Houghton Mifflin. 233 pp. $26
Sept. 14, 2008
Chapter OneUnder Morphine
About two and a half months after the well-trained divisions of North Korea, armed by the Soviets and Chinese Communists, crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea on June 25, 1950, and the agonies of the Korean War began, I entered Robert Treat, a small college in downtown Newark named for the city's seventeenth-century founder. I was the first member of our family to seek a higher education. None of my cousins had gone beyond high school, and neither my father nor his three brothers had finished elementary school. "I worked for money," my father told me, "since I was ten years old." He was a neighborhood butcher for whom I'd delivered orders on my bicycle all through high school, except during baseball season and on the afternoons when I had to attend interschool matches as a member of the debating team. Almost from the day that I left the store-where I'd been working sixty-hour weeks for him between the time of my high school graduation in January and the start of college in September-almost from the day that I began classes at Robert Treat, my father became frightened that I would die. Maybe his fear had something to do with the war, which the U.S. armed forces, under United Nations auspices, had immediately entered to bolster the efforts of the ill-trained and underequipped South Korean army; maybe it had something to do with the heavy casualties our troops were sustaining against the Communist firepower and his fear that if the conflict dragged on as long as World War Two had, I would be drafted into the army to fight and die on the Korean battlefield as my cousins Abe and Dave had died during World War Two. Or maybe the fear had to do with his financial worries: the year before, the neighborhood's first supermarket had opened only a few blocks from our family's kosher butcher shop, and sales had begun steadily falling off, in part because of the supermarket's meat and poultry section's undercutting my father's prices and in part because of a general postwar decline in the number of families bothering to maintain kosher households and to buy kosher meat and chickens from a rabbinically certified shop whose owner was a member of the Federation of Kosher Butchers of New Jersey. Or maybe his fear for me began in fear for himself, for at the age of fifty, after enjoying a lifetime of robust good health, this sturdy little man began to develop the persistent racking cough that, troubling as it was to my mother, did not stop him from keeping a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth all day long. Whatever the cause or mix of causes fueling the abrupt change in his previously benign paternal behavior, he manifested his fear by hounding me day and night about my whereabouts. Where were you? Why weren't you home? How do I know where you are when you go out? You are a boy with a magnificent future before you-how do I know you're not going to places where you can get yourself killed?
The questions were ludicrous since, in my high school years, I had been a prudent, responsible, diligent, hardworking A student who went out with only the nicest girls, a dedicated debater, and a utility infielder for the varsity baseball team, living happily enough within the adolescent norms of our neighborhood and my school. The questions were also infuriating-it was as though the father to whom I'd been so close during all these years, practically growing up at his side in the store, had no idea any longer of who or what his son was. At the store, the customers would delight him and my mother by telling them what a pleasure it was to watch the little one to whom they used to bring cookies-back when his father used to let him play with some fat and cut it up like "a big butcher," albeit using a knife with a dull blade-to watch him mature under their eyes into a well-mannered, well-spoken youngster who put their beef through the grinder to make chopped meat and who scattered and swept up the sawdust on the floor and who dutifully yanked the remaining feathers from the necks of the dead chickens hanging from hooks on the wall when his father called over to him, "Flick two chickens, Markie, will ya, for Mrs. So-and-So?" During the seven months before college he did more than give me the meat to grind and a few chickens to flick. He taught me how to take a rack of lamb and cut lamb chops out of it, how to slice each rib, and, when I got down to the bottom, how to take the chopper and chop off the rest of it. And he taught me always in the most easygoing way. "Don't hit your hand with the chopper and everything will be okay," he said. He taught me how to be patient with our more demanding customers, particularly those who had to see the meat from every angle before they bought it, those for whom I had to hold up the chicken so they could literally look up the asshole to be sure that it was clean. "You can't believe what some of those women will put you through before they buy their chicken," he told me. And then he would mimic them: "'Turn it over. No, over. Let me see the bottom.'" It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them. You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and you grab the viscera and you pull them out. I hated that part. Nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done. That's what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.
Our store fronted on Lyons Avenue in Newark, a block up the street from Beth Israel Hospital, and in the window we had a place where you could put ice, a wide shelf tilted slightly down, back to front. An ice truck would come by to sell us chopped ice, and we'd put the ice in there and then we'd put our meat in so people could see it when they walked by. During the seven months I worked in the store full time before college I would dress the window for him. "Marcus is the artist," my father said when people commented on the display. I'd put everything in. I'd put steaks in, I'd put chickens in, I'd put lamb shanks in-all the products that we had I would make patterns out of and arrange in the window "artistically." I'd take some ferns and dress things up, ferns that I got from the flower shop across from the hospital. And not only did I cut and slice and sell meat and dress the window with meat; during those seven months when I replaced my mother as his sidekick I went with my father to the wholesale market early in the morning and learned to buy it too. He'd be there once a week, five, five-thirty in the morning, because if you went to the market and picked out your own meat and drove it back to your place yourself and put it in the refrigerator yourself, you saved on the premium you had to pay to have it delivered. We'd buy a whole quarter of the beef, and we'd buy a forequarter of the lamb for lamb chops, and we'd buy a calf, and we'd buy some beef livers, and we'd buy some chickens and chicken livers, and since we had a couple of customers for them, we would buy brains. The store opened at seven in the morning and we'd work until seven, eight at night. I was seventeen, young and eager and energetic, and by five I'd be whipped. And there he was, still going strong, throwing hundred-pound forequarters on his shoulders, walking in and hanging them in the refrigerator on hooks. There he was, cutting and slicing with the knives, chopping with the cleaver, still filling out orders at seven P.M. when I was ready to collapse. But my job was to clean the butcher blocks last thing before we went home, to throw some sawdust on the blocks and then scrape them with the iron brush, and so, marshaling the energy left in me, I'd scrape out the blood to keep the place kosher.
I look back at those seven months as a wonderful time-wonderful except when it came to eviscerating chickens. And even that was wonderful in its way, because it was something you did, and did well, that you didn't care to do. So there was a lesson in doing it. And lessons I loved-bring them on! And I loved my father, and he me, more than ever before in our lives. In the store, I prepared our lunch, his and mine. Not only did we eat our lunch there but we cooked our lunch there, on a small grill in the backroom, right next to where we cut up and prepared the meat. I'd grill chicken livers for us, I'd grill little flank steaks for us, and never were we two happier together. Yet only shortly afterward the destructive struggle between us began: Where were you? Why weren't you home? How do I know where you are when you go out? You are a boy with a magnificent future before you-how do I know you're not going to places where you can get yourself killed?
During that fall I began Robert Treat as a freshman, whenever my father double-locked our front and back doors and I couldn't use my keys to open either and I had to pound on one or the other door to be let in if I came home at night twenty minutes later than he thought I ought to, I believed he had gone crazy.
And he had: crazy with worry that his cherished only child was as unprepared for the hazards of life as anyone else entering manhood, crazy with the frightening discovery that a little boy grows up, grows tall, overshadows his parents, and that you can't keep him then, that you have to relinquish him to the world.
I left Robert Treat after only one year. I left because suddenly my father had no faith even in my ability to cross the street by myself. I left because my father's surveillance had become insufferable. The prospect of my independence made this otherwise even-tempered man, who only rarely blew up at anyone, appear as if he were intent on committing violence should I dare to let him down, while I-whose skills as a cool-headed logician had made me the mainstay of the high school debating team -was reduced to howling with frustration in the face of his ignorance and irrationality. I had to get away from him before I killed him-so I wildly told my distraught mother, who now found herself as unexpectedly without influence over him as I was.
One night I got home on the bus from downtown about nine-thirty. I'd been at the main branch of the Newark Public Library, as Robert Treat had no library of its own. I had left the house at eight-thirty that morning and been away attending classes and studying, and the first thing my mother said was "Your father's out looking for you." "Why? Where is he looking?" "He went to a pool hall." "I don't even know how to shoot pool. What is he thinking about? I was studying, for God's sake. I was writing a paper. I was reading. What else does he think I do night and day?" "He was talking to Mr. Pearlgreen about Eddie, and it got him all riled up about you." Eddie Pearlgreen, whose father was our plumber, had graduated from high school with me and gone on to college at Panzer, in East Orange, to learn to become a high school phys-ed teacher. I'd played ball with him since I was a kid. "I'm not Eddie Pearlgreen," I said, "I'm me." "But do you know what he did? Without telling anybody, he drove all the way to Pennsylvania, to Scranton, in his father's car to play pool in some kind of special pool hall there." "But Eddie's a pool shark. I'm not surprised he went to Scranton. Eddie can't brush his teeth in the morning without thinking about pool. I wouldn't be surprised if he went to the moon to play pool. Eddie pretends with guys who don't know him that he's only at their level of skill, and then they play and he beats the pants off them for as much as twenty-five dollars a game." "He'll end up stealing cars, Mr. Pearlgreen said." "Oh, Mother, this is ridiculous. Whatever Eddie does has no bearing on me. Will I end up stealing cars?" "Of course not, darling." "I don't like this game Eddie likes, I don't like the atmosphere he likes. I'm not interested in the low life, Ma. I'm interested in things that matter. I wouldn't so much as stick my head in a pool hall. Oh, look, this is as far as I go explaining what I am and am not like. I will not explain myself one more time. I will not make an inventory of my attributes for people or mention my goddamn sense of duty. I will not take one more round of his ridiculous, nonsensical crap!" Whereupon, as though following a stage direction, my father entered the house through the back door, still all charged up, reeking of cigarette smoke, and angry now not because he'd found me in a pool hall but because he hadn't found me there. It wouldn't have dawned on him to go downtown and look for me at the public library-the reason being that you can't get cracked over the head with a pool cue at the library for being a pool shark or have someone pull a knife on you because you are sitting there reading a chapter assigned from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as I'd been doing since six that night.
"So there you are," he announced. "Yeah. Strange, isn't it? At home. I sleep here. I live here. I am your son, remember?" "Are you? I've been everywhere looking for you." "Why? Why? Somebody, please, tell me why 'everywhere.'" "Because if anything were to happen to you-if something were ever to happen to you-" "But nothing will happen. Dad, I am not this terror of the earth who plays pool, Eddie Pearlgreen! Nothing is going to happen." "I know that you're not him, for God's sake. I know better than anybody that I'm lucky with my boy." "Then what is this all about, Dad?" "It's about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences." "Oh, Christ, you sound like a fortune cookie." "Do I? Do I? Not like a concerned father but like a fortune cookie? That's what I sound like when I'm talking to my son about the future he has ahead of him, which any little thing could destroy, the tiniest thing?" "Oh, the hell with it!" I cried, and ran out of the house, wondering where I could find a car to steal to go to Scranton to play pool and maybe pick up the clap on the side.
Later I learned from my mother the full circumstances of that day, about how Mr. Pearlgreen had come to see about the toilet at the back of the store that morning and left my father brooding over their conversation from then until closing time. He must have smoked three packs of cigarettes, she told me, he was so upset. "You don't know how proud of you he is," my mother said. "Everybody who comes into the store-'My son, all A's. Never lets us down. Doesn't even have to look at his books -automatically, A's.' Darling, when you're not present you are the focus of all his praise. You must believe that. He boasts about you all the time." "And when I am present I'm the focus of these crazy new fears, and I'm sick and tired of it, Ma." My mother said, "But I heard him, Markie. He told Mr. Pearlgreen, 'Thank God I don't have to worry about these things with my boy.' I was there with him in the store when Mr. Pearlgreen came because of the leak. That's exactly what he said when Mr. Pearlgreen was telling him about Eddie. Those were his words: 'I don't have to worry about these things with my boy.' But what does Mr. Pearlgreen say back to him-and this is what started him off-he says, 'Listen to me, Messner. I like you, Messner, you were good to us, you took care of my wife during the war with meat, listen to somebody who knows from it happening to him. Eddie is a college boy too, but that doesn't mean he knows enough to stay away from the pool hall. How did we lose Eddie? He's not a bad boy. And what about his younger brother-what kind of example is he to his younger brother? What did we do wrong that the next thing we know he's in a pool hall in Scranton, three hours from home! With my car! Where does he get the money for the gas? From playing pool! Pool! Pool! Mark my words, Messner: the world is waiting, it's licking its chops, to take your boy away.'" "And my father believes him," I said. "My father believes not what he sees with his eyes for an entire lifetime, instead he believes what he's told by the plumber on his knees fixing the toilet in the back of the store!" I couldn't stop. He'd been driven crazy by the chance remark of a plumber! "Yeah, Ma," I finally said, storming off to my room, "the tiniest, littlest things do have tragic consequences. He proves it!"
I had to get away but I didn't know where to go. I didn't know one college from another. Auburn. Wake Forest. Ball State. SMU. Vanderbilt. Muhlenberg. They were nothing but the names of football teams to me. Every fall I eagerly listened to the results of the college games on Bill Stern's Saturday evening sports roundup, but I had little idea of the academic differences between the contending schools. Louisiana State 35, Rice 20; Cornell 21, Lafayette 7; Northwestern 14, Illinois 13. That was the difference I knew about: the point spread. A college was a college-that you attended one and eventually earned a degree was all that mattered to a family as unworldly as mine. I was going to the one downtown because it was close to home and we could afford it.
Excerpted from Indignation by Philip Roth Copyright © 2008 by Philip Roth. Excerpted by permission.
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