By Albert Katz
I get a call from Ellayne which is short and to the point: “You better come soon. Dad won’t be with us long.” I can’t get a flight so look into trains. With an 8-hour trip until I get to Montreal, I book Via 1, first class. I thought I’d spend the time working on a paper, but find myself looking out the window, mixing stories and memories, watching the autumn landscape, brown and bare.
The story of my birth differs from Ellayne’s. There he stays with the other men in the waiting room, segregated far from the mess of childbirth, waiting for the news. I have heard that when it was announced he had a son, he lost his head and started running down the hall, with some thinking he was going to jump out a window. In my teens I asked him about this story but he just said it was a foolish myth; that he just went looking for a phone so he could call family members.
Being sickly, I spend much of my earliest years in hospitals, though only one memory has survived. A fragment. I am looking out the window from the hospital ward, trying to see Mom and Dad going to the car after visiting me. I look hard but cannot find them. I see myself in that memory, from behind, as if someone else is watching me.
I have not one but two operations before I am three years of age, leaving a huge scar of cross-shaped stigmata on my belly. Later in life, the scars are a point of discussion whenever I convince some young lady to join me in bed.
I once found a cache of letters Dad had written to Mom during his time overseas in the Canadian army. Now, years later, all I remember are the many references to some fellow Canuck calling him a fucking Jew. And how they then got into a punching match. I wish I had those letters now but Mom or Dad must have thought them of no archival interest and thrown them out when moving apartments.
For basically conservative people, Mom and Dad were surprisingly spontaneous in some ways. Periodically, they would pack the three of us into our Chevy and take off for some unplanned destination in the Northern states. Once we made it all the way to Kinderhook, N.Y., where we found a motel and stayed a few days. I could hear them talking of whether we should push on to New York City, but in the end we didn’t, just had picnics and walks in the woods and one evening at a drive-in movie. I have other memories of these trips, of the car overheating and the five of us waiting by the side of the road until it is safe to continue. Three or four times we went through that routine.
There was a family rift that I didn’t understand as a child. I rarely saw my paternal grandparents and visited only when my grandfather wasn’t present. We never went for large family dinners on the High Holidays, though Mom made sure to cook both chicken and beef brisket for us. I was in my thirties, with my first child by then, when my father told me about his talk with his father and how he did not even have money for the bus, so he started walking the two or three miles home, until one of his brothers found him and drove him the rest of the way. What could ever have made my grandfather say those words? What genes have I inherited? Passed on?
On some nights, when they think the kids are asleep, I hear Mom’s desperation and Dad responding, “what do you want me to do, rob a bank?”
On one of our outings, we end up in Atlantic City, N.J., at a fancy hotel where my sister Linda and I spend the days in the ocean, doused in salt water. My zits disappear. One evening, Mom and Dad, Ellayne and boyfriend go out to a strip club and I am slipped some money to take Linda to a movie. We go see West Side Story. On returning to the hotel we find the elevator man crying. He asks us if we heard the news, that Marilyn Monroe has died. His crying confuses me because he didn’t even know her.
I was a smart-assed teenager. One summer day, a few friends and I play some game that involves throwing a tennis ball at our neighbor’s garage door. He asks us to stop, once from the window and once from the back porch. Finally, he descends the stairs; all my friends run away. Not me. I ignore his requests to stop until he runs out and give me a wallop, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough to bruise my pride. So I run home and start crying, “Mr. Roetgen hit me. Mr. Roetgen hit me.” Next thing I know, Dad grabs me by the arm, pulls me next door and pounds on the door until Roetgen opens it.
Sales is a perfect niche for Dad. He is a natural storyteller, always the life of the party. To me he is bigger than life. He likes people and people like him. He has a joke for every occasion, sometimes vulgar, sometimes racist. I bask in the light of his shadow but cringe at the same time.
One summer during my teen years, Dad pulls some strings and gets me a job with a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. When you meet the floor boss, he tells me, call him Mr. Miller, shake his hand firmly, not wimpy, and don’t overdo it because Mike Miller can break every bone in your hand if he thinks he is in a handshaking contest. I must have done it well, because all Miller says to me is that he hopes I grow up to be half the man my father is.
I get a phone call from Mom telling me that Dad is acting strange and says he has to see me. So they drive from Montreal to London, Ontario, and stay with my wife and me. He is acting strange, periodically shaking as if in a fever. When I ask him what’s up, he tells me he’s fine. I take him for a walk along the river, just the two of us, man to man. It is a glorious autumn day. The colors from the trees reflect in the Thames.
He has big news. He has fallen in love with a younger French woman from the Îles de la Madeleine. He feels like a man again. He is thinking of leaving Mom. He wants. He hopes. He fears. He wishes. He starts too many sentences with “I.” It hits me. He has driven down to get my blessing. He wants assurances that I will still love him. Damn him. Damn him. Damn him. I am not his father and he is not my son. I am not a bloody priest. I do not hear confession or bestow absolution. I snap at him over dinner when he starts shaking and tell him to stop it. Before driving back to Montreal Dad asks me not to tell Linda. He has spoken to Ellayne but not Linda. He doesn’t want her to know, she looks up to him. Makes me promise.
Mom phones later to tell me that my talk with Dad must have been good, because he seems to be better. Neither Ellayne nor I ever tell Linda about it and neither of us ever find out how it ended with the girl from the Îles de la Madeleine. Ellayne confesses to me that whenever she sees a younger person of the right age on the metro that looks like Dad, she wonders if we have a half-sibling somewhere out there. I barely talk to Dad for a few years after that walk along the Thames.
Even after Dad and I are again at peace with one another, I dread seeing them for that first visit to the house of my youth following my wife's leaving me for a mutual friend. Wounded, I expect Mom and Dad to attack my ex-wife, expect them to point out all her flaws. Though I would not want to, I know that after 16 years together I would feel obligated to defend her. But I underestimate them. They greet me cheerfully, just happy to see me. Dad hugs me, tells me he loves me and pours me a cup of tea.
Linda’s daughter is waiting at the train station and drives me directly to the hospital. I am told that he is weak and in and out of consciousness, that in his lucid Moments he asks for me. But when I get there Dad is not conscious. He is located in a small room off some urgent care area, barely large enough for two people. My sisters wait in the hallway when I go in. He has lost much weight since I last saw him. Lying there he looks both small and distinguished. Dad is unshaven and his beard is Freudian in style. I kiss his cheek, his forehead and think he smiles. I bend over and whisper ‘I am here Dad, I love you.” I think he smiles again.
I sit there looking at Dad. He seems so small. Ellayne and Linda stay in the hallway, giving me a few minutes alone with him. An ill-named Dr. Graves enters. Dad’s breathing gets ragged. Graves tells me it won’t be long now. Dad gasps one last long exhale and he is gone. I look at Ellayne standing in the doorway and shake my head. People start crying. Ellaye cries out “we’re orphans.” The youngest of us well past 50, and she calls us orphans.
Travelling again. On the way to the cemetery, I share a limo with Linda and her son. Dad is in a coffin, somewhere in the front. Linda’s other child is coming in another car with her boyfriend, as is Ellayne, her husband and children, and my children. Dad was a second father to Michael and he is crying softly, stopping once to tell me that he only wished they were putting Victor his birth father in the ground, and not grandpa.
Albert Katz has been a professor of Cognitive Psychology for over 40 years and is now on the cusp of retiring. In his undergraduate days, he had aspirations to be a poet, gave readings in coffeehouses and published some poems in long-defunct small literary journals. He found it increasingly harder to write poetry once he started graduate work, and through most of his academic career published extensively in scientific journals instead. As retirement started to loom, he found that his poetic voice began to reappear, after almost 50 years dormant. Over the last two years he has published (or had poems accepted for forthcoming publication) in Ariel Chart, Ascent, Pangolin Review, Poetry Quarterly, and Soft Cartel, among others. “Four Births” is his first short story to be published.