Len Bacall died in his mansion, out on the island he had bought 73 miles from Tahiti. When he died, he had been chairman and majority owner of Sky Holdings Inc. for 20-plus years. World media ran obits about him, and this quote by a Sky executive (the vice president for child-products marketing) showed up in a lot of the coverage. “It was like he always had some immense, secret project going on and only he knew the details,” she said. “But you followed along and it all worked out.”
He’d grown up on Long Island, New York, just a half decade before the baby boom proper. His mother had been trained as a social worker, and his father ran a scrap iron business in Hempstead, the biggest for eight counties. Mr. Bacall had wanted to be a poet, but he dropped out of college: his sister had tuberculosis and someone had to pay for the sanitarium. He sold ties and office goods, the family asked their cousins on Long Island for help, and in the end none of it did any good. His sister died before she was 30.
In the meantime Mr. Bacall had fallen in love. He could have got by on his own, even saved up for college. But now he had a wife and son, and he had to go to the cousins and ask for a job. His life sentence had begun, and he worked at it like hell: he was on the job 70 hours a week. After 15 years he owned the business, a change accomplished with bad feeling on both sides.
Mr. Bacall had an unstable temper, and the only person who could talk sense into him was his wife. She was a small, quiet woman and didn’t have much to say when people were around. She kept still and watched, and when she was by herself she read. But when she had to, she faced up to her husband. Len became used to the scenes, to his mother’s low, unchanging voice.
Len never talked about his childhood, not to an interviewer, not to a friend.
October 19, 1947; Hempstead, N.Y.—When he was six, Len saw his father hit somebody so hard the man’s face moved sideways. This was in the parking lot of a steak house, after a Sunday night dinner. The man’s car and Mr. Bacall’s car had scraped, and then the man called Mr. Bacall “Tony” and said something about not bathing: he thought Mr. Bacall was Italian. Len watched it all from the car window.
Len’s father was under six feet, but had big shoulders and forearms from the scrap plant. When he hit the man, he leaned into it. The man’s jaw swung so far left that his nose and chin seemed to hang by themselves. There weren’t enough lights (the big problem behind the scrape), so the man’s blood came out looking dark instead of red. It unfolded like a cloud out of the side of his face, and the bottom of Len’s stomach fell away. His lips felt cold.
Len never found out what happened to the man. The family drove away fast, into the dark. Mrs. Bacall, looking tiny, had talked at her husband until he stopped shouting, and then she had got him behind the wheel of the car. She kept talking at him, low and urgent, all the way to the house.
September 5, 1948; Hempstead, N.Y.—When Len was seven, his father hit him. Mr. Bacall never hit him again, or anybody else.
Mrs. Bacall was off reading one of her books, and Len’s father was nailing shingles to the garage wall. He wanted Len to pay attention to the job, learn something, but he also wanted him to keep away from the tar: he had a small paint can filled two-thirds with tar that he heated up over the refuse barrel. When it was in the can, when it was up on the wall, Len’s orders were to keep four feet away.
Mr. Bacall crouched down and got to work. He slapped a shingle against the wall and tacked it up, his hammer pecking fast at the nails: one touch and they would go in. He had big hands and he knew what he was doing; the hammer and shingles and nails all looked small when he handled them.
By the fourth shingle, Len had stooped next to his father, a small pile of nails clumped in his palms, where his father could reach them. Mr. Bacall didn’t give a lot of directions, Len had to guess, but he figured he could get in close just now because the tar was still in its can.
Mr. Bacall moved fast: one corner of the shingle’s top, the other corner, a nail midway between them, then two more nails. On to the next.
Len knew a secret: you didn’t look at just the big movements; you watched the little movements too. He’d seen how, at the end of the row, his father had loosened his fingers around the hammer, then tightened his fingers, and how his lip had become hard: Mr. Bacall was looking at the top of the last shingle as if it had wised off. So Len guessed that more hammering was on the way. Most people, Len figured, didn’t watch correctly. They watched and then they didn’t watch; they fell in and out. But that’s not how you had to do it.
With the first row of shingles all nailed in, Mr. Bacall stood up. “The nails were mixed up,” he said to Len. “You should have them straight when you hold them. Get them more straight.” Then he looked at the shingles for a minute, and his lip got hard and his breath cut from long to short. That meant he didn’t like what he had done. Len couldn’t figure out why. The shingles looked like they were part of the wall, like they couldn’t come off.
Mr. Bacall went back to work. Len wanted to be close to him, and he wanted to look at the tar. Four feet off and he could see it along the top of each shingle. He could swear it bubbled at you. The lines of tar looked like lines of Brillo, but dark and slick and with a shine. Len felt some of the heat touch his face, just below his eye, as he moved in close to help his father. He forgot about standing back. Everybody forgets sometime, and this was his time, when he was seven.
Len didn’t really get that close to the tar, a couple of feet. But his father shoved him back, one hand on Len’s chest, then dropped his trowel and stood up so he could take the boy under the armpits. He dropped him five feet, not four, away from the garage wall; the nails tumbled out of Len’s hands. “You are an idiot,” Mr. Bacall said. He sounded tired and not very interested. He turned his back and picked up the trowel.
“All right,” he said to himself, and stooped to do the second row. Len wanted to be next to him, but something cold had begun in his stomach; through a pipe the size of his pinkie, air was somehow leaking from the refrigerator.
His feet decided for him: he stepped to his father’s side and crouched down.
Mr. Bacall worked and the second row was done. He stood back and looked hard at the tiles. It was like they had offended him.
Len wanted to see the tar. There was some left in the paint can and it sent up little trails, ripples in the air, and they caught the corner of his eye; that’s when the urge got him. He looked over at his father, who stared at the shingles, elbows cocked, nose pointed like it would never move, like he was playing staredown with the two rows of new shingles. His lip was starting to stand up again. Seeing this, the ice trail in Len’s stomach got bigger, but the cold somehow seemed to lift him up, make his nerves sing. He was scared, but he was going to look at the tar. Stepping toward the paint bucket, he felt the tallest he’d been in his life.
His father hit him. First, Mr. Bacall spun about, faster than Len would have thought possible, and snagged Len’s shoulder, got him under the armpit again. Then he clouted him on the ear, a ringing blow. The cold from Len’s stomach jumped up, the pain from his skull came surging down, and the two of them met.
Len looked at his father, his father looked at him. Mr. Bacall had eyes that were almost black, and nowadays lines that looked like wires were beginning to grow from their corners, where the skin was getting crinkled. Len didn’t know what was about to happen, but he wouldn’t look away. The cold in his stomach was tremendous.
Mr. Bacall dropped a hand on Len’s shoulder. “All right,” he said again, still flat—flatter than before—and Len’s chin lifted. The boy didn’t look at his father; it wouldn’t have been possible. But it was impossible for him to look down. He would not drop his head.
For a few moments Len didn’t know where he was. It was like he was alone except for the cold in his stomach and the weight of his father’s hand. He needed the weight there on his shoulder. It seemed to hold everything together, the world.
But Mr. Bacall turned away, stooped to gather up the shingles left on the board. Len watched him, and the yard and the garage and the telephone wires and, across the street, the drip of water from bumper to ground where Mr. Oliveros had been hosing his Oldsmobile. Len felt like all of a sudden he could see a long, long way, and the biggest thing in sight was still his father.
He wanted his father to turn around, to look at him, but he knew that wouldn’t happen. It was like being alone.
Len bent down for the nails where they were spread on the blanket and gathered them up, dropped them back in their coffee can. It was easy, just as easy as before: he was like his dad, he never dropped anything.
March 27, 1951; Hempstead, N.Y.—Len got home from school and there was an ambulance in the drive. His reaction was odd: he felt sure his mother had killed herself. He dropped his books on the porch and opened the front door, looked inside. Between the front door and the kitchen lay the living room, where an easy chair was now tipped over. Voices came from the kitchen. Len took a step, another; his eyes were on the half-open kitchen door. He felt like he was traveling a long, long way and never wanted to get there.
He was halfway to the door when he realized that one of the voices was his mother’s. The pieces of his life heaved back into place. He opened the door and saw her, brown eyes grave, telling the ambulance men about the way old Mrs. Costello had suddenly trembled and then fallen to the floor. Mrs. Costello, in her 70s, with blue-gray, iron-like hair and a carved little mouth that now looked lost on her face, was strapped to a gurney. It lay across the kitchen tiles’ turquoise pattern of flowers, the same pattern that had marched there all of Len’s life. He saw the floor, he saw his mother. He realized everything had held. But he knew what he’d been thinking on the walk across the living room: that his mother didn’t want to live, that he was left with his father and there was nothing between them. Before he reached the kitchen, ice and air had pushed through his entire system, seemed to lift his chin, set his eyes wide. Somehow he felt better for it. He was terrified, but his nerves sang. He felt bigger than everybody. During the 20 seconds in the living room, he had assumed that he would take up his mother’s job, keep the world safe by looking his father in the eye.
Having realized all this, he made sure that he stopped realizing it. He never thought about any of it again.