My father’s younger brother, Sam, who hated my father, died last year. He outlived both my father and their older brother Max. The three brothers ran a business together for over forty years, the Stanley Furniture Company, named after a five and dime that had occupied the site until the 1930’s. Their start came during the Depression when the brothers and their mother—their father had died when they were all boys—moved into a vacant storefront in Chester, Pennsylvania. They’d put their own clothes dresser in the window because that was the only space large enough for it. A man came by, assuming it was for sale, and asked them the price.
My grandmother didn’t hesitate. “Twenty-five dollars,” she said, which was twice the amount she’d paid for the highboy dresser.
She took the money and bought two other dressers, sold those at a profit and bought four more. That, the story goes, is how they got into the furniture business. After World War II, business became so good they opened a second location in Chester and soon needed three warehouses to stock inventory. Max managed this second store on Third Street while Sam and my father, Ben, worked at the main store, the old Stanley Five and Dime building, on Fourth and Market. My father was the front man, selling, ordering, traveling to the furniture shows in Chicago and North Carolina, handling the advertising and promotion. Sam, meanwhile, although he occasionally sold out front, ran the back office, managing the store’s accounts. His office was at the end of the store’s center aisle, behind a counter with a glass window where customers made monthly payments. Sometimes his son Bruce, my older cousin who liked to help out occasionally, would take a two-dollar payment and then slip the customer’s payment card into the hulking NCR tabulator. Sometimes he’d just do his homework. Bruce was an academic star at Chester High School, a tennis champion, president of student council, the pride of his family. I was thirteen when he started college at Johns Hopkins. We all expected that he’d go on to law school or to study medicine; no matter what he did, we knew he’d continue to be a success by every measure. But just shy of graduating from Johns Hopkins, he drove up with some friends to Millbrook, New York, to seek out Timothy Leary and wound up staying on the estate’s three-hundred acres at Leary’s Victorian mansion, dropping the famous and highly potent Owsley acid for days at a time. One evening, after Bruce had left Millbrook and moved back to Baltimore, he got stuck in traffic while he was tripping. He smashed the car in front of him, then backed up and hit the car behind him. He got out and started a fight with the driver in front. Then he took off running down the street in his sandals and bellbottoms, his pupils wildly dilated, completely unsure of who he was or where he was running. A black construction worker scooped him up as he ran past and held onto him until the police came and took him away to jail.
“I got them,” I said, referring to the five or ten-dollar bills my parents would send me in the mail once or twice a week during college. “Thanks,” I said, talking to them on the phone from Colorado where I’d gone to college. “I really appreciate it.”
“What were you talking about at the end?” Alice, my girlfriend, asked after I got off.
“The envelopes,” I said.
“You know . . . what my parents have been sending.”
“You mean the money?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Yes,” I said. “That.” The summer before I’d worked for my uncle, running errands and chauffeuring around his black workers who would paint his apartments or do repairs when Max finally consented—or was forced to by a summons—to maintain his deteriorating buildings. Max had left the store in 1963 to strike out on his own as a landlord in West Philadelphia, renting to University of Pennsylvania students and the city’s poor blacks. My uncle’s workers couldn’t say enough bad things, that is, dis my uncle good naturedly, well, maybe not so good naturedly, about how cheap he was, yet Max would always come through for my father. He still gave my father money to meet the payroll for the store. Not that it was willingly. He’d scream, as my mother said, bloody murder about my father needing money again for the store, but at the end of the week, he’d hand me a fat envelope and tell me to give it to my father.
Money madness, Alice called it, and her family suffered from it too, but in their case it was about child support and alimony. Over the years, her mother had become shrill and embittered from her fight to get more, and Alice didn’t know what was fair or not. She’d hear her father’s side and then her mother’s, and somewhere in between the truth lay.
In our family, it was all under the table. I’d never heard my parents fight even once over money; the money madness was all processed through some elaborate channels of familial relations, and its dripping resentments hung over us like a yellow-stained ceiling swollen with water damage, ready to burst open and come crashing down. Each year you’d look up, see the telltale patterns and think, surely they can’t go on like this any longer. But my father continued right on with his two brothers and their interdependent financial web, borrowing money from Max, which wasn’t really borrowing because Max had taken unaccountable sums of money from the store he ran on Third Street, while Sam, the youngest brother who felt bossed around by the other two all his life, had dipped his hand in the till too and claimed both brothers were cheating him.
Max had only an eighth grade education, same as my father and Sam, but he aspired to higher culture, getting involved in theater when he was a young man and dating actresses, acquiring a taste for opera, and marrying, ultimately, into a wealthy upper-crust family, heirs to the Frank Beverage empire (where he had gotten money to buy his apartment buildings in West Philly). He had wavy golden air, dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, spoke in a baritone, gestured as if on stage, and generally carried himself with Patrician airs, although he could easily descend into a rant as a landlord, yelling through the barricaded doors of his apartments to demand the rent from his tenants who counter-demanded he fix their plumbing first. Sam hated him more than he hated my father. Max had evidently sold their mother’s house after she died and pocketed all the money for himself, claiming he needed it for repairs that had been made and to settle the estate. And once, when Max was still running the store on Third Street he’d walked over to the main store and gone into the vault, which was right behind Sam’s desk. He took a cash box of silver dollars that belonged to all three brothers and were used as gifts for birthdays and bar mitzvahs.
“What are you doing?” Sam asked him.
“I’ll return them,” Max said, but he never did, an act Sam found as unforgivable as taking all the money from their mother’s house. My father didn’t get involved. Perhaps he accepted the store’s social Darwinism or perhaps, being the optimist that he was, he wanted to believe things were always better than they appeared.
I took every opportunity I could to be around my father’s store, a worker bee, unlike my brother who wanted nothing to do with business or selling and spent his time on more ethereal interests, reading everything from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess to Anais Ninn, or gazing through his telescope to make star charts. No one had any doubt he would become a writer—it was what he did in his spare time even in junior high, typing stories on his Olivetti portable with titles like “At the Center Lies a Body” that were part crime capers, part German Expressionist meditations on evil in which characters contemplated the idea of action. “Nothing happens,” I would tell him about the stories.
“It’s not supposed to,” he’d insist. “All the movement takes place in the mind of the killer.”
“What killer? He’s not even in the story.”
“He’s suggested,” Louis would say, a word like “ineffable” that he used frequently in talking about his work. “You’re so literal,” he would accuse me.
And I was. I liked the concreteness of The Store—it was The Store then, a happy bounteous baby delivering riches until I was fourteen in 1964 and the race riots started in Chester when The Store turned into a delinquent and draining Problem Child.
But in the good years, I hoped for nothing more than to follow my father around—to help him decorate his front windows for the holidays. It didn’t matter that as Jews we would never have a Christmas decoration anywhere near our house. When it came to the store, commerce and fantasy took over and the windows were full of wreaths and trees with presents underneath and hearths and frosted panes of glass and snowmen made from Styrofoam with scotch-plaid scarves around their crunchy necks. The window displays had sofa sectionals for a big family and a rocking chair for granddad; kitchens with Formica tables and stiff metal chairs with their cushions in bright vinyl colors of Christmas red and green; a new refrigerator with its own ice maker, in the most popular color, avocado—who knew the color would die like the Edsel! And in the store’s side window, a kid’s cowboy-themed room with a bunk bed and saddlebags hanging off the end and a desk with a hook from which to hang your Gene Autry gun belt, and a reading lamp in the shape of a lasso—all happy settings waiting for people to take them home.
Sometimes I’d come in on weekends and watch my father sell, his patience and intimacy with a customer, his singular focus, a young couple perhaps, just married, whose parents had bought furniture from him many years ago. The young husband worked as a machinist at Baldwin Locomotive or maybe a cutter at Scott Paper. The wife was pregnant and they’d just moved out to the suburbs but still drove into Chester to shop because they were loyal and they’d grown up here. My father would listen, ask questions, take their history: What were their likes and dislikes: Colonial? Contemporary? French Provincial? What colors did they have in their new house over in Springfield? Did the den have a lot of natural light? He only wanted them to be satisfied and comfortable, and he’d put his hand over his heart in pleasured agreement at the curtains the wife said she planned for the nursery. Or maybe his blue eyes would dim with concern behind his horn-rimmed glasses when the husband mentioned his father’s worsening problems walking because of his diabetes.
My father would wait for the right moment, then he’d surprise them by remembering what the husband’s parents bought at his store more than twenty-five years ago when they were just starting out. Yes, they still have that coffee table! the husband might say, or That was me and my brother’s bedroom furniture! My father would nod, smile benevolently—like a clairvoyant working the crowd he knew the secret was to say too little and not too much: nine out of ten boys slept in twin beds with pine headboards. And then my father would put his hand gently on the small of the wife’s back and guide her to a recliner—she shouldn’t stay on her feet too long with the baby due in a month—and they’d look over fabric colors for the sofa they’d already chosen. On his order pad, he’d write down item numbers. They’d ask if there was to be any more off the list price, since the screaming red-lettered sign in the window (which had been there for years) announced SALE!! He’d soothe their worries. All would be figured out at the end. The end? Their eyes would dart around the store. All? And he’d take them downstairs to the basement where everything from baby strollers to vacuum cleaners to throw rugs to cribs to grandfather clocks were on display. He’d show them the new fade-resistant, sailor blue patio furniture—very popular this season! And perhaps. . . well, they really should have a cedar chest for their damp basement. Soon they’d come back up and pause again in front of dinette sets the wife had admired, and my father would throw out names . . . Broyhill, Drexel, Link-Taylor, Thomasville, the best of the manufacturers, and tell the husband that the table’s maple was milled in one of the finest factories in North Carolina. He’d show the husband a brochure with statistics about hardness of the wood and qualities of the finish, while the wife studied her reflection in the glistening polished surface. Then my father had the husband crouch down with him so they could examine the craftsmanship and beveling of the legs. They’d disappear with him into his office where he’d write up their contract.
In about twenty minutes, they’d come out, shaking hands, excited and nervous, having just financed the transaction to the tune of several years of payments. They’d walk over to the glass window with its round speaker hole and slotted opening above the counter for payments. My Uncle Sam would get up from his creaky chair. A long knifelike shadow of a man who you might glimpse from the side like a secret agent on a dusty street corner, his eyes tracked you like two large black olives. He would take their deposit and give them a payment book with the somberness of placing wartime papers in their hand.
Back in enchanted furniture land, my father would escort the couple down the center aisle to the front of the store, out the sky blue double doors that swung both ways like saloon doors, under the frosted-glass transom etched with STANLEY FURNITURE, and pause with them on the sidewalk, partaking of a final moment. He’d promise them that if they should have any problem whatsoever with their purchase he’d come over personally for a house call within forty-eight hours. He would contact them the day before the delivery. And, please, let him know when the baby arrives.
I’d be reading a comic book in the appliance section of the store, scanning occasionally the black and white TVs and the one or two new color models for 1960. I’d glance up to see his exuberance at the sale immediately fade when Sam barked something at him—a customer problem, a bill inquiry, a warehouse delivery. Only a minute before, my father could have come right out of one of my comics, a super-powered salesman of sorts. But now, his voice would be low and guarded when he answered Sam—straight information only, though, interestingly enough, always a touch conciliatory. Bitterly dark weather would cloud up the store like poison gas: I could hardly breathe there for all the tension. I don’t know how the other people, my father’s two other salesmen, Sowden and Travis, and the two secretaries tolerated it. Somehow they just ignored the bad blood. Sowden was a big man who looked like his name, with rosy cheeks, always jolly and in a good mood, and Travis was as compact as Sowden was expansive. Travis had a resonant if buzzy voice, greeting customers as if talking from inside an old radio. They never complained and had mastered an important precept of sales: the neutrality of pleasantness.
One afternoon when I was fourteen, I rode my bike through Chester Park to where Sam and my Aunt Soph lived. They had a row home on the Chester side of the park in an older neighborhood. My father had built us a new home at the Garden City entrance to the park, a large colonial house on three-quarters of an acre, a home featured in the Chester Times for its mix of period authenticity on the outside and modern furnishings on the inside, an obvious step up from what Sam could afford for his family, though I didn’t give the disparity much thought back then.
I decided to stop in and say hello to Sam and Soph. I’d never done this before and had no idea what to expect. Around the store, Sam could hardly bring himself to say a word to me. I was an extension of my father in his eyes, or at best invisible.
Sam opened the door and stared at me a moment. “What?” he said.
“I . . . I just stopped by to say hello.”
He blinked sharply. He was wearing an open-necked shirt. I’d hardly ever seen him without a tie and jacket. His gray hair was combed straight back in thinning quills and his mustache which usually all but covered his upper lip had been trimmed.
Then my Aunt Soph came to the door.
“I just stopped by to say hello,” I repeated to her.
It must have dawned on my uncle then that I had no ulterior motive. He threw open the door, a broad smile on his face—I’d seen him smirk but never smile—and they both nearly mauled me with hugs and warm greetings as they took me inside to their small dining room. Soph brought out milk and lemon cookies and bagels and lox—it was a Sunday—and they both asked me questions about myself, about school, about my brother (who was away at college like their son, Bruce), as if they hadn’t seen me in years, which in some sense they hadn’t. Though I came down to the store almost every day, if just to ride along with my mother when she picked up my father (we had only one car) and Sam was always there, we never acknowledged each other. This wasn’t the Steven, son of Benjamin, from The Store. This was their nephew, fourteen years old, whom they’d always loved and cherished. They brought out photographs to show me of Bruce at Johns Hopkins—this was before his breakdown in traffic and before Timothy Leary—and pictures of their daughter Sandy’s wedding—she’d just gotten married in Baltimore, though of course we hadn’t gone or been invited. Soph went upstairs and came back with a box of clothes that Bruce had outgrown, sweaters, shirts, sport coasts, ties, and asked if I would take them: “We’re alone here,” she said, “what should we do with all these things?” When I left they embraced me—Uncle Sam hugging me!—and came outside to stand on the sidewalk, wave fervently, and watch me pedal down their older tree-lined street back through the park to our side of the world.
I’ve thought many times about their outpouring of affection that day. The most plausible explanation is I had somehow stepped out of time, out of the sweep of our family history. With my simple knock on their door to say hello, I’d short-circuited years of acrimonious suspicion and caught them unawares as the loving aunt and uncle they would have liked to be—except for the years of bad blood that stood in the way. I had not been mistaken when I saw tears in my Aunt Soph’s eyes as I left—freshly cleansed from a life void of family closeness.
The next day, a Monday, my mother and I came down as usual to pick up my father from work. When I walked in I looked at my uncle expectantly for some acknowledgement of our breakthrough. There was nothing—just a scowl as deep as the worn grooves in the floor of the store’s old freight elevator I was never allowed to ride. I looked again, to make sure he’d caught my eye, and I smiled, but his expression was as unwelcoming as black ice. My hopeful anticipation at seeing him turned to pinching frustration. Nothing had changed. My intervention had produced no magical reversal, and in my disappointment I could never bring myself to stop in on my aunt and uncle again.
I listened to my college professor explicate D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner,” about a boy who rides his childhood wooden rocking horse into a trance state from which he returns with the names of winning racetrack horses. No matter how much money he wins and gives secretly through his uncle to his unhappy mother, she remains disheartened. The walls continue to whisper, “There must be more money, there must be more money.” At the story’s end, the boy, riding his horse in a fury of determination, lapses into unconsciousness after reckoning the winner of the big Derby. Later that night he dies from fever. “Poor devil, poor devil, he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner,” the boy’s opportunistic uncle offers as a summation of his nephew’s existence at the story’s conclusion.
As I sat in class and listened to the possible interpretations of the story—Lawrence’s interest in sex and the insatiable demands of repressed desire; a social commentary on the evils of capitalism and industrialization with death as the price of success—the professor also offered that you could take every mention of the word “money” and substitute “love” (this was 1969, after all) and read the story as an allegory for a materialist life stripped of human connection and meaning. “Steeped in loneliness,” he added. “Bereft of heart.” I thought of my own depressed mother, who brightened every time my father brought home news of a big sale at the store, though her lifted spirits never remained long before she became worried and anxious again. And I thought, too, how much as a child I’d wanted to make money and be so famous and successful I’d make my mother happy once and for all and win her unfettered love.
In 1970, Sam and Max saw each other for the last time—by accident. Sam had left the store five years before to work for Sterns Furniture in Philadelphia. Stanley Furniture was going down hill fast. White flight had taken its toll on Chester and left behind mostly black workers at low-paying jobs with little income to support the economy. Crime was rising and people feared coming into town to shop. Many of the businesses had relocated to the suburbs, and Sam tried to persuade my father to go too. I had always considered it noble of my father that he chose to stay in Chester out of loyalty. He dreamed of rejuvenating the city and chaired the redevelopment committee, implementing business campaigns—Saturday sidewalk sales, free parking, a pedestrian mall—to get people downtown again. But Sam saw my father as staying because he wanted to remain a big-shot in the Chester community rather than move the store to a strip mall where Sam believed they had a better chance of succeeding. It was yet another example for Sam of how he wasn’t listened to and taken seriously. When business became so bad that the store could no longer support two partners, Sam left and took a job as a salesman at Sterns. Meanwhile my father, hung on, despite city blocks of boarded-up stores. He ran the business with one salesman who came in on weekends and for holiday periods, a part-time secretary (my mother helped with the books) and the cleaning lady who kept the diminished inventory dusted off.
At Sterns, Sam was on the floor one day when he saw Max walk in. Max was looking for some cheap furniture to fill up his apartments so he could rent them for more money. Sam came over to him and stood there a moment. They hadn’t seen each other since Max left the furniture business ten years earlier. Max looked at him blankly.
“Max,” Sam said, “it’s me, Sam, your brother.” Max’s mouth opened. He hadn’t recognized his own brother, “just like in the Bible with Joseph,” Sam would say later. They embraced but nothing came of the encounter. They never saw each other again, though when Sam brought up the meeting to Bruce years afterward—he couldn’t get over Max not recognizing him—a tear ran down his cheek. Still, it was not enough to keep Sam from crying out “I hate that son of a bitch!” when Bruce asked him to reconcile with Max before they both died. Decades had not softened his fury.
Had they always been enemies, even as children? I know little about their parents, my grandparents, who died before I was born. I had heard that my grandmother was a taskmaster, and in many ways, she had to be. Her husband, my grandfather, died before their boys were teenagers. She’d lost two other children: a son, Izzie, at twelve, and her only daughter, Bernice, at eleven to influenza. Bernice was a musical prodigy on the piano and had a brilliant future ahead of her. Izzie had been the eldest, looked up to and loved by them all, and evidently kept the boys in line, their leader, hair white like a baby’s, a pure blond, my father recalled. He had something called a leaking heart, a defective value that often causes scarring. On the day of Izzie’s death, my father had been sent to the drugstore to get medicine for Izzie, but what he brought back hadn’t helped, and my father, ten years old, felt he’d failed somehow to save his brother.
Perhaps the three remaining children took their grief out on each other, the tender emotional heart of their family cut out by the death of two favorite siblings, especially the loss of their only sister who doted on them. By the time they were teenagers, Max, Sam, and Ben were helping their mother run an Army and Navy store but the business went bankrupt twice in six years before they scraped together enough money to move into the storefront building in Chester and got their serendipitous start selling furniture. She made the boys work. That’s mostly what they knew, work and survival, and the ever-present wolf at the door, the poorhouse being real in those days. This should have brought them all closer together, but it may have been there was too little love to go around and too much work. Then again, there was plenty of time for love in my family but that didn’t stop my brother and I from being at each other’s throats over money too.
My brother, Louis, did not become a writer. He attended film school at the University of Southern California, then went on to study literature and film at the University of Buffalo. It took him ten years to get his Ph.D. Writing became too hard for him; even critical writing caused him too much anxiety and despair.
Over the years, we’ve spent hours talking about his writer’s block. I’ve given him practical advice—set a timer; write a page a day; don’t look at what you wrote the day before; write at odd times to catch your inner critic off guard. I’ve dug in with him to the past: our parents’ expectations of us; his getting the brunt of their overprotective smothering as the firstborn and becoming more dependent than I; our mother’s depression; our father’s narcissism; our own rivalry. But what it comes down to is that the thing he wanted to do most in life brings with it too much torment and self-doubt. And like his stories of old with their endlessly ruminating characters, he can’t get the words from his head onto the page, or to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, the shadow falls in between the conceiving and the doing.
I had no intention of becoming a writer. I was going to follow our father into business. I liked to play sports, and when I did read it was Mad Magazine or comics, avoiding anything between hard covers. But that’s the way things worked out, and I have tried to see how this usurpation of his place as the writer in the family could have led to my brother and I not speaking to each other for two years, how big a part jealousy played. He cannot read anything I write, and I do not expect him to. On the other hand, he’s the first to ask me what I’m working on and to listen with great interest when I tell him.
Our split came after I married. He was in the midst of a bad marriage, teaching four classes a semester at a college he didn’t like, and in debt up to his nose. He asked for money—I now had some by marriage—and then he asked for more. Always he’d call at the last minute and declare it an emergency: he needed to make a car or house payment; the utility company was threatening to shut off the electricity; his wife’s nursing degree was in hock until they paid off her tuition bill . . . I sent the money at every request. Meanwhile, my parents had their own problems: the store had gone bankrupt by this time; their house had fallen into disrepair; their refrigerator and washer had died; they had medical bills from my mother’s continuing strokes. What I didn’t know was that they were also giving money to my brother, which was really the money I sent them, a backdoor distribution not unlike my bringing home an unmarked envelope of cash from Max to my father for the store. My wife—we’d only been married a year—felt confused by the peculiar money rites of our family, not to mention cornered and intimidated by the nest of baby bird mouths that had suddenly become gargantuan maws demanding succor.
I told my brother I couldn’t send him any more, that I had to concentrate on Mom and Dad, and that his demands were creating resentment and strain in my marriage. I didn’t tell him that my continually bailing him out was only reinforcing his dependency on our parents, via me, or maybe on me directly. When he called late one night to ask for an emergency loan of a hundred dollars to pay his car insurance, I said no. He blew up. Here I was taking a trip to Europe with my wife and we couldn’t even loan him a hundred dollars for car insurance! To him it was only a hundred dollars, but to us, after many such emergencies by this time, it was the principle, as it always is the “principle” versus the specific reasonable request.
I didn’t hear from him for months, nor would he return phone calls. They rarelyanswered the phone, letting the answering machine get it, because, as he’d told me, creditors called all the time, threatening them in their own special just-within-the-law way.
We sent him and his family Hanukkah presents. They sent them back to us, still wrapped.
Two years later I saw my brother at our mother’s hospital bed—the first time we’d spoken during all that time. Mother had suffered her worst stroke yet. She was on an IV and clot busting drugs and hooked up to a cardiac monitor and blood pressure cuff. A ventilator was inserted in her windpipe. She kept opening and closing her mouth as if gasping for air. The nurse told me she was in discomfort, though she didn’t know if it was pain exactly. My brother Louis was in the room and said, “Steven is here.” My mother opened her eyes, blinked, squeezed my hand. Her lips were cracked and dried and her tongue looked bloated and spotted with blood. The nurse said that was just the rawness from the tube in her throat. She had a 102 fever. This was her second major stroke and only my father was optimistic she wouldn’t die.
She drifted off, what turned out to be unconsciousness. The machines started beeping wildly and the nurse picked up the phone and barked “Code 99!” Two teams of medical personnel appeared and began to resuscitate her, while Louis and I waited outside. “She suffered in life and now she’s suffering in death,” my brother said.
Our mother would die three months later, but that evening the doctors were able to stabilize her, and my father, brother, and I went back to the house for some rest. I don’t remember how it started or why, but my brother and I got into an argument about his having to be the one on the scene here in the Philadelphia to take care of Mom and to support Dad while I was out in Colorado without any responsibilities other than to call in. The argument progressed to my general selfishness. “You always make it easy on yourself,” he said, “and money, I suppose, gives you the right to feel like you don’t have to help out in any other way.” The next thing that happened—the phrase always seems so pallid as a transition in these cases—was that I had my hands around his throat choking him. He struggled to unclench my hands, gasping for me to let go, flailing at me when I didn’t. Our father ran into the room, and in tears begged us to stop, “For your mother, please, for your mother, don’t do this!” and all the hate went out of me and I stood there empty of venom, deflated in shame, picturing my mother’s poor terrified face. A miserable, rented cry tore from me as I stooped over catching my breath. I have never attacked anyone like that before, or since, but I could well imagine killing someone in such a moment of anger, and I saw reflected in my brother’s eyes both his fear and the naked atavism of ourselves at the bleakest moment of our brotherhood.
“I found out why Sam wouldn’t go to your father’s funeral,” Bruce tells me.
It’s the fall of 1999, we’re in Teaneck, New Jersey, and my brother is marrying for the second time. Bruce has come up from Baltimore for the wedding. He has six children, two of them adopted. He owns a software company that specializes in applications for agencies that work with the disabled. He and his wife recently adopted a fifteen-year-old girl from Ghana, brought to this country for medical treatment for the polio she suffered as a child. And he’s started a pilot program that hires the homeless in Baltimore to refurbish old computers. His latest project? Developing funding to build an orphanage in Namibia.
In many ways he’s turned out to be every bit the success his parents expected, except he’s a Christian. For a year they didn’t talk to him after he became one. “They had no problem while I was living at Millbrook with Leary doing acid, but when I took to Jesus, then they freaked out.”
Bruce, taller than me, about six-two, still has most of his hair— unlike me. He has the same color eyes as I do, hazel, and his forehead slopes back at the same angle as mine, the same flat Russian shape as our fathers’ skulls. We’ve found a quiet place to talk in the backyard where Louis and Jean have just married under the chuppa. Bruce has been explaining—always a mystery to me—what caused the final rift between our fathers. “Ben was running the business by himself. Dad had been working at Sterns for three years. Then, in 1974, the IRS started coming after Ben for federal withholding tax from employees’ paychecks. He hadn’t been paying it. Also the state came after him for sales tax—I don’t know how much. Ben asked Sam for help and Dad hung up on him. So your father told the state that Sam was still his partner and to collect the back taxes from him. One day Mom and Dad came back from work to find a notice on the door of their home. It said the house was being seized for the payment of back taxes. Mom didn’t have any money. She was working in a low-paying CETA job and Dad wasn’t making much at Sterns, certainly not enough to come anywhere near what was needed to pay off the taxes and release them from the lien. Dad didn’t know what to do, but Mom stepped in and called Max. She made a proposal. Dad would pay one-third, all they could afford, Ben would pay one-third, and Max would pay a third. Max hung up on her.”
I remember something while Bruce is telling me this. My parents put their house into my brother’s name just before our father declared bankruptcy. I’d always been told it was just a standard procedure for protection from bankruptcy. Nothing about anyone else’s house being jeopardized.
“Who paid all the taxes?”
“My sister. Sandy paid everything—from the period when Sam worked at the store and from after he left too.”
I want to get up and walk around the block, try to make sense of what I’ve just heard. I have trouble believing my father called Harrisburg and sold his younger brother out like this, sacrificed him. He would always say how much he loved Sam and protected him as a child, and I want to hear his side of the store’s story.
But he’s dead, almost five years now, from a heart attack. Max has died too, and only Sam remains, who has Paget’s disease, his bones deformed and fragile (he would die two years hence), and I cannot ask him.
“I don’t want you to think your father is the villain here,” Bruce says, seeing my concern. “Ben worked harder than Sam or Max and deserved to be the boss. He gave his life to the store—I know because I saw him constantly on the go there, talking to the reps, working the floor, taking all the flak when things went wrong. Dad never wanted to be in the business, and I believe he felt trapped there all his life. He and my mother took a six month honeymoon after they married—six months!—while all the time collecting his salary from the store. And he was the one who got to take our grandmother on driving trips to California and Florida while the other boys stayed behind to run the business. It’s hard to say if your father and Max treated him like a perpetual little brother because he acted that way, or he acted that way because they never let him have any power.”
We walk over to watch my brother and his new wife Jean feed each other a bite of wedding cake. Bruce tells me he became a Christian after his breakdown, though not without much personal turmoil. “I was a Jew after all, you know, allergic to Jesus. I’d been looking for something to take away the angst I’d had all my life. I didn’t see any contentment in our family, I didn’t find it at the synagogue, and I certainly didn’t see the presence of grace anywhere at the store.” Then he met a young woman, a Christian, who eventually became his wife.
Bruce keeps his beliefs to himself. I am the one to ask him how he became a Christian and what Sam and Soph thought (they accepted his choice eventually and softened considerably toward him). I don’t want to reduce his decision to that of a psychological reaction to his upbringing, but it strikes me that he’s chosen a faith based on a practice unknown among our fathers: forgiveness.
I glance at my brother standing with his new wife alongside their wedding cake. He’s beaming; he’s marrying someone for love, not need, and I see that Jean loves him dearly too, loves his sometimes brilliant, sometimes fractured talk and his capacious laughter: “You laugh just like the Car Guys,” she told him when they first spoke on the phone, falling in love with his outsized amusement at the world. How my brother and I reconciled adds to the great store of commanding evidence for the human comedy. I’d come to New York City to watch one of my stories read by an actor to an audience at Symphony Space. I’d invited my brother. He declined—too busy—but then called back a few weeks later to say he could make it after all. It just so happened he was going to be in New York at the same time for a film conference, staying at a hotel across the street from mine in Midtown. He would like to go hear my story . . . but could I get him a free ticket? I swallowed my irritation—couldn’t he even afford the ten dollar ticket?—because we’d started talking on the phone by this time, making small steps toward becoming brothers again. As it turned out, even though I left a ticket for him at the box office, he bought one in advance on his own.
At the reading, which he said he enjoyed, he met my editor. Afterward a number of us, including my brother, went out for drinks and then Louis and I walked back to our hotels, stopping on the way at a bookstore. He bought close to ninety dollars worth of books. We went upstairs to my hotel room to talk—he was exceptionally complimentary about how well he’d thought the story had gone over—but before he left, he asked if I would reimburse him for his ticket to the reading. I tried not to explode.
“I left you a ticket at the box office.”
“How could you forget? You were the one who asked me for a ticket.”
“I have a lot on my mind,” he said.
I gave him the ten dollars, which meant I’d spent twenty, counting his unused ticket at the box office.
Five-thirty the next morning the phone rang. It was my brother. He’d rolled over in bed and crushed his glasses; he couldn’t see a thing without them. An extra pair was in the glove compartment of his car, in the hotel’s parking garage below.
“Can you get them?” he asked me.
“What?” I was groggy and exhausted from the events and celebration of the night before—I’d only gotten to bed a few hours ago.
“Can you get me the extra pair from the car?”
My eyes shut. A weary moment passed before the solution to his problem occurred to me. “Have the bellhop or valet bring them up,” I said.
And then, as if no reasonable person would disagree, he declared, “I’m not going to tip that guy two dollars to go down and get my glasses!”
“You want me to get out of bed at five-thirty in the morning, get dressed, go across Eighth Avenue to a dim parking garage and bring you your glasses because you don’t want to tip somebody two dollars!”
“I can’t see, and I can’t find my wallet without my glasses. You could bring two dollars and give it to the bellhop—”
“You just paid ninety dollars for books! I can’t believe this!” I hung up, just like my father and his brothers had hung up on each other.
Was my brother’s behavior a reaction to the successful reading of the night before or just our usual money madness or were rivalry and money so entwined through the generations that they had long ago forfeited their separate properties?
I thought for certain the incident would effectively lose us all the ground we’d gained, but not long afterward he called and said that he had wonderful news, thanks in part to me: he was dating my editor’s best friend’s sister. My editor, knowing his field was film theory, had sent him an anthology of writing about film she’d just edited; my brother had called to thank her and knowing she was single (although not knowing she was attached) asked her out. She’d explained her situation but told him about her best friend’s sister.
As he and Jean pose for pictures, my brother seems the happiest man alive. I don’t know what comes of moments when you put your hands around your brother’s throat, if they can truly be buried or forgiven away or redeemed by setting your estranged brother up to meet his beloved, but we have managed to move beyond our troubles. I sometimes marvel at the irony of how carefully we avoided any business relationship—we wouldn’t fall into the same trap as our father and uncles!—and yet we’d nearly let money ignite our relationship into ashes.
I say goodbye to Bruce. He asks me to visit him and his family in Baltimore if I should be on the East Coast again soon. I tell him to look us up in Colorado, two thousand miles from here—it’s no coincidence that I have gone so far away. When I was younger I imagined I’d always live nearby my parents: my troubled mother, with no end to her sadness, my fantasies of redeeming her suffering through famous deeds. Nor could I protect my father from what I privately feared in my idolizing of him—that he was but a common failure, and I could become one too. Instead, I have ridden my rocking horse out West to where people always believe they’ll find gold in one form or another.