATION: To Betty Sicre

T
HE RED FLAG WAS UP
when he drove up to the house. He went in. The house was silent. “Peggy,” he called. “Peggy!” There was no answer. His wife was not there nor either of his children.

He went out and looked at the ocean. The waves were ten feet high and there was about eight hundred yards of foam ripping between the tide line, marked by seaweed, and the whitecaps of the open Atlantic. The beach was deserted except for a tall girl in a black bathing suit, who was walking along the water’s edge with two Siamese cats pacing beside her. The girl had long blond hair that hung down her back and blew in the wind. Her legs and arms were pollen-colored against the sea, and the cats made a small pale jungle at her ankles. The girl was too far away for him to tell whether she was pretty or not and she didn’t look in his direction, but he wished he knew her. He wished he knew her well enough to call out and see her smile and wait for him to join her so that they could walk along the beach together, attended by toy tigers, the noise of the surf beating at them as she told him why a girl like that walked alone on an empty beach on a bright summer afternoon.

He watched her grow smaller and smaller in the distance, the cats, the color of the desert, almost disappearing against the sand. She was outlined for a last moment against the dazzle of the waves and then the beach was empty again.

It was no afternoon for swimming, and the girl was gone, and he didn’t feel like hanging around the house alone so he went in and changed his clothes and got into the car and drove into town. On the high school field, there was a pickup game of baseball in progress, boys and young men and several elderly athletes who by Sunday morning would regret having slid into second base on Saturday afternoon.

He saw his son playing center field. He stopped the car and got out and lay back in the sun on the hot planks of the benches along the third-base line, a tall, easy-moving man with a powerful, graying head. He was dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved blue cotton shirt, the costume of a man consciously on holiday. On the long irregular face there were the not unexpected signs of drink and overwork. He was no longer young, and, although at a distance his slimness and way of moving gave a deceptive appearance of youth, close-up age was there, experience was there, above all around the eyes, which were deep black, almost without reflections, hooded by heavy lids and a dark line of thick lashes that suggested secret Mediterranean mourning against the olive tint of the skin stretched tight over jutting cheek bones. He greeted several of the players and spectators, and the impression of melancholy was erased momentarily by the good humor and open friendliness of his voice. The combination of voice and features was that of a man who might be resigned and often cynical, but rarely suspicious. He was a man who permitted himself to be cheated in small matters. Taxi drivers, employees, children, and women took advantage of him. He knew this, each time it happened, and promptly forgot it.

On the field, the batter was crouching and trying to work the pitcher for a walk. The batter was fifteen years old and small for his age. The pitcher was six feet three inches tall and had played for Columbia in 1947.

The third baseman, a boy of eighteen named Andy Roberts, called out, “Do you want to take my place, Mr. Federov? I promised I’d be home by four.”

“Thanks, no, Andy,” Federov said. “I batted .072 last season and I’ve hung up my spikes.”

The boy laughed. “Maybe you’d have a better season this year if you tried.”

“I doubt it,” Federov said. “It’s very rare that your average goes up after fifty.”

The batter got his walk, and while he was throwing his bat away and trotting down to first base Federov waved to his son out in center field. His son waved back. “Andy,” Federov said, “how’s Mike doing?”

“Good field, no hit,” Andy said.

“Runs in the family,” said Federov. “My father never hit a curve ball in his life either.”

The next batter sent a line drive out toward right center, and Michael made a nice running catch over his shoulder and pivoted and threw hard and accurately to first base, making the runner scramble back hurriedly to get there before the throw. Michael was left-handed and moved with that peculiar grace that left-handers always seemed to Federov to have in all sports. There had never been a left-hander before in Federov’s family, nor in his wife’s family that he knew of, and Federov sometimes wondered at this genetic variance and took it as a mark of distinction, a puzzling designation, though whether for good or ill he could not say. Michael’s sister, eleven years old and too smart for her age, as Federov sometimes told her, teased Michael about it. “Sinister, sinister,” she chanted when she disagreed with her brother’s opinions, “Old Pope Sinister the First.”

Old Pope Sinister the First popped up to shortstop his next time at bat and then came over to sit beside his father. “Hi, Dad.” He touched his father lightly but affectionately on the shoulder. “How’re things in the dirty city?”

“Dirty,” Federov said. He and his brother ran a building and contracting business together, and while there was a lot of work unfinished on both their desks, the real reason the brothers had stayed in New York on a hot Saturday morning was to try to arrange a settlement with Louis’s third wife, whom he wanted to divorce to marry a fourth wife, and who was all for a vengeful and scandalous action in court. Louis was the architect of the firm, and this connection with the arts, plus his quiet good looks, made him a prey for women and a permanent subsidy for the legal profession.

“Where’s your mother?” Federov asked his son. “The house was empty when I got in.”

“Bridge, hairdresser’s, I don’t know,” Michael said carelessly. “You know—dames. She’ll turn up for dinner.”

“I’m quite sure she will,” Federov said.

Michael’s side was retired, and he picked up his glove and started toward his position in the field. “Mike,” Federov said, “you swung at a high ball, you know.”

“I know,” Michael said. “I’m a confirmed sinner.

He was thirteen years old but, like his sister, was a ransacker of libraries and often sounded it.

Five minutes later there was a dispute about a close call at first base, and two or three boys shouted, good-naturedly, “Oh, you bum!” and “Kill the umpire!”

“Stop that!” Federov said sharply. Then he was as surprised as the boys themselves by the harshness of his tone. They kept quiet after that, although they eyed him curiously. Ostentatiously, Federov looked away from them. He had heard the cry thousands of times before, just as the boys had, and he didn’t want to have to explain what was behind his sudden explosion of temper. Ever since the President had been shot, Federov, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, had refrained from using words like “kill” or “murder” or “shoot” or “gun,” and had skipped them, when he could, in the things he read, and moved away from conversations in which the words were likely to come up. He had heard about the mocking black-bordered advertisement in the Dallas newspaper that had greeted the President on his arrival in the city, and he had read about the minister who said that schoolchildren in the city had cheered upon being told of the President’s death, and he had heard from a lineman friend of his on the New York Giants football team that, after the game they had played in Dallas ten days after the President was killed, an open car full of high school boys and girls had followed the Giants’ bus through downtown Dallas, chanting, “Kennedy gawn, Johnson next, Kennedy gawn, Johnson next.”

“Kids,” the lineman had said wonderingly, “just kids, like anybody else’s kids. You couldn’t believe it. And nobody tried to stop them.”

Kids, just kids. Like the boys on the field in front of him. Like his own son. In the same blue jeans, going to the same kind of schools, listening to the same awful music on radio and television, playing the same traditional games, loved by their parents as he loved his son and daughter. Kids shouting a tribal chant of hatred for a dead man who had been better than any of them could ever hope to be.

The hell with it, he thought. You can’t keep thinking about it forever.

With an effort of will he made himself fall back into lazy afternoon thoughtlessness. Soon, lulled by the slow familiar rhythm of the game, he was watching the field through half-dozing, sun-warmed eyes, lying back and not keeping track of what was happening as boys ran from base to base, stopped grounders, changed sides. He saw his son make two good plays and one mediocre one without pride or anxiety. Michael was tall for his age, and broad, and Federov took what he realized was a normal fatherly pleasure in watching his son’s movements as, loose-limbed and browned by the sun, he performed in the wide green spaces of the outfield.

Dozing, almost alone on the rows of benches, one game slid into other games, other generations were at play many years before…in Harrison, New Jersey, where he had grown up; on college campuses, where he had never been quite good enough to make the varsity, despite his fleetness of foot and sure-handedness in the field. The sounds were the same through the years—the American sounds of summer, the tap of bat against ball, the cries of the infielders, the wooden plump of the ball into catchers’ mitts, the umpires calling “Strike three and you’re out.” The generations circled the bases, the dust rose for forty years as runners slid in from third, dead boys hit doubles, famous men made errors at shortstop, forgotten friends tapped the clay from their spikes with their bats as they stepped into the batter’s box, coaches’ voices warned, across the decades, “Tag up, tag up!” on fly balls. The distant, mortal innings of boyhood and youth…

1927

B
ENJAMIN FEDEROV HELD HIS
brother Louis’s hand. They had both been to the camp the year before, but Benjamin’s parents had made a last plea to him to take good care of Louis, who was only nine.

The camp was in Vermont and was reached from New York by a night voyage on the Fall River Line and buses for the rest of the way. On the evening of June 30, 1927, long before sailing time, the shed at the foot of Fulton Street began to fill with boys and parents and the counselors who were doomed for two months to protect everybody’s little darling from drowning, snakebite, homesickness, and moral contamination. Here and there a small boy wept because he was being taken away from his parents for the first time, but the atmosphere in the old dark shed, smelling from salt and years of odorous cargo, was chaotically festive, as mothers kissed children good-bye and fathers sought out counselors to tell them that their sons wet their beds or walked in their sleep or had to be prevented from diving because of sinus trouble. Whistles blew, lost tennis racquets were discovered at the last moment, and the holiday began in an excited straggle up the gangplank.

Trying to appear sophisticated, Benjamin waited for most of the other boys to go aboard before starting up with Louis’s hand in his. Even then, the difference between the two brothers was already marked. Benjamin was tall and large for his age, with an athlete’s muscles and movements and an impatient physical and mental quickness. Louis, with a cherubic high brow and curling golden hair, was quiet, dreamy, inward, neither social nor antisocial, reserved in his affections, non-assertive, and beneath it all, unmovably stubborn. Surprisingly, he was a ferocious fighter when challenged and had consistently beaten boys two or three years older than he on the block in Harrison on which the Federovs lived.

Israel Federov, Louis and Benjamin’s father, had come from Russia at the age of six, one of a family that eventually numbered eight children. He had grown up amongst the usual terrors and sweated labor on New York’s East Side and only in the nineteen twenties had begun to prosper in a small automobile-accessory business that he and a partner ran on the outskirts of Newark. The fact that now, in 1927, he could afford to spend six hundred dollars to give his two sons a summer in the mountains seemed in the nature of a miracle to him. Even earlier, the realization of the immense difference of what his life would have been like if his family had remained in Russia instead of immigrating to America, had made him the most blindly ardent of patriots. Despite the fact that he was married and had one child, with another on the way, he had enlisted in 1917, leaving Benjamin’s mother to scrape along on what she could earn as a piano teacher and on what her own family, who were almost equally poor, could spare for her in her husband’s absence.

BOOK: Voices of a Summer Day
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