My father met Mr. Wigglesworth somewhat by chance during the Second World War because a Nazi submarine torpedoed their ship. Mr. Wigglesworth was a member of the ship's companyat that time he was a bakerwhile my father belonged to an artillery unit en route to England. The fact that they scrambled into the same lifeboat surprised me a little, but they did, and during the next three days they became good friends. After the war their friendship continued. Mr. Wigglesworth lived in Seattle, where he worked as a baker for quite a few years, but eventually opened a restaurant of his own. We lived in San Francisco, where my father was a stockbroker. Several times he came to visit us, and to visit another friend named Cabot whom he had known in the merchant marine. Mr. Cabot, who became an official of some labor union, would be invited to our home when Mr. Wigglesworth was in town. I looked forward to these occasions. I loved to stare at Mr. Cabot, a small dignified gentleman with flowing brown hair and a face like a horse, and I knew Mr. Wigglesworth would talk and talk and talk. Once in a while my father or Mr. Cabot would tell him to pipe down, but this never stopped him. On and on he went, on and on. I used to imagine him in the lifeboat, talking and talking while they floated over the waves.
My first memory of him was on Thanksgiving Day when I was five or six years old. In honor of the holiday he wore an orange vest. He had merry blue eyes and pink skin and he was fat. I thought he smelled like cinnamon. I remember him walking toward me and my sister. He was carrying a basket of fruit and he was grinning. Then all at once he fell down on the carpet. Mr. Wigglesworth is sick, I told my sister. She was four years older and she shook her head with her lips pressed together. No, she said, Mr. Wigglesworth is drunk. I was not sure what that meant, but because my sister was older I knew she must be right.
He had met Richard Nixon. That is to say, he had what might be called an encounter with Mr. Nixon, who was then Vice-President. This happened in Seattle, and we heard the story every time he came visiting. Two secret service agents appeared at the restaurant and told him that the Vice-President together with Mrs. Nixon and another couple would be dining there at eight o'clock on a certain date. The secret service agents wished to inspect the premises and said they would like to select Mr. Nixon's table. Mr. Wigglesworth showed them around. They opened doors. They peered out windows. They examined the fire escape. They explored the kitchen. The restaurant was on the second floor with a nice view of Puget Sound, and they stood for a while at the top of the winding staircase. At last they decided where the Vice-President's party would be seated.
Mr. Wigglesworth was flattered that his restaurant had been chosen, but he did not like Richard Nixon and while telling about their meeting he would refer to the Vice-President as a fascist, prefacing this noun with a hyphenated adjective if my mother was not present. Nevetheless, when the big night arrived he greeted the Nixon party and escorted them to their table.
At this point while telling the story he would pause. Although his listeners had heard it many times, Mr. Wigglesworth invariably paused before announcing that he himself took the Vice-President's order. Then his face would begin to change color and his jowls would tremble while he furiously smoked a cigarette. I liked this part of the story. I always wondered if he would fall down on the carpet.
Do you know what that Mother ordered? he would ask with an expression of disbelief. Do you know? Do you know what that Mother ordered at my restaurant?
We knew the answer because he always shouted: Salisbury steak!
The first time I heard this I asked in a shrill little voice what Salisbury steak was and my father explained that it was a fancy name for hamburger.
Whenever Mr. Wigglesworth talked about Richard Nixon he would begin to shout and wave his arms. I thought he must be choking or mosquitoes were biting him. His restaurant had been chosen because it was one of the finest on the West Coast. My father had shown me pictures of it in a magazine. It was a famous restaurant, but the Vice-President of the United States ordered hamburger.
The astounding tale continued. Mr. Wigglesworth told the Vice-President that his restaurant did not serve Salisbury steak.
Do you know what happened? Unbelievable! I couldn't believe it! That fascist Mother looked at me and said: Manage it. Mr. Wigglesworth lowered his voice when he imitated the Vice-President: Manage it. Can you believe that? Listen, I'll tell you something else. Nixon's eyes don't have any pupils. That Mother looked at me and his eyes don't have any pupils. Unbelievable!
Next we would be told how he went to the kitchen to talk with Octave, the chef. Octave had been carving something when Mr. Wigglesworth asked him to prepare a Salisbury steak. Octave was French and he was temperamental. When Mr. Wigglesworth asked him to chop up a filet mignon, Octave began slashing the air with his knife. At this point Mr. Wigglesworth's face would express terror because he could not guess what Octave might do. Octave might rush into the dining room and attack the Vice-President.
That was the end of the story. I always felt disappointed. I wanted Octave to chase Vice-President Nixon out of the restaurant with a butcher knife. I imagined Octave screaming French curses while chasing Mr. Nixon down the spiral staircase and all the way through Seattle, but it was not to be.
Mr. Wigglesworth usually ended the story by telling us that at least Nixon didn't order cottage cheese. The first time he said this I turned to my father because I didn't understand. My father said the Vice-President loved cottage cheese with catsup and I almost threw up.
Another time the FBI wanted to question Octave, who was not a United States citizen. This happened during the McCarthy era. Mr. Wigglesworth's eyes would bulge and he would begin swearing when he told us how he ordered the FBI agents out of his restaurant.
There were other stories just as familiar. We heard about the torpedoing whenever he came to visit. I liked the explosion and fire and the ship sinking and soldiers and sailors jumping into lifeboatswhich Mr. Wigglesworth described with flailing arms and desperate criesbut most of all I liked the submarine. It surfaced very near the lifeboat. A German officer climbed out and began to study the burning transport through binoculars. Then he lowered the binoculars. He had a monocle attached to a black ribbon around his neck.
A Prussian! Mr. Wigglesworth exclaimed. And he would stretch his face to show us what the German did. Can you believe it? That Mother had a monocle!
Next we would be told what the U-boat commander said while the lifeboat slid greasily up and down in the enormous deadly shadow of the submarine:
Chentlemen, vich amonk you iss de kapdain?
Nobody spoke until Mr. Wigglesworth stood up and claimed to be the captain.
The German officer stared at Mr. Wigglesworth for a long time. Finally he gave them a compass bearing to the nearest land. And just before submerging he called out: Chentlemen, Gott speed.
I couldn't believe it! Mr. Wigglesworth always said. Unbelievable!
If a Nazi commanded the submarine they would have been massacred, but this was a middle-aged civilized Prussian.
Another favorite story was the affair with a mysterious Danish countess. If my mother was in the room he didn't tell it, and when I was very young my father would suggest that I go outside and play. This also happened during the war, some months after he had been torpedoed. He was in the South Pacific aboard a cruise ship requisitioned by the government, baking cakes and pies and frying doughnuts for American soldiers en route to Australia. Being a cruise ship, it quite naturally had a swimming pool, but the pool had been drained and filled with sacks of sugar. I remember thinking that a swimming pool full of sugar was an awful lot. I thought the United States might be planning to give a bag to everybody in Australia.
The countess shared a stateroom with three Army nurses. I asked why she was going to Australia. Mr. Wigglesworth belched. He leaned toward me and wrinkled his eyebrows. His head reminded me of a cantaloupe. She was a spy! he whispered. I thought he was teasing but I wasn't sure. I could smell whisky and tobacco and I thought he might be angry. I imagined those American soldiers bowing to the countess so I didn't understand how Mr. Wigglesworth got acquainted with her because I knew that bakers wore floppy white hats and always had flour on their hands. I was going to ask, but I could tell that my father and Mr. Cabot didn't want to hear any more.
He said he hollowed out a nest among the sugar sacks and invited the countess to join him for a little recreation. Dewey, that's enough, Mr. Cabot said. Mr. Wigglesworth went right on talking. He grinned and licked his lips and winked at me and all at once hopped out of his chair while he pretended to be grabbing a woman's breast. Then he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeve. There on his arm was a tattoo of a girl wearing a grass skirt. I thought I would get one just like it.
As soon as the maid announced supper he would jump to his feet and scurry toward the dining room. When my sister and I were little our family used to visit the zoo. I liked to watch the rhinocerous trot around clip-clop-clip-clop on those crusty little hooves and always said to myself there goes Mr. Wigglesworth to the table.
He liked to smoke during supper, which my mother hated. If he reached into his jacket for a cigarette I would look at her, but she was too polite to say anything. My father didn't like it either and he told Mr. Wigglesworth. It didn't make any difference. One time he blew a cloud of smoke at a bouquet in the middle of the table. Then he said, Oh shit! and began flapping his hands at the smoke.
I didn't mind that he talked so much and I envied his adventurous life. It seemed to me that he had experienced just about everything. He had sailed to Norway and China and Guatemala and been torpedoed and made love to a countess on a sugar sack and he had looked Vice-President Nixon in the eye.
That was not all. When he was a boy he met some Wobblies. During the great economic depression his parents would feed hungry men who tramped the roads looking for work and many years afterward somebody knocked at the door. There stood a man in a cheap suit, followed by half a dozen laborers. Sonny, the leader said, is your folks at home?
These were the Wobblies. They had come to repay a debt.
I shook hands with Big Mike Mulligan! Mr. Wigglesworth exclaimed while telling the story. Big Mike Mulligan! And he would show us the palm of his right hand. Big Mike! Unbelievable!
All of this came back to me when I saw Mr. Cabot on the street. He walked with a cane. His mustache and his long brown hair had turned white. His ears were bigger than I remembered. I didn't know how old he was. He could have been ninety. In one of my schoolbooks there was a picture of Alexander the Great on his noble steed Bucephalus and I suddenly recalled that whenever Mr. Cabot visited our home I thought of Bucephalus.
I introduced myself. He peered at me for several seconds. Then his expression brightened. Of course, he said in a voice like a barrel organ. Hello there, young fellow.
How about a drink? I asked because he loved Kentucky bourbon. He chuckled. No, the doctor had forbidden alcohol. A glass of fruit juice would be fine.
When we were settled in a coffee shop I asked about Mr. Wigglesworth.
Gone, Mr. Cabot said. His brother telephoned from Seattle. He was standing in line at the post office when down he went. He lived several days, babbling incessantly. Nobody understood a word. Gibberish. Now tell me about your father.
I said my father had died quite a while ago.
Mr. Cabot pursed his lips. A considerate man, he said with a thoughtful expression. Your father never failed to let me know if Dewey was coming to San Francisco.
When I was young I had heard my father say that both of them were Communists. I didn't know what that meant, but my father disapproved so it was exciting. I used to hope that Mr. Wigglesworth would talk about being a Communist. I knew Mr. Cabot wouldn't say anything. He didn't talk much.
I asked if Mr. Wigglesworth had been a member of the Communist Party.
For a time, yes. As was I. As were a good many working men in those days. Why do you wish to know?
He opened a very expensive restaurant. Isn't there a contradiction?
Oh, I think not, Mr. Cabot said. Dewey, like many of us, became disenchanted with the Party and struck out on his own while remaining sympathetic to the ideals of Communism. Contradictory? I think not. Capitalism has changed, to be sure. It is now less oppressive, but the struggle never ends.
I waited for him to go on.
He picked up the fruit juice with both hands and took a sip. You wouldn't remember, he said, but at one time if a fellow was suspected of being a Communist he might lose his job. His property might be vandalized. He might be unable to find work. I was turned away more than once and discharged from a jury without explanation. People in this country lost their wits. The Dies committee ran wild. And that McCarthy fellow. Quite a nasty episode. You would be too young to know about Hermann Goering.
I know who he was, I said.
Yes, of course. Well, when that bird was in the dock at Nuremberg he explained how to manipulate people. It isn't difficult. Scare them senseless. Tell them the nation could be attacked at any moment. Goering wasn't the first to understand this. What's disheartening is that it always works. Century after century. I saw it taking shape in the United States.
Mr. Cabot's teeth clicked and I realized they were not his own. He looked at me for an instant before continuing.
Well, sir, Dewey had no more than opened that place when the FBI showed up. They wanted to pin something on him. Mr. Cabot chuckled. Questioning Dewey was a mistake. Lord, Lord, how I wish I had been there. Boys, Dewey told them, I'm fireproof. I'm a capitalist. I own the joint.
I asked what the FBI agents did.
Hah! Mr. Cabot said. Hah! They skipped out the door and never came back.
I asked if he was still active in union affairs. He said that occasionally he would attend meetings. Otherwise he passed the time reading, playing chess in the park if weather permitted, and reminiscing with a few old friends.
Did I know about the Hong Kong garbage?
I did. I knew that story by heart. The ship was tied up for several days to unload cargo and every evening just before sunset buckets of rotting food and table scraps would be dumped overboard while sampans gathered at the stern.
Quite a disgusting porridge. Banana peels, moldy prunes, bacon grease, chicken claws and guts, sour milk, rancid oil, fish heads, skin, bones-off the fantail it went, but those poor devils tried to retrieve whatever we jettisoned. They would dive into that scummy water for a biscuit. One evening Dewey and I were watching the scavenger hunt when he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, What the hell kind of world is this? Mr. Cabot folded his hands over the cane. Yes, he remarked almost to himself. Kennst du das land wo die citronen blumen?
I don't speak German, I said.
Know'st thou the land where lemon trees bloom?
I don't understand, I said.
Oh, it scarcely matters, he said, looking beyond me.
I tried to imagine Mr. Wigglesworth with tears in his eyes. I could see him outraged by one thing or another, jowls quivering, blue eyes popping. I used to think he would explode like somebody in a cartoon. I remembered the orange vest and I could see him falling down on the carpet at Thanksgiving. I could almost hear him cursing and belching, but I couldn't imagine him about to cry.
I loved the stories, I said. That U-boat commander with a monocle and the swimming pool full of sugar. And those WobbliesI thought they spun around and wobbled like tops.
Industrial Workers of the World. Their hearts were good, their methods a bit foolhardy. The movement had pretty well disintegrated by the time Herbert Hoover took office. Lord, how these years fly. Teapot Dome. Wobblies. Roosevelt.
I asked about the man who almost drowned in Cape Town harbor. Mr. Wigglesworth jumped in and held the man up and fought off sharks until they were rescued.
Dewey had trouble keeping himself afloat, Mr. Cabot said. He lied, you know, as children lie, without quite understanding. I've no idea how many whoppers he toldoh, I expect he put Baron Munchhausen to shame.
What about the countess and the sugar sacks?
I was not aboard that ship.
Do you think it was true?
I've no doubt about a swimming pool filled with sugar. That sort of thing did happen during the war. As to the countesspoppycock! Vintage Dewey.
I wanted to believe it, I said. I did believe it.
After he told those yarns often enough he believed them himself.
How about the oil prospecting? He told me his father and a man called Ozark Jack decided to become partners but they argued about something so his father moved to Idaho and six months later Ozark Jack hit a big field near Tulsa. He used to wave his arms and shout: Six months! Six months! My old man gave up six months too soon!
Yes, yes, Mr. Cabot said a bit impatiently. I heard about that fellow Ozark Jack from other sources. Dewey told the truth, I believe, for once in his life.
Those were the boom years in Oklahoma, I said. Why would his father give up after drilling a few dry holes? Why move to Idaho?
Mr. Cabot sucked his teeth and gazed at the ceiling for such a long time I thought he had forgotten me.
Those days, he finally said. Those must have been exciting days. Much of the nation unexplored. People westering, moving along, following the sun, obsessed by they knew not what. Perhaps that is what drove Dewey's father to pull up stakes. What would he discover in Idaho? The Indians were unpredictable, the resources an enigma. He may have been something of a romantic. Dewey inherited that.
Mr. Wigglesworth a romantic? How could this be? His stomach lapped over his belt like a roll of sausage. He didn't shave very often and a wet cigarette usually stuck to his lower lip. I remembered how he would lean back in his chair grinning and belching after he had eaten almost everything on the table. The jokes he told when my mother was out of the room were so blasphemous that I was afraid our house would be struck by lightning.
He admired those film toughs, Mr. Cabot said. Bogart. Cagney. That sinister fellow with slick black hairwhat was his name? Raft? Yes. George Raft. And that author with a hairy chest.
Hemingway, I said.
Mr. Cabot nodded.
He told me a boxing promoter watched him spar with an Olympic champion and wanted him to turn professional.
Rubbish, Mr. Cabot said. Pish-tosh!
I asked about the Peruvian whorehouse. Mr. Wigglesworth liked to dance across the carpet of our living room snorting and grunting while he knocked down Peruvians right and left.
It didn't amount to much, Mr. Cabot said. We made port at Callao and eight or ten of us ended up late at night in that place. I don't recall just what happened, except that words were exchanged. There was a bit of shoving before things calmed down. In Dewey's mind it assumed Homeric dimensions.
He thumbed his nose like a boxer, I said. He pawed the air. He looked fierce.
Plum pudding, said Mr. Cabot.
I asked if it was true that a movie star wanted to marry him. She wore a sarong and was in a film with Bing Crosby.
Yes, yes. Exotic women pursued him to the ends of the earth. The daughter of a shipping tycoon. Some Bolivian heiress. British royalty. He fancied himself a roughneck Valentino. That movie goddessthat woman's name escapes me.
I thought it might have been Hedy Lamarr. I was about to ask, but Mr. Cabot appeared to be dozing off.
Then he straightened up. I considered strangling Dewey, he said. I was not alone.
Did you meet aboard ship?
No, sir. At the union hall where we waited for assignments. I tried to avoid the fellow because he never stopped talking. Some time afterward, as luck would have it, I found myself aboard ship with him. I recognized him at once. Indeed, it would be difficult to forget the man. I kept my distance as best I could, which isn't easy in tight quarters. One afternoon I heard him describing a story he had read. As you may know, there will be days at sea when you have time on your hands and a good many seamen tend to be readers. It's quite remarkable what some of them have read. No end of junk, to be sure, but you will find sailors who can discuss Flaubert, Aeschylus, Nietzsche, and so on. Well, this story Dewey had read was a Russian thingone of those leisurely nineteenth-century tales having to do with a certain Captain Ribnikov during the Russo-Japanese war. Quite a long yarn. Ribnikov is a secret agent. Japanese. The Russians catch up to him in a brothel. He tries to escape by jumping out a window and breaks a leg. I had read the story years before. Kuprin, if memory serves. Yes. Alexander Kuprin. At any rate, Dewey couldn't remember the title and I spoke up. I recall being annoyed with myself because I didn't want to get into a conversation but I said Captain Ribnikov. Dewey looked at me in absolute astonishment. Probably he thought himself the only man aboard who had read it. You might guess what happened next. Ribnikov! he shouted. That's right! That's right! Captain Ribnikov!
From then on, I said, you didn't mind the jabbering.
I managed to tolerate it, said Mr. Cabot.
I had never thought of Mr. Wigglesworth reading obscure nineteenth-century Russian stories. I remembered him blowing cigarette smoke across our dining room table while my mother pretended she didn't mind. And the wonderful orange vest. And flailing his arms and grinning while he boasted, telling one preposterous lie after another. I believed everything. I had never thought about long days at sea, men stretched out on their bunks with nothing to do. Now I thought about him falling down in a Seattle post office.
His brother spoke with the clerk, Mr. Cabot said. It appears that Dewey was holding a manuscript addressed to a publisher when he uttered a squeak and collapsed like a ton of bricks. The clerk went ahead and mailed it.
What? I said.
He was hoping to be published.
I thought I had misunderstood. What are you talking about? I said.
He wrote poetry. You wouldn't know, of course. I suspect I'm the only one he told.
Mr. Wigglesworth wrote poems?
He did. Yes, sir.
And the post office clerk mailed the manuscript?
After they hauled Dewey away. The package had been adequately stamped, so he mailed it.
I looked at Mr. Cabot to see if this might be a joke. He wasn't smiling. He was not a man who joked. Well, I said, did the publishing house accept the poetry?
Of course not, Mr. Cabot said. It was rejected immediately.
Did you read it?
Bits and pieces. Dewey wanted my opinion.
What was your opinion?
What did you tell him?
I thought about asking how Mr. Wigglesworth reacted, but I could guess. He cursed and waved his arms and shouted. I wondered what kind of poetry he wrote. I thought it must have been about the sea, or his boyhood in Idaho, or maybe the Second World War. After all, nobody could write poems about the FBI or the restaurant business or Richard Nixon.
Mr. Cabot pulled a thick gold watch from his vest pocket. The watch reminded me of an earlier century. A great many questions came to mind, but the afternoon was fading.
Evan S. Connell was the author of Mrs. Bridge, Son of the Morning Star, and a number of other works of fiction. He died in January of 2013.