Against a Backdrop

From Ogden, Utah, Mr. While went to California, graduated from Stanford, worked as a cabbie, service station, attendant, and newspaper reporter, He is now a writer on the staff of the NEW YORKER.


THE fighter in black trunks looks barely sixteen, but he is probably older. The program says he has had ten bouts and won seven, two by knockouts. His opponent is a blond kid I have seen fight here before; he is from the Bronx, and I know he is cocky. When he came down the aisle on his way to the ring he passed my seat, and I could hear Al Schenk, the matchmaker, telling him to look alive — the customers came to see a fight. I know what Schenk means. The blond kid is afraid to get his face hurt, and he is a backward-dancer. He uses flash to protect his jaw. My money is on the other kid, the one who looks sixteen. He has a Spanish name and was born in Cuba, and he fights not for the crowd but for himself, or for something that was once himself; he accepts the test of it — the purse and the acclaim — but that is not why he fights.

I have been coming to the Garden for the last few nights. I have been coming here because I have time on my hands. My reasons are simple and not unusual; you hear about this kind of thing as often as you hear about civil rights or Vietnam or the quality of American television. Two weeks ago, after eight years of marriage, my wife and I separated. Her name is Hilda (playfully I used to call her Hiddy), and she is living with our daughter in a house we bought at Oyster Bay three years ago. I moved out on a Sunday evening — it took one long, painful weekend to realize that we both had reached a point of no return — and I have been staying in a room at the Chatham since. Hilda is a lovely woman; she is still young enough to be desired and old enough to know what she wants. I hope that she is taking good care of my daughter, for I miss my daughter; and to be honest, I miss Hilda too — my strange Hiddy, as I think of her now, driving through fields and fields of roses. i suppose that as time goes by, I will miss her less.

Imagine now Boise, Idaho, in 1924. We are watching — like those rare tourists who can stand for a moment in a theater in Athens and glimpse a lost scene — the ballroom of the Paradise Gardens, on a hill to the northeast of town. These are boom times. The fruit exchange has announced record harvests, and a new bank is going up near the capitol. Jobs are plentiful, and even the Indians in their wide hats seem content. (Occasionally someone commits a crime, or a house burns down, but such things can happen anywhere.) In the ballroom, couples are dancing to “China Boy,”played by Tiny Watson’s orchestra, which is trying to sound as much as possible like Paul Whiteman’s. It is an autumn night, and outside the Paradise Gardens there is a real garden of sorts, with gravel walks and a few cedars and a row of chrysanthemums along the edge of a brick veranda. Over the veranda is a lattice roof, and around its edges hang small colored lights, red and blue and yellow. A couple comes out and stands for a moment looking at the trees and the sky. The man is tall, with wavy blond hair. His girl is small, with fair skin, bobbed brown hair, and dark, sensitive eyes. Fumbling with the coins in his pocket, the young man says, “I don’t know why you feel that way; I just don’t get it.”

She touches his sleeve. “Because I care what happens to you.”

“You’ve got the wrong idea, then. Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“It could.”

“But it won’t, I know all about a plane, Marge. I can take it —”

“Look what happened to Jack Evelyn.”

“Well . . . that was too bad.”

“Don’t you see? I can’t — doesn’t it matter to you if I’d be worrying —”

“Of course it matters to me.” He frowns.

At the other end of the veranda another man and a woman are arguing. They have come out of the building silently and arE standing in the shadows, and now their voices are growing louder. The man, who is heavy and has a flat nose, shouts at the woman. “ Then you know where you can take your goddamn whatchacallit.”

“Let go, Ralph.”

“Who do you think you are, you can go around letting other people give you things?”

“It’s only a vanity case.”

“You never had a brain in your life.”

There is a sound of someone being slapped, and then the man calls the woman a whore.

The blond young man, who will one day be my father, sends his girl back inside and walks down to the other end of the veranda. “Let go of her,” he says.

“Who the hell are you?”

“It doesn’t matter. Let her go.”

The couple, surprised, stand close together, and the man holds the woman’s arm tightly; but now she seems to cling closer to him for protection. There is a strangeness in her behavior; it is as if she doesn’t know whether to stay or go, and she turns to the very one who is hurting her.

“Get lost,” says the large man.

“Then let the lady go.”

The man turns to the woman, releasing his hold on her. “All right, Beth.” She turns and runs a few steps down the veranda, then stands under the colored lights, watching.

“Who do you think you are, busting into other people’s conversations?”

“I don’t like to hear a lady called names.”

“Oh, you don’t.”


“What business is it of yours?”

My father stands there for a moment not knowing what to answer, perhaps wishing he had not got into this; but he has responded to something that asked no questions. “I’m Ed Norman,” he says, feeling a sudden need for identification, but at this point the other man hits him on the chin, and my father reels backward toward one of the vine-covered lattice strips that hold up the roof of the veranda. In a moment he has bounced back, his own fists up. The woman, meanwhile, is standing at the other end of the veranda transfixed, her silver-mesh evening bag clutched in one hand. She does not call for help. She watches eagerly. My father has sparred with his brothers ever since he was a boy, and he is quick, but the other man is much heavier. My father lands a right to the man’s jaw, knocking his head back, but the man returns two blows that force him toward the edge of the bricks. The man is ready to go in again as my father stands perfectly still for a few seconds, his back against the latticework. As the man approaches, my father leans left, and the blow goes wild. The man swings around to find my father shifting to the right, bobbing and feinting, and in a moment my father catches him off-guard with a wide-swinging left hook. It is over. The man slumps to his knees, dazed. The woman comes running from the other end of the veranda. “Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph!” she says, trembling. “You killed him.”

“No, I didn’t,” says my father.

“Did you — did you —” She stands between the two men under the colored lights, a redhead with a long neck, thin freckled shoulders, and lots of rouge on her cheeks. “Oh, Ralph,” she says. Then she begins to cry.

My father goes toward the door to find that his girl has come outside again and has been watching.

“Ed! Are you all right?”


“Are you?”


“Oh, Ed, what made you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Gome inside. Let me look at you.”

They go back into the ballroom, and she brushes off his coat and tells him to go in and wash. When he comes back to her, Tiny Watson’s band is playing “When Buddha Smiles.” They dance to that, and when the band plays “Till We Meet Again,” they dance the last waltz and go home.

They married in 1925, and my father went ahead with his flying, in spite of my mother’s fears. He became a pilot for Dowling Airlines, flying biplanes from Boise to Salt Lake City and eventually out to San Francisco. Later he shifted to Empire Lines and flew some of the new Ford trimotors. He was just setting up his own company to link New Orleans and Texas with the Northwest when the stock-market crash wiped him and his partners out. After a couple of years of taking any job he could get, he went on the road as a traveling salesman. I believe my mother was glad, for she had always been frightened at having him in a plane, and though having him out on the road in an automobile was also dangerous, it seemed less so, and it was something closer to her own experience.

THE man named Ralph — the man my father nearly knocked out — turned out to have been a professional boxer before the First World War. I think of this as I stand in a bathtub in a hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1955. Starting just below my elbow, a plaster cast covers my right forearm and most of my right hand. Running out from the lower end of the cast are strips of metal, like prongs, one for each finger, that make the whole device look like a great claw. Another man is standing in the bathtub with me. His name is Kraus, and he is about nineteen. A cast covers his body from his neck to his waist, imprisoning his right arm and leaving only his left arm free. We are both patients in the orthopedics ward of the United States Army hospital here, and since we have trouble bathing because of our casts, we have decided to help each other wash. Kraus is a boxer. He had been pointing for the division championship before he was injured in an automobile accident, and now he is rather bitter, as a nineteen-year-old can be bitter. I wash his free arm for him, and he says, “You try to do something right, and you get fouled up every time.”

“Hell, you’ll get out of this cast.”

“But I won’t be able to fight.”

“How do you know?”

“They told me.”

“Who? The doctors?”

“Yeah. I’ll never have the full use of this shoulder.”

“Well —” I don’t know what to say. I would like to reassure him. My own injury is bad enough, but it will not interfere with important activities. I was hurt just about a month ago, while our unit was out on maneuvers near Grafenwöhr. I had been driving a jeep when a two-and-a-half-ton truck went off the muddy road just ahead. I got out and tried to help. As I bent down to inspect the undercarriage, my hand was crushed in the linkage between the truck and its trailer. Though this has caused me great pain and discomfort (I must undergo three more operations), I cannot look upon it as a disaster. I will have lost some motion in my hand, but this will not interfere with my work. As soon as I get out of the Army I will take the New York bar examination; and a maimed hand cannot prevent me from practicing law.

Kraus says, “Just when you think you’re getting good at something, this is what happens.”

“I know. But maybe —”

“Maybe, hell.”

“All right.”

Kraus’s father manufactures coffins. I find this an unusual occupation, but when I mention it, he laughs and says it has never bothered him. I ask him whether the other kids ribbed him about it in school, but he says they did not. I suppose a child can accept, almost any situation as normal, and certainly there are many people who grow up in a curious atmosphere — in a mortician’s family, say — without suffering ill effects.

I hand him the washcloth. “Here, you can finish.” And I step out of the tub and pick up my towel.

“Vic,” he says. “Have you seen that new chick down in the Red Cross?”

“Which one?”

“The tall one with black hair. She looks sort of Oriental.”


“Do you know her name?”

“No,” I say. “I’ve only seen her a couple of times.”

“I’d like to get to meet her.”

“That’s easy enough.”

He is looking at himself in the mirror. “But you know, Vic, I’m kind of shy with women.”

I am tempted to say “Come off it,” but I do not. Kraus is a few years younger than I am, and for that reason, and perhaps because I have been to college and he hasn’t, he seems to look up to me as he would to an older brother. I do not want to betray his trust. “Why don’t you go down there tonight?” I say. “She’ll probably be around.”

“Are you going down?” he says.

I think for a moment. “Yes.”

We walk along the third-floor corridor toward the elevator. It is evening, and we are wearing blue hospital uniforms and real shoes, instead of the floppy canvas slippers we usually wear. We wait for the elevator and take it down to ground level; from there we take a covered walk to the Red Cross recreation building. Since it is early, not many men are there. A refreshment table is laid out below the stage, with an empty punch bowl and several stacks of paper cups. At the other end of the large room, two men are playing ping-pong. One has a cast on his arm, and the other I recognize as a patient from the psychiatric ward. One of the Red Cross girls, Jill, is standing over by the piano, where a Negro is playing “Tenderly" while his crutches rest against the wall. I do not see the girl Kraus was talking about.

“She isn’t here,” he says.

“Maybe she’ll turn up.”

“The other two are on duty.”

“Well, how about a game of ping-pong? Lefthanded.”

“All right.”

We are playing awkwardly when the girl comes into the room. Kraus cannot see her; his back is turned. She is carrying a paper bag under one arm and supporting it with the other hand, and she walks toward the table near the stage. The skirt of her blue Red Cross uniform has an inverted pleat in back, and when she moves, the pleat opens and shuts as each leg pulls against the material. Her calves are smooth, and her waist is small. She has black hair, which she wears almost to her shoulders, and her skin is a natural tan.

“You spastic.”

“Huh?” The ball has hit my stomach.

“That was an easy one.”

“There’s your girl,” I say.

He turns and sees her. His lean face looks startled. She is at the table, where she has set down the paper bag. She takes a can out of it, then another.

“Shall we go over?”

“Let’s finish the game first,” he says.

In a few minutes, we stroll over to the refreshment table, where the girl has started to make punch. Though we have seen her here before, she has seemed rather quiet and not as eager to mix with the patients as some of the other girls. Perhaps it is because she is new. In my own life, I have had many awkward encounters and known shyness, but I do not have any trouble meeting people. I think it has something to do with my home life, and with the mixture of myth and experience that seemed to loom behind our family while my younger brother and sister and I were growing up, like a kind of backdrop. Far-off and brooding, it stretched on through 1929 and the Depression and the war and my sister’s early marriage, and it pictured, among other things, bits of family history, lessons, names, beliefs, and in the distance, words of honor, faith in God, and a consideration for others. Against this evidence of time, we children ate our Shredded Wheat and said our prayers and came to know scenes such as the one in the dance hall in Boise, Idaho.

“Need any help?” I say.

“We can always use help.” She smiles and hands me a bottle opener. “I haven’t seen you fellows here before.”

“Oh, we’ve been around.”

“How did you hurt yourselves?”

“I was stupid enough to get my hand caught between a truck and a trailer,” I say, “and he was in an automobile accident.”

“Oh, what a shame. What an enormous cast! Does it go all the way around?”

“Yeah,” says Kraus, with a nonchalance that reminds me of my high school days. He stands with his good hand behind him, the wrist against the small of his back and the fingers loose, as if he doesn’t know what to do with it.

“You’re new, aren’t you?” I say.

“I got over here two weeks ago, almost.” She smiles up, slicing a lemon, and a lock of her blackhair falls against her cheek. Her eyes are brown and the lids have a distinctly Oriental slant. Her nose is straight and her teeth are white. I introduce myself and Kraus, and she tells us that her name is Sharon. Later there is bingo, and after that the Negro at the piano plays something with odd harmonies. At nine thirty, Kraus and I start back to our ward.

“That’s some woman,” he says to me.


“Do you think she liked me, Vic? I mean, I never can tell.”

“She’s friendly. I don’t know.”

“There was this girl in Skokie,” he says. “I used to go over to a place where she was babysitting. We used to neck a lot. Once, the people were gone all night — ”

My cast shines in the soft glow from the bathroom. The metal prongs arch out like the talons of some antique bird. The plaster looks faintly luminescent. I lie on my back with my arm resting on my stomach and see brown hairs creeping up against my cast. Sharon is standing in the doorway to the bathroom, leaning against the door frame. There in the half-light she looks like someone intended only for this role. Her body is firm. Her hair is as black and gleaming as water at night. Her face is oval, with high cheekbones and a slight lift to the eye. Her legs are as smooth as reeds in a Japanese print. She has resulted from the union of a Nisei man and a white woman. She is their only child, and she has something of a unique being about her, like a strange and evanescent flower that might have bloomed one night by the sea.

“What’s the matter?” I say.

She walks over to a chair near the wall opposite the bed, picks up a cigarette from the bureau, lights it, and sits down. “We’re strays — people like you and me,” she says.

I do not feel like a stray, and I say, “What do you mean?”

“It’s something I’ve learned. There are people who belong somewhere, who have a place that — it’s hard to say — I don’t know —”

“Don’t you belong somewhere?”

“Me? No.”

I want to protest, but I can’t think how. “Why do you feel that way?”

“I can’t explain it, Vic. I never — I never feel, anywhere, that this is it. I never have a — maybe it’s a feeling of recognition. That’s what I don’t have. I never say, Ah, here it is. This is home. This is my life. This is me.”

I watch her exhale. Smoke rises in pale lines that twist upward in the light from the bathroom. I say, “I don’t think I feel that way.”

“Where do you belong, then?”

“I wonder. I’m not going home. I doubt that I’ll ever live in Idaho again. Certainly I don’t belong here in Germany.”

“You see?” she says. “You can’t say where you really belong.” Her voice drops.

I say, “We belong where we — I guess we belong where we happen to be. Come on now, Sharon.”

“Wait’ll I finish my cigarette. Maybe it’s different with you. I don’t know. You’ve been to college. You’ve got a place set out, even if it’s not on the map. Maybe it doesn’t have to be.”

I prop myself up on my elbow. “Would you belong if you had someone?”

“How do you mean? I’ve—”

“If you belonged, not somewhere, but to someone.”

“I’ve belonged to people,” she says.

“But —”

“In the long run, everybody only belongs to themselves.”

“That’s not necessarily true.”

“You’ve led a more sheltered life than you think,” she says.

But I think back over my life and do not find it sheltered. No. It spreads out to people and places too numerous to remember — Uncle John, who sold carburetors; Jack Evelyn (dead before I was born), who crashed taking off in his own plane while his wife looked on; Mrs. Gorkin, who brought beef soup when my mother was ill; Bill Amory, who limped but was good enough to play center on my high school football team. All these people have been part of my life. But the thought troubles me, and I say, “Sharon, did you know that Kraus’s father builds coffins?”

“What? No.”

“I always thought it must be hard on Kraus.”

“Well, if you get used to something like that, I suppose you accept it.”

“He’s a nervous kid. Did you know — I shouldn’t tell you this. But he wants you pretty badly.”

“Does he?”

“I feel like a heel. He’s a sensitive kid, and I promised him I’d put in a good word for him. I said I’d help him get to know you. He still thinks I’m on his side.”

“Oh, Vic, you can’t worry about the rest of the world. You’ve got to let the rest of the world get on the best it can.” She stands up and comes over to me. It is the fourth time that I have left the hospital on a weekend pass and that we have come to the Hotel Römer Hof in the heart of Stuttgart. I take her in my arms and watch her merge into the background.

THE laughter is raucous and alcoholic. Nate Robson has put a camellia behind his car, and is pretending to be a bullfighter, with a kitchen towel for a cape. He is trying to get Angie Moore to be the bull, but she refuses. Out on the lawn, men in dark suits and women in bare-shouldered dresses can be seen moving about and talking. A blonde I do not know walks in from the dining room and pushes the reject button on the hi-fi set. The music stops suddenly, and we hear the hum of the amplifier and the nervous clicking of the automatic mechanism. Another record starts. It is “Too Close for Comfort.” She rejects that too, and again we hear the hum and the clicking. The next record is a bossa nova. She pushes the button furiously — twice, three times — and stands there looking down at the machine. Nate Robson is advancing toward her with his towel held out. “Aaaahhh!” he growls. “Betsy! Toro! Toro! Aaaahhh! Olé!”

She looks at him, her hand still on the reject button, and speaks slowly. “Christ, Nathan.”

He clicks his heels and holds out the towel. The camellia falls from his ear, and he bends down to retrieve it. The blonde gives the machine one last furious jab and walks through open doors onto a terrace.

“With earnings like that,” the man next to me is saying, “they can’t help but up the dividend next quarter. I’m telling you, Chuck. From two and a quarter million last year, they’ve —

“You’re Vic Norman, aren’t you,” says a woman’s voice, foggily assertive. I see that the woman is dark-eyed and rather fat. She is holding one of Nate’s rock-crystal tumblers. “My husband told me I should meet you. I’m Diane Farquhar. You know Bruce. He says you’re the best lawyer in New York. Well, I have a problem, and it’s terribly involved, Vic — may I call you Vic? I’m sure you hear things like this every day. But you don’t know my mother. She came to live with us — or to stay with us, I should say. Well, Mother came to stay with us, and incredible as it may seem, she was in the house when —”

“I’m not in very good form tonight,” I say.

“Well, God, don’t you even want to hear my problem?” The voice floats on and on, expanding into smoky balloons of words that drift to the walls and ceiling and leave no trace. It is the summer of 1964, and we are at the Robsons’ house in East Hampton. It is a large old house, with elms bordering a semicircular drive, and through French doors I glimpse the extensive grounds, with a swimming pool, white-brick bathhouses, and a well-tended rose garden. Nate Robson is an old classmate of mine, and my wife and I have come to be quite close to him and his wife. But I am worried about my wife, Hilda. I have not seen her for over an hour, and when we came to this party, she agreed that we should leave early. Uneasy thoughts of other, recent parties move through my mind, and I wonder whether someone will again notify me that my wife is in one of the bedrooms, “not feeling well.” It is no secret that our marriage is foundering, but I do not like gossip, and I do not know what to do. All her life Hilda has had what she wanted, and I do not seem able to provide the things she needs — the voices and the careless moods that filled her childhood and that must have begun to fade with the last cotillion. Exasperated by her behavior, I drink too much myself; and I have heard that our arrival at parties is getting to be known as the Norman Invasion. I will admit that I have given her cause for spite, but there are things I cannot take. I cannot see her playing midnight croquet with a self-styled artist named Tommy Frale, and suspect worse, without being jealous. If I hurt her in return, then I must answer to my own conscience.

Diane Farquhar walks away, swaying. I stand with a martini in my scarred right hand. I begin to wander about the house looking for some sign of Hilda, but I only come across a girl named Nan Rodgers in the kitchen with a man I do not know. I wander back to the rear of the house and see that people have left the living room and joined the crowd on the back lawn. I go out to see what is happening. I hear laughter and shouting, a hubbub.

“But did she really? How could she? She must be out of her mind!”

“Isn’t she in analysis?”

“Yes, with some Austrian, or something. It’s just — ”

A twentyish girl — a protégée of Nate’s older brother, I think — is standing beside me. “Oh, Mr. Norman, I think your wife is so neat. I really never heard of anybody doing such a thing. I think it’s just so great.”

The girl is drunk, but I ask, “What? What has she done?”

“Oh, don’t you know? Oh, what a scream! Peggy, come here!”

I walk down the sloping lawn toward the swimming pool and see Hilda being led toward one of the bathhouses by our hostess. A group of chattering people follows them, and I push my way through to my wife. “What happened?” Hilda looks dazed; her hair is in disarray, her lips are parted. She looks away from me and speaks indistinctly. “I merely drove — the car —” Carol Robson frowns at me. She is leading Hilda by the hand. I put my arm around Hilda’s waist, and Carol and I lead her into the bathhouse. The others try to come in too, but Carol shuts them out. Hilda sits down and closes her eyes. Carol lights a cigarette for her and says, “I wish they’d all go home, damned fools.” I stand near the door. Hilda’s face moves into a grimace; she looks up at me like a child who has fallen from her horse and is blaming the stable hand. I say again, “What happened?” Carol says to me, “Didn’t you see? Bud Masters’ car — she got into it and drove through the rose garden. She merely demolished half of Nate’s roses, that’s all.” I look from Carol to Hilda. “What? Was it an accident? Hiddy? Hiddy?” But Hilda’s face has taken on a set expression, and she turns to me and says, “Oh, go to hell.”

Carol frowns at me and glances toward the door, and I go outside and stand near the swath of crushed and broken rosebushes and hear people talking: “Yes, really! She got into Bud Masters’ car and drove it straight back across the lawn and right through the rose garden! Yes, deliberately ! Oh, she’s mad, la dame est complètement folle!” I listen, and the words bounce off my protective need to disbelieve. I do not understand, and I stand there pushing an interior reject button: “. . . a spoiled child —“. . . don’t see how Vic puts up with it —” “Oh, they’re both crackers, he’s a good attorney, but —” “It was a dare! Tommy Frale bet her she didn’t dare —” “The artist, darling. She and Tommy — ” “Well, what about Vic?” Carol Robson comes out of the bathhouse and beckons to me, and she and I walk back to the house and wait for the smoke to clear.

The evening is cool. I sit in my bathrobe at the library desk with the lamp on, trying to write a note. I hear Hilda’s footsteps behind me. She says, “Do you want some soup? Or anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

I turn and see her standing behind me, just within the doorway. Her face is drawn, and lines are deep on her forehead and around her eyes, though she is barely thirty. But her gaze is direct; her eyes are steady.

“Why don’t you turn in?” I say.

“Are you coming up?”

“Pretty soon.”

We look at each other for a moment, and things are very clear and simple. We see each other in the old, uncomplicated way, and then the surface cracks. The moment passes. Hilda leaves, and I hear her going up the stairs. I turn back to the note I was writing. These things infuriate me. They do so little good. They arc another price society exacts. “It was good of you to write. Both Hilda and I appreciate your kindness . . .” My mother died last week. She had been ill for several years. I flew out to Boise for the funeral, and so did my brother and sister. Hilda stayed here; she did not want to leave Susan alone, and there would have been no sense in taking a child to a thing like that. The funeral was simple, as my mother would have wanted. The coffin was hermetically sealed, and I thought of Kraus. I don’t know what my father is going to do now, or even where he will live. He left the road some years ago and now shares an insurance office with another broker. His three children live in different parts of the country. People say he should come live with one of us. I doubt that he will. I sign the letter and wonder why people do these things. Why do they make death elaborate, when it is simple? Why do they try to enlarge upon a finality? I sit with the ballpoint between my thumb and twisted second and third fingers and wonder who all the people are — all the people who write letters and come round with cake when you are in need, the people who jockey for your job, who babble when your wife drives a car through someone’s rose garden, who pass you on the street. And the question is, how do they make their way into your life, there to stay forever? think now: Remember the woman in Boston who sold us hyacinths; the ferry captain who thought we were actors and asked for our autographs; Lolly, who used to come and clean until her husband took sick; Kraus, who grieved over an injured arm; Sharon, who did not know where she belonged; our teachers, our coaches; our children. Who are they all, really?

“Daddy —”

I turn and see my little girl at the library door “What are you doing up?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Well, come on then,” I say.

The kid in the black trunks is giving his opponent rough treatment. The blond fighter is standing flat-footed near the ropes. He outweighs the Cuban by two and a half pounds, but this makes little difference; his arms are shorter, and he has less speed. I sit and watch the Cuban jab and jab. He moves back and forth, his muscles still working gracefully in the tenth round. Now he lands a right to the chest, but his opponent counters with some left-rights. He fends them off with his gloves, then takes a right to the ear that sends him reeling. I lean forward. “Come on, Ortiz!” Ortiz dances back toward the other fighter. They are wary of each other. Some in the crowd are yelling for more action. But it is a good fight. The Cuban lands a left hook, and then another, and for a moment the two men are in a clinch. The referee breaks it, and as they circle each other once more the round ends. The judges vote, and in a moment the ring announcer tells us that the fight has gone to Ortiz, six to four, six to four, and seven to three.

I walk through the autumn evening back toward my hotel. I have come to feel at home in New York City, and I enjoy walking down Eighth Avenue, past the bars and the all-night lunch counters and the palmistry dens. I stop at a tobacco shop and buy myself three twenty-five-cent cigars, then turn left at Forty-fourth Street and walk past lighted marquees and the black, concealing windows of cocktail lounges. As I reach Broadway, I am reminded of the many evenings Hilda and I have left the theater and stood here hailing a cab. Tomorrow I am going to talk to a friend about seeking custody of Susan. Perhaps I am wrong. It might be well not to complicate her life with legalities. But she must live with someone, and in any case she will soon go away to school. I hope they do not fill her with too many false hopes, or with ideas that cannot be maintained. I hope they do not draw lines about her life that leave no room for questioning, or time for silence.

And now I know what it is I want to learn: I want to understand the lure of Madison Square Garden. I want to know what makes a crowd of people come to watch two other people bruise and mar each other. I want to know what makes a man step into the light, walk up to a perfect stranger, and hit him in the face.