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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Fast red car

Of the few famous people we’ve counted as friends (none of whom behaved famously), Jack certainly was one––recipient of the French Legion of Honor for scholarship and the advancement of French culture here in the States. To hear him speak about France and what it had given to America (its freedom, its Constitution) was to witness something close to spousal devotion.

Lynne knew Jack long before I did. She had interviewed for a teaching job at a small, heaven-on-earth university where Jack was department chair. Jack spent a day showing Lynne around. It was a plum job. Jack offered it to Lynne; Lynne turned it down. On the same day Lynne had received an offer from Penn State (where a hayseed Canadian graduate student was waiting to meet her).

You’re the young lady who turned me down, Jack recalled when we met him several years later. We had asked him to be on the board of our literary journal. Not only did he accept (forgiving all) but to the end was a huge auxiliary motor in the enterprise.

A funny Jack story: we often stayed with Jack and Ruth in their lovely Victorian home in the countryside five or six miles from the university. Ruth, one morning, was late getting up and Jack set about making breakfast. Hoping to keep things simple, Lynne suggested Cheerios. Cheerios? Do you mean these, Jack asked, presenting a very old yellow box. Lynne assented. Another twenty minutes went by, Jack banging in the kitchen like a John Cage percussionist. We were at last summoned to the dining room table. A bowl sat at each of our places. In the bottom of each bowl, impeccably arranged, were fifteen perfect cheerios.

The old house, grand as it was, was in need of a lot of work, including a new roof, new windows, exterior and interior paint, a new kitchen. Cost? A fortune. On a shelf in the living room stood four ceramic pieces, all painted by Picasso, top-of-the-line beauties that Jack had purchased for a song as a young man in Paris. He was a close friend of Picasso’s mistress, Françoise Gilot and Françoise got them for Jack. We didn’t see Jack and Ruth for half a year, and when we returned the house was transformed. It shone. The lights all worked. The toilets flushed. And missing from the shelf were two of the Picassos.

Jack and Ruth were friends with a couple in their town who owned grocery stores all over Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. Very rich, of course, they collected modern art. Their home was the Museum of Modern Art condensed to the size of a house. Jack was intent that Lynne and I should see it. In due course a date was established, our hosts were fabulously gracious, showing us every piece they had, from Matisse to Julian Schnabel. Then we sat down in the dining room for coffee and cookies. The cookies almost broke our teeth. Bob, his wife nearly shrieked, you brought home seconds again.

Ruth’s funeral was the first Jewish funeral I had ever attended. I was blown away by the elegant austerity of the service, the coffin (a bare, simple, carpenter-made pine box) and the burial on a windblown hill under ancient pines, the cantor singing like a heart-broken bird. Sorrow almost killed Jack, he seemed harried, thinner, often bewildered. But then he began to revive. He went on living in the grand old house in the country. With two Picassos.

Then one day he appeared at our door. Parked in the driveway was a brand new, cherry red Pontiac Crossfire. Sexy as hell. Jack, I could only exclaim, that yours? Jack was close to eighty. He nodded and smiled in his courtly way: Let’s take it for a spin. We did. Jack let me drive. Out on the highway we opened it up and yeah, the car was a cannonball.

But Jack, I said, you didn’t go out and buy this. No, I woke up last week and there it was, parked on my driveway, wrapped in red ribbons. There was a note on the seat, Drive across America, go anywhere you want, signed by the grocery store man.

Were there cookies, I asked, on the passenger seat?

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