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It started with my father's death. At least, that was how it seemed at the time. Now, looking back, I realize how impossible it is to be sure where anything really begins; or, for that matter, where, or even whether, it has ended.
I was alone at our apartment in Manhattan for the weekend. My wife, Sara, was in Chicago checking out a couple of young artists who were exhibiting there. She had her own gallery downtown in TriBeCa and a reputation for bringing new talent to the attention of a sophisticated market at just the right time. It was Sunday evening and I'd spent the day alone, trying to work up an idea for a new book. I write nonfiction books that occupy a kind of no-man's-land between real science and fantastical speculation. I've dealt with poltergeists, ESP of various kinds, stone circles, ley lines, the pyramids. You get the idea. I have a good time and never knowingly write junk. I mean I don't just invent stuff or make claims unless I can support them with at least a respectable amount of evidence. They're not best-sellers, but at least they do well enough to keep my publishers coming back for more, so I suppose I can't complain. But I didn't have the vaguest notion what my next subject was going to be. I felt I was in a dead end, written out. Nothing would come together no matter how long I cudgeled my brain in search of a theme or framework that had some spark of novelty.
Around six-thirty I poured myself a scotch and took it out on the terrace, where I watched the lights coming up across the park. It was the time of year when the trees were turning into a rich blend of copper, gold, and red. Looking at them made me think of New England and that whole East Coast, and of the small town where my father lived in a retirement home. I'd spoken to him on the phone earlier in the day, as I did most weekends. I went up to see him every couple of months or so, and I was about due for another visit. Maybe I'd go up at the end of the week, I told myself, or at the very latest the week after.
It was at that moment, when the image of my father and his sad, frustrated life were at the forefront of my mind, that the phone rang. I went inside to answer it. It was Abigail Tucker, the superintendent of the home. I knew at once from the tone of her voice that he was dead. A heart attack, she said, less than an hour ago.
I thanked her for letting me know so quickly and said I'd take a train up in the morning. She agreed that there was no point in my rushing up immediately. She herself would make arrangements with the funeral home if I wished. I said I would be grateful for that and thanked her again. When I hung up I didn't move for some time, just stood there looking at my reflection in the window, watching it grow clearer moment by moment as the light outside faded. What were you supposed to feel, I asked myself, on learning of your father's death? Was there something specific, something deep-rooted in the psyche, a special sense of loss? Or growth perhaps? And how remarkable that I should have been thinking of him at that very moment when the call came.
Except, of course, it wasn't remarkable at all. The association of trees, New England, the fact of having spoken to him that morning, and of feeling slightly guilty about putting off my next visit to him as long as I could explained the coincidence. But I felt no rush of remorse, no sense of unfinished business as a result of having missed that last chance to see him, no lack of "closure," as your local corner therapist would call it. I felt nothing that I hadn't been feeling half an hour earlier. The only difference was that my father had been alive then and was dead now. A simple fact.
But, although I didn't consciously know it then, I had found both the subject and the title of my next book. Coincidence.
The sky was overcast when I stepped off the train and crossed the footbridge to where a taxi waited to take me the last three miles to the home. As we wound up the hill I looked out at the familiar sights passing by, seeing them for the last time-and feeling, to be honest, little apart from relief that I would not have to make this journey again.
At least, I told myself, he had been well looked after. The place hadn't been cheap and had eaten up my father's modest capital as well as his pension, and had still required several thousand a year from my own pocket. But it was money I'd been happy to pay. Somehow it made up for the lack of warmth between us, allowing me to feel that I at least had done everything I possibly could, and that it was my father who had resented me and kept me at arm's length all my life, not I who had in any way let down, betrayed, or walked away from him.
Sara, to her credit, had been as anxious as I was to ensure that he was given the best possible care when it became obvious five years ago that he was no longer fit to live alone. Two falls and a growing drink habit had done that. He wasn't an alcoholic; it was just something to do. He was bored. My father had been bored, and bitter, almost all of his adult life. He had continued to drink in the home, though far less; it wasn't one of those regimented places that regarded old people as an inconvenience to be drugged senseless and kept out of the way as much as possible. They had their own rooms and, within reason, their own routines.
Mrs. Tucker appeared at the door of the handsome old house as I got out of my taxi. She was a pleasant-looking woman around forty, dressed casually for the country and looking more like a favorite aunt than some matronly superintendent. She took me into her office, which looked onto a broad sweep of tree-covered countryside. I was impressed by the efficiency with which she had assembled all the necessary paperwork, but then reflected that this was not exactly a routine she was unaccustomed to in her line of work. Tea was brought in as we took care of everything, after which she drove me to the chapel of rest, where my father's body had been taken the previous night. He was lying in a "temporary casket"; I almost embarrassed myself by laughing out loud when I heard it called that.
We had already decided that the funeral was to be the following morning, Tuesday. There were no far-flung relatives to be informed and who would need time to make travel arrangements, therefore no sense in waiting. I had spoken to Sara, who said she would be back in New York late Monday and would either take a train or drive up early Tuesday. I told her it wasn't essential she be there and I would understand if she was too busy, but she wouldn't hear of not coming.
It only remained for me to pick the casket in which he would be buried. I chose the one I thought he would have chosen himself: simple to the point of being ascetic, but in the best materials and workmanship available. My father appreciated quality but dismissed with scorn anything that he felt could be described as chichi. Design for him was governed by function, all unnecessary ornamentation being regarded as the worst form of original sin.
I spent the afternoon going through the things in his room. It was bare and anonymous compared with some of the other rooms I glimpsed through open doors as I made my way along the corridor to his. Most people had pictures of their family, treasured possessions accumulated over a lifetime, gifts sent by friends and relatives. My father had nothing of that kind. A few books, mostly thrillers and adventure stories; a couple of suits, some sweaters and casual clothes; four pairs of shoes. The only things in his drawers, most of which were empty, were socks, shirts, and underwear. I found his wallet in a bedside drawer. It contained a few dollars in cash, his driver's license that he hung on to though he hadn't driven in years, and a few yellowing business cards. In the same drawer was a key ring with two small keys that looked as though they might fit a briefcase or a piece of luggage. I had found nothing of that kind in the room, but, as I double-checked, a young woman called Shirley who was on duty that afternoon put her head around the door. She had a round face and a bright smile, and I knew that she had made repeated efforts to draw my father out of his shell, all to no avail. She asked if I needed any help or whether I might like a cup of coffee or anything else. I thanked her and said I was fine, then gave her one half-empty and one unopened bottle of whisky from my father's drinks cabinet and suggested she pass them to one of the gardeners or keep them herself, whatever she chose. I also asked if she could arrange to give away his clothes if they were of use to anyone, otherwise perhaps send them to some local charity shop. She said she would see to it.
"By the way," she said, "would you like someone to bring up your father's chest from the store room, or will you deal with it down there?"
"Chest?" I said, surprised, because I had no memory of his having had any such thing when I helped him move in. "How big?"
"Fairly large," she said, using her hands to make a shape in the air that suggested a substantial piece of luggage.
"Is it locked?"
"I don't know."
I looked at the keys that I still held in my hand.
"I'll come down," I said, "if you'll show me where it is."
Copyright (c) 2001 by David Ambrose