My Father’s House (a story)August 4, 2012
Monkey note: As you might have figured out, I’ve shelved The Undiscovered Country project for a little while. I hope to get back to it soon. But here’s another made-up story.
I don’t know where to start.
Maybe with the agreed upon facts, the things I assume to be true: I am essentially who I appear to be. I was born in the 1950s and have done well enough for myself in an inconsequential career. I have some resources but I am in no way extraordinary. (I have hopes that my children will surpass me, and it looks like they will.)
I understand that you are being polite to me, because we are in a quasi-business sort of arrangement here. It’s not like I have cornered you in some junior college faculty lounge and am impressing my crackpot opinions upon you against your will. You feel under some obligation to hear me out, but you’re probably not enthusiastic about my story. You are aware of the time that is slipping past us — time you will never recover, time that you probably feel you could put to better use. But you are professional, and this is a “safe” place and so I am free to fret and strut at least for a little while. You will be patient. You will make eye contact. You are a decent person with a modicum of empathy. I understand.
I also understand that there is nothing more tedious than another’s dreams. I am not without empathy either, but as Ronald Reagan once said, I paid for this microphone. I will tell you as much as I think I need too, as much as I think I can, and trust that there is something therapeutic in the telling.
I did, for a while, own a house in the Broadmoor area. I inherited it from my father, who died when I was sixteen years old. Neither he or I ever lived in that house, which he rented out to a series of young couples before deciding he was not the sort of man to be a landlord. I think he tried to sell it, but it was in a poor neighborhood and worth relatively little and after a while I think he grew tired of the effort. He would take me with him some Saturday mornings, and we would cut the grass and sometimes he’d find broken windows that would have to be repaired. He kept the property up, and after he died, someone — my mother, I guess — made arrangements with a black family who lived across the street from the place to look after it. We kept the utilities on, and we stored a few sticks of furniture there.
I never really thought much about the house, though sometimes my mother brought the subject up. “You need to think about what you want to do with your inheritance,” she would sometimes say, with a barely perceptible trace of resentment on her breath. She didn’t understand why my father had made the house a specific bequest, why he had separated it from his other property and insisted that it was mine.
The way I understand Louisiana law, his estate became mine after he died anyway. All of it. My mother just enjoyed the usufruct of it. I couldn’t kick her out (not that I wanted to) but once I came of age, I was the legal owner. Still, my father was not well versed in the Civil Code. He believed in the Common Law. So in his will he spelled it out. The house was mine.
I never thought much about it, and after I went to college, I put the house out of my mind. It was a vague, plain place anyway — a mid-century ranch house with bleached out brick. Three tiny bedrooms. A bath and a half and an eat-in kitchen. It was a sad place, only a little larger than the apartment I lived in college.
There was a brief period in the early 1980s where we actually used the house. I was in a band in those days, I played rhythm guitar and sang a little. We used the house as a place to practice — we set up in what would have been the living room, and leaned a mattress against the picture window to try to muffle the noise. I remember the drummer nailed his kit to the hardwood floor, which I didn’t think was a good idea at the time, though I didn’t say anything. We had an old refrigerator we filled up with Miller ponies. We were a post-punk pop band. I wrote the songs.
We weren’t very good, though for a time we were kept busy in the little nightclubs that seemed everywhere in the city those days. A lot of people still know me from that band, and though we are middle-aged now, we sometimes nod at each other conspiratorially at civic functions and charity dinners. I was mildly famous for awhile, and I am still used to people knowing who I am without my having to announce myself. I know this is received as arrogance by some, but there is not much I can do about it. I am both shy and well known, for I have lived here almost all my life. People believe they know me, and I am proud enough to believe they are mistaken.
I don’t know precisely what happened to that house. I mean, I know what has happened to it — how it was demolished and an apartment complex put up in its place, but I don’t know exactly how it passed out of my possession. It was probably sold, finally, during my divorce. Lots of things we sold during the divorce, and while you might think I’m being disingenuous, I can’t quite bring myself to pull at whatever threads would lead me back to that particular moment. Not because it’s all too painful — it was painful, but probably no more painful than the usual petty betrayals that accompany most divorces — but because I simply don’t want to be bothered. It isn’t important.
One of the things I learned in my divorce is that you can sell anything if you offer it cheaply enough. I short sold my life — let me believe I at least bought myself an education.
Anyway, the house has been gone for more than twenty years. Not gone gone, that was only razed a few years ago, but you know what I mean. It never held any particular significance for me. It was just some place I can sort of remember.
Maybe you know my friend Eddie. Lots of people do — Eddie is the sort of person who makes an impression. He was the bass player in my band, but I have known him since elementary school. He seems not to have changed at all since then. He was always gangly, with a tonsure of black hair, that ancient face and a slight misalignment of his dark eyes that can make him seem crazy before he even says anything.
Eddie has his problems, he’s got a borderline personality, but he functions quite well. None of us were autistic back then, but I’m inclined to believe Eddie has a a touch of the Asperger’s. He has that flat affect, but he’s really good with math and science and even though I suspect he’s tone-deaf — he couldn’t sing or tune his bass by ear— he was an amazingly precise musician. He was like a machine — but he had to learn his parts by rote. It was impossible for him to improvise.
These days, Eddie’s interested in politics. I run into him now and then, when we’re walking the dogs, or when I drop into that artisan butcher shop to pick up some hangar steak for supper. (It seems he’s always in there.) Most of the time, I try not to engage him — I just nod at him, or say “hi” and try to keep moving. I hate that because he’s my friend. I used to have the patience to chat with him.
But these days, if you start talking to him, he’s just too damn difficult to get away from. Eddie is an activist now —he’s always got programs and initiatives he wants to discuss. He doesn’t drive, he walks everywhere. He’s always got a thousand economic or environmental policy ideas all flowing together at once. Eddie firehoses you with facts.
And I’m not the sort of person who cares about politics in that way — I’m one of those vague liberals who is happy to pay more taxes if that’s what it takes. The But Eddie is an activist — some kind of populist savant, probably. I think he’s make a great governor, actually, but we don’t elect his kind of crazy.
Eddie is the other person in my dream. He’s the one who almost knows. Who is going to figure out what happened in the house. In my dream, Eddie is onto me.
Now, I don’t quite know what happened in the house. All I know is that it was my fault. And that it is very bad. And that it beginning to come to light now. And I wake up panicked, believing I committed some terrible crime long ago and that my present life is about to be upended. For maybe half an hour after waking I genuinely believe this — and even after I am able to convince myself that I am not guilty the dread feeling remains. I am not myself until the afternoon.
I cannot say how often I have the dream — not every night, but sometimes twice in a week. It is not always the same, though it always involves the house. Someone is digging beneath it, there are bodies in the crawlspace? I don’t know. But Eddie is beside me, keeping me apprised of the new developments. He is staring at me, with his haunting blank black eyes that focus independent of each other. He is treating me carefully and I think that he must know.
I know that in Jungian dream analysis everyone in your dream is you. And I know that sometimes our dreams are just random bytes of information zipping through the unconsciousness. We only perceive patterns because that is what we are made to do, that is how we organize the world. I know the dream is somehow true and that it doesn’t matter.
The geography is not accurate. In my dream, the house is not where it ought to be. The streets are different, the rooms flow in different directions, yet it is unmistakably the house my father left me. In my dream there is a woman sitting at a vanity, brushing her long brown hair. And suddenly I am outside her window, watching her face in the mirror. As she brushes her hair in my house.
She is the woman who was murdered by her boyfriend, who worked in a bookstore, when we were all in college. I didn’t know her name. But I knew him a little. His name was David and I used to see him in the bookstore, with his sandy hair and his goatee. He was arrested but he got off somehow, and went back to work in the bookstore for awhile before he went off to graduate school.
Her, I never knew. She was a heavy girl, not fat exactly, but with substantial shoulders and big hands. I saw her at school sometimes, but we never spoke. We never had any classes together. When she was killed the newspaper reported she was from someplace up north. I don’t know why this dead girl is in my dream.
Eddie tells me they are excavating beneath the house, that there was something found that has attracted the interest of scientists. They must be careful with what they remove from beneath the house, the shards of pottery, the archaeological relics, the bones of John the Baptist in an alabaster box. Eddie wants to declare my house a sacred zone, to save it from the bulldozers of the developers. He is starting a petition. He holds a burning candle as he leads me into the scooped out catacombs beneath my house …
I wake up. Sweating. My wife sleeps on. I press my forehead against her back. She feels cool, she sighs sweetly. I put my hand on her shoulder and try not to weep.
My father used to see Charles Manson on his morning commute.
We were living in California then. We lived out there for a little while, a year or so at the end of the ’60s. Sometimes i forget that. We lived out on the edge of the desert, where it was affordable, and he drove into Los Angeles every day.
Often he would see the little Chaplinesque guy on the side of the road, trying to bum a ride. He thought about picking him up a couple of times, but he never did. He only knew it was Manson after it all hit the papers. That was when he figured out who the little guy he kept seeing was.
He didn’t tell a lot of people this, because he didn’t think they would believe him. But he told me. And he told me it was true. He wouldn’t have told me otherwise.
I think that after the renters left, my father used to go to the house sometimes. I think he used to go there, and sit in the kitchen and drink beer and think.
I don’t have any evidence of this, really. Only the fact that he kept the house, and I think he must have a reason for that. He was mostly a very practical man. While I myself can be overcome by inertia — I could see how I might not get around to selling an otherwise worthless piece of real estate for several years, he was not like me in this way. My father attended to things. He had a reason for keeping the house.
It is not hard to imagine some reasons. But I do not think my father was ever unfaithful to my mother, and I do not think he used the house as a kind of clubhouse where he could gather with his friends to play poker or some such. I think he went there to be on his own, to be away from the rest of us, though I don’t doubt he loved his family very much. I think he started going there when he realized he was going to die from the cancer in his stomach, but I do not know exactly why I think this.
In those days, children were not monitored as they are now. I was not home a lot — after school we’d ride our bikes miles away from the subdivision where we lived, and sometimes we’d go back outside after supper. We played ball games and hung out in each others’ basements — we avoided adults as much as we could. I would see my father at the evening meal, sometimes we would watch television together. He did not seem to be a particularly absent man. He was around as much as other fathers.
It’s only looking back that I think there was something odd about the house. And that I think he must have used it, that it must have meant something to him. I wish I had thought to ask.
It is gone now. And whatever secrets were there are gone as well. My guilty past is buried beneath tons of commercial grade concrete. It’s really a housing project more than an apartment building they’ve put up there. It takes up nearly the entire block.
I am a good man. I believe this, though my heart sometimes feels lonely for reasons I cannot articulate. I love my wife, my kids, my dog. They love me. People like to run into me in the street, they smile, they never try to hustle past as though they didn’t notice me.
I even talk to Eddie when I see him. I stand there, shifting my weight from foot to foot, as he talks about how fracking has given us flammable drinking water and causes earthquakes. I listen and I stare deep into his dark eyes as they rove and pierce like searchlights scanning for fugitive Jews. I look him full in the face and brace myself.
He knows nothing.