I’m not sure I like any of the three lines that always work for me. They’re all from the “Did you ever notice?” category of jokes, an overused category, but one with which even rookie comedians can kill the most sober of audiences. The first one is “Did you ever notice how men over thirty suddenly develop the ability to grow lush heads of hair on the backs of their necks?” The second: “Did you ever notice how, as you age, your sneezes begin to sound like your parents’?” The third: “Did you ever notice how your parents, when they tell you you’re a failure, always speak as if they were successful?”
I’m polishing that third line when my father calls from Milwaukee to announce that, in twenty hours, he’ll use my uncle’s frequent-flier ticket to fly to “a town called La Guardia” and come see me.
I live in Queens — without a car — so I ask, “You want to cab to my place or have me cab to the terminal?”
“That cute girlfriend of yours doesn’t have a car either?” he asks — meaning Meg, a twenty-six-year-old art-school graduate who, living with me, is beginning to endure the ignominy of namelessness and the grind of poverty, two curses I’ve been facing for years.
“No, Dad,” I answer. “Cars are more trouble than children around here.”
“Oh. Then I guess I’ll have Conrad reserve me a rental.”
“My travel agent. He knows New York like the back of his hand. He got me a room at the Best Western out there.”
“What do you mean ‘out there’?”
“New York, Son. Where else?”
The Best Western is actually on Long Island, forty miles east of Queens. Conrad’s directions said it was located on “Ocean,” but failed to mention that the Long Island Expressway has exits for an Ocean Boulevard, an Ocean Avenue, and an Ocean Street. Having learned this fact the hard way, I am lugging tassel-topped golf clubs — brought along in case my father sees a “cheap public course” during his thirty-six hours here — across the motel parking lot. Was my father’s hair this white the last time I saw him?
“How ’bout a swim?” he asks. “Conrad said they have an indoor pool.”
“Dad, it’s ten o’clock here. I doubt the pool’s open.”
“It’ll be open. If not, I’ll ask them to open it.”
“That’s something you need to learn, Buck. If you ask for what you want, you’ll get it.”
I haven’t been called Buck in years. My stage name is Bob. My real name, thanks to my mother, is Stanley. “Maybe in Milwaukee,” I say.
“Ah, Son,” my father says, “don’t start with this business about how difficult life is. The world’s a network, and as soon as you accept that, you’ll have people eating out of your hand.”
“I’ve been making contacts for seventeen years,” I say. “Everyone in comedy thinks networking’s a joke.”
“Then how do people succeed?”
“It’s a four-letter word, Dad. It’s called luck.”
The Best Western’s night security agreed to open the pool. My father eliminated my last excuse for not swimming with him by lending me his purple Bermudas. He also finagled a cot from the front desk and invited me to spend the night in his room — and somehow, despite Meg’s sigh over the phone when I said I might not make it back in time to watch Letterman, I accepted.
Now, facing the morning after a night ruined by snoring, I’m driving the Long Island Expressway toward a father-and-son day in Manhattan while my father eats a Burger King Croissan’wich and sips coffee from a styrofoam cup.
“You know your mother and I got the cable put in,” he says.
I ignore traffic to glance at him. In the seat next to me I see a self-proclaimed “independent investment advisor” from Milwaukee; I see a white-haired, seventy-year-old, churchgoing husband and father.
“We notice all sorts of young comedians performing,” he says. “Have you tried getting yourself on cable, Son?”
I brake to let a semi pull in front of me. “Yes, Dad.”
“You’ve written letters and shaken hands and played racquetball with the big boys at the top?”
“Everything but the racquetball. I think that’s kind of an early-eighties thing.”
My father pauses — his only way of admitting that an idea of mine might be valid. “Have you had flavored coffee with them, Son? I hear flavored coffee is the hot networking tool these days.”
“All sorts of coffee,” I say, an absolute lie.
“Then why aren’t you on the darned cable?”
Because their producers are from Harvard and you couldn’t afford to send me to Harvard, I want to say. Because you lost all that money playing the stock market. Of course I don’t say this, because my father is old — because I am old — and I’d like to have a nice day in Manhattan to remember him by.
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Maybe,” he says, and he folds his Croissan’wich wrapper.
“Maybe,” he says, “they don’t think you’re funny.”
I think about the laughs I’ve gotten from cousins at funerals, from high-school teachers I’ve interrupted, from club audiences in Philly and Baltimore and Jersey City. I think about Meg, minutes after we met, laughing herself red-faced and walking the circle in Washington Square Park until she calmed down. Accelerating to keep up with the semi, I realize that, so far on this gray November day I’m sharing with my father, I haven’t once made the man crack a smile.
Eight miles from Manhattan, my father breaks the silence: “Have you read anything by this young man Tony Robbins?”
Am I older than Tony Robbins? I wonder. “No,” I say.
“Because my involvements have picked up since I’ve begun following his advice.”
“He says to present yourself positively. And get yourself in the habit of thinking a mantra. You know, a little phrase —”
“I know what a mantra is, Dad.”
“You do? Wonderful. Because since I’ve been following his advice, my involvements have brought nothing but satisfaction.”
“Your involvements with Mom,” I ask, “or the stock market?”
My father scratches his sagging neck, then sets his hands on his lap. “The market. And, in a way, your mother.”
“You’ve been turning a profit lately?”
“Son,” he says, his volume rising, “these pork-belly futures — you just wouldn’t believe the way these babies move. I mean, your uncle and I put together a few grand in a fund and I saw a buy signal and we’ve been . . . flying!”
“You took your profit?”
“Well, we had a little correction.”
“Did you sell them or not?”
“We sold half at cost. The other half —”
“Did you figure in brokers’ fees?”
My father never figures in brokers’ fees. He likes to think of himself as an idea man. To him, mathematics is dirty work.
“We also took a position on the S&P 500,” he says, and, as he continues to explain his investments, I realize I’ve heard all this before. It’s a smoke screen of figures and percentages, of small successes that hide big failures. It’s the defense of a businessman who doesn’t document what he spends on investment newsletters, networking seminars, and How-to-Make-a-Million-in-a-Month books. It’s a lot like the smoke screen I give my friends and Meg — and my parents — when they second-guess my career choice and I answer with my three lines that always work, or play them my cassette from the Comedy Shack in Pittsburgh.
When my father suggests I buy orange-juice futures with money I don’t have, I cut him off by asking, “What did you want to do today?”
“What do you want to do in the city?”
“I don’t care, Son. Take in some sights and get someone to snap a few photos of us for your mother.”
I picture my father asking a homeless man in Central Park to “snap us a quick shot.” I picture the man saying yes. I picture my father and me arm in arm, my father smiling for the camera, me laughing when the man dashes into a thicket, camera in hand. It’s an old gag, I know, but today, somehow, it makes me smile.
Just before the Queens Midtown Tunnel, my father, finishing a yawn, asks, “You still working the door at that comedy bar?”
I decide to keep my bad news a secret: the Laugh Factory in Brooklyn closed three weeks ago. “Comedy club, Dad.”
He looks out his window — at a Citicorp sign. “Now, I don’t want you to get upset by this, Buck. But your mother and I were wondering what you’d think of pursuing law part time.”
I accelerate, knowing exactly what he’s pushing me toward: my “return” to law, my immediate — in his mind — leap to wealth, my marriage to Meg, his grandchildren.
“I understand you can do estate planning part time —”
“Dad.” I slap on my blinker to change lanes. My speedometer reads seventy; we are five feet behind a cement truck. “Let me tell you a plain, garden-variety fact.”
“You want to be seven car lengths behind this guy, Son.”
“Screw the car lengths for once! I’m trying to tell you about my damn life.”
My father raises his empty styrofoam coffee cup to his lips, and I hate myself for losing my temper before we’ve even set foot in Manhattan. “Go ahead,” he says. “Tell me.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I brake, compromising at four car lengths. “But you have to understand something I’ve been trying to tell you and Mom for years: I’m never going to practice law. I never wanted to, I haven’t considered it since I got the degree, and no matter how bad things get, it simply won’t happen.”
“Now, Son —”
“Dad, I’m a comedian. You don’t see me on TV, and I don’t make much money, but when I get on stage, people laugh. I have forty-two notebooks full of material, and when I look in the mirror, I practice gestures.” I decelerate as brake lights turn the tunnel entrance red.
“You’re thirty-eight years old,” he says, “and you wear bluejeans with holes in them.”
“Dad, I couldn’t be an attorney if I tried. It’s been ten years since I graduated — most states would probably make me get a new degree before I could practice. And even if they didn’t, I’d still have to take a bar-exam course, and then the exam, and then rent an office and sit there every day until someone saw my name in the Yellow Pages. Do you know how long that would take?”
“A few months.”
“A year, at least. A year of me never making one person laugh.”
“What’s a year? Plus you can always fall back on a job with a firm.”
“You know how much all that would cost?”
“You’d make it back. You got scholarships to law school. No one I know has a kid who got scholarships to law school.”
No law student I knew needed any, I think. “Dad,” I say, “you have no idea how things work here today. Intelligence means nothing. Façade is everything. It’s not like it was forty years ago in Milwaukee. You don’t just walk down Fifth Avenue and knock on a door and ask someone for something — and get it.”
“It’s true, Dad.”
“That’s New York, then.”
“Well, New York’s where I live.”
“You live in Queens, Son.”
Definitely funny, I think, and I smile.
My father tries to sip coffee he finished ten miles ago. “You’ll lose that nice girlfriend of yours,” he says.
“How do you know she’s nice?”
“We’ve spoken on the phone.”
“Believe me,” I say, “she was nicer to you on the phone than she’s been to me in person lately.”
My father crumples the styrofoam and drops it on the red-carpeted floor. “Ah, Son,” he says, “everyone has fights. Life is difficult. Your mother and I have been fighting for years.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t mind losing my girlfriends,” I say, and my father begins fidgeting with his shoulder harness. Not funny, I think. Next time, edit that line out.
“Dad,” I say, “I’m a comedian. I know the odds against making it big, and I can imagine how it looks from where you and Mom are sitting, but I get laughs, and that’s what I want to do. Don’t underestimate that. People never do anything unless they want to. Does that make any sense to you?”
My father mulls this over. “You can’t imagine,” he says.
“How it looks from where your mother and I are sitting.”
I stare out the windshield. We are nearly out of the tunnel but traffic is stopped; I consider turning on the radio but don’t. I decide to take my father’s advice — “present yourself positively” — and prepare to remind him of a fact that, in a phone conversation two years ago, caused him to stop discussing mutual funds and congratulate me. It has ended arguments with Meg and has forced me, on cold, wintry mornings, to pop out of bed like a jack-in-the-box to write material. And someday it will, I believe, bring me reality-shattering luck.
“You do know,” I say, “that I have an agent.”
My father doesn’t answer. Then, as if releasing all of the visceral conflict between us since my birth, he emits a small burp. “And having an agent means exactly what, Son?”
“It means I have a big boy doing my networking for me.”
“Oh,“ my father says. His mind is probably trying to both absorb and discount such a concept. “The thing about that —” he says, “and Tony Robbins will support this — is that there’s no substitute for promoting yourself.”
“Oh? Since when has Tony Robbins been the guru of comedy?”
“He hasn’t been, obviously. But if you want us to talk to each other in brass-tacks fashion, let me ask you this: In the past two years, has this agent of yours done anything for you?”
I want to slam on the brakes and walk the expressway home to Meg. I consider how this would look from where my father is sitting — he would fly back to Milwaukee and tell my mother I’d lost my mind — and somehow one last argument hits me.
“Can I ask you something?” I say.
“By all means,” he says. “Asking is always the key.”
“After you quit dental school to be an independent investment advisor, did I ever tell you to become a dentist?”
“I can barely remember a thing from that far back, Son.”
“Well, given what you remember,” I say, silently damning my lawyerly tone, “has anyone ever told you to become a dentist?”
My father flips a heating vent away from his face. The heater isn’t even on.
“No,” I finally hear.
“Then there it is. I just want the same treatment. You see what I’m saying? You and I both want careers that keep bringing us heartache. We’re pretty much in the same situation.”
“I don’t know about that, Son.”
“You can’t compare investment advising with comedy.”
We’re in a cab in gridlock during midtown’s lunch hour, the rental is parked at a one-hour meter at Seventeenth and Third, and my father and I have just failed to get usable standby tickets for this evening’s Letterman taping, having arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater when the standby line was eighty-four people long. I have tickets eighty-five and eighty-six in my wallet, but never — I know from my contacts — have more than twenty standbys seen a CBS Letterman taping.
My father, who agreed to try for the tickets with me in exchange for my parking the rental “where we don’t have to pay twenty dollars,” is peeking over his Wall Street Journal at the swelling cab fare. Never in his life has he paid this much to sit this long in a vehicle that’s going nowhere — but he won’t, out of his Milwaukee politeness, look my way. What he doesn’t know yet is that our cabbie will never beat the meter beside the rental, that parking tickets here cost forty dollars — not the five they cost in Milwaukee — and that, if we don’t beat the tow truck, we’ll have to produce another two hundred dollars to make the forty mean anything. I can’t afford $240, I tell myself. So I won’t pay it. Though I should pay it. After all, cabbing to the Ed Sullivan Theater and back from Seventeenth in an hour was, from my father’s point of view, my idea.
“The president is in town,” the cabby is saying, “and people from Haiti are protesting three blocks ahead.” His accent and tone hint that he might be Haitian himself.
“Damn Haitians,” my father says. I elbow him and he gives the cabby his animated double take — an expression I once used for a decent laugh at Caroline’s — then says, “Damn president really screwed those poor Haitians over.”
Then I hear sirens. On the sidewalk to our right, a string of policemen equipped with mopeds and riot helmets flanks a parade of people as black as my father is white. The people appear, through the closed cab windows, to be yelling anti-American sentiments. I hope my father doesn’t see them; I don’t want his last memory to be cardiac arrest on a cab’s vinyl upholstery.
“Buck,” he whispers, eyes six inches from yesterday’s New York Stock Exchange closing prices, “maybe we should get out and walk.”
“Two miles in less than ten minutes on those arches of yours?” I say. “With a riot brewing?”
“Riot schmiot,” he says. “We need to get to that meter.”
An hour later, our cab idling at a stoplight at Nineteenth and Third, I get out and dash for our parking meter. Miraculously, the rental sits unticketed. After I pray thanks to God for the first time since childhood, my father, walking leisurely, catches up to me. “And you wanted to pay twenty bucks,” he says.
“Dad,” I say, “you don’t know how lucky we are.”
He leans against the rental, out of breath. “Let’s put in some more quarters, eat, and then visit my contact on Fifty-fourth.“
“We were just on Fifty-fourth. Before we do anything, let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s put the car in a lot — I’ll pay the twenty bucks — then just go somewhere and relax. Wherever. As long as I don’t have to worry about the car.”
“What’s to worry about? Let’s eat something before I faint. Conrad said I should ask around to avoid the restaurants that rip off tourists.” My father sounds like me when I’m bombing: verbalizing as best he can while his mind is racing. “Ma’am?” he asks a pedestrian approaching us on automatic pilot. “Could you recommend a reasonably priced restaurant?”
“Dad,” I whisper, “she might be a militant feminist with a gun.”
“What?” she says, stopping two feet from me and studying my father. Stupid joke, I think.
“A restaurant,” my father says, “for a semiretired investment advisor from Milwaukee and his underemployed son.”
“Sure. The Old Town. It’s right that way up Eighteenth.” She smiles and walks on.
“See what happens, Buck,” my father says, “when you ask?”
“That’s the place they used to show at the beginning of the old Letterman,” I say when I see the sign outside the Old Town.
“The what now?”
“This restaurant. They used to show it on Letterman.”
“Is Letterman that fellow who’s competing with Jay Leno?”
We walk into the Old Town. My eyes adjust to the dark, and the bartender stares at me as if I’ve dragged my father in to take pictures.
“Two,” my father tells him. “Nonsmoking.”
The bartender calls a waitress; she leads us upstairs; we sit at a small table and study menus. When she returns to take our drink orders, my father says, “Dear, could you tell me a little about your wine?”
She smiles — at me. “We have burgundy, rosé, and white.”
“What do you mean by white?” my father asks.
“They have white wine, Dad,” I say. The waitress, I am sure, is my ally. “It’s not like they have a cellar full of vintages here.”
My father proves his glare can still work on me. “Could I taste the white before I order?” he asks the waitress.
“Why not?” she says, and as she walks off I tell myself to relax. He’s old, I tell myself. And he’s your father. And after today, you might not see him for years. So sit back, enjoy him, and convince him to order a whole carafe instead of his usual half.
“Excuse me,” he says. “I’ve got to make a quick call.”
“Dad,” I say, but he’s already standing, then gone. I bury my face in my hands until the waitress returns and stands beside me.
“Here,” she says, “is the . . .”
“Sample?” I say. She sets a shot glass full of wine on the table. “He’s, uh, making a call,” I say.
“He’s your father?”
“How’d you guess?”
Walking off, she says, “You look like twins.”
I grab the top of my forehead: I do have a less-advanced version of my father’s receding hairline — tongues of baldness flanking a thinning widow’s peak — and those “gray” hairs Meg keeps spotting on my head are no doubt as white as every hair on my father’s. I chug the shot of wine and drum the table until my father returns.
“Make your call?” I ask him.
He grunts as he sits. “Yes. Did she bring my taste?”
“Yes, and I tasted it. It’s fine.”
He stares, eyebrows furrowed, at the shot glass. “Couldn’t you have saved me some?”
“That wouldn’t have done the taste justice.”
He rights his posture, folds his hands, and places them beside the shot glass. He surveys the other patrons, who, for some reason — my gig on the telethon in Jersey? — are looking at me.
“Who’d you call?” I ask.
“My contact on Fifty-fourth. A big boy in the investment industry who puts out this newsletter I subscribe to.”
“You have an appointment with him?”
“I tried to make one. His secretary said to come in and see her.”
My father lifts the shot glass, holds it in his palm as if it were a rare coin. “I’m a little behind on my subscription. She wants me to square up before I see the man himself.” He clears his throat. “She says he’s not in today, but I think I can talk my way past her once I’m there in the flesh.”
I bite my lip hard to keep from laughing. I feel ashamed for wanting to laugh, then angry that, at age thirty-eight, I’m allowing myself to feel shame. Then I remember that, despite my frustration with my father, I love him more than I love standing ovations. Should I tell him that? I wonder.
“He’s worth millions, Buck,” he says. “There’s no reason why he can’t cough up ten grand to let me prove myself to him.”
“Did the wine pass your test?” the waitress asks.
“Buck?” my father says.
“It was lovely,” I say. “Bring us a whole carafe.”
My father fills our glasses but drinks only half of his. I sip two glasses’ worth while he imparts his wisdom about stock-option volatility. Then it gets too thick — I don’t understand him, he doesn’t seem to care if I’m listening, people are looking at us, the wine is making me warm, I’m hungry and suddenly on the verge of tears — so I rise and say, “Excuse me.”
“Be my guest,” he says, and I walk downstairs and out the door. The building where my agent receives mail is just blocks away. I’ve never seen my agent’s office — I met him at an open mike and pledged not to bug him until he’d made some real money from my work — but now, for some reason, it’s time. I’m going there alone because taking my father along would, to say the least, blow my image. I don’t know why I’m going now; maybe after my father’s career counseling this morning I need to convince myself I have an agent.
It’s a gray concrete building, not as tall as I’d imagined, maybe ten floors. I walk into the lobby, nod at the security guard, and step into an open elevator car. As the doors close, I realize that I am presenting myself as a slightly drunk, casually dressed, middle-aged man who’s just wiped away tears. I hit the DOOR OPEN button, but the elevator has already started to rise. Then the car stops, the doors open, and across a silent hall my agent’s office door waits. It’s a glass door, his name stenciled on the front of it. Behind it sits a desk, but no receptionist. Beyond the empty receptionist’s chair is a closed wooden door, and I picture my agent behind this door, a big boy snagging entertainment-industry deals on a blinking three-line phone. Certain I’d make a fool of myself if I opened this door to schmooze, I watch the elevator doors slide closed. I descend, tears intact, the whole of me sober, and walk back to the Old Town.
Inside, I find my father standing at the pay phone, plugging his ear with his finger as a quarter clinks down the slot. He’s nervous, I can see, so I walk upstairs and sit down at our table, where steam is rising from two bowls of chowder. Manhattan clam chowder, I think. Kitsch. I taste mine, then finish it. The waitress brings two turkey sandwiches; I study mine until I fear that the bread is taking on the texture of toast, then eat one half, then the other. The waitress returns and offers to clear the table; I tell her no and wonder if my father has, for some reason, left the bar and gotten lost. Then I begin to imagine true tragedy. Around the time I hear a siren outside, something glinting catches my eye: my father, removing his glasses, is walking toward me.
He tucks his napkin behind the front of his collar as he sits, then spoons up some chowder. “I had to borrow a quarter, for God’s sake. But I’m all set. Another gal answered and told me the man is leaving to play racquetball at five. You get me in front of his building at ten till, I make my pitch, and we’re in business.”
Racquetball? I think. Whatever happened to flavored coffee? “That’s great, Dad,” I say, and for a moment I picture my father discussing interest rates on Wall Street Week. “Who’d you borrow the quarter from?” I ask.
“Some woman outside,” he says, “holding a cup.”
“You’re going to get me there early,” my father says. I fly through a yellow without answering. He has less than fifteen minutes to get to the front of that building — he’s spent too much time drinking free coffee refills in the Old Town, repaying the woman with the cup, and posing for Polaroids on Wall Street — and he doesn’t realize how quickly traffic can coagulate in midtown. Looking up from the notes he’s been jotting on the cover of a Fortune, he assesses a cab-jammed intersection several blocks ahead.
“I don’t know about early,” I say.
“Relax,” he says. “We’ll make it easily.”
“We have to find an open lot.”
“We’ll find another spot on the street.”
“There are no spots on the streets here,” I say. “See that sign? It says two words: No. Stopping.”
“That’s here, Son. Your side streets are another matter.”
“Dad,” I say, “you’re in the land of the big boys. No pavement here is a side street.” A cab beats me to an opening; I brake so hard my father grabs the dash. Then we sit back, idling, seeing nothing but red lights, cabs, and police cars.
“This is a good time,” my father says, “for your mantra.”
A red light turns green. Not one bumper budges. “We’ll move an inch an hour after we reach Forty-second,” I say.
“Then you’ll drop me off on Forty-second and I’ll walk.”
“If I drop you off, I might never see you again.”
“Son,” he says, “I paid for this rental and you’re my flesh. If I tell you to drop me off, you’ll do it.” He opens his Wall Street Journal, reads it for five minutes — hiding from another failure, I’m convinced — then quarters it tightly and sets it on his lap. He scratches his hairline, slides his Sears blazer sleeve away from his Casio watch. We can’t have more than three minutes to cover thirty-some blocks; he’d be doomed to be late if he were the president. He settles back against his headrest, closes his eyes, and begins whispering something. His mantra, I think. Trying to read his lips, I realize why we aren’t connecting on the panic I feel: he is operating on Central Standard Time.
“Dad?” I force myself to say. “You don’t have as much time as your watch says. It’s a minute before five in New York.”
My father’s eyes open halfway; they won’t shift toward me. He has no choice but to accept the truth he didn’t foresee. No question can change it, and — what’s worse — it has come from his underemployed, mantraless son. His eyes close completely. “Pull over to a phone booth,” he says. “I’ll reschedule.”
Six lanes of traffic have our rental corralled. “Open your eyes, Dad. We’re in the middle of two thousand cabs.”
“I said pull over,” he says. I put the rental in park and floor the accelerator until the engine squeals. My father opens his eyes. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Listen, Dad. I can’t handle this. We didn’t plan the day, there’s a riot going on, we can’t agree about how to park, and if we don’t head for Long Island now, we might not reach Fifty-fourth Street until midnight. And Meg is waiting for me.”
In fact, Meg is probably still angry that I slept in the Best Western last night.
“So we’re just going to call it a day,” I say. “We’re just going to get out of Manhattan before we kill each other.”
“Who’s killing each other?”
I snap on the blinker to make a U-turn toward the Midtown Tunnel.
“We’re going back to the Best Western?” I hear.
“You’re going back,” I say, and I damn myself for failing to edit the ill will from my words. “I’m going to my place to see Meg.”
Gridlock tightens as my father and I sit. It’s worse than what we endured with the Haitian cabby, and we speak even less, and, I am sure, understand each other less than ever. At 5:45, while I’m hoping left turns from Broadway onto Thirty-fourth are legal, my father flips on the radio, switches it to AM, and taps the SEEK button to find a stock-market report. The broadcaster’s voice is calm, rational, comforting; for a second, as this strange yet somehow familiar voice pulls us toward the tunnel, I understand my father’s obsession with such reports.
By the time we reach the Best Western parking lot, nightfall is far behind us, and I’ve abandoned the hunched posture with which I left Manhattan. Groping to remove his shoulder harness, my father asks, “Would you like to come in and use the free workout facilities? Conrad said they have some nice workout facilities here.”
“No thanks,” I say as my father gets out of the car. “I really have to get back. I’ll pick you up in the morning at seven.”
“To take you to the airport?”
“Oh. Of course.”
Then, battling what feels like impatience, I make myself get out of the car. This end of Long Island feels far colder than Seventeenth Street did. I walk toward my father, and we embrace. “Good night, Dad,” I say — at the same moment he says, “Goodbye, Son.” He’s not hugging me as hard as I’m hugging him, and as I wait for his usual squeeze, he lets go. Then he faces the motel lobby and walks toward it without looking back.
I listen to his AM station all the way back to Queens. Inside my apartment, which always seems like a rat hole after my rare trips to Manhattan, Meg sits at our kitchen table, sketching a half-empty wine bottle.
“Dear,” I say, “could you tell me a little about your wine?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind. You had to be there.”
Meg’s pencil stops moving, then makes two false starts. “I’m pissed at you,” she says. “But it looks like we might have something to celebrate. Which do you want to deal with first?”
A letter sits at the center of the table. I recognize my agent’s gray stationery. I hold it with both hands for the count of three heartbeats, then open it, believing that this, like the precise word at the end of a punch line, is it. I pull out the letter, unfold it, and see a long paragraph, a paragraph of the length that any comedian — even the most jaded of us — would take to mean a serious gig. I skim the opening lines, then slow down to read:
Well, I’ve tried for two years now and we don’t seem to be moving ahead. Given your ability to persevere, I have no doubt you’ll prevail; for now, though, you seem to need a fresh start. I’m sorry.
“Well?” Meg says.
“Are we . . . ready to break open the champagne?”
“What do you think?”
“We . . .” she arches her eyebrows, “aren’t?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I say, and I fling the letter toward the refrigerator, watching it land in the sink.
“I’m sorry,” Meg says.
“That’s what everyone says,” I tell her. “I’ve heard that line so many times it’s beginning to mean nothing. It’s about as stupid a line as ‘I love you.’ ”
Meg drops her pencil. She rises, points at my face, and whispers, “You’re an asshole.” Then she strides across the kitchen and picks up her coat.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Good question,” she says, and she leaves the apartment.
I consider yelling, “I’m sorry” — but how stupid would that sound? And following Meg, I know from experience, would only propel her. I kick the refrigerator door, then open it. I study the bag of loose grapes I bought Meg two months ago because they were on sale. She doesn’t even like grapes, I remember. She’s right: I’m an asshole.
I walk over to the kitchen window, open it, and lean out. Three doors down and across Queens Boulevard, a man and a woman are standing beside an idling cab. Another low-rent argument, I think — until I recognize the woman as Meg and the man, sporting a charming black fedora, as my father.
His hands gesture, Meg’s laughter rings out, and — as if reality has miraculously shattered — I feel charged by the best kind of luck possible. After all, my dad’s traveled to see me. And I am like him. And his questions are making Meg laugh.