S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 November 24, 1956: 47-51

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 beautiful son?"

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 threshold.

"Hello, Willard," said Mr. Weintraub.

"Hello. Aren't you up late?"

"Can't sleep."

"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—"

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 off it."

"You're right. I know. I tell myself."

"Sleep well."

"Thank you, Willard. You, too."

"Good night."

"Good night."

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 his father.

DEAR DAD [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 possession.

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 club.

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 had corresponded.

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 nowadays?

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 righteous indignation.

DEAR WILLARD [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,
S. W

P.S. Please the minute you get this send a telegram you are coming.

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:

DEAR DAD: 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.

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