Michael, the weekend guest, was to spend the night in one of the twin beds in Herbie’s old room, where the baseball pictures still hung on the wall. Lou Epstein slept with his wife in the room with the bed pushed catter-corner. His daughter Sheila’s bedroom was empty; she was at a meeting with her fiancé, the folk-singer. In the corner of her room a childhood teddy bear balanced on its bottom, a “Vote Socialist” button pinned to its left ear; on her book-shelves, where once volumes of Louisa May Alcott gathered dust, now were collected the works of Howard Fast. The house was quiet. The only light burning was downstairs in the dining room where the shabuscandles flickered in their tall golden holders and Herbie’s jahrzeit candle trembled in its glass.
Epstein looked at the dark ceiling of his bedroom and let his head that had been bang-banging all day go blank for a moment. His wife Goldie breathed thickly beside him, as though she suffered from eternal bronchitis. Ten minutes before she had undressed and he had watched as she dropped her white nightdress over her head, over the breasts which had funneled down to her middle, over the behind like a bellows, the thighs and calves veined blue like a roadmap. What once could be pinched, what once was small and tight, now could be poked and pulled. Everything hung. He had shut his eyes while she had dressed for sleep and had tried to remember the Goldie of 1927, the Lou Epstein of 1927. Now he rolled his stomach against her backside, remembering, and reached around to hold her breasts. The nipples were dragged down like a cow’s. He rolled back to his own side.
A key turned in the front door—there was whispering, then the door gently shut. He tensed and waited for the noises—it didn’t take those Socialists long. At night the noise from the zipping and the un-zipping was enough to keep a man awake. “What are they doing down there?” he had screamed at his wife last Friday night, “Trying on clothes?” Now, once again, he waited. It wasn’t that he was against their playing. He was no puritan, he believed in young people enjoying themselves. Hadn’t he been a young man himself? But in 1927 he and his wife were handsome people. Lou Epstein had never resembled that chinless, lazy, smart-alec whose living was earned singing folk songs in a saloon, and who once had asked Epstein if it hadn’t been “thrilling” to have lived through “a period of great social upheaval” like the thirties.
And his daughter, why couldn’t she have grown up to be like—like the girl across the street whom Michael had the date with, the one whose father had recently died. Now there was a pretty girl. But not his Sheila. What happened, he wondered, what happened to that little pink-skinned baby? What year, what month did those skinny ankles grow thick as logs, the peaches-and-cream turn to pimples? That lovely child was now a twenty-three-year-old woman with “a social conscience!” Some conscience, he thought. She hunts all day for a picket line to march in so that at night she can come home and eat like a horse... For her and that guitar-plucker to touch each other’s unmentionables seemed worse than sinful—it was disgusting. When Epstein tossed in bed and heard their panting and the zipping it sounded in his ears like thunder.
They were at it. He would ignore them, think of his other problems. The business... here he was a year away from the retirement he had planned but with no heir to Epstein Paper Bag Company. He had built the business from the ground, suffered and bled during the Depression and Roosevelt, only, finally, with the War and Eisenhower to see it succeed. The thought of a stranger taking it over made him sick. But what could be done? Herbie, who would have been twenty-eight, had died of polio, age eleven. And Sheila, his last hope, had chosen as her intended a lazy man. What could he do? Does a man of fifty-nine all of a sudden start producing heirs?
Zip! Pant-pant-pant! Ahh!
He shut his ears and mind, tighter. He tried to recollect things and drown himself in them. For instance, dinner . . .
He had been startled when he arrived home from the shop to find the soldier sitting at his dinner table. Surprised because the boy, whom he had not seen for ten or twelve years, had grown up with the Epstein face, as his own son would have, the small bump in the nose, the strong chin, dark skin, and shock of shiny black hair that, one day, would turn gray as clouds.
“Look who’s here,” his wife shouted at him the moment he entered the door, the day’s dirt still under his fingernails. “Sol’s boy.”
The soldier popped up from his chair and extended his hand. “How do you do, Uncle Louis?”
“A Gregory Peck,” Epstein’s wife said, “a Monty Clift your brother has. He’s been here only three hours already he has a date. And a regular gentleman...”
Epstein did not answer.
The soldier stood at attention, square, as though he’d learned courtesy long before the Army. “I hope you don’t mind my barging in, Uncle Louis. I was shipped to Monmouth last week and Dad said I should stop off to see you people. I’ve got the weekend off and Aunt Goldie said I should stay...” he waited.
“Look at him,” Goldie was saying, “a Prince!”
“Of course,” Epstein said at last. “Stay. How is your father?” Epstein had not spoken to his brother Sol since 1945 when he had bought Sol’s share of the business and his brother had moved to Detroit, with words.
“Dad’s fine,” Michael said. “He sends his regards.”
“Sure, I send mine too. You’ll tell him.”
Michael sat down, and Epstein knew that the boy must think just as his father did: that Lou Epstein was a coarse man whose heart beat faster only when he was thinking of Epstein Paper Bag.
When Sheila came home they all sat down to eat, four, as in the old days. Goldie Epstein jumped up and down, up and down, slipping each course under their noses the instant they had finished the one before. “Michael,” she said historically, “Michael, as a child you were a very poor eater. Your sister, Ruthie, God bless her, was a nice eater. Not a good eater, but a nice eater.”
For the first time Epstein remembered his little niece Ruthie, a little dark-haired beauty, a Bible Ruth. He looked at his own daughter and heard his wife go on, “No, Ruthie wasn’t such a good eater. But she wasn’t a picky eater. Our Herbie, he should rest in peace, was a picky eater...” Goldie looked toward her husband as though he would remember precisely what category of eater his beloved son had been; he stared into his pot roast.
“But,” Goldie Epstein resumed, “you should live and be well, Michael, you turned out to be a good eater...”
The noises snapped Epstein’s recollection in two.
Enough was enough. He got out of bed, made certain that he was tucked into his pajamas, and started down to the living room. He would give them a piece of his mind. He would tell them that—that 1927 was not 1957! No, that was what they would tell him.
But in the living room it was not Sheila and the folk-singer. Epstein felt the cold from the floor rush up the loose legs of his pajamas and chill his crotch, raising goose-flesh on his thighs. They did not see him. He retreated a step, back behind the archway to the dining room. His eyes, however, remained fixed on the living room floor, on Sol’s boy and the girl from across the street.
The girl had been wearing shorts and a sweater. Now they were thrown over the arm of the sofa. The light from the candles was enough for Epstein to see that she was naked, Michael lay beside her, squirming and potent, wearing only his army shoes and khaki socks. The girl’s breasts were like two small white cups. Michael kissed them, and more. Epstein tingled; he did not dare move, he did not want to move, until the two, like cars in a railroad yard, slammed fiercely together, coupled, shook. In their noise Epstein tiptoed, trembling, up the stairs and back to his wife’s bed.
He could not force himself to sleep for what seemed like hours, not until the door had opened downstairs and the two young people had left. When, a minute or so later, he heard another key turn in the lock he did not know whether it was Michael returning to go to sleep, or—
Now it was Sheila and the folk-singer! The whole world, he thought, the whole young world, the ugly ones and the pretty ones, the fat and the skinny ones, zipping and unzipping! He grabbed his great shock of gray hair and pulled it till his scalp hurt. His wife shuffled, mumbled a noise. “Brrr... brrrr...” She captured the blankets and pulled them over her. “Brrr...”
Butter! She’s dreaming about butter. Recipes she dreams while the world zips. He closed his eyes and pounded himself down down into an old man’s sleep.
How far back must you go to discover the beginning of trouble? Later, when Epstein had more time he would ask himself this question. When did it begin? That night he’d seen those two on the floor? Or the summer night seventeen years before when he had pushed the doctor away from the bed and put his lips to his Herbie’s? Or, Epstein wondered, was it that night fifteen years ago when instead of smelling a woman between his sheets he smelled Babo? Or the time when his daughter had first called him “capitalist” as though it were a dirty name, as though it were a crime to be successful? Or was it none of these times? Maybe to look for a beginning was only to look for an excuse. Hadn’t the trouble, the big trouble, begun simply when it appeared to begin, the morning he saw Ida Kaufman waiting for the bus?
And about Ida Kaufman, why in God’s name was it a stranger, nobody he loved or ever could love, who had finally changed his life?—she, who had lived across the street for less than a year, and who (it was revealed by Mrs. Katz, the neighborhood Winchell) would probably sell her house now that Mr. Kaufman was dead and move all-year-round into the summer cottage she owned at Barnegat? Up until that morning Epstein had no more than noticed the woman: dark, good-looking, a big chest. She hardly spoke to the other housewives, but spent every moment, until a month ago, caring for her cancer-eaten husband. Once or twice Epstein had tipped his hat to her, but even then he had been more absorbed in the fate of Epstein Paper Bag than in the civility he was practicing. Actually then, on that Monday morning, it would not have been unlikely for him to have driven right past the bus-stop. It was a warm April day, certainly not a bad day to be waiting for a bus. Birds fussed and sang in the elm trees, and the sun glinted in the sky like a young athlete’s trophy. But the woman at the bus-stop wore a thin dress and no coat. Epstein saw her waiting, and beneath the dress, the stockings, the imagined underthings he saw again the body of the girl on his living room rug—for Ida Kaufman was the mother of Linda Kaufman, the girl Michael had befriended. So Epstein pulled slowly to the curb and, stopping for the daughter, picked up the mother.
“Thank you, Mr. Epstein,” she said. “This is kind of you.”
“It’s nothing,” Epstein said. “I’m going to Market Street.”
“Market Street will be fine.”
He pressed down too hard on the accelerator and the big Chrysler leaped away, noisy as a hot-rodder’s Ford. Ida Kaufman rolled down her window and let the breeze waft in; she lit a cigarette. After a while she asked, “That was your nephew, wasn’t it, that took Linda out Saturday night?”
“Michael? Yes.” Epstein flushed, for reasons Ida Kaufman did not know. He felt the red on his neck and coughed to make it appear that some respiratory failure had caused the blood to rush up from his heart.
“He’s a very nice boy, extremely polite,” she said.
“My brother Sol’s,” Epstein said. “In Detroit.” And he shifted his thoughts to Sol so that the flush might fade: if there had been no words with Sol it would be Michael who would be heir to Epstein Paper Bag. Would he have wanted that? Was it any better than a stranger...?
While Epstein thought, Ida Kaufman smoked, and they drove on without speaking, under the elm trees, the choir of birds, and the new spring sky unfurled like a blue banner.
“He looks like you,” she said.
“No,” Epstein said, “him, he’s the image of Sol.”
“No, no, don’t deny it—” and she exploded with laughter, smoke dragoning out of her mouth; she jerked her head back mightily, “No, no, no, he’s got your face!”
Epstein looked at her, wondering: the lips, big and red, over her teeth, grinning. Why? Of course—your little boy looks like the ice man, she’d made that joke. He grinned, mainly at the thought of going to bed with his sister-in-law, whose everything had dropped even lower than his wife’s.
Epstein’s grin provoked Ida Kaufman into more extravagant mirth. What the hell, he decided, he would try a joke himself.
“Your Linda, who does she look like?”
Ida Kaufman’s mouth straightened; her lids narrowed, killing the light in her eyes. Had he said the wrong thing? Stepped too far ? Defiled the name of a dead man, a man who’d had cancer yet? But no, for suddenly she raised her arms in front of her, and shrugged her shoulders as though to say, “Who knows, Epstein, who knows?”
Epstein roared. It was so long since he had been with a woman who had a sense of humor; his wife took everything he said seriously. Not Ida Kaufman, though—she laughed so hard her breasts swelled over the top of her tan dress. They were not cups but pitchers. The next thing Epstein knew he was telling her another joke, and another, in the middle of which a cop screamed up alongside him and gave him a ticket for a red light which, in his joy, he had not seen. It was the first of three tickets he received that day; he earned a second racing down to Barnegat later that morning, and a third speeding up the Parkway at dusk, trying not to be too late for dinner. The tickets cost him $32 in all, but as he told Ida, when you’re laughing so hard you have tears in your eyes, how can you tell the green lights from the red ones, fast from slow?
At seven o’clock that evening he returned Ida to the bus-stop on the corner and squeezed a bill into her hands.
“Here,” he said, “here—buy something;” which brought the day’s total to fifty-two.
Then he turned up the street, already prepared with a story for his wife: a man interested in buying Epstein Paper Bag had kept him away all day, a good prospect. As he pulled into his driveway he saw his wife’s square shape in back of the venetian blinds; she ran one hand across a slat, checking for dust while she awaited her husband’s homecoming.
He clutched his pajama trousers around his knees and looked at himself in the bedroom mirror. Downstairs a key turned in the lock but he was too engaged to hear it. Prickly heat is what Herbie always had—a child’s complaint. Was it possible for a grown man to have it? He shuffled closer to the mirror, tripping on his half-hoisted pajamas. Maybe it was a sand rash. Sure, he thought, for during those three warm, sunny weeks, he and Ida Kaufman, when they were through, would rest on the beach in front of the cottage. Sand must have gotten into his trousers and irritated him on the drive up the Parkway. He stepped back now and was squinting at himself in the mirror when Goldie walked into the bedroom. She had just emerged from a hot tub—her bones ached, she had said—and her flesh was boiled red. Her entrance startled Epstein, who had been contemplating his blemish with the intensity of a philosopher; when he turned swiftly from his reflection, his feet caught in the pant-legs, he tripped, and the pajamas slipped to the floor. So there they were, naked as Adam and Eve, except that Goldie was red all over, and Epstein had prickly heat, or a sand rash, or—and it came to him as a first principle comes to a metaphysician. Of course! His hands shot down to cover his crotch.
Goldie looked at him, mystified, while Epstein searched for words appropriate to his posture.
At last: “You had a nice bath?”
“Nice, shmise, it was a bath,” his wife mumbled.
“You’ll catch a cold,” Epstein said. “Put something on.”
“I’ll catch a cold? You’ll catch a cold!” She looked at the hands laced across his crotch. “Something hurts?”
“It’s a little chilly,” he said.
“Where?” She motioned towards his protection. “There?”
“Then cover all over.”
He leaned over to pick up his pajama trousers; the instant he dropped the fig leaf of his hands Goldie let out a short airless gasp. “What is that?”
He could not look into the eyes of her face, so concentrated instead on the purple eyes of her droopy breasts. “A sand rash, I think.”
“Vus far sand!”
“A rash then,” he said.
She stepped up closer and reached out her hand, not to touch but to point. She drew a little circle of the area with her index finger. “A rash, there?”
“Why not there?” Epstein said. “It’s like a rash on the hand or the chest. A rash is a rash.”
“But how come all of a sudden?” his wife said.
“Look, I’m not a doctor,” Epstein said. “It’s there today, maybe tomorrow it’ll be gone. How do I know! I probably got it from the toilet seat at the shop. The shvartzes are pigs—”
Goldie made a clicking sound with her tongue.
“You’re calling me a liar?”
She looked up. “Who said liar?” And she gave her own form a swift looking-over, checked limbs, stomach, breasts, to see if she had caught the rash from him. She looked back at her husband, then at her own body again, and suddenly her eyes widened. “You!” she screamed.
“Shah,” Epstein said, “you’ll wake Michael.”
“You pig! Who was it!”
“I told you who, the shvartzes—”
“Liar! Pig!” Wheeling her way back to the bed, she flopped on to it so hard the springs squeaked as they rarely had in their last decade of love-making, “Liar!” And then she was off the bed pulling the sheets from it. “I'll burn them, I’ll burn every one!”
Epstein stepped out of the pajamas that roped his ankles and raced to the bed, “What are you doing—it’s not catching. Only on the toilet seat. You’ll buy a little ammonia...”
“Ammonia!” she yelled, “you should drink ammonia!”
“No,” Epstein shouted, “no,” and he grabbed the sheets from her and threw them back over the bed, tucking them in madly. “Leave it be—” He ran to the back of the bed but as he tucked there Goldie raced around and ripped up what he had tucked in the front; so he raced back to the front while Goldie raced around to the back. “Don’t touch me,” she screamed, “don’t come near me, you filthy pig! Go touch some filthy whore!” Then she yanked the sheets off again in one swoop, held them in a ball before her and spat. Epstein grabbed them back and the tug-of-war began, back and forth, back and forth, until they had torn them to shreds. Then, for the first time Goldie cried. With white strips looped over her arms she began to sob. “My sheets, my nice clean sheets—” and she threw herself on the bed.
Two faces appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. Sheila Epstein groaned, “Holy Christ!”; the folk-singer peeked in, once, twice, and then bobbed out, his feet scuttling down the stairs. Epstein whipped some white strands about him to cover his privates. He did not say a word as his daughter entered.
“Mama, what’s the matter?”
“Your father,” the voice groaned from the bed, “he has—a rash!” And so violently did she begin to sob that the flesh on her white buttocks rippled and jumped.
“That’s right,” Epstein said, “a rash. That’s a crime? Get out of here! Let your mother and father get some sleep.”
“Why is she crying?” Sheila demanded. “I want an answer!”
“How do I know! I’m a mind-reader? This whole family is crazy, who knows what they think!”
“Don’t call my mother crazy!”
“Don’t you raise your voice to me! Respect your father!” He pulled the white strips tighter around him. “Now get out of here!”
“Then I’ll throw you out.” He started for the door; his daughter did not move, and he could not bring himself to reach out and push her. Instead he threw back his head and addressed the ceiling. “She’s picketing my bedroom! Get out, you lummox!” He took a step toward her and growled, as though to scare away a stray cat or dog. With all her 160 pounds she pushed her father back; in his surprise and hurt he dropped the sheet. And the daughter looked on the father; under her lipstick she turned white.
Epstein looked up at her; he pleaded, “I got it from the toilet seat. The shvartzes—”
Before he could finish, a new head had popped into the doorway, hair messed and lips swollen and red; it was Michael, home from Linda Kaufman, his regular weekend date. “I heard the noise, is any—” and he saw his aunt naked on the bed; when he turned his eyes away, there was Uncle Lou.
“All of you,” Epstein shouted. “Get out!”
But no one obeyed. Sheila blocked the door, politically committed: Michael’s legs were rooted, one with shame, the other curiosity.
Feet now came pounding up the stairs. “Sheila, should I call somebody—” And then the guitar-plucker appeared in the doorway, eager, big-nosed. He surveyed the scene and his gaze, at last, landed on Epstein’s crotch; the beak opened.
“What’s he got? The syph?”
The words hung for a moment, bringing peace. Goldie Epstein stopped crying and raised herself off the bed. The young men in the doorway lowered their eyes. Goldie arched her back, flopped out her breasts, and began to move her lips. “I want...” she said. “I want...”
“What Mama?” Sheila demanded. “What is it?”
“I want... a divorce!” She looked amazed when she said it, though not as amazed as her husband; he smacked his palm to his head.
“Divorce! Are you crazy?” Epstein looked around; to Michael he said, “She’s crazy!”
“I want one,” she said, and then her eyes rolled up into her head and she passed out across the sheetless mattress.