But then my father arrived. My father, the mad scientist, the genius, came to visit right after Masie died. A retired physics professor, in general he’s a kind man. But I took Fred home to meet him once, and my father, who for some reason everyone calls Daddy, thought I might be serious about Fred. Fred, who believes that money is meaningless, and does not think there is such a thing as the national debt, could worry anyone. My father was out of ice.
“I’ll go buy a bag,” Fred said, playing with his hair.
“No,” my father said, startling us. “We don’t buy ice,” he was close to screaming, “we make ice. A bag of ice?” He shook his head, disgusted.
And then there’s his business card. His business card reads like a book: math and science instruction, bed and breakfast, electronic music, piano tuning, magic, scenic flights.
He thinks circuit boards are beautiful and hangs them on his walls. He cooks gourmet meals and serves them like a waiter, refusing to sit down with his guests. Instead, he lectures them. He chooses a topic, calculus for example, and that’s what he talks about. No one can get a word in, but people adore him. Sometimes they take notes. Now that he’s divorced, women call him up out of nowhere. Back home I am often referred to as his daughter. “This is Leonard’s daughter,” they say. I wonder who I’ll be when he dies.
As soon as he arrived we drove to Atlantic City and then turned around immediately, sick with just the glimpse of it. The sleazy, sleeplessness and urgency of it filled us up like bad sleeping pills. It looked hung over, as if it needed a nap.
I felt hung over; all fuzzy and fragile and worried about the people who live there day in, day out. Worried about how easily I could become one of them; silently sweeping up people’s dreams and putting them in garbage cans, while the breeze from the ocean gathers them up again and lets them fall like confetti, laying new ground for another night of hope. All that hope in one place, all that sweeping, it was exhausting.
I had the feeling we were moving slowly. But I kept seeing mile markers, and I noticed that my father was doing sixty. The only man I know who has a Gyrocompass in his car.
“Ernie is a good cat,” he said.
“My father drove two hundred and seventy miles to see me and then put his mind to something like my cats? I was touched. I wondered if he was lying.
“Franny,” he said, “You have to remember, poor thing, the kitten was too tiny. Why, it needed its Mama. It’s not your fault.”
“That’s not all of it,” I began to explain. I didn’t want to weigh him down with my emotions, it would be taking a risk.
And it didn’t work when he said it. When he said, “It’s not your fault,” it sounded like an accident, a coincidence that forgave nothing. His voice trying so hard. And then I couldn’t remember, or maybe it just didn’t matter that I thought he should know me better, know that his daughter, the daughter of my mother also, sees things, feels them on exaggerated levels.
“Atlantic City,” I said. “Some places don’t want to be seen during the day.”
“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “Interesting. Bars, have you ever been to a bar during the day?”
“Me? Have I ever been to a bar during the day?”
“I forget sometimes,” he said. And then I was ashamed. My father was worried I might start drinking. I could tell. I looked over at him and shook my head.
“I’m afraid for you, Franny,” he said. “If you stay here it might kill you. Tell Frankel you want to go home.”
I assured my father that drinking was out of the question. “After eight years?” Not that I hadn’t met a quack doctor the week before, after my apartment was burglarized, and my medication stolen, who said, “What you need, babe? You want a hundred? No problem, what strength?”
“I don’t know what strength,” I’d said, “I don’t have the bottle. They’re orange.”
I repeated this story to my father.
“Only in pockets of the country are there doctors still candy man driven,” I mumbled. “He was on drugs, that doctor.”
“Candy man?” he asked. “What on God’s earth are you talking about?”
“Drug dealers,” I said, “Keeping methadone clinics open. ‘I used to be a heroin addict, now I’m a methadone addict,’ you know—from Annie Hall. Daddy, when did Mom start drinking?”
“Around twenty-three, I believe. But this man, he was a doctor?”
“Oh, he was legal, just unethical. I told him to forget it and called Jake. Just hearing his voice made me feel better. After all,” I said, feeling as if I were on public radio, some great authority on the subject, “as the author of a book in which the collective soul speaks ill of this medication business, I’d felt more like a spy than a patient in that office of his, with Reader’s Digest and ashtrays. Ashtrays, can you imagine?”
“But honey, you smoke.”
“I’m a non-smoker who smokes,” I said. “It’s a trick.”
Out of the blue my father patted my shoulder, and gave me a look. You amaze me, the look said, I love you. The love I felt from him was so thick in the air that I wondered, how can he call himself an atheist?