LOSSES Robert Wexelblatt A single father who is a new IRS agent, his cherished and imaginative little girl, a divorced woman having second thoughts about motherhood, a couple who think two ways about becoming parents, a mysterious and crooked financial wizard â€” these are the people from whose relationships, enterprises, gains, and losses this story is woven. Has there been a crime and, if so, can the miscreant be caught? How valid are the claims of a father and a mother? When they clash, what becomes of their child?
CHAPTER I One Tuesday afternoon in late March, I came home to find Augusta on the living room rug drawing furiously with marking pens. Like most children, Gus was a first-rate abstract expressionist up ‘til the age of three, whereupon she was made into a fifth-rate realist. Now, she likes to create what she calls “designs.” She was clearly not in high spirits. We kissed a low-key hello: “Lo, sweetheart.” “Hi, Daddy.” I dropped my briefcase on the wingchair and headed for the closet to hang up my coat. “I got a B on my report for Alcohol Ed,” she said bitterly, as I was on my way out of the living room. “Congratulations,” I shouted distractedly, trying to recall what sort of potential dinner I’d taken out of the freezer that morning. “Congratulations? For a lousy, crummy B?” she cried, outraged by my low standards. I stuck my head around the corner of the doorway. “Gee, Gus, who wants a kid whose best subject is Alcohol Education? I mean, are you planning on becoming a bartender or something?” “Jenny Bronstein got an A,” she mumbled. I joined her on the floor. “So what?” Gus gave me her you-just-don’t-get-it look. “Jenny Bronstein always gets an A.” “Well, could be that Jenny deserved it.” She raised her head from her design—a thing of hexagons and triangles, obsessively intertwined—and began to answer, but I pressed on pompously, with a raised finger. “‘The easiest and noblest way is not to be running others down, but to be improving yourself.’ That’s how Socrates put it, Gus.” I had told Augusta all about Socrates by then, but she was less than persuaded.
“Jenny Bronstein always gets As because she puts in so many dumb pictures and she writes in these enormous letters. All her reports are twice as long as everybody else’s—in pages,” Gus said, with surprising contemptuousness. “Her parents got her a color printer, and they have three encyclopedias and,” she was commencing to whine now, “Jenny Bronstein is Ms. Block’s pet.” “So you’re saying Ms. Block doesn’t read all of these reports, I take it? Just looks at the pictures and counts the pages and who handed it in?” It occurred to me that I was on perilous turf; I’d met Ms. Block, and it might well be true. But that was hardly the point. “Ms. Block’s Not Fair,” Gus declared. “Also I got hit in the head with a volleyball in gym. Pat just whipped it at me. I’ve still got a headache…And Paula Vananzi called me skinny.” Ah ha, I thought, the heart of the matter at last. “It pains me to say it, but Paula’s fat,” I ventured, getting up to provide myself with the scotch I felt I was earning. “I’ll bet she feels everyone else is skinny which, compared to her, they, um, sort of are.” “Paula wears these J Brand jeans, like, every day. She has seven pairs of them. She told me, the show-off. Besides, she isn’t that fat. It’s just the way those jeans fit.” “What do you care? It’s a wonder that girl can even walk,” I shouted in from the sink, over the sound of water dribbling into the whiskey. “Why, I’ve heard Paula Vananzi can only play hide and seek in the Himalayas or the Rockies.” “Oh, Daddy, stop it, will you? You don’t even know Paula. Anyhow, I am skinny,” Gus moaned. “Skinny? Skinny? By no means. Augusta…” I was on the way in, scotch in hand, “…Augusta, come over here.” I sat in the easy chair by the window and pulled her underweight, reluctant self onto my lap. “Gus,” I said, “you are not skinny.” “Then what am I—emaciated?” “On the contrary, darling. You’re just right. You’re,” I hesitated dramatically, “you are…imperially slim!”
“Imperially slim?” She repeated the phrase, as theatrically unconvinced by E. A. Robinson as she had been by Socrates. That a depressed 10-year-old is proof against all the blandishments of Western civilization is hardly a surprise, but I saw no harm in trying. She really must have had a bad day: Pouting and complaining were rare for Gus. I decided to change tack and took a swift paternal slide into earnestness. “Look, sweetheart, I know that fifth grade is sheer hell, but we’ve all got to go through it. There’s just no other way to get to sixth grade which, of course, is paradise.” “Faker didn’t go through it.” “Oh?” “Faker skipped fifth grade. Actually, he skipped all of elementary school.” “Ah, that probably explains it, then.” “Explains what?” I shook my head. “Oh, all sorts of little things. His outrageous spelling for instance, and why he can’t cope with fractions of any sort.” “Faker spells perfectly. And he can do any sort of fractions he wants to.” “You don’t say.” “He can spell as well as you can, I’ll bet.” “Not in my opinion, Gus. Say—would you like to have a contest? You know, a spelling bee? Me and Faker. You’d be the judge. Winner gets bragging rights for a year. What do you say?” “Oh, Daddy!” she cried and punched me affably in the stomach. Faker Bendelman—or von Bendelman, as he was known since Augusta’s seventh birthday—is acutely sensitive to his own dignity. To speak bluntly, he’s a bit vain, maybe a little of a picaroon. Faker made me anxious at first; I mean, that he should be my daughter’s closest friend. But, as she’d so suddenly become the only child of a single parent, I was prepared to accept him.
Faker’s age is indeterminate, likewise his height, weight, and the origin of his suspect, if numerous, advanced degrees. My daughter Augusta, the sole authority on Faker Bendelman, has contradicted herself on all these matters and, on occasion, has confessed to downright ignorance. At most times, though, Gus’s knowledge of Faker’s experience, whereabouts, and actions has been precise enough. For example, she knew that it was none other than Bendelman who kept her up all one night by singing off-key Bavarian lullabies beneath her window until she had to come and crawl in to bed with me to get some peace. According to Gus, it was Faker who carelessly knocked my grandfather’s whiskey decanter off the kitchen counter as he rushed to see who’d fallen off his bike in the middle of Woodcock Drive. Yet, when he wasn’t committing peccadilloes like these, Faker von Bendelman, Gus assured me, offered a lot of Sound Advice being, after all, a Man of the World. For example, it was Faker who persuaded her to pretend to have an earache one Monday morning in February. And how right he was! Because it was that very Monday Ms. Block had chosen to give a test on adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators. (“Calculators handle only decimals,” Faker had sagely pointed out to Augusta.) And then, Gus had it that Bendelman is a Great Comfort, particularly when, but for him, she’d have been All Alone, such as those weekday afternoons when I irresponsibly dawdled at work. The sum of the von Bendelman virtues, which more than offset his petty transgressions, is that, as Augusta put it, he’s Good Company. Perhaps so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Wexelblatt is Professor of Humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. An accomplished fiction writer, his essays, stories, and poems have appeared in a wide variety of journals, including Poetry Northwest, The Iowa Review, Essays in Literature, Hiram Poetry Review, Sou’wester, and The Massachusetts Review. He has also published two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, and a book of essays, Professors at Play, all with Rutgers University Press. His most recent book, the novel Zublinka Among Women, was awarded First Grand Prize for Fiction and First Prize for General Fiction/Novel by the Indie New Generation Book Awards. The New York Times Book Review describes Wexelblatt’s stories as “loaded with wit, bristling irony, draped in erudition and studded with metaphysics.” Fred Marchant, writing in the Harvard Book Review, hails Life in the Temperate Zone and Other Stories as “[A book] laden with wit, wry observation, gentle sarcasm and wicked ironies.” Publishers Weekly says of The Decline of Our Neighborhood, “Wexelblatt constructs rich stories that make heavy subjects dance weightlessly before the reader’s eyes.” Jay L. Halio from Studies in Short Fiction notes that Wexelblatt has a “gift for irony in all its arresting forms.” Professor Wexelblatt, who holds a doctorate from Brandeis University, is the recipient of numerous academic and literary awards including the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the Charles Angoff Award for Fiction from The Literary Review, the Kansas Quarterly /Kansas Art Commission First Prize Award for Fiction, and both the San Jose Studies and The Theodore Christian Hoepfner prizes for Best Story and Best Essay. You can find out more about Robert at http://www.bu.edu/cgs/faculty/humanitiesfaculty/wexelblatt/