A new short story

Joseph Epstein

My brother Lee called to report that our eighty-three-year-old father died in his sleep, and that the funeral will be held tomorrow. I told him that I shall not be attending, that I still haven’t found myself able to forgive our father, and I hoped he, Lee, would understand.

“Ann,” he said, “it’s been nearly thirty years. Time to let go of all this complicated feeling.”
“Sorry, sweetie,” I said, “but there’s nothing complicated about my feeling toward our father. What I feel toward him is, I assure you, not in the least complicated and richly deserved.”
“Still,” Lee said, “it’s time to come to closure.”
Whenever I hear the phrase “come to closure”, I always think it’s an ad for a spa in southern California called Closure. I suppose it’s not surprising Lee would use the phrase. My brother is a psychotherapist, whose patients are mostly well-to-do Jews on Chicago’s Northshore. Lee is three years older than I. We were close as kids, until our father destroyed the family. I love Lee and always shall, but our different views of our father have put a distance between us. I owe my father that, too.
My mother, who died twelve years ago, at the age of sixty-eight, of liver cancer, used to visit our father once a month in prison, at Stateville, near Joliet, during the eight years he was there, bringing him cartons of Marlboros and the past month’s issues of Time and U.S. News & World Report. When I asked her why she went to the trouble of visiting him each month, she answered, “Because I’m his wife.” They never actually divorced, though after he had come out of jail they never again lived together either. Even though she was only fifty-two when my father got out of prison (my age now) and still an attractive woman, the notion of my mother remarrying seemed inconceivable. She must have viewed it this way, too. After my father went off to prison, she took a job as a receptionist for a dermatologist named Stanley Erwin, and devoted much of her free time to her grandchildren, Lee’s two kids.
My father went to prison for arranging the murder, never carried out, of the husband of a woman named Sylvia Lippman with whom he was having a love affair. A lawyer with lots of connections, at city hall and elsewhere, my father, Harry Karlin (formerly Karlinsky), had hired a hitman to kill Herb Lippman, a salesman at Nortown Olds on Western Avenue. The man he hired was caught while fulfilling another contract. Attempting to lessen his sentence, he admitted that he had also been contracted by my father to kill Herbert Lippman.
Uncharacteristically foolish, my father had given the hitman a cheque for $2,000, with another $3,000 to come after the job was completed. They had him cold.
The story made headlines in both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times. Love triangle, middle-class Jewish families, prominent lawyer, it all made for a fine, if short-lived, scandal. That my father was then president of the men’s brotherhood at Ner Tamid Synagogue added a nice touch to the proceedings.
My father pleaded guilty, throwing himself on the mercy of the court, which didn’t show him any. The judge, a man named Edgar Rosen, emphasised that my father’s being a lawyer, and hence an officer of the court, made his attempt to arrange a murder especially egregious and sentenced him to twelve years in prison. Too bad my father couldn’t have been more patient, for Herb Lippman died of prostate cancer a year after he went off to prison. Two years following her husband’s death, Sylvia Lippman married her dentist, a widower named Arthur Greenstein.
The trial took place at the beginning of my senior year of high school. I have since come to divide my life B.J. and A.J. — that is, before and after my father went off to jail. B.J. I was sailing along, a good student, in the best clubs at school, and going with a cute boy named Arnie Kramer, whose family lived on Lake Shore Drive. A.J. I lost interest in school, dropped out of my clubs, and though Arnie Kramer was kind enough through those awful days, I decided it was best if I broke things off with him. I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to see, or be seen by, anybody.
At the time of the scandal my brother Lee was in his second year at the University of Wisconsin, a large school far enough away from Chicago for him not to feel so directly wounded by the squalid publicity our father had brought down on us. Or so at least I thought at the time. But the scandal may have hit Lee even harder than it did me. Lee idolised our father; he was planning to go to law school so he could join his firm.
Everyone has heard stories about the special closeness between fathers and daughters. In our family it didn’t quite work that way. My mother devoted much of her attention to me, my father most of his to Lee. If you had asked me what I thought about my father before the scandal, I would have said, in the adolescent language of the time, “He’s cool, my Dad, a neat guy.” The truth is, I didn’t know him very well. He had god-like status in our household. “Get your father a drink of water,” my mother would say. “Get Daddy’s slippers.” “Don’t wrinkle the newspaper. You know how your father hates a crumpled paper.”
My father worked a long day, and many evenings we sat down to dinner, my brother, my mother, and I, in our kitchen without him. When he was home, we always ate in the dining room, with cloth napkins.
The year I entered high school, my father took up golf. He joined a country club in Northbrook called Green Acres, so we saw less of him than we formerly did on weekends, though sometimes we would meet for Sunday night family dinners at the club. He was a handsome man, my father, dark, naturally slender, a dapper dresser. How many love affairs he might have had before that with Sylvia Lippman I haven’t any idea. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if there had been quite a few.
The story of why my father had been willing to go so far as to arrange the killing of Sylvia Lippman’s husband never came out at the trial. Maybe Herb Lippman found out about his wife’s love affair and forced her to call an end to it. Maybe he threatened my father, physically or with scandal. Who knows? I never saw Herb Lippman, but Sylvia Lippman, whose photograph often appeared in the papers when the scandal broke, seemed to me rather disappointingly plain. What attracted my father to her I don’t know either.
Not long after my father went to prison, I asked my mother what it was she originally saw in him. When they met, he was twenty-seven, she twenty-four. They married a year later. He was, she told me, a man on his way up. Like most women of her generation, my mother hadn’t gone to college, though she was bright and had a quick mind. She took the commercial course at Marshall High School. She was working as a secretary and bookkeeper for a used-auto parts company, Warshovsky & Sons, which was where she met my father, who was defending the company in an accident claim case against it.
“Your father seemed so knowing,” my mother told me. “He knew the world, and how to get around in it. He had all the answers. I felt protected in his company. Also, twenty-four in those days was getting old for a single woman. He was a very eligible bachelor, your father. He was obviously interested in me, so I grabbed him. The more interesting question, I suppose, might be what he saw in me.”
I didn’t find that question interesting at all. My mother was good-looking-tall, with auburn hair, a good figure, the kind of woman other women of that day called “stunning”. She was good-hearted, without a touch of snobbery, and a sound judge of other people. Her only misjudgment in this last department, that in picking out a husband, turned out to be a serious one.
“This may sound strange,” she said to me, “but even now I don’t entirely regret having married your father. Not only did your brother and you come out of the marriage, but being married to a successful man can be a real boost to a person’s self-confidence. I know it was to mine. I hope you someday get to experience it, too, Ann.” Unmarried in my early fifties, and unlikely to marry, ever, I never have experienced, nor probably ever will.
Close though we were, I didn’t have the nerve to ask my mother if she suspected my father was having a love affair with Sylvia Lippman. The two families didn’t see each other socially, though the Lippmans were also members of Green Acres and Ner Tamid Synagogue. Nor could I bring myself to ask if she knew of any earlier love affairs my father might have had. A good part of my anger against my father is that he betrayed my mother. I also used to think it would have been less awful if he had planned to carry out the murder of Herb Lippman on his own. Hiring someone else to do it felt worse, crummier somehow.
Once the scandal broke, we never returned to Ner Tamid. A month or so after my father went to prison we were informed by letter that our membership at Green Acres had been allowed to lapse, and we were not invited to renew it. Not that we had the money to do so.
A powerful money-earner, my father was also something of a sport, which is a generous word for spendthrift. Confident that he could always bring in lots of money, he had saved little of his substantial earnings. He had Cubs and Bears season  tickets. He was an avid picker-up of restaurant checks. He took us on Miami Beach vacations, on which we always always flew first-class and stayed at the best hotel of the day (the Saxony, the Fountain Blue, the Eden Roc). Every couple of months or so he went with his buddies to Vegas. I remember him saying that they used to comp his room and flight. He didn’t mention that they only did this for what in Vegas they called high-rollers, of whom he must have been considered one. Then there was the money he had to have spent on his love affairs. My father never looked on money as a problem. “Don’t worry,” he used to say with his confident smile, when my mother would occasionally mention the high cost of something or other, “there’s more where that came from.”
After my father went to prison, Lee had to leave the University of Wisconsin and enroll at the University of Illinois in Chicago. My mother, as I mentioned, had to get a job. Any plans I might have had about going away to school were squashed, and, like Lee, I took the El down to the University of Illinois, west of the Loop. We had to sell our comfortable house on Lunt off Francisco and move into a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom on Washtenaw Avenue just south of Devon. Lee had a room of his own; my mother and I shared the other bedroom. We had come down in the world, and with a thump.
While he was in Stateville, my father never wrote to Lee or to me, though each month on her return from her visits to him my mother would say that he wanted her to fill him in on what was going on in our lives. Lee went with my mother on a few of her visits. He reported his sadness at our father in prison clothes. (The day he went off to prison, the Sun-Times ran a picture of my father with a caption that read, “Natty attorney swaps pin-stripes for prison stripes”.) His sleek black hair had turned grey, Lee told me, his face seemed wrinkled and even a touch pinched. He promised Lee that once he was out of jail he would make it all up to him and to me. I wondered just how was he going to do so. He would be fifty-seven when he got out of jail, and as a convicted felon, he was disbarred and thus unable any longer to practise law.
During the eight years my father was in prison, Lee dropped the idea of law school, and instead went on to get a Ph.D in clinical psychology. He opened his practice in Highland Park. I finished up at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a teaching certificate, and got a job teaching civics at Lane Tech High School. Lee married soon after graduate school. I lived with my mother, as I continued to do until she died. I went out with a few men, but nothing serious resulted. My brother the therapist believes I am gun-shy about men after what our father did to our mother, and he may be right.
Out of prison, my father hustled around to find work. His old connections weren’t any longer much interested in being connected with him. The best he could find was a job as a salesman at Syd Jerome, a men’s store on LaSalle Street where he used to buy his expensive Oxford-brand suits. He was now selling the suits he could no longer afford to buy. His once perpetually tanned and creamy skin was now gaunt with a touch of greyness — was it prison pallor? — that never left him. His dazzling wardrobe never again looked quite right on him. At Stateville, he did what we were told is called “hard time.” He made license plates and worked in the laundry. My mother reported that his cellmates while he was there included an arsonist, a rapist, various thugs and thieves. He never spoke about how he was treated by other prisoners, at least not in my presence. About his sex life during those years, I prefer not to think.
The Belden-Stratford Hotel, an older residential hotel across from Lincoln Park, was where my father settled once out of prison. I remember hearing that Colonel Jacob Arvey, the man who helped Adlai Stevenson win the Democratic nomination for president in 1952, once lived in a penthouse at the Belden-Stratford. My father had a single room there with a bath and kitchenette. With whom he spent his time, I have no notion. If he had any women in his life, I knew nothing about them either.
My brother became, in effect, the head of the family. As such, Jewish holiday dinners were held at his house. My father was invited and always showed up, though he struck me as unconvincing in the role of jolly grandpa to Lee’s kids, Jonathan and Jaimie. When I asked Lee what he had told his children about the years when their grandfather wasn’t around, he said he explained that their grandpa was out of the country, trying to start up a new business.
My mother was quietly impressive in the company of the man who had betrayed her and wrecked her life. Without any outward show of affection toward him, she nonetheless acted as if he had done nothing wrong. She might instruct Lee’s wife Angie, for example, that Harry prefers his soup almost scalding hot and his beef medium well-done and that he can’t stand gefilte fish. Although our apartment was on my father’s way to Lee’s house, my mother never asked him to pick us up on the way out, and she and I drove out together without him. Sometimes, upon departing Lee’s house after one of these holiday dinners, my mother would offer her cheek to my father, and accept his kiss without the least show of emotion.
At a Rosh Hashanah dinner at Lee’s, my father mentioned how good he thought I was with my niece and nephew. And then, out of the blue, he asked me, in front of everyone, including two couples who were friends of Lee and Angie, if I had planned one day to have children of my own. I was thirty-nine-years old.
“That’s not a question I care to discuss here at the table,” I said, and shot him what I hoped was my coldest stare.
“Maybe another time,” was all he said.
I glanced over at my mother, who was looking into her plate. Lee, I felt, didn’t know where to put his eyes. Angie was in the kitchen, and the kids didn’t quite understand what was going on, though they could scarcely miss feeling the tension.
After dinner, when we gathered in the living room with our coffee and dessert, my father asked if he might have a word in private with me.
“Sure,” I said, “why not?”
In the kitchen, standing perhaps two feet apart, my father said: “I know you don’t have a very high opinion of me. And I fully understand why. But I wonder if there is anything I can do to change that.”
“There isn’t,” I said.
“Look,” he said, “I know that what I did was wrong, outrageously wrong. It was a horrible mistake, in every way, but I’ve paid my debt for it.”
“Not to me you haven’t,” I said.
“What I did hurt your mother terribly,” he said, “but I believe she’s forgiven me. And so has your brother. You’re the only hold-out.”
“Are you so certain about mother’s forgiveness?”
“She’s not as cold to me as you are.”
“Maybe she’s a better person than I am.”
“Or maybe,” he said, “she doesn’t enjoy a grudge as much as you do. You know the Yiddish word rachmones? It means compassion, mercy, pity. You might consider showing your father a little.”
“You think so, do you?” I said, “Let’s review quickly. You hire a man to kill your lover’s husband, betraying your wife and dragging your family through scandal and humiliation, and you feel I am unreasonable in holding this little trespass against you. Call it a grudge, go ahead, but whatever it is I plan to hang on to it.”
“Goddamnit, Ann,” he said, “I am your father.”
“That isn’t really my fault, is it?” I replied.
My father looked down at his shoes. I walked out of the kitchen.
The next day my father called and asked if we might meet for lunch, just the two of us. I hesitated — the notion of being alone with him made me nervous-but then I said yes. We agreed to meet at a place called Barney’s, on Broadway near Belmont.
I arrived on time. He was late. The place was clearly a draw for older people used to eating death-defying Jewish delicatessen food. Older women on walkers clomped up the restaurant’s narrow aisles. A heavy man in an electric wheelchair drove in, followed by a Filipino caregiver. A little woman bent by osteoporosis entered, wires in her nose connected to an oxygen box that she carried on her walker. A waitress with an Israeli accent asked me if I wanted a coffee while I waited. I sat, content to watch people consume heavy soups, smoked meats, carbonated drinks, rich desserts, all in huge quantities. My father, fifteen minutes late, finally arrived.
“This place is quite a throwback,” he said, not bothering to explain his tardiness. He was wearing jeans, leisure cut, and a black turtleneck with a Nike swoosh at the collar. He hadn’t shaved. How he had come down in the world, my once elegant father!
“Do you eat here often?” I asked.
“Once or twice a week,” he said. “It reminds me of better days.”
I ordered an omelette, my father had a small bowl of chicken noodle soup and half of a brisket sandwich.
“So what did you have in mind?” I asked him.
“In mind?” he said.
“In inviting me to lunch,” I said.
“I was hoping to dispell some of the bad feeling you obviously have for me. Is there any way I can do that?”
“I rather doubt there is,” I said, “but I’m ready to listen.”
“Don’t for a minute think I don’t know what I did to your mother and to you and your brother. And don’t think I’m not thoroughly ashamed of myself for having done it.”
“Why did you?” I asked. “Did you love the Lippman woman so much you were ready to kill for her?”
“You’ll laugh, well maybe you won’t exactly laugh, when I tell you.”
“Tell me and see if I laugh.”
“I tried to have Herb Lippman killed because he called me a bullshitter. Actually, ‘four-flusher’ was the term he used. He also said that he would never forgive his wife for falling for just another crummy Jewish lawyer, and he considered our love affair a real lapse of taste on her part. He was a big guy, Herb Lippman, six foot two or three, weighed maybe two and a quarter. At the end of this little tirade, he grabbed me by my necktie and looked as if he were going to punch me, but then laughed and told me that if he ever saw me within a city block of his wife again he would kill me. I guess I thought I would beat him to it.”
“Wouldn’t it have been simpler to stay away from his wife? Or did you love her so much you couldn’t?”
“Please don’t hate me even more, but love didn’t have all that much to do with it.”
“So your only motive was vanity, or narcissism?”
“I wish I could make a better defence of my conduct, but I haven’t any. Men are fools — schmucks, if you prefer — at least this one is. We need reconfirmation of our charms — more so the older we get. All I can add is I wish the entire thing never happened. Love affair, confrontation with husband, the hitman, jail, loss of my family, the whole thing. I thank God that the guy I hired didn’t get the job done, or I would also have a murder on my conscience.”
“So what do you want from me?” I asked.
“I want you to know that I am deeply ashamed and profoundly sorry. I’m sorriest of all for what I did to your mother. I ruined her life. I know that. I’m sorry, too, for what I did to Lee and you. Lee has made a life for himself despite his father’s folly. But I think the effect of what I did has hit you harder than it has him. I wish I could undo that, but I realise that of course I can’t.”
“So what do you want from me?” I said.
“Don’t you see I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the court? The best thing that can happen to me right now is to have you make more of a life for yourself. Find a good man, maybe have a child. Live a fuller life than the one my stupidity seems to have forced you into.” His eyes were watery. He reached out across the table to touch my hand, which I withdrew.
I can’t tell you what else we talked about during the rest of lunch. I can’t recall even if I ate another bite from my omelette. Outside, on the sidewalk on Broadway, he asked if I drove. I said I did but didn’t offer him a ride back to the Belden-Stratford. He said he hoped I would think about what he had said. I told him I would, but of course I already had. We were supposed to have hugged, in the manner of the day, perhaps exchanged kisses on the cheek, but we did neither. I watched him turn east off Broadway at the corner of Barry Street.
I continued to see Lee, Angie, and the kids, but I began to find excuses for missing holiday dinners at which I knew I would find my father. I hadn’t forgiven him. Life would have been a lot easier all round if I could have done, but I couldn’t.
At first we thought my mother’s weakness may have been owing to her diabetes. Then a CAT-scan made plain that it was liver cancer, fairly far advanced. She had a single round of chemotherapy, which exhausted her utterly, causing the loss of her beautiful auburn hair. She decided to forego a second round of chemo. Lee suggested that she join a support group for people with terminal cancer. She politely told him that she didn’t think it was for her. “I’m depressed enough on my own as it is,” she told me, “without having to hear other people’s sob stories.”
Lee asked my mother’s permission to tell our father about her cancer. She told him that it was all right to do so, but not to let him know that she had refused further chemo. “I don’t want him hovering over me,” she said, “trying with his lawyerly logic to change my mind.”
I came home from school one afternoon just after my father had left our apartment on Washtenaw.
“Your father cried,” my mother said. “He fell on his knees, put his head on my lap and cried. I’m dying of cancer, and I have to soothe him. Typical. Story of our marriage, I suppose. He told me that he was sick about the grief he had caused me and he wanted my forgiveness.”
“What did you do?”
“I told him I forgave him”
“Do you, mother, do you, really?”
“Of course, I don’t,” my mother said. “But why make his burden heavier? He’s not a very strong man, your father. For all his youthful flash and dash, I’ve come to realise he never was.”
“Should I pretend to forgive him, too?” I asked my mother.
“I wouldn’t presume to make that decision for you,” she said.
“Help me on this, mother,” I said. 
“I would love to,” she said, “but I can’t. You must do what your heart tells you to do.”
At my mother’s funeral, on a bitterly cold February day at West Lawn Cemetery out on Montrose Avenue, my father wept at his wife’s graveside. I had cried two days before, at her hospital bed at Louis Weiss Hospital, holding my mother’s hand after she had sunk into a coma, and now I hadn’t any tears left. Lee had his arm around our father, a grey and bent figure, as we departed the cemetery. My father and I did not speak. On the way to the limousines the funeral home provided to take us back into the city, I noted a modest tombstone that read “Rex Wilks (1920-1984) A Gentle Man”, and wished my mother had married Rex Wilks instead of Harry Karlin.
My father lived for another twelve years. With my mother gone, we saw less and less of each other. In his late seventies, according to my brother, he began to suffer mild dementia, chiefly involving aphasia, the inability to call up words when needed. This was compounded by congestive heart failure, which slowly drained his energy. He was terrified of having to go into a nursing home, and Lee allowed him to spend the last four months of his life in the guest room in his and his wife’s house where he was visited by a hospice nurse. 
After his death my strong feelings about my father became less intense. Still, I’ll be correcting student papers, or fixing a meal for myself, or falling off to sleep, when he will pop up in my thoughts. Was I wrong to deny my father  forgiveness for an act that he had committedso long ago? Was it merely pride that wouldn’t allow me to do what my sensible mother had done, which was tell a merciful lie and pretend to forgive while never forgetting what he had done? Why shouldn’t I have allowed a broken man to ease his conscience before dying? In the end I did, as my mother instructed, what my heart told me to do. Why, then, do I feel I shall never be free of him, that foolish man, my father? 

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