On a sunny fall day in 1977, my father stepped out of a bar and collapsed on the sidewalk, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage, and for the rest of his life was confined to a wheelchair, his legs useless, his voice slurred. His career as a county prosecutor was over, and he lived to see his former clerk become the youngest district attorney in the history of the state. He also lost his sense of taste and was never able to enjoy a meal again.
At the time of the incident, my mother was in Canada, visiting her sister, who had just suffered a miscarriage. This visit, which was to have lasted two weeks, had the secondary purpose of temporarily relieving her of her marriage to my father, which had been strained for years. He had made no secret of the fact that he had married her because she was pregnant with me, and I came to grow weary of hearing him drunkenly wonder why, his mumbled words an ironic foreshadowing of his future state, of all the women he could have knocked up, it had to be my mother.
It was true that, until his accident, my father had had the opportunity to impregnate lots of women. My mother had been a court stenorgrapher. She was very upright and uncontoured, with a flat, wide face and sharp, bony knees. I once heard my father tell her that, in a brown pleated dress she had just made for herself, she looked like an outhouse. She was not his type—the women he seemed to like, and had often been seen around town with, were short and lush, with wide eyes and shy little mouths. For many years I thought they were all the same one, until my brother disabused me of that notion.
A few months before the accident, my mother expressed to me on the phone her suspicion that my father was seeing someone else. She seemed to be hoping I would convince her otherwise.
My father lived five years after the accident. His condition gradually grew worse, with the paralysis spreading upward into his arms, his speech eventually growing incomprehensible, and at last his heart stopped. My mother lived another 25 years, dying at the age of 78, and after her funeral I was left to deal with my father’s study.
The study was on the second floor of our family house just off the city park in our home town. My brother and I had grown up there, and my mother had lived there at the time of her death. The study was likely intended as a master bedroom, but my father had claimed it, and it served as both a place of work and a place of refuge from his family.
As with many such rooms occupied by many men of my father’s generation, the study door was equipped with a heavy lock, and none of us were allowed inside. When I was a teenager and in rebellion against him, I made a point of trying the knob every time I walked by. I never found it open.
That isn’t to say that I never saw the inside of the study. Occasionally, when Richard and I were children, my father would invite one of us in, to demand that we run some errand or perform some task for him. The errands, of course, seemed extremely important at the time, but were actually busywork—buying paper clips or file folders, or cigarettes from the tobacco shop where my father was well known. His real aim was to show us the study, to give us the satisfaction of having seen it, to create in us the ambition to have one of our own. Whether or not my mother ever saw it, I don’t know.
My brother took these errands very seriously. He was three years my junior, and continued them long after I gave them up, persisting in their execution far past the age when I had stopped. He ran my father’s errands right up until he left for college, sometimes changing his shirt exclusively for the trip, and putting on a necktie or jacket. At this point my brother had decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and go to law school; eventually he would switch to business and begin amassing the wealth he now enjoyed. I, on the other hand, was newly enraged by my father’s philandering, and rarely spoke to him. I would soon stop speaking to my mother as well—though not for long—as I was equally fed up with her tolerance of my father, and my relationship with her would not recover until he was dead.
The study was a nearly perfect fifteen-foot cube, with knotty pine paneling on the walls and wide planks on the floor. There was a leather setee, of the kind you might see in a psychiatrist’s office on television, and three tall wooden file cabinets. There was a large desk and several glass-front bookcases filled with imposing-looking volumes, and the window was always open just a crack, and the sill always bore an ashtray and burning cigarette. There was an incongruously ornate brass coat rack from which there always seemed to be hanging the same gray pinstriped vest; and a calendar on the wall always displayed a photo of Mount Rushmore.
Sometimes, walking past the door when my father was inside, I could hear him laughing quietly with somebody on the phone.
My mother died of a stroke. At first we thought she would pull through—she was showing signs of recovery—but she crashed during the night and died. My brother had come to town with his family, and he and I stayed at her bedside in shifts. In the days leading up to her death, she appeared to recognize us, but was unable to speak, and so we never had any kind of goodbye. I thought I ought to cry, or experience some passionate emotion, but our relationship, though cordial, had long been cold, and I felt only a mild sadness and relief. Richard didn’t even appear sad. In fact, he was irritated by the necessity of staying longer than expected in our home town.
“I have things scheduled. The boys have practice.” Baseball practice, he meant. “Jean has her volunteer work. I assume you’ll be staying on to sort things out?”
I was the older brother, but had long been treated like the younger, a role I didn’t especially like, but didn’t care enough about to fight. I was also the one, sadly, who had been closer to our mother. It was natural, my brother seemed to suggest, that I should be the one to take care of her estate. There wasn’t much—the house, a bit of money. He seemed to think he was doing me a favor. I quickly acquiesced.
“One thing though,” my brother said to me, when the funeral was over. “I want a report of what dad left in the study. Don’t sell anything without talking to me.”
Soon after his accident, my father began to ask to be brought to his study. My mother refused. She might have had a stair chair installed, but she didn’t. A bed had been set up for my father in the front room, underneath the windows facing the street, and he would lie there and stare at the stairs, as if longing to climb them.
Once my mother said to me, “I ask him, ‘What is it you want up there, I’ll get it.’ And he tells me no. There’s nothing he wants. He wants to be there, that’s all. Well, he can’t go.” Once, on a rare Thanksgiving at home, I witnessed a fight between my brother and mother about this—Richard wanted to carry him up to the study, my mother wanted well enough left alone. She lost that argument—Richard scooped up my father’s wasted body and hauled him to the study, commanding me to follow with the chair—but the key could not be found, and my mother pretended not to know where it was.
Eventually my father seemed to forget about the study, and then forget about everything, and then he died. My mother, for her part, rarely mentioned it in the years that followed. “Your father’s room,” she called it, and once or twice she may have casually mentioned a vague desire to clean it out. But as far as I knew, she had never bothered. During a quiet moment before her funeral, I tried the knob. It was still locked.
My mother was a tidy woman, and had left no mess behind. She seemed to have been prepared for death, even though her health was good before the stroke; all her financial records and important papers were in the little telephone desk in the front room, neatly tucked into cubbies. It was here that, the day after she was buried, when the caterers had departed with all their dirty dishes and buffet tables, I found the key, sealed up in a tiny manila envelope with the word STUDY printed on it in my mother’s careful hand. Hidden in plain sight. I wondered if this was where it had always been, if my father had passed it many times in his wheelchair, if in fact he had seen it, known what it was, and pretended not to. If perhaps it was easier for him to resent my mother for keeping him from his study than it would have been to enter it, and face the life that was no longer his.
In any event, I took the key up the stairs and slid it into the lock.
It was a hot, sunny day and the first thing that greeted me as I opened the door was the glare of southern late-afternoon sun and a rolling wave of dry dusty heat. I squinted as I entered the room, took it all in, at a glance, and registered that it was the same, the vest, the calendar, the file cabinet.
A woman was seated on the settee. She half-rose, opened her mouth to speak, then abruptly sat down again, the leather creaking. She was pale-skinned, dark-haired, her face the shape of an aspen leaf; she wore a white blouse and a black wool skirt. Her body was shapely, her eyes large and puzzled. She held a leather handbag on her lap with both hands; her fingernails and lips were painted red. I recognized her and didn’t recognize her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is a private room.” I didn’t know what I meant by that—it was, of course, a private house.
“Are you... Are you Frank’s brother?” Her voice was papery and faint, her enunciation precise.
“I’m his son,” I said.
She looked away, toward the corner of the room, and furrowed her brow.
“How did you get in here?”
Several seconds passed before she registered that I had spoken, and another few before she seemed to understand what I had said. She looked at me as though pleading, though her answer was a declaration, not a question.
“He told me to wait.”
“Do you mean Richard?”
She looked down at her handbag, then back at me. “Frank.”
We were silent for some time. She studied her hands; I studied her. The room smelled only of dust. Some of it covered her shoes.
“When?” I asked.
Again she hesitated before answering. “I don’t know.”
“He’s dead,” I said quietly, then attempted to soften it: “He died. A long time ago.”
Her mouth opened slowly, her eyes grew wide and anguished. But she didn’t appear surprised. She reached into her bag and removed a lace handkerchief, with which she covered her lips. She was not crying. After a moment she said, “I knew it was something.”
A few seconds later she tucked the handkerchief back into her bag and stood up as if to go. Her skirt and blouse were creased and the creases harbored lines of dust. She walked toward me, unsteadily. I had never actually entered the room; I stood on the threshhold, my hand on the knob. I didn’t move, and the woman stepped into my arm. I curled it around her, my hand on the gentle curve of her flank where it descended into the skirt. She pressed her face to my chest and her hair smelled like nothing at all.
Her face tipped up to mine. “You probably think he was a bad man.”
She closed her eyes and I kissed her. I had no children. My wife and I were separated. Fallen to me to stay here, to clean up what was left of my parents’ lives, because my own had been a failure. I hadn’t wanted to become my father, but I had never found anything else to be, either. I had my own study, in the house my wife and I had lived in together, and I did nothing in it but read magazines and drink. I didn’t want to go home, not now, not ever. I wanted to live here, making love to a ghost. Instead, the kiss ended, and she pulled back, and she said, “I know he was a bad man.”
I said nothing.
“I was a bad girl. And not in the way people mean when they say that.”
“No,” I protested.
“I was never any good at life. Your father said he loved me. He didn’t mean it, but I didn’t care.”
She moved past me and paused at the top of the stairs. Her back was to me. She offered her arm, and I placed my palm underneath her elbow and supported it, in this obsolete way, as we walked down the stairs and across the parlor.
She was still there, but had gotten harder to see; the light didn’t want to stick to her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said.
There wasn’t another kiss. She opened the door and the sunshine blasted around and through her, and she stepped out into it and disappeared.
I stood a long time looking out at the sidewalk, at the cars passing and my parents’ neighbors, most of them young now, most of them strangers even to my mother, working in their yards, playing with their children, waving to one another across the street. None of them looked up at me, and I did nothing to draw their attention.
Behind me the grandfather clock chimed four. I turned and went back inside, to begin setting things in order.