"Sons of bitches!" my father said. "Fascist bastards!" and then the light changed and we drove on in silence to look at the office building where he was about to get his chance to earn more than fifty dollars a week.
It was my brother who, when we went to bed that night, explained why my father had lost control and cursed aloud in front of his children: the homey acre of open-air merriment smack in the middle of town was called a beer garden, the beer garden had something to do with the German-American Bund, the German-American Bund had something to do with Hitler, and Hitler, as I hadn't needed to be told, had everything to do with persecuting Jews. The intoxicant of anti-Semitism. That's what I came to imagine them all so cheerfully drinking in their beer garden that daylike all the Nazis everywhere, downing pint after pint of anti-Semitism as though imbibing the universal remedy.
My father had to take off a morning of work to go over to the home office in New Yorkto the tall building whose uppermost tower was crowned with the beacon his company proudly designated "The Light That Never Fails"and inform the superintendent of agencies that he couldn't accept the promotion he longed for.
"It's my fault," announced my mother as soon as he began to recount at the dinner table what had transpired there on the eighteenth floor of 1 Madison Avenue.
"It's nobody's fault," my father said. "I explained before I left what I was going to tell him, and I went over and I told him, and that's it. We're not moving to Union, boys. We're staying right here."
"What did he do?" my mother asked.
"He heard me out."
"And then?" she asked.
"He stood up and he shook my hand."
"He didn't say anything?"
"He said, 'Good luck, Roth.'"
"He was angry with you."
"Hatcher is a gentleman of the old school. Big six-foot goy. Looks like a movie star. Sixty years old and fit as a fiddle. These are the people who run things, Bessthey don't waste their time getting angry at someone like me."
"So now what?" she asked, implying that whatever happened as a result of his meeting with Hatcher was not going to be good and could be dire. And I thought I understood why. Apply yourself and you can do itthat was the axiom in which we had been schooled by both parents. At the dinner table, my father would reiterate to his young sons time and again, "If anybody asks 'Can you do this job? Can you handle it?' you tell 'em 'Absolutely.' By the time they find out that you can't, you'll already have learned, and the job'll be yours. And who knows, it just might turn out to be the opportunity of a lifetime." Yet over in New York he had done nothing like that.
"What did the Boss say?" she asked him. The Boss was how the four of us referred to the manager of my father's Newark office, Sam Peterfreund. In those days of unadvertised quotas to keep Jewish admissions to a minimum in colleges and professional schools and of unchallenged discrimination that denied Jews significant promotions in the big corporations and of rigid restrictions against Jewish membership in thousands of social organizations and communal institutions, Peterfreund was one of the first of the small handful of Jews ever to achieve a managerial position with Metropolitan Life. "He's the one who put you up for it," my mother said. "How must he feel?"
"Know what he said to me when I got back? Know what he told me about the Union office? It's full of drunks. Famous for drunks. Beforehand he didn't want to influence my decision. He didn't want to stand in my way if this was what I wanted. Famous for agents who work two hours in the morning and spend the rest of their time in the tavern or worse. And I was supposed to go in there, the new Jew, the big new sheeny boss the goyim are all dying to work for, and I was supposed to go in there and pick 'em up off the barroom floor. I was supposed to go in there and remind them of their obligation to their wives and their children. Oh, how they would have loved me, boys, for doing them the favor. You can imagine what they would have called me behind my back. No, I'm better off where I am. We're all better off."
>From The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Copyright by Philip Roth 2004. All rights reserved.
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