Authors: Tania James
The rest of the letter is in Malayalam, and thus illegible to me, but scattered here and there with English words like “Johnny Carson” and “Cheerios.” These few words are pinholes of light in an otherwise impenetrable wall. I once asked my mom to translate the letter, and with a cursory glance, she returned it to me. “He says he has no friends except for Johnny Carson. He eats a lot of Cheerios. He hates his life.” She refused to say more and told me to remove my boxers from the dryer.
The sample above speaks volumes. Note the incomplete
, how the two ends of a line yearn to meet. However despairing the words that precede it, the
reveal a man in search of something, or someone, a man who has not yet drained his deepest cisterns of hope.
I tried to appeal to my mom in private, the day after her return from Nashville, but she was standing over her bathroom sink, smearing a sliced grape all over her face. She’d read somewhere that grape acids would tighten her pores, and she wanted to look good for the wedding. She planned to grape her face every other day until the Big Day.
“That’s a lot of grapes,” I said, without waiting for her to tell me exactly how many. “Can we talk about the
“Come here, Viju.” She flapped her hand at me. “Closer.”
I thought she was going to hug me. Instead she swiped the grape across my forehead and laughed.
“Mom, I’m serious.”
“Are you ever not serious?” she teased, and tossed the deflated grape into the trash. She exercised her facial muscles by widening her mouth, knitting and raising her eyebrows. Meanwhile, I explained a few of the diverging schools of thought I would explore in the personafile: Did the prongs of the double
indicate charges of excitement or alarm? Was
length directly or inversely proportional to extrovert behavior? Was she actually siding with Kirk on this one?
“I am on both sides,” she said, same as when Kirk and I feuded over the benefits of organic produce. Eventually she stopped buying the grocery strawberries we both once loved, the super-sweet diploid mutants, and started bringing back from the farmers’ market a carton of sour red nubs. Then, as now, she repeated the same refrain: “Kirk is just thinking
about our future.” This time, she added: “He could find you a job, you know.”
“I have jobs. I have lots of jobs.” I was happily getting by on an assortment of pet-sitting and telemarketing gigs, reluctant to leash my days to a normal nine-to-five. I lived with my mom out of both financial necessity and professional convenience, since my dad’s study was the base of my operations. I used the bottom drawer of his gray metal desk to archive all his handwriting samples, compiled from a multitude of sources—viz., old address books, tax returns, receipts, electric bills, grocery lists, aerogrammes, and a yellow Post-it on which he’d scribbled an unattributed quote: “…
by the Lord God of hosts, the Holy, who made you of the happy breed and me of the stricken, He alone knowing the aught of making mortal things, I am lonely!
” Everything in my project was filed chronologically; subfiled according to Professional, Personal, Financial, or Miscellany; and sub-subfiled according to recipient. And out of this would grow, piece by piece, a mosaic of my father.
“Wait,” I said, alarmed. “What’ll happen to the house?”
“We’ll sell it. Kirk has more than enough room for the three of us in his place.” What Kirk has is a white colonial propped up by Doric columns in which there are more bidets than books of substance. “We’ll have the engagement party on the lawn.”
“But the desk, you have to let me keep Dad’s desk. I think, Mom—” Here I took her sticky hand. “I think Kirk might like the
if he gave it a chance. If he really read it. Or if he took the time to listen to what I’ve noticed about his checkbook, because in all those signatures, his
’s are turning into lemniscates, which, according to the literature, suggest dizziness and lack of pause or breath.”
My mom removed her hand from mine. “What were you doing with his checkbook?”
“I found it in his desk. Last time I was there.” I hesitated. My mom’s nostrils were flaring: a bad sign. “I needed to know something about him.”
“Then just talk to him! Did you ever think of that?” She frowned at the counter and shook her head, as if refusing to envision what I’d done. “You should not go snooping around, Viju. Kirk will tell you what you want to know. He’s very open. He doesn’t just”—she searched for a word—“disappear for a whole day.”
She was referring to my dad. True, he had had a tendency to seclude himself from time to time, though we always knew he was in the guest room. He would lock himself in and answer to no one, not when I crouched down to speak through the crack, not when my mom set a cup of chai by the threshold. The mug sat there, cooling. Sometimes I stood with my ear pressed to the door, but he always told me, coldly, to leave him alone. The next morning, I would find him brewing coffee or whistling at his desk. When asked what he had been doing in the guest room, he always gave the same perky excuse: “Just lying down.”
A few months ago, my mom went snooping through my dad’s study, alarmed by the number of hours I was spending down there. In my dad’s desk, she discovered a mission statement—five pages, handwritten, erudite but sloppy in places—in which I detailed my earliest theories on
strokes. Somewhere in there, I may have mentioned the resemblance between my dad’s writing and my own. I may have written along a margin:
Do certain types of
’s, like certain disorders, run in the family?
Soon after, my mom made my first appointment with Dr. Fountain. (Before her, it was Dr. Dan, and before him, Dr. Golden, whom I actually liked, in spite of the halitosis.) As far as my studies were concerned, Dr. Fountain showed a condescending
interest. I could never read what was going on behind her eyes; they were the sharp, devoid blue of an antique doll.
She tried to diagnose me with trauma-related stress disorders. Unfortunately for Dr. Fountain, I didn’t hear voices. I never considered cutting myself. I didn’t wash my hands two hundred times per day with two hundred packaged bars of soap. Over and over, Dr. Fountain asked me about my dad, how I found him, what I saw, how I felt. I gave clear answers. When our time was up, she scribbled a prescription for a drug whose company rep had probably wined and dined and plied her with samples the week before. (I tried the little pills, oblong and caution-tape yellow, but they doused every bright idea I had. My brain went to putty, stretching in all different directions at once, slackening. I had deadlines to meet, articles to write. I went off the pills immediately.)
Dr. Fountain showed specific interest in the one item I offered her—a postcard of a koala bear wreathed in white fur, beside the words “G’day mate!” On the back, my dad had penned a note to my third-grade teacher, Sister Lorraine, which I’ve reproduced here.
Koala Postcard from Prateep J. Pachikara to Sister Lorraine
This is the last known record of his writing, dated March 3, a week before his death. Luckily, I saved the postcard in my binder’s plastic sleeve, charmed by the koala but oblivious to the signals within the writing itself—viz., the clockwise curl at the beginning of my
, which unravels to a straight and sterile line in his notes to others, but here, so much emotion is clutched in that tiny rose before the plummeting fall, the confident pivot, and the upward rise and arch that hangs over the
like a protective branch.
Sister Lorraine had called the meeting because of my fresh interest in sorting through garbage. Cafeteria garbage, classroom garbage: nearly every wastebasket held my interest if Sister Lorraine had passed over it. From the bin beneath her desk, I recovered a comb with broken teeth, a return receipt for wool socks, a cup of wild blueberry yogurt scraped so clean she must have been starving. After I was caught poking through the trash in the faculty bathroom, Sister Lorraine found a litter museum in my locker.
When my dad came in for the meeting, he could see what drove my studies: Sister Lorraine. Pert, pretty, short-haired, slim-fingered, citrus-smelling Sister Lorraine. I don’t recall her face so well anymore, but it’s her aura I remember, a beatific glow for all those who earned her favor.
Which I had not. My dad listened to Sister Lorraine’s concerns, stroking the ends of his mustache between thumb and forefinger, something I occasionally mimicked during class, though there was only a single tentative whisker on the corner of my lip. That day I kept my clammy hands in my lap.
My dad began to report to Sister Lorraine what he had read concerning the field of garbology, explaining that refuse analysis informed a range of fields, from marine biology to corporate espionage. “So the question, Sister, is not ‘What kind of
child is interested in trash?’ but ‘What does this child hope to find in the refuse?’ ”
The word “refuse” still murmurs in my mind, a delicate, scholarly term hovering just above my eight-year-old reach. My dad turned to me, as if it were my chance to reveal what I was looking for. I went warm with embarrassment.
Later, in the car, he confronted me with the obvious. “Nuns can’t get married, you know.”
“What about in
The Sound of Music
?” I said.
“She married Captain Von Trapp, not one of the Von Trapp children. That would be a very different movie.”
I sank down, small in my seat.
We stalled at the railroad tracks, the signal blinking and clanging while the traffic arm lowered to block our path. “You are a strange bird,” my father observed, studying me as if trying to put a name to my face. “I was, too.”
I saw the similarity as a good thing, but my dad looked lost in murky thoughts. The signal flashed red in the corner of my eye; I could feel the roar of the oncoming train beneath my feet. He held me in his gaze and then, with a sigh, let go. “Come on, already,” he groaned, just as the train whooshed by.
Those were the days leading up to his death, and in that time, my father drank no more than usual. He left us no note. That morning, as I hurried out to catch the school bus, I glanced at the closed door of the guest room, but how could I know then of the pills in his pocket, half in the bottle and half down his throat? How could I know he wouldn’t wake up, dress, and step into the shoes he had left by the door, because in his pajamas and robe he was already gone?
At the engagement party, I was stuck at a table with Kirk’s mother. She glowered at the surroundings—the tiki torches staked around the lawn, the paper lanterns strung along the wooden stairs that led down to an artificial lake, blurred by mist. She had me bring her a gin and tonic from the bar and kept chewing on the straw even when she wasn’t sipping. “Why are you sweating so much?” she demanded of me. “And you keep looking around. Who are you looking for?”
“Kirk,” I said.
“Oh.” She rolled her eyes. “Good luck. He’s probably chasing after your mother.”
And Kirk was wisely avoiding his own. I resolved to corner him in an hour or so, when he’d be tipsy enough to feel magnanimous about my proposal. I kept my notecards in my pocket in case I were to lose my train of thought; between them I’d paper-clipped my dad’s koala postcard, to use as a visual aid.
My mom had no idea about my plans. She was busy circulating between kitchen and party and wine cellar, steering children away from the tiki torches. At one point, as she was talking to someone, Kirk came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, and she rested her hand over his without turning around to see who it was. I don’t know why, but that small gesture made me feel something other than hatred or envy—maybe warmth, and a little sadness.
I excused myself from Kirk’s mother and descended the stairs to the lake. I stood at the end of the little pier where a paddleboat was bobbing on the water. Before me the lake seemed to widen in a gray-black haze, and all at once uncertainty swept over me, as it still does sometimes, because I seem to find comfort only in fragments, because there is something impossible about shoring them into something larger, just as there was something futile and frightening about the borderless world beyond that lake,
how the sky exhaled and expanded with no outer limit, the stars slipping farther and farther away, like everyone I loved.
I took out the first notecard and mumbled my way through my introduction:
Kirk, I know we haven’t gotten along in the past … come to an understanding … scriptology is central to my life … my father … a few samples from his persona-file … my father …
“Vijay, time for cake cutting!”
I turned to find my mom easing her way down the last few steps in her heels. She stopped short of joining me on the pier and gave a winning smile, her teeth lacquered with wine. “What are you doing down here, Viju? Practicing your toast?”
“What toast? You didn’t say I’d have to give a toast.”