I remember in the sad and fragile period after Mikey died, when I was so certain that my father’s heart was irreversibly broken, with what surprise and relief I realized that his sense of humor and his sense of the ridiculous were still intact. Although moving at a considerably slackened speed, his essence, whatever that was, was still flying at full mast and apparently undaunted by what had been a terrible and tragic reality.
I was on the tail end of a two-week stay at home when my youngest brother, my father and I decided to take a walk. We turned left on Greenbay Road. My father had brought along a walking stick, and was eager for some fresh air and exercise. We moved along at a fairly brisk pace, and hadn’t gone two blocks before Chucky clutched at his back pocket. He patted down the pockets of his jacket, the front pockets of his shirt and his jeans before he exclaimed, “My wallet. I can’t find my wallet!” He turned and stared frantically over the path we had taken. My father remained immobile. He stared in front of himself. He said nothing. He did nothing. Then slowly, deliberately, he raised his right hand. Dangling between two fingers was my brother’s wallet.
A second or two afterwards Chucky started to laugh. So did I. My father’s lips curved into one of those wooden Indian smiles that didn’t do much to illuminate his face, but positively irradiated our hearts. “I picked your pocket,” he said serenely.
He returned the wallet to Chucky, and we proceeded on our walk. We went another three blocks before I realized that although my father was holding the cane the way people normally hold a walking stick or a cane, its tip never touched the sidewalk. It glided along consistently about one-and-a-half inches above the ground.
“Daddy,” I stopped and asked, “Why are you carrying a cane if you aren’t using it?”
My father looked at me. He raised an eyebrow and gave me an inscrutable smile.
Why not? The eyes behind the smile said, and Fee Fi Fo Fum. I’ll grind your bones to make my bread. Gnaddie. Gnaddie. Gnaddie.
That same trip home, my mother and father drove me to the airport for my return flight to New York. This had taken place only a few weeks after my brother died, so aside from being traumatized, we were also keenly aware of our own mortality…probably for the first time. My fantasy of we Reubens becoming the Barrymore family of the 21st century ended with Mikey’s death. Regardless of what the rest of us might achieve, the mosaic would always have a few golden pieces missing. My wonderful, magical, invincible family…we, too, could die.
And my father, having integrated this unpleasant fact into his being, decided, I guess, to make the most of it. After my ticket was validated, he walked directly to an automatic travel insurance machine.
He looked at me.
I looked at him.
Then he looked at me again and shrugged.
To this day, I think that’s one of the funniest things he ever did. I’m sure that he thought so, too.
In fact, I was chuckling soundlessly, or laughing out loud that whole day at the airport. After my life had been handsomely insured, my father went to the news counter and bought a Chicago Tribune. Keep in mind that everything he had been doing, from picking Chuck’s pocket to buying a life insurance policy, was done at his usual languid pace, but a languidness stepped down a few notches by his Parkinson’s Disease. Or, to rephrase that, when he wasn’t actually talking, none of us were ever completely sure that Sam Reuben was awake (I always believed that my father could, and did, drive while sound asleep). Therefore, when he sat down beside my mother and me in the American Airlines waiting room with his newspaper on his lap, his eyes closed, and no perceptible movement, I not only wondered if my father was still inside that immobile form, but to what extent he was still there.
A public address system announced that my plane was going to be late.
The wait would be a long one.
“Daddy,” I said softly, “Can I read half of your newspaper while we wait?”
Without raising his eyes to acknowledge that he had heard, and in slow motion, like the dance of some lumbering but graceful underwater mammal, my father reached to the top of the Chicago Tribune and ripped it in half, top to bottom. Then he handed me half of the newspaper … just as I had asked.
And that’s what I mean when I say that I wish I could think like Samuel Reuben.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben