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Authors: Erich Segal

Oliver's Story

BOOK: Oliver's Story
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Oliver’s Story

Erich Segal

Dedication

For Karen

Amor mi mosse

Epigraph

Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind towards some resolution which it may never find.

Robert Anderson

I Never Sang for My Father

Chapter One

June 1969

“O
liver, you’re sick.”

“I’m what?”

“You’re very sick.”

The expert who pronounced this startling diagnosis had come late in life to medicine. In fact, until today I thought he was a pastry chef. His name was Philip Cavilleri. Once upon a time his daughter Jenny was my wife. She died. And we remained, our legacy from her to be each other’s guardian. Therefore once a month I’d either visit him in Cranston, where we’d bowl and booze and eat exotic pizzas. Or he would join me in New York to run an equally exciting gamut of activities. But today as he descended from the train, instead of greeting me with some affectionate obscenity, he shouted.

“Oliver, you’re sick.”

“Really, Philip? In your sage professional opinion, what the hell is wrong with me?”

“You aren’t married.”

Then without expatiating further, he just turned and, leatherette valise in hand, he headed for the exit.

Morning sunlight made the city’s glass and steel seem almost friendly. So we both agreed to walk the twenty blocks to what I jocularly called my bachelor pad. At Forty-seventh Street and Park, Phil turned and asked, “How have your evenings been?”

“Oh, busy,” I replied.

“Busy, huh? That’s good. Who with?”

“The Midnight Raiders.”

“What are they—a street gang or a rock group?”

“Neither. We’re a bunch of lawyers volunteering time in Harlem.”

“How many nights a week?”

“Three,” I said.

Again we strolled uptown in silence.

At Fifty-third and Park, Phil broke his silence once again. “That still leaves four free nights.”

“I’ve got a lot of office homework too.”

“Oh, yeah, of course. We gotta do our homework.” Phil was less than sympathetic to my serious involvement with a lot of burning issues (e.g., draft cards). So I had to hint at their significance.

“I’m down in Washington a lot. I’m arguing a First Amendment case before the Court next month. This high school teacher—”

“Oh, that’s good, defending teachers,” Philip said. And added oh-so-casually, “How’s Washington for girls?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged and walked along.

At Sixty-first and Park, Phil Cavilleri stopped and looked me in the eye.

“Just when the hell do you intend to plug your motor into life again?”

“It hasn’t been that long,” I said. And thought: the great philosopher who claimed that time heals wounds neglected to impart just how much time.

“Two years,” said Philip Cavilleri.

“Eighteen months,” I corrected him.

“Yeah, well . . .” he answered, gravelly voice trailing off. Betraying that he too still felt the cold of that December day but . . . eighteen months ago.

In the remaining blocks I tried to warm things up again by touting the apartment I had rented since he last was here.

“So this is it?”

Phil looked around, an eyebrow raised. Everything was very orderly and neat. I’d had a woman come that morning specially.

“What do you call the style?” he asked. “Contemporary Shitbox?”

“Hey,” I said. “My needs are very simple.”

“I should say. Most rats in Cranston live as good as this. And some live better. What the hell are all these books?”

“Legal reference volumes, Phil.”

“Of course,” he said. “And what exactly do you do for fun—feel up the leather bindings?”

I think I could successfully have argued an invasion of my privacy.

“Look, Philip, what I do when I’m alone is my own business.”

“Who denies it? But you’re not alone tonight. So you and I are gonna make the social scene.”

“The
what?

“I didn’t buy this fancy jacket—which you haven’t complimented, by the way—to watch some lousy film. I didn’t get this suave new haircut just to make you think I’m cute. We’re gonna move and groove. We are gonna make new friends. . . .”

“What kind?”

“The female kind. Come on, get fancied up.”

“I’m going to the movies, Phil.”

“The hell you are. Hey, look, I know you’re out to win the Nobel Prize for suffering, but I will not allow it. Do you hear me? I will not allow it.”

He was fulminating now.

“Oliver,” quoth Philip Cavilleri, now turned priest, S.J., “I’m here to save your soul and save your ass. And you will heed me. Do you heed?”

“Yes, Father Philip. What precisely should I do?”

“Get married, Oliver.”

Chapter Two

W
e buried Jenny early one December morning. Luckily, because a huge New England storm made snowy statues of the world by afternoon.

My parents asked me if I’d go back to Boston with them on the train. I declined politely as I could, insisting Philip needed me or he would crack. In truth it was the other way around. Since all my life I’d been immured from human loss and hurt, I needed Phil to teach me how to grieve.

“Please be in touch,” said Father.

“Yes, I will.” I shook his hand and kissed my mother’s cheek. The train departed northward.

At first the Cavilleri house was noisy. Relatives were loath to let the two of us alone. But one by one, they peeled away—for naturally they all had families to go to. Each in parting made Phil promise that he’d open up the shop and get to work. It’s the only thing to do. He always nodded sort of yeah.

And finally we sat there, just the two of us. There wasn’t any need to move, since everyone had stocked the kitchen with a month’s supply of everything.

Now, with no distractions from the aunts or cousins, I began to feel the Novocaine of ceremony wearing off. Before, I had imagined I was hurting. Now, I knew that I’d been merely numb. The agony was just beginning.

“Hey, you oughta get back to New York,” said Phil without too much conviction. I spared him the rejoinder that his bakery seemed rather closed. I said, “I can’t. I have a New Year’s Eve date here in Cranston.”

“Who?” he asked.

“With you,” I answered.

“That’ll be a lotta fun,” he said, “but promise me—on New Year’s morning you’ll go home.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

My parents called up every evening.

“No, there’s nothing, Mrs. Barrett,” Phil would say to her. She’d obviously asked how she could . . . help.

“No, nothing, Father,” I would say when my turn came. “But thanks.”

Phil showed me secret pictures. Photos that were once forbidden me by Jenny’s most adamant command.

“Goddammit, Phil, I don’t want Oliver to see me with my braces on!”

“But, Jenny, you were very cute.”

“I’m cuter now,” she answered, very Jenny-like. Then added, “And no baby pictures, either, Phil.”

“But why? Why not?”

“I don’t want Oliver to see me fat.”

I’d watched this happy cannonade, bemused. By then we actually were married and I couldn’t possibly divorce her on the grounds of braces past.

“Hey, who’s boss here?” I’d remarked to Phil, to keep the action lively.

“Take a guess.” He smiled. And put the albums back unopened.

Now today we looked. There were a lot of photographs.

Prominent in all the early ones was “T’resa” Cavilleri, Philip’s wife.

“She looks like Jenny.”

“She was beautiful,” he sighed.

Somewhere after Jenny’s baby fat but prior to her braces, T’resa disappeared completely from the pictures.

“I shoulda never let her drive at night,” said Phil, as if the accident in which she died had happened just the day before.

“How did you cope?” I asked. “How could you bear it?” I had asked the question selfishly to hear what remedy he might suggest that could be balm for me.

“Who says that I could bear it?” Philip answered. “But at least I had a little daughter. . . .”

“To take care of. . . .”

“To take care of me,” he said.

And I heard tales that in the life of Jennifer had been classified material. How she did everything to help him. And to ease his pain. He had to let her cook. But what was worse, he had to
eat
her early efforts, drawn (and quartered) from recipes in supermarket magazines. She forced him to keep up his Wednesday bowling-with-the-fellas nights. She tried her best to make him happy.

“Is that why you never married, Phil?”

“What?”

“Because of Jenny?”

“Christ, no. She pestered me to marry—even fixed me up!”

“She did?”

He nodded. “Jeez, she must have tried to sell me every eligible Italo-American from Cranston to Pawtucket.”

“But all losers, huh?”

“No, some were nice,” he said. Which took me by surprise. “Miss Rinaldi, Jenny’s junior high school English teacher . . .”

“Yeah?” I said.

“Was very nice. We saw each other for a while. She’s married now. Three kids.”

“You weren’t ready, Phil, I guess.”

He looked at me and shook his head. “Hey, Oliver—I had it once. And who the hell am I to hope that God will give me two of what most people never get at all.”

And then he sort of looked away, regretting his betrayal of that truth to me.

On New Year’s Day he literally pushed me on a homeward train.

“Just remember that you promised to get back to work,” he said.

“You too,” I answered.

“It helps. Believe me, Oliver, it really helps.” And then the train began to move.

Phil was right. Plunging into other people’s legal problems, I found an outlet for the anger I’d begun to feel. Someone somehow screwed me, so I thought. Something in the world’s administration, the Establishment of Heaven. And I felt I should be doing things to set it right. More and more I found myself attracted to “miscarriages of justice.” And, man, right then our garden had a lot of nasty weeds.

Owing to
Miranda
v.
Arizona
(384 U.S. 436), I was a very busy boy. The Supreme Court now acknowledged that a suspect had to be informed he could be silent till he got a lawyer. I don’t know just how many had been previously hustled off to judgment—but I suddenly was angry for them all. Like LeRoy Seeger, who already was in Attica when I got his case through Civil Liberties.

Lee had been convicted on the basis of a signed confession deftly (ah—but legally?) elicited from him after a long interrogation. By the time he wrote his name he wasn’t sure what he was doing except maybe now they’d let him sleep. His retrial was one of the major New York cases to invoke
Miranda
. And we got him sprung. A little retroactive justice.

“Thank you, man,” he said to me, and turned to kiss his tearful wife.

“Stay loose,” I answered, moving off, incapable of sharing LeRoy Seeger’s happiness. Besides, he had a wife. And anyway, the world was full of what in lawyers’ slang we call “screwees.”

Like Sandy Webber, who was dueling with his draft board to get C.O. status. They were vacillating. Sandy wasn’t Quaker, so it wasn’t clear that it was “deeply held belief” and not just cowardice that made him want to not make war. Although it looked precarious, he wouldn’t go to Canada. He wanted the acknowledgment that he could own his conscience. He was gentle. And his girl was scared as hell for him. One of his friends was doing time in Lewisburg and not enjoying it. Let’s split to Montreal, she said. I want to stay and fight, he said.

We did. We lost. Then we appealed and won. He was glad to get three years of washing dishes in a hospital.

“You were just fantastic,” Sandy and his lady sang, embracing me together. I answered, “Keep the faith.” And started walking off to slay more dragons. I looked back just once and saw them dancing on the sidewalk. And wished that I could smile.

Oh, I was very angry.

I worked as late as possible. I didn’t like to leave the office. Everything in our apartment somehow emanated Jenny. The piano. And her books. The furniture we picked together. Yeah, I sort of told myself that I should move. But I got home so late it didn’t seem to matter. Gradually I got accustomed to my solo dinners in our quiet kitchen, playing tapes alone at night—although I never sat in Jenny’s reading chair. I had even almost taught myself to get to sleep in our so-empty bed. And so I didn’t think I had to leave the place.

Until I opened up a door.

It was Jenny’s closet, which I had avoided till that day. But somehow, foolishly, I opened it. And saw her clothing. Jenny’s dresses and her blouses and her scarves. Her sweaters—even one from high school she’d refused to toss away and used to wear, as mangy as it was, around the house. All of it was there and Jenny wasn’t. I can’t tell you what I thought as I stood staring at those silk and woolen souvenirs. Like maybe if I touched that ancient sweater I might feel a molecule of living Jenny.

I closed the door and never opened it again.

Two weeks later Philip Cavilleri quietly packed all her stuff and took it off. He mumbled that he knew this Catholic group that helped the poor. And just before he left for Cranston in his borrowed baker’s truck, he said in valediction, “I won’t visit you again unless you move.”

Funny. Once he had despoiled the house of everything that wakened Jenny in the mind, I found a new apartment in a week. Small and prisonlike (the first-floor windows in New York have iron bars, remember?), it was the not-quite basement of a brownstone where a rich producer lived. His fancy gold-knobbed door was up a flight of steps, so people headed for his orgies never bothered me. Also it was closer to the office and just half a block from Central Park. Obviously, signs were pointing to my imminent recovery.

Still I have a serious confession.

Even though I’m in new quarters all refurnished with new posters and a brand-new bed, and friends more often say, “You’re looking good, old buddy,” there is something that I’ve kept of Jenny, who was once my wife.

In the bottom drawer of the desk at home are Jenny’s glasses. Yes. Both pairs of Jenny’s glasses. Because a glance at them reminds me of the lovely eyes that looked through them to look through me.

But otherwise, as anyone who sees me never hesitates to say, I’m in terrific shape.

BOOK: Oliver's Story
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