Morris Selbst Living on the streets of Liverpool, England, from the age of twelve, Morris Selbst comes to the United States at age sixteen, sneaking into the country by jumping a ship in Brooklyn; he never establishes an official identity in the country. He spends his life pursuing illegal and semi-legal means of support. In his forties, he leaves his wife and three children to live with one of his employees, Halina, with whom he remains for more than forty years until his death. Morris, or "Pop," as Woody often refers to him, is a gambler, cheat, and thief, who feels entirely justified in being the way he is.
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Save Story Save this story for later. What do you do about death—in this case, the death of an old father? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background.
How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what times these are. The papers daily give it to you—the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head.
Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. We know now what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death-peristalsis. Woody, a businessman in South Chicago, was not an ignorant person.
He knew more such phrases than you would expect a tile contractor offices, lobbies, lavatories to know. The kind of knowledge he had was not the kind for which you get academic degrees. Although Woody had studied for two years in a seminary, preparing to be a minister. Two years of college during the Depression was more than most high-school graduates could afford. After that, in his own vital, picturesque, original way Morris, his old man, was also, in his days of nature, vital and picturesque Woody had read up on many subjects, subscribed to Science and other magazines that gave real information, and had taken night courses at De Paul and Northwestern in ecology, criminology, existentialism.
Also he had travelled extensively in Japan, Mexico, and Africa, and there was an African experience that was especially relevant to mourning. It was this: On a launch near the Murchison Falls in Uganda, he had seen a buffalo calf seized by a crocodile from the bank of the White Nile. There were giraffes along the tropical river, and hippopotamuses, and baboons, and flamingos and other brilliant birds crossing the bright air in the heat of the morning, when the calf, stepping into the river to drink, was grabbed by the hoof and dragged down.
Under the water the calf still threshed, fought, churned the mud. Woody, the robust traveller, took this in as he sailed by, and to him it looked as if the parent cattle were asking each other dumbly what had happened. He chose to assume that there was pain in this, he read brute grief into it.
On the White Nile, Woody had the impression that he had gone back to the pre-Adamite past, and he brought reflections on this impression home to South Chicago. He brought also a bundle of hashish from Kampala. In this he took a chance with the customs inspectors, banking perhaps on his broad build, frank face, high color. But he liked taking chances. Risk was a wonderful stimulus. He threw down his trenchcoat on the customs counter.
But he got away with it, and the Thanksgiving turkey was stuffed with hashish. This was much enjoyed. That was practically the last feast at which Pop, who also relished risk or defiance, was present. But behind his warehouse, where the Lincoln Continental was parked, he kept a patch of marijuana. It was simply a question of self-respect. After that Thanksgiving, Pop gradually sank as if he had a slow leak. This went on for some years. He could only conceive shots; he began to theorize about impossible three-cushion combinations.
Halina, the Polish woman with whom Morris had lived for over forty years as man and wife, was too old herself now to run to the hospital. So Woody had to do it. Everybody had diabetes and pleurisy and arthritis and cataracts and cardiac pacemakers.
And everybody had lived by the body, but the body was giving out. Woody, who took full responsibility for them all, occasionally had to put one of the girls they had become sick girls in a mental institution.
Nothing severe. The sisters were wonderful women, both of them gorgeous once, but neither of the poor things was playing with a full deck. And all the factions had to be kept separate—Mama, the Christian convert; the fundamentalist sisters; Pop, who read the Yiddish paper as long as he could still see print; Halina, a good Catholic. Woody, the seminary forty years behind him, described himself as an agnostic. That was how Woody wanted it all. At the graveside, he had taken off and folded his jacket, rolled up his sleeves on thick freckled biceps, waved back the little tractor standing by, and shovelled the dirt himself.
His big face, broad at the bottom, narrowed upward like a Dutch house. And, his small good lower teeth taking hold of the upper lip in his exertion, he performed the final duty of a son. He was very fit, so it must have been emotion, not the shovelling, that made him redden so. After the funeral, he went home with Halina and her son, a decent Polack like his mother, and talented, too—Mitosh played the organ, at hockey and basketball games in the Stadium, which took a smart man because it was a rabble-rousing kind of occupation—and they had some drinks and comforted the old girl.
Halina was true blue, always one hundred per cent for Morris. Then for the rest of the week Woody was busy, had jobs to run, office responsibilities, family responsibilities. He lived alone; as did his wife; as did his mistress: everybody in a separate establishment. Since his wife, after fifteen years of separation, had not learned to take care of herself, Woody did her shopping on Fridays, filled her freezer. He had to take her this week to buy shoes. Also, Friday night he always spent with Helen—Helen was his wife de facto.
Saturday he did his big weekly shopping. Saturday night he devoted to Mom and his sisters. Woody had his offices in his warehouse, and there had built an apartment for himself, very spacious and convenient, in the top story. Because he left every Sunday morning at seven to spend the day with Pop, he had forgotten by how many churches Selbst Tile Company was surrounded.
He was still in bed when he heard the bells, and all at once he knew how heartbroken he was. This sudden big heartache in a man of sixty, a practical, physical, healthy-minded, and experienced man, was deeply unpleasant. When he had an unpleasant condition, he believed in taking something for it. So he thought, What shall I take? There were plenty of remedies available. There were also freezers with steaks and with game and with Alaskan king crab.
He bought with a broad hand—by the crate and by the dozen. But in the end, when he got out of bed, he took nothing but a cup of coffee. While the kettle was heating, he put on his Japanese judo-style suit and sat down to reflect. Woody was moved when things were honest. It was bad to cover up anything. He hated faking. Stone was honest. Metal was honest. These Sunday bells were very straight. They broke loose, they wagged and rocked, and the vibrations and the banging did something for him—cleansed his insides, purified his blood.
A bell was a one-way throat, had only one thing to tell you and simply told it. He listened. He had had some connections with bells and churches.
He was after all something of a Christian. Born a Jew, he was a Jew facially, with a hint of Iroquois or Cherokee, but his mother had been converted more than fifty years ago by her brother-in-law, the Reverend Dr.
Kovner, a rabbinical student who had left the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to become a minister and establish a mission, had given Woody a partly Christian upbringing. Now Pop was on the outs with these fundamentalists. He said that the Jews came to the mission to get coffee, bacon, canned pineapple, day-old bread, and dairy products. And if they had to listen to sermons, that was O. Skoglund, who had inherited a large dairy business from her late husband. Woody was under her special protection.
Woody was fourteen years of age when Pop took off with Halina, who worked in his shop, leaving his difficult Christian wife and his converted son and his small daughters. Pop came into the yard in his good suit, which was too hot for the weather, and when he took off his fedora the skin of his head was marked with a deep ring and the sweat was sprinkled over his scalp—more drops than hairs. I put you all on welfare. I just got back from Wabansia Avenue, from the Relief Station.
Pop felt that the valuable life lesson he was transmitting was worth far more than these dollars, and whenever he was conning his boy a sort of high-priest expression came down over his bent nose, his ruddy face. The children, who got their finest ideas at the movies, called him Richard Dix. Later, when the comic strip came out, they said he was Dick Tracy.
As Woody now saw it, under the tumbling bells, he had bankrolled his own desertion. Ha ha! But mainly it was aimed against being a fool, the disgrace of foolishness.
Introduction & Overview of A Silver Dish
A Silver Dish