An Excerpt from
This was my first story. You always remember your first story. And you always remember the editor (Damon Knight) who says, after you’ve been bullied by your husband into unearthing it from its hidey-place: “I love it. Put an ending on it and I’ll buy it.”
This is a very dated piece of work—misogynistic, ageist, antisemitic, blindly ethnocentric, Borscht Belt ridiculous, and, as Doris Pitkin Buck remarked, in a kindlier manner than I probably deserved, “Of course, it makes no sense whatsoever.” Yet it was reprinted something like twelve times. It appeared several years later in a textbook titled Themes in Science Fiction (edited by Leo P. Kelley, McGraw Hill, 1972), where, at the end, the student readers are presented with questions about the characters’ motivations and the deeper meaning of the themes. (I’m going to include those questions at the end so that you can have a bonus laugh.) The story was also reprinted in Wandering Stars (edited by Jack Dann, Harper & Row, 1974), alongside such non-science-fiction writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud. Go know.
To tell you the truth, in the old days we would have sat shiva for the whole week. My so-called daughter gets married, my own flesh and blood, and not only he doesn’t look Jewish, he’s not even human.
“Papa,” she says to me, two seconds after I refuse to speak to her again in my entire life, “if you know him you’ll love him, I promise.” So what can I answer—the truth, like I always tell her: “If I know him I’ll vomit, that’s how he affects me. I can help it? He makes me want to throw up on him.”
With silk gloves you have to handle the girl, just like her mother. I tell her what I feel, from the heart, and right away her face collapses into a hundred cracks and water from the Atlantic Ocean makes a soggy mess out of her paper sheath. And that’s how I remember her after six months—standing in front of me, sopping wet from the tears and making me feel like a monster—me—when all the time it’s her you-should-excuse-the-expression husband who’s the monster.
After she’s gone to live with him (New Horizon Village, Crag City, Mars), I try to tell myself it’s not me who has to—how can I put it?—deal with him intimately; if she can stand it, why should I complain? It’s not like I need somebody to carry on the business; my business is to enjoy myself in my retirement. But who can enjoy? Sadie doesn’t leave me alone for a minute. She calls me a criminal, a worthless no-good with gallstones for a heart.
“Hector, where’s your brains?” she says, having finally given up on my emotions. I can’t answer her. I just lost my daughter, I should worry about my brains, too? I’m silent as the grave. I can’t eat a thing. I’m empty—drained. It’s as though I’m waiting for something to happen but I don’t know what. I sit in a chair that folds me up like a bee in a flower and rocks me to sleep with electronic rhythms when I feel like sleeping, but who can sleep? I look at my wife and I see Lady Macbeth. Just a minute ago I caught her whistling as she pushed the button for her bath.
“What are you so happy about? Thinking of your grandchildren with the twelve toes?”
She doesn’t flinch. An iron woman.
When I close my eyes, which is rarely, I see our daughter when she was fourteen years old, with skin beginning to go pimply and no expression yet on her face. I see her walking up to Sadie and asking her what she should do with her life now she’s filling out, and my darling Sadie, my life’s mate, telling her why not marry a freak; you got to be a beauty to find a man here, but on Mars you shouldn’t know from so many fish. “I knew I could count on you, Mama,” she says, and goes ahead and marries a plant with legs.
Things go on like this—impossible—for months. I lose twenty pounds, my nerves, three teeth from grinding, and I’m on the verge of losing Sadie, when one day the mail chute goes ding-dong and it’s a letter from my late daughter. I take it by the tips of two fingers and bring it in to where my wife is punching ingredients for the gravy I won’t eat tonight.
“It’s a communication from one of your relatives.”
“Oh—o—ohhh,” and she makes a grab for it.
“I’ll give it to you on one condition only,” I tell her, holding it out of her trembling reach. “Take it into the bedroom and read it to yourself. Don’t even move your lips; I don’t want to know. If he’s—ok, God forbid—dead, I’ll send her a sympathy card.”
While she’s reading the letter I find suddenly I have nothing to do. The magazines I read already. Breakfast I ate (like a bird). I’m all dressed to go out if I felt like, but there’s nothing outside I don’t have inside. Frankly, I don’t feel like myself—I’m nervous. I say a lot of things I don’t really intend and now maybe this letter comes to tell me I’ve got to pay for my meanness. Maybe she got sick up there; God knows what they eat, the kind of water they drink, the creatures they run around with. Not wanting to think about it too much, I go over to my chair and turn it on to brisk massage. It doesn’t take long till I’m dreaming (fitfully).
I’m someplace surrounded by sand, sitting in a baby’s crib and bouncing a diapered kangaroo on my knee. It gurgles up at me and calls me grandpa and I don’t know what I should do. I don’t want to hurt its feelings, but if I’m grandpa to a kangaroo, I want no part of it. I pull out a dime from my pocket and put it into its pouch. The pouch is full of tiny insects that bite my fingers. I wake up in a sweat.
“Sadie! Are you looking for spelling mistakes? Bring it in here and I’ll see what she wants. If it’s a divorce, I know a lawyer.”
Sadie comes into the room with her I-told-you-so waddle and gives me a small wet kiss on the cheek—a gold star for acting like a mensch. So I start to read it, in a loud monotone so she should be clear I don’t give a damn:
“Dear Daddy, I’m sorry for not writing sooner. I suppose I wanted to give you a chance to simmer down first.” (Ingrate! Does the sun simmer down?) “I know it would have been inconvenient for you to come to the wedding, but Mor and I hoped you would maybe send us a letter just to let us know you’re ok and still love me, in spite of everything.”
Right at this point I feel a hot sigh followed by a short but wrenching moan.
“Sadie, get away from my neck. I’m warning you . . .”
Her eyes are going flick-a-fleck over my shoulder, from the piece of paper I’m holding to my face, back to the page, flick-a-fleck, flick-a-fleck.
“All right already,” she shoo-shoos me. “I read it, I know what’s in it. Now it’s your turn to see what kind of a lousy father you turned out to be.” And she marches back into the bedroom, shutting the door extra careful, like it’s made of snow-white velvet.
See the World, Get Sick . . .
Terry came down with tonsilitis in a three-star restaurant near Lake Annecy in the French Alps. He had just pushed his plate away and told me his throat hurt. I felt his head and it was very hot. I looked down at his plate of crawfish (“écrevisse,” I’d just learned) and it was very hot, too, and very attractive. “Eat the rest, go ahead,” he rasped. “Then we’ll go back to the hotel and try to get hold of a doctor.” It would have been too tacky, in 1971, to ask for a doggie bag in a three-star restaurant in France. Wouldn’t it?
Back at the hotel the doctor asked about Terry’s symptoms and I got to use a phrase I’d never dreamed I’d hear myself speak after high school graduation. “Il mal à la gorge,” I said, pointing to my own gorge, and added, “He has a sore throat,” just in case my accent didn’t travel well.
You have to admire French medicine, at least back then. It was heedless, cavalier, dangerous, and—as it turned out—oh so effective. I could swear I saw a huge lightning bolt appear on his chest as the pills zapped his sick zone.
And so it came to pass that Terry was up and running the next day. And hungry! We’d had a tiny breakfast and now it was close to midnight. The dining room was closed, but we thought maybe, just maybe, the kitchen would still be open and we could beg for a little room service. Our hotel used to be a monastery; some of the heavy, dark furniture had the word silentium carved into it. Surely it would hold some limbic memory of suffering and service to help us out.
And indeed it did. Between our call and the response fell the answer: a huge round tray that held stuffed tomatoes, a thick slice of paté, ripe peaches, chocolate cake. We fell on it and it succumbed. And just to make sure the cure was permanent, we decided to stay another couple of days on the white sand of that blue blue lake.
Why Won’t You Play With Me Anymore?
I’m not a great chess player, but for a while I was winning a lot of games due to my demonically fine-focused perseverance. Our friend Peter—such an impulsive boy—once threw the chessboard out the window, he was so tired of losing. And Terry finally stopped playing with me—not just because I won all the time but because he’d have to let me know I’d won. I’d doggedly corner him—check check check—until he realized I had him, and then he would inform me, in a voice heavy with despair and sarcasm, “It’s MATE!” Nowadays I don’t even remember how the knight hops. Which is just as well. Chess was always tense for me, and I’d chain-smoke my way through game after game. “Check, check, check, hack, check, hack hack.”
The Mind of a Child Is a Terrible Thing to Lose
A bunch of us were talking about the many misconceptions, mishearings, and misinterpretations of our childhood.
Sid offered, “. . . and may good Mrs. Murphy follow you all the rest of your days.”
“Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own,” said Mitzi. And added, “I was so confused back then: Why would He forget His name?”
The abbreviation for the honorific “Doctor” (Dr.) got a big reaction: “For a long time I thought I lived on Riverside Doctor,” Bob said. Extrapolating wildly, Terry contributed “Street Catherine and Street Mary,” and I added “The Avenue Maria.”