Sausage and Beer
A graduate of Harvard, where he studied creative writing under John Ciardi, STEPHEN MINOT did his graduate work at Johns Hopkins. He has taught English at liowdoin and is now on the faculty of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
I KEPT quiet for most of the trip. It was too cold for talk. The car, a 1929 Dodge, was still fairly new, but it had no heater, and I knew from experience that no matter how carefully I tucked the black bearskin robe about me, the cold would seep through the door cracks and, starting with a dull ache in my ankles, would work up my legs. There was nothing to do but sit still and wonder what Uncle Theodore would be like.
“Is it very far?” I asked at last. My words puffed vapor.
“We’re about halfway now,” he said.
That was all. Not enough, of course, but I hadn’t expected much more. My father kept to his own world, and he didn’t invite children to share it. Nor did he impose himself on us. My twin sister and I were allowed to live our own lives, and our parents led theirs, and there was a mutual respect for the border. In fact, when we were younger Tina and I had assumed that we would eventually marry each other, and while those plans were soon revised, the family continued to exist as two distinct couples.
But this particular January day was different, because Tina hadn’t been invited — nor had Mother. I was twelve that winter, and I believe it was the first time I had ever gone anywhere alone with my father.
The whole business of visiting Uncle Theodore had come up in the most unconvincingly offhand manner.
“Thought I’d visit your Uncle Theodore,” he had said that day after Sunday dinner. “Wondered if you’d like to meet him.”
He spoke with his eyes on a crack in the ceiling as if the idea had just popped into his head, but that didn’t fool me. It was quite obvious that he had waited until both Tina and my mother were in the kitchen washing the dishes, that he had rehearsed it, and that I wasn’t really being given a choice.
“Is Tina going?” I asked.
“No, she isn’t feeling well.”
1 knew what that meant. But I also knew that my father was just using it as an excuse. So I got my coat.
The name Uncle Theodore had a familiar ring, but it was just a name. And I had learned early that you just do not ask about relatives who don’t come up in adult conversation naturally. At least, you didn’t in my family. You can never tell — Like my Uncle Harry. He was another one of my father’s brothers. My parents never said anything about Uncle Harry, but some of my best friends at school told me he’d taken a big nail, a spike really, and driven it into his heart with a ball peen hammer. I didn’t believe it, so they took me to the library and we found the article on the front page of the Herald for the previous Saturday, so it must have been true.
I thought a lot about that. It seemed to me that a grown-up ought to be able to shove it between his ribs. And even if he couldn’t, what was the point of the ball peen hammer? I used to put myself to sleep feeling the soft spaces between my ribs and wondering just which one was directly over my heart.
But no one at school told me about Uncle Theodore, because they didn’t know he existed. Even I hadn’t any real proof until that day. I knew that my father had a brother named Theodore, in the same way I knew the earth was round without anyone ever taking me to the library to prove it. But then, there were many brothers I had never met — like Freddie, who had joined a Theosophist colony somewhere in California and wore robes like a priest, and Uncle Herb, who was once in jail for leading a strike in New York.
We were well out in the New England countryside now, passing dark, snow-patched farm fields and scrubby woodlands where saplings choked and stunted each other. I tried to visualize this Uncle Theodore as a farmer: blue overalls, straw hat, chewing a long stem of alfalfa, and misquoting the Bible. But it was a highly unsatisfactory conjecture. Next I tried to conjure up a mystic living in — didn’t St. Francis live in a cave? But it wasn’t the sort of question I could ask my father. All I had to go on was what he had told me, which was nothing. And I knew without thinking that he didn’t want me to ask him directly.
After a while I indulged in my old trick of fixing my eyes on the big radiator thermometer mounted like a figurehead on the front end of the hood. If you do that long enough the blur of the road just beyond will lull you nicely and pass the time. It had begun to take effect when I felt the car slow down and turn abruptly. Two great gates flashed by, and we were inside a kind of walled city.
Prison, I thought. That’s it. That’s why they kept him quiet. A murderer, maybe. “My Uncle Theodore,” I rehearsed silently, “he’s the cop killer.”
THE place went on forever, row after row of identical buildings, four stories, brick, slate roofs, narrow windows with wire mesh. There wasn’t a bright color anywhere. The brick had aged to gray, and so had the snow patches along the road. We passed a group of three old men lethargically shoveling ice and crusted snow into a two-wheeled horse cart; men and horse were the same hue. It was the sort of setting you have in dreams which are not nightmares but still manage to leave a clinging aftertaste. At least, I have dreams like that.
“This is a kind of hospital,” my father said flatly as we drove between the staring brick fronts. There was a slow whine to second gear which sang harmony to something in me. I had based my courage on the romance of a prison, but even this slim hold on assurance was lost with the word “hospital.”
“It’s big,” I said.
“It’s enormous,” he said, and then turned his whole attention to studying the numbers over each door. There was something in his tone that suggested that he didn’t like the place either, and that did a lot to sustain me.
Uncle Theodore’s building was 13-M, but aside from the number, it resembled the others. The door had been painted a dark green for many years, and the layers of paint over chipped and blistered paint gave it a mottled look. We had to wait quite a while before someone responded to the push bell.
A man let us in, not a nurse. And the man was clearly no doctor either. He wore a gray shirt which was clean but unpressed, and dark-green work pants with a huge ring of keys hanging from his belt. But for the keys he might have been a W.P.A. worker.
“Hello there, Mr. Bates,” he said in a round Irish voice to match his round face. “You brought the boy?”
“I brought the boy.” My father’s voice was reedy by comparison. “How’s Ted?”
“Same as when you called. A little gloomy, maybe, but calm. Those boils have just about gone.”
“Good,” my father said.
“Funny about those boils. I don’t remember a year but what he’s had trouble. Funny.”
My father agreed it was funny, and then we went into the visiting room to await Uncle Theodore.
The room was large, and it seemed even larger for the lack of furniture. There were benches around all four walls, and in the middle there was a long table flanked with two more benches. The rest was space. And through that space old men shuffled, younger men wheeled carts of linen, a woman visitor walked slowly up and down with her restless husband — or brother, or uncle. Or was she the patient? I couldn’t decide which might be the face of madness, his troubled and shifting eyes or her deadened look. Beyond, a bleak couple counseled an ancient patient. I strained to hear, wanting to know the language of the place, but I could only make out mumbles.
The smell was oddly familiar, I cast about; this was no home smell. And then I remembered trips with my mother to a place called the Refuge, where the lucky brought old clothes, old furniture, old magazines, and old kitchenware to be bought by the unlucky. My training in Christian charity was to bring my chipped and dented toys and dump them into a great bin, where they were pored over by dead-faced mothers and children.
“Smells like the Refuge,” I said very softly, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. My father nodded with an almost smile.
We went over to the corner where the benches met, though there was space to sit almost anywhere. And there we waited.
A couple of times I glanced cautiously at my father’s face, hoping for some sort of guide. He could have been waiting for a train or listening to a sermon, and I felt a surge of respect. He had a long face with a nose so straight it looked as if it had been leveled with a rule. I guess he would have been handsome if he hadn’t seemed so sad or tired much of the time. He worked for a paint wholesaler which had big, dusty offices in a commercial section of Dorchester. When I was younger I used to think the dirt of that place had rubbed off on him permanently. But later I could see that it wasn’t just the job, it was home too. The place had been built in the eighties, the pride of our grandfather. But it was no pride to us. It was a gross Victorian imitation in brick of the square sea captain’s house, complete with two iron deer on the lawn. At some point the brick had been painted a mournful gray. It was lucky, our parents kept telling each other, that grandfather never lived to see what happened to the place. The land was sold off bit by bit, and the city of Dorchester, once a kind of rural cousin to Boston, spread slowly the way tide comes in over mud flats, until it surrounded us with little brick stores — hardware, drug, delicatessen, plumbing — on one side and double-deckers on the other three. Somehow my father had come to feel responsible for all this; it was his nature to take on more responsibility than most people do.
For Tina and me the place had its compensations. We called it the Ark, and we knew every level of that enormous place, from the kitchen with its cook’s pantry without a cook and a maid’s pantry without a maid up through the four floors to the glass-sided cupola which we called the Bridge and reserved as our private area, just as our parents reserved their bedroom.
We used to arrange the future from up there; I the father and she the mother, planning on two children — twins, of course. And we also planned to replace the iron deer with live ones, paint the Ark a shimmering green, and burn down Gemini’s Delicatessen across the street — the one with sausages hanging in the window—because Mother had told us that it was just a front for the numbers racket which kept customers streaming through the doors. She detested sausage and resented having the numbers game played “at our very door,” so, naturally, in the name of order it had to go.
But waiting for Uncle Theodore in that dream room was worlds away from all that youthful planning. I could see, or thought I saw, in my father’s face a kind of resignation which I used to interpret as fatigue but now felt was his true strength.
1 began to study the patients with the hope of preparing myself for Uncle Theodore. The old man beside us was stretched out on the bench full length, feet toward us, one arm over his eyes, as if he were lying on the beach, the other resting over his crotch. He had a kind of squeak to his snore. There was nothing in him I could not accept as my Uncle Theodore. Another patient was persistently scratching his back on the darkvarnished door frame. If this were Uncle Theodore, I wondered, would 210I be expected to scratch his back for him? It wasn’t a very rational speculation, but there was nothing about the place that encouraged clear reasoning.
Then my father stood up, and when I did, too, I could see that Uncle Theodore was being led in by a Negro who wore the same kind of key ring at his waist that the Irishman had. The Negro nodded to my father, pointing him out to Uncle Theodore, and then set him free with a little nudge as if he were about to pin the tail on the donkey.
Surprisingly, Uncle Theodore was heavy. I don’t mean fat, because he wasn’t solid. He was a great, sagging man. His jowls hung loose, his shoulders were massive but rounded like a dome, his hands were attached like brass weights on the ends of swinging pendulums. He wore a clean white shirt open at the neck and blue serge suit pants hung on suspenders which had been patched with a length of twine. It looked as if his pants had once been five sizes too large and that somehow, with the infinite patience of the infirm, he had managed to stretch the lower half of his stomach to fill them.
I would have assumed that he was far older than my father from his stance and his shuffling walk (he wore scuffs, which he slid across the floor without once lifting them), but his face was a baby pink, which made him look adolescent.
“Hello, Ted,” my father said. “How have you been?”
Uncle Theodore just said “Hello,” without a touch of enthusiasm, or even gratitude for our coming to see him. We stood there, the three of us, for an awkward moment.
Then: “I brought the boy.”
“My boy, Will.”
Uncle Theodore looked down at me with redrimmed, blue eyes. Then he looked at my father, puzzled. “But you’re Will.”
“Right, but we’ve named our boy William too. Tried to call him Billy, but he insists on Will. Very confusing.”
Uncle Theodore smiled for the first time. The smile made everything much easier; I relaxed. He was going to be like any other relative on a Sunday afternoon visit.
“Well, now,” he said in an almost jovial manner, “there’s one on me. I’d forgotten I even had a boy.”
My face tingled the way it does when you open the furnace door. Somehow he had joined himself with my father as a married couple, and done it with a smile. No instruction could have prepared me for this quiet sound of madness.
But my father had, it seemed, learned how to handle it. He simply asked Uncle Theodore if he had enjoyed the magazines he had brought last time. We subscribed to the old version of Life, and my mother used to buy Judge on the newsstand fairly regularly. It was the right subject to bring up, because Uncle Theodore promptly forgot about who had produced what child and told us about how all his copies of Life had been stolen. He even pointed out the thief.
“The little one with the hook nose there,” he said with irritation but no rage. “Stuffs them in his pants to make him look bigger. He’s a problem, he is.”
“I’ll send you more,” my father said. “Perhaps the attendant will keep them for you.”
“Hennesy? He’s a good one. Plays checkers like a pro.”
“I’ll bet he has a hard time beating you.”
“Hasn’t yet. Not once.”
“I’m not surprised. You were always the winner.” And then to me: “We used to play up in the cupola for hours at a stretch.”
This jolted me. It hadn’t occurred to me that the two of them had spent a childhood together.
I even let some of their conversation slip by thinking of how they had grown up in the Ark, had discovered the Bridge before I was born, had perhaps planned the future while sitting up there, looking down on the world, on Gemini’s Delicatessen and all the other little stores, had gone to school together, and then at some point — But what point? And how? It was as incomprehensible to me looking back as it must have been for them looking forward.
“So they started banging on their plates,” Uncle Theodore was saying, “and shouting for more heat. Those metal plates sure make a racket, I can tell you.”
“That’s no way to get heat,” Father said, sounding paternal.
“Guess not. They put Schwartz and Cooper in the pit. That’s what Hennesy said. And there’s a bunch of them that’s gone to different levels. They send them down when they act like that, you know. The doctors, they take a vote and send the troublemakers down.” And then his voice lowered. Instinctively we both bent toward him for some confidence. “And I’ve found out — God’s truth — that one of these nights they’re going to shut down the heat all the way. Freeze us!”
There was a touch of panic in this which coursed through me. I could feel just how it would be, this great room black as midnight, the whine of wind outside, and then all those hissing radiators turning silent, and the aching cold seeping through the door cracks —
“Nonsense,” my father said quietly, and I knew at once that it was nonsense. “They wouldn’t do that. Hennesy’s a friend of mine. I’ll speak to him before I go.”
“You do that,” Uncle Theodore said with genuine gratitude, putting his hand on my father’s knee. “You do that for us. I don’t believe there would be a soul of us” — he swept his hand about expansively — “not a soul of us alive if it weren’t for your influence.”
MY FATHER nodded and then turned the conversation to milder topics. He talked about how the sills were rotting under the house, how a neighborhood gang had broken two windows one night, how there was talk of replacing the trolley with a bus line, how Imperial Paint, where my father worked, had laid off fifty percent of its employees, how business was so bad it couldn’t get worse. But Uncle Theodore didn’t seem very concerned. He was much more bothered about how a man named Altman was losing his eyesight because of the steam heat and how stern and unfair Hennesy was. At one point he moved back in time to describe a fishing trip by canoe through the Rangeley Lakes. It was like opening a great window, flooding the place with light and color and the smells of summer.
“Nothing finer,” he said, his eyes half shut, “than frying those trout at the end of the day with the water so still you’d think you could walk on it.”
He was interrupted by the sleeper on the bench beside us, who woke, stood, and stared down at us. Uncle Theodore told him to “Go blow,” and when he had gone so were the Rangeley Lakes.
“Rangeley?” he asked, when my father tried to open that window again by suggestion. “He must be one of our cousins. Can’t keep ‘em straight.” And we were back to Mr. Altman’s deafness and how seriously it hindered him and how the doctors paid no attention.
It was with relief that I smelled sauerkraut. That plus attendants gliding through with carts of food in dented steel containers seemed to suggest supper, and supper promised that the end was near.
“About suppertime,” my father said after a particularly long silence.
Uncle Theodore took in a long, deep breath. He held it for a moment. Then he let it go with the slowest, saddest sigh I have ever heard.
“About suppertime,” he said at the end of it.
There were mumbled farewells and nods of agreement. We were thanked for copies of Judge which we hadn’t brought; he was told he was looking fine, just fine.
We were only inches from escape when Uncle Theodore suddenly discovered me again.
“Tell me, son,” he said, bending down with a smile which on anyone else would have been friendly, “what d’you think of your Uncle Ted?”
I was overwhelmed. I stood there looking up at him, waiting for my father to save me. But he said nothing.
“It’s been very nice meeting you,” I said to the frozen pink smile, dredging the phrase up from my sparse catechism of social responses, assuming that what would do for maiden aunts would do for Uncle Theodore.
But it did not. He laughed. It was a loud and bitter laugh, derisive, and perfectly sane. He had seen my statement for the lie it was, had caught sight of himself, of all of us.
“Well,” he said when the laugh withered, “say hi to Dad for me. Tell him to drop by.”
Father said he would, and we left, grateful that the moment of sanity had been so brief.
It was dark when we got back into the car, and it was just beginning to snow. I nestled into the seat, soothed by the familiar whine of second gear.
We had been on the road about a half hour when my father said quite abruptly, “I could do with a drink.” It was so spontaneous, so perfectly confidential that I wanted to reply, to keep some sort of exchange going. But I couldn’t suggest a place to go — I couldn’t even throw back an easy “So could I.”
“It’s OK with me,” I said, without any of the casual air I tried hard to achieve.
There was a long pause. He flipped the manual windshield wiper. Then he said, “I don’t suppose you like sausage.”
“I love sausage,” I said, though I had never had any at home.
“Well,” he said slowly, “there’s a place I go — but it might be better to tell your mother we went to a Dutchland Farms for supper.”
“Sure,” I said, and reached up to flip the windshield wiper for him.
When we got to the city we traveled on roads I had never been on. He finally parked on a dark street and began what turned out to be a threeblock hike. It ended at an unlit door, and after some mumbled consultations through an apartment phone we were ushered into a warm, bubbling, sparkling, humming, soothing, exciting bit of cheerful chaos. There was a bar to our right, marble tables ahead, booths beyond, just as I had pictured from the cartoons in Life magazine. My father nodded at a waiter and said hi to a group at a table, then headed toward the booths with a sure step.
We hadn’t got halfway before a fat man in a double-breasted suit came steaming up to us, furious.
“Whatcha doing,” he said even before he reached us, “corruptin’ the youth?”
I held my breath. But when the big man reached my father they broke out in easy laughter.
“So this is the boy?” he said. “Will, Junior — right?” We nodded. “Well, there’s a good part of you in the boy, I can see that — it’s in the eyes. Now, there’s a girl too, isn’t there? Younger?”
“She’s my twin,” I said. “Not identical.”
The men laughed. Then the fat one said, “Jesus, twins sure run in your family, don’t they!”
This surprised me. I knew of no other twins except some cousins from Maine. I looked up at my father, puzzled.
“Me and Ted,” he said to me. “We’re twins. Nonidentical.”
We were ushered to a booth, and the fat man hovered over us, waiting for the order.
“Got sausage tonight?” my father asked.
“Sure. American or some nice hot Italian?”
“Well—” My father turned to me. “I guess you rate beer,” he said. And then, to the fat man, “Two beers.”
The man relayed the order to a passing waiter. Then he asked my father, “Been out to see Ted?”
“You guessed it.”
“I figured.” He paused, his smile gone. “You too?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “It was my first time.”
“Oh,” he said, with a series of silent nods which assured me that somehow he knew exactly what my afternoon had been like. “Ted was quite a boy. A great tackle. A pleasure to watch him. But no dope either. Used to win meals here playing chess. Never saw him lose. Why, he sat right over there.”
He pointed to the corner booth, which had a round table. All three of us looked; a waiter with a tray full of dirty glasses stopped, turned, and also looked at the empty booth as if an apparition had just been sighted.
“And you know why he’s locked up?”
“No,” I whispered, appalled at the question.
“It’s just the number he drew. Simple as that. Your Dad, me, you — any of us could draw the wrong number tomorrow. There’s something to think about.”
I nodded. All three of us nodded. Then the waiter brought a tray with the order, and the fat man left us with a quick, benedictory smile. We ate and drank quietly, lost in a kind of communion.