On a warm evening in the spring of 1940, Mr. Selig Weintraub,
president of the Nonpareil Clothing Company, sat beneath the
fringed lampshade in the living room of his apartment on
Central Park West, trying painfully to assimilate the blocky
ideas of Karl Marx as expressed in "Das Kapital." The book
was open on his lap, and beside him on the table that held
the lamp lay the three volumes of Leon Trotzky's "The
History of the Russian Revolution." All the books had been
lent to him by his only son, Willard, with a special
admonition to be careful of the Trotzky volumes because they
had been inscribed to Willard by their author, on the
flyleaf of the first volume. Mr. Weintraub had studied over
and over again the large, flowing characters of the penned
inscription: "To Willard Weintraub, with the best wishes of
Leon Trotzky. Coyoacán, Mexico: Jan. 5, 1940."
Mr. Weintraub kept taking off his glasses and polishing
them, as if it were some opacity in the lenses rather than
his own sluggishness of mind that prevented him from
skimmingly picking up Karl Marx's ideas. Willard had told
him that "Das Kapital" was the most "seminal" book ever
written. Mr. Weintraub had looked up the word in his Webster
and had grasped Willard's meaning well enough. if a book was
as seminal as all that, it behooved him to get some notion
of it—and of the Trotzky volumes also, since these two
remote authors, one long dead and the other an exile living
in distant Mexico, had somehow managed to cast a cloud over
his hitherto affectionate relationship with his son. Things
were not the same between himself and Willard as they used
to be—there was no doubt about that. Mr. Weintraub's friend
Mr. Morris, whose son Bandy was Willard's chum, had felt
somewhat the same way about his relations with Bandy. The
two men had chewed it over in the hot room of the club to
which they both belonged. Mr. Morris took an easier view of
the matter than Mr. Weintraub did; there was certainly
something there, he admitted—an alienation of a sort,
certainly—but he waved it off as "a phase." Mr. Weintraub
felt himself to be more liberal and modern than Mr. Morris,
and therefore more aware of the dangers of such an
alienation. But perhaps it was only because he loved Willard
more than Mr. Morris did Bandy that he was so upset. After
all, Mr. Morris had a wife and four children—two boys and
two girls—and Willard was all that Mr. Weintraub had. Since
such a deep influence as that of Marx and Trotzky had taken
hold of his boy, Mr. Weintraub felt it his duty, as a
conscientious and loving parent, to get some idea of what
this influence was. So he stuck to the pages before him,
fighting drowsiness, and fighting, too, a deep depression.
When he came upon the words "bourgeois" or "bourgeoisie"—and
he came upon them often—Mr. Weintraub winced. It had dawned
upon him lately that he, Selig Weintraub, was a bourgeois
and hence contemptible, and hence, in Marx's view—and
Willard's—logically and morally expendable. How, he
wondered, had he joined, insensibly and without ritual, this
venal group? Willard had been reluctant to discuss large
ideas with him; Mr. Weintraub had had to force him to. The
first Mr. Weintraub had heard about the class to which (as
he was now obliged to admit) he belonged was in a political
argument he had had with Willard over the last Presidential
election. Mr. Weintraub had been enthusiastically for
Franklin D. Roosevelt and against Alfred M. Landon, and had
expressed the hope that Willard shared his enthusiasm for
F.D.R. Willard had startled him by saying that he had no
preference for either man, because there was no difference
whatever between the two, since they were both bourgeois.
When Mr. Weintraub asked Willard what on earth he meant by
that, he had answered, gently and with a tinge of pity, that
his father couldn't possibly understand, because he himself
was a bourgeois. Whatever comfort Mr. Weintraub might have
derived from finding himself suddenly in close social
affiliation with the candidates of both major parties was
mitigated by the tone of Willard's voice, which conveyed
distinctly that to be a bourgeois of whatever sort or
station was something less than admirable. "I just try to
make a living," Mr. Weintraub had said in feeble
self-defense—but Willard was already gone; he had recently
developed the annoying habit of making abrupt exits.
Reflecting on these miseries, yet struggling also to keep
his mind on the words he was reading, Mr. Weintraub took off
his glasses and polished them again. Because his formal
education had been sketchy, he did not know that he had a
right to demand clarity and simplicity from an author, or
that the relationship between writer and reader was a
reciprocal one and the responsibility for understanding
divided equally between them. He cursed himself for being
stupid, and he felt a certain pride that for Willard,
presumably, these massive and coagulated paragraphs were
hammock reading. He sighed heavily; the letters blurred
before him. He had had, as a matter of fact, a hard day at
his office on Fourth Avenue. Business was far from good. The
reports from his salesmen on the road were depressing. There
was no doubt that he had made a mistake in judgment in the
autumn when he had ordered the yard goods for his spring
line. He had overestimated demand, and he was now hopelessly
overstocked. If things didn't pick up, he might face
disaster. The stupidity and self-execration he felt in
thinking about himself as a businessman merged with the
stupidity he felt about himself as a reader. "Dumb ox!" he
muttered to himself.
He missed his wife, Hannah, dreadfully. She had always
cheered him up in moments like these. And she would have
known what to do about Willard. He and Willard would never
have drifted so far apart if Hannah were alive. "Das Kapital"
slipped from Mr. Weintraub's lap to the floor, and he gave
himself up to remembering the past. About this time of
year—the middle of April—he and Hannah would have been
getting ready to move to their house in Long Branch for the
summer. Last summer—the first after Hannah's death—he had
kept the house open as usual, but it hadn't worked out.
Willard never came there; Long Branch was a breeding ground
for the bourgeoisie, he had said, and he found mysterious
activities to keep him in town all summer. Mr. Weintraub had
sold the place, without regret, in the fall. He couldn't
stand living there any more; the memories of Hannah meeting
him every weekday night at the train and of their happy
Friday-to-Monday-morning weekends had been too much for him.
Long Branch was no good without Hannah. Since Willard
preferred to spend his summers in New York, Mr. Weintraub
had decided that he would, too, in order to be close to the
boy. But nowadays, even in New York, he hardly ever saw his
son. Willard seldom came home to dinner.
What had happened? How had all this come about? What would
Hannah have done? How would she have prevented it? She would
have, Mr. Weintraub was sure, but how? And when would
Willard's "phase" end—as Mr. Morris so confidently predicted
it would? The boy was so brilliant and so extraordinarily
handsome! Mr. Morris had chaffed Mr. Weintraub about this
one day in the hot room at the club. "How does it happen,"
he inquired, "that a homely man like you has such a
Mr. Weintraub had grinned with pleasure under the induced
perspiration. "You didn't know Hannah," he said. "She was
beautiful!" Through the years, they had marvelled, Hannah
and he, over their son's beauty and intelligence. "What a
marriage he'll make!" Hannah had said. "The lucky girl!"
And now Willard was, indeed, keeping company with a girl.
Mr. Weintraub heard about her first through something Bandy
Morris had let drop to his father, which Mr. Morris had duly
reported to Willard's father. Mr. Weintraub had encouraged
Willard to bring the girl around, but Willard wouldn't do
it. Finally, Mr. Weintraub had met the two together on the
street, and Willard had introduced him to the girl. Mr.
Weintraub was painfully disappointed, but, of course, he had
never admitted it. She was an exceptionally grubby girl—fat,
sloppily dressed, and, like Willard, uncommunicative. That
night, Mr. Weintraub had again asked Willard to bring her
home for dinner some evening; he wished, he said, to know
her better. "She doesn't go in for social life," Willard
said. "She's doing important work." When his father inquired
about the nature of this work, Willard had refused to be
specific. These silences of Willard's were disconcerting. He
had once been talkative, even gay. He was so no longer. It
was as if he knew that the gap between himself and his
father was too great for any discussion to bridge.
Mr. Weintraub suddenly felt very tired. He looked at the
clock on the mantelshelf—ten o'clock. If only Willard would
come in! There was little chance of it, for Willard got home
so late that his father was almost never awake to hear him
when he returned. Tired as he was, Mr. Weintraub would have
waited up for him tonight if he had felt that Willard would
talk to him, but he knew it was no use. He placed a marker
where he had left off in Marx, on page 26, got up heavily,
and put the book on top of the Trotzky volumes on the table.
Then he went into his room, undressed, took a Seconal
capsule, and went to bed. He was very much depressed. He
tried to analyze this depression. Was it the way things were
downtown, or was it his worry about Willard? Both, he
guessed. No one to talk to. Mr. Morris? Should he call Mr.
Morris? No point. Mr. Morris had invited him to come to his
apartment that evening to play bridge, but Mr. Weintraub had
turned it down because he felt that it was his duty as a
father to go home and try to fathom Karl Marx. For all his
evening of reading, he had found out very little; he might
as well have gone to the Morrises'. Mr. Morris's younger
daughter was a lovely girl and just right for Willard—in age
and everything. She was crazy about Willard, too. Her
parents—and, of course, Mr. Weintraub—had tried to encourage
this romance, but it hadn't taken. Willard found the
conversation at the Morrises' boring. "Business and cards
and food," he had once tersely summarized it to his father.
In bed, Mr. Weintraub turned out the bedside light, but he
couldn't sleep. Without being able to analyze the source of
his malaise, he felt that something ominous was impending.
Finally, he turned on the light, propped up the pillows, and
sat up in bed. The room was airless, and very hot for April.
He remembered wistfully the warm summer nights in Long
Branch, where there had always been a breeze. One summer
evening came back to him particularly. Willard, who was six
years old, had been put to bed by his mother, and Mr.
Weintraub had gone into the child's room to say good night
to him, bending over the bed and hugging him. Willard, at
that time usually very responsive, had resisted his father's
embrace. "It's too hot for that sort of thing!" he had said.
This remark had delighted his parents; it became a standing
anecdote, which they repeated endlessly in Willard's
presence as he grew up, until the boy implored them for a
moratorium on it and they had restricted themselves to
recounting the anecdote to each other.
Normally, though, the child wouldn't go to sleep without the
ritual of his father's good-night kiss. Once, when he had
been naughty, Hannah had asked her husband not to say good
night to Willard, as a punishment. The child had cried and
cried, until his father, against Hannah's orders, crept in
and kissed him good night. Thinking of all those wonderful
evenings, Mr. Weintraub became conscious of a sudden,
peculiar reversal of status: he wanted to be said
good night to; he wanted to be kissed good night. He
reflected upon the strangeness of this, feeling deeply
ashamed of it, because it revealed such abysmal weakness.
He, a grown man, a widower—it was so immature, so childish!
Nevertheless, it was so; this was what he wanted. He knew,
then, that he would not fall asleep until Willard came home.
It was nearly one when Mr. Weintraub heard Willard's key in
the door and listened to his son's familiar, rather slow
step as he came into the foyer. Willard never hurried. His
walk is like his silence, his father thought; it tells you
nothing of his true state of mind. Nevertheless, Mr.
Weintraub's heart thumped with joy. Would Willard, seeing
his father's light, come in? Probably not. But Mr. Weintraub
waited, hoping. He heard Willard in the living room. He must
be looking at those books, Mr. Weintraub thought; he hoped
Willard would overlook the marker in "Das Kapital," which
would reveal how little his father had read. Presently, down
the hall, he heard Willard opening the door into his own
bedroom. He called out his son's name. A moment later, Mr.
Weintraub's bedroom door opened and Willard stood on the
"Hello, Willard," said Mr. Weintraub.
"Hello. Aren't you up late?"
"Take a pill."
"Did. No good."
There was a silence. Willard stood in the doorway, without
advancing. His father noticed what he always noticed about
his son with something of surprise: how extraordinarily
good-looking he was—tall, lithe, poised. But tonight he
noticed also that Willard's mouth had a sulky expression and
that he did not smile.
Mr. Weintraub motioned to the chair beside his bed. "Sit a
minute," he said.
"I'm really awfully pooped, Dad," Willard said. "And I've
got to get up very early tomorrow morning."
"Oh? What've you got to do?"
"I have an early engagement."
"I feel kind of blue," his father said. "Come a minute."
The boy advanced to the side of the bed. "Sorry, Dad," he
said. "Anything wrong?"
"Nothing really. Just— I don't know . . ."
"I get that way, too. Have to control it."
"Sure. Have to control it."
"Well, good night, Dad."
"Will we have breakfast?"
"I have to leave before breakfast. Well . . . good night."
Willard turned to go. His father quickly said, "Say,
Willard stopped and looked back. "Yes, Dad," he said.
"Would you mind—it'll sound silly to you . . ."
"Would you mind kissing me good night?"
The boy was not embarrassed. He seemed to think it was all
right. He seemed to understand it. "Certainly," he said.
He leaned over and kissed his father on the forehead. Their
eyes met. There was an expression approaching tenderness in
Willard's eyes. He tapped his father on the shoulder
paternally. "You work too hard, Dad. You worry too much.
That's what's wrong. You're on a treadmill. What for? Get
"You're right. I know. I tell myself."
"Thank you, Willard. You, too."
Mr. Weintraub watched Willard's slow, graceful walk as he
went out, and shut the door behind him.
The next morning, Willard was gone. He had left a note for
[it read]: I have gone to Mexico. I am going to
volunteer my services to Leon Trotsky as a researcher. I
hear he is using several for a new book he is writing. I
hope I'll be lucky enough to get on his staff in some
capacity. I did not tell you of this plan because I
wished to avoid a painful scene. Please don't worry
about me. I'll write. Please take care of yourself. You
looked very tired last night.
P.S. See you've been doing your homework. Good! Keep it
up! Leaving the books for you. Please don't lend the
Trotzky books to anyone as they are my most precious
Mr. Weintraub, considerably agitated, telephoned to Mr.
Morris to tell him the news. He asked his friend please to
question Bandy, to find out what he knew about Willard. Then
he made a date for lunch that day with Mr. Morris, at the
At noon, when the two met, Mr. Morris couldn't tell him
much; Bandy had been reticent. As far as Mr. Morris could
tell, his son was deeply envious of Willard's opportunity.
Willard had been writing fan letters to Trotzky for some
months, Bandy said. It had all started with Willard's
sending the great man the first volume of his "The History
of the Russian Revolution" to be autographed. Willard had
got it back, with the inscription, and from then on the two
Mr. Morris tried to comfort Mr. Weintraub about Willard's
departure. "So what?" he said. It was a wild oat, he said.
It was a phase. And who could understand young people
Three weeks later, Mr. Weintraub received a short note from
Willard. He was well, he was happy, and he said he was
finding his new association enriching beyond his dreams. Mr.
Weintraub wrote back at once, telling Willard that he was
not feeling well, that he was lonely, and that he wished
very much that Willard would return. He asked what future
his present job had. The important thing about any job, he
pointed out, was did it have a future.
On the twenty-fourth of May, Mr. Weintraub opened his
morning paper to read that there had been an unsuccessful
attempt to assassinate Leon Trotzky. His study had been
machine-gunned, but the bullets were wasted, for Trotzky had
not been there. Mr. Weintraub telegraphed his son to come
home at once, wiring him the money for the trip. He
telephoned to Mr. Morris, who said that no news was good
news. All day, Mr. Weintraub waited for an answer to his
wire. None came. But the next morning Mr. Weintraub read in
the paper that a young New Yorker, whose name was not
familiar to him, had been spirited away from the Trotzky
ménage and murdered. The American's body, riddled with
bullets, had been found beneath the floor boards of a
farmhouse kitchen, about twenty miles from Mexico City.
Mr. Weintraub telephoned to Mr. Morris at once to ask
counsel. "Send Willard another telegram, a sharp one," Mr.
Morris advised, and he followed this up by hurrying to Mr.
Weintraub's apartment to help him compose the new message.
Mr. Morris, it seemed, had had a scene with his own son, who
was still envious of Willard. Mr. Morris had decided to take
drastic measures he had cut off Bandy's allowance. The sharp
telegram was dispatched. Mr. Weintraub felt extremely
nervous, so Mr. Morris summoned a doctor to administer
sedatives. The doctor came and went. The drugs were taken.
But Mr. Weintraub was still very much excited. "If I don't
hear from Willard in the morning, I am going to Mexico to
fetch him!" he said wildly, and he asked Mr. Morris if he
wouldn't go with him. Mr. Morris advised patience; if the
boy wouldn't come back on his own, he argued, Mr.
Weintraub's appearance in Mexico would not bring him. He
agreed that Willard was certainly acting foolishly now, but
from all he'd seen of the boy, he felt he was fundamentally
sensible; he wouldn't hang around that Mexican villa long,
with all those bullets flying around. "Besides," added Mr.
Morris sagely, "he'll be needing money soon!"
The next day, his two telegrams still unanswered, Mr.
Weintraub decided to write his son a stern letter. He sat at
his desk and began, determined, for once, not to conceal his
[he wrote]: So far you have not seen fit to
answer my telegrams telling you to come home. The papers
are full of the dangerous situation you are in. Already
there has been one victim thank God it was not you. I
thank God your mother is not alive you can imagine what
she would be experiencing knowing you are associated
with a man who has such enemies that they want to kill
him. You show a terrible lack of consideration
selfish and inconsiderate with no thought for what I
am going through. You acts as if you were alone in the
world with no thought for anybody else even your father.
Let us say I am not your father still I am a human being
and you should show consideration as a human being.
Did you get the money-order for the return fare? You did
not even acknowledge did you get the money. Please
come home at once. You will admit in the last years I
have not made any demands. You come and go as you
please. When you said you did not want to go into the
business I said all right. But now I do ask you
please come home. I am very nervous and you would
understand it if you read what I read in the papers. I
know that I am not a companion to you in the way that a
father should be because I am not educated. Your mother
was proud of your vocabulary. When I said I couldn't
understand once what you were saying she said it's
because you have a wonderful vocabulary. I even looked
up the words but I don't retain especially of late
years. I read your books every night but I am too
anxious to concentrate. In the circumstances how can
I concentrate? So please come home for the good of my
education!!!! Here you can do what you like and maybe if
you explain what you believe I'll see it your way. But
at least I will know you are safe without bullets flying
around please honor this request of
Your anxious father,
P.S. Please the minute you get this send a telegram you
After he had airmailed this letter, Mr. Weintraub felt
somewhat better. He was convinced that it must have an
effect on Willard. But the letter remained unanswered.
The days dragged by. It was only Mr. Morris who kept Mr.
Weintraub from flying to Mexico City. One evening, a
fortnight later, Mr. Weintraub found himself, as usual,
under his living-room lamp. "Das Kapital" was open on his
knees. He was now on page 114; he had been assiduous but
slow. Suddenly, Mr. Weintraub threw the book to the floor.
He had readied a decision. The desire to see Willard, to
talk to him, had, in that instant, become overmastering. Mr.
Morris or no Mr. Morris, he was going to Mexico. As he got
up to go into his bedroom to telephone for a reservation,
the front doorbell rang. Mr. Weintraub went to open it. It
was a special-delivery letter from Mexico City. Mr.
Weintraub tore it open in the hall and read:
I am sorry I have been all this trouble to you. Please
do not write or wire me any more. I am not returning. I
have other plans. The fact is our ideologies are too far
apart—irreconcilable. Keep well. This is Goodbye.
Mr. Weintraub brought the letter into the living room. He
held it under the fringed lamp to read it better. He
pondered and pondered the sentence about the ideologies. Had
he and Willard ever matched ideologies? He couldn't
remember, but he had to acknowledge the clear statement in
the letter, "I am not returning." It was evidently
conceivable to Willard that they would never meet again; he
had accepted the idea, he was reconciled to it—he could take
it! Mr. Weintraub read and reread the letter. Finally, he
saw that what it implied went far beyond Willard's mere
acceptance of the idea of eternal separation from his
father. Separation was nothing Willard would have to
endure—he welcomed it.
How had this come about? Mr. Weintraub stared stupidly at
the letter, then at the Trotzky volumes, then at the letter,
then at the books again. That was the connection;
that was the chain. His son had disappeared forever into
a remote and inaccessible country. It would do no good to
follow him. Suddenly, Mr. Weintraub was swept by rage. He
grabbed the first volume of "The History of the Russian
Revolution." He wanted to see the handwriting on the
flyleaf. It was there before him: "With the best wishes of
Leon Trotzky." Mr. Weintraub ripped out the inscribed page
and tore it to bits. With his feet he pounded the mutilated
autograph of Willard's friend.