Yesterday, my wife and I attended a Scholastic writing awards ceremony with our teenage son Ewan where he was given a medal for a humor sketch he’d written (posted here). The program included a keynote speaker, Jennifer Homans, who was introduced as the author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. I knew of her book, which had won awards and been named to many best book lists in 2010, but I knew nothing else about her. She offered good advice to the many young writers assembled in the high school gym, like find a place “inside” yourself to write from and, even while relying on stimulation and information from the outside world, turn off the input, such as Twitter and Facebook, and don’t hesitate to go into yourself. Then she turned to a personal matter. She revealed that her husband, also a writer, had died less than two years earlier, and that she had just written and published an account of his passing, which required her to emerge from her quiet place, not a comfortable place for her, but one that she felt obliged to occupy for a time. She didn’t mention her late husband’s name, and I made a mental note to find out who he was. Before I had a chance to look it up, the essay by Homans on her late husband jumped out at me, in the New York Review of Books. He had been Tony Judt, the prolific author and intellectual historian of modern Europe. Stricken with ALS in 2008, her piece chronicles his last two years, when he maintained many of his intellectual and writerly pursuits, most significantly ‘talking’ out his last book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, in regular two-hour conversation with collaborator Tony Snyder. He was editing passages of it just before his death in the summer of 2010. The book was published posthumously last month. Homans personal essay is a moving tribute and I’m grateful for having had the chance to hear her speak about her writing life and that of her brave and brilliant husband.
My Father the Returner
My father can return anything to any store anywhere, anyplace in the world. He has sent back everything from runny eggs to half gnawed peaches. He has argued and tussled, hustled and bustled. It isn’t that he is confrontational; it’s just that he has no shame. His name is Philip Turner and he is, in his own convoluted way a superhero. Not a man who can fly faster than a speeding bullet or lift a parked car, but a man who can spring fear into the hearts of humans. When managers and unsuspecting cashiers fall under the Returner’s spell no one is safe. He managed on one occasion to return an old sagging mattress and an entire pot of borscht. He was once discounted on year-old underwear because he felt it was “overly scratchy.” He has this face he makes when he is set for refund. It is between a grimace and a sneer, the countenance of a man set on retribution. He is not unlike Napoleon or Julius Caesar marching his way toward victory. I am the exact opposite of my father. I never make a scene and I never make a point.
There was this one day I remember quite distinctly, it is burned and ingrained upon my innermost psyche. We trundled off to a department store to return an item. It was a plain white shirt that looked suspiciously unassuming. I asked him why he desired to take it back. He replied because “it says it’s a medium and it didn’t fit like a medium.” I nodded ruefully. When we arrived at the store he positioned himself, like an unmoving battlement in front of the register. The woman at the counter had hair like Medusa and eyes that really could turn a man to stone.
“I bought this shirt a while ago and it says it’s medium but it doesn’t fit like a medium,” Philip said.
“Do you have a receipt?” she asked, her nasal voice dull and weary.
“Yes!” he said with delight, wrenching from his pleather fanny-pack a receipt.
“This is from four years ago,” she said, gazing at it.
“Perhaps you’ve just gained weight.” My father stared into her eyes, braving, damming the danger.
“I want satisfaction and I want it now!” he bellowed. The Gorgon Queen flinched, sensing the power of an unstoppable beast of destruction. It was in this deciding moment that she cracked.
“I can offer credit,” she said. This was a big mistake, a sign of weakness.
“Credit? So you can unload socks on us? I want my money back.” She smiled a smile devoid of all hope and said she would get the manager. He emerged from a small windowless room in the back and approached the register.
“What seems to be the conundrum?” he asked. He wore a monocle, pristinely shimmering under the fluorescent lights.
“I want my money back for this shirt. It says it’s medium but it doesn’t fit like a medium,” Philip repeated. The manager’s eyebrow raised, his monocle tumbled out of his eye and onto the floor. He scrambled to recover it and as he did my father delivered the knockout punch.
“If I am not compensated then I vow I will never bring my business or that of my family here again. I will tell everyone what a sham this place is! I am Philip Stanley Turner and I demand satisfaction!” The manager turned a surprising shade of white and put his hands into the air, accepting defeat. He handed fourteen dollars across the counter with a quick palsied motion, bowing his head and trotting off. Philip smiled victoriously, savoring his conquest. I gulped and looked down, hand in pockets, trying to shoulder the embarrassment for the both of us.