Authors: Howard Fast
Copyright Â© 1979 by Howard Fast. Copyright renewed. Reprinted by arrangement with the Howard Fast Literary Trust.
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and used fictitiously. Apart from well-known historical figures, any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Originally published in 1979 by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Establishment / Howard Fast.
1. Italian American
families--Fiction. 2. San Francisco (Calif.)--Fiction. 3.
Anti-communist movements--United States--Fiction. I. Title.
Welcome to this best of all possible worlds
Cohen, a large, heavyset man of forty-three, was gradually losing his patience, and that would be a prelude to losing his temper and taking it out on everyone around him, and that had been happening too often. Small things, unimportant things, irritated him and provoked him. He had been through too many large things in his life, things that had failed to provoke him, not to realize that something unpleasant and corrosive was happening to him. He had fallen into a pattern of swallowing anger, frustration, and annoyance, remaining fairly unconscious of what was building up inside him. Now he exploded at the meek little woman who faced him.
“God damn it, Mrs. Melcher, I am trying to explain to you why this happens! You ride the damn clutch! A clutch is not something God made, like a horse's rump. It's a mechanism for connecting and disconnecting the engine and the transmission. There's a spring-loaded pressure plate, which is surfaced on both sides with friction material. Your foot is always on the damn pedal, and it shouldn't be. You have to learn how to drive. It happened before, and it will happen again.”
She turned white and whispered, “You have no right to talk to me like that. You have no right to.”
He stared down at her. “Oh, Jesus,” he said to himself. Gomez, one of his mechanics, was watching him. He dropped his voice and apologized.
“You have no right to talk to me like that,” Mrs. Melcher complained, on the point of tears, as if there were no other words she could imagine.
“I'm sorry. We'll fix the car. You'll have it tomorrow.”
He turned and stalked through the garage to the men's room at the rear, locked the door behind him, slammed down the toilet cover, and sat there with his chin propped on his clenched, grimy fists. On the door facing him, surrounded by expressions of witless smut, someone had scrawled: “There was an old hermit called Dave, who kept a dead girl in his cave. He said, âI'll admit I'm a bit of a shit, but think of the money I save.'” He stared at the words at first without comprehension. They hadn't been there the day before. Then, suddenly, everything bottled up inside him exploded. He kicked the door open and roared out at his four mechanics, “I want this goddamn toilet painted! Today! And the next one of you mothers who writes on the walls gets booted out of here on his ass!”
With the mechanics staring at him in amazement, he strode across the garage and into the little glass-walled office. A knot of pain swelled in his stomach as he dropped down behind his desk. He breathed deeply and stared at the inkstained blotter and wondered whether he was developing an ulcer. That would be the final ignominy. An ulcer or a heart attack. He was a big, heavily muscled man, and the last time he had undergone a physical examination, the doctor had warned him that he was the physical type that suffered the greatest incidence of early coronary.
Gomez opened the door of the office gingerly. “Hey, Bernie,” he said softly, “something bad happen?”
He stared at Gomez without replying. Gomez, a small, skinny competent Chicano, was the foreman of the shop.
“You really want the crapper painted, Bernie? We're loaded with work.”
“You let them crazy dames get under your skin. Two guys here, they want to see you.”
“Take care of it.”
“They want to see you.”
“I don't know.” Gomez spread his arms. “Bernie, Jesus, what is with you? You got good men working here. We give you a day's work, and you chew our asses off. I stand here arguing with you. These guys, they don't want a car job. They want to talk to Mr. Cohen. Talk to them, huh? Let me get back to work.”
Cohen nodded. Gomez left the office, and a few moments later, the door opened, and two men entered Cohen's office. One was a slight, sandy-haired man in his mid-thirties. He had bright blue eyes, a pale mustache, and a scar that ran from his temple to his chin. The other man was younger, twenty-three or twenty-four at the most, Cohen decided, plump, with a round, pink-cheeked, baby face. They came into the office and stood facing Cohen, and the pink-cheeked man said, “That's him?”
“That's him,” said the sandy-haired man.
Cohen stood up slowly, staring at the sandy-haired man, who grinned at him complacently.
“He is one big sonofabitch,” the pink-cheeked man said.
Cohen came around the desk, stared for a moment more, and then threw his arms around the sandy-haired man, sweeping him up in an enormous bear hug. The pink-cheeked man watched and nodded.
“You're killing me with affection, you dumb slob,” the sandy-haired man managed to say.
Cohen let go of him.
“This is Herbie Goodman,” the sandy-haired man said. “Herbie, I want you to meet Bernie Cohen.”
They shook hands. “You're a legend,” Herbie said. “You are absolutely a legend.”
“How in hell did you find me?” Cohen asked.
“We got our ways. You'd be surprised what ways we got.”
Barbara Lavette's child was born six months after she married Bernie Cohen and became Barbara Lavette Cohen, or, as the gossip column hastened to point out, Barbara Seldon Lavette Cohen. The reference was pointed, since the Seldon family had been part of the tight, high-walled circle that constituted San Francisco society for almost a hundred years, which now, in 1948, spanned the whole age of San Francisco. Scandal, and the juicy gossip that flows from it, had begun when Barbara's father, Dan Lavette, the son of Italian immigrants, had wooed and won the daughter of the banker Thomas Seldon. Jean Seldon, the banker's daughter and Barbara's mother, had subsequently divorced Dan Lavette, married the very wealthy John Whittier, divorced him, and now lived openly and out of wedlock with her first husband, a condition that provided some of the best dinner table and cocktail party conversation that San Francisco had known in a long while. The marriage of Jean and Dan's daughter, Barbara Lavette, to one Bernie Cohen, a more or less indigent soldier of fortune, a man without family or past or futureâand a Jew, to bootâheightened the gossip to a point of delightful titillation. When, six months after this marriage, a son was born to Barbara at Mount Zion Hospital, with no attempt at concealment, the resulting structure of gossip and scandal reached a new level of interest.
To all this, Barbara was indifferent. When she considered the stages of her life, it was always with the sense of being a late finisher. Her childhood had been long and lonely; her adolescence had continued beyond the suggested boundaries; and her age of innocence had extended into her college years. She felt that she had never caught up with a proper calendar of life. In 1946, at the age of thirty-two, she had her first and only child. Dr. Kellman, who saw her through her pregnancy, was not worried about her age; he said that thirty-two was by no means too late to begin childbearing. Barbara was a tall, strong, and healthy woman, and Kellman assured her that the birth would present no difficulties.
She rejected the use of anesthesia. Until the last month, her pregnancy had been relatively easy, and she said to her husband, “I may or may not have another childâ”
“Or two more or three more,” he put in.
“Another, I said. Never mind about two or three more. The point is that I want to experience this, and experience it fully. I want to know what happens and how it happens.”
“So you can write about it? That's crazy.”
“I write about what I have seen and experienced, and it's not so crazy at all.”
Bernie was with her when her labor began, and he wanted to remain with her in the hospital. After the first two hours, when her moans at each contraction became screeches of agony, Dr. Kellman persuaded Bernie to leave the room. Twelve hours later, her strength gone, her agony tearing her mind apart, they decided that her pelvic opening was too small and that the child could not come through the birth canal. A Caesarean section was performed, and a nine-pound boy came into the world.
Now, fifteen months later, Barbara was sitting in the nursery of her home on Green Street, instructing her son in the proper pronunciation of
. His name was Samuel Thomas Cohen. The “Samuel” was for Sam Goldberg, who had been Barbara's lawyer, who had been much beloved of her, and who had once owned the Victorian house in which she now lived. Thomas was her Grandfather Seldon's name. Young Samuel was a large, chubby, healthy child, with brown hair, blue eyes, and five fingers on each hand and five toes on each footâall Barbara had asked for.
This evening, feeding Samuel his dinner and introducing a modest dose of linguistics, Barbara was listening for the sound of the door downstairs that would tell her Bernie was backâproviding he had decided to come home for dinner and not work until ten or eleven or midnight. Another part of her mind was engaged in planning a way to get through the evening without rancor, acknowledging at the same time that similar plans had failed dismally on other nights.
Again and again during the past months, she had told herself that her marriage was going down the drain; again and again, she had denied it. She had waited until her thirty-second year before she married, and then, as most of those who knew her put it, she had married the most unlikely person on earth.
I have waited
, she said to herself.
I have not plunged into a marriage. I have watched the marriages of almost everyone I know go down the drain. I know the weaknesses of this man, and I also know his virtues. I have no more illusions about marriage. I have seen enough love nests turn into snake pits to realize that at best a marriage is close to impossible. But we are both mature people, and we have each of us been through our own particular hells. We will work it out
When she said much the same thing to her mother, it sounded flat and unconvincing, and her mother had regarded her thoughtfully and without too much enthusiasm. Jean Whittier, at fifty-eight, was still a very handsome woman. Together, they were no longer taken for sisters, and Jean made no attempt to fight wrinkles and graying hair; but they had the same height and the same good carriage. Jean had seen two marriages wash out, both of them her own.
“You may work it out and you may not,” Jean had observed.
“I want to, desperately,” Barbara had said.
“He needs the same desperation. Why should he have it? You're a very successful writer. You have a national reputation. Just because you put your money into a charitable foundation doesn't change things too much. You head the foundation. You have money of your own. That puts one damned awful burden on him, doesn't it?”
“I think we've talked that out.”
“The question is whether you've worked it out.”
Barbara's son said something that sounded vaguely like “dump truck.” Barbara finished feeding him and presented him with the dump truck; then she heard the door downstairs. It was only six o'clock. Bernie shouted, “Hey, Bobby, I'm back!” There was a note in his voice that she had not heard in a long time, eagerness, enthusiasm, and excitement.
The day before, it had been almost midnight when Bernie came home. There was never a thought in Barbara's mind of another woman, an extramarital affair. You didn't come home from a tryst in working clothes, hands ingrained with dirt, and a body slumped with weariness. They had their assortment of problems, but another woman was not one of them.
Barbara had been in her room, writing. Hearing the sound of her typewriter, he opened the door and stood there. She had leaped to her feet and turned to embrace him, but he pulled back. “I'm filthy,” he'd said.
“I'll draw you a bath.”
“I'm too damned tired to take a bath.”
“Bernie, you can't go to bed like that.”
“Why not? I'm a lousy grease monkey. What in hell difference does it make?”
“Come on. You're not a grease monkey. You run one of the best garages in town and you're making a good thing of it.”
“I wish you wouldn't wait up for me. I work late, and we get into these stupid arguments, and I'm just too damn tired to argue about anything.”
That had been the night before. There had been other nights precisely like that. Barbara would always feel a chill creep through her, she would fight for control, she would tell herself that all people hurt but all people are approachable.
“I wasn't waiting up for you, Bernie,” she had answered gently. “I can't get much work done during the day. I mean, not that I wouldn't want to wait up for you, but it's a good time to work. Sammy is demandingâ”
So many other nights, no different; suddenly tonight his voice from downstairs, booming with eagerness and warmth. Barbara put her son and his dump truck into the playpen and ran down. Bernie caught her up in a bear hug. Then he apologized. “Filthy as usual. I'll have a bath. Where's the kid?”
“In his playpen. I just fed him.”
“Good. I'll let him know who's boss, and then I'll take a bath. I won't be fifteen minutes. What's for supper?”
“Chicken, potatoes, peas, saladâ”
Bewildered, delighted, yet apprehensive, she watched him bound up the stairs. This was not the man she had lived with for the past six, seven, eight months, not the morose, depressed, angry man who felt he was cornered in a trap of his own making. She followed him up the stairs. His time with the child had been brief, for he was already in the tub. By the time she had put Sam into his crib, Bernie was in clean clothes and waiting for her.
At the table, Barbara said gently, “It's been a good day for you, Bernie, hasn't it?”
“I'm glad.” She waited for him to tell her what had happened.
“I haven't been much fun lately, have I?”
“Not much. No. I think I understand.”
“Do you, Bobby?” He stopped eating and stared at her. “I used to say to myself that I love you as much as anyone can love a woman. That's not true. I love you as much as I can love anyone. I've loved you since the day we met in Paris. I've been pretty damn faithful to that love.”