Story — From the January 2015 issue

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Let’s see, how do I start this? With my father or with Lotte? My father. It’s already more formed in my head, so it’ll be easier getting into. I told Abby I’d been thinking about something the past two days and I’d like to talk to her about it and see what she thinks. “Sure, go ahead,” she said. “First help me turn off the computer.” “Why do you need help?” and she said, “I don’t. Not yet, anyway. I don’t know why I said it.” She played with the mouse for a few seconds, and the computer screen went dark. “Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.” “It’s something to do with when I was around ten,” I said. “I don’t think younger. That would make my father around fifty-one. I must have said something to him that made him mad. Nobody else seemed to be in the apartment. It must have been a Sunday or a federal holiday or an important Jewish holiday because my father was at work every day but Sunday and those holidays. I don’t think he was ever sick once and didn’t go to work. In his whole life, until he got very sick . . . I’ve told you, struggled to get to work and made it every day, till he couldn’t anymore and was forced to retire. Wheelchair. Operations. Complications. Everything very quick. Am I being unclear here? I’m not telling it in the right order and I’m mixing up things,” and she said, “You’re fine.” “What I’m saying, with so many kids in the family and my mother and the woman who helped her five days a week whom we had for years — the housekeeper — not around, I don’t know where everybody else could have been. And he never hit me with his hand when he was really angry with me over something. Not once that I can remember. Just a rolled-up newspaper. And always the New York Times, when it was still only two sections, so both sections, because it was thicker and longer — I think that’s why — than the Daily News and Mirror, which we also got — and ran after me with it. Maybe I hadn’t done something he wanted and expected me to without giving him any lip. Like walk the dog or take the garbage out or clear the kitchen table of dirty dishes. Or that I was snappy or sarcastic or that I even cursed. Cursing would have done it. So he came after me with the tightly rolled-up newspaper, holding it over his head like a stick.

“Street Scene,” by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Estate Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City

“Street Scene,” by Saul Leiter © Saul Leiter Estate. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York City

“It was a large apartment — you know it — and I darted under his swing. And I might have, though this I don’t think I would have done, but I just might have been stupid enough to at the time, laughed impudently or challengingly or something at his feeble swing and ran back the way I had come, as if I hoped he’d take another swing at me so I could dart under it again. No, I doubt that. But he kept chasing me, once around the long dining table, as if it were a joke, but from one end of the downstairs to the other, probably saying, ‘You rotten kid. You stinking rotten kid.’ Which is what he used to say — I think the only one in the family he used to say it to — when he was very mad at me. ‘Now you’re really going to get it from me, but even worse.’ Then he stopped. It seemed he had to lean one hand against the kitchen counter in order to stand, and he dropped the newspaper bat on the floor and sat down at the kitchen table — and I remember this really — all out of breath. Also I remember him saying, ‘You little bastard.’ Remember it because he never before cursed at me using a real curse word. I laughed, or did or said something that made him look at me as if he were looking straight through me or had never seen anybody who looked so stupid, and then just stared out the kitchen window, though there was nothing to see out there but another building’s brick wall up close. I think I then said, ‘You okay?’ Or something that showed I wasn’t the insolent kid anymore. He said, ‘Shut up. Mind your business. Go to hell, for all I care. I’m through with you.’ ‘Through chasing me?’ I said. He didn’t answer, and I just looked at him from about ten feet away. I thought it might have been a trick of his, to get me to lower my defenses, as they say, and then grab me and maybe hit me good, and not with a newspaper this time, which when he hit me with it, it never hurt. I guess that was the point. But he didn’t. He eventually looked at the floor, saw the newspaper there, and said, ‘Pick up the newspaper and put the pages back in order. Do that for me at least. I haven’t finished reading it yet.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to grab me when I do it?’ and he said, ‘No, that’s over with. I’m never chasing you again. You’re not worth it. I could get a stroke. Why do I have such a brat as a son?’ Then he shut his eyes and just seemed to be resting. ‘Can I go out after I fix your newspaper?’ I said. ‘Because it means I’ll have to walk past you,’ and he said, ‘You know where I said you could go. Go there. That’s my advice.’

“I picked up the newspaper, reassembled it in order, very neatly folded it in half, put it on the kitchen table, and walked past him. Cautiously. But it really seemed like it wasn’t a trick of his to grab me anymore. I don’t think he even looked at me when I went past him. I think I thought he was so mad at me he wouldn’t talk or even look at me again for a long time. When I got to the foyer, I yelled back, ‘I’m going out, Dad. You want anything before I go?’ He didn’t say anything. ‘You still mad at me?’ I said. Nothing. He kept his eyes closed. Maybe his hand was holding up his head. I think that’s what I saw. And his chest seemed to be heaving. Maybe I didn’t see that, I just think I did. I knew he didn’t look well. I left the house — that’s what we called the apartment — probably to play with my friends on the street or in the park, or to see if any of them were out there. Later, when everyone was home and I was in the boys’ room, as we called it, where Robert and I slept and did our homework — everything — I was called down to dinner by my sister, Margie. I asked her something like ‘Is Dad still mad at me?’ She said, ‘Why, what’d you do? Because he didn’t say anything, doesn’t look mad. They just said for me to get you, or Mom did.’ I went downstairs and sat at my place at the table. My father looked at me — quickly, I think — and looked away. He didn’t seem angry anymore. But I felt ashamed. I wanted to apologize — not in front of everybody but later — but something stopped me, or I just didn’t know how to. I should have let him hit me with the newspaper when he wanted to. It wouldn’t have hurt, and that would have been the end of it. He would have gotten it out and I would have gotten my whacks.

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’s most recent novel, and his thirtieth work of fiction, His Wife Leaves Him, was published by Fantagraphics Books in 2013.

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