Faye was anxious and distressed. Early in their relationship she had devoted a great deal of time and effort to convincing Howard that he could close the store early some days and keep it shuttered for part of Saturday and all day Sunday and not lose business. She had been as surprised as he was to find that she had been correct; since most of Howard’s customers were regulars, they simply adjusted to the new schedule and spent roughly the same amount of money per week as they had in the past. The store also seemed to attract about the same number of walk-in customers as it had under the old schedule. An additional reason why Howard did not lose business was that West Side Booksellers was the only bookstore in Washington Heights. Apparently, few neighborhood people traveled to any of the big retailers in other parts of the city during times that Howard’s store was closed.
Now, however, Faye had reversed course and told Howard that rather than keeping the store closed he should hire her brother, saying that even after he deducted Peter’s hourly pay from the store’s sales he would make more money by remaining open all week. After much conversation on the matter Howard had finally, reluctantly, agreed to a try-out period for Peter.
At the end of the month, when Howard reconciled his accounts he discovered that the store had taken in much less money than it had during each of the previous months. How could that be? He compared sales figures for the same month last year. They were higher. When he compared the sales figures on a day-to-day basis over the course of the past month he saw that on the days that he worked the store took in about the same amount as on a similar number of days during the previous few months, but on the days that Peter worked the numbers dropped dramatically. He decided to confront Peter.
That night, as Peter and Faye sat in the living room watching television, Howard walked into the room and asked Peter to explain the big discrepancy in sales on the days that he worked as compared to the other days. Peter smiled at Howard, looked at Faye, and said, “Well, Howard, I guess I’ve been pocketing too much of the cash.”
As Howard strained to think of a reply, Faye said, “Howard, you do see he’s pulling your leg, don’t you?”
“I’ve never understood that ridiculous phrase.”
“It means he’s—”
“I know what it means. It’s a foolish expression.” Then, after a few seconds of awkward silence, Howard said, “So, please explain why register receipts are lower on days you work than when I’m there.”
“I don’t know, Howie. I’m not taking money, if that’s what you think. I’m not a thief. Besides, almost all of the sales are by charge card, so how could I be stealing money?”
“Obviously, I am not referring to charge card purchases—those are about the same—but, even on a slow day I generally take in a couple of hundred dollars in cash. On each of the days you have worked there was less than one hundred dollars in cash.”
“I guess people used credit cards more on my days.”
“Why would that be?”
“I suppose there’s a reason.”
“Then you must explain it to me.”
“Nothing to explain.”
“Yes, there is. I have to know why the store took in less money in cash on days when you worked as compared to when I was there. If you want, I can show you the exact figures; they’re on this sheet of paper.”
“Why would I want to see that? Okay, let me ask you a question: How come you never served in the Army?”
“What? What does that have to do with anything?”
“I’m a veteran. You should treat me with respect. Draft dodger!”
“I was not a draft dodger. When you were 18 there was a draft. There was no draft when I was that age. You know that. It’s a volunteer military now.”
“And you wouldn’t have minded serving if you had been drafted?”
“I would have hated it, but I would have gone.”
“So you say. You’re a liar.”
“I’m not the liar.”
“Howard, Peter, stop it!” Faye implored.
“Yeah, In any case, I told you, Howard, I don’t know about the money, and if you think I’m stealing, then screw you!”
“That is not a satisfactory response. Let me ask my question in another way: Can you think of any reason for the shortfall on the days that you work?”
“No. I can’t.”
“Howard, that’s enough. Stop,” Faye demanded.
“No. I have to know. I have to do what’s best for the store.”
“You have to know? Then go and figure it out ’cause I don’t know!” Peter challenged.
“Well, then tell me this—”
Faye interrupted Howard, saying, “No! Stop this. Don’t ask Peter. He said he doesn’t know.”
“I heard him. I would just like him to—”
“Okay. You know what?” Peter said as he stood up and walked over to Howard, “I just thought about it. Take your crappy job and shove it!” Peter sneered as he said that. Then he pushed Howard, knocking him to the floor, and stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door.
Faye held a hand to her mouth and stared at the door. Then she looked at Howard as he got up, and said, “How could you? Now what’s he going to do?”
“It’s my store, Faye. It means a great deal to me.”
She ran their bedroom and slammed the door.
Why would she be upset? Howard wondered. I am the one who has been cheated, and knocked down. He thought about the dynamics of the situation: obviously, Faye would want to defend her brother, but she had to understand that the bookstore was Howard’s heart and soul. He had said that to her on more than one occasion. One day, as they walked along a winding path in Central Park that was layered with a wild mix of crispy orange, pale yellow, and golden brown leaves, Faye grabbed Howard’s arm, kissed his cheek, and said that she was very happy. He looked at her and said that he was too. Then she asked, “Do you want to know why I’m happy?” Howard nodded. She said, “Because I have you and we have a lovely life.” Then she asked Howard what made him happy. After a moment of thought, he said, “Reading and my bookstore. I am always my happiest there.” Faye smiled, waiting for more, and becoming progressively distressed. Then she asked, “What else makes you happy?” Howard replied, “Oh, you make me happy, of course.”
She held her tongue for two weeks until, one evening, when Howard said that he would rather not go out to eat dinner because he wanted to stay in and read, Faye said, “Of course. I forgot. Your books make you happier than I do.”
Howard knew that he had to say that, while his books made him happy, being with Faye made him happy in other ways.
“I know,” she said. “I make you happy too, especially in bed. Remember that day in the park, when I asked what makes you happy, you said, ‘Oh, you make me happy, of course,’ as if it was an afterthought or something you said so I wouldn’t be pissed off at you.”
As he thought about this situation with Peter he realized that, yes, his bookstore meant more to him than Peter’s welfare and, perhaps more than Faye.
Faye awakened Howard. In the middle-of-the-night darkness the only light came from the illuminated dial of the clock on the bedside table. He looked up at her and then the clock. It was 4:15 a.m. He squinted and rubbed his eyes.
“He’s not in his room,” Faye whispered, almost crying.
“Maybe he went to your parents’ house.”
Desperately upset and trembling, Faye said, “That wouldn’t be good. They weren’t getting along. You know that. That’s why he had to come here.” Then she began to cry and pound her hands into her pillow.
“Do you want to call them?”
“No. What if he’s not there? My mother will become hysterical.”
When Howard closed his eyes and turned over, Faye thumped him on his shoulders. He turned over and, bewildered, looked at her.
“You don’t understand, do you? What you’ve done, I mean.”
“I do. It was an existential choice. I chose the financial health of my store and my peace of mind over Peter’s feelings.”
Faye waited. Then, glaring at him, she asked, “Is that it? Not even an ‘I’m sorry, but that was what I thought I had to do’?”
“I don’t believe I’ve done anything about which I should be sorry.”
“No? I do.” Then Faye began to cry.
“I did not cause Peter to steal money from me and I did not dismiss him from my employment. He wouldn’t even answer my question.”
“I know, Howard, but don’t you think you could have handled it better? Don’t you see he felt insulted because you accused him of stealing? Couldn’t you have given him some wiggle room?”
“I did not accuse him. I just asked him to explain why—”
“I know.” Then, wiping away her tears, she said, “Damn it!”
“This is a serious situation. You know that. He’s depressed. He drinks. He doesn’t have a job or money or a place to stay. Now, he probably thinks he can’t come back here.” When Howard remained silent, Faye said, “Which is probably something that would make you very happy.”
“What should I do, Faye?”
Beginning to cry, she said, “There’s nothing to do. He’s gone. Go to sleep, if you want. I’m going out to look for him.”
“Now? In the middle of the night?”
“I’ll just look outside of the building. Maybe he’s right outside ... I hope. Stay here. I don’t need you to go with me.”
In her office the next morning Faye called her parents. Their phone rang and rang. They did not have an answering machine. An hour later, after three more phone calls to them and two to her apartment, she called Howard at the bookstore. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Peter.”
“No. I have not.”
“My parents haven’t answered their phone. They’re always at home at this hour. I’m going over there.”
“Yes, and I want you to go with me.”
“I’d have to close the store.”
“Yes, you will. Of course, if you hadn’t upset Peter he could have taken over for you, and, of course, if you hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have run off, and we wouldn’t have to look for him.” When Howard did not reply, Faye said, “I’m leaving work now. I’ll be at the subway station in ten minutes—you know, 116th Street. I expect you to be there.”
On the subway ride to Queens Faye sobbed and wiped her eyes with a tissue and folded and unfolded her hands. Howard read, occasionally looking at Faye and patting her arm. When they got off the train and reached the sidewalk she ran the few blocks to her parents’ house. Howard ran after her. No one came to the door when Faye rang the bell and then knocked, so she used her key to enter the house. It was eerily quiet. She called for her parents, but no one answered. As she entered the kitchen and looked down her stomach dropped and she became overwhelmed with dread. A pillow, a wrinkled blanket, shattered dishes and mugs, silverware, a messy pile of scrambled eggs, and a puddle of what looked like coffee were scattered on the linoleum; a few cabinet doors were open and in a corner near the refrigerator there was what looked like vomit. Faye flew up the stairs to her parents’ bedroom. She moaned when she saw that the bed was not made. Faye knew that her mother never walked out of the bedroom in the morning without having first done that, unless one of them was ill and still in bed.
Howard, who was becoming concerned, searched the other rooms. There was no sign of Faye’s parents or of Peter. They checked the area immediately outside of the house. Then Faye went back in, cleaned up the mess in the kitchen and made her parents’ bed, while Howard scouted the neighborhood. When he returned several minutes later, Faye asked whether he thought she should ask the neighbors where her parents were. Before Howard could answer, Faye ran her fingers through her hair and said that she would wait.
She made a pot of coffee and a cup of tea for Howard; then they sat at the kitchen table, sipping in silence. The only sound came from the heirloom grandfather clock in the nearby living room. As Faye was pouring a second mug of coffee they heard the front door open. Faye called out, “Ma, dad, Peter,” and walked anxiously to the door to see who had come into the house. Her mother’s face said it all. Her father, always the optimist, smiled in an attempt to hide his anxiety.
“What happened?” Faye asked.
“Let me sit down. Oh, you made coffee.”
“Sure. Sit. I’ll pour some for you and dad.”
As she took two mugs from a cabinet and spoons from a drawer, Faye’s hands trembled. She attempted to control herself because she did not want to add to her parents’ agitation.
“And you cleaned up,” her mother said.
“Oh. It wasn’t much; just a few things on the floor.”
“You’re such a good girl.” Then her mother broke down and cried and heaved and choked. Her husband reached over and put an arm around her shoulder. His eyes were red, but he would not cry.
“I guess Peter was here,” Faye said. Howard remained silent.
Once she managed to stop crying, her mother explained that Peter had awakened them at about 4 a.m. by pounding on the front door. He was blind with drink, just barely able to stand. He had lost his key and his wallet. When they got him into the kitchen he headed straight for the refrigerator, looking for beer. As he slammed the door shut, beer bottle in hand, he lost his balance and fell to the floor. His father helped him to sit on a kitchen chair and refused to give the beer back to him. That made Peter furious. He tried to stand up, lost his balance, and fell again. He passed out. They were unable to lift him, so they brought a pillow and a blanket and attempted to make him as comfortable as possible on the floor. After checking to make sure he was breathing, they sat at the kitchen table keeping watch over him.
When the sun came up and they were unable to rouse Peter they decided to call 911. Faye’s father sat on the front porch, awaiting the ambulance, while her mother sat on the floor, cradling her son’s head on her lap and stroking his hair and watching him breathe. When the EMTs arrived and began examining Peter, he opened his eyes, looked alarmed, and pushed them away. The two technicians struggled to calm him. Then a police car arrived. When Peter saw the two police officers he angrily demanded that they leave.
“They were very good,” Faye’s mother said. “Nice young men.” She wiped her eyes and looked thoughtful for a moment.
“He refused to go to the hospital,” Faye’s father said. “He seemed to be okay, so we asked the cops to get him up. That’s when. … He stopped talking and looked at his wife.
“It’s okay, Michael. You can tell them. No secrets.”
Sighing deeply, he said, “He ... Peter had defecated in his pants.”
“Oh, no,” Faye said.
Howard gasped. Then he put his hands over his mouth.
Mr. Berenson explained that once the police and the EMTs left, he and his wife helped Peter to walk to the bathroom. He stayed with Peter as he sat on the toilet bowl and tried to clean himself. Finally, he told Peter to just wash himself in the shower. As Peter did that, Mr. Berenson put his son’s soiled clothing in a garbage bag, tied it closed, washed the toilet seat with paper towels and disinfectant, and threw the plastic bag in the garbage pail at the side of the house. Then he returned to the bathroom with a clean shirt and pants, socks, and underwear from his own drawer. While some of Peter’s clothes were in Faye’s apartment, most of what he owned was in the apartment in Flushing that he had shared with Ellen; he was not able to enter the unit because Ellen had changed the locks and now she was in California. When Peter emerged from the shower he yelled at his father and told him to leave, complaining about how his parents had embarrassed him and treated as if he were a child. He made his way to the kitchen a few minutes later looking sober but like a small child in his father’s large-sized clothing. He sat, staring for a long time at the cup of coffee and the scrambled eggs and toast that his mother had placed before him. When she asked him what had happened he glared at her and then he said, “You know, you’re too much! You just had to call the cops and the ambulance. You always have to go and do that kind of crap. My life’s shitty enough. Nothing ever just happens. It’s always a goddamned big tragedy. You should both die soon—today—and go straight to hell! And while you’re there, make room for me.” Mr. Berenson told his son to watch his mouth. Peter, still seated, held up a fist to his father. “I don’t think he would ever hit me. He was just acting out. Embarrassed. At least, I hope so.”
“He wouldn’t say why he began drinking again or what happened to his wallet or why he wasn’t with you two,” Faye’s mother said.
Faye, who felt as if she had fallen into an icy pond, shivered. Mrs. Berenson closed her eyes and sobbed. Howard stared at her, not knowing what, if anything, he should say.
“Then,” Mr. Berenson said, “I asked if he wanted to go to Alcoholics Anonymous or some other kind of group. At that point, Peter pushed his plate of eggs and his mug of coffee to the floor, threw down the pillow and blanket, which I had placed on a chair, and yelled at us. He screamed, ‘Nothing! Not a goddamned thing! Nothing’s working anymore’ He began opening cabinets and drawers and throwing dishes, mugs, and silverware to the floor. Then he stopped, looked at us as if he was going to say something, and he vomited.”
Mrs. Berenson, wiping her eyes with a tissue, said that they had been frozen with terror, not because they thought Peter might harm them, but because he was so clearly out of control. They both knew that when he had finished shouting he would run out of the house, as he had done on a number of occasions when he was a child. However, they feared that this time, rather than returning an hour later as if nothing had happened, he might remain on the run for a long period of time and hurt himself or never return.
“When was this? When he ran away, I mean?” Faye asked.
“Oh, it was an hour; no, maybe two hours ago. I don’t know.”
“And you have no idea where he is?”
“No. Of course not. He ran. We chased him, but we couldn’t keep up. We searched everywhere,” her father replied with a heavy sigh and a suppressed sob as stared at the coffee in his mug.
Two nights later, when there was still no sign of Peter, Faye, who had felt frozen and stomach-churningly upset from the time she first realized that her brother was missing, decided she had to tell Howard how she felt: “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive you.”
Howard put down his book and looked at Faye in utter astonishment. He struggled to come up with a reply, starting and stopping twice, and finally saying, “I didn’t expect this to happen.”
“I know, Howard, but it happened because of what you said.”
“I just asked him to explain what—”
“I know what you asked. That wasn’t wrong. It’s just that you don’t speak to people as if they have feelings or ... or even as if they’re people. You act as if real people and the characters in books are the same. That’s wrong.”
“I don’t think that. I know the difference.”
Faye studied him for a few second before she said, “Yes, Howard. You do know the difference. In your mind, characters in books are more worthwhile than real people, even me.”
“No, Faye. That is not true.”
After holding her head for a few seconds, Faye looked at Howard and said, “I’ve put up with a lot because I love you, but I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“It’s not nothing. Tell me.”
After a few seconds, Faye continued: “I thought we could have a long life together, but now, I don’t think I want you here.”
“You mean you want me to leave?”
“I mean I just don’t know.”
“I thought you were happy.”
“I was. I guess I would be again if I knew that Peter was all right. I don’t care where he is, as long as I know he’s okay.”
“I did not believe that what I said—”
“Part of the problem is that I’m so upset and feel so guilty. I can’t help but believe that staying with you would be like betraying Peter. You hurt him. You caused him to run out. He’s gone; he’s alone. How could I stay with you?”
“I never thought anything I might say would cause this to happen.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself. I knew from the very beginning that you were, are, different. Fine. We’re all different. You have some wonderful qualities I wish I had: you’re deadly honest and a hard worker and literate and knowledgeable. I know you’d never knowingly hurt me, but you don’t bend.”
“I know. I have always been intractable.”
“And that’s another thing—your vocabulary.”
“What about it?”
“Sometimes, when we’re talking, it’s like I’m at a lecture. Even in bed, after we’ve made love, you say things like, ‘That was superb.’ I mean, other people say, ‘That was hot, babe’ or ‘Wow, that was great!’”
“I have always been picky about language; you know that.”
“Yes, but during intimate moments, you could let your hair down.”
“I understand. I’ll try, Faye.”
“I don’t know whether we’ll have another one of those times together. I don’t know whether I still love you. I ... I can’t even look at you now.”