Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Walt: A Son-in-Law's Luck

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Walt: A Son-in-Law's Luck

Article excerpt

NOT LONG AFTER I FELL IN LOVE WITH MY WIFE, I fell in love with her father. I can't say for sure if I loved him until after she and I were married, but I liked him from that very first night when, at the age of seventeen, I drove my parents' '64 Chevy Impala to Haledon, New Jersey, and picked her up for a date. It was Friday the 13th, what would prove the luckiest day of my life. His first word to me was "electronics."

We must already have been introduced because what he actually said was "Electronics, Gary." He was sitting at the kitchen table, a very slight, very dark-haired man, tinkering with a small transistor radio. A lit cigarette was nocked into an ashtray on the Formica. I couldn't know this at the time, of course, but there in a word was a great deal about the man who would be my father-in-law: the comedy of overstating the obvious, the irony of noting the ridiculous (he probably had no idea what he was doing with the radio), and the tender mercy of skipping over most of the preliminaries with which a man might assail his daughter's new suitor in favor of taking a random shot at camaraderie, aiming for something fellas like us would have an instinctive feel for, like, say, electronics. A stiff index finger wagging for emphasis. An intimation of bullshit. A flash of Bogart smile that said he knew it was bullshit, that you probably knew it too, or didn't you? That was Walt.

Was because Walt is no longer in this world. He died eleven years ago at the age of eightyone, having lived much longer than any of us expected. I never knew him to be in good health. He had heart trouble, high blood pressure, emphysema, and stomach ulcers. Chalk his longevity up to the triumph of mind over matter. "I want to live," he once told me by way of ending a story about some "goombah" who was recovering from a failed suicide attempt. "I told Al to tell Joey, if he plans to try it again, I can use a heart and two new lungs. And if his penis still works, tell him I'll take that too. Hey, I want to live." But Walt also struck me as someone ready to die, at least more ready than I was to have him do it, and certainly more ready than either my wife or my daughter, both of whom adored him, ever could be. Not that my affection was simply following their lead. We keep mental cemeteries for our dead, exclusive plots like those family graveyards fenced in at the corners of New England cow pastures, and each stone bears our own self-referential epitaph. "Here lies Walter Van Haste, who never once busted my balls." Not on that first night, not several weeks later when I took his daughter for a drive and got us pitifully lost in the suburban badlands of lower New York State, not when I announced that I was leaving my job to write a book, not when the book didn't sell or the next one either. So, peace and electronics to you, too, Walt.

Probably Walt trusted me at the outset because he trusted his daughter, as I would shortly learn to do, but perhaps he also saw in my earnest, skinny profile an image of his own courting self, though he had been pushing thirty and done five years' service overseas (as an airplane mechanic in Britain during the Second World War) when he came to the Giancarelli corner grocery store to call on the woman who would be his wife. In those days she was working at Sears Roebuck with Walt's sister, who recommended her brother by boasting that he didn't drink or chase women. My mother-in-law would recount her reply to this intelligence many times over the succeeding years: "Then your brother is either a fag or the man I want to marry." When he came through the door, she took one look at her date and, although not tall herself, scurried upstairs to exchange her high heels for a pair of flats. That made them about level head-to-head. According to the few black-and-white photos in our possession, they were a rather striking couple, she with her Mediterranean eyes and he dark and handsome if not tall.

He would remain black-haired into his eighties - the result, he claimed, of prolonged exposure to tar and nicotine. …

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