WHO GAVE AWAY
Tales of Love and Obsession at Midlife
*Finalist for the 2016 Eric Hoffer Award in Fiction
Published July 10, 2015.
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Often funny, often touching, disturbing, furious, sometimes all at the same time, Richard Michael Levine's stories explore the mysteries of personality with compassion and elegance. This is a terrific book.
– Herbert Gold
The far-and-wide-ranging stories in this collection share two characteristics. They're beautifully written and every one is strikingly original. We haven't met the people in them before or seen the world from their fresh and sometimes alarming perspective. Levine's characters respond to mid-life challenges in ways that elicit compassion, amazement and nervous laughter, sometimes all three. They've moved into my mind to stay.
– Cyra McFadden
The eight stories and novella that make up The Man Who Gave Away His Organs: Tales of Love and Obsession at Midlife have the cultural scope, time span and in-depth character development usually found only in novels.
Their mostly middle-aged protagonists have reached some crisis in their lives, when an unexpected turn of events or twist of fate leads them in new, unanticipated directions. The situations are often both hilarious and tragic.
The locations – a holiday party for celebrity lookalikes, a college senior's graduating peformance-arts piece, a support group for people named Irving Horowitz, a liver transplant ward – are intriguing and unique.
The prose is at once lyrical and prickly, tender and sardonic, and always, sentence by sentence, read-aloud beautiful.
Above all, this short story collection will entertain you throughout as few others have.
The Man Who Gave Away His Organs: Tales of Love and Obsession at Midlife by Richard Michael Levine consists of a collection of nine short stories. These narratives, eagerly even compulsively read by this reviewer, depict men and women in various situations that brilliantly illuminate the quandary that is middle-age. The characters portrayed are vibrantly authentic, astonishingly so given the tight confines of the short story genre in which Levine is operating. From the pretentious Arnold Frommer and his precocious daughter Jade of ‘But Is it Art?’ to the irascible Edith Dubovsky in ‘Jeopardy’; the obsessiveness fanaticism of Deborah Ashe in her unremitting devotion to her dead son; Sommers’ nautical revelations that comprise a darkly predictive edge; and in the tale that gives the book its title, Ed Kramer, the parsimonious accountant whose life takes an unexpected turn after a bone marrow donation.
With a deft touch and a delightfully wry sense of humor, Levine has created an enthralling series of narratives that expound the preoccupations that oft characterize the mid-life years: the search for meaning within the brief allotment that is life, the yearning for love, and the fierce desire for authenticity. Seamlessly weaving together past and present, one tale intermittently overlapping with another, each character as enthralling as the one before, the reader has no doubt they are in the hands of a master storyteller. Levine’s prose is beautifully rendered, his characters vividly engaging, and the tales themselves tightly orchestrated to startling and thought-provoking conclusion. Despite not being a frequent reader of short stories, this reviewer has, as a result of this marvelous collection, become a convert to the genre as well as an avid fan of this marvelous writer. Highly recommended..
Verdict: An enthralling series of narratives written by a master storyteller.
"The Lost Father," from The Man Who Gave Away His Organs by Richard Michael Levine. Copyright 2015 by Richard Michael Levine.
First published in Pennsylvania English, Vol. 36.
The Lost Father
The boy’s father, although he wasn’t old, wore a hearing aid in one ear. The breeze made it whistle like a tea kettle heating up. As the car picked up speed the boy heard the whistle grow louder and higher pitched, like a tea kettle coming to boil. The boy had never noticed that before.
His father had opened the car’s top in their driveway, then headed out Bayside, past the boy’s school, over the rickety-rackety wooden bridge that spanned the inlet, and into Crown Point. It was the prettiest part of town, where rich people lived in big houses surrounded by big lawns that rolled down to the bay. Everything was bigger in Crown Point, the boy thought—the cars, the houses, the lawns, even the trees. If money doesn’t grow on trees, as his father had told him, maybe it could make trees grow.
The smooth roads were bordered at regular intervals by tall trees whose branches, with their hand-shaped leaves, touched in the middle to shade the summer sun. There were few traffic lights or stop signs to slow them down. For those reasons it was where the boy and the man often went on car drives together or, more recently, after the boy got his own almost grown-up three-speed bicycle for his last birthday, bike rides. A few minutes went by with only the sound of the wind blowing overhead and the sticky noise the tires made on the warm road, like a Band-Aid being pulled off, the boy thought.
“What’re you smiling about?” his father asked. The question surprised the boy because he hadn’t realized he was smiling until then.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees,” he said. “But what if it did?” Just then he had been picturing trees with green dollar bills instead of hand-shaped leaves fluttering in the breeze. The boy loved words and often said them aloud to himself just to hear their sounds and the funny phrases they sometimes made. The most he had ever laughed—for days he couldn’t stop laughing whenever he thought of it—was the time his father looked up at the sky and said, “It’s going to rain cats and dogs.” The boy imagined black dogs like their spaniel Fred and white cats like the one who visited from the Porter’s next door tumbling out of a clear blue sky, so fast and so many you couldn’t even begin to count them. Another time he laughed, but not as much, when his father said “right as rain” to something the boy said. That didn’t make any sense to him. How could rain be right or wrong?
His father had just bought a new car, and the boy supposed that was the reason he had asked him if he wanted to go for a drive. The car was small and red, with no backseat like his old one. A convertible, his father called the car, the same as the sofa in the den that turned into a bed. That didn’t make sense to the boy, either.
The boy loved driving with his father and always asked, but was only sometimes allowed, to go along with him. He had learned to read, back when he was little, by sounding out the letters on the signs they passed. There was something magical about both cars and reading. You could go anywhere you wanted with one and learn about anything with the other. There was also something magical about the way his father did everything in the car with the touch of a finger— opened the windows, locked all the doors, turned on the radio or the air conditioner, and in the new one even opened the top.
He felt safe in the car with his father. He liked the way his father always reached over to make sure his seat belt was fastened tight, although he sometimes pretended to be annoyed because he had been able to do it himself since he was two-and-a-half. His father never had to jerk the car to a stop the way his mother often did, flinging her arm against his chest so he wouldn’t fall forward. And he went around curves by speeding up instead of slowing down, “smooth as butter.” That was another one of his father’s phrases that tickled the boy because it made it seem that the car drove on melting squares of butter, like the kind you got in restaurants, instead of big sticky-icky-sounding rubber wheels.
He didn’t understand how his father, when they were stopped at certain traffic lights, could snap his fingers and say “Now!” just as the light turned green. But even more magical for the boy were the times when they were in parking lots and his father would take him on his lap and let him steer the car, which made him feel very grown-up and would have scared him if they weren’t going very slowly and he wasn’t aware that his father kept one hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. For some time afterward he felt bigger than he was.
He liked doing the same things as his father. On weekend mornings, when his father wasn’t in a hurry to get to work, he let the boy put shaving cream on his own face and shave it off with a razor just like his father’s, except it didn’t have a blade in it. The can itself was like a magic trick. He wondered how such a little can could hold so much shaving cream.
Later they would sometimes do “projects” around the house together. The boy had a leather tool belt like his father’s, with a little hammer and little screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches and even a small measuring tape that only went out to a foot. Sometimes he worked beside his father only pretending to do the same job, but other times he was actually allowed to do it, even though the little screwdriver kept slipping out of the groove or he couldn’t hit the nail in the center or missed it entirely. His father never got impatient with him but just said to try again. When they were working close together inside the house, he could smell his father’s aftershave lotion—it smelled like 7UP without the fizz that tickled his nose—which he was sometimes allowed to use too. If they were working outside and his father was wearing his old soft leather jacket, the boy would lean against him and smell the pipe tobacco pouch tucked into a pocket and play with the fringes on the sleeves.
These days they weren’t doing projects together as much because his father often had to work late in his office. Or he’d go off to play tennis on weekends and say it was better if the boy didn’t come anymore because he’d get restless or it was too cold. The boy protested that he wouldn’t be a bother or he’d wear a warm sweater, but it didn’t matter. Even when he cried, his father refused to take him.
His father had been driving without saying anything for a long time or even looking his way. He hadn’t answered when the boy asked if they could stop at the abandoned grist mill, where there was a sign saying it had been an Indian campsite before it became a grist mill and where his friend Stevie Sussman had once found an actual arrowhead—at least it looked like one, a pointy piece of flint with a groove cut into the opposite end. Ever since then the boy had been hoping to find one too. Maybe his father hadn’t heard him because of how his hearing aid was whistling.
The boy started counting trees along one side of the road until he got to a hundred. He noticed that shadows of the leaves were moving on the road like hands waving hello or good-bye, you couldn’t tell which. It was funny that you waved hello the same way you waved good-bye, though they were opposites.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” his father finally said in a super-serious voice that got all the boy’s attention. He turned to look at his father, who kept his eyes on the road. He drove with one hand on the steering wheel and with the other kept moving his fingers on his thigh the way the boy practiced scales on the piano. His hair was flapping in the wind, uncovering what he called his bald spot, although it looked bigger than a spot to the boy. “You know how Mommy and Daddy are fighting a lot these days?” his father went on. “And it’s getting worse, so it seems we’re always screaming bloody murder at each other?” The boy didn’t say anything or even nod because he didn’t think his father could see or hear him and also because he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to know about the fighting. He didn’t think he’d ever heard anyone say “screaming bloody murder” before, but he knew exactly what his father meant and didn’t find it funny.
Of course he knew about the fighting. How could he not? It woke him up most nights. He heard his father yelling at his mother in their bedroom next to his and then his mother yelling back or the other way around, but he couldn’t make out the words except for a few. He knew that some of them were dirty words, the kind his mother always said she’d wash his mouth out with soap if she ever heard him say, as though that would turn them into clean ones. Sometimes he could block out the words by going under the covers and lifting his knees to make a house where he imagined a happy family called the Smiths, a father, a mother, a boy and the older brother the boy had always wanted, playing or eating or setting off to go places together. But there were other sounds that always came through to him even under the covers like a fist banging down the piano keys—a sharp slap or a duller smack or an awful thud when someone fell to the floor, probably his mother because his father was stronger and also because he had seen black-and-blue marks on her arms like the one he got on his leg the time he fell off his bike. The only good thing about the hitting was that the yelling would stop.
In the morning his father would leave early for work without checking to see that he was up, and his mother stayed in bed with the door closed. He would get dressed and pour orange juice and fix cornflakes and milk for breakfast and ride his bike to school or take the bus if it was raining hard or snowing. He’d gently knock on his parents’ bedroom door before he left, but his mother wouldn’t always answer. Once he heard her sobbing, so he went in anyway. His mother stopped crying and sat up in bed and hugged him tight with tears still in her eyes and said she didn’t know why she was so sad when he asked her. Another time when he walked in his mother was lying facedown with a pillow over her head and didn’t hear him. He got scared, but when he touched her she turned over and tried to smile at him, and he felt a little better.
When his father came home from work after the worst fights, he was especially nice to the boy. They’d play chess, which his father was teaching him, or checkers or card games like go fish and concentration. At bedtime his father would read an extra-long story to the boy. The boy could read the stories to himself—he was the best reader in his class—but he preferred his father doing it, especially at bedtime. His father would take off his jacket and shoes, loosen his tie and lie down next to the boy, who leaned his face against his father’s cool crisp white shirt, which crinkled in his ear when one of them moved, and ran the edges of the silky tie between his fingers.
These days his favorite bedtime stories came from A Boy’s Picture Book of Bible Adventures. It was a big book his father had saved from when he was a child, and its pages were yellow and crumbly so you had to be careful turning them, and they smelled like talcum powder. There was a picture on the cover of a tall old man with long white hair and a beard down to his chest, holding a cane cut from a tree branch and wearing a white robe and sandals. The man was God, his father said. The stories were all about superheroes like a boy named David, who killed a wicked giant with a stone from his slingshot, and a man named Noah, who kept all the animals safe on his boat during a flood that drowned the whole world, until a bird told him it was safe to go home. As the boy fell asleep with his head on his father’s chest, gently rising and falling like the calm sea after the storm in the story, he heard his father’s words from a distance telling him about all the things that had happened in the world before the boy was born, and in between the words the sound of his father breathing.
When his parents weren’t yelling at each other, there was a silence in the house that was as loud as the noises to the boy, especially at dinner. He felt all twitchy in his stomach, as though the four white mice that lived in a cage in his classroom, which he had suggested to the teacher they name Eeny, Meeny, Miny and Mo, were running around there. He wasn’t able to eat more than a few bites of food.
“Mommy and Daddy will love you the same as always,” his father was saying. “Maybe even more, if that’s possible. I hope you know that will never change.” The boy thought he must have missed something important because he didn’t at first understand what his father meant. They had made a circle back to the rickety-rackety bridge, but instead of going over it and back home, they drove into Crown Point again. His father was driving faster this time, although they still didn’t have any place special to get to. The whistling sound from the hearing aid grew louder, and the boy realized he couldn’t count the trees this time even if he wanted to. He tried harder to hear his father’s voice above the noise. He thought that the wind must blow words away the same as leaves.
“I’ll be living at Aunt Janet’s house for a while, so Mommy and I won’t be fighting all the time.” Aunt Janet was his mother’s friend. Sometimes his father played tennis with her. She didn’t have her own husband, but she had a child. When they came over, the boy had to play with her, though she was much younger and a girl and Chinese. The boy once asked her to say some Chinese words so he could hear how they sounded, but she didn’t know any. Neither did Aunt Janet, who wasn’t his real aunt like Aunt Sophie and Aunt Sarah, but that’s what the boy had always called her.
His father still hadn’t looked over at him. When the boy looked at his father, he saw there were tears in his eyes. Or maybe it was the wind that made his father’s eyes wet the way it sometimes did to his when he was riding his bike downhill.
“It will be like you have two homes,” his father said. “During the week you’ll stay with your mother and go to school, so nothing will really change. But on weekends—some weekends anyway—you’ll stay with me at Aunt Janet’s.” When the boy looked over at his father again, it seemed to him that his face was white and the skin stretched tight. It reminded him of the bank robbers he had seen in a movie who wore women’s stockings over their heads to disguise themselves. “I’ll still read to you at night and we’ll play chess and fix things the same as before,” his father said. “You can even bring your bike so we can take rides together. And we’ll do lots of new things now that you’re getting to be such a big guy. Maybe we’ll go fishing. Would you like that?”
The boy didn’t know whether he’d like that or not. He had never thought about it. He felt that he had a lot of questions to ask his father, but he didn’t know exactly what they were. He knew his father couldn’t hear him anyway. The whistling sound was getting louder and louder, and the wind was blowing harder over the car. The leaves were waving faster on the road, and the trees seemed to be closer together, although the boy knew that wasn’t really true, it was just that the car was speeding up. Everything became a little blurry to the boy because he was starting to cry.
His father was saying something else, but the boy couldn’t understand the words. He was rocking back and forth in his seat and kicking his feet. Then he steadied himself and leaned over as far as he could and grabbed the steering wheel near the top and yanked it down with all his might. He heard a terrifying screech of tires followed by a lower-pitched crunch and clang of metal and then glass shattering and falling in a rain of pebbles. It, too, sounded like a fist thumping along piano keys, only a million times louder. He felt himself pushed forward so fast that the seat belt crushed his stomach and chest, then thrown back against the seat so hard he thought his head had hit a stone. It all seemed to take a long time. Then there was the scariest silence of all for a moment. Then all the boy heard was the sound of his own screams.
No one could ever figure out how the boy’s father lost control of the car on a bright clear summer day and smashed into a tree, with virtually no traffic on the well-tended roads of Crown Point.
The boy grew up to be a celebrated writer. He wrote short stories and novels. He worked hard and his books won many prizes. He had three sons of his own, each with a different wife. He traveled to many countries to talk about and read from his work. Two of his novels were turned into popular movies that made him a wealthy man. Critics praised his books, if not the movies, but even those who liked them the most had to admit that there was something constricted about them, without much humor to relieve the sadness. He always explored the same few themes, and while that could be said of many writers, maybe most, his novels and many of his stories all seemed to be versions of the same novel and story. They all could have had the same title as his most famous novel, The Lost Father.
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Copyright 2015 by Richard Michael Levine.