Don't Worry about the Kids: Stories

Overview

Although the voices and settings of these tales are diverse, their central concerns remain constant. Neugeboren explores the precarious nature of family life and those elements - madness, betrayal, loss - that often shape and threaten it. He writes about the mysterious, sad, surprising, and sometimes beautiful ways in which love expresses itself. He reveals how our choices, large and small, inform and define our lives. Whether writing about a black American musician in Paris or a documentary filmmaker in Maine, ...
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Overview

Although the voices and settings of these tales are diverse, their central concerns remain constant. Neugeboren explores the precarious nature of family life and those elements - madness, betrayal, loss - that often shape and threaten it. He writes about the mysterious, sad, surprising, and sometimes beautiful ways in which love expresses itself. He reveals how our choices, large and small, inform and define our lives. Whether writing about a black American musician in Paris or a documentary filmmaker in Maine, about a boy grieving for the death of his father or parents for the loss of their children, about divorce or city life or basketball or mental illness, Neugeboren brings to his craft a profound knowledge of the heart's imperatives.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The protagonists of these 15 stories by the talented Neugeboren are often divorced fathers fighting for custody of their children, Jewish men looking back on their boyhoods in Brooklyn, where they played basketball or football, and where their fathers were given to domestic violence and died young. The women in their lives tend to be either their cold and unmaternal mothers or their young, beautiful and sexually insatiable lovers. The specter of mental illness is always present. These are themes that Neugeboren has explored elsewhere, most recently in his haunting memoir Imagining Robert. Here his success is mixed. The best stories are the ones that break away from Neugeboren's conventional themes: "Connorsville, Virginia" is narrated by a young black man who has always accepted the South's racial bias until a murder during the civil rights agitations brings him into an ironic alliance with a white sheriff who needs to square his conscience. "The Year Between" is a subtle tale of a couple who act out what might be a Jamesian story, and a protagonist who understands belatedly that he has invited tragedy. The title story, with its supple weaving together of a rich palate of sensory and metaphorical images, the plangent lure of nostalgia and the gritty reality of New York streets, is packed with emotional resonance. Often, however, Neugeboren begins with an imaginative premise and intriguing characters and veers into melodrama. The CIA agent who coolly sends his daughter to her death in "What is the Good Life?" and the mean, promiscuous mother who abandons her son in "How I Became an Orphan in 1947" are never believable characters. Other stories are passionless and inert ("Leaving Brooklyn") or fundamentally implausible ("Your Child Has Been Towed"). Yet Neugeboren's compassionate understanding of people struggling to live decently, love well and find moral certainties embues them all with sincerity and, sometimes, power. (Oct. )
Kirkus Reviews
Fifteen polished stories by the veteran author of, most recently, a deeply felt memoir of his brother, Imagining Robert (1997).

In the title piece, a surgeon named Michael has a cup of coffee with the man appointed by the court to investigate his broken marriage and determine custody arrangements. Neugeboren cunningly orders things so that, at first, the reader sympathizes with Michael, then slowly comes to realize that he's been a bit of a monster. The same persona—a smart, professional, newly divorced man—appears several times here. In "Tolstoy in Maine," a highly successful filmmaker is hiding from himself in a seacoast town. He, too, has recently gone through a divorce, and misses his kids, and feels his ex-wife lied about him. In the town, he meets a beautiful divorcée who draws him out and loves him tenderly, only to disappear in the morning. Then Neugeboren offers her story, too, and the pathos of her disappearance turns romantic—and hopeful. He also takes romance about as far as a realistic writer can in the imaginative "What Is the Good Life?," a spy story set in France. Neugeboren reflects on Grace Kelly both as an actress and a princess in the voice of a Grace Kellylike character who's killed by an assassin after an impossibly romantic love affair. The amusing "In Memory of Jane Fogarty" concerns a psychiatrist who receives half a million dollars in insurance money when a patient of hers dies in a plane crash. The patient named her as sole beneficiary, but his parents are having none of it. A court battle is about to ensue, making the reader wonder who's crazier: the dead man, or all the people fighting for his money?

Neugeboren's sensibilities are exclusively northeastern and upper-middle class, which probably describes his readers as well. This time, he gives them their money's worth, and then some.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781558491137
  • Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1997
  • Pages: 178
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Don't Worry About the Kids

Stories


By Jay Neugeboren

Dzanc Books

Copyright © 1997 Jay Neugeboren
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-6941-3



CHAPTER 1

Don't Worry about the Kids


Michael imagined that he could see the fragrances coming at him in waves, that each wave was a different color. He sat in a small Italian restaurant in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, Langiello, the court-appointed investigator, across from him. Langiello was talking about his own marriage and divorce, about how he had begun living with his second wife before he had filed for a separation. It was crazy, he said, what love could do to you when it took hold.

Michael tried to smile, felt his upper lip quiver, stared at his plate. The gnocchi seemed to be carved from balsa wood, floured with potato dust. He thought of radio waves, outside the restaurant, shimmering in the air, passing through the metal roofs of automobiles, the brick walls of apartment houses, the windows of office buildings and storefronts. He inhaled, tried to separate the fragrances, to name them. He saw low smoky-green Scurves for basil, high rolling mountains of barn-red for tomatoes, graceful ripples of ivory for garlic.

"So you can relax, Mike, let me tell you right off that I think the present custody setup is lousy and that I'm going to recommend some changes." Langiello smiled easily. "Okay?"

Michael nodded. He liked Langiello, liked the man's manner: the streetwise directness, the rough-edged tenderness. Langiello reminded him of the Italian guys with whom he'd gone to grade school and high school.

"I read the complaint you filed, and I read all the diary stuff you gave me. You've been through some rough times."

"I suppose."

"We never had kids, me and my first wife, but I feel for guys like you, when their wives use the kids against them. I mean, it's one thing if some broad tries to kick shit out of you herself. It's another if she gets your kids to start kicking too. How can you fight that?"

"I don't know."

"Still hard for you to talk, isn't it?"

Langiello reached across, put his hand on top of Michael's. Michael felt like a child. Why? At the present time Michael had his children with him only one out of every four weeks, and he'd known that in filing for primary custody he would be blamed by them for stirring things up. It would be the same old story—their mother's story: that he didn't really love them, that he only wanted to prove he could get his way. He had been prepared for this. What had surprised him, though, was how tiring it had become to hold back, to not answer his children's accusations. When did you stop loving your children? The question was there, in his head, and the only thing more absurd than the question, he knew, was that in Langiello's presence he felt what he sometimes felt when he was with his children: the need to answer it.

"Listen. I was nervous too, before I met you the first time—all I remembered from when we were in high school, you being such a hot shot. I mean, two guys like us, two old schoolyard ballplayers from Brooklyn, we'll get along fine."

The waiter appeared, asked if everything was all right. He spoke to Langiello in Italian. He wore a midnight blue tuxedo, fingered the dark lapel. Langiello and the waiter laughed together, and Michael imagined Langiello as a boy of seven or eight coming across the ocean on a ship, huddled inside a blanket.

Michael touched his napkin, thought of white drapes around an open wound, a scalpel in his palm. He saw the skin spread and bleed. He saw subcutaneous tissue, the layer of pale yellow fat below that. He saw muscles, like brown steak, thin tissues of white tendon being peeled away. The waiter was gone. Langiello was buttering a piece of bread. Michael smelled onions, parsley, sweet red peppers. He imagined Coleman, his anesthesiologist, staring into a green monitor, at hills and valleys of fragrances that flowed above and below sea level. Oregano. Grated cheese. Lemon. Michael wanted to reach out and touch the smells, to flatten them to the horizon. He wanted the moment he was living in to become a thin white line, to disappear.

"Tell me what to do," Michael said.

"First thing?"

"First thing."

"Eat."

Langiello skewered a strip of scungili on his fork, talked about how his father had brought him to the restaurant when he was a boy. Michael felt frightened, in need of reassurance. He tried to visualize himself earlier in the day, taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, entering the hospital, greeting receptionists, nurses, doctors, residents. He saw himself in the operating suite, putting the X-rays on the viewbox, hanging his clothes in the locker, walking into the operating room. Bach's Suite Number One, his favorite, was already playing. His nurse helped him scrub up, tie his gown, put on his slippers. She held a pair of gloves for him, stretched the wrists wide. Langiello talked about the diary he kept while he was going through his own divorce, about how crazy things had been.

Michael closed his eyes, could feel the thin skin of latex coat his hands like a film of talcum. The hip was exposed, draped inside a white rectangle less than a foot square. He prepped the area, watched his fingers, smooth and white like a dead man's, work inside the wound. His fingers retracted muscles, moved to deeper muscle, cut, cauterized. His resident suctioned blood. He told the resident to be careful of the sciatic nerve, to move it aside gently. If you harmed it, the woman would have a dropped foot forever after. Bach became Mahler—the Andante Moderato from the Second Symphony. They were using his tapes today, not Coleman's. His fingers worked on. Mahler became Bach: Preludes and Fugues on harpsichord. Landowska.

He held an electric saw as if it were a pistol, cut through the bone, removed it. With a mallet, he banged a reamer into the middle of the bone, inside the hip, put down his trial prosthesis. He removed the remaining cartilage, drilled holes, cleaned them with a water pik, washed out the femur, the socket. He mixed cement, white and creamy like Elmer's glue.

He chewed his gnocchi now, imagined a piece lodging in his throat, Langiello leaning across, grabbing his jaw, prying his mouth open, reaching in with a hooked finger. He saw himself suturing heavy tendons with violet thread. He smelled potatoes, butter, sausage.

Langiello asked about his brother, about how it felt to have a brother who was crazy. Michael wanted to protest, to explain that Jerry was not crazy—that he was retarded, perhaps, damaged, disabled—but he told Langiello that he had stopped by the day-care center before coming to the restaurant. Jerry was heavily sedated: two thousand units of Thorazine a day, Benadryl for the side effects. Michael was concerned about Jerry's eyesight: the corneas were becoming filmy, glazed. He must remember to call later, to suggest an exam, a change in medication. He imagined the top of Jerry's head, sliced open, lifted up as if on hinges, and he saw himself standing on a stepladder, pouring a mixture of glue and corn meal into Jerry's head.

"You said he's been like that most of his life, that he was never really normal."

"That's right."

"I don't mean to pry. It's just that I like to find out these things—so I can get the big picture, you know what I mean?"

Michael had long ago stopped believing in the diagnostic terms the doctors used: autism, schizophrenia, manic-depression. Who would ever know what had actually happened thirty-nine years ago—genetically, neurologically, in utero?

Michael saw himself closing the wound, binding the skin with a staple gun, laying on the dressing. Langiello asked Michael to describe his marriage and Michael gave Langiello a few sentences, then talked about how hard things were on the children, about how he wished he could get them into counseling. Langiello nodded sympathetically, said that he might be able to make a recommendation, that he didn't think their objectives were far apart.

"Then you agree with me?" Michael asked. "You really do think I should have the children with me more?"

"Sure. Only you have to remember that I don't have final say. I do my investigation, I file my report, I make recommendations if I want." Langiello smiled. "But don't worry. We have leverage. My uncle just happens to be the judge, or did I tell you that already?"

Michael felt his heart surge, pump. He tried to show nothing.

"You got some time?" Langiello asked.

"Time?"

"Afterward. You got any appointments, or are you free?" "I have time. I left the afternoon open. I don't have to be back in the city until four-thirty."

"Good. So how about after lunch, we walk around the neighborhood? I'll show you where I was born—where my old man had his store."

If Jerry were reasonably calm, Michael thought, he would bring him here the next time. Jerry loved Italian food. If they succeeded in getting through the meal without incident, he decided, he would bring the children the time after that. Michael looked down, knew that the spirals on the gnocchi were there so that they would resemble seashells. He ate. He told Langiello that he would love to walk around the neighborhood with him, and while he talked he thought of the ocean, of Brighton Beach, of sand castles. He saw himself on the beach with Jerry, smoothing down a spiral runway that ran from the top of the castle to the bottom. He set a pink ball at the top, watched it circle downward. Jerry clapped. They dug out tunnels that let in the ocean. They built moats. They mixed water and sand, and let the mixture drip onto the castle's turrets.

Jerry's back was red. Their father screamed at Michael, slammed a newspaper against his head, kicked in the castle. Jerry wailed. Their father yelled at Michael for letting his brother burn up while he kept himself protected. He grabbed at Michael's polo shirt but Michael was too quick for him. He ran off. All he ever thought about was himself, his father shouted. His father was kissing Jerry's back in a way that made Michael feel embarrassed. Michael looked down, watched the ocean foam around his ankles.

His father was dead, Jerry was crazy. Michael was forty-four years old, a successful orthopedic surgeon, the divorced father of two boys and a girl. Well. He had worked for seventeen years to create the kind of family he himself had never had, and now that family was gone, had been gone for over two years. Why, then, was he still so surprised?


They walked along Court Street, turned left, passed the Baltic Street Day Care Center. A line of patients, Jerry not among them, moved toward a Dodge mini-van. Most of the patients were in their thirties and forties. They wore housecoats and ragged furs, plaid shirts over heavy wool sweaters, brightly colored silk scarves, frayed slippers, men's ties for belts. Such sad flamboyance, Michael thought. The patients shuffled along in pairs, eyes downcast, skin colorless, holding hands like schoolchildren, looking as if they were emerging from a storm-tossed flight, airsick.

Next to the van a young Hispanic couple embraced. The man, about thirty years old, wore a long olive-drab Army coat. While his eyes and shoulders showed fatigue, his mouth and jaw were set in anger. The woman was attractive, young, her glossy black hair pulled back neatly, her eyelids shaded in pale lavender. Michael watched her lips move at the man's ear. I love you, she said. Oh I love you.

The woman stepped into the van. The man started to walk away, turned.

"Don't worry about the kids," he called back. "You hear me? Don't you worry about the kids."

Then he pivoted, raced across the street at a diagonal. Cars screeched, honked. He was gone.

"That's heavy, isn't it?" Langiello said, touching Michael's arm.

Michael saw that Langiello's eyes were moist. Had he misjudged him? By the end of their lunch, as now, Michael had become quiet again, uneasy. He wanted desperately to make a good impression. He wanted Langiello to know just how much he loved his children—how he liked them as much as he loved them—and yet, without his children physically there, he was afraid that anything he said would sound hollow.

Langiello talked about the neighborhood, about what it had been like growing up there.

Michael answered questions. Yes, he liked to cook, to clean, to shop, to do the dishes, to do the laundry, to help the children with their homework. Yes, he had worked out a schedule with his partners that allowed him to be at home most days after school. He was on call only one out of every four weekends. He liked being a father, being at home with his children. And yes, as he had written in his diary, he did fear for his ex-wife's sanity, for her influence on the children. For months, before and after the divorce, she had threatened to commit suicide by hanging herself from the boys' climbing rope. She had thrown scissors and bricks and kitchen knives at him. She had threatened to harm the children.

She continued to tell the children she had never wanted a divorce, that she had done everything to save the marriage. She told them Michael had left her for another woman, that he had been playing around all through the marriage. She told them that he had beaten her. She told them he was planning to abandon them, to leave New York and take a job at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Langiello nodded sympathetically, said he'd seen a lot of guys in Michael's spot, that he admired Michael.

"Sometimes—" Michael said, encouraged by Langiello's words "—sometimes I feel like the Jackie Robinson of divorce." Michael paused. Langiello smiled, and when he did, Michael felt his own heart ease. "What I mean is, sometimes I feel that I have to take all the crap my kids can throw at me, yet have the courage not to fight back."

"Sure," Langiello said. "I know what you mean. Don't I remember Jackie, what it was like for him that first year, everybody calling him nigger, going at him with their spikes?"

Langiello touched Michael's arm, pointed to a set of windows on the second floor of a three-story building, to the apartment in which he had lived for the first twenty-six years of his life. Bruno's Pastry Shop, on the ground floor, had always been there, Langiello said. They entered the shop. Langiello told Mrs. Bruno that Michael was a friend, a famous surgeon. Mrs. Bruno inclined her head, as if in the presence of a priest. Michael closed his eyes, inhaled the fragrances: butter, almond, chocolate, yeast. He saw Jerry, in the bathtub, himself on his knees, beside the tub, rinsing shampoo from Jerry's hair. He was carrying Jerry to the bedroom in an enormous pea-green bath towel. He was sprinkling talcum on Jerry, rubbing baby oil into his scalp, inclining his head to Jerry's head, closing his eyes, inhaling the strange, sweet fragrance.

Michael and Langiello walked along Court Street, passing fish markets, antique stores, restaurants, funeral parlors. Langiello said that his father had been a shoemaker, that when he was a boy he had believed the neighborhood was called Cobble Hill because of men like his father—all the Italian cobblers who worked there. Langiello pointed to the narrow store, now a locksmith shop, that had once been his father's. Langiello said that his great regret in life was that he had never been able to let his father, who died when he was fourteen years old, know how much he had loved him.

"My father died when I was sixteen," Michael said.

Langiello put a hand on Michael's shoulder, and when he did Michael found that he wanted to tell Langiello everything. They passed a yellow brick building set back from the road like a small museum: The Anthony Anastasios Memorial Wing of the Longshoreman's Medical Association. In the distance, no more than half a mile away, Michael could see the Gowanus Parkway, the gray turrets and smokestacks of ships beyond. Michael talked about his father, who had been a bookkeeper for a small manufacturing company, Wonderwear Hosiery. His mother had worked as a practical nurse, taking care of invalids at home. Whenever she was on a case—this was before Jerry was hospitalized at the age of twelve—he would be in charge of Jerry and of the house: of cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry. It was one reason, he sometimes thought, taking care of his own children came so naturally for him.

They sat on a bench together in Carroll Gardens, watching old men in black jackets playing bocce, schoolchildren playing tag. The sky seemed lower, as if being pushed down by an enormous slab of gray steel. Michael thought of aircraft carriers, their decks stripped and lifted by giant cranes, then welded together until they stretched across the heavens. Had Michael resented having to care for Jerry? Some. Still, the days he had spent alone in their apartment with his brother were among the happiest of his childhood—the only times when the rooms were quiet, when he could be close to Jerry, could tend to him without being scolded—times when Jerry felt free to return Michael's affection.

Langiello asked if Michael had talked with his ex-wife since their last interview. She had called two nights before, Michael said, at three in the morning, exploding at him with obscenities, threats, accusations; and she had called again just a few hours ago, before he left for the hospital, to wish him good luck in his interview with Langiello. She had sounded rational, normal. She had told him that she was still willing to get back together.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Don't Worry About the Kids by Jay Neugeboren. Copyright © 1997 Jay Neugeboren. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Don't Worry about the Kids 1
Workers to Attention Please 21
The St. Dominick's Game 25
Romeo and Julio 43
Leaving Brooklyn 47
How I Became an Orphan in 1947 59
Minor Sixths, Diminished Sevenths 64
Fixer's Home 73
Department of Athletics 79
Connorsville, Virginia 85
The Year Between 99
Your Child Has Been Towed 112
What Is the Good Life? 124
In Memory of Jane Fogarty 144
Tolstoy in Maine 163
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