Brothers Leo and Max Land came to America from Romania in 1911, but they took different paths in pursuit of the American dream. Even as they worked together, Max sought out material things while Leo made a simple, private life for himself. Now, after the death of both brothers, Leo’s three sons—the only surviving heirs—learn that they stand to inherit a fortune. As they battle for control, they come to expose their own deeply complicated visions of success in America. The Will is a stunning portrait of American idealism crushed under the weight of material desires.
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By Harvey Swados
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1963 Harvey Swados
All rights reserved.
When you were young and a friend died, Solomon Stark reflected as he steered absently through the slush on the road to the municipal airport, you wept; but when you were past seventy, the tears did not come so easily, even though the loss was correspondingly greater. Instead you felt the shuddering wind that was building up to gale force to blow you down too, in your turn; and, driven onward by the wind, a swirling flood of reminiscence. At least the memories were less chilling than the frosty intimations of mortality, and if you had been lucky there was a certain sweetness about them, as if flowers had been uprooted and were borne past you on the crest of the flood.
Leo Land, that strange man, his friend of forty years' standing, had died the day before, on New Year's Eve. Now Leo's son Ralph, having been away ten years and more, was flying out from New York to bury him and to find out what he—and his older brother Max, carried off by a malignancy only the week before—had left behind. Ralph would find out a lot more than that before he was through.
If not for me, Dr. Stark thought, in all likelihood there would have been no Land sons; but at this point he was uncertain whether it would be worth while to take credit for the consequences of his single exercise in matchmaking. When he had first met Leo, shortly after World War One, the druggist had been a shy young man, still a greenhorn, content to let Max do the pulling and hauling, both in their pharmacy and in their personal affairs. Left to his own, and to the domination of a brother aggressively confirmed in bachelorhood, he would surely never have married. But Solomon Stark had intervened at last, after ten years, by introducing the timid schoolteacher daughter of some patients to his friend, who at thirty-nine was fifteen years her senior. With luck and a shove, he had married them off over the opposition of Max, already cracked and more excited by hoarding than by women.
The years before Leo's marriage had been the best ones of their friendship, the doctor thought as he rolled through suburbs still silently sleeping off the New Year's celebration. Not that they hadn't remained close thereafter, through the Depression, the war, and the rest, until the moment yesterday when he had leaned over the hospital bed and lowered Leo's blue-veined lids over his faded lifeless eyes. But it was Leo's bachelor years—less careworn for them both, not yet marked by their mutual retreat to personal concerns, and punctuated with leisurely encounters and the exchange of intimacies that neither had ever been able to discuss with others—that had welded the bonds between them. The friendship would have continued, by occasional correspondence, even if one or both had moved away; and perhaps, the doctor thought wryly, that would have been easier on them both.
Certainly he himself would not now be stuck with the multitude of miserable problems that refused to follow either Max or Leo Land to their graves. Nor would he have had to watch, over the years, the slow dying of the glow in Leo's beautiful eyes, as he cringed in the dusty depths of the store, shrinking from his brother's growing mania for the collecting of everything from bottle tops to broken scooters.
Installed behind the brothers' pharmacy in their dank and airless rooms, Jenny Kadin Land had done her best to make a home, and within two years had presented Leo with two sons. All that she had succeeded in doing, however, was in confusing two men who had been committed bachelors, making their common life impossibly crowded, and squeezing out her brother-in-law to satisfy his eccentric cravings by pawing over garbage. As the boys grew, Jenny came to feel that she was losing them, to admiration of the wrong traits in their uncle, and worse, to hatred and disgust for their whole mean existence. In a last desperate effort to have something that would be all her own, she gave birth during the Second World War to her last son—and drove out Max for good, to the rambling relic of Victorian eccentricity that he had picked up for tax arrears.
As for Leo, pinched in a vise between younger brotherhood and fatherhood, he had shrunk almost visibly, frightened by what was happening to his sons. In the process he had lost whatever connection he and his wife had, however shyly, established between them. Almost inevitably, it seemed when you looked back on it, Jenny had given up the struggle and died apologetically, of a myocardial infarction, leaving Leo to do what you might have known he would: take his motherless remaining boy to that nutty house of the brother who had wished for nothing else than a resumption of their interrupted bachelors' menage.
But before all that, good God, what a charming and sympathetic man Leo had been! And how few people had known or understood this! Max had been quick and clever, and occasionally even admirable (at least in the youthful immigrant's doggedness with which he had whipped the two of them through pharmacy school, helped by no one, and into their own drugstore just in time for the flu epidemic). But if Max himself had not recognized the rare virtues of a brother to whom he was devoted only because he wished to dominate him, how could anyone else? At his best, not yet haunted by a sense of failure and dissolution, Leo had been full of whimsy. Imagine, whimsy, in a town like this! Dr. Stark was rather proud that he had spotted Leo's special qualities, for the druggist had been a man who withdrew tortoiselike into himself if you didn't extend yourself to him.
In the Land brothers' drugstore—with Max ostensibly at the wholesaler's or delivering prescriptions, but usually roaming the streets for other people's leavings or searching for bargains that no one else would want—Leo had always been hospitable with a glass of beer rushed from the saloon next door, always eager to discuss scraps of news and gossip he had picked up on odd subjects: symbiosis, parthenogenesis, photosynthesis, words which despite his mispronunciation he breathed with a lover's fervor. Half the time he wasn't wholly serious, with his schemes for preserving sperm, abolishing eyeglasses in favor of his own eyeball exercises, rearranging the menstrual cycle for women athletes. When you proved to him that he was all wet, he'd even giggle.
He was willing to listen. That was rare enough to make anyone endearing and, with Leo, what made it more so was that he understood you. You could talk about Strindberg, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, to say nothing of Stekel or Stack Sullivan, without his calling you evil-minded—an expression which had actually been used on the doctor by a local matron.
So, weary from climbing long flights of stairs, satchel in hand, to attend young women with fibroids, middle-aged women with imaginary ailments, and old women with varicose veins, he had refreshed his spirits from time to time with Leo, in his clutter of powders, salves, unguents, and tinctures, surrounded also by the incredible junk that Max was sneaking in through the back door.
For years the back of that store had been Dr. Stark's haven, in a city that had no membership bars or private sporting houses where a man like him might cock a leg, down a beer, and discuss matters that no ambitious clubwoman or gossipy shrew would want to, or even ought to, comprehend. Leo had been the only man in whom he had ever been able to confide his unrealized aspiration ...
Well, all that was over. Aside from any sentiment aroused by the finality of death, the truth was that their connection hadn't suddenly been ruptured yesterday, or even the week before, when Max had died, but had perished slowly and for a long time, over the years. All that time, though, it had flickered; during the young manhood of his own son Marty, Dr. Stark had been glad to drop in on Leo while Marty had taught fiddle to the snot-nosed kids at the Settlement House down the block from the pharmacy. Among those kids had been Ralph Land, a good ten years younger than Marty, but white-faced and withdrawn even then.
Ralph had grown up and gotten out, as so many of them did. He had never come back, not until now, when the old man was laid out waiting for the boys to bury him next to his wife and his brother, and to dig out the dirt that had surrounded them.
What a mess Ralph would be walking into! No, it was no time for tears. Remembering what Ralph had been like before he went off, the doctor rather doubted that he would cry today. Not he, a man who had been all too glad to leave the city and the other Lands, and must now be around thirty, with his own life and hopes elsewhere.
He swung his car into the airport interchange and coasted slowly to a stop in a two-hour parking zone. Ten minutes early, just as he had calculated. He locked the car carefully, checking all four doors (it was his satchel, and the drugs in it, that tempted certain kinds of strangers), and picked his way through hummocks of crusted dirty snow into the waiting room. A few flakes of confetti, bright but forlorn, still speckled the glossy tile just inside the glass doors; either they had escaped the washer-waxer or they had since fallen from the clothing of flying travelers, molting after New Year's Eve. As if somewhere people were still celebrating, a hidden melliferous loud-speaker emitted, barely audibly, "Auld Lang Syne." But nobody was celebrating here, neither the yawning ticket clerks leaning, half awake, on the counter tops, nor the bored kids pawing fretfully over comic books. The lounge—who the hell would want to lounge in it?
Nevertheless, Dr. Stark adored airplane travel. The saving of time on his semiannual vacations was considerable, but that was just an excuse. It was fun to float above the clouds and sip coffee poured for you by a well-corseted Big Sister whose seams were always straight. He admired too the impersonal architecture, airport-modern, with its airy escalators, floating mobiles, endless baggage-delivery belts. They made moving about seem easier, they directed you toward the future rather than the past, they made you feel younger.
More important, though, he had associated travel for the greater part of his life with the city's drafty, vaulted railroad station. Its moth-eaten bison, defeated, killed in fact, without ever knowing what had hit it, stuffed and mounted on a pedestal near the Information Booth, had always been for him a symbol of the city and of all his years in it, the whole kit and caboodle. Depression and war, those were what came to mind when he entered the overblown terminal and stood beneath the bison, gazing at dwarfed travelers hurrying to or from misery (a job lost, a funeral, a draft call), stumbling lopsided under the burden of sagging suitcases strapped with rotten leather belts. Mothers weeping as they turned away from their boys; white-faced children shipped off like parcels, tags tied to their buttonholes; sailors blustering to conceal their loneliness. The arrivals passed under the bison without a glance, huddling outside on the raw and wind-whipped mall, waiting numbly for a bus to jerk them away.
With the airlines, you came or went in a limousine, by God, you didn't stagger along with monstrous heavy valises (if only because you couldn't afford the overweight), and you didn't have to carry baloney sandwiches to eat on the way, either.
The music, melting like a pat of butter on a pancake, disappeared. A sexually indeterminate announcer proclaimed the arrival of Flight 181 from New York City at Gate Three. Obediently, Dr. Stark made his way to Gate Three and, gloved hands deep in his pockets, surveyed the disembarking passengers. They did not seem pleased with the advantages of air travel. Bilious and weary, looking as though they had stayed up all night to celebrate their soon-to-be-severed connection with the greatest city in the world, they might have been all but shanghaied aboard, to be conveyed for whatever depressing reasons to this provincial city on the frozen margin of the lake. Well, never mind. Which of them was Ralph Land?
There he was, no doubt of it. Resisting the impulse to hurry up to him, the doctor hung back to observe his friend's son for a moment. Ralph was a head taller than his father had been, but the years since he had left home had not fleshed out his angular form. His stern and essentially humorless face, with its narrow upper lip and high-bridged nose, was pallid, almost garishly so, in the morning light: razor nicks, with their bright dried beads of blood along his stubborn chin, bespoke a hasty careless shave and threw his city pastiness into relief. He did not appear grief-stricken, though, as he proceeded swiftly, storm coat swinging, to retrieve his bags. Rather he looked, the doctor thought, angry and—despite the quick abruptness of his walk—uncertain. He had a lot to be uncertain about; if he were to know how much, maybe he would never have come.
Dr. Stark strode up to him from behind and gripped him by his thin but wiry upper arm.
"Welcome home, my boy."
Ralph whirled about tensely. If his recognition was unsmiling, it was nevertheless unhesitating. Yet it seemed to Dr. Stark that it was his own voice more than his features which had at once resonated in the young man's mind. Weren't people supposed to remember more readily what they had seen than what they had heard? But then of course they had spoken only yesterday, when he had phoned Ralph long distance to inform him of the second Land death in a week.
As Ralph was saying nothing, he went on doggedly, "I only wish that we could be meeting under happier circumstances. Still, it is good to see you after all these years. You look very well."
"I never thought ..." Ralph started to speak in his rather reedy voice, revealing that he had acquired a New York accent—neva for never—which to one who had known him forever was funny, like a mustache on a growing boy. He stopped abruptly and started again: "I just couldn't get away last week for Uncle Max's funeral. But Papa's death ..." He stopped again, his Adam's apple working.
Yesterday, on the phone, he had said Father. Now he said Papa. Did it mean anything? For ten years, practically ever since his departure for Korea, he had rarely troubled to write home.
"We'll talk about that in a little while," the doctor said in his most businesslike fashion. "Are these your bags?" He took Ralph's claim checks from him and bent over the belt line. "I'll take one."
"Please, you mustn't."
"Nonsense. You shouldn't consider me as feeble just yet." He inclined his head toward Ralph's shoes, which, like most New Yorkers', were not even encased in rubbers. "And the going is treacherous outside. Come, follow me."
He led Ralph Land out into the frosty air, saying, "You've managed to keep from putting on weight, but then none of you ever were good eaters. Care to stop on the way for a cup of coffee?"
"I had some on the plane. It was kind of you to meet me. I'm sure you're busy."
The doctor waved this away with his free hand and pressed on to his car, a big newish model with flaring fins and many lights fore and aft, like a small yacht. It was splattered with dried salt crystals and bore frozen crusts of drifted snow along its window edges, but inside it was still warm and close. Dr. Stark tossed his satchel into the back seat alongside Ralph's valises, then quickly started up the motor. Almost at once, the hot air began to circulate about their legs.
Ralph cleared his throat. "I didn't know how much to bring along, because I wasn't sure—"
"Yes of course. A rotten way to start off the new year, I'm afraid. I'd say you're going to have to stay on quite a while. You might as well face it, Ralph: things are a mess."
Ralph did not even blink. "They've been a mess ever since I can remember. Certainly ever since my mother's death. So I'm not surprised. I don't suppose you approved my staying away, but I've never regretted it."
"Approved? You've got the wrong guy." The doctor grunted as he swung the car out of the lot and headed back for the city. "Listen, I've put a lot of effort in trying to dope out why people's bodies, to say nothing of their minds, behave the way they do. That's a hard enough job. As for passing judgment, I leave that to the priests and the novelists. And whoever else gets ego gratification from it."
"I would have stifled if I'd stayed here."
"Or died of shame, right?"
Ralph did not respond to this. He remained sitting quite stiffly upright as the doctor stole a glance at him. His thin lips were pressed firmly together.
"Well anyway," Dr. Stark said casually, "I think I understand why you pulled out. But I think I understand too—although that's a little more complicated—why your uncle and your father lived the way they did. And died the way they did too, for that matter." He felt compelled to add, "As for your kid brother, that's another question."
That jerked Ralph around. Nervously he undid the buttons of his storm coat and loosened his scarf. "What about him?"
The doctor considered for a while before replying. This was a poser, harder by far than picking up the telephone to tell Ralph that his father of seventy-one had been laid low by a doughnut truck. At last he began, "Raymond took both deaths very hard. Just the same, he didn't go to Max's funeral, even though he was right here in town."
Ralph turned to face him. The doctor could feel his stare, hard and full. "Why not?"
"Because he hasn't left Max's house in three years." Dr. Stark looked sidewise at his passenger. "Didn't know that, did you?"
Excerpted from The Will by Harvey Swados. Copyright © 1963 Harvey Swados. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 Dr. Stark,
15 Dr. Stark,
About the Author,