An excerpt from Henkin’s new novel, Morningside Heights, which comes out today.
Arlo Zackheim always got wind of things. He didn’t have ESP, exactly; he was simply more intuitive than other people. This helped him, he believed, in business and in life. He liked to have the maximum information about others while revealing the minimum information about himself. He listed his phone numbers as anonymous so that people wouldn’t know who was calling. Sometimes, just for the kick of it, he would leave an automated email message. I don’t feel like checking email today. I’ll get back to you when the urge overtakes me. But all the while, he was secretly checking.
“You hate surprise,” his mother told him once. Who could blame him? His own childhood had been so replete with surprise, the only constant was the surprise itself, starting with his parents’ divorce, when he was only eight months old. He was convinced he could remember his parents together, but his father told him that was impossible.
Arlo didn’t care what his father said; he’d spent his whole life trying to forget his father even as he yearned for him from afar, and he considered the word impossible a challenge. Impossible to hold your breath for as long as he’d held his as a baby, holding it until he turned blue. People spoke about iron wills, but scientists had yet to discover a will as strong as his. He had run two marathons 48 hours apart. 200 push-ups, fasting for days, lying in a hyperbaric chamber, extreme caving, tantric sex, dry orgasm. He didn’t care what his father said. He remembered his parents together, recalled his father saying, “Well, good goddamn,” his father, who never cursed, who referred to it as cussing, who called dog shit dog dirt. “I hate my father.”
“Of course you do,” his mother said, good at encouraging that hatred while pretending not to. “Who wouldn’t hate someone who abandoned him?”
“That’s not what happened.” But Arlo didn’t know what had happened; he just knew it was more complicated than his mother let on. “Things are always more complicated,” his mother said, “and at the same time they’re really quite simple.” Which was how his mother spoke, in koans, her meaning as obscure as her gaze.
By the time he turned ten, Arlo had lived in so many places, he had trouble remembering them all. His mother had once told him she wanted to poop in all 50 states. In this way, she was following in the footsteps of her father, a kosher butcher, who had moved the family from state to state, always in search of an underserved Jewish community. If Arlo had been older and more sophisticated, he would have realized his mother was visiting upon him what her father had visited upon her. He would have recalled the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge. But Arlo hadn’t read the Bible at that point—or much else, for that matter.
One day, Arlo picked up the receiver and heard his parents on the phone. “What about his schooling?” his father said. “It’s required by law.”
“The law!” Why, Arlo’s mother wanted to know, should she follow the law when the cops were pigs and the district attorney was, too, when every lawyer was corrupt from the lowest ambulance chaser all the way up to the attorney general? Had Arlo’s father forgotten about Vietnam? Had he forgotten about the Gulf of Tonkin and the Pentagon Papers and My Lai?
No, Arlo’s father sighed, he hadn’t. But it was beside the point: a red herring. He was talking about their son’s education, and what kind of education was Arlo getting when Linda was moving him from place to place?
“Is that all you care about? Education?”
“Listen, Linda.” Arlo father’s voice was as steady as his mother’s was deranged. His father’s very calmness set his mother off. The more placid he became, the more ill-tempered it made her.
“I am listening,” she said. “What else is there for me to do but listen to you? He’s getting an education. I’m homeschooling him.”
Arlo stifled a laugh. He’d been in and out of a dozen schools, never staying long enough to gain traction. “You have a native intelligence,” his mother said. “Now you just have to go out and cultivate it.” That it was her responsibility to help him cultivate it never occurred to her. He did have a native intelligence, but he read poorly, which shamed him, and his classmates mocked him for his reading, which shamed him even more.
Soon he started to skip school. His mother, busy at the café or bookstore or arts supplier, at whatever job she’d secured that month, was too tired to fight him. “If you want to play hooky, it’s your loss.” But secretly she was grateful for his company. So when he said, “You could homeschool me,” she said, “I don’t see why not.”
She would take him to the library, and she would become mesmerized by the rows of books, the little round stickers of the Dewey decimal system lined up like shirt buttons on their spines. “I’m like a child in a candy store,” his mother said, but a child who looked at the candy without buying any, because they would leave the library without having borrowed any books.
At the local diner, Arlo’s mother would flip through USA Today to the microflash of news from each of the 50 states. “Okay, I’m going to homeschool you. Tell me which state this is from.” But Arlo wasn’t good at geography, and he couldn’t possibly have known whether the home fire that killed a grandmother and her two grandchildren had been set in Minnesota or Vermont, or whether Arkansas was where the power had gone out, and so he was just guessing.
“Here,” his mother said, “explain to me about ERAs,” and Arlo, who liked baseball and was good at math, wrote the figures on a napkin.
But Arlo’s mother wasn’t good at math, and Arlo had to repeat the process, so if anyone was being homeschooled, it was her.
Arlo’s father said, “You’re homeschooling him, Linda? I’m not sure what qualifies you to do that.”
“You know how I feel about the American education system.”
“I’m not talking about the American education system. I’m talking about our son. What are you teaching him?”
“Math, geography, social studies, physics.”
“Physics?” he said. “You’re teaching Arlo physics?”
This, Arlo thought, was typical of his mother. She would get caught in the bramble of her deceit, and soon she’d be sounding ridiculous. Maybe it was those very words, geography and physics, that magnified her lie, but hearing her say them made him cough.
Now his parents realized he was on the phone, and his mother was saying, “Arlo, you can’t go snooping around like that,” but his father said, “Wait a second, Linda. Arlo, can I have a word with you?”
The phone felt heavier in Arlo’s hand, and in the midday sun that pulsed through the blinds, he started to sweat.
“How are you, Arlo?”
“I’m okay,” he said, but whenever he spoke to his father he realized he was less okay than he’d thought. “I have to go,” he said, and as he hung up he heard his father say, “I love you, Arlo,” the sound percussing as he walked out of the apartment and down the road, past the gas station and the laundromat and the check-cashing store, the pawnshops flashing even in daytime. If his father loved him, why didn’t he come get him? Why did they only spend July together, and a week over Christmas, and a week over spring break? Secretly, Arlo slept with his father’s shirt, which he’d filched on a visit to New York. His father would have given him that shirt, but the filching had been important, just as the secrecy of sleeping with it was important, knowing he was betraying his mother by sleeping with his father’s shirt.
When he was 12, Arlo moved with his mother to a commune in Delaware. “Oh, Arlo, all this time we were meant to live here, and I just didn’t realize it.”
Arlo himself wasn’t nearly so sure they were meant to live here. But he adjusted to the commune’s routine, to morning meetings and the dividing up of tasks, to long days picking beets and radishes. He enjoyed sitting with the other children in the mess hall, the soccer and kickball games, nights in the gazebo beneath the stars.
No animal products were allowed on the commune, and no sugar. Some of the commune members were on food stamps and disability. For a time Arlo’s mother was on disability herself, though Arlo was never sure what her disability was. Something about a bum ankle, but then it was a bad back; often she used the word sciatica.
Soon Arlo’s mother was studying to become a midwife. “I’m getting my midwifery degree.” She laughed when she said this, perhaps because she hadn’t been good at getting degrees—she still had six credits to go at Barnard—perhaps because the commune didn’t confer degrees. “It’s on-the-job training. Though don’t go saying that to the pregnant girls. They might get nervous.”
Afternoons Arlo would hitchhike into town, where he would take out his ukulele and busk. “Hey, there, little man,” someone said. “Take a look at the little man with his little instrument.” Arlo didn’t like being called a little man, and he thought his instrument was big enough, but he was happy to have a few dollars dropped into his case, so he didn’t say anything.
He wore a New York City subway token around his neck, as a reminder of where his father lived and that he could leave whenever he wanted to. But leaving wasn’t easy. There were schedules to coordinate, and his mother needed him.
Soon his mother started to deliver babies. Even now, as an adult, Arlo could still recall the afterbirth, everyone gathering for a celebratory meal, starting with placenta soup. Seitan and soy cheese: he could still taste those, though now he refused to eat them. The commune members grew herbs: echinacea and ginseng and kava and Saint-John’s-wort. Men wore dashikis. The word namaste was used. There was the smell of beeswax. People walked around naked because it was warm out and the body came in all shapes and sizes and all shapes and sizes were beautiful. The commune generator sometimes didn’t work, so there were blackouts, like the one in New York City in 1977, when Arlo’s mother had been on a picnic, the lampposts and streetlights extinguished, mayonnaise oozing through her sandwich bag while on the streets the looting had started. But on the commune there was no looting. Years later, Arlo would think there was nothing to loot—they were piss poor, all of them—but at the time he thought what his mother thought: that no one looted because it was all for one and one for all and everyone loved everyone. “I’m happy here,” he told his mother.
“Oh, darling, I’m so glad to hear that.”
But he’d just said those words because they made his mother brighten, as if a candle had been lit inside her. His mother, with her far-off gazes, cloudy as sea glass, saying, I need some alone time, darling. Or: Darling, I’m doing something for my solitary self. Or: It’s just going to be the three of us now, darling, me, myself, and I. Always that darling attached like a charm to the strand of her words, allowing her to pretend she wasn’t saying what she was saying.
Sometimes Arlo would find his mother not, as she’d claimed, keeping her own company, but keeping company with a man. She’d be sitting by the campfire, her skirt bunched between her thighs, the sounds of the guitar rising with the marijuana smoke.
“I thought you were taking a walk.”
“I was taking a walk, and look what I found while I was walking. Danny, this is my son Arlo.”
“Hello, Arlo,” Danny said, and he laughed, and Arlo’s mother did, too, and so did the man sitting next to Danny, and the woman sitting next to that man, so the laughter was going around the campfire, like the bong.
“I named him after Arlo Guthrie,” Arlo’s mother said.
“Well, hello, Arlo Guthrie,” Danny said, and now the man on the guitar was playing “Ukulele Lady,” and Arlo’s mother said, “That’s funny, because Arlo plays the ukulele, don’t you, darling?” and Arlo had to admit he did.
The year he was 13, on his annual Christmas visit, Arlo brought the map he’d drawn with all the states he’d lived in. His sister, Sarah, was only ten, but she was precocious and quick-witted, and she had a copy of the world map puttied to her wall. She had long auburn hair, curls catapulting this way and that, which Arlo detested; he kept finding clumps of hair in the sink. “Can’t you clean up after yourself?”
But Sarah didn’t deign to respond. She just did what she always did, leaving her hair wherever she saw fit, playing Geography with her mother and GHOST with her father, and before she went to sleep, she practiced her violin and ate a snack of three marshmallows and a handful of Wise potato chips. Arlo was dizzied by the marshmallows and potato chips, by the cans of Fresca that lined his father’s fridge.
“You can bring that food home with you,” his mother said. “We’ll get you a pouch. Or three extra stomachs, like a cow has.”
“But the commune doesn’t allow junk food.”
“True enough. I guess you’ll have to do with your single stomach.” When Pru served pasta for dinner, Arlo would compete with Sarah, whom he thought of as half his age and half his size so she should get half as much food. It was dumb luck that he’d ended up where he was; just as easily he could have had the potato chips and the marshmallows and the nice home, the bedroom that smelled of lemon, the washcloths in the bathroom hanging like flags. Life was unfair, but in his father’s apartment he would make up for it. If Sarah had two portions of fettuccini, he would have three; if she had three portions, he would have four. He ate as fast as he could because to the fastest eater went the spoils. So when his father said, “Arlo, have you taken up speed-eating?” Arlo just stared back at him uncomprehendingly, thinking, What other kind of eating is there?
Now, as an adult, Arlo could have eaten as much pasta as he liked, but he studiously avoided refined carbohydrates. At six feet tall, he weighed 138 pounds. He did 200 crunches every morning, followed by 200 push-ups. His composition of body fat was 8 percent, which put him ahead of most professional athletes. He had become like his father, who had once said that if only he didn’t have to eat and sleep, he would get so much more done. Arlo himself got by on four hours of sleep a night. And he was on a restricted-calorie diet. He ate little and he ate fast—little because he was hoping to achieve immortality (mice and chimpanzees kept on a restricted-calorie diet lived 50 percent longer, and he was out to prove it would work for humans too); fast because, though his will was unassailable, he’d never been able to break the habit born from those visits to his father, when, if he ate faster than his sister, he would get extra food.
It was on that trip to his father’s when he was 13 that the full extent of his deprivation settled on Arlo. One night, he showed Sarah the map he’d drawn. He’d lived in nine states and Sarah had lived in only one. “My mother has pooped in 39 states. How many states has your mother pooped in?”
Sarah had no idea how many states her mother had pooped in, and she didn’t care. “Here,” she said, grabbing the map. “You drew this all wrong. You’ve got Maine over here where California’s supposed to be, and Illinois might as well be in Europe. And Delaware, where you live? You’ve placed it in the middle of the country, practically in Mountain Time.”
Delaware was in the middle of the country, Arlo wanted to say, because the commune was the center of everything.
That night, Arlo overheard Sarah saying to Pru, “He’s 13 years old and I’m smarter than him.”
“There are different kinds of knowledge, darling. Different ways of being smart. He hasn’t had the same opportunities as you.”
Lying in bed, Arlo seethed. But he didn’t seethe at Sarah, or at Pru. He seethed at his mother, who had moved him like a chess piece around the country. What good was living in so many places if you put Illinois where Europe was supposed to be, and what kind of mother were you if you claimed to love your son but you didn’t teach him anything?
On the bus back home, Arlo unwrapped the egg salad sandwich Pru had made for him. She’d given him a second sandwich, too, tucked into a pouch, and he thought of the pouch his mother had talked about, of the cow with its three extra stomachs. Pru had also given him a palmier. “They’re French,” she said, “though in English they’re called elephant ears.” Their size aside—they were, in fact, enormous— Arlo thought they looked nothing like elephants’ ears, but then he realized he didn’t know what elephants’ ears looked like. It was just another thing he didn’t know, and as the bus passed from New Jersey into Pennsylvania, his hatred for his mother grew and grew and he hoped she wouldn’t be there to greet him.
But when he got to the station, she was at the front of the line, such eagerness across her face he thought she might asphyxiate him. “Arlo!”
He hated hearing his name like that, hated being named after Arlo Guthrie. At Barnard, his mother would leave class early to stand in line at the Bitter End. That was why she’d dropped out of college, to follow Arlo Guthrie, the way people were starting to follow the Grateful Dead. She was the original Deadhead, his mother liked to say, though what she really was was an Arlo-Guthrie-head. What a strange, improbable couple his parents had been. He’d once asked his mother how she and his father had ended up together, and she said, “How does anyone end up together? You’re young and you fall in love. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Don’t go marrying your college sweetheart. It’s like driving while impaired.”
One day, when Arlo was 15, his mother said, “We’re leaving the commune. It’s time to move on.”
“Why?” When he’d first gotten to the commune he’d been unhappy, but now that he’d lived there for three years, it was home to him.
A few days later, Arlo heard a rumor that his mother was being kicked out. Something had gone wrong at a commune member’s birth. An umbilical cord noosed around a baby’s throat: oxygen loss, a heart rate plummeting. Brain damage, people were saying: the child would be debilitated for life. “Did something happen to a baby you delivered?”
“Oh, Arlo, that’s just awful. Why in the world would you say that?”
“Do you know how many babies I’ve delivered? I did the best I could with the training I had.”
“So it’s true.” But there were tears in his mother’s eyes, and he knew he had to stop talking.
When he spoke again he said, “I want to go live with my father.” “What makes you think your father wants to live with you?”
“I just do.”
Arlo was right. The timing was good, his father said. It was June, and this way, Arlo could get settled in New York before the school year started.
“Can I give you some advice?” his mother said. “Don’t go burning bridges.”
As he watched his mother put her clothes in a suitcase, Arlo thought he was destined to live out his life this way, standing there once more while his mother packed her bags, poised between comprehension and incomprehension.
The day he moved in, Arlo’s father and stepmother took him straight to Macy’s, where he was allowed to lie down on whatever bed he chose. The beds were covered with quilts, and there was something called a bed skirt and something called a dust ruffle. Should it be this one? Arlo thought, lying down on a bed. Should it be that one? He’d never chosen a bed before, and in moving into his father’s apartment, he was being revealed as a fraud, and this was just the first example of his fraudulence.
“We don’t have all day,” Sarah said.
“We have as long as Arlo needs,” their father said.
Finally, Arlo chose the bed he was lying on. He was just happy the test was over.
“Okay,” Pru told the clerk, “wrap it up,” and for an instant Arlo thought they’d be carrying the bed home, before realizing that, of course, it would be put on a truck.
Arlo’s new bedroom had been his father’s study, but all that remained were the computer and printer. Pru would knock when she needed to print, but Sarah would enter unannounced, until Pru said, “Sarah, honey, you have to knock,” and there emerged from Sarah the faintest of snorts, and Arlo allowed himself to think she was simply breathing heavily. “I don’t care if she knocks. Privacy isn’t important to me.” He’d been living on the commune, where no one knocked, mostly because there was nowhere to knock.
Used to sleeping in the gazebo, Arlo slept with his door open, listening for the sounds of his new family and the noises that came through the open window: a taxi honking on 73rd Street, a woman yodeling in Central Park. But as the weeks passed, he started to close his door at night. Maybe he liked privacy, after all.
July 4th came, and he watched the fireworks from the roof of his new building. One afternoon, Pru took him to Coney Island, where he got a Nathan’s hot dog and went on the rides. He tried to convince her to join him on the Cyclone, but she said, “Not on your life, Arlo. You go get nauseated for both of us.” So he rode the roller coaster on his own, and what remained of his hot dog flew off during the ride, and the rest of his hot dog, already in his stomach, nearly catapulted out of him.
The next day, he took the subway to the East Village, and though he was underage, he sneaked into a club. The day after that, he went to the Statue of Liberty, and on the morning of July 14 his father said, “Happy Bastille Day, Arlo,” and Arlo, having no idea what Bastille Day was, said, “Yes, okay, sounds good to me,” before he finally said, “You too.”
One morning, Arlo said, “Do you know what Mom told me when I said I was moving here? She said, ‘What makes you think your father wants to live with you?’ ”
“Oh, Arlo, of course I want you to live with me.” “Then why didn’t you ask me sooner?”
His father hesitated.
“Is it because of Pru?” Arlo’s mother was always saying that Pru had stolen his father from her.
“Actually, it was Pru who suggested it.”
“Then what took you so long?”
Arlo’s father didn’t know what to say. After he and Linda divorced, she would write him with requests for money. Money wasn’t worth fighting over; nothing was less important in the world. But Linda’s requests were for much more than child support, and it was money he didn’t have. “It’s pure spite,” Pru said once. “She just wants to bleed us.” One time, in a fit of pique, Pru said, “Sometimes I wish Arlo hadn’t been born. At least then we wouldn’t have to deal with Linda.”
She immediately apologized, but Spence remembered her words. Not counting those first eight months, he’d spent less than two years total with Arlo. How did you take care of a 15-year-old? Did you take care of a 15-year-old? Less than two years out of 15: he didn’t know his own son.
Arlo called his mother in Chicago, where she was sleeping on a friend’s couch. She’d been having a hankering for a bigger city; she thought the anonymity would do her good. “Oh, Arlo, it’s so wonderful to hear from you. I haven’t been this happy in months.”
“Then why didn’t you call me?” Arlo thought he could hear voices through the phone, the sound of something banging. “How’s Chicago?”
“Not as windy as advertised, but then it’s only July.” “And the anonymity?”
“Too much anonymity and a person gets lost.”
Arlo knew what she meant. He’d never appreciated the phrase packed like sardines, but when he took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, he’d had a boaty, nauseated feeling, as if he were being fished out of New York Harbor. When he got back to the city, he took the subway to Penn Station, where he stood in front of the information booth, then did the same at Grand Central, where, at five o’clock, the terminal was as busy as a wasp hive. He thought if he went to all the busy places at once, New York would come to seem more manageable. But if anything, he felt the opposite, that Grand Central and Penn Station were all New York was and movement was the city’s resting point. Standing in Grand Central, he thought he could park himself there for months at a time and not see anyone he knew. As he took the subway back uptown, he grew convinced that his father and stepmother had disappeared. Even as he stepped into the elevator, he worried that someone had changed the locks and the only people he would know would be the Hansons from across the hall, and the doorman, Maurice, who stood sentinel in front of the building, as immobile as a guard outside an embassy. So when he found Pru in the kitchen, his father in the living room reading a book, he was so relieved he had to stop himself from saying, Thank God you’re still here.
“I went to a Cubs game yesterday,” his mother said.
“I didn’t know you liked baseball.” That morning at the diner, when his mother had asked him about ERAs, her mind had veered off a minute into their lesson.
“Oh, Arlo, I wasn’t going to tell you this.”
“Is something wrong?” Arlo was suddenly convinced his mother was sick—she was dying—and that was why she hadn’t called him.
“Actually, it’s the most wonderful news. I’ve met someone.”
“His name is Oliver and he’s from London. We’ve been spending all our time together.”
“That’s nice,” Arlo said, but he could hear his own insincerity. “I think I’m in love with him.”
What did that mean? Love was something that enveloped you, and if you had to think about it, the feeling was counterfeit.
“And the sad thing is he’s going back to London in a few weeks.” “That’s too bad,” Arlo said, but again he sounded dishonest. The men came and the men went, and as soon as he’d accommodated to one, it was time to accommodate to the next one.
“And do you want to know the happy thing? Oliver asked me to come with him.” Oliver was an attorney, his mother said, and he had a son, Victor, who was Arlo’s age, and a daughter, Penelope, who was two years younger.
“You’ve just met him,” Arlo said, “and you’re already moving to London with him? You’re moving all the way across the world with someone I don’t know?”
“You’ll get to know him,” his mother said. “And London isn’t all the way across the world. I could be in London right now, and you wouldn’t even realize it.”
Maybe his mother was in London right now and this was the next news she would lower on him. “You really work fast.”
“Oh, Arlo, that’s a terrible thing to say. I had a feeling you wouldn’t take this well.”
“How would you like me to take it?”
“You could be happy for me. I always try to be happy for you.” She was quiet for a moment. “You set things in motion, Arlo. You couldn’t have expected me to wait around.”
So his mother was moving to London because he’d chosen his father.
Those first few weeks, Arlo’s father would come into Arlo’s bedroom at night and watch him sleep. One night Arlo said, “Why do you sit there in the dark?”
“Because I’m amazed you’re here. I used to watch you sleep when you were a baby.”
The next day his father said, “It’s so bare in your room. Why don’t you decorate the walls?”
Maybe it was because he believed he was a squatter, and so it was best not to leave a mark.
His father took him to a print shop, and a week later the prints arrived, one of Ernie Banks—Arlo thought of his mother watching the Cubs—the other of the Sex Pistols.
“Ernie Banks I know, but who are the Sex Pistols?”
Arlo was surprised his father even knew Ernie Banks; no one knew less about popular culture than his father. “The Sex Pistols are a punk rock band.”
“I see,” his father said, though he didn’t seem to.
The next night, Sarah heard a commotion in Arlo’s room. Their father was by the dresser, lining up bowls of ice cream. “We’re having a party,” he said. “Arlo and I are making up for lost time.”
The night after that, Sarah heard noises: the percussing of objects, the pounding of walls. “What’s going on in there?”
“Dad and I are having a pillow fight.” “Oh, I bet.”
But the next day, when she asked him about this, her father said, “Of course we were having a pillow fight. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”
One morning, Arlo’s father produced a pair of handball gloves and set them down on Arlo’s plate. “I used to play handball when I was a kid. I could probably still teach you a thing or two.”
They walked up to Columbia, where Arlo’s father did an hour’s work, then changed into a T-shirt and medical scrubs.
“You look like you’re ready to do surgery.”
“Surgery on you,” his father said, and he rapped the handball against Arlo’s chin.
They went down to the Interchurch Center, with its wide exterior flat as sheet metal. Staring at the traffic on Riverside Drive, Arlo said, “If I miss the ball, it’ll go into the street.”
“Incentive, in that case, not to miss the ball.”
The learning curve for handball wasn’t steep: when the ball came at you, you just whacked it. One time, when Arlo lost the point and it was his turn to give chase, a bus knocked the ball toward Grant’s Tomb, and when he returned, his father was out of breath, bent over his sneakers. “I’m just lulling you into complacency,” his father said.
His father must have been right, because he was up 8–3, then 10–4, and then the game was over.
But in the second game, Arlo was the one making his father run back and forth, sending him into the park to retrieve his winners.
“Rubber game?” his father said, but he was spent, and Arlo won the third game easily.
When they got home, Sarah said, “Why don’t you ever play handball with me?”
“I’d be happy to,” her father said. “Then why don’t you?”
That night Pru said, “I’m glad you have your son back. Just don’t forget about your daughter.”
“Forget about her? She’s the apple of my eye.” But now that Arlo had moved in, he was all Spence could think about.
Arlo was enrolled at his sister’s progressive private school, but everyone agreed he would need time to adjust, so on the first day Pru said, “Go easy on yourself, Arlo. You should cut yourself some slack.”
But Arlo would need a lot more than slack. He would need reading skills, the rudiments of world and American history, the basics of biology and geography, the fundamentals of writing. The rest of the students were studying a second language and he was still stuck on his first. Even math was proving difficult because the math he’d excelled at was arithmetic, and his classmates were studying trigonometry; some had already moved on to precalculus.
When his father was a child, he’d been skipped two grades ahead. Now, as if in payback, Arlo started the day in tenth grade and by lunchtime he’d been demoted to ninth. By the end of the day, he was in a classroom a floor below, seated among the eighth graders.
“Where will they send him next?” Sarah asked her mother. “Preschool?”
Arlo knew where they would send him next: to seventh grade, his sister’s class.
One day Sarah’s friend said, “How did he even get into this school?” “Because I go here,” Sarah said ruefully.
“Sibling’s prerogative,” someone else said. “Once the first sibling gets in, the rest of the octuplets get to go, too. It’s good for fundraising.”
“His problem is reading,” Sarah said.
“You should buy him Reading for Dummies.” “The problem is, he’d have to read it.”
Three weeks after he started at his sister’s school, Arlo’s father and stepmother removed him from it. They took him to a private reading specialist in a room covered with posters of books, and the results were abundantly clear. “He’s dyslexic,” the specialist said. “I’m surprised no one discovered it sooner.”
Arlo was sent to a new school, for students with learning disabilities, and sometimes he would see Sarah on the bus ride home, and they would nod at each other like vague familiars. “Go talk to your brother,” her friend said.
“I have the rest of the night to talk to him. I have the rest of my life, unfortunately.”
“So you flunked out of school,” she said to him that night.
“I didn’t flunk out.” But that was only technically true. He’d been told he would do better somewhere else, so his father and stepmother removed him from school. It was like a politician offering to resign: once you excavated a little deeper, not many resignations were voluntary.
Every day, Arlo’s father would come home with vocabulary words, and Arlo was forced to look them up. “It’s different for you,” he said. “You don’t have dyslexia.”
“That shouldn’t stop you from looking things up.” It was 1992, and Columbia had an Office of Disability Services, which everyone called ODS, but Arlo’s father liked to blend the letters into a single word: odious. In another decade, Arlo’s father would see a true mushrooming of students with learning disabilities, kids who arrived at college with a diagnosis and a doctor’s note, who required extra time to take their tests and a quiet room of their own in which to be examined. Arlo’s father wasn’t a particularly good roller skater, but he wasn’t allowed to skate on a special rink. Yet all his students felt entitled to their own rink. Now some hapless teaching assistant was always coming to him with a student who couldn’t hand in his paper. My medicine ate my homework, Arlo’s father called these excuses.
With Arlo’s diagnosis of dyslexia, his father might have become more sympathetic to learning disabilities, and in certain respects he did. But another part of him remained dubious. What if Arlo simply wasn’t smart? How was that possible? He was Spence Robin, number one in his class at Stuyvesant High School and then again at Cornell, on to Princeton for graduate school, where he finished his doctorate in four years. The youngest English professor ever to receive tenure at Columbia. Intelligence was the answer, and when intelligence left you short, you relied on pluck. With the right teacher anything could be taught and with the right student anything could be learned, and he was the right teacher and his children were the right students. All Arlo had to do was ask Sarah, who would have told him that when she’d gone to the pediatrician for her six-month checkup, her father had asked the doctor if he, Sarah’s father, could teach her to sit up. “I’d like to speed up the process,” he’d said.
To speed up the process. That had been Arlo’s father’s attitude toward Sarah, and it would be his attitude toward Arlo too. The difference was, Sarah had an aptitude for school and she’d lived her whole life under her father’s roof. With Arlo, there were years of bad influence to overcome.
So Arlo’s father set to making repairs. Arlo, at his new school, was back in tenth grade; in a year and a half, his father said, he would be taking the SAT. If his father had mentioned this to Arlo’s teachers, they would have said, Well, hold your horses there, Professor Robin. We’ll have to see what comes to pass. But Arlo’s father didn’t like to hold his horses, and he didn’t believe in waiting for what came to pass. He would make things come to pass. So he returned from work with vocabulary words for Arlo. Some were long and hard to pronounce and others were short and easy to pronounce, but Arlo believed they had one thing in common: they had never appeared on the SAT and they would never appear on the SAT, and what in the world kind of books was his father reading that he came across these words? Quondam, for instance, which meant erstwhile, which meant former, and which Arlo would never encounter, on the SAT or off it.
In his father’s dining room, so many books lined the shelves it could have been mistaken for a library with some food in the middle. Many of his father’s words Sarah didn’t know either. She didn’t know recondite or hortatory or perspicacious or louche. But when their father picked up a flashcard and said “Adhere,” she said, “Adhere is easy.”
Arlo tried to define adhere, but all he could say was, “You know, adhere.”
His father said, “You don’t know a word if you can’t define it.” In the bathroom, he removed a package of Band-Aids; the word adhesive was printed across the front. “They’re bandages,” he said. “They stick to you.”
And the meaning of adhere stuck to Arlo. It stuck to him the next day when he went to school, and in the cafeteria at lunch.
But that night, when Sarah found him alone, she said, “You didn’t know adhere, you moron.”
“It means stick to, you little cunt!”
“You’ve been tough on Arlo,” Pru said one night. “How about going easier on the vocabulary lessons?”
Spence wanted to go easier; he just didn’t know how. All his life, he’d made a virtue of self-reliance. When he was a boy, his father worked long hours at the shoe factory, his mother at the grocery checkout; the rest of the time they were leafleting for the Party, going to meetings, helping the workers rise up. “You take care of yourself,” his mother told him one day. She was going out for just an hour, but those might as well have been the last words she ever said to him, the proclamation she left him with for the rest of his life.
He woke up one day with a subnormal temperature, and he put the thermometer on the radiator so his temperature would rise. It did rise: the thermometer exploded. His parents were furious, but he would have done anything not to miss school. After Enid’s accident it was even worse, and the dark halls of Stuyvesant were his only refuge. Now, when he looked at Arlo, he was reminded of Enid: the same bullheadedness, the same impetuousness, the same waywardness, the same rage. Arlo sneaked out one night and slept in Central Park.
“Do you know how dangerous that was?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
But this only made Spence more afraid, just as he was afraid when Arlo struggled at school, the very thing he’d been good at.
There were advantages, Arlo thought, to being at his new school. He was back in tenth grade, back among 15-year-olds. And he was at the top of his class. But there were disadvantages too. He’d been diagnosed—branded was how he thought of it—and when he saw “The Quincy School for the Special Child” above the entrance, he knew special was a euphemism, just as jolly meant fat and sweet meant unattractive and articulate meant surprisingly so.
In class, he read sounds in isolation, then combined sounds into syllables and syllables into words. The lessons were as organized as meals at a mess hall. Vowels and consonants, diphthongs and digraphs: only once he’d learned those did he advance to roots, prefixes, and suffixes. His teacher would show him the letter A, and he would name the letter, say its sound, and write it in the air. She would write handkerchief, then pass him a handkerchief, and he would say handkerchief and spell it and hold it and even smell it, and the word would get lodged in him. He had an excellent memory, and when he set his mind to something, no one worked harder than he did.
He thought of his mother’s words, You have a native intelligence. In the nethermost regions of his mind, he allowed himself to believe he was smart.
But when his father came home with his vocabulary words, Arlo thought he was just fooling himself. Even now, as an adult, Arlo dreamed about his father quizzing him on vocabulary, would wake up in his townhouse in Georgetown to his father saying, “Contentious, dilate, phrenology, concupiscent, peremptory, scintillate, temerity, wherewithal,” the sound of these words, whose meanings he now knew—he’d made sure of it—scrolling across his mind, the sound of them and the sight of them following one after the other like sheep jumping over a fence while he tried to count them.
Sometimes after school, Arlo would stop by his father’s office. Those were the happiest times, when he had his father to himself. “Butchy!” his father said, and Arlo would sit there, doing his homework.
“I have an idea,” his father said one day. He was teaching an evening class that semester; Arlo could do his homework in the back of the auditorium while his father lectured up front.
One night his father said, “Hold on, class. I have an announcement to make. Arlo, would you please stand up?”
Arlo was so startled he dropped his homework on the floor. “Everybody, this is my son, Arlo Zackheim. He’ll be sitting in on class this term.”
One of the students started to clap, and another student followed. Soon the applause spread across the room.
“Oh, God,” Arlo said as they left the auditorium. “That was so embarrassing.” But he wasn’t embarrassed, not really, and when his father said, “I wanted my students to know who you are,” he swelled.
But on the subway home, he felt as if the air had been squeezed out of him.
That night he said, “Why do you call me Butchy?”
“It’s what my father called me when I was growing up.” “Why?”
“I have no idea. I lived with him for years, but I never got to know him.”
“What was his name?”
“In Yiddish it was Shmulik, but people called him Sam. I wanted to name you after him, but your mother insisted on Arlo.”
The next day, Arlo called his mother in London and told her he was changing his name to Sam. He expected her to be hurt, but she said, “That’s fine with me, darling. A person gets to choose how he wants to be called.”
“I want to change my name legally.” “Then have Dad take you to City Hall.”
He felt defeated by her willingness. Changing his name wouldn’t change anything, just as living with his father wouldn’t change anything. His father had said they were making up for lost time, but that wasn’t possible.
One night, when Pru asked him to clear the table, Arlo said, “Well, that’s a pain in the ass.”
“Neck would be fine,” his father said.
Ass, neck: what difference did it make? He would speak the way he wanted to. At sixteen, he would fart in front of his father, which his father didn’t call farting but passing gas, and he would walk around the apartment naked, as if he were still on the commune. He liked to curse, and to use words that, while not technically curses, were, in his father’s parlance, off-color. Words like jizm, blunt, spliff, spunk, leak, dump, and hurl. Épater le bourgeois, Arlo might have said, but he didn’t know French; he was having enough trouble with English. As an adult, he still didn’t know French, but his knowledge ranged wide and deep—he’d spent his whole life compensating—and he certainly knew bourgeois, which, like it or not, his father was. You could call yourself a Communist, but you weren’t a Communist when you had tenure at Columbia and you owned an apartment on the Upper West Side.
Jizm, blunt, spliff, spunk, leak, dump, and hurl. To Arlo’s surprise, his father didn’t make rules about language, didn’t say, Arlo, please stop farting, didn’t say, You can’t walk around naked in the house. His father was made so uncomfortable by his language and his nakedness that he was rendered mute. The most he could say was Neck would be fine, forced to turn away in embarrassment.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Arlo had soccer after school, so the family went back to how it used to be. Sarah and her parents would go out for dinner; at the end of the meal she would delay, ordering coffee and dessert. Sometimes Camille would come along, too. It didn’t bother Sarah that Camille was there: just as long as Arlo wasn’t with them. But once she got home, he was back, his cleats scattered across the floor, spreading his stench throughout the apartment.
Her parents had inherited a car from her grandmother, and her father moved it every night, in deference to alternate-side-of-the- street parking. Now that Arlo had moved in, it was her time alone with her father. She enjoyed being his copilot, enjoyed seeing who could find the first parking spot. “Down Columbus,” she would say. “Over on 74th.” And there it would be, as if waiting for them to claim it.
One night, the car got sideswiped on Central Park West and ended up accordioned to a park bench; thankfully, no one was hurt. The crash was a blessing in the end: her parents collected the insurance and her father didn’t have to move the car at night. But she missed their trips together. Her father must have missed them, too, because a few weeks later, with the car decaying in some heap, he said, “How about we take the car for a stroll,” and they went out, taking the route they’d always taken, only on foot this time, her father asking which way they should turn, Sarah saying, “I’m thinking 74th Street, I have a feeling it’s 74th Street tonight.”
But when they got home Arlo was there, and her mother was helping him with his grammar homework.
“Do you even know I’m alive?” Sarah said. “Sweetie, come on.”
“He’s not even your son, and you act like he’s your child and I’m not. I hate him! I wish he hadn’t been born!”
Secretly, though, Sarah was starting to like Arlo. He was good at math, and when she wasn’t fighting with him, she was asking him for help with her math homework. A friend of hers said, “I think your brother might be a secret genius.”
Their father was good at math, too, but he was contemptuous of money. “You mean you can go to school for that?” he’d once asked the dean of the Business School. Arlo, on the other hand, had saved the commune several thousand dollars by having them buy dairy wholesale, and on football Saturdays he’d rented parking spaces at the local college and leased them out to visiting fans. Now, in New York, he bought boxes of doughnuts and sold them individually to his classmates. He knocked on the doors of the neighbors’ brownstones, offering to shovel their snow. Then he hired his friends to do the job and skimmed a fee off the top. “You could make money, too,” he told Sarah.
“How? By selling lemonade?”
It was winter, he said, so hot chocolate would be better. And cookies. He returned from the store with Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos and laid them out on napkins with the words celebrate the solstice printed across the front. “Tell me something. Where are the good refugees these days?”
“Bosnia,” she said.
He came back downstairs with a piece of cardboard that read “20 percent of proceeds go to bosnian refugees”, and two hours later they’d cleared $150.
One night Arlo said, “I wish this whole family wasn’t dead.” “Who’s dead?” said Sarah.
“My grandparents.” Arlo’s father’s parents had been Communists, which made them seem like exotic figures, as if they hadn’t existed at all. His maternal grandparents were dead, too, and his mother was an only child. He was bereft of cousins, cut off from his past, and how could he get to know his father if he didn’t know where his father came from? Even Enid was shrouded in mystery. Every other Sunday, his father would visit her on the Lower East Side. “Why don’t you go with him?” Arlo asked Sarah.
“I did one time, and I had nightmares for months.” It was the smell of the nursing home, Sarah said—the smell of Enid herself: ammonia and pickles, as if she’d been brined. Now Sarah had a phobia. She was terrified to go to a nursing home.
But Arlo wasn’t terrified. “Why don’t you take me there?” he asked his father.
“Maybe I will sometime.”
If Arlo was a genius, then why was he being sent to a special school? And why was his stepmother reading a book about him? The book was about gifted children, and Pru covered the book up whenever Arlo walked in, like a teenager covering up pornography.
Sarah said, “You’re the only person in the world who gets called gifted and thinks it’s an insult.”
So that was another problem of his: he was too sensitive.
When he and Sarah played Mastermind, he didn’t need the little clue pegs. Sarah would give him the clues orally, and he would remember them from turn to turn.
“You play Mastermind in your head?” Sarah said. “You’re not just a genius, you’re a savant.”
“Would you stop it with the genius already?” What difference did it make if he was good at Mastermind? If you couldn’t make money at what you did, it wasn’t worth anything. He might as well have been swallowing swords.
This was why Arlo cared about money: he had so little of it. Back on the commune, he would go into town to play his ukulele, but whatever money he earned his mother took away. Every month, his father sent his mother a check. Arlo would rifle through her drawers and find those checks, determined to pay his father back.
Now, when school let out, he installed himself on the subway platform and played his mother’s music from around the campfire: “Hey Hey, My My” and “Out on the Weekend” by Neil Young; “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; “Broken Arrow” by Buffalo Springfield; “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell; and “It’s Too Late” by Carole King. He played “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Tangled Up in Blue” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Lay, Lady, Lay,” which was his favorite, because when his father heard him play that song he said, “It should be lie, lady, lie, Arlo—you don’t lay on a bed, you lie on it.”
Now, as the subway came into the station and the crowds swelled around him, Arlo belted out the words lay, lady, lay with particular enthusiasm, giving the big fuck-you to his father.
Sometimes a dollar bill would get dropped into his ukulele case, occasionally a little more. Mostly, though, it was just quarters, good for pinball. But the quarters added up, and in his first week of busking Arlo made $91.67. His second week he made $57.50, and his third week, thanks to two people who tossed in twenty-dollar bills, he crossed the three-figure threshold: $112 even.
But when his father got word that he was busking, he said, “You need to be doing your homework, Arlo.”
“I’m already doing my homework.”
“Then do it some more. I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll find you a real job. Something you can do on weekends.”
But nothing came of his father’s offer. So Arlo went back to busking—he did it secretly now—selling doughnuts at school, sweeping the snow off people’s stoops, and gathering his money at the end of the week and hiding it under his mattress.
From MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS: A Novel by Joshua Henkin. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Joshua Henkin.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, Matrimony, and The World Without You. He lives in Brooklyn.