One night a couple of years ago, when I was traveling, I stopped and checked into a hotel in Wichita, Kansas. It was late and I’d been driving all day, but when I got to my room I found I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to the bar. There was a woman there, sitting by herself, staring at the late news on a soundless television at the back of the room. She was small and dark-haired, a white girl, maybe twenty-four or so, wearing black jeans and a gray top. On the screen a jetliner was sitting motionless on a wide strip of tarmac. I asked if I could join her and she said, Sure, and gestured to the seat next to her. After I’d sat down she said, Chicago, and nodded toward the TV. It was enough of an opening to get us talking, and we talked for a while: her name was Marian, she was looking for work, and at one point she said that she’d grown up in Mississippi, but she hadn’t been home in a while. I asked her why not.
Oh, I had some trouble there, she said, and waved her hand dismissively. You don’t want to hear the whole thing.
But I did, and I pressed her. She hesitated for a moment more—the bartender turned the sound up on the TV so that he could hear the football scores—and then she said, Well … began to tell me a long story, about her little sister and her little sister’s boyfriend, and a baby that was never born, and her father, and a gun she’d bought at school. I could see that the whole thing still upset her, but she wasn’t shy about it: she looked directly at me as she spoke, and she never faltered. It sounded as if she’d spent years going over it in her head again and again—not for a listener, but so that she could understand exactly how it went herself. When she was done she stared at her glass for a couple of minutes, turning it around on its little square napkin every so often. So that’s why I stay the fuck out of Mississippi, she said.
I nodded, and we sat there in silence for a little while longer. Well, I guess I should go on to bed, she said at last. Then she slid off her seat, smiled, thanked me, and started for the door, lurching slightly to step around a bucket full of rags that a cleaning woman had left by the leg of a table.
I didn’t see her at breakfast the next morning, and I was on the road by ten, but I remembered the story she told. I thought about it often; I tried it out on some people; and finally I decided there was something very important about it. So I changed the narrator’s perspective, altered enough details to protect her privacy, and set it down.
“Lonely Is As Lonely Does”
When I was stuck I would draw a circle inside the book, or improvise around the letter O, or the number 0. At one point I considered prefacing it with an epigram from Emerson, a sentence that opens an essay called “Circles”: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.”
Thompkins Square Park (sic)
At the end of the eighties I was in graduate school for philosophy, and my oldest and best friend was teaching the same discipline. We used to meet about once a week, to talk about various problems that interested us, and eventually we decided to write a paper together, on the act of forgiveness and how it fits into moral logic.
Since neither of us was a specialist in ethics, we started by looking through philosophical journals and indices, for earlier work on the topic. But there was surprisingly little; so we turned to literature, and eventually to The Tempest. It was my argument that the play contained a smaller, misshapen version of itself, barely visible behind the main plot—as if Prospero’s drama of forgiveness was a lens, through which one could make out the deformed image of another, similarly composed, but with Caliban standing at the center. The boy’s monstrousness, I claimed, was just an effect created by the narrative through which he was seen; it distorted him, and it made his suffering comic by rendering it in grotesque proportions.
Miranda, too, can see Caliban only through the stories her father tells, and Shakespeare, as much as Prospero, is careful to keep her from gaining any more immediate view—because if she saw him clearly she would fall in love. The passion of Mirandas for their Calibans is one of the laws of adolescence, and the playwright’s decision to leave it unenforced within the bailiwick of Prospero’s island provides the play with its main source of sexuality and suspense; it lingers about the events that transpire as the spectre of a loss that the magician, for all his powers, only narrowly avoids.
The paper my friend and I planned to write never got beyond our conversations, but Sister, the love story that I wrote instead, began with an impulse to upend The Tempest so that Caliban’s story came out on top. And then, of course, it became something else.
J’s drawing, with its pencil-scrawled note: “I never thought the last time I saw you would be the last time I saw you.”
Jugendbildnis (Portrait of a Young Woman) is a painting by Gerhard Richter, from a series based on the newspaper photographs depicting the history, imprisonment and deaths of the German left-wing terrorist organization known as the Baader-Meinhof Group. It shows Ulrike Meinhof herself, one would guess at the age of fifteen or so. With her thick, carefully styled hair, her clear skin and her full face, she looks like the kind of girl who’s been well cared for; but her expression says everything about what she became.
I saw the complete series at the Grey Art Gallery in New York three years ago, in the company of two friends, one of whom has since disappeared. I had been asked to write about it for an art magazine, and I said then, and believe now, that it’s one of the most difficult and powerful bodies of work produced by an artist in this century.
I had a reproduction of Portrait of a Young Woman taped above my desk for much of the time I was working. I was thinking about women’s secret capacity for violence. I’ve always admired the rare, strange and beautiful combination of passion and fierceness that lies behind it. Even when the result is terrible, it has a profound, almost sweet quality that I can’t help but appreciate.
Deep rage, and the attraction of violence, fascinates and troubles almost every woman I know well, every woman I love. So I wrote Sister.
It cost me a total of about six hundred dollars, cash, to come up with the ending.
The prettiest song I’ve ever heard is an obscure old Hank Williams tune called the “Alabama Waltz.” The recording is crude and unembellished, just his guitar and his slow, quiet voice. It lasts only as long as it takes him to sing one verse and one chorus: it can’t be more than about a minute. It goes:
I was sad and blue
I was downhearted too
It seemed like the whole world was lost
Then I took a chance
And we started to dance
To the tune of the Alabama Waltz
Waltz, waltz, the Alabama Waltz
There all my tears and fears were lost
There in your arms
With all of your charms
We danced to the Alabama Waltz
A girl wearing a woman’s perfume.
The passage excerpted here occurs about a third of the way through the book. The narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy, a self-described monster who, unbeknownst to anyone, has been living in the space underneath a gazebo in the garden of a mansion on a hill. At night he spies on the family that lives there—father, mother and two teenage daughters. He recounts his childhood.
Self-portraiture is a kind of folly, like trying to grasp the fingers of your right hand in the same fist. The sky on which we write our constellations is not a mirror, since once hung the stars shine by their own fire, and while the course we plot assumes that they’re fixed we’d never know if they wandered. It’s true nonetheless: I was born over my senses, and I was a very difficult birth. I struggled with all of my tiny might. We all know that there’s no comfort or calm equal to the dark solitude before birthdays, but that wasn’t why I was reluctant to be born: I didn’t want to be at all, and I fought for hours, for days, to keep away from the world. Having been born, and now having lived, I sometimes think it would have been best if I’d used the moment of my first gasp to go right out again, but I was instantly impressed by the smart light of the delivery room, the shining metal tables and floors, the beeping of the instruments, and I reached my pink hand out toward the masked features of some doctor or nurse, and couldn’t turn back.
I can see my father standing in the hospital hallway waiting for the news: I was the news. I can imagine him watching impassively as the nurse brought my soft, swaddled self up to the glass so he could get a look at me. Sir, a boy. He was a strict and quiet man, my father, a man with an incalculable and unexpectedly clear soul, which was absorbed by his work like well water in a dry flower bed. That day fulfilled one of those ironies of generation, of being born and begetting, that warp stories into sacredness: my grandfather was both a doctor and a tyrant, a tough and difficult man, so my father was scrupulously principled; he thought of himself as a name under a moral law that he sustained only by correcting himself through the years as a man corrects a dray, using his own doubt as a bridle, and his capacity for shame as a bit. I was the third issue, and he would bear it without complaining, as if an otherwise absent providence had determined it. I don’t know what grief he might have kept alive over the years, but I’ll ask you to believe that his life from then on was an attempt to concentrate, as if to sharpen away the brute moment of my being under the small abrasions of his duties. For a long time he had studied deserving, the way a foot soldier studies war, and he’d taught himself to see everything: he stood in the bright hallway, his thoughts carefully hidden: he simply watched, and slowly nodded.
And there in my imagination is my mother, damp, pale, exhausted and relieved, lying in a hospital bed with her hair unpinned and cast out on the white pillow. My father is in a chair beside her, waiting anxiously for her first look at the son she delivered. He holds her hand. A knock comes at the door, she turns her head expectantly, the nurse pushes her way into the room with her arms full of clothes, and there I lie, quietly covering my face with my tiny hands.
About a year later my mother died in an accident—I see an airplane landing in a rainstorm, though I don’t know why—leaving me with my father. All that remained of her was her signature in the front of the poetry books that were sorted on one shelf in my father’s study, an old-fashioned signature made in fading blue ink by practiced penmanship; and there were three photographs in which she appeared—one on my father’s desk, the second on the mantel above the fireplace, and the third, which I saw only once, in his wallet. I was unconsciously young when she entered heaven, as my father, in a lapse from his usual plain-speaking, put it, so I have no memories of her at all. I have no suit against her. I don’t know what kind of woman she was, and I never asked, since it seemed to be the last thing my father could have answered; I was afraid he’d turn as brittle as old paper, and then dissolve into dust under such a bright light.
My parents had moved to Lincoln just before I was born, to a blue frame house on the edge of town. It was huge and hollow inside, with a front hall set with black and white diamond-patterned tiles over which I used to slide in my stockinged feet until the soles of my socks were gray with dust. Toward the side there was a porch which was seldom used, because it was cold in the winter, and the winters were long. My bedroom was at the start of a long, second-floor hallway, and my father’s was at the opposite end. He and my mother had bought the place expecting to fill it with children—there was a bedroom for each of four—but his sense of a house died with her, and he simply left the unused rooms empty; there was a single, rickety chest of drawers pushed against the wall of one, a rolled-up carpet laid against the baseboard of the next, an unplugged lamp on the floor of the third. Absurd, but I think he was also a little sentimental, so we never did move.
I used the rooms as a diving bell. I wasn’t happy, and as a boy I liked to imagine a sea in place of the Great Plains, with a hole in the bottom where I could live, passing midnight days among the translucent ferns, the shells and silt. In school one afternoon they pulled the shades and showed us films from diving ships, dark flickers of what they found near the boiling springs as far below as a man could go: giant white worms, fat mushrooms, flat-headed fish and eels. They did nothing but swim the currents and feed. I didn’t even know how they went about making more of themselves, but I knew I wanted to live with them, because I knew that I belonged to nature, too—and why not? Freaks and sports of all kinds are hers to make and keep, spiny fish, moss and mung on trees, mandibles and hammered features, and choking smoke from fires, and crawling dirt, and brackish water, and me. If my father was bothered, he never showed it. We lived together, he and I, in a house that was far too big for us alone, and in which half the rooms had furniture the way months have full moons.
Like him, I can now grant that nature’s insults aren’t insults; but when I was a child I reckon I made things hard for him. From my bedroom I could imagine him, after one of my wildcat tantrums, returning to his study to sit silently in his chair, his head lowered into thoughts of his gone wife and my improbable unhappiness. I know he found it difficult and bewildering. At the bare blank and diminishing end, now, I’m grateful to him for his generosity. What use can I make of sympathy? My dear father, small-town doctor with a spook for a son, a boy who made fears.
Daddy never brought stories of his patients home; their sufferings were secrets, and he took the privilege of his invitation into the systems that sustained them very seriously. But my curiosity about the patterns of disease was insatiable, and like a wind chime it could be set trembling and ringing by the slightest move. I used to watch him carefully while we sat at the dinner table, looking for some sign he might show of the travels of his adversaries; if he sighed softly just as he lay his fork across his plate at the end of his meal, I’d imagine that a patient had worsened during the night before; if he lingered over a forkful of potatoes, I decided that a new possibility had just come to him, and the next day would bring brisk arrangements; if he fixed himself an extra cup of coffee after dessert, I guessed that he was rewarding himself for having effected a cure—unless he added an extra spoonful of sugar to it, in which case I could tell that he was expecting to study late into the night.
When he did have work left ahead of him, he used to take the kitchen table to pore over the illustrated journals that arrived regularly in the mail, looking for a new therapeutic treatment, or something to suggest that a diagnosis may have been off. As I passed from the empty living room to the empty dining room I’d see him, his gray head bent over his wonderful researches, while the illnesses of men and women all around the world formed swirling, paperbound currents of blood and compounds. The magazines he read would be open to their difficult maps, the charts of deep waters and undertows that some anonymous second had prepared and published. He watched them all like some quiet, latter day Poseidon, with his favorites and battles, redirecting Furies and tides to achieve his ends, the health and completion of the men and women who came to him with their aches, their breathing troubles, their messy cavities and miseries, their numb limbs, their sleepless, bedridden bodies.
I remember leafing through his books from time to time; I used to sneak into his library when I came home from school and choose from the leather-bound medical volumes that lined the shelves. Had I had the proper temperament I might have learned something, but I never thought to wonder how the things they described might have had a place in the causal order. I wasn’t born to be a doctor; I’d rather think of the singular, the particular, the actual, than spend time making real sense of the general world of symptoms, or cures. I used to look at the pictures and try to imagine the body that had posed for them, and then recite passages aloud for the rattle of the syllables, without knowing or caring what they meant.
One fine day I came across a pathology textbook, as devoted to viscera as a slaughterhouse. It began with a special inset: on the endpage itself there was a pair of skeletons, like exotic musical instruments, half violin, half vibraphone—though one, with its deep, curving centerplate, looked as if it would be much richer and more resonant than the other. Over them successive transparencies could be laid, thin plastic sheets on which were printed first the shaggy skein of nerves, then the fatty organs, then the tubules of blood (red with burning oxygen, blue as a drowned child, then the fibrous muscles, and then translucent, pale pink skin, until a whole and very patient couple finally appeared, standing like sentinels over the carnival inside. I read through the book with the devotion of an initiate, skipping over the technical terms which seemed to multiply as the pages made their way toward the distorted glimmers and gazes, the pulp and sordid perfume that lead to the blots of flesh from which you and I, in our several ways, have begun; but I always returned to the frontispiece, and I never tired of assembling that map, with all its clever, interlocking layers.
I wrote stories of my own, in a notebook which still sits in the bedroom desk drawer where I hid it. It was a school composition book, bound fat with a strip of black tape over the spine, and the lines on the pages were wide enough for a child’s hand like mine to keep its characters under control. The cover was a painterly abstraction, black ink spotted over a white background until the individual flecks melted together, making a sort of camouflage pattern; in the center a space was cleared for my name and home address, an oasis that I, inclined toward invisibility even then, left uninhabited. Inside I carefully wrote out little tales about a wild, illiterate and helplessly destructive Wilson; I hid in swamps, in ship’s holds, in other people’s houses, where I stole daughters and murdered fathers; I ate insects and stray, misfortunate men, and when I was done I belched loudly, bent down and beat the ground with my fists until the trees shook in Africa.
For every empire, even of a child’s limpid imagination, there is an emperor, and I liked to imagine the great day when I was crowned. There would be a hall so huge that I couldn’t see the ceiling. The light would come from rows of flaming, smoking torches that hung on the walls. At one end I would stand, boyish and unembarrassed, raised on a platform and gazing out with a slight smile over an assembled mob of monsters. They’d groan their cheers, they’d stamp their stumps on the ground, they’d shake their staffs in the air, and I would be declared President for Life.
Lincoln in those days was a small, quiet city under a huge, blue sky. It wore the smell of the fields that surrounded it the way a farmer’s wife wears a cotton dress, and like a farmer’s wife it was bare-legged underneath. Within a few blocks of the main street the houses fell down to two-story frames as if on their knees before the sublime beauty of the Plains: there was so little substance to the whole, from limit to limit, that if the University and the Capital hadn’t held it down like nails I think it would have become detached from the earth and floated silently up into the sky, leaving me alone at last and unwatched in the dirt below.
Our house was on the south side, and our nearest neighbor was the Widow Foster. She had always been the Widow Foster, and had always lived there, but in all the years we lived next door I never did meet her; I seldom so much as saw her in the open air. Still, on afternoons when I played lordly games in our yard I’d occasionally catch a dark glimpse of a serpentine form behind the windows of the French doors that led to her porch, and I’d seen the shadow of her figure often enough to know that she was a pleasant-looking woman, with white hair and a white throat, and a body as bent as a bicycle after an accident. All services were delivered to her door, and we grew used to the sight of a grocery delivery boy or florist standing at the top of her front stairs, waiting patiently for her to make her way up from the back of the house. Then one day when I was eleven, under the spell of one of my father’s funereal afternoons, I first contemplated the mysteries of mortality, using our neighbor as an example. I never even left my room: I just wondered, and the next day a man with a package rang and rang, paused, rang some more, peered through a window, and then came over to our house and spoke to my father for a moment. I was sitting in the kitchen when he came to the phone, and I watched as his index finger drew the dial in a circle. I remember asking myself what law had been suspended to reduce the familiar seven digits, with their inconsistent rhythm la measure that waltzed, a measure that marched to a brief and urgent three.
In the Widow’s place came a family from Kansas City, a young couple somehow connected to the University. I spied on them from my window as soon as the enormous green and yellow moving truck pulled up to the curb in front of their door. For the rest of the day the movers carried their furniture into the house, while a girl in a grass-stained dress played among their legs, sat sullenly on the front steps, poked around their new backyard, and finally turned her pale moon face up to my window, where she saw me standing and, after looking around to make sure no one was watching, slowly waved.
Her name was Liz, and she was a tomboy, pony blond and always into something. Aside from the day she moved in next door I never saw her wear anything but blue jeans. She smelled like hay and grape juice, and she had downy sunburnt skin and long, thin limbs, and a habit of standing with her mouth open and dazedly blinking whenever she came across something that excited her. For reasons I’ll never understand, she befriended me with a wide, sly smile one weekend afternoon just after they’d arrived. I was on my way to the comer mailbox with a stack of my father’s letters, and she stopped me from the edge of her lawn, came down to the sidewalk and asked me if I knew how to make a knot that no one could undo. When I said I didn’t she sat me on the curb and showed me, using my own shoelaces and then laughing shamelessly as I struggled in vain to get them untied again. We finally had to cut them apart with a pair of sewing shears she borrowed from her mother.
For the weeks that followed, we used to meet on the playground at school, sit side by side against the jungle gym and eat lunch while she watched me with glittering eyes, then meet again at the end of the day to walk the few blocks home, where I’d leave her at the sidewalk and watch her as she dashed up the stairs to her front door. Then one winter’s day she brought me into her house instead, and while her mother fixed dinner in the kitchen she led me down into her basement playroom, and under the matter-of-fact fluorescent light she simply disrobed, and showed me, with perfect grace, in what besides her long hair our differences lay, as if she were the endpage of my favorite book come to life. I was silent through the entire event, I was so fascinated by that form, with its trecento shape and coloration, at once elegant, devout and awkward. I still remember the soft, smooth texture and smell of her bare skin, already stippled with delicate goosepimples from the cold, the way it was gathered about her bones, the slight sharp taste of her breath on my face as she moved toward me and gently kissed my burning cheek. I couldn’t have imagined that anything had the power to be so entirely naked, to be so present in its plainness: she was the first thing I’d ever encountered that depended upon nothing else to exist, either in itself or in my mind, and the afternoon stopped dead in the spring heat when she suddenly grew serious, backed away, and said, O.K., now it’s your turn. When all at once I realized that she was looking at me as I was looking at her I spooked, and I shook my head No, and when she tried to cajole me and reached her hand out toward a button I ran away, hightailing it up the stairs and through the kitchen, past her mother’s astonished stare and out the back door. When I reached my own room, breathless and with my heart backfiring, I lay face down on my bed and dizzily replayed the moments I’d just passed, until my father came home from work and called me down to dinner.
What did you do today? he asked as we sat down at the table, and I, thinking he already knew somehow, lowered my head, reddened, and then to his astonishment blurted out everything. His awkward, nonplussed silence when I’d finished only confused me more: he shuffled the beans on his plate with a fork, cleared his throat, swallowed half a glass of water, and then changed the subject.
Liz drifted away on an uneasy tide, waving good-bye just once and halfheartedly from the foot of a long path that I invented and put in place of our own all too real driveway, just as, the week before, I’d removed our house from its neighborhood and put it in a green clearing in some dark, medieval woods. Afterward she ignored me when I passed by her and her friends as they played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of her house, and school, which for a few weeks had been almost a pleasure, again became a miserable duty, the more so since the princess had willingly gone to some unnameable dragon.
I remember very little of my teachers, with the exception of one young woman, fresh out of college and no match for me, who asked me to stand before the class and recite a patriotic poem we were all supposed to have memorized the night before. I refused at first, but she insisted, so I stood, stared at the ceiling, and repeated as much as I could remember, changing the word country to monkey throughout. The boys in the back row giggled, and her face as she scolded me remains clear to this day. Little monster, she said, and I left the room on a brief, imaginary trip to an island in the Mediterranean, where I quickly wrecked a passing ship.
The others have faded into a pale, multiform band, within which I can make out single features, a beetle brow, a bald spot, a chalk smudge, a hand holding a lesson plan, but not one complete person; they have become blurred into a dim audience, frowning at a failing act without seeing that failing was my act. See, the old books lie. Teaching Caliban to curse made him Caliban. And Huck is one part Tom, and Tom is two parts Becky, and we are all three parts Runaway Jim. So I did a lot that others thought I’d do, and I did it because they thought I would; they were the spectators at my coming to be, and I was a master, a monster, of finding and finishing their expectations, the doctor’s strange son, who seldom looked at a man directly, and never at a woman, who slouched and hid, and whose voice was always quiet. As every local reviewer knows, the logic of character is so appealing.
Still, I suffered from the typical torment that children pay one another. My classmates’ boos and catcalls were the never-ending music of my adolescence. It’s so predictable that it hardly bears recounting; someone always gets it, and I was the one. Instead, let me draw a picture of my own closing credit. It was the first example of my artistry, my way with nature and my powers.
It was a late spring day, sunny and breezy, and they were standing in a circle around me in the schoolyard during lunch hour, burying me with their usual insults. I was waiting expressionless at the center of the ring, and I was prepared to stand there and play the object of their scorn until recess ended, as I did each time some secret signal rang and they gathered around me. But on that day, as I stood and listened to the rising, hurdy-gurdy sound, a single syllable from a single voice—I don’t know whose—suddenly appeared from out of the ring and, like a cold chisel, knocked at just the right spot to split my temper open, so that my fury spilled out: I opened my mouth and emanated ill will. I made fun of one’s unkempt clothes, another’s fat father, a third’s disgusting lisp, and when I could think of nothing to holler at the next in line I simply invented a failing—and when the failings ran out I received a gift of tongues, and a flood of mean energy, and I began to rage and rave at their blank faces, cursing them with a might that grew inside me, stretching my skin until I was sky high, one thousand feet tall, bitter all the way up and so angry that the weather changed: the sky darkened and I shouted up a North wind; papers, notebooks, textbooks swirled at my feet, the trees bent almost to the ground, my hair whipped across my face; on the other side of the playground a line of bicycles in a rack collapsed with a soft clatter. Through my squinty eyes I could see a teacher coming out the back door of the school, with her skirt tearing across her legs. She stopped in her steps and watched on, transfixed by the impression I made, as the wind blew and I leaned back with my arms outstretched and howled commandments to the elements
I don’t think any one of them understood half of what I said, but they were so taken aback by what I’d done that one by one they backed away, as if in the face of a supernatural force. Only Liz stayed on: she was standing by the fence that separated the playground from the street, hanging on with one hand to a diamond-shaped link while her red jacket flapped in the storm and her blue eyes opened wide in a look of astonished, delighted admiration. When the rest turned and ran I was left alone with her, and let the wind subside. I remember that it was very quiet afterward.
Liz let go of the fence and gazed at me with solemn curiosity.—Then she began to clap her hands together, and as the girl’s childish, single applause drifted across the pavement I raised my arms, called down a rainstorm, and walked all the way home in it. I wasn’t bothered again.
Something mean hangs high over whatever law is made, whatever comfort a good man commands. To worst and best alike nature comes, in best and worst fashion. So I was made a sport, and my father was made with a weak blood vessel behind the wall of one temple.
One cold winter day it broke and he died. It was a Monday, and he’d gone home for lunch; a cancellation early in the afternoon left him free for an extra hour, and anyway he’d left a file that he needed on the desk in his study. He was fixing himself a sandwich in the kitchen when all of a sudden he felt faint, his breath came short, and his ears rang, so he shuffled up the stairs to his bedroom, lay down on top of his bed, closed his eyes, and there and then he left.
I was brought out of civics class that afternoon by the school nurse, a usually chatty woman who silently monitored the passing tiles on the floor as we made our way to the principal’s office. Am I in trouble, I asked. No, no, she said, and put her cool hand gently on the back of my neck. I’m sorry, child. She sniffled and sighed; I had no idea why.
I was ushered through the anteroom—they were all watching me—and into the principal’s office, and he put aside his papers, took off his glasses and told me that I’d been called home from school. Then he rose from behind his desk, and walked me to the empty street outside, where a colleague of my father’s named Cooper was waiting, dressed in the curiously old-fashioned manner that he preferred; under his coat he wore a white shirt, a string tie, and black pants. His ankle-high suede boots were wet with melted snow and streaked with gray from the street salt, and each had a shiny spot near the big toe where the leather had started to wear through. In one hand he held his hat; he put his other arm around my shoulder without speaking. I shrugged him off. As we walked to his car the snow squeaked under my shoes, and the wind was so sharp in my nostrils that I pulled the neck of my sweater up over my mouth and nose until I could smell my own sweet breath mixed in with the humid wool. Cooper’s dark green sedan was in a cleaver-blade of sunlight at the edge of the parking lot, glinting against the muddy snow that had been piled up to the curb. We drove to the house in solemn silence, pulling gently into the driveway that my father and I had cleared the day before; I remember the sound of the engine ticking from the cold as we walked away from it, the dark house against the white edge of the rise in our backyard, the snow and blue sunlight. There were no shadows. I was fifteen years old. He was lying in his bed with his eyes closed, his rare soul having dissolved into the sky like the foggy vapors of my breath that afternoon. For a few minutes I was left alone with his body so that I could say good-bye, but I couldn’t bring myself to utter anything at all to that wax effigy, and when the door opened again I was found sitting in a chair across the room, staring at the bed as if it was a macabre sideshow exhibition.
Cooper was assigned me for the next few years, and he was proud to have received my father’s commission. He was a nice man, never married, a facile guardian: he gave me a room in his house to sleep in, and a meal or two a day, and after I’d rebuffed him a few times he stopped trying to draw me out of my obvious misery and left me alone. I was an easy charge, and since I intended to finish school and be gone as soon as I could, I never gave him a reason to try to be more. I wouldn’t want to see him again.
My father had willed the house to me, and I insisted on leaving it more or less as it had been before he died, but I packed away his clothes and personal effects, and I donated the most useful of his medical things to a small, poor school nearby. The cutlery was worn, the silver dulled in spots from the years he held them, however gently, in his subtle hands, but he’d left a wish that I give them away. I put his books into storage, and took his clothes to the Salvation Army; the furniture remained, along with the silent pictures on the walls and my own abandoned bedroom. I stopped by the house almost every day from then until the moment I left, although there was nothing for me to do there but sit in the living room and read the walls. On weekend nights when my classmates were at parties or cruising the main strip in their cars, at holidays when families gathered, on summer afternoons when girls went walking together and smiled at boys, I was alone in that dark house, too frightened to leave, waiting for my helpless youth to end.
One day during my last year of high school I decided it’d ended at last, and I walked out: that’s all. That afternoon I visited Cooper in his office, stood before his desk, and told him I was gone. He fingered the frame of his glasses, nodded carefully, quizzically, and asked if there was anything he could do. I’d like for you to watch the house, I said. If you can, keep a little heat on to stop the pipes from freezing. He nodded again, and promised me that he would. I dangled a set of silver keys over his papers, explained which fit where, and set them on the blotter before him, and he opened a side drawer and deposited them inside. There was nothing to say after that: he stood and shook my hand, and walked me to the door.
I left the next morning, wandering out into sky blue spacetime, footstep by footstep. Aside from the clothes on my back and in my suitcase, a day’s food and my toothbrush, I took only one thing when I left, a book of Daddy’s, my favorite, the one where I could make a couple appear and vanish again in neat, successive stages.