Sport 37: Winter 2009
'What's the definition of a schmuck, I mean a schlemiel. No, no, a schmuck. What's the definition?'
'Of which one? A schmuck or a schlemiel?'
'Schmuck. Schlemiel. Doesn't matter. What's the definition?'
'But I don't know what I'm defining.'
'Come on. This is a joke. Not a Yiddish test. All you have to say is, "I don't know, what?"'
'Damn. Now I have to start at the beginning. I'll choose one if it makes you happy. What's the definition of a schmuck?'
'I don't know. What?'
'When he leaves a room you think someone's arrived and when he enters you think someone's left . . . You can smile, you know. I told you it's a joke.'
And what, Morris wonders, if the room that the schmuck is entering is empty of people? What if it contains only a dumb valet holding a jacket, a neatly made bed and a bedside table? What if the schmuck lives alone? Does he drag all the air out of the house as he moves from room to room? Is he surrounded by nothing? A man in a vacuum?
He shakes his head slightly. This is no time for forgotten conversations. No time for Yiddish definitions. Certainly no time to be remembering jokes. There are more important things to be remembering now. Like what he's doing in this room. Why he has come here.
'You stupid idiot,' he mutters, loud enough that he could be heard, were there someone in the room to hear him. 'You came in here for a reason. Can't you, at a time like this, just keep a focus?'
Sadie would have been impatient with this self-reproach. She always was.page 141
'Give yourself a break. Everyone has the experience of walking into a room and wondering what they're doing there. And right now you're worrying about Rachel.'
'Worry isn't an excuse. It makes it worse. If ever there was a time to remain focused it's now, today. And anyway, most people don't walk into a room and then forget what they're doing there.
'Young, old, everyone does it. Don't you remember, just last week you heard a story about someone doing it. At David's party.'
Morris had not wanted to go to David's party. He'd tried pleading work, a previous engagement, even (this he was slightly ashamed of) grief over Sadie's death. But David had been short with these excuses, the grief one most of all.
'C'mon, Dad, this is my fortieth. It's been over a year, and let's face it, it's not like you were . . . it's not like you were . . . Please come.' And then, as a final sweetener, 'Rachel will be there. You two can look after each other.'
And so he'd agreed to go. To keep his daughter company and to keep his son happy, though he couldn't imagine why David would find pleasure in his father's presence. Perhaps, Morris suspected, David did not desire his father's presence so much as feel discomfort at his absence.
Rachel arrived at the party too late to spend much time with Morris but he had, despite her absence, rather enjoyed himself. Debbie was a good cook and David a thoughtful host. He moved amongst his guests, one hand offering canapés, the other steering someone towards someone else who had just that second found himself alone. A benign conductor who noticed every empty drink, every awkward silence, and who had only to wave his baton to make it all right.
'Dad, come here.' He led Morris towards a small group at which a bald man was holding court. 'You must hear the funny story that Simon is telling.'
The bald man paused in his story and five faces turned to stare at Morris.
'I'm sorry to interrupt. I . . .'
'Welcome, dear sir.'
'Thanks, I'll . . .'page 142
'Come. Join our little soirée. You'll soon get the gist of what is, I assure you, a most amusing story.'
Did he always talk like an English actor? Or was he putting on an accent for the story?
'Now, where was I?' said Simon. 'Ah, yes. I march into the spare room, all purpose and direction.' He stood up to demonstrate, arms swinging, grin widening. 'I turn on the light.' His hand shot out and mimed switching on a light switch. Then paused, hanging in the air, paralysed.
Someone in the group let out a small sigh of pleasure.
'I look around the room.'
Another little mime followed, of Simon smacking his bald head and blinking widely—a fool who has found himself suddenly questioning his place in the world.
'There's a pile of clothes on the spare bed. Was I supposed to collect them? For washing maybe? I contemplate the clothes. Contemplate and cogitate and, and . . . I don't know what the hell I'm doing there.'
Forget about the accent. Focus on the words.
'If I'd had a long pole I would have poked it at the clothes. But, being pole-less, so to speak . . .'
A woman giggled loudly. Simon wagged his finger at her. 'You dirty minded wench, you.'
Did the woman feel insulted? Apparently not because she just giggled louder and raised her glass to Simon.
'As I was saying,' said Simon, 'before being so charmingly interrupted, there was nothing for it but to turn the light off, back out of the room, and close the door. Now I'm standing in the passage. I'm too embarrassed to go into the kitchen and risk being caught by my long-suffering wife who will, no doubt, ask me whether I've done whatever it was I was supposed to do.'
He gestured towards a woman in a red dress. She looked indulging rather than long-suffering. Like she was enjoying the story. She probably enjoyed all of his stories.
He's revelling in his own folly, Morris thought, exaggerating it, playing it up. He has turned his mistake into a party trick.page 143
Sadie used to do that. She'd come home, offload the parcels (were there always so many parcels?), turn to whoever happened to be closest, and say, 'You'll never believe what a ridiculous thing I did today.' If she'd done something really embarrassing, she'd repeat it over and over and with each telling it became more exaggerated, more absurd and, if audience reactions were to be trusted, funnier.
There was, for example, the toilet paper incident. Sadie must have told that story a hundred times, and each time she'd laugh till tears rolled down her face. The listeners laughed too—at the image of Sadie walking through a fancy hotel, trailing toilet paper out of her handbag.
Was that all there was to it? Sadie, in a fancy hotel, trailing toilet paper? There must have been more. Everyone had laughed so hard. Could she have been stealing the toilet paper? Surely not. Taking it to a child perhaps?
Morris remembered to smile at Simon. It seemed to be the right thing to do but what he really wanted was to move away from the group, draw David or Rachel into a corner and ask why their mother had been trailing toilet paper, and why in a fancy hotel. What was she doing there? Was he, Morris, there, and why was it all so very funny? But David was clearly busy and Rachel had not yet arrived. He forced his attention back to Simon and his story.
'Well, you can imagine what a bloody ass I felt, standing in the dark in the passage. My wife—' another gesture towards the woman in the red dress '—at one end of the corridor. A pile of dirty clothes in the spare room, and me, I'm stuck in the middle, pole-less and cogitating.
'What to do. What to do. I could stand there all day but that would be too much—even for a man such as me. And my lovely wife would catch me sooner or later.'
Simon's wife, right on cue, gave a mock little curtsy.
'And then it hits me. Simple.' Simon paused again and smacked his forehead, rather hard, Morris thought. Everyone laughed.
'All I need to do is to retrace my steps, go back to where I've come from and I'll remember. So I do. I walk back to the kitchen door, stand just outside it, and . . . and—'page 144
'You remembered,' someone called out, giving Simon's wife her cue.
'No he didn't. I came out of the kitchen and asked him whether he'd woken my father yet.'
'It wasn't a pile of dirty old clothes,' Simon's voice boomed over the laughter. 'It was my father-in-law.'
Morris tried to laugh. Everyone else was.
'The moral of the story,' said Simon, 'is that retracing your steps really does work. Well, that and having a very clever wife.' He winked across at his wife.
'Clever, lovely and long-suffering,' she said, and winked back.
'You see. It's like I said. Everyone does it.'
Morris looks at the bed, half expecting it to contain a pile of clothes, or an old man sleeping. But if there ever was an old man, or even the ghost of an old man, he's been chased away by Morris, who now stands, steadying himself on the doorframe, and wondering what he's doing there.
The phone rings and, in answering it for the second time that morning, he finds himself retracing his steps, and remembering.
It's David, calling to say that he has to rush out, that Debbie will be at home but she'll be upstairs, putting Benjy down for his mid morning nap. The front door will be open. Morris should just go in. If the police get there before David does, Morris can let them in.
'Let the police in,' says Morris.
'Thanks. Gotta run.'
'Oh, but David, David—'
'What do I tell them, the police?'
'I've already spoken to them so they have an idea already. I guess they'll have questions and you can tell them what happened.'
'Dad, I really have to go.'
David has put the phone down.
His jacket. He was going to the room to get his jacket. He will do page 145 that now. Then he'll go to the kitchen and take the keys off the hook where they always hang. Then put on his jacket and go to his car, and drive to David's house, where David may or may not be. And then he will talk to the police.
He gets as far as the dumb valet. Perhaps he should wait a bit before leaving, delay his departure so as to be sure that David will have returned by the time he gets there. Perhaps that was what David was trying to tell him when he rang the second time. Perhaps what he really wanted to say was, 'Don't rush over. Debbie will be busy with the baby. I won't be here. You'll just be in the way.'
But then, what if the police come before David gets back? Who will let them in? Will Debbie leave policemen waiting in the lounge while she puts the baby to sleep? Didn't David say that the front door will be open? And there is, surely, some urgency. Surely there is urgency.
Stop dithering. Get going already.
Does one call 'Hello' on letting oneself into one's son's house? 'Coo ee? It's me, Dad?' Morris hesitates, with the front door still open behind him. The house is silent. Perhaps he should wait in the car. But what if the police arrive and find him sitting outside his own son's house? How would that look? And David had said that he should go in. David wants him to go in and receive the police.
Having let oneself in, does one walk noisily so as to announce one's presence, or softly, slowly, there's a sleeping baby in the house? Morris, choosing the latter, inches his way to the lounge, where he sits, hands on his lap, with his watch face towards him, and waits. For almost ten minutes, before there's a noise from upstairs, then footsteps coming down the stairs. It must be Debbie.
He half rises to greet her.
'Dad,' says David, 'you gave me a fright. I didn't know you were here. How long have you been waiting?'
Morris catches himself on the armrest to stop from falling back into the sofa.
'I just . . . I just got here. I thought you were out.'
'I changed my mind. I thought I should be here. You should have knocked. Let us know you were here.'page 146
David runs his hand through his hair. He looks tired. Sadie would have offered him some consolation, a hug perhaps. Morris takes a step forward. But David has bent down, to pick up his briefcase and Morris, faced with his son's back, stares at his own raised arms and wonders what it was that he had been intending to do.
Smack your forehead. Retrace your steps. Step backwards. Sit down.
'It's still early,' David says. 'And the weather reports are favourable. No need to start worrying just yet.'
No need to start worrying yet. Early days still. Those are the comforting words that Morris should have said when David ran his hands through his hair. That was the moment to have said it.
'Actually, we might have given it a few more hours,' David says.
Morris looks up and David, perhaps misinterpreting his look, says, 'I tried to tell her it wasn't a good idea to go tramping on her own. I've always tried to tell her that. Mum used to tell her too.'
David runs his hand through his hair again. 'D'you remember that time we were all visiting Mum at the hospital and she told Rachel not to go running to her if she breaks a leg while tramping?' He almost smiles. 'Rachel didn't find it very funny.'
'I can't remember,' says Morris. 'Are you sure I was there?'
'Maybe you weren't. Anyway, Rachel didn't listen to Mum and she's certainly not going to listen to me. I wish she wouldn't go tramping alone but she's a grown woman and, well, you know Rachel.'
Morris nods. Of course he knows Rachel. She's his daughter for God's sake. But a grown woman who goes off tramping on her own and a brother who wishes she wouldn't, who are those people? . . . He rubs the back of his neck—as if to stop his nodding head.
'I guess,' David says, 'Rachel just likes being alone.'
His face is crumpling. Like his mother's. When she was about to cry.
Then Debbie is in the room, holding Benjy. 'Hi, Morris,' she says. 'Look who's come to give his daddy a cuddle.' She bends down to hand the baby to David.
David lifts the blue bundle to his face, whether to kiss its tummy or hide in its softness Morris can't be sure.page 147
Debbie puts her hand on David's shoulder. 'It's still too early to be worrying.'
She looks directly at Morris, as if challenging him to contradict her.
'Of course . . . Yes.' He could get up and hug her, take the opportunity that he missed with David. But the sofa is so damned low, and the phone is ringing and Debbie is saying 'I'll get it,' and turning on her heel. Morris slumps back into the sofa, just as Debbie turns back into the room.
'Gosh, I nearly forgot Benjy. I guess I'd better take him with me.'
From over her shoulder the baby peers accusingly.
David gives a small wave then bends down to his briefcase to pull out a sheet of paper which he rests on his knee and strokes.
'Luckily she filled out an Intentions Form. She emailed it to me before she left.' David strokes the paper again. 'I emailed her and said she should call us when she gets back into cellphone range but . . . I guess she didn't get the email. Or maybe she just forgot. You know how forgetful she is.'
Is Rachel forgetful? As a child she'd always been so organised, her room always tidy, her desk always ordered.
'Do you remember how she used to line her coloured pencils along her desk?'
David looks up from his papers. 'Coloured pencils? No I don't remember. But it wouldn't surprise me. She's a big one for lining things up.'
I remembered that, Morris thinks. I knew that. She was an ordered child.
'Tidy room. Messy mind,' David says. 'Don't tell her I said that. Anyway, I don't think that the police will be interested in whether she used to line up her coloured pencils. They may not even be interested in whether she's forgetful.'
David is right. They won't be interested in forgetfulness. But what if he's wrong? What if the policeman raises his pen above his notebook and asks Morris directly. 'On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your daughter's forgetfulness?' What if he gets impatient and sneering, suspicious at Morris's inability to put a number to it? 'You're supposed to know her. You're her father. Give us a guess—a ballpark figure.'page 148
'She gets it from me,' Morris blurts out. 'I've always been forgetful.'
David looks up from his papers.
'It's not important, Dad—really.'
There is only one policeman. Can his partner be coming round the back? Morris tries to peer round the policeman but he's bulky, and he stands so close that Morris is forced to step backwards, into the house. He holds himself close to the wall, so the policeman can pass.
'As you know,' David begins, once the policeman is settled, 'she was doing the Kirwan's Reward Track. According to her Intentions Form she was going to spend the first night at Kirwan's Hut, and the second at Montgomerie Hut, and then she was going to leave the park on the evening of the third night.'
'Just to confirm,' says the policeman, 'the third night was last night, the night of the 23rd? Thursday the 23rd?'
There is something comforting in the policeman's repetition of the date.
'Yes,' says David. 'She was supposed to be out of the park by last night. We went to bed around nine-ish and at that time we didn't think there was anything to worry about.'
Morris looks up sharply. Will the policeman have questions? 'Tell me the truth now. Why didn't you call earlier?' Will he interrogate David, over and over? 'You don't really care, do you? If you weren't so busy with your baby and your wife you would have called earlier. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?'
The policeman smiles at David. 'I also like to go to bed early. When this job allows it.'
Now they're talking about getting enough sleep when there's a baby in the house. The policeman has a baby girl.
My God, thinks Morris, they're going to pull out wallet photos.
Is David a man to carry wallet photos?
Once, early in their marriage, Sadie, on a long train trip, sat next to a man who showed wallet photos.
'It was like being in a bad joke,' she complained to Morris, come page 149 to fetch her at the station. 'Give me one good reason why anyone in their right minds would want to look at photos of some poor jerk's ugly children? One good reason is all I ask.'
He could give no reason, but even so he found the vehemence of Sadie's reaction disconcerting. She was supposed to be the one who was interested in people, the one who talked to them and drew them out and, yes, even cooed over photos of their babies. If she didn't do it, would he have to?
Shortly after David was born, Morris found himself stuttering and embarrassed before a colleague who, on meeting him and Sadie in the street, asked if they had any photos of the baby. Morris would have liked to have waved a photo of his crumpled son before the world. But he did not keep wallet photos. He was not some poor jerk.
'I've got some,' Sadie had said. 'Morris, won't you hold this parcel while I find them,' and from her bag came not one, not two, but three photos.
'Here's one of me pregnant—the bun in the oven. And two of David—bun out of the oven.'
'Are those raisins or eyes?' the colleague asked.
'Definitely raisins. He's a raisin bun.'
Morris, waiting for his wife to stop laughing so they could be on their way, felt unmoored, as if he could not tell left from right.
'So I was inconsistent. People are. That's the joy of them.'
David doesn't bring out wallet photos. Instead he hands over the form and the policeman looks it over for a minute before (Morris considers this most appropriate) pulling a pen and notepad from his jacket pocket. He makes some notes and asks to use the telephone. To call Search and Rescue. Who have already been alerted. And have a team ready to go into the area.
'First they'll check the huts, to see if she signed in.' His fingers hover above the telephone keys. 'I must warn you that these rescue operations can be very expensive. If it proves to be unnecessary, because, say, she failed to sign out, then you and . . .' he looks at the form, '. . . and Rachel will be responsible for the cost.'
'Of course,' says David. 'We understand.'page 150
'Good. You wouldn't believe the number of times we've launched a full scale rescue only to find the missing person in a local hotel, with a hangover.'
'Oh no,' Morris says, 'not Rachel. You won't find her with a hangover.'
David's voice is soft. 'Though we'll be only too pleased if you do. That will be a great relief to us all.'
Morris is mortified.
The policeman is talking into the phone about helicopters and weather conditions and staying with the family until news is received. David whispers that he'll make some tea, and leaves the room.
Finally the policeman puts down the phone.
'It's the waiting that's the worst of it,' he says.
'What a schlemiel. Of course there are worse things than waiting. Like if it starts to rain. Or snow. If Rachel is alone in that. What's he doing here anyway? Why isn't he back at the office pushing pens? 'Oh, so he's a schlemiel? Not a schmuck?'
'Of course he's a schlemiel. The schlemiel is the one who doesn't leave a dent in his surroundings. You'll see. When he's gone there won't even be a crease in the chair to show he was here.' The policeman starts drumming his fingers on his knees. The house is silent, as if David has taken his family and disappeared. Leaving Morris clasping his hands to stop them from tapping in unison with a policeman's.
'So,' says the policeman, still drumming, 'what do you do?'
Had Morris spent the previous minutes preparing for what might follow he would not have had to lie to the policeman. He would have known that the question was coming. It always did. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, or a silence to be filled, someone would notice Morris and in an effort to include him in the conversation or, Morris sometimes believed, to judge him wanting, say, 'And what do you do?'
At David's birthday party, it had been Simon's wife.
In the smiling lull which followed her husband's story, she'd turned page 151 to Morris. 'So, you're David's dad. I seem to remember you had an interesting job. Remind me, what do you do?'
The smiling faces turned to study him.
'Um, I'm a metadata analyst.'
The smiling faces turned serious, Simon's most of all. Was he mocking?
Morris looked around for David. Couldn't he wave his baton and restore the smiles? Like Sadie used to do? She'd had a standard response for times like these. Something like, 'It's just a fancy sounding term for computer geek. Meet Morris, metadata analyst and übergeek.'
Please God, Morris thought, let someone carry the conversation away.
Sometimes someone did take the conversation elsewhere. Like that woman at the hospital who'd told a long story about her running battle with a computer repair guy. 'On Day 13 I went ballistic,' she'd said. 'I set his Asperger's management programme back by about three years.'
That had got Sadie laughing, and they'd moved on to talking about Asperger's, and Morris was able to relax back in his seat, and pick up one of the women's magazines that littered the hospital.
But sometimes the topic of Morris's job did not die such an easy death.
'What, exactly, is metadata?' someone would ask and Morris, poor Morris, would try to explain.
'Whose brilliant idea was it that you should learn the Wikipedia definition of metadata off by heart?'
'Yours, Sadie. You suggested it. After that drinks do at your work.'
'Not one of my brighter suggestions, was it? I can't imagine why you followed it. You, of all people, should have known to take it with a pinch.'
'Even so, you didn't have to laugh so hard when I tried it. That time at the garage.' 'But it was funny. Admit it was funny.' page 152 Sadie could have dropped him at the garage and gone home. She didn't need to wait while they vacuumed his car. She didn't need to be there when the mechanic leaned back in his swivel chair and said, 'Nice set of wheels you've got there. What'd you do to deserve them?'
'To deserve them?'
'What job I mean.'
'It wasn't funny. It was humiliating.'
'Come on. It's no big deal.'
'But it's my job. It's what I do.'
'Ah, yes, what you do.'
Driving home from the garage, blessedly alone in the car, Morris wondered whether he might just keep on driving. For if a man cannot define what he does for a living how can others know that he deserves a place in the world?
True to form he did not keep on driving, and Sadie (could this possibly be true to her form?) never mentioned the incident in the mechanic's office.
From then on she would, if the need arose, explain what Morris did for a living. She quickly developed what she called 'Sadie's Shtick— What Morris Does: The Palatable Version'.
'Metadata is information about information,' she'd begin. 'The best way of explaining it is by example.'
Already the listener would be leaning forward, even elbowing Morris aside to hear better.
'Let's say someone is stealing information from a company. Say he opens confidential documents, saves them under a different name, emails them to a friend, then deletes the saved files and the emails. Or say someone downloads porn, then prints it, then deletes it. Those guys may think they've deleted everything, that there's nothing left. But they'd be wrong. All they've deleted is the data. There's still something there. Something—'
Even after Morris had heard Sadie's shtick repeatedly, when he knew what word was coming next, when he had whispered it to himself already. Even then, he found it discomforting.
'I don't like those examples,' he'd complained the first time Sadie gave her shtick. 'They make my work sound so sordid.'
'Whether you like it or not,' she'd fired back, 'what you do has practical implications. It's not just you in a room with a box.'
When Sadie was in hospital there'd been a doctor. A young man who seemed to spend a lot of time at her bedside, chatting. Just chatting. Morris did not mean to disapprove of this doctor but did he not have other patients to visit? On one occasion Morris found himself standing outside Sadie's ward, waiting for the doctor to leave. A nurse found him there. 'Go right in. Family members can visit any time.'
The doctor made a move to leave when Morris entered the room but Sadie detained him with small talk.
She appeared quite lucid but she must have had morphine because, when the doctor asked what Morris did, she seemed to have forgotten her shtick. There was no Palatable Version.
The phone rings and the policeman is up and answering.
'David,' Morris calls, loud enough to be heard anywhere in the house, on the footpath, in the streets. Loud enough to wake a sleeping baby. 'David, Debbie, come quickly. It's Search and Rescue. They have news about Rachel.'
'My husband,' Sadie had said, 'sees the spaces left by absence. Where others see only emptiness my husband sees, if not exactly a presence, then the space left behind.'