“Coffee and cake first. Fresh Freihoffers!” my father declared as my boyfriend Alex and I walked in the door. This invitation was presented with such enthusiasm Dad could have been tempting us with the pastry equivalent of Domaine Romanée Conti instead of Gallo. At one time my father had been extremely particular. Only the flakiest babka from Gertel’s would have suited. But since Rita, the love of his life, threw him out for the usual reason, dames, he sought comfort from others whose taste buds were not as discerning. Their influence rubbed off. Bascially, he didn’t really care, as long as someone else did the preparations, he was game to eat.
“That’s great, but no thanks,” I said. Alex, still furious with my father from our last visit when he called Alex’s beloved law professor a shvartze, walked silently passed the cake offer into the living room and started playing with Kate, my father’s Weimarener.
Alone with Dad, I noted three places were already set in anticipation. “All right. I’ll have a cup of coffee.” I acquiesced instead of starting the visit with a scene.
“You’re going to drink instant?” my father asked.
“Whatever made you think that?” I said. I went to put the water on then I pulled out the French Press and the coffee I brought up with me from the city.
“How did my Mouse become such a snob?” he said.
We have arrived at the new food morality, I thought. Quality is considered snobby, and eating bad food is considered egalitarian. It was going to be a long day, especially if my father was going to start it with sugar. “What about a little protein. I said. “Should I fry you an egg?”
“Do I tell you what to eat? So, be good to your old man. Give him a break. Keep him company. Have a bite,” he said, sitting down and giving the adjacent chair a shove out. “So, Mouse, what’s new?” he asked.
“Nothing much,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a million bucks,” he said.
He looked terrible. His color was almost as grey as his goatee.“What’s new with you, Mouse?”
This was entirely too reminiscent of our Sunday morning family court ordered visitations. At sixteen years of age I learned there was no limit to how many times you could plunk, “So, what’s new?” into the middle of a conversation. For too many Sundays we sat in that diner, the inevitable New York Times at his left, coffee and bagel and lox in front and he would ask.
“Nothing, dad. More coffee?”
“What are you going to eat?” he asked.
“This piece of melon.”
“Take a bagel.”
“No. I just want the melon.”
“You don’t eat.”
“Do I look underfed?”
“You get no protein.”
“So, what’s new?”
Twenty-five years later, our conversation was still reduced to the same repetitive pattern only now, instead of lox, Dad, eyed the industrial cake and once again insisted to me, “Something must be new.” Trying to be creative he took it a step further and added, “If you won’t tell me anything, I’ll tell you what’s new. You don’t eat anything.”
In my family, why talk about anything real if you could eat? It was really when the words came out you got into trouble. Mercifully, Kate scampered in. Having determined there was food in the vicinity, she sat down next to her master, swished her tail on the floor like a windshield wiper, lifted her head and pleaded.
I carried over the coffee and watched as my father prepared to pierce the crusting of coffee crumbs with a knife. “Alex, old man, get in here,” he called.
“Dad, he doesn’t eat cake,” I said.
“I’m not having any cake, Jack,” Alex called in.
“Who doesn’t eat cake?” Dad said and cut off a princely portion, willfully sliding it onto the plate designated for Alex. But, as skinny as a sheath of wheat, Alex had little patience for my dad’s lack of discipline.
“I mean, Alex doesn’t eat this kind of cake,” I explained and started to read the ingredients. “What a list of unpronounceables. Alex doesn’t go anywhere near partially hydrogenated shortening.”
“Oh, yeah?” Dad said, and shoved a hunk in his mouth, and said, “That’s what I think of shortening.” He took another bite. Kate rested her head in her master’s lap, those intent eyes watching him chew. “There’s something wrong with a man who doesn’t eat cake. Remember your boyfriend who only drank milk? You, the wine maven with a milk drinker?”
“The milk man was a mistake,” I admitted. “When I met him I didn’t know that his father was an alcoholic.”
“You always make excuses for them. The guys you find, you make excuses for,” he said.
I drifted to the mild-mannered milk drinker and the more important elements of that relationship. His innocent drinking habits belied the fact that while we were together he had two other women on the line. That Mr. Milk was the beginning of my most neurotic decade of love affairs when I hopped into bed with the confidence of a boxer and out of bed with the damage of having lost the fight. A virus had to worm its way out of my system, repetitively finding men who, milk drinkers or not, were as unfaithful as my father. Finally there was Alex. Yes, he came from a terrible background, but instead of having a womanizing father, he just had a crazy one. But still, believe me, I was still on my guard.
“Well, if Alex isn’t going to come in and eat cake, I know a girl who would love some.” My passive-aggressive father lobbed off half of what was on the extra plate and moved it towards the hound’s eager mouth.
“Dad! You’re killing her!” I scolded. “Look at her, she’s a double dog! She is a good eighty pounds overweight!”
“So she won’t look good in a bikini,” my father snapped back. “But she’ll be happy.”
“And dead. You’ve already given her diabetes like yourself.”
The man was impossible. He was getting worse and worse and what could I do? I still had to show up and be the nice Jewish daughter, even if I was gimping through the task.
Finally, my father finished, not noticing my untouched portion he declared, “Time to find the goldmine.” He pushed his chair away and headed for the coat closet while I, on remote control, cleared the dishes.
Within minutes he emerged from his closet, resplendent in his circa 1986, mid-calf length, mink-collared, down coat, which now pulled across his belly, with his signature burgundy colored beret angled on top of his head.
“Milk,” my father muttered as we walked out the door. “Milk.”
“Where is this place?” I asked, not expecting an answer. We had been on the road twenty minutes past ritzy Saratoga, in a decidedly lower rent part of the county. My faith in finding the land or it being worth anything was flagging. “We’re on track,” he said, “Don’t be so nervous.”
And then he rounded back to his latest obsession. He was banking on my writing a screenplay of the trial of his life. Where I thought he was most famous for screwing around, he thought he was going down in history because of his star turn as the winning lawyer a 1972 dramatic custody battle. “I’m telling you, Mouse, the transcript is a winner. Hollywood will snatch it right up. We’ll get at least 200k for it.”
“You’re dreaming,” I said.
He didn’t understand why I was resistant. As far as he was concerned this was his meal ticket, this was his way out of his financial disaster, as well as my way out of restaurant work. Then again, my father also believed in winning the lottery.
“Alex might write it for you.”
“I’m not splitting this money with that non-cake eater. It’s for you. It’s your inheritance.”
I wanted to tell him that my only inheritance from him was my propensity to sadness and men with fidelity issues. But I kept my mouth shut and Dad followed suit, except for reading the directions out loud. But I had to wonder, why the sudden urgency for the money? His need for me to write that screenplay was beyond a lark, it was desperate.
“Where is this place?” I repeated. I was losing patience and became convinced that like everything else in my father’s life, looking for this piece of property on Saratoga Mountain was a wild goose chase.
“Just keep on going. Have trust. Have faith. When did I ever steer you wrong? You’re not remembering who your daddy-o is. See! The general store! See, I told you. Now, what do you say to that?”
But the instructions were woefully incomplete. Such as, did we turn left or did we turn right? He didn’t really know. Right seemed sturdier, left seemed more fragile. “Left,” he finally instructed. We made a very slow climb up the mountain because within a few yards, the road already had a good dusting of fine snow crystals. The path narrowed to a lane.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I announced with full confidence. The four–wheel SUV plowed fearlessly on the slippery road. Through the spruce I could see that the mountain above was as flaked as a coconut cake. Fresh precipitation hung back threateningly in the clouds. I was unsettled to see a drop off down the ridge on one side and a long drop down into the woods on the other. One little skid and it was over. When the string bean of a road turned into no road at all, my father finally seemed to concede, “Kids, this is not right.”
We slowed down to less than five miles an hour and drove past charred chimneys buried in the snow. “This is useless,” Alex finally spoke. “The road is impassable.”
We stopped. Alex blew his nose, held the tissue for me. I, not thinking about it, took the slightly damp Kleenex and dumped it the trash.
“Did I just see what I thought I saw?” my father asked. “Are you going to wipe his ass for him too?”
Ignoring the bait I asked if we should turn back.
My father changed his mind. “No. Let’s not be quitters. It’s got to be right in there through those woods.”
“Really?” I asked.
“You so sure?” Alex asked in his very first direct contact with my father.
“Of course I’m sure,” my father replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there were a lot of fires up in the area, and here? You see those chimneys? Fires. And I also remember it had a big drop off.”
Alex snorted and I looked out at the wintery landscape. Sure there was a big drop off, but what mountain didn’t? Well, house or no house, the woods begged for walking, and Alex of the same mind said, “We’ll stop here and have a look around, just so it’s not a total loss. There’s nothing further up. That’s for sure.”
“We’ll be about ten or twenty minutes. You okay here?” I asked my father, carefully scrutinizing his face. I noticed his lips were chapped.
Dad pulled Kate close, “I’ve got my girlfriend here,” he said, giving her black nose a good squeeze for effect. He unfolded the New York Law Review and settled in. “You two go. Come back with the good news. Remember it has a view and a house up from a path.”
I didn’t realize how much the car smelled like Kate until I walked outside into the minty-clean, snowy air. Taking it in deeply, I said, “He’s more insufferable than usual, no?” I reached for Alex’s hand wrapped in its scratchy wool glove and we started to walk through the conifers and old oaks. The snow was knee-deep. Several stone and brick chimneys stuck out of the white blanket, like scorched trees reaching out from a flooded plain. “It’s creepy, isn’t it,” I said.
“Very trashy here. People around here are so poor they burn the houses down for the insurance. That’s what’s going on,” Alex explained.
We walked past a site which looked just as my father described, with a breathtaking view of the valley and above it, a path to where a house could have been but instead there was yet another lonely chimney buried up to its shoulders in the snow. “Your father is grasping for straws,” Alex said.
“I’m not arguing with you.” Clutching each other’s hands we continued. The snow was intensifying, now falling in flakes as large as quail’s eggs.
Alex’s brown cashmere cap was covered with shivery, white flakes. His eyes, with that Siberian Husky slant, latched onto mine and abruptly he dropped down to both knees. He took both of my hands in his. I almost thought this was a proposal. Even though we both had agreed we didn’t need marriage to mark our love, my heart pinged in my chest with part desire and part fear.
“I want land so badly, Vi,” he said. “I want to build a house for us with my own hands, from the trees on the property, with no charred remnants of chimneys, nothing burnt, nothing sacrificed, something pure and sturdy and good. I want that for you and me. And I don’t want anything to do with that man. Please do not make me come up here again.”
I thought about it and nodded. “Yes, Alex. Yes.”
He pulled me down to him and kissed me as fully as the very first kiss he and I shared, in my kitchen, near the open refrigerator door that filled me with such heat that I had to walk around the apartment several times before I could come to my senses. The imperfect and innocent act of romance was disturbed by urgent barking echoing through the snowy air.
Pulling away from him, I walked a few steps in the direction of the sound. “Hear Kate?” I asked. We started to walk deeper into the woods but the barking didn’t stop. “She’s calling for us,” I finally said. “Something is the matter.” I turned to head towards the sound and pulled Alex behind me, but he dug his heels in the snow.
“That animal is not that smart,” he said.
“Come on!” I was feeling tight in my chest and the air around me was getting hard to breathe. I was in panic. Alex was distracted by yet another chimney and he wanted to investigate. “Your father’s house is probably this burned out property right here, “ he said, kicking the crumbled bricks as the barking became more urgent.
“Something is wrong,” I tugged at his sleeve.
“Stop pulling me,” he resisted.
“Jesus, Alex,” I muttered, annoyed as I sprinted ahead thinking, where I had good intuition, Alex’s was almost mythical. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t picking up on what I was sensing. All I could think of was that his impatience with my father had impaired his sonar. Without his hand to guide me, I was unsteady on the snow, and I stumbled like a drunk. I could feel Alex sulking behind me and I tried to plow ahead. But in a few seconds, I heard his footsteps following and then they quickened. He effortlessly pulled ahead of me and traversed the snow like a surefooted deer. I saw that the Explorer’s door was flung open and the pooch, summoning up her heritage as a hunting dog, pointed her snout towards the ridge, barking with the regularity of late labor pains and Alex was on the road’s ledge looking down. I ran to the dog, and put my hand on her fat back as I looked down as well. There, about eighty feet on the other side was my father. His beret was still miraculously secured, he was on his back, arms stretched out over his head, as if he were in ballet class. “Oh, my God,” I whispered.
Alex jumped into action far quicker than I could think and yelled down, “Don’t worry Jack. Hold on. We’ll get you.”
“Alex, don’t come down here, Alex,” my father in a weak voice, trying to sound authoritative. “Do not come down here, it’s dangerous.”
“I’m coming down, Jack. Just stay still. Stop trying to move.”
Alex sat himself down on the icy snow. Sliding on his ass, he was yelling like a wild kid on a toboggan. I knew what he was doing; he was revving up the adrenalin. There was one thing both of these men in my life had in common, they loved being heros. All the while, my father was yelling, “No, No.”
“Alex, shall I come down there?” I yelled.
“Stay put,” he shouted back.
Alex tried to maneuver my father onto his feet but for a while the two danced a strange tango, with legs and arms flying. “Pull yourself up, Jack,” But dad yanked Alex’s arms down instead of using them as leverage to get up. He was like a drowning man in a lake who wanted to sink his savior. My father’s panic wasn’t helping to situation. 160 pounds Alex, lifted my 280 pound father, fireman style. He carved steps into the icy slope and started the trek up the hillside. Alex was a sherpa. The mission was working but my father’s insistence, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Stop it. Put me down,” was not helping.
Dad was angry. But he could barely walk steady on terra firma let alone on ice and snow. Alex ended up having to crawl up the final three yards, being a human dog sled.
Alex’s display of gentleness took my breath away. He could be so insane, and hard, but when needed, the tenderness leaked from him like maple sap from the tree.
We helped dad, who was trembling in a bone-breaking shake, into the back seat. The dog jumped right in and hovered about him, wagging her tail and sniffing him over. We examined his limbs. Nothing fractured. So we fired up the car, as if levitating, Alex maneuvered a miraculous U-turn, and we started the slow decline down the mountain in first gear. “Jack,” Alex said, “people have to pay for thrills like that one. And you managed it on your own,”
My father chuckled, “Yes, that was a good one.”
“Want to tell us what happened?” I asked.
The story was simple. He had to take a piss, so he went to the edge of the cliff, and slipped.
This kind of stupid judgment is just the behavior that drove Alex nuts. The irony that my father got into trouble, yet again, because of unzipping, did not escape us. “Stupidity,” Alex said, “has a high cost. This was totally foreseeable. Now, why not take the piss on other side of the road where there’s no cliff? Why? Because you wanted to piss with a nice view?”
“Stop it Alex, “ I cooed. “You’re right, but please, let’s let it drop.”
“You’re a lawyer! You are supposed to know how to weigh the evidence and the action.”
Now it was my father’s turn to ignore Alex.
“You okay, dad? Does anything hurt?” I asked.
“Everything…hurts,” he said.
The car started to fill up with the smell of urine. It was inevitable. There was nothing to be done about it until we got him home.
Besides the profound embarrassment, which he was trying to hide behind bravado, my father had scratches on his cheeks and a gash on his forehead. “Did you find the house?” he asked, his voice fragile.
Ignoring the smell, I played along, “We saw another chimney. Who knows if it was yours? How could we possibly know? But we did have a lovely walk.”
Once we approached the state route, dad started to slur his r’s. I knew what was coming next. “Tell hero to stop at the store, I need to get some food in me or else we’re headed for some trouble.”
His color had faded to ash. The fall probably screwed up his sugars. I knew what came next was the wild-eyed fear that came with a diabetic reaction. “We’ll stop at the store. Only a few more minutes.”
We slid up to the General Store where we had our first sign that we didn’t know where we were going. I ran in. The clerk had some obsessive-compulsive problem. Now it was my turn to panic. I wanted to shout, faster. Faster! His level of attention seemed out of proportion for ingredients that came out of a can and a jar and a package. When I returned with the tuna on rye, the two men in my life were still at a standoff. My father pounced on the sandwich like an owl on a mouse and sloppily ate it while fighting the dog off and dripping mayonnaise down his goatee. It was not a pretty sight, the savior of the Beekman case, in need of a bath and clean clothes, dribbling in his beard. The food quieted him down and he fell asleep as we drove back to Hudson.
Alice Feiring is a widely published wine writer, essayist, lapsed playwright and the author of The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. This excerpt is from her novel in progress, The Case For My Father.