Sometimes, it’s difficult to be honest and charming at the same time. I set out to write a touching Father’s Day tribute, only to discover that trying to credit my love of writing to my father was like spreading a daub of butter over yards of bread. It’s not that he didn’t encourage me. He did. It’s just that his greatest gift to me in that regard was in leaving me to develop my talent on my own terms without budding in. Had he pressured me to write or even encouraged me more often than he did, writing may have felt like his idea instead of mine, and his praise may have ended up being less of a testimony to my talent than a tacit (though perhaps unintentional) tribute to himself. Any father who enjoys praising his children to other people can tell you how this is done. They may not mean to make their children’s accomplishments about themselves, but oftentimes, they do.
So much for the honesty. The charm, if any, lies in the following story. It’s not really about my father, but he’s tangled up in it somehow, as all fathers always are.
It was a rainy day in ’96 or ’97 when the strangers were first sighted from a house across the road, but it was later rumored that they had already been in the neighborhood for some time. No sooner did they sense that they were being observed than they began hammering and yammering to be let back inside. A canon would have been less conspicuous than their attempts to preserve their anonymity.
This extraordinary behavior was accompanied by the most eccentric apparel. The younger gentleman was dressed in the kind of sweatpants that were popular during that decade, but instead of wearing them in the usual fashion, he had pulled up the elastic ankle bands and folded the excess fabric over his knees. This snazzy innovation was complimented by a very large green and white gingham dress shirt, a multicolored striped tie, a spiffing pair of black and white saddle shoes, and a brown plaid flat cap. The witness of this strange apparition stated that the entire outfit resembled something between the shooting attire of a British aristocrat and the workaday wear of an American newsie. Perhaps if she could have had a closer look, she would have been more impressed by the man’s gold class pin, brown leather wallet, broken key chain watch, plastic
monocle, and tin signet rings.
These gentlemen claimed to be great friends of Charles Dickens, with whom my father was familiar. They introduced themselves as Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, and Mr. Nathaniel Winkle.
My father’s brow furrowed. “Of The Pickwick Papers?”
Mr. Winkle glanced at his associate and bit his nails. Mr. Pickwick gave a start of surprise that could have been seen in twenty counties if we had been outside.
“Sir, am I to understand that our secret society has become a matter of common knowledge?”
“I didn’t say anything about a secret society,” my father began.
“The Pickwick Club and Portfolio,” Mr. Pickwick interrupted, producing a gilt-edged card. “We changed the name a bit, you see.”
My father, who had forgotten that his glasses were on top of his head, held the card at arm’s length. Over his shoulder, I could read it quite clearly.
Mr. Alfred Jaggers
“You can say that again,” my father said, handing it back to him.
If he expected Mr. Pickwick to look at it and realize his mistake, he was disappointed. The man had embarked on a story in which he appeared to play the leading part, and he seemed to think that the card he now had in hand was my father’s. He held it gingerly for a moment or two before passing it to Mr. Winkle, who pocketed it without a glance. Mr. Pickwick daintily wiped his fat, greasy fingers on a dirty handkerchief and continued his tale. By making him repeat himself several times, we were finally given to understand that life was not mimicking art but that art was mimicking them.
“Come again?” my father said.
“My dear Mr. Daggers,” Mr. Pickwick said in exasperation, “even a charlatan must be capable of seeing the truth by now.” My father opened his mouth at “Daggers” but closed it again at “charlatan.” “We are not recreating Dickens. Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers about the four of us.”
“The four of us . . . ?” my father prompted, letting the sentence hang.
“Oh, good heavens! not about you people.” Mr. Pickwick was aghast. He did not appear to notice that there were actually five of us present, including my older sister. “Naturally, I am referring to Mr. Winkle, Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, Mr. Tracy Tupman, and myself. We are traveling the world, gathering anecdotes for our Portfolio, which we hope to publish in the utmost secrecy and distribute among our friends. But alas! the continual prying of various landladies has rendered our modest labor quite Herculean.”
He paused to dry a melancholy tear and elbowed Mr. Winkle, who obediently blew his nose in a silk polka-dot handkerchief.
By the time the conversation ended, it was clear that my father had bought their story hook, line, and sinker. He gave them permission to hold their secret meetings in our basement and even loaned them some spare clothes that he kept in the attic.
“It can’t be true,” I told my sister later.
“Of course it isn’t,” she said scornfully.
I looked at her in surprise. “How do you know?”
“Because their clothes are all wrong. Nineteenth-century gentlemen don’t dress like that.”
“Oh,” I said, “that.”
She looked at me curiously. “Why? What were you talking about?”
“Nothing. Never mind. We can’t tell him.”
She knew I meant our father. “Of course not,” she said, more emphatically than before, but I could tell that she was waiting for me to explain why.
“The poor dear would feel so set upon if we told him the truth,” I sighed, watching her out of the corner of my eye. “We have to help him figure it out on his own.” Her face was still puckered in concentration. “It’s a guy thing.”
Her face cleared. “Exactly.”
“So, what should we do about Tweedledum and Tweedledee?” I prompted, as if I didn’t already know. I didn’t want her to think that I was getting too far ahead of her.
“Oh! spy on them, of course. We need to find out what they’re really up to so that we have something to expose.”
The logic of this was infallible but much harder to put into practice than we anticipated. The mysterious meetings had been taking place in our basement for several weeks before we discovered that the door that led to our side yard had a crack in it. By making the crack a bit wider on a day the Pickwickians were not there, we made an astonishing discovery.
To Be Continued After a Patriotic Interlude