Simon Hardy Butler
was only 13 when Dad started giving his money away.
We were living in Manhattan at the time,
in a small apartment off West End Avenue. Our building, a slim co-op, stood between two
brownstones, so it looked like a granite sandwich. I had just come home from school to
find my father in the foyer, writing a check.
“Son,” he said, putting it in an envelope and licking
it closed, “send this to your grandma. Don’t lose it.”
“How much are you giving her?” I asked.
Grandma, as everyone knew, was rich, so something didn’t make sense. Dad, however,
gave me a blank stare.
of it as repayment. Debt repayment.”
Debt repayment? I took this to my
mother, who didn’t seem to be in the loop.
“We don’t owe her anything,” she said
sternly. “I’ll speak to your father.”
That night, I heard their discussion from my room down
the hall. A lot of shouting, some scattered swearing. Mom certainly wasn’t a fan
of her mother-in-law, but they’d never argued about her before. It was always in
soft voices, neutral sounds. This time, they were really yelling.
“You’re going to bankrupt us,” I heard
let me do it,” said my father. “I’ve got to pay her back.”
“For what? She didn’t
do anything when John was born. This crap’s from the past.”
Listening, listening. Amazingly,
Dad won. With a huff, Mom decided she’d “had enough” and wasn’t
going to “deal with him.” So he won. The next day, I found the envelope on
my desk after school, with a note beside it: Please
I did. And that was the start of Dad’s obsession
with giving away money.
say this with a caveat; he didn’t give away everything. Plus, he didn’t give
it to people who, perhaps, needed it. For example, when we passed a beggar on the street,
he didn’t look at him. Just walked by. I asked him about it once, and he told me
“they don’t deserve it.” That led me to wonder why he gave a check for
a hundred bucks to the guy at the deli.
“I’m supporting our local businesses,”
he said, as Mom rolled her eyes. I was surprised she didn’t stop him. The deli owner,
of course, didn’t argue.
“Come back soon,” he said, giving me a piece of bologna.
Something was discussed between
Mom and Dad that allowed all this generosity. Perhaps she found it endearing rather
than puzzling; she did say that she married him because of his “good heart.”
And as a professional editor with plenty of work, he was never short of cash. Money was
always around him, and it never seemed to disappear.
Later, after I graduated college, Mom told me she accepted
it after a while. “He doesn’t do it every day,” she said. “Just
sometimes. Maybe he likes the service they give him at the shoe store. Gives them back
a couple of bucks. They never reject him.”
Perhaps not, but a person from his past certainly did.
I caught him writing a check one Monday evening after coming across town from work. “What
are you up to?” I asked, checking the name. It read: Mrs.
Nancy Fowler. “Nancy Fowler?”
“I’ve already told your mother,” he said tiredly.
His hair, now getting gray, still wafted by his ears like a small breeze, his glistening
eyes dark in the white light. “Nancy was always good to me.”
“But she’s your ex-wife.
You don’t even talk to her.”
He glanced at me as if embarrassed, then
put the check in an envelope. “I’m going to send this myself, thank you very
much. She’ll be happy.”
A week later, Mom told me what resulted. “She sent it back,”
she said, “with a note. Don’t contact
me again. She typed it.”
“Maybe Dad’s crazy,” I said. “He could be
senile. Is it getting worse?”
“He never gives on the street. Just sends out a check once
in a while. I notice it in our statement. She’s the first to reject it.”
“Maybe others will follow
suit. Maybe that’ll stop him.”
But it didn’t. I know this because Mom
called me one evening after I came home from dinner with friends. “He sent $5,000
to his mother.”
thousand dollars? What happened?”
“She deposited it. I’ve started talking to him again.
He just says it’s all debt. Not sure I can live like this, John. I’m at my
him a psychiatrist,” I said.
He already had one; it didn’t help. From
a clinical standpoint, he was depressed, yet I still wasn’t convinced. There was
something more to it, something stronger. He wasn’t just sending out money because
he was blue; he was doing it for other reasons.
I took the liberty of confronting him one Sunday dinner
as he and I took drinks into the living room. “How’s the medicine treating
you?” I asked.
he said, smiling. We both had brandies.
“You’re sending out loads of money.
Mom’s getting worried.”
“I’ve spoken to her. She’s fine.”
“Is there any other reason you’re doing
he lowered his eyes, wobbling his glass a little. “I’m not worried about anything,”
“Worry. It doesn’t bother me. I’m sane,
I’ve got a family. I’m just depressed.”
“But, I mean, this giving away money thing. You’ve
done it for 20 years. What started it? Why do you do it?”
He looked at me. “Common courtesy,” he said.
I sipped my drink. What a crock
of shit. At this rate, I wouldn’t find out his rationale until his death, and I couldn’t
wait that long.
came to a head on July Fourth, as we made preparations to watch the fireworks together.
Mom put on a soft blue dress, her dyed-black hair highlighting her wide, pale-green eyes.
Dad wore shorts, his veined, wrinkled legs shaking as he moved. We took a walk in
Riverside Park while the sun was setting, and all the people around us witnessed the light
shadowing the water. Standing together, I felt like we were part of a group of friends
that only saw each other once a year – not enough to maintain ties. I patted Mom’s
shoulder with my free hand. Then Dad decided to do something rash.
He tapped the arm of the fellow
next to him.
This was a tall, bearded man, with a belly and a shirt
printed with the words “Bacon is my first love.” Dad suddenly took out a dollar
and put it in the guy’s pocket.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked the fellow angrily.
“Giving … “
murmured my father. “Giving away.”
The dude took the bill out of his pocket
and threw it at Dad’s chest. “Don’t touch me again. I’ll fuck you up, you old
stepped between them. “He didn’t mean any harm,” I said.
“What is this dollar shit?
I’m not poor.”
“Please forgive him. He just … he likes
to give money.”
guy looked at me. “He’d better start giving a lot more. That’s all I
was enough to spur a move to another area. I had a hard time getting Dad to walk away;
he protested so much. “I was just trying to help him,” he said. A couple of
people looked at us as we strode back a bit toward the entrance.
I said. Mom, on the other hand, seemed less frustrated.
“Cut him some slack,” she said.
“I think he’s seeking recognition.”
My father winced at me. I knew, then,
that Mom had finally found the answer.
It turned out that I did get a chance to speak to Dad about that
before he died. It wasn’t in a romantic way, like on his deathbed or anything. Instead,
it was in his den, as we were watching the baseball game on TV. I asked him if recognition
was something he’d always missed.
“I never got it,” he said, “so how could
I miss it?”
point. “But we recognize you,” I said. “You’re my dad. You’re
a husband, a father, a provider. We’ve always thanked you.”
“That’s all private.
Not public. I never got in the movies, in the paper. I just want … recognition.”
turned down the volume. “Recognition. That you’re a person. That you exist.
That you’re not just an ordinary Joe, living with your family. That you’re
not just a hard worker who does everything to help his lifestyle. That you’re different,
a little off-kilter. That you’re known for something else. Recognition. Is that too
much to ask?”
I didn’t answer him at the time, but I finally
understood what he was talking about. While we watched, Mom brought out some cookies and
beer, and then sat with us for a bit reading a book as we ate and drank. The next day,
I heard that he died in his sleep as Mom read beside him. I knew that wasn’t the
kind of recognition that he wanted, but he did get it anyway, even if it wasn’t how
movie stars became famous – or even notorious. When I asked Mom if it was painful,
she told me “he was just dreaming,” and there couldn’t have been any
pain because “he’d already completed his life’s work.” To some
people that would’ve meant creating a viable family, living a happy life. To him
it meant something else.
it any less worthy? I wondered. Perhaps not, though I couldn’t have been less mad
at him for going about it the wrong way.
Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in Forest Hills, NY. His short
stories have been published in Beyond
Centauri and Golden Visions Magazine;
his film-centric blog may be found at cinemablogishkeit.com.