It pulled him in both directions. Like taffy. Like bad earbuds. It was the story of his life.
If he used the backdoor, he could get a little walk. A little exercise around the building. And stop at the bathroom for a pee.
If he used the front, he could get in there and out quicker — then use the bathroom somewhere else (with the check in his pocket).
“Which way?” he asked.
“It’s right here,” she said, walking to the front door.
When he was twenty-two, just out of college, he had talked about going to Tunisia. He knew where Tunisia was but didn’t know anything else about it. Why did he want to go there? For the adventure. So he could say he had been. He now realized why he wanted to make that trip. He didn’t know anybody who had ever been. He would have taken buses and probably seen a lot of sand and gone days without using language. It was his big chance to tell people about a place he had been where they had not been, a place where he had been a very independent man, that nobody could match. Of course he didn’t go — and it’s a good thing, too. Now, he would not be able to tell anybody anyway. It would have sounded silly, with so many back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He stepped down the hall and knocked on the door, even though it was open.
The guy looked up as if he were wearing a mask, except for the eyes. They were still.
“Beard,” he said.
“Winter,” said the guy.
“I finished. You want it?”
“I don’t know,” said the guy. “Do I?”
He shook his head and pulled the DVD out of his pocket, holding it as if it were a candle.
The guy with the beard took three steps, and then one more, and took the DVD. He pulled out his checkbook.
“Two thousand dollars,” he said.
“Make it three,” she said.
“We had an agreement.”
“You didn’t tell me about the daughter,” he said.
The guy stopped writing and clacked his teeth against his pen.
“Is she on there?”
He wrote the check and handed it to her, and they left, out the hall and into the parking lot.
They held hands. He hummed a tune. She let go of one hand and took a twirl.
Last night, at midnight, Sarah asked me to tell a story about the day she was born. We were in the kitchen — along with Matt and Aaron.
So I told her the story:
Alicia’s contractions began on the morning of September 26, 1982. We were good Lamaze students, so we knew not to rush to the hospital, but to call the doctor and wait until they were x number of minutes apart. I can’t remember exactly how many minutes.
We went to T&F Barbecue for breakfast. I remember seeing Charles and Norma Goldman there. Two tables of Jews in a barbecue restaurant on the eve of Yom Kippur.
As we waited for our eggs and toast, I remember her taking a few cleansing breaths and saying something like “That was a strong one.”
And I replied, “They’re five minutes apart.”
And I remember somebody in the next booth giving us quite a look. Sort of a “why-the-hell-aren’t-you-rushing-to-the-hospital” look.
That was before children. We were pretty calm back then. In fact, at that point in my life, I did yoga every single day. Then, after we had children, my practice was extremely sporadic for twenty-five years and I was a nervous wreck. Now that they’re all basically grown, the daily yoga habit is back again.
Alicia was all packed. I had packed a bag lunch. So we had breakfast, and later that afternoon went to the hospital.
When Dr. Parada entered the room, he remarked on the unfairness of me eating an apple while Alicia was laboring. He told me he had just had a nice lunch with his whole family. I smelled wine. Then he told me this joke:
“A southerner was a freshman at Harvard and asked somebody ‘Where’s the library at?'”
“Son, this is Harvard. The sooner you learn not to end a sentence with a preposition, the better off you’ll be.”
“Excuse me. Where’s the library at, Asshole?”
Then he delivered Sarah.
When she was born, Dr. Parada told us she was a girl.
I guess I was sort of hoping for a boy — the family name and all that — and he saw this on my face.
“These are the best kind,” he said.
This happened at 7pm. A mile away, at our Temple, Kol Nidre had just begun.
Kol Nidre is a moving, melodic prayer that introduces the observance of Yom Kippur, the Jewish religion’s most sacred day.
All of my children have some connection to holidays. Two years later, on Bastille Day, Aaron would be born. Ten years later, on Rosh Hashanna, Emma would be born.
But Sarah certainly wins the day when it comes to holiday births. Yom Kippur, during Kol Nidre, is a particularly special moment.
The next day, my first day of fatherhood, I didn’t go to services, but I did fast. The next evening, I went to temple for the very end of Yom Kippur, in order to accept all the kind congratulations and eat some great food at the break fast. Ben Shapiro gave me a little glass of Schnapps to break the fast and toast the birth of Sarah.
And thus is the story — a brief recounting — of that special day.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is when I first read The Catcher in the Rye and how it influenced my lousy adolescence, and how all of us phonies read it and all that kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
He wrote so little, and his stories were read by so many (over and over again).
I say it was his style. Catcher is the American idiom, like Huck Finn. And the stories have that versatile, ingenious subtext that allow for some interesting mind games. The perfect choice of words and never one out of place. And his characters. The relationships. The incredible dialogue. Whatever — volumes have been written by worldly scholars.
In college, in freshman English, Dr. Lee Potter, our professor, had a conference with each student in the class. He assigned each of us a book of stories. The choices were Salinger, Hemingway, Philip Roth, and Flannery O’Connor. Whoever we got, we were married to for the entire semester. Every paper would be about that one book of stories.
I remember him saying that he wished he could tear off the covers of the books so we didn’t know the titles, who wrote them, when they wrote them, or anything about them — so that our response to the stories could be pure.
This was my first month of college, and I remember sitting in that little office, scared to death of this professor (who was an exceptionally nice man). I said I thought I should have Hemingway. Dr. Potter told me he thought I was the Salinger type.
He told me that Salinger and Roth were both Jewish, but with Roth, it was obvious in every sentence. With Salinger, you’d never know.
I did my best. I remember sitting in the stacks for hours, searching the old issues of Story and Colliers magazines, finding Salinger’s early, pre-New Yorker, short-short stories, and devouring them. And I tried my best to unlock the hidden, deeper meanings of those Nine Stories he assigned.
In the end, I missed the mark, by miles, with every paper I wrote — and Dr. Potter set me straight every time, spilling gallons of blood on my papers.
Every grade was the same: B-/C+.
It was like high school French class. For three years — 12 quarters — I got a B every time. No matter how well I did, or how bad I did, I never got an A or a C.
The problem is, you can’t get a B-/C+ as a final grade. As I recall, Wake Forest did not have plusses and minuses on final grades. It was either a B or a C. I can still feel that anxiety — hoping that some brilliant insight in one of my papers would impress Dr. Potter enough to tip the ultimate mark towards B. It didn’t. The final grade was, and still is, a C.
One day, while home for a weekend in college, I was reading Esquire magazine in the bathroom when I came across a fascinating story. It was written by Anonymous, and it sounded exactly like J.D. Salinger.
Well! That was a discovery! I stormed into Dr. Potter’s office first thing Monday morning, Esquire in hand.
“It’s Salinger!” I said. “He’s published a story! Look at all these words in italics!”
He read the story and said he was proud of me. “That means something,” Dr. Potter told me.
Newspaper reports endorsed the cleverness of my discovery. The world was abuzz with speculation about Salinger.
A couple of months later it was reported that the story was written as a hoax, by one of the magazine’s editors.
I took three courses under Dr. Potter and never got a B, but I loved listening to him talk about literature. He had an accent. At first, I thought he was from England. (He was from Georgia).
And I loved watching him switch eyeglasses throughout his lectures. He had at least three pair — identical frames in slightly different colors. He’d read a passage, look up, and take off his beige framed glasses. He’d talk for a minute, then grab the brown ones and begin reading again. It’s been over 30 years, and I still remember the time he held all three pair in his hands, looked down, blindly, trying to decide which ones to wear, and said “Good God!”
Towards the end of that first semester of college, back when the drinking age was 18, he invited us all to his house for “a cup of Christmas cheer.”
Salinger is the literary giant, but Lee Potter, with his passion for story, was the one who made an impression on me.
It will be interesting what happens now. Will Salinger’s estate be as secret as his life? If not, what’s he been doing for the past 50 years? Any new stories in the closet? Are they under the bed? In the safe, soon to be released? Will his lawyers and heirs be loyal, or will they squalidly sell the rights to The Catcher in the Rye to James Cameron.
Shunning fame made Salinger famously famous. If he had not been a recluse, it’s likely he would have lost the mystique and adoration. He would have written a really bad book or two, and could possibly have gone down as a writer who wrote a couple of hits and lost his touch.
So if you really want to know the goddamn truth about it, I hope he’s able to keep his privacy, his zen, for chrissake, and his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.