By: Alan Swyer
Four days after their mother’s funeral, Richie Kalt and his sister Bonnie strong-armed their father into joining them for dinner at his favorite neighborhood Italian place.
There were a few awkward attempts at chit-chat while the three of them shared a pizza for an appetizer: talk of the snowstorm that was predicted, a few words about the woeful Knicks, a reminder that uncle Sidney’s son Bruce had again gotten arrested for driving under the influence. But once their main courses arrived – linguini with clams for Bonnie, baccala for Richie, and steak pizzaiola for their dad – the man known as Big Ed took a couple of bites, then faced his two grown children.
“So what’re you hoping to tell me?” he asked.
“What makes you think we’re here to tell you something?” Richie replied.
“Think I don’t know you two? Let’s hear.”
“Dad –” said Bonnie.
“How often do you skip out on dinner with Gary and the kids?” he asked his daughter. When no response was forthcoming, he turned to his son. “If this is to sit and gab, how come we’re not really gabbing?”
“We miss Mom,” Bonnie stated.
“And we’ve been thinking –” Richie added.
“About the theory of relativity? Or peace on earth and goodwill toward men?”
“When the time is right, we want you to get on with your life,” said Bonnie.
Bonnie turned to Richie, who spoke up. “You’ve got six weeks to grieve.”
“Time to rejoin the world,” chirped Bonnie.
“Willingly or otherwise,” added Richie.
In the aftermath of that meal, Richie made a point of calling his father at least once a day, supplementing those conversations with shared dinners of take-out food: sometimes pastrami sandwiches, occasionally rotisserie chicken, once in a while Thai food or kabobs. Bonnie, too, checked in on a daily basis, in addition to luring her dad over for family suppers with her husband Gary, and her two young sons, Charlie and Mike.
Three weeks later Richie began to up the ante. First he took his father to a high school basketball team coached by a 6’8″ stringbean named Freddie, who once was a teammate of Richie’s, play against a county rival. That was followed later that week by an evening of darts and beer. Then the next week by a couple of hours shooting pool.
Pleased to see his father beginning to lose some of his glumness, Richie popped by one Saturday afternoon with meatball sandwiches and a six-pack. “There’s something we need to talk about,” he said once they were munching.
“That’s how you sounded when you thought your high school girlfriend – Patti, if I remember right – was knocked-up.”
“Know how long ago that was?”
“And when you were talking about dropping out of college.”
“Which, for the record, I didn’t.”
“And when you almost went into business that slimeball Cavanaugh.”
“Which somebody wisely talked me out of. Look, it’s not right for you to be alone.”
“If I want companionship, I’ll get a puppy.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“I’m not getting married.”
“Who once told me that getting some doesn’t have to mean getting hitched?”
Big Ed frowned, then took another bite of his meatball sandwich. “Anyway,” he said, “what would a woman see in me?”
“You’re a good-looking guy. Good company. Fun.”
“Somebody’s laying it on. Besides, even if I wanted to, which is far from the case, it’s not like I meet anybody.”
“Going to work, then coming straight home? How about if I help?”
“You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“At least think about it.”
“You did what?” Bonnie exclaimed three days later when Richie announced that he had put their father on a dating site. “What in hell were you thinking?”
“That he can’t sit alone and pine forever.”
“He doesn’t just sit alone. You go over there. He comes here.”
“And the rest of the time he’s not at the store?”
“So he’ll go to the library and take books out.”
“Starting with Faulkner and Proust? We talking about a guy who logs record amounts of time watching basketball games with schools even I never heard of?”
“But it feels so wrong.”
“Tell me how or why?
“For one thing, what would Mom say?”
“Mom who constantly said to him, Honey, you’ve got to do more than watch TV in your spare time? Think she’d want him to spend the rest of his life on hold?”
“More than banging everything in a skirt!”
“Somebody’s getting carried away.”
“For one thing, he doesn’t even know I’ve done it.”
“Keep it that way. If anyone needs a dating site, it’s you.”
“Where’d that come from?”
“You’re the one who’s been pining ever since the one I never met whose name was Moonbeam or Sequoia or –”
“She didn’t exactly dump me.”
Richie took a deep breath. “Okay, you’ve made your feelings known.”
“And nothing. And by the way, I don’t think about her much.”
“Then who was it who told me about lying awake at night thinking about her?”
“Wait a goddamn minute!” Ed Kalt bellowed the following Sunday afternoon, slamming down a half-eaten pastrami sandwich so as to glare at his son.
“Dad, listen –”
Instead of listening, Big Ed fumed. “Don’t give me Dad, listen.”
“I’m only thinking of you.”
“Who asked you to?”
“What could it hurt to get out once in a while and go to a movie or something?”
“The last movie I liked was ‘Casablanca’ on TV.”
“So you take somebody out to dinner. Or brunch on the weekend.”
“My next brunch will be my first brunch.”
“Okay, so you drive to the Shore and take a walk.”
“In the middle of winter?”
“Why are you being so difficult?”
“I’m not being difficult. I’m being me. You really expect me to go out on a date?”
“Is there anything wrong with that?”
“The last first date I had was thirty-seven years ago with your Mom. And don’t tell me it’s like riding a bicycle.”
Richie took a bite of his own sandwich, then stood and paced. “Okay, forget the whole thing,” he said, again facing his father. “Join some celibate order of monks for all I care. Or take up finger painting.”
Silence reigned as Big Ed polished off the rest of his sandwich, then downed the rest of his bottle of beer. “Besides,” he then said, “who’s to say some woman would even respond?”
“Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Two hours after your profile hit the internet, there were forty-seven responses.”
“By the next afternoon, it was closer to eighty.”
“How in hell can that be?”
“I put in Brad Pitt’s photo instead of yours.”
“Tell me you’re joking.”
“I’m joking, I’m joking. Know how many divorcees there are in Northern New Jersey?”
“Add to that widows, women who never married –”
“There were really that many?”
“Probably twice that by now.”
“And some of ’em are attractive?”
“Want me to show you?”
After an evening in New York with an old friend named Brucker who was visiting from LA, Richie’s plans to spend Saturday morning in bed in New Jersey with the covers pulled over his head were disrupted when his iPhone and his land line took turns ringing repeatedly.
“W-who died?” he muttered, answering after seeing his sister’s number on caller ID.
“You, the very next time I see you. Thought we had a deal.”
“Waiting before Dad starts bouncing on women’s bones.”
“And how long should he wait?”
“Maybe five years.”
“By when he’d be dead of TSB.”
“Ask your husband.”
“I don’t want this to happen.”
“Fine, except for one thing.”
“I’m not Gary or one of your kids. And neither is Dad.”
“You don’t get to make unilateral decisions.”
Late the next Saturday afternoon, Richie popped by his father’s place, only to find him unshaven and sulking in a bathrobe.
“You look like your pet goldfish just ran away,” Richie teased.
“I don’t have a pet goldfish.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“C’mon, you should be happy about having a date.”
“Like I should be happy about turning fifty-five?”
“You can’t get cold feet.”
“Dad, listen to me. You’ve got look at this not as a problem, but as a kind of opportunity.”
Big Ed shook his head in annoyance. “Where in hell did you get such a corny line?”
“From you every time I was nervous before a ballgame. Besides, you want Bonnie to win?”
Ed narrowed his eyes. “What’s that mean?”
“She’s expecting you to take a vow of celibacy.”
“For a minimum of five years.”
“What am I, the Dalai Lama? That’s nuts!”
“See me disagreeing?”
The following morning at 8 AM Richie received a panicked call from his sister. “You’ve got to go over there!” she screamed.
“To Dad’s for Chrissake!”
“What happened to him?”
“He’s not answering.”
“His landline, or his cell?”
“I’m sure he’s okay.”
“Based on what? Either you go over this very moment, or I call 911, then drive over myself.”
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing wrong.”
“Then give me one good reason why he’s not answering.”
“Maybe he got lucky.”
“As in scoring.”
“That’s disgusting. You and I had an understanding.”
“No we didn’t.”
“But I told you what I wanted!”
“And I said you don’t get to make unilateral decisions.”
“Know what?” Bonnie snarled. “Don’t ever speak to me again!”
“So your Dad’s getting out again?” asked Richie’s friend Freddie when the two of them hooked up for Indian food after another high school basketball game.
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Is it awkward for him?”
“He was gun shy at first.”
“He’s getting a whole lot more than me.”
“Not hard the way you’ve been laying low since it ended with what’s-her-face.”
“How could I forget that, especially since she’s still haunting you?”
“I wouldn’t say haunting.”
“Then what, obsessing? Monopolizing your thoughts? Keeping you awake at night?”
“Where’d you get that stuff?”
“From you about 100 times. So how’s your sister taking it?”
“She’s looking for a hitman.”
“Make her an only child.”
“Guess who put his father on a dating site.”
“How long was it that you had to run the business by yourself while your Dad was being chauffeur, caregiver, plus chief cook and bottle washer for your mom?”
“The last eighteen months or so.”
“Then know what? He’s entitled to get some.”
“No argument from me.”
“And if you don’t mind my saying it, your not-so-sweet sister is far from the easiest person on earth. Met any of his new sweeties?”
Richie shook his head.
“Any sense of what they’re like?”
“Lonely. Probably my Mom’s age or so. Maybe a little younger.”
“More power to him. You know, Rosemary teaches with somebody you might really like.”
“I appreciate it, but –”
“Give me one reason why not.”
“With all the family stuff –”
“Plus you-know-who is still on my mind –”
“Tell you what. We’ll hold off on Rosemary’s friend Eve, who by the way is really terrific. But Saturday, like it or not, we’re getting you out of the house for Chinese food and a movie.”
“I don’t know –”
“Sorry, not debatable.”
Despite his reticence, Richie found himself having a surprisingly good time on Saturday evening thanks not merely to the chicken with chestnuts, fish in rice wine, vegetable dumplings, and pumpkin cakes at the Shanghai place Freddie and Rosemary picked, but also due to the lively conversation.
Reluctantly at first, then with increased interest, he allowed his companions to tell him about Rosemary’s friend Eve.
“It’s not just that she’s great –” said Rosemary.
“And with significant you-know-whats –” added Freddie, getting a kick under the table from his girlfriend.
“She’s got all sorts of interests,” Rosemary continued. “She hikes, she bikes, she’s up to date on all kinds of foreign series on cable channels like MhZ Choice. She cooks, she collects wine –”
“In contrast to a certain mystery girl you were schtupping –” interjected Freddie, who received another kick to the shins from Rosemary.
“Just tell us when you’re ready,” Rosemary stated.
“As long as it’s sooner rather than later,” Freddie insisted.
“You know,” said Richie as the three of them walked to the car after dinner, “this was great. But as for the movie –”
“Quiet,” interrupted Freddie.
“We’re not letting you off the hook,” affirmed Rosemary. “You’re coming with us.”
Despite his attempt to pay for the tickets at the multiplex, Richie was overruled. “On us,” insisted Rosemary as Freddie pulled out a credit card.
Together with his two friends, Richie headed toward the appropriate theater, then suddenly froze in his tracks.
“What’s up?” Freddie asked, causing Richie to gesture toward the restrooms. There, a familiar figure – Big Ed – was clearly waiting for someone.
While Richie retreated to a spot where he wouldn’t be noticed, Freddie and Rosemary followed. “Why hide?” Freddie whispered.
“So it doesn’t look like I’m following him.”
“But you’re not,” said Rosemary.
“Which he doesn’t know,” said Richie.
“Well at least this’ll answer one question,” added Freddie.
“Okay –” said Rosemary.
“Who he’s dating.”
That revelation came a moment later when out from the ladies room stepped a much younger woman than anticipated – one who brought a smile to Big Ed’s face, but caused Richie to cringe.
“Wait a sec –” whispered Freddie.
“Wait a sec what?” asked a bewildered Rosemary, eyeing the stunning redhead in a pink Rebecca Minkoff dress.
“You’re not gonna tell me –” said Freddie, drawing a painful nod from his friend.
“What am I missing?” pleaded Rosemary.
“That’s Harmony,” answered her husband.
“Who jilted you?” asked Freddie
The pained look on Richie’s face was answer enough.
Sleep did not come easily to Richie that night. Tossing and turning in bed, he fretted over choices made not just in the weeks since his mother’s death, but over the entire course of his life. First came an hour or so of castigating himself for wrong decisions. Then what felt like an eternity ruminating on the notions, plans, and opportunities that, no matter how tempting or appealing they once seemed to be, were never properly or fully pursued.
There was the time spent in an acting workshop in Lower Manhattan, which ended when Big Ed had a heart attack, leading Richie back to New Jersey for a short stint running the family’s sporting goods business that never quite ended. Then the long-held dream of starting life anew in LA. Worse was the awareness, which he was never fully able to suppress, that even during its best moments his relationship with Harmony was not merely doomed, but destructive. And above all was the conviction that remaining a part of the family business meant that his life would forever remain a holding pattern.
Aware that his actions were responsible first for the rift with his sister, then the events leading to the alliance between his ex-girlfriend and his Dad, Richie was tempted, as 4 AM neared, to search for a bridge from which to take a plunge.
But as dawn brought the beginning of a new day, he recognized that the adage from his youth that he had repeated to his father held more than a measure of truth. What seemed like a catastrophe could indeed lead to an opportunity. If ever he were to take charge of his life, clearly the time had come.
Waiting until it was late enough in the morning to call Los Angeles, Richie reached out to his friend Brucker. “Feel like having someone crash on your sofa for a while?” he asked.
“Coming west to visit?”