His wedding ring bit into the thick flesh of his finger. He kept a row of large black shoes lined up in his closet. He commanded heavy machines: table saw, lawn mower, car engine. Like a scientist, I can construct my father from these precise fragments gathered while growing up on the periphery of his busy engineer’s life. Away from home much of the time, he participated little in my upbringing, outside of sporadic, awkward discipline. When he was home, my father and his concerns were my mother’s province.
One time, after dinner, when I was about twelve and he was extravagant with wine and the dizzying Los Angeles summer heat, my father said to my mother in front of me, “If you ever died before me, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself . . . ,” his voice trailing off, suggesting the unimaginable, the unspeakable.
“Phil, you’re a fool,” my mother replied, pelting him with a balled-up cocktail napkin.
But I imagined the unimaginable anyway: insanity, catatonia, homelessness — or suicide, with one of the guns in his collection.
In reality, though, my mother was healthy, and neither clumsy nor given to dangerous pastimes. She gardened, she did crossword puzzles, and she kept in touch with a large network of friends who often relied on her for gossip about each other. She was emissary between my father and me, too. After I grew up and moved away, she and I would exchange phone calls a couple of times a month, and she would report on him the way she would on the weather or the changing neighborhood. Though my mother would always close by saying, “We love you, honey,” seldom did I speak to my father directly. Once in a while he’d get on the extension and say, “How’re you doing, kid?” waiting just long enough for my one-word answer before hanging up.
Then my mother died. I was thirty-four, and it was fall, when the signs rating the danger of fire in the scrub-brush foothills behind their Los Angeles house said, “Extremely High.” She liked to garden barefoot, and one day she cut an instep. The infection, which initially seemed so innocuous they didn’t bother to call me, spread quickly and killed her. It was a nineteenth-century sort of death, one she would have marveled at had she read about it in the paper.
I was living in Hartford, Connecticut, where I taught disturbed ten-year-olds. When the school secretary took me out of class for a family call, I thought the bad news would be about Grammi, my father’s ninety-year-old mother. Grammi’s death wouldn’t have been the worst of news, for she suffered from what the nuns at the Villa Probrienta nursing home called “dementia.” Grammi stole things from other patients. She wore two dresses at a time. She thought she was a girl again, a fat Austrian girl with blond hair and strong arms. And her excrement had begun to preoccupy her. She would collect it in a glass and leave it in other patients’ rooms.
But instead of a nun at Villa Probrienta on the phone that day, it was a nurse at my parents’ community hospital. “Am I speaking with Anne Colsey?” she asked.
I rubbed at my hands, smudged with colored pencil. “Yes, this is Anne. What can I do for you?” It seems funny now that I offered to do something for her — this nurse who was about to tell me my mother was dead, because my father was too distraught to do it himself.
When she finished saying she was sorry, I hung up without a word and stood before the phone, blushing. The wooden earrings my mother had given me a few years before burned in my earlobes. Hadn’t I just spoken to her the night before? No, the week before. But she and my father were still there, in California, and they were all right. I trusted them to be there always, like gravity, or paychecks.
The nurse had the good sense to call back and tell me again, slowly, as though speaking to a child. This time I clutched my hair with my free hand and cried, beginning to believe her. Dad was staying in Mom’s hospital room, where they had let him sleep the night before. The nurse insisted he was all right, though she seemed relieved when I told her I would come out and see that he got home.
0n the plane ride to Los Angeles, it seemed people were eating a great deal. There were jolts and bumps over somewhere — the Rockies, I suppose. The woman sitting next to me had a baby on her lap, and, when she got up to go to the toilet, she asked me if I would hold it. I still don’t know why she chose me; a friendly older woman sitting on her other side had asked about the baby. It was a girl, heavy and warm.
When I got to Los Angeles, I rented a car and drove the shining freeways. In my late teens, I had driven them just to be driving, just to be going somewhere. I had wanted to be replete, worldly, and most of all, someplace else. Now it was fifteen years later. I was someplace else: in a good teaching job in the Northeast, with a tiny garret apartment in a city neighborhood that I loved, on good terms with a couple of old boyfriends, and involved with a new one who seemed promising. And my mother was dead. “My mother is dead,” I said out loud in the car. A man passing in the fast lane grinned at me from his spectacular pink lowrider. The wind blowing in the window smelled like a chainsaw.
At the hospital I listened hard to the doctor and heard the words sepsis and quick metabolism and unusual and advanced, but all I could think about was my mother in the garden, her back to the kitchen window, her wide hips resting on her heels. She would dig around, planting papery Iceland poppies and crocuses that would come up a week later in the ridiculous, balmy California Decembers.
Dad was dressed and sitting on a hospital bed when I came into the room. One of his shoes was untied. He stood, and we put our arms around each other. I felt him shudder, felt his glasses press into my neck, making a print there. Then he pulled himself away, tilting his head to see me through his bifocals. His eyes were wet. I remembered the antique guns he kept, and the emptiness in his voice all those years before: I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. My mother had neutralized those words with her presence, but her absence made them real and dangerous, as if he’d just said them again, to me and me alone.
We buried my mother at Forest Lawn on a dry, windy day. There was a space next to her for Dad, his side of the headstone still smooth. Later, I took care of the flowers and answered the cards praising her “vibrant nature” and “loving heart,” things you never talk about until someone’s dead. My father stood by my side, his hands in his pockets, while I signed the replies from both of us. “You always could say the right things, Anne,” he said.
After the funeral, I took family-emergency leave from work in order to stay with my father, who spent his days at home since retiring several years before. Even though I’d seen him the previous Christmas, everything about him seemed unfamiliar to me. His thick hair had gone almost completely white. He kept a telescope aimed out the porch window at the Japanese-persimmon tree to watch the yellow-shafted flickers peck at the fat, harvest orange persimmons. He took naps curled on his side, wearing powder blue sweat pants. He worked in his woodshop, making coasters and sometimes just shapes. One day, shortly after the funeral, he injured a finger when the lathe snatched the wood out of his hands and shot it back at him. He came to me, and I bathed the finger in too much disinfectant and swaddled it in gauze.
I slept, when I could sleep, in my mother’s sewing room, where she had kept a small bed for her naps. Most of her clothes were in that closet. Each morning, after hearing my father go into the bathroom, I would retrieve the paper from the driveway and put it on the breakfast table, then make coffee and put it next to the paper with cups and milk and sugar, the way my mother had. Then I would wait for him. So as not to appear to be waiting, I busied myself with the crossword puzzle, which I hated.
Dad fell into the habit of reading the obituaries out loud: “ ‘Salmon, Erma P., seventy-five. Fletcher, Prescott R., eighty-two.’ ”
“Dad, what’s a seven-letter word for ‘porous metal’?” I figured he would know that sort of manly, science-oriented word.
“Not seven letters. Come on, Dad.”
“Here’s a kid, just a kid, dead: ‘Stevens, Ronald Kevin, nineteen.’ ”
“What’s a seven-letter word for ‘extreme joy’?”
“ ‘The family requests that donations be made to the American Cancer Society. There will be no calls.’ ”
And so it went, as the buttered toast cooled and the jam sat opened but unused. I made eggs, beat fluffy with cream. I made boxed-mix pancakes that tasted like plaster. I made pudding and Dutch babies and apple dumplings and crêpes and blintzes and sausage. I tried to remember everything we’d had at the Sunday brunches on the top floor of the fancy hotel in Pasadena, when I was still a teenager. I had put on my red velvet dress and tied back my thick hair, doing my best to resemble a demure little rich girl. We had spooned up the exotic foods with a flourish while my mother faked a French accent.
But my father didn’t eat much of what I made, though he would always say, “Well, that looks delicious,” when I set the plates on the table. He took only small, absent bites in between reading the obituaries and looking through his telescope at the flickers. The circles under his eyes purpled and deepened.
About a week after the funeral, my father put away his telescope, even though the flickers were still coming. It wasn’t until midafternoon that I sensed something was missing. “Dad?” I called throughout the small house. “Dad, there’re cedar waxwings out on the tree. Aren’t they kind of rare here? Dad?”
I finally found him in his woodshop, a small shed at the edge of the property, where he was covering the lathe and the table saw as if for good. “What are you doing, Dad? Don’t you need to make some more coasters or something?”
He looked over his shoulder at me, but his eyes didn’t meet mine. Then he waved a hand at the room full of tools and hardware and scraps of wood. “What useless shit,” he said. The profanity sounded like the speech of a stranger. Behind him was a set of little plastic drawers, each holding a handful of nails or screws or wing nuts. There was a deep freezer full of meat he’d won in an office drawing before retiring. There were old toasters. I thought of my tiny apartment in Hartford, stocked with the smallest household essentials in order to save space — except I had a huge cutting board, made for me as a gift by one of my aides at school.
“Dad,” I said, moving around in front of him, taking hold of one end of the saw cover to keep him from hiding the machine. “Dad, I need a cutting board. Make me a cutting board. Please?”
He released the cover, and it fell and slapped against my knees. “Why don’t you just buy one?” he said, moving away from me and out the door, his soft loafers silencing his footsteps. I covered the saw myself, avoiding its jagged teeth.
Back in the house, I sat down in the living room and took up a magazine: Good Housekeeping. The address label bore my mother’s name. Dad was out of sight in the kitchen. He sniffed. A cabinet door squeaked. The magazine glared up from my lap, making lavish promises for recipes and clever crafts.
“What is it with this?” my father said from the kitchen, his voice low and tense.
I went and found him trying to make a glass of chocolate milk, only the powder wasn’t dissolving because he had spooned out baking cocoa instead of the presweetened mix with the cheerful cartoon faces on the label. How could someone so helpless be my father?
“Jesus, Dad, weren’t you an engineer all those years?”
“I never had to design a glass of chocolate milk,” he said.
“Well, you better start learning, man,” I said, sounding like one of my ten-year-old students. “Mom’s not around to wait on you hand and foot anymore.”
He froze, leaning with his fists on the counter. Then he straightened and faced me. “I am your father, Anne.”
I was ten years old again and wanted to break things. I was sixteen: Dad had grounded me and was standing in the driveway to keep me from leaving with the car. I was nineteen: Dad had an ulcer that no one knew about. Furious with pain, he threw a glass of water at me for a snotty remark I made to my mother.
But this wasn’t the same. He wasn’t the father he had once been. Everything was different now, because my mother wasn’t there, and never would be. There was no Anne, and there was no Dad. There were just these two people standing in a southern California kitchen, a glass of bitter chocolate milk between them.
“Yes, you are my father,” I said. And I made him a proper glass of chocolate milk.
Going back to my mother’s sewing room, I closed the door and looked at my clothes hanging in the closet, where I’d cleared a space for them among my mother’s. I called my answering machine back in Hartford. Five messages: two from my boyfriend, two from friends checking to see how I was doing, and one from the superintendent of the school, who said that things were going fine, and there was no rush, of course, but could I call sometime and let them know when I might be coming back? The front section of yesterday’s newspaper lay on the bed, full of old, unchangeable news. I weighed myself. My mother always kept the scale in her room, saying a woman’s weight had a right to its privacy. I took off all my clothes and weighed myself again. Then I lay down on the bed naked.
When you’re born, you aren’t quite naked, but have your mother’s blood on you, and perhaps the caul, and then a lot of hands touch you and wipe all that away. Growing up, you wear the clothes your parents buy for you. Later, when you are with men or women, you take those clothes off, but you still aren’t really naked, for they cover you with their bodies. But now I lay truly naked on my mother’s bed, in the dry, dry breeze blowing in the window. My skin felt like old bone. I would never see my mother again. There were only the tricks of her smell and her clothing and her things around me. I curled into a ball. I did not weep — tears are too easy, so right at funerals, a kind of pleasure — but I let the truth and finality of her death sink deep inside me, somewhere unseen, among the dark organs. I clutched my legs to my chest so hard I knew my shoulders would be sore later. I stayed like that for a long time.
When I awoke, I had been covered with a blanket that smelled of deep storage. It was dusk out, the western hills edged in pale gold light. I dressed and went in search of my father, down the hall where my mother’s feet had packed the carpet down. The house was dark, but light was coming from the den.
Dad was sitting on the floor with his big antique shotgun across his lap, its soft cloth sheath laid open around it like wrapping paper. He was holding a handgun from his collection, a World War II–era Luger, one of his favorites. He would do this from time to time when I was growing up, just sit there this way, polishing and admiring his weapons. The guns were so shiny they looked wet.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Just looking at old things,” he said.
I imagined him raising the shotgun to his shoulder and pointing it at me, then pointing it awkwardly at himself. The image wasn’t real. It couldn’t happen. But the mind — the mind is a frightened child, seeing monsters everywhere.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said, my throat dry and sore, as if I’d been screaming. “I’ve been thinking: maybe you should come and live with me — you know, come be my roommate for a while.”
Actually, I had been thinking nothing of the kind. I was wondering how I could go back to Hartford and leave my father in his nest of guns. I could not stay here forever.
“Live with you?” he said.
“For a while,” I said. “You know.”
He shook his head. “I belong with your mother. That’s where I’ve always been.”
“But you can’t be with her now.”
He considered that for a moment. “Well, then I belong where she was.”
I tried not to look at the guns in his lap but saw them anyway. I wanted to ask him about them, about the dark parts of the house, about the pictures on the walls, the fabric on the furniture: had Mom chosen it? Instead, I asked, “What are you going to do with yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Then he folded the cloth back over the guns and returned them to their cases. He sat for a moment, looking at the closed cases, a sigh whistling out of his throat. Then he held out a hand to me from his cross-legged position on the floor. “Help me up.”
I took his meaty hand in both of mine and jerked him to his feet.
“Do you want to take a walk?” he said. “Your mother and I used to walk about this time.”
We put on our walking shoes in our separate bedrooms and met in the front hallway. The evening sky was purple and low, the air hazy with the exhaust of millions of cars. Dad took my hand and ran it through his arm, and we walked like an elderly courting couple for a silent mile or two down the quiet, unlit residential streets, past driveways full of cars. I hadn’t touched him for so long since I was very small, when, as if sensing the remoteness that would come later, I had often conquered his lap and demanded his attention for some childish accomplishment.
As we approached home, I drew my hand away. “It’s nice to walk at night,” I said. “You should keep doing this.”
“Do you walk back in Connecticut?”
“Sometimes. When it’s not too cold.” Actually, I worked out inside a big, noisy YWCA, a far cry from the dusty tangerine trees and jade bushes and silent suburban homes of my parents’ neighborhood.
“Will you go back there soon?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said. “Maybe next week. They miss me — the students, I mean.”
“Good,” he said. “It’s good that you belong somewhere. You’re a good kid, Annie.”
It was a sweet thing to say, but he sounded as if he were talking to a teenager, to an Annie I hadn’t been for a while. To him I was probably still the foolish mystery all teenagers are to their parents. He had spent his days pondering the problems of physics, not the problems of his only child. He’d never noticed that my concerns sometimes overlapped his own.
“Dad —” I said, but stopped. The dark driveway lay before us.
He put his hand on my neck and chafed the skin there. His rough fingers hurt. “I miss her, too,” he said. “I miss her in everything.” He cleared his throat, looking around at the silhouettes of the bottlebrush and ivy framing the driveway as though he might find some comfort in them.
But that wasn’t what I’d been about to say. I was thinking suddenly about the years of silence between him and me, a silence presided over by my mother, who, in her desire to be everything to both Dad and me, had kept each of us to herself.
“You know, Mom loved you,” I said. “And she loved me.” I put my hand over his on my neck and strained to see his face in the shadows. “But I’m not sure that was always good. I mean, sometimes loving is for yourself. It’s selfish. Sometimes love is like that. Do you see?”
“Selfish?” He took his hand away. “No, I don’t see. What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure.” The air around us was thick with the nervous trilling of crickets and katydids, and the distant surf of the Glendale-Ventura Freeway five miles away. “You used to build bridges,” I said, “and that’s all I ever knew about you.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“I know that. But I don’t know what else you do, really. All I ever knew was what Mom told me. You never told me anything.” My throat filled for the hundredth time that week with stupid, stinging tears.
“So ask,” he said, very low.
“OK,” I said. “OK, I’ll ask. I will.”
But I couldn’t ask then, though it seemed the obvious thing to do, since I’d been invited. No, I would start tomorrow. I didn’t want to begin exchanging my mother for him — not yet. For the moment, his voice in the dark was all I could stand. And with the echo of it leading the way, I followed him up the driveway, toward the porch light’s glow.