第2章C

外语2020-11-30 11:33:01 29
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Mr. Taylor was waiting outside when we finished our tour. He asked Sandy and me to describe what we'd seen from the windows five hundred feet up and then he guided us on a quick walking tour around the exterior of the monument, recounting the fitful history of its construction. Next he took some pictures of the family with our Brownie box camera; then my father, over Mr. Taylor's objections, insisted on taking a picture of him with my mother, Sandy, and me with the Washington Monument as the background, and finally we got into our car and, with Mr. Taylor again at the wheel, started down the Mall for the Lincoln Memorial.

This time, while he parked, Mr. Taylor warned us that the Lincoln Memorial was like no other edifice anywhere in the world and that we should prepare ourselves to be overwhelmed. Then he accompanied us from the parking area to the great pillared building with the wide marble stairs that led us up past the columns to the hall's interior and the raised statue of Lincoln in his capacious throne of thrones, the sculpted face looking to me like the most hallowed possible amalgamation—the face of God and the face of America all in one.

Gravely my father said, "And they shot him, the dirty dogs."

The four of us stood directly at the base of the statue, which was lit so as to make everything about Abraham Lincoln seem colossally grand. What ordinarily passed for great just paled away, and there was no defense, for either an adult or a child, against the solemn atmosphere of hyperbole.

"When you think of what this country does to its greatest presidents. . ."

"Herman," my mother pleaded, "don't start."

"I'm not starting anything. This was a great tragedy. Isn't that right, boys? The assassination of Lincoln?"

Mr. Taylor came over and quietly told us, "Tomorrow we'll go to Ford's Theatre, where he was shot, and across the street to the Petersen House, to see where he died."

"I was saying, Mr. Taylor, it is the damnedest thing what this country does to its great men."

"Thank goodness we have President Lindbergh," said the voice of a woman just a few feet away. She was elderly and she was standing apart, by herself, consulting a guidebook, and her remark seemed spoken to no one and yet prompted somehow by her overhearing my father.

"Compare Lincoln to Lindbergh? Boy oh boy," my father moaned.

In fact the elderly lady was not alone but with a group of tourists, among whom was a man of about my father's age who might have been her son.

"Something bothering you?" he asked my father, assertively stepping in our direction.

"Not me," my father told him.

"Something bothering you about what the lady just said?"

"No, sir. Free country."

The stranger took a long, gaping look at my father, then my mother, then Sandy, then me. And what did he see? A trim, neatly muscled, broad-chested man five feet nine inches tall, handsome in a minor key, with soft grayish-green eyes and thinning brown hair clipped close at the temples and presenting his two ears to the world a little more comically than was necessary. The woman was slender but strong and she was tidily dressed, with a lock of her wavy dark hair over one eyebrow and roundish cheeks a little rouged and a prominent nose and chunky arms and shapely legs and slim hips and the lively eyes of a girl half her age. In both adults a surfeit of prudence and a surfeit of energy, and with the couple two boys still pretty much all soft surfaces, young children of youthful parents, keenly attentive and in good health and incorrigible only in their optimism.

And the conclusion the stranger drew from his observations he demonstrated with a mocking movement of the head. Then, hissing noisily so as to mislead no one about his assessment of us, he returned to the elderly lady and their sightseeing party, walking slowly off with a rolling gait that seemed, along with the silhouette of his broad back, intended to register a warning. It was from there that we heard him refer to my father as "a loudmouth Jew," followed a moment later by the elderly lady declaring, "I'd give anything to slap his face."

Mr. Taylor led us quickly away to a smaller hall just off the main chamber where there was a tablet inscribed with the Gettysburg Address and a mural whose theme was the Emancipation.

"To hear words like that in a place like this," said my father, his choked voice quivering with indignation. "In a shrine to a man like this!"

Meanwhile Mr. Taylor, pointing to the painting, said, "See there? An angel of truth is freeing a slave."

But my father could see nothing. "You think you'd hear that here if Roosevelt was president? People wouldn't dare, they wouldn't dream, in Roosevelt's day. . .," my father said. "But now that our great ally is Adolf Hitler, now that the best friend of the president of the United States is Adolf Hitler—why, now they think they can get away with anything. It's disgraceful. It starts with the White House. . ."

Whom was he talking to other than me? My brother was trailing after Mr. Taylor, asking about the mural, and my mother was trying to prevent herself from saying or doing anything, struggling against the very emotions that had overpowered her earlier in the car—and back then without anything like this much justification.

"Read that," my father said, alluding to the tablet bearing the Gettysburg Address. "Just read it. 'All men are created equal.'"

"Herman," gasped my mother, "I can't go on with this."

We came back out into the daylight and gathered together on the top step. The tall shaft of the Washington Monument was a half mile away, at the other end of the reflecting pool that lay at the base of the terraced approach to the Lincoln Memorial. There were elm trees planted all around. It was the most beautiful panorama I'd ever seen, a patriotic paradise, the American Garden of Eden spread before us, and we stood huddled together there, the family expelled.

"Listen," my father said, pulling my brother and me close to him, "I think it's time we all had a nap. It's been a long day for everybody. I say we go back to the hotel and get some rest for an hour or two. What do you say, Mr. Taylor?"

"Up to you, Mr. Roth. After supper I thought the family might enjoy a tour in the car of Washington by night, with the famous monuments all lit up."

"Now you're talkin'," my father told him. "Sound good, Bess?" But my mother wasn't so easy to cheer up as Sandy and I. "Honey," my father told her, "we ran into a screwball. Two screwballs. We might have gone up to Canada and run into somebody just as bad. We're not going to let that ruin our trip. Let's have a nice rest, all of us, and Mr. Taylor will wait for us, and we'll go on from there. Look," he then said, with a sweep of his outstretched arm. "This is something every American should see. Turn around, boys. Take one last look at Abraham Lincoln."

We did as he instructed but it was impossible any longer to feel the raptures of patriotism turning me inside out. As we began the long descent down the marble staircase, I heard some kids behind us asking their parents, "Is that really him? Is he buried there under all that stuff?" My mother was directly beside me on the stairs, trying to act like someone whose panic wasn't running wild within her, and suddenly I felt that it had fallen to me to hold her together, to become all at once a courageous new creature with something of Lincoln himself clinging to him. But all I could do when she offered me a hand was to take it and clutch it like the unripened being I was, a boy whose stamp collection still represented nine-tenths of his knowledge of the world.

In the car, Mr. Taylor plotted the rest of our day. We'd go back to the hotel, nap, and at quarter to six he'd come to pick us up and drive us to dinner. We could return to the cafeteria near Union Station where we'd had our lunch, or he could recommend a couple of other popular-priced restaurants whose quality he could vouch for. And after dinner, he'd take us on the tour of Washington by night.

"Nothing fazes you, does it, Mr. Taylor?" my father said.

He replied only with a noncommittal nod.

"Where you from?" my father asked him.

"Indiana, Mr. Roth."

"Indiana. Imagine that, boys. And what's your hometown out there?" my father asked him.

"Didn't have one. My father's a mechanic. Fixed farm machinery. Moved all the time."

"Well," said my father, for reasons that can't have been clear to Mr. Taylor, "I take my hat off to you, sir. You should be proud of yourself."

Again, Mr. Taylor gave only a nod: he was a no-nonsense man in a tight suit and with something decidedly military about his efficiency and his bearing—like a hidden person, except there was nothing to hide, everything impersonal about him being plainly visible. Voluble talking about Washington, D.C., close-mouthed about everything else.

When we got back to the hotel, Mr. Taylor parked the car and accompanied us in as though he were not just our guide but our chaperone, and a good thing it was, because inside the lobby of the small hotel we discovered our four suitcases standing beside the front desk.

The new man at the desk introduced himself as the manager.

When my father asked what our bags were doing downstairs, the manager said, "Folks, I have to apologize. Had to pack these up for you. Our afternoon clerk made a mistake. The room he gave you was being held for another family. Here's your deposit." And he handed my father an envelope containing a ten-dollar bill.

"But my wife wrote you people. You wrote us back. We had a reservation months ago. That's why we sent the deposit. Bess, where's the copies of the letters?"

She pointed to the bags.

"Sir," said the manager, "the room is occupied and there are no vacancies. We will not charge you for what use you all made of the room today or for the bar of soap that is missing."

"Missing?" Just the word to send him right off the rails. "Are you saying we stole it?"

"No, sir, I am not. Perhaps one of the children took the soap as a souvenir. No harm done. We're not going to haggle about something so small or start looking through their pockets for the soap."

"What is the meaning of this!" my father demanded to know, and under the manager's nose pounded his fist on the front desk.

"Mr. Roth, if you're going to make a scene here. . ."

"Yes," my father said, "I am going to make a scene till I find out what's up with that room!"

"Well, then," replied the manager, "I have no choice but to phone the police."

Here my mother—who was holding my brother and me around the shoulders, shielding us alongside her and at a safe distance from the desk—called my father's name, trying to prevent him from going further. But it was too late for that. It always had been. Never could he have consented to quietly occupying the place that the manager wished to assign him.

"This is that goddamn Lindbergh!" my father said. "All you little fascists are in the saddle now!"

"Shall I call the District police, sir, or will you take your bags and your family and leave immediately?"

"Call the police," my father replied. "You do that."

There were now five or six guests aside from us in the lobby. They'd entered while the argument was under way and they were lingering to find out what was going to come of it.

It was then that Mr. Taylor stepped up to my father's side and said, "Mr. Roth, you are perfectly in the right, but the police are the wrong solution."

"No, that is the right solution. Call the police," my father repeated to the manager. "There are laws in this country against people like you."

The manager reached for the phone, and while he dialed, Mr. Taylor went over to our bags, swept up two in either hand, and carried them out of the hotel.

My mother said, "Herman, it's over. Mr. Taylor took the bags."

"No, Bess," he said bitterly. "I've had enough of their guff. I want to talk to the police."

Mr. Taylor reentered the lobby on the run and without stopping bore down on the desk, where the manager was completing his call. In a lowered voice, he spoke only to my father. "There is a nice hotel not very far away. I telephoned them from the booth outside. They have a room for you. It's a nice hotel on a nice street. Let's drive over there and get the family registered."

"Thank you, Mr. Taylor. But right now we are waiting for the police. I want them to remind this man of the words in the Gettysburg Address that I read carved up there just today."

The people watching all smiled at one another when my father mentioned the Gettysburg Address.

I whispered to my brother, "What happened?"

"Anti-Semitism," he whispered back.

From where we were standing we saw the two policemen when they arrived on their motorcycles. We watched them cut their engines and come into the hotel. One of them stationed himself just inside the door, where he could keep an eye on everybody while the other approached the front desk and beckoned the manager over to where the two of them could speak confidentially.

"Officer—" my father said.

The policeman spun around and said, "I can attend to only one party to a dispute at a time, sir," and resumed talking with the manager, his chin cupped thoughtfully in one hand.

My father turned to us. "Got to be done, boys." To my mother he said, "There's nothing to worry about."

Having finished his discussion with the manager, the policeman now came around to talk to my father. He didn't smile as he had intermittently while standing and listening to the manager, but he spoke nonetheless without a trace of anger and in a tone that seemed friendly at first. "What's the problem, Roth?"

"We sent a deposit for a room at this hotel for three nights. We received a letter confirming everything. My wife has the paperwork in our bags. We get here today, we register, we occupy the room and unpack, we go out to sightsee, and when we come back we're evicted because the room was reserved for somebody else."

"And the problem?" the cop asked.

"We're a family of four, Officer. We drove all the way from New Jersey. You can't just throw us into the street."

"But," said the cop, "if somebody else reserves a room—"

"But there is nobody else! And if there was, why should we take a back seat to them?"

"But the manager returned your deposit. He even packed up your belongings for you."

"Officer, you're not understanding me. Why should our reservation take a back seat to theirs? I was with my family at the Lincoln Memorial. They have the Gettysburg Address up on the wall. You know what the words are that are written there? 'All men are created equal.'"

"But that doesn't mean all hotel reservations are created equal."

The policeman's voice carried to the bystanders at the edge of the lobby; unable any longer to control themselves, some of them laughed aloud.

My mother left Sandy and me standing alone in order to step forward now and intervene. She had been waiting for a moment when she wouldn't make things worse, and, despite her rapid breathing, seemed to believe this was it. "Dear, let's just go," she beseeched my father. "Mr. Taylor found us a room nearby."

"No!" my father cried, and he threw off the hand with which she had tried to snatch his arm. "This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows."

"I think you ought to listen to your wife," the cop said. "I think you ought to do what she tells you, Roth. Leave the premises." Jerking his head in the direction of the door, he said, "And before you wear out my patience."

There was more resistance in my father, but there was still some sanity in him as well, and he was able to understand that his argument had run out of interest to anyone other than himself. We left the hotel with everybody watching us. The only one to speak was the other cop. From where he'd stationed himself just beside the potted plant in the entranceway, he nodded amiably and, as we approached, put a hand out to muss my hair. "How you doin', young fella?" "Good," I replied. "Whattaya got there?" "My stamps," I said, but just kept going before he could ask to see my collection and I had to show it to him to avoid arrest.

Mr. Taylor was waiting on the sidewalk outside. My father said to him, "That has never happened to me before in my life. I'm out among people all the time, people from all backgrounds, from all walks of life, and never. . ."

"The Douglas has changed hands," Mr. Taylor said. "This is a new ownership."

"But we had friends who stayed there and were a hundred percent satisfied," my mother told him.

"Well, Mrs. Roth, it's changed hands. But I've got you a room at the Evergreen, and everything is going to work out fine."

Just then there was the loud roar of a low-flying plane passing over Washington. Down the street where some people were out walking, they stopped and one of the men raised his arms to the sky, as though, in June, it had begun to snow.

Sandy, who could recognize just about anything flying from its silhouette, knowledgeable Sandy pointed and cried, "It's the Lockheed Interceptor!"

"It's President Lindbergh," Mr. Taylor explained. "Every afternoon about this time he takes a little spin along the Potomac. Flies up to the Alleghenies, then down along the Blue Ridge Mountains, and on out to the Chesapeake Bay. People look forward to it."

"It's the world's fastest plane," my brother said. "The Germans' Messerschmitt 110 flies three hundred and sixty-five miles an hour—the Interceptor flies five hundred miles an hour. It can outmaneuver any fighter in the world."

We all watched along with Sandy, who was unable to conceal his enchantment with the very Interceptor that the president had flown to and from Iceland for his meeting with Hitler. The plane climbed steeply with tremendous force before disappearing into the sky. Down the street, the people out walking burst into applause, somebody shouted "Hurray for Lindy!" and then they continued on their way.

At the Evergreen, my mother and father slept together in one single bed and Sandy and I in the other. Twin beds were the best Mr. Taylor had been able to locate on such short notice, but after what had happened at the Douglas nobody complained—either that the beds weren't exactly made for rest or that the room was smaller even than our first accommodations or that the matchbox bathroom, heavily doused though it was with disinfectant, didn't smell right—especially as we were welcomed graciously when we arrived by a cheerful woman at the front desk and our suitcases stacked on a dolly by an elderly Negro in a bellhop's uniform, a lanky man the woman called Edward B., who upon unlocking the door to the ground-floor room at the nether end of an airshaft, humorously announced, "The Evergreen Hotel welcomes the Roth family to the nation's capital!" and ushered us in as though the dimly lit crypt were a boudoir at the Ritz.


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