by Robert Radin
My father’s remains were in an urn in a wall in a remote memorial park in the Imperial Valley. I had spent most of my life wanting to get him out of there, but my mother was his next of kin and refused to give her consent. When she died I decided to put my plan into action.
My idea was to bring the two of them together again by scattering their ashes off Point Dume. That way whenever I returned to Los Angeles for a visit I could walk out on the bluff and think of them. If I went at sunset it would make the experience even more profound.
In retrospect I couldn’t have been that serious about it, as I knew full well that it would cost me $1,000 to remove the urn and that it would take a couple of days for the park to get a permit from the county, and I hadn’t made arrangements for any of this. On the day after my mother’s memorial service I simply got in my rental car and started driving south on the Golden State Freeway.
My father’s niche was located in a section of the park called the Mausoleum of the Bells. It was high off the ground—too high to see his nameplate—so I had brought a pair of binoculars with me. As I was looking for the Star of David next to his name I noticed that the niche next to his was now occupied, and its marble was bright, and its nameplate new, inscribed in loving memory of someone all too familiar to me: the Countess Antoinette Riva di Ninni.
The last time I saw her she was the one looking up at my father’s niche. I addressed her as Countess because it was the only name I’d ever known her by.
I didn’t think you would remember me, she said.
Not only did I remember her, I still remembered her first words to me on that fateful Saturday night in 1969, when she walked through our front door in a white tunic and white hip huggers and a sheer green blouse with ruffles down the front: I am a direct descendant of Marco Polo.
You’re not easy to forget, I said.
She seemed pleased by this. When she smiled I could see the vault of her cheekbones and was once again awed by her classical bearing.
If I saw you walking down a crowded street I would know it was you, she said. You look exactly the same. Just less hair.
I’m afraid that left me some time ago, I said.
It was so beautiful, she said. Strawberry blonde. And so shiny.
That was the V05, I said.
Still, she said.
And then we were quiet, and I wondered whether there was anything left for us to say, until she inhaled deeply, holding her breath for a moment, and that’s when I had a premonition, a felt sense.
I had an affair with your father, she said. But I think you know that.
But I’m not a countess and I’m not from Italy. Robert Hall made all that up.
Once there would have been no need to explain what Robert Hall was: If you hadn’t bought a suit there, you certainly knew someone who had. But those days are long gone.
The company began as an experiment. Founders Louis Ellenberg and Harold Rosner wanted to see how far off the beaten track people would travel to save money, so in 1940 they opened a clothing store in an abandoned loft in Waterbury, a factory town in central Connecticut. Customers had to climb three flights of stairs, but business was so brisk that Ellenberg and Rosner decided to expand, moving into lofts in Bridgeport and New York City. When they couldn’t keep up with demand they switched to new construction, building their first store and every store thereafter near—but never in—the heart of a commercial district so they could save on rent.
Each store followed the same blueprint: one-story, 15,000 square feet, brick, or, later, cinder-block exterior, no display windows, plenty of parking. There was a single coat of dark green paint on the interior walls and no tables or shelves on the sales floor—just rows and rows of gas-pipe racks with over 20,000 suits, coats, and dresses. Every item had a 20 percent mark-up, compared with 40 percent or more at the average full-service store. Men’s suits and topcoats sold for $19.95 to $38.95, women’s dresses from $2.95 to $10.95. All alterations were free and you could bring back anything at any time, no questions asked. This was revolutionary.
Every penny the company saved in operating costs went into advertising. When they opened eight stores in Chicago in 1948 they ran 120 fifteen-minute radio shows and 150 one-minute radio ads for the first two months. The jingle was annoying, but like all good jingles it stuck in your head:
Their growth was exponential: By 1960 they had 500 stores across the United States. And that’s when everything started to unravel.
In the fall of 1960 my parents were living in an apartment in Providence. My father had recently been promoted to district manager and was in charge of eight stores in eastern Massachusetts, five in Rhode Island, and five in Connecticut. On Thursday, September 29, he went to the store in Saugus, just north of Boston, to check cash and receipts for the week and to shmooze with customers and staff. This had always been his favorite part of the job.
At 8:40 p.m. two men—Theodore Mavor of Peabody and Norman Porter of Woburn—walked into the store dressed in trench coats and porkpie hats, bandanas masking their faces. Mavor was carrying a blue steel revolver. Porter had a sawed-off shotgun and a pistol with a pearl handle.
Mavor had worked at a Robert Hall for a few weeks the previous spring, so he knew the layout of the store. He told Porter to round up the staff and customers and move them into the break room while he cleaned out the registers. Porter raised his shotgun over his head and shouted the instructions. Then he pulled a women’s raincoat off one of the racks and tied off the sleeves and the bottom, fashioning it into a sack. Once everyone was inside the break room he told them to remove their valuables.
One of the store’s employees, a 22-year-old man named John Pigott, was standing behind Porter. When Pigott reached into his pocket to pull out some cash Porter wheeled around, pressed the muzzle of his shotgun to Pigott’s neck, and fired. Then he turned back to the others.
Now you know I mean business, he said.
Some of the customers screamed. Porter told them he wouldn’t hurt them as long as they kept their mouths shut.
I have no idea what my father said or did. Most of the details I have about this night come from the police rap sheet. But I’m sure my father was shaking, because he had no stomach for violence of any kind. My mother was a harsh disciplinarian and when he witnessed her punishing me or my brother or my sister—or, even worse, when she asked him to mete out the punishment—he got so upset he couldn’t get his belt off.
When the coat came to him he put in some cash, along with his cufflinks and his watch. Then Mavor appeared and he and Porter got into an argument, because Mavor had been unable to get into the safe and Porter wanted him to keep trying. It seemed like the two men might come to blows, until one of them mentioned Devreau—their getaway driver—and they ran out of the store. By the time the police arrived John Pigott was dead.
I didn’t know about Saugus when my father was alive. My mother didn’t tell me about it until I graduated from high school. I guess she thought I had come of age and was ready to know the truth.
She said the ensuing six months were the worst of my father’s life. He had bad dreams at night and burst into tears during the day. Just as he seemed to be coming out of it Porter escaped from prison and was on the lam for a week.
It was hard for me to imagine my father crying. I thought maybe my mother was making it up, because she had always wanted him to be more emotional. But I wondered whether Saugus had started him drinking.
In the fall of 1991 I moved to Massachusetts to go to graduate school. The following spring my mother called to tell me she had heard from my father’s old friend and colleague, Bernie Sivin. She said Bernie sounded sad and now that I was living on the East Coast I should give him a call.
When I was growing up I referred to all of my father’s friends as uncle, but Bernie had always been my favorite. He was more sophisticated than my other uncles and he seemed genuinely interested in me. And I never saw him drunk. Still, I was a little nervous about getting in touch with him. Did he really want to hear from me, or was this another one of my mother’s stunts? She had always been antisocial—even misanthropic—living vicariously by orchestrating get-togethers between me and the various family members she was estranged from: her mother, her sister, my siblings. After these meetings she wanted me to report back to her, and I did, editing out the uncharitable things they had said about her, hoping these sanitized accounts would encourage her to get in touch with them. It never worked.
My fears were allayed when Bernie and I finally spoke.
How you doing, kid? he said.
I’m all right, old man, I said.
We caught up for a while, then he invited me to come see him on Long Island. I drove down on a Saturday afternoon, feeling more and more anxious the closer I got, because as much as I told myself it was no big deal I knew it was.
When I got to Bernie’s house he asked me if I was hungry and promptly took me to a neighborhood delicatessen, introducing me to the waitress as his nephew. We ate corned beef sandwiches and drank bottles of cream soda, then we went back to his house and sat in his living room and listened to At Basin Street. Bernie had been a trumpet player in one of the many jazz bands at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and that’s how he met my father. He was doing a gig in the mess hall one night when my father got up and started dancing a sloppy rumba with an imaginary partner.
We had to lay off because we were laughing so hard, Bernie said.
As the day turned to dusk I asked him about Saugus.
Pigott was a good guy, he said. Your father felt responsible.
Do you think that’s what started his drinking?
He was drinking like a fish when I met him.
I didn’t say anything, but I must have conveyed my disappointment at having my theory shot down, because Bernie offered an alternative explanation.
His mother did a number on him, he said. He could never live up to Bert.
The Germans had captured my real uncle—my father’s older brother, Bert—in the Battle of the Bulge, sending him to Stalag 9B and then, I assume, to Berga. Bert was already my grandmother’s favorite, but his imprisonment made him larger than life. My father joined the Navy straight out of high school in an effort to prove himself, to honor his big brother’s sacrifice, but he never saw action. Instead they sent him to Mare Island, where he worked his way up to storekeeper second-class.
As I mulled over Bernie’s explanation he pulled up his left trouser cuff, revealing a prosthetic leg below the knee.
Diabetes, he said. Every time I drank with your father I felt like I was going to die.
The fourth quarter of 1960 marked the first time the company failed to show a profit. None of the correspondence from the period survives, but I imagine an internal memo would have looked something like this:
Robert Hall Clothes, Inc.
A Subsidiary of United Merchants & Manufacturers
To: Jerry Targoff, Lou Polsky, Henry Benach, Joe Berlin
From: Harold Rosner
Date: January 20, 1961
Sales were down 15% for the quarter, as anticipated. The shortfall is likely due to the events in Saugus. I’ve had preliminary discussions with Frank and he’ll be formulating a strategy over the coming month. I will keep you apprised.
Please inform management of these developments and please advise discretion. In an effort to minimize negative publicity I am asking that all press inquiries be directed to this office.
Robert Hall Clothes, Inc.
Jerry Targoff, Lou Polsky, Henry Benach, and Joe Berlin were vice presidents in charge of men’s manufacturing, men’s merchandising, ladies’ ready-to-wear, and ladies’ suits and coats, respectively. Joe Berlin would later play a pivotal role in our lives, pulling some serious strings to get my mother’s sister—who had twice attempted suicide—into Hillside Hospital, then the leading psychiatric facility in the country.
EK was Ellen Klein, Rosner’s secretary. Frank was Frank Sawdon, formerly the company’s vice president in charge of advertising and sales and now the head of a Park Avenue ad agency that bore his name. And Rosner was Rosner, the great paternal presence—or absence—that filled our home. My parents talked about him constantly—my mother always exasperated and my father deferential—but even as a child I had the sense that my father was letting my mother do his bidding, letting her air feelings he shared but didn’t have the temerity to express. What I took away from it all was that Rosner was the one providing for us, that our livelihood was in his hands and that we served at his pleasure.
I only met him once and don’t remember much. We had accompanied my father on one of his frequent trips to New York, spending a couple of days visiting family in Brooklyn while my father attended meetings at the corporate headquarters on 34th Street. For me it was all just a prelude to the Harlem Globetrotters: Rosner had gotten us tickets to see them at Madison Square Garden and I was bursting at the seams; I loved Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal and refused to believe the games were rigged. But that night I got sick and couldn’t go. As I lay in bed exaggerating my symptoms to guilt-trip my father and brother and sister into forgoing the game there came a knock on the door. A tall, bald, and somewhat stooped man entered, and my father greeted him graciously, and poured him a drink, and then the man approached me, and extended his hand, and I knew he was Rosner.
As Rosner met with Sawdon over the course of that February, 1961, he became nervous about the approach his former colleague was taking. Sawdon’s idea was embarrassingly simple: Evoke the past. The company had shelved its signature jingle in favor of more laid-back compositions with easy-listening arrangements, in keeping with the pop stylings of the day. These new tunes weren’t really jingles; they were overly orchestrated and lacked melodic hooks. Sawdon thought they should rerecord the original jingle but give it a more contemporary feel, and he knew just who he wanted to do it: Les Paul and Mary Ford.
Between 1950 and 1954 Les Paul and Mary Ford had 16 Top 10 hits, including How High the Moon, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise, and Vaya Con Dios. But when rock and roll broke they became passé overnight. In 1958 they switched labels, moving from Capitol to Columbia in an effort to revive their fortunes, but to no avail.
Paul was usually credited for the duo’s success, and not without justification: He was a brilliant arranger, accompanist, and innovator. He invented multi-tracking and close-miking, recording techniques that have defined pop music ever since. But it was Mary Ford who sold it. She had perfect pitch and needed no augmentation, but when Paul multi-tracked her voice he amplified its haunting, ethereal quality, giving even their most up-tempo songs a certain melancholy. The Robert Hall commercials are no exception, Paul pulling out all his pyrotechnics, pushing the jingle to its limit, Ford holding the whole thing together through the sheer intimacy and omnipresence of her voice.
The strategy seemed to work: In the second quarter of 1961 sales bounced back. Maybe customers’ memories were short, or maybe Saugus was never the reason for the slump to begin with, but Rosner et al. attributed the turnaround to Les Paul and Mary Ford. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last: Over the course of 1963 the couple grew estranged, divorcing the following year. Had they stayed together Robert Hall would have kept using them forever.
My father grew up in Bensonhurst. When he went to Mare Island in 1944 it was the first time he’d been outside the five boroughs.
After the war—before he was discharged, before he returned to New York—he and Bernie rented a car and drove south on the PCH. He was awed by Big Sur, but it wasn’t until the coastline flattened out in Santa Barbara that he began to see the California he’d been dreaming about his whole life, the California of beaches and bathing suits and leisure. When they got to San Diego—then as now a Navy town—he felt like he was home.
As the fourth quarter of 1960 receded, seeming more and more like an anomaly, Robert Hall began expanding again, focusing their efforts on the Southwest. They now had so many stores in southern California that they needed a district manager for L.A. alone. My father put in for a transfer.
Rosner resisted at first. He liked my father and wanted to keep him close. But he could see that Saugus had taken a toll. My father was a good drunk—he never made a scene unless it was designed to make people laugh—but at the most recent company picnic he’d done away with his usual clowning and gone straight to sleep, lying face down on a blanket in Sheep Meadow in Central Park.
My parents moved to L.A. in December 1961, renting an apartment in Sherman Oaks. I was born the following year, then my brother, then my sister, and all along the company kept expanding, either ignoring or failing to see the warning signs.
The first one came in the spring of 1964, when the saleswomen at the Robert Hall in Wilmington, Delaware, complained to their union rep about the pay gap between male and female employees. Robert Hall failed to respond, so in the fall of 1966 Secretary of Labor James Hodgson filed a lawsuit on the women’s behalf.
During the ensuing trial Robert Hall argued that salesmen deserved to be paid more because they generated more revenue. Admittedly the menswear cost more—but this was justified too. “We buy our women’s apparel on the open market, and sometimes it’s of questionable value,” said senior VP Henry Silbert. “But our men’s suits are made in our own factories, from domestic fabrics, giving us complete control over the product.”
The judge ruled in Robert Hall’s favor, but now the company had a bigger problem: They had to rehabilitate the reputation of the women’s line they had just trashed. And so they invented the Countess. She was the brainchild of Frank Sawdon, and he believed she would show women that the company was committed to quality and style—and that they were enlightened enough to put a woman in charge of big things.
When she walked through our door that night in 1969 and told me she was a direct descendant of Marco Polo I had no idea she was following a script the company had asked her to stick to as they rolled out the clothing line that bore her name. Her white tunic was embellished with white beads. She told me I could touch them.
They’re from a divan that’s been in my family for over 400 years, she said.
John Horn was there that night. He was the only one of my father’s friends who I didn’t call uncle. I liked him, but I never saw him sober. Ever. He came over and rested his giant hand on my shoulder.
I see you’ve met the Countess, he said.
These beads come from a divan that’s been in my family for centuries, she said.
Mr. Horn gulped down the rest of the whiskey in his tumbler.
Tell me more, he said.
I am rich, she said. I don’t have to work; I do it because it makes me more interesting. I’m quite sure I would get bored if I stayed home all day. I grew up in Venice in a castle with over 200 rooms and to this day I haven’t seen most of them. I much prefer my modern apartment in Milan. I live there with my husband and three children. So you can see that in many respects I’m an ordinary woman. I drive the children to school in the morning and pick them up for lunch. My husband comes home and we have a big dinner, then he goes back to work and the nanny comes for the children and I go to my studio to work on my designs.
Well, it’s good to see you again, Mr. Horn said.
One more thing, the Countess said. My family has a lot of land, but we could still use the extra money. I want to leave my children something more in the way of resources. I’m sure you understand.
As Mr. Horn walked away I asked the Countess what a divan was. She paused.
I think it’s like a couch, she said.
I found myself pushed to the perimeter as more people came over to greet her, but I could hear her repeating her story, varying the details slightly. She would do this several times over the course of the night, until she made her way out to the patio, where my father was. He was sitting on a lawn chair, a plastic statue of a naked boy on his lap. My mother had told me it was a replica of a famous statue in Brussels. The boy was holding his penis as if to urinate.
As I watched my father and the Countess through the sliding glass door nothing struck me as unusual. She laughed, but women always laughed when they were around my father. He flirted wherever we went—the supermarket, the car wash, the dry cleaner. When he did it in front of my mother she would look away and swallow several times, and I could see the muscles tensing in her neck, and later, when we were alone, I would tell her I didn’t like it when he did this, that I thought it was disrespectful, and she would tell me I was being too sensitive.
When my father saw me standing at the window he motioned for me to come outside.
I was just telling the Countess what a great artist you are, he said.
Maybe you can come to Milan and work for me, she said. I need someone to help me paint designs on my dresses.
I’m not very good at painting, I said. I like drawing better.
The Countess asked my father to refresh her drink. He stood and held the naked boy up to her and pressed down on the boy’s head. The boy pissed whiskey into her glass.
Then you draw and I’ll do the painting, she said. I’ll even let you bring your old man to keep us company.
How sweet it is, my father said.
I liked to draw full-body profiles of naked women with big boobs. I had a feeling this wasn’t what the Countess was looking for.
Okay, I said.
My mother came out to the patio and told me to say goodnight.
Barbie Doll, my father said, because my mother’s name was Barbara.
It’s such a pleasure to meet you, the Countess said, and she shook my mother’s hand, and I was struck, even then, by her solicitousness, by her desire—though I wouldn’t think of it in these terms until years later, when I saw her at the memorial park—for absolution.
Aren’t you supposed to say ciao? my father said.
Half our backyard was covered in ivy; over the years we had lost most of our toys in it. When the Santa Anas came the leaves would turn dark green and ripple in broad silver sheets, but right now they were still yellow, almost transparent in the setting sun.
The Countess bent down and kissed me on the cheek. I could smell the whiskey on her breath, and her perfume, and the mildew in her tunic, and I didn’t want to go to bed, because I knew I was going to miss something, though I couldn’t say what it was.
The Countess’ clothing line was discontinued after one year due to poor sales, but she remained a presence in our lives. Whenever we went to New York she would show up at our hotel room with a gift for my mother—a crystal candy dish or a ceramic ashtray—still well-dressed, still glamorous, if not quite as glamorous as she had been that first night.
By 1970 a phenomenon that had been developing for some time came suddenly into view: The color of the company’s customers had changed. Robert Hall had made its name by catering to the needs of urban-dwelling, working-class white families, and as these families relocated to the suburbs the company started selling to the black families who took their place. Black consumers now accounted for almost half of Robert Hall’s sales, and yet the company hadn’t hired black workers in proportionate numbers and hadn’t promoted the black employees it did have. Operation Breadbasket—a division of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference devoted to improving economic conditions in black communities—took note of this, and then took action.
The SCLC launched Breadbasket in 1962. In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. promoted Jesse Jackson, then a young seminary student, to be Breadbasket’s national director after Jackson had led several successful campaigns in Chicago. It was a controversial move, as Jackson had rubbed a lot of the SCLC leadership the wrong way. In explaining his decision, King reportedly told his colleagues “You may not like him, but you can’t stop him.”
Breadbasket sent Robert Hall a letter requesting information about employment categories and the number of blacks employed, then followed up with a second letter asking the company to change its hiring practices. Harold Rosner met with the organization immediately, knowing that if he didn’t there would be repercussions.
The talks went well at first but broke off abruptly, with Rosner refusing to return to the table. There are no reports of what happened, as the negotiations were closed to the public, so in this, as with so many other things, I have only my mother’s version of events, recounted years after my father died. She said my father would come home during this period grousing about Jackson, accusing him of extortion.
The fact is my father was a racist, albeit a complicated one. He made a distinction a lot of racists make, between groups and individuals, between the abstract and the concrete. So he would say the shvartzers are lazy, or they’re stealing from the stores, but then when he encountered actual black people in the actual world he kibitzed with them the same way he kibitzed with whites. Here’s an example: On July 4, 1974 we ran out of hamburger buns. My father went to the supermarket to buy some and came back with the Parkers, a family of six he met while standing in the checkout line. There were three girls—Hope, Joy, and Love—and a boy named Roger. They were all around our age. I wasn’t surprised he had brought these strangers home; it was just the kind of thing he did and the fact that they were black seemed like a matter of chance. In any event, we spent the day with them. My father and Mr. Parker got drunk while we lit punks under the picnic table, and when it got dark the two men tacked a pinwheel to our eucalyptus tree, though they didn’t do a very good job of it, so it wobbled as it spun, burning the bark of the tree then flying off into the ivy and starting a fire which Mr. Parker put out with our garden hose. To redeem themselves they then set off a Roman Candle without incident. When my father died a year later the Parkers came to his funeral.
I’m guessing Rosner was the same kind of racist as my father. I’m guessing he didn’t like black men forcing his hand, so on June 20, 1970, Breadbasket initiated a boycott. Rosner returned to the table on September 19, signing a covenant in which he agreed to hire 200 blacks in all categories in the company’s New York City stores and to make eight to ten million in annual deposits to black banks in the Greater New York area. It was another important victory for Breadbasket, but it hastened a decision Rosner had been contemplating for some time: On June 30, 1971, he retired and Joe Berlin took over as president and chief operating officer, determined to move Robert Hall into the suburbs.
Berlin knew the company was too specialized to anchor a mall and couldn’t compete with the stores that did—Sears and J.C. Penney—so that fall he met with Frank Sawdon to devise a strategy. They called what they came up with Robert Hall Village.
The first Robert Hall Village stores opened in 1973. They were large discount department stores located near existing malls—malls now replacing urban commercial districts in the company’s retail formula. Robert Hall ran the shoe and clothing departments and leased the remaining space to outside companies.
It was an immediate failure. Robert Hall’s warehouse style never translated to the suburbs—its gas-pipe racks were an outdated merchandising technique that evoked World War II and scarcity and rationing, and nobody wanted to think about that, even as, or maybe precisely because, the country was entering a recession. The white shoppers who’d left the black city had no intention of going back to Robert Hall, and neither did their children, the boomers whose purchasing power was growing by the day and who, despite their professed anti-materialism, wanted overhead and were willing to pay for it.
At the same time that the company was launching Robert Hall Village it began the reverse process of renting space for its merchandise in existing discount department stores. They partnered with Interstate, the holding company for Toys “R” Us and several discount chains, one of which was White Front, a Southern California chain known for the large white concert shell that spanned the front of each of its stores. The name was offensive but its origins were innocent enough, dating back to the company’s practice of putting its appliances—which in the old days came only in white—out on the sidewalk in front of the store.
I used to go to the White Front in San Bernardino with my father. There was a strip club off the freeway exit that had a sign that said Live Nude Girls and I remember wondering if I could go there someday to find a girlfriend. My father must have noticed me looking at the club because he told me he would take me there when I was old enough. I felt uncomfortable, though I don’t remember if it was from the thought of going to a strip club with him or the fact that he had read my mind.
The parking lot in front of the store was the size of a football field. We always parked in the back—my father believing the best spaces should be reserved for customers—and on hot days the journey from his car to the White Front shell seemed interminable. Once we were inside he would go to the Robert Hall department while I went to look at records, hoping to find a Beatles album I didn’t have. I knew they had broken up, but I think I was too young or too stubborn to understand the implications of this, that there would never be a new album again. It didn’t matter because White Front didn’t have anything by the Beatles anyway, just bins and bins of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis and Engelbert Humperdinck.
When I had exhausted my record search I would go to the aquarium department. There were rows and rows of ten-gallon tanks covering one wall, stacked ten feet high, with suckers and snails in each tank, but I still couldn’t see inside most of the tanks for all the algae.
I had a five-gallon tank on my nightstand at home. I’d filled it with goldfish and some plastic plants and a little ceramic castle. I chose goldfish because I felt like they were the stepchildren of the fish world, even though I had some pretty exotic ones with bubble eyes and fantails.
One morning I noticed an angelfish in one of the White Front tanks was rubbing itself against the glass. It had white spots around its gills. I told the salesman.
It has ich, I said.
I’ll move it to a different tank, he said.
If this fish has it they all could have it.
They look fine to me.
But it takes a while before you see it.
Don’t worry about it, he said, and he walked away.
I went to get my father.
One of the fish has ich, I said.
I don’t know what that means, he said.
It’s a parasite, I said. It feeds on their skin, boring down into their flesh. The fish develops a cyst to wall off the infection, but this just gives the parasite a little protected capsule to operate in. It keeps feeding and feeding, getting bigger and bigger, and when it reaches maturity it bursts out of the cyst and sinks to the bottom of the tank and starts replicating itself. It divides into hundreds of new ich parasites which then swim around looking for new fish to attach to and the cycle starts all over again. It can wipe out a tank in days.
I’ve heard enough, my father said.
The salesman said he would move it to a different tank, I said. But that’s not going to do anything.
I don’t know what you want me to do, my father said.
I was thinking you could tell the manager.
It’s not my department.
But all these fish are going to die.
Then it’s probably too late.
My father looked at me. His eyes were bloodshot. His eyes were always bloodshot. When kids came up to me at school and told me he was a drunk I knew they were wrong, because that’s just how his eyes were.
Fine, he said.
He walked to the back of the store and entered a door marked for employees only. I stood there in the main aisle for a moment, feeling exposed, not wanting the salesman to see me. I walked over to a Kodak film display and studied the little yellow boxes, pretending I understood the difference between film speeds.
When my father returned a few minutes later he had that expression he got when my mother told him to discipline us. I asked him what happened.
Let’s go, he said.
I didn’t mean to get the salesman in trouble, I said.
We’re not talking about this.
Are they going to quarantine the whole tank?
My father shook his head.
It’s no wonder we can’t sell anything in this goddamn store, he said.
I still haven’t removed my father’s remains from the memorial park. Sometimes I tell myself it’s because the Countess is next to him, and it was her final wish, and I don’t want to take that away from her. And then I imagine my parents’ ashes off Point Dume, settling on the bottom, only to be stirred up in a fit of turbidity, dashed upon the tidal pools, or pulled into the abyss by a rip current, and I can’t bear the thought of it, and I think I should leave them alone in their urns, separate but intact.
The nameplate on the Countess’ niche says Marilyn Shapiro. This was her real name. She grew up in Bensonhurst and attended New Utrecht High School with my father. They met in the stenography club, dated, then stayed in touch. In 1949 she got married and had a daughter. In 1968 she got divorced. She told me all this the day I met her at the memorial park.
He used to call me Mickey, she said.
It was all too much information, but now I felt uncomfortable. She sensed this.
I hope your mother’s well, she said.
She’s doing all right, I said.
She looked up at my father’s niche.
I can’t see his name, she said.
I never knew why my mother hadn’t purchased a niche closer to the ground. I must have asked her about it, but I have no recollection of the conversation. I’m sure she told me there was too much going on, and that she didn’t know what to do, because everything had to happen fast in accordance with Jewish law, even though cremation itself violated Jewish law.
My father was in Texas most of the last year of his life, closing old stores and opening Robert Hall Villages, so I don’t know when the sore on his elbow first developed, but it wasn’t healing. When he came home once a month I noticed how tired he was, but I thought it was because the company was overworking him. Sometimes he couldn’t get out of bed.
I was in front of the house shooting baskets on a Saturday morning when he came outside carrying an attaché case with a change of clothes. He said he was checking into the hospital for a couple of days so his doctor could run some routine tests. He gave me a kiss and got in his car—the brown Impala Robert Hall had given him—and drove away.
He died the next day. When his doctor told him he had leukemia and gave him a year at best he had a massive heart attack.
I remember the Countess standing at the altar in the funeral hall, giving my father’s eulogy because my mother suffered from a crippling shyness and couldn’t speak. I remember the torn black collar of the Countess’ black dress, and how shocked I was because I didn’t know about the custom of rending garments and she had always been so put together. I remember her stepping down from the altar, then turning and throwing herself onto my father’s coffin, and crying, and screaming his name, and I was confused, because even though I had never been to a funeral before I could tell this wasn’t customary, that her behavior had ruptured the ritual, turned it into something private, something personal, and if this is what people did at funerals then my mother should have been the one to do it. And I was confused because I wanted to feel what the Countess was feeling, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t, and wondered whether I ever would, whether I’d ever be able to grieve my father. But most of all I was confused because I didn’t know what the Countess was throwing herself on, whether it was my father or an empty coffin, a placeholder for him, because I thought he had already been cremated, because I thought he wasn’t there, and if he was there that would mean he had been embalmed, and the thought of this terrified me so much that years later, when I learned that both cremation and embalming were prohibited in Judaism, I felt relieved, until I realized that if my mother had violated the one prohibition she just as easily could have violated the other, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask her, because I was afraid of her answer, and now that she’s gone I will never know where he was, or what the Countess was hugging for dear life.
Men in black suits flew in from all parts of the country to attend my father’s funeral, and after the service they came back to our house—everyone except the Countess—and drank scotch on the rocks and ate small cubes of cheese with toothpicks that looked like pirates’ swords and told me how much they had loved working for my father. The only person missing was Harold Rosner. No one told him my father had died because he was sick and they were afraid it would make him sicker. He passed away a few months later.
Robert Hall went out of business on June 29, 1977. That August its parent company, United Merchants and Manufacturers, liquidated all its inventory in an auction at Madison Square Garden. The auctioneer did his best to run up the price for each one-store lot, but the most anyone paid was 35 cents on the dollar.