The Barters of Nighttime Company
a short story by David Levinson
About the Author
David Samuel Levinson is the author of the story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will (Viking Penguin UK, 2004), as well as two novels, the most recent being Tell Me How This Ends Well (Hogarth, 2017).
He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received fellowships from Yaddo, the Jentel Foundation, Ledig House, the Santa Fe Arts Institute and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, among others. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, RE:AL, storySouth, The James White Review, The Brooklyn Review, Prairie Schooner, The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, and more. He also teaches creative writing.
My father called one spring night from Brooklyn and said, “Anatole, you up for a drive?” I hadn’t spoken to him in over twelve years. I thought it was a prank and hung up. He called back, repeated the question. “Nothing urgent,” he added. “Aw, well, that’s a lie. Put a fork in me; I’m dying.” And in between the silences, my chest moved, and I broke.
Several months later, and there I was, on Highway 81, in Ivy’s Scout, schlepping the old man back to San Antonio, Texas.
I followed the trail others had already carved in the ice. Every few minutes, my father would say, “Easy there, Easy Rider,” or, “This is my son trying not to kill us,” and laugh. I found the going far less treacherous than I predicted. Even so, I kept the speed at a minimum and actually enjoyed the drive. As if I were on a secret mission, carrying the freight of some ruined monarch across vast enemy lands. Cyclones of errant snow intermittently drifted across the highway, the specter of some wild animal. I thought of Ivy in San Antonio, the way we’d met. The collusion of unseen forces that brought any two people together.
I enjoyed speaking of Ivy often with my grandmother who, in her senility, repeated her name childishly and asked, “What type of ivy? Wandering? Clinging?” I’d laugh and she’d laugh, until the joke, which escaped her, saddened me, and I’d hang up, already preparing myself for the exact same conversation the next time I called.
Once, I brought Ivy to Sunday breakfast, and when my grandmother had seen her, she said, fretfully, “Who’s that gypsy in my sitting room?”
“That’s Ivy, Maw-Maw,” I said.
“Is she here to tell my fortune?” she asked.
I explained to her about Ivy, yet she behaved the same each time, an irresponsive tremor building behind her colorless eyes, a groping for recognition. Sometimes, when I called her, she told me she’d just finished the tango with Moses, but I played along: my grandfather had been dead thirty years.
I wondered how much my father knew of his mother’s waning mental health, if it had had any impact on his decision to return home. I didn’t know the man beside me, no more or less than our few phone calls over the years had allowed. I had remained impassive, armored against his long-distant importuning with images of my own mother’s nocturnal weeping. These pictures ran in repeated patterns, picking up the moment I heard his voice.
“We should be fine once we cross into Tennessee,” my father said.
But he was asleep when we passed the sign for Dollywood, asleep when we drove through the heart of unspectacular Knoxville, asleep when we were spit back out and heading due south toward Chattanooga. It was true: the weather broke, the sleet turned to a slushy immoderate rain, the temperature in the car climbed. It amazed me how, in just a couple of hours, we went from the ravages of winter to a gentler place, with spots of sunshine dripping through the clouds. The Appalachian Mountains rose to our right, haloed and holy. This was pure country, something I’d missed on my first drive. Alone, I simply wanted to make New York as quickly as possible. Alone, I drove twenty hours the first day, on Ivy’s No-Doz (leftovers from studying for her GED) and bottles of Coca-Cola. I realized my father’s directions would bring me full circle, through an entirely different set of circumstances and states.
My father opened his eyes just as we crossed into Georgia. “Ah, the Peach State,” he said, checking the atlas. “Not bad, Anatole. If you keep this up, we’ll make Birmingham by evening.”
“Ivy’s from Scottsboro, ‘The Unclaimed Baggage Capital of the World,’” I said, absently. And then, for some reason, I blurted out, “We’re engaged.”
“You don’t say,” my father said. I braced for a follow-up question, and when it didn’t come, I felt relieved and then discouraged. I wanted to talk about Ivy because I wanted my father to know I was loved.
“Ivy Linden,” I said, leaving the highway. “She’s putting herself through college. Her father was in the Air Force and flew reconnaissance in Vietnam. He died a few years ago-complications from napalm. Beatrice, her mother, is a librarian at Mark Twain High School in downtown Scottsboro.”
My father smiled. “Like your mother,” he said, and in his voice, I heard the distinct resolution of sorrow, a pang of some resident regret. “When I met her, she was Lillian Mendelssohn, volunteer librarian.”
“Ha,” I said. “Don’t you need a degree for that?” I pulled into a deserted rest area, trying to imagine my mother, the librarian my father wanted me to believe she had been. I pictured her behind the circulation desk, flirting with Zed Slivovitz, my father, the Jewish agent provocateur, with his tilted smile and oversized schnozzle, young and absurdly confident in his Wrangler jeans and Justin Ropers.
“I read an awful lot back then,” he said and winked. “And it worked, because it impressed your mother, Anatole.”
I hated hearing my name in his mouth. A name I thought my mother had made up until she’d told me about Anatole Broyard, who’d taught her for a semester at the New School for Social Research. Sometimes, when I missed her, I’d pull out a picture I’d inherited of my namesake with his arm about my mother. They were standing in an atrium and the sun, tilted across their faces, brought out their hidden charismas and intense attachment to each other; it looked a lot like love. Even then, I wondered if the man in the picture weren’t my real father. Why else call me after him?
Many times, I’d planned to ask her, and her death, which might’ve ended my curiosity, only aggravated it further. Now, in the car, I thought to ask the question of this man I didn’t know, didn’t resemble. The odometer added miles one after the other as the words fashioned and broke apart, reassembled and disappeared, until it no longer seemed to matter why I’d been named, only that I had.
I said, “She was in love with Broyard, wasn’t she?” Not the question I’d intended to ask, yet it closed up, if momentarily, the wide space between us.
He shrugged. “Lillian absolutely admired him,” my father said. “I met him once actually in Greenwich Village, at this tiny little bar off Sheridan Square. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘Zed, the first divorce in the world may have been a tragedy, but the hundred-millionth is not necessarily one.’ And you know, I felt instantly relieved. He’d given me the permission I needed to leave your mother and you. . . You know, I made her go back to finish her degree, which she’d begun under Broyard. I stole Lillian away from the public library. I saw her potential. Then, you came along and that changed our lives again. You gave Lillian a perfect alibi, Anatole, to be the boring middle-class woman she became. It’s funny how badly I misjudged her. All along, the only thing she wanted was to have you and a boxy car with four doors.”
“And you’re saying that’s wrong?” I asked.
“No,” my father said. “All I’m saying is, that it’s tragic to watch the one you love most in the world give up, Anatole.”
For an instance, the yolk of the sun swallowed the Scout, a cone of harsh warm light through all of that mealy gray. My father was dying. Let him say whatever he wanted. I would listen. And I would learn his ghouls’ names, the barters he made for nighttime company. Because I had made my own, hadn’t I? Wasn’t I? Weren’t we all the lot of us in similar places, blinking back the light?
“The Barters of Nighttime Company” Copyright ©2004 by David Levinson.
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No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.