Manny by the Sea
The son had a stomach like a washboard, black, jutting brows and onyx eyes. He had skin the color of butterscotch in the winter and dark buckskin in the warm months. The father was paunchy, baldly rust-haired and pale as cheese. On the right upper quadrant of his mouth one of Jacob Kopens' teeth was stunted. In the language of dentistry it was a pegged lateral, a dwarf tooth. He considered it a deformity and was glad Manny would never have to deal with such a tooth. Manny's smile was a string of perfect pearls--as jewel-white as his eyes were jewel-black.
The mirror at the head of the treadmill was merciless. It taunted Jacob Kopens about his imperfections, all of them, from the moment he pushed the button and the track started to moan and grind under his leaden, laboring sneakers. The panel of digital numbers stared up at him, red as the corners of his own overworked eyes, revealing more than he cared to know. Thirty minutes ago he had stood at another red digital display, filling the tank of his car. Those numbers had moved so fast they were like energy itself, the mach speed of fuel surging into the system feeding the engine, making it new again. The treadmill numbers relating to his own body were the utter opposite, slow and stubborn as fat. At this rate, the numbers said, he could chug till doomsday and all his sweaty agony would melt not a millimeter of his sagging, swelling middle. He called his paunch his jockey--as though the paunch was a separate person who rode him day and night.
During the next hour, the three of them--Jacob, his tennis-honed wife Rachel and Manny--dressed for dinner and the concert, negotiated the staircases and the caldera of cobblestones, belted themselves in the Jaguar and set out for Boston. The traffic was kind and they were right on schedule when they entered the country club section of South Brookline. They swung into the most imposing Tudor on the street and Jacob escorted Rachel's mother, Susan Applegard, into the back seat. To Jacob, her perfume smelled like Paris forty years ago--as if he had been able to afford Paris forty years ago. Susan pecked Manny's cheek and teased him in that wry, spry way of hers, the way of the spunky widow whose life danced on a gleaming floor of municipal bonds. She thanked Manny for removing his corn rows, on this occasion, just for her. Why a boy who lived where he lived--on his own piece of ocean--would wear corn rows was a mystery to her. But then again, she said, mystery was what she loved. Without it, what a tomb the world would be.
This was an evening Rachel and Jacob had devised solely for Susan, a concert at Jordan Hall featuring Wallace and Nora Bennett, the pianist/composer and soprano. Manny had graciously agreed to come, as he always did when there was a Susan night. The Bennett repertoire was Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Brecht and Weill, Scott Joplin and Bobby Short, a tart buffet of aficionado pop and coy, insider cabaret tunes from before World War Two, which seemed antique even to Jacob Kopens. Songs for collectors, a kind of musical Depression Glass. What did it mean to Manny, with his corn rows and gangsta rap and basketball swagger? Why would someone who shot hoops as if he were in an MTV music video want to sit still with a thousand graybeards and endure the tinkling piano and the Gilbert and Sullivan voice of Nora Bennett trilling her precious "After the Ball is Over?"
The South End restaurant they chose--for proximity to Huntington Avenue and Jordan Hall--was one of the better Boston places. As always, before they reached their table Susan was intercepted and hugged by some notable, a State of Israel fundraiser thanking her too profusely. Stunning, just stunning . . . our Jewish Katherine Hepburn . . .
Although the linen was white and the flowers were fresh-cut, the restaurant was certainly no Taillevent or Arpege, the kinds of culinary temples where Susan and Rachel worshipped one or more times a year in their five decades of mother-daughter trips abroad. But at Bonnard's the lobster bisque still set you back sixteen dollars and it was a mere appetizer. Such prices wouldn't make Susan or Rachel bat an eye, but they still made Jacob Kopens--the man whose mother wouldn't buy him a suit for his first job interview--blink hard and wonder if he were staring at a typographical error, even though he would never tell either his wife or mother-in-law what he was thinking.
The first spoonful of the bisque had an even more profound effect on Manny. He grimaced, touched his throat and set the spoon down. His eyes darted anxiously and he became stone silent. Jacob reached for his son's arm and exchanged nervous glances with Rachel. He put his own spoon down and stopped talking. Without the deeper voices of Manny and Jacob, the chatter of Susan and Rachel soared and became squeaky and shrill, incessant as an aviary.
Jacob made the requisite excuses. Rachel nodded gravely and Susan called in her spunky voice for a new Kir Royale. The pale, pudgy father and the dark, wiry son pushed past the Bonnard's maitre d', burst into the open air and joined the swarm coursing every whichway on the big avenue.
"How is it?"
Manny winced. "This is the worst. It's like I swallowed arsenic."
"Maybe that's their secret ingredient."
The whitecoats with their barium scopes had given no answers. Not at Children's; not at Mass General. One gastroenterological eminence even threw up his hands and confessed--in words that might have been spoken by Susan, "the abdomen, it's a mystery."
They found a convenience store and bought a box of Zantac. The lone clerk was an African man whose checkout station had signs warning of hidden cameras, holdup protection and no employee access to cash. From the old days, Jacob Kopens felt he was on familiar territory. He felt the urge to hide his wallet.
Back on Huntington Avenue, Jacob pointed to a stoop, one of the few not camped on by carnivals of people with boomboxes, but Manny said he'd prefer to walk. Walk and breathe and wait for the Zantac, even though Zantac did nothing. Not even by the handful, it did no more than M&Ms did, he said, and M&Ms tasted better.
Jacob touched Manny's arm and felt him recoil.
He asked, "what are you feeling now?"
"I'm feeling a snake, a rattler, wound up inside my guts and biting my throat. I think the rattler is my guts."
Jacob remembered the wall of x-rays. The ghostlike coils hadn't looked like a snake to him. He wanted to say something, but couldn't, because it would make everything worse. He wanted to say the snake was Manny's rage--his fury at him, Jacob, and at Rachel--for ripping him out of his world and pirating him away into theirs.
"You still want to walk?"
"If I stop walking I want to die."
So they walked--beyond Huntington Avenue with its concert halls, and up and down the streets of the South End. In the old days, when Jacob was Manny's age, he wouldn't have even set foot on some of these streets. He did once, but then he had protection--pimp protection. Back then the South End restaurants would simmer collard greens and chitlings. Today they served caviar on toast points, and the old whorehouses with the bay windows were listed as historic townhouses, and people like Jacob and Rachel lived in them with their art collections and Gaggenau stoves.
Out of nowhere, Jacob remembered the name of the pimp. Moby Dick, they called him. Name of a white whale. Yet this Moby Dick had been black--black as the grand piano Wallace Bennett would soon be playing; Jacob checked his watch; Rachel and Susan would have left the restaurant and gone on to Jordan Hall. Dinner was over. The meal had been Zantac for Manny, and nothing for him. As if Jacob were hungry at all, as if he could be hungry at all with his son like this, his son who had a coiled snake biting his insides, his son who was the only person who wore corn rows in Manchester by the Sea; and who never ever felt pain when he was four feet off the ground jamming the orange hoop.
"Rich stuff doesn't agree with you, right?"
"Rich stuff? We're rich stuff. You mean I don't agree with myself?"
"I mean the lobster bisque." Jacob watched his son pitch forward, bending like a half-open jackknife.
He touched Manny's back, but Manny shook off the hand.
"How is it now? Tell me."
"I told you it's the worst ever. I want to hurl but I can't even do that. All I can do is walk."
They reached the corner of Dartmouth Street, not unlike the corner where he had given himself over to Moby Dick. Handed him his ten and two, ten bucks for the girl, two for the room. He had been a virgin--a little younger than Manny was. It was the kind of story a father tells his son, at the right time and place, which was not now. Not now, not ever. It was a white boy's story, white as the bowl into which the Bonnard's waiter had ladled the bisque. Manny wasn't white and he wasn't black. He was as confusing as his name, Manuel, which Jacob and Rachel had chosen, feeling at the time it was perfect, so fair about everything. Manuel--was it the name of a Jewish boy who lived down a long driveway in New England? Was it the name of a Guatemalan boy from an impoverished orphanage, abandoned in the muck of a jungle road? It will be both, Jacob and Rachel had said, as they carried their new baby from the candlelit hovel to the waiting car.
Right by the car was the old Indian woman, face like buckskin weathered a hundred years. She stood in the dust, her back twisted and bent, hacking off the skin of oranges and offering them to passing foreigners, the Europeans and Americans. It was a torrid day. Jacob took an orange from her pawing hand and replaced it with coins. She crossed herself and murmured something that was gibberish to Jacob. A nonsense language, Spanish yet not Spanish at all. But somehow the sound and the tone said to Jacob that she and the baby were connected . . . and to this day he believed in his heart that the old woman on the street was Manny's blood grandmother.
As they straggled down Dartmouth Street, Jacob saw something pass across Manny's face. An easing, a retreat of whatever it was that was eating his son alive. Manny stood straight again; he walked with the swagger he always had when there was a basketball in his hand.
"Tell me about the snake." Jacob said. "Why a rattler?"
"I don't know if it's a rattler. Maybe it's a python. Do we have to talk about this now?"
They reached the huge, darkened Neiman Marcus store on the corner of Dartmouth and Huntington. Jacob had been there before, and so had Manny. It was one of their places, a Rachel and Susan place. It came with the silver Jaguar and the deeded strip of ocean. But decades before it was a Neiman's it was a crumbling red-brick hulk with bay windows and an occasional bare bulb in the hallways, not enough light to let you see more than a flicker of anything. Jacob remembered following Moby Dick up the creaky, dank stairs and through the murk. He remembered the curtains, and the voice of the woman, smooth and sweet as chocolate, as she undid his belt . . .
"Dad, we're way late for the concert. Will Grandma be pissed?"
Pissed? Jacob wasn't sure she had even noticed they were gone.
He hailed a cab. They reached their seats in Jordan Hall as the intermission ended, moments before Nora Bennett lifted her lily neck and Wallace Bennett struck the familiar chords, plunging the audience into rapt, reverent silence. Then Nora broke into her precious trill. After the ball is over, after the break of day . . .
When the printed program ended, the encore beggars rose and clapped wildly, keeping the Bennetts onstage so long Nora giddily pointed to her throat. Then Wallace pulled a pocket watch from his tuxedo and said something about the stage manager and exceeding the time allotted in the show's permit. "It's Boston, you know . . ."
Boston. Something about the way he said it--that tuxedoed voice--rattled Jacob like a falling chandelier. It told him what he wanted to do, had to do, and he was in a fervor about announcing it as the four of them left the car and sank into one of Susan's glorious rooms for the last sip of the evening.
Manny was no tea lover, but he accepted the filigreed cup from Susan, and a biscotti too, and another.
"Sure you can handle that?"
"Hey, let it go, Dad, okay? What's past is past."
But it wasn't past, and Jacob spent the next half hour looking for the right moment to say what he had to say. That he and Manny and Rachel would take the trip they should have taken years ago. Back to the dusty street and the heat, back to where they took the skin from oranges machete-style. The tea he was drinking could have been opium for all the things he was feeling and seeing--seeing everything as it was and had to be--even the old buckskin woman herself, burnished and eternal, somehow fixed in exactly the same spot as she was nearly two decades ago. At that moment he wanted Manny right there with him, deep inside his mind, seeing what he was seeing, hearing what he was hearing--voices that were a world apart from Nora Bennett's glassy warbling and Susan's chandelier chatter. He would show Manny this world because it belonged to him, because not to do so would be robbery . . .
Jacob raised his hands in front of Susan's chattering face. He made the movie-director's cut sign, and had to restrain himself from actually saying the word cut.
"I want to propose a trip," he said.
And Susan, Rachel--and Manny, too--stared at him, the way people in a shop stare when you've broken a teacup.
Rachel spoke first, her tone and look the picture of the wronged shopkeeper.
"Where have you been the last ten minutes? We've been planning a trip, Manny's first trip to Paris. He'll come when Mom and I go in the Spring. Right, Mom? Right, Manny?"
Manny sipped his tea and nibbled his biscotti. He seemed ecstatic. Susan poured him more tea and he gave her a wide, goofy smile. The look on his face told Jacob that he'd better not say another word.
Copyright © 1999-2006 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.