This particular morning, however, he waves from the corner and is not seen again, nor is he heard from, for years. Decades later (at Oscar’s funeral) his daybooks come to light—a record of the missing years and of his life as The Invisible Mensch.
This unremarkable man will soon become an unforgettable character as you accompany him on his flight through the 1950s in a highly original second novel from Larry Duberstein, whose earlier work, The Marriage Hearse, was hailed by the critics.
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About the Author
In his other incarnation as a human being, Larry is the father of three beautiful daughters, an accomplished woodworker and builder, an avid tennis and basketball player, and the person who walks Alice Brownstein, the wonder dog.
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By Larry Duberstein
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1988 Larry Duberstein
All rights reserved.
A Hole in the Water
Well I kept going, just as I imagined it possible, and now I'm gone. Not far—I never meant to go very far. I'm no world explorer, not a tourist of some kind, just an everyday joey who crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. This is still my territory here, smells like saltwater and diesel, feels all right to me, and the people speak my language. Of course I know the neighborhood, since Kramer re-located here years back.
This hotel is nothing but a dump, for drunken sailors and two-bit crooks I'm sure. The Bedbug Hilton. They can't even offer the use of a tub or shower, but I will be gone from here too, as soon as I have worked out a few minor details. Such as where I go instead. I look for a place the oldfashioned way, knock on every door. Because the newspaper is a big waste of time. Anything good in there gets snatched up while you are still fishing a nickel for the phone-call.
This notebook will be my diary, to keep track of things, keep tabs on myself, as time races away and nothing is left behind. A man who goes overboard and drowns is just a hole in the water, and it will close over him fast. Likewise something might occur yet by the very next week you lost track of what it was. And it was your life.
Dear diary. You see that keeping a record like this gives you something to do, it obligates you, and can also serve to absorb your worst fears. For instance I worry about the Missing Persons. I stagger around with sugarwater in my gas-tank thinking, Oh my God what if Tanya has called in the Missing Persons! Of course I am not missing, I am right here, but she doesn't know that until she gets to the bank and finds all the money.
So I peek through the filthy curtains of the Bedbug Hilton like an escaped convict, and I peek around every streetcorner before advancing, to see if the FBI has got me staked out. No wonder I woke up this a.m. and suffered a nice bout of going back—thinking, drop the whole idea and hustle back there before the soup really thickens. If I turn tail today then nothing has changed. Just the drummer fell asleep and missed a beat. It is possible I didn't lose a single order yet. Go down to the office, make my calls, and erase it from the record with some little story. It never happened.
The diary is my salvation. If I start to put it all down, start to talk about it, then I will not do it. I'll get calmed down and put my nerves on the back burner till after breakfast. And so I am talking to my diary (this is me talking right now) and I am not going to the office to make my calls. I am going elsewhere—out to Jamaica to make the first post.
Same night. On the beam out there. I had a feeling for the 7-horse in today's feature. She got bumped early last time and drifted way back, so there she was at 10–1 in the morning line and I knew better than that. So did a few others, and bet her down to 3–1 at post, but it was still pretty good. Then for the hell of it I hit a quinella on my way out the door and took home a few hundred altogether.
Also, in the meanwhile, I stopped worrying. Out there my nerves are steadied. Someone this hot the F.B.I. won't find even if they are looking. And I recalled my friend Tannenbaum, the criminal lawyer, who told us the bad guys always went to some little town upstate to hide, East Flat Rock or Horseshoe Junction, where they stood out like a tuxedo in a nudist colony. Manhattan is the place to play lose-me, he said, and no one is smart enough to know it.
Well I am. So I was set to pick up one of those phony Groucho-noses, with the glasses and eyebrows attached, at a joke-shop near here, but decided to stand on my dignity instead. And I got back and sat down in the Battery Park reading my evening paper, just like a person who isn't missing in the first place.
Tomorrow I get to take a peek at the room on Battersea. Here's hoping I like it and it likes me, because for one thing I could use a bath. Play with fire you get burnt, live in a ditch you get a little messy.
I might take my penny and march myself up to the public baths on 1st Avenue and then again I might not. It's warm enough I could splash in the sea at Coney Island and get clean (if you call that clean) and I'm sure no soul would recognize me at the beach. I haven't bared my chest in public for ten years. Still I could be spotted on the train, a sitting duck, that's where the risk would lie.
Another thought I had (though just a joke, like Groucho's nose) is on Tanya's dancing afternoon sneak in my own house and enjoy a nice hot shower. Like a ghost, float in. A wraith, the invisible mensch, that's me.
But Mrs. Getz would get me. She would spot me for sure and start yelling out her kitchen window, Oscar Oscar, good to see you home safe and sound! Anyway it's not for real. I would never go near the place, it's too rough on Tanya. When I am sitting here and thinking about there, then I am just a kid playing a game, that's all. And what's the name of the game? You run away from home, of course.
Saturday. I am in "first position" for the room at 10 Battersea Street. Whatever the hell that means. I think it means I hustle back there in the morning and offer the little weasel six months rent cash in advance if I want the place.
Because your credit is not so hot, your credentials, when you must answer "Current Address" with The Bedbug Hilton.
Sunday. Yes I got the room. I was right. Without a job or an automobile registered, without so much as a goddamned suitcase, a man is not a good risk. Face it, a liability, he doesn't impress. Either they let him out of prison last week or else they haven't quite gotten around to putting him in there.
How do you turn a liability like this into a benefit? How do you make a good impression in this city? Show your money.
I let him have three months in advance and a phony name and I can move in next weekend. Last time I moved house I ordered up the biggest truck they had—this time it will take two shopping bags, maybe three.
Touched down at the library as it opened up today, then out to the track in time for lunch. Hearn very much excited about Price Tag in the first and bet his shirt. (Lucky thing he's got more shirts at home.) I had no big opinions myself but made out a little anyway.
Riding back on the train I remembered how right after the War I was going only now and then to the track, and playing a few races with Kramer. I was too busy then, getting ahead in life. Maybe I put a thousand a year on the line, maybe I got twelve hundred back. I know I never in my life had put so much as fifty dollars on a single horse, or never but once and that was a horse I dreamed about the night before. In the dream I watched this nag, Silly Ginger, crossing the wire with about ten lengths on the favorite. So I took a fifty-dollar flyer and so did the horse. That saved me from getting religion.
Anyhow it was that way for years, I was just playing the races, and then somewhere along the line I began taking the Morning Telegraph at the warehouse, delivered fresh every morning, and heading out to the Island a few afternoons a week. And I got a little reckless too—I didn't mind. One day win big, next day give it back, hundreds every day one way or the other.
A man on the edge, that was me, in love with danger. Look now—my business sits rotting across the East River and here I sit feeling no pain. The thrill, however, did not come from danger at all. In truth the reverse. The thrill came from the fact that I could sense no danger. I risked nothing because the money didn't matter to me. I didn't love the money so much anymore (who knows why) and that made it into a game, a child's play again. If you don't love the money, then let five hundred go, let one thousand. Doesn't hurt you.
And that was the real thrill, finding out there was no danger to fear. The discovery that nothing matters. Because that is freedom.
Now when you choose to maintain a diary you are holding yourself accountable. I detect in my latest that "nothing matters." But it gives me pause to read it, where it gave only the greatest pleasure to write it down.
Can it be such a cause for joy that "nothing matters"? If nothing matters will a person find happiness? Where? So something is wrong here.
A test I conducted today. Because I can say that nothing matters but does nothing matter in fact? I can say I'm Roy Campanella but that don't make me roly-poly. So I went out there and for the first time in my life I bet what Hearn calls a dime—what I call a thousand bucks. Will I not care a damn if I go stony broke and don't have the price of a hot dog and a watery coffee?
Unfortunately for science I had no chance to sweat on this one. Too smart a bet. Peashooter was good at 4–1 in the morning but he was already an underlay at 2–1 when I took him a thousand bucks worth and thanks in part to me he went off at 7– 5. An underlay is my most nervous bet, even for a fiver, because I never expect a horse to carry the flood of late money from the panic-buyers, the bandwagonmasters. It's like extra weight on his back.
Today however the smart money was smart and he went wire to wire in a cool breeze. I broke it up in little pieces, my big bet, because you don't want to attract anyone's attention and you never know where Uncle is. They make you sign in with Uncle and pay your taxes on the spot only if the odds are very long, but a ghost must put some thought into all his large transactions.
And this was large—the down payment on Buckingham Palace. Yet it fouled up my test. I started parlaying it back in pieces too, on the jockey, on the barn, on the five-hole—wild bets I was happy to lose, if only because a handicapper hates luck, or dumb luck, until it leaves him. I was not handicapping, though, just gambling, and I gave back most of the dough before I was done for the day.
Still it did not test my theory because this was play money, someone else's money I was spraying. Wasn't money I felt a strong attachment to. Easy come easy go dough, that's all it was today. Yet such a nice day. A sea breeze and clear sunshine on every square inch of the world including my heart.
Tomorrow's the day. I take up occupancy at 10 Battersea Street, hence this is my last night at the Hilton. History in the making, Oscar Carnovsky slept here! (Though he has slept better elsewhere.)
I was not looking forward to copying out the doctor's story—anything over twenty minutes I get writer's cramp. But Mrs. K. at the library saved my bacon. She used her thermofax to provide me with my own personal copy—I can just file it here and have plenty of time left over to pack up my toothbrush.
There is no scandal on Skid Row. In a very real sense all scandal occurs in high places, for it is the very height of the place that lends the whiff of scandal. And one of the sniffiest in some time is now unfolding in the exclusive upper-crusty Connecticut shore village of Deephaven.
At the center of the storm stood the once and future Dr. Mark Widmer, who five years ago was a wealthy, highly regarded obstetrician with practices in Deephaven and New Haven and a summer home in Peacham, Vermont. Handsome and charming, the patrician Dr. Widmer was "a man you liked and trusted instantly." He had the bedside manner. He also had three children and a wife of twenty years.
Once and future Widmer, though, because for the last five years, during which time he was missing and deemed legally dead, he was Harold "Hal" Prince of Savannah, Georgia. This is how it happened:
On a bright windy March morning in 1950, Dr. Widmer strolled some two miles along the private strip of beach from his home to the ocean marina, cooperatively maintained, where he and a few other families moored small craft. The boats were not in the water. The attendant's shed and gashouse below were shuttered. Inside the shed at this time of year would be "maybe a few pennants and a rusty anchor, nothing much," according to Widmer's longtime friend and associate Dr. Frank Parsons, also of Deephaven.
Upon the sturdy oaken dock were found (some twelve hours later that night) the doctor's clothing and shoes—every stitch and seam—and a pair of binoculars he used for viewing sea-birds, a hobby. The binoculars were a personal treasure of Widmer's for having once belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt.
The inescapable conclusion was that Mark Widmer had gone in the water and never come out.
Whether he went voluntarily, on a whim, or because of unknown foul players, it did not seem he could be anyplace else. He might have washed up farther down the coast, or been rescued by an outward bound fishing vessel, but the general assumption was he had drowned.
Moreover, though they could find no motive for it, the police believed that suicide was indicated. Captain Sherman of the Connecticut State Police continued to believe even after the insurance companies agreed to pay full damages on the double indemnity clause, that the careful placement of clothing on the dock constituted "a note of sorts, a clear enough message." Not himself a swimmer in any season, Captain Sherman could not be persuaded a man might dive into the sea for pleasure on a cold March morning when the water temperature was 39° Fahrenheit.
Against the trooper's instincts there arose the full weight of unanimous testimony from Deephaven's elite that the very idea was ludicrous. Widmer was simply too vital, life-loving, beloved by friends and family, valued by the town, a pillar of the church, and so on right down the line. And so the verdict, taken in the absence of any proof to the contrary, was accidental death by drowning.
The records were filed away and Louise Widmer set about the difficult task of caring for three teenaged children in a large house, admittedly wealthier by $100,000 yet still reeling emotionally from the shocking loss of a man she had loved "all my life, it seemed."
Meanwhile, the pillar of the church was living it up down in Florida with his beautiful young girlfriend.
For as it came to light last month (when he returned some five years after the moving pageantry of his own ritzy funeral), Dr. Widmer had not drowned that day. He had not even got his tootsies wet. Instead he had unpacked a bundle of clothing on the dock, tossed his well-known binoculars on top for effect, and cut through the fringe of pinewoods leading back to the road where a woman who shall be called "Catherine" here (that is not her actual name) was waiting for him in her 1946 Packard. In the trunk of the car were suitcases, a portable radio, and a canvas bag containing 500 ten-dollar bills.
They put up for two weeks in a motel on the Gulf in St. Petersburg, where Widmer read on the beach and Catherine went to watch the baseball players train. Then after a trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains, they settled in Savannah where he worked, under his own whimsically chosen monicker Hal Prince, in a marine biology laboratory, reading slides. The life they carved out in Savannah—rented homes, jobs, two small children—was the one they shared more or less up to the time Prince returned, or Widmer did, to Deephaven last month. He told his wife over the telephone that he had a lot to say to her so they should perhaps plan on having dinner in the city that evening. She had not remarried.
Catherine had been the doctor's patient. She was young (24), pregnant, and unwed. She didn't even have a steady boyfriend. The baby's father had been "passing through." But she was a very pretty girl and she was also a bit of a Bohemian, having worked chiefly as an artist's model in New Haven. Though her family was well-to-do, her father in fact a banker, they had not heard from her in years.
Widmer fell in love with the girl and she accepted his protection, medically at first and then in every way. They carried on their affair in his Deephaven office until the baby had begun to show and the doctor had begun to plot his disappearance. Just so, in a Georgia coffee shop this Spring, he began to draw up a scheme for returning.
He missed the practice of medicine. Having had two small children to raise, he wished very much to see his three grown ones, and he wished to be with his wife again, walking the familiar strand, birding, clamming ...
Excerpted from Carnovsky's Retreat by Larry Duberstein. Copyright © 1988 Larry Duberstein. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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