.“…when all the spearings of the crimson fight were done… sun and whale both stilly died together…”
A thin white scar runs from her father’s temple down the side of his face and neck and disappears into his shirt. The daughter, Miriam, has never seen the rest of that wound because her father doesn’t go shirtless in the apartment no matter how steamy the Bronx gets. At Orchard Beach, while Miriam and her mother swim, he sits in a chair, wearing a jacket and long pants, and reads. At the edge of sleep, a long, winding crack in Miriam’s bedroom ceiling becomes his scar. She traces it with her fingertip, heals it.
His other wound, an amputation below the knee, she’s seen in full. Every morning, Julius Strauss straps a beige plastic prosthesis above his patella; the foot fits neatly into his wing tip shoes. At the end of a long night at graduate school, following a day of teaching English at the Bronx High School of Science, he sits in the kitchen with his stump in a basin of ice water. Miriam brings him more ice and puts a cool facecloth on his forehead and he asks her about school. She’s in sixth grade and the class is reading Kon Tiki. “Do you think,” her father asks, “Thor Heyerdahl really wanted to figure out how people got to those islands or just wanted to take a wild and crazy ride?” Julius is funny sometimes in that quiet, questioning way and always soft-spoken with his daughter and wife. Perhaps, Miriam will come to think, too soft-spoken, too quiet.
Julius has never said a word to Miriam about how he was injured, but she’s learned from her mother, Sharon, that in World War II, in Italy, an American artillery shell ripped his skin, blew off much of his left leg, and killed American infantrymen under his command. “Honey,” she said, “they misused him in that war.”
When Miriam’s school ended for summer, Julius enlisted her to help him study for his upcoming PhD oral exam. These days, she straddles an arm of his easy chair while he reads to her from Milton, Melville, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, George Eliot, Shakespeare, Henry James, Tolstoy and more. Reading aloud helps him remember, and she checks the accuracy of his words when he recites passages from memory. Also, he’s given her blue index cards with penciled questions and answers about each work. His handwriting slants left, as if the letters were blown back by a gust of wind.
She doesn’t always understand what he reads to her, but she loves the sound of his deep voice and the word-music of the literature. And she sees that he is not simply working toward a test, but that he feels these works deeply, almost too deeply, sometimes so moved by a passage that he must stop and collect himself. Once, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he rested on a bench and gestured to people viewing Picassos and Braques. This, he said, is what people do when they’re not killing each other.
Mid-August, Miriam wakes late at night and finds him curled on the living room floor, his hands pressed against his ears. She’s frightened, confused. “Dad? Dad?” She pats him on the shoulder. As if startled from sleep, he looks around, lost at first, and then sees her. “I’m sorry, sweets. Did I scare you?” “No,” she says. She takes his hand and helps him stand. “I heard a truck backfire,” he says “and had a reaction. Don’t worry your mother with my silly stuff.” She won’t. She walks him to his bedroom. Later, she’ll wish she told her mother.
The following week Miriam hears him all hours of the night, thump-thumping on his bad leg across the living room and kitchen floors. Finally, on a Monday morning he’s going off to take his big test. He says goodbye to her while she’s still in bed. He stands erect, steadying himself at her bedroom door with a hand on the jamb. He is tall and trim at that moment, and well-dressed in a three-piece suit. Miriam will often picture him in that outfit, floating across a dance floor as gracefully as Fred Astaire.
Julius is an hour into his oral exam. He got there early so they wouldn’t have to watch him limp to his seat. He feels under his shirt sleeve for a lucky bracelet Miriam made from linked paper clips and plastic beads.
He believes he’s wowed them with a passage in German from Faust recited from memory. “Well done, Mr. Strauss,” says Professor O’Neill, white-haired and stout in a dark blazer. “Precisely responsive,” says Professor McHenry, smoking a meerschaum pipe at the left of the panel’s table.
A ceiling fan turns too sluggishly to cool the room. Julius asks and receives permission to take off his suit jacket. He senses a moment of collegiality as O’Neill and McHenry remove their jackets, undo their ties, and roll up their sleeves. He’ll be one of them. They’ll discuss great books, complex ideas, details of craft, and inspire young writers in their classrooms.
Professor Heath, chair of the department, doesn’t remove his seersucker suit or hand-knotted bow tie. Angular and bald, he smiles at the candidate. “Well, with a name like Strauss, you better get the German right. Your parents spoke it at home, am I right?” There’s a note of Alabama in Heath’s delivery, and Julius knows him, from class, to be a great football fan, often talking about Big Red.
“No, sir. No German in my house.”
“Well, that’s okay, Mr. Strauss,” says Heath. “And I see from your records that the GI Bill has taken you all the way through your master’s degree.”
“A great opportunity for me, Professor.”
“Where were you based, Mr. Strauss?”
“In the war, sir.”
“I fought at the Italian front in the Great War. All the way to Vittorio Veneto. And you?”
Julius never speaks of the war. The topic is sickening. But what can he do? “With the 92nd Infantry, sir.”
“The Buffalo Soldiers? Weren’t you the wrong color for the 92nd?
“Not as captain. The officers above lieutenant were white, Professor.”
“I see. I see.”
Now there’s tightness in his absent leg, a ghost cramp. He’d stood with his men near Sommocolonia after an officer from North Carolina needlessly ordered them to hold ground against swarming Germans. He ended up having to call an artillery strike on his own position. Now there’s sweat on his brow and, embarrassed, he wipes it off with the back of his hand.
“Shall I comment further,” he says, “on the Goethe passage?”
“Well yes, let’s get back for a moment to his Faustian deal with the devil,” says Heath. “What would you say is the closest American literary analog to that work?”
“Certainly some argue that Moby Dick has satanic currents.” The ghost cramp has spread to his living thigh. Why bring up the fucking war at a time like this? He feels a tremor in his arm.
“Some argue?” Heath leans forward over clasped hands. “Isn’t it an absolute certainty, Mr. Strauss?”
“Isn’t there a solid consensus in the critical literature that what with the religious imagery right before the attack on the whale, the masts aflame with St. Elmo’s fire, a veritable burning crucifix, and all the other religious imagery throughout the book, isn’t it fair to say there’s no doubt in reasonable minds that Ahab is a godless maniac who’s aligned with his satanic harpoonist Fedallah to defeat the whale?”
O’Neill and McHenry lean back in their chairs, as if retreating.
“I think, sir, issues of race dominate the text. The book is published in 1851 on the eve of the Civil War. You have a captain who leads a crew including the blacks Queequeg and Daggoo, the Indian, Tashtego, the slave child Pip, into battle with a white Leviathan. On the eve of the great battle with the whale, Melville has Pip and Ahab almost joining flesh with a touch of their hands. Ahab takes his harpoon from the blacksmith’s fire and tempers it with the actual blood of the black and brown crewmen.”
Heath rises, walks to the window. Bathed in summer light, hands clasped behind his back, he says, “Mr. Strauss, I was a little worried when you seemed to bring a class analysis to Henry James under O’Neill’s questioning. Now it appears you’ve turned a great American novel into some left-wing screed against so-called racism. More pertinent for this gathering, you’re granting Melville’s minor textual brushstrokes, mere dashes of literary color, if you will, undue importance while minimizing great biblical, Christian imagery that dominates the text.”
“That’s certainly not my intent, sir. I simply—”
“You simply? I think you simply spent a little too much time fraternizing with those Buffalo Soldiers—”
Julius’s face burns as if spat on. He’s too short of breath to immediately respond. Finally, he manages, “Sir, there’s no need to address me so personally. I was simply referring to—” His heart pounds. The nerve pain in his left leg shoots into his pelvis.
“What I’m saying, Mr. Strauss, is that you’re the one who’s brought the personal into what should have been a scholarly exercise. Not I.”
Julius finds himself reaching to his cuff and sliding his pants leg up above the knee. There’s the roar and heat and stink of bursting shells. Legless, armless men cry out for their mothers.
From a distance, voices: “Mr. Strauss? Can we assist? May we? Should we? What are you—”
He rips open the leather strap that binds the prosthesis to his thigh and hurls the plastic leg toward the panel’s table. It hits the floor and the wing tip shoe flies off the foot and rolls away.
* * *
He finds himself seated and numb in the empty classroom, staring at the prosthesis and shoe. It won’t be easy to pick them up, hopping on one leg. He might have to crawl for them. But he has no energy or will to move.
After a long while, a crew-cut security guard appears.
“Professor Heath asked me to assist you.”
“What did he say?”
“That you’re a vet with a leg problem.”
“Did he give you a note or letter for me?”
The guard assists in reattaching the leg, lacing the shoe. He guides Julius out of the building, lends him an arm on the stairs, and offers to call a cab.
“I’ll take the subway, thank you.” The guard gives him directions to the IRT and shakes his hand. “One vet to another,” the guard says.
On the way to the train, he sees a pay phone. He promised to call Sharon with the results as soon as the test ended. What can he say? That he failed? And what if word got out about all the rest? He winces with shame. Who was he? Who had he become in that room? When would he next lose himself like that? And what of Miriam? She had absolute faith in him. She asked what kind of cake he wanted when he came home to celebrate. What kind of father was he? What kind of father could he ever be?
He calls the apartment and Miriam answers. “Did you pass, Dad?” “With flying colors,” he says. “With flying colors” she shouts to her mother, his Sharon.
Gripping the railing and feeling pain with each downward step, he heads down to the subway.
Miriam rolls her mother in a wheelchair from the room with an aviary of parakeets, to an area where residents in vinyl smocks paint in watercolor. She’s made the drive from Manhattan to Albany for Sharon Strauss’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother, though still an avid reader, doesn’t participate in the home’s activities and doesn’t have any close friends at the facility. She seems to enjoy watching other residents at play.
An instructor at the front of the room uses a large pad on an easel to illustrate different brushes and strokes. Sharon’s brown eyes widen, magnified by thick lenses, and she asks Miriam, “Do you ever think your father killed himself?”
Miriam can’t believe that after all these decades her mother has dared to ask a question Miriam has viewed as forbidden to both of them.
“Mom, they’re serving wine over there. How about I get us—”
“He had such a painful injury. Miriam. With severed nerves, and he suffered what we in those days called shell shock. He had terrible memories that would never go away. So if he failed that test—”
Miriam kneels down to eye level with her mother. “I’m sure he was exhausted after the orals, Mom. So he fainted and fell off the subway platform, or he lost his footing because his stump was so inflamed. And then the police came to our door and that’s what they thought too, Mom. No one ever said he jumped. And that should be all for us. I mean he passed the test. He called and said that. I took the call. He wouldn’t lie to us.”
“Not in a million years would he lie to you. Anyway, even if he failed, that wouldn’t be a reason to kill himself. Because of a stupid test? This man was a brave soldier. Why would he be defeated by such a thing? He loved you and me and he would never leave us in that way.”
“And why would he fail, Mom? He knew everything when I worked with him, when I asked him all those questions on his cards.”
“He was a brilliant man with a powerful memory. A very creative thinker. Always with ideas that I never heard before.”
“Did they ever write to you or call you?”
“The people who conducted the orals. I mean they were among the last to see him alive.”
“At some point, I think after the funeral, I got a call from the chairman of the department. A man with a southern accent. Sounded like an old-fashioned gentleman from Gone with the Wind. Your father didn’t care for certain southerners in the army, you know. He described one officer as always sitting on his haunches instead of in a chair and barking orders at him, calling him a New York Jew and casting aspersions on the black soldiers under your father’s command. I don’t remember that professor’s name, Honey.”
“You never told me that.”
“I’m sure I must have.”
“What did he say?”
“He expressed his deepest sympathies and extended those of the faculty. The usual.”
Miriam rolls her mother back to her bedroom. With the help of an orderly, she gets her mother into bed, sitting up against stacked pillows with the bedside lamp on and a book and reading glasses at hand. On the nightstand is a photo of Sharon and Julius. He’s in uniform, on two strong, natural legs, and she’s in a striped taffeta gown.
“Where were you going that night, Mom, all dressed up?
“That’s right before he shipped out for Italy. We went to a nightclub on 42nd Street. I remember us racing up the steps two at a time and dancing for hours”
She kisses her mother goodbye. At the door, Miriam stops and turns.
“That professor. Did he say Dad passed?”
Sharon Strauss closes her eyes and breathes deeply, hugging herself with old, skinny arms. “No, honey. He never did say that.”
“Did you ask?”
“It was the last thing on my mind.”
And Miriam begins the long drive down the New York Thruway. She wonders why she can’t stop wondering about her father’s end, why she’s always needed to know. And she recalls that winding crack in the Bronx ceiling, with no beginning or end.
Neil Mullin’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hawaii Pacific Review, Fifth Wednesday, Limestone Journal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Midway Journal, Sanskrit Literary-Arts Magazine, Sliver Of Stone, Storyscape Journal, Superstition Review, Umbrella Factory, Willow Review, and Zone 3. His short story “Anniversary” was a finalist in the 2018 Glimmer Train annual fiction open. His story “Milkweed” was a finalist in Middlesex University London’s international fiction contest. Also, his short story “Miracle of the Cow” won an annual fiction award from Willow Review. He has also published nonfiction, including an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times. He is an attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law. He has successfully argued cases in front of many juries and before appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court. Recently, he represented Gretchen Carlson in her lawsuit against Roger Ailes of Fox News.