By: Alan Swyer
“How about dinner Friday evening?” Jeff Samuels asked when his father answered the phone.
“What’re you talking about?” replied Phil Samuels.
“I’m coming to Florida.”
“To do some filming and, hopefully, visit.”
“You’ll have to be here by 6:30.”
“That’s the last sitting in the dining room.”
“If I’m running late,” said Jeff, “I’ll take you and Sonia out to dinner.”
“So I won’t visit.”
“Why are you always so difficult?”
“I’m difficult? Who’s been nagging me for ages to come?”
When no response was forthcoming, Jeff took a breath, then spoke again. “Dad, I’ve got interviews to do in and around Miami, with no idea when I’ll finish. And with the traffic to get to Boynton Beach –”
“Okay,” whispered Phil Samuels.
“But you’ll have to spend the night at our place.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“What kind of impose?”
“Plus, I’ll have my cameraman.”
“So he’ll stay, too.”
It was a documentary Jeff was making about the Latinization of baseball that was the cause for the trip. But even as he confirmed appointment times with the Braves, Tigers, Blue Jays, and other teams with Spring Training facilities in Florida, plus old timers who resided there, Jeff kept thinking about his relationship with his father.
The fact that they were on speaking terms was in and of itself a source of astonishment, given the numerous periods in which they’d been estranged. That, Jeff had come to understand, owed mainly to his longstanding difficulties with his mother. How longstanding? Until her dying day, she referred to the ob/gyn who delivered him as “The sadist who ruined my life.”
But then, even Bernice Samuel’s dying day had posed a problem for Jeff. He was on a trip to the Dominican Republic when, on Christmas Eve morning, he received a message: “Mother fading fast. Come now.”
Bribing his way onto a flight from Punta Cana to San Juan, then another from San Juan to Miami, Jeff arrived in Florida to find not a single rental car available. Forced to accept a ten-seater van, he sped northbound to Bethesda Hospital in Boynton Beach only to discover that he was seven minutes late.
Gone was the chance for one last fight. Never again would his mother say “Hot” if Jeff said “Cold,” or “Night” if he uttered “Day.”
On the Sunday night red-eye that he and his cameraman flew to Miami, instead of sleeping, Jeff found himself reliving the aftermath of his mother’s death.
Trying to put behind him years of acrimony, he spent several trying days in Florida with his dad, who announced that instead of using the plot they had purchased in New Jersey, he wanted his wife to be buried locally so that he could visit every day.
Dutifully, Jeff arranged a trip to a nearby cemetery. While father and son were being driven in a golf cart by a salesman with what looked like a dead animal on his head, the temperature suddenly plummeted. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, Jeff grew cold and impatient as they reached a hillside overlooking a man-made pond.
“This,” announced the salesman proudly, “is the lakefront view.” Focusing on Jeff, he added, “Your mother would like it.”
“Wrong guy!” Jeff exploded. “And definitely wrong mother!”
Phil Samuels responded by shaking his head. “Why,” he asked Jeff, “can’t you ever be nice?”
After dozing for an hour or so on the Miami-bound flight, Jeff found his thoughts drifting to the night before his mother’s funeral, when his father burst into tears while eating a turkey sandwich.
“Thinking about Mom?” Jeff inquired.
“No, that you’ll probably be leaving.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, you’ve got a daughter-in-law named Alice, plus grandsons named Harry and Sam. And on top of that, there’s something called earning a living.”
“Which means I’ll never have dinner with anyone again.”
“What’re you talking about?” asked Jeff. “Friends and relatives will invite you over.”
“I can’t go.”
“Why in hell not?”
“How can I reciprocate?”
“You’ll take ’em out for Chinese. Or deli. Or Italian.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“If they invite you to their home, you’ve got to invite them to yours.”
Jeff gaped. “When did you turn into Emily-fucking-Post? Besides, you’ll have women up the gazoo.”
“Want to bet?”
“Even if I were interested,” said Phil sadly, “what would they see in me?”
“You’re a great-looking guy,” Jeff overstated. “You’re great company –”
“That’s not enough,” interrupted his dad.
“Not enough? You’ve got your own teeth, you don’t drool, and you drive at night!”
“In a state where the widows outnumber the widowers ten-to-one, you’re the catch of the year!”
Sure enough, at the funeral, Jeff watched women galore arrive with casseroles, cakes, and other goodies, then put slips of paper with their phone numbers in his father’s pockets. “Who are they?” he asked Phil during a momentarily lull.
“No clue,” replied his father.
Starting in Miami, where he interviewed Camilo Pascual, who pitched for the old Washington Senators, Jeff Samuels and his cameraman circumnavigated the state of Florida, making stops in places like Lakeland, Tampa, Dunedin, and Clearwater.
Though weary from jet lag, multiple interviews, and far too many hours at the wheel, each night, while trying to sleep in yet another nondescript motel room, Jeff continued to think about his ever-evolving relationship with his dad.
In the aftermath of his mother’s funeral, he made a point of calling with greater frequency until, six weeks or so later, he noticed that Phil was sounding considerably more upbeat. Jeff’s suspicion as to why was strengthened when more and more calls went unanswered.
Shortly thereafter, his dad made reference in passing to a lady friend, whose name was finally uttered ten days later: Sonia.
Then came an unexpected request. “Can the two of us come out and visit?” asked Phil.
On the new couple’s second day in Santa Monica, everyone was getting along well when Sonia turned to her beau. “Phil,” she asked, “would you like a cup of tea?”
“No!” he shrieked.
Jeff waited ten minutes before tapping his father on the arm. “Let’s take a walk.”
“The dog needs to pee.”
Once outside, Phil Samuels got in his son’s face. “So what’re you trying to tell me?”
“Alice and I really like Sonia.”
“When she says, ‘Phil, would you like a cup of tea?'”
“There’s no catch.”
Phil Samuels took a moment to process what he’d heard, then nodded.
Three months later, Jeff served as Best Man at his father’s second wedding.
Returning to Miami after countless miles by car, Jeff interviewed three more retired stars – a Cuban, a Puerto Rican, and a Dominican – then called his father. “Unless there’s an accident or something, we should be there in time for dinner at your place.”
He and Derek the cameraman drove northward until at last they arrived at Phil and Sonia’s complex. But when they rang their doorbell, there was no answer. Nor was Jeff able to reach his father by cellphone.
He and Derek waited until their presumed hosts, who had clearly forgotten about their arrival, returned.
“C’mon in,” said Phil Samuels, trying to hide his embarrassment after introductions had been made. “You’ll sleep in the guest room,” he told Jeff. “And you,” he said to Derek, “can sleep in the alcove.”
“When’s lunch?” asked Sonia.
“We had lunch a few hours ago,” replied Phil.
“Why won’t you ever let me have lunch?” moaned Sonia, who in contrast to the sparkle she possessed during both the California visit and the wedding, seemed like a lost child.
“Sonia,” answered Phil patiently, “we’ll have dinner in no time. Come,” he then said to Jeff and Derek, “I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.”
After leading Derek to the alcove he’d mentioned, Phil pointed down the hallway. “The guest room is the last door on the left,” he told his son.
Jeff headed that way, then returned a moment later. “We’ve got a problem.”
“Somebody’s stuff is all over the bed and everywhere.”
As Phil grew perplexed, the front door was opened by a a young man Jeff recognized as Sonia’s grandson Elliot. “Are you staying in the guest room?” Jeff asked.
“I was. But it’s yours if you want it.”
“No way I’m gonna bump you.”
To Jeff’s surprise, Elliot grabbed his arm, then led him down the hall. “You’re saving my ass!” he whispered.
“Think I’d rather sleep here, or with a girl I know in Delray Beach?”
Stepping into the complex’s dining room that evening, Jeff understood immediately why his father had insisted upon eating there. It was to show off his son.
With Sonia still clamoring for lunch, they were led to a table where several friends of Phil’s friends were waiting.
Introductions were made, then Sonia leaned toward Phil while pointing at Derek. “Who’s the young man?” she whispered.
“He works with Jeff,” Phil whispered back.
“And Jeff is?”
“My son, who was Best Man at our wedding.”
Still perplexed, Sonia allowed herself to be seated. Then Phil, playing host, addressed Jeff and Derek. “Every evening there are three offerings: a meat, a fish, and some sort of chicken.” As a waitress approached with a tray of food, he interrupted her. “What’s on the docket tonight?”
“Salmon, chicken fricassee, and rigatoni bolognese,” she responded before moving on.
“What’s that last one?” Phil asked his son.
“Tube pasta with a meat sauce.”
“Whatd’ya mean, couldn’t be? Which one of us spent time in Italy?”
Unwilling to accept his son’s translation, Phil stopped a busboy who looked like he’d recently arrived from Cuba on a piece of driftwood. “What’s rigatoni bolognese?”
“Yo no se, senor.”
“Could it be meat?”
“What’s that mean?” Phil asked Jeff.
“It means maybe.”
“Mr. Know-it-all thinks he knows everything!” Phil snarled.
Then over came the waitress, ready to take their order. “What will it be, folks?”
“Sonia will have the salmon for dinner,” Phil stated.
“What about lunch?” Sonia protested.
As Jeff tried not to acknowledge the kick Derek gave him under the table, Phil again addressed the waitress. “Tell me how the meat is prepared.”
“It’s tube pasta with a meat sauce,” she said, engendering another kick from the cameraman, who was fighting hard not to crack up.
Resistance proved futile, however, when once again Sonia stared at Derek. “Who’s the young man?” she asked.
Troubled by Sonia’s advancing dementia, Jeff returned to Los Angeles fearing that he’d soon be receiving bad news.
But when a call came, it was instead about his father, who had taken a fall in the bathroom, which resulted in his being taken to the hospital.
Immediately Jeff called Phil’s physician, who tried to put his mind at ease. “Probably just a potassium deficiency,” Dr. Einhorn stated. “With the elderly, it happens all the time.”
“Not with my father. He eats bananas and doesn’t fall.”
Begrudgingly, Dr. Einhorn agreed to order a panoply of tests, which yielded a frightening result. Phil Samuels had advanced colon cancer.
The weeks that followed found Jeff yo-yoing back and forth as often as possible between Southern California and Florida.
Then came a day when his father, over the phone, put Jeff on the spot. “Since no one else will level with me,” said Phil Samuels. “How bad am I?”
“Please. Ignorance is not bliss.”
“You really want to know?”
“You bet your ass.”
“Don’t buy green bananas.”
There was a moment of silence before Phil spoke again. “That bad?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Then you’ve got to do me a favor.”
“No more tests.”
“Who’s in charge here?” Dr. Einhorn demanded when Jeff reached him by phone.
“At this point? Me.”
“And why do you think I might administer more tests?”
“Really want to know?”
“To me there are only two reasons. To run up charges and to protect yourself.”
“I resent that,” said Dr. Einhorn.
“But you didn’t say it’s not so.”
A week later, after several unsuccessful attempts to reach Dr. Einhorn by phone, Jeff was shunted to the overly officious office manager.
“It seems you’ve been hounding the doctor,” she informed him.
“Asking for information is hounding?”
“Doctor is a busy man.”
“And what am I, chopped liver?”
“Mr. Samuels, I’m going to ask you to stop calling.”
“Okay, next time it’ll be my lawyer.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No, it’s a hot fudge sundae. You do what you have to do, and so will I.”
“But, sir –”
Instead of responding, Jeff hung up.
The next morning, Jeff Samuels was driving with his wife Alice when a call came through via Bluetooth.
“Dr. Einhorn here with good news,” said an unexpected voice. “Your father is doing well.”
“Are you seated, buster?” Jeff snarled as Alice cringed.
“How dare you?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
“My father died an hour ago.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Do I sound like I’m joking? Why do you think I’m on my way to the airport?”
A moment passed, then another, before Dr. Einhorn again spoke. “I-I don’t know what to say,” he mumbled.
“I’d suggest you start with ‘I’m very, very sorry.”
“What was that? I can’t hear you,” said Jeff, milking the moment.
“I am very sorry,” was the doctor’s embarrassed response.
The funeral proved to be an event Jeff Samuels would never forget, with Sonia no longer even able to recognize him.
When he addressed Phil and Sonia’s remaining friends and family members, instead of referencing the ebbs and flows of his relationship with his father, Jeff simply told a story.
“Years ago,” he began, “because I speak French, my parents coaxed me to take a trip with them to French Canada, in which I served dual functions as both driver and interpreter. Even as we visited museums and historical sites, plus innumerable restaurants, why Canada seemed a mystery to me. Until, that is, after a couple of days in Quebec City, we made a second stop in Montreal. My mother, it seems, had heard that not only was it cheaper to buy a mink there, but if it wasn’t declared at the border, on top of that no taxes. But yours truly balked at visiting Morris the Furrier, so off they went while I sat in a cafe.”
Jeff let that sink in before continuing. “The plan was to hide the stole under our luggage in the trunk of the car, which many had done successfully before. But as we neared the American border, my father asked me to pull over. As the man of the family, he insisted on taking the wheel.
Again Jeff paused. “We went through the Canadian side successfully. But as we neared the American side, my father started sweating. ‘Dad,’ I said, ‘let me drive.’ ‘No,’ he screamed. ‘I’ll do it!’ ‘Dad,’ I implored, ‘it’s better if I do it.’ ‘Shut up!’ he bellowed, even as he turned red and began to shake.”
Once more, Jeff allowed his words to resonate. “Mom, I stated, ‘talk some sense into him.’ But Phil Samuels wouldn’t have it. So after inching along, we finally reached American security, where the guard there took one look at my quivering father and made him pull over.
“Where,’ the security guard then asked, ‘where you born?’ My father, who came into this world at Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital, totally panicked. ‘Russia,’ he mumbled.”
Jeff waited while half of those gathered gasped, and the others guffawed.
“There’s no telling,” he then said, “how much that mink wound up costing.”
The second round of laughs was interrupted when Sonia’s voice was heard. “Why won’t anyone let me have lunch?” she cried.