“When the war ended,” O’Hare said to me, “I expected to be a lot more in fifteen years than a dispatcher of frozen-custard trucks.” – Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
YOU know,” said Sylvan, “it was about twelve years till I had any notion of how bad a thing he had done to me.”
“Um,” I grunted, wishing I could discourage further revelations but seeing that it was hopeless.
“Yeah, he’d been dead for five years, and I’d never blamed him for anything, but one day I was playing with my two-year-old daughter and all of a sudden I thought, ’What kind of a man would desert his child for its first sixteen years?’ All at once I hated him. Right now after all these years, I still feel some of the hate that welled up in me that day.”
I was uncomfortable. I really didn’t want to discuss Sylvan’s problems with him. He belonged to a part of my life that I didn’t want to think about. I had no sympathy for him and had sometimes cursed him as an enemy. Apparently he had no suspicion of this however.
Fortunately we were on neutral ground. He said he lived in Portland, Oregon, and I lived in Washington, DC. We were sitting in a bar in the Chicago airport where we had, an hour ago, run into one another at a United Airlines ticket desk where we were both trying to find out when our snowbound flights might be able to depart. As I had turned, mentally cursing the airline’s polite uninformativeness, I had almost bumped into Sylvan who was behind me in the line. If I’d had any chance, such as seeing Sylvan in the distance, I would probably have avoided meeting him, but in this instance not only was that impossible, but I had felt a surge of joy at seeing him. Reaction paths laid down in childhood survive the tests of time and reason. Thus my first reaction was surprise and pleasure.
A film of water stretched from the bottom of my beer glass to the table surface as I slowly raised the glass and then the film snapped spraying drops of water in a symmetric pattern about the wet ring. Sylvan Massie, across the table from me, scraped his fingernail down the wet label on his beer bottle. The accumulated effect of several glasses of beer was blurring my uneasiness, but I was still being very careful about what I said.
I had the feeling that Sylvan, like many of us, had finally found himself with no one to talk to and that the beers and old friendship had combined to break down his normal reserve. I could sympathize with his need for a confidant, but it couldn’t be me.
Sylvan and I had been good friends when we were sixteen, and this was our first encounter in over forty years.
We had been good friends at sixteen, but not at eighteen. Even now, after forty years, I could feel some of the envy, the bitterness, and the unfairness of the situation that had dissolved our friendship. Not to mention the aftermath that was still a factor in my life.
We had been close friends ever since I could remember. Probably because we had so much in common. We were the same age, in the same class in school, both considered to be bright, and we played on the same baseball team. Sylvan was the pitcher and I was the catcher.
When I now mentioned the assortment of pitches he had claimed to have (out-curves, in-curves, drops, up-shoots, and more), his grin made him look, for an instant, like that long-ago sandlot pitcher.
We had both been voracious readers and were just discovering the world of literature. That, somehow, led us to believe we were knowledgeable and sophisticated.
We had each lived with a grandmother in the common poverty of the times and were both fatherless. We were fatherless in a different manner. I was fatherless because my father had died when I was three years old, and Sylvan was fatherless because he had been abandoned by his father when his mother had died bearing him. Both of us felt the same resentment toward our absent fathers, and we perceived little difference in our status. We never discussed this openly with anyone or with each other, but I’m sure we attached the same blame to our fathers, and he had as little hope of seeing his father again as I had of seeing mine.
One day when Sylvan was nearing his seventeenth birthday, his father and his father’s wife of several years appeared at his grandmother’s house, and the father saw his abandoned son for the first time in nearly seventeen years. Sylvan, at this age, was a far cry from the burdensome, wife-killing infant that his father had perhaps been carrying around in his mind. Indeed, Sylvan was a tall, strong, fair-haired, blue-eyed, handsome young man who, though I never thought of it at the time, must have been a treat for most adults, much less his father, to observe. In any case, his father evidently felt his full paternity return in a rush and with the consent and assistance of his wife began what I now see was a wooing of his son in a desperate attempt to establish the relationship he had neglected for so many years.
Mr. Massie was the owner of a thriving Graham-Paige automobile dealership in Covington, and perhaps he had never heard that you couldn’t buy love, or maybe just didn’t believe it. He opened a cornucopia for his son and the conquest was quick and easy. If Sylvan felt then any resentment about the missing years, it was quickly drowned in a flood of goods and affection that overwhelmed him. Accustomed to a grandmother whose home was austere in goods and in open affection, Sylvan had no resistance to his father’s and step-mother’s campaign.
All of his weekends were spent in Covington, an hour and a half away, and he remained in our town with his grandmother only in order to finish high school in the same school. He did not want, he said, to go to Covington for his senior year because all his friends and acquaintances were in our hometown.
At the beginning of our senior year, Sylvan was given a car, a brand-new Graham Paige, by his father. Today at sixteen or seventeen boys and girls seem to take it for granted that they will, if not right now, very soon be in possession of an automobile. In those days it was a distant, hopeless dream for most of them. At best it was something to hope for after one finished or quit school and found a job. Jobs were by no means plentiful either.
Sylvan, with his new car, new parents, and new money, seemed to be a completely different person from the friend I had known. He now radiated a sweet smell of success and confidence that seems to set some people apart.
Sylvan did not immediately spurn our friendship and actually tried to share some of his success with me, but that was probably more than could have been handled by a much more mature person than any seventeen-year-old boy. It is almost impossible for two boys to run around together if there is a great difference in their available spending money. A minor expenditure for one of them is a major one for the other, and no amount of goodwill or friendship between them will allow them to remain on equal standing.
I spent one weekend with Sylvan in his father’s house in Covington. It was a typical home for a successful businessman, which put it at the luxury level according to my standards. About all I now recall of that uncomfortable visit was how I was so impressed by Sylvan and his father who when discussing prices of cars dropped the hundreds and simply said “ten” or “eleven-fifty.” I don’t know why this made such an impression on me though I am aware it is a ploy even today among movie producers who give the cost of a movie as “four” or “six” without the millions.
I emptied my glass and beckoned to the waiter. We sat quietly as the fresh bottles were brought and the old ones removed. Sylvan, in the gloom of the bar, looked more like the boy I had known than he had in the harsh light of the waiting room. He had always been a little chubby as a boy, and he had now spread into a big man. Not fat, but heavy, a man of substance. Gray haired, face lined and a bit flushed, he looked perfect for the role of successful businessman.
“He ruined me,” said Sylvan. “He came back at exactly the wrong time and ruined me. Didn’t he?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Have you done so badly?”
“Yes, I have. Did you think I wanted to grow up to sell Cadillacs?”
“What’s wrong with that? Why, just recently one of our city councilmen said that a Cadillac agency was a prestige business. He was interested in a zoning change.”
“Selling Cadillacs is a job for a toadying idiot. I wish I’d known that when I inherited the agency. Look, I had promise, didn’t I?”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. So far as I know, not a one of us who had such great promise amounted to a diddly damn. You just have a convenient scapegoat, that’s all.”
“No,” said Sylvan. “if he hadn’t showed up, I’d have gotten my education, and I’d have been a damn good lawyer. The trouble with self-education is it’s too slow. All it does is make you dissatisfied, aware of what you missed. It’d be better to stay a numbskull and think selling Cadillacs was the greatest thing in life.”
“Look,” I said, “you could probably buy and sell any of your classmates that apparently had so much on the ball. I’m sure you could me. I’m afraid there are not many jobs or professions that hold up when you get to our age. Things just kind of go to ashes, one way or another, and your business is probably no better or worse than most in that regard.”
“Maybe, but more and more I have the feeling of complete waste. I keep thinking back. When did it happen? How did I get on this track? What if I’d done this or that? I just keep thinking back to the days of promise and wondering how it all went wrong.”
“Well, yeah, we all do.” I wanted to discourage this reminiscent trend if I could. We were getting too close to the bone. A glance at the clock showed that it was almost time for my delayed flight, but just as I was about to say that I should start for the gate, there was an announcement that United Flight 302 for Washington was delayed another half hour. I needed to get Sylvan turned to some other subject but couldn’t think how to do it. If I started asking about his family, he would certainly reciprocate, and I hadn’t decided how to handle that. It was strange to think that Sylvan had not discerned any animosity on my part, but I guessed that it never crossed his mind. And why should he think I had anything against him? He did not seem to be conscious of my disinterest in his affairs or of my evasiveness about my own. Presumably he thought it was just our awkwardness with each other after all these years. Or, more likely, he was so enrapt with his own troubles that he had no awareness of anything outside himself. At least for the moment.
“When Graham folded, my father bought the Cadillac agency in Covington, and when he died a few years later, it came to my step-mother and me. Later I bought her out and then sold it and went to Portland to begin a new agency. I married the daughter of another Cadillac dealer, and we recently had our twenty-third anniversary. We have one child. She’s just out of college last year and is teaching the third grade in a Portland school.”
“Sounds like you’ve done all right.”
“Well, yes. My business has always been easy. I never had any trouble making money. Sometimes I think it would have been better if it hadn’t been so easy. When a guy is putting all his effort into something like making money, he probably doesn’t have the time or energy to be dissatisfied. But it’s been building up in me for years. My wife thinks I’m crazy when I try to tell her about it. Maybe she’s right. Her father, he’s about seventy-five, is as fat and smug as if he’d made the world when all he did was sell cars to pimps, pushers, and his country club cronies. It makes me sick.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it. I’m not being fair. I’m not being reasonable. But it’s right. More and more I’m thinking of the old days. Stupid, I guess, but I keep thinking of the time before it all started to go sour.”
We sat in silence for several minutes and watched the waiter cleaning the glasses and debris off the table next to us. I sneaked a look at my watch. Quarter of an hour. Maybe I’ll make it. Maybe the whole affair was so unimportant to him that he’d forgotten it. Probably that was the case.
Sylvan beckoned to the waiter, and he brought two more beers. I was beginning to feel more depressed than intoxicated. Depressed, bloated, and apprehensive.
“Hey,” he said, “you remember Linda? Linda Manning?“
“Bingo!” I said to myself.
During the winter that I turned seventeen, Sylvan, with his new car, new spending money, and perhaps most of all, with his new confidence, succeeded in a complete conquest of a girl I’d long admired but could not get up nerve enough to do anything about. Linda Manning, the only child of a rich farmer, was the smartest student in our school, and if one observed closely, as I did at every opportunity, by far the most beautiful. By that I mean there was nothing spectacular about her looks. She had brown hair, brown eyes and, at first glance, seemed to exemplify what is called a mousey look.
Her features, nose and mouth, were rather small, even pinched in appearance. But everything about her was grace and harmony. She was tall and slender but rounded with that excruciatingly budding look that many seventeen-year-old girls exhibit. Her skin looked smooth and soft. I watched her and, in the full flush of my adolescence, longed for her with an agony that cannot, perhaps fortunately, even be recalled in one’s later years.
Linda held herself apart from the other girls, seldom talked to any boy, and never flirted with a boy, not even so much as a long look, as far as I could tell.
Instead of attributing her behavior to acute shyness, I interpreted her attitude as a proper recognition that none of us was good enough for her. At that age I had an unfortunate proclivity to assign pedestals to what I believed to be exceptional girls, Linda was simply the most exceptional, and to be very disappointed when they condescended to date what I well knew to be quite ordinary boys unworthy in my cliché filled mind for her to wipe her feet on.
It never occurred to me that what I was wishing off on them would be an utterly miserable life. I was reminded of my juvenile feelings when Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, and I saw that grown people all over the country had been indulging in this juvenile pedestal emplacement. In their fantasies Mrs. Kennedy had become a national monument, naturally on an unassailable pedestal.
I was hurt and resentful toward both Sylvan and Linda although I did have sense enough to realize that neither of them knew they had betrayed me. Especially Linda, since I’d never done more than barely speak to her. Later, however, it turned out that Sylvan was the more unaware. Linda did know I was watching and yearning. She was shy, not dumb, and very much aware of my interest in her.
Linda was acutely, painfully shy. I don’t know exactly, and I don’t want to know, how Sylvan dealt with her shyness in the beginning. Her parents seemed to her to be quite remote, stiff, and unloving. She was afraid of their censure but received no signs of affection from them. She had, because of her shyness, none of the accumulated wariness that most girls have by that age, and she fell in love with Sylvan, the first person who seemed actually to care for her. She had no doubts and felt no restraints.
I watched from the sidelines. I felt anger, shame, despair, and fell ever more deeply in love with her as she bloomed in the light of Sylvan’s affection. She became confident and friendly with everyone; no longer was she shy and standoffish. She was so sure of Sylvan that it was impossible for her to imagine that he was not serious, that in his mind, she was only the first of many conquests.
When graduation time was past, Sylvan casually moved to Covington to the home of his parents and assumed that his relationship with Linda had automatically ended. She made, at first casual, then intense, and finally desperate, attempts to regain his attention. She was pregnant and was subjected to her parents’ bitter condemnation. A miscarriage and a suicide attempt put her in the hospital from which she was sent to a mental institution to emerge a year later able to cope with the world but never quite to regain the assurance she had felt during her affair with Sylvan. The scars of that affair had lingered ever after and were certainly evident, if one knew what to look for, in the personality of the still beautiful, but matronly, Linda of today.
I stared at Sylvan as he picked at the label on his beer bottle. What could I say to him? Was he a friend or a foe? If he had not been so brutally uncaring about Linda, then I would never have… After so many years, I found that hard to think about.
The silence had dragged on and on since Sylvan’s question about Linda. Suddenly, relief came from the loudspeaker with the announcement that my flight was boarding.
“I’ll walk that way with you,” said Sylvan. “My flight leaves, if it ever does, from that same area.”
We walked, rather unsteadily, through corridors jammed with anxious people all desperate to get somewhere besides Chicago. It has been a long-standing rule of mine not to make airline connections through Chicago in the wintertime, but now and then I neglect to follow my rule and spend a day flying back and forth between Chicago and Omaha while the snowplow cleans the runway at Chicago. Someday I’m going to visit Omaha deliberately to see if there’s more to it than an airport.
When we arrived at my gate, the door was open and the airplane was being boarded. I turned to Sylvan and held out my hand for a farewell shake, but then turned back to him and said, “You asked if I remembered Linda Manning. I do. I’m married to her.”
“What?” he asked, without any sign of comprehension. “What did you say?”
“She’s my wife. We’ve been married for nearly thirty-eight years,” I said as I turned away. As I went through the doorway to the airplane, I looked back. Sylvan was standing where I’d left him. He was staring after me.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Rivoli. Text paper is Sulgrave Text, Antique White, Laid, 60 pound. Ink is Van Son 40904 Black. Published by Jake Warner and 470 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.