Sample text for An unfinished season / Ward Just.


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Chapter 1

The winter of the year my father carried
a gun for his
own protection was the coldest on record
in Chicago.
The winter went on and on, blizzard
following blizzard,
each day gray with a fierce arctic wind.
The canyons of the Loop
were deserted, empty as any wasteland,
the lake an unquiet pile
of ice beyond. Trains failed, water
pipes cracked, all northern
Illinois was locked in, the air as
brittle as a razorblade. The
newspaper story that had everyone
talking was the account of a
young colored woman found frozen solid
in an alley on the
South Side and taken at once to the city
morgue, where an alert
doctor discovered the faintest of
heartbeats. She was revived,
thawed as you would thaw a frozen piece
of meat, and in the
course of the subsequent examination was
found to have so
much gin in her veins that--"Jeez, it was
like she had swallowed
antifreeze," the doctor said. Religious
leaders, ignoring the lurid
details in the papers, declared her
survival a miracle. She
was a young woman touched by the hand of
the son of God. Jesus
had visited Chicago and saved the
humblest and most destitute
of his creatures, praise the Lord.

Happened all the time when I was a boy,
my father said.

Some poor bastard wandered away, got
lost, passed out,
froze to death.

Happened to our neighbor. They didn"t
find him for a week.

We didn"t have morgues out here. And the
doctor was twenty
miles away.

My father was born on a farm on the
prairie north of Chicago
and insisted that this winter was
nothing compared to the
winters he had endured as a boy,
interminable winters when
the snow reached to the eaves of the
roof; and when the western
wind from the plains blew away the snow,
the icicles remained,
icicles as thick as your arm. My father
had an imaginative
memory stacked with stories and often
different versions of
the same story. One time he had the wind
howling like wolves
and another time wolves howling like the
wind. When he told
his stories, my mother always rolled her
eyes and winked at
me. We lived in his family"s homestead,
except now it had nine
large rooms instead of six small ones,
and where the barn had
stood, an emerald lawn with oval flower
beds and a great oak so
broad two men could not reach their arms
around it. The
house was on the grounds of a newly
minted golf club in a township
that was unincorporated but known
informally as Quarterday,
meaning that in the previous century it
took a quarter of a
day to reach Half Day, itself half a
day"s ride to Chicago. Tell
someone from the North Shore that you
lived in Quarterday
and you got a condescending smile
because to the suburban
gentry it was nowheresville, a common
flatland of family farms
and a few estates and the newly minted
golf club, a crossroads
with a drugstore, a market, and a gas
station, the unfashionable
western point of a triangle whose
eastern points were Lake Forest
and Winnetka. What do people do out
there anyhow? What
do they see in it? The suburban gentry
associated Quarterday
with one-room schoolhouses, pheasant
shooting in the corn-
fields, hayrides in the moonlight, and
the annual agricultural
fair. Something unsettled about it, a
place that never developed.
There were rumors of gambling in the
roadhouse down
the highway from the club, the roadhouse
owned and operated
by Italian interests from Chicago.

The sixth green of the golf course was
visible from our terrace.
Between the terrace and the fairway was
a shallow pond shaped
like an eyelid and fringed with
high-crowned sycamore trees,
and among the trees swaybacked metal
chairs. That was where
my father went each evening when he
returned home from
work, duckwalking in his skates, his
long stick over his shoulder,
huge in pads and decades-old leather
gloves, a worn green jersey
(the number 33 still distinct on the
back), and a black wool
balaclava. He had installed arc lights
in the trees so that the
pond was brilliantly lit, the cage with
its floppy net at one end.
My father stood quietly a moment,
breathing deeply, his breath
pluming in the frigid air. Most nights
the ice was covered by an
inch or more of snow, which he cleared
with a wide-bladed
shovel, skating patiently from the edges
of the eyelid to the center
until the surface was clear. Then he
opened the small duffel
he carried and scattered half a dozen
pucks on the ice, using a
sidearm motion as if he were skipping
stones over water. And
then he would step gingerly onto the ice
and begin to skate in
earnest, long powerful strokes around
the pond, tapping the
stick on the ice to some mysterious
rhythm. Then he would rotate
and skate backward, his elbows close to
his body, his knees
churning. He looked as indestructible as
a truck. After a few
minutes of warm-up, he would execute a
sweeping curve and
take the puck up the ice, nudging it
gently as if it were an eggshell,
swiveling left and right, his head high,
and at the last moment
fire the puck into the net. He rarely
took a slap shot. Slap
shots hinted at desperation and he
believed in patience and
thorough preparation. Due diligence, he
called it. It was easy
to imagine the defensemen he eluded,
confused opponents
scrambling to check him or steal the
puck. My father did not
stop until all six pucks were in the net
and at that time he took
one, two, three victory laps, skating as
fast as he could around
the perimeter of the pond, his stick
held high above his head,
hearing the tick-tick-tick of the stick
striking the bare branches
of the sycamores. I imagine he was
remembering his days at
Dartmouth College, captain of the
almost-undefeated hockey
team in his senior year. He was fifty
now, his hair thinning
and his waistline spreading, nearsighted
behind wire-rimmed
glasses. On the ice, he looked twenty
years younger. I watched
all this from my desk in my second-floor
bedroom, schoolbooks
piled around me, my father"s athletic
skill a momentary distrac-
tion from European history, art
appreciation, and Spanish. Everyone
said we looked alike, but I didn"t
believe it. The photograph
on my desk showed an outdoorsman, a few
years older
than I am now, burly in a Dartmouth
letter sweater. I am taller
than he is, and thin, an indoor man.
When they say I look like
him, they mean our mannerisms are
similar, the way we walk,
our gestures, and our voices.

From the pond my father could see the
lane that meandered
around the club grounds. There was
little traffic in January,
most of our neighbors in the South
somewhere, Florida or one
of the Caribbean islands. When my father
saw a car"s headlights,
his pace would slow and he would follow
the lights until
they were lost to view; and if the car
hesitated for any reason, he
would move to the shadows of the pond,
out of the bright lights
and into the sycamore grove, where he
would wait in one of the
swaybacked metal chairs, the duffel
beside him out of sight. He
removed his gloves and placed them
beside the duffel while he
waited. When the car disappeared, my
father would emerge
from the shadows and resume his
practice, puck after puck
fired into the net, and then the victory
laps, ending always in a
defiant spray of ice when he came to a
full stop. After an hour
of this, the arc lights blinked twice,
my mother"s signal that she
was preparing cocktails. Practice was
over. Time to come in.
Time to shower and say hello to the
family. I knew she had been
watching him from the French doors that
opened onto the terrace
from the den, trim in slacks and a
sweater, an ascot at her
throat; of course she was worried, and I
imagined her hand
moving in a tentative wave, though she
knew he could not see
her, so complete was his concentration.
He always took two
final laps, and when he removed the
balaclava you noticed his
damp hair and the sweat on his forehead,
his face flushed, smiling
broadly--and as he stood, his chest
heaving in the bath of
bright lights, you could almost hear the
applause. When he
took a last reluctant look around, I
knew he was remembering
himself as a boy on the same pond, those
interminable winters
when the icicles were as thick as your
arm, vibrating from the
howls of the wolves on the prairie. The
prairie swept away in low
undulating swells like a great inland
ocean, the soil unimagin-
ably rich, everything else inhospitable.
The horizon line was
out of reach. And then it seemed
overnight Chicago"s sprawl
defeated the farmland. Roads replaced
wagon tracks. The golf
course arrived. My father stood on the
ice, shimmying on his
skates, looking at the fairway in the
darkness, remembering
that a barn once stood there stark
against the empty sky and beyond
it cornfields for miles and miles. In
such a landscape a human
being was diminished. You knew your place.

Then he fetched his duffel and
duckwalked back into the
house, where minutes later I heard the
rattle of ice cubes and a
companionable round of laughter before
their voices lowered
and I knew he was telling my mother
about the events of his
day, how it began and how it ended and
everything in between.
How things had gone at the office, and
when the crisis would be
over.


It was not over in the spring. The
weather changed. The pond"s
ice melted in late March and I was no
longer able to watch my
father skate. I missed the evening
interlude, looking up from
my books, watching him step onto the
ice, his spirits visibly rising
in the frigid air, arms high above his
head, his speed increasing
with each lap, skating in a zone of
absolute privacy. I
watched most carefully when he saw a
car"s headlights and
moved into the shadows, lowering himself
into one of the swaybacked
chairs, his hand bare on the crimson
duffel at his feet.
That was where he kept the gun, a
long-barreled Colt .32, the
identical model favored by gangsters in
B movies, a sinister accessory
along with a fedora and a trenchcoat.
The revolver was
a gift from his friend Tom Felsen, the
county sheriff. Tom
Felsen had an arsenal in his office at
the courthouse, firearms
that had been used in the commission of
crimes. The long-barreled
Colt was a murder weapon, exhibit A in a
case that involved
a poker game, a quart of whiskey, and an
unmarried
woman. The sheriff and my father had
been best friends in
grade school and hell-raisers together
in high school and each
had been an usher at the other"s
wedding, though they no
longer saw one another "socially," as my
mother said. They had
taken different paths in life, beginning
when my father went
away to college in the East and his
classmate stayed home. Tom
and his wife lived quietly in one of the
new subdivisions out
near Mundelein, their life together
circumscribed by the complexities
of county law enforcement and Tom"s
political ambitions;
he wanted to run for the state
legislature and needed my
father"s financial backing. In any case,
the Felsens did not belong
to the country club, the center of my
parents" social life.
My father and Tom Felsen spoke on the
telephone almost every
day, and two or three nights a week the
sheriff insisted on escorting
my father home from work, meeting him at
the office
and following him to the club entrance
but no farther.

private club
members and guests
homeowners only

My father always motioned for Tom to
come along and have a
drink but he never did. He dipped his
lights once, gave a little
whine of his siren, and was gone.

Deprived of his ice hockey, my father
arrived home a little
later each evening, his arrival
announced by two short toots
on the horn of his Oldsmobile. He put
his overcoat and the
duffel in the coat closet and joined my
mother for their evening
drink, now more often two drinks; and
their conversation
ended when I entered the room. I felt
like the walk-on who had
wandered onto a stage set from the
wings, the actors momentarily
at a loss, in their surprise and
confusion forgetting their
lines--until one or the other smiled or
laughed falsely, suddenly
remembering the cue. How was my homework
coming
along? Did you finish your history paper,
the one you worked
on all last weekend? What was the grade?

That"s good, Wils.

That"s very good.

But I wish you didn"t spend all your
life with books.

There"s more to life than homework.

Book-smart"s one thing. Nothing wrong
with book-smart.
But books only take you so far when
you"re in a jam.

After this interval my mother would
comment on the events
of her day, a trip to the hairdresser"s
and a call from her father
(they spoke nearly every day), an
invitation to dinner on
the weekend, harmless gossip concerning
the so-and-sos who
wanted very badly to join the club, but
perhaps not this year.
There were so many new members now it
was hard to keep
them straight, their names and the names
of their children,
and what he did. Where do they come from
anyhow?

My mother sat on the davenport and my
father in the leather
chair, the one with the reading lamp and
the footstool, a Munnings
sporting print on the wall behind him,
the phonograph
playing softly, usually Benny Goodman or
Eddy Duchin. My father
was irritable most nights and his
irritability increased with
the second cocktail, overflowing when I
entered the room. He
was disappointed in my refusal to
participate in team sports,
football in the fall, ice hockey in the
winter, and baseball in
the spring. He believed in team sports,
so important in building
lasting friendships. Team play was what
made America the
great country that it was, cooperation
and teamwork, teamwork
and team spirit, a common effort leading
always to success.
You played as a team for the team, a
philosophy that
endured for a lifetime. You couldn"t run
a business without
teamwork, focusing always on product. Do
you want to be a loner
your whole life? Teamwork built
character. Wars were won on
the playing fields of youth, he said; and
when I replied that the
expression was English and the word was
"Eton" and it hadn"t
helped them much in World War One--my
history instructor
had assigned an essay on Siegfried
Sassoon"s Memoirs of an Infantry
Officer and I was caught up with the
futility of life in the
trenches of the Somme, a melancholy
hopelessness that was attractive
to a nineteen-year-old living on the
grounds of a golf
club north of Chicago--my father told me
not to get fresh with
him, that I didn"t know the score and
would never know the
score without knowing teamwork. Teamwork
and team spirit
and hard knocks that led to lasting
friendships and success in
the world generally.

And as I recall, he said, the English
won the war.

Not according to Sassoon, I muttered,
not quite loud
enough for him to hear.

With the help of Pershing and the
Americans, my father
added. God damn Europeans never could"ve
done it alone.

My mother said mildly, Now, Teddy,
that"s harsh. Everyone
has to find their own way. Not
everyone--and here she smiled
fractionally as Eddy Duchin ran off a
silky riff--has a taste for
the locker room, as you do. Wils is a
fine student. Can"t we let it
go at that? It"s not his fault--

It"s not good to be a loner, my father said.

Wils was out for a year, my mother said.
Hard knocks enough
for anyone, she said slyly, nodding at
me. I had had a mysterious
illness in the eighth grade, diagnosed
first as scarlet fever,
then as pneumonia. Finally the doctors
admitted they didn"t
know what it was but that I probably
wouldn"t die of it. Meanwhile,
I was bedridden with a high fever and
hallucinations that
accompanied the fever. My legs ached. I
lost weight and lay for
days in a kind of dreamless torpor. From
my hospital window I
watched the crowns of the trees change
color, the leaves brittling,
vanishing one by one; and then they were
gone. I was uncomfortably
aware of my own body, my skin slack, the
muscles
made of putty. I had the idea that my
body was betraying me,
and that I was divided against myself.
During the worst of it my
parents would appear at my bedside,
their faces huge and indistinct;
they would murmur something and go away.
They stood
in the doorway with the doctor, talking
in whispers, and my
mother would cover her eyes and go into
the corridor while my
father and the doctor talked man-to-man,
the doctor"s hand on
my father"s shoulder while he made his
explanations. I was in
the hospital for six weeks, then
quarantined at home in bed for
four months. I devoted myself to books
and jazz music on the
phonograph, except in the afternoon when
I listened to soap
opera on the radio, the backstage wife
and the woman who was
married to the richest and most handsome
lord in England,
though these romantic deep-voiced men
rarely made an appearance.
The backstage wife and the lord"s lady
led turbulent
emotional lives in which housework did
not figure, so there was
time to solve the many misunderstandings
that plagued the
household. Illness was often present and
toward dusk it was
with relief that I turned to Terry and
the Pirates and the other
thrillers. I discovered that no one
wanted to be around a sick
person, and not only for fear of
contagion. Something medieval
about it, an evil spirit that could leap
from one body to an-
other without warning. When the
quarantine was lifted, my
friends would come to visit and never
knew what to say to me
except that I was different somehow, and
hard to reach. What
was it like in the hospital? What do
they do to you there? We
lived in different worlds. I began to
think of my sick year as a
vanished year, and the next year my
friends were in the ninth
grade and I was a year behind. I had
learned that I did not
mind being by myself, even if my self
was divided. My hearing
became acute, the smallest sound or the
whisper of a conversation
audible to me as I lay in my bed. My
father thought my contentment
unnatural, and let me know it.

Loners lose, he said.

Teddy, my mother said, her voice rising
an octave.

A father can speak his mind to his own
son, he said.

Wils was sick, my mother said again.

And now he"s well, my father said.

When she retired to the kitchen to see
about dinner, my father
turned to the evening news. This was the
month Hollywood
personalities were testifying before the
House Committee
on Un-American Activities, Communist
influence in the entertainment
industry. The enemy within, it was
called. Quarterday
was on the margins of effective
television reception from Chicago,
so the picture was erratic, the screen
mottled with visual
static, "snow," so that Chairman Velde
and his committee appeared
as phantoms. The witness was a phantom,
too, an actor
unknown to me but very well known to the
prewar American
Communist underground; he had since left
the party but was
happy to name colleagues he had seen at
meetings. The quality
of the sound began to fail, the hearing
suddenly a flickering
pantomime; and then Chairman Velde"s
gavel crashed and the
screen went black for a moment. My
father nursed his drink
while he listened to the news and then,
in a gesture of reconciliation,
asked me if I wanted a beer. I drank a
glass of Pabst while
he sat hunched in his leather chair, his
eyes half shut, watching
the pantomime. The line of muscles in
his jaw worked to and
fro, and all the while he was muttering,
mostly to himself but
partly to me, "Bastards . . . lowlifes."
Artists, they called themselves,
but they had no loyalties, not to their
art, not to their
country, not even to each other. They
called themselves intellectuals
but they"d sell their mothers for a dime
and a film
credit. Listen to them, he said, they
talk like politicians, up one
side and down the other. They did not
have respect for a committee
of the Congress going about its lawful
business. It was
alien influence, an unwholesome,
un-American influence. The
country was in a hell of a mess,
altogether better off if both
coasts were amputated and allowed to
drift away, the East in the
direction of Soviet Russia and the West
to Red China, allowing
the heartland to manage its own affairs.
Then I wouldn"t be in the fix I"m in,
my father said.


At dinner that night I asked my father
if Tom Felsen intended
to run for the legislature this election
or wait for the next.
And if he ran, would he make a good
candidate? Tom"s sound,
my father replied. A small-government
man, all for a balanced
budget and lower taxes, a practical
approach to things.
Whether he"s a good campaigner, we"ll
have to wait and see.
Probably it won"t matter because he
knows where the bodies
are buried. Obviously he has the
sheriff"s department behind
him, so he begins with a solid base.
Deputies know how to get
out the vote. That"s why they"re
deputies, he added with a
smile. But he"s a good friend. I"ll
support him.

He"s been a good friend to you, my
mother said.

He"s gone above and beyond the call.
Tom"s staunch. He"s
the man to have on our side.

Loyal, my mother said.

You don"t want him on your wrong side.

Why not? I asked.

My father paused before answering, and
when he did he lowered
his voice as if he feared being
overheard. Tom can be--
rough, he said. Tom"s no-nonsense. Tom
flies into the boards
with his stick high.

My mother raised her eyebrows and looked
at me. She said,
Your father says that Tom Felsen keeps
the lid on.

He nodded. There"s an unsavory element
here, like everywhere
else. Tom keeps things in check. He"s
broken the rules,
that"s for sure.

Rules? I said.

Whatever do you mean? my mother asked.

My father had grown expansive, enjoying
the story. He
pushed his chair back from the table and
grinned as one does
when disclosing an unsettling secret. He
said, Tom knows their
plans. The how and the when and the
where. And when my
mother looked at him strangely, my
father steepled his fingers
and looked across the table to the wall
opposite, a hunting
scene from the eighteenth century,
supercilious Frenchmen
in plumed hats accompanied by
wolfhounds, chasing a stag
through a country park, the scene
repeated every few yards
around the room. The glass chandelier
cast little broken shards
of light; and at the kitchen door, the
Frenchmen, the wolfhounds,
and the stag vanished.

He listens in to them, my father said at
last.

Listens in?

We can talk about it later, he said.

There"s cake in the kitchen, my mother
said to me.

Cut a slice for me, too, my father said
with a bemused smile.

He continued to stare at the French
dandies on horseback,
waiting while I rose from the table and
retreated to the kitchen,
where he mistakenly believed I was out
of earshot.

Tom"s tapped their phones, he said.

Oh, dear, my mother said.

So he listens in. And shares the
information.

With you, she said.

With me, he replied. I think he has some
help. Someone at
the FBI owes him a favor. He"s listening
to them day and night,
two deputies on the phones full-time.
Calls between the national
headquarters and the local here. Pretty
rough stuff, what
they say to each other. My father paused
there and lowered his
voice. If I could find a way to split
them, to make our boys see
that the national"s just a bunch of
left-wing troublemakers,
don"t have their best interests at
heart, well, then, this strike
would be over in a week. My father
paused again and I imagined
him staring across the table at the
Frenchmen on their
high-stepping horses and wondering what
they were doing in
his dining room. He said, The national
sees my business as a
test case.Win here, they win everywhere.
They"re dug in for the
duration. As long as it takes. They"re
cocky as hell. They think
I"ll throw in the towel, just give them
whatever they damn want
on a silver platter, same"s Roosevelt
did at Yalta. That bastard
Hiss. Same thing exactly. So it"ll go on
for a while.

I returned with two plates of cake.

My father said, Did you hear any of that?

Some, I said. Not much.

Forget what you heard.

I heard you say it"ll go on for a while.

It will, he said. How long"s hard to
say. As long as it takes. As
long as they have their strike fund. And
if their morale doesn"t
crack. You know the secret weapon, when
you"re management
and there"s a strike? It"s the women.
Mama goes a few months
pinching pennies for groceries, the old
man hanging around
the house drinking beer and bitching
because the kids"re crying
and there"s dirty laundry everywhere and
he"s gone most
evenings to a union meeting and comes
back smelling of more
beer. Drives the women crazy, their
husbands underfoot all day
long. So they"ll settle eventually.
They"ll settle because their
wives"ll make them settle.

I couldn"t stand you around the house
all day long, my
mother said.

No chance of that, my father said. I"ll
never retire. And when
you own the company, you don"t go on strike.

I said tentatively, Are you worried?

He moved his head, neither yes nor no.
He was picking at a
slice of chocolate cake, edging it
around the plate as if it were a
hockey puck, apparently thinking through
the answer to my
question. Then he looked up suddenly,
rising from the table
and striding into the den, where he
stood rigidly at the French
doors leading to the terrace. He was
looking across the terrace
to the pond and the fairway beyond the
pond and the green,
rising in the moonlight. I thought I saw
something, he said.
Something moving. He flicked the switch
that illuminated the
arc lights in the trees surrounding the
pond. Then he switched
them off and darkness returned.

He said, You can"t be too careful.

Maybe when this is over we can take a
trip, my mother said.

No one wins a strike, my father said.

A second honeymoon, my mother went on.
She had a
dreamy look, staring fondly at my
father. The Caribbean, Havana.
One of the boats that leaves from New
Orleans. We could
spend a day or two in New Orleans,
dinner at Antoine"s--

That"s what gets lost sight of, my
father said.

--and then a week in Havana. We could go
from Havana
to Curaçao. Dancing every night with an
orchestra, black tie.
Teddy, it would be such fun. Get away
from this for a while. It"s
been such a long time for us, a vacation.

All that production lost, you never make
it up. Wages lost,
revenues lost because your customers
don"t think they can depend
on you to deliver. Rumors everywhere,
none of them to
your advantage. Teddy Ravan"s bust, his
firm"s down the drain,
you can"t count on Teddy. So your
customers begin to trade
with the competition, and your
competition is only too happy
to oblige. It"s business after all. The
business has to go somewhere.
These idiots talk about class solidarity
but there is no
class solidarity, on my side or their
side, either. And you and the
people who work for you are divided,
suddenly on opposite
sides of the ring, gloves off, no
referee. Loyalty vanishes, and
men you"ve known for years, you know the
names of their wives
and their children, they turn their
backs because they see you
as their enemy. The atmosphere"s
poisoned, and some mornings
you just hate to go to work. The bad
blood can last for a
generation.

Will you think about it? my mother asked.

Some business you lose, never comes
back. And some days
you just wish to hell you"d never gotten
into it.

The vacation? she said.

Just give it to them on a silver
platter. Here, take the damned
business, you run it, you think you"re
so smart.

I"d like it so much--

I"m sorry, what did you say? my father said.

To go away, just us two. You remember
Havana, our honeymoon,
the fun we had on the boat, we met that
couple from
Kansas City and played bridge in the
afternoon and dined at
the captain"s table and then, our last
day in Havana, we all went
shopping together and you bought me the
antique cigarette
box.

It wasn"t antique, my father said with a
smile.

I want to go back, my mother said.

We"ll see, my father replied.

I"ll go by myself then, my mother said,
but we both knew, my
father and I, that she never would.

So much was out of sight, between the
lines, a narrative vanishing
like the Frenchmen on horseback where
the wallpaper met
the doorway. What remained was the last
inch of feather on the
Frenchman"s hat. At nineteen you are
bored witless by the family
stories, the Havana honeymoon story and
the others, varied
according to the point being made and
the response that was
expected. Then suddenly, without notice,
you learned how the
world worked, Tom Felsen tapping
telephones with the assistance
of the FBI, a favor given for a favor
received, Tom "rough"
in his determination to keep the lid on,
owing to the unsavory
elements, present in Quarterday along
with everywhere else; so
he flew into the boards with his stick
high, a good man to have
on your side--and somehow all this had to
do with my father"s
business and the strike. My father"s
misprision was breathtaking
and he must have had some idea himself
along those lines because
when the specifics were announced, I had
been banished
to the kitchen. But I did not fail to
notice my father implicitly
comparing himself to Winston Churchill,
heroically struggling
to hold the line at Yalta while Franklin
Roosevelt absentmindedly
gave away half of Europe to the tyrant
Stalin, thanks
to that bastard Hiss. Naturally the
presumption of it was comical;
even at nineteen I found it comical. I
was less amused at
his martyred
just-give-it-to-them-on-a-silver-platter
conclusion;
that was unworthy of him. Yet I knew
without a doubt that
my father had a hard-won understanding
of how the world
worked--and chose to dispense this
knowledge with circumspection,
a worldly Croesus distributing his
wealth a dime at a
time.

My father was preoccupied all that
winter and spring, mostly
silent at the dinner table, and later
alone with a book until well
into the evening. I watched him worry
and he seemed to age
before my eyes, settling into the
peevish funk of an old man. I
was watching him in order to learn what
it was to be a man, with
a man"s burdens, how to behave in
adversity. I assumed this
meant acting from the center of
yourself, discovering your own
natural motion and in this discovery
learning just how far apart
it was from the world"s natural motion,
and how estranged you
were likely to be. Would you and the
world be on speaking
terms? I knew that as a family we were
on the outside of things,
separated from each other and from the
wider world, so mysterious
and out of reach.

At nineteen you inhabit a multitude of
personalities, trying them on like hats,
Siegfried Sassoon and Jake Barnes and
Bogart and the great tactician
Odysseus and Fats Waller and the bon
vivant in chemistry class, all of them
observed by the nurse in the nerves ward
and Lady Brett and
Ingrid Bergman and Calypso and Billie
Holiday and the blond
girl who bounced on the trampoline in
the gym after school.
Your father is the shadow of these
multiple personalities, physically
up close, his spirit far, far away. What
animated him at nineteen?
What lurid fiction has he made of his own
early memories?
Surely more than icicles as thick as
your arm and the wind
howling like wolves. Yet when my father
said, "Sometimes you
wish to hell you"d never gotten into
it," he sounded as if he
meant life itself.

At nineteen you dread the occasion of
courage in the way
the Catholic Church dreads the occasion
of sin, and when the
moment came it helped if you had an idea
of how the world
worked. What it valued and what it threw
away. How much you
could get away with. You knew that the
gods--perverse, malignant,
cunning, capricious--were perched in the
trees like vultures,
eager to pick apart the virtuous and the
wicked alike.

Even at nineteen you knew there were
occasions of high complexity,
come and gone in an instant; and that
there was a
choice to be made and you made it or
didn"t make it or made
the wrong one, a consequence of the hat
you wore that day. The
films, the books, and my father hinted at
the wider world, soon
to be at hand, though perhaps not this year.

I had no idea what was in store--what
goods were on the
shelves and what birds were crowding the
trees. Surely they
would differ from my father"s.
Meanwhile, I tried to coax life itself
in the way that Fats Waller coaxed a
blue note from his piano
never looking at his hands.

Copyright © 2004 by Ward Just. Reprinted
by permission of Houghton Mifflin
Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Young men -- Fiction.
Parent and child -- Fiction.
Printing industry -- Fiction.
Newspaper publishing -- Fiction.
Loss (Psychology) -- Fiction.
Chicago (Ill.) -- Fiction.
Illinois -- Fiction.