Giving what is needed

During the first few years of my life I hardly saw my father. If he wasn't in school, including night school, or at the library, studying for his degrees in history, or out painting signs for the local businesses, to make money, he was home in a candlelit corner, reading books so big they hid all but the most shadowy peek at him.

In the early hours of the morning he would finally come tiptoing into the bedroom, where I slept in the trundle bed, and my mother, who worked in a store all day, slept in the double, a tall, lean man already a little lopsided from carrying his books always with the same hand. As he passed my bed he would sometimes brush my hair with his fingertips. Then, lying down next to my mother, his clothes still on, he would give a long, soft groan and fall straight asleep. His breathing became a procession of sighs that wound clear to the stars. At daybreak, he was gone again.

One fall it happened that besides my real father, I had another, and him I saw practically every day. His name was Mr. Goldstein, and he lived in the apartment next door.

A man is your other father when he listens to such things as how you were cheated at marbles, and what revenge you are plotting. Or how you are happy to be having leg aches at night, because it means you are growing up. He is your other father when he knows the right moment to clasp his hands in sympathy, or to say, kindly but emphatically, ''Vengeance is God's.'' Or just to shake his head and look at you with pensive, remembering eyes.

Mr. Goldstein would stand at his stove, stirring his soup for lunch, as glad for my company as I for his. He was a tall but stooped man in his early seventies, with a wrinkled orange of a face and weary-looking feet. He was retired from a lifetime of working for Fuller Brush, ''peddling the Brush,'' as he called it, ''from doorbell to doorbell.''

One time of soupmaking, I complained quite bitterly about my real father. How he was seldom home. How he never played with me, talked to me. How, at bottom, he couldn't really love me.

Mr. Goldstein poured us each a bowl of soup and we sat down at his table. He smiled wistfully.

''My father,'' he said, ''wanted a son like himself, a born peddler. A man who, when he hears a no, shouts back a yes. A man blind in the ears when it comes to no. Me, I'm the opposite. I hear a no, I give a shrug and say all right. I'm grateful I don't get insulted. I've been easy-going all my life. This used to make my father so mad he threatened to throw me out of the house. How, I asked myself, could such a man love me? And yet, he did.

''Without him, I'd never have danced at my own wedding. I was scared to death to dance the crazy way we Jews dance. Like whirling dervishes.

''Every night, after lugging his wares around all day in a bag on his back, he comes home and puts music on the gramophone. Then he shows me how to dance. The man should be stretched out on the sofa with his shoes off, but there he is, before my eyes, dancing. His legs are going like an eggbeater. His arms like a windmill. He is snapping his fingers so loud I'm afraid they'll break.

''You know what he's doing? He's selling me dancing. He's singing yes to my no. Finally, I am buying. And the two of us link arms and dance together around the room. That was the time I knew he loved me.''

He nodded, reminiscing. Then he added, ''For you, too, will come such a time, Davie, when you know. All fathers are frightened. Mine was frightened of poverty , so he pushed himself. Yours is frightened of ignorance, so he's pushing himself, too. None of them wants to let us down.''

''Were you ever a father, Mr. Goldstein?'' I asked.

''It was not God's will that my wife, may she rest in peace, and I have children.'' He sighed. ''And speaking of God's will, I better take my early nap.''

One day a few weeks after this wise, gentle defense of fathers, Mr. Goldstein died in his sleep. When my father came home that night I was still awake with tears.

''Mr. Goldstein is dead,'' I said.

He sat down beside me. ''What?'' he asked. His eyes were red from reading, and there were specks of paint in his beard.

''Mr. Goldstein is dead!''

''Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, son.''

''I loved him, and he loved me, too.''

He shook his head and sighed. Then he leaned down, as if he wanted to kiss me. But I turned my head away and rolled over. ''His father taught him to dance, '' I said. ''His father loved him.''

For a long time I felt him sitting there, looking at me. Then, very gently, he turned me toward him, and wiped the tears from my eyes. Smiling through his own, he took me in his arms.

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