Authors: Robert Grossbach
“There was an old man of Tarrentum
Who sat on his false teeth and bent ‘em;
When asked what he’d lost,
And what they had cost,
He replied, “I don’t know, I just rent ‘em.”
Willie’s mother doesn’t get to hear the rhyme; she dies during childbirth. For the first week of his life, Willie has a fever.
He is a withdrawn, moody child. He is cared for by an aunt in Long Island City during the week and sees his father on the
weekends. (Since the tailor shop is in Brighton Beach, at the bottom of Brooklyn, a daily trip is impossible; his father sleeps
where he works.) Willie is intelligent, but does not do well in school. Dreamy, his teachers say. Academic subjects—English,
math, science—hold no interest for him. He wants to be an artist. His paintings are quite good—watercolors, pastels, line
drawings of the two cousins with whom he shares a home. He even captures the resentment on their faces.
He gets a job in the art department at Collier’s—layouts, touch-ups, dodging, masking, assorted hackwork of all kinds. The
pay is good, and there’s a lovely girl, Helen Fitzgerald, in the typing pool who keeps making eyes at him. They get married
in 1925, six weeks after Willie’s twentieth birthday. They are a loving couple; by 1929 they already have two little boys
and a new baby girl. To celebrate the arrival of their sister, Willie takes his sons to see an animated feature creatured
by someone named Walt Disney; it involves a cute, crazy mouse, and the kids insist on two complete viewings. A month later,
along with a hundred other people, Willie is laid off from his job. He goes work hunting door-to-door, finally lands something
in Brooklyn at sixty percent of his former pay.
The country staggers in the throes of the Depression.
Willie works twelve hours a day, six days a week, at a dusty textile plant in the Red Hook section. His job involves screen
printing on bolts of material. He discovers that if he pulls the cloth real tight as it goes through the machine, he can meet
his quota and still have a couple of extra yards left over. Willie is normally no thief, but in 1932, when his children are
drinking soup made from potato peelings, he cuts the extra material and sells it. The family lives in upper Manhattan, but
he walks to work to save the nickel carfare.
at least, is determined not to be a weekend father. The days, however, seem interminable.
They are not. Two years later, through an uncle of Helen’s, he gets a job driving a cab. It is a big improvement over the
textile factory, although hardly the occupation the child-artist dreamed of twenty summers earlier. It is to be his life’s
work for the next thirty-nine years. In 1941, when the second World War breaks out, he is bringing home eighty dollars a week,
enough for a three-room apartment in the Bronx, occasional nights at the movies, a Philco console radio. His oldest boy, Bobby,
joins the Marines; younger brother Edward, despite the fact that he is only seventeen and has many allergies, manages to get
into the Navy. Both boys are assigned to the Pacific. In November, 1942, Bobby returns home on leave. He has survived the
battle of the Coral Sea, escaping by lifeboat from the sinking, burning
A friend of his has a cousin who has seen Edward. Edward was headed for a pear-shaped island called Guadalcanal.
“I hope he don’t suffer from his allergies,” Willie tells Helen. “Bobby says the place is all jungle, full of plants.”
Edward doesn’t suffer. He is shot in the eye while still wading in the water, dead before he hits the beach. The news reaches
Willie and his wife a day after Bobby returns to his outfit. Bobby is not as lucky as his brother. He is captured at Bougainville
three weeks before Christmas, 1943. The Japanese troops, enraged at their heavy losses, torture and starve their prisoners.
Bobby is later found spread-eagled on adjacent palm tree saplings, along with six fellow Marines. Their bodies have been torn
Something goes wrong in Helen’s brain. Grief, even vast, prolonged grief, is normal, to be expected. Willie himself mourns
for two years. But his wife doesn’t come out it. She refuses to eat, to talk, to do housework. She answers questions in one-syllable
words. Ten years after her sons’ deaths, past Korea and MacArthur-Truman, past the first hydrogen bomb and the Berlin blockade,
she still spends her days in a chair, staring straight ahead.
“Doctor Pendergast thinks Mom would be better off in a hospital,” says Sandra, Willie’s daughter. She has a masters degree
in education, has been engaged for six months to a dentist.
“No hospital,” declares Willie. “She stays here, at home, with me.”
But of course, she is not with him. He is out driving the cab; Sandra cares for her mother during the days. When the Kennedy
years come, and Sandra is married, and Helen’s condition worsens, Willie has no choice. He commits his wife to the state institution
at Central Islip, visits her there every weekend for twelve years, until she passes away.
In 1979, Willie is seventy-four years old. He has a heart condition and is beginning to go bald on top.
He retains a low-key, cynical sense of humor. The occasional watercolors, which he used to do even after he retired, are now
a memory. The artist is gone, and his income from Social Security is 237 dollars a month.
It is three in the morning. Somewhere on the chilly streets of Astoria a dog barks, and Al looks up. He is in the hallway,
having just flushed the toilet in the bathroom. Every night it is the same, urinate three drops, flush, return to his room.
He thinks of what a doctor once told him: an old man’s prostate is to a young man’s prostate as a walnut is to an apple. Maybe
I’ll get an apple, Al decides now. He heads for the kitchen, passes Willie’s room. Willie, Al sees, is sitting by the window,
his face bathed in pale blue light. Deep in thought, Willie fails to notice his friend. Al knocks gently on the door.
“Wha?” Startled, Willie spins round.
“What’s the matter, Willie?”
For the moment, Willie can’t speak. He has been crying an old man’s cry, tearless, as if the body had simply run out of juices
to expend on emotion. His throat is constricted. “Can’t sleep,” he whispers finally.
Al moves into the room, puts his arm around Willie’s shoulders. “Hey, come on, tell me.
Willie sighs. His voice is barely audible. “I had a dream.”
“A dream? About what?”
“I dreamed about Bobby, my older son. How I spanked him once when he was little.”
Al nods. “Sometimes your dreams hurt worse than real life. Sometimes—”
“I don’t even remember what the whole thing was about,” interrupts Willie. “What could it have been? I came home from work,
and Helen told me he did something wrong, whatever it was. So I ask him why he did it, and he says he didn’t do it. So I smack
him on the rear end, and I ask him again. He still says he didn’t do it, whatever it was.”
“So I smack him again. I was young at the time, and I didn’t want him to get the best of me. I was gonna prove something,
something about discipline. Can you imagine that?”
“Willie,” says Al, “that was a long time ago. A
time. I’m sure the boy forgave you. I read somewhere that children really
discipline, that they understand it’s a form of love.”
Willie has turned back to the window. “I kept smacking him across that little rear end of his till he finally says, ‘Yeah,
yeah,’ whatever the hell it was,
he did it. Then he ran to his bed and put his face in the pillow and wouldn’t look at me.”
Al sways back and forth. He doesn’t know what to say. The sound of Willie’s dry sobs is like a file scraping. “Hey… Will…
come on, Will. Will—”.
“We never had any fun after that,” chokes Willie. “He only lasted till he was eighteen, that kid. I never got a chance to
Al runs his hand through Willie’s thinning hair. He feels the gaunt body quiver, like a dry reed in a wind. “Aw, Willie,”
he says. “Come on, Willie.”
Five-thirty a.m. The alarm clock-radio in Joe’s room went off softly. Joe reached over to silence it. He sat up, stretched,
and climbed off the bed. He felt a surge of rippling energy. Today was special.
He walked out into the hallway. Passing Al’s room and then Willie’s, he turned on their lights. In the kitchen, he got coffee
started then went to brush his teeth. Al had beaten him to it. Still bleary-eyed, he was staring into the bathroom mirror,
great globs of mint-green foam obscuring his lips and running down into the hairs on his scrawny chest. A moment later, Willie
was peering over Joe’s shoulder.
“He’s foamin’ at the mouth,” said Joe. “Must be rabies.”
“He uses toothpaste like it’s suntan cream,” said Willie. He reached forward to tap Al on the shoulder. “You could cover your
whole body with what you got on your teeth there.”
“Luh muh,” said Al, rinsing out.
“No wonder the big tube we bought last week
is practically gone,” said Willie. “Really, you don’t have to use that much.”
Al put down the plastic cup. “We’re gonna be rich in a couple hours. Leave me alone.”
Willie peered into the mirror, passed his hand across the stubble on his face. “I dunno if I should shave.”
Joe returned to the kitchen.
“You gonna shave?” Willie asked Al.
“I ain’t sure,” said Al.
“Joe?” yelled Willie.
“What?” said Joe from the kitchen.
“Nope,” said Joe. “I’m pouring coffee.”
Willie looked at the ceiling. “I mean,” he said patiently, “are you gonna shave?”
“I’m not,” called Joe. “You can if you want to.”
Willie shrugged as Al turned to leave. “What the hell for?” he said.
In the kitchen, the three of them sipped their coffee and tried to match up bullets with their pistols.
“Nope,” said Joe, attempting to jam a .45 slug into one of the .38 chambers. “No good.”
The ammunition was spread all over the table, mingled with the butter, sugar, and toast. “Here,” said Al, offering a bullet
of smaller diameter. “Try this one.”
Joe peered over the top of his reading glasses. “Nah, that’ll be too little.” He pointed to a bullet that had rolled up to
the butter. “Give me that one over here.”
Al handed Joe the slug. It fit perfectly in the chamber. “That’s it!” said Joe delightedly. “We need more like that.”
They sifted through the bullets until Joe had filled up the chamber. As Willie handed across the last slug, it fell into the
sugar. Al retrieved it. “Here’s some candy-coated persuasion,” he said.
With a snap of his wrist, Joe popped the chamber shut. “That’s one down,” he said
Ten minutes later, three completely loaded revolvers rested near Joe’s saucer. “You think maybe we oughtta take some extra
bullets along?” asked Al.
“What for?” said Joe.
“Just in case.”
“In case of what? We ain’t gonna have no shoot-outs.” Joe stared at Al for a long moment. “You think we should?”
“Ah, what the hell!” said Joe. “Maybe we better take a few. Don’t cost nothin’.” He slipped some bullets into his pocket.
When breakfast was finished, Joe got his airline bag and placed it on the table next to the three disguises. All the men had
on sport jackets, but Al was the only one wearing a black bow tie.
“My” said Willie. “Don’t you look snappy.”
“He thinks he’s goin’ to a dance,” Joe said.
“I used to wear this when I was bartending,” said Al innocently.
Joe handed Groucho glasses to each of them and then indicated the guns. “Take whichever one you like.”
“Don’t make no difference to me,” said Al.
Joe picked up the nearest gun and stuck it in his belt, buttoning his jacket over it. Al did the same. Willie took the last
“Okay,” said Joe. He grabbed the airline bag, spread his legs slightly apart, and made his voice
like Edward G. Robinson’s. “Let’s get goin’, you guys.”
It was 7:45 in the morning, and the streets were clogged with rush-hour traffic. Joe and Al crossed against the light, Al
calmly holding up a hand and bringing two cars to a screeching halt, their drivers cursing. Willie waited for the signal to
change before following them. They waited fifteen minutes, then boarded a crowded bus, where they were forced to separate.
Al gave his seat in the back to a grateful old woman who seemed far more robust than he did. Joe stood near the front and
checked his watch every two minutes, and Willie sat near the door, covering his face with his hands.
“You got a cold?” said an elderly man next to him.
“No,” mumbled Willie through his fingers.
“The reason I ask,” said the man, “is I see you holding your nose. Truth is, I don’t blame you. It stinks in here. If my nose
wasn’t stuffed, I’d also hold it.”
“Allergies,” said Willie.
“You’re lucky,” said the man. “You don’t have to inhale the smell. You know what it is? It’s the element. The people. The
people nowadays stink. Years ago they didn’t. Now they do.”