One hot summer day twenty years ago, the day after my father died, my brother and I placed a few sheets of four-foot by eight-foot plywood in the center of the attic at my parent’s house, the same house I live in now with my wife Anne and our three boys, the house we are selling. Putting the boards in was hard work that required twisting and bending and lifting, and it strained our muscles. Dust motes and pink asbestos particles clung to our sweaty skin, and splinters pierced our fingers; I enjoyed the work, more from the pleasure of my brother’s company than the job’s inherent value or purpose. Back then there were a dozen boxes, full of clothes and books and files. Now there are only four; everything else was long ago trashed or donated. There is a box with old LP records of Broadway shows, Paul Anka, Judy Garland, Mel Torme and Dizzie Gillespie, and some classical recordings: mostly Mahler and Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt. I am tempted, every time I visit, to bring that box downstairs with me and take it to Marx’ AudioVideo where I could pay something like $100 to have the whole collection digitized; but I doubt any of those records are playable. There is a second box jammed with old photos of my father and his school records; items that, because of their disintegrated condition—either faded or torn or rotted—never found their way into the half-dozen albums that populate the bottom of the bookshelves in the den on the first floor. Affectionately termed “Our Wonderful Family History” by my mother—who has always seen a half-empty glass as half full—those albums are slated for digitizing by my brother once we have cleared out of the house.
I am bent over the third box, the one my brother and I have avoided opening for these past twenty years; it is the box that very same mother refers to as “the rest of Dad’s crap.” This particular box has Summer 1984 scribbled on one of the top flaps, as if my mother had used her left hand—she is right-handed—to write it. With my mother dying, I feel compelled, finally, to review the remnants of that bizarre summer, although I am certain we will not be copying or digitizing any of its contents. My brother would rather we had thrown this box away twenty years ago; he has always believed that it was sufficient to observe the tip of the iceberg to know that danger lurked beneath, and he gives wide berth to painful memories. With my mother’s death perhaps only days away, and with her ultimatum to “make a decision, for God’s Sake!” I peel open the top flaps, nervous and lightheaded.
The box is barely a quarter full. A casual sifting reveals newspaper clippings, medical records, tax records, letters to and from neighbors.
My brother believes we already have what is necessary for posterity; I am not so sure. He takes his cues from our mother, who prefers pleasantness to fact, and believes she is entitled—after all, I lived with him for twenty years!—to ignore the ugliness if she so chooses. In any case, she can remember without trying, and does not need to kick-start the process. My boys used to ask about the grandfather they never met; I referred them to my mother, who told them happy, unimportant stories about growing up in Duluth, what a brilliant man he was. I accept that the truth about his abrupt decline and sudden death are not for young ears.
I do not have the luxury of ignorance. As a youngster, I felt as unhinged as he actually became that summer; consequently I drifted away from my early tendency towards a creative life, fearing that—like him—the disorganized, messy life of an artist would force me to develop similar extreme coping mechanisms. Instead I developed an edgy other directedness that others found attractive. I became a “fun person to be with” and had a constant array of friends to distract me from that early—but never defeated—fear.
My mother comes from solid-as-a-rock Swedish roots, from a family of self-starters. Her father founded the local weekly in Duluth, Minnesota, where she and my dad grew up. My dad’s father owned the drugstore next door, so not only did my mother and father see each other every day in school, but every day in summer too, because they were always helping one another in their family businesses. For her, all the happy memories are far in her past, times that my brother and I can only picture from her retelling. When she prods me, I admit that I have never experienced the kind of unfettered love she had for my dad in the beginning. Well, you are more like him, so you can blame him, my mother says; as if pointing the finger might shed the opaque cloth of anxiety that is my daily life and see clearly that I am secretly happier than I am willing to acknowledge. Go ahead. I do.
I am sitting down, cross-legged, with most of the contents of the box now spread out around me. The attic is sauna-like hot from a weeklong string of dry, 100 degree-plus days. I have been trying to reconstruct the events of the summer of 1984; for how many minutes, I do not know. I lack an organizing principle for these items, other than a child’s perspective; every year the choice has come down to everything or nothing. And so the box has stayed, unopened, all this time.
Pop started acting crazy about a week after the New Jersey Water Rationing Ordinance of 1984 went into effect, on July 1st, although to hear my mother tell it, he had tendencies before my brother and I were born. That summer just put him over the edge. My brother Jerry and I were eighteen and twelve, respectively, and did not really know our father. He was what you might generously call today a workaholic. As a regional sales analyst for Pfister, he had traveled extensively—we had lived in six different cities by my ninth birthday—and seldom saw him for more than a few hours on the weekends. The family had just settled into a two story, three-bedroom home in Orange, New Jersey, after his promotion to corporate lead analyst in New York City.
We saw less of him. He was out of the house by six a.m. and returned only rarely before our bedtime. Weekends began on a promising note—he joined us for breakfast Saturday mornings. But the perk of a country club membership lured him to golf, which became a new passion, and straightaway both Saturdays and Sundays were consumed by it.
"It takes five hours to play a round of golf," my mother used to say to us. Her explanation was tinged with a sarcasm we didn’t understand completely. We only knew she was hurting, like we were. "And another two to relive it. Add an hour on the practice range, drinks, lunch or dinner, another hour on the putting green, and you've pretty much obliterated family time." She was not fond of the country club lifestyle; referring to the people she met there as snooty. She did not play golf, nor did she have any interest in learning, and consequently she saw no reason to accompany my father. The only lure for her was the pool, and the thought of paying more money to extend my father’s golf rights to a full family membership made her squirm. She’d had a lunch and some dinners there early on, and that was enough. “It’s not real,” she told us, after we had visited our one and only time, seen the glorious pool and watched the good-looking girls with perfect tans walk and swim and dive gracefully into the Mediterranean-blue water. Reluctantly we accepted our mother’s decision as she firmly announced that the full membership would be “financial suicide.” Jerry was content to use his natural swimming gifts as a lifeguard at the public pool in the summers, right up until he finished college. The same girls who would swoon over my brother, some of them as young as I was, asked me about my father that summer. They wouldn’t dare bring it up with Jerry, for fear it would ruin their chances with him. I don’t think Jerry cared, anyway. I was stuck in Orange for five more years.
My mother tried to explain my dad to us with one-liners, and the occasional in-depth psychological profile. "He's busy because he's successful," she said periodically. Or: "He's working late to impress his boss." Did she realize how often she repeated these lines? She must have. But I never felt her heart was in these toss-offs; it was her way of saying: There's nothing I can do, kids. Her more lengthy explanations were delivered with more gusto. Her voice became hard, her delivery staccato-like. "He does research, darlings," began one. "He analyzes sales figures, and of course that takes time, but it also takes discipline, which does not come naturally to your dad, so he must concentrate, and that causes him to lose track of time, but that's not all. He has to present his results to very important people in the company, who are putting a very sharp eye to everything he's doing because lots of people's jobs hang in the balance. It's a life or death situation for a lot of people. Your dad feels the pressure. It's very intense."
My brother Jerry is the bright light of the family. He was brilliant and witty from the get-go, jumping a grade early on and scoring high on every I.Q. test. He won math contests regularly, was a champion swimmer, and in the fourth grade he built an oversize working model of the heart from clay, plastic, and several model car motors.
He graduated from Harvard Medical School. I am in sales, myself. Mid-level, as they say. I am good with people.
Mother was fond of telling the nursing home staff that her husband was smart enough to have been a doctor. That he had been accepted at Johns Hopkins, although there is no evidence of it in any of the boxes we had already opened. This could have been one of her happy memories—or evidence of dementia. The day Jerry was accepted at Harvard, we drove up to the Institute to share the news with my dad, and on the drive home she pointed out how alike Jerry and my dad were. “Both real, real smart, aggressive, get-it-done people. Your dad had a real high I.Q., too."
I said, "So he and Jerry are more alike, then."
Mom sighed. She had steered the conversation this way, as she often did, but was nonetheless perturbed by my reaction.
"Not really," she said finally. "You have his quickness, the creative spark he had when we were young. You just don’t have that stick-to-it-iveness. But that takes time to develop."
Which brings me back to the drought of '84, the summer of the famous Water Rationing Ordinance, the summer of dry yellow lawns and sticky pavement, the summer when the only relief was the public pool, where people stood in line predawn for the opportunity to enter before authorities designated the "safety" cutoff.
A few days after the water rationing went into effect, my father stopped showering. He opted to keep the lawn sprinkler on, however, in direct conflict with the spirit—if not the letter—of the temporary law. He cautioned the rest of us to shower quickly. He told us he did not expect us to follow suit; that it required a discipline we were not prepared for. Mom laughed it off, even though she realized he was dead serious.
He kept a sharp eye on the water meter and scolded any neighbor who suggested he was using more water than allowed. One morning he confronted an intense and obstinate Mr. Jennings, owner of the used car lot where Dad bought my brother’s car, and dared him, “Go ahead and check my water meter. I’ll bet we are using less water than you!” As Mr. Jennings walked away, he added, “Than all of you!” I had come out on the front porch when all the yelling started, and I watched as Mr. Jennings walked away, passing lawn after lawn of burnt yellow and brown grass. Ours was solid green.
Two weeks into the ban, our neighbors the Gordons came over for dinner. Dad hadn’t shaved or bathed in all that time; his face was stubbly, and the combination of cologne and body odor was overpowering. Mr. Gordon accompanied my dad into the basement, where he proudly displayed over a dozen two-gallon containers of water. “Never know,” I heard him say, from my perch at the top of the stairs. “Things might get worse.” The Gordons, who had been my parents' good friends since our arrival in Orange, but had no children of their own, refrained from commenting that evening.
But the next morning, Mr. Gordon stopped me on my way to school; pulled his fancy Chrysler alongside me and hopped out. "Y'know I love your dad like he was my brother, don't you, John?"
"Yes, sir. I do," I said, respectful as always.
"Why don't you talk to him, tell him he's just gonna get himself labeled a nut case if he's not careful. People who don't know him well are already sayin' he's cuckoo. Doesn't your dad realize that?"
"I don't think he does," I said lamely.
"Look," said Mr. Gordon, bending over to come face to face with me, "you're his youngest kid. You love him. He can do no wrong. I'm only sayin' as his best friend I haven't been able to get through to him. Maybe you can. Whaddaya say?"
"I can try."
"Good!" said Mr. Gordon, patting my shoulder.
"But he won't listen to me." Mr. Gordon's brow furrowed deeply. "He won't even listen to my mom. And she's callin' him crazy all the time." I began to laugh in anticipation of what I was going to say next. This made Mr. Gordon frown. "She says he's too stinky to sleep with."
This seemed to me so terribly funny that I burst out laughing, and Mr. Gordon sighed and returned to his car.
"Must run in the family," I heard him say as he left.
I am looking at the yellowed back page of The Orange Weekly dated August 1, 1984, at one of the numerous newspaper articles Dad had proudly collected and saved. Spurred by the headline, I remember the evening the local news interviewed him. A crowd had gathered on our front lawn, which on TV that evening was clearly the only green lawn in sight. "The ordinance recommends against but does not strictly prohibit watering one's lawn," he stated proudly. In the background you could hear shouts of “Take a bath!” and “You look like a bum!” and “What are you trying to prove?”
Eventually Dad was arrested and jailed—for a few hours—for being a public nuisance. The authorities interpreted his behavior as encouraging others to defy the ordinance. Evidently the green lawn—so a published report of a city council meeting stated—was itself enough to deem his act “solicitous, and by its very nature, contrary to the public good.”
"I got tossed in the slammer," he said one evening, "for doing something normal. Go figure." My mother had been forced to pay a bond to get him out of jail, so he could get back to his job in the city the next day. Her picture had been in the papers, too.
Three weeks into what my mother charitably referred to as his act of civil disobedience, on his way into the RCA Building where Pfister had new offices, Dad was detained by security guards for several hours; they didn’t recognize him and thought he bore no resemblance to the photo on his ID card. They physically—and roughly—escorted him from the building several times. Finally Pfister management came down and identified him. Mom never mentioned this drama while he still lived with us. She had secretly been pleading with him all along to resume showering and shaving; the incident at his company’s headquarters was the capper. He “shaped up” after that, according to Mom, but only somewhat; meaning he continued not showering, but shaved occasionally to keep up appearances at work, and kept his political opinions to himself. He stopped watering our lawn, and told anyone who would listen that our house was using less water than anyone else’s in New Jersey—he’d bet on it—and he was building a credit for the future and what was everyone else doing, anyway? Were they even checking their meters? Our lawn got yellower and soon resembled all the lawns in the neighborhood.
"He looked like hell that day in New York," my mother explained to us, years later. "It's a wonder he wasn't taken to jail again—or to Bellevue. I could've killed him!" She connected that incident to the day she had to bail him out of the local jail. "I would've had a tough time doing it again." She took a deep breath the way a gymnast does before attempting a difficult routine. “A tough time.”
Dad's eccentric behavior that summer was balanced by some comforting consistencies. His work routine Monday through Friday didn’t change, and the weekends worked to our benefit, because the country clubs in the area—limited in the amount they could water their courses—had barred golf for several weeks. This was good news for Jerry and me, for with the golf courses unplayable, Dad spent more hours on the weekends with us. We rode bikes, hiked, played games, and just acted goofy. He was the ideal dad for this short period, except for his personal hygiene—when he hugged us his beard burned our cheeks and his body odor was choking. He continued to go to work, ignoring complaints from co-workers. He covered up with deodorant and cologne.
But then I saw more examples of his eccentricity. Nervous from all the attention our family was getting, I awoke early fairly often, before my brother; one morning I eased the bedroom door open a crack and peered out into the darkened second-floor hallway. I saw his backside as he blew my mother a kiss and turned away. He began counting with each step, softly but clearly, "one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-turn—" as he descended the stairs, "eight-nine—" and so on, until I could barely hear him as he crossed the kitchen into the garage. Then I heard a loud "Damn!" and he came into view a few seconds later, walking backwards and counting backwards until he reached halfway back up the stairs; then he resumed forward gear and completed his routine. I heard the car start, and he was gone. I saw this happen several times; sometimes he started the car and left, other times he backed up—to a different point each time—before returning to the garage.
At first I just figured he was working out a problem. I might have been right. I used to talk to myself—count aloud and so forth— when I did math, but I was not convinced there was a reasonable explanation for my dad's actions.
Another habit that bothered me back then—my brother, too—was Dad's cigar smoking. He'd smoke every evening, all over the house. He'd say goodnight to us, come into our room, and ashes would fall onto our bedsheets. As troubling as Dad's body odor was, we hated the cigar smoke even more.
"You're going to burn us all up one day—or night!" Mom proclaimed countless times. The living room armchair where he read each evening held proof my mother had good reason to be fearful. There were countless burn marks in the leather of the right arm and stains on the left—evidence of his habit of drinking and smoking till he nodded off.
He was oddly fastidious in other ways, however, going to great lengths to keep the house in order (not to be confused with cleanliness). On some mornings, peeking through the bedroom door, I’d watch him bend over and pick at the rug every two or three steps, finding tiny balls of fabric and placing them neatly on the second-floor newel post. One time, Mother came along a few seconds after he’d started the car, placed her mouth even with the post, and blew once, forcefully, scattering the little pieces over the same area Dad had scoured moments earlier.
"Crazy old loon," she said. I remember thinking if you live long enough with someone who's cuckoo, you go a little cuckoo yourself.
Put my dad behind the wheel, and his eccentricity acquired a fearful power. He refused to drive if there were any distractions within the car. If the engine wasn't purring, if everyone wasn't quiet, if the windshields weren't spotless—he refused to budge.
"When you're behind the wheel," he said one time when I accompanied Jerry during a driving lesson, "you've got a big, big responsibility. To yourself and others. I can't see how anyone can concentrate with a radio on, or screaming in the back seat, or poor vision. No wonder so many people are killed in cars each year. They don't concentrate."
On a trip to Florida, after Dad had been driving several hours and my brother and I had been still all that time, and Mother hadn't said a word, even to suggest we stop and eat, I finally said after my stomach grumbled the umpteenth time, "I'm hungry."
Since there was no response, I continued, "Couldn't we stop? I'm dyin' of hunger."
Abruptly, Dad swung the car to the right, and screeched to a halt in the breakdown lane, a cloud of dust and dirt enveloping the car. Traffic roared past us, and I was certain we’d be killed by some motorist ramming us from behind. "What have I told you?" he screamed as the dust settled. I was so frightened I could barely hear him.
"Paul, don't—" said my mother.
"You too, Diane!" shouted my father back at her. He twisted around to face my brother and me in the back seat. "There's cars whizzin' by me so fast I can barely make 'em out. Comin' the other direction, you can never tell which one's gonna be the drunk driver I'll have to swerve to avoid. It's dangerous on the road, not like when I was a kid. I have to concentrate." He took a deep breath and smiled. "I'm sorry I had to raise my voice. I didn't want to, but I felt I had to. I love you all very much." He always finished his outbursts with, "I love you (all) very much."
My brother and I kept our mouths shut most of the rest of the trip, ducking down and whispering when we couldn’t stand the silence.
The New Jersey Water Rationing Ordinance had been in effect for five weeks when my dad entered the hospital, ostensibly for exhaustion and depression. He had accompanied us swimming early that week, so he wasn't as gamey as he had been, but the incident at the RCA Building had shaken him, and he'd been quieter than normal around the house.
"Hey, John," he said to me one evening as I passed by the living room across from the armchair where he always sat after dinner. "Where ya goin', pal?"
"To watch some TV with Jerry," I replied. "I finished the dishes."
"C'mon in, sport, and talk to me."
I looked around for my mother.
"She's over at the Cattanios'," he continued. "Helping Mrs. C. can peaches. C'mon now and sit with me for a few seconds. It won't kill ya."
His left hand contained a short glass of scotch, his right a foul-smelling cigar. He tapped his right hand against the arm of the chair—a suggestion I sit on that side—which released a cascade of feathery ashes. When I was close enough, he encircled my waist with his right arm and pulled me close to him. I looked at the cigar in his hand. Smoke curled up toward my nostrils.
He smiled, tilting my head up with the hand that held the glass of scotch. "You don't think your ol' dad's crazy, do ya?" he said softly.
"No sir," I replied in a near whisper.
"I have principles, is what I have," he went on, gesturing with both hands, releasing me. "Do you know what those are?"
"I think so," I said, but I could tell he didn't really expect me to answer.
"You believe something is right, you go all the way with it. You don't change your mind just because your opinion is unpopular, or when folks like Mr. Gordon start their name-calling." His eyes widened and his neck tightened as he spoke. "It's integrity. The most valuable commodity a man can own. With it, you can do anything, be anybody you want to be. Without it, you can't even get out of bed in the morning."
I listened attentively, but my mind was forming a question as he finished.
"What is it, John?" he asked, gesturing toward my chest with the glass of scotch, spilling some on my shirt. He ignored it. "Got a question for your old man?" He leaned back. "Let 'er rip, son."
I didn’t want to ask him, but having been urged to speak, not to ask him would have been insubordinate. Curiosity overwhelmed me—I wanted an answer, but even more wanted to see how he would react to my asking—so I posed the burning question.
"Dad, sometimes in the morning I see you count your steps to the garage, and then you come back and do it over. How come you do that? Mom just says you're loony tunes. ‘Cause of the pressure at work."
He laughed, which relaxed me.
"It's a question of concentration, son—and consistency. You know how some people work out every day? How dependent they are on their fix of exercise? Well, with me it's mental exercise. It's not fun, mind you. It's like a boring exercise bike. Something you do over and over, again and again, till one day you wake up and realize you're actually fit." He could see I was not following him. "Okay. Before you play soccer, what does your coach have you do?"
"Like laps around the field?"
"Yeah. Like that. And jumping jacks and stuff."
"Well, that's what I'm doing. Only it's a mental exercise. See?"
"For your brain," I said confidently. “Like doing a crossword or a math problem.”
My dad fairly jumped out of his chair. "Exactly!" He hugged me, then patted me on my fanny and sent me off. "Go on, then, and watch some TV. Tell your brother I'd like to see him."
The next day he had his breakdown.
In the morning, after his two trips up and down the stairs, the house had grown quiet, and Jerry and I left for the park thinking Dad had gone to work. But Mother found him sitting in his car around ten a.m. The motor wasn't running. He was just sitting in the driver's seat, so she said, and she couldn't get through to him. The paramedics had to be called and they went to the hospital, where we visited him that evening.
He seemed tired but talked to us about our day. We asked him what was wrong.
"Tell you the truth, boys, I don't know. Feels kinda like I hit my head, only I didn't."
"Your dad has been working too hard," interrupted Mother. "He needs lots of rest."
Dad went directly from the hospital, after three days' observation, to the Brighton Institute. He needs lots of rest became our mom’s mantra over the next few weeks. She explained that he needed peace and quiet, and that the house was too raucous with us in it. It was late August, the Ordinance was still in effect, but school had started. We visited him after school.
Early on he asked how the lawn was doing. We said, not so good, not having watered it for so long. He whispered in my ear and asked if I’d carry on for him. They won't arrest kids, he said.
My brother volunteered that Mom had hidden the hose, so we couldn't do it.
“I bet you can find it if you try.” He took my hand. “Will you try?”
"Yes," I said, trembling. “No,” said Jerry. “Mom’ll have a cow.”
“Yeah, well, that’s it then.” He let go of my hand and his dropped like it weighed a ton. But that night it began raining, and it rained steadily for the next four days; too late for most yards, the grass was dead, but the green came back to ours on the fourth day and the water rationing ended.
I pleaded with my mom to get Dad home. I felt that if the lawn had come back, so could Dad. “He can be himself again.”
“And what would that be?” said my mother. “Because it was never about the water, honey," she replied, good-naturedly enough. “It never was.”
"He's not well."
"He looked okay to me," I countered.
My mother's demeanor changed abruptly with the challenge. "Well, he's not," she said firmly, eyes bright as headlights. I couldn't look at her. It was as if her saying so, made it so.
I knew that if someone called you fat, even if you didn't feel fat, the judgement could really stick. Inevitably you'd begin to feel fat, even if that person took it back. All those skinny people—models and actresses saying how fat they feel—isn't that a kind of crazy?
My understanding of Dad's illness came in small doses like that. Several years after his death, but before she entered the nursing home, Mom sat us down in the living room—two stories directly below me now—and tried to explain him to us.
"When I fell in love with your father," she said, "he was probably already crazy as a loon. When you're young, a lot of weird behavior passes for over-indulgence and enthusiasm. He didn't care for convention, and he was so terribly creative, I just adored him. But the eccentricities, like his driving, which seemed trivial enough at first, began to weigh on him after you boys were born. You were a challenge for him, because you were so disorganized! But you were just children. In his workday world of research he adapted well, but it took its toll. I think it took all his energy to keep on an even keel. He was desperate to have order in his life; by the time you were twelve years old [referring to me], the summer of the Ordinance, when he went into Brighton, he could not even accept a visit from your Uncle Fred. That time Fred came by on spring break from the University? Remember? Your father said he couldn't stay! Because it was a surprise—and he couldn’t handle a surprise. Imagine that. Telling his own brother to leave, a brother he loved! I had to sit your father down after Fred had left and speak to him like a child. A child!"
I imagined the scene: she bending over him as he sat, grabbing both his shoulders and shaking him until he looked directly at her. “I knew I had lost him,” she added. “Soon as he went in.” His impending and complete descent into a final mental paralysis, which she was powerless to prevent, had begun. "When someone has pushed on the gas as hard as your father, no amount of pressure on the brakes will stop that car."
After that he stopped responding to questions of any kind, from anyone, including the doctors. He made the occasional request or demand, always of a practical nature, and broad statements of what he felt were the facts of his life. Those could be disturbing, because there was complexity to them, a kind of internal logic, an elaborate fiction you could get drawn into. Jerry had stopped visiting years earlier, once Mom had entered hospice.
On January 10th, 1995, I told Jerry I was headed over to Brighton, and he wished me luck, meaning not to get caught up in anything Dad had to say. There was no way of knowing this would be the last time I would see my father, and so I took no special care. I expected nothing, hoped for nothing. My visits had become habit.
I tapped him on his shoulder, to no effect, as I stood by his bed. "The cigar," he said suddenly, as if the words themselves would make it appear. He was not allowed to smoke, but I had taken to bringing a stubby and stinky Evangelista Corolla—a dozen of which I had found in a sealed container in the attic—and snuck one in with me on some of my visits. I unwrapped the foil and handed it to him. He fumbled with the cigar and held it between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, using his other fingers to nervously tap the metal armrest of the bed. I poured a small finger of ginger ale into a small clear plastic cup so it would resemble scotch; he took the glass with his left hand and settled it on the left armrest. He looked at me the way he used to when commanding me to get up on his lap.
“The hose is hidden in the attic," he said. “All you gotta do is go up there.” He chewed on the stub of the cigar and blew a pretend smoke ring.
"No," I replied. We had had this exchange dozens of times over the years. “She gave it to Mrs. Cattanio for safekeeping.” He took a long sip.
He studied my face. "Don't let them push you around,” he said. A minute later he added, “Mr. Gordon is a fascist.”
We didn’t speak for a long time. I did not feel the urge to. He continued to pantomime drinking and smoking, long after his glass was empty. He didn’t ask for more “scotch.” I reflected on my reasons for even bothering to visit. My relationship with him was like a curious habit I had picked up and could not quit, like the smoker who's down to only one cigarette a day. It's the sort of habit you notice, but no one else does.
The cigar fell from his fingers and I picked it up and set it on the arm of the chair next to his bed. I set the empty cup on the other arm of the chair, which looked like the skeletal remains of the chair he’d sat in all those years. When he closed his eyes, I left.
No one could explain how he got the matches. Perhaps he schmoozed a sympathetic nurse’s aide. Perhaps another patient brought them in. He got them, and that's all that matters. I had left the cigar butt in his room, and he had found some matches. There were no smoke detectors at Brighton, except in the public areas and kitchen. A sprinkler came on, but only weakly and not over his bed, where he lay sleeping when the cigar—after burning a hole in the comforter—ignited the sheets, and the cotton-rayon combination burst into flames, engulfing him instantly in a fire whose heat was so intense that remnants of charred cloth were fused into his burned flesh.
He died quickly, the doctors said, but probably not painlessly. I’d like to believe that in those few minutes before he nodded off, that he had found some secret order, had recounted his steps. Had found some peace and quiet on the side of the road. How else would he manage to even sleep at night? Or maybe he welcomed sleep as a respite from the contrary tendency of the world around him towards chaos.
There was a part of him—there had to be—which understood how his carelessness in drinking and smoking counterbalanced his obsession with order, after the countless warnings from Mother when his drink had toppled from the armrest or his cigar had fallen to the floor.
Did he have a moment, before flames sucked the oxygen from the space around him, when he woke up frightened? Did he have time to regret anything? I take some comfort in thinking he did not—because regret is too messy. It won’t fit into any box. I wonder if I ever really loved my father, because I don’t really miss him the way children in other families miss their dead fathers. That kind of missing implies regrets that I don’t have. And I don’t think he loved us, either. His ministrations, “I love you all very much,” seem now to have been more like salve for a burn than indications of the depth of his feelings. He loved order too much, which meant he could not love people. That is how I see it. There was his marriage, which implies order, but an agreement that promises some kind of order doesn’t guarantee it.
All we know of love, my brother and I, we learned from my mother. I think by the time she realized that the man she adored—whose eccentricities appeared in their early years growing up together to be exotic and intoxicating, whose intelligence and understanding of the wide world beyond the parochial confines of high school seemed so mature and comforting—didn’t know how to love her, it was too late. That he had normal sexual tendencies lured her into believing that love was possible for him. But it was Mother who hugged us when we were in need—who recognized the need. Dad’s hugs were practical; used to keep us in place on his lap, to keep us away from the bars in the zoo, to get us to the dinner table, to get us into bed, or to sleep.
Now, a dozen years after his death, and with my mother dying, I am extracting the last contents of his life from the attic of our old house. My old house. The process does not supply the order I am seeking.
I turn to the fourth box, the forgotten box, the contents of which I am already familiar with; the one with old Christmas lights, coats and towels and some baby clothing which is probably no longer fit to donate, old tax reports and investment records from the years prior to 1984, knick-knacks like a shoe-shine kit and a humidor, poker chips—nothing worth keeping; nothing remarkable, nothing to illuminate his early years, nor foreshadow his troubles later in life. It also contains some of Mom’s childbirth hospital bills, receipts, vacation brochures, clippings about Jerry and me, our sports stories. Happier times. The glass half full. This is the box I carry downstairs, the one I will show to my wife and children. The other three I leave, for someone else to discover, or to disintegrate into nothing.
From the hallway, I take one last look up through the opening to the attic before releasing the spring-loaded accordion staircase and let go of the restraining string; the noise, as the staircase retracts into the ceiling and slams against the attic joists, is harsh and final.
I did hardly any work today, but I am tired. I am tired a lot these days. Death is tiring if you don't ignore it. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Later I’ll call Mother with the good news.