“. . . the final dwarf of you That is woven and woven and limiting to be worn . . .” —WALLACE STEVENS
He was so pleased with the reading glasses hr had ordered through the catalogue and he was so ingenuous in his enthusiasm that the woman behind the counter, the Sears mailorder clerk, asked his permission to try them on. She was middle-aged too, or past middle age, like himself, and wore bifocals, as he did. He tendered them to her, and she put them on; but apparently they didn’t procure the same results for her that they did for him. She looked down at the invoice in her hand with a rather bewildered expression and handed the glasses back.
“Not strong enough?’ Kestrel asked sympathetically.
“I don’t know what they are.” She took refuge behind her own bifocals as if site had been disturbed by what she had seen. “But they’re not for me, that’s for sure.”
“I was told by an optician some time ago that my eyes were still fairly young according to my age. So I got the weaker ones: forty to forty-five age group instead of my own, fifty-five to sixty.”
She no longer seemed to be listening and had begun totting up the price of the glasses, the shipping charge, and the sales tax. “That’s four twenty-one, please.”
He smiled, placed a five-dollar bill on the counter, and while she made change, he slipped the glasses into their case and pocketed them. At least fifteen bucks to the good, he thought triumphantly; that’s how much more the unholy alliance of opticians and the American Optical Society would have soaked him. True, the lenses weren’t prescription lenses and did nothing to correct his astigmatism. But that was a minor matter compared with the boon the glasses would be when he hunted up a word in a dictionary or read a carpenter’s scale. He received his change, thanked the clerk, and folding the invoice, walked briskly through the center aisle of the store toward the doorway. Sears retail store, compact with merchandise and glistening under its many fluorescents, was always an interesting place to Kestrel, especially the hardware department, with its array of highly polished tools. But he had no time to stop and browse today; his father was waiting for him in the car.
The street he came out on was Water Street, the former commercial center of town. For many years Water Street had tried to keep abreast of the times by fusing new chromium trim onto old brick facades. With the advent of the shopping plaza, the street seemed to have given up and become dormant, as if waiting for a rebirth. His car was on Haymarket Street, the next street west. He crossed with the WALK of the traffic light and made his way up the inclined sidewalk that led sharply around the corner. Haymarket Street served as a kind of ancillary to Water Street. It provided extra room for parking meters, ventilating ducts, and traffic circulation.
“Where to, Pop?” He opened the car door and slipped in behind the wheel. “My errand’s all done. What are yours?” It was always necessary to shield Pop from the idea that the trip to town was being made on his behalf. Otherwise he would balk at going, and then sulk.
His father continued to bow over his homemade cane. “I would like to go to the First National. First to the First National in the plaza. I need a little meat, a can tuna, a couple oranges. Then I want to go to the A & P and buy coffee.” Pop always adopted a whimsical, placating drawl when he wanted a favor.
“Why the A & P?” Kestrel sensed an old ruse. “Why not the First National coffee?”
“I like A & P coffee better. I like better Eight O’Clock coffee, it ain’t so strong.”
“Oh, yes.” Eight O’Clock coffee was a cent cheaper than any other brand in town. The usual guile was at work. “I think you’d better shop in one place, Pop. No sense running to two places just to buy a pound of coffee.” Kestrel hoped that the gravel that had entered his voice was lost in the starting of the motor. “You get better trades at the A & P anyway.”
“OK. You want A & P? So A & P.”
Kestrel fastened his seat belt. The old boy would have him run all over town for a couple of cents. To save him a couple of cents, blind to the expense of running the car. As Norma said, Pop certainly had a knack of bringing out the worst in people. Kestrel smirked and steered right to cross the railroad tracks. Just a few days ago, before Pop arrived for the summer, she had proposed a scheme of levying a fifty-cent toll on everyone who accompanied them to town and then suspending the rule for everyone except Pop. And this coming from Norma, the most generous of women . . .
Behind them the bank and the abandoned theater, behind them the bowling alley and the car wash, they climbed Winslow Hill to the traffic light on the terrace and then drove on past the porticos and the fanlights, the prim round windows of the fine homes of another age, to the rear entrance of the A & P parking lot.
“OK, Pop?” Kestrel undid his seat belt and got out of the car on one side as his father got out, more slowly, on the other. “Norma didn’t want anything special. Cigarettes. But I’ve got plenty of time. So shop for everything you need.” He preceded the old man to the glass door and held it open. Pop hobbled in on arthritic legs. “You know where the car is. I’ll be around somewhere.”
“Yeh. Yeh.” The old man dismissed him with a curt wave of the hand, “I’ll find you.” He hobbled over to the telescoped shopping carts in front of the brightly arranged aisles, separated one, and trundled it inside.
Kestrel debated with himself for a moment. It was just barely possible that Grant’s in the shopping plaza across the avenue had the kind of lock he was looking for, a freezer lock. He hadn’t thought of it while he was in Sears. On the impulse, he hurried to the edge of the A & P blacktop and crossed the highway to the immensity of the plaza parking area opposite. The First National where Pop had wanted to shop lay directly ahead, to the left of Grant’s, and Kestrel realized he could as easily have stopped there as not. But it was the principle of the thing, he argued with himself. He resented being gulled, being cajoled into doing his father a service for the wrong reason, for spurious reasons. It came back to what Norma said: Pop brought out the worst in people.
Grant’s had no freezer locks. They had bicycle locks with inordinately long hasps, but no freezer locks. Leaving the emporium, he hurried back toward the avenue, meanwhile trying to descry the car from a distance. Was his father already in it and observing his son’s breach of faith? No, he had beaten the old boy to it. He waited impatiently at the curb for an opening in the flux of traffic, crossed in haste, and panting slightly with exertion, leaned against his car. “Oh, the cigarettes!” He started toward the A & P and reached the door just as his father emerged with a bag of groceries on his arm.
Kestrel hesitated. “Want a hand, Pop?”
“I don’t need it.” The old man elbowed the extended hand to one side. “Here.” He pressed a batch of trading stamps into the empty palm.
“Why do you give me these?”
“I don’t want them. You save them.”
“I don’t save them.”
“Your wife saves them.”
“OK.”Kestrel followed his father to the car. ‘“Now where?” They both got in.
“Maybe I could get a few day-old cookies down at Arlene’s. I like a few cookies in the house.”
“I suppose so.” They had been on Water Street once, Kestrel was about to remind his father, but checked the impulse under a fleeting yet complex illumination of how the old man continually led away from any objection. Who could object to a few cookies in the house? “OK. Arlene’s.”
“We don’t have to go if you ain’t got time. If you’re in a hurry to get home—”
“Oh, I’m in no hurry,” Kestrel said resolutely. “No hurry at all. What else?”
“Onion sets,” Pop took out his shopping list. “Onion sets at Russel’s Hardware Store. One pound.” He read the words as if the list shielded him from responsibility. “And that’s all.”
“Onion sets at Russel’s.” Kestrel started the motor.
“They had hamburg.” The sign in the A & P window caught Pop’s eye. “I didn’t see that.”
“That’s the come-on for today. Do you want any?” “That ain’t bad. Forty-nine cents a pound. I could have used a little hamburg.”
“I can still stop.” Kestrel made a token thrust at the brake pedal.
“No. Too late. If I had more time to look around—” Pop sat back in regret.
“Who said you didn’t have time?
“You don’t have to say. I can tell.”
Kestrel took a firmer grip on the steering wheel.
“Instead I paid thirty-three cents a pound for chicken wings. Thirty-three cents,” the old man intoned. “Nineteen cents a pound, twenty-one cents a pound, most twenty-five cents a pound they charge in New York. Here in your state where they raise chickens, thirty-three cents a pound!”
“Pop,” Kestrel grated. “Your seat belt.”
The old man felt behind him for the buckle and pushed it out of the way.
They drove back to the center of town. Arlene’s was at the south end of Water Street. Kestrel spied an empty parking place, but it seemed too tight. He chose to drive on. “Best I can do, Pop,’ he said apologetically, and parked the car beside a twelve-minute meter in front of the post office.
“I saw back there a nice place near Arlene’s.” “Too many cars behind me. I didn’t want to hold up traffic.”
“For them you got consideration, Pop muttered. “But for me—” He got out of the car and hobbled in the direction of Arlene’s. There seemed to be a special emphasis about the way he hobbled, as though he were trying to impress the pain he felt on his son.
Oh, hell, Kestrel thought as he waited. He never could do anything to please his father. Ever since childhood it had been that way. Still, he had to get over it. It was ridiculous to bear a grudge against the old guy. There was nothing left of him. A little old dwarf in a baggy pair of pants. The final dwarf. Kestrel smiled.
The car door opened.
“That was snappy, Pop!” said Kestrel.
His father slid into the scat with a self-satisfied look, shut the door, and picked up his cane.
“What about the cookies?” Kestrel asked. His father seemed to be flaunting the fact that he had made no purchase.
“Another time,” said Pop airily.
“Why? Didn’t they have day-old cookies?”
“They had. They had.”
“Were they too high?”
“No, they was the regular half price.”
“Then for Pete73x2019;s sake why didn’t you get some?”
“There was only one girl behind the counter and maybe ten customers.”
“Oh, please! I come down here for you to buy cookies, and now you come back empty-handed.” Kestrel was sure the old man was retaliating for the way his son had parked the car.
“Noo, nischt gefehrlich. I got yet a few cookies in the house.”
“Wait a minute.” Kestrel was loathe to start the engine. “That isn’t the point. You wanted to come down here to buy cookies. I brought you down. Now you tell me you’ve got a few in the house. Why don’t you buy some while you have a chance? You’re down here.”
“I don’t need them. You would have to wait a for-sure fifteen minutes.”
“I don’t care. I waited this long.”
“I don’t need them!” his father snapped. “Meantime tire money is by me, no?”
“Well, for Christ sake!” Kestrel started the motor. “That’s a fine trick. The whole trip down here is for nothing!”
“So you’ll be home a few minutes later to your wife. She won’t miss you.” His voice reeked with contempt.
You son of a bitch! thought Kestrel. There it was again, the same mockery that had rankled so in childhood, in boyhood, in youth, disabling mockery against which there was no remedy and no redress. Furiously Kestrel steered into the near lane of traffic. Penney’s clothing store passed on one side like a standard of his wrath, and Woolworth’s across the street like another. And so did McClellan’s and Sears and the pawnshop. He made a right turn at the traffic light, crossed the low bridge over the river, and climbed the opposite hill. He had almost reached their destination before he could force himself to say, “Now you want onion sets.”
“Yeh, if he’s got,” said his father.
Kestrel stopped the car. The hardware store was across the street. He shut off the ignition and waited. His father made no move to go. “Well?” Kestrel asked.
“There’s so much traffic,” said his father.
“Do you want me to go?” Compassion now made headway against his anger. “I suppose I can get across the street faster than you can.”
“Go if you want to go. I’ll pay you later.”
Kestrel got out of the car. “Onion sets, right?”
“One pound, not more. You hear?”
Kestrel’s lip curled. With his back turned to his father, he could safely sneer. As if he would deliberately buy more than a pound.
They were on their way home now. Kestrel had bought the onion sets—and the freezer lock too, even though he had taken a longer time to shop than his father had anticipated. When he came out of the store, Pop was sitting half-turned around in his seat with a frown on his face, gazing fixedly in his direction. Fine, Kestrel had thought with a certain nervous malice as he quickened his step toward the car, it’s your turn now. And he had made some remark about how few clerks there were in all the stores on a Tuesday.
“Oh, sure,” was his father’s neutral reply.
Town slipped past at a leisurely twenty-five miles an hour: shade tree and utility pole, service station and abandoned cemetery.
“This time I got my supply of matzohs for the summer. I brought five pounds from New York.”
“Five pounds! All that way on a bus?” Kestrel felt a little indulgent after his own retaliation. “You must really like them.”
“Oh, for a matzoh I’m crazy,” said his father. “I eat matzohs not only on Passover.”
“With a matzoh you got a bite or you got a meal,” Pop continued sententiously. “It’s crisp, good, or you can dunk it in coffee. There’s matzoh-brei, matzoh kugel, matzoh pancakes. You can crumble it. Dip in it. It’s better than cracker meal. A lot cheaper too, believe me, especially if you go down to the East Side to get the broken ones.”
“Marvelous. Can you wipe up gravy with a matzoh?”
“Of course you can wipe up gravy. You forgot already. You wet the matzoh before you sit down to eat, and it becomes soft like bread.”
“The stuff’s universal,” Kestrel twitted. “Khrushchev should have known better than to ban them.”
“Oh, that dog!” said Pop.
The Gulf station was passing, with its used-car lot in front anti its desolate auto graveyard in the rear. “You know, Pop—” Kestrel began, and then stopped. He had been on the point of remarking that matzohs could be bought in the chain stores in town, but they would be more expensive. “Oh, well—”
“What?” his father asked.
They drove on in silence. Some of the newly constructed houses slipped by, the cute little boxes, as Norma called them, gray and brown and red, that had begun to line the highway.
Pop fingered Lhe onion sets in the bag, picked out a withered one, and let it fall back significantly, He still hadn’t paid for them. “Noo, there was a big fuss here over this Kennedy?” He put the bag to one side.
“This Kennedy?” Kestrel was startled. “Which Kennedy?”
“Bobby Kennedy. About John Kennedy I’m not talking.”
“Of course. Everyone was shocked, pist as with John Kennedy. Why?”
His father leaned on his cane and smiled. “I’m only sorry the other one wasn’t shot too before he became President.”
Kestrel’s face furrowed as he glanced into the rearview mirror. For a moment it seemed to him that the old man’s tone of voice was almost solicitous, as though he wished John Kennedv had been spared the trials of the presidency. He turned to look at his father, still smiling ambiguously. “What do you mean, Pop?”
“I mean both of them should have been shot before they became President. We would all be better off.”
“Why? I don’t get you. I was no admirer of the Kennedys but—”
“Why?” The new sign advertising the Grand View Motel 6 Mi. vanished on the right among second-growth trees. “The Niggehs!” Pop said vehemently. Where the sheep had once ranged, the juniper-studded field on the left reeled about the corrugated-iron sheep cote in the distance. “The Niggehs, that’s why.”
“The Niggers?” Kestrel repeated stunned.
“Yeh, the Niggehs! What they made such a good friend from the Niggehs! You’re such a good friend from the Niggehs? There!”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Good for them!”
“But that’s got nothing to do with it!” Kestrel’s voice sharpened. “That wasn’t why they were shot.”
“No. But that’s why I’m glad they was shot.”
Whew, Kestrel whistled silently to himself; you goddamned venomous little worm!
“You know, you can’t talk to a Niggeh no more since the Kennedys?” his father demanded. “Not to a man, not to a woman, not to a child. Even a child’ll tell you: go to hell, you old white fool.”
“I see. I wish you’d put your seat belt tin, Pop.” Kestrel tapped the buckle of his own.
“I don’t like it.”
“You’d like going through the windshield less.”
“I don’t wear that kind. I told you. When you get them so they go around the shoulder, then I’ll wear them. They press me here.” He rubbed his abdomen.
You damned idiot; Kestrel stared straight ahead.
“The Kennedys,” said his father. “There’s where the mugging and the robbing started. Only Kennedys. Noo, sure, they know a President is their friend. So whatever they do, he’ll say: Nebich! It’s a pity! So they rape,” he slapped his hands together, “so they rob, so they mug, so they loot. That poor Jewish man what they hit him in the face with a bottle last week in the subway—a plain Jewish working man—the Kennedys is the cause of all that!’
The side road where they lived was only a short distance away, and peering deeply into the rearview mirror, Kestrel saw himself forbidding and ominous against the empty highway. Was the old man baiting him this last time in retaliation for having been made to wait, or were his own thoughts about his father of such force that they communicated? He could almost believe it. “Nobody is the cause,” said Kestrel. “Nobody in particular. All of us.”
“All of us? Go! You and the other philosophes. I had something to do with that Niggeh what he mugged me in the elevator and Look away my watch and two hundred and eight dollars? And put me in the hospital? And who knows, gave me this arthritis? You should have seen that detective how he beat his fist on the wall when he seen my face. And the others what they get mugged and beat up—and raped. They the cause of it? With you philosophes you can’t talk.”
“Come live in New York a few months, you’ll see. Let’s see how you’ll be a philosophe.”
“OK.” kestrel braked the car gently, made his left turn into the side road with a minimum of swerve.
Pop glanced at the crowds of white cockerels behind the screen in the big doorways of the threestory broiler plant on the corner. “You should see them in the waiters’ union, how they push us away when there’s a good job—in the Waldorf or where. The best is for them. Old waiters like me, white waiters—throw them out and make jobs for them. They come first!”
Oh, shit, kestrel pressed his foot down on the accelerator.
“Everything all at once,” Pop continued. “More, more! Colleges and schools and beaches and motels. Regular princes make from them. And yesterday they was eating each other.”
The stretch of road they were approaching had been cut through ledge—straightened out—leaving a few run-down buildings stranded in the bend on the left. On the right was the ledge. On top of it, in the gloom of overhanging trees, he had once seen two pretty deer, a buck and a doe, poised for flight, and the memory of the sight always drew his gaze to the spot thereafter. Two inches to the right, he thought, two inches that way with the steering wheel, and it would all be over with the old fool, fust two inches now; he’d go through the windshield like a maul, he’d slam that rusty granite. And who would know? Instinctively Kestrel shied away from the rough shoulder of the road. “Don’t YOU think that’s enough of politics, Pop?”
“Sure. On another’s behind it’s good to smack, like they say. Here in the country you don’t see a schwartzer face for I don’t know. A mile. How will it be if they moved next door?”
“Yeh,” his father nodded. “You’ll be just like me in a few years. Just wait. All I’m saying you’ll say.”
A truck came over the brow of the hill. Topheavy and loaded with logs, it picked up momentum as it rolled downhill toward them, lurched at the road’s shoulder. And once again kestrel heard himself urge: two inches on this wheel, a glancing blow, and the brakes. He skirted the other vehicle, glimpsed its driver, Reynolds, owner of a nearby lumber mill. “That was Reynolds,” he said to Pop.
Pop rejected the overture with a slighting gesture. “You’ll be just like me. Wait. I seen already philosophes like you. Your cousin Louis Cantor when he lived was a philosophe, a socialist. Every time he came to the house he brought the socialist Call. So what happened in the end? He laughed from it. ‘What a fool I was,’ he used to say.”
The top of Turner’s Hill was open on the left, open and sloping downward over sunlit boulders toward the woodland and the river valley. Almost inviting it seemed, inviting for a hideous spin and a rending of metal. Who would survive? kestrel held the car grimly to the center of the road.
“And that’s what you’ll say,” said Pop.
“You think so?”
“I know it.”
“All right. Then let’s drop it. I’m driving a car.”
“Ah, if there only was a Verwoerd here like in South Africa,” Pop lamented. “A Verwoerd. He should be like a bulldozer for those brutes. Even a Wallace. A Wallace I would vote for.”
Kestrel could feel his jaw tremble. Christ, if the old fool didn’t stop— They still had two miles to go. “That’s enough!”
Pop hitched a scornful shoulder, crossed his legs over his cane. “So what did you get at Sears?”
“At Sears? Oh. Reading glasses.”
“Reading glasses? At Sears?”
“Yes, they have them. I’ve been getting my bifocals chipped working around the place.”
“How much did they cost?”
Brusquely kestrel pulled the case out of his pocket, handed it to his father. “Here. You tell me.”
The old man took the spectacles out of their sheath, appraised them, and adjusted them on his nose. “Oy!” He recoiled.
“What’s the matter?”
“You’re going right into the stone wall.” Pop pulled the glasses off.
“Into a stone wall. I mean they look like it. Pheh! Only from Sears you can buy glasses like this.” He slipped them into the case, handed the case to his son.
kestrel sighed. He felt shriveled. He removed a hand from the wheel, replaced the glasses in his pocket.
“Boy, you gave me some scare!” The old man groped beside him for the seat-belt buckles.