The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 3

All Saints' Day

by Louis Begley

Untitled Document

Jake was a man of habits so fixed and precise that if you wanted a casual chat with him it was quite unnecessary to make an appointment. Provided you knew his routine. Then it was easy enough to station yourself at the right time at the place where he normally appeared at that hour. He would be there—perfectly punctual, unhurried, and serene. According to people who had known him much longer than I, it had always been so.
          Of course, even in adult life, Jake’s occupations underwent occasional basic changes, with consequent modifications in his daily activities and their geographical locus. Thus, after Jake withdrew from the investment bank founded by his maternal great uncles, where he became a partner shortly after graduating from college, he no longer needed to go down to Wall Street. The center of his daytime activities shifted to a small personal office in the Lever Bros. building, consisting of his own large room, a reception area where his secretary, who had followed him from the bank, had her desk, and another room, a cross between a library and a dining room, where he held occasional meetings. Being in midtown now made it inconvenient for Jake to use the Downtown Association or the services of the old Italian barber on Broad Street. He therefore took to lunching at a French restaurant in the low Fifties, except on Mondays, when it was closed, and, after a wretched period of trial and error, settled on the barbershop in the Waldorf Astoria. He deplored its transformation some years later into a hairdresser’s salon. The manager was more than willing to continue to look after Jake, but Jake discovered that there was no one left in the establishment who cut hair like a barber. Once again, Jake was at loose ends. The solution came when a female friend recommended a barbershop on Lexington Avenue in the Seventies, to which she took her small sons. Jake was happy to discover that he liked there the daylight coming through windows from the Avenue, and the freedom from a fancy hotel’s pretensions. The haircuts were correct too, reminding him of the work of a barber in Rome he particularly appreciated, who had been located in the via Mario da Fiori and had moved to via della Vite. Except in heavy rain, when he was driven by a car service that he also used to go out in the evening, Jake went on foot to the office and back home. He walked invariably on the east side of Park Avenue from the apartment building where he lived, which was on the Avenue in the low Eighties, until he reached 57th Street. There he crossed to the other side and continued to his office. In the afternoon, the itinerary was reversed.
          These walks and the rest of Jake’s city routine were naturally suspended during the summer, which for Jake stretched from early June to mid-September. During that period, he traveled in Europe, a statement that may imply more activity than actually occurred. Jake confessed to spending a few days in London, and a few days in Paris. But, by the beginning of July, he would have reached the castello in the Dolomites belonging to his sister, married to a Milanese notable. There he would stay until it was time to return to New York, with perhaps two or three days in Milan thrown in for good measure. His fellow guests at the castello have told me that there as well Jake’s life followed distinct and well-established rules. In the morning, he went for long walks, preferably with his sister and, as soon as they were old enough, her two sons. A leisurely Italian lunch followed. Afterward, until dinner, which was served late, Jake worked in his room. He would emerge in time for drinks, changed, fresh, and eager for company, willing to stay up after dinner as late as anyone over grappa, walnuts, and old Parmesan cheese.
          The nature of Jake’s work has remained something of a mystery to me. There was the theory that he looked after his own and his sister’s investments. Perhaps the money of other family members was involved as well. It fit with his occasional comments about the state of the market, economic trends, and mistakes of central bank authorities. I could imagine him devoting a great deal of time at the castello to telephone calls with his office, where his secretary would have arrived by the time he finished lunch, and having other important and tense conversations with New York. The separate line he arranged already in the sixties to have installed at the castello, when telephone lines were not easy to obtain in Italy, reinforced such a hypothesis. Later, the second line would have been required for his laptop. He was an early and enthusiastic user. One might have expected him to sit on the boards of two or three of New York’s more important cultural institutions, but so far as I know that was not the case. That left the family foundation, which made grants for the benefit of performing arts. He ran it pretty much as though it belonged to him. A rather different theory of Jake’s occupations seemed to me equally plausible. It would hold that his involvement with investments was limited to speaking a couple of times each month to the investment advisers who really ran the family money, and that he spent the afternoon hours remaining after lunch on a couch in his office with a good novel or a biography, or enjoying a healthful nap. He was remarkably well read. It doesn’t much matter. The only reason I found Jake’s workday occupations intriguing was their wonderful compatibility with the sure-footed and unfailingly affable manner in which he made his way through life.
          When I knew him, Jake was unmarried. If there had been an earlier marriage that ended in divorce, I have heard no mention of it. Certainly, I have not heard about Jake having had children. I confess to having wondered occasionally whether Jake was gay. There was no reason that jumped to the eye to think he wasn’t. Among men of his generation—and mine as well—it had been pretty much standard operating procedure to conceal homosexual inclinations and, even more so, active homosexuality. While a number of my classmates and other acquaintances of my age came out into the open in the late seventies and in the eighties, some of them flamboyantly, I believe the majority didn’t bother; they simply stopped keeping up their guard. The fact that in society Jake usually appeared in the company of an attractive woman with whom one might suppose he was sleeping—not infrequently it was for a long time the same woman—did not, in my opinion, prove anything one way or the other.
          I am a fast walker. As I did not need to get to my office in the East Forties especially early, it was not unusual for me to catch up with Jake on his morning march down Park Avenue and be in danger of overtaking him. When that happened, I simply crossed the street, avoiding the dilemma posed: should I greet him, and keep going at my pace, perhaps with a word or two about being late for an appointment, or should I fall in step? Walks to work and home, when I manage to have my place of work within a reasonable distance from where I live, are precious to me. In addition to the benefits they bestow on the body, they offer a rare opportunity to chase ideas that get pushed aside at other times of day. I supposed that Jake might share my feelings and was reluctant to intrude on his privacy. But one morning he had slowed down and turned to contemplate the magnificent apartment building on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 66th Street—tall, somehow standoffish, with decorative classical arches on its Park Avenue face and a cornice that seems to echo the University Club and therefore the Pitti Palace—and there I was, just a few steps behind. He could not help noticing me. He returned my greeting with greater amiability than I thought I had any right to expect, and said that, should I be disposed to slow down a bit, he would be happy if I walked with him. I accepted the offer readily.
          Jake had interested me ever since we met some years back, when I thought he might open for me a window on certain aspects of New York life. There must have been a budding sympathy on his part as well because, just as we were about to separate at 57th Street, he suggested in his quiet, offhand manner that there was no reason why we shouldn’t walk together regularly, since apparently we adhered to the same schedule. Some days later he went further, suggesting that in bad weather he would be happy to give me a ride. The driver would pick me up at my address in the Nineties, then collect Jake and let him out at the Lever Bros. building, and finally deposit me at my office. I was surprised by both the precision and the generosity of this proposal, and told him so. He laughed, and said that secretly he was an enthusiast and an activist. You mustn’t think that I want to impose on you another obligation when you surely have so many; he added, Let’s see how the system works. After having had my company for a while you may decide that you would do anything to escape: change your route to Madison Avenue or Fifth, perhaps even take the subway or the bus!
          I didn’t tire of Jake. Instead, my curiosity turned into genuine fondness. It was a dry and very pleasant autumn so that, with one or two exceptions, we were able to enjoy our morning walks. I noticed in the course of our peregrinations that Jake always slowed down to gaze at the building at 66th Street. He also cast long and sometimes intense looks at certain other buildings on the west side of the Avenue. Soon, I had an inventory: the tawny building at the corner of 76th Street; the fraternal twin buildings on the northwest and southwest corners of 73rd Street with complicated terraces and setbacks at the highest floors; on the block between 71st and 70th Streets, a second set of twins resembling the first pair; at the northwest corner of 67th Street, towering above the Pratt Mansion, a severe and unadorned sandstone limestone structure; and finally, that building at 66th Street. We were getting along so well that on one of our morning walks I was bold enough to ask: Why do you look each time you pass with such intensity at those same buildings—I identified them—on the other side of the Avenue? Have you made it your habit to walk on this side so as to get a better view?
          Jake smiled. It was an interesting coincidence, he told me, that I should have put the question on the first day of November, which is All Saints’ Day, since the homage he paid by fleeting glances was his way of visiting certain graves. Someone important to me had lived in each of those buildings, he explained, but the persons in question are dead or, in one case, utterly lost. There is another reason for walking on the east side of Park, he added more cheerfully. One is spared the wretched view of Lenox Hill Hospital and Hunter College. When we reach them, I just look straight ahead.
          The answer intensified my curiosity. I asked whether he would tell me about the former inhabitants of these mausoleums.
          Certainly, said Jake. My feelings are not very profound, except for one case, which is special. Mostly it’s nostalgia for vanished friends and pleasures. For instance, in what you have called the tawny building lived an elderly childless couple, friends of my parents, possessed of remarkable eighteenth-century French furniture. Their apartment was on the third floor, not really for the sake of lower maintenance charges, although being miserly the husband surely derived pleasure from not paying as much as the occupants of the apartments on the high floors, but so as to avoid having their treasures bleached by sunlight. For greater safety, the curtains were almost always drawn. A profusion of lamps and sconces relieved the gloom, bathing in pink glow sofas, settees, armchairs, side tables, étagères, escritoires, bibelots, and curios the pair had collected. Most of these objects are at the Metropolitan Museum, to which they were bequeathed. I linger among them often, remembering the apartment and the old couple’s receptions. They were fond of festivities and had the intelligence to invite young people to stir things up a little and bring the average age of the guests below seventy. The husband used to say he’d do anything and invite anyone so that these gatherings, once they sat down to bridge and canasta, didn’t look like the social hour at a home for old Jews. The goulash, Taffelspitz, and Sacher chocolate cake they served were astonishing; I haven’t eaten better even at the Rote Bar of the Sacher Hotel itself.  The old couple was Viennese; they and their friends had been rich and shrewd enough to get out of Central Europe with a good part of their money and valuables ahead of the Germans. They made more money in the New World and had good lives, but without exception, they made me think of amputees: the old life from which they had been severed was, for all its humiliations, one they missed and yearned for. When they talked about it, perhaps because the accents had their own aroma as irresistible as that of the buffet table, you were transported into movie land, Rick’s Café in Casablanca and The Third Man.
          The other memories are darker, Jake told me. For example: in one of the buildings topped by what I call the hanging gardens of Babylon, lived the mother of a friend who was also my college classmate. The terrace wrapped around the first floor of her duplex and was accessible from most rooms. My classmate was her older son. She began to give annual May parties out on that terrace for his friends—and the friends of his friends—a year after he and his guide were killed in a climbing accident in the Andes. That was during the summer after graduation. It was a freak accident, like all accidents, Jake told me, because his classmate was an experienced climber who had made the ascent successfully once before; the guide was widely understood to be the best; and the weather had been perfectly normal for that time of the year, without any sudden storms or other problems. Just what had happened never became clear; there were no other climbers in the vicinity. Then, her younger son was lost at sea, in brutal weather between the Cape Cod Canal, through which he had already passed, and Portland, Maine, where he was taking his boat for the winter. Wreckage of the boat was found, but not the body. That left the old lady as the sole survivor of the family, the collaterals being very distant. I should have told you at the outset, said Jake, that she brought up the boys alone. Her husband was killed by a polo ball that hit him on the forehead one month after the younger son was born. She gave those parties right up to her death, thirty-five years after the climbing accident. Meanwhile, not a few of us—I mean the group that had come to them at the start—had died. Many had divorced and remarried. She invited the new wives and continued to invite the discarded ones if they had not moved away from New York. And we kept on showing up—some, like me, without fail—though often considerably changed, sometimes atrociously. You can imagine it. Vast expansions of girth, normally attractive faces turning various shades of purple or violet, the usual loss of hair in the case of men and in the case of wives baldness brought on by chemotherapy. Our hostess hardly changed at all, except that gradually she shriveled. Then one day, her lawyer telephoned to say she was dead. She fell down the stairs of her duplex presumably during the night, landing headfirst on the marble floor of the foyer. The skull was cracked. The cook found her in the morning. I thought he was going to ask me to speak at the service, there being no one else still alive who knew her as well, but he told me that he would deliver the eulogy himself.
          They are mostly like that, said Jake, my other stories. Straightforward tales of unavoidable loss. Sometimes, when I walk down Park Avenue, the weight of memories is such I think I have lived one thousand years, maybe longer.
          I pressed Jake to tell them to me. He said he was not inclined to do so, except perhaps one, less simple, with the false Palazzo Pitti as setting. But not during our usual walks; if I wanted to hear it, he would offer me a simple lunch of sandwiches at his office. Usually he ordered from a nearby delicatessen. We made a date, after I assured him that corned beef would be satisfactory.
          It turned out that a sandwich lunch in Jake’s office was taken at a round table with a black marble top, and included a bottle of Piedmont wine which was made by his Milanese brother-in-law. Jake’s secretary put the food on the table, Jake poured the wine, sniffed, declared it satisfactory, and launched into his story.


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