Herewith a gorgeous story from Dave Margoshes, who has contributed already two poems–”Theology” and “Becoming a Writer“–to these pages. I have long admired his work; I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I edited that estimable annual collection (over a decade of editing). “A Bargain” is excerpted from the author’s new collection A Book of Great Worth to be published by Coteau Books in April. A Book of Great Worth is a collection of linked stories based loosely on Dave Margoshes’ father. The title story was actually published in Best Canadian Stories, but in 1996, just before I took over.
Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan writer whose work has appeared widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies, including six times in the Best Canadian Stories volumes. He was a finalist for the Journey Prize, Canada’s premier short story award, in 2009. He’s published over a dozen books, including Bix’s Trumpet and Other Stories, which was named Saskatchewan Book of the Year in 2007. He’s been fiction editor of the literary magazines Grain and Dandelion, and was literary editor at Coteau Books for several years. He lives on a farm outside Saskatoon.
by Dave Margoshes
My father used to say that my mother was the one in the family who wore the pants. As he said it, he would invariably be wearing pants himself, either the pants of his suit or one of the Sears catalogue blue jeans my mother ordered for him, and she would be wearing one of her many flower-printed skirts, so the remark was surely meant to be ironic, though at the time, and until I went off to college and learned its delicious meaning, irony was a concept I was unfamiliar with, and what my father said was merely puzzling. The closest my mother ever came to wearing pants was the voluminous denim culottes she put on to tend her garden in the summer. Beyond those, and the one-piece swimsuit she wore when we went to the beach, I never saw her out of a skirt or dress, though she would occasionally walk around the house in her slip for a while after coming home from work. She was never embarrassed to be dressed that way in front of me, and so I in turn was never embarrassed to see her.
I think what my father meant by the remark was that my mother made all the big decisions in their life together. Another of his favourite remarks – again, ironically – was that he made the big decisions, on war and peace, world hunger, the economy and other weighty matters, while my mother contented herself with the small decisions, those related to the family and household, things like spending money, feeding and clothing them and the children, what movie to go to and so on. My father also often said that he and my mother did everything around the house together, with him doing the physical labour and my mother “supervising,” if it was something to do with the outside, and her doing the work and him supervising if it was inside – chores like the dishes and the laundry. All of these comments – conveyed in a joking voice but with a serious undertone – related to my father’s often-expressed grievance that my mother was “bossy.”
It was true that she almost always got her way. But not always. My father liked a drink now and then, meaning several times a day, I don’t know how many. She would have liked him not to drink at all. His concession to her was to rarely drink his preferred rye whisky in her presence – never at home, but he would let his guard down and have one or two at family gatherings where liquor was flowing. “I’m just doing this to be polite,” he would say, a little too loudly but usually with a wink, and the uncles would smile. But he kept a flask in the glove compartment of his car, a bottle in the bottom drawer of his desk at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where he worked as a reporter and columnist, and during the course of his day he made occasional stops at barrooms where he was a familiar customer. At home, at night, usually seated at the kitchen table in his undershirt, he would have a glass or two of sherry or port, usually the cheapest brands. My mother bought it for him, and that’s what he specified, the cheapest, which, I imagine, also appealed to her own sense of frugality. This was her concession to him, these fortified wines, “a gentleman’s drink,” he would say when he unscrewed the bottle, as if to imply it was no drink at all then, and didn’t count.
Although I was a witness to them all through my growing up, this to-ing and fro-ing, these nuances of their life together, it wasn’t until I was grown and involved in a relationship of my own that I came to understand the delicate balance they had constructed and maintained. Well, not understand, but begin to.
Long before that, before my birth even, my father had a bad experience with drink, so bad that, even though he did not give up drinking, he vowed he would never again be drunk, really drunk, in that state where he could not count on his own abilities or judgment, where he was of no use to anyone.
I heard about this experience, as might be expected, after I had my own first bad encounter with drink, when I was seventeen, drank too many illicit beers while out with my friends, and, on the way home, indelicately put the family car in the narrow river branch that ran alongside the road that led to our place in the country, where we’d finally moved the year before. This was the finest car we had ever owned, a Lincoln less than ten years old, with leather seats and power windows, which we had purchased cheaply the year before from one of my mother’s sisters, the one married to a lawyer and so the best off, and I was terrified that I’d damaged it, more frightened of that than what might happen to me – in the split second that the car was airborne before landing in the shallow water, I issued a silent prayer that I pay whatever price might be due, not the car.
But, miraculously, I wasn’t hurt, and even the car received only a minimum of damage, the mud it settled into more an affront to the Lincoln’s dignity than anything else. Really, what happened to me was not exceptional; what was memorable was the story my father told me afterwards.
My parents and my two sisters lived in an apartment on West 21st Street in Brooklyn, Coney Island to be more exact, not within sight but, as my father put it, within smelling distance of the ocean. From their living room window, which faced south, they could see the top of the Parachute Jump on the Boardwalk and, in the summer, hear the shrieks of riders on the Cyclone. My mother was left alone every day with the children, both of them still too young even for kindergarten, while my father escaped to his own world of work, first riding the Surf Avenue bus, then descending into the dark cavern of the Stillwell Avenue subway station and emerging within half an hour on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the East Broadway station, a short walk to The Day. “If anyone needed a drink,” my father said, “it was her, not me.” My mother, for reasons of her own, rarely drank more than a few sips from a glass of wine at family events. But my father, as I’ve said, kept a bottle in the drawer of his desk, even in those early days, and he had a drink from it as soon as he arrived at work, presumably to brace himself for the rigours that lay ahead. Later he would have a drink or two with lunch, and another drink or two with some cronies before catching the subway for the return trip to Coney Island. Walking home from the bus, he would often stop at a tavern on the corner of Mermaid Avenue and 21st Street for a glass of beer – which he believed would hide the odour of whiskey on his breath – before tackling the three flights of stairs that led to wife and children with whom, almost always, he would be loving husband and father, revealing no sign of the alcohol he’d consumed during the day other than a mellow disposition. My father had a temper, but he rarely displayed it.
On the night in question, though, a brisk, overcast night in late March, 1936, my father had had one or two drinks too many. He had a meeting to cover, so didn’t go home at the usual time for dinner and the evening with his family. Instead, he had dinner and several drinks with his good friend Vogel, who was the labour reporter for another paper, The Forward, and so ostensibly his rival. The two men then attended the meeting, a boisterous gathering of the membership of Local 37 of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, which was then locked in negotiations with the owners of the Garment District dress factories that lined lower 7th Avenue. My father then went back to the office to write his story, in which he reported that a strike was imminent, again taking a drink or two from the bottle in his drawer. By the time he climbed the steps to the Coney Island apartment, stopping at each landing to catch his breath, he was weary and unsteady on his feet. His fingers were chilled and he fumbled with the key.
Covering meetings and coming home late was not unusual for my father – he would do it at least once a week, often twice. Usually, he would creep into a dark apartment, its silence punctuated only by the steady breathing of my mother and sisters in sleep and the occasional groan from the pipes, and he would undress quietly in the dark and slip into the warm bed without causing any disturbance, marveling at his good fortune – that he had a comfortable home to come home to, a loving wife, darling children, things that, only a few years earlier, he had thought had somehow permanently eluded him, that he had grown too old for.
On this particular night, though, the lights were on when he opened the door and even through his blurry eyes he could tell immediately that something was not right.
“Bertie?” my father called.
My mother came out of the bathroom into the entrance hall. The front of her housecoat was drenched, her hair in disarray, and her face was flushed. “Oh, Harry, thank goodness you’re here. Esther’s sick.”
My sister Esther, ten years older than me, was then not yet 5. She had been out of sorts that morning when my father left for work, with a mild fever and complaining that her head hurt. This was obviously something more serious.
My father said nothing for a moment and my mother continued: “She’s burning up with fever. I’ve got her in the tub, cooling her off. We really have to take her to the hospital.”
“Of course,” my father said. He and my mother shared a brief hug of reassurance, and he turned his head so she wouldn’t smell the alcohol on his breath, though she was quite used to it.
Then my father turned to go into the bathroom, shedding his overcoat. My sister Esther is fair, with blue eyes and dirty blonde hair that, in childhood, was quite pale. Her hair was long and usually tied into braids, but on this day, because of her headache, my mother had left it loose; now, it was bunched up into a loosely fitting bathing cap, lending her a slightly comical look. She lay on her back in a tub half filled with cool water, naked and pale as the belly of a fish except for her face, which was flushed bright red. My father stood in the doorway, frozen, for what was only a moment but seemed to him like an intolerably long time, taking this in. She was awake, with tears dribbling down her enflamed cheeks, but her mouth formed a small smile. “Hello, Daddy,” she said weakly.
My father felt a flash of shame, his trance breaking. “My god,” he said, “Esthella, baby, it’s all right, we’re going to get you to a doctor,” then he stepped forward, intending to get down on his knee beside the tub.
The bathroom floor was wet. A crumpled towel lay beside the tub where my mother had been kneeling as she sponged Esther before my father’s return. As he stepped forward, my father’s right foot landed on the towel, which slid forward. My father teetered for a moment, then fell with a crash onto the floor, banging his left shoulder against the tub. Pain stabbed through his shoulder and, even worse, his ankle, which had twisted sideways as he fell.
“Harry, my god, are you okay?” my mother cried. She raced into the bathroom, narrowly avoided slipping on the wet floor herself, and knelt beside him. My father, already starting to get to his feet, brushed her aside. “I’m okay, Bertie. It’s nothing.”
The whole thing, start to finish, had taken only seconds, but my father knew it wasn’t nothing, his ankle was seriously twisted and the pain that raced up his leg as he placed weight on it was excruciating. But the pain served one useful purpose, clearing my father’s head.
“Get her dressed,” he told my mother. “I’ll call a taxi.”
Ten minutes later, my mother and father emerged from the doorway of their apartment building with Esther, dressed and wrapped in a blanket, whimpering in my father’s arms. My mother held my sister Judy, who was not yet 3; there was no one with whom she could be left, so they had no choice but to rouse her protesting from sleep and take her along. My father’s shoulder was aching with dull pain – putting his coat back on had been agonizing – but was bearable, even with his daughter’s slight weight; his ankle, though, fired hot bright bolts of pain through his leg with every limping step. Rain had started to fall and they stood in the shelter of the doorway for a minute as they waited for the taxi. He pressed his hand against Esther’s burning forehead and whispered into her ear, “It’s okay, Esthella, Daddy’s got you, it’s okay.”
My father had no idea whether his daughter’s situation was serious or slight, but he feared the worst. Being a devout atheist, he had no god to direct prayers to, but that didn’t prevent him from composing them on occasion, and in that brief pause in the doorway, he proposed a bargain with the universe. If only Esther would be spared, he would never again allow himself to be so drunk – as drunk as he’d been that night, so drunk that he had done himself harm, that he had delayed, not thought clearly, even if only for a few moments; so drunk that he might have done others harm – never again would he allow himself to be that way.
Then the taxi was there, they were in it and on their way, my father grateful to be off his feet, the cab’s windshield wipers clacking away thought.
Coney Island Hospital was just a few minutes away on Ocean Parkway near Avenue Z. Judy had been born there and my parents knew it well. The taxi pulled up at the emergency entrance and my mother, who had sat Judy down on the seat between her and my father, got out and came around the car to open my father’s door. He stumbled out, gasping, Esther pressed tightly against his chest. For a moment, he teetered, and was sure his leg would collapse under him, but he shot out his left hand to steady himself against the door of the taxi, that motion reigniting the pain in his shoulder. Esther shifted in his arms, threatening to slip from his grip, but once he had righted himself, he was able to pull his left arm back in, redistributing her weight in time. He didn’t think about his wife and other daughter, about the cab driver and the fare, but concentrated all his attention on the hospital door, which was swinging open, a white-uniformed nurse pushing a wheelchair appearing through it like one of the angels he had read about as a boy, welcoming them to heaven.
“She’s burning up,” my father croaked, surrendering his first-born into the nurse’s arms.
In another ten minutes my father sat in the same wheelchair gritting his teeth as an intern pried off his heavy black shoe and began to manipulate his ankle, already swollen to almost twice its normal size. Every movement of the doctor’s hands sent excruciating pain flooding through my father’s lower body. My mother and Esther had disappeared through a curtained doorway with another doctor, and Judy, cranky and sniveling, had been taken by a nurse to a small room with colouring books and a cot. “Don’t worry, she’ll be fine, won’t you, honey,” the nurse said. My father had tried to follow my mother and Esther but was met with similar assurances and worried frowns over his limp. A nurse with a thin line of perspiration on her upper lip like a faint moustache had pushed him down into the wheelchair and there he sat for a few minutes waiting, his entire body now throbbing, the pain in his ankle scorching up through his right leg and into his pelvis, the pain in his shoulder radiating down his arm, all the way to his fingers. His throat burned and even his head was aching, locked in a tight grip that pressed against his temples, keeping thought at bay, though he remained conscious of the steady stream of doctors and nurses coming in and out of the room that my mother and Esther and been taken into, their faces unreadable.
An intern in a white jacket, a man who looked little older than the teenaged boy who ran errands in my father’s office, materialized in front of him, immediately sinking to his knees.
“This looks really nasty,” the intern said. He composed his face to express seriousness, but it couldn’t completely mask delight. My father grimaced in response. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a drink, some whiskey, maybe?”
The intern let his grin emerge. He wore a wispy moustache, obviously grown to make him appear older. “You find some, I’ll join you. In the meantime, relax.” He stood up and probed the muscles in my father’s shoulder with unsympathetic fingers. “You’re holding yourself so tight, you’re just making this worse.”
My father slumped with exhaustion as he was wheeled to have X-rays taken – the intern was right, when he willed his muscles to loosen, the pain in his shoulder began to subside, even the ache in his head seemed to lessen.
While he waited for the technician to adjust his equipment, my father gazed through a rain-stained window at darkness softened by the glow of an exterior light. He could see an ambulance driving into the frame of the window, then disappearing from view, the frame going dark again. He thought of the bargain he had proposed, just minutes earlier, and renewed it. Never again, he thought. He had offered up such bargains to the gods of the universe before, with smaller stakes, over smaller matters, and then proceeded to forget them, to let his end down, he knew that. But this was different, this time he meant it, and he assumed his intention and resolve was clear.
The X-rays showed the injury to my father’s shoulder to be no more than a bad bruise. He was given an icepack, and then the doctor and nurse forgot about it. But the ankle turned out to be more than sprained, it was broken and would need to be painfully set and placed in a plaster of Paris cast. First he was told that someone, a specialist, was being telephoned and would be there within an hour, then that another emergency had precluded that; he would have to wait until morning. It was now way past midnight, so he would just have to grit his teeth and endure the pain for another six hours or more, the intern cheerfully told him. “It’s only pain,” he said.
My father took some grim satisfaction in this development, interpreting it to mean that the universe – or whatever was out there – had accepted his bargain, or had perhaps upped the ante slightly, that his condition should be worse so that his child’s could be better. And it was. My mother soon joined him, relief clear on her face. Esther’s fever was already down, and she was asleep. They would keep her overnight and watch her, but the doctor didn’t think it was anything too serious, “just one of those mysterious childhood things,” he said, a diagnosis he was obviously satisfied with. My father nodded his head in agreement.
Years later, my father couldn’t even recall what had been wrong with Esther that night, just that she had been burning with fever and had thrown her parents into a panic. Perhaps, as the doctor had suggested, it had just been one of those mysterious childhood ailments that comes and goes without apparent explanation, leaving no discernible mark.
My father was changed, though, or so he believed.
He recalled that my mother looked in on Judy, who was sleeping peacefully on a cot in the playroom, and then went to fetch two coffees in paper cups while my father sat in a strangely calm repose and communed with the pain in his ankle. The coffee when it came, hot and milky, would be soothing in its own way, and would suffice to stifle his craving for something stronger. But there was a brief period after the intern left when all the nurses were busying themselves elsewhere and my mother had not yet returned, that he was alone with his demons in a small bare room, his leg extended. They had given him morphine and the pain was retreating in almost noticeable waves, like soldiers quitting a battlefield. The muting of the pain served, though, to make his desire for both a drink and a cigarette more acute. His body cried out for both. There were sure to be cigarettes in his jacket pocket and a small flask, half full of rye whiskey, in the inside breast pocket of his coat. He didn’t know what had become of either. When my mother came back, he would ask her to find his jacket and bring him a cigarette – surely there could be no objection to that. As for the flask, no, he would forego that. Yes, he had promised only that he wouldn’t again be drunk, not that he would never drink again, like converted sinners caught up in religious fervour who vowed never to touch another drop. A drink now, he felt certain, would not be a breach of the bargain he had made, it would not put Esther in jeopardy, would not compromise his word. Still, he thought, it was better to be safe. He had been careless, he knew, just that, but that was bad enough. He would try not to be careless again.