see my father hitting the little black handball. The ball springs from front wall to side to the floor to the hand. The claps echo through the box court. Double-filtered seeing: with adult eyes I see my child self seeing, the two lenses distorting each other. I was about ten, so this would have been in the mid-1940s. It was, I believe, the one time he took me to his gym. I watched through a thick-glass window covered with a wire screen, the window above the court. Later: “You see me smack that goddamn ball?”
Or with child eyes filtered through adult eyes I see my powerful father in Central Park hitting a softball well over the left fielder’s head, dropping the bat, slogging to first, being held to a double only because he was heavy and slow. “Jackie boy, you see me smack that sonofabitch?”
He sang out in a beautiful, high tenor that didn’t go with the tough-guy swagger, didn’t go with the heavy shoulders and biceps and thick neck and fat belly. My mother used to say, “Poor soul—he’s got such a gorgeous voice and can’t remember the words of a single song.” And he grinned, accepting this left-handed compliment.
Actually, he knew and sang one song—a parody of the corny, romantic song, “After the Ball.” He loved to sing it when my mother wasn’t nearby; it was just for us guys:
After the ball was over,
Katie took out her glass eye
Put her false teeth in a tumbler
Drank up a bottle of rye . . .
Put her false leg in the corner
Hung her wig up on the wall . . .
Nothing was left of poor Katie
After the ball.
That was the song he sang. And if he told me a story, it was like this one—again, he’d tell it when my mother couldn’t hear: This guy in his outfit during the war, he was sitting on an upper bunk, on just the wire frame, see, because the mattress was being aired outside, so he jumps down and his balls catch in the wire and . . . pop goes the weasel. “I didn’t actually see this, Jackie, but I heard the scream.”
And he held his crotch and sang out, OOOG!
My father, happy.
But when he felt challenged, he took it as humiliation. Suppose the Chinese laundry where my mother took his shirts used too little or too much starch, or suppose the electric bill was “too damn high because you two, you leave lights on like I was made of money,” or say the “damn refugee” brought his damn dog into the elevator—when he felt challenged, he yelled, he took it as personal affront and yelled. Once a month he sat in his undershirt at his desk, hunched over the bills and cursing them from time to time—making sure that we could hear, that we could recognize we’d made him a pauper. For the bills were our fault. His face got hot red, his back a wall of muscle.
Or if he was driving, say, and some guy gave him a hard time—cut him off, got ahead of him—he’d chase, then come up alongside at the red light, lean over past me to the passenger window and roll it down, stick his head out and yell in that anomalous tenor, “Hey, you sonofabitch, wanna get smacked? You wanna make something out of it? Who gave you a goddamn license? C’mon, Big Shot. You wanna get outa that car and settle this?”
No answer, of course. The other driver never looked our way. Sooner or later my father would have played tough guy to the wrong man, but the five or ten times I saw this, no one ever took up the challenge. That meant my father was free to yell some more. If we were by ourselves, he and I, I’d giggle at how crazy this was. And he’d laugh, too! “You see, Jackie, how I scared the sonofabitch?” So he wasn’t just caught up in road rage, for he was conscious of playing a role. If my mother was in the car, she wouldn’t say a thing—just sit up higher in her seat—her queenly posture. Then, when the car started up again, she’d say, in what she thought of as aristocratic tones, “Such nice weather we’re having.”
My father, injured, victim of her contempt, would roar, “What, Leah! What? I’m supposed to let the sonofabitch get away with that kind of cowboy driving?” And she’d say, “Très élégant, wouldn’t you agree, Jackie?” Disgusted with the both of us, he’d hawk up a mouthful of phlegm and spit it out his window onto the street.
Well, he was a humiliated man—humiliated by his wife, by his brother, by me. I made fun of him, and he knew it. I remember all the ways I wasn’t much of a son and he wasn’t much of a father. But I loved him, didn’t I? When he walked toward us up the red carpet from the Twentieth Century Limited, suitcases in each hand, home from months of taking care of his father in Palm Springs, California, I felt joy . . . . joy for the first ten minutes, until something went wrong—my hair was too damn long or the bills for the butcher too high—and he yelled, and she—she shook as if she were having a nervous fit, a seizure, and said, “You see? I’m shaking!”
I was in awe of his power, of the way, when he got excited, his face would get red and steam with sweat, like a machine with a busted camshaft just spinning and getting hot, and he’d have to remove his glasses and wipe them dry with a dirty hand-kerchief. Still, when he was in a good mood he could be gentle and kind—I’ve always thought of him at those times as a gentle bear—and his voice would be sweet, almost delicate, and he’d wrap his arm around my shoulder and sing out, “What say you and me, we go up to 86th Street and get some chocolate ice cream?” Ahh. It’s the kind of thing everybody remembers. He could have been my shining father—not clever or educated but warm-hearted, sweet and strong. But the guy was so easily threatened, and when he felt threatened, he lashed out.
You don’t forget the times, all blurred together, when he yelled at the top of that great voice of his, “You little bastard, you gonna do what I tell you?” But then I find myself softening toward the beast, remembering the times he held my hand, walking with me to the movies—where he settled down in his seat and farted his usual long fart while he cleared his throat to cover the noise, and if no one was around, just as a gag he’d wave his wrinkled handkerchief at the smell. Then he’d slip lower and lower and soon he was asleep, big belly up. Maybe this was his best time all week. Always he slept right through the movie, maybe stirring when gunshots went off or when the audience laughed.
That was on a Friday night after his hard week of work, and the week still wasn’t over: Saturday, too, he got up at 6:00 and took the subway or drove his Chevy down to Tires Incorporated, where he opened the parking lot and turned on the lights and was, till 9:00 a.m., the only tire salesman working. At noon Saturdays he’d call out to the men who changed the tires, big men, black men, “Okay, you guys, we’re done, time to go home.” He’d lock up the place and come home to take a nap or sometimes he’d go up to Yankee Stadium, especially if one of the taxi-fleet owners gave him tickets to a game. A few times he took me.
But often his brother Lloyd, who owned the business—and owned my father—would call Dad over to the Warwick Hotel, where Lloyd resided after his divorce. He found an errand or made up an errand to get my father to come to the Warwick and hang out a while, needing my father as—what?—a salve for his loneliness? Or maybe it wasn’t companionship but confirmation Lloyd needed—that he was worth something, that he really was a big shot. And my father had to listen to him brag or opine about politics or business. Had to laugh at his jokes. My father would say, “You bet, Lloyd. You’re right, Lloyd.” But what Lloyd preferred was for my father to question an opinion so Lloyd could prove he was right, cite some important guy he ate with at Lindy’s who had the same opinion, and then my father could be surprised and say, “I see what you mean, Lloyd.”
There were times my father would lay it all out. “Your mother’s right. Lloyd’s no goddamn good. Don’t let him get a hold of you. Listen—he makes believe he’s tough. Back in Chicago I had to protect him. He was seven years younger and a sissy. He couldn’t walk to school without me, his big brother. He was something of a candy-ass, your uncle. But the kids stayed clear. They knew—I hit ’em, they stay down. Right? Am I right?” He laughed and chucked me under the jaw.
You could say Lloyd was a phony. Or say he was like a Gatsby—a self-created American. First, his name: Louis Cohen of Chicago became Lloyd Clayton of New York. Then, his arrogance. I remember him at the Sea Fare restaurant, a big shot. He’d call over the waiter and in front of him tear a fresh ten-dollar bill in half: “George,” he’d say (black train conductors and waiters were known as George, from George Westinghouse), “George, here’s the smaller half of a ten. You get the rest when we get the terrific service we know you’ll give us.” When I was nine, ten, I already knew how ugly, how demeaning, this treatment was. My mother and I exchanged looks.
Top to bottom he rebranded himself. “Rebranded” reminds me of cattle, of sprawling Western ranches and John Wayne cattle drives. And that’s the image Lloyd wanted—to look like a powerful self-made cattleman. Though he grew up in Chicago, not Texas, and didn’t know one end of a steer from the other—sold tires, not cows—he took to wearing an expensive Stetson hat and put on a big-shot swagger with which to stride, as he loved to say, through the “concrete canyons.” You could spot him coming a block away. He, Lloyd, was handsome as a movie star, like Kirk Douglas right down to the wavy hair and cleft chin. Lloyd saw himself as, in a way, the star of his own movie—both star and audience. The lights and lenses were always on him: He was Rider of the Manhattan Badlands.
Lloyd spoke to my father with contempt, ordered him around him like a slave. I saw it when I visited the business. “What’re you pushing Goodyears for? I heard you out on the floor. Shmuck! Use the Goodyear as a standard, tell them ‘I can sell you Goodyear, but Westminster is even better than Goodyear, but nobody knows,’ like you’re sharing a secret, you got me? Because look at our profit margins! What kind of a salesman doesn’t know that? Close the goddamn door on your way out.”
From as long as I can remember, I was warned by my mother: “Don’t let your crazy uncle get his hooks into you, Jackie, dear. He’s ruined your father’s life. Don’t let him ruin yours.”
Yet when I was to visit my uncle in his office or the hotel or at a restaurant, they primped me like a show pony—combed my hair, tied my tie in a Windsor knot. My father cleaned my cheeks one more time with spit on his handkerchief. Say it was at the Warwick. I caught myself in the elevator mirror—stepped outside my body to see myself with my father’s eyes. But in turn, my father was seeing me not with his own eyes but with the imagined eyes of my un-cle. So we both—my father and I—disap-peared; the only eyes between us be-longed to an uncle/brother whom we made up. An unreal judge. When we saw “the big guy,” my father was all grins. “Tell your uncle what grades you got.”
When he got home Saturday afternoon, after doing Lloyd’s bidding, my mother had her red nails sharpened. “It’s not enough he’s got you working for him all week, you’ve got to yes him on Saturday afternoons? What kind of marriage do I have?” Then: “Say—do you two talk about me? Does that man badmouth me?”
“He knows what you’re made of. He’s got your number.”
Oh! She couldn’t stand that! “You, mister, you don’t deserve a woman like me. You should have stayed in Chicago with your cheap floozies. That’s all you’re used to—cheap floozies.”
No, he wasn’t used to floozies, not at all. A shy man, comfortable among men in a gym, on the ball field, before he came to New York he dated one young woman—a clerk, a salesgirl, a wait-ress, I’m not sure which. My mother manufactured his “floozies” out of whole cloth—and made him pay.
He paid and paid. Marriage between partners so unequal—she complicated, smart, sophisti-cated, assertive, but easily injured; he simple, not so smart, angry. Such a mistake! She had been a success—coat buyer for Bonwit’s—and lived in an apartment on Central Park South. But she was in her mid-thirties and still unmarried. Her cousin Bernadine, who was married to Lloyd, introduced my mother Leah to her husband and her husband’s brother. My mother told me that the brothers “wooed her together.” They all four went to places like Mama Leone’s. Prohibition was still on, but not at Leone’s. On one wall was a sketch of my uncle and Bernadine in the midst of sketches of celebrated New Yorkers.
The father I grew up with was forty or fifty pounds overweight. He’d been a handsome young man—I’m looking at his photograph as officer in the First World War. By his early forties he was certainly not handsome like his knockout younger brother Lloyd. But my mother blurred the “two handsome brothers” together. It was almost a case of bait and switch—she said as much. Lloyd charmed her; Chuck proposed. It seemed to her a package deal, two wealthy brothers, the Stork Club, Mama Leone’s, a gorgeous life in New York. Surely Chuck would be wealthy like his brother. It was one family, wasn’t it? My mother saw herself becoming an elegant New York matron. She would, she imagined, be living on Park Avenue just like Bernadine—but oh, she was so much smarter than Bernadine. And all the clever, successful people in the city would surround her and give her glory.
But it wasn’t only vanity. My mother saw that my father was a decent person, kind of an innocent. She didn’t realize Lloyd would take advantage of this innocence. It has biblical overtones: Lloyd, seven years younger, stole the birthright from Chuck, the oldest son. Lloyd ran the family—looked out for his sister, supported their father, gave his brother a job that would put food on the table but keep his brother Chuck in a subordinate position, afraid of his contemptuous brother.
What was it like for my father to get chewed out by his younger brother, to know that no matter how many tires he sold, that brother would think of him as a failure, treat him as an embarrassment? To savor himself as a success Lloyd needed his brother to be a failure. Then what was it like to come home to a wife who was ashamed of him, angry at him, and a son who thought he was smarter than his father when he was six or seven. I learned from my mother to be contemptuous of “your poor father,” learned from my father to disregard my mother as a crazy woman. I stayed in my room behind a locked door.
y father grew up in a family of poor Jews in Chicago. My grandfather, Israel Cohen, worked long hours as a cigar roller in a crowded loft that smelled bittersweet of tobacco dust. To make ends meet, my grandmother Lena took in boarders. She had six children; two died. My father never went past seventh grade. Still, in the Great War he was made an officer—partly, he used to tell us, because of his powerful voice. He could train men through a bullhorn at a time before bullhorns were amplified.
My uncle storied himself into a Horatio Alger narrative. He finished eighth grade and went to work, like his brother, to help support the family; but evenings my uncle took a course in court stenography—was maybe as young as fifteen when he worked as a court stenographer. Because he knew shorthand and could type, when the United States got into the war in 1917, my uncle was made an officer straight out of civilian life and worked for a general in Washington. I don’t know anything about the general, but he must have been the source of my uncle’s polish. When I knew him, my uncle looked and acted not like a poor Jew from Chicago but like a self-satisfied American sport, all Stetson and stride.
After the war he sold tires, then quit the firm in 1925 or 1926—though they offered, he claimed, to double his salary—quit to start his own business. Out of nothing, with almost no capital. He slept sitting up on trains to save the cost of a hotel room and first thing in the morning he was in a factory in Akron or Dayton buying seconds at a good price, or at a gas station in Rhode Island selling them. He used to love to say he worked twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week; when he wasn’t on the road, he slept on a mattress next to his desk.
Printed in letterpress on his business cards: World’s Largest Distributor of Tires—when, as my mother said, “the liar didn’t have two dimes to rub together.” The cards named him not Louis Cohen but “Lloyd Clayton.” And it wasn’t enough for him that he could wipe out personal traces of having been born a Jew. He wanted to refashion family history. Youngest sibling in the family, he renamed his brothers, his sister, his own parents: Clayton, Clayton, Clayton. He paid them for the bother, but they would have taken the name without payment, out of pride in his success, out of relief at no longer being recognizably Jewish. They all became Clayton. In a sense, he became father to his family—ultimate Oedipal victor.
No inventory, no capital, a pretend Christian—yet he built a business and soon was making a small fortune. About 1928 he wrote my father, who was selling shoes in Chicago. “I need someone I can trust, Chuck.”
He could trust my father. My father stayed loyal to his brother all the rest of his life.
Sometimes my mother sympathized with her unsuccessful husband: “The poor fool, you see how he lets his brother walk all over him. He’s too good a man, your father.” And sometimes she had little sympathy: “You see what my life is like? We shouldn’t have to live like this. If your father had a brain in his head he wouldn’t let his brother wipe the floor with him.”
Lloyd was the devil. “He ruined your father’s life. Don’t let him ruin your life.” Then she said, “Your father may not be so smart, but he’s more of a man anytime than that no-good bum of a brother. Your father is as good as gold, even if we fight sometimes. You know,” she whispered, whispered though no one else was around. “You know, darling, your aunt Bernadine told me in no uncertain terms: Your uncle Lloyd is not a real man. Fershtaste? You’ll understand someday.”
Mornings in the winter often the heat didn’t come up. The janitor was sleeping off his drunk, and the radiators stayed cold. I woke to my father banging a radiator with a hammer. The ring of the hammer was surely heard throughout the apartment building. “That stupid sonofabitch drunk!” And my father would get on the phone, and if the janitor answered, he’d give the guy an earful. Sitting in the kitchen, in winter coat over business suit, in white shirt with a faded, ragged but starched collar, my father would eat breakfast. He’d keep touching a radiator to make sure the heat was coming up. Then he’d go down to his car. I’d stay in bed till he was out the door.
t was partly to pay my mother back for her hostility that Lloyd sent my father to their father in California. He stayed and stayed, once three months, once six months, once nine months—looking after his father and staying free of his demanding wife.
Here is a letter I found among their papers after she died:
Your Thursday letter came today. With the snapshots. Your face looks good, and you don’t look too heavy. But your pants need pressing, and don’t they wear ties in California?
Please, Chuck, don’t say to me, “Please be sweet.” I have been sweet too long. It is now into the sixth month since you went away. That’s nice, isn’t it? I don’t say you went there out of choice, but after all, you are not a dummy, and if you are a human being, you could have said the second month you were there, “I am going home to my wife and child.” Well, you are as you are, and I will never change you, Chuck.
Enclosed you will find a short letter from Jackie. Why he loves you is more than I can say. He is deserving of a devoted father not a dummy who is shoved around by his brother.
I will have to pay Hoover $14.65 for repair Thursday. Remember, Chuck, I have been a good wife, and a girl a man doesn’t have to be ashamed of. And I have given you all my love, Chuck dear. But your staying away has disgusted me beyond repair.
I’ve misplaced her original, a handwritten letter in a pile of letters bound with a rubber band. I once used the letter in a short story, changing nothing but the names. This time, even the names are real. For some reason it’s more painful to see the letter in a fragment of memoir than in a story.
At the cemetery, Marty, the man who kept Lloyd’s business practices sound, who helped Lloyd make a success, walked with me on the way to the grave site, arm over my shoulder. “I want you to know this, Jackie. Jack, I mean. You’re Jack, now. Listen. Everybody loved your dad. Everybody. The tire changers, the salesmen, the guys who owned the taxi fleets. Everybody.”
As we got ready to leave the grave, Lloyd pulled me to him and sighed a big sigh. “Your pop—I love the guy and I hate to say this about my own brother—he was never much of a business-man.” Lloyd tapped his temple. “He didn’t have it upstairs, where it counts. Not like you. Why d’you think I sent him out to California? I didn’t really need him here.”
“Maybe he wasn’t a businessman,” I said, “but he was a good salesman.” I added, “I know people liked him.”
Lloyd said, “Salesman!”—as if there were things he couldn’t say by a grave. “Sure, sure, people liked him.” He looked at me as if he were about to say something profound and he wanted me to take it in: “So what? You get me? So what if people liked him? Will that get you cab fare? That gonna pay for dinner at the Four Seasons?” His hand was on my shoulder; I stiffened against him, but I could feel the seductiveness. He’d wanted me to work for him, maybe take over the business. I’d stayed out of the tire business, wasn’t taking orders from him. But my charmer big-shot uncle had his hooks into me.
trangely, after my father died—a heart attack that dropped him like a tree cut down—Lloyd became my mother’s benefactor. He took care of her, moved her into a residential hotel, paid her moving expenses and her rent. He lent her his chauffeur to take her places. “Well,” she said to me, “I must say, he’s been quite decent.”
“Why? Don’t you think I deserve it?”
After my father died, even more after my mother died, Lloyd took up the role of a father to me. He called every week, spent an hour on the phone telling me about his history of triumphs and celebrating mine. He and his second wife took me out to dinner at Trader Vic’s.
Once, when I was in New York and met him on a Saturday at Tires Incorporated, he took me into the huge garage, popped the trunk of his Caddy, took out a bat and softball, and called the tire changers together. “Hey, Jimmy,” he yelled. “This one’s for you.” And he tossed up the ball and hit a little pop fly to one of the men. I remembered: This was something my father used to do. Lloyd had never been the athlete—that was my father. Lloyd had never made contact with the men. It was my father who did that. I didn’t say anything.
“You see me hit that ball?”
“Right to Jimmy,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. Then he whispered, “Makes ’em feel good, play ball with the boss.”
No, no, I didn’t say. They were humoring you. I’m humoring you.
My father used to say, “He can’t relate to nobody like a real human being.”
I sometimes imagine the life my father would have had if he’d stayed in Chicago selling shoes and marrying a simpler woman and never gone to New York to work for his brother. How different would his life have turned out? He’d still have been an angry bear, needing to defend himself, but maybe at more times, a gentle, loving bear. He still wouldn’t have been thoughtful or clever—but maybe he wouldn’t have had to be. Maybe he could have been more his sweet self, a good buddy, grumpy at times, but who isn’t?
Of course I wouldn’t be here to write this. But maybe someone would be. I see an imaginary half-brother who loved and admired our mutual dad. This imaginary half-brother, he doesn’t write about his family; he doesn’t have to. But he offers a eulogy over the grave: My dad was a loving guy, as long as you didn’t rile him up. He worked hard for us at the shoe store, and we were grateful. We respected that. When he yelled, he regretted it and we forgave him. Once a month he sat at his desk in his undershirt, paying his bills and balancing his checkbook. At those times we knew not to bother him. He was high priest of the household finances.
Once every few years, my imaginary half-brother says, we saw my Uncle Lloyd. He wanted to move us to New York, offered Dad a higher salary than he got at the shoe store. But we felt Chicago was as big a city as we could handle. Dad imagined what it would be like for him to work for Lloyd. And he said, “No thanks.”