I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain. I hadn't been back in fifty-six years, and I remembered nothing. My parents had moved out of the city when I was three, but I instinctively found myself returning to the neighborhood where we had lived, crawling home like some wounded dog to the place of my birth. A local real estate agent ushered me around to six or seven brownstone flats, and by the end of the afternoon I had rented a two-bedroom garden apartment on First Street, just half a block away from Prospect Park. I had no idea who my neighbors were, and I didn't care. They all worked at nine-to-five jobs, none of them had any children, and therefore the building would be relatively silent. More than anything else, that was what I craved. A silent end to my sad and ridiculous life.
The house in Bronxville was already under contract, and once the closing took place at the end of the month, money wasn't going to be a problem. My ex-wife and I were planning to split the proceeds from the sale, and with four hundred thousand dollars in the bank, there would be more than enough to sustain me until I stopped breathing.
At first, I didn't know what to do with myself. I had spent thirty-one years commuting back and forth between the suburbs and the Manhattan offices of Mid-Atlantic Accident and Life, but now that I didn't have a job anymore, there were too many hours in the day. About a week after I moved into the apartment, my married daughter, Rachel, drove in from New Jersey to pay me a visit. She said that I needed to get involved in something, to invent a project for myself. Rachel is not a stupid person. She has a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Chicago and works as a researcher for a large drug company outside Princeton, but much like her mother before her, it's a rare day when she speaks in anything but platitudes-all those exhausted phrases and hand-me-down ideas that cram the dump sites of contemporary wisdom.
I explained that I was probably going to be dead before the year was out, and I didn't give a flying fuck about projects. For a moment, it looked as if Rachel was about to cry, but she blinked back the tears and called me a cruel and selfish person instead. No wonder "Mom" had finally divorced me, she added, no wonder she hadn't been able to take it anymore. Being married to a man like me must have been an unending torture, a living hell. A living hell. Alas, poor Rachel-she simply can't help herself. My only child has inhabited this earth for twenty-nine years, and not once has she come up with an original remark, with something absolutely and irreducibly her own.
Yes, I suppose there is something nasty about me at times. But not all the time-and not as a matter of principle. On my good days, I'm as sweet and friendly as any person I know. You can't sell life insurance as successfully as I did by alienating your customers, at least not for three long decades you can't. You have to be sympathetic. You have to be able to listen. You have to know how to charm people. I possess all those qualities and more. I won't deny that I've had my bad moments as well, but everyone knows what dangers lurk behind the closed doors of family life. It can be poison for all concerned, especially if you discover that you probably weren't cut out for marriage in the first place. I loved having sex with Edith, but after four or five years the passion seemed to run its course, and from then on I became less than a perfect husband. To hear Rachel tell it, I wasn't much in the parent department either. I wouldn't want to contradict her memories, but the truth is that I cared for them both in my own way, and if I sometimes found myself in the arms of other women, I never took any of those affairs seriously. The divorce wasn't my idea. In spite of everything, I was planning to stay with Edith until the end. She was the one who wanted out, and given the extent of my sins and transgressions over the years, I couldn't really blame her. Thirty-three years of living under the same roof, and by the time we walked off in opposite directions, what we added up to was approximately nothing.
I had told Rachel my days were numbered, but that was no more than a hotheaded retort to her meddling advice, a blast of pure hyperbole. My lung cancer was in remission, and based on what the oncologist had told me after my most recent exam, there was cause for guarded optimism. That didn't mean I trusted him, however. The shock of the cancer had been so great, I still didn't believe in the possibility of surviving it. I had given myself up for dead, and once the tumor had been cut out of me and I'd gone through the debilitating ordeals of radiation treatment and chemo, once I'd suffered the long bouts of nausea and dizziness, the loss of hair, the loss of will, the loss of job, the loss of wife, it was difficult for me to imagine how to go on. Hence Brooklyn. Hence my unconscious return to the place where my story began. I was almost sixty years old, and I didn't know how much time I had left. Maybe another twenty years; maybe just a few more months. Whatever the medical prognosis of my condition, the crucial thing was to take nothing for granted. As long as I was alive, I had to figure out a way to start living again, but even if I didn't live, I had to do more than just sit around and wait for the end. As usual, my scientist daughter had been right, even if I'd been too stubborn to admit it. I had to keep myself busy. I had to get off my ass and do something.
It was early spring when I moved in, and for the first few weeks I filled my time by exploring the neighborhood, taking long walks in the park, and planting flowers in my back garden-a small, junk-filled patch of ground that had been neglected for years. I had my newly resurgent hair cut at the Park Slope Barbershop on Seventh Avenue, rented videos from a place called Movie Heaven, and stopped in often at Brightman's Attic, a cluttered, badly organized used-book store owned by a flamboyant homosexual named Harry Brightman (more about him later). Most mornings, I prepared breakfast for myself in the apartment, but since I disliked cooking and lacked all talent for it, I tended to eat lunch and dinner in restaurants-always alone, always with an open book in front of me, always chewing as slowly as possible in order to drag out the meal as long as I could. After sampling a number of options in the vicinity, I settled on the Cosmic Diner as my regular spot for lunch. The food there was mediocre at best, but one of the waitresses was an adorable Puerto Rican girl named Marina, and I rapidly developed a crush on her. She was half my age and already married, which meant that romance was out of the question, but she was so splendid to look at, so gentle in her dealings with me, so ready to laugh at my less than funny jokes, that I literally pined for her on her days off. From a strictly anthropological point of view, I discovered that Brooklynites are less reluctant to talk to strangers than any tribe I had previously encountered. They butt into one another's business at will (old women scolding young mothers for not dressing their children warmly enough, passersby snapping at dog walkers for yanking too hard on the leash); they argue like deranged four-year-olds over disputed parking spaces; they zip out dazzling one-liners as a matter of course. One Sunday morning, I went into a crowded deli with the absurd name of La Bagel Delight. I was intending to ask for a cinnamon-raisin bagel, but the word caught in my mouth and came out as cinnamon-reagan. Without missing a beat, the young guy behind the counter answered: "Sorry, we don't have any of those. How about a pumpernixon instead?" Fast. So damned fast, I nearly wet my drawers.
After that inadvertent slip of the tongue, I finally hit upon an idea that Rachel would have approved of. It wasn't much of an idea, perhaps, but at least it was something, and if I stuck to it as rigorously and faithfully as I intended to, then I would have my project, the little hobbyhorse I'd been looking for to carry me away from the indolence of my soporific routine. Humble as the project was, I decided to give it a grandiose, somewhat pompous title-in order to delude myself into thinking that I was engaged in important work. I called it The Book of Human Folly, and in it I was planning to set down in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man. When I couldn't think of stories to tell about myself, I would write down things that had happened to people I knew, and when that source ran dry as well, I would take on historical events, recording the follies of my fellow human beings down through the ages, beginning with the vanished civilizations of the ancient world and pushing on to the first months of the twenty-first century. If nothing else, I thought it might be good for a few laughs. I had no desire to bare my soul or indulge in gloomy introspections. The tone would be light and farcical throughout, and my only purpose was to keep myself entertained while using up as many hours of the day as I could.
I called the project a book, but in fact it wasn't a book at all. Working with yellow legal pads, loose sheets of paper, the backs of envelopes and junk-mail form letters for credit cards and home-improvement loans, I was compiling what amounted to a collection of random jottings, a hodgepodge of unrelated anecdotes that I would throw into a cardboard box each time another story was finished. There was little method to my madness. Some of the pieces came to no more than a few lines, and a number of them, in particular the spoonerisms and malapropisms I was so fond of, were just a single phrase. Chilled greaseburger instead of grilled cheeseburger, for example, which came out of my mouth sometime during my junior year of high school, or the unintentionally profound, quasi-mystical utterance I delivered to Edith while we were engaged in one of our bitter marital spats: I'll see it when I believe it. Every time I sat down to write, I would begin by closing my eyes and letting my thoughts wander in any direction they chose. By forcing myself to relax in this way, I managed to dredge up considerable amounts of material from the distant past, things that until then I had assumed were lost forever. A moment from the sixth grade (to cite one such memory) when a boy in our class named Dudley Franklin let out a long, trumpet-shrill fart during a silent pause in the middle of a geography lesson. We all laughed, of course (nothing is funnier to a roomful of eleven-year-olds than a gust of broken wind), but what set the incident apart from the category of minor embarrassments and elevated it to classic status, an enduring masterpiece in the annals of shame and humiliation, was the fact that Dudley was innocent enough to commit the fatal blunder of offering an apology. "Excuse me," he said, looking down at his desk and blushing until his cheeks resembled a freshly painted fire truck. One must never own up to a fart in public. That is the unwritten law, the single most stringent protocol of American etiquette. Farts come from no one and nowhere; they are anonymous emanations that belong to the group as a whole, and even when every person in the room can point to the culprit, the only sane course of action is denial. The witless Dudley Franklin was too honest to do that, however, and he never lived it down. From that day on, he was known as Excuse-Me Franklin, and the name stuck with him until the end of high school.
The stories seemed to fall under several different rubrics, and after I had been at the project for approximately a month, I abandoned my one-box system in favor of a multibox arrangement that allowed me to preserve my finished works in a more coherent fashion. A box for verbal flubs, another for physical mishaps, another for failed ideas, another for social gaffes, and so on. Little by little, I grew particularly interested in recording the slapstick moments of everyday life. Not just the countless stubbed toes and knocks on the head I've been subjected to over the years, not just the frequency with which my glasses have slipped out of my shirt pocket when I've bent down to tie my shoes (followed by the further indignity of stumbling forward and crushing the glasses underfoot), but the one-in-a-million howlers that have befallen me at various times since my earliest boyhood. Opening my mouth to yawn at a Labor Day picnic in 1952 and allowing a bee to fly in, which, in my sudden panic and disgust, I accidentally swallowed instead of spitting out; or, even more unlikely, preparing to enter a plane on a business trip just seven years ago with my boarding-pass stub wedged lightly between my thumb and middle finger, being jostled from behind, losing hold of the stub, and seeing it flutter out of my hand toward the slit between the ramp and the threshold of the plane-the narrowest of narrow gaps, no more than a sixteenth of an inch, if that much-and then, to my utter astonishment, watching it slide clear through that impossible space and land on the tarmac twenty feet below.
Those are just some examples. I wrote dozens of such stories in the first two months, but even though I did my best to keep the tone frivolous and light, I discovered that it wasn't always possible. Everyone is subject to black moods, and I confess that there were times when I succumbed to bouts of loneliness and dejection. I had spent the bulk of my working life in the business of death, and I had probably heard too many grim stories to stop myself from thinking about them when my spirits were low. All the people I had visited over the years, all the policies I had sold, all the dread and desperation I'd been made privy to while talking to my clients. Eventually, I added another box to my assemblage. I labeled it "Cruel Destinies," and the first story I put in there was about a man named Jonas Weinberg. I had sold him a million-dollar universal life policy in 1976, an extremely large sum for the time. I remember that he had just celebrated his sixtieth birthday, was a doctor of internal medicine affiliated with Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, and spoke English with a faint German accent. Selling life insurance is not a passionless affair, and a good agent has to be able to hold his own in what can often turn into difficult, tortuous discussions with his clients. The prospect of death inevitably turns one's thoughts to serious matters, and even if a part of the job is only about money, it also concerns the gravest metaphysical questions. What is the point of life? How much longer will I live? How can I protect the people I love after I'm gone? Because of his profession, Dr. Weinberg had a keen sense of the frailty of human existence, of how little it takes to remove our names from the book of the living. We met in his apartment on Central Park West, and once I had talked him through the pros and cons of the various policies available to him, he began to reminisce about his past. He had been born in Berlin in 1916, he told me, and after his father had been killed in the trenches of World War I, he had been raised by his actress mother, the only child of a fiercely independent and sometimes obstreperous woman who had never shown the slightest inclination to remarry. If I am not reading too much into his comments, I believe Dr. Weinberg was hinting at the fact that his mother preferred women to men, and in the chaotic years of the Weimar Republic, she must have flaunted that preference quite openly. In contrast to the headstrong Frau Weinberg, the young Jonas was a quiet, bookish boy who excelled at his studies and dreamed of becoming a scientist or a doctor. He was seventeen when Hitler took control of the government, and within months his mother was making preparations to get him out of Germany. Relatives of his father's lived in New York, and they agreed to take him in. He left in the spring of 1934, but his mother, who had already proved her alertness to the impending dangers for non-Aryans of the Third Reich, stubbornly rejected the opportunity to leave herself. Her family had been Germans for hundreds of years, she told her son, and she'd be damned if she allowed some two-bit tyrant to chase her into exile. Come hell or high water, she was determined to stick it out.
By some miracle, she did. Dr. Weinberg offered few details (it's possible he never learned the full story himself), but his mother was apparently helped by a group of Gentile friends at various critical junctures, and by 1938 or 1939 she had managed to obtain a set of false identity papers. She radically altered her appearance-not hard for an actress who specialized in eccentric character roles-and under her new Christian name she wrangled herself a job as a bookkeeper for a dry goods store in a small town outside Hamburg, disguised as a frumpy, bespectacled blonde. When the war ended in the spring of 1945, she hadn't seen her son in eleven years. Jonas Weinberg was in his late twenties by then, a full-fledged doctor completing his residency at Bellevue Hospital, and the moment he found out that his mother had survived the war, he began making arrangements for her to come visit him in America.
Everything was worked out to the smallest detail. The plane would be landing at such and such a time, would be parking at such and such a gate, and Jonas Weinberg would be there to meet his mother. Just as he was about to leave for the airport, however, he was summoned by the hospital to perform an emergency operation. What choice did he have? He was a doctor, and anxious as he was to see his mother again after so many years, his first duty was to his patients. A new plan was hastily put in motion. He telephoned the airline company and asked them to send a representative to speak to his mother when she arrived in New York, explaining that he had been called away at the last minute and that she should find a taxi to take her into Manhattan. A key would be left for her with the doorman at his building, and she should go upstairs and wait for him in the apartment. Frau Weinberg did as she was told and promptly found a cab. The driver sped off, and ten minutes into their journey toward the city, he lost control of the wheel and crashed head-on into another car. Both he and his passenger were severely injured.
By then, Dr. Weinberg was already at the hospital, about to perform his operation.
The surgery lasted a little over an hour, and when he had finished his work, the young doctor washed his hands, changed back into his clothes, and hurried out of the locker room, eager to return home for his belated reunion with his mother. Just as he stepped into the hall, he saw a new patient being wheeled into the operating room.
It was Jonas Weinberg's mother. According to what the doctor told me, she died without regaining consciousness.
an unexpected encounter
I have rattled on for a dozen pages, but until now my sole object has been to introduce myself to the reader and set the scene for the story I am about to tell. I am not the central character of that story. The distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book belongs to my nephew, Tom Wood, the only son of my late sister, June. Little June-Bug, as we called her, was born when I was three, and it was her arrival that precipitated our parents' departure from a crowded Brooklyn apartment to a house in Garden City, Long Island. We were always fast friends, she and I, and when she married twenty-four years later (six months after our father's death), I was the one who walked her down the aisle and gave her away to her husband, a New York Times business reporter named Christopher Wood. They produced two children together (my nephew, Tom, and my niece, Aurora), but the marriage fell apart after fifteen years. A couple of years later, June remarried, and again I accompanied her to the altar. Her second husband was a wealthy stockbroker from New Jersey, Philip Zorn, whose baggage included two ex-wives and a nearly grown-up daughter, Pamela. Then, at the disgustingly early age of forty-nine, June suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage while working in her garden one scorching afternoon in the middle of August and died before the sun rose again the next day. For her big brother, it was hands down the worst blow he had ever received, and not even his own cancer and near death several years later came close to duplicating the misery he felt then.
I lost contact with the family after the funeral, and until I ran into him in Harry Brightman's bookstore on May 23, 2000, I hadn't seen Tom in almost seven years. He had always been my favorite, and even as a small tyke he had impressed me as someone who stood out from the ordinary, a person destined to achieve great things in life. Not counting the day of June's burial, our last conversation had taken place at his mother's house in South Orange, New Jersey. Tom had just graduated with high honors from Cornell and was about to go off to the University of Michigan on a four-year fellowship to study American literature. Everything I had predicted for him was coming true, and I remember that family dinner as a warm occasion, with all of us lifting our glasses and toasting Tom's success. Back when I was his age, I had hoped to follow a path similar to the one my nephew had chosen. Like him, I had majored in English at college, with secret ambitions to go on studying literature or perhaps take a stab at journalism, but I hadn't had the courage to pursue either one. Life got in the way-two years in the army, work, marriage, family responsibilities, the need to earn more and more money, all the muck that bogs us down when we don't have the balls to stand up for ourselves-but I had never lost my interest in books. Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head. Tom had always shared this love with me, and starting when he was five or six, I had made a point of sending him books several times a year-not just for his birthday or Christmas, but whenever I stumbled across something I thought he would like. I had introduced him to Poe when he was eleven, and because Poe was one of the writers he had dealt with in his senior thesis, it was only natural that he should want to tell me about his paper-and only natural that I should want to listen. The meal was over by then, and all the others had gone outside to sit in the backyard, but Tom and I remained in the dining room, drinking the last of the wine.
"To your health, Uncle Nat," Tom said, raising his glass.
"To yours, Tom," I answered. "And to 'Imaginary Edens: The Life of the Mind in Pre-Civil War America.' "
"A pretentious title, I'm sorry to say. But I couldn't think of anything better."
"Pretentious is good. It makes the professors sit up and take notice. You got an A plus, didn't you?"
Modest as always, Tom made a sweeping gesture with his hand, as if to discount the importance of the grade. I continued, "Partly on Poe, you say. And partly on what else?"
"Poe and Thoreau."
"Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau. An unfortunate rhyme, don't you think? All those o's filling up the mouth. I keep thinking of someone shocked into a state of eternal surprise. Oh! Oh no! Oh Poe! Oh Thoreau!"
"A minor inconvenience, Tom. But woe to the man who reads Poe and forgets Thoreau. Not so?"
Tom smiled broadly, then raised his glass again. "To your health, Uncle Nat."
"And to yours, Dr. Thumb," I said. We each took another sip of the Bordeaux. As I lowered my glass to the table, I asked him to outline his argument for me.
"It's about nonexistent worlds," my nephew said. "A study of the inner refuge, a map of the place a man goes to when life in the real world is no longer possible."
"Exactly. First Poe, and an analysis of three of his most ne-glected works. 'The Philosophy of Furniture,' 'Landor's Cottage,' and 'The Domain of Arnheim.' Taken alone, each one is merely curious, eccentric. Put them together, and what you have is a fully elaborated system of human longing."
"I've never read those pieces. I don't think I've even heard of them."
"What they give is a description of the ideal room, the ideal house, and the ideal landscape. After that, I jump to Thoreau and examine the room, the house, and the landscape as presented in Walden."
"What we call a comparative study."
"No one ever talks about Poe and Thoreau in the same breath. They stand at opposite ends of American thought. But that's the beauty of it. A drunk from the South-reactionary in his politics, aristocratic in his bearing, spectral in his imagination. And a teetotaler from the North-radical in his views, puritanical in his behavior, clear-sighted in his work. Poe was artifice and the gloom of midnight chambers. Thoreau was simplicity and the radiance of the outdoors. In spite of their differences, they were born just eight years apart, which made them almost exact contemporaries. And they both died young-at forty and forty-five. Together, they barely managed to live the life of a single old man, and neither one left behind any children. In all probability, Thoreau went to his grave a virgin. Poe married his teenage cousin, but whether that marriage was consummated before Virginia Clemm's death is still open to question. Call them parallels, call them coincidences, but these external facts are less important than the inner truth of each man's life. In their own wildly idiosyncratic ways, each took it upon himself to reinvent America. In his reviews and critical articles, Poe battled for a new kind of native literature, an American literature free of English and European influences.
Thoreau's work represents an unending assault on the status quo, a battle to find a new way to live here. Both men believed in America, and both men believed that America had gone to hell, that it was being crushed to death by an ever-growing mountain of machines and money. How was a man to think in the midst of all that clamor? They both wanted out. Thoreau removed himself to the outskirts of Concord, pretending to exile himself in the woods-for no other reason than to prove that it could be done. As long as a man had the courage to reject what society told him to do, he could live life on his own terms. To what end? To be free. But free to what end? To read books, to write books, to think. To be free to write a book like Walden. Poe, on the other hand, withdrew into a dream of perfection. Take a look at 'The Philosophy of Furniture,' and you'll discover that his imaginary room was designed for exactly the same purpose. As a place to read, write, and think. It's a vault of contemplation, a noiseless sanctuary where the soul can at last find a measure of peace. Impossibly utopian? Yes. But also a sensible alternative to the conditions of the time. For the fact was, America had indeed gone to hell. The country was split in two, and we all know what happened just a decade later. Four years of death and destruction. A human bloodbath generated by the very machines that were supposed to make us all happy and rich."
The boy was so smart, so articulate, so well-read, that I felt honored to count myself as a member of his family. The Woods had been through their fair share of turmoil in recent years, but Tom seemed to have weathered the calamity of his parents' breakup-as well as the adolescent storms of his younger sister, who had rebelled against her mother's second marriage and run away from home at seventeen-with a sober, reflective, rather bemused attitude toward life, and I admired him for having kept his feet so firmly on the ground. He had little or no connection with his father, who had promptly moved to California after the divorce and taken a job with the Los Angeles Times, and much like his sister (though in far more muted form) felt no great fondness or respect for June's second husband. He and his mother were close, however, and they had lived through the drama of Aurora's disappearance as equal partners, suffering through the same despairs and hopes, the same grim expectations, the same never-ending anxieties. Rory had been one of the funniest, most fetching little girls I have ever known: a whirlwind of sass and bravura, a wiseacre, an inexhaustible engine of spontaneity and mischief. From the time she was two or three, Edith and I had always referred to her as the Laughing Girl, and she had grown up in the Wood household as the family entertainer, an ever more artful and rambunctious clown. Tom was just two years older than she was, but he had always looked out for her, and once their father left the picture, his mere presence had served as a stabilizing force in her life. But then he went off to college, and Rory went out of control-first escaping to New York, and then, after a brief reconciliation with her mother, vanishing into parts unknown. At the time of that celebratory dinner for Tom's graduation, she had already given birth to an out-of-wedlock child (a girl named Lucy), had returned home just long enough to dump the baby in my sister's lap, and had vanished again. When June died fourteen months later, Tom informed me at the funeral that Aurora had recently come back to reclaim the child-and had left again after two days. She didn't show up for her mother's burial service. Maybe she would have come, Tom said, but no one had known how or where to contact her.
In spite of these family messes, and in spite of losing his mother when he was only twenty-three, I never doubted that Tom would flourish in the world. He had too much going for him to fail, was too solid a character to be thrown off course by the unpredictable winds of sorrow and bad luck. At his mother's funeral, he had walked around in a dazed stupor, overwhelmed by grief. I probably should have talked to him more, but I was too stunned and shaken myself to offer him much of anything. A few hugs, a few shared tears, but that was the extent of it. Then he returned to Ann Arbor, and we fell out of touch. I mostly blame myself, but Tom was old enough to have taken the initiative, and he could have sent me a word whenever he'd chosen to. Or, if not me, then his first cousin, Rachel, who was also in the Midwest at the time, doing her postgraduate work in Chicago. They had known each other since infancy and had always gotten along well, but he made no move in her direction either. Every now and then, I felt a small twinge of guilt as the years passed, but I was going through a rough patch of my own (marriage problems, health problems, money problems), and I was too distracted to think about him very much. Whenever I did, I imagined him forging ahead with his studies, systematically advancing his career as he scaled the academic ladder. By the spring of 2000, I was certain he had landed a job at some prestigious place like Berkeley or Columbia-a young intellectual star already at work on his second or third book.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into Brightman's Attic that Tuesday morning in May and saw my nephew sitting behind the front counter, doling out change to a customer. Luckily, I saw Tom before he saw me. God knows what regrettable words would have escaped my lips if I hadn't had those ten or twelve seconds to absorb the shock. I'm referring not only to the improbable fact that he was there, working as an underling in a secondhand bookstore, but also to his radically altered physical appearance. Tom had always been on the chunky side. He had been cursed with one of those big-boned peasant bodies constructed to bear the bulk of ample poundage-a genetic gift from his absent, semi-alcoholic father-but even so, the last time I'd seen him, he had been in relatively good shape. Burly, yes, but also muscular and strong, with an athletic bounce to his step. Now, seven years later, he had put on a good thirty or thirty-five pounds, and he looked dumpy and fat. A second chin had sprouted just below his jawline, and even his hands had acquired the pudge and thickness one normally associates with middle-aged plumbers. It was a sad sight to behold. The spark had been extinguished from my nephew's eyes, and everything about him suggested defeat.
After the customer finished paying for her book, I sidled up to the spot she had just vacated, put my hands on the counter, and leaned forward. Tom happened to be looking down at that moment, searching for a coin that had fallen to the floor. I cleared my throat and said, "Hey there, Tom. Long time no see."
My nephew looked up. At first, he seemed entirely befuddled, and I was afraid he hadn't recognized me. But an instant later he began to smile, and as the smile continued to spread across his face, I was heartened to see that it was the same Tom-smile of old. A touch of melancholy had been added to it, perhaps, but not enough to have changed him as profoundly as I had feared.
"Uncle Nat!" he shouted. "What the hell are you doing in Brooklyn?"
Before I could answer him, he rushed out from behind the counter and threw his arms around me. Much to my amazement, my eyes began to water up with tears.
Excerpted from THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES © Copyright 2011 by Paul Auster. Reprinted with permission by Picador. All rights reserved.
The Brooklyn Follies
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Picador
- ISBN-10: 0312426232
- ISBN-13: 9780312426231