Bernard: A Character Study by Peter Orner

BOMB 147 Spring 2019
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They found my mother’s first cousin frozen in a rented cabin up in New Hampshire, not far from where he’d gone to prep school. A smart kid, Bernard enrolled at Harvard on a math scholarship in the fall of 1973. This was after some creditors finally smelled a rat and Uncle Horace and his brother went belly up. Mort, the brother, promptly shot himself in the mouth. But for a few thousand dollars the brothers hadn’t managed to steal from my grandfather, Uncle Horace would have gone to jail. My grandfather used it to pay his lawyers. Bernard was Uncle Horace and Aunt Josephine’s only child. That Bernard still made it to Harvard (Horace’s alma-mater), he was that much of a math genius, was supposed to be the redemption of the family. If Bernard made good, something might be said for disgrace. Harvard! 

But LSD. It was the LSD he took at Harvard, the family has always said, without evidence, that doomed Bernard. Because wasn’t the stuff everywhere? Wasn’t Cambridge crawling with LSD in the seventies? They grew it in labs and doled it out to kindergarteners. Bernard dropped out or was thrown out, midway through his sophomore year, and returned home where he hung around for the next twenty-five or so years, clawing out a living selling ads for the Fall River Herald.

I always had a soft spot for Bernard because he was good to my grandmother. After my grandfather died, Bernard would drive her around on errands, to the People’s Drug or to Al Mac’s for groceries. When I’d see him in person it always cost me; a ten or a twenty, whatever I had in my wallet. 

Bernard had great talent for falling in love. There were at least two or three official marriages and at least one other recognized by Massachusetts common law. There were (at least) three kids, two daughters of his own and one adopted son, and, as a result, multiple court orders mandating support he could never pay. Even so, Bernard was a doting father, or tried to be, and he scuttled all over southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island attempting to hold things together, which was impossible because there wasn’t anything to hold together. There were only scattered families he’d a hand in creating, but which had, as soon as he was out of the picture, naturally moved on without him. 

If not for the job at the Herald, Bernard wouldn’t have had much of anything at all, and as it was he was constantly hard up. And yet: imagine young Bernard and his bevy of cousins, my mother included, prancing around Uncle Horace and Aunt Josephine’s place in Mattapoisett back when not only wasn’t the money tainted, it flowed, gentle, like the Mattapoisett River flowed into Buzzard’s Bay. The Sarkansky Brothers were only paying Peter to pay Paul, as my mother has always put it. The family frolicked in that money for years. And think of Bernard, at fifteen, lanky in his suit and clip-on tie, leaving home for Phillips Exeter. And see him? In the fall of ’73, in the aftermath of his uncle’s suicide and all that subsequent public humiliation, Horace in the papers, and still Bernard marching, head held high and jammed with algebra so advanced it no longer had anything to do with numbers or even symbols that represent numbers, straight into Harvard Yard, having made it there not because of but in spite of his father. 

Bernard was a monumentally shitty driver, and when he drove my grandmother she’d always clamp her eyes shut and pray to the god she never had much use for that they’d make it to the store in one piece, and Bernard would say, “Aunt Sarah, open your eyes and live a little” as the car careened down Robeson Street like they were escapees. Because Bernard always drove, walked, ran, as though he’d just scaled a wall or climbed a fence and might as well live it up on the lam while he still had the chance. Even if he was only on the run from his cubicle at the Fall River Herald or his hardly furnished one-bedroom in Globe Corners, or on account of one of his exes sending the law to hound him over unpaid child support—he was always in motion. Until the middle of the night when he called his relatives. He used to call my mother, 3 AM Chicago time. Just want to talk, Mirabel. You can take your wallet out of your nightie. Though, in the morning, if you want to Western Union a contribution to save my ass, my ass would appreciate it. But really, truly, at the end of the day, it wasn’t money, what he wanted was to indulge in some mutual memory from their childhoods and he’d say: Remember when little Norm bled to death in the kitchen on Weetamoe Street? Who knew we had royal blood in the family? And my mother would say, Bern, you were hardly born when Norman, there’s no way you could have—

“Wouldn’t think a kid so small could have so much blood. Niagara Falls. You think it’s true about Molly and Max?”

And my mother would respond in a whisper as if her own dead mother could hear the betrayal from the grave: “They did have the same heads.” 

Because even in the 1980s it was still an illicit story, that dark old chestnut about my mother’s (and Bernard’s) grandparents being first cousins. The hemophilia being prima facie evidence. The fact that I just let this out without being struck by lightning is a testament to how even the most closely held family taboos dissolve eventually into only words. Bernard especially liked the moral of the story, how the curse was visited on innocent seven-year-old Norman. He considered himself the family truth teller. He took pride in being willing to say what nobody else ever would. Bernard was a champion liar, but he really could tell the truth like nobody’s business. It was the only currency he ever had in abundance. Of his own father, Horace, a man he dearly loved—he was a man who loved generously, fiercely, all over the place loved, he loved as recklessly as he drove—Bernard used to say that by the time he was old enough to crawl into the old man’s lap, he knew his father was a charlatan. “Beware of any man who walks around calling himself a philanthropist. Philanthropist isn’t a job, it’s a cover story.” 

I’ve no idea how Bernard survived after he finally got canned by the Herald News. He lived another seven or eight years. Eventually he was so broke he couldn’t live in Fall River, which Bernard would have been the first to say is saying something. He loved his city as only a native could. He knew the streets, he knew the potholes. He knew the hills, seven of them, just like they’ve got in Rome. Bernard knew where the falls that gave the city its name were hiding beneath the rubble of the now long defunct mills. And if Fall River was getting shabbier, it was all right with Bernard. Unlike Providence, unlike Boston, Fall River never had an over-pompous block on its map, even up in the Highlands where the mill owners built their mansions. Even the Highlands aren’t stuck up. Fall River, once the textile capital of the world, now a city that every day failed to reconcile its present degradation with its glorious past. That’s honest. And as a Jew in a Catholic city, Bernard would always be, no matter how much intimate knowledge of the place, no matter how much lavish affection, an outsider, but even this felt right. It was home and yet it never fully embraced you. A Jew would always be a little at arm’s length in Fall River. That’s honest, too. When Bernard returned from Harvard after a year and a half, only about an hour and change away, his city took him back, mostly. What’s one more loser? Twenty-five or so years. Until even Fall River couldn’t sustain him anymore. 

The last time he called my mother Bernard said he’d started a T-shirt screen-printing business. No hard sell, he just wanted her to know that in case she wanted in on the ground floor. She’d see a return of something like 200 percent on her investment within a month because, I mean it, Mirry, I’ve already got more preorders than I can handle. 

I don’t know if it was the cold that killed him in the rented cabin or whether it was something else and that his body only froze after whatever else got him first. I have no way of knowing. I’m sure there’s a death certificate on file somewhere in New Hampshire, and I could probably go up there and cajole it out of a somnolent clerk on the grounds of being an interested cousin. Which wouldn’t be true though I am—was—a cousin. But my point is—no, I don’t want to make a point. I only want to reiterate what you already know. That there isn’t any limit to how far a person can fall in America.

How do you explain a life like Bernard’s? Pretend that it was any single incident, or chain of incidents, that finally did him in? Go chronologically from the time his father was busted for fraud through each of Bernard’s three or four wives? Why invent a timeline when every day the man managed to get out of bed and smile at the world—and he did smile, the man smiled all the time—was another day closer to the day the landlord in New Hampshire found him in that unheated cabin after ten days because the rent was late? The smile must have been a mask, but there was, also, it’s true, something almost frantically happy about Bernard. I think he woke up every day and thought today, I’ll catch a break. I can see him talking to himself in the mirror. Got a few irons in the proverbial fire, something’s going to pay off, I can feel it. And in the afternoon, I’ll go and visit the girls, Kate in Brockton, Debbie in Seekonk. And tomorrow, Saturday, I’ll take Joey for French toast at Hojo’s. 

Because being broke, Bernard, would be the first to tell you, is different than being poor. Broke signifies the possibility of becoming rich, or as in Bernard’s case, rich again. Broke is temporary. Broke always has a bright side. 

He was the tallest member of my family on record. His parents were tiny humans. Uncle Horace was squat and puckery. Aunt Josephine was petite, doll-like, elegant. Bernard was a beanstalk who even in his teens towered over them. He was also the only one in the extended family with curly hair, a great mass of chaotic hair that rained dandruff. He’d be having lunch with my grandmother at the China Express in the strip mall by the industrial park and he’d say, “Holy shit, Sally, it’s snowing in my wonton soup.”

And there were the two large blueblack bowls under his exhausted eyes. 

When Bernard returned to Fall River in 1975, Uncle Horace wouldn’t speak to him. Since no one in town was talking to Horace anymore, he’d ripped that many people off, it must have made Horace feel better that there was someone left he could give the silent treatment. This went on for years. I think that for Horace failure in business, even if that failure was willfully compounded by deliberately orchestrated financial crimes, was a whole different deal than what he would have considered “personal” failure. A man taking drugs when he wasn’t sick? Wrecking a head for numbers that could have led god only knows where? Courting ruin from within when things were hard enough without? It made no sense to Horace. But as he became more and more frail, Horace had no choice but to allow Bernard to drive him to the pharmacy and to doctors’ appointments.  Eventually it was Bernard who packed his father off to the Jewish Home for the Aged. It was Bernard who carried his father’s few boxes of personal effects—all that was left—and stacked them neatly in a corner of Horace’s final small room. 

“It’s a cell,” Horace said. 

“Looks like it,” Bernard said, who’d been in a few.  

He was forty-eight when they found him. The Fall River Philanthropic Burial Society, an organization that has been burying Fall Riverites for the last 140 years, buried Bernard next to his mother in 2004. 

On the gate in front of Beth El Cemetery there’s a plaque with a Talmudic poem on it. 

The world is like
A vestibule before
The world to come;
Prepare thyself in
The Vestibule that
Thou mayest enter
Into the hall.

I’ve stood at the cemetery gate and read this poem many times. Every time I visit my dead, I copy it down into whatever notebook I’m carrying. I’m drawn to this idea of the world as a vestibule, which I think of as a place to take off your boots: a mudroom. I doubt that Bernard made it into the hall, but it wasn’t for lack of being busy in the mudroom. And who knows? Maybe this is what the ancient rabbis mean by preparing thyself. Never stop. Keep hustling. You’d see Bernard loping down South Main, that wild bramble of hair sticking out in every direction, from Columbia Street to Pocasset Street, heading for the Herald News with great purpose and speed as if, as I say, he wanted to put as much distance as possible between where he was going and where he was coming from. He fled from corner to corner. And yet the man couldn’t go three feet without being hailed like a taxi. A city councilman, Lucile who worked at the Dunkin Donuts, a cop, a junkie, some halfdead elder who knew his father from the Chamber of Commerce, the sexy librarian who drove in from Quincy, the cashier at the savings and loan, Josiah Nadley who owned the comic book and smutty magazine store at 803 South Maine. 

Everybody demanded an audience with Bernard. 

Nadley: “Hey, Bern, how about that U. S. Grant I lent you in February?”  

Bernard: “February? It was March, late March. Aren’t I good for it, Josiah? Fifty? It was thirty-five. You charging interest? What, Shylock? My old friend? You can’t be usurious!” 

And Nadley roars a laugh and bellows now to the entire street, to what’s left of downtown Fall River. “Do we love this guy or don’t we love this guy?” Nadley, a titanic, sedentary man, raises a worn-out brogan and wobbles a moment before ramming the shoe down hard on Bernard’s foot, once, twice, three times. “How could anybody not love, love, love, this guy?” 

Excerpted from Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner, scheduled to be published by Little, Brown on July 2, 2019. © 2019 Peter Orner.

Peter Orner is the author of five books, most recently Am I Alone Here?, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Maggie Brown & Others is a new collection of stories and a novella. He teaches at Dartmouth College.

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