Read an Excerpt
Say Goodbye To Sam
By Michael J. Arlen
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1984 Michael J. Arlen
All rights reserved.
What I remember about that spring in the city is how the wind used to blow at night, a real wind too, like in the country, bending the spindly little trees and making the old windows rattle. And then it stopped. For a while it seemed as if there was no weather. I couldn't sleep and so I'd wake up early, an hour before dawn sometimes, and sit at the table in our kitchen — the round formica table — looking out across the rooftops and down at the empty streets. There was such stillness everywhere, like a great peace, like death too. Then around six o'clock I'd go back to bed where Catherine was still asleep, on her side, one arm outside the covers, legs bent like a kid, and lie close to her, listening to her breathe, waiting for the sun to rise and the day to start and the empty streets to fill.
I didn't tell Catherine about my early-morning vigils though once she woke up early too and came into the kitchen where I was sitting. I think I said I was trying to figure things out about my work, which was also true. I'd turned thirty-nine some months before and found much to think about: not maudlin philosophic thoughts about age or being nearly forty, because I rather liked being older; there was something about it that seemed almost like a promotion, like finally making officer's rank. Unlike many of my friends I was glad at last to be a grownup, and so fretted over grownup matters: careers and real estate and suchlike: whether to expand my last magazine piece into another book; whether to put aside trying to write decent journalism ("serious nonfiction") and take an editor's job if it was offered to me; whether to spend the money my mother had left me on a larger, more uptown apartment, and so on. I thought about but never worried over Catherine. It was her great gift to me, I felt, more precious than her youth and beauty; I mean her steadiness, her healthy normalcy, the quality she had (I think one could call it this) of simply being there.
That spring we were not quite two years married and already I'd virtually forgotten Tessa: her preppy cuteness and sad infidelities and endless tantrums — our six years of wedded shipwreck. Catherine was thirty in March; not old, not spoiled or silly young, though young enough to think of me as a somewhat older man. A New York girl she looked like at first glance: dark hair, dark eyes, that confident, professional way of gazing out at the world. She was professional too, worked in the design department of a publishing house — a rising star a friend in the department said, though Catherine herself seemed to have no interest in rising further and talked instead of turning freelance or even staying home for a while. Of course, like most New York girls she came from somewhere else; in her case a white-collar suburb about an hour from Cleveland. Just an average place she used to say. An apparently happy, uneventful childhood. But both her parents had died when she was twenty-two, and though there was a dour, crewcutted brother who sold computer peripherals somewhere in Florida I always thought of her as an only child, like me.
An only child, a lonely child. I don't know when I began to think that Catherine was lonely. Perhaps that talk of "staying home." Perhaps a look she'd sometimes get in her eyes, late in the evening or Sunday afternoon, of someone traveling too light, of someone whose life had been stripped too clear of family. In some ways I suppose the two of us were bound together, even brought together, by a shared imprint of loneliness, although I didn't understand that then. I thought I had handled my mother's death pretty well. I thought Catherine was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I thought I'd be strong for both of us.
And what I also thought one day in spring, three years ago, is that it would make her happy to see Santa Ana that summer. If she was lonely I would give her that final part of me, the only part I had left to give: the ranch at Santa Ana. Not exactly the place I'd grown up, for I'd grown up in too many places — both coasts as they say; too many hotels and rented houses and boarding schools. Still, if it was something less than home, less than ancestral roots, it was more than most other sites and situations: the focus of our family life I guess you'd call it, in the years when my mother and father were still married, and when we still had (in a manner of speaking) a family life.
My father's ranch. Where my father still lived. I thought I'd give Catherine it and him, at least for a few weeks in the summer. I thought I'd be strong enough to make him like me.
So did I suddenly sniff the dust of the Southwest one morning in the smoggy city winds? No, I never did that. But I remember when the idea of the thing appeared aloud, slipped out into sentences one morning, a Saturday morning in late May I think it was. Our bedroom warm with sunlight. The big quilt half off the bed. Two coffee mugs and part of a newspaper on the floor. Catherine moving around the room, barefoot, half naked in pale blue underpants, her hair wet like a swimmer's from the shower. The walls are chalky white in need of painting. The windows open wide, letting in the usual sounds: traffic, kids playing down the block. "I think we should go out to Santa Ana in July," I said.
She was standing across the room from me, holding one of the little three-dollar plants she'd buy at the market and tend as if they were pets. At first she didn't say anything, as though she hadn't heard me. But then, very quietly, she said: "You want to see your father?"
"I want you to see my father," I said. I wondered if she could see inside my head and knew what I was thinking. The fact is I wasn't thinking anything just then. I never thought about my father. Never saw him, talked to him, dreamed about him. We didn't, as they say, communicate.
Catherine was bent over the little plant, smooth white legs, bare feet on the straw rug. It passed through my mind that in some way I was thanking her for all those times she hadn't asked me, hadn't pushed me, hadn't poked me with a stick like Tessa and all the others. "How can it be that you don't ever see him?" they'd say, each one so eager to meet, to be charmed by, to make the acquaintance of my famous father. But how could I explain that he and I were merely an accident of kinship? That he'd passed through my life like a night rider, a highwayman, and that the sum-total of his regard for me, and eventually of mine for him, was zero. Catherine was standing upright now, a yellow plastic watering pitcher in her hand. "I'd like that," she said. And, "It's what you want, isn't it?" And I said, "Yes," because, whatever happened, I'd have her with me.
I said I never thought about my father but the truth is for long periods of my life I couldn't remember anything about him, except I suppose for his being tall, and for the oddest details — details of dress they often were: a certain kind of hat he wore; a gold money clip someone had given him, shaped like a dollar sign; a blue silk scarf he used to drape around his neck — not so much around his neck as across his shoulders. The scarf I think was a present to him from my mother the winter we were in Rome together, back in the early fifties, "not long after the war," as people dated time in those days. We stayed in that huge gray hotel just off the square (at least it seemed huge to me at eleven): dark marble lobby and ancient threadbare armchairs and men in greatcoats walking in from the cold wet streets outside. I think he'd just finished directing a movie in England (Flight to Tempelhof, it must have been) and was now in Rome having talks with some Italian producers — about which project or projects I don't know, for in the end I don't believe anything came of it. This was in the heyday of his "international period," when he was forever taking ships or planes to distant parts, making pictures as he called them, or making deals about making pictures, while my mother and I (on leave from school, or simply "between schools") dutifully trailed after him. I know I wanted to like Rome. My mother certainly wanted me to like it. "It's going to be such a treat for you," she said in her enthusiastic voice before we left, doubtless hoping it would turn out that way for her as well. And, "Imagine going to Rome at your age!" Years later when I went back there as an adult, as a magazine correspondent in another winter, I was struck by how the pink and amber buildings glowed with light and warmth, how the sunlight sparkled everywhere. But that winter long ago I remember no light, no warmth, no sun, no glowing pink or amber. Instead drear skies; wet sidewalks; cold floors; cold sheets in bed at night — enough to chill the marrow as my mother used to say.
We had a number of rooms in the huge gray hotel: a suite I guess it was, with a fancy bedroom and living-room arrangement for them, and a small adjoining room for me, and then a room nearby for prim Miss Ferguson, who handled correspondence and appointments for my father when he was abroad, and under duress helped my mother with her clothes and errands, and even took some vague supervisory charge of me when they were out. My recollection is that they were nearly always out (though rarely out together), and I was always in, lying on my bed trying to keep my attention on a book (my mother was keen that I not "fall behind" in my reading), or trying to persuade Miss Ferguson to play gin rummy, or wandering downstairs to hang around the lobby and spy on the somber men in military uniforms who often sat about the bar, sipping drinks in exotic colors and eating fistfuls of nuts. But then there was no telling when my mother might return; usually late in the afternoon when it was already dark, but sometimes early, after lunch, around two or so, rushing into my room, hugging me fiercely, with a kind of distracted crossness ("Look at you! You haven't even been out today!"), and then out we'd go, in a taxi, or now and then in my father's hired Citroën if it was available, honking our way through the rainy streets to some gloomy museum or damp church, or once into the incomprehensible immensity of St. Peter's. "I know you'll tell your children about this someday," she said to me afterward as we were sitting in an indoor café having hot chocolate for me, vermouth for her, and little cakes for both of us. She had a way of eating her cake with her fingers, like a child, and then looking back over her shoulder as if someone were about to come in and tell her not to.
I didn't see much at all of my father in Rome that winter, but then I never did. "He's a very busy man," my mother used to tell me, though whether explaining his absences to me or to herself I didn't know. I already knew he was a very busy man. In fact, I seldom minded his being busy; I felt there was a sort of stability, an order to things, when he was elsewhere, working. One day she told me that he and I were going to "do something together"; he was going to take me out to one of the big studios on the outskirts of the city to watch the filming of one of those big costume epics — Hercules or Son of Hercules or some such thing. I was instructed to get properly dressed. And to be waiting in my room. And not to be late. "Now don't go wandering about," she said. "I won't," I said. In due course the hour for the great expedition came, and (as I knew it would) went. So did another thirty minutes; another hour. My mother herself was off somewhere. I found Miss Ferguson drinking tea in her room. "He's probably delayed in traffic," she said and patted me on the head, the first time she'd ever done a thing like that. I waited out a full two hours and then went downstairs to the lobby. For a change it was a nice day outside. The big fortress-like doors, normally closed against the rain and cold, were open wide; a uniformed porter was kneeling on the marble floor polishing brass. I followed my usual route, loitered near the newspaper stand, sat for a while in one of the tall chairs facing the front desk, then wandered off to the right in the direction of the bar. It must have been mid-afternoon. The cavernous dining room was empty, with one or two waiters clearing up after lunch. In the musty writing room an old lady was seated at one of the desks writing postcards. Inside the bar — a long rectangular room with heavy green curtains and hunting prints on the walls — there were four people seated around a low table at the far end: three men and a woman: two men in raincoats so it looked like, a woman in a dark suit, and my father. I felt I should probably leave; back off as quietly as I'd come in. But I didn't. One of the other men was talking. I could hear my father's voice breaking in — low, harsh, jocular. He was making a joke of some kind. The others were laughing. And then he saw me. His eyes staring at me across the floor. His face suddenly like stone. I thought: I turn his face to stone. He had the blue scarf draped around his shoulders. He beckoned me forward and motioned me to an empty chair between the two men in raincoats. One of them was talking about someone called Simon who had either just made or lost a lot of money. My father told a story about Simon that again made everybody laugh. The waiter brought me a Coca-Cola. One of the men produced a briefcase filled with papers, laid the papers out on the table. The woman asked me if I enjoyed school. At one point my father said, "The trouble with Leo is he thinks you can rent the fucking Sahara." I don't know if he said anything at all to me or not, or if he even looked at me, but I know how strangely safe it felt to be in that chair, in that harsh dangerous place, with him nearby. And then he looked at his watch and stood up. "Christ, I've got to go," he said. For a moment I thought he was about to take me out to watch the movie being filmed, but then he looked down at us, the other men and me, the papers on the table, and said, "I'll see you guys." And turned and left the room, the woman following behind him.
There's another afternoon in Rome that also sticks with me. Late afternoon. A pale gray light everywhere. I'm in my room. A book and playing cards on the bed. My mother and father are both off somewhere. I think they may even have gone out together this time. The hotel is very quiet. Outside the windows, the city itself feels silent, as if asleep. Then I hear voices on the other side of my door, their voices, coming from the living room. Muted at first as if they're talking quietly, whispering, exchanging secrets. But there's an odd rhythm to the dialogue. Unmistakable inflections. A new and frightening kind of music. My father's voice is deep as usual, but has a surprising flatness to it. My mother hisses, quick, jagged sounds, sibilant, like a bird, her voice rising, rising ... Then there's a crash! Like an explosion; like destruction. And silence. The noise was so loud I think a window must have been broken. Many windows. But the hotel — everything; everywhere — is suddenly as quiet as before. I'm standing in the middle of my room. No, near the door. My hand is on the doorknob, turning it ... Inside the next room I see my mother standing alone, her back to me. Fragments of a glass vase lie on the carpet. A small pool of water. A dozen or so long orange flowers are scattered at her feet; gladiolas they must have been. "I had an accident with the flowers," she said. I started to pick up the pieces of broken glass. "Watch out, don't cut yourself," she said. I wondered where my father had gone and what had happened; there was something about the light in the room that made it seem as if he'd never been there. I picked up the flowers and gave them to her. She was standing in the middle of the room, holding the orange gladiolas in her arms; then she shook her long hair from side to side the way she sometimes did when she was trying to make up her mind about something, and said, "We better find some water for these, shouldn't we?" Years later when she was living in that little house in Baltimore, not long before she died, I talked with her about that winter in Rome, but of course she remembered it all quite differently. "I guess we had our fights," she said, "but I know we never smashed a vase. I know we never broke anything." And, "Will you ever forget St. Peter's and that golden winter light? Wasn't it all so thrilling?" But when I saw those orange flowers on the floor, I think what I knew was that one day he and she were going to break up, and that he was going to leave us, and I suppose by the same token we were going to leave him.
We were driving across the desert when the storm hit. Great black clouds floating in, solemn and heavy, across the mountains to the west. You could almost feel the wind come up, see the dust swirling above the sandy flats. We'd been steaming along the new highway, air conditioner revved up to max, the radio crackling with country chatter: New Mexico crop reports and livestock news. Catherine was over at the far end of the seat, notebook on her lap, felt-tip pen between her lips. She brought a little spiral notebook with her whenever we took a serious trip (two such trips in two years of marriage) and entered, as far as I could tell, anything from occasional private thoughts to details of scenery and even weather. It was a habit I guessed she'd picked up when traveling with her parents and not yet abandoned. "Is there any music?" she said. Her voice so even, level, calm. I loved her matter-of-factness, her simplicity. I loved her. Pretty face in profile. Legs stretched out straight toward the floorboard. Long legs in tan cord trousers. There was an evening before we were married, driving in this same car into the New England countryside. The Stockbridge Inn was where we were going; a weekend in early fall. Catherine wore a dress that time; a kind of light madras skirt that rode far up her legs, her thighs. I wondered, did she know it had ridden up so far? Had she meant it to? That evening I'd put my hand on her leg, her bare leg, and moved it up and up and finally under her skirt. Such a sweet feeling: that nest of softness under my hand. Now, another time and place, I saw again her long, limber legs and wished them bare of corduroys and whatever else. I reached to turn the radio off. My hand on the knob. At which point there was a loud burst, almost an explosion, of static and noise, and then the rain hit the windshield.
Excerpted from Say Goodbye To Sam by Michael J. Arlen. Copyright © 1984 Michael J. Arlen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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.