father took me to the New York World's Fair in 1939. 1 was five years old.
Instead of traveling back in time, he and I journeyed forward on conveyor
belts through a silver sphere alongside an obelisk, looking down upon the
future. Less than a decade later I saw it again in Levittown.
That midnight train ride across Pennsylvania to the fair wasn't so much to show me what the future held as it was to display his impatience with the past. Father's wingtips and widebrimmed felt hats, for instance. On New Year's Day he'd give away suits because their lapels were either too ostentatious or too narrow (they vacillated like Cadillac fins). In the summertime our old Dodge sedan he'd have repainted and delegate me to whitewall its tires.
"The ballpoints write under water," he crowed, handing my brother and me Parker pen and pencil sets for graduation. A mahogany bookcase containing the "updated annually" Encyclopedia Americana gathered dust alongside our unused parlor piano. And under the Christmas tree each year -- cellophane-boxed shirt and tie combinations with matching cuff links he'd seen advertised by Van Heusen in a recent Esquire. Even when we were 10 and 12 years old.
I began seeing the connection to brand merchandising and his penchant for staying alive. Hart Schaffner & Marx suits, London Fog coats, Haggar slacks. "Only the best, boys." Jockey shorts were OK in our sock and underwear drawer; Fruit of the Loom would have been frowned upon. Following church services, one of my mother's acquaintances would invariably exclaim:
"Oh, Estelle, what fine little men you have here."
We were little men. In our closets hung little men's suits. All purchased at his haberdashery that catered to the well-off of our town. (Except he bought ours on credit.)
By high school I began to realize there was some connection in my father's mind between brand names and tourist attractions. As he wheedled we wear Arrow shirts, Florsheim shoes, and Dobbs hats, so, too, he insisted we visit the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, the Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby. On my sixteenth birthday he took me to New York City. When the cab driver picked us up at Grand Central, Father said, "Times Square."
"And where to there, sir?"
He'd listened to Sammy Kaye's radio broadcasts from its Stardust Roof. On that trip, separated from him for several hours one evening, I found my way into a 52nd Street jazz club. The Birdland marquee advertised Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
"Pap, tonight I heard the most incredible music I've ever listened to. Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo don't play like these cats. Can't we go back there tomorrow night?"
But we had to see the sights -- Greenwich Village and the men-girlie shows, walk the Bowery. Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes, "And we must get dressed up for that date," he said. He'd wear his Bostonians he'd purchased on sale earlier in the day. I wore a McGregor shirt and sport coat.
Mother was more interested in making what little money he brought into the house last longer, otherwise our house would have been stuffed with Westinghouse appliances. But on the few occasions the couple went out in public, she basked in his brand-name presence.
Early on I sensed it was all kind of sad. Visiting the Empire State Building was his pilgrimage to Lourdes. Except no miracle ever occurred. One empty experience after another, like the Arrow shirts. He'd boast to his friends or the bartender:
"Just returned from New York City. Took the Staten Island Ferry. Saw the Copper Lady. Went to the Copacabana and the Village. The Rockettes kicked up one helluvan Easter show."
"Yeah?" the bartender would respond. "Never been there. But I do watch Macy's Thanksgiving Parade every year."
"Took my boy Ben there, too. Had chop suey in Chinatown. We did it all." Then he'd order another double Seagrams with a beer chaser.
As I grew older, I had a recurring dream in which I saw him strolling through our deserted town pasted over by advertising slogans and tourist brochures. These icons of our culture -- his motor oil for conversations. But I also saw something deeper.
I saw him naked.
How dapper he always looked. How the patrons would look up from their drinks when he entered the bar. "Here comes Kelman. Looks like the mannequin stepped right out of Levine's Men's Wear window, 'eh, Bud?"
How he insisted my brother and I do the same. Tiny men placards for brand names that had a greater cachet than Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, or JC Penney's.
"Nothing but the best, boys. It's how people judge you."
I judged him when he was stripped, spitting up his guts on a Saturday evening after a day at the saloon; or when he soiled himself -- and crawled around on all fours in his Hickey Freeman threads, thinking he was going to die he was so drunken sick.
The brands didn't succor him through these existential moments. The Copper Lady, the Bowery, Chinatown, Times Square, Coney Island, and the Staten Island Ferry all fell short in his latter days when he sat staring at the walls, wrapped in a Montgomery Ward flannel night coat -- Apache design -- with a cloth belt. Surely wondering what in God's name it had all added up to.
He couldn't even give away the Arrow Shirts that were yellowing at the collar. Or the Florsheim shoes, now a decade out of style -- Christ, he needed only one pair if they were going to display him... but he insisted that nobody do that.
"You got to promise, sons."
Was he afraid his weeds would be out of style? That one of us might pick out the wrong shirt and tie combination if we didn't cremate him? That the lapels on his suit jacket looked like dragonfly wings? The hair tonic didn't smell like Vitalis? Maybe some drinking buddy would stick a chintzy replica of the Empire State Building in the bier alongside him?
Oh, I could see the change coming. The last few years of his life he was no longer the sartorial signboard. He still put up the front, but it didn't have the old conviction. I knew this for certain when he came to visit me in his last year.
I picked him up at Logan airport. He shuffled down a long corridor, last in line. A flight attendant alongside, carting his Samsonite luggage of an earlier vintage. Normally any woman that close he'd have engaged in animated conversation. Instead, he concentrated on getting to the exit gate, catching his breath every dozen steps.
"Pap, you look exhausted."
"Too much," he said. "I can't take it like I used to."
"Let's sit down."
"If I stop, I won't be able to get started again. Where's your car?"
On the journey to my house, he was silent. Earlier times he'd of been palavering about whom he had met on the plane. A stranger from Arizona, or Montana perhaps, insisting he visit. Then he'd remember a trip we'd once taken across the States. "Don't you remember, Ben? The Hoover Dam. Mount Rushmore?"
But the spring in the windup mouse was at its last coil. When we walked into my house, he asked for a drink. I placed a bottle of unopened Seagrams on the kitchen table. He wanted me to help him take off his suit coat, his tie, assist him with his shoes. He found it difficult to bend over. "Having trouble breathing," he complained.
I poured a water glass half full of whiskey. He took a long drink, then wet-dog shuddered.
"I feel dirty," he said. "Sweaty from sitting in those cramped airplane seats. I want to wash off."
"Wash your face?" I asked.
"No, my body. I want to take a shower."
Back home we had a bathtub that'd lost its porcelain finish in spots from being scoured black.
"There's a shower in the cellar. It's how we bathe," I said.
He took another drink and walked down the cellar steps. Momentarily he called me down. "What is it, Pap?"
He stood outside the shower door, looking bewildered. I'd never seen him in this condition. Always telling me and my brother what to do. "Buy the best, sons."
"Are you alright, Pap?"
"Will you help me?"
I walked over and he held his arms out, gesturing I undress him. I took his shirt off and draped it over a chair under the cellar window. A late afternoon slant of sun cut a shard across the concrete floor. The metal shower stall's plastic curtain was pulled to one side with a swag. I sat him down in the old kitchen chair, its layers of paint alligatoring, unfastened his Hickok belt and undid his pants' zipper. He lifted one leg and then another as I slid them loose and folded them on their crease, placing them on a hanger. I removed his black rayon ankle socks.
"Will you get the water ready, Son? Not too hot. Just tepid."
I turned my back to him and twisted the shower faucet, causing the water to run lukewarm. When I turned back, he was standing there nude, handing me his Jockey shorts. They looked to me as if this was their first wear.
"Ben, throw these away for me, please."
I stared at him.
"Where's the trash?" he said.
"What's wrong with them, Pap?"
"They have a stain on them, Son."
"So, we throw them in the wash."
"No," he insisted. "I buy a three-pack once a week."
My sister stopped at the house once a week to pick up his laundry and would return what she'd laundered the following day.
"What are you talking about?" I said.
"The mud stains, Son. Much simpler for me to toss them in the rubbish than to listen to her ranting about 'shitty underwear.'"
As he stood motionless behind the orange-fish curtain, I stared at the thumbprint umber stain on the fleece-white Jockey shorts. Christ, it's his earth, I thought. In weeks, perhaps days, this is all I will have left of him. Like blood it appeared to me. And balling up the Y-fronts, I stuffed them into my face and fucking cried.
Yeah, I'll throw them away, I thought. Fuck yeah. Where? In the ocean? The sky? Where do you want me to toss them, God? Onto the face of the Copper Lady? Under the Brooklyn Bridge? How about I scrub them white with sand from Jones' Beach, or run them twice through the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria? Can I remove the stain if I rinse them in a Mint Julep at the Kentucky Derby? Maybe I camouflage the brown earth, his brown earth, with sauce from Mama Leone's? Or holy water from Saint Patrick's Cathedral?
And when the plastic shower curtain parted, he stood white as albumen.
"Will you run upstairs and get me that drink I haven't finished, Son?"
"In a minute, Pap. First let's dry you off."
I walked toward him and held him to me. Christ, so tight. I wanted my energy to seep into his trembling body.
He didn't resist. One in an Arrow shirt, Levis, and Sperry boat shoes. The other buck naked.
Watching half light filter through the foundation window.
A pungent odor of earth rising off the concrete floor.