As I write this, it is 11:00 o’clock at night and my eighty-year old Uncle Jack is in town on a business trip. He arrived at Newark Airport at 1:00 o’clock this morning. He was originally scheduled to arrive at 8:30 last night, but when he left Santa Cruz at 5 a.m., the Greyhound bus driver never showed up, he got to the airport late and missed his plane, et cetera, et cetera and so on. Bottom line is that we didn’t get to bed until 2:30 a.m. I got up the next morning at 8 a.m. and tiptoed down the stairs, careful not to wake up my poor, tired, elderly Uncle. When I reached the bottom step, I turned and observed him sitting fully dressed and smiling.
“Good morning, Shelly,” he said with a dapper glint in his eyes. “I’ve been up for two hours.”
We went into the kitchen and had a pleasant gossip over breakfast, during which I learned who had been sleeping with whom fifty years ago, who took advantage of which loopholes to do what and when, and eventually, why he had come to town. This involved a complicated, multi-million dollar deal he was negotiating on behalf of his Japanese clients, in which he would be assisted by his friend, the ex-munitions dealer from Pakistan. Based on past experience, the cast of characters would also include a Swiss citizen who has access to Nazi gold, an aging princess from an unspecified nation living in the Aga Kahn’s apartment on the East Side, and an ocean liner awaiting a gambling permit and a Panamanian registration docked outside a Guatemalan port.
Temporarily digressing from my Uncle’s intriguing profession and the family’s continual speculation about what he actually does and how that could conceivably result in a viable income, now seems a good time to bring up the subject of my father’s and his brothers’ tendency not to be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there, and why it never seems to overly distress their children.
By “brothers,” I include my father’s youngest sibling, Meyer “Mike” Reuben. My cousin Eileen, Meyer’s daughter, just called to ask the proverbial Reuben question: “Do you know where Daddy is?”
No. I didn’t know.
At least, not then.
Eileen called again after she had pieced together the mystery. It involved the army.
Uncle Meyer, as a World War II veteran and retired United States Army officer, is entitled to take free standby military flights anywhere in the world, when and as they become available.
Having finished his visit to Eileen in Atlanta, he caught a military flight to Dallas and was supposed to connect to Phoenix, where he lived. The connecting flight was cancelled, but since a flight was leaving for Chicago, Uncle Meyer figured he ought to go there instead because…Well, just because. After landing at O’Hare, he decided to visit an old friend he hadn’t seen in sixty years. Someone with whom he had gone to grammar school. Five days later and still among the missing, he finally caught a flight home.
The phone call from Eileen and the tone in her voice…something between annoyance, concern, and latent laughter, so clearly brings back memories of time spent waiting for my father. I have come to realize, after chatting back and forth with cousins, brothers and sisters, that there exists something that could be described as the “Universal Reuben Experience.” It consists of the phrase “Do you know where Daddy is?” and long hours of waiting.
It is now 10:00 o’clock at night. Uncle Jack was supposed to be on the front porch at 4 p.m. I got home at 5 p.m. No Uncle Jack. I unlocked the door, put away my groceries, changed my clothes, and watered the lawn. At 6 p.m., I pruned the dead rose buds, tied lilacs to fence slats, and scattered slug poison between slabs of slate in the backyard.
By 7 p.m., I was eating leftover chicken and reading a ‘Renovator Supply’ catalogue. By 8 p.m., I was taking a shower, and by 9 p.m., I was doing my nails. A few minutes ago the telephone rang. Uncle Jack’s voice came through strong and clear. It was 9:58 p.m.
“Hello,” he said cheerfully.
I said, “Where are you?”
“I’m on 48th Street. The meeting just ended, and it’s too late to come home.”
Aunt Libby had prepped me with the next question.
“Did you take your pills?”
“I took one this morning. I left the other one in my briefcase. Can you bring the briefcase to your office, and I’ll meet you there tomorrow?”
“Sure. But where are you staying tonight?”
“At Izzuzi’s house. That’s either in the Bronx or Queens.”
“What’s his phone number?”
“I don’t know. I’ll be all right, though. I’ll call Libby and give her the phone number.”
“O.K. Call me if you want me to pick you up.”
“O.K. Shelly. I love you.”
“I love you too, Uncle Jack.”
The thing that fascinates me about my attitude towards Uncle Jack is that I didn’t wait for or worry about him. Here he is, an eighty-year-old Reuben with Parkinson’s disease, wandering around a city in which he doesn’t live, with only half his pill supply. And it never occurred to me that he was either in jeopardy or lost.
Why? (Oh, childhood of triple delight)…because Reuben men aren’t supposed to be on time. They may have had an idea they wanted to pursue; they may have seen an undulating, rotating, magnetized “thing” in a store that had to be investigated, negotiated and procured (arranging for Eastern Distributing Rights and Royalties along the way); they may have made friends with a blind violinist, found a turtle that was having difficulty getting across the street, had a sudden uncontrollable urge to buy a banana tree, obtain a patent on a coat-hook valet, manufacture blood pressure gauges for athletes or stick-on labels for children.
Which brings us to the Art Institute, which I will tell you about next week.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben.