Family Business

by: Alan Swyer1

A short story where the light at the end of the tunnel is the eventual fraying of the ties that bind…


“If I ask you a question,” Ben Robbins’ father inquired one Monday during his son’s daily on-the-way-to-work call, “will you level with me?”

“Of course,” Ben responded earnestly.

“Promise?”

“Yes.”

“You won’t pull any punches?”

“Dad, ask already.”

“How bad am I?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“They’ve turned me into a human pin cushion, and now they want more tests.”

“Did you ask why?”

“You haven’t answered my question, Benny.”

“Don’t you discuss stuff like that with the doctors?”

“Discuss? They treat me like a kid.”

“C’mon—”

How are we doing today? What am I, two people? Comfortable? Real comfortable lying in the hospital with tubes jammed into me. Worst yet, Have we gone potty today? Give it to me straight. I know it’s bad, but how bad?”

“Do you really want to know how bad?” Ben asked seriously.

“Benny, why do you think I’m asking?”

“Let me put it this way—”

“Which way?”

“Don’t buy green bananas.”

Arriving at his office, Ben checked his email, returned calls from the day before, then prepped for an 11 AM meeting, all the while waiting for it to be after lunch in Florida.

“This is Ben Robbins calling from Los Angeles for Doctor Einhorn,” he said when it was finally 1:00 PM in Delray Beach. Informed that the doctor was on another line, Ben ducked a request for his number. “I’d rather hold,” he stated firmly.

Almost ten minutes went by before a man’s voice announced, “This is Doctor Einhorn.

“My father, Al Robbins, told me more tests were being scheduled.”

“And?”

“I’d like to know the purpose.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’d like to know what function they might serve.”

“Who exactly is in charge here?”

“When it comes to my father? I am.”

“Then what purpose do you think the tests might serve?”

“You want an answer?”

“Absolutely.”

“To generate unnecessary data and run up more charges.”

“I resent that,” Doctor Einhorn said haughtily.

“But you didn’t say it’s wrong.”

A moment of silence ensued before Doctor Einhorn spoke again. “So where does this leave us?”

“Unless you can explain to me how they can help my father, there will be no more tests without checking in with me.”

Two mornings later, concerned that his father sounded significantly weaker, Ben again phoned Doctor Einhorn. As 5 PM approached in Florida, with his call still not returned, Ben tried again. No dice. The following morning brought another attempt to speak with his father’s doctor, followed by two more tries later that day.

On Friday morning, when Ben placed yet another call, instead of a message being taken, an officious woman came on the line. “This is Pam, the office manager,” she announced. “It’s my understanding you’ve been calling non-stop.”

“Without ever getting a call back.”

“Doctor Einhorn is a busy man.”

“And I’m an unhappy man.”

“Well, perhaps it’s time you learn some patience.”

“Okay, I won’t call again.”

“Good.”

“My lawyer will.”

“Is that a threat?”

“A promise. If you Google me, you’ll see that I make documentaries.”

“Which means?”

“I’m always looking for subject matter. Plus, I happen to have a tough, smart lawyer on retainer.”

Three hours later, a Florida number came up on Ben’s caller ID as his wife was driving him to the airport. “This is Doctor Einhorn, and I’ve got good news. Your father is doing quite well.”

“You seated, buster?” Ben demanded.

“What? How dare you!”

“Are you or are you not seated?”

“What are you telling me?”

“My father died an hour ago.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Think I’m cracking jokes?”

“I-I don’t know what to say.”

“I suggest you start with ‘I’m very, very sorry.’”

“My condolences,” Doctor Einhorn said ever so faintly.

“Not good enough.”

Ben heard the doctor sigh, followed by a slightly louder “I’m sorry.”

“I still can’t hear you.”

“I’m sorry,” hissed his father’s doctor through gritted teeth.

On his Miami-bound flight, Ben considered the ups and downs of his relationship with his father. Their biggest problem was the sizable impediment between them: Ben’s mother. Always demanding of her way, Bernice Robbins found herself challenged only after the birth of her first born, who unlike her husband stood up to her almost from day one. That led to Bernice labeling the ob/gyn who delivered Ben as “The sadist who ruined my life.”

Tensions arose between father and son when Al Robbins invariably sided with his wife, even when she was irrational, or downright wrong. That led to punishments, first with a bare hand, then in later years, with a belt.  

A confrontation between Ben and his father began to seem inevitable when Ben, at age thirteen, took up boxing at the local Police Athletic League. A couple of months later, when Al once again began removing his belt, Ben immediately took a fighting stance.

Al Robbins froze. Silently, he turned and left the den.

As a daughter named Bonnie joined the family two years and nine months after Ben’s birth, then a son, Gary, followed three years later, the Robbins’s finances rose from questionable to somewhat comfortable, then further toward affluence. That allowed for a series of moves. First, from their tiny apartment in Newark, New Jersey to a small house in Elizabeth. Next, after Ben had gone off to college, another move to suburban Millburn. Then to the more upscale Shorts Hills.  

Not surprisingly, it was Bernice who propelled each and every relocation, all the while masterminding the acquisition of paintings, a cottage at the shore, and other symbols of New Jersey status. Despite her many victories, however, she was haunted by two significant failures. Since her fair-skinned husband viewed the sun as a mortal enemy, he steadfastly refused a trip to Hawaii. Worse in Bernice’s estimation was Al’s refusal to buy a German car, which meant no longed-for Mercedes for Bernice.

Given her husband’s aversion to the sun, one of Bernice’s great victories, once she and her husband became empty-nesters, was engineering a full-time relocation to Florida, where she could be near the only people she trusted: cousins and childhood friends who had fled the Northeast’s winters. But despite claims of never having smoked (while consuming two packs of Virginia Slims a day for far too many years), instead of flourishing in the Sunshine State, Bernice was soon diagnosed with emphysema, which was then compounded by a violent reaction to her various medications to treat the disease.

Only when he dutifully flew into Miami International Airport to begin making arrangements for his mother’s burial did Ben and his dad take the first steps toward a reconciliation. With Bonnie and Gary not scheduled to arrive until the morning of the funeral, father and son chatted without their historically-raised voices. Fitfully, but with an ever-growing degree of openness, missed opportunities were discussed, along with regrets plus the phenomenon known as Bernice Abrams Robbins.

“Sorry she made things so tough for you,” Al confessed over a dinner of Chinese take-out.

“At least there was an upside,” Robbins replied.

“Namely?”

“I learned to question authority. Plus—”

“Yeah?”

“To fight for what I wanted.”

“Which you sure as hell did.”

“And still do.”

The night before Bernice’s funeral, while the two men nibbled on pastrami sandwiches, Ben was surprised to see his father suddenly start to weep. “Missing Mom?” he asked.

“I’m thinking you’ll probably be leaving.”

“With a wife and two young kids in L.A., not just probably.”

“Then I’ll never have dinner with anyone again.”

“What’re you talking about? Your friends will invite you.”

“I can’t go.”

“Why in the world not?”

“They invite you, you have to invite them.”

“So you’ll take ’em out for deli.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“What’s that mean?”

“They invite you to their home, you must invite ’em to yours.”

Ben shook his head. “When did you become Emily fucking Post? Besides, you won’t be alone long.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Florida’s filled with widows.”

“What would they see in me?”

“You’re great company,” Ben exaggerated. “Plus you’re good looking, you’re fun to be with—”

“That’s not enough.”

“In a state where women outnumber men three to one? A guy who doesn’t drool, has his own teeth, and drives at night is a catch!”

Ben’s prophecy was proven true at the funeral, where women, many of whom his father had never set eyes on before, arrived with cakes, casseroles, and kugel, all the while slipping phone numbers into the new widower’s pockets.

As days turned to weeks, then weeks to months, Al Robbins started dropping hints in phone conversations that loneliness was no longer an issue for him. Then came a late night phone call from his sister Bonnie. “In case you didn’t know,” she began unhappily, “Dad’s seeing someone.”

“And?”

“How do you think Mom would feel?”

“I’d say it doesn’t much matter.”

“But—”

“Forget but.  Would you rather see him wither away from loneliness?”

A few days later, during their morning phone conversation, Al Robbins grew sheepish.  

“Ask you a question?” he whispered.

“Of course.”

“What if Myrna and I come visit?” he asked with no explanation as to who Myrna was.

“That’ll be great,” Ben replied, not mentioning his recent conversation with Bonnie.

On a balmy Sunday a few weeks later, two aging lovebirds from Florida arrived in Santa Monica. All went well until the second afternoon, when Myrna sweetly turned to her paramour. “Al,” she cooed, “would you like a cup of tea?”

“No!” he screamed, shocking Ben’s wife, kids, and even their golden retriever.

Ben bit his tongue for several minutes, then turned to his father.  “Let’s go for a walk.”

“What for?”

“The dog needs to pee.”

Once outside, Al Robbins grew confrontational. “So what’re you trying to tell me?”

“There’s something you’ve got to understand.”

“Okay.”

“Not only do we really like Myrna –”

“But?”

“When she asks, ‘Al, would you like a cup of tea?’”

“Yeah?”

“There’s no catch.”

Al Robbins let that sink in, then nodded.

Less than three months later, Ben, who had spent significant periods of time estranged from his parents, served as best man at his father’s second wedding.

Proof of the difference in Al’s life came from his wedding present to Myrna: a new Mercedes. Plus the destination he chose for their honeymoon: Hawaii.

Only when Ben stepped off the plane in Miami in the aftermath of his father’s death did his memories give way to the reality that an extended chapter in his life was definitely over.

Acting the dutiful son, Ben picked up a rental car, then headed toward Delray Beach. There, he tried his best to console Myrna, who seemed to be moving from grief into dementia. Then, as he did after his mother’s death, he started making arrangements for the funeral and burial, all the while bracing himself for the arrival of his siblings.

Bonnie arrived with her husband the next morning, then immediately started scheduling spa treatments, plus appointments for her hair and nails.

Gary, too, left all responsibilities to his older brother, busying himself with tennis dates, plus get-togethers with friends.

Though that put the burden entirely on Ben’s shoulders, it also minimized potential friction amongst his siblings before the memorial service. When the funeral was finally underway, Bonnie’s melodramatics, designed to convey to one and all that she had spent her time in Florida crying and pining, made Ben nauseous. So did the display of self-pity from Gary, who acted as though he was the first one on the planet to lose a parent.

Discarding his prepared notes, Ben addressed the gathering of friends, relatives, and neighbors in an unexpected way. “Ready for a family secret?” he asked. “Years ago, long before the wondrous four-and-a-half years my Dad shared with Myrna, I was asked to be part of a family trip to Canada. Off we drove from New Jersey to Montreal, my mother, my father, Bonnie, and Gary, with me at the wheel, and — since I speak French — translating as we explored Montreal, then Quebec City. But as we started the return trip, I was suddenly informed that we needed to make a quick stop in Montreal.

“Remember, Bonnie and Gary?”

Gary nodded, while Bonnie cringed.

“There I learned the true purpose of the expedition. My mother had heard that a mink coat was cheaper in Canada and, if not declared at the border, blissfully free of taxes. Wanting no part of that, I chose to sit in a cafe while the others went to the furrier.”

“And I went with you,” interjected Gary.

“With the newly acquired garment stashed in the trunk of our Pontiac under suitcases, duffel bags, and who knows what, off we went. But as we neared the border, my father insisted I pull over so he could take the wheel. Remember, Gary?”

“Do I ever!”

“I pleaded with him, but he was determined. As we joined the line of cars headed from one country to the other, my father started sweating. Then turned beet red. ‘Let me drive,’ I implored. But he was going to be the man of the family, even while shaking and quivering. Right, Gary?”

“I thought he was having a heart attack!”

“’Please!’ I begged, but Al Robbins was determined. Slowly we crawled toward the Canadian officers, who promptly waved us through. As we pulled up to the American officials, a guy in uniform approached the driver’s side and asked, ‘Where you from?’  My father gaped for what felt like an eternity, then blurted ‘Russia!’ Suddenly all hell broke loose: gates came down, lights flashed, sirens screeched! My Dad, with a mother from Scotland and a father from the East End of London — and who, for the record, had never in his entire life stepped foot anywhere near Russia — was led off at gunpoint. I never had the heart to ask how much that damn coat wound up costing.”

Everyone howled, with the exception of Myrna, who was oblivious, and Bonnie, who was pissed.

Ben knew that when it came to addressing his father’s will, the amount of aggravation from his siblings would likely be significantly higher. But he took solace in the awareness that, for him at least, family business would soon be over.

 

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

  1. Header art by Coco Fronsac. []

1 Comment

  • Sometimes one has to ask: Is this story worth being told? I ask, but I have no answer. Families are so very similar. There are differences in degrees of dysfunctionality. There are differences of style from one generation to the next. We have become more psychological. That’s what this story feels like: a therapy session. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation. The writing is damn near perfect and very sad. I would like to see Mr. Swyre’s films. And mazeltov to him for standing up to the f’ing doctors.

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