There was only one policeman, very young, his hands already on the steering wheel, by the time Merry got down to the police car. Holding out a pack of Chiclets, he said, “Want a piece of gum?” as if he were a casual acquaintance, someone’s friend or downstairs neighbor agreeably giving her a lift because they were going in the same direction.
Much too quickly Merry said, “No thanks,” and because she was sure there had to be some protocol, some formality that would relieve them both of this strained unreality—slipping so rapidly through familiar city streets—she said, “I’m Merry Slavin. His daughter.” Because on that point there had already been enough confusion.
The policeman, practically a parochial-school kid, red-haired, with the painfully fair, blue-white iridescent skin of redheads—the same color skin as Isobel’s, though Isobel had never, even as a child she said, had red hair—the policeman nodded, but did not really look at her. Glancing through the rear-view mirror, he said, “Sorry about the noise here, but it’ll give us speed, and that’s the purpose.” The sudden sound of the siren and the smell of his peppermint gum fell through the car simultaneously; Merry turned and stared out the window, her eyes continually catching and keeping signs and stores as if it were a movie whose subtitles she could easily assimilate, but whose internal sense she would never really grasp.
The purpose: only an hour before, Merry, dressed to meet her father for dinner and waiting for his phone call, had fallen asleep on the living-room sofa. She had changed early on purpose, hoping that by putting on a new dress she would prevent herself from falling asleep. This dress, which was Indian, and dark blue with the customary intricate, multicolored Indian embroidery across the front, would annoy her father because it was a dress and therefore an implicit bourgeois demand; because it was Indian, thus taking jobs away from mere subsistence-level American workers and encouraging the exploitation of Indian ones even poorer; and because its embroidery was machine-stitched—a once vital folk craft now brutally cut off from its real source, and so cheapening to a whole culture. But the dress itself, now wrinkled and sweaty, had not stopped her from falling asleep, an old habit she could not break. “Somnolence is a primary symptom of anxiety,” was one of the first things her analyst had ever said to her, and Merry felt this to be true. She did not like it herself and yet could not stop it. Waking up from an undesired sleep in the late afternoon always left her with a detached gloomy sourness that did not go away for hours. Her father looked at it differently, however, having written of certain Impressionist paintings, particularly Cézanne’s, that they gave you the same unique sensation as did waking up from a nap: out of a haze, you suddenly saw ordinary everyday objects as if only half-formed. They were in the process of being born; it was a discovery, you saw them newly. Not that he especially cared about Impressionist paintings, or art of any kind for that matter. What he valued above all was the sense of seeing something as you had never seen it before: through child’s eyes, a discovery.
This was exactly what Merry knew he was doing as she waited for his phone call—he was walking slowly, hazily through Manhattan streets he had been through a hundred times before. Maybe this was one of the times he had gotten off at an unfamiliar subway stop by accident, or on purpose. It didn’t matter; it would come to the same thing, especially now that he no longer lived in New York. A half-smile was on his face as he stared and wandered: he was seeing something old and familiar in a new light, discovering something he had never previously noticed, or—who could tell?—possibly even finding something that was actually new. In a little while, over dinner, his eyes glazing with delight behind his glasses, he would be telling Merry about a new discount drug store in the East Twenties or a new library in the West Sixties: they would both have been there for years. It was what Merry called to herself his Rip Van Winkle syndrome, and she had once told this to Isobel, who, in keeping with her nature, had merely shrugged. But Isobel could afford to shrug; she had been divorced from Ez Slavin for years.
Where was he now? Probably sitting over a milky lukewarm cup of coffee in an old Automat or an about to be torn down Bickford’s, staring with ingenuous fascination at someone’s left-over racing form, or happily fingering what he temporarily regarded as an ingenious new ketchup dispenser. With the clothes he wore and the way he looked, he would fit right in—and this was Merry’s worst fear: that without trying, without even knowing or caring about it, her father would turn into a Bickford’s bum. Especially since she had just finished writing a piece on Potter’s Field, this thought put Merry to sleep, and when the phone rang, startling her into partial wakefulness, she saw that the dye of the dress had come off, running purplish blue onto her arms.
But the ringing phone was not her father; it was the police.
“Mrs. Ezra B. Slavin?”
“This is Miss Slavin,” Merry said, so instantly annoyed that alarm did not reach her. “It is not his wife. I’m his daughter.”
“There’s been an accident, Miss,” this police voice said, against a background of terrible noise and headachy buzzing. “Mr. Slavin’s been taken to Bellevue. We’re sending over a squad car now. It’s on special orders.”
Once, from a neighbor, Merry had heard a story about a woman who had received a similar phone call, but it was about her ten-year-old son and had come from the police department of the suburban Long Island town to which they had only just moved. It was for the sake of this son that they had moved, the woman was always apologizing: he had been mugged on his bike once too often. On a new bike, in his new town, the boy was run over by a car. When the phone call came, his mother had had to take the Long Island railroad all the way out to Hempstead. “I knew he was dead,” she had kept on repeating numbly, when people spoke to her afterward. “They wouldn’t tell me anything, but all the time I was sitting there on the train I knew he was dead.”
When the police car pulled up at the emergency-room entrance, Bea Shestak, exactly the same, still streaky-blond and florid-faced, jumped out at Merry and embraced her. “Oh my God,” she sobbed. “We didn’t even know he was in New York! He wasn’t even listed as a speaker! Your father! Ez Slavin! He was just standing there, just standing on the edge of the crowd. If one of the Peace Committee marshals hadn’t recognized him, he might have been lying there for hours. He didn’t even have any identification, Merry. All he had was an old library card!”
“Well, he doesn’t have a driver’s license,” Merry said. “And you know what he thinks of credit cards. Anyway, he’s always been against identification, Bea. He thinks it’s an intrusion of the state. I only hope he has Blue Cross or something. He certainly can’t afford to stay in the hospital.”
Staring into the distance, Bea Shestak said, “He died for his principles. He was never any different. He was always, always modest and he never changed his convictions.”
“He’s dead?,” Merry said. “Just dead? They told me there was an accident.”
“There was no accident,” Herb Shestak said, stepping forward, nervously fingering his glasses. He was nearly totally bald now, but his beard had grayed only slightly. “Your father had a heart attack. A massive coronary. He was dead by the time he got here.”
“DOA,” Merry said, and looking around at the ambulances driving up and the crowd of white-uniformed doctors, nurses, and attendants walking in and out—one girl with a stethoscope around her neck was brushing her hair as she pushed through a swinging door—she thought suddenly of how her grandfather had died. The police had found him, too. “Was your father a man of means?” said the cop who had battered down the door to her father and his older brother, Uncle Bloke. Whispery groups of Chinese children stood in the newly-made entranceway; their alien smells had bothered the old man, their tight, slanted eyes reminding him of the Mongolian tribesmen of his whole freezing Siberian childhood and youth, causing him to call out, “Tartar! Kalmuk!” when he saw them from his window or on the stairway. “Means!” exploded this uncle called Bloke, a giant, red-faced, crude-featured man, who had acquired his nickname in childhood from hanging around the Irish. “Would a man of means have lived in this shit-house?”
“I’d like to call Isobel,” Merry said, having no idea whether or not she was making any sense. “What time is it there?”
“Isobel? What is she talking about, Herb? What time is it where? Merry, darling, you’re the next of kin. You have to make the arrangements.”
Herb Shestak said, “Isobel Rees—you know that writer he used to be married to. The Blood Curtains. She lives in England.”
“She lives in Italy,” Merry said coldly. It was Isobel who was cold, her father always said, and she thought of how angry it made Isobel when people connected her solely with that one novel, which, made into a movie, brought her unexpected, temporary fame and permanent public. association with a work whose tone and characters she could hardly even recognize. “I just want to talk to her, but not if it’s the middle of the night there. Maybe she would come here because she does come sometimes anyway. But I’m not the next of kin.”
Bea Shestak began to cry again and hugged Merry so tightly that she could smell her perfume, or maybe it was only lotion or some kind of makeup. Why had Bea worn perfume to a demonstration? Her father did not approve of perfume, of any cosmetics at all; it meant she had succumbed to the seduction of advertising even if she only used blush-on or a little lipstick, which she needed because she looked like him and was sallow-skinned.
Tearfully, Bea said, “I know how awful it is for you, Merry. And shocking. But I wish you would cry instead of being so overwhelmed. Because there are things you’ll have to do now. . . . When Herb’s sister died, she was cremated too, so at least that’s something we know about. And the newspapers. . . .”
“He doesn’t believe in cremation, Bea. And besides, I am not the next of kin.”
“My God, Herb! Look how upset she is! What are we going to do? She’s not even thinking. Of course he believed in cremation, and honey, Isobel has nothing to do with this. They were divorced. It’s a legal thing. That’s why those—those other girls—your sisters? Your half-sisters? Paula’s girls—you know who I mean. Of course, you’ll have to call them if you know where they are, but they’re not legally, I mean he wasn’t actually ever married to their mo—”
“He had a son with Isobel,” Herb said. “I forgot all about it.”
“Nicky?” Merry said. “I think he’s supposed to be in India, I’m not sure. They were hardly even speaking.” She was aware suddenly of feeling extremely tired. “I mean Jeannie. That’s who I should really call first.”
“Jeannie?” Bea screamed.
From somewhere in back of her, Merry felt a light tap on the shoulder and a soft, nearly whispering woman’s voice, oddly foreign, saying, “Mrs. Slavin?”
“No, Miss Slavin,” Merry said wearily. “His daughter.” And turning around, saw that she was facing a slight, very pretty Filipino girl, no older than herself. A stethoscope was shoved into her pocket; the name-tag on her jacket said Concepcion Lopez, M.D. She looked hesitantly at Bea Shestak, and then, to Merry, said:
“There was no question of primary cause. You won’t need a coroner. . . .” She stopped abruptly and Merry stood there waiting, caught in the lilt of her voice, which was almost hypnotic. “The seizure was so massive, didn’t he have a history? Suspected coronary events? Warning signs?”
“I don’t know,” Merry said. “I have no idea.” Because when would her father have gone to a doctor? He had never believed in doctors, had not viewed medicine as a science. But then he did not believe in science.
The loudspeaker, which had been broadcasting constantly, a nearly unintelligible flat, metallic squawk, now burst out: “Dr. Lopez, Dr. Concepcion Lopez, Dr. Zwerling, Dr. Michael Zwerling, Dr. Lopez.”
“Excuse me,” Dr. Lopez whispered, and having already stepped away on her equally whispery, tiny shoes, she turned back and with sudden, surprising, shy urgency said, “I saw your father once. In Cambridge. We went to hear him speak, but it was so crowded they put us in an overflow room. When he found out later there were people who didn’t get in, he took us with him to a special reception. We—we weren’t even invited and he talked to us specially.” She looked more and more embarrassed, and said finally, “I’m very sorry.”
He slept with her, Merry thought instantly. Another one. He had asked her about the rebel fighters in the Philippines, listened to her lilting, hypnotic whisper, and decided entirely in his own mind that she would return in comradely bravery only to the furthest of the out-islands, a tiny, remarkable, healing heroine.
Bea Shestak clutched dramatically at Dr. Lopez’s white jacket, her eyes filled up again, and said, “Thank you, dear. He was always the same, the same with everyone. That’s why this grief will be so shared. You have to think of that, Merry, it will help you. Now the shock and pain is yours, but the grief will be shared by so many.”
Merry said, “I better call Jeannie. I suppose she should really know first. She’s the next of kin, Bea. She’s his wife.”
“That little girl? In Massachusetts? The one he brought back from Kentucky? Merry, he wasn’t married to her. You’re not thinking straight.”
“He was married to her,” Merry said uncertainly, because of course there were all those years when he hadn’t been. “They have a child, a little boy.”
“Herb, did you know about this? Is it true? He got married up there in Massachusetts? And has a son? Is she rational? Maybe we should call up Dave Roizman and he’d give her a tranquilizer. Or talk to her. Something.”
“He did have a baby,” Herb said slowly. “And I suppose that’s with Jeannie. But I didn’t know he was married to her. I guess it’s perfectly possible.”
Perfectly possible. As ambulances careened in and out and sirens wailed, Herb Shestak waved his glasses in the air; it was undoubtedly the gesture he was accustomed to using in front of his classes when he was considering with just, reasoned gravity the varied but perhaps equal claim on truth of two opposing theoretical arguments. After all, on the one hand, but then, there was always, not to be dismissed, on the other: perfectly possible. Merry felt a wave of her father’s contempt for Herb Shestak, for academics, for sociologists, for Herb Shestak who had always been this same one thing from a young man on—a teacher and a sociologist—and then recalled that her father had rarely made a living until he had gotten university jobs, and in a field usually called American Civilization or American Studies, not so different from sociology. And how much of a living had he made even then? Merry could not tell. He had found and embraced rural poverty when he met Jeannie in Hazard, Kentucky, and had lived up to what he considered its truth in a ramshackle farmhouse in northwestern Massachusetts, even these days when his commute had been to Amherst. But this was not entirely fair: he had always preferred being poor to having a real job, and did not care who had to share in his choice without having made it. None of the women he had ever been involved with, from Merry’s mother on, had, according to him, truly understood the nature of his choice. Only Jeannie, Jeannie who could not possibly have known the difference because she had lived all her life in real, dire, unelected poverty, had not minded, and he had elevated what she knew as the sole and natural condition of human life to be its highest form—and moved to the country. And to a remote and isolated place in the country at that. What about urban vitality? The streets and neighborhoods teeming with real life, the community of men?
Slavin—Ezra Benjamin. Suddenly, in New York City on March 12, 1974. Husband of Georgeanne. Father of Merry, Nicholas, and Samson. Funeral private. Memorial meeting to be announced.
What if obituaries were true? Not whether some man whom casual and musing obituary readers did not know had really been a beloved husband, devoted father, adored grandfather, and dear brother. That much of a romantic Merry wasn’t. Assume, say, that this beloved husband had muttered to himself and slammed doors, that the bereaved wife, now suddenly a woman in a shocked and lonely panic, had spent years listening to him rant all the while she made the salad, and then with the carrot scraper still in one hand, had run to the phone to complain, half-laughing, to her sister and a few friends. A few minutes later, anxiously bustling around drawers and cabinets, she would call out, “I told you we’re out of saccharin,” and this blast would bring forth the beloved husband, who had closeted himself first in the bedroom where he got bored, and then in the bathroom, where he turned on all the faucets, including the shower, and stood there letting the water run to clear his head. A little sheepish now, he would yell back, “It’s all right, I have,” and from his pocket out would come a few packets of saccharin he had picked up one day in a luncheonette or cafeteria or even in a Pennsylvania Turnpike Howard Johnson’s from the last time they had taken a trip. This habit had always annoyed the devoted father’s children, whom he easily embarrassed, but not his adored grandchildren who came to consider it cool, especially as they approached adolescence. They could hardly believe that someone had thought up this trick before them, above all in their own family. Meanwhile, in their scrupulously psychoanalyzed dreams, the devoted father’s children disguised him variously as a blustering tyrant in a Nazi uniform or a helpless paralyzed man wrapped in the pathetic terry-cloth of sickness or infancy. They could not forgive him his terrible rages and perpetual remoteness. And the dear brother? Well there was one sister whose husband he’d had a disagreement with over cemetery plots nearly forty years before. His older brother lied about money and boasted about his children. And hi; youngest sister, the baby in the family and a beauty, had, for no reason that anyone could figure out, gone crazy at an early age, still complaining from time to time about the hidden whirring machines in the walls which prevented her from going to sleep.
So there was one family’s possible story extracted from the ritualized words of mourning. Because it was not this part of the obituary that Merry ever imagined to be truthful. But what if just the ordinary facts were true? That this unknown mourned man, exactly as the newspaper death notice said, had left a wife, two children five grandchildren: those were their names, there was no one left out, there was nothing inaccurate. What then should her father’s death notice say?
Slavin—Ezra Benjamin. Husband of Georgeanne Blaikie Slavin, Isobel Rees Slavin Giobbi, and the late Pearl Milgram Slavin. Father of Dr. Jonathan Spivak, Merry Slavin, Nicholas Slavin, Francesca Meisel, Susanna Meisel, Samson Slavin. Grandfather of Adam and Miranda Spivak and Mountain Spring Meisel.
What could casual, musing obituary readers make of that? But they would never have to try, because anyone who did turn to the obituary page that morning would find a two-column spread with a photograph, headed “Ezra B. Slavin, Iconoclastic Social Critic, Dead at 64.”
Ezra B. Slavin, the writer, editor, and social critic who was Visiting Professor of American Studies at Amherst College, died last night in New York City after suffering a heart attack. He was 64 years old.
Mr. Slavin, a frequent contributor to many magazines and journals since the 1930’s, was an unconventional and often controversial figure throughout his life. Often associated with and claimed by the Left, both Old and New, Mr. Slavin disavowed specific political ties, saying, “Labels and pigeonholes are useless and distasteful. All they can do is hinder growth and solidify enmities. They bring comfort to all enemies of intelligence and hopefulness.” According to his own account, he was by nature and temperament an anarchist and pacifist, and though he shunned the appellation political activist, he often demonstrated and fought for those causes which reflected his beliefs.
From very early in his career, Mr. Slavin was harshly critical of the anomic trends of urban, mechanized American life, yet his vision of the city as a place of “limitless, tumultuous possibility” was a lyrical, even celebratory one. “I have had a lifelong affair with the idea of America,” Mr. Slavin once said. “And when people find that difficult to believe, I remind them of that flintier vision which is bound to result when love is unrequited.” A man of wide-ranging interests (he wrote about a diversity of topics ranging from the outlaws of the early West, whom he viewed as forerunners of the Populist movement, to the influence of psychoanalysis in the 50’s, “Psychoanalysis and Everyday Life,” to the proliferation of fast-food chains in cities and suburbs), Mr. Slavin’s essays were always characterized by the insistent inclusion of his personal likes and dislikes. “Unlike journalists and so many intellectuals of his generation, Slavin does not eschew the ‘I,’” a New York Times reviewer wrote of his last book, Three Chairs in the House, “thus happily endowing his work with the indelible mark of the passionately personal.” But this very quality did not always win him praise; he was accused by some critics of “iconizing the trivial and profligately idiosyncratic in the name of cultural criticism.” To this charge, Mr. Slavin responded with a characteristic blend of charm and bellicosity. “I have an ulterior motive,” he told an interviewer. “I actually want to move people. To change the way they perceive and live their lives.”
Mr. Slavin, whose own life and ideas have often been cited as a precursor of those propounded by the New Left and the “new consciousness,” was born to Russian immigrant parents on New York’s Lower East Side. Noting that he was one of four sons, Mr. Slavin wondered, referring to the well-known passage found in the Passover Haggadah, whether he was the wicked son or the simpleton. Certainly he was a rebellions one, having attempted to run away from home many times. “When I was five years old, I hid in an ice-man’s wagon, but it was drawn by a horse and he didn’t go any farther than the other [Brooklyn] side of the Williamsburg Bridge. By the time 1 was eight, though, I was a little smarter and I managed to get as far as Connecticut.” But his most daring childhood exploit occurred when, at the age of ten, he attempted to stow away on an ocean-going freighter. He was discovered, however, and sent home on a Coast Guard cutter from what was probably Long Island.
Though an unwilling and infrequent student, he was a graduate of P.S. 12 and De Witt Clinton High School, at that time located in Manhattan. He latter attended City College, but he did not complete his studies and never received a degree. After a brief apprenticeship in photoengraving, a trade he was to work at at various times in his life, Mr. Slavin found employment in the Writers’ Project of the WPA. It was at this time that he acquired the reputation for having what a colleague recently described as “the original crash pad,” and even many years later his Upper West Side apartment was very often a stopping place for several generations of friends, students, and admirers. It was not until the mid-1960’s, however, that, he emerged from relative obscurity, becoming a figure of widespread appeal, especially to the young. He did not find this role entirely congenial, explaining that though he had always throughout his career urged governments, groups, and individals to “simplify” in the interest of truthfulness and clarity, too many of his young students appeared over-willing to simplify ideas and history, unwittingly pursuing what he termed “that great American goal, fake pragmatism.” Mr. Slavin also deplored his sudden loss of anonymity, a condition which he viewed as an absolute prerequisite for “an honest day’s thought.”
Mr. Slavin’s first book, Outlaws and Citizens, was a study of such frontier outlaws as Jesse James, the Dalton Brothers, Belle Starr, and Billy the Kid. He was also the author of several collections of essays: A Career in Itself, The Aboriginal Name, Stranger in the Land, and, most recently, Three Chairs in the House.
He leaves his wife, the former Georgeanne Blaikie, a daughter, Merry, and two sons, Nicholas and Samson.
Three Chairs in the House: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden). There were three chairs on Ez Slavin’s torn screen porch on the day the photograph which accompanied his obituary was taken. Not one of them had cushions or offered comfort of any kind, though Francesca Meisel, not yet the mother of Mountain Spring, had spread her quilted sleeping bag over the hard wooden seat and cracked ladder-back of the chair on which she was sitting. Ordinarily, of course, she would have sat on the floor as Peter, her boyfriend, was doing, but Ffrenchy had just had an abortion and she could not seem to make up her mind exactly how much attention she wanted paid to it: abortion was about to become legalized in New York State. Also, as it happened, it was Ffrenchy’s third abortion, and her mother, Paula, with whom Ez had had two daughters but had not married, nor ever really lived with, was running out of sympathy. This was part of the reason Ffrenchy had come up to see Ez in North Darby: her mother was nagging her constantly to settle on some form of birth control and her adopted father, Al Meisel, was a doctor—obviously he couldn’t possibly be expected to understand. Anyway, he was extremely dogmatic and bullheaded, Ffrenchy said; in fact, he was a Taurus, and so she saw no point in getting into arguments with him.
It occurred to Merry that Ffrenchy, who was beautiful anyway, might be even more beautiful when she was pregnant. She resembled her mother in a certain, open-featured, lusty look, but while Paula’s attractiveness came from a faintly sloppy, very dark, exotic quality which she had always cultivated, Ffrenchy was fair, like the Slavins. Except that unlike any Slavin Merry had ever met, Ffrenchy had high coloring: pink cheeks, made pinker now from the sun, and very long, thick brownish-red hair, almost auburn.
“Tauruses love arguments,” said Peter, who did not stay crouched on the floor but was constantly getting up, moving around, and shifting positions as he clicked his camera. Which was his purpose in being there that muggy weekend: he was taking pictures of Ez for the dust jacket of his new book, an arrangement that had been thought up by Ffrenchy.
“This is Peter Honig and he’s a terrific photographer,” she had said when the two of them, with backpacks and sleeping bags, had walked in, neither invited nor expected. “What he’s starting to get into is radical documentaries, and he’s been very influenced by you, Daddy. He really admires your work. I mean, he loves it.” She beamed but said this “Daddy” tentatively, because to begin with, it was what she had all her life called Al Meisel, and moreover, because she knew that Merry, whose acknowledged and legitimate Daddy he was, called him Ez.
She will always hate me, Merry thought, as Ffrenchy looked past the screened porch, and taking in her presence, instantly misinterpreted it.
“Oh!” Ffrenchy said bitterly, “Merry! . . . I read that thing you wrote about illegal immigrants in New York, those Haitians. What a weird thing to get into. I mean, they could really zap you. You know—voodoo.”
“Well, I didn’t write against them,” Merry said, glaring and tightening immediately. “I only wrote about them.’”
Peter Honig fingered the camera which temporarily hung around his neck. He had clearly not counted on there being such awkwardness in a weekend he must have been so much looking forward to, but he was determined to stay loose. Very loose, in fact: as he bobbed up and down with his camera, his exposed penis bobbed out before him from the folds of a kimono which he either couldn’t or wouldn’t close. The kimono was not his; he was wearing it because his own clothes were still wet from his morning in the flooded basement. Early that morning, it was Jeannie who had first discovered what was then still just a puddle, a leak—Jeannie up doing the laundry, Jeannie up feeding the new baby, crying, tiny, Sammy Slavin. At breakfast already looking distracted and entirely disheveled, she stacked dishes in the sink and said finally in a hesitant, unhappy twang, “I think there’s something wrong with the pipes? . . .” From her tone, it was obvious that this had happened before—and ended in disaster. Probably they couldn’t pay the plumber, Merry thought. And as the baby, who was supposed to be sleeping, suddenly began crying, Jeannie said pleadingly, “Ez, we can’t call that plumber in town. And anyway, it’s Sunday.”
This atmosphere of domestic chaos and helplessness which her father always engendered, but from which he himself could remain remarkably immune was exactly what Merry could not stand. So she said with false cheerfulness, like a camp counselor, “Oh, I bet there’s an emergency plumbing service somewhere. In Amherst, in a bigger town.”
Ffrenchy, who was still drinking orange juice, having recently given up coffee because as an addiction it was as bad as alcohol or nicotine, that was the first point against it, the second point being that all caffeine-ingesting societies, and this included both coffee and tea, were into a truly destructive and down trip—Ffrenchy said, “What’s broken? Plumbing? Don’t worry, Peter can fix it. Peter can fix anything.”
“Ah, omnicompetent,” Ez said happily. It was a word he liked and a concept he was genuinely devoted to.
Peter said, “I don’t know. . . .” and it was impossible to tell whether he was expressing false modesty, decent and perhaps legitimate doubts, or whether he simply did not know the meaning of the word omnicompetent. “I mean I’m not really into pipes. What I’m great with is electricity. Wires.”
“You fixed that shower, Peter,” Ffrenchy crooned at him. “When we were staying at André’s. And I was taking a bath.” She offered up a smile of broadcasted intimacies: herself rosy and naked in a bathtub, a wash of wanton sensuality, her lover with high boots and competent hands entering in to fix the shower-head and complete the bath.
Peter scratched at his ponytail and repeated, “I don’t know,” but he went down to the basement, where he tapped too long at a bursting pipe and got drenched.
Which was why on the porch that afternoon, Peter was bobbing up and down in a kimono, prompting Ffrenchy to giggle gleefully, “Oh, Peter! You’re a closet flasher!”
She is torturing me with her bursting sexuality, Merry thought. Because I am seven years older and have never had an abortion. Because I am hardly younger than Jeannie and have never had a baby. Because she knows I am fastidious in these things and was brought up by Isobel. She will always hate me and there is nothing I can do about it. Merry sat rigidly forward; she had to, the chair was so cracked and rickety, but it was an exact imitation of the stance her father had so often ridiculed in Isobel.
“You can have another chair,” Jeannie said uncertainly as she walked through the porch laden down with the morning’s laundry which she had decided, finally, to hang outside. “From the kitchen?” Her voice slid up into a question when no question was intended; probably it was only her accent, but there was a kind of perpetual, worried, birdy nervousness about Jeannie that made her seem, especially when she spoke, like someone who was always asking questions whose answers she knew she wouldn’t have time to stay around for.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine,” Merry said. Because the last thing she wanted was a chair from the kitchen. Covered in yellow oilcloth, dirty, sticky, and sour-smelling—that particular smell of poverty, old age, and slovenliness—the chairs in Jeannie’s country kitchen could easily have been castoffs, refugees from Merry’s grandmother’s apartment on Rivington Street. This grandmother, Ez’s mother, was dead for years now, but she had been gloomy and half-blind even when Merry was very small and had lived with her. Those chairs so instantly summoned up her whole tiny, fetid apartment—bathtub in the kitchen, cockroaches wherever you turned—that Ez, noticing the look on Merry’s face the first time she had seen the kitchen in North Darby, said, “My daughter Merry, the compleat bourgeoise! It’s these chairs, isn’t it? Your very own madeleine. . . . If only you could find some joy in the memory, some pleasure.”
“How could I?” Merry said irritably. “And since when do you? And you didn’t even live there when I did, when she was so old and worn out.”
Ez turned to Jeannie and said, “That’s how it is, parents are always villains. It’s an old story.”
Embarrassed before Jeannie, Merry said, “I didn’t say you were a villain. I’m only asking for a certain base line of honesty.” And thought: I’m only asking for what? From whom?
“Base line,” Ez repeated sourly, his features contorting as if he were struggling suddenly with a surprise attack of indigestion. “Base line! My God, Merry! The gobbledegook of social science! Is that why you went to college? To learn to debase the language? So you, too, could help erase spontaneity?”
“I didn’t know you were the French Academy. And what are you doing taking the side of purists? I thought you always argue that they’re the ones who kill spontaneity.”
“That’s more like it!” Ez said smiling. He was showing her off to Jeannie, whom he now put his arm around, announcing cheerfully, “In my family, there’s never a lack of contention.”
Jeannie looked at Merry uneasily and said, “There’s only instant coffee? I hope you don’t mind it, I just know there are some people who do. From the college? We were having coffee on the porch and they, they . . . well, some people sure do.”
On the porch, which three years later had still not been repainted or improved in any way, Peter Honig clicked his camera and Ez’s family went on proving its contentiousness.
Ffrenchy said, “I know Tauruses love arguments. That’s exactly why I wouldn’t get into it with him. I mean, why give him the satisfaction? He always gets this look on his face—his creepy, boring, uptight look. Like he knows he’s right. Like there couldn’t be any question. I mean, everybody knows that birth-control pills are bad for you, it’s not even a matter of opinion! And he has the nerve to sit there with his statistics and tell me that I’m listening to alarmists! And that the danger has been exaggerated. Exaggerated! I mean, shit! The man does not care about what happens to my body!”
Which was surely not Ffrenchy’s problem: she sat there with her Mexican wedding blouse half unbuttoned and her long and beautiful reddish hair spilling out against the khaki dullness of the sleeping bag, looking, pleading, for Ez’s attention.
Ez Slavin was sitting on the third chair on the porch, a rocking chair. It was not broken. He leaned back, occasionally rocking slowly, staring, apparently preoccupied, at motes of dust or filtering sunlight. With each careful rock, he varied his expression: he was trying to look natural for the camera.
“I know what you mean about doctors,” Merry said, and heard her voice sounding reasonable—reason, the infamous and sickened enemy of passion. “They’re always ready to tell you statistics and never mind that you’re the one who might turn out to be on the wrong end.”
“That is not the point, Merry!” Ffrenchy screamed. “I’m trying to explain what kind of person my fa—, Al is. It has nothing to do with your bullshit intellectual theories about doctors!”
From inside the damp, reeky house, the baby cried. That baby was the reason Merry was in North Darby that close, hazy June weekend. She had come up to see her newborn half-brother, surprisingly named Samson after a grandfather, who, out of all Ez Slavin’s children, only Merry had known. But hardly remembered: he had paid even less attention to her than he had to his own children, and spent his last years living alone, separated from his wife of a lifetime, reading and re-reading his collection of old Russian books (the Classics, her father said scornfully), apparently mourning a country which had certainly never mourned him, and bitter against anything which had once interested him. Yeder mentsh iz a velt far zich alayn, he had answered anyone who criticized him: every man is his own world, and had emerged each day dapper and lordly to buy rolls and a newspaper amid the noisy filth of the Lower East Side.
That was one Samson Slavin, Shimshon, Shimsheh her grandmother had called him, and here now, red-faced and crying, was another. Why had Ez decided to name this son of his old age Samson? What new wrinkle on a constantly reinterpreted past had he managed to come up with for this one?
“Hey, baby. Hey, little baby, baby,” Peter said in a singsong, as if he were stroking and talking to an overwrought animal—a horse who had just heard a firecracker or a dog who kept on mistaking an uneasy delivery boy for a mugger. The child’s persistent crying was disturbing Peter’s concentration.
Ez said, “Poor Sam. . . . Already wrestling with the Philistines.”
“I think it’s the heat,” Merry said sharply, as Jeannie could be heard running up the stairs, calling out helplessly, “Oh, Sammy, sweet little baby boy Sammy.”
Ffrenchy shifted forward, this time looking only in Ez’s direction. She said, “Actually, even my mother agreed with me about the Pill. It was only him. But then they both started bugging me to get a diaphragm. Well, I hate diaphragms, I hate the way they feel. It inhibits me, Ez. Do you know what I mean? It’s not natural.”
Ez turned his chair only slightly, he was still not looking at anyone, but with his face in shadow, continued to stare at ordinary air with such removed and saintly intensity you could easily imagine that an invisible air-molecule morality play was now going on in front of his glasses. Speaking very slowly, reluctantly, as though he could hardly bear to tear himself away from his private entertainment, he said, “Abortion isn’t natural, Francesca. In the literal sense. Against nature. Against life.”
Ffrenchy shrieked out, “Daddy !”
Peter stopped fussing with his camera and Merry said, “I didn’t know you were against abortion, Ez. Since when?”
“You don’t mean since when have I been against killing, do you, Merry? You don’t mean since when have I been unable to oppose an act that’s directly against life?”
“Oh my God!” Ffrenchy howled. “How can you say that? What are you talking about?”
Ez looked up, wondering, and click went Peter Honig’s camera. It was that expression, no longer so remote and saintly, but almost boyish in mischief and surprise that stared out at Merry one morning three years later from the obituary page of the Times.