Victory Gardens – Chapter 103

Novel

Mutty and Mama take heart over Papa’s recovery. Papa reads the letter from Hearst and prepares to meet him.

*   *   *

Mutty nearly choked over the strong smell of cigar smoke as he and Papa entered the inner chambers of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst would later become a friend of the Jews, but at this stage of his life he was filled with mistrust for them.

He swung around in his oversized chair to face the two men after his secretary ushered them in.

“It’s about time you showed up,” he said by way of greeting.

Mutty could sense Papa keeping his anger in check.  “I beg your pardon,” he replied.

“You’re a day late and a dollar short,” Hearst grunted.

“What is that supposed to mean?” said Mutty. “Speak English.”

“Who invited you here? This is my office. I’ll speak whatever way I want.”

“Is my son in danger?” asked Papa, a low, steely note entering his voice.

“He had no business being on my airship,” said Hearst.

“The trip was bought and paid for,” said Papa. “It was a private arrangement between myself and the Captain.”

“Well the Captain had no business making such an arrangement on my dime. And then your kid gets his mug on the cover of the newspaper. Now everyone calls me the Jew Keeper.”

“That’s disgusting…” Papa said. “…and we have no business with that. My son here, Edward Mark Rothstein, was declared missing after the recent massacre in Hebron. I sent my eldest son, Emanuel, over to Hebron to search for him. It was an emergency and time was of the essence. The captain is a fellow-countryman, and he had the decency to allow my son passage. As captain of the ship he was well within his rights, regardless of whose ‘dime’ it was.”

At first, Hearst acted indifferent, but as Mutty’s close call in the massacre became clear, he sat up suddenly. “Really?” he leaned forward and looked hard at Mutty. “You were there?”

“I didn’t see the attacks with my own eyes; I fled for my life just before the Arabs struck. I saw the aftermath. It was gruesome.” The memories were still deeply painful to Mutty, but if it could in any way protect his brother, he would dig as deeply as necessary.

“Say, can I have one of my reporters interview you?”

“If you make sure my brother is safe, I’ll consider it,” said Mutty.

Hearst thought a moment and granted them a small, tight smile. “I’ll see what I can do. I honestly don’t know if I’ll reach my men in time.”

“You must reach them,” said Papa. “You must. He sent for his wife and she is there with him.”

“Yeah, I know. They’re awaiting a blessed event, aren’t they?”

“Is that some sort of a sick joke?” said Mutty. “It’s not funny.”

“We know nothing about that,” said Papa in a strained voice. He didn’t know which of Hearst’s words were true and relevant, and which needed to be discarded. His judgment was weak and his eyes were beginning to glaze over as he became confused.

When Mutty realized that Papa was nearing the end of his strength, he took him by the arm, pretending to Hearst that he was leaning on his father for support and not the other way around.

“We’ll expect to hear from you later today Mr. Hearst. Don’t miss the opportunity,” said Mutty.

“Visit is over,” said Hearst, waving them away. “And in case you were wondering, the interview will run on the first year anniversary of the massacre, because we’ll need a new angle by then. A good story never goes out of style.”

As he and Papa stepped out of Hearst’s office, Mutty realized that he was shaking and his heart was pounding. Never before had he attempted to stand up to an authority figure, and here he was asserting himself to one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America. If it hadn’t been so frightening, Mutty might have laughed at the absurdity of it.

But he was too worried about Papa to exult in his triumph. Papa had said nothing as Mutty led him out of the building, and his silence only deepened during the ride home in the cab. But before he walked into the house, he straightened his frock coat. He withdrew an ironed and starched handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Only when these ablutions were complete did he allow Mutty to open the door to the building for him. Papa pulled himself up to his full height as they stood outside the door of the apartment, and Mutty could see what an effort it was. He knocked lightly on the door so as not to startle Mama, and stood back so Papa could enter first.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“He’ll do what we requested,” said Papa. “He listened to us.”

Papa’s account was somewhat exaggerated, but truthful enough to ensure that Mama wouldn’t worry. And that was how Mutty knew that Papa was pretty close to his old self again.

To be continued . . .