That summer Mel Jacobs had taken to going to Central Park on weekends. It was the usual New York summer, hot and humid, but Central Park seemed a little cooler. He’d found a softball field near the southern end of the park where girls, or young women, he supposed he should call them, played and he liked to watch them. There was nothing prurient in this. Maybe it was because it was that for the past two years, in the Army, he’d been mostly in the company of men. Whatever the reason, he liked to watch the way they gracefully moved, their athleticism. He even liked to watch their occasional fumbles. He never thought of approaching any of them. If he wanted a girl he could get one at any time; his many aunts would be delighted to find him a nice Jewish girl. But he knew, from past experience, that would lead to consequences. In those days, in the 1950’s, if you had sex with a nice Jewish girl or even just dated her for a few months you’d be on the track: engagement, marriage, the job of course, the move to Long Island or somewhere, and the family. That was the last thing he wanted.
Jacobs had come home from the Army in June. He’d been drafted out of college during the Korean War but had been posted to Germany where he’d worked in an office so his Army experience couldn’t be called too unpleasant. He’d been able to travel, to London, Paris and Rome and a few other places. Now he was back in his old bedroom in his parents’ apartment in the Bronx. He supposed he’d have to get a job sooner or later, but this didn’t seem urgent. He’d joined what in those days was known as the 52/20 club. The Army would pay him $20 a week for 52 weeks. He had to go downtown once a week to collect it. The Army place was in a big hall where you had to stand in line, like everything else you did in the Army. It gave him a feeling that he was still somehow in the military although now he was a civilian again.
What did he do the other days of the week? He slept late; it was good to be back in his own bed. It was nice not to have the sounds and smells of the barracks, especially of the latrine. His father, a plumber, still working, got up early and went off to a job somewhere. His mother would have cooked him breakfast every morning but mostly he just had cold cereal and leisurely read the New York Times. To please his mother, he looked through the ads in the Times Help Wanted section. He then dressed, glad to be in civilian clothes, and took the subway down to Grand Central Station. He’d tell his mother he was going to stop into a couple of employment agencies and during the first week he had and quickly found out their ads---hundreds of jobs for college grads---were phony. He’d walk up Fifth or Madison Avenue to the park, Central Park. Sometimes he’d go to the zoo. He liked to watch the seals splashing around. Sometimes he’d walk all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and browse through the galleries. He liked the French Impressionist Paris scenes, imagining he was there. Sometimes he stayed downtown, had dinner at an inexpensive restaurant and went to a play. You could get a ticket to most Broadway plays at that time by going to the box office just before curtain time. So that was how he passed the summer.
In late August Jacobs went with his parents to Manhattan for the wedding of one of his cousins, cousin Bobby. It was in a hotel, a pretty fancy one, and the members of his family milled around speculating on how much everything cost. He met another cousin, Ben, who’d also been in the Army but had been stationed in Washington, D.C. Ben’s father, a lawyer, had influential friends. Ben was six months older than him and they’d always been pretty close. They went outside to talk.
They exchanged stories about their Army experiences. Ben said his time in Washington had been pretty boring but he’d been able to get back to New York a few times. He was envious of Jacobs’ being able to travel in Europe. Jacobs told him he’d met a French girl in Paris. He took a small photo out of his wallet.
“Pretty,” said Ben.
“Yeah, and I’ve always been a sucker for that French accent.”
“Are you still in touch?”
“I wrote her a couple of weeks ago but she hasn’t written back.”
“Does your mother know?”
“Of course not.”
Ben laughed. ”So, what are you doing now?”
“Nothing much. What about yourself?”
“I’m starting law school in a few weeks.”
“Then you’ll go to work in your Dad’s firm. You’re on the track.”
Ben shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really want to work for my Dad and I don’t even know if I want to be a lawyer, but you have to do something. Have you been playing any handball?” When they were kids they’d sometimes get together, either in the Bronx or Manhattan, to play handball. Ben was a pretty good player, Jacobs recalled, although not as good as himself. Jacobs had been captain of his high school handball team.
“No, I haven’t gotten around to it.”
“We should get together.”
“Yeah. Well, we better go back in.”
Ben was going to law school and cousin Bobby, besides getting married, was finishing medical school and would be a doctor somewhere. My son the lawyer; my son the doctor. On the track as good Jewish sons should be. What would he be, wondered Jacobs.
After the wedding, Jacobs’ mother started asking him about looking for a job. She’d probably been asked by all their relatives what her son was doing. He told her, Yeah, he was looking, but he really wasn’t. He supposed he’d have to, but later. He remembered a short story by Ernest Hemingway called “Soldier’s Home” he’d read in college. It was about a soldier named Krebs back from World War I who’d come back to his Midwestern town and was content to stay home, sleep late and do nothing. He recalled that Krebs liked to sit on his porch and watch the girls of the town go by but didn’t approach them. He didn’t want complications. That soldier had been in combat and Jacobs hadn’t but he knew how coming home afterwards felt. Krebs’ mother had also been on him and at the end of the story he’d decided to go to Kansas City and get a job.
Jacobs hadn’t known what he wanted to do in college so he’d settled on majoring in English. In the few employment agency interviews he’d had he’d been asked why he wasn’t going to be a teacher. Evidently, if you majored in something like English this is what you were expected to do. He sometimes thought about going back to school; his mother would be happy. My son the Professor. He had the GI bill but this would mean staying with his parents again and riding a subway to school again, just like when he’d gone to college. He couldn’t imagine doing that.
Jacobs did do some writing, getting out his old college typewriter. He wrote about his experiences in the Army. His first story was about being inducted and then going to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. In the first night there somebody had yelled out a curse and then somebody else and pretty soon everyone was doing it. He called that part of his story “The Night of the Curses.” He was trying to convey the shock of a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx at this first night away from home and in the Army. He didn’t think he was another Hemingway and he had no intention of becoming a writer, but it was something to do.
In September Jacobs met his cousin Ben at the handball courts at the northern end of Central Park. The hot humid summer was over and in the park the trees had started turning color and everything seemed less oppressive. He and Ben got into a doubles game against two middle-aged men and they had a hard time beating them 21-18. They were both pretty rusty. In the second game they picked up a little and won 21-14. After that they were tired and turned down another rematch. They sat down on a bench and talked. They were breathing heavily.
“I’m beat,” said Ben.
“Yeah, me, too. I’m out of shape.”
“You were doing pretty good at the end.”
Jacobs shrugged. “I’ve got a long way to go.. How’s law school?”
“Going to be tough. How about you? What about that French girl?”
“She did write back. She met another guy.”
“So your mother doesn’t have to worry? So, still hanging around?”
“Still. I’m doing a little writing, about the Army.”
Jacobs told Ben about the night of the curses. He was trying to write another story, about a soldier in his barracks who’d been harassed by his sergeant and had tried to commit suicide.
“You know,” said Ben, “Your mother called my Dad about you.”
“I didn’t know..”
“Good Jewish mother looking after her son.”
“Yeah, I guess I haven’t been a good Jewish son.”
They talked some more and said they’d try to get together again but Ben said that with law school being so tough he might not be able to make it.. Jacobs said that was okay.
A few weeks later Jacobs got a job with an advertising agency through his cousin Ben’s father. It seemed his uncle had influence in New York, too. When he interviewed for the job he showed the manager who saw him the two stories about the Army he’d written so that wasn’t wasted effort after all. The manager told him the stories weren’t too bad but sounded a lot like Hemingway. In any case, he got the job.
After another few weeks Jacobs had a date with a girl whose phone number one of his aunts had given him. So he had a job and maybe a girl; he was on the track. The next weekend he went to Central Park to watch the girls, the young women, play softball for the last time.