Madagascar, p.1

Madagascar, page 1



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  Table of Contents

  Half-Title Page

  Also by the Author

  Title Page

  Copyright Information


  The Theory of Everything

  Lives of the Fathers

  Summer of Love

  Absolute Zero

  To Leningrad in Winter

  The Horse Burier

  Navajo Cafe

  Seeing Miles




  Society of Friends

  Mort a Las Vegas

  Bless Everybody



  About the Author


  New & Selected Stories

  Also by Steven Schwartz

  To Leningrad in Winter

  Lives of the Fathers


  A Good Doctor’s Son

  Little Raw Souls

  Engine Books


  Engine Books

  PO Box 44167

  Indianapolis, IN 46244

  Copyright © 2016 by Steven Schwartz.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

  Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright. Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are

  either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.

  Also available in paperback from Engine Books.

  ISBN: 978-1-938126-44-4

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2016934982


  The Theory of Everything 7

  Lives of the Fathers 25

  Summer of Love 43

  Absolute Zero 71

  To Leningrad in Winter 89

  The Horse Burier 103

  Navajo Café 115

  Seeing Miles 127

  Goodness 139

  Q12081011 149

  Stranger 159

  Society of Friends 173

  Mort à Las Vegas 181

  Bless Everybody 195

  Madagascar 213

  The Theory of Everything

  My son is fearful. Not scared. Scared is all right. I was scared during the war, but fearful is something else. He can’t get out of bed some days. He stays in his condo with the blinds closed. After his wife Cheryl left him, I went over there one morning and found him walking around in a daze without his pants on, just a T-shirt. The kids were there. This is why he can’t take care of them.

  Even when Cheryl was around we’d come over and the house would be a mess, dirty dishes, not even in the sink but still on the table, clothes on the stairs, the kids—Abby two, Jeremy six then—plopped in front of the TV. And always fighting, the parents, not the kids. Over money. Rex asking where it went what he gave her, and she telling him he’s a lazy son of a bitch and got no right to accuse her. He’s not lazy, he’s got this disease, so I want to take up for him, but you should see how she lights into me. “Mind your own business!” she shouts at me. “I’m trying to do the best job I can and all I get is criticism.” Then she turns to Rex. “I married you, not your whole fucking family!”

  All this happens in front of the kids. “Please,” I say, “the children.”

  “Fuck this,” Cheryl says and goes into the bedroom and slams the door.

  Rex stands there with his shoulders slumped, his belly bigger each time I see him. He’s always struggled with his weight. Comfort food he takes to a whole new level. He’s got a handsome face, his mother’s green eyes, thick curly black hair, but he can’t take care of himself, and always that shameful look. “I’ll talk to her, Dad,” he says. “She gets upset when she thinks everybody’s blaming her. It’s not her fault.”

  I look around the house. At this time, they’re living in one of my rental places that I let them stay in for half the going rate. Is it too much to ask that they don’t keep it like a pigsty? I go over to where Jeremy’s watching cartoons. “How you doing, buddy boy?” I ask.

  “Fine,” he says, and keeps staring at the TV.

  “You want to maybe go to the batting cages after school today?” They got a slow pitch one that he likes.

  “Okay,” he says.

  In the high chair, Abby pokes at her Cheerios with her finger. I can smell her dirty diaper from here. “Maybe you should get some help,” I say.

  “We’re fine, Dad. We’re just under a lot of stress right now. Cheryl wants to go back to school and get her nursing degree, and she’s frustrated trying to do everything.” This woman wants to be a nurse? “We don’t need to see anyone.”

  “See anyone? I’m talking about a maid. Somebody to sweep up, make a nice place for the kids—”

  “Shhh,” Rex says, “she’ll hear you.”

  “She should hear me,” I say. Something smashes, like glass breaking, in the bedroom. I look at Jeremy, who doesn’t budge. You’d think the little boy was deaf.

  “You better go,” Rex tells me. “I’m in a difficult position here. She doesn’t need to get any more upset.”

  “Fine,” I say, and that’s the last time I see the woman. This is more than four years ago. She walks out the door with the money that I leave for the kids’ new clothes for school. Up her arm. Jeremy, he’ll remember her. Abby won’t know a thing. Better off she’s got no memories.

  Since then, Louise and I take care of the kids full time.

  I stop over at one of my houses. It’s near the beach on Dakota Avenue right beside San Lorenzo Park, a very nice neighborhood, a two-bedroom home that three girls share who go to the university here in Santa Cruz. I don’t allow more than three in a place. These girls, I know their families. The parents gave me their home numbers and said if I should have any trouble call them right away. But so far so good. Now I understand a window is broken—somebody threw a rock through it. They want it repaired; I said I’d come over and take a look. “Did you call the police?” I asked them. They said they didn’t realize it was broken until this morning, and so here I am.

  Two of the girls are at home, one with blonde hair and wearing flip flops and a flashy green jogging suit, the other with the low-cut jeans and the belly exposed like they all do now and golden tan. I’m not a man immune to the charms of young women. Believe me, I still look. The cleavage, this bare midriff business, but I keep my eyes on the girls’ faces when they tell me they woke up this morning and the window was broken. It’s a big window that looks out on the front yard. It will cost me a pretty penny to fix it.

  “So you didn’t hear anything?” I ask.

  “No way,” says Shannon—she’s the one with the shiny green jogging suit. “We came out and we’re like what happened? ”

  “You were sleeping,” I say.

  “Yeah,” Angela, the other one, says. “We had the fan on.”

  “So maybe we should call the police,” I tell them.

  I see them glance at each other. “I’m sure it’s okay,” Shannon says. “It was probably, you know, a one-time thing.”

  “You think so,” I say.

  “Oh, yeah,” Angela says. She’s got a big smile that could light up a tunnel. They’re nice girls, but I know they’re lying to me.

  “You could be in danger,” I tell them. “What if this person comes back and makes more trouble? We should let your parents know about this.”

  Shannon fingers her necklace. Why she’s wearin
g a fancy pearl necklace with a jogging suit and flip flops I don’t know. But I got some idea. I bet if I search in the garage I’ll find a recycling bucket full of beer bottles. “I have to ask,” I say, “where’s the rock?”

  Angela looks at Shannon, who says quickly, “We put it back.”

  “And you cleaned up the glass?”

  They nod their heads. I look at the window. Most of the glass is on the outside of the window. I checked before I came in. “So did anyone have to go to the hospital?”

  They both look at me.

  “I’ll tell you what,” I say. “I’ll make you a deal. You pay half, I pay half. I won’t ask for details. You had a party maybe. It got a little wild. Maybe there was a fight. Somebody got pushed against the window or just backed up too hard. I don’t know. You’re lucky no one got seriously hurt. You promise me you won’t have a party again, and I don’t call your parents. Plus I help you out with the cost. You’ve been here almost a year, with no problem. We got a deal?”

  Angela, the one with the bare stomach, crosses her arms over her belly, as if to hide herself, shame on both their faces. They nod, and I tell them I’ll have the glass company here by the afternoon. It’s too big to glaze myself. They tell me they’re sorry, they were afraid if they told me the truth, I’d evict them. I’m the nicest man they’ve ever known, they say. Young people say such things to old people. I’m eighty-two, I should know. They think we’re like children who surprise them with how smart we are sometimes. Then they fall all over themselves heaping praise on us just for having a brain that still works.

  After school gets out, I take the kids to their swim lessons. We go to the municipal pool at the Simpkins Center. They’ve got four pools, including a big warm water pool they keep at eighty-six degrees. Abby, she took to the water right away. She raced through the different levels—seahorse, barnacle, guppy, goldfish…now she’s up to a sea otter. This would be a good thing, except her brother who is four years older and eleven is at the same level. He should be at least a sea lion. All his friends, they’re already barracudas. So I said, enough with the fishies, let’s just learn to swim, and we got a private instructor who teaches both of them. Dana. She’s a college student, full of “awesomes” and high fives.

  I sit on the bench and watch where Jeremy can’t see me. He stands on the edge of the pool, and Dana tries to teach him how to dive. He’s got to do a standing dive to pass his test and be allowed to swim in the deep water here with friends. She shows him how to bend at the waist and point toward the water.

  “Hey, Jer,” Dana coaxes, “just aim and fall in.”

  “I can’t,” he tells her.

  “Sure you can!”

  “I can’t.”

  “You can’t or you won’t?”

  “Is there a difference?” he asks.

  “Of course there is, sweetie,” says Dana. At which Abby, sitting nearby on the edge of the pool, stands up and offers to show them. “Let’s just concentrate on your brother,” Dana tells her. “Maybe you want to go down the slide a few times.”

  “Can I?” Abby says.

  “Absolutely.” She goes off, happy as can be. When she’s around older females it’s like she’s auditioning to be their daughters. It breaks my heart.

  Dana says, “Should I give you a little push?”


  So he stands there, looking down at the water like a man on a cliff.

  Amazingly, he does it. Okay, it’s not the best dive, more a roll into the water, but still it counts. Dana high-fives him. Jeremy doesn’t crack a smile, but on the way home he tells me he’s glad that’s over with. He won’t have to do it again. “Of course you’ll do it again. You did terrific!” I tell him.

  “I looked ridiculous,” he says, staring out his window. Abby is in back playing with a purpled-sequined wrist purse Louise bought her the other day.

  “You did not,” I say. “You tried, that’s what counts. And you went in.”

  “I half did it.”

  “You’ll do the other half next time.” We stop at a light on Ocean Street. I look back at Abby. She’s dangling the little purple purse on her arm and inspecting it in the light from the window.

  “There’s Daddy,” she says. She rolls down the window. “Daddy!”

  I see him now. Rex is coming out of the bank. I pull into a handicap space and wait for him to walk over.

  “Hey everybody!” he says. He’s got a suit and tie on, his wavy black hair nicely cut and combed, and a royal blue dress shirt with gold cufflinks. I haven’t seen him wear a suit in years. When he dresses up like this he’s an attractive guy. You’d stop and think here’s a man who’s somebody’s handsome husband.

  He works putting up drywall, a job he’s had almost three years, a record. I don’t know what he’s doing here in the afternoon.

  “Daddy!” Abby says and reaches through the window for him. She’s a small child, and he pulls her out, grabbing her under the arms and spinning her around. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was just getting off work and thrilled to see his kids at the end of a long day.

  Abby hugs his neck, and he boosts her onto his back, then he taps at Jeremy for him to roll down his window. “What’s happening, pal?” he says and bumps knuckles with Jeremy, who lets his wet hair be ruffled. “Looks like you’ve all been hitting the surf.”

  “Tell your father what you did,” I say.

  “What’d I do?” Jeremy says.

  “The dive.”

  He shrugs.

  “He dove into the pool.”

  “You did?” says Rex. He acts puzzled. And why shouldn’t he? He’s got no idea that his son practically has a phobia. “That’s great. From the high dive?”

  Jeremy stares at him like he’s crazy. “From the side. And I wouldn’t even call it a dive. I interacted with the pool,” he says. This is the way he speaks. Half the time I don’t get what he means.

  Abby, still on Rex’s back, stretches her neck around to him and shouts in his face, “I’m a sea otter!”

  “Wow,” Rex says.

  “Daddy, I want to go with you,” says Abby. “Take me to your house.”

  “Hey, pumpkin, can’t do it today. But soon. You want to come over and cook spaghetti with me again?”

  “Yeah! Now!”

  “Soon, I promise.”

  He puts Abby down beside the car and opens the door for her. She gets in reluctantly. By now, she knows there’s no use begging.

  “Dad,” Rex says to me. “There’s something I want to talk with you about.” All smiles. “It’s exciting. Really exciting.”

  I look at the bank. I look at Rex in his suit. I know it’s got something to do with money. “I have to get the kids home,” I say.

  “We’ll talk tomorrow then, all right? I’ll call you.” He puts his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “I’m going to be at your soccer game Saturday. Okay, tiger?”

  “Don’t bother,” Jeremy says. “I hardly do anything except stand there and let them kick the ball by me. I might as well be an obelisk.”

  “Great, then,” says Rex. “Wow, I can’t believe I ran into you guys. You’re all so—” He steps back and pumps his fist in the air. “Unreal!”

  Two days later I get a call from Rex, who says he needs to meet me for lunch. I tell him I’ve got a busy day. I have to pick up the tile for a bathroom I’m redoing in one of my places. “What’s it about?”

  “I’d rather tell you in person, Dad.”

  “I’m in person,” I say. “As in person as I got time for today.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  At least once every time we talk he says he’s sorry. It doesn’t do any good. He doesn’t change, and what am I going to do? He can’t take care of himself, simple as that. You have to be in the situation to understand. I sat with him during his worst spells, I got him into the bathroom after he soiled himself, I made him take his medication, I stayed all night in a chair and watched him that he doesn’t slash his wris
ts again. And how’s he going to take care of the children when he’s like this? When you got a child’s welfare on the line you don’t make ultimatums, because you’re making them to somebody who doesn’t react like a sensible person. From the outside it looks like we’re hurting more than helping—we make it possible for him not to take responsibility. I’ve heard it all before. Coddling, spoiling, “enabling,” whatever term you want to use. But throw the children in there and all the tough love goes out the window, in my opinion.

  When I think of dying, this is the worst part. I don’t know what I believe. If an angel shows up and says, “Mr. Halper, please step this way for your heavenly reward,” fine, I’ll be the first on the bus. If there’s nothing afterward, I know from nothing. Either way, I don’t place bets. But if you ask me what I’m ready to do now, I’ll tell you. I’ll make a deal with anyone, good or evil. It doesn’t matter what happens to me afterward. Just let me live until the kids don’t need me anymore.

  “Dad, just listen. Can you hear me out?”

  “I can do that,” I say, and for the next ten minutes he tells me about this coffeehouse he wants to buy in Watsonville. The owner is selling. Rex says it’s on a side street but business is booming. In Watsonville, the market isn’t saturated like it is in Santa Cruz. And farmland there is being converted into residential property every day—upscale homes—and retirees are moving in, too. He’s got all the figures on the business. It hasn’t turned a profit yet but he knows he can make it happen if he takes over. The bank’s willing to give him a start-up loan. Only one catch. I got to be a co-signer. The collateral? My three rental houses.

  That’s my income, beside my pension from the aerospace company.

  But I know better than to say anything on the phone. “You get all the figures together and we’ll talk.”

  “So you’re interested?”

  “I’ll hear you out. That’s all I can promise.”

  “Dad, thanks, thanks. We can drive out there tomorrow and see the place. When do you want to go?”

  “Since when do you have all this time on your hands?” There’s a big pause. My question has already been answered. “You’re not working, are you?”

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