Story — From the January 2015 issue

Two Parts

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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.

“After that, I could never quite get the image out of my head of my father not looking well for the first time, and because of me. Looking sick, really, as if he were having a heart attack or stroke. But I never apologized for it. And he never brought it up after or, I think, ever chased me again. No, he wouldn’t have, and I think he never even threatened me again. But for years — you know, it’d come every now and then — I wanted to tell him how sorry I was that I laughed or was sarcastic to him that time he swung at me and missed. And that I also wouldn’t do at first what he asked me to, whatever it was, and it couldn’t have been much — the truth is, they never expected much from me — or done it as fast as he wanted me to, if that was it. I don’t know why I didn’t, even ten to twenty years later, when it would have been harmless, if it was still on my mind so much. To say something — start it off with, ‘You probably don’t remember this, and God knows why it’s so important to me and keeps coming back, but a long time ago, when I was still an obnoxious pipsqueak . . . ’ and so on. Probably I thought he’d definitely forgotten about it — why would he remember it? — and what good would it do going over it if we couldn’t get a laugh from it, and I don’t think he would have. But that’s enough. Enough, enough. I’ve exhausted you with my little story, right? But what do you think?”

She said, “What do I think? It would have been good for you if you could have apologized at the time, or soon after, but you didn’t. All right. And you were a bit bratty — that’s obvious from what you said — but you turned out okay. It also would have been nice if your father could see you today. Married, children, making a good living teaching, and having time to do what you want: writing. But he can’t. So forget it. Why keep punishing yourself over it? I’m glad to hear, although you may have told me it before and I’ve forgotten, that your father never hit you with his hands, or any of his kids, true?” “Far as I know. Certainly not me. And I was the brattiest of us all, so if anyone deserved it, I did.” “Rubbish,” she said. “Nobody deserves it. Not even with a rolled-up newspaper. Because I don’t have to tell you that kids who get hit by their parents more than likely, et cetera, et cetera, with their kids. You never have,” and she looked at me. “Just that one time with Freya you know about, when she was two and a half, or a little more. And she got out of the Veblen Cottage on her own and walked up the driveway to the Naskeag road where cars and these huge lobsterman vans were zipping past. And just before I caught up with her, she was about to walk out onto it, or I thought she was, so I slapped her hand so she’d know —” “I know. But never any other time, I’m sure, either of them.” “Never. That was it. One slap. Admittedly, a hard one. I had to. So she’d remember never to do it again. Was I wrong?” “I don’t know,” she said. “You probably could have made your point another way.” “Yeah. But I still feel bad about my father. Humiliating him. Taunting him, you could say. And up till that time I never saw him look so weak or sick. He never looked weak or sick. I’m repeating myself, I know. I’m always repeating myself. And that I didn’t understand at the time I was taunting him and trying to humiliate him. Or maybe I did understand. I could have been that bad. Ah, I’m confused. But as you said about it — this business with my father — nothing I can do about it now.” “That’s what happens,” she said. “You have to face it. But you done?” “Yes,” I said.

She touched the mouse and the computer came back on. “You never had anything in your life like that with your father,” I said. “Never,” she said. “You were a much better child than I was,” I said. “And your father, a much better father than mine. Though your mother was great, too. I don’t mean to leave her out. I envy the relationship you had with them. Well, there was only one of you. But even if there had been six kids in your family, I can’t imagine your father ever so much as raising his hand to you or, if you had them, your siblings, and they were all bratty boys. And your mother never would have let him. She would have given him hell if he hit anyone. While my mother, I’m afraid — I don’t know why she did. Probably thought, better someone else, since it sometimes has to be done, because she wasn’t going to physically punish us. I should one day explore it. But gave my father and that housekeeper — Herta — license to hit us, Herta with her hands, my father kept to the rolled-up New York Times — whenever they thought we deserved it, by not saying anything to stop them beforehand or to reprove them afterward. But go back to your work. I’m sorry for bothering you with this, and for taking so long.” “Don’t be. I like it when you tell me things like that from when you were a boy. Anytime. When you talk about your life. You don’t tell me enough of them,” and she tapped her lips, and I bent down to kiss them.

And then the dream I had, two days ago? In it, Abby said, “You should apologize to Lotte Zeeotta.” “Haven’t I already?” I said. She said, “Only to me. Not to her directly, and it’s long overdue.” Just then, Lotte appeared, and I said, “Lotte. Good to see you, and you couldn’t have come at a better time. I want to tell you how sorry I am for the rotten way I treated you over the years. Using you. Please forgive me.” Lotte said, “It was terrible for me too, though as a victim rather than as a doer, but I have to confess there was a little fun in there too. You were my first man.” “It didn’t seem like it,” I said. “I went in so easily.” “My first man-man. I did it with lots of little boys before you. But I’m glad we finally got it out in the open, cleared a roomful of foul air. I was a fool and you were a rat.”

The dream ended there. I woke up and thought about the only time I spoke to Abby about Lotte, or I think it was the only time. It was about four years before Abby died. She was in her study, sitting at her computer, and I said, “You told me once that you like it and I don’t do enough of it, when I go more deeply than usual into my life before I met you. So can I interrupt you for a few minutes, while it’s on my mind? To tell you something that’s very much like the story I told you about not apologizing to my father for something I did to him and the effect it continues to have on me today?” “I don’t remember that,” she said. “When was it?” “When I told you? A while back. It’s not important to go over it again, at least not now. It was about a situation that was never resolved. This one — this reaccounting, you could say, or, no, I don’t think that’s a word, so just something I’m telling you about — is also about apologizing. Something, it seems, I’m always doing, or doing a lot. I suppose I think I have a lot in my life to apologize for. Sometimes I feel one hasn’t grown up entirely until he’s corrected or apologized for all his mistakes in the past. And look at me. I’m almost seventy.

“Anyway: Lotte Zeeotta. I never told you about her.” “Long lost love?” “Just the opposite,” I said, “or close to it. Longtime sex object. I met her in Nantucket. She was eighteen, maybe even seventeen, but looked older, and acted older too. Very smart, mature. And I was . . . thirty-six from sixty-one? Twenty-five. So, big age difference at the time. I think she was just starting college, or taking a year off before she started. Fashion design. That’s what she wanted to do. I remember she designed all her own clothes, including the bathing suit she wore. Sewed them too. I’d hitched from Truro, Nova Scotia, to Woods Hole and taken the ferry out to the island. It also stopped at Martha’s Vineyard. I rented a cheap room in someone’s house for a few days and went to the beach to get a suntan, which I regret now, what with my precancerous scalp lesions. She was with some little kids — she was their au pair for the summer. A dull job, she said. She was tall, pretty, solidly built, had shoulders like an Olympic swimmer, and I looked at her and she looked at me and we had lots of these looks, before I moved my towel closer to their blanket and struck up a conversation with the kids and then her. I also remember bringing to the beach a Faulkner novel I’d bought along with another book right after I got off the ferry — The Town or The Mansion or the third one of that series with a title like that. The something. Not one of his best. I left it, mostly unread, in my room when I left the island. We made a date for that night to get an ice cream at a famous ice-cream shop in town. Famous for Nantucket. Then we went to the house I was staying at — she rode her bike and I jogged alongside her. If I’m rambling too much, cut me off. Just that everything’s coming back while I’m telling you this.” “No,” she said. “I like the details. You don’t do enough of it in your own work. So?” “So, we made love. I also had a painful sunburn from the beach that day. Was applying calamine lotion for days on my body.

“We saw each other for a couple of hours every night, and then I had to leave for New York. Not for a job. I was out of one. The radio news show I was the editor of had gone off the air the month before, and I was running out of money. My last day, she came to the ferry with me. Was very sad. I wasn’t. She gave me, as a going-away present, a photograph she’d bought in a local art gallery of a fishing boat leaving Nantucket in the morning mist. I didn’t like it. It was strictly for tourists, and in my head I questioned why she’d ever think I’d want to have it. I think I dumped it soon after I got home. It was very nice of her, though — it must have cost her a few bucks, and she made very little from her job — and I gave her nothing as a parting gift. But I now see, almost fifty years later — I haven’t thought of that photo since then — the symbolic significance of it, which was pretty clever of her.” “How so?” she said. “My leaving Nantucket. The single boat. Morning mist. Tears, which she probably knew she’d have when we said goodbye. Maybe I’m wrong and she didn’t see that in the photo. I waved to her from the ferry, and she stood there on the wharf waving back. I didn’t think I’d ever see or speak to her again, though she gave me her phone number and address. ‘Write,’ she said. ‘Call.’ How could I? She was so young and she lived in a small college town in Massachusetts — both her parents were English professors there — and I really didn’t want to see her again. New Hampshire, that’s where she was from. But I’d had my fun and so did she was the way I looked at it. Callous, awful. I know.”

“Did you give her your phone number and address?” “I probably did — she probably asked me for them — but she never called or wrote, and I was glad she didn’t.” “So that was it?” she said. “No. Now comes the worst part. I bumped into her about two years later. She was coming out of a movie theater and I was going in. She’d moved to New York and was taking courses at F.I.T. and working for a fashion magazine. She was happy to see me. I was, too, with her. She gave me her phone number and I called and continued to call whenever I wanted to have sex and nobody else was around — sometimes when I was a bit loaded but always when I was very horny. She’d take a cab — I always ended up calling her late in the evening — and I’d meet her in front of my building and pay the fare. Every time. I’d stand outside and pay the fare.” “The least you could do,” she said. “Of course. That’s not what I’m saying.

“She had to call a cab service. She couldn’t go out and hail a cab, as her neighborhood wasn’t safe at night. I never went up there because the truth is it was much easier for her to come to my apartment — easier for me — and I was afraid of getting mugged. So we’d make love, maybe have some wine or beer before, and she’d leave in the morning, sometimes very early — six, six-thirty — so she could get home and do what she needed to do before going to school or work. This went on, I’d say, for about three years. About ten times a year. No, that sounds like too much. She wouldn’t have put up with that. So probably much less. I’d call, she’d come. I think that was the only relationship I had like that. Was I beginning, after a while, to feel lousy about it? A little. But it didn’t stop me. My penis came first. Then I lived in California for a few years. Or Paris first and then California, when I got that writing fellowship there, and I lost contact with her. I don’t even think I told her I was leaving New York. But I must have, though I’m sure she didn’t care. Sometimes when I got to New York during this time, to see my folks, I’d look up her name in the Manhattan phone book, and she was still listed at the same address, on West 138th Street. I didn’t call her, mainly, I think, because I didn’t have to. I was only in the city for a week or two, and I was living with one woman and then another in California for most of my four years there.

“Then, when you and I were in the city a few weeks ago — so this brings us to today — just out of curiosity, and remember, it’s been almost forty years since I last saw her, I looked up her name in the phone book, not thinking she’d be listed there or anywhere in Manhattan under her old name. But she was. Same phone number, same address. That’s all. I didn’t call her, of course. So I’m saying, I really feel lousy at how I used her. Just seeing her for sex whenever I felt like it. She even — and this is good, what she should have done more of — chewed me out for it a couple of times. ‘You only call me when you want to fuck.’ That’s what she said. The first woman to ever use that word for what we were doing. You never have.” “I suppose I haven’t,” she said. “And I told her, ‘That’s not true. I like seeing you.’ Then she would say, ‘Do we ever go out for dinner? Lunch? For a coffee? Even to a movie, where you don’t have to talk to me?’ ‘We’ll go out now for coffee,’ I said the first time she told me this. ‘Breakfast, even. I’ll treat you to breakfast.’ What a schmuck I was. Anyway, she said no, invite her when it’s my idea and not because of something she said that might have made me feel guilty. I remember saying I didn’t feel guilty. So would she like to go down the block with me and have breakfast? We were in my apartment. One of the few times she hadn’t left early, though I was probably hoping she would. She said, ‘Maybe the next time, if there’s a next time,’ or along those lines, but she had to get home, or had to be somewhere, and she angrily got her stuff together and left.

“We never went out anyplace together. I don’t think we even walked a single city block together. Or that I accompanied her to the subway, for instance. Did you know I could be such a louse? That I’ve kept this story from you for so long probably means I didn’t want you to know how bad I could be.” “So,” she said, “what are you saying with all this? You want to call her at this phone number you found and apologize after all these years? Is that what you’re getting at?” “Something like that,” I said. “Or maybe just to write an apology and send it to her.” “Not a good idea,” she said. “You’d be crazy to. Let it go. She won’t want to read or hear it. It’ll only make her recall all the times you phoned her to have sex and she whizzed over to your place and accommodated you that way for years, and will make her feel disgusted with herself all over again. For it’s possible it’s been twenty to thirty years since she last thought of you and what she allowed herself to do, and in that time had worked it out with a therapist along with other things that had troubled her about herself. So don’t. It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.”

So I didn’t call or write her, though I might have if Abby hadn’t felt so strongly about it. It felt like a real warning she was giving me, and maybe about her relationship with me too. That I . . . well, she’d really have serious questions about it and my common sense and self-restraint and such if I called. Then, two years after Abby died, so six years after we had this conversation, when I was in New York to see my daughters and sister, I looked up Lotte’s name in the phone book. I figured if she was in the book six years ago, there was a good chance she was in the book today. And she was. Same everything. I thought: Just call. If you’re not going to do it now, you’re never going to do it, and you want to do it. And not to apologize right away. Maybe not to apologize at all. But just to talk to her — to say it’s Phil Seidel, from way back, and I’d like to see her if it’s possible and she can find the time. Have lunch somewhere and talk about our lives since we last saw each other so many years ago. That I was surprised to still find her name in the phone book but was glad I did. There was no other way I could have contacted her. So many things have happened in these more than forty years since we last spoke, I’d say. And I’m sure the same for her. For me: marriage, two daughters, the long sickness and death of my wife, which I still haven’t recovered from and probably never will. It’s beginning to feel like that. Teaching at the university level for twenty-seven years and now retired, living in the Baltimore area for even longer than that, though for most of that time we kept my wife’s apartment in New York. Books and stuff. Or maybe nothing about my writing unless she asks, though when I knew her I only had one story published. And so on. But what about her? I’d say. Did she stay in the fashion business? And so on. I wouldn’t ask if she got married or had children. It’d come out if she had.

I dialed and a woman answered. “Hi,” I said, “is this Lotte?” “No,” the woman said, “but you dialed the right number. I’m her daughter. Who is this, please?” “An old friend of your mother’s. Is she around?” “My mother died three years ago.” “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Oh, gosh. What a nice woman. And we go so far back — to when she was a student at F.I.T. and also working for a woman’s magazine. She was in her young twenties, and I wasn’t even thirty. I even knew her when she was in her late teens. We met in 1961. Nantucket. In the summer. August, I remember. She was working for some family I never met, looking after their little kids. We haven’t spoken to each other since 1968. Maybe earlier. So I thought of her today. Thought of her a lot over the years and, just a hunch, I was in the city and looked her up in the phone book. Not expecting to find her at the same address or even listed at another address under her old name. A habit I have, looking up old acquaintances and friends, or at least their names in the phone book after many years.”

“I kept her name in the directory when I inherited the apartment after she died,” the woman said. “Too lazy to change it, I guess. But I also thought, she had the apartment for so long, first alone, and then with my father, and then me —” “And your father?” I said. “He was out of the picture almost from the beginning. I moved in with her her last year to help take care of her and then just stayed.” “That’s very nice what you did. Not many children would do that.” “I think most would,” she said. “Especially if they had a mother like mine. It gave me as much pleasure as it did her. Possibly more.” “Very nice. Very nice. As I said, your mother and I were just friends. Nothing more. We’d meet for lunch or dinner — Am I disturbing you with these reminiscences? I should have asked you that first.” “It’s fine,” she said. “And interesting. Please go on.” “And for a while, despite the age difference, maybe even very good friends. We’d see each other for lunch and sometimes dinner and talk for hours. Movies too, and a couple of times a play, which we’d discuss afterward. She was extremely perceptive and smart. I’m sorry she’s gone. Sorry I lost contact with her. But I was out of the country for a long time and then moved back to the States but not to New York and, you know, got married, kids, always jobs elsewhere. We just lost contact.” “All that’s understandable. What’s your name, sir? Maybe she mentioned you.” “Don Wilson.” “Nope, I don’t remember her ever talking about you. Though it’s a pretty common name, ‘Don Wilson,’ so I might have got it mixed up with others like it.” “Also,” I said, “by the time you were born, probably, Lotte and I had been out of touch for years, and then she had her whole other life. And, when it comes down to it, I doubt I was that much of a figure in her life, for the most part. Just to talk to on and off for about six years, though maybe a deeper camaraderie for one or two years. But I don’t want to give the impression we saw each other that much. It was sporadic. But I better go. It’s been nice talking to you, and again, I’m very sorry for your loss. And your name?” “I didn’t tell you? Sybil.” “Same last name as Lotte’s in the phone book, or do you have your father’s, or even a married name?” “It’s not important, my last name,” she said. “Good speaking to you, Don. Or Donald. Mr. Wilson.” “Same here,” I said, and she hung up.

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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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