Knowing, living, and coping with Sol Pitack had turned his wife Ida into a hard-nosed strategist around the house. That, he believed, was why, back in the cold of January, she had said — without ifs, ands, or buts — that she absolutely wouldn’t put up with another summer of hearing practically every kid in the neighborhood screaming on the monkey bars, swings, and slides in the playground across the street. Sol’s own best friend, Wolfe Goldberg, who didn’t even live on the playground street, but around the corner, had air-conditioned three years ago, while Ida was still going out of her mind with the screaming, and damp at every pore. To bring silence to Ida’s summers, Sol finally took twelve months’ financing with ten percent down on whole-house air-conditioning, which even at the lowest estimate would break your back, he told Wolfe, because you had to figure all new duct work on account of the house had oil heat with radiators.
Long before Sol had actually signed on to keep Ida happy, her mother had observed with eloquent variations throughout the courtship: “No matter what he ever does, this kid Sol will remain a basic nothing because his idea of the big time is playing games. A man his age should concentrate on his profession or his business. Because if he is not playing for money, like those baseball players who get such fabulous salaries, then it’s something strictly for children. Is that for you, honey? Drop him like a hot potato because some day, in your heart of hearts, you will rue your emotions. I’m only asking you to give up strictly a shlepper.”
The morning after Sol had capitulated on whole house air-conditioning, he went to the wardrobe closet in the front hall. There, like a lord magistrate robed and bewigged for court, ruminating upon innocence and guilt, he considered a sweat stained warm-up jacket, the elastic cuffs frayed and raveling. Then, ruling for himself as defendant, he slung it over his shoulder and walked to the door for the morning drive to Redi-Lunch Systems, Inc., where he was in charge of the box-lunch division. Before he reached the door, Sol heard his son’s voice. In the early, iron-gray February daylight, Barry’s head and naked shoulders (he was a pajama-bottom sleeper) emerged over the banister.
“Where you going with the warm-up jacket?” Barry asked, following the words down with a slightly twisted smile.
“The office,” Sol answered. “Where else would an idiot father of a big high-school football star be going at quarter to seven on Friday morning? If you’ve got some big point to make, make it in plain language.” As Barry retreated, Sol started up the stairway, which was covered in dusty-rose carpeting financed two years ago because Ida didn’t want to die with Majorca blue underfoot. “Once in a while give me the courtesy of an answer,” he said into the silence that filled the house.
Sol flung open the door of Barry’s room. “Listen, it cost me better than fifteen hundred dollars so your mother could make a big deal out of a simple bar mitzvah. You stood up in front of everybody and said you would honor and respect your parents. I’ll settle with you for one minute’s worth of genuine respect. Say whatever you like. I’ll sit and listen until you’re finished.”
“I’m sorry I mentioned it,” Barry said.
“That’s not the kind of answer that encourages discussion,” Sol said. “The next time you ask me a snotty question, stop and remember that this particular morning I gave you every chance to outline your position.”
Later that day, Wolfe Goldberg entered Sol’s first-floor office. During the renovation of the building the year before, the box-lunch division had not been moved up to the second floor with all the other executive offices that now opened onto a wide, carpeted hallway. Wolfe strolled over to the gray metal coatrack, with the deliberate, measured sneer of an old-fashioned burlesque comedian, and lifted the warm-up jacket from the hanger and let it hang from his index finger in front of Sol. Around Redi-Lunch, Wolfe was considered the boss’s pride and joy, a great ball of speed when it came to shooting out office memos. No piece of correspondence passed his desk, even when it was just for information (De Pinna, the boss, was a devout advocate of keeping the executive team informed; he expected every man to read for Redi-Lunch) without multitudinous notes with lots of exclamation marks red-penciled in the margins — management cautions, warnings, imprecations, and recommendations for management action. Wolfe, according to De Pinna, was a man you could depend on to look at things overall-picturewise and to handcuff anybody who came in with some parochial crap. Like De Pinna himself, Wolfe worked, acted, and dressed like a man always ready to be photographed, interviewed, and consulted. More and more these days, De Pinna gave things to Wolfe for a little double check, overall-picturewise.
“Who are you supposed to be right now?” Sol asked, lighting a cigar. “Kirk Douglas?”
“Answer me one question, buddy. What’re you trying to do? Become a loser?” Wolfe said, swinging the jacket from his index finger. “Just yesterday, right in this office, didn’t I tell you confidentially that De Pinna is considering you as a guy who could move up to the home-catering division slot? Didn’t I make it absolutely clear, as friend to friend, and ask you to be guided accordingly? So you come up with wearing this crazy thing around here.” Wolfe slammed the warm-up jacket across a chair. “I don’t see any logic, and I can’t figure what kind of gag you’re supposed to be pulling. Look, I grant you it’s a little thing — from one point of view. Only in your case, you get a certain reputation for being the type of wise guy you can’t pin down, but everybody feels it. In the final analysis, which is the way you have to look at it, that lousy warm-up jacket could help kill you around here. De Pinna himself told me after he saw you out there on the loading platform, ‘Wolfe, he does a tremendous job for us in box lunches, no denying it. Only I’m disappointed he can’t figure out that management doesn’t go around in a warm-up jacket, like one of our drivers.’ The man confides in me, and I don’t mind telling you I’m flattered when a man who cuts your bread and butters it has got enough regard to offer a few words in confidence. Now, I’m confiding in you for the last time. I mean it, Sol. We’ll be the best of friends outside the office — God knows I wouldn’t want that to change — but around here there’s got to be a certain level of mutual acceptance and regard for circumstances. You know what that means?”
“Nah,” Sol said, leaning back and cocking his head to one side as he appraised Wolfe. “It’s vintage Tony Curtis, not Kirk Douglas.”
Impassioned with good sense, voice ablaze, Wolfe cried, “This is basic, factual! Don’t smile at me like a friendly neighborhood swami and make little cracks. Throw away that warm-up jacket. You know what else De Pinna said to me? ‘I won’t deny Sol has got certain boy scout virtues which I admire, because nobody in his right mind would go around knocking boy scouts. But I have to ask myself whether that’s enough for a management man.’ And I said to him, as true as I’m standing here, ‘He’s the kind of guy you have to tap deep and he’ll turn out to be a dynamo.’ And then he finds you pals and buddies with the drivers in a crummy warm-up jacket. I’m giving it to you straight, kiddo. That man De Pinna is like a wonderful grandfather. He wants to approve of you. Help him, for God’s sake. Try life at the fifty dollar window. I guarantee you it’s great. This is the last time I discuss any subject of this type with you.”
“Nah,” Sol said, smiling at Wolfe, “you’ll take advantage of another opportunity, kid. Where else could a keyed-up executive like you find this kind of enjoyment?”
“Screwball,” Wolfe said affectionately. “Dig into me with your crazy sense of humor. Go ahead. I’m used to it. I could ask myself a hundred times why I still like you, and not get an answer. But I don’t care.” He slapped Sol on the shoulder with a nail-bitten hand. “What else I stopped in to tell you is we’ll pick up you and Ida tomorrow at seven-thirty sharp, so don’t make any other plans for Saturday night. I called Sylvia and told her. ‘It’s your birthday, kid, and we’re going to make a Saturday night of it with Sol and Ida.’ We’ll all hop into town and catch Camelot, which Sylvia’s been bugging me about because she wants to compare it with the play. Then we’ll slip over to El Capitaine in Jersey and catch the midnight show.”
Then Wolfe’s face became somber, his tone earnest again. “I want to leave you with one very serious thought for your consideration, no matter how you crack wise, buddy. I want you to realize that box lunches are now definitely a minor part of sales around here. Because today, when you come to the fringe-benefit department in collective bargaining with the unions, you start out talking air conditioned cafeterias supported by the companies — if they don’t already have them. With the union situation today and the way they’re grabbing off fringe benefits, where do you figure you’ll stand down here in box lunches? Don’t you think at all, Sol? One of these days De Pinna is going to make up his mind that box lunches are dead.”
“The trouble with De Pinna,” Sol said pleasantly, “is he believes all those things he doesn’t even read in the Harvard Business Review.”
“What the hell am I going to do with this boy!” Wolfe cried, shaking his head vigorously.
“Keep ordering imported only, kid,” Sol said.
Confronted by a new powder-blue Buick Skylark at the curb, Ida, burning with jealousy, said to Sylvia: “Did you ever imagine it would be a birthday present like that, kid? It’s so gorgeous I could cry. Listen, before we leave, we must have one drink. Except Barry here. You have a Coke with us, doll.” Speaking her son’s name slowed and softened her voice with pride. Barry would open the West for her, tame the frontier, and she would live to see the day.
From his observation post in the living room, Sol gazed at Barry, a wraith who passed through the house on obscure missions, suffering his parents; enigmatic and inaccessible behind walls of self-importance. Whenever Barry was trapped by his mother’s demanding effusiveness, as now, he watched some distant shore point like George Washington in the painting, crossing the Delaware. Ida never noticed the George Washington look. Sol, mindless of the talk around him, studied his son and tried to remember, but could not, when he had first noticed Barry’s George Washington look.
“I’m definitely for a drink.” Wolfe said gaily. “How do you like the car, Barry boy? Considering the fact that you’re probably a TR4 man when it comes to wheels, you still got to admit that’s some little sweetheart out there.”
Barry stood with an attitude of captivity, his wraith smile on high beam. “Stick shift?” he asked.
Wolfe laughed and lunged forward to slap Barry on the shoulder. “That kid never blows his cool,” he said to Sol. “Four on the floor, Barry boy. You named it.”
“For God’s sake, Sol,” Ida said. “Don’t stand there. Make Manhattans.”
Wolfe tightened his arm around Barry’s shoulder. “I love this kid. Honest to God. I couldn’t be prouder of him if he was my own Jeffrey. Going into his junior year and already all public-high halfback with straight A’s. Name somebody who can top that. Sol, how come you’re not up on the goddamned rooftop every day broadcasting to the whole world about this kid?” Then, with outstretched arms, Wolfe advanced with little dancing steps toward Ida, saying, “Mm, you lovely dish. While Sol’s making Manhattans, I’ll take romance.”
With shining eyes. Ida allowed herself to be hugged and kissed. “Jeffrey does all right. Wolfe. He’s got your head.”
“He’s no Barry. I’m being frank. This son of a gun goes on a football field and kills them with that crazy, tricky, pigeon-toed, knee-pumping run. If half the squad breaks a leg, Jeff will make a letter. But I’m not complaining. All I want to see in him is that hustle, that fight. I’ll tell you one thing, Barry, and I mean it sincerely, kid. Stay with the math. Today everything is figures, especially when you consider the way science is already in business. It’s all cost analysis. I mean it. Those computer kids come in with the serious little faces and the dark suits and the horn-rimmed glasses, and you figure they’re not yet dry behind the ears; but after a couple of weeks you’ve got to admit that, in all honesty, they can practically tell you how to run your business. No matter where you turn today, Barry, it’s all math.”
Sol nodded to himself, knowing how the Saturday night would end many hours later when he was back home with the private Ida. It turned out as he had expected it would. She complained to Barry about still being up with the Late Late Show on television, and then she advanced on Sol in the bedroom.
“Well, did you enjoy yourself?” she asked, with voice and eyes of granite. “Did you notice it was Chateaubriand for four? And when he wanted champagne, the waiter suggested only imported.”
“It costs more.” Sol said, wiggling his toes, unhampered now by shoes.
“It costs more,” Ida said. “That’s all you see. You don’t see he’s the kind they expect to want imported because they realize when he opens his mouth they are not dealing with some kind of shlepper acting like a big shot for one night out of the year. Listen, don’t start trying to ignore me or something, because there’s another little item I want to talk to you about. Wolfe told me what De Pinna said about you. You know what’ll happen to you? You’ll die in box lunches. I was looking at Wolfe tonight in El Capitaine and I thought, My God, he was a nothing, a nobody, and now he’s already got two promotions, and you’re still in box lunches. Give me one good reason why you had to drag a warm-up jacket to the office and then be crazy enough to wear it where De Pinna, who is probably the world’s biggest clothes nut for a man, could see you. Can’t anybody put a simple idea in your head? All De Pinna wants is what you yourself should already have the good sense to do anyway. He’s not asking you to cut both wrists and bleed into a bucket for him.”
“You’re standing in front of my bureau, Ida,” Sol said. “I can’t get my pajamas.”
He was six-two in bare feet. a plunging high-school fullback of yesteryear, scaled in today at a lavish two-forty, but still fairly quick of foot; easily visible at dusk as husband, father, and neighborhood landmark. So, he inquired of himself, how could he be so completely hidden in this house?
Ida stepped aside, her face rigid with scorn and incomprehension. For her, his boundaries were marked off; he was assessed, taxed, handicapped by limitations, adrift, and mortal, accustomed to solitary breakfasts at daybreak. With eyes like open wounds, Ida moved, not entirely believing that all he wanted at a time like this was his pajamas.
“Ida,” he said, buttoning the pajama top. “you’ve got every reason to sing Bluebird of Happiness.”
“You are Brand X,” Ida said.
“The nomenclature is incorrect. Try `Pitack, Sol,’ as they used to say in the Army.” Gazing down at her, he said in a lonely, tender, intoning voice. “Go to sleep. Ida. For once, dream of meadows and wild flowers instead of the boutique at Lord & Taylor, and cabanas at Miami Beach.”
“I swear to God you are acting as if you just stepped out of a flying saucer from who knows where,” Ida said.
In the hallway, outside Barry’s room, Sol paused like a footsore pilgrim, then walked in. Barry swung his head away from the television screen, presenting his George Washington look as soon as he saw his father. “What’s the big deal about now?” he asked guardedly.
“For the first time in history, a warm-up jacket has become an impediment to true happiness,” Sol said.
“Oh.” Barry hunched down in the chair to watch television again.
“Well, am I allowed in this little sanctuary?” Sol asked.
“Look, if you’re sore at her, you don’t have to come in and start bugging me,” Barry said. “If you want to watch. sit down and watch.”
As tenderly as he had spoken of dreams to Ida. Sol said to Barry, “All right, enjoy yourself with John Garfield.”
“I’ve got a feeling you are crocked.” Barry said.
“Your father is sober and clearheaded,” Sol said. “Tonight, I could tell you what it is like to be a father and a husband around here.”
“Please,” Barry said, “will you get off my back and let me enjoy the movie?”
“Good night, Barry,” Sol said. “Tomorrow, tell me how Garfield made out with the crime syndicate.” Sol went into the den on the first floor and lay down on the studio couch. The mattress buttons dug into his back. My God, he thought, laughing softly at the idea, practically a bed of nails.
Sol, waking late on Sunday, discovered that he was in full possession of the house, with its showroom-bright kitchen, and Sunday papers read and stacked on the marble French-provincial coffee table. There were no farewell notes, no tracks, no spoor, no clues in any of the rooms adorned with the artifacts of his labors and financing. Sol scrambled eggs and boiled water for instant coffee. While he was buttering a piece of Kaiser roll, Wolfe Goldberg, with his dachshund on a leash, rang the front bell. When Sol opened the door, Wolfe marched right in, leading the dog.
“I’m glad I caught you.” Wolfe said in his sharp, terrier-quick voice. “What are you doing?”
“Eating breakfast,” Sol said with mock haste because Wolfe asked questions as if he defied you not to carry out your sacred obligation to answer fully and immediately. Wolfe had a way of snorting lightly through his nose as he waited for the answer.
In the kitchen, Wolfe sat opposite Sol, picked up the buttered piece of Kaiser roll, and broke off small pieces to feed to the dachshund.
“Wolfey, that’s a pretty dapper little outfit you’re sporting today,” Sol said. Wolfe wore a light blue ascot, a gray pull-over, a navy-blue Cheviot tweed sport coat with hacking pockets, gray slacks, and cordovan loafers with tassels. “You look like a stand-in for Rex Harrison, kid,” Sol said, buttering what was left of the roll for himself.
Wolfe crossed his legs, grimacing, his lips curled downward at the corners in his standard Sol-Pitack-worn-out-joke position. “Can you get serious and cut out the wisecracks for just a couple of minutes, for crying out loud? You know what I’m going to do?” he said. “I’m going to the limit of my credit with you, and I’m going to violate my own philosophy that a friend shouldn’t butt into another friend’s marriage. Because this is the exception when it is absolutely wrong to keep your mouth shut.”
“When did Ida call you?” Sol asked, watching Wolfe feed bits of the buttered roll to the dachshund.
“This morning,” Wolfe said. “She didn’t just call. She came over. She pleaded. It’s Sunday, and I’m entitled to relax, but do you think I can relax when she pleads with me because you’re turning out to be a first-class kook? Sol, you are absolutely breaking that kid’s heart.” Wolfe leaned down and rubbed the dachshund’s ear. “Listen, you got another roll?”
“In the refrigerator,” Sol said.
“Schatzy here is crazy about a Kaiser with butter. Maybe you think I’m out of my mind,” Wolfe said proudly, “but I swear this little bummer can tell the difference between a Kaiser and some other kind of roll.”
“Get me another roll out, too,” Sol said.
“Hey,” Wolfe said, peering into the refrigerator, “you got some terrific looking Danish in here. I think I’ll break down.” Wolfe selected a strawberry twist, and bit into it as he walked back to the table and sat down. “Honest to God,” he said, chewing appreciatively on the Danish, “it’s a crime and a shame the way you aggravate that kid when all she wants is nothing but the best for you.”
“Before you get all worked up, enjoy the Danish,” Sol said.
When he finished the Danish, Wolfe wiped his fingers delicately with Sol’s unused paper napkin, and said, “All right, now tell me just what the hell’s the matter. I guarantee you I’ll listen. Look, are you frustrated or something? — because if you are, just remember, that’s for kids and nuts that have to spend twenty-five bucks a throw to tell their troubles to some doctor who’s probably as big a nut as they are. Listen — remember back in the old days? — you wanted to be a big football or basketball coach, and I wanted to be a dentist. So we both ended up in the food-service racket. My own personal philosophy is: No matter what you end up doing, you got to keep hustling and go for the top. What am I going to do — bleed from the ears because I didn’t become a dentist?”
“Wolfe,” Sol said with a faint, sad smile, “I also wanted to be a forest ranger, a scoutmaster, a pilot, a criminal investigator, the world’s champion weight lifter, plus a dozen other things. For a while I even wanted to be Jimmy Cagney.”
“No kidding,” Wolfe said. “Listen, I’ll make a little personal confession. For a while there I wanted to be Bogart. I used to practice smoking a cigarette the way he did, in front of the mirror.” Wolfe sighed heavily, and his mouth twisted as if he were struggling against the devastating appeal of nostalgia. “So what’s it prove? You got to grow up.” he said almost angrily. “Ida’s a gorgeous doll. Barry’s a terrific kid. And you could have everything going for you with De Pinna. I mean, what right have you got to do what you’re doing?” he asked, as if that somehow summed up everything, staring at Sol in exasperated triumph.
“What am I doing?” Sol asked.
“You don’t appreciate what you’ve got, that’s what.” Wolfe cried. “I told you a couple of things in the office on Friday. and I meant them. Ida’s right.” Wolfe whispered now. “I mean, you’re sitting here practically telling me you don’t care if you screw everything up.” Wolfe shook his head in despair. “Listen, naturally in Ida’s eyes she wants you to think like me because that’s the way they are — women — they gotta special kind of jealousy, with a special language to go with it, and they all know it without going to Berlitz. I mean, you take a dame from anywhere in the world, and I don’t care what language she speaks, and you put her in with Ida and Sylvia, and before you can snap your fingers they’ll be understanding each other. I mean, you think for one second Sylvia would act any different in Ida’s shoes? I guarantee you she’d probably be worse. Listen, now she’s got her eye on a house in Wynnewood. Sixty-five grand. And I’m telling you, deep down, in here” — Wolfe clasped both hands over his heart — “I know I need it like a hole in the head. But as sure as I’m sitting here. I know I’m powerless. I think of a mortgage on that kind of property and I get a goddamned migraine. But that’s only for openers. Because it’ll mean the whole place has got to be new — which, no matter how you figure, figure ten grand minimum. Sol, I’m telling you from the bottom of my heart, if I ever let it, pretty soon it would be a situation where I’d beg for a nice little cardiac, because that would be the least of my worries. . . . Look, I’ll give you another little example, because I don’t like the idea of you feeling so extra special — because, buddy, you got company. Just a simple little thing. When I come home at night you know I’m bushed, because even you’ll admit that Wolfe Goldberg is right in there producing. So my big boy, Jeffrey, all of a sudden lately he’s developed that holy-smoke-look-who’s-here look.” Wolfe nodded his head. “But you have to face it. They grow up, and instead of some cute little kid who used to break your back with having to run around picking up his toys, you got a full-sized, A-number-one, fully guaranteed wise guy on your hands. But I’m not complaining, because I realize it’s all part of me. And if you want high-class philosophy, I’ll give you some Shakespeare, not Wolfe Goldberg, because next to the Bible you can’t get more high class than Shakespeare. What you got to do is do what Shakespeare said in one of those plays: ‘To thine own self be true.’ Show me one place in anybody’s philosophy, I don’t care what kind, where they tell you to be a kook.”
Wolfe stared at Sol again, then said hoarsely, “Aah, I can see I’m not getting through. Dig your own grave. Listen. Schatzy here wants to go out again. I’ll take him over to the playground.”
“I’ll walk over with you,” Sol said. “The only thing is, I don’t have one of those ascots.”
Wolfe bared his teeth in a ferocious grin and slammed Sol playfully on the shoulder. “What the hell do you need one for? All you’re going to do is shoot a few baskets with Jeff and Barry. I saw them horsing around over there when I was walking Schatzy.”
Then, as if he had conceded far too much, Wolfe cried, “I know one thing. You didn’t find any kind of goddamn magic secret, because there is no such thing in this world. All you’re doing is getting yourself bollixed up over some crazy warm-up jacket.” He smiled again, almost apologetically, for his outburst and took a cigar from Sol’s shirt pocket. He lit it, then snapped the leash on the dachshund’s collar. “Well, I’m due a few points for trying with you.”
Sol looked at Wolfe gently, as if he did not want to frighten him; especially not laugh out of understanding, because here was Wolfe standing like a man whose sealed bid has been returned mysteriously unopened. As if Sol had vowed silently henceforth to choose only words that would not frighten Wolfe, he said. “Sometimes a Sunday, even when you wake up late with nothing special to do, is a narrow place. And all of a sudden nothing is dustproof, stain-resistant. noninflammable, or certified for minimum shrinkage. Sunday is a very dangerous day, Wolfe, unless the night before you dream of meadows and wild flowers. But only a few lucky people ever dream like that.”
“Don’t even try to explain that crummy idea,” Wolfe said. “Let’s take Schatzy out. I also got an idea some fresh air’ll do something for you, too.”
Sol and Wolfe stopped just inside the wire fence of the playground, watching Jeff and Barry work a basketball back and forth across the concrete court in elaborate pass variations. “Look at the way those kids handle themselves,” Sol said. “Like a couple of ballet dancers. Did you ever notice the way once they’re out of the house they’re different kids? In the house, Barry’s always got his Washington-crossing-the-Delaware look when you talk to him. He looks straight at you but he sees something a block away.”
“Hey, you just reminded me!” Wolfe said, slapping Sol on the back. “You remember in high school they used to have that big picture in the hall right outside the principal’s office? It was about four or five yards long, with a big gold frame. You remember we used to look at George standing up in that rowboat, and you said. ‘What’s the big deal on the other side? It’s only New Jersey.’ And you remember that art teacher that always looked like a crooked accountant-that Mr. Kaplan, who used to drag us around the halls on that art-appreciation jazz? And that day he was telling us about that George Washington picture and you asked right out of the clear blue sky, ‘Mr. Kaplan, do you think George Washington could take Buck Rogers in a fair fight?’ Why don’t you say things like that anymore, instead of that crazy stuff you’re always handing out these days?”
Wolfe unleashed the dachshund, who ran out to the grass of the baseball field. “Hey. Jeff.” Wolfe shouted to his son. “the big fat boy here’s looking for a piece of the action.”
Sol caught the pass from Jeffrey, faked a shot, then a pass; he pivoted to elude a defensive player and went for the basket with an overhand shot. The cigar jutted from his lips as he wheeled to the right, gauging instinctively the correct angle for a fast retrieval. As it came off the backboard, he leaped and caught the ball, with an immense rise and fall of flesh around his middle and a ballooning of his jacket and corduroy trousers. He was like a clown in those baggy clothes, which floated back into place about him, and it was easy to miss his innate, residual grace. He descended lightly, a trifle breathless, chomping firmly on the cigar as he executed the quick faking motions of an offensive player with the ball, searching for a pass target. Then he whipped the ball overhand to Barry and grinned exuberantly.
“Jerk,” Wolfe called to him genially through hands shaped like a megaphone around his lips, “at your age you better stick to shooting fouls instead of the fancy footwork.” Wolfe leaned back on the playground bench, every inch a spectator of the foolishness you had to accept along with Sol. Watching Sol in his beloved habitat restored Wolfe’s capacity to feel legitimate concern for his friend’s idiocies and his own compassionate sense of superiority. The disturbing confessional moments alone with Sol in the kitchen were scratched out like names deleted from a lineup. Meadows and wild flowers, Wolfe thought pityingly. The poor guy would be a candidate for a funny farm if he kept that up.
“That’s pretty good for an old man, Sol.” Jeffrey said.
Slapping Jeffrey on the rump, coach-style, as he went past, Sol ran with vestigial, blubbery grace to a shooting position near the key for the return pass from Barry. Jeffrey, in a defensive role, advanced on Barry, who remained unexpectedly motionless, the ball clasped tightly in both hands against his stomach.
Sol yelled, “Come on, Barry.” Jeffrey, defensively cautious now at the sight of Barry’s immobility, slowed his advance. Finally, Jeffrey stopped altogether, confused by the angry, stony look on Barry’s face and his refusal to move. Regarding each other in silence, they appeared friezelike and oddly similar in the clear winter light, both in tight-fitting sweatshirts and dirty chinos and sneakers.
“What is it?” Wolfe called from the bench, like a fan belaboring an umpire. “A big time out over there?”
Barry let the ball drop. It bounced erratically and rolled away. As Sol picked it up. Barry said to Jeffrey, “Do I call your old man by his first name?”
“Come on, Barry,” Jeffrey said, still puzzled by Barry’s icy, combative manner. “Everybody calls him Sol.”
“What’s the big discussion?” Sol asked as he approached them, carrying the basketball.
Barry stared at his father with bleak, angry eyes. Shaking his head uncertainly. Jeffrey explained, “All of a sudden he’s bugged because I called you Sol.”
Sol smiled at his son and said, “Okay, I’ll give him permission.”
“Why don’t you get yourself an ascot and a dachshund?” Barry said to his father. “Then you could sit on the bench over there and be a big mouth.”
“Barry,” Jeffrey said quietly, “cut it out.”
“Everybody’s got your permission,” Barry said to Sol. “The big fat man in the cruddy warm-up jacket who gives everybody permission to do anything. Why the hell don’t you at least stay home instead of coming around here?”
“I’m glad to see you’ve got something to say at last,” Sol said. “Even if it’s only to tell me you’re ashamed of me. I’m too fat. I like to horse around in the playground, and I let Jeff call me Sol. What do you want for an old man? A Lord Chesterfield? Or didn’t they ever tell you about him in school?”
Wolfe sauntered over with jovial innocence and curiosity. “What’s the big rhubarb?”
“Stay out of it. for God’s sake. Dad.” Jeffrey said nervously.
“Stay out of what?” Wolfe said. “Barry boy, what’re you looking so sore about?”
“Dad, will you please shut up?” Jeffrey said. “If you don’t want to sit on the bench, at least shut up for once in your life.”
“Hoo!” Wolfe cried darkly. A pinkish tint appeared through his sun-lamp tan, and his eyes turned cold under the thick brows. “How would you like a belt across the mouth, as big as you are?” He came up close to Jeffrey, who was nearly half a head taller. “I’m willing to put up with a lot, but don’t you ever tell your own father to shut up. One thing I insist on out of you is a polite mouth, buster.”
“Wolfe,” Sol said in a reasonable, intermediary’s voice. “Do me a favor. Take Jeff’s advice this time.”
“Dad, please listen to Sol,” Jeffrey said.
Barry leaped forward without warning from his motionless stance and shoved Jeffrey backward. Then they were all locked in a narrow corral of violence. Wolfe’s glower of paternal indignation became a disfiguring clot of visible anger as he exhorted his son to fight back. Jeffrey, driven to his knees as if he were supplicating Barry, took the wild, ineffectual blows on his upraised hands and wrists. Together, they looked like a pair of crazy gladiators rehearsing in street clothes. Sol, towering above them, pulled Barry out of range, and Jeffrey stood up, shaking his head and massaging his reddened, aching hands. Sol suppressed his own laughter, but the joy he felt danced in his eyes. It wasn’t every day that he faced the comforting possibility that Barry had learned something about him and so might give up hiding turtlestyle chairs when he was asked a fair question by his father. Then Barry said to Jeffrey. “Your nose is bleeding. Do you want a Kleenex?”
“I’ve got one,” Jeffrey said. He bunched up the tissue against his nose. “You really hammered some wild ones at me. I’m sorry, Bar’.”
“What do you mean, you’re sorry!” Wolfe shouted, still hopping around like an Indian medicine man who did not yet know that the sacrificial fire was out, the prayer received, the blessing offered, the magic accepted. “He pounds on you like a set of bongo drums and you’re sorry!”
“Dad, will you please shut the hell up, because you don’t understand anything about it,” Jeffrey said.
“I don’t have to understand. I saw it!” Wolfe cried. “And I told you once about your mouth.” He slapped Jeffrey across the face, openhanded.
“Wolfe,” Sol said, “it wasn’t a fight, for crying out loud. I mean, it just looked like a fight. Maybe even for a second it was. But it wasn’t what you think it was. Leave them alone now.”
“You don’t understand,” Jeffrey yelled back at his father.
“But this kook in a warm-up jacket understands, is that the idea? His own son is ashamed of him for running around in a crummy warm-up jacket and acting like he’s still on a basketball squad. His own wife has to beg me to put a little common sense into his head. But this certified screwball understands!” Wolfe cried incredulously.
Barry and Jeffrey looked at Sol as if they were entreating him to shield them from Wolfe. Then Barry said. “I’m not ashamed of him.”
Still smiling, Sol moved between the boys and put his arms about each of them. “The name is Sol,” he said to both of them.
“Sol,” Barry said to his father as if it were a final and complete identification.
“How about shooting a few baskets?” Sol asked Barry. He looked over at Wolfe as Barry picked up the ball. Wolfe, with trembling fingers, was fastening the leash to the dachshund’s collar. Sol wanted to tell Wolfe to stay. But he remained silent because he knew that Wolfe, indentured forever by terms he dared not concede were exorbitant, could only return to where nothing was ever given freely. Sol caught the ball thrown by Barry and held it, watching Wolfe walk toward the gate and the crowded camp where Ida and De Pinna waited for news. He wanted to call out to Wolfe “They are not taking anything from you: they are only giving me something.” Instead, he crouched, aimed, and shot a basket.
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