by Nick LaRocca
Mickey was fond of telling people, “I’m sixty-nine, so…” What followed was a justification: a man’s age can inspire a liberating perspective, that virtually all behavior is practical because the punishment, by pure mathematics, cannot be worse than the crime. The convict is not guaranteed to live out his sentence, and all he loses in social (or criminal) prosecution—his possessions, his dignity—will soon enough be lost to mortality or, much worse, fecal incontinence. Besides, because at Mickey’s age you’re able to grow with each healthy day closer to a public id, he considered his grandest sin, greed, to be insignificant. It certainly shouldn’t have earned the embitterment of his son. Maybe Jack would come around, and didn’t Mickey deserve a little fun in the time he had left.
Anyway, his age humored him: you get only one year of life to be a sex act. No, his perspective was common. His peculiar, uncommon trouble, he felt, was also his economic salvation: his son, Jack.
Who was famous. Very. Jack Roby, the matinee idol, with the hard jaw of an Aryan and the acting chops of a Brando—or close enough to take the world by storm.
Having a famous son came with its inconveniences: paparazzi showed up at Mickey’s modest home in Point Pleasant, on the Jersey Shore, especially around the holidays, hoping to snap intimate, familial photos of the famed bachelor, three years engaged to his private yoga instructor (the carnal desires his son had spent a lifetime satisfying were not a source of jealousy for Mickey, and for that Mickey scored himself a point). But carnality itself was a problem: Mickey could meet a woman, long divorced as he was from Jack’s mom, only to find she’d been pursuing Mickey to get a whiff of Jack—the hope seemed to be that Jack’s pheromones or his virile aura or his three hundred dollar aftershave or the stink of his socks would linger in Mickey’s home, deep in the carpet fibers or seeped into the drywall like the stench of cigarette smoke. It was sickening how poorly such otherwise evolved creatures disguised their true motives; it took only one visit to Mickey’s home, one confrontation between a woman and the several boyhood pictures of Jack that Mickey displayed on the credenza in his dining room to trigger a deluge of questions about Jack’s true personality, his enormous financial resources, his… whatever. A decade ago, Mickey had seduced one of his former students at the college—he was a mathematics professor, or had been until his retirement—only to find she carried a picture of Jack on her phone, a picture she showed Mickey proudly, in bed, afterwards, as though their having screwed was a pathway to sharing her voyeurism, not the other way around. There were at least four women who had slept with Mickey because they were fantasizing about his son. Their fantasy worlds had been overtaken by Jack, to a schizophrenic extreme. Two, not one but two, insisted on calling Mickey by his son’s name. Such role-playing was just too peculiar, for Mickey was the sort of man able to fantasize about but never in the flesh engage a woman’s secret desires, the sort of man who is ultimately put off by female fetishes of equal intensity as his own, who uses the excuse that the maternal or daughterly themes of her role-playing are inappropriate in order to justify his own immature repulsion, as though one fantasy is acceptable while another is sacrilege.
He wilted during those four sessions. He decided that the embarrassment of what each of those women regarded as impotence was a fair price to pay for what would follow, what economic advantage he would take of his position as the father of Jack Roby. Also, he felt the advantage he took was justified because he’d wilted, because he could not take a different, more rapacious kind of advantage.
So Mickey put together a show. It was more like a presentation. His own background in academics, as a professor of mathematics, meant the show was built in the dastardly Power Point. But there was gold in the content: Jack. The show told the story of raising Jack Roby, especially of his curious boyhood and youthful, innocent virility, so forthright and obvious that grown women blushed during a single pass of his beautiful face in the grocery store aisle. Jack made women disbelieve their eyes and shiver at what they heard him say. Male beauty is rare; male beauty combined with potency and brains is so rare as to be abnormal. Mickey understood that women are just as attracted to male beauty and intellectual force as men are to female beauty and sexual force, but the former pops up so infrequently the attraction is all but irrelevant, which is why Jack was so successfully marketed. Why couldn’t Mickey participate in that marketing?
Mickey himself was not bad looking, though he had a different build than his son, more heavyweight, and much clunkier these days. He’d been a boxer in the Army as a young man, where a better fighter had cauliflowered his right ear and broken his nose so badly—had broken it in Round One and spent the next four rounds pounding it mercilessly—that it crept to the right of his face a good quarter inch and the tip hooked further to the right, as though trying to join the ruined ear that looked like a baby’s hand. He had a full head of stunning white hair that made his headshot debonair, taken from his good, left side. In profile, his paternity was striking, but when he looked you straight on, you forgot about Jack and saw an alter kaker.
He debuted the show, through some connections, in New York, off-off-Broadway, and it caught on. Mickey was a very smart person, and the show came across as moving and sincere: the mathematician father, who’d once been a boxer and provincial stud, trying to understand the artistic son, whose virility had turned secular by eight years old, much to the shock of the audience. The audience got over its shock because, “This is life,” Mickey insisted. “I can say to you—and maybe this is too mathematical, too actuarial—but I can say to you that the forces that intervene in your parenthood, the forces that impose themselves on the evolution of your child, are, despite the narcissism of the belief that the center of the child is always the actions of the parents, extremely important. And they don’t always turn the child to ruin. I can say that because Jack wasn’t ruined. I don’t know how he became, by age eight, this.”
Here he would use a remote to manipulate the screen. By the time the show made its debut, Power Point had been replaced by slicker, simpler images as backdrops during the stories Mickey told. A photograph of Jack faded onto a screen upstage-center. An only child, he held hands with his older cousin Petra, the only daughter of Mickey’s beautiful sister and her oligarchic, Ukrainian husband, taken at the beach in Point Pleasant. Petra is twelve years old. She wears a blue and white bikini, her flat, pale, Manhattan stomach exposed to the camera, which is positioned in the water, looking back on shore, with the crowded boardwalk deep in the background. And there is Jack, holding her hand, dressed in a red swim trunks that barely make his thighs. What is familiar about the picture are the boyish features—the round eyes and button nose—that when chiseled into manhood would take on an idealized perfection (imperfect perfection, sexy rather than landscaped). What is shocking about the picture is the lean, ripped body of this eight-year-old boy, the uncommon muscularity. Not an ounce of body fat, a pony born to be a thoroughbred, the son of a fighter with his long limbs and flat torso and boxer’s chest.
The debut was a smash. It had been attended as a curiosity. Mickey’s intellectualism, often discussed in interviews by Jack, was trusted to make the hour and a half bearable. But what those early audiences came away with was a son overtaking a father, that is, a story of endearing humility whose message was that greatness is something to love and adore genuinely, to never be jealous of and, Mickey warned his audience, to never possess. “He was a boy with a family. A son. A cousin. A nephew. He ceased belonging to me when he was eight years old. Women entered his life—somehow. I won’t speculate. What’s the difference? They took over for his parents, his family. They offered what a family cannot. He grew up into the kind of masculinity I always wanted to portray.” Here he pauses and shifts position, stepping downstage-right three paces and facing the center of the house. “He once asked me why I boxed. He was twenty, and I was visiting from D.C., to New York, where he was in school and had landed a role in his first professional show, not far from where I’m standing right now. He took me out to lunch.” Mickey smiles warmly. It is a genuine smile, and he is genuinely remembering. “He asked me, ‘Dad, why did you box?’ I laughed when I said, ‘That’s a good question, because I wasn’t any good at it.’ I thought about it and said, ‘I suppose I wanted to become someone like you. A performer.’ He looked at me with stars in his eyes. His father, the professor, admired him. Of course I admire you, Jack,” he says, and turns upstage-center, where two pictures fade in side by side, staggered so that the picture on the right follows the picture on the left. On the left is the photo at the Jersey Shore, but Jack is zoomed in on so that he seems to be standing alone, the picture focusing on his shoulders and face. His expression, one notices now, is more thoughtful than shocked, as his toes touch the chilly water. The second picture is an action shot of Jack on stage, in the role of George in Of Mice and Men—and one can see the power, the virility, the fierceness. He is waiting for Lenny to speak, wearing in his eyes derision, disgust, love.
And the lights fade.
Mickey’s triumph was complete when reviews of the show came back glowing. Briefly, Mickey had equaled his son—no, surpassed him, for Jack was always and would always be a “secondary artist.” This was Mickey’s language, used by Jack in interviews, used by Mickey during Jack’s boyhood. A secondary artist: one who does not create but interprets. An actor. A director or musician. Not an author, screenwriter, composer. Mickey had created something, and it wasn’t half bad, after all. Yet Jack, who’d gotten no advance notice of the show and had found out about it the way the rest of the world found out about it, for Mickey had intended the show as a surprise to his son, was disgusted.
“It’s pornographic, Dad. You’re using my childhood to make money.”
“I don’t need money,” Mickey laughed. “This isn’t the reaction I expected, I have to say.“
“You don’t need money? Are you me, now? Is that the implication?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t need money. You’re a retired state college professor on one pension. Of course you need money.”
“I don’t need money the way your aunt needs money, the way your mother needs money.”
“Aunt Jaime whores herself to rich men, but if you were where I am, you’d understand how easy and necessary that can be. And Mom remarried. Don’t bring her into this. She’s better off than you.”
“She remarried, yes, an asshole.”
“An asshole with a pension to double up her own.”
Mickey’s son was ten thousand miles away, on location in Eastern Europe, his exact place undisclosed—not because Jack couldn’t say but because they hadn’t gotten (and would not get) to that point in the conversation. All Jack had told Mickey about his location was, “The connection may be bad.”
Now Jack said, “Look, I don’t support the show.”
“I’m not asking for your blessing.”
“I think I should have to give it. It’s my boyhood. It belongs to me. You’re reaching, Dad. Is this death? Is that what you’re afraid of?”
So you want to bring death into it, huh? “It’s not death, and I have news for you, son, bachelor, man about town, man without children: your boyhood belongs to me. If you have a son, if indeed you have the balls for it, then his boyhood will belong to you.”
“Is that the logic? Is that the fucking mathematical logic!”
“You need to calm down. I’m not one of your assistants. Now who’s reaching?”
“That picture with Petra was because I took you to the beach, Jack. And don’t you know I know you adored her? Don’t you know I know all about the two of you?”
“Dad,” Jack pleaded.
What, indeed, had made Jack? This fatherly fraud, this man who publicly posits a thesis that greatness cannot be possessed, delivering to his son the very opposite message, one of a sire’s proprietorship?
Mickey said no more, except, “I’ll let you go. Just relax. Jack, it’s just a life.”
“It’s my life.”
The performance Jack gave in the film he was shooting was the best of his career, and it was noted by those who truly dissected the film, including an old friend of Mickey’s from the college’s theater and film department, Ted Samuels, who had gotten back in touch to workshop early incarnations of Mickey’s show, that while in certain scenes Jack’s acting reaches a nearly manic level of intensity, in others, and this was entirely new, it sinks into a quietude that is almost stillness. He emailed Mickey, “He’s better than Eastwood in some of those scenes. In others, sure, he’s Pacino. But he’s so exceptionally reserved in the scenes where reservation is called for. He always had Pacino’s force. Brando’s violence. But this other stuff is different. I think he was responding to you—your show, your insistence that it’s all about virility. I think he sees it differently.”
Oh, to have your greatness assumed and benefit from the analysis of those who assume it, of academics like Ted. The ordering of a shoot is different from the sequence of a film, and those scenes Mickey’s colleague was referencing, which would become known in Mickey’s circle as the “Eastwood scenes,” were shot after their phone conversation. It was their conversation, not the show itself, which Jack had never seen, that his son was responding to.
If Mickey had stopped the show after his conversation with Jack, the rest of this story might have gone differently. He would not be pushed around by the nature of Jack, the dominance and alpha-maleism that came from Mickey in the first place. How many punches had Mickey slipped—hell, how many had he taken—to become the kind of father whose own physicality inspired fear in strangers? Jack had witnessed his father’s aggression in public, the near brawls in parking lots, bitter comments to the boardwalk crowd, and he learned the measure of a man was his forthrightness and boldness. But was this exactly right? Was there a more evolved way of looking at the other six billion or so people on the planet than as servicewomen and competition? Probably—mathematically, yes, almost certainly there was. But was that perspective, as Ted Samuels had implied, Jack’s gift? Hardly. Because such an evolved sensibility suffers in this world. Mickey hadn’t wanted his son to be a dilettante, so he’d raised him to be masculine and imbued him with enough brains not to confuse manhood with machismo. The world had (and Mickey’s show posited this thesis, as well) intervened in some necessary, sexual way. And Jack had come out on the other side as perfected. The one. Carnal. Strong. Gorgeous. Thoughtful. Patient. Considerate. Virile.
The money didn’t matter, but it sure didn’t hurt. Mickey had never managed to climb out of the middle class as a professor, neither at the small college in New Jersey where he taught until his divorce nor at the big university in D.C., where he spent the second half of his career. He’d made more in the first three months of his show than in his highest paid year at either college. All his life, there had been a number, his max salary, built into his contract. It had seemed, when he was young and earned his first tenure, like a grand amount of money, but when he’d hit that number, when he’d finally achieved that max salary (three years before his retirement), the money hadn’t changed his lifestyle. Sure, he could take himself to Applebee’s more often. On occasion, he could even manage a top steakhouse in D.C. or, since the move back, a seafood place the Jersey Shore. But his lifestyle remained essentially middle class and reminded him lately that for a mathematician, he was no economist.
And there were no perks as a byproduct of a professorship besides the youthful beauty with which he surrounded himself, which despite his sense of humor about aging, mostly caused Mickey to feel old. His ex-wife, during their divorce, when they were in their forties and Jack was entering his teens, had told Mickey, with great dignity and her chin held high, “There’s nothing worse than aging as a woman. Men look right through you, when they used to stare at you. Stare. Now they don’t even see me.” She went and blamed men, “What is it with you bastards.”
He’d said to her back then—he didn’t bother with compassion—“Hon, you girls get all the glory when you’re sixteen, when you’re twenty… I have twenty-year-olds in my classes who would gladly seduce me, but they’d probably be the first little shits to complain to my dean of harassment if I allowed them what they want and then cut it off. Young women get to be confused, get to whine, get to ask why. Men never do. ‘Why can’t we have dinner tonight?’ ‘Why don’t you want to dance?’ Imagine a man asking a woman those questions. And you get to harry us with your T and your A. Then, twenty years later, when it starts to fade, you have the audacity to be bitter? You’ve gotten to live whole decades being desired in a way most men never feel for a single day.”
But now he saw the loneliness in aging, the daily rejections: say he’s standing in line at the checkout of a gas station mart and a pretty young woman walks in, dressed for work in slacks and a blouse—a co-professional, a step down from Mickey’s education level (perhaps a former student of his). The most he can hope for, the most he ever gets, is a kind, mannered smile. And even these are rare. More often, she does not see him at all. She sees the young man behind him. She sees the middle-aged man in front. But not him. He, who used to be those men, vanishes. Sure, age has allowed him to boldly covet. He can, without guile, look this young woman over. But that is little consolation. Flirtations are a parlor trick; fantasies are a dream. None of it will happen, anymore. The insult is the harmlessness that allows for his boldness in the first place.
And yet, in a matter of months, at sixty-nine years old, he’d managed to reverse that inevitable slide, temporarily—moving away from death rather than toward it. He’d gained the admiration of women in the audiences of his shows. They cheered for him. They wanted to meet him. And as long as they never did, as long as they never had to confront his slouched shoulders and weary countenance after a performance, when a younger man, a man like Jack, would have been riding high, he could keep his foot on the gas pedal of the fantasy. Perhaps it was what Jack had said: perhaps it was about death. But not in a way his son, at the height of his power and desirability, would understand, not yet. Jack should talk to his mother, who’d remarried and was so well off. She’d set him straight.
Jersey tomatoes. To start, there was a riff on the Jersey tomato in the show—which is why they were chosen as a projectile. For seven minutes, Mickey talks about Jack’s love of all things tomato, a famous quirk of his son’s, one Jack has mentioned in interviews. There is, Mickey asserts, nothing like a Jersey tomato, “which I introduced him to.” He shows a picture of Jack biting into a tomato like an apple. Half his face is overtaken by the large, red sphere, but the other half can be glimpsed, particularly those eyes. This is Jack at nine. Was this a capturing of the evolution of an artistic temperament, Boy Jack glancing fiercely (the audience does laugh) over the top of a giant tomato he is about to bite into and which he can barely hold in his hand? He is shirtless again. The picture is in black and white but developed to bring out the grays in such a way that they are nearly brown. His lean shoulders feature. The biceps flexes as the hand holds the tomato like Adam biting the apple. He is primordial, basic, verging on insane. An id. A little general.
At this moment in the show, on August 4, in Miami, at the intimate Stage West of the Adrian Arsht Center, several hecklers stood from their center, floor-level seats, in the back row. They were young men and women, Mickey could tell by their voices. The heavy stage lights made the audience into silhouettes, but these silhouettes were suddenly standing, screaming silhouettes. Like a flash mob, they started by shouting obscene, vitriolic lines about the violent, carnal intersection of art and insanity; it seemed to Mickey as though they’d synchronized a Harlem shuffle, so he smiled dumbly, trying to play along; but shortly, tomatoes started landing all over the stage. One was flung so hard and far it hit the rear projection screen, on which the picture of Jack was displayed. Another glanced Mickey’s shoulder. He ducked and ran for cover stage right, the audience booed the hecklers, and soon security came and pushed the hecklers out. Because the show must go on, an announcement was made that there would be a fifteen minute intermission, the stage was quickly cleaned, and Mickey finished the show to a standing ovation, those several seats of that rear center row conspicuously empty.
A similar attack was launched again, in Ft. Lauderdale . But not in Jacksonville, where by then Mickey had been expecting it. Nor Atlanta. But one was launched, of all places, in polite, genteel, youthful Charlotte. D.C. spared him—Mickey’s hometown crowd, having heard about the debacle, bought up tickets to keep the bastards out. Same in Baltimore. Philly proved to be the city of brotherly love, for the show went off without incident. But New York was a disaster. New York, where the show had started four months prior, was a culmination, a blitzkrieg.
What were these people, farmers? It was indeed Jersey tomato season, and these were definitely Jersey tomatoes, now. Enormous, pungent suckers, mushily rotten. One struck him, like a jab, in his ruined nose, and if it were possible to break that nose, if it were not for the scar tissue and cross-cartilage and layered bone of the bridge that had grown around and weaved through the initial break, strengthening the bone like a kind of microfracture surgery, Mickey’s nose might have been broken again. As it was, he fell from the shock of the blow—the power and accuracy of a large tomato exploding against his face.
His learned behavior, from years of boxing badly, was to get up, show his hands, nod his head, and fight on. But he followed his better judgment, crawling across the stage with tomato juice dripping from his nose and chin, tomato juice up his nose like saltwater. He crawled ass over elbows, like boot camp, breathing through his mouth. A fat tomato splattered against his left thigh. Another grazed his head before he managed to reach stage left.
Off stage, he stayed down, resting his face on his forearms. He was breathing heavily on his belly, trying to get his bearings. His head was spinning like a knockout. By now, he’d learned to anticipate the attacks. The production manager knew the risks, knew an intermission might be called for. Neither was the issue. And Mickey didn’t think he was hurt badly—though that one tomato had really walloped him.
It was that here lies Mickey, half-everything. The half-skilled boxer, a target for vicious blows. The half-brilliant professor, tenured but not famed, with a few papers under his name, competent but unexciting publications. The half-triumphant showman, whose show was effective but could not be completed because of tomato-wielding Jack-lovers. The half-revelatory man, who revealed all—about someone other than himself. The half-basic man, slithering like a protozoa along a stage floor: man’s most evolved action, art, meets man’s essential survival instinct.
Cloaked by the off-stage curtain, he turned onto his side. In the turning, he noticed a pair of shoes beside him. He was so disoriented from the ferocity of the attack that he assumed the shoes were left by someone. He did not assume there were feet within them and legs climbing out of them. So when he got his bearings, with the stench of moldy tomato in his nostrils and his face coated with rotten tomato juice, he was shocked to see Jack, the hard jaw, the lean, boxer’s frame, standing over him.
“This is a mess,” his son said, amused.
Mickey’s mind was still in Jack’s childhood. He remembered Jack turning from the water. They locked eyes, and Mickey called from his towel onshore, “Go ahead in! Petra will take care of you!”
Petra’s father rasped, in a voice like Kissinger’s, “She is more follower than a leader—submissive. Jack is dominant,” he added, admiringly.
Now Mickey said, “Where is Petra these days? Is she still in Argentina?”
“She’ll never leave Argentina,” Jack said.
He did not ridicule the oddness or disorientation of the question. He crouched and gathered his heavyweight father by the shoulders and with great power, getting his legs into it, picked Mickey up.
Mickey felt Jack’s arms under him like wires on a marionette.
“Do you know where you are? Are you concussed?” Jack asked.
The boxer returned. Mickey brought his hands up to show the ref. Doing so forced a progression of muscle memories that shot adrenaline through his veins, as an order was sent from just north of his central nervous system: Get your legs under you.
Legs. Jack had three inches on him, though Mickey weighed more, and there could be no doubt that if it came to blows, advanced age or not, Mickey would hop back, kick out, change angles, and knock Jack flat with a straight right. But Jack wasn’t angry at all. And Mickey understood: “You put them up to this, didn’t you?”
“People do what they see fit.”
Mickey stepped away from his son, further from the ruined stage, bloody with the bulbous carcasses of rotten tomatoes, their stink, very close to the smell of putrid garbage, heavy in the air. Several men and women had gathered on the other side of the stage: the theater manager, a man in his fifties with a Cincinnati combover, wearing a bland, dust-gray suit; his staff, including a woman who was certainly his wife by body language and a ring on her finger, not unattractive, with pumped calves sprouting out of a pencil skirt; and some volunteers, likely college students.
Mickey called to the manager, “Announce a fifteen minute intermission, please, but don’t be rigid about it.”
The manager, who looked shocked half to death, moved with something like relief, some quelling of an unusual fear—the attack, Mickey figured, the horror of it. Welcome to real violence, sir. Welcome to chaos. While Mickey spoke with Jack behind the side curtain, the manager could be heard making a shaky announcement, as already the audience had gotten to its feet and those volunteers fanned out on stage with brooms and mops and wastebaskets.
“They could all become geniuses,” Mickey said, “all be celebrated, if only they would live adventurous little lives and gain the maturity to say something. Right, buddy?”
“Listen,” his son said, “just hear me out. I don’t want you to go back out there. That’s the right thing to do. Stay backstage, gather yourself, make an announcement of a refund—that’s got to be your discretion after an attack like this—and get normal. These last four months have been an extended delusion. You want to hijack someone’s boyhood, sure, go right ahead. I can’t stop you. You know more about it than I do. You want to discuss the origins of my virility, sure, knock yourself out. But if you want to gain from it—this is only going to get worse.” He handed Mickey a towel that had been handed to him—by whom? “Wipe the tomato off your face.”
Onstage, volunteers were dutifully cleaning up, though two or three paused to watch a concussed Mickey miming the cleaning of his face with an invisible towel as he stood before a pair of empty shoes, having a conversation with himself. In the aisles, the last members of the audience were clearing out for the lobby. Police, having been alerted to the possibility of an assault, had already escorted the protesters out of the building; none was arrested, so they’d left peacefully, wandering off in threesomes and foursomes, toward the shadows and the alleyways, away from the lights.
Jack put his hands in the pockets of his corduroys.
“What is it?” Jack asked. “What’s the reason? Do you need money? I can give you money. Will that get you to stop?”
“It is death,” Mickey admitted. “But not exactly how you think of it—have you talked with Mom?”
“I talk with Mom every day, at one in the afternoon. I write that time off into my contracts.”
“I already knew that. You mentioned it in an interview. I’ve watched you so voyeuristically it sickens me. Speaking of sickening, you talk to her every day? Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve spoken to her? Twenty-three years. I’ve moved from the Shore, I’ve moved back to the Shore. Twenty-three years! More than half your life. It must be death,” Mickey said. “Loneliness. Have some mercy, Jack. I used to love your mother so much it was painful. Right up through the divorce, I couldn’t understand it. She’d domesticated a brutal man, a henchman, really, and I poured all my energy into my work because I thought that was what she wanted me to do. The cherry blossoms. Every year, we went down to D.C. to see the cherry blossoms, and I never enjoyed it because I was thinking about work. Never enjoyed it even when I moved to D.C. We took you, every year. Do you remember? Going to see the cherry blossoms?”
“I’m no dummy, Dad. Nostalgia isn’t going to soften me up.”
“Sure, of course not.”
The production manager swept past Mickey like a man trying to ignore a homeless beggar. Mickey called to him, and the manager turned with fearful eyes.
“Show’s over,” Mickey said. “No mas.”
“I understand…” the manager said.
“You’ll have to refund their tickets.”
“Yes, of course,” the manager said, watching Mickey, not the least bit affected though he was face to face with the legendary Jack Roby. “Mickey, give yourself a few minutes. You may be concussed. Do you know where you are?”
“Buddy, when I say the show’s over, I mean the show’s over. For good. Forever.” He turned to his son.
“It’s the right decision,” Jack agreed.
“So now I have your blessing?”
“You know Petra killed herself,” Jack said.
“Right, yes, I remember that,” Mickey nodded, vaguely remembering a phone call from an hysterical Jaime.
“Swallowed pills. You know your sister’s husband raped her. He used to chase her around the house…” Jack made a fluttering motion with his hand and let out a whimper like child having a nightmare. “Raped her every night. When I was eight and she was twelve, I went to Aunt Jaime. Your sister. With Petra. I told her. So you see, it’s not all virility, Dad. It’s not all libido and conquest. What those women seduced you for is something I see all the time. Sickness. Why do children inherit it?”
“Because it’s the human race.”
“Because adults make basic decisions. That’s why this show, ultimately, was about your death. And if it in some way hastened your death, that’s the price you have to pay.”
“Hastened my death?”
“Right around the bend. But it always is. I wonder, while he was chasing his daughter around the house, while he was raping her in the kitchen and she was screaming and he was making her suicidal, I wonder what he was thinking. What I really wonder, the place I always go when I need something more, like my Eastwood scenes, is into his mind and his existence, that house, an hour after, two hours after, the next day. What did he do, make her breakfast, send her off to school? Do you remember how self-conscious Petra was? She didn’t teach me, Dad. I taught her. I taught you. I taught everyone. It’s just around the bend. Like her father waiting for Aunt Jaime to leave for work. Just around the bend.”
“What’s around the bend?”
“Petra told me you walked in on her and her father. She was sitting in his lap in bed. Our spare bedroom. He had his back against the wall. The door had been closed. She was wearing a beach dress that fell down her thighs, her swimsuit underneath. She was twelve. He had his arms around her. When you walked in, they were both shocked. Do you remember that? And Petra, because her father could not see her face, mouthed to you, ‘Help.’ Do you remember?”
“No, she said, ‘Hello.’ That’s what I remember her saying.”
“Yes,” Mickey insisted. “She said hello, and I said, ‘How are you two?’ and she brightened up and said they were fine and cuddling and asked when dinner was. They were down to visit from the City for the week.”
“Yes, the very day of that picture on the beach, Dad, in the afternoon, when we’d come home. She still had the smell of sunscreen on her. He had his nose pressed to her shoulder. He was sniffing her like a dog.”
“A year later, they’d be divorced…”
“Right, because I went to Aunt Jaime. That was when I changed. It wasn’t libido, Dad.”
Mickey thought of Jack’s picture at nine years old, the wild look in his son’s eyes. “Did she ever know?”
“Know what, Dad?”
“I like when you call me Dad. You know I admire you. Did she ever know that I walked in? My sister?”
“Petra never told her, I don’t think. Not from what Petra told me.”
Mickey pounced. “I wasn’t the one doing it to her. You can’t seriously blame me. What did I see, if she said, ‘Help?’ I saw a little girl who just wanted away from her father. Maybe I saw something else, but it was nothing more than I’d seen a thousand times, men too close to girls. You had the benefit of growing up on the Shore because of me and the job you ridicule so much. We had a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and you never had to know the chaos of more dangerous places. You think it’s the same everywhere. Sure, motives are the same. Good and bad are the same. But actions are different when people have nothing to lose—“
“Why are you telling me this? Don’t you think I’ve shown you that in every role I’ve played?”
“I think you hide behind your acting.”
“I learned to hide. You taught me to hide. Forward in public, scurrying and reclusive within the household, with your door closed and the work you were always doing, in that same room, the spare room, which was your office, which was why you were going in there that morning—out of habit you forgot to knock. Or maybe you knew. Their energy. You knew, and that’s why you didn’t knock.”
“You can’t go accusing a man of raping his daughter because there’s energy in a room you’ve walked in on, Jack.”
“You could have had a conversation about closeness, about affection and what’s inappropriate with Mom, with your sister—that Petra hadn’t seemed to like it, that she’d seemed uncomfortable. Hey Dad, when you found out she killed herself, what did you remember?”
“I don’t know what I remembered.”
“Yes, you do. You remembered that morning when you walked in. And you imagined that very conversation, the one you never had, and how it would have gone if you’d had it, and how Petra would still be alive. Very simple, very basic, like your ideas of virility. She’d still be alive instead of no longer living, and when you’re alive, you can go from there—you can make a damn show, if you want! You can make a fool of yourself and exploit your son!”
And then Jack was gone. When Mickey stepped past the curtain, back on stage, the manager, breaking down the standing mic, met his eyes with a trembling face, an expression of fear. The house lights had come on, the spotlight was off, and he stood by himself, holding the microphone. He was not a handsome man, with his combover and his rotundity and his downturned mouth of permanent somberness. His warm-up speech to the crowd had been delivered with all the personality of a sock.
His wife crossed toward him. The stage was empty but for the two of them. She put her hand on his shoulder, caught his eyes, and nodded her head gravely toward Mickey.
Now Mickey was back. Okay. He was in a theater in Manhattan. He’d emerged onstage, the last time in his life he would do so. Yes, this was death. The seats, red velour and featured in the house lights, were empty but for one of the young volunteers sitting in the first row. Mickey concluded he was the couple’s son. He was texting drearily, the same dour expression on his face as his father’s.
The wife said, “Are you okay, Mickey? Is everything okay?”
“I think I’m okay, now,” Mickey said.
The air of the stage was different: now that the refuse had been disposed of, the smell of the stage lights, though they’d been turned off, came through, dusty and electrical, a smell like paper. As he crossed toward the couple, the click of Mickey’s shoes echoed in the theater. “I’m never going to do this show again,” he said.
“It’s too bad,” the manager said. “What a debacle. What a mess. They’re bullies, but bullies win sometimes.”
He thought of Petra’s father: Jack despised Mickey because he’d walked in on Petra’s father touching her and had said nothing. No, it wasn’t touching. It was petting. It was just one step further than a father holding his daughter, but that step signified a violation. This show was just one step further than a basement slide show, The Robys at the Shore, but that step was a violation. It took so little to ruin love. It took so much time and effort to build it. The terrorists had the right notion. Knock it all down.
And they get away with it, don’t they. All that happened to Alexander, Petra’s father, was divorce. His sister Jaime was living with a slot machine magnate in Margate, New Jersey, outside crumbling Atlantic City, perpetually engaged to him like Jack’s yoga instructor. (Was Jack’s treatment of that beautiful woman love or vengeance?) And Petra, one afternoon in April, in an apartment in Buenos Aires, swallowed enough Oxycontin to kill a grown man. No chance. Her boyfriend found her late in the evening after he returned from his clothing store, sprawled on the bathroom floor with puke leaking down her beautiful cheek. She was always beautiful, frail, wan—scared. Scared of the T-Rex at the Museum of Natural History the day Mickey and Maggie (Jack’s mother) had brought the two cousins there. She’d cried and run to Mickey. She was only eight. She held him very closely, pressed her face embarrassingly against his crotch. Mickey felt her warm breath and pulled her away.
He walked off stage. He would not find what he was looking for yet, but what he was looking for when he hit the fresh, warm air of an August night in Manhattan, when the city is quiet and the rich folks are gone to the Hamptons and it’s mostly the young, the new, the next generation of New Yorkers—what he was looking for was one of those assailants. He’d know them by smell—you can’t get the moldy stink of rotten Jersey tomatoes off without a bath. Like Jack’s aura, it seeped into everything. You had to change clothes. Mickey had it on him, and he’d find someone, some dude who had it on him, too, and they’d grab a beer together, and Mickey would be just about in his comfort zone, drinking with his sworn enemy at the end of something vast.
“What a life, Jack,” he said, to thin air. But the hallucination, in all its masculine beauty, was gone.