When I was a kid my parents were best friends with a couple I didn’t like very much. George and Martha Klonfelder were the parents of Tyler Klonfelder, a kid at my school you couldn’t really be friends with. He was generous and smart but he’d had some kind of issue at birth and the toes of his left foot turned in like they were afraid of everything they faced, and he himself was so inward pointing that, even if I wanted to be, I wasn’t friends with him except when he came to our house with his parents.
But that wasn’t why I didn’t like the Klonfelders. My reasons for disliking them weren’t rational. I didn’t like them because George and Martha were the names of a hippopotamus couple in a series of children’s books I loved as a toddler. It was like being friends with someone named Babar or Br’er Rabbit. The only other thing I disliked about George and Martha was that they were openly, deliberately in love. George was a baggy Sephardic man with a wide face and chubby hands whose Creator hadn’t exhaled the two breaths needed to fill him, and Martha was the most beautiful of all my parents’ friends. This made George’s devotion all the worse. He practiced chivalry like an overwrought Galahad, pulling out her seat and kissing her hand with raw earnestness. He kissed her forehead when she smiled and her cheek when she told a joke, and it all made me roll my eyes so often I gave myself headaches.
Every year the Klonfelders came to our house after high holidays to break fast. Fall of the seventh grade was no different. Tyler and his parents brought the whitefish salad from the good deli on Reisterstown Road. Tyler and I sat on the couch watching Orioles base runners succumb to Andy Pettitte’s pick-off throws and I tried not to look at his balky foot. We were all sitting around spreading cream cheese on our bagels when a crash came from my father’s study.
It was Martha. She was lying on her side next to my father’s desk. She had her hand on the back of the teak chair Harvard gave him before he left to join George Klonfelder’s lab at Johns Hopkins. It was tipped over and she held onto it with just her left hand like she was going to use it to prop herself up, only she wasn’t really trying. She was just lying there like the girl in that Andrew Wyeth painting. A trickle of blood moved very slowly down her forehead.
“Go grab the kit from our bathroom,” my father said.
“I’ll take care,” George said, and he pressed the tails of his Thomas Pink shirt against her head. Even for his Sephardic swarthiness and his fat, fat hands, George was something of a weakling, and you could see the flab of his hairy stomach as he lifted his shirt. He was a biochemist like my father, and it was hard to imagine he ever lifted much more than a Petri dish, so when he went to lift his wife he took her under the arm and stumbled. He almost fell himself. He wasn’t quite strong enough, his feet weren’t planted right for the lift, so she shrugged him off; she’d come back into herself, put her hand to her forehead and seen blood on her palm. She stumbled as she lifted herself, putting all her weight on the Harvard chair. Soon she was standing on her own and laughing at my father’s jokes. All George had was a bloody shirt and his undying love.
We were in our first year at college before we learned that Martha Klonfelder had multiple sclerosis. The onset of the disease came slowly, then all at once. After that day at our house—after a couple more falls and some numbness in her extremities—she’d gone to be checked out. Tyler Klonfelder emailed to let me know. Our mothers had been pushing for us to be closer since we were little—we’d avoided it through elementary school and high school, it was anyone’s guess why they thought we would pursue it in college—and with him at Cornell and me at Colgate, we weren’t far. I could only assume Martha pushed Tyler to write me, and there was something I disliked in the thing, so I simply wrote back a short note about how I was sorry, and what could you do?
Tyler didn’t write back.
Four years later, when we were both seniors, I received another email from Tyler. He’d joined a weightlifting team, he said, and he was going to be competing in the club regionals up in Syracuse, and he thought I might want to come to watch. My first thought, of course, was: Tyler? Weightlifting? What kind of insanity was this? The skinny kid with the clubfoot? Less out of friendship than curiosity, I agreed to go.
The regional club weightlifting championships were held in the Carrier Dome, and inside there were a hundred people speckled across bleachers that held tens of thousands. On the basketball court mats were laid out. Tyler’s skill was the clean-and-jerk, and his name was called over the PA. I’d arrived too late to take a seat by his station, so I stayed where I was across the gym while he went at his weight. He slapped his hands together to conjure a dim cloud of chalk and approached the barbell.
I marveled at the change in him. You wouldn’t even have noticed Tyler’s foot. In his tight red Cornell singlet he was an internecine collection of muscle systems. His arms shone hard like ironwood. His thighs bulged from the tight-slung legs of his singlet, and even his face had been hosed full of muscle. Tyler whipped the three-hundred pound barbell into the air and then let it fall and bounce and walked back over to the lowest step on the bleachers, where he sat down next to a man even bigger than himself. This other man was Tyler’s exact height, and even in his grey button-down you could see the deltoids pushing out for breathing room. His neck struggled against his collar. Had this man not been sitting next to Martha Klonfelder, I might never have recognized him as Tyler’s father.
As I walked over to their side of the Dome, Tyler packed up his gear and then George Klonfelder lifted his wife clear into the air, like it was the most natural thing he’d ever done, and carried her to a wheelchair along the far wall. He was just strapping her legs in when I reached them.
“The Klonfelders,” I said.
Martha Klonfelder looked up from her wheelchair and for a moment she seemed not to recognize me. Her upper body recoiled from my words as I shouted over the din of the Dome. As muscle-bound as her son and husband had become, it was Martha who had changed most drastically. Her face was aspic, waxen and oily, and her cheeks were now full and bubbly with excess. Years in a wheelchair had left her blanched and heavy.
“Well, wow,” Martha said. “David Hirsh! I wouldn’t have known you on the street with your long hair.” She took my hand in hers. I thought to comment on their appearance, but what could you say to people who seemed to have all undergone transformations you’d only find in Ovid? Tyler suggested we meet up for lunch at a restaurant on Erie Boulevard. When we arrived in separate cars it was just George and Martha and me. Tyler had gone to the locker room to change. We got a table for four.
“It’s so nice of you to come root for Tyler,” Martha said. George looked around the room. Muscles I couldn’t name tensed and relaxed involuntarily under his taut sleeves. “He’s gotten so far involved with the lifting, and all of his other friends are lifters too—to have an outsider there to cheer him on means so much.”
“Happy to be there,” I said. We talked and ordered drinks and caught up on my parents and the people we knew. “So,” I said. “What got Tyler so into the, uh, the lifting?”
Now George Klonfelder’s wide face snapped toward us. It was as if he’d forgotten we were there, and now I’d asked a question only he could answer. He wiped some sweat from his brow, put his hand lovingly on Martha’s, and said, “He’s had to help out. His mother needs it.” Martha looked down into her gin and tonic. George explained that he’d needed to put on the muscle for his loving wife. That’s how he said it—“loving wife,” though she was sitting right there and though we were meant to be talking about Tyler after all, and he reminded me of why I’d always disliked him, though now it was beginning to affect me differently—he held my eyes with his, and I can’t say what I saw there but it was something entirely new. His Creator had stuffed his face so fully since I saw him last that a thick purple vein stood out in the middle of his forehead. The rest of his body was so big his hands no longer seemed fat.
George explained that once Martha had lost the use of her legs, he’d had to start lifting her every day. He enumerated all the places he lifted her as if it was a poem he’d memorized: he lifted her into bed, out of bed; into the car, out of the car; to bring her to the beach, up the country club stairs, onto the couch, into her chair; to put her in a booth at a restaurant. At first he suffered through the pains of the lifting, he said, until he realized he was growing. He was becoming more solid. So he started lifting weights with a trainer and then got into the competitive Delmarva circuit.
“Six months to fifteen pounds of muscle mass,” George said. The air conditioning was cranked in the place but sweat was visible on his upper lip. “The next six months I started on shakes and got thirty-five pounds. Next year I’d won Senior Regionals in dead lift, bench and clean-and-jerk. This year I won everything.”
George finished telling me about his accomplishments and finally Tyler arrived. I saw now that he still limped on that balky foot, but he held his shoulders back and his head up and his body looked so disciplined you hardly noticed he had feet at all. Tyler had always been an affectionate kid and he kissed his mother on the forehead, but when George stood for a hug he just shook his father’s hand. You could almost hear the sinew crunching in their powerful grips.
“So awesome you came out for the meet, brah,” Tyler said to me. He was looking down at his menu. He looked up and scanned the room for a waitress without making eye contact. “Dying of thirst here,” Tyler said. “Fucking dying.”
“Tyler,” Martha said.
“Tyler,” George said. Tyler looked his father straight in the eyes with a withering glare.
“Well, he’s won his meet today,” Martha said. “So get yourself a drink, honey.”
Tyler barked for the waitress and ordered a Long Island iced tea, which he downed in three long, breathless gulps. He put his hand in the air again, this time with the glass in it, and the waitress saw his empty glass and brought another.
Martha asked after her son’s studies. He refused to engage her on anything but his weightlifting and we all ordered and ate and would I be exaggerating if I said that all along I was hardly even there? It was like I was granted the status of an observing therapist. They talked about finding a place to go on vacation together that summer where the walk would be short enough to carry Martha to the water and who would carry her to the water when they got there; what Tyler was going to do the following year and wherever he did it would he or would he not help out with his mother; and all along Tyler had the affect of the spoiled fifteen-year-old he’d never been at fifteen, even as his parents tried to placate him. Tyler excoriated his father for his technique in the bench press when they were lifting the day before, and for his lack of resolve, and for not ordering another drink.
“What are you sweating about, Dad?” Tyler said. “It’s freezing in here, and he’s sweating over something.” Little beads of sweat were popping up on Tyler’s forehead now, too. When Martha dropped her napkin George picked it up. George cut Martha’s chicken breast into small pieces for her, rubbed his hand up and down her back. Again Tyler gave him that withering look. “She can’t cut her own food?” Tyler said. “Let her do something for herself, would you?” No one said anything. Martha looked down at her plate like her son had some festering zit on his face and it was impolite to stare. George just sat and looked at his son without defending himself or really saying anything at all.
Finally the check came.
Outside the restaurant I gave George a hug, and bent down to kiss Martha goodbye. I told her to give a huge hug to my mother and father.
“Thanks for coming to the meet, brah,” Tyler said. He still hadn’t made eye contact with me since he’d arrived at dinner. “Didn’t expect you, but there you were.” It seemed that would be it, but before I’d turned all the way to leave Tyler finally caught my eye and said, “And shit, sorry you had to see all this.” I assumed he meant his awful behavior, the self-awareness of which confused me, so I just shook his hand and got in my car. Then, on my ride back to Colgate, across the green hills of Route 13, I realized the “this” he was referring to must have been his mother.
When I got back to Colgate that evening there was already an email from Tyler thanking me for coming to his meet, and the voice of his note was so different from that of the petulant child I’d watched at lunch that I wondered if he’d even written the email to begin with. I wrote a nice note back, saying how much I’d enjoyed seeing not just him, but his loving parents. The next day I called my mother to debrief.
“At bottom, David,” she said, “it was just very nice of you to join old family friends for lunch.”
“But what do you think is going on?” I said. “What the hell happened to that kid? I know we weren’t nice to him in school because of his foot, but come on.”
My mother said none of us knew what went on in other people’s homes or in their heads for that matter, and I in particular didn’t know what it was like to grow up with a challenge like Tyler’s foot. How hard must it be to be the Klonfelders? “Believe me, it’s not easy on any of us,” she said. “We hardly even see them anymore, and they used to be our best friends.”
I didn’t know they didn’t see each other anymore. I’d always assumed they all still spent their weekends together. George and my father were both still at Hopkins; they all still lived in the same part of Baltimore. Four years had passed since I’d lived at home, but who knew that so much had changed?
My mother told me that since my father had taken on his own lab at Hopkins he really only saw George Klonfelder at meetings. “There’s a lot you don’t know about what happens in other people’s lives,” my mother said again. “A lot you probably wouldn’t want to know, too.”
I didn’t think of the Klonfelders again until four years later. My family was invited to the Weisfeld wedding down at the Suburban Country Club in Baltimore, and even though it meant flying out of LaGuardia late on a Friday night and flying back early Sunday morning, my mother implored me to come, so I did. But before I came down to the wedding, my mother said, she had to tell me something. It was about the Klonfelders.
“George is leaving Martha,” my mother said. It had been so long since I’d last thought of my parents’ friends the first image that popped into my head was of a cartoon hippo packing a suitcase and heading for a fleabag motel. But then I said, “Whoa,” and the weight of the announcement hit me. That guy? I thought. Uxorious George Klonfelder, who’d changed his whole body and given every last bit of himself—every bit of himself I was able to see, anyway—to his beautiful wife was going to leave her? It seemed implausible.
“Wow,” I said. “I kind of can’t believe it.”
“No one can,” my mother said. “I mean, we don’t see George and Martha much anymore, but the way he gave himself to her. . . . He did all that weightlifting and everything. Just for her. Just to be able to take care of her. And now.” Without thinking another word I told her I thought he was a cad and a jerk and the worst kind of worst kind of person, but my mother kept breaking in until I let her talk.
“You can’t say that, David,” she said. Her tone was the very same one I remembered her using back when I told her about going to see Tyler Klonfelder’s meet in Syracuse. “You don’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s home, in their body.” My mother went on to tell me she supposed Martha would move to a group home, where she could get some nursing help and the help of other challenged people. George had made plenty of money off patents from his lab. He’d pay for it.
“And don’t even ask,” my mother said. “I don’t know if he’s seeing someone else, or what. I don’t know and I don’t want to know.”
My parents and I were seated at a table with the Klonfelders and for all intents and purposes just the Klonfelders. There was another Baltimore couple I remembered from shul, but I never even said hello to them and they spent the whole night on the dance floor and then at some open seats at a different table.
I saw Tyler from a distance a couple times as I mingled and I avoided him. It was hard to tell, since he was wearing a tuxedo, but he didn’t look as big as he’d been when I saw him back at college. His neck looked comfortably suited to his collar. After half an hour of walking around eating hors d’oeuvres and chatting with family friends I hadn’t seen in many years, I looked over to see George, Tyler, and Martha Klonfelder sitting on one side of the table, each staring abstractedly at the dance floor. Martha looked much as she had that day at the Carrier Dome—her face had blown up a bit more so that she looked more wrinkly and she didn’t appear to be moving her arms much, but to be honest I didn’t have it in me to look at her for too long. Martha was sitting next to Tyler, with George on the other side of his son, so I sat down next to Martha. Dinner had just been served, and while I got started on my filet I let my mother lead the conversation.
“So, Martha, you know David has taken a job with a firm in Manhattan,” she said. “They call him a one-L, because it’s his first year as a lawyer.” I tried to look my mother off—who the hell wanted to talk about me amidst all this Klonfelder madness?—but Martha nodded and smiled and said that was great. Really, only her head moved when she nodded. My mother asked Tyler if he was still into weightlifting. She knew George was still a champion, but she wasn’t going to ask him about it.
“Oh, no, that grew old for him,” George answered for his son. “Something about not enough time to study—is that right, Tyler?”
Tyler didn’t answer his father. He didn’t even look at him. He told my mother he still worked out, just wasn’t into the competitive aspects of the sport anymore. My mother said that was nice and changed the subject back to my time in law school. She told Martha about my apartment in Fort Greene and my classes at Columbia. While she talked, Tyler leaned over and cut his mother’s steak into bite-sized pieces.
“Gonna have to be smaller than that,” George Klonfelder said. He wasn’t even looking at his wife’s plate. He was staring off at the dance floor. Just as it had been in that Syracuse restaurant, his upper lip was collecting sweat.
“This is how they cut the food in the group home,” Tyler said. “Like the way regular people eat it. So that’s how I’m gonna cut it.” Tyler reached over and took a long gulp of a very tall Long Island iced tea. For all the drastic transformations the Klonfelders were undergoing, it was good to see something had stayed the same.
“Well, I’ve cut the damn food up for a decade now, son,” George said, “and I’m telling you they need to be smaller. She’ll choke on that.”
Tyler just kept on cutting the steak into the same sized pieces. George slapped his cloth napkin down on his chair and left for the bathroom. I finished eating and asked if anyone needed a drink. Tyler did. When I came back I put a Long Island iced tea in front of him and sat in the chair George had vacated and asked Tyler how weightlifting was going. I knew my mother had just gotten an answer to the same question, but it was on my mind and sometimes when I’m nervous I can only think to ask the exact thing I don’t mean to ask.
“No more time for all that noise, brah,” Tyler said. He didn’t look me in the eyes as he explained that after Cornell he’d moved back to his parents’ house. They set up a room in the basement and he stayed around to help out with Martha. He spent a couple years working as a tech in his father’s lab and then got a masters in chemistry. Now he was in Trenton, working for Pfizer. I thought I might ask him if he missed his mother up there, or what he thought of what was going on between his parents, when a feeling welled up in me that I remembered all too well—it was the same feeling I used to get when Tyler came to our house after the high holidays, a feeling of wanting to ask him all kinds of things about his experience of the world, but then being unable to.
This time I fought through it. I asked him if he had a girlfriend. “You’re so fit now,” I said. “Even without the weightlifting, you must really do well.”
Tyler smiled a little, but he didn’t answer because he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was looking out at the dance floor, and he said, “Just look at that fucking asshole.”
I looked up half expecting to see Saul Steinhorn, a kid from our gym class who used to tease Tyler, asking him if he was going to climb the rope that afternoon. Instead it was George Klonfelder. He was out on the dance floor. His white tuxedo shirt was soaked through, and you could see the bulge of his lats along his sides as he lifted his right arm to let someone’s daughter twirl around. My stomach sank. But then I realized this girl was maybe fourteen. There was no chance this was the woman he was seeing— if he was seeing someone at all. I watched George twirl and dip this young girl and then pass her off to two women about my age, maybe a little older. One was an Indian woman in a purple dress that was probably Vera Wang but looked like it would have fit in at a prom. The other was platinum blonde in a white strapless. George danced between the two, never getting too close or too far. Tyler had stopped watching already.
Again I started to say something, but now what was there to say? Tyler looked up at me, looked me in the eyes for the first time since the end of that day in Syracuse.
“Tell me the truth, brah,” he said. I sat ramrod straight. “What did you really think when you saw me lifting at Syracuse? You don’t have to blow smoke. Was I pathetic?”
“You were just really different,” I said.
“But what did you think?” Tyler said.
What did I think that afternoon? Did I know enough to put it to words? Time was suddenly moving very fast. I had to say something honest.
“I thought you’d changed a lot,” I said. I reached out and took a sip from my Jack and Coke. “I think I thought for a second what a shit I’d been to you all those years.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Tyler said. “What did you think when you saw Mom, is what I mean. Did you know she’d been the one who wrote you the email to bring you out that afternoon?” I said I didn’t, but that I’d thought of it when I got the second email when I got home.
“Actually,” Tyler said, “that one I wrote. You wrote me such a kick-ass note back.” We sat like that for another couple minutes, listening as the band played “Disco Inferno.” I scanned the dance floor for George Klonfelder but didn’t see him. My parents returned from dancing. Salad was served after the main course, like we were in Italy. Martha didn’t say much, but my father chatted Tyler up about his drug research job, and they all talked across me, and I was thankful I didn’t have to say anything.
When the time seemed right I excused myself, pleading bathroom but instead going for a cigarette. Two girls were out there. One bummed me an American Spirit. They were the women from the dance floor, the George Klonfelder girls. They talked to each other. The night was cloudless but we were too close to the city for complete dark. Out along a dense stand of pines that cut the country club off from Park Heights Avenue, the city glowed pink. The prom-dress girl asked if I’d gone to Owings Mills High.
“Yup,” I said. She was very pretty, with a nose so thin in the middle it almost had no bridge, and thin eggplant-colored lips. “Class of ninety-four.”
“Whoa, old man!” the strapless platinum girl said. “We’re ninety-niners.” I talked to them and became a little interested in the Indian one, so when she offered me another cigarette I took it and lit it and then George Klonfelder came out. He was soaked all the way through his shirt now. You could see the squiggles of black hair showing beneath his wet silk shirt like some kind of ancient Aramaic script. The girls giggled. George asked if he could bum a cigarette. The girls giggled again, whether at the lurid spectacle of this homunculus in his wet shirt or the fact that a fifty-year-old man had said “bum” I don’t know, and the platinum girl gave him an American Spirit and lit it for him. They talked to him about his dance moves, and which songs he did which moves to, and it was very, very hard to tell if they were flirting with him or making fun of him.
George was remarkably stoic in the face of this. He held his arms at his sides, but he was so muscular they wouldn’t lie flat. It made him look forever ready to jump. He sweated and sweated, and as he talked to these girls he kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye without acknowledging me. He lifted his cigarette for a shallow puff.
“For someone in such good shape,” I said, “you’d think cigarettes would be taboo.” This was probably the first thing I’d said directly to George Klonfelder since I was a teenager. He jumped at the sound of my voice. He took another shallow puff.
“Stress relief,” he said, and that was it. He talked to the girls some more and then they each stepped out their cigarettes and went inside so quickly George and I were left standing there. I took a step back and leaned against the wall. George stayed standing as he was. He swayed just a little forward and then just a little backward. Out across the field the pines swayed with him in the heavy summer air, their tops black and waving against the pink sky.
“You never liked me when you were a kid,” George said. “Back before you had real reason not to like me, you didn’t like me.”
I started to say something but George put one of his large hands up in the air.
“No, no, this is one of those things we never say to each other—that kids act just like they want and adults pretend not to care for the sake of the kids’ parents, but adults, they know. They know what the kids think. You’re an adult now, even if you don’t have kids yet yourself, and you must know it. You were ashamed of Tyler, and for whatever reason, before there was a real reason not to like me like there is now, you never liked me.”
We stopped to take in the painful admission of self-knowledge, and the permanence of leaving his ailing wife, buried in what George Klonfelder had just said.
“I could always take that, of course,” George continued. “People don’t have to like me. But what I couldn’t handle was, you clearly didn’t like Martha. No one didn’t like Martha. She was the most beautiful woman in this town, and she was my wife. And there was some little shit, the kid of our best friends, who didn’t like her. That I couldn’t take.”
George put the American Spirit to his lips. He took a shallow breath and then spit the smoke out. He threw the cigarette on the ground and stepped on it. The butt kept smoldering. George made no move to step it out again.
“George and Martha,” I said.
“It’s not that I didn’t like you,” I said. “I haven’t thought about it in a long, long time. But it was just because you were named George and Martha, like those little books about the hippos named George and Martha. So I didn’t like you all, yeah, because of the names. Silly.”
The muscles in George’s forearms flexed involuntarily against his wet shirt. I saw him look down at his hands. His shoulders dropped just the slightest bit. Maybe he found something meaningful in what I’d said. Maybe he was thinking how sad it was that he couldn’t go back to Martha now and tell her why I was always so rude to them when I was a kid. He said no. He said, no, no, that’s not that silly, actually. Surprisingly, he said, that made some sense.
“I guess that’s a reason,” he said. “I guess when you’re a kid that’s a reason not to like someone. I guess we have our reasons.”
“It wasn’t just that,” I said. I didn’t mean to be speaking out loud but it continued. “You were always just so doting on her. You two were always just so openly in love and I think when I was a kid I found it, well . . . I guess then the word I would’ve used would have been mushy. I don’t know if there’s a word for it now. Mushy sounds so juvenile.”
George was staring right at me. The dark trees were moving still against the pink sky. The very sides of his eyes seemed to turn down, and involuntarily his deltoids and his biceps flexed.
“Happy,” George said. Then he turned around and walked inside.
Would you believe it if I said the rest of the night I danced with the thin-nosed Indian girl in the purple dress? That she and I saw each other regularly for more than a year after that night, but that she broke it off one night and I never found out the reason? There are reasons and there are reasons and there are reasons, and my reason for dancing that night was that when you were dancing you weren’t talking, and when you weren’t talking you weren’t talking about what lay behind the wide, flat face of George Klonfelder.
My parents danced, too, but I never once danced with my mother. I should have asked her; probably I should have spent time with Tyler and Martha Klonfelder. They sat at their table the rest of the night—Martha was in a wheelchair, after all, and it was only later I considered that, as far as he’d come, Tyler Klonfelder probably couldn’t dance on a balky foot. But I had nothing to say to Tyler, and whenever they weren’t dancing my parents sat and talked to Martha. When I looked around I would see George Klonfelder out there dancing, too. His sweaty shirt, his giant muscles, his wide, flat face all trapped him in whatever was the very opposite of happiness. Whenever I saw him, I looked away as fast as I could.
© by Daniel Torday. Used by permission of the author.
As if fresh, confident short fiction weren’t enough, Daniel Torday has also written—directly or indirectly—about the future of publishing in a couple of heartfelt recent pieces: check them out in the Kenyon Review and the Huffington Post.