Portrait of an Empty House

1.

The house pulls itself apart from the inside out, strips itself of its own meaning. It vomits pots and pans, flatscreen TVs and sport coats, books, tools from the garage; bleeds family pictures and paintings by George’s father; weeps folders filled with drawings from his children when they were small. In one great, shuddering spasm it frees itself of furniture, the bed on which he slept, the desk where he sat, the table where he and my young son had secret daytime ice cream, he breaking some internal rule of his with the same glee with which my son breaks his external rules. With a final shake, the last things are gone, odd plastic things from the kitchen, cleaning supplies from the pantry, frozen foods from the freezer. The house stands empty. Cleansed, debauched. Larger, smaller. Free, lost. Loved, resented. Hollow, alive.

 

2.

I go to the study downstairs, a square room with windows high up on two walls, a wall of books, a small table in the center, a room that felt crowded if occupied by more than two people. On the table the Canterbury Tales, Phaedra, Euripedes, Plato’s Republic in paperback with the cover curled open, a Gideon’s Holy Bible, Taming of the Shrew, an art book about impressionism, a stiff paper reading list for the classes he took at a local college, just for something to do in his retirement. I write down the title of every book on the table. I take a picture.

Over the next week, the books will be shoved aside, stacked on top of one another, placed roughly back on shelves. The table will be strewn with newspaper articles, old photos, picture frames emptied by his daughters. The kids will stash their things in the room, clothes and sleeping bags snow-drifted in corners. Someone will break one of the carved stone chess pieces on the shelf.

I will leave the house last, once it is done. I will put the picture frames back on shelves, the articles on the desk in his office, will glue the rook back together. I will clean the table with Windex and paper towels. I will put the books back on the table exactly where they were, will use the picture I took to make sure. There’s no pressing reason for me to do so; the house will be sold, his things claimed, argued over, packed up, dispersed. Nonetheless, I put it all back the way he left it. He was not my father, his loss is not mine—three years ago I married his daughter in a small patch of grass beneath a scattering of soaring oak trees just outside the window of the study. I don’t know what to do with any of it. So I tend to his books.

 

3.

He told us often about the deal on Breyer’s ice cream at the local Safeway, so often that I tuned out after a while and now I can’t remember how much he paid for it. It was something like a two-for-one special, a real steal. Ice cream was his favorite and Breyer’s, in his opinion, was the best. The Breyer’s ice cream deal came regularly to the Safeway and so did he. One day he drove all the way to the store specifically for ice cream but left empty-handed because the deal was not on and Breyer’s was full price. The craving was no match for his disdain for bad business. I have no net worth at all and I would have just bought the ice cream.

The driveway leads through a gate at the road and gently winds its way to the house. There are no geographical features necessitating the windiness of the drive; it is done for aesthetics. You can’t see the house from the road. The trees protect it. So when you drive down the driveway, you come free of the woods, round a bend that clears a lone holly tree that obscures the view, and open into a space alongside the house that offers your first head-on view of the Chesapeake Bay spreading out before you, a deep, ancient, glittering green-blue vastness of water. Never once in my life have I seen an open expanse of water and not felt like it was my home.

George spoke of money with frankness but without bragging, as if money carried neither social nor historical significance and were nothing more than a commodity to be negotiated like any other, which I’m pretty sure is how he saw it. He spoke of a buy-two-cases-get-three-free deal on sodas with the same interest and alacrity with which he discussed buying an investment property or a new boat. He didn’t even drink soda. He told me that when he rounded the bend and cleared that holly tree and came face-to-face with the water for the first time, he told his realtor he would pay whatever they were asking for the place. It was the only time I ever heard him offer full price for anything.

 

4.

Between bay and woods, a wide, flat space of grass. Before our wedding, the photographer had Jenni and me lie on the grass and took pictures of us from above, pictures of us smiling at each other, holding hands. Just the two of us. And our son, who was a seven-week-old fetus at the time and only she and I knew it. We were already larger than just us at our wedding. Maybe that’s why we weren’t nervous – we had begun to move beyond a celebration of ourselves, already in the nascent stages of the falling away of the obsession of self that is being a parent. The wedding was lovely and felt like a memory even as it happened. Now that it is a memory, it feels like an afterthought and I recall very little of it. Which is why photographs are important.

Jenni had this idea that we would return to the same spot on the grass every year, take a new picture in the same position, not just us but our children as they come, to show us as our family grows through time, as our children are born and grow, as we grow older. We never did it though. We never got around to it, were distracted by other things while we were out there on weekends, didn’t make time for it. We also didn’t plan on the house being gone to us.

If we had the chance to take that picture on our fifth anniversary, there would be six of us. The boy, the girl, the twins who will be born three months before the anniversary. Yet the house has remained constant, large and wide but flat and low, hunched before trees that save it from gaudiness or ostentation. So unchanging, in fact, that I misremember which child was present for which event, who was alive, who was not yet born, misattribute quotes to a child who was no more than six months old at the time. A pregnant summer, lazing poolside in an anxious dreamy pre-baby idyll, and an exhausted new-baby summer, then pregnant again where we couldn’t sleep for fear the boy would find the pool without us, and another baby paired with a two-year-old when we had abandoned sleep and assigned sentry duty for the pool at all times. And the house felt always the same, a constant backdrop, a static reflection of change.

George maintained the house with diligence and patience, not just the house but the landscaping, the trees, the driveway, and maybe that’s the primary reason that the house never seemed to fade. But there was something else about it that made it feel timeless. It fit the land so well, that was part of it. Granted, the house was a large manmade rectangular footprint plopped down in front of a bay carved by glaciers a million years ago, surrounded by old-growth trees older than this country. And the lawn was hardly native; it was planted, mowed, fertilized, kept free of moles and pests. Yet it felt like it belonged, all of it, like it fit the world around it and not vice versa, as if it had coevolved with the land, the cedar-shingle roof its bark and the windows not an afternoon reflection of the water but the water itself, the house a late arrival in the natural order of things but not an unwelcome one.

 

5.

The bald eagles had taken up residence in the dead branches of an oak tree in a patch of woods off to one side of the house. The eagles’ dead tree was the only one not green and lush, and it stood slightly proud of its living cousins. The dead limbs shone white in bright sun and were easy to see. At first, we did what people who don’t spend much time around eagles do: tried to spot them, often, and often mistook ospreys for eagles.

Visually, eagles do not disappoint. Like foxes, tigers, or alligators, eagles look exactly like their picture. They are large and the head is striking in its whiteness. George never looked for the eagles but he always stopped to watch when we spotted them.

He said one eagle always took the same route early every morning. It looped over the woods behind the house then shot straight out, bisected the house, soared over pool, yard, dock, bay, until lost to sight over water. Then straight back, a short while later, cruising back over the house before looping back to nest. George insisted that it wasn’t out hunting or fishing, that it never came back with prey. He said it seemed like it was performing a daily survey of its territory.

It makes no difference to an eagle, but a bald eagle’s lifestyle falls well short of the noble, majestic icon the Romans and, later, Americans found in it. Benjamin Franklin referred to it as a “rank coward,” a “bird of bad moral character.” Bald eagles are opportunistic, and opportunistic is difficult to paint as noble. They are adept fishers but will eat anything, depending on availability: fish, turtles, small mammals, other birds. Carrion. Garbage. I suppose Franklin’s contention has more to do with their tendency toward kleptoparasitism, an animal stealing prey from the animal that caught it. Effective, certainly, but hardly the stuff of majesty.

Cohabitant with the eagles, the ospreys kept no regular schedule and worked constantly through the spring and summer. The Chesapeake Bay, like the osprey, thrives despite humanity, and osprey populations have exploded throughout the area. More than a few times we watched an osprey return with a fish in its talons but concede its catch to a marauding eagle. The eagles seemed to hide in the trees, waiting for the osprey to fly over land before they struck. The ospreys had work to do: build nests, raise chicks, tithe eagles.

The ospreys waged a cold war with George over ownership of his boat, specifically the top of it. They sought to build a nest up there, and none of the contraptions George put out dissuaded them. Well aware that if he let them build a nest, by law he would have to leave it there, he took to yelling at them. Every time he saw them perched atop the boat, he stepped out on the deck and yelled until they flew off.

The ospreys learned him, knew him. By early summer, all he had to do was open the side door and stand on the deck, not saying a word. Even from two hundred feet away, the ospreys recognized him. Like chided teenagers, they complained and wandered off.

I saw the ospreys land on the boat once when George wasn’t home. I stepped out on the deck: nothing. They didn’t even look at me. I yelled. They didn’t budge. I had to walk out there to get them to leave, was almost within touching distance of the boat before they took off. I held no authority out there. I was neither eagle nor osprey nor George. I was just some guy watching, that’s how the ospreys saw me. I think that’s how George saw me, too.

 

6.

He told me once that the insurance business was the “job that no one wanted after college.” He had gotten into the business by accident, or by the absence of another path. He put himself through college in Florida, joined the Marines, got out of the Marines. He was a man of great charisma – “charming” was a descriptor I heard many times – and the insurance trade, like almost any trade if boiled down to its essence, comes down to sales and networking. The insurance business was a medium more than a passion, a platform from which he could grow and expand the way bacteria seek a warm, damp place to multiply without waxing sentimental about it.

He opened his own business the year Jenni was born. I think about that sometimes while I’m flailing away at my writing career. A new baby and a new business. I marvel at that, I, who can get maybe forty-five minutes of “career” into that sliver between when I’ve put my kids to sleep and when I inadvertently put myself to sleep. I think about the dedication it must have taken, the sacrifices he made, about the distance he must have put between himself and his children. It is not possible to love a career and a family the same and with the same energy. Something has to be first, and something has to be second, and that thin lie busy parents like me tell ourselves – that we’re doing it all for them – is the first lie our children understand. A choice must be made, priorities delineated.

George retired wealthy. His business a success. I think about that when I am away from my children for days on end, flailing away at my writing career.

 

7.

I was in the pool and the boy came wheeling around the corner aglow, his hands gripping the sides of the wheelbarrow. George was at the helm and I saw him in the boy, saw both of their faces with these light smiles, satisfied, pleased with themselves and their world.

The boy was only two and did not know that there are those who would do him harm, did not know that there are permanent tantrums on the inside, falls from which one can no longer stand, scrapes that do not heal. George was retired and it was a nice day, his daughter and grandson had come to visit and he was happiest when busy. He pushed the wheelbarrow, the boy rode along, each adrift in the zen of their moment.

The boy had a fondness for older men and would follow them anywhere. It started with my father who was also busy, also a putterer. When we had visited my parents in North Carolina a few weeks before, my father took the boy with him everywhere he went, ran errands, tinkered about in the basement, messed around with the backyard. The boy awoke each morning looking for him. He named him “Funpa,” a parapraxic amalgam of “grandpa” and “fun.” He followed him until I made him sleep.

The boy named Jenni’s dad Bebop and followed him like Bebop was a continuation of my father. The precedent had been set and following one’s grandfather around all day was what one does,  so he’d pursued George to the garage as a matter of course and with no more forethought than the eagle in its morning flight. The difference between his two grandfathers was that Bebop would never initiate, would not think to scoop up the boy and incorporate him in his daily routine. He accommodated the boy, was charmed by him, but it was the boy that came to him and not the other way around. He was not a nurturer. He was a provider but not someone who would ever take the primary role in caring for another’s emotional needs. But then I saw him with the wheelbarrow and the way my boy smiled, and the way he smiled, kind of off to one side like the smile caught him by surprise and only half his face had warmed to it.

 

8.

Spend enough time elbow-deep in houses and you start to see them like exploded-view drawings. Roofing nail to shingle to underlayment to sheathing to truss. Outside knob to spindle through door to stem to inside knob. Footings to foundation to basement slab to framing to windows and doors to exterior siding to plumbing and HVAC rough-ins to roofing to electrical to drywall to paint to flooring. I knew his house better than he did.

Of course, that’s not quite true. I knew the how, he knew the rest. He was neither afraid to spend money nor manage people. Paint didn’t peel, rot didn’t spread, dead plants didn’t stay. He replaced perfectly acceptable decking on either side of the upper level living room with two-inch teak boards that, he said, would outlast him. “I like to fix things so that I never have to worry about them again.” The teak was thick and solid, and teak almost never rots or warps. The deck was dead silent, didn’t move or creak even if jumped on, felt rooted to the ground and permanent the way everything in the house did. That house could have risen whole from stone, or grown out of the earth like the trees that surrounded it.

The bedroom where Jenni and I stayed when we visited was tucked beneath the deck, windows peeking out from under it at the Chesapeake and the hardscaping around the pool. We were putting our son to bed one summer weekend when my brother texted from DC, an hour’s drive west of the Eastern Shore. “I don’t know what this thing is but it’s massive and headed your way.” A storm? “Don’t know what they’re calling it but we just got our ass kicked.”

A “super derecho.” A massive thunderstorm, but well-contained so that it strikes like an unseen punch or a rogue wave, quick, powerful, shocking. Gusts over 90 miles per hour. Instant hurricane.

A storm on the water is never uninteresting. I stood in the dark outside alone, the grass still warm beneath my feet even though the warmth was being wicked from the air incredibly fast, like the space before the storm was being driven away, seeking shelter, yielding to force behind it, and what’s left was a vacuum, a cold speck of time in an otherwise stifling July.

I heard it before I saw it, the bay unsettled and choppy, slapping against the dock. Derecho was a yawn at first, a high, aching sound, then it was alive far beyond any anthropomorphic or metaphorical sense, pushing me backwards, squeezing out my breath. Even with my back to it, I couldn’t find air.

I retreated. There was a moment where I couldn’t get the sliding door open, where Derecho had pressed so hard against it that it wouldn’t budge. Above the storm I could hear limbs starting to crack, the splash of leaves on ground, sometimes dense, heavy thumps. I wondered if my best chance was to crawl around to the lee of the house and hope for the best. But I forced the door open, slammed it behind me.

Derecho woke Jenni. Baby boy slept on, and Jenni wouldn’t wake him by stirring, but when I open the bedroom door she whispered, “Should we sleep somewhere else? Are we safe here?”

What I didn’t say: every other room is more vulnerable than this one, and a tree could reach every inch of this house if the right one fell. It doesn’t matter anyway because no one can predict which tree is going to fall in which storm.

I also didn’t say that no one is ever safe, that I’ve never felt safe so I couldn’t say with any depth or intelligence when or where one might feel safer than at any other time or place.

“We’ll be fine,” I said, because usually that’s true in a statistical sense. “The deck is strong.”

It was not a lie. The deck was strong. She went back to sleep. Or back to quiet; I couldn’t tell in the dark. I closed the door behind me, stood on the cold stone in the nameless room that opens out to the pool, stared out at Derecho as it wrapped the house inside itself. The gusts were of such strength that there was a light breeze coming from around three casement windows built into stone walls, even though each window was sealed tight.

I considered what I knew about wood, how it comes together, how it comes apart. I remembered a time my friend snapped a two by four in half while trying, stupidly, to pry a stuck golf cart off a railroad tie that we had driven onto. I tried to guess how much a golf cart weighs.

Two by fours are made of pine, as were at least some of the trees around the house being smashed around by Derecho. Teak is much stronger, much denser, than pine, although far less pliable. I tried to figure out how much pine it would take to punch through the deck. Through twelve inch deck joists, through plywood sheathing, through ceiling joists, through drywall, through me, through a comforter, through Jenni and my child. I didn’t even consider the hardwoods. If an oak came down, we wouldn’t stand a chance.

We were fine. Derecho slipped off in the night, dashed away to kill two boys in a tent in a state park in New Jersey and then to fade away over unwatched sweeps of ocean.

 

9.

The lot next to his was empty. It was not visible from his house ensconced in woods. Along the waterline, however, there was a small patch of grass that connected his yard to the lot. The bay started to chew away at the neighboring waterfront. George tried several times to get his neighbor to fix the erosion problem. It went unaddressed. So he planted half a dozen southern red cedar trees along the property line, closing the gap between the houses.

The cedars were bushy, ugly things designed to grow fast and wide. They clashed horribly with the woods nearby; their squat scrubbiness didn’t seem even remotely related to the lofty, slender oaks. The cedars were mostly out of sight of George’s house, only in plain sight when standing in the yard. His theory was that they would create an eyesore if his neighbor either built on the lot or tried to sell it. He also wouldn’t have to look at the damage he couldn’t persuade his neighbor to fix.

The local homeowners’ association, nosy and insistent but without any legal authority, hassled him about the length and dimensions of the dock he intended to build. He had an unmitigated disdain for the homeowners’ association, for anyone who told him what to do with his property. The quarrel escalated. He had his lawyer figure out the state’s maximum allowable size, then he built an enormous dock, its length within a foot of the regulations. The dock had a boat lift, two additional boat slips, and mooring space for two more boats. He didn’t own a boat when he built the dock.

When Jenni was in graduate school, she and her father travelled to the same wedding, unbeknownst to each other. “Did you come with your parents?” he asked her, referring to Jenni’s mother and step-father. Jenni still thinks it’s strange, his dismissal of his own role as a parent. George never acknowledged it.

He stopped paying for Jenni’s sister’s college tuition without warning while she was still in her junior year. He did it to spite Jenni’s mother. He felt slighted because she had not invited him to a performance at Jenni’s sister’s school. “Children aren’t worth it,” he later told her.

He fired his own son. His son was working for him at his insurance company and had missed a lot of time to tend to his children who were sick a lot that year. He didn’t even fire his son himself. He had a subordinate do it.

He left his first wife, Jenni’s mother, for his secretary, with whom he was having an affair. She was twenty years younger than him. He ended the marriage on a cruise ship, told Jenni’s mother about the affair four days into a week-long cruise. She cried the rest of the trip. Once ashore, he initiated divorce proceedings and froze all their shared bank accounts.

I admit that I hide from Jenni’s pain sometimes. Most of the time I am who I should be to her, but there are times when I hide. Change the subject, start a stupid argument over a nonsense issue.

It’s the scale of her grief that I can’t handle. Her grief is permafrost; deep, unworkable, and underneath everything. Massive and almost impossible to see without digging. I am the person with whom she allows herself to not be calm so I see everything, see where it lies, see its shapelessness.

She is attuned to what she is feeling, to why. She is a psychologist and knows the grief too well. When she speaks of it, it comes out clean and not shapeless at all. But she is cursed with her own knowledge, and there’s a reason surgeons don’t operate on themselves. When she doesn’t speak of it, that’s when I can feel it cold and stiff beneath my feet. I’ve never been good at watching other people hurt. Sometimes I hide.

I am supposed to be the antithesis to a series of longterm boyfriends who were insincere or disloyal or cowardly. I’m none of those things. But I wonder sometimes if I am only a more evolved and fully realized version of my predecessors. A prototype that has shed the obvious and silly and detectable problems like infidelity and fear of commitment in favor of more insidious problems like emotional selfishness and intractable defensiveness. Parts of me might be malignant distillations of the worst parts of her father that flew under Jenni’s radar, and I don’t think I have any of his strengths.

 

10.

He was no snob. He had made money, and he didn’t seem all that concerned about those who had not, but he was no snob. Status was not his driving force. He could afford the things he liked, the objects he wanted, but nothing he owned seemed to be for the purpose of impressing others. His car, his clothes, his furniture, all of it nice, none of it fancy to the point of inutility. Before he bought the house, he lived in a small condo in a nearby town, working, saving, planning. Waiting. For decades. Waiting.

He was no snob. When I started dating his daughter, I was scraping by as a contractor, not much more than a handyman, really. I was in the midst of a divorce, deep in the red, little in the way of prospects. I was wary of him, of the way the well-off tend to wear blinders and simplify the world, boil it down into a tragically flawed theory of hard work.

He showed me his house, walked me through it room by room, showed me where he’d had a porch converted into an enclosed addition in the basement, the deck he’d recently had replaced on the top floor. He stopped short of asking me questions: any expertise I held was of no interest to him. He had his own contractors. But he kept using these phrases as he explained his house to me, “you’ll recognize this” or “you’ll appreciate this, in your line of work” or “as you’d well know.” He had mistaken me for an entrepreneur.

There was a certain condescension to it, to be sure: you’ve done as well as you can, within your capabilities. I’ve done as well as I can, within my capabilities. Compare and contrast. But there was an unapologetic earnestness to the way he spoke to me that I marked as respect, even if it came out sideways. I would learn over time that that tenacity of self was the single trait he seemed to admire most in people, that willingness for an individual to follow their own lead, to draw a circle around one’s talents and assets and strengths and go forth with only those things circled. My X and his Y met at this critical junction: neither of us were impressed in the slightest by those born with money.

He wanted people to know he was successful. He relished, openly, rubbing elbows with those he found impressive or admirable in some way. He was not immune to flattery. But he was no snob, and he could have been, and I remind myself of that every day.

 

11.

Morning came without apology. The power was out. The rich, soft smell of freshly opened wood drifted in still air. A spruce tree out front was exploded mid-way up its height as if struck by artillery, the broken trunk flayed open, the tree green and fragrant, numb to its own mortal wound.

In the back, two dead birds, flung by Derecho into glass. One lie in front of the sliding door I had struggled to open. We were not all fine.

“That?” said the boy, not yet two years old.

“Dead bird,” I said. “He died,” I added, as if that clarified anything.

He looked from me to the bird, at the stick-legs and the curled-up feet, the semi-gloss black eye. He looked back at me. He was not upset but he did not understand, I could see it in the way he squinted one eye, the way he looked at me like he was concentrating on one eyeball and then the other, in sequence, as if one might have access to information unknown to the other.

As far as I know, it was the first death he’d seen. It was certainly the first time I had to try to explain it. I wanted to make him understand it but I didn’t know where to start. It is a trapdoor to an empty infinite place and I can’t even describe the trapdoor itself. I held his hand, picked up the bird by a leg in the other hand. We walked to the treeline. I chucked it into the woods. He moved on to other things, had already forgotten the bird by the time he turned around, at least as far as I could tell. But we don’t know what stays.

 

12.

It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and we were a large party so we were seated at a downstairs table in the back of the restaurant, a small section encased in windows looking out at the boats in the marina. Jenni’s sister was in town with her family, as was George and his partner and her son and daughter-in-law. George and his partner were to leave for Florida the next day where they would stay through the holidays, so he was treating all of us to lunch before they left. One last chance to see everybody.

Afterwards, we went outside to take a group picture. The seawalls were low and did not have railings. My daughter was not yet one, but mobile enough that she worried us. The wind coming off the bay was stiff and her nose had turned red. The rest of the group lingered outside; I took her in to warm up and keep her safe. She was fussy so I sat with her, bounced her on my knee, tried to distract her.

George came in on his way to the bathroom. He saw the girl, smiled at her. His smile drifted to me and stayed for a moment. “You’re a good dad,” he said. He winked, continued on his way.

Aside from a few pleasantries before we left, it was the last thing he said to me. In the moment, I appreciated that he said it but it didn’t mean much beyond something nice someone said in passing. Not negligible but quiet in my mind, something not likely remembered over time without context. Now that the moment has found its grim context, I remember it like it was seconds before his death, like he said it and turned and faded to nothing. Now it echoes like a last note in an empty high-ceilinged room.

 

13.

In Florida, the day after Christmas, they wake, eat breakfast, have sex. His partner goes to lie in the hammock out back for a while, he goes to the bedroom to take a nap. When she comes in, his face is purple and he is gurgling.

Months before, I sat at his kitchen table and he stood at the counter making tea for us and he told me it wouldn’t be his heart. “It’ll have to be cancer or something, but it won’t be my heart.” He ran his hand over his throat, one side then the other. He’d had an arterial scan of the arteries in his neck and chest, a preventive method of predicting stroke and heart attack risk. It came back clear. Not a bit of buildup, no plaque, nothing. He sounded so self-assured. I envied his hubris, his ability not so much to stare down sudden death but to dismiss it so casually, reduce it to a statistically improbable outlier.

It is his heart. An unlikely collusion of physics and chemistry: blood pressure meds, Viagra, Cialis, testosterone replacements, sexual activity. The risks a man might take if he doesn’t consider death a plausible outcome. Vessels restrict, heart swells and stops.

In North Carolina, we are in the backyard of my parents’ house and I miss two calls: one from Jenni’s mom, the other from her sister. Neither of them ever call me. When I check my phone I know what it is but I don’t know who: aunt, granny, cousin, step-dad. I don’t even consider George. He was so sure. Jenni goes inside to call and I look at my children as they play around me, check them off one then the other, once, twice. It’s irrational but I have to make sure it’s not them.

In Maryland, the house stands empty, chilled. The boat gone from the boat lift. The pool covered. The eagles and the ospreys flown south.

 

14.

Enter through the front door. A few steps to the upper level, a few steps to the lower level. Head for the upper level. If you look up while you’re climbing the stairs, you only see water through the living room. No grass, no pool. Just the bay beyond floor-to-ceiling glass. It’s like seeing the ocean from inside a stateroom.

Move through the living room. Stop at the chairs set before the windows. To your left, a sideboard with my picture on it. Next to it, a bronze statue of an eagle banking hard to its right.

It’s not really a picture of me – I’m just in the center of it because it was taken on my wedding day. It’s a picture of Jenni and her father, both smiling, minutes before we got married.

He is three. He is awake and aware, but we don’t tell him. “We’re going to Bebop’s but Bebop won’t be there.” That’s what we say, the first few times we go back. If he were a year older or a year younger, it wouldn’t matter. At two, he wouldn’t understand, would be too young for it to mean anything. At four, we could at least explain the idea to the best of our own understanding. But he is three and caught between and doesn’t know what it means. It can only upset him, over and over, new each time because he is too young to understand permanence.

At the funeral, they had put a blown-up photo of George mounted on posterboard on a stand next to the coffin. It’s just him in a suit and tie, smiling in a business-card kind of way, around the same age as he was at our wedding. Afterwards, someone took it back to the house, put it on the sideboard, propped against the eagle. The picture was unframed and too big for the table, clashed with the framed picture next to it. It was out of place and conspicuous, but no one knew what to do with it so it stayed.

The boy passes the picture one day and stops. He’s seen it many times before. I’d never seem him pay any attention to it. This time, however, he stops. He stares at it for a while. I watch him.

“Goodbye, Bebop,” he says. “I’m sorry you died.”

We don’t know what stays.

 

15.

Strange, that I don’t remember much about the last time I saw it. As with all things, the quotidian makes sharp edges round, and I suppose I thought I would have other business there before it sold, a running toilet to fix, a leaky showerhead to check, storm-fallen trees to remove. But at some point I didn’t go back, was gone when the movers came, when Jenni met her brother there to take care of the last small things of a person. For all our bluster to the contrary, life isn’t literature and we aren’t owed a satisfying conclusion. There’s no denouement when the last person belonging to a house dies. It just ends.

 

16.

I didn’t love him. It’s not what was asked of me, not something either of us required of the other. Neither he nor I had much use for approval.

We never fought, never raised our voices to each other, never dug ourselves into an argument from which we could not escape, even though we probably would have disagreed on a lot of topics. We were unfailingly cordial to each other, in the way that people who spend a fair amount of time in close proximity to someone with whom they aren’t close tend to be. But we never had a conversation stretch deep into the night, never drank a few too many beers together, and I don’t think either of us ever felt we were the worse for not having done so.

I don’t have any specific memories of he and I in his study. It was a quiet room, kind of out of the way of the rest of the house, and that’s why it was my favorite. When I was in there, he usually just left me alone. I do remember my brothers and closest friends making the room small, just before my wedding, my brother and a friend playing chess, red plastic cups and the smell of bourbon. But George wasn’t there, was elsewhere in his house, he with his people and I with mine. Yet I felt closest to him in that room, before he died and certainly afterwards.

On the shelves, great works of literature, towering names of fiction, philosophy, science, art. A history of thought in a single room. But he was neither a scholar nor an intellectual, and never claimed to be. He had a savvy business mind and was adept at getting people to like him. His grasp of literature and philosophy, however, was facile at best. He took the classes, just for fun, and he read books, and he did his best.

So do I.

I’ve spent so much of my life reaching for things just beyond my grasp, stretching, straining, fighting, barely hanging on to what I have, and sometimes failing to do so, in the pursuit of the abstract: success, wealth, peace, contentment. George had all those things, earned them and knew he’d earned them and wasted no time on what he didn’t have, what others might feel he lacked. He was perhaps the least tortured human being I’ve ever met. He never fell prey to the soul-dragging, productivity-killing self-flagellation of excessive introspection or self-loathing. He traded in neither rage nor depression, spent his paltry allotment of days achieving not striving, working not wanting. For him, the unattainable was exactly what it claimed to be, and he allowed himself to be unbothered by that. His reach and his grasp were both extensive but of exactly the same measure. “Not everyone had it as good as I did. It’s been a great ride,” on a handwritten note attached to his will in his office.

The study, the home to all those lovely books, was perhaps the one place where he came up a little short, where he tried for something he couldn’t quite get. His small struggle and my multitude of struggles reverberate together in that place, echo through time and death, pulse now within me. I don’t know if he was aware of it, or cared about it, or even if I do, but the study is the place where he and I were closest, where he best understood the person his daughter married.

 

17.

Without him, the cedars have not fared well. The wind comes off the bay cold and hard and some trees lay flat on frozen ground, others lean. All have been damaged by rutting deer.

I work with what I can find. I shape some offcut wood into stakes with a hatchet I find in the garage. I hammer the stakes with the butt of a splitting axe. I tie the trees with paracord from some forgotten drawer in the utility room. It’s not perfect and I know the wind is stronger than I am, but it gives the ugly trees a chance.

I don’t know why I do it. I have no beef with his neighbor or with him. They are both wrong in their own way, as are we all. Yet I drive the stakes, do the work. Maybe it’s just something to do. Or maybe performing the pointless task keeps at bay this idea that all tasks are, eventually, pointless.

It’s cold and I didn’t bring gloves, and the house is warm. But the inside of the house oscillates between near-frantic preparation and a punch-stunted stillness like that confused second right after you’ve been hit hard and don’t know if you’re still awake. My ears are numb and my hands hurt every time I swing the axe or pull on the rope, but at least the wind is consistent and I feel better in the cold, better out there alone. Maybe it just feels better to hurt for a while in a way that I understand.

 

 

Drew Krepp is the author of the novel The Salt Marsh King (Bancroft Press). His work has appeared in StoryQuarterly, The Chattahoochee Review, and The Masters Review, among others.

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