On a summer night many years ago, when I was 8 or 9, Cousin Marvin escaped from Great Lakes Veterans Hospital and found his way to his mother’s house on the west side of Chicago, some 35 miles south of where, essentially, he was incarcerated. Aunt Ella called my father, her brother, around the time he was closing his dry-cleaning store at day’s end, and, though tired from his work, he resigned himself to driving Marvin back to the hospital. It wasn’t the first time my father had performed this task. This time, though, he brought my mother and me along for the drive. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my parents in my father’s black Dodge, I turned in my front seat to look back at Marvin, heavy-set in his hospital pajamas, squeezed between his mother and my younger brother, looking with expressionless eyes at the night lights passing along the highway, lights that dimly lit and unlit his face.
Marvin was only a few years younger than my father, but according to some relatives, there was a family resemblance between Marvin and me, despite the age difference. Something about the slant of the eyes and maybe the bump at the bridge of the nose. I had noticed my resemblance to other relatives, as well—relatives, however, who apparently had a greater grip on their minds and emotions than Marvin. He was legally “incompetent,” which I have taken to mean that he was incapable of caring for himself, though he certainly seemed to find his way around. He wasn’t violent or bothersome but needed regular hospital care.
I wondered what had happened to Marvin’s head for him to get this way, how he could resemble some of us but be so different. And I wondered, Could something like that ever happen to me? Or my father or brother? These were thoughts so dark and scary that I felt I couldn’t share them with anyone, especially not now. In the car, rolling back home through the night, I felt a cold shiver ripple down my spine.
I glanced up one afternoon from my belt stand on Maxwell Street, then still a thriving, unashamedly raucous old-world marketplace in Chicago—this was 1957, when I was 17—and I thought I saw emerging from the hot river of Sunday summer humanity three of my relatives, one of whom would have either escaped, again, from the mental institution where he was held or was on furlough. Was this odd sight, on this street of odd sights, Aunt Ella and her sons, Marvin and Herbie?
In the haze from the smoke of the nearby hot dog and Polish sausage open-air stand—which also emitted a strong smell of onions frying—and amid the sparkle and glitter of pots and pans bought and sold on the street, I could imagine my mind and eyes playing tricks.
The street was a Chicago landmark, since destroyed (lock, stock and used toothbrushes) to make way for the tennis courts and parking lots of the ever-encroaching University of Illinois near the West Side of Chicago. Immigrants of dozens of nationalities made their way there and sometimes up, for over half a century. Other cities, I learned, had similar streets, like Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of New York. My parents had both been born on or near the street and eventually moved farther west, where I was born. But commerce was still alive and well on Maxwell Street when I was in my early teens, and it was a place where many of my friends and their fathers returned and still worked in the clothing stores along the street, in the jewelry-laden kiosks along the curbs, behind the card tables where a world of sundry goods was stacked on Sundays when cars were not allowed. I had begun by selling stockings for a man on the street, a cousin of a friend of mine, and then, with the help of my father, embarked on my own business, selling belts, hawking them to the passersby, stopping now and then to see the Watch Man hustling watches that ran up and down his arms, or the gypsies looking for wallets (not their own), or the blues musicians recalling lost loves and promoting their mojos by passing the hat.
Shading my eyes from the blazing sun and the other filmy elements, I clearly made out Aunt Ella, with Herbie and Marvin trailing behind her. Aunt Ella, one of my father’s five sisters, wore wire-rimmed glasses, lipstick that didn’t quite follow the outline of her lips and a faded print dress that reached her ankles, which even I knew was out of fashion. Her graying hair was tied in braids and arched across the top of her head. If there was a black sheep in the family, Ella was it. She lived at poverty level and, as most of her several brothers and sisters contended, earned it by her eccentric ways. “She lives,” said my Aunt Rose, the eldest sister, “like a gypsy.”
Aunt Ella, Herbie and Marvin, out shopping, noticed me and dropped by. I kissed my bewhiskered Aunt Ella, and she spit three times. Not real spit, just a spitting sound with tongue and lips—ptew, ptew, ptew—to ward off the evil eye. She always did that; it was an old custom of hers, one in which she believed fervently.
I said hello to my cousins. Marvin, a large man, had a hump in his chest. He wore a flannel shirt, despite the heat, and kept his eyes focused on the ground, even when I shook his hand, soft as a pillow. Herbie—shorter, stouter, a few years younger than his half-brother and wearing a man’s hat that looked a size too small on his head, a tight polo shirt and loose jeans rolled up at the cuff—offered me his hand to shake, too. I was shocked when I gripped it. In the few years since I’d last seen him, his fingers had become gnarled, twisted by arthritis. They felt like a bunch of twigs in my hand. I quickly withdrew my hand from his with surprise and revulsion that I later hoped was not too evident to him.
Aunt Ella whispered to me that Marvin was home on a visit from the hospital, rendered to her custody. She and I spoke briefly about the family and about what she was doing on the street this day: looking for a lamp.
I turned to Herbie. “What’s new?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said.” I wish something was new.”
“Marvin,” said Aunt Ella, “say hello to Ira.”
“Hello, Ira,” he said, looking down at the pavement.
It had been a few years since I had last seen Aunt Ella or Cousin Herbie. And I hadn’t seen Cousin Marvin in about three or four years, when, again, he had been on furlough from the hospital. That last time, I happened to see the three of them walking into an eye doctor’s storefront office on Devon Avenue, near my home on the North Side. When I entered the office, I saw only Marvin. He was seated in the waiting room, his hands folded, staring at the floor between his feet. Obviously Ella and Herbie were behind the store curtains, one of them having their eyes checked by the doctor.
“Marvin,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, not looking up.
“Do you remember me?”
His eyes still studying the floor, he said, “You’re Ira.”
There were other times when Marvin, tired of confinement, escaped, slipping past the nurses and guards at the Great Lakes Veterans Hospital and hitting the open road, hitchhiking on nearby Highway 41 into Chicago, some 35 miles away. Truckers and motorists, unaccountably seeing nothing unusual in his green or blue hospital pajamas, picked him up and eventually landed him in the city.
In some kind of military snafu, Marvin had been drafted into the Army during the Second World War. He had been released soon afterward to the hospital. The family asserted he was shell-shocked from the war—that’s what I had been told as a boy—and I pictured cannons going off as Marvin fought fiercely beside them. As I one day learned, his military career lasted just three weeks and not at the Battle of the Bulge. It was at a base in Texas.
Shell-shocked was the family euphemism for his mental or emotional problems, from which he had suffered since childhood. Families in those days hid mental illness from public notice, believing that it stigmatized all the relatives. How, after all, do you explain bad blood flowing through the family arteries?
Some of my relatives thought Ella was to blame. Ella was an outcast, for the most part, for her argumentative and defensive ways, as well as for her odd lifestyle. Ella had been born in Rumania, along with three of my father’s older siblings. One of them, Max, would invariably get fed up with Ella. “She should have fallen over the side of the boat when we came over,” he used to say.
“She’s nuts,” my mother would say, “and she makes other people nuts, too. She made Marvin nuts.” There was no evidence to that claim about Marvin, other than the very existence of Aunt Ella, but who knew, really? My mother surely wasn’t as forgiving as my father, but she went along with him, reluctantly, nonetheless.
I, however, had a special affinity for my Aunt Ella. When I was small, she, along with Herbie—always with Herbie, but rarely with Marvin, who was almost always someplace far away—took me to the zoo or to a movie. While Ella was strange in many ways, she was what we’d today call “streetwise.” She was responsible in regard to looking after the safety of herself, as well as of her offspring. My parents at that time had no qualms about her looking after me, either.
One unforgettable afternoon when I was 5 years old, in the summer of 1945—a summer when the war was still on, when squadrons of bombers on maneuvers sometimes blackened the sky, and my father’s dry-cleaning store cleaned service personnel uniforms for free—Aunt Ella took me, along with Herbie, to Riverview Park. I can clearly recall waiting with anticipation for the red streetcar, which came along with a clang of its bell and a small explosion of sparks where the trolley pole skimmed the wire above it. I excitedly held my aunt’s hand as I boarded the high steps of the streetcar, my magic carpet.
With the money my parents gave us and with some of Aunt Ella’s, too, we indulged in popcorn and hot dogs, and Herbie and I went on a roller coaster and the Ferris wheel and Dodgem bumper cars and then gave our tickets to enter the scary Aladdin’s Castle.
From the outside, I was entranced by the Castle’s cream-puff spires, and once inside, I was amazed and deliciously frightened by its host of skewed mirrors that made you look fat or skinny, tall as a rod or short as a fireplug; by its secret panels and doors, not knowing which opened and which didn’t; and by its dark passageways and blue-lighted skeleton that suddenly appeared in front of you.
After all this, we left the park, with me eating a mound of cotton candy. As we waited for the streetcar to return home, I remember thinking, This is the happiest day of my life. Then I vomited at the curb.
My father, the youngest in the family, was respectful of his eight siblings, including Ella. It seemed no matter how bizarre her actions, my father was there to help her. She moved often, and it was always my father she called to load up her meager furniture and cart her and her family to the new domicile, which was often in some dark, basement apartment with steamy pipes overhead and the ankles of passersby visible from the windows. If she needed help with an insurance form, she called my father. “What are you always bothering with her for?” my mother would say to my father, as he pulled his coat on. “She never appreciates anything.”
“I guess I should have my head examined,” he would say as he went out the door, “but she’s my sister.” Years later, I thought about how the family, including Ella, had come to my father’s aid when he was without parents and in a seemingly alien world. The pain and fear of those days had never entirely left him—he suffered headaches throughout his adulthood that he believed stemmed from his teen years—nor had his gratitude.
But Ella never seemed satisfied with anything Harold, my father, did for her. “Harold, is that all the money I get from the insurance?” “Harold, how come you came so late?” And one time, my father reached his limit with her. As he carried a box of clothes to the car when she was moving, she said, “Harold, why are you going so slow?”
At that, he flung down the box, the clothes spilling onto the sidewalk, and kicked the clothes, screaming,” Shut up! Are you crazy? You bitch! Don’t you see I’m trying to help you?
“Forget it,” my father said, gathering himself and the clothes and, perhaps with some embarrassment about having an outburst in front of me, stuffing them back in the box.
Ella rarely lived long in one residence, and she and her boys slept on cots, or even chairs, in the hot basement or, on occasion, in a chilly attic. I visited them in those places and marveled at how they managed to live. And then they would be evicted for one thing or another.
They invariably had a small television placed on a chair, box or trunk. The TV was always blurry, with handkerchiefs wrapped like flags around its long, crooked, rabbit ears, making it just clear enough for Herbie to see his favorite actors, the tough guys like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and, as he called him, Edgar G. Romson, meaning Edward G. Robinson. Herbie had the best education in his family, as far as I knew, going as far as the seventh grade and then dropping out because, as Ella said, he was too busy for school. Herbie shined shoes for a living, walking about the street in search of a customer, then setting down the wooden box he was carrying, which was stuffed with brushes and wax and polish, and going to work on a shoe, his shine rag flying.
Ella had been married twice, the last time to Harry Bell, a small, bony man with deep-set eyes behind small glasses; a thin, black mustache; a lean, wrinkled neck; and odd eyes. He looked like pictures I’ve seen of a slightly off-center, if not slightly inebriated, Edgar Allan Poe. Uncle Harry liked to drink, as well. He had emigrated from Russia as a young man and never lost his deep accent, despite having lived most of his life in America. He also tried to look natty, his black hair slicked with oil and pressed to one side of his face, a thin necktie protruding from his white shirt collar, his pants frayed at the pockets but with a careful crease, his old shoes cracked at the instep but polished to a mirror shine.
I drove him home from Maxwell Street one day—he had been shopping for fishing gear and had waited for me to finish work—and I remember his criticizing the president. He said, “I got more brents in my little finger den Eizzenhower got in his whole head.” I once visited his roof, where he trained pigeons in coops, and I remember him at family weddings and bar mitzvahs, at which he danced the Russian kazatzka with aplomb, a traditional glass of wine perched unsteadily on his head. The trick was to not spill any wine while dancing the difficult dance, consisting of legs kicking forward from a crouched position.
Harry danced, and Harry kicked, and the glass toppled, and the wine spilled.
I have no idea how Harry courted Ella, or perhaps she him, but what I do know is that Ella and Harry bickered a great deal. As Herbie got older, he defended his mother. Sometimes there were harsh words between Herbie and his father, but clashes between Ella and Harry were hardly new.
My father remembered helping Ella and Harry move when he was a teenager—they were going from Chicago to Toledo. This was before Herbie was born and Marvin was in an institution. Ella, Harry and my father traveled cross-country by horse and wagon. It took weeks. They groaned and pushed the horse and heavy wagon up steep inclines. They slept in farm fields. Ella and Harry fought. My father, sick of the contention, left and hitchhiked home. Ella and Harry stayed in Toledo for only a short time and then returned to Chicago. My aunt and uncle had numerous separations and threats of separations during that period, but they remained together in a tenuous alliance. A number of years later, when I was a boy, Harry left Ella for good, but he did it gradually. This is how it happened:
Harry always had a job of some sort (1 remember when he worked in an ice-making factory) and seemed to live his life among stacks and piles of things. When I visited him in his small apartment during one of the numerous separations from Ella, I saw on his kitchen table a hill of newspaper pages spread out and laid one on top of the other. If it was the Yiddish newspaper, then he might read the news off his tablecloth. When Harry finished eating, he’d just fold up the top paper, crumbs and all, and toss it in the wastebasket. Beneath it was a ready-made table covering for his next meal.
Harry didn’t use a closet for his clothes; he used it for his fishing gear and for the lamps he loved to make and sell on Jefferson Street, more of a flea market than the adjacent Maxwell Street. Since there was no room in the closet for his clothes, he stored them neatly folded in a wardrobe trunk.
One night, Ella and Herbie waited for Harry to come home. Dinner passed without him, then midnight, then the dawn. No Harry. Ella, beside herself, called my father. He told her to call the police. Harry had disappeared.
Several days went by, and for some reason, Ella decided to look into Harry s trunk. All his clothes were gone. Harry, not wanting Ella to know of his plans to leave, had left their apartment every day wearing an extra shirt and pair of pants until the trunk was bare. I’m not sure how he spirited out his shoes, but he managed that, as well.
My father soon learned of Harry’s whereabouts from an acquaintance and went to Harry’s apartment and knocked. Harry opened the door a crack, saw my father, and said, “Harold, go ‘vay. You vant cause trouble for me?”
“Harry,” my father said, “I appreciate that you’re not happy at home, but you can’t just leave Ella and Herbie without money. They need a little help from you.”
“I’m not going back,” Harry said. “She makes me meshuga. And Herbie—Herbie gave me a clop on the ear. My ear still makes noise from it.”
He also voiced displeasure at the periodic appearance of Marvin, who often came through the front door unexpectedly. “Nothing against Marvin, may he go in good health,” said Harry, “but Ella gives him my couch to sleep on and all my cigarettes, too.”
Despite all this, my father succeeded in cajoling Harry to give Ella some small amount ofmoney every week.
As cantankerous as Ella was, and as gentle a soul as Harry was, my father, once again, did what he could for his sister.
I have never forgotten the night with Marvin when my father drove the whole family to the Great Lakes Hospital. I remembered that feeling again when I received a phone call from my father, in Chicago, one Friday evening. It was February 1980. I was 40 years old, living and working in Manhattan.
Marvin had run away, my father said. He had been on a two-week furlough from the hospital, staying with Ella and Herbie, sleeping on their small couch. They had been out and somehow lost track of Marvin. What they found out from running around and talking to people was that he had gotten hold ofa ticket at the Greyhound station and boarded a bus headed for New York.
“Try to find him,” my father said, over the long-distance wires.
Try to find him? “Dad,” I said, “this is a pretty big place.”
“Was I born yesterday? I know New York City is a big place. So, figure what he might do.”
“He doesn’t have any money, probably,” my father continued, “so he might go to the Social Security office for help. He’s done that before.” Marvin received Social Security checks for mental disability.
It happened that I was able to leave my work after a short period and go uptown to the Social Security office, a huge area held up by bare, white pillars; a desert of desks; and numerous people walking around, almost all of them hauling papers and folders. I saw no pictures on the walls.
I was led to a woman who looked as if she had been born for this stark office. She wore glasses and a dark business suit. She sat
behind a desk near a large window. I took a seat and told her I was looking for a man named Marvin Bell, and why. She got up without speaking and went to a file cabinet behind her. She thumbed through a row of manila envelopes and returned empty-handed.
“No record of a Marvin Bell here,” she said.
“There has to be,” I said. Ella had told my father that, years earlier, Marvin had stolen away to New York to get a Social Security check at the main office there.
“No, there doesn’t have to be,” she said. Her glasses sparkled in the winter sunlight that shot through the window. I couldn’t see her eyes. She offered no further help.
I left the Social Security office and called my father from a pay phone. No answer; I would try later.
In the cold, gray, winter afternoon, I walked down Broadway, the snowy street crowded and bright with billboards, and wondered about Marvin. Where could he be? Was he in New York? Or had he managed to move on?
“Try Rose” my father said by telephone, some hours later. I had forgotten that, prior to Harry Bell, my Aunt Ella had been married to a man named Rose, who was Marvin’s father. I never found out what had happened to Rose or whether he had gone the way of Harry Bell, departing from Ella two shirts and two pants at a time.
It was nearly 5 o’clock when I called back to the Social Security office.
“Could you check a ‘Marvin Rose’?” I asked the same woman.
“It’ll have to wait until Monday,” she said, with a frost in her voice. “I was just out the door for the weekend.”
“I understand that it’s an inconvenience to check the record right now, but I’m concerned about my cousin,” I pleaded. “He’s in a new city. He’s a guy who might not be able to take care of himself, and the temperatures are supposed to drop below zero tonight. He could be in danger.”
“The office is closing. There’s nothing I can do,” she said. I felt that, if her teeth had been the phone, she’d have tried to bite my ear.
“Please,” I tried again, “it would only take a minute. The files are right behind you.”
There was a pause. I then heard the phone hit something—it was the desk—and then there was the rattle of a file drawer opening. Then the roll of the file drawer, and then slam!
“A request to have his checks re-routed has been made by a Father Donegan,” she said.” He’s at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi over on West 30th Street. They take in a lot of homeless there—people who get shooed out of Penn Station by the police and go a block down to the church.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate your—”
The phone clicked off.
Were these the kinds of people Marvin had to deal with regularly? Marvin was nothing but a file folder to her. Bureaucrats like that, I imagined, must have worked at the hospital where Marvin had been placed for nearly his entire life—they were everywhere, after all. What were those unfriendly and unfeeling people like in the dark of an institution, without the sunlight coming through the window on Broadway? One heard of mental institutions that were snake pits. I had never heard that about Marvin’s hospital, but it made me wonder: Was that why he tried to run away? Had he been running not to but from?
I called the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. Father Donegan was out. I asked the man at the other end if they knew anything about a Marvin Rose. “No, but you can try Father Donegan again,” the man said. “He’s expected back later.”
That night, my wife, Dolly, and I went out for dinner. When I finished eating, I left the table to call Father Donegan. He was still out.
I returned to the table. “I’m going to look for Marvin,” I said.
Dolly asked to come along.
“It’s a cold night,” I said.
“If it gets too cold,” she said,” I’ll go home.”
It was bitterly cold, in fact. Once outside, breathing the raw air, my lungs felt as if I had just swallowed a Popsicle. It was only 8:00 in the evening, but Second Avenue was nearly deserted. The few cars and taxis that coursed down the street seemed nearly consumed by the billowing, white smoke from their exhausts. The streets and sidewalks were icy, and black snow lay in forlorn humps along the curbs. The wind blew cuttingly, lifting some of the snow and scattering it lightly onto the street.
“Oh, there’s a free cab,” said Dolly, through the scarf that covered her mouth.
The taxi slid to a stop, and we climbed in. I instructed the driver to take us across town to Penn Station, thinking it was a place where Marvin might have gone to stay warm. Once there, we walked through the long, yellow corridors and into the waiting room. People sat on wooden benches—people in furs and people in ragged, cloth coats. Some sat sipping drinks from paper cups, with briefcases at their feet and reading The Wall Street Journal. Periodically, they looked up to watch the clicking schedule board for the 9:16 local to Philadelphia or Washington or the 9:42 express to Boston. Other people never looked at the board. They were the ones in rags, there simply to keep out of the cold.
My eyes roamed over these people, hoping to pick out Marvin. I hadn’t seen him in some 15 years, since I had moved from Chicago. I didn’t know how much he had changed and wasn’t sure I would recognize him. Dolly had never seen him and so, of course, couldn’t help.
I approached a young policeman who leaned against a wall with his arms folded. I told him what I was doing. “We flushed out a number of vagrants about an hour ago,” he said, matter-of-factly. “They go into the street, but eventually, they crawl back in here.”
Dolly and I walked around the station and then downstairs to the gates of the Long Island trains. It was darker and noisier there. The catacombs of the station reverberated with the scratchy public-address announcements of train departures and the clatter and rap of video games played by young men in stocking hats and hoods. Leaning over the machines in deadly earnest, the young men fired computer guns and detonated quick-moving little creatures. Some of these people seemed to take a certain delight in killing people, or at least in making their lives miserable, even if, as in this case, they were only the lives of cartoon characters.
I saw no one who resembled the Marvin of my memory.
“Let’s try the church,” I said. “It’s nearby.”
It seemed to have gotten even colder outside. Steam curled from manhole covers. People hurried along the street, seeking shelter. Dolly and I walked down Seventh Avenue to 30th Street and turned left. The streetlights were not bright, and 30th Street was quiet. In the distance, the church came into view; the lights shining on its yellow bricks gave an eerie, wintry feeling. As Dolly and I drew closer to the church, we saw a man walking slowly in front of it, heading our way. He walked to where the lights from the church entrance ended in shadows, stopped, turned, and walked back the way he had come. When he had paced to the other end of the church, he turned and, with a heavy step, came back.
Closer now, I could see him better. He was a large man, probably 6 feet tall or taller if he didn’t stoop. The gray coat he wore looked too small for him and too thin for the painfully frigid weather. It was obvious, with the tight coat, that he had a considerable stomach. His pants were light green, thin and too short, and they looked like hospital pajamas. He wore large, brown shoes with thick heels. They looked wooden, as though he were walking in large cigar boxes with heels. My first thought was, Where did this man get such shoes? Then I wondered, How could he possibly walk in them?
The collar of his coat was fastened by a large safety pin. The coat covered what appeared to be a hump in his chest. I thought he shivered. He must have been very cold. The puffs of his breath were not just from the brutal weather, however, but also from a cigarette he dragged on. We were now just a few feet from him. His face was thin; his hair, gray and cropped short. It stuck out in unattended sprigs. He looked down at the sidewalk as he paced and smoked.
I walked up to him, and he stopped in front of me. He did not look up.
“Marvin?” I said. I thought it was him, but I wasn’t positive.
“Yes,” he said, softly
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” he replied.
“Do you know who I am, Marvin?”
“Ira,” he said. He did not raise his eyes to look at me.
It was exactly like the last time I had seen him, in the eye-doctor’s office about 15 years earlier. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
I removed my hand from my glove and reached over to shake hands. His hand was stiff with cold.
“This is my wife, Dolly. Dolly, this is Cousin Marvin.”
He said hello. His voice was gentle. He glanced up for a moment. His soft eyes were red and moist. He seemed shy.
I asked why he was out there, why he wasn’t inside the church, as the woman at the Social Security office had believed he might be.
“They said all their beds were taken,” he said.
“Couldn’t you go to a city shelter?”
“I’m afraid of city shelters,” he said. “They beat you up. They steal your shoes.” I knew he had been in shelters at times in Chicago, at least when Ella had moved and he didn’t know her whereabouts— and maybe the last time he was in New York, as well.
“Where were you going to sleep tonight?” I asked.
“I don’t know. On the sidewalk.”
“On the sidewalk?” I said. I pictured him in a heap at the curb, a frozen heap.
I turned to Dolly. She looked at me. “Marvin,” I said, turning back to him, “would you like to come home with us?”
“Oh,” he said, “that would be wonderful. Do you have a basement? I can sleep on the basement floor. That would be wonderful.”
I told him we lived in an apartment building.
“Does it have a basement?” he asked.
A cab took the three of us back to our apartment. When we arrived, Marvin entered the building through the revolving door ahead of Dolly and me. The doorman jumped up, seeing only the ill-clad Marvin.
“Hey, you can’t—”
“It’s okay, Robert,” I said to the doorman as I came in behind Marvin. “He’s with us.”
The doorman looked hard to try to figure out Marvin’s relationship with Dolly and me, and for a moment, he must have felt his blue-uniformed authority was being questioned. Quickly, though, he acquiesced to a higher authority—a tenant.
In the apartment, I told Marvin that he would sleep on the pull-out bed in the couch in our living room.
“Oh, no,” he said, “if it’s all right with you, I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“We’d like you to sleep in the bed, Marvin,” I said.
There was a smell about Marvin that made us wonder when he had last bathed. He had, after all, been on the road for two days—two hard days. We offered him our shower, which he accepted. I took his clothes from him as he undressed. His wrinkled skin was as pale as a baby’s. I noticed the scarred, large protrusion in Marvin’s chest. It was about the size of a grapefruit.
As he dried himself after the shower with a large towel, Marvin explained that there had been an operation for lung cancer some years before. I asked about his smoking now. “What do the doctors say about it?”
“They say I shouldn’t smoke,” he said.
“Why do you?”
“I like it,” he said, handing me back the towel.
I gave Marvin a pair of my pajamas. Though the top fit, the bottoms were rather snug. Dolly had gotten the bed ready for him, with the sheets looking clean and inviting and the pillow, fluffy.
“Can I have a pail?” he asked.
“A pail?” said Dolly.
“Sometimes I get sick in the night,” he explained.
When he crawled into bed, he seemed comfortable enough, but I also got the impression that he felt he was troubling us and that the basement bed—the floor—would have rendered him guilt-free, as he might have been in a corridor at Penn Station.
I asked if he were hungry, and he said no but that he needed a cigarette before going to sleep. In our bedroom, Dolly whispered concern about Marvin’s smoking in bed. I said I’d speak to him about it.
He was lying on his side, one arm propping up his head, and smoking, the ashtray—an old saucer, actually, since neither Dolly nor I smoked—on the carpet below.
“Marvin,” I said, sitting down at the lower end of the bed, “would you mind if I take the pack of cigarettes and matches? Smoking in bed makes Dolly a little nervous.”
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “Certainly. Here.” He handed me a half-filled pack of Lucky Strikes. I felt as if he were handing me his most valuable possession for safekeeping—in fact, it was probably so. I couldn’t think of another material possession, other than possibly his flimsy coat or gunboat shoes, on which he might set an equal store of value. He had nothing else, not even a return ticket out of town. His life seemed so simple, so uncomplicated—in a strange way, I envied that—but I also wondered, What were his fears, his longings?
Dolly had remarked to me about the family resemblance and added that it was true to some of our other mutual first-cousins, like Mel Wolff, the successful automobile dealer whose name and photograph was known around Chicago because of his newspaper and billboard advertisements, and Ian Levin, the black-robed judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County. And here I was, a working writer. And there was Marvin. We all shared the same paternal grandparents. Different and enigmatic roads taken by people of like blood.
I turned off the bed-stand light and fell off to sleep.
“Ira,” I heard. I felt a poke in my arm, waking me from a dream of Aladdin’s Castle. No longer in that haunted house, I was in my own bed, and the urging was from my wife, beside me.
“Marvin’s in the room,” she whispered, an edge of fear in her voice.
Slowly, I eased from my dream, and in the dark, I made out the large, hunched form of my cousin. He was opening a drawer. I snapped on the light beside me.
“Marvin,” I said evenly, “what are you doing?”
“I need a cigarette,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I need a cigarette.”
“It’s very late,” I said.
“I know,” he said, gently, “but can I have one of my cigarettes?”
They were his, of course. Maybe they were almost everything psychological or emotional that he wanted or needed, too, at this stage of his life. He was about 60 years old, with most other wants or needs having been squashed by time and circumstance. The only other necessity I could think of was the occasional desire to escape.
In that, maybe he was no different from anyone else. He was like me, though I did not escape in the physical sense. During complex times, I’ve sometimes wished to change my life and place but have only escaped in a dream during sleep or in a daydream.
I climbed out of bed. “I’ll get your pack, but go in the other room, okay?” I said.
He did, and I got the pack of cigarettes and matches from the drawer where I had placed them for safekeeping. Marvin had probably heard it creaking earlier, determining correctly that it contained his treasure.
I was no doctor and could not determine the extent of Marvin’s mental or emotional problems, but I was aware of the law of compensation, by which, say, a blind man develops a sense of hearing more acute than a person with sight. My aunt Ella developed responses to the world around her. She was great, for example, at lawsuits for taking a fall, planned or otherwise, in a store, which made her better able to deal with an alien world. And I observed that Marvin, too, had some special and unexpected traits. It was also the law of survival, an animal instinct that, I thought, I also shared, in my way, as a writer, whose eyes and ears had to be open to perceiving with some accuracy other people’s worlds, as well as my own. Did I essentially know where mankind’s cigarettes were hidden? Could I find out?
Marvin, I thought, might have been better at his job than I was at mine.
It was 2:30 in the morning, and I sat with Marvin on the edge of his bed as he smoked one cigarette and then asked for another. He held the cigarette European-style, with his hand inverted and the cigarette gripped between his thumb and index and middle fingers, each of them yellowed from years of tar and nicotine. An idle thought occurred. I wondered where he learned this, or if it just came naturally, from some of the old movies he might have seen with his half-brother, Herbie. No matter. I was prepared to sit there and allow him to smoke the whole pack if he wished to. “I can go to sleep now,” he said, after the second cigarette.
The next morning, after I emptied the pail beside his bed—for Marvin had gotten sick as he said he might—I got my father on the phone and told him that Marvin was with me. He suggested that I put him on a flight to Chicago right away and that he meet Marvin when the plane landed at O’Hare. When I told Marvin of the plan, he said he was afraid of airplanes and asked if he could take a bus or train instead. I thought a train would be faster and more comfortable.
I checked the train schedules, called my father again, and told him that Marvin would be taking the train that afternoon and would arrive in Chicago at 8 the next morning. He said he’d call Ella, and they’d meet Marvin at Union Station.
“But I won’t have to call Ella,” my father said, on second thought. “She’s been calling the house every half-hour, starting at 6 this morning. Driving your mother crazy.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Driving me nuts, too.” He paused. “But I’m glad you found him.”
Dolly left the house to go to work, and Marvin and I were alone. I rolled back the convertible bed into the couch. Marvin refused to sit on it or on any of the stuffed living-room chairs.
“I’m more comfortable on the floor,” he said. And he lay stretched out, one hand supporting his head.
I knelt and showed him a brown-and-white photograph of a dark-haired woman in a dark suit and white blouse with ruffled collar, in what seemed an obviously old and grainy picture, perhaps taken in the early 1920s, nearly 60 years before. The woman had been dead for some 50 years, but he had seen her, I know, as a small boy, though I never had. She died before I was born.
“Do you know who this is?” I asked Marvin.
He took the photograph and studied it. “Dolly,” he said.
I took the photograph and looked at it, thinking I had made a mistake. “No,” I said, “it’s our grandmother.”
Shortly before noon, Richard Huttner, a friend and neighbor of mine, called and asked if I’d meet him for lunch at a nearby coffee shop. I said I couldn’t, that I had my cousin visiting me.
“Fine,” Richard said, “bring him along.”
“Well, I don’t think so,” I replied, not wanting to go into detail. Marvin was within earshot. “He’s had a long trip from Chicago, and he’s about to make another. I think he’d just like to stay here.”
“Want me to buy something and bring it up there for lunch?” asked Richard.
“Just a minute,” I said. I turned to Marvin, cupping the receiver with my free hand. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
I said, “What would you like for lunch?”
“A pack of Lucky Strikes,” he said.
“Cherry Life Savers.”
“Okay,” I said to Richard. I gave him my order: a turkey sandwich and an orange soda. “And my cousin,” I said, “will have a pack of Lucky Strikes and a roll of cherry Life Savers.”
“That’s all?” said Richard. I could picture his brow knotting.
“That’s it,” I said.
When Richard came through the door, holding our lunch in a large brown bag, he saw Marvin and stopped short.
“Richard,” I said, “I’d like you to meet my cousin Marvin. Marvin, this is my friend Richard.”
“Hello, Marvin,” Richard said slowly, digesting the scene.
“Hello, Richard, sir,” said Marvin, his eyes cast on the carpet.
Richard quickly got the drift of the situation, and it turned out to be a pleasant but brief lunch, during which Richard and I ate at the dining-room table and talked about things we would have spoken about had Marvin not been there. Periodically, though, I caught Richard glancing at Marvin out of the corner of his eye, perhaps wondering at first if he should be concerned for his safety. After a while, though, Richard came to the impression that Marvin was, like him, a relatively docile creature.
As he lay on the floor, Marvin, for his part, seemed unconcerned about anything except the cigarette he was smoking and the Life Saver he was sucking.
“Goodbye, Marvin,” said Richard, as he was about to depart.
“Goodbye, Richard, sir,” said Marvin.
I wondered where the sir came from. Was it part of his life in the institution? I would not ask him questions about his past, about his life. I couldn’t. I was terribly curious, but any questions of that nature would, I thought, seem like prying and possibly patronizing, too. After all, he didn’t ask me about me, Dolly, my parents or my brother. He just took our world as it came, the way, I am sure, he took the sun and moon and stars and, probably, the iron gates on the porches of the veterans hospital that I remembered as a boy.
I didn’t ask him about his longing for travel or flight (excluding air transportation), or if he had wished for a different world for himself, as I sometimes did when my world—the world of work and family and health and love and despair—grew tighter around me.
I decided not to intrude on his world, that shadowy, inner cosmos, as I imagined it. I would, however, talk generally about his mother and brother, and I recalled to him some pleasant experiences I’d had with them. I mentioned Riverview Park.
“I was there once,” he said. “It’s a big place.”
“It’s gone now,” I said. “It was torn down to make a supermarket and a parking lot.”
“Oh,” he said. He did not seem moved by the news.
We prepared to leave and take a cab to the station. I had given him a shirt and sweater, and he wore his own pants, since mine didn’t fit him, and his own coat. I also didn’t change his shoes, for they seemed too much a part of him. We walked from my apartment building on 30th Street to First Avenue, a distance of about 200 feet. It was a long 200 feet because Marvin walked very slowly, his head down, his step with his large shoes appearing as heavy as concrete.
It was only a matter of minutes before we arrived at Penn Station. Marvin, beside me, moved ploddingly through the hurrying crowds and past the panhandlers and bundled drifters, one of whom he had been just the night before.
I purchased a ticket for him, and we proceeded to the train. From the dim tunnel of the platform, I led Marvin onto a car of the train. It was well-lighted, and the crushed-velvet seats looked comfortable, which was important because Marvin had a journey of about 18 hours ahead of him.
I showed him to his seat, beside a window overlooking the platform.
“I think you’ll be okay here,” I said. I reached into my pocket and handed him seven $10 bills. “Here, Marvin,” I said, “you might need this for food and cigarettes—and Life Savers.”
“Oh, that’s too much, too much money,” he said, staring at the bills in his hand.
“No, it’ll see you through,” I said.
“Thank you, Ira, thank you,” he said, stuffing the money into the pocket of his too-light, too-small winter coat.
“Need anything else?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I have everything. No kidding.”
No kidding. It sounded like something that would come from a 6-year-old, not a 60-year-old, it was so out of place.
I smiled, took Marvin’s hand, and shook it. I did not say goodbye. At that moment, no words could come, and I thought that if I tried, I’d cry.
Marvin, sitting and studying his shoes, said nothing, either. I turned with a wave and walked off the train.
I stopped on the platform about a half a car away, and despite the various reflections in the windows, I could still make out Marvin. He looked out the window, maybe looking at me. I didn’t think he saw me, but I could never be sure with Marvin. Twice in the past—once very recently and once years ago—I had stood in front of him, coming virtually out of the blue to him, and he hadn’t looked up but, when asked, had said my name without hesitation.
I couldn’t be sure what he was seeing, what he was thinking, what he was feeling. My journalistic training gave me no clues. I thought it possible that he understood me better than I did him. While some of the wires in his head might have been crossed oddly, that head might still have been much less cluttered than mine, less opaque and, thus, in its way, might have possessed a clearer perception of our mutual worlds.
Suddenly the train lurched, hissed, and began to pull away from the platform. The windows of the car Marvin was in began to slide past me in a series of gliding reflections. It was like returning to the trick mirrors of Aladdin’s Castle. I wasn’t certain of what I was seeing. I wasn’t sure, as the windows began to slip by more quickly, whether the face I was viewing was Marvin’s or mine. I understood for the first time that, in the end, the difference between Marvin and me, to a great degree, was the result of a trick mirror of nature.